The End Of The World: The Last Valentine Part 2

Printer-friendly version

Author: 

Audience Rating: 

Publication: 

Genre: 

Character Age: 

TG Elements: 

Other Keywords: 

Permission: 

Humanity is fighting for the right to live on our own home world. Every month, week, or day could be our last. However, no matter how we fight each other, if you give us a good enough reason to band together ...

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. None of the characters, places, or anything else is meant to be represented by anything in reality. Duh! Fiction, get it? I the author reserve the rights, so please don't go posting this anyplace else without my permission. A very special thanks goes out to Cathy who spent the time to make this story readable. Another round of thanks goes out to all the others out there in BCTS land who have encouraged and inspired me to write and keep writing. Any remaining mistakes are all mine.

The End of The World: The Last Valentines Part 2
by
Grover

<><><><><>

Lookout Point.

“Lookout to Guard Dog, Lookout to Guard Dog.” The hidden observer reported on his buried and shielded land-line as his partner continued tracking the departing alien machine. “The Chickens have flown the Coop. I say again. The Chickens have flown the Coop.”

“Affirmative Lookout.” The officer at the other end confirmed. “The Chickens have flown the Coop. Bug-Out is in effect.”

“I confirm Bug-Out.” The trooper and his partner who'd been dug in on the far away frozen hill, slipped out of their hide-away down their prepared line of retreat. In moments they were lost from view in the snow covered forest.

<><><><><>
Norfolk Naval Shipyard
SSBN USS Henry M. Jackson
'The Scoop'

“We're out of time.” Captain Jamie “Truck' Tucker stared at his command crew. “The final preparation signal just went out. Are we ready to go or not?”

“We've got both Gold and Blue crews finishing up the final checks, Skipper.” His XO reported. “The yard dogs are still clearing the slip of ice.”

Looking out over his vessel's stern, the 'propulsion' unit was a big, ugly, bulging cylinder, slap-dash welded-on ruining the submarine's once sleek streamlining. Sure they used that new molecular binding stuff instead of torches or plasma welders, but a rose by any other name.

All the other Ohio nuclear ballistic missile submarines, with the exception of the three boats that had been reloaded with the modified Trident missiles and immediately had gone back to sea, had already finished this bastardizing spaceship refit and conversion.

If not for the fact that all the Ohio's shared the same design, and much of the work was prefabricated ahead of time only needing to be installed, they never would've made it this far. The 'Scoop' had been saved for last, given she was the oldest of the boats being converted. The LA class nuclear attack boats, while some were older, they also had much more time to at least pretend to have proper shakedown cruises, even if going to orbit was denied them.

In what some were calling Earth's first space battle, they had learned some damn hard lessons. All of the first group of converted US Navy subs had been L.A. Class Attack boats. Most had only slapped together weapons and only a vague idea of how the hell to fight a space battle. Needless to say, that fleet, which included United Kingdom, Russian, French and even Chinese vessels had gotten their asses handed to them.

This time they'd tried to learn from their mistakes, and all the converted submarines had a much heavier and better refined weapons load-out. Both Blue and Gold crews had worked like mad, not only to get their ship ready, but by running simulations until they were seeing double. That went threefold for all the officers.

Each war vessel now had an astronaut on-board or at least an adviser who had a firm understanding of the new medium the sub skippers found themselves functioning in. Sometimes the Navy's assertion that no one was truly knowledgeable about fighting a space-battle, so it was better to keep crews that at least knew their ships, went just so far.

So they all studied, trained and worked their asses off, knowing it was succeed or die time.

However, that did the 'Scoop' no good if she wasn't ready to launch.

“Hell, I say launch.” Marty Morton, the Captain of the Blue crew said. “Nothing has come back as a down-check on this go around. That's as good as any of the other boats that've had their tails chopped off and that damn alien contraption slapped on.”

“We've been provisioned, Captain.” Chief O'Hana spoke up. “Everything's been stowed, and we about as ready as we're going to be.”

“Nobody is saying no, so I'm saying yes.” Captain Tucker made his decision. “We're going. Tell the yard dogs to forget about flooding the slip. Just open the doors. We'll fly 'The Scoop' out. If she doesn't make it, well, it's better to know now than later.”

“You heard the Captain.” Barked the EXO. “We're getting underway, move it.”

“You coming Marty?” Tucker asked his counter-part who commanded this boat on his shift.

“Damn right I am.” The Blue crew's Captain replied. “You might have the con, but the Scoop is my boat too. Put me where you need me.”

“I thought you would say that. If I'd lost the coin toss, I would've said the same thing.” He picked up the mic. “All hands, this is the Captain. Prepare to get underway!”

<><><><><>

Republic of the Congo
Allied Expeditionary Force

Hauptmann Schmidt of the German 1st Mountain Division triple checked his panzers one last time. So strange that the German army was in the Congo again. It was even stranger that 'he' was in the Congo at all. Just a week ago he and his platoon had smashed the alien invaders at Balboa, Spain, only to be ordered to immediately proceed to Africa.

The Hauptmann supposed it did make sense of a sort. Their Griffin Panzers could travel at a couple hundred kilometers an hour and required very little in the way of fuel and ammunition. Not so with food and other essentials for their crews, which was why they had loaded down their decks and turrets with spare parts, gear and supplies.

The whole crew had taken turns as 'driver,' while the others slept on the long journey. More than a few hair raising incidents had occurred, but they had overcome them. Being able to fly over the rough terrain greatly eased their journey.

Now they sat ready for battle. The African nations rallying to force the invaders out had an astonishing array of armor. Old Soviet tanks predating the Hauptmann's birth by decades, clanked their diesel engines, spewing blue exhaust smoke into the African night.

He almost felt sorry for those poor souls going into battle in such antiques. Still, while the Griffin Panzers were superior in every way than the Leopard tanks he'd spent most of his career commanding, they were still inferior to the alien robots.

Faster and much more maneuverable, the robots carried four times the Griffin's weaponry. Being humanoid shaped, they could run, jump and climb. Additionally, they were smaller and more agile than any tank, being about the same size as a small sedan. That's if a car had arms and legs.

The robots were also well armored. It was possible for heavy machine guns to damage one, but the gunner would have to be very lucky. Most anti-tank missiles could kill one, but the machine's targeting computers would, 99% of the time, destroy the projectile before it could strike. Again you had to be lucky.

The only way to assure a kill was with a panzer's main gun. Even then, the robots' computers and weapons could sometimes destroy the shell, but usually not. The Griffin's plasma cannon was even better. It had almost the range of the Leopard's 120 mm main gun, but did not require reloading. The recycle time was significantly less than the time it took to reload the Leopard's main gun. The problem was that with the robots' small size, you still had to have a good gunner.

That was much better than having to trust to luck! It was even better to have luck and a good gunner along with a good crew, which he had.

He took a moment to tuck away the photograph of his his family in his breast pocket of his battle tunic. Eric knew what he was fighting for.

“Mach schnell!” The Hauptmann ordered. It was time.

<><><><><>

LA Defense Zone
Seventh Infantry Division

Private First Class Jimmy Thorpe looked up as the word was passed to his fighting position. It was time for their final checks.

Hefting his phased, pulse plasma gun, his hands performed all the checks with the sureness that came from endless drills. This was the first time they would be used in combat and everyone had warned them again and again that what works in the lab, isn't the same as working when you really needed it on the field of battle.

The heavy power-cell belt he wore to power his weapon was the same way. The damn things could and did just blow the hell up. With the power-charge it packed, super-soldier or not, nobody would ever be able to find all the pieces. Still the whole package was lighter than the .50 cal Barretts they had in basic training, and had a much improved chance of killing a Tweety 'bot.

He'd joined as soon as he'd turned eighteen instead of waiting to be drafted. Hell, just about his whole family was in the military now, from his grandfather, to his kissing cousin, Beth.

Being 'Captain American'ed' had been great. Always a good athlete, now he was like his personal hero he'd been named for, Jim Thorpe. Based on pre-war performance he could participate in almost every Olympic event and expect to walk away with a medal. He'd put on a good twenty pounds of solid muscle and grown a few inches to boot.

Their Drill Sergeants then ran each and every one of them panting and huffing into the ground.

“You're not going to be fighting flesh and blood, you maggots!” They yelled at their charges. “They're alien steel and soul-less killing machines that will grind you green boots up into hamburger with rail-guns, and barbeque what is left with plasma.”

“To smash those things you're have to be more than just some character out of the comic-books.” The Drill had growled, “You'll have to push yourself with a will of iron until you're harder than steel, to win this fight. Otherwise, all you know and cherish will be turned to dust by their nanites.”

Now the Tweeties were advancing on one of America's largest cities, after taking down San Diego. So many had died already, and more were going to join them. It was unavoidable. He hoped the new weapons would make a difference. They certainly seemed to in training.

Checking his buddy Jared's gear, everything looked good. Taking a deep breath he touched the locket Beth had given him. Somewhere in this mess, she was here too, wearing his high school ring as a necklace. He prayed that both of them would make it, but Thorpes knew their duty. There were things bigger than just the two of them.

Sergeant Biehn hand signaled them to move out. The waiting was over.

<><><><><>

The Farm

We heard Tamara and Dean getting ready to leave. Both of us had our own preparations to make. Both our Skins shifted to their snow camouflage modes as we set the decoys that matched our body heat into operation.

I really hoped all of this was gross overkill, but my paranoia was in full swing. I'd warned everyone with access to our intelligence that all we've gathered from that Sha'leian library could be a scam. After all, our own nations had pulled just as outrageous counter-intelligence programs. I'd also pointed out that my Skins had been upgraded by Tash. That made the point that the Sha'leians could, at will, access all of the Skins our elite forces depended on.

That lead to an frenzy of activity among the developers of the Skins controllers to come up with protection. Strange as it maybe, the suits we received as gifts appeared more secure than what everyone else was using. The last I heard, they had fixed the problem. I certainly hoped so or our mission was going to be very, very short. Floating in space without a spacesuit would be a bad thing.

My paranoia had also modified part of our original deception plan. After giving our guests the impression Sheila and I were staying the night, I would then slip away. After thinking about everything that could go wrong, I had the thought that just maybe it would be too good an opportunity for the bad guys to pass up if they knew where the cause of so much of their troubles was going to be.

I might be able to take on 'bots, drones and tanks, but orbital strikes were a whole other magnitude of grief. Additionally, I wasn't going to be here, but Sheila was supposed to be here, making it look like I was.

Nope, change of plans!

We would do what we could to carry on the deception, but Sheila was 'not' staying here at potential ground zero. It simply wasn't that important on the off hand chance we were being watched by them.

With the decoys warmed up we sealed our Skins so that there would just be only two heat signatures in the house. Then we had a nice invigorating five mile run in the ice and snow. Well, really I was flying just inches above the snow carrying Sheila.

Pressed hard against me, she was feeling some of the 'weightlessness' that I did while in flight. Our practicing this was one of the few pleasant things about all the preparation for Operation Artemisium. It'd taken a try or two as she figured out where to put her arms and legs, as well for me to trust that she could hold on as she rode on my back. Really, it felt like 'spooning' and wasn't a problem at all.

“Whee!” She breathed into my ear as the wind whipped past us. “Promise me we'll do this again!

“When we have more privacy.” Sheila added, before closing her helmet's full face visor against the bone chilling cold.

Soon enough we met up with the 'Lookout' guys coming out of the woods. Recon troops, they'd sent out the signal that kicked off this show. We didn't greet them, just in case they were being watched. Instead we slipped aboard, hopefully unnoticed, when their ride picked them up.

The stubby winged Quantum powered variant of the ever dependable C-130 Hercules was vertical take off and landing capable, as well being able to reach orbit. This particular model had been modified to be very stealthy for Special Ops work.

The crew hurriedly pulled in and strapped us down as the pilots did little more than a touch and go. Then we were off as fast as we dared for Cape Canaveral.

While the recon guys tried to thaw themselves out, Sheila and my medic Cpl. Morgan helped me. I immediately changed back to Kingfisher. My cool-down times had gotten shorter, but I wanted to bank all the Halcyon time I could. However, there was another reason.

Together they got me into the Chair. Considerable care had been taken so I could be 'treated' while in flight. As the current flowed into me, I forced myself to relax so I could concentrate on making this work. It'd been important for Tash and Ralt to have seen for themselves that I was still hurt. This 'treatment' should be the last I needed to heal the rest of the way up. Yes, it was pushing things.

On a strict time table as we raced across Florida to the east coast, the second the chair's timer 'dinged' I was up. My Skins reconfigured to a design much like the MIT Space Bio-Suit. A form fitting spacesuit, it was based on other older designs such as the Space Activity Suit. With the improvements Tash had given as gifts, all that was needed was a helmet and oxygen pack.

A compromise had been reached between packing as much gear into the helmet as possible, visibility, and of course protection. It looked more like a full face motorcycle helmet than a spacesuit. They were the same helmets we wore leaving Dean's farmhouse. The other difference was that our Skins would flow over it, providing a perfect seal, but still letting us move freely and see out.

Of course, being a spacesuit, we needed oxygen packs. These were more SCUBA style re-breathers than air-tanks, but they worked great and took up very little room. They were between the size of a conformal hydration pack and a compact parachute.

That was what I needed her help with.

Putting on the oxygen pack and making all the connections to the helmet had to be done by someone else. Plus she made sure my Skins did as they were supposed to do and seal over it all. Then she double and then triple checked it all.

Maybe Halcyon didn't need air all that much, but Kingfisher sure as hell did. As a test I transformed back and forth to test everything before she gave me the high sign. I was ready, or in reality, as ready as I was going to get.

“I don't like that these things have never been tested.” Sheila looked as if she wanted to check everything over again.

“You've had the same instructors I've had. “Smiling, I tried to ease her worries. “The theory is sound and the idea an old one. NASA just never had the right materials to get it to work. Besides, I used this in the training pool and these are what the Sha'leians use as well, so in a way they have been tested.”

“Not while boarding a hostile alien space-craft in orbit while under fire!” She replied, hotly.

“Well, no.” I shrugged. “However, it'll make for one heck of a product endorsement after this is over.”

She held my hand tight since it's just a little difficult for us to do the hugging thing. I knew what was on her mind.

Contorting, I placed her hand over my wrist where the bracelet I'd given her was covered by my Skins.

“I promised.” Looking into her eyes, I smiled. “Remember?”

Touching her bracelet, and then her face, I bought her hand to my lips. That was the best I could do for a kiss with the helmet on.

Then my stomach dropped as the pilots had us descending in one of those 'We're going to die!' combat landings. Think of the most terrifying roller-coaster ride ever and double it.

“I love you.” Was all I had time for, as we hit ground and the crew practically threw me off the plane into the clutches of the Spartan launch crew. As rehearsed, I was hustled to the elevator leading to the top of the gantry where the rest of my team waited. On the very short trip the techs checked my suit and seals again. Fortunately Skins were much more 'wash and wear' than the old spacesuits the astronauts from my childhood wore. There were no need for the small environmental 'suitcase' units they carried. However, just the same I was traveling up a rocket gantry to climb into a real live rocket, a spacecraft. I challenge anyone from my generation who watched the first man on the moon make that historic step, not to feel something.

The space 'capsule' in this case was a very modified Dragonrider. code named Sparta since, for this mission, we were Spartans. It was a crewed variant of the Dragon cargo pod that used to take cargo to the International Space Station. Of course I had the seat nearest the door. While I was being strapped in and hooked up, the rest of my team were getting their own last inspections.

Unlike the exhaustive countdowns from watching the Apollo Moon Shots, this one was going to be short. Most of their checklists had already been done having begun when Tash and Ralt had landed at the barn. It'd been on hold waiting for me. Hopefully all our subterfuge wasn't wasted and would help us gain the priceless advantage of surprise.

The Falcon Q, well it was still sorta kinda a rocket even if it did have a quantum engine now, had a massive payload. There were a couple reasons for using it. One it was already designed for space and only needed to be updated. NASA warned all of us with powers that changed the laws of physics to leave things well enough alone and stick with things as they were. Everything was programmed into the flight systems and mucking up weight or mass would screw up, well everything.

With the Sha'leians magical touch with computers, there couldn't be any open links or communications with the launch vehicles. It was all pre-set, although there had been some talk about including a pilot just so changes could be made on the fly. That was decided against for the simple reason that our ride was supposed to look just like all the others that would be launched along with us. That would spoil our entire deception plan and simply get us targeted by every damn weapon our Visitors had at their disposal.

So what they did was double, and triple check every damn square inch of this Dragonrider and Falcon Q vehicle. Then they checked it again. That was our fail safe. We had to trust that the engineers and scientists did their jobs right.

When this was being explained to us, Bes gave them a glare.

“If this bloody thing blows up out from under us, I'll be coming to see you about it.” The all of four foot five strong man from the United Kingdom promised.

If Halcyon had any rival in the toughness department, it was the UK Prometheus soldier code named, Bes after the Egyptian god who was the protector of households as well as of women and children. So it was very possible that he very well would make his displeasure known.

It was then it was pointed out to him that he would have to 'ride' in his normal form since they didn't make seats for someone of his stature. To say he wasn't happy would be the biggest understatement of the century.

After a moment, he glared back at the official briefing us. Then in a flash, he transformed into his normal form, an nondescript slim and androgynous young adult. A flash later, Bes was back, but gone again replaced by the other again.

I at least had my mouth hanging open. It took me one hell of a lot of effort to initialize a transformation. Bes did it as fast as an eye blink, back and forth without resorting to the Q-Box button even once.

Finishing his dizzying rapid changes as Bes, he smirked, folding his arms. He'd made his point. Unless he was killed immediately he had a good chance of being able to change fast enough to survive.

“Sealing the hatch.” The launch crew reported.

“Standby Spartans.” Mission Control told us. “We're sending our 'ready' code now.”

For now my part was done. My team and I were only passengers waiting for our turn in the next phase of the plan. Now we wait.

<><><><><>

Atlantic Ocean
Navy Research Station Zulu

The cracking ice heralded the conning tower of the first submarine surfacing up through the frozen ocean. Then another and yet a third busted their way past the icebound surface of the North Atlantic. His job had been to monitor the radio waves and send on the message via the hydrophone that he and his fellow sailors had drilled though to the ocean below.

He panned his camera, making sure the shot got all the other conning towers that were also appearing as they rose from their hiding place beneath the ice covered north Atlantic ocean. Trying not to rush and botch the shot, he panned back to the first surfaced sub. However, it had not just stopped at merely rising from the sea. Shattered slabs of ice rolled off its deck as it rose into the air. Icy spray flew in the gusty winds as the plug ended vessels' quantum drives lifted them, impossibly, into the stormy winter skies.

Still shooting, he moved his camera to the next broaching sub. He'd chosen his location as well as he could to catch this scene. Based on the best guesses of his and the rest of his mates, he'd marked out this place and had rushed here once the signal had been given.

Even he was amazed by the sight and he'd had some idea of what to expect. Dozens of subs were at different stages of breaking though the ice and heading skyward. Carefully working the zoom, he saw the markings for not only the US Navy, but the Royal Navy, France's La Royale, and more than a few Russian Navy vessels. Speaking of which, he zoomed out to catch the unmistakable leviathan form of a Russian Typhoon SSBN, the ice sliding off as it freed itself from the icepack.

A fresh geyser of freezing sea water shot upwards from the first, already vacated hole in the icepack. More loud cracks echoed as something even bigger than a nuclear attack sub cheated by using the smaller submarine's breakout point.

A tapered wedge shape, it was as about the same size as the massive Typhoon that was still climbing in the background. Instead of the big ugly propulsion 'can' welded to its stern, the quantum drive looked to be part of the design.

He kept the vessel in focus as it turned to follow the others into the sky. It only made sense that, after that first disastrous battle using the converted submarines, the Navy would build a 'designed from the ground up' space-warship.

That first international 'fleet' of twenty modified submarines had been annihilated by the Tweeties. This time there was at least several times that number heading into battle. Then that ship's name became visible.

He damn near dropped his camera. Numbly, he reasoned, it did make sense. The active Navy ship previously bearing that name had been decommissioned, which meant it'd been available. At least this time they hadn't given the name to a non-launch-able atmospheric glide test dummy. This was a real deal, a spaceship. Somehow, he kept it in focus at it disappeared into the dark clouds above.

The United States Spaceship, Enterprise was going to war.

<><><><><>

US Air Force Secure Facility
'The Snake Pit'

Captain Doug, 'Da Bus,' Ingebretson, US Air Force moved his Copperhead's throttles forward as the fighter smoothly leaped forward out of its hidden hanger carved deep into the protective rock of the mountain.

Purpose built from wing tip to wing tip to fight in the harshness of space, the Copperhead was heavily armored and armed. Like the infamous F-4 Phantoms of the Vietnam War era, they were brute power machines, but from every sim and test they could devise it should do the job.

The quantum engine converted F-35's and F-22's were hot birds to fly, but in the end they were still aircraft. The one aborted fighter attack on that damn Tweetie ship up there had not ended well. Maybe it had to be tried, but it also proved a need for something built specifically to do the job.

It was expensive as hell, but they had learned their lesson. The science boys had worked out just how to make that stuff the Tweeties constructed all their stuff from. It was stronger and lighter than steel, titanium or anything Earth had, but the secret had been broken. The only drawbacks were how hideously difficult it was to produce and they couldn't get pigments to stick to it. The coppery stuff had been nicknamed Orichalcum from the mythical, nearly impervious metal very popular in fantasy fiction.

The only name for the sleek delta winged ship that gleamed copper bright in the hanger was Copperhead, after the North American snake from the pit viper family. It had just enough wing area to fly if it really had to and as a place to put all the weapons it carried. This was not an aircraft so calling it a 'bird' wouldn't do for all that it was one hundred per percent pure predator.

Copperhead fighters not only carried enough Orichalcum armor to take a couple hits from a drone's plasma burners, but the fighter also carried enough plasma firepower of its own to take out a drone in one shot.

Everything pointed to the hardware he was riding as being a decisive weapon system. Now all he and the rest of his squadron had to do was prove it. They weren't going alone either. Russia, China and the European Union had designed their own space-fighters, while others were still using converted aircraft.

As far as he was concerned it was about time someone besides that crazy chick he'd 'released' that wintery night in North Carolina, to come up with a good old fashioned Razzle Dazzle plan. Fake out the bad guys and then hit them hard right where it hurt the most.

Arrowing his Copperhead upwards into space, he grinned. Payback was a bitch.

“Yippee Kay yay, mother ...”

<><><><><>

Pacific Ocean

SSBN USS Maine

missile firing depth

Together with Commander Jimmy Wikes, his executive officer, Captain Louis Simms of the SSBN USS Maine turned his missile firing key. In a rapid fire maneuver only practiced in drills, the Ohio Class Ballistic Missile Nuclear submarine launched all her 24 modified Trident missiles. According to plan, so did their remaining sister boats the Wyoming and the Louisiana. Seventy-two Tridents carrying their full load of eight Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles, MIRV's, for a total of 576 warheads.

But these weren't nukes. They were something special just for the Tweeties. The specialized warheads had been intended for use on the ground, not in space. That was why they hadn't been used during Operation Nutcracker back in December. However, after some debate, the suggested use was inspired.

Again, if everything went to plan, the rest of the world was cleaning out its nuclear closets too. Almost everyone had held back a little something, or had reloaded their launchers. However now, with Hammer Hobbs in charge he'd worked miracles, kicking everyone's asses to get them to work together.

“We've fired dry!” Jimmy remarked as he ordered the missile doors shut.

“Take us deep and step on it.” Louis commanded. “Let's not count on the Tweeties being too busy to send something our way.”

“Now it's Miller Time!” One of the chiefs joked softly.

“Just doing our part for nuclear disarmament.” Jimmy said, holding on as the deck slanted beneath their feet.

“Happy Valentine's.” Despite himself, Louis allowed himself a smile. “Hope you like the flowers.”

<><><><><>
The Congo
German 1st Mountain Division

Hauptmann Schmidt 'buttoned' his panzer's hatch. Scores of the alien aerial robots were abandoning the field of battle. Their tremendous speeds were creating streaks in the African night sky.

“Das ist Gut!” He grinned a tiger's smile. It was proof that, at some level, the 'plan' was working. All around the world the Aliens would be recalling their robotic Luftwaffe to defend their mother-ship.

Ahead of his company, thunder roared as the offensive to take back the both the Congo's capitals kicked off using the opportunity to its fullest. Without their air support, the Aliens would be more vulnerable. Already the incredibly diverse mix of human combat aircraft were descending on the battlefield like the clouds of mosquitoes infamous in this region.

They weren't the only ones who could fly. His Griffin rose into the air along with the rest of his company's panzers. The 1st Mountain Division was on the move. No, not just his unit, but the whole world. Armies across Earth were advancing to crush these invaders. These Aliens would learn to cross Earthlings at their peril.

Scanning for targets, he spotted a burning T-55 tank. Looking sharp, he found their killer.

“Gunner!” He barked. “Target ten o'clock, short burst!”

The Griffin's turret smoothly rotated into position as its plasma cannon turned its robotic target into slag.

Ah, the first kill of the day!

<><><><><>

Cape Canaveral Florida

“Spartans!” Mission Control announced. “We are go for launch.”

A rumble reached even inside the Dragonrider capsule. It wasn't us, but our escorts. Space centers worldwide were launching a great mixture of all kinds of special hardware, that was intended not only to hide us, but to give confusion to our enemy.

As great as quantum drives' advantages were over rockets, their energy signatures could be tracked. We learned that from them reacting so violently to the Prometheus engine being used. That was why, although the launch vehicles used 'Q' engines, all the final stage orbital maneuvering vehicles used old fashioned gas thrusters. There were no energy trails to be tracked from the cold gas powered units.

Outside of Hollywood nothing like this had ever been attempted. One rocket after another was fired into orbit as fast as mission control could ensure one launch wouldn't interfere with another.

Our place in line was in the middle of the pack. Nine rockets from the Cape and yet more from Vandenburg, Wallop's Island including the other two Pantheon teams that was a part of this assault. That was just the United States share. Any place that had the facilities put up as many gantries as they could handle. Any and all nations capable of putting something up were throwing something into the pot.

“I hate to disturb you, but we're preparing to launch.” Talos dryly told our team. “And would one of you please wake Bes?”

Nott and Artemis were discussing something, but Weyland had somehow smuggled a paperback book on board and was reading. The metal-smith nudged the compact powerhouse's elvish alter-ego awake, while he marked his place and put his book away.

It more than a little ironic that Bes, who looked so much like a dwarf from the fantasy movies, looked so elf like in his 'secret' identity. At least I thought it was 'he' and not she. I could be wrong, but Bes never corrected us on the point.

Some part of me wondered how they could be so calm, but another pointed out this was much better than my New Year's Eve ride in a F-35's weapon's bay. This time, I even had equipment that had just might keep up with me. Of course riding a rocket on Valentine's Day to board an invading ship full of aliens could be even more crazy. Perhaps, instead it was only pure desperation.

“Five”
“Four”
“Three”
“Two”
“One”
“Launch!”

Just like in testing, our Skins acted like g-suits, squeezing and contracted where needed to maintain good blood flow. Everyone was doing that g-strain maneuver that helps you stay conscious during high gravity events like this one.

Unlike me and Bes, they were all in their most survivable forms. Unlike me, they had spent more time using their Prometheus gifted powers. So although I had my gift the longest, I hadn't used it. The powers were like exercising any muscle. You had to use it to get any additional benefits.

On the other hand I was, thanks to that last 'therapy' session on that C-130Q, healed and experiencing some of the residual benefits of 'drinking' energy. However, we were also blasting off a lot harder than the space-shuttle's three G's.

In order to keep the deception that this was an unmanned flight we had to boost fast enough so that our uninvited guests wouldn't suspect anything suspicious was up. Due to our gifts, Skins, and having trained for this none of us passed from G-LOC, Gravity Loss Of Consciousness. Well, at least no one admitted to it.

Bes had woken from his 'nap' and was chattering away about this bar in Bristol, doing his best to act as if he was unaffected by weighting many times more than normal.

“Best place for a pint, I've ever been.” He jovially ignored that we were being mashed flat.

“Nah, if you really want to get a beer that hits the spot.” Weyland disagreed, also struggling to keep from showing the stress that was pushing us down. “There's this little bar in Chicago.”

Thump!

Even Bes was silent as the first of the stages separated. From our mission briefing I knew it was not falling away, but deploying one hell of a set of powerful electronic warfare jammers very similar to ones we'd used to great effect on the ground to jam their 'bots.

Then a second, thump!, struck as the next stage activated. This was the one that was placing our ride in the right orbit and where it got tricky. If the Sha'leians played this the same way they have before, every drone they owned was racing back to help protect their ship.

The jammers should start after they were on their way, but before the drones could receive detailed instructions, but the topping for the cake was coming soon. Our Dragonrider capsule spun around heading onto a new trajectory as the cold gas thrusters kicked us away. The second stage then continued with its next mission as it accelerated towards our objective. Spinning, it released a flurry of good old fashioned metallic coated strips, chaff, to confuse them and their drones' sensors.

Hopefully our capsule was invisible due to the stealthy design and the near zero power consumption. Whatever was left to be detected would be covered by the jamming and chaff. Then too, we weren't headed right at the ship anymore. Nope, no danger or targets here!

“Men,” Artemis snorted, rolling her eyes. “Your preoccupation with beer. If you really want to relax, a nice mug of freshly brewed coffee wins every time.

“There's this cafe' in New York, Sacred Grounds.” Her eyes got a faraway look. “Their coffee is so good, and their cinnamon rolls are to die for.”

“I don't know about that fancy coffee you Americans rave about.” Weyland spoke up. “I'm rather fond of Tim Horton's. They're hard to beat on a cold morning when you need to get moving.”

“I've never been to NYC, but there is this diner in Edmonton, Mavericks.” Nott smiled. “It might not look like much from the outside, but it's run by the best sort of people. They make these cinnamon rolls that I'd put up against anyone's” She looked Artemis in the eyes.

“That good?” She asked, as Nott nodded in reply.

“Those are always the best places to eat when you can find them.” Bes agreed sagely. “They're not cooking to a template, but to real recipes by people who care about what they're cooking.”

I was about to say something in agreement when Talos gave the word. He'd been peering though this periscope like gizmo, wearing his jump-master's 'hat.' All I knew was it used optics to somehow determine when was the optimal time for us to take our leap into the dark.

“Prepare to disembark!” He ordered.

The air was carefully vented out so not to be visible. Meanwhile we'd prepared for our egress. We'd practiced this so many times in the pool, on the mockups, that it was really anticlimactic which, of course, was the whole point of the exercise.

What couldn't be simulated was the awe of actually seeing Mother Earth there before us. I'd seen the pictures, movies, and super realistic computer graphics of the world seen from space, but it was not the same as seeing it with my own eyes.

However, there was no time to sight-see. Timing was everything and while I did stare, I kept moving. Changing into Halcyon once outside, I did my own little version of the warm up dance to see how my flight power worked way up here. As far as I could tell there weren't any huge differences.

Meanwhile the others were gathering and clipping on equipment. Fastening our harnesses together. Nott engaged her 'darkness' and I set us to moving. Gliding in the void, I tried not to think about the death that was just that close.

'Stay on target.' I grimly set my mind.

<><><><><>

Operation Artimisma

Second Space Battle for Earth

Streaking up out of the atmosphere, the USS Maine's 'flowers' blossomed as the modified Tridents deployed their MIRV's. The main booster, being quantum powered, continued to accelerate as its optical sensor locked onto the Sha'leian starship.

It, and its ocean launched sisters, rushed past the Falcons and other rockets that'd lifted off from space centers from around the world as they were beginning to deploy their loads of electronic warfare goodies. That was why all the MIRVs could be devoted to their primary payloads. All the penetration aids that would confuse the defenders allowing the warheads to strike, were carried by the rockets in greater numbers and with expanded capabilities.

Seeing the Tridents main boosters arrowing right at them, the alien ship's defenses destroyed them before they could pose a threat. However, the aliens found their view of the incoming Earthling attack hopelessly concealed behind the mass of chaff, jammers and every other means of generating confusion to their enemies Earth could throw into the fight.

Unsurprised the Sha'leians directed their drones into the fray. It was expected that the primitives would hide behind an electronic 'smoke screen' so they could get close enough to hurtle their 'sticks and stones' at the 'conquistadors' galleon.

Even when they lost contact with their robotic minions, the aliens weren't concerned. Their drones would act as programmed and eliminate their enemies. Advancing on the incoming MIRV's, the drones' priorities changed as each warhead began releasing thousands of submunition 'ball bearings' made from the scrap of the many alien machines Earth had destroyed, each Orichalcum projectile had a much higher melting temperature than steel. The first group of drones were shredded by the barrage, while the ones following them were conflicted by their programming. Some drove into the metal storm, striving to protect their mother-ship, while others avoided it, attempting to target the metal 'hail' storm.

All they accomplished was changing the flavor from 'Rocky Road' to 'Hot Fudge Sundae.' The now molten Orichalcum still had the same insane velocity as before built up by constant boosting all the way from underneath the sea. Like hollow pointed bullets their impact area was larger as they 'splashed' causing yet more damage. What didn't penetrate 'spread' across the drones' surface covering sensors and sealing over moving parts as the Orichalcum cooled in the vacuum of space.

Not realizing that the attack wasn't directed against their masters, but the drones themselves, the third phase of Earth's plan unfolded.

<><><><><>

Second Space Battle for Earth

Copperhead Squadron

'Da Bus's flight of Copperheads passed the modified sub as it crossed the boundary between sky and space as fast as it could. Not that it could come anywhere close to a Copperhead's speed. A quantum drive only passed on some of the experienced g-forces to the craft it powered, but he still needed his g-suit and fitted flight couch. His fighter could kick some serious G's that 'ship' could never match and forced its pilots to their limits.

Zooming by the rest of the Fleet's modified subs and even a handful of purpose built vessels, his squadron formed up with the other fighters from all over the world joining this party. From the copper bright, purpose designed space-fighters like his, to nearly every camouflage scheme under the sun for the converted 'air-breathers,' they were a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors.

It was the salvo of ballistic missiles and rockets that overtook and passed even their sleek machines that was the signal. Knowing how impossible it would be to try and coordinate this whole complicated plan, the Brass instead tried to schedule the events so one added to the other without one depending on another.

Arming his guns, he and the legions of Earth fighters followed as close behind the wave that'd thundered past them as possible. Da' Bus had a great seat to watch the missiles and rockets' stages separate, as well as the MIRV's deploy. He'd known it was going to happen, but rather thought they would look like giant fireworks. After all ballistic missiles were giant rockets, right?

Instead it was almost stately as they blossomed out very flower like, at least at first. Then it turned into a confused mass of light as the clouds of sensor reflective strips of chaff and submuntions from the MIRV warheads were released.

He couldn't keep a fierce smile as the horde of Drones swooped though the glittering and twisting strips right into the path of the man-made meteoroid storm. Some were just outright torn to shreds, while others were battered into wrecks. Very few of them could fight after that encounter.

It took the hard discipline of learning to survive thus far in this War not to go after the maimed and crippled Tweety drones. As per his squadron's battle plan, that was for the much more numerous modified 'aircraft.' Watching them swarm the wounded drones, he kept his eyes out for the next wave of enemies.

It went without saying that the 'shotgun' blast of projectiles would become less effective the further it traveled. His squadron's targets were those who were less affected and went after the 'air-breathers.' In a way, it was using those allied pilots as bait, but they were also covering those more vulnerable fighters as well.

That was War.

His commander gave the hand signal to roll right. It took a lot of work to get by without radios after being trained to depend on them. However, since it was learn or die, he learned and lived.

Da' Bus plasma guns spat at the group that sneaked in from the edge of the 'wave' of meteoroids, leaving only wreckage behind. Vectoring hard, he fired another burst at a second drone as the squadron of Copperheads entered the twisting, swirling fight.

A recipient of the Air Forces Eagle enhancement program, his reflexes, perception and coordination were second to very few. A short squirt of plasma crisped a drone's missile streaking his way, while he rolled crazily to avoid its next attack. Viffing about so he was briefly flying backwards, he nailed it, causing the rest of its missiles to explode. Pelted with debris, he flipped his Copperhead to turn it's armored belly to the blast. It would not do to crack his canopy. That would not be good.

“Please Lord.” Seeing more drones avoiding their man made meteoroid storm's 'wave,' he muttered a short prayer. “We need a little help here.”

<

><><><><>

Second Space Battle for Earth

USS Henry M. Jackson SSBN
The Scoop

“Retract the aerospike and run out the guns, XO.” Captain Truck Tucker ordered with a shake of his head. “Never thought I would be giving that command.”

“Never say never, Captain.” His executive officer grinned back.

“Outer doors are open.” Chief O'Hana reported. “Guns are run out and are reading in the green.”

The Ohio class only had four torpedo tubes, which was fine for a submarine. It wasn't so good for a space-craft that needed those guns not only for offense, but for defense as well. Some streamlining was still desirable, since it greatly increased the speed they could fly without revving the drive, which decreased the effectiveness of that effect that kept the g-forces bearable. Keeping the guns in the tubes added almost a good 100 miles per hour to their speed at least till they got out of the atmosphere. The aerospike too was a device normally used on their missiles to help reduce drag, but worked just fine for the 'Scoop' too, even if it did interfere with the guns field of fire when extended. However, it was a cobbled together compromise until more purpose built ships like the Enterprise, the flagship, could be constructed.

“Signal from the Flagship!” A rating sounded off as he kept watch, using a digital camera keep a sharp eye out for the command ships' orders.

“Concentrate missile and fire support Quadrant Sierra Four.” He continued.

“Acknowledge receipt.” The Captain shook his head again over how the Navy had taken a great step backwards. What was next? Raise the sails? “The Scoop is complying.”

“That would be here.” Chuck Green their astronaut adviser pointed at the place on the chart and globe that showed the relative positions.

Sparing a glance for the computer monitor, it agreed. Ever since the Tweeties raped the internet, it was always a good idea to confirm what the computers were displaying when you had no choice, but to use them.

The Combat Information Center, CIC, had highlighted the quadrant which the Big E had designated as their happy hunting ground. In the nearer adjacent area there was a squadron of the Air Forces' new toy, Copperheads, holding down the flank. It was downright gratifying to see something built by Earth kick alien ass. However they were being slowly overwhelmed as more fresh drones entered the fight from Sierra Four. The Scoop's job was to close the 'door.'

“Uploading firing coordinates to weapons now.” The missile tech replied. “Estimated completion in three minutes.”

“Very good.” The Captain acknowledged. “Bring us about, Helm. Weapons control, fire when you have confirmed your targets.”

Switching views on his own display, he saw a Russian Oscar class SSGN, and an American LA class SSN launching their missiles as well. The Russian boat carried double the dozen missiles of the American boat, but still they had found that was lacking for a space warcraft. That was one of the many reasons that Earth had lost its first space fleet battle.

The Scoop, being a converted SSBN, was huge for a submarine if smaller than the Russian Typhoons and their replacements the Borei class. The guided missile conversion turned her 24 ballistic missile bays into 22 carrying six each of the smaller Thunderbolt missiles for a total of 154. That was almost the number carried by the whole fleet in the last battle and enough to put a hurt on just about anyone.

“Targets acquired and confirmed!” Chief O'Hana at Fire Control sang out.

“Light them up, Chief.” Captain Tucker commanded.

The lights didn't even have the decency to dim. Being energy weapons the plasma cannons had no recoil nor made any sound. Unlike those first converted boats that had weapons scavenged from the Tweety's robots, Earth had learned that equipping warships with what amounted to infantry and aircraft weapons was a fool's gambit. The new generation of converted boats had the biggest, heaviest plasma cannons that they could build and still fit in the torpedo tubes. They had the latest collimators and all the other improvements scientists had discovered.

“Targets destroyed!” The Chief failed to conceal his glee. “Re-targeting guns.”

“Missiles prepped!” Fire control reported. “Ready for launch.”

“Double check target area for friendlies.” Truck Tucker ordered. With so much crap flying all over the place, with damn limited communications it was nearly unavoidable that friendly fire would happen. He was going to be as careful as he could that it wasn't the Scoop.

“Watch reports the area is clear, Captain.” His EXO said, looking over the ratings shoulders.

“Plan Delta.” He ordered. “Fire!”

“Plan Delta, Firing missiles, aye!” Weapons Control acknowledged.

Unlike the 'guns' the Scoop gave a slight tremble as twenty Thunderbolt missiles launched. Perhaps they were smaller than tridents, but they weren't small by any means, being deliberately the size of the Tomahawk missiles they replaced.

“Go to continuous fire on the guns, Chief.” The Captain ordered. “Weapons, ready another flight of missiles Plan Alpha. Let's be ready to pick off the spares.”

The Scoop's missiles were on target. Maybe they weren't carrying anywhere near as large a payload as a Trident, nor did they have the velocity imparted by the long constant boost, but they still carried a half ton payload. To make up those differences, each Thunderbolt carried six Mako smart submuntions. The short ranged high-velocity missiles deployed as the primary bus looked for targets.

Once again it was a matter of humanity being inventive. Using the same technology the Sha'leians used for their own missiles, the sensors were much better than anything mankind had invented before the invasion. However it was also much cruder and bigger than the seekers in the aliens much sleeker and smaller weapons.

That was why each Mako was connected to and wire-guided by the Thunderbolt's 'bus.' Once a target was locked on, it was attacked from six different angles. The drone's self-defense programs were good, but not even they could cover that large of an area simultaneously. The usual result was four failed attacks, but with the last two Makos overwhelming the drone and achieving a kill.

It was gross overkill, using a weapon the size of a cruise missile to kill something as small as a drone 'aircraft' sized opponent, but if it takes a hammer to kill, to do the job, then by Gawd you used a hammer!

Confronted by 120 smart Mako submunitions, and The Scoops direct plasma cannon fire, the hole the drones had found was slammed shut. The Copperheads finished off the rest of their foes

“Captain!” Communications reported. “Flag sends, 'Well done.' Engage new targets, Quadrant Hotel Seven.”

“Cease fire, Chief. Helm, bring us about to course 170, down-bubble 10 degrees.” Truck ignored the NASA man' head shake at his use of submariner terminology.

As the heavenly skies of Earth were contested with fire and iron, the Scoop turned to pursue other enemies. Neither 'boat' nor captain was aware that one of their previous foes had only been grievously wounded and not killed. Badly wounded, with its sensors and communications gear obscured with molten Orichalcum from the Mako, it'd almost killed, Drone 72129 blindly shot across the battle area in the best loose cannon tradition.

The fields of fire and the Pantheon boarding teams' trajectories had been carefully laid out. Not wanting to catch them in the battle's crossfire was the primary reason, but also not to tip their hand that the real objective of the second space battle of Earth was the alien air support drones. Along with creating the perfect diversion, it gave the ground forces an edge to take the battle to the aliens with the advantage of having control of the skies.

However, no matter how good or careful the plan, shit will happen in the chaos that is war. Drone 72129 careened right into Pantheon Boarding Team Thebes. Two of Prometheus's Children were killed at once while the other four were thrown willy-nilly into space where another died of their injuries. The remaining three survivors, being fortunate enough that one could fly and determined to complete their mission, continued to their objective. It wasn't as if they had a lot of other choices, given the situation being in the middle of a huge space-battle, with limited life support, and knowing if they activated their beacons, the aliens were just as likely to find them as the good guys. So they went on, behind schedule and hurt from their injuries as well as the pain of losing their team mates and friends, they went on.

<><><><><>

Sol system

Third planet from the sun

Sha'leian vessel

Boarding Party Sparta

With more than a little sigh of relief, I stepped into the Sha'leian ship. My crazed, spiked meat-thermometer idea for a pressure gauge worked like a charm. Weyland was able to equalize the pressure without a hitch. The only truly worrying part of the boarding itself was waiting for a sign that our other assault teams had made it and were in position. The second, Team Athens, had checked in right on time sending us the correct flashing light code. Thebes, the third team, had not.

Those minutes we waited for any signs of our missing comrades seemed liked hours. We didn't dare delay too long because that increased the chances of us being found, but once we boarded, all pretense would be gone. Anyone still approaching would be in deep shit when the Sha'leians became aware of our plan. Earth had found out the hard way about the effectiveness of their starship weaponry shooting down missiles, fighters, and our crude spaceships. What they would do to people didn't bear thinking about.

This operation only gave us just so much time that we could wait. In a manner of speaking we had already beaten one hell of a set of long odds. Not one, but two Pantheon teams had made it to our objective. Most didn't think any of us had a chance to make it even this far.

However that was good. Instead of being outnumbered an estimated twenty to one, we were only at ten to one. That was much better, although no one knew how to even begin figuring the probabilities of us taking a warship where we had only a vague idea of the layout. Educated guesses would take us only so far. Audaciousness, daring, and more than a little foolhardiness would have to suffice for the rest.

Talos touched the inner lock, commanding it to open just like he had the outer. He was our secret weapon. While he had that bio-metal skin like that X-Men character Colossus, his real power was to control machines. Unfortunately, it only worked by his touch and stopped working the instant contact was broken.

He couldn't do things like order one of their computers to reprogram themselves or other things that would've been really useful, but what he could do was amazing enough.

We were in.

It was almost comical how all six of us tumbled out of the lock. One of the selection criteria for the boarding parties was being under six feet tall. Most Tweeties appeared to be only about five-foot-five. So yes, I'd changed back to Kingfisher and it was a good thing too. Even with me being below average male height, I had to be careful of the ceiling, or the 'overhead,' as I'm told was the nautical term.

However, I was wondering if anything even vaguely naval applied to this vessel. First of all was the color. In the Navy, everything was painted gray or so it seemed to my mean green army eyes.

The interior of the Sha'leian ship was this bright shade of violet. Maybe it wasn't purple, but trust me the violet was bad enough. It'd been one of the science guys' guesses since they suspected the aliens saw in the Ultraviolet spectrum. However, besides being just a little visually jarring, it wasn't an issue, except with the possible problem of their signage and warnings being invisible to us. Okay, that should be most of us.

“I'm getting repeating alarm like flashes.” Nott reported as we unclipped our safety lines. “Looks like they know we're here.”

Our Mistress of the Night's eyes had no problem with UV or just about anything else in the visual spectrum. Neither would Halcyon for that matter, but seven foot golden women in five foot something corridors just wasn't very practical.

The other surprise we had was the deck layout. Instead of parallel with the length like on a naval ship, their decks were perpendicular to that axis like platforms going up a tree. That was why we tumbled inside like the Keystone cops. We were oriented all wrong as well as packed in tight so we all could fit. So, rather than going forward like had been previously agreed with Team Athens, we were instead going 'up' to where we suspected their 'bridge' was located, while they were going 'down' to engineering.

Talos, our team leader and boarding specialist, glared at the 'hatches' in the overhead and the deck. Needless to say, yes, our unwanted Guest's ride did have all the extras like on-board gravity. If only because of our own experiments with their quantum engines, we knew they could be tweaked to give the sensation of gravity. However, having to climb upwards to advance to our objective was going to be one serious royal pain.

“Well, shit!” He cursed. “This is going to throw all of our preparation and training out the window.”

However, never let it be said that SEAL's were indecisive.

“Weyland, Bes,” He ordered. “Cover the hatches. Artemis, Nott you two have the overhead and deck hatches. Kingfisher, over here.”

“Were there any clues about this?” Talos asked, his eyes taking in every detail.

“None.” I shook my head. “Perhaps it was misinterpretation on our part since a central 'core' was mentioned in more than one story.”

I pointed at the curved bulkhead that was the most inner portion of this ship.

“I'm guessing that's what they were talking about.” Closing my eyes I visualized what it had to look like. “It's like a spine or tree trunk running down the center of this barge.”

“We frakked up.” I summarized, bitterly. “Assumptions making an ass of you and me.”

“Your group wasn't the only one trying to get useful intell data out of what, for all practical purposes, are romantic fiction. However, right now, mission first.” Talos directed. “Recriminations later.”

“Those indentations look like what they use for ladder rungs.” I nodded my agreement with his assessment of blame. “Their bird-like feet probably lets them climb those as easy as we do stairs.”

Our team leader tested the grip of the 'rungs' and evaluated how hard it was going to be climbing. This was complicated by the iris style hatches. There were no handholds or grips near the edge. To pull ourselves up, we would have to open the hatch first for something to hold onto, which meant losing vital time and exposing ourselves to whoever was on top.

All of this examination only took moments, and which was all the time Talos needed to adapt our tactics.

“Can you still fly?” He asked, which wasn't a dumb question. Given the weirdness of how our powers worked, stranger things had happened.

“Yes.” I tucked my legs into the lotus position, just hanging in the air. “Not a problem.”

“Good!” He gestured Bes over. “Here's the plan. You'll boost Bes up through the overhead hatch as Halcyon. You're much tougher that way and although we don't know the thickness between decks, your effectiveness shouldn't be comprised, even if you have to fight on your knees since you can fly.”

“As long as nobody makes a a crack about 'dwarf throwing' I'm good.” Bes glared at the two of us even as he evaluated the top and bottom hatches.

I could see he was trying to get a feel for what to expect. At the same time I had my own orders. Pressing my Q-Box button, all seven foot of me was floating cross-legged in the, if not confined, it was 'tight' space. Staying in the Lotus position kept my long legs from getting in the way.

Lowering myself to the deck, Bes nimbly got onto my shoulders. It didn't take a genius to see what he was thinking. Just maybe I'd stopped going spastic about most of the 'girl' stuff, but that did not mean I liked some of the 'attention' I got.

“Hey,” I warned. “As long as there's no mention of the 'View up here,' you won't hear a word from me about dwarfs except with the greatest respect.”

I think I heard him muttering something about being short, but not bloody blind.

“What was that?” I asked, couching down preparing to stand.

“I said, I'm ready.” Bes coughed.

“Oh. All righty then.” Smiling, I set myself like a runner in the blocks.

Talos took his whips from their holsters. Well, really not classical whips, but they were really more like bicycle chains with swivels and other dodads that let him use his power through them. They doubled his reach and were deadly as hell, given Weyland had hammered it out of that alien alloy everyone seemed to be calling orichalcum.

The damn stuff was about impossible work after it'd 'cured' but it could be done. As a matter of fact, I was suspecting he was the one Sheila had commissioned to make my locket. However, Talos' whips were anything but jewelry. The damn multi-jointed construction had razor like blades that could pop out as if it already wasn't enough like a chain saw. On the other hand, he could also delicately pick up a glass of water and drink using them too.

He wasn't the wasn't the only Weyland had crafted weaponry for either. Artemis carried so many of these finger length throwing blades I think they very effectively doubled as armor.

Bes had a pair of knuckle dusters made from the same stuff, while Nott was wearing these articulated gauntlet vambrace-like glove things that protected her hands and lower arms. Her specialty wasn't hand to hand fighting, so our friendly blacksmith instead provided her with protection. But just in case she did have to defend herself, they made as formidable a set of hand to hand weapons as Bes's brass knuckles, and yet were so finely made they barely hindered her at all.

As for Weyland himself, he'd 'recycled' the gear we used to get into the airlock. It was now a pair of stout metal clubs that he could form instantly into just about any form he desired, even if they were only only terrestrial composition. His power let him harden them to levels that were competitive with anything we'd seen from the Sha'leians. It was just too damn bad he was just one man and that were only so many hours in a day.

I think I was the only one who wasn't carrying something made by him. Well, except my locket which really wasn't a weapon or shield. Then again maybe it was, because having it certainly helped me face the uncertainty that lay in front of us.

Talos's left whip extended to the overhead hatch. It was show time!

“On three.” He warned.

The 'lens' of the hatch snapped open and I stood up waiting only a split second to feel that Bes had left the good ship Halcyon. Then I flew the rest of the way in.

“Bloody hell!” My pint sized teammate cursed as no less than four Sha'leians were all over him looking like a bizarre Loony-Toons version of Karate Kid. Using their arms for balance their very intimidating taloned feet were scything out like knives. Okay, maybe more like machetes, given the damn things were near eight inches long.

He snatched at one foot and threw the owner into the others as his Skins sealed over the cut it'd delivered. That was right before he got kicked like a soccer ball. Bouncing, bounding, he got his legs underneath him just before hitting the bulkhead. Kicking off of it, he cannonballed right back into them.

Then it was my turn as more of the ship's crew boiled out of the other hatches leading into the compartment. Glancing down at Talos, the rest of the Spartan Team had their own problems as they got hit too. Our retreat got cut off as Talos had to defend himself and the hatch closed.

Like Bes had discovered, our Skins only gave just so much protection from those damn claws. I caught a glimpse of it turning quick-silver bright just before I got sliced across my 'mountains' which hurt like crazy let me tell you!

Like out of some martial arts movie, they never got in each other's way. The coordinated twirling dance of razors gave me this very strange image of Thai kick-boxers and the Radio City Rockettes. It was really a good thing I was Halcyon.

My 'cut' healed up faster than even my Skins, with my golden skin flowing back over the incision like a liquid. Reversing my flight, I almost caught one behind me, as I snagged the clawed foot of another heading for my face. It made a dandy club to beat the rest with.

In seconds, my Skins were perforated in a half-dozen places and I had to procure another 'club' since my first went limp. Lightning fast, I grabbed Bes's arm before he smacked into me, and sent him back the way he came.

“Thanks Mate!” I think he said, but it might've been something else less complimentary. It was Bes after all.

Whatever, preconceptions I held of our Visitors being silly looking 'Tweety' birds were gone. That was replaced by something like how much I liked fighting a pack of velociraptors in a closet. I'd just finished doing the Bam-Bam thing from the Flintstones by repeatedly bouncing my opponent off the floor and ceiling a few times while Bes had one in a headlock with yet another in a leg-scissors.

“Need any help with that?” I inquired, after making sure my unconscious foe wasn't going to be a problem anytime soon.

“I think.” White scar marks on his face where his helmet had been shattered were fading as he grunted. “I've got this.”

Apparently Sha'leians needed blood flow to their heads too as they weakly fought back as he tightened his grip.

And, no, we didn't just kill them all. Someone had to show us how to operate this ship after we take it. That was my argument, however much everyone else's opinion was to kill them all and toss what was left out the airlock. If the average person, freezing to death in this alien made Fimbulwinter, would cheerfully tear and rend each and every one of the unconscious figures laying on the deck, the Special Ops community tended to be even more bloodthirsty if in a very icy manner. Too often they, we, were the first to see the results of the alien robots' drops on our world and cities. So many dead and now the ones responsible were helpless before us.

I removed our prisoners equipment belts and zip tied them while Bes took care of his opponents. Maybe I do think too much because I was thinking of the next battle. If we slaughter this crew, including, Tash, Ralt, and Kzon, then the next vessel will be seeking redress and revenge, as well as knowing they could expect no quarter from us. Someone had to if not stop the fighting, to try and moderate the bloodletting.

Two would not be needing my attentions, as between my pure strength and Bes's own plus his knuckle-dusters, something had killed them. Well, they had tried to kill us so I couldn't feel guilty, but I was finding that fighting our enemies face to face wasn't the same as smashing endless tides of robots.

Securing our prisoners took only seconds. Like everything else, Talos and our trainers made us practice every detail including the little details like being able to zip-tie limp bodies quickly.

Of course that left us with another problem. The hatches had shut behind our assailants, and so had the one we'd come through. Bes examined the deck-hatch and, like me, wondered what the hell we were going to do. It lacked any kind of handhold or grip for leverage and fit so finely it was damn near one piece.

We both grinned in relief as the hatch rang with 'Shave and a Haircut' from someone banging on it from the other side.

“And Five Bob.” Bes grinned, as he hammered out the reply.

Talos's face, when he opened the hatch, was anything but smiling. From the blood, human and Sha'leian alike, it'd been one hell of a fight. Unlike with Bes and I, there weren't any alien survivors. On the other hand, Talos, Artemis, and Weyland were all melee combat specialists armed with sharp pointy things. The last, Nott, was more defensive, being able to blind our opponents.

In short it'd been a slaughter.

“Okay, change of plans.” Talos reached up for us to help him up. “Nott will blind the other side of the overhead-hatch and then we'll toss Bes and Artemis up. Halcyon has a long enough reach to cover the deck and the starboard hatches. Weyland will cover the port side, which will leave me holding the line of retreat open for the entry team.

After pulling everyone up we got into position. This time we had some idea of what to expect when we 'divided' our party. The moment Bes and Artemis were up, and Nott dropped her darkness, all the hatches opened at once. However, this time they tried something a little different. A fusillade of energy beams shot out!

Thankfully they weren't our unfriendly Visitor's usual plasma burners. They appeared to be a kind of ball lightning taser-like weapon. The missed shots spattered and hissed as they impacted the wall. Realizing they weren't light speed weapons, I smacked as many as I could out the air to cover my team mates.

Like against their claws, our Skins didn't do squat protecting us from these things. However, after being electrocuted so many times over the past month the 'balls of lightning' only stung a little. The faint fading sparkles suggested that the 'charge' was suspended in some kind of material that disintegrated after striking.

Nott threw up her darkness in front of Weyland's hatch. That absolute black drank up anything that had light and energy, even plasma burners. All that exited was these puffball-like things that were harmless.

Moving to completely block the access way to cover Talos who couldn't move because he was the one keeping the hatch open for our entry team of Bes and Artemis, I soaked up as much of the energy as I could.

Apparently this was all being coordinated, and controlled from someone who knew that shooting energy at me was an losing proposition. Nott and I had stopped this volley of theirs cold.

I saw movement through the open hatch, probably preparation for another assault following their taser attack. They must've changed their minds since the hatches zipped shut. And no, I wasn't about to pull a Han Solo and go charging in. That was just a bad idea.

This time though, we didn't need to pause to reorganize. Talos gave terse gestures for us to advance, with me pulling rearguard. Which made sense because I was tough enough to take just about anything the defending crew could dish out.

Weyland tapped me on my shoulder letting me know he was clear and I was the last one out. Still flying cross-legged like some demented genie who'd forgotten his carpet, I backed up and out of the compartment.

Talos released his 'control' on that portal and, as soon as I was in position to cover my assigned areas again, immediately opened the next overhead hatch. It'd taken us longer than it should have to get our ducks in a row, and that gave our 'hosts' time to plan welcoming parties. That was the price of having such limited intelligence and of the short time to train, not only for the mission, but as a team.

However, now we had gotten our feet under us and were making real progress. You would think I would know better than to tempt fate than to think things like that. We were about where our best guesses said their control room should be. The plan was to completely clear the next deck. We were kinda forced to do things this way since we seriously lacked the manpower to completely clear each deck as we advanced. Missing Team Thebes hurt in more ways than one.

Bes and Artemis had no sooner entered the overhead hatch than they were calling for reinforcements.

“Twenty plus hostiles!” Artemis reported, her hands a blur as her knives flew.

At the same time, the hatches at our level opened, and a hail of more taser balls came whizzing out again.

“Nott!” Talos commanded. “Blackout our level and get everyone up!”

He had already flipped himself up to the next level and was keeping the way open with one of his whips while using the other to help the entry team. Then thing went black as Nott did as ordered. I'd learned that not even Halcyon could see in that 'night' my team mate created.

It took some willpower to stay still, waiting for her to guide me out. I knew I would be last since she knew I was resistant to that 'ball' lightning and besides I'd been doing the rearguard thing.

On the other hand, just about nothing energy wise could get through that darkness of hers either. I felt a few warm impacts from the 'puffs' of the de-energized tasers, but that was all. Well, maybe, I was understating the power of those weapons because for shipborne use they seemed practical. You really didn't want something that could blow holes out into the cold, hard, unfriendly vacuum of space.

Her hands guided mine to the rim of the open overhead hatch, and then I was in the light again. Truth to my words, Weyland was doing the 220 dance after being tagged by one of those taser spheres. I threw myself between him and the rest of the volley while trying to work out the situation.

This room was painted in violet too, but also with shades of white. It was also much larger with rows of couches and equipment. Bes was right about the twenty plus, but didn't go anywhere near high enough. There were about twenty of those stations in this compartment, but the hatches were open to the others on this level too that showed more of those same couches.

Did I mention the horde of Sha'leian defenders taking cover behind them as they poured their fire into us from all directions? Those damn taser things were splashing and crackling all over the place. We had found their command center alright, but not the one we were looking for. This wasn't where they controlled their ship, but instead their robot and drones. That also meant these all suckers were their soldiers.

Oh joy.

Nott, taking in the scene, put up her darkness to cover our rear from that group, while I dragged Weyland behind cover. He was still alive, but I got the feeling they were using lethal charges.

“Halcyon!” Our leader ordered. “Hold that hatch, Nott has blacked out.”

“Nott,” He continued. “Put your darkness in the far rear of the group facing us so they can't provide supporting fire to the front line.”

Then he and Bes, with Artemis for fire support, charged into them. Meanwhile, I had my own problems. The defenders on the other side of my assigned hatch seeing that Nott had thwarted their fire, decided to advance.

Rushing forward I crashed into them. Being so damn big in comparison to the scale of this ship I was able to force them back and mostly block the whole passage. Seeing it was me they stopped with the tasers and began advancing again in that velociraptor high step.

As much as they could only come at me a few at a time, they were so damn coordinated that they rarely got in each others way. It was a steady freaking stream of brightly colored bird-like aliens with talons as sharp as a thought trying their best to slice me to bits.

Managing to lay hands on one, I temporarily cleared the way in front of me. Using one as a club again, the others skittered away. Once they were clear, the hatch tried to shut on top of me. Orichalcum is some really tough stuff, however, if you were strong enough it could be bent. I'd been taking one heck of a zapping with all the taser fire they'd been throwing around. I was very charged up, as well as being very strong to begin with.

The near impervious metal creaked and groaned as I fought the door's grasp. Managing to get my feet under me, I pushed. The metal tore and the entire hatch's frame deformed.

“Thou shall not pass.” I announced, stealing a line from Tolkien. The slices in my Skins were sealing shut as I glared at the fifteen or so Sha'leians who were still standing as they backed off.

Time with Tash and Ralt had taught me to read our enemies' faces. The ones before me clearly showed their shock. It was far past time to end this.

“You know who we are.” I told them. “You know who I am and that we will not stop while breath remains in us. As dire as your people's situation is, you know that humanity's is just as desperate. Enough have died. It is time to talk.

“Now.” I might not be able to stand, given the low overhead, but though kneeling I was still proud and held myself up like the metal I appeared to made of. They had to know that my words held steel and that I meant every one of them. We were Quantum Warriors.

“We will talk.” Was the reply that sounded all over the ship. It was over.

<><><><><>

Sol system

Sha'leian starship

in orbit about the third planet

Of course it wasn't that easy. Talos and Athena, our two team leaders, weren't diplomats. They were there to take the invaders ship by force or by unconditional surrender. Rather reasonably, the Sha'leians would not do that without some assurances they wouldn't be kicked out of their own airlocks.

On top of those problems, there were the practical considerations that as many as 60% of the Sha'leian crew had been killed or wounded. Prometheus’s children hadn't gotten away unharmed either. Weyland had gotten shocked real bad, and Talos had been caught in a nasty crossfire too. Bio-metallic or not he'd taken enough shots to light up a not so small town. That put Bes as our team commander.

Athena had causalities on her team as well. She had one outright dead, with two others about in the same shape as our two. You just don't get up and walk away from a severe electrical shock. Well, except for maybe me and Bes.

That didn't change the fact that we didn't have enough effective troops for even one team. Athena and what was left of her team weren't moving from the engine room. That had been what had really stopped the fight. Her people had the power and know how to wreck this barge which, incidentally, probably would kill us all. It appeared that fighting to the death was a human thing.

However, after assigning Nott to tend to our wounded, that left only Bes, Artemis, and me. The odds didn't get any better after opening communications with dear old planet Earth. They too demanded unconditional surrender, but as unhappy as our hosts were they weren't stupid.

Us crazy monkey boys might be capable of scuttling their ship, but they could do the old self-destruct thing too. The best interim agreement that could be managed was all fighting on and about Earth stopped while they and their wounded would move to the boat bay while still holding the bridge. That would let both sides treat their causalities until something better could be arranged.

Then fate threw in a monkey wrench. It seemed Team Thebes weren't all dead. Hurt and late, but at least some of them were still alive. Unfortunately it was not in the Sha'leian's best interests to let yet more invaders onboard, we logically would need to make concessions.

That wasn't happening. The politicians now stepped in demanding their say. They wanted the ship and crew. It didn't take a genius to see they were catering to the mob who were busily sharpening their guillotines and executioners' axes.

Hammer Hobbs wasn't happy about any of it, but he passed along the directive that we were to force the issue and bring our wounded comrades aboard. That put us in a serious bind. The three of us, plus Nott and the wounded, were watching some one hundred aliens.

The obvious response was to send me by myself to the rescue. The thing was, they were hurt and it wasn't a good idea to be dragging them all over the outside of the ship. The Sha'leians still had weapons' control and were still steadfastly refusing to let them aboard till an agreement had been reached.

“That's a little cold of them.” I said. “But it fits in with what we know of their psychology. You know that, 'The good of the many over the needs of the few thing.'”

Bes's reply wasn't repeatable. I did get a suspicious glare from him. Although most were dead, there had been some few humans who welcomed our Guests. Mother Earth had too many people who had defiled her and all of that. Needless to say that, when survival became a necessity and resources became hard to come by, they got left out.

“Hate them all you want.” Sighing, I looked at them seated in front of their saucers in the boat bay. “Just remember this is not the end. There are more, lots more of, if not them, other races still out there and we have no idea of who else those SOB's sold Voyager's information to. Massacring every alien you see isn't going to get us anything, but a bad reputation and probably nuked from orbit as dangerous to the 'neighborhood.'”

“But it would be so personally satisfying.” Bes grunted and gave me a very hard look. “That's why I'm happy that's someone else's problem. It's above both of our pay grades.”

“Someone has got to look to the future.” I shrugged, ignoring his pointed insinuation that it wasn't my problem either. It was too bad I didn't feel that way. I was raised the old fashioned way. If you weren't part of the solution, you were a part of the problem. In other words, things weren't going to fix themselves, so go out and do something about it. That was easier said than done, and I was only human, but it just wasn't in me to 'just' follow orders. There was a good reason why I'd only spent one tour in the Army all those years ago. It took an alien invasion to make me re-up after all.

“I'd rather look to how to save our three mates out on the hull.” His glower at me didn't let up.

“If someone will help me, I can open the locks.” Talos volunteered. “I can't move very fast, but with assistance I can use my power to override the computer.”

He did not look good. With his metal hide, our leader had taken a hell of beating from those tasers. His insides were still flesh and blood which does not like being fried with electricity.

Bes looked me and Artemis. Here in the boat bay, I, Halcyon, could actually stand. It didn't take a genius to see I would be more effective if left here. There was also the fact I had a rapport with several of the our enemies at a time when we were trying to negotiate.

However, I could also be useful helping Talos being large enough to fly while carrying him wherever we needed to go. That would leave him watching the boat bay since Artemis was our only other cross-trained medic. Like it or not, size does matter because, as Archimedes stated, proper leverage could move the world. He would have a harder time covering the bay and as much as he might hate to admit it, he was more vulnerable to their weapons.

Maybe they didn't slow him up much, but he didn't get a 'power up' like I did neither. It was also true that I was just more intimidating than him. That was balanced by his distrust of me. I suspected that, like nearly everyone on the whole damn planet, he'd lost too many loved ones, comrades, and friends to the Sha'leians. He had just one use for them and that didn't involve them continuing to breathe.

Still, he had only one real choice.

“Artemis you're with me and Talos to rescue our Thebes mates.” Our acting team leader ordered. “Nott, if it goes balls up, protect the wounded.

“Halcyon you're on guard here.” He grinned fiercely. “If they try anything at all, paste their feathered arses.”

Watching the hatch close behind them, I sighed. The Hammer and I had actually discussed this. He was a professional soldier who had a very firm understanding of history. We both could see the possibilities if the boarding teams actually got this far.

However, there was also this thing about obeying civilian authority. It was a check and balance that was meant to keep us from falling into the military coup and problems that plagued so many other nations.

For me to do as I contemplated, there were words for it, and none of them were complementary. Turning from the hatch, I sighed. There really wasn't any choice. Well, at least Sheila would know where to find me.

Stepping towards my enemies, I waited till one came forward. I wasn't surprised to recognize Ralt. More correctly it was four of them which included Tash and Kzon. They never said so, but I saw now that they were family as Sha'leians counted them.

“Quantum Warrior.” Ralt greeted me with his open palm salute as did the others.

“Ralt, Tash, and Kzon.” I returned the gesture and gave them a short bow. “I apologize, but I don't know your titles or your companion's name.

“It is Potal.” He replied. “I wish we could've met under different circumstances.”

The other Sha'leians were outright staring and I'm pretty sure my team mates were too. Let 'em look. The prosecution would need witnesses for my Court Martial.

“As do I.” Taking a moment to compose myself, I continued. “In exchange for promising not to self-destruct this vessel or take any more military or any kind of actions against Earth, can you, will you, take your people and go?”

“You mean to leave us nothing more than the boats, so far from our home?” He asked.

“Am I right in saying they would be enough for you to reach your other vessels we know that must be close?” I riposted.

“You would be correct.” He gave a sigh of his own. “It now makes sense why you undertook such desperate measures. How did you know?”

“Guesstimates.” Shrugging, I knew we didn't have that much time. “We knew approximately when our probe had been found and when you arrived. Your own actions spoke of urgency as you pushed up your timetable.

“But my question is will you abandon this ship and leave?” I added my urgency to my words. “Make your decision quickly. Our window of opportunity is not very large.”

“And our base on your moon?” Tash asked.

“You of course would be allowed to pickup any of your people there.” I replied. “But activity there must stop as well. Too many things that are truly unforgivable have passed between your people and mine. The best any of us can hope for is that, if we meet again in the future, enough time has passed to heal some of those wounds.”

They turned to face the rest of their crew who'd been raptly watching us. Their own tongue was rather bird like, but not completely. By groups they began making this kinda open armed gesture.

“We agree.” Ralt spoke for them all.

“Then get them moving.” I tried not to shout. “We don't have much time.”

He said a word and they all rushed to grab their wounded and take them inside their boats.

“Halcyon” Nott called. “What are you doing?”

“I'm stopping this war.” Replying, I still kept my eyes on the Sha'leians. “You heard the politicians. They're looking for bodies to feed to the mob. Every one of these aliens is guilty, but killing them will only bring more death upon us.”

“And if they lied and mean to destroy this ship and Earth anyway?” She asked.

“I don't think they think that way.” That was my hope. “Their minds don't work that way, I think. The hell of it is, if not for their desperation in finding a world like theirs, I think we could've been great friends. I very much doubt that will ever happen now.”

“You think.” She answered coldly. Nott, like us all, had lost someone. “They'll court-martial you and throw away the key.”

“More than likely.” I agreed. “But that is better than to have Earth tear this crew apart limb from limb and then have several thousand more Sha'lenians show up with blood in their eyes. Thank you, but no. Just these few damn near conquered our asses.

“More,” I breathed, disgusted with being human for the moment. “If any of them were truly interested in ending the bloodshed, they could've offered exactly what I did. Instead they were more concerned about having their names attached to 'our' victory and bringing our invaders to justice. Have to ensure next years' election, don't you know.” My sarcasm knew no bounds.

“Do you think that is fair?” Nott asked. “Many of them have lost those they care about too.”

“Perhaps not.” I breathed out. “But this isn't the time for revenge either. I lost my entire family with the exception of my brother, who is Gawd only knows where. Someone has to stop this and stop it now.

“They wouldn't be here at all unless they were desperate.” Most of them were in their 'boats' now, but Ralt and his group were approaching. “So are we. Things are bad enough that it'll take everything we've got to just to survive. Our poor planet is going to need time and a lot of care to recover. Dragging this out would only distract from that and help no one.”

“We are ready.” Ralt stated, but he then hesitated, asking. “Why are you doing this? Your people won't be pleased by your actions.”

“No, they won't.” I sighed. “But it is the right thing to do.”

He bowed his head as if in deep thought.

“Computer.” He ordered. “Do you acknowledge my authority to transfer command?”

“Affirmative.” A voice answered, seemingly out of the air right beside us.

“Then on my authority, Halcyon is the commander of this vessel.” Ralt commanded. “Additionally the 'deed' to Earth is hereby transferred back to its inhabitants, with her named as the principle agent responsible. Please provide a hard copy with all the pertinent details in each of the planet's major languages.”

I didn't have to look at Nott to know she was gaping just like I was.

“Because it's the right thing to do.” My friend said. Then he and his family boarded the saucer waiting for them.

“Computer, please assist in helping Bes and his team in helping the wounded aboard.” I sorta kinda found my voice as I watched the saucer hover outside, picking up the 'bridge' personnel as they left the ship to us humans.

Then it turned and headed off into the dark between worlds. I watched till it was gone, just another point of light among many.

“Second Star to the right, and straight on 'til morning.” I softly quoted, J.M. Barrie's Peter. “Goodbye, my friends.”

<><><><><>

New discoveries have given evidence that 'inflation,' the Big Bang theory, is correct. Signs of Gravitational waves predicted by Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity have, for the first time, been seen.

Being able to have proof of these theories suggests that the multi-universe is also real, since many of the 'inflation' models support the creations of the 'many worlds.' If true, then the universe really is a more marvelous place than we could ever imagine. After all, who is to say what is real or not, when all possibilities are possible somewhere.

<><><>

Arkham Containment Zone
Spring Equinox

Grey turned the van, his 'war wagon' to the right, slowly onto College Street. He didn't know what he was expecting. For all he knew there might still be left over zombies, demons or worse. His inner wolf was spooked, growling softly that Arkham, Massachusetts was not a good place to be.

He was made acutely uncomfortable by the 'bad' vibes as well. Years before, the college town been first evacuated due to the plague of undead and then again later to a rampage of demons. Wisely, very few returned before the last and final invasion by unspeakable eldritch horrors. Many who weren't killed were driven insane in the end. No one returned after that, turning the small city into a ghost town. According to his wolf, that phrase applied in more ways than one. However, if he was correct, it was here that the Golem Master had his lair.

It couldn't be denied the place was creepy as hell. Despite decades of unfriendly Massachusetts weather, the place looked as if everyone simply left yesterday. Okay, perhaps way, way yesterday, given the all vintage vehicles scattered about, but he would've expected them to to be rusted wrecks rather than appear freshly abandoned. Instead it was as if the whole town was some kind of enormous time capsule. He almost expected to see the old theater marquee advertizing Fred MacMurray in 'The Absent Minded Professor' to light up to attract customers.

Given the terrifying events that not only happened, but kept recurring, it was no wonder his wolf sensed something was horribly 'wrong' about this place. Even with that warning, he felt the unease that had kept people from returning to this place for over a half century.

Consulting his map, he carefully kept track of possible obstacles if he had to leave in a hurry. Normally, he wouldn't be taking his van, which was his mobile headquarters, this close to the action. He preferred to leave it parked further out of the way and to make his approach on foot. This time, that just wasn't practical. Besides, he had a feeling if he had to leave, speed would be of the essence.

In theory, the Mystics Guild had official sanction to ward and watch over this little piece of Hell on Earth, specifically to ensure that 'undesirables' didn't set up shop here. On the other hand, despite those wards, every few years some group of young idiots would dare each other to enter the 'town' limits and somehow find a way in.

And just about every time the local mage had go looking for the bodies. Sometimes the fools were even found alive if needing therapy for the rest of their lives. The internet had been full of, not just cautionary tales, but outright dire warnings.

The problem was that this was where his leads were pointing. He'd spent the last three months tracking down the clues. Even on Valentines, he spent the whole day in a place nearly as unnerving as Arkham.

Boston Township, Ohio was known as Helltown. Although he didn't find anything, but a group of insane Satanists looking for the portal to Hell, it was one heck of a way to spend a day meant for lovers.

Not that it mattered, since the only 'woman' on his mind was a living golden statue who wasn't what she seemed. To say it was complicated, would be an enormous understatement, but she had saved his life even if she had kicked his ass. Even with his accelerated healing from his wolf, his arm still ached from time to time. Broken bones sucked.

So here he was, searching a town where so many supernatural disasters had occurred that its name was synonymous with asylums and mental health facilities. However, he felt as if time was running out. Today was the Spring Equinox which had, according to his Mystic Guild contacts, considerable magical significance. Unfortunately, they were of the opinion that if it was a serious threat, the Golem Master would wait till the Fall, or more likely the Winter Solstice, when the darker magics were more potent.

Grey knew he wasn't a master of the mystical arts. The wolf spirit that chose him turned his life topsy turvy, but it also gave him entry into a world invisible to the common man. However, his metamorphosis gave him the chance to make a difference as well.

Perhaps that was why he was committed to helping 'her.' Grey understood some of what Craig Elder had to have gone through. Just crossing the gender divide alone would've been enough, but the rest of what she endured was beyond the pale. If only a fraction of what he'd read about the process used to 'create' those golems was true, he couldn't imagine how anyone could've stayed sane.

Crossing Garrison Street, Miskatonic University was visible on the right. The snow covered ground hid whatever plant life had overgrown the abandoned campus. He damn near expected to see students strolling about, despite knowing it been many years since any had dared walk those grounds.

Finding a place to hide his van, Grey ventured out onto the campus. He knew the Mystic's Guild had vetted that no one was here, but it was also very true that Misktonic University at one time had a very extensive library on the supernatural. It made far too much sense for a researcher like the Golem Master to take up residence nearby, particularly since Grey could find no indications just what had happened to that collection of materials. The Guild would neither confirm nor deny anything.

However, he had come across a vital clue, although it might be a long shot. It explained not only what happened to that collection, but where the man known as the Golem Master had been hiding all these years.

Benjamin Rava had attended this school as well as teaching as a professor here in back in the thirties before World War Two, but had not returned after his enlistment was up. As part of the Monuments Men Program assigned to identify and protect archeological treasures from vindictive acts by Nazi Germany, he'd unfortunately had seen first hand the horrors of 'Holocaust.' The final nail in the coffin of his sanity had been finding so many of his own family among the victims of the Holocaust.

The relevant facts were that he'd spent many years here and if he regarded any place as home, this was it. The topping on the cake was a mention that the Dean's residence was particularly well appointed, including a very spacious library. The Guild would know to watch Miskatonic U's library like a hawk, but would they do the same to a residence merely near the campus?

He settled his gear more comfortably on his shoulders. If he had to make a guess, he would also say that keeping an eye on this place was far down the Guild's to-do list. Probably only lower skilled or even apprentices did the surveillance sweeps. Certainly the one mage he met, who was supposed to be keeping watch here, didn't impress him very much. It seemed to him that they trusted their wards far too much. It was important to remember that Golem Master had more than a passing familiarity with enchantments. If anyone could bypass such protections it was his quarry.

Using all of his skills, he weaved in and out of the maze of buildings without leaving a sign of his passing. Grey hadn't expected to find any indications of trespassing on the university's grounds, but he believed in being thorough.

Fairly confident that nothing recent had happened at the University proper, he began working his way west. The Dean's residence was listed as being on the corner of Crane and West Street across from the campus.

However, he did take the precaution of assembling his crossbow. The much modified Barnett compound crossbow had plenty of stopping power and was quick to re-cock. With a four quarrel revolving drum, he could make four shots a minute. That might seem slow in relation to historical Saracen archers who could shoot fast enough to have three arrows in the air simultaneously while English long-bowmen were expected to 'loose' ten aimed shots a minute.

The difference was his 'bolts' could be loaded with all kinds of very wicked stuff just for 'creatures of the night.' The central penetrator of silver plated steel had a 'collar' of spikes in the thick hollow shaft made of cold iron, ash, and other materials with mystic properties, as well as even a crystal ampule of holy water. If the bolt failed to pierce the target, a piston slammed forward by the impact would drive the spikes home. Grey wasn't certain what effect, if any, they would have on the Golem Master's creations, but they weren't going to be his target.

He had no qualms about putting a half-foot of silver through the old bastard's chest. Even the Bureau had a deadly force authorized stamp on the Golem Master's wanted poster. Too many heroes and villains alike had been tortured to death at the madman's hands, and that wasn't taking into account all the civilians he'd murdered.

On a more practical level, it was perhaps the only way to free Craig Elder and all the others who'd been enslaved. Grey's research turned up inconclusive as to whether the 'shells' that held those spirits for so long would simply disintegrate or would live on. Given their bodies were used to create those golem things, their spirits were all that remained. The final death would be a kindness.

On the other hand, they weren't true golems or even undead, even if those shells did have bits of their old bodies in them. They were a mix of things that were unique in and of themselves. Whatever else you wanted to call the evil old bastard, he was still a genius.

Woodsmoke?

His keen senses identified the smell although a search of the skyline revealed nothing. Taking note of the wind direction, Grey nodded to himself as he saw the odor came from the same area as his objective. Perhaps some spell kept him from seeing the smoke, but the nose knew.

On full alert, he very carefully approached the not so small house. He well remembered how easily he'd been spotted at the Hawkmoon museum. This was not the time to leave anything to chance.

The abode was more along the lines of an in town mansion from the early nineteen hundreds. Like the rest of Arkham, it had suspiciously withstood the Massachusetts's brutal weather astonishingly well all of these years.

Sitting hidden in the shadows, he considered how to deal with this problem. The smart thing would be to go for help from the big guns. However, that might be a problem unless he had proof the Golem Master was here. At the minimum he needed a snapshot of one of the golems or, better yet, one of the old bastard himself.

Grey couldn't discount his increasingly uneasiness as the exact moment of the Equinox ticked closer either. His gut and wolf were telling him in no non-sense terms, something bad was coming.

What he knew of magic said the experts were right. The spring equinox was not the right time to casting powerful black magic. Then again, his quarry was in a league by himself. Geniuses knew when the rules could be broken. Grey had a feeling this was going to be one of those times, and worst, it was going to be bad.

The decision was taken from his hands. The door opened. One by one the golems walked down the stairs. Unfortunately there weren't just the Six the Golem Master was usually seen with, but almost two dozen. They were in just about every metal and material you could think of and then some: Bright copper to even one that looked to be made of an enormous crystal. Each seemed to embrace the feminine ideal even if it differed from living statue to statue.

They were carrying a variety of boxes and other gear, but what grabbed his attention was the bound and struggling figure of a young woman. Dressed in only a cheer-leading uniform, the girl was hopelessly outmatched. Following her was the Golem Master. Dressed for the cold out of some 1930's movie, he ignored the panicked woman's doomed efforts to free herself.

Grey didn't dare to even curse under his breath as he took pictures of it all. As carefully as possible, he retreated. Putting a building between him and the procession, he sent the pictures over a nearly impossible to detect frequency back to his van. From there it would be relayed by the van's more powerful transmitter to the Bureau and the Mystic's Guild.

Stowing his surveillance equipment, he readied his combat gear. His stomach felt like an icy stone. There was just no way in hell he could rescue that girl. If he saw the opportunity, he would of course take it, but Grey knew for dead certain that at least half of those golems could kick his ass all by their lonesome without a problem. As long as even one golem kept the girl under watch, both she and he were out of luck.

About the only thing he could do was kill her before the ritual called for it. Feeling sick, and hoping that someone, anyone could get here in time, he knew it would be a kindness since he would be quick. Given that the sacrifice's soul was often devoured or destroyed in the process it might be the best thing he could do. It would, however, haunt him for the rest of his life. He knew which of the two possible targets he would prefer.

Carefully, he shadowed the procession as it moved west down Crane Street. Keeping his distance, he saw them dogleg north and then back south. His 'bad' feelings were vibrating like a tuning fork as the villain, golems and sacrifice entered an old iron gate that a historic plaque named Hangman's Hill.

The wooded rise really wasn't much of a hill, but his wolf wasn't happy at all. Tail between the legs and putting as much distance as he could between this place and him, kind of unhappy, his wolf whimpered at him.

As they disappeared into the trees, his task got both harder and easier. Thanks to his wolf, his woodcraft was exceptional, but he would also be forced to get closer to keep them in sight. Grey had no doubts that, if caught, the Golem Master would make certain he was dead this time.

His bad feeling turned into a reality as he spotted the stone altar atop the hill. By the time he'd worked his way stealthy up through the trees, the assembled golems had marked out a pentagram about said altar, as well as putting candles and other supernatural paraphernalia into place.

Grey had no idea of what they were up to, but he was determined to throw a wrench into the works. His eye for the terrain picked out a very nice place that would give him a great shot at the master of ceremonies. A glance at the time confirmed that they were timing this for the exact moment of the equinox where day and night were precisely balanced.

“Come my dears!” The madman's voice carried clearly across the hilltop. “Time is growing short.”

Grey couldn't see where the golems changed their steady working pace. What he didn't miss was the six sculptured statues which didn't take part of the perpetration. Lapis Lazuli, Ebony, Kaspit, Emerald, Ruby, and Topaz. The Mad Scholar tended to name his creations after their hair colors rather than their body compositions.

Not that it mattered. As powerful as those six were, he could call them whatever the hell he wanted. They was as powerful as any Class A Team from the Protection Bureau and were completely devoted to that old bastard.

With them on guard duty, that meant there was no way in hell for Grey to rescue that girl. Even if the entire New York City branch of the Bureau showed up, he doubted if the acknowledged most powerful superhero outfit in the western hemisphere could save the girl.

That was without factoring in the other eighteen golems. He still kept hoping the heroes, someone, anyone would show up. Setting up his crossbow's bi-pod, Grey carefully shielded the scope so there would be no reflection to give him away. It seemed there was only him to save the day.

He took note of the swaying trees judging the wind. Perhaps he wasn't a sniper, but he was a good shot, plus his wolf gave him a preternatural awareness of the world and his surroundings. Grey would only have the one shot. If he missed, it was doubtful he would get another.

The woman was bound to the altar even as she cried, begged, for mercy. The golems gave her none. Unsurprisingly, the madman didn't even spare her cries a glance. The old bastard was too busy setting up his books and scrolls as if preparing for a lecture.

If only Grey had a decent shot, but with the Six along that was not to be. Like the Secret Service with the President, they protected him with their bodies.

“Hear me!” The Mad Scholar shouted to the heavens. “Today neither the Light nor the Darkness rule. Both are equal which means both are weak.

“I despise them!” Despite his age, his voice boomed. “Everyone I loved died at the hands of those who embraced the Dark, but it was the Light that let them die. I reject them both!

“Before I die, I will see all who bear the blood of my family on their hands dead!” Golem Master broke an old stone tablet with a thunderous crack and threw the pieces into the pentagram. The candles flared as they ignited, the wards burning with power. Five of the Six each walked to a point of the five pointed star, leaving Lapis Lazuli standing there with her master.

Grey took deep breaths to oxygenate himself, preparing for the shot. He guessed that was the tablet that'd been stolen from the Hawkmoon. However, the thing hidden within it appeared to be a spot of pure darkness. It ate the light, leaving nothing behind, not a reflection nor a shadow.

His alarm and dread spiked, but he just didn't have a decent shot yet. The Golden woman that'd save his life blocked his view. Like every hunter he knew the value of patience, but this something else again. For this to work it would have to be an instant death. An head shot was complicated by the skull which was designed by evolution to protect the brain. The chest wasn't much better with the rib cage, but he would take what he could get.

Lapis Lazuli still mostly blocked the shot, but when that sacrificial knife began to descend Grey would take the shot anyway and damn the odds. He'd breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that he had no view at all of the victim. Plan 'B' was by far his preference.

It was harder to stick to that plan when the baddie began speaking a tongue that had never come from the throat of a human. The sound actually caused pain, a knife that tore at the senses.

Timing was of the utmost importance in these things, he schooled himself. That was what he had to disrupt. Even if he failed to kill that lunatic, he had a good chance of screwing up whatever this elaborate ceremony was supposed to accomplish. That did not keep him from looking skyward, praying for assistance.

His wolf whimpered as that spot of darkness grew to the size of a not so small truck. Or a gate, Grey swallowed. Oh this was so not good. He forced himself to relax. The moment was coming.

“I summon the Hunger!” The old man shouted at the growing circle of darkness. “I summon the Void. I summon the Nothingness that devours all!”

“The whole world is guilty.” Declared the mad scholar. “Let it pay!”

“Bring forth the ravaging horde from the darkest stars.” The Golem Master spat in hate. “Let their cursed hunger devour all!”

“By the life blood of this innocent, I open the door so that justice may be done!” Raising the blade high above his head, the former scholar took no notice of the lunacy of the context of his statement.

Grey slowly breathed out. The shot had to be made in that magic moment between breaths when the body was still. He was only barely aware that the bolt had left his weapon, but he knew it would hit true.

Feverishly, he ratcheted the lever re-cocking his weapon while he watched what the assembled golems would do.

Like striking lightning, Lapis Lazuli moved snatching the bolt out of the air. Her movement crossed the boundaries breaking the pentagram. The magical barrier dropped, but the blackness of the summoned gate remained.

Designed to split apart on impact so at least one of the penetrators could have an opportunity to strike pass whatever mystical or mundane defenses the target might have, the bolt had separated. All the golden skinned golem held was the rear half of the bolt.

“Oh dear.” Golem Master looked at the ruined pentagram and then at the spreading red stain on his wool and tweed coat over his heart.

The mad alchemist held onto the golden statue as he slumped to the frozen ground. However, it was the the other five of the Six that gathered about the madman that had Grey's attention. They weren't swarming after him like he expected, but they were obviously in a defensive formation about their fallen master just the same.

The question was what the hell to do now?

Not being attacked was good, but that damn black gate was there. From what little he knew, the frakking thing should've gone away after summoning had been interrupted and the pentagram had been broken. However, it was still there and yes his wolf was still whining that running far away from it was a very good idea.

But Grey was a hero damn it.

There was a girl over there surrounded by inhuman creations, while an old insane maniac bled out in front of her. Even as he put his gear aside, he knew this was a bad idea, but it was also the right thing to do. Anything that could be thought of as a weapon, was left behind. It also helped he was not attired as Grey Wolf the hero. His clothing and gear were the same featureless black fatigues used by military and SWAT teams all over the world.

Slowly he rose, as nonthreatening as possible. Twenty-four pairs of gemstone eyes locked onto him. If he'd really been a wolf instead of just hosting the spirit of one, his tail would've been firmly between his legs. Then, possibly the bravest thing he'd ever done, Grey walked up that snow covered hill.

Grey's and Lapis Lazuli's story will be continued in 'The Last Easter.'


If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
up
67 users have voted.

And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks. 
This story is 20149 words long.