Volume I — System Four: Genesis (1989)
In April, 1989, after the disappearance of the Adventurers of America, the city of Philadelphia was left without a significant super human defense. Even ordinary crimes skyrocketed and Captain Firehawk felt an obligation to come out of retirement. He turned to the increasingly reclusive Psion for support, and although the telepath was reluctant to cooperate, Psion felt responsible for the safety of his old friend. Setting aside his plans to complete work on his personal starship and self-exile from the planet, he and Firehawk stood as the last heroes of Philadelphia.
Responding to an emergency call from the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Psion and Firehawk encountered supervillains (ancient Egyptian sorcerer Imhotep, gun-toting arachnoid Skorpion, battle-armored sociopath Violator, and flame-wielding witch Shee-Ariel) on and around the USS Kitty Hawk, then in drydock undergoing SLEP refit. The two heroes quickly incapacitated Imhotep, but were stopped abruptly when Shee-Ariel transformed them both into frogs. The prompt arrival of rookie superheroes Adaptor and Cestus averted disaster, and encouraged the villains to withdraw. Adaptor and Cestus recovered the frogs, and after a brief debate carried them to the Spectrum arena, where they found "maidens" attending a David Bowie concert who were willing to kiss the unintentional amphibians and secure their restoration to heroic form.
With the former Adventurer headquarters beneath City Hall mothballed and Mayor Conan retired to Cimmeria, the new comrades – styling themselves "System Four" – were contacted by Col. Lars Benton, liaison from the FSAB, and set up in new quarters in the recently completed One Liberty Place tower. It soon became evident that System Four's responsibilities were even greater than the team had supposed. Most of the members of both of the world's other two superhero teams - New York's Defenders and the Soviet Union's Directorate of Superbeings - disappeared at about the same time as the Adventurers, leaving only those members (the Directorate's Ukrainian giant Bogatyr and Plamya, able to transform herself into living fire; and the Defenders' aquatic Starfish-Man and Sybil, a mostly non-combatant clairvoyant/psychometrist) whose powers made them ill-suited to space operations.
A series of mysterious incidents soon attracted the notice of System Four. When they responded to a meltdown at the Angra Nuclear Power Plant in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, they found that after a greater than expected burst of radiation from the melting core, it was left a mostly inert mass of depleted uranium. Subsequent investigation determined that less dramatic anomalies in the operations of other nuclear plants globally had been occurring for some time. As other peculiarities came to light (apparent deceleration of the Voyager spacecraft in the outer solar system, and a need for negative "leap seconds" to be added to official global atomic timekeeping) Cestus and Psion speculated that some assumed physical constants might be in flux.
Their investigations were repeatedly interrupted by seemingly random supervillain attacks around Philadelphia. The villains that had struck the navy yard were joined by railgun-wielding android Trooper 2000, living toxic mass Hazmat, ghostly Grim Reaper impersonator Harvestman, and Quasar, a young woman in a flying, force-field generating battlesuit. A battle at the Philadelphia Museum of Art shifted to 30th Street Station and the Post Office complex, culminating in a ramming attack by Psion in his experimental PsiPlane against Violator's anti-matter bazooka sniping position in the derelict railyard smokestack known colloquially as the "Drexel Shaft". The PsiPlane sustained significant damage from the impact, which it regenerated in time, but the "Shaft" partially collapsed, and had to be torn down not long after.
Awaiting the next villain attack, System Four sought to make contact with the world's remaining superheroes. Plamya and Bogatyr proved friendly and cooperative, but focused primarily on the defense of the Motherland. Starfish-Man, largely retired, was friendly to chat with but disturbing to lunch with. Sybil was not only quick to ally with System Four, but seemed to form a stronger bond with Psion, and something resembling a courtship ensued. Sybil also provided the group with additional information on some of the villains they were facing, who had previously done battle with the Defenders. She noted how Starstrike (charismatic co-leader of the Defenders, and romantically linked with Sybil prior to his disappearance) had stressed how powerful and dangerously psychotic Quasar was. While law enforcement data files supported this assertion, there seemed to be no documentary evidence to support it, nor did the experiences of System Four.
A subsequent battle at Penn's Landing with the various supervillains, again acting without clear motive, resulted in a major fire aboard the the restaurant ship Moshulu. Captain Firehawk managed to outflank Violator atop one of the anchorage towers of the Ben Franklin bridge. When Firehawk tore Violator's anti-matter bazooka from its mountings, the villain dove from the tower. Firehawk assumed that his foe was afraid of him, realizing his error only seconds before the overloading bazooka exploded.
The heroes captured an incapacitated Quasar after the fight. When she regained consciousness, they found her to be much less threatening and more cooperative then they had been led to believe. She explained that the villains were being led by an obese telepath known as Mass Mind, who had offered her support against the government forces apparently hunting her to recover the high-tech suit she wore (identified by the project name "Proximate Eclipse"). The group deduced that Mass Mind's broader objectives were to evaluate the capabilities of System Four, and determine whether the global superhero power vacuum since the recent disappearances was as gaping as it seemed. The group decided to shelter Quasar in hope of obtaining more useful information, and until they could determine exactly who the parties were that wanted her dead.
A sudden distress call from the offices of the Centers for Disease Control outside Atlanta resulted in the surprised System Four members battling a group of Klingons. Psion was inadvertently beamed to the Klingon ship, but made the mistake of challenging the warriors before stepping off of the transporter pad, and was promptly returned to the CDC. System Four was able to locate the Klingon Bird of Prey in a remote Smoky Mountain valley and defeat the crew, but not before they initiated a self-destruct sequence on the ship. Fortunately, the blast was far more feeble than expected, destroying the bulk of the hull and killing the Klingons, but leaving the ship's extremities (including wing-mounted disruptor cannon and several photon torpedoes) intact.
Inspection of surviving Klingon computer files indicated that the Klingon Empire was on the verge of defeat in a war with the Federation, and the ship had executed a light-speed "slingshot maneuver" to travel back in time to obtain samples of human HIV that the Klingons hoped could be used to manufacture biological weapons. Detailed inspection of the historical and scientific data on the Bird of Prey revealed that the ship had, in fact, not traveled back in its own timeline as planned, but rather jumped to an unconnected alternative past. This should not have occurred given the laws of temporal physics as understood by either the science of the Star Trek universe or by Psion, and served as further indication of some sort of effect being at work eroding physical constants. More remarkably, it indicated that that effect was at work in at least two alternate universes -- that of the Klingons, and that of System Four.
Upon returning to Liberty, the team found that Quasar was missing, leaving behind a note to the effect that she could not betray Mass Mind, but would do whatever she could to dissuade him from further criminal acts. The group feared for Quasar's safety, but before they could fear for long found themselves, the visiting Sybil, and Liberty under attack by supervillains Shee-Ariel, Violator, Hazmat, Harvestman, and Trooper 2000. System Four was hard pressed, but was soon reinforced by Quasar, fighting to save her new friends. Her intense force field attack on Hazmat apparently induced some sort of reaction in his volatile radioactive and chemical constituents, and he fatally exploded, causing substantial damage to Liberty's PsiPlane hangar. Quasar herself, however, soon fell mortally burned by Shee-Ariel's flame attacks.
In Liberty's master control room, a battered Psion confronted Violator, who held a suit-mounted buzzsaw to Sybil's throat. Psion's desperate attempt to shatter the saw with a PsiBolt attack missed, and he watched helplessly as Violator spitefully murdered her. Psion fell unconscious to a subsequent attack by Violator, but Firehawk arrived in time to save his friend -- his fiery breath breaching Violator's armor and reducing its frail occupant to cinders. The villains withdrew, and Psion, revived, tried in vain to revive Sybil.
The members of System Four struggled to collect themselves. Psion reeled from another personal loss, while Captain Firehawk was chilled at having taken a life, even a particularly vile one. Adaptor, who harbored some ill will toward Psion for being emotionally insular and self-centered generally, resented him all the more for attempting past the point of futility to resuscitate Sybil instead of making an effort to save Quasar.
But duty pauses not to mourn, and the group soon moved to respond to an attempted break-in at Defender headquarters atop the MetLife Building in New York City. Apparently Mass Mind, recognizing that the last of the Defenders was gone, was personally leading his minions to lay claim to the headquarters and its valuable information and technology. The ensuing fight left most combatants on both sides incapacitated. At its climax Mass Mind, having knocked out Psion on the headquarters hangar deck, just below the roof, entered the munitions locker for the Defenders' VTOL shuttle. A groggy Psion, seeing this, and sensing telepathically that Shee-Ariel (then moving to finish off a prostrate Firehawk on the roof) was standing on the locker's safety blow-out panel, fired a PsiBolt into the locker. As the store of rockets and missiles detonated, the locker's safety features functioned as intended. The blast door slammed shut to protect Psion, and the explosion was directed through the blow-out panel, atomizing Shee-Ariel before she had time to be surprised.
The heroes collected themselves and turned the surviving villains over to justice. As they rested, Psion ruminated on the nagging question of the force responsible for the Klingons, the reactor meltdown, and other aberrations in the spacial fabric. As he thought, his mind drifted, noting that the man walking across the street looked "just like the detective on a first edition postcard", and that "orange is orange for a reason". Regaining his composure, Psion realized with a sense of menace that the observed deterioration of physical constants, an apparent acceleration of entropy, might well be affecting cognitive processes as well. Still subtle now, the force could eventually erode the electrical and chemical processes upon which technology relied, then life itself, and perhaps ultimately matter itself. But even before reaching those levels, it was likely to precipitate widespread insanity. Civilization might very well destroy itself before it could materially unravel.
Before they had long grappled with the scale of the problem, System Four received another distress call. The overcast weather Philadelphia had been experiencing over the past couple days was apparently not confined to the city, but actually covered much of the northern hemisphere, and its stormy focus was apparently a disturbance at the top-secret Soviet particle beam research facility near the Kapustin Yar space center. Arriving at the scene, the team witnessed an awe-inspiring continuous lightning bolt writhing across the sky from a bunker housing the beam accelerator. Structures within a mile or so of the beam had already been annihilated by secondary arcs from it. Offering its services to the observing Soviet troops, System Four was informed that the beam had somehow "run away" during a recent test firing. While power to the facility had been cut, the beam now seemed somehow to be fed by the Earth's magnetic field itself. Only cutting the power feeds closer to the accelerator itself might break that cycle, but the area was uninhabitable for humans, and robots and remote devices rapidly fried their circuitry before they could get close.
System Four approached the site via underground access tunnels, breaking with some difficulty through doors welded shut by the wild electric currents. Reaching the accelerator chamber, they saw the giant cyclotron lying askew and shrouded by electric arcs, but stranger still was a swirling, accretion disk-like field perpendicular to the center of the cyclotron ring. It appeared that some sort of hole in space had been opened by the energies coursing through the cyclotron, probably aided by the global entropic acceleration.
Before the team could act, Plamya arrived as a column of flame, informing them that they were in mortal danger. A special Soviet army detachment was preparing to fire a deep penetrating nuclear shell from an 8" howitzer at the site -- the only standoff weapon without guidance to be fried by the beam. Her warnings that System Four was at ground zero had been ignored. The shell was fired as she spoke, and while Cestus might have been able to fly clear, he couldn't lower his force field in the environment of the beam chamber to carry anyone else. Only the portal formed by the beam offered a possible escape hatch for the group. Advising Plamya to flee while she could, the heroes dove through the portal to meet their destiny.
Volume II — Outside Chance (published 1990)
Part One: Meeting the Neighbors
The heroes tumbled into a dark chamber, which became even darker after the portal behind them winked out of existence with a flash and roar. The group turned on their own flashlights to see that the chamber seemed like a twin of the cyclotron room they'd just left -- this one undamaged, but long neglected. Wending their way through the abandoned facility to the surface, they cautiously searched the countryside, finding clues (twin-decked commercial aircraft overhead, road signs noting the distance to "Gorbograd", etc.) from which they quickly deduced they had traveled somewhere in time and/or alternate reality. For all the heroes' superhuman intelligence, however, none knew much of the dynamics of transtemporal travel. They resolved to make their way back to Philadelphia to better orient themselves.
Arriving in the city by night, System Four fanned out to assess whether City Hall or Liberty Place housed a familiar superhero group in this year 2004, but neither site bore signs of any superhuman presence. Psion, however, noted a slightly-built teenage girl walking down a dark side street. As he contemplated approaching to ask directions, he saw her grabbed by a hulking thug who held a knife to her throat. Clearly hearing his growled threats, Psion was about to spring to the rescue, when he was taken aback by the girl's flinty reply: "Oh, you might well kill me, but I'm sure I'll take you with me". As Psion swooped in with an order to "Halt!", the girl pulled a four-barreled .357 derringer, firing three rounds into her assailant's groin. Psion cautiously introduced himself, assured the girl of his noble intentions, and recommended medical assistance for the slight knife wound to her neck. Anastasia Doom regarded him cautiously, but ultimately accepted his escort back to Bastion, headquarters of her father's superhero group, the Sentinels, atop the Centre Square II office tower. Joined by the rest of System Four, the group met Anastasia's father, superhero Crack of Doom, who was using the powerful headquarters computers to play some sort of dieselpunk geopolitical wargame. After an exchange of introductions, Doom acknowledged that the Sentinels too had detected the entropic acceleration that System Four had noted. In fact, most of Doom’s colleagues were away in alternate dimensions looking for the cause of this phenomenon. Doom offered temporary accommodations to the group while he explored the possibility of returning them home.
System Four settled into the Sentinels’ guest rooms. While Anastasia was the group’s de-facto hostess as they took in the sights of the Sentinels universe, the focus of the 16-year old’s attention on Adaptor betrayed an obvious “crush” on the elastic hero. Frustrated with the wait for Crack of Doom’s return, the group agreed to squire Anastasia to the nightspots of New York City. The appearance in Times Square of the local versions of supervillains Imhotep, Skorpion, Trooper 2000, as well as a speedy short-range teleporter known as Quantum, resulted in a brief, sharp clash, but more startling was the fact that Shee-Ariel, also present, appeared to recognize System Four.
Recognizing that the Times Square attack might have been intended as a diversion, the group pressed Anastasia for Crack of Doom’s whereabouts. She explained that he was likely working with SPIRIT, an enormous dimensional portal generator beneath Devil’s Tower, WY. Originally created by a supervillain to flood the world with raw chaos, the machine was now inhabited and operated by the friendly ghost who had helped defeat its creator.
System Four swiftly traveled to Wyoming and made their way into the SPIRIT complex, only to find Crack of Doom incapacitated and villains Mass Mind and Shee-Ariel in apparent control. Mass Mind too recognized System Four, revealing that the blast at Defender headquarters had propelled both villains into the Sentinels universe (evidently the System Four universe’s closest neighbor at present, and the natural landing point for accidental travelers with the entropic effect making the spacial fabric more permeable).
Mass Mind sought to use SPIRIT, in conjunction with his own powers of psychic domination, to summon a supervillain army to do his bidding. Unfortunately for him, SPIRIT herself proved uncooperative, and System Four, together with a revived Crack of Doom, rallied to defeat him. Shee-Ariel, meanwhile, met her apparent demise when she collided with the beam of one of SPIRIT’s kilometer-wide inter-rotating synchrotrons during the battle.
The immediate crisis averted, SPIRIT, Crack of Doom, and System Four conferred on how to proceed. The entropic acceleration effect appeared to SPIRIT to extend throughout the multiverse, to varying degrees, and it was interfering with her ability to identify and access alternate realities. She could not, at present, return System Four home, and it was not clear if she ever would be able if the effect persisted. While she also could not identify the cause of the entropic acceleration, she had identified certain resonances associated with it, and these “fingerprints” seemed to identify most strongly with one identified universe. SPIRIT could not currently analyze that world effectively, but she could briefly open a portal to it.
Disliking the idea of a blind leap, but with no more attractive options, System Four resolved to take the plunge. Exchanging bittersweet good-byes with their new friends, the heroes once more went boldly into the unknown.
Part Two: The Death of Chivalry?
The heroes of System Four stepped into a land of verdant wooded hills, snow-capped mountains, and sparkling streams – Earthlike, but seemingly more lush and “vivid”. The lack of immediate signs of civilization or technology was discouraging, as it seemed unlikely that any pre-technological residents could have useful knowledge of the entropic acceleration. Searching over a high mountain ridge, the group spotted a stone structure on a peak which proved to be a small chapel, topped by a St. Andrew’s cross – apparently the predominant local holy symbol. Kneeling at the altar within, they found a humanoid skeleton in gothic plate armor. The armor was unrusted, but dull, and unnaturally brittle, and was covered lightly with a sort of black dust. It also had a large hole in the middle of the breastplate. Laid on the ground before the altar was a sword with a brilliantly polished blade, which the group decided to take with them.
Stopping later at a mountain stream, the group encountered a teenage boy who identified himself as Squire Toggert, and soon after were confronted by a still animate armored knight on horseback, who held them at lance point and identified himself as Sir Ceredwin of Escavaron. The heroes did their best to allay Ceredwin’s suspicions, and soon accompanied knight and squire to the castle of their lord, King Parmenides.
At court the heroes met various local luminaries, most notably the King’s wizard, Sotrem, who noted in discussions with Psion that his magical research had detected certain unusual influences at work in the world that might very well be connected with the entropic acceleration that System Four was investigating. He seemed pleased to help in their investigation, and provided a wealth of other information.
The sword the heroes had recovered was apparently “Faith’s Awakening”, weapon of Sir Sandoval, one of a trio of legendary knights (along with a Sir Meriadoc and another knight whose name was lost to history) who had lived and fought for truth, justice, and the chivalric way some centuries before. It was considered a holy weapon, but had no specific powers associated with it. Sir Sandoval himself, however, had been said to have lived to a peaceful retirement. The apparent discovery of his remains under the circumstances they were was an ominous sign.
Sotrem also advised the group on current court politics – King Parmenides was without a male heir. His best and most honorable knight, Sir Ceredwin, would be an excellent candidate for the role if his marriage to the King’s only daughter, Princess Elizabel, could be arranged. Unfortunately Ceredwin’s modesty and Elizabel’s haughtiness had thus far thwarted even the beginning of a courtship. The local religious officials sought to take advantage of this inertia to direct Elizabel into a religious order and draw the kingdom under direct church control. Sotrem warned System Four that as strangers at court with unusual powers they might find themselves on the wrong side of the political maneuverings of the clergy, particularly Monsignor Meriadoc.
In fact, the team soon did find itself accused of being dark sorcerers, and possible agents of the evil Katerai-Sisath, the “Wizard of the Winds”, from whose realm in the barren mountains bordering Escavaron periodic attacks on the realm originated. Captain Firehawk led the heroes in arguing their honorable intentions, but it was Cestus who carried the day, taking advantage of his own Power Suit and its armor-like appearance to portray himself as a fellow champion of chivalry, and worthy wielder of “Faith’s Awakening”.
As a test of Cestus’ strength and virtue, King Parmenides commanded that he strike down a stone pillar placed in the castle banquet hall. Cestus confidently leveled “Faith’s Awakening” and delivered the gentlest of taps to the pillar, which split and toppled seemingly effortlessly. The other members of System Four were no less shocked than the rest of the onlookers, though Psion made eye contact with Sotrem, and noted that he seemed to be working a bit too hard at nonchalance.
The heroes were guests of honor at the ensuing banquet, and offered some gentle encouragement to Ceredwin, but while he was obviously smitten with the Princess, he had apparently been hamstrung by his own social handicaps and the contradictory intricacies of Escaveronian chivalry and courtship.
Worse, the Princess began casting meaningful glances in the direction of Knight-of-the-Hour Cestus over the course of the evening. Regardless of her charms, he and the group had little interest in interfering in local politics and likely turning all the power blocs against them. Cestus politely deflected the Princess’s invitations, and the group retired to their quarters for the night.
Their slumber was dramatically disrupted by a midnight assault by a massive dragon. While its gaping wounds, missing scales, and tattered wings gave it a zombie-like appearance, it was apparently a specimen of the “fast zombie” school – biting and clawing its way fiercely through the castle guard and breathing not exactly flame, but glowing, smoky clouds of superheated air that blasted its victims and left their corpses carbonized. Firehawk was seriously injured in the ensuing battle, which ended with the dragon carrying Princess Elizabel off into the moonless night.
Sotrem identified the dragon as Sigrisant, a legendary beast recently rumored to be under the control of the Wizard of the Winds. A brave knight had been said to have slain it centuries before using a magical weapon known as the Bloodlance, which was to have had its head driven into the dragon’s heart and broken there. While the knight had followed the instructions successfully, its reported death proved over the years to have been unfortunately exaggerated.
Sir Ceredwin, of course, immediately volunteered to ride forth to rescue the Princess, and while King and court seemed to place their hopes on Cestus and System Four for the task, the heroes successfully insisted on Ceredwin (and the less enthusiastic Toggert) accompanying them. To assist them on their quest, the King decreed that they be given a holy artifact: the “Shard of the Firmament” – supposedly a scrap of the celestial sphere left over after the Creation. Unsure what it might ultimately prove useful for, the group took the dagger-sized, nearly invisible crystal splinter with fantastically sharp edges, and proceeded with much fanfare from the castle on their mission.
After the deaths of Quasar and Sybil, Psion had experimented with a method of empathic healing, whereby he could psychically absorb a subject’s injuries onto himself. The subject would be healed almost instantly, while Psion himself could use his own regenerative powers to heal the absorbed damage far more rapidly than the subject could have. As it would have taken days for Captain Firehawk’s injuries from his first battle with Sigrisant to heal, he and Psion decided to use the barely tested technique in hope of being able to face the dragon, and possibly the Wizard as well, at full effectiveness. Unfortunately, the attempt failed, leaving Firehawk dead. While Psion reported sensing the presence of his friend’s consciousness within his own mind, in the manner of the Vulcan “katra”, desperate recussitation attempts proved unsuccessful. After burying their friend and mentor’s mortal remains beneath a cairn of stones (Psion first hurriedly claiming a set of tissue samples for future attempts at regeneration or cloning), the group pressed on.
The party entered a network of lava tube caves, some of which had been modified centuries before with sculptures and secondary passages. One tunnel, lined with niches holding dozens of skeletons clad in decaying armor, had at its end an altar bearing a chalice of large black pearls. Eying the skeletons warily, Adaptor picked up a pearl to examine it, only to have it spontaneously shatter in his fingers, revealing itself to be a thin glass shell containing an inky black fluid. As an eerie groan echoed through the tunnels, a single skeleton collapsed from its niche onto the floor. Sensing that Adaptor’s action may have lain a spirit to rest, Cestus smashed the rest of the delicate beads, and the rest of the bones similarly collapsed in a clattering, moaning cacophany.
A bit puzzled and unnerved, the group emerged onto the barren floor of a deep crater, dotted with steaming, stinking, volcanic fumaroles. Scanning the heights for any signs of wizard or dragon, the heroes were taken by surprise when Sigrisant instead pounced from behind a rocky outcropping. However unhealthy the beast looked, it seemed impervious to the group’s mightiest blows, including those delivered with Faith’s Awakening. To Ceredwin this appeared to be the appropriate time to deploy the Shard of the Firmament, which he accurately tossed down the dragon’s throat as it roared. Unfortunately, while the Shard appeared quite able to slice Sigrisant’s insides to ribbons, the beast remained either unwilling or unable to die, and now with every breath sprayed blood so venomous that drops of it chipped the rocks they struck.
Adaptor stretched an arm in hopes of recovering the Shard, or at least redirecting it to the dragon’s heart, brain, or some other vulnerable spot, but by ceasing to dodge merely enabled the beast to swallow him whole. Cestus and Psion in turn were soon beaten unconscious by Sigrisant, and it turned its attention to the brave, but far too mortal, Sir Ceredwin, as the acid and poisonous blood in its gut brought Adaptor to the brink of death.
But at that moment, Adaptor, stretching and grasping blindly through the beast’s innards, found, transfixing its still beating heart, a sharp metal object – the head of the legendary Bloodlance. Apparently it had broken off of its shaft, centuries before, instead of itself being broken in the beast’s heart as prophecy had prescribed. With his last ounce of strength, Adaptor snapped the lance head, and with a mighty thunderclap the dragon Sigrisant spasmed, shriveled, and crumbled to dust.
Adaptor dragged himself groggily from the ashes, and a quickly regenerating Psion came to his and Cestus’ aid. But a rising wind heralded the arrival of the Wizard of the Winds, borne on a tornado and flinging bolts of lightning. Landing in the midst of the weary heroes of System Four, he unwisely ignored the relatively fresh Sir Ceredwin, rearmed with his sword by brave Squire Toggert. The Wizard turned at the sound of the knight’s challenge, but whatever nefarious incantation he began was cut off with his breath as Ceredwin’s sword transfixed him.
The group collected itself and searched the surrounding cliffs until it found the wizard’s lair. With System Four’s moral support, Sir Ceredwin released Princess Elizabel from her cell, displaying sufficient courtly aplomb to perhaps begin to win her favor. Before departing, the group collected the scrolls and mystical accoutrements of the Wizard of the Winds. The Court Wizard, Sotrem, would later translate from these a disturbing tale…
The third of the legendary trio of knights to which Sir Sandoval had belonged was apparently named Sir Mundelein. When infidel tribes had invaded the land, Sir Mundelein was tasked with the defense of a key crossroads. When their armies approached, a champion had approached and challenged Mundelein to single combat in lieu of mass battle. Mundelein, though rightly suspicious, was compelled by his code of honor to accept. Mundelein won the duel, but no sooner had the enemy withdrawn than word arrived that a flanking force had apparently taken advantage of the distraction to bypass the crossroads and strike the thinly defended town beyond. All the inhabitants, including Mundelein’s family and his liege lord had been slain.
Mundelein’s grief was all-consuming, and from it grew a cold and nihilistic wrath. Believing himself betrayed by the honor and faith he had devoted his life to, he turned against life itself with a mythic passion. Styling himself the “Knight of the Darkness Realized”, he massed an army of brigands and cutthroats, at first motivated by the promise of pillage, but in time destroying for destruction’s own sake, as their crimes grew so heinous as to divorce them utterly from human society. Mundelein himself seemed to grow ever more powerful, physically and magically, the more he destroyed and the more souls he corrupted.
Ultimately a wizard lieutenant of Mundelein’s (of whom the Wizard of the Winds had been an apprentice) grew jealous of his lord’s power, and sought to overthrow him. A mighty battle left them both dead. Mundelein’s armies broke up, slaughtering each other and themselves. Peace returned to the land, and the fallen knight’s name was stricken from the archives and dared not be spoken in folklore.
The Wizard of the Winds, like Sotrem, had apparently detected the Entropic Acceleration through his research, and toyed with a possible connection. What if his old master’s magical attacks against Mundelein had, instead of destroying him, instead empowered him in some way? Might driving him out of a physical form, and out of the physical realm itself, have even freed him from the last constraints on his power?
Psion had been aware of none of this when he made a quick sweep through the tunnels behind Katerai-Sisath’s cave before the group returned to Escavaron. He quickly connected it, though, with the empty stone crypt he’d seen, topped by the weathered effigy of an armored knight. The inner surface of the cracked lid had borne an inscription:
A veil of nameless cold descends
And mindlessly oppresses
While yearning hearts it gently rends
With leperous caresses
To yield to it is meaningless
To fight it is for naught
This endless, heartless, nothingness
Incapable of thought
Yet in this yawning emptiness
This mindless power of fate
Somewhere amidst the nothingness
It manages to hate
The dearest dreams it dearly hates
The dreamers it deceives
It cares not whom it subjugates
Or whether he believes
Crudely scratched across the inscription was another verse:
How pointless to resist its will
How foolish to flee from it
From dreams of ash I reach, until
I somehow can become it!
If the entropic force, controlled by Mundelein or not, lay outside all the realms it was destroying, perhaps outside the multiverse, Sotrem knew that he could not weave a spell that would open the way there. He did have a sense, however, of another realm, currently “nearby” in a temporal sense, where it seemed such a portal might exist. He could probably transport the heroes there, but time would be of the essence.
Of course, it was just as the castle rang out in the official celebration of the heroes’ triumphant return, that the summons came. The members of System Four slipped away to Sotrem’s tower. There they linked hands in a circle as the wizard chanted incantations, scattered dust, and spun his staff overhead, before the world was swept away by a brilliant flash of silver light and an almost melodic crash.
Part Three: The Enemy of My Enemy
When the light and sound ebbed, the trio found themselves standing in shadow, beneath the canopy of a dense tropical rainforest. The PsiCorder indicated local gravity to be slightly less than Earth-standard, and atmospheric oxygen to be slightly higher. Both, Psion noted with dismay, supporting prolific insect life somewhat larger than earthly size. A search of the area indicated major damage to a number of the trees, and then a possible cause – a carbine-sized energy weapon, likely designed for humanoids. Its power cell was apparently too drained to fire, but retained sufficient energy to operate an advanced electronic imaging scope. A few words were stamped on the side of the weapon in what resembled earthly blackletter script – “Waffenfabrik Krauss-Lemberg GmbH -- Reichenbach/Immerhof/Holvingen”
The group found the discovery menacing, with Psion in particular wondering if there were Ekosians about. Cestus took flight to scout above the jungle canopy, and before long spotted another flying humanoid. He cautiously approached, recognizing the figure from pictures seen in the Sentinels universe as Starfire, a member of that group who’d been away investigating the same cosmic anomalies during their visit.
Starfire proved curious, having not expected to find superheroes in this universe. He explained that he was told, when sent here by SPIRIT, that it would be similar to the setting of a science fiction role-playing game run by Crack of Doom, in which he had played in the years before he became a superhero. He confirmed that this world was occupied by “space Nazis”, known as the Höhenschar, though he described them as far more technically advanced and powerful than Star Trek’s Ekosians. He also noted that they might be willing to cooperate in the face of a common threat, but that he was not sure whether they were aware of any such threat, and recommended that they be approached only with the utmost caution in any event.
Cautious about detection if they were to travel by air, the group explored below the jungle canopy, following a trail away from the site of the apparent firefight. Within a few hours they found themselves surrounded by apparent native tribesmen – a few carrying energy weapons similar to the one found earlier, the rest bearing stone-tipped spears. All appeared human, though notably well-muscled and attractive specimens, with bronzed skin and golden blonde hair. Their features seemed decidedly Caucasian -- perhaps even "Aryan", leading the group to wonder about their relationship to the hostile “Space Nazis”.
Psion found that he could comprehend the natives' speech via Firehawk’s "katra", and communicate with some effort. They explained that they chose not to attack because the heroes' unusual garb was unlike the armor and uniforms of the apparently hostile Höhenschar. Still suspicious of the newcomers, the natives escorted them to a nearby camp to meet “others” for further discussion.
There, the heroes met a man in insignialess uniform who identified himself as “Ernst", a deserter from the Höhenschar military, who appeared to be thrilled to have offworld visitors without murderous intent, and proved highly talkative. They learned that the planet they were on was called beta Bechtel IV, and as a mostly jungle world with an enormously diverse, but fragile, ecology, was vital to the Reich’s production of medical and military pharmaceuticals.
Along with its agricultural bounty, however, the environment of beta Bechtel IV was host to a range of fungi known collectively as “pot-rot” for their tendency to infest and break-down ceramic materials. As much of the technology of the wider universe (encompassing everything from structural materials to electronics and computers) was based on such materials, the application of advanced agricultural methods on the planet was limited, and the Reich’s exploitation of its resources was forced to rely heavily on lower technology, and mostly indigenous manual labor.
That labor came from numerous aboriginal tribes collectively known as the Viranti. While physically and genetically nearly indistinguishable from (and, in fact, typically highly attractive to) humans, their hospitality and cultural practice of "group marriage” proved highly objectionable to the Höhenschar. Fearing “corruption”, and in spite of the biological facts, the Höhenschar quickly categorized them as “aliens” and thus subject to extermination.
The conflict among that imperative, the need to maintain an at-least somewhat cooperative population as a labor force to maintain vital production, and the difficulty of fighting insurgents in a jungle environment that constantly eats away at advanced technology, greatly frustrated the Reich. The Viranti, receiving periodic aid from various enemies of the Höhenschar, were able to at least hold their own against a foe vastly superior on paper. Ernst, meanwhile, provided what assistance he could, sometimes actually counseling restraint on the Viranti’s part, lest their interference with agricultural production succeed to the point where the Höhenschar would find increased violence to be cost-effective.
Ernst unfortunately knew nothing of the entropy problem, but suggested that there might be information to be found at the nearest starport, and that if the heroes could assist in a planned raid, they could, in turn, utilize the diversion to search for it. The group stayed in the tribal village for a time. Cestus and Starfire partook of the local food in a show of community, but Adaptor found the large larvae that the group dubbed “witchety grubs” unappealing enough to put him off all the native fare, and nibbled a couple nutritional bars from his own gear instead. Psion, in his efficient custom, ate nothing.
Wearing civilian clothes supplied by Ernst, System Four infiltrated the bustling town around the starport, the level of activity apparently restricting security to a few, easily avoided points. When the rebel tribals attacked, the heroes dropped their disguises and used their superhuman mobility to cross the high earthen berm into the starport itself. Seeking command and communications facilities that might have information available, Psion headed for what looked to be a control tower structure, while Adaptor backed him with seized blaster rifles, gunning down space Nazis with relish. Cestus and Starfire meanwhile applied their greater firepower to suppressing vehicles and defensive strongpoints that would obviously have outgunned the Viranti. But soon they noticed that some of the vehicles displayed strobe lights on their roofs, pulsing erratically, and as many of the Viranti began spontaneously dropping their weapons and surrendering, Cestus and Starfire too felt an overwhelming aversion to violence.
Psion found some cryptic references to faster-than-light navigational problems in the starport computers, but no useful clarification. Having lost contact with Cestus and Starfire, and with Höhenschar troops arriving, Psion decided it might be more productive to surrender and attempt to negotiate directly with his captors for information (or at least telepathically pick their brains). Adaptor’s elasticity would meanwhile let him hide in duct work or service spaces until needed.
But Cestus and Starfire, even deprived of the capacity for actual violence, resolved to resist as best they could. Dodging gunfire, they found themselves in a munitions depot, and Starfire noted a series of cylinders marked as containing “Autumn Mist”, which Starfire recognized from his RP gaming days as a super-persistent nerve gas. He and Cestus began opening valves and contaminating stocks of weapons and vehicles into uselessness. As troops closed in, they continued to elude them throughout the starport facilities, letting their attackers’ own gunfire do still more damage.
As the one-sided battle continued, in a subterranean office across the starport, an officer began to interrogate Psion, trying to determine who these strange attackers were and just what sort of threat they posed. Psion answered obliquely while both directly and indirectly digging for information on the entropy threat, but again to no avail. He did, however, learn what had happened to Cestus and Starfire. Apparently the Höhenschar had for some time been spraying the jungles with a chemical agent called “Blue Magic” – an aggression-suppressing drug activated in a victim’s nervous system by exposure to a specific coded light pulse. When the Viranti had attacked, the Höhenschar had only to broadcast the pulse to thwart the raid.
Cestus and Starfire paused in their destructive passive resistance and sought to come to the rescue of their comrades, tracking them via Psion’s SSC. But as they tracked the signal, they noted a series of major explosions around the starport, apparently an attack originating from orbit. Psion’s interrogator and guards withdrew to deal with the new crisis, and as Adaptor, Cestus, and Starfire reached him, the building was shattered by a direct hit.
The chamber in which Psion and his comrades sat was more-or-less intact, but fifty-some feet of shattered concrete slabs and tangled rubble lay between it and the surface. The group conferred briefly, uncertain of whom the new attacker might be. Adaptor extended his neck and body, threading his way up through the rubble for a look, and through Psion’s mental switchboard, Starfire at once recognized the flat black battle armor with glowing yellow eyes that identified Dark Fold marines. They had been allies of convenience of the Reich in the past, but apparently now had found it expedient to attack.
Unfortunately, before Adaptor had observed for very long, the marines detected him, and flew on contragravity harnesses to the collapsed building as Adaptor withdrew back to his comrades. Uncertain whether the Dark Fold troops could even reach them, System Four again discussed options for a moment until they heard something dropping down an air duct. A grenade!
Adaptor and Starfire immediately shot off in opposite directions with all possible speed, Adaptor snaking his way through the debris, and Starfire simply battering a path through it. The former fled because he suspected that Starfire had a better idea what he was up against than the rest of them, and the latter because he knew that this was indeed no ordinary hand grenade. Only Cestus and Psion, then, remained to take the brunt of the fusion grenade’s 10 ton yield.
Psion was knocked thoroughly unconscious and buried more directly under the mass of rubble, while Cestus was sealed in his suit’s failsafe force “bobble”. Being less dense than the surrounding rubble, and frictionless on its surface, the bobble shot to the top of the rubble like a ping pong ball from the bottom of a swimming pool. Unfortunately for Cestus, the field quickly shut down thereafter, depositing his unconscious body into Dark Fold custody.
Adaptor cautiously returned to the scene of the blast, followed some minutes later by Starfire, still under the effect of "Blue Magic". Cestus had already had been hauled off, but they burrowed down to locate and revive Psion. Returning to the surface, they considered options and a potential cure for Starfire until four aircraft in Höhenschar colors streaked over the starport, dropping some sort of homing cluster munitions that wiped out all the Dark Fold marines in sight.
Utilizing the distraction to head into orbit with Starfire, the heroes spotted a large, black, boxy spacecraft – apparently a Dark Fold troop transport – and headed to its open shuttle bay. There they attempted to neutralize the drugs in Starfire’s system, utilizing adrenal boosters recovered by Adaptor from the starport ruins, as well as psychic contact by Psion. Unfortunately, they apparently succeeded too well, inducing a berserker rage in which Starfire flew up the transport’s thrusters and exploded its reactor. Adaptor waited helplessly in the wreckage until Psion regained consciousness and was able to tow him and a still incapacitated Starfire back to the starport below.
The heroes found a scattered contingent of Höhenschar troops back in control of the facility, and decided to make cautious contact. They learned that the Höhenschar were reeling from a Dark Fold sneak attack, but had managed to temporarily regain the upper hand thanks to Starfire’s destruction of thousands of marines making up the bulk of the invsion force, but still reviving from cold sleep on the transport. They met the acting commander of the planet’s defenders – Korvettenkapitän Schneider, skipper of the small cruiser "Lynx". The fighters that cleared the starport were its air group, now operating from the starport, but the ship itself had been captured by the Dark Fold while its skipper was attending to business on-planet.
Professing neutrality in the conflicts of this universe, the group explained the loss of Cestus. Schneider theorized that he was likely aboard the "Lynx", along with numerous captured crew, and offered them whatever assistance they needed to safely recapture it before it could leave the system.
While Starfire remained debilitated from his Blue Magic exposure, he was able to carry his comrades to the coordinates provided, and they boarded the "Lynx", finding that it was traveling escorted by the larger Dark Fold cruiser "Manitou". Overpowering the prize crew and freeing Cestus and the captive crew, the heroes learned that the Dark Fold had accidentally triggered computer security programs while taking over the ship, such that the main armament could no longer be aimed. The ship still had a powerful set of plasma torpedo launchers, but they had an effective range of only about 100 miles – point blank in space combat terms.
Psion took the helm as skipper of the "Lynx", and crept it closer to the "Manitou", feigning communication difficulty when asked the reason for the approach. Once within range, he powered up the launchers and fired a barrage that snapped the "Manitou" in half. When sensors indicated that there were survivors in the hull fragments, he ordered a second volley to finish them off – an order that he viewed as logical and merciful, his comrades (particularly Adaptor) found troubling, and by which the Höhenschar crew was impressed. On returning to beta Bechtel IV, Psion was surprised when Korvettenkapitän Schneider gave him the Rittersordnung des Eisenblatts medal that he had been awarded for his response to the Dark Fold attack, saying that he believed Psion to be more deserving of the honor.
A much more powerful Höhenschar ship soon arrived to secure the system: The two kilometer long Battle-Privateer “Boomslang”, commanded by Kapitän-im-Raum Maria Hauptmeier, the only female warship commander in the Höhenschar fleet. System Four found her curious to meet the saviors of the "Lynx", and willing to listen to their strange tale.
Hauptmayer was, in fact, aware of the spacial disturbances the group described, which had affected interstellar navigation, but Höhenschar scientists had been unable to explain. While she did not know of any ready means to deliver them “outside the multiverse”, she was able to suggest a possibility. The “Great Mother” – the supercomputer-ruler of the Dark Fold – was believed to be networked across the eight star systems making up that nation by means of a permanently open subspace “nexus”. If the heroes could collapse that nexus while passing through it, they might be able to close themselves in subspace, which might accomplish their objective. Psion and the team reviewed the advanced temporal science treatises available in the Boomslang’s computer, and decided that the plan was feasible, if risky -- Any error in timing could spread their constituent atoms across dozens of light years of space.
Hauptmeyer conferred with her commanders, and was able to persuade them that, given the gravity of the situation with the Dark Fold’s betrayal, a raid on their capital system to disrupt their communications was worth the risk, and the ship struck deep into Dark Fold space. On the journey to the planet Maleficent III, System Four took advantage of advanced medical technologies to heal their injuries, while Cestus and Starfire also had the “Blue Magic” purged from their systems. Psion, meanwhile, discretely learned what he could of the technology of the Space Opera Universe generally.
A team of volunteer Höhenschar marines accompanied the group to the surface of the planet while the Boomslang made a diversionary attack on the system’s defenses. Battling their way into the shadowy subterranean warrens where the subspace nexus was located, the heroes held off the Dark Fold attackers while the marines planted demolition charges to destroy the nexus, finally giving the detonator to Psion. Bidding their escort farewell, System Four dove into the communications shaft, hurtling toward the radiant nexus until their plunge ended with a shattering “BOOM!”
Part Four: The End
Volume III — Be Careful What You Wish For (2014 local time, published 1991)
System Four returns to the Sentinels' universe
Volume IV — The Sky Is A Poisonous Garden (1991)
System Four vs. the Algolian Space Vampires
Volume V — The Abyss Looks Back (1992)
System Four returns to the Space Opera universe to thwart the Dark Fold's plans to invade the multiverse