July 25, 2009
4 Sworn, Session Three
How does your light shine, in the halls of Shambala
Perdition stood in the dark and incense-clouded halls of Shambhala, relating to parties unseen his discoveries relating the Ansar al-Islam group to the mysterious Man With Green Gloves.
“You have done well to report your findings ... and what is it you seek here?”
"Knowledge to defeat an eldritch foe if such a foe can be defeated."
Cryptic words echoed through the halls. This was the way of the Secret Masters.
“The illusion of stability is shattered. The reality that you know is as the surface of a pond in a sudden thaw. All manner of change is possible, and woe to he caught unaware when it freezes once more. Consult Ta Kuo – Hexagram 28”
“Agartha’s master senses this… has sensed it long before mortal eyes and ears were stirred. He redoubles his efforts to leverage the celestial order to that which is the joy of his desiring.”
“Events shall transpire which will be the fulcrums for this reordering. To recognize them and to intervene wisely is the mandate of light.”
“There are tools to facilitate this – tools of the mind and of the heart. Tools which we in our cloisters cannot usefully describe, though we might recognize them on sight, and which you, relying upon your acquired and inborn wisdom might recognize if brought to hand.”
“But beware, for others seek and already use these implements for darker ends.”
The Team Regroups
The Firehawk was set in late dusk's darkening seas like a gem lit by hundreds of tiny lights. The PsiPlane approached this island of speckled brightness and tapped the mighty vessel's landing pad gently, then relaxed upon its birdlike landing gear and settled. As the pad retracted into the bowels of the ship, Psion, Victorine, and Zap! disembarked. Psion and Zap! carried the components of the bomb to the ship's labs for analysis and Victorine headed for mission ops.
In the lab, Psion summoned Mindy Westerberg and directed her to dissect the bomb to its discrete components with the objective of finding parts that had an easily traced history. Meanwhile, he began to study the sphere of phase-changed hafnium-178 -- the explosive material ripped from the weapon's heart by Crysto only an hour earlier.
As he consulted the lab's computers, a casual glance at the security feeds from the ship's brig caught his attention. He zoomed the display and panned it across the quiet cabin, puzzled at the sight of Fleur du Mal's whithered and decayed corpse. How curious, he thought. The woman had been interrogated only hours earlier and showed no sign of illness. Replaying records made by DCSI, he watched a replay of camera recordings from her cell. She retired to her bunk, quickly took on a gray pallor, then died and appeared to fall into an advanced state of decay within the passage of only minutes. Psion looked at the explosive core he'd been hoping to analyze and regretted that its mysteries needed to wait.
The View From Inside My Skull
In the British Museum, Galax, shrunken to the size of a particle and hidden within one of the orbital sockets of the museum's crystal skull, unconsciously mouthed the dialog as he re-re-rewatched Fawlty Towers episodes until sudden motion diverted his attention. The skull was apparently lifted from its vault... then moved more smoothly... on a cart, perhaps? He idly speculated while waiting for the movement to stop -- was that "dropping" sensation a descent in an elevator, or perhaps travel through a dimensional portal? Waiting a few beats after coming to a halt, with lights seemingly beginning to swirl about the skull, he grew a bit to a size where he could better perceive visible wavelengths, and moved to the skull's right orbital to observe his surroundings.
The skull sat on some sort of table, surrounded by a frame holding lights and lasers projecting at the artifact. A man in a white lab coat studied a computer screen. A British Museum ID badge hung from his coat pocket. Galax switched orbitals for a new viewing angle, and the man seemed concerned, calling over a colleague to look at his display. A previously undetected flaw was concern enough, indicating possible damage sustained in the robbery, but could the flaw possibly be moving? More likely there was some problem with the system, requiring recalibration.
Galax withdrew from observing as the technicians returned the skull to its cart. It moved again and fell into darkness, which Galax's subsequent scans identified as some sort of secure vault. With a sigh, he resumed watching Basil's attempts to recover the poisoned meat...
Back on the Firehawk
Psion entered Fleur du Mal's holding cell, backed by two shotgun-toting security guards to take a tissue -- or more appropriately soil -- sample. Subsequent analysis revealed advanced decomposition equivalent to years of decay.
By June 10, tracking of the bomb components indicated that the x-ray emitters had been purchased in Europe by the Islamic charitable aid organization Ansar al-Hawari, that allegedly intended to supply them to hospitals in Pakistan. With offices in Dubai and Geneva, the organization was, like many similar international Islamic charities, linked to various terrorist and political associations in the Middle East. Zap! attempted to investigate the emitter theft via the Internet, but quickly found that Kashmiri law enforcement's recordkeeping was even less advanced than New York's.
Psion explored the technical requirements facing the creators of the bomb. The core might have been created by "charging" hafnium to the required energy state, but that would require enormous energy expenditure, either a massive dedicated power plant, or perhaps some sort of zero-point energy application, but if one could harness energies like that, why would they need to play with hafnium? Alternatively, hafnium particles of that energy state might be separated from lower energy particles, but this would likely require a prodigious supply of hafnium raw materials, as well as considerable time. Perhaps subspace technology might have been used to expedite the process...
Shockwave Takes the Initiative
Shockwave met again with Miss Cleo to discuss the mystic's research into The Flaming Skull. Cleo revealed that the Skull, while widely known in current occult circles, seemed not to have much of a history as demons go. Her conclusion was that the Flaming Skull's form was effectively a mask -- a thought-form generated by legions of metalhead Satanist wannabes as a sort of patron evil spirit. That being the case, the Thanocaster guitar was the likely instrument used to summon the Flaming Skull.
Zap's earlier search for the Thanocaster having come to naught, Shockwave sought a lead on Archdeacon Hellfrost. The others seemed content to bury their heads in research, but that, like most things, didn't produce results fast enough for her. She needed some way to flush Hellfrost out again... Force his hand... But what would get his attention? What would get the attention of a musician? A smile raced across her face. What would get the attention of an egotistical musician? She sat down at a computer and did a quick search with an almost instant reward. Of course he had a MySpace page. Chuckling to herself, she created an account supposedly associated with the punk music club CBGB in Manhattan, then used that account to write some nasty things about Hellfrost's so-called talent and guitar skills on his MySpace page. Who cares if it went nowhere, she thought to herself. It's an effort to be proactive instead of reactive. She called Victorine on her communicator and laid out her plan ....
Victorine's cloak let both she and Shockwave out in an alley near Bowery Street in Manhatten sometime later. Disguised as punkers, they walked around trash and out onto Bowery and then a couple blocks to the club. CBGB's double-doored entrance stood under a tattered white awning and flanked by two windows hawking club merchandise and a scrawny bald guy dressed in a denim jacket and glasses shouting into his cellphone. Shockwave and Victorine looked at each other, grinning with excitement as they pulled the two doors open by their mis-matched handles and entered the club.
The two heroes stepped into a post-apocalyptic vision of a night club; a world of over-amped music and unfinished walls covered with layer-upon-layer of tattered posters, bumper stickers, and graffiti. Two men sat near the doors behind desks heaped with papers. An old man wearing jeans, sneakers, and an unbuttoned flannel shirt carelessly draped over a t-shirt greeted them by shoving his baseball cap up and down then held up both hands and all ten fingers. Victorine and Shockwave looked at each other and laughed, then paid the man the cover charge.
Probing deeper into the club and closer to the source of the pounding rhythm, the two squeezed through tight knots of people. The crowd was surprisingly eclectic, though it favored piercings, tattoos, and Ramones t-shirts. A well-stocked bar along the right wall drove a constant exchange of patrons moving to and from the source of liquor and beer. Shockwave made an effort to show off her t-shirt, a simple black top with "Hellfrost Sucks" stenciled in white across the front and back. Few took notice of the insult, but a some laughed, and one man with piercings on his left brow gave her a thumbs-up. Give it time, she told herself. They'd just gotten here, and needed to mingle more. She nodded with her head towards the stage and led Victorine further back.
Past the bar, floor space opened for the stage, where a band called "Onion Jello" discordantly shrieked their mockery of love or government or something, and punctuated their lyrics with electric guitars and the insufficient efforts of a talented drummer. Victorine wondered how badly her ears or taste in music would be compromised by Shockwave's plan, but mercifully, a lead soon presented itself when she spotted a powerfully built, tall woman shouting questions near the bar. One patron laughed and pointed towards the stage, fingering Shockwave. Victorine rushed over and slapped Shockwave on the shoulder, pointing the approaching woman out.
The woman knifed through the crowd and strode confidently up to Shockwave. She pointed at the insulting t-shirt and shouted her annoyance. Shockwave sneered, "Bring it, bi-otch!" The woman's face contorted with fury and her arm drove at Shockwave's jaw like a locomotive. Shockwave easily sidestepped the punch, then spun and swept the woman's legs out from under her. The woman flipped backwards, her head impacting the unfinished floorboards violently.
Shockwave and Victorine looked at each other. "What happened, V?!" Victorine looked down at the woman's limp form and knelt at her side. The crowd circled and became quiet, even though Onion Jello remained oblivious of the events.
"She's breathing, but it doesn't look good."
"I thought she was a super! Look how strong she is!"
"We have to get her to the infirmary back on the ship. Help me get her up!"
Shockwave bent down and the two lifted the woman and carried her towards the restrooms. Victorine called Psion back on the Firehawk. "We have an injury, can you get a doctor ready?"
Back on the ship, Psion looked away from the hafnium-178 sphere and answered, "What? There's a lot of noise in your signal. Did you request a doctor?"
Victorine's voice answered through the ship's speakers. "Yes! We have a head trauma victim and need immediate care."
Psion blinked. Who was injured? But head trauma was never good. "Bring them to me. I'm in the engineering lab." Victorine signaled an acknowledgement and a moment later she and Shockwave appeared as though stepping through an invisible doorway, supporting an inert body between them.
The telepath paused briefly to take in the unconventional appearance of his colleagues, then stepped close and opened his mind as he examined the victim. "There's no conscious thought. Bad swelling over the occipital region. Irregular breathing and clammy skin." He looked from Shockwave to Victorine. "Hold her steady." He covered her face with his right hand as his left cupped the back of her head. He and the woman then took a deep breath simultaneously and Psion's normally blue wings shimmered with silver sparks as he moved his face closer to hers. He grimaced in pain, then clamped his lips into a thin line. Her own expressions mimicked his as he worked and soon began to relax. After a minute, he withdrew and sighed. "She's still unconscious, but okay. We should get her to the infirmary, though, and let the doctor run a medical scan on her."
Down in sickbay, the doctor withdrew after pronouncing her stable. Shockwave sent for Perdition, and she explained the incidents at the club to Perdition and Psion. "Psion, we need to check her out, can you read her mind and tell us what she knows?"
"Absolutely not," the telepath refused. "You've already injured her, now you want me to violate her privacy?"
Perdition spoke up, "I can question her. Put her into a... deep hypnotic trance."
Psion crossed his arms. "I'm not going to have anything to do with this," and walked from the cabin.
Perdition held the mystical Ring of Xian before the woman's face. Her eyes locked onto its unnaturally shimmering carved surface and her pupils instantly dilated.
"What is your name," Perdition asked.
"Tell me everything you know about Archdeacon Hellfrost."
She rhapsodized at length about the depth and passion and importance of his work, to music itself and to searching souls facing the emptiness of...
"How long have you known him?"
"I haven't seen him in the last six months."
"Where did you last see him?"
"At a club in New Jersey ... Dell's Roadhouse near Freehold."
"Why did you attack these women?"
"Because they were talking trash about Hellfrost!"
"Who told you to attack them?"
"Do you know any of his other acquaintances? How to get in touch with them?"
"I used to know them, but after about a year ago, after he got the Thanocaster, they only back him up at impromptu concerts."
"What's the name of the band?"
"The Dark Legion."
"What are the names of the band members?"
"Dusty on bass, Scar on second guitar, Loki on drums."
"When's the last time they played anywhere?"
"The last concert I saw them at was six months ago."
"Darla, I'm going to put you to sleep for a few minutes. When you wake up, the last thing you remember will be at the club, and falling down and hitting your head."
Victorine returned Darla to the reeking CBGB floor, while Shockwave entered her apartment through the wall to explore. A few mass-market occultist artifacts and books cluttered an apparent research area on a battered old rolltop desk, overlooked by a prominently placed, autographed "Dark Legion" poster. An ID badge on the desk identified Darla as an assistant librarian in the New York Public system. No real leads, though. Shockwave withdrew into the ceiling to observe when Darla eventually returned home, retrieved a knuckle dagger from a hidden compartment in the desk, and went to bed.
Darla awoke in the morning, put the dagger back in the desk along with a collection of other edged weapons, got dressed, and went to work. Shockwave searched the secret compartment, and found a small piece of paper bearing two scrawled phrases:
"Amber Properties?" "Von Ditfurth Letters/Research"
Shockwave relayed the notes to Victorine, who had followed Darla to the branch library where she worked. Victorine stalked the oblivious aide through the stacks for a while, hoping that she'd take a break to do some research of her own, but nothing of the kind transpired. Finally Victorine approached in hopes of precipitating a revealing response. "Do you have any books on crystal skulls?"
Darla looked up from her cart with a disdainful smirk, and tolerantly led Victorine to a section full of "New Age" and pseudoscientific works, before returning to her restacking chores.
Victorine returned to her side almost immediately. "Do you know if there are any skulls made out of amber?"
Darla's gaze shifted. Less superior now, perhaps even concerned, but mostly perplexed -- "Shhhh please! I really don't know. If there's anything about such a thing, it would be in the section I showed you." She moved away with her cart, even though she clearly wasn't done restacking in that section.
Victorine let her go long enough to get her hopes up. and then returned to her side. "What about von Ditfurth? Do you have anything about von Ditfurth's research?"
Darla's eyes flashed, and her expression looked almost hopeful. "General Wolfgang von Ditfurth?"
"Uh, no. Hoimar von Ditfurth." The most seemingly promising results of Victorine's own brief web searches had been on a popular science author of the '70s and '80s, a sort of "Carl Sagan of Germany". But apparently that wasn't what Darla was seeking after all...
Back Inside My Skull
Many days had passed since the crystal skull entered the vault. Galax had taken a break from videos to review his library databases. The villains would be back, of that he was certain. It was the nature of such things, and a moment's lapse of vigilance would be the equivalent of an engraved invitation. He stretched and yawned heartily, when a glimmer of light flashed at the periphery of his vision... a particularly perplexing development given the darkness of the vault. "A fault in my helmet display?" he thought, as the glimmer repeated, rainbow-hued this time. "An effect of radiation exposure?" The microscopic titan unsealed his helmet and pushed it back, rubbing his eyes and looking around.
Nothing but darkness at first, until a hint of light flickered again at the edge of his eye, quickly dancing out of his field of view. To his left and right, greens and reds and yellows sparkled into existence. He dropped his helmet over his face and looked around with his sensors, but the readings showed nothing. Frowning, he lifted his helmet again and watched the lights as they grew brighter and focused in the center of his vision. Lowering his headgear again to confirm that the lights still didn't show on any of his electronics, he finally removed it entirely and studied the lightshow with his naked eyes.
A green blob centered itself in his field of view, then red-speckled highlights, and finally the image resolved into a row of heads skewered, kabab-like, on a stake. Then his gaze took in several more stakes stacked into a rack, and all the light and color became even more vivid as Galax found himself on a plaza at the base of a tall pyramid surrounded by chanting... Aztecs? Down the steps of the pyramid, a lifeless body tumbled to the base ... the corpse's heart clearly missing from a gaping hole. Repulsed, he took in the sights around him with grim resolve, realizing that he no longer wore his own costume, but rather was adorned in some kind of colorful ceremonial attire, covered with jade and gold ornaments, and wearing a headdress with large, green feather plumes. Even more ominously, his normally wooden arm appeared all too fleshy and vulnerable.
The crowd around him urged him forward, towards the pyramid. Assuming the worst, Galax saw little reason to mount the steps and risk losing his own heart. Two warriors rushed forward, wearing attire not dissimilar to his own, to collect the lifeless body that had just come to rest and he reasoned that perhaps he was expected to assist. The warriors seemed agitated by his help, instead pointing to the structure's apex and kneeling. "You must seek your reward, great one!"
To the left and right, the crowd echoed the two men's gesture. He focused on using his powers to change size or fly, but no such ability manifested. He felt healthy enough, but distressingly less formidable... less securely insulated from his environment... more viscerally aware of its heat and humidity... of the beating of his own heart, heaviness of his own breath, and the rush of his blood through his veins. Reluctantly, he began to ascend. Perhaps he could ascend part way, then run down another side and into the safety of the jungle. But no, as he gained elevation, he could see no path that was not blocked by chanting masses. Without powers, they could overwhelm him and force him up the pyramid. Or simply dispatch him on the ground. He climbed higher.
Soon he noticed his arms growing fairer, and the hair on them lighter and finer. With each step ascended, the mass of his body seemed to shift subtly and before long he realized his proportions had become distinctly feminine. His apprehension against climbing the stairs had faded too; replaced with anger directed at the stairs that stood between him and the apex. An electric jolt scudded up his spine, goading him to accept the challenge.. to stride to the altar... to claim what was... hers!
At the top of the pyramid, at an elevation that afforded him a magnificent view commanding both the jungle and chanting crowd below, he looked at the regally attired and blood-drenched priest holding a chalice filled with sacrificial blood. The priest held the chalice over his head, the offered it to Galax who seized it and drank the hot, thick, salty fluid eagerly. He screeched as his body burst into flames, enormous butterfly wings erupted from his back, and black, glassy talons emerged from his fingers.
And then he was alone again. In the dark and still hidden within the socket on the skull.
Meanwhile, Back at the Lab
Psion continued to contemplate the hafnium-178 bomb core. Analysis indicated that it was remarkably spherical -- perhaps more perfect than most machining processes could produce. That either indicated a major, cutting edge industrial facility, or perhaps... Thinking back to his subspace engineering theory, Psion realized the orb had been built molecule-by-molecule, spun silk-like, it seemed, by a process of molecularly porting the isotope through a subspace wormhole. This very act of subspace-directed deposition could induce the phase-change required to render the isotope triggerable.
Such a process would require sustained operation of a subspace generator at fairly high energy. One might detect such a thing fairly easily with the PsiPlane's sensors... had one been looking at the time, that is. Hmmmm... At the time... Psion embarked on the PsiPlane. His previous experiments with its peculiar faster-than-light travel characteristics hinted at the possibility of time travel of a sort. A gravity-linked "snapback" effect had prevented landing on Earth in the past, but perhaps he could get a good enough look at the Earth of a year or so back to detect the emissions he had theorized, and note their source...
Who Ya Gonna Call?
Zap! had passed on the idea of joining Psion on a relativistic road trip. It was unsettling enough having the headquarters powered by an anti-matter reactor partly designed by Psion. The odds of returning to the right planet, at the right time, at a safe velocity, seemed a bit long to be rolling the dice on an investigative hunch. In any event, Zap! was content to wait and read the executive summary. With his own leads played out, the lounge chairs on the Promenade Deck looked particularly inviting to Zap! on a pleasant June afternoon, and he laid claim to one, pineapple cocktail in hand.
He even got to enjoy it for a couple of hours before the Alert Horn sounded. Attack by parties unknown on Customs Seizure Vault in Nogales, AZ. Supervillains likely.
Perdition met Zap! in the conference room. Shockwave and Victorine quickly joined them via Victorine's cape. Psion, Galax, and Cestus remained incommunicado. They were on their own. Victorine referenced the map coordinates, and threw open a portal. Zap! duplicated himself, and the group stepped through.
They arrived in a parking lot across the street from the cement block building housing the vault. No sooner had they arrived than a column of flame rose from over the building and a metallic form instantly recognizable as Karybdis stepped around its corner to throw a late model Buick sedan at them. It hit the razor wire topped chain link fence surrounding the building, dragging it behind as it flew. Shockwave and one of Zap's forms passed harmlessly through the mass, but one Zap! was drawn into the conductive fence and out of sight. Perdition, all too material and impactable, used the mystical Ring of Xian to raise a shield. The car and fence deflected over his head, landing amid other cars in the lot which shattered into a spray of debris.
Shockwave sank into the ground as she advanced at high speed, planning a sharklike attack on Karybdis while Zap! and Perdition provided covering fire. Zap's lightning hit the building, while at least some of Perdition's bullets struck home, though to little effect.
Shockwave surfaced to grapple Karybdis, hoping to drag the amazonian android into the ground and trap her once released from Shockwave's vibration. Unfortunately, Shockwave misjudged the lead of her moving target, and surfaced long and out of reach. Worse yet, she came up in a clear line of sight of Soul Catcher, standing farther back at the side of the building. The Staff of Bone howled, and black fire streamed at Shockwave, who mercifully dodged it back into the sheltering earth.
Perdition continued his two gun volley at Karybdis, who breathed a stream of superheated plasma back at him. The protection of the mystical Ring of Xian fell under the blast, and Perdition was thrown back, scorched.
Shockwave, frustrated, lunged again for Karybdis who, struck by a magnetic blast from Victorine, accidentally sidestepped her again. But this time, as Shockwave altered her vibrational resonances to catch the fell fembot while wheeling to try to find her, she misjudged distances and snagged her left elbow and torso in the cement path, jerking herself to a startling halt. Soul Catcher leveled the Staff of Bone with a smirk.
The pyre towering over the building parted as a statuesque red-haired female form trailing flames and cackling maniacally flew from it. Her attention focused on Victorine until Zap! distracted her with a lightning bolt which noticably annoyed her, and she spewed a jet of fire at him for several seconds which melted the pavement around him, but left him unharmed. Victorine then joined the skirmish with an energy bolt of her own that similarly aggravated the villain, and earned a lengthy but ineffectual fiery response.
As Zap! arced another bolt at his foe, he dimly recalled an old comic book based on a notable real-life supervillain from the '80s... "Jeez! That's gotta be Shee-Ariel! I thought she died years ago. What the hell does she do again? I mean, the fire's obvious but..."
The enraged crimson virago shuddered at Zap's bolt, whirled, and shrieked something indecypherable at Zap!, who felt himself falling, his vision clouding as he plopped to the pavement, transformed into a harmless bullfrog.