Ain't Disney nor a British lady.
Needless to say, this story was the winner of the large story poll this time. That being said, I lost six days this month in terms of writing time thanks to RL. So despite the fact this was the large story winner, this chapter is going to be short side.
I wanted to get this chapter out despite that for several reasons:
First, because there was a good place to break off the chapter, and an equally easy way to add on more to the end of the chapter to make up for it in the next.
Second, so that it would not carry over into next month and I could get on to the next month's work on time, which I haven't been able to do for several months now.
Third, smaller stories are easier to edit. I still don't have a dedicated ATP editor since my small mistake man has not contacted me since November, and the editors that have come forward to try and help have other areas of concentration or haven't contacted me since. If you think you can do the job, or even go over older chapters and correct them, you will receive forty votes for every old chapter looked over and sixty to look through the new one in the monthly polls. However, I do have end-month deadlines for that last, which seems to be a hang-up LOL.
And that brings me to the Fourth reason. I hope to have a few days to go back over the past chapters of ATP and correct errors that people have pointed out. But I will say now that any points about the 'timeline' will be ignored. While I understand that mistakes in tech and society-type stuff can be annoying, there is no chance in hell of anyone creating a believable timeline from anything touching on the Marvel universe. None. The simple reason is that the characters in Marvel do not age nearly enough for the number of changes in the world around them – Colossus was born on and worked for the first eighteen years of his life in a communist farming community but has only recently reached middle-age as far as I know, if that. If I had tried to keep the world small – used the movies or the X-Men Evolution worlds, it might be possible. As it is… Hercules and his labors or Atlas holding up the world come to mind. So I made my own.
And despite that, I'm still a day past my deadline! LOL. I am not one of nature's editors. I just can't concentrate worth a damn on it.
Last Chapter Summary: While dealing with his wedding to Emma and various other sundries, Harry is forced to deal with yet another alien threat to Earth, this one coming in the form of the Shi'ar Empire. A ship and the leader of the Imperial Guard, Gladiator. With the arrogance that seems inherent in every species, the ship and Gladiator attack, causing damage and death among the EDF but pulled from his wedding, Harry and his band disarm Gladiator much to the latter's pain. After some intense discussions and the capture of the ship at shield-point, Harry and the others are informed this was the Shi'ar's idea of a diplomatic mission to a smaller power that has something they want. Despite that, the threat they have brought word of is enough for Harry's Saving People Thing™ to activate, overriding all other mental protocols, though not entirely his sanity. When faced with the decision to leave her behind for her own good, Jean tamps down her anger at the Phoenix Force's meddling with her body to ask for more meddling, receiving that aid in return for a promise to deal with a bit of old business, returning Jean to fighting trim. Meanwhile, Harry puts together a band of Custodes and, after creating the first-ever Magitech ship, which he has named the Long Voyager, leads them, with the addition of Jean on a mission to the Shi'ar Empire. There to face Galactus, the original World Eater, and his psychopathic Herald as far away from Earth as they possibly can.
This has been edited by…ME! With Grammarly. The Word app instead of the online version this time. Let's see if it's any better…
Chapter 42: A Meeting of Birds and Monkeys
The talk among the crew as the Long Voyager jumped out from Terra was dominated by talk about Galactus and his Herald. What were their powers, what were their known weaknesses? What could the Custodes do against them, how could they plan for them? For some people, this was simply a mental exercise. For example, Ben knew he and his girlfriend were along to help deal with the Herald. They would have next to nothing to contribute in a fight against Galactus himself.
Several others seriously felt they might have something to provide like Amara, or Banshee, who had been a last-minute addition to the group. Reed had been unable to tell Harry if sonar-based attacks would have an impact on Galactus or his Herald, so he felt it was worth a try.
For Reed and Forge, the two of them were hip-deep in discussions on what kind of devices and technology they could use against Galactus. They were leaning heavily towards a sort of energy siphon or energy conversion-based weapon as well as fighting off longing thoughts on how to infiltrate Galactus' ship. Which, according to Reed, existed almost like in a pocket dimension connected to but not entirely part of Galactus himself. Bits and pieces of it would become apparent in the physical firmament as Galactus required them to build the energy siphon that he used to dine on his chosen worlds.
But most, like Morph and Betsy, were naturally anxious at the size of this challenge. They were going over the first battle against Galactus on Earth with Ben and Reed and Johnny as a way to allay those fears.
To the surprise of many, Harry did not take part in these discussions. Harry had learned by this point that making specific tactical-level plans for an unknown scenario was a waste of energy. How could you put create a plan for someone like Galactus when you weren't entirely sure your allies had seen all his abilities? No, better to make a general plan, based on what you knew of his mentality. Plan for the brain, rather than the power. And arrogant people - and Galactus was still a person regardless of his power - were the same the universe over.
Planning for the Shi'ar was more difficult, and that was what dominated Harry's mind. There just wasn't enough known about the Emperor himself that could really be trusted. Everything they had from the Shi'ar people themselves was secondhand, except for Gladiator and Mar'vel, and Una had been no help. But Gladiator was not a good source of information on this point. Emma and Charles and even Betsy had delved into his mind, to get a feel for the Emperor. But the man had been so uninterested in politics or decision-making that he didn't know anything except for when they pertained to the Imperial Guard.
He was a wealth of information on them, and Emma had made numerous portfolios that everyone in the Long Voyager had access to. But next to nothing outside. No policymaking, no nothing personal, except for the fact that the Emperor had apparently taken to bedding some of the female members of the Imperial Guard and had a hareem. Needless to say, the girls had been somewhat amused and annoyed by that, but since it hadn't seemed to slow them down in their duties, even that was but a side note to Gladiator.
"I find it highly ironic, given how straight we are in most of our own dealings, that we are taking such delight in planning for the trail that we inevitably see here," Hela said, leaning back in an immensely comfortable chair across from Harry. He sat in a similar chair, though somewhat larger.
Harry shrugged. "It's the story of the scorpion and the duck or whatever it was that tried to get the scorpion over the river," he said with a shrug.
At Hela's look of mild confusion, Ororo chuckled quietly from where she was leaning back against Jean, who was brushing her hair. Harry had done the same to Hela that morning before they had left Earth, and the woman had apparently found it quite pleasing judging by the humming noise that she had made throughout. "The punchline goes 'Why did you sting me! We were nearly across, and our agreement was that we would go our separate ways once there, asked the duck. I am a scorpion, it is what I do, the scorpion replied. And so they both drowned.'"
"Right. But in this instance, we're going to be planning for that betrayal from the get-go. Information is what I want most, both taking from the Shi'ar as much information as we can, and hiding everything to do with Earth and us. If the Shi'ar people don't have any kind of inbuilt defense against magic, I will erase from their minds everything to deal with us and how we dealt with Galactus. In fact, I'll go further and implant the idea that they dealt with it on their own, doing the same with all of their computer systems. It's not as if we want more notoriety. If the Shi'ar people are more willing to simply forget Earth exists entirely, it's more than fine by me. Until we're done with them though, shock and awe will serve us better."
The journey to the Shi'ar Empire would take about a week. And of course, their time aboard the Long Voyager could not be dominated entirely for planning what they would do when they got to Chandilar, the home system of the Shi'ar. In this, the ship proved itself well worth the time that it'd taken to create it. The rec room the sitting room, the commissary stuffed with food and the three house-elves aboard the ship, all made the time go by faster while keeping the crew in fighting trim.
Harry and his ladies, on the other hand, were more enamored of the time to themselves. They all missed Emma dearly, but one of them had to stay behind to lead the group left in charge of everything back on Earth, and there was no use crying over spilled milk. Jean was her usual lovingly tactile self, making up for lost time every night with Ororo and Harry, while she spent her days pushing Hela in terms of what the Asgardian goddess felt appropriate while courting.
Yet despite her sometimes-protests to the contrary, it was Hela who really pushed that line quite a bit further than she ever had before. To do so, she took advantage of the amenities of the ship one evening.
Part of the suite of rooms that Harry and his ladies - minus Hela, who had her own private quarters nearby - included a sizeable Roman-style bath like the one that was in Camelot. Only instead of being shared with everyone who could be very loosely termed an adult, this one was solely theirs, a bit of luxury that Harry had been unable to stop himself from including. So when Harry had come back from a workout with James, Ben, and Mr. Fantastic and heard the sounds of splashing within, he naturally supposed that either Jean or Ororo were using the bath.
Entering the steaming room with his towel tied around his waist, Harry instead saw through the steam a familiar black-haired woman lying back in the bath. Her head was above the water, as were her bared shoulders, her arms out along the sides of the pool to either side, propping her body up against the side of the bath, with one languid leg sticking out, visible above the bubble-covered water from the knee down.
It was a very pretty leg Harry reflected, staring at it, any words he might have said disappearing. White as the driven snow that leg was, with dainty little feet at the end, the toes wiggling at him alluringly. Harry was in no way enamored of feet overmuch, but suddenly that sight grabbed his attention because it led to that leg, and then to the body within that pool.
Nothing could be seen of that body, no matter how hard Harry strained his eyes such was the thickness of the bubbles on the surface of the water. But there was still the hint of her chest bobbing on the water, glorious mounds covered by suds. After that, Hela's skin was visible from her neck up, a neck so well- curved and so perfect that painters the world over would have given their eyeteeth to paint her neck alone, to say nothing of the rest of her. Powerful shoulders and arms that showed her training with her sword yet were distinctly feminine. Above them a face, that even here was covered with the mask, her lips painted the dark crimson Hela favored at times.
The smirk on that face broke Harry out of his stupor, as Hela intoned, "I take it you like what you see, Harry?"
Gulping, Harry tried to tear his eyes away, succeeding only after an extreme effort of will. "…This is a dangerous game you're playing, Milady. You set very distinct limits to what you would allow while we were courting, and this jumps well past that."
"Not as much as you might think, actually." With that, Hela's leg slowly retreated underneath the water. Water and bubbles that did not ripple at all, still blocking Harry's view of anything more. With a giggle, Hela stood up, seemingly putting the lie to that word, but Harry blinked as the bubbles which had previously hidden her body from view in the water came with her as she stepped out of the tub inset into the floor. They covered her from midthigh up to where they had previously been covering her chest, ending just at the top of the curve of her breasts.
At Harry's flummoxed, amused, and above all disappointed gaze, Hela let out a wicked laugh and held out a hand. "I don't suppose you could toss me one of those towels?"
Harry growled, shaking his head as he moved over and grabbed a towel. Then instead of simply handing it to her, he moved around her outstretched arm, draping it around her shoulders with a whispered, "Allow me." Two could play at this game, and it would not do to let Hela have everything her own way.
Hela tensed, but then Harry moved away back to the doorway, keeping his eyes on her face as she slowly pulled the towel around her. The spell on the bubbles dissipated as she did, the bubbles then flowing down those magnificent thighs of hers, to gently pool around her feet before slithering back towards the water to join their fellows. The two of them retained that stare until she finally allowed a nod.
At that sign of approval, Harry's eyes instantly swept up and down her form, taking her entire body in now that she had the towel in place. The raw desire and appreciation she saw there, set Hela's pulse to race, and she laughed throatily, moving forward towards Harry. She made to lean forward to kiss him, then paused. Instead, she bused his cheek as she walked past him. She was happy with kissing while in private most of the time, but Hela felt too close to giving in, to relaxing her rules of courtship right now. Instead, she let her hand settle on his shoulder, then slide down his arm and side, taking in the bulge in his own towel with desire and appreciation of her own.
"Have a pleasant night, my Seidr man," Hela whispered. Then she was gone, leaving the room the only evidence she had been there the spell still on the bubbles, and the lingering scent of Jasmine and elderflower in the air.
Moments later, Jean and Ororo entered, looking over their shoulders quizzically, both of them in towels as well from their own workout. That confusion disappeared as Harry caught them both in his arms, kissing each in turn before using magic to dissolve their towels. Before the ladies could realize what was happening, the three of them were falling back into the bath, where any thought faded quickly from all of their minds.
The next morning, Ororo sat down opposite Hela in the commissary for breakfast, propping her head on one fist, as she looked at the other woman. For a time, Hela pretended not to notice her presence, then looked up, a mock-questioning smirk visible on her lips and lower face. "Yes, Ororo, was there something?"
"You are an evil witch, my dear," Ororo replied, shaking her head. "Just realize that you are building up a certain level of karma."
"Oh, do tell?" Hela asked, leaning back and crossing her arms under her chest as she stared at the woman who had become closer to her than any other woman had throughout her entire life. Or as much as she could honestly remember of it thanks to the machinations of Those Who Watch Above In Shadow.
Ororo chuckled lightly. "Oh yes, very much building up a certain level of karma. I realize that you wish to go to your wedding nuptials a virgin, and we are all happy to go along with that idea. It is simply that well, there is experience, and then there is experience. Being the sole object of Harry's attention is quite like being at the center of a solar flare at times. And you are stoking the fire quite nicely."
Hela licked her lips. "Ahem, I hmm, fail to see how this is a problem. Unless you object to my stoking Harry's ardor when you seem so eager to take advantage of it?"
The two women laughed gaily at that, although the Ororo had been honest in her warning. She rather doubted that a week-long honeymoon would be enough for Harry to entirely show his desires for Hela after having been strung along for so long. And I very much doubt she'll be walking straight for a good while. Still, that's her problem, Ororo thought complacently. Until then, as Hela had pointed out, I will simply reap the benefits. Along with having Jean once more able to enjoy our more acrobatic lovemaking sessions.
Of course, not everything could be so fun. There was Harry's decision to talk to Alex to get to the bottom of whatever was bothering him. To do so, he invited the younger man to spar with him the third day out from Sol.
Alex frowned as he stared across the training mat from Harry, his hands cocked up in a traditional boxer's stance. It was a proper stance, and his footwork looked good too, Harry idly noticed. "I want to be clear on the rules of this match. No superpowers, no magic, just hands and feet, right? You not going to suddenly magic me into a toad?"
"Nothing of the sort," Harry chuckled, getting into his own martial arts stance, crouched low, one foot forward of the other, one hand behind his back, raised like a striking snake with the other palm forward. It was a stance that he had learned from Chiang Shi and had perfected fighting Steve and others in similar situations. "After all, there might be times when magic isn't applicable or even your own power."
Alex nodded, and then without warning, he took two steps forward and thrust out a punch. Harry redirected it, his other hand flashing forward in a return strike. Alex blocked that, although he was astonished by Harry's speed. "I thought you said no magic," he growled, even as he began his own attack once more.
Harry blocked and redirected his blows, twisting this way and that as he replied. "I'm not using magic. My reaction time is my own, I only heighten it with my Magia Erebea spell since the spell reinforces all my physical abilities."
The blonde Summers brother grunted at that, as if he didn't quite believe Harry, then grunted again as a kick caught him in the solar plexus, almost doubling him over. Still, he had seen it coming just enough to tense his muscles against it and twist to the side. He thrust out both hands, in attempts to hammer Harry in the face, but found one arm slapped into the other, and then another hand flicking out to catch his own in a twist that landed him on his ass. He fell with an "OOOPH" but rolled, coming up again with his fists still raised.
Harry did not press the advantage, having taken two steps back. He now smirked, doing something that had always annoyed him when sparring with Steve or Chiang Shi. He thrust out one hand and making a come hither gesture.
How long they fought, Alex couldn't tell. But at some point, he finally began to lose his temper and the control of his power that came with it.
He landed a punch on Harry, then as Harry rolled with that punch, coming up with another strike to the chest and chin, ducking backward just enough to thrust out his other hand. A blast of kinetic energy flashing out, the circles appearing around his forearm. Harry grunted as the blow hurling him across the room.
It took Alex a second to realize what had happened, and he stared down at his forearm in consternation.
A second later, Alex found himself flung backward into the opposite wall as Harry pointed to fingers at him. "Did you really want to play this game?" he asked lightly, pinning the other man young man there.
Alex growled, but slowly regained control of himself, shaking his head. "No, sir. Sorry about that."
Harry nodded and released the young man to fall lightly to his feet, where he slumped to his rear.
"Was it so hard to keep control of yourself?" Harry asked, waving the young man to stay where he was, as he moved to the side of the training area, grabbing up a bottle of water. This he hurled through the air towards Alex. Alex fielded it, using both hands to catch the heavy bottle which Harry had thrown like a football.
"No," Alex admitted. "Well, not at first. It's just, I couldn't land a hit on you. And I got frustrated, and then it just came out!"
Harry shrugged his shoulders. "I've always believed that it's better to dodge than to get hit."
Moving back to Alex, he crouched down next to him, breathing easily despite their recent exertions. "I can understand being frustrated like that, believe me. I got frustrated all the time when we were trying to hunt down Mr. Sinister. I just wanted a god damn target!" he yelled out aloud, winking at Alex, who surprised himself with a chuckle.
Then Harry went on, and he stiffened involuntarily. "But that's not the only thing angering you these days. It seems to me that your little uncomfortable a lot of the time, Alex. And I don't think it has everything to do with your big brother being your commander. If it was, you would have long since asked for a transfer to the Custodes itself rather than remained with the X-Men. And you would have worked better with Thunderbird than you apparently did."
Thinking how to answer that, Alex fell silent. Harry interrupted the process by saying, "Whatever you say here, I'll treat as if I was a priest in the confessional. I don't share what my men tell me in confidence. Not unless it pertains to the rest of the team, and I am given permission to do so. Understood?"
Alex nodded and admitted that it was indeed a bit of that. "It's just, Scott is so so freaking gung-ho! He's taken to this whole hero thing, to this soldier thing, to its discipline, so much better than I have. Did you know before I was picked up by Shaw that I was planning to make a living out of being a surfboarder? That's about as far from a regimented lifestyle is you get."
"Okay, but there's got to be a reason why you stay with the X-Men despite Scott's attitude getting up your nose, boyo."
"I wanted to connect with my big brother, is that so hard to imagine?" Alex said with a shrug, not looking at Harry.
Harry flicked him on the ear whole, shaking his head. "Pull the other one Alex, it's got bells on. It's Lorna, isn't it?"
Alex twitched, looking away. "Not entirely," he admitted. "I realize that a lot of what was done to us while we were with the hellions was indoctrination, I fully understand that, and I've you know had my eyes opened and everything else and went through all the psych profiling with Prof. Xavier. I know that Lorna and me, our relationship wasn't entirely natural. It was just two people of similar personalities reaching out to one another and having that connection amplified by the circumstances we found ourselves in. But that doesn't mean that it was all fake!"
The blonde threw his hands in the air thumping his head against the wall of the training area. "And she just turned me off! Like I was a switch and walked away from everything. And now, Lorna and Betsy are competing for Steve! Captain freaking America! How am I supposed to compete with that? How am I supposed to compete with that at all, when Lorna doesn't even give me the time of day? When she spends all of her time up on fortress Mars when the very idea of being up there like that most of the time makes me want to puke."
"You're adapting to the ship well enough," Harry interrupted mildly while internally grimacing. He hadn't realized that Lorna had ended her relationship with Alex so harshly. I knew they'd ended it, and that she had moved on quickly, but to just cut it off that harshly, that was not the right way to do this. Although I suppose Lorna might have thought it would stop his stalkerish tendencies, and I am just getting this from his perspective at the moment. I'm not blind to the fact he was far too clingy, yet she still could have handled it better.
"I guess I am. It's just if I tried to move into Fortress Mars, it would be because I was there to try to get back with Lorna. And that it'd be pathetic. But if I remained with the X-Men where Lorna stays to take lessons at the local college when she's on-planet, that would be different."
Harry slowly began. "I've talked about this with Lorna, and though she didn't tell me how harshly she broke up with you, Lorna's said she wants to everything that happened with the Hellions and Shaw behind her. I don't know everything that the two of you spoke about with Professor Xavier. Again, that was in confidence, and I'm not going to pry. Part of being a leader is knowing there are areas where you just don't want to get involved. And that is one of them."
He paused, and Alex nodded gravely, understanding Harry's point.
With that, Harry went on. "I will, however, ask her to speak with you when we get back. One way or the other okay? But that's all I can do there. But that can't be all that's bothering you to get in the way of your fieldwork. You didn't just respond poorly to Scott being put over you, you responded poorly to Thunderbird ordering you around too. There needs to be more to your anger and annoyance than just Lorna and your issues with Scott."
"I, I'm not certain I'm cut out for this at all," Alex admitted, looking down at his hands. "I don't even know what I want to do otherwise. Before my powers awakened, I thought my future could be found on a surfboard, like I said. I mean, I was good at it! But even after the whole pro-mutant, 'powers are what you make you strong, and strength is all that matters' thing was removed from my brain thanks to Professor Xavier, I still want to define myself by them. I still want to do something with this power I was given. But, if I can't be at least a commander, I'm not certain I want to be a simple soldier either. I know I could do the job, I know I could! If Scott can do it, I can too! I did it for the hellions, after all!"
"But you haven't done it for me," Harry said firmly, shaking his head. "And you won't." He held up a hand when Alex made to object. "This isn't honestly a mark against you, but have you noted that there aren't exactly all that many openings for leadership slots? And before you came along, Thunderbird had already made his mark. Colossus was my chief non-com. Dani and Amara both proved they had what it took to be team leaders. I can't just raise you into place alongside them, not when you don't have the training from my perspective and not when you don't have the time in grade with me and mine. It wouldn't be fair."
"I realize that intellectually," Alex admitted, shrugging his shoulders. "But when I'm in a fight, well, if I don't agree with an order, I can't stop myself from well arguing. One time turns to a few, then we start shouting, and it just goes downhill from there."
"Then I think you know what you have to do, don't you?" Harry said, standing up and moving to where the bottles of water lay, pulling out a bottle of something else entirely. A quick gesture and he was holding two shot glasses as he moved back to Alex. "It's whiskey."
"Er, I'm not old enough to drink, you know," Alex said, not objecting but wondering where Harry was going with this.
"Meh, old enough to fight old enough to drink. Besides, look me in the eye surfer boy and tell me you've never had a bit of the devil's drink?" Harry asked, to which Alex had to concede. "Anyway, the difference between an adult or a child isn't just age. And the difference between an amateur soldier or hell an amateur anything, and a professional, can be put down to a lot of things, right? But one of them is the ability to go along, to work with people you don't like, to even take orders when you think you might do a better job. You put on that uniform for the Hellions as an amateur. You wear a suit from me as a Custodes, you become a professional. That means yes, following orders from those above you."
Alex grimaced, but Harry went on unhurriedly, thrusting one of the filled shot glasses into Alex's unresisting hands. "And that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to permanently transfer you into the Custodes. Amara, me, Steve, we'll all start teaching you to see if you really do have what it takes to be a leader. And then if you do, I'll transfer you to the retrieval teams, to take over from Wendy while she goes back to school for real. She's been doing a bang-up job, but even Wendy knows that's because the teams don't do all that much fighting. That might change though has we start to move into the Middle East and India more."
"That's to the good. But I expect you to toe the line. To follow Amara's, Ororo's, or my orders on this mission." Hela wasn't the type to give out orders to the rest of the team, she would simply go her own way. Jean, too, wasn't really a leader. "If you don't, you're out. I will bloody well bench you completely, not just from the Custodes but from the X-men. And as a Custodes, whatever happens when I force the two of you to sit down and talk, you'll be in more contact with Lorna. Do you think you can handle that? Do you think you're ready to stop acting like an amateur and be a professional?"
Alex looked at the whiskey, then up at Harry silent for a few minutes. Then he lifted the shot glass to his lips and downed it like a champion. The instant Alex finished the shot, he coughed and dropped the cup to bounce on mats underneath them, slapping his chest hard with one hand, gasping. Harry reached over and thumped him on the back several times until he regained control of himself, straightening up. Then he gave Harry a somewhat crisp salute. "Yes, sir."
The next day as plans were made to find a hydrogen-rich gas giant to refuel with, Harry saw Alex sitting next to Amara in the commissary. Listening in, Harry heard him asking about her experiences after joining the Custodes, how it had shifted from a very fly by the seat of your pants, unofficial kind of organization into a more regimented type while still retaining a lot of the original's flexibility. What she had learned and why she had been able to step forward and become a leader. Her strengths and weaknesses.
Later, the two of them paired off in a computer simulation, where Amara drubbed Alex. She then proceeded to give the younger Summers a lesson on what he had done wrong. The young man fumed, but kept control of himself, asking questions without blowing up at her.
It was a start, Harry supposed.
However, everyone on board the Long Voyager had forgotten one thing. That sometimes, the journey to a destination can be just as much of an adventure as the destination. This came into play when they stopped in what should have been an uninhabited system to let their Hydrogen converters pick up more fuel.
Corsair sighed, leaning back in his captain's chair and threading his hands above his head, scowling ferociously. "So you're saying, we don't have enough engine fuel for more than three more jumps? That just isn't acceptable, Hepzibah."
"Then perhaps thou wouldst like to come down and do the work myself oh crowing cockerel?" The woman in front of him said, crossing her arms angrily in front of her chest and glaring at him. Her skunk-like tail twitching behind her.
The woman was an albino… well, anyone looking at her would've thought her a cat girl crossed with a skunk woman. She stood lithely on her feet, her entire body and posture betraying the incredible turn of speed and agility that she could manage on command. Yet while her body was beautiful enough to stack against any stripper that could have been found in a high-end joy-boy establishment, it was the woman's mind who had made her the second-in-command of the pirate crew called the Starjammers, the crew of the pirate ship of the same name, the theft of which had made them one of the most wanted pirate bands in the Shi'ar Empire for a time.
"Now hold on," Corsair said, holding up his hands placatingly to his lover. "I didn't mean it like that love, it's just after that last run-in with the Shi'ar's local fleet we jumped out from what all with two jumps. That would only allow us one jump to look for prizes. You see the problem."
The woman sighed, and some of the anger leached out of her body language when she realized that Corsair was not questioning her abilities. "Rather, he was questioning the way of the universe right now."
"You're forgiven," she said, slumping into a nearby chair. "But I can't eke out more than three jobs. The Starjammers is fast in real-time and in hyperspace, but despite all the work that was put into making it possibly the most fuel-efficient ship in space, there's still an upper limit to what we can do. Nothing myself or Dr. insect have been able to find can cut down further on our fuel requirements."
Christopher sighed, leaning back in his chair. "I wish we had done more into looking into procuring our own hydrogen, I suppose, but that system's so damn bulky we'd lose half our armament and carrying capacity."
"You might have to think about it in the long term. Or else we'll be forced to start thieving just for fuel's sake."
"And why would that be a problem?" Said a nearby voice. It was something like an angry, sort of growling voice, but one that had just a hint of robotic tone to it.
Corsair turned a lazy eye in the speaker's direction, seeing his chief gunnery officer, only gunnery officer really, leaning back in his own chair to glare at the other two. Looking at the fellow, there was only a little bit visible of the internal cyborg workings, an eye that had been replaced by a robotic looking monocle, some faint lines of spidery like electronics underneath the skin. Otherwise, he looked almost like some kind of modern-day Mongolian warrior, complete with a saber at his side. And a rapier slung against the chair beside him. "It might not be as glamorous as attacking a diplomatic convoy, or governors you got on a daily lark, but it is still piracy against the Shi'ar people, still hurts them in some small fashion."
"Perhaps, but not in a working fashion Raza," Corsair shot back, shaking his head. "Any fuel we steal would be replaced easily. The only way to make that work would be to destroy the ships we attack, and even then, they would be replaced quickly enough."
He then turned to the fourth man in the room, a being who was far more alien-like in his appearance as Raza or Corsair, or even Hepzibah. For one thing, he could have made three of any of the largest wrestlers that Corsair had ever known back on Earth. But despite that, the soul inside that large lizard-like body was perhaps the gentlest of the foursome. He was also incredibly intelligent if in a varied matter. He didn't have the engineering knowledge that Hepzibah did, but he could beat her hollow when it came to common sense, societal knowledge, star charts, and anything else. "What do you think, Ch'od?"
And as always, when the alien gave his advice, it was well thought out and worth listening to.
"Since we must factor that we have three jumps available, It seems to me that we have three choices." With a gesture, Ch'od opened up a star chart of the area, enlarging significant portions as he spoke. His thick lizard-like claws showed a surprising amount of dexterity as he worked them through the hard-light image. "We are, however, well outside of where anyone trying to find us from our last attack could think to look. So we need only concern ourselves with the immediate future."
When the others nodded in reply, Ch'od continued. "One, we can as our good Raza advises, attack for the sake of getting more fuel. There are six places we could do that, yet each of them come with commensurate risk."
"Define risk?" Raza asked, leaning forward.
"Recall that when we launched ourselves on this latest foray, I warned you that we might be going to deep into true Shi'ar territory rather than their absorbed races. Every planet in this sector has a system defense fleet. None of those ships can face us alone, or even ten to one."
The Starjammers had better shields than a Shi'ar battleship in a far smaller package, although their offensive weaponry wasn't all that much. They relied on speed more than anything else.
"But they will have enough ships to perhaps, if their local commanders are any good at all, to pin us in place. I would not recommend this option I'm afraid," Ch'od finished, sending Raza an apologetic look.
Raza frowned, looked at the map, then leaned back, his method of showing that while he didn't exactly agree, he didn't know enough to disagree with the larger alien.
"What about hitting a convoy or single ship somewhere?"
"We could do that. But how much fuel would we get?" Rejoined the lizard-like alien to Hepzibah's question. "There is, after all, a limit to how often we can, what is that phrase you used Corsair, robbed Peter to pay Paul?"
"Truth. There's only so often we can steal just to get fuel before we get unlucky or become too predictable," Corsair agreed. "Next?"
The giant alien nodded his head in thanks and moved on. "Two. We are not alone sailing these waters. There are other pirate bands, even operating here in Shi'ar space. Our ship and our own abilities would garner us a great deal of respect. Most decidedly a seat at the table of whatever pirate Lord we reach out to. We join up for a set amount of attacks, pray on larger groups of ships, Haul away enough loot to satisfy everyone for a given value. Then, once we have our fill of fuel and whatever else we desire, the agreement is finished, and we make our own way away.
"I like that idea not at all," the only woman on the crew said flatly. "For one, those pirates would no doubt be Shi'ar themselves. For another, you well know what depravity most pirates enjoy. I would be a prime target for such as they. They should be fed into the fires like the rest of their cursed race. Praise be that the World Eater is here to finally make them pay for their evils."
Corsair winced, sharing a look with Ch'od. All of them had reason to hate the Shi'ar. But Raza and Hepzibah hated the entire race. Corsair only hated one individual among that race, the Emperor himself. And as far as he could tell, the giant lizard-like aliens while loathing the Shi'ar people didn't hate them with the passion of Raza, whose race had been wiped out in a war of conquest, or Hepzibah, whose race had been literally eaten into extinction.
"I agree," the green-skinned alien said to Hepzibah's point, after looking back at her. "However, it is either that, the first option I opined, or a third option."
"We reach out to a more settled criminal element," the alien said bluntly. "You know that we have contacts among several criminal groups. All of whom might be willing to supply us with more hydrogen in return for selling them goods and services in turn."
"But that is no different than working with pirates!" Hepzibah objected.
"We are pirates," Raza said bluntly, cutting the Mephitisoid off. "There is a certain level of dishonor we all must agree to abide by. Not every alien that fights for the Shi'ar does so against their will. Most have been indoctrinated since before their own birth to believe that the Shi'ar people and their Empire is the way forward for their own race. And you have never shirked from killing such. So long as we can find someone whose word we can rely on, and who will not make onerous demands upon us, I believe that third option sounds best."
Corsair nodded. "I agree. The first one, on the surface seems better, but when you look at it, Ch'od's right, if we run into even a marginally competent local bullyboy, we'll find ourselves pin in place, and eventually over well. The only way to get out of that would be to take hostages. Specifically, to take and board the local commanding officer's ship itself."
"Now, that would be a laugh!" Said Hepzibah with a giggle, shaking her head. "I agree. Unless we could figure out a way to do that and without any prior scouting runs, the third option seems the best. Good thinking Ch'od."
Ch'od bowed from the waist to indicate his thanks for her kind words before saying drolly, "Of course, there is a problem with that."
"Coming to them empty-handed is not exactly going to look good," Corsair said with a nod. "We'll get a much better deal if we can already show our skills in some fashion."
Just then, there was a warbling sound, and all four of them turned to stare at a little creature that sat on the sensor suite beside Hepzibah. They then stared up at the now blinking red light of an unknown ship that had just appeared in the system. Bringing up more information, it was obviously a small ship, barely two-thirds the size of the Starjammers. It looked bulky, made of some unknown material, but was very fast, moving in-system quickly.
"Strange design, and material too," Ch'od mused as he stared at the readout. "Very strange. I've never seen the like. No weapons that I can detect either. None at all, which is odd."
"That fast it's got to be some kind of fast courier, a new design perhaps from an indentured species? If so, what they might be carrying is going to be far more valuable than the size of the ship itself might indicate," Raza replied.
"Agreed! And I vote we take it? All in favor?" Corsair asked.
There was no word against, and the four of them turned to their controls. The ship instantly began to power out from the asteroid it had been hiding beside, its shields flickering on, as it roared forward faster than any ship in space. The instant they came within range of the ship's communications equipment, Corsair bellowed into the receiver. "Unknown ship, this is not your lucky day to be passing through uninhabited space. This is the Starjammers, and you are our prey. Heave to and prepare to be boarded, or we will blow you out of space!"
As the alarms blared throughout the ship, Harry and the others looked at one another in confusion. Their route had been chosen from the Shi'ar star maps to take them only through systems that didn't have any local population after all. That confusion segued into something like astonishment when they reached the bridge and listened to the message the incoming pirate vessel was sending them. "Seriously? I knew that piracy, or rather commerce reading, was a big deal in the Kree and Skrull territories. But in the Shi'ar Empire as well?"
"Indeed. Moreover, recall that since reaching the borders of Shi'ar territory, we have gone out of our way to avoid the common hyperspace routes, and it's inhabited planets. Why would a pirate ship of any kind be out here like this?" Ororo asked, crossing her arms across her chest and leaning back in her chair, frowning.
"I'm more interested in the fact that that ship looks more like a fictional vessel from a certain sci-fi universe than anything we've seen previously. Not even the Shi'ar vessel that attacked Earth looked that much like a bird of prey. And look at how fast it's moving! I'd say judging by what our sensors are seeing that thing is even faster in real space than we are, and that's well above what anything a ship that size should be pulling with what we know of Shi'ar technology." Jean enthused.
None of them were taking the threat of a single pirate vessel seriously. If they had wanted to, Jean, Harry, or Dr. Strange could deal with the ship at range while the others could have dealt with a crew aboard. So the question became then how to handle this.
Thinking for a moment, Harry decided. "Reed, can you and Forge set up something that will look as if we've taken damage when they stop firing warning shots and start shooting us?"
"Certainly I can do that, although if you're thinking of acting as if we are wounded, the supposed damage should come from the engines. And we will lose some of our supplies of air and water," Reed warned, playing devil's advocate.
Harry nodded. "That's fine. I think this is an opportunity, and I mean for us to seize it. After all, successful pirates, and I think with a ship like that, we have to assume these are successful, have to have their ears to the wind. Their own information network and such. Which is precisely what we need most."
"I believe that I will help Reed with his portion of this plan," Stephen intoned. "He might need a little bit of illusion-type aid to pull it off. Successful pirates will also be paranoid ones. There can't be any discrepancy what their sensors are seeing, one moment to the next."
"Agreed. Hela and I will work on the internal illusions until we have these pirates right where we want them." Harry then looked at Hela, asking, "Do you think that they will keep anyone aboard their ship? Or will their entire crew board us?"
"In ancient times, being left behind on the ship would've been punishment detail meted out by the ship's captain. However, a ship of that size might not have all that much in the way of a crew. But we should perhaps do is not only trap them forward but behind as well. Wait until they are in a central area where we can surround them, keep them from heading back to their ship," Hela said, practically hopping in place with excitement. This kind of thing called out to an ancient part of her, the part which could remember the Vikings and their prayers to her and the rest of the Asgardian pantheon.
Jean let out a giggle at the black-haired woman's evident excitement, and Hela coughed in embarrassment, trying to get herself under control.
To one side of this, James Proudstar leaned over to Betsy, whispering, "Whatever those pirates might have believed when they attacked us, this is rather like a mouse jumping on a worm and suddenly realizing it was a dragon's whisker."
Betsy laughed at that, nodding in agreement.
Moments later, the Long Voyager was heaving to as instructed, the illusion created by Stephen and Reed belching gas and various 'volatiles' into space, as the ship slowed to a halt. The pirate vessel came closer, dipping down on them just like the bird of prey it looked like, stopping directly above them in space. At the same type, Harry and Hela had created a series of illusions, changing the appearance of the interior of the ship to match more closely that of a Shi'ar merchant vessel of similar size. They couldn't do anything for the exterior, but they thought that if they changed the interior, it would further throw off the pirates when they boarded.
The main hatch opened, and Harry did his best not to goggle at the first individual through the doorway. The man was dressed like a pirate, complete with a sash around his middle, a bandanna, and hearing, and twin pistols in his hands. The guns were Shi'ar weapons, the kind that had been previously seen on the crew of the vessel that they had captured in Sol.
None of that was what had surprised Harry. No, that dubious honor was rewarded to the fact that the man looked human. Admittedly he could have been a Kree but for the mustache. Harry had yet to see any fair-skinned Kree with facial hair. The man also didn't move as casually arrogant as Kree did.
The next three at least looked properly alien, even if none of them were Shi'ar. But Harry and the others knew that unlike the Kree, the Shi'ar had assimilated other races, adding them to their Empire eventually as contributing, if second-class citizens, rather than slaves who were slowly worked to death like the Kree did. "Hmm, come to think of it, have we learned what the Skrull have done when they encountered weaker races?" He sent to Jean along their permanent link.
"I don't think so. We know that the Skrull conquer by infiltration rather than brute conquest, but other than that, I don't think we've ever found a reliable source to tell us about how conquered races are treated afterward. Not that it's important right now," Jean answered somewhat repressively before addressing something that was bothering her in turn. "Harry, that guy, there's something about him that looks awfully familiar. Something about his face. And the eyes. Can we say that this is a combat situation?"
"Does he have any mental defenses?" Harry asked instead of replying to Jean's question. It was a combat situation, but it was one against a band that they might wish to ally with rather than wipe out, so if there was any chance of genes mental probe coming back to bite them, he wanted to not take that chance.
After a moment, Jean's voice came back a little disgruntled while Harry moved forward, his hands in the air to address himself to the first man who had come aboard. He, Hela, and James, who he'd chosen to be the welcoming committee, all wore illusions that made them look like Shi'ar of similar size. The others were not there, waiting in the ambush zone, an illusion of a high-priority, low-volume cargo bay. "He does. They all do, but it's a kind of technological shield rather than a natural mental defense. I could break through them all quite easily, but they'd know if I did."
"Best not to then." With that, Harry turned his attention to the man in front of them. "Corsair, I presume?" He asked, putting a bit of disdain and fear in his voice. With some difficulty, it had to be said. Acting did not come naturally to Harry.
"I am, indeed. And I have to commend you for your incredibly intelligent decision to not try to run away or fight. It wouldn't've ended well. This way, at least your ship is mostly intact, and once we have taken off all your cargo, you can go your merry way with you and your crew all still alive," the man said, almost affably.
"Tis indeed a strange Shi'ar captain who would not deem his crew's lives of less import than that their mission," the albino cat-skunk woman next to Corsair intoned, almost glaring at Harry in suspicion.
Harry shrugged. "We're a private company, and most of these crewmen are actually my friends, rather than simple crewmembers to me. Does that suffice as a reason for my self-serving lack of courage?"
Evidently, it did. The alien woman subsided, shooting a look at the sizeable lizard-like alien, who nodded his head. She then turned back to Harry, intoning, "When we are done looking at your ship's manifest and your cargo, I will want to look at some of your equipment. Your speed might not be up to our best, but there could be some interesting engineering concepts within this ship. It is also rare for a private company vessel to have anything of interest technologically wise. But your maneuverability showed that was the case."
Harry just nodded, gesturing them all to follow him. The pirate invaders did so, although they were looking around warily as they did, spreading out into a combat formation, with the giant lizard creature at the back, the skunk woman in the center, and Corsair and the cyborg-looking fellow with the topknot at the front. Where Corsair was armed with twin blasters, the other was armed with twin sabers. Although oddly, those swords didn't match. One was a cutlass, the other a rapier.
Corsair attempted to make conversation, asking Harry about where his ship had originated, how he had made captain, and so forth. Harry didn't reply beyond saying he was a keel-owner as well as captain, and that the ship did represent some new technological breakthrough. He could see the pirates were getting tense. But when they arrived in the cargo area, and the foursome didn't see any immediate trap, they started to relax as they moved forward, with Corsair staying beside Harry to cover him while the others moved deeper into the hold.
"Where is the rest of your crew?"
"In the commissary, beyond the double doors on the far end of the cargo space."
"Harry, I am detecting some kind of scent in the hair coming from the woman. I am changing the ship's internal air pressure to draw it out," E's voice came from the com-bead in Harry's ear. Of course, with the pirates in front of him, Harry couldn't respond, but he trusted E to know what he was talking about.
Corsair slowly nodded, looking around. As he had known given the small size of the ship, the cargo area was small. There was nothing in bulk here, simply hundreds of thousands of small boxes, barely the size of a man's chest, most of them even smaller. Heavily protected boxes, all of them looked to be the kind that either held expensive electronics, gems, or in the case of a few that had cryogenic warnings, delicacies.
"Well, even though you are a small ship owned by a single private company, captain, you seem to have done very well for yourself," Corsair said enthusiastically. Now, if you will just give my darling Hepzibah the manifest, we will take around four-fifths of your cargo and leave you the rest as a recompense for your having chosen to do the smart thing, rather than the vainglorious thing."
Harry nodded slowly and moved deeper into the cargo area towards the woman who was already examining a few of the cargo box illusions, reaching forward with one hand to open one of them up. Just as her hand reached into the illusion, Harry intoned, "Now."
With a wave of his fingers, the illusion fell away, revealing the rest of his crew, surrounding the four pirates. Indeed much of the bulkheads and the seeming interior of the ship also disappeared, the battlefield entirely different from what the pirates had thought. Harry then turned back to Corsair, his hands lighting up with magical energies, while Hela raised a sword, holding it in a salute to her face, and James cracked his knuckles with a grin.
"I believe, Captain, that it is your turn to do the smart thing rather than the thick vainglorious thing," Harry said simply. "We don't want…"
Before Harry could finish speaking, the pirates had moved. The green-scaled alien roared, racing backward along their path back towards the hangar bay, hoping to clear a trail for his friends. "It's all illusions! It's a trap, we must escape. There can be no thought of overcoming them, my friends! Survival is the name of the game here!"
"How about no, you freaky lizard!" James growled, meeting his charge with his own. "You're not going anywhere!"
The two crashed together, creating a shockwave that trembled through the deck and the air around them, as Corsair turned on Harry, his blasters blazing. But Harry simply blocked them, then with a single gesture ripped the pistols out of Corsair's hands, opening the man up to blast from Ororo, a condensed ball of air slamming into the man's side and hurling him into the wall.
"Corsair! The woman shouted, leaping over a blast from Alex, but right into a force grab from Jean. The telekinetic hand held the albino woman in the air, twisting her around so that she was upside down, as she found her weapons torn from her belt. "Dammit, these are Imperial Guard! And ones we've never even seen any files on before!"
"We're not actually," Jean said apologetically, lowering the woman towards her so they could communicate without shouting despite the ongoing battle around them, but still retaining a telepathic hold around the woman that made her completely unable to move. "Just remember, you're the ones that attacked us. You can't exactly be horrified when the attack is turned back on you, you know?"
Nearby Raza snarled, his twin swords clanging against Hela's one as she and he danced around the room. To her surprise, despite wielding two different types of swords, Raza was not thrown off or slowed by the different styles each demanded. The rapier at first seemed to be his primary defensive weapon, flicking this way and that to redirect Hela's attacks, while his saber cut and slashed at her in turn.
But he wasn't as quick as she was, nor anywhere near as strong. He found that out to his cost the first time he attempted to redirect directly block her blade, only for his sword to nearly be pushed back into his face, forcing him to block it with his saber for the first time the fight. Then she pirouetted around with their swords still locked, coming in with a punch that would've laid Raza out had it hit.
He ducked, thrusting forward with the rapier, before flicking it up towards her own sword, as it came down, redirecting it to the side, his saber flashing out in the real attack.
Hela quickly shifted her grip, flipping the sword around in her hand to block that blow, redirecting the sword into the ground, then stepping into his guard, smacking his next thrust aside with her bare hand, a sight that brought a snarl of surprise to the cyborg. She then brought up the pommel of her blade into his chin, sending him flying backward.
To Hela's astonishment, the alien cyborg rolled the blow, kicking off the wall and coming in again, thrusting with both swords. When she blocked them with her own, he then used that block to dance to the side, his rapier stabbing for Hela's face, even as his cutlass blocked Hela's attack, suddenly shifting defense and offense.
It didn't help, as Hela once again batted his attacks aside, lashing out with an onslaught of her own that would have pierced his throat with the point of her blade. The two of them began to then exchange blow after blow, Raza shifting his style to allow for more maneuverability, staring at her in something like admiration along with his anger at their ambush.
"Do you need help, Hela?" Ororo asked casually, watching the ongoing duel with amusement.
"Not a bit of it!" Hela bellowed a laugh. "I'm having fun!"
"What about you, do you need help there, James?" Ben asked, from where he had been standing by the far end of the room, with his girlfriend beside him. She was looking a little disgruntled, there just weren't enough Pirates to make a real fight of it against the hornet's nest they had kicked over in the Long Voyager, so the two of them were left out of the fun. This annoyed Thundra greatly.
Benjamin was more philosophical about things.
"No thanks Ben, I've got this!" James grunted, grabbing the outstretched punch from his opponent, ducking underneath it and doing shoulder throw that slammed the creature down into the deck, letting go before the alien could pull him in. The giant monster twisted around on his hands and knees, coming up in a shoulder thrust, but James danced around him, getting on its back, and locking in a chokehold.
However, the beast reached back, showing that his shoulders didn't entirely move the same as a human's, grabbing James with both hands, around the head. Then it was James's turn to be slammed into the ground, the creature's strength breaking his grip. A kick from James sent the alien stumbling backward, and James twisted around, lashing out with another kick at ankle height, which sent the beast stumbling back but did not trip them up entirely.
"You're good, but I think you will find that I am more experienced," the lizard alien rumbled. A knee came towards James's face, followed by a punch, but he blocked the one thrusting that leg down with one palm, then redirected the other, with another palm strike, his leg lashing out at the pivot leg that the monster had been using. A light kick to the side sent him somewhat off-balance, opening the lizard alien up to several strikes to the check chest area, then an uppercut to the chin which sent him flying backward.
"It's always fun watching someone James's son use Wing Chun," Harry said almost conversationally, looking at Corsair, who had recovered himself somewhat but found himself, like the woman, pinned against the wall by a powerful force that he could not fight against. "Bet on how long it lasts?"
"Just kill us and get it over with. Or have you been ordered to hand us over to the Emperor for his own pleasures? I've always wondered how the Imperial Guard can live with themselves following such a monster. But then again, I suppose one shouldn't underestimate the power of indoctrination," Corsair growled, his voice and face set into a sneer trying to goad Harry into killing him and his crew so they wouldn't be handed over to the Emperor. That would be a fate worse than death for all of them, especially for Hepzibah. The Emperor would no doubt want to eat her as had happened to all of her race before this.
Harry was about to reply when Alex came up to them, staring at the captain. He pulled off his mask, revealing his face as he stared at the pirate captain. "Havok? Is there something wrong?" Harry inquired.
"I, I, I don't… His voice, it sounded familiar," Alex stammered, staring at the man's face. "I, his face also… I mean, I don't… I don't understand," Alex muttered, shaking his head.
Corsair was also staring at him in perplexity, his brows furrowed. But there was something in the younger man's face which was also making him realize there was something weird going on here.
"What do you mean that his voice sounded familiar?" Jean asked. The others were still busy watching the two duels going on, but she and her captive joined the trio of men along the wall. The skunk/cat woman as still trying to escape, releasing a cloud of pheromones, but the pheromones were also stopped by the telekinetic field around her.
"I don't know. Something from my past. I…" Alex stammered to a halt, looking even younger than his barely seventeen-year-old self. "He sounds, he sounds almost like my…"
"Oh shit Harry, look at their faces!" Jean sent, suddenly realizing what it was about Corsair that had bothered her. "Their eyes, their jaws, they could be…"
"You're not part of the Imperial Guard, are you?" Corsair asked, staring back at the blonde-haired young man in front of him, not breaking eye contact even as he addressed his question to Harry. "Where the hell do you people hail from?"
"Give us your name, your real name, and I might answer that," Harry retorted, also staring between the two men, and now, seeing what Jean was hinting at. "Christ, he does look a bit like an older Scott, doesn't he? I thought Charles said that Scott's parents had died in some kind of plane crash? Why do I think there was more to it than that?"
"My name's Christopher, Christopher Summers," Corsair said at last. "What's your name, lad?"
"*Gulp*, M, my name's Alex Summers," Alex said, staring at the older man.
By this point, both Hela and her opponent had stopped fighting the words of the small tableau having reached them. James and his opponent were a little further away, unable to hear the discussion over the sounds of their own fight. But Harry sighed and turned to them, shouting out, "Enough." Thrusting out his hands to either side, he used his magic to push the two combatants away from one another, holding the alien still while simply pushing James away from him. "As much fun as you two are having, I don't think there's any more purpose in our fighting, do you?" he questioned, looking back at Christopher.
The older man shook his head, as much movement as he was able to deal with the moment, and Harry released his grip around him, while Jean did the same to the albino cat/skunk woman. "No, there fucking well isn't. I'm not going to fight a group that has my own son as part of it. Though how the hell you all got here is a mystery that I demand an answer to!"
About fifteen minutes later, what little wreckage had been created in the short fight was cleared up. All of the combatants were now seated around the main sitting room, with the massive lizard alien called Ch'od sat in a specially conjured chair from Harry, although the lizard had looked more than a little askance at it as it appeared out of midair. Matter creation like that was almost entirely unheard of in the Shi'ar Empire, or indeed anywhere else.
All of them now had cups of tea or something else in their hands, while Harry spoke. "I realize that this is an emotional moment for you, Alex, and I don't want to interfere in your reunion. But we do still have a mission not see to. We'll stop here in this system for a few hours, but any longer than that will have to wait until after we've dealt with why we're out this far from Earth. For now, I have questions."
"Can you at least tell us first what this mission is?" Christopher Summers rebutted, staring down at his proper American coffee in something like bemused joy. "And do you have actual coffee beans aboard? Or better yet a coffee plant? I swear to God if we're able to figure out a way to transplant coffee out here somewhere and grow it, we would have a massively profitable, stable source of income."
Rolling his eyes, Harry shrugged. "Coffee, yes, but it's all ground. As for the rest, my name is Harry Potter. Through various adventures, I've become the leader of the Earth Defense Force and the Custodes Mundi. The Custodes are made up of various superpowered or highly trained individuals, such as you see all around us. They include other hero teams like the Fantastic Four, the reason why the bird people took an interest in Earth recently. Because the Fantastic Four figured out a way to scare off Galactus."
"You have?!" shouted Ch'od raising his voice for the first time since the pirates had boarded the ship. "That's incredible! And… Ah, I see. That means that you're out here to use this means of scaring them off then?"
"Not exactly. That device is too terrifying to use. That, and we at made an agreement with Galactus that we would never threaten him with it again, or else the agreement with him to never return to Earth would become null and void," Reed replied somewhat apologetically. Although not a lot. The Ultimate Nullifier frightened him, more so now than when he had been merely ignorant about what it did.
Raza snorted incredulously. "And you think you can stop someone that dozens of combat fleets haven't even slowed?"
Harry held up a hand, waving his fingers in creating small sparks of magical light there. "We seem to have access to a certain type of energy and ability that you aliens have either forgotten or never discovered in the first place. Magic."
As he had expected, the last word invoked a snort of derision from all of the aliens, and even Christopher chuckled. But he subsided quickly as he saw that none of his fellow earthborn warriors were doing the same. "You're serious? You're really relying on something you yourselves call magic against a monster like Galactus? That's ridiculous!"
"Magic exists. Or do you have some other means to explain how I can create matter out of nothing, create attack spells, with specific results, and manipulate the very fabric of the energy of the universe around us through imagination and created spells?" Harry retorted.
"… Well, when you put it like that," Christopher mumbled, looking away before throwing his shoulders back and glaring at Harry. "I'm still not happy about you leading my son against Galactus on something like that, though."
"You don't have the right to say that!" Alex flared. "You might be my dad, but you haven't exactly been around, have you? Did you even try to get back to Earth after… well, I suppose you were abducted or something? And…" his anger receded as soon as it came, and the younger Summers brother went on in a softer tone, looking at his father seriously. 'And why don't I think I'm going to like learning about what happened to you or to mom?"
"You're not," Christopher said with a shudder. "But you're right. I don't have a right to say that, I suppose."
"As I said, the two of you can talk about that later. Right now, what do you need that we can provide you, and what information can you provide us?" Harry interjected, trying to get the conversation back on track.
"We need fuel most of all. I wouldn't say no to coffee, or any other delicacies from back home. The food out here is okay, but they don't have anything like coffee that isn't riotously expensive. If you have any trade goods, we could take that off your hands too. In return, we can give you quite a bit of up-to-date information. We can also let you look at the technology of our ship. Although I don't know if that's actually all that necessary. How the hell is this ship so much bigger on the inside than the outside?" Chris demanded.
Hepzibah had not spoken up since the battle had ended, too busy staring around in bemused wonder at that fact. Ch'od also seemed unable to decide if he was disturbed by that, or intrigued. Raze had simply ignored it, concentrating on the crew of the odd vessel rather than its most glaring oddity.
Harry smirked. "I already told you. Magic." The groans from the four pirates at that statement was music to his ears.
Even more sweet was the star charts that the Starjammers transferred over from their ship's computer. It was incredibly detailed, more so than even the Shi'ar's own when it came to the outer edge of their territories and the empty systems within the Empire's environs. It showed which were marked by sensor buoys, which weren't, where there was a black hole that Harry had had no knowledge of before, where trade passed through occasionally, where it didn't, and so forth.
In the long term, It even had information on what Harry had termed the Unclaimed territories months back: smaller polities that had gathered together via mutual borders, to create a kind of defense force against the larger Empires. In the long run, that was precisely the kind of information that Earth needed to try to find real allies out among the stars.
The two ships stayed there for a bit longer than Harry had hoped, having a lot to learn about how the Shi'ar operated from them. Learning about the reason behind Chris's hatred for the Emperor, in particular, was heartbreaking. Learning that the woman was a survivor of the Mephitisoid race that had practically been eaten into extinction was a shock. But these solidified Harry's view of the Shi'ar Empire. Still, that, and what had happened to the swordsman's people were merely examples of the Shi'ar Empire's cruelty. The information on D'ken and how he went about in his private moments from Corsair was actually more critical in terms of planning for his actions in the future.
With all of that, Harry had no problem whatsoever in planning a preemptive strike. But it couldn't be a physical attack, not yet. They would need the help of the Shi'ar, in particular the Imperial Guard, if they wanted to deal with Galactus and his Herald. And Harry was still of the opinion that no race deserved to feel Galactus' deprivations.
Later that day, as Corsair and Alex were taking a break from incredibly emotional discussions, Harry found Alex, and gently touched Alex's shoulder, squeezing once. "I know how you feel, lad," he said, having heard the bare-bones of what Christopher had gone through with D'ken before the two Summers took themselves off for a more in-depth conversation.
Alex looked over his shoulder and nodded once. "Scott told me about a bit of your own past, sir, so I'm not going to argue. But it still hurts. Still hurts to know what happened to my mother. To know that my father was out here all this time, with no way to return home, trying to hurt the man who killed her any way he could, while never able to actually challenge him personally."
Harry nodded, squeezing Alex's shoulder again lightly. "I had thought of asking if you wanted to join the Starjammers?"
"… Maybe after we've dealt with Galactus," Alex said, shaking his head and throwing off that temptation. "I do want to get to know my father more. But I signed up for this mission when asked to volunteer. I'm going to see it through."
Harry nodded firmly, squeezed his shoulder once more. Then without another word, Harry left Alex in the sitting room alone with his thoughts.
While Alex was still trying to come to grips with all he'd been told, Christopher, Harry, and the others laid plans. First, Forge transferred over to the Starjammers' vessel, along with quite a lot of their supplies of extra parts and so forth. With his technopathy, Forge would be able to create weapons that could give the Starjammer the ability to hit well above its weight class, as well as giving their already good shields and engines a tune-up. On the other side of the ledger, he wasn't actually all that good in extracting data from computers without leaving a trail, something that would be part of the first strike that Harry was now planning against the Empire. Both the extraction of information and the planting of something else: a data bomb. A virus so virulent and fast to propagate that it might wipe out every connected system.
Beyond that, the Starjammer vessel would follow the Long Voyager almost to its destination, but then would wait nearby under cloak it's fuel topped up thanks to the hydrogen extraction system aboard the Long Voyager. If the Earthers needed help to get away, the Starjammers would provide it. Hopefully, it wouldn't come to that though since if it did, the Starjammers would move from a nuisance to public enemy number one. But it was helpful to have that option. The two ships would meet up again after Galactus was beaten off at a predetermined point, a system that Galactus had already visited, which was now devoid of life.
But the Starjammers were not willing to help against Galactus themselves. Raza and Hepzibah believed that Galactus was doing the entire galaxy a favor by eating Shi'ar worlds and should be encouraged to do so. Ch'od and Corsair didn't hate the whole Shi'ar race, but even they felt that Galactus was the lesser of the two evils. None were willing to stop the Earthers in their madness, but they wouldn't help.
Eventually, however, everything had been transferred, including Forge, and it came time to go their separate ways.
Christopher and Alex stood together in the hangar bay, the others having left them alone again. For a moment, neither man said anything. Christopher had not thought about his family back on Earth without pain in a long while, and now faced with his youngest son grown into a man? Christopher didn't know whether to be sad he had missed so much, happy at the reunion, proud that Alex was willing to risk his life on something he felt was the right thing, or furious with him for doing so.
Finally, he simply pulled his son into a hug, saying, "Stay safe, son. I just met you again. I sure as hell don't want that to be my only memory of you, all right?"
"Right back at you, old man," Alex quipped, gripping the old man just as tightly. "And I'll see you afterward. No measly little world-eating monster is going to stop me from seeing my Father again now that I know he's still alive."
Christopher laughed at that, and after a moment, the two moved away from one another, Christopher heading back to the Starjammer.
He remained on the bridge of his ship with Hepzibah, watching as the Long Traveler disappeared into hyperspace. "Well… that was unexpected, wasn't it?" he asked, getting chuckles from his crew.
Almost immediately after coming out of hyperspace into Chandilar, the Long Voyager's sensors were nearly blinded from all of the signals it was picking up the system was that heavily industrialized. Two gas giants were ringed with hundreds of space stations, mostly small admittedly, but that didn't take away from the sheer number of them. There were even more ships, thousands of ships moving around the system, about a third of which looked as if they were combat vessels. The others were simply in-system supply craft or civilian shipping. Deeper in-system were two planets that looked almost agrarian, but not quite. Large swaths of them had been apparently left in their natural states, but each had what looked like Australia-sized cities corresponding with equally more significant space stations.
The third, their target planet, gleamed in the light of the sun with all the power of a fully industrialized world from one end to the other. "An ecumenopolis," Reed murmured as he looked at the sensor readings. "Interesting. I would not have thought that even a race as psychologically maladjusted as the Shi'ar would go to that extreme."
"It is unnatural, an abomination!" Ororo growled her normal regal air in marked abeyance. "How can people live without at least being able to touch nature."
"I rather think that is why the other two worlds were kept as they are, my dear," Hela answered soothingly.
"More importantly, I think if we intend to make a true spy ship, we will need to find a way to hide the hyperspace bloom. They might not see us, but…" Reed gestured to the tactical hologram, where Harry and the others could see that indeed many of the military vessels were now making their way towards the unknown ship that had suddenly appeared in their midst, far deeper into the system than most could jump. Other vessels sailed serenely on arrogant in the belief that whatever this newcomer was, their defenders could handle it.
Given that they were a single ship, and there was a fleet coming towards them from every direction consisting of at least three hundred vessels, Harry supposed that they were entirely correct. Or they would be usually. Considering the cargo of this vessel, that was not nearly as accurate as they might think, those defenders a rather flimsy barrier to what Jean or Harry could do to them. If those ships spread out, killing them would take longer, but that was all. They weren't a threat at all.
Yet, at this point, Harry was uninterested in any such a grandiose gesture. He already had done something that would overawe the Shi'ar Empire and was preparing for a more personal confrontation. With that thought, Harry gestured to the communications system. "You're on Reed."
Read nodded and leaned into the pickup. "This is the Long Voyager, out of Sol. I am Reed Richards and have come to answer your request for aid against Galactus. Repeat, this is Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four. I have come to respond to your request for aid from the Galactus."
The ships came on, but the energy readings on them dampened noticeably a few seconds later. Evidently, someone had been hoping for their arrival, and a corridor opened around them. The open spacelane led towards the massively industrialized world, and a voice came on the intercom. "This is Admiral P'ster. By order of his August Majesty, you are cleared to for orbit over Aerie. From there, you will be escorted down to the ground. You will be searched for weapons before being allowed into the presence of His Imperial Highness. Failure to comply or deviate from this path will be met with deadly force. This is your only warning, barbarians."
Read looked over at Harry, who shrugged his shoulders, looking over to Nikolai, who would be leading the infiltration mission. He just held up his hands, waving them what one side to the other, his voice a drawl. "Look, nothing under my sleeves. With magic, anything is possible. Still, we need to access our ship, so we can't let them sideline it up here."
That won some laughs, and Reed replied to the man in the affirmative so long as they could use their own ship to land. This caused some blustering on the other end, but the Shi'ar official eventually agreed. The Long Voyager, after all, didn't seem to have any kind of docking equipment from what they could see. Or rather, what they were being allowed to see at the moment.
Fifty minutes later, they reached orbit over the planet, having been forced to travel slowly, since the civilian ships in their way had to be shimmied out of their own lanes occasionally. When they arrived, it was clear that they were under the guns of two massive space fortresses, so large each looked as if they could cover an entire continent. "Very different from the ones in the outer system," Reed mused, "I wonder why?"
"One is for refining, the other design for defense, I'd assume," Harry said with a shrug. Reed nodded since that made sense, although he still looked quizzical, staring at the design. Something about them was bothering him, some difference between them and the ones in the outer system, not just their function of the difference in size, but their form. Something about the way they were designed.
The ship hit atmosphere after that, moving slowly now, while the spacestations behind them kept them covered all the way down. That was when Reed realized what had bothered him. The two spacestations were not set up as simple defensive installation or commercial rally points. Underneath, they each had hundreds of small apertures, all of them pointing at the same collection point in space. This meant they were either a single weapon system or some kind of thruster system. And unlike the stations in the outer-system, these are designed to rotate. Some sort of weapon then, a huge one.
Ben piloted them down, a smile on his rocky face as he felt the controls of the ship answering his commands. Ben Grimm had been one of the world's best test-pilots before he and the others had been exposed to the cosmic rays, which had given them their powers. And though he had never really made a big deal of it, a part of Ben had really missed the feel of the controls under his hands like this.
"I want everyone ready for immediate action. Remember what Chris told us. D'Ken's an egomaniac with a high level of paranoia and a severe lack of self-control when it comes to his personal life, something that at times bleeds over into his public persona. He's going to be unpredictable, so be ready for anything. I hope our show of force will be enough to get him to back off and cooperate with us against Galactus, but we can't predict how he will react to losing his strongest guard."
"And if push comes to shove, remember you all have emergency portkeys," Ororo replied. One point the Starjammers and their prisoners had agreed on, which Harry had been rather thankful for as it had backed up his initial thoughts on the matter, was that the Shi'ar Empire had no idea of magic whatsoever. Indeed, Harry suspected that they had wiped out anyone who could have learned how to use magic in generations of culling those among them who dreamed, seeing them as diseased or psychotic. Without imagination, there could be no magic.
The ship was directed to what looked like a private landing area, lined with trees and various bushes, cut to look like the heads of what Harry supposed were prominent figures. It was a little disturbing frankly, to Harry's eyes anyway. And after seeing the looks on those faces, the other humans agreed. "Well, that's one point to the psychologists, the Shi'ar really don't have much in the way of art do they?" Harry quipped. "Landscapes and portraits, that's all. And both ultra-realistic too, rather than stylistic."
At the edge of the landing area was an old man, his face a mass of wrinkles, most noticeably frown lines. His hair was also white, and he moved with what looked like a pair of robotic aid in the form of a pair of exoskeleton-type legs. He seemed to count them off as they exited the Long Voyager, sneering slightly at the odd outfits Harry and the rest wore, seeing no uniformity there. His eyes narrowed as he saw the Thing, but beyond that, none of the group with Harry were armed nor seemed at all threatening.
That seemed to put him at ease, and he nodded brusquely. "I am Advisor T'fas, Minister of Diplomacy. You will come with me."
With that, he turned around, moving off as if he expected them to follow him without further discussion, causing Hela's eyes to narrow behind her half-mask. She was about to speak out against this breach in what she thought of as decorum, but Harry took her wrist in his hand for a second, shaking his head. "Remember, arrogance is part of their society. They don't know yet they have to treat us with respect, let them have their delusions for now. We'll shatter them soon enough."
Hela scowled but nodded, and Harry released his grip on her wrist, following after the others. In among the oddly cut trees and shrubs, they could now see dozens of Shi'ar guards. These soldiers did not salute or stand to attention. Instead, they simply lined the way their weapons pointed at the ground, their eyes cold as they stared at the humans. Harry didn't take it personally, nor did he really care one way or another about them. Their rifles were standard energy rifles, he didn't see any heavy weaponry pointed their way, other than the initial antiair weapons that they'd seen on the way in. This was a show of force, but it was a show of power from a tiger to a dragon: interesting, but not very dangerous.
Harry noted some amused looks and some frowns on the guards' faces as they saw Hedwig perched on his shoulder. Harry could almost read their minds without Jean's help, but she supplied it anyway.
"Huh, none of them have the same electronic defenses as the Starjammers, I wonder why? Anyway, a lot of them are thinking, 'Is he making fun of us?' Others are thinking, 'is that some other sentient being from his planet?' And one of them is wondering about symbiotic relationships. Naturally, Hedwig is seen as the smarter of the two. They really do look down at other races automatically. Odd to think that Chris and his wife are the only humans they have supposedly met. Is it because we look like Kree, do you think?"
Jean's continued comments on this score kept Harry amused, up until they entered the palace. "You will wait here to be called upon. The Emperor is a busy man," ordered T'fas. "You will not waste his time when called upon, and you will be searched for weapons now while we wait."
"No," Harry retorted, shaking his head firmly. 'We won't be." The man spluttered, but Harry held up a finger. "You requested our help. You requested us to come here to aid you against Galactus. If your Emperor is facing more dire threats than an entity that eats planets, the more populous the better, then he's got bigger problems than we could ever help with, so we might as well turn back and go home. However, I am willing to let us be searched so long as your guards to not attempt to take liberties with any of us."
"And who are you? Your voice does not match that of Reed Richards when he announced your mission," T'fas rejoined.
"I'm Guardian, I lead the Custode Mundi, our version of your Imperial Guard. Reed is the Galactus expert, but I'm the one in charge," Harry answered blithely. "Now, let's get this search process over with so we can move on, meet your Emperor, and get to work. Unless you want to wait long enough for Galactus to choose his next meal?"
T'fas slowly nodded, then turned aside to gesture to two of the guards, one man, one woman who moved forward and rather politely asked the newcomers to form two lines based on gender. Since none of them carried any weapons, the process was finished while T'fas was still barking angrily into a communicator.
Reed looked at Harry in confusion. "If we want to work with this Emperor, why did you make a fuss about waiting?"
"It's a power-play," Harry explained. "All of this is. The fleet of ships dogging us in-system, the guns of the space station following us down. Landing at his personal landing site, right in his gardens amid examples of his predecessors. The waiting. The Emperor is trying to overawe us."
"Even after asking for our help? That seems rather illogical."
"Just because they can't dream doesn't mean they can't be illogical," Harry said with a shrug. "Besides, from his point of view it might make perfect sense. He's already on the backfoot having to ask for help in the first place. It's been a little under over two weeks since he knows that Galactus Gladiator would have reached Earth. And Gladiator isn't the one talking to them right now." At that, Harry lowered his voice, his fingers moving to create a Muffilatio field around them. "And in that time, Galactus might well have eaten another planet."
"Quite probably. From my estimates, Galactus needs to feed at least once every month at a minimum, so he will have eaten at least once since Gladiator was sent to Earth. But he will gladly eat more if given the opportunity and considering how densely populated the central Shi'ar Empire planets are, it will be a veritable smorgasbord. How fast he eats will rely entirely on his Herald."
Harry nodded, "And since we know this Herald is a murderous psychopath, we know we can't afford to wait."
A few minutes later, them majordomo or whatever his station was turned back to them, his face showing a bit of fear and anger. "Very well. You will come with us."
Harry was about to ask who 'us' was when a door to one side opened, and several new people appeared. These were not Shi'ar, each of these beings was of a different alien race, Imperial Guard. One of them looked almost like a robot, with a smaller robot on its back, both of them made of some greenish covered metal, with larger ball-like joints and shoulders. This was the android symbiote Warstar.
Another man was made of rock almost, black basalt perhaps, with the cru-cut hair of light grey with massive shoulders. He eyed up Ben Grimm, who returned the favor. This was Neutron, a man whose power was based on kinetic energy absorption and super-strength.
The other two were women. One was the woman the dossiers knew as Manta, dressed in a form-fitting suit of white and black with a gold mask. The other was named Astra, a relatively new member of the Imperial Guard, who looked almost like a cross between Kitty and jean. She had a freckled, girlish face with red hair done in pigtails, but no pupils to her light orange eyes. She wore a suit of red and yellow that would have had Jean muttering about copyright infringement save for the fact there was no sign of any bird motif, and that the red in question was fur around her hands and feet.
Manta, they knew, had light-based powers, which could blind or act like a laser beam on command. Astra had something of the same power as Kitty, but not her control or ability to take others with her.
Harry led the way forward, nodding politely to the four of them. "Shall we?" One of them opened her mouth as if to speak but then clamped down, just nodding stiffly back.
Harry smirked, and very deliberately did not look back across his shoulder towards Jean. Or beyond her to the shuttle, where Nikolai, hidden under several different spells, was leading his infiltration team down and away from the ship, having come out with the others only to go to ground nearby.
Still, he trusted the Spetsnaz-trained Nikolai to handle that aspect of this mission. He had to handle D'Ken and the imperial court. With that in mind, he sent a question down his and Jean's link. "So, how worried are they?"
"They're not worried at all surprisingly," came the instant reply from his red-headed lover. "The Imperial Guardsmen seem to think that Gladiator has his own reasons for not being here. I'm not finding any concerns on that score at all. Some vaguely sad feelings from one of the women, I gather she might have romantic feelings to the purple-skinned bastard, but I can't get any sense if it was returned."
"They have that much faith in the man? That might mean once they learn of his fate, they will react violently without D'Ken ordering it. Annoying, but something we will have to plan for."
The four Imperial Guard led the way deeper into the palace, the route empty save for more Imperial Guard. Most of these were Shi'ar dressed in much better armor than the ones outside, their weapons much better prepared, although again they were not at any kind of parade rest, the guns were pointed downward but could be raised instantly.
The Imperial Guard, Harry knew from their interrogations of Gladiator, was more than just a Praetorian Guard for the Emperor. They were special forces, infiltrators, assassins, marines, anything the Emperor wanted them to do, there were those among the group which could do it. Although Harry knew the Shi'ar among them were not typically pulled away from their duties guarding the Emperor and the palace for more dangerous missions. Even in the Guard, there was a distinct level of elitism.
As they walked, Reed whispered, "I've lost contact with the shuttle. We're cut off from electronic means of communication."
"Jean," Harry asked, glancing over his shoulder at the telepath.
She obligingly reached out with tendrils of thought, lightly connecting her mind to all of the others around her. The connection wasn't deep enough to be invasive. But it could be used to facilitate communication, allowing the Custodes to coordinate despite the Shi'ar attempts to isolate them.
Soon, far sooner than would've been standard in a human-style castle this large, they found themselves exiting the corridor out into a long hall. The hall was larger than the main dining hall in Camelot, well made, well designed, but there was something off about it. Not just the aesthetics not being human either, more polished metal columns than covered ones, little to no stone visible and no wood either. All of them were prepared for that, but there was something else that threw everyone who noticed it.
Ororo was the first to realize what that was and shook her head from where she had been walking beside Harry. "There is no art. Those pictures, they are just photographs, the paintings are still-lives. There is not a single statue made for art's sake, not a single bit of representational or stylistic art."
"Just like outside," Jean added aloud, now feeling a little creeped out.
"We were ready for this, remember? We knew going in they don't see art like we do. But I am not thinking so much of the lack of art, as the level of self-aggrandizement," Reed whispered behind Harry. There are way too many self-portraits of emperors doing grand deeds, not a single one of defeat, or anything else. And what those deeds were was also disturbing, given the number of dead behind them, or the exploding planets. And there was even one of an Emperor tearing a sword out of the hands of someone who looked like an example of Raza's race, as behind him soldiers dragged away dead women and children.
At the far end of the hallway, there was a throne on a raised dais where the current Emperor sat on a large throne. Even the throne showed this lack of artistic ability. There was no sign of animal carvings, no sign of trying to make it look beautiful. There was only the size of it, the fact it was made of gold and other precious metals, dotted with dozens of rubies and emeralds.
Harry locked eyes with the man at that end, staring at him thoughtfully as his group trooped forward into the hall. The man was well built, middle-aged or thereabouts perhaps, with a strong chin, dark black hair that looked like wings, and a crown on his head. At his side was a sword in a scabbard. His eyes were deep sunk in his head, but quick, twitching from one member of the human delegation to another, pausing on the women for just a bit too long for Harry's peace of mind, remembering what Chris had told them of this man.
Ororo was more interested in the two women to either side of him. One wore a silver dress that flowed from her shoulders all the way to the floor. It was belted around her waist by a golden belt on which hung a blaster and a sword. Indeed, Ororo was interested to note that many of the courtiers had ceremonial weapons like this. Yet beyond her position to the throne, there was nothing that really stood out about this woman. In contrast, the other stood out by her enhanced musculature and the purple armor she wore. Stylized to emphasize the vaguely avian appearance the Shi'ar all had, the armor covered her body like a second skin, showing off her muscled arms and legs almost as much as a swimsuit would have.
They were a study in contrasts, hence her interest, and she wondered idly if that was on purpose. However, she shook it off a moment later. No, or if it is, it is none of their own doing. The subtle shifts of body language and glances across the sitting D'Ken's body told that the two of them were not comfortable being there, either on the dais at all, or so close to one another.
One, the more normal-looking Shi'ar woman, was looking back at the humans with interest. There was nothing of the waiting predator to her glance that there was in D'Ken's eyes or that of the other woman. But neither was there any kind of welcome. Worry was the most prominent feature in that woman's gaze, anger, and a predatory desire to attack in the other's. Her entire pose was that of a hawk, waiting to descend.
She wasn't the only one to notice that, and on Harry's shoulders, Hedwig hooted quietly. Her talons flexed as her head did a one-eighty, her yellow eyes locking on this woman.
Feeling someone gazing at her from within the group, Deathbird let her eyes roam over them for a moment, before finding the small avian on the human leader's shoulder staring back at her, unafraid, almost challenging. A snarl on her lips, Deathbird met that glare, only to find herself unable to look away, arrested by that yellow-eyed gaze.
The court's majordomo halted Harry and the others in place with a raised cane of metal. There they formed group, almost a circle, in the center of the court several yards away from the throne. "You will come no closer to the Emperor," he said, as the Imperial Guard bristled all around them, attack dogs ready to be unleashed. It was clear that whatever D'Ken thought, the Imperial Guard were not at all happy about their decision to ask for help against Galactus.
The man then seemed to breathe in, no doubt to launch into some kind of aggrandizing diatribe about the Emperor or the Empire, but Harry spoke up before he could, his voice loud in the near-silence of the Imperial Court. "Are we all supposed to shout then? This is not exactly a conversational distance."
That shout brought gasps of shock from everyone, and D'Ken's featherlike eyebrow rose as he leaned back, staring at Harry then to Reed Richards. "My advisor tells me you are the human scientist, Reed Richards. I expected this Fantastic Four, although I see you have been amalgamated into a larger group?"
"That would be correct," Reed said with a nod. "There is only so let much that a group of four can do after all."
And yet you did turn aside Galactus when you were merely four. Fascinating!" D'Ken said, slapping his thigh.
At the mention of Galactus, some tension began to appear in many of the faces of the civilians in the hall, including the two women on either side of the Emperor. D'Ken's expression, on the other hand, was opaque, giving nothing away other than a faint sense of amusement. Jean also reported that he, like most of those in attendance, also had electronic counter-measure against telepathic assault. He then cocked his head, smirking widely, the expression so fake that Amara and Johnny couldn't hold back a shiver of disgust. "But you are not showing proper respect. Or do humans not to kneel to their betters?"
That question won an appropriate sycophantic laugh from everyone in the hall, and Reed frowned, wondering how to respond. But Harry took the task from his hands as he had outside, a smirk on his face. "On our planet, men only kneel to their wives when they are proposing marriage, and women only bow to their husbands in their home. I hate to say this, Your Majesty, but you're not my type. And social mores are so important, after all."
For a moment, it looked as if D'Ken was about to explode, while both of the women to either side of him laughed openly, and indeed one or two courtiers had been caught by surprise by the joke. Then he too laughed, and the others decided they should join in. "Ahahah, most amusing. And you would be?"
"Guardian," Harry said, leader of the Custodes Mundi, the group that, as you so eloquently put it, amalgamated the Fantastic Four into our ranks."
"And you believe that your group can help us against Galactus. But how is it that the Fantastic Four was able to beat him off in the first place? Tales of that defeat, of the Great Devourer being turned away, reached us in space. But not the how of it," the Emperor asked, leaning further back into his chair, putting his feet up over the armrest.
Reed fielded this question smoothly, having been coached on this by Harry, Ororo and Hela on the trip. "Unfortunately, the original method of our turning him away will not work this time. We had a weapon then that was based upon a negative energy curve…" From there, he launched into a scientific explanation that was basically his own theory of what the Ultimate Nullifier did, making no mention of the fact it was both magic and technology merged into one.
It instantly went over most of their heads, as Harry and the others had expected. Finally, D'Ken interrupted Reed by clapping his hands, looking annoyed. "Fine, fine, but what did you mean when you said that you would not be able to use the same weapon again?"
"Simply enough, the energy source that we ran it on, no longer exists."
"And you believe that we, the Shi'ar, would not be able to re-create it?" D'Ken asked, scowling. "Do you imply, human, that our scientists are inferior to you?"
"How many years do you have your Majesty? It is not a matter of scientific knowledge. It is a matter of creation, making the tools to make the tools as it were," Harry answered.
"Furthermore, this particular power source was stolen off of Galactus' ship. And I rather doubt we would get lucky twice in doing so," Reed added.
D'Ken scowled that but nodded. That was irrefutable, after all. Very well. But yet you know about our enemy."
"Quite a lot, yes," Reed said with a nod. "I did not believe that Galactus would keep his word and have spent many years considering means to defend feet him. To drive him off at the very least."
"Excellent. Yet one thing bothers me," D'Ken went on, suddenly changing topics, leaning forward and staring from one human to another. "I sent my Praetor, my Imperial Guard commander, to you with my request for aid…"
"Your demands you mean," Harry interrupted, his voice no longer sardonic, or humorous but cold. "An Emperor shouldn't lie about such things."
With a disingenuous laugh, D'Ken raised his hands to either side of his head in a visual 'what can you do' kind of gesture. "Well, I suppose that is true, and I will not deny that I issued a demand, a summons rather, for your aid. After all, what could your piddling little planet do other than acquiesce?"
Another laugh resounded around the throne, which ended as Harry retorted, "We could take offense, with both the messenger and the message. We humans don't respond well to threats, especially against those we love."
"Where is Gladiator?" D'Ken said, his tone and entire body language changing in an instant. Where before he had been amused, now he was cold, haughty, demanding, just as poised to command violence as the purple-armored woman beside him was to deal it out.
However, Harry was not surprised, thanks to what Chris Summers had told them about D'Ken. He simply crossed his arms behind his back and repeated himself. "We humans don't take well to threats. I'm afraid our response completely disarmed him."
"…You have somehow taken Gladiator captive?" D'Ken asked. His eyes narrowing. "I suppose that a group which could threaten Galactus into retreat could do such a thing. But what would you say if I told you to release him on pain of death? I might need your help, but there is a limit to the effrontery I will accept from such as you."
"See again my last, Your Majesty. We don't take well to demands."
Usually, Harry might've tried to be a little more diplomatic. But frankly, the Shi'ar Empire was about as far removed as they could be from Earth and still technically be in the same galactic arm. They were not like the Kree or the Skrulls, both dangers to Earth, given how close the borders of their empires were to Sol. They couldn't sustain a fleet of any size that far away, as evidenced by how much fuel the ship they'd sent had to burn to get there in two weeks of travel. Instead, they would send the Imperial Guard. And Harry would set the Custodes Mundi with him at its head against the Imperial Guard any day of the week. On top of that, hearing about D'Ken and what he had done to Raza's people and Chris's wife had infuriated him further.
"Yet despite that, we are here to help," Harry went on in the ensuing silence as the Emperor glared at him. "We are not here to answer your threats. We are here to help because Galactus is an enemy of all, not just your Empire. We will not allow him to murder trillions of yours and then go on to murder trillions of someone else's, so long as we can do something about it."
"I do not care about your so-called reasons! The sheer gall you have to think you had a choice!" The Emperor said, leaping to his feet. "If I wanted, I could snap my fingers and have you all slain on the spot, no matter what kind of superpowers you might possess. I could have you killed simply for my amusement, then take my chances with only the Fantastic Four being alive to answer questions!"
"You would try," Harry replied, while around him, the others simply looked back at the Imperial Guard, seemingly at their ease but poised for violence. The Imperial Guard might not be the pampered elite that most praetorian guards became in human history. Still, there is a vast difference between that and the highly trained, extremely motivated group in front of them. Particularly since they were missing their most powerful member, and the Custodes had their heaviest hitters here.
"Just because we need your help against Galactus does not change the balance of power," D'Ken sneered.
"There is no balance. There is no connection. There is only us being here to help you. Do you not want our help? If that's the case, we'll just turn right around and go back home. We are offering our aid to help in this particular area. We're not bowing, we are not here because you decreed it, like so many supplicants," Harry growled, adding a spell to his last word so that it boomed out like a physical force. "You cannot overawe us, Your Majesty. Treat with us as equals, or we will not treat with you at all."
"…Where is Gladiator?" D'Ken asked, repeating his earlier suggestion. "Release him, now, barbarian!"
Wordlessly Harry pulled out a small box from seeming nowhere, causing the Imperial Guard to instantly move forward. Before even the fastest of them could take more than a single step though, Harry had dumped the contents of the box on the floor. Gladiator's hands hit the floor with a dull *Thunk*, rolling away from Harry just a few inches before coming to a stop. "He won't be joining us."
For a moment, D'Ken stared, while the court was silent. But then the furious D'Ken shrieked out, "Kill them!"
The Imperial Guard all around the room leaped to obey as the courtiers flung themselves to the floor or attempted to retreat to the doorway. The only voice raised in dissent was the normal-seeming Shi'ar woman who had been standing to the left of the throne, but her voice was drowned out in the sudden tumult.
Before D'Ken had finished speaking, Harry had already given his own orders mentally to the team via Jean, the directives coming at the speed of thought, quite literally, while Hedwig disappeared from his shoulder. The bird had her own plans evidently. "Remember no killing, ladies and gentlemen. We still need these people, beating them down for real can happen after we've dealt with Galactus. Magma, Earthquake. Storm, a low-powered gust all around us, Banshee, low key screaming, block their ability to give orders. Warpath behind, Ben to the right with The Torch, Hela, Havok, ahead, but wait for the Imperial Guard to be cleared out of the way first. Stephen, reinforce the room so that no one can break through the walls, Jean, take to the air first then the rest of you. Keep in mind what we know of these people and take them out with the minimum effort. We don't want to show all we can do."
Instantly the two named ladies reacted. Magma dropped to her knees, slamming her hands into the ground as her body shifted into its tectonic energy form. With a thought, the planet's tectonic energy of the planet reacted to her will. The ground bucked and heaved throughout the palace, sending several of the Imperial Guard to their knees, while the courtiers were hurled this way and that. Even the people on the dais lost their footing save for the Emperor who somehow stayed upright.
Then the hurricane hit, blasting a goodly number of them away into the various walls with the force of the wind. A number of the Imperial Guard powered through it, many of them being flyers who had already lifted into the air. Others were just too dense and too strong to be bothered by that level of force.
At the same time, Harry used his first spell of the fight, an old-time classic to even up the odds and make sure their captive audience didn't come to harm. Or continue to try and escape out the still open doors as Stephen's spell finished reinforcing the walls and doors. "Shi Jundai! Grab and restrain!"
From all around the area, several hundred golems appeared, thrusting out of the still-moving ground to grab at courtiers and Imperial Guardsmen alike. Others crushed their weapons if they had any and smothering them, pulling them down to the ground. That left only ten Imperial Guard still fighting.
"That was rather less diplomatic than we had discussed love. Still, with this lot, I suppose that's the way to go, especially after Chris's story," Jean quipped as she rose into the air dodging a blast of energy from the Imperial Guards woman named Ark.
He was a non-Shi'ar who looked somewhat like a cyborg, with arms that seemed somewhat mechanical under a blue suit who had weathered the previous wind attack with difficulty but had been the first to launch a long-range attack at the interlopers. His eyes crackled with electrical energy, and he launched a lightning bolt at her.
He was astonished when his bolt smacked into a shield of telekinetic energy in midair, dissipating, before a condensed blast of air from Storm hurled him backward to be grabbed by still more golems. The golems, being made of rock and dirt, were immune to his powers, quickly subdued him to join the Shi'ar courtiers and members of the Imperial Guard.
With that, Storm joined Jean in midair, as the two of them faced off against the flyers of the Imperial Guard. "You misunderstand Harry's reasoning. Given what Chris and the other Starjammers told us of his personality, this was going to come to a fight whatever happened. Best to start up what he called the shock and awe plan now. While also providing the most excellent distraction for our infiltration team."
"Exactly," Harry replied as he dealt with Astra as he had Kitty at one point, a short gas-based attack into her face as she phased into the ground, and then, as she was coughing, becoming tangible, a slight electric shock. For all her ability to phase through objects, the girl had no added durability in her physical form.
One of the flyers was the one called Electron. He was a Shi'ar warrior who wore a suit that, according to the information they had gotten from Gladiator's mind, gave him the powers of flight, a certain level of super-strength, and some control over electromagnetism. But his orders could not cut through the tumult of Banshee's low-key shriek, and he and his fellow flyers came in spread out rather than as a single force.
And whatever his powers, he, like Gladiator before him, had no defense against magic. A quick Stupefy lashed up from where Harry was still standing in the center of the hall, radiating cool control in the center of the chaos. With Electron concentrating on lashing out with an energy attack at Storm, he never saw it coming and was flung out of the air to land with a crash on the ground, his mind shut down by the spell.
There he was joined by another flyer quickly, Kyte, a member of an avian species who had kept their wings. His own suit, which gave him energy attacks similar to Electron's, didn't make him any more durable, and a blast of telekinetic energy to the face sent him tumbling backward.
The fight on the ground was a bit more serious, as Hela raced forwards, crashing into two of the Imperial Guard, who had been running forward in their own turn towards Harry. One had begun to grow enlarging his body to that of a giant, but before his body could grow too far, Hela's sword cut him across the leg, nearly cutting the limb off. Her magical sword could not be stopped by his enhanced durability, and he fell, screaming.
The other, the woman named Manta, blasted out a light-based attack that crashed into Hela like a large laser beam. But she had shielded herself in time with her shield, and even as she reeled backward, Stephen cast his second spell of the battle, an all-encompassing darkness spell on the woman. Thundra was there a second later, her whirling flail crashing into the woman's head and sending her to the floor.
In reply, Thundra was tackled to the floor by the one called Mammoth, an almost-elephantine looking alien with massive strength. She took a few hard shots while returning several of her own before Hela came to her aid.
To the side where another super-strong member of the Imperial Guard, the one called Smasher, who had been among the group who led them into the hall, the one with the white, dark blue and red suit and the red glasses, charged forward. With his super-strength, he ignored the earthquake and wind with equal disdain.
By his side came the one called Black Light, who was blasting out dark energy attacks somewhat like that which Nikolai's sister, Laynia, could use. Only instead of contained pulses, his strikes came in the form of beams. These attacks were blocked in turn by Stephen, who was handling defense at the moment as Harry finished sealing the hallway from all exterior threats.
Then Benjamin Grimm hit him, his hands clenched above his head as he roared out, "It's clobbering time!" Black Light raised his arms to block the blow, but his arms broke under the strike, and he was kicked aside.
Then Smasher and Ben crashed into one another. The two of them exchanged several blows, which caused shockwaves in the air, but Smasher was getting the worst of it by far, reeling back and further back. "Hah! Gladiator you ain't, pal!"
The human Torch flashed in the same direction as he crashed into one of the Imperial Guard, a group of four that had stayed together, fighting off the Golems as best they could. At the center of them was the man named Fang, who Harry had instantly labeled a scrawnier version of Sabertooth. While his strength was enough to tear off golem limbs, he had no natural resistance to fire, and screamed, as he was sent hurling backward, rolling to put out the flames while the others, All Shi'ar, were quickly overcome by the golems.
Nearby Johnny was somewhat flummoxed to see that the Imperial Guard member called Nightside had astonishingly been dealt with by Hedwig before she could extend her light-absorbing field. The blue-skinned woman, who was wearing, oddly, makeup that made her look something like a raccoon, was lying very still on the ground, having been flung there by Magma's initial assault. On her head, Hedwig perched, her talons very close to the woman's eyes. Her hands were flat on either side of her head, and she was staring at the bird in something like fascinated shock.
Harry had picked her out as someone who's power could be of particular use against Galactus or his Herald. After all, blinding an enemy was always a good idea. Most of the Imperial Guard would simply be dumb muscle, but a few like Nightside had powers that made them interesting. The fact Gladiator also felt the woman was trouble because she had refused the Emperor's advances was a bonus.
Another such, Neutron, was able to absorb kinetic energy and redirect it into attacks, something like Vanguard's ability only apparently, at a far higher level of both absorption and redirection. He had been dealt with by Mr. Fantastic. The rubber-man had simply enveloped the man with the odd, almost space-like skin taking his most forceful blows and absorbing them in turn before Jean could turn her attention to him. A telekinetic assault then sent him into dreamland, her powers overriding the electronic telepathic shield.
Behind the rest of the battle, the symbiotes collectively called Warstar ran right into Warpath. This was another contest of strength versus strength, the giant robot pushing hard at Warpath. But he was unable to do more than make the Apache warrior dig in his feet into the floor beneath them.
The competition ended abruptly as the smaller symbiote attempted to leap off his older fellow but was met by Storm. A lightning assault straight into the smaller symbiotic droid's brain disrupted their higher brain functions. It took quite a lot of energy to do so, enough to electrocute several dozen men into crisp, but that was well within Storm's capabilities, and again the dossiers they had been able to put together from Gladiator's mind aided them, telling them of the weakness of the symbiotic mind. Once one fell into the robotic equivalent of unconsciousness, the other did as well.
"Cry Havok!" With that, Havok moved around the brawl with Mammoth, launching his cosmic energy-based attack towards the Emperor. Everything his father had told him about how their family had been attacked, about how his mother had been raped, then murdered by this man as his father was enslaved was going through his mind. All Havok wanted in the entire universe right then was to kill the bastard sitting on the gilded throne in front of him.
But D'Ken was already on his feet. And in a surprisingly acrobatic move, he leaped behind his throne. There he activated a kind of shield which shimmered into being from. The shield took Havok's initial blast as the fight continued, but the entirely-scientific shield fared far worse against Harry's magical assault. The Drills of Light, thousands of them enough to cover the entire dais, hammered into it, fit to shatter even one of Stephen's magical shields. The shield on the was quickly overloaded, collapsing.
A second later, Havok's next attack struck, destroying the throne, which exploded, hurling everyone on the dais backward. At the same time, Hela finished dealing with Mammoth, sending a Stupefy right into his brainbox. With him dealt with, she charged forward and had her sword at the throat of the woman in purple armor before she could regain her footing from the explosion, having spent the entire fight on her rear, too startled to avoid Magma's Earthquake or Storm's low-powered tornado.
As quickly as it had begun, the battle was over. The Imperial Guard had been ready for action, but that was a far cry from knowing their enemy as Harry and the Custodes did. And while the Imperial Guard had numbers thanks to Banshee, they didn't have any organization. And that numbers advantage disappeared instantly thanks to Harry's spellwork. Now the Imperial Guard present in the hall were dealt with, held captive by golems as more moved to grab the people on the dais.
In the midst of them, Harry strode forward, conjuring up a sword of magic, placing the point gently at D'Ken's throat with one hand while pushing Alex behind him with the other. The younger man had raced forward as Harry had, murderous intent plain on his face. "Enough havoc. Remember what I said, we need him alive, for now," he ordered mentally.
Alex was quivering, his hands throbbing with cosmic energies fit to sear through steel, let alone flesh just waiting to be unleashed. "You heard what Corsair told us," he replied, although he had enough presence of mind to do it through the mental link that Jean had created. "You heard what this, this piece of filth did to my mother!"
"And he will pay for it. But do billions of Shi'ar, people who are mostly blameless and normal by their standards, deserve to die for his actions? Doing the right thing is often far more difficult than simply choosing your battles, and at the moment, that means we need this filth to live. I fully intend to kill him later," Harry added almost as a bland afterthought, shrugging mental shoulders as he felt Jean and Storm's resigned acceptance and Hela's stark approval at that. "But that must wait until after Galactus is dealt with. We need him in charge until then, until the espionage team has implanted the seeds of the Empire's destruction."
Harry waited a moment then asked Alex softly, "Can I trust you to keep a lid on your temper until then? Until he tries this again on us after Galactus is beaten off?"
Without replying with words, Alex moved away from him slowly, glaring hatefully at the Emperor for a split second before turning away with a huff. Harry clasped the younger man's shoulder as he moved, nodding once to him, getting a nod in return. Turning back, Harry removed the sword from D'Ken throat, and then crouched in front of the Emperor, holding out his hands to him.
He couldn't stop himself from making a wry comment of "I'm going to have to have a bath after this, I think." to Jean, causing her to chuckle dryly even as Harry addressed the Emperor. "This violence, like Gladiator's fate, is on your hands, a result of your arrogance and overconfidence. I said we were here to help as equals, not supplicants, not foreign barbarians that could be overawed by the might of your Empire. Earth may be small, but we are powerful now, and we have abilities and powers you can never even imagine." He held the Emperor's wild, rage-filled and frightened face as he went on, his own tone calm. "Now, perhaps we can move past this and deal with the real problem at hand: Galactus and his deprivations on your empire."
"I would take it if I were you, brother," said one of the two women, and Harry's eyes flicked to her. She bowed her head slightly, introducing herself. "My name is Lilandra, I am the minister of the interior. But I have to ask, despite your blatant statement," she nodded towards where Gladiator's hands still lay amidst the rubble of the rest of the hall, "Is Gladiator still alive?"
Harry shrugged. "No." Braindead was still dead after all, regardless of the state of the body. Emma had not been gentle. "He attacked and killed humans, he paid the penalty."
"Take the offer, brother," the other woman said jerkily, staring with hate in her gaze at Hela, standing over her with her blade outstretched. Her own steel whip-claws were wrapped around her by a simple spell that had caught her before she could even take part in the battle at all. Yet for all the predatory woman's anger, her mind was still working, and she well understood the recent struggle and Gladiator's death for what they were: shows of power that the Empire, for all its size, had to respect. Perhaps if the full might of the Imperial Guard had been brought together, or even at brigade strength, they would have been able to deal with the Humans. But as it was, and with Galactus looming, the Humans held the whip hand.
D'Ken seems to want to fight on, but with Harry's sword at his throat, whatever fight remained in him left him quickly. "Very well. But if you expect me to forget this effrontery, you will be sorely mistaken."
"That is for the future," Harry said, smiling calmly at him. "If you wish to try us again after we have dealt with Galactus, that is on your head. But I will not allow your ego to get in the way of saving your people."
With a wave of his hand, Harry dissipated the golem army scattered throughout the court. This was followed by another spell from Stephen, which repaired the damage to the throneroom and even the throne. D'Ken and the other bird people were still gaping at that, as Storm began to intone another spell, which spread her area of control around the court. Seconds later, she was healing the wounds of the individuals there within a few seconds.
That finally seemed to finish the job of overawing the Emperor and D'Ken began to laugh, shaking his head. "What you humans lose in numbers, I see you make up with the quality of your super-powered individual. Very well! I can be magnanimous about this. The loss of Gladiator is a sore one, but to have such allies against Galactus, I will swallow my pride."
"Come!" he said suddenly jovial, and Harry wasn't the only one who shivered at the swift turnaround. "I will show you to our Strategic Operations Control Center, and we can start planning our campaign against Galactus and his Herald. Do you have any plans going forward?"
Harry nodded equably, his entire body language and face under control, showing that he was taking the Emperor's sudden change of heart as reality, walking beside him as the other Custodes and Fantastic Four members fell in behind them, shrugging ruefully or simply nodding equably to their former enemies among the Imperial Guard, most of whom were looking a little shocked still at their recent defeat and sudden healing.
"Yes, I believe we do have a plan going forward. The name of the game will be ambush and separation. Separate the Herald from the master, kill the Herald, and then do everything in our power to hurt Galactus, enough so that he will be forced to give over, retrace his steps, and leave your Empire."
"Excellent, yes, the ambush, that is precisely how I felt as well. Doctor Richards, do you have anything to add?" D'Ken asked, still acting like the courteous host.
On the surface. Under the surface, however, Jean was able to sense the real story without setting off the Emperor's powerful, if electronic, mental defenses. Inside D'Ken was a broiling mass of rage, affronted dignity, and murderous hate. Just as Harry had expected.
Round one was over. It remained to be seen who would win the game in the end, or so the Emperor thought at least. Never knowing that Harry still had troops in play elsewhere, as Nikolai led his team to ground in the Imperial gardens, ready to play their own role in time.
So yeah, you can see the end there is a bit more cliffhanger-ish/segue-ish than I usually use. But as I said, I wanted this chapter out and unable to interfere with my June work going forward. So despite its brevity in comparison to my standard chapters, especially for this work, I hope you enjoyed it. And as always, if you have, please leave a review.