by Brian K. Asbury
Percy Sheldrake sat anxiously at his communications console, waiting for word from his team. He felt particularly anxious about his nephew David, going into action as the Squire without his mentor Perry Redhawk to guide him. Not for the first time, he wondered whether he was doing the right thing in allowing the inexperienced lad to take the place of his late son Cyril, particularly in going after such dangerous foes as the Dominion.
A sudden noise diverted his attention from the console. It had come from elsewhere in the house and sounded as if someone had broken down a door. No alarms, though; strange.
He reached into a drawer and pulled out a fully loaded miniature repeating crossbow. If it was the Dominion again, this time their agents would not catch him unprepared. He might not be able to walk now, but he was by no means helpless.
The door suddenly burst open, and through it strode a tall, helmeted man in a black and silver costume. A familiar emblem was emblazoned on a shield on the left breast of the outfit. “Gules, three lions couchant or,” observed Percy. “Well! If that’s the new England soccer strip, it leaves something to be desired.” He hoped that his flippant banter made him sound more calm than he felt.
“Very droll,” the man said in a South London accent. “The Earl of Wordenshire, I presume?”
“You presume correctly,” replied Percy. “But I’m afraid you have the advantage of me, sir.”
“I’m Lionheart,” said the man gruffly. “Where are your team?”
“Elsewhere,” Percy said. “May I ask what business you have with them? I presume from the manner of your entrance that you haven’t come to join up!”
Lionheart laughed unpleasantly. “You, too, presume correctly. Join your penny-ante outfit? I wouldn’t lower myself! I am a direct descendant of King Richard I. I serve the Crown, not some petty nobleman who fancies himself as the English Batman!”
“You’re out of date with that information,” said Percy smoothly, indicating his wheelchair. “But you’re a direct descendant of the original Lionheart, are you? That’s a pretty good trick, my friend, considering that King Richard was a homosexual who died without issue!”
Lionheart’s features contorted in rage. “That’s a lie!” he shouted.
“Not according to the history books, sir. If King Richard had had any children, they would have succeeded him on the throne. As it was, if you knew anything about history, you’d know that he nominated his nephew Prince Arthur as his heir — and of course, Arthur was murdered by Richard’s brother Prince John, who seized the throne when the Lionheart died of an arrow wound at the Siege of Chaluz.”
Lionheart scowled. “Very well up on your history books, aren’t you? Except that history books are written by the victors, and they don’t always tell the truth. Richard wasn’t gay — that was a lie concocted by King John to discredit his brother’s memory. It’s true he had no children by Queen Berengaria, but he had an illegitimate son by an earlier lover, and that’s who I’m descended from.”
Percy smiled. “A fascinating fairy tale, I’m sure. Oh, well; believe what you will, if it gives you comfort. Now, if you don’t mind — as I said, my team aren’t here at the moment. If you’d care to leave your business card, I’ll get them to give you a call when they get back. However, I’m quite busy right now…” He indicated the door with a sweep of his hand.
The costumed intruder took a pace forward, unclipping a device from his belt. He pressed a stud on it, and a glowing, sword-like blade extended from it.
“My, my,” said Percy. “Are you related to Luke Skywalker also?”
“Enough, you windbag! Tell me where your team are.” Lionheart began to advance toward Percy’s chair.
“I don’t think so,” said the man who had been the original crime-fighting Knight. He whipped up his crossbow, which had been hidden from view by the wheelchair, and fired.
A glowing force-field briefly flared around Lionheart, and the bolt shattered against it. Percy fired twice more, but again both shafts came to grief before they could reach their target. “Ah…” he said.
Lionheart smirked. “And now,” he said, “you are going to tell me where the Paladins are — whether you like it or not!”
Cameo studied the strange device from all angles, but it did nothing to relieve her frustration. It was obviously the thing that was generating the time-slowing field — assuming Lodestone was right about that, which looked likely — but how was it possible to turn it off? Her transformed state might allow her to walk around inside the field without being affected by it, but if she was unable to interact with the machine, she was helpless to do anything to aid Perry or Firebrand.
She looked up at their unmoving forms on the castle battlements. The machine was on wheels, and it had clearly moved into this archway recently, at least from their perspective. What else could have drawn their attention to it, half-hidden in shadow as it was? She slapped her hand against its surface. It was a trap, obviously: it had probably been programmed to activate if anyone entered the castle precincts. The Dominion were not stupid, and they must have figured that Vertigo’s capture would lead the Paladins and their allies here. So this was a cunning trap to put them out of the picture and prevent any further interference in the Dominators’ plans. Freeze them in time — and make sure no one could turn off the time-freezing mechanism by placing it inside the very field it was generating.
“Damn!” she said, thumping the machine again, to no effect. She glared at it angrily. In her energy-form it shouldn’t normally have been possible for her to thump it. Her hand should have passed partially through the thing, disrupting its electronics and neatly shutting the thing off. But the machine being frozen in time completely put paid to that. Everything inside the field was completely impervious to her.
What’s more, she realized, being unable to move anything created another problem for her. Dropping her down here to investigate had seemed a good idea at the time, but how was she supposed to get out if she couldn’t shut off the machine? The doors leading out from the courtyard were all closed — she couldn’t even reach the battlements where her friends were, much less get out of the castle itself. Well, on reflection it might be possible to climb the walls, drop down the other side, and walk down the mountain until she came to the edge of the field, but that could take a very long time.
“OK, Sandie, think!” she said aloud. “You can’t fly out of here, and trying to climb out is definitely a last resort only, so what other alternatives are there?”
She looked around, but couldn’t see any. “All right, so what about the machine?” So what about it? she thought, then went back to it and studied it once more. It was around four feet square, with several elongated glass domes emitting a pale blue glow on the top. There was a control panel with various switches and buttons labeled in some alien language. There was also a red LED-type display, showing several non-Earthly characters in a line. As she stared at it, she realized that the one on the extreme right had changed slightly from when she had first looked at it.
So time is passing in here, she thought, albeit very slowly. She realized that the character — a number, perhaps — was slowly morphing into another shape. Perhaps it was a counter of some sort. Perhaps the machine was set to run for a specific time and then shut off, and this was counting down to control that.
The trouble was, she had no idea how long it would be before the counter hit zero — or even what zero looked like in this alien script. And in any case, one second from the perspective of someone trapped in this field was what in the outside world — hours? Days, even? If she waited long enough, the machine might well shut down by itself, but that might be years from now.
Then another, far more disturbing, possibility occurred to her. If this was designed to trap the Paladins, it had worked only partially, trapping only their advance party. Hadn’t it occurred to the Dominators that they might not snare the whole team? Surely it had. In which case…
She stared at the LED display again. What if — what if that was, indeed, a counter, but it wasn’t counting down just to shut the machine off after a preset interval? What if…
“Oh, my God!” she exclaimed. She backed away from the machine, turned, and ran for the courtyard wall. Like it or not, she had to try to climb it. She had to get out of here. The others had to be warned.
“I am still not convinced, Comrade.”
David Sheldrake opened his eyes. A short distance away, a group of people were arguing among themselves. Most of them he knew, but the loudest was a heavily built, moustachioed man with a swarthy complexion. He seemed to be trying to fit pieces of armour back onto his body as he spoke.
“We told you,” said Godiva. “Stealth, Lodestone, and a couple of others were brought here by Count Vertigo and brainwashed into working with him. But Vertigo was working for the Dominators, and that’s without doubt who is responsible for this energy barrier.”
“So you say. We know of this Vertigo — a troublemaker who opposes the legitimate Communist regime here in Vlatava. His forebears were once the imperialist rulers here.”
“So why, if he resists the benevolent Socialist government of his country, would he throw in his lot with aliens known to be totalitarian oppressors of the extraterrestrial proletariat?”
There’s no answer to that! thought David as he raised himself up on one elbow. He groaned. It happened again! I was knocked out of the fight straight away.
The situation had certainly changed while he was unconscious, he noted. The Rocket Red Brigade no longer seemed to be fighting the Paladins. Half of them seem to be out for the count, and the other half seemed to be trying to revive their fallen comrades. Only number one was paying any attention to David’s teammates.
He did feel useless, though. He had so far contributed nothing at all to this mission, and it looked as if the others were no nearer finding a way into the energy barrier to rescue Perry and Firebrand than they had been before. I’ll bet Robin never has this problem, he thought, always getting knocked out of the fight before it’s really begun.
He cast his gaze over the others. They looked pretty much intact, with the possible exception of Salaak, whose uniform bore scorch marks. Come to think of it, the alien Green Lantern was on his feet but looked somewhat unsteady. Perhaps, thought David, I wasn’t the only one hit by one of those bolts.
He sat up, trying to catch up with the flow of conversation. The Rocket Red leader seemed to have given up suggesting that the Paladins had erected the energy barrier themselves, and the topic had shifted to Salaak and his power ring’s inability to do anything about the situation.
“So you say your beam turns yellow when you try to penetrate this energy wall?”
“I fail to see the point in you repeating everything we say to you,” said Salaak, sounding even grumpier than usual, if that were possible. “I told you — the time-differential red-shifts my beam into the yellow part of the spectrum. It is what we call, on my home planet, Tcheloorik’s Law.”
“I still don’t get it, though,” Lodestone piped up. “What difference does it make if your beam changes colour?”
Rocket Red #1 turned to answer her. “You are obviously unaware, young lady, that the Green Lantern power rings cannot affect anything coloured yellow.”
Salaak growled. “Oh, thank you very much! Tell the whole blasted planet, why don’t you? Bad enough that Kilowog seems to have blabbed it to you, without you repeating it to everybody else you meet!”
“Well, it’s hardly a secret, is it?” said Stealth. “You guys like to pretend it is, but where I come from, everybody knows it. There are even jokes made about it — what’s yellow and always turns red? A gold bullet fired at a Green Lantern!”
“That is not funny!” snarled Salaak.
“I know, I know. I need to work a lot more on my delivery. Oh, come on, G.L., lighten up.”
All eyes turned toward David. The Bowman approached him. “Are you OK now? You were out cold for some time.”
“Never mind that!” said David, scrambling to his feet. “I’ve got it. I know how Salaak can use his power ring against the energy barrier! You just have to lighten up! It’s so simple, it’s almost laughable!”
“What are you talking about?” said Salaak.
“It’s like this…” began the young Squire.
There were some distinct advantages to being a two-dimensional energy being, thought Cameo as she climbed up the wall. For one thing, being almost weightless made climbing almost effortless, and two-dimensional fingers could slip easily into the smallest of cracks in the ancient stone wall. What was more, she felt no pain in this form, so she could hang by one finger if necessary.
It had not taken her long to get up almost to the spot where the Knight and Firebrand were, and now she flipped herself easily up onto the battlements alongside them. She reached out to touch the Knight, who looked slightly odd in Percy’s old chain-mail outfit with his own helmet on his head. As with everything else in this bizarre environment, his body just stopped her hand dead, not moving or reacting in any other way. She looked into his eyes in desperation. “I’m sorry, Perry. I really am. But I don’t know how to get you out of this predicament. What’s more, I’ve got to get to the others in case they figure out a way to–“
She halted. The light had been fading for a while now, but it had suddenly become much brighter. Furthermore, there was a green tinge to the light, as if…
“Oh, no!” she said, and looked up. High above the dome of the energy barrier, a green glow seemed to be permeating inward. “Salaak!” she exclaimed. The extraterrestrial Green Lantern must have found a way to make his ring’s power work inside the time-distortion after all.
This is a disaster! she thought. If I’m right… and he can’t possibly suspect…!
She had to warn him. But how? She waved her arms, but she had no way of knowing whether Salaak could even see her. The green energy seemed to be slowly working its way down, as if neutralizing the time-distortion a little at a time. The edge of the barrier already looked closer. My God! she thought. If he reaches the device without realizing what that counter probably represents–!
It was no use just standing here and hoping the Green Lantern would see her, she decided. She had to be proactive in some way. But how? She could jump down to the other side of the wall and run like crazy to the edge of the barrier, but what then? She had no radio or other communications device — Godiva had the only one they had brought with them. Mental note: must equip all team members with some sort of personal communicators soonest.
So even if she got out, she would have to get from her exit point to where the others were — and at this time she was not sure where that was. They might even be above the castle with Salaak — she couldn’t see anything beyond the green light from his ring.
Come on, Sandie, she thought. Think! You’re a scientist, a member of MENSA. You’re supposed to be highly intelligent! She looked down into the courtyard at the machine almost hidden under the archway opposite. She dared not let Salaak’s beam neutralize its effects completely. Perhaps if she went back down into the courtyard…
Wait a sec! she thought. Floating down here when Salaak had dropped her into the field, she had felt resistance, as if falling through a fluid. Perhaps…?
Well, she wasn’t going to find out unless she put it to the test. Steeling herself, she launched herself from the battlements — but this time she did not merely fall, but moved her arms and legs in a swimming motion.
It seemed to be working. The field definitely had sufficient resistance to allow her to swim through it. It was taking a great deal of effort, but she seemed to be able to control her path. Now, could she do more than that and even gain height?
Yes. Yes, she could. Scrabbling frantically, she found she could actually swim upward toward the light. But could she get there in time?