[NOTE: As Mr. Edmond is currently in the process of aging and getting married on the other side of the United States from his usual side of the United States, we have opted, against his will, to publish this piece of fiction that we found on his hard drive. His protest was that he had not finished the draft and, in response, we noted the level of professionalism of Mr. Robert Goldshaw. – The Management]
The monitor chamber exploded with activity all at once, Director Pezar Kamiel’s door swung open, slamming into the wall hard enough to leave a dent. Having only recently entered into middle age, Pezar had developed a paunch and his yellow hair had started to whiten. Still, the orange-skinned Bhommen did what he could to stay in shape, especially considering the constant stress of working at the Stellar Defense Agency’s System Monitoring Hub in Aeon, the largest city on the planet Kholyde.
His responsibility was to oversee all traffic coming, going, and active within the N’ehmn System. The idea was to ensure that the N’ah’hamani, the most dangerous species in the system, would be unable to launch an attack on Kholyde, the only planet in the System whose inhabitants had managed to defeat the conquerors. More than a century prior, the people of Kholyde, and those beings of great power that allowed them to remain free, had managed to stem the tide of expansion the N’ah’hamani, although it was still more than a decade until the Great Kholyderz War ended. They were, thus, under constant threat of aggression. Still, the Hub remained quiet the vast majority of the time, with the movements of their aggressors simply noted unless they were too close to the orbit that Kholyde shared with its sister world, Jona. Now, however, the alarms were sounding in ways they never before had and the Director suddenly found himself with something no one had seen before.
“What in all the Hells of Ereskugaal is going on out here?” Pezar bellowed.
Concerned technicians looked up at him in confusion until a young Talpydd who had only recently been assigned to his post stood and addressed the Director. He had the typical Talpydd snout, with a thin mouth filled with tiny sharp teeth and small black eyes over which thick spectacles corrected the species’ nearsightedness. The tech wore the typical jumpsuit unbuttoned to show he wore an undershirt with some pithy motto on it.
“At hour two-one-point-zero-six,” the Talpydd reported in thickly accented Bhomese, “Object of unknown origin entered solar system on direct collision course for Twin Worlds. Being more specific, it seems likely that will directly strike in Aeon City, by initial estimates.”
The Director considered the implications of this.
“Do we have any read on the object, itself? What is it?” the Director queried as he leaned over the Talpydd’s station and eyed the monitors and readouts.
“It is vessel, Director Kamiel,” the young technician replied. “It seems badly damaged and definitely has large numbers of life readings, although specifications on lifeforms cannot be accurately determined at this time.”
A pang of fear struck Pezar as his next question occurred to him. It seemed unlikely to get a response in the positive; the conquerors had never been known to leave the System; but it had to be asked. It was the reason they were monitoring all traffic within the N’ehmn System, after all.
“Is it N’ah’hamani?” His voice cracked mid-way through the name of the thing all the species that resided on Kholyde feared most.
“N’ved.” The Talpydd technician gave a negative response in his native tongue resulting in a palpable wave of relief washing over the entire monitoring station before he continued, “Vessel has configuration not conforming to any known design within N’ehmn System. Also, sensors detect nothing more than most basic of defensive weaponry. It appears to be a passenger transport vessel of some kind.”
Director Kamiel eyed the readouts carefully, assessing every computation and potential outcome. “Can we gauge the exact point of impact for the object?”
The Talpydd (Pezar realized that he could not remember the technician’s name) tapped on the keyboard and manipulated the sensorb to bring up the potential path of the descending vessel.
“Unless there is deviation from current trajectory, will be just north of Centurion Station…” the technician’s voice cut out, suddenly as he completed his calculations. Watching him, Director Kamiel could see the location, but the Talpydd vocalized the final impact point, regardless, “…Diggztown.”
The monitor chamber went silent. The eyes all turned to the Director. Diggztown was the single most populated district in all of Aeon City. It had originally been built to house the massive numbers of refugees after the N’ah’hamani Wars ended, nearly 90 years prior. Since that time, it had become a symbol of the unity of the city; with so many cultures and species residing there from across the solar system, it had become a center of art, music, and overall unconventional thought. Diggztown was a place of creativity, culture, and new ideas. Even without all this, the large population alone made it an unacceptable impact point for something as large as an interplanetary transport vessel to crash land.
Elyn Kamiel, the Director’s younger sister was a professional dancer. A week prior, Pezar had helped move her into her new apartment in the trendy district. Many of those who worked in the monitor chamber had friends or family in Diggztown.
“How long?” Kamiel asked, quietly.
“42 minz.” The Talpydd said.
Director Kamiel took three steps toward the front of the chamber and turned to face the technicians. “Options.” He barked.
“We can have orbital defense systems in place in less than a min.” Offered a technician of the insectoid Anizopt race.
“Failing that, we can have surface-to-air defense in place within 11 minz.” Offered another tech, this one a Bhommen, like Kamiel, but with pale blue skin.
“Um, sir,” the Talpydd interrupted through the sea of options that were being presented. The Director walked back over to the technician’s station.
“You have something?” He inquired.
“Vessel contains multiple lifeforms and has very little offensive weaponry. In addition, is badly damaged. Perhaps an option that does not involve destroying ship and killing all aboard would be more viable solution.”
“Mister Pollyx,” the Director said as he placed his hand on the Talpydd’s shoulder, “In your opinion, what are our options?”
“I think we are nearly out of options, sir,” the tech said with confidence, “Save one.”
“Agreed.” Director Kamiel said as he addressed the room, “Gentlemen, call in the Crusade.”
“I understand that the team thinks it’s fair, Pasqella,” Ramzy Kalyburr said over the oratovid to his girlfriend, “I just don’t see how; with all my other responsibilities, to the company, to the embassy, everything; how they can justify giving me overwatch duty.”
“Ramzy, it’s not any sort of attack on you,” Pasqella Krel, the Bhommen woman on the other end of the line assured him, “You need to understand that all the members of the Crusade have responsibilities, yours are just more public than most of the other members.”
“Which is why I should have more free time to take care of them.”
“You know full, damn well that if you weren’t stuck there, you’d be at my apartment, shirking those other responsibilities anyways.”
Kalyburr sighed, staring at the image of his lover on the screen. She was right. Were it not for his overwatch duty, he wouldn’t be attending to his varied other roles; businessman, diplomat, inventor; instead he would be enjoying the role he enjoyed the most: paramour to the lovely Pasqella. It was the real reason he was annoyed at having to sit around waiting for something to happen.
“I guess you’re right, babe.” He said, accepting his fate of boredom and loneliness, at least for the next few hours, “I’ll see you when Doc Justice gets here to relieve…”
Suddenly, the monitor erupted with alarms. Pasqella could clearly hear the cacophony over the line.
“Fesk it, Ramz,” She swore, “Sounds like you’ve got a live one. I’ll let you go. My heart for you.”
“And mine you.” Kalyburr said; sincerely, but somewhat absent-mindedly; as he switched off the vid. He followed up with an order for the computer, “R-5, answer the call.”
“Good morning, Kalyburr.” The orange-skinned Bhommen said on the screen, “We need your help.”
“That would be why you called, then, huh Director Kamiel.” The hero said snidely, “What’s happening?”
“A vessel of unknown origin is coming at us from outside the N’ehmn System. It’s badly damaged and appears to be a transport for passengers, possibly refugees. It’s on a collision course for Diggztown.”
“Outside the…” Kalyburr muttered as he thought of the implications. He then mustered up every ounce of professionalism and replied, “We’ll be there, sir. I’ll put a team together right away.”
Shutting off the monitor, the hero sighed, thinking of the trendy, upper-level home of his beloved Pasqella, “Of course, it had to be Diggztown.”
He quickly accessed the active roster and put together a team. Tactically, raw power and flying capability mixed alongside skills which would prove useful in a life-saving capacity would be the best option. Finally, he added in the team’s strongest member, just for good measure. Confident in his choices, he put the call out and prepared to enter into the field, himself.
“How are you acclimating to the abilities, Roi?” The Golden Gauntlet asked the newest; and oldest; member of the Crusade.
The Bhommen man who had, as recently as a cycle ago been known only as Roi Holiz, looked down at his gloved hands, pondering the query of the man who was as much a legend as Roi’s predecessors.
“I don’t know.” Roi (he had to get used to thinking of himself as his pseudonym) answered honestly, “I have all the memories of the previous men and women who wore this outfit, but I’m still getting used to the nuances of the enhancements, Golden Gauntlet.”
“Please, Roi,” the man who held the power to manipulate all forms of energy, literally in the palm of his right hand, said, “Call me Marret. We’re going to be working together, there’s no point in using our aliases.”
Roi considered this for a moment. The Golden Gauntlet, hero of three generations, was giving him advice and asking to be called by his real name. The Shining Soldier looked every bit the Kholyder hero; white bodysuit with gold boots, belt and glove, a gold helmet, and a flowing golden cape. His signature Gauntlet shone with an inner light and was odd in that it had two fingers and a thumb as opposed to the five digits that Bhommens had on their hands.
Roi was a Bhommen as well, but he was not nearly in as good a shape as the Gauntlet, who had nearly three decades on Roi. Still, Roi felt that he wore the uniform well, the blue and red with the white and black trim. His mask covered his eyes, something that was going to take a while to get used to, but his mouth and the top of his head were open. His belt provided the flight capability that he was currently using and his own gauntlets contained the hidden bucklers that the previous bearer of the outfit had made his famous signature weapon.
Can’t save lives with a sword. Was his mantra.
Marret Vlake had worked closely with the previous man, a Zahak named Alhain Rox, to wear Roi’s outfit. In fact, they had been lovers. The Zahak, a reptilian race with smooth skin made up of tiny scales and tall, muscular bodies with a long tail, were known to have great respect for philosophy and harmony, as well as being open to new ideas. Vlake and Rox had been trendsetters, revealing both their relationship and their true identities to the public. Unfortunately, the villain known as Sovereign, sworn enemy of the line of heroes of which Rox had been a member and Roi now found himself, capitalized on their openness and used it to murder Alhain.
Soon thereafter, Roi was offered the opportunity to carry on the torch and readily agreed; not having been completely aware of what he was getting into.
Of course, he wouldn’t change it for the world. He was a hero; one of the Kholyderz as Kholyde’s ancient enemies the N’ah’hamani called the super-beings of that world. He had enough power in his hands to do some real good; more than data technician Roi Holiz would ever have been able to accomplish.
“Sorry, Marett,” he apologized, “Of course I…” Both the heroes’ communicators went off at once. Golden Gauntlet answered his instantly and Roi listened in on the one-sided conversation.
“Gauntlet. Yes. Of course. He’s with me now. We’ll be there.” Golden Gauntlet ended the connection and turned to Roi, “You ready for some action?”
“Absolutely, but what’s happening?”
“Ship’s going to crash land in Diggztown in less than 40 minz, I’ll fill you in on the way.”
They began to fly towards the trendy area of the city when Roi was suddenly struck with uncertainty. What if he wasn’t the right choice? He had hoped that his first major outing as a hero would have been something simple; the robbery of a monetary transport or even a spirits dealer. If he screwed up this one, people could die. Gauntlet seemed to sense the new hero’s doubt.
“Don’t worry, buddy.” The veteran hero said, “This city may need me now, but they will always need you.
“You’re the Legend.”
The young Zahak woman swung on the line, chasing after her former mentor who leapt from rooftop to rooftop.
“Go away, Ghost Owl!” The man in black shouted as he hurdled another alleyway and rolled to maintain momentum.
“No, Doc!” The woman shouted back, “Not until I know why you’re doing this!”
“We worked together long enough, kid!” Doc Justice offered as he vaulted over a filtration unit, “You should know exactly why I’m doing this!”
“I do know, Doc!” She replied as she flipped through the air and landed in his path, stopping his progression, “I just want to make sure you know. Say it.”
“I’m not in love with her, damn it.” The vigilante hero spat, “I want to crush her criminal empire and bring her in so she can pay for her crimes.”
“You want her to be a better person. You want her to be that person with you.”
Doc Justice swung his fist and knocked out a small chunk of masonry out of a nearby release vent. “You’re wrong, blast you, you always have been. This is the Zaftig, we’re talking about. Criminal mastermind and underworld leader! She controls half the vice in Aeon City! I would never want anything from her but justice!”
“I’m sorry, Doc,” Ghost Owl said eyeing the newly broken partition, “But if you stay in denial, both you and her are going to get killed and neither of you wants…”
Doc Justice’s communicator sent out a loud alert. He looked at it and then sneered hard enough that it could be seen under his face mask.
“Not now!” He growled.
“What is it?” Ghost Owl asked him, hoping it was something that would stop his current course of action, “Is it the Crusade?”
“Yeah.” He said, staring out into the morning skyline. She was waiting for him and he knew it. It made Ghost Owl very afraid for both of them. Someday, the dance between Doc Justice and the Zaftig of battle and escape would end in the death of one or both of them. Ghost Owl knew that there were feelings between them, Zaftig had admitted as much months ago when the two women; hero and criminal; had been trapped under a collapsing building. They had escaped and Zaftig continued her life of prosperity off the base desires of others, but Ghost Owl viewed both her mentor and the Mistress of Crime in a different light since then.
Suddenly, as though a starting pistol had just been fired, Doc Justice took off in the direction of his oldest foe. Leaping from the rooftop they had had their conversation on to the next one. Ghost Owl was surprised, but recovered quickly and set out after him again. She fired her molecular grapnel at a higher ledge and swung to keep up with her mentor.
“Doc, you can’t just run away, you have to answer the Crusade or they’ll kick you out.”
Justice stopped on a rooftop and then turned to his former student. She landed near him, believing that she had finally gotten through to him. As she stepped forward, he tossed something in her direction and she caught it. She looked in her hand and was shocked to see his official Crusade communicator band. When Ghost Owl raised her head again, Doc Justice had already continued his run to the lair of his arch-nemesis. She looked at the communicator and realized what it meant.
Doc Justice had just turned over his Crusade membership to her.
“Odun, come on!” Sledgehammer bellowed. The sound of her angry voice echoed through the ancient temple, “The call has gone out. We’ve got to go help. ‘Heed the call!’”
This last comment was one Odun, the God of Justice had offered her when Sledgehammer had been feeling like giving up. Never mind the fact that she was functionally immortal and had been fighting as a hero for nearly eighty years, he convinced her that it was important that she fight on as long as she was able. It was a responsibility she had accepted and could no longer eschew. Now she found that he was shirking his duties and it was her that had to argue.
“Mine father! I must contact him.” Odun the Living God replied, abruptly. His long, silver hair shook in his response, flowing over his shoulders. She couldn’t see his pale face or glowing blue eyes, but she knew them like she knew her own face. His armor, silver with golden trim, seemed to glow in the light of the morning sun through the Temple of the Pantheon.
“We all heard what Ahriman said about Ormazed, Odun.” The woman who was known as the Mightiest of the Kholyderz said to the god, referring to a recent battle in which Odun’s malevolent uncle had claimed the death of Odun’s father, “I know that we will find a way to breach the dimensional barrier and help your family, if we can, but right now, mortal lives are in danger.”
“I… I cannot…” the being struggled with his emotions, knowing his duty, but more afraid than he had ever been in his life. If Ahriman was telling the truth, unlikely in the best of circumstances, then the death of Ormazed the All-Creator would have meant dire tidings for every living creature in the universe. She understood Odun’s need to try and commune with his father.
“Listen, Godboy,” Sledgehammer said as she walked up to him and stood in front of where he knelt, “I would love to sit around feeling sorry for myself, too. You think I wanted to be covered in unbreakable golden skin and not be able to feel anything for the rest of eternity? You think I like watching my friends and family get old and die? Not particularly, no! Unfortunately, pity party went out the damn window when we signed up for this outfit so get off your knees and fly me to rendezvous with the rest of the team or hand me your membership badge and communicator.” She wished she was as good at uplifting speeches as Odun had been when she needed one.
The stubborn god continued to pray in whatever ancient language he spoke, natively, ignoring her tirade. Frustrated, Sledgehammer decided to go for the low blow.
“If you don’t get up, right now, your sisters died in vain.” She growled.
Odun finally looked up at her, anger washing over his face. She could sense his weapon, the Wotenspear in the ether as it prepared to appear in the hands of its master and smite the object of his rage: her. It was clear that she had gotten through to him. Unfortunately, she might have gotten through more than she wished and she had no desire to battle the god.
“Never. Speak. Of Izis, nor Ishdaar. Again.” He snarled, emphasizing each term so as to make his point.
The pair of god-siblings had joined the Crusade’s battle against Ahriman and had, in the end, sacrificed their lives to ensure that Ahriman remained sealed away in his pocket-dimensional prison. Odun had taken their deaths hard.
She put her hand on his massively-built shoulder and leaned down to look him in the eye. He looked at her with a mix of anger and confusion and fear. His eyes had golden tears in the corners of them. She knew what he saw when he looked at her; her powerfully-built and well-muscled Bhommen body, long, flowing black hair, and shining golden skin over which she wore a metallic brassiere and briefs of red and black. There was a part of her, not as deep down as she would have wished, that wanted him to see more than that. She knew he never would.
“I won’t, brother.” She said in as calming a way as she could muster given the emergency at hand, “But we need you. The people of Diggztown need you. Let’s save some lives.”
“Aye.” He said, grimly as he stood. The Wotenspear appeared in his right hand and her offered his left to Sledgehammer. She pushed herself close to him; close enough to smell the divine aroma of his pure masculinity. His hand wrapped around her waist and she could swear she could feel his touch, even through her unbreakable metallic skin. She quivered, slightly.
“Are you well?” He asked, sensing her strange reaction to his nearness.
“It’s just that when this is over, I think we should probably just copulate and get it over with.”
Odun looked at her with shock and she gauged his reaction as having been surprised she would even consider such a thing. Making a joke of it, Sledgehammer winked. Seeing that she had been kidding, he beamed a smile, and the two of them took to the air.
“We’re certain that this thing isn’t N’ah’hamani?” Kalyburr asked, having to shout over the engine of his orbitalcycle as he hovered near the other four members of the Crusade who had arrived. They were still waiting for one more.
“Positive.” Golden Gauntlet replied, clearly annoyed at the having to answer the question again, “Control references every known N’ah’hamani design as soon as a ship enters the atmo. The configuration on this one is a radical departure from anything we have on file, N’ah’hamani included.”
“Good, cause I don’t have heavy enough weapons to fight any Skizzerz, today.” Kalyburr added using the derisive slang term for the conquering reptilian race that struck terror into everyone’s hearts. Kalyburr glanced back at his reflection in the nearby glass building, doing his best to seem as though he were checking for any danger that may show up out of no where. In actuality, he was double-checking his look. He never wanted to appear in public with his impression left to chance. If his armor got scuffed up or damaged, that was fine; the public ate up the sacrificing hero; bite and char marks never made anyone look selfish. However, if a component of the Kalyburr Mark VII Nano-Armament Tactical Powered Armor was backwards or missing, it would be an embarrassment from which Ramzy wasn’t certain he could capably recover.
The silver on the Kalyburr Industries Mark-7 Personalized Battlesuit was impeccable, shining in the early sunlight. The crimson trim at the joints and most of the helmet was brushed and did not shine, but had clean, smooth lines. At each large area; the forearms, the biceps, the shins, the thighs, the torso and the back; lay powerful and capable weaponry that could be modified or combined at a moment’s notice. The Mark-7 was a wonder and Kalyburr’s perfect little machine. Other powered armor designers looked down on the Kalyburr Kholyderz dynasty as many common systems were never incorporated in the basic armor; flight systems, life support, advanced energy generators.
The way Ramzy looked at it, if they had to rely on such contrivances, they shouldn’t be out fighting as heroes in the first place.
“Okay, team,” Gauntlet said to the assembled heroes, “We can catch Doc Justice up when he gets here. Sledge? You and Doc will be at Aeon Beach South. I need you to evacuate the area. If this thing is coming down, I want to make sure it’s somewhere near a lot of water with no civilians.
“Kalyburr, Legend! I need you to get into the vessel. Kal, see if you can do some repairs with your nanotech, maybe we can keep this thing from crashing altogether. Roi, you should be able to use your empathic abilities to calm any passengers.
“Odun, I’ll use my force fields to support the superstructure and take some of the weight off, but I’ll need you to guide the vessel to the beach and try to slow it down.”
A round of affirmative responses followed from the assembled Kholyderz. They prepared to break the group up and take on their various tasks as a figure in a gray and brown costume with a hood and mask swung in from a nearby building, much to the surprise of the other heroes.
“Ghost Owl?” Golden Gauntlet said hesitantly, “What are you doing here? Where’s Doc Justice?”
“He can’t make it.” She answered, holding her mentor’s communicator out so they could see it, “He sent me, instead.”
“This is ridiculous!” Kalyburr announced, “This is going to be tough enough without having to babysit some kid!”
Ghost Owl threw an angry scowl in Kalyburr’s direction, “I was on the streets, fighting murderers and dealers and other scum for three years before the Crusade ruled that I needed the tutelage of Doc Justice. That was two years ago. You’ve been doing this, what, a year? Two?”
“Almost three.” Kalyburr interrupted with a sneer.
“Since your father gave you that armor. Sure you trained since you were young, but so did your brother and sister, you just happened to be the oldest of the three. Today, not twenty minutes ago, Doc Justice decided that I was ready to fight alongside the Crusade and the proof is here in my hand.” She turned to Golden Gauntlet, her palm open and Doc Justice’s badge centered in her hand, “So put me in. I am as capable as the Doc of doing what needs to be done.”
“Understood.” The Gauntlet replied.
“Come on!” Ramzy protested, but a reprimanding glare from the team leader stopped his complaints.
“The discussion is over.” Gauntlet said, abruptly, “Most of you know what you have to do. Owl, you go with Sledge, she’ll fill you in on the way. Are we ready?”
The assembled Crusaders all joined each other in a resounding, “Go!” and broke off.
Kalyburr and the newest man to call himself the Legend flew ahead of Golden Gauntlet and Odun. Ramzy was annoyed to have to go into enter into such an important undertaking with a pair of untested heroes like Roi and Ghost Owl. If the novices made any mistakes, the whole team could pay for it.
“You ready for this, kid?” The armored hero asked his teammate who was, in fact older than him.
The newest Legend tapped the side of his head with two fingers, “I have all the accumulated experience and memories of every being to call themselves the Legend over the last century-plus. Frankly, keeping it all strait in normal life is the hard part. Stressful situations like this come to me as second nature. Real life? That’s the pain in the ass.”
“Well just don’t slow me down when we get into that thing.” Kalyburr said, snidely.
There was no more conversation as they approached the designated point they were to approach the crashing vessel. The idea was that Legend and Kalyburr would try to match the speed of the transport and then board it when Golden Gauntlet and Odun started slowing its descent.
The two heroes hovered in the air for a moment, the only sound being the revving engine of the orbitalcycle. Neither one was pleased at whom they were teamed with, but they would both set aside their differences in order to get the job done and save lives. As they floated and pondered their thoughts, a glint of sunlight shone off an object far in the distance. An object that was getting larger by the second.
“Fesk.” Kalyburr swore under his breath at the size and speed of the incoming vessel.
“Get ready to do this…” Roi replied with a smirk, adding, “Kid.”
“Ormazed’s beard.” Odun exclaimed under his breath. He has seen and dealt with vessels entering the atmosphere before; when some N’ah’hamani warlord or another decided to see if the world of Kholyde was, at last, easy pickings only to meet with defeat or when some shuttle or other transport suffered a malfunction. This, however, was different. The vessel was much larger than a Hamani warship, or even an orbital cargo transport, and definitely had much less control. Upon striking Kholyde’s atmosphere, the vessel had burst into flame at dozens of different points, causing blazing streamers to follow its path. It may have been silver or even gold at some point, but now it was seared to black with a metallic tinge in some places.
The newest Legend and Kalyburr followed the vessel, closely, matching its descent speed and ready to make a boarding maneuver when Gauntlet and the god managed to slow it.
“Ready, Odun?” The man known as the Golden Gauntlet asked as the ancient alien artifact on his right hand glowed with a brilliant shine like that of the system’s sun, itself.
“Aye!” the living deity confirmed. He was beginning to rethink his initial course of action. Since he had first joined the Crusade more than a decade prior, he had always heard that the mightiest member was the transformed Bhommen woman called Sledgehammer. Although the god had never disputed this, he had always wondered how to put this to the test. Certainly she was strong; Odun had seen Sledgehammer crack a N’ah’hamani warship in half on her own; but was she as mighty as the eldest son of the Lord of All Things, Ormazed?
Odun had planned to use this opportunity to see if he could prove his own strength to the team. He had believed that, once the ship had been covered in a force field by Golden Gauntlet, he would be able to single-handedly catch it and lower it to the ground. He believed that he could, after that, have rightful claim to be at least as strong as Sledgehammer.
Now, seeing the vessel bearing down on their position, Odun doubted that being a possibility. The sheer bulk of the transport, coupled with its momentum put it far beyond his power level. Had the vessel been smaller or had it been coming in a little slower, maybe it would have been a possibility, but it was unlikely.
Odun set himself on the original plan: help to slow it so that it could be brought in for a crash-landing in a reasonably unpopulated area. He watched as the Golden Gauntlet flew toward the vessel and lifted his right arm, palm open towards it. A beam of yellow light erupted from his signature gauntlet and enveloped the ship. The Shining Soldier then closed his hand and the transport vessel was completely encompassed by the golden energy. Almost immediately, the flames were snuffed out by the force field and Gauntlet evacuated the oxygen between the field and the ship’s hull. The hero maneuvered out of the path of the ship and began pacing with it, in order to keep the field around it.
Now it was Odun’s turn, he flew in the direction of the ship, his Wotenspear leading the way. He twisted in the air, ensuring his chest was facing up towards the monolithic vessel. Matching the ship’s speed, he finally pushed his body against the force field enveloping it. The god found that it wasn’t as smooth as he had thought it would be and, almost instantly, it conformed to his body shape, allowing him to have a firm grip on the field, itself.
Odun willed his spear skywards and back and immediately felt the strain of trying to move the vessel. His muscles labored against the pull of gravity and the sheer mass of the ship. Despite the strain, Odun could feel the transport slowing and smiled to himself. Perhaps he couldn’t prove he was the mightiest Crusader, but he could certainly give everyone something to talk about.
Roi and Kalyburr had breached the the transport with ease. Gauntlet had made certain there had been a hole in the forcefield which would allow them to get to the vessel. From there, Ramzy had been able to reach an airlock which opened after some brief nano-tech manipulation.
“My nanos are in the system, thanks to that door.” Kalyburr said as they entered the ship’s rattling corridors, “It has a weird set-up; no compartmentalization, no redundant systems, nothing even remotely resembling innate security protocols. It’s as if they don’t expect electronic intrusion of any kind.”
“So you shouldn’t have any problem getting into the main terminal.” Legend said, fully able to keep up thanks to his former career as a computer technician.
“Despite the fact that this was all designed in a completely alien language, yeah.” Ramzy replied, “I should be able to determine the status of the systems in a matter of minutes and maybe I can attend to any repairs needed.”
The young, brash hero looked at Roi with a confident smirk, “Whoever these folks are, their tech has nothing on what I’ve got in play.”
“Fine, you get to work on that,” Legend said, standing strait up in an attempt to look like the hero he was, “I’ll see if I can find and help the passengers.”
With the violent shaking, navigating the hallways wasn’t easy. Roi moved through the corridors on guard; ready for anything that might come at him. He considered using his anti-grav belt, but the he felt he was more maneuverable on his feet. Fortunately, he didn’t have to go far before he located a large passenger compartment.
Inside, Legend was shocked at what he saw. The refugees (Roi was certain that’s what they were when he saw them) were packed closely into one half of the compartment. There were dozens, possibly hundreds of them, made up of several wildly different species. A number of them had equine legs and hoofed feet with heavy hands which each had two fingers and a thumb with thick nails. Another species seemed to be aquatic with fins on the head and arms as well as webbed hands. Some were not even remotely bhommenoid, having more limbs, tentacles, and other unusual body forms. None of this, however, was as important to Roi as the fact that they all seemed to be cowering from something at the far side of the cabin.
Thanks to his enhanced senses, Legend could see through the darkness and smoke that otherwise obscured the front end of the chamber. He could see movement of something that was hidden by the seats and he could tell that the movement was that of something big. When he saw the end of a spiked tail come into view, he realized what the refugees were afraid of.
Wasting no time, the hero surged forward, placing himself between the passengers and the danger. He activated his twin bucklers, flipping them to full size in order to deflect any incoming attacks. He fell into a defensive stance, ready for the creature on the other side of the passenger compartment.
Suddenly, the doubt began to strike him again. Was he ready to face the most horrible monsters the people of Kholyde had ever known. As soon as the thought began to strike him, a flash of green and a metal dart flew through the air towards the refugees. Legend leapt, buckler forward, preventing the javelin from piercing any of the hapless victims. When Roi landed, he looked again in the direction of the attack and saw what had launched it.
It was more than twenty-two karels long, making it almost twice as long as the average bhommen was tall. It had thick, scaled skin of a deep green. It’s eyes were deep set and as black as the void. It had a short snout with a wide mouth filled with three rows of razor-sharp teeth. A recurve in both its arms and its legs with an extra joint in each allowed it a greater range of movement than more bhommenoid creatures. With four taloned fingers on each hand and four clawed toes, one of them on the heel, it had spines down its back and along the backs of its arms that looked as though they were metallic; one clearly missing. It was a living weapon made all the worse by the devious and hatful mind that drove it. The creature wore black armor that had been badly damaged and was wounded in numerous places. Nonetheless, it was spectacularly dangerous as it could never be disarmed and never turned from its violent course.
It was a N’ah’hamani.
Roi looked into those black, cold eyes for a glimpse of recognition. The uniform of the Legend had been hated and feared by the massive reptilian marauders since the first Legend appeared more than a century ago. This Skizzer, however, seemed unimpressed. No sign of recognition flashed through its soulless eyes, but there was something else.
The creature cocked its head as it stared back at Roi and its brow furrowed in confusion.
“You do not fear me?” it said and asked in its native Hamanese.
“No.” Roi repeated in a perfect accent of the creature’s tongue.
Taken aback by the fact that this mammal dared to know its speech, the creature sneered, “Why is this? Why do you not fear me, little mammal.”
Sick of discussion, Legend crashed both bucklers into either side of the creatures head, eliciting a scream from the N’ah’hamani. Roi then shot his foot out, crashing into the creature’s scaled chest, hearing the cracking of bone and sending to careening into the wall of the cabin.
Legend followed up, moving over the seating to land standing over the murdering reptile as it tried to get up, despite its shattered rib cage. It spat blood from its mouth and Roi could see that a number of its teeth had been shattered by his buckler strike.
“Because I can can kick your ass in my sleep.” The Legend finally answered.
He raised his right arm and brought it down hard on the creature’s skull, sending it into unconsciousness. He pulled several break-free restraints from his belt and thoroughly bound the N’ah’hamani. When he was finished, he looked back on the survivors.
Their fear had left them. They faces wore expressions of astonished joy at seeing someone able to fight the beast that had been terrorizing them. One of them floated forward, clearly able to fly naturally.
She looked the worse for wear. Her body, overall humanoid, was missing an arm and a leg on its left side. However, she did not seem to be badly injured, beyond this. Her skin glowed with an inner blue light that reflected off the faces of those near her and she wore several pieces of strange armor that seemed to be made of the same material as her skin, just a darker tone. She smiled and Roi saw that, although she had been weakened by battle, she was very beautiful.
“Who are you that you could face an Aggressor with such ease?” she asked. Roi realized that, when she spoke, it was as though everyone, including him, could understand her, no matter the language barrier.
“My name is the Legend.” Roi said, proudly, “Tell your people to strap in and hold tight. This is going to be bumpy.”
Evacuating the area in which the unknown vessel would crash land was a reasonably simple task. The people of Kholyde had learned to follow instructions from any official Kholyder long ago and the Crusade were the best-known group of Kholyder heroes ever known.
Within minutes of their arrival, Sledgehammer and Ghost Owl had the situation well in control. Once the majority of the civilians had been moved from the beachfront area and the location assessed for the safest area to which the crashing vessel could be guided was located, the work seemed to have been completed.
Sledgehammer noted how the level of professionalism with which the younger hero operated. Ghost Owl had, as she had mentioned, operated for several years, but the first few has been as an adolescent hero member of the Furies, a team of exclusively female teenagers, a concept that Sledge had always thought wasn’t the best of ideas. Still, Ghost Owl had clearly proven herself in the past and, seeing how well she dealt with the public in the current situation, the veteran hero had decided she would be willing to support a full membership for the young woman; even sponsor the membership, if necessary.
However, it was clear that something was on Ghost Owl’s mind. Even as she apprehended a purse-nabber without a second thought, she seemed to be distracted. With most of the hard work complete and the only tasks remaining were waiting and one that fell to Sledgehammer, alone, the Invincible Maiden decided to inquire as to what was on the younger woman’s mind.
“I can’t help but notice, Ghost Owl,” Sledgehammer said as they neared each other after another patrol to ensure there were no civilians in the crash zone, “You seem to be distracted. What’s bothering you?”
“It’s everything, Sledgehammer,” the younger hero replied, “Doc Justice went off on another crusade to stop Zaftig and handed me his badge and the next thing I know, here I am. It’s a lot to take in. Although…”
Noticing that she had trailed off, Sledge followed up, “What is it?”
“Well, since we got here, I have been wondering something. I can understand why I would be sent on civilian safety duty or even why this would go to Doc Justice, but you’re the World’s Strongest Sentient. Shouldn’t you be closer to the main action.”
“There’s nothing unimportant about what we’re doing, Owl.”
“I know, I know,” she said, clearly having meant no offense, “But I would have put you on the ship or something. Not here on the ground. I guess I don’t understand what Golden Gauntlet is thinking.”
Sledgehammer smiled, “Marret and I have been working together as allies and friends for more than forty years. We know each other better than most other members of the Crusade. In fact, the previous Legend, Gauntlet, Battle Raven, and myself were the entire membership of the Crusade for a few years.
“Those were tough times. The planetary leadership had turned its back on Kholyderz and the Crusade was forced to go off the grid in order to continue operating. Many of the other members chose to retire or simply drop out of the public eye. Personally, I had nothing else. At that point, I had been a Crusader for nearly fifty years. Battle Raven, well, who ever knows Battle Raven’s motivations? But Gauntlet and Legend? The two of them were determined to make things work. They saw the Crusade as a symbol that was important to the people and they didn’t want to see it die.
“We met some of the greatest challenges the Crusade has ever faced, in those days: the necromancer, Skulch; the Epoch, the Time Elemental; the Colonel’s team of military trained Kholyderz, Extreme Prejudice; the Hexachronostatic Man; the demonic Harvester; the N’ah’hamani Warlord, Zsinj; and, of course, the Ascendent Empire.”
“Sovereign’s followers.” Ghost Owl added, “He had managed to take control of the government.”
“Yeah.” Sledgehammer confirmed with a distant look, “We had dealt with Sovereign before; he’d been an enemy of the first Legend and each Legend after; but this was his greatest scheme. He had altered his appearance and manipulated his way into the leadership of the Global Council. He then used his empathic abilities to turn the rest of the Council against the Kholyderz, especially the Crusade.
“In the end, Legend discovered Sovereign’s subterfuge and we rallied the Kholyderz to our cause, stopping the plot before Sovereign managed to cement his rule. It was a close call, but the four of us became a finer fighting unit than most can imagine during that dark period.
“For this reason, Gauntlet knows my capabilities. He knows what I can do and he knows my limits. I’m here because of that.”
“So, what you’re saying,” Ghost Owl began to surmise, “Is that you’re here doing crowd control because Golden Gauntlet doesn’t think you can help with the stopping the ship?”
The ground beneath them began to tremble and they both turned to see the vessel heading in their direction. The fires had been put out by Golden Gauntlet’s energy sheath, which surrounded the object in a glowing light, but it had barely been slowed by the Gauntlet and Odun’s efforts. They had managed to guide it, little more. Ghost Owl began to move out of the crash zone, ignoring the question she had asked. Sledgehammer stood her ground.
“To answer your question, Owl,” the veteran hero responded as the younger hero retreated, “Gauntlet didn’t send me here only for crowd control. He knows that in the air, I can’t do much to stop the ship. On the ground…”
She turned to Ghost Owl with a wry smile, raising her voice so she could be heard over the din of the crashing transport, “He wants me to catch it.”
Ghost Owl turned back, as she retreated, a look of shock on her face. Sledge knew what she was thinking. She didn’t think the veteran was powerful enough for the task at hand. She would have asked if she was crazy or suicidal. It didn’t matter. By the time she would have formed a question, the barrage of noise bearing down on them would have been far too loud to hear it, regardless.
Sledgehammer caught a glimpse of Golden Gauntlet as she prepared for the feat that lay before her. They met eyes and he smiled at her as she offered a wink of her eye. She then set her back foot and settled into a stance that would offer the best support while doing some calculations in her head.
The beach was sand, but it sat on bedrock that was solid. With the sandy buffer to soften the blow, she should have solid enough ground to maintain her stance. The weight of the falling vessel would be multiplied by the velocity at which it fell which meant it would initially feel much heavier than it actually was.
Sledgehammer had long been toted as the strongest Crusader, but the reality was that she had simply never found her limit. The feats of might she had accomplished had never even caused her a great amount of strain. Despite this, Sledge was certain she would meet her match at some point. She might well be the strongest being in the Universe, but there was someone or something that was more than she could handle, she was certain of it and that she would one day encounter this challenge and fall short.
That day wasn’t today.
The vessel came down with a sound that drowned out everything around it. The heat of it, despite Gauntlet’s efforts, was enough to melt the sand into glass, instantly. The force was even more than Sledge had expected, but she wasn’t concerned.
She pushed back, putting all of her might into it and found that it was enough. The newly formed glass around her feet cracked and shattered and she soon felt the stone beneath the beach. She thrust her feet down, embedding them in the rock, giving her better footing and allowing her to further slow the vessel’s momentum. Sledgehammer then pushed forward, feeling the metal skin of the vessel give way, even under Golden Gauntlet’s impenetrable sheath of solid energy.
Pushed back and deeper into the bedrock, Sledgehammer began to regret having the beach as a crash zone. The area simply wasn’t capable of sustaining her form with that much weight crushing down on her. Still, the vessel continued to slow and she felt it meet with what had been a beach and was now a glassy plain, distributing the mass of the transport across a greater area and slowing it further. Realizing that she needed a proper counter force, she put her shoulder to the hull of the vessel and pushed off with her feet, an act that would in other situations, propelled her into the air at great speeds. The action paid off, forcing the vessel to a complete stop with a massive groan of metal.
Sledgehammer smiled to herself. She had done what others had thought wasn’t possible… at least most others. Had the ship been allowed to simply impact, it’s momentum may have taken it beyond the beach and into residential zones. He strength had been the only real solution to safely landing the vessel without further casualties.
And she had met the challenge. Once again, she had yet to fall short of the task set before her.
Now all she had to do was dig her way out from under the thousands of tons of metal and glass.
In the aftermath of the crash, process of recovery began almost immediately. Director Kamiel had medic, safety, and fire control teams on the scene within minutes after the vessel had come to rest. Planetary Security and local law enforcement arrived soon after, debriefing the members of the Crusade and learning what they could in the short interim. They, of course, were followed by the press.
Golden Gauntlet landed on what had been a beach and retracted his energy sheath. The structure of the vessel settled in awkward ways without the support of his force field, leading Gauntlet to the conclusion that it had not been meant for atmospheric travel, at least with the degree of gravity which surrounded the world of Kholyde.
Soon after, he was approached by Ghost Owl.
“Nicely done, young lady.” He said to her as she neared him, “I hear you actually managed to stop a crime while protecting the citizens.”
“That doesn’t matter,” she said frantically, “Sledgehammer! She’s under the ship!”
“I know, I…” His explanation was interrupted by the massive cracking of glass, causing both heroes to look in the direction of the vessel.
The ground, already cracked from the weight on it, shattered as a golden-skinned fist erupted from beneath it. The fist was soon followed by the form of Sledgehammer as she extracted herself from beneath the ship.
“Whoa!” Ghost Owl said.
“I say that every time.” Golden Gauntlet confirmed.
Owl smiled at him and turned to meet the Invincible Maiden with congratulations. Gauntlet watched them interact with a grin. In his many years on the team, he had seen the bond between newer heroes and the veterans form many, many times. Still, it was good to see it, once again. He was certain that Ghost Owl had found her own hero today and Sledgehammer had always had a place in her heart for the strong, anxious, and capable young women that were accepted into the ranks of the Crusade.
He felt the raw power of the form that landed next to him and he turned to greet Odun.
“Nicely done.” Gauntlet said, “I wasn’t sure we could pull it off, but we managed.”
“We managed?” the god said, awe in his voice, “It was really all her, wasn’t it?” He gestured to the golden-skinned woman.
“Not at all.” The Shining Soldier assured him, “Without our efforts to reduce the ship’s velocity, Sledgehammer, there’s little chance Sledgehammer would have been able to stop it before it went out of control and careened into some residence or another. You steered it away from Diggztown.”
Odun glanced at him sideways with a wry smirk, “You don’t need to stroke my ego, Gauntlet,” he said, “I am a god.” He looked back to the hero of the day, “And yet, I have never witnessed anything as amazing as… her.”
“You and me, both, my friend.” Gauntlet turned to the deity, “I know you have other things to deal with. You can head off, if you want.”
Odun lifted his Wotenspear in salute to Sledgehammer and then mimicked the gesture to Golden Gauntlet. “Thank you, my friend.” He said, “I do have much to which to attend. Please give the team my regards and do not hesitate to call if I am needed.”
“Of course.” Gauntlet replied as he offered his hand, “The same goes for us, you know. If you need us…”
“I am part of a team, now.” The deity said as he grasped Golden Gauntlet’s wrist in a sign of solidarity, “Recent events have… enlightened me as to what, exactly, that means.”
“Glad to hear it.” Gauntlet offered.
With that, Odun flew off, offering a nod to Legend and Kalyburr as they emerged from the ship. The two of them looked slightly banged up, but none the worse for wear. Marret noted that Kalyburr had lost an armor panel that had been covering his backside, eliciting a chuckle from the veteran hero. As he watched, Legend turned and reached into the ship, extracting something. When he saw what it was, Golden Gauntlet drew in a shocked gulp of air.
Trussed up and battered, an unconscious N’ah’hamani warrior was pulled from the transport. It’s tail was long enough to be used as a weapon, but too short for it to be of any significant age. Still, it was impressive that the pair of relatively novice heroes had managed to defeat such a foe. In the years since the original N’ah’hamani invasion, when the Kholyderz first appeared, the conquering reptiles had developed various weapons which could combat the super-powered warriors of the planet Kholyde. No Skizzer would be without such a contrivance and to defeat one of the powerful creatures when it was armed as such was no small feat.
Gauntlet took to the air and met with the pair.
“Well done, gentlemen.” Gauntlet said, “It’s not easy to take down a Hamani.”
“This time it was.” Legend said, “He’s never heard of the Legend or the Kholyderz.”
“This Skizzer was completely unprepared.” Kalyburr added.
“That’s seems impossible!” Golden Gauntlet exclaimed, “No N’ah’hamani in this System hasn’t heard of the protectors of this world.”
“That is because he is not from your System.” Came a voice from within the ship.
A glowing, blue, female figure emerged, floating from the opening, and, thanks to his link to the Gauntlet of Power he wore, Golden Gauntlet could tell that she was made up of pure, cosmic energy. Her blue skin glowed brighter the second she met with the sunlight and he watched as her damaged arm and leg began to regenerate before his eyes.
“Wow, Lazerhawk,” Legend declared, “You weren’t kidding about your limbs growing back!”
“Exposure to the light of your star has accelerated the degree of my re-sustaining.” The blue woman said, “It is good to be out of that ship.”
Gauntlet became aware of the fact that he could understand her in his native language from Enscorra, a nation that lay half a world away. No one in Aeon spoke Enscorran, and yet this woman; Lazerhawk; was speaking perfect Enscorran and everyone was understanding every word she spoke.
“A natural translation ability,” Gauntlet said as he offered his hand, “Very impressive.”
The glowing blue woman looked down at his hand for a moment and Gauntlet realized that she might not understand the gesture. As he was about to retract it, she took it and grasped his wrist, exactly as Odun had done moments ago. Gauntlet suddenly realized that she was actually translating the gesture, itself.
“We are Lazerhawk.” She said, introducing herself.
“Golden Gauntlet.” The veteran hero replied, “I am pleased to see you’re well, after your trip.”
“It was not easy. The Aggressors managed to breach our vessel as we escaped. We had managed to defeat most of them, but they had weapons that did us harm. We cannot survive certain forms of energy and we were attacked with such.”
“Are there other survivors?” Gauntlet asked her, having gained an understanding of her use of the first person plural terms.
“Yes, a number of them.” Lazerhawk answered, “There are injured. They will need assistance. We will help translate where we can. We only managed to get 4,436 of them away in time.”
“In time for what?” Gauntlet asked.
Suddenly, both Legend and Kalyburr’s shoulders noticeably dropped. Golden Gauntlet became aware of something that was very, very wrong and the two younger heroes knew what it was, but seemed afraid to even give voice to it.
“What’s wrong, gentlemen?” Gauntlet said, his own mood turning sour.
Legend turned to Lazerhawk. “Are you certain they’re headed this way?” he asked her.
“Positive.” She replied, coldly, “We tried to evade them, but to no avail. Our people were wiped out trying to contain it, but enough of us saw the energy trails. They were already returning home.”
“Your people…” Gauntlet said to the woman, suddenly aware of what an amazing specimen she was and that there should be more like her.
“Gone, we are afraid.” She said with a twinge of sadness, “We… I am the last.”
Golden Gauntlet felt his chest heave in sorrow for the woman. Whatever she was, wherever she hailed from, she had never had to consider being alone before in her existence. The terms “I” and “me” were foreign to her. Still, she had come to realize that these terms were appropriate, in her current circumstances. She was alone. “We” was no longer a term that applied to her.
Gauntlet placed his hand on her shoulder. “I am so sorry, Lazerhawk.” He said, grief gripping his voice, “Whatever happened, it can wait until you are ready.”
She turned to him, her body straitening as though she was preparing for the tasks that lay ahead of her. “I am ready, now.” She said, “Time is of the essence.”
“Gauntlet,” Kalyburr finally spoke up, “This is bad. Worse than anything we’ve ever dealt with. Worse than Zsinj, worse than Sovereign…”
“You never fought Sovereign.” Gauntlet said, annoyed.
“Doesn’t matter.” Kalyburr continued, “This is worse than our worst nightmares could have nightmares about.”
“It’s pretty bad.” Legend added.
“What is it?” the veteran hero said in the early stages of losing his legendary patience.
“It is a weapon.” Lazerhawk answered, “The Aggressors; N’ah’hamani, as I have been told is their true name; refer to it as the Starbuster.”
The sound of the name reverberated in Golden Gauntlet’s mind and he suddenly realized he had become as pale as he felt.
“The weapon is launched into the star of a solar system,” She continued, “Which causes the sun to go supernova…”
“They’re coming here!” Kalyburr said, almost pleading, “They would do this to their own star, you know they would! What do we do?”
Gauntlet looked around at the assembled heroes. All of them had done well, but it was only the beginning. Nearby, Sledgehammer and Ghost Owl were talking to the press. Legend and Kalyburr looked fearful, but strong. Even Lazerhawk looked as though she was prepared to do what needed to be done. Gauntlet turned away and stared into the setting sun.
“We stop them.” He said, grimly, “We stop them once and for all.”