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Even two days later, two days after the arrival of the Harrakin fleet had shocked and panicked and electrified the human race, the message was still getting almost constant airplay. Any human, anywhere in the world, could see or hear the Harrakin Emperor's address to planet Earth in some form: television, radio, downloadable file, newspaper transcript, even oral retelling. It was exactly the same in every version, every language; the telepathic nature of the transmission had seen to that. But people watched and heard and read every version they could, just the same.
The versions always start with a man in a suit of black armor, covered in a forest of blades. For one terrifying moment, he stares at the human race, green eyes glowing behind his visor, as an artificial and sibilant voice announces, [People of Earth, listen now to the words of Hallatiris, Dy'Tariex of the Harrakin race.]
Then Hallatiris removes his helmet, revealing long white hair, a curly beard, rosy cheeks, and an amused smile. Except for the brilliant emerald eyes, he looks exactly like a human. He says, in a booming but warm voice, [Greetings, people of Earth. No doubt, many of you are afraid right now. Please do not be. We come not as warriors, but as brothers. We have searched thousands of years for our homeworld, and have at last found it -- and you are it, brothers. You are it. This day marks not a war but a tearful reunion. We have so much to offer one another -- you can give us history, and we... We can give you the stars.]
He chokes, slightly, and continues. [I wish to meet with your world leaders in three days' time. Until then, I implore you to remain calm, and rejoice. Your long-lost family has come home.] Hallatiris smiles and ends the transmission -- although every version notes the tears beginning to well at the corners of his eyes.
Many humans cry at this point as well, still amazed that their imagined conquest or extinction will not occur after all. Despite the natural caution and suspicion, most of the planet eagerly awaits the appointed meeting. Most are ready to welcome the Harrakin with open arms.
Most. But not all.
Chicago. -- The day before Meeting Day.
The residents of the poor Howard Park neighborhood had learned long ago to ignore the strange happenings at the old junkyard. For the past three years, it had been host to an assortment of odd sightings, giant black dogs, meteoric crashes, and government raids. Strangest of all, last winter something converted most of the dirt and trash into a huge silicate lake. City officials had briefly worried that this lake might spread and engulf all Chicago, but the people of Howard Park could have told them that as long as you didn't bother the junkyard, it wouldn't bother you.
That was why so many residents worried when a scientific team rushed into the junkyard and dug a mine into it. The rest of the world, of course, was preoccupied with the Harrakin arrival. The aliens had fascinated, thrilled, or frightened all of humanity -- except Howard Park, where the residents were more fearful of the new development in their own back yard.
The second day after the Harrakin arrival -- the day before Hallatiris's meeting -- the miners struck something.
The supervisor, Mr. Slaight, insisted on seeing it personally. Wearing a white biohazard suit and carrying an industrial flashlight, he marched down a steeply-sloped tunnel, into the deep black recesses of the silicon plug. The beam from his light glided over the rough-hewn tunnel walls, illuminating dark metallic striations in the silicate. They were all that remained of the Colony's defenses, and it was remarkable that they had survived the transformation at all; but the Colony didn't interest Mr. Slaight.
He came upon the discovery site. It was swarming with biosuited scientists and miners, whose lights danced all over the tunnel walls. Slaight shoved through them, growling "Let me see it! Let me see it!" Then he broke through the crowd, and saw it -- half-buried in the dark black wall, being excavated by acetyline torches -- and he was crestfallen.
"Sorry," said one of the scientists. "It's far too damaged. Looks like it took a massive beating even before the silicate transformation. I don't know if we can use it."
"That's all right," Slaight said, trying to mask his disappointment. "Stormkiller has another source."
Harrakin Flagship Dy'Tariexen'Ka Harrak.
Priscus Obran'Ka Harrakin, Norrek and chief advisor to Dy'Tariex Hallatiris Obran Harrakin, floated gracefully down a silver hallway, which would have struck most humans who saw it as a pseudo-organic capillary of metal within the vast angled bulk of the flagship.
Then the Norrek reached a section of wall, which bent out of his path, and closed behind him like bread dough kneaded into shape.
Within the pocket inside the metal waited the KK'Narath'Tak: The Accursed. A secret society of those who were not any longer of the Blood Royal, who awaited their turn on the seat of Harra. In short, they were traitors.
[Greetings, son of Obran.] The three who waited for him were all garbed in the special armor of their sect, identical red featureless suits with black trim. Most Harrakin armor screamed the wearer's name with heraldic designs, but these were worn to mask identities. Their only identifying marks were the green eyes that blazed from skull-faced masks, shouting to the universe that these were the true descendents of Harra, just as the decrepit children of Hallatiris were. [What news?]
[I have heard from Tatris.] The Norrek of the fleet smirked, allowing his features to relax from the studied mask of servility they normally stayed frozen in. [He is amenable to our terms, and I have promised him our support when the time is right.]
[It is unfortunate that any of the ruling family should take the throne,] the smallest of the three thought. His impracticality marked him as Larrath Goliran Harrakin, whose own descent from Harra was very distant in the current line of succession.
[Perhaps, but any coup will destabilize the throne. We can deal with Tatris later.] Priscus floated to a portal in the hull and looked out into the black surrounding the ship. The planet Venus was spinning into view. [The boy is a much greater problem. In order for the plan to work, the son of Ky'Rian must not be allowed to make contact with Hallatiris. I can keep any telepathic signal from reaching the old man...]
[You claim to be stronger than Hallatiris?] This from the hulking brute in the corner, obviously the female war-priestess Min'Hak Jarrath'Ka. The Norrek sighed at her predictability. She was so concerned with jockeying for position, she'd start a bragging contest in the middle of their planning.
[No, but he is much weaker than he pretends to be. He has come to depend on me for much of his intelligence... so I will simply intercept any messages that come for him. I am the Norrek, after all.] As they all nodded, he pressed his advantage. [But the boy has already displayed the ability to intercept a fleetship. So I have planned for that eventuality. If you Accursed can find twenty of your best soldiers, we can intercept the boy before he reaches the fleet... and then Tatris and his dupes will deal with Hallatiris.]
[It will not be easy, though with numerical advantage I think we can stop him.] This from the female who had remained silent, apparently their leader. [But where can we fight him without anyone sensing?]
Priscus smiled as his glowing eyes locked on the acidic cloud cover of Earth's sister world. The depth of the atmosphere, the violence of the core, the volcanic eruptions, so much like home.
[I know a place.]
Eric. Or Kyrie. Or H'rik, even. But not Tempest.
He hated being called that.
The young man looked over the pile of books he'd left in the attic of his 'mother's' house. Even now, it was hard to think of Elizabeth Sheridan as his mother. Sure, she'd given birth to him, but that was it, and even the empathic connection her own powers gave her made her only slightly less a stranger. He didn't hate her, or blame her...but she was just another person he didn't know with claims on his blood.
Currently, his 'father' and a whole mess of cousins, several million of them, were circling the planet in starships, and he didn't know what to do about it. They hadn't attacked... in fact, they told the world they came in peace, and their arrival might usher in some kind of new golden age.
And Eric Anderson was hiding in his birth-mother's attic, reading old comic books. Next to the old issues of Overboy and The Haunter were newer ones he'd been reading while taking classes at Sarah Lawrence, books like SCA starring the Supreme Crimebusters of America. Overman, Batwing, Amazing Amazon, Blue Beacon, The Dynamo, Venusian Vigilante Saam Siimz and the monarch of the waters Oceanlord. For some reason, when aliens showed up, they never had any problems figuring out what to do. They just went in and busted heads, like they did recently when the 'Violet Venusians' showed up impersonating Super-Heroes from an Earth-like world. Even Saam Siimz dealt with his personal issues by page ten.
Part of it was fear. He'd never really felt like he was in danger before. Even against Kali, who'd scared the crap out of him, the fear had come mostly from what she was willing to do instead of any personal fear. Typhon, the God Killer...somehow these things had managed to make his sense of obligation kick over his sense of fear. But the Harrakin?
Eric leaned back against the wall and felt the wood through his hair. The things Ky'Rian had said to him during their Tisaridron were burrowing in his mind. Maybe he should let them take over. They couldn't do any worse than humanity had. Hell, in their own way, they love Earth and us more than we do. And sure, there's plenty about their culture I hate... but they have their own art, their own songs and music and sculpture, and maybe I can get them to chill out on their power-tripping. Hell, I am the H'R'Djagtal, or at least so Sharra keeps telling me.
I don't know.
He got up and stepped through the wood seperating the attic from the bedroom he'd been crashing in... and kept going, down to the empty kitchen. On his advice, Elizabeth had headed into the woods, spending the week with some friends who owned a cabin in upstate Oregon. The silver-white of the refrigerator reflected his eyes back at him, the same glowing green as all Harrakin royalty, the light that told him he was different from his adopted world. Maybe they were right. Maybe he belonged with them.
Even though it was unneccesary, he opened the fridge and took a bottle of soda out. The sensation of drinking a cold liquid, fizzing on contact with the air and popping as you swallowed, leaving a tart tingling on your tongue when it was gone. Things people take for granted. Things he took for granted, until he became... whatever it is he now saw looking back at him from the black tiles of the kitchen floor.
Eric put the bottle back and thought.
He'd flown in airless space. He'd traversed half the galaxy, seen the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter, brushed the corona of the Sun itself. And in that second, a cold swallow of Coke was just as elusive an experience, and as worthy of being protected. The Harrakin might be more advanced. Maybe they would be better stewards of the planet.
But right or not, humanity had developed, and it was worth protecting.
The decision made Eric feel giddy. He still felt afraid, and uncertain, and he hadn't the slightest idea of how he was going to get the Harrakin to agree with him. But he knew where he stood.
Smiling, his lips tight and trembling but still a grin, he stepped up through the ceiling and began putting his pants on.
With his hands.
A van en route to New York on I-95 South, outside New London, Conn.
Danny looked up from the back seat, where he'd been semi- comatose, trying to expand his mind out into space and 'read' the Harrakin fleet. Sweat clung to his skin, and as he leaned back, Mirry began rubbing his temples, trying to re-acclimate him to physical reality.
<How'd it go?>
<Bad, wife. Very bad. I can't get any real sense of them.> He closed his eyes again and slowly rolled his neck, feeling the tendons shift. <I'm still getting that precog flash, though. Something's going to happen at the U.N.>
Mirry looked up at the front seat, where Thomas-Peter and Jennifer were sitting. The tall Kenyan's head was out the window, and Jen's spiky pink hair was barely visible over the driver's seat. It seemed empty in the van, somehow. <I wish Jimmy could be here.>
<We'll get him out of prison soon. But we don't have any time to waste right now.> Danny felt himself falling asleep where he sat. <I think, when this is all over, we'll need to set more places in our past for new ghosts.>
<That's a fatalistic little metaphor,> Mirry thought.
<No,> Danny replied, <that's the damn precognition.>
Lakshmi Natarajan had finally gotten out of bed, and now wished she'd stayed in it. News of the Harrakin's peaceful goals caused most of humanity to celebrate in the streets. It just sent Lakshmi into depression. Unwanted visions, and the obsessions that came with them, had dominated her life for months; now it seemed they were wrong.
Ever since Allen Covenant told her she had Omega powers, and that the gods of her abandoned Hindu religion were real, Lakshmi had been gripped by both. She'd had premonitions of the future, chaotic dreams that always veered between absolute order and total chaos, sometimes with moodswings to match. That was why the Harrakin arrival had thrown her into such a fit; it seemed to contain the potential for both, for a repressive dictatorship and a planetwide war.
She had to give her parents some of the blame, though. (Being a longtime college student, this came easily enough.) They had chosen to name her after Lakshmi, the goddess of chance and consort of Vishnu, the great preserver. When U.S. immigration required that they take a western-style surname, they chose Natarajan -- after the Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance, a title of the great destroyer Shiva. Preservation and destruction, order and chaos: Lakshmi felt like she had been a puppet pulled between their strings all her life.
She had never felt that more than now. She had seen the whole world when the fleet first arrived, through the lens of some vastly greater consciousness. She had tapped into something spanning the whole world, felt its power. Her mind danced in its grip. But now she was afraid to access it, and be played for a fool again. Already she had bad feelings about New York...
Lakshmi was startled but glad when a sharp knock sounded at her door. She needed something to stir her out of her bitter isolation. She threw on some boxer shorts under her shirt, picked her way across the messy apartment, and peered through the peephole on her door.
It showed a stranger, a handsome man with dark hair. "Yes?" she said.
"Ms. Natarajan?" He pronounced it accurately, with a tongue that tripped lightly over the consonants. "May I speak to you? My name is Stephen. Stephen Black."
"Can I ask what you want to speak to me about?" Unconsciously, Lakshmi's hand slid towards the chain that could further secure her door.
Stephen Black leaned forward, so his head swelled to fill the peephole. "Not really."
He muttered something, something inhuman, and the door was blasted off its hinges. It took Lakshmi with it, knocking her into a couch across the room. Yet the explosion never made a sound. Black marched into the room, followed by twelve other men. All wore dark clothing and had pale skin. "Congratulations, Ms. Natarajan," Black said. "You've just been inducted into the Black Circle."
There were no witnesses here.
The ice-spires of the Harrakin refugee settlement lay in ruins. The ill-fated exiles had fled Hallatiris's reach, overthrown their deranged leader Tatris, and survived the Fix's enslavement, only to be destroyed by another alien creature months ago. This in turn led to the closing of the nearby Seekers observation post, since there was nothing left to observe. Even the animals had fled the tainted area. There was nothing alive within hundreds of miles.
Except the team of explorers trekking across the fallen columns and ice-covered avenues of the dead Harrakin city. Most were struggling to stand up in the strong Antarctic wind, but one marched defiantly. She pulled the others and their gear-laden sleds along behind her, through ropes tied to all their waists.
The team finally reached a vast, arched hall, one of the few buildings that was still mostly intact. The lead woman pushed a heavy circular door open and shoved the other agents inside. Then she jumped through and slammed the door, slightly muting the sound of the blasting wind outside. She jerked off her wool hood, revealing a cold fleshy face and an even colder metallic one. "It's about damn time," Nicola Dare said. "Whatever you found here, it better be good."
"Trust me," said one of the other Stormkiller agents, "it is." His location-finder, now audible above the wind, was beeping rapidly. "You men set up for extraction, while I show Ms. Dare the site."
Nicola and her guide walked down the middle of the hall. It looked like a cathedral, if that cathedral were twenty times larger than Notre Dame and designed for beings who could levitate. The interior was not coated in layers of rough rime ice like everything outside, but frost and snow had still crept in and coated everything -- including the remains of the last human expedition that came here. They were preserved as perfectly as the friezes depicting Harrakin culture and history, but Nicola ignored them all. After all her failures of late, she was focused completely on this mission's success. Her guide's location-finder beeped even faster, until it sounded a continuous tone.
They stopped at a giant pedestal of ice in the center of the hall. "It's under here," the guide said. Nicola and the guide started wiping the ice with gloved hands. Ice crystals brushed away, and something was visible underneath -- something black. Nicola and the guide brushed more furiously, and soon they could make out its shape -- a large suit of armor. With one triumphant wipe, Nicola swept aside the frost and exposed the fierce, carved helmet and the sweeping horns. "Harrakin ceremonial armor," the guide gasped.
"Not just any Harrakin's," Nicola said. "Tempest's."
The thirteen Black Circle agents dragged Lakshmi down to the elevator. Her kicks couldn't break their iron grip, and her screams never made a sound. People were all around her in the apartment building, yet no one would ever know she was being kidnapped.
"No reason to struggle, my dear," said Stephen Black. "With the Harrakin above us, we need your power. We would have just killed you, like that foolish girl who thought she was Helen of Troy. Or we could have treated you like your immediate predecessor and found... other uses for you..."
His lustful leer was interrupted when the elevator door opened, and before the Black Circle could push inside, two people came running out. One was a young white girl; the other was Allen Covenant. They nearly ran into the Black Circle. The two sides stared at each other stupidly for about two seconds.
Then all hell broke loose.
Allen screamed in ancient Chaldean, causing a burst of light to stream out of his hands. The Black Circle mages shielded themselves with arms that cast incredibly dark shadows. Stephen Black ignored the light and cast a telekinetic rote that pushed Allen down the hall. The girl drew a card, looked at it, and laughed. She showed the Strength trump to the dark mages, then charged into them swinging her fists.
Rene knew she had almost gotten there too late. When uncle Allen first drove out to Yellow Springs and said they needed to contact the Mass Mind's current avatar, she had resisted fiercely. The Mass Mind had used her viciously as a puppet to destroy helpless Harrakin, and Rene wanted nothing to do with them ever again. She wasn't half as pessimistic or paranoid about the Harrakin arrival as Allen was, and she didn't buckle until he pointed out that the Black Circle had a history of targeting the Mass Mind's avatars. The new girl would have to be warned, if nothing else. Now Rene was glad she'd caved in.
Rene had performed a tarot reading to divine the new avatar's identity; when she sensed an Indian girl, who was connected to Allen's past and her future, Allen remembered a vocal Indian woman he'd met in 1995. Rene dropped everything and used the speed of The Chariot to hurry them to Pittsburgh, but she had much less power without the Mass Mind, and she'd been afraid her stubbornness had cost Lakshmi Natarajan her life.
Rene wasn't here to tap Lakshmi's power to defend against the Harrakin. Unlike Allen or her sometime boyfriend Tempest, she rarely tried to save the world. She was only here to save a woman from being used, abused, or murdered.
And that would be hard enough. Her magical strength felled the first few Circle mages, knocking them through walls, but the others quickly adapted. The mages kept her at bay with curtains of demonic flame, while Stephen Black raised his arms and chanted in a gurgling, prehuman tongue. Rene struggled to reach him, when her strength abruptly ran out. She quickly drew another card --
Rene stared up at Black, determined not to meet her own death with indignity.
And then a voice screamed, "Stop!" Lakshmi Natarajan sank down in the arms of the two Circle mages holding her. A line of blood traced across the center of her forehead, as her skin ripped. Then a clear pus flowed out, followed by several small spines -- no, Rene realized, they're eyelashes.
A beautiful brown eye opened in the center of Lakshmi's forehead, blinking to see the world for the first time. It slowly focused on Black -- then blinked again --
There was a white flash when it opened. Rene could see nothing, but she heard the screams of the Black Circle. When the flash faded, Black and most of the others had been flung across the hall, or wrapped in flames, or choked on their own tongues. The two who had been holding Lakshmi simply were not there anymore.
Lakshmi fell to the floor, and Rene rushed over to her. "What... happened?" Lakshmi groaned. Her third eye was gone.
"You just drew on the Mass Mind," Rene said. "Not fun, is it?"
"There's no time!" Allen shouted, limping back up the hall. "They're not all dead!" Black and four others were slowly recovering, picking themselves up again. He grabbed the two women, dragged them into the elevator, and stabbed the button for the lobby.
As the elevator sank, Lakshmi relaxed a little. "Is it over?" she asked.
"Only if they catch up to us," Allen said.
On the roof of the elevator, something thumped.
Heir's Observation Deck, Harrakin Flagship Dy'Tariexen'Ka Harrak.
Ky'Rian Hallatiris Harrakin felt a sharp pain at the conflicting longings the sight of the blue-white ball dug out of his prized stoicism. Part of him wanted to see Elizabeth again, after years of pretending that she never mattered to him after all, but part of him was focused on his duty to his race and family.
The presence of his niece Sharra briefly drew his attention away from both, even though she had also split her time between the worlds. Ky'Rian had been dreading this, but he could put it off no longer.
Sharra looked at him with a clear, absolutely neutral gaze. [Uncle, I have been seeking you.]
[And I have been avoiding you.] He almost smiled at the look on her face. Apparently she hadn't been expecting quite that much honesty this soon.
[Please explain, Uncle.]
[You are the daughter of my brother, who I envy. You have known my son, and I have not. And you look almost exactly like my mother, who I was not close to. Also, I have of late, although I know not where, lost all my mirth.]
[Hamlet?] She smiled.
[I see you studied the humans during your time there.]
[It was H'Rik's idea. He said Hamlet was the play he read the most. And that I could better understand the humans by their art, by their many tongues and ciphers. For they live their lives sealed into the darkness of their own thoughts, with only words to join them.] She animated with each second, and Ky'Rian saw in her the very real beauty of her mother, dead all these years, who chose his brother over him. As many had. It made him feel in ways he did not want to understand. [But I did not know you had read it, Uncle.]
[I spent many years here. Took a mate. I had the time, and I found myself interested in their words. It is a primitive system, but it serves them as telepathy does us. I prefered the writings of Garcia-Vega, but Hamlet is very Harrakin, I think.]
[It is.] She smiled. [I always told H'Rik he was more like us than he realized. He never really believed me, though. He was too insistent that he remain free, in the wild manner of the humans. I was frightened by their freedom at first, but I found something compelling in it. And I became... fond of him.]
Ky'Rian was surprised to see his naked hand, the armor peeled back, touching her shoulder skin to skin. He moved to withdraw it, but she put her own hand over it. Ky'Rian choked back an apology and said, [I fear we have both, in our own ways, been infected by them.] Ky'Rian looked out over Sharra's shoulder, at the planet turning slowly beneath them. [The whole time I was here, part of me was focused on going home. And when I left...part of me stayed here. I wonder...]
[I think, perhaps, that it is we who will be conquered. They have a way of doing that.]
Sharra didn't answer him, but she looked out onto the cerulean glow of the planet, and wondered how much of herself was down there.
Rene had just enough warning to draw a new card -- the Nine of Swords. The rooftop assailant, whoever he was, screamed as he was pierced by multiple blades. Then he didn't make any more noises. Allen, Rene, and Lakshmi ran out of the building, just as Black and three others teleported into the lobby behind them. Allen tried to lead the others to cover in the crowded Pittsburgh streets, but the Black Circle sped after them with a complete disregard for witnesses. Stephen Black's telekinetic spell shoved any interfering bystanders out of the way, or sliced through them.
(All of them were too preoccupied to notice they were being observed from a van parked in front of Lakshmi's building. A scarred man raised a walkie-talkie to his lips and whispered, "Go.")
Fearing for the bystanders, Allen pulled Rene and Lakshmi down a series of side streets -- and for his concern, he was rewarded with a cul- de-sac. They had no way out.
They spun around, but the four Circle mages fanned out across the mouth of the alley, and began advancing towards them. "Now it ends," Stephen Black said, smiling and raising a trembling hand.
"Indeed it does." Three more men ran into the alley, and assaulted the Black Circle. The first was a Native American -- Allen thought he was an Aztec, judging by the jade earplugs -- who swiftly gutted a Circle mage with a flint knife. The second bore a long facial scar that Allen instantly recognized; he was Quintilius Marcus Graekki, Antigone's underling, and for some reason he was shooting two other mages with an Uzi.
The final man, the one in a lacy black Lord Byron outfit, faced off against Stephen Black himself. Allen didn't know him, but something about his long black hair and his feral grin seemed awfully familiar. Allen watched as Black cast his deadly telekinetic rote and shouted "Taste the Black Circle's power!"
The Gothic man stood his ground and replied, "I think I'll taste it all." He calmly clamped his bony hands around Black's head. Black screamed, and his eyes rolled up inside their sockets. Then he wrinkled and withered before Allen's eyes.
The Gothic's bony fingers fattened, and his pale skin flushed red. He laughed louder as Stephen Black dropped to the ground, nothing more than a dead, drained husk. And then Allen knew why the Gothic seemed so familiar... he was just like the vampire Deathbringer.
"Get us out of here," Allen said. But Lakshmi had fainted again, and Rene was shuffling through her deck.
With the Black Circle dead, the three "rescuers" strode boldly down the alley. "Hand the girl over to us, Covenant," Marcus said, raising his gun. "You wouldn't want Mr. Hunyadi to come and fetch her." The Gothic smiled savagely.
Allen screamed "Get us out of here!"
Then Rene drew The Hermit, figure of remote isolation. And with a blast of air, they were gone.
New York City.
Most of New York was partying far into the night, in anticipation of the next morning's meeting between Emperor Hallatiris and the United Nations -- as if celebrating it in advance would somehow insure the meeting would go well for Earth. The people gathered in Cornelius Owen's U.N. office didn't rely on such blind faith; they were working personally to insure everything happened exactly as they wished.
The spymaster Owen, the immortal Antigone, and the exiled Harrakin noble Tatris had allied to combat the Harrakin threat, and had even come up with a plan which might stop the infinitely more powerful armada. Now they all sat around Owen's elegant Frank Lloyd Wright desk, making sure all the details fell into place.
"A Stormkiller jet brought in the Antarctica item today," Owen crowed, "and it's in perfect working condition. My people are cleaning and fitting it right now."
"See that they do it well," Tatris ordered. "It must look perfect. And you, Antigone? What do your immortals have to report?"
Antigone bristled at his superior tone, but did not show it. "The Vitalongae failed to capture the new Mass Mind avatar," she said through clenched teeth. "But they did knock the Black Circle out of commission for a while."
"That was more important," Owen said encouragingly. "We don't need any rogue magicians lousing up our delicate operation. Covenant is a pest, but with his foolish altruism he'll just use the avatar to defend Earth."
"We're not 'defending Earth,'" Tatris sneered, putting his booted feet up on Owen's desk. "We're amassing power."
"They're one and the same. Our holding power is the best way to protect my planet," Owen answered without hesitation. "What about you, Tatris? What have you been doing, now that your father is back in town?"
Tatris levitated up, towering over Owen. "I have only been putting our entire plan into action, old man. I've contacted the Accursed and arranged for them to handle Tempest. They'll greet him the next time he leaves the atmosphere. My work has been wholly successful." He glared at Antigone. "Just be sure yours is the same." He floated over to the large window, opened it, and flew away.
The other two were silent for a minute. Then Antigone said, "He's going to be quite dangerous once the plan succeeds. We don't have the magical defenses we'd hoped for; what do we do when Tatris perceives he has no further use for us?"
Owen tapped his bald head and grinned. "Already thought of that, my dear. I put the esteemed Dr. Theobald on it, and after studying the Chicago item, he's come up with a splendid solution. If Tatris threatens us, we can handle him."
Antigone was clearly impressed. "Nice work."
Owen modestly gestured to a small ivory chess set. It was stored in a glass case, and kept only for sentimental value. "I practiced against the best, Antigone. Jarvin Tazakles was psychotic, but he was a devious psychotic. I almost wish the bastard could be alive to see this. I think he'd be pleased."
"But still, Cornelius, you work so quickly."
"I have to. Immortals and Harrakin can afford to plot for years, Antigone. But I am a man." He spoke it with naked, unashamed pride. "I cannot afford to waste time."
"Then how fortunate," Antigone said, playing with a curl of hair, "that one way or another, it all happens tomorrow."
Owen and Antigone both smiled. Neither one considered, even for the slightest instant, that they could be making a terrible mistake.
Norrek's Pod, Harrakin Flagship Dy'Tariexen'Ka Harrak.
Priscus floated, insensate, and felt the fleet in his mind.
So many tendrils, all blazing and eager, each with a different image of the world that they orbited. All blazing and eager with speculations and desires, yet all obeying his thoughts as he positioned them. They obeyed, but not because of him.
They obeyed because they felt he had the Dy'Tariex behind him. Soon, he would -- by making the next Dy'Tariex. And if Tatris did not prove compliant enough, Sestus would make an ideal replacement...
Priscus's smile vanished as the reports rose to meet him. Minutes ago he had privately sent a message to Earth, pretending the Dy'Tariex requested the presence of his grandson. Now he would see if the half- breed had taken the bait.
[This is the commander of the Pooragh Lokathar. The boy comes.]
[M'lord Norrek, I sense the son of Ky'Rian. He is approaching the fleet.]
[The H'R'Djagtal! Come to lead us, reborn Harra, the storm-child ascends!] Priscus scowled at the message from the H'R'Djagt's Eye. That damn ship, and several others, were packed with the fanatical members of the War Priests. Upon hearing of the boy, the priesthood had erupted into schism, with fully half of its membership (including crafty Arktish, the emperor's youngest son and the Prelate) deciding that the boy was the fulfillment of prophecy. The remaining half had split as well, although not all of them knew it. Some were true Loyalists, who served the Dy'Tariex, but most only pretended to. They were his. They would go where he told them to.
In a way, Priscus had to admire Tatris' plan. It took so much of this into account. Priscus sent responses to all of the fleet, while screening the news from the Dy'Tariex. Luckily for the plan, the old man was actually involved in a telepathic conversation with some doddering old human. Talk to the apes all you want, my emperor. Soon, you'll be buried with them.
[Accursed.] The Norrek concealed himself well. Only the ones he sought would hear him. [It's time. Take him.]
Min'Hak Jarrath'Ka answered, of course. [Consider the H'R'Djagtal already blown out to the cliffs, my Norrek.]
Priscus smiled as he began composing the reprimands to the fleet captains for their incorrect reports. That couldn't possibly have been the boy.
He was still on Earth, after all, and about to commence the greatest change in Harrakin memory.
The surface of Venus, -- several hours later.
The molten surface of the planet Venus erupted up into the dense sulfuric clouds. The dance of annihilation continued apace.
Eric... that was what the humans called him... was living up to the title the exiles had bestowed upon him. He was certainly worthy, of that even the Accursed no longer had any doubts. But he would fall. There was no way he could win.
Min'Hak Jarrath'Ka Harrakin found herself feeling quite proud to be there, even as one of the Accursed she trained went down before the boy. His clothes were either torn by their attacks, or were being eaten away by the atmosphere, but still he fought. A blast of multicolored light felled two more, whose red armors shrieked at the blasts. A cut over the boy's right eye wasn't healing.
[Well, come on, then! Come and get me!]
[We will, boy. In our own time.] Min'Hak smiled as the rest of her Accursed regrouped, surrounding the son of Ky'Rian. There were still seventeen of them left, and ten hadn't even dirtied their hands yet. Min'Hak looked to her side, at the leader, whose silence had betrayed nothing.
The leader turned the slender neck of the armor and nodded. [Mo Vrath!]
They swarmed him.
The next morning.
The UN General Assembly Building, New York City.
To say that history was being made was to be disingenuous.
Two histories were being made. At least.
The representatives of the human race were arranged in the hall. Many of the usual representatives to the General Assembly had been replaced by their actual heads of state. Presidents, Chancellors, Prime Ministers, even some Kings and Queens were there. After all, it isn't every day that the Emperor of a nation consisting of several dozen planets shows up. And of course, they'd tried to bring insurance.
An international assembly of superhumans ringed the walls. Armor of the Seekers, who could surround herself in an armored sheath, was trading stories with Vari Stalnior of the Kulaks, who could transform his body into living metal. Fusion of the ODDs, a British Omega with superheated plasma powers, was listening while Akasha of China's Fists of the People spoke to the Irishwoman Druid's Eyes. There was the Jordanian mystic Al-Djinni, the mysterious Jaguarundi from the Amazon, and more. At least fifteen of the world's most powerful Omegas stood in that room, and they all knew they couldn't do much if anything went wrong.
Harvey Hauptmann, his shoulders sticky with sweat, leaned against his seat and hissed at the sight of so many world leaders in one spot. If Hallatiris was lying, this would be an excellent way to crush Earth's resistance. Get all of the leaders into one room, then destroy the place. He was relieved to see many nations had only sent representatives: Gore rather than Clinton, John Major rather than Tony Blair, a drunken Boris Yeltsin rather than Russia's new President, Elenia whats-her-name. It showed that somebody other than an old man who'd once saved a cartoonist was being paranoid.
Hallatiris had told the organizers at the U.N. to invite Harvey and his granddaughter Anne, after his conversations with Harvey the day before. That didn't mean that they belonged there, even if Harvey was kind of an elder statesman among the Omega population. Part of Harvey wanted to be at home, dealing with his grandson Neil's new Omega powers, but this was too urgent to miss. "Notice who's not here?" he whispered to Anne.
"Yeah." Unlike her grandfather, she was referring to Eric.
Meanwhile, a thin, unassuming dark-haired man in his early twenties walked up to the front entrance to the hall. Behind him were a tall Kenyan, a muscular woman with pink hair wearing a tank top and fatigue pants, and a willowy woman with dark, expressive eyes.
As he reached the door, numerous security agents, some in surplus Dynamax psi-resistant armor, stepped into his way. "I'm sorry, sir, but unless you have clearance..."
"I have clearance. I and my guests can walk on through. You don't need to bother us." Danny Anderson felt a trickle of blood from his nose begin to wet his upper lip as he pushed his way through the psi- screens and grabbed their minds.
Agent after agent fell under Danny's sway, and stepped aside. Danny could feel some squirming, trying to escape his grasp, but he held on. "You will forget you saw us. And these aren't the droids you're--"
Mirry elbowed Danny in the side. "I knew they shouldn't have re-released those movies."
Jen DuFresne smiled. "Help me, Obi-Wan, you're my only hope!"
"Let's keep it focused, people." Danny's voice held remarkably little of the humor that had sparked the mild joking. Now, he was the way they all secretly remembered him, iron-willed, quiet, his mind locked on the present like a bulldog. The intensity of his will reminded them of the old days, and while it wouldn't reassure most people, it did them.
They made their way to one of the observation windows. Danny and Mirry studied it for a few moments, looking it over, trying to scan the room without being sensed. Then Danny turned to Jen DuFresne, whose tightly muscled arms were quivering with barely-leashed violence.
"Jen... if the time comes, I'm going to need you to slam right through this window. Do you think you can?"
She pressed her hand softly to the reinforced synthetic glass and smiled.
It first appeared as a bright light in the morning sky. By the time it became a ship, a ring of silver ovals tethered to a sphere roughly the size of a bus, the crowd in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza was applauding and weeping. The applause and cheers grew louder as it descended -- but once the ship started landing, the crowd fell into a nervous silence.
Some of the UN delegation, headed by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali himself, waited in the plaza. As the silver oval fins curled down into landing pods, and the spaceship settled on them, the blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers felt an electric frission pass through the air.
Then the black hull of the ship parted, like metal melting under a blowtorch without the heat, and spread apart to allow a tall man in black armor to step forth from the inside. The metal formed a ramp for him to walk down, and when he reached the ground he bowed, his eyes blazing yellow like the sun at noon.
"I am Minidol of the Clan Har'esta, ceremonial pilots to the Dy'Tariexen for the last three thousand years. In hopes that I speak your languages well, may I present his powerful majesty, the child of our fathers, Dy'Tariex Hallatiris Obran Harrakin, attended by his son Ky'Rian Hallatiris Harrakin the appointed Heir, and his granddaughter Sharra Tatris'Ka Harrakin."
The ship peeled open like an iris seeking sunlight, forming a dias of black and silver metal. Seated in the center was an older man in brilliant silver-gold armor. The helmet had been peeled back to expose his face and make the humans more comfortable. They could all see his long white beard, but also his eyes radiating the green gleam of the Harrakin nobility. Standing beside him were two others, also armored yet also exposing their faces and their long hair. (The Secretary-General, in reading his staff's dossier on the Harrakin, had wondered if hair length had some sort of ceremonial significance, but had decided not to wear a wig.) Behind them were a token guard of a dozen Marines in blue armor with deep black highlights. All of them were tremendously impressive.
The Secretary-General of the UN swallowed and stepped forward, holding his hand out to the Harrakin Emperor.
"I am Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and in the name of the assembled peoples of Earth, I invite you to enter our Assembly and address us."
The old man stood and took his hand, his gauntlet peeling away so that when they touched palm to palm, Boutros-Ghali felt only skin.
"Thank you. I accept."
Tatris waited in position in the Assembly chamber. All of his power was aimed at a telepathic concealment, a null-field so strong he doubted even his own father could sense him without help. And thanks to Priscus, Tatris knew that the old man didn't have the help anymore. Hallatiris was much weaker than he seemed -- probably the reason he chose peace now, after a lifetime of conquest and tyranny -- while Tatris was still vital, and had learned much from being around the humans. Like the neccesity of subterfuge. He'd always been a sneak, but living among people like Owen had taught Tatris new respect for guile. The old terran had it in spades! So far their plan was working perfectly. It was almost a shame that Tatris was going to kill him.
But he wouldn't be the first to go.
Anne Benson sat in silence as she saw the old man who was the very heart of the Harrakin empire standing at the dais, looking around at the room filled with humans come to hear whatever he had to say. His white hair and beard couldn't hide the lines that life had carved in his face. Anne could tell it had been a hard life, he'd been a hard man, and perhaps now he was making the choice to be something else.
Even though she'd met Harrakin before, she expected something different. Not hostile or inhuman, simply different. She supposed that was natural; how could you ever fully expect something that would change your entire world?
And then, before anyone could say anything else, there was a noise at the main door, and a huge shape walked into the room.
Everyone turned their heads to look. Striding into the room was a black and gold nightmare, with huge curling ram-horns made of segmented gold metal, a fanged helmet, and spine-covered armor that made all present shudder slightly, except for Sharra.
[Grandfather! That is the H'R'Djagtalsuit I created for H'Rik, in the pattern of power it chose when he first wore it! He came!]
The rest of the room buzzed as people recognized the suit Tempest had worn when he saved San Francisco from an alien spacecraft. Everyone followed his dramatic stride across the Assembly chamber -- John Williams music soared in Danny Anderson's head -- and hearts raced as the distance between warrior and Emperor, between Earth and the Harrakin, rapidly closed.
[Interesting.] The Dy'Tariex tried to understand the symbolism of the gesture. [Ky'Rian, what do you think this means?]
Ky'Rian completely forgot his defeat at the boy's hands, as pride swelled within him. [It means... he accepts our traditions.]
[Then I approve.] The boy knelt before him, and the Dy'Tariex held out his hand in welcome, choosing that moment to trust.
Between the military cordon around the U.N., and the mobs of people trying to get there, all of southern Manhattan was caught in gridlock. Allen's, Rene's, and Lakshmi's cab wasn't going anywhere. They paid the driver, then got out and ran.
"Maybe we can still make it," Allen said, wheezing.
"No," Lakshmi said. Her voice was leaden and hollow as she tapped into the Mass Mind for wisdom. "There's nothing anyone can do now."
Danny watched the procession, and suddenly frowned. His heart desperately wanted to believe this was the start of something wonderful. But his head, which save for his time with Mirry had won out over his heart long ago, said something was wrong. Dropping his mental links with his friends and wife, marshaling all his power, Danny carefully let his telepathy reach down into the Assembly room.
Time slowed, and all his perceptions narrowed to a tiny spot in space, his heart pounding raggedly against his chest, his neurons on fire...
Ghastly silver light leaking through the cracks of a badly mended mind...
"No! NO!" Danny, forgetting himself in blind panic, slammed both his hands against the glass. Nobody on the other side even noticed.
"Danny, what..." Mirry was at his side.
"It's not him! IT'S NOT HIM!"
It happened too fast for most present in the room to see, but thanks to Anne's Omega speed, she was just able to perceive it as a blur. She saw the Emperor bend down, reaching with his hand to touch the shoulder of the black and gold armor. Then, suddenly, the kneeling man reached out and grabbed hold of the old man's chest.
And he drove those ram horns into the old man's face at several times the speed of sound. A sonic boom shook the hall to its foundation. Then all was a blur the man held the Harrakin Emperor fast with one hand, and rained several dozen blows rained upon his bleeding face with the other.
Sharra was in motion as the Dy'Tariex's nose collapsed, his personal psychokinetic shields crushed under the impact of the blow. She moved to intercept H'Rik, certain that this was all just some mistake, that this couldn't be happening.
But before she could close, the black-and-gold fist of the armored one reached out and siezed hold of her throat, grabbing her closer to the cruel fangs of his helmet. He dropped the limp, bloody form of the Dy'Tariex and pulled his hand back.
[H'Rik!] In her panic, her feelings for him leaked through. [Please stop! H'Rik, it's me!]
The mind-voice that answered her was familiar and cruel, with the fiery grandeur that only the truly insane could muster. [The half-breed is being killed even as we speak. But if you meet him again in the burning lands, tell him I gave you something for him.]
The punch smashed Sharra into unconsciousness, and sent her body slamming through the observation deck window at nine hundred and seventeen miles per hour. Jen DuFresne knocked Danny, Mirry, and Thomas-Peter to safety, her invulnerable back shielding them from the shards. At least, she figured, I don't have to smash that glass now.
On the Assembly floor, Anne instantly recognized the fighting style: holding the victim in place and delivering brutal beatings. She knew what was happening. Racing to help Hallatiris, she shouted, "That's not him! It's really--"
Without even looking at her, the armored man gave a backhanded swat to the empty air behind him. The accompanying telekinetic blow knocked Anne back through the concrete wall. Harvey Hauptmann screamed.
Ky'Rian's warrior side finally kicked in, aided by his logic. This couldn't be his son. The boy who attacked his armor rather than killing him would never ambush an unprepared and helpless opponent. Ky'Rian prepared to attack.
And then the smirking form of Tatris appeared out of the air directly in front of him.
[Hello, little brother. Have you missed me?]
[You! You...] He broadcast a highly formal term meaning both "bad son" and "traitor."
[Only half right. I can't be a traitor when the man I've betrayed is no longer in power. The Dy'Tariex has lost in open combat. His vanquisher has sworn loyalty to me...] Tatris nodded, and 'H'Rik' kneeled at his side. [Through this show of power, I've earned the fealty of the fleet. The only traitors now are those who betray me.]
Ky'Rian tried to think of something he could do. Fighting seemed too risky. [The fleet doesn't know yet! I can still...]
Tatris only smiled, his armored helmet dropping into black metal, exposing his saturnine face. [Lord Norrek of the Fleet, is my brother correct?]
[He is not.] The smug voice of Priscus filled both their heads. [I have relayed the incident to them all.]
Tatris' mind-voice was smooth and conciliatory, but it teemed with menace. [Now, if you submit, the rest of the fleet will follow you, and Harrakin deaths will be kept to a minimum. If not...] Tatris swept the room with his hand. The human delegates were panicking; the Omegas were only just starting to react; the Emperor was a broken heap. [You can join them.]
Ky'Rian remembered the view of the planet from space. He remembered Elizabeth, and their son, and the feel of his niece's skin. And then he bowed his head.
[I know.] He dropped the connection to his brother and raised one to his champion. [Sestus, let's go.] Sestus rose, displaying imperial bloodstains on the armor that had made his impersonation of Tempest possible, and stood by his master. Ky'Rian fell into place behind him.
Then Tatris turned to the Marines, standing motionless and confused. [Kill that sack of bones, and anyone who gets in your way.] He pointed to the crumpled body of Hallatiris. [I have to leave. I have a fleet to acquire.] And then a planet.
The Marines, relieved to have direction at last, moved to attack the prone body and the few Omegas gathered around it. Tatris flew through the ceiling, flanked by his brother and his cousin, unconcerned as slabs of cement began to fall.
Chapter 3: Searching · Chapter 5: One of Us
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