Nova: The Next Generation
The Shi'ar Conflict
Written By: Timelord ”¢ 9.29.09
Chapter Three: Revelations
Second year Nova Corps Cadet Surfaan Ren swatted at the insects buzzing around his face and ears, cursing his luck once again as he slogged through the fetid muck of the densely foliated swamp while taking care to make as little noise as possible. The camouflage function of his standard Corps cadet uniform would keep him hidden from most active and passive scans; but he knew any noise or environmental disturbance he made could be detected by the d'ast Veradinae Mercenaries that shot his ship down on this smelly, gods-forsaken world. He took grim satisfaction in the knowledge that at least the mercenaries were suffering as well. The Xandarian troop ship had been able to damage the Veradinae Privateer ship enough to bring it down on the planet too. The Veradinae, no doubt under the employ of the Shi'ar, were getting bold – challenging Xandar's rising influence in Andromeda. The Veradinae Empire would have to be dealt with as soon as issues with the Shi'ar Empire were settled.
Distracted by his thoughts, a misstep caused him to sink hip deep in muck; and he gagged at the smell of methane released from the mud as he attempted to free himself. His actions only caused him to sink further. There was no other choice now. He would have to use his powers to free himself; thereby risking detection.
He checked his HUD. The most recent update from the Worldmind indicated a rescue party was on their way with an ETA of three hours. Surfaan prayed to Frammi that the Xandarians arrived before any Veradinae rescue party. Switching to bio scan, he found the swamp was teeming with life; and some of it appeared to be large and predatory. He decided to give those a wide berth. No indication of intelligent life – but the Veradinae camouflage methods were as effective as those of Xandar; so there was no guarantee the mercenaries weren't close. Ranked as a second year cadet, he had been given the powers of flight, enhanced strength, and partial invulnerability; but still held only a fraction of the power of even a Millennian-ranked Corpsman; so he was no match for a Veradinae Dragon. He slung his plasma rifle over his shoulder; wishing again that cadet level powers included the ability to produce gravimetric pulses so he wouldn't have to lug around a weapon as he made his way toward the crash site of the escape pod carrying the remainder of the Star Corps Cadets. Surfaan had been the Nova Corps cadet assigned to a training mission for Star Corps regular cadets. No one had expected to be engaged in actual combat during a routine training mission; particularly since Xandar was not at war with anyone just yet – though relations were supposedly getting tense with the Shi'ar over some ancient territorial claims.
With a final look around, Surfaan used his powers to slowly levitate out of the mire. Once back on solid ground, he ordered the nanites making up his uniform to begin cleaning functions as he slowly resumed his rescue mission.
He had moved less than 100 yards when a proximity alert flashed across his HUD. He froze and powered down his rifle as he flattened his back against a large tree; allowing the camouflage function of his uniform to render him invisible both to visual detection and to scans. His HUD registered two large reptilian life forms nearing his position. Using visual detection only, he caught sight of two Veradinae Dragons approximately 200 feet opposite his position on the other side of a pool of stagnant water. The dragons were bipedal, eight feet tall, and covered head-to-toe with biomantium battle armor. One of the dragons paused as if sensing something. The armored helmet covering its head retracted; revealing the face of Surfaan's enemy – green scales, rows of serrated biomantium-coated teeth, and the blue head crest of a mercenary field commander. The tattoo under its right eye was the triple-bar symbol of its owner, The Beliim Cartel, the ruling cartel of the Veradinae Empire. The dragon scanned its surroundings; its long forked tongue flicking in and out of its mouth as it tasted the myriad of scents permeating the swamp. For the first time since his unplanned arrival, Surfaan was grateful for the masking stink of the swamp as otherwise the dragon might have detected his scent. Surfaan stood perfectly still as the dragon visually scanned its surroundings; aggressively extending and retracting its biomantium coated claws. For a moment, its eyes seemed to rest on Surfaan's position; and Surfaan held his breath as the dragon's nictitating membrane slid across its eyes twice before it shifted its gaze elsewhere. The commanding dragon motioned to the other and they moved off in a direction away from both the encampment of the Star Corps Regulars crash survivors he had already rescued; and the crash site of the last escape pod that was his destination. Surfaan breathed a breath of relief. A Centurion would be hard pressed to deal with two battle-armored Veradinae Dragons. With Cadet-level powers, he would have had no chance. Surfaan waited several long minutes, powering up his HUD and checking to see that the dragons had indeed departed the immediate area before resuming course to the crash site of the last escape pod.
Second Year Nova Corps Cadet Kritana Tas was quickly earning a reputation as a highly skilled pilot. She checked the panels and screens in the cockpit of the troop shuttle. Everything was nominal. ETA at the Orienta Shard was two hours 15 minutes gravimetric. Kritana worked hard to be taken seriously. She always had. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed, with a perfect figure and strikingly beautiful features – the tendency for those who didn't know her was to treat her as mere eye candy and nothing more. A simple background check would prove that Kritana wasn't just another pretty face. Top of her class while in public education, top of her class in Star Corps basic training, one year of Star Corps service with citations for performance with distinction, first candidate selected for entrance into the Nova Corps Academy one year ago, and first in her class at the Nova Corps Academy. She was only 19 and it was her goal to earn her Centurion Stars before she turned 21.
Kritana glanced at her co-pilot, First Year Cadet Owan Luf. Luf was large-framed, swarthy-skinned, and dark-eyed with a shock of short, straight, dark-brown hair that forever seemed in need of combing. He was a good-natured, gentle giant that she counted among her closest friends. She knew he had feelings for her, but pretended not to notice so as to spare him the disappointment of rejection. He just wasn't her type for a romantic partner – and besides, she only had eyes for her new lover.
The cockpit door slid open and Third Year Cadet, Millennian Ensicus Bem, eased into the cramped space, pausing as the door snapped shut behind him. Bem was tall, thin, and pale-skinned with blue eyes and blonde hair. He came from a military family with a long history of service to Xandar. He was a bit of a martinet and Kritana avoided his company whenever possible as she found him dreadfully dull. Unfortunately, he was in command of the training exercise the cohort of Nova Corps Cadets had just completed in Andromeda's neighboring galaxy, The Milky Way. Kritana hadn't expected to see Bem until close to arrival time on Orienta. Her curiosity was piqued.
Bem cleared his throat. "Tas, Luf – we've got a small change of plans. The Worldmind just contacted me. We've got a ship down with Cadets being threatened by Veradinae hostiles. Our course puts us close to the planet where the ship went down; so we're the nearest ship and we can get there faster than anyone else. We've been assigned rescue duty. Prepare to exit the wormhole. The Worldmind will form a new stargate to get us where we're going."
First Year Cadet Sylvia Rider-Dru had turned down the various invitations of the other cadets in the bunk room of the troop ship. She found herself strangely un-interested in participation in gambling, conversation, endorph-vapor, synthahol, sex, and other pastimes that had been offered to her to help while away the time until arrival back at the Orienta Shard. She simply relaxed in her bunk lost in thought and unable to sleep. The Academy was everything everyone said it would be. Her first eight months of basic training had been grueling to say the least. There had been lots of classroom study – both actual and virtual – concerning military strategy, combat techniques, pan-galactic law, diplomacy, Nova Force Theory and application, physics, teamwork, and weapons training. Particular emphasis was placed on analyzing known super-powered foes in the employ of the great powers of the Local Group of Galaxies; and learning how to defeat them. Classroom study hadn't been her only activity though. Her body was requiring less sleep as she matured. So, she spent time that would normally be devoted to sleep in The Overmind's tesseract; learning from him how to better control her developing powers. In eight short months he had been able to teach her how to improve her natural abilities to wield Nova Force and how to focus her powers more precisely than before in order to produce more energetic gravimetric pulses as well as sturdier defensive shields. She was now more powerful than a Centurion; but was forbidden to actually use her full powers until such time as she had completed academy training and been promoted to Centurion rank. For now, she was under orders to use nothing more in the way of powers than were allocated to any other Nova Cadet.
Sylvia was looking forward to a well earned week's liberty now that her first eight months of basic training at the Academy were drawing to a close as capped off by this, her first training mission. She and fifteen other Nova Corps Cadets in her Cohort under command of Millennian Ensicus Bem had participated in joint war games with 30 Star Corps Academy Cadets conducted in the galaxy neighboring Andromeda, the so-called Milky Way Galaxy. It had been several years since she last visited the Milky Way. Her last visit to the Milky Way was a family trip to her father's homeworld, Earth, to visit her grandparents, Charles and Gloria Rider. Sylvia always found Earth to be a primitive, smelly, backwater planet; but she always enjoyed visiting her human grandparents and she loved seeing her father so filled with joy to be back on Earth for even a short while. For those reasons, she harbored a certain begrudging fondness for The Milky Way.
Concerned by the troubling dreams she was beginning to experience when she did manage to sleep; Sylvia decided to drop in on The Overmind for an unscheduled visit thinking that perhaps The Overmind would have some insight into her dreams. She hit the privacy button in her bunk and patiently waited as the privacy screen fell into place. Now effectively alone, she reached out with her mind and felt her consciousness fading into the white void of The Overmind's Quantum Realm where she found herself face-to-face with Him.
Haughty as always, The Overmind frowned when she made eye contact with Him. "How easily bored you are little Sylvia – not to mention presumptuous. In the future, you really must call ahead to request an audience with me. These drop-ins are an inconvenience."
Sylvia smirked and she let her voice drip with sarcasm as she bent at the waist in an exaggerated bow. "O Great Oracle of Xandar, might your unworthy student beg a few nano-seconds of your time?"
He huffed in irritation. "Very well. What do you want now?"
Sylvia found it hard to suppress a smile. She so enjoyed taunting Him as He was just too easily irritated and too easily given to impatience. It was due to His lack of interaction with corporeals of course. In many ways, He was learning from her as much as she was learning from Him. "I'm finding it increasingly difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep – and;" she hesitated, "I'm having strange dreams at times. I don't understand these dreams. They take place long ago on my father's homeworld, Earth – and they're about people I've never met and places on Earth I've never been. It's troubling. Can you help?"
He smirked. "Of course I can help. That's why you bother me incessantly isn't it?"
Refusing to take the bait and deciding to taunt him some more, Sylvia adopted her most innocent facial expression and tone of voice as she shrugged her shoulders. "Well, if it's too much trouble, I could always just ask The Worldmind."
He laughed derisively. "That's rich sweet Sylvia – a precocious child taking advice from a half-wit automaton. I'm almost tempted to let you do it for the amusement value."
She grinned. "Almost tempted? That's what I thought. You wouldn't dare miss an opportunity to prove your superiority over The Worldmind and me."
His eyes narrowed. "Do not attempt to goad me whelp. Remember your place and also remember that if The Worldmind is a half-wit; then you are even less. Now, open your mind and prepare to learn." He touched her forehead.
Sylvia opened her mind to his touch and found herself standing by The Overmind in what appeared to be a large biological structure. Movement was everywhere as organelles performed their functions.
The Overmind's eyes narrowed once again as He fixed Sylvia in His stern gaze. "Do you recognize this place Sylvia?"
He was testing her – but she had learned better than to state the obvious or just hazard a guess in His presence. She used her powers to reach out and analyze her surroundings – and the answer to His question came to her as it always did when she used her powers of analysis – as intuitive knowledge. The answer was a bit disconcerting; but she quickly recovered. "We're within a cell. One of my own body cells apparently."
He smiled. She had passed His test and He was pleased. "Well done for a change little Sylvia. Now, to answer your questions about sleeplessness and dreams, use your powers to enter the nucleus and tell me what you see."
Sylvia closed her eyes and concentrated, reaching out with her analytic powers and projecting her consciousness into the nucleus of the cell. As she entered the nucleus and moved closer to its center, there was a flurry of activity, culminating in the formation of a female-shaped avatar. As the avatar's features formed, Sylvia at first thought it was an avatar of herself; but upon closer inspection, it was not her – but a woman who bore a strong resemblance to her. The woman was older – in her mid-thirties at least – blonde haired, sloe-eyed, strikingly exotically beautiful and dressed in the trappings of royalty from Xandar's distant past. The woman's eyes were closed. Sylvia tentatively moved closer. As Sylvia approached, the woman's eyes snapped open; and from the woman's eyes emanated a blinding light. Sylvia was bathed in the light and overwhelmed by images too numerous to comprehend – love, sorrow, flight, battle, refuge, death. Sylvia reeled from the assault, staggering backwards in confusion, pain, and disorientation. Before being forcibly ejected from the nucleus, Sylvia heard the woman's voice in her mind – Beware the ancient enemy. Now go. It is not yet time and you are not yet ready.
Sylvia collapsed into the waiting arms of The Overmind, feeling weak and drained of energy to a point such as she had never felt before. Together, she and The Overmind departed her cell and returned to his tesseract where Sylvia quickly felt her energy return.
Her strength renewed, Sylvia roughly pushed away from The Overmind's embrace, furious with Him. Enraged, she turned to Him, fists formed and barely able to restrain herself from striking Him – fighting back tears as realization dawned. Through clenched teeth she shouted, "How dare you, you son of a schmaug! I was nearly killed! You could have warned me! You could have prepared me! I should never have trusted you!"
For once, His demeanor softened. He appeared almost sad as He quietly said, "Still your rage Sylvia. I could not have prepared you. You had to meet your ancestor and creator, Lady Marz, under these terms. It is the only way you can begin to understand what is happening to you and why."
Sylvia turned her back on Him and wiped the tears from her eyes, pausing a moment to regain her composure. She didn't want Him to know how much his seeming betrayal had hurt her. Still angry, she turned back to Him. "Why didn't you tell me before now? Why couldn't you have told me what to expect?"
He broke eye contact with her and looked away, appearing genuinely sorry to have done anything to hurt her. All His typical arrogance gone for a moment, He appeared vulnerable for the first time since she had met Him. He shook His head slowly. "There are some things even the gods do not know. Like your geneticists and The Worldmind, even we gods have not been able to divine the mystery of your creation. You are many thousands of years ahead of your time and Lady Marz guarded her secrets well. Even we gods have not been able to approach the nucleus as closely as you just did; so there was no way I could have known what would happen. I had hoped the Lady Marz would admit you and share her secrets."
Infuriated anew, Sylvia shouted, "So you used me? You've been using me from the start to learn this Lady Marz's secrets? I'm out of here." Sylvia turned her back to Him and prepared to exit the tesseract.
"Wait!" He commanded.
Sylvia ignored Him and prepared to leave; again fighting back tears.
"Please wait," He said softly – almost pleadingly; "Let me explain and apologize."
Something about the tone of His voice caused her to pause. He had never been polite to her before – much less apologetic for any slight He had ever directed at her. She hesitated, feeling her resolve weaken. She wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand, set her jaw, and turned back to Him; looking him straight in the eyes – her anger still smoldering. "I'm waiting," she snapped.
He looked away for a moment as if at a loss as to what to do next – again showing His lack of familiarity with the ways of corporeals. Deciding on a course of action, He met her eyes. "I apologize. I truly had no idea that you would have such a traumatic experience or I would never have allowed you to visit the nucleus. You are right – I should have been more forthcoming with what little I did know in order to better prepare you for the experience."
Sylvia breathed a little easier, surprised at the seeming sincerity of His apology and shocked by His admission of having made a mistake. Nevertheless, she was still angry and hurt. "Fine – as far as that goes. Now, tell me why you were manipulating me to get to the secrets of my ancestor. What possible secrets could a corporeal keep from the gods?"
He appeared to relax. "As I told you when we first met, I am a quantum entity. I know much and have great power – so I am a god in comparison to mortals; but I am neither omnipotent nor omniscient. Your ancestor, Lady Marz, divined the secrets of the creators of this universe; and used that knowledge to set in motion events to create you. She deliberately created barriers to keep entities like myself from discovering the secrets of your creation."
Sylvia was suspicious. "Why would she wish to keep entities like you from learning her secrets?"
He hesitated – then decided to answer. "If the gods exist; does it not stand to reason that the daemons also exist?"
Sylvia held her breath a moment as realization dawned. "The ancient enemy Lady Marz mentioned."
He nodded affirmatively. "Just so."
A question nagged at the edge of her mind. "Why have I never heard of such an illustrious ancestor? Who is Lady Marz?"
He was starting to become his typical haughty self again as He realized that Sylvia was beginning to forgive Him. "Lady Marz was Xandar's greatest geneticist and gene engineer. She fled Xandar during the Xandarian Civil War that brought your royal house to power. Her name and all records of her existence were erased from Xandarian history."
Sylvia was puzzled. "If she is related to my royal house, why would she flee? House Dru defeated House Tul when my grand-uncle, Ferenus Dru, slew the despot King Sauvinus Tul in individual combat over two thousand years ago."
"Yes," he acknowledged her account of history, "But the Civil War lasted many years and the leader of the rebellion against House Tul, Duke Ferenus Dru, was never assured of victory. He rescued his lover, Lady Marz, from House Tul's captivity and sent her into space to protect her. She disappeared, never to return to Xandar. Her fate was unknown until your father was made a Nova during an emergency deputization to save his homeworld, Earth."
Sylvia was surprised. "My father's hybridization is one of Xandar's greatest mysteries. The Worldmind's records contained no genetic matches for his Xandarian heritage. You're saying that Lady Marz is my father's ancestor?"
The Overmind shook his head affirmatively. "Yes. When your father was deputized, The Worldmind learned of his Xandarian genetic heritage and reported it to King Ferenus. The King ordered all records pertaining to the matter sealed in order to protect your father from the minions of the daemons – those still loyal to House Tul. It is why he was left alone and operational on Earth for so long with no contact from Xandar."
All the revelations had left Sylvia numb with shock – particularly the knowledge of having another being alive within her. "So, these dreams I've been having about ancient peoples and places are the memories of Lady Marz? She was made part of me through my father's genetic heritage?"
He nodded affirmatively. "Yes. Lady Marz apparently arrived on your father's homeworld some thousands of years ago and was instrumental in forming one of the great civilizations there. Has your father not spoken to you before of the similarities between Xandar and Rome?"
Sylvia's eyebrows raised in surprise. "He has – but I suppose everyone thought of it as merely a strange coincidence of parallel social evolution."
He smirked. "Hardly coincidental."
Sylvia began to feel anxious. "So what happens to me now? Will Lady Marz continue to grow in power as I grow? Will she take over my body and mind? How do I cope with this?"
He looked exasperated. "I honestly do not know the answer to your questions; and you do not know how much it pains me to admit that. I promise that I will do everything I can to help you – if you will allow it."
Sylvia looked at him suspiciously. "To be honest, you've compromised my trust today. I'm still angry and hurt. I need time away from you to think."
Sadness clouded his face for a brief moment before he caught himself and returned his expression to impassivity. "I understand. Before you go, let me caution you about your developing powers. As you mature, you will gradually lose your mortal needs for such things as sleep and food. For now though – you must heed the Lady's warning of readiness and allow your powers to develop naturally. Irreparable harm might be done if you seek to accelerate the process of your evolution."
Sylvia shook her head affirmatively. "Understood." She turned away from Him and departed from his tesseract.
He stood and looked at the place where Sylvia had been for several long moments, so distracted by His thoughts that He failed at first to notice the materialization of Ishta, Frammi, and the entire pantheon of gods behind Him.
Frammi spoke for the rest. "Honestly Gamill, how do you abide the prattling of mortals?"
Surprised, He turned to regard the beautiful black-skinned goddess of fortune. "She is more than a mere mortal."
Frammi sneered. "You always did have a soft spot for mortals – especially the pretty ones. If I didn't know better, I would think you were developing feelings for the little mortal trollop." Frammi's eyes narrowed. "Remember Gamill, she is a means to an end for the gods – a foot soldier in the coming conflict. She may become one of us some day if she survives; but she is not one of us now."
He was irritated. "Do not lecture me Frammi. I know what I am doing."
Frammi stepped forward and put her arms around Him; giving Him a passionate kiss. Desire was reflected in Her eyes as She said, "We must all meld into the uni-mind now. We must become one to consider what has transpired and determine what to do next."
Sylvia's consciousness re-united with her body in her bunk in the troop ship just in time to hear someone shout, "Commander on deck!"
Sylvia put her recent troubling revelations behind her as she lowered the privacy screen and swung out of her bunk. Dropping to the floor, she immediately rushed into formation with the other cadets and stood at attention as the commanding Millennian, Ensicus Bem, entered the bunk room.
Bem paused a moment, looking at the Cadets. "We've got a situation to deal with. One of our ships is down and our people are being harried by hostiles. We're on a rescue mission now and I need you all to get down to the staging area of the ship and gear up for combat and rescue. We've got planetfall in 30 minutes. I'll brief you on specifics in the staging area. Get moving!"
The cadets scrambled. Before Sylvia could join the other cadets, Bem stepped in front of her. "Not you Dru. I have a special mission for you."
Nova Corps Cadet Surfaan Ren surveyed the crash site. The 12 Star Corps Cadet regulars had made it to the ground in their damaged escape pod, but just barely. Five of them were too badly injured to travel and a makeshift infirmary had been set up to provide first aid. The other seven cadets were in marching and fighting shape. The conclusion was that they all were going to have to wait for the rescue party to arrive rather than joining the larger group of survivors some ten miles southeast of their current position. Surfaan prayed to the gods that the Veradinae didn't find them before the rescue party arrived. These Star Corps Cadet regulars had no powers and would stand even less of a chance against the Veradinae than would he.
First Year Star Corps Cadet Vilnius Saan approached Surfaan. "Sir, we've finished setting up the defensive perimeter around the escape pod as ordered. All those in fighting shape have been issued plasma rifles. Passive scans show no signs of the enemy."
Ren shook his head affirmatively. "Good work Saan. Keep a sharp eye out for the enemy. There are at least two of them and they're hunting for us. No doubt, there's a bounty for our helmets. If they find us, tell your men to pick out a target and concentrate fire. If we're able to stop them, that'll be the only way."
Saan saluted, "Aye sir," then rushed off to inform his troops of Ren's orders.
Ren checked his HUD. The rescue ship was still nearly 45 minutes away. He hoped they'd pick this group up first as they were in far worse shape and far more lightly armed than the larger group. His HUD flashed a proximity warning. Surfaan cursed under his breath. Three enemies were approaching. He quantum linked to Saan. "Tell your men to prepare to engage. We've got three enemies approaching. Remember what I said about concentrating fire. I'm going to go out and try to draw them away to buy you time enough for the rescue ship to arrive."
The Xandarian troop ship exited the Stargate Terminus and effortlessly inserted itself into orbit. A hatch opened in the belly of the ship and the lone figure of Nova Corps Cadet Sylvia Rider-Dru streaked out, power diving for the surface of the planet.
Sylvia checked her HUD. The troop ship was receding, preparing to land near the coordinates of the larger group of Xandarians to be rescued. Sylvia had been given special orders from The Worldmind to use as much of her power as necessary to complete this mission successfully; and had been assigned rescue of the smaller group of survivors. Her HUD pinpointed the coordinates of the survivors. It was her mission to secure the area and prepare the survivors for extraction by the troop ship. Her HUD flashed a warning. The survivors were under attack. Clenching her jaw in frustration, she increased speed to maximum and dived into the atmosphere, not even attempting stealth in her approach to the battle. The events of the day had been terribly frustrating and upsetting to her; and all she really wanted to do was hit something as hard as she could. She resolved that if even one Xandarian had been harmed by the d'ast Veradinae; they better pray to their gods to save them from her wrath.
Surfaan stood still with his back against the tree trunk, waiting for the Veradinae Dragon to approach his position. The camouflage function of his uniform helped him blend in to the tree trunk. He hoped Xandarian stealth tech was better than Veradinae detection tech. He held his breath as the lead dragon approached his position. He could hear them approaching, not even attempting stealth. They knew the Xandarians were under-powered and would be easily overcome. They were over-confident; and that could be used against them.
As the lead dragon stepped near Surfaan's position, Surfaan stepped out from the tree and with all his might smashed the butt of his rifle into the armored head of the dragon, shattering the stock of the rifle. The dragon staggered backwards, momentarily stunned, leaving its neck exposed long enough for Surfaan to jam the barrel of the rifle under the dragon's chin and fire the entire charge of the weapon at once. The resulting explosion took the dragons head off; and threw Surfaan twenty feet through the air, where he landed roughly on the ground, stunned and momentarily disoriented.
Shaking his head, Surfaan looked up from the ground where he lay, recovering just in time to see another dragon leaping through the air directly toward him. Scrambling and activating his flight function, he scooted clear of his landing spot and slammed into a tree just as the dragon landed where he had been lying just a moment before. The dragon extended its claws and prepared to jump at him again. Screaming in rage and terror, Surfaan drew his sidearm, pointed it at the dragon, and squeezed the trigger; instantly pumping one-hundred rounds of adamantium pellets into the Veradinae.
The Veradinae froze and lowered his gaze to his chest from whence poured thick green blood from numerous gaping holes in his armor. The dragon made eye contact with Surfaan; then fell face first to the ground.
Surfaan stood, eyes wide with surprise that he was still alive as he stared at the projectile handgun. "Fark me. I didn't think this thing could bring down a dragon." His head snapped up as he heard a hiss. In the excitement, he had forgotten about the third dragon. It was leaping straight for him. He raised his sidearm and squeezed the trigger. It was empty. Surfaan screamed and turned to flee; expecting the dragon to land right on top of him – but then a blur of navy and gold snatched the dragon out of the air in mid-flight and smashed it against an outcropping of rock. The rock was pulverized and the stunned dragon struggled to its feet just in time for a female in the navy and gold uniform of a Nova Corps Cadet to land about ten feet in front of it and begin blasting away at the energy and projectile weapons attached to its armor.
Surfaan watched in stunned silence as the dragon reeled from the barrage of gravimetric pulses; but kept its feet. Satisfied that the dragon was now bereft of all external weapons, the Cadet stopped the barrage and faced the dragon; removing her helmet and tossing it to the ground. Surfaan was able to confirm what he already knew once he saw the lovely features and the raven hair of Cadet Sylvia Rider-Dru. He had never been introduced to her and did not know her personally; but everyone knew of her and who else could it have been? Surfaan listened closely as he saw that she was saying something to the dragon.
Sylvia looked at the dragon standing ten feet in front of her. The dragon retracted its helmet; and Sylvia could see that it sported the blue head crest of a mercenary field commander and had a tattoo under its eye indicating that it was owned by the Beliim Cartel. Still angry from the events of earlier in the day, Sylvia needed to vent her rage and a good fight was just what she was looking for. She sneered at the dragon. "What are you waiting for you schlag eating lizard? I thought you mother farkers preferred a good fight up close and personal."
Needing no further challenge, the dragon roared and leapt; extending its claws and baring its teeth. Sylvia took flight, meeting the dragon in mid air – avoiding a vicious swipe of its claws and landing a mighty punch to its jaw that sent it reeling head over heels to land roughly on its hands and knees. Shaking its head to recover from the blow, it attempted to stand; but Sylvia landed in front of it and kicked it in the face, knocking it onto its back.
"Is this the best the mighty and feared Veradinae Dragons can do?" Sylvia taunted. "I'm surprised anyone pays you purries to fight for them."
Overconfident, Sylvia strayed close to the dragon. The dragon sprang to its feet and took a vicious swipe at Sylvia, attempting to cut her in half at the waist. Sylvia reacted quickly, stepping to the side and barely avoiding his biomantium-coated claws. He was able to attack faster and recover quicker than Sylvia had anticipated. She would not make the mistake of underestimating him again.
Sylvia gave the dragon a toothy grin to taunt it further. "That's more like it. At least make this a challenge for me."
The dragon's eyes narrowed as it began to circle Sylvia warily. "I will dine on your still living flesh and when you beg me for a quick death to end your suffering; I will only act to prolong your agony."
Sylvia smirked. "The Beliim Family is making their dragons as weak as they are dumb."
The dragon roared and rushed toward Sylvia. Sylvia dodged his attack, stepped behind him, and smashed the power pack to his biomantium armor with a well placed punch. Being lighter weight and cheaper to produce, biomantium was almost as tough a metal as adamantium; but it had two weaknesses. First, it had to be in physical contact with a biological organism to produce the natural force field that gave it its wearer partial invulnerability; and second, it had to have a steady power supply to maintain the force field. Sylvia deprived the armor of its power supply; thus making the dragon more vulnerable.
The dragon was enraged, reacting faster that Sylvia expected. It pivoted and attacked; its claws penetrating Sylvia's natural shields and her armor, inflicting deep cuts to her back as she attempted to twist away; and again to her torso as she turned to face the dragon. Before Sylvia could react, the dragon ended its attack with a savage kick to her torso, knocking the air out of her lungs and throwing her, stunned, fifty feet into the swamp where she landed in a pool of shallow brackish water.
Sylvia shook her head and fought to regain her breath. She had never been hit so hard when she had fought dragons in simulation. She began to re-think the wisdom of challenging an actual dragon to a bare knuckled fight.
Sylvia's natural senses gave her a proximity warning; but before she could move, the dragon landed on top of her, its massive clawed feet pushing her beneath the brackish, stinking pool of water. Sylvia's mouth filled with the fetid water, causing her to gag and struggle to keep the water out of her lungs as the dragon extended its claws and penetrated her flesh. Cursing herself for removing her helmet at the start of the fight – a helmet that would have instantly kept her air supplied – she felt fear. She had been too cocky and – though tough – she was realizing that she was not indestructible. Her fear quickly gave way to her Rider-inherited rage and she formed a radiative aura gravimetric pulse. The explosion sent the stunned dragon airborne along with a large portion of the flora of the surrounding swamp.
Sylvia struggled to her feet, then immediately doubled over and wretched, evacuating the nasty water from her mouth and lungs. She was bleeding, covered in muck, her hair was filthy and plastered to her head, she stank, and she felt pain from multiple wounds where the dragon's claws had penetrated her shields and uniform armor. The nanites composing her uniform quickly moved to bind her wounds, repair and clean her body and uniform, and enhance her healing; and she could feel her natural healing factor kicking into overdrive. Sylvia felt a cold burning hatred. She had intended to merely beat the dragon into senselessness when she challenged it to fight. Now, there was no way it was walking away alive.
Using her natural senses, she located the dragon struggling to its feet where it had landed some 30 yards away. Her senses gave her a mental picture of the dragon. Its armor in tatters from absorbing the gravimetric explosion, it was bleeding from several wounds and was obviously shaken; but she knew it would recover and come after her again. It would not stop until one of them was dead.
Taking flight, Sylvia covered the distance in seconds, smashing into the dragon's torso and driving it to the ground. With all her might, she struck the stunned dragon in the mouth, knocking out its fangs and several rows of serrated teeth. The dragon struggled to maintain consciousness and raised its arms to attack. Sylvia burned one of its arms off with a gravimetric pulse; then twisted and tore the other arm off at the elbow. Heedless of the dragon's screams of pain, Sylvia used the dragon's severed arm as a blunt instrument, pummeling its head with all her might until all that remained was a bloody pulp and the mighty dragon lay still and dead.
Her rage abated and her bloodlust sated, Sylvia dropped the dragon's severed arm onto its lifeless chest. Catching movement from the corner of her eye, she wheeled and prepared to fire a gravimetric pulse.
Surfaan Ren yelled, "Hey, don't shoot – I'm a friendly!"
Sylvia stood down and walked over to the young man.
Surfaan handed Sylvia her helmet. "You dropped this back there."
Sylvia took the helmet. It collapsed at her touch and she tucked it into her belt. "Thanks."
Admiration was reflected in Surfaan's eyes. "Gods-d'ast! I've never seen a fight like that! I thought you were crazy as grat schlag to challenge a dragon to a bare knuckled fight – but you did it and won!" He shook his head, grinning from ear to ear. "By the way, thanks for saving my ass over there." He gestured over his back with his thumb to a spot where lay the corpse of the dragon he had shot.
Sylvia made a point of craning her neck to examine his ass. "How could I let a cute ass like that go to waste? Besides, I do like a screamer – more so in the bedroom than on the battlefield though."
Surfaan had always liked girls who could hang with the guys; so he laughed at her good natured ball busting. "Ah – I see you mistook my family's ancient battle cry as a scream of terror."
Remaining deadpan, Sylvia observed, "So your family's battle cry is a high-pitched little-girlish 'Ahhhhhhh' whilst rapidly fleeing from the battlefield?"
Surfaan shook his head negatively, adopting a look of absolute seriousness. "No. I was saying 'victorie' in the ancient language. What you heard was me shouting 'vict-ahhhhhhhh-rie'as I lead the unsuspecting dragon to his doom in a trap I had prepared for him in the swamp."
Sylvia shook her head affirmatively. "Oh, I see. My mistake. You did good out there, taking out two dragons all by yourself."
Surfaan grinned. "Thanks. My name's Surfaan Ren."
She smiled at him. "Sylvia Rider-Dru."
He laughed. "I know. Like you need an introduction. I've heard of you. Everyone's heard of you."
She raised her eyebrows. "I've heard of you too. I've heard you're quite the womanizer."
Surfaan adopted his most innocent look. "Vicious lies and rumors spread by those who would seek to discredit me. Believe no rumor you've ever heard about me."
Sylvia looked disappointed. "The rumor I heard was that you were a pretty good fark. I'd planned to check it out for myself; but since you say not to believe any of the rumors, I guess there's no need."
Exasperated, Surfaan grimaced and raised a hand in a gesture of defense – stammering, "Now, that particular rumor you can believe – but none of the rest are true."
Her eyes flicked below his waistline for a moment. "So I shouldn't believe the rumor that you have a very large--."
Surfaan interrupted. "That one's true too. You can believe the rumor about the size of my culk."
"Ego," she deadpanned.
Puzzled and flustered he could only manage an anemic "What?"
"I was going to say 'ego.' I haven't heard any rumors about your culk size. But – thanks for the unsolicited information. I'll keep it in mind." She smiled sweetly and flicked her eyes below his waistline once again as she donned her helmet and turned to head in the direction of the survivor camp.
Embarrassed and humiliated, Surfaan decided to try a last ditch save effort. "You know, normally I make a much better first impression than this. Can we start over? Hi, my name is Surfaan Ren."
Sylvia wheeled and shouted, "Look out!" as she took flight and pushed Surfaan aside and to the ground.
Several projectiles landed where Surfaan had stood just a moment before. The dragon that he had shot was apparently not quite dead.
Surfaan rolled to cover, fumbling to reload his handgun. He peeked out from his cover in time to see the dragon on its knees shakily aiming a projectile weapon in his direction. Then, Sylvia landed behind the dragon, grabbed its head, and savagely twisted it – instantly breaking its neck. The dragon fell heavily to the ground – certainly dead this time.
Neither Surfaan nor Sylvia had time to gloat. Their HUD's began flashing proximity warnings.
Surfaan could hear Sylvia shouting into the quantum link, "Kritana! We need extraction now! We've got seventeen dragons heading our way!"
Not waiting for a reply from the troop ship, Sylvia and Surfaan made eye contact for a moment – then as one they took flight and made for the survivor encampment. Words were not necessary to convey what they both already knew. They might go down; but Nova Corpsmen never went down without a fight – and Corpsmen always fought to the last man.
Come back next week for Part 4 of The Shi'ar Conflict – and yes, there will be Shi'ar in Part 4; and one of them is named Gladiatrix. See you next time!
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