Invasions From Other Planets
by Nicolas Juzda
Part 3: Resistance
Adam Strange stood on a planet billions of miles from the one of his birth, yet he loved it as much as his own. And now he worried for Rann. The Earthman had seen this alien world through many crises, but he could recall few as dire as the current one.
"Okay, here's the situation," Adam said. "We have a contaminant loose on Rann, possibly originating on my home planet of Earth. It's extremely contagious, and has already infected the entire population of five of Rann's city-states. Whatever it is, it doesn't appear to be fatal in and of itself, but it somehow affects the personality of its host. In essence, it reverses their moral orientation."
Adam was addressing three people, and though they all knew the information he was announcing, no one interrupted. The Champion of Rann was really just thinking aloud, and none of them wanted to disturb that process.
"In light of what I saw during my trip to the infected city of Moorm, I think we can make certain educated guesses about what occurs following contamination of an area. There's an initial burst of violence and rioting, with a casualty rate possibly as high as fifty percent of the population. This is the worst part of the situation, and we've already been too late to save several hundred thousand people, if not millions, in the five cities that have fallen.
"After a few hours, most of the people doing the killing will themselves be dead, and the death toll thereafter won't be that high. We'll still have some people harming others, as well as those engaging in self-destructive acts, though, so it's important that we don't make the mistake of thinking of contaminated areas as 'settled' after that initial surge has died down.
"Meanwhile, the majority of the survivors will begin engaging in various acts that we would consider immoral. There will be vandalism, theft, and even wholesale destruction, but we can treat those as secondary concerns and leave them to be dealt with once we get the situation under control. It's not like we have much choice, anyway. However, if this thing becomes widespread enough, the resulting damage could seriously disrupt Rann's infrastructure, and rebuilding will become increasingly difficult as more and more cities fall.
"Finally, a small minority of the population may actually become better people as a result of this. Evidence points to these being those individuals who would normally be considered immoral."
Adam paused for breath, and glanced at his surroundings. He was in the same room where he had first seen the devastating effects of the menace he was now facing, displayed on the viewscreen that dominated one end. It seemed like years ago, but had been less than 36 hours earlier.
His wife Alanna stared at him with concern clearly showing on her face. She had wanted him to rest after his ordeal in Moorm, but he had waved off her suggestions. Adam noticed that she also appeared tired, and was suddenly conscious of the fact that in his absence she had known little peace herself.
Sardath, Alanna's father and the pre-eminent scientist of this planet, looked distracted. Adam knew that the elderly Rannian wanted to get to work studying the vial the Earthman had retrieved from Moorm, but Adam had asked for Sardath's input at this conference.
And finally, there was the unlikely fourth member of their quartet, Arch-Conqueror Ghnashh of the K'Neyen. Only the day before, Ghnashh had led a failed invasion attempt against Adam's adopted planet. Unlike the two Rannians, Ghnashh stood, as the chairs of Rann were far too small for his ten foot tall frame. The monstrous alien's face was unreadable.
Adam cleared his throat, and continued. "For now, containment remains our top priority. We have airships in place surrounding each of the infected cities, preventing anyone from leaving, but we've already had it proven to us that this measure isn't 100% effective. Nevertheless, if we can check the spread even temporarily, it's worth doing."
Once again Adam fell silent, and this time because he wanted to leave unspoken the implication of that last sentence: checking the spread temporarily was all they could do. None of them had any idea how to stop it.
"Kill them all." The simple statement of Arch-Conqueror Ghnashh contradicted Adam's thoughts. "Had you done so when I first suggested it, the problem would be over now."
"Actually, Arch-Conqueror, you merely suggested we kill those trying to flee, and leave the people who remained in Moorm to die on their own," Adam said. He was being pedantic, and he knew it.
"I stand corrected, Arch-Defender Strange. But I'm suggesting it now. Kill all those infected and stop the spread of this madness."
It sounded so reasonable. So horribly, horribly reasonable.
The day before, Adam wouldn't even have been tempted. But his trip to Moorm had shaken him. Maybe Ghnashh was right, and it was best to just wipe that blight from Rann, rather than allow it to spread. The longer Adam resisted, the more people would end up being infected. But how could he sacrifice innocent lives so callously?
While her husband mused, Alanna replied, "If we do that, we're no better than-"
"Than me?" Ghnashh interrupted, his voice low.
"I was going to say 'murderers'," Alanna said, though she didn't disagree with the K'Neyen's suggestion.
The woman and the warrior stared at each other for a long moment, neither moving. Adam could feel the tension rising, and he sensed that Alanna and Ghnashh had had this discussion before, while he was in Moorm, probably several times.
It was only after a second that he realized that that meant Ghnashh had suggested a course of action that likely would have meant killing the Earthman as well.
"Sardath," Adam said, deciding that changing the topic would be the wisest course. "That vial I brought back from Moorm... opening it apparently triggered the outbreak of whatever we're facing. Any ideas what it could have contained?"
"I haven't had much chance to study it yet, Adam, but my preliminary investigation has found some sort of virus within it. This fits with the information we've gathered about how it spreads."
"Can it be cured?" Adam asked.
"I don't know yet. I'm not even sure what it does. Really, Adam, I think it would be of much more value if I were to spend my time analyzing it instead of sitting here."
Adam tried to remember why he had requested Sardath's presence, but couldn't. Maybe Alanna was right about him being tired. Well, he'd worry about that later. "That's one mystery solved, anyway," Adam said, avoiding the question. "But it brings up more. Where did this virus come from? I doubt it arose naturally. Was it created deliberately, and if so, why?"
"Is that really relevant, Arch-Defender?" growled Ghnashh, his face-off with Alanna abandoned. "When parrying a blow, one does not ponder why the foe launched it; one reacts... or one falls."
"Surely, Arch-Conqueror, you know that to wage a successful campaign one must out-wit the enemy as well as out-fight him?"
"Yes. I had that particular lesson driven home to me not two days past." The K'Neyen spat onto the carpet, the reminder of his defeat apparently leaving a literal bad taste in his mouth. "But the strategist must also know when it is time to think and when it is time to act, or all his plans are useless."
"Point taken, Arch-Conqueror. I could sit here and trade military metaphors with you all day, but you're right. Besides, I don't think that Rann was on the mind of whoever birthed this monstrosity. I ended up with that vial purely by accident. No, they must have been planning to unleash it on- Oh my God."
"Adam?" Alanna stood, heading for the side of her beloved as he suddenly staggered. Adam had put a hand onto the wall to steady himself by the time she reached him, but he did not shrug her off as she put an arm around his side and helped him into a chair.
"Earth," Adam said. "Someone is going to unleash this on Earth."
"Are you certain?" Sardath asked.
"Nothing else makes sense. That guy in the cloak must have been planning to infect Sydney."
"Sydney... that's a city on your planet, isn't it?" Alanna asked.
"Yes," Adam said. "It's in a place called Australia. It's where I was when I caught the Zeta Beam."
"But why would anyone have wanted to drive the inhabitants of this Sydney mad?" Alanna asked.
"Don't you understand, Alanna?" Adam snapped at his startled wife. When he saw her reaction, a brief look of shame passed over his face. "Sorry, dear. What I meant was that it wasn't just Sydney in danger. Here on Rann we've barely kept this virus contained, and that's with a population in isolated city-states. On Earth, it would spread like wildfire. The entire planet might be infected in as little as a day."
"But why release it in Sydney?"
"I don't know." Adam shook his head. "No, I do. Super-heroes. Or rather, the lack of them. The southern hemisphere is basically unguarded. I think that all of Australia's only got one meta-human protector, the Tasmanian Devil or something."
Adam stood up, suddenly animated, as his thoughts continued to spill out of him. "That whole 'Villainy on Vacation' thing I heard about on the news... I think it's connected somehow. It must have been a distraction, something to keep the meta-humans occupied while the mastermind set this plan into motion. It's brilliant. Keep the heroes running around after super-villains, but not ones they've faced before. No, it makes a much better distraction if they don't know their foes. They'd have to devote their full attention to countering villains they were unfamiliar with, leaving them with no time to think about the wider patterns. And all the while, somebody's cooking up a virus to annihilate civilization. By the time the heroes catch on, it'll be too late."
None of the three non-humans watching Adam had a clue what he was talking about. Adam didn't notice, though, as he paced back and forth, gesturing emphatically as he followed along the path his thoughts were heading.
"So, why had the virus not already been released? Answer: because downtown wasn't the ideal spot to do so. Oh, you'd probably be able to knock out Sydney, but the initial outbreak would be too noticeable, and potentially containable. Someone like Green Lantern could set up a giant dome or something. You'd want to release it someplace where maximum dispersal would be accomplished in minimal time, and over an area too large for even a meta-human to contain. He must have been on his way to a better site when I encountered him. A bus depot, perhaps, or an airport? Maybe a train station. I wonder how they'd insure that the drivers or pilots were still willing to do their job once infected; the virus should have had a delay built in before it took affect. It would be much more effective that way."
The planet Earth, already cursed with more than its fair share of power-mad criminal geniuses, was lucky indeed that Adam Strange had had more humble goals in life than world domination.
Adam had paused for only a second before continuing his oration. "Or maybe it did originally have a delay. It may have taken affect quicker on Rannians than it would have on humans. Speaking of which, why was it affecting Rannians at all? Sardath, look into that."
"Adam?" Alanna asked tentatively. "Do you know who did this?" She was more worried than ever now; Adam wasn't normally the sort to ramble as he had been doing.
"Not a clue, dear. It could be Kobra, I guess. He's a lunatic intent upon starting an age of chaos, and this seems right up his alley. But Arch-Conqueror Ghnashh was right. Knowing who's behind this and why isn't that important right now. Stopping it is."
"And have you figured out how to do that?"
Adam suddenly deflated. "No. All I can do is guess at useless details that don't help us in the slightest. What's wrong with me?" He formed his right hand into a fist and pounded it into his left in frustration. "Why can't I figure out what to do?"
"Adam?" It was Sardath who spoke.
"Yes?" the Earthman replied, turning to face his father-in-law.
"Get some sleep."
"But-" Adam protested.
"You can't stop this virus until you know more about it. I'll study it while you rest. It would be a more valuable use of my time than sitting here."
"Then you go. I'll stay here."
"No, Adam," Sardath said with uncharacteristic gentleness. "Rann needs you at your peak, not half-dead from exhaustion. Look at yourself. You're snapping at Alanna, insisting on my presence when I'm clearly needed elsewhere, manic one moment and lifeless the next. You're running on little more than adrenaline now, and it'll wear off soon. There's nothing else to be done tonight."
Adam nodded once. "You're right. If I wasn't so tired, I'd have had the sense to see I was tired." He grinned.
Alanna snorted. "I told you that an hour ago. How come you'll listen to Sardath and not me?" she asked teasingly.
"He's cuter than you," Adam replied.
"Get some rest, Arch-Defender," came the growling voice of Ghnashh, startling both Adam and Alanna. "Your wits are clearly deserting you."
Adam slept deeply, but his dreams were troubled. A nightmarish jumble of images flashed in his mind.
Alanna, dead as she had once been, lying on a bed like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, a lovely fairytale princess, but oddly out of place in a city of flames and dead men and damned souls that might have been Moorm and might have been Sydney and might have been Dis, as a thousand different monsters (and he knew them, every one, all the old foes he'd bested, the Mechanical Masters and the Crystal Conquerors and the Invisible Invaders and on and on) poured from the sky, and though Adam batted them all away, protecting his wife even in death, he didn't notice until too late the hands emerging from the ground, then torsos, Dora and Benene and the militiaman whose name he'd never learned, and they were pulling her down, and now her face was no longer unblemished but rotting, worms emerging from empty eye sockets, her mouth grinning because there were no lips left to cover her teeth, and Adam knew it couldn't get any worse until he heard a voice call "Daddy" and even before he turned he knew it was Aleea, but now her dress was splattered with blood (not, Adam somehow knew, hers) and in her chubby little hands was a pick-axe (or was it a knife or a metal bar or a nail-studded board, perhaps?) and she looked up at him with her guileless face and said, with a linguistic skill she did not yet have, "Kill me or I kill you. Choose, daddy."
It was only sheer exhaustion that prevented him from waking, screaming.
Adam woke surprisingly refreshed. His body had the rest it had craved, and was blithely indifferent to his mental unease.
The Earthman looked around the bedroom, and saw that it was late morning by the light streaming in through the window. He guessed he had slept for eight to ten hours.
"You shouldn't have let me doze so long," he said as he walked into the next room. His wife sat in front of their communicator, which she was just in the process of turning off.
Alanna didn't spare him a glance. "You needed your sleep."
"And what about you?"
She shrugged. "I'll get some now."
"Do that. I'm not the only one in this family who's too stubborn to know when some rest would do them good."
She kissed him lightly on the cheek, then headed the way he had come. "Get in touch with Ghnashh," she called over her shoulder, and was gone.
"Ghnashh?" Adam muttered. He certainly hadn't expected that, but he figured his wife must have her reasons for referring him to the Arch-Conqueror. Especially since, when last he had seen the two of them, they were hardly on good terms.
Quickly changing into one of his trademark red jumpsuits, Adam headed from his apartment to where the Arch-Conqueror was staying. When he received no answer there, he headed once more for the meeting room where he had last seen the K'Neyen.
Adam recalled his first successful communication with Rannagar from within Moorm, and how it had been Ghnassh and not either Alanna or Sardath who had replied. At the time, he hadn't thought to wonder why, but now that he had a good night's sleep behind him he was feeling much sharper, and all sorts of things that he hadn't thought of the previous evening were coming to mind.
Upon his arrival, he saw the Arch-Conqueror and two high ranking Rannian military officials in conference. At one end of the room, a young officer sat at the viewscreen, relaying instructions.
"Zared City containment squads along the south-east edge need reinforcement," the Arch-Conqueror was barking. "As it stands, it's too easy for people to slip through there."
The Champion of Rann laughed incredulously.
The Arch-Conqueror of the K'Neyen turned to face him. "Ah, Arch-Defender. You are awake."
"You can't really be in charge here, can you?" Adam asked. He rubbed his eyes, as if convinced he was still dreaming.
"Of course not, Adam Strange," one of the Rannian generals said. "But during your absence, your wife thought it wise to have us consult with the Arch-Conqueror."
"Really?" Adam asked. He had in fact kept the K'Neyen on Rann for exactly that purpose, and had told Alanna as much, but his wife had seemed so opposed to the idea that he found her embracing it most curious. "Why?"
The general looked at his boots, clearly embarrassed. "She said that none of us had the strategic abilities of her infant daughter, and that we needed all the help we could get."
"She was right," the Arch-Conqueror said.
Adam thought it politic not to add his own agreement. "I hope you haven't been following any of the Arch-Conqueror's more... drastic suggestions?"
"Certainly not." The general looked insulted. Adam felt mild relief, but he hadn't been too worried. Alanna wouldn't have left Ghnashh that free a hand. "But he has been most helpful in showing us how to co-ordinate containment. Most helpful indeed."
Adam felt a sudden urge to point out that they were taking advice from a being who, two days ago, had been trying to invade the planet. But then he remembered a thought he'd had long ago, that to the people of Rann he was as much an animal as any creature he fought. Perhaps these generals were used to following the strategies of a monster.
"The current containment tactics were devised by myself and Sub-Defender Alanna," Ghnashh said. "Together, we have increased the effectiveness of the airship quarantines by several hundred percent."
"I'm glad to hear you've been working so well together. I thought Alanna didn't like you," Adam said.
"She despises me. But she has a warrior's heart, as you do, and she suppresses her hatred to increase the chance of victory. It is most commendable."
Adam opened his mouth to reply, but before he could do so he heard the sudden cry of the young officer sitting at the viewscreen. "I think we have another outbreak."
"What? Where?" Adam asked.
"The city of Berengaria. There's scattered reports of rioting coming in from the south half of the city. Militia units are responding-"
"No!" Adam cried. "Order them back. Get them as far from there as possible."
"If those militiamen try to stop the riots, they'll only become infected themselves."
"So what should we do?"
Adam considered. Every second counted, but he couldn't afford to be careless. If he messed up now, Berengaria would end up as bloody as Moorm.
"Okay, first I want to see a map of Berengaria, with hotspots marked. Now!"
The image appeared on the viewscreen. There were seven red dots blinking towards the bottom of the image, then eight, nine...
"Okay, do we have airships proceeding towards Berengaria to set up a quarantine?"
"Good. Estimated time of arrival?"
"Four minutes for the earliest."
Adam turned to look at Ghnashh. "Yes?"
"There is nothing that can be done here."
"Are you insane?" Adam demanded. "There's still time to evacuate a good portion of the population if we hurry."
"We do not know how the madness spreads. It may have already tainted all in Berengaria, though they do not show it yet. You must not let any of them leave, lest they bring with them death."
"No." Adam looked the K'Neyen in the eye. "I saw what that virus does, up close and personal. I saw. And if I can get even one person out of Berengaria, I will."
"What you saw may be a vision of all Rann's future, if you do not act responsibly. Consider that."
Adam ignored him, turning to face the officer at the viewscreen instead. "Right. I want a line drawn across the city- figuratively, I mean. Make it five hundred meters from the northern-most confirmed outbreak point. Anything below that is a write-off. Now, where are the militia headquarters for Berengaria?"
Three yellow lights blinked on, and a line appeared across the image, a little above the highest of the ten red dots. Perhaps a fifth of the city was below it.
"Okay, any militia units below that line are gone. That leaves us with two thirds, give or take. Order them into whatever air vehicles are available locally. Tell them to commandeer civilian ones too. They can even use those silly flying platforms if they need to, although it they do that they should keep a minimum altitude of at least thirty-five meters, for safety."
There were thirteen dots now, and the last one had raised the line slightly.
The officer began relaying Adam's instructions, and as he did so Adam turned to face Ghnashh. But before the Earthman could speak, the K'Neyen did.
"Very well, Arch-Defender. I suppose that the risk attendant in having anyone leave Berengaria may be warranted to secure additional troops, whom you may then deploy elsewhere. Having them take all air transport as they leave will also inhibit the other inhabitants from following. Once again, I am forced to bow to your wisdom."
"Oh, those militiamen aren't leaving. Not yet anyway."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I'm going to save Berengaria. As much as I can, anyway. Tell me, Arch-Conqueror, did whoever was in charge here while I was gone even try to evacuate the cities that became infected?"
"And how many lives were lost that could have been saved?"
"How many elsewhere still live thanks to their sacrifice? This is not a battle for a city, Arch-Defender; it is a war for a planet."
"Militia units are now airborne, Adam Strange," came the report, and Adam again turned from the K'Neyen to deliver his instructions.
As he did so, he noticed the line was a good inch higher, driven upward by the ever expanding number of red dots. He realized he had no idea of the map's scale, but about a quarter now lay below that line.
"We're going to want them to drop gas canisters, bombs, anything they can onto the streets wherever they cross that line, got it? We don't need anything too precise. We just want to make those roads impassable."
"Already on it, Adam Strange," the officer replied.
A horde of small violet lights blinked on, moving towards the line. It rose slightly to meet them as another two dots appeared, bringing the total to nineteen. Each dot signified some violent outbreak, at least a dozen people dead, possibly hundreds.
"Okay, that can't possibly be all the militia, can it?" Adam asked.
"No, sir. Less than a fifth of the units in Berengaria have been able to secure air transport since your order to do so."
"Tell the rest to stop looking. Get them to start evacuating the populace instead. No one crosses the line... make that gets with two hundred and fifty meters of it. Seven hundred or so meters from the nearest outbreak should be safe enough. I hope."
"I repeat, Arch-Defender, that you have no idea how this madness really spreads. Seven hundred meters may be well within its range."
"We're wasting valuable time, Arch-Conqueror."
The horde of violet dots now rested along the line. "Air vehicles are in position and deploying weaponry," the officer reported. "Uh, I'm going to put a red line here, sir. That way, even if the riots get close enough to move the 'safety' line up, you'll still know where you dumped the gas."
"Good thinking, kid. Okay, that'll buy us some time, but not much. Pull the air vehicles back. Send them north of the city. Equal size groups at each of these locations." Adam pointed to eight spots, each of which was about two kilometers from the city.
Adam waited, knowing that was all he could do. Another dot appeared, then another.
"How many people are in Berengaria?" he asked suddenly.
"Eight hundred thousand," responded one of the generals. Adam had almost forgotten they were there.
"Eight hundred thousand," Adam repeated. "Okay, the militia units in Berengaria. How are they doing?"
"Evacuation is progressing, sir. We've got about ten percent of the population in the process of leaving the city. That's out of sixty-five percent estimated to be in the designated 'safe' zone."
Thirty five percent of eight hundred thousand was two hundred and eighty thousand people. All of them were below the line Adam had drawn. All were lost. He could do nothing about that right now; it was just a distraction. Adam tried to shove all thought of it from his mind.
He didn't succeed.
"We'll have to move faster. Okay, let me have a rough idea of the evacuation's progress," Adam said.
The entire top half of the map turned into a swirling pink mass.
"Never mind," the Earthman said. "Get it off there."
The pink faded. There were now over thirty red dots in southern Berengaria, but none above where Adam had ordered the roads blocked. That was some comfort, though Adam thought not much for the quarter million people he had already been forced to write off.
"Alright, those air vehicles, are they where I asked them to be?"
"Almost, sir. Also, the first of the airships from elsewhere has arrived. Should I have those sent there as well?"
"No, get them into whatever the quarantine patterns Ghnashh and Alanna figured out are, but only along the section of the city below the line."
"Relaying your orders now."
Adam waited a minute, thinking of his next move. He glanced at the K'Neyen every so often, but the alien was mercifully silent.
The young officer looked up at Adam. "Done, sir. Population evacuation now at seventeen percent of Berengaria outside city limits to the north, and twenty one percent in the process of leaving the city. That leaves twenty seven percent of the city's population within the 'safe' zone and not currently confirmed as evacuating."
Numbers swirled in Adam's head. In some ways, that was a mercy. He'd rather manipulate percentages than deal with the real stakes involved here; hundreds of thousands of people. People with friends and families, hopes and dreams. People whose lives were in Adam's hands.
"Okay, order evacuees to those eight areas where I sent the air vehicles."
"Sir!" There was now a red dot far higher than the others. The yellow safety line had jumped. "It looks like someone got through the area you ordered blockaded."
"Damn. Okay, what percent of the population is in the process of leaving Berengaria right now?"
"Twenty three percent. Twenty four percent have already left city limits, and are now proceeding for the areas to the north you designated."
"I think the evacuation is well enough under way that it no longer needs militia supervision. Tell all the troops to head for the current safety line, and if anyone from the contaminated zone gets with fifty meters of them-" Adam broke off. He remembered his dream, and the final words of Aleea's image, and his throat went suddenly dry. "Suppressive fire only. Wound if necessary. No kill shots. Anyone who disobeys that order answers to me."
"Arch-Defender," Ghnashh said. "You have done all you can. Order the city sealed."
"No!" Adam cried. "I can save more."
"The contaminant has broken through one attempt to blockade it. It is spreading into the very area you are evacuating."
"There's still time! There has to be."
"Twenty one percent of the population of Berengaria remains in the process of leaving the city. An additional estimated six percent is in the current 'safe' zone and not reported as evacuating yet," the militiaman said.
Twenty seven percent of eight hundred thousand: two hundred and sixteen thousand people. With a word, Adam could abandon them.
Another red dot appeared, raising the bar, and now that someone had gotten through to spread the virus, red dots were flaring to life in an expanding circle, throughout the former 'safe' zone.
The officer swallowed hard before continuing. "Sorry, between evacuation and the continued advancement of the virus, sixteen percent now in the process of leaving Berengaria, an additional two percent-"
"Arch-Defender!" Ghnashh roared over the man's recitation. "Don't throw away all you've worked for."
"Twelve percent in current 'safe' zone." The officer spat numbers, but Adam heard people. He heard ninety six thousand people.
"Stop," the Champion of Rann whispered.
"I think that's all we're going to be able to get. Order a halt to attempts to add to the evacuees. Get the militiamen out of there ASAP, and get ready to shut it down."
"At last," Ghnashh said. Adam felt too drained to even shoot him a glare.
And the Earthman still had work to do. "I want those air vehicles in the air at those sites when the people arrive, got it? They're to land one by one, and carry people, say, five kilometers north, then go back for more. Order them specifically not to drop each group off at the same place. At the first sign an airship has the contaminant aboard, it gets forced down. We can't afford to take chances here."
Ghnashh laughed. It was a surprisingly human sound.
More red dots sprung up on the map. The yellow line was now over three quarters of the way up the image of the city, and moving steadily.
The Earthman closed his eyes, and saw Moorm. He snapped them open again. "How many people outside of Berengaria?"
"Forty one percent of the populations is estimated to have left the city before you ordered a halt to the evacuation."
Adam had saved approximately three hundred and twenty eight thousand lives. He had left more than four hundred thousand people behind.
For the first time, Adam was glad that there were no children on Rann save his. If there had been, and he had been forced to abandon them, he doubted he would ever have slept again.
The Champion of Rann realized that there was one last command to give. "Anyone still in there stays. Get the airship quarantine up and running. Berengaria is now a closed city."
It had been only seventeen minutes since the first cry of alarm.
"Okay, we now have a new procedure for when a city gets infected. I want every city on Rann to prepare to implement it if and when necessary. Confiscation of all air vehicles should begin immediately. Prepare them with bombs and gas canisters. You get the idea. Contact me if any more outbreaks occur. Someone's got to make the hard choices around here, and it might as well be me."
The generals nodded in unison. "Where are you going?"
Adam was already halfway out the door. "To ask Sardath if he's got any clue how to beat this thing. Before I have to sign any more death warrants."
Adam entered Sardath's lab hesitantly. The Rannian was bent over some sort of instrument whose purpose the Earthman could only guess at.
"Sardath?" he called softly.
The elderly scientist looked up at his son-in-law. "Yes, Adam?"
"Have you found out anything?"
"Oh, yes," Sardath replied. It was not the most informative answer Adam could have hoped for.
"Anything helpful?" the Earthman prompted.
"Nothing that leads to a cure as yet, but I'll let you decide what information has value and what doesn't." Sardath pushed a button, and a floating image appeared in the centre of the room. It was a hologram of a virus cell.
"This is one of the virus cells I found still in the vial." He pushed another button, and a second hologram appeared. To Adam, it looked identical to the first. "And this is a sample of the virus taken from the outside of it. It was emitted from an infected Rannian, and simply happened to drift onto the vial again."
"Am I supposed to see something?" Adam asked.
"There are subtle but distinct differences. More to the point, these differences have a very specific purpose. The first sample is infectious to Earth people. The second is adapted to Rannian physiology."
"Mutation?" Adam asked.
"Not in the sense you mean. This virus is mutagenic. It was designed to adapt to its host, and very efficiently."
"You said 'designed'. It's definitely artificial, then?"
"Undoubtedly. And whoever designed it was a genius. The virus alters brain chemistry in ways I haven't begun to understand," Sardath said.
"So what do you know?"
"The virus is mutagenic, as I said. Upon encountering a host whom it is not equipped to infect, it mutates until it finds a way to do so. But, as far as I can tell, it's designed so that the symptoms never alter."
"Symptoms? You mean the personality shift?"
"Precisely. No matter what the virus has to do to adapt to a host, it will inevitably cause a 'personality shift', as you put it."
"But it's never fatal?"
"Theoretically, the virus could mutate into a form that would be lethal to a species other than its current host. Let's say, for example, that the virus mutated to a form designed to infect someone as near-invulnerable as a Daxamite. If that version were to then move on to a Rannian- or a human- it would likely kill him."
Adam frowned. "But wouldn't it mutate into the Rannian version you've got there?" He pointed at the hologram. "I thought you said that the virus wants to always keep the same symptoms, and death isn't one of them."
Sardath nodded. "Obviously, you're anthropomorphizing when you say that the virus 'wants' anything, since it isn't sentient, but your basic idea is correct. However, by that point, the virus would be too strong, having adapted to deal with the powerful Daxamite immune system. By the time it became apparent that its current host was weaker, the Rannian would already be dead."
"I think I get it," Adam said. "It's like... if I want to get into a house to... make the beds, whatever, it's not important... but the last house I tried to get into to make the beds was a fortified bunker. I couldn't just pick the lock last time, and had to use a bazooka to get in, so I try that again. Only a regular wooden house would just explode before I realized my mistake."
"That sounds like a good comparison, albeit a bit of an odd scenario. There is one more thing," Sardath added. "I believe that exposure to one strand of the virus would immunize against all strands."
"So, Moorm is safe from the Daxamite-brand virus?"
"Exactly. Would you like me to attempt to work that into your bed-making analogy?"
"Humour, Sardath?" Adam raised an eyebrow.
"In your absence, Alanna has been encouraging me to, as she put it, 'lighten up' more. She thinks it will improve my relationship with my granddaughter."
"Oh." Adam pictured Sardath trying to amuse Aleea with madcap antics, and had to suppress a smile.
"At any rate, I haven't been able to determine why many of these features were built into the virus. Unless you were incorrect about the accidental nature of the virus being deposited on Rann."
"The answer is far simpler than that, Sardath. It's so obvious, I'm surprised I didn't realize it last night, when I was trying to figure out the plan of whoever created this virus. Earth is teeming with meta-humans and aliens. Whoever designed this must have had them in mind. He wanted their personalities reversed too. Maybe he wanted that most of all."
"Of course!" Sardath said. "And that explains why the various strands would immunize against one another. With so many potentially distinct versions being bred among one population, it would be necessary to eliminate the possibility of infection by multiple forms."
"Otherwise, the personality shift would be like a yo-yo. Good, bad, good, bad."
"More than that, Adam. That lethal 'bazooka' forms would emerge in such a situation is a virtual certainty. Only if a widespread infection by the pure human-targeting strand preceded the emergence of a version designed to affect Martians, or Kryptonians-"
"I see where you're heading. The virus actually serves as a vaccine against its own more deadly forms. Otherwise, we'd have a plague to make the black death look like a picnic."
"Ingenious," Sardath said.
"Before you decide to pat whoever built this on the back, remember that your home planet is in the process of being razed because of it," Adam said.
"Of course, Adam."
"If the virus is designed to mutate to affect any host, will it also infect animals?" Adam asked.
"I don't think so. The virus was apparently created to affect brain chemistry, and it seems to avoid creatures which do not have sufficiently complex brains. In less abstract terms, you've got to have a personality for it to reverse."
"We need some way to immunize at least some Rannians. Is it possible to somehow breed a harmless version, and use it as a vaccine?"
Sardath shook his head. "It would mutate back into a form that was adapted to its host."
"Well, can anything short of your environmental suit keep it out?"
"It's just a virus, Adam, for all its sophistication. Skin contact wouldn't even be enough to infect someone. It needs to get inside them. Inhalation seems to be its primary method, but it can also be ingested, or enter through the eyes or open wounds. I imagine a regular gas mask would be sufficient, providing the wearer was decontaminated before removing it." Sardath looked thoughtful. "Although it could still be sexually transmitted to someone wearing one. I suppose that's not likely, though. Yes, a regular gas mask should suffice."
"Why didn't you say so?" Adam said, a bit more loudly than he had intended.
"I assumed you would have realized that when I told you it was a virus we were dealing with."
"I'm a planetary champion, not a doctor." Adam thought of all the lives he could have saved in Berengaria had he known this, and winced. "Anything else you want to mention?"
"One thing, but it's no help. The original strand could be sterilized, so that while still infecting its hosts it would no longer spread. The Rannian version does not appear to share this liability."
"Well, keep working. We're all counting on you."
The scientist looked at the Champion of Rann. "I hope not, Adam, because by the time I figure this out, it may already be too late. I'm afraid that we're all counting on you."
Adam made a quick stop for lunch before returning to the meeting room. When he arrived, he saw that the generals and Ghnashh had been joined by his wife.
"Alanna," Adam said, "what are you doing here? You went to bed barely three hours ago."
"Not all of us can sleep through Armageddon, dear," she replied. She still looked tired, but Adam decided to drop the matter for now.
"Anything happen while I was gone?" Adam asked.
"Good." Adam clapped his hands together. The gesture was redundant; everyone's attention was already upon him. "Okay, people, we're going to take a shot at establishing order in Berengaria. Every minute counts here."
"How?" Alanna voiced the question all of them were thinking.
"According to Sardath, this is caused by a virus, and all you need to do to keep safe is cover the mouth, nose, and eyes. A gasmask will do it."
"This is wonderful news!" Alanna said.
"It's an important step. Unfortunately, we don't have enough masks on Rann for the entire population. What we do have is enough to give to a small percentage, who can then keep order in the infected areas. We'll start with Berengaria, because the violence there is just starting up. We have a chance to stop it before too many people get killed."
"What should we do?" one of the generals asked.
"Get two hundred volunteers. We'll send them in to start with. Can you get them armed with weapons that fire tranquilizer darts?"
The general nodded.
"Do it," Adam ordered.
The minutes passed as the necessary preparations occurred. At last, they were ready to proceed.
"We have ten carriers heading towards Berengaria. Each one has, in addition to its crew, twenty men. We're going to set the carriers down a few hundred meters outside the city, then send the troops in and order them to secure the area. Does that sound reasonable, Adam Strange?" the general asked.
There were few things Adam found harder than situations like these. He was not a control freak, but he preferred to work hands on, and letting other people face danger in his stead had never sat easy with him.
Everyone in the meeting room fell silent as the transmissions from Berengaria began.
"This is Security Force Leader Skot reporting in.
"We are now entering city limits. We're in an open square. It appears deserted. Everything's quiet.
"We're deploying two men to guard the archway and cover our rear.
"Okay, troops, fan out. Team One, take point. Team Two, left, Team Three, right. We'll start by establishing a secure perimeter.
"Kustre, I want you to take Team Four and check out those buildings. Make sure you do a thorough job. We don't want any surprises.
"Wait, what was that? I thought I saw something in that window. Why don't you start with that building?
"Okay, Team Three, I want you to deploy five men to guard that street, and another five for that one. Make sure you're in a defensible position.
"Team One, Team Two, same idea. I want all seven street entrances covered.
"Okay, still no sign of life? I thought you boys in Rannagar said there'd be rioting?
"What the? That looked like an energy discharge.
"Kustre, this is Skot. Did I just see an energy blast? You're not even supposed to be carrying energy pistols.
"What do you mean it wasn't you? Then who?
"Okay, can you deal with- Kustre? You there?
"We have a situation here! You men, cover the entrance to that building. No one leaves until-
"Rannagar, we are under fire. Unknown assailants shooting from a building's window. Situation is not, repeat not, under control.
"We are now returning fire, but we are not in a tactically sound position. There is minimal cover out here. Everyone! Get over by the buildings, get inside if you can.
"Rannagar, we have two men down. Just wounded, I think.
"Wait a second. One of the wounded men is-
"Donner, what do you think you're doing?
"Somebody take Donner down! He's lost it!
"Still taking fire from that building! You, get in there, see if you can take out the sniper! Now!
"Six men down, one dead. And the rest-
"I don't know what's going on here, but anyone that gets hit and survives seems to be going berserk.
"Wait, I think we're taking fire from two buildings now.
"It's chaos here! At least eight of my men have gone nuts. We've taken down three, but now they're pulling the masks off anyone who gets near them. I think at least twelve men have been unmasked.
"Everyone, we're pulling out of here-
"Hold on! I'm coming!
"Pull back! Pull back!
One of the generals stared at Adam accusingly.
"I'm sorry," the Champion of Rann said.
"Two hundred men," the general said.
"I thought it would work. But I guess I should have known it wouldn't be so easy."
"You're supposed to be the brilliant strategist," the general said. "Why are we letting you order us around if you can't handle things?"
"Oh, be quiet," Alanna said to him, before turning to her husband. "What are you going to do now? Maybe if they tried-"
Adam cut her off. "It wasn't their tactics. Sardath warned me that open wounds would leave them vulnerable to the virus. I think it's clear now that there's no way we can secure order in those cities if our men can't risk even the slightest cut. But we had to try it."
"So what do we do?"
"If they had returned fire with something more substantial than tranquilizer darts, they would have eliminated the sniper within seconds," Ghnassh said.
"If they had been armed with anything more than tranquilizer darts, they'd likely all have been dead soon after the first soldier was hit. As it stands, they can still be saved, eventually," Adam replied.
"Some of them, perhaps. But if you had been willing to commit to a full military assault, instead of this half-hearted attempt to police a warzone, there might never have been a problem to begin with. Those troops you sent in may not have shared the high ethical standards in whose name they were sacrificed. You put them into that situation without the freedom to respond to it as was necessary, and they fell. Let that be on your precious conscience."
"You're all alike, aren't you? All the conquerors, all the bullies. At heart, you all believe the exact same thing: that there's no obstacle that can't be overcome by a bullet to the head, and no problem that can't be solved with your fists. But do you know what?"
"Animals work that way. If we're different than them, if we're anything more than beasts, it's because we have one thing they don't." Adam tapped his forehead. "Reason. That is what truly solves problems and overcomes obstacles."
"Did reason save those men in Berengaria? You are facing madness, Arch-Defender, and perhaps that is one thing that reason cannot overcome. Or what if the problem lies with you? Perhaps it is simply that you, Arch-Defender Strange, are incapable of finding that elusive solution? Has that possibility occurred to you?"
Adam paused for a second before replying, and when he did his voice was nearly a whisper. "Yes. Yes, it has. Don't you think I'm aware that I could be dooming Rann because of my own pride? But I have to believe that there is always an answer, and that if I just think hard enough, I'll find it. If there is one thing experience has taught me, it is that."
"Than it seems my life has been filled with harder lessons than your own, Arch-Defender."
"Or maybe we all choose which lessons to take," Alanna said, joining the debate. "I don't know how many worlds you've conquered, but I have seen my husband defeat more threats than I can count, and he never once did it by whipping out a bigger gun than the other guy. He has always been true to his ideals, and they have always served him well. That willingness to stick with what he believes is one of the reasons why I love him."
"It is easy to love a winner. Perhaps soon you shall be forced to see if you have it in you to love a man who will be true to his ideals even if it means defeat."
"He won't lose."
Adam wished he was as sure of that as his wife sounded.
Seeing no likely resolution to the debate with Ghnashh, Adam turned his thoughts to more practical matters. "Order the troop carriers to leave Berengaria. They're to help with evacuation duty from now on. How are preparations for future outbreaks going?"
"We have confiscated virtually all civilian air vehicles on Rann, and all cities stand ready to implement your strategy," the general reported.
"Good. There's one slight change in the plan, though. I want militia units wearing gas masks to help hold the line after the air vehicles set up the blockades. Keep them on the 'safe' side of the line, and order them to make sure no one emerges from the other side. We've just seen that they'll still be vulnerable, so it's not quite a perfect solution, but it should buy a bit more time, and every second counts. Besides, if the opposing forces aren't yet entrenched, they'll be far more effective."
For a few minutes, there was relative peace. Then, suddenly, came the call that there was an outbreak in Ys, then Daekun, then Smalsh-Yegger.
Each time, Adam was able to react a little faster, to plan a little bit better. Each time, a few more percentage points were added to the total he saved. By the time the evacuation of Smalsh-Yegger was halted, sixty-two percent of the population had been saved.
Still, the fact that dominated Adam's thoughts was that between those three cities, nearly two million people had been left to fend for themselves.
"Dear, maybe you should take a break," Alanna suggested after Adam declared Smalsh-Yegger closed. "Spend some time with Aleea. We'll call you if anything happens."
"No. I can't afford to slack off now. If there's nothing to react to, it's the perfect time to look at the big picture."
"Adam-" Alanna began.
"No!" Adam cut her off. "I have to figure this out soon. I've already been on Rann for over two days. I don't know how much longer the Zeta Beam will last."
"You can always catch the next one. Think up a solution while you're on Earth. I know a few more cities will be infected, but at this point our evacuation efforts are successful enough that Rann won't be entirely consumed with madness when you get back."
Adam turned away from his wife. "But will I be?"
"What do you mean?"
"Sydney wasn't the only site that was being targeted, Alanna. Earth might already be covered with that virus. Which means that as soon as I go back to Earth..."
Alanna picked up his thought. "You'll catch it." She gasped softly.
"Now do you understand why it's so important I solve this problem soon? If I don't do it before I return to Earth, there might not be a second chance."
Alanna hugged Adam. "I didn't realize," she said.
"I just hope I don't let you down."
"You knew that you could catch that virus the instant you returned home, but you were still more concerned with what that would mean for Rann than yourself," she said in wonder. "Have I told you lately how much I love you?"
"Maybe. But you can say it again if you want."
Instead, she kissed him.
When the cry went out that another outbreak had occurred, they parted reluctantly.
"Twelve city-states have been infected," Adam said. "We are now approaching the point I warned about last night. Rann's infrastructure is at risk."
He pointed to a map of the planet, with the infected cities indicated. "Though evacuation efforts are becoming more and more successful, we will soon face a point where we have nowhere to put the displaced citizens, and this problem actually becomes more pressing as we get more efficient at the evacuation process. I estimate we will reach that point once twenty cities have fallen. For this reason, I have already ordered the creation of camps at several locations throughout the Rannian wastelands between cities."
"Arch-Defender, if my observations are accurate, within a week every city on Rann will have been contaminated. Can you possibly create enough refugee camps to hold that many people?"
"No, we can't," Adam said simply. "Which means that evacuation techniques will only get us so far."
"Or that you will be forced to practice triage approaches. Key personnel must take priority over the masses."
"I'd... prefer it didn't come to that," the Earthman said, though he had been thinking along those lines himself. "I don't want to lose anyone we don't have to. But for once I can't think of anything to refute your point. Sooner or later, we will have to start choosing who does and does not get evacuated, much as it pains me to say it."
"I am constantly amazed at how much you care for the masses of this world," Ghnashh said. "They are not even your own people, yet you are devoted to them."
"I'm an archeologist, Arch-Conqueror. I dedicated my life to alien cultures long before I arrived on Rann. Of course, it's a nice bonus that Alanna's a lot prettier than most of the things I used to find buried in crypts."
"'Most'?" she asked.
"At any rate," Adam said, returning to business. "Rannian industry will essentially be crippled by the move. There's just no way to move factories into the middle of nowhere."
"So what do we do about that?" Alanna asked.
"Frankly, nothing. It's a low priority. If anything is really needed, I think maybe a raiding party could hit one of the cities."
"But won't what happened in Berengaria reoccur?"
"I am aware that we can ill afford another Berengaria, but this would be different. There, we tried to send in a large team to secure the area. A small raiding party would have a much better chance. Look at me in Moorm. No trouble at all." He smiled lopsidedly.
"How about supplies?"
Adam's smile fell away. "Food is a major concern. We can only have so much of it stockpiled at the refugee camps, and even raiding parties will only provide a short term solution if no new food is being produced on the planet. After it runs out, I don't know what we'll do."
"Can you not grow food at these camps?" Ghnashh asked. "I am no farmer, but surely you can take seeds."
"It's not that simple," Adam said. "The ecosystem here is still only slowly recovering from the nuclear radiation that was unleashed centuries ago. We had a little help in restoring the planet's ecology, but agriculture is currently only possible over a relatively small portion of Rann."
"If you could decontaminate them, you could eat the dead," Ghnashh said. "That is one food source that is abundant."
"Are you serious?" Adam asked.
"Perfectly. In fact, it may be wiser not to use the dead of the infected cities at all. Instead, you might consider ordering killed-"
"Enough!" Adam interrupted. "We are not resorting to cannibalism."
"I was only trying to help," the K'Neyen said.
"Adam," Alanna said. "Do you think we should try evacuating the entire planet?"
He shook his head. "Even if we had the spaceships, and even if we had another planet to move to, and even if we were willing to rebuild civilization from scratch, we cannot risk the virus leaving Rann. No, that's the one thing we must not do."
The room was silent for a second, and then Adam asked, "So, anyone have any other ideas?"
The forest was burning.
Adam looked on in horror at the relayed image, sent from an aerial scout. Someone had set fire to one of Rann's few and irreplaceable forests, and it was burning bright.
"Divert a river," he ordered. He knew it would do nearly as much damage to the plantlife as the flames, but he had to do something before the fire consumed the entire area.
Twenty three cities had fallen. The refugee camps Adam had ordered set up were not yet fully in place, and those that were had been filling far too rapidly for comfort. He could see the necessity for triage looming closer than he'd like. It wouldn't even be a simple matter of deciding who to permit evacuated; all too soon he'd have to turn people out of the camps to make room for others.
In the cities that still stood, life had ground to a halt. With all civilian vehicles in the hands of the militia forces, people were staying home. Production had ground to a halt. The economy was at a standstill.
Life on Rann now revolved around preparing to evacuate and waiting for the call to do so.
The spread of the virus was exponential. In its first day on Rann it had infected one city. On the second day, four more had fallen. Now, as the third day turned to night, it had claimed an additional eighteen.
The Champion of Rann had assumed the virus would take weeks to infect all of the populace. While that might have been true, it would render every city on the planet uninhabitable within days.
"Adam Strange! Another outbreak. This one is in Draan," called the officer currently in charge of communications.
"Draan?" Adam repeated. "Why does that sound familiar?" Suddenly his face went pale. "Oh no. Oh no. How could I have been so stupid?"
"Arch-Defender? What is it?" Ghnashh asked.
"There's a nuclear reactor in Draan. They use it for power. Quick, get a message to whoever's in charge to shut it down!"
"We've lost all contact with the reactor staff," the officer reported. "It's located near the outbreak point."
"I want Draan fully evacuated! I don't care if they're infected or not, we have to get everyone out of there!"
The officer looked down at his control panel to relay the order, but even from across the room Adam could tell that something was wrong. "What is it?" the Earthman asked, even though he knew the answer.
"It's... gone. Draan. The reactor. I... Oh dear..."
The officer's reply was incoherent, but Adam hadn't really needed it to begin with.
Without a word, Adam walked out of the room.
When Alanna found Adam, he was sitting in their quarters. He wasn't doing anything else. He wasn't even thinking.
"Adam," she said.
His eyes slowly focussed on her. "I can't do it, Alanna."
"You were doing fine."
"I can't stop this thing." His voice was emotionless. It didn't even contain despair.
"Don't say that."
"How can I fight Rann's own citizens, Alanna? They're just innocent people. I can't kill them."
"No one's asking you to," Alanna said.
"Ghnashh is who you need. He can do what's necessary."
"If you really believed that he was right, you'd kill them. But you know, deep down, that there has to be a better way, and that's why you can't do it. That's why we need you, not Ghnashh. Find that better way, Adam. Find it before it's too late."
"This isn't what I do. I can't fight a disease. I'm not a doctor. Sardath can't cure it, so what am I supposed to do?"
"Act like the Champion of Rann, Adam. Because that's what you are. And saving Rann is what you do."
Adam shook his head slowly. "Monsters and conquerors are my specialty. Not diseases. Not Rann's own citizens. What I fight are invasions from other planets."
"Dammit, Adam, this is an invasion from another planet!"
He looked at her in silence, but for the first time there was a flicker in his eyes.
"This disease is artificial, Adam," she continued. "It's a weapon. Who made it and why we don't know, but we do know that. This is a weapon, and it's been launched against Rann." She grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. "This isn't about fighting Rann's own citizens, no matter what Ghnashh may tell you. And it isn't about curing a disease, either, no matter what Sardath says. This is about defending Rann from an attack, and that's what you were born to do. So stop feeling sorry for yourself and do it."
Gradually, the life crept back into Adam's face, and a small smile touched his lips. "And they say I'm the clever one in this family."
"Well," Alanna said primly, "I haven't watched you in action this long without learning a trick or two."
"So, we're facing an invasion from another planet," Adam said. "Earth, to be exact. I think it's high time I got to work stopping it."
Adam rolled his eyes. "What, you think I have an answer I was just holding on to until you gave me a nice pep talk? Give me a few minutes."
Alanna nodded, and left Adam to plan.
Lateral thinking is the forming of connections between separate elements. Some say it is the hallmark of true genius. There were many elements to the current puzzle, and somewhere among them was the connection that Adam needed. He only hoped he was close enough to a genius to spot it.
"If the American agents fail..." The vial. The K'Neyen fleet. Fires of Moorm. The environmental suit. Dag. His airship disabled. Jammed communications. Running from responsibility through lust. "We're having ever so much more fun now that we aren't caught up in all those silly concepts." The doctor's pills. "If we don't... well, what's happened here is the alternative." Hoarding. Magnetism. Mina (guilt!). "You will fail, and she will suffer." Dora's rhetoric. "Am I the Champion of Rann?" Death from above. The tower. Benene's betrayal. Ghnashh. "Kill them all." Earth in danger. "Kill me or I Kill you. Choose, daddy." Red dots blinking on, one by one. "This is not a battle for a city, Arch-Defender. It is a war for a planet." Making beds and bazookas. The doomed attempt to secure Berengaria. Refugee camps. Food shortages. Forest fires. Draan obliterated.
Over and over, Adam turned these things in his minds, searching and examining and combining.
Dora's rhetoric. Magnetism.
He remembered Dora lecturing to the crowd about the uses of science. Rann, which so often during his trip to Moorm had seemed so like Earth (horribly perverted, but recognizable nonetheless), had suddenly seemed so alien in its priorities. No... he had told himself it felt alien, but what it had really felt was suddenly, horribly familiar. Science as a weapon was something he knew all too well.
Death from above. His airship disabled.
Adam realized that he could have told Benene to spare one of the quartet of thugs' flying platforms, and made use of it. Maybe not to escape Moorm (the airship quarantine would have shot him down) but certainly for transportation within it. How muddled his thinking had gotten by the end of his stay there!
"If the American agents fail..." Mina (guilt!). Fires in Moorm. Earth in danger.
He had brought the vial to Rann, and was thus responsible for unleashing (again, a nagging voice reminded him) untold horrors on it. But in so doing, he had also prevented its release on Earth, at least in Sydney. Had he in fact saved one planet, even as he doomed another?
Running from responsibility through lust. The doctor's pills. Draan obliterated.
Adam spent only a second comparing his self-indulgent retreat from his duties to those of the people he had encountered in Moorm.
Forest fires. Food shortages. Hoarding.
Again, he realized that in many ways food was the most pressing problem. Soon, he'd have to order the confiscation of all edible goods, so that they could be redistributed as efficiently as possible.
Ghnashh. Dag. The K'Neyen fleet.
The Champion of Rann smiled.
"Sardath," Adam called as he once again entered the scientist's laboratory. The Rannian was studying the hologram of the virus cell with his back to the door, but he turned when he heard his name.
"You told me this virus would adapt to any host, and its effects would remain essentially the same, right?"
"That's correct. Providing that the strand wasn't already lethal to them."
"How long would the adaptation take?"
"Hard to say. Obviously, it adapted to Rannians within a matter of minutes. I imagine it would have been similarly quick in infecting your planet's meta-humans. The biology is essentially similar, so the mutation isn't that great."
Adam walked up to stand beside his father-in-law, and gazed at the hologram himself. Though his comprehension was far less, his scrutiny was just as intense. "And if the biology is less similar?"
"More time would be required." Sardath shrugged. "I just don't have the data. The original strand was for humans, and this one is for Rannians. Rann isn't like Earth, Adam. Other than the standard Rannian, there are no higher lifeforms for it to adapt to here."
Arch-Conqueror Ghnashh was standing perfectly still. Adam had come to think of the K'Neyen as constantly in motion, even if only shifting his stance, and now found the lack of movement disconcerting. Ghnashh looked like he was waiting in ambush.
It was an absurd notion, though. Ghnashh was clearly visible, standing in one corner of the meeting room.
"Adam?" Alanna called as he walked past her to face the Arch-Conqueror, but he waved her off.
"Arch-Defender Strange," Ghnashh said.
"Arch-Conqueror," Adam replied, "I'd like you to order the K'Neyen fleet back to Rann."
Now the giant frame of the alien was in motion again, leaning in towards Adam. Ghnashh's face came to rest less than a foot from the Earthman's, but the Champion of Rann didn't flinch. "Why?"
Adam was aware that the clawed hands of the K'Neyen could tear him in two before he had a chance to react. The Arch-Conqueror had come close to doing so once before, when Adam had told him he was to remain on Rann. The Earthman wondered what would happen now that he was suggesting bringing the entire K'Neyen fleet back here.
"I want them to keep order in the infected cities. The Rannian militia can't; you saw what happened when we tried that."
"Will they be immune to this plague of madness?" Ghnashh asked.
Adam considered lying to the Arch-Conqueror. Adam then considered what would happen if the K'Neyen realized he was being deceived. "No."
The K'Neyen drew back, and when he spoke his voice was filled with genuine curiosity. "Then why would you have me unleash my troops among your people? I don't see how having thousands of K'Neyen, all driven to insane behaviour, would result in anything but the annihilation of all those they came in contact with. Unless you have finally taken my advice, though in a most peculiar manner, and will do what must be done?"
Adam shook his head. "Arch-Conqueror, this virus is subtler than you realize. It doesn't simply drive the host mad; it reverses their core values. And what, would you say, are the core values of the soldiers in the K'Neyen fleet?"
"The K'Neyen live to conquer."
"So, hopefully, the infected K'Neyen will live to protect. And," Adam added, "I think we both know that the value you place on life is minimal, another thing that will be reversed in those K'Neyen who will become Rann's saviours. They'll go out of their way to avoid killing anyone as they maintain order."
"No war is bloodless, and it is a rare peace that is. That I am aware of this reality does not mean I delight in death," Ghnashh replied. "You would have sacrificed all of Rann to avoid sullying your conscience. I am more pragmatic."
"Well, Arch-Conqueror, I think I've found a way to keep my conscience clean. This time, anyway."
"You would infect my race with a disease designed to twist our very essences, and you say your conscience will remain clean?"
"Uh... yes." Adam hadn't quite thought of it that way. "But," he added quickly, "only temporarily. We'd still be looking for a cure, and I swear on my honour and the life of my child that when we find a way to return Rann to normal, we'll restore your troops as well."
The K'Neyen's mouth twisted into something that might, possibly, have been a smile. "You needn't be so defensive, Arch-Defender." Adam assumed this was a joke, and chuckled once out of politeness before Ghnashh continued. "You have finally found a plan of action that will lead to what you have defined as victory, and you are willing to implement it. I told you more than once that I thought you lacked the strength to do what must be done to save your planet. It seems I misjudged you."
"Damned with strong praise," Adam said. "Really, Arch-Conqueror, I don't see how you can compare killing someone, which is, to put it mildly, irreversible, with-"
But the K'Neyen only laughed knowingly.
"It's simple, really," Adam explained. "We begin by exposing the entire K'Neyen fleet to the virus. Then, once they're all transformed, we station some of them in the infected cities. Since they're already infected, exposure to the virus won't pose a problem. The rest will remain in their vessels, ready to be deployed if and when the contamination spreads."
"Will they be able to maintain order?" Alanna asked.
"I think so. They were, after all, preparing to occupy Rann. The K'Neyen have the manpower and equipment to handle the situation, even if every city on the planet ends up infected. They're basically invulnerable, so they won't be in any danger, and after they've been exposed to the virus, they won't hurt any natives. It's the perfect solution, except..." Adam trailed off.
"You're thinking of what Ghnashh said, aren't you?"
Adam nodded. "He's right. How am I any better than whoever built that virus, if I'm willing to use it for my own purposes?"
"Adam, I can't claim I'm completely comfortable with what you're proposing, but you said it yourself. You're saving lives."
"Do the ends justify the means?"
"You collaborated with the En'Tarans to save Rann. How is this any different?"
"I guess it isn't," Adam said. Unbeknownst to his wife, his thoughts turned to his trip to Moorm. There, in a building full of the dead, he had been given a bitter reminder of sins past.
"You do what you have to, sometimes. You make the hard choices," Alanna said.
"I make the hard choices. Then what makes me any different from Ghnashh? He makes the hard choices too."
"What makes you different, Adam," his wife said, "is that for him they aren't hard. What makes you different is that you don't seek the hard choices out, and sometimes you wish more than anything that it wasn't you who had to make them. But you do it anyway, even though you know you'll never really forgive yourself. That is what makes you different."
For a minute, there was silence.
"Nice speech," Adam said.
"I'm still not convinced I'm doing the right thing," Adam added. "But maybe sometimes there is no right thing, and you just have to do the best you can."
Again, there was a pause in the conversation.
"There is one more question that I was wondering about," Alanna said. "What if some of the infected Rannians figure out how to defeat the K'Neyen? You did, after all."
"Alanna, no offense intended, but if the Rannian population was half as good as me at repelling alien invaders, I'd still be listing 'archeologist' as my occupation. Luckily for me, they aren't, so I get to remain in the Guiness Book of Records as the guy with the longest commute to work."
"You're forgetting something, dear," Alanna replied with an impish smile. She was glad Adam was coming out of his melancholy. "Your ability to repel invasions is just a bonus for us. You were brought here to stud."
Adam raised an eyebrow. "So, should I be dusting off my old pick-axe?"
"Not unless that's a euphe-"
But Adam was already fading, and before she finished her word he was gone.
Earth was not being invaded by an alien force. At least, not as clearly as Rann had been.
But as Adam reappeared in a dazzling flash of light, he knew that the menace tearing across Rann had originated here, and the horror he had just faced could soon engulf his home planet as well, if it had not already done so.
Still, Adam had beaten this virus once, and if necessary he'd beat it again. Of that, he no longer had any doubts.
After all, saving worlds was what Adam Strange did.
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This piece is © 2001 by Nicolas Juzda.
Artwork is © 2001 by D.J. LoTempio
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