by Brian K. Asbury
As the icy waters of the Thames dragged him down into darkness, Lionheart felt his legs finally become free from the entangling line that had caused this insane plunge. He fought desperately to orient himself, hoping that the augmented strength that the suit gave him would be enough to enable him to reach the surface, and cursing that the mane-like helmet was so heavy and was causing him to turn upside-down.
Abandoning the helmet, or any part of his equipment, was out of the question, however. He cursed inwardly at his former friend who had caused this predicament. Perry Redhawk could only make an educated guess at what the suit was capable of, but he had designed enough of its basic technology to know that it was not built to operate underwater. Certainly the jets, even if reset after their overload, would not function underwater, or he would use them to propel himself up and out.
Damn! he thought. Back to the drawing board after this — assuming I get out of it alive, that is! Floundering around, he finally figured out which direction the light was coming from and started to make powerful strokes in that direction. Seconds later, his head broke the surface, and he gasped in freezing air polluted by diesel fumes from a passing boat. He treaded water for a few breaths, trying to ignore the cold biting into him. Then he realized something.
Perry! If he had trouble getting to the surface, how was the Knight faring? With the weight of his armour dragging him down, he must have sunk like a stone. But what could he do? It was taking all of his efforts just to stay afloat, much less…
Suddenly, his motion, which was slowly rotating him on the spot, brought a bizarre sight into view. “Aw, no! You have got to be joking!” he groaned aloud.
About a hundred yards away, and about to come within reach of the derelict barge, was the Knight — swimming.
“Jeeesus! The bloody armour floats? I don’t naffing believe it!”
As he watched, the Knight hauled himself easily up onto the barge and twisted around into a sitting position, working some sort of control on his gauntlet. There was a visible hiss of escaping vapour as whatever floatation devices had kept the armour from sinking deflated.
“Need a hand, Richard?” the Knight called. “I wouldn’t stay out there if I were you — the Thames does tend to be a mite cold at this time of year. You’ll catch your breath!”
Growling, Lionheart struck out toward his tormentor. All right — if the swine bag wanted a fight, he’d get one.
Rather than aim for the barge and a potential ambush, however, he headed for the crumbling wharf some twenty or thirty yards down river. As he swam, he glanced toward the barge. The Knight was now standing up, and clouds of steam were gushing from his armour. Well, that makes sense! Lionheart thought. He’s even got heaters in that tin suit to dry himself off. Typical Perry Redhawk! Perry bloody Redhawk! Always the smart arse with the clever ideas that kept him a step ahead of everybody else. Until the Crisis ruined everything for him, of course.
Well, look out, mate, he thought, because Crisis number two is coming your way. And this time, I wouldn’t bank on getting through it in one piece if I were you!
He hauled himself up onto the dockside, freezing water dripping from his battle-suit. Perry was striding toward him, his sword in his hand again. Lionheart rose to his feet and prayed that the suit was still working. It would be just his luck for the whole sodding system to have shorted out.
“Round one to me, I think,” said the Knight as he approached the sodden, dripping Lionheart. “You always were too cocky for your own good, Richard. That might be appropriate against some opponents, but not against me. I’ve spent too long developing this armour to be frustrated just because I’m up against someone who can fly.”
Lionheart glowered at him. “You haven’t bloody well won yet,” he said, seeming to be fiddling with some sort of control stud on his gauntlet; whatever it was, it didn’t appear to be working.
The Knight paused. “Don’t be ridiculous, Richard. That suit of yours is neither insulated, nor waterproof. The dip in the Thames has probably shorted out half of its circuitry. Also, you’ve just had a thorough soaking yourself in a freezing cold river — never a very good idea in January. You’re shivering, wet, and you’re likely to come down with pneumonia if you don’t get out of that outfit and get yourself warm and dry before long. So see sense, man!”
Lionheart just put his head down and charged, closing the distance between them in seconds. The Knight met his attack unflinching and simply swatted him away with the flat of his sword.
“Round two also goes to me, wouldn’t you say?” he said as his opponent went sprawling. “You’re not the only one wearing an outfit that enhances your strength. And my reflexes aren’t dulled by the cold.”
“Now who’s getting cocky?” growled Lionheart, picking himself up again.
“Well, I’m not the one squelching about in the dirt. Look, Richard, give it up. Surrender. This isn’t the Falklands. You’re not fighting to make the world safe for democracy or whatever now. Whatever this is all about, it isn’t worth the humiliation you’re putting yourself through.”
“And what would you know about that?” Lionheart said. He was on his feet once more, but clearly not in the mood for another futile charge. He again thumbed the contact on his glove, but still nothing happened.
The Knight sheathed his sword. “Talk to me, Richard. What is this all about? Why did you kidnap Percy Sheldrake? Why set yourself up as a hero during the Martian/Atlantean affair, only to lower yourself to this?”
“I’m not lowering myself to anything, you fool! I’m doing what I’ve always done — I’m serving my country!”
“Really? By abducting a man who is not only a proven hero and patriot, but a peer of the realm? How does that ‘serve your country’?”
“If you must know, that wasn’t really the plan. You have something that doesn’t belong to you, and my mission was to recover that something. But your team was absent, and Sheldrake wouldn’t tell me where you were. I had no choice but to remove him from the picture.”
Perry frowned beneath his helmet. “I don’t understand. The team has something you want? Not Percy? Richard, for God’s sake, stop skating around the issue and tell me what this is about! What do you want? What is it you think we have?”
Lionheart seemed to be considering this for a moment. Then he said, “Firebrand!”
“What?” the Knight gasped.
“You chuffing well heard me,” Lionheart said. “My assignment was to recover Firebrand.”
“‘Recover’…?” Perry’s mind reeled. It suddenly all started to become clear. “I think I’m beginning to understand. You’re working for that arrogant character from Intelligence, aren’t you? What’s his name — Stacker? Firebrand used to work for him, and she walked out.”
“So is that what this is about? He wants her back? What the hell does he think that has to do with us? She’s been working with us on a case — we’ve hardly been holding her against her will!”
“That’s beside the point. We can’t just let people quit from an operation where they’re privy to classified information. Firebrand is dangerous, not only because of her powers, but because of what she knows. She’s a risk to the nation’s security, and my orders are to bring her in — by any means it takes.”
The Knight shook his head. “And for this you abducted Percy from his own home?”
Lionheart shrugged. “All he had to do was tell me where she was. But no — he had to play the hero. Like I said — an overgrown Boy Scout.”
A derisive snort escaped from the disgusted Knight. “That’s pathetic, Richard. A man like Percy would never betray someone who was a guest in his home. And even if he’d told you what you were demanding to know, the knowledge would have done you no good. We weren’t even in the country — we were on a mission overseas!”
Lionheart unclipped a device from his belt. “Well, you’re not out of the country now. So tell me where Firebrand is now, and we can put an end to this. Eddie Stacker just wants the girl back — he’s not interested in keeping Sheldrake so long as you’re all smart and keep your mouths shut!”
“Richard, listen to me. I don’t know where Firebrand is now, and she isn’t even a member of our team. We’ve invited her to join, yes, but she hasn’t made up her mind yet. But whether she joins the Paladins or continues to work as a freelance, she’s no threat to Stacker. I haven’t known her that long, but I don’t see her as someone who would betray her country.”
“She tried to go on television to blow the gaff about something Stacker let slip to her on a mission, so don’t tell me she wouldn’t chuffing well betray her country!” retorted Richard Plante. (*) “She’s got a big mouth, and it needs to be plugged for her own good and all of ours. There’re only two ways to ensure that — she either comes back to work for the Department, or she gets locked up — for good, if necessary. Her choice.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See The Paladins: Albion’s Call, Book 2: The Company of Fenris, Chapter 3: Not Ready for Prime-Time.]
“Well, that’s between you, her, and Stacker to sort out. It doesn’t concern Percy, and you’ve no right or reason to hold him. Hand him over, Richard. This is the last time I’m going to ask politely.”
“Make me!” growled Lionheart. He thumbed a switch on the device in his hand, and it flared into life as an energy sword. He beckoned. “You want a fight, Perry? Come on then, let’s fight — and do it properly this time!”
Steel sword clashed against sword of phased plasma, with surprisingly little effect upon either weapon. Not that I should be surprised at that, mused Lionheart. He knew that Perry Redhawk had possessed a small quantity of super-tough hull metal from the ship that had brought the Children of the Wing from planet Cairn to Earth. Evidently, he had found a way to forge it into a weapon.
That tin suit isn’t made of the same stuff, though, he considered. All it will take is one effective hit, and I can slice it open as if it were made of cardboard.
The prospect of that wasn’t looking good at the moment, however. The Knight was proving to be much more adept at swordplay than he remembered. But then, Sheldrake had been a champion in his youth, and he must have given his successor some sound coaching.
In fact, he had to admit Perry was definitely looking like the better swordsman. That, and the fact that he, Lionheart, was weakened and shivery from his immersion in the icy river, was causing him to go on the defensive. His was, without doubt, the superior weapon technologically, but what use was that if he could not land a blow where it mattered?
As they fought, his mind wandered back briefly to a time, only two years before, when they could not have conceived of fighting like this. Richard Plante and Perry Redhawk had been best friends and business partners ever since they had met up during the Falklands War, when Richard had been a commando in the Special Air Service and Perry a civilian consultant who had designed a new night-sight for the Ministry of Defense and had insisted on being present at its field test.
They had become firm friends during the campaign, and afterward Richard had left the SAS and gone into partnership with Perry. They had planned to launch Richard into a new career as a costumed hero, but the Crisis on Infinite Earths had changed that. An attack by shadow demons had trashed their business premises, as well as Perry’s father’s house, where he stored most of the alien technology that they were adapting into weapons that Richard could use.
A row afterward had led to Richard walking out with what bits of the new suit had been near-finished. He had regretted doing so, but pride had prevented him from going back. Instead, he had sought work as a humble docker — only to learn that his employment would be terminated after only three months due to the economic recession following the Crisis and the general running down of London’s Docklands, for which a massive redevelopment program was being planned.
Only a chance meeting with a former SAS colleague had saved him from the dole. His friend was now working for British Intelligence under the direction of Edward Stacker, who had plans for an elite cadre of agents with extra-normal abilities and weapons. Stacker had jumped at the chance of getting his hands on the technology Richard had salvaged from his partnership with Perry, and the boffins at MI7 had soon managed to get many of the devices working — in time, fortunately, for the invasion by the combined Martian and Atlantean forces that had wreaked such havoc on Britain’s seaports last year. The new battle-suit had worked reasonably well but had clearly needed more work, so after that one brief appearance, Lionheart had vanished from the scene again. Until now.
And would this second debut be the end of his brief super-heroic career? Unless he could find a way to turn the tables on his former friend, it was beginning to look like that. The Knight’s relentless attack was driving him back toward the edge of the wharf again, and a likely second dunking in the Thames.
He had to find a way to turn this fight in his favour — and fast.