"Five Against the World"
Talok VIII, Talok City, Outside The Ancestral Temple
High Father Jakob Taldir paused at the bottom of the Temple steps and inhaled deeply. A light breeze filled the old man’s nostrils and mingled with the scent of wild game cooking on open fires in the busy marketplace. Worshipers filed past him on either side and made their way onto the courtyard. He thanked the ancients for the serenity on their faces and hoped they would carry the day’s ceremony with them throughout the week.
One young man broke from his parents and made a beeline toward Father Taldir.
“High Father! I must speak with you!” the young man bellowed. He appeared to be about fifteen orbits in age. His long black hair was tied behind him in a knot, the traditional ponytail worn by the lineage of the Star Riders, the only tribe to ever leave the desert world. Father Taldir’s suspicions were confirmed by the small star-shaped tattoo on the boy’s left cheek.
The Priest smiled politely and reached for the young man’s forehead. “Shall I bless you, my son?”
The passionate young man pushed Father Taldir’s hand away.
“There’s no time for that, Father!” the young man cried. “They’re coming!”
Father Taldir marveled at the young man’s boldness. “What is your name, son?”
“Jahn Mykros,” the young man answered. His face was twisted in blind panic. “But that isn’t important. They’ll be here soon! We must warn everyone!”
“Slow down, son,” Father Taldir pleaded. “Who is coming?”
“Their number is Five,” Jahn replied.
“You don’t know their names?” Father Taldir asked.
The young man shook his head. “I received a vision during the candle ceremony! They’re terrible and ruthless! We must spread the news lest they slay us all!”
“Five?” Father Taldir asked. “Five Yakka-Mahor could never…”
The young man grabbed Father Taldir and shook him. “Not the Yakka, High Father! Invaders from beyond!”
A crowd gathered around the priest and the overly-excited boy.
“Invaders from beyond?” one man mocked. “Those stories are as old as the planet boy!”
“Do the Ancestors circumvent the priesthood now and deliver visions to sucklings?” shouted another man.
The crowd erupted in raucous laughter.
“I am not a child!” Jahn shot back.
Father Taldir raised his hands and shushed the growing assembly. He too was a zealous youth once. Whispers filled the Temple when he announced the Ancestors revealed to him he was to marry Klo’e Hilta-Ke, the prettiest girl in the village. Embarrassment kept him from the Temple until his father died two years later. The last thing he wished was to bridle the young man’s faith and enthusiasm. “Everyone calm down and consider the lad’s words!”
Jahn nodded in appreciation. “Thank you, Father.”
“These five beings…” Father Taldir began.
“Bring death from above with terrible weapons,” Jahn replied. He took a deep breath and continued. “They kill without prejudice; Men, women, and children slaughtered for naught but sport. We fled to the Temple hoping they would honor a house of worship but the most horrifying among their number ripped the roof off with its bare hands!”
The crowd erupted with spirited laughter once more.
Ancestral warnings were rarely bestowed upon one so young. Even if true, surely the Ancestors would reveal such a portent to a priest and not a beardless child!
“Perhaps you misinterpret the vision?” Father Taldir asked.
Jahn shook his head furiously. “No, Exalted One! I saw clearly as I see you now! You must warn the Council to prepare!”
“Yes, Father,” mocked a fur trader Father Taldir recognized from the marketplace. “Take the lad’s wild tale to the Council! Perhaps they’ll fortify the city on the bleating fantasies of a child!”
Father Taldir approached the fur trader slowly and peered deeply into the man’s dark eyes. “You will not mock the boy again!”
The fur trader stumbled back and waived off the crowd. “Your hokey superstitions make the Yakka look smart!”
A man and woman pressed their way through the crowd.
The man took a deep breath and approached. “I’m sorry Father. We tried to stop him!”
“You are the boy’s parents?” Father Taldir asked.
The man nodded. “Yes, Father.”
“You should be proud of him,” Father Taldir replied.
Jahn’s mother looked confused. “You believe him?”
Father Taldir peered into Jahn’s eyes. “I believe he was moved to act upon his faith. Is this not the way of the ancients? I have an appointment with the Lord Mayor later this afternoon and will make him aware of the vision.”
Jahn bowed to Father Taldir. “Thank you, Father. That is all I ask.”
Father Taldir touched the young man’s right shoulder. “Your burden is upon my back now, Jahn Mykros. Rise and go with my blessing.”
The boy stood erect and moved to his mother’s side and grabbed her hand. He seemed almost embarrassed for himself now. “Thank you, Father.”
The crowd dispersed as quickly as it had gathered, leaving Father Taldir to contemplate the cryptic counsel. The Ancestors used children in the past but spared them the omen of war.
Father Taldir joined the teeming throng in the busy marketplace. Friends, neighbors, and strangers busied themselves with routine. A young woman haggled with a vendor over the price of Malti-n’ok, a flatbread used as rations in desert crossings. It tasted like shoe leather but wouldn’t spoil in the blazing sun. The vendor held steadfast until an older woman lent her experience to the transaction. Her cries of fraud attracted unwanted attention. The vendor relented in exchange for an agreement to keep her away from his tent. An elderly couple sold Death Bird eggs beneath a canopy bearing their family name. How the elderly couple acquired such prized inventory was a mystery but the use of their family name attested to the authenticity of the delicacy.
Father Taldir even spied a few of the more forward-thinking Yakka, lured from the planet’s wastelands by the sweet song of commerce. Few Talokians would negotiate with the ruffians but not all followed the traditions so piously.
The faces changed as Father Taldir roamed the twisting maze of tents but business remained constant. Buyers and sellers felt confident in their exchanges.
Someone ran past Father Taldir and bumped into his shoulder.
“Excuse me!” Father Taldir cried as he turned toward the fleeing man. “Tradition demands an apology! You know what the scrolls say about harming a priest!”
The man ignored the warning and kept running. A thief on the run perhaps?
A second person knocked Father Taldir to the ground in his haste. Father Taldir stood and brushed himself off. Unsure of what was happening, he looked up and saw a crowd rushing toward him with fearful eyes. An old woman grabbed his tunic and pleaded with him to intercede with the Ancestors. He pushed her hands away. Whatever the situation he was the High Priest and he was responsible for everyone’s safety!
“Everyone to the Temple!” Father Taldir shouted and hoped his voice carried above the fray. He pushed his way against traffic to the Square but found it ablaze. Emergency crews labored with an angry green flame while soldiers turned their crossbows skyward. Father Taldir followed the bolts as they shot toward the heavens … and saw her.
The regal woman floated above the square like an angel-sprite of old. She was the first “pink skin” Father Taldir had seen. Her verdant cape waved behind her in the breeze and matched her thigh-high boots. Her body suit complimented the trim pieces with white and a lighter green. A long, flowing emerald mane of hair whipped behind her like tongues of flame. The source of the inferno was a large orb that resembled an eyeball with a brilliant green iris in the center. It floated at her side and rained fire upon the city, reducing all it touched to ash. The stench of burning flesh filled the air. The wicked woman cackled with childlike glee at the wanton destruction. “Yes, my eye! Slay them all! It is the will of the Emerald Empress! Eye command you!”
Father Taldir was a Priest of the Highest Order, trained to lead in great adversity. He was taught to demonstrate courage and shepherd his people. But on this day he failed miserably and fell in with the fleeing crowd. He trampled an elderly woman who had fallen. Her pitiful cries clawed at his compassion but when he turned to help her, the evil flame cut her in half where she lay. Sacred rites be damned! He was too busy surviving to feel shame.
Father Taldir finally made it to the Temple where crowds clamored to press inside. He pushed his way to the entrance, the multitudes yielding begrudgingly once they realized he was the High Father. But he wasn’t there to restore order. Like everyone else, he sought refuge within its stone walls.
As Father Taldir surged through the panicked crowd, many versions of the attack emerged. Some spoke of the green woman while others swore they saw a man instead. He carried an axe or his very touch itself was death. He was a machine! No, half man and machine!
A soldier claimed the cyborg had terrible weapons and generated a field impervious to their laser rifles. The Architect Guild reported the man with the axe felled the Great North Gate with a single blow! But that was impossible! It was centuries old and survived even the Dominion Invasion! Many times the Yakka attempted to destroy it but it persevered, a reminder to the city’s enemies in the hills and desert wilds that its people wouldn’t succumb to terror.
“No!” shouted one man. “He collapsed the South Tower with just a touch of his hand! I saw it with my own two eyes!”
“What if there’s more than one?” a woman cried. “What if we’re all right?”
A sandstorm of fear swept over Father Taldir as he remembered Jahn Mykros’s warning. He closed his eyes and counted four which elicited a sigh of relief. He turned his attention to calming the panic-stricken crowd lest they kill one another.
Then the ground shook with the fury of approaching thunder. No, not thunder but footsteps!
“What’s happening Father?” whispered a Lower Order Priest.
Father Taldir shook his head. “We must trust the Ancestors now! They are all we have!”
A haunting quiet filled the air as the crowd prayed silently.
A moment later the Temple itself moaned in agony as the western wall crumbled and crushed those unable to escape its collapse. And then the roof was simply gone! For a brief moment the sun flooded the Temple and all seemed calm as the light blue skies overhead.
The tranquil stillness lingered for but a moment before a hideous monster blotted out the sun when it peeked into the Temple. It was at least fifty feet tall and held half the Temple roof in its manacled hands. The beast had no eyes and its brain was visible through the clear membrane protecting it. The fury of the storm danced around his head. His skin was bright purple but ashen at the extremities. At first he seemed almost childlike, more curious than anything else. And then he tossed the roof aside and roared.
Father Taldir covered his ears but human hands offered little protection from the beast’s tantrum. It felt as if he were standing in the beast’s throat. When the awful rumble subsided, Taldir was disoriented. The monster scooped him up in his massive white claws and just when he thought the beast would crush the life from him, it relaxed its grip.
The half-man stepped forward on the Square below. “Are you in charge here?”
“I am but a lowly priest,” Taldir replied.
The human side of the cyborg’s face broke into a twisted grin but the mechanical side held firm, cold and unaffected by the iniquitous bellow that emanated from his gut. “Oh no, my friend. You are far more than that!”
“Oh?” Father Taldir asked. Perhaps he could work out a bargain with the intruders.
The half-man’s mechanical eye glowed bright red. “You’ll make a perfect example!”
The warmth that enveloped Father Taldir lasted only a few seconds before it gave way to an excruciating burning sensation. It was his time at last to become one with the Glory of the Shadows. The sensation of his atoms dispersing was frightening yet fascinating at the same time. He prayed for the Shadow Champion and breathed his last.
Legion Headquarters, Main Meeting Room
“How the sprock did this happen?” Garth demanded.
“We don’t know,” Gim replied. “They said they would meet us at Nine Planets but they never showed. Then we saw the breaking news bulletin at the restaurant and rushed to the crime scene but the Dark Circle thugs were long gone by then.”
Lightning sparked in Garth’s eyes. “What do we know about this Dark Circle?”
“They’re an anti-unification terrorist cell with members from various worlds across the galaxy,” Lyle answered. “Some are xenophobes, others are religious zealots who worry unification will corrupt their faiths. Still others are just punks along for the thrill.”
“Who’s behind it?” Garth asked. “Someone’s footing the bill.”
“Their hierarchy is shrouded in mystery,” Lyle replied. “No data trail. Earthgov is stumped.”
“Science Police intelligence has nil on them as well,” Gim added. “A year ago they were little more than a blip on the Universal Matrix.”
“Consider them promoted,” Garth replied with a scowl.
Dox and Nura emerged from the Medical Wing. She fussed at the Coluan whose nose was buried in his Omnicom.
“How are they?” Garth asked, interrupting Nura’s fiery string of profanities directed toward the galaxy’s foremost scientist.
“Who?” Dox asked, barely glancing up from his tablet and ignoring his colleague.
“Our teammates!” Garth shouted. “Who the sprock do you think I’m talking about?”
“Never mind Dox,” Nura replied. “He’s been distracted for days by some top-secret project.”
Dox walked past the assembled Legionnaires and headed toward the building’s private quarters wing. “Pardon me, Legionnaires! I cannot risk unnecessary distractions at this critical juncture.”
“That’s how you see your teammates?” Garth shot back. “Unnecessary distractions?”
The passion of Garth’s argument was lost on Dox but he stopped to reply. “Even Nura is capable of administering routine cell regeneration therapy. Now if you’ll excuse me...”
The Coluan wandered off.
“Dox! Get back here now!” Garth shouted. “This conversation is not finished!”
Nura placed a hand on Garth’s shoulder. “It may as well be, Hot Shot. Let him do his thing. He’ll be more insufferable than ever if you don’t. The girls are recovering well.”
Garth was not pleased nor could he allow Dox’s insubordination to go unpunished. “As of this moment, Nura is the new team physician!”
Nura’s right hand shot to her chest in surprise. “Me? Even I didn’t see that one coming!”
“Anyone have a problem with it?” Garth asked, scanning the room.
The gathering of Legionnaires burst into applause.
Nura seemed almost apologetic at the resounding acceptance. “Thank you for the confidence. I won’t let you down.”
Garth winked at her. “I know you won’t.”
Imra Ardeen did not look pleased. “Now is not the time for vanity promotions! Our teammates deserve justice!”
Nura shot Imra a nasty look. “Get over yourself, telepath! If you don’t like it, feel free to read my mind!”
Imra looked away in disgust.
Garth was impressed. Not many had the guts to stand up to Imra.
“So what’s our next move?” Lyle asked.
Garth weighed his options. “I’ll take a team to Levitz Avenue and track down the creeps responsible for the attack. Lyle, gather all the info you can on the Dark Circle Everyone else, your assignments will arrive via flight ring within ten minutes. Let’s move!”
The Mission Monitor Board flashed to life. Science Police Chief, Kimball Zendak’s image filled the screen. “Legionnaires, we have a major issue brewing on Talok VIII.”
“We’re up to our eyeballs in major issues of our own, Chief,” Garth replied.
Zendak nodded. “I heard about the attack on your teammates but we thought you may want to see this one.”
A live feed from Talok VIII replaced Zendak’s image while the police chief’s voice narrated in the background. “Talok VIII is a peaceful, desert world ruled by an ancient religious sect that celebrates the yin and yang of light and dark. Its people revere the shadows that provide shelter from its brutal sun. Two hours ago its capital city was attacked by these five former captives of the Khundian Empire.”
A group of miscreants the Legion knew very well filled the screen.
A sick knot formed in the pit of Garth’s stomach. “The Fatal Five!”
“So you understand the danger Talok VIII faces?” Zendak asked.
Garth nodded. “All too well! I’ll send a team within the hour.”
“One more thing,” Zendak added. “Your contact will be this young woman, Tasmia Mallor. She is the planet’s current Shadow Champion, a long line of hereditary protectors tasked with keeping the world safe.”
“Looks like the hottie was asleep at the navigation controls,” Dirk Morgna cracked.
“Hardly, son,” Zendak replied. “She was away on a required spiritual retreat when the attack occurred. She heard about the attack from the Yakka Mahor, a rival ethnic group that inhabits the planet’s harsher regions. Talok is a key border system between the UP and the Khundian Empire and as such the UP has entered into talks with the world’s leaders regarding membership but they are reluctant as they are afraid such a move will distract from their culture and traditions. It is vital to the relationship between our governing body and Talok that Tasmia be regarded by her people as leading the charge against the Five.”
Garth nodded. “Great, more politics! Anything else?”
Zendak’s image filled the monitor once more. He shook his head. “Zendak out.”
Garth turned to his team and pointed to the doors. “I’ll lead a team of heavy-hitters to Talok VIII. Lyle, see what you can learn about the Dark Circle!”
Lyle nodded. “A sensible plan. Let’s go Legionnaires! We have our orders!”
Growing up on Somathur, Drura Sepht never saw anything like Weber’s World. Even from half a parasec away it was impossibly massive for a man-made satellite. “It’s spectacular!”
“That she is, lass!” RJ Brande bellowed. “Apparently I’m not the only sentient in the galaxy with the ability to dream big!”
“We will dock in five minutes,” the driver announced. “Please secure yourselves for landing.”
The Legionnaires strapped into their harnesses and waited for the World Skimmer to drop out of hyperdrive.
“I’ll exit the craft first,” Brin Londo insisted. “My reflexes give me the best chance in case some punk gets any ideas.”
“Is such precaution necessary lad?” Brande argued. “We’ll be among friends.”
Brin shook his head. “Just the same, a threat has been made on your life. I’d feel better if you allow me to go first.”
“Fair enough,” Brande replied. “And I suppose you other two will wish to follow Mr. Londo next?”
Jan nodded. “Absolutely, sir! Your safety is our priority.”
Moments later the Skimmer docked safely in the main hangar. Reporters and minor dignitaries waited behind an old-fashioned velvet theater rope.
“Look at the crowd!” Drura exclaimed. She’d never seen such a large contingent of media, dignitaries, and onlookers in her life. “All waiting for you, Mr. Brande.”
“One becomes accustomed to such attention, but don’t sell yourselves short, lass” Brande replied. “You Legionnaires are a big deal too!”
Brin shook his head. “There are the founders and then there are the rest of us.”
Brande shot Brin a troubled look. “I’m sorry you feel that way, my boy.”
Brin shrugged. “I’m fine with it, sir. It’s natural they’re the team’s star attractions. They began all this.”
“You’re all stars in my book!” Brande replied. “Those three hold a special place in this old man’s heart because they saved my life but the lot of you are heroes!”
“Thank you sir,” Brin replied. “We won’t let you down.”
“Not a doubt in my mind otherwise,” Brande replied.
The driver opened the Skimmer door and Brin exited first, followed by Jan Arrah and then Drura.. Brin and Jan scanned the crowd while Drura tested for airborne pathogens. The task sounded simple but with so many cameras and microphones pressed into their faces they could scarcely concentrate.
“Please,” Drura begged. “Allow us to do our jobs!”
“And what is your job exactly?” a reporter shouted. “To play lap dogs to your wealthy benefactor?”
“I’m not sure I know what you …”
“Should we be concerned you’re Somahturian?” another asked. “Are we safe? Can you control your power?”
“Is it true Jan that you’re the sole survivor of a dead world and royalty to boot?” another asked.
Jan nodded. “Mr. Brande’s safety is our sole concern. He’s here despite the death threat intercepted by Earthgov yesterday. He’s the real hero.”
“Enough questionssss!” hissed a voice over the fray. “Sssstep aside and allow our guestsss to enter the atrium.”
A large reptilian creature stepped forward dressed in a United Planets Security uniform. He was followed by any number of officers in riot gear. They pushed the crowds aside with their holo-shields. Some in the throng complained of the fledgling United Planets devolving into a police state but most understood the officers were more concerned with safety than circumventing anyone’s Constitutional rights under the UP Charter.
“I am Ontir,” the reptilian said. “I am Chief of Police here on Weber’s World. Please follow me into the atrium, Mr. Brande and Legionnairessss.”
Jan and Drura fell in behind Ontir while Brin guarded Mr. Brande from the rear.
“The station’s a beaut!” Brande whistled. “I bet it takes quite a force to patrol her.”
Ontir nodded. “It does indeed, sssir. I cannot wait until the fessstivities conclude and the sssstation falls into regular routine.”
Brande laughed. “It’s the nerve center of a galactic government, my friend. I’m not sure that will ever be the case.”
“Perhapsss you are correct,” Ontir countered. “But one can alwaysss hope.”
A laser blast ripped through the air and took out a reporter behind Brin.
“Mr. Brande look out!” Brin shouted. He knocked Brande to the ground and covered him but a second blast stuck the Legionnaire’s left shoulder. “Are you okay sir?”
Brande nodded. “I am thanks to you, Legionnaire. You kids seem to make a habit of saving this old man’s hide!”
Station security rushed to Brande’s side while news drones flittered into the air like dragonflies for a better look at the action.
Drura searched an overhead mezzanine and spotted the shooter. “There! Fleeing into the shadows!”
A lone, masked would-be assassin darted from view. Ontir ordered his men to pursue the shooter.
“I’m on it!” Brin shouted as he leaped for the railing above.
“Your shoulder!” Drura called after him but he was gone. She admired Brin’s tenacity. Despite being struck by the laser blast himself, his attention to the mission would not be derailed. Jan took to the air via flight ring.
“Drura, stay with Brande! Guard him with your life if necessary!” Jan ordered.
Drura nodded. “Go help Brin!”
A second shot singed the air and then a third.
“Up there!” a reporter shouted. “It’s another one!”
Drura grabbed Brande by the hand and led him to a recess in a nearby doorway. “It isn’t much cover but it’s all we have!”
Ontir exchanged blaster fire with the second shooter before diving into cover with Drura and Brande. A battalion rushed to their position to defend them.
“How could your security lapse this badly, Ontir?” Drura shouted over the fray. “The assassins were carefully positioned!”
“I do not understand,” Ontir hissed. “We sssswept the ssstation clean Legionnaire.” Assailants flooded the atrium floor from all directions and opened fire upon the dignitaries gathered for the ceremony and their personal guards. The security forces from the member worlds made a significant force but weren’t trained to work together. Some fell by friendly fire as they bumbled to defend their world’s leaders. Pandemonium swept through the newly-minted artificial satellite.
“The attack on Brande wasss a ruse to draw sssecurity away from the world leadersss,” Ontir hissed.
Drura turned to Ontir. “Guard Brande with your life!”
“What can one “girl” do?” Ontir hissed, emphasizing the word “girl”.
“I’m going to make some people sick! Let’s hope your janitorial staff is better prepared than your security force was,” Drura shot back. She ventured onto the atrium floor and unleashed an exotic Kathoon vertigo virus upon the assailants on the mezzanines above. One by one they succumbed to the pathogen and hurled their lunches onto the shiny new floors below but a lone shooter managed a final shot that blasted a contingent of fleeing dignitaries and handlers.
“The President’s been hit!” someone yelled. A circle of handlers pushed aside reporters and escorted the unknown dignitary to the ground for medical treatment.
A second group of assassins blasted their way into the atrium from the main hangar. They were a much larger group than those she sickened on the mezzanine above. She needed a much faster toxin to affect such a large group so quickly. She hated to use Organ Rot as it would affect both friend and foe alike if she couldn’t pinpoint its spread. It was an incredibly painful pathogen found on Dredfahl in the Vegan system but the size of the force and the speed of their attack left her little choice. She allowed the pathogen to seep from her pores and into the air. One by one the assassins dropped to their knees and convulsed in pools of their own vomit. “What’s the matter?” Drura teased. “Cat got your digestive tracts?”
A straggler on the mezzanine above arose and grabbed his gun but the Organ Rot virus wafted skyward and he inhaled the pathogen. He stumbled forward over the railing.
“Sprock!” Drura cursed. “That wasn’t supposed to happen!”
From out of seemingly nowhere, Brin somersaulted through the air and caught the plunging assassin and his flight ring landed them both safely. “Not getting off that easily, pal,” Brin huffed. “Though it is tempting to let you go splat!”
Brin slammed the convulsing shooter to the ground and Drura unmasked him. It was Ontir himself! She glanced over her shoulder and confirmed the security chief was still huddled in the corner protecting Brande.
Ontir lumbered forward from his secure position with Brande in tow. The Security Chief studied his clone with his large reptilian eyes. Their vertical slits narrowed. ”Curiousss.”
Drura couldn’t believe her ears! She glanced up at the Security Chief. “That’s all you have to say?”
“I’m not sssure what I could add to clarify the sssituation,” Ontir replied.
Jan arrived with another Ontir clone draped over his shoulder. It was the shooter he chased into the shadows.
The commotion quickly shifted from the mystery of the clones to the fallen dignitary hit by the stray blaster fire moments before. It was Naveen Trulo, the recently elected president of Earth!
“It would ssseem the threat against Brande wasss but a diversion,” hissed a solemn Ontir. “In light of this unfortunate incident, I order myself detained until I am cleared of wrongdoing.”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Brande. “You performed your job admirably.”
Ontir nodded. “Thank you sssir, but I believe this is for the best.” He turned to his second in command. “Officer Delk, if you will…”
With a nod of Delk’s head, a young officer cuffed Ontir’s thick, reptilian wrists.
“I smell a rat!” Drura proclaimed. “And I can’t help but shake the feeling that someone’s agenda just gained traction.”
“Then let us hope we can get to the bottom of whatever’s happening before someone else is hurt,” Brande added. “Or worse.”