Universe #180208, Bridge of the Shi’ar command ship the Swooping Talon

Chandilar, jewel of the Shi’ar Empire, was at threat. At present it sat, with barely a defence, against the seemingly unstoppable force of the Terran Empire. The Terran forces approached the planet like a swarm of locusts ready to ravage a ripe and valuable crop.

The Exiles, interdimensional heroes from half a dozen different worlds, were sent here to stop it, but how could six people hold back an army? One member, Longshot, was badly wounded and being treated by a medic, while another, Spider Man, had been ravaged by torture. They could only watch in horror as the Terrans launched a missile towards the planet, its flight unimpeded by the Shi’ar’s various attempts to stop it.

“Blink, could you ‘port it away?” Sabertooth asked the team’s leader.

“It’s too far away Victor,” she replied, her features a mixture of despair and rage. Above all else she hated being helpless.

“The screens are misleading,” explained the crippled Christopher Summers, human defector to the Shi’ar cause, “they magnify the view, or else we would…Oh no…,”

The sight of the Terran missile annihilating Chandilar’s capital city stole the words from Christopher’s mouth. At first, when the missile had failed to detonate on impact, they hoped against all else that it was faulty, but apparently their prayers weren’t answered.

“No!” screamed Empress Deathbird in despair as ash and dust from the destroyed city filled the air and clouded the entire Northern Hemisphere.

“All those innocent people…” Power Princess balled her hands into fists and spared a glance at her comrade Longshot who was being carried away to the med bay by medics. He and Spider Man had been sent on a reconnaissance mission, to gather information on how to defeat the Terran’s. Presumably the two of them had been captured and badly hurt before being teleported back to safety by Axel Asher, the man who now controlled their lives.

She placed a hand on Miguel’s shoulder and he winced in pain, “Spider Man, did you gather any useful information?”

He opened his palm to reveal several tiny discs, “Got it all on here. Haven’t had a chance to read it all yet but I’m sure Asher wouldn’t’ve brought us back if we didn’t have the right stuff,”

Davan Shakari, head of the Shi’ar intelligence network, snatched the disc’s from Miguel’s hand and bowed towards Deathbird, “My men shall have the data analysed immediately,” and left the bridge.

“I hope so,” replied Deathbird sombrely, while watching Shi’ar and Terran ships do battle. The Shi’ar were sorely outnumbered and it wouldn’t take long for the Terrans to break through their blockade and attack the planet.

The Empress stepped aside, out of earshot of the Exiles, and spoke quietly with Grand Admiral F’Dor.

She failed to realise that both Sabertooth and Spider Man possessed enhanced hearing and took in every word she said.

“She keeps talkin about the ‘crystal’ and whether it’s safe of not?” explained Victor,

“The old Shi’ar says they still have readings, it wasn’t destroyed in the blast,” added Miguel.

This cryptic conversation only proved to baffle the reality hopping heroes.

“Maybe Deathbird’s going through a New Age faze?” joked Morph, while dressed in a tie died shirt with a dreamcatcher for a necklace.

“Not now Morph,” said Blink quietly, sparing a glace at ravaged Chandilar; now wasn’t the time for jokes.

Suddenly the ship rocked as the Terran forces focused fire in their direction. Whether they realised this was Deathbird’s command ship or not was unclear. What was clear though was the fact the weak Shi’ar forces could not stand against the might of the Terran fleet. Even now more ships continued to spew forth from the giant Warpring.

“Why don’t they just blow they damn thing out of the sky?!” demanded a frustrated Sabertooth.

“Just watch,” replied Summers.

Stray laser fire from a Shi’ar Destroyer nearby was headed directly for the ring but at the last second it seemed to fade from existence.

“We suspect the ring’s dimensional vortex creates a ‘dead zone’ around it, a dimensional void if you will, that protects it from harm,” explained F’Dor.

“So we can’t break it, great,” replied Victor sarcastically.

“There’ll be something on those discs Sabertooth,” replied Spider Man resolutely; he refused to believe he had suffered through the trauma of torture for nothing.

“In the meantime people are dying out there,” stated Blink, “We need a plan. The forces we called back from Aerie should be here soon, we just need to stall,”

“What do you propose?” asked Power Princess, with just a hint of snideness; after all, she did have five hundred years more experience with warfare than this woman who was barely out of her teens.

“Cut off the head and the body dies,” she stated, “The Shi’ar will focus their fire on the command vessel, while we teleport inside and attack their commander,”

“Their commander is an Eternal,” replied Miguel grimly, “A guy named Ikaris. He seemed pretty cold blooded,”

“Hey I met Ikaris once,” commented Morph as he took the form of a crispy toga wearing man with wings on his arms, “The Avengers teamed up with him a few times, and once he had us over for dinner. The guy makes a mean risotto. Other than his cooking skills he’s also pretty damn powerful,”

“Maybe we should take backup?” asked Miguel, sparing a glance at the intimidating cyborg Gladiator nearby.

“Your plan is the best we can do, under the circumstances. But Gladiator will lead the attack with my Imperial Guard,” Deathbird ordered.

For the first time Gladiator showed emotion; what was left of his face contorted in grim anticipation of the battle to come. Zarda couldn’t help but think he was afraid. Of course, something must have reduced him to his partially mechanised state, suggesting there was someone or something out there that could hurt him. Was it on that ship?

The empress immediately began barking out orders, directing the Shi’ar fleet to focus their fire on the large command vessel. All present noted it was the same ship that launched the devastating missile at Chandilar. It was time for payback.

Quickly the Imperial Guard gathered on the bridge, assembled from wherever they were on the Swooping Talon and ready for duty. They recognised most of the faces present; Manta, Starbolt, Electron, Neutron and many others. It would seem the Imperial Guard stayed fairly constant from world to world.

There was at least one person they had never seen in the Guard before, Christopher Summers’ daughter Mam’selle. The daughter of Captain Summers and Hepzibah, the young human-Mephistoid hybrid was the reason for Christopher’s defection. Already the team had faced her dangerous energy tendrils; she was not to be reckoned with.

Morph waved at her, “Hi there kitty cat. I just wanted to say there’re no hard feelings about the whole beheading thing. Obviously I got better. So what do you want to do on our second date?” and gave her a big wink.

She ignored him but Christopher stared at him like he belonged in the loony bin, and he probably did.

Oblivious to the silliness going on within it, the Swooping Talon raced towards the Terran command ship. While technological teleports were blocked, they hoped her mutant powers wouldn’t be. Except for the time Galactus had circumvented her powers, the furthest Blink had ever pushed her teleportation range was from Earth to the Moon, almost four hundred thousand kilometres. In space battles ships could be many times that distance apart and still strike each other. Hopefully they could draw close enough to teleport in.

She refused to take her eyes off the Terran command ship as it rapidly approached. Their shields were taking a beating from intense laser fire, meaning they would only get one shot at this.

“Get ready!” she yelled, the air practically crackled with energy as she prepared to teleport the group.

BLOONK!

The Exiles and the Imperial Guard disappeared in a blinding flash of pink light, creating a whoosh sound as air raced in to fill the space left behind.

Bridge of the Eternal Hammer

The force reappeared a second later, startling a group of very surprised Terran soldiers sitting at various consoles. Each soldier was quickly overwhelmed by the sheer strength of the Imperial Guard. Above them, on a raised platform, sat who they presumed was Admiral Ikaras.

He was a stern looking man, seemingly in the prime of his life, yet his cold eyes belied a much more significant age. Like the rest of the Terran soldiers, he wore a navy blue uniform, except his was trimmed with blood red stripes on the shoulders and down the sides, likely suggesting his higher rank.

If he was surprised or concerned by the sudden appearance of over a dozen superhumans on his bridge he didn’t show it. Instead he smirked derisively and looked down upon the group as if they were insects, barely worth his notice.

“I must admit, you Shi’ar are a persistent lot, though delusional,” he recognised the maskless Spiderman, “so you are a Shi’ar agent I see. Richards was convinced you were a dimensional refugee…the fool,”

“Admiral Ikaris, call off your fleet or your life is forfeit!” Yelled Gladiator suddenly, surprising the Exiles. That was the most they’d heard the cyborg speak so far.

“Hello Praetor,” smiled Ikaris smugly, “I see you survived your last encounter with my lieutenant. If you can call that mockery of existence life. Perhaps Deathbird should have left your battered corpse in the mud where in belonged?”

Both of Gladiator’s hands, one flesh and one mechanical, we’re balled into fists; Miguel was sure he could feel the rage radiating from the alien. He looked about ready to explode, but instead he asked, “Where is he?”

“He’s furthering the Terran cause, but I’m sure some of your other friend’s would like to catch up,”

At that moment a sliding metal door to either side of the bridge suddenly slipped open and a dozen Terrans soldiers charged into the room. The Exiles recognised most of them, such as Cyclops, Gorgon, Wild Child and the Human Torch, whilst others, like a young girl seemingly made of liquid metal, they didn’t.

“Dammit, he was stalling us!” realised Blink too late.

“Vangaurd, kill them!” cried Ikaris.

Both groups charged into battle, quickly colliding in a flurry of fists and feet. It was sheer chaos. Power Princess grabbed a blonde woman by the leg, she recognised her as Darkstar, and swung her like a club at Wildchild. Both went down hard and didn’t get back up.

This earned the warrior woman a few seconds respite to analyse the situation. Both groups were evenly matched; Ikaris had specially chosen each member of his Vangaurd to mach the Imperial guard; Human Torch for Starbolt, Emma Frost for Oracle and so on. Such a strategy appears good on the surface, but it was deeply flawed; neither group could gain any ground. Both teams would have to rely on strategy alone to win, or else it would end in a stalemate.

Morph suddenly flew passed her, looking like Astroboy, shaking her from her thoughts. The battle was going as expected, both sides had casualties but neither had the advantage over the other just yet.

Suddenly Gladiator, who had failed to move yet, screamed “Where is he?!” again and rocketed towards Ikaris. Within the blink of an eye Ikaris was on the other side of the room, moving faster than the eye could see, leaving the Praetor to smash through the wall like a cannonball.

The Exiles, as the wild card, were tipping the battle in the Shi’ar’s favour. Sabertooth had savagely slashed both of Giant Man’s Achilles’ tendons leaving the man bleeding on the floor in agony. A flash of pink light showed Blink was hard at work; Human Torch had just been teleported into the path of Cyclop’s optic blast, taking him down. Morph surprise attacked Wasp, having disguised himself as Emma Frost. The tiny woman found herself smacked by a giant flyswat. Zarda couldn’t see Spiderman in the madness of battle, though she spied the Inhuman Karnak webbed to the floor.

“Tell me where he his!” screamed Gladiator, smashing back onto the bridge. Ikaris dodged his attacks once again, playing with the rage addled alien.

The Eternal, too focused on Gladiator, underestimated Zarda’s speed and agility. When he drew close enough to the Exile, she leapt forward, grabbed him by the collar of his uniform and punched him square in the nose. She followed with another two punches, and the Admiral seemed generally surprised by her strength.

Zarda sighed inside, men always underestimate a woman. Even one who was six foot ten and dressed in armour.

Gladiator took the fight from her hands, tackling Ikaris to the ground hard enough the cause the bridge to shudder. He lifted the Eternal up by the throat and screamed “WHERE IS HE?!”

Ikaris managed to gag out a mocking laugh before looking out the bridge viewscreen, “There he goes,” he stated.

Out in space, shooting towards Chandilar, was a golden streak. At the head of the streak, travelling at tremendous speeds and discharging a surprising amount of energy was a powerfully built man.

“SENTRY!” screamed Gladiator, his one good eye burning with rage.

Buzz Lightyear, who quickly melted back into Morph, began to say, “Oh that’s what the Sentry looks like,” but he was cut short when Gladiator suddenly rocketed forward and blasted through the outer hull of the ship. Explosive decompression rocked the bridge, sucking everybody into the vacuum of space.

As soon as she saw the Praetor rushing towards the hull Blink had leapt into action, charging her crystals and hurling them quickly at each teammate. Gladiator was too fast though, and when he burst through the wall icy coldness almost beyond comprehension immediately struck, numbing every nerve in the Exile’s body. Her javelins struck true though, teleporting Morph, Victor and Zarda back to safety on the Swooping Talon. She assumed the Imperial Guard possessed technology to help them survive in the void of space, as they had on a previous world the Exiles had visited. Sadly, the reality hoppers weren’t so lucky.

Panic set in as she couldn’t see Miguel in the stream of bodies being sucked into space. Already the cold had numbed her fingers, though the lack of pressure would actually kill her first.   Teleporting around the crowd as quickly as she could, the pink mutant still failed to find her teammate. Painfully, as her lungs began to ache and the fluid in her eyes began to freeze, she made the extremely difficult decision to teleport back to the Talon.

BLOONK!

She reappeared on the bridge of the Shi’ar command vessel and immediately fell to her knees, due to both physical and emotion agony. Both Morph and Sabertooth knelt down to hold the woman, as she gasped for air, and tears welled in her eyes.

“I couldn’t…save Miguel,” she gasped.

“You did the best you could darlin,” soothed Victor.

“Yeah…Miggy’s pretty resourceful, I’m sure he’s fine,” said Morph, though he didn’t sound like he believed it himself.

Zarda stood apart from the others, resolute. She would mourn her fallen comrade, but this was not the time, this was war. While waiting for Blink regain her strength the warrior woman gazed through the viewing screen at the battle that was now raging between the Imperial guard and the Terran Vanguard. It was too much to hope that the Vanguard didn’t possess the technology to survive in space. There was no place for hope in a war; you had to rely on strategy and guile.

“Dammit Gladiator, the Sentry’s not your mission!” screamed Deathbird into a communicator.

Either the communicator wasn’t working or the cyborg ignored her as he failed to reply. Away from the battle, closer to Chandilar, Gladiator collided with the Sentry and the two engaged in fierce combat.

Something pink glittered in the corner of her eye, drawing her attention to another viewing screen to the left. This one displayed a close-up of Chandilar, the dust clouds gradually clearing from the Terran’s missile attack. The planet’s capital was reduced to nothing more than a crater; it was as if the entire city had been atomised. Everything except a gigantic pink crystal.

“What is that?” asked Power Princess.

“That’s none of your concern Terran,” spat Admiral F’Dor.

The other Exiles noticed the display too and Morph, recognising it for what it truly was, gasped.

“Oh God, that’s the M’Kraan crystal!”

The Eternal Hammer

Miguel, who hadn’t been on the bridge at the time of the decompression, felt the ship shudder after a tremendous crash and ran back to the bridge. Unfortunately the doors to the bridge refused to open, the holographic screen beside them stating there were sealed to prevent further decompression. The battle must have breached the hull of the ship, possibly sucking everybody into space. He had faith in his teammates; even without Longshot’s luck he was confident they survived.

He couldn’t help but feel guilty for leaving the team in the heat of battle but there was something important that needed to be done; he needed to take the cosmic cube away from Reed Richards. With any luck the elastic psychopath was still ensnared in Spiderman’s webbing in Ikaris’ quarters, the cube along with him.

A cosmic cube, one of the greatest instruments of good and evil in the universe, didn’t belong in the hands of a sadistic torturer like Richards. Perhaps more importantly, to Miguel and the Exiles anyway, was that the cube easily had the power bring them home to the Crystal Palace. He didn’t dare speak this plan out loud though, for fear that Asher would be listening, and cut him short by dumping him in some far off reality. Hopefully the man thought he was simply trying to sabotage the ship. A lie he accentuated by stating flatly, “I’m going to sabotage the ship,”

Alarms blared as he made his way through the ship, occasionally having to check a holomap to ensure he was going the right way through the labyrinth of corridors. Every so often his advanced senses would warning him of approaching soldiers, allowing him time to duck into a side room or stick to the ceiling to avoid discovery. One annoying pair of soldiers decided to stop directly beneath him though and chat.

“How’d those Birdies get on the ship?” asked one.

“Dunno Rick, our tech’s meant to be best in the universe,” said the other.

“Whatever, it’s not going to do them any good anyway. The gods are on our side…”

“Yeah believe in all that Celestial mumbo jumbo?”

“Too true brother, the Celestials chose us above all others to rule,”

“believe what you want I guess. I just can’t wait to wipe my boots on some Shi’ar corpses,”

Deciding he’d had enough eavesdropping, Spiderman dropped down behind the pair and smacked their heads together before they even had a chance to turn around. It was shocking to see what thousands of years of rule by the Eternals had down to humankind. They believed they were chosen to rule the universe. He couldn’t help but wonder if the Eternals were taken out of the equation would it even make a difference? Is mankind too far gone to be saved?

As much as it pained him, this wasn’t his concern. He needed to get that cube at all costs. After several more minutes of sneaking about the ship he finally made his way back to the Admiral’s quarters. The door, still hacked from the last time he was there, opened easily.

He was dismayed to find upon entering that Richards was gone. Only the large mess of webbing remained, apparently cut apart by some sort of laser. He slapped his head in sudden realisation; the cutting tool! When he had escaped from Richard’s torture chamber he had carried along a useful laser cutter. Upon trying to hack Ikaris’ computer he had set it down on the table…where it no longer sat.

“Dammit!” he cursed.

Richards had somehow managed to get a hand, or even a finger, free of the webbing and used the cutter to free himself. The cosmic cube was also gone from where it had rested on the floor.

FFFFFSSSSSSTTTTT!

Agony suddenly arced through his entire body, causing the man to collapse to his knees and nearly releasing the contents of his bladder. Painfully glancing over his shoulder, he saw the sadistically grinning face of Reed Richards fade into view, clutching the cosmic cube. The psychopath had shocked him with some sort of cattle-prod like device, likely from his collection of torture implements.

“You must really come from a backwater universe,” he sneered.

The cosmic cube radiated blood red light and suddenly it felt as his very blood was burning. Every pain he had ever felt before paled in comparison to this agony. He screamed wildly and the animalistic sound made Richards smile even wider.

“You’re going to suffer for humiliating me you primitive,”

The Swooping Talon

“You moved the M’Kraan crystal?!” asked an incredulous Morph.

“My father thought it more appropriate that the great crystal be placed in a temple on Chandilar, where more of our people could worship it appropriately,” replied Deathbird haughtily.

“This is why Asher is so adamant we repel this attack,” realised Blink, “if Ikaris gets his hands on the crystal the Terrans could spread their empire through the multiverse,”

“The Shi’ar Imperium would die before allowing the crystal to fall into the hands of those Terran currs,” spat Admiral F’Dor.

“The Shi’ar are already dying!” retorted Blink.

Power Princess had remained separate from the debate, instead keeping her focus on the battle outside. The Terran fleet had broken through the Shi’ar blockade at several points and were steadily advancing on Chandilar. If the reinforcements from Aerie didn’t arrive soon the planet was doomed. She shifted her focus to the Eternal Hammer; with its bridge destroyed and commander battling in space the ship had begun to drift. Perhaps if they could direct it towards the Warpring…

“Where did the Vangaurd go?” Ikaris’ elite guard had suddenly teleported away from the battle with the Imperial guard, leaving them confused and floating in space.

Christopher Summers had also been monitoring the situation, more out of concern for his daughter more than anything, and quickly replied, “Tracing their teleport signature…they’re at the crystal!”

“Teleport the guard there immediately!” scream Deathbird.

“Send us down too,” demanded Blink

“Our mission is to turn the tide of the battle,” Zarda reminder her.

“If they get the M’Kraan the battle’s already lost,” replied an angry Blink.

“I’m coming too…” added a voice from nearby.

A pale and weak looking Longshot had joined them on the bridge. For the briefest moment Zarda felt her hard heart melt out of concern for her comrade, but she pushed it aside. This wasn’t the time.

“You’re in no shape to fight,” stated Blink.

“I’m fine, it was only a flesh wound,” he replied confidently, rotating his arm for good measure. A small grimace of pain slipped through but he quickly hid it. This man was a warrior through and through.

“Fine,” Blink conceded, “Send us down,”