Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 

Invasions From Other Planets

Part 1: First Infiltration

by Nicolas Juzda

Adam Strange raced through the streets of downtown Sydney. His pulse was pounding, his muscles were aching, and his breath was growing short. He was not having a good day.

"I though this time… just this once… I had it all… settled," he panted to himself. "But then there has… to be a… lousy blackout… during the… night. And my… alarm… doesn't… go… off."

He didn't spare the time to look at his watch. If he was running late, there was nothing he could do, and the gesture would slow him down.

Ahead of him he saw his destination: a crowded intersection, full of people going about their daily lives. He knew he was lucky that his target was on the sidewalk; he wasn't about to run into traffic and risk having a car hit him before the Zeta Beam did.

He had spent the previous day figuring out the exact place he would have to stand, and as he shoved through the crowd he caught sight of it. Unfortunately for Adam there was a person already standing there, a tall man in a dark cloak holding some sort of vial.

Without hesitation, Adam plowed into the man, knocking him out of the way. This was not entirely for Adam's own benefit, he rationalized; he doubted that he would be any more upset at missing a Zeta Beam than some Australian guy would be at suddenly travelling to a distant planet in orbit around Alpha Centauri.

As the man stumbled back, trying to keep his footing, the vial flew out of his hands. Instinctively, Adam caught it.

"Give that back to me! If all the American agents fail, I must serve my purpose as back-up!" the man shouted at Adam, pushing himself off annoyed passerbys as he lunged towards the blond former archeologist. Oddly, the accent wasn't Australian, but Adam couldn't quite place it. Something Asian or Middle Eastern, he guessed. And what on Earth was he rambling about?

Not that it was particularly relevant to Adam. He'd just apologize, give the man his vial back, and be off on his way to Rann. "Sor-"

******

"-ry," Adam finished, several million miles away.

The first thing he did after the momentary disorientation of being transported to the planet Rann via Zeta Beam wore off was look up at the sky. Whether due to simple chance, some sixth sense, or a habit developed over long years of experience he wouldn't have been able to say.

The sky was full of a vast armada of warships, thousands of vehicles each bristling with a variety of nasty looking weaponry.

As yet, none of them were firing, but it could only be a matter of time before they went into action, unleashing a wave of terror and death on the populace of Adam's second home. Rann was clearly about to be invaded. But this was perfectly normal and nothing for Adam to be unduly concerned about.

"Time to get to work," he said, the vial slipping unnoticed from his fingers to hit the ground, bounce once, and lie there.

******

Arch-Conqueror Ghnashh of the K'Neyen had a face only a mother could love, and only if that mother was also a K'Neyen.

Ghnashh loomed over Adam, being a good three feet taller than the human. To all appearances, the K'Neyen should have been the one intimidating Adam, with his sharp claws and a foot long snout whose fang-filled mouth dripped drool, splattering the floor of the room with small puddles. Ghnashh's fur-covered hide looked tough enough to withstand fire from the small gun that now hung from Adam's belt, as indeed it was, and as Ghnashh shifted his weight he hinted at a speed and power that seemed enough to pluck Adam from where he stood, five feet away, and tear him in two before the Champion of Rann could react.

But if one looked closer, it was clear that there were other, less visible, elements at work. For Adam stood proud and unafraid, while Ghnashh's shifting about, no matter what it implied about his physical abilities, was clearly due to nervousness.

"I agree to your terms, Arch-Defender Strange," Ghnashh growled. "The K'Neyen fleet has already withdrawn from Rann, as per your orders, and I look forward to joining them and leaving this miserable mudball behind."

"And?" Adam prompted.

The K'Neyen paused before continuing. "And we will allow Rannian citizens to oversee the dismantling of our War-Fleet."

"Good." Adam smiled. "I'm glad you decided to see reason, Arch-Conqueror. Sardath here," Adam gestured at one of the two other figures in the room, an elderly bald man, "will discuss the exact details of the dismantling. Now, if you'll excuse me?"

Adam turned and walked from the K'Neyen without waiting for a reply, heading towards the last occupant of the room. "Why is it that every time I come here, some new intergalactic conqueror has set his sights on Rann?"

"At least it took less time than usual," she said.

"Six hours," Adam replied.

"That leaves how long before the Zeta Beam wears off?"

"Long enough, Alanna my love. Long enough." And Adam gave the lovely brunette a quick kiss before heading out of the meeting room, his wife keeping pace a step behind him.

"Have you had a chance to see Aleea yet?" Alanna asked.

"Briefly. I was mostly busy figuring out how to stop the K'Neyen. But I'm hoping I can spend some time with her now."

"That'll be nice. She misses you."

"How is she doing? I mean, for the first few years of my life I took care of her, and now I'm hardly here and a mother she'd never met until a few months ago is raising her."

Alanna paused. "Okay, I think. I honestly don't know. I think she feels alone. Not just because of you being gone. She's the only child on this planet."

"And you're the only parent."

"Don't worry about me, Adam."

Adam was about to reply, but before he could, a Rannian woman he didn't recognize ran up to the couple. "Adam Strange!" Adam nodded, confirming what his distintive red and white jumpsuit must have indicated to the woman, and she continued, "we have a problem."

"What is it?" Adam shifted gears instantly.

"We've lost all contact with the Moorm district."

"The Moorm district? That's several hundred miles west of us here in Rannagar, right?" Alanna and the other Rannian both nodded. "The K'Neyen weren't particularly active there, but they could have knocked out some communications relays. Have you sent anyone in to take a look?"

"We dispatched an aerial unit to Moorm minutes ago. It hasn't reported in yet, but we felt you should be informed that we might need your aid."

Adam turned around, heading back for the meeting room at a much brisker pace than the one he and Alanna had been strolling at. The two woman followed without hesitation. "Do you think the K'Neyen are behind this, darling?" Alanna asked.

"I doubt it. But it can't hurt to ask."

"Adam, something just struck me. Wasn't it the Moorm district where-" Alanna fell silent as they reached the meeting room.

"Adam? Something wrong?" Sardath asked, turning from his conversation with Ghnashh.

"Maybe, Sardath. Apparently there's some problems over in Moorm. I thought I'd ask the Arch-Conqueror if he knew anything about it."

"I know nothing of this, Arch-Defender Strange. Our forces withdrew from that area along with all others upon our defeat. They are likely halfway to K'Ney by now."

Before Adam could question the K'Neyen further, there was a beeping sound, and a large viewscreen in one corner of the room turned on. Upon it, Adam could see the cockpit of a Rannian air vehicle, its pilot appearing to look straight at Adam.

"Adam Strange? Are you there?"

"I'm here. So is Sardath. What's your situation?"

"I'm approaching Moorm City, and… you have to see this for yourselves."

Abruptly the image on the screen shifted to an exterior shot, an aerial view of the city of Moorm.

The first thing Adam noticed was the fire. For a second he thought the entire city had been reduced to one gigantic inferno, but then his eyes separated the flames into individual fires, scattered among the many buildings of Moorm.

Briefly, the thought passed through Adam's head that this was the aftermath of the K'Neyen invasion. He had believed that Rann had escaped more or less unscathed; certainly, Rannagar had sustained minimal damage. But it was not impossible that the K'Neyen had managed to be more destructive elsewhere.

Or perhaps it was another attack, some secret weapon the K'Neyen had held in reserve. But a quick glance at Ghnashh made Adam dismiss that theory. Something about the alien's expression, inhuman as it may have been, appeared… not shocked, certainly, but surprised.

It was only when Adam turned his attention back to the screen that he noticed the people in the streets.

A man whose legs were clearly broken in multiple places lay on the sidewalk, flopping about, clawing at the legs of people near him. At first he attracted no notice from passersby, but then someone started to kick him. After a moment someone else joined in.

A group threw an old man into a burning building, and when he ran out covered in flame, they threw him in again. He did not emerge a second time.

A woman walked through the crowd with a discarded K'Neyen pistol, shooting people apparently at random.

A man and a woman, both bleeding profusely, attacked each other with their bare hands, he trying to bite open her jugular, she trying to gouge out his eyes.

A pair of men held down a woman as a third raped her. After a while she stopped moving, but he kept at it.

A woman smashed open a storefront window, grabbing items inside. When a man jumped out through the damaged pane and reached for her armload of goods, she calmly dropped them, picked up a shard of glass, and embedded it in his stomach. Then she retrieved her haul and walked off.

A man pushed a young woman into the path of an oncoming ground vehicle. As she scrambled to get up and out of the way, the driver actually sped up. Her broken body bounced off of it and lay in a heap.

And on and on and on.

Adam recalled a moment ago, when he had thought the city an inferno. He was an educated man, and he realized now that he had been right after all. For the word inferno derived from infernal. It meant Hell, and Moorm was now as close to Hell as anything Adam had ever seen.

"My God," Adam said. "I was just there this morning."

And indeed, he suddenly remembered that it was in Moorm that the Zeta Beam had deposited him that morning. He guessed that must have been what Alanna had been about to tell him a minute ago.

All five occupants of the room stood transfixed for a moment longer, watching the horrible images. The only mercy was that the picture carried no sound. Adam doubted he could have stood hearing the screams.

Then suddenly it was gone, replaced by the pilot once again. The man looked pale, and his hands were shaking visibly as they operated the ship's controls. "Uh… should I land?" he asked.

"No," Adam said, shaking his head as he tried to pull himself together. "Get out of there. Go back to your home base."

The pilot looked visibly relieved, and then the screen went blank.

There was a retching noise, and Adam turned to see the Rannian citizen who had warned him of a potential problem (an understatement indeed, it was now apparent) vomiting onto the floor. Absurdly, Adam noted that between that and Ghnashh's drool, this room would definitely need a new carpet. After she had heaved twice, the woman ran from the room without a word, a hand covering her mouth.

For a moment, no one said anything. It was Alanna who broke the silence. "What was that?"

"I don't know. Sardath?" Adam asked.

"Well… obviously something has affected the people of Moorm. I think we can rule out a simple riot."

Adam nodded. "I was thinking the same thing. I know people can do some pretty awful things in extreme situations but that wasn't just a mob getting carried away. That was…" he trailed off, at a loss for words.

It was, oddly enough, Ghnashh who finished his sentence. "Madness." When everyone turned to look at the K'Neyen who had earned the title Arch-Conqueror, he continued. "The K'Neyen live to be warriors. But war means more than violence and destruction. We kill and we bleed for conquest. We fight and we die, but at the end of the day our coffers are full and our realms have expanded. There is no honour in war, nor rules to be obeyed, but there is purpose. That wasn't war. That was madness."

"It's always fascinating to learn about other cultures," Adam said.

"You've still got an archeologist buried in you somewhere, don't you, Adam?" Alanna said.

Ignoring her, Adam continued to address the Arch-Conqueror. "So, I can assume you continue to deny that the K'Neyen have anything to do with this?"

"That is correct. This is just one more reason for me to wish I'd never heard of your cursed little planet, where cities go insane and puny beings in bizarre red suits defeat armadas single-handedly."

"Don't feel too bad about that last part, Arch-Conqueror. I've got years of experience at fending off invasions from other planets."

"If I may interrupt, what are we going to do?" Sardath asked.

"The first thing to do is isolate Moorm. Whatever happened to those people, we have to keep them contained there, or they'll tear apart other cities too," Adam said.

"Excellent idea, Adam. But how?"

"You have warships, old man. I saw them in action mere hours ago," Ghnashh said. "Surely you do not need Arch-Defender Strange to tell you to employ them. Position them around this 'Moorm' and fire upon all who attempt to leave it. Pitiful as your warships were in fighting the mighty K'Neyen, they should prove a match for those madmen."

Sardath looked at Adam uncertainly. "No, if these people aren't in control of themselves, we have to try to avoid harming them," the Earthman said.

No one said anything for a moment. Adam stood still, staring at the blank screen intently, as if still seeing the nightmarish scenes it had displayed. Sardath and Alanna stood on either side of him, looking at the Champion of Rann expectantly. Ghnashh paced about the edge of the room, his heavy footfalls the only noise any of them made.

"Ghnashh's approach does have some merits," Adam said at last. "We need to ensure that no one who leaves Moorm reaches any other Rannian settlement. But we have to show a bit of restraint. Sardath, can Rannian airships be modified to shoot tranquilizers, knock-out gas, that sort of thing?"

"Certainly."

"Then get some people on it, as soon as possible. When that's ready, we'll have the airships establish a wide perimeter around Moorm. Tell them to stay well away from the city, out of visual range, and not to land under any circumstances. Also, they should maintain constant radio contact."

"What about if people try to leave Moorm in vehicles?"

Adam's voice was grim. "Then we would have no choice but to stop them using whatever means necessary. Tell the pilots to try to disable their vehicles without harming the occupants, but we'll understand if that isn't possible."

"Yes, Adam, I'll see to it right away." The elderly scientist walked over to the screen, and set about establishing a connection with whoever it was that would implement the first phase of Adam's plan.

"That takes care of the most dangerous problem. The next most pressing issue is how to protect the inhabitants of Moorm from themselves."

"Can't you gas them all too?" Alanna asked.

"In theory. But there are a couple of problems. First, I'm not sure if we have enough to take out a whole city. Second, we'd only be able to gas the streets from airships, and while we'd nail a fair number of them, we have to assume that a lot of people are still inside, or would go indoors once we started to gas them. We don't have that problem in the open areas outside of Moorm. Thank God Rann doesn't have suburbs and industrial sprawl."

"Pardon?"

"Never mind. I just meant that for once it's lucky that it's pretty much desolate wasteland outside of city limits here on Rann. Anyway, the third problem is that taking airships into Moorm might expose the pilots to whatever did this, and that's the last thing we want. And finally, the airships would be much more vulnerable to attack from the enraged citizenry while over the city. There's a chance that someone leaving Moorm will bring along something capable of affecting an airship fifty feet up, but if we keep them out of visual range of the city, that's unlikely. If we attack Moorm directly, it's another story."

Ghnashh stopped pacing the room. Turning to face the couple from the corner where he had come to rest, he growled "I don't see why this matter concerns you so. You have taken steps to contain the problem. From what I saw, those people will have annihilated themselves within days. At which point, there will no longer be a problem."

"It's my duty to protect those people from any threat, even from themselves," Adam shot back. "You've dubbed me Arch-Defender, and the Rannians call me Champion, but either way that makes this my responsibility."

"Those people constitute a threat to the populace at large, yes? That is why you contain them. So consider, Arch-Defender, whether your duty is to the madmen of that doomed city or to the millions of others in your dominion."

"Not my dominion," Adam corrected. "My protectorate. In the literal sense."

Sardath, done relaying Adam's instructions, turned off the screen and joined the conversation as well. "We'll have the airships in place within an hour, Adam."

"That's good," the Earthman said. "You see, Arch-Conqueror? I can protect the people of Rann without sacrificing an entire city of innocent people."

"Perhaps, perhaps not. It matters little to me in the end. Even if madness consumes this planet, I shall be long gone," the K'Neyen hissed.

"Actually, I think not. Despite what you say, I'm not entirely convinced that this isn't some elaborate K'Neyen trick. So until I'm certain, you're staying right here on Rann."

The K'Neyen let out a long low growl, and made as if to pounce upon Adam. The human took a step back, hand moving to his weapon, but long before he drew it Ghnashh had resumed a more casual stance. "I… apologize," he spat. "I took undue insult. You are only acting with the caution appropriate for a great warrior such as you have proven to be. But I assure you again that the K'Neyen have nothing to do with this."

Adam shrugged, his hand falling back to his side. "We'll see. In the meantime, you'll need a place to stay. Sardath, can you find him quarters?"

Under normal circumstances, Adam would not have asked the pre-eminent scientist of Rann to attend to such a mundane duty personally, but Adam wanted to be alone with his wife. Fortunately, Sardath took the hint. "Certainly, Adam. If you'll follow me, Arch-Conqueror?"

As the Rannian led the K'Neyen out of the room, Alanna turned to her husband. "You don't really think he had something to do with this, do you?"

"No."

"Then why-?"

"I don't know. Maybe because he bugs me, with all that talk about sacrificing those poor people for the greater good. And maybe… maybe because I need someone around willing to say those things."

"Adam!" Alanna was clearly appalled.

"Don't worry. I'm not leaving the people of Moorm to die. All I meant was that it's helpful to have all points of view. The airship quarantine was his idea, remember?"

"Well, yes." Alanna paused. "But you would have thought of it too. You're so clever, Adam, do you really need someone around saying all those horrible things, as if there wasn't enough awfulness already?"

"Listen, if I feel he isn't helping, I can always let him go later, okay?" Reluctantly, Alanna nodded assent. "So, that still leaves the people of Moorm to save. And I think the best way to do that is to find out what started all this."

"How are you going to do that?"

Adam looked his wife in the eyes. "By going to Moorm."

"Adam! You saw what it was like there!"

"I've been worse places. Apokolips, Starlag, western New York. I'll be okay."

"Does it have to be you?" Alanna had tears in her eyes.

"Come on, kiddo," Adam said as he embraced his wife. "What's gotten into you? I've never known you to get so shaken up. This morning you sent me out to battle a race of ten foot tall monsters without batting an eye."

"It's just… those weren't monsters. They were people. Just ordinary Rannians. And they were killing each other. I saw this one old man, and he looked so much like Sardath, and they… they…"

"Hush," Adam said, patting her back. "I'll fix this. I promise."

Alanna pulled away from him. "How do I know it won't happen to you? What if you come back like that? Oh, Adam, I couldn't bear it."

"Well, there's the rub. I won't know how to shield myself from whatever's causing this until I know what it is, and I won't know that until I investigate."

"But you will take precautions, right?"

"Of course. Sardath has an environmentally sealed suit he uses sometimes for experiments. I'll go in that. It might not work, but it's the best option I've got."

"Thank you."

"Alanna, promise me something. If I do come back… different, promise me that if you think, even for a second, that I'm going to hurt you or Aleea, you'll stop me no matter what it takes. Do you understand me? No matter what it takes."

"But Adam-"

"Promise me."

"I promise." And they embraced again.

******

An hour later, Adam was flying towards Moorm in a borrowed airship. He hated the confining cabin, but the jetpack he normally wore wouldn't support him in the bulky environmental suit he had traded his normal red and white uniform for.

He saw the smoke first, massive columns reaching for the sky. He wasn't surprised that Moorm was still burning; no one had seemed terribly concerned with fighting the fires. It was more likely they had lit new ones.

Then the tallest buildings crept over the horizon. Finally, he was in sight of Moorm. Even from this distance, he could hear the screams.

He landed the airship, and emerged into the late afternoon. The suit was awkward to maneuver, but Adam was willing to forego ease of movement if it meant he kept his sanity.

Sardath's environmental suit was almost completely sealed off from the world outside. It had its own air supply, was impervious to all forms of radiation, and would filter all visual and audio stimuli for potentially harmful elements before relaying them to the user. But even so, no protection was perfect, and under physical assault the suit could tear, exposing him to whatever had afflicted Moorm.

He sealed the airship's door. If anyone tried to break the lock, the ship would self-destruct.

Slowly, Adam trudged towards the inferno.

To Be Continued

 
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