"They got another one, Colonel!" a young officer said from the command pit, just in case his commander hadn't seen.
"How many does that make so far?" Fury asked from his high perch.
"Twenty-seven, sir. They've disabled twenty-seven of 'em!" the young officer said again, excitement obvious in his voice.
"And how many ships have they lost?"
The officer's hands tapped several buttons on the control panel, calling up ship loss estimates on his computer, "We estimate they've lost about twenty-six thousand ships, sir."
Fury gave a start. Twenty-six thousand ships? They were losing a thousand ships per Celestial. How many did they have? He hoped that they had enough to at least turn the Celestials back, if not destroy all of them. Once this was over, SHIELD would have to get to work building newer, better weapons platforms. Fury would never let this happen again, ever.
"Status of Avalon?" Fury questioned, falling back into the real world.
"It's lost most of its shielding and its structural integrity fields are fluctuating, but Magneto isn't giving up. That thing hasn't budged since it got here. Looks like the Mutie is fighting the good fight, and for earth!"
The Colonel said nothing, but couldn't help wondering about the so-called "Master of Magnetism." The man, the mutant, who had sunk a Russian submarine and killed thousands during his last visit to the planet was fighting on the side of humanity this time. Fury shook his head. Some things he just didn't understand and never thought he would either.
The hum of machines was the only sound in the operations center for quite a span as the entire staff watched the battle outside that could very well determine the fate of the planet below. Many people clutched their headsets tightly as a piece of debris streaked nearby or a Celestial approached. They'd been lucky so far, spared the cosmic onslaught because they had no weapons systems to speak of, due to their cloaking device. Everyone hoped their luck held out quite a bit longer.
"Colonel, we're picking up a major energy spike on the opposite side of earth. It's huge sir, I've never seen anything like it!" that young officer said again, several people nearly jumping out of their seats in surprise at hearing a human voice so suddenly.
"Show me." Fury said simply, leaning forward on the command rail, teeth working his cigar over totally and completely.
The viewscreen went black for several seconds as it readjusted to show events to the rear. When the image rematerialized, everyone's jaw nearly dropped. Floating above the blue globe of earth two blazing balls of fire sat pulsing and growing brighter steadily. Slowly metal formed around the pair of fireballs and the spectacle took on the appearance of looking into a raging inferno barely contained within an open furnace. Slowly, as if it had been there the entire time, a great armored form faded into view above and around the two flames and it became quite obvious that they were not mere cosmic sparks, but gigantic eyes.
The giant stood impassively for several moments, dwarfing everything in sight, looking over the gnats battling on the opposite side of the pristine orb. With no ceremony it stretched for its mighty arm and placed its hand what was surely mere feet from earth's atmosphere over the great chunk of ice called the Arctic. Hovering, it did nothing further, as if waiting for the exact time to begins its monumental assignment.
Looking over the scene, the young officer said in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, "We're fucked." Nick Fury couldn't have agreed more.
As the bridge rocked wildly with impact and sleek ebon droids were thrown from their positions like rag dolls, Mordrin sat slumped in his seat, head lolled back against the headrest, eyes a yellow glaze. He moved not an inch as the vessel upended itself.
And then, those lifeless eyes stirred, the inner struggle with in the soul of Norrin Radd at an end. He lifted his head slowly, gently and looked at his surroundings as if studying them for the first time, for indeed he was. He looked down at the costume he was wearing and sneered. His ebon skin swirled, like water being sucked down a drain as streaks of silver reasserted themselves.
He stood, his skin gleaming in the flickering bridge lights and his clothing rotted to dust, falling away in motes. Mordrin's reign was ended, Norrin Radd lived again. His eyes flashed as he looked at the chaos on the viewscreen, as a giant Celestial preparing to deal the Shrike a final blow was smashed to atoms by gigantic asteroids. Those triangular vessels flew out of sight, over the Shrike and there was a pulling and the titanic struggle began to recede from view, slowly, then faster and faster. No one bothered to pursue, everyone caught up in there own affairs.
Turning away in disgust, the Surfer's eyes widened with realization and rememberance. All a diversion, all part of Thanos' plan. He shook his head vigorously, clearing away his final bit of disorientation and hastily made his way toward the bridge doors, floating effortlessly as the droids clung to their control banks, desperately trying to restore power.
Hurriedly rushing through the corridors, he finally found an airlock and burned his way through with a blast of the Power Cosmic. It pulsed within him now, returning to its full force, Mordrin's taint slowly ebbing away.
Launching himself out into space, the Surfer reformed his board from his own essence and mounted it quickly, gaze centered past the great battle and on the shining world behind it. He didn't glance back as the Shrike's ebon form retreated, pulled back into the depths of space by those triangular vessels, opaque tractor beams shimmering in the night.
Norrin Radd streaked toward the planet, a tail of silver slowly growing behind his board. Weaving in and out of wreckage and energy blasts, his target neared at high speed. He would enter the atmosphere, soon.
A glance up slowed him for a moment and his eyes widened in amazement and awe, "By the stars..." he whispered to himself as that great armored form faded into existence.
His concentration diverted, Norrin did not sense the two large forms coming up beside him on both flanks, though each was nearly a mile away. The Celestial fired at the starship, the silver flyspeck not a consideration to the cosmic giant.
The beam struck dead on and the huge destroyer exploded in a shower of metal. The beam also struck another target, at the least the outer edge of it did. The Surfer was knocked into instant unconsciousness with the glancing impact and he flew off his board, propelled forward by the Celestial's attack. His entire body smoked.
The earth's gravitational pull grabbed ahold of him and soon he was plummeting downward through dark rain clouds toward the roiling sea below, his board close behind. He was aware of none of this, of course, his mind enraptured in cosmic agony and an ebon numbess at the same time.
He landed with a tremendous splash and hiss, steam rising from the water. Listlessly he floated down toward the unknown depths.
Charred embers crunched and hissed under Eson's footsteps as he strode over to peer down at the burned corpses of who had once been Captain America, Iron Man, Reed Richards, and the Vision. Their forms were curled into the fetal position that all cadavres who had met their death by fire were. The Celestial shook his head as if his children had just broken their toys.
Stepping backwards, he closed his eyes, obscuring the golden sparks firing in them. For a moment he merely stood in the rain, the drops never touching him and the rising curls of steams. A golden glow eventually began to envelop him, a sheath of pulsating cosmic energy.
Bodies stirred in the wreckage and soon they were floating above the cooling embers, that same glow enveloping them as well. Beads of even brighter energy spiralled around them, weaving in and out of the former heroes' corpses. Slowly, almost imperceptably they began to have an effect.
Where the sparks touched, bones knitted and became a pristine white once again. Muscles wound back together and regenerated. Charred synapses and optic nerves reformed themselves into brain tissues and eyeballs. New, pink skin spread over their bodies, quickly fading to the more common tan color. Vibrant colored clothes covered this new epidermis.
The Vision's frayed and burned circuitry regrew as just as well as flesh and tissue did. Optic sensors began to hum again and metallic skin gleamed in the glow surrounding it. Iron Man's melted armor swirled together and reformed over the new flesh underneath.
Gradually, the glow faded and the bodies sank back to the ground, returning to their fetal positions. The Celestial opened his eyes, the golden sheen gone, and looked his work over with no pride or satisfaction, merely waiting for the frail beings to awaken.
Iron Man's eyes flickered open first, beneath his armor. He pushed himself up to a sitting position and shook his head before looking around at his burned surroundings the still comatose forms of his fellow heroes, "Wow..." was all he could manage.
Curled forms began to rise slowly all over the roof, surveying themselves and their surroundings with shock. Reed Richards was the only one who spoke, "It appears that Johnny is far more powerful than I ever suspected..."
"That's all ya can think about, Stretch? Torchie went nova on us and blew the entire top of the building"-Johnny turned away from them at this, eyes looking squarely at the ground-"and we're all perfectly fine! Why dontcha think about that instead?" Benjamin Grim asked, his blue eyes naturally slipping over to look at the Celestial from the corner of his vision.
"Yes, it is fascinating. By my estimates, we should all be charred corpses, judging by the condition of the Plaza." Reed said, his mind now occupied with a new scientific topic. He turned to look at the Celestial, "Why did you revive us, Esonn? None of us could have survived that blast."
The Searcher's eyes flashed, "You will face Dyriad the Ravager's punishment. In order to do this you must be alive."
The Thing shook his head, "Oh, thanks a lot, bud. We thought humanity was seepin' in on you just like it does almost every other entity who assumes human form. Guess not."
"Aye," said the Thunder God, his voice a rasp and eyes lighted with rage, "you save us only for thy own sick pleasure? Thou must be destroyed, villain! With your death will come Midgard's life!" Thor bellowed as he charged the Celestial made flesh, pushing the other heroes aside.
"Thor, this isn't going to accomplish anything!" Iron Man shouted, but the warning fell on deaf ears. The Asgardian came within two feet of Eson before falling to his knees, struck down by a great invisible hammer. His eyes widened with hate as he tried to stand but was sent to knees again, shoulders sagging.
"The day of your Judgement is yet to come, Asgardian." Eson said with near contempt, eyes flashing. With a gasp Thor fell to the ground, crushed by a gigantic unseen weight. With seeming satisfaction, he looked at the other heroes, "It is pointless to continue your assaults. The Judgement has been made, your world's fate decided. You cannot halt Dyriad once he arrives."
"You do understand that we're not going to just sit here and take this, don't you?" Captain America said, his face carved from granite, "We're going to fight until the Celestials are driven back or until we're all dead. The destruction of earth won't be an easy thing to carry out, Eson, I can tell you that."
"There's also the fact that we didn't even do anything!" Iron Man interjected, "Someone else sent your 'child' here! Scan the Destroyer over there, look through time, do whatever you cosmic entities do, and you'll see that we didn't do anything wrong!"
Eson said nothing in response, merely looking at the armored Avenger as if he were an ant. Iron Man prepared himself to launch into another disertation when a plume of fire streaked across the sky from the northeast.
"What the Hell?" Hawkeye shouted as he watched it burn overheard, not fading out like he, and all the others, had expected it to. More lines of fire began to strake across the clouds, above and below them until few bits of darkness remained. New York City, and maybe the world, was surrounded in a canopy of fire. Screams rose from the streaks as people panicked and the sound of crashing cars, gun shots, and police sirens appeared in great profusion there after.
"He will surround your planet in a wall of fire..." the Vision said to himself, but the statement drew the attention of the other heroes nonetheless. Realizing this, he adressed the Celestial, "Dyriad has arrived, has he not?"
Eson nodded his head slowly, "Your punishment will commence soon."
"No!" Quasar shouted this time, "This cannot be allowed to-" he was cut off by Johnny's shout, "Look at that thing! It's gotta be Dyriad!"
The heroes' heads snapped around, gazes following Johnny's outstretched index finger into the sky. The canopy of flame had cleared for what was surely miles across, revealing not the dark stratus of clouds, but a monstrous armored face, eyes burning, super-heated orbs. The shouts from street-level rose to an unheard of pitch.
"How are we ever gonna stop that thing?" Hawkeye said with a voice seemingly bordering on hopelessness, "It's gotta be the size of the damn planet!"
"We'll find a way, Hawkeye, we'll find away..." Captain America reassured him, his voice certain.
"The One Above All's Wrath cannot be avoided, Dyriad cannot be escaped." Esonn intoned again. The heroes did not respond this time, their eyes still fixed on the huge form dominating the burning sky, and those slowly pulsing orbs that glowed brighter than any fire.
Bolts of blue lightning arced across the flaming sky, infrequently at first, then at a more rapid and steady pace.
"The first punishment begins." Eson said as if nothing out of the ordinary were occuring.
"The destruction of all machinery..." the Vision said sadly.
For several more moments the heroes simply looked up and watched, until the crackling beams stopped abruptly, disappearing as if they had never existed. Eson stumbled, suddenly, his eyes losing focus. Dyriad's massive eyes flickered ominously at the same time, as if they'd been struck by some unknowable force simultaneously.
The Searcher righted himself quickly, gave the heroes a final glance, then disappeared in a burst of cosmic energy, leaving a tendril of steam rising up into the flaming sky. Seconds later, Dyriad's eyes dimmed to nothingness, disappearing and leaving only the dark stratus clouds behind. All over the city, there were similar flashs as Celestials winked out of sight in unison.
"Whoa, whadda ya think made them take a powder so fast?" the Thing asked rhetorically, looking back and forth at the sky and the spot where Eson had once stood.
"It appears that some outside influence forced them to leave." Reed Richards speculated, stroking his chin, "Look, even the fire wall is beginning to dissipate." He pointed at the sky.
Indeed, the canopy of flames was thinning, clouds becoming visible once again. Gradually, the cosmic fire vanished without a trace, as if it had never been.
"Something major must have occured to cause all the Celestials to disappear simultaneously." the Vision said, "We may stand on the verge of a threat far greater than they ever were."
Reed nodded his head, lost in thought, eyes fixed on the ground, though he was looking past those charred embers, "Yes..."
"Think it might have something to do with whoever kidnapped Susan and whoever sent the Destroyer here?" Hawkeye asked the crowed in general.
"It's a good bet, that's for sure." Iron Man replied. Captain America nodded his head solemly.
"Well, I'm goin' down to get a beer. Anybody wanna join me?" Grim said, already on his toward the entrance to the staircase, or what was left of it.
No one said a thing, but all the heroes began making their way to the stairs, Quasar and Namor lugging Thor's unconscious form. Reed was the last to move, his brain still riddled with questions, extrapolations, and assumptions. But with no answers.
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