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New York City. United Nations General Assembly chamber.

The meeting of the human and Harrakin races was supposed to be an event of peace; death had come to it instead. Emperor Tatris and his followers had left the building by smashing through the ceiling; now it was cracking and breaking in a dozen places, and slabs were starting to fall on the human dignitaries underneath.

The fallen body of Hallatiris, the former emperor, faced another wall of death -- a living wall of ice-blue armor, that marched towards him unopposed. The Blue Marines had been his honor guard, and he their master. Now they had a new master, and they were to kill the old one. Subcommander Miskraal caused his armor to grow spikes, in preparation for the cracking of Hallatiris' armor.

Such was dynastic conflict among their people. They had no qualms.

Neither did the howling, screeching woman leaping down from the observation deck. She landed with both feet directly into the back of the lead Marine. Then, with a savage look of glee, she projected her pain out into the Harrakin. Agony was the name Jennifer DuFresne had chosen for herself, and it was what she gave them.

Other Omegas sprung into action around her. Thomas-Peter Mutsafa, a living, streaking fireball, followed Agony out the hole in the observation deck window. He worked in conjunction with the British ODD Omega codenamed Fusion; their plasma bolts incinerated the falling ceiling slabs before anyone was harmed. The assembled international Omegas evacuated the delegates. Akasha and Druid's Eyes led them to a smoking black portal that Jaguarundi had carved into the wall. The feline screamed, and the black mirror became a doorway ten feet high and fifteen feet wide. The floor began to empty.

Meanwhile, on the dais, Subcommander Miskraal collapsed under Agony's frenzied attack. The other eleven Marines were surprised. Were the Harrakilli -- their race's pet name for the Earthling Omegas, which affectionately meant "little Harrakin" -- actually managing to fight them?

The Blue Marines snapped out of their bemused surprise, and retaliated. Agony blocked several punches, but was speared with a telekinetic blast and knocked on her back. She managed to drag herself atop Hallatiris's body as the Marines closed in around her. Miskraal rose, ready to avenge his honor. Gritting her teeth, Agony prepared for death. The Marines' eyes glowed blue like the sky at noon; Agony closed hers.

I hope it's quick.

The blue flames erupted. However, before they could hit Agony, Minidol of the Clan Har'esta, ceremonial pilot to the Emperor, suddenly dropped out of the air and took the flame jet directly in the chest. He was cooked inside his armor, and his telepathic shriek brushed across every mind in the room. Everyone felt the dead man's satisfaction at his display of honor. He had fulfilled his position. Many Harrakin would envy him his death.

The humans just used it to jump the Marines. With the delegates and ceiling being taken care of, several Omegas charged the dais. A punch of Harvey Hauptmann's sent one Marine spinning away, right into the metal fists of Michelle "Armor" Thomas and Vari Stalnior, whose combined strength sent him slumping to the floor. The men and woman of steel brawled with other Marines, striking from behind the illusions of Al-Djinni, the Jordanian sorceror.

Agony was still the only Omega on the dais, protecting Hallatiris with her body, but she soon gained another ally. A whistling sound overhead became a yowl, and Anne Benson dropped through the hole in the ceiling. Holding a ruined Cadillac above her head.

Anne's mental voice sounded in Agony's head. $lt;Duck!> Agony did so, and the other Omegas near the dais scattered. Anne threw the car into the Marines, then landed next to Agony.

Agony smiled a bloody grin as they faced off against Miskraal and three other Marines who retook the dais. <Never been so glad to see you in my life, Ice Queen.>

<You looked busy, so I thought I'd lend you a hand, Tank Girl.>

Anne defended with resolve while Agony fought back with ferocity, but each blow from the Harrakin gauntlets pounded them further back over Hallatiris's body. Soon they were crouching over it, huddling inside a telekinetic shield of Anne's that the Marines were rapidly cracking. The women looked desperately around the hall: Harvey was still wrestling, Armor was knocked backwards, Al-Djinni was screaming and writhing in blue flame. Nobody was able to help them.

[Not quite, Terrans.]

A black and gold blur tore into the Marines from behind. A huge black boot drove Miskraal's head directly through the dais, and fists backhanded the others through the walls. The two women looked up in shock.

Agony found her voice first. "Aren't you..."

[I am Sharra Tatris'Ka Harrakin. I have chosen my loyalties, Terran, and I will not stand with my mad father, come what may.] Her eyes flashed green, and Anne felt invisble hands lifting her to her feet. [I know you. You were the one H'Rik was thinking of. Your name is... Anne. And you are... Jen/Agony? He thought of both of you.]

"Uhm... not that I'm not interested in this conversation, but shouldn't we help the others?" Anne looked out onto the room, and what she saw amazed her.

They didn't need help.

The Harrakin had stopped for just a second, stunned to see Sharra's arrival and attack. Their instinctive awe for the arrival of a Green jammed them where they stood, and this was a mistake, because their human adversaries were not about to join in. Instead, they pressed their attacks. The Omegas fought with remarkable coordination: Fusion and Conflagration sniped at the same Marines, Harvey and Vari grabbed soldiers and smashed them together, Armor kicked one while Akasha befuddled him with magic. Within moments, the Marines were being routed.

They grabbed their wounded and flew out the open ceiling in a broken formation, cursing promises of revenge. Then they were gone.

While the other Omegas in the hall cheered, Anne bent down to check Hallatiris. He wasn't breathing, but she didn't know if they did that, so that was no help. She sent a telepathic probe which didn't quite penetrate his shields, which itself was a good sign. If he could maintain his shields, he was probably still alive.

<He is.> Anne looked up at a thin, somewhat haggard face as Danny Anderson walked up the dais steps. "Been a while, Anne."

"Danny? Oh, thank God. That was you, wasn't it? Telling everyone where to hit, when to duck, and how to react."

"Hey, it's what I'm good at. That and making plans, which I think we'd better start doing."

Danny looked out at the room, at the victors milling about and not quite believing it. Each of the Omegas were from their own worlds, in a way. Some were his friends; some owed him for their lives; some didn't know or even trust him at all. None of that mattered. What mattered was the situation, which was intensely bad.

Danny smiled. He was at his best in intensely bad situations. <Okay. My name's Danny Anderson. I've just forged a link between all of us so we can coordinate our efforts. We need to leave before they come back, and we need to start setting up a plan of attack. So let's get out of here.>

<Uh, Danny?> Anne's mental voice rang out into the link. Images came with it: scenes of New York from when she'd been flung out of the building. Harrakin were already landing everywhere. <What should we do? And where can we go?>

<I've got an idea.>

New York City. Times Square.

To a distant observer, the southern part of Manhattan was connected to the sky by a moving, snaking line of constantly-descending dots.

To someone in Manhattan, the Harrakin invasion had begun.

A seemingly endless supply of armored aliens dropped from the sky. Theirs was not an official invasion -- yet. The Harrakin armada still hung suspended in orbit while Tatris assumed full control of it. These warriors were rogues, warmongers, and mavericks who decide to claim a private piece of Earth before the fleet moved in. Many of them emulated Tatris's daring; since their idol had made his bid for power in New York, they did the same. They tended to land near the U.N. and then push out, determined to conquer the whole island for their glory.

The Seekers and SIRECOM attempted to slow them by constructing a series of mobile command posts and strongpoints throughout the city. It was a difficult task, considering many of the Harrakin warriors could fly directly over the fortifications. The Seekers continually fell back; fortunately, they were supported by squads of SIRECOM agents and Army engineers who were adept at packing and unpacking the heavily-armored trucks that transported the command posts.

Several of the posts combined together to make a last stand at Times Square. SIRECOM agents barricaded streets and set up gun emplacements; armored trucks ground over the confetti that had fallen like rain during last night's peace celebrations. Wes "Interface" Hickman had wired his metallic hands into the control system for the huge Sony Megatron billboard; the useless advertising slogans were replaced by a huge, pixillated representation of his face. Wes also hacked himself into several phone companies, and from there tapped into radio stations, TV channels, and networked media throughout the city. The networks relayed emergency evacuation information to New York, while Wes's billboard-face shouted orders to the soldiers underneath the Megatron. It was the most a man of his abilities could do.

It didn't feel like nearly enough. The first wave of Harrakin fighters swept over the barricades and pushed Wes's squad of weary Seekers -- Blockade, Energi, Neuwraith, Avatar, Hyper, and Ricochet -- almost to the breaking point. But just as the telepaths Neuwraith and Avatar were about to be overwhelmed by the psychic attacks, they received help from an unexpected quarter: the indomitable Allen Covenant, his niece Rene "Tarot" Johnson, and a young Indian woman with a flaming third eye ran into Times Square and threw their magical power at the aliens.

That stalled the Harrakin until the arrival of half the Omegas from inside the U.N. Anne Benson, Harvey Hauptmann, Vari Stalnior, Fusion and others lent much-needed strength. The Harrakin realized taking Manhattan might require more effort than it was worth, and they flew away. There was considerable cheering after the defenders drove off the first group of Harrakin. And the second. And even a little after the third.

By the time the fourth wave came, the Omegas knew they weren't winning; they were simply postponing disaster. And fresh Harrakin would keep coming.

Harrakin Flagship Dy'Tariexen'Ka Harrak, in near Earth orbit.

You were supposed to tremble before the Shivering Throne; that was how it got its name. As the traveling war-throne of the Harrakin Emperor, the vast, floating, multi-lobed structure was meant to inspire fear in all who beheld it. But Priscus wore a smug expression as he approached it. By acting as chief liason for the Accursed, he had been instrumental in placing Tatris on that throne. He expected to rise even higher than Norrek in the new regime -- not that there were many higher places.

[What is it?] Tatris snapped. The brooding emperor lowered the frontal lobes of the throne so Priscus could see him, and fully perceive the depth of his new master's anger. Tatris did not appreciate frivolous interruptions while he was busy consolidating his power over the chaotic fleet.

[You have an incoming signal from the human Owen,] Priscus projected. [I can relay it to you --]

[Absolutely not! Do you think I'll make the same mistakes as Hallatiris?] Tatris didn't need to pry Priscus's shields open to guess what he'd been hoping. [I take my own calls. Put him through. And leave my presence.]

Priscus backed out of the imperial chamber, genuflecting all the way, while Tatris raised the Shivering Throne to face the large holographic screen. The screen blinked on, showing a crude, two- dimensional image of Owen's office. The image was frequently interrupted by bands of static caused by all the Harrakin scramblers; Tatris added several security encryptions of his own, to foil the inevitable eavesdropping by other Harrakin. Tatris was quite sure Priscus, at least, was now cursing over some static-filled screen.

Tatris floated the Shivering Throne before the colossal image of Owen's wrinkled face. "What do you want?" he growled.

"Some of your people are attacking the planet. Making too much of a mess." Behind Owen, in fact, Tatris could see scores of Harrakin flying past his U.N. office window. Owen was incredibly calm about that; even the most wild rogues didn't dare disregard Tatris's command to ignore Owen's office, under pain of execution by 'Tempest' himself.

Tatris rolled his eyes, a human custom he'd picked up. "Those are not my people. I told you it would take some time to bring the whole fleet under my control. Be patient, little man."

"I know a certain amount of collateral damage is called for -- hell, it's making the nations come crying to Stormkiller." Owen chuckled at his own cleverness, a reaction that was not shared by Tatris. "But I'm telling you to rein it in. Too much chaos is bad for both of us. In particular, make sure your troops don't accidentally hurt Stormkiller or the Vitalonage."

"Owen, perish the thought. You and Antigone are my allies." But that did remind him... his hand drifted towards the button that would send the attack order...

"I know," Owen said, looking intolerably happy. "I just wanted to let you know that if you ever feel Antigone and I are of no further use to you... if you want to sever our partnership..."

Owen's face was replaced by a primitive binary computer graphic of a suit of armor -- the burned, half-destroyed suit Owen had excavated from the wreckage of the Colony. "Antigone and I have prepared a little surprise for you," Owen's voice continued. "We made an amazing discovery in the Chicago armor. It was damaged, and filled with a lethal nanite virus." Animated red dots crawled all over the suit. "Bet you Harrakin didn't know your own armor could kill you, eh? Sort of like the ship taking the captain down with it."

"Get to the point, little man."

Owen's voice became deadly serious. "Now is not the time to get haughty, Tatris. It isn't just in the Chicago armor." The screen split, and showed an enlarging image of the other armor Owen had provided -- the suit that let Sestus impersonate Tempest. "If you even try to move against us, your fake messiah will die. I'd like to see you sustain your revolution without him. And we have more than one shot..."

The Shivering Throne's frontal lobes retracted into the core, allowing Tatris to lean back and appear relaxed. "Cornelius," he purred, "there's no need to get upset..." Inwardly, he dropped the telepathic shields he'd erected around the imperial chamber and screamed for Sestus. [Get some privacy and take your armor off now!]

"Oh, and don't try to remove the armor," Owen added. "We've already inserted the virus, of course, and any tampering will trigger it. Does mean Sestus is stuck in the armor, but you need him playing Tempest anyway, right?"

[Belay that order!] Tatris commanded Sestus. He was somewhat relieved to feel his compliant cousin obey, but Tatris still seethed inside. "Owen, this is a breach of faith."

Owen raised his eyebrows in doubt. "We're both grown bastards here, Tatris. The virus is just my insurance, as the fleet is yours. We're going to maintain our partnership. And with that in mind, control your people. I'm taking too much heat."

"I'm nearing total support, but until then many individuals will keep landing."

Stroking his chin pensively, Owen said, "Then perhaps we should capitalize on the situation. Can you send your own people down with these raiders?"

Tatris caught on and smiled. "You still want to use my fleet to wipe out the Omegas?"

"Just the troublesome ones," Owen said casually. "We were planning on targeting them anyway, and this gives us some measure of control."

"I'll have the Accursed infiltrate the raiders. Any particular Omega targets I should emphasize?"

Owen smiled with sheer, untainted delight. "Oh yes."

All over the world, Harrakin landing parties grew more flamboyant, and more violent. Fortunately for the local populations, the most violent Harrakin landed in urban centers of large, advanced nations, where Omega response teams could be fielded immediately.

America had enough Seekers to field several teams around the country -- even their members-in-training, the Scions, were sent into battle. They joined Trax's team in defending the greater Los Angeles area from attack by several ships. The battle almost immediately became scattered along L.A.'s urban sprawl, although Trax's super-speed allowed him to lead several groups simultaneously.

Trax helped Counterpart's squad combat the armored marines who stomped through the piercing parlors and hot-dog stands of Venice Beach. By using anti-matter concussion explosions, handmade whirlwinds, and other powers the Harrakin had never seen before, the Seekers drove the marines back into the Pacific Ocean. Then Arctic froze the chilly California waters, with them in it.

That delayed the marines just long enough for Trax to check in with the other teams. He raced up to Santa Monica Boulevard, which was jammed with cars driven by people who no longer had anywhere to flee to. He followed it to the Hollywood hills and the Griffith Park observatory, where Flux's squad was trying to keep any further craft from landing.

He stopped, panting for breath, next to a group of Scions. The college-age Omegas had been placed in Flux's care due to her experience and power, and Trax asked where she was. "Busy," gasped Melanie Staunt. The tired, sweaty probability-manipulator pointed skyward. "Up there."

Flux was a rippling sheet of electricity, crackling around a Harrakin assault sled. The light, gun-laden craft was suffering from her attack, but plunging closer to the city -- in fact, towards the very hill the observatory and the Scions were standing on.

Trax started evacuating all the Scions, but Melanie waved him off when he came to her. "Let me stay!" she screamed. "I can handle this!"

"This isn't a spy movie!" Melanie's uncle was one of the flashiest SIRECOM operatives of the 1960s, and growing up in his rather exotic world made her dangerously blase to most threats. Trax wouldn't lose an agent to such carelessness. He grabbed her around the waist and prepared to jump off the observatory wall -- just as the sled came into range.

The assault sled dove towards Trax and Melanie, trailing fire and electric sparks. Flux hit its control systems one last time, and due to a bad stroke of luck for the Harrakin -- or Melanie's chance-altering "Curse" power -- Flux accidentally triggered its afterburners. The ship blasted over the Seekers' heads, careened into the next hill behind them, and smashed through the HOLLYWOOD sign. Then it slammed into the hillside behind the sign, and exploded in a huge fireball.

Melanie Staunt stood silhouetted against the explosion -- and she yawned. "That," she said, "was almost cinematic."

But the Seekers had practical experience fighting Harrakin, and knew how to do it without taking excessive risks. Around the world, other Omegas had less success.

In England, a ship of fanatical Tempest-worshipping War Priests cut through the RAF's overwhelmed defenses and landed in London. Harrakin zealots poured into Trafalgar Square, which they intended to raze and rebuild in honor of their H'R'Djagtal. They quickly ran afoul of the ODD, Britain's Omega Defence Division. The Odds suffered with Fusion trapped in New York, although his absence was partially countered by a rare appearance from the team's most solitary member: Blackfriars, intent on defending his home town, led their charge.

The Odds were greatly outclassed, but they thoroughly confused the Harrakin with Selkie's illusions, Ravebuster's mindwarping abilities, and Boleskine's conjured spirits. While the zealots were distracted, Blackfriars picked them off one by one, commando-style -- he would use the long shadow of Nelson's Column to teleport behind them, deliver savage blows with his augmented strength, and then retreat into the shadows before they could respond. It kept them busy, but it took entirely too long to be safe.

After a few minutes, some of the Harrakin -- the shrewder ones, who had stowed away with the zealots and removed their blank red Accursed armor -- realized they were being confounded by an illusionist. They lashed out telepathically, and blood shot out of Selkie's ears and nose before she could even scream. She died in the arms of the confused young Ravebuster, and all of Boleskine's ectoplasmic banshees wailed in despair.

Blackfriars pounced on one of the killers, twisting the alien's neck without remorse. He'd never formed any personal attachment to Selkie, but her death increased the urgency of driving the Harrakin out of London -- and more than that, it reminded Blackfriars he never should've gotten dragged into this "hero" business in the first place.

In Russia, several Harrakin ships landed in St. Petersburg. These Harrakin hadn't come to attack or conquer... they weren't fanatic War Priests, impatient militarists, or skulking Accursed. They'd just wanted to see the glorious homeworld, and in St. Petersburg they'd managed to stumble upon one of the grandest repositories of human history that had ever been built. They hadn't intended to fight anyone.

However, their race's reputation had proceeded them.

Harrakin tourists and pilgrims grappled not only with the Russian army, but also the Kulaks. The Kulaks weren't as disciplined as the Seekers or the ODDs. They had begun as the survivors of a viral weapon, their latent powers awakened in a flash of death and grief. They fought to protect Russia, not out of any sense of duty, but because it was their home. They weren't going to lie down and lose it to anyone.

And so the fight for Petrograd, born from misunderstanding, raged on.

In China, the Fists of the People split up into several teams. One defended a newly-acquired Hong Kong with the pride of those who have corrected a long-borne wrong. After a century of bearing the theft of their territory to the opium-dealing barbarians of the west, the Chinese government had been preparing to celebrate their victory.

Now they were battling for their lives. Hong Kong was the military target of an ambitious fleet commander. A Harrakin cruiser twice the size of the city floated above it, disgorging Marines. They met the Fists in the air.

From the first, the Chinese were outclassed. The Harrakin ship targeted any obvious military and flash-fried them with powerful bolts of energy. The Marines swarmed against the Fists, dividing the Omegas and leaving them vulnerable for massed pyrokinetic attacks that burned them alive. Jadestorm and Open Hand, the field leaders, died in the first few minutes.

Hong Kong became the first city to fall to the Harrakin. ,p>

And in France, a large warship began slowly, precisely targeting the greatest monuments and treasures in the illuminated city of Paris. The ship dropped just low enough that everyone could see it hovering over the Champs du Mars. Once the ship's crew verified that local television cameras were recording them, they fired their guns and instantly turned the Eiffel Tower into molten slag.

The warship quickly rotated to face the other end of the Champs du Mars, and destroyed the Hotel des Invalides and Napoleon's tomb. Then it slowly drifted eastward along the Seine, toward the Louvre and Notre Dame.

The ship didn't get the chance to fire on a third target, however, because the Cadre suddenly appeared on the bridge. Jean-Luc Steele normally couldn't have cared less if an alien empire wanted to topple all the world's governments -- he might have helped knock over a few himself -- but he couldn't stand by and let Paris be destroyed. Besides, Steele knew that Tatris, the new Harrakin Emperor, was an old ally of Stormkiller's -- and to fight Cornelius Owen, Steele would gladly plunge into the mouth of Hell itself.

He led his team through Rift's portal and onto the bridge, where they struck surgically and viciously. The Brazilian psychic Rebecca provided telepathic shielding; Vesper's lasers and Warstryke's force fields sliced through Harrakin skin; the gigantic Jove proved to be stronger than any of the nobles, crushing them in his grip.

Jean-Luc Steele took a chance, used his Omega-duplication ability on the ship's captain -- and succeeded, gaining an array of physical and mental powers. He knocked the surprised captain out of his globular, metallic chair, then killed him with a telekinetic blow to the brain. Steele jumped in the captain's chair, telepathically stole his knowledge of the ship, and threw a lever which sent the ship rocketing back into space. Aiming his warship at the Harrakin flagship, Steele laughed heartily.

New York. Underneath Fifth Avenue.

"Like it?" Danny smiled as the enormous cargo elevator descended into the darkness. It held half the Omegas from the UN battle, with room to spare; it could have held the other half, but they had left to defend New York. "Not many people knew that Nekker Toys was a fully-owned subsidiary of Dynamax. Old Jarvin had bolt-holes like this hidden all over the planet. Jimmy and I made sure *nobody* knew about this one, just in case."

"I'm just stunned," said Michelle Thomas. She thought SIRECOM had some impressive secret hideouts, but this took the cake. She turned and looked across the elevator. "Is Hallatiris going to make it?"

Mirry Anderson was bent over the body of Hallatiris, along with Druid's Eyes. Both women sweated profusely as they laid hands on the dying king, pouring their own life-force into his frail body. Sharra stood next to them both, looking sadly down.

Danny looked somewhat wan himself at the sight. He'd kept the link between himself and Mirry open at full strength, after all, so every bit of power she poured into the emperor was coming from both of them. "No," he said bluntly. "They've healed the equivalent of fifty men, and it isn't enough. He's alive, but declining. I get the sense that he was barely hanging on even before that fake nearly killed him."

Even though Sharra's grandfather was dying, she couldn't help but watch the frail terran, Danny. He always thought in terms of tactics and strategy, and his strange pinwheel eyes, so unlike the comforting glowing eyes of her own people, trapped violence in a spinning cage. This was what she had chosen, above her own people.

She didn't mind in the least. The Harrakin royalty had always done everything for their own benefit; now she was doing something because it was right.

The elevator finally came to a halt, and the doors opened into a huge room vaguely reminiscent of an aircraft hangar. There were familiar flat platforms in the right-hand corner that none of the Colonists wanted to think about, and a bank of medical equipment. Sharra levitated Hallatiris's body over to it at Mirry's direction, and then the three women hooked him up to the systems, working steadily. Druid's Eyes knew little of modern medicine, but Mirry was a doctor and Sharra a Harrakin Geneticist/Armorer. They set up the apparatus with little difficulty.

Danny walked over to an enormous console with dozens of computer screens and punched in a code. The screens flickered to life.

"Whoa...Jimmy, I owe you one." Danny turned to Michelle Thomas. "I understand you were involved in the team that took James DeLeon into custody."

"Yeah," she drawled, "I was."

"Well, then, I need you to contact your bosses. We need him free."

Michelle dialed up Brenda Washington without any argument. For the first time that day, Danny's smile came from pure joy.

Times Square.

The battles dragged on throughout the afternoon. Many of the Harrakin could have simply flown around Times Square, but after numerous defeats, it had now become a point of pride for the honor- minded aliens to try to overwhelm the Omega defense post. Wes was recognizing individual Harrakin from earlier battles -- and they were starting to bring Marines with them. From the few transmissions he was able to intercept and decode (the Harrakin Greens used telepathic communication, so only the grunts had radios), Wes guessed that Tatris was slowly consolidating his fleet, freeing more troops to squash the pesky "Harrakilli" down below.

And while the Harrakin numbers crept upwards, his dwindled. Early in the evening, Anne and Harvey left for some kind of intelligence mission. They took Avatar and the mystics with them, cutting his people by a third. Wes knew Earth had to start taking initiative against the Harrakin, but the mission left his force dangerously undermanned.

They got by on tactics, coordination, and sheer desperation. Wes watched with relief as Ricochet bounced a Harrakin scout into Fusion's energy burst, following his Megatron-issued orders perfectly. The scout retreated, and the Omegas had a breather, but Wes's cameras already spotted another Harrakin force flying up East 44th Street. The real Wes showed a confident face to his troops, but unconsciously, the billboard- Wes closed his eyes and frowned.

This was just a slow and bitter death. They needed to strike back against the Harrakin, divert them before they had the numbers to simply crush all of Wes's people under their armored heels. Fighting back meant finding a way to reach the Harrakin inside their cozy orbiting spacecraft, and reaching them quickly meant finding a teleporter. And much as Wes might have pretended disgust -- in a time of less crisis -- that meant finding the Cadre. Before it was too late.

The skies above France. 30,000 feet and rising.

On the warship, the Cadre's advantage of surprise was rapidly wearing off. The rest of the ship's crew had been silent; clearly, Steele thought, they were planning to storm the bridge. He jerked a large lever back with his left hand and rose up towards space even faster.

Two of the bridge crew leaped upwards -- they weren't dead after all, but protected by some reddish-black armor under their uniforms -- and launched a telekinetic attack at Vesper, the nearest Cadre member. Warstryke and Jove retaliated, killing the crewmen, but it was too late; Vesper's perfect Southern-belle face was frozen in shock as her heart instantly stopped. Her body fell downwards into the back wall of the bridge, pushed there by the ship's rapid ascent.

Rift, unable to cross the bridge due to the acceleration, teleported himself over to Steele. "I think we should get out," the teenager said, staring at Vesper's body.

"We can still win this one!" Steele jerked the lever on his right; the ship readjusted itself roughly, angling towards the flagship.

"Troops are approaching!" Rebecca suddenly shouted. "They're attacking my shields..."

"Hold on, Rebecca! We can't abandon this ship yet!"

"Steele, my shields!" Steele could pick up telepathic echoes from Rebecca -- her telepathic power being ripped to shreds, stray memories and pieces of herself spilling out. At one blow, Rebecca suddenly forgot how to speak English, and started wailing in her native Portugese. "Please, Steele, get us out..." She crawled towards him, holding out her hands. Rebecca had always been heartless and cruel. It was horribly unnerving to see her plead. "Please!"

Rebecca jerked and shrieked, sending spasms of memory and pain with each twitch. Her mind was finally torn apart in the same instant the bridge's doors blew open. The ship was nearly in a vertical plunge now, and several Harrakin in reddish-black armor and skull-faced helmets dove through the breach, into the bridge. They opened fire with lasers at everyone in sight.

Warstryke, Steele, and Rift were able to duck for cover in time, but Jove -- too large to move easily in the confines of the ship -- was caught in the open. Several lasers punched through him, killing the giant before his sweet, slow brain knew he was dead. He ran at the troops, but collapsed before reaching them. One of the blood-red troops reached past Jove's body telekinetically and manipulated the captain's console. The ship suddenly reversed direction, and began power-diving back towards Paris.

The abrupt change tossed the unprepared Cadre across the bridge. Bodies tumbled limply past them to the front of the bridge; Steele was briefly tangled in Rebecca's postmortem embrace. Her skin was still warm.

"Steele!" Rift screamed. "We need to go now!"

"Not yet," Steele grunted. He had to provide all the psychic shielding now, causing him to break out in a cold sweat. But he could fsee the engine console just a few feet away, and the captain knew how to work that as well...

"Steele!" Rift howled. Lasers were eating away at the console he hid behind.

Ignoring him, Steele shouted, "I need cover!"

Rift started teleporting single troops outside the ship, letting them burn in the spacecraft's own exhaust. Warstryke let out an ear-splitting cry from his days as a Syrian commando, and ran out in the open to the opposite side of the bridge. Steele saw what he was doing, and lunged for the engine console.

Several troops fired at Steele, but Warstryke's force field protected him all the way. The cyborg warrior, who used most of his energy to shield Steele, was quickly gunned down. Warstryke fell with a smile, his cybernetic organs providing just enough life to maintain his force field.

Steele pressed buttons, feeling the lasers coming closer and closer. His own telepathy was starting to shred under the sustained psionic attack. But he had just about set the core --

He entered the last number in the ship's computer. "Rift!" he screamed. Just then, Warstryke died, mouthing a prayer to Allah -- and his force field collapsed.

Steele felt a laser hit his arm. Across the room, Rift was hit in the leg and knocked down to the front of the bridge, where the giant holographic viewscreen showed the clouds parting above Paris. Steele dove down, landing on the viewscreen and cradling Rift in his arms. "Rift, damn it, wake up!"

The blood-red troops hovered down close to him, readying their weapons for the kill. Their carved skull faces mocked him. Steele realized he was sitting in the middle of the hologram, clouds swirling around him like a preview of the afterlife. A soldier raised his gun barrel, and Steele just threw his head back and laughed --

The warship punched through the high cirrus clouds and was rocketing towards Paris, when suddenly it began to shake. This lasted for less than a second before the engines overloaded and exploded; the expanding white globe of energy vaporized the whole ship and everyone aboard it.

[I am pleased to report,] Priscus announced to Tatris and the watching Cornelius Owen, [that the Cadre is dead.]

CNN newsfeed from Chicago:

The helicopter barely keeps itself out of the combat zone, and the reason is simple:

A Harrakin ship has crashed into downtown Chicago. The Sears Tower, once one of the world's tallest buildings, has lost the top ten floors. Cracks line the remainder of the building, and smoke rises from the rubble of other buildings where the ship now lies, disabled and destroyed.

The voice is strained and panicked, but it speaks:

"We're getting police band reports of rioting from Howard Park to Gary, but apparently the survivors of the crash are actually helping the police and fire with rescue efforts. And there is fighting in the sky between several aliens in red armor and..."

The camera manages to catch the violence, and the voice chokes itself to silence. The sight of ten flying figures weaving and darting about was scary enough. What was at the center of their helix was worse:

The camera zooms in just as Eric Daniel Anderson fires a blast of blue-white static directly into one of the Accursed. For three seconds, those watching get a good view of his face, of the blood dripping from his forehead, of the expression in his eyes.

It is the look of impotent rage.

"We don't know if this means that the 'Tempest' who disabled the Harrakin Emperor in New York was another impostor, or if this one is, or if perhaps the Harrakin have begun to fall out and battle among themselves. We only know what we see."

The voice is either too frightened or too noble to explain what this means, but the camera makes it all too clear: even if Tempest is back, it still isn't enough.

The helix moves too fast for the camera to track, and the war in the sky continues, witnessed by the lonely helicopter that shouldn't be able to stay in the air.

Times Square.

"This is Colonel Wes Hickman of the Seekers," said the real Wes. The billboard-Wes duplicated every word, shouting to be heard above the din of battle. "Manhattan below 33rd Street has fallen to the Harrakin invaders." Already, the top of the Empire State Building was burning. "Civilians, avoid this part of the city at all costs. Do not attempt to evacuate the city through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel or the -- holy shit!"

"HOLY SHIT," said the giant face of the billboard-Wes.

Then six Blue Marines flew through the Megatron, raining a shower of sparks down on the fighters below. Night had fallen, and most of New York was blacked out for safety, but Wes left Times Square lit in all its tawdry glory. He wanted the Harrakin fighting Omegas, rather than more vulnerable police and soldiers, and sure enough the aliens were drawn to the marquee lights like vainglorious moths.

But New York's salvation was Times Square's nightmare. Over a dozen Harrakin were attacking, with more Marines on the way. Three nobles who'd been injured in earlier battles ordered the razing of the Square as a bandage for their wounded pride. Wes had sent a distress call to Armor and the Colony Omegas, but he didn't know when or if they'd arrive. And his own people were starting to falter.

Thomas Red-Eagle had already absorbed as much energy as he could: his skin was blistering from the explosive release of his own power. Don Riley was amazed to learn he could leech strength from Harrakin abilities as well as Omega powers. He held a parking meter in his hands and used it like a club, battering any Harrakin who got close enough. Neuwraith, the telepath who'd only recently become a Seeker, was pushing his telepathic powers to the utmost to deflect various Harrakin probes. Blood covered his upper lip and his chin, and he staggered up against a cement wall. Wes wanted to reach out to him, but he couldn't. There wasn't time.

Wes raked gunfire off of a Harrakin soldier who just ignored it and returned fire, blasting the ground just to the right of Wes with a rush of blistering heat and searing green fire. Wes tried to seize control over her armor, but whatever that feeling of glass melting in his head was, it wasn't going to give him what he needed.

And then a smashed SIRECOM command truck reared up like a dinosaur and slammed into the Harrakin, crushing her underneath the front end. Red-white plasma surges hit two more, knocking them back over the barricades and helping to re-seal the perimeter. Wes looked up and couldn't quite believe what he was seeing. Striding up to him was the greying hulk of Wolf DuFresne, and standing next to him, holding two advanced Tristan plasma carbines, was Dan Carter. Both were still firing over the barriers, keeping the Harrakin's heads down.

"Carter? DuFresne? What the hell are you two..."

"What does it look like? Saving your ass from the damn Haks, that's what!" Carter fired several more blasts over the wall. "Get some! Who wants to get some?!"

"Wes." DuFresne helped Hickman up. "We figured you could use our help. Old soldiers and all that."

"Great. Excuse me a second." Wes ran over to where Neuwraith slumped against the wall. His albino white skin made the blood on his face and neck look almost black by comparison. Wes shook him by the collar. "Kid! Kid, are you okay?"

"I'm... I'm here, mom."

Carter fought back a snicker. The look of rage on Wes' face forestalled him.

"No, Karl... it's Colonel Hickman. It's Wes. Do you know where you are?"

"I'm..." A rush of new blood came out of his mouth, and Karl died. Just like that, he went from an eager kid trying to live out a lifelong dream into a dead kid bleeding his life out. Wes felt something in his head break. He went blank with cold detatchment as the mechanical part of his brain turned on. Not the part that dealt with computers -- the part conditioned by war.

Twenty Blue Marines marched through the barricade, grinding it into dust with their fists. In one last push, they came to make an end of the battle. DuFresne animated the command post again and sent it at them; four of them tore it apart, sending back shards. Wes ignored it, standing calmly in the middle of the burning Square, firing his machine guns. Carter fired both plasma carbines and DuFresne animated every discarded weapon on the pavement. It didn't do any good. The ammunition bounced off the Marines' armor, while the muzzle flashes gave the suits a sinister glow.

DuFresne and Carter fell back -- and Carter stared in awe as Wes refused to give ground. Carter grabbed Hickman's shoulders and shouted, "Retreat, damn it!" He was too worried to savor the irony.

Wes didn't budge, or even react -- until he saw two people appear between him and the Marines, almost in his line of fire. It was Jean-Luc Steele, badly wounded and cradling a bloody Rift in his arms. Steele stumbled across the battleground in a daze, unware of the lasers and bullets flying past him.

Wes dropped his guns, screamed "Cover me!", and sprinted over to Steele. While Carter and DuFresne annoyed the Marines with weapons fire, Wes tacked Steele and Rift down to the pavement just as a Harrakin laser sizzled overhead. Crawling on his knees, Wes dragged them behind a barricade. "Steele," he screamed, "what are you doing here?"

"I got out," Steele said, giggling. "Copied Rift's teleport at the last instant... but we're hurt..." Steele laughed a little too hard, and thick blood spilled out of his mouth, oozing down his lower lip. He looked too much like Karl. Ignoring his wounds and the danger all around them, Steele babbled, "I came to you, Wes... isn't that funny? I came to you..."

"Yeah," Wes said, pulling them across the cratered street, trying to dodge the crossfire. "Fucking hilarious."

But Wes ran with a renewed speed, ducking and weaving across Times Square. It helped that he was patched into security cameras that gave him a full view of the battlefield and ample warning against attacks. The Omegas moved as one to protect him, using energy blasts or enhanced muscles to ward off any pursuing Marines. And a message over his headset gave him more encouragement. After several frantic, laser-dodging minutes, Wes deposited Steele and Rift in the care of the overworked Hyper. He turned to face the battleground again.

He saw Vari Stalnior and Don Riley collapse under Marine fists. He saw Thomas Red-Eagle run out of energy. He saw Dan Carter's guns clicking impotently. He saw the Harrakin, all three dozen of them, line up and walk across the square, ready to kill the Omegas as easily as humans would mow a lawn.

Wes smiled.

"Looks like we got here in time!" Armor fell from the air above them to land directly in front of Wes. The ground shuddered. Next to her came Sharra and Agony -- shocking Wolf DuFresne at the sight of his daughter in burned and torn fatigues, a huge gouge healing on her face.

"Hey, dad." Agony didn't look back. "Good to see you."

The Harrakin walked closer, sizing up the new arrivals. None of them looked like much trouble. "Do you expect us to be impressed?" said one noblewoman.

"Nope," Armor said. "We expect you t'be distracted."

More Omegas poured out of both sides of 44th Street. Conflagration, Druid's Eyes, Jaguarundi, Akasha, a hastily-pardoned Jimmy DeLeon, Battery and Rewire from one side. Anne Benson and her team of mystics and Vitalongae immortals from the other. Many of them looked badly wounded, Anne's team especially, but the Omegas closed in on the Harrakin savagely and with the advantage of surprise.

Wes's group charged in from the front. Before the Harrakin could retaliate, they were trapped in a three-way crossfire. Wes coordinated the attacks electronically, while Danny did telepathically: Anne Benson's telekinesis knocked Marines between blasts from Fusion and Conflagration. Rene Johnson drew the Tower, pulling magical lightning down from the smoking wreckage of the Megatron; Battery electromagnetically amplified it with his high-tech armor. Allen Covenant entranced warriors with a "spell" that owed less to Tarot decks than to three-card monte, but while he did, Druid's Eyes cursed them with powerful Gesa that melted their false armors away, revealing their red armor and true colors.

The fight swung the other way. The magicians and psychics kept the aliens off-balance; numerous Marines became isolated, then caught between the speeding fists of the more physical Omegas. The technicians formed a happy alliance: Battery magnetically pulled machine components from across the Square, Jimmy assembled them in odd, combat-ready configurations, and Wolf DuFresne animated them into action. Briefly, the famous smoking billboard even became a giant flamethrower. The Harrakin line shattered against the unexpected resistance. Some Harrakin even turned on each other, repulsed to discover they'd been serving with the Accursed.

After ten minutes, the Harrakin broke. Those who were still conscious used their powers to remove those who weren't, fleeing up into the air. Some of the Seekers wanted to pursue them, but Wes patched himself back into the Square's loudspeakers. "INTERFACE TO SEEKERS. LET THEM GO. REGROUP BY THE RECRUITING POST."

Looking around wearily, Wes saw that his own people didn't even know for sure whether or not they'd won.

But the Harrakin knew. The Niniak Dy'Tariexen'Ka Tislath De Harrakiel, the Blue Marines, the pride of the Harrakin armies, were beaten.

Beaten by Harrakilli.

Wes bent down to lift the body of Neuwraith, and carried him to the makeshift infirmary by the Army recruiting post. Wes laid the boy down near the unconscious bodies of Rift and Steele.

Carter was nearby, gazing at the dead bodies of Neuwraith and Jaguarundi, and the comatose body of his old teammate and enemy Steele. Wes contemptuously rolled his gaze past Dan Carter... then returned, as he saw Dan staring with something akin to remorse.

Dan was also staring at the dozens of police, National Guard, and SIRECOM corpses that were being hauled into the Square. His eyes kept returning from them to Karl and Steele.

Wes couldn't hate Carter tonight; he'd burned all his hate out in battle, for a while. "He wasn't the first man who died under my command," Wes said. "He won't be the last. But Christ, it still hurts just the same."

"Like Cheryl."

Like my squad in the bush, Wes thought. Like the camp. "Yeah," he sighed. "Like Cheryl. And like the Cadre, the Fists of the People... Raven... Warren Davis... the Dynamax experiments..."

"All our ghosts." Danny Anderson somehow appeared behind them; his comment mercifully stopped Wes's neverending list. "I could name a few too, but we don't have time. We know something about the enemy's plan now, and about how to hit them." He placed a hand on each man's shoulder; Carter barely flinched. "There's hope."

"There can be hope later," Wes said. "Tonight, there's still war."

Harrakin Flagship Dy'Tariexen'Ka Harrak.

Tatris stepped down from the Shivering Throne to accept the accolade from his brother Arktish. Arktish surrendered the Hand of Harrak, the of symbol of authority over the War Priests, an amethyst and cobalt stone carved into the shape of a grasping palm.

[I offer our fealty, total and absolute, oh great Dy'Tariex.]

Tatris couldn't smile any wider if he tried, yet he gave the impression of swelling with ego. As the Norrek chanted the sacred song, Tatris placed the stone into the metal of the Shivering Throne.

[How much of the fleet do I have now?] he asked Priscus.

[With the War Priests on your side, my lord, the balance of power is in your favor. The malcontents were weakened by battle and have been recalled to the fleet. You have them all.]

[There's a human phrase for times like this. What was it... oh, yes.] Tatris floated into the Shivering Throne, the lobes closing around him. A holographic representation of Earth filled the vast chamber. Light from the display shone off the blue armor of the Niniak Marines, glinted off the black of the War Priests, highlighted the silver-black of the Green nobility, did not find the hidden red-black of the Accursed. And it scintillated off the new suit Tatris had commissioned for himself, the silver-gold of the Dy'Tariex. At his side stood Sestus in his imposing armor, still posing as 'the H'R'Djagtal.' Tatris thought, and his armor closed up around him, revealing nothing of his features, becoming a wicked barbed mass of metal. [Gotcha.]

[My lord?] Arktish and his daughter Kkyree looked confused. Ky'Rian looked away, despairing for what he knew was coming.

[Take the H'R'Djagtal to his quarters,] Tatris commanded, [and shelter his sainted mind from all corrupting Earth signals.] Tatris would bow down to no humans, and Cornelius Owen be damned. [Move the fleet into position. We come in glory now. We come in power. And we will not stop until the terrans and the Harrakilli bow down before us.] He waved his armored hands across the hologram of the tiny, vulnerable planet.

[Begin the full-scale invasion.]

Chapter 5: One of Us Chapter 7: The Human Experience

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