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by Marc Singer and Matt Rossi
The grounds of Aegis Pharmaceutical Research are always wreathed in snow, even in late summer. The world outside the Rocky Mountains is reeling as the Harrakin press their advantage, but here all is cold white quiet, broken only by the humming of the generators powering the new perimeter defenses. Four batteries of Tristan TX-10 Laser Guided Anti-Tank PPCs sit on swivel-mounts, each on a corner of the new electric fence.
In absolute silence, moving as one, seven people close in on the structure. One of them is carrying a briefcase-sized device, which he places on the ground. After a few seconds, a red light blinks on the surface, and a strange dish telescopes into view and points at the structure.
Seven people, skulking in the pines, smile as one.
Security has been tightened, almost to the point of absurdity for a quiet pill manufacturer. A twenty-five foot deep, twenty-foot wide trench has been cut around the fence, and at least two dozen SecuCorps guards wearing brand-new Tristan ceramic armor and carrying plasma carbines patrol the grounds.
Underneath the blue bloody light of the moon, they were caught by the attack like sheep grazing.
White-hot carbine shells cut the fence into shreds, scattering the guards. As the two cannons with arc of fire attempted to track their source, they writhed like snakes and then began firing on the generator sheds, sending them up in red-white fireballs. A blue-gold blur and a woman in tattered fatigues suddenly appeared in the middle of the response team running out from the main security building; between Battery's electromagnetic surges and Agony's projected pain-telepathy, the guards were disarmed and helpless in seconds.
Then Evelyn Absalom, chief of security, led the last four guards in a flanking manuever, flinging a spear of pure psychokinetic energy at the familiar armored boy she'd lost to once before. You're mine, Bot boy. It arced into his ribcage, knocking him out of the air and into the cement trench. As her men tried to pin Agony down, she leapt the trench herself, intending to finish Battery off.
<I don't think so.>
Suddenly she was a puppet. She didn't even have the volition to scream as her body, against every ounce of her will, helped the armored figure to his feet.
"Danny?" Battery said. "You got her?"
"Easy as pie." It was Evelyn Absalom's mouth but Danny Anderson's words, even though Evelyn was trying to bite her own tongue. "Once she came out from inside the psi-suppressors, I had an easy time ransacking her brain. Got the codes."
"Good." A blue metal fist cocked back. "You might want to get out of there."
"Oh, it won't hurt me any."
"Cool." Blackness cut off Evelyn Absalom's world as Battery knocked her cold. Stepping over her prone body, he looked up at the shredded fence and tugged. Electromagnetic force pulled the links down the trench, and he wrapped the fence around her like concertina wire. Then he floated up and out of the trench.
Near the side entrance to the R&D labs, Agony was beating the last guard unconscious with the helmet of another one. "I have to hand it to Tristan... they make good gear. That damn armor isn't even cracked." The great grey hulk of her father, Wolf, approached to her left, followed by the spider-like cannons animated by his power; to Battery, they looked like something from the imagination of H.R. Geiger. Behind him walked Dan Carter, Danny and Mirry Anderson, and Jimmy DeLeon, all holding seized carbines like they knew how to use them.
Agony stood up and smiled. "Wow... raiding an old Dynamax subsidiary lab, taking out an Absalom... Glad to see we haven't lost the old--"
A plasma burst tore into a guard behind Agony, who'd been shamming in order to buy time to set his weapon to maximum. He fell unconscious, his armor smoking. Everyone turned to see where the blast had come from. And looked into the defiant eyes of Mirry Anderson.
"What are you all looking at? I know which end of the gun shoots just as well as any of you. I was a terrorist too, you know!"
"Yes, my little Hellcat, but it's still a piss-cutter to watch." Danny had the smile of a hunting wolf on his face, and of the group, he resembled no one as much as the other man named Daniel, namely Carter. They were opposites in many ways... but there was that feral glee in tactics, the pleasure of the hunt, that they both knew like their own skin. It scared the living shit out of Battery.
"So what's the plan?" Carter spoke up, his voice so neutral it was almost bland. Everyone there knew he found them personally distasteful, but the twin menace of the Harrakin and Stormkiller had made for an alliance of purpose. "We just rush in?"
"No way. Absalom only knew what Antigone's side of security consisted of... As far as what Stormkiller's bringing to this party..." Danny's voice trailed off, because the sentence didn't need to be completed. They were flying blind, more or less, and they didn't have any choice in the matter. Not that it was new to them, but the impending descent of the Harrakin invasion fleet left less choice than usual.
DuFresne sent the spidery guns in first. Working off of the floorplan Battery had supplied, supplemented by Danny's stolen knowledge of Absalom's memories, he swept the R&D lab with explosive shells, destroying everything within range of the guns. The guards backed off fast, not having been paid enough to risk the withering pounding inside the zone of fire. Battery scanned the progress of the guns with deep MRI while Danny and Mirry did telepathic recon from inside the retreating men's heads.
"All clear on my scanners." The assault team, which Carter had dubbed 'The Dirty Tricks Squad,' pushed into the wreckage of R&D #7B. Nothing but sparks and the occasional squeal of metal fatigue greeted them... which made them even more nervous. The telepaths locked hands and joined minds into one wave, probing the depths of the complex.
"The SecuCorps have radioed back for 'Grendels' to be released... whatever they are." Mirry furrowed her brow as she read deeper. "Danny, do you get anything from them?"
"No. Literally nothing."
The floor behind them exploded upward, and three snarling forms, with metallic silver and gold implants all over their once-canine bodies, leapt up.
* * * * * * * *
New York City. A bunker under Fifth Avenue. One half-hour ago.
Before the Dirty Tricks Squad raided the former Dynamax lab in Colorado, they had first gathered, ironically enough, in a former Dynamax bunker. The bolt-hole was sparsely lit and coated in dust, but its secrecy made it an ideal command center for all the Omegas who had fought the Harrakin in New York. There were close to thirty Omegas, plus assorted magicians, commandos, and even two Harrakin nobles.
Several people were clustered in the medical lab, where equipment that had once dissected Omegas was now used to heal them. Mirry Anderson and Susan "Hyper" Lee pushed both their medical training and Omega powers to the limit, with mixed results. Harvey Hauptmann was recovering from his power-drain, and Jean-Luc Steele and Rift, the last surviving members of the Cadre, were now expected to pull through the night. Steele had even regained consciousness a few times, though he was too wrapped in thoughts of his disastrous last mission to speak. But Hallatiris, the former Harrakin emperor, still slid rapidly towards death. Even his granddaughter Sharra could only slow his inevitable decline.
A few feet away, the others clustered around a large semi-circular computer console and video bank. They were a strange mix of government agents, Colony terrorists, international Omegas, fugitive immortals, and more -- but they all deferred to the same two men. Wes Hickman and Danny Anderson somehow exuded a natural authority that even malcontents like Dan Carter had to acknowledge. The threat of Harrakin domination was too imminent not to.
"Here's the situation," Wes stated, his voice ringing off the metal walls. "Tatris seems to have assumed full control of the fleet. It's reconfiguring in what appears to be an attack formation." A graphic display behind him, controlled by his Omega computer-interface ability, showed the fleet reassembling itself in orbit. "We've got a breather now, but we only have hours -- if not minutes -- before the full-scale invasion begins."
"We kicked their ass before," Agony said, "we can do it again."
"I doubt it," Danny said. "We were fighting isolated warriors, not entire ships. Only two battleships landed today." He paced around the defenders, skirting past the international Omegas so he could directly address his old Colony friends. "One of them captured Hong Kong, and the other --" Everybody tried not to stare at the comatose Rift and the scarred, withdrawn Steele. "We have to keep those ships from landing."
"To do that," Wes said, "we need to reach them in orbit. But Rift is in no shape to teleport us, nor is Steele healthy enough to duplicate his powers. And as for Mister DeLeon..." Wes walked up to Jimmy DeLeon, the Omega technical wizard who had just been pardoned from prison a few hours earlier. "I'm told your Transmat beam can't penetrate the ionosphere."
Jimmy shook his head sadly; his dreadlocks swished from side to side. "I can transport you around Earth, but not off it. Maybe if I had a few days in the lab..."
"By then, you'd be too busy learning Harrakin." Wes stepped away from Jimmy and let his eyes roam around the dark bunker, trying not to make eye contact with anyone. "We need a way up there," he said; only those who knew him best, like Don Riley, heard the note of desperation.
"A-hem." Everyone turned to face the throat-clearer -- Fusion, the lanky British energy-thrower from the international Omegas. The foreigners stood outside the cluster of Americans, generally shut out of this strange network of Seekers and outlaws who all somehow knew each other. But now all eyes were on them.
Fusion stepped forward, brushing off his uniform. (Because he'd been at the U.N. meeting, he wore a ridiculous jumpsuit covered in lions and Union Jacks, which had mercifully been singed and torn during the day's battles.) "I know a teleporter, a teammate of mine. Blackfriars won't be too eager to carry us up to the spaceships, though. He may require some serious convincing."
"That's fine," said Danny. "We can be seriously convincing. Jimmy, build a Transmat that can reach England. Everyone with heavy- duty combat powers, talk to Wes and Sharra. They'll explain the plan for delaying the fleet."
"What about the rest of us?" said Dan Carter, not without malice.
"We have another job for you. Thanks to Hannibal and his friends --" Danny motioned to a knot of five immortals who hung back in the shadows -- "we've learned exactly who put Tatris on the Harrakin throne. Our old friends Owen and Antigone."
"We're not letting them get away scot-free this time," Wes said. "Not like they did with the Fix." The comment seemed calculated to insure the loyalty of mavericks Carter and Wolf DuFresne, but Wes's restrained anger was clearly genuine. "Soul--er, Hannibal has also provided lots of information about Owen's and Antigone's partnership -- and we're going to hit them right where it hurts." A video screen behind him showed blueprints of a large laboratory complex.
"I have to be in on that," Harvey shouted from the sickbay.
"I'm afraid you still need some rest," Danny said. "Just stay here in New York; I've got a special job for you later if everything goes well."
"Yeah, how often does that happen?" Harvey grumbled.
With that, the Omegas broke up into several smaller groups: Danny and Wes passed out individual orders, Jimmy and Wolf frantically built a Transmat, Anne Benson bade her grandfather a nervous goodbye, the Omega groupies Battery and Rewire gawked at their idols because they were too overwhelmed to speak to any of them. But one by one, they stopped working or talking, and gazed at the video screens.
Hickman's satellite graphics showed the fleet holding in a beautiful spiral pattern.
The attack formation was complete.
* * * * * * * *
London. Fifteen minutes ago.
After twelve hours of solid fighting, the Omega Defence Division was too tired to even leave their battleground. They collapsed in the middle of Trafalgar Square, amidst the proud facade of the National Gallery of Art, the still-intact rallying point of Nelson's Column, and the burned and crushed corpses of thousands of pigeons.
The British Army had already cleared out dozens of human corpses -- including Selkie, the ODDs' field leader. The other ODDs sprawled across cots; the young Ravebuster kept thrashing and screaming in his sleep. Blackfriars, however, was still vigilant, perched atop one of the smashed stone lions at the base of Nelson's Column. He scanned the streets and the skies, watching for any more threats to his city.
He was the first to see the people materializing in the center of the Square. Blackfriars leapt off the lion, his long hooded cape flapping behind him. He twisted in mid-air, landed behind the people, and cocked back his fist -- but checked the punch at the last instant as he recognized one of them.
"Fusion," he calmly observed. Blackfriars waved off the advancing soldiers; he recognized most of the fifteen Omegas, including Anne Benson, several of America's Seekers, and the Irish hero Druid's Eyes. "I see you've brought some help."
But Fusion stared at him guiltily and said, "Not really, Blackfriars. We've come to ask your help." Behind him, the other Omegas were fanning out and gathering rubble, hurriedly arranging it in some bizarre structure. "We need you to teleport us up to the fleet before it lands."
"I don't have that kind of range," he instantly answered. "My power depends on angles, shadows --"
"Fusion told us," said the girl in red powered armor, the child prodigy Rewire. "I've calculated a way for you to get us there --" she glanced at a small computer screen that popped out of the inside of her right forearm -- "but we have a very narrow window of opportunity."
Blackfriars shook his head insistently. "I can't simply send people places. I have to physically go through the angle myself to bypass space. I'd have to go into orbit with you."
"So?" said Anne Benson, walking up to him.
"So," Blackfriars said, "I'm not a 'super-hero.' I don't go gallivanting about in space like your Tempest. I protect this city." He stabbed one finger downwards, as if to remove any doubt. "I'm needed here, and one more Omega won't make a bit of difference against a bloody alien fleet."
"Your superiors may disagree," said another Omega, intruding on the conversation. He had an expensive suit and a thick English accent; Blackfriars had heard the others refer to him as 'Hal.' "And even if they don't, I'll change their minds and they'll order you to cooperate with us. You see, by one of those coincidences old Dickens so loved, I helped create the ODD."
"Then you're the reason I got conscripted into this bloody circus," Blackfriars said, "and you should know I don't take well to orders. Let me work alone, and get out of my fucking city."
"Hold on," Anne said. "You care so much about London, you'd rather protect it alone? I don't think so." She peered into Blackfriars's hood. "What's the real reason you won't help?"
"Because --" He staggered and waved his arms to take in Trafalgar Square and all the dead birds. Deep inside his cowl, the white circles of his eyes widened and shone out. "Because I don't want to fucking die, all right?!?"
Anne's voice softened. "We're going to try to keep everyone alive, Blackfriars. Not just us, but the whole planet. But we can't do that without you. The fleet is landing now." She pointed to the night sky's newest stars, arranged in a large and menacing spiral. "And you're the only teleporter left." When he didn't respond, she stepped closer and said, "I've heard about your actions, and I know you're a hero..."
"Not a hero," he said softly. "Merely a man with a home town..." He lowered his head and enclosed himself in his cape.
Someone started to say something about the best way to protect his home town, but Blackfriars quickly held up one hand. "I know," he said. "I know. Let's get on with this. If I have to die, I'd prefer to do so by night." He stalked across the square, his cape swirling around his feet.
* * * * * * * *
Colorado. Aegis Pharmaceutical Research. Now.
Aegis chief executive Antera Montoure listened to the security officers scurrying inside the cement bunker, speaking rapidly into hushed microphones as they monitored the progress of Owen's pet 'wolfhounds' as they rampaged through her facility. It was bad enough to have to coordinate with Stormkiller when they were at a distance, but allowing them to take over the protection of Aegis had stuck in her craw.
However, with the Harrakin overhead and Owen in a snit over how close the last raid had come to destroying his supply of anti-aging drugs, Antigone had felt the need to placate her ally. So Montoure gritted her teeth and tried to bear up. The cement walls were a dreary cinderblock grey, and the flickering light playing over her hands made her obsidian ring glitter.
She hoped it would be over soon.
Agony felt a rib break as the Grendel cyborg rammed her back- first through a retaining wall and out onto a catwalk. She managed to grab a pipe with her left hand and so saw the assembly line of pills rolling by far underneath her.
The Grendel didn't. Crouching near the hole, it prepared to leap at her again, popping large metal talons out of its reconstructed paws. Agony slammed her shoulder into the steam pipe, denting the metal and forcing her dislocated shoulder back into place. Behind the growling cyborg, the sounds of fighting came closer and closer. Metal legs flexed, and the snarling thing leapt right for her face.
Agony popped her right fist into the pipe, bursting it and scattering shrapnel into the face of the Grendel. As the mechanical mockery howled blindly, she kicked its silver-grey legs, popping one of its knees out with a tinny ringing. It slumped, falling to its forelegs and bending the railing under its weight, and then a blue bolt of lightning caught it in the back and sent it through the twisted metal.
It dropped the sixty feet to the floor and slammed directly into the pill-catching machinery, setting it on fire. Agony looked up in relief as her father and Danny climbed through the hole. Battery was just on this side of it, his armor scraped and scorched in several places, electricity playing around his gauntlets. Wolf reached down and helped his daughter get to her feet.
"Jenny, are you..."
"Look, Dad, stop calling me 'Jenny', okay?" Jacob 'Battery' Chevalier's jaw would have hit the floor if it weren't encased in armor. Agony was standing with her arms crossed behind her back, fidgeting and nervous. Her right foot kept sweeping the floor. "I don't want to have people suddenly think I'm soft."
"You'd rather have them afraid of you?" Wolf DuFresne snorted.
"Yeah, I would. We can't all live surrounded by widgets, you know. Some of us have to live out here..."
"This is all very fascinating on a personal level," Danny interrupted, pushing the blood from a scalp-wound out of his face. His nose was beginning to bleed too. "But we don't know how many more of those things there are, and they've got wicked psi-shielding. We have two objectives to finish here."
Agony nodded her head in agreement, and her father simply looked nervously around at the group. Carter stood guard with his plasma carbines while DeLeon cannibalized the remains of the shattered cannons and the beaten cyborgs.
"Danny...they wired self-destruct circuits into these things." Jimmy snorted. "That's probably what blew up when that last one fell."
"Can you salvage anything?"
"Already on it. Give me two minutes, and I can have us one hell of a bomb."
"All right, then. Carter, what do you think?"
"We should divide ourselves. Me, Wolf, and DeLeon make sure this place can't make any more of Owen's pills while you all remove any records of the formula from the system." Dan looked away, knowing that he had no way to keep Anderson out of his head, hoping the telepath wouldn't scrutinize what he had in mind too closely. If it works for the Old Man, it'll work for me.
"Makes sense." Danny, for his part, didn't need telepathy to see what Carter was thinking, but he didn't particularly care as long as the mission objective was met. "Let's roll, before Stormkiller's thugs get here. Battery, can you get us to the computer core?"
"Sure can." A thought, and the armor kicked over its EMG Imaging Protocol; bright blue graphics played across the inside of his faceplate. "I'm tracking the impulses now."
Agony sprinted ahead, giving one last look back to see her father's haunted expression, and then turning away and putting it out of her mind. She took the point with easy familiarity, and Battery used his electrokinesis to levitate Danny and Mirry behind him by the metal in their weapons.
DeLeon kept working, his hands moving feverishly, weaving cables together, splicing severed leads to power-packs and crosspatching them until he had a huge, vaguely turtle-like lump. Sweat covered his face as he fell away from it, exhausted and grinning.
"Wolf." The dark Jamaican looked up... and up... and up at DuFresne. "If you'd be so kind as to frog-march this bastard to the center of the production floor and arm it, I think we're all set."
* * * * * * * *
New York City. The offices of Cornelius Owen. Now.
Cornelius Owen's sharp, ever-vigilant eyes scanned across a bank of video screens that filled an entire wall. He could see hundreds of channels from across the planet, but there was only one thing to watch: the whole world falling apart.
The rogue Harrakin had retreated, but not without leaving their mark. There was a mass exodus from the great cities of North America and Europe; the Omegas had saved lives, but cities like Chicago and Paris were filled with smoldering rubble. Areas with low Omega populations weren't even that lucky: worshippers from Mexico City to Mecca packed into ruined mosques, churches, and temples. They mourned the dead, and prayed that the alien killers would not return.
In some places, the killers had never left. One deformed triangular ship hovered silently over Uluru, Ayer's Rock, in Australia. It seemed to be surveying the flora, but paranoid white Australians feared the Harrakin were making a deal with the Aborigines to drive them off the continent.
Some threats were more apparent. The militaristic Harrakin who'd captured Hong Kong now refused to leave it. One jerky, hand- held camera inside the cordoned city showed the tattered remains of the Fists of the People leading Chinese resistance fighters. The Fists had been joined by the gestalt mind known as Leviathan, but not even its tremendous power could dislodge the occupying aliens. One Harrakin flew towards the camera, and the image suddenly went dead.
None of this disturbed Owen as much as the screens in the lower right-hand corner. They showed a variety of satellite photos and telemetry readouts, confirming that Tatris, Owen's supposed partner, had reshaped the entire armada into an attack formation and was slowly descending on Earth.
Another screen showed Owen's slightly more loyal partner, the immortal Antigone. She was fairly tranquil, sitting in a room with soothing Ionic columns and fountains; Owen could still see burning skyscrapers outside his window. "I think it's time we sent Tatris a warning shot," she told him. "Trigger the nanite virus inside Sestus's armor. We'll see how long Tatris's invasion lasts once his false messiah is coughing up kidneys."
"Already sent it," Owen said. He pressed his hands on his desk, and leaned heavily on his arms. "Nothing happened; Tatris is blocking all transmissions to his flagship, as we expected. And I have no way of delivering our other virus. You'll need to trigger it magically." When Antigone didn't respond, Owen shouted "What?"
"There may be a... problem with magical countermeasures," she said. "The Vitalongae failed to acquire the magical power sources, and additionally... there was a bit of a falling out thanks to my father. And your little friends Benson and Hauptmann," she hastily added. Antigone took a deep breath and continued, "Hunyadi's been expelled and his followers are squabbling amongst themselves. The Vitalongae don't have the power to stop the fleet tonight, or even trigger the virus in orbit."
"WHAT?" Owen's face turned beet-red, and veins rose in anger on his forehead. "You promised me support!"
"And you'll get it, Cornelius." She looked almost apologetic. "Just... not right now."
"I can't wait as long as you immortal freaks!" Owen tapped a code onto his keyboard, trying to open a channel on another screen. "Maybe it's not too late to raise Tatris, cut a deal..."
But Tatris was blocking all signals from Owen -- because of Owen's earlier threats. Owen could only raise Priscus, his Norrek, steward, and liason. The tiny Harrakin, who was even shorter than some humans, appeared on the screen next to Antigone. "The Dy'Tariex regrets that he cannot take your call at this time," Priscus said. His eyes twinkled green and he could barely suppress a smirk. "However, he wishes you both to know that he appreciates your role in placing him on the Shivering Throne, and he will reward you with valued positions in his new rule over Earth: cupbearer, perhaps. Or bootlick. Farewell." Priscus began laughing, and his image winked out.
"I... I will get you that support Owen." But she wouldn't meet his glance. "For now, however, I'm retiring to my private quarters deep in the astral plane. Very deep."
Owen pounded his fist on his desk. "Antigone!" But her image slowly faded from his screen, replaced by static. "ANTIGONE!"
She was gone. All the head of Stormkiller could do now was mutely watch the telemetry display as the strings of numbers and letters, each one denoting a different Harrakin warship, dropped closer and closer to Earth. And Cornelius Owen began to realize exactly what he'd done.
* * * * * * * *
London. Trafalgar Square. Now.
The "Heavy Hitters Squad" -- Anne Benson, Armor, Blockade, Ricochet, Energi, Tom Morgan, Conflagration, Lakshmi Natarajan, Rene "Tarot" Johnson, Akasha, Druid's Eyes, Vari Stalnior, Sharra, Fusion, and even the reluctant Blackfriars -- gathered at the base of Nelson's Column, where the stone lion-bearing platforms met at tight angles. The super-strong Omegas had made the angle even tighter by piling debris in an odd configuration dictated by the young Rewire. "I think we've got a match!" Rewire shouted, checking the trashpile against something displayed on her gauntlet-screen. "Everybody get ready!"
The squad lined up behind Blackfriars. All but two were going. Hal was staying behind to smooth things over with the ODD, and Rewire was secretly being sheltered from the upcoming combat by the adults. Besides, she was necessary to send them on their way. Rewire stood on the other side of the trashpile, watching her wrist display.
The western hemisphere was rapidly approaching daylight, and the mighty Harrakin flagship, with its amazing non-Euclidean beams and buttresses, was passing over the Earth's terminator. As Rewire watched from a satellite, the beams passed into sunlight, casting long shadows.
"Now!" she screamed. She completely drained her armor's solar collection systems, beaming a blinding flash of light at the trashpile. The flash created a long, deep shadow, over angles which had been designed to match those of the flagship. And as Blackfriars gazed into the angles, space unfolded before him. He hoped the configuration was enough to fuel a jump into orbit; they couldn't afford to come out halfway. Before he could change his mind, he ran into the corner...
...and came out from underneath a sharp gable that hung about a hundred feet above its floor. He also had nausea and a pounding headache, like an instant hangover, and was too disoriented to teleport himself again. But the other Omegas fell through the gable after him, and used various flying or telekinetic powers to catch everyone.
As they floated slowly to the ground, they realized they were in some kind of greenhouse -- not that "greenhouse" was a good term, because all the plants in it were a sandy red or yellow. The floor curved downwards in the distance, more sharply than any floor should. Above them, the ceiling showed a black sky -- and at the very top, the dark sphere of a very vulnerable planet Earth. The sun was just creeping around the planet, illuminating its eastern side in a backwards C and gleaming brightly at the center of the arc. Everyone looked up, and fell silent.
Then they hit the floor running. "I believe this is the Reds' desert garden," Sharra said. "Gun emplacements should be that way."
"Why not take out Tatris while we're here?" said Conflagration. Thomas-Peter always seemed like a sweet, quiet man, but years of living with Danny Anderson had obviously left their mark.
"He's too well-protected on the flagship. We'd never reach him, not even with twice our number. And Hickman's plan... while perhaps dishonorable... will stop the fleet." Sharra dashed across the glowing red sand. The humans had a hard time keeping up -- the ship's artificial gravity was higher than they were used to. It was just one more factor counting against them.
* * * * * * * *
Colorado. Aegis Pharmaceutical Research.
Squatting in the bunker, watching the Stormkiller technicians try to re-establish a signal to the Grendel units, Montoure found herself anxiously awaiting the expected reinforcements. Finally the pressure built up inside her, and she blurted it out. "How long until the Stormkiller units arrive?"
"There's some kind of jamming field set up around the structure," said Owen's lapdog, the normally chilly Mr. Slaight. "It's refracting the Transmat beams ten miles away from here. So they were set down in the mountains. It'll be a while." Sweat covered Slaight's face as he read the readout flickering past on the screen. "Goddamn it, what happened to the Grendels?"
The steel hydraulic door, a foot and a half of metal held in place by a factor ten reinforcing maglock, suddenly buzzed as the clamps all sprang at once, depolarized by some outside force. Everyone in the room swiveled their heads to watch, all horrified.
Then the pounding began.
Slaight wanted to move, to push the button that would transmit the computer systems and delete them, but to his surprise he drew his Cassul Desert Eagle .454 and pumped two bullets into the shocked technicians, both of whom had been reaching for their weapons. Then he laid his pistol down on the console and put both of his palms flat, unable to even make a noise. Montoure couldn't believe it; Slaight sat there granite-faced as the door shook.
Then the door caved in. The intruders stalked into the room, taking the perimeter as casually as Montoure would have walked into her office, yet staring intently to make sure it was secure. One of them was the armored boy who'd raided Aegis before; now he sent a probe into their central computer system. Another one, the big woman with spiky pink hair, walked up to Montoure and grabbed her trachea. "Give me a reason, and you won't see sunlight."
A woman with longish brown hair reached down and checked the pulses of the two technicians. "Did you have to make him shoot them?" she asked the man behind her, the thin man with scary brown-black eyes.
"I felt like I was having a stroke just controlling him, Mirry. He's got some kind of conditioning mucking around with his will... it's like holding Jello." The man walked up behind Slaight and knocked him out with the butt of his carbine. "They're the ones who took away our choices. I don't want to kill anyone."
He watched as the armored boy cracked the network security, pulling up the formulae for Aegis's anti-aging drug. "I just want to make sure everybody dies."
* * * * * * * *
Aft gun emplacement "Sword of the Unforgiving," Harrakin flagship Dy'Tariexen'Ka Harrak.
As useful as they would have been, Anne, Sharra, and Tom Morgan were forced to sit out the fight. The three telepaths hung back, sweating profusely, as the Heavy Hitters Squad stormed the pyramidal artillery center. They telepathically concealed the battle, blocking all incoming or outgoing thoughts. It was in some ways the most important task, because the raid depended on striking from absolute secrecy -- even if that made it distasteful to the very people concealing it.
Sharra -- who sweated far less since she was accustomed to the steamy Harrakin climate -- said, "You seem troubled, Anne." She assumed a disturbing familiarity with the Omegas, presumably because she shared thoughts with Eric "Tempest" Anderson during some act Anne really didn't want to think about.
"I'm not so sure about --" She gritted and closed her eyes while deflecting a routine security probe. After it passed, rolling through her mind like a million icy fingers, Anne said, "I'm not so sure about gunning down ships with no warning. Even if they are warships."
Tom's astral form frowned at that, but Sharra nodded. "Open battle would be preferable. But if it is the only way, then so be it." Sharra grunted and blocked a laser-targeter's cry for help.
"I know it's the only way," Anne said. "It still feels wrong. I won't be the one to fire at a ship full of people."
"Sure," Tom said. "You'll just help someone else do it."
* * * * * * * *
New York. Under Fifth Avenue.
Wes stared at the display, watching the fleet's pixel icons sink towards Earth. The damn thing was, if he hadn't known what they were, it would have looked like one of the most beautiful examples of computer animation he'd ever seen. He had to hand it to the Harrakin... they had quite an aesthetic sense.
He didn't understand the Harrakin, and didn't pretend to, but he did know enough to fight them effectively. The plan was a good one... now all he could do, as overall co-ordinator, was trust in his people to execute it.
He trusted his people implicitly. It was the waiting Wes hated.
Others waited in the bunker with him. Allen Covenant prepared spells for what would hopefully be the third raid of the night, while the immortals conferred in some dark corner. Susan Lee swayed on her feet as she tried to keep her patients stable, too busy to worry about the waiting.
Then a young man, his clothing burned and frayed, his forehead marked with a nasty purple bruise, walked through the video display and solidified right in front of Wes. His eyes burned with the now-familiar green light that marked the Harrakin nobles, but for the first time Wes could see the difference: they had eyes of emerald, his were jade.
"Hey." Eric Anderson nodded to Wes and crossed the room, walking right for Hallatiris's gurney. Wes stood there for a moment despite himself; the kid knew how to make an entrance. Then his reflexes took over and he followed, with possible words boiling around inside his skull.
Eric knelt at Hallatiris' side, nodding to a shocked Harvey Hauptmann and Susan Lee, and took the old man's hand in his own. The light in his eyes flickered, and Hallatiris opened his own eyes, glowing more brightly yet still ebbing away from life.
[I'm dying, it seems.]
[Yes.] Eric looked intently at Hallatiris' face, trying to memorize it. [So you're where I come from. I wish I'd actually... I mean, there isn't...]
[I know.] The old man's expression was unreadable to human eyes, even Eric's, but the link allowed Eric to feel the tired acceptance. [I should sleep. We'll talk later. I have much to tell you.]
Eric let go and stood up, sweating slightly from the effort of forcing life into the dying emperor's body. He shakily wiped the sweat from his forehead, then opened his eyes and seemed to really see the people around him for the first time.
"Hey, Harvey. Wes. Sorry I'm late... I got a little tied up on the surface of Venus... and then Chicago, of course..."
"Eric." Wes's voice cut through his rambling. "We don't have time for you to go running off half-cocked here. If you'd come to me when the fleet arrived, I could have figured out how best to deploy you. Hell, Tatris couldn't have had you impersonated if you had."
"Yeah... I'm sorry about that, but..."
"Forget sorry and just don't do it again, okay? Regrets later." Wes put his hand on Eric's shoulder, drawing on years of experience dealing with young Omegas. "Right now, don't do anything until we've discussed it. Our missions call for stealth right now, and you don't do stealth. I'm going to go monitor the situation... if it becomes necessary, I'll tell you what to do, but for now just hang tight. Consider yourself our reserve." Wes smiled gently and walked away, anxiously scanning the display.
Eric looked up at Harvey. "I guess I had that coming. I'm sorry I let you down..."
"You guess you had it coming?" That came not from Harvey, but from Jean-Luc Steele, who'd pushed himself up on his one unbroken arm. "You guess you let us down? Anderson, for once there are bigger problems here than your own guilt. You flit around with more power for real change than most of us can dream of, and all you can do is whine like a leper!" The effort of yelling was obviously costing him dearly, but he showed no sign of stopping. Susan Lee tried to get him to calm down, but he ignored her. "I'm so sorry you let us down, Anderson, but pardon me for not pampering you with sympathy like Hauptmann and Hickman and the rest, because this is not just about you anymore!" Blood vessels rose all over his neck, and his face flushed crimson. "MY TEAM IS DEAD!"
Eric stared at him.
"You're right," he finally said. "You're so right, I'm not going to 'whine like a leper' about it. I'll just sit here like Wes said, and you can calm down so you don't stroke out on us. You can yell at me later."
"If there is a later," Steele grunted, somewhat mollified but not quite ready to let his head of steam go. He sank back down onto his gurney, no longer sure who he could be angry at.
"There'll be a later." Harvey looked over at both of them as he spoke. "We haven't had all of our at-bats yet."
Eric said nothing. He hoped the current batters weren't striking out.
* * * * * * * *
Colorado. Aegis Pharmaceutical Research.
Battery withdrew the thin probe from the terminal access port and stood up. "All done but the shouting," he said. "I deleted all references to the anti-agathic drug from their system... after downloading the files to my own memory, of course... and right about now my virus should be making hamburger out of the rest of Aegis' systems. It's time to fly."
"Excellent." Danny looked questioningly to Mirry, who nodded. Danny said, "Agony, let go of Ms. Montoure, please."
She did so, somewhat unhappily. Danny smiled at the confused executive, but it was Mirry who spoke.
"We're about to blow this building to hell. I'd suggest you get out, unless you want to ride it there."
Carter slipped a few bottles off of the assembly line while Wolf DuFresne walked the bomb into place. DeLeon kept looking down at some sort of hand-held device that used to be a Texas Instruments Little Professor. It started beeping, and Jimmy said "Stormkiller just cleared the radius of the jamming field."
The other four raiders dropped down to the assembly floor. "Are we all set down here?" Danny asked. Wolf nodded as the bomb crawled between a chemical mixer and a major support girder. "Good." Danny turned and looked Carter square in the eyes. "Could you grab a few more samples before we go? I'd appreciate it."
Carter almost choked, but his training was just too good for that. He snatched three more bottles, rolling them in his fingers. An idea occurred to him. As everyone else watched, he opened one and dumped out its pills, then dropped it to the floor and ground it under his heel. He then handed the bottles to Danny, including the crushed, empty one.
"Let's send a little message," Carter said. He and Danny shared a smile.
The Dirty Tricks Squad crept back around the briefcase beeping outside the Aegis perimeter. Jimmy scooped it up and began re- configuring it from a Transmat jammer to a Transmat transmitter.
The rest of them crouched in the brush and watched as the Aegis workers scattered, apparently alerted by Montoure. Then the Stormkiller agents roared up in their HumVees and snowmobiles. They charged inside the lab, ignoring the warnings shouted at them from the crowd of employees.
"Nice work, everyone," Danny said. He didn't bother watching the rest; it was all just the inevitable pyrotechnic postscript to a job well done. As the building exploded, showering debris all around the compound, Danny turned his eyes to the crystal-clear night sky. The spiral of ships was coiled tighter, ready to strike. "The rest of it is all up to them."
* * * * * * * *
Aft gun emplacement "Sword of the Unforgiving."
The gunners put up a heavy resistance. Harrakin targeting involved telepathy as well as computers; that, plus their nobility's feudal, hands-on approach to war, meant numerous Greens manned the gun emplacement. With only minutes remaining until the invasion, there was no time for stealth or subterfuge; the Omegas had to charge the Harrakin in hand-to-hand combat.
The telepaths watched, unable to help, as a Green slammed Armor into the crystalline pyramid wall, almost cracking it and plunging them all out into the vaccuum. Armor's young teammate Ricochet bounced next to the fractured wall -- causing everyone to gasp -- but he neatly squeezed between the wall and the Green without touching either, and pushed Armor to safety.
Another noble eager for battle-glory charged Conflagration, willing to match the African's flame with a Green Fire of his own. Before he could unleash the devastating pyrokinetic attack, however, Blackfriars appeared from behind a crystal support strut and tackled the nobleman. The noble collapsed, and Blackfriars seemed to relax.
The noble chose that moment to leap up, grabbing Blackfriars by the neck and flying to the apex of the gun emplacement. He pressed the vigilante against the gigantic, humming laser cluster and his eyes glowed green with unchecked rage.
The noble was too angry to notice Conflagration taking to the air behind him. Thomas-Peter quietly slipped his hands on either side of the Green's head, then linked them with a thick, twisting, almost palpable coil of flame. The noble screamed and died; as he slipped from between them, Thomas-Peter grabbed Blackfriars and flew to the ground. "We made a promise that you'd live," he said. "We mean to keep it." And Blackfriars started to believe they might.
On the ground, the Omegas kept fighting their way up the steps of the multi-leveled control platform at the center of the pyramid. It went hard for the lead Omegas, as both Vari Stalnior and Blockade were flung from the steps by Harrakin psychokinesis. But things changed as Lakshmi Natarajan -- until now merely an unassuming Indian girl with some precognitive knowledge of the Harrakins' actions -- stepped out from behind Rene Johnson and danced.
The dance began slowly at first, with delicate and precise movements of ankle, hip, and wrist. Then Lakshmi whirled in a gyre, sending her long black hair flying outwards: Blue Marine guards began flying off the platform. Lakshmi's arms moved faster and more wildly. Anne soon thought her arms were leaving after-images; then she realized it was a third arm, and a fourth, and a fifth. Lakshmi moved faster and faster, and every movement, from the most dizzying spin to the tiniest flick of a wrist, flung a guard off the stairs or drove one screaming to his knees. Lakshmi was fully channeling the power of the Mass Mind now, assuming the power of Shiva -- and Anne could think of no better god to bless the violent, destructive act they were about to commit.
* * * * * * * *
Battleship H'R'Djagt's Eye. Lead position, Harrakin armada "Fist of Glory" attack formation.
The H'R'Djagt's Eye sat at the very bottom of the spiral of warships. At the bottom of that sat Arktish, leader of the War Priests. He crouched on the clear crystal floor of the lower observation deck, gazing at the planet below him.
He was amazed at the gall of the humans. After millions of years of separation, the Harrakin returned to their backwards cousins with open arms... and how were they welcomed? Treachery and violence.
Arktish knew his brother Tatris had arranged much of this coup, that he'd been an amoral bastard even before the taint of exile. But he'd had plenty of help from some humans -- scurrying rats who had all of Tatris's ambition and none of his power.
Arktish would have to rein in his brother later. But the humans, he'd gladly tame now.
[Attention, Dy'Tariexen'Ka Harrak,] he notified the flagship. [We are ready to attack. We reclaim our honor now.]
With a mere thought the ship accelerated, and the planet in the observation window rose to meet him.
* * * * * * * *
Aft gun emplacement "Sword of the Unforgiving."
Lakshmi's frenzied dance only lasted a few minutes, but it cleared most of the Harrakin out of the way. Lakshmi stumbled in a circle, dizzy and mortal again and ready to collapse.
Rene Johnson, who'd been guarding her back throughout the raid, caught her. "Nice work, Lakshmi."
"I'm one of your company now," she said. Her voice was still hollow and distant with the words of the Mass Mind. "Call me... Sutra."
The other Heavy Hitters stormed the platform, running directly for the laser controls. They were ambushed by several still-conscious Greens, who tackled them or pinned them telekinetically. Anne and Sharra leapt into the fray, able to lend a hand now that so few Harrakin were awake to use telepathy. Sharra tackled a Green who was trying to skewer Energi, and suddenly a path was cleared to the laser controls.
Fusion ran for them and placed his hands on the triggers. Up above them, at the top of the pyramid, they could all see one silvery- black ship swoop towards Earth. The rest of the fleet moved in behind it.
Fusion pulled the triggers, and nothing happened.
"Shit!" he screamed. "What's wrong?"
"You need a telepath!" Sharra yelled. But as she tried to reach the controls, the Green she'd been fighting pulled her to the floor.
Anne felt everyone looking at her, whether they really were or not. She'd have to be the one to order the shot. No matter what the stakes, it went against everything she believed in.
But Tom's words echoed -- she was already here to help someone else do it. Was she refusing to fire out of morality, or cowardice?
She still didn't know. But that was her planet above her, and no matter how many Owens or Antigones were on it, she had to believe the good outweighed the bad. So far, she couldn't say the same about the Harrakin fleet. Anne flew towards the controls, cursing Tom for being right.
And as she flew there, Tom's astral form darted in front of her. He moved at the speed of thought, beat her to the controls, and gave the order to fire.
With a hideous, high-pitched humming noise, beams of coherent light shot from the laser cluster. They lanced into the lead ship, utterly obliterating the top half in a silent explosion.
Sharra climbed out from under her Green, who was being held back by Armor and Blockade. "Now target the ninth ship!" she said, reading a holographic display of the fleet formation. "That's also a War Priest vessel!"
Fusion realigned the laser cluster, while Tom gave the orders. Anne offered to replace him, but he angrily waved her away with one insubstantial hand.
Above them, exploding ships flashed against the dark planet.
* * * * * * * *
Battleship H'R'Djagt's Eye.
Arktish coughed on the floor of the burning observation deck. Klaxons screamed around him and siren lights flashed green, but most of his crew was past caring. Planet Earth tilted wildly out of the window, as the wrecked hulk of the ship drifted in some random direction.
Only his trip to the observation deck had saved him; it was a miracle he would not squander. [Brother!] he howled, attempting to hail Tatris. [What is the meaning of this treachery?]
Priscus answered the message. [We do not know, oh valued Prelate. That gun emplacement fired against orders --]
Even as Priscus whined, Arktish felt another of his ships explode: two hundred voices cried out for their Prelate and their H'R'Djagtal, then fell silent. [Do you think me a fool?] he screamed. [I saw you lie to my father, genetrash, and I see your lies now!] Priscus fell silent and abashed; Arktish broke the connection before the Norrek could spin more strands of deceit.
[War Priests!] he broadcast to his followers. [Our pretender Emperor shows his true colors! Avenge your brothers! ATTACK!!]
* * * * * * * *
Harrakin armada, in near Earth orbit.
Dozens of ships, including many in the attack formation, wheeled around and strafed the flagship. After seeing several of their fellow ships targeted and destroyed, the War Priests were not listening to Priscus's protests of innocence. Everything made a sick amount of sense now: Tatris's order to shelter the H'R'Djagtal from "corrupting Earth signals" was actually a house arrest, and now he was eliminating the War Priests to solidify his control over the fleet.
Tatris couldn't explain the homicidal laser cluster, and couldn't reveal the true reason the "H'R'Djagtal" was sequestered: he was really the impostor Sestus, and he had to be shielded from any signals that would activate the failsafe Cornelius Owen planted in his armor. Caught in their ornate and fragile accumulation of lies, Tatris and Priscus could not divulge the truth even when they wanted to. So they had no choice but to counter-attack.
While the War Priests and Tatris's militarist supporters clashed, other ships took advantage of the situation. Some captains still preferred the deposed Emperor Hallatiris, and attacked the usurper. More would have joined, but the man who could have been their claimant to the throne, the third brother Ky'Rian, stood literally at Tatris's side and issued wan, halfhearted pleas for peace. Other ships simply broke formation and stayed far away from the civil war, waiting to see what happened. Holding back to ally with the winner was considered a venerable, if unspoken, Harrakin tradition.
Naturally, the "Sword of the Unforgiving" gun emplacement was the first one the War Priests destroyed. It was atomized just before a flagship security force reached it, and just after the Heavy Hitters had teleported to a new gun emplacement. They seized that one and fired again, this time targeting factions which tried to remain neutral. After the second volley of laserfire from the flagship, the battle formation completely disintegrated. The warships turned away from Earth, and fell upon each other.
* * * * * * * *
New York. The offices of Cornelius Owen.
"Cornelius!" Antigone's voice, coming through a reopened video channel, snapped him out of his grim reverie; he'd been standing by the window, watching the false stars that would rain down and destroy everything he'd built. "Cornelius!"
"I see you're talking to me again," he said, returning to his video bank. "I suppose..." His voice trailed off as he noticed the telemetry display. Several Harrakin ships were now marked "DESTROYED," and the rest were all battling each other. The invasion had been stalled.
Owen couldn't suppress his laughter. He threw his arms in the air and said, "You got the magic! You did it!"
Antigone's smile suddenly vanished. "...No," she said cautiously. "I thought you did."
They stared at each other.
Then Owen noticed more information collected on his screens: a text message from Priscus sentencing Earth to death for its "commando treachery." A report from a British Stormkiller agent saying a dozen Omegas from around the world had joined forces.
And an internal security alert stating that Aegis Pharmaceutical Research's anti-agathic lab, and all its supply of pills -- the pills Antigone made to prolong his life -- had been thoroughly destroyed.
Owen heard the pounding sounds of combat outside his office.
Antigone was turning pale. The same information was probably coming up on her computers; Owen could guess who'd put it there. "This is an... interesting development," she said.
"We need to pull back," Owen blurted. "Gather our forces..."
"Our forces?" Antigone's eyes darted around nervously; she could hear the gunfire on the other side of Owen's door. "Those pills were the only thing binding us. There is no 'us' anymore. Goodbye, Cornelius; I'll try to make sure the history books aren't too hard on you."
Owen started to berate her, but there was no time for shouting; all of his screens went blank. Owen lunged across his desk and stabbed his intercom button. "Security!" he shouted. "Dare, are you there?"
The door to his office -- the reinforced steel door laced with dozens of locks, alarms, and traps -- flew off its hinges. The cyborg Nicola Dare came flying in the room after it. She crashed to the floor, dented, smoking, and unconscious.
Harvey Hauptmann strode into the room after her, dusting off his hands and grinning widely. "Ms. Dare's a little busy right now," he said.
Owen thought of reaching for the gun under his desk and firing -- but he didn't want to think about what would happen if the shot didn't kill Hauptmann. Besides, something in him resented any move that would play so clearly into Hauptmann's juvenile hero-villain mentality.
Other intruders poured into the room, wheezing and sweating but smiling with triumph. There were several former Colonists, a few fugitive immortals, the Omega sympathizer Allen Covenant -- and most surprisingly, Owen's former lieutenant Dan Carter. Somehow, that stung Owen more than anything else today had. But Owen kept his composure, drew himself up to full posture, and said, "Daniel, what are you doing with these menaces?"
"Kicking ass and saving the human race. Something you forgot somewhere along the way, old man." Carter stepped forward, scowling.
Harvey cut in front of him. However serious Carter's grudge was, Harvey's clearly had the prior claim. "It's over, Owen. We held off the Harrakin while you couldn't. We broke up your and Antigone's little cabal. And most importantly --" he brandished a crushed, empty bottle of Aegis Anti-Agathic batch #CO-117B -- "we finally made you pay."
Owen shook a little, unable to completely restrain his rage. When the shock passed, he sniffed and stared up at the larger man. "You crippled the people who were protecting Earth --"
Harvey hunched down and locked eyes with him. "I'm the one man on Earth you can't lie to, Owen."
Owen considered this, and nodded. "Very well, then. Honesty. You can't stall the Harrakin forever. Tatris will tell his people what you did -- or just conquer them -- and then he'll be coming for you. And what will your little band of rabble do then?"
"Well, Cornelius," Harvey said, placing a mighty hand on the old man's shoulder, "that's why we came to you."