Invasions from Other Planets
Adam Strange walked across the surface of the planet Rann, heading alone into the city of Moorm, a place overrun by madness and death.
It took him nearly an hour to get there. Under normal circumstances it would not have required more than fifteen minutes even on foot, but it was slow going in the bulky environmental suit he was forced to wear as protection against whatever force had made the residents of Moorm, all of whom had been completely normal mere hours ago, into homicidal maniacs. Though it would protect him from radiation, chemicals, or air-born contagion, he could only hope that that would be enough to prevent him befalling a similar fate.
A nuclear war centuries past had reduced much of the planet to a barren wasteland, and one legacy of that dark period was that the population of Rann still lived in isolated city-states. Outside of those cities there was simply barren wasteland. Adam couldn't see another living thing.
At last he reached the wall that demarcated the boundary of Moorm. It was stone, and about fifteen feet high. Seeing no way to ascend it in his environmental suit, Adam began to walk along the wall. These days such barriers were purely symbolic, and he knew that he would soon reach an entrance to the city.
As expected, it took only a few minutes for him to arrive at an archway. Cautiously, he peered around the wall into Moorm.
When he had last seen the its streets, two hours earlier, on a viewscreen image transmitted from an airship, they had been a scene of chaos. Riots and violence had run rampant. Adam doubted it was a sight he would ever forget, and the images would occupy his nightmares for a long time.
It was calmer now then it had been before, almost eerily quiet, at least where Adam found himself. The street on the other side of the archway was largely deserted, and the few people he saw scurrying about didn't seem engaged in anything particularly appalling.
But as much as the Earthman wanted to believe that somehow the horrors he had seen earlier had been an illusion, the evidence of their aftereffects was clearly visible. Windows were shattered, the odd building was aflame, a ground vehicle had crashed into a house, bodies littered the ground (dead or dying or merely unconscious, he couldn't tell) and blood was splattered everywhere, painting the town red.
And though the people were not overtly engaged in acts of violence, there was something in their manner that was disquieting. At first Adam thought that it was the way they moved quickly, constantly scanning their surroundings, and keeping clear of open areas. Obviously, they were concerned that the rioting could spark up again with little warning. But then Adam realized that it wasn't that which was bothering him, but something else.
Everyone seemed completely undistressed by the carnage that surrounded them. They moved through the street, going about whatever their business was, without any sign that stepping around a battered corpse bothered them. Sometimes they didn't even bother making that quick detour, and simply walked over their fallen fellows, their footsteps making squishing sounds as they landed on torn flesh. They were not oblivious; they just didn't appear to care.
All but one. Adam noticed one Rannian man who alone showed compassion. As Adam watched, the man ministered to a fallen woman, giving her sips of water from a flask and cleaning her wounds. Tears stained his cheeks, and Adam guessed at the reason; the woman he tended to would not be requiring his attention, or anything else, for much longer.
The Rannian man looked up as Adam approached. "What are you?" the native asked.
Adam suddenly realized what an odd sight he must have been. The bulky environmental suit revealed he was humanoid, but little else. Even its visor was opaque from the outside. "I'm Adam Strange."
On Earth, that wouldn't have enlightened a stranger, but all of Rann knew the name of their champion. The Rannian's face brightened. "Have you come to help us?"
"I'll try. I'm here to find out what happened."
"It was terrible. This morning there were those alien ships, and some of them landed and these creatures emerged and began attacking people. But they left before long, and I thought that things were okay again. And then... oh, it was ghastly, ghastly. People just started to go mad. Before I knew what was happening, there was rioting everywhere. I went and hid inside my house, in the basement. I know I should have been helping people, and I'm so sorry." He looked about to cry again.
Adam put a hand on the man's shoulder. "I'm sure there was nothing you could have done. You'd only have gotten hurt."
"Thank you. But I'll always be ashamed of myself for that cowardice. Not that I have any shortage of things to be ashamed of." The man winced, the weight of his unspecified past sins pressing upon his conscience.
Adam saw no point in questioning the man along those lines, so instead he asked, "What finally happened? It seems calm now."
"After a while the noise became quieter, and when I emerged it was like this."
The woman the Rannian had been tending to coughed once then, a hideous death rattle. She lay still.
"It just isn't fair," the man continued, gently setting down the body. "That good people get caught up in all this."
"Was she...?" Adam trailed off, his question unfinished.
"I never met her before today. But she was hurt, and I wanted to ease her suffering. It was the least I could do. I just wish I could have saved her."
"Don't blame yourself. You seem a virtuous man, and there don't seem to be too many around here right now."
"Virtuous? You wouldn't say that if you knew the things I've done, Adam Strange. No, I'm damned, the same as everyone here."
"Listen, would you be willing to accompany me back to Rannagar? I'd like Sardath to examine you. I was planning to do more investigating here, try to locate whatever caused this, but I didn't expect to find someone who had retained his sanity. That changes things."
"I'm not sure. I can do so much good here. But... I suppose the greater good is to help you cure these people. Very well, I shall accompany you."
"Say, I don't even know your name."
Adam stooped to pick up the body of the woman at Dag's feet, and flung it over one shoulder. "In case you simply weren't exposed to whatever happened here," he explained, "I'd like Sardath to examine her too." Adam automatically suppressed his discomfort at toting the corpse, reducing it in his mind to simply a potential part of the solution to the situation at hand.
The Champion of Rann retraced his path, Dag effortlessly keeping pace with the Earthman's plodding steps. They walked in silence. When they finally arrived at the airship, Adam lay down the body he had been carrying, and went over to the vessel. The door was hanging open, clearly having been forced.
"Oh damn," he muttered.
He had set his airship's power cells to self-destruct if anyone succeeded in forcing entry into it. It had seemed a reasonable precaution against any of Moorm's madmen using it to escape. Without the power cells, none of the ship's systems would operate. Quickly going inside, he saw that the control panel confirmed it was now just so much scrap metal littering the desert. Whoever had attempted to commandeer Adam's vessel was long gone.
"So how do we get back to Rannagar now?" Dag asked once Adam had explained the situation.
"No problem. I just use the communicator built into this suit to contact Sardath and have him get one of the airships I have quarantining Moorm left for us to pick up."
Raising a hand to his head, Adam touched a control on the suit. Instantly, his helmet was filled with crackling static. Adam realized the likely meaning of the sound, but tried calling "Sardath, do you read me?" a few times anyway.
"Is something wrong?" Dag asked.
"Yes. My signal is being jammed."
"I don't know. But this is very bad news. We can't even try to leave the area of Moorm now; those airships will target us."
"So what do we do?"
"If I get the proper equipment, I can locate the source of the jamming. There should be some places in the barter district that will have what I need," Adam said.
"I suppose I should lead the way, then, Adam Strange," Dag volunteered. "It is my city, after all."
So Adam followed the local man back towards Moorm.
The sun was setting as they finally arrived at the city's wall again, and Adam was acutely aware that four hours had passed since he had first been told of the situation in Moorm.
Adam had let Dag lead, and he realized that the man's pace had been gradually slowing for some time. Now, as Adam looked closely at his guide, he realized that the Rannian was favouring one leg.
"Finally... here," Dag said, turning to face Adam, and the Earthman was shocked to see a growing red stain on the left side of the man's gut.
The Rannian looked down, following Adam's gaze. "I'm sure it's not as bad as it looks."
"Pull up your shirt," Adam ordered, and Dag obeyed. Underneath was a bandage wrapped around him several times, soaked with red liquid along its left side.
"When the rioting started, someone stabbed me. I got home and bandaged it up, though. I don't think it's anything to worry about."
"You should have told me. You were in no condition to do all that walking."
"My health isn't important. There are more... important... I'm dreadfully sorry, but I feel a little bit tired. Just give me... a... min-" Dag's eyes rolled into his head as he slumped forward, and Adam leapt to catch him. Unfortunately, the environmental suit slowed him down, and Dag's body hit the dirt.
Adam turned him over, and was relieved to see his chest moving. Cursing the suit's awkward handling, he unwrapped the bandage and took a look at Dag's wound.
It wasn't pretty. The cut was deep, and looked to be infected. Pus was mixed with the blood leaking out of it. Adam's knowledge of Rannian physiology was not extensive, but he knew they were basically human in biology. And a human with a wound like that would require medical attention.
Re-wrapping the wound, trying to cover it with a different section of the bandage that hadn't already been soaked with blood, Adam considered his options. Part of him knew that he should take the long view and stick with his mission, but Adam doubted he could live with himself if he simply left this man here.
Sighing, he picked Dag up, carrying the wounded man in his arms. After a moment, he realized that the last time he had carried someone he had been toting a corpse, and though he was too much the rationalist to believe in ill omens, he found the parallel gave him a renewed sense of urgency nonetheless.
Within minutes he found the archway into the city, and saw that the street was now completely deserted, barring the many broken and battered bodies that still littered it. Adam wondered if the amount of downed Rannians here could possibly be significant enough to account for the lack of mobile ones; quick calculation revealed that it would certainly go a long way towards explaining it, but at least half of the city's population should still be up and about. Assuming, of course, that this street was a representative sample.
Adam was suddenly grateful for his suit's self-contained air supply for entirely different reasons than he had been; by morning the smell of decay in Moorm would be unbearable.
Adam walked a bit down the street leading from the archway, deeper into Moorm, until it turned a corner and he was out of sight of the city's boundary. Still he saw no one.
The lack of people was disturbing to Adam on a subconscious level. Though he had spent a fair portion of his life out in the field on archeological digs, far from the madding crowd, he retained his sense that cities should be full of life. But in Moorm, there was only death.
Finally, there came sounds of habitation, emanating from a building to his left. Adam strained to hear, but couldn't quite make words out.
Setting Dag down carefully, Adam knocked at the door, then took a precautionary step back. With all that had happened here, he didn't know what to expect when the door opened.
For example, a scantily clad woman would not have occurred to him as a possibility at all.
Yet there one was. She was not unattractive, and Adam felt his body respond. Behind her, he could see other people, men and women, engaging in assorted activities of varying intimacy. He was grateful his blushing couldn't be seen through his suit's visor.
The woman looked him up and down. "Well, what have we here?" she- and there really was no other word to describe her tone- purred.
Adam cleared his throat. "Excuse me. My name is Adam Strange, and it is urgent-"
"Adam Strange? Well, aren't we lucky? Alanna's consort himself," the woman said, interrupting the Earthman.
"Uh, yes. But the point is, I'm looking for-"
Once again Adam was unable to finish. "If Sardath brought you trillions of miles just to put you in bed with his daughter, you must be awfully good there."
Adam thought back nostalgically to that morning, when all he had been required to do was fight off an invading force of ten foot tall invulnerable alien monsters. Still, he pressed on. "This man needs a doctor. Do you know where I can find one?"
"Silly man. So concerned about such unimportant things." She reached out a hand and began stroking the front of Adam's suit as she talked, although he couldn't feel it through the thick fabric. "I was like that too. All I thought about were my responsibilities. There so many things I had to do, so many people who counted on me. As if that mattered! Responsibility, duty, obligation, it's all pointless in the end. This is what's important: the pleasures of the flesh. Now, why don't you just take off that bulky suit and join us. We're having ever so much more fun now that we aren't caught up in all those silly concepts."
Adam absorbed the woman's words, adding them to his small collection of data about what had happened here. Realizing that a response was needed, he said, "That's... nice. But I have a wife."
"So? Monogamy is such a drag. Half the people in here are probably married. But why worry about something like that?"
"I just do."
She removed her hand from him. "You're really starting to bore me. I don't think I want to waste any more time talking with you. Not when I could be doing so many other things." She grinned lasciviously.
"I'm sorry, Ma'am, but I really must find this man a doctor."
"Maybe I'll tell you where you can... after we have a little fun?"
Adam tried to ignoring the more distracting elements of his present situation, tried to examine the problem from a detached perspective. Obviously he couldn't do what this woman wanted; even if had been willing to cheat on Alanna (which he definitely wasn't), he couldn't risk getting out of his environmental suit. But he needed to find out where he could get a doctor for Dag.
What the woman wanted was sex, but there was more underlying that. If what Adam was beginning to suspect was true, it wasn't her libido itself that had been affected, but rather her attitude towards life. Whatever had happened to Moorm had made this person abandon her sense of responsibility and want nothing more than to indulge her hedonistic whims without consequence.
She was lucky she lived on Rann, Adam realized. There were no STDs here, and of course no risk of-
Adam smiled slightly. He knew what to do now.
"Okay," he said.
"But you do know why I was brought to Rann, don't you?" Adam asked. She paused, her brow furrowed, but before she could respond Adam continued. "All the men on Rann are sterile. But I'm from Earth, and I'm not. Which means that if you have your way with me, you could end up having a child. Is that what you want?"
"Let me tell you something from personal experience," Adam said. "I've got a daughter. You probably knew that. Anyway, I've learned the hard way that kids aren't exactly low maintenance. They need to be fed, bathed, entertained, kept out of trouble. All of that pesky 'responsibility' you want so badly to avoid, in spades. You can't just do it when it's convenient, either. I can't even count how many times I had to get up in the middle of the night, or put aside something I was doing, to tend to her. Sure, after a couple of years she (or in your case maybe 'he', who knows?) might not require attention all day and every day, but for those first few, and I'm passing on first-hand knowledge here, you barely have a chance to sleep, let alone engage in much recreational activity. How much time will you have for your 'fun' then?"
Adam saw the look on the woman's face, and decided to press on, as distasteful as he found the rants he needed to spew to frighten this woman.
"Oh, that's right, I'd almost forgotten. Before you can get to all the joys of full-time parenting, there's the little matter of the pregnancy. I bet you haven't seen anyone pregnant since you were a child, have you?" Adam's question was rhetorical, and he continued without pause. "You want a life doing nothing but enjoying 'the pleasures of the flesh'? See how much pleasure the flesh gives you then. Your belly will swell, your back will ache, you'll get nauseous, your hormones will fluctuate, and then, if there aren't any complications, after nine long months you'll give birth. And I can tell you that from what I've seen that is no picnic. Alanna nearly died- Heck, we though she was dead for years- after giving birth to our daughter. But hey, if that's what you want from me before you'll tell me what I need to know, let's get to it!"
Adam's voice had risen gradually as he spoke, and when his oration ended he saw that the woman was shaking. "Three blocks down, turn right, number 392 on Drofak Street," she said simply, her voice slightly unsteady.
The Champion of Rann nodded, and turned from her. He picked up Dag, and when he looked up again he saw the door had been closed.
Adam knew he had been lucky. He had been able to use her fear of the unknown against her; he probably could have made up whatever horrors he wanted, but simply emphasizing the actual negative aspects of parenthood and pregnancy (and avoiding mention of the positive ones) had been sufficient.
In reality, Adam's views on the subject were quite different than the ones he had just expressed. He knew what joy Aleea had brought him, and wouldn't have traded the responsibility of caring for her for anything in the world, in two worlds. Of course, his knowledge of actually carrying the baby was secondhand, but Adam recalled Alanna during those months, and realized that there were compensations for the litany of woes he had rattled off. Still, now that he thought about it...
"I wonder if it really is that bad?" he muttered to himself. "Alanna didn't complain... much..."
He headed deeper into Moorm.
Adam arrived at the address he had been told within a few minutes. Though the sun had set, the burning buildings scattered throughout Moorm provided adequate light, and he had had no difficulty finding his way. The building's exterior had been damaged by something, great slash marks marring its smooth surface. The front door had been smashed open.
Adam entered. It was dark inside, and Adam deposited Dag onto the floor so he could reach up to turn on the lamp affixed to his helmet. Once he had illuminated the room, he could see that he was in some kind of reception area. It was a mess. A desk had been overturned, spilling its contents onto the floor. Chairs had been flung everywhere, some broken and a few still intact. There was no one there.
The Earthman righted an undamaged chair, and moved Dag into it. The Rannian stirred slightly, shifting his weight, but did not regain consciousness.
There was only one other way into or out of the room, a doorway at its far end. Adam opened it, and saw a stairway leading up. Upon the stairs were two men, both clearly dead. A scalpel was sticking out of one's throat, and some polished metal instrument that Adam couldn't identify had done nasty things to the other man's face on its way in.
Cautiously, Adam ascended. Even if he wasn't killed right away, getting hit with something like that could puncture his suit.
But no attack came. He reached the second (and top) floor, and opened the door he came to. On the other side was an examining room, dominated by various pieces of medical equipment. Shelves around the room were filled with various devices, and a cupboard at one end of the room was filled with vials full of pills and liquids.
A man sat on the floor in front of it, giggling. He was elderly, several decades older than Adam, and he wore what Adam recognized as Rann's equivalent of a doctor's white labcoat and stethoscope.
"Are you a doctor?" Adam asked anyway.
"Sure am," the man responded, his voice slightly slurred. "I'm a doctor, that's me. Doctor me."
"My name is Adam Strange. I have a man downstairs who requires medical attention."
"Everybody needs medical attention. That's all they want; they all want medical attention. But what about what I want?"
Adam frowned. The doctor appeared delirious. The Earthman wondered if entrusting Dag to him would be a wise idea. But what other choice was there? Time might be of the essence, and Adam had no idea where another doctor was. He was lucky that there actually still was one in this office. "You seem inebriated," Adam said at last.
"Ha! Shows what you know. I'm not inebriated. I'm doped up. Euphoric drugs, that's the ticket." As he finished speaking, the doctor popped a pill into his mouth. He shuddered once with pleasure. "Yeah, that's what I'm talking about."
Adam walked up and took the pills from the man's hand. Somewhat surprisingly, the doctor made no move to stop him. The label was incomprehensible to the Earthman, and not just because it was in Rannian.
"Gimme," the doctor said, reaching out a hand towards Adam. Pathetically, he didn't even try to stand.
"Not unless you help my friend."
"Ha! Is that what the Champion of Rann has been reduced to? Stealing from a man who can barely move?"
"It's for your own good as much as anyone's."
"Except that those pills are the only thing fighting the sedatives I took earlier. Gimme a minute and I'll be out like a light."
"You were mixing drugs? That can't be healthy." As soon as the words were out of Adam's mouth, he realized how stupid they sounded.
"I'm a doctor. I know exactly what I'm doing." Adam was relieved. "I'm overdosing on a lethal combination of drugs, that's what I'm doing." Adam stopped being relieved.
The doctor's head started to droop forward, but he appeared to start himself back to full consciousness. He looked up at Adam, saying nothing further. The Earthman sighed and tossed the vial back onto the doctor's lap. The physician opened it and removed one of its contents, swallowing it quickly.
"I need you to help me help me patch up a man's wounds. Do you think you can do that?"
"Well, maybe. But I don't want to." The doctor popped another pill into his mouth, and slowly chewed it as Adam stared at him. "These are all I want," he said at last. "These fill the needs inside me. Only somehow... somehow I always want another one. It's never enough. Never... quite... enough. No, I can't help you. Please just leave me."
"Will you please think beyond your own appetites for just a few minutes?" Adam begged.
"Maybe when I decide I'm satisfied."
Adam looked down at the doctor. "You'll run out of pills long before then."
"Hey, at least I'll enjoy the ride." The doctor popped another pill. He moaned softly as it took affect.
Adam looked carefully at the man, and noticed for the first time how pale he seemed, how deep the bags under his eyes were. The doctor's pupils were dilated, as if not focussing upon Adam properly. His breathing was irregular, and Adam doubted his heartbeat was any more normal. "I take it back. You'll be dead long before you run out of pills," Adam said.
"Hey, at least I'll enjoy the ride," the doctor repeated.
"For God's sake, you're overdosing even as we speak. Doesn't that bother you in the slightest?"
"It's not like there's anything else that gives me any satisfaction in life. Once, a long time ago, just the thrill was enough. The thrill of saving lives, I mean. Then that wasn't enough anymore. So I started taking the pills, just to feel again. But I was careful. I held myself in check oh so carefully. I didn't want it to compromise my ability. I was so terrified that I'd make a mistake while operating. And now I see how that was all wrong. What do I care if someone dies? I've helped so many people. I gave them their lives, but in doing so I denied myself life. Real life, I mean, the life only the pills give me. The feeling, Adam Strange, you can't imagine it. Afterwards, you can see how hollow everything else is." The words seemed to tumble out of the doctor, perhaps spurred by his drug-induced euphoria, perhaps simply a result of having been contained too long within the man.
Adam had been silent, listening, absorbing the man's rantings, playing them over in his mind in search of an answer. Now he had it.
Once again, he grabbed the vial from the man.
"Hey! The sedatives, remember?"
"I think you were lying," Adam said calmly. "You would never take sedatives. What you were after was sensation, not oblivion. Taking something that might dull your experience of these pills is the last thing you'd do."
"Can you take that chance?" the doctor asked.
"I've got nothing to lose. You'll never help me as long as you have them."
The doctor spat. "You're a clever bastard, Adam Strange."
"So I've been told."
"If I help your friend... do you promise to give me back my pills?" He eyed the vial in Adam's hand hungrily.
Reluctantly, Adam nodded assent.
"Alright, then, let's get to work. You'll have to do exactly what I tell you, since I'm in condition to do it myself. First, bring your friend up here..."
It was early the next morning. Adam, working under the doctor's instruction, had treated Dag's wounds, and then sat beside the man as he waited for signs of improvement. Once during the night he had heard screams, but they were brief, and by the time he had gotten to the door there was nothing to see. Eventually he had dozed off.
Adam woke from his light slumber to see Dag already conscious. "How're you feeling?" the Champion of Rann asked.
"Better. Thanks to you, I gather."
"You shouldn't have bothered. There are so many people in this city who are counting on you, even if they don't know it. My death is insignificant next to that. I'd probably deserve it."
"I wouldn't have felt right leaving you to die. You're the only person I've seen in this city who seems concerned with anything but him or herself."
"You wouldn't have said that if you'd seen me before yesterday, Adam. All my life, I cared for nothing but my own profit. I don't think I had a single selfless thought until that riot. Everything I did was for my own ends. Nobody else mattered to me in the slightest." Dag paused then, his confession clearly paining him, but he pressed on. "Then, suddenly, as everyone around me started attacking one another, I suddenly realized how fragile and precious life is, how important it is that each and every one of us do all we can to make the world better. Because if we don't... well, what's happened here is the alternative."
"You had quite an epiphany," Adam said. But the warmth in his voice was completely artificial. He had made the intuitive leap that Dag's change in character was almost certainly related to everyone else's, and the Earthman knew that meant reversing the affliction that had claimed the populace of Moorm would likely necessitate sacrificing Dag's newfound wisdom.
Until then, Adam had felt above the horrors around him. No longer. He realized now that his desperation to save Dag had been in part a grasping for the hope that even amidst all this horror there was something redeeming. But now even that one ray of light in all the gloom of Moorm had been tainted.
"I... need to get those parts from the Barter District," Adam said, standing up quickly. He couldn't face having to tell Dag what he had realized, the price he would be asking the man to pay. Somehow, the worst part was that Adam knew the man standing in front of him would gladly pay it.
"I'm afraid I don't seem able to lead you there as I promised, but the directions are fairly simple." Dag outlined the route for Adam, who headed out into the bright sunlight of the early morning.
The barter district required Adam go further into Moorm, and as he walked he tried not to look at the corpses that littered the streets, rotting in the hot sun. The previous day he had been detached from it all, but now each face seemed to stare at him through rotting eyes, every death rictus grin to mock him, any outstretched arm to be reaching for him.
Forcibly, Adam instructed himself to calm down. He told himself that he was just still tired, and indeed he had slept little enough for a man who'd done as much the previous day as he had. He was imagining things, he repeated silently. It worked, mostly.
As to the living, though the amount of people he saw remained few in number, he passed more and more as he headed deeper into the city. It was as if the centre of Moorm possessed some sort of gravity, pulling those who had survived the night towards it. Including, Adam noted ruefully, the Champion of Rann himself.
None of the people seemed particularly hostile, and Adam decided that those who had gone into berzerker rages must have tended to be the ones who died first, fighting one another. Those with other priorities, like the woman who wanted to lose herself in carnal liaisons and the doctor satisfying his craving for chemically derived pleasures, had probably tried to avoid the bloodbaths and thus survived.
Indeed, as Adam followed that logic, he realized that a likely corollary explained the absence of people outside. If the remaining survivors had received not a lust for violence but some other hedonistic satiation, they would have already sought it out and holed up to enjoy it. Between satisfying their own wants and a logical aversion to heading outside in case of another outbreak of violence, he could see why so few Rannians were on the street.
Many of the fires of the previous day had at last burned themselves out, leaving nothing but hollow husks, the blackened skeletons of buildings and sometimes their occupants. But enough still burned, giving off heat that combined with the warmth of the morning sun, that Adam guessed he was lucky to remain in the coolness of his environmental suit. It was a scorcher outside.
Hot as Hell.
When he arrived at the barter district, he saw the most people yet since his arrival in Moorm. Most of them were looting abandoned stores, grabbing whatever caught their fancy. Adam spotted the occasional dispute, but it was oddly peaceful.
The barter district was set up as a large square, lined with shops on all sides. Stalls normally dotted the square, but all of them had been destroyed the previous day. Adam saw the occasional remnant of one such enterprise, but none remained even remotely intact.
It was the stores that were now being targeted by the Rannians. Adam was surprised there was still anything to loot, but then he realized that the looters had likely hidden inside during the initial violent outbursts, and probably hadn't mustered the courage (or, more likely, greed) to emerge until now.
Scanning the shops, Adam located the electronics store. He headed for it at a brisk pace, weaving his way around the various looters. It wasn't as easy to maneuver through the crowd while wearing the bulky suit as it might otherwise have been, but he managed.
Entering through the shattered display window (the heavy door remained intact), Adam looked around at rows of gadgets. Rannian technology was different from Earth's, yet not by all that much. The Earthman was no technician, but he had picked up a few things through the years, and he had no doubt that he could create a device to track whatever was jamming his signal.
Realizing he had not actually tested whether he was being jammed since the previous day, Adam did so, and was rewarded with a quick burst of ear-splitting static. Wincing, he turned his communicator off again.
Returning his mind to the store's supply, Adam began locating the parts he would need. He was not the first person to target that particular store, nor was he alone there. Several other people milled around him, grabbing items. Adam couldn't determine if they had specific acquisitions in mind or were simply selecting randomly.
Within minutes, Adam himself had located most of the parts he would require, collecting them in a large bag he attached to the hip of his suit as a sort of pocket. But as he headed for where the last component he needed would be kept, he saw someone else grab the sole remaining one.
Cursing his timing (although, in truth, his timing was quite lucky; a few minutes later and the item would have been gone without a trace), Adam hurried over towards the woman who had picked up the gizmo.
"Wait!" he cried.
She looked over at the large vaguely-humanoid being that was barreling down on her, its visage an opaque screen, its bulky limbs outstretched towards her, and screamed.
"I guess not every Rannian woman gets aroused at the sight of Sardath's environmental suit," Adam said ruefully, recalling the last woman he had encountered. "I guess this is a more normal reaction, come to think."
The woman didn't hear Adam's insight, however, for she had turned and ran from the store, leaping through the broken window with a fluid grace that Adam could only dream of while in his current wardrobe.
She had taken the part Adam needed with her.
Lunging after her, Adam had to stop and carefully step through the window, avoiding the shards of exposed glass that posed a threat to the integrity of his environmental suit. By the time he emerged into the square again, she was halfway across it.
Adam set off in pursuit, pushing the looters who got in his way aside. He wished for his jetpack. With it, he could have caught up to her in seconds. As it was, he was barely able to keep pace with his quarry.
She cast a glance over her shoulder, saw him in pursuit, and increased her speed still further. Adam began to fall behind.
The Earthman was in excellent shape. The previous day he had run over a dozen blocks across downtown Sydney at top speed. But he had been running light then. Now he was dragging a suit that weighed him down, and he was tiring rapidly.
His breaths came in short gasps, burning his throat. Despite the controlled temperature of his suit, sweat poured down his forehead, and he couldn't wipe it aside. His chest ached, and his legs felt increasingly like jelly.
But if Adam stopped, he would never be able to figure out what was jamming his attempts to reach Sardath, and would be trapped in Moorm until the Zeta Beam wore off.
And yet... Adam suddenly wondered if his priorities had become misplaced. The minute he had found out he was trapped in Moorm, he had stopped attempting to figure out what had happened here and concentrated primarily on getting out. No, that wasn't true either, for he had taken care of Dag first.
Dag! With a jolt he remembered the Rannian, and that he had to get him to Sardath- no, he shook his head. He had been operating under a false assumption then. Dag had provided a crucial clue as to what had happened here, but he had no special immunity for Sardath to examine.
But whether or not he remained in Moorm to investigate further rather than leaving as soon as he was able, he would eventually need to do so, and catching up to this woman was his only means of doing that. So he buried the urge to stop and rest.
Adam's legs had shifted from jelly to lead.
He and his quarry had left the Barter District behind them, and were heading up a residential street. Now she stopped before a house, punched something into the keypad by the door, and jumped through the entrance. It was long closed by the time Adam arrived in front of it.
"I just want to talk to you," he called.
"Why won't you leave me alone?" he heard a voice from thin air call. After a second, he realized it had come from above him, and Adam looked up to see the woman sticking her head out of a window on the third of the building's four floors.
"I need the part you took."
"No! It's mine!"
"What are you using it for?"
"I haven't decided yet."
"Then why do you want it?"
"I just want to have it. I want to have everything."
"I need it," Adam repeated.
"So? It's mine and you can't take it."
"Maybe we can trade?" Adam asked.
"If you're not using it, then why do you want the damn thing so much?" Adam's patience was beginning to crack.
"Because it's mine."
Adam had spent a good portion of his life dealing with conquering alien hordes, and he knew how to deal with them. But this was... Not hordes, but hoards. He chuckled at the pun. Then he remembered when he had faced something like this before.
This was like dealing with Aleea.
Beloved though his daughter was, he was not blind to the faults of his child, and one of them was that cry, universal to all children, of "mine!" Moorm's madness had reduced this woman to that same unreasoning infantile greed.
So, if the woman didn't want to share her toys, maybe he'd see how she reacted if they got broken.
"You grabbed a whole lot of electronics today, didn't you?" Adam asked. He was just guessing, but it seemed probable. She had been looting an electronics store, after all.
Adam took that as confirmation, and smiled. Without another word to the woman above him, he walked away from her building, making sure to note the route so he could return.
When he did so several minutes later, he had acquired some new items from the ruins of the barter district. Unlike the complex electrical devices he had been looking for earlier, these were relatively simple and common. The most complicated was a small electric generator.
"Still there?" Adam called.
The woman looked out once again. "Go away!"
"I'll give you one last chance to be reasonable. You don't really want that piece of equipment. Let me have it."
"No. It's mine, just like all the rest."
"You've got quite a collection of fancy electronic equipment, don't you?"
"What do you care?" the woman asked suspiciously. "Don't tell me you want me to give the other stuff up too?"
"How would you like it if all that electronic stuff stopped working?" Adam asked.
"Don't try to threaten me, whatever you are. You're down there, and all my lovely treasures are safe up here with me. Mine forever."
Adam took out two of the things he had acquired on his return to the Market District. One was an iron bar; the other was conductive wiring. Slowly, methodically, he began to wrap the wire around the bar.
"What are you doing?" the woman asked.
"I'm making a magnet," Adam replied calmly. "Wrap conductive wire around an iron core and run electricity through it. You get a magnet. It's high school physics."
"I know that. Everyone does. But what's a 'hye skool'?"
"The question you should be asking is 'how powerful a magnet'? Even I'm not sure. But this is good conductive wiring, and that's a pretty powerful generator, so I'm guessing it might be a magnet strong enough to reach all the way up there."
Adam finished wrapping. He took out the compact generator, and attached one end of the wire to it. "So, do you know what magnetism does to electronics?"
"Of course. I'm not an idiot." There was a brief pause while the information sunk in. "You wouldn't dare," she screamed. "You want that part, so you won't destroy it."
After placing the bag full of equipment he would need safely out of the way, Adam connected the other wire to the generator. Then he reached over to the knob that controlled its power, and moved it up just the slightest degree.
Adam took out the final item he had brought along for this demonstration. It was a small metal coin. He placed it a foot away from the device he had created, and the minute it left his hand it flew over to the magnet.
"That was the lowest power level. It goes higher. Much higher."
He reached over to the knob, and twisted it a bit more. The faint humming of the generator grew louder.
"Higher," he repeated. This time he set the coin three feet away, and again it instantly jumped towards the magnet.
Adam was sweating again. He was bluffing the woman, but he had to keep his voice steady. This would only work if she believed that he really was willing to destroy the part that he wanted.
"Higher," he said as he turned the knob a tiny bit more.
He walked five feet away, placed down the coin, and watched it fly. And he knew that the distance away he was placing the coin was arbitrary. It actually illustrated only a minimum distance at which the magnet was having an effect. For all he knew, it was reaching into the woman's apartment already, destroying the piece of equipment he needed.
Once more he reached his hand for the knob. "Higher," he said again, forcing his voice to remain calm. But before he turned it he noticed something.
The woman's head had disappeared. Adam turned off the generator and waited. A moment later she reappeared, and dropped the part Adam coveted to the street three stories below.
Adam held his breath as it fell. If it broke...
"There! Take it and go," the woman called down. Adam absently waved to her as he picked up and examined the part. Miraculously, it seemed completely unharmed.
He sat down in an alcove across the street, assembling the components into a device that would track down the source of the interference with his communications. It took a bit of time, especially with his hands covered in the clumsy gloves of his suit, but eventually he finished his task.
He was somehow unsurprised by what it revealed.
The source of the jamming lay deeper into the city.
So Adam proceeded inward.
As he walked, he considered his next move. Now that he knew he had the means to do so, he had decided to put off tracking the jamming to its source for the time being, while he investigated further what had befallen Moorm. And the place to do that was, in retrospect, blindingly obvious.
Adam headed for the local base of the Rannian organization that was both police and military on this world.
Finding it had not been hard. It was meant to be easy to locate, and Adam recognized the distinctive architecture of such buildings from blocks away.
He approached cautiously. The militia was armed, and he was not. But as he drew near the building and no shots were fired, his confidence increased. By the time he reached the door, he had almost dismissed the chance that there was danger present.
When he pushed it open, he almost vomited, and only an iron will reminding him of the extreme drawbacks of such a move while in his environmental suit stopped him.
The inside of the building looked like a slaughterhouse.
Flesh and bone, muscle and guts decorated the building like macabre holiday decorations. The original paint colour of the walls might not have been crimson, but you could no longer tell that at first glance.
Looking more closely at the corpses, Adam realized that there had been a firefight. At such close range, the weapons they used had literally enabled them to tear each other apart when set to higher power levels.
There might have been sides, or it might have been a free-for-all. Adam doubted even the most thorough forensic analysis would reveal much, and there didn't seem anyone left to tell the tale. Perhaps the survivors had fled. Whatever knowledge anyone still present had possessed about the previous day's events had been held in grey matter that was now little more than an unsightly stain.
Adam had not been planning to interrogate whoever he found here, however. What he wanted was their computer system.
He found it on the second floor. One terminal had escaped being destroyed. On it flickered a request for a password.
"Millions of miles separate Rann and Earth, but still so many things the same."
"Don't know the password?"
Adam whirled, hand on his hip, reaching for a gun that wasn't there.
The man he was facing wore the uniform of the corpses downstairs. He was a member of the Rannian militia. His suit was dirty, stained with blood, but the man who wore it seemed unharmed. His face was expressionless.
"What's the password?" Adam asked.
"Please, I need help."
"I'm Adam Strange. I'm trying to find out what happened here, and the information on this computer might tell me."
"Who are you?"
"Why won't you speak?"
"Did you kill those men downstairs?"
"Are you going to kill me?"
Adam turned away. If this man meant to harm him, he'd deal with it. In the meantime, there were more pressing matters. What could the password be?
"I know who you are."
Again, Adam turned. His still unsettled stomach protested all the whirling. "What did you say?" he asked.
Exhaling sharply, Adam faced the computer screen again.
"I knew from the moment you opened your mouth. I recognized the voice of the Champion of Rann." The voice was full of barely restrained rage, but only on the word 'Champion' did the level tone rise.
This time Adam didn't turn. "Do I know you?"
"Probably not. I doubt the Champion of Rann would know me. I'm not someone important like Sardath or Alanna. I'm the sort of person for whom death is okay."
"I'm sorry. I don't know what you mean."
"Of course not, Mr. Champion. Of course not."
Adam resisted the urge to turn around and face his mocker. "If I've done you some offense-" he began.
"You. Killed. My. Wife." Each word was shot like a bullet.
"Do you remember the En'Tarans?"
"Yes." Adam remembered the En'Tarans all too well.
"You made a deal with them. You'd hand over Rann to those alien monsters if they brought back your wife."
"I had a plan. I stopped them."
"Oh, very good, Mr. Champion. Very noble. You wouldn't want to give up your planet, would you? But what about those long months you spent preparing for the arrival of the main En'Taran fleet. Do you remember that?"
"Tell me what you did, Mr. Champion. Regale me with stories of your valourous deeds."
"I pretended to be mad and collaborated with them. Under the guise of rebuilding Rann's past glories, I had the population build a giant Zeta Beam cannon with which to banish the En'Taran fleet."
"And how did Rann come to the attention of the En'Tarans, O Champion?"
"Sardath went to them. They revived Alanna."
"Was it worth it?"
Adam turned to face his accuser. "I don't know. I didn't plan it that way. But it happened, and I won't pretend I'm not glad to have my wife back."
Theatrically, Adam turned away again. "Is that better?" the Earthman asked.
"I had a wife too. Her name was Mina. She was all I cared about. The En'Tarans killed her when she failed to work fast enough to carry out her assigned task. By which I mean, of course, the task you set. I wasn't there, but I heard she died screaming my name."
"The Champion is sorry. How nice. Does he, perchance, have an alien race to bring my Mina back to me? Somehow, I think not."
"I know what it's like to lose your beloved, how hurt you must be."
"And I do not know what it is like to have her returned. So it seems you have the advantage over me."
"Are you going to try to kill me? Get your revenge that way?"
"No. I have no illusions that I could ever defeat the mighty Champion of Rann. What I will do is... nothing. That password you want will remain my little secret. Unless, of course, the Champion can read minds too. I hear there is no end to his power."
"I can't read minds," Adam said.
"Please, sir, you crush my illusions."
"Will keeping the password from me bring your wife back?" Adam asked.
"No more nor less than giving it to you." Adam imagined a cold smile twisting the man's lips, but had no way of knowing if there really was one or not.
"You signed up for work protecting Rann. Doesn't that mean anything to you?" But Adam knew that it would not. He guessed that it would actually be a hindrance, that the more good the man had had in him, the less there would be now.
The militiaman barked a short laugh. "Why should I bother protecting Rann when the Champion himself is not five feet away?"
"I am sorry for your wife's loss. Really, I am. But other men's wives, and more people besides, are at stake here. If I don't get this computer to work, there will be death. Maybe everyone on Rann will die. Is whatever satisfaction you get out of taunting me worth that?"
"That, and a hundred times besides. No price is too high to make you suffer in even the smallest degree."
"You're angry. You have every right to be. But is this what your wife would have wanted?"
"Probably not. Gee, maybe she could tell me to give you the password if you hadn't killed her."
"I think I can guess something about you. You didn't always feel this way, did you? Well, maybe you've always blamed me, but I think that up until yesterday you'd have put that anger aside if it was what your planet needed. Am I right?"
"Yesterday I didn't have this delightful opportunity to make you squirm."
"Think back. You loved your wife, just as I loved mine. But you wouldn't have let that love swerve you from your duty, would you? Believe it or not, I felt the same way. I loved Alanna, but I'd never have wanted anyone to lose their wife so I could have mine."
"Easy words, Champion."
Adam remembered that three times now he had outwitted a resident of Moorm, and always the key had been the weaknesses that had been mysteriously unleashed within them by some as-yet-unknown force. This man was consumed by rage. He wanted nothing more than for Adam to suffer. How could that be turned to an advantage?
By making him see that giving Adam the password would make the Earthman suffer, of course.
Adam wished he could turn around and look at the man. But he remained with his back to the Rannian as he said, "If you don't give me the password, my wife may die."
"I think you've become confused about what you're supposed to be arguing, Champion. Perhaps you're not as bright as everyone says."
"I wasn't finished. If I don't get the password, whatever happened in Moorm may happen elsewhere, and Alanna may die. But I'll never know. I'll still be here, in this damned city."
"If I get the password, there's still no guarantee that I'll be able to stop whatever does this to people from spreading. But I'll move on, go back to Rannagar, and if I fail, then I will see my beloved die with my own eyes. Again."
"That would be a just punishment," the militiaman conceded.
"So, your choice, buddy. Either you get your kicks watching me fume at this console, or you tell me the password and hope for the worst."
Again, that short barking laugh rang out behind Adam. "You are persuasive, Champion. The password is B7K3f. I only regret that I will not get to look in your face as your wife perishes. For the first time in I don't know how long, the future holds something to cheer me. You will fail, and she will suffer."
Adam punched the combination in quickly, and was relieved that it was accepted. He had been half afraid that the man was simply taunting him with a false password to get his hopes up.
He accessed the files from the previous day. It was as he had expected. Horrific outbreaks of violence and lawlessness, spreading throughout the city like wildfire.
Though the reports were not complete, he was able to piece together a pattern. He deduced the area where the problem had originated by putting the data into chronological order.
He remained at the computer for a while longer, reading the reports thoroughly in search of additional data, but there was nothing else of importance to be discovered that he didn't know already.
When Adam at last turned from the computer, the militiaman was long gone. All that remained were his final words, ringing in Adam's memory.
"You will fail, and she will suffer," he repeated. Then, he added, "Not if I can help it."
He left the building without a backward glance, and proceeded into Moorm.
He heard the crowd from blocks away. They were chanting, at first an indistinct sound, then clearer and clearer as he approached.
"Dora! Dora! Dora!"
The cries were coming from ahead of him, so no course alteration was needed in order to investigate. It sounded like hundreds of people, though, so Adam slowed his pace. He hadn't yet encountered that many people in Moorm, and he realized that the odds of such a mob being peaceful were slim.
He arrived at the back of a crowd of about two hundred people. He approached cautiously, but it was not necessary. Everyone's attention was fixated upon the stage, a makeshift platform upon which stood a single figure.
The woman whom the crowd called Dora waved for silence, and after a few seconds she got it.
"Greetings, friends," she called. "Have you come to know the truth?"
"Yes," the crowd chorused.
"What is the basis of all life in the universe?" she asked.
"Science," they replied in unison, and Adam realized that this was a ritual.
The answer they gave might have been unusual on Earth, especially considering that Dora reminded him oddly of the sort of evangelist one saw on television asking for donations. But Adam had studied Rann's culture, and he knew that religion had long ago fallen from fashion on his adopted planet. Instead, science had become the guiding force in people's lives.
Now, Rann was ruled by the Science Council, of whom Adam's father-in-law Sardath was perhaps the most influential member. Centuries ago Rann had been nearly destroyed by scientific progress and its most horrific product, and it was entrusted to the Council to keep that from happening again.
Adam cut his musing short as he listened to Dora work the crowd.
"And who does science belong to?" she asked.
"Everyone!" came the chorus.
"Can the Science Council tell us what to do with it?"
"Why do they forbid us to use it to its full potential?"
"They are weak and afraid!"
"Are you weak?"
"Are you afraid?"
"Will you let the Council's outdated doctrines bind you?"
The crowd had risen to a fever pitch with each successive cry of "no" and after this latest one there was a pause while they calmed... but only a slight one, for Dora didn't want the mood to dissipate.
"The Science Council bans the creation of nuclear bombs, of poisonous gasses, of anything that can be wielded as a weapon," she said. "They say it is because science should not be perverted to such ends. They say that we have learned the folly of doing so. Well, do you want to know what I say?"
"I say that science belongs to those strong enough to seize it. Science is power. Defy the Council. Seize the power!"
"Seize the power!" the mob repeated.
"Seize the power," she repeated, "and use it to conquer the Galaxy!"
Adam was startled. The creation of advanced weaponry had been forbidden centuries ago, and over that period the ban had risen to the status of cultural taboo. For the average Rannian, what this woman was proposing bordered on heresy.
"The Council asks for our fealty. They claim that they are the ones best suited to interpreting the cosmic truths and bringing that knowledge to the masses. But through what does the power of science truly reach us?"
Again, Adam had not been expecting that twist. The woman was obviously setting these people up as her followers, and he had assumed the answer would have been her name. Instead, these people were worshipping some sort of...
Adam recognized the object Dora held up for the crowd. The previous day (a lifetime ago) he had been running through Sydney, Australia, desperately trying to reach the spot where the Zeta Beam would arrive to teleport him to Rann. On the way there, he had bumped into someone, and ended up in possession of the very object now being displayed. In the excitement following his arrival on Rann in this very city, he had lost track of it.
"It was the opening of this vial yesterday that freed the truth. All who came near it were transformed. And as they went out, they spread that transformation. Though I was not the blessed one who was privileged to be the opener, I saw it with my own eyes, and though all around me were blind to the miracle before them, I knew. It was sent here to guide us away from the Science Council, to a bold future, one to which Rann is being called. And we hear that call through the vial!"
The Earthman was so appalled by the idea forming in his head that he noticed too late that the crowd were all bowing. He was now clearly visible to the woman on stage.
For a long moment she said nothing. Finally, she addressed Adam. "What are you?"
"I'm Adam Strange," he replied automatically.
"The lackey of the hated Sardath, who spreads the false gospel of peaceful progress?" Adam heard the angry murmurs spread through the crowd after her question. Most of the Rannians had turned to face him now, and their faces held hostility. This was a situation that could get very bad, very fast.
"I've been called worse," Adam drawled. "But I'm actually here... to join you."
Now it was the Earthman who had surprised Dora. "To join us? But-"
"Down with the Science Council," Adam interrupted her. "Up with the vial."
"I don't understand." This was clearly not going as Dora had expected.
"What's not to understand? I've seen the light, thrown off the old ways, etc. I spend my days kicking alien butt, don't I? That pacifism stuff was never my thing."
"You're trying to trick us." Adam wondered why Dora was so unnerved. Then he realized that he presented a potential challenge to her authority. He had to win over this crowd, now, or she'd order them to tear him apart.
"Trying to trick you? Could a lackey of those weak old men even contemplate overthrowing them? When you were a non-believer, would you even have thought of attempting the conquest of the galaxy? You'd have been horrified, wouldn't you? You couldn't have pretended to support it if you'd tried. No one who has not truly become one of the vial's followers can do so." Now Adam saw the crowd hesitating. His words were ringing true.
One of the least well-known benefits of being a visitor on a foreign planet is that if asked to support what amounts locally to heresy, one's own deeply ingrained social mores often don't interfere in the least, being in completely different areas. As such, Adam could break Rannian taboos without batting an eye (and, in his early days on the planet, had accidentally done so on a couple of occasions, causing no small amount of embarrassment for all parties concerned).
"You're lying. You're from another planet, where they still walk the true path," Dora said. "You were brought here to serve the Science Council, and you will do their bidding now as you so often have before. You will destroy us as you have their other enemies." Again, Adam sensed the mob's sympathy shifting away from him. They were crowding around the Earthman. He could easily be overwhelmed within seconds. The suit being torn would be the least of his worries.
Adam considered telling Dora that the people in Rannagar had no clue she so much as existed. Instead, he said, "I am the Champion of Rann. Just yesterday I defeated the mighty K'Neyen, as I have so many before them. How many alien races have you fought off?"
"You're no Champion. You prefer to trick your way out of problems."
"I use my mind to achieve victory. Isn't that what you're arguing for? The use of science to defeat one's foes?"
"Well, yes, but-"
Adam raised his voice, calling to the crowd. "Should science be used to defeat one's foes?"
"Yes!" The sound was loud, but not as loud as Dora had achieved. Adam knew how this worked, though. And he also knew that where she had achieved increasing negation, he would build increasing support for himself. With luck, that would win the crowd over to him. Without it, he'd soon be dead.
"Should we think our way to victory?"
Adam would have laughed if he had been able to without breaking the mood. Here he had an angry mob cheering on the idea of thinking through problems. If he wasn't actually there, he'd never have believed it.
Now to bring it home.
"Am I The Champion of Rann?"
Adam looked at Dora. He knew he had beaten her, and he could see that she knew it too.
"Give me the vial," he said. "I shall present it to the Science Council themselves, that they shall see its power. They will learn the truth, or I shall destroy them."
Dora jumped off the stage and waded through the crowd. As she handed him the vial, he said, "You, Dora, shall stay here in Moorm, and preach the truth, as its first and foremost advocate." He figured that that wouldn't do any harm, and would make it easier for him to slip away without her trying anything.
She smiled shakily, unsure how to respond.
Adam placed the vial in the bag at his hip, and reflected on how nice it was to have an easy one for a change.
That was when the first shot rang out.
There were four of them, four men firing down at the crowd. They were flying on open platforms, vehicles that had briefly been popular several years ago with Rann's militia. When the disadvantages of a form of transport that provided no protection from enemy attacks became apparent (by, if Adam's memory served, the creature from his home planet called the Swamp Thing), the line had been discontinued and the ones extant had been sold to private citizens.
The rifles they were brandishing were of K'Neyen make. When the K'Neyen invasion had been stopped the previous day, much of their weaponry had been left littering Rann. These were designed to emit small bursts of powerful microwave energy that would incapacitate or kill their targets.
They were strafing the crowd.
Adam saw Dora, mere feet away from him, shot twice. The blasts tore through her back, frying her internal organs and killing her instantly.
All around Adam, similar scenes were occurring. This was like the nightmarish scene he had encountered on that viewscreen in Rannagar the previous day, his first glimpse of Moorm, only this time he was in deadly danger too.
Adam pushed through the crowd, heading for the stage. Around him he heard cries of anguish, but there was nothing he could do. Moments ago, he had told these people he was their Champion, but now those words were seemingly proven hollow.
He reached the platform, and ducked under it. From here he could see the massacre all too clearly. He wanted to shut his eyes desperately. He did not.
He saw a woman run near him, and he grabbed her and pulled her under the stage with him. She struggled at first, but Adam whispered to her that he was taking her to safety, and she stopped.
By the time it was over, about two thirds of the crowd was dead or lying wounded. The rest had managed to flee.
Adam and the sole person he had managed to rescue out of the two hundred present ("I hear there is no end to his power", the militiaman's words came back to taunt Adam) watched as the four vehicles landed amidst the carnage.
Adam saw that they had now put their K'Neyen weapons into their belts. Instead, each brandished a less sophisticated armament. One held a board with nails emerging form it, another a knife, the third a metal bar, and the last a pick-axe. Adam mentally named them after their weapons.
"Here's where the real fun begins," Pick-Axe announced.
"There's one," Knife said. He pointed at a man lying amidst the bodies.
"Mine!" called Bar.
"I saw it," Knife protested.
"Boys, boys. Plenty here for all of us," Pick-Axe said.
Bar walked over to the man Knife had pointed to, and began to beat him.
The woman next to Adam let out a small squeal, but Adam held a hand over her mouth. When he removed it, he whispered, "Quiet."
"They're going to kill all the survivors," she whispered back.
"Not if I can help it," Adam replied.
"What can you do?"
Adam was unarmed, in a bulky suit that limited his speed and maneuverability, facing foes who had both melee and range weapons, and outnumbered by four to one.
"I'll think of something," he said.
What could he do? His advantages were few. He had himself, his wits, a device designed to track down whatever was jamming his communications, and presumably the woman-
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Benene," she said.
-Benene's aid. Available in his immediate surroundings were a whole lot of dead people and not much else. That wasn't much to work with, not against these odds.
He couldn't face them directly, not with what he had available to him. How could he protect himself, not just from their blades and blunt weapons, but also from their K'Neyen rifles? One blow from that knife could tear through his protective suit, and one hit of microwave energy would...
It was so absurdly simple. Here he was, wearing a suit designed to protect its wearer from exposure to all forms of radiation, and he was worried about microwave energy? "You must be tired," he muttered to himself. "You're not thinking straight." It was meant as a joke to cheer himself up, but the implications were too worrying. "And you're talking to yourself," he added.
"Oh, that poor man," Benene said. Adam realized that they had all joined in to reduce the Rannian citizen's body to something that could only be recognized as once having been a person if you knew to look.
"That's it," Adam said. "Benene, if I distract them, can you circle around and sabotage their vehicles?"
"How do I do that?"
"Just take a rock or something and smash the controls. It's not hard."
"Okay. What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to get shot repeatedly," Adam said, and with that he stepped out from under the stage.
"Hey, bozos!" he called.
The four turned to face him. "What the?" Knife asked.
This was the tricky part. If they decided to rush him, he was finished. He had to get them to pull out their rifles.
"You cannot defeat me," Adam called. "This suit grants me phenomenal strength. You will be no match for my might. I will bat you aside like the gnats that you are!"
"Yeah, well, who says we gotta get close to you? Boys, waste him," Pick-Axe said, pulling out his gun. The others followed suit.
They fired shot after shot at him, the microwave bursts harmlessly deflected by the environmental suit. Adam stood calmly as his attackers grew increasingly frantic.
"Your weapons are useless against me!" Adam thundered. "I am Adam Strange, Champion of Rann, vanquisher of a hundred alien races, and the man who will destroy you. None can harm me, and none can stand before me."
The four attackers were visibly panicking now, their hands shaking as they continued to fire their useless barrage. They had depended upon their weapons for courage, and with that taken from them they were broken men.
"I give you one chance," Adam said. "Drop your weapons." He took a step forward. "Or die."
He took another step forward, the microwave bursts not even slowing him down. Then another.
Pick-Axe cracked first, dropping his rifle and turning to run for the flying platforms. Within seconds his comrades had followed his lead, although they held onto their weapons.
Adam had been looking at the foursome, so he had not seen if Benene had done as he asked. But he had to hope she had.
Increasing his pace to the fastest he could manage while still in the suit (and for once he was in no mood to curse its limitations), he reached Pick-Axe's rifle bare seconds after the man who had dropped it reached his vehicle. Adam heard Pick-Axe cursing and knew his trust in Benene had not been misplaced.
The reason Adam had not brought his normal pistol with him, nor taken one from the militia headquarters, was that while wearing the environmental suit's bulky gloves he would have found aiming accurately impossible. But with a rifle he could brace properly, it was an entirely different story.
Raising the gun, he turned and got off three quick shots. His aim was true, and each of the three men between him and their own flying platforms fell, a burst of microwave energy having turned one of their knees into so much charred flesh and mangled bone. His line of sight cleared, Adam fired again, this time at Pick-Axe's leg, and the last of the foursome fell.
None of the three others resisted when he went over and fired again, this time melting the rifles they each clutched into slag.
When it was done, Benene walked over to him. She had made it all the way back under the stage in the time Adam had withstood the gang's ineffective assault on him.
"Why did you spare their lives?" she asked.
"This wasn't their fault. Something unleashed upon this place made them do it. It forces good men to harm the innocent." He looked from the rifle in his hand to the men squirming in pain, then back to the weapon. "Come on, let's get out of here."
Adam looked at the vial he had re-acquired from Dora. If he was right, it had contained whatever had been unleashed upon Moorm, and as such he needed to get it to Sardath to examine.
"The holy vial," Benene said reverently.
"Err... yes." Adam had forgotten that Benene was one of the Rannians who had worshipped the vial. He replaced it in the bag. "We should keep moving."
"Where are we going?"
Adam glanced down at the device he had built to find the source of the jamming that prevented him from contacting Rannagar. "That way."
As they walked, Adam felt exhaustion creep over him. He had slept little the night before, in the doctor's office where he had saved the life of poor Dag Colyd, and had not eaten in over twenty-four hours. In addition, he had been on the move constantly, and had been forced to outwit so many of this city's damned inhabitants that it had gotten almost repetitive.
The device led him towards the white marble tower that stood in the center of Moorm. This was known as the Ice Tower, and had granted Moorm the nickname of the Ice City. Until recently it had been in ruins, destroyed in some invasion or another, but Adam had overseen its restoration during the En'Taran invasion.
It stood in the exact centre of Moorm, and for some reason that Adam couldn't quite put his finger on, it seemed appropriate that there be ice there.
When they arrived, Adam pushed open the doors, and walked over to the lift. Benene followed. They ascended to the top quite rapidly.
Because it was the tallest building in Moorm, the Ice Tower had been equipped with various powerful items of transmission equipment. This was used to relay information between Moorm and Rann's other scattered cities. In retrospect, it was an obvious place from which to jam all communications, but as it was by no means the only place to do so, Adam didn't feel his efforts to track it down had been worthless.
When the lift doors opened, Adam saw no one. He walked over to the transmission equipment and saw that its exterior had been removed to allow access to the circuitry within. Someone, for some unknown purpose, had set it to jamming all communication in the city.
"Who were you?" Adam asked. "Some technician whose lifelong belief in communication was reversed by whatever was in this accursed vial?"
He didn't know what had been done, nor how to fix it. Rather than waste the time trying to find out, he retrieved from his bag the K'Neyen rifle he had taken from Pick-Axe and fired randomly into the machine. Small fires began, and sparks flew.
"And so Moorm has made me into a destroyer too," he said.
"Who are you talking to?" Benene asked.
"What? Oh, sorry. Just thinking aloud. But in a second I'll be talking with the people in Rannagar."
He reached up to tap the switch that turned on his suit's communicator.
"Sardath? Alanna?" he called.
"Arch-Defender Strange?" the voice that replied was not that of Sardath, but of Arch-Conqueror Ghnashh, the leader of the K'Neyen forces that had attacked Rann. Adam had forced Ghnashh to remain behind on Rann when his forces departed for K'Ney, but he was still the last person Adam would have expected to reply.
"Yes, Arch-Conqueror. What are you doing there? Have you done something with Sardath or-" Adam's heartbeat sped up in fear "Alanna?"
"No, Arch-Defender. They are safe. I suppose I could kill them if I wanted to, but what would the point be? You know as well as I that you could prevent the K'Neyen from invading your world, so what would my motivation for harming them be? I am not a murderer."
"That's very comforting, Arch-Conqueror. So why am I talking to you and not them?"
"Much has happened in your absence, and none of it good. Alanna asked me to relay the message if you called that you must return to Rannagar as soon as you can, but I think that it may be too late for you to do any good. You are the mightiest warrior I have ever encountered, Arch-Defender Strange, and would be welcome to buy an officership among the K'Neyen, but this planet will soon be overrun by horrors that not even you will be able to prevent. Sardath and Alanna try to stem the flow, but their efforts are in vain. My advice is to return here and use your position to secure a vessel with which to flee to some other world, one that is still sane and ripe for conquest. Leave the lowly denizens of Rann to this madness, but us warriors were not meant to suffer that ignoble fate. Steal a ship if you must, but I advise you to leave at all costs. Because the only alternative is to obliterate all those infected, and from what I've seen you don't have the strength for that."
"Listen, Arch-Conqueror, you have to get Sardath or Alanna. I may have found the key to beating this thing."
"I don't think so," he heard a voice say behind him.
Adam stood at the centre of Moorm. It had not been an easy road to get there, and it seemed that there was one last task before the end.
From behind him, he heard the voice of Benene. "Put your hands in the air, and turn around slowly." Though unsure what leverage she thought she had, Adam did as he was told.
Benene was holding a knife, the same blade wielded by one of the quartet he had saved her from. Her stance was awkward, and Adam saw she had no experience in wielding such a weapon. But there was less than a foot between them, and at that range, lack of technique didn't much matter.
"I don't know why those guns didn't hurt you, but for some reason this will. That's why you taunted those men into shooting you from a distance," Benene said. Adam had to give her credit for figuring that out; he hadn't told her.
"What do you want?"
"I want to spread the true gospel of the vial," she said. "You told Dora you would, but you lied."
"But the vial never dies," Benene replied. Adam saw the fanaticism in her eyes, and too late realized what a mistake it had been to bring her along.
"That's what you want? The vial?"
"Why not come back with me to Rannagar? Do you really want to stay here? In case you hadn't noticed, Moorm's a pretty dangerous place right now. There, you'll be safe."
"With Dora dead, and the vial in my possession, I can spread the faith here as its leader. And something tells me that only in a place like this, where blessed chaos already rules, can the word be spread. Better to reign in Moorm than serve in Rannagar."
It seemed, Adam thought, that in all his time in Moorm all he had ever done was talk his through problems. He had frightened the woman who had tried to seduce him, had outbluffed the narcotic addicted doctor, had threatened the woman who hoarded electronics, had convinced the bitter militiaman that the best way to make him suffer was to give him what he needed, had swayed the crowd against Dora, and had taunted the four thugs into firing upon him and then frightened them into retreating.
But there would be no talking to Benene, he sensed. She was a fanatic, and power-hungry besides. Already she had proven treacherous. He wondered idly what she had been like before she had been changed.
Adam prided himself on thinking his way out of problems, but this was one time he saw that it wasn't any particular cleverness that would be required. Just action.
The suit he was in slowed his movement, but that was primarily because of its weight, not rigidity in the material. If all he had to do was drop his arm from above his head, he could move quite fast indeed.
Before Benene had a chance to react, his hand connected hard with her skull, the extra weight of the suit adding to Adam's strength, and she was out like a light. He stared down at her for a moment sadly. She was still breathing, but would remain unconscious for some time. His blow had drawn some blood, which matted in her hair.
"God, I hate this city," he said.
When he once again turned on his suit's communicator and heard Alanna's voice, he cried.
The next few hours passed in a blur. Adam emerged from Moorm with little trouble compared to the trip in, and found the airship he had arranged with Alanna to have waiting for him.
By the time he got back to Rannagar, it was dark once more. He had no real clue what was in the vial he had brought back, but he felt confident it held the key to the whole problem, somehow.
Rather than use one of the many archways that led into the capitol of Rann without delay, Adam headed for a specific entrance that had a decontamination area. After placing the vial in a sealed box that had been left outside by Sardath for just such a purpose, he headed for the decontamination room that he would have to go through before he could enter Rannagar proper.
"God, will I be glad to get this suit off," he said to himself as he emerged into the city moments later. The exterior of the environmental suit he wore would now be free of any contaminants he might have picked up.
When he arrived at his apartment, the first thing he did was shed the environmental suit at long last. He felt blessedly free, both literally and in some figurative sense.
"We'll save Moorm yet," he said jauntily.
"Not just Moorm," he heard Alanna say from behind him. As he turned to face his beloved, not caring about his state of undress, she continued. "While you were gone we had four more outbreaks. Despite the airship quarantine, some people slipped through, and whatever's going on is spreading. If you don't act fast, all of Rann might be overwhelmed."
Adam thought of all that he had seen and experienced in Moorm. In his mind's eye, he saw an entire planet full of those lusts and appetites, that greed and anger, the heresy and violence and betrayal he had barely survived. Millions of people would be stripped of all that was good and decent about them, and Rann would be destroyed at long last not by some invasion from outer space, but by its own populace gone mad.
"And it's all my fault," Adam said, his brief cheer evaporating as quickly as it had come. "I may have damned us all."
All characters are DC Comics
This piece is © 2001 by Nicolas Juzda.
Artwork is © 2001 by D.J. LoTempio
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