Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 
ARENA
(a sequel to "The Crusaders")

by Linda Thackeray

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

I

He could not sleep.

At first he thought it might have been the uncomfortable hospital bed he was forced to occupy, during the 24-hour period of observation that Sigrid required of him. However, after travelling through space where the bed had been little more than a padded cubicle at the noisiest end of the ship, Guy knew comfort was not the reason for his insomnia. He tossed and turned on the reasonably soft bed, tried counting sheep (or in this case, playboy centrefolds) and even wrestled with the idea of asking for hot milk. Considering what he had been through the past few weeks, he did not think a few hours uninterrupted sleep would be too much to ask.

When he finally managed to doze off, his dreams were filled with images of bubbling water, fingers scrapping against glass and of course, Kevin. He would see Kevin trapped inside a glass bubble, trying desperately to escape but not realising he was already a dead man. In his dreams, Kevin was still the promising young athlete he had tried to save in more ways than he could count. Lovecraft had not turned Kevin into a freak yet Kevin was very much in his power. The end would always come as Guy tried to reach him through the glass as Kevin opened his mouth to scream, only to have the sound die in a rush of water down his throat.


With such nightmares as company, it was no wonder that Guy finally gave up the whole idea of sleep for the time being. Beatriz had stayed by his side most of the night. With each of his startled cries and sudden return to consciousness, she was there, poised to offer comfort by her presence and the power of her love. She would hold him close as if wrapping her arms around him would chase the demons away by the sheer force of her will. Guy had no idea she could be so strong.

"I'm not going back to sleep." He replied after the last nightmare had awakened him abruptly.

Beatriz who was aware what he had been experiencing that night did not want to argue. She wished Sigrid would let her take Guy home. In this sterile environment with its white walls and antiseptic stench, Beatriz could barely relax herself. Hospitals in general were intimidating. Star Labs with all its technology and alien research was even more so. However, Sigrid had made a convincing argument and considering what Guy had been forced to endure the past weeks, Beatriz could understand her need to be cautious.

"Then don't." She said without argument.

He was sitting up and in the darkness> She could see the sweat glistening of his skin. It was not the first time that night he had awakened covered in his own perspiration. Although the arm chair provided was comfortable enough, Beatriz had been unable to sleep hearing his muffled cries in the night, as whatever demons left behind from his ordeal, did their worst.


Guy eased back into his bed, his eyes staring out the window. Beyond the glass, the city was a glittery canvas of dark. Unfortunately, he was not seeing the city or its myriad of lights. Guy's mind was left on the images of his dream, made worse by the knowledge that in part most of those images were based on reality. He had seen these things happen and had been powerless to stop it. Guy had not felt so helpless since learning Tora had died while he was away battling Hal Jordan during his attempt to reshape the universe.

"Talk to me." Beatriz spoke finally.

"I'm fine." He replied tautly. He did not want to talk about this. If he did, he would become angry and that would precipitate the need to smash every damn thing in sight.

"You don't sound it." She persisted. "Guy," she sat up from her chair and reached for his hand. "I'm here, let me help."

He tried not to let her words affect him but hers were the only ones that could. Somewhere deep inside him was a soft place that Guy protected with fierce determination. Not many people had breached the walls surrounding that place and those who had meant everything to him. Beatriz was sole occupier of that place and despite baser instincts to push her away, he found that he could not. Even without being told what had happened during his disappearance, Guy could tell just by the look in her eyes that Beatriz had spent every moment of that time worrying about him.

"It must have been hard not knowing where I was." Guy said meeting her eyes.

"Just a little." She replied, deciding there was no reason to let him know that she had been gibbering wreck most of that period. "Actually, I think Ted was coming close to putting me in a padded room but for most part, I didn't completely lose it."

"Ah you hot tempered women," he joked. "I don't know how guys like us handle you." For a brief minute, they both shared into the harmless teasing and chuckled softly amongst each other. It felt good to laugh even for a short time.

Eventually, the moment faded and Guy swallowed hard, trying to conceal his emotion under the guise of masculine depth. "I couldn't help him." He tried to sound as if none of this bothered him as much as it truly did but his voice betrayed him. "I saw him in that tube, fighting it but there I was nothing I could do."

"I'm so sorry Guy," Beatriz wishing she could say the words that would make it all right but there were none that could do that.

"I barely remember what happened," he confessed. "A lot of it is vague but I do remember seeing Kevin change into something else. I saw the terror in his eyes and there wasn't a damn thing I could do to stop it. He was trapped like a goldfish in a bowl."

Beatriz could well imagine what he was talking about. After seeing that room inside the former Ani-Men complex, she decided any atrocity was possible if a mind could conjure it. The glass tubes with their dead occupants had been burned into her memory and part of her fear when Guy had been kidnapped, was the possibility of finding in one of those tubes. To see someone trapped in that greenish fluid, looking as if a half-formed sculptor was enough to give even the bravest person nightmares.

"He could still be alive." Beatriz replied, trying to give him some measure of hope. "We don't know that he is dead."

"No we don't." Guy was willing to agree on that much at least. "Although if Kevin is still, I'm pretty sure he wishes he wasn't."

*********

The Crusaders gathered at Warriors almost immediately after Guy was granted his freedom from Star Labs. Despite Guy's return, they were all in agreement that the situation with Rex Maximus required swift action. Although Donovan reported there was further evidence of the recruitment drive that had snared Kevin Sharpe in the neighbourhood, this assured them of nothing. For all they knew, Maximus may have simply altered his methods. No doubt filling his ranks by some other means.

While he was at Star Labs, Sigrid had tentatively explained what state he had been found. Although she hesitated going into detail, Guy knew there was more to her story than what she was willing to admit. Unfortunately, Sigrid had little control over the media. Thus during his stay, Guy had watched the coverage of Blue Beetle's battle with some hideous monster on his room's television set. As Guy saw the creature morph and fire Vuldarian artillery, he felt his stomach tighten into a thousand knots. Upon witnessing that, he demanded the truth to be told in all its stark reality. The rage Guy felt over that discovery paled in comparison to anything inspired by mutation or rampaging Vuldarian genes.

Maximus had him made into a monster.


He would pay for that and for all the others, especially Kevin Sharp.

"Okay, let's talk. "Guy looked at his comrades who were all congregated in the usual meeting room in Warriors. Thanks to Zatanna's magic, the building had been restored to pristine condition. Considering the damage inflicted during his fight with Ted, Guy had to admit Zatanna knew her craft. The place looked exactly as it was when he left it. Guy did not even want to imagine what it must have looked like after he and Ted had been through it. Still, it was nice to know that he had the services of an instant renovator when he needed one.

"Well I think I speak for everyone when I say the burning question of the hour is where you've been Guy." Ted looked at him with a smug tone.

"Smart ass." Guy retorted frowning. He eased back into his chair at the head of the table and wished he had a brew in his hand about right now. Somehow, his throat felt very dry at the prospect of relating his experiences during his imprisonment in the hands of Rex Maximus.

"As you probably already guessed, I got ambushed at the high school." Guy began and both Ted and Donovan were immediately reminded of the Guy's wrecked jeep in the school parking lot.

"Figured as much when we saw it." Ted nodded. "I assume they were waiting for you when you left the building."

"Yeah," Guy rumbled unhappily as images of the incident flashed into mind. "I walked into it like an amateur."

"It's hardly the place to expect an attack." Beatriz said trying to make him feel better.

"Have you seen the place?" Ted looked at her. "I've felt safer on Apokolips."

"You were always a tough guy," Ronnie drawled from his seat at the far end of the table. Although he was not officially apart of the team, the inclusion of Ronnie in the meeting felt right somehow. Like the rest of them, Ronnie did not seem to fit anywhere else and if there was one thing this group welcomed more than anything else, it was misfits. "Besides, New York, what a town."

"This from a man who models underwear." Ted retorted.

"Kids," Zatanna spoke up because she was eager to hear Guy's story. "Can we save the Abbott & Costello until after the meeting."

"Thanks Zee," Guy replied. "To think, I thought some of us were old enough to give up our teething rings."

"What's a teething ring." Ted grinned, pleased that he was able to return to his old habits now that Guy was back holding the reins again.

Guy shook his head and ignored him, choosing to continue instead. However, he had to admit Ted's levity had made it a little easier to talk about what had happened to him, even if the content was nothing to joke about. "As I was saying, they ambushed me head on when I got to my car but they had a sniper somewhere else, cause I felt something sharp hit me."

"We found traces of a tranquilliser dart on the roof," Donovan reported. "They must have had someone waiting for you on the roof the school building. The guys who attacked you were probably a decoy."

"That would make sense." Guy agreed, considering the ease by which he had overcome them. "I only felt the dart hit only after I wipe the floor with those creeps."

"Do you know what they drugged you with?" Sigrid inquired. Anything she could learn about the toxicology of Lovecraft's drugs might assist the captives, Maximus undoubtedly had in his keeping.

"No," Guy shook his head, remembering only the intense pain the drug had caused in his system. "It hurt like hell though. I felt like I was on fire or something."

Sigrid said nothing for a moment and looked deep in though before responding a moment later. "There is been a new drug out on the market," she replied. "Interpol reports the going rate to be somewhere in the vicinity of $10,000 a metric gram. Naturally, its use isn't wide spread."

Booster whistled out loud. "That's some serious money for dope. What does it do?"

"It's called Anti-Gen." Sigrid answered. "I've never seen a sample myself but I've read the reports on it. It's suppose to suppress the Meta-Gene in humans. That might have been what they used on you Guy."

"Its pretty potent whatever it is." Guy admitted. "I went down like a tonne of bricks. It works fast too. I think I was out in like two minutes, if that."

"That's pretty scary." Beatriz admitted. "This drug is obviously used against paranormals." Beatriz recalled how the gene bomb in the war against the Dominators had sent her meta-gene out of control. Her fire abilities had been limited until the gene bomb had detonated in the last days of the war. Its effect on the super hero community was nothing short of devastating. All paranormals whose powers originated from the Meta gene were plunged into a coma that would precede death. Even though a cure was eventually found, for many the bomb had left lasting effects. In Beatriz's case, her powers were significantly enhanced as the gene was activated to its fullest potential. Rex Mason, one of the metamorphae had been resurrected from his death. The existence of a drug like Anti-Gen opened up some uncomfortable possibilities for gene based paranormals.

"Maximus will have no trouble coming up with that kind of cash." Ronnie stated firmly. "Those gladiatorial side shows of his bring in some hefty cash flow."

"Go on Guy." Ted prompted. He had hypothesised much of what Guy had told him until this point and was interested to learn what happened after his capture. "What happened when you came to?"

Guy shrugged uncomfortably in his seat. "Tell you the truth, after that things get pretty hazy." He replied reaching for the glass of water to his right. After downing the contents, he continued speaking, although this part of his ordeal was difficult to relate. "I think they knew just how much trouble I could be if I was a hundred percent. When I came to, I knew they had me on something. Thing were blurry and I couldn't make out a hell of a lot." Guy paused a moment, letting the images come to him again so he could describe them with some measure of clarity.

"I know I was in some kind of complex." Guy recalled winding corridors and large fluorescent lights at regular intervals moving overhead. "I think it might have been underground because I didn't see any windows. The kid's right though," he said glancing at Ronnie. "It took a lot of money to finance the operation because it was huge."

"Who you calling kid?" Ronnie spoke, not exactly happy at being referred to that way.

"You, Junior." Guy said with a faint smile, knowing that he had raised the boy's ire a little but ignored Ronnie's displeasure and continued with his narration. "I didn't see much around me, I was too out of it but I do remember that there were a lot of people moving about. I don't think all of them were these Ani-Men guys the rest of you have seen but then again, I was drugged most of the time I was there."

"When did you see Kevin?" Donovan asked. That was the question foremost on his mind. In their search for Guy, Kevin Sharpe had almost become an after thought. In all this time, no one had asked the question of Kevin's fate until Guy had made his statement at Star Labs that he had been unable to save the boy. Although Donovan had never met Kevin personally, he did feel for the boy who had tried to make something of himself and failed because of one wrong turn.

Guy lost his good humour at the mention of Kevin's name because he still felt responsible for the boy's fate. Perhaps if he had said the right thing at the right moment, Kevin would not have fallen into Maximus' hands. Guy knew logically that there were limits to what he could do but forcing himself to believe it was another thing entirely. "I don't remember much about where I was when I saw him but I think it was some kind of laboratory. For some reason, there was a problem with putting me in one of the forming tanks that's what I think he called it. I was kept in the same room though as the tanks inside a cage."

Beatriz saw his fists clench as he said that. His knuckles were turning white as he dug his nails into his palm. Guy's jaw tightened momentarily, as he made some effort to control his overwhelming rage at what was done to him and Kevin. She slipped her hand over his and was gratified when he released his fist and entwined his fingers in between hers.

"I saw Kevin in one of the tanks. I'm pretty sure it was Kevin." Guy did not reveal that it was Kevin. There was no doubt in his mind about that. "The forming process was well on the way and he was turning into some kind of a cat. I heard Lovecraft calling him an Omega. From what I understood, there were Alpha specimens and Omega specimens. I don't know what the difference is."

"My god." Zatanna whispered softly, aware of this story even though she had not been present to see it for herself. She remembered Reena describing the mutation process and it still sent shivers down her spine to hear of it. Supernatural forces and horrific demons paled in comparison to the acts of atrocity wrapped tidily in the name of scientific research.

"Was he aware?" Sigrid inquired, her own sensibilities offended by Guy's description.

Kevin had opened his eyes and stared directly at Guy. The horror inside them was something Guy would carry for the rest of his life. He would not easily forget the realisation of utter condemnation he saw in Kevin's eyes. "Yes." He said simply and would not elaborate on that to the others. "I was in no position to help him and by the looks of him, it was luck that I recognised him at all. I think they crossed him with a cheetah or something with spots."

Furious glances flew across the room among the four who had been guests at the arena. With a sickening realisation, Ted blinked slowly as he came to grips with the fact that they might have seen Kevin after his transformation. "Guy," he said looking at his friend. "I think we saw Kevin at the Arena. They had him fighting a sabre tooth tiger."

Guy's face turned ashen. Beatriz could not meet his gaze because she remembered how they had done nothing to intervene. At the time, letting the fight go on was less important against the possibility of finding out where the Ani-Men were based. Although Ted had suspicions, there was no reason to believe that the animals fighting were more than they were.

"You let him fight in thatthatcircus like a trained animal and did nothing!" Guy almost roared, rising to his feet and glaring at Ted in full wrath.

"We didn't know!" Zatanna said rising to Ted's defence immediately. "We were trying to find you."

"Zee its okay," Ted replied. He could not blame Guy for his anger. Considering how Guy felt about the boy, Ted could not be certain he would not have done the same thing if their roles had been reversed. "Guy, I'm sorry. I didn't know. At the time, it was more important trying to find you."

"I don't give a damn about that!" Guy retorted angrily but in truth he did. Despite his rage, he knew Ted had done the right thing. In fact, he would have made the same decision.

Ted seemed to understand this and did not take offence. He understood Guy's feelings but decided to not let his outburst turn into something it was not. "I had a decision to make Guy, we didn't know it was Kevin. We still don't as a matter of fact." He pointed out. However, Ted did not really believe it and neither did Guy. "If it was Kevin then he's not dead."

"Are you sure?" Guy looked at him.

"He won the fight," Booster explained. "He beat the other guy and I saw them take him out of the place alive. I saw him being loaded into a truck and taken away." Images of the wounded cheetah being lead away by its handlers surfaced in Booster's memory of that night over Miller Park.

"I know how you feel." Ronnie lent his voice to the conversation. "Reena was my friend and it still bites not knowing I was not able to help her. However if we find this kid then maybe we can use the same process that Sigrid used on you to help him."

Sigrid said nothing, knowing it was more important that Guy have hope for the moment, then anything else. Unfortunately however, helping Kevin the way she had helped Guy depended entirely on them having a sample of Kevin's DNA untainted by Lovecraft's mutation, which they did not. Still, there was no reason to voice it at this time.

"Reena told us that the process was not permanent, that Lovecraft had a way of reversing it. Otherwise none of Repli-Tech executive staff would have agreed to undergo the mutation. If we find Lovecraft and Kevin soon, we may be able to help him."

The possibility of that hope seemed to satisfy Guy for the moment and he nodded slowly and lowered back to his seat. "I'm sorry Ted," he offered a sincere apology. "You did the right thing."

Ted threw Ronnie a grateful look and nodded. "Its okay," he answered. "I know where you were coming from."

"I thought Dreamslayer and the Extremists were hard to deal with," Guy let out a deep breath. "This guy Maximus play real dirty. I want him put down fast." Guy paused a moment and then allowed his gaze to sweep across the faces of those permanently, so they would not mistake his intentions regarding this matter. "I want him put down fast and permanently. I'm not going to have this bastard poke his ugly head in a couple years to do all this crap to someone else because we didn't get it right the first time."

No one could disagree with that statement. After everything they had seen the past few days, it seemed to be the most appropriate course of action. God only knew how many innocent Maximus had turned unwillingly into to mutations of animal and human.

Kevin was only one of so many others.

.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

I

Whoever Oracle was, she had to be gorgeous.

Booster Gold held his ear close to the telephone and listened to the voice speaking in its dulcet tones. He was sure she was tall, leggy, probably a college graduate who was really smart and probably knew things like who won the Superbowl in 1985. Within the confines of his penthouse apartment, he pictured Oracle with waves of dark hair (he loved dark hair) and the kind of eyes one could drown in. Not to mention, she had the sexiest voice in creation.

"Mr Gold, was there anything further?"

Booster snapped out of his fantasy abruptly with that question. "Yes, yes," what was he saying? "I mean no," he cleared his throat and said in a more serious tone. "No, that's all. Thanks for your help."

"How is Gardner?" Oracle inquired.

"Better, now that he's back to normal." Booster replied. "Both he and the Blue Beetle are taking it easy for a few days. They were both injured during the fight."

"You didn't seem to escape injury yourself," she pointed out. "Jonn tells me those Presbyterian features of yours took a beating."

Instinctively, Booster reached for his still bandaged nose, wincing at how he must looked to the opposite sex. He had spent half an hour on the phone reassuring Catherine that he was all right and there was no need for her to jump on the next Concord to New York. At least he did not have to endure Catherine seeing him like this. It was so embarrassing.

"So I won't be able to do that photo shoot with Cindy next week." He grinned. "I'll live."

"I hope the information I gave you helps." She answered getting back to business. "It took some hours compiling all the possibilities but I am almost certain that it's the company Rex Rogan set up before Repli-Tech folded."

"Leo Enterprises." Booster nodded, remembering what Oracle had told him earlier about her findings. "I think that's Rogan's style."

"No doubt." Oracle responded. "In any case, I'm faxing you all the information I have on the company as per their last Annual General Meeting. It includes a list of major share holders and company assets."

"Wow," Booster said with admiration. "I'm impressed. You must have huge staff to run around for you."


"No," she said with a sigh. "Just me."

"Just you?" He exclaimed with disbelief. "This would have taken you ages."

There was a slight pause before she answered. "I have the time." She replied and made the obligatory courtesies before terminating the line between them. The conversation had suddenly become more personal than she would have liked. Once the connection was severed, Barbara Gordon exhaled deeply. Instinctively, her fingers ran over the steel frame of her wheel chair before she whispered softly. "These days, I have lots of it."

Far away from Gotham City where Oracle was normally in residence, Booster Gold was left to ponder the information he had received from the mysterious heroine. His mind lingered for a moment on the identity of the woman, although none of it seemed to disconnect from the fantasy image he had of her. Considering he was more or less committed elsewhere, Booster forced his attention back to the information she had provided, rather than her secret identity. He waited until his fax machine began churning o ut the information sent by Oracle to hard copy format before he left his study to join Ted and Zatanna.

"So what did she say?" He heard Ted ask as he walked into the living room where Zatanna and Ted were currently residing watching "I love Lucy" reruns. Zatanna had been staying over during Ted's recovery, keeping a careful watch over him and ensuring that he did nothing to exert his injured leg. The doctors at Star Labs had been adamant that he keep off it at least a week, giving the impaled muscle time to recover to full use. Despite Ted's casual attitude towards the injury, fortunately Zatanna had better sense.

"Quite a bit actually." He said handing over the faxed copy to Ted, who was prone on the sofa. "Oracle managed to narrow the list down to just one company, Leo Enterprises."

"Original." Ted commented as he studied the papers himself.


"They appear to quite successful." Zatanna remarked as she read the fax over Ted's shoulder. "Several holdings across the country, a great deal of interest in bio-genetic companies. You know, it's amazing we were not aware of him sooner."

"I think after the last run in with the League, chances are he learnt how to stay low." Booster added. "Guys like Maximus learn from their mistakes."

"Says here, they've got a storage facility upstate." Ted mused and then looked up. "When you were pursuing the truck, it was going northwards wasn't it?"

"That's right." Booster nodded. "It was. I lost it north-west of Union City."

"We should check this place out. Its probably too easy for it to be Maximus' hideout but you never know." Ted remarked and started to roll of the sofa. He did not get very far before he felt Zatanna's arm on his shoulder, making him stay where he was.

"You are not going anywhere." She said in a no nonsense tone that broke no argument.

"I'm alright," he looked at her. "It's just a flesh wound."

"It is not a flesh wound Ted," Zatanna looked at him critically. "But you can have one if you try to move out of that sofa."

"Help me out here buddy," Ted glanced at Booster for moral support, even though he knew Zatanna was probably correct in her determination to keep restive.

"Let me see," Booster said rubbing his chin and pretending deep thought. "Take sides with my injured best friend who would probably cripple himself if he should move or his girl friend who can turn me into a newt if I piss her off." Booster met Ted's gaze with a mischievous smirk. "Gee, what do you think?"

"Hey, that guy had it coming!" Zatanna protested, laughing at his antics. Why was it when these men disintegrated into their juvenile behaviour, it was so damn infectious? Zatanna had found herself indulging in behaviour she would have believed in conceivable during her days in the Justice League. Back then, things were so seriousness and yet with Ted and indeed with the rest of the Crusaders, it was easy to laugh at oneself even at the most inappropriate moments. Perhaps, that is why she enjoyed being in the group.

"Traitor." Ted scowled at Booster who was grinning in some kind of twisted victory smirk. Nevertheless Ted had to admit, he did not relish getting out of his bed. Besides, Lucy was about to get into the wine making vat.

Zatanna planted a firm kiss on his forehead as she rose to her feet. "Don't think that makes it up to me," Ted complained. "I expect much more pampering before I get over this."

"We shouldn't be too long." She smiled as she and Booster started towards the balcony windows. As they drifted out of earshot, Zatanna's voice made one final remark. "Boy, you weren't kidding when you said he was a baby."

*******

Despite the precautions, Maximus knew that it was inevitable that he would be discovered. The law of averages made that a virtually calculable fact. He knew that at some point, paranormal involvement would become acute and so he prepared himself for that eventuality. Although he was disappointed by the lack of success in turning Guy Gardner into one of his Ani-Men, at the time, the endeavour seemed worth the effort. As it was, Gardner had proved useful in distracting his comrades' attentions from their investigation of Maximus' business, even for a short time.

Almost immediately after the release of the paranormal called Warrior, Maximus had wasted no time in moving his operation to its new secret base. Anticipating the involvement of the super humans at some point, Maximus had funded the construction of a secret facility in the event that his primary headquarters were breached. This time, instead of placing the facility on some distant island where isolation was more of a hazard than an asset, the new Ani-Men complex was placed in the open. Ambiguity through exposure, he decided. It was the most located in plain sight, therefore making it the unlikeliest place for a secret base.

Maximus patrolled the corridors of his domain, watching equipment being removed and dismantled for transport to their permanent location. Doctor Lovecraft was overseeing most of the work particularly for his laboratory and was screaming orders at a number of Alphas who were moving heavy machinery with more ease than any human ever could. These particular Alphas were design to be labourers and thus their genetic code had been intermingled with several bovine species varying from oxen to ordinary Friesians. Their language ability was minimal and their only saving grace were their ability to understand and perform heavy lifting under supervision. Every society must have their workers, Maximus decided, his world was no different.

As the herd saw him approach, they immediately dropped their eyes to the ground. They were bred to be humble in the face of the Master, Maximus had seen to that. There would be no longer be the folly of giving his minions independent wills to which they could conspire and plot against him. Reena had taught him that much.

"Master." They bowed meekly, their eyes never meeting his.

"Carry on," he said tautly and turned to Lovecraft who was never mindful of such formalities. Understandable of course, his association with the good doctor permitted some familiarity between them. Considering the part he played in the operation, it was wise to let Doctor Lovecraft entertain his delusions of shared leadership. When the time came and Lovecraft was no longer useful, perhaps Maximus might update his view of reality. Until then, he was to be tolerated.

"This is most inconvenient." Lovecraft said reproachfully as he saw more boxes being taken from his precious laboratory.

"Caution is never inconvenient." Maximus replied as the Alphas went back to work. "We must prepare for a new assault soon. Now that Gardner is back on his feet, we must consider our enforced truce at and end."

"Yes," Lovecraft agreed begrudgingly. "I must admit, I did not expect that they would find a way to restore him."

Maximus knew that part of Lovecrafts' chagrin in the matter was due to someone else having the power to restore his subject's back to their former state. Even though the serum was rarely used, the antidote to reverse the transformation process was always within reach, they just never had any use of it. When news had reached them of Gardner's miraculous recovery, Lovecraft was dumb struck but now that the shock had worn, his astonishment had become resentment.

"Matter transformation technology is the wave of the future, Doctor." Maximus replied. "It was only a matter of time before someone found a medical application for its use."

"I suppose." Lovecraft answered, unable to deny the possibility of using such sophisticated methods had never occurred to him as an antidote for the Ani-Men condition. "I simply dislike the idea of someone else having the power to undo years of study."

Maximus let the remark pass; bored with the subject that was delaying him for the real reason he was here. "How goes the work on our Project V?"

At the mention of Project V immediately caused the good doctor to brighten considerably. "The work is progressing excellently." He answered enthusiastically. "The specimens have been moved to our new facility already but I estimate they should be ready to emerge in less than 12 hours. They are going through the final stages of conditioning but when the process is complete, we should have a formidable collection."

"Good," Maximus nodded happy with that report. "Was there any difficulty adapting the gene?"

"Not at all," Lovecraft shook his head. "Originally, the assimilation characteristics of the gene was extremely aggressive because it remained in its native environment. While it is still highly adaptable after implantation to a new host, its need to assimilate has been decreased. Now, it adapts to the new host environment by integrating itself into the host system."

"So our Alphas will be manageable." Maximus looked at him.

"Absolutely," Lovecraft grinned. "The gene has not affected the conditioning process. Like I said, assimilation has become integration."

This was good news indeed, Maximus decided. In the unlikely event that the Ani-Men were forced into a confrontation with the super humans, it pleased him to know that he was going to be able to give them a little taste of their own medicine.

Guy Gardner in particular, would find it extremely illuminating.

II

LEO ENTERPRISES PTY LTD

PRIVATE PROPERTY

TRESSPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED

Booster Gold and Zatanna looked at the sign placed at regular intervals along the length of the perimeter fence that enclosed the series of office buildings and warehouses belonging to Leo Enterprises.

Through the high, mesh fence edged with razor wire in spiralling curls, they could see trucks filing in and out of the main gateway, in a steady stream of black. Booster recognised the long black semi-trailers as one of those he had followed the night he encountered those bird creatures over Miller Park. In the light of day, the trucks seemed to be no more conspicuous than any other travelling the highways, except these trucks wore Leo Enterprises emblem on their smooth paintwork.

"I think we've come to the right place." Booster commented. "I am sure that is the same truck I saw that night. Except that one didn't have identifying marks."

"There seem to be a lot of them," Zatanna observed. "I wonder where they're going." The direction they were heading were taking them back towards New York City and made her doubly curious as to what was being transported.

"Maybe we should split up and follow them." Booster suggested. "You take the trucks and I take the building."

Zatanna did not like that idea at all. The Ani-Men had once proved themselves formidable enough to take on the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman. While she was confident in her ability and that of Boosters, the capture of Guy Gardner had reminded her that it was best to tread in the light of caution when it came to the Ani-Men. "No, we'll do this together." She said firmly and there was enough determination in her voice to indicate that the subject was not up for negotiation.


"Okay," Booster replied casually, having little difficulty in allowing the opposite sex to make the call. Besides, Zatanna had more experience than most of the Crusaders put together and Booster trusted her judgement. "We'll check out the complex first." He suggested.

"Agreed," she nodded and then added after a moments thought. "We should take care not to be detected. If Maximus is here, we do not want to give him any idea of our presence."

"Good idea, what do you suggest?" He asked.

Zatanna considered the best way to remain undetected and opted for the oldest tool of concealment. "Ytilibisivni fo kaolc a ni su tcetorP."

Booster felt no different and did not look at all changed. "What happened?"

Zatanna reached into her jacket pocket and produced a compact. Flicking the powder case open, she gestured at Booster to look into the mirror. He gave a quizzical look and decided her reasons for asking were probably not because he needed to powder his nose. As he looked into the round shape of mirror, Booster almost dropped the things in surprise.

"I have no reflection!" He exclaimed and then turned to her. "You turned us into vampires!"

Zatanna rolled her eyes and slapped him on the shoulder. "No, you nitwit!" She retorted in exasperation. "I put an invisibility spell on us!" She shook her head and then added. "You spend way too much time with Ted."

"We're two peas in a pod." He grinned at her. Like Ted, it amused him to ruffle her feathers occasionally. Zatanna could be all too serious some times. It was a source of great mystery to Booster what she saw in an oddball like Ted.

"That's one way to put it." She declared. "Let's get going."

"Whatever you say," Booster replied as he picked her up with his force field and soared into the air, above the threat of the probably electrified fence. As the razor wire passed beneath them, Zatanna could not help but comment.

"Vampires," she mused. "God give me strength."

**********

Despite the activity-taking place in the area, neither Booster nor Zatanna saw any signs of Ani-Men. By its appearance, it seemed as if the company was relocating elsewhere. The workers, who were responsible for this exodus, were normal human labourers. Although some appeared to be knuckle walkers of some form, there was nothing to indicate Lovecraft's tampering. The heroes observed equipment being moved and trolley loads of boxes being wheeled into the black trucks that occupied the loading area.

Zatanna's invisibility cloak allowed them to observe the proceedings without drawing attention, although they had to be alone before they could speak about anything they had seen. Judging from the equipment being prepared for transport, it seemed Leo Enterprises dealt with medical research, highly sophisticated in nature. Booster did not know very much about advanced hardware but what was being loaded into the trucks looked hi-tech and impressive. At that moment, he wished Ted was here, since the Blue Beetle was the true expert in hi-tech equipment.

Still if Leo Enterprises was indeed the Ani-Men front they believed it to be, then a company dealing medical research would be the perfect camouflage for it's activities. Although neither Rex Maximus or Doctor Lovecraft's name had appeared on the board of directors' list Oracle had provided, Booster was certain that Leo Enterprises was under their control. At the moment, Ted was investigating the names on the list but Booster believed that he would find that those names were bogus.

They found their way into a recently emptied room in order to talk without discovery, two hours later. It was obvious that the facility was being abandoned but nothing they had seen revealed the whereabouts of the Ani-Men or Rex Maximus. In fact, other than the fact that the company was moving premises, Leo Enterprises seemed very much legitimate.

"I think we should follow those trucks." Booster stated once the door had closed behind them. With the exception of some errant pieces of rubbish on the grey floor, the room was completely empty. There was a video camera present but there appeared to be no signs of any type of audio surveillance equipment.

"I suppose." Zatanna said uneasily. She could feel something amiss about this place but she could not say what. Although everything they had seen indicated otherwise, her instincts told her that they were in the right place. "I just have this feeling." She replied looking around the empty room as if clairvoyance could bring the mystery to light.

It was an admission Booster could understand completely. Nothing about this place felt right and everything they had seen although plausible was also too much of a coincidence. "I know what you mean." He agreed with her. "Something stinks about this place but I can't put my finger on it."

"This is it Booster," she said decisively even though there was nothing real to basis this assumption upon. "He's here. I can feel it even if I can't see him." She looked around the room and felt a slight shiver run down her spine for no reason. "Maximus is here."

*********

"Master," the creature sitting before the surveillance screens looked to Maximus who had entered the room only moments ago. As per the requirements of the Master's station, the Alpha whose form was a mix of human and canine genes, rose to his clawed feet and bowed slightly.

"You have a name Alpha 23?" Maximus inquired as he stared at Ani-Men with his powerful yellow eyes.

As expected, the Alpha kept his eyes firmly to the ground. It was as much apart of the ritual as it was a part of his conditioning. "I was named Fang." He answered the Master respectfully. As an Alpha in security, there was more will in Fang's make up then the labourers who were currently moving equipment but Maximus had ensured that it would never be strong enough to question his orders.

"This is a busy day for us," Maximus stated impatiently. "Why have you called me here?"

"I apologise for the intrusion Master," Fang said trying not let the Master's stern manner shake his resolve. His voice nothing more than a growl. Despite their attempts to keep human vocal cords intact in all Ani-Men, it was impossible to expect eloquent speech from creatures whose mouths and jaws were not made for that purpose. "However, I have detected something unusual."

Maximus stiffened. In his understanding, there were no such things as unusual freak occurrences. The universe was about cause and effect and coincidences did not exist in his reality. What his minion considered something unusual, he considered trouble. Immediately, his eyes moved across the numerous screens in front of him. The surveillance cameras across the length and breath of the facility showed nothing out of the ordinary, however that was not a satisfactory explanation for anything. Most of screens revealed company staff working diligently for the relocation to new premises but nothing more than that. After a moment, he returned his gaze to Fang.

"What exactly do you call unusual." He inquired coolly but the predatory edge to his voice was unmistakable. He wanted answers and he wanted them now.

"It is this room." Fang pointed to any empty room being displayed by a screen on the far right. Maximus leaned closer towards the screen for a better look but came away from it a moment later, seeing nothing of concern.

Before Maximus could speak, Fang anticipated his question and quickly responded. "I know there appears o be nothing in that room but look at the air density reading."


Maximus' eyes darted to the needle gauge in question. The thin black line of needle behind its glass covering was swinging back and forth at random intervals. However minor this may seem to him, it had caused enough concern to this Alpha for him to approach the Master. That kind of instincts could not be underestimated. " Explain." He ordered.

"It is one of the newer security measures recently installed." Fang replied automatically. "We've installed sensors in all walls that detect micro changes in air density. The sensors are sensitive enough to detect a dust particle moving through the air. When a room is empty, there should no reason for the gauge to react at all."

"However, the gauge is reacting." Maximus stated understanding the point his underling was attempting to make. "That means something is causing it even if it cannot be seen."

"Yes Master." Fang concluded. "It may be an intermittent fault but I have not encountered it in the system before."

"You were right to be concerned." Maximus stated, his features becoming darker by the second. Maximus paused a moment, wondering if this Alpha's obvious intellect had grasped the full implications of his discovery.

"It appears Fang, that we might have company. Super human company."

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

I


Know your enemy.


Those were more than words to which Rex Maximus lived his life. They were his creed. Whether in business or in the more dangerous games he indulged in this stage of his life, he always felt they held special meaning. Years ago, he had made the mistake in being too arrogant in the belief that all were inferior before the towering might of his genius. For that error, he had almost paid with his life. Fate had given him another chance by restoring his godhood and Maximus did not intend to waste the opportunity.

Ever since the involvement of Guy Gardner in his affairs became a reality, Maximus had studied everything there was to know about the Vuldarian. It was a source of great disturbance to him when he discovered that Gardner was a part of a fledgling super team called the Crusaders. The group had recently risen to prominence when they had put down another emergence of the dangerous Extremist groups. The media had aimed its spotlight on them long enough for some meagre information to surface. The Crusaders consisted of Guy Gardner or Warrior as he was better known to the public, Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, General Glory, Fire, Ice Maiden and Zatanna. The others meant nothing to him but the name Zatanna had given him pause.

His memory was long and there had been paths much travelled in recent years but he still remembered the sorceress who had been the cause of his eventual defeat. She had deceived him in his own realm and brought invaders to his kingdom. Such a trespass was not easily forgotten. Maximus held Zatanna as much responsible for his earlier misfortune as he held Reena accountable and he had made Reena pay dearly.


He would make Zatanna pay as well.

Maximus kept the discovery of infiltrators from the minions above. For the moment, it was best that they were unaware of what was taking place until his Alphas had moved into position. Most of them were nonentities who knew little about what took place within the catacombs beneath their feet. Their world existed beyond the twilight of his domain, deep in the earth. Although the presence of the Crusaders was an annoyance, it was hardly unexpected. From the dossiers he had gathered on the group, he knew Blue Beetle was a superior detective, possibly the most intelligent member of the group. It was unrealistic for Maximus to assume this facility could remain undiscovered indefinitely. However, he knew only one member of the group who was capable of producing an invisibility cloak and that brought him to a most satisfying conclusion.

Zatanna was here.

He did not intend to let her slip through his fingers.

Throughout the complex, Alphas clad in dark suits with their faces hidden were moving towards the last known location of the Crusaders. Although it was impossible to track them by conventional means, his Ani-Men was in possession of senses far superior to that of humans or paranormals. To the wolf men of his security forces, scent was like colour. All they needed to do was to enter the room where the Crusaders had been and the stench of the prey would give them away far better than any plan Maximus might have devised himself.

What they had here, Maximus smiled as he observed the proceedings through a monitor screen in his office, was a good old fashioned hunt. Of course, his Alphas had been given particular information on how to attack. They might have drawn their genes from primitive life forms but Maximus was not going to allow them to act like a rabid pack. A different strategy had to be applied to each Crusader. The paranormals were unique in their way as were their weakness.

The key to defeat lay in the exploitation of those vulnerabilities.

********

For the moment, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Booster and Zatanna left the room and decided to start searching the lower levels. Perhaps, all this was exactly what it seemed and the workers had no idea of what was transpiring beyond their seeing. There were lower levels to this place that they had yet to venture. Although the hope was fast dwindling that they would find anything conclusive, neither Booster nor Zatanna could shake the feeling that something was here, waiting in the shadows.

They walked down the corridor sheathed in their cloak of invisibility, moving through the people carrying boxes, crates and wheeling about machinery, oblivious to their presence. Very quickly, Booster and Zatanna were able to detect a basement door and decided it was a good a place as any to begin their descent into a possible underground lair. Maximus had used the same technique in his island hide out years before and Zatanna gambled that this was what the complex was really hiding. Adding to the strength of this idea was the absence of anyone in the area of the basement. Judging by the way that the workers were giving the corridor a wide berth, it was obvious that this section of the complex was restricted to them.

The door was made of solid steel, Booster discovered upon rapping his fist up against it. His knuckles made a dull thud as it connected with the metal. There were no handles or door knobs, not even hinges were visible. A small electronic data pad sat inconspicuously on the wall next to it.

"Do you want me to open it?" Zatanna whispered.

"I think you better." He decided. "It would be better if we can do it quietly. Ted's the electronic expert," Booster admitted. "I'd just blast it."

"You're a subtle touch." She retorted and then looked at the door. "nepO." Zatanna said simply.

The door opened with a gentle click, swinging backwards as she spoke. Booster peered through the basement and saw that it was almost pitch black. Nevertheless he stepped in first, certain that the darkness would not be continuos. It did not make any sense that it should be. Activating his infra-red goggles, his vision became a grainy world of varying crimson colours. He took Zatanna by the hand and led her through the door as it closed behind them soundlessly.

They were in a corridor and although there were light globes on the ceiling, it appeared none of them were working.

"I can't see a thing." Zatanna remarked. "Perhaps I should conjure up a illumination spell." She suggested.

"I don't know whether that's wise." Booster replied. "They may know something is up if lights suddenly came on. I've got infra-red so we're not completely blind. Hang onto my hand for the time being."

Zatanna did not like the darkness but she had little choice but to agree his judgement was sound. With no idea what they had stumbled upon, it was not wise to take any chances. It appeared she was just going to have to trust him. "Okay," she replied reluctantly. "But I reserve to right to change my mind if this goes on any further."

Booster said no thing but allowed himself a faint smile as he led her down the corridor. In the distance, he could see a bend in the passageway and hoped that it would take them somewhere with better illumination. He could tell Zatanna was uneasy about the situation and it was starting to dawn on him that it was more than the darkness surrounding them.

Suddenly, his entire world was filled with blinding light. Booster let out a slight cry as his clamped his eyes shut to keep out the light that sharpened in intensity because of his infra-red vision. Zatanna looked up when the lights running along the ceiling of the corridor came alive with powerful neon intensity. At the same time, she heard noises behind her. Zatanna spun around and wondered if they had been discovered. She had little more time to register the figures in black before realising one of them had drawn a weapon.

It's not a gun. She managed to think as the figure pulled the trigger.

If it was not for the suit he was wearing the sharp decibels of sound would have rendered him completely unconscious. He could feel the pressure of white sound tearing through the air and neutralising Zatanna as her auditory sense overloaded. As it hit her, Booster saw her go down and with her, went the protection of invisibility she was providing. It was a foregone conclusion that their attackers could see them because when Zatanna hit the ground, they moved into action.

Something skittered across the floor in front of him as he quickly scooped Zatanna into his arms. There were at least a dozen attackers and they were closing in from both sides of the corridor. He tried to think of what to do but his mobility was severely limited in this enclosed space and with Zatanna out of action. He suddenly had the idea that the weapon was meant specifically for her because of its success in rendering her helpless. Booster managed to raise his wrist gauntlets and aim it at the ceiling overhead.

He was about to leap into the air when he noticed a nondescript metal ball that had come to a stop in front of him. Time to get out of here, Booster thought and started soaring off the floor. He had risen no more than a few feet when suddenly, the ball exploded, sending bluish white waves of electricity coursing through the air. The tendrils reached him like lightning, striking his body with repeated lashes in a flurry of seconds. His body spasmed as the energy hit him, awakening every nerve in his body with an onslaught of pain. He remembered screaming as ceiling before him drew father and father away and Zatanna's form slipped out of his rigid fingers.

Booster did not even realise it when he hit the floor. The electric's in his suit was also going haywire. He could feel the heat from power surges across the length of his body as circuitry in the suit shorted out in a dozen places. Booster felt the floor as his knees slammed onto it and he saw Zatanna lying on her belly, her dark hair splayed across her face. His body ached in excruciating pain and he knew that soon he would succumb to it. However, before that happened he had to do something or both himself and Zatanna were dead already.

He prayed that the signal device on his gauntlet was still working and that it had not been destroyed by the power surge. Booster jammed his finger on the activation button and let out a sigh of relief when its glass face came to life. It made an inaudible blip as it sounded its existence before vanishing into obscurity once more. He looked up to see the black clad figures surrounding Zatanna. For some reason, they seemed to be particularly interested in her.

"Get away from her!" He managed to say but the words escaped his lips in slurred and vague.

Booster scrambled towards them, even though every movement was agony. Unfortunately, he had gone no more than a few feet when he suddenly felt a boot slam into his ribs. Booster cried out as he felt ribs crack under the power of that kick and he was flipped onto its back from the force of it. As he was groaning in pain, he saw them pick up Zatanna and drag her away and he was powerless to stop them.

As they turned their attention to him, one thought screamed out at him despite the pain. With whatever strength he had left, Booster was going to obey that voice before the darkness claimed him as well.


Don't let them take the ring.

II

He had to look twice when he saw his reflection when he approached the glass doors of Ronnie Raymond's apartment building. For a moment, he actually wondered who was that poor unfortunate in the wheel chair, staring back at him with strangled surprise. It took another moment for him to remember that it was himself, at which he was gawking. Donovan Wallace, one of the latest inductees into the wheel chair set. Seeing himself that way was almost as disturbing as walking up in hospital, with a doctor standing over him like a vulture about to feed. The man had actually believed practised sympathy could make the delivery that your life was over any easier to bear.

Remember playing football in high school? Guess what? That's over. How about going to the bathroom with any sense of dignity? Nope, that's gone too. In fact, pretty much everything that makes you a man is gone, kaput, bye bye, in a blink of an eye.

Of course, the doctors had delivered the news tactfully, displaying the mask worn wherever delivering such news. To Donovan, it might have been simpler if they had said it the way he was hearing it. At least there had been no disillusionment.

It was easy to be General Glory and forget that Donovan Wallace did not exist. Why was he putting himself through this humiliation when with a few simple words, he could be soaring through the air like a god, not a broken puppet? He looked at his legs and could see the deterioration of muscles already starting. The body had a mercenary way of discarding what was not needed. Perhaps, he ought to do it a favour and simply have it amputated, except that would probably be the easy way instead of watching his life wither away with his atrophying legs.

He was feeling sorry for himself and he knew it. Donovan had no right to complain when he could shed this chair at any moment and become whole again. He was lucky and he should be damn grateful about it. There were so many others who were trapped in their broken bodies without the benefit of Lady Liberty's gift to help them escape.

Perhaps that is why he was on his way to Ronnie Raymond's apartment. It had taken some convincing for Ted to give him Ronnie's address let alone his secret identity but Ted knew he could be trusted. It would have been simpler for him to arrive at Ronnie's apartment as General Glory. Unfortunately, it was Donovan Wallace who had caused the friction between them and it was Donovan Wallace who had to make amends.

He reached Ronnie's door and knocked gently on the door. He hoped the guy would be at home because Donovan did not relish making this trip more than once. He had been forced to take a cab across town and with his financial limitations, that was a luxury that he could not afford more than once. He heard movement behind the door before it swung open a moment later.

Ronnie Raymond looked every much the male model on billboards across town even when he was casually attired. Designer clothes, the trendy ear ring, not to mention the pony tail that was often worn by the society elite.

"Hey Ronnie."

For a moment, Ronnie looked at him bewildered before he was able to answer. "Do I know you?" He asked.

"Yeah you do." Donovan nodded, amusing himself at the expense of Ronnie's confusion. "We were recently on the moon together."

Ronnie's eyes widened as he struggled to think where he had met this stranger before. He was certain that he would have remembered someone in a wheel chair, particularly someone that claimed to be on the moon with him. Ronnie knew immediately that was a reference to the Justice League Watchtower on the lunar surface but he did not know who this person was before him.

"Can I come in?" Donovan asked, knowing he had thrown Ronnie out of balance.

"Sure." Ronnie stepped back, unable to see a threat in a cripple even if he had no idea whom the man was.

Donovan wheeled himself up the hallway into the apartment, impressed by its decor, which was luxurious in comparison to his own place across the bridge. Beyond the huge balcony doors was a breathtaking view of the city skyline and he could not help feeling a little envious of everything Ronnie had. Strangely enough, that made what he had to say easier.

"Look, I don't want to be rude," Ronnie said coming up behind him. "I don't know what your game is but I know I haven't met you."

"Sure you have," Donovan said unconcerned. "You just haven't seen me like this."

"I don't understand." Ronnie replied coming around the wheel chair to face him. "I've never met you before." He stated firmly.

"I'm Donovan Wallace." He answered finally.

"Donovan Wallace?" Ronnie repeated and was about to remark that he did not know any one of that name but paused when detected a note of familiarity to the stranger's voice. Ronnie took a moment to study the man's face that further confirmed that he had seen this person somewhere before, although Ronnie was sure he would have remembered meeting someone in a wheel chair.

"I was right," Donovan said as he glanced at the TV and saw Pamela Anderson running across a pristine beach in a bathing suit that was not made to hold plastic. "You are a Baywatch kind of guy, aren't you?"

Ronnie's eyes widened as he realised who had last said that to him. It hit him with the sharp alertness that came with a splash of ice water. His eyes widened and his jaw almost dropped. "General?" He managed to ask. His voice was almost a whisper.

"Its about time." Donovan sighed and returned his attention to the apartment, glad that the introductions were concluded. "This is a beautiful place you got here." He remarked admiring the leather lounge suit that took up most of the floor space.

Ronnie did not say anything. He was too astonished by what he had just learnt. It was near impossible to associate this man in the wheel chair as the superhero who had given him such a hard time lately. Donovan Wallace was his age! They could have gone to high school together! No wonder the guy was such a pain in the ass, he thought. Just look at him! "What happened to you?" Ronnie was unable to keep himself from asking.

"Now we're getting somewhere," Donovan smiled, pleased that Ronnie had recovered enough to articulate an intelligent question. He swung around in his wheel chair and faced Ronnie. "Before I became General Glory, I was a cop. "He explained. "I was on the force for less than a year when I got involved in a shooting. Some thug had decided to put a couple of bullets into a child and I decided otherwise."

"And this is what happened to you?"

"He shot me in the spine." Donovan said without any trace of bitterness in his voice. The psychiatrists and counsellors that came into his life after the shooting had told him that was the first thing that had to be dealt with. Although it was easier said and done, Donovan had discarded enough anger at what had happened to him to be able to speak of it without becoming too emotional. "I still have the use of my hands so I'm better off than most people in my position. He could have killed me."

Ronnie wondered if death was not a better alternative. "I'm sorry." He responded because that was all he could think to say.

"No," Donovan shook his head. "I am sorry."

Ronnie looked up somewhat confused. "What? Why?"

"I came here to apologise," Donovan said with a heavy sigh because this was difficult for him. "I have been giving you a hard time since you've joined the Crusaders and I'm here to say sorry."

Ronnie did not know how to take the apology so he did always did in such instances. He spoke without thinking. "You don't have anything to be sorry about."

"Don't do that!" Donovan snapped angrily. "Don't patronise me because I am in a chair." His eyes blazed with fury. "Its bad enough being in one of these things without everyone carrying on like they have to treat us like children because being paralysed absolves of any responsibility for our actions! I am still an adult and I know I behave badly! I don't need you to feel sorry for me and say its okay! Its not okay!"

Me and my big mouth, Ronnie scolded himself. Now, he said inwardly. Let's try this again with a little more thought. "You're right," Ronnie replied honestly. "I was feeling sorry for you and I opened my mouth without thinking. You did behave like an asshole." He smiled. "Care to tell me why?"

Donovan chuckled, his anger evaporating at that remark. "Thanks," he answered. "Look," he said taking a deep breath. "When I was on the force, I was cocky, smart and I knew everything. I was in the company of cops with more experience than I'd ever have but I knew I was good and so I felt I didn't need their experience. I shot my mouth off, took stupid risks and generally behaved like I was cowboy." Donovan felt the lump forming in his throat as he returned to the places of memory before the shooting. "I should held back and waited for back up when I saw that little girl." Donovan said softly. "She was in no immediate danger because the perp had not seen us yet. I went in because I thought I was good enough to take care of the situation without anyone's help. I saved that kid but I'm screwed myself because I didn't have the patience to behave any better."

"We all make mistakes like that." Ronnie said empathising with Donovan on this matter. How many times had he gone where angels feared to thread? How many times had he behaved like a complete jerk, even though he knew better.

"I guess when I met you," Donovan continued. "You were so much like how I was then. So much in fact, that it scared the hell out of me. I looked at you and I was sure you were a mistake about to happen, just like I was. I know its not much of an apology but I wanted you to understand that I thought I was trying to help you. I don't want what happened to me happen to you too, as well."

It took a lot to impress him these days so Ronnie was genuinely touched by Donovan's admission. He knew what the man had said was not easily admitted. There were many hurdles to overcome for such a declaration to surface. Pride and fear were the most apparent of these obstacles. "Apology accepted." Ronnie said extending a hand towards Donovan. "Its nice to know that someone gives a damn."

"Even an asshole?" Donovan remarked taking his hand.

"Especially an asshole." Ronnie laughed. "I know I act like a jerk sometimes but it may surprise you to know that I've gone through some things of my own lately. I got cancer and I thought I was going to die and one day I woke up and it was gone and I was alive again."

"Its a great feeling." Donovan nodded in complete understanding. He had experienced similar euphoria the morning after discovering he was not doomed to spend his life in a wheel chair. As General Glory, he could make the difference he always wanted. This time, he would be tempered with wisdom.

"I have to admit, I was out of control for a while." Ronnie spoke as he went to the bar in the corner of the room and produced two Soder Colas. Thanks to his bout with alcoholism, booze of any sort was a banned item in the Raymond household. He handed one of the cans to Donovan and resumed speaking. "I was on this life high and I partied hard, made a complete ass out of myself, pissed off everyone who mattered before I came crashing down in a heap of vomit and empty bottles."

"How did it end?"

"With lots of soul searching, a terrific sponsor who makes sure he's available to talk whenever I need that drink and I got back into being Firestorm again. Being Firestorm helps me realise I'm not a complete screw up." Ronnie toasted him with his can and took a sip.

"You're not." Donovan stated firmly. "I was the one who made the mistake. It looks like you've got yourself together and that's a good thing. I know Ted wants you in the group and I think you should give us a chance. We're all screw ups in our own way and I think together we work."

"You know," Ronnie looked into himself at that statement and spoke from the heart. "I think you're right. I watched how all of you were with Gardner and I missed being apart of something like that."

Both men said nothing as each indulged in a moment of silent contemplation. Much of what had been said had changed their perspective and Donovan was glad that he made this trip. However, he was starting to believe, it meant even more to Ronnie Raymond.

"Now that you are here," Ronnie said perking up considerably, leaving the heavier mood of the conversation behind. "You can help me rehearse my lines. I've got a part next week on Days of our Lives."

"A soap?" Donovan wrinkled his nose. "You can do better. How about NYPD Blue?"

"Again with the critique!" Ronnie said exasperated. "You're going to be doing a lot of apologising in the future."

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

I

The moment he heard the signal device scream it emergency siren, Ted Kord knew he should not have allowed Zatanna to go in his place.

As the sound tore through Booster's penthouse apartment, he had simply stared at it for a few seconds, unable to believe that fate could be cruel enough to do this to him. His heart started pounding so loudly in his chest, he thought it might explode. Mercilessly, it failed to that. Instead, he was forced to deactivate the loud signal and see which one of the Crusaders had sounded the emergency. He knew what he would find even before his saw Booster's code on the face of the device. Waves of guilt threaten to surface immediately but Ted knew if he allowed it full rein over his psyche, it would cripple him and he was not good to Zatanna that way.

Instead, he focused his emotional turbulence into a singularity of thought and then crushed it with a purer goal. When the group had formed, only weeks ago, they had set down certain procedures. In instances such as these, where one of them was in danger, time was of the essence. Ted put on his costume, ignoring how stiff his leg felt and trying not to use his damaged hand more than necessary. Slipping his goggles over his face, he stepped onto the balcony to complete the last act of the ritual.

"Kaji-Da."

There were no bolts of lighting, no sudden change of weather, just a sudden burst of air requiring escape from his lungs. When he dispelled that breath, he could feel the power in his veins. Ted could feel the beat of the scarab inside his soul and know that he was the Chosen One as Dan Garrett had once been the chosen. The pain in his leg had started to fade away although he had acquired his injuries while he had been a superhuman so it was not truly dispelled. However, it allowed him to tolerate the pain with some measure of control and for that Ted was grateful.

He leapt into the air. His feet left the sandstone floor of the balcony. Sky welcomed him as he rose above the tall skyscrapers of the New York skyline, leaving the sea of steel and concrete far beneath him. When he had sought out the scarab, Ted had done so because he needed the protection of the scarab to continue his fight for justice. Too many times had he almost been killed by being underpowered when fighting modern day gods and he was sick of it. He wanted to fight the good fight and although he was willing to sacrifice his life if the cause was just, Ted did not intend to let his life slip away needlessly. The scarab had become a tool of his ongoing quest. While the super strength was nice, the X-Ray vision titillating and the lightning bolts were just plain scary, it was the flying that Ted loved the most.

There was something about moving through the air with the same ease that bird flapped their wings that made the experience indescribable. Society likened super humans of today to modern day gods and when he took the sky like denizen of the air, he felt like a god. Whatever unhappiness awaited him on the ground could not reach him when he was here among the clouds. Even Maximus seemed far away at this moment.

The tragic circumstances of reality would return to him once he set foot on the ground, but for now at least, he could think clearly about how they were going to find Booster and Zatanna. High in the altitude without the veil of truth to crowd his senses, Ted Kord could focus his thoughts on the problem at hand. He could think of how he was going to help Zatanna and Booster Gold, the two most important people in his life.

He was not going to lose either to Maximus, not while the scarab lived inside him.

********

By the time Ted arrived at Warriors, the Crusaders had assembled in light of the emergency signal that had alerted them to trouble through all their signal devices. It had only been a day since they were last together, when Guy had related the account of his kidnapping to the others. At that meeting, they had decided to wait until Oracle had news for them regarding the company set up by Repli-Tech in its last days as a legitimate enterprise. Most of the Crusaders was as of yet unaware of Leo Enterprises. Although Ted had faxed a copy of the fax data that Oracle had sent to Booster's penthouse, the majority of the Crusaders had not been debrief on this latest piece of information.

Ted arrived to see the others waiting for him in the private room reserved for the Crusaders in the upper levels of Warriors. At the moment only Guy was aware that Booster and Zatanna had gone to investigate the premises belonging to Leo Enterprises.

"What's the word Guy?" Ted asked as he entered the room and took his customary place. Despite himself, the empty chairs normally occupied by Zatanna and Booster drove home how urgent the situation had become.

"We've tried pinpointing their location." Beatriz replied, looking to the computers at the far end of the room. "The signal terminated after ten minutes." She looked away as she revealed the rest. "We couldn't lock on to it."

"Doesn't matter," Ted said quietly. "I know where they were going."


"Well I don't." Ronnie declared. "What's going on?" He looked to Guy and Ted for answers from across the table.

"Booster contacted Oracle at the Watchtower," Guy explained. "She got info that Repli-Tech may have set up a company before it went bust. She gave us a name. Leo Enterprises. Booster and Zatanna went to investigate."

"Now they're in trouble." Sigrid declared. "Let's go."

"We were getting to that." Guy said, impressed by her directness. He wondered what had happened in the past few days to boost her confidence. Whatever it was, he hoped she got more of it. Sigrid was good and it was time she believed that. "Kid," he turned to Ronnie. "We're going to need a lift."

"Sure." Ronnie nodded. "I'm a team player."

Ted looked up in surprise. "Since when?" He exclaimed.

Ronnie scowled at him as the Crusaders rose to their feet. They headed towards a lift at the corner of the room that would take them to the roof. Guy joined Ted as the group moved, seeing the concern on his face. Guy knew that if it were Beatriz, he would be similarly distressed. It was hard to tell with Ted what upset him. After all these years, Guy had learnt enough about the man to know that Ted had a facade he put on for everyone else's benefit. It portrayed him as a good humoured, seldom ruffled jokester. Only those he knew him for any length of time, knew that Ted did not reveal his true feelings easily.

"I'm sure she's okay." Guy remarked.

"I shouldn't have let her go." Ted said quietly as they watched Sigrid and the others file into the car.

"We'll take the next one." Guy said to Donovan who was waiting for them to enter. "Don't start without us."

Donovan understanding that Guy wanted a moment with Ted, nodded dutifully and closed the doors before them. When the doors to the lift had close, Guy turned to Ted once more. "Zee's got more experience than either of us. She's probably the strongest as well. You had every reason to think she could take care of herself."

"It should have been me." Ted retorted. "I should have gone."

"Listen," Guy said impatiently. He was not good at this sort of thing but he knew Ted needed some kind of reassurance. Besides, Jonn had done it all the time. How hard could it be? "You can beat yourself up about why you didn't go but it ain't changing anything. Its done and all you can do for her sake, is to deal with it cause she needs you. Its that simple."

"Since when did you become the expert?" Ted looked at him with a wry smile.

For a moment, Guy did not answer. "I became the expert when I decided that dealing with Zero Hour was more important than keeping track of the woman I loved. I thought she was good enough to deal with things but she was not. When I got home, she was dead and all I could do was deal with it. I had a choice then, to let it tear to me to bits inside or to go on like she would have wanted me to. There comes a point when you've got to stop thinking about how you feel and think about she would have wanted."

"Zatanna's not dead." Ted stated firmly. Even saying it made his stomach lurch.

"That's right," Guy nodded. "She is not so stop acting like she is. We're not too late so deal with whatever guilt or crap you're feeling at the moment, cause I need you with your head together."

Ted nodded slowly. "Okay," he swallowed hard as the lift signalled its return with its parting doors. "I'm back to normal."

"You were never normal." Guy retorted and shoved him into the lift.

II

When the League had collapsed and Booster Gold found himself trapped in an exoskeleton of which he could not live without, he had decided to get drunk. At the time, his state of mind had been in such a black depression that he felt he had nothing to lose by getting blind stinking drunk. The rest of the evening had been a vague memory of two hookers, ten shots of tequila, a pair of long nose pliers and banana cream pie. The next morning he had awoke with the worst hangover in creation and a hotel manager who was ready to toss him out on the sidewalk.

That headache was nothing comparison to the one he was experiencing at the moment.


Ted would probably tell him that the intense pain was due to something called neuro-electrical disruption in his brain waves. Booster could well believe it. If it was not for the suit, he would have been gone into massive cardiac arrest after being the conductor for so much current. Fortunately, the suit was a result of 25th century technology and was equip to protect the wearer against all kinds of calamity or sacrifice its circuits if necessary.

Booster opened his eyes and found that his goggles were gone. He was lying on the hard floor and as he regained in bearings, he realised that his world had suddenly shrunk to an enclosure no more than a metre in width. Thick iron bars surrounded him in all directions and as Booster regained his senses, he realised that he was inside a cage of some sort. He heard a muffled sound next to him and turned his head sideways.

Zatanna was in a similar prison, except that her legs and arms were tied beneath her back and she was lying on her stomach. She tried to speak through the gag over her mouth but could not manage to produce more muffled sounds that were barely coherent let alone recognisable as speech. Booster's own arms and legs were free, even though he was caged as she was. However, he noticed that his gauntlets and his belt were gone. Almost every defensive function of the suit had been removed. Maximus was not taking any chances with his prisoners, Booster thought grimly.

Outwardly, Zatanna seemed all right but there was an edge of panic in her eyes that Booster wished he could offer comfort. Obviously, Maximus knew that if she were allowed to speak, she could level this place with a few well-placed words. If she could not say the spell then Zatanna was helpless. Somehow, he had to remove that gag from her lips. It was their only hope.

"Are you okay?" He asked. His voice croaked and Booster wondered how long he had been unconscious.

She nodded, averting her gaze to their surroundings. Booster crawled to the edge of the cage and peered through the bars. Their cage did not allow them the room to stand so Booster could not see very much. Obviously, they were in a laboratory of some kind. There were computers, work benches with Bunsen burners, tripod stands and a plethora of specimen bottles stacked on shelves against the wall. There was no one else in the room although they could hear the bubbling of fluid nearby, as if an experiment was in progress. Fortunately, neither Booster nor Zatanna could see any of the forming tanks that Guy Gardner had seen during his captivity. Nevertheless, the silence was ominous and the prevailing stench of formaldehyde was starting to give Booster a very bad feeling about all this.

"I manage to send out the emergency signal." He told Zatanna. "The others should be here soon."

He saw some measure of relief in her face but not enough to convince him that her fear was completely wiped away. Booster could well understand her concern. Years ago, it was Zatanna who had infiltrated the Ani-Men headquarters and precipitated the chain of events that led to their eventual downfall. If Maximus remembered the part she played in his defeat then this could very become very unpleasant. Somehow, Booster had to get her out of here.

Unfortunately, he was in little position to do anything at the moment. Without his devices, Booster was an ordinary man like any other. He had no meta-human powers to call on that could enable him to bend these bars and get them both to safety. It was for that reason that Maximus had all his defenses removed. At this moment, Booster Gold was just another human in a cage, completely helpless and subject to whatever the villain had in mind for them both.

"Have you seen anyone?" He asked her. Tears were running down her cheeks and he could see that she was starting to become very frightened. Booster had to take her mind of her fear even if they were justified. Now more than ever, she had to be focussed if they were going to use any scant opportunity to escape.

She shook her head in response.

"That's sort of good." Booster said trying to sound confident. He had to keep her mind of the fact that they were in terrible trouble. He had to show her that there hope. "We just need to keep our head above water until the others get here."


She closed her eyes and tried to speak but could not make the words through the gag in her mouth. In the end she just shook her head, hoping that would convey to Booster what she was trying to say. Unfortunately, he could not understand the substance of strained efforts to speak and eventually she gave up trying to communicate. He would understand soon enough anyway.

"Finally when I need a woman to talk, she can't!" He joked. "Figures."

Zatanna gave him a dirty look and mumbled something incoherently that indicated she was unamused by the remark.

"Are you supposed to swear through that thing?" He retorted.

Zatanna let out an exasperated groan and decided to give up any further attempts communicate. She stopped struggling and placed her head against the floor to rest a moment. Booster wished he could remove her bonds but knew the logic behind them. Obviously, Maximus did not want Zatanna capable of freeing her arms to remove the gag in her mouth. The more she struggled, the tighter her bonds were around her ankles and wrists. The manner in which she was roped was almost barbaric and reserved for farm animals at rodeos.

"Hang on." He said trying to be of some comfort. "I'll figure something out."

She nodded mutely but her eyes showed that she had confidence in his statement. Booster began to see why Ted was like a kid head over heels in love ever since he met Zatanna. She was one of those rare women who could make the men she loved, feel ten feet tall. In Ted's case, Booster had never seen him happier and it made Booster determined that no harm should come to Zatanna.

Suddenly, he remembered something of crucial importance. Just before he had blacked out, he had given himself a final instruction before the darkness overtook him. Booster immediately fumbled for his boots and removed the ring he had hidden inside it. It was common knowledge that Booster Gold was capable of flying but most people had assumed that was due to the suit he was wearing. Only Booster and a few of the Crusaders knew that his power of flight did not come from the suit at all but from this little bauble of 30th Century technology. During an encounter with the superhero group called the Legion of Superheroes who hailed from a millennium in the future, Booster had been presented with a Legion Flight Ring.

There was no other like it in this time period and it was made from materials that did not yetexist in the 20th century. Anyone seeing the ring would consider it nothing more than a plastic toy ring, probably found in a box of cracker jacks. The ring had no visible mechanism that could lead anyone to believe its capability of producing flight. The ring operated on will power therefore eliminating any risks should it fall into ignorant hands.

"Look Zee," he whispered, slipping the ring onto his finger. "I've still got my flight ring."

He was rewarded with as much of a smile as she could muster though the leather gag across her face. Booster did not add however, that he had no idea about how they could utilise this advantage. The ability to fly would not mean much if he first could not escape the bars of this steel cage. Somehow, Booster had to find a way out of here of there was to be any escape at all.

Suddenly, a door at the far end of the room swung opened. Both Booster and Zatanna were treated to the sight of a man entering the room with two Ani-Men companions. Judging from the widening of Zatanna's eyes, Booster realised she recognised him. The man appeared to be nondescript. He had bland features and narrow eyes. He reminded Booster of those science geeks he used to give underwear wedgies to at high school, before he had learnt better. The man's companions however could never blend into any crowd. Both of them looked like rejects from a bad werewolf film. Even though they walked upright like any hominid, their feet were an aberration of hind legs and human feet. There were pieces of both in their stance. Their bodies were covered in thick fur and they gazed at the prisoners with close set canine eyes, sinister with intent.

"You're awake." Doctor Lovecraft stated, walking towards Zatanna's cage. "Its been a long time." He said bending down on one knee so that she could seem him better. "I remember you Zatanna." He smiled. Without saying another word, he sank a syringe deep into her thigh.

Zatanna cried out in pain but her voice was dampened by the gag and it absorbed much of the cry. Lovecraft's filled the syringe before he removed it from her skin, a trickle of blood seeping from the new puncture wound.

"Get away from her!" Booster shouted helplessly. One of the Ani-Men growled at him, baring long teeth, glistening with saliva. Even though the creature had not taken a step towards him, the threat was implied clearly enough.

Lovecraft ignored his outburst and kept his attention focussed on Zatanna, who was struggling harder, in light of Lovecraft's reason action. "I'm sorry for the gag but Maximus thought it was necessary. After all, you played the deception game once before did you not? You can understand his need to be cautious."

"What do you want with us?" Booster demanded, his eyes fixed on the blood sample he had just taken from Zatanna. The Ani-Men took a step towards his cage but Lovecraft halted the creature with a look. Lovecraft turned to Booster finally, deciding that he could no longer be ignored.

"We did not wish to do anything with you, Mr Gold." Lovecraft replied. "No one asked you to interfere in our affairs did they?"

"You were turning innocent people into monsters!" Booster retorted angrily.


Lovecraft stiffened at the thought of his experiments being described so crudely. Booster saw his eyes narrow behind his thick glasses. "Typical," he said with obvious contempt in his voice. "You would like that wouldn't you? To keep the extraordinary within your elite little community. You lord over us like gods and then call us monsters when we try to improve ourselves to taste some of your glory?"

"Improve?" Booster snorted. "Is that what you call it? We are what we are by circumstance, not by choice. You are just using legitimate science to become Doctor Frankenstein. Don't try to delude yourself into thinking that your improvements are for the betterment of humanity. You're playing god, not us."

"I don't even think I'll waste my time on you." Lovecraft replied, trying not to show that Booster's words had struck a chord. "You're not worthy of my gift." He rose to his feet and went to the two Ani-Men waiting patiently for instructions.

"Tell the Master I am done," Lovecraft remarked looking at the syringe of blood. "You may take now take them to Maximus."

 

 
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