All was still in the snow blanketed forest as the lone rider wound his way almost silently among the foliage, his jet black steed sensing where to place each hoof as if it had been that way countless times. The somber tranquillity of the wood seemed to cower before this man as he rode on in his dark mission. His appearance would have startled anyone managing to catch sight of him. Ragged clothes patched over with pelts of fur were wrapped in white strips of cloth here and there, himself and his mount, giving him the appearance of some mummified Death angel. And well he might be. Weapons were all about him, from battle knives and a makeshift spear to an alien blaster. His face was as stark as the rest of him. His eyes were alert as a predator's, always searching for a sign of something, but hollow, drained of life by a memory that haunted him as he now haunted this wood. A memory that had shattered his soul. He knew not how long ago it was, for the days flowed by timelessly for him in an endless stream of pain. Once he had loved those days, but they were long gone for him now.
He rode on almost aimlessly, seeming to let his steed choose the way, though he sometimes gave it direction.
Without warning or sound there was a flare of red in the dark overcast. Somewhere far above and to the north, a ship had been stricken, and badly; the glare of it dimmed but did not fade as it traced the arc of it's own doom above the clouds. The anxious soldier prayed that it was an enemy vessel full of terrified Saurians.
"Come on, Nightwind! That can't be far off!" he said to his steed with a slap. Urged on by the tone in his voice, the mount sped on towards the failing ship, the rider watching it fearfully as it plummeted. It appeared briefly through the clouds in the distance, trailing flames and smoke, before vanishing beyond far hills. Just afterwards, there was a flash as it struck the earth, and a deep rumble that jarred his bones. He urged his steed on the faster, glad at least that no one lived in that direction.
Much later than he would have liked, he came upon the site of the crashed ship. It had torn the forest for a thousand meters as it skidded through hills and splintering trees, finally coming to a fatal stop in a hollow, lit with dying flames and stinking, lifting smoke. He was relieved to see that the ugly craft was indeed a Saurian vessel, some sort of destroyer, but it's destroying days were over. Though it hadn't exploded in what could be called a landing, it was wrecked and would never again threaten anyone. It looked almost like a fallen dragon, a corpse draped across the hollow.
"So," he commented at it dryly, "we still have defenses working, you found out. You'll see that we're not so easily overthrown, as you forgot the first time you tried this madness. Now to see if there's any finishing up to do." He unshouldered his assault rifle and held it at the ready. The blaster was a good weapon, and because the Saurians needed a certain amount of working infrastructure, there was power available to keep it charged. But bullets were much more efficient, and eminently satisfying to hear fired.
He dismounted, taking a bag of belongings that he never was far from; his mementos. If he died, he wanted them close. Shooing his steed away in case of any trouble, he approached the stricken hulk on foot. A great hole was blown in the aft of it where a weapon had done it's job of bringing the alien ship down. He used a scanner and found a small amount of radiation was leaking from the engines, as he thought there would be, so he worked his way up the hull where there was no shortage of breaches to enter.
Crawling gingerly through a tear in the ship and holding his breath from the stench, he flashed a light around the darkened interior as he pointed the rifle where the beam lit. He need not have worried much about survivors, the inside was a mess of ruined stuff- whatever their cursed ships were made of!- and bodies of the dead reptilian crew were everywhere, in all manner of unliving condition. It was a nightmarish vision of a Saurian Hell.
"Good," he spat with macabre satisfaction, moving on to scavenge.
Like a worm in a corpse, he was forced to crawl through much of the ruined ship as it collapsed in on itself, as if once alive. It was warm but cooling fast, as fresh arctic air whistled in through thousands of rips in the hull. On the bridge, he took some souvenirs from the few ranking officers' bodies he found; weapons, insignia, other things that caught his eye. One gave him pause in particular, a running image generator in an outstretched claw. It must be the crew member's family giving him some sort of message, which he chose not to hear. The utter contrast with the carnage all around him was appalling. How on earth could creatures as evil and repugnant as you have any sort of affection for family, especially after destroying ours?! he wondered. Not caring to ponder the answer he moved on for more useful, and less emotional things.
After coming across the armory and collecting a few useful items and potent looking objects, he began to wind his way back towards the breach he had entered when he nearly stepped on a Saurian which grabbed for his foot! He stumbled away hastily, firing into the reptile as he back-pedalled, the shots deafening in the closed space. The wounded creature spat curses at him, twisted in it's agony into gibberish as it tried to crawl away. The mercenary trained his light in the direction the Saurian was trying in vain to make, and saw a series of escape pods, more like organs of the once living ship than spacecraft! Some were missing, cowardly officers having made their escape before the crash, hopefully to freeze to death in the harsh winter. He looked back to the dying Saurian, probably the Second in command, and for a brief moment had pity on it. But then, he recalled a pale hand lying in the wreck of a home, once so alive, and sympathy was washed away in a flood of ice cold vengeance.
He strode up to the languishing reptile and said arrogantly in his thick accent, "You won't make that getaway. You're going to Hell this day for all you've done, you hear me?"
The Saurian fought to look up at it's tormentor, gasping and choking blood, and spat, "You?" It then coughed out a rough, humorless laugh. "You think you are better than us, but you are no different than we are. You are just as evil, you fight just as wicked. If I go to a hell, you will be right there with me for eternity, running from me."
He felt sick in his gut, like a dagger twisting. He found his voice and replied sourly, "Oh, you Saurians die well, always have an insult handy as a parting shot." He leaned down and added, poking the rifle barrel in it's face for emphasis, "But you're the one who'll die this day, slug. You'll be joining your fellows in a flaming pit of torment. We shot your vessel down, Ducks killed your proud ship. We won't use dimensional Limbo to imprison you this time. We're going to continue killing till there's not one Saurian in any reality anywhere."
The reptile gagged on blood, then coughed out liquidly, "No weapon struck us... we had engine failure."
The mercenary stood slowly, looking forlorn for a moment. Then he said with a glare, "The breach in your hull was blown from the outside. Nice try, lizard."
The dying creature growled, "Do your worst then. You miserable..." It clutched at a chest riddled with bleeding bullet wounds and tried to curse him, but nothing came forth but wet choking as it resumed it's hopeless crawl towards the pods, trailing a stain.
He looked at the pathetic sight and decided he'd had enough. There was the chance the Saurian would live long enough to do something he'd regret later. Besides, the noise was disgusting, and if there was a Hell, the despicable creature would suffer there much more than this. Three more rounds went into the reptilian skull, splashing carnage behind it on the floor, and with a final thrashing it was at last still. He shook his head to clear the ringing of the gunfire in his ears, and said to the corpse, "You Saurians always leave such a mess behind."
He knew he should leave, the ship could blow without much warning, and the stench was getting pretty bad, but he was curious about those pods the officer was so determined to get to. He came up to one and examined the strange... husk? Everything about the Saurian's technology seemed to involve organic nature for some reason, and the pods were no different. He knew it would be so, but the sight of it was still a little unsettling. It was like some bizarre plant, or amphibian! He peered inside the opening where a leaf of a hatch hung ajar, and hoisting his load onto his back, crept inside. He jumped as light began to course through the interior... skin? of the pod, revealing Saurian sized seats reclining before an alien control panel. He got the definite impression that he'd made a wrong move, when without warning the hatch sealed itself with a grotesque slurping sound.
It was self activating, he knew he'd be killed! Frantically he kicked at the hatch, but it was sealed firm and there was no sign of a way to open it! He felt like he was about to be digested! Growing terrified, he begged whatever Powers that Be to deliver him from this, when a Saurian voice announced thickly:
"Prepare for dimensional Gateway transference. Assume seats, extinguish all smoking materials and strap in."
Good Lord, what WAS this thing?! He pounded his fists on a portal, nearly delirious as he looked out towards his world, perhaps for the last time! No! For God's sake! Nightwind! Josette!! Oh GOD-
Then something terrible happened, he felt like a glass of water being drained...
She was out, flying among the stars, the soul of a wolf gliding along side her. Juliet loved these sorts of dreams; she felt so free, unencumbered of all care, the stars spread out like diamond dust on black velvet. The beauty was breathtaking. Sometimes there was fear of something lurking in the dark void, but this time it was gloriously fun as she and the wolf played among the constellations ornamenting the sky.
Abruptly the play stopped. The wolf rushed protectively to her side, saying, "Something comes quickly."
The girl looked around, sensing nothing unusual. "What, Shan? What do you-?"
They were thrown aside as something unseen blasted past them at unbelievable speed. Recovering, she cried, "What the hell?" then sped after it. She called to the wolf, "Shan, help me find it! We must see what this is. It could be danger."
The wolf flung itself under her arms, saying, "Hold me, it is fast!" Then her stomach lurched as the wolf streaked through the blackness after its invisible quarry at speeds she could only guess at.
What was it? Why couldn't she see anything? She could sense something ahead of them, but what? Letting the predator do the hunting, she reached out with her spirit, trying to fathom the nature of their quarry with her special senses. She was shocked to find that it was outside space... a spinning, invisible tunnel... a wormhole! Saurians? It had to be! "Shan, it's the Saurians! Get me close, we need to destroy it!"
"Good," the creature replied with a predator's satisfaction. "Here, we are with it."
Hurdling through the darkness, they were alongside their invisible prey, unaware that it
was being stalked. Yes, it was Saurian all right, she could feel the hideous semi-organic abomination in the bow of the spreading wormhole as bile welled up within her. She refrained from using her talents much for fear of them running amok, but this was different. Whatever she did to this thing, no matter how cruel, the passengers deserved everything, and more! She felt her anger become a fire within her soul, building it, focusing it, giving it direction, a target. But before she unleashed her fury on the unsuspecting victim, some inkling gave her pause. There was something different about this. She decided to see what she was up against, so she peered into the hurdling orb and to her surprise, found...
Fear? Someone is afraid, alone, terrified...? Who could it... a Duck?! In there?! Oh my god, I could have killed him! What is he doing in that awful thing? How on earth did this happen?! Where is he going?
Earth, something told her, it was heading for Earth. But why? And what should I do now, watch? See what happened? No, if this was an accident, then it could land at the feet of Dragaunus and the poor Duck would be a prisoner, or worse! But what could I do?
"Do we kill it?"
The wolf's question startled her. "No Shan, there's a friend in there, one of us."
She got a sense of the wolf's distaste in her reply. "In that? It is an evil thing!"
No kidding, she thought. "I don't understand it either, but he's in trouble and we have to help him."
Her companion looked to her and asked simply, "How?"
She was at a loss for an answer. "I don't know, but we have to stay with him. I'll try something if things get out of hand."
The wolf continued in her blunt, direct way. "When will that be?"
She looked ahead and groaned, "Now, maybe." Earth was in the distance, but coming up fast. It had to land, surely, but where could it be headed besides the Raptor? She had to steer it away, get it to the Pond somehow, that was the only place it could discharge it's unfortunate passenger safely. But could she affect it's course? She had to try, for the sake of the helpless Duck within. "I'm going to try something," she told the wolf, which quietly moved away to give her space to work with.
Astrophysics was never her strong suit, but she understood the basics well enough. Make small changes early to affect large changes later. If she could slow it down, she could better judge the direction it was headed and divert it with less effort and more accuracy, hopefully. But could she affect something like this, in a wormhole, on the other side of the fabric of space? They would all find out now... besides, wasn't this a dream?
She reached out with her mind into the rippling vortex that wasn't entirely there, seeking the vile pod tearing through the heavens. It was easier because of the waves of fear the unfortunate passenger was throwing out, his fright was a beacon for her. Be calm, strange traveler, she thought, we'll see this through to the end safely. I'll do everything I can for you. She touched the surface of the repugnant craft with distaste, then recoiled sharply. The Gateway generator caused unexpected energies to discharge into her mind, like touching an exposed electrical cord. Oh great! she grumbled to herself. Why not make it as hard as possible! She steeled herself for the coming shock and settled on it more securely, readying herself for whatever effort it would take to accomplish a safe arrival on the Earth. At least the discharge lessened the longer she was connected, but it was damned uncomfortable! She then looked ahead, wondering which of the lit dots was Anaheim...
She attempted to slow it down. At first she had no effect on the speed of the pod and she grew worried, it was going awfully fast! Then she put some effort into it, and she made some progress. But with it, the craft began to buffet unexpectedly and she seized it more strongly in her mind, trying frantically to hold it steady. Oh, for crying out loud! What next?! She could feel the helpless passenger growing more terrified and her heart sank. If only I could communicate with him, tell him I'm trying to help! Damn it! She decided to let it go for a while till she knew better where it was going, and took a breath as the ungodly craft stabilized. But the Earth was coming up fast, growing at an alarming rate, while the pod continued to streak towards the world as if it was oblivious. She was growing worried. Doesn't that stupid thing know how close it is?!
When the glaring Sun was hidden behind the curve of the Earth and she knew about where the Pond was, she decided she'd better act, and quickly. She seized the stinging, rebellious pod and put all her will into forcing it's trajectory while keeping it as steady as she could. But now it seemed to resist all attempts to coerce it, fighting back with a vengeance. "Shan!" she cried. "Lend me your strength! This is so hard!"
"I will," the wolf answered and faithfully came to her side, letting the Duck draw from the well of it's soul.
Oh please don't fight me, please behave! she begged, and applied herself with their combined strengths to force the unwilling monstrosity into a slightly different heading as the world began to swallow the sky. It was ridiculously hard work, trying to steer the pod and hold it steady while the Gateway effect pricked at her like thousands of needles! She could feel the terror of the helpless passenger, unaware that someone was attempting desperately to aid him. Please don't be afraid, I'm trying to help you! Oh please...
The wolf began to drift away as Juliet drained it of it's strength. She called to her, urging her on. "No Shan, stay close! I need you close! Come on girl!"
But the exhausted wolf couldn't keep up with them and began to fall behind, murmuring dreamily, "Tired... so tired..."
The little strength the weary creature had to offer became increasingly tenuous as the distance between them grew, and Juliet felt terribly alone as the alien pod fought to go it's way, the spider web of city streets becoming visible, rushing up at them as the pod hurdled downwards, the Duck quaking with fear, the Gateway stinging at her... this was a horrible dream!
Or was it?
She would have to take this seriously just in case it wasn't. But now she was growing exhausted, and alarmed at how fast the world was rushing up at them, and how terribly hard it was to keep the pod on course without it going violently out of control! Below them, she made out the part of Anaheim where Arrowhead Stadium was, and her heart fell. They were woefully off course, and naturally the craft was doing it's utmost to go the other way! With an effort that wrenched her soul, she heaved the bucking, invisible pod over into a steep descent, then less so, then shallow, then slower... was this actually going to work without a horrible crash?! She was so relieved, despite the fact that the ordeal was anything but over, that she felt like laughing. Just slow a little more, you monster, she thought with a smile, I have a young man I'm dying to meet.
Then as they continued their descent towards the Pond and it loomed up at them, it occurred to her that the teleportation shields were up. Would that mean any trouble-?
As if in answer, there was a sudden terrible crash and pain-
The Gateway wormhole plowed into the fields enveloping the Pond and they buckled, collapsing with an incredible release of energy. Bolts like lightning shot all through the arena seeking to ground as the invisible craft hurdled through the floor, still on the other side of reality. Plunging through the shielding of the underground installation, it passed through the hundreds of feet of soil and rock separating it from the surface, discharging more energy as it slowed, seeking out the hollow space beneath. Finding it, the generator shut down and with a final crash like lightning, the pod slammed violently into the Ready Room floor.
Wildwing had been lying awake worrying, about the coming schedule, about what Dragaunus was scheming, about what nutty plans Phil had for them, about whatever else would go wrong to complicate their lives. Something always came up to make things anything but smooth. Their stay on Earth had gone on much longer than anyone would have thought, and involved much more trouble. They had enjoyed an outstanding year as an NHL hockey team, but their never ending war with Dragaunus, their conflicts with other unexpected enemies, their manager's mad publicity stunts, and many more things had stressed him to the point that he sometimes wanted to give up. If only they could have a single issue to contend with, if only there was someone else to take the reins of leadership and give him a break from the ordeal...
If only Canard were here...
He heaved a shuddering sigh. Always his thoughts returned to his friend lost in dimensional Limbo between worlds, throwing his life away so the others could make it... No, he had to be alive, he just had to! If only there was some way to know the truth... but did he really want to know? No... not if it was....
He jumped straight up as every alarm in the place sounded at once. Cursing, he reached for trousers as he commed for the others, wondering what the hell could be causing such a ruckus!
Then his blood ran cold as there was a horrendous noise he'd never heard before, like the place was being torn apart! The floor was rocked as if from a terrible impact, the crash rang throughout the installation like thunder. It was like the end of the world! Frantically he donned his battle gear, sure that Dragaunus had somehow found a way to penetrate their underground fortress and wage a final battle in the one place he felt secure!
"Guys!" he cried over the commotion. "Does anyone know what's going on?!"
Everyone but Grin answered at once. Through the chatter he made out Tanya's nasal reply. "D-Drake One says there's been a breach of the headquarters and the teleportation barriers have collapsed!"
"Tell me something I don't know! And kill the alarms!" he shouted, searching for the Mask... where was it! There, on the floor, the devastating impact had knocked it from his desk. He fumbled it into place, and as it became a part of him again he was grateful as a measure of confidence returned. "Where is the source?"
"In the Ready Room!" she wailed.
Oh great! Right in the heart of their home! he grumbled to himself as the alarms ceased their racket. "All right team, you know the drill. Invasion Plan Alpha, heavy weapons! Assemble in the north hallway, now!"
As the others gave their hasty replies, he bolted out of his room into the unearthly silence of the corridor and groaned within himself. This could be it, our last fight, one way or the other. We could be joining my friend shortly...
He crouched just inside of the corner where the corridor opened into the Ready Room as the others ran up behind him, armed with recoilless pucklaunchers and battle armor. He peered around the edge of the wall cautiously, using the otherworldly sensors of the Mask to afford him a special view of their threat only it could provide. As he did, he drew a hard breath. Shrouded in billowing mist was the wreck of an ugly brute of a craft, an unmistakably monstrous design.
Nosedive edged up beside him, asking quietly but with obvious nerves, "Hey bro, what is it? Draggy double parking?"
"It's Saurian, all right," he growled, "some sort of shuttle!"
The teen was shaken at this. "Man, how'd it get all the way down here! Shields were up, right?"
Tanya snuffled an interruption. "Duhh, Wildwing, we got a problem."
He faced her and snapped, "What, there's more?!"
"Well... yeah..." she grimaced. "Drake One's suffering some sort of system failure. It got a jolt of some kind, probably from that shuttle when it crashed through our shields. Our interior defenses are sorta down, among other things..."
Wildwing spoke softly into his communicator, "Duke, you get that? You in position?"
"Yeah, I hear ya," came a low reply thickly laced with a Bronx accent. He was perched atop Drake One's huge monitor.
"Man one of the cannons to cover us till something changes the situation."
"Well, I prefer my natural talents wit' a sword an' all," the mercenary said almost conversationally, "but I'm not above a little sniping in the name of world peace."
"There's something else," added Mallory, "Juliet's not here."
Wildwing's heart lurched at the news. "What?! Where is she?"
She shrugged. "Her com has her in her room."
He checked his own locator for confirmation, and saw that it was so. Something must be wrong, no one could sleep through what just happened! "Juliet," he called urgently. "Juliet, come in." Did something happen to her because of this intrusion? She'd suffered through so much because of what the Saurians had done, if Dragaunus was here... horrible thoughts of retribution flooded his mind.
"I'll go check on her," Nosedive blurted and turned to leave.
"No Dive, stay put. We have to deal with this first."
The youngster looked to him with desperation and Wildwing's heart fell in sympathy. "But she could be in trouble. Nothin's goin' on."
"You were saying?" chided Mallory as a loud hiss sounded, and a large leaf-like hatch appeared above the rolling mist. She took the opportunity to dash over to the sunken area of the entertainment center, disappearing over the wide arc of the couch.
"Man, she would have to use that for a position!" Nosedive grouched. "If the wide screen gets busted, lizard lips is payin' triple!"
"Okay, looks like this is it," Wildwing told them with false calm. "Let's show 'em what we do to uninvited guests."
"Yeah, let's get this over with," Tanya sniffed, rubbing her beak. "This thing stinks."
Grin finally spoke, saying in his usual quiet, husky tone, "I sense that there is something other than what we assume here."
Nosedive turned and quipped sarcastically, "Well I got two cents that say your sense is nonsense."
"Knock it off you two," Wildwing ordered. "Something's coming out. Get ready to fire."
There was the sharp ratching sound of several weapons being levelled at the alien intruder, then a nervous silence as they waited for commands from their young leader. Wildwing peered into the mist with the eyes of the Mask, and when he saw the passenger finally emerge, he gasped with astonishment, loud enough for all to hear. "What the heck?"
"Hey, bro," whispered Nosedive from his cover. "What is it?"
"Yeah, what are our orders?" Mallory asked.
"Hold your fire," he called quickly, emerging from the corridor. "You're not gonna believe this."
His mind was in turmoil as he struggled to make sense of his surroundings. What had happened to him? He tried his best to recall, but his head rang and he felt ill, and his memory was a confusion of events, a thousand memories jumbled together. Fear, spinning purplish colors whirling off into infinity, being thrown about in this horrible thing he was trapped in, a world rushing up at him, a terrible crash, then a worse one, then... stillness, but not quiet. Loud noises like alarms rang out for a time but he couldn't recognize them. Then when it was finally silent, the thing peeled back part of itself and he stumbled for the opening, and hopefully freedom and sanity. The first breaths of remotely fresh air did wonders for him and he felt more of his old self returning, remembering more clearly.
One thing he was sure of, whatever he had just endured, he never wanted to go through anything like it again! He muttered as he rubbed his head, "If I'm not dead, I'll be damned if I'd know why not!"
He heaved himself awkwardly over the side of the pod as his orientation returned, and he peered through the mist surrounding him, uncertain if it was real or in his mind. But as his vision cleared, he saw that he was no longer in a Saurian vessel, and a good dose of honest fear returned to clear away the rest of the cobwebs. He climbed back in after his weapons.
When he emerged with the rifle and blaster, he caught his breath when he saw forms approaching through the mists. He calmed himself as best he could and made sure the safeties were off the weapons, taking aim at the larger shapes.
Juliet was devastated, drifting like a snowflake through the floor of the arena and the inverted hangar below it, her matterless body passing through as if nothing was there. She felt pain coursing through her form, throbbing in her head, felt as if she'd been electrocuted, felt torments that she'd never experienced before. And she felt like she was about to awaken from this awful dream, but she stubbornly resisted, wanting to see what happened in case it wasn't. She had to get to wherever that pod had landed. There had been annoying alarms ringing in her head for a time, when she had first realized she was conscious, but it was silent now, hopefully a good sign. Feeling a little better, she began to assume control of her descent and made her way down through the elevator.
When she passed through the walls of the main area, she gasped at what she saw. The team was in full battle gear, arrayed around the Saurian shuttle for an assault on it! Oh, they didn't know! Oh my god, please don't-!
But no, Wildwing saw the Duck emerge from the pod, half falling as he crawled wearily from his hyperspace prison, and called the attack off. Juliet found herself fairly glowing with relief and affection. So this is the traveler I had rescued... he looks so tall! Then as she peered closer at him, she wasn't sure what she was seeing. He was enshrouded in mist, and there was stuff all over him like bandages! There was size to him of some sort, she could tell, and he was handsome, but there was a darkness on him, and that fear again. And... Oh no, he was aiming weapons! Oh please don't! You don't understand!
As the others closed in unsuspecting, the stranger barked out, "I'd come no closer if I were you."
Wildwing put his hands out, calling gently, "Whoa, whoa there, we're Ducks too. Just take it easy, everything's all right now. You're among friends."
The male peered uncertainly through the fading mists and sounded as if he was ready to cry. "Wha... can this be? I felt certain I'd be facing Saurian assault squads or the like! Oh, thank heaven... Well, still, to be on the safe side, you step a bit closer so I can see who you are. My eyes are a touch fuzzy yet."
Duke landed from a graceful somersault and strode forward to join them. The stranger gazed at them in wonder as they came up, especially Wildwing in his Mask, and had trouble speaking for a moment. "What... manner of mask is this? I've heard-" Then his features twisted in anger and he shouted, "L'Orange!"
"What the-?" Duke found himself staring down the barrel of a gun. He walked backwards with his hands out, chuckling weakly. "Ahe he... good to know they still remember ya back home... aheh..."
"Oh, I remember you all right!" the Duck snarled, eyeing the others. "Starting a new gang, working for the Saurians now? Awh, you'd do anything for pay, traitor!"
"Hey, who're you callin' a traitor-" he began when the rifle was aimed in earnest. In a more conciliatory tone, he finished, "Oh yeah, me."
"He's got a blaster!" Wildwing yelled. "Look out!"
Juliet's stomach knotted in anguish from the horrible scene. Things couldn't be more wrong! She knew she had to wake up, or get back into her body, or whatever to get back to reality and stop this madness! As if something obliged her, she flew backwards quickly like a feather caught in a vacuum hose, the world around her becoming a blur-
-and she fell into her bed as if from a height. She shook her head to clear it, wondering momentarily what it was that she'd just dreamed, it was... Oh my god!
He threw herself out of bed, fumbling anxiously with her jumpsuit which decided to misbehave in every way it could. Oh to heck with it! She flung it down and grabbed a bathrobe, tying the belt tight as she ran to the terrible confrontation, desperate to bring some calm to it.
"All right, knock it off!" Mallory shouted, aiming her pucklauncher. "You're out numbered and out- augh!" She gave a cry as a blaster bolt sent the weapon flying from her grasp.
"Outgunned?" the stranger finished. "Sorry, my lady, but I've dealt with worse odds than this by far."
She gaped at him in wonder of his astonishing manners, repeating, "My lady?"
"That's it!" Nosedive cried, drawing a pair of pistols. "I've had enough of you, ya freak show mummy! Prepare to be triple wrapped!"
He fired a couple of bolos at the intruder, but the teen was shocked as he ducked them. They whipped over his head and coiled around Tanya on the other side of him. She gave a wail of surprise, cut short as a puck smacked her in the stomach. She groaned as she collapsed, "Good shot, Nosedive."
He grinned weakly. "Uhh... sorreee-ouch!" he yelped as another bolt scorched one of his pistols and he dropped it.
"The other one also, if you please," said the stranger, waiving the blaster meaningfully.
Nosedive obliged, grudgingly, the pistol clattering to the floor with it's mate. "Aww man!" he complained. "Those are monogrammed too!"
The gunman coughed out a chuckle. "I like a fancy weapon myself, but not aimed-" He dropped the rifle in time to grab Wildwing, lunging from behind, throwing him over his hip into an onrushing Duke. They hit each other hard, falling into a painful heap before him. "-At me," he finished, reclaiming the rifle.
Grin stepped forward slowly, his palms outward in a show of non-aggression. "Please, stop your fighting. You don't understand."
Nosedive was aghast at his friend's conciliation. "Grin, old buddy, this is no time to get warm and fuzzy. This guy's armed and delirious."
The lumbering Duck faced Nosedive and said, "No, I sense that he is not. He is a victim of strange circumstances he is attempting to come to grips with." Turning back to the intruder as Nosedive slapped himself, he continued, "You don't understand. We are not your enemies. You have no reason to attack us, you have nothing to fear from us."
"Oh, I think I understand well enough, now that I have the upper hand you want to catch me off guard with a plea for peace." He waived the blaster at the imposing male for emphasis. "But one thing I can't understand is why Ducks would serve Saurians! Why?! They destroyed our civilization! Your homes, your very own people!"
"We don't serve the Saurians!" Wildwing growled as he gathered himself gingerly from the floor, helping a wincing Duke up with him.
"Yeah, you hot headed old coot!" Nosedive exclaimed. "Where'd you get a fruity idea like that?! You musta hit your head on the way in!"
"We're at war with Dragaunus," Mallory told him. "We're on the same side."
"Ohh... so a Saurian shuttle jumped of it's own accord to a Duck stronghold," the stranger said, looking up with mock understanding. "Forgive me, my lady, but you must think I'm an old fool to use a line like that on me."
Mallory almost looked chastised as Grin said in his deep husk, "Truly, there are many questions involved in all this, but together we may find the answers we seek. Come, I mean you no harm." He took a tentative pace forward.
"Oh yes, you're a dainty one, I can see." With that, the intruder let loose a blaster shot, hitting Grin full in the chest, and he dropped with a moan of agony.
The others cried out and fell to their comrade's side. The assailant was about to explain when there was a scream behind them. When he looked, his mouth fell open in astonishment.
Juliet rounded the corner of the hallway just in time to see her friend and mentor take the blaster shot point blank in the chest, and she nearly collapsed from the horror of it. "Oh god, no, not Grin! Oh god, STOP IT!"
She reacted thoughtlessly, wanting to end this awful disaster without hurting anyone. From deep within herself came a flood of tortured emotion, fear and compassion bursting forth, and she threw herself full into his mind like a tidal wave.
Devastated by her appearance, he stood slack jawed, defenseless, as she rushed into the depths of his soul. In his mind he was elsewhere now, in another reality entirely. He was seeing a ghost come to life, and fell to his knees.
It was Josette, coming forward in a robe, as lovely as the first time he had seen her... more so, she was alive again! The horrible crushing wounds were nowhere to be seen, and he wept with joy as she came to him with compassion on her face. Oh, my God, you are so beautiful, and alive! I have you once again! Oh, I can hardly bear it-!
She saw a handsome knight, clad in armor, surrounded by the heads of hundreds of dragons he had slain, kneeling before her in supplication. Supreme devotion was plain on his face as tears poured down his cheeks. Your name is Corwyn... Heart friend... what a wonderful name! Oh, you cry for me? Don't, gentle warrior, I feel your pain and will help end it, I'll take it from you. You need fear and hurt no more. You look so much like Wildwing... no, Uncle Ramane, a strong, handsome man, full of knowledge and life...
But no, now there was that darkness returning. She saw that he wore it like a shroud, or it wore him! The multitude of dragon skulls began clamoring in unliving whispers, accusing him of the terrible deaths he had inflicted on them, and he turned away from her in shameful anguish. It wasted him like a disease, the way that her uncle had, and he was becoming thin and frail from it, the armor corroding to rust and falling away, dying as he seemed to be! She flew to his side, gathering him in her arms as he began to fail, desperate to save him, but terrified that the outcome would be the same. "No, please don't die, I couldn't take it again! Oh... please live! Fight this! Why?!"
Tears poured forth in a torrent as he looked into her face. He saw that it wasn't his wife, but another, with wounds of a different nature but just as deadly. He croaked through a dying voice, "Ohh... no, I was a fool to think I could change anything. There was nothing I could do, no amount of killing could change this, no amount of blood could ever bring her back to me. It only ended up killing me as I killed them... it was a waste, all for nothing! She's gone from me forever..." He cried out in a wail of agony, "Oh God, I can stand it no longer, please let me die!"
She hugged him tightly to her, determined that he would not perish... No, not this one, not this time! "Corwyn, what! What is it?!"
Then she saw, and her heart fell like a stone in a bottomless pool of sorrow as it shook her to the core...
He had found one of the most precious girls in the world, someone to share his life and soul with, who he had given himself to entirely. Josette was her name, and she returned his love completely and selflessly. Though she was young and he, not so young, they were wed soon after they met. He regretted one thing in their relationship, that he had asked someone so young and innocent to share the life of a law officer. But she accepted the penalties implicit in such a marriage without complaint, though he was sometimes gone for days without word from him, though he sometimes returned home wounded. He could not believe his good fortune, finding such a woman for a lover. She had endured her share of trouble from him, his occasional bad moods and tempers, his disappearances, his wounds, his secret hurts. Even the sudden war with the Krennen, all this she had weathered with few ill words or tempests of her own.
But all good things must come to some sort of end, he knew that. In his line of work, he understood things that theologians and philosophers took a lifetime to fathom, though he could not have prepared himself for this sort of conclusion. He had been on another one of his damned essential missions, to hunt down one of the Brotherhood of the Blade to use in destroying the Brotherhood itself, when the Invasion fell on their world like a hail of brimstone. He had fought his way back to their home, only to find it in ruins, collapsed. And in the rubble was an outstretched, unmoving, pale hand. While the Invasion raged around him, he worked in anguish to clear away the debris of their wrecked home that had crushed the life from his lover. He couldn't bear to see her broken body which had once been so alive, so lovely. Eyes closed, wet with tears, he placed her gently in a shallow grave and said his good-byes to her while the sky lit with flares from the devastation of their world. He collected some things from the wreck of their house he could get to; mementos, equipment, supplies, weapons... and their wedding bands. Then he tore himself away and set off from there, swearing into the wounded sky that he would make the unholy beings pay for the horrors and pain they had unleashed on their world, doing whatever it took to make them regret ever finding their planet.
He had succeeded mightily. Driven by hate and the near destruction of his heart, he had wreaked vengeance on the Saurians the likes of which they may have never seen. Vicious, ruthless attacks on them on patrols, in their barracks, whenever and wherever the opportunity presented itself to kill or cripple them, he struck, quickly and tirelessly. His conscience seared by the death of his wife and the rape of their world, he was capable of anything, no brutality was beyond his doing. But it hurt him, he realized deep within himself; even though they were Saurians, to be so callously cruel in his revenge was killing what remained of his soul. Even though he had left something of himself in that grave with his wife, some glimmer of her love lingered under all those scars of pain and heartache. Still, these faint warnings went unheeded as he continued on, leaving a trail behind him of his enemies, dead, or those who wished they were.
He left the cities, afraid of the retribution the Saurians would wreak on helpless prisoners because of his callous attacks, and picked at the outskirts of their domain like a wolf worrying a herd. Any thoughts of joining a resistance were set aside. He had always worked alone or nearly so before, and his type of resistance probably wasn't welcome anyhow.
In the wilderness he came across solitary areas amazingly untouched by the Saurian's heavy claw. Here he found refuge and a faint solace from his painful wrath. He made a few friends there, if it could truly be called friendship. His heart was too devastated from all he had seen and done for him to be very close to anyone, mostly he was polite and kind. But he was grateful for all the people there did for him, providing him shelter, food, provisions, things to help him sleep dreamlessly, ammunition, his steed. He only regretted that he hardly meant any of the kind words he gave them; his smiles were a facade, his jokes were a pretense, his laughter hollow. Yet he would care for them, fight and die for them and their children as if he did care. If only he COULD care... but no, that would somehow keep him from being the malevolent nightmare that haunted the Saurians as their assault haunted him. They would hate him and his vengeance, he would see to it, even if he had to throw himself onto the Saurian commander with a fusion weapon on his back. He would take many with him when he finally perished, and it would be terrible for them. He knew it somehow.
And always, endlessly, was he driven by the memory of that pale hand, lying lifeless amidst the ruin of their home. It was burned into his soul like a brand, and killing was the only way to be free of it, the sole relief from the torment. Vengeance was his only true friend and companion now, but revenge was slowly taxing the life from him...
She wept bitterly as she was engulfed in his grief... the destroyed home that had fallen on top of his wife, the outstretched hand... so close to escaping but just failing... it had killed her, was killing him.... Oh, my God, Corwyn! I'm so sorry... She cried out for him, but the darkness wrapped around him, closing in like a shroud of despair, pulling him away from her. She would loose him, as she had lost everyone else! She thought it was over, but it never ceased! Why did it always end this way, in death! Always death... never far from her, and she was powerless to stop it, to save anyone, her family, her uncle... now this man, after all he had gone through, escaping doom so many times only to die here... It was so senseless! She sobbed bitterly, her anguish wrapping about her wrists like shackles, drawing her away as well. It was her fault somehow, some curse that was a part of her being. She brought it on all she cared for.
Yes, the darkness told her. It is you. Death will always be your companion. You will cause it, or inspire it, or allow it, never escaping it. Death is your father, after all, and you are your father's daughter...
It was like the Shadow demon all over again; the torture, the terror, the agony. It cut into her like a claw, wounding her to her soul. Corwyn would die and there was nothing in her that could help it, she was Death. She had brought on his fatal agony. If he didn't die himself, she would kill him somehow.
She screamed, she couldn't stop...
The awful cry jarred Corwyn to his senses, and the Defender in him took control, forcing the self pity aside. The lady... Juliet, she was in terrible danger! He looked at her, and nearly cried out himself. A deadly blackness was all over her, tentacles of it groping for deep wounds in a vulgar way that made him sick. Somehow he knew that it was a manifestation of her self torment, spawned by terrible things which haunted her from her past, but more... it seemed alive itself! He ran for her, but dashed headlong into a barrier which flung him back. That... thing was keeping him away! He threw himself into it, a solid wall like darkened glass, again and again, but it refused to give. Juliet was sobbing hysterically, and when she saw him she screamed, "No Corwyn! Stay away... I'll kill you! Please leave me...!"
He beat his fists against the barrier out of desperate frustration, and called to her shrilly, "No! My lady, you're not like that! You're good and kind, and gentle! Don't give in to that darkness! It's a liar!" It seemed that this was some bizarre arena of their minds, combined in some sort of shared dreamlike experience. He searched desperately for a memory of hers that would prove otherwise to her... there had to be something... oh what?!
There, dimly at first then more clearly, he saw her with the youth called Nosedive, when he had been mortally wounded. She had... goodness!... poured herself into him, healing him of the deadly wounds with astonishing spiritual powers! She had endangered her own life in doing so, such was her love for him. And... there... he saw that she was the one who had caused the Saurian pod to divert itself so roughly to it's crash landing in this place! She had saved me?! What manner of woman was this?! He called out to her, "Juliet, listen to me! You're nothing like that wicked darkness! You almost sacrificed yourself to save Nosedive as well as me! You're not evil, you're not death! Not at all! There is great good in you! That thing is lying to you! Surely you know this! Please hear me!"
There, he saw in her eyes the glimmer of hope and he seized it. "That's right, you know better! Now come on, get away from that awful blackness and come to me! Come on now, you can do it! You must!" He threw himself against the tainted barrier and was heartened as cracks shot through it. He prayed anxiously, Oh God, if You exist here, please bring this madness to a good conclusion! He rammed his shoulder into the obstruction again and again, the spider web of fissures spreading outward. "Come on, woman! Come here!"
The evil cloud was growing angry but tenuous, it seemed, and Juliet pulled one hand free of it, reaching out desperately to him as she fought for deliverance. She forced herself forward while the terrible apparition resisted, but the tentacles that groped for her were stretched like tarry strands, weakened by her hope or his prayers, or whatever. With agonizingly slow progress she inched forward towards him, each bit of ground taken with great effort and groaning, but the gap was closing! With all his strength he pushed against the yielding wall, encouraging her on. She was so close, only inches away now! "That's it! Just a little bit more, my lady, you're almost here!"
Though her face was twisted from her efforts, the fear had been replaced with hope now as she reached for his hand with outstretched fingers, tantalizingly close, almost touching...
With a shriek that seemed to come from the barrier and the horrid cloud at once, the wall gave way, shattering into thousands of dazzling shards, falling around them slowly like snowflakes as Juliet tumbled into his arms. She sobbed into his chest, this time with relief, clinging to him as he wrapped his arms around her protectively. But the evil apparition was gone now, and they were surrounded by a golden glow, as if a new day had dawned on them. He hugged her to himself tightly as they sat, overwhelmed with emotions of relief and affection as the girl poured her tears into his chest. He lay his head on hers and rubbed her back, saying gently, "Yes, my lady, cry the pain away, it's over for you. You're safe. Whatever it was, it's gone now, never to bother you again."
Peace... she felt such peace in his arms. When he said those words... it was as if they were a solemn promise, as sure as the sunrise which seemed to surround them now. She luxuriated in his strength and assurance, it seemed to envelop her like a blanket and the tears ended. She leaned on his chest, wrapped with stuff which smelled of frost and long travels, listening to the pounding of his heart and breathing as they eased. She felt so content just then, she never wanted this to end. And she was so very glad. Oh Corwyn, you'll live, thank God you'll live! And you're right, how could anything hurt me now?
He regarded this young woman in his embrace, and was in awe of her. When he looked into her eyes, he felt sure he was seeing the face of an angelic being. He brushed the last of the tears from her cheek as he gazed into her face with wonder. You are my deliverer? How is it possible that one so small and young could be possessed of such unbelievable powers! Truly, you are a miracle of Creation. I owe my life to you, my lady... my Juliet. What a beautiful name, Juliet Drake. It suits one so young and lovely... and wonderful. His eyes widened in surprise. Ah, you know what I-
-Am thinking, she thought in answer. Yes, Corwyn Firedrake, and how wonderful it is to touch your mind, heart friend. Oh, the things you had to endure to arrive here, and how you suffered! So many times I was afraid I would loose you before I could even meet you!
He stroked those cheeks again, lovingly. Now now, all that is past, my lady, I am here now, and ever shall I be. True, I have borne great pain, but you... you nearly died of yours! What great strength you have, to have overcome your grief! Oh, yes, you think little of it, but surely you see now the courage you never suspected you had, since I can show it to you.
She gazed into his eyes warmly. Yes, with our souls intertwined, you reveal things to me that I had never seen in such a way. Your understanding is a precious gift to me! You have taken away my self doubt and uncertainty, giving me hope and courage in return. You show me the strength I wasn't sure I had. Thank you for revealing this to me, I owe you so much.
Oh, it is nothing. I owe you a debt of gratitude that I can never hope to repay, my lady. The acceptance you have given me, despite my malevolent past, is... indescribable. I feel cleansed of a great tarnish on my soul, and so much more. Before, I was as good as a dead man. The only thing that kept me going was the thirst for vengeance and death, and I was careless. So weary was I of my own life that I tempted death in every task I set out to accomplish. It is truly a miracle that I lived till now, considering some of the foolhardy stunts I pulled in fighting the Saurians. If only I had known what the future held in store for me...
She looked into his eyes and saw that they were bright with emotion, and more. Oh, but you prevailed. You cheated Death, for the both of us, and together we found life. I thank whatever God there is for your life, that I was blessed to be the one who helped you find it again.
And I am pleased beyond measure that I was allowed to help you secure your freedom from that dreadful horror of your past. And to touch your heart as I am now, to reveal to you in miraculous, intimate ways what you mean to me... my lady...
She looked down shyly as his affection washed over her like raindrops. You... think I'm beautiful.
He held her cheek in his hand, bringing the lovely azure of her eyes into his again. You know it to be true, and much more... my lady, my deliverer...
She cradled herself to him, laying her head on his chest once more, listening to his slow breathing, the beating of his heart, drinking in the exotic smells of his strange garb, content in the comfort of his embrace, and wishing this would never end. My knight, my dragon slayer, my lifebringer...
Wildwing looked on in confusion, murmuring, "Well... that's an interesting reaction."
"No kiddin'. He musta got tired of bein' pushed around," Duke joked, watching from Grin's side. "Uh... does this mean the fight's overwit'?"
Wildwing shrugged. "Yeah... I guess you could say the conflict's been resolved."
Nosedive stood near the embracing couple as the others gathered round, scratching his head as he asked to no one in particular, "Uh... what's goin' on?"
"Yeah," said Mallory as she came forward. "What're they doing there?"
"That's what I wanna know," growled Nosedive, frowning.
"Oh, I'd say they're getting acquainted," Duke answered a bit too cheerfully, knowing the reaction it would spark.
Nosedive faced the mercenary and hissed, "Thanks Duke, old buddy, I wouldn'ta known otherwise."
"Anytime, kid-" he began, interrupted by a moan from their fallen companion.
Wildwing came over and asked, worry edging his voice, "Grin, are you okay?"
He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then looking up tiredly, answered, "Okay is such a relative term."
The Masked leader nodded in satisfaction. "He's okay."
Duke laid a hand on Grin's shoulder companionably. "Hey, big guy, that was a pretty good shot you took, you had us all worried. You, uh, still think pain is an illusion?"
The great Duck gave him the closest thing to a dirty look he'd yet seen, then told him, "No."
"Need a hand up?" Duke asked, offering his.
"Yes," Grin answered simply, grasping it and nearly pulling the lanky Duck over as Duke tried to haul him to his feet.
"Man," he groaned from under the immense being's arm, "maybe I shoulda got a forklift. Have you been puttin' on weight?"
Grin intoned wearily, "Why must the great always suffer for their greatness?"
Duke gave him a wry smirk as if itching for a reply, removing himself as Grin found his legs and stood on his own.
Wildwing regarded the embracing pair and said almost reluctantly, "I don't know what's going on between them, but we need to know what the score is. And we need to know now."
Duke leaned on Nosedive's shoulder and drawled, "Oh, but they're gettin' along so well, and they make such a cute couple, wouldn't ya say?"
The teen yanked himself away angrily, growling, "Not funny, Dukester."
"Knock it off you two, this could still be serious," Wildwing told them.
Unable to resist such a perfect opening, Duke said, "Yeah, it looks like it's gettin' there." He put his hands up as Nosedive whirled on him with a fist doubled. "Whoa, whoa there, just makin' a simple observation."
"Oh yeah? Well I'm about to make a simple connection with my fist to your beak-" Nosedive began hotly when Wildwing cut them off.
"Duke, Nosedive! This isn't the time for that! What's gotten into you, Duke?" When he saw that their shenanigans were finished, he put his hand on Juliet's shoulder and shook it gently so as not to disturb her too much, just get her attention gradually. "Juliet...Juliet, it's Wildwing. Come out of it, we need to talk to the stranger. Juliet...?"
He was amazed at the lack of response. She was in quite deeply, and seemed to be resisting, clutching herself to the invader more tightly! This was the first time in ages that she had employed her special talents, but though they had once shared a mental bond of sorts, Wildwing could sense nothing from her. She was keeping this event private, but why?
He was annoyed as in a display of typical teenage patience, Nosedive leaned down and called in a childish singsong way, "Joolie.... Joolie--et. Hey, Earth to Jules, come in Jules..."
Juliet looked desperately into Corwyn's eyes. Something was intruding, threatening this wonderful bonding of their souls! What was happening? Oh, not now! I can't let this end now! Corwyn?!
He was as shaken as Juliet, looking on in dread as the gleaming gold around them began to diminish. He clutched her as he thought, Juliet? What is this? Is it death?! Oh, I can't loose you! Not after all this! No, oh please, no...
But the golden vision passed away, replaced by the stark, smashed interior of the Ready Room. He touched her cheek and groaned mournfully, "Gone... you're gone from me... oh, my lady..."
She placed her hand on his and said almost in a whisper, "No, Corwyn, I'm here, I'll always be here."
They were brought roughly to full awareness as Nosedive blurted out a flood of confusion which ended with, "-What the heller you talkin'bout?"
Wildwing pulled his agitated brother away and said, "Uh... look, we don't want any trouble, but we won't tolerate any more. Will you cooperate?" He was surprised that the pair were still fixed on each other for some reason, and shared puzzled glances with the others. "Uhh... do you hear me all right?"
After a moment, Corwyn answered quietly, "Aye, I hear you fine."
He helped Juliet to her feet and pulled her robe more properly in place, as it had worked a bit open in the excitement, and when she realized what he was doing she felt flushed with emotion. He tucked it over so tenderly! It was such a simple thing, but the way he did it felt so gallant! I haven't been around such a gentleman in ages. Or such a knight...
Nosedive was dumbfounded. He couldn't believe what he was seeing. That look on her face... she hasn't looked THAT goo-gaa over anyone... but ME! And him TOO? What's goin' ON?!
Wildwing was almost as bewildered at this strange spell which seemed to have fallen over the both of them, but decided it would be opportune to take advantage of the intruder's docility while it lasted. "Uh... I'm counting on your cooperation, otherwise we'll be forced to-"
Corwyn put up his hand, and with his eyes still fastened on Juliet, said to him in that same gentle voice, "No... I'll behave, I give you my word on that."
The Masked leader looked to the others, and Nosedive and Mallory stood at ease, though they kept their weapons on hand in case of deception. He asked of him, "Who are you? Why did you come here?"
"Corwyn Firedrake," he and Juliet said together in an almost dreamlike way, which brought a furrow to Wildwing's brow. Corwyn touched a finger to Juliet's beak and said, "Let me tell them, my lady, if you would." Half turning to the others as she relented, he continued in his quiet voice, "I must beg your forgiveness for my actions, it's been a rather strange day for me. I'm afraid I reacted a bit strongly when I saw a master criminal among you, though considering what I have just gone through, I hope you'll appreciate why I acted as I did. But I understand now... the lady Juliet has revealed to me much of your lives and exploits."
Mallory went over to help Tanya with her bonds as she crawled, inchworm-like, away from the thinning mists issuing from the wreck. She muttered a thanks as the young soldier worked the loops of the bolos apart. "The lady Juliet?" she repeated quietly as she labored. "Get a load of this guy, he sounds like royalty."
Abruptly, Duke smacked himself in the head and exclaimed, "Awh, of course! How could I'a not seen it?"
Wildwing looked to him and asked, "What? So you know each other?"
Duke nursed his head, evidently still tender from the impact with Wildwing. "Yeah, in a manner of speakin'. He's a cop, a special agent from Puckworld. Everyone called him The Hunter because he was relentless, never quit till he solved a case or caught his man. Spent the better part of a year tryin' ta crack the old gang, last I remember."
That unhappy recollection knotted Corwyn's stomach, and he snapped, "Yes, damn them. Do you mind if I tell this myself?" He missed an anguished look from Juliet. She knew fully what the outburst was from, and her heart was torn in sympathy.
Duke said in a humbled tone, "Uhh... naw, you got the floor, by all means."
Tanya was shocked as she came to her feet, and muttering, "Oh my gosh," she tore off around the wreck of the shuttle and down the corridor beyond.
Corwyn looked contrite as he murmured, "Err... I'm sorry, really... It's just that I've been through a lot recently. I didn't mean to offend the lady."
Wildwing waived him off. "No, it isn't that. Something's wrong." He spoke into his communicator, "What is it Tanya?"
Her voice strained from her run, she replied, "D-well, maybe nothin', but I can't get any data from the reactor! I'm gonna go check on it. Everything seems okay, and the safety systems would probably take care of anything serious, but, ya know, ya never know..."
"Well, keep us posted," he ordered, then turned his attention back to the intruder. "So, why did you come here? And how did you know about us?"
"Oh, it was pure dumb luck that all this took place, I assure you. I'm not entirely clear on it all myself, but I'll tell you what little I know." He wiped his brow as he became aware of how warm it was inside, something he wasn't used to or dressed for. "Say, do you mind terribly if I unwrap?"
Nosedive's curiosity got the better of him and he asked, "Uh... just why are you dressed like Grizzly Adams' mummy?"
Corwyn gave him a blank look in response. "I... don't understand."
"Never mind him, he speaks his own language," Duke said, to Nosedive's chagrin. "What is with that get-up anyway? Camouflage?"
Juliet nearly laughed as she recalled a memory of it. "Oh, that's what it's for!"
"Yes, exactly," he replied, giving her a smile as he undid the strips of cloth, revealing combat-worn clothes. "It isn't much good against sophisticated sensors, but for fooling the poor eyesight of Saurians in snow, it works quite well. And the pelts help with the cold, of course."
"Uh, that makes sense," Nosedive admitted with a shrug.
"Speaking of sense..." said Grin, and he held his hand out towards the teen, rubbing thick fingers together as if for money. At first Nosedive seemed lost, but then he rolled his eyes as he recalled his put-down from earlier and fished two pennies from his pocket. Accepting them, Grin intoned in his usual, almost ponderous way, "For karma to be complete, the circle must always close on itself."
Corwyn shook his head at the incomprehensible exchange, and continued, "Err... yes, I suppose. I just hope Nightwind manages to get out of his all right, or gets back to a welcome stall before long."
"Who?" Wildwing asked.
"He was my steed, a black sirocco."
"Oh, you had a sirocco?" Mallory fairly gushed. "Aren't they the best?"
"Yes, he was the best," Corwyn murmured, a touch of longing in his voice. "He was a gift from a grateful villager. He took me through more than a few narrow scrapes."
"Why don't you tell us about it, how you got here?" Wildwing asked him, sensing his mood. "You were about to."
He consented, giving them a brief but detailed account of his exploits after the Invasion. He did on occasion face the Ducks as he addressed them, but mostly he kept his eyes on Juliet, as did the others, not sure what to make of this strange fascination they had for each other.
When Juliet noticed how everyone was staring at them, she blushed deeply in embarrassment as she realized why. Oh my god, they watched as we... what must they think?!
Everyone was quietly sympathetic when he mentioned the death of his wife. But curiously, when he detailed his personal war against the Saurians, the others looked upset, which puzzled Corwyn greatly. And Mallory came up to him, saying in an accusing way, "You were waging a war of genocide, weren't you?" But he was amazed to see the glint of favor in her eyes.
He almost stammered in reply, "Err... well, it's the only way I know how to fight such a menace."
"Uh-huh," she said judgmentally, though her eyes spoke otherwise as she turned away.
"So, you weren't part of the Resistance, huh?" Duke asked, breaking his consternation.
"No... I didn't know where they were, or think they would approve of my methods," he replied almost absently.
"Yeah, among others," Nosedive grumbled, which brought a reproving look from Corwyn.
"So how did you end up in that shuttle and arrive here?" Wildwing cut in, hoping to get the questioning back on a more comfortable track.
"It was the strangest of flukes, actually," he remarked dryly, giving Nosedive one final glare. "A Saurian destroyer was shot down by one of our defenses while cruising in the north."
"So the military still has operational forces!" Mallory exclaimed.
"Yes, it would seem so," he told her brightly, then facing Nosedive, added, "I hope that some of you don't mind terribly if a few Saurians get hurt in the course of our defense."
That raised the teen's hackles, and he growled, "Why you old-"
Wildwing put a hand on his shoulder to restrain him. "Corwyn, it's not a matter of killing in the name of defense, it's the question of how far you go before you step over the line. But we can discuss that later. Go on."
The Saurians had no use for morals or conventions when they killed our people, or have you forgotten that? Corwyn groused to himself. But he went on civilly, "Well, the vessel was crippled and plummeted to the surface, not too far from where I was. I rode up to it and found it totally disabled in a wood. I went on board to search for prisoners or survivors, or salvage. There were no survivors, except for one, and he didn't last long."
Grin cleared his throat uneasily at the implication, then added, "Clearly it was in his karma to depart then, in that way."
"Yes, I'd say so, I suppose," Corwyn stated flatly. "In any case, the Saurian had been trying to get to what I thought were simple escape pods. I went into one to investigate, and the next thing I knew it had swallowed me, generated a Gateway and hurled itself to this world."
"But why Earth?" Wildwing inquired. "And why did you end up here at the Pond?"
"Earth, is it?" he said, looking up as if for confirmation. "Well... I'm not certain as to why it decided on this world, but I have this young lady to thank for bringing me to this... Pond of yours." He took Juliet's hand and held it warmly as she blushed beneath his gaze. "She seized control of the shuttle, though she caused the flight to be a bit rough at times."
She gave him an embarrassed smile and murmured, "Umm... yes, I'm sorry about that..."
"Hope you didn't spill your drink-" Nosedive muttered snidely before Mallory could elbow him quiet.
Wildwing was flatly stunned. "Wha... Juliet, how did you manage that?!"
She gave him an innocent shrug, which reminded Wildwing what a young girl she still was. "...I thought it was a dream, at first. I was out in space with my wolf when the shuttle roared past us. I was going to destroy it until I felt Corwyn inside."
Mallory grabbed Nosedive's beak rather than risk another embarrassing retort.
Wildwing and Duke were astonished, sharing wide eyed glances, though Grin appeared smug, saying philosophically, "The power of the spirit unleashed is capable of anything."
Duke coughed, "I guess!"
Corwyn gazed on the shy girl with affection as he continued, "Her spirit is capable of great things, all right. She delivered me to your headquarters, if a bit cataclysmically. And when I faced you down, armed as I was, she did her utmost to bring this unfortunate mess to a peaceful conclusion. In so doing, she touched me deeply with her soul and I saw that I was sadly mistaken over you all. I learned quite a few things about you while our memories were so briefly shared."
Corwyn was caught off guard as Nosedive blared out in an increasingly childish voice, "Well then, if you learned anything you must know that I, Nosedive, am Juliet's life long friend, bestest best bud and main squeeze."
He tried to throw an arm around her, but Juliet pushed him off with an angry look and snapped in a scolding tone, "Nosedive!"
He looked bewildered as he asked, "What?!"
Mallory grabbed him by the arm and growled, "One more stunt out of you, young man, and you'll be sent to your room."
Before Wildwing had a chance to regain control, a dripping Tanya suddenly appeared around the pod, towelling off. "I wondered why this stinky thing was giving off so much mist! Oh- I'm sorry," she said, addressing Corwyn, fighting off a sneeze as she wetly shook his hand. "Hi, I'm Tanya, pleased to meet you."
"Resident mad scientist," quipped Nosedive before Mallory punched him soundly in the arm. "Ow! Mal! Watch the extremities."
She shook her head in disgust. "You never listen."
Wildwing was grateful for an opportunity, finally, to break in. "Tanya, what's up?"
She turned to the leader as Corwyn wiped the moisture from his hand. "Oh... uh, I wondered why there was so much mist coming from under the shuttle, so I did a little checking and found that water mains ran under the flooring there. Oh... and, uh, the reactor's fine, by the way. But we won't be taking any warm showers till the pipes 're fixed. Duh, what am I saying, any showers in our rooms."
"Oh, man..." Nosedive whined loudly. "Not showers in the stadium!" Phil understaffed the Pond to a bare minimum, and he could imagine the lack of privacy that could result from this, the photographs that could leak out... Wait a minute... this could be cool!
Tanya looked up in alarm. "Oh! And I have to get Drake One on line again! And the teleportation shields have to be restored too! And the defenses are still down!"
She started to run off but Wildwing grabbed her arm. "Whoa, whoa, how long are you talking to fix all this?"
"D'well, I don't know," she snuffed. "I gotta get Drake One running before I know anything, ya know, she's the heart of the whole system." She gave an amused shrug. "Uhh... well, we could get the water fixed in a half hour or so. But as for everything else..." She sighed in resignation. "I wouldn't count on getting up early for practice."
Wildwing rubbed his head wearily, wishing he could wake from this terrible situation. "For cryin' out loud... How could so much trouble come from one simple rescue!"
Juliet looked to Wildwing in supplication, sorry that all this mayhem had resulted from her actions. He was about to tell her not to take it on herself when Tanya blurted, "This is incredible!"
"What, the mess Corwyn made, or the money we're saving on fixing it ourselves?" Nosedive cracked, then flinched away from Mallory.
"No!" she wailed. "We got another shuttle!"
"Well, so now you have a matched set," Nosedive scoffed, then looked the wreck over. "This one is in better shape though." He stood next to Duke and Grin, a safer position from which to launch humor.
"You don't understand! That's the point, it has a Gateway generator!"
Nosedive jumped as Duke put his hand on his shoulder. "Our ticket home, Dive. This calamity may have been for the best after all." He then shoved the teen's helmet over his eyes, adding, "Mal's right though, you need to chill out."
Wildwing's heart suddenly leapt with hope. Home. They could leave all this nonsense behind, return to their own world, rid it of the remaining Saurians. With Canard, rescued, his best friend, by his side, leading again, wearing the Mask again. Just ten feet away, just that close, a doorway to sanity and freedom... nothing else seemed important anymore...
Corwyn and Juliet shared worried looks, inner fears. Together they said, "The Gateway... the Raptor..."
Wildwing's reverie was abruptly over. He was the Masked leader again. "What about it?"
Corwyn explained to him, "Juliet believes the reason the shuttle went here is because the Raptor is here, that it homed in on it for some reason."
"So? Why is that..." Then it hit him, hard. The forces on Puckworld, if they faced a rout, or for whatever reason decided to Gate out, would undoubtedly trace the Raptor's beacon to Earth. Or other shuttles could arrive, with Saurian passengers. It had never happened before, but Corwyn's accidental journey proved that it could. And if it did, it could be apocalyptic. Earth's defenses were years behind their own, and Puckworld fell in hours.
Just what he needed, something else to worry about...
Corwyn read his expression as clearly as text. "You understand."
Wildwing nodded sourly. "Yes, I do."
"Well, you could clue in the rest of the studio audience," Nosedive suggested.
Wildwing faced them and said almost with a snarl, "The Raptor must be giving off a beacon signal for Gateway equipped vessels to home in on. Other escape pods from Corwyn's wreck might have come to Earth, with Saurian officers on board." As the news struck home, he waived half-heartedly to the others. "We have a lot of work to do team, let's get on it."
"WHAT'S HAPPENED TO MY SHIP!"
The bellow came as no surprise; the others could feel the deck plates jar from Dragaunus' storming approach long before the outburst came. Still they cringed from it, huddling together. They never could get used to it.
Siege, always the bravest- or most foolhardy, depending on the situation- answered, "We don't know, Lord Dragaunus. Something fried a buncha the systems."
"What something? A storm? An attack? Those cursed Ducks?" The huge tyrant searched around, glaring with steaming nostrils at a thousand warning indicators, a half dozen snowy monitors. "WHAT!"
Chameleon stuck out his head and offered in his usual senseless way, "I think Siege went looking for video games on the Internet again and wound up getting a virus from some defense agency."
He ducked as Siege grabbed for him. "You little shrimp, you're the one who plays those stupid things!"
Wraith moaned timidly, "You're going to get us all killed if you keep this up..."
The impish pest went on in an effeminate way, "Well, maybe it was from you going to that Playboy site, everyone knows viru-mph!"
His routine was cut off as a huge red-orange fist closed around his face. Siege growled into it, "If you ever mention that again, I'll pop your head like a melon."
"CEASE YOUR SENSELESS CHATTER!" yelled the Saurian warlord. "Stand aside and let me work on this, you sorry excuses for henchmen!" He stalked up to the main console as the others shied away, and began punching buttons. When he failed to get the results he wanted, he smashed his fist into the console.
"I don't think user hostility is called for in this situation-" Chameleon began, cowed to silence as Dragaunus glared at him, eyes burning red.
"The cloaking device is down to sixty percent efficiency, and is threatening to become intermittent! It's our only real defense against the human vermin and those blasted Ducks!"
"I know," Siege admitted, "but a bunch of it's stuff is goofed up!"
The warlord tried communications, but nothing seemed to be functioning properly. "Oh, I can't believe this... Of all the insufferable-!" He pounded a monitor station which began sounding more and more like a box full of broken glass. "The finest technology of our Saurian ancestors, combined with the best this pathetic world has to offer... and nothing works! Hit it with a simple electromagnetic disturbance and it falls to pieces!"
"A right cross doesn't do much for it either-" Chameleon started to joke, then he scampered behind Wraith at the deadly look coming from the warlord.
"Oh no you don't," the sorcerer drawled, swatting the reptile away with his staff.
Dragaunus was drawing himself up for an outburst when the monitor he was abusing sparked to life. "Finally," he snarled, "something around here works!"
In a manner of speaking; the image on the screen was of an older man in a suit, flickering in and out with the intermittent audio from the transmission. A couple of blows more brought the signal in properly. With fists doubled, Dragaunus shouted into the monitor, "Phineas Viper, what the deuce is going on!"
The man leaned forward into his camera and said angrily, "Oh, there you are! Dragaunus, I thought we had an agreement that you would give me advanced warning before you executed any of your plans! What happened? What the devil did you do!"
This query surprised the warlord and he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I was asking you the very same question. What exactly did happen?"
The executive looked astonished. "What... you aren't responsible?"
"Well, of course not, you nincompoop! Why would I ask about something I did?!"
He looked down at his desk, as if there was a paper with a cue line on it, or an answer. "Well... surely you don't think I was responsible! I have been a loyal-"
Dragaunus waived a clawed hand at him, bringing immediate silence. "No, no, of course not." He added mentally, You don't have the imagination necessary to do something clearly this devastating, you pathetic human worm! "Just tell me what happened, and be concise!"
"Well..." the other began, arranging a number of papers in some sort of order he could use. "We're not certain, exactly... it's rather like someone set off a nuclear device nearby, or an electromagnetic pulse bomb. Are you sure that one of your projects didn't get out of hand?"
The warlord snorted in disgust. "No, and even if it did, I wouldn't tell you that." When the industrialist looked shocked, Dragaunus went on. "Just give me the details. We can deal with pleasantries later, Viper!"
The man was growing rather cross now, shuffling papers irritably. "There's not much to tell. Half my systems are down, and I don't know when they'll be on line either. Since the data seems corrupted by overloaded or ruined equipment, I have no better answer than that right now."
"What?!" Dragaunus slammed his fist into the console which caused the signal to flicker off for a second. "Well, since neither one of us knows what's just occurred, I'll need a substantial amount of resources from you to restore the Raptor to full operating condition. I must be ready to face whatever is responsible for this."
Viper was aghast. "Haven't you been listening to me? I told you that fully half my industry is down, at least!"
The Saurian leaned into the monitor, vapor curling threateningly from his mouth. "This isn't a request, Viper. You will give me what I need willingly, or you will pay dearly and give it to me anyway! Do I make myself clear?"
The executive ground his teeth in realization of his position, one that he really should have seen all along. "Yes. Perfectly." With that, the signal ended.
"WHAT?!" The warlord drew himself up to full height and brought his fist down on the station with enough force to topple the monitor. "NO one cuts me off! That insolent worm! That nasty bug of a man! That miserable crap...!" His insults went on to become more descriptive, in time with the pounding of his fists.
"Looks like the ol' main board's gonna need a new coat of paint this week," Chameleon remarked quietly. "Which one of you palookas is gonna ask the boss what we do now?"
"Guess," Siege laughed and kicked the unsuspecting lizard in the tail, sending him rolling towards the fist-swinging tyrant. As the shape shifter rolled to a stop at his feet, Dragaunus began to shout, "CHAMELE-- oh, there you are. It's about time you were prompt!"
"Yeah... boss... semper fi..." he murmured dizzily, taking on the appearance of a drunken Marine, trying to salute but having trouble finding his forehead.
"Oh stop it! Save your foolishness for the Ducks! I need you to go to Vipertronics and secure all the available equipment we'll need to restore the Raptor. If Phineas Viper or his men give you any trouble, you know what to do."
"Yeah, staples in his chair, and mongooses in the snake den!" the lizard cackled, resuming his proper form. The other two joined him glumly, disappointed at the lack of fireworks. He stuck his tongue out at them noisily as they came up.
When they pressed the activating buttons on their teleporters, they made a similar rude sound. Siege informed the others in his gravelly voice, "Uhh... teleporter's down too."
"How observant," Wraith intoned sarcastically. Siege shot him a nasty look in reply.
"Oh! Of all the blasted-!" Dragaunus shouted. "What next!"
Chameleon jumped up and down excitedly. "Hey boss, boss! Can we take the van? Please?"
"I had to ask!" the warlord hissed, drawing out a set of keys from his cloak. As the lizard reached greedily for them, Dragaunus yanked them back sharply. "Now listen, you scaly scoundrel. Obey the traffic laws, fill it up, check the oil and air in the tires, don't play the stereo full blast, and get it back in original condition! No roughhousing in or around it, and no more pizza surprises in the map compartment! And I want a touchless wash and dry. Remember, it has a clear coat finish."
With each demand, Chameleon looked increasingly discouraged. He swept his foot in a semicircle and muttered in a sulk, "Gee, maybe we should just walk..."
Dragaunus clanged the keys invitingly with a toothy grin.
Lured by the ringing tones and what it signified, the imp exclaimed brightly, snatching them, "Oh, what the heck, ya got yourself a deal!"
"Gimme those keys!" Siege growled, lunging, and with that the fight was on.
For once, Nosedive didn't feel much like going for a drive. They were on their way in the Migrator to collect a ton of high-tech favors from a couple of friendly suppliers, GenuTech and Unbridled Technologies. Tanya was driving while chatting with Grin, and of course the conversation revolved around Corwyn, though not in the manner Nosedive expected at all. They went on and on about how friendly he was, how competent he was, how mannerly he was, how cultured he was, how noble he was, how lucky they all were to have a god like him favor them with his presence! He shook his head to clear it... Well, maybe not that last bit, but darn near it! If I didn't know better, I'd swear Tanya had a crush on him! It seemed to have totally escaped 'em that not an hour ago he had fired on 'em with deadly weapons- even though they were all Ducks- and to top it all off, the old coot made a serious move on my turf, trying to score one on my girl! What, were they dense-oids?!
The thing that totally munches is that I left Juli alone with that old... letch! WHAT was I thinking when I agreed to go?!
When Tanya mentioned what a great addition he'd be to the team, he couldn't hold it in any longer. "Whoa, whoa, time out girl! This old geezer busted in just over an hour ago, and I do mean busted! We don't know much of anything about him."
Tanya gave him a puzzled look. "Dyuh... well, we know he's a cop. Duke can vouch for that, he knows him from Puckworld."
Nosedive looked to the vehicle's roof. "Oh great, that's what we really need around the old homestead, a sheriff. He'll probably start handing out hall passes."
Grin regarded the youth sagely, seeing clearly what was eating him. "I take it you don't approve of our new friend."
The directness of the statement caught the teen off guard, and he coughed self consciously. "Well... no, it's not like that! Sorta. But Grinster... he shot at us, even though he knew we were Ducks. You got a pretty good mouthful of blaster yerself from yer friend!"
He shrugged casually. "It was a stun blast. I survived unhurt."
Nosedive could see his carefully laid- in his mind anyway- arguments coming unravelled. I can't believe how I used to make fun of the debate team, and now I wish I'da joined 'em! Is this weird or what? "Uhh... well, okay, but who's to say it wouldn'ta been? He kinda went on a rampage of epic proportions back home, ya know? The stuff he told us he did was sorta like... well... war crimes! Not very evolved, if ya ask me."
At this, Grin gave a heavy sigh laden with sympathy, and Nosedive realized his contention had failed to score again. "I know, but you must understand what he has been through. Each of us must deal with our inner turmoil in our own way. No one can take away our pain or lift our burdens for us. We must all work out our own conflicts as best we can, and at times each of us make tragic mistakes. We must help this newcomer make peace with his troubled past, as we did with Juliet."
Nosedive winced at the mention of his girlfriend's name, but groaned inwardly as he knew that his cosmic friend spoke the truth. Still, he wasn't ready to give up on the argument just yet. He turned to the woman and said, "Well... but we didn't go on killing sprees. You see what I'm sayin', doncha Tanya?"
She looked around absently, wishing Nosedive would just be jealous and sulk and shut up. "Duhh... well... ya know... uhh... Hi!" she called, waiving at a passing fan. When she saw that she would have to say something sooner or later, she replied, "Well, actually... uh... no, I don't agree with what you're sayin'." When he looked surprised, she added quickly, "He was fighting for Puckworld, and... uh... well, we've killed a few Saurians ourselves, even if we didn't mean to. Besides, if I recall correctly, your shot on me was the first one to land."
Nosedive glared at her, murmuring through grit teeth, "I was looking for something a little more supportive here, Tanners."
She retorted a little angrily, easing up on the accelerator as she sped a bit, "D'well, hey, as far as I'm concerned, anyone who can aim one more pucklauncher at Dragaunus is okay by me! And it's not like he can go anywhere else, he's stranded, and an illegal alien, for cryin' out loud. Besides, I think you're just overreacting to... whatever he & Juliet were... uh... doing together."
His back stiffened at the observation. "That has... almost... very little to do with it! And... I sound totally stupid, don't I?" he finished with a sigh in his most normal voice.
She looked ahead and said under her breath, "You'll get no argument from me."
Grin touched his shoulder with a comforting hand. "Little friend, I realize this must be difficult. I know what Juliet once meant to you, but if you have truly released each other, then you must not take offense at whoever comes into her life. And we don't know what role this stranger will play in any of our lives yet. But he is one of our kind, come to this world not of his own choosing, and he needs our help and our friendship. I sense a kindred spirit in him. We must give him a chance. Be still for a time and let us see where this new road takes us. And in the words of one of our own, you really do need to chill out."
Nosedive wanted to give one of his typical snide retorts, but when the pinballs of his thoughts finally rolled from the table, he came up empty. Finally he muttered, "Ya know, I hate it when you guys make sense."
Tanya muttered to herself, "It's a heavy burden, I know."
He folded his arms and tried to slump down in his seat, but the belts kept him up. He sulked out at the passing night time cityscape of Anaheim. Any other time the gleaming beauty of it would have cheered him up, but in his foul mood he stared right through it, seeing none of it. If he had been alert, he might have caught sight of a semi with the dubious logo Larry Lines hounding a van the color of coagulated blood.
However, the unlikely pair of vehicles sped past a parked patrol car, the draft of it filling the officer's vehicle- and coffee- with dust, capping it off with a flyer smacking into his face. He crumpled the paper angrily and tossed it, growling, "That's gonna cost ya a hundred apiece, you yahoos!" He hit the siren and lights, calling in the reckless driving incident as he roared after them in hot pursuit.
"Ah oh," Chameleon said as he checked the mirror, "it's one of Anaheim's finest."
Wraith hung his head in a bony hand, moaning, "I told you to drive more carefully."
The lizard gaped at the sorcerer and replied sarcastically, "I believe the word you used was faster." He spoke into a CB microphone, "Siege, now see what ya went and did?"
"Aw, who cares," came from the speaker. "It's just one lousy cop, let's flatten him and get on with it."
Chameleon shook his head as if the other could see his disappointment. "Siege, ol' buddy, your approach to fixing problems lacks a certain subtlety."
The soldier coughed, "Who needs subtlety when I can mash my problems into street sausage?"
"Well, we better pull over. He's prob'ly called us in already. Besides, I wanna have some fun with this joe."
Siege protested but Chameleon was already slowing, so he abused the brakes as he brought the huge rig to a vigorous, roaring halt inches from the van, the patrol car shrieking to a similar stop behind the trailer. The officer nearly bolted from his vehicle, in the mood to lay down the law in a way the offenders would never forget. Glaring at the semi's tinted windows, he barked furiously as he proceeded towards the van, "All right you road warriors, I don't see any hook and ladder so I know you aren't on your way to a fire! Now I want to see license, registration, proof of insurance and birth certificates now!" He was storming to the side of the van as the window lowered. He had been on the force for a number of years and had seen about all the strangeness that southern California could toss up, but he was totally unprepared for the gangly green head that thrust out at him. He was further stunned as the reptilian skull transformed in a flash of light into the likeness of a pedantic public television commentator. He took an unconscious step backward as he gasped, "Oh God-!"
"No, not quite," the alien said in a cultured, almost soothing tone. "Actually, we are the sole representatives of the ancient Saurian race on your quaint little world, and as such, we have diplomatic immunity like nobody's business."
He was held firm by a pair of huge orange mitts which seized hard as metal around his upper arms. The helpless officer tried to look behind him as he stammered, "Y-you're those alien guys!"
"Right first try," Siege chuckled carnivorously into his ear as he tried to shy away from the hot, stinking breath.
A third alien heaved his torso out the window, more like a cadaver than a living thing, and it was about all the poor man could stand. It almost seemed to moan as it said, "Oh, for pity's sake... Here, let me take care of him." He was sure this was his last night, and his death would be far from pleasant! Especially as the bizarre creature pointed a gnarled staff with the skull of an unfortunate Duck impaled on it, and it started glowing wickedly as he began intoning... something... but it was all becoming... quite hard to follow...
Wraith chuckled in bone-dry satisfaction as the policeman collapsed in Siege's grip. "Not bad for an alien guy, eh?" The soldier made to haul the limp officer towards his patrol car when Wraith said, emerging from the van, "Wait, I have to instruct him on what to do next." He added under his breath, "You brainless brute."
Siege turned on him with an angry glare. "I heard that."
Chameleon chided, having assumed his regular form, "I thought you said the cops were the ones who didn't have any brains."
The withered sorcerer hacked out an unhealthy, guttural chuckle. "Well, we could open him up and find out!"
"Eww-hw-hw-hw!" the lizard cringed. "Wraith, you have one sick sense of humor! That's why you're so much fun on Friday nights. But don't we need this dope to call off his report?"
"Yeah, just tell him what to say so we can go," Siege griped, holding the oblivious cop in front of Wraith. "Uh... what do we want him to say?"
"Oh I know," Chameleon cut in brightly as Wraith faltered. "Have him call us in as an expectant mom on the way to the hospital! Then they'll leave us alone and we can speed all we want to! That always works on TV!"
The hulking soldier spat, "With a semi? You bone head, they'll never buy that!"
Chameleon gave an unconcerned shrug. "Say it's her things, she couldn't bear to leave anything home on this first special occasion! Besides, ya got a better idea?" The pair murmured offhandedly that they didn't. The shape shifter went on with a leer to Wraith, "And with the right wig, maybe a bit of eye shadow, you'd be the perfect blushing bride!"
The sorcerer pulled away from Chameleon indignantly as Siege enjoyed a laugh at his expense.
While the mesmerized officer began calling in the unusual report instructed of him by Wraith, Siege rummaged through the front seats of the patrol car, finally exclaiming, "What, no donuts? What kinda stupid cop doesn't have any donuts!"
Wraith moaned more tiredly than normal, "Oh, come on, Siege! We can pick some up on the way."
"Yeah, get a wiggle on!" Chameleon called, adding with a shudder to Wraith, "Ooh-h-h, now there's a scary thought."
The soldier pulled himself out of the vehicle and growled, "I heard that!"
Over the radio, a confused dispatcher asked, "Uhh... Unit One-nineteen, do I copy you as saying... a red-brown Voyager van and a tractor trailer owned by... Larry Lines... cleared because of an expectant mother?" After a weary sigh, he added, "How many fingers am I holding up?"
Siege grabbed the mike from the officer's hand and grumbled into it, "He's busy." He then promptly shoved it into the policeman's mouth.
When Chameleon peered around to where he could see the officer clearly, he and Wraith burst out laughing as Siege came up and heaved himself awkwardly into the semi's cab. "That was very thoughtful of you, ol' buddy, leavin' him that snack."
"Yeah, bet he thought so too," Siege half-chuckled as he slammed the door.
The other two climbed into their own vehicle. Chameleon stuck his head out the van's window as the semi chugged to life, appearing as a jump-suited golden Labrador, and shouting, "Let's hit the road, rovers!"
Wraith gawked at him with distaste, muttering sourly, "You've had too much soda again, haven't you?"
He quipped as the power window whirred shut, "You can never have too much of a good thing. But you're right in a way, we'll have to make a happy stop soon." He stepped on the gas, enjoying the muffled roar which filled the interior and adding gleefully, "Now let's see what this puppy can really do!"
Buzz Blitzman watched excitedly, nearly unable to contain himself as the Migrator backed into a loading dock at Unbridled Technologies' main facility. It had been quite some time since he'd seen his friends and this late night arrival was not to be missed. As the rear door of the vehicle lowered to rest on the dock, he squealed out, "Nosedive!" as he ran up to give the teen a warm hug.
"Woah, Buzz-!" he managed to get out as the youth plowed into him. He rubbed the kid's head fondly as the others came up chuckling, and gave an embarrassed grin to the workers watching from the dock. "Hey, isn't it time for all young mad scientists to be beddy-bye?"
"Oh, no way! I wouldn't miss you guys for the world! You're the best! Hey where are the others? Did Mallory come? Or Juliet? Are they out dealing with whatever happened?"
Nosedive waived his hands frantically, trying to stave the torrent of chatter. "Hey hey, junior, chill a minute! Naw, it's just us this time, we hav'ta get-" He shook his head as that last phrase finally hit him. "Uh, how did you know what happened?"
"Oh are you kiddin'? An electromagnetic disturbance wreaking havoc all over Anaheim and some of LA? Alarms were going off up here too! Who could sleep? What is it? Another dastardly plot by Dragaunus? Can I help? I have the Cray working on some of the data from it, it seems to be workin' okay, I can go over the results with Tanya! Hi Tanya! Anyway, we have whatever ya need, just ask!"
He muttered to Tanya quietly over the gushing teen, "All over Anaheim? And LA?"
She shrugged back as she went up to the evening manager, waiting to greet her. "Hya Clint. Uhh... sorry we came at such a rotten time."
He shook her hand as he responded, "Oh, you've been a big help to us, we're glad to return the favor." He drew close and said to her privately as he watched Buzz being a typical handful to Nosedive and Grin, "But I have to tell you that ever since Pomfeather made that darn deal with us, that kid has practically run wild! He's worth billions to this company, but the sale of antacids around here went through the roof."
Tanya couldn't help but laugh. "Yeah, I know what ya mean! That little rascal's wired up somethin' awful. And Phil has a habit of making deals that involve more than ya bargained for. Heck, we hav'ta face 'em every day!"
The manager gave a rather hefty laugh to that, saying as the others looked to them, "Oh, my sympathies! Anyway, let's get on with it, it is late after all." He turned to lead her to an office, adding quietly, "Can you tell us anything about what happened? From what I gather, that electromagnetic disturbance originated near the middle of Anaheim, and it caused widespread failure in electronic systems for miles, some of ours are down as well. It's like a nuclear bomb went off, or something similar which could produce a tremendous pulsewave. Know anything you can tell us? Is it Dragaunus again?"
She rubbed her beak in a charade, realizing beforehand that the manager would want to know something. "Well... uhh, it could be Dragaunus, but since Drake One is down, we've been kinda left to guessing. I'd be interested to see what Buzz managed to come up with myself." Which was no lie. She desperately needed to see exactly what the effects were of a Gateway wormhole impacting their teleportation shields. She might be able to figure out some way to protect against the resulting shockwave, but she needed to get hold of the data so she could piece together what it's characteristics were. And she might even need to get Buzz to mess with the data so it couldn't be used for the wrong reasons, or even delete the files entirely! But she'd decide that when she got a chance to see what the kid had stumbled onto.
"All right, ya big palooka, ya know why we're here, hand it over."
Chameleon was facing off against Mr Logan, the evening plant supervisor. The manager of Vipertronics Industries had been so infuriated at the news of the alien intrusion that he had refused to have anything to do with receiving them. And he had to pawn the unpleasant job off on someone, and Logan had been unlucky enough to be on duty that evening when all hell had broken loose. So here he was, facing the gangly reptile, backed up by some seriously evil looking companions. He knew better than to refuse them anything- that Duck skull on the wizard's staff was mortally significant- but he didn't intend to be diplomatic about it either. He said with a scowl, "Okay, okay... just what do you want, exactly?"
"Oh, nothin' much, just ten of everything, ta go."
The lizard threw a sheaf of papers covered with lists of equipment and materials in his face, and Logan barely managed to catch it and his hat. Already angry, his blood began to boil as he looked over the papers, realizing how deeply it would cut into his inventory. He needed most of it to get his own plant back to full capacity! He always thought it was a serious mistake having anything to do with that alien warlord, hopefully this would wake someone up! "Dragaunus doesn't want much, does he?"
"Hey, are you questioning the close relationship between Dragaunus and your illustrious Phineas P. Viper?" Chameleon remarked teasingly as the other two leered at him.
"No, why the hell would anyone do that...?" he grumbled under his breath, growing all the angrier as he tallied the plunder in his mind. "Power generators, transformers, and control system... microwave transceiver, antenna, and operator's station... cables... coax...." Then he looked astonished. "Fifteen monitors? He lost fifteen monitors?!"
Chameleon shrugged nonchalantly, apparently the only one feeling conversational. "Oh, our boss gets kinda excited easy, and when things don't go so good, he tends ta blow stuff up."
Logan growled, "Hasn't he ever heard of stress management?"
"For him, that is stress management," the lizard chuckled wryly.
The man was about to respond when he saw the last straw penciled in on the final page. It was infuriating in it's arrogance! He shouted, "Soda and snack vending machines?! What happened to the last bunch you swiped from us!" He managed to hold himself otherwise in check, but glared at them accusingly.
Chameleon was actually a little humbled by this outrage, and he almost murmured, "He... sorta blew those up too."
Logan folded his arms at them and asked, "Is there anything your boss doesn't blow up?"
The lizard sought for words as he looked to the others, and finally the bizarre trio shook their heads as he answered regretfully, "Nah, not really."
What Buzz had done was quite ingenious. He found out long ago that their microwave tower was a great sensor antenna in and of itself, so he had experimented with using it as a constantly running monitor, seeking unusual electronic activity that might be related to the Raptor or the Saurian's teleporters. He had refined a program he'd written himself which could render real-time 3D visuals of what the system had collected, along with whatever numerical data was involved. The Ducks crowded around the workstation as Buzz cheerfully showed off his handiwork, managing the image perspective with a video game controller.
The program quickly rendered the cityscape of Anaheim in thin green lines from the viewpoint of the microwave tower. Everyone gasped as a green fireball approached from the distance, surrounded by dazzling filaments. The teen chuckled and explained, "Oh, that's just the company helicopter, it came in to get the president this evening. Hey, you know I'm going to actually get flying lessons in it next spring when I turn seventeen! Won't that be awesome? Then I can visit you guys anytime!"
Tanya gave a silent groan of dread at the thought, then said, "Uh... yeah, that's great Buzz, but can we kinda get on with it? It's like, ya know, almost two a.m."
He snickered timidly and muttered, "Oh, yeah... sorry."
In case he felt bad about her interruption, she rubbed the top of his head. It made him seem so much like a puppy, but he apparently liked it, or whatever ways they showed their friendship to him! What a weird kid! Cool, but weird...
If he had felt sorry, he was his enthusiastic self again as he said, "Okay, now the alarms here went off a little after 10:45, so I'll advance the time to... "
Everyone said it as a bubble of radiation burst out from the center of the screen like a nuclear explosion. At the same time, lightning-like bolts of energy shot all through the city and into the sky, like a thunderstorm at ground level. He replayed it over and over again, closer and slower each time, focusing in on the source of the spectacular disturbance, and finally saw that at the center of it was...
"The Pond?" Buzz said, mystified. He turned to face a cringing Tanya and asked, "Well... what happened? Did anything unusual happen there? Did you see or monitor anything out of the ordinary? Oh! I know!" Before she was forced to bluff her way through anything, he was busy with his program again. "I'll analyze the spectral distortion up in the range of... oh..."
"The Q band," he and Tanya said together. He turned to her and exclaimed, "Exactly! And specifically I'll analyze for-"
"Q band doppler shift," she said with him.
Nosedive gave a puzzled look to an equally lost Grin as Buzz shouted, "Oh Tanya, you are so awesome! Your knowledge of spectral dynamics is unsurpassed!"
She almost blushed as she replied demurely, "Aww, I do my best. But you knew it too."
Nosedive cut in, "Umm... could you explain that for those of us who don't speak physics as a second language?"
"Oh, yeah... sorry," the youth cackled. "I forget that not everyone is interested in emissions analysis like I am."
"Oh, that's right up there with button collecting and Grin's poetry," Nosedive said dryly.
The great Duck gave what, for him, passed as an evil eye. "I happen to be published."
"Guys," Tanya interrupted. "Go on, Buzz."
The lad continued as he typed madly, "Anyway, the Los Angeles metroplex area is full of microwave energy because of all the communications, radar, and other sensors which are always running. And when high energy events happen in this field environment, it causes phase shifts and doppler effects which can reveal signatures of it's properties. The Q band is an extremely high frequency, measured in tetrahertz, so it should yield terrific resolving vectors!"
Nosedive licked the inside of his mouth, aghast. "Thanks, that cleared things right up."
"Or reveal if something... traveled through it..." Tanya added, finishing sheepishly as she realized what she was saying.
"Exactly!" Buzz exclaimed over the key clatter. "Boy Tanya, if I'm half the quantum engineer you are when I grow up, I'll be a happy man!"
"But we already know about the shut-OW!" Nosedive began, when Tanya elbowed him hard to silence him. A short glaring match ensued.
"What? What is it Nosedive?" asked Buzz, spinning around in his seat.
"Oh, Tanya-" he began sourly, cut short as she gave him a telling look, "-had to... stop... for some triple spicy tacos. And I think I had a few too many myself."
She looked to the ceiling wearily as Buzz turned back around, surprised. "Gee, I can't see how you guys can eat that stuff. It's no wonder you have a tummy ache!"
Nosedive nursed his ribs as he murmured, "Mostly I had a steady diet of elbow tonight."
Tanya glared at him again and mouthed, Shut up.
The interplay ended as Buzz nearly shrieked, "Wow! Look at this!"
The display was much more spectacular this time, as the multiple spectrums Buzz wanted to study were rendered in vivid primary colors. But what was most intriguing was how something came streaking in from out of the top right of the screen, seeming to tear through the microwave fields which filled the sky, to crash right into- and through- the Pond, causing the incredible explosion of energy as it collided with the teleportation shields. Buzz gasped in astonishment as he slowed the replay down to a crawl, seeing the telltale oval of an object in the bow of the spreading shockwave. He backed the field of view out as far as it would go, revealing that the intruder had come from far beyond the atmosphere. He had trouble staying in his seat as he cried, "I knew it! I knew it! Something came from outer space! Tanya, you guys were attacked! It could be a weapon system! Or it could be inhabited, piloted by some awful alien monstrosity that serves Dragaunus!"
"Well, you got the awful part right," Nosedive joked.
"Nosedive!" Tanya scolded.
"What!" he cried, throwing his arms up in exasperation.
"What?" Buzz echoed. "What is it? Do you know something? Have any ideas? I can help! Let me help you Tanya, you guys could be in terrible danger from this th-mph!"
Grin clamped his hand gently but firmly on the lad's mouth as he said quietly, "Be still, little friend. Calm enables the search for truth, but constant chatter derails the train of thought."
"Wisdom from the ancients," Nosedive intoned sarcastically.
Tanya waived Grin off and said to the finally quiet youth, "Buzz... uhh... look, we gotta talk. But what I tell you has gotta be kept strictly confidential, at least for a while, okay? So, sit down. D'uhh, I mean, just be cool a minute..."
The computer personnel looked up in shock as the room was invaded by the three Saurians, and grabbed clipboards or printouts in order to flee without looking like it. Logan seized the system administrator and an engineer by the shoulder as he said, "But I'm telling you that the computers are almost all down, and we're having a heck of a time figuring out what to do to get everything back on-line. Especially after you took some of our critical back-up inventory! We don't have any information ready on the event!" He added to the two men quietly, "Just humor 'em, they'll leave when they can't get anywhere. We might even convince 'em to give some of the equipment back."
Siege tapped the supervisor on the shoulder, and said in his face when he turned around, "I heard that."
His face grew red but he managed to keep his wits. "Fine! We'll go through the dog and pony show with you two, you'll see I wasn't lying!"
"Ta heck with your show," Chameleon said excitedly, pointing at a set of colorful monitors. "Look what they have over there. Doomed!"
"I get station one!" Siege bellowed and tromped madly for a chair much too small for him.
"The heck you do!" cried the lizard, beating him by a whisker. Siege graciously threw him from the seat. Chameleon picked himself up and cried indignantly, "Hey! I was there first!"
"You got up," the soldier replied casually, the chair loudly protesting itself as it managed to sustain his bulk somehow.
Logan watched the childish argument with disgust, saying to the computer technicians as Wraith drifted away to join in, "I can't believe these knuckle-heads could take over a city block, let alone a whole planet, even if they were facing Ducks!"
Back at the Pond, work halted for a while as the others returned with their bounty. Nosedive tried to talk with Juliet to see what all had transpired while he'd been away, but Wildwing put him to work immediately on the forklift, along with the others, unloading the Migrator. The leader felt sorry for his young brother, understanding the jealousy he was suffering, but they didn't have time for that right now. With their teleportation shields down, they were wide open for invasion. As always, he thought sadly, there were priorities. And, as always, I'm the one stuck with handling them...
He had watched Corwyn settle into the routine of their labor, trying to get a sense of the senior drake. He seemed a decent enough Duck; courteous, easy going, hard working, taking orders as if he'd known them and returned after an absence. But there was a complexity to him that could spell trouble. The others had been together since their days on Puckworld, and in the course of their missions they had melded together into a unit. They knew each other, their strengths and weaknesses, and could count on each other. This bonding had grown stronger in their unintended exile on this strange new world, fighting Dragaunus, other weird enemies, or taking on a ferocious and often resentful Hockey League. Because they were the only ones of their kind here, they had grown close, like a family. Even so, the tensions of this life here had caused problems, as it would with any family with such diverse personalities facing such stress. When Juliet had come along, it had been more blessing than trouble, as she had brought out those protective instincts in the group, and the males had a new young lady to impress- he chuckled quietly at the memories. And though the terrible things she'd had to deal with had caused some conflict, mostly it had drawn them even closer.
But now there was Corwyn... what he could mean to them was anyone's guess. Like pieces on a chess board, their relationships with each other would all be changed somehow as they adjusted to the new member. He recalled the turmoil that hit them when Lucretia DeCoy appeared, how Mallory had been jealous, how Duke and Nosedive had been at each other's throats! True, she had encouraged some of it, but could Corwyn's presence cause something similar? He was already under Nosedive's feathers, for good reason.
And me... what do I think of his strange affection for Juliet? He thought about it for a moment, but had no real answer. I'm defensive, I suppose. She is like a sister to me, after all, and he's such an unknown to us. I'm not sure I like it. She is essentially an adult now, but he'd better be careful how he handles himself! Maybe I'm just being a typical older brother type, overly concerned about it, but they had plenty to worry about as it is, they didn't need any trouble from the inside too!
On the other hand, everything could go smoothly. He had been a cop, surely he knew that teams had to function without internal friction. And he had been a lone soldier fighting a solo war, he was obviously very capable. I could really use a second-in-command to help shoulder some of these awful burdens I have to carry. Duke had done a great job when the need arose, having run a crime ring back on Puckworld, but it wouldn't hurt at all to have someone of Corwyn's experience to fall back on from time to time.
I'll find out soon enough, today will be their first full day together. If there's going to be any fireworks, it shouldn't take long for the first spark to ignite something...
He noticed how Juliet and Corwyn were passing glances back and forth, how the others were observing this and doing the same, and he prayed for wisdom, and rain.
Grin hefted loads which would have easily taken three or four of them to manage, contemplating all he had experienced that evening as he went.
And so it is that we have another one in our midst from our home. We must do everything we can to welcome him into our family. He has gone through so much and suffered so from it, but at the same time he has an inner strength that may even come close to my own. Whatever it is that he has endured, it hasn't destroyed him, or his soul.
He noticed how he and Juliet were eyeing each other in the course of their duties, how they seemed drawn to each other like magnets. Affairs of the heart... how strange and arbitrary romance can be. It draws together people of such differences into a harmony like no other. He saw how the others were watching this unusual attraction, and sighed. And it can bring unsuspected troubles. The feelings these two share for each other seem to be causing some confusion or discomfort in the others. Juliet may have the most potential of any single being in the universe, but she is also the youngest, most fragile member of their group. The others will attempt to protect their young one from potential harm, whether real or imagined, and considering all that she herself has gone through, it only makes sense. But Corwyn seems to be an honorable man, no matter what he has done in his past, and the others can help him through any troubles adjusting to his new life here. He seems to be a man of deep thought, almost a kindred spirit to my own. A seeker of truth. If the hand of friendship is slow to come from the others, I shall offer mine to him with a door always open.
This new path should be the beginning of many happy days.
He was interrupted as Duke hollered at Nosedive for nearly backing into him with the forklift. Then again...
"Same ta you! Pedestrian!" Nosedive shouted as he wheeled the machine around hard and raced back to the Migrator for another load. He glared at Corwyn as he made goo-goo eyes at his girlfriend. Man, this totally bites to the bone! I can NOT believe how that old geezer is slobbering over my Juli! I mean, I can see WHY he would, she's a total babe, but... what IS he, like forty? Fifty?! That's just gross! Why doesn't he hit on some shrivelled up old prune! Like Mallory! I bet he tried to make a move on her already. Tried to pinch her or somethin'! Man, if I wasn't shackled to this stupid thing I'd have it out with him right here and now!
"What!" he shouted, then realized it was only Tanya. "Uhh... sorry."
She gave him an angry look as she muttered, "Could you please forget your troubles for a minute and come help sort this pallet out?"
"Yeah, sure sure." As he climbed out of the forklift he added under his breath, "Slave driver. Can't you see that my love life is in peril?"
Duke shook his head as he watched Nosedive fuming to himself. Well, this isn't exactly the best welcome in the world for a long lost fighter. Poor Corwyn, he's in his own little world right now, but he'll hav'ta come to Earth pretty soon and face the reality he's stuck with until we find a way back home. He's takin' it really well, I'd be freakin' myself for a while, gettin' yanked off my home world like that. He noticed the attraction playing out as the fighter walked by Juliet, how they seemed to veer closer to each other as they passed, how their eyes lingered, and he smirked to himself. Then again, gettin' stranded with a sweet young thing like that can ease a lotta pain. He shook his head as he realized he was getting into dangerous waters, but still, he was curious. Juliet hadn't used her talents for quite a while now, and she seemed to be a lot happier because of it. But it seemed that she'd cut herself off from everyone completely, even Nosedive didn't have that special connection with her any more. What went on between those two, and why'd she do it with Corwyn anyway?
But on top of that, what would livin' with this dude be like? He seems ta tense up every time he gets around me, and gives me funny looks like I'm still a criminal. It's like he can't let go of my past, how we used to be on opposite sides, and holds a grudge from our couple'a clashes. Or like he suspects what I'm doin'. He chuckled to himself. He's got some pretty sharp instincts, all right, gave the Blade a lotta troubles, and held his own against Dragaunus' goons. But he seems cool, and we could sure use the help. I think when he gets settled in we'll be fine. He looked back to a glum Nosedive in the bay of the Migrator and amended his prediction. Of course, till then we'll have at least ONE little issue ta iron out...
Tanya looked out at what everyone else was doing to escape from a grouching Nosedive for a moment. "D'yuh, Duke? Those are emitter tubes, could you put those one box down? Thanks," she said as he called back his compliance. She rubbed her forehead wearily, fighting off the urge to yawn. It had been a long day before the disaster, and it was getting on towards four a.m., and they still had serious work to do! She had to get Drake One on-line, restore the teleportation shields and figure out which of the defense subsystems had failed before she could even think about going to sleep! No... actually I can think about sleep right nowww...
She snorted and shook her head vigorously to clear it. Oh, not now! I hate these long days! We've been up almost twenty one hours already! Augh! She said privately to Mallory, "I hav'ta go do some work on Drake One while I can still think straight, think you can keep Nosedive outta trouble?"
She almost laughed back. "He's too busy with himself to be too much trouble! Besides, I have Grin for back-up."
"I'm always willing to be of help in the cause of peace," he said with a grunt as he lowered a crate of custom made components onto a pallet. Nosedive seemed oblivious to all this.
"Good, thanks guys," she murmured wearily as she collected some diagnostic gear that Buzz had provided them, and headed for the immense computer that dominated the center of the entrance chamber. She watched how Corwyn and Juliet slowed as they passed each other, their gaze lingering as they continued on their way. Gee, they do that an awful lot! They seem to be in love, or somethin', at least Corwyn does. Boy, whatta strange match. It probably has somethin' ta do with... whatever mental link Juliet established with him to stop their fight, it seems to have affected the both of 'em pretty deeply. And Corwyn seems so nice! He's such a gentleman and all. But, what sorta relationship could they have, especially with Nosedive freakin' out over it so bad!
So, what, Tanya? she thought to herself, as she often did. Do ya want him for yourself?
She heaved a sigh, a long, heavy one, as she plugged a laptop computer into a port in Drake One's diagnostic panel and started it up. A cultured man from Farland or Eng, with that cool accent, so well behaved, so cute... d'yeah, who'd want some old coot like that?
For a moment a desolate feeling welled up in her as she thought of how long she had been without any male companionship of that sort, and how long it might be till she did again. For an instant she felt supremely cheated by life and wanted to yell. But it passed with another sigh as reason was re-established with clear, penetrating logic. Naah... it doesn't matter that much, I suppose. And he's not my type, really. He's a swashbuckling hero kinda guy, and I'm just a frumpy old gear junkie with a honky voice and pink glasses and big hair, that prob'ly weighs as much as he does. She looked up to watch the odd couple go through their pirouette again, and sighed once more. And besides, he seems kinda interested in someone else...
Then she burst out laughing as a video popped up on the screen and a familiar voice shouted out, "Hi Tanya! It's Buzz Blitzman, here to walk you through all the steps necessary to get your super computer back on it's digital feet!"
She patted the laptop fondly and said, "Thanks Buzz, I really needed that."
The thunderstorm in Nosedive's mind continued to rage, intensifying as it went. Another thing I don't get is how NICE everyone's treating that old fossil, even though he's chasin' after my girl! Can't they see what's goin' on here?! This is so TOTALLY unfair it's pathetic! I step outta line just a MILLIMETER and I walk the plank! THAT son of a- oops!
He cringed as he accidentally lurched forward in the forklift, then when he jammed on the brake his load of boxes tumbled off, burying a blind sided Mallory with a cry. He hopped out, calling fearfully as he and Grin came to her aid, "Mal! Hey, are you okay?"
Her muffled reply came from underneath, "You better hope I broke something, because otherwise..." She exploded out from under the pile, yelling, "I'm gonna kill you!!"
"She's okay-" he began to Grin, then scrambled on top of the forklift as she stormed after him.
The huge drake made to intercede, saying gently, "Now Mallory, accidents will happen."
"Yeah?" she said, shivering from pent up rage. "Well there's gonna be another one here shortly!" She shook her finger at the teen cringing on his perch. "Nosedive, you stupid-!"
"Hey, is everything okay up there?" Wildwing called to them as everyone turned their attention to the scene.
Mallory shouted back, "Nothing that a little heart to heart with your brother wouldn't fix!" As Duke chuckled over the misfortune and everyone went back to what they were doing, she growled, "Get down here!"
Nosedive recoiled at the fiery tone of her voice and replied, "Uhh... that's okay, I kinda like the view from up here."
"Nosedive," she began more calmly, "I don't have time to kill you, there's too much work to do. Just... come down. Okay?"
He gave her a timid look and offered hopefully, "Truce?"
She returned one last scathing glance and said, "I don't know why I should, but... yeah, truce." He jumped down then, but as he turned to help reassemble the pallet, she gripped him hard on the arm and jabbed her finger into his sternum for emphasis. "One last thing; get your head outta your... do your job, watch what you're doin', and stay outta my way! You read me, buster?"
He snapped his other arm up in a salute, blurting out, "Uh, yes sir! Ma'am. Sir."
She gave a guttural exclamation and threw his arm back to him, ignoring his tormented expression and going to the opposite side of the pile where she could watch what the others were doing. And one in particular.
Man, this is so incredible! He came all the way from Puckworld stuck in a Saurian shuttle pod, goin' through the ride of his life, and he's working alongside us like he's known us for years! It's like he hasn't gone through a thing! I can't believe this guy! And all the adventures he's had, taking on... maybe thousands of Saurians single-handedly! I wondered if maybe we'd gone a little soft here on Earth, not taking the war against Dragaunus seriously enough. He might be just what we need to snap us back to attention, get us motivated again like we were when we were a fighting unit! With him on our side, Dragaunus is in for a rude awakening! He's a genuine war hero like...
Her jaw tightened as she thought back to a private memory, tracing under Corwyn's sleeve the muscles on his arm at the shoulder, where on another's, there was a tattoo dyed into the feathers of hockey sticks crossed over a green-blue triangle...
Wildwing wasn't the only one who ached over Canard's loss. No one ever mentioned it or touched on it, even though the others probably knew something about it, they honored her privacy. It hadn't lasted very long, their affair... who had time for romance in a war? But in the course of their struggle she and Canard had fallen in love. Their private moments together had been all too brief, and they never had a chance for intimacy. And, well... then they never had a chance for anything. He'd thrown himself from the Aerowing, loosing himself in the wormhole between worlds, giving them an opportunity to escape in his usual foolishly heroic way, always putting the team before himself.
She looked up again, gazing at the newcomer with forlorn eyes. She thought of that first tragic meeting just hours ago when he'd faced them down, wearing that strange outfit, heavily outnumbered but undaunted. How he'd pulled his punches fighting them, how he'd shot her pucklauncher out of her hands so carefully she'd barely felt the blast, and even apologizing for it! I never met anyone like him! There's something about him... self-confidence, manners, strength... Something that tickles me in my belly... He's so disciplined, so capable, so cultured, so nice...
So why'd he hav'ta fall for Juliet? She's just a kid! She watched them pensively as their attraction was played out again, as it was every so often; the closing in on each other, the slowing, the long looks, the lingering departure... and she heaved a sigh. I guess it doesn't matter... Oh, who am I kiddin'? He's so inspiring! And good looking, and smooth...
If only Juliet hadn't done... whatever she'd done to get him under her spell... She lowered her head regretfully. Nahh... wishful thinking isn't my style, and it won't change anything. Canard's gone, he's as good as gone...
Grin noticed the mood that had come over the young woman, and shook his head. Perhaps there is more complexity to this situation than I first suspected. We have been together for so long on this other world that perhaps we have been too long without the sort of relationships which men and women normally have. Living together as we are in such close quarters may have caused our urges to build in ways we may not have thought of. When Juliet arrived, there was a certain amount of affection and flirtation from the males, which was rather surprising, but nothing much came of it and no one gave it any more thought. But perhaps that was because Juliet was so young. With Lucretia DeCoy, she was older, and it was much worse. With Corwyn, could the same sort of thing happen with the women, especially since he seems to be attracted to one so young? He regarded Mallory's downcast manner again, and gave a comprehending nod. This situation requires some deep meditations...
Juliet reached for a box and saw a pair of hands on the other side of it. Looking up, she saw that Corwyn was gazing into her eyes, and she turned away, blushing with embarrassment.
She recalled how she'd blushed so earlier. He'd murmured something sweet but innocuous, "Those are the most darling slippers I've ever seen." But somehow, there was something in the way that he'd said it... as if he was promising his undying devotion to her! Her cheeks had flushed more deeply than she could ever remember then, and did again at the memory!
Oh, Corwyn, Heart-friend... what a wonder, what a mystery you are!
What is it about this man, this stranger which I plucked from out of the darkness? Why does he affect me so? What is it about him that lures me like a moth to his candle flame? Why is it that I was drawn to him, to touch his mind when I haven't even touched minds with those I love here for so long? He is special in some way I find hard to describe, somehow I just know it. I know that he has suffered terrible loss as I have, and overcome it with great strength. Yet he is so tender; though he thought that his heart had grown cold and callused, I've shown him how warm and affectionate he still is. I've awakened something wonderful in him, having reached out my soul to his, it's almost like he has a new life! But there is something more, something unique about him, something in his very essence which pulls at my heart in a way I've never felt. I know that every soul is different from all others, but still...
The way he looks at me as we pass, the way he carries himself, how his heart seems to reach for me when we're close... He's...
In love with me.
She blinked in surprise as she thought aloud what she knew in her heart. It had been so sudden, so unexpected! He knew fully that she was nothing like his departed wife, he had seen deep into her spirit in that strange communion as their essence was shared in ways that even lovers cannot. That must have been what it was, as I poured myself into him and we perceived each other so intimately, so openly. And when that vestige of the Shadow demon attacked, conjured up by my pain and fear, or whatever, he rescued me from my tormentor, so afraid that I'd be hurt that he threw himself into a fight he didn't understand, unconcerned with the dangers it could mean for him...
She gazed at him again, as they were standing there with the box between them still, and saw a memory of a fighter in gleaming armor.
Corwyn's head was swimming; he'd never gone through so many emotions in so short a time! Especially now, as he looked deeply into two pools of blue and sensing the soul of the woman within.
I can't believe all that's happened to me this day... who could! This is so utterly fantastic that I'm still amazed by it all; that one moment I'm wandering aimlessly, a hollow man in a frozen wilderness seeking enemies to kill, then I'm on another world entirely helping long lost fellow Ducks as if I'd known them all along! Once, a desolate soul existing only to destroy, now, alive again as if resurrected.
And all because of you, my lady, my savior.
To think that one so young could pluck me out of the jaws of doom, even from hyperspace! I still cannot fathom that this small young wisp of a woman could be possessed of such incredible powers! Or, that she could possess my heart...
He nearly blushed himself as he considered his feelings for her, but he had always been honest with himself and knew that his heart burned for her, plainly and simply.
Yes, my lady, my heart is yours. Do you know of my love for you, do you share it? I know that we touched souls for a time somehow, and as I saw fully what you are, I was helpless to resist being taken with you. I've never met anyone the likes of you, nor shall I ever. I don't know if I have any right to feel the things for you that I do, and indeed, it seems to be making the others a bit uncomfortable, but... could it be that you are the one who could fill that void in my soul, as you have awakened my heart to life again? Could it be that as I come into this new life on this new world, that you may be the one to take my hand and lead me into those days yet to dawn, together? Do you see that knight in armor still, or am I just another old man now, dressed in rags? If only I could commune with you again, to know if that light in your eyes is true, or just my imagination...
For now, it is enough just to look, and believe...
"Ya know," Duke interrupted, startling them both, "if ya put yer hands under the box, ya can prob'ly carry it a lot easier."
Corwyn inhaled sharply and began, "L'Orange, your sense of humor lacks..." But he stopped as Juliet chuckled at the joke, and he joined in as he realized how funny it really was. Or was it amusing just because she thought so?
She drew a breath to settle herself and said, "Come on, Corwyn, he's right. We do have work to do yet, and it is late. Heck, it's almost early!"
He shook his head in discouragement. She was right, of course, and he should know, having just come from a world in which you didn't let your guard down at all. An installation this wide open to invasion from teleporter equipped Saurians was almost begging for one. But that didn't mean he had to be happy about it.
He knew better to deny the call of duty, though, and went on with what needed tending to. Still, he wasn't too hasty to get to it, eyeing Juliet as he went. As she did him.
Nosedive watched them both, and groaned inwardly as he went about his work. Man! Duke, you backstabbing dork, don't encourage 'em! Wing, bro! Smack him upside the head and tell him to grow up and hit on someone from his own century! I cannot BELIEVE that no one's freakin' over this but ME! Of all the-oops!
He hadn't watched where he was going and walked headlong into Mallory. She chased him away with a glare that could scorch metal, and he retreated to the far side of the pallet they had repacked.
Grin shook his head as the youth joined him with an unintelligible grumble. Nosedive is going to be the hardest one to deal with. He may have thought he let go of Juliet as a lover, but he clearly has yet to release her. I must do everything in my power to help him come to grips with this situation, but it may not be much fun...
Tanya rose from her seat in satisfaction as the massive computer passed every system check and restarted with a hearty beep. She patted the silver gray panel, saying affectionately, "That's my baby. All the backup files are intact and everything! That's a miracle, considering the jolt you took. It's a good thing I thought to make an archive of everything for Buzz to keep for us, just in case. Thank heaven I didn't need to do any reconstruction this time! Now... lesse, what was I gonna...?" She rubbed her eyes wearily, thinking that there were still two more hurdles between her and bed. And something she could do right now. "Oh, Corwyn? Com'ere a minute, will ya? D- I mean, if you're not busy right now, that is."
He looked to Duke, who waived him on. "We got it, there's not much left to unload anyhow. Go see what she's up to, it's usually entertainin'."
Corwyn mused over the former antagonist as he went. How strange it is working alongside him! It's hard to let go of those memories of him from Puckworld, when he was one of my most aggravating challenges, him and his group. They considered themselves the best of their ilk, and constantly reminded us of it too, arrogant dastards! But... he seems a genuinely likable chap now. Perhaps I'm not giving him a chance, but we'll see about that! I've had enough experience with his kind to take him at face value, they always seem to keep a shadow or two from their former life of crime. He has a lot to prove- and confess!- before I can accept him as a comrade. If ever I can, that is, especially after what happened before the Invasion. That eye of his is intriguing, though. I'd heard the stories of how he got it and what it could do. I wonder what it's true capabilities are...
As he came up to her, he asked courteously, "What is it, my lady?"
The unexpected politeness of his manner caught the young woman off guard and she was flustered for a moment. Golly, Mallory was right! This guy acts like a prince or somethin'! He's SO smooth... Oh, knock it off and get a grip, for cryin' out loud! "D'yuh... just call me Mallory. D- I mean, Tanya. Tanya's fine," she chuckled, embarrassed. She shook her head and continued, hoping to move the conversation along quickly, "D'anyway, I figured I'd give you a basic identity to Drake One in between chores, since right now you're just a generic person as far as she's concerned."
"She? You mean it's an artificial sentience?" He looked up at the massive electronic marvel, with it's huge monitor towering overhead, and a strange feeling that he was being scrutinized swept over him.
"D'well, no, she's not actually sentient, but she is a really advanced intelligence. I coded the logic algorithms from research I did before the Invasion on Puckworld, along with some tricks I learned here from Earth scientists. She's terrific." She typed the command to access the personnel database and used the option, ADD NEW MEMBER: VISITOR.
He looked to her in surprise and said, "Visitor?"
She returned a casual shrug. "It's just the quick and easy way to get you entered, we can update you to full member status later when we're not busy. Besides, Wildwing sorta has to authorize that."
"Oh, so he's in total command here?"
"D'well, yeah, he is the boss." She held his right forearm- perhaps a little too long- as she guided his hand to a gold-colored scanner panel. "Now... uhh... hold your hand right here and identify yourself vocally."
She pressed a key, and on the massive display the word READY sprang up. At the same time a tingling sensation went all through his hand, as the sensor actively probed its tissues. He spoke with authority, his words appearing on the screen as he said them, "Corwyn Firedrake, of the Puckworld Special Police, Unit Nine, badge number One-n-"
Tanya motioned him silent. "Uh, we don't need the whole itinerary or anything. Right now you're just a visitor, all we need is your name." As she ended the session, she looked to him with admiration. "Boy, Unit Nine... you were way up there! You musta been some cop!"
He waived in an offhanded manner. "Oh, I did my job-"
"Oh, I plumb forgot!" she blurted out, then looked to him red-faced as she realized her impoliteness. "Uhh... sorry I interrupted. It's late, and it's been a hectic day and all. I do that sometimes when I'm tired." He began to tell her not to bother about it when she went on, messing with some controls on Drake One's panel, "But anyway, I just remembered that I have something to show you, and it's a real sentience!" Behind them, a section of the floor began to raise, and Corwyn saw that it was heavy gauge metals, undoubtedly special alloys as it appeared to be a vault with a large red 7 on its face. She muttered in disappointment, "Well, at least it was sentient."
There were several items within of various types, some meaningless to him, but one immediately caught his eye. "Well, I'll be... the head assembly of a BRAWN!"
There was something wrong with it though, the vengeful scowl was gone. Instead, it looked bewildered, it's eyes focusing on nothing, and it's head bobbed up and down as the jaws clacked open as if trying to say something. Tanya picked it up gingerly as if it was a hurt child. "I was afraid of that. The shockwave disrupted its circuits too, poor fella."
Corwyn regarded it with amazement. "Well, what are you doing with it? Those things are practically indestructible."
"Oh, they are. An aerial cruiser sorta crashed on it."
He nodded in comprehension, suspecting that they had done it in that way. From what he'd gathered of their stories, their skirmishes usually ended in spectacular fashion! "Yes, I suppose that would about do it. It's amazing then that it survived at all! Was it an enemy? An ally?"
"D'well... yeah, on both counts. That's another long story. The short of it is that he was originally after Dragaunus, and somehow he got hold of it and reprogrammed him to go after us. That was a heck of a fight, lemme tell ya!"
He looked to her with something like fondness then, fortunately she missed it. He was fully aware of the firepower the BRAWNS wielded, and it was a rare quarry which managed to escape one uninjured! I first thought them to be a bunch of reckless youths, but perhaps I've misjudged them, if they can take on a BRAWN they must be capable fighters! But still, I can't accept the notion of women going into combat against such deadly foes! Especially Juliet...
At the thought of her endangering herself so, his heart jumped in his chest. He was determined to have this out with them later. With himself in the team, they shouldn't have to put the ladies in any more needless danger!
He then realized that Tanya had continued the conversation, and quickly backtracked over what he had subconsciously caught of it. "...And he jumped back onto the cruiser to steer it away from Anaheim, crashing it in some uninhabited hills a few miles away. But this was all that was left of him intact, the important part, I suppose..." She stroked his head then as he clacked away mindlessly. But he saw then that she wasn't just being affectionate, she was attempting to open a panel on top of his head, and not having much luck. "Boy, BRAWN, you're bein' more stubborn than usual. Why doncha- ouch!"
She nearly dropped the unit as a current discharged into her hands. The face was beginning to wear its old dire expression as the jaws worked and the voice synthesizer intermittently spat out fragments of speech. He knew what it was trying to say; Cease what you are attempting. Unauthorized modification of a BRAWN unit is punishable by no less than ten standard years imprisonment under hard labor.
"Oh, you would be difficult today, of all days! Why doncha just-"
"Here," Corwyn cut in. "Let me try something." He faced the unit and said in his authoritarian voice, which even caused Tanya to snap to attention, "BRAWN, I am Commander Firedrake representing Puckworld Special Police, Unit Nine, badge number Nineteen."
The head unit seemed to perceive his presence then, and replied what Corwyn knew to be, "This is BRAWN Unit 017. What is your request, Commander Firedrake?"
"You have suffered a major system-wide failure and need to stand down for self-maintenance. Commence diagnostics and implement repair procedures immediately."
There was an electronic bleep sound, and it replied brokenly, "Understood. Complying..."
Tanya was astonished as the unit fell dormant in her hands. "Wha... that was amazing! Where the heck did you learn that!" Commander?! What else is there to learn about you!
He tried not to look smug as he replied casually, "Oh, I've come across a few useful things in the course of my assignments. Normally a full repair takes about a day, but it could be quite a bit less for him, considering there isn't much left that needs tending to."
Still in a sense of awe, she gasped, "Ya mean you guys in the Special Police worked with the BRAWNs before?! Wuh... you'll hav'ta tell me about that sometime!"
"Well..." he began, stroking his chin, "I think after getting to know you, I could share a few stories, but I'd be pleased to hear about your exploits in return."
"Yeah... I'd like that..." she replied a little breathlessly. Then she realized how she was carrying on and blurted out flatly, "D'yuh... I mean, that would be swell, sure."
A hint of a smile crept into his bill as he watched this display of affection play out. And she was a darling young lady, so incredibly bright, cute, and competent in combat as well! She was quite a treasure, to be sure, but he should be getting back to work, his politeness was beginning to look like flirtation, and it wouldn't do to lead her on in any way. With that, he took his leave and rejoined the others, aware of a wistful look that followed him.
She was jarred roughly back to reality by a voice from her side, Wildwing. "Tanya? How's the work coming? And... why is vault seven open? Why did you take BRAWN out?"
She was flustered good now. She always tried to bluff her way through it, but she was terrible at acting as if nothing was wrong. "Oh... uhh... it's comin' real good. Uhh... Drake One's fully operational. And, uhh... I wanted to check on BRAWN, ta see how he'd taken the shockwave, ya know. Not too good, see..." She tossed the dormant head unit into the vault almost guiltily. "And I sorta... wanted ta... show him to Corwyn." She wilted under Wildwing's gaze. She hated it when she'd done something questionable while he wore that Mask, it made him seem so... ruthless, inhuman. For a Duck, anyway.
As she sealed the vault into the floor again, Wildwing told her in a surprisingly gentle manner, "Tanya, I know Corwyn seems like a great guy, and we are going to welcome him in to our group, but let's not show him any more secrets till we know where he's coming from."
She felt a little easier and shrugged with relief. "D'well... okay, but I just thought... ya know... he's a Duck, and a cop, after all, and Juliet... did something in his mind, I just figured that... well, if there was anything suspicious about him, that... well, she'd know something, and tell us. Ya know?" She looked to him for a sign of understanding, knowing what to look for.
She saw it as he nodded, but there was chagrin along with it. "I know, Tanya, but let's not let anything like this happen again till we're certain about him. Remember, Lucretia was a Duck too. Let's just make sure we're on the same page. That's all I'm saying."
Her cheeks burned from the mild chastisement as she nodded. She should have realized that it wasn't prudent to do what she did, but he was such a charmer and so authoritarian that she took it for granted that he was trustworthy. Oh well, Tanya, live and learn, or die trying.
Wildwing patted her hand reassuringly. "Okay, now let's get those shields back on line. With those up, I think we can let the internal defenses go till later on today."
She smiled up at him gratefully. "Thanks Wildwing, I sure appreciate it."
"I know," he replied, fighting off the urge to yawn. "We'll all need as much rest as we can get today! And take someone if you need help."
Nosedive caught the important parts of their conversation, and prayed as Tanya wandered into the group on the floor, Take Juliet, take Juliet, take Juliet, take Juliet... take JULIET, dammit!
To his dismay, he watched Tanya come into the Migrator and ask Mallory to help her replace the ruined field array antennas. She called them bulbs because they bore a resemblance to flood lamps, besides, it was easier to say. Mallory balked, explaining, "Tanya, I don't know a thing about those... bulb things of yours. Take someone who knows what they're doing."
Tanya gave her a friendly jab in the arm and told her, "Oh, come on, it's easy. It's just like changing a light bulb. Almost." When Mallory responded with a sour look, she added, "Oh, I'll do all the changing, you just help me with the carrying and calibrating. You look like you could stand a break from teen challenge there, anyway." She nodded towards a fuming Nosedive. "And we can have some girl-talk."
Mallory gawked back at the young engineer. "Girl-talk? Since when do you do girl-talk?" She returned an Oh-you-know-what-I-mean sort of look, and as it dawned on Mallory, she rolled her eyes to the ceiling and said resignedly, "Oh... all right, just let me get my pocket PC and soldering iron."
As Tanya led the way down the Migrator's loading ramp, she chided to Mallory, "Oh don't be such a grumpy gus, this'll be fun. I mean, we'll have some work ta do and all, but you'll see."
Mallory shook her head. "I'm not bein' a grumpy gus."
"Oh yes you are."
Nosedive glared after them, plotting vengeance on the scientist as Grin placed a hand on his shoulder, saying, "Look at it this way, little friend, at least you have one less trouble nearby."
Nosedive returned a sarcastic look. "Mallory? Mal is no trouble; her, I can handle. My problem is with Wyatt Urrp!"
As if he had been overheard, Wildwing called up to them, "Hey, is the Migrator nearly unloaded? If it is, get down here, we could use the help."
"Yeah bro, looks like one more'll do it." As his brother waived back, he said to Grin, "Oh man, I can't work with Lustus Maximus there, I gotta make a getaway! Cover for me, will ya?"
The great Duck replied philosophically, handing him a box, "You must face your challenges head on like the Mighty Duck you are, not run from them. Besides, Juliet is there. She will notice your absence, and wonder, and will be alone with-"
Nosedive squeezed his eyes shut as if in pain. "Grin, I really wish you'd stop making sense! Ya never used to, and it's really beginnin' ta get on my nerves!"
He gave the youth a condescending look. "I've always made sense, it's just that you're finally listening to me." Nosedive disagreed, and with that the argument was on.
Chameleon plodded past some shelves on his way back to the trailer, munching on his fries. He wanted to have some fun before he went back to work and had a few new head jokes primed and ready to go, but he forgot all about fun and games when he came before the unpleasant sight.
It was clearly suffering, wobbling to one side unsteadily, the skin a deathly sallow in contrast to the flame orange mop of hair. The mouth twitched in weak seizures, drooling from the corner, and the eye was having trouble focusing. He picked it up with a sound of disgust, holding it by the metal casing and wiping at it's mouth with a napkin. "Boy, Doctor D, you don't look so good. And could you swallow? That slobberin' bit is just gross!"
Doctor Droid fought to gain control of his voice, and stammered weakly, "C-Chameleon... you have to t-take me to Dragaunus... s-suffering... life sup-p-port failure of some kind... Oh, this is t-terrible..."
The lizard shrugged in what passed for sympathy. "Well, ya know, maybe ya shoulda thought twice before ya performed that torso-ectomy in order to get a-head." In a flash of light, he took on the guise of a Shakespearean actor and knelt, lifting the gruesome visage in his right hand and quoting grandly, "Alas, poor Otto, we knew him well. Well... not all that well, come to think of it..."
"Chameleon!" he cried desperately. "Stop fooling around! I c-could be dying!"
He returned to his scaly form and spat back, "Okay, okay! Keep your shirt on... uh, never mind." He looked to the bodiless doctor and got an angry look in reply, then hoisted him onto his shoulder. "Doc, your problem is ya got no sense of humor. Lighten up! I mean, even though ninety percent of you is gone and all. And ya know what? I saw something on Health Net about facial exercises, maybe you should try some of those. Hey, and if ya make it through this okay, maybe we can come up with a routine and take our bit to Hollywood! After all..." His own head transformed into the likeness of Karloff's Frankenstein and he moaned, eyeing the exasperated doctor, "...Two heads are better than one. What do you say, old bean? Eh?"
Droid looked away tiredly, wondering if the lizard ever shut up! "Oh, why didn't I listen to my f-first inclination and go to Lockheed?"
"Could it be our effervescent charm?" Chameleon asked rhetorically, shoving a handful of fries in his mouth and chewing sloppily.
The doctor gagged as a wave of discomfort swept over him, whining. "Uhh... I don't even have a body and I still think I'm going to be s-sick."
"Hey boss!" Chameleon shouted as he padded up behind the warlord. As Dragaunus turned to face him, the reptile shoved the wasting android in his face, saying, "I think Doctor D needs somethin' more than a little chicken soup and TLC."
Dragaunus gave him a look of distaste, but took the head unit after a moment's hesitation. Droid eyed the warlord's claws in horror as he was turned and examined a little too carelessly for comfort! He feared a mauling as his face was mashed into scaly paws, begging fearfully, "L-lord Dragaunus... careful! I s-scratch easily!"
"Oh, do be silent, Droid," Dragaunus snarled as he went on with his rough examination. Finally he gave a conclusive hum and tossed the disoriented thing back to Chameleon. "Well, there's nothing I can do for him at the present. Put him in cold storage for now."
"WHAT?" the android shrieked.
"Are your ears goin' too?" Chameleon asked sarcastically as he made for the pantry. "He said cold storage, and you know what that means? Stay outta the fudge pops!"
"No! Please! There m-must be some other way!" he begged frantically, trying in vain to see behind him at the sound of a freezer door opening. His teeth began chattering from fear as he saw frosted panels on all sides of him, and felt frigid air on his face blown by a hidden fan.
Chameleon said in weak sympathy as he withdrew from the freezer, "Hey, Droid ol' buddy, I know it may not seem like much, but at the risk of sounding cliché... chill out!" With that, he slammed the door shut on an anguished scream and cackled at his own cleverness as he left.
As the icy chill burned into his face, Doctor Droid plotted a bitter revenge...
Tanya was pushing a cart loaded with her high-tech cargo along a walkway near the roof, chatting happily away while a quiet Mallory trailed behind. As she came up to a locker in the northwest corner, Tanya wondered what she could say to get her friend to open up. Mallory could be stubbornly withdrawn when she got in one of her moods. And she realized that she'd have to get brilliant quick because she'd never been very good at girl talk. As she unlocked the cabinet, she asked tentatively, "So... whadya make of Corwyn so far? Think he's cute?"
Mallory gave her companion a dim look. "Tanya, that sounds like little girl talk." When she began to mutter apologetically, Mallory cut her off. "I didn't mean it like that, I'm sorry. It's just late, that's all."
Tanya reached over the device which generated the teleportation shield and began removing the dead bulb-like emitter unit from its assembly. "Oh, that's okay, we're all beat."
"Ah-ah-aah..." Mallory chided, more cheerfully now. "That's a no-no, we're never beat."
The engineer chuckled at her faux pas. "Yeah yeah, I know. But, whadya make of him anyway? Think he's cool?"
"Yeah, I think he's real cool." She sat down while Tanya went about her arcane work. "You saw how he handled himself when he took us on, he's a natural born fighter. And he spent the past year and a half on Puckworld waging a one-man guerrilla war against the Saurians! He's a real war hero. I bet he can teach us a thing or two about fighting 'em."
A brace had fused itself to the casing of the unit and Tanya had to cut it loose. "D'yeah... but, ya know... he got a little... carried away sometimes."
"So?" Mallory shot back. "They killed his wife. What would you do?"
Tanya was surprised at how strongly defensive she got, and so quickly. "D'yuhh... well... I don't mean anything by it, really. We all had folks killed in the Invasion, and we all kinda hit back hard sometimes. And if he killed a buncha Saurians, I'm not cryin' over 'em or anything. It's just that... well, ya know... he can't go on a rampage here, bein' an alien civilization and all. We blow up enough stuff as it is!" She looked over her shoulder at her friend and saw that her disposition had softened.
"Yeah, I know. I was thinking that myself. On Puckworld, he had free opportunity of fire, he could do whatever he thought fit the situation since he wasn't in populated areas. He'll have to resort to his police training again."
"Yeah..." Tanya went on gently. "And he'll have to learn how to fight on a team again. He kinda went solo for quite a while when he lost his partner... he never wanted to have anyone to be responsible for again. And then a year alone in the wilderness, fighting Saurians..."
Mallory looked into her lap in sympathy for him, but when she saw that Tanya was sneaking glimpses of her she straightened up. "What, you don't think he could handle it?"
"D'well... I... don't think there'd be a problem, no," she said as she went about her work. "But, it might take a while for him ta get used to, and not bein' in charge, and all. He might hav'ta learn some whole new habits, ya know." She looked over her shoulder after a pause and asked, "Do ya trust him?"
She smirked back. "What, you're askin' me? I noticed you opened vault seven and was showin' him the BRAWN. I didn't think anything of it, myself. Why, don't you trust him?"
Tanya gave a weak shrug, still feeling a little guilty over the incident. "Duhh... well... yeah, I do, but you're the soldier. I wondered what sorta sense you got of him, since we are sorta stuck with him."
She answered with something of a glow, Tanya noticed. "Yeah, I trust him. I watched him from the moment he stepped out of that mist, and he seems as strack as they come. He held back when he took us on since we were Ducks, tryin' to figure us out while we tried to reason with him. He seems straight and honest, more than anyone I've ever met. All my instincts say he's cool. Besides, if there was anything shady about him, I think Juliet woulda seen it."
Tanya caught how her enthusiasm tapered off at the end of that last sentence. She asked tentatively, "Uhh... what do ya think of them? Him and Juliet, bein' together, I mean?"
Mallory attempted a casual shrug. "I dunno, what do you think of it?"
Tanya quit what she was doing and faced her. "Oh no ya don't, I answered the last couple first. It's your turn this time."
Mallory returned an irritated look. "Well... fine! I mean, nothing. I mean..." She gave an exasperated chuckle as she realized how foolish she sounded. "Oh, I don't know what I mean..."
As she looked into her lap again with a heavy sigh, Tanya said sympathetically, "Mal... look, I didn't mean ta put you on the spot or anything. I... d'well..."
Mallory waived her off. "Oh, that's okay Tanya, don't mind me. It's just... well... ya know, we've been here a lot longer than any of us'd figured on, and the guys are... well..."
"The guys," Tanya said for her.
"Tch'yeah, exactly. They're team mates. Sorta like brothers, ya know? Especially that damn Nosedive..." she finished with a growl.
Tanya laughed at that, aware of their long running feud. "Yeah, I know what ya mean!"
"Yeah! Anyway... they're great an' all that, but I'm not sure there's one of 'em who I'd..."
"Marry?" Tanya finished.
Mallory stammered, "D'well... uhh... yeah. I mean, I love 'em and all, even Nosedive..." she grumbled, then pointed her finger sharply. "And don't you dare tell anyone I said that!"
Tanya spread her hands wide. "Duh, hey! Mum's the word. Heck, I wouldn't give Nosedive the satisfaction of finding out!"
"Okay," she said with a sharp exhale. "Anyway... so when this new guy comes along, and he's so suave and cultured..."
"And polite, and good lookin'..." Tanya added wistfully.
"And with that cool accent..." they said together with a sigh. Then they looked at each other and burst out laughing as they fell into each other's arms.
"Oh... aren't we pathetic?" Mallory chuckled as she pulled away.
"Yeah, we got it bad, don't we?" Tanya said, wiping her eyes.
"So, are you cool with them, bein' together and all?" Mallory asked, facing the engineer.
"Yeah..." Tanya replied. "They chose each other, and that's fine with me."
"So we ignore 'em? Let it run its course?"
Tanya shrugged philosophically. "Yeah, I'd say so. Let them have whatever they get out of their relationship, they're big enough to handle themselves okay. And they have every right to choose who they want to be with. Let's just stay out of the way."
Besides, they thought simultaneously, if it doesn't work out, maybe I can catch him on the rebound...
Siege was struggling with the microwave generator when it suddenly lifted of it's own accord! He barked in surprise, then realized that Wraith was using his mumbo-jumbo to levitate it out of the trailer. He got behind to push on the immense assembly, happy for anything that would make his job easier, and chuckled to himself as he overheard the sorcerer muttering, "It takes total concentration in order to accomplish such a feat. Levitation is one of the more difficult disciplines to master."
Chameleon didn't mean to be a pest, it just worked out that way. Being a kid at heart, he leaned against a box as he blew up the bag left over from his meal and popped it loudly. He jumped in alarm as at almost the same instant, Siege cried out and a tremendous crash rocked throughout the trailer. Then everyone cringed in terror as Dragaunus bellowed, "WHAT THE DEVIL WAS THAT!"
Chameleon tossed the blown bag behind some crates and joined in as everyone began explaining at once. When he'd taken all he could, Dragaunus shouted, "ENOUGH!" As they all fell silent and stock still, he ordered them hoarsely, "Check that transmitter carefully and get it installed! And it had better damn well be operational by THIS EVENING!"
Chameleon considered asking if he meant this evening evening, since it was already well after four a.m., but the warlord's eyes were burning a red he hadn't seen since he'd threatened to rip out his spleen, and thought better of it. The threesome slunk to the transmitter embedded in the floor of the trailer and began to examine it for damage. Surprisingly, there was hardly any, and Chameleon sighed with relief. The casing was shifted a little on one side and torn at one corner, but that was just sheet aluminium and easily fixed.
As Siege helped Wraith pry the device from the trailer floor, refusing to let him use his magic in case of crickets or other sudden noises, they held it up so that Chameleon could look under it for unnoticed internal damage. "I don't get it," Siege grumbled. "How come you get all the cushy jobs, you brown-nosin' little runt!"
"Well, that's one reason," Chameleon replied, gloating, "but another is that I'm the only gear monkey in the bunch, so put that in yer blaster and shoot it! We all got our jobs ta do. Be happy that yours is ta blow stuff up and ta make sure I can do mine!"
Siege glared at Wraith and muttered, "If that little shrimp wasn't so useful once in a while, I might just loose my grip on this thing."
As the sorcerer nodded jealously, they heard an imitation of the soldier coming from under the generator, "I heard that!"
Chameleon chuckled happily, always pleased with himself when he could play a pun well, going about his checking in an even better mood. "Lesse... power cables look good, this switch... just snaps back into place, this meter case looks bent but should be okay, this bug fell off... huh?" He picked the tiny button device from the floor and looked more closely. It appeared to be sort of like a watch battery but he knew what it was. A homing device. He crawled out from under the unit and said to the others, "Take a break, you's two, us executives have ta have a quick conference." Siege growled after him as he went to Dragaunus.
The tyrant put his hand to his forehead as he approached, and moaned, "What is it now?"
"Boss, looks like someone made an unauthorized modification to the equipment that wasn't up to spec." Chameleon handed the device to the warlord and waited for his praise.
Instead, the Saurian's face went from puzzled to angry to volcanic just that quick, and the reptile covered his ears as Dragaunus erupted in an ever-louder voice, "SieeeEEGE!"
The soldier tromped obediently forward, saying, "Yes, lord Dragaunus."
He stared at the metal button for a moment to savor what was about to come. "Was anyone a problem tonight?"
The soldier chuckled maliciously. This was his favorite part of the job, taking out the trash. "Ohh yeahh... the evening supervisor, Logan, he was kinda snotty. Didn't like us at all."
Dragaunus began to squeeze the device between his fingers, enjoying the sensation of internal components being crushed together. "I want him dealt with. Permanently."
Siege rubbed his hands in anticipation. It may not pay all that great, but his job had it's perks. "You got it boss."
The disc burst with a stout pop, and pieces of it went flying.
Tanya began spraying something from an aerosol can all over the Ready Room. Nosedive asked, "What's with the air freshener? Still got the snuffles from the Saurian hot rod?"
"It's not air freshener," she explained. "It's a broad band anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, anti... everything agent I cooked up a while back when Juliet came here, just in case any pesky germs or unguents came along for the ride. We don't need any sudden outbreaks of Puckworld or Saurian flu, what with our schedule coming up. Not to mention what it might do in the Earth's environment. In fact, just to be safe, we all should have a quick check up tomorrow... or today, that is."
When half of them voiced disapproval, Wildwing silenced them. "She's right, guys. Better safe than sorry. You should have a complete physical yourself, Corwyn, after what you've gone through. It's been almost two years since your last one anyway, hasn't it?"
He gazed off into the distance, as if trying to catch a glimpse of a happier past. It hadn't been that long ago, there at the station, when he'd jokingly endured that minor annoyance with his mates, but it seemed like an eternity now. An entire lifetime away...
He was yanked back to reality as Wildwing said, "Okay, let's finish this up so we can hit the sack." He beckoned to Corwyn and asked, "Would you help lay the plumbing?"
"Uhh... aye, certainly," the soldier replied with a trace of vacancy still.
They had taken the Saurian shuttle to the maintenance bay and secured it in a special refrigerated room "to keep it from spoiling," Tanya had told them enigmatically. She tried to explain some of the unearthly biotechnology to the others, but it only made the device seem even more disturbing, and troubled Corwyn to think he'd been inside it. In any case, the decay of certain components had made recovery of the previous Gateway generator hopeless, and she wasn't about to let this one slip through her fingers.
Now the only thing to do was check the security system, fix the water pipes and lay new floor plates, and they were finished for what was left of the night. Considering that everyone was exhausted, their spirits were high as they looked forward to even a brief slumber.
Except for one; Nosedive was growing ever angrier as he observed Corwyn's affection for Juliet from close quarters. Oh man, I can't take much MORE of this! It's even worse watching this from front row! Juli, how can you POSSIBLY see anything in that old coot?! Oh baby, of all the people! How can you DO this to me? Girl, if you ripped my heart outta my chest and shot a goal with it, it wouldn't hurt more than this! If it was a goal for an OPPOSING TEAM, it wouldn't hurt more than this! If you loved GRIN, it wouldn't... well, naw, come to think of it, that would munch pretty bad too...
Grin observed his friend in the grip of his emotional turmoil, and heaved an inner sigh. Love is such a large part of our make up, yet so hard to control or understand. Even more so for the young. If only Nosedive could see what he is putting himself through, and realize all the negative karma he is weaving into the fabric of his soul. If he could only remember how it was before he was reacquainted with Juliet, how serene- relatively speaking- his life was, and how it was when he thought he had released her as a lover. But perhaps he thought in his heart that there was no other for her than him, that one day she would return. He shook his head sadly. Often the purposes of our hearts are laid waste by a harsh reality. Perhaps I can get him to see that love can also be expressed in letting someone free to be with another. He was interrupted by a low growl from Nosedive. Then again, maybe I could get him that puppy...
Duke was enjoying himself watching this all play out. Yep, Dive's got it bad, no doubt about it. Corwyn's under his feathers where he can't scratch. And he's gonna do somethin' dumb, I just know it. He's never let me down yet.
The others were beginning to notice this too, how he was looking more and more dour and paying less and less attention to what he was doing.
Poor Nosedive, thought Tanya. Wildwing had better have a talk with him and see if he can get him to understand things. And maybe this is an infatuation anyway, who knows? Juliet's never touched minds with a stranger before, maybe this'll all blow over. I hope so, before it all blows over us!
That idiot kid's gonna do somethin' stupid, I just know it, Mallory growled to herself. It'd BETTER not happen around me or I WILL kill him!
Wildwing patted Nosedive on the shoulder, and the teen jumped up with a loud, "What! Uh... what, bro?"
He rubbed the teen's shoulder and said, "Dive, what's up? You seem kinda tense."
Nosedive bent over to apply a gasket to a pipe face, replying sarcastically, "Tense? Why would I be tense? And why isn't this thing stickin'?" He mashed the gasket on the ring of the pipe repeatedly but it wouldn't adhere.
"You... uh... have to peel the tape off the adhesive first," Wildwing pointed out. "Careful."
He gave a sickly laugh and said, "Uh... thanks bro... man!"
Wildwing leaned over and said in his younger brother's ear, "Dive, just be cool about this. Nothing may come of it."
"Be cool?" he hissed back. "No one's after your girl!"
Wildwing shook his head and replied, "I don't have a girl."
"See? You have no idea what I'm goin' through!"
"Nosedive... I thought you two were broke up anyway. Look, she's plenty old enough to make her own way now."
He looked up at Wildwing and said, "Yeah, but she's not that old, if ya know what I mean."
The older brother heaved a weary sigh and rubbed his sibling on the shoulder in sympathy. "Nosedive... be civil for now, okay? Let's just see what happens."
"I'd rather not, if ya don't mind."
"Dive, you make it sound like they're going to bed or something!"
The teen arched his back and groaned as if in agony, "Ohh... I wish you wouldn't put it that way..."
Wildwing patted his brother's back and said, "Look, we'll talk later. Just be cool, okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, sure..." he sighed as Wildwing went on his way.
Grin continued to ponder. Oh, I forgot, Tanya is allergic to dogs. If only fish were more affectionate he could have an aquarium, but I don't think that would satisfy him. Perhaps he could have a pony at a ranch outside of town...
Nosedive grumbled to himself, Thanks a lot, BRO! That was REAL sympathetic! Man, my own brother doesn't understand! What's the world comin' to?! I swear I'm gonna... SWEAR!
Grin: This is a long shot, but perhaps Nosedive could find satisfaction in the traditional tea drinking ceremony... although in his case, perhaps it should be Jooky...
Nosedive: Just let me get him alone in a dark alley, Ducko a Ducko, and may the best Dive win!
Grin: Let's see... The Red Flower of T'chai, how does that go? Oh yes, it's instrumental...
Nosedive: I'm callin' ya out, Marshall Mallard. You're pie, come lunchtime!
Grin: Lefty loosy, righty tighty. At least in the northern hemisphere...
Nosedive: Mutually assured demolition at twenty paces! That'll scorch his badge! And his little police dog too!
Grin: Shot from the blue line
The puck in the goal
The crowd goes wild
Oh sweet satori
Nosedive: *Houston, we have an attitude problem... content deleted in consideration of younger viewers...*
Grin: I am one... with the grommet...
Nosedive: *Hell hath no fury, like a-*
"You're turning that bolt the wrong-!" Wildwing shouted hastily, but just then a jet of water shot straight up, thoroughly drenching his brother as he straddled the pipe.
He just stood in the spray as it streamed its way under his shirt, thinking sourly, It doesn't get much more embarrassing than this. After what seemed like a wet eternity the water was shut off, and when he wiped the moisture from his eyes he found himself confronting a crowd of stony faces. At a loss for what else to say, he spouted brightly, "Hey! We got water again!"
"Did have water, you knuckle-head!" Mallory scolded in a voice that could remove paint.
He began shivering and hugged himself, saying, "Gee, is it just me, or is it cold in here?" He ducked as a mop and bucket were thrown at him, then he climbed from the pit, saying with feigned cheer, "I think I'll just mop this right up."
Dragaunus fumed to himself as he stormed towards an immense bed, wearing a regal looking purple and red silk robe. If only he could harness the relentless incompetence of his three henchmen, he could be ruling the world by now! To ease his frustration, he grabbed a stuffed figure of a duck and tore it to shreds. He stood over the fluffy remains of it, his chest heaving from vented emotion, but he wasn't satisfied. Oh, it would have to do until he could get some more real ones. The supplier he normally got them from disappeared one day, damn his conscience! But there were others who would be willing to sell live foul to him. The French in particular were cruel to their animals as well, they would have no qualms about such a sale, and they loved money as much as any other culture of men, perhaps more.
And the way they struggled, it whet his appetite so...
He stared at the torn remains of his trophy and threw it down in disgust. There was plenty to be disgusted about, besides the lifeless targets of his wrath and the utter worthlessness of his henchmen. As much as he despised doing so, he would once again have to assume a defensive posture as he regrouped from whatever it was that had afflicted the area and bid his time, as he waited to see what the hated Ducks were up to. He would much rather go on the offensive, being a warrior at heart, but much of his resources were down or ailing, and it would take time to rebuild it to the point he could again take on the Ducks head to head. Oh, but when he did, he would be sure that the odds were heavily weighted in his favor! Those cursed Ducks were in for a rude awakening!
He tore his robe taking it off, and he groaned sourly as he examined the rip in the rich fabric. Damn, these things were easy to tear! He flung it down on a chair, then his manner softened as he gently picked up another stuffed animal, a purple and green caricature of a dinosaur, as he climbed into bed.
As he stroked the toy affectionately under the chin, he crooned as if to a pet, "Life can be so unfair, isn't that right, my little friend? The idiot human beings that infest this backwards planet hold us both in contempt. But someday soon, we'll both return to that place of dominance over this stupid world, reclaiming that scepter of rulership we both rightly deserve!" He turned off the light beside his bed and snuggled the doll in his arms as he whispered, "Yes, we'll both be dining on the flesh of Ducks soon, little friend, very soon... Now... how to go about achieving that this time... you have any ideas? No, we tried that one already..."
Nosedive's little blunder had cost them another fifteen minutes, but at last the plumbing was fixed, the flooring was repaired and they had filed off to their beds, save for Nosedive and Juliet. The teens were in each other's arms, speaking softly to each other, and on occasion Juliet brushed back Nosedive's unruly golden brown locks. When Corwyn saw this his heart jumped in his chest. He knew this pang of jealousy was uncalled for, but... for pity's sake! His love for her had just burst to life, and already she was in the arms of her old flame? He hoped she was just consoling him, though they were talking so quietly and their beaks so hard to make out that he wasn't sure what they were saying. Wildwing was speaking with him, but this sight made it hard to concentrate, and as he led him away, he lingered just to the point of it being obvious, then he reluctantly followed. Wildwing led Corwyn down a hallway past his own quarters when he spotted a name plate on the room next to it, Canard. The name rang a bell, evidently one of Juliet's memories she'd shared with him.
Wildwing explained to him, "We had some spare quarters made up for new arrivals, after a few showed up from Puckworld at different times."
Corwyn was astonished. "There were others? How in the world did they arrive here!"
He gave a weary shrug. "Oh, different ways. Juliet hijacked a Saurian shuttle and somehow found her way to Earth, Lucretia DeCoy was brought here by Dragaunus to do a job-"
"Lucretia?" Corwyn blurted out, then he gave the leader a look of apology. "I'm sorry for that, but what the devil was she doing with Dragaunus? Last I heard, she was involved in industrial espionage for the K Group."
Wildwing looked equally surprised, and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Those gray lizards? Maybe that was the connection that allowed Dragaunus to get his hooks in her. He must have made her an offer she couldn't refuse, she became a traitor for the Saurians."
"Are you serious?" he exclaimed, wide-eyed. "I can't believe anyone could go that far, no matter what the reward! She didn't seem the type for that."
"Well, Dragaunus has a way of getting through to people you wouldn't expect. Whatever it was he lured her with, or threatened her by, it worked," he said, recalling with a touch of regret that she had mentioned Dragaunus imprisoning her family. Maybe for a brief vulnerable moment she had been honest with them.
"That's rather sad. What happened to her? Prison?"
"We don't know," Wildwing replied, his voice laced with implicit sympathy. After all, he was mostly responsible. "She failed in her job, and Dragaunus doesn't take kindly to failures..."
"Oh... my... that's terribly unfortunate..." Especially from Ducks, he thought to himself with a shudder. Then to change the subject he went on a little brighter, "Well, what about Canard? I recall something from Juliet's memories about him. I'd like to meet him as well."
Wildwing turned away as his shoulders fell, and Corwyn felt like a stupid brute. The masked leader gathered himself with a deep breath. "He... didn't make it here. He threw himself into the wormhole between this universe and ours to help us get away from some... thing Dragaunus unleashed on us. He's still out there... somewhere..." he gestured vaguely.
Corwyn stood behind the careworn leader and placed a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. "Wildwing... I'm sorry, I should have thought before I spoke. If there's anything I can do, just-"
"No, that's okay," Wildwing said as he faced him. "You couldn't have known. Don't worry about it. But you already did about the best thing you could do, both by showing up, and bringing an intact Gateway generator with you. You're an answer to our prayers. We owe you a lot. Thanks."
As he shook Wildwing’s hand, he replied with a smile, "Well, I'm happy to offer you my services, especially after the way I behaved upon my tumultuous arrival. Thank you for having me. Lending a hand is the very least I can do."
Wildwing grinned back as he continued on to the next room. "We'll take you up on that, Corwyn. But for now, let's get you settled in so you can enjoy your first day on Earth a little refreshed, at least." He pressed a key on a panel beside the door, then as the plates slid open and the lights came on, his beak fell in surprise. "Oh, good grief."
Corwyn peered around the leader's broad shoulders as he went in, seeing boxes lining either side of the walls almost to the ceiling, and more things within. Wildwing explained with a sigh, "Nosedive cleaned his room last week. I thought it looked a little too good for him."
The soldier picked up a wildly colorful magazine done on pulp paper. Several muscular beings in outlandish skin tight costumes were engaged in some sort of battle on the cover. "Well, at least he'll have provided me something to read if I have trouble sleeping." He tried to grasp what the subject of the story was about, but the caption was unfathomable. "I think."
Wildwing placed the Mask on his desk for the second time that night, and sat on his bed with a long sigh as he undressed. He had been more worn out before, but fatigue was only part of his weariness. He didn't relish the days to come. There was a hockey game the day after tomorrow to get ready for, and Phil would undoubtedly come up with some utterly idiotic promotional stunt to capitalize on it. Making things even worse, the Pond would have to be inspected. Tanya said it had suffered quite a bit of damage from the discharge caused by Corwyn's spectacular entrance. Because the staff was so short, they would all have to pitch in to get it ready for Wednesday night's game, and they might even have to hire contractors, making for an ideal security hazard. Dragaunus would undoubtedly try some mischief while they were recovering. And more, Tanya said that the havoc caused by the event reached all the way to Los Angeles and beyond! Phil would be handling calls demanding restitution for at least a week! What would he tell him, and the press? And Klegghorn? And Henderson?
Oh yes, he thought as he laid his trousers across a chair. Corwyn would have to face Henderson tomorrow- today, that is, assuming he was still in charge. That will be quite a strange welcome to life on Earth. But they'd all gone through it all right, Corwyn would probably handle that little hurdle with ease.
He smiled to himself as he climbed into bed. His curiosity was voracious, and he had asked questions of them all through the evening as they worked. And that was understandable; coming to an alien world he knew nothing of and having to make it his home for an indefinite period of time, questions about it were to be expected. He was impressed at how systematic and logical they were, that undoubtedly had to do with his investigative skills as a policeman. And he knew that because of the constant quizzing he had put them through, he had forgotten to tell Corwyn a number of things, but he could give him a better briefing this morning after a little rest, and food. And that would just be the start of it, they still learned new things about Earth practically every day, even after being here over a year. There was so much to learn...
But the one question uppermost on his mind was, how well would he fit in with them?
That was the thing, what would his presence among them mean? What would result from it? There was plenty of room for conflict, some of it had already started. He was infatuated with Juliet, to one extent or other, and Nosedive resented it greatly. For that matter, he wasn't sure himself yet what he thought of it. If that wasn't resolved somehow, it could only get worse. And there was Duke. Putting an ex-felon and an ex-cop together in such close quarters could easily spell disaster if there wasn't some sort of conciliation between them. And the girls seemed to have an attraction for him. They were good friends, but that didn't mean that the introduction of a gentleman bachelor couldn't cause a flare up of jealousy between them, such as what happened between Duke and Nosedive when DeCoy showed up. There could even be friction between him and Grin, as farfetched as it seemed. Grin could conceivably get along with Chameleon, he was such a pacifist! But Corwyn seemed to be a religious man, and there were hints of stubbornness underneath that veneer of good nature. And strong differences over spiritual matters had marred relations between much more compatible people before.
Even he wasn't free of this matter. Would Corwyn accept the leadership of someone who was a decade or more his junior, a mere college student who's only claim to the position was an ancient Mask given to him by a lost friend? Could he depend on the loyalty of the older cop, or would he rebel?
He shrugged off the angst. Well, that was enough of that. He didn't think that anything sinister was afoot, and he genuinely liked Corwyn, but he had learned from experience that you don't survive by assuming the best. Still, he felt at ease. There was something trustworthy about him. He had briefly questioned Juliet about him before bed, and she had nothing but good things to say about him, other than that thirst for revenge. To make sure, though, he would give her a thorough going over today to see if something hadn't come to mind.
Naah... he was sure that he was just suffering the worry of a leader. Though there were undoubtedly going to be some problems, everything would work out among them all right. He would make sure of it. If anything went wrong, there would be hell to pay.
Duke stretched full length in his bed as a yawn pulled every sinew of his body taut.
Thank God these long days were rare! He stared dimly at the ceiling as the lid of his good eye grew heavy, though one final lucid thought ran through his mind.
So, The Hunter finally managed ta find me, but it's too late for him now. He enjoyed a quiet chuckle, but it was cut short by a notion as clean as a sword. Unless he won't let it be too late. That does sorta sound like him... does he intend to pick up where we left off?
His eye wasn't so heavy anymore as he pondered the implications of that question with a guilt-laden sigh. It seems like a whole other lifetime ago, back on Puckworld, when I led the Blade. And I was a whole other Duke, the crime boss, the young scallywag who made it a point ta target the hardest pieces to hit, and then pull it off while makin' the cops look stupid. O'course that wasn't all that hard ta do sometimes... He chuckled momentarily, forgetting himself. I was on the road to ruin though, I just didn't see it. I couldn't see the pain and trouble I caused, how that life was hurtin' me, even when I lost my eye in the fight ta be boss. It was so 'cool' that I drank half of it away. I was so stupid myself that I thought watchin' my back all the time, even from my own men, was thrillin'! It took a Saurian Invasion ta knock some sense inta my thick skull. Workin' with the Resistance, I saw up close what I'd always scoffed at; honesty, integrity, character, respect. And I saw that it was what I always really wanted in my life. It took a while ta get, though. It wasn't easy ta earn trust after bein' fingered as the world's most wanted thief. Every time somethin' went wrong or came up missin' they accused me first. But with time and many missions under my belt, I won that position of respect that I'd wanted all my life. And I thought that was the same thing as bein' absolved of my guilt, the one other thing I wanted out of all this, ta be free of the consequences of my past.
He stared straight up and heaved a long, heavy sigh. And now Corwyn shows up outta the blue... and I feel... guilty again? Is that it? Am I afraid that he'll try ta make me pay for my past misdeeds? Or is it plain old fashioned HONEST guilt? Did I always have a sense that crimes can't just be swept under a rug? That they gotta be paid for? He closed his eye and exhaled slowly. Man, I hope not... Of all people, The Hunter was the one who could put the fear o' God in ya, and I have a lot ta be afraid fer. Oh, he can't put me away here, but he had this way of makin' a crook want ta just do his time and get it overwit'...
And I'm sure he still does...
He drew the teal covers to his neck and rolled over onto his side. Well... maybe I'm just feelin' spooked in the middle of the night. But, still... I should prob'ly break the ice, have a heart to heart chat with him soon, get all this sorted out. Before he has one with me...
He looked at a maroon leather-bound book on his desk, and thought as he began to drift off that he really should have read it by now...
Even though he was worn out and should have been dead asleep by now, Nosedive was a troubled young man, and he stared at the ceiling; restless, angry, confused. The conversation between Juliet and himself hung over his heart like the blade of a guillotine. He was devastated as she brushed his hair back and said, "Sorry Nosedive, but it's over between us. Corwyn is rich, handsome, noble, kind, talented, experienced, generous, brave, intelligent, rich, handsome... and you're not. You're just Nosedive."
His knees nearly gave way, but he managed to stay erect, and stammered, "B-but... I'm funny, at least! And young! That has to count for somethin'!"
She looked to the ceiling in exasperation. "Oh, you're funny all right."
"Umm... I don't like the way you put that, Jules..." he said weakly, then something occurred to him. "Hey, you said rich and handsome twice. And don't say that's because he's twice the rich, handsome Duck I'll ever be-" And then something else occurred to him. "Hey, just how do you know all that?"
In reply, she gave him one of those looks, which every boyfriend dreads seeing, and he nearly lost control of himself as she spoke in a sultry voice, "What do you think we were doing together?"
Then she turned and walked away, her malicious laughter echoing throughout the street as storm clouds gathered menacingly, the glare of lightning draining all the color from the scene, and finally he shouted after her, his arms outstretched, "STELLA!"
He shook his head to clear it... Woah... wait a minute... that wasn't what happened! That was a pretty wicked scene though...
But it had been bad enough. She sounded a little confused as she tried to explain things to him... or maybe it was he who was confused, everything she said just puzzled him more. It was sure a mess! She had said something along the lines of... What we've shared has been special... What does Corwyn mean to me? I'm not sure I can tell you that... Can you accept me as something other than a lover? Don't let this hurt you, Nosedive. Let me be myself and find my own way in this, okay, love?
He suddenly wanted to go back to that storm threatened scene, it was a lot more cheerful!
Man... who'da thunk that some old geezer from Puckworld could mess up my life so bad! Why did he have to come to THIS world? Why couldn't he'a just gone on to some other planet far FAR away from here? Why couldn't he'a just died or somethin'!
He came up short at that, nearly choking. He didn't really mean it, but still, he was shocked that the notion had even come to mind! That wasn't like him at all. Then again, he'd never faced this sort of situation before either. It wasn't like the time that he and Duke had wrangled over the affections of Lucretia. If Duke had won her over, Nosedive would have been ferociously jealous, but it wouldn't have been like he had stolen her away. She was just a girl up for grabs, and it was every Duck for himself. Well, not JUST a girl... he thought with a grin.
But not Juli, not my baby, not to that royal pain in the... hemorrhoids! Man, this totally munches!
He tried to assess his opponent as best he could, trying to identify those elusive qualities that had somehow captured his love's heart, but none of it made any sense.
Okay... so he's old. That can't be a good thing! Unless... it's because he's experienced... Well, if he tries any of his 'experience' on her, HE'S gonna experience a head on collision with a rude awakening, Dive style!
And, he didn't practice much proper hygiene out on the trail, so he has an... 'air' about him. That can't be the aroma of LUUV, can it? Unless... it makes him seem rugged somehow... Because of B-O? Could cologne makers possibly be barkin' up the wrong tree?!
Man, if THAT'S true, I'll NEVER understand girls!
Well, he's a cop, but that couldn't be it, they were ALL soldiers in the Resistance! So it can't be that badge. Oh wait, he's a cop that killed tons of Saurians, that's right... Could it be that dangerous edge? Hey, I nearly got KILLED! Can't get much more dangerous than that!
What about that hokey hoity-toity accent, and those girly manners? He's like a relic from the Middle Ages! Could that really matter to someone as level headed and fun lovin' as Juli? Well... she didn't laugh, and neither did Tanya or Mallory. Do they really LIKE that King James stuff?!
That seemed to sum up the old... subject of contention, so what did it all add up to?
He talks weird and acts goofy.
After juggling all that around in the spin cycle of his mind, trying to make sense of it, he finally shook his head, perplexed. I... don't get it. That sounds like Dragaunus! Man... girls must be more freaked out than I thought! It's like they're their own species or somethin', with their own rites and language and shopping habits, just like on MST3K last weekend! Why the heck doesn't someone write a book on 'em to help us dudes out?! And I need an answer bad, like right now! I gotta figure out how to get my girl back! Oh Juli, why, why the HELL are you attracted to someone prob'ly twice your age! Especially after all we've meant to each other? After all we'd gone through? After we made love...
He drew a hard breath and hugged himself. That was particularly hard to take. After he'd slept with her that night, he thought that he'd found the girl he'd be growing old... well, up with, the girl he'd be spending his life with, the woman he'd marry someday... And even though they'd agreed to end their intimate relationship and just be friends, maybe he hadn't really let go of that after all. Maybe he'd just thought that someday she'd come running back to him and they'd pick up right where they left off without missing a beat... Maybe Grin was right, maybe he was still in love with her after all...
But that just mystified him all over again!
Oh Juli, baby, honey... how can you pick that old COOT over me?! I can't loose you to that geriatric jerk! I just CAN'T! What the hell does Corwyn have that I don't?!
Besides you, baby?
A moan of desire escaped his throat before he could stop himself, but he slammed a fist into his mattress, determined that he wasn't going to let this overwhelm him. NO. This ain't gonna happen! I'm NOT gonna loose my sweetie to Grampa Prettybone! No way in hell. Tomorrow begins Operation LoveBlitz. And the cool sub-caption reads, 'I have seen the enemy, and he is old!' All I gotta do is set the play up for our relationship to take off again, and get her to realize how stupid it'd be to have someone his age for a... boyfriend?! YUCK! He licked the inside of his mouth in distaste.
Now, how do I take him out without makin' her feel sorry for the old goat?
He waited, but nothing came to mind. He realized that he was deep in uncharted waters and would have to play it entirely by feel. As he stared up at the ceiling in the grip of misery, his breath caught in his throat and his vision began to swim, but he fought it off. He hadn't cried since the Saurians ruined their world, and he wasn't going to now. But the cost of failure weighed heavily on his heart, and he felt very alone, perplexed, desolate.
Sleep was a long time coming...
Even though she was more exhausted than she could remember in recent times, Juliet lay awake, her heart fluttering. The stranger she had plucked from near disaster was a stranger no longer, as she had inadvertently taken him into her heart, but... what an incredible man he was!
Poor Nosedive... he couldn't seem to get comfortable with the attraction she had for Corwyn. He might as well have begged her to come back to him, he'd been so rattled. She wasn't sure whether he did want her back as a lover or not, but at the very least he couldn't bring himself to share her! She became a little angry at the thought, that Nosedive considered her his, as if she were a slave woman from some third world country! But the ire passed quickly. He couldn't help himself; he was young, and romantic in his own way, and there weren't a lot of Duck girls around for him to get attached to, after all! And their love making didn't help matters one bit, it had drawn them together more deeply than either one of them had realized. When they had parted as lovers, that pull on their hearts was still strong. She had grown used to it, but evidently Nosedive felt that she would eventually return to him, and bid his time, waiting for that day. And, she probably would, too... if not for...
If not for a certain wayward traveler, she thought with a flush of emotion.
As she recalled over and over the memories she had gleaned from the brief union of their souls, she marvelled at their richness. What a life this Duck had lived! She had always thought the culture of Farland was charming, but the memories of his life made it come alive in ways she would never have imagined. It was as if she had known him off and on for years, spending time with that elegant land and it's people, and him as he had grown. Attending the quaint schools, eating the delightfully different meals, enjoying the loving company of his parents, playing among the ruins of old castles! And, as he came of age, vying for the affections of one girl after another, though surprisingly not that many. Even though he loved another and had married her, the devotion he gave to Josette touched her deeply, and she savored the love he bestowed on her as if it was given to herself. If not for his police work that took up so much of his time, their marriage would have been perfect.
Oh, and his time as a special agent; the comradeship he enjoyed among the others on the force, the countless hours sifting through facts and evidence, the endless cups of steaming java downed as they laid careful plans, the hazardous times spent working his way into the dank underworld where criminals festered, the fierce combat, the near brushes with disaster, the daring chases and arrests, the frustration he endured as he either watched criminals be released or failed to capture them. And the pain of...
Tears began to well up in her eyes and run down her cheeks. She had kept herself from thinking of the unhappy times of his life, but a piece of his memory fell into place with terrible clarity. Pierre Aviar. His second partner, his comrade in Unit Nine, the man who he had spent the most time with, had perished on an assignment they had been working on, the first time they had tried to penetrate The Brotherhood of the Blade, Duke's old gang. Corwyn had wanted to tackle that infiltration himself, but Pierre had arranged it so that Corwyn was on the outside. Somehow the Brotherhood had found out, and his body was discovered after he had been missing for several days. He had been tortured, and killed in... a horrible way, she couldn't bring herself to think of it. Corwyn blamed himself for it, but Pierre had told him beforehand that his sister shouldn't have to worry that her husband might not come home...
He had introduced his sister to Corwyn just that spring, Josette. Pierre was his brother-in-law... Oh Corwyn... oh my God... Oh, please PLEASE don't hate Duke for that! He had lost them both...
And then the terrible image of his wife's hand lying in the ruin of their home came vividly to her in that moment of sorrow. She felt his anguish all over again, cutting deep into her gut like a knife wound, and began to sob bitterly into her pillow. Unable to stop it, she let the weeping go until it had spent itself, then she stared at the ceiling, a hollow ache taking hold of her. No, I won't go to sleep with those awful memories last on my mind. Not tonight, not ever. Corwyn isn't that kind of man, he's happy, brave, beautiful.
An image came to her then of a man standing before her in gleaming armor, with ribbons of many battles won, but eyes full of peace and love. He took her in his arms, with an embrace firm but gentle, and the armor felt amazingly soft as she lay on his breast...
Corwyn stared at the ceiling after having settled into his bed. Even though he was almost as tired as the others, his mind and heart were racing. He still found it hard to believe that this was all real. He kept examining little details around the room to confirm that he was indeed awake and lucid, that this wasn't a dream or the result of some devious Saurian torture. But everything was solid and sound. He luxuriated in the feeling of sheets against his feathers, his head lying in a fine pillow, the gentle sound of air conditioning, all the things he hadn't experienced for... ever, it seemed, ever since the Saurians came and tore their lives so violently from them all.
No, he wouldn't think of those sorry things right now. There would be plenty of time for vengeance later. Right now he would savor this wonderful return to life and enjoy it to its fullest.
Especially since he had someone to live for again.
Oh, Juliet... oh, my lady... Of all the things I've experienced and heard of till my coming here, of all that I've partaken of in my days, surely nothing compares to you. And I owe you so much, even my life. The very reason I yet live is because of you, and your supernatural rescue. And you opened the depths of your soul to me, sharing some of the most intimate parts of your being. Perhaps you didn't mean for it to happen, but you captured my heart... how can I not love you? Is my love for you acceptable? Do you share it still? Or has it passed into the vapors of memory like the vision you made me a part of? I know I'm just a ragged drake, and it's been long since I shared tender things with a woman, but could that love I have for you blossom between us? Could you care for this old fighter?
The memory of Nosedive holding her in his arms intruded on his thoughts abruptly, and the recollection that they had been lovers for a time, and he drew a sharp, sad breath. Yes, your first love. He still has a place in your heart, even though you have both gone your separate ways. Supposedly, he still seems to have strong feelings for you, even if you weren't his first woman. And I can see why he would be attractive to you, being childhood friends for years, and a handsome, strong young man now. I must admit, compared to me, he's quite a desirable young drake. He added with a smile, Even if a bit annoying, and more than a little immature!
Could I replace such a young scrapper in your eyes?
He laced his fingers under his head with a sigh, leaving that question for the future and staring through the ceiling in ever deeper thought. But as for the others... what will living with them be like? They're all so young and full of steam. They seem to swing back and forth, from discipline to reckless abandon, though a lot of that is due to the youngster. Still, they've held their own for well over a year against Dragaunus and other villains. They clearly aren't irresponsible sophomores. Even so, can I find a comfortable place in their midst, especially with the uncertainty over my affections for Juliet? I do so need to get along with them, I'll have to handle things more delicately than I ever have in my life.
Especially concerning L'Orange.
He clamped his jaws as he pondered his former adversary. He sifted through all the memories he could recall that Juliet had shared with him, and... strangely, he actually warmed to the old crook! All of her recollections were favorable, and fond ones. He could find no fault, no thread of larceny, no hint of greed, no trace of malice- except towards Nosedive on occasion, but that was entirely understandable! He truly seemed to be a changed Duck. He could be carrying on a charade for them all, but it was a bit too pristine to be a simple facade. Still, he wouldn't be satisfied until he had it out with the mallard, and sometime soon they would, man to man. The question of whether he could forgive Duke his past transgressions came to mind, but he'd leave that for later also, when they had their little heart to heart chat. He would have to be discreet about it, though.
And something else; he had relocated his treasures from Puckworld to the vehicle bay, secreting them away behind a wall panel with no plumbing or wiring behind it that might require tending to. In order to insure that there was no sensor warning system to uncover them, he had broken into Drake One and created a profile as system controller. It hadn't been that hard since Tanya used essentially the same operating system from computers on Puckworld. He used a manual sweep to find his cache in the vehicle bay, then ordered an object ignore to force the system to overlook it. While he was at it, he did the same thing for his physical tracking, linked to a couple of vocal cues. Then to cover his tracks, he edited out his command trail from the system log. And he figured it would have been as simple as that, the place was as close to an impenetrable fortress as he'd yet come across this side of the military, so safeguarding Drake One from inside the Pond wasn't necessary.
All in all, it was a good nights work. He was set to do pretty much whatever he wanted now, assuming he could work around L'Orange undetected, though he would probably be trouble. Thieves were such a suspicious lot! But he would let nothing stand in his way.
Nothing... no one... would stop him.
Well, enough of this dire thinking, time to take my rest. Today is going to be quite a day.
That set his heart racing again for a little while. He had a whole new world to wonder over and explore, and fit into. He had wanted to go outside that evening to see this new realm in the light of the alien moon, to see strange new constellations and let his senses drink in a world in relative peace as it mostly slumbered. But Tanya was right, it wouldn't do to let some stray parasite loose on this garden planet, and the next night wasn't that long from now.
Besides, he wanted to share that evening with another...
As sleep finally overtook him, he was haunted by a lovely pair of blue eyes, and he felt someone laying across his chest, with the most wonderfully fragrant brown hair...