"Okay, I'm unloading everything I've got at you!" said the graying-haired composer, holding his Ship Systems Display in his left hand. "At point-blank range, that'll do 72 damage points!"
"Ugh!" winced his opponent, looking gravely at his own S.S.D. "That'll go right through my left-rear shield without even trying!"
"That's what you get for using those Klingon D7 Battlecruisers. They have glass shields."
"My shields'll stop 20 points of damage, leaving 52 to get through to my internal systems. I don't even have that many systems left on board!"
"Then that means your finished," the composer gloated as he grabbed the Klingon S.S.D. from his opponent and tore it in half. "And you never even penetrated my shields. Good game."
"Lousy game," he acquiesced, shaking the composer's hand. "That's the last time I ever let you use a Romulan Mauler."
"Please, call it a 'War Falcon' class ship. The word 'Mauler' clashes too much with my own name."
"Hey, yeah! 'Gustav Mahler,' 'Romulan Mauler.' I never thought of that! I just spend time thinking about how you, a neo-romantic orchestral composer, have the same exact name as an Austrian composer from the late 19th century."
Gustav the composer did a double-take. "How do you think I chose that pseudonym, dummy!"
"I know, I know, just kidding. Say, I've got to be leaving now. I'll leave you in peace while you go and have your private victory party."
"Well, you have to admit, I really creamed you!"
"No you didn't," he said as he left through the front door, "You mauled me!" The door clunked shut.
Gustav Mahler chuckled quietly to himself. "That card. He can handle any starship you face him up against, as long as it's a Federation Heavy Cruiser."
He turned his attention back to his piano and the nine-part instrumental piece he was composing, "Opus to Star Fleet Battles." That game had practically become his life ever since the first expansion module, which introduced the Romulan "War Falcon" class Mauler. He had been living and breathing Mauler up 'til the time of that game, and it only seemed appropriate to him that he should musically praise the game from which the ship design sprang.
He puzzled at a section that still worried him. He had tried many times to mentally picture the exact sound he wanted there, and each time he came to the conclusion that it required a trombone; however, the nine parts for which the piece was written didn't include a trombone part. No, the horn just wouldn't do there, and neither would the cello or the bassoon. Frustrated, he clapped his hands together in midair straight out in front of him, and instantly recoiled from the shocking effect this created. When his hands had clapped, there had been a momentary flash of white light and a sizzling sound.
"What?" he mouthed to himself as he looked at his hands. He tried it again, and got the same effect: his hands pulsed with white light accompanied by an almost electrical crackle.
'This definitely bears further investigation,' he thought as he removed himself from his piano workbench and walked absent-mindedly into the hall, still staring at his palms. He clapped them together close to his body, but this didn't produce the crackling. He outstretched them again, and got the light and crackling he did before; but this time he kept his hands together. He began rotating, looking like a human pointer with his hands out in front of him in an isoceles triangle. Finally, he aligned himself with the closet door at the end of his hall, and began to concentrate on the energy in his hands. It didn't take much effort for the energy to leap from its origin and thunder down the miniscule yards of air between it and the closet door.
The white beam struck the door like a thunder god's hammer, and reduced it to kindling without any fuss at all.
Gustav unclasped his hands instantly, even though the energy they now produced was far less intense. He looked up at the door, then down at his hands, then again at the door. His breath was heavy from nervousness; his own reassuring voice failed him.
Finally, he spoke to himself. "I just blasted down a door. I just fired a big white beam out of my hands." He shook his head. "I have to be dreaming."
He clapped his hands together again, and the energy and sizzling returned, but at about half the power level as before. It was then he noticed the intensity actually building up until, ten seconds later, it reached its original level. He felt like trying a blast again, to make certain he was just dreaming, but he thought the better of it; he didn't want to wreck anything else.
His hands flopped to his sides as he slumped into stupefication. "How?" he asked himself. "How did I do this? Am I a mutant or something? I'm no energy blaster, I'm not another supertype, I'm Gustav Mahl—"
He grinned. "Mahler. Mauler. It only works when my hands are straight out in front of me. Or does it?" He clasped his hands together off to the left. Nothing happened. "Yep, it only works straight out in front of me. I wonder if I have a deflector shield too. . . ."
Concentrating, a transparent sphere of light-flickers materialized tightly around his body. He walked forward, and as he did the sphere went with him. He decided to test it by bumping into the wall. It repelled the wall, but doing so required some effort on his part.
"Yep. One genuine deflector shield. How about warp engines? . . . No, I don't think I'd better try that one out, not indoors anyway. Okay, then, how about impulse engines? . . ."
He looked through the exit from the hall into the living room, and began thinking about moving through the air. Almost instantly, he started feeling a tugging in his groin, and was lifted to weightlessness. A little extra effort, no more than it took to walk, was all he needed to propel himself out of the hall and across the living room. He landed on the far side of his sofa.
"Impulse drive, deflector shields, and one super-powerful direct-fire attack that takes time to recharge. Yahoo!" he exclaimed as he did a flying flip with his new powers. "I am a Mauler! I really am a Romulan Mauler! I guess my wishes were answered or somthing, 'cause I have all the powers of my favorite starship — scaled down, of course."
Excitedly, he approached the living room's picture window which looked out on the city. There were millions of people out there, at least a dozen of which were super-heroes. They were the millions who looked to the selfless super-powered individuals who protected them without a second thought, from the lowly Scientist with his unimaginable devices, to Magnetic Bottle, a fusion furnace encased in his namesake.
"Well, now it looks like I'm going to join their ranks. Look out world, you're about to hail the arrival of MAULER!"
The majestic new figure streaked down from the sky in linen-white splendor. His chest bore the simple symbol of the thick, black, upward-pointing arrow that represented the Romulan Mauler's only weapon. A white band of cloth hid his upper face from view, except for his deep blue eyes. His hair had been dyed completely black.
He came to rest on the street below, not ten feet away from the town's only outcast hero, the human brick known as Brick One. The once-human's rectangular body didn't frighten or disgust the new man as it had so many other people. The white-clad figure approached to within three feet of Brick One and announced in a voice that mocked everything super-human, "My name is Mauler, and I am here to join your ranks."
"Well, you're not going to maul me," Brick One said as he braced himself on ridiculously short legs that barely protruded from his brick-shaped body. His power-packed arms were the same length.
"Don't let my name fool you. Though few may guess the reason that I chose the name Mauler, it has nothing to do with my personality. I am super-humanly powered, like yourself, and I wish to join with all the super-heroes in this fair city."
Brick One puzzled for a moment. No one had talked with him for a long while, and he was having difficulty coming out of the withdrawal he had felt for so long. "Do you really think that all the supertypes in this city are banded together in one big organization?"
"Of course. That's what the news always says."
"Nuts to the news! If we were one big happy family, it would make our work a whole lot easier. But as it is, all the super heroes exist independently, confident in their ability to work things out on their own. If just one of the supertypes around here had the integrity to consult a detective — just one — the rate of heavy crime would go down to zilch. It's not the daring daylight robberies that affect people the most, it's the underground, the organized crime figures that sneak by us that are the most dangerous. Although, to be honest, we have come in handy a couple of times. . . ."
Mauler was looking at the ground. "Then I guess I'll just have to be an independent super-hero. Unless you'll work with me."
Brick One chuckled. "Thanks for the offer, but I'm as much a loner as everyone else. The powers of one hero are usually more than enough to handle any situation, and if it gets too big everyone else'll hear about it and come running." He pointed to himself. "Brick One can handle anything short of Godzilla, and if you have any kind of power worth noting, then you probably can too. And there's one more problem."
"I can't fly."
"You also talk too much. But I get the point. I'll just have to find something that needs doing on my own. See ya!" He took off.
"So long," Brick One called back. "Nice conversing for a change. If you ever can't handle anything, just let me know! . . ."
Mauler wouldn't have far to look.
In a corner of the city no one cared to investigate anymore, one of the few aliens hiding among humanity finally dropped his human guise. He took a black domed device the size of a vacuum tube from his pocket, and secured it to the side of a building. It politely beeped once, and then lapsed into silence. The being that had been its owner stood rock-still and waited, his grotesque stumps supporting him as legs would a human. Their spiteful race had waited for the right time, and now his transmission would let them know that the time had come.
Thirty seconds later, his body dissolved into smoke. A black aura that had once held his shape coalesced into the inch-wide black hemisphere and then flashed out of the atmosphere faster than anything human could detect.
The man with the black arrow on the chest of his skin-tight white costume sailed downward toward the area that had come to be known as the "lower" side of town. This seamy side of the city had been thought uninhabited, but Mauler could find nothing he could help with elsewhere. 'It's this part of humanity,' he reasoned, 'that needs the greatest help, if any are down there. Besides, nothing that exists in this area could possibly do me in now.'
He landed near the concrete building where, just moments ago, Earth's first contact had sent its surreptitious message back to its own awful kind. The place was as deserted now as it had been for the past decade; an unused, forgotten, and yet potentially useful area of asphault and concrete. His vain hopes turned grimmer as he lost all notion that there could be activity in this locale.
Still, old buildings, with their rusted metal aperatures, were enough to occupy his interests. Most of them simply had iron bars over broken windows, but a few had withering smokestacks protruding from the side. One even had a black, one-inch-diameter blister which looked completely unlike familiar rusted iron.
He closed in and examined it. It had all the flawlwessness of new plastic without the polished sheen; a flat black instead of a glossed one. What wondered him was that it seemed not to be part of the building so much as stuck on its side. He grabbed it and yanked it from its adhesive foundation.
"Interesting," he commented. He couldn't tell any more detail about it from the bottom than from any of the sides; it served no purpose. Casually, he tossed it over his shoulder, where beyond his sight it landed without bouncing or making a sound. That was enough for him to resume investigating it.
"Oh, no," said a grotesque being in a semitelepathic language. She was of the same self-induced mutated form as the one who had given up his human guise not half an hour before.
"What is it, Number One?"
"I'm afraid we might have some trouble with this one. He's too curious about the transmitter Number 376 left behind. He won't be able to break our lock-on with that planet, even if by the slimmest possibility he destroys the transmitter, since we already have that place pinned down in all of our records. But if he does get it open, and finds out what it's for, we could be in very big trouble.
"I don't have to tell you how long I've planned for and dreamed of this time. We were practically built on hate from the ones of our race that turned us into these . . . mutants. Ever since our exile a century ago, I've worked on a way to get the power we need to get revenge on the people that did this to us and then threw us out into the void; but in order to do that, we'd need a race in our clutches which has learned to harness fusion power yet hasn't approached or exceeded our own technology level. I've sent over fifty spies to prospective races on the brink of fusion technology, and at last one of them has signalled that the race he'd monitored has made it there. Now, the five hundred of us cramped in this dinky space ship will finally be able to carry out the plans we've dreamed of time and again over the past hundred years.
"But if anyone is alerted — if anyone can detect our presence and undermine our subterfuge — then we've lost. Our plans involve taking them over s-l-o-w-l-y, without any of them realizing it's happening until it's too late. Number Seventy!"
"Yes?" queried a being as he materialized on the bridge.
"Seventy, get to the warp chamber, and take along some armament and a transmitter. I have a job for you. . . ."
Mauler was back at the house of Gustav Mahler in that selfsame "secret identity," looking at the black hemisphere under a magnifying glass. There was apparently no seam and nothing on the outside except for an adhesive that was comparable to the same stuff used by the ton in modern society. Finally, he decided he'd have to break it open to learn anything. He set the device on a table, took hold of a heavy book and smashed down on it, holding back ever so slightly so as not to damage the inside. The surface didn't even bend.
"Hmmm, must not have hit it hard enough." He drew the book back and hit it again, this time not pulling the blow one bit. The reflectless surface was just as unaffected.
He looked nervously to his front window; good, he'd had the foresight to close the curtains. "Well," he announced, turning back to the device, "I have another way of opening you up."
He took the hemisphere to his bathroom, laid it down on the tile, stepped back, and swung his arms in a large circle which ended with his hands clapped together. The bright bolt of power surged onto the device and shrouded it completely in light. When it stopped a fraction of a second later, the tile had been burnt away in a ring that centered on the device, and the shell of the hemisphere itself had at last cracked open.
The inside was too dark for him to make out any details. He quickly retrieved a flashlight and shined it into the device's innards. Most of the light was lost in its ebon blackness, but enough of it was reflected back to reveal a circuitry pattern so fine that he couldn't see its microscopic regularity. It appeared to him as only a random mosaic of continuous, yet grainy-looking, colors, even through his magnifying glass.
'Who left this on the lower side of town?' he wondered. 'If I didn't know any better, I'd swear this was microcircuitry; but the details are too fine to be seen. I'd better change to Mauler and take this to the one guy who might be able to determine its purpose: The Scientist!'
"Yes, what can I do you for," droned the smock-garbed Scientist, not looking up from his work. His personality was as slow and step-by-step as his scientific method.
"I found this on the lower side of town. It took practically everything I had to get it open, and I can't figure out the insides. I was wondering if you could.
The Scientist looked at his white form and black arrow for the first time. "I don't know you. Are you new around here?"
"The name's Mauler, Romulan 'War Falcon' class starship at large. The name doesn't reflect what I do, believe me. As I was saying, I have no idea what the innards of this thing mean."
"Neither do I, and do you know why?"
"Because I haven't looked at it yet!" He took the black hemisphere from Mauler's hand and peered through the hole. "Hmmm. . . . It's too dark to see anything of value in there. I'll need a light."
"I already though of that, that's why I brought a flashlight along."
The Scientist stared arrogantly at the three-volt wonder presented to him. "No, no, that won't do at all." He reached over to the wall two feet away from him and pulled a strange-looking metal rod six inches long over to his work area. He let go of the rod; it held itself aloft magnetically. He pushed the single button on its outside, and a bluish-white shaft of light sprang from its front end and permeated the device's inner darkness as a searchlight would the night.
"Wow," said Mauler. "How did you ever fit that much power into that little device."
"Halogens, my boy. Its entire length is occupied by a quartz-halogen light tube. It gets its power from the magnetic field I put this whole room in."
The Scientist studied the inside, a bit puzzled, then got out another device shaped like a thick disk with twin holes at the top. He positioned this above the hole in the shell, put the light off to one side (but still shining in), and peered theough the holes on the disk.
"What's that thing?" inquired Mauler.
"Fifteen hundred power binocular optical microscope. I've seen phenomena through this thing you wouldn't believe." After a ten-second stare at the hemisphere's insides, he spoke again: "Well, it's definitely microcircuitry, but it's finer than anything I've ever seen manufactured." He took the microscope away. "There's also this flange which doesn't have a bit of printed circuitry on it. I can't tell from the color what it's an alloy of, but . . ." his voice trailed off as he rotated the object.
"What is it, Scientist?"
"That flange . . . it just moved! It just reoriented itself when I turned this hemisphere, like it was on a gyroscope or something." He rotated the little black hemisphere so that it was oriented in all directions, one by one. "There's no doubt about it. This thing is pointing in one direction, and one direction only. It even doubles back on itself."
"Then it's a compass or something."
"Well, let's see." He pushed a large button marked "OFF" on his wall. Instantly, every one of the objects he'd left suspended in midair crashed down. "Woops, sorry about that. I always forget to put my stuff down when I'm through with it. Anyway, it's not a compass; otherwise, shutting off the room's magnetic field would have changed its orientation. No, if my hunch is right, I may have found what I've been looking for all these years.
"Let's see . . . where it's pointing, it cuts through the Earth at about a twenty-seven degree angle. That would be . . ."
He walked to a metal cabinet on the far end of his workroom and retrieved an elliptical sheet of transparent plastic. He unfolded this into a two-foot diameter sphere with a pedestal in the center. He placed the black object on the pedestal and closed the sphere completely, afterwhich he crossed to and pressed the wall button marked "ON." The sphere immediately began rolling along the ground.
He picked up the sphere and positioned it about four feet off the ground. It rocked back and forth until it made up its mind and stayed with the black dots on its outside facing one direction. Instantly, several other, smaller spheres popped out from its perimeter and aligned themselves concentrically. It was then that Mauler recognized one of the symbols; a dot on one of the inner spheres was labelled "Sirius."
"These aren't really all plastic. I have to do a lot of work with electromagnetics, so I finally ended up concocting a transparent organic substance with a high-iron content. This is one of my better creations: the Sun-Centered Real Directional Star Chart."
He studied the orientation of the hemisphere's tab with respect to the dots on the chart. Some came close, but none of them were exactly on the mark. "Nope, it's not pointing to any one of the local stars."
"Are you trying to say that this thing is connecting us with outer space in some way?"
"I am trying to say that this thing has to be of extraterrestrial origin. I am also trying to say that there's a high probability it's a transceiver, communicating from someone on Earth with someone out there. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this was left here by some alien spy that was, or is still, in our midst. It doesn't point to any one of the local stars, though."
"How about any of the planets?"
"No chance. It isn't even pointing along the ecliptic, and it's not currently aligned with our moon."
"What about some of the more distant stars?"
"If this thing communicates faster-than-light, I don't see why not. Let me punch up the extended star chart on my computer." He moved to a table in the corner, flipped a switch at the side of a console, and began typing in apparently random figures.
"How do you keep a computer in here," Mauler inquired, "Without this magnetic field of yours screwing it up?"
"Easy. I don't use hard disk, floppy disk, magnetic tape, RAM memory, or bubble memory. I store everything I need in a humongous 4.5 Gigabit Ferroelectric memory downstairs, and use small Ferroelectric memory and ROM chips in the terminal. These are non-volatile and are not affected by magnetic fields as weak as the ones I use. Uh, could you tell me the right ascension? I forgot to look it up on the Star Chart."
"There should be a digital readout marked RA somewhere on that see-through sphere. I set the thing to sense where the tab was pointing."
"Uh . . . Sixteen, colon thirty-three, point two-five."
"16 hours, 33 minutes, 25 seconds. How about declination? That's the readout marked with a capital DEC and a degree sign."
"Two seventy-five point three-six."
"275.36° . . . hmmm . . . nothing. It's not pointed exactly at any star in the known galaxy."
"How about another galaxy?"
"That's a possibility, but I have another idea. I'll bet that this isn't pointing at a star system at all, but at a starship somewhere along its path. I've recorded where it's currently pointing; if I could keep it a while, monitor any change in its orientation, and maybe find out if it is transmitting or sending, then maybe I can find that mysterious space craft of ours."
"Well, you go right ahead; you could do a lot more with that thing than I ever could. I'd better be going."
"See you around, Mangler."
"That's Mauler, and it doesn't reflect what I do," he said as he walked right into the front door.
"Hey! That door was just a hologram when I came in!"
The Scientist chuckled. "Sometimes there's a door there, and sometimes there's just a projected image of one. You wouldn't believe how well it deters the crime around here — along with my robot sentries, of course." He pushed a button on his belt, and the door silently replaced itself with its own image. "Now you may leave."
'That has to be the weirdest place I've ever been in,' Mauler reminisced as he walked out along the sidewalk for about ten feet and then took to the air. 'He's even stranger than the rumors about him.'
Mauler descended in a back alley near the "middle" side of the city, the full marvel of extraterrestrial contact finally catching up with him. This was it! If The Scientist was right, human contact with Earth's interstellar neighbors, a goal which had been sought for ever since the possibility existed, would finally happen. Ten million theories about alien life and society structure and all of that would at last be proven or disproven, our technology would soar ahead by millenia, and countless other things would change — probably for the better.
He was so far removed from his surroundings that he completely missed seeing the black cloud of energy form and resolve itself into its normal, grotesque form right in front of him. Only to its own kind could the form be discerned as masculine.
"Mauler," came its words in garbled English.
"Huh?" gasped Mauler when he saw the form, too shocked to form words.
The creature produced a three-inch disk, pointing its glowing red backside at the black arrow on Mauler's front. "Give up your search for us," it said.
Mauler attempted to speak. "Who? What? Are you —"
"Just heed what my superior says! I have taken care of your Scientist friend already."
"You . . . you killed The Scientist?"
"No, I simply put him in a three-month coma, took him to a hospital in a human guise, and destroyed the transmitter you gave him. We cannot allow our presence to be known for the next few months — after that, it won't even matter."
"Aliens?" asked Mauler.
"We are from another star system."
"Then . . . The Scientist — he was right!"
"Yes, he was right. His force fields and steel walls couldn't keep me out, though. I thought it appropriate to let him know just why I was putting him into a coma before I did so, as I am doing with you now."
Mauler's eyes opened wide. That — thing — intended to put him into a coma to keep him from "talking" for the next three months. And they had some kind of subterfuged plan; one that he, and he alone, could spoil if he let enough of the right people know about it.
The extraterrestrial stiffened the arm supporting the disk. "Good night, foolish prince," he said, and pushed a button.
Mauler broke himself out of his shock in time to see the wide-angle cone of red light spray toward him. He instinctively cringed, and in so doing caused his deflector shield, weak as it was, to generate itself around his body. The little scintillating sphere was enough to make the red energy cone conveniently curve around and ignore his body.
"What?!" screamed the alien as the elated Mauler whisked himself into flight. It spoke into the back of the knockout disk in plain English: "This is Number Seventy calling Number One. 70 calling 1. Mauler is a supertype, repeat, Mauler is a supertype. He can create a deflection field which nullifies the effects of the coma projector. Am proceeding after him in flight, intend to use unshielded transmitter as a Negative Energy Beam to kill him. Out." He pushed a hidden switch on a hemisphere identical to the one Mauler had found before, and streaked into the air, leaving a short contrail of black energy behind him.
Mauler glanced over his shoudler to see the form trailing him. "This is it," he told himself. "Your first confrontation as a Super-Hero. I was hoping I'd only have to build up to something like this; maybe take on a couple of street thugs or foil a bank robbery — even a Super-Villain bank robbery. Well, you wanted to be a Super-Hero, and now's your chance, up against impossible odds and playing for stakes higher than you can probably guess."
With his shields still up, Mauler could see the alien closing in on him. He started increasing his speed, and realized that this diminished the strength of his already-weak shields. 'So my shields and my impulse drive derive their power from the same source,' he thought. 'I can fly fast, or have strong deflectors, but not both.' A black beam zinged by him as the alien narrowed the gap between them. 'What a time to find out the limits of your powers!'
They were soaring about half a kilometer above the ground by this time, careening head-long on their hunter-and-hunted paths. Mauler executed a swinging dive to try and lose the alien, but this only shook the ugly being off his tail for a few seconds. Finally, when he was directly in front of the alien, Mauler slammed on his brakes and turned all of his kinetic energy into shielding. Unable to stop himself or turn away in time, Number Seventy crashed head-long into a force field.
Relatively speaking, Mauler's deflectors were weak; but they were more than tough enough to take the impact in stride. Seventy bounced off the rubberish layer in a mild concussive shock, and shook himself to his senses a few seconds later, hovering.
"Let's see how strong your battlescreens really are," Seventy said as he aimed his transmitter at its shielded target and let loose a black, pulsating beam of force. Mauler's deflectors shook violently as the beam tried to penetrate them, and when the beam at last subsided, it left Mauler a barely-conscious wreck.
'Don't go down now, old boy,' Mauler thought. 'Recuperate yourself, stay up! . . . I can hardly keep from falling, let alone turn on my shields.'
He did recuperate. With a few heavy breaths, he looked up at his adversary, then said, "You're not the only one who can fire energy beams," clasped his hands together in front of him, and shot a blast of power at his foe with everything it had.
The alien screamed once in pain as the brilliant white conflagration engulfed him. Unfortunately, he had had the timing to activate his transmitter, thus being only semi-corporeal when the attack hit. The groggy, smouldering form that emerged was in no way dead; in fact, he was still conscious.
"Must escape," he strained to say. "Human is too pow —" He became incomprehensible to anyone who did not speak his native language, pushed an unmarked place on his transmitter again, and shot up at a 75-degree angle.
Mauler was quick to follow. "That thing's blast only fazed me, but I have a feeling mine nearly crippled him; I'm surprised he isn't dead. He's probably going to alert his bosses to my presence, and then the whole thing'll crash down on me. There's no way I can catch up to him in the atmosphere, but maybe — if I do have all the powers of the Romulan War Falcon — I can survive in hard vacuum and overtake him, what with no wind resistance acting against me."
He continued to trail Seventy even as the clouds passed him by and the air began thinning. The rushing air took on a hollower tone, and he was aware that it was cold, but the new environment didn't make him feel in the least uncomfortable — just strange. When the limits of atmospheric and gravitational Earth finally gave way to the inky, specked void, Mauler was secure in his ability to survive space.
He accelerated to a far greater degree than he ever would have been capable of on Earth, his opponent still within range of sight. If his speed were measured in terms of aerodynamic scales, he would be streaking outward at over twenty times the speed of sound; as it was, he had no reference points to betray his immense velocity, and on a celestial scale he was practically standing still.
His opponent drifted guidelessly toward some unrevealed destination as he approached at a far-too-great relative speed.
As he pushed himself to a hard stop, he thought he heard the alien speak. But no sound could travel through a vacuum! Yes, the alien was definitely speaking to him, thought how he could only guess. His ears rang with the clear words, "I seriously doubt that you could follow me through hyperspace. . . ."
Seventy pushed a switch on his transmitter, turned into a black cloud, absorbed himself into the device, and shot out at almost the same angle he was already facing, an invisible blur among streaked stars.
Mauler was stunned. "Hyperspace!" he shouted, though he couldn't hear his own words. "I can't do that — nobody can. Nothing short of a futuristic star ship could go faster-than-light." His inaudible voice weakened as his eyes opened wide in revelation.
". . . and I am a futuristic star ship: the Romulan War Falcon class Mauler! I wonder if I have Warp Drive. . . ."
He turned to face the same direcion the alien had taken off in, as best as he could remember, and concentrated on moving at a "very high speed." Without a second thought, his legs began to feel like they were rotating, spinning on their ball-and-socket hip joints. He glanced at them and found that they themselves weren't spinning, but that pipes of blue-white energy had encircled his legs and were revolving at an alarming rate.
And three tense seconds later, Mauler's perception of time and space was irrevocably altered. Spinning concentric disks of light and shadow slammed onto his psyche, moving past in combination with a feeling of intense, inexorable thrust. And yet it wasn't a thrust he felt; not exactly a thrust anyway, as human material laws might term it. He was existing simultaneously in the known universe of light and matter, and in a parallel three-dimensional universe where the speed of light was too slow to attain. The stars he knew turned into contrails, and flashed out of his vision. When they came back into focus, they were falling away at a speed that compressed light-years of distance — trillions of kilometers — into days or hours. He was in Warp space.
After the first hour of travel, he decided to relax a bit. He was travelling at a velocity measured in cubed multiples of the speed of light, but on the cosmic scale it would still take a long time to cross interstellar distances. It wasn't for nearly five more hours that he felt a definite presence tugging at his being, directing him to alter his course ever-so-slightly. He could easily ignore the presence, but some part of him told him that he should take the suggestion and change course. He was detecting something in his general area that his eyes would never have been able to find even if the object were at a close, interplanetary distance.
As he followed his new sense, the changes in his course came more sharply and frequently. Finally, he saw a distant star get temporarily obscured, and then two more in a straight line with it. The sensation had led him to a faster-than-light, moving patch of darkness that he would never have known existed otherwise.
'Sensors,' he thought. 'All warp-generating objects give off a strong sensor signal, according to Star Fleet Battles. I guess I even have one of those, too. Hey! I'm even overtaking that thing. I'd like to "see" what that thing is up close.'
It didn't take a point-blank approach for him to recognize it. 'The alien!' he thought anxiously. 'I've caught up with him! I can't let him get to his people, they'll have more than enough power to stop me and take over the human race. From what The Scientist said, the signal was aimed at a spaceship somewhere between star systems.'
A look of concern crossed his face when he recalled a section in Star Fleet Battles. He said it aloud, but this time could hear the words: "'Most captains will not follow a disengaging star ship because they will likely be led into a trap.' For me, going to Warp Drive is disengagement. I hope I'm not. . . ."
The black streak that was the alien almost snapped back behind him as it cut its speed; it was going out of hyperspace. Mauler quickly responded by following his example, telling himself to shut off his "Warp Engines." His double universe shook, almost violently, as the stars traced their contrails onto his mind's eye and were replaced by concentric rings of fire. The feeling of "red shift" quickly subsided, though, and he emerged in his home universe at the speed he had attained before he left and a place four parsecs from Earth. The only macroscopic occupants for light-years around were himself, the alien (who was now partially assembled), and a disk-shaped space ship the size of which he could only approximate.
It was a self-contained city-state, with all the protection that entailed.
A battery of ranged weapons was at him instantly. Against the backdrop of space, the beams of black energy would have been completely invisible and impossible to avoid with normal sight; but they were composed almost entirely of Warp energy, and left a strong enough sensor impression for Mauler to avoid. Only one beam managed to hit him before he snapped back into Warp space, and that glanced off his deflector shields at an ineffective angle.
"Follow him!" bellowed Number One from her command post. "Follow him through hyperspace and catch up with him on the way to Earth. Then blast him with the Negative Energy Cannons. He'll be in no position to counterattack; his weaponry only works sub-light. Then there'll be no one to stop us from getting our revenge!"
"Sir, he's gone! Disappeared from our detectors!"
"What? Damn! He's escaped us. We'll have to fight him in his home territory. I don't understand how a hyperspace contrail could be concealed!"
Mauler cruised back toward Earth at a few hundred times the speed of light with a relieved smile on his face. "Romulans developed the cloaking device, too," he mused to himself.
Before he even re-entered the atmosphere of the world he called home, he saw the alien's interstellar city materialize just beyond the blue-fringed horizon. There was no doubt about it; he was 'way out of his league with something like this. Atomic weapons might be able to take them out, but that would take time to get; what with going through the proper government channels, finding reporters that would believe his story before the ship found him, and all the red tape involved with getting help on saving the world. The only chance he had would be to find another Super-Hero.
He picked out the continent that was North America and headed toward what he remembered from looking at maps was the location of his city. The air flashed by at several times the speed of sound; without his deflector shields, the re-entry heat would have burned him to cinders. And by the time he'd reached the lower atmosphere, the alien's space ship had halved the distance between them. . . .
"Brick One!" shouted Mauler, swooping down to a familiar street corner so fast he almost didn't stop in time.
"Huh?" said the rectangular, off-white strongman, looking in the direction of the call. "Oh, hi, Mauler."
"Bricky, I'm in trouble. Real trouble. We're all going to be in very big trouble if they're not stopped."
"What? If who aren't stopped? What are you talking about?"
"Ah. The aliens." said Brick One sarcastically.
"I mean it! I know I'm new and everything, but that's why I need your help. This is too much for me to handle by myself. I don't have time to explain, but a flying saucer the size of a small city is after me, and I'm going to need help."
Brick One's sarcasm had vanished. "But what can I do? I can't even fly!"
"I'll carry you," Mauler said quickly, and tried to pick him up. "Nope, sorry, there's no use, I can't even lift you."
"Like I said, what can I do?"
Mauler decided quickly. "You can get help! Get someone who flies, get an F-15, get a helicopter for yourself — even get Magnetic Bottle for all I care. Just GET HELP!"
He glanced quickly over his shoulder, and took off without another word.
The space ship had entered the atmosphere. It was already a distant speck against the blue midday sky, hovering by using either thousands of tons of thrust or a gravity nullifier. Mauler would have to get it to chase him around the perimeter of the city until reinforcements came or until it aroused enough attention to be engaged. "Some First Contact," he said to himself, hyping himself up for the challenge ahead. "I always thought extraterrestrials would be good guys, wouldn't have made the same mistakes we did, would be ready to help us along, and all that. And what happens? The first race of aliens we meet is even more devious than we are. Kind of makes you wonder, doesn't it. . . ."
The ship zoomed up to close view almost without Mauler knowing it, moving silently under whatever kind of nonphysical thrust it used. 'Well, here I go,' Mauler thought as he did a midair backflip and began flying away from the space ship upside-down.
"Give it up, human!" echoed a beam of sound directed straight at him. "We are radar-invisible, and make no noise. Nobody down there ever looks up unless they hear something or are certifyably insane. And we're too high up to cast an appreaciable shadow. We're going to stop you, who call yourself 'Mauler.' We're going to stop you right in full view of your fellow humans, and no one will ever know anything."
'Oh, great,' Mauler thought as he corkscrewed to normal flight again. He looked behind him because of a sensor signal, and was just able to pull out of the way of an incoming black energy beam. It was then he realized what he had missed so often before; while his beam was noisy, theirs was silent. Warp energy made only the barest of hums as it arked toward its target.
"Black, silent phasers," he said to himself, naming the beams at last. "I've got to alert someone to their presence. I can't just hold out and —"
A black beam came close to him again, this time deflecting off the shield he had up at quarter-strength. He continued to himself: "— hope that reinforcements arrive in time. . . ."
"You can't win," announced the alien voice directed at him again. "We can't afford to have you tell your people about us; an entire planet of beginning fusion technology level could easily destroy us before we managed to subjugate them. We must work our way carefully into your society, like an illuminatus, and then use your numbers and your fusion technology against the ones who created and exiled us."
Mauler puzzled. "They're not just out to take over the universe?" he asked himself quietly.
"No, we're not," the voice responded. They had been listening to his words with supersensitive parabolic equipment. "There will always be certain 'negative' or 'evil' individuals in a society, no matter how much that society tries to help its members. In the case of the race we came from — a beautiful race that looks similar to your insects — some of the few bad people started up genetic engineering to make mutant armies. When the populus found out about it, the Engineers covered up by destroying their equipment and saying that they had tried to create us for the common good, but their gene splicing had a few quirks in it, and the ones they'd created were killing machines.
"Never mind that there were five hundred of us and that we could never know sexual pleasure, our hideous looks were designed for just one purpose: ostracism. We were all exiled, without even being given a chance to explain, since we hadn't been educated in how to speak. They threw us aboard this ship, the closest one they could grab, and set the controls for deep space; we'd have enough life support to live out the rest of our lives 'in comfort.'
"But we were far smarter than they had reckoned. They thought that if we ever got near the controls we either wouldn't do anything or, if we were unlucky enough, we'd change our course a little bit. They had forgotten to clean out the operating manual and vast library aboard this ship, which let us learn their language and master the ship's controls. Our spoken language is only vaguely, if at all, like theirs, but we have the wealth of their civilization behind us now.
"All we need is a force of numbers, and we can get rid of the idiots who did this to us once and for all! Their whole society is screwed up, I don't care about their intentions. If they want to exile us, they must want to fight us, and we want to win such a fight. Your fusion technology will be just enough for that, for nothing can stand up to the fury of a piece of a star unleashed."
"If you were exiled without an explanation," suggested Mauler, "Why don't you go back to them and explain yourselves?"
"Do you think they'd accept us, or trust us? Would they take the word of a group of ugly beings once thought mindless and brutal, or would they take the word of an old group of genetic engineers which are probably still as alive now as they were a century ago? We cannot turn back! We must conquer them or avoid them forever, and yours must be the race that helps us do that!"
A barrage of black phasers unloaded themselves at him. He cut his impulse drive down so that his deflectors could operate at full strength, and tried as best he could to weave between the shots. One beam hit him, and that was enough to get through his shields and knock him from the sky.
He recovered a few agonizing seconds later, his perceptions slightly distorted from the hit. He wouldn't be able to dodge as many beams this time; he had no other choice but to strike. He swung his arms around on their shoulders; his hands met above his head; he aimed directly at where the phaser fire had come from; and a pure white beam of energy lept from his clapped hands, backed up by the force of his own effort, and smashed a node of phaser turrets. They wouldn't survive the immolation.
Mauler drew back his arms in fatigue and pain. 'The Mauler starship,' he recalled, 'Can use its own energy systems to boost the power of its beam, but not without damaging itself. I think I just did that.'
The ship circled, bringing a new set of weapons to bear. After firing his beam at full strength, Mauler wouldn't be able to use the power again for a few minutes without severely injuring himself. He turned his back to the ship, and sped off toward the city's perimeter, hoping to draw the ship into a chase.
"You can't get away from us," came the voice again. "We can fly at several times your speed, even in this atmosphere. What's more, you're completely sound-shielded from the people below; we both are."
"I'm what?" Now his hopes began to crumble.
"Why do you think this ship moves so silently? It has a nice little feature which can dampen or eliminate all longitudinal air vibrations in its vicinity."
'Oh oh,' he thought. 'And I can't get out of their range of effect to warn anybody, since they're faster than me. Unless . . . unless I can maneuver and accelerate better than they can! They said they could go faster than me; they didn't say they could attain a new speed in less time.'
He curved around sharply and headed right over the top of their ship. Dozens of external weapons instantly accounted for his new position and fired, but the ship as a whole had great difficulty in adjusting its speed accordingly.
Mauler had cross-flown at maximum speed to escape the ship, though, and as such his deflectors were completely "down" to give him the needed impulse energy. But his new relative speed made him a more difficult target to hit; and since the phasers were designed for long-range combat, with more emphasis on setting rather than a fast traverse, the human star ship managed to weave through the pattern of beams unscathed.
"Whew!" he said, wiping his forehead nervously. He quickly remembered that his conversation was being monitored, and shut his words off.
He wouldn't be able to maintain this pace forever; the alien's ship would eventually get the better of him, and strike him from the sky. Unconsciously, he would smash into the ground, not even getting to witness the true reason for his death first-hand. Then the human race would be subjugated to the extraterrestrials after about three months, and all of humanity's achievements would be used as slaves in a massive, tragic revolt. If they won, humans wouldn't regain their freedom for millenia; if they lost, mankind would be no more.
But he wasn't going to give up without giving it everything he had. He zoomed away from the space ship at maximum speed, straining the impulse drive within his body to its very limits. The ship came about and headed at him at nearly twice his speed, boasting its movement superiority to a man who was nearly exhausted. It could indeed out-accelerate him.
Three black phasers fired at him. The first arked dangerously above his head. The second came within centimeters of his right side; it would have hit if he hadn't pulled himself out of the way. And the third struck his foot, ate through his shoe, burnt the skin, and temporarily deadened the nerves. He swerved from side to side, unable to control his path or actively avoid any more beams that came near him; he was an easy target.
A tragic look of triumph passed over Number One's grotesquely feminine form. "They'll never learn," she said, moving her arm toward the button that would fire the Negative Energy Beams for perhaps the last time. The beams were now aimed with laserpoint accuracy. "We need to use them, we can't let them know. Goodbye, last obstacle; you were truly noble."
She stabbed her hand down on the black button.
And at the same time, a stream of thermonuclear fire burned the phaser turrets facing Mauler down to the bare hull of the ship.
"What?" screamed Number One as the warning indicators flashed "NEB malfunction" and "Fusion Warning." Her ship was under attack from a new source that used the fury of pieces of stars.
Mauler could barely hear the fusion beam that the people below could not. At its source stood a humanoid metal figure, supporting itself on bright streams of fusion energy that spouted from the soles of its feet.
"Magnetic Bottle?" inquired Mauler. He had only ever seen pictures of the human hydrogen bomb before.
"The one and only," came the tinny voice from the speech synthesizer on his face. "Brick One sounded legitimate when he came to me, so I decided to check his claim out. It seems he was legitimate."
"Magnetic Bottle!" Mauler cried. "It really is you! My waiting paid off! Come on, Mag, let's show these aliens they can't subjugate this intelligent species!"
"You got it, newcomer," the former-human-now-fusion-energy-being said, and let loose a quadruple fusion beam from the fingertips of his left hand. The air in their path was literally set on fire as the plasma/heat collided with a randomly chosen point on the ship, and nearly punctured a hole in it.
"NO!" howled Number One. "NOT FUSION ENERGY! Raise the battle screens to full strength while I try to figure a way out of this!" She was the only one with enough thermonuclear background to think of a way out; she was their leader by knowledge.
At his own slow pace, Magnetic Bottle circled the ship while Mauler no more than watched, kept up, and cheered him on. Mag asked, "Can you do anything besides fly?"
"Yes, but it takes me a while to recover a full-strength charge on my Mauler blast. I'm saving that for when I need it; you look like you're doing just fine."
"Well, when you're right, you're right, I — YIIIIII!"
Mauler's eyes opened wide in terror. Magnetic Bottle's body was buzzing, humming via some invisible outside force. The seams around his fingertips, his joints, even the vault door that was his stomach, lost their ability to contain Magnetic Bottle's fusion self, and began leaking deadly, plasmic-hot thermonuclear radiation.
'Magnetic Bottle's only a mass of intelligent fusile material with a continuous reaction going on to keep him alive,' thought Mauler quickly. 'The armored humanoid shell he wears contains his fusion energy by creating a magnetic plasma bottle, but somehow that's gone. If he breaks loose, he'll devastate the landscape and die in a few destructive seconds.'
"Excellent," said Number One in her own vaguely native language. "The magnetic repulsor we put him under is cutting off his magnetic bottle. He'll explode, wreck the city, and die instantly, while we stand by and watch under our protective battlescreen. Against a direct beam we have no chance of survival, but against a widely dispersed explosion our battlescreens can absorb the energy."
Mauler looked nervously at Magnetic Bottle, then at the ship. A metallic panel on its outer edge almost looked as though it were vibrating, and it was facing Magnetic Bottle almost directly.
"It's coming from the ship!" Mauler cried. He streaked over to the panel, swung his arms around in wide circles, and clapped his hands together. All the energy of a full-strength shot was discharged through the beam as it exceeded the limits of the alien's battlescreen and wrecked the metal plate for good.
"Oh no," Number One sobbed to herself. "That was our last chance!"
Magnetic Bottle composed himself, still hovering. The energy leaking from his joints had stopped just short of melting his shell.
"Okay, we're even," said Mauler. "You saved me, I saved you; but who's keeping score. Now let's finish this ship off!"
"No sooner done than said," Magnetic Bottle announced. He looked intently at the base of the ship, then flipped a lever on the side of his head. A cone of thundrous, yellow fire spewed from where his eyes should have been, cut through the battlescreens and vaporized the flat bottom of the flying-saucer.
Almost instantly, the space ship began to hum and rumble, its sound responding to how it was losing balance and trying desperately to stay aloft.
"The sound dampener!" said Mauler. "You took out its sound dampener! Now everyone can hear it!"
The people below at last started looking up to see the thing that had been looming over their city for several minutes. Needless to say, their eyes and minds were filled with panic.
"That's not all it took out," said Magnetic Bottle, indicating the west horizon. "I think I also managed to get rid of its radar invisibility."
Two F-15 fighters jetted from where Magnetic Bottle pointed and slowed to a subsonic cruising speed as they opened up communications on a common frequency: "Land your craft at once, or we will be forced to destroy you."
"I radioed the air force, too," said Magnetic Bottle. "Now look impressive. We've got to scare these extraterrestrials into surrender. We also have to look good on camera when the news teams start rolling."
Number One looked at the two ominous fighter jets, then at her battle damage read-out, then at the two Super-Heroes pointing their hands at her ship. With the reluctance of a century, she pushed the control that would start the craft's landing sequence.
Gustav Mahler relaxed in his home while he watched the evening news. A film taken earlier that day was being shown, depicting five hundred ugly and exhausted aliens being carted off by practically every authority in the country. A pretty news caster was reporting from on-the-scene.
". . . and besides the renowned Magnetic Bottle, the aliens were also twarted by the new kid on the block, Mauler. Tell us, how did you manage to defeat an entire starship full of mutant extraterrestrials armed with what you termed, 'black phasers'?"
"It was easy," the white-clad figure with the black arrow on his chest said. Gustav Mahler mouthed the next words along with the TV film, knowing that they would live eternally in the new society created by the discovery of the aliens:
"They were bound to fail."
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