by Brian K. Asbury
“Is this really all necessary?” The source of Sandie Bremmer’s voice was almost hidden from view by the tangle of wiring criss-crossing her body.
“Shhh,” said Perry. “I’m at a very delicate stage here. It isn’t easy to persuade Earth and Cairnian technology to marry together, and I don’t want everything to blow up.”
“You don’t want everything to blow up!” exclaimed Sandie. “Excuse me, but I’m the one lying practically naked on this bench underneath the stuff that’s likely to blow up. You didn’t mention that when you persuaded me to get into here!”
Perry smiled. “All right, so I exaggerated a little. But so are you — ‘practically naked,’ indeed! You look perfectly decent from here.”
“I come from a very religious family,” Sandie grumped. “My mum would have apoplexy if she saw me in this tiny little bikini!”
“Shhh,” Perry repeated. “Almost there.” He threw a series of switches.
The machinery suddenly began to hum. Sandie looked around nervously. “What’s happening now?”
“The apparatus is doing what it’s supposed to do,” said Perry. His voice suddenly changed. “And you have fallen into my trap, my dear. In seconds you will be my helpless slave, subject to my every whim!” He cackled evilly.
Perry laughed. “Don’t panic. I’m joking. Honest.”
“Ha-ha. Very bloody funny!” Sandie screwed her face up in annoyance, then her expression softened, and she laughed, too. “I didn’t know you had a sense of humour, Perry. You always seem so serious.”
“There’s a lot to be serious about,” Perry said, “especially when you know there are alien monsters out there determined to kill you and everyone you hold dear. But everyone has to lighten up sometime. Aha. It’s working.”
“Yes. The apparatus is drawing on the energies which you absorbed from the Dominion space-warp device, and boosting the residual signal from the last time the device was used by at least a thousandfold. I’m starting to get a reading. A bit more power, and we should get a direction.”
“Would it help if I transformed into Cameo?” Sandie asked, thumbing the identical rings on her middle fingers. “You’d have all the energy you need, then.”
“No!” cried Perry hastily. “No, please don’t. You know what happens when your energy comes into contact with electronic equipment. You could short everything out, and some of these components are irreplaceable!”
“No, the machine is picking up quite enough energy from you as it is. And… yes… here it comes.” He smiled in triumph. “Just a few seconds more, Sandie, and we’ll have a directional trace on that space-warper.”
“And not before time,” Sandie said. “It’s high time we took the fight to them!”
A few minutes later, Perry helped her out of the machine. “So,” Sandie said, “did it work? Did you get a fix on where the Dominators are operating from?”
Perry frowned. “Yes and no. A directional fix, yes. The source of the space-warper signal was somewhere south of east of here. But in order to turn somewhere into where, we need a second reading to triangulate from.”
“You mean we’ve got to pack all this stuff up and move it somewhere else? And then I’ve got to go through being buried in it a second time?”
“No, not necessarily. The apparatus is sufficiently charged now that, the next time they use the space-warper, it should be able to give us a second directional fix without absorbing any more power from you. And I’m reluctant to move this stuff, anyway. It’s very delicate, and I don’t want a repeat of what happened when I tried to build a teleporter.”
Sandie grinned. “No kidding? You built a teleporter?”
Perry gestured. “That’s it, in the corner over there.” Sandie looked to see a squarish device around half the size of an average filing cabinet.
“It’s awfully small.”
“Its capacity is awfully small, too. I was hoping it would be able to move people, but it can’t handle more than a few pounds in weight. Still,” he added, “that’s sufficient to do this.” He held out his hand, and his sword appeared in it.
“Wow!” breathed Sandie. “Y’know, I wondered how you did that!”
Perry smiled at her. “There’s a receptor chip implanted in the palm of my hand and another in the hilt. When I activate it, the teleporter does a site-to-site transport, sending the sword straight to my hand. Unfortunately,” he added with a sigh, “I haven’t been able to make it do any more than that.”
“It’s still pretty impressive,” Sandie said, looking at him admiringly.
“I suppose so… now, weren’t you saying a few minutes ago that you felt over-exposed? Hadn’t you better get some clothes on?”
“Do you want me to? I thought you liked me in this bikini?” she said, grinning.
“I… ah…” Pause.
Sandie looked down. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to embarrass you. I just thought…”
“Well, ah…” Pause. On impulse, she suddenly said, “Do you like the theatre?”
“Er… very much. Why?”
“Well, my Uncle Denzil can get tickets for all the West End shows. Maybe we could take in Cats or Evita or… or… or something…”
Whatever Perry intended to say was cut off suddenly as the control console started beeping.
“What’s that?” asked Sandie.
Perry raced to the panel and examined it. “I think you’d better call the others together,” he said.
“Because the Dominion space-warper is being used again,” he said. “And I think we’re going to be needed to deal with whoever or whatever comes through it.”
A small village in the Cotswold Hills, England:
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Count Vertigo, “I repeat: there is no call for alarm. None of you are in danger, so long as you cooperate with my associates and me. The Company of Fenris wishes you no harm. However, should you fail to cooperate… well, upon your own heads be it.” He pointed to where a young man lay on the grass beneath the market cross that he was using as a platform. “That young man believed he was a match for us, and now look at him — broken, bloody, in great pain.” He held up a hand as a woman broke from the crowd and tried to reach the youth. “No, no, my dear — leave him where he is.” The woman fell over and writhed as though unable to work out which way was up.
Meanwhile, the crowd was growing as Vertigo’s four young accomplices pulled people out of shops, out of cars, out of their houses, and dragged them onto the village green to face their leader.
“What do you want from us?” cried an old man in the crowd, anguish in his voice.
“Want?” Vertigo looked amused. “What do wolves ever want from sheep, my friend? And make no mistake, we are wolves. My homeland was settled many centuries ago by Teutonic knights, and thus it is fitting that my fellows and I should call ourselves after Fenris, the great wolf of Germanic legend.”
“You mean to eat us?” came the aghast voice of a young boy.
Vertigo laughed. “No. Not literally. But interfere with us in any way, and we shall devour you, one way or another.” He gestured to Firebrand, who was herding another family from their cottage to join the growing throng.
“Yes, Count?” she said cheerfully as she joined him, adoration in her eyes.
“Watch these people for a few minutes. I believe one of our company is missing.”
“Anything for you, beloved,” she purred, taking his place on the stone plinth of the cross. Vertigo strode across to the village post office and flung open the door. He sighed when he saw what was happening inside.
“I gave you specific orders, Karma,” he said. “They did not include sexually assaulting teenage girls.”
“Hey, boss,” Wayne Hawkins said, “ya got it all wrong. Me ‘n’ Shirley, here, we’re just gettin’ to know each other, y’know? These English girls ain’t as frosty as everybody says they are, know what I mean?”
Vertigo gestured. The blonde girl broke away from Karma and fled through the door, hastily trying to button up her blouse and cardigan. Vertigo shook his head. “We have a mission here, Wayne. Have you forgotten what I promised you when it is all over?”
“No buts. I am deeply disappointed in you.”
“Aw, Count, gimme a break,” whined Karma, suddenly genuinely upset. “I didn’t mean ta let ya down, honest. I dunno what came over me, dude. I mean, she was one hot babe, but–”
“Enough! Go and join the others on the village green. And put the money back in the till. We are not here to engage in petty theft, either.”
“Do as I say!” Vertigo strode out of the shop and back toward the market cross. Stealth met him halfway.
“The police finally turned up, Count, darling,” the alien girl said, falling into step beside him. “We drove them back outside the village, but they’re forming roadblocks, and they’re undoubtedly sending for help. What do you want us to do?”
“Nothing,” said Vertigo. “If they have seen you and your powers, that is enough. They will send for more… shall we say, specialised help to deal with us. And that is what we want.”
“It’s risky, though. What if they send for the Justice League?”
“Why should they, when England now has its own group of meta-human defenders? No, my dear, they will call in their own team, first — and we will crush them utterly!”
The sleek police helicopter dipped low as it skimmed the Cotswold hills, causing some of its passengers to exclaim their discomfort. “Sorry,” said the pilot, “but I’ve been advised to come in low. There’ve been reports of the perps shooting at other choppers, including a news bird.”
“That’s all right,” said Godiva, who was sitting closest to the front. “Just do your best to get us there, OK?”
She turned to Ken Hanson in the next seat. “I still don’t understand why Vertigo and his gang have attacked a small village in the Cotswolds. What do they want?”
Hanson spread his hands. “We don’t know. The officers on the scene have tried to communicate with them, but they’re refusing to talk to us.”
“They want us,” said a deep voice from the back of the cabin.
“We don’t know that, Knight.”
“No, but it’s the only thing that makes sense. We know that Vertigo is using Dominator technology, and that he’s snatched at least one meta-human, who has been identified as one of the people now helping him terrorise that village…”
“Firebrand,” said the Squire.
“But that doesn’t make sense,” said Cameo. “You met her grandfather. Firebrand isn’t a criminal. Why would she be helping the man who kidnapped her?”
“I wish I had the answers, but I don’t,” said the Knight. “But you saw the readings on my apparatus, Sandie. They used a Dominator space-warper to get to the Cotswolds, and the only reason the Dominators would allow them the use of Dominator technology is surely to strike at their enemies. Since none of my people are known to be in that part of the country, I can only assume that their purpose is to get our attention and lure us — the Paladins — into a trap.”
“Because we defeated them once. They don’t take defeat easily. We’re probably now their number one target.”
The helicopter dropped even lower as buildings came into view in the distance, and less than a minute later it swooped in to land on the main trunk road leading into the besieged village. As the heroes disembarked, they could see squads of police officers turning back angry or confused motorists from getting any closer to the cordon of police cars that now blocked the road. The Knight and the Squire, with the help of a couple of constables, set about unlimbering their horse-shaped motorcycle, Fess, which had been lashed to the side of the copter. Meanwhile, the two women joined Hanson in approaching the roadblock.
“Any news?” asked Hanson of a uniformed sergeant listening intently to a phone.
“Not so far, sir… wait!” The sergeant was suddenly agitated. “I’ve got Count Vertigo on the line, sir.”
“All right, give me the phone.”
“He insists on speaking to one of the Paladins, superintendent.”
Hanson reluctantly gave the handset to Godiva. “Hello. Godiva here. Is that Count Vertigo?”
“It is,” said a smooth, East-European-accented voice. “I’m glad you are here at last, my dear. Now we can proceed to business.”
“What is it you want?” Godiva asked.
“I want you, dear lady. And your teammates. I want you to walk into this village and surrender to me and my Company of Fenris. If you are not here within five minutes, I will instruct my associates to start killing the villagers. Remember. Five minutes.”
And the line went dead.
“Do you think they’ll come?” asked Stealth.
“Of course, my lovely,” Count Vertigo smirked. “They are self-styled heroes, and I have a great deal of experience with such people. They will feel a moral obligation toward these people.” He looked over to where Lodestone was walking across the green toward his position. “Are you done?” he said.
“Yep. All of ’em safely locked up in the Village Hall, with Firebrand watching the only door we haven’t welded shut. It was, like, a bit of a squeeze, honey, but we got ’em all in there.”
“Good. Join me here. Karma?”
The young punk was running toward them, having been watching the road a moment before. “They’re comin’, boss. There’s a mechanical horse with two riders approachin’ on the road.”
“I see. How about a welcoming present for our guests, Lodestone?”
“Whatever you say, lover-boy,” said Lodestone. Summoning up her magnetic power, she gestured, and a nearby stop sign uprooted itself from the road, its concrete anchor still attached. As the approaching “horse” came into view, she gripped the pole and hurled it javelin-style, giving it an extra boost of magnetic force to send it on its way. It whistled through the air, straight toward the two riders on the cycle, faster than a bullet.
And it whizzed straight through them to embed itself in a nearby building.
“What the–?” she gasped as the cycle continued on and roared straight past their position, its riders apparently unharmed.
“A hologram!” said Vertigo. “Damnation! It was just a diversion!”
“So where are they really?” said Stealth.
As if in answer, a golden apparition appeared over the rooftops and swooped gently down onto the sward some thirty yards behind their position. As it landed, it seemed to shrink back into itself, its graceful aerodynamic lines becoming hairs, and revealing four figures within.
“The game’s over, Vertigo,” said Godiva. “My friends and I prefer to play by our own rules!”
The four heroes charged, the Knight and Squire drawing weapons, while Cameo twisted the rings on her middle fingers to transform her human body into the weird, two-dimensional energy form that she had become during her first encounter with super-villainy.
Vertigo, his initial shock at seeing the heroes appear from an unexpected direction gone, gestured for his comrades to hold back and summoned up his own unique abilities. The four would-be attackers suddenly faltered and fell down, overcome by loss of balance and warped perceptions of reality. The Count laughed. “Too easy! Ridiculously easy! And these are the best that this country can send against me?”
“You’re right. It was far too easy.” Vertigo’s laughter abruptly ceased as he saw the Knight getting to his feet, his mace in his hand. “And that should have warned you, Vertigo!” The armoured hero hit a stud on the handle of his weapon, and its head shot forward, trailing a steel line that whipped around Vertigo and pinned his arms to his side before he could react. A yank from the Knight pulled the costumed nobleman off his feet. “Fortunately, we’re not all helpless before you. The filters in my helmet, combined with the mental discipline of my Sons of the Wing training, give me considerable resistance.”
“Yeah? Well, resist this!” Lodestone suddenly lifted into the air and swooped forward, landing behind the Knight. As he turned to react to this new attack, the purple glow around the white-eyed girl intensified, and he was hurled off his feet and away across the green, ploughing a deep furrow in the grass as he landed.
“Well done, Lodestone,” said Vertigo, struggling to free himself from the Knight’s line. He looked at the other three Paladins, who were regaining their feet, his hold over them broken with his concentration. “All right, he’s yours. Let’s take them, my Company. One on one.”
Stealth and Karma bounded forward. The golden-skinned woman was faster and made straight for the Squire. “Let’s take out the little boy first,” she laughed.
“I’m no ‘little boy,'” the masked David Sheldrake said, assuming a martial arts stance. As Stealth reached him, he lashed out with a karate kick. He failed to connect, but neither did Stealth’s attempted blow connect with him — and as she lunged past him, he struck her with an elbow jab that knocked her to the ground. “Not bad,” she said, grinning as she bounced back to her feet. “Looks like I’ve underestimated you, shrimp. But it’s not going to be that easy! Better defend yourself!”
And she launched herself upon him, trading blows like the expert fighter she was.
Meanwhile, the slower Karma had come together with Godiva. “Better surrender now, sweet-buns,” he sneered. “I wouldn’t wanna mess up that pretty face of yours.”
“In your dreams, you little prat!” said Godiva. She extended her fabulous hair out to ensnare him, but missed. “What the–?”
Karma, laughing, danced around her. She tried again, only to snag her own foot and send herself sprawling. Then, as she tried to get up, a booted foot smashed her in the face.
“Ya had ya chance, babe,” gloated Wayne Hawkins. “But looks like I gotta spoil ya looks after all.” A second kick knocked her flying back, tangled up in her own mobile hair.