Thursday, January 8, 2009

ZAP FORCE (excerpt)

Graffiti found spraypainted on the side of Sparta University’s Dawne Hall, March 11, 1994:

Tesla Girl Tesla Girl

I’m in love with Tesla Girl

Bartholomew 'Barley' Keppler sat stiffly in front of one of the comm-console's many videoscreens. He couldn't really sit any other way; paralyzed from the neck down, his torso was kept upright in his motorized wheelchair by a rigid body brace that looked more like a medieval torture cage than a piece of modern medical apparatus. His head was cocked off to one side and his uncombed, greasy hair fell in lank waves to his left shoulder. The thick, black rimmed glasses perched precariously on his nose distorted his bright blue eyes and nearly hid the glint of manic intelligence in them.

The videoscreen in front of him was alive with oddly angular Japanese animation. As he watched, one of the characters pointed stiffly and shouted to another, "Blast him, Ray! Blast him with power!!" Knowing it would annoy Albert, Barley loudly echoed the line -- not in his natural voice, which he rarely used, but telepathically.

"BLAST HIM, RAY!" he screeched mentally (taking care not to let either of the girls receive him; they were at that moment fighting Wargs, and he didn't want to distract them), "BLAST HIM WITH POWER!"

Albert looked over at him impassively. "Barley, are you keeping track of Robin and Claire?"

"Of course, O Fearless Leader," Barley projected in reply, nodding his head jerkily. "They're... let's see... ooooh, Claire's scared; the Wargs both dodged and one's right on top... nope, Robin got it... oh, now Claire's really mad... She's gonna cook it... yow, Albert, remind me never to get her that pissed off at me."

Albert rose to his feet, rested his hands on the table, then sank back down into his chair again. "Should I go out there? Some of the vehicles in the hangar might get me there in time -- "

A sudden loud crash from the videoscreen brought Barley's head snapping around again. The villain had dodged, letting Blaster-Master's eyebeam detonate an enormous gasoline tank. "Man oh man," Barley breathed. "How come we never fight bad guys in the middle of a field of oil tanks?"

"Something to do with our sanity, I think," Albert replied coolly. "Barley, are the girls --"

Barley bit down hard on the mouthpiece he used to control his wheelchair and it spun rapidly in a circle; one of his gestures of exasperation. "They're hunky-dory, Boss! All the Wargs are dead dead dead! Uh..." He stopped and concentrated a moment. His facial expression became slack, then he grimaced. In a much quieter mental tone, he continued, "Shit, boss. I can't pick up Jeremy at all any more."

Albert closed his eyes. "I thought you said you lost contact with him a few minutes ago due to this psionic interference."

"The interference made it impossible for me to maintain contact with more than one person in the area at a time," Barley agreed. "I gotta concentrate real hard just to do that much. But I could still get Jeremy if I tried. I switched to Claire a few minutes ago to keep track of them and now I can't find Jeremy anywhere."

Albert's voice became very soft. "So he's dead?"

Barley spun his wheelchair around frantically, three full revolutions. "No way! No way! No way! He's gotta be just 'ported outta my range! Shitfire, Albert, the Baron ain't gonna kill Jeremy -- he wants us all alive!"

Albert nodded; that much, at least, was true. Baron Samedi, like every other so called Monarch, very much wanted the eight of them intact and functional -- as newly created superhumans, they were considered desirable acquisitions by all the elder paranormal clans - Royal Houses, as they called themselves - in existence. The Samedis had actually had them all, once; Barley and Rusty, working together, had fried the high tech psionic interface that was sapping their wills and they'd made their escape, wreaking complete havoc on the Samedi's headquarters complex in the process. Now, apparently, the Samedis were making a move again, months sooner than Rusty's most pessimistic predictions. Albert sat there, and tried very hard to think clearly and coherently. After a few seconds, he said tiredly, "Call everyone in. We need to meet and besides, I want all of us in one place for the time being."

Albert Schmidt did not look even remotely Teutonic; if anything, he looked Mediterranean -- medium height, stocky build, straight black, shiny hair that looked as if someone had painted it on his round-domed cranium... he'd once written in his journal that if he flunked out of college, he could always go to Hollywood and find work playing Mussolini in World War II movies. He had a pronounced widow's peak, his nose was broad and peasantish, his eyes narrow and naturally dark-ringed. His face fell of its own accord into a worried expression, and although he deliberately stayed clean shaven to combat it, he knew he looked years older than his actual age of 20. He thought it was a rotten break; he would have had no problem buying beer, but since he didn't drink at all, that was no benefit to him.

His habitual stillness also made him seem much older than his true age; unlike most people, he had virtually no body language, and almost never made extraneous gestures. It was not an affected trait but a completely natural one, and he would have given it up if he could have, since he'd been made aware on several occasions that it bothered most people deeply. If he kept his eyes closed for any length of time while others were in the room, they usually had an overwhelming temptation to check him for a pulse.

Right now he and Barley were in the large chamber they all thought of as the main meeting room, mostly because it was right down the hall from the elevator (two doors down on the left, right past the kitchen), had a big shiny mahagony table in it (forty feet long and twelve feet wide; most of them tended to cluster at the far end, but there was room to spread out when tensions were high), was just across from the big gymnasium (weights, parallel bars, uneven bars, overhead horizontal ladder, gymnast's horse, swimming pool, rings, climbing ropes, punching bags, pegboards, and a lot of other things no one knew the names of), contained a large communications console (phones, viewphones -- although whenever they got a call on one of them it was bad news, since only Royals had that technology -- radio, TV -- with over 1000 channels supplied by a hidden satellite dish -- computer with fax-modem & scanner, separate fax machine, and many many more communications devices that none of them but Rusty even pretended to understand), and in the corner of the room nearest the connecting door into the kitchen (containing a huge walk in freezer stocked with enough food to feed an army for a century, and enough junk food to kill that same army three times over), there was a den-like grouping of low-slung, black-leather-and-chrome Bauhaus style furniture, arranged around an 14'x20' wall screen TV with built in tape deck, CD player, and VCR. Cementing the room's enduring popularity was walnut paneling (that slid aside in strategic areas to reveal more computer stations, from which any area of the complex, and many areas of the campus, could be circumspectly monitored), a luxuriously thick carpet (which, amazingly enough, seemed to conceal no secrets, other than the mysterious property that kept it perpetually clean), and 14 wonderfully decadent chrome and leather swivel chairs lining each side of the long central table. (The chairs were mounted on apparently frictionless casters and could be easily rolled over to the various hidden monitor stations when need arose.) The lighting came from muted ceiling panels, the ceiling itself was a spacious 12 feet in height, and although Albert secretly felt the room was a very sterile one that would be vastly improved by a few potted plants and a working fireplace, nonetheless, it seemed that the chamber's very lack of individual stylizing made it generally agreeable to all. Barley had declared that the room was exactly what every superhero team needed, and gone on to lament that the table didn't have a big, cartoon lightning bolt running down the center of it -- and despite those comments (most of the other members found Barley's constant comic book references annoying; Robin and Jason heaped open and virulent derision on them), the room had still become, by common unspoken consent, their 'main' gathering place.

When they gathered at all, which wasn’t very often… in fact, it was absolutely no more often than absolutely necessary. Which everyone thought had been happening far too often, lately…

Albert had rushed down here from his corner suite on the 7th floor of Dawne Hall ten minutes before, when Barley had first apprised him that Jeremy was being stalked out at Kirby Field House. He'd been issuing orders on the way to the elevator, after listening to Barley's quick reports on the locations of all the other Zs ("Sandy's in a bar on Lee Street; lemme see... no, Boss, we don't wanna interrupt her right this second... Claire's in the Doll House talking on the phone to her mother in Quebec... Robin's sittin' through one of Druger's boring Biology lectures in the HBC auditorium...") and of course, with Jason gone and Jeremy the one being ambushed, available resources had pretty much been limited to Robin and Claire. He could have had Robin swing over to Dawne Hall to pick him up, too, but it would have cost extra time -- Claire's sorority house (which all of them except Claire called the Doll House) was pretty much in a straight line between Robin's class and Kirby Field House, while Dawne Hall was in the opposite direction. Albert ached to be out there in the field, but the extra couple of minutes might make an enormous difference to Jeremy. So he'd made the tough decision, sent Robin to pick up Claire, and hurried down here, where he could monitor everything and maybe, in an emergency, jump in one of the dozen or so futuristic vehicles they'd found in the complex (he'd puzzled out the controls -- he devoutly hoped -- on four of them) and speed out there to help.

As it had turned out, his presence wouldn't have made much of a difference, as the girls had apparently handled the three Wargs by themselves. On the other hand, having Robin come get him, too, apparently wouldn't have hurt any, since Jeremy had almost certainly already been missing by the time they arrived. Overall, it seemed he'd made as good a call as possible; the Samedis had just out-maneuvered him.

God damn it, this time he was going to assign everyone a partner whether they liked it or not -- if Jeremy had had backup with him, he might not have been missing now.

Or the team might be down two members instead of one, he thought glumly to himself. Well, three instead of two, since you had to count Jason. But you couldn't think that way; the team was all they had between them and capture by any one of a dozen Royal Houses. It had been a serious mistake allowing people to move around individually, regardless of their virulently stated personal preferences. He couldn't afford to make any more mistakes like that, and the others couldn't afford to continue indulging their own stupid little whims, either.

On the communications console a red light began flashing on and off beneath one of the viewscreens. Barley was sitting right next to it, but the slackness of his features and the unfocused way his eyes were staring behind his thick, black rimmed glasses told Albert that he was busy monitoring one of the others (or, for all Albert knew, all of the others simultaneously). With no expression on his face, Albert pushed off from the table, letting his chair roll through the deep pile of the carpet and thud to a halt in front of the console. The lens cover was down on the videophone's camera pickup; since Albert wasn't in costume, he left it down. Baron Samedi probably knew what they all looked like without masks, but other Royals didn't, and anyway, it never hurt to be cautious.

"Zap Force, Gallant speaking," Albert said, and although he felt more than a little ridiculous using Barley's code names for the group and himself, he had to admit it sounded at least a little more professional than "Hi, this is Albert".

"My dear chap," came a deep, fulsome voice out of the console's speakers. Albert immediately recognized the reverbating baritone with the upper crust British accent just slightly spiced with the rhythms of Jamaica. The image on the screen was that of a shaven-headed, moon faced black man of very African features, with a broad, blindingly white smile that exaggerated the expression of malevolent good cheer written large on his handsome and expressive face. An ivory stud earring, artfully carved into the shape of a skull, gleamed in one earlobe.

"Baron Samedi," Albert said calmly. "I hope you're well?" Actually, Albert would not have been at all displeased to be told that the Baron had contracted rectal cancer, but he'd been raised to be polite, and he'd long since discovered that most Royalty valued courtesy highly -- the emptier, more hypocritical, and more elegantly worded it was, the better.

"Positively smashing, old tick," the Baron said, his eyes glittering coldly above his expansive smirk. "And I trust you and all the other dear little Zap Forcers are in the pink of health? Heh, heh."

"As far as I know," Albert said cautiously. "I do seem to be having some trouble keeping track of all of us lately... although you probably don't know anything about that."

The Baron laughed, a rolling crescendo of mirth that reminded Albert of waves rumbling into a particularly stony beach. "Ah, you tickle me as always, old horse." 'Horse' actually sounded like 'hawss' in the Baron's mouth; once again, Albert found himself wondering just how much of the Baron's absurd speech patterns were a deliberate sham -- did he actually talk that way in private? But he was going on... "Yas, I'm afraid I must admit to some culpability in your regrettable misplacement of that dapper young African-American... whatever do you call him? Bulwark? Buttress? Fortress? Figurehead? Heh, heh."

"Rampart," Albert replied levelly. "But I'm pretty sure you remember anyway... you've probably got it stenciled on his collar already."

The Baron rolled his eyes in mock horror. "My dear Gallant, what an appalling boor you must think me. I assure you, I would never dream of preparing your collars without consulting you first as to their appearance and general style." His face became suffused with sinister good humor once more. "After all, old stick, you will be wearing them for a considerable period. Heh heh."

Since the start of the call one of the other screens had been filled with constantly changing lines of textual gibberish; now, abruptly, it blanked. Just as abruptly, three sentences silently printed themselves across it: GOT THE PENDAJO, BOSS. HE'S JACKED INTO A FIBER OPTICS LINE THAT RUNS UNDER BEN FRANKLIN PLAZA IN PHILADELPHIA. HIS OWN CABLE IS ABOUT 300 YARDS LONG AND HIS SIGNAL IS ACTUALLY ORIGINATING FROM ABOUT 200 FEET DOWN AND 1750 YARDS NORTHWEST OF THERE.

Albert didn't allow his expression to vary, but below the range of the video pickup, he quickly typed a question. To the Baron, he said, "So, you have Jeremy. Do you want us to ransom him? We could probably come up with some good stuff to trade..."

The Baron's face became grave. "Don't speak to me like a fool, young man. I'm well aware that your obnoxious little disembodied ghost of an engineer -- Mainframe, yes? -- has already traced where this call is coming from. Do you think he'd ever have come close to being successful if it were not my explicit will? Heh, heh."

Albert nodded. "Gotcha. My apologies. So, you grab Jeremy, then call me up to gloat, knowing I'll trace the call, and fairly soon, we come charging in like the 8th Cavalry and bang, you've got everybody. That's the plan?"

The Baron broke once more into a broad smile. "Of course! The seven of you, charging gloriously to the rescue, banners flying, trumpets all a-tootle... what a splendid spectacle you'll make; I really just can't wait to see it. Shall we say, tomorrow afternoon, two-ish? I really do want to spruce the place up a bit... beat the rugs, hose down the slaves... or is it the other way 'round?... have the chefs put together a special banquet; you know, that sort of thing. And I'm sure you and your little friends have your own preparations to make, as well..."

Albert shook his head slightly. "We sincerely appreciate the invitation, Baron, but we really couldn't impose. However, if we do happen to be in the neighborhood in the near future, we'll be sure to drop by."

The Baron looked aggrieved. "Well, dear boy, if you insist on a surprise visit... still, of course, you're always welcome." His voice dropped to a stage whisper. "But if you don't mind, could you use the front door this time? I'll leave it open. Those gaping holes you children left in the walls after your last visit were the very devil to repair."

Albert reached for the disconnect switch. "Give my regards to the Baroness," he said.

"And hers to you," Baron Samedi replied smoothly. "Until later, then?"

Albert nodded and cut the connection.He glanced at the screen showing Rusty's prior communication regarding the origin of the Baron's call. Underneath it, his own question blinked -- IS THE BARON LYING ABOUT ANYTHING?


So, the Samedis had Jeremy, which was bad. And since the Baron had referred to the seven of them coming to the rescue, and his inflection hadn't shown the slightest variance, they didn't have Jason... which wasn't really good, since it would have been nice to know exactly where Jason was right now, and if it had turned out that the Samedis had him, it would mean he was almost certainly still alive. Moreover, if Jason and Jeremy were being held in the same place, they could neatly combine two rescues in one trip.

Put that off to the side, now. Jeremy was the current problem; the Samedis had him, Zap Force had to get him back... and fairly quickly, before those two ancient schemers had a chance to use their deadly combination of psionics and alien technology to completely brainwash him.

Oh, yes, and in addition to all of that, it would be nice if they could all survive the attempt, too.

"Definitely a 'three pipe problem', Fearless Leader," Barley suddenly chimed in. "Too bad you don't smoke, huh?"

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