by Dan Swanson
Chapter 32 — A Little Music on the Side… ####### CHAPTER 30
Out near the orbit of Mars, Lady Bolt, Atomic Rocket and Ibis searched for the missing Thunderman. Ibis had been certain he would find the hero in seconds. When he arrived in near-Mars space, he had waved the Ibistick and commanded “Bring Thunderman to us!” He was shocked when his spell didn’t work, so he tried it again. No luck.
“Ibistick, take us to Thunderman!” still no luck. “Ibistick, locate Thunderman!” No joy.
“Ibistick, locate Atomic Rocket!” A glowing white arrow appeared, pointing at Atomic Rocket. But it was not behaving as expected. Instead of being a solid, stationary object, it ‘rippled’ and quickly dissolved. But the Ibistick was at least partially functional. “Ibistick, locate Lady Bolt!” Nothing at all.
Rocket spoke up. “Looks like it can’t find people from their Earth!”
Ibis was uncertain. He had used the Ibistick to affect objects from other Earths during the Crisis, and he had never noticed any differences. And what was causing his successful spells to dissipate? He had tried to protest when Americon told him to wear a space suit, but he was glad the other-Earth hero had insisted, or he might already be dead! He began experimenting to determine what was interfering with his magic. At the same time, he used the spacesuit’s maneuvering jets to remain near Atomic Rocket. He didn’t want to get lost in space with an unreliable Ibistick!
Lady Bolt and Atomic Rocket flew search patterns displayed in their heads-up displays, based on the cone of probable trajectories Lady Bolt had created earlier. Of course, as time passed, the locus of possibilities was growing — and a strictly logical calculation of their chances of success would have suggested that they were now wasting their time.
After three hours of fruitless searching, Atomic Rocket and Ibis were ready to conclude that if Thunderman was still alive, he was going to have to save himself. But Lady Bolt was having none of it. She knew her husband was still alive, and she was determined that she was going to find him. She tried to push her speed even more, but the computer couldn’t keep up with her, and she realized that she had started searching the same volume of space more than once — though she couldn’t tell, the computer could! She finally gave up the scientific search pattern, and decided to go with her feelings.
She stopped, closed her eyes, and concentrated on the place in her mind where she had always felt connected to her husband. She calmed herself, as much as she could, and tried to learn whatever she could from that place. She was sure she could really ‘feel’ his presence — in fact, more strongly than at any time in her life. He was not close, but neither was he getting further away. She gently initiated a roll, and as she slowly tumbled, she tried to get some idea of her husband’s direction. “That way!” she pointed, stopping her tumble. The three heroes were stunned — she was pointing at the Sun!
Ibis had made his own interesting discovery. The space around them had been ‘polluted’ by magic leaking from BattleWorld, and this magic pollution was interfering with the operation of the Ibistick. Once he left this area, his control of magic should return to normal.
Lady Bolt wrapped her arms around her partners, and flew sunward at top speed. After about a million miles, she radioed them, frustration in her voice. “We’re going too slowly. He doesn’t seem to be any closer! Ibis, can you get yourself and Tomas back to the Rock of Eternity? You guys are slowing me down! But I can’t just leave you here, because I might never find you again!”
“We should be well beyond the polluted region of space,” Ibis responded. “Allow me another opportunity. ” He raised the rod “Ibistick, take us to Thunderman!”
In the middle of his incantation, the three were illuminated from behind by an incredibly bright flash of light, so bright that even with their backs turned it was dazzling. Even so, Ibis finished his incantation, and they blinked out of space. A watcher might have thought they had been disintegrated by the flash of light. In fact, the flash, carrying some fossil magic, affected the Ibistick, and again it didn’t quite carry out Ibis’s command as he had expected. Instead of transporting them to Thunderman’s side, they found themselves some 100,000 miles above from Mars and approaching at meteoric velocity! If they were unable to slow down in time, they would burn up on re-entry, even in the thin Martian atmosphere.
Lady Bolt could now sense that her beloved was much closer, but she could also feel the unusually strong extrasensory bond with Thunderman ebbing, returning to normal. Something in the fossil magic of BattleWorld must have enhanced the connection she had always felt with her magical husband. She could still feel the connection, but she was no longer sensitive enough to ‘follow’ that connection.
Atomic Rocket had never made a planetary reentry before, but both Lady Bolt and Ibis had. Even Lady Bolt knew they couldn’t hurry this part of their search! They combined their powers and were able to successfully slow their plunge. Each time he used the Ibistick, Ibis felt more comfortable as the magical pollutants were burned away by use.
When they reached the surface, the Ibistick was able to locate Thunderman, seemingly halfway around the Red Planet. It still wouldn’t teleport Thunderman to them, and Ibis didn’t want to teleport the group again until he was sure it would work better than the last time. So they flew above the surface of Mars, closing in on the missing hero… About twenty minutes after they arrived, they were startled when they witnessed the same bright flash of light then had seen on the other side of the Sun! (36 minutes after the event). It was not nearly as bright as it had been earlier, but it was still brighter than full daylight!
As they searched, they discussed how Thunderman might have traveled over 400 million miles to Mars. Atomic Rocket remembered a paper he had read recently in an obscure scientific journal on the theoretical nature of wormholes. The presence of a wormhole might produce unusual gravitational effects, warping space-time. And the fossil magic of BattleWorld could also have come into play. Perhaps when BattleWorld had jumped to the asteroid belt, the space-time warping had somehow translated him to Mars. Since Thunderman had likely been unconscious when it happened, they might never know for sure.
But we can find out, with a little judicious time travel. About a billion years after they built BattleWorld, the Scorts were conquered by another race. BattleWorld and crew managed to escape, but, cut off from their race, the crew had eventually died off. BattleWorld had drifted for uncounted millennia, into another galaxy. Eventually it was found by another race, and put back into service. But they were (rightly) afraid of Angel of Death, and they reconfigured the maintenance computer to control the prodigious space battleship — and even without Angel of Death controlling it, BattleWorld was still the most unstoppable weapon in the new galaxy. In time, however, these new owners fell, and BattleWorld changed hands many times in the following eons. But Angel of Death had never been reactivated.
When Thunderman had been flung into space by the force field, the maintenance computer had realized that it was going to need repairs. The asteroid belt was a good place to start, but repairing all the damage wrought during the passing eons was eventually going to require the resources of an entire planet. From its own scans of the Solar System, the controlling computer knew that Mars was a good choice — an entire planet that seemed to be made of iron oxides (rust!). There was very little in BattleWorld that was pure iron or steel, but iron was the most common element in most of the highly advanced alloys used throughout the world-ship. But there didn’t seem to be any volcanic activity on Mars, and volcanic activity would speed up the repairs, by providing easier access to some of the materials buried beneath the rust.
Besides, this warrior, who had almost broken through the force field, was extremely dangerous. So the controlling computer decided to solve two problems at once.
When BattleWorld had jumped to the asteroid belt, the controlling computer had manipulated the wormhole to capture the unconscious form of Thunderman in a hyper-intense gravitational field, accelerating him to almost the speed of light, again, pulling him into hyperspace and then thrusting him out on a collision course with Mars.
Thunderman was awakened by a brilliant blast of white light, brighter than anything he had ever seen, bright enough to penetrate the darkness he had inhabited since his collision first with BattleWorld, and then with Mars. He didn’t really remember either one, his last memory was diving at BattleWorld and running into an impenetrable barrier. He was lying on his back, and he was in agony — every slightest move he made produced a shrieking chorus of agony. Could he be dead? The landscape he could see around him certainly reminded him of Hell — at least one of the several Hells he had seen in the course of his career.
The air was filled with dust, which was eerily lit from underneath by unsteady red and orange light that he recognized as characteristic of lava. There were constant explosions blasting plumes of molten matter into the air. The ground was shaking and rumbling. The air stank with smells he couldn’t even recognize. And of course, he was in agony. The only thing he could see that distinguished this place from the Hells he had visited in the past was the lack of ‘living’ things nearby. Every Hell he had visited had been packed shoulder to shoulder with the spirits of the damned. He shuddered, hoping he wasn’t the first resident in a newly opened subdivision!
But he realized he actually felt better now than he had a few minutes ago. Since his powers were still working, he was probably still alive. Screwing up the Courage of Uncas, he carefully sat up, ignoring his incredible aches and pains and looked around. He assumed he must be on a planet, but there was no planet in the Solar System that he knew of that looked like this!
“At least,” he thought “there didn’t used to be!” He had noticed that he was in the middle of a crater that was slowly filling with lava. Last he remembered, he had been moving really, really fast. He was starting to get a bad feeling about this! And then he relaxed… the gravity here was much too light for this to be Earth.
By now he was feeling just lousy, so he decided it was time to learn more. He rose into the air, hoping to get above the clouds of dust that was obscuring everything around him. A half mile or so above the ground, the dust cleared enough so he could see more of what was around him. To him, this looked like Mars — the Sun was the right size, and the land near the horizons was the right color. He could see evidence that he had been the cause of this mess — he was in the center of a wide circle of devastation and clouds, geysers and pools of lava, broken surface and piles of rubble.
He soon realized he wasn’t alone, however. He could see a lot of movement not too far away. He quickly dropped back into the cloud.
Contrary to what most of his peers believed, Thunderman was not reckless — he evaluated every situation with the Wisdom of Nature before he rushed in. He just had more confidence in his invulnerability than many of his peers. Maybe Americon was correct, and someday it would get him killed — that was the risk you took, being a superhero. But when he didn’t have any information about a situation, such as this one, he could be as cautious as anyone! So he slowly floated closer to the activity, using the dust cloud for concealment.
“OH MY GOD! They’re turning this planet into another BattleWorld!” he managed not to shout. Not far away, he could see an army of robots, and with his telescopic vision, he had seen identical robots on the surface of BattleWorld. These ‘ants’ were swarming over the red desert. There was a row of identical machines, each about the size of a small house, say a two-bedroom Cape Cod. Some of these machines were producing parts that the ants were using to assemble more of the big machines. To his horror, others were producing more ants!
If these things had been her before he crashed down from the sky and devastated the landscape, they would probably have been destroyed — so they must have arrived after his impact. That being the case, he was truly stunned by how many machines there were, and how fast they were making more. More and more of the new ants were being routed to other construction projects, as someone or something apparently decided it was now time to move on to the next stage. Using his super-vision, he examined two of them closely. One project was turning out ever larger construction machines, while the other seemed to be making computer components!
Further away, he saw an interesting spacecraft land. As soon as it landed, it started to fall apart! No, he realized that it was made up of thousands of ‘ants’ and ‘bees’, all of which had somehow joined together to produce a functional spaceship. Who woulda thought he’d find ‘transformers’ in this universe? He would have been delighted, except that these robots seemed to be madly intent on re-creating BattleWorld! At least, that’s what he thought they were doing.
Some of the new ants started building weapons. He was stunned to see that they disassembled the ‘bees’ to get parts, but he realized that these were just machines — he hoped! Well, anyway, he had better take action soon. The more time these things had to rebuild, the harder it was going to be to stop them.
Thunderman didn’t like the fact that they seemed to be building a giant computer. When he had attacked BattleWorld, he and the other members of his team were working on the assumption that BattleWorld was computer-controlled, and the computer had been their primary target. So he decided to target that facility first.
Smash and dash had not quite succeeded before — but only because he had not been able to see the invisible force screen. He still had no way of knowing if his super vision could have helped before, but he examined this entire area closely and was unable to sense anything like the shield. He wasn’t going to assume this time, however — what he had in mind would get him information and double as a distraction. He scanned the sky with his super vision, and didn’t see any more spaceships, and none of the ‘bees’ were left in one piece — apparently the alien robots felt they were safe on this uninhabited planet.
Thunderman moved to the far side of the cloud and carefully gathered together the biggest boulders he could find. Calculating quickly with his enhanced wisdom, he then threw them high into the air, aimed to fall among the enemy machines, and each was thrown so that they would all arrive at almost exactly the same time. He then quickly flew a wide circle around the enemy construction, and got ready for his surprise to arrive.
What really surprised him was that the machines didn’t detect his bombing attack before it struck! They must have all been programmed for nothing but construction — a mistake they probably wouldn’t make when their central computer was finished. He had been unable to control the targeting as closely as he would have liked, but he was very gratified at the amount of damage his impromptu meteor swarm caused. But he didn’t sit around counting his laurels; he blasted down among the various machines with all the awesome speed and power at his command, being certain to mangle the computer components as much as he could.
Thunderman flashed through the enemy machines, and he was still moving away from them, gaining altitude for his next pass, when disaster struck! He was hit from behind by some kind of energy weapon, and he was instantly turned back into plain Otto Beck! He was high in the air and still rising, so he had time — he rubbed his belt buckle and said his magic word. Or actually, he tried and failed to say his magic word — the atmosphere around him was so toxic, he was immediately coughing and the back of his throat was burning! If he was going to live through this experience, Otto Beck was going to have to solve his own problems!