Waves crashed against the pale white walls of the cliffs that heralded one of the borders of the English Channel. For millenia, mankind had travelled these waters and looked upon those alabaster cliffs with wonder. To see them meant that one was close to one of the most dynamic lands on the planet, a place where kings had once quested for the Holy Grail, where barbarians withstood the attacks of Romans, where vikings had conquered and then lost, and where secretive druids had harnessed their simple powers.
This was England, once home to the mightiest armada in history, the jewel of a conquering empire, the throne of some of the most powerful dynasties in Europe. This was England, a land of pride and turmoil, of social convention and upheaval, of strength and adversity. Long had she been praised for her power and glory, and long had she been condemned for her arrogance and anachronicity.
But still, there was something to be admired in this land, for its people had never gone a generation without knowing war, and yet they still survived, and prospered, and influenced trade the world over. Its people walked with a certain amount of pride as they passed through city streets that were a thousand years old or more, or stopped for a cigarette beneath the shadow of the ubiquitous Tower of London. This was a nation of ghosts, of memories, of phantoms and dreams. Say what you will of England, but there can be no denying a certain amount of reverence one feels when simply uttering the name.
Sir Commander Arthur James Kensington stood before an elongated, oblong window that looked down upon the churning waters of the English Channel. He was a tall, commanding man, possessing the classic features of a DaVinci sculpture combined with the undeniable presence of a military man. He had a slender build, yet boasted broad shoulders. He had a handsome face, yet it was a face hardened by seeing war and bloodshed first hand. And he had an easy grace, yet moved with deliberate steps that made an observer think he was always thinking his next movement in advance.
And that observer would not be wrong. Kensington was a consumate soldier, albeit not a blind one, who rarely, if ever, did anything without first planning it out. It was a trait that had often angered his peers and impressed his superiors.
Although, these days, Kensington had precious few of either peers or superiors. Being a metahuman in the service of Queen and country had done much to change -- and improve -- his social standing. Not that the man now known as the White Ensign had undertaken this life-changing endeavor for such flippant reasons, of course. But Kensington could not deny that there were doors open to him now that otherwise would have been permanently closed. Gaining this most coveted of stations in the British hierarchy of power was a smart move... in many ways.
Kensington frowned at the sudden mental intrusion. It would take him years to get accustomed to Elizabeth’s telepathic powers, he mused.
Yes, Elizabeth, he sent back.
Where are you?
Kensington looked around, as if he was not quite sure himself. Three months spent training in this strange collection of rooms and passageways, and he was still not quite used to his surroundings. Maybe it was the ultra-modern construction of the place, all steel and aluminum and unusual polymers, looking like something out of an American science-fiction television show. Lights that automatically came on when you entered a room, a gymnasium that was voice-activated.
I am in the gymnasium, he told Elizabeth, walking about the spacious
room. The floor was constructed of some strange polymer that felt
like a wrestling mat, yet was far more durable. And, as Kensington
had discovered, self-repairing. Only the gymansium had that feature,
as the technology to build such a thing had cost the British government
half a million pounds.
For a room the size of a small hangar, thought Kensington. Now, why couldn’t they simply have spent the money on improving the medical system, or primary education?
That money would not have made it there, Arthur, intruded Elizabeth’s thoughts again. Better for it to be used here, where it can do some good.
Spending that much money on a set of high-technology monkey bars? queried Kensington. How is that good?
If there was such a thing as a telepathic sigh, Kensington was sure he had heard it. Let’s not get into this discussion again, Arthur. Please?
Kensington allowed himself a small, self-congratulatory chuckle. Any victory was a good victory, even if you defeat your enemies by exasperation.
Very well, pet, sent Kensington. Why don’t you join me? I was just about to go through a bit of practice.
Hmm. Tempting. But martial arts against micro-telekinetic fields are not my idea of a fair fight.
Oh, my dear Elizabeth. Knowing your limits are only part of being a good soldier. You must also know your foe’s.
“Much easier said than done, considering our enemies will be mostly other metahumans.”
Elizabeth’s actual voice startled Kensington for a moment, and he whirled to see the svelte, muscular woman as she entered through a sliding portal in the wall. She was clad in her uniform, a blue, figure-hugging bodysuit that boasted the Union Jack on her right breast, back and arm. As well, Elizabeth’s costume included red straps around her wrists and ankles, and holes cut out at her shoulders, the outsides of her thighs, and her midriff, revealing a very smooth and taut stomach with a navel adorned by a steel ring. That last alteration of her costume had been Elizabeth’s idea, and had not been looked upon too fondly by the Prime Minister’s office. But there was little they could do. Elizabeth was a very strong-willed woman.
No wonder she had been chosen to be the team’s telepath, thought Kensington.
“You were almost chosen yourself,” said Elizabeth, commenting on Kensington’s thoughts. “But they figured you would do better to harness the power of ‘white energy.’”
“Hmm,” commented Kensington. “A task that is, as you say, easier said than done.”
“You seem to be handling it well,” said Elizabeth, watching as Kensington rose effortlessly into the air. In the space of an instant, his grey jogging pants and T-shirt were suddenly and dramatically transformed into the more familiar bodysuit that was nearly identical to hers, save that it was white in color and had no straps on the wrists and ankles, nor any holes. Just simply the Union Jack on the right side of the chest and arm. Elizabeth watched in awe as his costume materialized out of his normal clothes. Kensington was the only one who could do that. It was a side-effect of his powers of molecular telekinesis. He was easily the most powerful member of the group, at least as far as raw power went.
Kensington folded his arms across his chest as he floated in mid-air, like a ghost or an angel looking over the land of the living. With his helmet-like mask, he looked even more imposing and commanding than normal. Elizabeth could not think of a better man as the team’s leader.
Unfortunately, neither could Kensington. His arrogance had already been documented. Unlike their commanding officers in British Intelligence, however, Elizabeth did not see White Ensign as any kind of potential threat.
“‘I look upon the world below, and I think to myself: Where did it go wrong?’” intoned Kensington.
“Lord Tennyson?” asked Elizabeth.
Kensington shook his head. “John Lennon,” he answered. “Not that I ever cared much for the man’s music until after he left the Beatles, mind you, and I think America corrupted him, but he still had his moments.”
“As do we all.”
“So true,” answered Kensington, flying about in the air as if gently pulled this way and that by unseen strings. “Do you know what the strangest thing was about learning to fly?”
Elizabeth watched him loop around. “I assume you mean without the benefit of technology.”
She shrugged. “I haven’t the faintest.”
“Getting over the fear of heights. Oh, I know it’s trivial, but the fear is basic in all of us.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “Not all. I was flying by the time I turned six.”
“Well, then, perhaps you are a mutant, after all,” quipped Kensington dryly.
Elizabeth chuckled, shaking her head. “Are you up for luncheon? Steves is about to make the announcement any moment now.”
Kensington sighed. “I suppose so,” he answered, slowly settling to the ground. He walked toward her, and as he did so, his clothes changed their form once again, turning back into the sweat-stained jogging pants and T-shirt he had worn before.
I will never get used to that, thought Elizabeth.
“Luncheon is served,” came the dry voice of Steves over the hidden speakers in the complex. The voice echoed in the cavernous room that served as the Ensign’s hangar. The hangar was dominated by an ominous-looking black plane, decorated with the English flag on both wings. On the fuselage was the simple designation, “E-1.” The jet was long and sleek, with twin turbines mounted above the wings and a third housed within the tail. The hull of the craft was polished to an obsidian-like shine. Various cables and hoses were attached to it as a team of mechanics and technicians readied the jet, called the Jack, for departure at any moment. It was an impressive vehicle, looking anxious and impatient, eager to be loosed upon the skies. Sitting within the underground hangar of the Ensigns was not its idea of time well spent.
There were other vehicles, as well, that filled the various open-ended bays in the hangar. Strange helicopter-like vehicles, mostly unfinished, and unusual crafts that looked something like jet-skis with a pair of short, fat wings. Then there were the items that the mechanical team at the complex termed “flying doughnuts,” circular, open-cockpitted vehicles about ten feet across with a low windshield. The Skimmers were highly agile despite their appearance and very versatile. A good pilot could make a near ninety-degree turn at high speeds in one of these crafts.
Provided, of course, that the damn thing ran properly.
The exclamation echoed from beneath one of the skimmers, which had been towed out of its bay to the more spacious working areas of the main hangar. The figure beneath the craft wore a grease-stained mechanics uniform and the ground around him was littered with tools, parts, wires, and various electrical components.
Other mechanics in the area looked toward the source of the exclamation, but did not move to help. They had already learned to avoid the large man beneath the skimmer when he was in one of these frustrated moods.
“Damn bloody sack of--”
The curse was cut short by a long, frustrated groan, followed by sudden pounding on the underbelly of the craft. The skimmer, precariously balanced on a series of jacks, tilted and suddenly sagged down with a snapping of one of the jacks, pinning the man beneath it. There was a muffled, angry exclamation, and suddenly, the craft rose up off the floor, supported on the arms of a man who, unbelievably, was growing swiftly in size. In the space of a few short moments, he had attained a height of fifteen feet, his clothes shredding as they attempted to stretch with the sudden increase in height.
The giant held the skimmer above his head, his body language obvious to those nearby that he fully intended to hurl the vehicle toward a wall. The mechanics and technicians scattered for cover, knowing what this man could do in such a state. But they were also filled with a curiousity concerning his actions. Would he throw it into a wall? Against the hangar door? Or just to the ground, where it was sure to shatter in a spectacular shower of metal and electrical sparks?
The giant’s handsome, almost boyish face clouded with thought. He had sandy hair, a broad face, dimpled chin, and small, brown eyes. He was powerfully buil, if a bit on the slender side when it came to his hips. That simply made his broad shoulders seem even larger and more impressive.
For a long, tense moment, he stood there with the craft supported above him. Wires dangled around his head and he glared forward at nothing in particular. Then, with a sudden, strange shrug, he gently lowered the vehicle to the ground and dusted his hands. He scowled as looked himself over. The remains of his mechanics uniform barely gave him any semblance of descency. Embarrassed over his appearance and outburst, he focused his willpower for a moment and shrunk back down to his six-foot-three-inch frame.
“Luncheon is served.”
The man called Red Ensign, better known to his friends as Sir Captain Loomis Rodgers Hennesey, grumbled something under his breath. Giving the skimmer a vindictive smack across the fuselage, he lumbered toward the doors, conscious of, but not caring about, the looks the other mechanics gave him. As he passed through a sliding portal at the end of the hangar, the workers in the hangar crept out from their hiding places, looks of dissapointment on their faces.
“Bugger,” commented one man to his fellow. “I figured for certain he was going t’toss that skimmer out the window.”
“Day’s still young, bloke,” said his friend with a crooked smile.
Loomis grumbled as he made his way through the maze of subterranean passageways, passing by various personnel here and there. He bumped into a few of them, not bothering to give ths customary English apology for doing so, and continued on his way. There were far too many people in this place, he thought. He feel better once all the final work was done on the place, and most of these damn technicians, bureaucrats and inspectors were gone. Then he would have more freedom to move.
He found his way to the cafeteria, where a group of computer techs were hashing over various problems they were working on as they dined on continental sandwhiches and drank their tea. They glanced up as Loomis entered the room and quickly looked away. Loomis’ reputation for being short-tempered was already well-known throughout the Ensign’s headquarters. Most people simply tried to stay out of his way.
Which was not always an easy thing, when the man could grow to four times his normal height.
He turned toward a small door marked “Private” and opened it without any pretense. The room was small, comfortable, decorated with a long, mahoghany table inset with marble, surrounded by leather-backed chairs. There was room enough for ten people around the table, although Loomis had never seen more than six at any one time. Pictures of the Queen Mother, the Prime Minister, Prince Charles, and Winston Churchill dotted the walls, along with the various flags for all the different bureaus of British government. And at the far end of the room, behind the head seat at the table, were the three flags from which the Ensigns had borrowed their names; the Red, Blue, and White Ensigns.
And their living counterparts were now assembled in the room. Kensington already sat at the head of the table, a fact which did not escape Loomis. He smiled as only Englishmen do, with that dry, thin-lipped look that the Americans always made fun of. Elizabeth sat to Kensington’s right and gave a more cheerful salutation as Loomis closed the door behind him. The third person at the table was Albert Goldfield, their liaison with the British government, and the financial planner who had managed to swindle the funds for this headquarters out of the stodgy government’s pockets. He was a portly, rotund man, with greying dark hair tied back in a ponytail that dangled far below his collar. He wore a brown suit with a yellow shirt, a red tie and, if Loomis were to look, red sneakers. Goldfield was unconventional at his best and nearly psychotic at his worst, but he was a financial genius and a damn good master of conversation.
“Loomis, my man,” said Goldfield with a greasy grin. He set down a chicken leg and indicated the chairs around the table. “So sorry, old man, but we couldn’t wait for you. Steves’ fried chicken is some of the best I’ve ever had.”
The aroma of good food lifted Loomis’ spirits. He managed a cavalier grin as he eased into a seat beside Elizabeth. “It’s not as good as his rice pudding, I’ll bet.”
“Perhaps not,” continued Goldfield, abandoning traditional English manners and diving into his plate with his bare hands. He took a large bite from a chicken breast and grinned as he chewed. “But I certainly would not abandon this feast for take-out from Kentucky Fried Chicken!”
Goldfield’s comment elicited a quiet chuckle from Kensington and a sharp laugh from Elizabeth. Loomis relaxed a little more, especially when a steward appeared from the kitchen with a large platter full of various pieces of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits, corn, and steamed broccolli.
“So what have you been doing all morning, Loomis?” asked Kensington, using a knife and fork on his meal.
“Wrestling with those damn skimmers,” complained Loomis. He stabbed his knife toward the others as he spoke. “Did you know they’re using Ishima transverse parts on those damn things? Bloody things are a pain in the ass to calibrate. Sure, they hold up well at high altitudes, but how often are we going to be using the skimmers above a couple thousand meters? Just doesn’t bloody make any sense, I tell you...”
Loomis’ words degenerated into mumbled grumblings as he bit into his food. Kensington and Elizabeth both watched him for a moment after his tirade.
“Right,” said Kensington. “Anyway, I would like to propose a toast to--”
“And another thing,” interrupted Loomis, not listening to Kensington’s words. “The gyroscopic oscillators are about two and a half degrees off! They come that way! Maybe you don’t think that’s a big bloody deal, but let me tell you, you try making a hairpin turn at five hundred kilometers per hour, and tell me if you don’t go careening a few meters off-course! I certainly don’t hope that doesn’t happen if we’re chasing Autocrat through London or some bloody thing...”
Kensington stared at Loomis, who seemed ignorant of his own intrusion. He tentatively raised his glass again. Elizabeth and Goldfield both watched Loomis for signs of another interruption as they raised their glasses.
“To the Queen Mother,” said Kensington. “For her spirit and nobility, to guide us through the troubles yet to come. And to the people of the United Kingdom. May we give them reason to be proud.”
“Well said,” commented Goldfield.
“Yes, a lovely toast, Arthur,” commented Elizabeth before drinking.
“Here here,” mumbled Loomis as he tore into his chicken.
Kensington let out a quiet sigh. And the fate of England rests in our hands, he mused to himself.
Beside him, Elizabeth suddenly snorted into her glass in an effort to keep from laughing at Kensington’s thoughts.
“Heathrow airport, this British Airways flight 114. Come in, please.”
Static crackled through the speaker encasing the pilot’s ears. “This is Heathrow.”
“Heathrow, is there anything going on in Ireland?”
There was a pause in the static. “What do you mean?”
“Have you gotten any reports of unusual activities in southern Ireland?”
“No moreso than usual,” came the flippant reply. “Why do you ask?”
The pilot frowned, looking around inside the cabin at his co-pilot and navigator. They had seen what the pilot had seen, as well.
“Heathrow, are you certain there is nothing going on in Ireland? No reports of explosions, or anything of that sort? No damn American super-heroes rampaging through the countryside?”
A chuckle answered the pilot. “No, I can’t say as I’ve heard anything of the sort. Why? Did a man in a cape fly past your window?”
“Not quite,” said the pilot. “Flight 114 out.”
The pilot was quiet for a moment as he stared at the clouds streaming past the windows. Finally, in response to the tension felt by the other two men in the cabin, he said, “We’ll speak to the RAF once we land. Someone had to have heard about this.”
She moved with a seemingly effortless grace as she swung from one part of the uneven bars to the other. Catching the lower pole in her midriff, Elizabeth spun around the yielding length of wood before grasping it with both powdered hands, swinging up, and pausing for a moment, her feet pointed toward the ceiling. Then, like a Roman column toppling before an earthquake, she tilted forward and suddenly, swiflty swung beneath the bar, legs bent at the hips and spread forward as she passed through the air. Momentum carried her upward, and she let go of the lower bar, curling herself into a ball, turning head over heels twice before landing...
...with all the grace of a wounded duck. Her feet buckled as she hit the padded ground and she rolled forward reflexively, tumbling across the surface amid a staccato uttering of curses and cries. When she finally came to rest, tendrils of her dark hair dangling from her ponytail before her eyes, she was breathing heavy from a mixture of effort and frustration.
“Damn it, Elizabeth,” she cursed, shoving herself to her feet. “How do those damn Olympic athletes make it look so easy?”
Because most of them are waifish little girls, she told herself. Not a five-foot-eight woman getting dangerously close to thirty.
Oh, stop it, Beth, she chided herself. Just because you aren’t the best at something, that does not give you any reason to beat yourself. How many women in the world can claim to be twenty-seven and a decorated pilot in the RAF, as well as one of England’s elite protectors?
Not many, she told herself.
She leaped up and grabbed the upper bar and swung herself to a position where she supported her weight on her hands. Her legs jutted out to either side, toes pointed toward opposite walls. Slowly, she shifted her hands, turning herself to face the other way. The effort of doing so was plainly displayed on her face. But she breathed carefully, maintained her balance, and was rewarded when she finished the turn. Then, a slight tilt backward had her dropping toward the ground for a split second before she grabbed hold of the bar again, using inertia to carry her forward and upward. She let go of the upper bar, turned in mid-air, and grasped the lower bar as she came back down. A gut-wrenching spin on the lower bar, and once again, she vaulted off, tumbling head over heels before landing...
Now that is how you do it, she told herself.
Ah, the small triumphs, she thought. Achieving Olympic-level agility, flying a Harrier at Mach One just inches above the English Channel, being the only woman in the RAF to be considered for a position with the Ensigns...
The small triumphs.
Now, all I have to do is find me a lover, and I’ll be all set.
The door to the gymnasium quietly hissed open, and Kensington strode in, bedecked in his full White Ensign glory. The man’s figure was mouth-watering, Elizabeth thought to herself. He had the classic physique of a Roman god and the impeccable manners of an English gentleman. Such a combination does not come along every day.
Elizabeth shook her head suddenly, diverting her eyes from their intense perusal of her team leader.
“Are you all right, Elizabeth?” asked Kensington.
“Of course,” she said, bending and reaching for a towel on the floor. Her telepathic instincts snaked out and touched Kensington’s mind, and for a brief moment, she saw what he saw, his eyes focusing on her smooth rear, her taught legs exposed by the minimalist outfit she wore, the swell of her full breasts in her athletic bra . . . .
Kensington cleared his throat, and Elizabeth straightened with a blushing smile.
“So why the uniform?” she asked.
“We’re going on a trip,” said White Ensign. “Be showered and dressed and in the Jack in fifteen minutes.”
White Ensign turned sharply on his heel and left. Elizabeth’s burgeoning arousal came crashing to the ground, her fluttering fantasy that had involved a hot tub, a bottle of champagne, candles and no bathing suits gone out the window.
Damn it, she thought. Why does this always have to happen?
The turbines of the Jack hummed softly, monstrous fans spinning inside their metal coccoons and churning up the air in the hangar. Fifity meters ahead, the yawning metal doorway of the hangar was slowly opening, letting the cold and salty December air spill into the chamber.
“Off to save the world, are we?” quipped Goldfield as Elizabeth, dressed once again in her Blue Ensign uniform, stepped past him and ascended the steps to the plane. White Ensign regarded Goldfield with an impassionate look as the telepath walked between them.
“There’s trouble in Ireland,” said White Ensign.
“Oh, isn’t there always,” breathed Goldfield. He chuckled at himself. “A scuffle at a pub, perhaps? Guiness getting the better of a group of jolly young lads?”
“I doubt that it is anything so menial,” said White Ensign. He looked up over Goldfield’s round head as Red Ensign approached.
“The skimmer’s docked,” he said in his deep voice. “We’re ready to go.”
“So what is the problem?” asked Goldfield.
White Ensign stepped aside as Red Ensign headed up the steps. The engine turbines suddenly increased their pitch, and the noise echoed through the hangar.
“A British Airwaves pilot thought he saw an explosion in Ireland,” said the commander of Britain’s metahuman team above the din of the Jack’s engines.
Goldfield frowned. “We haven’t received any reports,” he shouted back.
“That’s what bothers me,” said White Ensign as he rose into the air. “I’ve been monitoring satellite and communicatiosn feeds from Ireland all afternoon. The whole country is quiet!”
“Well, there you go!” cried Goldfield. “The pilot must have been seeing things!”
White Ensign shook his head. “You don’t understand, Goldfield! Ireland is never quiet!”
Goldfield began to say something else, but the imposing leader of the Ensigns was gone, entering the Jack. The door slid closed and a technician quickly darted out to grab the rolling staircase and haul it away. Goldfield stepped back, a frown furrowing his brow.
Damn arrogant Kensington, he thought to himself. What the devil does he think he’s doing? So Ireland is quiet. We should be thankful for the change.
“Mr. Goldfield!” called a technician beside him. Goldfield obeyed the man’s indication to follow him back to the safety of a firewall and accepted the earmuffs he was given. He slipped them over his head as he watched another firewall rise up out of the floor behind the jack. A moment later, there was a thunderous explosion that Goldfield felt in his bones as the afterburner of the Jack let loose, spraying a jet of nearly-invisible blue flame behind it. The Jack rocketed down the hangar runway in a fraction of a second, filling the air behind it with a devastating explosion of rushing air and ignited fuel. Then the sleek black plane was gone, arrowing through the hangar door and out into the skies over the English Channel.
Godspeed, Ensigns, thought Goldfield. Godspeed.
Blue Ensign struggled for a brief moment with the controls of the jet. Taking off from the confines of the Ensigns Headquarters hangar was always somewhat tricky, given that there was not enough room to truly gather speed. Most of the job was done through inertia and momentum as the plane dropped below the edge of the hangar exit. A second’s worth of free-falling toward the churning waves below, before the turbines kicked in and the jet really took off, arching up toward the sky. A flock of geese gawked in protest at the sudden invasion of their domain, and scattered before the path of the jet. Then came the crashing boom of imploded air as the Jack surpassed the speed of sound and began flying toward Ireland.
“Why didn’t you tell Goldfield what we’re doing?” asked Red Ensign as he reclined in one of the two plush seats behind Blue Ensign’s pilot chair. He toyed with an unusual piece of metal and electronics that had some unguessed properties.
“I did tell him,” said White Ensign enigmatically. He idly monitored a series of communications readouts beside him.
“All you told him was that there was ‘trouble in Ireland.’ That seems a little mysterious, don’t you think?”
White Ensign cocked his head toward his team mate. “That’s all
Red Ensign frowned. “So why--?”
“Instinct,” said White Ensign. He jabbed his thumb toward the bank of readouts. “After I got the call from the RAF, I called the Protectorate in America. Silence. There was no response.”
Red Ensign shrugged. “Perhaps they’re busy,” he said.
“I just find it odd, considering that Avatar was sent not long ago to investigate strange goings-on in Ireland. Now all the members of the Protectorate are incommunicado. I find that strange. Now this.”
“Now what?” asked Red Ensign with a frown.
White Ensign smiled patronizingly. “Have you ever monitored the global transmissions network? Have you ever spent time watching satellite readouts and newsbands?”
“Not really. I usually have my hands shoved in the underbelly of one of our God-awful flying contraptions.”
White Ensign managed a small chuckle. “Well, I do. There is always something going on in Ireland. Reports of domestic terrorism. Drug-related offenses. There is always something going on that keeps our interest in Ireland alive. Now, suddenly, it’s quiet. There is nothing out of the ordinary, which, in and of itself, is out of the ordinary.”
Red Ensign’s masked face showed his understanding. “I see. It’s like the whole nation is minding its manners.”
“Exactly,” said White Ensign with a snap of his figners. The action produced a miniscule flash of light. “And when does Ireland ever mind it’s Ps and Qs?”
The frown returned to Red Ensign’s face. “But I still don’t understand,” he said. He steadied himself in the chair as the Jack suddenly dipped beneath some turbulence.
“Frankly, I do not, either,” responded White Ensign. “But I find it easier to believe that there is some sort of elaborate communications blackout than an entire country has suddenly taken the Queen’s Etiquette to heart.”
“A blackout?” asked Red Ensign incredulously. “Who--?”
“Autocrat, for one,” said Blue Ensign from the pilot’s chair. “He has command of both technology and almost sorcerous powers that would put Simon and his magic crayon to shame. I wouldn’t put it past him.”
“And if I were some power-mad vainglorious egomaniac,” said White Ensign. “And I wished to restore England to the height of it’s empire, I would attack Ireland, too. And a direct attack on Ireland in an attempt to establish a beachhead there would definately result in the kind of explosion that was seen by that British Airways pilot.”
Red Ensign’s face split in a dimpled grin. “Ah, how very astute, my dear Holmes.”
White Ensign frowned at the reference but said nothing.
“Arthur,” said Blue Ensign suddenly, pressing her fingers to her left ear, where an earphone was crackling quietly.
“What is it?” asked White Ensign.
Blue Ensign glanced over her shoulder, a look of concern on her face. “I just intercepted a communiqué from an American Navy cruiser. Old Glory is heading toward Ireland, too.”
White Ensign said nothing. His features clouded and his eyes narrowed. He looked like the kind of man who hated when he was right.
“Hurry, Elizabeth. We must get there first.”
“So if Autocrat and his Royal Elite are invading Ireland under some kind of blackout,” said Blue Ensign. “Then where do we begin?”
White Ensign folded his arms across his chest. “At the sight of the explosion,” he said. “Dundalk.”
The cold air and dark skies over Ireland added to the gloom the people felt in their hearts. Yes, Ireland had never had a generation without war, or some other national emergency that often to heartbreak, depression, and death. Ireland’s history was saturated with the blood of its enemies and heroes. Irish music heralded death in a philosophical way, accepting it grimly as a necessary factor of life. Conversations between men in a pub invariably came around to who died in what war. Death was a national past time, it seemed, for Ireland.
But this... this was worse than death.
The community of Dundalk had stood, relatively unchanged, for centuries. An agricultural town with some industry, its people had always lived a quiet existence. Streets were lined with houses and buildings, keeps and walls that had remained there since medeival times. Pubs and barber shops, clothiers and cafes faced each other across busy roads. Farms and family estates surrounded the city’s outskirts. Life had always been relatively uneventful in Dundalk, despite the ongoing troubles between the Catholics and Protestants. But that was simply a fact of life, to be understood and accepted as a matter of faith and history.
Now, all that seemed trivial.
Towering above the short, stocky buildings of Dundalk was an immense metallic pyramid, a frightening, devilish example of the terrifying heights to which technology could arise. A series of smokestacks surrounded the massive edifice, which had been erected, it seemed, overnight. Established buildings had been carelessly demolished in a massive explosion of flame and fury that left hundreds dead and thousand maimed or injured. City blocks thus cleared, the new erection was built before the widened and frightened eyes of Dundalk’s inhabitants. What came next was a holocaustal nightmare.
The demons were first, rampaging through the city and gathering up those who could still move. Those seriously injured were put out of their misery. Women were separated from men, children from parents, husbands from wives. Older women and men were sent to menial task camps, while those still in the prime of their life were sent to work within the massive, pyramidal structure that dominated their city. Younger women were divided according to attractiveness, with the most attractive being taken to ravaging camps. Their cries of pain and humiliation shattered the night and served as a chaotic symphony for the horrors being visited upon the land.
And still others were taken to... God only knows where, to return in new forms, the forms of demons and devils and twisted, grotesque mutations of humanity. These were the most tragic victims, especially when they were set upon their own friends and families, sometimes to the delights of the overseers watching.
For Moira Kierney, the nightmare had already seemed to have lasted a lifetime. When the attacks came, and it became apparent that young women were being treated differently from the others, Moira had taken drastic steps. Always somewhat slender and boyish, she had accentuated the look by shaving her head, and adopted her brother’s clothes. Thankfully, the demons were as stupid as they were frightening, and believed her to be male.
But she felt it was only a matter of time before she was discovered, and when that happened, she was certain to experience even more pain and humiliation than her friends were now surely going through.
In the food line to receive her daily bowl of what passed for food, Moira stood behind her friend Tomas. Tommy was the boyrfriend of Moira’s boyfriend, Robert, who had been killed by the demons when they attacked. Moira’s grief had not yet begun for Robert. Her own desires for self-preservation overshadowed any pain or loss she might have otherwise felt.
“Now, keep your head down, lass,” hissed Tommy. “Don’t let them see your face!”
Moira nodded. She wore a baseball cap pulled down low and made an effort to walk like a boy. She was thankful she had not decided to start living her life in platform shoes and heels, like her other friends had done since the age of fifteen. She was still prone to sneakers and sandals, and walked like a tomboy anyway. Her friends... Moira did not want to think about what was happening to her friends.
“Have you heard anything about my parents?” asked Moira in a whisper.
Tommy shook his head, not wanting to turn around lest their conversation be noticed by the demons. “Nor mine, either. Anyone over fifty, it seems, has been taken inside. I don’t know what for.”
Moira shuddered at the thought. Where these demons had come from, and what they intended for Ireland, were frightening mysteries, the answers to which the young woman was not sure she wanted to know.
The line moved slowly ahead. A grotesque monstrosity stood beside a low table, beside which were large steaming pots of foul-smelling gruel. Moira’s recognized the owner of a cafe that she had regularly visited, swilling out the bowls as the demonic guardian loomed over her. The guard was frightening, clad in the rags that it had once worn as a human being. The clothes had torn due to the sudden transformation the man had gone through, and hung like ribbons from its body. The right arm of the man seemed double the size of his left, and ended in a massive, claed hand. The demonic face watched impassively, a line of drool slowly making its way from the corner of its twisted mouth and down the thick, muscular neck.
Moira shuddered, and averted her eyes. She looked about her, as
men and women, lashed by chains and straps, dragged large carts through
the streets. Some of the carts held rubble, others held bodies.
Again, Moira averted her gaze and resigned herself to staring at the ground.
“Moira!” hissed Tommy, reaching back to tug on her jacket. The girl looked up, frightened instantly by the urgency in Tommy’s voice.
“Look there! Do you see who that is?”
Moira leaned past Tommy’s form to where he pointed. A young man stood beside the food table now, slender and dressed as any normal teenager would be. There were a few exceptions, of course; his clothes were unsoiled, the leather jacket carrying a strange emblem on the shoulders. He had a broad, clean, handsome face, his almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, and straight black hair marking him immediately as asian. He looked very much out of place as he casually stood by the table, watching with smug satisfaction as the prisoners were handed their bowls.
“Who is that?” asked Moira in a whisper.
“I’ve seen him... his picture, anyways,” said Tommy. His voice held a tinge of fear. “I think it’s Brainchild.”
Moira gasped, but managed to muffle the sound with the sleeve of her jacket. Her heart immediately started to pound in fear. She looked again, and stared for a moment at the young man just a few paces ahead.
Brainchild... one of the Royal Elite, the terrifying metahumans who worked for Autocrat. What was he doing here? Why would...?
Moira’s heart sank. Suddenly, the answers to at least some of the questions were revealed. The Royal Elite... Autocrat... that’s what was going on here. The Royal Elite had invaded Ireland, taking over the land like the British government never would. And the demons... they must be of Autocrat’s creation...
“I can’t stay here,” whispered Moira in a fervent, frightened whisper. She stopped moving forward, a man behind her almost bumping into her. He cursed, and roughly shoved her foreward.
“Moira!” called Tommy, his voice louder than he would have otherwise wanted. He managed to turn and catch her, but the commotion had alerted the demon at the head of the line. It raised its head with a low grunt, looking over the heads of those in line before seeing the two figures, one holding the other. The demon snorted and began to move forward, but suddenly stopped with a frown, grunting in confusion.
“Allow me,” said a smooth, sickeningly eloquent voice. Brainchild stepped forward, walking along the line of people. The citizens of Dundalk stopped, turning to watch the slender youth as he marched casually down the line. It took him only a few moments to reach the two people who were causing all the commotion.
“What have we here?” he asked with an arrogant lilt to his voice. He spoke with a cultured, English accent.
“N-nothing,” stammered Tommy, hastily stepping between Brainchild and Moira. “He just stumbled, that’s all.”
Brainchild looked into Tommy’s eyes. Although the Irishman loomed over Brainchild, Tommy felt so much smaller before this notable supervillain. The stories of what this evil young man could do with merely a thought flooded his mind. He kept his eyes cast downward, hoping that if he did not provoke the young man, he would keep moving.
“Oh, he did, did he?” sneered Brainchild. Tommy nodded mutely.
“Well,” said the young metahuman casually. “You had best watch your step, then. Both of you. With all this rubble around, it would not be difficult to fall and hurt yourself.”
Tommy nodded again.
Brainchild leaned closer. “The proper thing would be to say, ‘thank you.’”
Tommy swallowed nervously. Behind him, Moira felt her protector shudder. She was trembling with fear herself. She squeezed her eyes shut and quietly whispered the Lord’s Prayer over and over.
“Thank . . . you,” said Tommy.
Brainchild straightened. “You’re quite welcome. You had better keep moving. You’ll miss your meal.”
Tommy nodded and hastily shuffled forward, dragging Moira along with him. Moira began to breathe a sigh of relief, until a strong grip on her arm made her freeze.
“On second thought,” said Brainchild. He looked into Moira’s upturned face, peering into her eyes. She treembled and seemed powerless to resist Brainchild’s grasp. All she could do was stare.
“Hello, Moira. Hiding out, are we? Trying to live in a man’s world?”
Tommy whirled around, and everything seemed to happen in slow motion. With a desperate cry, Tommy’s meaty fist lashed out, aimed for Brainchild’s head. But the young villain was faster, and he snapped his gaze toward Tommy. The fist stopped moving. Tommy grunted with her herculean effort to struggle against some unseen force that held him. It was as if he no longer had control over his body.
“Tommy...” wailed Moira, tears welling up within her eyes. First Robert, now Tommy . . . .
“I... you...” stuttered Tommy, confused and disoriented. Brainchild continued to stare. Tommy’s eyes rolled back in his head. His body suddenly wracked in a convulsion. Blood trickled out from his nostrils.
“No...” cried Moira, watching as her friend toppled like an obelisk in an earthquake.
Brainchild emitted a sharp, vicious, hissing noise from beneath his teeth, and Tommy staggered back, legs turning to jelly. He collapsed to the ground, limbs limp. His head lolled to the side, eyes wide and lifeless.
Moira sagged in Brainchild’s grip, crying uncontrollably. Learning of Robert’s death had been bad enough, but to watch Tommy die... her emotions finally overcame her spirit.
Brainchild let the girl collapse to the ground. He snapped his fingers, and the large-armed demon ambled over, the sea of humanity before him parting readily and easily. No one moved to help the girl, and indeed, no one moved to check on Tommy. He was dead, that much was obvious, and even if he was not, to help the young man would be to incure the wrath of the demons, or of this frightening young man who could kill with a look.
“Take the wench to the ravaging camps. I am sure she will adapt to her new position . . . probably several of them, I am sure.”
The demon nodded and hoisted the girl under his enormous arm. Moira seemed to awaken then, and struggled violently in the grip of the demon.
“No!” she screeched. “Put me down! Put me--!”
Brainchild appeared beside her upturned head. “That fire will serve you well, where you are going. Too many of the young women have gone limp, so to speak. You should inspire them, I would think.”
“You bastard,” she whispered. “I will kill you!”
Brainchild grinned. “We’ll see,” he said. “Tonight.”
He nodded toward the demon , and it lumbered away, carrying the unfortunate, screaming, struggling form of Moira Kierney under its arm. Her shouts and cries and screams were slowly, eventually drowned out by the belching noises of industry, and after only a few moments, the food line once again moved forward, the people’s head held low, their hands held out to accept the bowls of gruel as they were offered. Moira Kierney would not be talked about that evening. She was just another victim amongst thousands.
A rush of air scattered dead leaves and branches beneath the ominous
black plane as it touched down in a grassy field. Turbines whined
sharply, then began to wind down. The wings dipped slightly, supported
by the landing gear. The plane was relatively quiet in a matter of
A hatch opened in the underbelly, and a circular object, about ten feet across, floated toward the ground. Inside were the three members of the Ensigns. Blue Ensign handled the controls, and with her hands gripped on the controls, urged the small hovercraft forward. As soon as they were clear of the underbelly of the Jack, White Ensign rose out of the open cockpit of the skimmer, and he was suddenly bathed in a soft white light as he took to the skies.
I’ll fly ahead, he sent to Blue Ensign via their telepathic link. You two head toward Dundalk.
Copy, White Ensign, said both Blue and Red simultaneously.
The skimmer shot forward, accelerating quickly, carrying its two passengers
west. White Ensign watched the disappearing form for a moment before
looking upward, toward the churning skies. The sun was beginning
to descend. Within half an hour, Ireland would be blanketted in shadow
As if it was not already, thought White Ensign as he soared upward. He let himself briefly enjoy the feeling of the damp air rushing past him before he opened his eyes again and looked about to orient himself. Judging by the position of the roads and landscape below, he figured he had to be some thirty kilometers from Dundalk. He could be there in a matter of minutes, he knew.
The landscape below looked conspicuously normal. Green fields, skeletal trees, the occassional grackle or rook taking flight. A typical, Irish fieldscape. But something was strange. There was something definately foul in the air, something that invisibly illuminated the background like poisonous radiation.
White Ensign wrinkled his nose, then breathed in deeply, smelling the air. There was an acrid aroma, drifting toward him from the west. Something that smelled like burning oil and wood, like the oil on mechanical gears mingled with the sweat of workers. It smelled like the deep caverns of a battleship, where men and machines worked together, each taking on characteristics of the other. The men would become driven and mindless, the machines ornery and unpredictable.
Yes, it smelled like that, decided White Ensign. He began to fly westward.
Elizabeth, are you picking anything up?
There was a pause, then Elizabeth’s presence filled his mind. I’m . . . not sure, she sent. I sense... confusion, fear, pain... but it’s almost miniscule, almost undetectable, as if it was being blanketed.
Blanketed? How do you mean?
Elizabeth paused. It’s hard to describe. I feel as if there’s something hiding the pain.
Something? interrupted Red Ensign. Or someone? Brainchild is a telepath, too, remember? And a powerful one too.
An uneasy silence overcame the three heroes. Finally, White Ensign interjected again.
Is it coming from Dundalk, Elizabeth?
Yes, she sent.
Then we must make haste. I do not like this. Be ready for anything.
White Ensign frowned as he accelerated forward. The ground below rushed past. In a matter of moments, he caught sight of the skimmer below, racing along an old dirt roadway. Gravel and dust followed in its wake, kicked up by the vehicle’s passing.
White Ensign looked ahead. In the distance, on the horizon, past the rolling hills that were so prevalent in Ireland, he saw dark, thick smoke obscuring the skies. It looked like the acrid spew of a thousand chimneys burning coal. He thought for a moment that perhaps it was a mirage, an illusion brought on by his expectance of the worst. But it was clearly real, and frighteningly so.
The hero’s attention was suddenly, diverted, however, as the sound of large, flapping wings sounded above him.
“Pretty, pretty man,” cackled a high-pitched voice. “Glowing like the edge of knife!”
White Ensign looked upward at the sound of the voice and beheld a sight taken, it seemed, from the pages of Dante’s Inferno. It looked like a dark-skinned, muscular woman, breasts exposed and dangling from its chest, a pair of leathery wings protruding from its back. It had long, knotted hair and a twisted expression on its face. The winged woman’s hands and feet ended in vicious-looking talons, and a long tail trailed from its backside.
“Who are you, pretty man?”
White Ensign could say nothing for a moment. He simply stared, trying to make sense of this demonic woman. The demon cackled again, flapping its wings to keep up with the swift-moving hero.
“Poor man. Cat have tongue?”
“What... what are you?”
The demon-lady’s features changed suddenly, from amusement to fury. “I am sentinel! And you are invading my land!”
The demon dove forward in a rush of wings and claws, flashing outward and toward White Ensign. The hero veered out of the path of the attacking demon, and reflexively extended his arm, letting his power focus and lance out. A bright beam of energy shot from his extended hand, striking the demon in the side as it slashed at empty air. There came a sharp, painful cry, and the demon-lady curled itself into a ball, arms wrapped around where its side was suddenly charred. It spiraled toward the ground, trailing smoke behind it.
Elizabeth! Loomis! he shouted telepathically. We’re
His sending rang true. As the winged demon crashed toward the ground, the landscape around the skimmer seemed to come alive, the growing shadows suddenly taking on form. Blue Ensign slowed the skimmer as a wall of grotesque flesh rose before the craft. She handled the vehicle expertly, however, veering the craft into a tight turn and sending a shower of dirt and gravel up into the menacing faces before the skimmer.
Converge! sent White Ensign, flying down toward his team mates.
Blue Ensign and her red-garbed companion both leaped from the skimmer, and with the activation of a hidden switch on Blue Ensign’s belt, the skimmer launched itself up into the air, out of harm’s way. White Ensign descended to float in the air just above his comrades. Red Ensign’s form swiftly expanded and in the space of just a few quick moments, stood at a gargantuan fifteen feet.
All around them swarmed a horde of dark-skinned, devilish figures, snarling masses of fangs, horns, tails, and claws. Few of them seemed to be wearing anything in the way of clothing, but the Ensigns noticed remnants of slacks, shirts, skirts and sweaters clinging to the grotesque bodies. There seemed to be a limitless number of them, many of the demons leaping about excitedly, chattering amongst themselves in expectation of the kill. Slowly, the throng of demons surrounded the heroes, clicking their teeth and nails.
“Ensigns...,” said White Ensign warningly.
“Yes, fearless leader?” said Red Ensign, an edge in his voice.
“I think we may have a problem.”
Albert Goldfield paced back and forth in the communications center at
Ensigns Headquarters. Before him, a massive console of camera and
satellite feeds blinked and flashed their various images. Technicians
monitored the transmissions. Everyone seemed to be doing something.
Even the young man with the cart full of doughnuts and tea looked busy.
Everyone had something to do... except Goldfield.
“Mister Grace,” he said suddenly, to the young, bespectacled man at one of the nearest consoles.
“Yes, sir!” he said.
“Are you sure these transmissions are working correctly? I don’t see the Jack on the radar.”
Charles Grace smiled nervously, turning in his chair to give Goldfield a curious look. “Uh, sir, the Jack is invisible to radar. We couldn’t see her if we tried.”
Goldfield frowned. “You mean we can’t tell if she’s all right?”
“Well, of course we can,” said Grace. “There are beacons and what we call the LDSD.”
Goldfield’s frown deepend. “LSD?” he asked.
“No, sir,” said Grace. “L-D-S-D. ‘Last-Ditch Signalling Device.’ That’s just in case transmissions from the on-board array go off-line.”
Goldfield scratched his head. All this technical crap was giving him a bloody headache. “As you were, Mister Grace.”
The technician gladly turned back to his console.
Goldfield began pacing again. He hated to admit that White Ensign was right, but there was something very strange about this whole affair in Ireland. The country was never this quiet. Not even the IRA was making noise, and that was an extreme rarity.
“Mr. Goldfield!” cried a woman’s voice.
Goldfield snapped his head up. “What is it?” he asked the portly technician seated two consoles to Grace’s left.
“We just received confirmation that Old Glory is flying over the Atlantic Ocean, heading directly for Ireland!”
Goldfield ground his teeth. Damn Americans, he thought. They’ll probably try to steal the show, too... assuming there is a bloody show to steal.
“Alert the Ensigns,” he said.
“They’re . . . already aware,” said the technician with some vicarious embarrassment for Goldfield. “Would you . . . would like me to notify the RAF?”
Everyone seemed to grow quiet with those words. All eyes fell on Goldfield. He looked about, suddenly put on the spot. Why were they all looking at him like damn idiot schoolboys?
“No,” he said at last. “We’ll let the Ensigns handle this. But Mister Grace...”
The young man turned in his seat again. “Yes, sir?”
“Get that LSD thing ready, just in case.”
“Flare Tactic!” yelled White Ensign. Immediately, his team mates
squeezed their eyes shut, blocking out the image of the charging demons.
As they did so, a brilliant burst of dazzling light exploded from White
Ensign’s body, bathing the countryside in the blinding radiance of the
sun. The demons shrieked and stumbled in their forward charge, many
of the front ranks falling to the ground and being trampled by those behind
“Steamshovel, Red! Now!”
Red Ensign opened his eyes and sneered in anticipation of flexing his considerable muscle. He squatted toward the ground, digging his wedge-like fingers into the earth. With a grunt, he pushed forward and pulled up, ripping up an enormous section of the ground. Dirt and rubble cascade around him as he barrelled forward, a section of the ground easily thirty feet wide and weighing several tons pushed before him. With a triumphant bellow, he shoved the obstacle upon his foes, crushing dozens of them beneath the immense weight.
Behind and to the flanks of the group, the demons advanced, slowly recovering from their blindness. White Ensign waved his arms, and a shimmering wall suddenly formed from nothing ness in a semi-circle behind Blue Ensign, protecting her. The demons charged forward and collided with the barrier, howling in anger and protest. But several of them suddenly crumpled and fell back, stunned and wounded by Blue Ensign’s unseen and fierce attacks on their simple minds.
“There are hundreds of them!” she cried. “And I can... I can sense their minds! These are people, Arthur! Irish people!”
White Ensign gritted his teeth. “Right now,” he breathed through his teeth. “They are our enemies.”
To punctuate his words, The leader of the Ensigns soared up into the air and let twin blasts of energy leapt forth from his hands, impacting in the midst of the demons. The ground shook, and light erupted from the impacts, ballooning into enormous domes of fiery destruction. Cries and shrieks of pain filled the air as the explosions hurled mangled and deformed bodies in all directions.
“Arthur! What are you doing!”
But White Ensign could not hear the words of his team mate. He was a soldier, faced with overwhelming odds. His training compelled him to put his foes down as quickly an efficiently as possible. The moral ramifications could be dealt with later.
Taking a cue from his leader, Red Ensign grunted again, this time uprooting a half-dead tree from the soil. He took several steps forward, letting his momentum add to his strength as he hurled the impromptu missile toward an oncoming wave of demons. Crushed by the weight of the tree and the force behind it, the demons fell back, giving pause to the horde.
Red Ensign chuckled in satisfactiona nd dusted his hands, then turned to head back to Blue Ensign’s side.
He froze in his tracks. The demons surrounded him as swiftly as he could blink, and before he had a chance to cry out or react in any other way, they were upon him, snarling and biting and gouging.
“Loomis!” cried Blue Ensign. She watched in horror as her friend and team mate was swallowed up by a mass of writhing, squirming bodies. She glanced around at her own protection, the shimmering wall. She could not be certain, but it seemed to be weakening.
She received nothing coherent in the form of a response, just a chaotic jumble of images and thoughts. He was being hurt, however, that much she could tell.
And by looking at the force wall that protected her from the menacing demonic horde, she knew she was not far from being in serious trouble herself. Her mental attacks were not as effective en masse; at best, she could only stagger a few of them at a time.
She looked up, and saw White Ensign, glowing like an avenging angel, sending out lethal blasts of energy upon people who were his mother’s countrymen. She could not understand how he could do that; how he could so easily kill those who might possibly be related to him, people who were not in their right minds.
But she could worry about that later.
Arthur! Loomis is in trouble! she sent. And I--
I’m already on it, he said. And you, as well.
Blue Ensign let out a yelp of surprise as she suddenly rose into the air, surrounded by tendrils of the same shimmering force that had composed the wall. That wall now dropped suddenly, allowing the demons to spill forward into the space where she once stood, trampling one another in their haste to surge forward. They snarled and leapt in an impotent attempt to grapple her, but Blue Ensign was already safe from their grasp, pulled away by White Ensign’s powers of telekinesis.
Arthur... began Blue Ensign telepathically, intending to express her gratitude.
Later, he snapped gruffly. I need to concentrate on Loomis, now.
I can handle myself, came Loomis’ presence in their minds. As White and Blue Ensign hovered in the air above, the wriggling mass of demons that marked the spot where Red Ensign was, shook and trembled, as if the ground itself was alive and protesting this infestation of demons.
With a powerful bellow and a dramatic flailing of his arms, Red Ensign suddenly burst upward from the mass of demons, now twice the height he had been before. Demons flew in all directions as he hurled them from his body. Red Ensign was a grumbling, furious titan now, a mythical beast brought incredibly to life. He raised a foot and slammed it back down to the ground, causing tremors that knocked demons of their feet. But still, they surrounded the human goliath, attacking his legs and threatening to crawl up his body.
As the horde threatened to ruch back to engulf the giant, the shimmering wall appeared once again, this time surrounding Red Ensign and keeping the demons back. Those few who were affixed to the gigantic man were subject to Red Ensign’s power as they were snatched up and hurled over the walls of the transparent energy that surrounded him.
Blue Ensign turned her head away as the screaming figures retreated into the darkness. She steeled herself against the emotions welling inside her. This was war, she told herself. Who knows what kind of pain had already been delivered upon Ireland? What were the deaths of a few compared to the hopeful liberation of hundreds of thousands?
“Suck it up, Elizabeth,” said White Ensign. “You knew this was going to happen sooner or later.”
Blue Ensign nodded with conviction. “Yes. You’re right,” she said.
Hey, you two. What the hell are we doing with these boyos?
White Ensign looked toward the woman floating beside him. Then he addressed Red Ensign while keeping his eyes on Elizabeth’s.
Forget them, he said. We cannot waste time fighting these demons. We have to get to Dundalk.
The skimmer slowed as it passed over craggy fields. The stench
of burning coal was stronger, and dark gusts of smoke swept over the trio
of heroes as they looked upon the scene below them. Blue Ensign let
out a muffled gasp of despair; Red Ensign grumbled a curse under his breath;
White Ensign merely narrowed his eyes and set his jaw.
“This is horrible,” said Blue Ensign.
“It’s like something out of the Inferno,” echoed the red giant beside her.
The scene was, truly, chaotic. Like some mad scientist’s vision of an apocalyptic future at the turn of the century, the once peaceful city of Dundalk had been transformed into a likeness of hell. A massive, pyramidal structure loomed over the city, drawing the eyes to it. The sprawling ruins of the small metropolis surrounded it like rubble, dwarfed to nothingness by the sheer size of the construction. Massive smokestacks thrust up into the sky like vicious spears, spewing gouts of acrid smoke into the atmosphere. And here and there, the tell-tale barbed wire and fenced pavillions indicated concentration camps, where Dundalk’s townspeople walked about like zombies.
“How . . . how do we fight this?” whispered Blue Ensign.
Abruptly, White Ensign lifted up into the air above them. His entire body seemed to pulsate with power, a telling sign of the rage he felt. Half his heritage was rooted in this country; to see even a single city like this reduced to a holocaustic nightmare was too much of an affront to him.
“With vengeance,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Arthur,” said Blue Ensign warningly. “We cannot endanger the people.”
White Ensign seemed to falter for a moment. His attention had been directed at the monstrosity dominating Dundalk. Now, with Elizabeth’s words ringing in his ears, he shifted his gaze to encompass the walking wounded.
“Artie, mate,” said Red Ensign. “Now ain’t the time to be letting your feelings get the better of you.”
White Ensign sneered for a moment out of frustration. “All right,” he said. “But I won’t let this abomination continue. It will end today.”
Arthur, calm down, please, came Elizabeth’s voice in Arthur’s mind. Her presence was somewhat soothing, even with the rage he felt. We need you to be strong. Those people need you to be strong.
White Ensign looked down to his team mate, and for a moment, their eyes locked. Volumes passed between them without the need for words or telepathy. White Ensign’s features seemed to soften.
“All right,” he said at last. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “We need to find their weak point. Obviously, that pyramid serves some purpose. We need to find out what it is.”
Red Ensign grinned, both at the return of their leader’s level-headedness, and at an inspiration that had leapt into his mind. “I’ve got an idea, mate,” he said.
The pyramid’s southern base gleamed despite the dark skies and dim light.
It seemed to be mad eentirely of metal, and absorbed all ambient light
around it, magnifying it, and reflecting it back out. Demons patrolled
the base in pairs, watching as the slaves of Dundalk were lead slowly inside.
The pitiful cries of the desperate and afraid mingled with the baleful
hum of the massive edifice, forming a twisted mixture of sound that did,
indeed, seem to have been ripped from the pages of Dante’s Inferno.
Through the air, a tiny figure flew, unnoticed by those below. It would have seemed to have been a bug of some sort to any observer quick enough to catch it, perhaps a large bee or locust. But those with sharper eyesight would have seen that this was a man, albeit an extremely diminutive one, clad in a red bodysuit, a set of golden wings sprouting from a device on his back that vibrated swiftly and allowed him flight.
Red Ensign kept his senses alert as he neared the pyramid. He watched the demons below, and the lines of people as they carted rubble, boxes, mechanical supplies, and sometimes their own countrymen here and there. There seemed to be no method to their movements, as if most of the people of Dundalk were simply being made to work in order to give them something to do. Of course, Red Ensign admitted that perhaps there was some organization to it all; but he could not yet fathom what it was.
I’m almost there, Artie, he sent to their leader via Blue Ensign. This thing is incredible! I’ve got to be a few hundred meters from it, and it’s already blocking the sky! What could this be for?
Any number of things, responded White Ensign. There could be geothermal machines inside, or perhaps facilities for Autocrat’s transformative powers. Maybe they’re gathering all the citizens of Dundalk together for experimentation.
I hate to think of what’s going on inside, sent Blue Ensign with a telepathic shudder.
We’ll stop them, vowed White Ensign.
Red Ensign continued forward, veering this way and that to avoid detection. The more he acted like a common insect, the more he was likely to be taken for one. He recalled the first few test flights with his mechanical wings. It was as Arthur had said; the first obstacle was overcoming one’s fear of heights. After that, it was learning aerodynamics, wind resistance, air currents, and not to mention, seeing the world from a one-inch scale.
As he neared the pyramid, with that metallic object growing ever so slightly with every meter he travelled, he slowed suddenly and hovered in the air. He cursed under his breath as he beheld what was going on at the entrance.
An enormous bay-style door was opened at the base of the pyramid, through which walked the citizens of Dundalk. Demons stood on either side of the portal, equipped with strange-looking weapons that resembled halberds. They held back each person in the line for a brief moment before attaching a small golden device to their shirt or jacket or blouse. Then, with a slight distortion effect, the person would walk -- or be shoved -- through the portal.
There’s a bloody force-field! he sent back to his team mates. Looks like there’s some kind of device that lets each person go through the field.
Can you get ahold of one? asked White Ensign.
Red Ensign looked around quickly. He was searching for signs that anyone who entered the pyramid ever came back out. But if they did, they did not wear the golden device once back outside.
Not unless I take out one of those bloody demons, he responded.
Red Ensign sighed. His eyes swept the area again, catching sight of something after a minute. Wait a moment.
The tiny figure shot off again, heading somewhat away from the pyramid, dipping down to fly between shoddy buildings that looked to have barely survived a Hiroshima-style devastation. The shuffle of movement from a darkened alleyway had caught his attention, and as he came upon the scene, his suspicions were confirmed.
A young girl, unconscious, was being carried into the alley by a hulking, stocky demon. It wore the tattered remains of some kind of worker’s uniform, such as a mailman or other government employee. But all that remained now were tattered and soiled strips of cloth that hung from oversized shoulders and the great, distended belly.
The demon grunted in an animalistic way as it set the girl down. She herself had seen better days. Her dress and jacket were both caked in blood and gore, much of that blood seeming to be concentrated around her upper thighs. She looked no older than thirteen, with a pockmarked face streaked with grime, auburn hair matted and greasy.
The demon set her down behind a large dumpster that was overflowing with foul-smelling garbage. The massive figure seemed to pause for a moment, looking down upon her. Then, with another grunt, it reached for her dress.
The demon suddenly yelped as something burned into its back. It pitched forward, catching itself with one hand upon the ground, keeping itself from falling onto the girl. With smoldering look of pain and anger, it straightened and whirled about to face his unseen attacker.
Aside from itself and the girl, the demon appeared to be alone. It narrowed its eyes and looked about, confused. The scorched welt upon its back throbbed with pain. What had caused it?
There was a sudden buzzing sound, and a sharp, sizzling noise. A beam flashed from the air and struck the beast in the chest, sending it crashing backward into the dumpster. The demon cried out, swiping at the air in a frenzy. Its mouth worked in a deformed attempt to mimic human sound.
“Not... me...! Me... dau... ter!”
In the air above, Red Ensign paused for a moment. His arms were encased in impressive-looking gauntlets with large barrels that protruded over his hands. Both of them trailed wisps of smoke into the air. His face was a mask of surprise.
Loomis, came Blue Ensign’s voice in his mind. Did that demon say what I thought it said?
Couldn’t have been, thought Red Ensign.
The demon below stopped the flailing of its arms and was once again looking about. This time, it searched the air above him, and the tiny eyes finally found the miniscule figure that had attacked him.
“Can’t... have... her!” it roared, struggling to form the words. “Too... yuh... young!”
Red Ensign paused a moment, then hovered down through the air to float before the demon. “Are you... her father?” he asked.
The demon seemed to give a sigh of relief. It nodded.
My God, sent Blue Ensign. He just wants to protect her!
Don’t waste time with this, snapped White Ensign. I hate to sound cold-hearted, but we need to get inside that pyramid, or there will be a thousand tragedies just like this one!
Loomis... Arthur... Arthur’s right, she sent hesitantly. Get the device from the demon, quickly!
Red Ensign sent back an affirmative. Swiftly, he flew before the startled demon, aiming for the small golden pin-like device on its belt. But the demon, surprised by the sudden movement, took the action for an attack... and behaved accordingly.
“No! No take!” it roared, swiping at the English hero. This time, out of sheer luck, the attck connected, and Red Ensign grunted in pain as he was hurtled backward. He might have slammed into the wall of the building behind him had he not been able to right himself and fly upward. He hovered for a moment as the demon bellowed loudly below him, waving frantically.
Damn it! he exclaimed telepathically. He thinks I’m trying to hurt him!
Just get the bloody thing! shouted White Ensign in his mind.
The cacophany of gibbering sounds diverted Red Ensign’s attention for a split-second. The demon’s shouts in the alley had inadvertently attracted the attention of numerous other demons, who were on their way to investigate. They would be in the alley in a matter of seconds.
“Bugger!” spat Red Ensign. He flew up into the air away from the alley.
It’s too bloody late! He’s got the whole demonic IRA with him now!
As Red Ensign watched, however, the demons flooding into the alley were quickly set upon by the lone demon, the former father who only wished to care for his daughter. But the fight was quickly turned one-sided, as the demons turned on their own and made short, brutal work of their dissenter. Red Ensign turned away in disgust.
^What happened?^ asked White Ensign angrily.
Red Ensign suppressed the urge to tell his commanding officer off. ^We’ll have to find another way in,^ was all he sent back.
He did not want to think about what was going to happen to that little girl now.
A kilometer away, White Ensign cursed under his breath. The glowing
pyramid was a mocking symbol of all he currently hated. Ever since
he had been selected for the Ensigns, he had dreamed of the day when he
would go toe-to-toe with the Royal Elite. Now that day was here,
and he felt powerless to fulfill his ambition.
“Arthur, what is it?” asked Blue Ensign insistently. White Ensign did not have to be a telepath to discern the urgency and worry in her voice.
“This is taking too damn long!” he hissed. “Every moment that passes--”
“I feel the same way, Arthur,” said Blue Ensign, placing a tentative hand on her team mate’s arm. “But we need control right now.”
White Ensign sighed, still staring at the pyramid. “You’re right,” he said. “I just--”
“I know what you want,” said Blue Ensign suddenly. “I can read your mind, remember?”
White Ensign allowed himself a small smile. It faded quickly, however, as his eyes settled on something new.
“By the Queen Mother,” he whispered in awe. “What the bloody blazes--”
His comment was cut short. Before them, and hovering above the ruins of Dundalk, a massive, oblong form seemed to materialize out of thin air. The same shimmering effect Red Ensign had witnessed at the portal to the pyramid was effected across the surface of this massive, floating vehicle. It was smooth and metallic, an enormous hovering contraption taken straight from the wildest of scientific imaginations. With its sudden appearance in the sky came an accompanying motor-like humming that vibrated through the air and ground around the heroes.
On the ground below, reaction to the appearance of this monstrous vehicle was immediate. Cries of alarm came from the citizens of Dundalk; shouts and bellows of confusion and excitement from the demons. Great beams of light flashed across the ground like searchlights, but they seemed to be looking for nothing in particular.
“That... it must be!” cried White Ensign. His body flashed with brilliance, and he took off into the air, his sudden eruption of movement causing the skimmer that Elizabeth still stood in to rock back and forth.
“Arthur!” she cried. Arthur!
But the leader of the Ensigns was not listening. Overtaken by his single-minded desire to put an end to this nightmare, he torpedoed through the air, flying like an angelic beacon of revenge. His arrival was visible to all in Dundalk; the citizens, the slaves, the demons, and of course, those within the hovercraft.
White Ensign let loose a powerful barrage of energy that streaked through the sky, illuminating the area likea brillinat burst of sunlight. The bolt slammed into the body of the hovering vehicle with enough force, it seemed, to lay low the ancient structure of the Tower of London. But although the hovercraft did seem to rock from the impact, it seemed none the worse for wear.
White Ensign halted his flight, a mixture of surprise and frustration evident on his face. He considered his options quickly, but realized, in a heart-stopping moment, that his illuminated form was an easy target for whoever may be inside.
And in the next instant, the passengers of that vehicle made themselves known, and did indeed take advantage of White Ensign’s pause.
A broad bay door in the front of the vehicle opened quickly, spilling light out into the air. An enormous, massive figure loomed in the doorway for a moment before launching itself out into the night. The humanoid missle was aimed directly for White Ensign, and with a thunderous impact, the two went crashing into the ground, forming a crater in the midst of what had been one of Dundalk’s busiest streets.
“Arthur!” cried Blue Ensign again on reflex. She grappled with the controls of the skimmer and sent the vehicle hurtling forward, low across the ground and toward the edges of Dundalk. In a mere matter of moments, she would be by her team mates’ side.
For better or worse, the battle was joined.
It had happened so quickly that Red Ensign barely had time to react.
First that bloody hovercraft appearing from nowhere, then White Ensign
flashing across the sky like a comet. The energy blast against the
hull of the hovercraft had been hard enough for Red Ensign to feel the
shockwave. He reminded himself not to ever get his leader angry.
Then came that human cannonball, and in the split second that White Ensign had been taken down by the attack, Red Ensign had recognized the villain. There was no mistaking that gigantic figure, with his oversized lower incisors. No mistaking that ridiculous ponytail.
If there had been any doubts in Red Ensign’s mind that the Royal Elite was behind this, they evaporated now.
He shot through the sky toward the impact crater, which was ringed with rubble. It had been barely a second since the figures had tumbled from the sky and crashed into the ground. Red Ensign was not sure what he expected to see. Mastodon was a tough guy, but White Ensign was no slouch, either...
As if in response to his unspoken question, there came another tell-tale burst of light, and Mastodon, on the painful receiving end of one of White Ensign’s energy-bursts, came flying up from the crater, bellowing in pain and anger. Red Ensign allowed himself a grin at seeing his team mate, White Ensign, give as good as he got.
Mastodon reached the apex of his sudden flight and began to tumble back down toward the ground. Red Ensign followed, disengaging his weaponry and preparing to deactivate his wings the moment he was close enough to the ground.
I’ll take care of Mastodon, Arthur! he sent to White Ensign. There are bound to be others inside the hovercraft!
Affirmative, responded White Ensign. Elizabeth?
Five second E.T.A., she sent by way of reply. There are demons everywhere!
Mow them down if you have to, sent White Ensign. I need you here, now!
Roger, she said.
Red Ensign listened peripherally to this exchange in his mind. Mastodon had landed in the remains of what had once been a donut shop, and in his anger, was tearing apart the walls. Red Ensign finished his preparations and disengaged the wings, already activating his power.
Let’s see how you like this, he thought with grim humor.
Mastodon cursed and looked about, orienting himself for a moment. That damnable glowing bastard had thrown him halfway across town! Autocrat was supposed to know the limits of these blokes’ powers!
In the midst of his angry musings, however, he felt a sudden rush of air from above, and he glanced up just as a gigantic figure, even larger than he, fell from the sky, slamming feet-first into him. The impact was tremendous, the shockwave destroying the rest of the small building Mastodon was in. He found himself driven into the ground by the sheer weight of his foe and the force of the impact.
Red Ensign, at his full height now, squatted over the hole in the ground his attack had created. There was no sign of Mastodon, but there was no way of knowing just how far the villain had been buried in the ground.
Red Ensign chuckled to himself. He had always wanted to try that. Worked like a charm.
But his self-congratulation was short-lived. The ground beneath him heaved and erupted, and Red Ensign found himself toppling onto his back, a massive mound of earth and dirt rising up to swallow him. Out of reflex, he punched the obstacle hard, shattering it into tens of thousands of shards and revealing, on the other side, the menacing figure of Mastodon.
“You must be Red Ensign,” sneered the villain as he dusted his hands. He walked slowly around the hole he had just crawled out of.
“Funny that you’ve heard of us,” said the hero, crouching on the ground. “We haven’t even been announced to the world yet.”
Mastodon chuckled. “Autocrat has more than ten fingers,” he said.
Red Ensign snapped his fingers. “I knew there was something weird about that boyo.”
Mastodon’s features changed from one of arrogance to one of anger. “You dare insult Autocrat?”
Uh-oh, thought Red Ensign. The form of Mastodon leaped through the air toward him, propelled by powerful muscles. Although smaller, Mastodon contained enough pure brute strength to lay low a city if left to his own devices. And now, Red Ensign found that terrible force directed toward him.
The first impact knocked the breath from him and drove him back through several walls, which crumbled and exploded around him in a showering array of dust and rubble. The second, hammered into his midriff, almost had the giant doubled over. But he gritted his teeth against the pain and punched upward, his gigantic fist slamming into Mastodon’s middle and sending him flying up into the air.
His massive arms waving to right himself, Mastodon bellowed angrily as he reached the apex of his flight and came hurtling back toward the earth. Red Ensign grinned, recalling his days of playing cricket on the Oxford lawns. A thick telephone pole would suffice in this instant, given his size. He ripped the pole from the ground with a great showering of dirt and pulverized concrete, then guaged Mastodon’s trajectory, positioning himself beneath the swiftly-falling figure.
The two combatants glared into each other’s eyes as villain fell toward hero. There was anger and anxiety in the face of Mastodon, and mirth and grim humor in the face of Red Ensign.
“Tally up!” yelled the British hero. With a mighty swing, he connected with the massive pole, crashing it hard againt Mastodon just before the latter would have connected with the ground. With a pain-filled cry and a bellow of anger, Mastodon went flying back up into the night and away from the red-costumed giant.
Blue Ensign raced the skimmer across the broken ground of Dundalk’s
streets, dodging people and obstructions on her way. The need for
subtlety was gone, as was the need for stealth. What was called for
now was power and skill. Secretly, Elizabeth prayed she had enough
The skimmer suddenly lurched as something grabbed hold of it, stopping it suddenly in its low flight. Sparks showered from overheated circuitboards and the hover engines whined as if in pain before exploding. Blue Ensign vaulted up in the air, letting the inertia of her forward motion carry her out and away from the skimmer. She somersaulted in the air, then landed on the ground, crouching low to absorb the impact.
She glanced back behind her. A massive demon had crawled up out of the ground, directly before her path. Evidently, it had latched onto the skimmer with powerful clawed hands, and the weight of the beast was enough to stop the swiftly-moving vehicle in an instant. However, its ploy was not infallible; the exploding skimmer sent shards of metal and plastic tearing into the demon’s body, and with a howl of pain, it retreated into the ground.
Blue Ensign looked about frantically. She was in the street that lead to the great pyramid, which occupied the ground some two or three hundred meters ahead of her. Between she and the pyramid, she could see a small crater, formed by the impact of White Ensign and Mastodon. She thought she detected a flash of light, and a burning object looking like a shooting star retracing its steps, but the object fell to earth rapidly with another shuddering impact.
But the telepath had more pressing matters closer to hand than deciphering the actions of her team mates. She tried to contact them via their telepathic mind-link, but found those links blocked. It took only a moment before Blue Ensign realized that only one person could do such a thing.
Before she could begin to search the ether for her erstwhile foe, however, Blue Ensign found herself the victim of much more physical attacks. From the shadows in all directions came a gibbering horde of demons, arms and tongue flailing madly, eyes glowing with madness and corruption. The first few reached her in a matter of seconds, but Blue Ensign was ready. Still crouching, she swung her leg out to catch the ambling limbs of her first foe, knocking him to the side. Pivoting and leaping up, her booted foot slammed squarely into the face of another demon, sending him sprawling backward some ten feet. As she landed, she detected another demon leaping toward her from behind, and in a fluid motion, shot her legs out behind her, dipping forward to press her hands against the ground. The demon practically impaled itself on her feet, and Blue Ensign rolled forward, carrying the now-breathless creature with her, and somersaulted, hurling the demon forward to crash into her first foe, who was struggling to regain its footing. Both figures crashed to the ground in a pile of jumbled limbs.
More demons rushed her. Blue Ensign focused on her training, and utilized her telepathy to allow her to ‘see’ more clearly the figures that rushed her. recalling her lessons on utilizing her environment to her advantage, she leapt to the top of a ruined automobile as the demons surrounded her. There were four of them scattered around the vehicle, swiping at her with clawed hands that were obviously more than capable of rending flesh and bone. But Blue Ensign did not let them touch her. Planting her hands on the roof of the car, she swung her legs around in wide arcs, connecting with all four demons ina flurry of impressive motion. Each demon cried out or otherwise bellowed in pain, tumbling back from the force of the blows.
Yet they continued to come. A group of four or five rushed her from the shadows, obviously intent on bowling her over with sheer force of numbers. Blue Ensign thought it appropriate for a different tactic. She concentrated a brief moment, then allowed her mental energy to lash out, envisioning a tidal wave that rolled over and into her foes. The demons stumbled as they felt the effects of Blue Ensign’s telepathic attack, then screamed in pain as their minds were assulted from the inside.
Yet one of them managed to make it through her barrage, and the demon madly rushed the telepath, slamming bodily into the rusted hulk upon which Blue Ensign stood. The vehicle pitched over on its side, casting Blue Ensign to the wind. She absorbed the impact with the ground by rolling backward, and landed catlike on her feet, just as a pair of great, hairy arms wrapped around her sides, pinning her own arms to her sides and lifting her bodily into the air.
She squirmed for a moment before she realized her towering foe was setting her up for attack by one of his fellows. This demon was slender and nearly skeletal, with wickedly long claws that flashed like daggers in the dim light. It grinned evilly in anticipation of watching her insides splash out into the open. But Blue Ensign would not allow that.
Viciously, and with speed that few normal humans possess, she kicked out once, twice, three, then four and more times, cracking the demon’s jaw, shattering its nose, pulverizing an eye. The demon howled and slashed blindly, managing to open a long wound on Blue Ensign’s leg. But the heroine did not let it stop her. She was fighting for her life against these foes, and would not go down easily.
A cracking blow against her captor’s kneecap loosened the big demon’s hold on her, and she slipped to the ground. With a fierce look upon her face, she spun, sized up her large, hairy opponent, then laid into him with a series of punches, jabs, and thrusts that eventually culminated in a devastating roundhouse punch that sent the demons sprawling, unconcscious, to the ground.
Blue Ensign glanced around, her adrenalin pumping hard, keeping her ready. She was beginning to understand the ‘battlelust’ that had so often been described by her grandfather when he fought in World War Two. The more she punished these creatures, the more she wanted to continue doing so.
The odd sound of light clapping brought Blue Ensign’s attention around behind her. She whirled and beheld a slim young man, Asian in appearance, clad in a fine leather jacket, jeans and a shimmering silk shirt. He had a smug expression on his face as he stepped into an impromptu arena formed by a ring of slobbering demons. He moved with casual movements that belied his confidence.
“I am quite impressed, Elizabeth,” he said with a sickeningly sweet tone in his voice. “You are all that we imagined you would be.”
Blue Ensign made an effort to calm herself, lest her battle frenzy cloud her rational thinking. Brainchild was a powerful foe, and not one to be taken -- or dealt with -- lightly.
“I am not surprised you know who we are,” she said, straightening as she faced him. “It has always been my surmissions that the Royal Elite had their pawns in even the highest levels of government.”
Brainchild chuckled. The maliciousness radiating out of him was almost as palpable as the thick, smoky air around them.
“Indeed, my lady,” he said. “I must say, it's a pity that we must meet like this. I had hoped that we could be allies. You are knights of the crown, after all, blessed by the ghosts of Saints Michael and George. Such as you should be fighting on the side of Britain’s supremacy, not her self-delusion.”
Elizabeth felt anxiety tickling her fingers. The two of them circled each other in the small clearing. Blue Ensign kept glancing around at the demons, wondering why they did not simply attack. There had to be dozens of them, if not more. They would make short work of her if they all attacked at once.
“I fight for the law,” Blue Ensign insisted. “For the truth--”
Brainchild waved his hand dismissively with a distasteful scowl. “Truth and law are as subjective as good and evil, my lady,” he said. “They're dictated by the society in which we dwell. You live in one society, I in another. Who’s to say which is the correct one?”
Blue Ensign folded her arms across her chest with a smirk on her face. “Someone’s bought into
Autocrat’s philosophy lock, stock, and barrel,” she chided. “Tell me, Brainchild, did you ever think of what Autocrat was telling you, or did you just blindly give in to the brainwashing because it appealed to your juvenile mind?”
Brainchild frowned, gritting his teeth. “I see you're not as noble as we thought,” he hissed.
Blue Ensign’s mirth faded from her face, replaced by a look of grim determination. “Nobility is earned, Brainchild,” she hissed back. “Not taken.”
Both attacks came at once, and the collision of the two was as visible to the throng of demons that surrounded the two telepaths as the ground or sky. The air between heroine and villain shimmered with unearthly force as two powerful telepathic minds engaged in a bitter, frightening duel.
White Ensign rose up from the rubble of the crater, glowing balefully
before the massive throng of demons that surrounded him. They clattered
and gibbered like excited baboons, leaping up and down in a frenzy of anticipation.
But it was not these mutated creatures that the leader of the Ensigns was
concerned with. Rather, his attention was focused on the hovercraft,
and the open bay doors toward the front. Another figure had appeared,
this one slender and unmistakably feminine.
“Good show, my dear White Ensign,” she said sarcastically as she floated out into the air between White Ensign and the ominous hovercraft.
“Baroness,” said White Ensign. “I half expected to see Autocrat himself.”
“Oh, you would like that, wouldn’t you?” she mocked. “Perhaps in that testosterone-plagued mind of yours, you envisioned a sort of classic duel, with you in one corner and Autocrat in another. I am so sorry to burst your bubble, so to speak, but his highness has other things to attend to.”
“Of that, I have no doubt,” said White Ensign.
Baroness chuckled. “They said you were arrogant, Kensington,” she said, making it a point to use the hero’s real name. “But do you truly believe you could survive a battle with Autocrat? Do you not realize his power? Look around you! This is only the smallest fraction of his genius!”
White Ensign kept his eyes on the woman before him. “Don’t waste your time trying to impress me,” he said. “You and the rest of your ‘Royal Elite’ are nothing more than well-funded thugs, a street gang with metahuman power. Your days are coming to an end.”
The Baroness pursed her lips. “Perhaps,” she said. “But your days are over now!”
They both acted at once, but the Baroness was quicker. As White Ensign extended his arm to fire one of his deadly energy-blasts, Baroness suddenly shot to the side, flying almost impossibly fast to avoid the blinding barrage. The wide path of the beam missed her completely, flashing harmlessly off into the distance.
White Ensign looked about, trying to track his foe. Everything around him seemed to be moving at a heightened rate, as if the world had been fast-forwarded. His movements felt slow and sluggish in comparison to everything else. The Baroness was a streak of silver in the sky, and as White Ensign began to gather his bearings, he saw more streaks, these being mainly brown and russet in color. It was not until they attacked that he realised they were more of the winged demon he had fought earlier.
They slammed into him, a group of three or perhaps four, their claws slashing and gouging. White Ensign reflexively shielded his eyes and tried to pinpoint one of the beasts down for an attack. But they moved too quickly, slashing at him then darting off again.
In frustration, he let loose with a series of powerful blasts, but none found their mark. As he spun about, chasing down his attackers, he realized his attacks were laying waste to the city below. Buildings shuddered, storefronts exploded. White Ensign cursed. He needed more control than that.
How are they moving so fast? he wondered, but then it came to him. The Baroness manipulated the passage of time. She had slowed his movements and sped up those of herself and the demons. It was like a sloth trying to fight a legion of cobras.
Time for a new tactic, he thought to himself.
He waited until the demons charged him again, which was no more than a few seconds. They came screaming and screeching, claws extended and eager to shred his skin. But as the closed in, White Ensign’s body suddenly exploded in a flash of brilliance that illuminated the sky and turned night to day in an abrupt and dazzling instant. The demons cried out, covering their eyes, but it was too late. Despite their relative speed, they could not shield themselves from the blinding flash. They continued to fly onward, toward their foe, but White Ensign had managed to dodge them, despite his lagging movements. Several of the demons collided together, and in a tangle of wings and a cacophany of angry shrieks, they tumbled to the ground.
“An impressive tact, Kensington,” said Baroness, her voice all around him as she moved. “You have trained well.”
“Enough of this!” yelled White Ensign. He paused a brief moment, managing to keep track of Baroness’ movements. She was flying about in a broad, circular path, taunting him. But her path was predictable, and that was what White Ensign was counting on.
The Baroness streaked about the hero, watching him. To her, it seemed as if the hero was simply floating patiently in the air, moving with slow, deliberate movements. The effect of her powers on others was always something that made her laugh, and she did so, knowing she had this impetuous British hero where she wanted him. All she had to do was wait for Brainchild and Mastodon, and this whelp would be pulverized -- both physically and mentally--
With a startled exclamation of surprise, Baroness suddenly found herself colliding with a floating, shimmering, transparent wall of force that had appeared from nowhere. The impact was enough to knock the breath from her, and she felt her shoulder give slightly as she slammed into the obstruction. Like a giant’s hand, the shimmering wall closed around her, encasing her like a cage.
White Ensign felt the world revert to normal. The Baroness had reflexively relaxed her powers as she slammed into the force wall, giving White Ensign the freedom he needed. The demons left in the air around him became as slow-moving targets again, and a few well-placed blasts of white energy dealt with them rather quickly, sending them flying back, their bodies blasted by the effects of his power.
But White Ensign knew the reprieve was temporary. Baroness was sure to recover in a matter of moments, and when she did, he would once again be the victim of her time-manipulation powers.
Suddenly, from the darkened city below, a great figure came flying through the air, bellowing like a madman. White Ensign barely had time to maneuver out of the way of this human missile, and it took him only a split-second to realize this was Mastodon, the muscle of the Royal Elite.
Mastodon flies? thought the leader of the Ensigns. But before he could complete that thought, the massive figure slammed into the force cage containing Baroness, and with a bright flash and a shower of ethereal sparks, the cage disintegrated, leaving Baroness free. Mastodon tumbled to the ground, cursing, landing in the midst of a pile of demons.
“My thanks, Mastodon!” cried Baroness. She grinned evilly as she focused on White Ensign.
“You dared to harm me,” she spat. “Now you will feel my power!”
White Ensign was expecting another simple slowing of his movements, but instead, he felt something entirely new. Pain lanced through his body, gripping his limbs in spasms of agony. His chest felt as if it was being crushed under the weight of Big Ben, and his eyes throbbed in his skull.
“Do you know what happens when your body cannot supply blood at its normal pace?” cried Baroness. “Do you feel that, Kensington? Do you feel your body starving? Do you feel your heart slowing?”
Indeed, the leader of the Ensigns did. He gasped for breath, but it was useless. He could feel his blood surging in his ears, slowly, as if blood had been replaced by molasses. The pounding slowed to once a second, then once every two seconds, then...
I’m dying, thought White Ensign as he spiraled toward the ground. This bloody bitch is killing me!
“What a pity!” shouted Baroness. “Their first official sortie as a team, and they fall as easily as did Ireland before the power of the Royal Elite!”
“Not hardly!” growled a deep, booming voice. Baroness spun toward this voice as a torrent of dirt, rubble, and pulverized dust came rushing up toward her. It was as if the ground had erupted, spraying her with thousands of pounds of rubble and debris. She cried out, engulfed in the mass of rubbish, and was carried down toward the ground.
Red Ensign emerged from the shadows of the ruined city, idly tossing half of a cement truck’s shell behind him. His face was colored by a self-satisfied grin as he strode over the small buildings in his path. Each step sent a shudder through the ground.
Immediately, White Ensign felt his life returning to him. He gasped for breath, settling himself onto the ground, kneeling and taking in deep lungfuls of air. He clutched his chest, but already, his heart was beating as normal. Blood was rushing back to his limbs, his brain. He felt disoriented, but he was still alive.
And ready and willing to give back what had been visited upon him.
A shuddering of the ground before him alerted him to the presence of Mastodon. The villain looked somewhat the worse for wear, having been hurled across a city. White Ensign chuckled at the thought of his team mate, Red Ensign, tossing this brute around like a child’s toy. It was about time someone treated this bunch the way they deserved.
“I’m not wasting my time anymore,” growled Mastodon, lumbering closer. “You and the rest of the bloody Ensigns are going to pay the price for--oof!”
Mastodon’s words were interrupted as White Ensign unleashed another blast of energy, striking the heavily-muscled villain in the chest and sending him backward, gouging a trough through the ground and into the throng of demons.
White Ensign flew up into the air, looking down upon the villain as he extricated himself from the ground. “Nor are we,” he said ominously.
The demons around the edge of the crater suddenly began to flee, scattering in all directions to hide in the shadows. The reason for their flight was obvious; Red Ensign. The giant strode to the edge of the crater, clapping his fist against his palm. He nodded to White Ensign.
Before them, Mastodon brushed himself off, shaking his head in wonderment. Baroness, recovering from her attack by Red Ensign, also rose into the air above her team mate, looking angered but somewhat shaken.
“God save the queen,” intoned White Ensign darkly.
Red Ensign nodded. “God save the queen,” he repeated.
With a fierce battle-cry, Ensigns and Royal Elite charged into their makeshift arena, each side intending nothing but the absolute destruction of the other.
Blue Ensign cried out, staggering backward before Brainchild’s
assault. The youngest member of the Royal Elite was still a child,
but his power was devastating. Elizabeth felt as if her mind was
trembling with pain. Her head throbbed with the worst headache she
had ever known. But, at least, Brainchild seemed to be suffering
somewhat as well.
“You... are quite... skilled,” panted the teenaged villain, sagging forward on hands and knees.
Elizabeth ignored him, resting on her knees for a moment as she gathered her energy. Then, suddenly, it began again.
The torrent of two telepathic minds dueling was enough to frighten the demons around them, and many of the mindless creatures escaped into the night to place distance between themselves and this strange display of power. Several of them had already collapsed from the fringe effect of the telepathic war. It was amazing that neither Blue Ensign nor Brainchild had succumbed to the other.
“I... won’t... be... beaten!” yelled Blue Ensign, her desperation and anger giving much-needed fuel to her attack. Brainchild grunted, then gasped, falling backward as if struck by a physical force. Emboldened by her success, Blue Ensign raced forward, charging the young man, not seeing a child anymore, but instead, seeing a vicious, cold-blooded villain. In their duel, she had been privy to some of the unspeakable acts Brainchild and the other members of the Royal Elite had committed since coming to Dundalk, and the image of those crimes set her blood to boiling.
As Brainchild staggered to his feet, Blue Ensign slammed into him bodily, knocking the young man off his feet and hurling him backward. The demons had largely fled, giving the two combatants plenty of room.
Elizabeth’s rage fed her skill as she cracked Brainchild across the jaw with a quick jab, then followed with two staggering punches to the young man’s chest. A high kick rounded out the series of attacks, and Brainchild went sprawling.
“You bastard,” hissed Blue Ensign, walking toward him. “Death would not be enough for you.”
“Nor you, my dear,” said the young telepath, revealing he was not as beaten as he seemed. Blue Ensign tried to shield herself in that split-second, but Brainchild’s attack was swift and vicious, and she felt as if a lance had been thrust into her brain. She cried out in pain and shock, falling backward, gripping her throbbing skull.
Brainchild pushed himself to his feet, one arm around his side. He staggered forward until he stood over Blue Ensign, who seemed to be unconscious. Then he snapped his fingers, and four demons ambled over, hesitantly, obviously frightened.
“Carry her,” ordered Brainchild, then he started walking in the direction of the pyramid, and the dramatic battle unfolding before it.
Thanks to Baroness, Mastodon was moving with uncanny speed. As
Red Ensign charged forward and White Ensign loomed above, Mastodon tore
up a section of the earth before him and hurled the missile at White Ensign,
then sidestepped the lumbering giant’s charge and sunk his heavy fist upward
and into Red Ensign’s midsection.
White Ensign grunted in pain as the chunk of debris slammed into him. He fell back, but kept himself from tumbling to the ground. The missile exploded as it struck him, the remains falling in a thousand pieces.
Red Ensign doubled over, swinging blindly, but Mastodon avoided the clumsy attack and hammered a blow into the giant’s jaw, sending Red Ensign flailing onto his back.
But the Ensigns were not beaten. As Mastodon charged forward toward his fallen foe, White Ensign sent a blast of energy downward, exploding before the mighty Mastodon. The villain staggered back, burned by the blast and pelted by erupting rubble. Red Ensign clambored to his feet and rushed forward, leaping over the hole in the ground and falling upon Mastodon, driving the muscleman of the Royal Elite into the ground with a hammering blow. But Mastodon was quick, and he gripped Red Ensign’s ankle nd squeezed hard, nearly crushing it. Red Ensign cried out, and Mastodon pushed his foe back roughly, sending the giant man sprawling onto his back.
Mastodon pulled himself from the ground, dirt and pieces of rubble crumbling from his shoulders and legs. He glared at Red Ensign for a moment, then looked up as a rush of air sounded. White Ensign was flying toward him, obviously intent on ramming into the brute and knocking him even further from the downed Red Ensign. But the hero’s movements were in slow-motion due to Baroness’ power, and Mastodon was able to pluck the man from the air as easily as if White Ensign had been a child’s ball. He closed his hand around White Ensign’s leg, and as Red Ensign lumbered to his feet, standing on his unwounded leg, Mastodon used the giant’s team mate as a bat and connected with Red Ensign’s chest, hurling both men back to land in a jumbled heap.
Baroness floated down beside Mastodon as they both looked upon the fallen heroes. “Well done, Mastodon,” praised Baroness. “Your strength once again does us well.”
Mastodon merely grunted.
“I must concur,” came lilting voice. Mastodon and Baroness both looked to see Brainchild enter the crater. Behind him, four demons carried Blue Ensign, which they roughly deposited on the ground near the other two.
“Brainchild,” said Baroness with a hint of relief in her voice. “I see you fared well.”
Brainchild smirked, rubbing his bruised jaw. He still kept his hand at his side. “Yes, not that it was easy, mind you. The products of Her Majesty’s government were difficult to beat.”
“I would expect no less,” said Baroness. “Still, we were victorious. What shall we do with them?”
“Kill them,” breathed Mastodon, taking an ominous step toward the trio of unconscious heroes.
“No,” said Baroness. She flew before the looming mass of muscle. “Autocrat has plans for them.”
“I don’t care,” spat Mastodon. “I want them dead.”
Brainchild stepped beside his hulking team mate. “Mastodon, listen to her. Autocrat has plans. I'm sure that they would be much more painful than death, aren’t you?”
The three villains continued arguing over the fate of the Ensigns, heedless of the unconscious heroes themselves. Although they lay as if unconscious, the fact was that they were not quite beaten... not yet.
Call the Jack.
No. I think we can take them.
We already tried, Loomis. This isn’t the time. We will need to plan better.
I still say--
And I say we are leaving. Now. Elizabeth, what’s the ETA on the Jack?
Good. We’re leaving now.
Fifteen feet away, Mastodon shrugged his shoulders angrily. “I don’t care what Autocrat wants! He already has Ireland, like he wanted! He’s already attacking India! I want these three dead! Dead!”
“Mastodon, we have our orders!” shouted Baroness angrily. “Don’t make us use our powers on you!”
Mastodon snorted derisively. “Don’t make empty threats,” he sneered.
“Then how’s this one?” called another voice.
The three villains all looked up at once to behold the Ensigns, albeit much the worse for wear, conscious and standing, with White Ensign in the front, Blue Ensign to his left and Red Ensign, now the height of a normal man, standing over his leader’s right shoulder. White Ensign had his arm extended, glowing softly.
“Bloody hell,” breathed Mastodon.
The blast seared through the air between them and exploded directly on Mastodon’s body. The explosion hurled the three members of the Royal Elite in different directions, with Mastodon getting the worst of it. They tumbled and rolled backward, tossed about on the ground like rag dolls thrown by an angry child.
In the next instant, the deafening roar of turbines and the high-pitched whine of powerful engines filled the air as an immense black bird of prey seemed to materialize from the black sky overhead and streak down toward the ground. Demons whooped and cried out in fear, scrambling for cover as this new arrival burst upon the scene.
White Ensign lifted up into the air, bringing his team mates along with him through telekinesis. The three ascended up toward the belly of the Jack as the great bay doors opened with a whir of hidden servomotors.
“We shall finish this another day, Royals!” shouted White Ensign. “And I promise you, your plans will turn to dust!”
Then the heroes were within the belly of the Jack, and as if with a mind of it’s own, the great jet banked and turned in the air then sped off with a devastating explosion from the afterburners, leaving the Royal Elite, and Dundalk, behind.
White Ensign leaned back carefully in his chair, idly watching the communications
displays beside him. He was not interested in them at the moment.
He only wanted to relax, and make sense of the chaos he and his fellow
Ensigns had just been through.
“They trounced us, Arthur,” said Loomis, shaking his head. He sighed and leaned back in his own chair.
“Yes, they did,” agreed Kensington. “We will have to do better next time.”
He cocked his head to where Blue Ensign sagged in one of the passenger seats. The Jack was flying on autopilot. It was obvious the telepath was in no shape to be piloting.
“Are you all right, Elizabeth?” he asked.
“Nothing that a hot bath and a bottle of Excedrin wouldn’t cure,” she said.
Despite himself, Arthur managed a smile, which turned into a chuckle, which evolved into laughter. Elizabeth and Loomis soon joined in, allowing their emotions to pour out in the best way possible.
And behind the fleeing Jack, with its afterburners leaving a firey trail in the sky, the ruined city of Dundalk remained, looking more like the remains of London after the second World War. The consequences of the Ensign’s invasion of this city would be long-lasting. For a brief moment, the citizens of Dundalk had a hope of rescue. But then it was gone, and if it would ever return, no one could say.
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