"By the data to date, there is only one animal in the Galaxy dangerous to man--man himself. So he must supply his own indispensable competition. He has no enemy to help him."
--Robert A. Heinlein, "Time Enough For Love"
He slouched in his throne, gnawing at a hangnail, staring at the star charts before him, showing the progress of the Shi'ar Fleet in their various campaigns, recalling the words of the infamous Roman emperor Caligula; "Would that the Roman people had but one neck."
Gabriel Summers, aka Vulcan, Majestor of the Shi'ar Empire read the status reports from his generals with detached interest. As he had promised the people he now governed, the Empire was expanding as never before. Soon it would reach an absolute apex, encompassing and enslaving every sentient race within the quadrant.
Within a matter of months, he would focus all of that power on Earth, his abandoned home world...and then laugh as both humanity and the Shi'ar fell to utter destruction. A perfect revenge, he reasoned, against the two worlds that betrayed him.
His attention was suddenly focused on the central holo-screen; a large cigar-shaped object seemed to be orbiting a nondescript gas giant outside of the Empire's current borders. "Battle computer," he barked, "Identify that object on the main screen."
"Object is a missile," the computer answered in clipped formal English; Vulcan had ordered his personal computers to respond in English, and had personally executed one technician who accidently allowed Shi'ar words to slip through the translation matrix. "Substance unknown, but not indigenous to the Shi'ar. Scanner probes are nearby and being dispatched to the missile."
"Good," Vulcan mused sullenly. "So it's not from around here. Any indication of its origin?"
"Subspace communication satellites have tracked this object as having emerged from the Sol system," the compter answered.
"So it came from the Earth?"
"Negative," the computer replied. "From subspace communications received by our spy satellites, the object passed through the Earth via a world many light years away, on the opposite side of Sol from the Shi'ar. Scan complete," the computer chirped suddenly, displaying schematics and scan analyses. "Object is roughly sixteen kilometers in length and weighs approximately ten million metric tons. The metal itself is exceptionally dense. It's likely that even the Shi'ar's most powerful energy cannons wouldn't be able to make a dent in it."
Vulcan observed the metal missile with growing interest. For such an object to fall into his lap was certainly fortuitous. "Computer, you said that the object passed through the Earth?"
"Affirmitave, Majestor. According to subspace communications from Earth's SWORD signal array, the missile was created as a weapon and fired at the Earth like a bullet at faster-than-light velocity."
"So the Earth is destroyed?" Vulcan's face took on a madman's leer.
"Negavite, Majestor. The bullet's sole occupant was a Terran mutant known to the Shi'ar databanks as Shadowcat, aka Katherine Pryde. She deployed her power to render the bullet intangible."
"Pity," he muttered, almost casually. "Now I have to go and destroy the Earth myself. Computer, estimate how many warships could be manufactured from the metal of that missile."
"Approximately 6,550, Majestor," the computer replied dutifully.
That was all the information he needed. "Send an order to all squadrons in the vicinity of that star! I want that missile! Have them tow it to the home-world, immediately!"
"Majestor," the computer advised him, "Fifteen flagships with full tractor beams would be sufficient to lodge the missile out of its orbit and tow it through a star-gate."
"Send fifteen flagships," Vulcan commanded, "and five Dreadnoughts to protect them." After a moment's thought, he added, "The mutant Shadowcat. She died within the bullet, I trust?"
After a moment, the computer answered, "Scan for life signs complete. Nascent mental activity within the missile indicates that the mutant Shadowcat is alive. According to sensor sweeps, her molecular structure is fused with the metal itself, rendering her immobile."
Vulcan digested this last piece of information, and began to chuckle at the thought. "By a single act," he mused, "I'll murder one of Xavier's soldiers and sign the death warrant of the world she sacrificed herself to protect." His smile carried the warmth and sensitivity of a shark after smelling blood. "It's good to be the king."
His maniacal laughter echoed like gunfire through the hallways of his palace.
Somewhere in Shi'ar space:
"Damn and blast!" a guttural voice cursed from underneath the warp drive of the Starjammer. Sparks flew and energy arced between two fried couplings.
"Trouble, Korvus?" the athletically built redhead asked sardonically.
"Nothing that a complete overhaul cannot fix, Rachel," Korvus pulled himself out from under the drive engine and faced his love. "I have it running for now, but I cannot guarantee that my repairs will hold."
"So the ship's being held together by bailing wire and good intentions," Rachel squatted down to meet Korvus as he lifted himself to a sitting position. His black feather-like hair, normally spiked, was matted down with perspiration, and his rough-hewn features were smudged.
Rachel Grey gave Korvus a knowing look. Their relationship was certainly one of the more unexpected events of both their recent lives. Korvus had been a prisoner much of his life, given a chance at freedom only if he agreed to kill the current host of the Phoenix, and was given the enormous sword, Blade of the Phoenix, to kill Rachel Grey. The next to last thing either of them expected was for the blade to forge a psychic bond between them.
The very last thing they expected was for that bond to become emotional as well. The bond was the last thing Rachel wanted to deal with. She had to worry about saving Alex, Lorna and the rest of the Starjammers first, and then deal once and for all with the psychotic emperor of the Shi'ar. Gabriel Summers, Vulcan.
"Don't worry, Korvus," Rachel assured the Shi'ar warrior. "Lilandra and I scanned the immediate area. There's a knot of colony planets ahead. We should be able to locate some decent spare parts."
"That is assuming that there isn't a bounty on our heads. Which I have no doubt has been provided by Emperor Vulcan," Korvus spat out the name as though it were poison on his tongue. A sentiment Rachel shared. The fact that Gabriel Summers was Scott Summers' brother was, as far as she was concerned, an unfortunate accident of genetics. And one she hoped to rectify if their paths ever crossed again.
"We'll get the parts, Korvus," the former X-Man assured him. "Then we'll go back to the Shi'ar homeworld, free Alex, Lorna and the rest of the crew, take down Vulcan and reinstate Lilandra on the throne once and for all."
"Of course," Korvus scoffed as he lifted himself to his feet and headed toward the main bridge. "Will we accomplish this before or after our executions?"
"You're such a pessimist," Rachel teased as she joined him on his way to the bridge.
"Rachel, Korvus," Lilandra raised her voice in greeting as the two set foot on the main bridge. "I was going to call for you."
"My empress?" Korvus bowed deeply in a sign of respect. Rachel's posture was more guarded, less respectful; at this time Lilandra was no more Majestrix of the Shi'ar than Rachel was. And given that one of her last acts as Majestrix was to order the assassinations of the surviving members of the Grey family, the only true family she had left on Earth, did little to win any support from Rachel. But for the time being, they were united by a common enemy. Strange bedfellows indeed.
"What's the situation, Lilandra?" Rachel asked as she took her seat at the main helm console.
"I've been secretly monitoring communications from the home-world," Lilandra reported. "Vulcan is on the move. He's sent a small squadron of warships to a star outside of Shi'ar space, to retrieve an object that appears to have fallen into orbit."
"Can you show me where this star is?" Rachel asked, as Korvus took his seat beside her.
"Here," Lilandra manipulated the helm scanners for a second. A hologram appeared before them, showing the star in three dimensions. "Here's the star, and this object," she indicated a cigar-shaped object in orbit around the star, "appears to be their objective."
"What is that?" Korvus asked. "A weapon? A vessel of some kind?"
"Wait," Rachel called out suddenly. "I'm sensing something...there's something living in that object, a mind..." Korvus kept silent; even with the psionic bond he shared with Rachel, he couldn't fully gage the vast mental powers she commanded as the Phoenix.
Suddenly, Rachel bolted rigidly upright, her eyes wide as baseballs. And the fates of the captive Starjammers suddenly took a distant second in her priorities.
"Lilandra!" she shouted. "I have to go intercept the fleet. I need to find that object, now!"
Her body glowed a faint blue, the energies of the Phoenix Force suffusing her being, and Korvus sensed the energy build-up as well. "What is it, Rachel?" Korvus asked. "Why the sudden urgency?"
Rachel turned to Korvus, her face set in a mask of grim determination, and spoke only one word before rushing to the airlock;
"Captain Brand," Helmsman Goldblum reported as she strode onto the deck of the Abdul Alhazred, Hank McCoy following behind, "we're closing in on Kasterborous."
"Finally," Brand breathed as she stood behind the helm chair. "Can you give me a visual?"
"Visual scanners are online, Captain," Goldblum confirmed, pressing a space on the touch-sensitive control console before him. The main screen displayed an image of the enormous reddish disk that was Kasterborous.
Hank took his seat next to the helmsman and scanned the stellar body that now dominated the main bridge. "According to the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram," McCoy commented as he observed the star, "Kasterborous is a red super-giant star." Reading the scanners next to the main screen, he continued, "Roughly 55 times the mass of Earth's sun, and as stars go, relatively cool, radiating a surface temperature of approximately 3,500 degrees Kelvin."
"And me without my parka," Brand groused. "And the fact that the star in question is a giant may indicate why the bullet was drawn into its orbit, if I remember my Newtonian physics correctly."
"Indeed, Agent Brand," Hank nodded. "The larger the stellar body, the greater its gravitational pull. From the readings I'm getting from your scanners, the local gravitational and magnetic fields have slowed the bullet down considerably once it neared the star, allowing it to smoothly enter orbit." He harrumphed slightly. "So far, luck is with us."
Brand said nothing in reply to Hank's comment. She fixed her gaze to the main view screen. "Goldblum," she spoke in measured tones, "give me a coordinate grid."
"Right away, Captain," Another touch on the keypad and the screen was subdivided into squares by thin white lines of light. Each row of squares bore a letter to the left, starting with 'A', while each column was topped with a number, from '1' onward. It rather reminded Brand of a spreadsheet, except what she was looking for was far more important than a budget discrepancy. She scanned the screen before her, until she noted something on the right side of the screen...
"Coordinate G-15!" Brand barked. "Magnify and enhance!" One second later, the single coordinate space filled the screen, its vague pixels suddenly coalescing into a visible shape, framed against the matte black of space behind it. The rod-shaped object gleamed dimly in the reddening light of the gas giant it orbited.
"We have a positive confirmation," Hank announced, hope suffusing his voice. "The object is a mass of solid Prydonium, ten miles long, one-point-five miles in diameter, with a hollow space toward the tip, roughly 1000 cubic meters large. We've found her."
Brand spared a pleased grin for a split-second; so far, the mission was going as planned.
"Hello, Kitty," she greeted the bullet. "Hank, tell Erik, Emma and Peter that they're on. If luck's still with us, let's go all in."
Author's note: Short chapter this time around as I introduce a few more players onto the field. There's an old rule of drama; first you put your character up a tree, then you throw rocks at the tree. Vulcan is the biggest rock I could find right about now. The rescue will begin next chapter, but it won't be smooth sailing.