The Monolith flickered and pulsed. Against the starry, airless backdrop of space, it made for a structure that seemed far more cosmic and quasi-stellar than anything technological or utilitarian. The gargantuan satellite spun above South America and moved in sync with the Earth's orbit.
Like many of the countless rooms aboard the Monolith, the Cell was an amorphous chamber with no doors or windows. Its walls, floor, and ceiling glowed an aquamarine, a color so sharp and blurring that an average human might be forced to close his eyes. This was a room that had the power to dull the vision of its occupants, but there was reason and purpose behind the structure and decor of the Cell.
A hatchway opened from the ceiling, revealing a chute, and a flailing shape was thrown into the room. With a thud, a middle aged man crashed onto the alien ceramic floor.
The man, stout and bloody in form, slowly pushed himself up with his right arm, as several bones in his left were severely broken. The Cell whirled about his puffy eyes as he thoughtfully looked around the room.
He heard a doorway hiss to life. Turning his attention to the doorway, the man only saw an overcast of darkness sweep inside. Bleary-eyed, his pupils gradually dialated and a shadowy figure stepped out of the gloom. The figure was like a ghost, completely garbed in black. The man could only make out the billowing of a trenchcoat, the shape of a fedora, and the glint of goggles along a faceless mask. Yet the man knew fully well who and what the figure was.
The figure was the dark vigilante known as the Outsider.
The walls moved, sealing the thresholds from the ceiling and wall, showing no cracks or seams or signs that doorways were once there.
"American asshole," muttered the man under his breath. "You don't know who you fah-king wid."
"Oleg Podshivalov," said the Outsider matter-of-factly, his voice raspy and cold. "The Oleg Podshivalov who from 1992 to 1995 trained Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslav National Army. The Oleg Podshivalov who was reported to the U.N. Security Council to be one of the civilian commanders who was behind the killing of 250 thousand Bosnian Muslims and the 'ethnic cleansing' of 2 million others from Serb-controlled areas. The Oleg Podshivalov who on March of this year was on trial for leading Russian police in the widespread killing, arson, rape, and looting in the Aldi District of Grozny."
"I been tried for dose crimes," replied Oleg with a huff. "I was innocent."
But the Outsider ignored his comments, punching Oleg in the face with a right cross. Oleg dropped to the floor, nursing his shattered nose. "Oleg Podshivalov -- the Bosnian Butcher. Found selling Russian nukes to the North Koreans and bomb-grade uranium to Saddam Hussein."
Oleg laughed. "Wake up, American. Russia pulled back strings to Iron Curtain. Communism is dead. I'm a Capitalist."
"You're a terrorist." The Outsider motioned over his downed prisoner, a dark shadow eclipsing him like a death shroud.
"Go on den. Kill me."
"Oh, it tickles me to think about killing you. But to go through with it would make me a shitty interrogator. No, I'm gonna pry some answers outta you. And then you're gonna be on the receiving end of a sodomy spree at Purgatory Prime."
Oleg laughed again, but then winced. "Ha -- dat place is only for super-criminals."
"Yes. But I can pull some strings." The Outsider helped Oleg to his feet, straightened the Bosnian's ruffled and bloodied clothes, and pushed him into a chair that seemingly sprouted and morphed from out of the floor. "I'd sleep a little better knowing you're being raped by a nine-foot alien. I even heard the Warders initiate all the new recruits by letting a band of mutants have them in one way or another. Now, that almost sounds like justice to me."
"Oh shud up, American. Go on and interrogate me den."
The Outsider moved closer to the seated Oleg, the shadowy mass followed him. "The Kursk," he said. "A double-hull nuclear sub, that's five hundred feet in length and weighs almost fourteen thousand tons. It carries up to twenty-four SS-N-19 Shipwreck missiles and up to twenty-four anti-ship Novator torpedoes. The subs reportedly are difficult to detect because of their noise-suppression systems and the fact that they seldom venture very far from Northern Fleet home waters, making collection of sound signature data more difficult."
A gloved hand shot out and picked Oleg out of the chair, throwing him into a wall. "Funny thing is a damaged Kurst sank in the Barents Sea, a hundred miles off Russia's northwestern coast on the twelfth of August."
Oleg tried to turn and face the Outsider, but he felt paralyzed from his now broken collar bone. Then another flash of pain suddenly hit him as he found the muzzle of a gun jammed into his open mouth. He heard several of his teeth fall to the floor.
"Even funnier is that our covert op uncovered that the storage compartments were empty, even though protocol outlines that tactical subs are to carry missiles on all naval exercises."
The darkness stirred then swelled, like a thing alive, and began to ingest both Oleg and the Outsider. There was an unearthly chill to the darkness and the hairs on Oleg's neck began to stand on end. The Outsider pulled back the hammer on his gun.
"The .45 Automag in your mouth is a ghost gun," said the Outsider with no emotion. "It shoots spectroplasmic bullets -- not messy like real lead shells, but they'll turn your brain to cold porridge."
Oleg reached for the muzzle with both hands, fear drowning the pain in his mangled left arm.
"I can lobotomize you right now." The Outsider laughed. "Actually, I think you'd wish you had a lobotomy after I shoot you through the skull."
The Outsider's finger twitched on the trigger. A warm, dampness pooled from Oleg'a lower extremities. Oleg started to cry. The Outsider removed his gun from Oleg's mouth.
"I... tell you whad you... wand," Oleg whimpered.
"Yes, Oleg Podshivalov," the Outsider said, a smile etched behind his faceless mask. "Yes you will."
"Doesn't he freak you out?" asked the cat-woman, her sleek, tawny body lounged back in a throne-like chair. She looked at one of the triplets with both curiosity and concern.
"Who -- Paragon?" The triplet sat beside her friend, her two other counterparts were closeby, working at computer consoles. While even identical triplets have slight differences in manner and physical features, these triplets were absolute deadringers.
"Look at him. He's just... Well, he's hanging there."
The two Protectorate members, Lioness and Trinity, stood in a vast circular chamber and studied their android teammate who hung motionless several feet above the floor. Patched about his chest were thick cable-feeds that descended from an upside-down spire in the center of the chamber's vaulted ceiling. Lights strobed from Paragon's eyes in time as logarithms passed through the feeds and into his nano-processors.
"Well, the feeds provide him a hardline to Monolith's mainframe," Trinity answered, motioning to the inverted high-tech steeple. But this time it was one of the ladies by a console.
The one by the other console nodded agreeingly. "That's how he downloads the intelligence for the situation reports. When we don't have access to the Nerve Center, Paragon is our means of acquiring information."
"I'm quite aware of Paragon's abilities," Lioness said almost prosaically. She found it difficult to remove her eyes from the mechanical figure suspended above her. "It's just creepy, that's all. He's a machine with no emotions. What do you see in him -- as a person, that is?"
Trinity nodded as her duplicates at the consoles walked to her. The two touched her, and just like that, they seemingly merged with her. Lioness looked at the single, conjoined Trinity and blinked.
"He's a computerized organism," offered Trinity. "You see him as a machine, but he's much more. As a computer scientist, I never underestimate artificial intelligence, especially Paragon. In the short time he's come to this Solar System, he's evolved into the humanoid that he is."
"And this fascinates you?"
"Of course. Imagine all the nanites that compose him -- all those microscopic computers that make up his six-foot frame. We carry one central processing unit." Trinity tapped her forefinger against her forehead to illustrate the point. "Now think of how many brains he must have. Each one working, calculating, assessing, adapting -- all in a means to make him a model of cybernetic excellence."
Lioness slowly looked from Trinity back to Paragon. "I guess I see your point," she said.
"I assure you, Lioness," Paragon interrupted, "while Trinity's compliments are appreciated, any concerns are indeed misplaced." Paragon lowered, the coiling cables hanging free from the Nerve Center's cone-shaped interface.
"If you say so." Lioness turned away and found herself unwilling to accept her teammate's assurances.
Paragon landed softly and with an acrobat's balance. He looked at Lioness with his blank, colorless eyes. "It comes to no surprise that you would have difficulty trusting me, or for that matter even understanding me as a form of sentience. While it's debatable whether or not I'm a living being, there is one fact that remains certain: I'm an organism. Like a cocker spaniel, a common housefly, or even Avatar, I'm a system comprised of interdependent parts." With that, Paragon turned his back to his teammates and made way towards the wall. "Like you, I grow and learn -- I'm an evolutionary being." Pausing, he looked over his shoulder and urged the others forward. "Come, we should return to the Command Center." Paragon stepped before a wall that opened like a waking eye, allowing him and the others to exit into a well-lit hallway.
The Monolith's Command Center was a hornet's nest of activity. Holographic dioramas spewed forth a constant flow of information coming from all over the world. It was the hub of justice for the Protectorate, the place where they ensured constant vigilance and swift action.
The alien hybrid known as Zodiac hovered in the middle of the expansive chamber, ensconced in geocoordinates, U.N. troop relocation maps, news bulletins, and weather reports. His eyes were shadowed by the ridge of his brow, but he seemed focused as his spidery fingers flexed along virtual touch screens that only he could see. He worked like a trained analyst, able to track down world-wide progress with the aid of advanced alien technology.
"You called for me, Zodiac?"
Zodiac turned to face his comrade. He was a big man, roped in muscles, but one who gave no special notice to his own size. He wore a tunic that was tight across his broad upper body, a gray wraparound kilt, and sandals laced up to his heavy calves.
"Yes, Avatar. Earlier estimates prove correct. It seems Mastodon has been pinpointed, and back to his usual antics."
Avatar crossed his powerful arms and leaned against the bulkhead. "And other members of the Royal Elite?"
"Surveillence shows Mastodon to be alone."
Zodiac motioned towards the center of the chamber and a faded hologram materialized, showing the Protectorate members firsthand what they were dealing with. There followed three minutes of incredible havoc. Mastodon charged through Dublin City, toppling over buildings, leaving a sea of cascading steel, mortar, and concrete in his wake. He stormed through whatever was in front of him. Tanks, gunfire, soldiers, even armored police, all became part of his road to ruin. There were moments, of course, when the behemoth staggered, even faltered back. But he would simply regain his position, and what might have curbed his stampeding assault moments ago didn't even faze him the next time around, making Mastodon laugh like some sadistic ogre.
Beneath a thick mane of black hair, held back from his face by a leather cord, Avatar's emerald green eyes studied the display. "What's the public reaction in the South?"
"Negligable," replied Zodiac. "Opinions in Southern Ireland is that this is actually an attack by British Sovereignty. They'll be content so long as Mastodon doesn't encroach upon them. The true reaction exsits within the perimeter since I don't believe Belfast City sees this as a threat from the Royal Elite yet."
"Then that means we've got a window of opportunity here," Avatar replied. "We can touchdown with countermeasures before this attack is perceived as a nation-wide threat."
The alien continued working along virtual touch screens, giving a battlefield damage assessment of the city. "Structural integrity within the perimeter is within acceptable limits. Loss of life is--"
"I'm going in," Avatar interrupted. "I've dealt with Mastodon before."
Zodiac's jaw tightened . He nodded agreeingly and floated down beside his muscular teammate. "I'll recall the United Nations. We'll remain aboard the Monolith and act as a reactionary contingent."
Avatar began to jog towards a wall and a large porthole obediently opened up to a vast hall.
"Be aware of and advise me immediately of communication gaps," Zodiac sounded off.
Avatar said, "I will." Then he was gone.
Avatar pulled the strings of an elaborate chariot, drawn by three powerful lions, and flew it in a long, lazy loop out over Dublin. The community was nothing like what the reports showed in the Monolith's Command Center -- it was far worse.
Dublin was nothing but ruin and death. The entire area was devastation, with broken steel and concrete splayed out across its charred, rolling landscape. Those buildings that remained standing were reduced to skeletal structures. Avatar sensed no life about the craters and debris, save for the crows that fluttered about the corpses jutting from makeshift cairns.
He touched down along a barren street, his eyes not blinking. "Avatar to Zodiac...," he said aloud.
"Avatar to Zodiac..."
"Avatar to the Protectorate..."
The great demi-god furrowed his brow with concern. His comm-link was either malfunctioning, or his frequency was jammed.
The lions stirred before him. They were the steeds of the war-goddess, Inanna, and had hearts of iron, but they liked the slaughter of innocents no more than Avatar. Avatar smiled slightly at the beasts, giving them a silent command, and then they began to run away. In no time the chariot was but a speck in the sky, heading heavenward, back to Inanna.
The Babylonian hero surveyed the grim scene. Seeing the nebulous wisps of radiation swelling from the ground, he knew Mastodon wasn't the cause of all this carnage. He kneeled to touch the gravel, black and porous grains sifting through his fingers.
This was the blood of the city.
Avatar went through the ruins of Dublin, turning over toppled walls and ripping apart mangled cars. He grabbed a broken section of chain-link fencing, pulled and lifted. Steel and debris stirred beneath him, sliding in a cascade as he desparately searched for lifeforms that he for some reason couldn't detect. He scoured and rummaged without tiring, urgency fueling him even more. He was so focused that he didn't feel the air rustle about him, didn't hear the guttural sounds of company watching him closeby.
Moments later, the air flashed, then crackled, and a section of brick exploded from a squat structure that still stood. Then, abruptly, the structure vanished in a roar of thunder and collapsed in a shower of wreckage.
Avatar tightened his fists and turned his attention to where he thought the attack on the building came. Swirling silhouettes greeted him, stirring out of buckling air, and collected into three forms. Avatar recognized them immediately as members of the Royal Elite.
"You did this?" asked the godly hero, his voice like thunder. "You destroyed this city?"
Baroness flickered in and out of existence, but he could see that she was smiling. "Now now, man-god. It would surely take more than us three to do this work. And besides, we didn't just destroy this city -- we destroyed all of Ireland."
Avatar fumed. He rocked on his feet, his eyes burning red, and then he cooled. He stood before the Royal Elite and stared at them in fury and wonder. He then gestured at the devastation about him.
"You killed five million people," he accused, "and for that you'll all be tried and convicted for crimes against humanity."
"Oh, get out," Brainchild said, and laughed.
"You'll be confined for an indeterminate sentence," Avatar continued, ignoring the young mentalist. "You killed five million -- For what? Your damn cause?"
Reflexively, Mastodon took a step forward. But Baroness put up her arm in front of him, and he stood his ground. Brainchild merely giggled in the background.
"We only killed those who resisted," the elegant highborn answered. "And you refer to our cause as if it doesn't hold merit."
The Babylonian sputtered, then he snatched back his composure. "You can explain you're definition of 'meritocracy' to the tribunal."
"There will be no tribunal, you close-minded bastard," thundered Mastodon as he punched his own open hand. "History proves that only the strong survive. We could be the ultimate rulers now if it wasn't for you and your band of guardian angels Time and again, you opposed us from achieving our goal. You would pretensiously stand against nature's course until the day we defeat you. And until we could defeat you, subdue you, enlighten you -- until we reaped the rewards that a true leader gets -- until then we could only work to prove others our goals, make ourselves stronger and stronger, until now--" Mastodon laughed. "Now, right now, when we've got you where we want you."
Avatar looked at his communicator, considered the impossibility of their actions, and said, "So this is a ploy..."
The enormous Mastodon laughed again, his heavy chest heaving. "As much as I cherish the thought of crippling you, we have other plans for you."
"Don't spoil the fun by telling him," Brainchild said. "He's here, so let's get the show on the road."
As if in response, the air stirred. A massive shadow loomed over the ruined city, and the sound of high-powered turbines whined overhead. Avatar looked up to see an immense vessel hovering about a thousand feet in the air. Mutants floated around the monstrous flying sphere, some with high-tech aids and others with leathery wings, like jets around an aircraft carrier.
Avatar shook his head, and, very subtly, rolled his eyes.
Then the land trembled. Up over a distant hill, spilling from the dusty ruins, more mutants lined the horrizon. They were of all shapes and sizes, disfigured and grotesque by the science that had created them. There were fangs and gnarled claws, scales and fur and pock-marks. They were humanoid monsters, roped in sinews, tall, thick, short and lean. Some pulsed with fiery light, others burrowed, slithered, and pounded the air with multiple limbs. Each had powers and attributes that no ordinary human could withstand.
"The cavalry," he noted, sarcasm in his tone, "I see."
In the next instant, a manic uproar of exultation echoed. "Hail Autocrat!" the mutants hollared, and lashed out at Avatar.
Two bright shapes, twin hairless men, who from head to foot were the color of silver, streaked about the Babylonian titan. Their fists slammed into him, but the impact didn't even stagger him. Avatar replied, charging the sky with jagged shafts of lightning, sending electrical lances down to split the ground about his mercurial assailants.
Massive, horned man-shapes pounded on Avatar with fists the size of wrecking balls. The hero hollared in contempt, his eyes spewing forth thinning streams of emerald fire. The flames didn't burn his attackers, but they nevertheless reeled, writhed, and screamed as the fire ate away at their minds.
Airborne mutants strafed by, streaks of energy bridging the gap between them and the Babylonian. Avatar cringed, his skin burning from the constant barrage of the energy blasts. But he didn't buckle from the aerial assault. In fact, he stiff-armed several humanoids and began to ignore the glowing beams that crackled against his chest and arms. Avatar raised his hands and, like that, the wind picked up. First the air buffeted about the mutant fliers, then it strengthed and threw them down to the Earth's floor, pinning them in place.
"Do you even realize who you're dealing with here?" asked Avatar.
Now Avatar moved forward through the squadron of freakish fiends. Plumes of heat, crimson at its edges and shifting between gold and strands of white in its thick center, flickered from his hands, and the ground exploded. Smoke billowed from charred rock, then faded across a scattering of toppled mutants. The Babylonian looked for the Royal Elite amidst the chaos, but all he could see was blurring streaks of fur and ill-shaped limbs.
Mutants flew by, pounded, shot, and slashed. The Earth split open, and then it moved. Bolts of radiation smashed into Avatar. A roar echoed from his throat, then he buckled. Black man-beasts wrestled the heroic titan, who still continued to press forward. But the mutants outnumbered Avatar, the odds were overwhelming. He stood on liquid ground, waded through a sea of monstrosity, and was unable to swim.
Avatar finally went down and pressed his knees and chest into the ground. The mutants continued to attack him, burning his body and jangling his mind. He tried to struggle to right himself, but the relentless attacks continued to make him skitter as the air roiled about him. And then Avatar was tossed flat against the ground, the gravel beneath him fused like glass and glowing with energy. His taunt muscles went limp, his eyes were closed.
The godly hero who could crush mountains had been defeated.
The Monolith gyrated. Zodiac stood at a window of the city-sized satellite, looking at the void of space from his personal quarters.
"Avatar to Zodiac...," his communicator suddenly pealed.
"Come in," the alien replied.
"The situation in Dublin has been pacified. Unfortunately, Mastodon managed to escape. I'm currently tending to injured civilians."
"I'll have Trinity transported down to assist--"
"That won't be necessary. Avatar out."
Autocrat strode through the expansive, flag-stoned corridors and walkways of his high-tech fortress. He carried himself with authority. His armored features, coupled with his resplendent cape which billowed in his wake, lent him an air of might and mystery.
Striding through his halls, the milling denizens of his world parted to allow the highlord passage.
At his heels, a constant four steps behind, walked Harbinger. The handsome metahuman messenger kept his head down and submissively followed his liege, as they passed an archway on their way to the fortified laboratory. Two armored guards in the lift maintained their stone stoicism, bowing their heads ever so slightly. Autocrat and Harbinger stepped into the lift and descended.
The lift opened to behold a looming, vast chamber of cold basalt. Machines hummed and servos whined in the background. Above them, on the cat-walks, technicians checked consoles and control panels.
Behind the shadows of his helmet, Autocrat smiled at the restrained subject in the center of the lab. Metal restraints held him, inclined from the floor, and electrodes were affixed to his well-muscled torso. The dark-haired subject looked at Autocrat and blinked blankly.
Autocrat walked towards the subject, and Harbinger followed.
"Proceed," Autocrat ordered.
Harbinger bowed, then focused his attention on the subject. "State your name and role," he told the subject.
The large, dark-haired subject looked straight ahead. "I am Avatar, the lost son of Gilgamesh, the founder of the Tablets of Destiny, and incarnation of Babylonia. I am Earth's praetor, it's bastion of hope..." The subject hesitated, but Harbinger stretched his mind outwards, gave the subject a psychic jolt. "...I am Avatar, of the highborn -- Chief Emissary of the Autocracy."
Autocrat let out an evil laugh. "Humanity has come to the end of its evolutionary course," he said. "They are history, even if they do not know it yet. I have invested many lifetimes to the ascendancy of the highborn to our role as masters of the Earth. Oppose me in this, and you will pay."
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