________ ____ _ _____ _ _ ____ _ | | | | | | | | | | | | BLiP | | | | | | -|-- | | o | | | | |--| |--| |---| | | |--~ |--| |--| |--- ---- | #7 | | | | | | | | | | | \ | | | | | | |___ | | | | | |~~~ | | | | _ | | | | | |~~~ | | ~~~~~~~~ ~ ~ ~ ~~~~ ~ ~ ~~ ~~~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~~~~ ~~~~ ~ ~~~~ [Cover is of the bottom of the Wishful Star building. It takes up most of the cover, and there are a large number of people queueing to get inside. Through some of the windows, part of a large creature can be seen.] -------------------------------------------------------------------------- "The Mank of the Mandrake, Part One" "Wishful Star Rising" The Wishful Star rose out of the normal buildings of Phila.DEL.phia as a large structure of metal and glass. The surfaces that reflected the sun during the day also captured the lights of the city by night. Although it wasn't the tallest building, it clearly dominated its surroundings. This structure was fresh and new, trying to be something Phila.DEL.phia was not. On the ground, far below the spiked ball that rested on top of the Wishful Star building, there was a long queue of people waiting to get in. The doors had opened hours ago, but still the line of people stretched around the block. They waited with patience not usually exhibited by club goers, and they all held admission tickets either gripped tightly or delicately between fingers. Inside was a garish light show, made worse by the two large objects that floated far above the floor, defying principles of physics, and, more basically, gravity. They were large spiked balls of metal, different coloured lights streaming from different spikes. They tumbled as they danced on air, lighting up the scores of people below, all trying to enjoy themselves. Two such people were here for business, not pleasure. Careful observers would have seen something strange about them immediately. Although the woman wore a stylish dress, it looked dingy, patched up, and as though there were stains on it recently that much scrubbing time had mostly erased. The woman herself looked pretty enough, but her makeup looked smudged, and blotched, done by someone who never practiced the arts of cosmetics. The man near her was the same way. his suit creased and patched carefully, although not perfectly. His hair gleamed, though greasily, and his face wore a haggard look. As he approached the woman, so did another man. "Drink of mad, dear? On the house, drink of mad?" the man offered. "Get away from me," said the woman, although whether her revulsion was at the glass of grey liquid the man held, or at the man himself was not clear. Turning to her companion, she said, "Benny, time to go." "This music," said Benny, taking her arm. "I can hardly hear anything." The music was loud, too loud. More felt than heard. It was easily more than enough to block out Benny's partial hearing. "What did you say?" They moved into a corridor leading away from the noise and glamour. The woman looked about, searching. "I said 'time for work'," she enunciated. "Got it?" "Got it, Mar," he said, and stopped her outside a door that read "Staff Only". Opening a tattered purse, Mar extracted a small piece of thin, yet tough metal, and wedged it into the fine crack between the door and the frame. With Benny on watch, she started jimmying the door open. Far upstairs, sensors reflected off glasses, showing the attempted break in below. "Intruder alert.. service hatch 17," reported the owner of the glasses. The dark room made reading screens easy, and the glow of the monitors gave enough light for the technician to turn and see the shape, at least, of the man behind him. "Two children lost their way to the rest rooms, you think?" the technician offered, knowing that it was a less than slim possibility. "Unlikely. Track them, I'll go down there myself..." came the cultured voice of the man in the shadows. "...and show them out." _-~-_ Agent parked the van three blocks away from the club, all parking spots nearer having been taken. He stepped out, and gazed down the street at the Wishful Star building. What he saw he didn't tell anyone. Ducking back down, he looked in the car, and sighed when he saw the Net.Elementalist lying against the door, dozing. Going around to the other side of the car, Agent pulled the door open, letting the Net.Elementalist fall. The seatbelt kept the Net.Elementalist from dropping onto the footpath, but it did jerk him awake. "Hey, what was that for?" he asked blearily. "Come on, time to go," said Agent. The Net.Elementalist fumbled at the seatbelt release, and eventually pulled himself out of the van. "It's been a long day," he said, reflexively rubbing at his eyes, but stopping when his hands encountered the band of his suit that went around his head. "We spent most of a day on the Mole planet, then get back here, and take a two hour drive to Phila.DEL.phia, meet my wife, then you decide to go clubbing. Any chance for a break soon?" [Read the last few issues to see what the Net.Elementalist's talking about - Footnote Girl.] "The night air will wake you up," Agent commented, taking the Net.Elementalist's arm to guide him along. As the Net.Elementalist inadvertently yawned lungfuls of fresh air, his brain woke up and started remembering just what brought them out here. He gazed around, and saw the club. "Impressive." "Maybe," said Agent. "There's definitely something worth investigating there, but how should we go in?" Even from this distance, the long queue of people could be made out. "Back door?" Agent looked the Net.Elementalist up and down. "You're obviously dressed for the part." The Net.Elementalist grinned. "What do you suggest then?" Agent looked down as they walked. "How about that?" The Net.Elementalist followed his gaze. "Are you serious?" "Have you ever known me not to be?" Below the street level, the Net.Elementalist looked around distastefully at his surroundings. "What makes you think the sewers will provide easy access to this place?" Agent shrugged. "It just seemed like a way to go. Better than trying to get in via other means." "It would have been nice to try those other means first, though." "Well, we're here now, so try to make the best of it," said Agent, turning a corner. "Make the best of it?" repeated the Net.Elementalist incredulously. "In a sewer? Who knows what kind of creatures have escaped down here. Crocodiles, snakes, Darin Morgan..." A roar echoed from far behind them. Agent and the Net.Elementalist slowly turned. "I'm so glad we went this way," said the Net.Elementalist. "Anything for a quiet life," said Agent. Moving quickly, they backed away, and cast about for a way out of there. While several pipes led away from the sewer, they were too small for escape possibilities. Looking up, Agent spotted a large tunnel directly above. "Up there," he said, pointing. "Quickly." "Net!" the Net.Elementalist cried, his outfit whitening. Agent grabbed hold of him as the Net.Elementalist lagged himself upwards. The tunnel bent to a horizontal pipe, but leading off the edge of it was a door. Agent tried it, but found it locked. He started walking away when another roar reached them, this time a lot closer. "Open that door," commanded Agent. "Flame!" A directly burst of flame burnt the lock away, and they pushed the door open hurriedly and scrambled inside. "Are we inside the Wishful Star?" asked the Net.Elementalist. "I really hope so." _-~-_ Morph had finished telling of his adventures on the planet of the Moles, and it now fell to Dva to tell her tale, although that first necessitated telling Alice, the Net.Elementalist's wife, whose house they were currently at, about how Dva came to be in the first place. As she talked, Dva noticed that Alice kept glancing at the clock on the wall. Poor woman, she though. Got her husband back, first time she's seen him for three or so months, then he gets dragged off again. Dva hoped for Alice's sake that Agent wasn't needlessly dragging the Net.Elementalist into danger. _-~-_ Benny and Mar shone torches into the darkness. Mar's mind was more on what had just happened before. "There's an awful lot of mad available up there. One guy tried to push it onto me," she said. Benny had other things on his mind. "What was that?" he asked, not paying attention to her. "Pan your torch around..." Something glittered in the artificial light, and they zeroed in on a bench with chemical equipment on it. Benny examined the devices. "High tech stuff here. Centrifugal dishes... dilution pumps... we'd have to get the others to make certain, but I'd say yes. "We have a madake factory here." Lights flooded the room, causing them to jerk around. Behind them were three people, two basically thugs, in Wishful Star t-shirts. The other wore a comfortable suit, his dark hair falling softly around his handsome, although harsh face. "How lovely for you," the man suavely commented. "I am Drake, the owner of this complex, and you are in the wrong place." "Hush, child," said Mar, placing herself in front of Benny. "We're lost, that's all." "Please, I know who you are," said Drake, holding up a device that emitted a picture of Mar and Benny, but in far more ragged clothing. "Mariam Creast and Benny Jackson, self-appointed members of the Homeless Ones. Your acting's feeble, don't give up the day job." "We won't!" cried Benny, bringing a gun in sight that he had pulled out while shielded behind Mariam. It was an old revolver, two of the chambers blocked, but that still left four bullets. Benny fired one at a thug, catching him in the chest. The thug fell backwards to the floor. "Let's go, Mar! Move it!" Benny put another bullet into the light, sending the room back into darkness, and he and Mariam hared off. Drake didn't hurry after them, but the other thug moved, firing as he went. Instead, Drake knelt down beside the thug that had been shot. "Oh, and have they killed poor Linwood?" Linwood spoke, more gasps than proper speech, his body shaking with the effort. "Uhhh... master... may I?" "Hush now, child," said Drake kindly. "Your sacrifice has been great." Drake raised his hand above Linwood, then pressed it gently to his chest. "Now take a great reward." Energy tendrils flew from Drake's hand into Linwood's body, causing it to convulse, then change... As the new being rose above Drake, the other thug returned. "We couldn't see them to catch them, sir," he reported. "Grrrowwww.... Arooow!" the being howled, energy sparking off it. "It doesn't matter," said Drake, turning his full attention to the creature before him. "Find them, child of Mandrake... find them and consume them!" "Arooooo arooooo!" the noise floated after Mariam and Benny, haunting them. "What was that?" cried out Mariam, trying to see in front of them with the torch, but fearing more what was behind them. "I don't know," said Benny. "I don't want to know! Just keep moving!" he yelled. _-~-_ Agent and the Net.Elementalist moved carefully through the dark corridors, the Net.Elementalist in Flame mode to provide light. The Net.Elementalist yawned. "I'm telling you, any more power outage than this, and I'm going to fall asleep. I can't keep this up indefinitely." Agent merely nodded. "I'm wondering why there is such a connection as the one they have with the sewers. Can't see that the sewers make for a wonderful route through the city." "Why not? Can pretty much get everywhere, and you're pretty much undetectable." Agent peered down side corridors. "If there are creatures like that down there, why would anyone go that way?" "Perhaps these people put them there." "Perhaps. Perhaps someone else did for the same reason." "Aroooo arooo!" sounded, far off. "Not again," said the Net.Elementalist, sighing. The corridor bent ahead of them, and they approached cautiously. That didn't stop Mariam and Benny from crashing into them as they hurtled around the corner. Benny's gun fired once into the air, and Benny reflexively pulled the trigger, the bullet flying away harmlessly. "Where did you come from?" Agent asked. "What are you doing here?" Mariam asked. "Arooooo aroooo!" Benny pointed the gun at them. "I don't care who you are! Don't try and stop us!" he cried vehemently. "I'll use this thing again if I have to!" Benny waved the gun at Agent, but Agent wasn't watching it. Behind Benny, from around the bend, a hand was reaching out. More of a claw, actually, three talons and one opposing. "Look out!" cried Agent. The claw stuck more swiftly that Agent could see, plucking Benny and dragging him bodily into the air and out of sight. "Eeeaarrghhh!" Benny screamed. "Grarrooo!" the creature crowed. Mariam reached out for Benny, but far too late. "Barry! And you woman! Don't just stand there staring." Agent pushed Mariam, who seemed to be in a state of shock, in front of him. "Benny?" called out Mariam in a quiet voice. Agent gave the Net.Elementalist and Mariam another shove, nearly burning his hand on the Net.Elementalist's suit. "We haven't time!" The creature rounded the corner, looming above them. Twice as tall and five times more ugly, the creature, despite its thinness, was a mass of muscle and sinew. No humanity remained in its glowing eyes, and energy crackled over its form. "Aroooo!" _-~-_ In Utah, there was another event that was later reported to be an earthquake. _-~-_ They ran helter-skelter down the corridor, the creature hounding their steps, energy sparking off it, earthing into the walls and ceiling. "This way," said Mariam, taking the lead. "I think I saw some steps back here." They spotted the steps, Mariam turning first to leap up the first few steps. "What is it?" asked the Net.Elementalist. "No time for explanations," said Agent. "Move!" Agent pushed passed the Net.Elementalist and saw that Mariam had opened the door at the top of the stairs. "Barry, flame that thing now!" Agent ducked through the door after Mariam. The Net.Elementalist turned to see the creature right over him. "I don't suppose you want to talk about this?" the Net.Elementalist asked. "Arooo!" "I didn't think so." "Arooo!" "Flame!" The stairwell was lit with redness as the Net.Elementalist exploded with the power of the Flame net.element. Even more energy was expended in a bright flash as the creature's own power added to the blast. Agent and Mariam found the Net.Elementalist lying on the stairs, lying prone. A small spiral of smoke at the bottom of the stairs dissipated, taking with it the last evidence of the creature's existence. "Barry!" cried out Agent, crouching down beside him. "Is he breathing?" asked Mariam. "Barry, don't be dead. Please..." The Net.Elementalist stirred slightly. "Is it morning already?" Agent hauled the Net.Elementalist up, and helped him walk. "We'll be able to get out this way," said Mariam, after a short recce. "Out though the carpark." Several minutes later, they were doing just that. "How far is it from here?" asked the Net.Elementalist, only slightly more aware than he was. "The van's about three blocks away," said Agent. "We'll make it." "I'd better get back. The Homeless Ones will want to know what happened." "Did.. did you just say the Homeless Ones?" "Quiet," said Agent. "Just concentrate on walking." "Yeah, quiet," repeated Mariam, leading the way up the ramp to the outside. Far above them, Drake watched them leave on one of the many monitors. He steepled his hands and tapped them gently against his chin. "The Homeless Ones, with those Alt.Riders," he mused. "There is a taste in my mouth, and I don't like it." _-~-_ After arranging a meeting place for the next day, Agent dragged the Net.Elementalist back to the van, and drove to the Net.Elementalist's house. As soon as Alice saw her husband, she jumped out of her chair and ran to him. "What have you been doing to him?" she asked, shooting a look half confusion, half anger at Agent. Agent motioned for Dva, Morph and Missy to stand. "We'll take our leave of you now. I'm sure you can look after him. He'll be all right once he's had some rest." Agent turned away, heading for the front door. "We'll be back to pick him up in the morning." While Alice helped Barry over to a chair, Morph guided Missy out, leaving Dva to say the last parting words. "You know how he is," she said. "I'm sure Barry'll be fine." Alice gave Dva a smile of thanks. "You driving back to Net.ropolis?" Dva thought for a moment. "I have no idea." She broached this question to Agent when she got to the van. "No," replied Agent. "There's something happening at the Wishful Star, and we're not leaving until we know more about it." Putting the van into gear, he added, "We'll check into a motel or something for the night." As he drove, Agent quickly ran over what had happened. "Homeless Ones? Did you say the Homeless Ones?" Dva asked at the end. "That's the same question the Net.Elementalist asked," Agent said. "What's with these Homeless Ones?" Dva frowned for a moment. "I suppose he must have found out about them when he was still Fan.Boy," she said, half to herself. "The Homeless Ones were a group of homeless people who helped us escape from Sin.ci.net.ty." [See _World Tales #8_ for the details, but also be sure to check outthe entire story in _The SoftCentre Saga TPB_! - Footnote Girl] "What were you doing in Sin.ci.net.ty?" Morph asked. "Trying to leave," said Dva quietly, and refused to be drawn further into the topic. _-~-_ When Barry woke up, it was to a completely unexpected sensation. He was lying, comfortably, in bed, with a warm body pressed up against him, and he felt totally at peace like this. As if it was meant to be. He snuggled under the bedcovers, and his movement caused the other person to moan and turn over. The feeling of hundreds of hairs running over his suit, and therefore his back, sent a thrill running down his spine. Moving carefully, Barry turned over, and looked at his wife in early light that diffused through the bedroom curtains. Currently she had her back to him, but she was still heartachingly beautiful. Urgent need spoke to him, so Barry slowly got out of bed and went to the bathroom, finding it more by luck than judgment. Once finished, instead of returning to bed, he walked down the hall a little, and into his daughter's room. When he reached the crib, he looked down and saw Abby staring up at him. The last time Barry had seen the baby, she was asleep. Now that Abby was awake, Barry wasn't sure what to do. He didn't have the fatherhood experience that Alice thought he had. "Hello, Abby," he said, uncertainly, waggling his fingers in front of her. Her eyes followed the fingers as they moved about. Not at all sure of himself, Barry reached down and picked Abby up, cradling her in his arms. "Do you think I'm an imposter?" he asked the baby. "Do you know that I never saw you before today?" Abby stared up at him, then reached up with her little arms, trying to grab something. Repositioning her slightly to free up an arm, Barry placed a finger in reach, and Abby grabbed it with a whole hand. Barry wiggled his finger, losing himself in the moment. Sensing someone behind him, Barry turned around to see Alice in the doorway, leaning to one side, her hair in disarray, and her nightee wrinkled. Barry stared at her, then blinked a few times. However did he end up with this gorgeous creature? He finally noticed her smile, and looked down at Abby in embarrassment. He gently rocked her, leaving his finger trapped in her fist. "You look so sweet together," Alice said quietly, and Barry flashed her a grin. She walked over, taking Abby from him. Reluctantly, he let his finger be pulled from her grasp. "Time for a feed, I think," Alice said, her attention on the baby. Pulling her nightee open at the top, Alice nursed Abby. Barry keep his eyes on her face, feeling somewhat uncomfortable. "They said something about picking you up this morning," Alice said, still watching the baby. "You'd better get some breakfast." "I wish we could be alone for a while," Barry said. "Me too." Alice looked up at him momentarily. "Perhaps after this," she said, a devilish smile playing around her lips. "I hope so," Barry said, bestowing a kiss on those same lips before leaving the room. _-~-_ Barry was helping Alice to wash up the breakfast dishes when there was a honking outside. "Sounds like my subtle and understated friends," Barry said. "Come back quickly this time," Alice said, kissing him as he left. Outside, the van was still running as the Net.Elementalist walked to it and climbed in. He was met by wide grins from Morph and Dva. "What?" "Have fun last night?" Morph asked. "Not that it's any of your business," the Net.Elementalist said haughtily, "but thanks to him" a quick nod at Agent "I was too tired for anything." "Until we take care of this," said Agent, "I don't want anything to distract you." "When we've finished this," the Net.Elementalist said, "I'm taking a holiday." Agent merely grunted. A short while later, the Alt.Riders were walking though the back streets of Phila.DEL.phia, having left the van in a more secure place. Around them was the squalor most cities hide, the area where the refuse of humanity lived. The area where the Homeless Ones worked. Mariam found them first, and guided them to the clearing in the streets that the Homeless Ones called, for lack of a better word, Headquarters. Mariam nodded to an old man, crouched over with age. "This is our section leader, Bill." Bill nodded at them, his frail head seemingly unable to stop bobbing. "Eh, I'm not their leader," he wheezed. "I just tell them what to do." "And what have you been telling them?" asked Agent. "Recently, we've been finding bodies, bodies no-one else wants, or cares about. We found them behind that new club, the Wishful Star." Bill paused to hack for a moment. "Excuse me. Now, we thought these bodies were some of ours. Well, potentially some of ours. Since we became an organised unit, we feel rather territorial about other homeless when they turn up. "But these had nothing to do with us. Their minds," Bill tapped his forehead, "their minds had gone. Technically, they were still alive, the bodies moved, reflexes still working, but the mind, the driving force was completely eradicated." Agent shrugged. "So why did you get involved?" "We don't like our position, mister. In fact, most of us would prefer to kill ourselves than to live another day like this. Being the Homeless Ones has given many of us a real purpose to stay alive. And one of those purposes is to stop others from joining us." "Rather humanitarian of you," said Morph. "Hah," Bill spat. "Humanity, who needs it? We've got enough problems without other people adding to it. We do what we can to stop others from becoming like us so we don't have to care for them." "So you decided to investigate these mindless people," prompted Agent. "That's right." Bill leaned in closer. "Drugs," he said confidentially. "But nothing we've seen. And trust me, we've encounted the effects of all of them. "It's that club. It's doing something to people, and it's using drugs to achieve its goals." Mariam spoke up. "It's called madake, or 'mad' for short. The name amuses some people," she said, no trace of humour in her voice. "It affects the mind, making it susceptible to suggestion." "So? So does a lot of other drugs," said Dva. "It does something else," said Mariam. "Something, but we have no idea what." She shrugged, a wry look on her face. "We're not exactly in the best place to examine it, though." "Could I get sample?" asked Missy. Agent looked at the Chub sharply. "Do you think you could analyse it?" "I have considerable knowledge chemistry," said Missy proudly. "That settles it then," said Agent. "I want to have a good look around that place, and Missy wants a sample. We're going back there now." "Whoa," said the Net.Elementalist. "Does the word 'danger' mean anything to you? We were just there about ten hours ago." "Exactly," said Agent craftily. "They wont be expecting a return visit so quickly." "And what about the creature?" asked the Net.Elementalist. Agent shrugged. "You dealt with one yesterday, you can do the same today." "The backlash of that explosion nearly killed me!" "Be more careful then." "That creature," said Mariam. "Do you have any idea of what that was?" "I have every idea," said Agent. "Didn't you recognise it?" "Recognise it? I had never seen anything like that in my life. I think if I had done, I'd be able to remember it." "I didn't mean had you seen it before, I meant you should have recognised the technique of genetic restructuring." "Genetic restructuring?" repeated Dva. "Certainly. Take a man, then retroactively restructure his body so that it was biased towards muscle and sinew. You get something just like what we encountered yesterday." "And you saw that right away, did you?" asked the Net.Elementalist. "Well, after performing one or two experiments to see if I was on the right track." "What experiments?" asked Missy, always interested in scientific advancement. "Thought experiments, of course," said Agent. "All the rage only 50 years ago." "Thought experiments," said the Net.Elementalist. "I should have guessed. Well, mister thought experiment, perhaps you could explain just how that sort of thing is possible, why it was possible last night?" "It's obvious," replied Agent. "Someone obviously has the power to restructure genetic coding." "And we're going back there?" Agent merely nodded. "I don't suppose we have a health plan?" Agent shook his head. "Ah, why could I guess that?" "All right, then, if there are no further questions, let's get to it." "One question," said Morph. "How do we get in?" "The same way as yesterday," said Agent. "Geez, if we keeping going back down there," said the Net.Elementalist, getting up and preparing to leave, "people will think we're in an X-Files episode." The others gloomily nodded as they also prepared to leave. -------------------------------------------------------------------------- NEXT TIME: Mulder finds out the truth, but will Scully believe it? Will Froihike finally get to go on a date with Scully? Will Chris Carter finally be killed in a desperate attempt to stop all these stupid X-Files episodes? Not in _The Alt.Riders #8_. Credits: -------- Mine! Notes: Heavily based on the comic strip that ran in the Doctor Who Magazine called "The Mark of Mandragora". A lot of the dialogue was ripped from there, but I had to change things because I don't have the Mandragora Helix, a TARDIS, nor U.N.I.T. Fortunately, I do have the Homeless Ones, and I've been meaning to bring them back.Back to the Index.