Liberators #23

True Neutrality Is Not Possible

by Jess Nevins

What has come before: Facing a threat that would doom all civilization on Earth - the return of the old, bad gods - Mercury (deity, hero, and member of the Liberators) sacrificed himself, sending the bad old gods back to their dimensional prison and crippling (but not killing) the German master magician the Zauberer.

rated PG for language

One afternoon at the end of January, in the Jardin Botanique of Geneva, five figures strolled through the gardens. The day was sunny and crisp, with no clouds in the sky and a cold-but-not-unbearable breeze blowing across the gardens. The five were part of the crowds enjoying the weather; although it had snowed the night before, the clouds had rolled away, and many of the Swiss had bundled themselves and their children up and gone out to enjoy the sunlight and the sight of the gardens.

The five figures, well-swaddled in thick wool coats and angora scarves and homburgs and sunglasses, drew only a few glances as they slowly made their way along the curving stone paths of the garden. They were all a few inches taller and substantially wider than most Swiss, but so well-covered were they that very little of their flesh showed, and the nonchalant way in which they walked and murmured to each other and occasionally fingered a tree branch or plant or flower with one gloved hand leant the impression that whatever their background, their purpose in the gardens that afternoon was purely peaceful.

After forty-five minutes of casual walking through the gardens, they reached one of the artificial hills overlooking most of the rest of the garden. By seemingly-unspoken agreement the five sat down, three to one bench and two to another, facing each other. And there they sat, in what would have seemed, to an observer, in a torpor, enjoying the sunshine. One of the men took off his hat and sunglasses and closed his eyes and tilted his head back, letting his white hair flow in the breeze; a faint smile played across his face.

Finally a familiar voice echoed in the minds of three of the figures. All clear, it said.

The Crimson Commando, enjoying the sunlight and the cool wind blowing on his face - he'd spent the past several months in North Africa and in the South Pacific, on Guadalcanal and elsewhere, and the cold was a welcome change - thought, What's our perimeter, Professor?

The voice linking the minds of the three transmitted it to the others and responded with, Twenty-two Swiss within 50 yards of you. But none are anything more than stolid, dull Swiss burghers. Let me emphasize that: quite dull.

A third mind said, Their take on us?

The Professor said, They're not quite sure what to make of any of you, Merzah. Some think Gestapo, some think you're Soviet, some think you're American spies; most think you're some of Guisan's officers. One woman thought you looked like a hired killer, John. The final thought was accompanied by a sense of amusement.

The Crimson Commando's smile widened slightly and he said, She was right, Professor. Merzah, Excello, are you sensing any of those...any other mind-readers?

Excello said, Nothing. I think, John, that we are truly alone.

Merzah said, I agree. Professor Carmody, I for one would love to know why we're here, and I think it's finally safe to tell us.

Excello said, I concur. John?

The Commando's head lolled, and he sighed happily. He said, Not out loud. Not here. The bots can wait to hear this where it's safe. For now, only this way, in mind-speak. I don't know who might be around here that you can't detect, I don't--

Professor Carmody overrode the mental protests of both Merzah and Excello, saying, You may trust me, John, when I tell you that there are no telepaths within at least a mile of your current position, and no one within hearing distance of you.

The Commando idly scratched his jaw and said, No dice, Professor. We don't know what the krauts have, and they might have come up with something you can't pick up. Plus there might be listening devices planted here. No, sorry, nobody says nuthin'.

Excello, leaning back and resting his head against a branch, said, Really, now, John, this is quite unnecessary. We--

The Commando broke in, Savage put me in charge of security on this run, Excello. He sighed again, his happiness evident, and said, If you have a problem with it, Carmody can relay it to Savage. Otherwise, shut up and soldier, soldier.

Professor Carmody said, I'm afraid he's right, Excello.

Merzah sent a mental affirmative, and Excello audibly sighed and then said, As you wish. The Commando caught a sense of resentment coming from Excello before Carmody could stop the broadcast.

Professor Carmody said, When will it be safe to tell Electro and Marvex, John?

The Commando mentally sighed and with some irritation said, When I say it. Get on with it, Professor. We don't got all day. Unless we do?

Professor Carmody, who had not physically sighed since the emergency operation which had transplanted his brain from his dying body into a jar of life-sustaining fluids, nonetheless found it hard to give up some of the habits of a lifetime, and mentally sighed and said, No, John, we don't. He paused, and thought to himself that the Commando sometimes went out of his way to make it hard to like him. Like any other telepath, the Professor had found that spending a lot of time in mental communication with another being led to identification and even sympathy with that being; prolonged mental exposure to a person usually gave you a great deal of insight into what drove them, their hopes and feelings and fears. But the Commando sometimes seemed to be abrasive just for the sake of being abrasive, and the Professor, who despite the violence in his past was at heart a gentle, kind, and good man, found that difficult to understand.

He said, No, we don't. We're here to meet a woman. She is a member of the Red Cross, and--

Merzah broke in. Really? And here I was thinking they were neutral all this time.

The Commando responded with some asperity. Yeah. Neutral. Sure. Ask the Jews about the German Red Cross sometime. Neutral, my ass.

Professor Carmody said, Please, our time is limited. You may debate the culpability of the Swiss later.

Merzah said, Sorry, Professor.

Carmody said, The woman has been supplying us with information for several months now, and we think she's trustworthy.

The Crimson Commando broke in. Who's "we," Professor?

Carmody said, Powell, Savage, and a few others you don't need to worry about, John.

The Commando sent the mental equivalent of a shrug. Alright.

Carmody said, She's going to give us the times for the next eight shipments of steel going through the Simplon tunnel. She's also going to give us transit papers and false i.d.s. Our mission is to wreck the tunnel.

The Commando snorted, realized that he'd done that out loud, and quickly took out a handkerchief and blew his nose. Uh-huh. Right. Tell me, Professor, you talked to Challenger or Defender recently? Wait - Merzah, you were on that trip to Vichy, weren't you? You hearing this?

Merzah reflexively fingered the scar along his hairline and suppressed a shudder at the memory; the others caught a hint of the pain and terror he'd felt when he'd been overwhelmed by the Germans. He banished from his mind the memory and the negative feelings it brought, and said I am, John. Perhaps we should let the Professor finish?

Carmody said, Thank you, Merzah. John, this trip is different; we've thoroughly checked her out, and Powell has acted as her contact. There's no doubt that she's on the up-and-up.

The others caught the Commando's thought, That's what they told the Challenger before Vichy, too.

Carmody sighed again and said, Regardless of your reservations, John, we're going ahead with this mission. She'll meet us here and give us the information and papers.

The Commando, struck by a sudden thought, said, Wait. You said Powell was acting as her contact, right?

Carmody said, Yes?

The Commando said, Dulles was here last November and helped firm up the O.S.S. mission here. Why isn't an OSS handler dealing with this woman? For that matter, why aren't we checking in with them?

Carmody could read the perplexity from Merzah and Excello, who said, That's actually a good thought, John.

Carmody said, carefully, It's been decided that for missions involving the Liberators that the O.S.S. is no longer trustworthy.

This drew the mental equivalent of gasps and double-takes from the other three. The Commando said, coldly, Explain, and Excello said, We deserve more information than that, Professor, surely.

Carmody said, I...this will have to wait. She is coming. You will see

As Professor Carmody broadcast that the three saw a young Swiss woman wearing a long red dress and a thick black sweater slowly making her way up the path to the benches. She looked to be in her mid- to late-20s, and she had a pretty, freckled face and shoulder-length blonde hair. There was something about her that was instantly appealing, and the others caught Excello's thought, Hmmm. I wonder if she-- He quickly squelched the thought, once he became aware that the others could hear it.

The Commando said, Professor, do a scan of her. Now. She's too perfect.

Carmody said, What?

The Commando said, If I were going to set us up with something close to a honey trap, she's what I'd use. Scan her; she's too perfect for the role.

Mentally sighing again, and wishing (not for the first time) that Fate had seen fit to grant anyone else the mental and psychic defenses that the Commando had been given, Professor Carmody performed a hurried scan of the woman's mind. He said, She checks out, John. She's here to help us.

The Commando said, Hmph but did not press the point.

When the woman reached the benches she sat down next to the Commando. She took a compact from out of her pocket and checked her makeup, then quickly ran a brush through her hair. The Commando, head still tilted back but following her actions through slitted eyelids, noted with approval that the woman was carefully using the mirror on the compact to look behind her.

The woman checked herself in the mirror one more time, then nodded, obviously satisfied, and clicked the compact shut and tucked it away in one of her coat pockets. She looked at the Commando and said, in a quiet voice, "Herr Professor?"

The Commando's head jerked up, as if he'd just been awoken from a nap, and he shook his head. Excello said, "Entschuldigung, Fraulein, aber--"

The woman shook her head in small, precise jerks and said, "Please speak English. It will attract less attention here, although your German is quite good. You are the Professor?"

Excello glanced at Commando, who did not move but broadcast No to Excello. Excello said, "I'm afraid the Professor was unable to attend, Miss...?"

The woman did not react at first, finally saying, "Taschen. I am...distressed. I was specifically informed by Mr. Powell that the Professor would be here."

The Commando did not move at the use of Powell's name, but sent a message to the other three, She's either dead certain nobody can hear us, or she's dead stupid.

Merzah said, "I am sorry you were misinformed. Is there something, perhaps, that we could help you with, instead?"

She sighed heavily, with obvious irritation, and then said, "You will have to do, I guess." She reached into the inside pocket of her coat and handed the Commando six small bundles of papers. "These are what you are looking for." Having done that she buttoned her coat up again and promptly walked away.

Carmody said, John?

The Commando opened them with visible reluctance, flipping through them and then tying them together and tucking them into his overcoat. He rose, broadcasting to the other three, They appear to be genuine. We have a two hours to make it to the rail station, and then began walking down the path, towards the hotel at which the five were staying.

Seven hours later the five were on a passenger train, watching the nighttime Swiss countryside roll by as the train followed the course of the Rhone on its way towards Brig, the transfer point for rail traffic headed south, through the Simplon tunnel into Italy. Marvex and Electro were in the sleeping compartment; although they obviously didn't need sleep, they were very careful to imitate ordinary humans, and so when the other humans on the train had moved to turn in, so had the androids, as had Merzah, pleading fatigue. The Commando and Excello were in the dining car, working on a bottle of burgundy. The other diners, had they been paying attention to the pair, might have noticed their seemingly placid exteriors and the minimal conversation that passed between the two. Any telepaths who could somehow have listened in to their mental conversation would have received an entirely different impression.

This stinks on ice, the Commando said.

Excello mentally chuckled and said Come, come, John. You keep saying that, but I'm afraid I cannot credit your fears.

The Commando sent the telepathic equivalent of a snarl and said I got more combat experience than you, Excello, and I've learned to trust my instincts, and I'm telling you, this is a set-up.

Excello response was laced with both amusement and the slightest hint of irritation. Need I remind you of my own experience? I was carrying out missions like this before you even entered the Marines, much less got your powers. I've learned to trust my own instincts, as well, and they tell me that she is what she says she is. Can't you trust me? And Carmody's probe?

The Commando said nothing, but Excello and Carmody got a flash of stubborn irritation from him.

The Professor said, Leaving that aside for the moment, John, I believe you've come up with a plan for destroying the tunnel?

The Commando drained his glass, stood up from the table, threw a few bills on to it, and nodded to Excello as he left the car. He said, Not that hard, Prof. We slip on to the freight train in Brig, and on the way up the hill to the tunnel we take the engine. We have Marvex detach the rest of the cars, which will take care of the guards. We stop the train at the top of the incline. We hold the engineers guards hostage while Marvex & Electro set off the explosives.

Excello said, Explosives? There was no room in your bags for the amount of dynamite it would take to permanently destroy the tunnel. Unless you mean the stuff I'm carrying?

The Commando said, Nah. The Swiss wired the tunnels at the beginning of the war, Excello. We get Marvex to set them off, and then radio Gorman for pick-up.

Excello said, Forgive me for repeating myself, but I didn't see a radio in your bags either, John.

The Professor said, Marvex has a micro-radio in his head, Excello. It has great range and works on a very tight band; Gorman should have no trouble receiving the signal.

Excello said, Ah. Well, good. Excellent. Your plan seems simple enough, John.

The Commando said, Simple is good. Less things to screw up. He stopped broadcasting, but not soon enough to stop his follow-up thought, And God knows this mission has enough of those to begin with from reaching the others, who, prudently, did not respond.

Excello waited until he was sure that the Commando was asleep, and then said, Professor, I have another question about this mission.

Carmody said, Yes, Edward?

Excello suppressed a mental grimace at the use of his proper name - he'd long since grown accustomed to the use of his stage name, and had come to prefer it to his real name - and said, Won't the Swiss be the destruction of the tunnel?

Carmody broadcast amusement and said, I'm sure they will be.

Excello waited, and finally said, I take it that's not a concern, then?

Carmody said, Not really.

Excello waited again, and then said,'re withholding something.

Carmody sighed, and said, Well...I suppose I can tell you. You're a good deal more even-tempered than the Commando.

Excello said, Yes. He's...hard to get along with.

Carmody broadcast agreement, and then said, This mission has been a source of quite a lot of disagreement.

Excello said, I suppose I should have anticipated that.

Carmody said, In fact...FDR doesn't know about this. Neither does Dulles. Or Donovan.

Excello sent back surprise, and Carmody said, What FDR doesn't know can't hurt him when he deals with Churchill or Stalin...or President Pilet-Golaz. If his surprise at their complains is genuine, they will know it--

Excello said, They have mentats?

Carmody said, We think so. We don't know for sure, of course, and I haven't been able to sense any, but some of what's happened can only be explained by the presence of telepaths.

Excello said, Okay. So if he is genuinely surprised at what we've done, their protests won't go any farther than just protests and demands for reparations.

Carmody said, Yes. And with this mission in particular, that's important; destroying the tunnel will outrage the Germans, and they might well take action against the Swiss because of this.

Excello said, I wasn't going to say anything in front of the Commando, but...the thought had occurred to me.

Carmody said, As it had to those of us who planned this mission. As I said, there was disagreement about this. Clark and Steve and Powell were very much in favor of it; others in AlPanCom were not. Clark prevailed. But the others were very unhappy about it.

Excello said, I can understand why. The Swiss will be...livid, I suppose.

Carmody said, Perhaps. On the other hand, the Swiss have profited quite nicely from the war, and there's rather a lot of steel and weaponry and ammunition that the Germans would not have had without the help of the Swiss factories.

Excello said, And rather a lot of French Jews who were sent to the camps because of the Swiss, I know. Still...the consequences of this mission could be rather...dire...for the Swiss.

Carmody said, Too bad, I think. If the worst happens they'll be invaded...and face what the rest of us have faced for months now. I've little sympathy for neutrals, and less for those who play both sides for their own profits...or for those who make refugees into slave labor. You didn't happen to scan the tent parks west of Geneva, did you? Those few Jewish refugees that the Swiss let in are being kept there and used as forced labor. Neutral the Swiss may be, but their hands are not clean, Edward.

Excello shrugged and went off to bed.

The following morning the five left the train with the other passengers. While the others milled about in the train station, greeting family or business associates, the five walked purposefully towards the exit. The Commando, breathed deeply, enjoying the cool morning air, and said, Professor?

Carmody said, According to the station-master's thoughts, the freight train is on track 22. Just another shipment, he thinks.

The Commando nodded and said, Good.

Moving with assurance, obviously (to any observers) going where they had a right to be, the five left the section of the station where the passenger trains were docked and moved into the tracks on which the freight trains lay. With Merzah and Excello checking for witnesses, they walked unseen to a car half-filled with steel. Excello quickly picked the lock to the car, using a tiny steel pick he kept in a small black leather case, and the five slipped inside. Fifteen minutes later the train moved forward.

While they adjusted to the cold and the rocking of the train - their ride on the passenger car had been much, much gentler, and of course heated - the Excello said, Professor, if I might...?

Carmody said, But of course - what would you like to know?

Excello said, You never did explain to us why the O.S.S. was not to be informed about this mission.

The Commando said, Oh, yeah - what's that all about, Prof.?

There was a few moments' silence, and then the Professor said, with obvious reluctance, This of course cannot go any farther, but...there is substantial policy disagreement about the Liberators at the highest levels of the government. And with the Allies, as well. There--

The Commando said, Policy disagreement?

Excello said, I'm not sure I like the sound of that.

The Professor paused a few more moments, and then said, Let us just say that--

The Commando broke in. No, let's not "just say" anything, Professor. Out with it. Now.

The Professor gave the mental equivalent of a sigh and a shrug and said, The British lost all but a couple of their super-men by the Battle of Britain. The French never had that many to begin with. And the Soviets have had to make theirs. There was something about the way the Professor had said "things" that made even the Commando, who considered himself (with reason) a cold and hard man who had seen and experienced many bad things, shudder.

The Professor said, But there are how many Americans in the Liberators? And how many of us have survived so far?

The Commando said, 112, Professor. And to date we've lost 10. What of it?

The Professor said, You must admit that it looks somewhat suspicious, John.

Excello said, What does this have to do--

The Commando said, No, I don't, Prof. What exactly are you implying here? I don't like this. At all.

The Professor said, I'm not the one saying this, John. It's not that Stalin and Churchill and De Gaulle don't trust us - they do. It's just that they want some super-men of their own, for after the war.

The Commando said, After the war? Gettin' ahead of themselves, aren't they?

The Professor said, They have to look ahead - they're leaders, it's their job. So they worry about America having more super-men than them, and FDR and Dulles, they want to make their allies happy, so...

The Commando said, So?

The Professor said, So the British and French and Soviets may get some of us on loan, once the war is over.

The Commando said, Son of a bitch.

Excello said, I think that any attempt to "loan" us to them, or to try to duplicate our powers, would be a mistake, Professor. I think you should relay that to them.

The Professor said, Clark Savage has already said as much. But the point of all of us - why I bring it up - is that Dulles doesn't like this any more than you or I, but for different reasons.

Comprehension dawned on the Commando, and he said, I get it. He hates the Commies almost as much as he hates the Nazis. So--

Excello said, Ah, I see. So what's Dulles doing about this?

The Professor said, None of us are quite sure. He's got some protection of his own, from somewhere, and I can't get through it to read his mind. And FDR isn't willing to press too hard, not while we've still got the Germans and the Japanese to deal with. But Clark doesn't trust him, and I don't. So, for missions like this, where it's quite possible there might be an "accident" and one or more of us might "disappear," Dulles is out of the loop.

The Commando nodded to himself and said, Good.

Merzah, who had been unaccountably quiet to this point, said, The train is nearing the incline, fellas. Time to go.

The Commando leapt to his feet and drew his Liberator and said to Marvex, "Now."

Marvex walked to the near wall of the car and punched through it. With a couple of quick arm movements he opened a large hole in the wall, and then, as the other Liberators walked forward, he picked them up and placed them on top of the next car forward. They began running across the cars, towards the engine, leaping from car to car, with Marvex bringing up the rear and the Commando leading the way. When they reached the engine the Commando leapt down, into the open end of the engine car, and with one swift kick knocked out the only guard. The engineers, once Excello explained to them what was expected of them and what would happen to them if they obeyed (and what would happen if they disobeyed) were quite amenable to orders, and the train gradually slowed as it made its way up the incline. Marvex, standing at the end of the engine car, reached down to the link between the engine car and the rest of the train, and with one superstrong wrench pulled the pins and hoses free. No longer restrained by the weight of the other cars, the engine surged forward as the freight cars quickly lost momentum and began sliding down the hill.

At the top of the incline the engineers slowed the train to a stop, and then, prodded by the Commando, they gratefully fled the car and the scene. The Liberators walked from the car towards the tunnel, only 50 yards away, set in the middle of the first of many large mountains.

The Commando said to Marvex, "How close do you have to be to detonate?"

In the pleasing, mellifluous voice that the aliens of the fifth dimension who'd created Marvex had programmed him with, Marvex said, "I will have to detonate them manually, Mr. Commando. They were not wired to pick up radio signals."

The Commando muttered a curse and then said. "Okay. Go ahead with Electro. We'll stay here and wait."

Electro and Marvex began moving forward when several figures emerged from the mouth of the tunnel. At the same time, several more stood up from behind various bushes and rocks on the hillside above and around the tunnel. The Commando, Merzah, and Excello instantly dove for cover, hiding behind Electro and Marvex, who both drew their guns.

The figures in the tunnel continued walking towards the Liberators. One shouted, in British-accented English, "Don't bother to resist, Herr Excello. We outnumber you, and my companions are far more powerful than yours."

The Liberators immediately opened fire, causing several of the figures to dive for cover and others to run and fly at them. Commando said, Goddamit, Professor, why didn't you detect them?

Carmody said, with obvious embarassment, I...I can't detect any of them. Excello, can you--

An alien mind broke in to their mind-net; it was redolent with malign self-satisfaction. No, he can't. Nor will you, "Professor." You made the mistake of assuming the Swiss would not know where their best interests lie, or that Reich did not have telepaths of its own, or that we would be more powerful than you...and that we would know instantly what you are doing. I suggest you surrender now, all of you.

As the bullets ricocheted the figures flying at the Liberators, Marvex leapt into the air, flying towards those Germans crouched on the hillside, and Electro shot forward, using his superior strength to build up speed as he ran towards the railway tunnel, intent on detonating the explosives no matter the cost. The Commando dropped his gun and drew his bayonet, waiting for the flying figures to reach him...and then the entire scene seemed to freeze, all of the Germans stuck in mid-air and mid-motion like figures in a stopped film, and the face of Monako appeared before the Liberators. He looked...the Commando had never seen Monako look anything less than composed, but now he looked anxious - almost frightened. The image of Monako's face said, "Mission over, all of you - we need you here. NOW." And with that the Liberators found themselves back in North Africa, in the Liberators' camp, surrounded by their nervous-looking friends.

In the ruins of the Castle Unnameable the Zauberer painfully dragged himself across the floor of the Castle's deepest cellar, leaving a trail of blood behind him. It had been the purest agony for Zauberer, having his body wrecked in the explosion by which Mercury committed suicide, and only the sheerest force of will had allowed him to summon up the necessary concentration and magic energy to fly from the smoking crater in which he'd landed. His every nerve was shrieking, and the pain in his body was almost unimaginable, but the Zauberer's will was extremely strong, and after a very long hour he'd achieved the necessary mental discipline with which to cast his magicks. And so he'd flown back to what was left of the Castle Unnameable, his flight a wobbly, inconstant thing, the pain often coming very close to overwhelming him.

But he'd made it, and now he was ready to undo his wounds. The problem was that he couldn't. He was, he knew, as skilled as any mage in the world; he thought he could kill the Ancient One in single combat, and had managed to neutralize the Ancient One, Dakimh, and Agatha Harkness all at once (with the help of the Thule Order, although he knew they didn't really do all that much to help him). However, his injuries were beyond even his great skill and power to heal. Perhaps with the help of others, of similar skill, he could have been healed, but the idea of putting himself at the mercy of any of those three, or of Aged Genghis, or of anyone else of that level of power, was deeply repugnant. Nor could he rely on any of the Great Powers of the multiverse to help him; those who refused to help him when he was trying to summon Wotan and the other old gods were most unlikely to help him now.

So he would have to use an object of power, and the whole long flight back to the Castle he'd run through the long list of such things that he knew of or had heard of. The Cubes were hidden or destroyed, the Soul Gems well-guarded or inaccessible or lost, the wishing rings in another universe, and too well-guarded...after long deliberation he'd finally concluded that all that was left for him to make use of was the M'krann Crystal. This was not an easy decision for him to make, for the Crystal had powerful guardians of its own, and previous attempts to tamper with it had led to disaster, which was why the Zauberer had never before dared to try to gain control of it. But the Zauberer refused to live life as a paralysed cripple, and he'd always known that who dares, wins.

So, once he'd made it to the cellar of the Castle, he'd released the spell holding him aloft, and begun a new one, one which would open a magical gateway to the Crystal. And now the gateway irised open and he slowly dragged himself towards it, ignoring the agony in his legs and waist and making his arms work by sheer force of will alone.

In Mie Prefecture, in the city of Ise, surrounded by dense pines, lay the Ise Shrine, one of the most important and significant Shinto shrines in the whole of Japan. Said to date from the 3rd century, and reputed to enshrine Amaterasu Omikami, the first goddess of Shinto and the legendary ancestor of the imperial family, the Ise Shrine's inner building - the Inner Shrine - is seen by few except the priests and monks, for although the Shrine is a popular site for a pilgrimage, the inner building is held holy and never sullied by the commoners, or in fact any but the priests and those of the Imperial Family; the Inner Shrine holds the yata no kagami, one of the three holy Imperial Regalia and the material form of Amaterasu Omikami.

Known to only the highest-ranking priests of the Ise Shrine, however, are the cellars and sub-cellars of the Ise Shrine. These are almost never visited by the priests, to whom, as good worshipers of Shinto, the idea of purity is paramount, and who know that the cellars and especially the sub-cellars (which are rumored to extend into caves and then tunnels which stretch far beyond the boundries of Mie Prefecture, and possible even beyond the bounds of Earth itself) are extremely impure places. Although even the oldest writings of the Shinto worshipers contain only vague hints to their excavation and construction, the wisest and eldest of the priests of the Ise Shrine believe (with some justification) that when Amaterasu Omikami saw the site on which the Shrine would be built, she directed Ame no Minakanushi no Kami, one of the primal gods of generation, to also set aside a space so that the god Izanagi no Mikoto, having followed his consort Izanami no Mikoto to the Yomi no Kuni, the Land of Darkness, and thereby having been tainted, could dump the worst part of his now-dirtied being during his purification ritual.

Whatever the reason, the cellars and subcellars are, for those wise and unfortunate enough to be aware of them, the penultimate Bad Place in all of Japan. (The ultimate Bad Place being a certain cave complex on the slopes of Mt. Fuji which is hidden by endless cloaking and protective spells, and which has been entered willingly only thrice in a thousand years) Strange and terrible sounds are said to emerge from the cellars and subcellars at night, and those who venture into the cellars do so with their eyes closed and tightly held shut; no matter how horrible the sounds, they are not nearly so bad as the sights. The darkness moves when it is not looked at, in the cellars, and the designs engraven or scrawled on the walls seem to shift, causing the eye to swim (or go blind, if the viewer is lucky). Sometimes even those refusing to see, or blind, are stricken by the darkness and evil of the cellars, for tactile hauntings are not unknown; during the reign of Go-Horikawa the blind and deaf monk Ganjin Shohei - a former samurai horribly wounded in war who shaved his topknot, took his vows, and retired to the life of a monk - ventured into the subcellars at the request of several wandering and curious ronin. He was found the next morning, killed by means unknown, with an expression on his face that none present ever forgot or would discuss.

As the Zauberer was pulling himself across the cold stone floor of the Castle Unnameable's cellar, one figure crouched in the deepest, dankest cave of the Ise Shrine's subcellars, head cocked, listening to sounds beyond the ability of mere humans to hear. The figure, a short, plump Japanese man of plain features, had knelt, motionless, in that position for several hours, and by the look of him could continue without strain for many more. He had crouched, listening to the whispers the winds blew his way and silently mouthing the words to several spells of rare provenance and passing power.

In his mind glowed an image of the scene in the Castle Unnameable's cellars. It had taken time and skill to penetrate the Zauberer's shields, and power and greater skill to place his consciousness in the cellar in such a way that the Zauberer, always paranoid and afraid (mostly of the aged Tibetan wizard, who the man far beneath the Ise Shrine himself despised and respected, but also of the Allied wizards and of other beings), had had no notion that he was being watched.

The figure watched and waited, hearing the winds' messages and finally knowing (he thought) what Destiny was telling him. As the portal opened in the Castle Unnameable and the Zauberer dragged himself through it, the man smiled, his grin lighting up his whole face, and muttered two quick sentences. He arose from his crouch in a blur and shot forward, his frame both transforming and vanishing.

Although there was no one to see the events that took place at this time, it later became apparent that they were all linked.

In the Black Galaxy a discussion between the Living Planet and Vage ended abruptly, with the sentient black hole pausing, obviously hearing or sensing something, and promptly disappearing, leaving the Living Planet to first grumble and then think deeply about what could possibly have drawn Vage away so suddenly.

From a water-logged world in a large system in a major arm of one of the galaxies beyond the Lesser Void, in the enormous region of space which would become known, in the far-future millennia when humanity spread beyond the galaxies of the Lesser and Greater Magellanic Clouds, as the Unknown Galaxies, an opaque black sphere rose and shot into the sky; the sphere was approximately 15 feet in diameter, and its exterior held a number of odd and somehow deadly-looking objects.

On the other side of the Greater Void, from a water-heavy world, a dark brown creature, which would look to human eyes like a cross between a monster crayfish and a giant mutant lobster, broadcast a final message from its antennae, ritually clicked two of its claws together, and disappeared.

From the vast, crumbled ruins of the City of the Old Ones, in the heart of the frozen Antarctic plain, something that shimmered in colors unknown to man slithered and crawled almost delicately from under the broken and shattered blocks of slate, schist, and sandstone and then seemed to dissipate into the air. From the seas near S. Latitude 47o 9', W. Longitude 126o 43', something with claws and a head of tentacles and a body of a half-solid gas and eyes of incomparable wisdom and evil arose from the depths, causing ship-sized waves to spread in every direction, and silently shot into space.

In M-71, at the center of the galaxy, a machine lifted off from the fuzzy-spiked sphere enclosing the exploding stars at the center of M-71 and deriving energy from the endless explosions of the many stars. The machine continually shifted size and shape as it flew and made the transition into hyperspace, altering its colors and substances as well.

From a highly-populated world in an otherwise undistinguished galactic arm of M-22 a large number of obviously insectile creatures lifted free of the atmosphere of their planet and shifted into hyperspace.

Something the size of a small moon, pockmarked with endless old crater scars, slipped into solidity halfway across the enormous vacuum of space known as the Greater Void, spun a moment as if orienting itself, and then shot forward, vanishing again.

In many other places across the cosmos and multiverse, figures and groups left their homes and worlds and systems, using various methods to depart. Most notably, to later eyes, on a world in a small arm of what would later become known as the Bookmark Galaxy, a vast armored figure in red and black, strange energies crawling across his facemask and momentarily forming bizarre, unearthly shapes, disappeared. (The armored figure's siblings continued their work, judging a race of intelligent crystalline entities; this was their fourth visit to the world, and their eventual judgment would be that the silicon-based beings were indeed fit to survive)

Had anyone been watching all of these departures, and tracking them through hyperspace or transspace or underspace or or interspace or the Fractured Ways or the Under-Realms, they would have seen them all heading for one destination: the world on which the M'krann Crystal sat.

The Zauberer, falling through the portal on to the blackened sands of the alien world, felt a wind ruffle his hair, and as he rolled himself over he saw a monstrous hawk wheel through the air above him.

Looking at it with his Mage's Sight, and knowing the hawk for what it truly was, he whispered a sibillant string of words and transformed himself into a twelve-foot-tall cyclone of fire.

He was about to speak to the hawk when he noticed the other figures around him. They had only been barely visible before, but now he could see them all: tall and short, visible and unseen, matter and energy, there were dozens of them, and the Zauberer knew instantly that they were all beings of power, many rivalling or surpassing his. And more were appearing every second.

None were looking at him. Those with backs had theirs turned to him, and were looking at the thing loming over all of them.

It looked like a huge, multi-faceted diamond, only it towered three stories and more into the sky, back-lit by a vast splatter of stars, negative-Kirby-Dotstm against the stark black sky.

The diamond glowed from within with a bright white light, and struggling forward against the light, trying to reach the diamond, could be seen several figures, human-sized but somehow vast despite that.

Then the Zauberer heard a familiar and despised voice say, "There he is!"

He turned to see Monako leading the accursed American super-men forward at him. He raised his hands to erect a shield--

--and the world exploded.

Author's Notes:

The date of this story, for anyone who cares, is January 29th, 1943. In 23 issues we've come nearly 3 months. At this rate it will only take me another 390 issues to make it to the end of the war.

The "Guisan" referred to by Professor Carmody is Henri Guisan, the leader of Switzerland's army at the outbreak of war. Yes, the Swiss had an army when WW2 broke out; it was 435,000-strong, as a matter of fact, but they only had 200 fighters, only 50 of which were modern, and the army wasn't mechanized, and the Swiss were still modernizing their artillery. Had they tried to fight the Germans one-on-one, they would have been slaughtered. So what Guisan did was prepare for a defensive battle. The Germans did violate Swiss airspace several times, but after a few losses they decided not to press further. They didn't really need to, since the Swiss were giving them pretty much what they wanted.

The German Red Cross, of course, despite the putative neutrality of its parent organization (who, you might or might not know, was charging G.I.s for coffee during the Battle of the Bulge), was anything but; they were active Nazi Party members and went out of their way to see that the International Red Cross received no information about the Jews or anyone else in the concentration camps. Nor did the Red Cross as a whole try to do much to help the victims of the camps, as far as I can tell; they knew about them, but didn't do much. Neutral the Red Cross - and Switzerland and Sweden and Turkey and the rest of the "neutrals" - may have been, but innocent they were not.

The mission to Vichy, of course, is chronicled in Liberators #11 ("The First Victim Of War Is The Truth").

A "honey trap" is spy jargon for the use of an attractive woman as bait or lure in recruitment or other espionage operations; it was a specialty of the KGB.

AlPanCom was first mentioned in Abe's Captain America: The War Years one-shot. It's the military organization in charge of all the Allied paranormals. My take on things is that when the Liberators first entered the war they were commanded by Doc Savage and Captain America, who in turn reported to the OSS and liaised with the various military commanders on missions. But very quickly it became apparent to everyone that the Liberators needed to work hand-in-hand with the military, and so a separate military command was set up to deal with them - AlPanCom, or "Allied Paranormal Command." AlPanCom spends most of their time dealing with the Liberators, but also deals with those other metahumans who are not members of the Liberators (Captain Kerosene, the Crimson Cavalier) or who aren't active with the mass of the Liberators (Citizen V and the other Liberators who split off and went back to their home countries). AlPanCom consists of Doc Savage, Captain America, Powell, and representatives from various Allied militaries.

Yes, the Swiss profited quite nicely from the war - the facts of the matter are as summarized by Professor Carmody. And in early 1942, when the Vichy French expelled 170,000 Jews, the Swiss closed their borders to them. They accepted a few, and promptly made them into forced labor. There was a great deal of anti-Semitism in Switzerland at the time - and it's by no means gone now - and the Swiss, despite Churchill's defense of them, are a lot closer, in my view, to Stalin's description of them ("Swine") than to something somehow morally defensible.

The Simplon tunnel, with the St. Gotthard tunnel, were the two main points through which the Germans transported

The Ise Shrine is a real place, although its lower cellars and all accompanying rumors and legends are, as far as I know, made-up.

Our Cast:

Crimson Commando - introduced as a retcon character, along with Super Sabre and Stonewall, in the pages of X-Men by Chris Claremont. I was, for a long time, irritated with Claremont over this character. Well, to be fair, Claremont irritates me on any number of levels, and the Crimson Commando is one of them. With all the Golden Age characters lying unused for decades, why introduce three new ones? Admittedly, he was using them as villains in their first appearance, and so he might have been wary of criticism on that account - but Claremont has never shown himself to particularly care about criticism, so why start? Anyhow - the Crimson Commando was presented as some sort of badass soldier who fought during WW2, but by the time of the 1980s (when he was introduced) had become a killer vigilante. I've used the Commando before in Liberators, of course; he was included on this mission because Claremont (in a move straight out of Plot Necessity Playhouse) made him immune to mental scanning.

Electro - One of several Crime Fighting Robots that were introduced in various Timely books. Electro really wasn't that memorable, though, which is kinda why he has no lines.

Marvex the Super-Robot - Another of Timely's Crime-Fighting Robot/Androids, Marvex was somewhat more distinctive than the others, in that he was created by aliens from the fifth dimension who were hostile to humanity, but then, through various plot machinations, Marvex turned against them and decided to fight for humanity.

Master Mind Excello - one of Timely's three telepaths (a superpower found surprisingly rarely in the Golden Age), Excello was presented as an agent of the Office of Naval Intelligence who had a personal arsenal and was an all-around stud. Although there were certain aspects of his stories that were interesting, Excello was not.

Merzah the Mystic - the third of Timely's three telepaths, he only had one appearance, but it was memorable (despite his very silly uniform).

Professor Carmody - aka The Eternal Brain. The first of Marvel's telepaths, although as a disembodied-brain-in-a-jar Professor Carmody is working from a much older tradition.

Next issue: The End Of All Things, Part 1: Armageddon.