“Welcome to Dorigatti,” Echelon said as he led the team off the Ragtime. “If the Jovian Empire had a government, this would be Europa’s capital city. There’s no bigger metropolis in the galaxy. Best place to let Newton’s little missionaries loose…”
All around him, Ginian watched as his brothers and sisters waded into the throng. This was their intended purpose: to blend in amongst regular people, and slowly spread word that Sol Invictus was no god. They were programmed to create an uprising, and, if need be, defend themselves against any member of the Pantheon who tried to silence them.
This, Ginian realized, was what he had been created for. He had been made to convince the Jovian people that they worshipped men who built themselves up as deities. He found himself envious of them: they knew what it was Isaac Newton intended for them.
“Pssst!” He had been snapped back to reality by Pauldron, creeping in the shadows of the ship’s cargo bay. “Bring me back a souvenir!”
Ginian stared at the largest member of the team in wonder before Legacy came to his rescue. “The weirdest, cheapest thing I can find,” she promised.
As Pauldron moved to lurk deeper in the ship, Ginian looked to Legacy for an explanation. “Pauldron sticks out like a sore thumb,” she said. “We’re able to pass ourselves off as couriers, bringing exports from other worlds, but our cover’d be blown if anyone saw him.”
“More importantly,” Echelon said dryly, “it gives us all a little piece and quiet.” He froze then, and Ginian watched the color drain from his face. Along with Legacy, Ginian followed the man’s gaze down the dock to a figure propped up on a pole—a pole that everyone was steering clear of. “Everyone get back on the ship,” he said quietly. “We’re leaving…”
“What is it?” Pother asked, squinting to make the shape out.
Ginian knew: even from this distance, he could tell that the figure was missing its right arm. It appeared he was not alone in this realization: “Isn’t that the Sentry we left on Earth?” Legacy asked.
“He has a name,” corrected Pauldron, from the ship’s hull, “and his name is Glark Crisswald.”
“So, any ideas as to how Glark Crisswald got halfway across the galaxy?” Echelon asked. “I doubt the Illuminati would risk putting up something like that just to signal us, let alone come to this godforsaken planet in the first place.”
“I know how he got here,” Pauldron said. “Glark is resourceful. He took the last train to Glarksville and he’ll meet us at the station.” Pauldron jerked his thumb towards Ginian. “This guy knows what I’m talkin’ ‘bout!”
“Huh?” asked a perplexed Ginian.
“It’s like… hydraulics. You know?” Pauldron threw his arms into the air. “Woo!”
Ginian looked to Pother for help; the young woman could only sigh and shake her head.
“Man, you are so lucky we picked you to join the Vindicators!” Pauldron laughed. “‘Cause if we left you with Glark, he would have knifed you for being different.”
“Focus, people!” Echelon snapped. “If the Illuminati didn’t bring Glark here, then that means Conclave did. On Earth, he hinted at his siblings’ approach; it’s possible they arrived after our departure, freed him, tended to his injuries, and brought him back here.”
“Along with Glark,” Pauldron said.
“Along with Glark,” Echelon grumbled. “So, why string him up like that?”
“To unsettle us,” Pother said.
“It worked,” Legacy mumbled.
Exuding consternation, Echelon stood with his arms folded over his chest, head bowed in deep thought. He turned and looked back down the ramp, towards the bubble of space the Jovites made around Glark. “The people are avoiding it,” he said, “which likely means they saw a member of the pantheon put it up. Whoever put it up is probably watching it, waiting for us to react.
“We need to leave.”
“Won’t it seem suspicious that we’re taking off so soon after landing?” Pother asked. “I mean, maybe we should just try not to draw attention…”
“If Conclave is with them, he’s seen the Ragtime,” Echelon said. “He’ll know what to look for. We can’t just lay low and pretend to be traders. We need to lift off, and hopefully lose them in space.” The commander looked to Pother. “Get up to the bridge; tell Umbra to get us in the air.”
Pother’s clothes dropped to the ground as she transformed into her smoke form. In such a state, she was oblivious to the ship’s suddenly shuddering. If it hadn’t been for the others’ exclamations, she would not have realized anything was wrong.
“Kuso!” swore Pauldron.
“What just happened?” Echelon asked as the Ragtime lurched sideways. “Tell me that wasn’t what I think it was, Legacy!”
Ginian looked to Legacy and read the intense concentration on her face. “She’s here,” she said.
“Keep fighting her,” Echelon commanded before rounding on Pauldron. “Polaris is somewhere out there.”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Pother asked, still in her smoke form. “The last time we tangled with Polaris, Pauldron-”
“Right now, she’s locked in a battle of wits with Libby. This is our chance to put her down.”
Pauldron gave a nod before hurrying down the ramp. Midway down it, the thruster embedded into his back came to life. An explosion of flames charred the ramp, immortalizing the spot where the titanic figure had erupted into the air.
Aphelion stepped into the cargo bay and a calm permeated the Vindicators. Their commander fixed the masked man with the rage he reserved for the entire Pantheon. “If Pauldron has been deployed, I take it there is no need for subtlety?”
“Legacy can’t fight Polaris forever, and she’s the only thing keeping us grounded. We disable her, and we run.”
“They’ll follow us.”
“No, they won’t—not with Polaris down! They won’t risk Legacy shredding their ships in space. Just because they don’t stay dead doesn’t mean they don’t die. Without a ship, we can let the vacuum do the rest.”
Aphelion nodded and casually made his way towards the ramp. Echelon rose off the ground and hurtled outside and into the sky, leaving Pother in his wake. “Stay here,” Aphelion told Ginian. “The Pantheon will no doubt be trying the same strategy as we are. Protect Legacy, or the Ragtime is finished.”
Ginian nodded and positioned himself at the top of the ramp, determined not to let anyone get by him.
In the skies above him, the Vindicators and the Pantheon clashed. Echelon exploded across the sky, slamming into Threshold. All these weeks in space, Ginian had begun educating himself on their opponents…
Threshold was the son of Sol Invictus and a Neo-Sapien girl whose name had been lost to history. In addition to the gifts he had received from his father, Threshold was capable of manipulating his mass: with a thought he could shrink to microscopic levels, or stand higher than the mountains; Threshold could turn his body intangible, letting him pass through solid matter, or increase his density to a point where his body was harder than steel. At the moment, he stood in his colossal form, frantically trying to seize Pauldron in his titanic grip.
Corona whizzed over her half-brother’s shoulder, locked hand-in-hand with Echelon. Corona was one of two surviving descendants of the Aurelius—Echelon’s sister-in-law being the other. While neither Legacy nor her late sister had pursued the arcane arts in the way their would-be cousin had, they knew enough that restricting their hand movements was instrumental in reining in the phenomena they could conjure. Thankfully, they had had the foresight to tell their teammates about the magus’ weakness.
Not far off, Pother was fighting to keep Perihelion distracted. In her smoke form, the young woman was trying to create openings for Aphelion to attack. Like nearly every other member of the Pantheon, Perihelion was born out of Sol Invictus’ relationship with another Neo-Sapien. In addition to his ability to manipulate light and magnetic waves, Perihelion could generate and discharge plasma.
Considered the most powerful of Sol Invictus’ children, it was no wonder he had taken the name Perihelion: the point in a plant’s orbit when it was nearest to the sun.
Ginian watched as Aphelion swung his staff back. Suddenly, the end of it stretched; it barreled through the smokescreen forged by Pother and struck Perihelion in the face. With his opponent momentarily stunned, Aphelion raised his arm and unleashed a blast of light for the youth.
Watching them, Ginian puzzled over what he was seeing: the masked Vindicator’s name—Aphelion—meant the opposite of Perihelion’s name: if Perihelion was the point closest to the unconquered son, Aphelion was the farthest. Aphelion wielded light as weapon—just as all of Sol Invictus’ children did. Was that what troubled Echelon about the man’s identity? Was that why Aphelion wore a mask?
Were the Vindicators hosting a rebellious member of the Pantheon?
Such thoughts were taken from Ginian as he was forced to come back to reality. His eyes left the sky, where the Vindicators were fighting the Pantheon, and looked down to the man slowly climbing the ramp to the Ragtime’s hull.
“You’re one of the Sentries, aren’t you?” Conclave asked. Conclave, the man they had fought before leaving Earth—before Ginian had been put on the Vindicators’ roster. Conclave, the man who’s arm Pauldron had claimed.
Conclave, Ginian had read, who was the only member of the Pantheon not born to a Neo-Sapien mother…
The man wore a cloak now, draped over the shoulder of the arm Pauldron had removed. “I believe the last time we tussled, we found ourselves evenly matched,” he said. “I wonder, though…” He thrust his arm forward, sending a blast of white hot light straight for the robot.
Ginian absorbed the blast and watched as his arm unfolded, exposing the weapon concealed within. Reflexively, he brought it up to fire on Conclave. The man’s mad grin evoked a foreboding sense of doom in the android.
Conclave whipped the cloak back and threw up his arm—the arm Pauldron had taken. Ginian watched in horror as that arm unfolded into a replica of his own weapon-like appendage.
It all sunk in: Pauldron had ripped the arm off the Sentry he had been using as a shield. He had used the arm to sever Conclave’s own limb. There was no doubt in Ginian’s mind that that was where the prosthetic had come from.
During their battle on Earth, Conclave had revealed his ability to absorb light. Ginian had taken his blast and amplified it, only for Conclave to absorb, amplify with his cybernetic arm, and redirect… not at Ginian, but at the one Ginian had been left to protect.
An eruption of light exploded from the cannon secreted in Conclave’s arm, and struck both Ginian and Legacy. Momentarily stunned by the blast, Legacy was powerless to suppress Polaris’ magnetic command. The ship lurched again, and Ginian hurried out of the ship.
Though Conclave was considered the weakest of the Pantheon, he alone was immune to the power their father wielded. Only Conclave was capable of absorbing light, making Sol Invictus, the Pantheon, and Ginian’s attacks worthless against him…
Conclave was immune, but his siblings were still vulnerable.
With the now thrice amplified energy brimming inside of him, Ginian planted himself on the dock and carefully took aim on Polaris. With a scream, he unleashed the totality of attacks he and Conclave had been trading.
A cone of white hot light split the sky, incinerating everything in its path and blinding anyone who had the misfortune of looking directly at it. Echelon looked away in time; Pauldron and Pother—in her transformed state—employed other senses to see. Aphelion looked harmlessly upon the eruption, and watched as Threshold staggered back from the blow, while Polaris struggled to find her bearings within it.
“In the immortal words of the Reverend Tex Stoveheadbottom,” roared Pauldron as he flew towards Corona, “‘Go to Hell!’” He tackled the magus and proceeded to fly higher and higher. If Echelon could have used his eyes then, he would have seen the behemoth transform into a speck in the sky.
Spurred by Pauldron’s charge, Aphelion moved on the Pantheon. The masked man took advantage of Polaris’ momentary condition swung an impossibly-long staff into the back of her head.
As the girl fell out of the sky, Echelon charged for Threshold. The Vindicator laid into the giant with a powerful uppercut, and pushed the advantage when Threshold tottered back. Again and again, he delivered vicious punch after vicious punch, pushing the colossal man back with each blow. Helpless against the onslaught of blows, Threshold reverted to his natural size and turned intangible—a sure sign that he saw the battle as a lost cause.
As Echelon, Aphelion and Pother converged on Perihelion, Ginian looked back up the ramp: Conclave had escaped, and a wobbly Legacy was making her way down to the docks. The roar of Pauldron’s thrusters drew Ginian’s eyes upward, to the sight of the titan’s return.
“Where’s Corona?” Ginian asked.
Pauldron cracked a smile. “Mama had a baby and it’s head popped off!” he sang before shambling over to where his teammates stood.
Effectively backed into a corner, Perihelion sneered at them. “You may have bested us, but know that my father will not stand for this insult. To touch a god is a sin punishable by smiting! To assault one!?! To take one’s arm!?!”
“That’s the thing though,” Echelon said. “You? Your brothers and sisters? Your father? None of you are gods. There’s no such thing as gods.”
“I’m a god,” Pauldron said, matter-of-factly.
“You’re just tyrants,” Echelon spat, “and this? This isn’t an affront… This is the beginning of the end of your despotism.”
“‘Tyrants’? ‘Despotism’!?! You dreg loving idiots don’t realize… The Jovian Empire is one devoid of war and poverty and crime! The people here are all equal in all regards! These people aren’t being oppressed! Their every need is provided!”
“You’re exploiting them!” Pother snapped. “You keep them in the dark—convince them that you’re gods meant to be worshipped! You’ve practically enslaved them!”
“We are their salvation! The Pantheon has saved humanity, and you fools strive to tear down all the good we have done! By what authority? By what right? Who do you people think you are!?!”
“You wanna know who I am!?!” Pauldron bellowed. “I am Pauldron; His Supreme Galactic Eminence; Master of Time, Space-” Perihelion opened his mouth to interrupt, and Pauldron responded by putting a hand over his face. “-and Dimension; Lord of All He Surveys; Omnipotent, Omnipresent; Last King of Sealand; Grand Herald of the Letter ‘M’; Dark Overlord of the Universe; Brobdingnagian Emperor of the Lilliputians; Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past from the Future; Larger That Most in More Ways Than One; Stalwart Defender of the Meek; Nemesis of the Number Four; Lord of the ThunderCats; Wielder of the Mighty Stalactite of Justice; Courtesan of the Hawt Emily’s Rack; Guardian of Canadian Athletes; Rempli du Fromage; Awesomemonger; Norse God of Rock and Shenanigans; the Corn Whisperer; Kicker of Nephilim Ass; Ayatollah of Rock and Rolling; World Record Holder for Biggest Cannonball Splash; Slayer of the Last Gray Squirrel; Unchallenged Conqueror of the North; Viewer of Five-Five-Five; Rated ‘T’ for Teen; Keeper of Lady Liberty’s Torch; Self-Proclaimed Seventy-seventh President of the Old United States; an American Werewolf in Amsterdam; Purveyor of the Wrath of Genin; World Champion of Agricola; Honorary Eco-Warrior; Dali Lahma; First Earth Rock Taken to the Moon; Neon Spandex Savior of the Future; Never Going Left; Liberator of Glark; and Just a Darn Good Fellow, Esquire!” Pauldron gave Perihelion’s head a squeeze and Pother lost her lunch. “They sure don’t make gods like they used to. Back in my day, their skulls didn’t pop like zits.”
“We need to get out of here,” Echelon said. “More of the Pantheon will be coming. Load these three up. We’ll dump their immortal asses out the air lock once we’re clear.”
Ginian couldn’t help but cringe at the thought of what they were condemning Sol Invictus’ children to: Perihelion, Polaris, and Threshold would come back to life, only to die once more in the vacuum of space. This perpetual cycle of death and rebirth was to be his existence, until someone found and rescued his remains.
Unless he missed his guess, that was the cruel fate Pauldron had punished Corona with as well.
As Echelon led the others back to the ship, Ginian looked to the faint line that divided the sky. The Cradle was a halo that crisscrossed Jupiter, functioning as a radiation deflector that protected the moons. Without it, inhabiting Europa—or any of the Jovian colonies—would have been impossible.
As Ginian followed the Vindicators back onto the Ragtime, he watched as the Cradle moved. He watched as the structure long ago installed by Sol Invictus began to break apart—each segment descending towards the gas giant that composed the sky here.
“I don’t think the Cradle is supposed to do that,” the android said, leading the others’ eyes to the horror unfolding miles above them.
Aphelion strode back down the ramp; with his mask on, there was no telling what he reacted to the sight of the collapsing Cradle with. “Conclave escaped. He must have summoned his father.”
Legacy shuddered. “Sol Invictus is… here?”
“Legend has it,” Pauldron said, “if you look in a mirror and say his name three times, he’ll appear behind you. Then he slips a few hard candies into your pocket—the strawberry ones that only come in those gift boxes with the cheese and crackers and mustard!—gives you a wet willy, drinks all your soy sauce and disappears!”
Echelon ignored the big man. “Why is he tearing apart the Cradle, Aphelion?”
“He’s going to erase the memory of this,” Aphelion said, a touch of sorrow in his voice. “He’s going to slaughter every person in the Jovian Empire. No doubt he’ll start civilization anew—choose a new Adam and Eve to populate the worlds he and his children rule…
“He’ll start fresh.”
“Because the people here saw us rough his kids up!?!”
Aphelion shook his head. “Because the people of Dorigatti can testify that their gods are flesh and blood. Because he won’t risk word metastasizing—infecting other cities and colonies like a cancer…”
“And you’re suddenly an expert on how Sol Invictus thinks?” asked Pother. Had she been in her physical form, her shoulders would have sagged.
Echelon rounded on her with a furious look. “Yeah,” he said. He stormed back up the ramp. “That’s what we keep him around for.”
“Look, this isn’t a problem!” Pauldron explained. “We just need to get everyone on the moon to start running really fast in the same direction. If we do this right, we can knock it out of orbit and take it a planet that won’t kill everyone on it.”
Reluctant to admit defeat, Echelon shut his eyes as tightly as he could. “We need to get out of here,” he said. “There’s nothing more we can do.”
Legacy rounded on her brother-in-law with sheer shock. “We can’t just abandon these people!”
“If we stay here, we’ll die with them. We can’t evacuate everyone—there’s not enough room on the Ragtime…”
“What about Legacy?” Pother asked. “Can’t she just… put the Cradle back up?”
“No,” Aphelion glumly said. “It would take someone with Sol Invictus’ strength to move it…” Echelon’s head whipped around to fix the masked man with a look that shone with hope. Aphelion bowed his head, as if his mask’s weight suddenly dwarfed that of a black hole. Radiating reluctance, the robbed man took to the skies, and left almost everyone on the ground speechless.
His arm gently stroked the air around him, and the Cradle ceased to fall. His head turned, and he swept his hand skyward, commanding sections of the fallen structure to stand.
Everywhere the Vindicators looked, the fractured Cradle danced on the horizon, slowly cobbling itself together at Aphelion’s whim.
Pother reverted back to her natural form, to take it in the splendor of the moment with her own eyes. Even her naked body standing beside her teammates wasn’t enough to tear their gaze away from the marvels Aphelion was creating though. “What is he doing?” she asked.
“He’s doing exactly what Sol Invictus did,” Legacy said, her voice full of awe. “He’s manipulating magnetic waves to move the Cradle.”
Something struck Echelon then. He lowered his gaze and worked his jaw, as if trying to churn out the words. “We need to get out of here,” he said.
None of the Vindicators moved.
“We need to leave!” he thundered. “Sol Invictus is sense what he’s doing! He’s going to notice us! He’s going to come here!”
Before anyone could react, the ramp swung up, sealing them in. The docking bay was filled with the sound of metal groaning. They all knew what it meant: they didn’t need the cue of bolts popping from their stations or the hull buckling in to know that Echelon had used the wrong tense…
Sol Invictus had sensed what Aphelion had done. Sol Invictus had noticed them. Sol Invictus had arrived.
To Be Continued... wrote:Zzz...