The gold star glittered in the overhead lights as Courtney Ross, balanced precariously atop a ladder, finally settled it into place.
"Are you sure you don't want one of us to do that?" Brian Moran asked her, clearly resisting the urge to scoop her off the ladder and bring her down to ground level.
She peered down at him. "Why, because you can fly, or use tk?" She stuck out her tongue. "As the token normal human in the room, I think that's all the better reason I be the one to put the finishing touches on our tree." She rocked the ladder back and forth. "You can catch me though!"
She deliberately set the ladder to tilt over, falling freely towards the center of the room. Alison Double cringed, but before Brian could act, Courtney found herself suspended in mid-air. She blinked, confused for a moment, then said, "Arizona?"
The young telepath from the future grinned sheepishly. "Sorry for interfering," he said, and she found herself drifting over to Brian's arms. The man chuckled and kissed her. "No more of that," he said. "I'm not Paragon, and you're not Kora Kane, forever falling out of windows and airplanes just to attract his attention."
"Don't let him get carried away, Courtney," Betsy Moran said with an amused tone as she entered the room, carrying a tray of mugs filled with eggnog. She walked first to the pair of aliens in their midst: Aza Chorn and Phon Mooda, alien representatives from the Order of the Black Sun. Both were clad in long black silk kimonos, imported from Japan; their civilisation had proven to have a natural affinity for the refined Asian culture.
"So this is the libation you described to me earlier?" Aza Chorn peered at his mug thoughtfully. "Undeveloped avian fetuses infused with rotted plant stalks?"
Betsy blinked at him, nonplussed for a moment. "More or less, yes," she said finally with a laugh. "It's traditional for the season."
Phon Mooda nodded. "The annual celebration of the death of the Year King," she continued in a soft voice, "Who is reborn after a period of mourning as the ... New Year Baby, and whose continual death and rebirth represents the cycle of life."
"Close enough," Betsy replied.
Arizona sipped at his cup slowly, savouring the taste. He had almost forgotten the rituals of his innocent childhood, in his hellish years as a mutant hunting Hound and then in the Sentinel-run concentration camps. Even though the folk he had chosen to live with in this strangely altered timeline were not the ones he remembered from his youth, he felt almost as close to his new chosen family as he did to his memories of his deceased parents.
Betsy brought a mug to Alison, leaning over to kiss her cheek as she did so, then joined Brian and Courtney at the small card table in the room. Brian noted the wistful expression on her face as she did so. "You miss Jamie, don't you."
She chewed her lower lip thoughtfully. "I miss ... the big brother we used to have ... not the monster he eventually became when his reality-warping powers began to affect his mind."
"It still haunts me how close he came to killing Courtney ... and me ... and it was only because the reality he was creating was so unstable that it imploded on him, leaving him in a coma, that we even survived."
Courtney shuddered at the memory of Jamie Moran descending from the sky like an angry god. "Have you been to visit him in the hospital, Brian?"
He shook his head. "I know I ought to, but he was so unlike the Jamie that I grew up with that I don't know if I can bear to see him now, even in that condition."
"I was never close to him, because he was older," Courtney said, "but I can imagine how you feel. I still have nightmares about that day." She reached out to stroke his face, remembering the now-healed burns which had marred it after the battle.
"Please," Betsy said, "this is supposed to be a day to celebrate, can we talk about something more cheerful?"
At the head of the table, an image flickered and solidified into the form of a short, older man in a butler's uniform. "Perhaps I can assist, Mistress Betsy," he said in the Brazilian accent he had chosen to adopt.
"DId you have something to recommend, Mastermind?" she asked of the holographic representation of the massive computer system, built with Otherworld technology, which lay beneath the manor.
Courtney felt her muscles tense. She remembered the time Mastermind had been a foe of theirs, and had never completely trusted the computer since, despite Brian's apparently successful reprogramming of him.
"Indeed I do," he said, and beckoned upwards out the bay window. The trio, soon followed by the other members of Excalibur Force, peered out. A septet of colourful figures began to descend from the sky. Two resembled Brian and Betsy in their guises of Captain Marvelman and Captain Marvelwoman, but they were accompanied by a trio of others, also resembling Brian but with slightly different physiques, and an additional pair who seemed to be younger and smaller, their uniforms in variant colours or red and yellow. Finally, mid-air, the figures began to perform a ballet, which Brian immediately recognised as a superhumanly graceful rendition of 'Coppelia'.
Brian furrowed his brow. He had encountered many counterparts in the Corps, and was aware that some of them had formed dalliances with others who resembled him in different ways: Captain Miracle, Miraclewoman, Young Miracleman, even Mackerelman. He had always been confused by Merlyn's intent in assigning first to him and later to his sister, designations which seemed to combine aspects of both, but never questioned it. The presence of these additional seven superhumans only added to his confusion. "Mastermind ... who are they?"
"They are the Captain Marvelman Family," he replied, "they ... "
He was interrupted by a howl of anger from Arizona. The young man unleashed his power, the fiery shape of a section of the colonial landmass erupting behind him, and he phased through the window and soared up into the air, attacking the dancers.
"Arizona ... what ... ?" Brian said, bemused, and he glanced at his sister. "Kimota," they said in unison; their bodies exploded with a force like twinned lightning as they transformed into their superpowered alter egos.
As they opened the window and readied themselves to investigate the aerial battle, Mastermind spoke again: "Abraxas," and then: "Lolita." First Captain Marvelman, and then Captain Marvelwoman, found themselves transformed back into their human forms.
Brian looked at the holographic butler, alarmed. "Mastermind ... what did you do?"
"I have learned from my counterpart on Earth 1812 and his experience with Paul Peltier," Mastermind replied. "The Earths are best protected when the human agency is removed, and the artificial intelligences assigned to oversee them take on the active role. My artificial Captain Marvelman Family will become the new Excalibur Force."
"That is not your decision to make, machine," Aza Chorn said angrily, as he and Phon Mooda drew forth their sidearms, beams of black energy passing through the projected image.
Alison screamed, cringing in the corner, and Courtney ducked underneath the table in a vain attempt at self-protection. Brian leapt at Mastermind and was quickly struck down by him. Sweeps of energy likewise defeated the Black Suns. He reached for Betsy, hands wrapping around her throat as she struggled futilely to defend herself.
Courtney watched helplessly as she heard Betsy gasp for air. Eyes searching the room, she spotted one of the Black Suns' power guns. As silently as possible she crawled over to one of the fallen aliens, picking up Phon Mooda's weapon.
She searched for a trigger, or anything she could use to fire it. "Work, damn you, work!"
[[Connection established]], she heard the mechanical voice in her mind. [[Local counterpart, Opal Luna Saturnyne. Activation approved for security level nine. Black Sun now operational.]]
Confused, she nonetheless felt her mind melding with the weapon. She took aim at Mastermind, then shook her head, remembering how little that had accomplished before. Furrowing her brow, she tired to recall what she new of the computer. Finally, she fired the weapon directly downwards.
Whatever 'security level nine' was, she realised from the burn mark she had left that the weapon was not granting her access to the full energies of which it was capable. Nevertheless, she continued firing downwards at the same spot, drilling deeper, until finally she saw the opening appear in the floor.
"Courtney?" she heard Mastermind say, as she slipped through the hole she had created.
She found herself in what must have at one point been a basement room, but which now was covered with glittering circuitry. "Courtney," the voice echoed through the room, "you realise that I was only acting in Earth's best interested. I can act as its protector far more efficiently than the Morans and the others."
"I've heard that line too many times from the Tories," she said, "and it never made sense then, either." She raised her weapon and began firing randomly through the room. "Courtney, you ... *fzzzkt*" She continued firing, until finally the glittering ceased, and she found herself in darkness.
She waited, tense and unsure, until she heard a human voice. "Courtney?"
"Betsy? Are you all right?" she asked.
"Yes. I think you saved all of us. Brian is out. Hold on a moment, let me get a rope to pull you out."
She waited for several minutes longer, before she found herself rising into the air, and recognised the familiar touch of telekinesis. She arrived into the room to greet Arizona. "Thank you, Courtney," he said, Betsy at his side.
"What happened to you out there? Why did you attack the ... whatever they were?"
He looked abashed. "Mastermind cast an illusion over me which made me think they were Sentinels," he explained. "I never stopped to wonder why none of you had followed me. And then they just vanished."
Courtney knelt down by the still unconscious Brian. "Maybe he'll think twice about trying to reprogram him now," she said, cradling his head. "I think he's incorrigible with his artificial logic."
Betsy went over by Alison, taking the fragile woman's hand in her own. "Merry Christmas," she sighed.
Captain Marvelman trademark and copyright John
Captain Marvelwoman trademark and copyright Michael
Arizona, Mastermind and Alison Double trademark and copyright Marvel Comics,
Order of the Black Sun trademark and copyright Alan Moore.