Angela Buckham looked down upon downtown Millennium City in disdain from her corner office on the 10th floor of the Claremont Building. Her eyes would occasionally linger on one of the many groups of people milling about outside the numerous bars and clubs lining Cockrum Avenue. If she let her psychic guard down for even a moment, she would be able to hear the incessant scratching of their insignificant thoughts in her mind like hungry rats scurrying inside the walls of a squalid tenement apartment.
She turned from the window in disgust and walked to her imposing, pedestal desk and sat down, setting the cup of steaming Earl Grey tea down on the matching saucer on its polished, mahogany surface. She looked anxiously at the diamond-studded Piaget on her wrist.
A quarter to eleven, she thought, and still no word.
Buckham simply despised impatience in others but absolutely loathed it in herself. The sixty-two year old felt that impatience was a sign of weakness – the impotent rage of being at the mercy of forces beyond one’s control – and she had sworn to herself as she dabbed away the splatters of her mother’s blood from her face with a washcloth in the ornate mirror that now hung on the wall behind her that she would never be weak.
Weakness was for the simpering masses of the human flotsam and jetsam that littered every town and city from her native Sheffield in the United Kingdom to Millennium City in the United States. Weakness was the defining characteristic of Homo sapiens – those pitiful creatures trapped in the petty world their paltry five senses defined for them. Weakness, however, had no place in the mindset of Homo superioris – the next step in human evolution.
The subtle vibration of her iPhone pulled her out of her reverie. As the thrumming device floated to her right hand on waves of telekinetic force with the deftness that comes with nearly half a century of practice, she raised the teacup to her lips with her left and took a dainty sip. Putting the teacup back on its saucer, she pressed the speakerphone icon on her phone’s touch screen and waited.
“Mistress?” asked Paul Anderson, the Head of Project Sleepwalker, his Texas drawl containing a hint of trepidation.
The silence that followed yawned before Anderson like the maw of a ravenous beast.
“Report,” Buckham responded pointedly, the highly-polished veneer of civility she was famous for in society circles disappearing like a wisp of smoke in a blast of frigid air.
“Everything was proceeding as we had anticipated. The subjects were under our complete control while interacting with the Spear. Then… something happened.” He paused briefly to collect his thoughts. “We couldn’t control the forces they’d invoked. There was a backlash of some kind of energy. I’d never seen anything like it before. The backlash killed all three subjects and wreaked havoc on our equipment.”
“What went wrong, Mr. Anderson?” Buckham could feel impatience growing within her like a cancer.
“It would appear,” Anderson began, real fear now in his voice, “that our premise was incorrect.”
“Go on,” Buckham said flatly, quelling the urge to rupture a blood vessel in Anderson’s brain.
Anderson could feel the heat of her fury flow towards him like lava.
“The forces the three conjured,” he said, weighing his words carefully, “were definitely not psionic in nature. We’ve determined that some of the abilities we’ve been studying resemble our precious gifts but it’s clear now that how their abilities actually work – even what energies are accessed and how they are manipulated – is a complete mystery.”
“Sanitize the area and dispose of the bodies,” Buckham began evenly despite the anger welling up within her, “before Millennium City’s metahumans stumble onto your team.”
“Clean-up is underway, Mistress.”
It didn’t require Tetrahertz-level ability to understand that Anderson had more to say but was unsure how to proceed.
“Was there anything else, Mr. Anderson?”
“Mistress, you have to understand that the… whatever it was… it caused absolute chaos,” he began apologetically, “The witches were shrieking something fierce, equipment was shorting out everywhere. Some of us even… saw things.”
Buckham sensed that the memory of whatever Anderson had seen sent chills up the Texan’s spine.
Regaining his composure, Anderson continued, “Whatever the backlash was, I believe it somehow drew people here from somewhere else.”
“What?” asked Buckham incredulously.
“A few of us sensed several sets of thoughts suddenly appearing in and around the museum. Although the images we picked up were jumbled and disjointed, the Spear figured prominently in all their minds.”
“Where are they now, Mr. Anderson?” Buckham asked, leaning forward in her chair.
“We lost track of them almost immediately. It was as if their brains worked on a different frequency – one we couldn’t quite tune in on.”
Anderson could feel Buckham’s mind slip past his psionic defenses with terrifying ease. One look at the faces of his colleagues was enough for him to realize that she was simultaneously probing their thoughts also.
My God, how powerful is she?
“I’ve despatched teams to acquire these potentially useful assets,” Buckham began, her telepathic tendrils withdrawing from his mind, “you have your instructions, Mr. Anderson.”
Buckham ended the call before Anderson could reply and put the cell phone down on her desk. She then leaned back in her chair, closed her eyes and cast her thoughts across the city in search of the individuals Anderson’s incompetence had brought into it. Despite the alienness of their minds, finding them was a foregone conclusion.
The Minefield was one of the hottest clubs in the south-eastern United States. At one time or another, the biggest names in Hollywood and the music industry as well as members of the jet set and more than a few European aristocrats had numbered among its patrons.
Yet, despite the notoriety and occasional infamy of its clientele, there had never been a violent incident at the Minefield. This, however, was not due to club security. Other than the fearsome bouncer on face control outside the club, there were no security personnel. Simply put, the reason was that the Minefield was considered to be the Switzerland of Vibora Bay.
It was situated in midtown, which in and of itself was not significant. However, that portion of midtown happened to be between the territories of two rival gangs – the New Shadows, a clan of vampires led by Vladic Dracul, and the Dogz, a pack of lycanthropes headed by Black Fang. Despite intense fighting and heavy losses on both sides, neither gang could hold the disputed territory for long so a small stretch of midtown became a no man’s land. Since none of the other gangs in the city cared to disrupt the delicate balance, the Minefield soon became a place where anyone regardless of faction could relax and unwind in perfect safety – even superheroes like Jennifer Jones, also known as the Shroud.
She sat at the bar, the double shot of Ballantine’s she had ordered half an hour before sat untouched in front of her. She was so lost in thought that she was oblivious to the clubbers on the dance floor behind her gyrating to the pounding breakbeat blaring from the speakers. The tall, dark man in his early thirties that slipped fluidly onto the stool next to hers would also have gone unnoticed if she had not sensed a familiar presence. Turning to him, she flashed a wan smile.
“Hello, Ink. What brings you to Vibora?”
Although the Roin’esh warrior knew that the Shroud was one of a handful of individuals on the planet that could see through any guise his people assumed, it still took him aback.
“I grew bored overseeing the repairs to our headquarters so I decided to stand out.”
Jones chuckled, “You mean ‘step out’, Inky. ‘Stand out’ means that you make yourself easy to see.” She scrutinized Ink from top to bottom for a moment. “I must say that your disguise is flawless, right down to the Armani suit and Gucci shoes.”
Smiling, Ink said, “Thank you! I have been perfecting a variety of human guises in case I need to go undercover.” He stopped and looked at her quizzically, hoping he had used the correct phrase.
Jones nodded, noting that even the characteristic lilt of his voice had been replaced by a deep baritone marked by a Brooklyn accent. She filed that bit of information away for the moment.
“You aren’t keeping tabs on me, are you Ink? Did Arcana put you up to following me to make sure I’m OK?”
“Not at all,” lied Ink unconvincingly.
Picking up her nearly forgotten drink, Jones downed the whiskey and put the now empty glass back on its cardboard coaster. “Arc’s really great,” she began after a moment’s reflection, “but she can be a little over-protective at times.”
Ink placed a hand on her shoulder, “We all care for you, Jennifer.”
Jones turned from him and surveyed the sea of young bodies undulating to the music, “Believe it or not, it’s a quiet night. This place is usually wall-to-wall people every night of the week.”
Ink regarded her for a moment before breaking the silence that had suddenly come between them. “Penny for your thoughts.”
“I’m not sure they’re worth even that much,” Jones said turning back to him.
He leaned towards her, “I know well the look of someone who longs to see someone they will never see again.”
Her hand lightly caressed the gold ankh hanging around her neck, “Do you know why I’m in Vibora Bay?”
“I’m here to pay my respects. To Ben. He’s buried in a cemetery not too far from here called Cypress Grove. I haven’t had a chance to since…,” she paused, shuddering at the memories of pain and fear that raised their heads like venomous cobras from the dark recesses of her mind, “you freed me from Na’amah’s domination.”
The Roin’esh warrior recalled the creature Na’amah well.
“It’s a stupid custom if you think about it – visiting the gravesite of people we…,” she paused to select the word with the least implication, “knew. It’s not like anything you do will bring them back. Nothing you do ever brings them back.”
Ink nodded slowly, “No one should ever have to go through the loss of a loved one.”
Feeling uncomfortable, she turned to the bartender and ordered another double Ballantine’s straight up for herself and a Black Russian for Ink, which had turned out to be his favorite beverage to her great amusement.
Taking a long draught from her drink, she began, “I’ve been putting off coming here for the longest time.” Her brow furrowed in thought, “It was easy to throw myself into work. That bitch and her filthy kin hit the Squadron hard. The HQ was a shambles and we lost so many good people. I guess I threw myself into my duties so I could avoid dealing with my feelings.”
“Why is that?”
Her hand glided gently over the ankh hanging from her neck, “I guess I didn’t want to say goodbye to Ben and coming here would be doing just that.”
Ink nodded knowingly.
Leaning towards Ink, she confided, “You know what?” she chuckled, taking a sip of her drink, “I went to Cypress Grove last night. Just after sunset. I slipped into the cemetery like a thief and spent the entire night up in a tree looking at Ben’s tombstone from a hundred meters away – the big, bad Shroud too afraid to approach a hunk of granite.”
“Did you love him, Jennifer?”
“No,” she exclaimed, her hand reaching unconsciously for the ankh, “We weren’t together for very long and I… I was so driven to build the Squadron into a fighting force to equal the Champions I couldn’t really commit much time to a relationship.
Ink peered deeply into her eyes.
“Yes, Ink,” she began haltingly, “I did love him. I loved him and I never got the chance to tell him that I did. Now, I never will.”
Ink wiped away the single tear that had begun to well up in her right eye. “My people have a saying: ‘speak from the heart and even the gods will listen’.”
Jones thought about this for a moment. Then, her face brightened. “Thank you for being here for me and for being such a good listener. I suppose I’d better get back to my hotel room and get a good night’s sleep – I’ve got to say my good-byes early tomorrow morning before heading back to HQ.” She kissed Ink on his check and got up to leave. “Remember, no gin. It affects you like an anesthetic affects us.”
Ink nodded, smiling.
With that, she walked purposefully into the throng of people on the dance floor and disappeared from view.
A tear in space-time floated silently just over a meter above the roof of the Millennium City Museum of Natural History, its circumference demarcated by coruscating ribbons of amber energy. At its center, there was simply nothing – neither shape nor color could be seen. It was as if, at the heart of this anomaly, there lurked the absence of all things.
Suddenly, a red, white and blue garbed figured was hurled out of the void, landing with a teeth-jarring thud on the asphalt. As the rift slowly faded from existence, the woman in the star-spangled costume began to stir. She lifted her head and looked around at her surroundings groggily.
Where am I?
Shaking the cobwebs from her head as best she could, she got to her feet and dropped to the ground fifty meters below with the grace of a jungle cat. She was making her way towards the intersection as silently as a shadow when a yellow-skinned creature reminiscent of a satyr with glowing green eyes and a single horn protruding from its forehead emerged from behind a tree.
“A strange creature, indeed,” it giggled, “I speak of you, not me.”
Startled, the woman jumped back, her hands balled into fists. She eyed the odd creature warily, who stood staring at her, a toothy grin on its face.
“Who,” she began, “or, better yet, what are you?”
He regarded her in enigmatic silence, which agitated the patriotically-dressed woman even more than his sudden appearance. Every muscle in her body tightened like a steel spring.
“I don’t know what kind of Ratzi trick this is so you’d better talk or prepare to get pummeled!”
He erupted in paroxysms of laugher. “Please, fair maiden, there is no need to fight. I am not a being of evil or fright. I have been a servant of The Mother for many a year, preserving Nature and Life has been my sole career.”
He then raised a single clawed hand, palm upwards, as if offering her a gift. Before her eyes, a tiny ball of emerald fire appeared in his hand. To her amazement, she could discern small humanoid creatures that looked surprisingly like the garden gnome statues people set out on their lawns dancing merrily around the miniature bonfire. Sensing that he meant her no harm, she let her guard down.
“Sorry, I guess I blew my wig,” the woman began, running a red-gloved hand through her long, blonde hair, “I suppose if this had been a trap, you would’ve attacked me on the rooftop while I was still dazed.”
The bonfire and the celebrants dancing about it disappeared in a puff of smoke. As the creature slowly lowered his hand to his side, he grinned at her so disarmingly and so infectiously that she could not help but smile in return.
“I am known as Marrion of the Mire,” the creature said, bowing deeply to her. “Who might you be, maiden in odd attire?
Extending a hand of friendship to Marrion, the star-spangled heroine began, “I go by the code-name Lady Liberty. My sidekick and I…,” she stopped in mid-sentence as if struck by a freight train. Her blue eyes widening in awful realization, she stammered “Where’s Eddie?”
Almost beside herself with concern, she frantically scanned the area for any sign of her nephew and partner, twelve year-old Edward Chambers, better known as the Indy Kid.
“Mayhap, dear lady, I may be of some small assistance,” Marrion offered cordially, “we may both find what we seek with luck and persistence.”
Taking a deep breath, Lady Liberty regained her composure.
Truly seeing her surroundings for the first time since finding herself on the rooftop moments before, she stated with scientific detachment, “This certainly isn’t Berlin and you are certainly no Nazi.” Putting her hands gently on Marrion’s shoulders, she looked deeply into his eyes and asked simply, “Where are we?”
“Your confusion is a pity,” Marrion said, “this place, fair one, is Millennium City.”
“Millennium City? Never heard of it and I do believe,” she said, marveling at the glass and steel skyscrapers rising into the night sky in the distance, “I would have. It’s simply breathtaking.”
“Aye, this city’s new life was begun upon the ashes of Detroit, Michigan.”
“That’s impossible,” Lady Liberty scoffed, “I was in Berlin just moments before I met you. Well, I should’ve said I was in what was left of Berlin after our boys had bombed it back into the Stone Age. See, the Third Reich was on its last legs but Uncle Adolf was holed up in the Führerbunker calling the shots. The war could’ve gone on for at least another six months so the War Department sent me and a few other so-called ‘mystery men’ – I hate that expression – to pull Hitler kicking and screaming from the hole that rat was hiding in when…,” her voice trailed off as the fractured image of man with piercing blue eyes rose to the surface of her consciousness.
Could I really be stateside?
In answer to her silent question, Marrion said, “You have indeed returned, yet much history and science must you relearn.”
Lady Liberty was about to explain to the annoying creature exactly what she thought of his maddening rhymes when she spied two familiar figures standing stock-still at the entrance to the massive building she had found herself on top of mere moments before.
Bridging the distance between herself and the similarly-clad man and woman in a single bound, Lady Liberty found herself directly behind the unmoving pair. She was about to speak to them when her gaze fell on a large, bronze plaque fastened to the wall that seemed to hold the two spellbound. On its gleaming surface, it read:
The Millennium City Museum of Natural History
This museum is dedicated to the men, women and children
who lost their lives in the Battle of Detroit.
They will never be forgotten.
July 1, 1995
“But it’s only 1945,” she said under her breath, breaking the eerie silence that enveloped the dumfounded pair, who whirled around to face her.
“Doll face!” the tall, muscular man whooped in genuine happiness, snatching her up in his massive arms, “it’s so good ta see ya!”
“Good to see you, too!” she exclaimed joyfully, all thoughts of the puzzle that had been set before her melting temporarily away, “Now, put me down, you big palooka, before you break my ribs.”
She had worked with Major Victor back in ’44 to break up a ring of Fifth Columnists who had been planning to assassinate President Roosevelt. He was a good man to have in a fight – tough, strong and brave to the point of recklessness. The lithe woman beside him went by the code-name Maiden America. They had never crossed paths until the War Department assembled the team tasked with extracting Hitler from the Führerbunker.
“Liberty,” Maiden America began, “you’re the egghead. Could we have been sent fifty years into the future?”
“I don’t know but, if that plaque’s the genuine article, then it looks like we have.”
“Have ya seen any of da others?” inquired Major Victory, “Da Black Terror and Kid Terror was right beside me when we burst inta da bunker. Next thing I know, I was here and dey was nowhere ta be seen.”
Maiden America nodded in agreement, “Pyroman and I were as close as the Major and I am right now before, whatever hit us, sent me here. Right there, in fact,” she said, pointing to the bus shelter on the corner of the street across from them.
Lady Liberty’s thoughts went to her nephew, who she now hoped was merely lost somewhere in this strange, future world. The alternatives were too awful to contemplate.
“Dat kraut wit da distoibin’ eyes,” Major Victor began slowly, “you know, da crumb wavin’ da javelin at us…”
“It was a spear, not a javelin” interrupted Maiden America, “the Spear of Destiny, to be precise. According to scripture, it was the spear that pierced the side of Christ as he hung on the cross. It’s said to have mystical properties.”
“Y’ain’t whistlin’ Dixie, sister,” Major Victor said, “if dat thingamabob sent us to da future, it’s packin’ ‘mystical properties’ in spades.”
“Liberty, behind you!” cried Maiden America in alarm as she caught sight of Marrion scampering up the steps to the museum entrance towards them.
“Relax, Marrion’s a good Joe.”
“What a beautiful stew of red, white and blue – a merry reunion between allies true. Yet, I must bring you tidings of terrible woe for there is something you all must know!”
“Enough, Marrion!” snapped Lady Liberty exasperatedly, “What are you babbling about?”
“It is good you have found more of your kind,” Marrion said frantically, “but beware for there are monsters not far behind!”
“Ya look in the mirror lately, short-stuff?” asked Major Victor jovially.
“Pipe down!” barked Lady Liberty.
The four stood motionless in the pool of pale light cast by the sodium-vapor lights above their heads. They could each sense a malevolence in the night drawing towards them long before they heard the shuffle of numerous feet. The irregularity of the approaching footsteps raised the hackles on the backs of their necks.
“At least thirty,” Lady Liberty said, pointing to the darkened, tree-lined park across the street, “coming right at us.”
“The dead have risen to devour the living, I fear,” Marrion said as the sounds of gnashing teeth wafted to their ears, “they come to consume us and all we hold dear.”
A horde of zombies surged through a copse of trees towards them.
Arcana Arcanatis woke up with a start. She had had nothing but fitful sleep since leaving the Squadron Supreme in the wake of the Battle of Independence Day. Memories of fallen friends and comrades haunted her dreams like vengeful wraiths.
She turned her head to look at the alarm clock on the dark cherry night table beside her.
Only 1:23 AM!
She lay in her queen size, four-poster bed debating whether to begin her day despite the fact that the sun would not rise for several hours or whether to attempt to get back to sleep. Settling on the latter, she closed her eyes and imagined strolling through the ancient pine forest outside her father’s village in the mountains of the Peloponnese in his native Greece.
Although this pastoral scene had never failed to soothe her mind, it now only served to agitate her. After twenty frustrating minutes of tossing and turning, she sat up, the sheet sliding away from her porcelain skin in a delicate cascade of shimmering silk. She stretched her arms and got out of bed. As she crossed the threshold of her bedroom, she materialized a full-length, black satin nightgown to cover her nakedness.
When not protecting the world from supernatural threats as the Irish-born super-heroine Stonehenge alongside her father, her mother was a run-of-the-mill soccer mom from the small town of Jerusalem’s Lot. However, she raised her children to embrace values that would shock most New England suburbanites – values which included naturism.
“Mother Earth,” she would tell her and her younger brother Anthony much to the chagrin of her father, “doesn’t conceal her glory in apparel.”
Her father was both literate and broad-minded yet he would become more than just a trifle uncomfortable when her mother would walk about the house completely naked.
“Grainne,” he would say, knowing from years of marriage exactly how the conversation would play out, “at least, put something on when the children are around.”
“John,” a wry smile on her face, she would retort in her melodic Derry accent, “why do ya want me ta hide what Da Moder in her wisdom crafted?”
The conversation would never escalate into an argument as it would with most couples – her parents simply agreed to disagree and left it at that. In time, however, clothing became all but mandatory in common areas of the Arcanatis household when her father was at home while bedrooms and certain other rooms in the house remained clothing optional. When her father was away as was often the case, she and her mother would shed their clothing. Despite inheriting quite a few of her father’s more conservative attitudes, her brother would occasionally go au naturel as well. To this day, Arcana seldom left her bedroom without putting something on out of deference to her late father even though he had died a few years before and she had been living alone for years.
She padded lightly across the hardwood floor into the rustic-style kitchen, running her fingers through her luxurious, auburn hair. Taking a small, antique coffee pot called a briki out of the cupboard above the stainless-steel sink, she filled it halfway to the rim with water. Next, she added a heaping teaspoon of Greek coffee into the water from an air-tight, ceramic canister next to the sink. She then added a level teaspoon of sugar from another, slightly larger canister. After stirring the mixture, she placed it on the gas burner. As the kitchen filled with the aroma wafting from the briki, she took out a delicate white saucer and matching demitasse cup from another cupboard and placed them on the hardwood countertop.
The heady fragrance of stewing coffee brought with it a wave of nostalgia. Having family breakfast around the kitchen table on Sunday morning. Taking her father a cup of coffee in his study. Gathering around the coffee table in the living room for game night. Those were simpler, happier times when the most important decision she had to make was what to wear to school and the worst thing that could possible happen was that one of her classmates wore the same outfit.
The coffee began to bubble, thick foam threatening to spill over the rim. She lifted the pot from the burner by its wooden handle so that the foam could settle. She then placed it back onto the burner for a moment, foam forming a ring on the surface of the coffee. Smiling in anticipation, Arcana turned off the burner and filled the demitasse cup almost to the brim with the brew.
She took the coffee and made her way to the living room, which was bathed in pale, silvery light from the full moon rising high above the skyscrapers of Millennium City. Curling up on the black, leather sofa, she took a quick sip of the hot coffee before setting it down on the black lacquer end table beside her. She covered her bare legs with the quilted throw blanket her paternal grandmother had made her when Arcana was still a teen.
Tonight, the Moon was much more prominent in the night sky as its orbit brought it much closer to the Earth than usual. There would also be a total lunar eclipse at 3:33 a.m., during which the Moon would assume a coppery hue as it passed through the Earth’s umbra shadow. Although many theologians and some occultists warned that the rare celestial confluence was a portent of catastrophe, there was no evil inherent in what they referred to ominously as a “blood moon”. She thought to herself that, since there were always those lost souls that would use any excuse to cause harm to others, perhaps some good could come out of her insomnia.
She closed her eyes and opened herself to the aethyric currents that connected all realities with all of their myriad inhabitants – attuning herself to the very ebb and flow of the Multiverse itself – immediately sensing a wrongness. Focusing her Sight-beyond-Sight, she could see a number of incongruities concentrated around the Millennium City Museum of Natural History. Before she could divine the nature of the strange emanations she had felt, Arcana sensed a presence outside the door of her penthouse apartment.
Leaving the matter of how the spiritual wards she had placed around her apartment had been circumvented for her uninvited guest to explain, she threw off the blanket she had been nestling under and leapt to her feet, her nightgown transmuting into her new costume – a sleeveless, black leather leotard; folded, red ankle boots; and a flowing, gold-trimmed, red cloak with a high collar. A Spell of Containment already forming on her lips, she bathed the doorway in the all-revealing light of the Diadem of Thoth. What was revealed left her utterly speechless.
She walked slowly to the door. After a moment’s pause, she grasped the cool, brass handle and opened it.
In front of her stood a handsome, middle-aged man with a greying Van Dyke, who looked as if he had stepped out of a poster advertising a bygone magic show – he wore a black, four-button tuxedo and tails with satin lapels; a burgundy cummerbund and matching bow tie; a white shirt with a wing collar; a pair of impeccably clean, black, patent-leather shoes and, sitting atop his head, a black silk top hat about 12 centimeters in height.
His hazel eyes sparkling in delight, he said, “Hello, princess. How beautiful you’ve grown!”