Clues in the forest. Unexpected violence.
Overhead, a silver, circular platform, about ten foot in diameter, with red and white lights about its circumference, hums down into the stadium. Atop it are three men. One is the Wasp, in full costume. To his right is a shorter man, dressed in a red and black costume with a silver disc, about a foot across, attached to his chest. About his waist is a silver belt. The third individual is almost monstrous. He is huge, easily seven feet tall, hunched over in an ape-like posture, with thick arms and short legs, wearing a mock-up khaki Army uniform, including combat boots.
"-- the Wasp, Fasces, and Warmonger!" Bull finishes, and immediately the crowd murmurs back to life as everyone begins speaking at once to the people around them.
"Ya watch yersef out dere, mister," she whispers softly to Stern. "Dere's danger in dem woods, especially for a man wid da darkness in his soul."
"Do you think you know me?!" Stern said as he ripped his arm from her hand. He walked a few steps then felt crushed under the weight of chagrin. Stern turned to face her, quickly, still angered, then stopped short as she recoiled and stepped back a step. Inky tendrils of deepest black trickled from the pores of his forearms. He could feel it like molten cotton candy under the long sleeves of his shirt. Stern stood fully upright, letting out a deep sigh as he again pushed the anger deep down inside. He pictured a small box down in his left foot that he could force the anger into. When he'd completed the mental lock-up, he opened his eyes and all traces of the anger were gone from his face.
"I'm sorry," Stern said.
"I know," the old woman said.
And he knew that she did. And he felt safer for it.
Adrian turns his head as he strides purposefully along, catching the tail end of the exchange. Slowing his stride to let Sam catch up with him, he talks quietly to the other man, "I know that this whole situation has you on edge, but we should find something tonight that will give us a handle on what's going on. Just keep a close eye out, and keep your wits about you. If we can handle gods in another dimension, whatever Wasp and his cronies have up their sleeve should be something we can handle." Adrian picks up his walking pace then, oblivious to the fact that he is totally misreading the source of his young companion's troubles, and probably a happier man for it.
Once they're out of sight, Adrian dons his chain-mail and helmet, replacing the frail old man with the Silver Avenger. Thinking out loud, Union's monotone is nearly swallowed by the night, "If there is so little out here, this would be the ideal spot for some sort of hidden lab or base. Hopefully we can find whatever it was Paul found, and use it to figure out what's going on..."
When Adrian stops to don his armour, Sam adjusts his wardrobe as well. He pulls on a pair of heavy leather gloves, a battered slouch hat is pulled from his pocket and a domino mask fastened over his eyes. Finally, he pulls his jacket more fully closed and you can see the embroidery on the name patch, "Malachi 3:5"
"Well I'll be hanged..." Adrian's whisper is too low for the voice modulators in the helmet to carry, so he companions can't here that remarkably inappropriate turn of phrase for their circumstances.
"Malachi, huh?" Union slowly and dramatically shakes his head, "This is turning into a very small world. Given what I've read about you in the newspaper recently, I'm sure you can take care of yourself, sir. Disregard what I brought up before, but still, you, we, all of us should be careful. We still don't know what we're dealing with."
Union steps away, moving towards their eventual goal, his inhuman agility making him virtually silent in the woods. After a few paces he turns back to his companions. "Darkangel, are you ready? Oh, and Malachi...nice hat."
Stern, once he reached the cover of the trees, closed his eyes and exhaled. An inky black shape seemingly slithered out of the ground next to him and the two bodies coalesced into one.
The new shape was humanoid without feature; three large wings sprouted from its back.
"We have much to do this night," a deep, inhuman--nigh otherworldly--voice intoned.
Any trace of Sam Stern was gone. His former incarnation as Dark Angel had merged the two resulting in an albino combination. In his place only a Dark Angel stood. Darker than the absence of light. Darker than Sin itself.
In Hell, or another plane or dimension, the essence of Samuel Stern floated aimlessly. He saw a faint light and went to move toward it. Just as he had reached for it, it winked out and he was alone in the darkness.
And all Stern could hear was the laughter.
The trio of costumed heroes arrive at the proximate location of Paul Wilson's attack shortly after sunset. The woods are thick with underbrush, and there is little light to see by. Still, it doesn't take too long to find the crushed tree. It was about two feet thick and healthy before it was apparently struck by some blunt object and snapped in half. There are numerous broken branches around, and the ground has been gouged in several places. Dark Angel finds a single footprint, a huge, booted track of a man larger even than the six-winged Angel. Malachi finds dried blood in several places.
"Ok, this would be the spot. Paul was either out here looking for something or had been lured out here by someone. Let's fan out and try and find what, or evidence of who." With that union floated a few feet off the ground, looking over the signs his allies had pointed out.
_Whoever this was, they were strong, or they had heavy equipment. My guess is that one of these guys has superhuman strength. Unless this are the result of a concussive force field. And a giant boot print? Where on Earth did that come from?_
As his mind is examining possibilities, Union's mechanical senses are spreading out over the area, trying to sense unusual electrical flows or disturbances in the magnetic fields hat might indicate machinery, equipment or some sort of hidden base. As he does so he floats in widening circles from the 'point of conflict', occasionally shifting up to a higher altitude to look over the woods from an aerial perspective, hoping to see things that might be missed from the ground.
_I hope we can find something out here, because otherwise I can't see any option other than waiting for the fire and then desperately trying to put it out..._
"Who must apply such force to attack a mortal man?" Dark Angel asked, picking up the broken tree, examining the ground beneath.
Dark Angel looks dispassionately at the large foot print, the surrounding ground for other signs of footprints, less heavy than the original.
"Why did they not slay him and return him to his maker?" Dark Angel rose into the sky, his huge wings propelling him upward where he surveyed the scene of the attack and looked for signs of the attackers egress.
Malachi looks up from the ground where he's crouched, examining the blood stains. "Because they're not interested in killing people, they want to beat them. Dead men can't be broken, can't admit you're better than they are."
"They are just words without meaning if they are not given freely." Dark Angel returned to the ground. "Petty mortal concerns," Dark Angel said in his otherworldly monotone.
Janet stares at the three 'supermen' on the stage. Her attention is drawn to Fasces, and the silver disk. _Is that the disk from Henry's drawing? I thought it would be on Henry's costume._ She wonders. _And who is Warmonger? That doesn't seem like much of a name for a peacekeeper._
Janet tries to keep a low profile among the crowd, as she waits to hear what Henry has to say.
Eric stares at Wasp, Fasces and Warmonger while trying to blend in the crowd. "Ok, ", he thought, "I can see Hank is Wasp, but which of the others is Simon?" He kept a watch on the three "heroes", ready to become Ghost Rider at a moment's notice.
And so Eric and Janet, along with several hundred citizens of Birmingham, listen to the Wasp deliver his vision. Fasces, a shorter, heavier man, stands to Wasp's right, nodding often. The brutish Warmonger, in a knuckle-walker's stoop, stands to Wasp's left, shifting from side to side, looking about aimlessly. Eric studies the three figures, wondering which, if any, is his brother, Simon. Janet is convinced the Wasp is Henry Pym. Fasces doesn't look either tall enough or young enough. He seems, though it is hard to tell through the mask, that Fasces is an older man. And Warmonger? Hardly! Eric finds it difficult to believe Warmonger is even human.
The Wasp is an eloquent speaker. Fasces isn't the only person that sometimes nods in agreement.
"We are not here to bring terror to Birmingham. Terror arrived by the busload from the cities of the North. We do not believe in violence and anarchy. The agents of societal ruin arrived by the busload from the cities of the North. We are not reactionaries, opposed to reform or the good of society. On the contrary, we believe in reform. We believe that our country is heading down the wrong path, a path littered with the trash of materialism and atheism.
"We believe that honest men can never be happy in a naked scramble for material gain and comfort. This is what Communism preaches, and it is a lie. Religion is dying in our land, slowly being killed by Communists. In religion's place comes a conceited belief in our own power over God's creation. We start to believe that we can reshape nature in our image. We forget that God's Providence has ordered everything for our own good, including an ordering of the races which cannot be altered with damage to all involved.
"We believe that society can function successfully and therefore happily only as an organism. All parts of the body benefit the body only when each performs its own distinct function unified with the whole. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If it is necessary for a certain person, or certain class of persons, to subordinate their freedom to the whole, then so be it. Any other course of action infects society with a cancer.
"We believe that no man is entitled to the services and products of the labor of his fellow men, unless he contributes at least an equal amount of goods or services of his own production. No one --"
The explosion cuts the Wasps's speech off, sending clods of earth flying and a wave of panic through the audience. Fasces starts violently, moving closer to Warmonger. As the smoke and dust settle, it can be seen that a pick-up truck, twisted and burning, sits in a small crater about thirty feet from the platform.
"You missed 'em, Tembo!" a voice calls from high up in the stands. Every head cranes in that direction.
There, standing in a row near the stadium's observation box, are five persons: three men and two women, all black, all wearing what appear to be decorated, sleeveless body stockings, combat boots, leather gloves, and African masks. The woman on the far left sports a mottled costume and a feline mask with the distinctive black "tears" of a cheetah. Next to her is an enormously fat man in gray whose mask resembles a hippo. The central figure, a tall, athletic man in tan, wears a lion's face, complete with mane. Beside him, in black and white stripes, with an equine mask, is a lady done up like a zebra. Finally, beaked and feathered, is another woman whose motif recalls the appearance of a vulture.
"Looks like its time to take out the white trash!" the lion-mask yells.
While Dark Angel and Malachi discuss the banality of evil and search the attack site, Union's mechanical senses are spreading out over the area, trying to sense unusual electrical flows or disturbances in the magnetic fields that might indicate machinery, equipment or some sort of hidden base. As he does so he floats in widening circles from the 'point of conflict', occasionally shifting up to a higher altitude to look over the woods from an aerial perspective, hoping to see things that might be missed from the ground.
Union's gambit with the suits senses pays off. While from the air, the only thing anyone can see are the lights from the farms a couple of miles away, Union detects a electrical flow about a football field's length away further to the south.
Union speaks cautiously to his companions, "Gentlemen, I've found something. There's some serious electrical flow about 100 yards southfar more than any farm would need. Let's go check it out."
Cautiously, after having been told of the flow, the trio of heroes approaches the area. They find an electrical fence, about eight feet high and twenty feet square, surrounding a ten foot by ten foot concrete bunker that sticks out of the ground about three feet. In the center of the bunker's top is a metal door with a flywheel mechanism. In the dark, searching normally, it would have been easy to walk right past the site without ever seeing it.
Adrian shakes his head inside his helmet _I find it unlikely that this is just a personal bomb shelter. Whatever's down there is well hidden and well guarded. I wonder if they have their own generator or if they're tapped into the local power grid. Of course, this is rural Alabama: I don't even know if the power grid extend to here..._ As they approach, Union continues his careful scanning of the fence, the bunker and their electromagnetic pattern, paying close attention to anything that might be a camera or security system.
Union notices nothing untoward, either electromagnetically or otherwise, which itself is a bit disconcerting perhaps.
Once he has cleared the path, Quickly but cautiously levitating the distance between the fence and the top of the bunker, motioning Dark Angel to fly Malachi and himself over the fence to the bunker, but silently warns them off from touching the bunker's surface as yet. _This is an awful lot like breaking into Williams Innovations a couple months ago. I could have had a heck of a career as sexagenarian super-thief._
Union positions himself upside down in mid-air over the flywheel and examines it with both his electromagnetic senses and his practiced eyes, trying to understand any locking and security mechanisms that might be in place. Once he has a good feel for the security, he goes to work, reaching out electromagnetically to circumvent, disable and open the doors security system.
"Do we know," Dark Angel asked, "if this is not one of your military installations?" He held back while Union explored the entry point.
_'Your' Military installations? 'Frail Mortals'? Sam certainly is carrying this whole Otherworldly Specter roll to the hilt, isn't he?_ Adrian thinks as he takes a brief breather from analyzing the lock.
Union's mechanical monotone barely carries over the night noises and the hum of the electric fence, "It's too close to a civilian population for them to have that fence up with no signs. It would either be a massive complex or so well hidden we'd never see it. I have a little experience with those types of things, and this just doesn't have the earmarks"
_Of course, that experience is 20 years out of date, but still..._
As far as Union can tell, the only thing holding the door shut is the flywheel itself. There is no sign of any sort of electronic security system. Attempts to magnetically open the door, however, fail. It seems as if the flywheel is held fast by something likely as mundane as a lock on its opposite side. A bit annoyed, Union begins to move closer to the bunker.
"Do not be so bold, friend Union," Dark Angel said. "I do not wish to see anyone hurt unnecessarily. Allow me to precede you; mortal defenses may prove insufficient to counter an attack."
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© 2000 Mark L. Chance et al