by Dan Swanson
Captain Challenge was draped over Tharka the Superwoman’s shoulder as the woman of the future flew forward at top speed. As soon as they were outside the battlements of Castle Ianus, she stopped short — but Challenge continued to fly forward, fell to the ground, rolled backward for a while, and finally came to a stop. He was on his feet before she landed, which surprised her; she’d expected to take him out instantly by battering him through that wall. They were near the rocky landward shore of the Bay of Carate, a sandy beach scattered with boulders of all sizes. There were a few people on the beach, and they all scattered in panic.
“I’ve been looking forward to a rematch,” she said as she landed. “This time, there’s nobody to sucker-punch me and save you!”
“Well, you know me. I love a challenge!” he laughed confidently. “I hope you don’t make things easy by surrendering too soon!”
The girl of destiny stepped forward and delivered a roundhouse right. She hit into something that pushed back at her; the closer her fist came to her, the more resistance she felt. Her fist slowed to a halt a good half-inch from his face, and he didn’t seem to have felt the impact at all.
“Force field!” she exclaimed. “Inverse cube?” Even in a fight, she retained her interest in the nature of the universe. She hadn’t asked the question on purpose, just in her thoughts, but it slipped out, anyway. She certainly didn’t expect Challenge to answer her; yet he did.
“Yes, an inverse cube force field,” he boasted. “That fool Urungas let me use her electronics lab to recreate the force field I used against the Green Lanterns. Her technology is more advanced than ours on Earth, so I was able to make the generator smaller and more powerful than my original.”
“I suppose it’s governed by the inverse cube law because your device creates a virtual ‘mass dipole’ to generate artificial gravitic repulsion?” Her scientific curiosity was more powerful than her urge to fight.
“Why, you’re absolutely correct!” He was stunned at how quickly she’d figured out the principal behind his invention. “No scientist on Earth has even worked out the theory behind this device, much less built one. Nobody here on Zor, either, according to Urungas.” Challenge was almost smug in his pride.
“She’s right,” Tharka conceded. “You could make millions off an invention like that. Why bother with being a villain?”
“I’ve made my millions already,” he replied, “and it was much too easy. I needed a bigger challenge, so I decided to rule the world. The two Green Lanterns stopped me, but once I’m ruler of Zor, I’ll go back and take over Earth as well!”
“It’s not going to be that easy. Computeer has embedded a mind-control chip in your head,” she warned. She decided not to tell him about Muscleman’s change of allegiance. Always good to have a surprise or two on your side.
“That’s why she’s a fool — she never expected my force field to block her mind-controller,” Challenge crowed. “Perhaps you would be interested in ruling at my side. Our combined powers and genius would be unstoppable!”
“If I really wanted to rule this world, I’d already be doing so, don’t you think?” As she spoke, she lunged forward and punched again, using her super-speed to add power to her punch.
His shield didn’t quite deflect the blow entirely. He took a step backward to keep his balance, then launched a powerful combination of his own. Unfortunately, his own blows were also slowed by his own force field, and the woman of the future felt them more as a shove backward than as punches.
“Crap!” he swore vehemently. He obviously hadn’t thought this out. I never used the field to attack the Lanterns — just to defend myself, he thought. If they couldn’t hit each other effectively, this wouldn’t be much of a fight. Tharka was also figuring this out, and she thought much faster than he did. She disappeared for a second, and then was back, wielding a girder pulled from the rubble of the collapsed wall.
“I’ve seen baseball on TV, and it always looked like fun,” she quipped. “Batter up!” She swung the girder and caught Captain Challenge in the midsection. “Going… going… going… gone for a home run!” she laughed as she knocked him high into the air.
He recovered more quickly than she expected, popping out his glider wings to stop the tumble, then dived on her like a hawk on a rabbit. “Nobody plays me like a children’s toy!” he yelled at the top of his voice. “And I mean, nobody!”
She shuffled to one side to avoid him, but he guessed correctly and managed to slam into her, knocking her backward into a large boulder. Chips of rock flew like shrapnel from where she hit. She raced forward, grabbed the front of his uniform, and drove him to the ground as she did a hand spring off his chest. She retained her grip, and as she spun forward, she threw him with both hands, and he smashed into the outside wall of the castle.
At that instant, Doctor Computeer’s throne roared up from the castle and flew toward Tharka’s rocket. The woman of the future was momentarily distracted, and Challenge smashed into her, using his shoulder as a battering ram, and she tumbled backward, ending in the shallow water just a few feet from the beach. When she recovered, she launched herself into the sky. He picked up the largest boulder he could find. As Tharka continued to rise, Challenge threw the boulder toward her with all his strength.
On her throne, Doctor Computeer sped toward the waiting rocket. But as she got closer, she could see that something was wrong. The hatch was not sliding open to admit her, and the view window of the control room was smashed open. The instruments in the throne were reporting that there were no acknowledging signals coming from the ship.
“Damn that $@#&^! She and that traitor may have won for now, but Doctor Computeer is never without resources. Time for plan C,” Computeer vowed to herself as her throne swooped up to the side of the rocket. The would-be Empress touched another button on the arm of the throne. A section of hull, hinged at the bottom, swung open until it was almost horizontal, forming a launching ramp for a one-person flier already mounted to the ramp. “Fortunately I made the emergency systems independent of the main controls,” she crowed. She slipped off the throne and into the open cockpit of the miniature flier. Flames roared from the back, and the flier rocketed away, just as Muscleman soared up from the Hall of Nations. He watched helplessly as the speedy flier rapidly vanished into the cloudless sky.
On the ground below, the speeding boulder was going to miss her, so the girl of destiny turned her attention back to her foe. This battle had gone on long enough. It was time to use her super-brain and put an end to it. He can’t fly, she reasoned, so if I dropped him into the bay, he’d be relatively helpless with no place to stand and nothing to throw. Acting as she thought, she swooped around and approached him from behind. Before he could turn, she picked him up under the shoulders and carried him a half-mile out to sea and then dropped him.
He came back to the surface, gasping desperately. “The gear on my costume makes me too heavy to float! You have to help me!” he pleaded.
“Dump the gear,” she responded calmly.
“The water’s too cold. Even if I could float, I’ll die of exposure,” he insisted, closer to panic with every second.
“I’m not so sure,” she responded matter-of-factly. “I’m not an expert on Earth human physiology, but I suspect that if you dump the extra weight and start swimming, you’ll make it to shore well before you die of exposure. But you won’t be in much of a mood to fight any more. I’ll be waiting for you.” She flew off toward shore.
Challenge had a moment of hope as he saw Bear standing on shore, but instead of fighting her or trying to help him, the two of them just watched him. His allies had both abandoned him, and his hope of rescue was shattered.
C’mon, Cap, you’re the guy who wants new challenges, aren’t you? Challenge thought to himself in anger. Damned if I’m going to drown on an alien planet within sight of shore — under the eyes of enemies! He dropped his equipment belt, ditched the glider wings, kicked off his boots, and started swimming to shore. After a while, he realized that his costume worked well as a wet suit. He was no longer chilly, and in fact he was almost getting overheated. But it wasn’t as easy to swim as he’d expected in the light gravity of Zor, and he hadn’t swam in years. Before long he was exhausted.
Just at that time, Tharka flew toward him, carrying something bulky. There was nothing he could do to prevent her from scooping him up in a net, and strain though he might, he was unable to break the strands. “The Conflux of Nations created this material to restrain me,” Tharka told him, smiling as she watched his unsuccessful attempts to escape. “And they supposedly have a Tharka-proof cell somewhere in Castle Ianus. I guess we’ll find out.” She paused, he said nothing. “OK, then — and as soon as I get my spaceship fixed, it’s back to Earth for you.”
It took Tharka a week before she could leave for Earth, which gave her time to take care of the loose ends. With Muscleman’s help, she restored Castle Ianus and the Hall of Nations. The deceased Seniors were given burials worth of the planetary heroes they had become. Senior Superior Yion Lugschnozzle and the few other councilors who had actively assisted were charged with treason, but they had the best lawyer on the planet, and the circumstances were murky.
And directed by Tharka, whose delicate telekinetic power allowed her to discover where they could safely cut, a team of physicians performed the extremely difficult surgery on Fergus, clearing scar tissue from his partially blocked arteries. When he awoke and retained his intelligence in an Earth-normal environment, the surgeons had pronounced him cured. He would be recuperating for several more weeks, during which time Tharka would deliver Captain Challenge back to Earth. Fergus had made a formal request to be allowed to stay on Zor permanently as a Citizen of the Confluence of Nations. A hearing would be held to rule on his request when he left the hospital. With Tharka on his side, it appeared likely that his request would be approved.
Thus, everything was under control and going smoothly — until Tharka’s spaceship dropped out of hyperspace about fifty astronomical units from the Sun, and she discovered that the planet Earth was missing.