A Pretty Girl Is Like a MelodybyJukeboxEMCSA©
(Dedicated to the legendary Roy Thomas, who would hopefully not be too mortified if he read this...)
In general, people driving up and down Highway 101 through Neptune State Park were treated to a peaceful, serene experience. The protected forests of the Pacific Northwest generally rang out with nothing more than birdsong and the occasional chittering trill of a red squirrel during the warm summer months, and although you could sometimes see cars pulled off to the side of the road for a picnic, traffic was generally light.
Today was different.
Police cars cordoned off the road, creating a traffic jam that stretched for miles in both directions. The cars too far back to see the barricade at the end of the line and the harried, nervous police officers that manned it could only rely on their hearing to tell them what might be going on...and the sounds of splintering trees, explosions, and furious roars that echoed into the afternoon sky told them that they really didn't want to get any closer, even if they could. Most of the cars cautiously turned around and headed back the way they'd come, cursing the detour that would add hours to their trip and wondering just what was going on.
A few people got out of their cars to find out, only to be rebuffed by anxious police officers. After about fifteen minutes of doing so, Deputy Shana Gorman had gotten it down to a quick, pat response, something she could rattle off quickly and from a distance. When she first saw the petite young Indian woman in the green dress walking up the road, she got ready to launch into her spiel, quietly cursing the appearance of yet another rubber-necker who didn't understand what kind of danger they were walking into. "Hey!" she said, waving angrily to catch her attention. "Gotta go back! It's dangerous here!"
The girl didn't stop, though. She just kept right on walking, even though Shana could tell that she heard her words just fine. She noticed that the girl wore no shoes, and carried what looked to be some sort of musical instrument slung over her back. Was this some sort of hippie chick wandering around through the park, too stoned to notice what was going on? Shana glanced anxiously behind her. If she was, then she was going into handcuffs, and from there into the back of a cop car. Shana didn't have time to baby-sit dumb rich kids, especially not when all hell was breaking loose less than a mile behind her. Shana's whole body itched to run. A mile didn't feel like nearly far enough. That thing could jump a mile if it wanted to.
"Goddamnit," Shana shouted, "get the hell back, bitch!" She hadn't meant to swear, the girl wasn't threatening her or anything, but she was too on edge to be polite. She fought the urge to go for her gun. The last thing anyone needed was an accidental shooting, and Shana knew that the gun wouldn't do any good if it took a mind to head over this way anyway.
The girl unslung her...what was that, some sort of weird banjo or something? Whatever it was, she took it off her back as she approached. "You seem tense," she said. Her voice was soft and musical, with just the faintest hint of a British accent--more like the guy from 'Heroes' than like the guy from 'The Simpsons'. "Please, don't be alarmed," she continued, beginning to strum lightly on the strings of her instrument. "I am here to help."
Shana's eyes flicked back again towards the combat zone. "Help?" she said incredulously, looking at the girl's barely five-foot height. "How old are you, fourteen? Fifteen? Unless that little guitar of yours turns into a nuclear death cannon or something, you can stay here with me behind the cordon and let the superheroes handle this." A lot of civilians expected cops like Shana to resent having their jobs done by men and women in spandex outfits, but speaking personally, Shana was all too happy to let guys like the Rescuer and Captain Tomorrow handle the weird end of law-enforcement. Most of them were pretty nice guys, too, the kind you'd be willing to have a beer with after getting off work (and maybe something more in the case of the Rescuer, Shana thought. She was happily married, but the Rescuer was on her list just like Adventure Girl was on her husband's.)
The girl seemed to take the derision in stride, though. "I am actually somewhat closer to nine thousand years old," she said, continuing to play a sort of soft, non-intrusive tune as she spoke, "but thank you for the flattering compliments. It's nice to know I've kept my looks. And it's not a guitar. It's a veena. And so am I."
Shana furrowed her brow in sudden confusion, all thoughts of the raging battle behind her temporarily forgotten as the sudden flurry of nonsense assailed her brain. "You're a what now?" she asked.
"Not a what. A who. My name is Veena. As I said, I'm here to help." It seemed almost ludicrous, the thought of this girl charging into the middle of...of...the sound of a tree shattering about a mile away summed up the whole situation better than words ever could. But somehow, the music coming from Veena's fingertips wasn't drowned out by the noise behind them. Instead, it almost seemed to do the opposite, lulling away the panic and wrapping Shana in a cocoon of calm tranquility.
"You're a superhero, then?" Shana asked. Suddenly, it all started to make sense to her. Sure, Veena didn't look like some sort of big, tough warrior queen, any more than she actually looked nine thousand years old, and she wasn't wearing a skin-tight outfit. But Doctor Magick wore some pretty normal clothes (assuming you knew where to find a white leather trenchcoat, at least) and the Living Doll, she didn't wear anything at all. This Veena girl belonged behind the cordon. It seemed simple, once Shana understood it all.
"A superhero," Veena said, musing for a moment. "Yes, I suppose you could see it that way, although my methods tend to be a bit more...subtle than those of some that belong to the cause of justice."
Shana wondered what Veena meant by that, but she didn't want to ask. It seemed rude to interrupt her when she was playing. "Here, why don't I bring you over to Captain Tomorrow?" she said, shifting aside the barricade to let Veena past. "He's coordinating the heroes."
Veena's face lit up in a smile. "Thank you!" she said. "You're being most helpful..."
"Deputy Gorman," Shana said, blushing just a little at the compliment. "But you can call me Shana." She gestured towards a second barricade, where a young man in a metallic suit of silver and cobalt blue stood next to an ovoid, translucent bubble of pure energy. Shana tried not to look at what was inside the bubble as they approached. She was already freaked out enough for one day.
It didn't take long for them to get close enough to overhear the conversation. "So remind me again," Captain Tomorrow said to the creature inside the bubble, "why the smartest person in the world decided that it was a good idea to force Doctor Rick Randall to revert to the Broot?"
Shana blanched at the sight of the thing in the bubble, but Veena didn't seem to be disgusted at all by the sight of the pasty, gray, crenellated flesh that was barely covered by a thin, rubbery membrane. "It was a calculated risk," the Living Brain responded. "If my Mental Transference Unit had succeeded, I'd have been able to put my perfect intellect into the body of the most powerful living creature ever to walk the face of the planet. Nothing at all would have been able to stand against me then. The entrenched interests of government and commerce would have been forced to capitulate to my plans for a better society."
"And instead, you unleashed an unstoppable engine of destruction on the world," Captain Tomorrow said. A piece of his 'smart armor' detached itself from the undersuit and flew up to give him a better view of the battlefield. "'Calculated risk', my shiny butt! More like 'catastrophic stupidity'! The Broot is your arch-nemesis, he's foiled you dozens of times! He hates the very sight of you! With Doc Randall cured, you had a much better shot of taking over the world...to say nothing of the happiness of Doc Randall and everyone in the path of a potential Broot rampage. You ruined his life, and your 'calculated risk' almost killed you. If we hadn't gotten here--"
The Living Brain smiled. Shana had seen something that looked like that after a six-car pileup once. "As I said, a calculated risk. If I succeed, I'm an unstoppable engine of destruction with a 2000 IQ. If I fail, well...is there anywhere in the world that's safer than one of your inescapable 'prisons of tomorrow'? I calculated the moral code of the Liberty Squad to seven decimal places."
Captain Tomorrow's fists clenched, and Shana knew exactly how he felt. She'd met Doctor Randall once or twice when the police had gotten a call out to his cabin. He was a kind, gentle man, someone who'd never wanted anything but the best for the human race and had seen his life descend into nightmare as a result. To see this...this thing gloat over destroying Doctor Randall's world all over again, just when the doc had finally cured his genetic instability, it burned in Shana's gut. Only Veena's soft, soothing music kept her from pounding her fist against the force-field in frustration.
"You're lucky we need you to reverse the Broot's transformation, or I'd love to shove your calculations straight down your corpus callosum, pal." He turned away in visible frustration, finally noticing Shana and Veena. "Hi, Officer!" he said, in a tone of forced cheer. "How can I help you? Got a little fan there for me to talk to?"
Shana looked down at Veena. For a moment, uncertainty reared up in her head--Captain Tomorrow didn't seem to recognize her. Was this some sort of trick? Had Shana let through a civilian, or worse, some sort of supervillain? Was Veena the Living Brain's accomplice?
But the music steadied her nerves, forcing the tension out in a long, slow, steady sigh. "No," she said, smiling down at Veena. "She's another superhero, name of Veena. She's here to help."
Captain Tomorrow smiled behind his transparisteel facemask. "That's sweet," he said, with a slightly patronizing tone to his voice that he was clearly trying very hard to conceal. "I'm sorry, I don't think I've heard of you...Veema, was it?"
"Veena," she responded, without missing even a note of her infectious music. Shana had to admit, she was impressed with the girl's self-control. If another cop ever talked to her the way Captain Tomorrow was talking to Veena, she'd have a hard time responding that politely while playing a musical instrument. (If, you know, it ever came up.) "Do not feel ashamed that you do not know me; I have never felt the need to seek attention for my efforts. But I believe we have a mutual acquaintance, a woman named Venus Ascendant?"
Captain Tomorrow looked distant for a moment. He was probably watching footage of the fight from one of his remote drones, Shana thought. Heck, given that half his armor could detach and move independently, he was probably fighting right alongside the rest of the Liberty Squad right now. "Um, yeah. I'd ask her about you, but I'm afraid she's a little busy right now. We all are--the Broot puts up a heck of a fight."
"Only because you put up one against him," Veena said. "Your resistance fuels his rage. I could feel his anguish from a thousand miles away; it drew me to him like iron to a lodestone. Your battle wounds the very earth in its fury."
Captain Tomorrow rolled his eyes, shortly before they settled back into that same glassy stare. "Oh, come on," he said. "What are we supposed to do, sit around the campfire with him and sing...songs..." He shook his head a little. "No. Trust me, we've had to do this a few times, back when the Doc was still turning into the Broot on a regular basis. We've got the whole Liberty Squad out there, including the reserves, the Utopians, the Justice Underground, the Dead of Night--heck, even the Saturn Nine have agreed to help with this one, in exchange for a good word at their next parole hearing. We've got all the troops we need, and we've stopped the Broot before."
"That was before Doctor Randall 'cured' himself," Veena said. "He cured his body; but the part of his soul that was the Broot has been raging, festering away inside him. When this creature released it," she said, gesturing to the Living Brain yet somehow never stopping the soft music, "he unleashed the pent-up fury that has been denied for years. This Broot is stronger than the one you have fought. Fury cannot be defeated by fury, Captain. His rage will always outmatch yours."
Captain Tomorrow's eyes looked really glazed over now, Shana thought absently. The look seemed almost familiar, but she didn't work too hard to try to place it. She was safe here, protected by two superheroes, and she could just relax and let the situation handle itself. Even Captain Tomorrow seemed calmer, now that Veena had stepped in. "You, um...you may have a point," he said. "He does seem a little tougher this time. Maybe I can get the Rescuer to break away from the fight for a moment, and you can explain it to him."
His eyes fluttered a bit, and he seemed to regain some of his swagger. "Always assuming the Rescuer doesn't put the Broot down for the count right now. Sorry, I'm watching the fight on the smartcam, and it looks like the Rescuer might just be getting the upper hand. Go, Resc--"
Captain Tomorrow went silent. Then, as if responding to some unseen stimulus, the shoulderpads of his armor detached themselves and hovered just above the three of them, extending force shields that surrounded the trio. Within seconds, it became clear exactly what Captain Tomorrow had seen, as a thunderous impact just a few feet away from them threw up vast clouds of dirt, rocks and uprooted trees.
When the dust had settled, Captain Tomorrow dropped the force shields. What had been a peaceful stretch of road surrounded by forest was now nothing more than a giant impact crater, with the Rescuer lying semi-conscious in the middle of it. The birdsong and squirrel chatter had completely stopped, leaving no sounds but Veena's music.
"Battle's that way," Captain Tomorrow whimpered sheepishly, extending a finger in the direction the Rescuer had come plummeting in from. "Help yourself."
What had taken the Rescuer a few seconds to traverse when propelled by the impact of the Broot's fist took Veena almost a full three minutes to walk. But when she got to the center of the battle, she could tell that the situation had not improved during her journey.
Heroes lay unconscious all over the battle site. Starheart of the Utopians was buried in the ground up to his neck, protected by his transformation to dwarf star matter but too heavy to climb back out of the hole he'd been pounded into. Doctor Magick and Madame Macabre had woven a protective shield, which Captain Patriot was using as cover while he pulled a half-conscious Doctor Phobos out of harm's way. Adventure Girl looked woozy, but determined as she pulled herself back to her feet, a lump on her forehead a testimony to a blow that would have pulverized solid stone.
And in the middle of it all, the Broot stood roaring defiance. Veena shivered at the sight of him, though whether in fear or awe she could not be sure. His skin was a shimmering black, iridescent in the summer sun like a raven's wing and barely concealed by the tattered remnants of Rick Randall's clothing. His massive spiked tail thrashed around him, smacking Maiden Britain full in the chest and denting her power armor as it sent her flying back into the trees. His right wrist was encircled in Venus Ascendant's Girdle of Minerva, but even as Veena watched, the Broot yanked hard. The unbreakable strand of shining silver held, but Venus didn't--she lost her footing and fell forward.
Before she could even hit the ground, the Broot swung his fist hard, sending her flying into a tree like the last person in a particularly savage game of Crack-the-Whip. The hundred-year old oak splintered under the impact, but Venus managed to hold on to her end of the Girdle.
Which just meant that when the Broot jerked it again, she went flying in an entirely different direction, straight into the magical shield. It flared up like a star and shattered under the impact, the feedback lashing up through Venus' body and causing the Girdle of Minerva to uncoil like a sparking live wire from around the Broot's wrist. At the same time, Doctor Magick and Madame Macabre fell to the ground like puppets with cut strings.
The Broot roared in triumph, showing a mouthful of sharp, pointed teeth in a Neanderthal face. "Broot will show you! Dumb heroes try to hurt Broot, try to crush Broot, but Broot will crush you all! Broot will teach you to leave Broot alone!"
Veena tore her eyes away from the battle, looking at the heroes around her. She was still near the back of the fight, in what looked to be a sort of impromptu field hospital. Most of the heroes looked to be down for the count, but two of them, a young man in a full-body black rubber suit and a young girl in a black leather outfit with heavy goth make-up, stood ready in case the Broot broke through the front lines of the fight. Veena walked over to them. "My name is Veena," she said, her fingers already beginning to strum on her instrument. "You are members of the Utopians, are you not?"
The girl nodded. "This is Voltaic, I'm Tori. The others are either in the fight, or..." She gestured to the collection of wounded superheroes, an expression of helplessness on her face. "We're back here because..."
"Because we're useless," Voltaic snapped out. "My electrical charge is a joke to the Broot, and Tori's telekinesis can't even hold his eyelids shut." His fists clenched impotently as he watched another superhero launch himself at the Broot.
"Do not be concerned," Veena said. "You have done enough. I can handle things from here."
Voltaic looked at her incredulously, but Veena could see that her music was already seeping into his thoughts. "You can?" he asked. "But you're..."
"Your mentor, Professor Psyche, knows me of old," Veena said. Mentioning the Professor seemed to help her calming spell take root. "I met her back in Greece, when she was a young woman."
Tori looked over at where Professor Psyche lay. "She tried to reach into the Broot's mind, calm him down," she said distantly. "I think he was too angry for her, though."
"Do not worry," Veena said, a bit more insistently this time. "I will distract the Broot. Your job is to gather the heroes and get them to safety, out of harm's way."
Tori looked over at the fight. "That's easier said than done," she said. "Harrier's mixing it up with him right now, and he's not exactly the kind of guy who lets go once he--" A dull gray blur flew overhead, smacking into a tree with a loud thud. "Never mind," she said, watching her team-mate flop to the ground, senseless. "Wow. I've never seen him go down with just one punch before. Even the Rescuer had to hit him three or four times before he knocked him out, the one time they fought."
"The Broot's fury is greater than anything you have imagined," Veena said. "None of you, not even all of you at once, can stand against the heights of his rage."
Tori looked over to where the Broot had just picked up a groggy Adventure Girl and flung her bodily into a woozy Venus Ascendant. "Then how will you fight him?"
"I won't," Veena said, turning away and heading towards the massive, towering creature. Behind her, Tori began to use her telekinesis to pull heroes away from the Broot, but Veena was centering her attentions on the massively muscled beast. As she closed in, she noticed fine details--the rough, pebbly texture of his skin, something like a shark, and the hooked claws on the ends of his hands and feet. He towered over her, his eight feet of height making her look even smaller than usual.