Authors: Al Ewing
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #General
Jonah sniffed. He did not approve of Timothy Larson. "He is a... surprisingly beneficial resource, Sir."
"Oh, I have a feeling we haven't seen the half of it." He took hold of the chilled vodka martini that had materialised on the tray suddenly in Jonah's hand, sipping slowly. "Thank you." He was well used by now to Jonah's habit of knowing exactly what was needed when it was needed.
"Tell me..." Crane stared into the distance, his grey eyes focussing on some unseen point that existed only in his mind. "What would you do if all the power of Doc Thunder could be yours? The power to bend steel, in your grasp? The ability to withstand a speeding bullet fired at point blank range. To win a tug of war with a locomotive at full steam. To jump to the roof of a tall building in a single bound, all of that. What would you do with it all?"
Jonah considered for a moment. "Such a question requires a leap of imagination as to how one might acquire such powers, Master Parker."
Crane chuckled. "Let's just say they're closer to being acquired than they have been in quite some time. What would you do?"
Jonah frowned. "I would venture to suggest, Sir, that my answer would be... 'better'."
Crane nodded. "Quite. No more mollycoddling society's worst elements. No more allowing the criminals, the inhuman scum, to roam free and unchecked. No more collusion and collaboration with Presidents like Bartlet or worse, that little thug Rickard; people who undermine this great country. Real justice, achieved by real power. Think of it, Jonah."
Jonah allowed himself a tight smile. "Removing that second 'S' from the country, you mean, Sir? I'll admit I've never felt all that comfortable living in the United Socialist States Of America. I've never felt comfortable with socialism as a concept at all."
"Well, not this kind." Crane chuckled, dryly. "A coup, then. President Crane. I rather like that."
Jonah nodded. "It was always going to be on the agenda eventually, Sir. You can hardly have a war on crime unless you are the one defining what a crime is. Otherwise you find yourself on such slippery ground..." His face grew thoughtful as Crane finished the martini. "Of course - assuming this is not some idle fantasy - that leaves the problem of another man with all the powers of Doc Thunder."
"That being Doc Thunder. I knew a battle with him was on the horizon as soon as I put four and a half bullets into his ape. Ah well, it's not as if I could have allowed him to live. Many would say he's lived far too long already." Crane frowned as he finished his drink, setting aside the empty glass. "This only moves his death slightly up the schedule."
Jonah bowed. "Very good, Sir. Shall I fetch the special ammunition?"
"Yes... but we must spin the web before we catch the fly." He looked over at the grandfather clock that ticked ominously in the corner of the room. "A little after one. The newspaper offices will still be open and busy. I believe I have time to place an advertisement."
Jonah raised an eyebrow. "Calling him out, Sir? Rather a risky strategy, if I may say so."
Crane leaned forward. "You may not. The telephone, Jonah. And another martini. And... yes, a Spanish dictionary."
Jonah bowed again, and returned in a few moments with the telephone - the one connected to an untraceable line - and a small, locked box that had been stored carefully in the club's impregnable safe. The members were not short of valuables, and many used the club as an unofficial bank vault; in the giant walk-in safe next to the wine cellar there were furs, jewellery, gold krugerrands, securities and bonds, and even the negatives of occasional blackmail photos which the members had paid through the nose for. There was nothing remotely as expensive as the contents of the ebony box, however. The contents of that box represented an expenditure of more than seventy million dollars, paid to a black marketer with a line on arms and equipment remaining from N.I.G.H.T.M.A.R.E.'s end at the hands of Doc Thunder.
Picking up the phone, Crane threw a handkerchief over the mouthpiece, then spoke. "Operator?
The Daily Bugle
... whoever's in charge of placing the advertisements. I'll wait." He turned to Jonah, who was returning with the dictionary and drink, and smiled slyly. "This isn't a challenge, Jonah. This is a lure."
He turned back to the telephone. "Ah yes, Mr... Robertson? Yes, I have an advertisement I'd like to place. I'll be sending a cashier's check via courier shortly. When? Tomorrow morning, the early edition. Yes. Yes... Mr. Robertson, the check in question will be for five thousand dollars. Yes, I thought that would change things. The text of the advertisement?"
He opened the dictionary, leafing through to the correct page. "El...
We need to talk about your blood. Meet me in Grand Central Station at sunset. Your friend in the red mask." He smiled. "No, no, Mr. Robertson. Thank
He put the phone down.
"Grand Central Station, Sir?" Jonah's face betrayed a look of unease. "Won't that be a little crowded at that time of day?"
"Ah, but it has to be a public place or he'll smell a rat. Besides, with all those people around, he can hardly cut loose, can he?" He grinned, almost feral. "I, on the other hand - well, if some unlucky commuter should wander into the path of a bullet, I won't lose too much in the way of sleep. The first rule of the war on crime, Jonah: everyone in this country is guilty of something."
Jonah nodded, and left silently to fetch a third martini to serve as a nightcap, while Parker Crane unlocked the ebony box with the tiny key he kept constantly on his person. The light of the gas lamp lit the six bullets inside with a soft gleam. They were not made of lead, as his normal ammunition was, but forged from something that shone like silver and shimmered like mercury, and was far more valuable - and more deadly than either.
Doc Thunder and How He Came to Be
Two suns shone in the sky.
The roc swooped down from between them, and Maya twisted, tugging at the chains that bound her, spread-eagled on her back, turning her face away from the sight. The altar was curved, like the shell of a river turtle, leaving her oiled body arched invitingly, a meal for the monster. The giant bird had fed on traitors and criminals before, and she knew that unless she could work free of the shackles, that terrible curved beak would tear into her belly as if she were any other offering. A chill of fear ran down her spine as the bird circled, toying with her, and she suppressed it with an iron effort of will. If she were to die here, after so many long centuries, then she would die like a Goddess.
"You will pay for this treachery, Zarnos!" she hissed, her emerald eyes blazing with rage.
Her treacherous high priest laughed as he lounged on her own throne, flanked by two of her own leopard warriors, their cat-like eyes glassy, dazzled by the hypnotic effects of the Gem Of A Thousand Desires; that pernicious stone with which Krato, leader of the Scorpion Cult, had attempted to dampen her will and seduce her mind - before she had rewarded his blasphemous intentions with a dagger to the heart, and scattered his dark order to the four corners of Zor-Ek-Narr. The Gem glittered and shone with devil's magic, as befit something cast and consecrated during the Age Of Woe, before light had entered the world. How such a forbidden object had found its way into Zarnos' ringed hands, she knew not, but he had used it to slowly but surely take control of her kingdom, while she had been distracted by the arrival of the Stranger into her land.
She cursed herself. If only Zarnos had not ordered the Stranger banished to the darkest depths of the Vault Of the Serpent God, the sinister labyrinth from whence none had ever returned. If the Stranger did not starve to death in its winding, lightless pathways, leagues away from succour, he would be hunted and torn apart by the legendary Gorgorex, half-snake and half-bull, the fearsome guardian of the secret of the maze, whose horns could pierce stone and whose venom could slay legions. And even if he somehow survived the Vault, why would he come for her after all she'd done to him?
Zarnos' laughter grew louder, ringing in her ears.
The roc swooped once again, for the final time, razor sharp talons glinting in the light of the suns-
- and the Stranger leapt from his hiding place in the rocks, shirt torn to blue rags, aiming a fist like a hammer into the giant bird's skull, snapping it to the side an instant before the great beak would have closed about her glistening, naked form. The sound was like a boulder cracking in two, and the roc spiralled down, fluttering from the heights of the Sacrificial Eyrie down to the valley far below.
The Stranger rubbed his knuckles. "Sorry for making you wait. But that's the kind of thing you only get one shot at."
The he smiled, and in that moment her heart was his.
"Blasphemer! Slay him, my Leopard Men!" Zarnos cried, standing up from the throne he had so sacrilegiously stolen, and pointing one long, bony finger at the Stranger. Their wills vanished into the depths of the Gem Of A Thousand Desires, the leopard warriors were helpless to do anything but obey. Their tails twitched from side to side as they lowered their spears, advancing towards the Stranger with fangs bared.
"They're not your Leopard Men, Zarnos. And I suggest you think twice before trying to use a spear on me." The Stranger crossed his arms and simply waited as the two warriors thrust their spears forward, only to see the honed flint points shatter and crack against his bare skin. He smiled grimly. "I have to say... I don't appreciate being poked."
He was more gentle with the leopard warriors than he had been with the roc - merely swatting them to one side with enough force to stun - and while Maya felt a chill of fear close about her once more as Zarnos raised the Gem to shine its malevolent light into the Stranger's eyes, he kept them covered, seeking out the corrupt vizier by the sound of his desperate, wheedling voice. "You will obey me! You will obey the will of Zarnos! All must obey my will!" He carried on screaming the words shrilly even after the Stranger had reached out and crushed the dangling gem between his mighty fingers, scattering the fragments at his feet.
Zarnos backed away, his eyes widening in terror. "You are no man! You are a monster! A devil from the Age Of Woe, where no light shone! Keep back, fiend, you will not feed on Zarnos' spirit!" he was babbling, not seeing where his frenzied, backwards steps were taking him.
"Zarnos, you fool, stay still!" The Stranger hissed, reaching out a hand. "
The cliff edge -"
But it was too late. Zarnos, self-styled Emperor Of All That Was, stumbled back, his feet treading air before he plunged with a shrill scream into the valley below; a scream ending in death.
"Poor devil," the Stranger murmured, shaking his head as he walked back towards the altar, and the Goddess chained to it. "He should have known. Sooner or later, the path of evil will always lead to a long, lonely fall. Like Icarus, Zarnos flew too close to the sun in his blind thirst for power, and the only way to go was down." He looked up, shielding his eyes, watching the twin suns beginning to dip down towards the horizon. "Suns, I mean... I'm still puzzled about that. Back home we only have the one."
Maya laughed, stretching out on the curved stone, relaxing fully for the first time in days. "According to my astronomers, there is only one sun. The doubling effect is produced by something in the air around my kingdom. Residue of some sort from the simmering heart of the Mountain Of Eternal Flame."
The Stranger nodded. "An optical illusion - light refracting off crystal deposits in the air. Presumably those same crystals account for the strange mutations among the people and animals in the region..." He tailed off, staring at the suns. "It's very beautiful."
Maya smiled. "As beautiful as evil?" He laughed, looking down at her, his eyes roaming for a second before meeting her own. "We call it the Dreaming Sun." She purred. "They say that praying to it can make a dream come true. Care to make a wish?"
The Stranger laughed again, and then leaned close. "Let's get those chains off you."
"No." Her eyes glinted darkly. "Leave them as they are."
He raised an eyebrow, then smiled, bending to kiss her belly. "If you insist."
She purred, enjoying the feel of his lips and the soft rubbing of his beard, listening to him breathing in her scent, feeling his strong hands closing about her waist, seeming to restrain her more than the taut chains. "Tell me, Stranger." she breathed, "Tell me your true name."
He looked up, his blue eyes piercing.
"You lied to me."
Maya spoke the words without emotion, without anger or sadness. She simply stated a fact.
"No, I didn't." Doc Thunder sat in his lab, surrounded by all his equipment, all his experiments, all his useless junk. His voice was lost, haunted, and so very, very tired. For the first time in his life, he had no idea what to do, what to say.
How had it come to this?
She'd slept in the bedroom, alone, and he'd stayed down here, pretending to work, doing nothing but fiddling, keeping his fingers busy and trying not to feel that emptiness, the black despair yawning inside him.
He hadn't realised what it would feel like to lose her. He hadn't realised he could.