Alan and Molly Scott lifted in the air in a bubble of green flame generated by his lantern. They hovered for some moments as Molly oriented on the feelings that had led them to this broken place. “The older children are in that direction,” she said, pointing a finger at the wide horizon. “The babies are that way.”
“Let’s get everyone together,” said Alan, watching a herd of mammoth-like creatures graze on the short grass. “Then we can get the triplets.”
“Are you sure?” asked Molly, worry and want creasing her brow.
“The babies are being kept for something,” said Alan, directing the bubble to where his older children wrestled with the strange landscape. “They’re probably safer than we are right now.”
“I hope you are right,” Molly said.
“I hope so, too,” said Alan. “I wonder what’s started this thing. This place seems peaceful enough to me, almost utopian. What would drive someone to cross so many light-years to take my power ring and our children?”
“An old enemy?” suggested Molly. “Doiby Dickles moved out here when he was married. You guys racked up a long list of people who want to see you dead in the most painful way possible.”
“This doesn’t feel like that,” said Alan, watching the sky around him. “It feels like someone wanted me here, expected me to follow sooner than this. I think the babies were never in any immediate danger from the shadow that took them. We wouldn’t have been left that new ability you have been given.”
“The shadow expected us?” said Molly.
“Wanted us is my feeling,” said Alan, “but I could be wrong. We’re only guessing until we know for sure.”
Brainwave wrapped himself in the illusion of his costume. His mental abilities told him that someone was close by. Hank King searched for what had pinged on his radar.
A herd of pastel mammoths surfed on a platform of stone to his left. The gnarled trees reached for the sky. A pteranodon, maybe — the same one that was startled by Hank and Jennie-Lynn’s arrival — soared in a circle above. Nothing seemed out of place.
A net suddenly appeared in a buzz of static. It wrapped around Hank, dragging him to the ground. An electrical shock disrupted the illusion of a change of clothing as the smell of burning hair filled the air.
“Hank!” shouted Jennie-Lynn Hayden, rushing to his side. Thoughts of how to release the net ran through her mind.
“Do not move, please,” said a quiet voice. “I would hate to shoot a woman.”
A gold and silver platform rose out of one of the fissures that littered the area. Its rider was dressed like a musketeer, with a gold visor across the top half of his face. He held a long silver rifle by its grip. The muzzle was pointed at the ground, but the nonchalance didn’t fool Jennie-Lynn. Others she had known would do the same thing because they could point and shoot from the hip faster than an attack would reach them.
“Who are you?” said Jennie-Lynn, testing the electricity with a stick.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” said the gold and silver musketeer, flourishing his feathered hat. “I am called Quatrain.” He gestured for her to stand with the rifle. “My employer would want to speak with you,” he said. “Shall we go?”
Stephanie Harrigan landed on a chunk of rock that had crossed her flight line. She turned, examining the stolen rifle closer than she had when she had taken it. She found that she could slide the breech open like a flower. A tube flipped out and fell into a gorge underneath her. She pulled a similar tube from the belt around her armored waist. A simple test to see which way the cylinder fitted and a pull on the slide closed the breech. She pulled slightly on the trigger. The weapon whined as it charged up. Then a final squeeze sent one of the miniature suns after the closest target.
The green trooper deflected the ball in a bursting wave as he dived into the dirt. Stephanie took aim, adjusting for the movements of her rocky steed. She fired calmly into the surging crowd that buzzed toward her. She ignored another soldier lose his mind as she took aim and fired at a third victim.
The soldiers paused in their pursuit. Their weapons roared in a continuous wave of spherical projectiles. Stephanie’s shooting stand was pulverized from the barrage. She fell, unable to activate her flight pack before hitting the ground. A shower of small rocks and dirt fell over and around her.
Steph dragged herself to cover as the ground exploded around her. She threw aside her heavy helmet. The ionized air bit at her nose as she hid behind a pile of rocks. She used that to steady the rifle. She thought she could still hit two or three before they blew away her cover.
Darkness suddenly covered her. She thought she had gone blind.
“It’s me, Steph,” said Obsidian, all around her now. “It’s time I got you out of here.”
“Just close your eyes and relax,” said Todd Rice.
Steph felt herself floating, then Obsidian receded to reveal a cave. His shadowy form carried her across to a deeper canyon in the floor. They floated down, receding from the light above.
Jennie-Lynn Hayden rode on Quatrain’s platform, gripping the low railing tightly. Hank King lay next to her, still wrapped in the almost-invisible net. He moaned sometimes. Quatrain stood at the back of the flying board. He seemed unconcerned with anything Jennie-Lynn might do, holding his rifle over his shoulder.
“I’m afraid we’re being diverted,” Quatrain said. “I shall have to leave in the care of the Locusts while I secure some escapees.”
“Locusts?” said Jennie-Lynn. The name conjured pictures of giant insects.
“The foot soldiers of my employer,” said Quatrain. “They won’t harm you in any way unless they are ordered to.”
“What is this all about?” said Jennie-Lynn. “What is going on here?”
“My employer will have to answer your questions, if he chooses to do so.”
Jennie-Lynn stared at the passing ground as she tried to think of a way to free Hank from the net. She had no interest in meeting Quatrain’s employer at all. If she had her powers, she would have used the musketeer for a mop.
The platform cleared a hill, revealing a swarm of armored soldiers surrounding a crevice in the ground. Quatrain brought the board to a hovering stop. He hopped down, waving for a trooper to approach. He consulted with the Locust, keeping his voice low and controlled and hard to overhear. The Locust took up station beside the platform, watching the prisoners through the red lens of its helmet.
How do I get myself into these messes? Jennie-Lynn thought. She looked at the troopers spreading out from the crevice. She felt Todd had did this. The former Jade didn’t know how she knew, or if it had anything to do with the telepathic link she shared with her brother sometimes. She just had the feeling that Todd had caused this.
Quatrain descended into the crevice carefully. His rifle rested on his back as he went. He didn’t seem concerned about the task ahead. Just another day on the job.
Jennie-Lynn racked her brain on how to turn this to her advantage. The only thing she could think of was to steal the platform. She couldn’t think of how she could get away with it unless she could distract the guard. That was the sticking point.
She decided on boldness, and she hoped to catch the Locust off-guard by the unexpected move. The flying platform had foot controls to tell it to stop and go. The rider turned by shifting his weight. A simple means of driving if you were used to it. Jennie-Lynn dived for the accelerator, pressing it down as hard as she could.
Frances Kane looked at a small creature resembling a flying manta ray. The animal died in a burst of flames.
She had spent months in preparations. All of her work had been ruined by the sudden attack on Earth and this even more surprising jaunt to Thanagar. Why couldn’t that old fool have left the Scotts alone until she was ready? Now she might have to eliminate them, their children, and anyone else who knew they had left Earth. Then she could say anything she wanted without fear of contradiction. She had hoped to absorb the power of the Starheart to amass her own base, eradicating anyone in her way. Now she would have to veer from her plan if the Scotts discovered her true identity. Decisions, decisions.
Frances took to the air, a corona of flame scaring away the local wildlife. She would get the triplets back from the Guardian. Then she would engineer a trip back to Earth in some way that would leave her falsehood intact. Then she could return to her original plan. If she had to move her timetable up and kill the Scotts here, so be it. She had liked Todd and Jennie-Lynn. Oh, well.
An armored figure erupted in front of Frances. Two more flew up on either side of the first. She sped up and cut through them with her fiery wings. The pieces dropped out of the sky as the Phoenix flew on.