by Brian K. Asbury
“There’s no doubt about it,” said Sandie Bremmer, looking up from her instrumentation to address the tall, armoured figure of the Knight standing nearby. “It’s the same kind of energy that we’ve seen before — the same kind of energy that gave me these powers.”
“So,” the Knight said softly. “It’s the Dominators again?”
“That’s right. Do we know if this girl Firebrand was one of your people, Perry?”
Under his helmet, Perry Redhawk shook his head. “Definitely not. Which makes this difficult to understand. Why have they suddenly switched tactics? Before, they seemed to be engaged in a vendetta against my people — the Cairnian Sons of the Wing in exile here on Earth — but this is something new. I can’t imagine what their connection could with this girl could be.”
Sandie motioned across the studio with her thumb. “I’ll bet he knows!”
Two men in suits stood on the other side of the room in the indicated direction. They seemed to be arguing, or at least one of them did. “Let’s get this straight, Hanson. As soon as your people have conducted their tests, I want them out of here.”
Ken Hanson folded his arms and said, calmly, “I don’t think you understand, Eddie. This is a crime involving meta-humans. Therefore CINEMA has clear jurisdiction here. You don’t have the authority to order me or my people to do anything.”
“We’ll see about that,” Edward Stacker said, flipping out his mobile phone. “This is a matter of national security, not a police case. Firebrand was an agent of my department, not a member of the public. I think a quick call to your superiors and mine should establish who’s in charge here.”
“Really?” This was a female voice from behind the two men. They turned to see the tall, golden-haired form of Godiva walking toward them with a well-built, middle-aged man in tow. “Ken, I think you’ll be interested in hearing what this gentleman has to say.”
“I can’t imagine, whoever he is, that anything he says could have any bearing on this matter,” sneered Stacker.
“On the contrary,” said the newcomer. “I’m Rod Reilly, Superintendent Hanson. I’ve just been explaining to Godiva that I’m Firebrand’s grandfather. It was I who arranged this TV appearance for her.”
“Oh? So what?” said Stacker. “That only makes you an accessory to the crime she was attempting to perpetrate — namely, revealing state secrets.”
Rod bristled. “Revealing state secrets? My granddaughter wasn’t intending to do any such thing, you arrogant little pile of horse crap!”
Godiva’s hair was suddenly between the two men, preventing them from coming together. “Gentlemen, please, if you don’t mind.” She turned to Hanson. “Of more importance to this dispute is the other thing Mr. Reilly told me — that Firebrand had been working for Stacker’s department, but she resigned a couple of weeks ago.”
“Oh, I know that,” said Hanson.
“You do?” said Stacker. “How?”
“I have my sources,” Hanson replied with a smile. “I’ve known about Firebrand for a long time, Eddie. I was about to approach her as a possible recruit to our Paladins team. I think she’d be a great asset, don’t you agree, Godiva?”
“If she’s as powerful as Mr. Reilly says she is, absolutely.”
Stacker stepped back a pace or two. “No, no. Absolutely no. That does it.” He started dialling on his cellphone. “I’m having you and your costumed clowns removed from here — yee-ow!”
This last was a reaction to the mass of hair that suddenly surrounded him, whisked him off his feet, and turned him upside-down. He found himself suspended inches from Godiva’s face. “I wouldn’t bother making that call,” she said. “It’s possible that you might be able to pull some strings and get Ken, here, taken off the case, but I think you’ll find that it won’t work with the rest of us. We may be working with Scotland Yard, but we don’t actually work for them. You understand? In other words, you can’t order us to do anything, little man.”
“Oh, put him down, Godiva,” Hanson said. “You’ll give him apoplexy.” Godiva flipped Stacker back the right way up and dropped him from a height of about four feet. He landed in a heap, his cellphone falling to the studio floor and shattering. Hanson held out a hand to help him up. Stacker declined, got up under his own power, and glowered silently at the man from Scotland Yard.
“That’s the way it is, Stacker,” Hanson said. “You either accept my jurisdiction in this case and work with me, and with the Paladins, or you face the prospect of them working independently against you.”
“This isn’t over!” growled Stacker.
“Damn straight it isn’t!” snapped Rod Reilly. “While you guys are bickering over who’s in charge, is anybody actually doing anything about my granddaughter’s kidnapping?”
“The voice of reason speaks,” said the Knight, walking over to their group with Cameo. “Let’s not forget why we were called in in the first place, friends.”
“I called you in because you had equipment that I don’t have, and that is all,” said Stacker.
“And we’ve used that equipment,” said the Knight. “Cameo?”
The costumed black girl held up a small instrument and showed the readings on its face. “Definitely a Dominator space warp,” she said.
“Damn!” muttered Hanson. “Can you tell us anything else? What about the people who came through the warp and snatched Firebrand?”
“It’s too early to tell, yet,” the Knight said. “But I don’t think there’s much more information we can get from this place. You might as well let the TV people have their studio back, Stacker.” He turned to Godiva. “I think this is probably a good point to use your Global Guardians connections, Dorcas. Shall we make our way back to our headquarters?”
Wordenshire Castle, England:
“You’re rather good at this, aren’t you, lad?” said Percy Sheldrake, peering over his nephew’s shoulder.
David Sheldrake grinned. “Yeah. But I’d rather have been out with the team. I’d like another crack at those Dominator zombies, uncle.”
“Your education comes first, David. Time enough to be the Squire when you don’t have to be at school.”
“Yeah, whatever.” David turned back to his screen. “Ah, here we are. I think that’s the bloke we’re looking for.” He pointed.
The door behind them suddenly opened, and in walked the rest of the Paladins, along with Ken Hanson and a bemused-looking Rod Reilly. “I don’t believe this, you guys,” he said. “You actually meet in a real, bonafide castle?”
Percy wheeled his chair out to greet their visitor. “It’s not as bonafide as it looks, Mr. Reilly. It was built only a little over a hundred years ago by my ancestor, the Eighth Earl — although there had been earlier castles on or near the spot. Wordenshire Castle, however, is what’s usually referred to as a Victorian folly.”
“It sure looks real enough to me,” said Rod.
Godiva had moved around to join David at the computer table. “You found the database OK, David?”
“Yeah. Your codes worked a treat. Wish this computer was faster, though. That database at the Dome is big. It takes ages to find anything from a workstation this slow.”
“I’ll see about getting some of CINEMA’s budget spent on getting you a better computer system,” said Hanson, joining them. “It’s all in a good cause, after all.” He looked at the screen. “You found a match to Stacker’s description, then?”
David turned the monitor slightly so Hanson could see better. He nodded. “Count Vertigo. Right colour uniform, right powers. No clue as to why he’d be working with the Dominators, though.”
“Perhaps he doesn’t know who he’s working for,” suggested Cameo. “Remember, those right-wing England for Humans thugs who were helping the Bard had no idea that the mysterious Mr. D they were working for was an alien!”
“Vertigo has fought Green Arrow a few times,” said David. “G.A. put him away a couple of years ago, but he escaped from jail and hasn’t been seen since, except for the Villain War during the Crisis.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Hexagon of Death,” Green Arrow #3 (July, 1983) and DC Universe: Crisis on Infinite Earths: The Villain War.]
“Is he an American?” asked Cameo.
“No. Comes from a small republic in the Balkans. The name isn’t just a made up one, either, according to this. He really is a count.”
“What about the other one Stacker says he saw?” Hanson asked. “A girl, he thinks — with a weird purple glow around her.”
“Nothing. No match on the database,” David replied.
“So is that it?” said Rod. “Are you going to go after this Count Vertigo and rescue my granddaughter?”
The various members of the team exchanged glances. It was Godiva who eventually spoke. “We would, Mr. Reilly, but we have no idea of Count Vertigo’s present whereabouts. And with Dominion space-warp technology at his disposal, he could be operating from anywhere.”
“Anywhere? Just what kind of range does this thing have?”
“We don’t know,” admitted Cameo. “Actually, it is possible to track it to its source — we’ve done it before. But that was literally within minutes of it being used, and we were very close to it. The energy dissipates quite quickly. We can’t detect it at a distance, and what remained in the TV studio was just too faint to get a fix on.”
The Knight had removed his helmet. Until now he had seemed lost in thought. “There just might be a way to detect when the device is in use, though, even if we’re not in its vicinity.”
“You’ve got a plan, Perry?” said Percy.
“Possibly. I think I’m going to have to raid my stock of Cairnian technology for some bits and pieces, but, with Cameo’s help, it might just be possible to beat the odds on this one.”
Becca Bennett stirred, the slow transition into consciousness beginning, and with it just a suggestion of awareness of her environment. As her senses gradually started to feed her awakening mind information, she realised that she was naked and lying on a flat surface at a slight angle to the horizontal. She also became aware of voices in her near-vicinity — three voices, she realised. A man, a woman, and… the third voice was strange, indeterminate.
“She’s starting to come round.” The woman’s voice.
“I’ll leave you to handle this. Come.” The man’s voice. Footsteps receding. The sound of a door opening, then closing.
She opened her eyes. Someone stood nearby, wearing white clothing. The figure came into focus; a nurse. “How are you feeling?” the woman asked, a hint of an Eastern European accent in her voice.
“F-fine,” said Becca, finding her voice. She tried to sit up, but found it harder than anticipated.
“Allow me,” said the nurse. She operated a switch behind Becca’s head, and the surface Becca was lying on changed shape, the head end rising to form the headrest of a seat. The nurse vanished from view for a moment and returned with a white towelling robe. “Please put this on. You’ll feel more comfortable.”
“Your uniform is being laundered,” said the nurse with a smile. “It will be ready for you once you’ve breakfasted and showered.”
“I… see,” said Becca, struggling with the robe.
The nurse assisted her in putting it on. “Do you feel strong enough to walk?”
“I think so.” With the nurse’s help, Becca lifted herself off the couch and into a slightly wobbly standing position.
“Of course, a little dizziness is only to be expected.” Becca nodded, although she did not know quite what she was agreeing with. It was hard to remember why she was here or why she had been on the couch. But whatever the reason, it felt perfectly normal. She pushed the question to the back of her mind. It wasn’t important. “You’ll feel better when you’ve some food inside you,” the nurse was saying as she led Becca to a small side room, where a table was set for breakfast. “Continental breakfast only, I’m afraid. But please eat as much as you want.”
Becca tucked in, realising that she was ravenous. After eating her fill, she was then led by the nurse to a bathroom. A few minutes later, she emerged from the shower, dripping, to find luxuriously soft towels awaiting her, along with her Firebrand costume, freshly cleaned and pressed as promised. She dried off her body and looked around for a hairdryer. Finding none, she concentrated. Ghostly flames flickered around her as heat and static flared, driving the water from her wet hair. Grinning, she brushed her locks into a semblance of order and slipped into her costume.
Emerging back into the breakfast room, she found a man waiting for her — a tall, slim man dressed in a green and black costume. “Ah, Firebrand,” he said, “I trust you are well now.” He held out his hand.
She extended hers. “I feel more human now,” she said, smiling.
“Good.” He took her gloved hand and planted a formal kiss on it. “Then I bid you welcome to my humble home. I am Count Vertigo, your leader. Come, my lovely — let us meet with your new teammates.”
Escorting Firebrand into what had probably been a large dining hall in the castle’s heyday, but which was now set up as a modern gymnasium, he added, “And here they are.” As they entered, a white-haired, golden-skinned woman clad in a white leotard somersaulted toward them, landing lightly on her bare feet in front of them.
“Count! You’ve returned. And with a new friend!” The woman pounced on Count Vertigo and wrapped her lithe body around him, planting wet kisses on his lips. Vertigo extricated himself with some difficulty, and as the woman got the message, she let him go and grabbed Firebrand instead, kissing her on the lips also, despite much resistance.
Firebrand staggered back, wiping her mouth. “What the–?”
“Easy, my young lovely,” said a grinning Vertigo. “You’ll have to excuse Stealth. She tends to get a bit over-enthusiastic. Stealth, I’m sure shaking hands would have been sufficient.”
“Of course,” said Stealth, giving Firebrand air and pumping her hand. “And you are…?”
“This is Firebrand, Stealth.”
“S-Stealth?” said Firebrand, trying desperately to recover her hand.
“A translation of her name into English,” said Vertigo. “Stealth comes from another planet, a very long way from here. She was stranded on Earth after the Alien Alliance invaded.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Captain Comet’s Rehab Squad: Strange Visitors, Chapter 5: Doomsday.]
“I was their prisoner,” Stealth explained. “I was one of a number who escaped. Dunno what happened to the others.”
“I see,” said Firebrand. Across the room, another, younger-looking girl was watching her curiously from behind sunglasses. Like Firebrand, she was a redhead, but wore her hair in a single long braid. Sitting on a bench next to the girl, and looking bored, was a surly looking young man in a torn denim jacket. His unnaturally black hair was worn in a scruffy mohawk.
“Allow me to introduce the rest of the team,” Vertigo said, escorting Firebrand toward the pair. “This is Lodestone — so called because her powers enable her to tap into the Earth’s magnetic field.” The redhead stepped shyly forward, extending her right hand while removing her shades with her left. Firebrand gasped as she saw that the girl’s eyes were completely white, with no trace of iris or pupil.
“You’re blind?” she said.
“Aw, no!” Lodestone replied. “I just got these, like, weird eyes. But I see as well as you do. Better, in fact. Hi.” They shook hands.
“And finally, this is Karma,” Vertigo said, indicating the punk. “His powers are mental in nature.”
“Yeah, whatever,” said Karma. “I suppose you got the hots f’r the Count, like these other two babes,” he said sulkily.
Firebrand was taken slightly aback. The hots for the Count? Yes, come to think of it, she was attracted to him. Incredibly so. It hadn’t really registered until now, but his very nearness was making her pulse race. He really was the most amazingly beautiful man she had ever laid eyes upon.
“Jealous, lad?” said Vertigo.
“Uh… no, I guess not, dude,” Karma replied, a little too hastily. “You’re the man, Count. The chicks pant for you; that’s OK.”
“Good,” said Vertigo. “I’d hate you to feel deprived, though, my boy. Tell you what — after our next mission, if you perform well, you can have any of the three of them that you care to, with my blessing. All right?”
“Yeah… yeah!” said Karma, his ogling gaze moving between the three women lustily. Firebrand felt a momentary twinge of resentment. This youth was ugly, rude, none too clean-looking, and yet… she knew that if it would please the Count, she would do anything, even make love with this nasty little punk.
Suddenly, a pager sounded. Vertigo reached into his belt and studied it momentarily before cancelling it. “I have to go,” he said. “I believe our next mission is imminent. I’ll tell you more when I return. In the meantime,” he said to Firebrand, “get better acquainted with your new teammates. I’ll be back soon.”