"Everything looks good," the elder of the two El brothers said to the other, looking up from a bank of instruments.
The younger, his hair still black where his brother's had gone salt-and-pepper, nodded in concurrence. "We're right on schedule," he said.
"You two had better get to orbit," Zor-El said.
Jor-El nodded again. "I'd feel better if you were coming with us," he said, but Zor-El shook his head.
"No, no," he said. "Someone has to coordinate things from here until the last ship leaves, and it's important for public morale that that be one of us."
"All the same..."
Zor-El laughed merrily and clapped his brother on the shoulder. "Relax, Jor! The planet's only going to blow up sometime in the next 150 hours. What could go wrong?"
Jor-El couldn't help but laugh a little at that. The elder son of the house of El always had been able to maintain his good humor. Even during what both of them now confidently calculated would be their homeworld's last week, he could crack a joke. A dark, morbid joke, admittedly, but a joke all the same. It was more than Jor-El thought he could have done.
The Earthman who shared the room with them, a young Wedge Defense Force officer named Benjamin Hutchins and called Gryphon by his friends, had a similar thought. He'd worked closely with the El brothers for the last eight months, making first secret and then public arrangements for the evacuation of Krypton, and had come to like and respect them both, but of the two, he had to admit he enjoyed Zor-El's company a little more. The younger El was very intense, very driven, and his presence could get a bit overpowering after a while.
"I suppose you're right," Jor-El said. He held out a hand. "I'll see you on New Krypton, brother."
Zor-El took the hand and pulled Jor-El into a backslapping hug. "Get going," he said. "And tell my nephew to be careful with the landing operations! It won't take those powers of his long to fade once he leaves the New Hope, and he's not used to being a pathetic mortal like the rest of us."
Jor-El said he would pass the message along, then turned and went down the corridor to the docking ring. Zor-El turned to Gryphon with a smile.
"I suppose you're going to try to convince me to come along as well, Commander."
Gryphon chuckled. "No, I've learned better in the time I've spent here." Then, sobering, he added, "But I wish you'd at least send your family with us."
Zor-El nodded. "And I wish they'd go, my friend, but—well, we Els have stubborn wives and daughters. It's a family tradition." That got a small laugh out of Gryphon, who had come to know the El brothers' families well in his time on Krypton.
"Anyway, you don't need to worry," Zor-El went on, more seriously. "I promise you, even if something happens to me, Kara will be on the last transport to leave Krypton."
Gryphon smiled. "She'd better," he said mock-threateningly, and then shook the Kryptonian's hand. "Good luck, Zor-El."
"Go with Rao, my friend," Zor-El replied. "I'll see you later."
Gryphon headed down the same corridor Jor-El had taken, deep in thought. He didn't notice that there was someone waiting next to the hatch at the end of the hall until he had almost reached her. Once he did notice, he smiled.
Kara Zor-El was fifteen and had inherited her father's intense curiosity about more or less everything. Where most Kryptonians were suspicious of outsiders—the planet had deliberately avoided contact with the greater galaxy for centuries, knowing about but declining to participate in the interstellar culture and commerce of the United Galactica—Kara had been thrilled to discover that her father's mysterious houseguest was not, in fact, from South Korix at all, but rather an Earthman from the Sol system.
When he wasn't working with her father and uncle to arrange the evacuation of her homeworld, she had a habit of cornering Gryphon and bombarding him with questions about the outside galaxy. Gryphon, who generally didn't get on all that well with kids, found himself rather taken by her enthusiasm and lack of affectation. His lover Kei Morgan, who joined him on Krypton in the second month of the mission, kidded him mercilessly about the young Kryptonian's obvious fascination.
Even today, with the destruction of her home planet looming and the evacuation of its people well underway, Kara looked more interested and eager than worried or upset.
"Decided to come out with us after all?" he asked, but she shook her head.
"No, Mom and I are staying here with Dad. We'll be out on the Twilight Vanguard as planned," she said. "I just wanted to say goodbye to you and Uncle Jor before you leave."
Gryphon patted her shoulder. "Take care of yourself," he said. "Make sure your old man's not so fascinated by the breakup that he forgets to leave."
Kara gave him a wry grin. "Why do you think Mom and I are staying with him?" she asked. Then she became serious, gave him a quick hug with the slightly furtive awkwardness of a teenager and told him she'd see him soon.
It would be customary, at this point, to note that Gryphon had a bad feeling as he went through the hatch, dogged it behind him, and climbed up to the control cabin of the WDF Horizon-T dropship docked at the top of Zor-El's tower—that he paused for a moment on the other side of the hatch in thought, then shook it off and continued on.
That would, however, not be true. He was a little tense, yes; being on a planet that had scheduled itself for demolition would do that to a person. But he was also confident. The El brothers were Krypton's most brilliant scientists, and other great minds had collaborated in the evacuation planning as well. It was a big job, but it was still a job, and so far it was going well. He was cheerful as he strapped into the Horizon's pilot seat and undocked from the tower, and cheerful as he arrived, half an hour later, on the bridge of the WDF's flagship, the mighty Super Dimension Fortress No. 17, Wayward Son.
The bridge's forward holotank was projecting a vast three-dimensional image of Krypton overlaid with colored lines and moving blips showing the vectors of outbound vessels. The evacuation of Krypton was one of the biggest personnel spacelifts ever attempted, the wholesale relocation of almost half a billion people. Hundreds of vessels were involved, including WDF Transport Command ships, chartered freighters and liners, and a number of warships belonging to the Royal Salusian Navy—all under the master coordination of the SDF-17's comm crew in orbit and Zor-El on the ground.
MegaZone, the WDF's supreme commander, slouched in his command seat, watching the evacuation unfold. He turned his head at the sound of the main bridge doors to see Gryphon and Jor-El entering.
"Yo," he said, raising a hand. "Looks like it's going pretty well."
Jor-El nodded, went to the science station, picked up a headset, and started coordinating with his brother, monitoring Krypton's condition as ships landed, loaded and left at rallying points in all the major cities. Gryphon continued on into the bridge, stopping next to Zoner's seat.
"So far so good," he said.
"Zor-El stayed behind?" Zoner asked
"He and his family are coming off on the Twilight Vanguard."
"Hm. Well, I guess somebody has to be the last to leave."
Gryphon nodded, then went to his executive officer's station (a freestanding, three-quarter-enclosed workstation not far from the conn) and put on a headset to monitor the El brothers and the rest of the comm traffic.
For six more hours, the evacuation went like clockwork as the precisely tuned rotation of ships removed more than 50 million people per hour from the doomed planet. A few of the evac ships suffered FTL drive failures, but the plan accounted for that; those ships moved instead to positions near the Wayward Son, where they could ride the fortress's spacefold out when the operation was complete. The atmosphere on the SDF-17's bridge was tense but upbeat—the air of a well-trained crew doing a hard job with every expectation of success.
Until Jor-El's voice suddenly cut through the low hum of operations chatter:
"Core fluctuations just jumped 84 percent! I'm showing fault activity everywhere. Zor, can you confirm my readings?"
In his headset's earpiece, Gryphon heard Zor-El's reply, flattened slightly by the narrow band of the digital signal.
"Confirmed. This is it—the core implosion's begun."
"Get to your ship!" Jor-El snapped. "There's no more time!"
"Too late," Zor-El replied, his signal beginning to break up. "No time to... quake... collapsing... with Rao."
"Zor-El!" Jor-El cried, but the channel was dead.
Zoner leaned forward, his eyes alert. "Jor-El," he said. "How long?"
Jor-El shook himself and plied the science station's controls. "Not long," he said. "Zor-El was right, the core's imploding. Radiation levels are 120 percent above redline and rising." He turned and made eye contact with the WDF commander. "Four minutes, no more."
Zoner turned to Gryphon. "How many ships are down there?"
"Four. Make it three—the Radiant VII just lifted off. And the next wave is inbound in hyperspace, ETA ten minutes."
"Pull 'em," Zoner said.
Gryphon nodded and flipped some switches. "Command to EVCON. Abort, abort, all inbound ships abort. All down ships lift off immediately." He listened for a moment, then turned to Zoner. "They won't make it. Twilight Vanguard's repulsors are cold and Daikon Vortex is trapped under debris from a boarding tower collapse."
Zoner sat and watched the immobile icons flashing on Krypton's holographic surface for a moment. Visible rifts were now appearing in the planet as the crust started to break up. According to Jor-El's calculations, Krypton's highly radioactive core was collapsing, effectively serving as the tamping charge in the gigantic nuclear bomb the planet had become. When the collapse reached the critical point, Krypton would explode with enough force to annihilate even the Wayward Son at this range—to say nothing of the smaller, more fragile evac ships still hustling toward their hyperspace jump points, and the small group of crippled transports sheltering in the lee of the fortress.
For one minute, he let himself hope that the slippage in Krypton's condition would stop as capriciously as it started, arresting the slide long enough for the remaining ships to escape... but it didn't.
"Gryph," he said at the end of the minute, "Delta Green."
Gryphon instantly thumbed his comm panel to all-call. "SDF-17 to all ships! Delta Green, Delta Green. Abandon your evac routes and form on us. Emergency spacefold in one minute... mark."
At the engineering station, ReRob Mandeville worked his own controls. The SDF-17's internal lighting went red as the voice of Eve, the ship's computer, announced throughout the hull,
"Emergency spacefold in one minute. Crew members secure all stations and return your seats to the upright and locked position."
Forty-eight seconds later, Krypton exploded, sending debris, hard radiation, and a massive subspace shockwave streaking outward toward the SDF-17 and its swarm of evac ships. The shockwave overtook and vaporized the Calufrax Purser, the last ship to lift off, within two seconds of the blast.
Zoner gripped the arms of his command chair and watched the shockwave racing toward his ship. The Radiant VII, a small but game transport, strained to outrace the wave, its stout Corellian engines firewalled, but the coruscating curtain of emerald energy was visibly catching up to the little red vessel. ReRob bent over his panel, applying all his skill to the task of shaving as many milliseconds off the spacefold countdown as he could. The rest just held their breath.
Space bent as the SDF-17's Reflex drive clawed at it. Chunks of matter, until very recently pieces of the planet Krypton, driven before the shockwave that had erupted outward from the core, smashed against the SDF-17's deflector shields. A few burst through to plow into the fortress's armor, crumpling and bending massive plates of one of the galaxy's most durable alloys. One struck and obliterated the unfortunate transport Lindell Lancer and the 150,000 terrified Kryptonians aboard. The shockwave roared in behind.
There was an almost audible groan and an outpouring of white light—
- and then the flotilla was gone, leaving the shockwave to streak outward and spend itself against Krypton's former moon, blasting the suddenly-orphaned planetoid to rubble.
Zoner blinked, his eyes dazzled slightly by the green brilliance that had filled the forward viewports beyond the holotank, and saw nothing out there now but the beautiful darkness of space.
"Spacefold complete," Eve's voice announced, and the bridge lights returned to normal.
"Gryph?" Zoner asked. "How... how'd we do?"
Gryphon consulted his instruments.
"Lindell Lancer and Calufrax Purser are off the board," he said. "All other ships that lifted off accounted for."
Zoner raised an eyebrow. "Even the Radiant VII?"
"They crossed our fold threshold with 0.127 seconds to spare."
Zoner let out a low whistle. "Captain Tarvin gets a bonus."
"Captain Tarvin's engineer gets a bonus," ReRob said.
"And so does ours," Zoner agreed. "Good work, Rob." Then he turned back to Gryphon and said, "How many were left behind?"
Gryphon consulted his console. "We don't have exact headcounts for all the ships yet, but... I estimate about... 120 million."
Zoner slumped. "A quarter of the population." He looked at Jor-El, who was sitting at the science station, his face blank. "I'm sorry, Jor-El."
The Kryptonian scientist shook his head, seeming to come out of a reverie, and turned to face the WDF commander.
"It wasn't your fault," he said. "The core instability made an exact timetable impossible... you did an incredible job saving as many as you did." Jor-El sat back, looking suddenly exhausted, and added, "Without your help... none of us would have survived."
Zoner nodded, though he didn't look convinced. Then he turned to Gryphon and said, "Regroup the survivors and let's get started setting them down. ReRob, I want a complete damage survey—we took some hits from that initial debris surge."
Gryphon set to his work, his mind numb. He'd lost friends before—being a Wedge Defender wasn't the galaxy's safest job—but he'd never seen a whole planet wiped out, and the toll was almost more than his mind could grasp, even with the remarkable achievement the partial rescue still was.
And he couldn't help but feel it was rather hollow for him.
He felt a hand on his shoulder, turned, and saw Kei standing there, a sad little smile on her face. He covered her hand with his and gave it a squeeze, then got back to work. She stayed where she was—as weapons officer, she had nothing she needed to be doing right now anyway, and she knew he could use the support. She felt much the same, after all.
She knew how much Kara had been looking forward to exploring her people's new homeworld.
The resettlement of nearly 75 percent of Krypton's population was hailed as a triumph throughout the galaxy. Accolades and honors poured in on all the evacuation's prime movers. Jor-El was elected Chairman of the Science Council when that office was opened to voting again in 2007. For their efforts, many WDF and RSN personnel and all crew of private starships involved received medals. Gryphon, the lead WDF officer on the project, was awarded the Royal Salusian Lifesaver's Medal and the Kryptonian Cross. They built statues of the three who had masterminded the evacuation in the central square of Kandor, the capital of New Krypton.
Though he returned to New Krypton many times in his subsequent career, Gryphon never went to see them.
I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
by Benjamin D. Hutchins<
© 2005 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
HTML remastering © 2016 EPU
Catherine Willows had been to a lot of odd places in her time as a crime scene investigator for the International Police—but she had to admit that this was one of the oddest, and so close to home, too. She'd lived inside the Zeta Cygni Dyson Sphere for all of her adult life, and in all that time she'd never once seen the outside surface of the sphere up close. Very few people ever did—but here she was, standing on the outside.
From this close, it didn't seem at all like the surface of a sphere, of course. The thing was so utterly, mind-bogglingly vast that she felt as if she were standing on an enormous flat plain of dark grey metal, stretching off to infinity in all directions—an infinity made somehow more, not less, profound by the fact that beyond the small pool of white light cast by the headlamps of Gil Grissom's work bee it was soaked in the utter blackness of deep space. There was a star nearby, but that star was inside the sphere.
"Wow," Cath heard one of her co-workers say over the narrow-band radio in her spacesuit helmet. For a moment she thought Sara Sidle was engaging in the same kind of woolgathering she'd just been doing, but then she realized that Sara, ever businesslike, was looking at (and presumably talking about) what they'd come out to deal with. From where Cath was standing, it looked like a big black smear on the metal surface—almost like a blaster scar on starship armor, but much larger.
Grissom maneuvered his work bee so that it hovered only a few inches above the surface, pivoting it so that its floodlights would illuminate the largest possible area, then switched them on. Immediately a bigger expanse of the sphere surface was bathed in brilliant white light. Cath blinked, then whistled at what the lights revealed.
The black smear was much bigger than it had initially looked, and it led to an actual deformation of the sphere surface—a trough carved into the metallic expanse, its edges rippled with space-frozen melt patterns, the metal heated and pushed aside by the impact of something fast-moving and hot.
"Holy cow," Nick Stokes muttered, crouching to have a closer look at the melted edge. "This is duophasic tritanium with a carbon-neutronium jacket. Whatever did this had to be moving."
The four spacesuited investigators looked at each other, then slowly started following the deepening trench carved into the sphere's surface. Grissom's work bee idled along behind them, its lights gradually revealing more and more of the damage until—
"My God!" Sara blurted.
Nearly half a mile from where it began, the trench bloomed into a teardrop-shaped crater almost a hundred yards across. Bits of twisted, fractured golden metal lay scattered everywhere. And at the center of the crater...
"Sphere Control, this is Grissom," the team leader radioed. "I need an EOD survey unit at my location ASAP."
The Wedge Defense Force weapons specialist who arrived a few minutes later scanned the object at the bottom of the crater with an array of portable sensors, consulted his readings, and reported that he didn't know what the thing was, but whatever it was, it wasn't a weapon. Based on his findings, the IPO controller at SphereCon cleared the team to retrieve the object (after photographing and logging its position) and transport it to their lab in New Avalon for further examination.
A TacDiv transport unit removed it carefully from the crater and put it on repulsor stands in the night shift's vehicle garage, there to be examined at leisure. While the rest of the team organized and catalogued the smaller bits of wreckage in one of the situation rooms, Grissom paced around the biggest piece, speaking into a microcorder.
"Object is a metallic ovoid roughly twelve feet long and four feet in diameter at its thickest point," he noted. "A crystalline panel approximately two feet square is set into it a bit to one side of the center line. Vestiges of fins and thruster modules destroyed in the crash indicate the window, if that's what it is, is on top. My initial impression is that it's some kind of survival pod, but it doesn't conform to any standard design type I've ever seen."
Grissom ran his fingertips along the gold-tinted side of the object, tapped them lightly against the opalescent crystal. "External scans can't tell us if there's anyone in it, if it is in fact a lifepod. Design unknown... point of origin unknown." He switched off the recorder and pocketed it.
"What are you?" he asked the object quietly.
Then he paused, noticing something, and clicked the recorder on again. "There's an engraved panel in front of the 'window'," he said. "It has markings on it that look intentional—probably writing." He looked up, saw lab tech Greg Sanders walking past the garage entrance, and called, "Greg!"
"Yo! Sir," Greg said, pivoting automatically.
"Get a scan of this," Grissom said, pointing to the engraved plate, "and run it through the translator. I want to know what it says."
The night shift ended and the day shift began, but no one from Grissom's crew went home. The mystery of the curious object was too compelling. Each member of the crew ran down leads, cross-checked facts, and dug into databases. It was almost noon when they regrouped in Grissom's office.
"I pulled the SphereCon sensor logs for the period immediately preceding the crash," Sara reported, "but they only raise more questions. It turns out the object's been on SphereCon's radar for months. They first picked it up last October at the outer edge of the system, inbound. At first they thought it was a comet, until they realized it was traveling at relativistic speed."
Warrick Brown raised an eyebrow.
"How relativistic?" he asked.
"Their estimate was 99.99 percent of lightspeed," Sara replied. Warrick whistled. Sara nodded and went on, "Its vector showed it was going to miss the sphere, so they didn't think anything of it until this morning—when it abruptly changed course to put it on a direct run into the inner system, then began to decelerate. The plot shows it was headed for Zeta Cygni II."
"From the deformation to the sphere surface, I'd say it was doing about one-quarter lightspeed when it hit," Nick said.
"No idea what it's made of, but whatever it is, it's damned tough," Catherine said. "Greg's got samples for the spectrometer, but he's had a hard time even prepping them, the stuff's so resistant."
"Has he had a chance to get that engraving translated yet?" Grissom asked, but Catherine shook her head.
"I didn't think the metallurgy would take him all morning, so I asked him to do it first," she said. "Sorry." She pulled a photograph from a file folder she held. "He did get it scanned, but I don't—"
There was a knock at the door. Grissom looked up to see the ginger-haired form of Adam Savage, a local visual-effects technician and sometime helper with case reconstructions, outside his glassed-in office. He gestured and Adam stepped in.
"Sorry to interrupt, but I—" His eye fell on the photo Catherine was holding. "What the—?"
"You recognize that?" Grissom said.
Savage took the photo and rotated it 180 degrees. "It's Kryptonese," he said, then began to read with a growing tone of fascination in his voice. "'This is my daughter Kara Zor-El from the now-dead planet Krypton. Treat her as you would your own child, for you will see the treasure she will be for your world.'" He blinked, then turned to Catherine. "This is incredible, where did you find it?"
Grissom stared at him for a second, then picked up the phone on his desk.
"This is Grissom in CSI," he said. "I need to speak to the Chief immediately, please."
IPO Chief Benjamin Hutchins, almost universally known as Gryphon, arrived ten minutes later, and Grissom immediately took him to the garage. The whole team and Savage trailed behind, consumed with intense curiosity, as the Chief entered the garage and paused to look at the object.
"My God," he murmured. "It is. It's the core pod of one of Jor-El's survival rockets."
"Like the one he sent his son to Earth aboard in the 1900s, before Krypton's core instability went into remission," Adam mused.
"Bigger than that, but the same basic design, yes," Gryphon said, running a hand gently over the blunt prow of the pod. "But... if it is Kara's... if Zor-El managed to send her on her way before the planet blew in 2005... why is it just getting here now?"
"I think I have that," Warrick said, scribbling on a page of his notebook. "Sara, you said SphereCon tracked it entering the system at a high fraction of lightspeed?"
"99.99 percent, give or take a nine," Sara replied.
Warrick nodded, scribbled a little more, then looked up.
"Krypton was a little more than 400 light-years from here," he said.
"Gravitation and radiation levels were fluctuating wildly in Krypton's last minutes," he said. "The pod must've suffered a hyperdrive failure."
"It accelerated to lightspeed... but didn't jump to hyperspace," Warrick agreed.
"That explains why it hit the sphere, too," Nick said. "If it was launched 400 years ago, whoever programmed the course wouldn't have been expecting there to be a wall there."
"But why would Zor-El send his daughter to Zeta Cygni II?" Adam wondered aloud.
"Because I lived there," Gryphon said, walking slowly down one side of the pod. "The message you translated is for me. Kei and I lived with Zor-El and his family for months planning the evacuation of Krypton." He chuckled. "'Treat her as you would your own child.' That was an inside joke between Zor-El and his wife Alura and us. They asked us once whether we were going to have children. That was kind of an awkward question at the time—I was only 32—so I tried to laugh it off. Said if I ever decided I needed a kid, I'd just take Kara home with me."
He paused, looked more closely at the pod, and then placed his right hand flat against a slightly depressed spot on its side, just below the crystalline panel. For a moment, nothing happened. Then there was a high chiming sound, the depression glowed, and the panel released a small cloud of steam from all around its edge before sliding back out of the way.
When the vapor cleared, it revealed the unconscious but intact form of a blonde-haired teenage girl dressed in an old-fashioned Kryptonian robe in white and blue.
As the others crowded up behind him, Gryphon reached into a pocket of his coat, pulled out a tricorder, and scanned her, then smiled.
"Alpha hibernation," he said. "When she's removed from the pod she'll switch from that to normal sleep in an hour or so."
"I'm amazed she survived the impact, even as sturdy as this pod is," Catherine said.
Gryphon grinned and pointed at a row of glowing lights built into the rim of the pod hatch. "Yellow-sun spectral lamps," he said. "The ultimate crew protection system, if you're talking Kryptonian spacecraft. She's probably been charging up since she was launched."
"Which, for her, might have been only a few years ago, depending on just how close to lightspeed she got," Warrick said. "But even so... "
Gryphon put his tricorder away and chuckled, wiping a tear from his eye. "Zor-El, you clever bastard," he said, mostly to himself. "You kept your promise after all."
Then, without further ceremony, he reached into the pod and gathered the girl up in his arms.
"Whoa, hey, what're you doing?" Nick asked.
"'Treat her as you would your own child,'" Gryphon said. "I wouldn't leave my own child to wake up on an exam table in a science lab... no offense, guys. I'm taking her home."
"Are you sure that's wise?" Grissom asked diplomatically.
"No," Gryphon replied, "but it's what I have to do."
Grissom smiled slightly and stepped out of the way.
"Quickly, Kara, quickly—there's no time to argue."
Her father's voice, calm and rational even at a moment like this, with the planet literally coming down around their ears. The spire teetered with a metallic groan. Outside, fountains of green fire were bursting out of the ground, their radiations sickening, dizzying. Krypton was dying, loudly and cataclysmically dying, and it was too soon. The family's escape route was cut off.
Kara followed Zor-El uncomprehendingly down a shuddering corridor, her mother at her heels. When she saw what lay in the room at the end, she understood. Her eyes filled with tears as her father punched keys and the crystal hatch of the escape rocket, her Uncle Jor's design, slid back.
"Daddy—Daddy, no," Kara said. "I can't leave you and Mom here to—"
Zor-El shook his head. "You can and you will," he said firmly.
"No!" she cried. "You—"
"Kara," said Alura gently, her soft voice cutting through the chaos around them. She put a hand on her daughter's shoulder and went on, "I know it will be hard going on without us, but think about how we feel. If you had a daughter, would you want her to die?"
Kara opened her mouth, but nothing came out for a moment. Then she closed it, shook her her head, and said quietly, "No."
"Then please... for our sake... go."
"But where—" the girl asked as she climbed, shaking, into the escape rocket's survival pod.
"The only place I can," Zor-El told her as he tabbed controls on the panel in front of her. The building lurched, groaned, nearly pitching Zor-El into the pod after his daughter. He caught himself on the hatch coaming, cursed, and finished keying the sequence into the life-support computer. "Sleep now, Kara. When you wake, you will be with friends. I made a promise."
Realizing what he meant, she tried to smile bravely, but it wouldn't come. The alpha-wave inducer was already attacking her consciousness; the room, the falling rubble, the dreadful din, all fading away.
With an effort, she looked past Zor-El's shoulder at Alura, saw her mother's tear-streaked face wearing a sad smile of goodbye. Zor-El put his hand gently to the side of her face, then flipped another control. Bright lights glowed to life all around, and even as the heaviness of hibernation shut down her mind, Kara felt a delicious lightness and sense of well-being flood through her body. It gave her a moment's extra consciousness as her father leaned close and kissed her forehead.
"Goodbye, my beloved daughter," Zor-El said. "Enjoy your life. For your mother and me. Be happy."
Kara felt her eyelids flutter, struggled to hold them up. "I... I will..."
"I love you, Kara," he said.
Kara marshalled all her strength to reply, "I love... you too, Daddy..."
The last thing she saw before the blackness finally swept over her was her father's face.
There were no dreams. Once the alpha inducer had done its work and put her consciousness safely out of action, the hibernation system shut down her body almost altogether (a deeply unpleasant experience if undertaken while awake), maintaining only the barest imaginable processes of life. Thanks to the failed drive system, the journey from doomed Krypton to Zeta Cygni took more than four centuries. Thanks to the relativistic time dilation encountered at those speeds, only about a hundredth of that span of time passed within the pod itself—and in four years of hibernation, Kara aged only a few hours.
She woke normally, as if she'd just settled down for a nap those few hours ago, to find herself tucked into a comfortable bed in a dark, cool room. There was a figure sitting in a chair next to the bed, arms folded, head bowed, dozing. Though the room was dark, she could easily tell that much—all her senses felt hyperextended, hyperacute. She couldn't see anyone, but she could easily hear him breathing. For that matter, if she concentrated a little, she could hear his heartbeat clearly.
The lights in the pod, she realized. Tuned to the output of a yellow sun.
Uncle Jor thought of everything.
The man in the chair heard her moving and woke immediately, then reached over and switched on a light.
So it was that the first thing Kara Zor-El saw when the darkness was wiped away was Gryphon's face.
She caught a breath at the sight of him, remembering her father's promise: "When you wake, you will be with friends." But—something was wrong. He looked... older. When she had last seen him (to her, just hours before), he'd seemed not all that much older than she was, maybe a year or two out of secondary school, clean-shaven and ponytailed. Now he looked about Jor-El's age, a man in full, with a close-trimmed beard and his hair clipped and parted.
He smiled and said quietly, "Hello, Kara. I'm glad you made it."
She smiled too, but then her eyes filled with tears as everything crashed in on her at once. Krypton's destruction she had been expecting, but—her parents...
... she had just seen them... and now, it was quite obvious, they had been dead for years.
Gryphon moved from the chair to the edge of the bed, and she grabbed hold of him and cried.
Kara was shaky for the first couple of days. Gryphon expected this, and was patient. The weather was rotten anyway—cold and damp, and a bit sleety. Not a good time to introduce anyone to New Avalon. When she was ready, he explained where and when she was, and how she'd come to be there. As so often in situations like this, one of Derek Bacon's books (in this case the redoubtable So You've Become Unstuck in Time: A Survival Guide for the Chronally Displaced) came in very handy.
On Friday, he had to go to work for a little while, mainly to file paperwork to do with her arrival and notify the appropriate people in the appropriate places. By then she was feeling not great, but better, and Gryphon thought she might enjoy chatting for a while with some people closer to her own age. She would, after all, eventually want to know someone other than him. The wry quip got the first laugh she'd mustered since awakening, and as he left, she sat down at the datacom console in the den to see what was going on out in the electronic world.
Krypton hadn't been on the Internet, though it had possessed one of the galaxy's most sophisticated planetary computing systems in its day, but the interface tools weren't hard to figure out, especially after the primer Kara had received from So You've Become Unstuck in Time. It wasn't long before she was surfing the 'Net with confidence—and, with a slightly guilty little smile, poking through Gryphon's bookmarks.
There were a hell of a lot of them, and if Kara was being honest, most of them were disappointingly mundane. There was only so much interest she could muster for aerospace rumor sites and pages tracking the results of spaceliner crash investigations. She hadn't found the good stuff yet when the telephone next to the desk rang.
After debating with herself for a couple of rings, Kara shrugged and picked it up.
The voice at the other end was calm and pleasant, but what it said in response to her "Hello?" surprised her:
"Miss Kara Zor-El, please."
"Ah, good. Miss Zor-El, my name is Victor Sage. I'm a reporter."
Kara blinked. "How did you know I was here?"
A dry chuckle. "I'm a reporter," Sage repeated. "But, no. I wish I could claim it was some journalistic omniscience that told me who and where you were, but that would be a lie. Gryphon called me. He knows the story of your miraculous escape from Krypton is going to break sooner or later, and he wanted to make sure the first reporter to track you down was someone you could trust."
"Uh... I'm not sure I..."
"Don't say anything right now," Sage said. "Check it with him first. Just be aware that he's right. The story will break, and soon. When that happens, you'll need to be careful who you talk to. There are a lot of crazies out there."
"OK, uh... look, where can I reach you if... ?"
"Gryphon has my number," Sage replied. "Or you can get me through the city desk at the Cornet-Scientifer. Goodbye for now..."
Kara looked at the dead phone for a few seconds, then put it down, turned back to the terminal, and thoughtfully plugged the name "Victor Sage" into the search engine.
This led her, in a convoluted manner familiar to habitual data searchers, to an archive of articles he, or at least someone by that name, had done for the New Avalon Cornet-Scientifer. Sage's byline ran atop articles that spanned a surprisingly broad range of topics, but overall the impression they gave was of an old-fashioned investigative reporter who relished digging out corruption in power structures. A lot of his pieces were devastatingly researched rebuttals of various claims made by the Earth Alliance or United Federation of Planets, whose political situations Kara only vaguely understood.
Of more local interest was some coverage he had given a local group of costumed heroes called the Titans. The normally critical Sage seemed to have mostly good things to say about them, though the impression his writing gave was that they had only earned his praise after a period of skepticism.
What did he want to talk to her about, really? Did he think her appearance was some kind of hoax that he hoped to debunk? She had no desire to be badgered by someone who had already decided not to believe what she said. On the other hand, if he was genuinely fair as well as skeptical, that could be for the best. If she could convince him that she was for real, public acceptance might follow more easily.
But wait. What did she care about public acceptance? She didn't need the public to accept her. It wasn't like she was planning to run for office or anything. All she wanted to do was try to put her life back into some semblance of order and...
She went looking for more information on this group called the Titans. Maybe if she could get in touch with them, she could learn more about this reporter Sage. He'd obviously talked to them quite a bit in the course of the many pieces he'd done about them for the paper. Surely they'd have some impression of him they could share.
It took her half an hour to track down a contact for them, in the form of an International Police internal chatroom—another find from Gryphon's bookmark file. With faint trepidation, she entered the channel.
Several Titans were online, though not all were active. To her mild surprise, they'd already heard about her; it seemed that two of their number worked closely with Gryphon ("the Chief", they called him), and had told the others all about the mysterious arrival from Krypton who was crashing at the Chief's place. They were friendly and welcoming, immediately putting her at her ease, and before long they were chatting like they'd known each other for years.
There were five of them active at the moment. Robin, who seemed to be the leader, was serious, but not harsh. Cyborg had a lighter touch, a bit on the whimsical side. Raven, who was one of the ones who worked with the Chief, didn't say much, but what she did say was measured and wise. Beast Boy wasn't actually in New Avalon; he'd moved out to the Rim to work in movies, and it was obvious just from this small sampling that he and Cyborg must have been a comedy duo when the whole team was together. Flash did most of the talking, in a fast-paced, slightly telegraphic style that suffered from numerous typos; he was very friendly and seemed the most eager to make a new friend.
After some discussion of Vic Sage ("he's OK" was the consensus) and the general situation, the talk turned to superpowers. Kara hadn't actually had hers for long, and since she hadn't left the house since regaining consciousness, she'd barely tested any of them, apart from a little levitating. Flash seemed to find that astounding, that anyone would wake up one day to find she had superpowers and not immediately be outside trying them all out, but after reflecting on her overall situation he seemed to accept that maybe she'd had other things on her mind.
<Flash> but yo uhave heat vision?
<Kara> I haven't tried it, but I guess I must.
<Flash> awesome. i don.t have any attack pwoers. I just hit things
with my nads at housand times a secnod
When she was able to stop laughing and focus on the screen again, Kara composed herself and typed only,
<Kara> ... sounds painful.
* Cyborg DIES
<Beast_Boy> ... cant... breathe
<Flash> HANDS HANDS JEEZ
<Raven> you have to excuse Flash. he types faster than he can think
* batgirl has joined channel #Titans
<batgirl> yo guys. whats up?>
<Robin> Wally was just telling us about a new combat move he invented.
<Raven> yes, tell her about it, Wally
<Flash> i htae you all
They chatted for nearly an hour more before Kara, noting that the afternoon was fleeing, typed,
<Kara> I need to go downtown and talk to G about this Sage thing.
Catch you guys later?
<Robin> Sure. It was nice meeting you!
<batgirl> stop by the tower sometime
<Cyborg> Yeah, really. Anytime y'like. Somebody's always here.
<Flash> tonigh tis taco ngiht!
<Raven> are we watching a movie?
<Beast_Boy> I just sent Cy a boot of my new flick.
<Raven> ye gods. is it in Japanese?
<Beast_Boy> It's subtitled... kind of.
<Kara> That sounds like fun. I'll see if I can make it. Bye!
* Kara has quit (Leaving)
Right. Downtown. To see "the Chief".
Kara got dressed—the Chief's youngest daughter was only a little older than she was and away at school, so there was plenty to wear, though it took a little searching to find anything she really considered presentable—and dug around in the desk for the New Avalon subway map. Take it easy, go slow, get downtown like a normal person... that was the ticket.
When she stepped outside and discovered that the weather had cleared, she almost abandoned that plan. The bright blue sky and the brilliant yellow sun shining from it reminded her that, in this place, she was anything but a normal person. Just standing in the light of Zeta Cygni made her feel like the hard part would be staying on the ground.
Still, there was no sense alarming the neighbors, so she kept resolutely to her plan and walked to the N station.
The director of the Department of Expatriate Affairs, that branch of the Neo-Kryptonian government charged with monitoring the activities of members of the Kryptonian race who choose to leave that race's adopted homeworld, was a man named Zod. A former general in the New Krypton Defense Force, he of course had another name, but almost no one knew what it was. To even his closest intimates, if such a man could be said to have any, he was simply Zod.
Today Zod sat in his office near the top of the Government Center spire and considered his options. The act gave him pleasure, because he knew that his options were, for the first time in a long time, wide open. Very soon now, he would be able to abandon this ridiculous sinecure pressed upon him by the ineffectual fools of the Science Council and take the place he had always felt was truly his by right.
The intercom panel on his desk breedled. "General Zod," came the voice of his chief aide.
"Yes, Ursa," Zod replied.
"We've just received word from the Department of State about a citizenship application being processed in the Republic of Zeta Cygni," Ursa reported.
Zod raised an eyebrow. "There have been no emigrations to Zeta Cygni in two years."
"I know, sir. The situation is... somewhat unusual. I have prepared a briefing file."
"By all means, pipe it over."
"At once, General."
The intercom clicked off; a moment later, a file appeared on Zod's desktop dataterm. As he read it, the general's craggy face slowly settled into a glacially impenetrable mask, utterly expressionless. Only the bunching of muscles at the corners of his wide, thin-lipped mouth betrayed the fury that was mounting behind that mask.
Two minutes later he punched the intercom online and said in a voice like granite, "Ursa. Ready an Alpha Team."
There was no reply. A moment later the door to Zod's office opened and Ursa entered, her regular-featured but cruel face wearing a look of puzzlement.
Once the door was shut behind her, she punched a combination into the keypad next to it that engaged the room's privacy mode, preventing any outside surveillance from picking up what was said within.
"An Alpha Team?" she asked him, incredulous. "For this?"
Zod swiveled, rose from his chair, and stepped toward her.
"Are you questioning my orders, Ursa?" he asked.
"Not in defiance, sir," she said quickly. "I just... why?"
Zod's thin lips quirked in a parody of a smile.
"Try to put yourself in my position, Ursa. After decades of patience and careful maneuvering, you have finally rid New Krypton of the deadweight of its pre-settlement past. Not two months ago, you finally saw the last of that infuriating relic Jor-El and his wretched family. And then, on the eve of your ultimate triumph, his brother's daughter turns up alive and well in the care of that miserable Earthman." Looming over his assistant, the general looked down at her and asked cordially, "Do you not think, Ursa, that you might find this turn of events vexing?"
To her credit, Ursa didn't wilt under her leader's obvious bad mood. In a reasonable tone, she said, "She's a child."
"She's a threat," Zod replied flatly. "Any living member of the House of El is a threat... and I will not tolerate threats." Striding away from her, he stood looking out the window at the brilliant red sunshine bathing the streets of Kandor. "No more delays, Ursa. Our time is now. Ready the Alpha Team."
Ursa hesitated for an instant longer, then came to attention. "As you command, General," she said, then turned to leave.
"And Ursa..." Zod said, still looking out the window.
She paused. "Yes?"
Zod turned and fixed her with a steady gaze. "Release Non."
Ursa did her best not to look unnerved. She failed, but not by much, and her voice didn't falter as she replied, "Yes, General."
In New Avalon, another powerful man stood in an office on a high floor of an important building, but his mind was on rather less weighty matters than Zod's. In fact, at the very moment General Zod was ordering his aide to ready an Alpha Team, Gryphon was scoring the one-millionth point in his workday's-end game of Space Paranoids.
"I hate to interrupt your vigorous defense of the System, Chief," came the impish voice of Luornu Durgo from the doorway, "but you have a visitor."
Gryphon entered his initials, then turned to see Kara entering the room.
"Hey!" he said, grinning. "I was just going to call and see what you wanted me to bring home for dinner."
Kara shrugged. "I got tired of hiding in the house," she said. "Figured I'd come down and see what's so great about this city of yours."
"And?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Pretty impressive," she said with a smile.
"Did you check it out from the air?" he asked.
Kara shook her head. "Took the subway," she said. "Lot of traffic up there... I wasn't sure how I'd do."
Gryphon grinned again. "Well, tell you what—why don't you head up to the roof and wait there for a second, and we'll find out."
He arrived five minutes later to find her leaning against the railing around the rooftop helipad, facing into the slightly chilly afternoon breeze. The cold didn't bother her, of course. She turned at the sound of the metal roofway door banging open to see that Gryphon had prepared for it; he was dressed in heavy canvas trousers and sturdy-looking boots, and was zipping up a bulky sheepskin bomber jacket as he emerged. Under his arm he had a slightly battered half-bowl helmet with a rakish fin on top. Strapped to his back was a double-barrelled silvery contraption Kara recognized as a rather old-fashioned atmospheric thrusterpack, one with manual control units built into gloves.
"Ready?" he asked.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" she asked as he snugged the helmet onto his head and dropped a pair of tinted goggles over his eyes.
"No," he said, grinning again, and then he thumbed the igniters and rocketed away, leaving a pair of scorch marks on the concrete of the roof.
Without really thinking about it, Kara followed.
Gryphon couldn't look back without pulling a U-turn, thanks to the rudder on his helmet, but he knew she was right behind him. Catching up would be child's play for her—the X-3 jetpack he was wearing could only do about 250 miles an hour flat-out. Without an atmosphere system and real flight gear, that was quite fast enough to suit him. Speed wasn't really the point of the exercise, anyway—maneuverability was.
He looked up, shifted his weight, and kicked in the pack's afterburners, hurling himself skyward. When they were clear of the city's traffic patterns, he rolled out of the turn, stealing a glance aft as he pulled through the maneuver. Sure enough, Kara was right with him, and the look of absolute glee on her face was something to behold. Gryphon wondered with a trace of wistfulness what it must feel like to fly like that. He was an expert rocketeer and had a lot of time in supersonic flight armor as well as antique rigs like this one, but what must it be like to just... fly, with nothing more than the thought of flying to propel you?
He'd probably never know—but this was fun enough.
He made a game out of it, cutting his throttles so that she would dart out in front of him, then boosting and diving when she circled back. They went booming out over Lake Daniels in echelon formation, and as Kara's confidence increased, she matched him vector for vector through increasingly complex maneuvers. To make this a real test, he'd have to get a flight armor with an Inertia-Vector control system, but that was for later. This one was just for fun.
They swept low over the lake, almost brushing the tops of the light chop in the harbor, and paced a cargo hydrofoil inbound from Kaiser Island, waving to the crew. Then Gryphon turned back toward the city and redlined again, his contrail drawing a wide white arc around the Waid Head Lighthouse before he cut the thrusters altogether and dropped lightly to the sidewalk on the Embarcadero.
Kara landed next to him like she'd been doing it all her life, her face aglow with satisfaction.
"That was incredible," she said. "I mean, I knew my people could do that kind of thing under the right conditions, but... wow."
Gryphon pulled off his helmet, raked his fingers through his hair, and laughed.
"I haven't done that in too long myself. I'd almost forgotten how much fun it is." He angled a thumb at a nearby restaurant. "Dinner?"
"Just a snack," she said. "I'm going to Titans Tower for taco night."
Gryphon chuckled. "Your social calendar's already filling up," he said as they walked down the street to the restaurant.
"Which reminds me—I got a call this afternoon from a guy named Sage."
"Did he mention he'd talked to me?" Gryphon asked.
Kara nodded. "Uh-huh. He sounded kind of weird."
Gryphon laughed. "He is kind of weird, but under the circumstances I think he's the best guy for the job."
"Well, if you say so."
Inside, they were shown to seats and ordered appetizers, and then Gryphon said, "You don't have to talk to him if you don't want. I just thought you might like to get it out of the way, and Vic's one of the most trustworthy reporters in town... even if he is wound a little too tight."
Kara nodded. "No, I'll talk to him. I just wanted to make sure he was on the level." She looked faintly uncomfortable and added, "It never really occurred to me that my being here might be news."
"Well, it's a big deal—a new survivor of an old tragedy. It's a human-interest story. The buzz will settle down after a while... unless you keep yourself in the headlines," Gryphon said with a little grin.
"What, you mean do the costume thing?" she said with a grin. "Hmm... tempting."
"Assuming you stay here, or someplace similar," Gryphon added. "You don't have to. I'm sure the Neo-Kryptonian government would make some arrangement if you wanted to go home."
"'Home' is a planet that blew up 400 years ago," Kara replied. "I'm sure New Krypton is nice, and I want to check it out sometime, but go and live there? With Cousin Kal missing, and Uncle Jor and Aunt Lara gone..." She trailed off, stirring her iced tea with her straw and looking pensive, then looked up and met his eyes. "You're as close to family as I've got," she said, her voice hushed.
Gryphon smiled and put a hand over hers. "I'm not trying to get rid of you, Kara," he said.
"Are you sure?" she asked, her eyes glistening a little. "I know this must be weird for you. I mean, I feel like I said goodbye to you on Krypton earlier this week. I keep reminding myself that it's been 400 years for you. Everything's so... so different now. I wouldn't blame you if you wanted me to go somewhere else..."
He shook his head, patting her hand. "Don't even think about it again," he said. "I can't tell you how it made me feel to find out that you were alive after all this time. Or how honored I was when I realized that your father sent you to me. That he felt I was your best chance. No... I'd never tell you to leave. You're welcome to stay with me as long as you want. I just wanted to be sure you knew you didn't have to."
Kara smiled again, a slightly smaller version of the dazzler she'd worn when coming out of the sky, and made a clumsy attempt at leaning across the booth to hug him.
"Then I guess you're stuck with me," she said.
Kara spent a happy weekend hanging out with the Titans, shopping for clothes that suited her style a bit better, and filling out paperwork. Her Kryptonian education—supplemented by everything she'd picked up as the daughter of one of Krypton's greatest scientists—had already taken her well beyond the curriculum offered in the Avalon County public school system, so finding a place to enroll wasn't a concern.
Getting the appropriate equivalencies filed was, though, and then there was the question of citizenship to consider. Krypton no longer existed, and Kara had gone missing before the Neo-Kryptonian government had been formed. In the end, that was solved through the simple expedient of an adoption certificate, which tied off a number of the legal loose ends and provided for automatic Zetan citizenship at the same time.
On Monday, Zod arrived.
The Neo-Kryptonian general and Gryphon didn't like each other. On three past occasions, Zod had come to New Avalon in his official capacity, that of tracking, subduing, and repatriating rogue Neo-Kryptonian expatriates. On none of those occasions had Gryphon shown what Zod would consider proper consideration by local authorities to his mission. On the last, the man had actually had the gall to have several of his own super-agents block Zod's people from carrying out their mission until the IPO could handle the situation themselves. This was not a way to get on Zod's good side, if indeed he could be said to have one.
As such, he was cordial but frosty as he entered Gryphon's office, presented his credentials, and said he wished to speak with Kara Zor-El.
"Why?" Gryphon asked. "She's done nothing wrong."
Zod inclined his head. "I know," he said. "I didn't intend to suggest that she had. Pursuing fugitives isn't all of my job, though, as you are well aware. Part of my office's function is to ensure the safety and stability of all those of Kryptonian blood who choose to live away from New Krypton."
Gryphon considered this, then nodded graciously.
"All right," he said, "I'll ask her if she wants to talk to you."
"I appreciate your coming all this way, General, but I'm fine," Kara said. "I'm settling in nicely here. I have everything I need."
Zod steepled his fingers. "And you've no interest in coming back to New Krypton? It's your homeworld now," he said.
Kara shook her head. "Krypton was my homeworld. I do plan to visit New Krypton someday, but... not right away."
"Why do you want to stay here, Kara Zor-El?" Zod asked.
Kara blinked as though the question puzzled her. "I just told you. Gryphon's the closest thing I have to family now. I have friends here. I don't have anything on New Krypton."
"Your people don't count as 'anything'?" Zod asked mildly. Before Kara could formulate a response to that question, he went on, "Are you certain it isn't something else about New Avalon that appeals to you? Do you want to stay here because you're reluctant to give up the power that its yellow sun gives you? Has it occurred to you what you could do with that power in a place like this?"
Kara's brow furrowed. "What are you implying?"
"I imply nothing. I'm asking," Zod said. "Asking you to be honest with me... and yourself. The power of a yellow sun is seductive, I know. I feel it right now. Every time I come to a world like this in search of a countryman, it's something of a letdown to go home. For some, the power becomes... addictive. And so does its exercise. When that happens, I have to involve myself."
Leaning forward, Zod went on, "Let me be frank with you. I don't like to involve myself here. The local authorities are uncooperative and the city itself teems with well-meaning interlopers who have to be dealt with. Conducting operations here is annoying, and I would rather not have to come back here to apprehend you in six months or a year. So I'm asking. Is the power the reason you want to stay? And if not, what would drive you to remain in an alien world, a place where you don't belong, surrounded by beings who are vastly your inferiors?"
Kara stood up. "I've had enough of this," she said. "I wouldn't have come if I had known you were just going to insult me and my friends."
"Sit down," Zod said, his voice calm but commanding. "I haven't completed the interview."
"I've answered all the questions I'm going to answer from you," Kara snapped. "I'm a Zetan citizen. I'm not under your jurisdiction. My coming here was my father's dying wish and I am not. Leaving. And if you have some kind of problem with that, then you can go to hell!"
So saying, she left the room.
"... That went smoothly," Gryphon mused from the corner of the conference room, where he stood leaning against the wall with his arms folded.
Zod rounded on him, his face like a thundercloud.
Gryphon ignored the glare and said briskly, "Well, don't let me hold you up, General. I'm sure you'll be wanting to get back to New Krypton." The chipper tone vanished from his voice and his eyes were like ice as he added, "Immediately."
Zod kept glaring for half a second; then he composed himself and said coldly, "We leave first thing in the morning."
"Fine," Gryphon said. "A pleasure, as always."
Zod nodded with stony politeness and took his leave.
Gryphon frowned thoughtfully, looking off into the middle distance for a few moments, then went out the other door, down the hall, and into his office. He found Kara there, sitting in the armchair in the corner, looking upset.
"You gave the general a pretty hard time," he observed mildly as he sat down at his desk.
"I'm sorry," Kara said, eyes downcast. "I just... I don't like him. He gives me the creeps."
Gryphon nodded. "Yeah," he said. "He gives me the creeps too." He nibbled pensively at the edge of his thumbnail for a moment, then turned to her and said, "Listen, you'd better get over to Titans Tower. I have a bad feeling about this."
That afternoon, someone threw a bus through the front portico of the Neo-Kryptonian embassy. Witnesses identified the thrower as a petite blonde who fled the scene at high speed. Under the circumstances, the suspect list was short. Too short for Gryphon's liking.
He switched off the sound in the Avalon 17 window on his desktop, where the special report was still playing, and concentrated on the faintly glowing scarlet gem affixed to his wrist computer.
Tim? he thought.
Go ahead, Chief, the mental voice of Robin replied.
Right here. And before you ask, she's been here all afternoon. Someone's been with her the whole time. She and Cyborg were playing Puzzle Titans when it happened.
Damn. I don't like this. Zod's playing it squirrelly this time. I can't figure what rational motive he could have... unless...
Robin's voice was grim and certain. Unless it isn't rational.
... Batten down the hatches, Tim. I think it's gonna be a long day.
Roger that, Chief.
Concluding his Lens conversation, Tim Drake looked around the Titans Tower control room for a second, gathering his thoughts. Then he went to the control panel by the door and punched a key, switching the Tower's internal lighting from white to red. That got everyone's attention.
Switching the PA system to all-call, he announced, "Titans, we've got trouble. Suit up and come to the control room ASAP." Switching off again, he added, "Cyborg, take over here. Get everybody together and prepped for a briefing. I have to suit up and check a couple of things."
Instantly businesslike, Cyborg shut off the Z-Mover and nodded. "Gotcha."
"What should I do?" Kara asked.
"Just stay here for now," Drake said. "This concerns you."
Without explaining, he hustled to the elevator and went down to his quarters. After suiting up, he sat down at his computer console, logged on, and sent out an emergency page. Within 30 seconds, the Titans' current Experts of Justice liaison agent appeared in a secured chat channel.
<Robin> Q, I need your help.
<Question> You want to know why General Zod is overplaying his hand just to get hold of Kara Zor-El.
<Robin> How'd you—never mind. Got anything on it?
<Question> Plenty. I've had my eye on our friend the general for some
time, but his present behavior makes no sense. Perhaps between us
we can find a pattern...
Five minutes later, Zod arrived to find the International Police building all but deserted. He was completely unchallenged as he went to the 38th floor and strode down the hall into Gryphon's office. It surprised him mildly to find the IPO chief sitting calmly at his desk—he had half-expected that the man would have fled with his subordinates before the oncoming wrath of Zod.
"Chief Hutchins," he said. "I trust you have heard a report of the terrorist attack your... ward... mounted on her own people's embassy today."
"I've heard a report that an unknown subject who might have been Kryptonian attacked the New Krypton embassy," Gryphon replied equably. "I was unaware that conclusive evidence had surfaced implicating Kara. In fact, that would be of great interest to me, since I know for a fact she was nowhere near Embassy Row at the time."
<Robin> These records show some mighty irregular financial
transactions at high levels in the NKDF.
<Question> That's nothing. Have a look at the budgets for the
Departments of Health and Education.
<Robin> 37 million credits for Antarean flu immunizations?
<Question> And 112 million for Vulcan spelling primers. He's
manipulating every level of government to funnel secret money
into his war chest.
<Robin> But who's he going to war against?
<Question> Do you see anything that could pay for interstellar
<Robin> ... oh.
"I'm not inclined to play word games with you, Earthman," Zod said tightly. "Kara Zor-El is now a fugitive from Neo-Kryptonian justice. As a duly designated officer of that justice, I am formally requesting that your agency help me apprehend her and deliver her to New Krypton for trial."
Gryphon rose from his seat and walked slowly around to the end of his desk, his hands folded behind his back.
"You're going to have to come up with better evidence than 'somebody saw that whoever did it was blonde' if you plan on filing for extradition," he pointed out.
"Extradition?!" Zod blurted.
"Naturally," Gryphon said. "Kara's not a Neo-Kryptonian citizen. If you take her from the Republic of Zeta Cygni without due process, that's international kidnapping."
<Robin> OK, so he's plotting to launch a coup and take over New
Krypton, and it looks like he has the assets to make it work. That
doesn't explain why he wants Kara... unless...
<Robin> Because she's an El.
<Question> Because she's an El.
<Robin< Jor-El humiliated Zod before the Science Council when Zod was
still a military officer, then blocked his attempt to become
military liaison to the council itself.
<Question> He also foiled two previous attempts Zod had made to
organize the assets for a coup.
<Robin> He outmaneuvered Zod for -years-... until Zod finally got the
<Question> And murdered Jor-El and his wife.
<Robin> And since Kal-El disappeared in 2207...
<Question> Kara's the last of the family.
<Robin> Classic irrelevant monomania. This guy might as well be one
<Question> Our friend Kara is in grave danger.
<Robin> Our whole -city- is in grave danger. Can you get here? We
may need you.
<Question> Unfortunately not. I'm on New Krypton.
<Question> How do you think I got access to all these military
computers? They're not exactly on the Internet.
<Question> I must say, for an advanced society, the Neo-Kryptonians
are very lax about securing the crawl spaces under the elevated
floors in their data centers.
<Robin> ... Right. Well, thanks for your help. I gotta go.
<Question> Good luck, Robin.
Robin signed off and dashed back up to the control room. It was time to let the others know what they were up against.
For all that he felt an intense dislike for this particular Earthman, Zod had to admit he had guts. He knew full well that Zod could destroy him a dozen different ways with the slightest of efforts, and yet there he stood, staring down the future ruler of New Krypton, like a king refusing to be cowed in his own little kingdom.
Such arrogance. It would be so great a pleasure to crush him.
"I'm going to ask you this just one more time," Zod said, keeping his voice as even as possible. "Will you surrender Kara Zor-El?"
For a moment, Gryphon didn't reply. To Zod's supersenses, the man seemed utterly still, as though not even his blood or his thoughts were moving.
Then, with a speed that was nothing sort of astonishing for an unaugmented human, he belted Zod across the chops with a full-power left cross.
Ordinarily, Zod should have found the blow laughable, but something odd happened. On impact, it was as though Gryphon's fist exploded, detonating with the force of an artillery shell. It still didn't harm Zod particularly, but it staggered him a bit, and the sheer effrontery of it left him flat-footed.
Then, as the windows of his office exploded from the contained shockwave, Gryphon threw himself backward, flipping Zod an ancient hand signal with his right hand. His left trailed fragments of metal and a curling plume of smoke as his body arched up and over the windowsill and then plunged out of sight.
Roaring with rage, Zod threw himself into the air. He burst out of the wreckage of Gryphon's office, intending to halt perhaps half of the Earthman's fall and let the rest of him continue on toward the street.
A deep blue shape flickered out from a lower window—a cloak, spreading out like the wings of a great dark bird, then folding around the plummeting Chief. Zod lunged downward—his fingertips brushed cool blue fabric—
—and the dark shape was gone, swallowed up by the shadow of the Interbank tower across the street.
Zod stopped in midair and scanned the vicinity with his super-vision, but there was no sign of Gryphon or his cloaked rescuer. Some kind of teleporter technology?
"Zod to Alpha Team," he barked into his handlink. "Fan out and find the girl. Destructive search. If anyone stands with her, kill them."
Raven and Gryphon plunged out of a dark corner and into the situation room of the IPO Emergency Command Center, tucked away at the edge of the agency's weapons testing range, to find the systems already powered up and waiting.
"Nice work, Raven," Gryphon said as he unlatched the smashed, spent concussion gauntlet he'd used to sock Zod and let it fall to the floor. His ears had already stopped ringing. His hand stung a little, but the knuckles were quickly healing; he flexed it a few times, satisfied himself that it would still work, and sat down in the master monitor chair. Holographic panels rezzed up all around him as a wall full of conventional monitors lit up beyond, showing him at a glance everything that was happening in the city.
"Do you want to go to the Tower?" he asked Raven.
She shook her head. "You may need me here," she said. She didn't elaborate, but he knew what she meant: "If Zod's people figure out where we are, I'm your only chance of surviving."
Though Gryphon was usually secure enough in his abilities not to mind when a situation proved to be beyond them, this rankled. He hated the idea of running away to a hole in the ground and hiding while other people fought to protect his city and Kara from a bastard like Zod... but what choice did he have? He was one of the most powerful and competent martial artists in the universe, but his arts would avail him little against the phenomenal power of a Kryptonian, let alone more than one of them. If he could have activated his Asgardian battle armor, he might have had a chance, and he ached for the opportunity... but the armor, forged in the fires of the Ragnarok, would not answer the summons in Midgard, a problem even Skuld herself had never been able to fix.
He growled at the back of his throat and started keying open communications channels. At the same time, he reached into his Lens and touched one of the most familiar minds in the great constellation of them that made up the Lens network—Lu Durgo, who was in still another secured location, this one deep in the tunnel network below the city.
Call a general evacuation of the downtown area. I want ACROSS to back up the police on that. Their weapons won't be much good against targets as small as Zod and his people.
Roger, Lu replied. Marty's already firing up their command center. I'm coordinating other assets to assist them—most of the agents we have in town right now would get killed if they went up against these guys directly.
Another, almost identical voice—another of Lu's three Carggite selves—chimed in, The WDF is on standby in case things get really bad.
I'm on hold with the Neo-Kryptonian Department of State trying to find out if Zod's people have authorization to use lethal force, the third added.
Armory Section wants to know if we break out the kryptonite, said the second.
Negative, Gryphon replied. Violation of the Ares Convention article on radiological weapons. If we find out they're not operating with government sanction, maybe, but that's a can of worms I'd rather not open if we don't have to. Do we know how many of them there are yet?
Reports are a little sketchy, but Imra thinks there are five of them—maybe six. It looks like they're grid-searching the city, and trashing anything that slows them down. I've got reports of one pair and the rest moving singly.
Get that locked down as fast as you can. I need to know exactly what we're up against. Are any near Headquarters?
Only General Zod, and he's moving away. If the others are doing a grid, though, they might come by.
Tell Bruce to make sure none of these bastards get into the deep labs, Gryphon said.
He's already mean, green, and on the scene, the first Lu assured him.
Great. Speaking of green, where the hell is Alan Scott?
Broadcasters' conference on Salusia.
Damn. What about Juggernaut and Spitfire?
Loaned them to CID on Kotoba.
Sprock. ... Kimiyo Hoshi?
At Elexpo. With Tony Stark.
Gryphon palmed his face; the sentiment behind the gesture carried to Lu through the Lens link. I think we're in trouble.
She didn't respond, because, really, what could she say to that? Instead, she busied herself with her own main problem—providing solid intel for the Chief's coordination efforts.
The picture began to take shape, and as he had expected, Gryphon did not like what it showed him. With the comm systems in his consoles and the power of his Lens, he started pulling together what he could to counter.
Seventeen-year-old Mary Batson stood on the balcony of her house in Claremont and watched smoke rise from the direction of Arconian Square in Salutown. As she did, her pretty, slightly mousy face took on a look of increasing determination—a look that blanked to surprise as her mobile phone rang.
"Hello?" she asked.
"Mary, are you all right?" came the voice of her brother Bill.
"Billy?" She blinked. "I'm fine. I was just about to go and see if I could help."
"It's all over the news here," Bill said. "I wish I could be with you."
"Where are you?"
"Still on Meizuri. I won't make it back there in time to be any help... but I know you'll give it everything you've got. Remember what I taught you."
Mary nodded, her jaw set again. "Right. I'll do my best!"
Bill Batson's voice was calm and warm as he said, "Good luck, little sister."
"Thanks," Mary said, and then Bill hung up and she put down the phone.
For another moment, she stood looking off toward the smoke.
Then she drew a breath and declared in a ringing voice,
Lightning crashed down out of a clear blue sky.
The twelve members of the Science Council returned from their lunch recess to their grand chamber at the top of the Government Center spire anticipating nothing more taxing than an afternoon spent discussing routine matters of population growth and energy production.
When they entered the chamber, however, they were stunned to see that there was someone already there. Someone had penetrated the innermost sanctum of the Neo-Kryptonian government without attracting any attention from Security or setting off a single alarm. The intruder was a tall man, broad-shouldered and powerful-looking, dressed in an old-fashioned Earth-style blue suit, trenchcoat, and fedora. The hair at his temples, all that was visible below the hat, was black.
Jarringly, he seemed to have no face.
"What in—how did you get in here?!" blurted Chairman Ral-Uv.
"Calmly, gentlemen," the faceless man said in a calm voice. He raised his gloved left hand and pushed down his sleeve to reveal a softly glowing blue International Police Lens—which told them all in an instant's glance that he was the Expert of Justice known by the codename "The Question".
"What do you want, Lensman? This is highly irregular," Ral-Uv said.
The Question nodded. Despite his eerily blank visage, the chairman got the distinct impression the man was watching his eyes.
"I have important information to share with you," The Question said, "concerning the attack on your embassy in New Avalon earlier today."
Diana Prince was in over her head, and she knew it.
To be fair, she had known going in that this outcome was likely. Though she was powerful—very powerful indeed—she knew what kind of opponent a Kryptonian could be, and furthermore, she knew that her opponent was trained specifically to fight and defeat other superhumans. Against such opposition, her own strength was likely to prove inadequate.
She knew all that, but she went anyway, because that was her job. She did not fear defeat. She did not even particularly fear death—such things were beneath the dignity of the princess of Themyscira. What she feared, if a woman like Diana could be said to fear anything, was failure. She knew enough of Zod's practices to know what fate awaited the girl the Neo-Kryptonians sought if they caught her. She would be taken in chains to New Krypton, where the man Zod would pass his judgment on her.
To an Amazon, even one so assimilated into the galactic culture that her sisters thought her strange (if not outright perverted), there could be no crueler fate.
So when the call came, Diana answered. She intercepted one of the searching Zodists downtown, gave him the one warning required by IPO regulations, and then, when that warning was ignored, went to war.
The battle demolished a block's worth of the street and scattered the wreckage of parked cars, lampposts, and other urban impedimentia everywhere, and by the time it was over, Sergeant Var-Ul certainly knew he had been in a fight. The last time he'd taken such a beating was at the hands of Zod himself in a training bout.
Still, of the two of them, the woman had come off the worse. Even now she lay sprawled in a crater her own hurtling mass had punched in the side of a Cornet-Scientifer delivery van, and Var-Ul dusted bits of broken glass and masonry from his battered uniform as he walked unhurriedly across the street to finish her off.
So intent was the sergeant on this task that he failed to notice a bulky figure in a trenchcoat emerge from an alley behind him; or perhaps the beating he'd received had dulled his super-senses to the point where he simply had no hint of danger. For all his size, the interloper moved quite silently as he walked into the street, stopped, and raised a massive revolver, aiming it square at Var-Ul's back.
There was a metallic click as the man in the trenchcoat thumbed back the hammer of his weapon. This Var-Ul did hear, but if his senses were dulled, so were his reactions. He whirled, little faster than he would have on New Krypton, and had just enough time to make out the man's silhouette and the bright green glow shining from the muzzle of his pistol before the gun went off with a sound like a cannon.
The projectile smacked into Var-Ul's broad chest and burst, splattering him with a glowing green liquid. He yelled, reeling, as the glow assaulted his senses. His head spun, his stomach churned, and he felt a leaden weakness settle into his limbs.
"Kryptonite?!" he sputtered. Zod had been certain that the IPO would never dare employ such a weapon, and when Zod was certain, his followers were certain.
As he staggered, though, Var-Ul realized that whatever the stuff splattered on his chest and face was, it couldn't be kryptonite. Powdered kryptonite suspended in some kind of gel or liquid was a straightforward enough weapons application of the substance, but Var-Ul knew what kryptonite poisoning felt like, and now that the initial surprise was past, he realized this was different. For one thing, though he felt bad, it wasn't worsening. If this were real kryptonite, he would be on his knees by now; coma and death would follow shortly.
"No," said the man in the long coat. He fired three more times, but his weapon discharged no more of the green material. Instead, Var-Ul reeled again as heavier projectiles struck his chest like blows from the Amazon's fists, each depositing a heavy burst of ionic energy into his body as it hit. Any one of those ion-pulse rounds would have dropped a bull elephant, but at the barrage's end, Var-Ul was still on his feet. Even weakened by whatever the green stuff was, he was a Neo-Kryptonian soldier in his prime. It would take more than that to put him down.
He shook his head to clear it and prepared to counterattack, but the gunman was already on top of him. There was a distinctive BEEP-hiss as he drove a medpac's one-shot spray-hypo through his pants and into the meaty part of his leg, and as he holstered his weapon and charged Var-Ul, his body was surrounded by an eerie purple halo effect. His hair, until now neatly clipped, visibly grew as he ran; by the time he reached the Neo-Kryptonian it reached nearly to his waist.
"It's not kryptonite," Geoff Depew told Var-Ul in a conversational tone as he drove his right fist into the Neo-Kryptonian's gut with the full force of his charge behind it.
"Kryptonite is illegal," he added, smashing his left across Var-Ul's jaw. "This stuff won't kill you," he said, blocking an attempted counterpunch and cracking Var-Ul in the nose with an elbow. "It's classified as a riot-control weapon." Another solid punch to the head, this time a right. "Will you hurry up and pass out?" A heavy kick to the midriff that partially doubled the Neo-Kryptonian over. "I'm getting—"
Var-Ul shot out a hand, drawing on all the speed he had left, seized Depew by the neck, and then rose to his full height, holding the burly human clean off the ground.
"—urk!" Depew said.
"Die," Var-Ul snarled. His eyes glowed red as he drew on the reserves of strength he still had.
"Not today," Geoff replied. With the medpac pumping through his Daodan implant, his reaction speed was superhuman as well. He whipped out his left hand and a device popped into it from up his sleeve. There was a sharp PHAM of compressed gas as he triggered his jumpline launcher, which fired a three-inch duranium-tipped steel piton straight into Var-Ul's right eye.
"Aaagh!" Var-Ul yelled, releasing his grip on Geoff's neck and stumbling back against a lamppost. The Neo-Kryptonian clutched at his face with both hands. Geoff hit the ground and immediately rolled backward, hitting his piton gun's retractor. The cable immediately reeled back. Blood gleamed on the slightly bent tip of the piton.
Var-Ul regained his composure and lowered his hands. Blood covered the right side of his face.
"I'll make you suffer for that, Earthman," he snarled.
"I'm not an Earthman," Geoff replied. "I'm a Zardon. And we've been kicking the ass of idiots like you since the Padishah Empire."
Var-Ul charged. Geoff let him come, slipped his first strike, caught two more punches on his arms, evaded an attempt at a leg sweep, then capitalized on his existing advantages by bashing Var-Ul in his wounded eye with a hard left. The Neo-Kryptonian grunted like a bull and slammed a right into Geoff's midsection. Geoff twisted, not taking the full force of the blow, and felt his ribs stop barely short of giving way.
Wish I had another pseudo-kryptonite round, he mused. 'Course, the prototypes cost about a million credits each, so I should feel lucky I had one.
Geoff dodged around a stomping kick, gave Var-Ul a shot to the back of the knee for his trouble, then pasted him with a backfist. Var-Ul tagged his opponent on the point of the chin, snapping his head back, then grabbed the front of his coat and hurled him across the street, where he crashed through a mailbox and skidded underneath the wreckage of a car destroyed in Var-Ul's fight with Diana.
Damn, Geoff thought as he lay sprawled under the car. He's still stronger than me, and my medpac boost won't last much longer. I need to end this now.
He shifted his weight, preparing to rise, then caught a glimpse of something gleaming in the corner of his vision. Turning his head, he saw what looked like a coil of rope lying in the gutter by the curb, just on the far side of the wrecked car. It wasn't any ordinary rope, though, that much was obvious. Ordinary rope didn't glow softly and appear to be made of spun gold filaments.
Hello, what's this? Geoff wondered. He reached out a hand and snatched it up just as another hand clamped around his ankle and dragged him, trenchcoat skirt fanning out above his head, out from under the wreckage.
Var-Ul lunged down, grabbed Geoff by the front of his coat, and hauled him upright. Geoff came up swinging. Var-Ul blocked the punch, but to do so he had to let go of Geoff's coat. Geoff dropped into a sweep; Var-Ul evaded it, lunging to the left—just as Geoff wanted him to.
The Daodan's pulsing was getting weaker within him, the violet glow of overdrive beginning to fade as the implant consumed the last of the medpac's resources. Summoning all the speed he could muster, Geoff charged in on Var-Ul's blind side, but not to throw a punch with his already-weakening arms.
Instead, he whipped a coil of the golden rope over the Neo-Kryptonian's head, snugged it up under his chin, and came down with all his weight behind, pulling it taut with crossed arms and the considerable deadweight of his body.
Var-Ul gagged and grabbed for the rope, but it was dug into his flesh and he couldn't get a grip on it. He twisted, trying to throw his attacker off his back or get a shot at him with heat vision from his remaining eye, but that didn't work either. Next he tried to take to the air, thinking to take his enemy on a one-way trip to whatever passed for the stratosphere in this bizarre place—but with the pseudo-kryptonite plastered all over his chest, he couldn't muster any speed, and all lifting off the ground did was increase the pressure on his neck. All the while, Geoff hung grimly on, pulling with arms that were rapidly taking on the consistency of lead.
This is ridiculous! Var-Ul thought. I am a Neo-Kryptonian under a yellow sun! I am invincible! I shouldn't be affected by this absurd tactic in the first—
Consciousness fades rapidly when the blood flow to the brain is cut off, and it was that, not asphyxiation, that was Geoff's objective.
Var-Ul sagged, allowing Geoff's feet to touch the ground, and then fell forward. Wary of a trick, Geoff rode him down, ended up kneeling on his back. He waited until he was certain he could risk it no longer, then carefully loosened the cord.
The Neo-Kryptonian coughed a couple of times, then settled to the ground with a long groan and lay inert, breathing slowly.
Geoff got to his feet, sweat pouring down his face, and coiled up the rope. Then he reached into a pocket, took out an isolinear tag, activated it, and tossed it down on Var-Ul's back before tabbing his commbadge.
"This is Depew," he panted. "One Neo-Kryptonian for transport to Special Detention E, partially depowered and unconscious."
"Roger that," replied the voice of Lu Durgo. "Transporting now." A moment later, Var-Ul shimmered and vanished in a shower of blue-white light.
With that taken care of, he turned and walked slowly up the street toward Diana. His whole body ached. He felt like millions of tiny ants were crawling around under his skin. This wasn't like the usual Daodan comedown, but he didn't have the mental bandwidth to find that as troubling as he should have.
"Agent Prince? Diana? Can you hear me?" he asked as he reached the cratered delivery truck and leaned over the fallen Amazon.
Her eyelids fluttered; then, with the suddenness of a striking rattlesnake, her right hand shot out and closed around his throat.
Here we go again, he thought, but a moment later she realized her error and let him go.
"I'm... sorry about that," she said, slowly picking herself up out of the smashed truck. "I thought you were... " She looked around him at the demolished street. "... Where's Var-Ul?"
"Sleeping off a migraine. Or are those caused by arterial dilation? I forget. Anyway," Geoff said, proffering the yellow rope. "Yours, I presume."
"Thank you." Diana took it back, tried to hang it from a loop on her belt, noticed that the loop had been torn off, and coiled the rope around her slim waist instead. She was dressed differently than the last time he'd seen her. Then she was wearing stylish but ordinary clothes—a blouse, slacks, and low boots.
This time she had on an odd outfit that was almost Spartan-looking: sandals with knee-high leather-tape lacings, a golden eagle-crest breastplate over a black half-singlet, a knee-length black skirt that wasn't so much a skirt as a couple of cloth panels draped fore and aft, and a yellow IPO field belt. The black parts sparkled slightly, he noticed; they had silver speckles woven into their makeup, making them resemble a night sky splashed with stars. She had on the silver bracers she'd sported at their first meeting, plus a golden metal tiara with a red star on the front. The star matched a pair of earrings she wore.
She was scuffed, bruised, and abraded, but she was still a remarkably good-looking woman, and there was a certain regal air in her bearing that the gold and black armor she wore seemed to emphasize more than her street clothes had. Geoff felt a little woozy, then felt kind of silly about that, until he realized it wasn't actually from looking at her.
"Are you all right?" she asked, looking concerned. He blinked; her face snapped into focus, then swam out again.
"Now that you mention it," he replied, sounding to himself as though he were speaking from a long way off, "I feel a little weird."
Then he pitched forward, banging his forehead on the head of her eagle crest in a way that should have been both embarrassing and painful, but was neither because he was quite unconscious by then.
Taken aback, Diana nonetheless held him up easily while she called for medevac transport.
The other male member of Zod's Alpha Team (besides the loathsome Non, who didn't really count) touched down on the west side of Puckett's Landing, looked around to get his bearings, then walked up the street until he arrived in front of one of the district's many converted warehouses. This particular one's facade, though little different from the others, was famous to TV viewers all over the galaxy. Above the door it bore a welded metal sign reading M5 INDUSTRIES.
He knew he would have to move carefully. Adam-Ven was a buffoon, but his companions included two Jedi Knights, and they were known to be treacherous. If he just bulled his way in and started wrecking things, as Zod had instructed, who knew what might happen. No, this was a situation to be handled with will, not muscle.
At the first insistent knock on the door, a figure in a hazardous-materials suit faced with silvery foil swung it open.
"Why, if it isn't Dev-Na," said the hazmat suit in the muffled voice of Adam Savage. "A lieutenant now! Listen, if this is about those parking tickets—"
"Save your attempts at wit, Adam-Ven," Dev-Na snapped. "I'm here to see if you are harboring a fugitive."
Adam stepped back and made a "please enter" gesture. "By all means, have a look around."
The shop was its usual cluttered self—despite owner Jamie Hyneman's occasional efforts to get things cleaned up and organized, it could never really keep ahead of the curve of entropy—and Dev-Na would not have cared to guess what most of the in-progress projects scattered around were. (Especially the one that appeared to involve a scale model of a Sarlacc.) Baseball-sized camera drones shuttled here and there in an idle patrol pattern.
Besides Adam, Dev-Na could see three people: Hyneman, unmistakable with his white shirt, black beret, and walrus mustache; Kari Byron, a redheaded girl with a bowler hat, threadbare jeans, and an I DO ALL MY OWN STUNTS t-shirt; and a dark-haired Bajoran woman in a grease-smudged welder's apron and heavy gloves, who had just been in the process of welding part of some kind of metal frame together. She must have been Hyneman's Jedi padawan, but Dev-Na couldn't remember her name. No matter.
"Why are you wearing that ridiculous getup?" Dev-Na asked Adam as he strode into the shop.
Adam shut the door behind him and then strolled unhurriedly after him. "We've been handling some hazardous materials today," he said.
Dev-Na gave him a dark look, considered cautioning him again about his attempts at wit, then ignored him and turned to Hyneman.
"Keep your hands where I can see them, Jedi," he said sternly. "I'll have no tricks out of you."
Jamie nodded equably, holding his hands open at his sides.
"I'm not looking for any trouble," he said. "What is it you're looking for, exactly?"
"I have reason to suspect that you may be harboring the fugitive Kara Zor-El," he said. "I'm here to search your premises."
"Go ahead," Jamie said.
"Yeah, we've got nothing to hide," Kari added.
Dev-Na gave her a sharp look. "Everyone has something to hide," he said coldly.
"(Obviously you didn't see the spaceliner toilet episode,)" Jamie's padawan Bastila said under her breath, causing Kari to choke down a burst of laughter.
Dev-Na made a grumbling noise, then ignored them as well and scanned the building with his X-ray vision. He found a few more people at work in other rooms, and a number of items whose functions he could not even begin to grasp, but nothing pointing to the presence of the fugitive, except...
"What's in there?" he demanded, pointing to a large metal box sitting at the far end of the room. "It's lined with lead. I thought you said you had nothing to hide," he added with a barbed look at Kari.
"Nothing you'd be interested in," Jamie said.
Dev-Na's eyes narrowed triumphantly.
"The penalties for harboring a fugitive from Neo-Kryptonian justice are quite severe, Earthman," he said. "I look forward to seeing them exacted in your case." He rounded on Adam. "And especially in yours, Adam-Ven," he added. Then he turned and strode briskly to the metal box.
What a clumsy attempt, he thought to himself. He would have expected better from someone so reputedly clever as Hyneman. He was already savoring his promotion to captain when he reached for the lid of the box.
"Listen, you really shouldn't do that," Hyneman cautioned him.
"Yeah, Dev, for Rao's sake don't open that," Adam added, coming up behind him and reaching as if to catch his shoulder. The inflection in his voice was oddly, even exaggeratedly flat, as though he was reciting the line by rote, but Dev-Na paid no attention.
"Don't presume to give me instructions," he growled. Then he shoved Adam away, grabbed the lid, and wrenched it off—
—to reveal a chunk of glowing green crystal about the size of a basketball.
"Aaaggghh!" he screamed as the kryptonite's radiation sliced into his nerve endings like a billion shards of glass. His body felt like it was on fire as his strength deserted him. He staggered back, which helped a little, but the piece was so big...
"Did Jamie mention that he has a license to handle kryptonite?" Adam said helpfully from within his protective suit.
"You wouldn't believe the paperwork involved," Jamie said.
Dev-Na turned to Adam and seized him somewhat less than convincingly by the front of his suit. "That's against... Ares..."
Adam shrugged. "Hey, we told you not to open it," he said, then punched the Zodite out, being very careful not to take his weakened head off in the process.
"Ow," he said, shaking his gloved hand.
"Adam, you wuss," Kari said jokingly as she tonged up the kryptonite and put it back in its rated containment unit.
Adam pulled off his hazmat suit's hood and said, "Hey, kryptonite exposure reduces invulnerability immediately, it doesn't negate it immediately."
"So what do you think?" Jamie asked, hunkering down to slap a transporter tag on Dev-Na's back. "Kryptonian super-intelligence?"
"Busted," Kari said without hesitation.
"Absolutely busted," Bastila agreed.
"I could've told you that," Adam said wryly.
Faora Dar-Val raked the front of a block of brownstones with her heat vision, laughing at the terror of the humans and other aliens as they ran for cover. One of Zod's youngest but most ardent followers, she was as firm a believer in Kryptonian supremacy as any there was, and no one among Zod's loyalists was more disgusted by the weakness of New Krypton's historical and present rulers as she. How dare the El brothers kowtow to the fearful humans and agree that the Kryptonian people should be resettled—imprisoned—on another red-sun world?
Well. Mighty Zod would take care of that once he was the autocrat of all the Kryptonians.
In the meantime, Faora didn't really understand what the big deal was about the girl—an El or not, she was only a child, militarily and politically inconsequential—but if Zod wanted her dead, then Zod would get her that way. Zod's every whim was Faora's command, for he was the last hope of the Kryptonian people's dignity.
"You're not even worth killing," she remarked to an unconscious NAPD riot cop, tossing his limp body over her shoulder to crash down on the roof of a parked car. "Is there no one in this miserable city who can challenge me?"
There was a sudden gust of wind, and abruptly a tall chestnut-haired woman in an odd white and gold costume stood before her.
"Try me," Mary Marvel said, then slugged Faora as hard as she could. The blow, delivered with the full strength of Hercules, sent the Kryptonian bouncing down the street like a mannequin thrown from a speeding truck. She plowed into the facade of a bank, sending twisted metal from the security grating flying, then hauled herself out, wiped at her chin, and was astonished to discover blood.
The raven-haired Zodite snarled furiously and hurled herself out of the wreckage, speeding down the street at an altitude of three feet—but when she got to where her attacker had been standing, Mary wasn't there, having taken to the air herself.
Faora pursued her assailant through the metal canyons of downtown New Avalon for several minutes, finally intercepting her near the Entire State Building. They clashed and reclashed several times before Faora managed to grab hold of Mary and carry her straight down. The two streaked into the street in front of the Entire State's main lobby entrance, cratering the asphalt and breaking a water main. The crater filled rapidly with water, obscuring the two struggling figures from sight.
A few moments later, as horrified onlookers watched, Mary Marvel exploded up out of the impromptu pond like a Polaris missile, arced up and over an abandoned bus, and crashed into the street, carving an impact furrow like a meteor for half a block before she came to rest against her standing bow wave of shattered asphalt and churned-up dirt.
Faora, a bit bruised and bloodied but still in fine form, rose from the pond in a more controlled fashion a moment later, water streaming from her hair and her torn, battered uniform. She hovered to the edge of the "pond", conscious of the effect her air of unhurried gravity was having on the cowering primitives, then touched down and walked deliberately to her opponent. Grabbing a handful of Mary's tunic, she hauled the semiconscious woman upright, cocked her fist for the deathblow, and said tauntingly,
"Nothing to say, human?"
Why do they always give me such wonderful openings? Mary wondered.
Then she opened her eyes and said in a calm voice,
It was a great trick, one that Bill had figured out almost by accident and then taught to his sister. Speaking the wizard's name summoned the magic lightning that changed the Batson siblings from their normal selves into the mighty avatars of Shazam, but Bill had discovered that it was possible to dodge the lightning with the speed of Mercury—and if it struck anyone other than a Batson, the result was devastating.
The ruse worked perfectly. All Mary had to do was jerk backward a few inches; Faora's grip on her tunic did the rest, and the Zodite took the lightning stroke square in the back.
Kryptonians, Mary knew, were vulnerable to magic. Not as vulnerable as ordinary humans, to be sure, but it could hurt them considerably more than "normal" firepower. She had first-hand confirmation of this as the power of Shazam smote Faora; the Zodite screamed and almost crumpled, knocked momentarily senseless by the jolt of mystic energy.
Mary broke Faora's grip on her tunic, took her own grip on the Zodite's uniform jacket, and drove the point home.
When the dazzled onlookers' vision cleared, they saw Mary Marvel standing tall in the middle of the street, surrounded by bullseyes of scorched and melted asphalt, holding a limp Faora by the collar. Smoke rose from the Zodite's smoldering uniform and frazzled hair. Her head lolled, eyes rolled back in her head. Mary gave her a little shake to make sure she wasn't playing possum, as she herself had done, then dropped her to the ground.
All around, bystanders emerged slowly from cover, looking stunned, half-deafened by the magic thunder. Hesitantly at first, then more lustily, they began to applaud.
Mary Marvel blushed becomingly, gave them a wave, and then picked up her unconscious opponent and headed out to drop her off at Terminal Island.
It was Zira Cho-Zar who thought of Titans Tower first. She was sweeping the South Shore from the air, alternately raking the streets with heat, telescopic, and X-ray vision, when the distinctive T-shaped tower on its island at the north end of the bay caught her attention out of the corner of her eye.
They're about the same age as the fugitive, she thought, and smiled. Small and blonde, she had been the logical choice to impersonate Kara for the attack on the embassy. It would be a sweet piece of symmetry if she was also the one who brought Kara in.
She flew out over the harbor and turned north, bearing directly for the tower—but suddenly another flier was alongside, pacing her with a roar of combustive propulsion. He was a lanky young human in his early twenties, dressed in a black leather jacket and a black and yellow tunic with an X pattern. For a moment, Zira thought he was flying with a primitive rocket device, until she realized that no such equipment was in evidence. His lower body seemed to be the rocket; it was obscured entirely by smoke and seething energy, and above the waist he seemed to be suffused with a strange, smoky yellow glow.
"Ah don't suppose," Sam "Cannonball" Guthrie drawled, "you'd care to save us both a peck o' trouble and surrender."
Zira laughed. "Surrender? To you?"
Sam flipped back one side of his jacket to reveal the badge affixed to the inside. "That was the gen'ral idea," he allowed.
"I have a better idea," Zira replied. "I think it'll be simpler still if I just kill you."
So saying, she jinked left, crowding his airspace, and lashed out with a punch that should have reduced his head to a fine pink mist, even allowing for the relative lack of leverage.
Her fist smacked into what she had taken for simple radiance, the nearly impenetrable energy field that always surrounded him in flight. The field absorbed the impact and converted it into reserve energy, boosting Cannonball's endurance.
Zira snarled and lunged again, but Sam just grinned and put on some more speed, darting out in front of her. That really got her blood boiling. No mere human, even one possessed of such a strange ability as this, was going to get the better of a trained Neo-Kryptonian shock trooper in the air!
There had been a time when Cannonball truly lived up to his nickname. Though he could achieve ballistic flight easily enough, as a young man he'd had almost no control over his flight path, and his aerial endurance was measured in seconds. That was years of training and hard-won experience ago, though, back when he hadn't truly understood the nature of his mutant power.
Now he could go for hours, and—as he proceeded to demonstrate by leading Zira a dizzying race all over the skies of New Avalon—he'd pretty well licked that steering problem. Seemingly immune to inertia, he could corner like a lightcycle, changing course with the speed of thought. Even Zira couldn't quite keep up with him in the twisting canyons of the city. She tagged him a few times with her heat vision, but that had no visible effect either, and every bit of energy she dumped into his blasting field was a bit he didn't have to come up with himself.
When he roared low out of FDR Boulevard and out over Lake Daniels again, though, Sam was through demonstrating his maneuvering prowess. What had been a three-dimensional rally became a drag race as he poured on all the speed he could muster. A towering roostertail of spray and steam exploded up from the surface of the water in his wake. When he punched through the sound barrier two miles out, he started actually pulling away from his own surface wake, diamond shock patterns forming in his blasting trail.
Zira gritted her teeth and gave chase, determined to catch him, overtake him, get hold of him, and force him down. Whatever that forcefield of his might be, she was confident that if she could get a grip on him, she could break through it eventually and crush the meat and bone within.
Sam looked ahead to where the green hills of a small island were coming up fast; then he glanced down and back and saw that Zira was slowly catching up, trying to come up from below him.
He kicked in his last reserves of speed, accelerating to nearly three times the speed of sound. Unused to pulling such heavy speed in an atmosphere, Zira faltered for a moment, allowing him to open a two-mile lead, and then caught herself and started gaining again.
Ahead on the fast-growing island, a white speck appeared at the top of the tallest hill. Baring his teeth in an exultant grin, Cannonball adjusted his course slightly.
Roy Lincoln, alias The Human Bomb, dropped to one knee, braced himself, and balled both bared fists together, concentrating with all his might. A nimbus of orange-black energy started roiling around his hands, obscuring them entirely from sight.
Cannonball came streaking in straight at him, then ticked up at the last minute and barrelled past mere feet overhead, his shockwave nearly bowling the white-suited figure over backward. Teeth gritted with effort under his containment suit's helmet, The Human Bomb rode it out, timed the approach of Cannonball's pursuer, then roared,
"Smile, you space fascist!"
Lunging up from his crouch, The Human Bomb brought his joined fists swinging up and around together, like a man performing an Olympic hammer throw. By the time Zira realized that there was someone in her pursuit path, the blow connected with the full force of The Human Bomb's explosive might behind it.
Cannonball skidded out of his headlong dash, pulled a series of quick 90-degree turns to shed excess speed, then started heading back at a more prudent pace. A smallish mushroom cloud of orange fire and black smoke was rising from the crest of the ridge on Charles Island. Cannonball punched through the blast wave, then whipped a pair of electrobinoculars from inside his jacket and scanned the skies. There she was, a black speck hurtling skyward, still heading up, apparently out of control. Sam vectored to intercept and caught up with Zira just as she reached apogee.
The Zodite was completely limp. Her uniform jacket was almost entirely blown away and a livid red-black bruise-burn showed on the side of her face. It looked like a nasty injury, but Sam knew it was certainly no worse than she had intended to do to him.
He cut his blasting field so that he could grab her by the collar, then kicked it in again and made for the island. This was a risky move—if she came to, or if she was faking in the first place, Zira would easily be able to injure him—but if he let her fall into the lake in her present condition, she might actually manage to drown before he could fish her out, and that would never do. She reminded Sam a little bit of his kid sister, except of course that Paige would never have thrown a bus into an embassy just for the hell of it.
He landed on the beach, tagged his unconscious cargo, and called for transport. Then he climbed up the blackened, denuded edge of the island's new crater in search of his partner.
The Human Bomb lay sprawled on his back in the center of the crater, where the ridgeline had once been. His containment suit was covered in streaks of soot and the sleeves ended in tatters just below his elbows, but his arms looked undamaged. Little spits and crackles came from the faint orange-black glow of his bare skin as his mostly-depleted powers touched off tiny particles of dust.
"Roy? You OK?" Sam asked.
The Human Bomb lay unresponsive for a moment, then groaned and sat up, resting his elbows on his knees.
"Wouldn't want to try that again. Did we get her?"
"Yeah, we got her," Cannonball said, plopping down next to The Human Bomb. "C'mon. Let's get you in for repairs before your powers build back up."
Looking back on the day, Robin would later conclude that his greatest achievement was not getting anybody killed.
When the fight began, there was no guarantee of that. The Titans found themselves with not one but two Neo-Kryptonians to deal with, a woman in a uniform and a hulking, disheveled, beetle-browed brute of a man dressed in what looked like a prison jumpsuit.
"I'm only going to give you one chance, children," the woman declared as she touched down on the south shore of Pérez Island. "Surrender the girl and we'll let you live."
"Ursa," Robin said grimly. "I should've known. Who's your friend?"
Ursa laughed lightly. "Non is no one's friend, Boy Wonder. Officially, he doesn't even exist." Her cruel face became hard as she added, "Not that that will stop him from killing you. Be smart for once in your life. Give us Kara Zor-El. You can't beat us."
"We'll see." Robin drew a birdarang from behind his back and thumbed its wings open with a singing metallic sound. "Let's go!"
He hurled the birdarang. With a contemptuous snort, Ursa intercepted it with her heat vision—precisely as he had hoped she would. The heat flashed the charge of liquid pseudo-kryptonite inside the weapon to steam, causing a violent explosion of green gas that engulfed both Zodites.
"What the—?!" Ursa cried. A wave of sickness washed over her as she breathed in the vaporized substance. Beside her, Non grabbed at his throat, eyes bulging.
That won't be enough to put them down, Robin thought, but it may give us a fighting chance.
Ursa recovered her wits first. She dispelled the cloud with a wave, but since she and Non had both caught and inhaled a faceful of the gas, the damage was mostly done. She felt slightly woozy, off-balance, and she could tell that her speed and power were a bit off.
But only a bit.
Her heat vision lanced out again, carving a glowing furrow across the rock where Robin had been standing.
"Your gambit failed, boy," she crowed.
"It was only an opening move," Robin replied. "Stargirl, Starfire, go!"
Two slim figures appeared from behind Robin's ex-perch. One, tall and orange-skinned, streaked around from the left in full flight and slammed fists-first into Non's chest, bowling the monstrous convict over backward. The other, shorter and blonde, clad in blue and red with a big white star on her chest, vaulted the rock from the right and charged toward Ursa.
For a second, the female Zodite thought this was her target, dressed up in an outlandish costume like her ridiculous friends. Then she remembered that Stargirl was one of the newer members of the Titans, the ones on whom the NKDEA didn't have much intel data yet. She derived her powers from technology—something to do with stellar energy manipulation, based on the same principle as the late Red Lensman's Cosmic Rod?
Well, that shouldn't be much of a challenge.
Stargirl ducked a third heat-vision blast, rolled out of the follow-through, and socked Ursa in the gut. To Ursa's distinct surprise, the blow hurt; it didn't drive the wind from her, but it stung and drove her back. At first she thought that perhaps the kryptonite-like gas (another weapon for the Department's forensics people to analyze when this was all over) had weakened her more than she initially thought—but when she glanced down at herself, she saw that the impact site on the front of her uniform tunic was actually singed slightly.
Stargirl capitalized on this distraction, following up her gut punch with an uppercut that staggered Ursa a little. Recovering her balance, Ursa growled angrily and launched a punch of her own. The blow knocked Stargirl flying, but—Ursa was angrily astonished to discover—it hurt to deliver, too.
Stargirl tumbled through her landing, came up on one knee, and wiped a trace of blood from the corner of her mouth with one gloved hand, grinning nastily at her opponent as Ursa regarded her scorched knuckles with visible shock.
"You do realize," Stargirl said in a mocking tone, "that a red sun is really a kind of star?"
Ursa blinked, then looked at her again with more discerning eyes. Now she could make out a flickering glow, a corona of energy, surrounding the girl. Almost invisible in the bright afternoon sunlight, it was nonetheless distinct now that Ursa was looking for it. It seemed to emanate from the belt Stargirl wore, and it was tuned to closely resemble the output of New Krypton's sun.
Ursa's lip curled. "I'll take that toy and smash you with it," she snarled.
Meanwhile, Non was trying to come to grips with the crown princess of Tamaran, a young woman whose power approached that of his own mighty race. After the first blow, their combat had become a fast-paced dance. Starfire knew she had no chance of matching a monstrous specimen like Non blow for blow, so she was counting on her superior speed and agility to carry the day.
That, and her ability to channel the mysterious form of energy known as Getter rays into powerful starbolts.
Silent and malevolent, Non tried several times to connect with his massive fists, but when that didn't work, he showed that he wasn't, perhaps as mindless as he seemed. He shifted tactics, feinting and then anticipating Starfire's dodge. His hand flashed out and caught her by the ankle. Starfire gave a startled cry as he swung her overhead and smashed her into a boulder, crushing it to gravel.
He leaned down, thinking to pick her crumpled form up and smash it down again. She rolled onto her back, opened eyes glowing so brightly with green energy that the light rendered her irises and pupils invisible, and thrust a hand forward.
A brilliant green bolt shot from her palm, smacking Non square in the face. He reared back, grabbing at his face as smoke rose between his fingers. Starfire launched herself, following the blast up with a ground-shaking one-two punch combo that sent her hulking opponent reeling backward.
Non regained his balance and lowered his hands, revealing an angry red scorch on his face. Getter rays were not the same thing as kryptonite radiation, but they were cousins—close enough that Starfire's starbolts could make some headway against a Kryptonian, if not with the full effect they would have on another. It was just such a "family resemblance" that had started IPO researchers, among the galaxy's foremost investigators into Getter rays, down the path that had led to pseudo-kryptonite's invention.
The injury seemed to deepen the monstrous Neo-Kryptonian's thoughtless fury further. With new speed and strength, he seized first one, then the other of Starfire's wrists and pulled them inexorably outward, as if seeking to tear her arms from their sockets.
Up in the Titans Tower control room, Kara Zor-El paced and chafed.
"We shouldn't be standing around up here," she said to Cyborg. "We should go down there and help them!"
Cyborg shook his head. "Robin said for you to stay here, and for me to stay with you in case they get through," he said. "I don't like sitting this fight out either, but he's in charge."
"You just do whatever he says?" Kara shot back.
"Yeah," Cyborg replied, not rising to the bait. "Look, those two would take you apart. They're full-grown Kryptonians with military training, and the big one looks like a stone killer. You wouldn't last a minute. Kori and Courtney are professionals. They can handle it."
Kara balled her fists. "I could make you let me go."
Cyborg looked her up and down, then nodded. "Yeah, I bet you could," he said. "If you really wanna go, I won't stop you. I'm just asking you... trust me. Trust Robin. He knows what he's doing."
"He doesn't even have any powers."
"I know. That's what makes him great," Cyborg said.
Kara blinked, taking that in.
Below, Ursa held Stargirl up by the neck with one hand and strained to push her other hand through the Titan's protective forcefield and seize her Cosmic Converter Belt, ignoring the considerable pain both operations were causing. As she struggled to get some leverage for a counterattack, Stargirl could feel the belt's center unit starting to heat up as Ursa's relentless assault overloaded its coils. If she didn't do something to break free soon, Ursa's wrath would be the least of her worries.
Robin hurled another birdarang, this one a conventional explosive. He was taking a chance, but it was the kind of chance he was good at, and it paid off. The weapon struck Ursa's wrist just outside Stargirl's forcefield and went off. Ursa's invulnerability was just compromised enough by her prolonged contact with Stargirl's red-sun field that she felt the blast. It did her no real harm, but the surprise of feeling it at all made her release her grip. Stargirl rolled with the fall, kicked out, and put some distance between herself and the maddened Zodite.
Ursa turned and blasted at Robin, who barely got out of the path of her heat vision in time to avoid being barbecued.
"Not good," he said. "The gas is wearing off, they're starting to get their speed back."
Stargirl lunged in and got Ursa's attention back with a kick to the gut. "Where the hell is Flash?" she asked.
As if summoned, a scarlet blur zoomed across from the mainland and stopped next to Robin.
"Right here!" the Flash declared. Then, angling a thumb back over his shoulder, he added, "And I brought some help."
A figure dressed in a blue parka and snow goggles, incongruous on this bright, sunny spring afternoon, stood at the top of a beachside crag, brandishing a pair of silver pistols.
"Woo hoo!" he cried, then started blasting away, his weapons slashing beams of white energy at both Neo-Kryptonians. "Eat freeze ray, super-Nazis!"
Next to him, a slimmer figure in a white suit not entirely unlike The Human Bomb's unleashed a stream of rippling flame from a bulky orange pistol, washing it over Ursa as she staggered back from a roundhouse blow from Stargirl.
Robin looked askance at the Flash. "... You brought Captain Cold and Heat Wave?"
The Flash shrugged. "Hey, we need all the help we can get."
One of Captain Cold's freeze rays struck Non full in the back. With the ambient temperature around him reduced to near absolute zero for a moment, he stiffened, condensation freezing all over his body. Starfire took advantage of the momentary respite, closed her eyes, and gathered her concentration.
Non shrugged off the freezing effect with relative ease and started to pull on Starfire's arms again, his hands like a pair of steel vises on her wrists. She opened her eyes, blazing once again with green energy—
A solid Getter beam blasted from them and struck Non in the chest, incinerating the top of his jumpsuit and sending him hurtling back amid a spray of ice chips and green-tinted steam. Starfire helped him along by kicking herself free from his slackening hands, then hovered in place with residual energy crackling around her eyes.
"I hope that hurt," she said, her usual sunniness erased by the wrath of a princess.
Ursa had had about enough of this. The nauseating, weakening effects of that green gas were wearing off now, and she could feel her full speed and power returning. The forcefield surrounding Stargirl boosted her speed and strength as well, but with Ursa's full power returning, the girl would be no match for her. Ursa dodged a flying kick and moved to snatch Stargirl from the air by the neck—
—but something was wrong. She could feel herself slowing down again. Even more so, in fact. The sick feeling didn't come back, nor the sensation of weakness, but it was like being buried in tar. Her movements came so slowly, barely faster than those of a normal human. What could be causing such an effect?
She turned and saw the Flash still standing next to Robin. His arms were folded across his chest and he seemed to be completely inactive, an odd state of affairs indeed for him—but a closer look revealed that his eyes were obscured by seething yellow light. She leveled a blast of heat vision at him, but he moved out of the way so quickly he almost seemed to have teleported. Ursa realized her perceptions were slowed as well. She had no idea how he was doing it, but somehow the Flash was... stealing her super-speed. How was that even possible?
No matter. She still had her martial training and her strength. Even with human reaction times, she could defeat one child with a clever toy.
Non, too, redoubled his efforts. Enraged beyond even his normal limits by the agonizing burns the Tamaranian's blast had inflicted on his chest, he raced in at the highest flying speed he could muster and slammed one of his granite-block fists into her midsection. She crumpled around the blow; he followed it up with a sock to the jaw that put her entirely out for a moment. When she came to, she was face-down on the ground and the silent monster had one of her wrists in each hand again—and a foot in the middle of her back. The position was incredibly painful, and put him out of all her useful firing arcs.
Robin saw what was happening and peppered Non with blast discs and explosive birdarangs, but the bestial Zodite was totally focused on his task and ignored the blows altogether. Not even concentrated fire from Captain Cold and Heat Wave could distract him.
Then, something did. From somewhere above him, he heard a roaring, howling sound. It was getting louder, and louder, and louder...
Finally, it penetrated his consciousness to the point where he paused for a moment in his efforts to dismember Starfire and looked up.
He had just enough time to register the oncoming aircraft, a sleek, black, batwinged jet, before it plowed into his upper body.
Gasping with pain as his hold on her arms suddenly tautened almost to the breaking point and as suddenly released, Starfire threw herself forward. The Batjet's hurtling mass bore Non down on his back and shoved him deep into the ground before piling in on top of him and exploding.
High above, having locked her jet into its dive and bailed out, Batgirl freefell in a graceful arc toward a painful date with Lake Daniels.
"... little help here?" she said calmly into her mask's built-in comlink.
Stargirl ducked a nearly-supersonic punch from Ursa, hop-kicked the Neo-Kryptonian over backward, then said, "I'm on it," reached to the flap holster strapped to her right thigh, and drew her Gravity Rod. As she switched it online, the device—a metal rod about a foot long, topped with a bullet-shaped cap sporting three Art Deco cooling fins—glowed with a brilliant yellow light and carried her into the air.
She streaked aloft, stretched out a hand, and snagged the falling Batgirl by a fistful of her cloak.
With a laugh, Ursa launched herself to intercept, thinking to catch Stargirl off-guard. In this, she essentially succeeded—but she didn't catch Batgirl off-guard. Without hesitation, the black-clad girl reached up and thumbed an interlock that released her cloak.
Stargirl was, to put it mildly, surprised to see her teammate suddenly plummet free again, leaving her holding nothing but a black cloak. Then she saw what had caused Batgirl to cut and run. Reacting instinctively, she let go of the cloak, leveled the Gravity Rod, and fired her own kind of starbolt, hitting Ursa square in the chest.
It had no notable effect. Stargirl hadn't had time to re-tune both of her weapons for the red solar spectrum; the Gravity Rod was still on its default yellow-white setting.
"Oh, crap—" Stargirl had time to say before Ursa hit her, knocking the wind out of her and sending the Gravity Rod spinning out of her hand.
Now there were two falling Titans.
When she cut herself loose, Batgirl employed a skydiving technique she'd learned from Batman to aim herself toward Titans Tower. From the altitude at which she'd resumed her fall, on this vector, she would come in under one of the crossbars and hit the ground right about at its base—which wouldn't be optimal, since she'd be doing terminal velocity when she got there.
She hoped Robin realized what she was doing, and then, with her uncanny ability to read body language and predict actions from it, saw that he did.
Robin saw her shaping her fall, mapped it in his head, then whirled and fired his jumpline launcher into the air. The grapple shot upward and chunked into the underside of the tower crossbar.
An instant later, Batgirl flew past the cable, darted out one hand, and snagged hold of it. Her momentum immediately whipped her upward, wrenching her shoulder painfully. She let out a strangled grunt and hung on, twisting her body so that she could get her other hand on the line as well. Layers of duraflex burned away as she slid down the cable. Robin braced himself and hung on with both hands—the initial shock of her weight hitting the cable had almost jerked him off his feet.
As she swung around again, Batgirl got a foot out and dug the edge of her bootsole into the taut cable, then got her other foot underneath her so that she was sort of "surfing" down the line. She could feel the thin cable biting grooves into both steel-reinforced bootsoles, but now she was definitely slowing down. Her eyes flicked skyward in time to see Ursa knock the Gravity Rod from Stargirl's hand. Balanced now, in a controlled slide, she took one hand off the cable and moved it to her utility belt.
One second later she got to the end of the line. Arching her back, she swung herself sideways and into a tumble so as not to plow into Robin. By now, she was going no faster than if she'd jumped from a moving subway train, something she did with slightly depressing regularity. As she rolled through the fall, she fired her own jumpline launcher into the sky. Weighted by the grapple at the end, her line shot out and wrapped around Stargirl's ankle, fizzing and sparking against her forcefield.
Realizing what Batgirl was trying to do, Stargirl cut the field, letting the cable tighten around her sturdy boot.
Batgirl thumbed the retractor button, grabbed the launcher with both hands, and put her back into it. Though small, her body was perfectly conditioned, kept that way through a combination of a fastidious workout routine, a strenuous occupation, and a fortunate draw from the genetic deck. The deceptive power in her long, smooth muscles had given more than one opponent cause for regret.
Now, as she hauled on the line and translated Stargirl's vertical fall to horizontal flight, someone had occasion to be glad. Teeth gritted, her injured shoulder screaming at her, she heaved, swinging Stargirl through a 180-degree arc and then punching the cable release.
As the jumpline unwound from her ankle and the ground rushed sideways beneath her, Stargirl switched on her Cosmic Converter Belt again. A split-second later she hit the ground—but not in a dead-on vertical fall. Instead, she plowed into the grass of Pérez Island sideways, bounced, rolled, tumbled, and finally came to a halt in a heap at the base of the Tower, her final impact cracking the concrete as her back smashed into the wall.
A moment later, with a groan and a shake of her head, she pulled herself to her feet and dusted herself off. The Belt was sputtering, its energy reserves almost exhausted... but the forcefield was still up and her wild ride had left her with no permanent injuries.
In the momentary silence that followed, Batgirl reached up, plucked her descending cloak from the air, and whipped it back into its proper place.
Above, Kara Zor-El stared in mute astonishment at the master monitor.
Cyborg grinned. "Girl's got style to spare," he said.
"I lose more Batjets that way," Batgirl muttered, observing the flaming crater.
"Incoming!" Captain Cold yelled. Ursa dove out of the sky, bearing down on Batgirl. Heat Wave blasted the diving Neo-Kryptonian full in the face with his highest possible heat output, not bothering to fire a stream of accelerant from his pistol—it wouldn't add enough energy to be worth bothering. At the same time, Cold jacked the output of both his freeze rays to maximum and fired at Ursa's center of mass.
The twin thermal attacks were enough to distract her, if not actually harm her, and she missed Batgirl as the black-clad Titan dove out of the way. Ursa pulled out of her dive and wheeled, intending to strike out with her heat vision, but suddenly Starfire was there, belting her once and again, her fists crackling with undischarged starbolts.
"You—are—a—very—unpleasant—woman!" Starfire yelled, punctuating each word with another blow.
"Ha ha ha!" Cyborg crowed, pumping a fist. "Now that's what I'm talking about. You can't stop Kori when she gets goin'. You can only hope to contain her, and there ain't enough of 'em for that."
"This... this is incredible," said Science Council Chairman Ral-Uv, slumping in his chair. Around the table, the other councilors showed similar levels of shock.
The Question nodded. "You can have this data authenticated by your own security services if you like. I assure you it's all quite genuine."
"No... no, the word of a Lensman is good enough for the Science Council," Ral-Uv said. "But... it's just hard to believe. A coup? The murder of a Science Councilor and his wife—let alone the greatest Science Councilor in history? Nothing like this has happened among the Kryptonian people in three hundred years."
"But why?" blurted Councilor Jav-Ro.
If The Question had possessed eyebrows, the councilors felt sure he would have arched one.
"Why?" he asked. "Why what?"
"Why would General Zod do such things?" Jav-Ro sputtered. "He's had every advantage, been given every privilege! He swore he would mend his ways after we reprimanded him for his high-handedness five years ago."
The Question folded his arms. "Some men are good; some are not. A is A. Zod is Zod. Why? That I cannot say." He put his hands in his coat pockets and shook his head. "I am not the answer. I am only The Question."
No one seemed to have a response to that, so The Question inclined his head respectfully, said, "Good day, gentlemen," and left the chamber.
"Wh—wait!" Ral-Uv cried, jumping up and running to the door. He burst out into the corridor—but The Question was nowhere to be seen. Only a curling wisp of blue-grey smoke indicated that he had ever been there at all.
While Starfire beleaguered Ursa, the other Titans kept their distance, nursed their injuries, and watched—until Robin noticed movement out of the corner of his eye, turned, and saw Non rising out of the still-burning wreckage of the Batjet, his eyes glowing red.
"Stargirl!" he snapped, pointing.
"Got it," Stargirl replied. She dodged a blast from the mute renegade's heat vision and weighed her options. The brief downtime she'd been able to give the CCB had allowed it to cool, but hadn't done much for its energy reserves. She didn't have the power in hand to go toe-to-toe with a monster like Non...
... but she might not have to.
Sending a mental command through the cybernetic circuitry embedded in her mask, she held up her hand and called the Gravity Rod to it.
Non, thinking he knew what she was going to try, smiled cruelly and approached.
Stargirl tried not to smirk as she aimed the rod at him and switched it on. The yellow-white beam lanced out and had no effect, just as before, but she kept it on him anyway, playing it over his barrel chest as he walked deliberately toward her. After a few moments, his steps started to come more slowly, and then more slowly still. His feet began sinking into the ground. A look of confusion crossed his ugly face as each step became a visible struggle even for a being of his incredible power.
It never occurred to him that Stargirl wasn't trying to blast him as she had Ursa. She was using the Gravity Rod's other power, the one from which it derived its name. Normally she used the rod's gravity-manipulating effect to negate gravity's effect, so that she could fly—but the device could be reversed. With every step Non took toward her, the local gravity field affecting him doubled.
"Fall, you big bastard," Stargirl growled, holding the beam on him. The bullet-shaped cap of the Gravity Rod was starting to emit a faint keening noise, its cooling rings glowing cherry-red. Non was buried up to his waist in the ground now, and still he advanced. Taking one more dragging, rock-crushing step, he reached for her, his fingers straining for maximum reach...
... and then he crashed down on his face, sending rocks and chunks of sod flying in all directions.
Stargirl kept the beam on him for several more seconds, driving him deeper and deeper into the ground, and then switched off the Gravity Rod at last. It went dark but for the pinging glow of its cooling rings. Non didn't offer to get up.
Not one to waste an opportunity, Batgirl darted to the edge of the hole, tossed a transporter tag down onto the unconscious Zodite's back, and called it in.
"Nice," she said to Stargirl once Non had vanished.
"Thanks," Stargirl replied. She let the Gravity Rod hang from its lanyard and held her wrist with her free hand. The palm of her right glove was burned away, the skin beneath an angry red.
"Ow," Stargirl observed.
"Tch," Batgirl said. She reached to her utility belt and got out a tube of burn spray.
With her Tamaranian blood all but boiling with fury, Starfire had little trouble finishing off Ursa. By the time Batgirl had finished tending to her teammate's injury, the second Neo-Kryptonian was on her way to Special Detention E.
The Titans regrouped wearily at the base of the tower. The only one of them not significantly injured or fatigued was Robin. Starfire and Stargirl had both burned off most of their energy reserves. Batgirl's shoulder was probably separated. The Flash, though he had hardly moved during the fight, was worn down by the effort of drawing off the Zodites' speed. Of their unexpected allies, Heat Wave was dangerously close to exhaustion and Captain Cold's power cells were running low.
Still, they'd done it. They'd defeated two highly trained Neo-Kryptonian fighters, and they'd done it with one of their own heavy hitters in reserve.
"Good work, team," Robin said. "You too, guys," he added, nodding to Captain Cold and Heat Wave. "Thanks for your help."
"Well, hey," Cold said with a cockeyed grin. "We figured Wally wasn't gonna be any help, so we might as well give it a shot."
"Up yours, Cold," the Flash snorted. "Wasn't for me, you guys would still be walking here across an ice bridge. What kind of plan was that?"
"Quiet," Robin said, gesturing for the two to can their bickering. "Chief, this is Robin. Any word on the location of—"
Then, looking up, he went ever so slightly pale, his voice trailing off.
General Zod himself was touching down not far from the smoldering wreckage of the Batjet, and he did not look at all pleased.
"Oh, crap," Cyborg spat. Then, turning to Kara, he said urgently, "I gotta get down there and help." He pressed a key into her hand. "Go down to the subbasement and use the monitor in the magtube station. If he takes us out, get into the tunnel, head east as fast as you can, and find Raven on Gallery Island. She'll know what to do next."
I hope, he didn't add out loud as he ran to the elevator.
By the time he got to the ground, the fight, such as it was, was over. At the peak of their form, the Titans might have been able to take on even such a personage as General Zod; but with most of their energies spent in bringing down his subordinates, he dispensed with them easily. Cyborg emerged from the tower to find his teammates scattered all over the island, unmoving.
"You better hope they're just unconscious," he said through gritted teeth, his right arm transforming to cannon mode.
"Indeed?" Zod said with a thin smile. "-You're- hardly in a position to say anything about it."
His heat vision slashed out, but Cyborg was ready for him. He raised his left arm, interposing a glowing blue photonic shield that splashed the scarlet rays harmlessly off to one side. Then he counterstruck, the blue-white beam of his photon cannon smashing into Zod's chest and sending the would-be dictator skidding back several yards.
"Hm," Zod mused. "Upgrades."
Then he abandoned any pretense of elegance.
"Not good," Gryphon said.
"I'll go—" Raven began, only to cut the words off abruptly as Gryphon held up a hand.
The reason he did so, though Raven couldn't know it directly, was that he was deep in an urgent conversation via Lens.
Lu! he called silently.
I see it. I'm pulling in everything I can find, but—
Gryph, this is Adam, another voice cut in. I can be there in—
No, Adam, Lu interrupted. He'll do the same to you if you engage him solo. Go to these coordinates and wait for Mary Marvel. She's inbound from Terminal Island, ETA ten minutes.
Kara will be dead in ten minutes! Gryphon objected.
I know. If you've got any reserve capacity on your end, now's the time, boss.
A third voice, high and urgent, sliced into the conversation.
I know how to stop Zod. I need your command access code to SphereCon.
Where are you—how are you—
Does it matter? The code! Now! The girl hasn't got the 678.8873 seconds it would take me to crack it.
The exchange took perhaps a half-second in the world outside Gryphon's head; then he rose from his seat, turned, and held out his hand to Raven.
"Come on," he said. "I have to get back to Headquarters now."
She looked momentarily surprised, then nodded, took his hand, and began to chant.
Kara watched on the monitor next to the entrance to Titans Tower's magtube tunnel as Cyborg mounted a brilliant, furious, valiant, and utterly futile assault on General Zod. His capabilities obviously surprised the general, but they were just as obviously no match for him. She knew he would lose. Knew the time had come when all she could do was flee and hope Gryphon and Raven would have some way of stopping Zod's rampage.
She knew Cyborg's arguments against her getting involved in the fight against Ursa and Non were even more true with Zod involved. He was one of the most skilled and powerful Kryptonian warriors in the galaxy, a man capable of laying low whole cells of Neo-Kryptonian outlaws under a yellow sun. She was a teenage girl with no combat training at all. She couldn't hope to stand against him. Her only option was to run away.
But would her father have run away? Would her Uncle Jor?
Would Kal-El have fled from a tyrant like Zod?
"For your information, tin man," Zod said conversationally as he held up the sparking wreckage of Cyborg by the plastron, "I haven't killed your teammates. The way they handled Ursa and Non impressed me so much I decided to let them live." He narrowed his eyes, which began to glow. "You, on the other hand, have annoyed me. I think I'll slice open that cranium of yours and see if there's a real brain inside it."
"Leave him alone!" a sharp voice called. Zod blinked, the glow of readied heat vision fading from his eyes, and turned to see a tallish, slim blonde girl in her mid-teens standing at the base of Titans Tower, dressed in a plain blue blouse and dressy dark pants. She looked utterly ordinary, utterly human... but even if they hadn't met before, he would have known who she was the instant he made contact with her eyes, eyes of a more intense blue than any human's could ever be.
His interest in Cyborg vanished instantly. He discarded the disabled Titan with a negligent gesture and turned to face the girl.
"Ah. Kara Zor-El. You've led me a merry chase, young lady. Have you come to surrender yourself to my lawful authority?"
Kara glared at him with the sort of undiluted disdain only a teenager can manage with conviction.
"I've come to stop you," she said—and then, with a quick, angry gesture, she yanked open her blouse to reveal beneath it a snug-fitting blue T-shirt emblazoned with the scarlet and yellow sigil of the House of El.
Zod went very still, his fists closing slowly.
"Indeed," he said, his voice barely audible.
Gryphon and Raven moved quickly through the eerily empty corridors of the IPO headquarters building, took the secured elevator to one of the subbasements, and emerged into a gleaming silver corridor. From there, Gryphon led the way without hesitation down several side-branching hallways, through three security doors, and into one of the weapons development labs. This, too, was deserted, the workstations locked down, the scientists down on Gamma Level where Bruce Banner and the other special security forces could keep them safe.
The lab had a monitor in it, and as they entered, Raven switched it on. The sight that appeared on it—the Titans scattered like a spilled load of firewood, Kara locked in desperate battle with Zod—froze them both for a few horrified seconds.
Gryphon turned to Raven, whose face was so emotionless it might have been made of wax. He knew what that meant—that she was, in fact, exerting all her will to keep from exploding with fury.
"Can you stop him?" he asked.
"No," Raven replied honestly, her voice flat and nearly inaudible. Then her eyes narrowed to white slits within the shadow of her hood and she added, "But I can hurt him."
"You'll get your chance," Gryphon said. He put his hands on her shoulders, looked her in the eyes, and said, "Raven. I need you with me for what comes next, and I need you focused. It's the only chance any of us has."
She held his eyes for a half-second, then nodded in silent acquiescence.
Her teammates would understand; after what had happened in the otherworld of Oriphos last January, her place was at Gryphon's side, and they had all acknowledged that truth... but Starfire had also spent most of that time with him, and she had rejoined the Titans for this battle...
... and Raven wouldn't forgive herself, or Zod, if any of them died.
Gryphon punched a combination into the keypad on a heavy floor-to-ceiling vault door built into the wall of the lab, then yanked open the door and started removing equipment from within. As he worked, he explained his plan to Raven.
On Pérez Island, a lone teenage girl fought for the first real time in her life—in, appropriately enough, a fight for her life.
What Kara Zor-El lacked in training and experience, she almost made up for in sheer gall. For all his vast power and superior ability, Zod had grown unaccustomed to being challenged. His reputation was such that even the most hardened of Neo-Kryptonian criminals—the real hard cases that the galaxy was better off without—usually surrendered rather than face him in battle. Even Non, the most horrifying killer New Krypton had ever known, knelt before Zod.
That would have disgraced the symbol on her chest, the blue and scarlet costume she'd surreptitiously acquired, the bright red cape that flew from her shoulders—all revealed now that Zod had incinerated her non-Kryptonian street clothes with his heat vision. It would have disgraced her lost family. It would have shamed the memory of her father, her Uncle Jor, her famous cousin Kal.
That was something Kara would never do.
Having made the decision to face him, it was as if she had banished all fear from her makeup, and the sheer ferocity with which she defended herself took the would-be warlord aback. More surprising, she seemed to have a slight advantage over him in power. He and his Alpha Team had been in a yellow-sun environment ever since leaving New Krypton (the NKDEA's transport starships were outfitted with yellow-sun interior lighting), but the girl moved—and hit—like a person who had significantly more yellow-sun exposure than that. As a student of the phenomenon, Zod knew that Kryptonians could take up to ten years to reach full power under a yellow sun, though the curve for adults got very steep after the first few weeks.
To a man with more empirical curiosity than Zod, this would have been intriguing, something worth investigating. To Zod, it was merely an annoyance. It meant it would take him longer to subdue her, and he disliked wasting time. Besides which, for all their infuriating lack of respect, the International Police people were neither stupid nor lacking in resources. He had struck at an opportune time, when most of their heavy hitters were away from the city, but he had no doubt they were gathering reinforcements. He wanted to be finished and clear before they arrived.
It was unfortunate about his team; he hated to lose them, especially Ursa. Then again, once he controlled New Krypton, he could mass an army to come and take her back. Not even this city could stand against a thousand Neo-Kryptonian soldiers.
The thought brought a thin smile to Zod's face as he broke two of Kara's ribs and sent her smashing against the base of Titans Tower almost hard enough to shift the building.
Kara pushed herself to her feet and spat out blood.
"Why make this so hard?" Zod asked her as he advanced with unhurried tread.
"I could ask you—the same question," Kara replied between pained gasps for breath, holding her wounded side with one splayed hand.
Before he could come up with an answer, she raked him with her heat vision and tried to take to the air. Ignoring the attack, he lunged, caught her by the ankle, and slammed her painfully to the ground.
"No, no," he chided her. "There'll be no flying away for you." Hauling her upright, he turned, took to the air himself, then hurled her through the side of Titans Tower. She crashed through several internal partitions, coming to rest in one of the empty guest rooms.
Zod followed her in. Once again Kara dragged herself to her feet, then took flight once more, bashing through ceilings and floors in heedless abandon until she burst forth into the open air. Hope dared kindle in her heart as she saw the skyline of the city—if she could just reach—
The general overtook her, dealt her three punches that could have shattered glaciers, then grabbed her by the collar and hurled her down. She splashed down on the beach at the north end of the island, sending water and sand flying in all directions.
Kara pulled herself to hands and knees, coughing blood, as Zod landed on the beach and folded his arms.
From the rooftop of one of the warehouses of Puckett's Landing, directly across the channel from Pérez Island, a man with a long-lensed ethercamera captured the young Kryptonian's defiance and beamed it out to the galaxy.
"Theora, are you getting this?" Network 23 Correspondent-at- Large Edison Carter asked his controller. "Tell me you're getting this."
"You'd better believe I'm bloody well getting it," Theora Carter replied. "Switching to your audio in five. Four. Three..."
"This is Edison Carter coming to you live and direct on Network 23 from the city of New Avalon. You are looking at live pictures of General Zod, the director of the Neo-Kryptonian Department of Expatriate Affairs, delivering a savage and apparently unwarranted beating to one of the city's costumed heroes—and as you can see from the background, this is not the first such beating Zod has delivered today. The general is well-known for excesses in the pursuit of his department's mandate, and Avalonian authorities say this time he's gone too far. Exactly who this girl is and why Zod is attacking her remain a mystery."
Theora's voice broke in on his private channel. "Wait one, Edison, we have a crossfeed from Avalon 17 that may explain that."
A brief explanation followed, and then Edison, as smooth as ever at on-camera improvisation, said, "We go now to New Krypton, where Victor Sage with our affiliate, WNA Avalon 17, has more on that. Victor?"
On televisions all over the galaxy, a quarter-pane picture- in-picture window appeared in the lower righthand corner of Edison's live-and-direct feed from New Avalon. In it, a redheaded man in a brown suit addressed the camera, backed by the chrome and gold magnificence of the Science Council's chamber.
"Thank you, Edison," Sage said. "I'm at Government Center in the Neo-Kryptonian capital city of Kandor, where evidence presented to the Science Council by the Expert of Justice known only as The Question has just revealed a conspiracy of shocking proportions—a conspiracy centered on General Zod."
Unaware that his plans were being explained to the galaxy on network television, Zod gave Kara an almost playful kick that broke another of her ribs and sent her bouncing up the rocky beach toward the walkway to the Tower. Still she wouldn't give up. Still she pulled herself once more to her feet. He had to admit, she had courage, just as all the other members of her family he had dealt with over the decades had had courage.
And in every case it had gotten them killed.
As Zod moved in to make his record perfect, he noticed that the afternoon light was reddening toward evening. That was as well. Escape would probably be easier under cover of dark—
He stopped, turned, looked up, and found Zeta Cygni—still high in the afternoon sky. It was a little before 3 PM Avalon Standard Time. But... something was happening to it. A discoloration was starting to move across its face like the arc of an eclipse. As he watched, it obscured a quarter of the brilliant yellow disk and crept onward, making visible progress. Except the discoloration wasn't darkness...
... it was red.
Scowling, he kicked in his telescopic vision—and what he saw astounded him. Hundreds of thousands of miles away, machinery so vast and complex that he couldn't even begin to comprehend its workings was moving. The light—and the invisible radiation—of Zeta Cygni, usually carried unchanged through the many convolutions that gave the Avalon pseudocontinent its perfectly convincing circadian cycle, was being... bent. Altered.
Shifted until it almost perfectly matched the output of New Krypton's primary, the red giant Epsilon Cygni.
"... no," he murmured, his hushed voice a mixture of disbelief and rage.
A flat, cold voice addressed him from the south. He whirled to see the shadowy form of Raven standing next to Kara, her dark cloak barely fluttering in the wind that always blew across Pérez Island in the afternoon.
"The weed of crime bears bitter fruit, Dru-Zod," she told him icily.
Zod flushed. "Witch!" he spat. "Is this your master's doing?"
If he sought to prick her ego by calling Gryphon her master, she not only chose not to acknowledge it, she applied her own value to the word and returned it ironically.
"Everything here is my master's doing," she said.
Zod ground his teeth. "I should have killed him when I had the chance," he snarled.
"Wait here," Raven said flatly, "you'll have another."
He lunged for her, but she had been expecting the charge. She gestured, and he crashed headlong into a wall of black light.
"Azarath—metrion—zinthos!" she cried, her shadowed eyes blanked by a white glow. Zod reeled, shook his head to clear it—accursed magic!—and prepared to attack again.
Suddenly his shadow rippled beneath him, expanded to a disk about six feet across, and attacked him, ice-cold black tentacles whipping up from its surface to wrap around his arms, legs, body, neck. They pulled with incredible force, feeling as though they would tear his arms from his sockets. He tried to fly, and actually did get his feet off the ground for a moment—but then the tentacles yanked him back, slamming him down flat on his back.
Raven threw back her cloak, folded it around Kara, and the two of them dropped into her own shadow and disappeared.
Consumed with rage, Zod heaved with all his strength and ripped himself free of the tentacles, then darted into the sky and out of their apparent reach before they could snag him again. Whirling, he scanned the New Avalon skyline.
"Where have you taken her, witch?" he bellowed, his thunderous voice audible throughout the city. "Wherever you've gone, there's no escaping me! I'll find you both, and when I do—"
The general's threat was to go unfinished.
Streaking uptown from Headquarters, Gryphon timed everything in his head. The solar conversion would take about five minutes. When it was complete, no further G-class radiation would reach the city. That didn't mean Zod would automatically be powerless, of course; his cells had amassed a considerable stockpile of yellow-sun energy over the course of his trip to Zeta Cygni and his time in the city. Gryphon wouldn't have put it past the bastard to have come up with some kind of high-intensity charging technology to make the process even quicker and more effective. He would still be dangerous until his exertions burned off those reserves; then his power would decrease steadily in proportion to those exertions until he was a normal man again.
That could take as much as an hour, depending on various factors.
But not impossible.
He made the last turn around Knights Field, locked in his course for Pérez Island, and ran a final diagnostic.
Dual axial-fusion thruster unit: fully operational.
Inertia-Vector flight control system: OK.
G-Flux power core: running at 100% of rated output.
Life support: nominal.
Pinpoint Barrier system: standing by.
Photonic armor: fully charged.
G-Plasma weapons array: ready.
Time to make the donuts.
"Wherever you've gone, there's no escaping me!" Zod roared, kindly informing Gryphon that phase one of his plan had come off as intended.
Gryphon shunted the Pinpoint Barriers to the business ends of both gauntlets and kicked his rocket pack to maximum thrust.
"I'll find you both, and when I do—wha?"
Zod whirled, and even with his super-fast perceptions, he had only an instant's impression of glowing, armored fists and a grim visage beyond a semi-reflective facebowl.
The impact sent a shockwave ripping out from Pérez Island that shattered the windows in most of the buildings facing the harbor, including that side of the much-abused Titans Tower. General Zod, caught completely off-guard, slammed into the ground not far from the spot where the Batjet had hit Non, making a second crater to go with the first. The blow actually stunned him, blacking his vision for a moment.
When it cleared, he wrenched himself out of the ground's embrace and looked skyward to see...
The IPO Chief's face, set in a grim glower, was unmistakable inside the helmet of what appeared to be an armored spacesuit. It was not the slab-sided power armor some early intelligence reports had put him in—that hadn't been sighted since the 2380s. This suit was more rounded, its arms and legs ribbed with expansion joints, and it had a wide-angle dome helmet that was almost shoulder-width.
Inside that, Gryphon was actually wearing another, smaller helmet, a snug-fitting finned affair of the sort that recreational rocketeers called a "skullbucket". The brawny-looking suit was mostly painted yellow with the occasional black checkering pattern, identifying it as a test item or prototype of some kind. Some wag in the IPO weapons test lab had painted the word VORSICHT! in bold, important-looking black capitals across its barrel chest.
"Clock's ticking, General," Gryphon said, his voice rendered slghtly tinny by the suit's PA system. Pointing a finger at Zod, he went on, "Your time's just about up."
Above and behind his right shoulder, the sun went completely red.
Zod got to his feet with exaggerated dignity and brushed dirt from his uniform.
"You're a fool to face me, Earthman," he declared. "Inside that shell you're just water and bone like the rest of your kind."
"Just like you'll be in about ten minutes," Gryphon replied, angling a thumb at the scarlet glow of Zeta Cygni.
"I don't need ten minutes to crush you," Zod snarled. His heat vision flashed out. Gryphon interposed his right forearm, raising one of his two Pinpoint Barriers. The beams sizzled against the bright green rectangle and were swallowed up.
Roaring, Zod abandoned the attempt and charged. Gryphon raised both hands. The ghostly outlines of pistols appeared in his hands—holographic weapons that channeled the real destructive power of his suit's Ragolian-Covenant hybrid Getter-Plasma weapons array. Green bolts of energy, cousins to Starfire's starbolts, raved from the virtual muzzles of Gryphon's two blasters, peppering Zod's face and upper chest. The Neo-Kryptonian roared louder still, faltering, then pressed his charge.
Gryphon smiled inside his helmet and punched his jetpack's throttles open. As fast as any Kryptonian could have done it, he was gone from Zod's line of attack, streaking straight up into the sky and leaving nothing behind but a ring of vapor and a sonic boom.
He rolled out of his meteor climb at 10,000 feet, turned to a southwesterly heading, and checked his radar. There was Zod, climbing after him. A clever, well-trained aerial fighter, he wasn't chasing Gryphon; he had instead eyeballed an intercept course and was following that, a high parabolic vector that would bring him across Gryphon's path from below just as he reached the edge of the city. Gryphon altered course and increased speed, confounding the attempt.
So far, the suit was working perfectly, and for that Gryphon was very pleased, not only because any failure would have left him at the dubious mercy of Zod.
The XAF-1 Flying Frame: the very last word in personal aerospace technology, save for straight one-off overtech items like the GRF series. Its core systems represented the next generation in the IPO's revolutionary combination of Ragolian, Covenant, Zentraedi, and Zetan overtechnology. Its materials were the finest yet conceived by science. Production models were expected to reach the first units in the summer of 2411.
It would not be cheap, and it would require a lot of training to use properly, but its backers—Gryphon included—were convinced that the AF-1, as the production model would be known, would save a lot of lives. Today was the first opportunity for the prototype to prove that contention... or not.
Taking Zod into the city was a calculated risk. With most civilians evacuated and aerospace traffic grounded, few people would be put directly at risk, but the potential for property damage was quite high. On the other hand, New Avalon's steel and concrete canyons would provide Gryphon with a maneuvering advantage, since he knew the city intimately—even from this peculiar angle—and Zod did not. If he took the general out over Lake Daniels, they would be in a straight aerial race, and in an atmosphere, the XAF-1 might not have the speed to make that work.
Downtown, with the help of its inertia-cancelling Zentraedi maneuver control system and with a pilot who knew the city, the suit had an edge—and even with the sun turned to red by Cortana's brilliant manipulation of Sphere Control's Avalon environment systems, he'd need one to put down an opponent like Zod.
There followed an intricate cat-and-mouse game through the airspace of the city, among the towers and spires, around the great ziggurat of the Aztechnology building, up and down the glittering chrome flanks of GENOM Tower. Slashes of heat vision and barrages of G-Plasma fire scored hits on both sides, chewing away the energy reserves of the XAF-1's photonic armor on the one side and battering at Zod's resiliency on the other. On the rare occasions when the two combatants actually crossed paths, blows were exchanged, denting the XAF-1's plastron and bloodying Zod's nose.
Kara Zor-El and Raven watched it all from the roof of the International Police building. Raven didn't like it—she was supposed to be taking Kara to the hospital, where the rest of the Titans were already safely ensconced—but Kara insisted, and given what the girl had invested in this fight, Raven couldn't find it in herself to deny her.
Luornu Durgo watched it all from the artillery observation tower on Gallery Island, the 75th-floor sightseeing deck of the Entire State Building, and the situation monitor holotank in the IPO Emergency Communications Center. Amber Lu, her more aggressive self, mimed punches and cheered; Violet Lu, her meeker side, winced and looked away often; and just plain Lu, her balanced part, stayed on the phones, coordinating the many other IPO agents throughout the city who were fighting fires and trying to restore services knocked out by the earlier rampages of the Zodite agents.
Edison Carter watched it all from Puckett's Landing, and the whole galaxy watched with him.
"The Science Council of New Krypton deplores the unwarranted and uncivilized actions of the renegade Dru-Zod," Ral-Uv was saying in the subfeed window from Kandor, but almost no one was paying attention. "He is hereby stripped of all Neo-Kryptonian rank and office. A warrant for his arrest has been issued by the new director of the Department of Expatriate Affairs..."
The message, wryly delivered by Amber Lu, crackled out on the IPO and NAPD tactical channels, not that it made any functional difference now:
"Unnecessary violence in the apprehension of General Zod has been approved."
Zod could feel himself weakening, his flight speed slowing. The blasts from Gryphon's weapons hurt now, and were doing actual damage to his uniform and the hide underneath. Heat vision required effort. Soon flying would as well. The filthy Earthman was waiting him out, playing on his temper and his frustration to make him waste his energy.
Well, no more.
Summoning all the iron self-discipline that had carried him from humble beginnings to his exalted position, he gathered up his strength and poured it into a sudden burst of speed. The maneuver took Gryphon off-guard. Zod slammed into him, the impact depleting the last of his suit's photonic armor. The slick semi-visible bodyshield flickered and went out, allowing Zod to get a grip on the suit. He dug the fingers of one hand into Gryphon's left pauldron, deforming the metal. Gryphon twisted, punching him in the side over a particularly painful-looking plasma burn.
Hissing through his teeth, Zod lost his grip, tried to renew it, and tore the XAF-1's domed outer helmet halfway off at the seal ring, causing the duracrys facebowl to explode in a shower of safety-blunt crystal pebbles.
Gryphon's inner helmet saved him from having the top of his skull sliced off as the deformed seal ring whanged into his temple on the way up and over. He rolled with the blow, negating most of what the helmet didn't stop, and punched Zod once, twice, three times across the jaw with alternating fists. The Neo-Kryptonian faltered, visibly logy now, and Gryphon kicked himself free, tearing off the twisted remains of the outer helmet in the process. Kicking in full thrust, he shot skyward again, this time unloading a full barrage of G-Plasma fire downward as he went.
Zod, pelted by the energy, reeled in midair, but still he didn't drop. Instead, summoning up another manic burst of energy, he blasted after his foe with heat vision. The beams slashed upward and punched through the XAF-1's armored side, missing Gryphon's body but killing power to the suit's right arm. Smoke trailed after the armored figure as he flipped out of his climb and threw himself into a power dive. Zod blasted at him again. He snapped up his left Pinpoint Barrier to stop it, but the need to do so robbed him of the opportunity to strafe Zod as he passed. The starboard thruster on his backpack was beginning to sputter.
Kara could stand and watch no longer. She tried to take to the air, but gave a small cry of pain and dropped back to the rooftop after only an inch or so of headway—not even as far as a normal human could jump.
"What are you doing?" Raven asked.
Holding her injured ribs with one hand, Kara turned to Raven, looked her in the eyes, and said, "I need your help."
Raven blinked in surprise. "What?"
"Get me up there."
"What?" Raven repeated.
Kara made a small noise of frustration. "I can't fly... but I can still fight. Just get me to him. I'll do the rest."
For a moment, Raven didn't respond. She stood staring back, her eyes unreadable, as Kara's brilliant blue gaze bored into them.
Then she smiled very slightly and said quietly, "You got it."
Gryphon banked behind a building for a moment and completed an emergency shunt that restored power to his right arm and stabilized his thruster balance again. He wasn't sure the patch would hold—these systems were somewhat unfamiliar—but it was the best he could do in a few seconds. He had to press his advantage, such as it was, before Zod regained his composure.
He rocketed out around the other side and made for the would-be dictator. Zod started to move to meet him, intent on making it a slugging match again—and Gryphon stopped him cold with another barrage of G-Plasma fire. Zod pitched back, reeled, lost altitude, regained it, as the green bolts of energy tore at his clothes and his rapidly-weakening hide. Another couple of seconds and he was sure to drop—
With a sharp crack and a stinging jolt of pain to Gryphon's side, something in the damaged area of the XAF-1's systems blew. Both weapons arrays went dead, the hard-light virtual pistols vanishing. His right arm blacked out altogether again, dropping heavily to his side. He tried the Pinpoint Barrier on the left arm, got a small but stable disc, shoved it to the knuckles of his gauntlet, and called on the backpack for everything it could give him.
Zod recovered his wits, surprised that the Earthman hadn't finished him off, and saw Gryphon powering toward him with one arm limp, no evident weapons, and an obvious fire burning in the right flank of his suit. He smiled.
He didn't have much strength left, but what he had was enough to punch a fist through his miserable foe's toy suit and reduce his feeble heart to mush. The day was lost, and possibly all his hopes with it, but at least this infuriating insect wouldn't live to boast that he had defeated the almighty Zod.
He opened his mouth to roar a challenge and started to throw himself into the charge when a voice from behind him cried,
Zod's mind went blank with shock. He whirled sluggishly—
- and saw Kara Zor-El hurtling toward him, her right fist cocked for a punch, her scarlet cape flying behind her.
Her blow, delivered with all the strength left in her sore, injured body, connected at almost exactly the same time as Gryphon's.
Zod's consciousness went out like a candle before a gale. He dropped like a stone toward Tesla Square.
All of Kara's momentum from the spell of Raven's that had hurled her into the sky went into him, and she, too, began to fall.
Gryphon squeezed a little more speed out of his coughing jetpack, got his good arm under her—and then the thrusters sputtered and went dark.
Smiling her darkly satisfied smile, Raven got all four of them to the ground in one piece.
In the square, a few citizens who either hadn't made it to their shelters, hadn't gone, or had come out to have a look when the aerial fight started appearing on TV gathered and started applauding. A moment later, Edison Carter barrelled around a corner on a borrowed NAPD Cyclone, his ethercam balanced on his shoulder, and skidded to a halt in front of them. A uniformed cop pulled a fire extinguisher from his car and applied it to the small blaze in the side of Gryphon's XAF-1, for which Gryphon was most grateful.
That was the tableau viewers all over the galaxy saw on Network 23, and all the other networks that were paying through the nose for Net23's exclusive feed of this remarkable incident: Gryphon panting for breath in his stout and battered spacesuit, Raven dark-cloaked and silent beside him, a burned and bloodied General Zod sprawled at his feet, and a somewhat bruised but bright-eyed blonde girl in a colorful costume supported by his left arm, while a New Avalon police officer sprayed fire-retardant foam at him.
"Chief Hutchins!" Edison said, jumping off the Cyclone and advancing with a broad smile on his face. "Edison Carter, Network 23. Do you have any comment?"
Gryphon set Kara down on her feet, gave Edison a "one moment please" palm, knelt next to Zod, leaned down, and, still catching his breath, panted, "Dru-Zod of New Krypton... you're under arrest."
"Nnngh," Zod replied.
The steadily growing crowd of onlookers applauded wildly.
Edison turned his camera to Kara.
"Miss, we're live and direct on Network 23. The Science Council of New Krypton has determined that General Zod framed you for the attack on the Neo-Kryptonian embassy earlier today as a pretext for his attack on you. Any comments?"
"He hurt a lot of people today, not just me," Kara replied. "I'm glad I was able to help bring him to justice."
"Is it true that you're the long-lost niece of Jor-El, as reported in the New Avalon Cornet-Scientifer last week?"
"Yes, that's true," Kara said.
"Edison, can we do this later?" Gryphon asked. "Kara needs medical attention, and so, to be quite frank, do I."
"Just one more question," Edison said. Turning back to Kara, he asked with his trademark grin, "Does that mean we get to call you Supergirl?"
"If you like," she said.
Geoff Depew was getting a little annoyed. By the time Diana got him to the emergency room the day before, he'd felt fine. Whatever had brought on his little fainting spell, it was clearly not as important as the injuries suffered by various members of the public. But had the medical staff let him leave as a result? Noooo. They'd just kept him lying around all night—"under observation"—while they dealt with the other patients, then run a battery of tests in the morning.
Now he sat and stewed in a private room while he waited for his doctor to come tell him nothing was wrong with him. It was an irritating waste of time. He wanted to get out of the hospital, get a damn haircut and something to eat, and report back to Headquarters to see if there was any follow-up investigation to be done.
The door opened and B.J. Hunnicut walked in, smiling broadly.
"Well, Geoff, I'm pleased to report that there's nothing wrong with you except the presence of a steadily growing alien symbiont that's systematically replacing your body tissue."
Geoff grunted. That news didn't alarm him, as Hunnicut knew it wouldn't; that was what the Daodan was supposed to do.
"So why did I faint?" he asked.
"Near as we can figure, something in the environment you were exposed to dramatically shortened the time to the onset of Daodan resurgence," Hunnicut said. "We're doing some computer models now to try and figure out what, but that's what made you pass out, anyway—your regeneration cycle kicked in almost immediately after vigorous activity ceased, instead of after the usual five or ten minutes."
"Could the pseudokryptonite have done that?" Geoff asked.
"Not supposed to," Hunnicut said, shrugging, "but with the Daodan there's still a lot of stuff we don't know. The biodynamics lab is working on it. In the meantime, you might as well get out of here."
Geoff nodded. "Thanks, BJ. See you around."
He left the room, turned to head for the elevator, and was surprised to find Diana Prince waiting in the hallway. She had on street clothes again, not the odd uniform she'd been wearing the day before, and she looked pleased to see him.
"I thought you hated hospitals," he said.
"I do," she replied, "but I wasn't very gracious the last time you got hurt helping me out, and I wanted to do better this time."
Geoff grinned. "Actually, I didn't get hurt," he said. "I just fainted. Pretty silly."
Diana shook her head. "There's nothing silly about it. You were working very hard. What you did was quite an achievement."
"Eh... it's not quite that simple. Long story."
Diana smiled. "Perhaps you wouldn't mind telling me over lunch?"
Geoff had to stop and think about that. For about half a second.
"Sure," he said.
Gryphon stood in the doorway of his office watching the glaziers replacing his windows. He sighed. His little tussle with Zod had really made a mess. He wasn't sure where he was going to get a new video tube for his Space Paranoids machine; he might have to make one. Still, it could've been worse. At least Zod hadn't set the place on fire out of spite on his way out.
The telephone in his outer office rang. He'd given Lu the day off, so he sloped out and answered it himself.
"Ben, are you all right?" came the voice of Skuld Ravenhair.
"Yeah, I'm fine," he replied. "I got a little scorched, but it healed up overnight. The XAF-1 wasn't quite so lucky, but the shop guys say it's not too bad, and it's given them some new ideas for shielding and systems integration."
"From what I heard, you gave it a pretty good workout."
"It worked great," Gryphon said. "The sooner we can get them into the field, the better."
"That's not the only project we need to accelerate," Skuld said.
"I'm not sure what you mean," he replied.
"You know perfectly well what I mean," Skuld said in a no-nonsense tone. "If I didn't have CARDINAL here, you could have—"
"Hold on," Gryphon broke in. "I've got another call." He punched a key on the phone. "Gryphon here. ... What? Uh-huh. Uh-huh. ... Great. OK, thanks. Keep me posted. Bye."
He sat on the corner of Lu's desk for a minute, then sighed and punched Skuld's line open again. "Skuld, we're going to have to go over that ground some other time. That was Yuri. The transport taking General Zod back to New Krypton for trial never arrived. I'm sending a Defiant to search their route, and I want you to go with it."
"What about BRIGHTEST DAY?" Skuld persisted.
Gryphon thought for a second or two, then said, "All right. Carte blanche, get it done—but no promises about CARDINAL."
"OK. I'll be waiting for pickup—which ship are you sending?"
"I'm not sure yet. I'll send you an email."
"All right." Skuld hesitated, then said, "Ben?"
"You did good."
Gryphon chuckled. "Thanks. It was... well, this sounds weird, but it was fun. I haven't fought as a jumptrooper since... well, hell, I can't even remember. Nice to know I've still got it."
"Take care. I'll be waiting for your email."
"You too. Be careful out there."
Skuld rang off; Gryphon hung up the phone, then got up and headed down to the Space Force office to round up a ride for her.
That afternoon, Kara turned up in street clothes at the hospital to visit the Titans. Once SphereCon had turned the sun yellow again, she had recovered from her own injuries with almost unseemly haste, and she felt a little guilty about it as she saw her battered, bandaged friends propped up in their beds. Amazingly, though, their injuries weren't all that serious—apart from Cyborg, Zod had been more interested in getting them out of his way than doing them great harm. Most were being kept for the inevitable "observation", and would be going home later in the day.
Looking a little downcast, she hung her head and said, "I'm sorry, you guys."
Robin (he looked a little silly in a hospital gown and his mask, but the staff at Boyce were good about that kind of thing, even if they knew who he was) gave her a puzzled look.
"Sorry? What for?"
Kara raised an eyebrow. "Uh... for almost getting you all killed?"
"Oh, that?" Robin made a dismissive gesture. "Eh, that'll happen."
"Part of the biz," Stargirl concurred offhandedly.
"Yeah," Batgirl (who had, at least, dispensed with her cowl—that would have been just too surreal) agreed. "Totally."
"My injuries hardly even hurt," Starfire assured Kara earnestly. "Like you, I recover very quickly."
Cyborg, who had perhaps the most reason to complain—he had, at the moment, no limbs—grinned broadly and said, "I'm getting new parts!"
"I got to be on TV!" Wally West—no mask for him—chimed in.
"I didn't like that Batjet anyway," Batgirl added.
Kara was laughing when the door opened and a lanky young man she hadn't seen before entered. He was dressed in a green coverall and carrying a toolbox, had a bright red Vandyke beard, and he'd shaved his head cueball bald.
"I go out of town for a couple of days," he said in a mellow voice, shaking his head with a smile, "and you guys get the hell kicked out of you. The Tower's a mess. Looks like somebody threw a car through it."
"Uh... actually, somebody threw me through it," Kara admitted.
He turned and eyed her, then grinned. "You must be Kara, then. Sorry I didn't get to meet you earlier—I was at the Electronics Expo on Meizuri." He switched his toolbox to his left hand and stuck out his right. "Lex Luthor."
Kara shook the hand. "Kara Zor-El."
"I do tech maintenance, repair, and R&D for the Titans," Luthor explained. "And judging by the amount of broken gear that's scattered all over the island," he added with a pointed look at Batgirl, "I've got a busy week ahead of me."
"Quit your bitching, Lex," Cyborg said cheerfully. "You've been wanting to re-do my photon cannon for months."
Luthor set his toolbox on a small table next to Cyborg's rack, opened it, and grinned again. "Well, it looks like I'll get to do a lot more for you than that, Cy, unless you want us to start calling you Bob."
Two doors down the hall, Len Snart lay back, reading a book on thermodynamics. He felt fine, except for the slightly itchy temporary cast on his leg; fortunately, he was in line for a bone-bond later in the day.
"I'm glad Lisa brought over my trode rig," he remarked to his roommate. "At least I can telepresence class this afternoon."
From under a powerful infrared lamp on the other side of the room, Heat Wave—Maka'rori when he wasn't wearing his white suit—snorted.
"You are such a nerd, Len," he said.
Gryphon got home at a little after 5:30 and found the house empty. The first couple of messages on his answerphone were from distant friends who had belatedly caught word of his tangle with Zod and wanted to offer their congratulations. The third...
"Hey, I just wanted to let you know—I'm over at Titans Tower helping the guys put things back together now that they're all out of the hospital. And then I think we're gonna get a pizza, so you're on your own for dinner. Oh, um, this is Kara. Y'know, we really need a house droid. I hate talking to a machine. ... Um, you know. Anyway, see you later tonight. Bye!"
Gryphon chuckled. Didn't take her long to settle in, did it?
He went into the kitchen, looked into the fridge, didn't like the prospects much, and was just thinking about what to do next when the doorbell rang. He went, opened the door, then smiled in surprise.
"Oh hey," he said. "I figured you'd be up at the Tower with the others..."
When Kara got home at 11, she found Gryphon in the den, kicked back in a recliner, reading.
"Hey," she said, leaning down to give him a kiss on the cheek.
"Hey," he replied, putting down his book. "How's the Tower?"
"Mostly back together," Kara said. She down on the couch. "As is Cyborg," she added with a giggle.
Gryphon laughed. "Good. You'll be pleased to know that the cleanup work downtown is coming along nicely as well, and that your picture was on the front pages of about three-quarters of the newspapers in the Standard-speaking galaxy this morning."
She went a little red at that last part. "Flavor of the week, huh?" she said.
"Maybe, maybe not," Gryphon replied with a shrug. "Depends on whether you back it up. I figure you've got what it takes."
"So you're OK with me... you know, and the costume? Robin said I could join the Titans if I wanted."
"If that's what you want to do, go for it," he said. "You—where are you going?"
"Downtown," she said, pulling her sweatshirt over her head to reveal the top of her costume. "Robin got a tip that the Sky Raiders were going to hit the Geotech building at 11:30. Since you said it's OK," she added with a grin, "we've got a little surprise for them."
Gryphon laughed. "You'd think after all this time I'd learn to recognize a setup when one comes along," he said, getting to his feet.
Kara took off her jeans and fluffed out her skirt, then gave him her brightest smile and said, "I guess it just runs in the family."
"I guess so." He gave her a hug. "Go get 'em, Supergirl."
She gave a briskly mock-serious salute. "Yes, sir!" she said, then grinned, opened the sliding door to the side deck, and took to the air.
He was half-tempted to go strap on his X-3, grab a couple of blasters and join her... but no. Wouldn't do to crowd the kids like that. They'd be happy to have him along, he knew, but it might cramp their style.
Instead, he chuckled to himself, shut the door, and picked up his book again.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Robert E. Mandeville
Kei J. Morgan
Graig tz'An Daarst
Lee Roy Lincoln
Benjamin J. Hunnicut XVIII, M.D.
With a plotting shout-out to
and the generous help of
The Usual Suspects
Flash's typing coach
Inspirational debts owed to
Siegel & Schuster, of course
Otto Binder (twice!) & Al Plastino
Jeph Loeb & Michael Turner
Chris Claremont & Bob McLeod
and many others
The XAF-1 derived from a design by
Supergirl will return
E P U (colour) 2005