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by Marc Singer and Matt Rossi
New York. A bunker under Fifth Avenue.
Mirranda Anderson shoved the paddles onto the exposed chest of Hallatiris. The dying emperor flailed on his gurney as electricity coursed through him, but the EKG still gave off a flatline drone.
"Son of a bitch!" Mirry shouted. "Eric, Sharra, jump-start him!"
Hallatiris's grandchildren laid their hands on his clammy chest. Eric and Sharra both staggered from the effort, nearly lost their grip, but Hallatiris had a pulse again. "Susan," Mirry ordered, "stabilize it!"
Susan Lee placed her hands on the old man's temples and tried to take control of his failing physiology. "He's fading fast..."
"Shit! Try... epinephrine!" Someone, Mirry didn't know who, pressed a needle into her outstretched hand. She jammed it into a receptacle on Hallatiris's shattered silver-and-gold armor; the needle itself would break on his skin. Mirry leaned on the needle, and adrenaline shot into the emperor's heart.
"I got something!" Susan shouted. Sweat plastered her straight black hair onto her forehead. "Hold on," she muttered, "hold on..."
Wes Hickman shoved up to the gurney, his face illuminated by the white lights. "We need him so we can depose Tatris! You have to save him!"
"What the hell do you think I'm doing, Wes? Get out of here! Eric, more pulse. Sharra, switch to his lungs -- you'll have to telekinetically inflate them for him --"
[please stop... i will die anyway...]
"Hallatiris, knock it off! Save your strength!" The EKG danced madly again, and Mirry punched her hands over his heart. "OWWW! Eric, you do the CPR!" Groggy but determined, Eric slid over and pumped his hands onto Hallatiris's chest.
Wes was still shouting. "Dammit, we need him!"
"I'm losing him... I'm losing him..."
"More eppy! ...Shit! More eppy!"
[please...] Hallatiris reached out with one grasping hand, and would not let Mirry restrain it. He could barely see past his own hand; everything else in this artificial cavern was dark and blurry. It was a dank, wretched place, where the humans hid like rats from his family. At least he was here with two good grandchildren, and humans who fought like Niniak Marines to save him. But the blur at the edge of his vision was rolling closer, and Hallatiris knew it was his time. Long past his time, actually.
Mirry wrestled with his arm, screaming, "Settle down! Somebody get somebody who can hold him down!"
Hickman leaned in close to the old man's face. "You can't die yet, damn you!"
But his arm still struggled, even as his heart stopped. [i know what you must do...] He reached for Eric. [i know how you can win...]
He clasped Eric's hand tightly, holding it with the last of his strength. Eric's arm quivered from the force of the grip. "Goddamnit, grandfather!" Eric screamed. "NO!"
Hallatiris shuddered, and died. His birth had been heralded by an imperial choir; the only sound at his death was an EKG flatline in a musty bunker. All the Omegas bowed their heads silently.
Then the silver and gold armor rolled down Hallatiris's hand, and up Eric's arm.
* * * * * * * *
Harrakin Flagship Dy'Tariexen'Ka Harrak. Currently performing defensive maneuvers in near Earth orbit.
A tremendous explosion rocked the flagship. The entire command crew felt the death-scream of the K'Thok Mogrivar, H'reel Kiniran and Tisaris Z'Vrath as the ships collided first with each other and then the silver hull of the flagship itself. They had not even been fighting in this civil war the humans precipitated; they simply tried to get out of the path of the fighting juggernauts, and failed.
The carnage was starting to bother even Tatris. He hunched forward on the Shivering Throne, his eyes darting madly across the holographic displays of the warring fleet. So far, his followers were destroying more War Priest and loyalist vessels than they lost, but the battle was taking a terrible toll on the fleet. By the time the War Priests were brought to heel, Tatris could literally have lost more than four thousand ships, especially if he was forced to kill them all just to win. That would leave his fleet heavily damaged and delayed for the invasion of Earth, not to mention the return home...
"Priscus!" Tatris screamed for his Norrek, who was trying to gain support from the thousands of neutral ships. "We need to end this now!"
"Only Sestus can do that!" Priscus shouted. They used speech so no one could pick up a telepathic exchange and learn of their many deceptions. "Release him from his shielded cell, and trust our jamming fields to block Owen's fail-safe signal. Let our fake H'R'Djagtal address the War Priests, convince them we did not intend to fire upon them. Turn their hatred upon the humans."
Tatris stared balefully at his Norrek, but despite himself he considered the idea. Then the flagship shook from several new explosions. Arktish's ship, the wounded H'R'Djagt's Eye, made a bold strafing run the length of the flagship -- and made Tatris's decision for him. "Do it!"
The central portion of the holoscreen turned calm as it switched from exploding ships to the doors to the H'R'Djagtal's quarters. As Priscus telepathically sent the image to the entire fleet, the doors opened.
Sestus strode outside, still wearing the H'R'Djagtal's full-body armor. Sestus began his speech, reciting words fed to him instants before by Tatris. [Attention, fleet of my people. This is your H'R'Djagtal. I am well; I am not being held against my will; and the attack upon you was not made by the Dy'Tariex but by deceitful humans who scheme to keep us in disharmony.]
Already, Tatris could feel the explosions subsiding as the fleet watched Sestus in mute awe. Tatris smirked as Sestus said, [Stand by your Dy'Tariex. He has my full support...]
[Yeah. Too bad you're a nobody.]
The new mind-voice cut through Sestus' announcement like a red- hot knife through plastic wrap. Tatris bolted upright, almost flinging himself from the throne. On the central holoscreen, which meant on every screen in the fleet, a new image slid beside Sestus: a dark room, and a circle of a half-dozen human telepaths. Standing in the center of the circle was a proud figure in silver and gold armor.
It was impossible. Priscus whimpered and sank to his knees as he tried to block the transmission, and failed. The jamming field was screening radio signals, but the combined telepaths -- including the armored man -- were too strong. Tatris turned pale and whispered, "Hallatiris?"
[Not quite.] The helmet split open and revealed a young, unshaven face. It was Ky'Rian's bastard... wearing Hallatiris' armor. [I am H'Rik Ky'Rian Harrakin, son of Ky'Rian, grandson of Hallatiris who has died this very hour. And I challenge the legitimacy of your succession, uncle, because I am the H'R'Djagtal.] Lightning crackled around him. [I am also Hallatiris's newly-appointed heir. And in both capacities, I challenge you to Tisaridron.]
Priscus's Accursed allies had finally coordinated enough telepaths that they could block the message, but they were too late. The fleet had already heard the half-breed's challenge to ritual combat, and needed to see an answer. Tatris chose his words very carefully. [A nice bluff, boy, but I reject both your claims. The true H'R'Djagtal stands on my ship, so you must be an impostor. And a true heir would know that a Harrakin must second his claim to the throne.]
[I thought you might say that. Sharra?]
Now the entire fleet looked on in fascination as Tatris's own daughter walked into the circle. [Hello, father. I, Sharra Tatris'Ka Harrakin, second my cousin's claim to the throne and witness that Hallatiris did appoint him heir. Do you wish to challenge my bloodline?]
For once, Tatris had no jovial insults or answers... just silence, as he held back his anger and maintained a facade of civility. The boy knew his protocol too well -- probably got it from the memories of damned Hallatiris's armor. Finally, Tatris said, [Very well, H'Rik. I accept. As you have maligned the honesty of my H'R'Djagtal, I feel it only fitting to appoint him as my champion.]
[Appoint whomever, usurper. I and twenty warriors of my choosing will meet your champion and twenty of yours in the Himalayas, at the grave of Mount Everest. The battle starts at its next dawn, about twelve human hours from now.]
[Excellent. I'm looking forward to seeing you, cousin...]
The boy's face filled with disgust, and he dropped the connection.
As soon as Priscus shut off Tatris's connection to the fleet, the Dy'Tariex's smile twisted into a wrathful scowl. He didn't even care that the ships had stopped fighting. He was more angry that these humans and half-breeds refused to simply die and get out of his plans forever. He'd have to take steps to make sure they did exactly that...
* * * * * * * *
New York. Under Fifth Avenue.
The bunker buzzed with a strange mixture of relief, anticipation, and even a nervous joy. All of the mission teams had returned, amazingly without a single fatality. The twelve-hour breather also gave more Omegas time to reach New York and join the focal point of Earth's resistance. The first to arrive had been a dirty, sweaty, happy team of Seekers from the West Coast. They hugged and laughed with their teammates, at least until they heard about Karl "Neuwraith" Straker's death.
Isaac Warner was the next to arrive, getting a warm hug from his old friend Allen Covenant -- although Covenant's arms couldn't quite reach around Isaac's massive wrestler's torso. And Eric Anderson was glad to see Leviathan, the powerful gestalt consciousness of a thousand minds, had left the failed Hong Kong resistance to throw in with the New York group. With all these fighters and friends by his side, Eric could almost pretend they had a chance, and forget the inevitable losses.
Not everyone was so able or willing to put aside their fears. Harvey Hauptmann paced in front of a seemingly insignificant side door, worrying about the big plan. Gambling the fate of the planet on a trial by combat sounded like something straight out of the tabloid-sized Overman vs. Cassius Clay comic. Not exactly safe.
There were others who shared his paranoia, who were trying to develop some insurance, but that made him just as nervous. Harvey knew the need for unity, knew every human had reason to band together against the Harrakin, but still -- there was something deeply wrong about any alliance with Cornelius Owen.
Behind the door, inside a shielded conference room, Owen felt the same way. The bunker was filled with the people he most despised -- many of whom would have killed him if they knew he was there. "I think I speak for us all," Owen told Danny Anderson and Wes Hickman, "when I say that I'm not happy with this. But we have little choice."
The old man swallowed his pride and his hatred, and held out his hand. The young ex-terrorist and the stern Seekers commander did the same, and they all shook hands. "Now, gentlemen," Owen said, sitting back in his chair, "let's plan."
* * * * * * * *
Harrakin Flagship Dy'Tariexen'Ka Harrak. Athletics Deck.
Sestus, still wearing the H'R'Djagtal's black and gold armor -- the armor he'd been locked into since his cousin Tatris's plan had begun -- jammed a shoulder-spike into the chest of an oncoming warrior. A squeal of pain filled the room, not from the stoic Harrakin warrior, but from his living armor. Sestus impaled both, and both quickly died.
This was only a training session for the Tisaridron, but Sestus spared no wrath on his sparring partners. Mercy would have no place in the real combat, so those who died here were obviously unworthy of participation. Or at least that was what Arktish told himself.
The truth was that Sestus didn't fight any other way.
Arktish's gaze followed Sestus as he chased two trainers. Sestus looped around a large pyramidal block floating in the center of the gymasium, cutting off their escape route. Then he closed in. Sestus snapped one trainer's neck with his gauntleted hands. The other, he destroyed with the green fire, the traditional pyrokinetic attack of the Harrakin nobility.
The trainer -- who was himself a Green and the product of thousands of years of breeding and culture -- crashed like an emerald meteor. Suddenly, Arktish found himself striding into the gymnasium. "Session over," he barked. "I would like to have a word with... the H'R'Djagtal."
Sestus answered with a nod of his horned helmet. The lights dimmed, the floating obstacles dematerialized, and the few remaining trainers were allowed to withdraw to a far corner. Relief flooded out from the men; they hoped Sestus would be in a better mood after his conversation.
Sestus landed in front of Arktish. "You called me the H'R'Djagtal," he said.
"Of course I did." Arktish wore all of his ceremonial robes, carried the Staff of Takkiel'Hra and all his other symbols of authority as Prelate of the War Priests. To the War Priests, the H'R'Djagtal was the next messiah. That was the only reason Tatris had gotten Arktish's support in the first place.
"But -- Ky'Rian's son -- you saw --"
"I saw a half-breed boy who claims to be the H'R'Djagtal." And he claimed rightly. Everyone knew Ky'Rian's boy was the true H'R'Djagtal -- most had simply thought Sestus was Ky'Rian's boy because he wore the boy's armor. Thus had Tatris made fools and traitors of them all.
Arktish had sworn allegiance to Tatris's H'R'Djagtal, sent War Priests into battle for him, gotten them killed by the conniving humans. When the half-breed's broadcast revealed Tatris's deception, Arktish had raged inside. He wanted to crush Tatris between his bare hands.
But Arktish had already hailed this H'R'Djagtal, the idiot Sestus, as the true messiah. He would lose his honor, his credibility, perhaps even his office if he recanted. So Arktish choked back his rage then -- and forgot his faith now.
"Don't you also have a claim?" Arktish said. Sestus was too socially inept to notice the tremble in his voice. "Are you not also a Harrakin noble who lived on Earth? Who learned from the humans?" Learned lessons of treachery... burning War Priest ships... "Don't you wear the armor?"
Sestus nodded his head slowly. "I do."
"Then don't let the half-breed steal your... your birthright from you. I need you to be the H'R'Djagtal." That, at least, was true. "Don't listen to the boy. Don't even listen to Tatris."
"But he is my master --"
"You don't need a master!" Not Arktish's murdering brother, anyway. He laid a fatherly hand on Sestus's shoulderplate, though he had to reach far up to do so. "You are the H'R'Djagtal! And you can prove it by destroying the Harrakilli and their pretender tomorrow! Show the whole universe! You are the Tempest!"
Arktish could see that his lofty rhetoric had just reached the outer limits of Sestus's comprehension. He withdrew his hand and stepped backwards, smiling. "Remember," he whispered. "And remember who believed in you."
Arktish had to support Tatris now, in this time of crisis. But there was a score to settle later.
Sestus walked back to the center of the gymnasium, shaking his head as he restarted the sparring session. He fought weakly and halfheartedly, distracted by his thoughts. "I am the Tempest?" he muttered. His punches grew swifter, more accurate, and more forceful. "I am the Tempest." He smiled, underneath the helmet's fierce mask, as he ripped a trainer's head from his shoulders. "I AM THE TEMPEST!"
* * * * * * * *
New York. Under Fifth Avenue.
With only five hours left until the Tisaridron, most of the Omegas were trying to sleep. Very few could, and those who did tossed and turned, mumbling private and incoherent horrors into the dark.
There was no sleep at all for Wes, Danny, and Owen, who still plotted in the conference room. Whenever they reached a lull in the conversation, they all stared at the heavy, hand-sized metal cannister sitting at the center of the dusty table.
Owen was here because the Omegas knew he had a failsafe against the Harrakin, and this was it -- a nanotechnological virus his agents had retrieved from captured Harrakin armor. Owen had two doses. One was already implanted in the H'R'Djagtal armor Sestus wore; everyone knew how that would be used, if only it could be triggered. The real question was how best to deploy this dose.
Wes tapped his metallic fingers on the table. "It just might work," he said, referring to their last plan. "But it means the Tisaridron fighters will be risking their lives for a mere diversion."
Owen scoffed at Hickman's concern. "You'd rather have the Harrakin take over?" He swiveled his chair to face Danny. "Anderson, you ran a terrorist cell. You understand the need for acceptable losses."
"I'm not sure what I despise more, Owen -- your attitude, or your assumption that I share it." But Danny knew he did share Owen's view -- the stakes were too high not to.
"I know the diversion is necessary," Wes interrupted, "I just think our fighters should know what they're getting into. They deserve that much."
"And have some Harrakin read their minds in battle, and learn the whole plan?" Owen practically jumped out of his chair. "It's too dangerous. They can't know anything."
"They have to," Danny said. "They can volunteer with full knowledge of the plan, and then I can erase it from their memories. There'll be no risk to the second team."
Wes nodded his head, satisfied with the arrangement. After a moment, Owen begrudgingly nodded as well. Danny and Wes knew the old man would never understand that they'd get better fighters from people who knew and cared about what they were fighting for.
Owen, for his part, knew these young fools would destroy the planet if left unchecked. Thank God, he thought, that the people of Earth have had me looking out for them all along.
* * * * * * * *
The Everest Crater, Nepal.
The metal disk whirled as it descended to Earth, dropping through the atmosphere. The disk was enormous, nearly the size of a mountain, blotting out the sun and frightening those Sherpa tribesmen who hadn't already fled when Everest exploded.
It came to prepare the ring.
The procedures differed from setting to setting, based on ancient rules and codes. The Harrakin, always sticklers for protocol, had even devised rules for how to conduct Tisaridron on the Homeworld. Those rules were now being carried out. On the flagship, mile-long rows of technicians monitored the disk and cleared it to begin the next stage.
The disk touched down on the colossal rubble of Everest, the stone screaming as the serrated teeth on the whirling edge cut through it. As the disk lurched to a stop, it drew energy from the planet and activated the swarm. Billions of microscopic nanites, pre-programmed molecular robots, erupted from the trailing edge of the disk, reshaping the stone grave of Mount Everest. To the few brave Sherpas who still watched, the ring grew out of the rubble by itself.
And then it was there. The two-thousand-foot high arena was a series of terraced stone rings, with two flights of stairs at opposite ends leading from the outer, uppermost ring down to the central battleground. Tethered to the surrounding mountains by stone bridges, supported underneath by a forest of stone columns, the enormous platform waited for the conflict to come.
* * * * * * * *
New York. Under Fifth Avenue.
Dozens of Omegas milled around Jimmy DeLeon's transmat station, trying to find the right parting words or simply pass the time until twenty-one of them beamed off to battle the Harrakin. Only Wes Hickman really knew how to handle it. Checking on all of his people -- and they were all his people now -- soothing their fears without lessening the urgency, letting them know their leader was there for them.
But Wes wasn't taking them into battle, Eric was, and he had no idea what to do. He walked quietly among the Omegas, stalking in Hallatiris's armor. Some sensation drove him to see them, made him want to connect and confess to them, and Eric realized it was fear.
He passed by Anne Benson, who was still reeling from the news that her brother had been injured and three of her young Paint Crew wards had died while fighting rogue Harrakin in Baltimore. Harvey Hauptmann and Tom Morgan spoke softly to her, helping her turn her anger and grief and guilt into a quiet determination to beat the Harrakin as they'd never been beaten before.
Jen "Agony" DuFresne was saying goodbye to her father, Wolf. The big gray-haired man was nearly weeping as he told his daughter he was too old and too scared to fight in the Tisaridron. He expected her to snap, to lash out at him for his cowardice. Instead she reached up and caressed his cheek, with a tenderness he'd forgotten his baby Jenny ever had. Wolf wrapped her in a hug and burst into tears. Eric veered away from the father and daughter, leaving Dan Carter to tap his foot impatiently and tell Wolf it was "Time to get a move on."
Eric was going to walk over to Rene Johnson, finish their earlier conversation, until he saw she, Allen, and Isaac were busy talking to Lakshmi Natarajan. "You don't have to give into the Mass Mind completely," Rene said.
"Yes, I do," Lakshmi answered. She was floating in the lotus position, staring absently into space. "It's the only way to save the planet. That is why we're here, right?"
"I guess," Rene said. She didn't sound convinced, and stared at Lakshmi with concern. "But some people are forgetting that we have to save it one person at a time, too."
Allen looked guilty and said, "I think I just changed my mind." He draped his arms over Rene and Isaac, and tried to let his niece and best friend know how he felt about them. Eric drifted away again. These conversations were too personal; Eric found himself pulled much closer to two strangers, the British government agents.
Fusion was talking to Blackfriars with the giddy joy of a child who'd stayed up far too late before a big holiday. Eric realized that, while the men were teammates, this was their very first personal conversation. "I can't believe we dragged you out of London," Fusion said. "You practically cling to that city..."
"Out of fear," Blackfriars said calmly. The vigilante still kept his face masked. "Fear that something would happen to it while I was gone, or that something would happen to me and then something would happen to it. Fear of those bloody frightening Harrakin, I guess. But that's gone now."
"Not for me," Fusion confided. "Christ, I don't know if I'm ever going to see London again. The lights in Soho, the gardens in spring..."
"That's not my London," Blackfriars said, a little harshly. "Mine is a cheap room in Southwark, a maze of tube stations, and the best tandoori in the world." He nodded his head sagely. "But that's enough."
Eric stepped back before either of the men noticed him. He'd swallow his fear, too, and chat with the others. Let everyone see that a real leader was taking them into battle. Because, like Blackfriars, Eric knew Earth and its people and his friends were enough to fight and even die for. Enough, and a hell of a lot more.
* * * * * * * *
Tisaridron Ring, Everest Crater, Nepal.
"That's a barge?"
"It is to the Harrakin." Despite herself, Teresa "Counterpart" Yung of the Seekers couldn't keep the tremors out of her throat. She and Isaac Warner were looking at the royal barge that hovered over the eastern end of the arena. It had a gigantic, vaguely conical base, with a long and elegant horizontal deck emerging from the top. A large, multi- lobed sphere floated above the horizontal deck -- this was the Shivering Throne, the war-chair of the Harrakin armada, where Tatris himself was supposedly watching the battle as protocol demanded.
Teresa regarded the gleaming jewels and banners on the upper deck. "I think they mean 'barge' in the sense of Cleopatra, not, uh... Staten Island."
"Well, let's show 'em how it's done on Staten Island." Isaac shook her hand and jerked his other thumb back towards another cluster of Omegas. "I gotta get over there. Nice meeting you, Teresa."
"Same here, Isaac. Let's do it again sometime when the whole world isn't about to fall apart."
They split back into their respective teams, all gathered on the western side of the uppermost tier of the arena. Teresa stood with her fellow Seekers Armor, Blockade, Reflex, Flux, Sonic, and Energi. As the most trained and coordinated Omegas, they had the largest delegation and stayed together. The rogues Agony and Conflagration formed their own unit, far away from the SIRECOM lawmen. Next to them were Fusion, Akasha, and Vari Stalnior, all wanting somehow to represent their respective corners of the world. The Chinese gestalt, Leviathan, hung back from everyone; its sole function would be maintaining a psychic shield for the others. Teresa didn't mind Leviathan's solitude -- she'd had a bad experience with a gestalt of her own.
And then there was the vanguard. Tempest himself, of course, his cousin Sharra, Anne Benson, and Harvey Hauptmann. Isaac "Stingray" Warner formed a magical contingent along with Rene "Tarot" Johnson and Lakshmi Natarajan, who called herself "Sutra" as she tapped into the Mass Mind again. And there was the twenty-first fighter, the man so eager for vengeance he'd duplicated Hannibal's healing powers just to get well in time for the Tisaridron. Jean-Luc Steele, hiding behind a black beret and sunglasses, chuckled as he copied as much of Tempest's power as possible. It almost made Teresa feel sorry for the Harrakin.
The arena contained other humans, who weren't participating in the fight but were playing a crucial role in it. The Omegas had transmatted television crews from around the world onto a "press gallery" on the northern tier. The Omegas wanted to just send cameras, but the networks had insisted on sending people as well, and the cameras were too important for the Omegas to argue.
Those cameras, and all the Omegas' eyes, pointed upwards as twenty-one Harrakin warriors dropped down from the barge.
They traced an intricate pattern in the air as they descended. They landed on the far side of the circle, exactly opposite the human line. The figure in black-and-gold H'R'Djagtal armor rammed into the arena with enough force to shake the entire disc slightly. His eyes, burning under the wide sweep of metal ram-horns, locked onto Eric from across the arena. [I am the Tempest,] Sestus broadcast. [I am the H'R'Djagtal.]
[And you're the tooth fairy, too,] Eric answered. The reference was lost on the Harrakin, and on Sestus most of all.
A shimmering purple hologram appeared above the arena: Priscus, the traitorous Norrek who'd betrayed Hallatiris. His mind-voice rolled over them all, leaving the humans feeling vaguely dirty. [You have chosen Tisaridron, for the name of H'R'Djagtal and the throne. The rules are simple.] His eyes, twinkling under his high forehead and slicked-back hair, scanned across the human line. [No outside interference. You will fight until one side cannot continue. The winner takes all. The loser...] His chuckle seemed to reverberate across the Himalayas. [Well, we shall see. Is this acceptable, H'R'Djagtal?]
Eric and Sestus both nodded.
[Very well then. Commence the Tisaridron!]
Eric ripped upward. Sestus, screeching like shearing metal, tore after his rival; they clashed in mid-air, metal-clad fists ringing off each other. Other Harrakin tried to rise and help their false messiah, but Fusion and Conflagration used their by now well-honed teamwork to blanket the air in flame and plasma. They blocked the Harrakin advance and gave their own flyers time to hit the skies.
Flux struck first, moving at light speed and striking Sestus as a variety of electromagnetic frequencies. Sestus didn't notice the invisible attack, but Eric picked up Flux's thoughts. (I've tried to set off the virus with everything from microwaves to cosmic rays,) the Seeker thought, (but some kind of jamming field has been built into the armor itself.)
[Yeah, I can't phase through it either.] His fists rang helplessly off the stolen armor. [Guess we'll have to do this the hard way. Thanks anyway, Andrea.] Flux returned to her teammates, and Eric's concentration was broken by a gauntlet smashing into his faceplate.
[I AM THE TEMPEST!] Sestus bellowed. [I AM THE H'R'DJAGTAL! I AM THE PROPHESIED ONE!] An armored foot lashed into Eric's side, making him wince.
Ignoring the pain, Eric locked his right arm beside him, pinning Sestus's leg against his ribs. [Prophesy this.]
His left leg swept up and into Sestus's groin. The pretender's eyes widened as the shock carried up through his armor. Eric clubbed Sestus in the stomach, and the other Omegas and Harrakin took to the skies, and the battle truly began.
Isaac Warner led the ground fighters in a charge down to the center of the arena. He wore his gaudy professional wrestling uniform, not because he wanted the world to remember him as an extra from a Cyndi Lauper video, but because viewers would cheer more for "Stingray" than for plain old Isaac. Thanks to magicians -- mostly his old buddy Allen -- repeatedly mucking about with his body, Isaac could convert sympathetic psychic energy into raw power. The more viewers who cheered, the stronger he got.
The cameras tracked Isaac as he ran down to the bowl-shaped central ring. If the viewers didn't think he could win, if they had no faith in him, this wouldn't work and he'd be running straight toward a frothing Harrakin warlord with no power at all. But Isaac didn't think the people of Earth were ready to lie down and die. He sure as hell wasn't.
Just as the lead Harrakin's eyes flashed green, Isaac leaped into the air and felt power course through him. He hopped easily over the burst of green fire and propelled himself feet-first at the Harrakin. Isaac's legs connected with the warlord's head, and the warlord dropped like a rock. As the cameras broadcast his success, Isaac swelled with even more power: his muscles inflated and his torso ripped through his tank top.
Isaac felt stronger than he ever had before. He could hear the whispers of thuggish and ancient gods -- Nergal, Heracles, Thor -- begging him to let them take over and fight for him. But Isaac was in control, and his power was the power of humanity. He noticed a nearby squad of awed Harrakin.
Then he dove into them -- smiling for the camera.
Even though she had renounced most of her own magical ability, Rene Johnson could see the power boiling around Isaac. She didn't envy him that power, though she did envy his control over it -- nobody was telling him what to do. When she had been the Mass Mind's earthly conduit and avatar, Rene had never attained that kind of self-control.
Neither had the Mass Mind's new avatar. Lakshmi ran down the arena steps after Isaac, letting the Mass Mind completely take over and transform her into "Sutra." Her skin turned pale, like ash, and four new arms blossomed from her back. A third eye erupted from the center of her forehead, spitting fire and destruction.
Rene could sense Lakshmi's power, too, and it was almost unbearable. Just standing close to her felt like getting a sunburn. Lakshmi was channeling tremendous energies from the Mass Mind, dropping a Harrakin with each bolt of flame, but she might burn herself out at any moment.
Rene empowered herself with the Strength card and plunged after her. Lakshmi didn't care about the danger, and the Mass Mind certainly didn't. But somebody had to.
The magic of Isaac, Lakshmi, and Rene caught the Harrakin completely off-guard, punching a hole through their line in the center ring. As the Harrakin were driven to the sides, they found themselves outflanked by Seekers. The Seekers had only followed Isaac partway down the arena, then fanned out across the rim of the first terrace above the center ring. They raked the confused Harrakin beneath them with a barrage of energy -- Sonic's soundbursts, Energi's power-beams, Counterpart's antimatter explosions, even the living laser-body of Flux. Any strays were targeted by the Colony rogues, the internationals, and Harvey.
The Harrakin recovered quickly, however. Many leaped onto the terrace, where they engaged the Seekers in hand-to-hand combat. The Seeker snipers were protected by Reflex, Blockade, Armor, and other brawlers -- including a very unexpected defender.
Jean-Luc Steele swooped down from the sky, his eyes leaking green fury. "Not this team!" he screamed. "Not this time!" He saved several Seekers, but he also blocked their lines of fire, threw off their plans, even took several punches unnecessarily. He didn't listen to any of their orders. He didn't hear anything, except the howling voices of four dead Cadre members.
* * * * * * * *
Observation deck, royal barge Avivak Harrakis.
"The Harrakilli are doing well," Arktish smugly observed. Still forced to defer his revenge until later, Arktish was content to remind Tatris how much his plans were failing and how much he depended on the War Priests' support. Arktish's every comment was calculated to annoy his brother all the more.
Tatris wasn't responding to it; perhaps he was already too far gone. The emperor slouched on the Shivering Throne, watching the fight through dull, sunken eyes. He wore all his robes and chains of office, and the spiky silver-gold armor of the Dy'Tariex, but the hefty symbols of power only seemed to weigh him down. When he spoke, his voice was a hollow rasp -- but his words were still defiant. "The humans had the advantage of surprise. Even our finest warriors still underestimate them. But surprise is all it was; note how quickly our fighters recover." He pointed to the arena with one ring-laden finger: the fighters were retaliating, and with one mighty punch Sestus knocked H'Rik from the sky. "The humans won't last long."
"But brother," Arktish said, "you yourself cautioned against underestimating them. What if they win?"
"They won't," Tatris said, steepling his fingers in front of his face. "One way or another, this is the last battle they'll ever fight."
Across the deck, Ky'Rian winced as Sestus picked up Eric and threw him into a nearby mountain. Ky'Rian wanted Eric and the humans to win, but didn't know if he should do anything to help. It would be vastly inappropriate. And no matter what he did, it would be the wrong choice. His history proved that.
He glanced around the deck to see what the others were doing. Tatris watched the fight with a glum indifference that was almost repellent. Priscus stood firmly behind him -- or under his feet, actually, since Priscus's head just barely scraped the underside of the Shivering Throne. Arktish, Ky'Rian's fiery younger brother, had ceased his rebellion and now seemed to support Tatris. Yet Ky'Rian knew that Arktish had his own motives, was following some very clear plan of his own. How was it that the same action could show initiative on Arktish's part, but only uncertainty on Ky'Rian's?
Ky'Rian blushed and turned back to the fight. Kkyree, Arktish's daughter and his lieutenant, walked up to him. "Is something wrong?"
"No," he quickly answered. "I..." He noticed Sharra, wrestling with a Green over the arena. "I was just thinking of the time I told your cousin Sharra that Hamlet was a very Harrakin play. She thought I was referring to its violence and passion, but actually... I was thinking of the Danish prince's indecision."
Kkyree, always a perfect lieutenant, understood instantly. "And now she fights alongside your son and the humans, risking her life for a planet she's barely seen." Ky'Rian nodded, but Kkyree continued, "While you stand here on the royal barge, still afraid to act."
He leaned in close to her. "What should I do, Kkyree? Tell me what I should do."
"Hamlet had already made his decision by the fifth act, Ky'Rian. For you, it's far too late." Ky'Rian was too self-absorbed to notice that Kkyree wasn't looking at him anymore; she glanced at Tatris, who nodded, discharging her to another duty. Ky'Rian only heard the unusual note of disgust in her voice. "Stay back, uncle. Leave the actions to those who committed themselves long ago."
Kkyree walked away from him. Ky'Rian watched the Tisaridron, and twisted the metal railing in his frustrated grip. But that was all he did.
The royal barge's outflung observation deck was bathed in strong mountain sunlight. The parts under it, however, were bathed in shadow. And during the heat of the battle, while all eyes were watching the arena, the shadows slid apart.
In a seeming impossibility fit for the works of M.C. Escher, Omegas poured out of a tight, dark corner of the engine room. Wes Hickman. Danny and Mirry Anderson. Phase and Tom Morgan of the Seekers. Jimmy DeLeon. The few Harrakin Reds toiling in the humid engine room noticed instantly, but never had a chance to give warning: they were punched, choked, and knocked out by the pair of black-clad arms that emerged from every intersection, corner, or angle behind them. When all the Reds were down, Blackfriars joined his allies, his cape trailing back into the darkness.
Danny, Mirry, and Tom were already staggering from the effort of shielding the team against the barge's telepaths. Mirry propped up her husband and wiped blood from his nose. "They... they don't know we're here," she grunted.
Blue eyes gleamed inside Blackfriars's cowl. "Perfect."
* * * * * * * *
Teresa Yung had climbed all the way to the upper ring of the arena, chased there by three relentless Harrakin ground troops. She stood mere yards away from the edge of a two-thousand foot drop, buffeted by stiff mountain winds, with nowhere left to run.
Whirling around and attacking her pursuers, she hurled small globes of antimatter at them. Actually, most of the globes were composed of something Don Riley called "virtual matter," which insulated the small antimatter core. The virtual matter dissipated on impact with the two lead Harrakins' armor, resulting in an explosion that blasted them back into a charred crater in the bottom ring.
The third Harrakin lunged for Teresa, and she threw another globe. The explosion liquefied the alien's armor and stopped his heart, but he'd gotten too close to Teresa. The shockwave slammed into her and carried her over the edge.
Once she fell past the lip of the noisy arena, the mountains were strangely silent. Teresa thought she'd have a long fall before she died, but the ground was rising awfully fast. Teresa was glad she'd done her best -- devoted her life to protecting the public, even taken a few alien bastards with her -- but still, this was a hell of a way to go.
"I couldn't agree more." The voice came from above, as Eric Anderson curved over the arena rim and down after her. He rushed under Teresa and caught her softly in his arms.
"Oh -- oh my -- Tempest -- oh shit --"
"Don't thank me yet," Eric said, "it's not over." Above them, Sestus soared over the arena's edge and gave chase.
* * * * * * * *
The world gasped when Tempest dove off their screens. The TV crews showed the battle to everyone, and everyone watched, afraid that something even more horrible might happen if they turned away. The faces of Dan Rather and other correspondents appeared in homes all over the world. In Russia, crowds cheered for Vari Stalnior. In upstate Wisconsin, an Alpha minister told his congregation it was all a sign of the armageddon. In Atlanta, the Eye of Justice fretted silently, finding himself turned from a video vigilante to just another viewer. Deep in the Pyrenees, the feuding Vitalongae finally united and prayed that the mortals would save them. Outside Hong Kong, Chinese troops watched to see if an attack on the Harrakin occupiers would be neccesary, while those same occupiers watched to find out who would lead them. In orbit, fleet commanders were ready to move at the first hint of victory.
Cornelius Owen scowled at a monitor screen from the relative safety of a Stormkiller bolt-hole. Even though he'd helped plan this, he was still disgusted by the ridiculous grandstanding of cretins like Hauptmann and Isaac Warner. If they'd simply stayed the hell out of his way, he could've avoided this in the first place.
Wolf DuFresne gazed at a Watchman and felt a sick spear of fear in his stomach. His daughter was there, in danger or possibly already dead, and he had abandoned any chance of helping her. Dan Carter just drove their truck to the Adirondacks, asking Wolf for updates like it was some baseball game.
Back in New York City, a drunken crowd gathered in Madison Square Garden. They howled with joy every time an Omega, especially Isaac Warner, made a hit. The New Yorkers bragged about repelling the Harrakin the day before, and broke into huge chants of "Sting-ray, STING-Ray, STING-RAY, STING-RAY!"
Two worlds worth of people watched and waited.
* * * * * * * *
Tisaridron Ring, Everest Crater, Nepal.
Eric dodged and weaved between the stone support columns and bridges under the arena, with Teresa clutched in his arms. Sestus plowed after them, shooting beams of fire from his green eyes. The beams nipped at Eric's heels, but so far he was dodging quickly enough. So far.
Teresa clung tightly to Eric's neck. The rapid twists and turns, the columns approaching and then passing and then suddenly falling away all around her, made her incredibly dizzy. "Can't you shake him?" she shouted.
"No luck," he said. He whipped around a column, nearly making her throw up. That was still better, he reflected, than getting hit by the green flame which sizzled into the column behind them. The entire stadium shook from the impact. "And I can't phase through the stadium while I'm carrying you." He was more limited, more vulnerable as long as he carried her. And Sestus knew it. He flew with his arms held straight out in front of him, ready to ram at them any second.
Eric tried to reach the outside of the stadium, so he could fly back up and drop Teresa off. But Sestus was further outside, and blocked every path Eric tried; Eric had let himself get caught under the center of the arena. Sestus spiralled in for the kill.
Eric hovered in the middle of the columns, flinching one direction or another but unable to move anywhere. He caught blurred glimpses of Sestus flitting between the columns; his armor looked as vague and menacing as a shark's fin. "Screw this," Eric said, "we're going up."
He telepathically viewed the arena through Anne Benson's eyes -- almost as good as having X-ray vision, he thought -- and found a spot right under some Harrakin who were menacing Fusion and Agony. Tempest flew directly for it, blasting the thick stone floor with his green fire. Teresa caught on and launched several antimatter globes at the spot. They blasted a tunnel through the stone, flying mere feet behind the rock as they disintegrated it. Just before Eric slammed into the rock, they cut through to the surface, scattering the Harrakin above them. Teresa dropped a globe down the tunnel behind her, plopping it right in Sestus's face.
That bought Eric enough time to drop Teresa next to Armor. Then Sestus rose through the smoking tunnel, screaming for Eric's blood.
The Omegas had done fairly well during Tempest's and Counterpart's absence. Agony and Conflagration were wounded, since their bluntly destructive fighting style attracted more Harrakin attention, but the other Omegas were routing the aliens. Sutra hovered above the arena -- she had never been able to fly before -- and targeted individual Harrakin with precise, cruel bursts of fire from her third eye.
The warlord attempted to rally his troops, and attacked Isaac. The wrestler was twelve feet tall now, and growing larger with every punch. "C'mon, buddy," Isaac said, not wanting to hit the bloody Harrakin again. Sure, he was trying to take over the planet, but he seemed like a stand-up guy. Better than the emperor he served, that was for sure. "You fought hard, but you might as well surrender. We can end this peacefully."
The warlord tried to reply telepathically, but Leviathan's psychic shield prevented it. The warlord answered in lilting, unintelligible Harrakin. For all Isaac knew, he could've been surrendering, but Isaac couldn't take that chance. Shaking his head sadly, he kicked the warlord to the ground. Then he flung himself into the air, twisting on his side and dropping with his elbow onto the warlord's head. Power surged through Isaac as he performed the famous Stingray Atomic Drop, and the warlord collapsed.
Isaac rose and shouted at the other Harrakin. "It's over! You've lost!"
[They have lost] said a new voice -- a buzzing group of voices, really -- cutting through the psi-shield like a bad hangover. [But it is not over]
From all around the outer rim of the arena, thirty-six Harrakin shot into the air. Thirty-six Harrakin in reddish-black armor with carved skull-face helmets. These were the faceless exterminators every Omega had heard about, the ones who ambushed Tempest and killed the Cadre. The Accursed.
They hovered around the arena in a perfect circle, hanging motionlessly for a split-second. Then they attacked.
* * * * * * * *
Observation deck, royal barge Avivak Harrakis.
"What are they doing here?" Arktish bellowed. "They're jeopardizing everything!"
"On the contrary, brother." Tatris had not moved from his slouch, but a wicked grin had crept across his face. "They're insuring victory."
"But they're breaking the rules -- and they're Accursed --!"
"Then they obviously don't care that they're breaking the rules." Tatris snapped forward, lowering the frontal lobes of the Shivering Throne until his face was pressed in front of Arktish's. "Nor do I. Do you really think I would risk my throne over a stupid fistfight? To hell with the rules, brother -- when they slay the cream of the Harrakilli, Earth will have no defenses against us."
"But Tatris, the victory will be invalid! The people will have no respect for you!"
"I don't want their respect, brother. Just their obedience."
Tatris calmly sat back in his chair, raising the lobes to a majestic height. All the stress and anxiety of the past few days fled from him. This was the Tatris that Arktish remembered -- the confident, daring, driven older brother who terrified him.
Across the deck, Ky'Rian inwardly seethed at the Accursed's arrival. He considered protesting, but knew it wouldn't do any good. Nothing could stop Tatris now, least of all him.
He wished he could ask Kkyree what to do. She always had sound advice.
* * * * * * * *
The Accursed flew in a complicated but precise iris formation, tightening in on the Omegas and striking with perfect coordination. They advanced on the Seekers first, splitting the team apart with a savage telekinetic "bombing": since they couldn't harm the invulnerable bodies of Armor and Blockade, they levitated the Omegas and rammed them into their teammates. Within seconds, the team scattered in every direction.
Only the psi-shield kept the attack from becoming instantly fatal. All of the Accursed telepathic assaults rammed against it; unlike the Tisaridron warriors, the Accursed tracked the shield to its source.
[She's doing it,] said the Accursed commander, pointing one red finger at Leviathan. [The gestalt that isn't fighting. Min'Hak, remove her.]
Min'Hak Jarrath'Ka led seventeen of the Accursed up to Leviathan's position, while the Accursed commander and the other half of the group kept the Omegas busy. Leviathan, realizing she'd been discovered, sprang up to counter-attack, but Min'Hak rammed Armor and Blockade into her like piledrivers. Leviathan collapsed; before she could get her bearings, all eighteen Accursed lanced into her mind.
Leviathan was a gestalt of a thousand minds, and possessed tremendous reserves of psychic energy. But the Accursed were more skilled and vicious than any of those thousand minds could imagine. They first struck at the integrity of the gestalt, unraveling the minds that most held the disparate psyches together.
Each psionic blast erased two or three personalities. One young man in the gestalt, who had grown up during the nuclear-war anxiety of the 1980s, viewed Leviathan's many personalities as locations on a giant computer-screen map. Each Accursed attack was another white dot expanding on the map, another missile destroying whole cities. Then he was erased, and the other minds lost that metaphor.
Leviathan lashed out with a wild, unfocused telepathic attack; it could no longer work as a unit. Its sheer power caused one Accursed to clutch his head and die screaming, but the rest pressed even harder. Half of Leviathan's remaining minds tried to escape onto the astral plane, but the other half tried to control the Accursed's minds. Leviathan nearly ripped itself apart in the confusion; the Accursed were all too happy to help it.
Eric tried to fly over and help, but Sestus restrained him. Eric could only watch as Leviathan was psychically torn to shreds. Soon the only mind left in Leviathan was that of its current host body, a teenaged Tennessee girl. And that was gone, too, when Min'Hak poked a pencil- thin pyrokinetic beam into her brain.
Min'Hak smiled underneath her mask. She'd never killed a thousand people at once before. Maybe, once the Omegas were gone and the subjugation of Earth began, she could try to beat that record.
Isaac stood in the center of a knot of Tisaridron warriors, holding one by his feet and swinging him into the others. The warriors looked very disturbed by the arrival of the Accursed, but they kept fighting. That meant the Omegas were greatly outnumbered, and Isaac wanted to take out as many as possible. He could already feel the warrior in his arms growing heavier; viewers were losing faith in the Omegas, and Isaac was getting weaker.
Something drastic was called for. He balled the warrior up in his hands, then bowled him into the other ground troops. They fell, and Isaac gritted his teeth and gave his best Stingray snarl. It was cheesy as hell, but it worked, because Isaac grew another inch. He hopped up, snatched an Accursed from the sky with his newly-increased speed, and bodyslammed him.
Most of the Accursed shifted to telepathic attacks, now that the humans were vulnerable. They found some psychic resistance -- the traitor Sharra, the half-breed H'Rik, and the Harrakilli Anne Benson, Steele, and Akasha all tried to block the attacks -- but for the most part the humans were easy prey. Vari Stalnior screamed as Min'Hak seized control of his autonomous nervous system and ordered his body to switch from steel-form to human flesh. His screams did not cease when he became human, though they did rise an octave and lose their metallic timbre. The Russian was finally silenced when Min'Hak kicked a knee- spike through his chest.
The Accursed commander floated above the combat, unable to watch as Min'Hak messily pried the corpse off her armor. The commander focused on the center ring, where two lone Omegas finished beating the last of the Tisaridron warriors. One, the burning girl with three eyes, channeled levels of power which frightened even the Accursed. But the giant man... The commander traced his power back to its source, and discovered his weakness. Waving for two other Accursed to follow her, she flew toward the nearest cluster of television cameras.
* * * * * * * *
On the CBS broadcast, Dan Rather looked very flustered but fought not to show it. His gray hair waved in the wind as he said, "We don't know what this stunning development means for the battle. Our Harrakin anthropology expert at Columbia tells us these assassins are violating the rules of combat. Have the Harrakin forfeited victory, or did they plan the ambush all along? And will Earth's Omegas be able to stop the assassins in either case?"
Rather wobbled out of focus as the camera drifted up past his shoulder, and zoomed in on three red blurs. Three of the assassins were arcing high in the air -- then diving towards the camera.
"Now they're coming this way!" Only the corner of Rather's head was visible; none of the world's viewers could see if he was as terrified as they were. The blurs grew larger, the skull-masks came into focus. Green lights glowed behind each visor.
"Oh God!" screamed somebody, probably the cameraman. "Oh God!"
The image pulled back sharply, and jerked up and down as the cameraman ran. Now viewers could see the length of the press gallery. All the reporters and cameramen were running -- but there was nowhere to run to. Far in the background, two beams of green light stabbed down from the sky, incinerating Arthur Kent and his cameraman. The CBS cameraman tried to run farther, but something exploded behind him, flinging debris onscreen -- dust, stone, somebody's hand clutching a microphone.
Only Rather seemed unafraid. Once he realized there was no escape, he walked calmly toward the camera. Rather stood at full posture in his safari jacket and said, "Don't surrender." An Accursed slowly, silently, floated down behind him. "Whatever happens, whatever you do, don't --"
Dan Rather exploded -- visible briefly as a skeleton, then only as a cloud of smoke and flame. The Accursed stalked through the smoke, laughing, and the image went dead.
* * * * * * * *
Isaac punched an Accursed, and nothing happened. He didn't even flinch. Then Isaac saw, with horror, the explosions up on the press gallery.
Pain wracked Isaac as he instantly collapsed to his normal size. Without the viewers, he lost nearly all of his power source. He could only draw strength from the other Omegas now. And they weren't feeling too optimistic.
The Accursed killer raised his fists above Isaac's head, then swung them downward.
In the air, Eric and Sestus had ceased any pretense at honor. Sestus was trying to kill the last impediment to his new identity, and Eric was trying to kill Sestus so he could help the others. Leviathan was dead, Stalnior was dead, Rene... Rene could be next.
Sestus tore a backhand across Eric's face, gouging the reflective sheen off his armor, and then let loose with green fire. Eric dropped from the air, and Sestus dove after him, elongating the spikes along his gauntlets.
Eric drove a telepathic spear into Sestus, cracking his shields and flooding his mind with pain. Sestus screamed, but kept diving, and they collided. They both fell to the disc, clawing at each other, and they rolled off the edge.
Before the Accursed could crush Isaac's skull, Jean-Luc Steele rammed into him, bouncing him clear off the stadium. Isaac gasped a thanks, but Steele was already gone, targeting the next Accursed. Steele greedily threw himself into combat with the assassins, to exact payback on the group that killed his Cadre. Or that was how he justified poking his fingers through one Accursed's eye and stabbing his brain, anyway.
Steele's ferocity bought Isaac enough time to run for cover inside a shield of pentacles Rene had created. He wasn't the only person there; Sonic had dragged the unconscious Armor and Blockade inside, and was now tourniqueting a badly-fractured leg. Conflagration was unconscious, and Agony was breathing noisily and holding her ribcage together with her hands. "Not looking good, is it Rene?" Isaac said.
"It's about to get worse." She pointed upwards.
With the arrival of the Accursed, Sutra summoned even more power from the Mass Mind. Funneling it through the destructive Shiva aspect, one of many useful templates from Lakshmi's mind, Sutra released the power as snaking, almost sentient bolts of flame.
The Accursed, however, were swift and strong; the bolts didn't automatically hit or slay them. Sutra opened an even stronger connection to the Mass Mind, pulling more power to the physical plane through her frail body.
The Omegas in Rene's shield gasped as Sutra's body shuddered, her arms collapsed into her back, and her third eye disappeared in a lick of flame. Her ash-white skin suddenly became its own photonegative, a pitch black, and fangs sprang out of her mouth. Sutra knocked an Accursed out of the sky with her long talons, and tore him apart with the power of Kali.
That transformation ended almost as soon as it began. Sutra writhed and grew the elephant head of Ganesh -- then the blue skin of Krishna -- the many arms of Kartikkeya -- the leering monkey grin of Hanuman -- the fish-tail of Matsya --
An entire pantheon collided in Sutra's floating, twisting body. All that remained of Lakshmi Natarajan was a woman's high-pitched scream.
Rene bolted out of her protective circle. She was going to save Lakshmi, though she had no idea how.
Three Accursed swooped down on her. Rene drew the Chariot and dodged their attacks with super-speed, but they were herding her away from Lakshmi and towards a deadly field of crossfire.
Steele dropped from the sky and flew alongside her. He graciously stretched out his arm, clotheslining an Accursed for her, and said, "Either fight back or get behind the shield."
Rene sidestepped a burst of flame. "I have to save Lakshmi!"
"This is bigger than any one life! Fight back or get to cover!"
Rene didn't have time for this macho revenge bullshit. "Would you say that if it was one of the Cadre?"
Steele glared at her. Then he said, "I'll draw them off, you cut left." He flew behind her and banked to the right, ripping one Accursed's arms off.
Rene rushed over to where Lakshmi hung, then stood under her wondering what to do. The Temperance card might have calmed her, if only Rene still had her full powers from her days as the avatar --
Not that way. It'd save Lakshmi, but not that way.
Lakshmi screamed again, and pivoted around her pain-wracked stomach. Translucent, half-real flames danced along her body, growing brighter by the second. Lakshmi had often been obsessed with Shiva and Vishnu and their consorts, but now she was becoming one consort she hadn't dared think about: Sati, who burned herself in sacrifice.
This had gone too far. Rene had to talk to the Mass Mind before it killed another woman. She reached in her deck and drew the one card she'd never touched. The highest card of all, Trump 21.
Min'Hak walked up to the annoying human with the stolen Tempest powers and the silly black beret. Jean-Luc Steele was a tenacious bastard who'd cheated death by Harrakin hands twice before; Min'Hak reasoned there would be some honor in killing him, even if he was only a Harrakilli. She tapped him on his shoulder.
Steele spun around and blasted her with his green fire, then hit her before her armor cooled. He bombarded her with telekinetic blows, spinning kicks, telepathic pain stimuli, and kidney punches. He blurred with fury for a full minute, then stepped back to survey his work.
Min'Hak's faceplate was slightly cracked, and he saw her smile under it.
Then she hit him.
The Accursed commander shook her head as Steele was knocked back the length of the arena. Destroying them one at a time was taking too long. Harrakin viewers, both on the royal barge and in the fleet, would be getting very upset by the Accursed's presence. A quick ending was needed for Tatris's victory, and their escape.
The commander broke off her aerial duel with Anne Benson. The human, outraged at the slaughter of the reporters, had pursued the commander relentlessly while still blocking her psychic attacks on the groundlings. The commander wondered what she had done, what choices she'd made, to make this woman her enemy and Min'Hak her ally.
A quick ending would also end such thoughts. She flew away from Anne, cracking the sound barrier, and whipped under the arena. She noticed many of the support columns were already damaged...
Everything froze -- the flying Omegas, the Harrakin in mid-punch, the fireball that reached halfway to Lakshmi's head. The sky shifted to a deep red, and black clouds sped across it, and Rene knew she'd been sucked bodily onto the astral plane. Rene looked at the mountains clustered around her, and the mountains spoke.
SO TAROT YOU REJECTED US AND NOW YOU HAVE COME BACK FOR FORGIVENESS
The slow, resonant voice came from a giant male stone face that ran the entire height of one mountain. Faces were carved into all the mountains, but most of the presences did not speak anything Rene would understand. The presences were old and long forgotten, but inscribed into the human psyche as deeply as the mountains were anchored to the earth. Rene felt an electric tingle as she attracted their rare but harsh attention.
She stood tall, set her jaw determinedly, and said, "I don't want your forgiveness. I want you to spare Lakshmi Natarajan's life."
EARTH NEEDS OUR POWER TAROT AND YOU HAVE SPURNED IT THUS SUTRA IS NOW OUR AGENT
"Not if you kill her, she isn't. Look, I know you hate the Harrakin and you'll try to take over my mind and you have this weird thing for young women, but... Lakshmi didn't know any of that. So take me instead. Let her go, and I'll be your avatar again."
The mountains were silent. Black clouds rushed overhead.
"Well? Answer me, damn you!" She waved her arms in exasperation. "I'll take your damn power!"
There was a clap of thunder.
The sky snapped back to blue, and the Accursed fireball streaked towards Lakshmi. It was intercepted by Rene, who wore the gleaming silver armor of the Empress. Rene ignored the fireball and caught Lakshmi, who had reverted back to her normal body. "Rene?" Lakshmi moaned. "What..."
"Shhh. Just rest." Rene lowered Lakshmi into the pentacle shield, which now blazed red with new power. Then she flew back -- flew back -- to the battle and smashed Accursed left and right. The Mass Mind whispered promises, whispered orders, but she ignored them. She was the avatar, and she was still Rene Johnson. Even Isaac was impressed. She really thought they would win now.
Until the whole arena shook and collapsed.
The Harrakin on the royal barge gazed with horror -- or, for a few, satisfaction -- as the support columns snapped like twigs. The center of the arena crumpled like tin foil, and then the whole platform dropped two thousand feet.
Deep in the warrens of the ship, climbing slowly for the top, the stealth team psychics noticed the wave of panic from outside. The Omegas did their best to ignore it, and climbed faster.
The flying Omegas -- Anne, Sharra, Akasha, even Steele -- dove for their teammates as the platform fell out from under them. Anne grabbed Harvey, and Sharra telekinetically caught Fusion and some Seekers, but the rescue attempts exposed them to Accursed attacks. Akasha was pierced from behind by three telekinetic skewers; she fell wailing after the arena.
Underneath, the two maniacs who clawed for the title of Tempest looked up as the mass blocking sight of the sky slid down on top of them. Eric flew straight up, slapped his palms against the stone, and pushed. He knew he was really lifting it telekinetically, but this way just felt right. The whole arena braked and hovered in mid-air as Eric caught it.
Then Sestus wreathed him in green fire. Eric screamed, and the platform slammed into the ground.
The Accursed and Omegas who plunged after it only had a second's warning as they saw the cloud of rising dust. Anne, Sharra, and the rest threw their arms around their heads -- their only weak protection against the shockwave and the huge boulders of debris that surged up and engulfed them.
* * * * * * * *
After the debris settled, Tatris ordered the barge to descend and investigate. The barge sank slowly towards the earth, its lights probing the rubble.
As the royal observation deck sank lower, it drew up with the last dozen Accursed. They had stayed high above the falling arena, and now fell upon it like carrion birds. Many on the barge filled with disgust, but kept silent, either from respect for the dead or fear of the still-living.
As searchlights and mindprobes sifted through the rubble, it shifted. Anne and Harvey emerged, coughing, from a dust-cloud. Sharra crashed through a rockpile and tackled the nearest Accursed. Fusion, Reflex, and Flux, who were bleeding profusely, hid under a slab. Rocks vibrated and slid out of the way as the pentacle shield, now a complete sphere, rose from underground; Rene and all the wounded Omegas in it were unharmed by the fall.
Not everyone was so fortunate. Counterpart and Energi had been outside the shield when the arena fell. They weren't invulnerable like many of their friends, and they'd been fighting on despite their injuries. Now the only signs of Teresa Yung and Thomas Red-Eagle were hands, in torn Seekers gloves, that stuck limply out from under piles of rock.
Min'Hak was slightly displeased by the high number of human survivors, but it looked like most of the fight had gone out of them. As she drifted over the wreckage, looking for easy kills, she noticed one mind hiding under her. Not hiding out of fear, it seemed, but... ambush...
Steele leaped out from the rubble, snarling, and wrapped her in a chokehold. Min'Hak grunted, plucked the Harrakilli off her back, and swung him overhead and down into the dust. At last, one of these worms was putting up a real fight.
That battle paled in comparison to the next one, however. The entire crater trembled, and Eric and Sestus shot up from the earth, locked in each other's arms. Eric had already sensed the deaths, and he howled in rage and pain.
Anne, Harvey, Rene, and Sharra charged the Accursed while the other Omegas ran for cover inside the pentacle. This final combat was fast and desperate, with fighters trading sloppy punches that left thunderclaps when they connected.
Sharra took the lead, hurling the Accursed into each other, holding them as shields, using their own numbers against them. They changed strategy and turned their numbers into an asset again; three of them piled on Sharra and forced her to the ground. They kicked and clubbed her until pain rendered her senseless. The only thing that stopped them from incinerating her was Harvey Hauptmann, growling and leaping onto the bunch of them.
Two Accursed landed on the pentacle sphere and pounded on it like destructive children. One made a tiny crack in it, and was rewarded by a burst of Fusion's supercharged plasma in his face. His burning corpse fell to the ground, while Rene removed the other one with a potent kick. While she was distracted, more Accursed tackled and pinned her. Giggling, they leaned in for the kill.
Anne flew straight for the Accursed commander. Anne could no longer think about surviving the fight -- no longer expected to -- but she had to bring that murderess to justice before she died. She overwhelmed the commander with a battery of physical and telekinetic punches, and was doing well until she heard a hoarse scream from nearby.
Harvey had killed one Accursed, but was being punched in the stomach and back by the other two. He doubled over in pain -- then snapped up and caught one alien with an uppercut that knocked him miles away. Before he could turn around, however, the third Accursed punched him in the back of his neck, then kicked him in the spine. Pain wracked Harvey's weathered face, and he cried out again. Then he collapsed. Anne tried to reach him, but the commander slashed her from behind. The rest of the Accursed rejoiced.
Overman had fallen.
Tatris watched the brawl intently from the Shivering Throne. He did break away long enough to lower the lobes and call Priscus close to him with one jewelled hand. [Broadcast this to the humans through our cameras,] he ordered. [I want them to see their defeat. And contact the officers who are loyal to me -- I want my fleetships to begin occupying the planet.]
Ky'Rian, who had been trying to pretend he wasn't eavesdropping, broke into the connection. [You can't do that,] he blustered. [You forfeited the Tisaridron. And at any rate, several of the humans are alive and fighting. They may yet win!]
[They very well may,] Tatris responded. The beatings that Benson, Steele, Johnson, and the half-breed were receiving suggested otherwise, but Tatris felt like humoring his little brother. [And if they do, the lasers on this barge will evaporate them. Don't look so angry, brother-- it will finally eliminate your little... genetic indiscretion?]
[You... you bastard!] He pulled his armor into combat mode, letting it cover his entire body, and he assaulted his Dy'Tariex.
Tatris seemed to rise with amazing lethargy. [So, my poor tortured brother finally acts.] He let Ky'Rian climb the lower steps of the frontal lobes. Tatris calmly sidestepped his charge, jammed one spiked fist into Ky'Rian's stomach, and matched it with a devastating psychic attack. Ky'Rian quivered and fell back. [Too little, brother. Too late.]
Tatris was just giving Priscus the order to commence the invasion, when a human in a Seekers uniform floated through the floor and attacked him. Several more humans poured onto the observation deck, firing lasers and unleashing telepathic attacks. Tatris almost had to admire them; they were either audacious or mad enough to storm the Shivering Throne itself.
Rene struggled, but three Accursed held her fast; the Empress's strength wasn't enough to budge them. She had her deck, clenched tightly inside her left gauntlet, and the Mass Mind screamed for her to play the Hanged Man and destroy them. But Rene knew the path that kind of destruction led down -- she'd end up enslaved or dead. Meanwhile, the Accursed tried to breach her mind and her armor, attempting to kill her through psychic or physical violation. Why did service to the Mass Mind always lead to this -- brainwashing or abuse? Rene'd had just about enough of it.
She shuffled through the major arcana. She could only use one sweaty hand, and it took too long -- what if she counted cards wrong -- her helmet cracked --
Rene found the card, and laughed. She even opened her palm and showed it to them. Justice.
A shining white sword sprang out of her left hand, impaling one of the Accursed. She poured all her energy into the card, and the sword slid through his body and into the other two. It cut them all neatly in half, no more than they deserved. Rene dropped the card and crawled back to the safety of the pentacle, putting the last of her power into maintaining it. The Mass Mind called out to her -- but her life and the lives of her friends called louder.
The Omegas ran onto the deck, seizing the lower levels of the Shivering Throne. Wes and Jimmy held off the lower-caste guards and retainers with captured laser weapons, which Jimmy had reconfigured into armor-piercing hand cannons. Danny held off Arktish with a telepathic command, while Mirry stopped Priscus with empathy -- she overwhelmed him with all the guilt he should have felt, and he was unable to contact the fleet for help. Blackfriars hopped from shadow to shadow, neutralizing any Harrakin who tried to reach the throne.
Up on Tatris's dais, the emperor wrestled with a wraith. The astral form of Tom "Avatar" Morgan tried to hurt him telepathically, but he was a mere nuisance. Tatris, wrapped in his armor and able to draw on the psychic power of the Harrakin fleet, was the strongest telepath on the planet right now. He swatted Tom aside -- and sensed another mind about to attack him.
Tatris turned pale and levitated upwards. He barely avoided a deadly blow as Phase, intangible and still invisible, rose up through the throne and tried to slip a cannister of Owen's damned nanite virus inside his armor. But the humans had failed.
Tatris easily found Phase, who couldn't hide from him. He pulled on the man's phobias, insecurities, and amnesia, and the Seeker went stark raving mad. Phase became a catatonic spectre, and dropped the cannister deep within the chambers of the throne.
[So you decided to cheat as well,] Tatris told the humans. [That's good; now you may actually be worth conquering.]
Tatris, actually impressed, raised his eyebrows and nodded. [Fair enough. But if you're going to kill an emperor, make sure you get him on the first shot.] He floated down and advanced on Danny, slashing out with his mind and his bladed armor.
Bruises already covered much of Anne Benson's once-beautiful face, but the Accursed kept adding more. While the hulking woman ground Steele into the dust, the other remaining Accursed lieutenant and his commander pummeled Anne. Sensing weakness, the lieutenant summoned the energy for green fire and unleashed it for the kill.
Anne telekinetically pulled the commander in front of her, blocking the bolt. Anne then jumped over the screaming commander and tackled the lieutenant, paying him back for Harvey. Anne pounded her fists like hammers into his head, and he finally blacked out.
Just when Anne thought she could breathe again, the commander struck. Despite her wrecked armor and hideous burns, the commander gnawed at Anne's mental defenses with numerous psychic attacks: insidious temptations of the id, crushing blows to the ego, and lurking behind them all a neural hurricane that would engulf Anne if she faltered.
Anne countered with some telepathy of her own: a simple mind- probe crept back down the connection already established by the attacks. Anne didn't get much. Just a sense of duty, a desire to return to old Harrakin ways -- when they were even more warlike? -- and a grim need to kill Anne before she died. But there was something else... a secret... and someone she didn't want to know...?
The pieces clicked into place, and Anne rocketed upwards, even as the commander knew she'd been discovered. The commander caught and tackled Anne, but that meant little to a telekinetic. They kept rising, punching each other all the while, until they bobbed up past the barge observation deck's railing.
Anne faintly registered the stealth team, apparently not doing well. Then the commander crushed her in a bear-hug, piercing her with several spikes. Tom screamed, but Anne gritted her teeth, grabbed the commander's helmet, and tore off the visor. Before the Accursed could stop her, Anne twisted her face towards the deck.
The commander stabbed a telepathic command into Anne's pain centers, and she blacked out from the agony. Anne slipped through the commander's grasp and tumbled to the ground, landing hard. But it was too late. Everyone had seen.
Ky'Rian, wheezing on the deck, gasped. [Kkyree!?!] Arktish was much calmer. His mind-voice was low, husky, threatening. [My daughter.] Then he turned to Tatris and howled. [MY OWN DAUGHTER!]
Tears streaming from his eyes, Arktish stumbled away from the throne and looked to his daughter again. [An Accursed... Kkyree, how could you?]
Tears poured down her face as well. Like those of all pureblood nobles, they were rich emerald droplets. [You were not supposed to know...] Suffering from her wounds, Kkyree lost the ability to fly. She grabbed the deck railing and pulled herself halfway onto the barge, closer to her kneeling father. [Father... please don't remember me like this...]
[I... won't.] He caressed her burned, mangled face. [My daughter...]
[Thank you, father... thank you...] Her bloody hands lost their grip on the rail, and she slipped off the barge, thanking him all the way down until her mind-voice was suddenly cut short.
Arktish stood up, wiped away the tears with the back of his hand, and walked across the deck.
Priscus had escaped the Mirry woman's empathy trap, overriding the guilt with his own lack of conscience. The Norrek opened a telepathic channel to the fleet, preparing to send the attack order. Until something dropped over his head and choked him -- the Staff of Takkiel'Hra, digging into his neck and pressing him back against Arktish's chest.
[You can support Tatris,] Arktish told him, [or you can live.]
Steele poured everything he had into the fight: Tempest's power, SIRECOM's training, his fury. A punch for Vesper, a green fire for Warstryke, a temple blow for Rebecca, a mind-blast for Jove, a kick for Vesper... none of it mattered. By this point, Steele thought he was hurting her, but the Accursed brute didn't care. She laughed off his worst blows and returned them twofold, her mighty fists knocking him around like some cheap marionette.
Even in his rage, Steele knew he had to fight smarter. He pulled the rock out from under her, sandwiched her in it, melted it to magma, fused it around her; she smashed through and shoved burning rock in his face. He formed a micron-thick telekinetic wedge and slipped it through her armor; she took the tiny cut, then kicked him in the groin. He ignited air as she inhaled it, shooting it straight to her lungs; she sucked it in and blew a fireball back at him. Steele, barely able to stay on his feet anymore, realized there was nothing he could do. The Accursed grinned and clapped her hands together; Steele dodged the hands, but the sonic boom flattened him.
Min'Hak Jarrath'Ka, last of the Accursed, lifted Steele by his scalp. [You fought well, Harrakilli. I may save your skull to decorate my helmet.] She hit him in the face with a backhanded punch; even through his telekinetic shield and invulnerability, the blow crushed his left eye to a sticky pulp. He hurt too much to even scream -- all his effort went to cutting through the haze of pain, and finding a way out.
[You have any last words?] Min'Hak asked.
[Yes...] Steele answered. [Versatility.]
He dropped Tempest's powers.
And, before she could strike him, Steele reached out to the wounded Omegas inside the pentacle and copied Don Riley's. Steele smiled with mashed, bloody teeth. Min'Hak suddenly dropped him.
Don "Blockade" Riley absorbed others' powers and fed them into his own strength. It even worked on Harrakin. Min'Hak punched Steele, but most of her strength was gone; Steele blocked it easily. Without her speed or flight, Min'Hak could barely move in her ridiculous armor. Steele obliged her by prying it open and bombarding her with punches. Without Tempest's endurance, he couldn't stay up long, and he had to finish this quickly.
"You want some more last words?" he asked her. She couldn't understand him without her telepathy, but he didn't care. "Vesper." He broke her nose. "Warstryke." He cracked her jaw. "Rebecca." Finally, she ran out of invulnerability, and he snapped her neck. "Jove."
She dropped dead. Steele exhaled, and fell on top of her.
Tatris stepped towards Danny, swinging his arms one after the other in a downward 'X' pattern. The curved blades stemming from his armguards passed within inches of Danny; the human saved himself with last-ditch telepathic suggestions that threw off Tatris's aim. Danny was wearing out, however -- blood flowed out of his nose and ears -- and Tatris was as strong, swift, and invincible as ever.
Blackfriars finished dispatching a Blue Marine -- most were merely watching now anyway, on some order from the priest -- and prepared to deal with Tatris. He stuck his hand inside the shadow of his cloak. He reached through space, finding the shadows inside the Shivering Throne, and grasped for the viral cannister.
On the sunlit outer deck, Tatris had now cornered both Danny and Wes. With one swing, he could decapitate the human resistance. They fought back defiantly, but their telepathy and lasers bounced harmlessly off his armor. To most of the people on the barge, the Dy'Tariex's armor was an unbreachable wall of spikes and blades.
To Blackfriars, it was just a lot of angles and shadows.
He ducked into a set of crossbeams, dropped out of the inner surface of the deck's sunroof, and landed in front of Danny and Wes. He caught Tatris's descending arm in one hand, blocking the Harrakin with his own Omega strength. With his other hand, he reached into his cloak.
Before anyone else could react, Tatris swung his free arm forward, and shoved its blade through Blackfriars's chest.
Sestus smashed his fist into Eric's chest, knocking him through most of a mountain. Their battle raged all around the Everest crater, the barge, and the fallen stadium. The survivors could only see their fight in fragments, as they flashed past the pentacle or the observation deck. They circled the battleground like agitated electrons, but no electrons ever felt hate.
Sestus grabbed Eric, holding him in place for a battering from his other, mailed fist. Eric broke the grip, but Sestus attacked psionically. Eric nearly drowned in a torrent of frenzied thoughts -- mostly sudden, nihilistic urges to destroy himself. Apparently, Sestus reasoned that if he was Tempest, Eric would have to be Sestus.
Eric pushed the thoughts away and pressed forward. He hit Sestus's armor with fists and psychokinetic lashes. The blows hit in an almost musical pattern, and Eric could feel the vibrations resonating through the suit. It gave Eric an idea, and he punched more, delivering thousands of blows to Sestus's well-armored midsection. That left him vulnerable, and Sestus capitalized by spiking Eric's head as if it were a volleyball.
Eric ignored the pain. One eye was swelling shut, and the other had to see through a stream of blood, but he kept punching. Sestus threw his horned head back and laughed.
Then Eric snapped his fist forward, jabbing the armor at the precise spot where two vibrational patterns were intersecting. The weakened armor creaked and shattered. Eric shoved his hand inside, grabbed the nanite container Owen had implanted, and crushed it.
Tatris pushed the blade even further through Blackfriars. He savored the sticky red stain on the blade's tip, the sucking sound as Blackfriars inhaled frantically and the air spilled out his punctured lung. The emperor ran forward, sticking Blackfriars to a bulkhead. Tatris sneered at the face hidden behind the cowl, and locked glances with the human's proud, defiant eyes.
Blackfriars pulled his other hand from his cloak, and punched it straight into the nest of spikes on Tatris's breastplate. Space bent around the sharp angles, and the hand emerged inside the armor, next to Tatris's skin. The punch winded Tatris -- but more importantly, Blackfriars squeezed his fist, and shattered the viral cannister inside it.
Sestus's scream sounded a thousand times louder as it echoed off the Himalayas. The nanite virus -- originally evolved as a suicide mechanism for armor suits whose wearers had died -- dissolved his armor and ate his nervous system.
Sestus released one final burst of energy and rage. Eric trapped him in a force bubble to protect the others -- down below, Rene and the others emerged from the pentacle to rescue their heavily wounded allies. Waves of energy hot enough to sublimate rock battered the bubble's walls, but Eric held them tight. He focused on saving his friends, and tried to ignore Sestus's ear-splitting wail.
Tatris shrieked and stumbled backwards. The blade pulled out of Blackfriars, who sank down the wall, leaving a red trail.
Tatris could already feel his psionic powers slipping away. The Shivering Throne wobbled and the royal barge lurched dangerously without his control. He wasted no time dictating his revenge. "Guards, kill the Harrakilli!" He shouted hoarsely, conserving his telepathy. "Priscus! Tell the fleet to open fire! Reduce this planet to a cinder!"
The Marines didn't move, and Priscus avoided his master's gaze. Arktish said, "Priscus is under arrest. And I doubt the fleet will do anything." From across the armada, Tatris sensed his supporters being overthrown by loyalists and War Priests. He was rapidly losing his psychic connection with the Harrakin people... and not just because of the virus.
His Dy'Tariex armor began to bubble, and his seals of office dissolved away. The Shivering Throne dropped and shattered. Tatris knew everyone was turning on him, knew Owen and Hallatiris were laughing and laughing and laughing...
Spittle foaming on his lips, Tatris charged across the tilting deck. Everybody scattered, except the one man who couldn't move. Tatris pounced on Blackfriars, blades first.
Sestus was pounding at the force bubble so hard, his hands were disintegrating. His armor -- his stolen armor -- had degenerated to its component metals and hydrocarbons, which melted and burned into his flesh. Bilious green light shone from under the metallic blobs; as the virus destroyed his nervous system, Sestus could no longer control his psionic energy and it consumed him.
Sestus's face was barely visible through the superheated steam clouds inside the bubble; Eric could make out two burning green eyes, and a mouth wrenched open in pain. [HALF-BREED!] he screamed. [I AM THE TEMPEST!]
[Yeah,] Eric said. [In a teapot.] Eric stretched his arms around the bubble and compressed it. The steam became even thicker, but Eric could see glowing cracks spreading across what remained of Sestus's skin. The brute exploded in a blinding green flash.
When Eric opened the bubble, only wisps of steam drifted out.
Eric flew up and caught the wobbling, falling barge, then lowered it to the ground. He smiled wearily at its holocameras, for the Harrakin fleet and the world.
"No more impostors."
Tatris drove his blades at Blackfriars. The vigilante crossed his arms, and the blades plunged into the angle between them.
They emerged inside the armor, breaking the weakened skin and piercing Tatris's heart. When Blackfriars uncrossed his arms, the points snapped off and stayed there. Tatris swayed stupidly, broadcasting one last thought before death: [Killed by a human. How humiliating.]
Blackfriars, lying on the deck, chuckled at that. Then he closed his eyes, and sank softly into shadow.
* * * * * * * *
Even after watching the deaths of Tatris and Sestus, the people of Earth waited with baited breath. There had been so many twists and changes already, they didn't know if it had ended. But anticipation rose across all the continents as the barge holocameras showed Arktish ordering the Marines to stand down, then removing a seal of office from the broken throne. Tempest landed on the observation deck, and Arktish strode over to him. Uncle and nephew met for the first time. Then Arktish dropped to one knee, handed Eric the seal, and said, "By rightful Tisaridron and vacancy of office, I hereby entreat you to become the Dy'Tariex of the Harrakin people."
Eric swallowed. "I accept. And as my first act, the invasion is now over."
There was an explosion of cheers as much of the fleet and all of the world rejoiced.
Things were much more solemn at the battleground. The survivors, human and Harrakin alike, were put under the supervision of Mirranda Anderson. She set up a triage, using her healing powers to stabilize the most wounded cases, making sure to marshal her strength. Danny clutched her hand tightly, giving her his own kind of strength. Many were beyond her help: Leviathan, Vari, Akasha, Teresa, Thomas Red-Eagle, all dead. So were many of the Tisaridron warriors -- killed in the fall -- along with Min'Hak, Kkyree, and virtually all of the Accursed. Steele's eye was lost, and Phase was still insubstantial and catatonic; a whole team of Harrakin telepaths were trying to find and help him. And, of course, Blackfriars.
Conflagration and Fusion limped past Mirry, holding each other up, to look at the dead body of Blackfriars. It was so odd, Fusion thought, that he'd never know who that man was, and odder still that the whole planet owed him a debt it could never even try to repay. He looked at Conflagration, hoping for some kind of answer. "I only knew he didn't want to be here. I know you better than I did him."
"I think, if we look at what he did, we know him well enough."
They limped back to the triage station, passing another clump of Omegas. Jean-Luc Steele was propped against a rock. Most of his injuries were healed, but his one eye still glared out over the field of the dead. "So this is it," he said. "More stupid deaths, just for a lull in the fighting. Owen gets off because of his precious virus, and the Harrakin fleet still lives."
Anne Benson said, "Most of them were innocent, Steele." She lay next to Steele and Harvey, while Tom Morgan cradled her head in his lap. All were too wounded to do anything more than lie down. Anne said, "They came here expecting to find a home and relatives. Instead they ran afoul of the petty, scheming bastards who caused all this. And they thought they were the meanest planet in the cosmos..."
"Some of the Harrakin were responsible, too," Wes Hickman said. He walked up gingerly, on aching muscles and bones. "But they paid, thanks to us. And Owen will, too. I've just heard that the U.N. disbanded Stormkiller, and he's gone into hiding." He placed one hand on Anne, the other on Steele. "Folks, we did it. We all know some good people who died, but they saved the world doing it." The full meaning of the words only hit Wes as he spoke them. "We won."
But if Steele couldn't take comfort in those words, the other side couldn't even mouth them. Arktish walked among the dead, where noble Harrakin were laid out beside the humans, but Accursed were dragged aside. He stared down at his daughter, who'd dishonored him: he could find no hate in him for her. Exhausted, he started away from her body and came upon the carcass of the terran, Akasha. Pain still stretched across her pale face. Arktish still wanted to blame the humans. But looking at this dead human, and then looking at his daughter, he couldn't find any reserves of hate anymore.
He walked slowly along the rubble, singing a Harrakin requiem, passing by Rene Johnson who sat up on a ledge of stone. Despite all the lives she'd saved, Rene saw death everywhere, and it felt like fire in her chest to keep composed.
She knew who it was without looking. Eric plopped down on the ledge, glancing at the bodies and then at her face. She couldn't smile, and he couldn't either, but they looked at each other and forgot that anyone else was there.
Whispering voices kept reminding them that everyone was there -- the Mass Mind of Earth, and now the Dy'Tariex's connection to the Harrakin fleet. Both of them shut out the voices, ready to forget what they represented and just be people for a while.
"It's over," Rene said.
"The fighting, yeah."
"You think there can be something else between us?"
"I hope so."
Eric stretched out on the rock. Rene leaned back too, and they curled up with each other. Rene kept her eyes open long enough to see he was falling asleep, and then her eyes shut. The sun was dropping down below the mountains as she sank into sleep after it, and after him.
CLOSING CREDITS: All characters are Copyright 1997 their respective authors.
Lakshmi Natarajan, Anne Benson, Harvey Hauptmann, Cornelius Owen, Dan Carter, Sestus, Hyper, Hannibal, the Vitalongae, and Blackfriars: created by Marc Singer.
Danny, Eric, and Mirry Anderson, Conflagration, Agony, Jimmy DeLeon, Wolf DuFresne, Energi, Tom Morgan, Vari, Akasha, Leviathan, Stormkiller, the Accursed and the Harrakin: created by Matt Rossi.
Allen Covenant, Isaac Warner, Rene Johnson, and the Mass Mind: created by Chad Imbrogno.
Wes Hickman, Counterpart, Phase, Armor, Blockade, Reflex, Flux, Sonic, the Seekers, and Fusion: created by Matt Dempster.
Jean-Luc Steele and the Cadre: created by Kay Green.
The Eye of Justice: created by Jeff J. McCoskey.
All other characters created by Marc Singer or Matt Rossi.
Well, it's finally done. We'd like to thank all of our readers, both on and off RACC, for bearing with this monstrosity of a story. We'd also like to thank all of our fellow Omega writers -- for creating fantastic characters and then giving us an admirable free rein with them, yes, and for offering fantastic ideas and feedback since the earliest planning stages of this story, sure, but mostly for collectively creating a story universe so rich that it could generate this kind of tale. It's been a pleasure writing it thanks to those guys; hopefully it was a pleasure reading it too.
And there are plenty of great post-Invasions Omega stories on the way, so... keep watching the skies!