by Dan Swanson
Zor, two years later in 1969:
Two soldiers casually walked patrol on the battlement atop the western wall of Castle Ianus on the Isle of Pheriadhrania in the Bay of Carate. They guarded the Hall of Nations, the meeting place of Zor’s ruling body, the Council of Superiors. The council was composed of seventeen members, one from each of the nations of Zor.
“Geez, Sarge! This place is defended by the most advanced weapons and technology on the planet. Radar, sonar in the bay, all kinds of sensors on the grounds, planes, submarines, divers, sentries. What the heck do they need us for? Nobody could possibly get in here!”
“Nobody might not, but Captain Challenge sure can!” The sneering voice was the last thing they heard before two flying men in costumes and wearing helmets knocked them senseless as they rocketed over the wall and into the courtyard.
“Geez, boss, lookit me! I’m Superman!” the larger of the two men yelled in exuberance in a language neither of the guards would have understood. He had thinning blonde hair, the face of a heavyweight fighter who had lost a lot more than he’d won, and the physique of a prize bodybuilder, and he wore a skin-tight blue bodysuit with red shorts and red glider wings that stretched between his arms and legs. He landed and stumbled, and then shouted in pain as small arms fire from other guards struck him and bounced off. “Hey! That smarts!”
“Hurry, you idiot!” his brown-costumed companion yelled angrily. “Handgun fire is one thing, but the Doc says bigger guns can hurt us.” He hit an armored door at full speed, and it exploded inward, devastating the men drawn up on the other side. The other man smashed into the brick wall next to the door and crashed through it, and the falling debris only added to the confusion. Carrying collapsible transparent riot shields in front of them, the two men stormed through the corridor, brushing aside any soldiers still standing. The many automatic weapons hidden along the corridor failed to fire, and as they came to each secret manned weapons emplacement, one or the other of the men demolished it with a tremendous punch into the walls.
“Cheez, boss, dis place’s made’a cardboard!” the man dressed as Superman laughed. “Watch dis!” he leaped, shattering the floor underneath him and tearing through the ceiling above. Captain Challenge hurried ahead, and when his partner smashed back through the ceiling behind him, he only laughed. Part of their mission was to wreak as much destruction to Castle Ianus as possible. The devastated fortress, the most powerfully armed and armored location on Zor, so easily shattered by only two men, would bear mute witness to the whole world of their terrifying power. Still, their new confederate had warned them earlier that the inner chambers would not be breached so easily.
“Bear!” Challenge warned his colleague. “Did you hear what Computeer said about the inner walls?”
“Sumpin’ ’bout ‘nchanted dest’ny?” the big man struggled to recall. “‘N we gotta work together.”
If the surroundings hadn’t been so chaotic, Challenge might have wondered about Bear’s answer. Doctor Computeer had warned them that the building materials used in the Hall of Nations had specially enhanced density to make them many times stronger than was normal on Zor, but Challenge would normally have expected Bear to have totally forgotten the briefing by now.
As it was, the two of them soon battered through the much-stronger giant doors of the Hall. The various members of the Council of Superiors faced the challenge according to their natures, some hiding in terror, a few standing defiantly, and several — led by Senior Superior Yion Lugschnozzle — already trying to make a deal. As it turned out, the deal was simple. The entire Council could cooperate and unanimously name Doctor Computeer as the Empress of Zor, or the ones that didn’t would die.
Not long afterward, Doctor Computeer strode into the Hall of Nations like an Empress. And indeed, that’s how she was announced — Her Royal Majesty Kylandy Urungas the First, Empress of Zor.
The Hall of Nations was quickly cleaned up, then decorated for a celebration. Over fifty television stations from every nation on Zor had news crews on site to broadcast live “an event of historical significance,” although no one was quite sure what that event would be. The seventeen councilors had already filed in. Some of the more astute observers among the news teams noted that several Superiors were being represented by their Seconds, and in one case even a Third. There were two new figures standing arrogantly at ease on the Speaker’s Podium of the Hall — big, dangerous-looking men in colorful uniforms with helmets held under their left arms. A part of the hall was blocked off with purple curtains. Senior Superior Yion Lugschnozzle hesitantly approached the podium, and the buzz coming from the news teams dropped to total silence.
“I’d like to introduce two new heroic Champions of Zor,” Yion said into the microphone. “Captain Champion–” The bald man with a black goatee wearing the brown costume with white trim bowed deeply. “–and Muscleman!” The larger man, in a blue costume with red and yellow trim and a stylized letter M emblazoned on his chest, waved at the audience.
Whatever else Lugschnozzle was about to say would have to wait. A human meteor exploded through the wall behind the curtains, tearing them aside to reveal a regally dressed black-haired beauty lounging on a magnificent golden bejeweled throne. Before the costumed men on the dais could move, the flying heroine draped them in the curtains she was dragging.
“It’s Tharka!” one of the reporters yelled. There was mass confusion as the councilors raced toward the door, followed by several crew members from the TV teams, while others stayed at their cameras. This could be the scoop of a lifetime — if they survived. But they needn’t have worried.
Using the draperies as a scoop, Tharka the Superwoman swept up the two villains and flew back through the hole she’d made in the wall. I’ll see if I can keep this fight away from people, she thought to herself. Meanwhile, Computeer had scrambled behind the heavy throne for protection.
“Put your helmet on — quick!” Captain Challenge ordered his partner, who had chosen the silly name of Muscleman. Zor’s air was very thin, and while it would barely sustain the two, in order to fight, they needed the additional trickle of oxygen supplied by their helmets. It was a frustrating experience, trying to locate his helmet while being tumbled and swung around in the curtain sack, and Challenge was roaring with anger and feeling the effects of oxygen starvation before he was finally able to don his cowl. Straining, he managed to grab a handful of cloth and used his grip to stabilize himself, then tore a gaping hole in the thick fabric. He tumbled loose into free-fall and quickly released the glider wings on his costume. Nearby, he saw his partner Muscleman, helmet secured and similarly releasing his wings.
Never thought he’d figure that out on his own, Challenge thought contemptuously. Years ago, Bear had been involved in a serious accident that had caused major damage to his head and severely impaired his cognitive abilities. He usually needed someone to tell him what to do, which made him a perfect partner. Well, good for him — it means I can concentrate on fighting, Challenge thought, approving of his partner’s initiative.
He swooped through a giant back loop searching for his opponent, meanwhile pulling his blaster. When he spotted her, above them and diving fast, he fired. A yellow laser beam flashed out, ionizing the air between them, and then a powerful capacitor dumped an electric charge into the ionized path. The laser, and then a lightning bolt, struck Tharka in the head and chest. She was dazzled but not injured.
Tharka didn’t need to see to know approximately where her opponents were. As she had matured, she had developed new mutant powers — mental powers instead of physical powers such as her super-strength, speed, and stamina. She couldn’t read minds, but she had a kind of telepathy that functioned like radar, allowing her to sense the location of nearby minds, and her telekinetic ability gave her something like super-sensitive touch. She hovered in the air, sensing the flight of her foes. She quickly realized that they were gliding, as she had deduced from the video she’d watched showing their original assault on the Hall of Nations. And they weren’t very good at gliding. Good — she had chosen their battleground well. Captain Challenge managed to hit her with several more charged laser shots, but they didn’t bother her further. When her eyes cleared, both her foes had landed on the beach below.
Muscleman immediately sprang into the air with a mighty leap — or at least he tried to, but the sand wouldn’t support him, and he didn’t get a foot off the ground, instead overbalancing and falling on his face. Tharka swept low, raced across the beach, and slammed Challenge with a two-handed blow. When he realized he wasn’t going to be able to avoid her, he relaxed and rode with the blow, then slammed both fists down on her back and twisted free when they were over the rocky terrain back off the beach. She crashed to the rocks and rolled. He followed quickly.
“Fool!” he taunted her. “You’ve just thrown away your advantage!”
Before she could get to her feet, he kicked her head like a soccer ball. She flew into the air and tumbled backward, bouncing off several rocks before she smashed into a bigger one and fell to the ground. Challenge raced forward as she staggered to her feet and smashed into her with a bear hug, driving her into the ground. She realized he weighed several times what a normal Zorian man of similar size would weigh; his body must be more dense that hers. But Tharka was at least as strong as he was, and she arched her back and kicked her legs into a back flip, and as they were spinning, she broke free. They rose again and faced off.
“I don’t need any advantages to beat you!” she sneered at him contemptuously. “Or any cheap attacks like kicking you when you’re down.”
Calling on all her speed, Tharka stepped in and landed her most powerful one-two combination before Challenge could react. Finally, he got his arms in front of his face to block, and she lowered her attack to his unprotected abdomen. It was a brutal fight. Challenge was not as strong or as fast, and also wasn’t invulnerable, but he was larger and much more massive, and his denser skin deflected a lot of damage. He kept pressing forward, and she danced in and out, hitting him wherever he wasn’t covering. She’d managed to cut him in several places, and he was starting to wear down, becoming more sluggish, and she was sure this fight was just about over when someone tapped her on the shoulder.
She instinctively turned, and a tremendous roundhouse right from Muscleman caught her on the point of the chin. She flew through the air and fell to the rocky ground, unconscious.
Captain Challenge staggered to the side of his fallen foe and savagely stomped on one of her hands. Sparks flew, and the rock underneath shattered. He turned and once again kicked her in the head, sending her limp body tumbling through the rocks. He stalked after her and lifted a huge boulder high, planning to smash her head flat. But the boulder was shattered by a powerful blow from Muscleman, and the bigger man stepped between Challenge and the battered body of Tharka.
“You don’t have to kill her, boss. She’s not going to bother us any more,” the bigger man said coldly. “Also, Doctor Computeer said to capture her alive.”
Challenge was too astonished by his henchman’s actions to notice his improved grammar. “I don’t give a damn what that #%@$* said. She didn’t help us a bit in this fight, did she? Get out of the damn way!” he ordered, trying to push Muscleman aside.
But the big man didn’t budge — and Challenge was suddenly aware of just how much stronger than he his partner was. “Yeah, sorry, you’re right. I got a little carried away. I’m sort of tired of getting beat up by heroes.” He turned away, getting ready to spring into the air. “Bring her with us!” he ordered, testing his authority. He would need Muscleman later, when he defied Computeer’s authority and named himself Dictator of Zor. To his relief, Muscleman did as ordered, and the two men launched themselves into the air with tremendous leaps, then glided back toward the Hall of Nations.