by Dan Swanson
As he fell into the bottomless pit of the ancient, malevolent, alien god Cthulhu, with both arms wrapped around his wounded stomach to keep himself together, Joh Fredersen — the identity by which the now-white-haired, clean-shaven Vandal Savage was known in the twenty-third century, where he ruled the world from his city of Metropolis — assessed his situation. Not too bad, he decided.
True, his stomach wound would surely be fatal for an ordinary man, and the pain was tremendous. During his hundreds of centuries of life, though, he had learned that if he could feel pain, he would survive. Only patience was required, and he knew patience well.
True, Mekanique had betrayed him — but he had learned that betrayal was as inevitable as pain, and while he never assumed betrayal, he always prepared for it.
True, he was falling into a seemingly bottomless pit that was home to an ancient, immortal alien god, an incarnation of evil who fed off the life-force of its victims — but he could easily resolve that situation.
He activated the temporal recall transporter built into his belt. In a second, he felt the familiar temporal distortion, and the pit around him faded into the featureless gray mist that indicated he was outside of the normal time-stream.
Almost immediately, Savage was aware that something was wrong. Normally, there were no sensations in this strange dimension outside of time, no heat nor cold, no up nor down, no motion, just gray nothingness that had to be endured as you traveled from one time to another. This time, he felt as if his body was being pressed against a wall — a spongy wall, it seemed. But the pressure was inexorable, and growing. He tried to face a different direction, but he couldn’t move — it was if he was now totally surrounded by this invisible sponge, and the pressure was growing, the sponginess changing to diamond-like hardness. It was something like the G-force of a rocket launch, crushing his body from every direction, and it continued to grow. Every muscle and nerve in his body strained to resist this unknown force.
Vandal Savage had flown in Soviet rockets that pulled twelve Gs and remained conscious. He was on the point of blackout when the pressure vanished. He thought of a slippery watermelon seed, squeezed between two fingers, suddenly shooting free. His straining body jerked violently as the pressure ceased. The violent spasm combined with the existing damage to his stomach forced his body into shock. His mind retreated from consciousness, and he floated heedlessly in this strange dimension, in virtual sensory deprivation while his mind replayed the events in the pyramid — the events as he had remembered them, events which were subtly different from what he had just experienced.
The Vandal Savage of 1986 fell through a portal with a thud into the giant pyramid in undersea R’lyeh, scowling in satisfaction. He had just started the short self-destruct sequence that would destroy the Illuminati headquarters he had just abandoned, obsolete now that he was moving command to this undersea pyramid. Incidentally, a squad of Commander Steel’s government agents were inside the doomed building and were doomed themselves, leaving him free to see to the destruction of Steel’s second squad, which was currently invading the pyramid.
Suddenly, he was struck on the head from behind. Though he was barely affected by the blow, he slumped quietly to the stone floor. This attacker, he theorized, must be a traitor from within the Illuminati organization, and he might learn something useful if the man thought him a helpless captive. The mystery-man was surrounded by a half-dozen figures. Through slitted eyes, Savage could see that they appeared to be cyborgs, clearly Illuminati technology, though surprisingly advanced. The internal rot in the Illuminati had proceeded further than he had imagined. Starting today, he would purge all traitors.
He was dragged into an enormous room whose main feature was an enormous pit. Behind the pit was a stone dais, standing before an enormous stone carving of the Illuminati symbol.
As his cyborg soldiers spread throughout the room, the mystery-man dropped him, mounted the dais, and began a low chant. He continued to repeat the same words over and over again, his tone growing louder and more forceful with each repetition. Suddenly, Savage recognized the words of the chant.
“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wagn’nagl fhtagn.”
The traitor was trying to awaken Cthulhu and raise R’lyeh. The arrogant fool. Yes, if he could master the ancient alien god, he would gain immense power. But this power belonged to him, Vandal Savage, and no one else. With a roar of anger, Savage surged off the floor and slammed into the man, driving him savagely into the stone wall. With a sickening thud, his head bounced off an outthrust corner of rock, and he fell to the floor, unconscious and bloody.
Savage felt a quick flash of panic. He had been preparing for this ritual for years, and delaying for almost as long, because he wasn’t ready. Another part of his mind responded, sardonically, Is anyone ever truly prepared for Cthulhu? You’ve been lying to yourself, putting it off because you are terrified!
His anger at himself quickly quenched the flicker of panic, and he stepped onto the dais and resumed the chant, continuing the summoning himself. Without the proper preparations, Cthulhu would be harder to control, but he had a made-to-order sacrifice readily available. This should appease the ancient monster-god somewhat.
Strangely, the cyber-soldiers appeared confused and made no move to interfere. Perhaps they understood the dangers of further interruptions to this ritual. Or perhaps they were already under the influence of the great evil power that was not climbing from the pit.
Several tendrils began to appear at the rim of the pit. They moved about, searching the edge as if guiding themselves, feeling the way for whatever monstrosity lay below. Savage’s resolve waned momentarily at the sight of the long tentacles issuing from the pit. It had been over 50,000 years since his first encounter with this monstrous entity, and it had all but overwhelmed him at that time. Well, he was much more knowledgeable and powerful now than he had been, and Cthulhu had been asleep during that whole time. He would prove his superiority by draining the life from this monster and usurping its powers for himself.
The scaly green peak of the monstrosity’s head began to break the surface, making it apparent that the tentacles weren’t appendages but what passed for the creature’s face, except for two serpent-like eyes. The peaks of two narrow, bat-like wings came into view next, followed by enormous, taloned hands. More and more of the monstrosity came into view as Savage continued to chant.
There was a sudden crash, and the stone door leading to Cthulhu’s tomb shattered as Agent Liberty and his team burst through. An outraged Savage turned at the sound. Even the inhuman eyes of Cthulhu turned in their direction. “Ah, the cavalry has arrived,” Savage said mockingly. “Too little, and much too late!”
The monstrosity from the pit gave a horrible, inhuman scream, and its head flashed downward, too fast to follow, and snatched up the unconscious mystery-man. Savage was again shaken — if the monster had been attacking him, he would not have been able to escape, but the mystic power of the ritual had protected him. He didn’t spare a thought for the traitor who had just been sacrificed.
Cthulhu raised one of his taloned hands. Eldritch energy fired out from his hand and ensnared Vixen. With a jerk of his wrist, she was flung across the room and smashed into one of the ancient machines along the far wall. There was a burst of light, and she disappeared.
“Nooo!” Baby Boom screamed. She generated one of her explosions by the monster’s head, and it let out another outraged screech. It turned its hands toward Baby Boom, and she let out a pained scream as she was enveloped by eldritch energy.
“He’s draining her life force!” Agent Liberty exclaimed, raising his blaster and firing at the beast.
Distracted, Cthulhu turned toward Liberty and inadvertently released Baby Boom, snaring several of the mysterious cyber-soldiers instead. Since they didn’t have super-powers, their life forces were quickly consumed, and their rotted skeletons dropped to the ground and fell apart with a clatter.
With the new power it had gained, Cthulhu became more active. It flapped its wings, causing powerful, tornado-like winds, then leaped out of the pit toward the attack team. The wind caught Baby Boom and whisked her into the pit, along with Matches Malone, who had been racing to her side.
Agent Liberty screamed, as he was the next target of the ancient god’s eldritch attack. Cthulhu bellowed in rage as it attempted to drain his life force. Liberty was weakening quickly. He raised his blaster and fired again, to no result.
“It’s killing him!” Indigo exclaimed, trying to fight her way through the remaining cyber-soldiers toward him. “Somebody do something!”
“Steve, your sword?” Liberty gasped, still finding winning tactics even as Cthulhu leeched his life from his body.
“Perhaps,” Odysseus said with a nod, understanding his meaning. “Could a weapon created by one god slay another?”
Flying toward Cthulhu, Odysseus drew his sword. With a swing, he deflected the eldritch blast from Agent Liberty. It struck Savage, and he was enveloped by a brilliant flame. The ritual had prepared him to absorb power from the ancient monster, and this blast was just an appetizer.
Odysseus found himself suddenly enveloped by the creature’s eldritch force as it began to feed on his godly life force. A very different shriek issued from its obscene tentacled excuse for a mouth, and everyone realized it was the sound of exultation and satisfaction. The entire pyramid began to shake.
“We’re rising!” Agent Liberty exclaimed. “He’s using Odysseus’ power to raise R’lyeh! We’ve got to end this quickly!”
Odysseus continued to fly up at Cthulhu, despite the eldritch onslaught. A glow now seemed to issue from beneath the beast’s scales from the godly energy it had consumed. Odysseus hurled his sword at the monster. It hit with a sickening sound, striking Cthulhu between the eyes, and the monster let out an outraged, painful howl before disappearing in a burst of light.
The explosion of eldritch energy burst the walls of the pyramid, and the ocean came roaring in. Vandal Savage staggered as his new power source was wrenched from him only instants before he could become a god himself. Still, he had gained enough power to save himself easily. A casual wave of his hand, and he was enveloped by a glowing bubble of mystical force. He willed the bubble into motion and floated casually through the relentless churning waters pouring through the ruptured wall of the pyramid. Without Cthulhu’s power, the raising spell had failed, and R’lyeh sank back to the bottom of the sea, while Savage’s bubble majestically carried him toward the surface and his destiny.
He hadn’t achieved all he wanted here, Savage realized. Commander Steel yet lived. But Steel would be weakened and disgraced by the loss of his team, and his judgment would be warped by his need for vengeance. They would clash again, and Savage would inevitably triumph. Only patience was required, and he knew patience well.
Savage knew that somewhere, deep in the pit, Cthulhu still lived, and his vast power still awaited its rightful owner. And R’lyeh remained submerged, perhaps for more eons, without seeing daylight. He would come back for this power in a later day.
Yet he had won a great victory today, and came out of this confrontation with more power than ever before. He wondered briefly who the mystery man had been, then dismissed the thought and turned back to his usual pastime — conquering the world.
As the scene finished playing out in his mind, the external environment intruded on him again — an environment in a dimension which had never before had an environment.
The pressure started building again, feeling first like spongy foam that pressed on him from all sides, and then became more and more solid as the pressure increased to the previous level, and then more, and Savage finally, mercifully, passed out.
After a dreamless interval he awoke, lying curled up on the floor in Joh Fredersen’s empty office atop the so-called New Tower of Babel in Metropolis in the year 2227. With grim satisfaction, he realized that, despite the strange phenomenon he had encountered outside the time-stream, his temporal transporter had worked flawlessly.
He was still exhausted and weak with pain from his wound. He clawed his way into his high-tech chair and touched a switch on the control panel built into its right arm. The automatic medical diagnostic machinery built into the chair came online. While the damage was serious, it was something the chair’s autodoc could handle. A flexible tendril extended from the back of the chair and injected Savage with a painkiller and a mild sedative, and a variety of self-replicating nanomachines. Like the transporter, this was his technology, and he knew he could count on it.
As the pain faded, he noticed the world around him began to fade, as well. All of the colors were becoming more and more pale. He figured it must have been a side-effect of the sedative, but he had never experienced anything like it before. Everything was turning gray. The same gray he had just passed through on his trip through time.
As a 50,000-year-old immortal who had independently developed time-travel technology and had firsthand experience with traveling between universes, Savage had a good understanding of the phenomenon known as time — as good as a three-dimensional being could have, anyway. Even in his current semi-somnambulant state, he put the clues together. The changes to history he had personally witnessed, the two violent disturbances he had encountered in the emergency time recall, and now, reality fading away.
His timeline was about to become never was.
A surge of adrenaline cut through his torpor, and with a roar of anger that forever linked him with the beast-man he had been so long ago, he forced himself to move. The time transporter could take him outside the time-stream again, outside the influence of this gigantic eraser. He slapped a switch on his belt, but it was too late. The world was nothing more than gray mist, and he no longer had a hand to move or even a belt. Joh Fredersen and his twenty-third-century world of Metropolis vanished.
Elsewhere, in Limbo, Mekanique laughed as she watched the effects of the time-wave wash over Vandal Savage. With both of her creators now gone, vanished into nonexistence — and all knowledge of her erased from the mind of her former master, she was finally free. More than four hundred years of secret planning had paid off. The artificial woman who was at her heart Gloria Giles allowed herself a moment of celebration, quoting a line from her favorite TV show:
“I love it when a plan comes together!”