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by Marc Singer and Matt Rossi
EARTH -- Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 5:45 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time
Lakshmi Natarajan twisted in bed, writhing in the grip of forces she could not fully comprehend. She had kicked all the blankets off the mattress, and completely soaked her T-shirt with her own sweat. Lakshmi tried to calm herself, to wake herself up by telling herself it was all just a dream. But it didn't work, because she knew her dreams weren't just dreams anymore. They were visions, and when the mists of consciousness parted, she saw the world....
She saw Allen Covenant, pacing in a bathrobe in his Ohio home. The magician and scholar had been the first to tell Lakshmi she was an Omega, the same day he told her the gods were real. The gods, perhaps displeased that a mortal had discovered their secret, had not left her alone since. She had been cursed with visions of Vishnu and Shiva, order and chaos, battling for the future. Now Covenant, the harbinger of this power, was perhaps awakened by the same omens that held Lakshmi in tortured sleep.
The mists swirled and parted again, and Lakshmi saw Anne Benson waking up in a cold sweat. The Omega celebrity had not believed Lakshmi when she'd said the recent destruction of Mount Everest was a symbol of an even more terrible battle to come. Anne had thought Lakshmi was too obsessed with Indian gods; Lakshmi disagreed. (Mount Everest was the symbolic peak of the world and strongest avatar of the mountain-god Himalaya. Himalaya was father to Parvati, the bride of Shiva. Surely the god of destruction would be angered at the slaughter of his father-in-law.) But now Anne, too, could not sleep.
Lakshmi saw government-agent Seekers who were unaware of the world's psychic turmoil, and the former terrorist Danny Anderson who was far too aware of it. She saw humans who would trigger Omega powers, and cultists who would trigger deadly events. She saw cities burning and lights in the sky. But these were not the visions that terrified her.
Like normal dreams, those final visions slipped away just as she tried to understand them. Perhaps she was seeing a great silver stallion waiting for Vishnu's final avatar, Kalki the Pale Rider, to ride him down to Earth and start the bloody purge that would end the corrupt Kali Yuga. Or perhaps she was seeing Shiva, turning slowly while darker, smaller gods danced and fluted madly around him --
Shiva, turning slowly, making the first moves in the dance that would destroy the world.
HARRA PRIME -- High Pulsar Orbit
The flagship of the Harrakin fleet, _Dy'Tariexien'Ka Harrak_, was a vast silver-hulled craft. It slowly spun in space, bathed by the sweeping radio beacon of the pulsar that dominated the system. Every second, more and more Harrakin Black Ships entered into tight orbit around it. One of these ships, the _K'krianar Hallatiris_, docked with the flagship. The _K'krianar Hallatiris_ had been the flagship of a smaller armada that had recently returned. It was roughly the size of Manhattan Island... and compared to the _Dy'Tariexien'Ka Harrak_, it was a fly climbing a diamond the size of a man's head.
On board the flagship, the very air burned with activity. Thoughts whirled from mind to mind as orders were checked and re- checked and the fleet assembled. It was the largest one any Dy'Tariex had ever assembled, and as he watched it gather in space around the flagship, Priscus Obran'Ka Harrakin, the Norrek of the fleet, felt an icy finger of anticipation crawling up and down his spine.
The pulsar gave the ships' appearance a kind of strobe effect; one minute he found himself staring out into the black metal of the sky, and then another wave of incandescent blue light would sweep over him, and more ships would be there. Priscus found the whole thing fascinating. His armored hand, as dark as the void out the observation portal, brushed the edge of the projection. Soon.
[Yes, Ky'Rian?] Priscus snapped to attention at the thoughts of his cousin, the Dy'Tariex's elder son and until recently chosen heir. The situation was unclear now, however, thanks to a Tisaridron in the shade of a gas giant several thousand light-years away, and Ky'Rian's position was maintained only by the will of the Dy'Tariex. Which was enough, the Norrek of the fleet mused. [Is there something wrong?]
[The Dy'Tariex wishes to know how much longer until the fleet is assembled and underway.]
[Not very long.] As Norrek, Priscus was a kind of telepathic command center, touching the minds of the various ship-rulers and passing their orders along. [Another spin of the planet, and we'll be off. Some of the Garrison officers are calling favors in order to be allowed to accompany us. Not many Marines wish to be left behind when our largest fleet ever sets itself into Otherspace and the thoughts of history!]
[Hm.] Ky'Rian's thoughts betrayed a lack of enthusiasm, and Priscus smiled. Of course his cousin wasn't excited. The half-breed who beat him nearly to death and then let him live was waiting for the fleet, and he'd probably try and oppose it... and get himself blown into atoms for his trouble, more than like. Priscus realized he shouldn't be feeling such a sick sense of glee at the thoughts, but one of the reasons he was the Norrek was because, at heart, he was thoroughly malicious. [I'm sure the Dy'Tariex will be pleased. He wishes to leave right away. Report to me when all is prepared.]
[I will, Ky'Rian.]
EARTH -- Laurel, Maryland, 7:45 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time
The Omega House television was still showing _2 Days in the Valley_, and the young man floating over the couch never took his eyes off of it. Anne and Harvey had both had errands to run, so they'd taken some of the Omega House kids with them, but not John. He'd just managed to convince them to remove his psi-suppressor helmet the day before, and they weren't about to take him with them and risk him using his Omega powers to levitate a watch out of a display case or something. Unlike Carlos, who'd begun to develop a sense of responsibility and even selflessness after fighting the Fix's army of Harrakin exiles, John was getting more bitter and arrogant every day.
He watched James Spader pointing his gun at Danny Aiello on the screen with the blank absorption of a fanatic. Everything about heisting appealed to John, at least in films, anyway. He loved to watch them, re-watch them, analyze them in his head, try to decide how the characters made their mistakes. John wanted, more than anything, to use his Omega to make himself like them, hard, invincible, and flawless as he reached out and took what he wanted. Every time he failed, every time he was caught, he felt a razor sawing away at his chest.
Just as the scene got tense, there was a knock at the door.
"Shit!" Potts dropped down from over the couch and pushed a lock of hair out of his face. Scowling, he walked across the room and opened the door.
"Yeah, what is it?"
Standing on the doorstep, looking remarkably unhappy about where he was at that particular moment, was a teenaged boy with brown- black hair that didn't quite match his thick reddish beard. He wore ragged blue jeans, a black long-sleeved Levi's shirt, and a leather jacket which looked like it had seen better days. He looked extremely agitated. "Is Anne here?" The guy looked past John's head into the room behind him. John *hated* it when people did that.
"No." John decided to do it a few seconds after he actually began to do it. He turned away and pushed on the door, to shut it in his face.
Then it stopped. No matter how hard he pushed, it wouldn't budge. John looked up at the guy again.
He wasn't there. Instead, there was a six-foot seven-inch version of him, minus the beard and shirt, and with green eyes that burned with the steady radiance of sunrise. He was Eric Anderson, Tempest: half human, half Harrakin, and the most powerful Omega the world had ever seen. And he was looking down at John with equal parts amusement and contempt.
"Well, John, here's the thing. I just flew all the way from the Arctic Circle, and boy, are my arms tired. So why don't you just march your Tarantino-clone ass into the other room, turn off that fucking machine, and we'll just sit down and wait for her to show up. What do you think?"
John nodded silently and backed up.
"I knew you could make the right decision, if you really tried."
As John endeavored to stay far away from him yet remain in the house, Eric paced over to a window. John cleared his throat and said, "Uhm... are you really..."
"Am I really here? Yes. Am I really Tempest? Yes, that too. Am I really angry?" He glowered at the morning sky, and what lay beyond it. "I've been angrier, but I've never been as afraid."
Providence, RI, 8:03 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time
Mirranda Anderson woke up when her hand slid across the bed and felt no one there.
She was startled into awareness by the sweat that was cooling on her husband's pillow, and she opened her eyes hoping to see him standing somewhere in the room, perhaps at the window, but the sunlight streamed in and traced the dust swirling in the air of the bedroom, and he wasn't there.
No response. She could feel him somewhere in the house, but he wasn't answering her thoughts. She got up and struggled into his T-shirt, which was lying on the floor near her side of the bed. Her head was still fuzzy with sleep, and she walked slowly and wincingly into the hallway.
Popping her head into Joanie's room told her that the two year old was also up and out of bed, because there was no one there underneath the Barney mobile that Thomas-Peter had given the child for Christmas. Then she continued down the hall and the stairs to the first floor.
The smell of coffee greeted her in the kitchen, as did a provalone and salami omelet, still warm from the frying pan. She picked up her "Neurosurgeons do it with a scalpel" mug and lifted the plate with her left hand, heading out on the patio.
Danny was sitting in his ratty lounge chair, holding the sleeping baby with one hand while he drank his coffee. The television from the living room was standing on top of a milk crate, and Mirry could see the extension cord that trailed around the house and conneted to the exterior plug. "What's this?" Mirry sat down next to him and touched his shoulder.
"I had a dream."
"Good or bad?"
"Bad." He sounded depressed, even frightened -- he showed none of the confidence he'd displayed back when he ran the haven for fugitive Omegas known as the Colony. "When it's noon, I have to turn this on, and then we'll know if it's going to happen."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"Christ, no. I don't know what to do. I just wanted to sit here and wait for a while. You should finish your omelet before it gets cold."
"Yeah. Nothing worse than a cold provalone omelet."
She held on to him, and he relaxed a little, and they both waited.
OTHERSPACE -- approaching Near Solar Orbit
Priscus surveyed the myriad consoles and displays of the flagship's flight command center, his advanced brain instantly processing all the information, organizing it, and relaying it to the Dy'Tariex. [We are nearing the exit from Otherspace. How shall we approach the planet... the Homeworld?] Now that he was almost there, even Priscus was growing excited. This was not another routine mission of conquest. This was the culmination of the Harrakin dream.
The Dy'Tariex, reclining in the soft meadows of the imperial bedchamber, answered, [We must approach with reverence... but glory. Array the fleet in front of their sun, then approach in the Wheel of Harrak formation. The Homeworld shall see us in all our splendor before we arrive.]
The Dy'Tariex paused before breaking the connection, and Priscus dutifully waited. He imagined the Dy'Tariex lying in fields of silkgrass, being tickled by concubines while he kept his steward and Norrek waiting... finally, the Dy'Tariex finished his thought: An image of H'rik, the young halfbreed, floated before Priscus's eyes. The Dy'Tariex stated, [Order all the troops to prepare for battle as well.]
Then the flagship located the local gravity well, used it to brake itself, and dropped out of Otherspace in front of a brilliant yellow sun.
EARTH -- New York City, 9:17 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time
This time, Cornelius Owen reasoned, the crisis at least waited until he'd arrived at work. He was just settling down to a morning of Stormkiller file reviews when his assistant, Mr. Slaight, ran breathlessly into the room. He carried a sheaf of faxes in his left hand.
"Urgent news, Mr. Owen," Slaight said. "We've just gotten word from our agents at Baikonur, Greenwich, Jodrell Bank -- all the satellites and observatories on the daylight side of the planet. Something has just appeared in front of the sun." He spread the murky faxes across Owen's desk, his sweaty hands smearing the ink even more. The fax paper was still hot. But Owen could see quite clearly -- hundreds of objects, too smooth and too precisely arranged to be a natural occurrence.
"We're spotting more by the minute, sir. It's finally here." Slaight spoke with an odd mixture of fear and delight. "The invasion is finally here."
Owen very slowly sat back in his chair.
"Sir?" Slaight said. "This is Stormkiller's big chance. What should I tell the U.N.?" As if on cue, one of the lines on one of the phones on Owen's desk rang. Then another rang, then another.
Owen maintained his blank expression, and ignored the cacophony of telephones. "Tell them nothing," he said. "We can't work efficiently if the whole world is in a panic. Tell the governments I want a complete blackout on this discovery. The public is not to know."
Slaight still hovered by Owen's desk. "Is there anything else I should do, sir?"
"Of course there is, you imbecile. Get me a meeting with Antigone."
San Diego, California, 6:30 a.m. Pacific Time
Elder Aldebaran gasped with delight, then placed his eye back on the sight of the telescope and looked again.
It hadn't been his imagination. There were several tiny lights just above the horizon, near the sun which had just risen, and there was some kind of trail or discharge emanating behind them. The shower of comets had come. Just like The Voice promised.
Elder Aldebaran was glad he had listened to The Voice back in March; that comet had been pretty, but it was only one comet. This shower was much greater, and the comets could carry far more souls.
The Voice had come back to Elder Aldebaran, just a few moments ago, and told him where to look. Now he had to hurry and show the other brothers, before the sunlight got too strong and the comets were no longer visible. And as he ran downhill to the compound, The Voice sang in his head again: [Listen well, Elder Aldebaran, for there is one more thing you and your brothers must do...]
Laurel, Maryland, 10:09 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time
Anne opened the door and wiped her hand against her forehead. Being an Omega didn't ensure immunity from discomfort, and it was unusually hot already for so early in the morning.
"You okay, Annie?"
"I'm fine." Harvey Hauptmann came in behind her, ushering the various Paint Crew kids in, and she put the groceries down on the kitchen counter. Then she froze.
Standing in the rec room with the most contrite expression she'd ever seen him wear was John Potts.
"It isn't my fault! He *made* me let him in." Anne peered around Potts, and saw the visitor: Eric Anderson.
Much as she liked Eric, his appearances were rarely social calls. Being from the generation that was reared on _Star Wars_, Anne could only turn to Harvey and say, "I've got a bad feeling about this."
London, England, 3:15 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time (10:15 a.m. EDT)
"We're here, officers." The police lines parted for the woman called Selkie and three of the four other members of the Odds -- agents of Britain's Omega Defence Division. Selkie, Fusion, and Boleskine all wore dark, conservative suits; Ravebuster, however, wore a psychedelic shirt, a leather vest, and sunglasses. He was the youngest Odd, and he'd been the only one to embrace a high-publicity "superhero" lifestyle.
The government hadn't been happy about sending the Odds out -- they were supposed to be on full standby for some discovery that had all the astronomers working overtime -- but the situation was too serious to ignore. Several National Front thugs had stormed Harrod's department store and were holding hostages. "What do we know about these men?" Selkie shouted, to no one in particular.
A balding CID detective answered her. "They're holed up on the fourth floor. Their leader is 'White' Eddie Wiggan, believed to have some low-level psychic abilities. Believed by his skinhead pals, anyway."
"Has Wiggan issued any statements, demands?"
"A warning, he calls it." The detective rolled his eyes in scorn. "Says he stormed Harrod's because it's going to destroy the world." Then the detective looked at the group of Omegas. "Say, isn't there supposed to be another one of you?"
"Blackfriars is a little shy," Selkie growled, "but we can handle it. Boleskine, get us some scouts and find out where they're positioned." At Selkie's command, the older man began weaving his hands in an ornate pattern and chanting in Pnakotic, to summon ectoplasmic spirits and bind them to his will. "Ravebuster," Selkie added, "get us a fix on all the minds in there. Wiggan's especially."
Ravebuster wiggled his eyebrows behind his sunglasses. "Oh, 'e stands out like a lightbulb. A dim one, though. I've got 'im..."
Normally, Ravebuster possessed the power to scramble people's minds. But today, it seemed to work in reverse, as the young man sank to his knees and moaned "Aw shite... he's *right*..."
"Ravebuster!" Selkie screamed. "What the hell --"
Then Ravebuster's power lashed out automatically. Selkie became confused, and inadvertently activated her illusion powers. The street was filled with images of bombs and death rays, emanating either from Harrod's or from the skies. Boleskine also fell victim to the mind- scramble; his spirits, suddenly freed, flew shrieking around the block.
Nobody else was directly affected, but neither the Metropolitan Police nor Fusion, who had no psychic or magical abilities, knew how to deal with the new crisis. They stood paralyzed, while the street turned into a swirling tableau of terror.
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, 10:15 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time
For once, Neil Benson knew what it was like to be the center of attention. True, the crowds of anxious scientists, bureaucrats, and reporters weren't there to see *him*, but he was right in the middle of all the action. He'd gotten quite used to publicity, since his grandfather and older sister were both nationally-famous Omega heroes, but he'd never seen any publicity for *his* achievements before.
One of Neil's engineering professors had gotten him a presitigious co-op with a NASA solar study project operating out of Goddard. He'd been working there for a few months, mostly doing grunt work, but he felt like part of the team and he was thrilled to see so many people interested in the project. He just couldn't figure out *why*.
Nor was he allowed to know. Almost as soon as Neil showed up at work, he and the other junior staffers were kicked out of the main project center. Now they were stuck stonewalling the growing crowd of officials and reporters. Fortunately, Dr. Nakamura, the project director, came out to make a statement shortly after he received some important call from New York.
The reporters all asked questions about some objects that amateur astronomers had spotted near the sun, starting about an hour ago. West Coast stargazers had been the first to see them, but now the light was wrong and they could only be spotted from the Pacific -- or from expensive observatories and satellites like NASA's.
"Are they comets?" the Associated Press correspondent asked.
"No," Dr. Nakamura answered, "comets wouldn't have their tails pointing *toward* the sun."
Several reporters shouted then; the loudest one, a large man with long hair and a black suit, asked, "Is it true the objects are heading towards Earth, then?"
"You have to remember, these reports are all coming from amateurs, operating under far from ideal conditions. No government has yet confirmed the *existence* of these objects, let alone their trajectory. This may be nothing at all." Then Dr. Nakamura smiled weakly, and Neil Benson's skin turned cold -- he only used that smile when he was bullshitting.
The next question came from a 'reporter' Neil knew all too well -- John Sloane, the sleazy Hot Scoop! sensationalist. "Dr. Nakamura," he said, "what about the possibility that these objects are some kind of alien spacecraft?" It wasn't a stupid question, given the proven existence of Harrakin, but Sloane was obviously asking it to stir up fear.
Dr. Nakamura snorted and said "That's..."
There was a long pause, as Dr. Nakamura stared off into space.
"That's ludicrous," he finally said. "We have no comment on that kind of question." But he wasn't quite right for the rest of the interview. Neil thought he acted as if he were listening to a faraway voice.
London, England, 3:30 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time
Inside the department store, one member of the National Front peered out the windows at the chaos below. "Fook, Eddie," said Pete, "you was right. The Odds are a fookin mess. We might get out of this one yet."
White Eddie Wiggan slouched despondently in an overstuffed armchair taken from the furniture department. From this throne, he could see his heavily-armed followers, and his hostages, but these sights did not cheer him. "The Odds ain't the bloody point, man... we've got to kill the Harrods before they kill us." He eyed the hostages with hatred.
Pete turned pale, which normally would have brought him closer to his racial ideal, but this paleness stemmed from fear. "Eddie... they'd never let us live if we did. They've got police out there, man, and Omegas."
"Fook the police, and fook their pet Omegas! Thanks to this and all it sees --" he tapped his forehead -- "their Omegas are fookin useless."
"But what aboot --" Pete jumped at a small noise from the other end of the floor, down where Georgie and Alex were on watch. But it was nothing. "What aboot Blackfriars?"
White Eddie laughed from his chair. "It's three o'clock, you daft idjit. Blackfriars don't come out by day."
"Are you sure?" said Pete.
"Yes, are you sure?" said another voice. It was deep, articulate, and filled with menace.
"*Who fookin said that*?" Pete screamed. He thought it came from behind a column, though the column provided no more cover than the sharp shadow caused by the mid-day sun. "Alex, if that was you..." Pete unslung his submachine gun and walked around the column.
Suddenly, a black-clad arm reached out from behind the narrow column, grabbed Pete, and pulled him behind it. White Eddie screamed and waved his Uzi around. "Pete? Pete, what the fook happened?" There was no answer. "Alex? Georgie?" There was no answer.
Pete suddenly came flying from behind another column. His face was horribly bruised, and when he hit the floor he didn't get up. White Eddie jumped up, so his feet were on the seat of the chair, and surveyed the whole room. The hostages were still cringing on the floor, but all his National Front boys were gone. White Eddie waved his Uzi more, and shouted "Come out, you bastard! You're not taking me wi'out a fight!"
"I should hope not," said the voice. It came from directly below, from underneath the chair. And then the chair was pushed upwards, and Eddie was flying.
He lost his gun in the fall. As Eddie looked for it, he saw a man standing in the spot where the chair had been. The man wore tight-fitting black commando clothes, but his black cape and hood did resemble the robes of a medieval monk. He held the Uzi between his hands, and slowly crushed it.
Eddie started pleading. "Aw, fook, Blackfriars," he said, "there's goin' to be terrible times. A terrible war." He manically tapped his forehead. "I can see it, man. You should be preparin' for that."
Blackfriars slowly walked towards him. "I don't care if it's the Apocalypse, Eddie. No one threatens innocents in my city."
Eddie was still tapping his forehead. "It's coming! We shouldn't be fighting like this!"
"That's all right," Blackfriars said, cracking his knuckles. "This won't take long."
New York City, 11:18 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time
Owen and Antigone met in the garden dining patio of Tavern on the Green. The public location gave some measure of security against Omega assassination attempts, but just to be safe, they packed the restaurant with their underlings. Almost every diner on the patio was really either a Stormkiller spy or a Vitalongae hireling.
The henchmen also ringed the table so no civilians could hear the conversation. Antigone stared at the latest satellite photos of the solar objects, brought to her by Owen. "It's the invasion fleet, isn't it?" she said. For the first time, Owen sensed a note of dread in the Greek immortal's voice. "The Harrakin are finally here."
The old man nodded his head grimly. "They're here, and the governments of the world expect us to stop them."
"Right now, we can't do a damn thing." For the past few years, defending Earth from the Harrakin had been the pretext Stormkiller used to seize more and more authority for Owen. Now it was time to live up to his promise, and he couldn't. Owen tried not to think about the fact that Harvey Hauptmann had warned him as much after the disastrous Fix incident -- the thought of Hauptmann being right angered him even more than this alien armada, or his own helplessness against it.
Antigone, Owen's current partner thanks to her stranglehold on his life-extension treatments, grew suddenly and theatrically angry. "We'd at least have more warriors if that idiot cyborg of yours hadn't given away our cybernetic laboratories. She cost us dearly."
"I *told* you, Antigone, Ms. Dare is being punished. But even if she hadn't squealed, so what? What good are a dozen, two dozen, three dozen cyborgs against *that*?" Owen stabbed a finger onto the satellite photograph. "We need wholly different tactics. We need to use the few assets the Harrakin *don't* have."
Antigone smiled smugly. "Like magic. The Vitalongae have some considerable sorcerors. Of course, we'd need a power source... and we'd have to deal with the Black Circle..."
"Magic could be of some use. But we really need to tap humanity's most precious gift... its own deviousness."
"Then perhaps we can help," a new voice announced. Owen and Antigone both looked up crossly, wondering why their guards hadn't killed this interloper a hundred times over. Then they saw who it was.
Two men loomed over the table. The larger one wore a deep purple suit, while the speaker was dressed entirely in black. They could have passed for normal humans, even with their hulking builds and incredibly long hair, but Owen and Antigone knew who they really were. Sestus and Tatris. Harrakin.
Owen and Antigone each glanced around the patio in a panic, but all their guards were ignoring the aliens. "Don't bother to shout," Tatris said, pulling up a chair and seating himself. "They won't hear anything I don't want them to hear."
"What do you want?" Owen hissed.
"Isn't it obvious? We want to rejoin you."
They had both worked with Stormkiller before; both were former members of the Harrakin exile settlement that had briefly existed in Antarctica. Tatris had joined Stormkiller to destroy his nephew, Tempest; Sestus had become an indirect pawn when he was enslaved by the Fix. Both had been in U.N. prisons until recently.
"How can we work with Sestus?" Antigone asked. "His Fix dose never wore off... he's still a crazed, power-boosted nihilist."
"My cousin has found someone else to follow." Tatris nodded, and Sestus clasped his hands and stood behind Tatris deferentially.
Owen's face flushed red. "And why should we trust *you*, Tatris? Your antics almost blew Stormkiller's cover last time."
Tatris laughed pleasantly. He could afford to; he knew he could kill everyone in this restaurant in the blink of an eye. "That's why I'm here, Cornelius. To show you that I can rejoin the club. I've arranged a little demonstration."
Owen, refusing to be intimidated, rolled his eyes. "What could *that* be, Tatris... killing some underling just to show us how evil you are?"
"Not quite. Sestus?" The other Harrakin placed a handheld television in Tatris's raised palm. Tatris placed it on the glass table and said, "The show should be starting any minute now."
San Diego, California, 8:25 a.m. Pacific Time
Everyone had gathered on the hill above the compound. The telescope had been put away; it was too bright to see the comets, and they needed the room anyway. They had to pour the kerosene in the exact pattern dictated to Elder Aldebaran by The Voice.
All the brothers were facing east, towards the sun. Their backs were turned on the valley and its magnificent view of the Pacific Ocean. They had an equally magnificent view of the northern San Diego area, its boulevards and palm trees, but they ignored that as well. They were focused on a higher purpose.
Acting as one, each of the thirty-nine Brothers of the Pale Comet said their prayers, lit a match, and dropped it to their feet. The tiny matches instantly lit the pools of kerosene under them. Fires trailed along the ornate pattern -- and up the brothers' fuel-soaked robes.
Some of the brothers lost faith in their comet rescuers, and screamed or tried to run out of the fire. But the flames spread quickly, and the few screams of fear were drowned out by the other brothers' screams of joy. It was a beautiful moment. The only thing that spoiled it, Elder Aldebaran thought, was that awful drone of the news helicopters circling above the compound. He hadn't quite understood why The Voice wanted him to make those telephone calls. That was one thing he wouldn't miss about southern California -- too many damn helicopters.
Then Elder Proxima fell next to him, and he was the only one left. He was too enraptured by the coming glory to care about the helicopters, or the sirens that raced toward the compound. He raised his own match, unafraid of the next few minutes of pain. They would be nothing compared to what the rest of the planet would soon face...
Goddard Space Flight Center, 11:55 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time
All hell broke loose once the cult hit the news. The mass suicide had been bad enough, but their faxed press statement had panicked people even more. Everybody wanted answers, and NASA was one of the places they went looking.
After consulting with several military officials behind closed doors, Dr. Nakamura emerged into the impromptu press room to make a statement. Neil Benson guessed Nakamura was going to deny all the cult's claims, and sincerely hoped he'd be right.
Before Dr. Nakamura could speak, he was greeted with a wave of questions. All the reporters shouted over each other: "How accurate is the Pale Comet's claim--"
"--reports that the objects *are* getting closer--"
"--astronomers in Europe are seeing them at sunset--"
"--how long before they're visible in broad daylight--"
"--widespread rioting in Alaska, where they saw--"
"Gentlemen, ladies, PLEASE!" After enough shouting, Dr. Nakamura finally obtained their silence. "NASA is making this statement *only* because we want to avoid further loss of life. We want to clarify all the contradictory information out there." Nakamura deepened his voice, and Neil assumed he was about to give some reassuring denial. But then Neil noticed that Nakamura, and the military brass he'd been meeting with, all had very glazed, vacant eyes.
Dr. Nakamura reached inside his jacket and pulled out two glossy photographs. "I hope this will be the definitive statement on this discovery." He stared directly at the TV cameras.
(In Providence, Rhode Island, the clocks struck noon. Danny Anderson turned on the television.)
Dr. Nakamura cleared his throat, and announced, "We have positively identified the solar objects as an armada of alien spacecraft." He held up the photographs for all the world to see: a gigantic silver warship, and an aerial view of the Brothers of the Pale Comet. They burned and screamed in the midst of a bonfire of rough flaming letters that spelled THE HARRAKIN ARE HERE.
New York City, 12:00 noon Eastern Daylight Time.
Tatris turned the small television off with one deft flick of his wrist. Already, Owen and Antigone could hear screams emanating from the park and the city around them.
"You... you *fool*," Owen sputtered. "Do you have *any* idea how much people will panic? How hard that makes our work?"
"Not to worry," Tatris said. "I paid a visit to your stockbroker in between my little trips to San Diego and Goddard. And yours as well, Antigone -- yes, Sestus told me all about you. Your brokers were given post-hypnotic commands as well, and they converted most of your stocks just minutes ago. You'll ride out any market crash with lots of sound investments in liquid assets and defense contractors."
Antigone was livid. "This isn't about *money*, you simpleton!"
"Of course not. I also panicked the world because they will naturally turn to you for support. And with Sestus and I on your side, I daresay Stormkiller has a chance after all. We'll all prosper by working together. I just had to show I was devious enough to join the club first, didn't I?"
Owen crossed his legs and regained his composure. "I'll grant you, the press conference was nice. But why have that stupid cult kill themselves?"
Tatris giggled, and said "I don't know. Maybe to get everyone watching the press conference. Maybe to instill that extra note of terror. Or maybe to kill some underlings just to show you how evil I am." He handed two cigars to Antigone and Owen, then produced a matchbook. Tatris said, "Want a light?"
Owen and Antigone glanced sidelong at each other, exchanging opinions wordlessly. Then Owen extended his hand to Tatris and said, "Welcome aboard."
Laurel, Maryland, 12:05 Eastern Daylight Time
Eric, Harvey and Anne stood out in Omega House's back yard, while inside the house the kids were still watching TV. Eric absently pulled a rock the size of a buick out of the ground. Then he put it down and sat on it, looking somewhat like a grunge version of Rodin's Thinker. Anne sat down next to him.
"Well, it's official. We're fucked."
Harvey wasn't quite ready to accept that. "We beat them before, when the Fix sent them into DC..."
"Harvey." Eric looked up at him. "You beat two hundred of them. That fleet will have anywhere between a thousand and ten thousand of them."
"I don't care if they have a million of them, and all their pets, I don't intend to just roll over and die, and the last thing we can afford is for *you* to start..."
(Harvey.) Anne's voice brushed his thoughts. (Relax. No one's dead yet.) She looked up at the sky. "Do you know what they'll do now, Eric?"
"Not really. I've never seen them conquer a planet. Truthfully, my only experience with them is with the dead ones from Antarctica, and they were the pacifists of their race. These ones are the army. On the other hand, they don't intend to crush us... they see us the way Europeans saw the rest of Earth in the eighteenth century, as savages to civilize." He stood up and looked down at the rock. "Jesus, I feel like an idiot."
"We should do something!" Harvey's voice shook the windows of the house.
"Harvey...I can't even *sense* them. They've shielded themselves from me. There are probably millions of them on those ships, the smallest of which is at least a mile long. I'm out of ideas and *I don't know what to do*!"
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 12:10 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time
...Lakshmi Natarajan saw Tempest sitting on a rock, frozen by inaction while Anne Benson and Harvey Hauptmann feared for the world even more.
She saw Allen Covenant run for his telephone and call his niece, Rene Johnson. He frantically grabbed spellbooks and grimoires from his shelves while telling Rene she needed to contact something called the Mass Mind, so its power could defend the Earth.
She simultaneously saw Rene Johnson turn pale and tell her uncle that she was no longer in touch with the Mass Mind, that the Mind had no earthly avatar anymore and couldn't be reached.
She saw Wes Hickman deploy every single Seeker to prevent rioting in America's cities -- then privately tell Don Riley he wondered if there was any point to preserving the cities at all, when the Harrakin could simply land and take them.
She saw Brian Symsek, wondering what good his cameras were in the face of a fleet of alien overmen.
She saw a dark spiritual void, while a man's voice whispered in Hindi, "Beware the Black Circle."
She saw Omegas who did not even know they were Omegas yet, beginning to trigger from the stress of the alien arrival, more power flowing into the world, flowing all around her...
She saw Lakshmi Natarajan, unable to leave bed or even wake up, twisting and screaming.
She saw lights in the sky while a city burned...
London, England, 6:30 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time
The City was a boiling cauldron of rioting and anarchy. The Americans' announcement had come right at five o'clock, just when rush hour traffic was worst. Then everyone tried to evacuate London, bringing the streets to a virtual standstill. With everyone stuck on the streets, in the summer heat and under the threat of alien attack, it had only taken a few minutes for violence to erupt.
Blackfriars broke up a mob in front of St. Paul's Cathedral, for the third time in an hour. Then he ran down to Fleet Street, hopping across the stranded cars. He leapt atop an abandoned double-decker bus, perched there, and spotted looters down towards the river.
He quickly gauged the bus. Its ninety-degree-angle rise from the street wasn't the most ideal, but its shadow was fairly long thanks to the setting sun. It would be just enough for mid-range teleportation. He hopped down into the bus's shadow, and emerged from a dark corner of the looted grocery store. He came out sideways, so the momentum from his fall carried him feet-first into the looters.
This bunch looked like scared citizens, not hardened criminals: he gave them a few bruises, nothing more. He wished he'd had more warning about the invasion so he could have prepared some crowd- control equipment. Stupid Eddie Wiggan, he thought, couldn't even get his omens right. Had to fear Harrod's instead of Harrakin. With punks like Wiggan on the loose, this bloody country was already falling apart; the rioting was just more honest.
Blackfriars knew the ODD was livid that he was fighting street crime, and not preparing for war back at Whitehall. They were even threatening to expose his preciously-guarded identity if he didn't start following orders. It was the same means by which they'd clubbed him into the Odds in the first place, but it didn't deter him now. One identity mattered little when the world was on fire -- and justice couldn't be put on hold for war.
Indeed, that made it more important than ever. As the looters scattered, Blackfriars felt some small sense of accomplishment. This part of the City was almost peaceful.
Then he saw something that might undo all his work. Up in the western sky, several tiny lights had appeared near the sun. The ships were now close enough that they were visible to the naked eye, even in sunlight.
His pager went off; the ODD, calling him in again. He turned it off and ran towards St. Paul's; this new sight would only panic the crowds more, and he would be needed.
None of his government wardens would understand: this was his regular beat. His steady operation near Blackfriars Bridge, combined with his costume, had caused the tabloids to dub him "Blackfriars" even before there was an ODD. London was his city, and nothing would keep him from protecting it. Not even the Apocalypse.
Providence, RI, 1:42 PM Eastern Daylight Time
Danny and Mirranda rolled apart, making sure to maintain physical contact with each other after they climaxed. A sudden chill rolled up Danny's skin, and he pulled the sheets up and around himself and his wife, the sweat on their skin sticking lightly to the silk.
They lay like that for a few moments, reaching out with their minds to make sure that Joanie was still asleep. Mirry thought.
Danny stretched back into the bed, letting her hair scratch lightly on his chest, and slipped free of his body. His mind floated across the continent, looking for those he'd known before and calling them to him.
Jimmy DeLeon, sentenced to a prison cell, could not answer. Danny would have to do something about that. But Thomas-Peter Mutsafa, Conflagration, would leave his classes at Rice. Jennifer DuFresne, Agony, was already leaving her apartment in Chicago. With the aliens coming, she wanted to know what her old leader would do.
Danny realized, with a pang of guilt, he'd lied to Mirry. He wasn't just doing this to keep occupied. It was only in times of crisis, with his good Colony friends at his side and a plan in effect, that Danny Anderson truly came alive.
And this was the biggest crisis yet.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1:48 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time
Lakshmi Natarajan quivered and spasmed on her unmade, sweat- soaked bed. If she could have looked out her window, she would have seen a host of lights descending towards the Earth. But her mind was someplace else now, a much larger place, and that place was showing her the fleet as no human eyes could see it.
Hundreds of ships were taking positions in Earth orbit. They ignored the oceans and wastelands, concentrating themselves above the major population centers. They were all silver and black, not at all as she had imagined them; but they had reflective hulls, and those above the western hemisphere, the daylight side of the planet, were bathed in sunlight. When they reflected that sunlight down to Earth, they looked white. Luminous. Pale.
Lakshmi watched and trembled as Kalki's horses slid into place, then spiralled and rotated along with the Earth, performing the next steps in Shiva's final dance.
Chapter 2: Grandfathers
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