Iskira Neetkins sat on her bed and looked despondently at the spare room of Doctor Mendelssohn’s Martian laboratory. Dressing-table, wardrobe, mirror, window: the ideal girl’s bedroom. She might as well have been a teenager or student, not a professor with three daughters that age. All the place needed was a few posters on the walls, or some underwear strewn messily over the carpet…
There was a knock on the door and Doctor Mendelssohn came in, bringing her a cup of tea. “Welcome to the hall of residence, Irwin,” Iskira greeted him with an ironic smile.
“And thank you,” she went on, taking the tea. “You have been nothing but a gentleman since I imposed my presence on you without warning, and it cannot be easy for you to have me here.”
“Far from it, Iskira. In actual fact, this brings back as any fond memories for me as it apparently does for you!” Mendelssohn replied. Then, seeing her face sadden, he continued hastily: “Oh, but you must forgive an old man his sentimentality, my dear. I’m afraid it is a condition attendant on my age.”
“It’s not that, dear Irwin,” Iskira sighed, pushing her hands through her heavy purple locks. “A part of me is indeed glad to be reminded of those long-ago times. A far greater part though feels only sorrow, that in finding my way back to such a life I should have lost so much.”
Mendelssohn hesitated, then sat down beside her on the bed. “Nevertheless, Iskira, in those days you speak of I was your lecturer, long before I ever became your fiancé,” said he. “And while it may no longer be officially required of me to care for and support you while expecting nothing in return, you must forgive me again if that earliest relationship we shared is the one I defer to, even now.”
She lightly touched his hand.
“So you must stay, for as long as you need and without obligation,” the Doctor finished. “Rest assured too that I will do anything within my power, if it may help you and Neetkins remedy the ill that has fallen between you.”
“Assuming it can be remedied,” Iskira said hollowly. “And assuming that is still what I wish.”
Just then Bendigo thundered in through the open door, ran headlong into the wardrobe with a loud crash, rebounded from it and faced his employers past and present. He was wearing smart trousers and a shirt and tie in khaki and beige, complete with a matching beret on his head, and in the spirit of this military garb he saluted before announcing stridently: “Learned Doctor! Fair Professor! As your new Chief of Security I have received a message from Earth you will desire to hear!”
Having presented this report Bendigo turned and stampeded for the lab, taking half the bedroom door-frame with him.
“Where is he getting all those outfits?” Iskira pondered aloud.
Doctor Mendelssohn took her hand. “Come, my dear,” he said. “I am learning his moods, and this would appear to be a matter of some urgency.”
They hurried together to the main laboratory where Bendigo was already hunched over the communications array, hammering the controls as if they’d done him some personal slight. Mostly by luck this resulted in a replay of the message, and the few short sentences spoken by Neetra’s image on the viewscreen were enough to make Iskira and Doctor Mendelssohn draw in breath as one. They moved closer together, and Iskira gripped the Doctor by the arms.
“Phoenix Prime,” she uttered in a whisper. “The Four Heroes have found my errant daughter and are proceeding to her location even now! At last there is a chance they may be able to bring her home!”
“Nothing in their previous encounter suggested she will come of her own free will, Iskria,” Mendelssohn observed gravely. “A fearsome confrontation with the anti-matter mutated might of Phoenix Prime is surely on the cards. The Four Heroes must prepare for this, and we here on Mars must endeavour to assist them.”
“Bendigo…Neetra’s message,” Iskira began, her voice halting and awkward. “Was it sent…only to us?”
“No, fair one, an identical message was sent to your noble husband Doctor Neetkins, from whom you are woefully estranged,” boomed Bendigo, who was no master of tact. Mendelssohn put his arm around Iskira.
“Then Neetkins will be following the terrestrial events as closely as we shall,” he told her gently, “and an extra pair of eyes and ears on the situation can do no harm. Bendigo, tune the long-range interplanetary scanners to Earth and lock onto The Four Heroes’ psychic signatures.”
Having issued this instruction Doctor Mendelssohn stepped discreetly over to the console and carried out the work himself, conscious that Bendigo was all too likely to hit the self-destruct. On the main monitor the message-end screen blinked into a three-dimensional electronic map of Nottingham constellated around four glowing blips. Mendelssohn, Bendigo and Iskira trained their attention on it and stood or sat ready, knowing that millions of miles away twin sisters were heading for a face-off between the awesome superhuman abilities each commanded, and that their anxious mother could do nothing now but wait to learn what the outcome would be.
The sun was shining steadily in a blue early afternoon sky over The Four Heroes’ house. Max Bohenien had brought his great strength to bear that morning helping build the small mountain of valises and portmanteaus that now stood in the living room, and he had been rewarded for his frequent trips up and down the stairs with a large lunch that had recently been done justice to. Now the company was resting contentedly after their repast, Max frequently looking over to the pile of Phoenix’s luggage with pride and some awe.
“Now, you’re sure ya got everythin’ ya need for outer space?” he asked her with a chuckle. “Biggest workout I’ve had in a week, I’m bushed!”
“Look on the bright side, Max, it meant you got to have a meal with us on a day Neetra wasn’t doing the cooking!” Degris remarked from the sofa.
Phoenix smiled. “I will admit I did not realise quite ’ow many of my things I ’ad brought ’ere,” said she. “Sometimes I forget ma soeurs and I still ’ave an ’ouse of our own in ze suburbs. Since ze coming of Dimension Borg, we ’ave all but lived with ze Four Heroes.”
“Looks like a sensible amount of packing to me,” pointed out Blaster-Track, the red-coloured sentient miniature jeep that was trundling about the living room floor. “Don’t forget that girls are pretty much a new concept in my galaxy. We’re still figuring out how to clothe them, and you might not like what we’ve come up with so far!”
“Judging by ze example of le petit monsieur Flashtease, you will not need to make many changes from ’ow you dress your boys,” Phoenix told him. “But it is best zat I am sure of ’aving something to wear a la mode. I ’ave no especial wish to end up looking like Flashtease!”
“So ya still set on goin’, kid?” Max asked Phoenix gently. “Doesn’t what’s happened today make a difference? I mean, The Four Heroes know where Phoenix Prime is now. They’ll be through with their mission in just an hour or two, an’ after that she sure won’t be any danger to you no more!”
“Dylan was nevertheless adamant zat I should accompany ’im into space as we originally agreed,” was Phoenix’s reply. “He feels zat even undair lock and key, Phoenix Prime may find ways to threaten my safety.”
It was clear, if only from the subdued tone of her voice, that there was far more to the matter than she was yet ready to talk about. Amy, however, was serious when she said: “He has a point, Phoenix. This vendetta Phoenix Prime’s sworn against you has driven her entire life for years. You and I both felt it when our minds were connected to hers. Once she’s no longer at large we can start helping her, but she’s not going to make that easy for us. It’ll be a whole other sort of battle convincing her to let go of her madness, her pain, her desire for vengeance. And all that’s supposing The Four Heroes do defeat her today in the first place, and she doesn’t escape like she did before...”
“Hey, Bret an’ the guys will be back here with Phoenix Prime before ya know it!” said the staunch Max. “What can she pull out that The Four Heroes, fightin’ together, can’t handle?”
“Phoenix Prime is not ze issue,” Phoenix then informed the living room, with finality. “She seeks my death, but she does not determine my life. I vowed to Dylan zat I would be by his side as he faced Dimension Borg in zat far distant galaxy to which we are bound, and it is zere, by ’is side, zat I will be.”
The house’s other two occupants were washing up in the adjoining kitchen. Phoenix’s last speech was audible through the half-open hatch, and when Carmilla heard it she sighed heavily.
“You seem distressed, fair Carmilla,” said Blaster-Track Commander, whose conspicuously intergalactic outfit of breeches, tunic and cape looked a little odd combined with rubber gloves.
“I am,” she told him honestly. “Phoenix can’t fool me with that little announcement, though she might be fooling herself. Everyone knows what helping Phoenix Prime’s really going to involve – Mum and Dad are going to have to somehow put aside what’s happened between them and come down from Mars, to face her at last and try and make amends. But Phoenix hasn’t spoken to Mum and Dad since all this began, and when she and I argued about it she stopped speaking to me too. She’s latched onto Dylan, deciding he’s the only one who understands, while she shuts out everyone else who cares about her. That’s why she deliberately spent Christmas up in Earth-orbit, with just him and you! And now the whole family’s coming together on this planet, so she takes the opportunity to vanish to the other side of the universe with her boyfriend and the one sister she’s not fallen out with. Darn it, I know it’s important she stays safe from Phoenix Prime, and I want her to be safe. I just wish she could see that running away isn’t the solution!”
“Whatever her flawed motives for joining us, Phoenix will be a valued addition indeed to our quest,” the Commander observed. “I have no doubt that Space-Screamer, my oldest of foes, will do all he can to turn the present crisis in our home sector to his own advantage, and your sister is one of the precious few who has ever overcome his dreaded hypnotic powers. Conflicted she may be, but Phoenix’s strength is no less considerable for that.”
Carmilla looked at the handsome and gallant adventurer, her brown eyes twinkling. “So what about me, then?” she inquired. “Come on, you can’t praise my little sister without saying something nice about me too! A girl could start to get jealous!”
The smile with which she favoured him could have melted the hearts of a dozen adolescent schoolboys at one stroke. It was not that Blaster-Track Commander did not smile back, but rather, that his expression of stout comradeship was some way distant from the reaction Carmilla had hoped for.
“You, I am quite certain, would prove an ally of equal worth to any one of my jeeps!” he said to her heartily.
Carmilla blew her fringe away from her face. “You really are from a galaxy without many women, aren’t you?” said she.
END OF CHAPTER TWO