Dylan was glad of something new for him and Phoenix to direct their energies towards, after the harsh words and recriminations of before. They set down to their task side-by-side, and the results were immediate and mind-boggling. It seemed the unrestored sectors positively abounded with the phenomenon Neetra had identified. Coordinating at once with their comrades and Next Four members in the field, Dylan and Phoenix transmitted psychic or electronic messages guiding each operative to the signal nearest them. Presently Joe and Gala had tracked down an outboard motor that was pushing itself through the ruins, Carmilla reported a fleet of vacuum cleaners trundling on their bumpy way like a strange stunted hot-rod gang, while Bret, Amy and Max, who’d stopped off for coffee and a Danish, picked up the trail of a gas cooker full of telephone parts that was heaving itself along with its oven door. There were many others besides.
“Where are they all going?” Dylan cried incredulously, as the data continued to flood in.
“I ’ave it!” said Phoenix, consulting the satellite grid-plotter. Sure enough, readouts showed the lumbering appliances were all slowly converging on a set of co-ordinates at the heart of the wasteland. Dylan and Phoenix swiftly communicated these to the search parties, at which the latter swung round in her chair and announced: “Ze time for action is at last ’ere! Let us move!”
“Honey, are you sure?” Dylan began cautiously. “After everything that’s happened today, and what you told me about…”
A tiny smile, the first Phoenix had given since the argument, glimmered on her tearstained face. Dylan was grateful indeed to see it there, and all the more so when she touched his hand.
“My fears are my fears, Cheri, but zey will not make me run and cowair every time zere is a crisis,” she said gently. “Our friends need us, and I am part of zis team.”
“You sure are,” Dylan grinned. “In that case, what are we waiting for? Let’s do it!”
The setting sun was edging the black thunderclouds with glowering red fire as the Four Heroes Supercar screeched to a halt, and Dylan and Phoenix scrambled out to join their companions. Before them loomed the silhouette of a vast and ancient factory, whose robust old-fashioned brickwork had weathered the invasion and left it the only building standing for miles around. Dylan’s three team-mates were already there waiting, along with Carmilla, Max, Amy and Degris. Also present were Gala and the other members of the Next Four, Steam, D’Carthage and The Chancellor. This last, tall and severe in his dark grey military uniform, had taken out several electronic scanning devices and was busily consulting them.
“Telepathic inhibitors and radar-jamming fields in operation,” he announced. “There is no doubt that what we seek is within. Much mystery still hangs, however, over the evidence that led us here.”
“And whatever Solenoid and his gang want with a load of old junk, they must be using the head to summon it,” Neetra reminded them. “Dimension Borg’s psychic presence, or rather what there is of it in his robot, is all mixed up with this.”
“Which doesn’t fit with those guys’ M.O. at all,” Bret added. “They’re very traditional villains, after power, money and women, not spare parts! So what does it all mean?”
“Unless they’re starting up their own scrapyard, I’m stumped, mate,” declared the mechanical man Steam. “D’Carthage and I followed a bunch of cash machines here – they’d pulled themselves off the bank wall and left the money behind!”
“But dear friends, surely debate and deliberation are for the boudoir,” D’Carthage announced with a flourish, throwing back his velvet cloak. “I’ll wager our intrigue will be better quelled if we take the adventure and have at them!”
Gala unsheathed her cutlass. “My sentiments exactly,” said she, while behind her Phoenix drew her gun and the others readied their powers and fighting skill. After making short work of the factory door the thirteen-strong group proceeded into a cavernous interior shrouded by total darkness. Dylan’s hand flashed with purple-coloured swirls as he reached out and explored the unseen environs.
“There’s an incredible volume of tech here, not to mention wavelengths and frequencies and interference from all across the spectrum,” he muttered. “It’ll be a second before I can find the lights – wait, there’s something!”
At his command, six pillars of fluorescent illumination blinked into being. They were arranged in a line before the blackness in front of our heroes, and under each lamp stood one of the men they were looking for: Solenoid, Maelstrom, Sword-Slicer, Flesh-Ripper, Icer and Hydrus. The Four Heroes, the Next Four and their companions poised for the outbreak of battle, as Joe cried: “We have you at last! Prepare yourselves, renegades, for now we shall finish what we began on the night you escaped us!”
It was Solenoid who responded. His voice, which sounded strangely muffled, took an unexpected tone – more of sarcasm than defiance.
“The world-famous deductive prowess of The Four Heroes,” he declared. “Always on top of things, aren’t you?”
Finally Dylan’s powers located the ceiling strip-lights. They blazed on, and everything became clear.
The six supervillains were not standing under spotlights, but were rather trapped in unbreakable transparent tubes that had presumably walked there from a science laboratory. Behind them the abandoned factory had come to life again, its every conveyor and lift and pulley ablur in a dizzying technological dance. Even as our heroes looked on, more equipment and machinery threw itself down the chutes from outside and joined the influx on the factory floor, whereupon it was summarily seized, stripped and incorporated into the ongoing project. Not even Dylan, Phoenix or The Chancellor could deduce what that project might be, or what the crazy whirling and spinning automata were so frenziedly assembling. However, what The Four Heroes and the Next Four now knew for certain was that it was not their human enemies who were collecting this raw material, but the superior force that had wrested control from them.
That one was watching from on high, at the rear of the factory, atop a kind of stage that had been raised like a royal dais. Straggling the whole length of this platform was the ominous answer to another mystery. Live Dimension Borg robots, badly damaged but still functional, lay sprawled with their spidery legs and muscular steel arms twitching. They were the last survivors of the invading army left on Earth, their electronic brains corrupted but still in good enough working order to respond to the summons that had led them here. It seemed these bodies were being saved for some later purpose, though they were surely only fit to be cannibalized for parts. There were three other live ones too, the best-preserved of the collection, whose status approached combat-readiness. This trio rose jerkily and shakily to gather in defensive formation around their master, which merely glared in silence, a domed robot head identical to that of its creator, mounted on a metal column. The Four Heroes had last seen it tucked under the arm of Solenoid as he retreated into the night, bearing the head as his prize. He and his cronies would have done well to remember not to underestimate the terrible power of Dimension Borg.
“It would seem the erstwhile captors have become the captives!” D’Carthage breathed.
“Weeks ago!” Maelstrom screamed in utter exasperation. “How splendid that you’ve managed to get round to us! Now if you fools are so talented at rescuing others, get your act together and rescue us!”
Gala pointed her glowing cutlass at the head. “Surrender, machine,” she commanded. “You can’t defeat all of us!”
Unfortunately, the machine in question was well aware of this.
END OF CHAPTER ONE