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Nova: The Lost Years Saga: Annihilation: The Guerilla War Part One


Annihilation: The Guerilla War

The Lost Years Saga




I've been a Nova fan since 1976. As a long term fan and a completist, some things have always nagged at me. One of the most important of those nags would be the "lost years" of Nova's life - the year he spent on Xandar during the Second Xandar-Skrull War and the year between the end of the Annihilation Nova mini-series and the beginning of the Annihilation event. We really don't know much of what happened during those years - and, since it looks like Marvel won't ever be filling us in on what happened during those lost years, I decided to fill in the blanks myself. Thus was born what I've been referring to as The Lost Years Saga. The set of stories making up The Lost Years Saga take place in the 615 Universe - a universe right next door to our familiar 616 Marvel Universe. So, much of the history of the 615 Universe will mirror that of the 616 Universe. Some things will be a little different. The 615 Universe is a bit grittier than the 616 - and Rich Rider will make some different choices in the 615 than he did in the 616. However, the differences are not so great that the elements that make Nova great in the 616 Universe become lost or unrecognizable. The 615 Rich Rider is very similar to the 616 Rich Rider - except that perhaps the 615 Rider matures a bit quicker in response to his experiences than the 616 version has to date. Most of the stories will take place during the time frame between the Annihilation Nova mini-series and the Annihilation event - with flashbacks to events in the Second Xandar-Skrull War. That being said, there will be at least two stand alone Second Xandar-Skrull War stories - one of which addresses another nagging question familiar to long term Nova fans - namely the mysterious Epyrus event. In the course of the stories, I'll address some of the other nagging questions that fans debate frequently such as the nature of Nova Force and the nature of the Worldmind. Along the way, Xandar will be developed as a society and culture like it never has before. Now, before anyone jumps me - let me again repeat that this is an alternate universe from the 616. If the 616 ever addresses Nova's lost years or the other concepts I've mentioned - then that'll be the way it is for the 616 - but it won't change the way things happened in the 615. And yes, for those of you who have been following my Nova: The Next Generation stories, these Lost Years stories take place in the same universe and all my Nova fan fics are part of a grand arc beginning with The Third Fall of Xandar, stretching through The Lost Years Saga and into The Next Generation - and ending with a story I'm calling, appropriately enough, The Last Nova Story. I hope you enjoy reading these stories as much as I enjoyed writing them. This first story of The Lost Years Saga begins immediately after the events of the Annihilation: Nova mini-series. - Timelord


Prologue: Adrift in the Dark

He floated in darkness. He shivered from the cold. There was supposed to be no sound in space, but he could hear the screams of pain - the pleas for help. He was a hero. He knew that. He was supposed to help - but his body wouldn't respond. It was as if he was asleep - but at the same time not asleep - caught somehow in a dream where he moved in slow motion and everything around him - fleeting sounds and images - moved at near lightspeed. He tried to move - struggled - it was as if his limbs were too heavy to lift. He laughed - how could his limbs be too heavy to lift when he could control gravitons? With a mighty effort he forced his eyes open - blinking to clear the blurred images flooding his brain. He floated in debris, slowly spinning head over heels. His head hurt. Around him was a cloud of red frozen particles - his own blood seeping through his phasic shielding as the nanites from his uniform and within his body cleaned him, healed him, and discarded residue and waste products. The excruciating searing pain from his face and head began to make him nauseous. Combined with the spinning of his body, it was too much to bear. He heaved - but there was nothing to expunge. He could hear a voice at the edge of his consciousness. He didn't like the voice. It annoyed him. Leave me alone dammit! Can't you see I'm sick? The voice was insistent - demanding attention - telling him to do something. He strained to hear the voice. He didn't understand it - couldn't understand what it wanted him to do. His eyes fluttered and he slipped into the dream again. He didn't notice the Xandarian scout shuttlecraft as it pulled up beside him.

A Story from

Nova: The Lost Years Saga

Part I of the Series Arc

Annihilation: The Guerilla War

Serial 1

Echoes of the Past - Portents of the Future


Chapter One: Rescue

Drax placed Richard Rider on the emergency medical scanning table located in the aft area of the Xandarian scout shuttlecraft. Rider had a deep cut across his face and looked pale; as if he had lost a lot of blood. Rider had regained consciousness briefly upon being brought aboard ship - just long enough to ask Drax to help him learn to fight the Annihilation Wave. Drax held little hope that Rider would survive the next hour - much less be able to fight again.

The nanobots making up Riders uniform shifted slightly and a portion of them broke loose and floated up to eye level with Drax as they reconfigured into a mini-bot holographic projection system. The avatar of the Xandarian Worldmind formed around the mini-bot and stood before Drax. "There is no need to utilize the ship's emergency medical services. I am monitoring Richard. During his and Quasar's fight with Annihilus, he sustained a deep tissue injury to his face, a fractured zygomatic arch, a basilar skull fracture, a sub-arachnoid hemorrhage over the occipital area of his brain, contusions to the frontal and temporal lobes of his brain, fractures of C-6 and C-7 cervical vertebrae, and various chest and abdominal internal injuries. I have placed him in a coma and have ordered the nanobots permeating his body to begin accelerated healing. He will be unconscious for several hours; but I expect a complete recovery."

Drax had never liked AI's and he was finding it increasingly difficult to tolerate the one standing before him. "How nice of you to go about your unilateral decision making while we're all running for our lives together. In case you haven't noticed, we have Annihilus' entire battle fleet to evade. We need Rider conscious to form stargates in case we need to make a quick escape."

If the Worldmind noticed Drax's sarcasm, it did not acknowledge it. "I am well aware of our situation. I am monitoring the Annihilation fleet as we speak. They are unaware of our presence due to the cloaking technology on this scout ship. We will remain undetectable as long as we utilize the ship's warp drive. If we start opening stargates, we will give our position away to the enemy. Furthermore, Richard's medical condition renders him unable to fight effectively at this time. I am in the process of restoring him to battle readiness. In the unlikely event that the enemy should overtake us, I can form a stargate for a quick escape without need of involving Richard."

Drax stared at the Worldmind avatar before finally sardonically saying, "So tell me then O wise machine, where you think we should go to escape the Annihilation fleet?"

As always, the Worldmind had an answer. "Please set course for the Tauron system. The Tauron are Xandar's strongest ally and they have not yet been attacked by the Annihilation fleet. I have already been in contact with the Tauron government. They have mobilized their military and sent an escort to meet us."

Drax was angry. "So again you made an important decision without consulting me. I have no intention of going to the Tauron system. The Tauron Syndicate has a price on my head."

The Worldmind was prepared for Drax's reaction. "I am aware of the price on your head. Please recall that you were in my custody before I ordered your release due to lack of evidence against you. I have persuaded the Tauron Syndicate to accept my ruling and drop charges against you. It really is the safest destination for all of us at this juncture."

Drax's posture became stiff and defiant as he faced the Worldmind avatar. "What I ought to do is throw both of you out the airlock and take this ship wherever I please."

The Worldmind refused to respond in kind. "Remember, you were subdued and detained by the Nova Corps. You are currently in a ship owned by me, the Xandarian government. Even though Richard may be unavailable, I hold all the power of the Nova Force and I am far from defenseless."

Drax smirked and relaxed. His respect for the Worldmind had increased slightly when it had not allowed him to push it around. He would never let the Worldmind know that though. Deciding to choose his battles, he merely replied, "I really hate prissy, know-it-all AI's; but our choices do seem restricted and beggars can't be choosers can they? The Tauron system it is then; but I give you fair warning - Nova Force or no Nova Force - if the Tauron try to take me prisoner, I will hold you directly accountable and nothing will stop me from exacting my revenge against you."

The Worldmind nodded. "Understood."

As Drax went to the cockpit to adjust course, the Worldmind turned its analytic attention to Richard. His life-signs were erratic and he looked uncomfortable. He was rather restless and was mumbling something incomprehensible. A scan of his cognitive functioning indicated that he was experiencing a troubling recollection from his personal history.

Chapter Two: The Once and Future Hero

Images and sounds assaulted him. It hurt more than the worst punch Diamondhead or The Sphinx had ever delivered. He was adrift in the dark void again - only this time there were no stars to see when he opened his eyes. Not that he wanted to open his eyes. That only made the pain worse. He curled into a fetal position - shutting his eyes tightly and placing his hands over his ears - trying in vain to stop the images and sounds. The images of destruction, the sounds of people screaming as they died, the explosions, the carnage - all too much to bear. A calm voice spoke to him - one he recognized - an old friend - Wendell? He opened his eyes and Quasar stood before him - reaching out to him to help. Relieved, Rich reached to take Wendell's helping hand - but before he could touch him, Wendell screamed in agony as his body was consumed by energy and flame - reduced to ashes before Rich's unbelieving eyes - leaving Rich alone again - screaming in horror as tears streamed down his face. Curling back into a fetal position, he felt sick. Bile rose in his throat and he gagged, fighting back the nausea.

Another voice spoke - one he recognized - a kind voice from the past. He opened his eyes and she stood before him. Petite, short black hair, black goth clothes, black make-up, eyes filled with acceptance and love. There was no mistaking the lovely visage of Ginger Jaye. He rushed to her - throwing his arms around her and burying his face in her hair. Her scent, the feel of her in his arms - it was beyond belief; but it really was Ginger. He opened his eyes to confirm what he knew to be true; but she began to fade - becoming insubstantial in his arms. "No!" He threw his arms around her again and together they fell through the void. His eyes fluttered and "reality" shifted to a very familiar time and place on Earth - a time only a few months before he became the man called Nova.


Mike Burley's eyes burned with hatred and rage. The only thing that quelled his constant, pervasive rage and hate was hurting someone else. Before him was his very favorite target for pain infliction - Richard Rider.

Mike hated Rich's father, Principal Charles Rider, as Charles Rider had been Principal at Mike's school before Mike's family had relocated to Rich's neighborhood and Mike had begun attending Harry S. Truman High School. Mike had had behavior problems at every school he had ever attended; requiring frequent trips to the Principal's office for disciplinary action. Charles Rider had suspended Mike from school on more than one occasion and had been especially strict with Mike. When Mike had learned that Rich was Charles' son, he had begun picking on Rich as his means to settle the score with Charles.

Mike and his gang had surrounded Rich and Ginger on the street and hustled them into an alley. Rich was frightened for his and Ginger's safety on the one hand; but tired of being Mike's punching bag on the other. He was having a hard time controlling his anger. Mike got right in his face and sneered, "Hiya Dick. Dick Rider. They named you right. Are you a dick rider like your faggot father? Is the little Goth skank over there your beard? She looks like a fag hag."

Rich was secure in his sexuality and harbored no ill will toward gay people, so Mike's attempt to taunt him didn't work. His only concern was to get Ginger safely away from this arrogant and cruel clique of bullies and bigots. "We don't want any trouble Mike. Just let us go or at least let Ginger go. She's never done you any harm."

Mike affected a mock look of surprise. "You mean you want to leave? Well, all you had to do was say so. Please be on your way. We didn't mean to detain you." Mike bowed and stepped aside.

As Rich warily passed by Mike intent on collecting Ginger and getting away as fast as possible, Mike suddenly wheeled and punched him in the stomach. Rich went down to his hands and knees, immediately feeling sick to his stomach and gasping for air.

Ginger rushed toward Rich yelling at Burley "Leave him alone you son of a bitch!" Ginger was very petite. Mike's girlfriend, Donna-Lee, and her friends had no problem restraining Ginger before she could reach Rich. "Rich! Are you all right? Rich!" Ginger struggled but the other girls did not let her get away.

The nausea passed and Rich was finally able to get his breath. He waved at Ginger and struggled to his feet. Two of Burley's friends immediately grabbed his arms and restrained him. Burley smiled cruelly. "Listen Dick. Before you go, my friends and I would like to offer your faggoty-looking self and your skank-ass fag hag a make-over." Burley's gang laughed and cat-called.

Donna-Lee sneered at Ginger. "Honey, Goth is so out. You need some makeup, a new hairdo, and some new clothes in some other colors than black." The girls giggled as Donna-Lee produced a tube of bright red lipstick and a pair of scissors.

Rich knew he had to distract Burley and his gang before they hurt Ginger. "Why do you have your buddies holding me Burley? Are you afraid to fight me all by yourself?"

Rich's ploy worked. Burley turned to him filled with rage and hate. "Let him go!"

Rich's captors released him; but before he could raise his hands to defend himself, Burley landed a punch on his jaw, felling him. Burley's buddies hauled Rich to his feet and held him as Burley, nearly twice Rich's size, stood before Rich. Burley punched Rich in the stomach, causing Rich to double over in pain. "That's for your cocksucker father!" When Rich was able to straighten up, he spat on Burley. Further enraged, Burley punched Rich in the mouth. "That's for you, dick rider!" Rich was dazed by the punch and would have fallen had his captors not been holding him up.

Burley sneered as Rich nearly lost consciousness from the punch. Burley turned and winked at Donna-Lee. Donna-Lee smiled cruelly. She would do anything to please Mike Burley. She opened the tube of lipstick and began smearing it carelessly on Ginger's face. "Here honey. Here's some color to liven up all that black and white. When we're done with make-up, I'll cut your hair into a new do. And honey, these clothes have got to go." She grabbed Ginger's blouse and ripped it, exposing Ginger's breasts.

Tears of rage and humiliation streamed down Ginger's face as all eyes turned to her. Ginger raised her head and with defiance and hatred looked Burley straight in the eyes. Through gritted teeth she vehemently snarled, "Fuck you Burley!"

Burley laughed. "Thanks for the offer skank; but those mosquito-bite-sized tits could never satisfy me. They might old dick rider here though cause he might mistake you for a boy!"

As Burley's gang laughed at Burley's cruel joke, Rich recovered enough to realize that Burley's gang were all distracted and that he now had a chance to get Ginger to safety. Remembering some moves from a self-defense class he took during childhood, he stomped a foot into the ankle of one of his captors, causing him to howl in pain and collapse to the ground. With one hand now free, he punched his other captor in the nose, causing him to double over in pain, trying to stem the gush of blood flowing from his nostrils. Rich charged a surprised Mike Burley and landed the greatest punch he could muster to Burley's exposed jaw; dazing and staggering Burley. As Rich charged by Burley and ran toward Ginger, her captors scattered. Rich grabbed Ginger and they both fled from the alley; not looking back to see if they were being pursued.

When they reached the street, Ginger yelled "This way!" and Rich followed her. They ran several blocks and cut through several alleys before finally arriving at Ginger's apartment. They rushed inside and locked the door behind them.

Rich looked at Ginger's torn clothes and lipstick smeared face. "Oh God Ginger. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry that they hurt you!"

Ginger was more angry now than afraid. "I swear to you that that bastard Burley and his bitch girlfriend are gonna get theirs! Just you wait and see what I'm gonna do to them."

Rich wasn't listening to her. "Are you okay? This is all my fault. They wouldn't have hurt you if you hadn't been with me. I'm really really sorry."

Ginger rolled her eyes. "Hey Rich, it's not your fault. They're the assholes, not us. We were just minding our own business. I think you're sweet for feeling so unnecessarily guilty; but you're forgetting that you saved me from getting hurt at the cost of getting yourself hurt. No one has ever done anything like that for me before. You're an honest to God hero!"

Rich smiled, then winced in pain; having forgotten his busted lip until that instant.

Ginger noticed Rich's expression of pain and suddenly realized their condition. "Oh my God! You're still bleeding and I can only imagine how I look. Come on, let's get you fixed up." She led him into the bathroom and began searching through the medicine cabinet. She found some alcohol and some swabs and began preparing them to cleanse his wounds. "This is gonna sting." Ginger swabbed Rich's facial wounds with the alcohol.

Rich drew a quick breath and flinched as his head snapped back from the alcohol swab. "Shit! That hurts! No more!"

Ginger giggled. "So you can take a punch to the face to save me; but you're afraid of alcohol sting?"

Rich grinned and again winced in pain. He pointed to the mirror. "You may want to save some of that alcohol for yourself."

Ginger had forgotten the lipstick smears on her face. She looked in the mirror. "That fucking bitch! I am so going to get her back." She wiped the red lipstick from her face. "I hate red lipstick. Why couldn't she have used my standard black?" They both laughed. "The bitch tore my favorite blouse too! Come on, I need to change clothes." She led Rich to her room and began searching through her closet as Rich sat down on her bed. She finally found a blouse and jeans she was satisfied with and began to remove her torn blouse and unfasten the jeans she was wearing.

Rich held his breath for a moment - unable to believe his eyes. "Uh - Ginger? Would you like me to wait for you in the living room?"

Ginger smiled, having made her decision even before inviting Rich into her room. "No. I would like for you to stay right where you are." She removed her blouse and jeans.

Rich admired her small but firm and shapely breasts; and the contrast of her black thong panties against her pearl white skin. Her body was slim and lithe - the body of the gymnast that she was. He couldn't take his eyes off her. He had fantasized about this moment for months, but never really thought his fantasy would come true. At that instant, he thought she was the most beautiful and desirable woman he had ever seen.

She smiled, pleased that he obviously found her appealing. She approached him and pulled off his shirt before sitting in his lap and wrapping her long legs around his waist. Rich kissed her passionately, the pain from his lip injury masked by heated sexual desire. Their tongues explored each others mouths as passion rose between them. Rich tentatively touched her breasts; and was rewarded by her moan of pleasure and her more impassioned kissing.

She began to unbuckle his jeans; then suddenly stopped as if remembering something. "Hold on." She got up and left the room. Rich cursed - wondering what happened to ruin the moment and hoping she would return.

She slipped back in the door, locking it behind her. "My mom won't be home from work for 3 more hours. I got this out of her nightstand. She and her boyfriend use them when he spends the night." She handed him a condom. "Now where were we?"

Rich smiled. "You were about to remove my pants and I was about to remove your thong."

"Ah yes," she breathed, as she embraced him and they together surrendered to the passion that had been building between them for months.


Chapter Three: Entangling Alliances

Vice-Admiral Ga'Noth of the Tauron Syndicate's armed forces watched the approach of the Xandarian scout shuttle with dread. The old Minotaur shook his head. The shuttle's arrival could not bode well for the Syndicate. The Syndicate had received Xandar's distress call and had dispatched scout missions as it prepared its military to assist. Ga'Noth was haunted by the images of a devastated Xandar transmitted by the scouts. Xandar had the strongest military this side of the former Skrull Empire and had been utterly destroyed in a matter of hours! What hope could an independent star system like Tauron have against such an enemy? The Tauron had always relied on Xandar for protection against aggressors. Now, they were on their own and were ill prepared.

The Xandarian shuttle had dropped to sub-light speed and would rendezvous with his battleship in less than an hour. He hoped he would receive instructions from his government before the Xandarians arrived. He understood that the Syndicate was in negotiations with the beings from the strange-looking ship he had been ordered to allow to approach the homeworld.

Chapter Four: Debates and Agreements

Drax was once again frustrated with the Worldmind. "We should re-supply, get a faster and more heavily armed ship, and head for a militarily stronger and more trustworthy potential ally such as the Galadorian, Shi'Ar, Spartoi, or Kree Empires!"

The Worldmind was resolute. "The Tauron have been our allies for centuries and require our aid and advice if they are to survive against the Annihilation Fleet. We will make contact with their military, be escorted to the Xandarian Embassy, and a suitable quantum mainframe will be prepared for me so that Richard will no longer have to carry me within his Nova Matrix. Richard will remain with me as my protector; and we will organize Xandar's allies into a force to resist and attack the Annihilation Fleet while the Annihilation Fleet is distracted with engaging The Skrull Empire. You and Cammi are free to take this or any other ship you may acquire wherever you like once proper arrangements have been made with the Tauron Syndicate."

Drax could no longer hold his anger. "For the most sophisticated computer in the galaxy, you are a farking fool! The Tauron are cowards and always have been! They evolved from herbivorous herd animals! Their instinct is to run away at the first sign of trouble! So, they go whichever way the political wind is blowing as long as it benefits them! If they are your strongest ally, I shudder to think of your weakest!"

The Worldmind responded calmly. "I am well aware of the Syndicate's history, Drax. I am merely fulfilling treaty obligations and seeing to the best interests of Xandar and our allies."

Drax and the Worldmind continued their heated debate; and the Worldmind agreed to meet several of Drax's demands. Cammi quickly lost interest in the argument and wandered to the rear of the shuttle.

Cammi looked in on Richard Rider as he lay tossing fitfully on the medical scanning table in the back of the shuttle. She thought he was handsome and secretly had a crush on him; but would never let anyone know that. In fact, she would act as if she didn't like him in order to hide her true feelings. She always hid her true feelings. It was a necessary survival strategy in her family. At least with Drax it was easy to hide feelings as he was insensitive to them. He apparently had few feelings himself unless obsession with killing his longtime foe, Thanos, counted as a feeling. She looked again as Rich's body shook and he mumbled incoherently. She hoped he would recover soon. It was comforting to her to have another human close by.

Chapter Five: Recollections of Love and War

Rich awakened but didn't open his eyes. Fantasies came true sometimes. Making love to Ginger proved it. He couldn't stop smiling. He rolled over to kiss her and wake her up. They had to get dressed and be out of her room before her mom got home. He opened his eyes and found himself surrounded by darkness. Ginger was gone. He was alone. Panicking, he looked about wildly and in so doing broke the protective barriers of the memory of his time with Ginger. Images and sounds once again assaulted him. Fleeting images from his past swirled around him. The screams and pleas for help overwhelmed him.

Desperate to find Ginger again, he grasped at a fleeting image of her as it passed by him. He missed, instead brushing an indistinct image of a beautiful woman with auburn hair.

The image coalesced and the woman stood before him, beaming in delight at the sight of him. She stood before him wearing the uniform of a Nova Centurion. Her helmet was neatly tucked into her belt. She playfully said, "On your feet soldier! We've got work to do! And - if you're very very nice to me - we might find some time for a little play later."

Rich was puzzled. She seemed so familiar. He should know her - but he couldn't remember how he knew her. She was obviously Xandarian - and was wearing a version of a Nova Corps uniform from the time of the Second Xandar-Skrull War - but he didn't remember ever meeting her. Not surprising - since he strangely remembered very little from that time in his life. "Who are you? Do I know you? Have we met before?"

The expression of delight left her face; and was instantly replaced by an expression of profound sadness. The bitterness was evident in her voice. "So it's true. Of course it's true. That bastard, Prime Thoran Rul, was telling the truth for once in his life. The memory wipe made you forget all about me - and all about us." She turned to go, becoming indistinct as she faded into the black void.

"Wait!" Rich demanded as he dived toward her, touching her fading image and drawing a deep breath as his "reality" once again shifted.



Basic Nova Corps training was finally over. For his first mission, Rich was assigned to a special ops detail investigating an anomaly on Nu-Xandar. Nu-Xandar was a cold, arid planet that lay at the edge of the habitable zone of the Tranta system. Nu-Xandar reminded Rich of the pictures he had seen of Mars when studying astronomy in school. Terra-forming efforts had been underway on Nu-Xandar for some years before Zorr had destroyed Xandar. Nu-Xandar had been abandoned after Xandar's destruction when all resources had been redirected to Xandar's restoration within the newly formed Xandar Cluster. No one lived on Nu-Xandar now. At least, no one was supposed to live on Nu-Xandar now.

They were approaching Nu-Xandar in a cloaked troop transport ship. Staring out the porthole, Rich could see the large mirrors orbiting the planet; directing light and heat from Tranta to Nu-Xandar's surface. Small patches of green could be seen dotting the planet - the beginnings of large forests seeded to help thicken the atmosphere. In the northern hemisphere, he could see a large sea. Nu-Xandar had a thin but breathable atmosphere; and while cold by human standards; it was tolerable for anyone wearing a standard issue Xandarian military uniform.

Some of Rich's classmates from basic Nova Corps training - Sevilica, Corinus, and Farona - were also assigned to this, their first special ops mission. All native Xandarians and all about the same age as Rich, they delighted in good-naturedly teasing Rich about his backwater Earthly origin. They were all very different from each other. As competent a soldier as she was a beautiful Xandarian female; Sevilica was auburn-haired, medium height, and blue-eyed. She was the only one with a royal background, coming from House Dru, the royal house that ruled Xandar. She was completing her first year of Law School when the war started. She immediately applied and was accepted to the Nova Corps, Xandar's elite military unit. She was a natural leader and was well-liked by all her classmates at the Nova Corps Academy. Corinus was a brash young Xandarian male. Handsome, dark-haired, brown-eyed, and charismatic; he exhibited confidence and an air of swaggering bravado. Farona was the strong, silent type. She was attractive with short-cropped blonde hair and blue eyes; and she took her job as a professional soldier very seriously. These were among the first of those Xandarians coming of age to join the military from among the survivors of Zorr's attack on Xandar; and among the first new recruits for The Nova Corps.

"Being a tourist again Rider?" teased Sevilica Dru.

Rich turned from staring out the porthole and grinned at Sevilica. "Can't help myself. There's just so much to see out here."

Sevilica smiled back. They were developing a friendship.

The door to the crew deck snapped open and Corinus jumped to his feet. "Commander on deck!"

Richard, Sevilica, Corinus, and Farona snapped to attention as Centurion Commander Calvinus Nor stepped into the room accompanied by battle-hardened veteran Centurions Tyeverus Tul and Jarinus Fel. "At ease Centurions. We will achieve planet-fall within 20 units. To review your earlier briefing, this is a black ops stealth mission. Intelligence drones have recorded activity on Nu-Xandar when Nu-Xandar should be abandoned. The Worldmind wants to make sure that the Skrulls have not established a secret base on Nu-Xandar from which to conduct intelligence gathering and to launch attacks. It is our mission to find the base if it exists. We are not to engage unless we are attacked. This is a recon and target identification mission only. We need to do this without attracting the immediate attention of the Skrull fleet orbiting just outside our perimeter; being held at bay by our fleet. We don't want to bring a major Skrull rescue mission down on us for our fleet to contend with while our fleet's resources are already stretched to the max. If we identify a threat to Xandar, we will withdraw temporarily to confer with the Worldmind and our military to decide how to neutralize the threat. We do not want to alert any potential enemy to our presence, so no use of Nova power unless you are attacked; as gravimetric energy would be detectable by an enemy scan. When we have achieved planet-fall, we will divide into two squads to begin the search for the base. Sevilica and Rider will be under Tyeverus' command; and Corinus and Farona will be under Jarinus' command. I will stay with the ship to direct the mission and provide air support and rescue if necessary. Good luck and good hunting. Prepare to disembark." Calvinus left the crew deck while Tul and Fel stayed to prepare their squads for the mission.

"Rider!" yelled Tyeverus, clearly not pleased with being stuck with the human in his squad. "Get your alien ass in gear and load up your backpack! In case you hadn't noticed, we're leaving in a few units!" Tyeverus sourly watched Rider rush to his locker. Tyeverus was preoccupied with many ill thoughts. What was that idiot, Dey, a jumped-up to Nova Prime commoner and former Xenopology professor, thinking when he deputized such a backwater primitive? At least the alien rabble Rider brought with him had their own powers and could be put to use as scouts or mercenaries. He was galled and disgusted that a little alien schmaug like Rider carried a Nova Prime matrix, the ultimate power of the Xandarian people. At least Dey had not been so foolish as to activate all the Nova Prime powers. If the Worldmind and Nova Prime Valt had any sense they would have powered down Rider's matrix to minimal, wiped his memory, and sent him home as soon as he had arrived. To double his bad luck he was also stuck with House Dru's contribution to the Nova Corps. He shook his head. He hated House Dru almost as much as he hated The Worldmind Hegemony. As far as Tyeverus and House Tul were concerned, it was House Dru's fault that Xandar was in its current predicament. In his eyes, House Dru was just as guilty for Xandar's fall and it was this war with the Skrulls.

As Rich retrieved his already packed and provisioned backpack, he ordered his uniform to modify itself for night operations. The familiar navy and yellow-gold colors of the uniform faded to a shade of black to match ambient light conditions on the night side of the planet where they would soon land. His helmet modified its shape from the traditional Nova Corps helmet to a star-less, smooth, black, form-fitting configuration with night-vision eye lenses and slits under his nostrils to allow him to breathe ambient air. During the day, the uniform could be modified to camouflage in forest or desert conditions; or to render the wearer "invisible" via a clever method of 360 degree projection of the surroundings. The uniform also masked body heat and other functions including gravimetric energy from both active and passive sensor scans. Rich noticed Tul staring at him. Rich was not happy at being assigned to Tul as Tul had made it abundantly clear how he felt about aliens. Earlier, Sevilica had explained that Tul was nearly 1000 years old and was a member of a small religious sect that worshiped the ancient Xandarian god of war, Gamil. Superstitious, racist, and xenophobic, this sect was dominant for a few decades in Xandarian history about 900 years ago; but had long since fallen into disfavor and was followed only by a few religious and reactionary fanatics such as Royal House Tul. Tul's royal house was a rival to House Dru. House Dru had ushered in a new era for Xandar about 850 years ago; rejecting superstition, racism, and xenophobia. Rhomann Dey had been loyal to House Dru and when it became necessary to select a new Nova Prime, Dey, a commoner, had been selected even though Tyeverus was the more senior Corpsman and from a royal house. Tyeverus had harbored bitterness toward the Worldmind Hegemony and House Dru ever since. She explained that Tyeverus would not now be considered proper Corps material; but the Worldmind could not find a legal way to retire him from the Corps. Sevilica made it clear that she despised Tyeverus and his sect of reactionary fanatics.

Tul and Fel checked each Centurion in their squad as they issued each their sidearm, a mass-driver-based automatic hand weapon that silently fired adamantium pellets. Each Centurion's uniform automatically formed a holster and automatic re-loader for the weapon as soon as it was issued.

The cloaked troop ship silently sat down on Nu Xandar's surface in a clearing of new growth forest. Passive scans indicated no life forms in the immediate area; and the Centurions disembarked and quickly scrambled to the cover of the forest as the troop ship lifted off to maintain geosynchronous orbit above the landing site.

The squads gathered in the forest to review their mission assignments. Intelligence probes had indicated that there were possibly two areas of activity on the planet. To avoid detection, the Xandarians had landed halfway between the two areas of suspicious activity. Tul's squad would head toward a nearby mountain range where one area of activity was detected. Fel's squad would head deeper into the forest to investigate another area of reported activity. The squads departed with plans to rendezvous at the landing site within 24 hours.

The trip to the mountains was uneventful. Rich found Nu-Xandar rather unappealing. There had been no attempt to introduce animal or insect life to the biosphere; therefore there was no noise in the forest other than that made by wind as it passed through the limbs of the genetically engineered trees that absorbed the harmful gasses in the atmosphere and released a breathable gas of nitrogen and oxygen. As stealth was central to the mission, there was no verbal conversation; and Tul quickly quashed an attempt by Rich and Sevilica to carry on a "virtual conversation" through their tactical quantum link.

As they neared the foot of the mountain range just prior to dawn, Tul signaled an alert and the squad took cover in the boulder field. With night vision, they were able to make out a Skrull commander and two younger Skrulls in an encampment in a clearing within the boulder field leading to the base of the mountain range. The Skrulls had not detected the approach of the Nova squad. Through the tactical link, Tul silently ordered the squad to withdraw to a safe distance to observe the activity in the Skrull encampment. As the Nova squad withdrew, they suddenly found themselves surrounded by four Skrull Hellcat Androids.

Rich had received briefings about the Hellcats while attending the Nova Corps Academy. Hellcat androids were used by the Skrulls for sentry duty. The Hellcats were about the size of a terrestrial lioness and they hunted in packs of four. They were constructed of a durable metal alloy and possessed deadly teeth and claws. They were a danger to even the most experienced Nova Centurion as they were programmed to adapt to each attack in order to render a follow-up attack of the same type ineffective.

Tul was the first to react. "They know we're here now! No need to hold back!" He flew into one Hellcat bouncing it off a boulder; and directed a collimated beam of gravimetric energy at another, destroying it. The Hellcat he had tackled recovered quickly and engaged Tul. Gravimetric energy would now be useless against it as it would have already modified its shields to repel such an attack. Tul would have to destroy it through some other method. It scratched and bit at him as they warily circled each other; each waiting for the other to make a mistake that could be exploited. Tul feigned an attack to distract the Hellcat - then took flight - landing on the Hellcat's back and tearing its head off.

Rich and Sevilica engaged each of the remaining Hellcats. Their strategy had been honed in simulations of battle with Hellcats during their training at the Nova Corps Academy. They simultaneously tackled one Hellcat and used their energy absorption ability to drain the android of power. They then simultaneously directed the energy they had stored from the Hellcat into a massive focused concussive blast aimed at the remaining Hellcat. The concussion cracked the Hellcat's armor plating and disrupted its defensive shields; staggering and confusing it. Tul capitalized on this sudden advantage; flying in and shattering the last Hellcat upon impact.

"Good work" begrudged Tul before turning to engage the Skrulls now descending upon the Nova Corps squad. Retreat was not an option. Tul ordered triangular formation as their fighting strategy. Rich and Sevilica immediately closed ranks with Tul; and the Centurions arranged themselves into a triangular fighting unit; each protecting the others back. Their orders from Calvinus Nor were to capture for questioning if possible; and use lethal force only if necessary for defense.

The three Skrulls from the encampment attacked with adamantium bladed weapons as energy weapons were useless against the Corpsmen's phasic shields; and adamantium projectile weapons would simply invite the Corpsmen to use their energy projection capabilities against their attackers. The Skrulls hoped to use to their advantage the Corps preference for incapacitating and capturing enemies rather than killing them on sight.

Tul engaged the oldest Skrull, apparently the leader. Rich and Sevilica engaged the younger two Skrulls.

Surprisingly, the Skrulls were not very good fighters; and Rich and Sevilica easily dodged their clumsy attacks; landing punches that rendered the Skrulls unconscious. As Rich made to assist Tul, Sevilica held him back; pointing out that his intervention might endanger both Tul and the Skrull commander.

Tul and his assailant were circling each other; engaged in a knife fight. Tul sported a cruel smile. The Skrull was clearly not an accomplished fighter and Tul was toying with him. Tul would rapidly step in, inflict a wound, and step back before the Skrull could react or retaliate. The Skrull was bleeding from several wounds and was clearly near exhaustion; but Tyeverus Tul made a slight mistake and the Skrull was able to inflict a slash wound to Tul's arm. Tul's cruel smile turned to cold and bitter rage; and he rapidly stepped in and delivered enough slashes and stabs to incapacitate the Skrull Commander. The Skrull collapsed to his knees, closed his eyes, and began to pray; obviously surrendering to Tul. Tul smirked and stepped behind the Skrull. Before Rich and Sevilica could react, he grabbed the surprised Skrull by the chin, lifted his head, and quickly slit the Skrull's throat. The Skrull grasped at its throat and writhed on the ground; gasping for air as it slowly and painfully died; drowning in its own fluids at the same time its brain was deprived of life-sustaining blood.

Sevilica and Rich were at first shocked; then outraged. Sevilica was the first to react. "Tyeverus Tul, I am hereby accusing you of war crimes and placing you under arrest for brutal, criminal mistreatment of a prisoner of war; as well as violation of standing orders to capture enemy combatants for interrogation."

Tul laughed. "Try to make that stick. I used lethal force in self-defense against enemy combatants."

Sevilica looked at Tul angrily and defiantly. "Rider and I saw what you did; and so will the Worldmind when we get it to read our memories back on Xandar."

Tul sneered. "Of course. Once again House Dru proves its devotion to the cowardly ways that have brought our people to the brink of extinction. You are loyal to a traitorous and incompetent King and an AI that was meant to be a tool to help forge a Xandarian empire; not the lord and master it has become."

Sevilica was furious. "House Tul fascist! How dare you insult our King and the Worldmind Hegemony! You will answer for your treason, your arrogance, and your crimes!"

Tul smirked. The Skrull Commander had stopped writhing and lay still and dead. Tul shifted aside the Skrull Commander's robes to reveal a vest of explosives strapped to its chest. He smirked again as he looked Sevilica straight in the eyes. Sevilica clenched her teeth and set her jaw in frustration and embarrassment as her hands balled into fists.

Tul snarled, "Centurions, stand at attention and learn something about fighting Skrulls today!"

Sevilica and Rich snapped to attention, standing side-by-side as Tul approached them. Tul was deadly furious as he stood directly in front of Sevilica and stared into her eyes, his face so close to hers he was invading her personal space. She stood her ground, staring straight ahead and refusing to cower or flinch.

Tul's voice was a low and deadly growl. "I was killing Skrulls 800 years before you were born. When your house still had some integrity about it, I fought side-by-side with some of your ancestors and they would be ashamed to call you kin today." Tul then turned to Rich. "And you, primitive backwater Earth scum, I was fighting Skrulls when your ancestors still believed that your world was flat." Stepping back, he continued to vent his rage. "What do either of you whelps know of fighting Skrulls? The reason we defeated these Skrulls so easily is that they are not regular Skrull ground troops. Look at their dress. They are Skrull Religious Police! Their only function is hunting religious fugitives that have escaped from their sphere of persecutory influence. They are never taken alive by non-believers. Their commander was not surrendering to me. He was saying his death prayer and preparing to detonate those explosives in an attempt to kill or injure all of us! We don't need to interrogate them. We just need to find whoever they are hunting for and remove them from this planet."

Sevilica would not be deterred. "You could have neutralized the threat without killing him. The truth is you were enjoying torturing him with your knife play."

Tul stepped in front of her again. "Silence House Dru sycophant! You were not given permission to speak."

Rich noticed that the Skrull he had rendered unconscious had regained consciousness and was groggily reaching for a weapon. He could easily disarm and detain the nearly helpless Skrull and he made to do so. Before Rich could act, Tul, not taking his eyes off Sevilica, drew his sidearm and fired a round into the Skrull's forehead. The top of the Skrull's head exploded; and it collapsed and lay still.

Tul sneered at Sevilica and with a voice full of sarcasm said, "I suppose you have a problem with neutralizing that enemy combatant too."

Before Sevilica could respond, Rich heatedly yelled, "I have a problem with it! I could have stopped him without killing him! Again you acted cruelly and contrary to our orders. I am placing you under arrest."

Tul reached into his utility belt and pulled out a small device which he activated before returning it to his utility belt. Rich and Sevilica felt their powers ebb.

Sevilica exclaimed, "A quantum link nullifier! Now you resort to illegal technology to sever Rider's and my link to the Worldmind?"

Tul drew his sidearm and pointed it at Rich. "Both of you are under arrest for insubordination and failure to follow the orders of your commanding officer. Now drop your sidearms to the ground and cuff each other or I will shoot both of you right now."

Rich and Sevilica reluctantly complied as they stared down the barrel of Tul's gun.

The remaining Skrull regained consciousness and began to alter its shape into a ground-hugging lizard-like creature in an attempt to scramble away and escape. Tul shot one of the transformed creature's legs off. As it writhed and screamed in agony, Tul stepped on its tail to prevent it from getting away; and placed the barrel of his gun directly against its head. It stopped trying to get away.


The terrified and traumatized Skrull begged for its life. "Please Centurion. We meant you no harm. We have no part in the war. We were searching for blasphemers against our true god, Kly'bn. Had we found them, we would have destroyed them and left your world. Spare me. Let me go and I will rid your world of the blasphemers and then peacefully leave."

Tul laughed derisively. "We can rid our world and the universe of your pathetic species on our own."

"In the name of all the true gods, let me go so I may fulfill my holy mission" begged the Skrull.

Tul was angered. "Your gods are false! Here, let me show you. If your gods are true, let them save you from me." Tul then shot another of the creature's legs off and laughed as it screamed in agony. "Where are your gods now?" he yelled as he pointed the gun at the Skrull's head. The Skrull screamed in terror.

Tul was so distracted that he failed to notice that Rich and Sevilica had used their uniforms' nanobots to free them from the cuffs restraining their hands. Rich and Sevilica attacked Tul even though he retained his powers and they were still powerless. Rich landed a punch that caused Tul to drop his sidearm; and Sevilica managed to land several blows to Tul before he could recover from their surprise attack. Tul recovered quickly from his surprise. Without powers, Rich and Sevilica could be an annoyance but could inflict precious little damage against a fully powered Centurion such as Tul. Rich tried to keep Tul in a choke hold while Sevilica pummeled his abdomen. Their efforts were to no avail. Tul easily freed himself from Rich's grasp and landed several blows to Rider's face and torso, before throwing Rider bodily against a bolder. Rich lay quiet and still, obviously seriously injured. Sevilica pressed the attack, landing several more blows to Tul's abdomen and face. Her blows caused no damage at all as Tul had retained all his powers.

Tul smiled, "My turn." Tul pummeled Sevilica's face and torso before throwing her against a rock outcropping.

Seriously injured with multiple abrasions and contusions, eyes nearly swollen shut, mouth bleeding with teeth broken and cracked; Sevilica leaned against the rock outcropping to keep from falling to the ground.

"Ready to die?" Tul asked her.

She painfully grinned as she gasped for breath; a broken rib having perforated one of her lungs. She pulled Tul's Quantum Link Nullifier from her utility belt. "Not yet you miserable House Tul bastard."

Tul realized the attack by Rider and Sevilica had just been a distraction so that they could gain control of the nullifier. Before he could react, Sevilica smashed the nullifier into the rock outcropping. She was relieved to feel the nanobots from her matrix rush to heal and sustain her as Nova Force once again began to flow into her. She hoped Rider had not been killed as she was going to need his help to subdue Tul.

Tul was furious. "House Dru farking schmaug!" he cursed as he recovered his gun and pointed it at her head. Before Tul could fire, Rich flew into him and smashed him against a nearby boulder. Tul was dazed and Rich pressed his advantage, landing several blows to Tul's face and torso.

Tul was staggered but not defeated. He cursed himself. He had forgotten that the little primitive Earth farker had a Nova Prime matrix implanted in his worthless carcass. The Nova Prime matrix had allowed Rider to quickly recover from what should have been devastating if not fatal injuries. He could see that Sevilica was rapidly healing and he would soon have to contend with her as well. Tul directed a gravimetric pulse at Rider, shooting him out of the air as he flew in to attack. He immediately had to dodge a pulse directed at him from Sevilica. Then Rider was on him, landing two powerful blows to his head in rapid succession before hammering him with simultaneous gravimetric pulses from both hands fired point blank into his torso. Tul was violently thrown back against a cliff from the impact of the pulses; and his upper uniform was shredded. He tried to stand but fell to his knees defeated, burned, bruised, and bleeding.

Sevilica was nearly completely recovered. During the fight she had made an emergency request to the Worldmind for a military tribunal to be convened. Tul looked up to find himself on his knees before the holographically projected avatars of The Worldmind, King Ferenus Dru, Queen Adora Dru, Nova Prime Valt, and mission Commander Calvinus Nor.

The Worldmind rendered the judgment of the tribunal. "Tyeverus Tul. After review of the facts of this case from your memory and the memories of Centurions Dru and Rider, it is the judgment of this tribunal that you are guilty of both war crimes and treason. You are hereby stripped of Nova Corps rank and powers; and remanded into the custody of Centurions Rider and Dru. Your physical body is to be imprisoned in stasis for not less than one hundred years; during which time your personality will undergo rehabilitative treatment in Cyber Prison." As soon as the Worldmind had rendered its sentence, Tul felt his Nova Matrix reduce to minimal power.

Defiant, Tul snarled, "I do not recognize the authority of a King and an AI that have presided over the near extinction of our species! You trust an alien like Rider with our most powerful weapons! You have even allowed him to join the Nova Corps possessing no less than a Nova Prime matrix lost by your commoner rube of an errand boy, Rhomann Dey! You would like to forget that you granted the Lumphomoid asylum and your misjudgment cost us the destruction of our homeworld! You are weaklings who would rather use diplomacy with aliens than conquer them and impose our will upon them! You are the criminals and the traitors to Xandar, not I!"

King Ferenus shook his head sadly. "Xandar's days of Empire are long behind us. We have found a better way and once this war is over, we will build a better tomorrow with our Nova Corps as our centerpiece in reaching out to the other species of the galaxies. As you well know, House Dru and the Worldmind were cleared of all negligence in the Lumphomoid affair by an independent council of investigators. But if I truly believed I had been negligent, your condemnation would not be necessary. I would have abdicated the throne. The tragedy that befell our planet could not have been foreseen. The Lumphomoids had always been friendly trading partners and no one could have known that a Lumphomoid could have acquired Celestial technology powerful enough to destroy a planet. Perhaps you will come to see the wisdom of our new ways during your long incarceration." Then turning his back on Tul; Ferenus turned to Sevilica and Rich who immediately bowed their heads, fell to one knee, and placed their right fists over their hearts in the ancient sign of fealty to Xandar's King. "Centurions. Today you have performed your duty with distinction. You have appropriately balanced the terrible realities and necessities of war with the laws and customs of our people. I commend you and my commendation will appear in your service records."

"Thank you, Your Majesty" Sevilica and Rich said together.

Ferenus nodded and smiled in satisfaction as his avatar faded from view along with those of Adora, Valt, Nor, and The Worldmind. The troop ship landed nearby and Fel, Corinus, and Farona disembarked. Fel took Tyeverus Tul into custody. Corinus and Farona reported that they had captured an encampment of Skrull religious fugitives in the forest; and that preparations were being made to move the Skrulls to a non-aligned world where they could worship their Skrull god of peace without fear of persecution.

As Fel was leading Tul to the ship, the Skrull that Tul had tortured, now shape-shifted into the form of a snake-like creature to compensate for the injuries inflicted by Tul, surprised Fel and knocked him off his feet. The Skrull had recovered Tul's sidearm and stood behind Tul with the sidearm pointed at Tul's head.

All the Corpsmen aimed their sidearms at the Skrull; and ordered it to drop the weapon. Tul turned to look the Skrull in the eyes and smirked. He deliberately taunted the Skrull. "Your god is false. Only my god, Gamil, the Xandarian god of war, is true."

The Skrull smirked. "If your god is true, let it save you from me." The Skrull fired, shattering Tul's skull. The Centurions all fired at the Skrull and it was shredded from hits by multiple projectiles and gravimetric pulses.

Tul's body was loaded in the troop ship and everyone boarded for the short journey back to the Xandarian Cluster. The typical post-mission raucous banter was absent on the troop deck, with each Centurion solemnly reflecting on the sad events of the day.

When the troop ship landed on the spacedock, Rich was looking forward to retiring to his bunk at Nova Corps headquarters in the Orienta Shard for some off duty time. Later, he wanted to see if Comet and Crimebuster were back from their scouting mission; and rendezvous with them for some dinner and conversation. As he disembarked, he noticed that Sevilica, Corinus, and Farona were standing outside the ship deep in discussion. Sevilica looked up as Rich passed by the group. "Hey Rider, want to go with us to the alien sector of the Oesta Shard for a little R and R?"

As it was the first time Rich had been invited to socialize with his Xandarian classmates, he readily accepted the invitation. "Sure. Lead the way!"

Sevilica smiled and took flight. Rich, Farona, and Corinus followed. They exited the spacedock and made the short spaceflight to the hub's airlock. Once inside the hub of the great cluster, they made their way by foot to the entrance to the travel tubes connecting the shards before once again taking flight and intermingling with the air traffic traversing the tubes. In no time they arrived at the Oesta Shard where they took a mag-lev train to the alien sector. The alien sector was a community on the "seedy side" of Oesta City. It was called "the alien sector" as visiting non-Xandarians tended to congregate there for entertainment and "black-market" commerce that was frowned upon by the greater Xandarian society. It was a popular hang-out for young Xandarians as well as military personnel including both regular Xandarian Star Corps military and the elite branch of the Xandarian Star Corps, The Nova Corps. Though loosely patrolled by Star Corps military police, The Worldmind mostly turned a blind eye to the activity in the alien sector; recognizing the need for respecting the customs of other species, the need for black market commerce, and the need for Xandar's citizens and soldiers to occasionally engage in some unseemly behavior as a means to relax and unwind. Sevilica apparently had a destination in mind as they soon disembarked the mag-lev in a run-down looking station.

The Centurions emerged from the station onto a street lined with ramshackle buildings from which raucous music and shouts could be heard. Street vendors were everywhere selling food, drinks, and anything else someone might be interested in buying. An incredible diversity of species lined the streets, engaging in commerce or looking for entertainment. It reminded Rich of a visit to Tijuana, Mexico he had made with his high school Spanish Class one summer. He couldn't help but smile as he followed Sevilica down the street, marveling at the sights. Corinus and Farona stopped to haggle with a street vendor. Sevilica stopped in front of a small, dark building and waited for Corinus and Farona to catch up to her and Rich.

Sevilica looked at Rich. "First time here?"

Rich nodded. "Yeah. I've been mostly hanging with Comet and Crimebuster in my off-duty hours. We didn't even know about this place."

Sevilica laughed. "Best kept non-secret 'secret' on Xandar! The powers that be tolerate this sector but there are always those spoil-sports that want to ruin all our fun and jettison it into space."

Rich laughed. "We have places like this on my planet too." He quickly added, "Without all the other species of course."

Sevilica smiled and turned to open the door to the bar as Corinus and Farona arrived. She narrowly missed the bar door hitting her in the face as it burst open and some human-looking people dressed in what looked to Rich like olive drab US Marine Corps uniforms crowded out. "Outta my way bendejos! We're here for some fun before we go on a bug hunt!" shouted a tough-looking Hispanic woman as she pushed by Farona. Farona clamped her jaw in anger and started after the woman, but Corinus held her back saying, "Let it go. We're here to have some fun, not get in a fight. Come on, I'll buy you a drink." Farona relented even though she knew Corinus would not have taken his own advice if it had been him that had been accosted. Sevilica ushered her group into the bar.

The bar was loud, smoky, and crowded; but the four Centurions found an empty table and sat down. Rich removed his helmet and looked around. His group represented the only Nova Corps elite soldiers in the bar; but there were some regular Xandarian Star Corps ground troops and fleet troops; and some Xandarian civilians intermingling with an incredible diversity of other species. He noticed one table of aliens representing several species he had never seen before. The interesting thing was that each wore a green paramilitary-looking uniform with a strange symbol emblazoned across their chest; and each sported a glowing green ring. "So who are they?" he asked Sevilica.

Sevilica shrugged. "No one knows. They visit here sometimes. Some say that visitors from alternate universes come to this bar; but I find that hard to believe. Whoever they are, they mind their own business, drink to their fill, pay their bill, and disappear. As long as you don't cause any problems, no one asks too many questions here."

Rich shook his head knowingly as if he understood. Sevilica exhorted Farona to buy the first round of synthahol. Farona got up from the table but had to wait to allow passage by her of a large, human-looking, curly-haired man wearing a long brown coat, a floppy hat, and an extra-long knitted scarf that dragged the floor. Strangely, a human-looking attractive young lady dressed in what appeared to be animal skins rushed after him. The man made eye contact with Rich and Rich swore that he saw recognition in the man's eyes. The young lady smiled in recognition of Rich and called to the man in perfect British-accented English, "Look! Here's Centurion Ri-" before the man shushed her in mid-question and said, also in perfect British-accented English, "Quiet my dear, there are laws of time and space that even I will not break" before grabbing her hand and quickly leading her out of the bar.

Sevilica looked at Rich. "Friends of yours?"

Rich was puzzled. "I have never seen them before in my life."

Farona had craned her neck to check out the animal-skin-wearing young lady's shapely ass; and so distracted bumped into one of the green-uniformed aliens staggering back to his table carrying a full glass of synthahol. The synthahol flew all over the alien's uniform, soaking the symbol emblazoned across his chest. Farona was embarrassed. "Pardon me sir. I apologize. Let me buy you a drink and pay for the cleaning of your uniform."

The green-uniformed alien appeared to have trouble focusing on Farona as he was quite drunk. "So you are one of the famed Nova Corps and you dare accost me in such a disre- dispre- disrespectful manner." He swayed and nearly fell but Farona caught him and helped steady him. Sevilica, Corinus, and Rich tensed; as did the three remaining at the table of green-uniformed aliens. Rich donned his helmet; noting that his companions had never removed theirs.

The green-uniformed alien was not ready to accept Farona's apology. Slurring his words, he said "Corpsman, you defiled my uniform and the schymbol of my people and now you must anscher fur it." He then began to recite a rhyme. "Through blackest - no darkest day - I mean night --- Awww fush it --- have at you!" He raised his ring to point it at her head.

Farona had no idea what the ring was; but her helmet's tactical display identified it as a very powerful exotic energy weapon. With such a powerful weapon pointed straight at her head, she decided to take no chances. Punching him in the face, she knocked him out cold.

Two Lensmen from The Galactic Patrol were sitting at the bar watching the scenario unfold. One said to the other one, "Can you believe the green ones were based on us?" The other smirked and shook his head. They paid their bills, adjusted their lenses, and disappeared.

The green-uniformed aliens turned over their table and jumped to their feet. One of them pointed his ring at Farona and materialized a giant green fist that struck her in the face, knocking her into the bar. Corinus fired a concentrated gravimetric pulse at Farona's attacker, knocking him out cold. Rich and Sevilica engaged the other two aliens as Corinus rushed to help Farona to her feet.

Rich flew into one of the aliens just as it erected a green energy field to surround itself. Rich absorbed the energy field - dissipating it to the surprise of his adversary; and landed a punch to the alien's jaw, knocking his adversary out cold.

Sevilica's adversary had met her in mid-air toward the ceiling of the bar and they grappled; landing punches to each others torsos. The alien broke from Sevilica's grasp and manifested a giant green net. Sevilica surrounded the net with a graviton field and dissipated it. The alien was surprised and his second of hesitation left him open to Sevilica's punch to the face, causing him to fall unconscious to the ground.

Xandarian Star Corps Military Police sirens could be heard outside the building. Sevilica turned to Rich, Farona, and Corinus. "If you don't want to spend the rest of the night in the brig and get black marks on your records, follow my lead!" She activated her uniform's "invisibility" camouflage and flew through an open skylight. Rich, Farona, and Corinus followed her lead.

They landed on the roof of a building across the street from the bar still utilizing their camouflage to avoid detection and watched the MP's haul out the green-uniformed aliens. The drunken one who started the fight had regained consciousness and was still trying to recite his rhyme. The four Corpsmen laughed as the MP's tasered him; once again silencing his obnoxiousness.

Corinus whispered something in Sevilica's ear and she nodded. "Corinus suggests that we get out of this area until things cool down and they stop looking for the Corpsmen involved in the fight. He knows a pleasure club where we can go until it's safe to return to base."

Corinus took flight and the Corpsmen followed; all still maintaining invisibility camouflage. They landed in an alley outside a club on the edge of the alien sector and returned their uniforms to normal appearance.

"Time for club attire" said Corinus. His helmet and the top part of his uniform disappeared as the nanobots reconfigured, responding to Corinus' mental commands. Now shirtless, Corinus ordered his trousers to become sheer and skin tight - literally leaving nothing to the imagination.

Sevilica and Farona transformed their uniforms into what on Earth would be called micro-mini-skirts and halter tops. Their boots transformed into high-heeled shoes.

Rich was unsure how to dress and was somewhat embarrassed as the others stared at him, waiting for him to transform his uniform into proper club attire. "Uh - I've not been here before so I don't know how to dress. Any suggestions?" He really hoped he would not have to dress like Corinus in order to enter the club.

Sevilica and Farona giggled. Sevilica said, "Give me access to your nanobots and I'll design something for you." Rich gave her access and she touched his uniform. Instantly, his helmet disappeared and his uniform shifted into a sleeveless black form-fitting vest with skin tight black trousers.

They entered the pleasure club. The building was immense. There was loud dance music playing and the dance floor was full of Xandarians and members of numerous other species from the local group. There were dance stages elevated above the main dance floor where Xandarians and other species danced alone or in pairs; all in various states of undress. More people crowded the bar and restaurant area; and in peering toward the distant walls and ceiling, Rich could see that there were other levels and sections to the club. All of the rooms lining the upper levels appeared to be bedchambers and all had full-sized glass windows overlooking the club. Some were lighted and Rich could see all manner of sexual acts taking place.

Rich had heard of the Xandarian Pleasure Clubs. The Xandarians had extremely long lives afforded by the combination of cloning and cyber technology. They were also a traumatized people; having lost their planet and the majority of the population of it only a few short years ago. Only the four largest cities and their populations had been saved from the Lumphomoid's treachery. Every family had been touched with major losses of relatives and possessions. Rich was glad to have played a small part in bringing the Lumphomoid to justice. That fact was unknown by his Xandarian friends; having not been made public by the Worldmind and Xandarian ruling class who preferred the official story that the Xandarian hero, Rhomann Dey, had ultimately brought Zorr to justice. That story was technically true so Rich carried little resentment about his part of the contribution of bringing Zorr to justice being downplayed and lost in light of Dey's sacrifice for his people. His colleagues believed Dey had transferred his powers to Rich after Zorr was defeated; shortly before Dey died. Rich shook his head, recovering from the digression in his thoughts; and resumed his recall about pleasure clubs. He understood that long-lived and traumatized people such as the Xandarians needed physical and psychological escapes. Thus, the pleasure clubs came into being. They were places where the Xandarians could go to pursue whatever physical and psychological pleasure they chose. Anything was available in reality or simulation. In practice, most chose to indulge the age-old pastimes of drugs and sex. While pleasure clubs were officially frowned upon by the staid and genteel Xandarian society; it was not unusual to find citizens from all walks of life frequenting the pleasure clubs to indulge a fantasy. Some decried the clubs as a sign of decadence or decay; but most saw them for what they really were - a way to find some relief through distraction.

Corinus saw a group of young Xandarian males dressed similarly to him and left Farona, Rich, and Sevilica at the bar. He must have been well-acquainted with most of them as he was greeted with passionate kisses and caresses by several of them. Sevilica ordered a round of synthahol and a round of endorph-vapor for her, Rich, and Farona. Rich knew that synthahol was a clever brew blending the organic and the technological - alcohol molecules bound with nanobots. The nanobots processed the alcohol molecule for each user so that the relaxing, health promoting, and disinhibiting effects of alcohol were retained; while the physical and psychological dependency-producing and health- eroding factors were eliminated. The nanobots were programmed to metabolize each ounce of alcohol, inactivate, and travel to the organism's excretory system after 30 minutes or upon mental command of the organism - thereby granting instant sobriety upon command. Endorph-vapor worked similarly. With endorph-vapor, the nanobots bound to nitrous oxide molecules and were so concentrated that they appeared to be a mist in their containment vessel. Once inhaled, they instantly began to stimulate production of endorphins, granting the user relief from any physical or psychological pain as well as producing a subjective sense of well-being. Endorph-vapor was designed to be eliminated from the body in exactly the same way as synthahol. Rich had never tried either substance and was looking forward to the experience.

The drinks and vapors arrived; and Rich followed Sevilica's and Farona's lead by immediately downing the shot of pure synthahol. The shot of synthahol was chased by popping the lid off a test tube full of endorph-vapor, putting it up to one nostril, closing the other nostril with his finger, and inhaling until the test tube was empty. He instantly felt warm, relaxed, and happy. He ordered another round for himself and his friends; and patiently allowed the bartender to scan his retina so as to properly charge him. Sevilica ordered and bought the following round. With each round, the Novas became more relaxed and disinhibited; and they were soon laughing and joking amongst themselves; reminiscing about some funny incidents from their academy days and from some of the after-hours pranks and goings-on in troops quarters back at base.

Two attractive young Xandarian females came up to the bar to order drinks and recognized Farona. "It is you! We haven't seen you here in ages! We were just talking about that 3-way we did with you last time we saw you here; and how much we would like to hook up with you again! Come to our room with us!" Farona smiled broadly and waved goodbye to Rich and Sevilica as she was dragged away by the two young ladies.

Sevilica and Rich were tipsy and leaning into each other for support. Sevilica giggled, "Well it looks like Corinus and Farona got lucky - not that that's tough to do here!" Rich laughed with her.

Sevilica looked Rich in the eyes, trying to keep a straight face and utterly failing due to the intoxicating effects of synthahol and endorph-vapor. Rich found it hard to stay serious too as he was just as intoxicated as Sevilica. Sevilica swayed on the bar stool but kept herself from falling off. She looked at him as if to ask a serious question. "Something I'm curious about" she said, "I've seen you in the showers back at our quarters and you don't look any different than a Xandarian male. So, you must function the same physically. What are your species' rules and customs about sex? Are they like ours or different?"

Normally Rich would have been surprised or embarrassed by such an admission and such a direct question; but the synthahol and endorph-vapor were making surprise and embarrassment impossible. Male and female corpsmen were quartered together and used communal facilities. He had seen her and other females in the showers too; and had noted that Xandarian females were externally indistinguishable from human females. He affected as serious a conspiratorially-looking face as he could muster given his level of intoxication, looked over his shoulder as if to make sure no one else was listening, and leaned in close to her as if he were going to share some great secret with her in answer to her question. She took the bait and leaned in close, looking very serious.

Barely keeping a straight face, Rich whispered, "I'd love to demonstrate to you my species' sexual functioning, rules, and customs tonight."

They fell into each others arms in laughter. Their faces were close. Rich took a chance and kissed her. She kissed him back. They shared another lengthy and more passionate kiss before Sevilica pulled back and looked him in the eyes. She had been about to get carried away; and had obviously ordered the nanobots to give her sobriety. "Thanks for saving my life today."

Rich nodded, ordering his nanobots to give him sobriety. "You'd have done the same for me. We're Nova Corps. That's what we do."

"D'ast right!" she agreed. "We're the best of the best! Let's have another round of drinks and vapors to celebrate!"

They had another round of drinks and vapors; and the serious turn to their conversation started to fade once again as they began to laugh and joke; the sexual tension between them fading.

Rich was enjoying the dance track and admiring some of the dancers on the elevated stages. He wanted to regain Sevilica's sexual interest. He looked at Sevilica. "Would you like to dance?"

Sevilica smiled knowingly. She knew what Rider was up to. She decided to let him down easily. "No. I'm not much of a dancer. I really just came here to have some drinks and vapors; and some anonymous sex to help me unwind from our mission today. I wish you were a stranger because I have a rule about not having sex with anyone I work with. For species that pair-bond, sex with acquaintances makes things complicated; and right now I don't want or need complications."

"Disappointing rule - but I do understand" said Rich, trying not to look as disappointed as he felt.

She could tell he was disappointed. She had a sudden inspiration that might allay some of his disappointment. "Want to go into the maze with me?" she said both teasingly and invitingly.

Rich frowned. "The maze? What's that?"

She grabbed his hand and pulled him up from his chair at the bar. "Come on, I'll show you."

They navigated through the crowded club; leaving the bar, restaurant, and dance section. They passed through the holograph suite areas where simulations of nearly any experience one could fantasize could be acted out. They arrived in front of a darkened entranceway and Rich could hear music playing inside. They watched as several others disrobed and entered.

Rich gave Sevilica a questioning look. She laughed. "It's an un-illuminated maze. You have to feel your way through. Oh, and endorph-vapor laced with aphrodisiac producing nano-bots is continually released from the ceiling of the maze. On the other side of the maze is the spa. See you in the spa later maybe? If you hook up with someone or if I do; you can find your way back to base right?"

"Sure" agreed Rich a little reluctantly.

Sevilica smiled at him and turned to enter the maze. Her clothing faded into her body and Rich caught sight of her shapely ass as she disappeared into the maze. Taking a deep breath, he ordered his clothing to fade and walked into the maze after her.

Inside, it was as dark as a cave and there was steady background noise from dance music. It was very disorienting at first and Rich had to resist the urge to order his nanobots to form night vision lenses over his eyes. Allowing himself to acclimate naturally, he became aware of the presence of others brushing by him and against him; and he encountered others as he felt for walls to help him navigate. No one spoke, but listening intently, he could hear the sighs and moans of people pleasuring each other nearby. Venturing further into the maze, he became caught up in the ebb and flow of bodies traversing the maze as the aphrodisiac laced endorph-vapor began to take effect. Surrendering to the sensuality of the maze, he was variously kissed, caressed, touched, and embraced by the countless others he encountered as he was carried through the maze by the ebb and flow of people entering and leaving. Time seemed to slow as his senses were overwhelmed by sensuality and sexual desire. He felt a female body embrace him. She kissed and caressed him, obviously attempting to heighten his arousal. She fellated him; bringing him to the brink of climax before she was spirited away by the press of bodies passing through. Then, she found him again - embraced him; and they backed into a dead-end alcove of the maze. After a short time, the maze traffic spirited her away again - and Rich rejoined the maze traffic and lost himself in sensual pleasure.

Rich was shocked into reality when he was finally through the maze and into the brightly lit spa. He had no idea how much time had passed. The spa contained saunas, hot tubs, cold tubs, nanobot sex couches, zero-gee sex chambers, showers, massage tables, a large swimming pool, and various other machines and facilities that Rich did not recognize. Xandarians and aliens were everywhere, utilizing all parts of the spa. He was disappointed that Sevilica was nowhere to be seen. He wistfully thought of her and concluded that she must have found someone else to entertain her. He decided that he would go for a quick swim and then return to base. As he turned to enter the pool, he found Sevilica standing behind him.

She had just exited the maze and was still under the influence of the maze endorph aphrodisiac vapor. Still beautifully nude, she was obviously sexually aroused. He was also still under the influence of the maze endorph aphrodesiac-vapor. With no further thought, he took her into his arms and kissed her passionately. Desire for each other burned between them.

She pulled back and looked into his eyes. "I've never farked an alien before."

"That makes two of us" he murmured, pulling her close and kissing her again, the heat between them rising.

She pulled back. "Listen Rider. Before we do this, we have to have an agreement. I'm not looking for a relationship or exclusivity. We can both see and fark whoever we want. This is a one-time-only thing. This changes nothing between us at work and after tonight we act like it never happened. Agreed?"

Rich would have agreed to anything. "Absolutely!" He pulled her to him and kissed her again before picking her up and carrying her to an empty sex couch. The couch was composed of nanobots and they automatically adjusted to provide maximum support for the users in whatever positions they found pleasing. The couch adjusted to accommodate them as they lay intertwined upon it; kissing and caressing. Rich expected Sevilica to take the lead as she always had in any situation that they had shared before. Tonight, she appeared to want to be dominated; so Rich took control. Foreplay having essentially taken place in the maze, she wanted immediate satisfaction from hot, fast, intense, sweaty, love-making. Rich was more than happy to accommodate. After sharing their first climax, Sevilica was back to her old "take charge" self. She pushed Rich down on the couch and lowered herself onto him. Almost violently, they made love until they shared another incredible climax. Exhausted, they collapsed into each others arms. The couch, responding to their mental commands, enveloped them to warm and comfort them as they held each other.

After a time, they left the couch and entered the pool; playfully frolicking as they swam together. Rich swam up to Sevilica and kissed her. They embraced and she looked into his eyes. "Rider, I have a confession to make. That was me you were with in the maze. I used night vision to find you."

Rich grinned. "I know. I used night vision to see who it was."

Sevilica feigned mock anger and made to chase Rich. Laughing, he swam away as fast as he could. She caught up to him and pushed his head under water. He grabbed her and pulled her under with him. They sank to the bottom of the pool, looking into each others eyes. They shared a passionate kiss at the bottom of the pool and, embracing each other, floated back to the surface. Floating on the surface of the pool, they held each other close. Sevilica whispered, "You know we go back on duty in less than three hours. We need to head back to base soon."

Rich nodded sadly. "I wish we could stay."

Sevilica looked thoughtful. Being a good attorney-in-training, she found a loophole in their agreement. "We can make it last a little longer. Let's just say that our agreement is effective upon setting foot on Orienta."

Rich knew a good offer when he heard one. "It's a deal!"

They left the pool and went to the shower room. After bathing and drying each other, Sevilica ordered her nanobots to form civilian clothes around her. She then once again assisted Rich's nanobots in forming Rich some civilian clothes. As they had to pass by several Star Corps Military Police stations on their way back to Orienta, Sevilica was still concerned about being detained for questioning about the bar fight; and believed that wearing their uniforms and taking flight would be too chancy. She wanted to appear to be a typical Xandarian couple sneaking back into Orienta after an illicit night of fun at a pleasure club; thus escaping the notice of any MP patrol.


They left the pleasure club hand-in-hand and walked to the mag-lev station; enjoying each other's company. Catching a nearly empty train that would take them all the way back to Orienta non-stop, they sat snuggled together for the long ride, holding hands with her head resting on his shoulder. As they neared Orienta station, she raised her head from his shoulder and found him looking at her. They kissed until the train stopped and the doors opened. As they stepped out of the train onto Orienta, her demeanor changed and she let go of his hand. Walking briskly, they ducked into the nearest alley and ordered the nanobots to reconfigure to their standard uniform specifications. Now in proper uniform, they took flight and headed straight to Nova Corps Headquarters. They were cleared for entry upon getting close to base and flew directly to the landing area of their quarters.

Sevilica had been silent since leaving the train; and upon landing she merely tersely uttered a perfunctory, "Good night Centurion Rider."

He responded in kind. "Good night Centurion Dru."

They walked to their respective bunks. The quarters for newly commissioned Centurions were simply row upon row of floor-to-ceiling bunk compartments containing a full-sized bed, data screens, and storage for personal items. The design of the quarters reminded Rich of a documentary he once saw about some hotels in Japan where one rented a single occupancy "room" designed similarly. He flew up to his bunk and, recognizing his approach, the nanobots making up its privacy wall retracted, granting him access. He lay down and ordered his uniform to reconfigure to the shape of his preferred sleeping attire, a comfortable pair of loose boxer shorts. He had about 2 hours before he was due back on duty. He ordered the alarm to wake him in 1.75 hours; but before he could engage the privacy function of the bunk and order the privacy wall back into place, Sevilica flew into his bunk.

Sevilica immediately ordered the wall to give them privacy. "Listen Rider. Before we do this, we have to have an agreement. I'm not looking for a relationship or exclusivity. We can both see and fark whoever we want. This is a two-times-only thing. This changes nothing between us at work and afterwards we act like it never happened. Agreed?"

Rich knew a good deal when he heard one. "Agreed."

Having little time before they were both due back on duty for another mission, their love-making was fevered and impassioned. They were young, bursting with Nova Force and sexual energy, and needful of distraction from the horrors of war; so Sevilica repeated her contract twice more before they separated to report to their respective duty stations, changing only the wording of "two-times-only" to "three-times-only" and "four-times-only." Rich agreed to the conditions every time.


As Rich's dream ended; and as his body and brain, now fully healed, began to struggle toward regaining consciousness; the Worldmind - having been monitoring Rich's dreams - was astonished that Rider was able to recall his time on Xandar during the Second Xandar-Skrull War in such detail. When his memory was wiped, the technicians were supposed to have left him with only a vague recollection of Xandar and only the knowledge that he had participated in a war, had fought bravely, and had been discharged home stripped of his rank and powers by his own request. As it was never expected that he would be re-activated, his knowledge of how to use all of his Nova powers was also deleted at the time. The Worldmind scanned Rich's brain. The technicians had been sloppy in their work. Not understanding the workings of the human brain very well, they had erased the "indexing" system in the frontal areas of Rider's brain; but had left the actual memories intact. So, Rider still possessed all his memories of the events of his earlier time on Xandar, but had no direct pathway to the actual memories due to disruption of his indexing and file-accessing functions. The Worldmind realized that Xandar had inadvertently done a great disservice to Richard Rider. Their clumsy intervention had resulted in a retardation of his maturational processes as he had been deprived of the maturational benefits of all of his wartime experiences. He would now only be able to access memories when new or indirect pathways were created to these memories via trauma, cues of trauma, or specific salient reminders of past events. Fortunately, this time his brain had accessed a memory that had helped him heal rather than a memory that might induce an episode of PTSD such as he experienced and was treated for during the Second Xandar-Skrull War.


Chapter Six: Back to the Future

Rich opened his eyes and was greeted by the sight of Cammi and the Worldmind avatar standing over his bed. "What's going on?"

The Worldmind was the first to speak. "Greetings Centurion Rider. You suffered several injuries in your fight with Annihilus requiring me to place you in a coma while your nanobots healed your body. You are now completely healed and fit for resumption of duty."

Cammi was relieved that Rider was going to live but there was no way she was going to let him know she cared. "What a wuss" she muttered just loud enough for Rich to hear as she turned and walked to the cockpit to see what Drax was doing.

Rich got up and looked in a mirror. He was taken aback by the long scar stretching from his forehead, over his right eye, and to his cheek. He looked at the Worldmind questioningly.

The Worldmind appeared to be distressed for a moment. "My apologies Richard. I was unable to heal the scar. That will unfortunately require direct surgical reconstruction by a skilled Xandarian Plastic Surgeon as those cells were damaged when Annihilus penetrated your graviton shield and you came into direct contact with him. His anti-matter essence literally mutated those cells beyond repair and the nanobots were unable to reconstruct them. We had to excise and discard those cells before they mutated further and endangered your life."

Rich nodded affirmatively in agreement and understanding. "Where are we?"

The Worldmind appeared to be relieved that Rich was changing the topic of conversation. "Richard. It is critical that you pay attention at this time. We are in the Tauron system. Please access your Head's Up Display to download pertinent information."

With a mental command, Rich ordered his HUD to download tactical and general information about the Tauron. Instantly, Rich was possessed of knowledge of the Tauron culture, its military strengths and weaknesses, and his group's current situation in regard to the Tauron. The Tauron evolved from herbivorous herd animals who looked much like Terran bulls. In fact, in terms of physical appearance, the Tauron reminded him of ancient Earth legends about Minotaurs. Curious, he cross-referenced and found that a Tauron ship had indeed crash-landed on Earth in ancient times; and that the survivors had been captured and imprisoned in a maze where they had been forced to fight for the amusement of an ancient Earth king. Turning from this amusing digression, he learned that the Tauron were ruled by a Syndicate and that their government was rather unstable. Finally, he noted that the Tauron were famed shipwrights; producing some of the finest starships in the galaxy.

The Worldmind continued its briefing. "We are on course to Tauron Prime and will soon rendezvous with one of their warships to receive further instructions from the Tauron government. We expect to be given clearance to proceed to the Xandarian Embassy on Tauron Prime where I will construct a quantum mainframe and download into it. You will remain The Nova Prime and together we will organize Xandar's allies to defend against the Annihilation Wave. We will counter-attack while they are busy fighting the Skrulls. We will weaken them by forcing them to fight on two fronts; defeating them by trapping them between our forces and those of the Skrull Empire. Though fragmented, the Skrulls should be motivated to fight against a common enemy and cooperate with our efforts."

Rich smirked. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend?"

The Worldmind appeared to be pleased by Rich's analysis. "Precisely Richard. You should know that Drax is not in favor of this plan. He believes that the Tauron are unreliable allies. It is likely that he and Cammi will arrange transport elsewhere once we have arrived at our Embassy."

Rich was relieved. "Fine. I don't want to be responsible for civilians anyway."

Drax poked his head into the compartment. "Cammi told me you were finally awake. Want to come up front and see what your know-it-all AI has gotten us into?"

Rich and the Worldmind avatar walked with Drax along the short corridor to the cockpit. Looking out the window of the cockpit, Rich could see that they were flying directly into an armada of warships. The lidar screen indicated over one-thousand warships of various sizes and classes amassed along their flight path. Communications indicated that they were being hailed by Tauron Vice-Admiral Ga-Noth.

Rich answered the hail. "This is Centurion Richard Rider commanding the Xandarian scout ship on course to your flagship."

The viewscreen was filled with the image of the Minotaur, Vice-Admiral Ga-Noth. "Greetings Centurion and welcome to Tauron. My government has ordered me to allow you direct passage to Tauron Prime where you may proceed immediately to the Xandarian Embassy. Do you require any aid or assistance at this time?"

Rich shook his head negatively. "No sir. With your permission, we will alter course, engage warp drive, and proceed directly to Tauron Prime and the Xandarian Embassy."

Ga'Noth nodded his assent. "Permission granted. Good flying and good luck Centurion. All Tauron is saddened by the recent tragedy on Xandar."

Rich felt a lump in his throat. "Thank you sir. Rider out."

Rich nodded to Drax and Drax jumped the ship into warp. Within a few minutes, they were out of warp and in orbit around Tauron Prime. An enormous shipyard could be seen in orbit. Rich caught sight of a familiar shape docked at one of the larger ports. He turned to the Worldmind in astonishment. "Is that one of ours?"

The Worldmind appeared to be proud of the starship. "Yes Richard. That is a new experimental battleship prototype based on the design of the Upholder Class starship on which you originally journeyed to Xandar."

Rich grinned broadly, happy to see a facsimile of his old ship. The ship was in the same basic shape as his old long-lost ship; but only about half the size. It was painted in Xandarian colors of red, yellow-gold, and navy.

The Worldmind continued. "This was to be the prototype for a new generation of battleships. Utilizing a combination of Xandarian and Tauron technology, it was our goal to produce a new battleship; smaller and faster than our dreadnoughts, but with all the same firepower. It is not yet formally commissioned; but it is operational. It will be the flagship for our campaign to destroy Annihilus' forces."

Drax rolled his eyes. "If you two are finished sight-seeing, reminiscing, and jerking each other off with shared delusions of military grandeur; maybe you could arrange a flight path for me so I can land this piece of schlag ship of yours before it falls apart."

The Worldmind remained impassive. "Please check your navigation screen. I have contacted the Embassy hanger bay and it has arranged a flight path for us with Tauron flight control authorities. If you will switch to auto-pilot, the embassy computer will land us."

Drax switched to auto-pilot and the ship swung around in a lazy arc and dived into the atmosphere at a comfortable angle. They threaded their way through the busy air traffic over Tauron's capital city, Bovana, and headed for a group of buildings that were obviously of Xandarian architecture. A large iris on top of one of the buildings opened, and the ship touched down for a perfect landing. The iris closed as Drax, Cammi, Rich, and the Worldmind avatar disembarked. Robot maintenance drones converged on the ship to conduct repair and maintenance operations. Strangely, there were no Xandarians to greet them. Rich looked questioningly at the Worldmind avatar.

The Worldmind was, of course, aware of Rich's thoughts; and simply stated, "There will be no welcoming party. All of our staff and military support personnel were called back to help defend Xandar when we became aware of the possible threat from The Negative Zone. The embassy is being maintained with robots and computers. However, if you will all follow me, I will see to your needs and comforts."

Rich tensed as Drax aggressively stepped in front of the Worldmind avatar, halting its progress. Drax was irritated. "You promised me a ship and other materials for a safe passage out of here after we landed. I see no other ships in this hanger. I am claiming this piece of schlag scout ship. I need repairs to the ship to make it reliable. I need weapons and provisions. I need you to make arrangements with your Tauron friends for safe passage through their armada. Cammi and I are getting out of here as soon as possible."

The Worldmind remained unperturbed. "I will, of course, honor my agreements. You may have the ship. I have already ordered the maintenance drones to repair and upgrade it to make it a combat-class scout ship with better weapons, shields, and propulsion than it had before." A holographic map of the embassy appeared in front of Drax. "The food storage compartments are marked as is the armory. You have temporary authorization to travel within the embassy confines and procure whatever you need. The robots will obey your orders to load your provisions aboard the ship. I have also transferred one million pan-galactic credits into the ship's account for you so you may purchase anything you need on your journey. Finally, you have been given temporary diplomatic immunity; and you may leave in peace from this embassy and travel through space controlled by Xandar and its allies un-accosted. You may leave at your convenience."

Drax glanced at the embassy map, gestured to Cammi to follow him, and nodded to Rich in a perfunctory farewell as he stalked out of the hanger with Cammi running after him.

The Worldmind turned to Rich. "Please accompany me to the Command Center. We have much work to do."

Chapter Seven: A Plot for Revenge

Annihilus was reviewing reports from the envoys he had dispatched to all of Xandar's former allies to intimidate them into inaction so he could concentrate on his conquest of the Skrull Empire. He could then decimate Xandar's former allies one-by-one. Annihilus was still angry over losing so many ships in his conquest of Xandar, only to have his quarry, the great quantum computer of Xandar, slip away with the last surviving Nova Centurion. His jaw was still sore where the Nova Centurion hit him, and he burned with hatred for the filthy mammal. Thus, he was very interested to hear reports from his envoys to the Tauron system that the Nova Centurion had resurfaced and had landed on Tauron Prime. Annihilus immediately dispatched five battle groups to Tauron Prime with orders to capture the Nova Centurion and his companions.

Chapter Eight: The Plot Thickens

Drax was wasting no time. He wanted to provision his ship and get off the planet. His plan was to head to Titan. Once there, he could arrange to transport Cammi back to Earth. He had just ordered the robots to take 12 cases of field rations to his ship when Cammi caught up to him.

"Slow down!" Cammi yelled breathlessly.

Drax smirked and stalked toward the armory, forcing Cammi to again run to keep up with him.

Cammi found him in the armory strapping an energy weapon to one leg, a projectile weapon with an automatic re-loader to another leg, and a leather sash across his chest and back, to which he was attaching several long-bladed, sheathed adamantium knives.

Drax made eye contact with Cammi. "Come with me. I need to show you how to operate one of these weapons in case you're ever in a pinch like we got into back on Xandar when Rider almost crapped out on you."

They walked into the target practice range. Before Drax could begin his instruction, Cammi snatched a projectile weapon off the rack, popped in a clip, flipped off the safety, and affected a perfect shooter's stance as she expertly aimed the weapon at the silhouettes lined up on the far wall. She emptied the clip into the targets, producing a respectable number of perfect head and torso shots. When the clip was empty, she dropped the clip to the floor, popped in another clip, and flipped on the safety before returning the weapon to its cradle. "One of my mother's many crazy boyfriends was a survivalist gun nut. I've been shooting since I was six years old. Is there anything else about guns you want to teach me today?"

Drax grinned broadly. He really liked this little smart-ass girl. He wished Heather had been more like her. "Come on, let's find you a suitable weapon and head back to the ship. We need to get out of here before that d'ast AI gets us all killed." He turned to leave the armory and was suddenly struck by a brief episode of vertigo. He held his head in his hands. He had had this experience before and he knew the meaning of the experience. Thanos had re-entered this universe and he was nearby! He cleared his head and focused his thoughts. Every fiber of his being existed only to destroy Thanos. He could track him anywhere in this universe. D'ast! The Annihilation Wave was between him and Thanos! Opening his eyes, he made a decision. His trip to Titan would have to be postponed. Rider and his farking AI were determined to go after Annihilus; and Thanos was near Annihilus; so Drax would have to stay with Rider for the best chance of getting near enough to Thanos to kill him. This time, he thought to himself, he would make sure that Thanos stayed dead.

Chapter Nine: The Plight Thickens

Rich and the Worldmind avatar were in the Command Center of the embassy. The Worldmind had ordered the robots to teleport the contents of the storage bays and the armory to the prototype battleship and Rich was overseeing the last shipment. "Last shipment is away and sensors indicate that it has safely arrived aboard ship."

The Worldmind looked up from the console with which it was interfacing. "Excellent. I have activated the battleship's onboard PRIME computer and uploaded the embassy database to it. Environmental systems are now online and it is habitable by corporeal life-forms. It is now fully functioning and ready to receive us. It has begun to construct a quantum mainframe for me and we can board the ship soon to establish the ship as our mobile command and control center for our military alliance."

Rich wondered if Drax and Cammi had departed. He checked the embassy security system and was surprised to find Drax and Cammi on their way to the Command Center rather than the hangar bay.

The Worldmind froze. "Richard. It is critical that you pay attention at this time. PRIME has detected the entrance of five Annihilation Fleet battle groups into the Tauron system. They have just assumed orbit around Tauron Prime and ground troops are on the way to the surface and the shipyard. I am activating the automated defense perimeter for the embassy and for the battleship. We should teleport up to the battleship immediately. The Tauron are not attempting to defend themselves. I can only assume they have allied themselves with the enemy."

"Schlag!" Rich checked the teleport system and it indicated that the teleport signals were being jammed by the Tauron government. Rich hit the intercom system button. "Drax, we have incoming! Get to the ship! We'll meet you there!"

"Worldmind! With me!" shouted Rich as the avatar disappeared and the minibot flew into Rich's uniform, melding with it once again. Rich checked tactical as he took flight and headed toward the hangar bay. The embassy guardian androids were taking up defensive positions in the courtyard and on the roofs of the buildings. Heavy anti-aircraft artillery was rising from hidden underground bays in the courtyard. Switching to battleship tactical, he learned that PRIME had assumed command of the ship, had released docking clamps, was moving away from the shipyard, and had activated weapons and defense shields. The mighty Xandarian battleship was moving into position in geosynchronous orbit above Bovana. They had only minutes before it would begin taking fire from the approaching enemy battleships.

As he flew to the hangar bay, Rich heard the sound of weapons fire from the courtyard. Checking tactical, he was dismayed to find that they were already under siege from Annihilation air and ground troops. The Tauron had lured them into a trap! The Annihilation soldiers must have already been on the planet when Rich's group had arrived and had just been waiting for orders to attack. Explosions tore through the building and Rich could hear the buzz of annihilation insects flying overhead as a fierce battle raged outside.

Drax lifted Cammi onto his back and ran as fast as he could toward the hangar bay. A wall collapsed in front of him and several annihilation ground troop insects stepped into the corridor to block his way. He drew a weapon in each hand and began firing. The first wave of annihilation bugs went down but more poured into the corridor. He turned and ran back the way he came. He hoped that his brief glance at the embassy map had been enough to help him find an alternate route to the hangar bay. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that some bugs were pursuing them. The Annihilation troops weren't firing, so they must have orders to take prisoners. Drax felt Cammi shift and hook one arm under his knife sash to hold on. Cammi drew her weapon with the other hand and began firing at their pursuers; taking out several of them as Drax cut into another corridor.

Rich arrived at the hangar bay to the sound of gunfire resounding from an access corridor. The gunfire was getting nearer. Rich prepared a gravimetric pulse to take out the Annihilation Insects he presumed were converging on the hangar bay. He did a double take as Drax the Destroyer sprinted into the hangar bay with Cammi strapped to his back, sporting a projectile weapon that she was using to blaze away at some target back down the corridor.

Rich allowed himself a split second of slack-jawed amazement at the sight, then yelled to Drax, "Get the ship in the air! I'll hold off the bugs and clear a path for you out of the atmosphere. Make for the hangar bay of the Xandarian Battleship in orbit directly above us!"

Drax never broke stride as he bound up the entrance ramp and slammed it shut behind him. Rich stepped into the corridor from whence Drax came to find Annihilation insects climbing over the bodies of those Cammi had killed in preparation to enter the hangar bay. He fired massive gravimetric pulses from both hands into the corridor, causing the walls and ceiling to collapse on top of the insects and effectively sealing off access to the hangar bay. Through the ship's windshield, Rich could see Drax and Cammi strapped in to their seats. The ship was powered up and Drax signaled that the ship was ready to go. Rich checked tactical and found that the automated defenses of the embassy, including the anti-aircraft artillery, had been neutralized by the enemy troops; and that ground troops as well as aircraft were converging on his position. He ordered the iris to open but it was damaged and wouldn't budge. Drax had fired up the scout ship's engines and it was hovering and ready to fly. Rich could see Drax through the cockpit windshield impatiently gesturing and yelling for Rich to do something.

The Worldmind flashed a warning to Rich's tactical. "Richard. It is critical that you pay attention at this time. I am reading approximately one-thousand ground and airborne troops converging on our position. Also, a squadron of enemy fighter craft are circling overhead. I recommend immediate retreat to the Xandarian battleship. We cannot let it fall into enemy hands. If we are unable to save it, we must destroy it."

Rich opened a channel to the scout ship. "Drax! I'm going to blow the lid off this place!"

Rich pointed both hands at the hangar bay iris. "Worldmind! Full gravimetric power both hands! Blast radius large enough for the ship to pass!"

The Worldmind complied. "Ready at your discretion Richard."

Rich fired, blasting a hole in the roof of the hangar bay large enough to clear the ship. He flew straight out with Drax following closely in the scout ship.

The blast killed, confused, and/or scattered most of the ground and airborne Annihilation troops converging on their position; so Rich and the scout ship only took light fire as they exited the hangar.

Rich kept pace with the scout ship to protect it from enemy fighters. The Worldmind interrupted. "Richard. It is critical that you pay attention at this time. PRIME tactical has informed me that five Annihilation Battle Groups are converging on the position of the Xandarian Battleship Prototype and it expects to begin taking fire in less than five minutes. My readings indicate that Annihilation fighter ships will engage you in less than 30 seconds. If you increase speed to maximum sub-light, we can evade the needless and time-wasting distraction of engaging the fighters. We can then board the prototype and escape this star system in the prototype - all in less than four minutes."

Rich objected. "Drax and Cammi can't keep up with me if I go maximum sub-light. They'll be sitting ducks for those fighters and battle groups!"

The Worldmind dispassionately acknowledged Rich's analysis. "That is an accurate assessment Richard."

Rich was resolute. "Not gonna happen Worldmind. I won't abandon them."

The Worldmind's voice contained a hint of frustration. "Richard, you are needlessly endangering yourself and therefore my gestalt, the prototype, and the future of Xandar. Do you honestly believe that Drax would stay to defend you if he was in your position?"

Rich refused to entertain the Worldmind's line of reasoning. "Not gonna think about that right now Worldmind. Just tell me where those fighter ships are and help me take 'em out." The signatures of five enemy fighter ships appeared on Rich's tactical along with an attack solution recommended by the Worldmind. "Drax! We've got incoming enemy fighters! I'm going to break off and take them out. You take evasive action and keep heading for the prototype. I'll catch up to you!"

Rich broke away from Drax's ship and turned to engage the incoming enemy fighters. His gravimetric shields began to take projectile and energy weapons fire as soon as the enemy fighters were in range. Faster and more maneuverable, Rich was able to evade the fighters and draw them away from Drax. "Worldmind! Full gravimetric power to both hands - collimated beams!"

The Worldmind complied. "Ready Richard."

Rich fired at two enemy ships, destroying both. Two of the remaining fighter ships turned to engage Rich and the third continued after Drax. Rich knew he was running out of time. He had to end this now if he was going to save the prototype from the enemy. He flew directly through one of the attacking ships and blasted the other one with a gravimetric pulse before giving chase to the final ship that was hot on Drax's tail.

Drax was an excellent pilot; but so was his pursuer. The upgrades to the scout ship were helping; but it was simply not as fast or maneuverable as a fighter. Drax pushed the ship to its limits but was still taking heavy fire. No matter how many dives and turns he took, he couldn't shake the fighter and the scout ship's shields were about to buckle. Drax returned fire from his rear energy weapons; but the enemy fighter easily evaded it. The scout ship was taking heavy damage. Drax hit the communication button. "God-d'ast-it Rider, where are you?! You're supposed to be my farking wingman! Get over here and take out this d'ast fighter!"

Drax's lidar indicated that the fighter had a weapons lock on him again and he knew that the scout ship would be breached if it got another good hit. A proximity alarm sounded. Drax looked up to see Rider flying straight at his windshield. "What the fark!" Drax instinctively ducked, but Rider pulled up and over the scout ship at the last minute, surprising the enemy fighter as he flew straight through it; destroying it before it had a chance to react.

Rich could see the scout ship had heavy damage as he turned to follow Drax into orbit. "Drax! Is your ship spaceworthy?"

Drax replied angrily. "Barely and no thanks to you! You're a piss poor wingman Rider, you crazy mother-farker!"

"You're welcome Drax." Rich checked tactical and didn't like what he saw. "Worldmind! What's our ETA at the prototype!?"

The disembodied head of the Worldmind avatar appeared on Rich's display. "Because you insisted on wasting our time with this needless combat, our ETA at the prototype is now approximately 90 seconds after it begins taking heavy fire from the lead battle group."

Rich patched into PRIME's tactical. The enemy battle groups were closing and positioning themselves to surround the Xandarian battleship. The Xandarian battleship had raised shields, charged weapons for firing, was acquiring targets, and computing firing solutions. It would begin firing in 60 seconds. Thirty seconds later, it would begin taking fire. At their current speed, his group would arrive at the ship 90 seconds after it began taking heavy fire; placing them in considerable danger and risking losing their new battleship. If Drax and Cammi could fly as fast as he could fly, they would all be aboard ship before PRIME began firing. Rich had an idea. "Worldmind! When I give the word, expand my graviton field to surround Drax's ship. Drax! When I give the word, cut engines!"

"What! Rider are you farking insane?" came Drax's incredulous reply.

Rich snapped, "I don't have time to explain! Just do it if you want to live!"

The Worldmind avatar appeared on Rich's visor. "Richard. Given the weakened structural integrity of Drax's ship, your plan has only a 40% chance of success."

"That's a better chance than the alternative!" Rich flew under Drax's ship and grabbed hold of the landing sled. "Drax! Cut engines! Worldmind! Expand the graviton field!"

Rich felt his graviton field surround the ship. "Worldmind. Give me maximum sub-light speed!"

"Maximum sub-light Richard." The Worldmind complied even though it was unhappy with Rider's apparent plan.

Instantly, Rich accelerated to maximum speed, pushing Drax's ship along with him. They cleared the atmosphere and rapidly closed on the Xandarian battleship. "Here's the tricky part Drax! I'm gonna decelerate and withdraw my graviton field. You'll have to cut the engines back in and dump enough speed for a safe landing on the hangar deck before PRIME opens up on the enemy ships!"

Drax objected. "Rider, this piece of schlag ship is about to fall apart! I don't know if it'll take the stress! Just take us into the hangar deck in your graviton field!"

Rich shook his head negatively. "Can't do it Drax! I gotta clear us an escape path and hold off the enemy long enough for our battleship to get away! Just get aboard before you get caught in the crossfire!"

Rich decelerated to a speed he thought the ship could handle and broke away, sending Drax's ship careening toward the open hangar bay of the Xandarian battleship before turning and heading for the leading enemy battle group.

Drax cursed Rider and the Worldmind under his breath. He was coming up fast on the hangar bay. "Hold on Cammi!" Drax cut in the engines and flipped the craft, firing short and controlled bursts from the main thrusters to dump speed. The ship shook under the stress and structural integrity alarms sounded. He flipped the ship again and fired another burst to dump more speed just before he cleared the hangar doors. As he cleared the doors he applied maximum thrusters and brought the scout ship in for a crash landing in the middle of the hangar bay.

Rich's tactical indicated that Drax's ship had entered the hangar bay. A second later, PRIME fired the main battery of the Xandarian battleship at the vanguard of the enemy battle group, a large cruiser flanked by two destroyers. The three ships were destroyed in a colossal explosion. "D'ast! Worldmind! Was that a gravimetric pulse?!"

The Worldmind replied promptly. "Yes Richard. It is critical that you pay attention at this time. The enemy battleship you are about to engage has a weapons lock on us. You must take evasive action immediately."

Rich had an idea. "Is it the commanding battleship?"

The Worldmind confirmed Rich's idea. "Yes Richard. If you destroy it, the hive mind of the enemy will have to re-organize around a new leader. It may give us a few seconds advantage to effect an escape."

Rich made a rapid course change just in time to avoid being struck by a powerful anti-proton beam. He made several rapid course changes to confuse the enemy battleship as he bore down upon it; easily avoiding all the energy and projectile fire directed at him. "Worldmind! At my command, Gravimetric Pulse with full radiative aura!"

"At your command Richard." The Worldmind sounded confident in Rich's plan.

Rich flew directly into the enemy battleship, quickly reaching the mid-ship level. "Now Worldmind!"

The enemy battleship blossomed with titanic explosions, tearing itself apart as Rich raced away from it. The remaining ships in the enemy battle group were thrown into confusion and disarray by their commander's destruction.

Rich checked tactical. They were nearly surrounded and their options for escape were narrowing. There would only be one chance to capitalize on the enemy's confusion. "PRIME! Head for the following co-ordinates: 118x22x81!"

The Worldmind sounded alarmed. "Richard. You are sending our battleship directly into a position held by the enemy."

Rich smirked. "Read my thoughts Worldmind."

"Ah yes. Risky plan, but it has a high probability of success." The Worldmind almost sounded relieved.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence." Rich checked tactical. PRIME was heading the Xandarian battleship for the designated coordinates, weapons blazing. The Xandarian battleship shuddered under the heavy enemy fire, but the shields held. Weapons fire blossomed from the hull of the Xandarian ship, pulverizing any enemy ships touched. As the Xandarian ship approached the coordinates designated by Rich, enemy ships began to fall back under its withering fire. Those that chose to stay and fight quickly perished. Rich was closing on the Xandarian battleship. "Worldmind! Stargate at 118x22x81!"

"Destination?" the Worldmind inquired.

Rich snapped his answer. "Anywhere but here!"

"Stargate forming Richard." The Worldmind sounded like it thought Rich's plan might actually work.

Rich smiled as the stargate formed, crushing enemy ships close to its event horizon as it collapsed and folded space-time. The Xandarian battleship sailed into the stargate, closely followed by Nova Prime Richard Rider.

The Worldmind sounded the alarm. "Richard. An enemy battleship has followed you into the wormhole and has a weapons lock on you. If it collapses the wormhole, we will all perish."

Rich felt his pulse quicken. "Time to stargate terminus!"

"Thirty seconds gravimetric Richard" the Worldmind replied solemnly.

Rich made up his mind. "PRIME! Accelerate to full speed! Worldmind! Collapse the wormhole around the enemy ship!"

The Worldmind was clearly less than pleased. "An inadvisable and thoroughly dangerous course of action Richard."

Rich had had it with the Worldmind questioning every decision he made. "Just do it!"

"Wormhole collapsing" the Worldmind acknowledged rather begrudgingly.

Rich saw the Xandarian battleship accelerate to full speed and clear the stargate terminus. He glanced over his shoulder just in time to see the enemy battleship crushed by the rapidly collapsing wormhole. "Worldmind! Give me full speed!"

He glanced behind him. As expected, the collapse of the wormhole was accelerating.

A hint of fear crept into the Worldmind's voice. "Richard. It is critical that you pay attention at this time. The wormhole collapse is accelerating. We are in critical danger."

Rich tried to keep the anxiety and irritation out of his voice. "I know!"

Tactical indicated that the collapse was now only 100 yards behind him and accelerating.

"Richard!" said the Worldmind, anxiously awaiting Rider's next orders.

Tactical indicated the collapse 50 yards behind him and accelerating. The terminus was 50 yards ahead of him.

"RICHARD!" The Worldmind almost sounded panicked.

Tactical flashed red with proximity alarms. The collapse was 25 yards and closing.

"I KNOW!!!!" shouted Rich.

Rich cleared his mind and willed an increase in speed. He accelerated beyond the maximum recorded speed for a Nova Centurion - 99.99% lightspeed, clearing the event horizon of the terminus just before it winked out of existence.

The Worldmind was surprised by Rider's sudden extra burst of speed. When it tried to analyze the powers Rider had just demonstrated, it was met with an image of the Royal Seal of Xandar and a royal edict - indicating that by order of King Ferenus any records concerning Richard Rider's extraordinary control of Nova Force were to remain sealed and no special investigations were to be undertaken without consent of the King. The order further forbade any genetic analysis of Rider. The Worldmind was bound by its programming to follow royal edicts, so it discontinued its analysis.

However, the Worldmind was unsettled. This last reckless action of Rider's had almost met criteria for implementation of the Emergency Protocols programmed by the creators. "Richard. You must never order me to endanger myself in such a manner again."

Rider took the Worldmind's statement as a joke. "No promises" he laughed.

Rich checked tactical. The Xandarian prototype battleship was ahead of him and decelerating. There was no sign of any enemy ships. The stargate had deposited them outside a planetary nebula.

Rich hailed the Xandarian battleship. "PRIME. Alter course to rendezvous with me and put me through to Drax if he's still alive."

Drax replied - irritated as usual. "I'm still alive no thanks to you, Rider, and your gods-d'ast AI!"

Rich smirked. "A heartfelt 'You're welcome' from both of us Drax."

Rich increased speed and quickly intercepted the Xandarian prototype battleship. He circled it, admiring the curves and lines of its fine engineering. Its hull looked different than his old ship. However, its texture was strangely familiar. "Worldmind. This ship is a beauty!" He flew close and touched the ship. "My God! Worldmind? Is this what I think it is?"

The Worldmind heartily plunged into pedantic mode. "Yes Richard. It is the latest breakthrough in Xandarian technology and Tauron engineering. Created by the greatest shipwrights in the galaxy, it is the ultimate melding of Xandarian armor technology, nanotechnology, and gravimetric science into a fighting vessel. It has the ability to fire gravimetric pulses as part of its complement of energy and projectile weapons. It also has graviton defense shields just like those used to protect your body. In the event of a dire emergency, the entire ship may be phase-shifted to a pocket dimension."

Rich was still awestruck. He ran his hand along the hull again. "It's like my uniform and the nanobots in my body, only made of metal like the old Xandarian battle armor!"

Worldmind was pleased by Rich's observations. "Precisely. If you would like to board her now, touch the area of the ship indicated by your HUD and request an airlock."

Rich followed the directions on his Head's Up Display and touched the hull. He requested entry and instantly he melted into the hull and found himself standing in a corridor. The unmistakable voice of the ship's PRIME computer came through the HUD. "Welcome aboard Centurion Rider."

Rich smiled in delight at the sound of PRIME's voice. "Thanks PRIME. Worldmind. Give me a map to the bridge and please ask Drax to meet me there."

The Worlmind avatar appeared next to Rich. "Yes Richard. Follow the directions on your HUD. Drax has been contacted and will meet you on the bridge."

Rich and Worldmind made their way to the bridge. The ship was brand new and it was incredible. He had no time for a tour just yet though. He needed to make sure they were secure and formulate a plan of action. The HUD directed him to a travel tube which promptly brought them to the bridge.

Drax and Cammi were on the bridge. Drax was impatient as usual. "What the fark Rider? Did you take the scenic tour?" He tossed a key card to Rider. "Here's the key to your AI's ship. Afraid it's in pieces on the hangar deck."

The Worldmind avatar stood next to Rich, projected from the ship's holographic audio-visual system. "I have already instructed the maintenance and repair robots to repair the ship. It will be completely restored in two days and Drax may then depart."

Drax decided not to reveal his true agenda. "Keep it. The Annihilation bugs could have killed Cammi and me back at the embassy. They didn't. That means they have orders to capture us. I figure we need to stay with you for the time being."

Rich shook his head. "Fine. It will be rough at first, but we can use a renowned warrior like yourself on our side for as long as you decide to stay and fight."

The Worldmind gestured to a flight plan it had placed on the main holoscreen. "Richard, I suggest that we proceed with all haste to the Xandarian Embassy in the Adanac System. The Adanac have been strong allies of Xandar for more than 200 years. They will surely participate in our efforts to form a military response to the Annihilation Wave."

Drax shook his head. "Rider! Are you forgetting that your AI just now almost got us all killed with a similar plan? Your AI is out of touch with reality! Things have changed since Xandar fell and it's still operating under all the old agreements made before the fall. You're no longer an asset to these independent star systems because you can't offer them military protection anymore. They're running scared and to them you two are a liability. If all you can do is follow the orders of your AI, then I need to re-think my decision to stay awhile longer because I think all your AI can do is get us killed."

The Worldmind remained impassive. "I am not programmed to give orders to a living corporeal or cyber-conscious citizen of Xandar. I am programmed only to make suggestions to and follow legal orders from duly authorized agents of the Xandarian government. Richard is the last remaining duly authorized corporeal agent of Xandar. I must follow his legal orders. However, I would note to both you and Richard that the government of Xandar has only rarely chosen to disregard my advice."

Drax laughed derisively. "Yeah and look what that got them. What is it - 3 times Xandar has been destroyed in the last 8 years? Great advice you've been giving them! You're just proving my point!"

Drax apparently touched a nerve with the Worldmind. "I am offended! I have been operational for more than 3000 years and have presided over a golden age on Xandar! I have a long history of bringing success to my people. Perhaps, after you have finished casting aspersions, you might regale us with the tale of your success in ridding the universe of Thanos once and for all."

Drax's eyes narrowed and he clenched his jaw as he crossed his arms over his chest.

Rich knew he had to intervene before the situation got out of hand. "Whoa. Let's get all the ideas on the table before we start the debate. Drax, if you have a better idea than the Worldmind's, then let's hear it."

Without taking his eyes off the Worldmind, Drax simply stated, "We need to get in contact with the Beliim Cartel."

Drax apparently touched another nerve with the Worldmind. "The Beliim Cartel! Of course, Drax the Destroyer would suggest that we consort with criminals, assassins, mercenaries, and sociopaths during a time of galactic crisis!"

Rich was not familiar with The Beliim Cartel and silently asked the Worldmind to bypass his HUD and send a quick reference directly to his brain's working memory. Instantly, he knew that The Beliim Cartel was the largest organized crime establishment in the local group of galaxies. The Beliim Cartel was involved in the gamut of illegal activity including but not limited to racketeering, assassination, mercenary provision, drug dealing, and smuggling contraband. The criminal investigation and apprehension branch of Nova Corps had been trying to shut down The Beliim Cartel for many years.

Rich was curious and motioned to quiet the Worldmind so as to hear Drax out. "Why get in touch with The Beliim Cartel?"

Drax looked at Rider. "As I said a few minutes ago, everything in this galaxy changed when Annihilus took out Xandar. It was a brilliant strategy if you think about it. Xandar was the strongest and most organized military in the galaxy after the Skrull Empire fell into disarray. If anyone could have organized an effective galactic or even pan-galactic military response to the Annihilation Wave, it would have been Xandar. With Xandar gone and the Skrulls in disarray, The Andromeda Galaxy is a pushover militarily speaking. Annihilus can take this galaxy with relatively few losses to his forces. He can then use his plunders here to re-supply and rebuild his forces in preparation to take on the more powerful empires such as the Kree, Badoon, and Shi'Ar. He is probably busy now organizing to engage what's left of The Skrull Empire. Truth is, the Skrulls are too much in disarray to mount an effective defense. He'll just take out the warlords one-by-one; same as he'll do to Xandar's former allies. That's why the AI's idea is a bad one. Your former allies will react the same as the Tauron - run scared and try to cut a deal with Annihilus; hoping to be spared by him that way. As I said before, in that environment, you two are liabilities to your former allies, not assets. Of course, sooner or later he'll get around to taking them out too even if they do cut a deal with him at first. Now, if this were a conventional war, The Beliim Cartel would be relatively unaffected. Organized crime can survive in just about any political climate or withstand any political regime. But by now, like us, they've figured out that this particular war is different. This particular war is going to be bad for business because it's not about ideology, regime change, or resources per se. This is a war against all life in this universe; and that's gonna be bad for business by definition. They know this because they make it their business to know things like this. As they are a pan-galactic organization free from the control of any particular government, they can collect intelligence pan-galactically and shift resources as needed. All it takes is money and motivation. They'll be motivated to help us resist Annihilus; and your AI there has at its disposal all the money in Xandar's treasury stored in secure repositories throughout the local group. We just need to contact The Beliim Cartel, buy their help and resources, and use this new battleship of yours to stage guerilla warfare against Annihilus. We can disrupt his supply lines, take out small groups of ships, and generally harass him and disrupt his war effort. It may give the Skrulls time enough to put aside their differences and mount an effective defense. If so, then we can convince Xandar's former allies to join with us at that point; and together with the Skrulls, we can catch Annihilus in the middle between our two armies and crush the son of a schmaug."

Rich shook his head affirmatively. Drax had obviously earned the name "Destroyer" for good reason. His logic was pretty convincing. "Reaction to Drax's points Worldmind?"

"Drax's logic is sound if one proceeds from the assumption that all of our allies are cowardly or weak in the face of adversity. That is simply a false assumption, despite the treachery of our former Tauron allies. Our treaties and mutual protection pacts with our allies have stood the tests of time and adversity. I support my original plan of organizing all the independent star systems allied with Xandar into a military force to crush Annihilus. I have carefully analyzed all of the military factors and I am convinced that my logic is sound."

Drax looked at Rich. "Well Rider, it's down to you to make the decision. Do you choose the tried and failed advice of an AI; or the advice of a seasoned war veteran such as myself?"

Before Rich could answer, the ships lights flickered red and emergency alarms began to sound.

The Worldmind froze for a second. "Richard. It is critical that you pay attention at this time. PRIME's tactical has just detected the arrival of 97 warships into this system."

"Schlag! How did they find us? PRIME! Raise shields and charge weapons. Begin target acquisition and computation of firing solutions! Worldmind! How much time till the Annihilation Wave ships are within firing range? Do we have time to stargate out of here and escape?" Rich donned his helmet in preparation for battle.

"Richard. They are not Annihilation Wave ships. My analysis shows Tauron quantum signatures." The Worldmind projected an image of the ships on the main holoscreen.

Rich glanced at the holoscreen. "Same difference. Do we have time to get out of here?"

The Worldmind nodded affirmatively. Yes, but Richard - my readings indicate that most of the ships have sustained light to heavy damage. None of them have assumed offensive or defensive postures. We are being hailed by Vice-Admiral Ga'Noth."

Rich made his decision and began issuing orders. "Worldmind. Begin computation for a stargate out of here. Have PRIME do a shipwide scan to determine if we have a tracking device attached. Put the Vice-Admiral's hail through to me."

Vice-Admiral Ga'Noth's image filled the bridge's holographic viewscreen. The bridge of his ship looked as if it had suffered heavy damage. "Greetings again Centurion Rider on this most unhappy day."

Rich replied tersely. "What can we do for you Vice-Admiral?"

Ga'Noth paused a moment to consider his words. "I am calling to request a meeting with you to discuss your terms for joining together in a resistance movement against Annihilus."

Rich smirked. "Why should we meet with you or trust you after your government sold us out to Annihilus?"

Ga'Noth broke eye contact and looked down at the floor for a moment. When he again made eye contact, he looked sad. "Because the Tauron Syndicate has fallen. As soon as your ship escaped, Annihilus' forces turned their attack to Tauron, devastating our planet and our fleet of ships. We were the only survivors from the fleet. We came to ask Xandar's aid in liberating our planet. We want to join Xandar in opposing Annihilus."

"Xandar is not in a position to provide the kind of aid it provided in the past as you well know." Rich was trying to keep annoyance and impatience out of his voice. "How do we know we can trust you and how did you find us?"

"We helped build your ship; so we embedded a tracking device. As to the trust issue, you know you can trust us because if we had wanted to, we could have brought the entire Annihilation Fleet to your location. Also, I bring you a gift to show my good faith - your new Xandarian fleet of battleships." Ga'Noth stepped back and gestured. Behind him were two dark black cylinders about six feet tall and 3 feet wide.

Rich looked at the Worldmind avatar. The Worldmind understood that Richard wanted an explanation. "Richard. The Vice-Admiral is offering to give us two Xandarian Science Projects we were conducting in collaboration with the Tauron government . They were codenamed Project Aurora and Project Orion."

Rich raised his eyebrows as if he understood. "Vice-Admiral, I need to confer with my staff privately. Hold your ships in position right where they are or I will be forced to instruct my ship to begin firing."

"Acknowledged Centurion. We are holding position pending further communication from you." Ga'Noth's image then faded from the holo-screen.

Rich wasn't about to take any chances. "PRIME. Monitor the movements of those Tauron ships. I want to know the second they power up defenses or weapons."

Compliant as always, PRIME responded, "Yes Nova Prime Rider."

Rich turned to the Worldmind avatar. "All right Worldmind, tell us about Projects Aurora and Orion."

The Worldmind projected images on the main holoscreen as it talked. "Aurora and Orion were to be the first ships of the line in the new fleet of battleships of which the one we are aboard is the prototype. The new line of battleships was meant to correct our Centurion to ship disparity by creating a new line of smaller and more powerful battleships requiring little in the way of crew complement to keep them operational. We designed them to duplicate many of the powers and abilities of our Nova Centurions."

Rich frowned. "So the plans for the ships are in those cylinders?"

"In a manner of speaking. The ships themselves are in the cylinders." The Worldmind paused in anticipation of Rich's follow up question.

Puzzled, Rich simply said, "Please explain."

Images of nano-bots filled the holoscreen as the Worldmind adopted its pedantic mode. "As you know, this ship is constructed of nanobots. This ship was not built in a conventional sense. It was grown by self-replicating nanobots. Those cylinders contain the nanobots that will grow the Aurora and the Orion once I give them authorization to begin and once an asteroid of the proper mass and containing the proper balance of carbon, nickel, and iron may be found. The nanobots will process the asteroid's materials; using them to construct the ships."

Rich finally understood. "So Ga'Noth is offering us our property back. Ships we will desperately need if we are to oppose Annihilus."

"So it would appear." The Worldmind looked to be in favor of the proposed deal.

Rich gave Drax a sideways look. "Have any reaction Drax?"

Drax sneered. "Humph. The only herd animal I trust is the one I ate for dinner last night. Though I do have some respect for this warrior class of Tauron; overall, I don't trust them to keep from cutting and running at the first sign of trouble. You can't run a successful guerilla campaign that way. If they join us, we'll have to take precautions."

Rich made his decision. However, there was something he needed to know before he could properly hail Ga'Noth. "Worldmind, one question. If the next two ships had names, what is the name of this ship?"

The Worldmind avatar made eye contact. "A name was never assigned to the prototype other than 'prototype.' In such cases, the first Captain is allowed to name the ship per Xandarian tradition. As you would be considered the first Captain of the ship Richard, what would you like to call her?"

Rich considered several possible names; but truly there was only one name for this ship in his mind. This ship would be the instrument for avenging Xandar and should be named thusly. "Call her the Vengeance."

The Worldmind avatar nodded affirmatively. "Acknowledged Richard. This ship is now officially designated the XBS Vengeance, flagship of the Xandarian fleet."

Rich smiled - he had never named a ship before and was rather pleased with his choice of names. "Thank you Worldmind. PRIME. Hail Vice-Admiral Ga'Noth."

"Hailing frequencies open Admiral Rider" responded PRIME.

Rich looked at the Worldmind questioningly.

Worldmind read Rich's thoughts. "Richard. As the highest ranking Xandarian officer in the fleet, you would be considered the Admiral of the fleet."

Rich shook his head affirmatively. "This is Admiral Richard Rider commanding the Xandarian Battleship Vengeance hailing Vice-Admiral Ga'Noth."

Ga'Noth appeared on the holographic viewscreen.

Rich made eye contact with the Minotaur. "Vice-Admiral Ga'Noth. I accept your good faith gift to us and also accept your request to join the Xandarian fleet. Welcome to the fleet Vice-Admiral. We will meet within the hour to make detailed agreements and plans. We will do all we can to save your people."

"Acknowledged Admiral Rider - and thank you sir. We will serve you faithfully. Ga'Noth out."

Rich turned to Drax and tossed the key card to the scout ship back to him. "Drax, you're going to need this. I want you to get in touch with your contacts in The Beliim Cartel. We're going to need reliable intelligence reports, supplies, and other support materials for our new 100 ship fleet. Worldmind. Provide Drax with funds from the Xandarian treasury sufficient to accomplish his mission. Also, since we now have a fleet, the independent star systems may be more receptive to our overtures. As soon as we've established a secure base of operations, we'll send secret envoys to their governments. Does that sound like a plan we can all support?"

Drax shook his head affirmatively.

The Worldmind simply responded, "Yes Richard."

Rich was pleased with all the working agreements. "All right, let's get to work. Worldmind, I'm going to need a quick tour of the ship and some quick lessons on how to run a fleet; and please arrange a meeting with Vice-Admiral Ga'Noth. Have him come to this ship. Drax, I'm going to need those lessons you promised me too. Gentlemen, we've got a guerilla war to launch!"


End - The Guerilla War (Story 1): Echoes of the Past - Portents of the Future

Look for Story 2 in the Guerilla War arc: Pinnacle of Light - Abyss of Darkness

Coming soon in 2010.