by Brian K. Asbury
Lord’s has indisputably been the home of English cricket, as well as the scene of some of the greatest games of all time. Right now it was hosting a lavish reception for the press and a few specially invited VIPs, ahead of the following week’s second test match between England and Pakistan. With the first match in the series played the previous week in Manchester drawn, both sides were looking for a win to take the lead in the series, and respective captains Mike Gatting and Imran Khan were both in attendance today.
There was another reason for the reception, however, and it involved cricket’s most famous trophy, held in perpetuity here at Lord’s even at times when it technically belonged to the other nation that competed for it.
Sir Douglas Fitzwarren, chairman of the England team selectors, had been chosen to explain to the press why the Ashes was suddenly in the news, even though it was not being competed for this summer.
“As you know, ladies and gentlemen,” said Sir Douglas, “the Ashes as a trophy dates back to 1882 when the England team suffered a humiliating defeat on home soil by the Aussies, and the Sporting Times declared that English cricket had died and ‘the ashes taken to Australia.’ One of the stumps from that match was burned, and its remains interred in a silver urn, and this has been the trophy contested by England and Australia from that day on. Since 1927, the Ashes has remained here at Lord’s on permanent display, regardless of whether the current holders have been Australia or, as is the case at present, England.
“However, ladies and gentlemen, England and Australia are to play one another next year in Australia as part of that nation’s bicentennial celebration. To commemorate this, the Australians have asked that the Ashes be taken to Australia to be presented to the winning captain, and, should the Aussies win, that they should keep the trophy in their country until such a time as England win it again.”
Sir Douglas paused to cries of “Shame” from some of the cricketing dignitaries present.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he continued. “I have been delegated to state that the governing bodies of this great sport in this country have voted overwhelmingly ‘no’ to this proposal. The Ashes, traditionally, belongs here at Lord’s, and here…” He thumped the table. “…it will stay!”
Applause erupted. In a far corner of the room, Rod Reilly leaned back and whispered, “Geez! All this fuss over a few bits of burned wood!”
Becca Bennett smiled. “Yes, Granddad. Everybody knows that. But it’s an important symbol of English pride that it stays here. It’s not just the trophy that matters, it’s what it represents. Believe me, these men will fight tooth and nail to keep it here, even if England lose the next series against Australia.”
Rod shook his head. “That’s why I brought you along, honey — as an interpreter. You understand the sport. To me, it’s pretty much incomprehensible.”
His dark-haired granddaughter laughed. “You and most Americans, Granddad. Sport is something the U.K. and the USA will never have in common. ‘Incomprehensible,’ after all, is much the same as most Brits feel about American football. But are you telling me you’ve lived in this country all these years and never figured out what cricket’s all about?”
“Hell, I’ve always been a baseball nut myself. I can’t get my head around a sport where a guy can just stand there for four hours and do practically nothing, and be hailed a hero for it!”
“I’ll explain it to you later, Granddad,” she said, patting his hand affectionately. “I’m glad your company’s handling the P.R. for the England/Pakistan series, though. I’ve been just dying to meet Imran Khan. He’s got to be one of the dishiest guys in the known universe.”
“Thought you’d appreciate that,” said Rod, grinning. “Hey, though — is that the trophy?” Sir Douglas was now holding it up to allow the photographers to snap him with it. “But it’s so small! Couldn’t they afford anything bigger?”
“Size isn’t everything, Granddad. Come on, let’s get closer and see if you can’t introduce me to–“
At that moment, however, there was a resounding crash. The doors burst in to reveal two men in skintight costumes. “What is the meaning of this?” thundered Sir Douglas.
“Looks like we’re just in time, Mister Fyre,” said one of the newcomers, who was dressed in blue.
“Indeed we are, Mister Floode,” replied his red-garbed companion.
“Security! Where’s security?” demanded Sir Douglas.
“They had an accident,” said Mister Floode, starting forward. “And now, if you don’t mind, mate, I’ll take that.” He indicated the urn of the Ashes.
“What?” said Sir Douglas, clutching the urn to himself protectively. “Are you mad?”
“Hardly. Now gimme, unless you want to get hurt.”
This was the cue for several of the more able-bodied men in the room to start forward, including the two cricket captains. “Now don’t be stupid,” said Mike Gatting. “Even if you got away with this, you couldn’t possibly sell the thing.”
“Who wants to sell it?” said Mister Floode. “No point, when cricket’s governing bodies will pay a fortune to get it back.” He turned to the pressmen. “Make sure you get this, boys and girls. We’re taking the Ashes and holding it to ransom.”
“Over my dead body,” said one of the other officials, lunging forward.
“Naughty, naughty,” said Mister Fyre. He gestured, and every cigar, cigarette, and pipe in the room burst into flame. A further gesture, and the flames coalesced into a protective ring around Fyre and Floode and Sir Douglas. The advancing would-be heroes fell back in terror.
Mister Floode grinned. “Now come on, pal. Give me the Ashes before you become ashes yourself.” He held out his gloved hand.
At the back of the room, Becca Bennett looked around helplessly. As the super-heroine Firebrand, she was the only person present who could possibly stop these costumed thugs, but there was no room here to transform herself without being seen. She backed towards a window, wondering if she could open it, drop through, and change on the way down.
Mister Floode was now eyeball-to-eyeball with Sir Douglas. “I won’t ask again, mate. My friend Mister Fyre is getting very impatient, and he can get very, very cranky if you annoy him. You really don’t want to know how cranky!” He reached out to grab the trophy.
A blunt-tipped arrow suddenly struck his arm, knocking it away and causing him to yelp in pain. All eyes turned towards the window, where a red-white-and-blue-clad man was climbing in, a second arrow already nocked to his bow.
“Bloody hell!” said Mister Fyre. “It’s the Bowman of Britain!”
“In the flesh,” said the Bowman. “Now surrender before you get hurt.”
“Get stuffed!” growled Mister Fyre. A tongue of flame leapt from the ring surrounding him towards the Bowman, who leapt from the windowsill and onto the carpeted floor, rolling as he released his arrow.
“Missed me!” gloated Mister Fyre as the arrow burst on the floor next to him. However, his gloating was suddenly curtailed as sticky foam began to expand from the shaft and cover him. Within seconds, he was engulfed in the stuff, and the flames abruptly went out.
“One down…” said the Bowman, getting agilely to his feet and fitting a new arrow to his bow. “Now, are you going to give up, or are you going to be stubborn, too?” he said to Mister Floode, who was nursing his bruised arm.
Behind him, Becca Bennett slipped over to the now-open window and saw that there was a balcony beneath it.
“Think you’re so cocky, don’t you, Robin Hood?” sneered Mister Floode. “Well, chew on this, mate!” His form suddenly shimmered, and where a man had stood was a column of animated water, which rushed at the Bowman, knocking him off his feet.
The Bowman flailed with his weapon, but he was literally fighting a foe made of water. “Not so cocky now, eh?” The water drove him back, slamming him into the wall. As his bow slipped through his fingers, he was vaguely aware of a mass exodus from the room — but that was the least of his worries. Mister Floode’s watery form was covering his head. He was drowning.
Percy Sheldrake, eleventh earl of the long-since-vanished county of Wordenshire, wheeled his chair into the converted barn that was serving as a temporary hangar. “I’ve brought you some tea, Perry,” he called out.
There was no reply.
“Perry?” he repeated.
A hatch opened up in the side of the curious vehicle that currently occupied the barn, and a head appeared — a head that boasted a shock of coppery hair and eyes that seemed golden in a certain light. “Hello, Percy,” said Perry Redhawk, pushing the whole of his upper body through. “Serving tea yourself, then? Has Chivers gone on strike?”
“Hardly,” said Percy, laughing as he came closer. “My legs may be paralyzed, but I’m not exactly helpless, you know. I’m perfectly capable of making a pot of tea and bringing it over here without being nursemaided.”
“Sorry,” said Perry, dropping agilely down to ground level. “I didn’t mean to offend. I just thought…”
“It’s all right, old friend,” Percy said, pouring from the pot into one of the cups nestling on the tray fixed to the front of his wheelchair. “I was only joking. Chivers is running some errands for me, as it happens. And I was curious as to your progress with this fine vessel, so…”
“Progress isn’t precisely the word I’d have chosen,” said Perry, patting the side of the ship, which resounded dully. “I still haven’t got the hyperdrive working. When those Green Lanterns sabotage something, they certainly don’t mess around. However, I’m still hopeful.”
Percy shook his head as he handed his friend — who looked somewhat younger due to his half-alien metabolism, but who was, in fact, at least ten years older — a cup of tea. “I still don’t understand why you want to make this ship fly faster than light, Perry. As it is, it would be a boon to the team if only you’d stop taking it to bits and putting it back together again. It can fly at ultrasonic speeds, yet generates a damping field which negates any sonic-boom effect, it’s capable of becoming invisible to radar…”
“Yes, and it couldn’t do either of those things before I started working on it. I know — I’ve made some progress. But it’s not enough, Percy. If the Paladins are to establish ourselves as major players in the super-hero stakes, we need the best possible transport. This shuttle could be it — if only I could restore all the features that Salaak disabled before he turned it over to us.”
Percy sipped from his own cup. “I can’t say that I don’t understand his motives in that, Perry. The technology involved in this ship is far beyond what Earth is capable of, and it makes perfect sense that he wouldn’t want to leave something intact that might artificially advance our technology beyond a level we’re yet ready for…”
“I’m not strictly speaking as an Earthling, Percy. My father was from the planet Cairn, remember?”
“And that’s what’s really eating at you, isn’t it? That Salaak treated you the same way as the rest of us. You feel it’s a vote of no confidence, don’t you?”
Perry shrugged. “I suppose so.” He sipped his tea. “But I also don’t like to be beaten, Percy, and this damn ship is driving me crazy. I know I can get everything working on it, if only…”
Percy suddenly reached out and grabbed his wrist. “Perry — stop it!”
“This isn’t just a matter of ‘not being beaten,’ Perry. It’s becoming an obsession with you. And it’s making you neglect everything else in your life. When did you last go out on a date?“
“Listen, I don’t have time for…”
“Sandie is simply dying to take you to that new West End show, if only you’d tear yourself away from this toy of yours for long enough.”
“I’m not stupid, Perry. I’m fully aware that the two of you have more than a professional interest in one another.”
“And then, when did you last go on patrol as the Knight?”
“Er…” Perry thought about it. “I’m not sure. Last week sometime…?”
“David is off school today, Perry. One of those teacher-training days that they close the schools for nowadays. He’s champing at the bit to go out as the Squire, but he can’t do that without you.”
“No excuses, Perry. Go and put on your armour and take the lad out on patrol. He’s had Fess prepped for the last two hours.”
Perry sighed. “I’m not going to win this, am I?”
“Certainly not,” said Percy, relieving him of his now-empty cup. “Go on — off you go. The shuttle will still be here when you come back, and who knows? A break from it might well give you the inspiration you need to solve the problem of the hyperdrive.”
“Well, when you put it like that…”
“Go on,” Percy said, shepherding him towards the door. “Oh, and while you’re out, pick up some Darjeeling, will you? Chivers has let us run out again.”