Ad Astra

From the Story Arc: The Fading Flame

Previous Story in the Arc: Return by John Murdock (Wednesday, July 11, 2007)

Next Story in the Arc: Sanctuary by John Murdock (Wednesday, July 11, 2007)

(posted Wednesday, July 11, 2007)

Perierat totus orbis, nisi iram finiret misericordia. "The entire world would have perished unless compassion had limited the hatred."

Three hours later, and the family was at the FOP. The Sarge had explained his plan to them, but Aedan had his reservations. "Ma, are we sure that this will work? This is our only shot at this; if it gets messed up, we don't get another one."

She looked at them all, then suddenly gathered them to her. "No matter what betides, we shall be together. We shall all be together. Is that enough?"

"I still don't like it, but you know that we'll follow you, Ma." Aedan hunkered down in the trench that they all occupied, checking over his equipment to make sure everything was secure.

JJ and Ratt ghosted back from their scouting forays. Both of them were as experienced at this as any of Sarge's seasoned men; Ratt from his life on Praetorian Earth, and JJ from all his Underhill training. Sera had to keep reminding herself that he was no longer "only" a year older than the twins. He was at least a decade older in elapsed time, as he had spent so much time in his capacity as a Knight-Guardian Underhill, some of it in realms where time moved more swiftly than in the World Above. "All clear," JJ said tersely, but Ratt grimaced.

"Some personnel comin' inta the compound from the west," he said. "Don' act like they know 'bout us, but that's more guns 'n hands in there. An' I think some of 'em have powers." He paused. "Mebbe half. They had dif'rent stuff on than uniforms, anyways. Didn' see anybody that looked like anybody else from home though."

Astra shuddered. She could still see the Huntress's eyes staring up at her....

< It had to be done, Kyne. But...I wish it didn't. I wish... >

Sera sensed her daughter's unhappiness, and caressed her with a wing-tip.

The Sarge came trotting up along the trench, keeping low so as to not expose himself over the top of it. "All our folks are in position. This is one of the back service entrances to the building. We've got two guard towers that have good firin' arcs for where we're plannin' to go, a guard house at the gate, and a reserve barracks just beyond the gate for their security force." He looked around to make sure that they were all paying attention. "You folks are sittin' this one out; my people are taking care of gettin' us in there. Y'all ready?"

Sera nodded.

"It's Sarge. We're ready t'roll here. Hit it."

An instant later, four AT-4 rocket systems equipped with HEDP warheads screamed towards their targets. Two struck the guard towers, obliterating them and extinguishing their spot-lights. Less than a heartbeat later, another hit the guardhouse, and the last struck the barracks building, causing the roof to cant wildly as flames shot past it. The family could see the dark shapes of camouflaged resistance fighters crossing the gap between their position and the outer wall of the compound. Small-arms fire echoed back to their trench, punctuated by the heavy thump of concussion grenades.

"We know how to throw a party." There was a double-click over the radio, which the Sarge clipped to his belt. "That's our signal. Stick together, an' move fast." He vaulted over the lip of the trench, his rifle out and ready. Already half-way across the field, Sera saw him send a stream of flame at a helicopter that had entered the airspace. Its pilots dead before they even knew what had hit them, the helicopter flew erratically before slamming into the far end of the compound.

JJ, Astra and Aedan all took to the air, flying not high, but high enough to give them a targeting advantage. Bolts of actinic white energy slammed into more targets; Aedan's dark bolts were harder to see, but the results were the same. All three of them were firing off their powers as they had never done in their lives.

As for Ratt, he was hot on the Sarge's heels, stone hammer in hand. He was not using his flames; that would make him a target, and he was not foolish.

And neither was Sera. She had picked up a machine pistol and was using it as she flew in her children's' wake, covering their rear. She wasn't very good with it, since she had not practiced as often as John had wanted her to, but with a machine pistol you did not need to be. Besides her goal was to not to hit anything, but to keep the enemy's people from hitting them. There was nothing like a heavy spray of bullets to incline someone to keep his head down and his gun to himself.

Finally, they were through the gate. The Sarge's people were busy setting up a breaching charge against the heavy service doors, with the rest having taken up security positions. A team of two were at the flaming barracks house, shooting anything that tried to run or crawl out of it.

"Take cover! Blowin' the door!" The Sarge ducked back behind a concrete divider, pulling down Ratt as he did so. Now Sera flamed on; her fires gave her some protection against damage, as many, many defeated Warhulks could have attested. The other three took on their armored forms and hunkered down in place.

Seconds later, the breaching charges went off, the pressure wave sending up clouds of dust. They were all dazzled by it, but the Sarge was already shouting orders again. "Once we get in, stay close together! You folks are gonna be coverin' the rear while we clear a path to the Portal. This probably ain't gonna work." Without another word, the Sarge charged towards the opening in the doors, following behind his fellow freedom fighters. Sera was right behind him. He had never actually seen her fight.

The resistance fighters were already ahead of them and around the next corner. Sera could see the muzzle flashes from their weapons and hear the staccato gun fire; they knew what they were doing. Sarge was right there with her. "Alright. My people are pushin' for the Portal room. We need y'all to hold here till they make it there. Whatever comes through this door--shit!" The Sarge stumbled backwards out of the way just as a burst of gunfire tore through the air he had just been occupying. He straightened himself up, pushing his back against the wall next to the improvised door. "We've got company. Some regular goons, and then more of the 'Special' troops that the government is always lauding over in the propaganda reels. The first bunch shouldn't be all that bad, but the second crop will be a handful. Y'ready to fight, angel?"

For an answer she called up her sword. "Don't be deceived by this, Sarge. It is not as anachronistic a weapon as you might think." She tuned her fires to their hottest. "And I defy a bullet to get through this--"

< Now children! >

She leapt over a heap of debris and was on the troops before they knew she wasn't an accidental fire set by the blast. She laid about her with her sword; her job was to hold their attention, but she managed to send not a few of the troopers down into unconsciousness from the pain of their burns.

As she kept their attention, Ratt joined her, his stone hammer taking a grim toll of those that escaped the flames. Now with two such obvious targets, the other three, up near the ceiling went almost unnoticed.

Astra was not in Mefnanim form although she was in flight. She alternated bolts of Kheldian Energy and the occasional energy-augmented punch with waves of healing. Ratt and Sera could mostly heal themselves, but the Mefnanim form of JJ and the Hulnanim form of Aedan were terribly vulnerable.

Confident that the family of metahumans could take care of themselves, the Sarge fired one last burst of plasma at the oncoming security forces before setting off at a jog to join his team.

Just as he was out of sight and hearing, the second wave arrived.

Three metahumans and two Fallen. Four against five; those were not even odds, but not impossible, depending...Sera narrowed her eyes and tried to judge the strength of the Fallen.

"Hail to thee, once-siblings," she called aloud, deciding to give them a shock. She stepped out into plain view, sword in hand. They froze.

That gave her the chance to leap between them, engaging both of them at once. She sensed immediately, and with sorrow, that these two were utterly, utterly unrepentant. Like Archangel X, in the sense that they gloried in their state, feeding avidly on despair. With sorrow and a feeling of loss, she tricked them both into striking for what they thought was her weakness; her mind. As they did, they left themselves open to Astra, who felled them with mental blasts. In the meantime, Aedan, JJ and Ratt had each engaged a metahuman. It was a sharp struggle, but it was short. When they left, the metahumans were dead, and the Fallen mind-wiped. Sera sensed sorrow, deep regret, a deeper sense of how tragic it was from Astra...sensed her silently asking forgiveness of her opponents even as she dispatched them...but also felt her daughter's understanding and acceptance of the need. This was not the Astra that had once collapsed when she could not defeat the Grim Gambol....

And from Aedan, she sensed the same, although he, being forced to this extremity long before Astra had faced it, had made his peace much sooner with their lot. She felt a fierce pride all of her children. And John--

John would be--astonished. And proud, she thought.

She held to that thought.

With the corridor clear, the followed in the wake of Sarge and his men, expecting at any moment to come upon them behind some rough barricade, or to follow the sounds of fighting and come in as reinforcements.

Instead, they rounded a corner to enter upon a scene of carnage.

Bodies were everywhere. Security forces, freedom fighters...

And at the end of a blood-trail, behind an overturned desk that had proved to be inadequate shelter, the Sarge.

Swiftly, Astra poured her healing energies into him.

Nothing happened.

The Sarge coughed harshly. "Ran into some of your cousins when we took the Portal room. Seems they had a little party goin' on." He propped himself up on his rifle, trying to stand. Straining, he sat back down on the floor.

"Why can't I heal him?" Astra wailed softly. "I should be able to heal him!"

Sera, who knew his symptoms all too well, put an arm around her daughter's shoulders. < This is nothing mortal power can heal, love. > "What do you want us to do, John?" she asked quietly.

"Portal room is clear. Get yer family outta here, offa this rock. Make it, and make sure this was worth it. There're still folks that need help, here."

Sera bent down over him and kissed his forehead. "Listen to me. This place will never again be in the hands of the Enemy. I can--" she paused as she sensed her four Siblings gathering behind her "--we can pledge that. If we can get away, then help will come."

"Then get, while the gettin' is good. An' help me stand up."

< Astra, JJ, Aedan, lend me your energies. > In the long ago, she had been able to strengthen her dying John long enough for him to go and do those things he felt most needed doing, Now she did so again, aided this time by her daughter and sons rather than the power of the Infinite. When she was done, he could stand. It would not be for long...but he would not need long.

"Now we go."

"Lock the door behind ya. The owners aren't gonna be too happy 'bout y'all makin' yourselves at home."

She nodded and kissed his forehead again. "And death will have no dominion," she breathed into his ear. And without a backward glance, she raced for the Portal room.

It was empty, as she and JJ and Ratt barricaded the door.

Aedan was already at a control station, typing furiously. "This is some weird stuff that they have, but K'takei thinks that he has it figured out. We're gonna be cutting it close, though; they have someone else on-line that's tryin' to shut down the Portal remotely. Once I get it working and pointed in the right direction, we need to move, and fast."

"Can you give me--half a minute of warning?" she asked her son.

"I'll try, but no promises, Ma. I'm flying blind here already."

She extended her senses beyond that door, to one lone stalwart figure in the corridor...waiting...watching... Her four siblings stood about her, invisible to the children for now. Although, if she, if they could do what she prayed they could do...the children would see them soon enough.

She sensed it before there was any sound of it; the titanic battle in the corridor. Sensed the Sarge's rage, sensed the Fury of the Fallen at this mere mortal who dared, dared to thwart them. Felt him readying himself. Sensed...a moment...him reaching for a hand he still was not sure was there waiting to take his...

And then--

He let go.

John's difficulty, in both universes, had always been keeping his powers in check, and under control, not in releasing the fires that his powers produced. Now, as both of them had only once before, he let go. The first time, both had been healthy and...not in their right minds, and the release had been instinctive. This time...

It was focused.

And yes...a "mere mortal" could, at least temporarily, destroy the physical shells of Fallen.

The explosion of his passing shook the building. The door went white-hot for a moment, and buckled a little.

"Now," she said quietly, to her four companions.

There is, in the moment of self-sacrifice, a kind of purity of will and strength. There is a release of tremendous potential. And the sacrifice itself is a needle aimed straight at the heart of the Infinite, a prayer that passes all boundaries. The five joined as one, took that needle, aimed it, fueled it with their will, their belief, their prayer---fueled it with all those souls that had believed, still believed, in Sera--

And they pierced the barrier that the Fallen had set about this world as a plasma jet pierces the toughest steel.

"Now!" the five cried with one voice, and all the waiting spirits lanced towards that breech as a billion arrows towards a target that was, itself, drawing them.

And first among those...she felt them brush by her, racing joyfully together to freedom.

It was over in a moment...but that hole would never be mended. Too many had escaped. Too many had etched the edges of it with their joy. And Sera once again heard the Song of her siblings and felt the touch of the Heart of All Time.

"Ma! I got it working, but we have to get gone right now!" Aedan tapped a final key, and the Portal winked into existence. In an instant, it grew into the blue-white oscillating orb that was familiar from their countless missions via Portal Corp.

"Go! I will go last!" she cried, and turned to her four--yes, they were her siblings now, Seraphim once again, Fire and Love mingled with remorse and an adamant will to redeem themselves.

"I think I got the right coordinates, Ma...but I'm not sure. I didn't have any more time."

She embraced him, embraced them all. "All right then. We will all go through together. And no matter what...we will stay together. We will find a way home." She looked to her Siblings. I charge you to hold this place. If we can send mortal help, then through here it must come. And if it can be sent at all, we will send it.

So let it be written. So let it be done.

With her arms and wings around her children, the Murdock Clan stepped across the threshold of the Portal, which spun a moment longer, then collapsed upon itself.

Mandragora meditated on a secluded islet just off the coast of Peregrine Island, a place the Devouring Earth seemed not to have discovered. It was her own private little retreat, one to which she came when too many problems threatened to overwhelm even the Dragon's serenity. She went there to think of nothing, to let her mind empty.

Paragon's never-changing weather seemed to have blessed this place. It was as perfect as a Zen garden, and yet completely natural, unformed and untouched by the hand of man. And Mandy had just managed to shed the first layer of her worries when she felt...something...

Just a hint, the merest whisper...

Almost too faint to recognize what it was...until the next instant, when she did recognize it, with a feeling that she had just been struck by lightning.

And drawing on all her power, Vickie's power, Valeria and Simon and all the mages that had promised her, pledged her, she reached with all her strength for that faint, far calling....