As a solar flame burst from the orange sun, the Legionnaire swept his hand through the void in an attempt to touch a star.  He couldn’t feel anything inside his battle suit, but it fed visual and audio information directly to his brain.  He saw the sun he was circling as though he could see them with his own eyes, but shielded by his helmet.  He waved his hand like a child who was trying to feel the wind during a long car ride.  The Legionnaire had done three slingshots since the Burning Legion mobilized hours ago, and he had three more after this one.  He was beginning to lose his focus.  Suddenly, a familiar voice brought the Legionnaire out of his boredom.

 

            “Rider!  Pay attention to your surroundings!  The Skrulls can attack at any time!  You can play with games with plasma when you’re off-duty.”

            The Legionnaire looked away from the orange sun and to his left and found a huge arachnid in a blue suit flying next to him.  He nodded to his squad leader.

            “Sorry, Denarian.  Won’t happen again.”  The arachnid moved away from him and retook its place in line.  He knew the other Legionnaires in the squad were laughing at him but they wouldn’t dare let him know, lest Denarian X’Cith browbeat them too.  The Legionnaire sighed and tried to stave off the doldrums of interstellar travel.  It was another day in the Nova Corps.

 

I Reached For The Stars

Introducing Richard Rider, the man called Nova

 

Nine months later…

Washington, D.C.

 

            Finn walked through Union Station with a smirk on his face.  He wore his blue suit, and his red power tie as he strolled through the station, greeting the vendors and business owners.  His blonde hair was well styled for a middle-aged man, and he greatly enjoyed the looks he got from the Earther women who were the same age as he was.  He was going to miss this place, but at least he was going home.  He had that to look forward to.  Still, he was going to miss the ignorant little giants, these Earthers.  They saved their world without even realizing what they had done.  The wrath they brought down on themselves was going to wreck this world.  The Annakui were going to make an object lesson out this planet for the rest of the universe, and he wasn’t going to be around to see it.  Finn very much wanted to observe the death of a species but his orders were clear.  Hopefully the Centurion the Collective had dispatched to take his place would make some documentation of the event.  He shook his head.  Opportunities lost, opportunities gained, he thought to himself. 

            Finn looked around the station for the Centurion.  Xandar had sent him a hologram of the Centurion, so it would be easy to find him.  It was noon, so there people everywhere, eating their lunch, shopping, or simply sightseeing.  Finn finally found him in a sportswear shop.  He was trying on different hats in a mirror.  He stood 6’ tall and was very muscular, which Finn had expected for a Centurion.  He kept his brown hair short, and was fairly handsome.  His black t-shirt and blue jeans didn’t bring much attention to him, which was good.  Finn felt he was good so far.

            Finn walked behind him and asked “Excuse me sir, but you wouldn’t just arrived here from a trip, would you?”

            The Centurion answered with “Yep.  Just got in from Europe.  It was a long trip back.  I had to take a boat, since I couldn’t afford plane fare.”

            “Really?  What travel agency booked the return trip?”

            “A really crappy one.  You want to know their name?”

            “Certainly.”

            Finn left the store and the Centurion followed him.  They kept a moderate pace, as to not arouse suspicion.  Finn turned and shook the Centurion’s hand.

            “Kolo Finn,” he said as he introduced himself.

            “Richard Rider,” said the Centurion as he returned the gesture.  Finn was shocked but did his best to not show it.  He’s an Earther!  They’ve been recruiting here without my knowledge!  Finn regained his composure and continued the conversation.

            “Are you glad to be home, Mr. Rider?”

            “Yeah, mostly.  My old friends are being cool about the whole year missing thing, but my family’s not buying my cover story.  My little brother especially.  He’s been hitting me with questions right and left every time I see him!  The little bastard’s going to figure out something’s changed since I’ve been gone…”

            “Your little brother?  How old are you, Mr. Rider?”

            “19.”

            “How old is your brother?”

            “16.”

            “Forgive me for being skeptical, how would a 16-year uncover your true occupation, other than gross negligence on your part?”

            “Robbie’s some kind of super-genius, a wonderkind or whatever that German word is.  He works at the Baxter Building, where they keep all those other uber-nerds.  They got him making robots for NASA.”

            Finn frowned inwardly.  This is a most unwelcome thing.  He’s certain to receive government scrutiny.  Finn decided he was going to have to file a report to the Praetor upon his return.  Richard was not an ideal candidate for this assignment.

            Finn had heard enough.  “What are your orders, Centurion?”

            Rider stiffened as soon as Finn addressed him by rank.  “I am to escort you to the transport ship which will arrive in Earth orbit four days from now at 10:36 PM, local time.  Afterwards, I am to patrol this solar system and eliminate any and all Annakui agents within the system and keep Annakui technology and personnel from falling into any government’s hands.  I will maintain a minimal presence in the public eye, as to not betray the Xandarian Collective’s mission in this area of the universe.”

            “At ease, Centurion.  We don’t want anyone noticing us.”

            “Sorry, I just fell back into my training.”

            “It’s fine, Mr. Rider.  I was just making sure you were properly instructed on what you are to do on this assignment.”  Finn was silent for a moment and then asked, “Who is your Legatus, Mr. Rider?”

            “Pyreus Kril,” Richard answered.  Finn wanted to spit right then and there.  The Burning Legion!  If there were any Legion in the Corps unsuited for covert work, it would be Kril and his men.  Whoever made the decision to send Rider back home is surely a fool before the Worldmind.

            “Very well, Centurion.  I am satisfied.  You are free to return to your duties.”

            “Thanks.  See you in a few days.”  Rider nodded to Finn and wondered off to the square in front of the station.  Finn went to get his lunch.  He hoped good food would take his mind off his worries.  This is going to be a disaster.

 

The next night.

New York City.

 

            Robert Rider was anxious.  His time was precious, as he worked 10 hours a day officially, and four more unofficially.  The four other hours he left himself while he was awake were for doing his errands and other things that needed doing.  Reserving an hour to talk with his older brother was a sacrifice.  It was a sacrifice Robert was willing to make.  Rich may have wedgied him a 1000 times in his life, but he always looked out for Robert when he was in school or on the street.  Anyone who tried to bully him always found Rich on their case. Rich supported Robert’s exploration of his genius instead of labeling him a geek and making fun of him like so many others.

Rich himself was of average intelligence, and had really disappointed their father when he told him he had no plans to go to college.  He was going to get a job, move out and split an apartment with his two best friends, Bernie Dillon and Roger Cooper.  His disappearance right before graduation sent up all sorts of red flags. The Riders, Bernie and Roger, and Rich’s girlfriend Ginger had done everything they could to find him.  After a year, they weren’t expecting to see him alive, and then he showed up alive again, like nothing had happened.  Well, not exactly. He was more focused, more serious, and he had a bigger build than when he left.  Robert knew something wasn’t right, and he wanted to know what was really going on.

Why was he late? Robert thought to himself.  Robert paced the area in front of the park bench where he had asked Rich to meet him.  Robert would have been nervous if he paying attention to the fact that he was out in Central Park after dark, but he was too curious to find out what his brother was hiding.  His skinny body and glasses marked him as not physically threatening, and his all-gray ensemble and white lab coat also didn’t make him look tough.  Finally, Rich came running up the path.  Rich was wearing jeans that had been cut off just above the knees, gray running shoes, and a green hooded sweatshirt. They looked like his workout clothes.  Rich stopped a few feet in front of him, but didn’t look exhausted at all.  He wasn’t even sweaty.

            “Sorry Robbie, I was watching the Hulk trial on Court TV at home and forgot the time.”

            Robert looked his brother, and was very perturbed.  “We need to talk, brother to brother.”

            “What about?”

            “Where were you for a year, Rich?”

            Rich rolled his eyes.  “I told you, I was attacked and lost my memory.  I was in the hospital until I recovered, and then I was in a group home until I got enough of my memory back.  Why don’t you believe me?”

            “I’m a scientist, and if I don’t get the answers I like, then I keep asking the question until I’m sure the answer is correct,” replied Robert.  “You say you were in a group home but Mom and Dad canvassed the city looking for you. You’re telling that no one who had seen your photo on TV and on the streets saw you at that group home?  I don’t believe that.  You are going to tell me the truth, or I will keep asking you until I die.”

            “That’s how it’s going to be between us from now on, huh?”

            Robert looked Rich in his eyes.  “Yes.”

            Rich walked a circle, with his head down and his hands on hips.  He stopped and stared at the ground as Robert waited.  Rich looked up at the sky and began to speak.

            “I was taken by good aliens to another galaxy and given a chance to fight some bad aliens who tried to destroy Earth.  They trained me, equipped me, and gave me superpowers.  I was a soldier in a space army and I killed lots of bad aliens really well.  I moved up the ranks and then they sent me home to follow up some unconfirmed intel that had been intercepted.  The bad aliens are coming back to kill the Ultimates and everyone else who gets in their way, and then they’re going to kill every human being with their bare hands and broadcast it to all their enemies and every planet in the universe that’s defied them.  I have to stop this from happening.”

            Robert was speechless.  The two brothers stared at each other for a whole minute before Robert said “What?!”

            “Do you need me to say it again?  ‘Cause I will if it’ll get you off my back.”

            “Yes, slower and with more details!  DETAILS!”

            They both sat down on the bench and Rich began to tell his story.

            “I was out with Bernie and Rog, just messing around one night when the Xandarians took me.  They just beamed me up.  I was in a huge room in their ship with people from around the world.  I couldn’t talk to most of them, but the ones I could talk to had the same story.  They were doing their thing and the next thing you know, they were there here with the rest of us.  After a while, people stopped popping in and some guys in weird uniforms came in the room and asked us to follow them.  We did, and we found out we were on a spaceship.  The captain of the ship introduced himself once we got to the command center.  His name was Gabrial Lan.  He said that he had been following some aliens called the Annakui from a battle and ended up here.  He was going to ambush the Annakui, but then the Annakui were destroyed by the Ultimates.  He was so impressed with them that he decided that humans were good enough to fight with them.  So his crew randomly picked up people from all over the planet.  That’s when he gave us the choice: fight with his people or go home.  Most of humans said no, but a few hundred others and I said yes.  I figured I wasn’t going to do anything worthwhile on Earth, so why not?”

            “We went to the Andromeda Galaxy and on to Xandar, Captain Lan’s home planet, and they started the process of getting me in.  I learned a brief history of the Xandarian Collective.  The Xandarians have been fighting the Annakui since before mankind has been around, and because of that their civilization is way ahead of ours.  Constant fighting forced them to change.  About 5000 years ago, they formed an alliance of with some other races in their galaxy that had been fighting the Annakui.  The Annakui had been using their galaxy as a base to strike out against the rest of the universe, so there were only a few planets with people on them still alive or brainwashed.  The Xandarians figured out a way to move their ally’s planets into Xandar’s solar system safely and over the span of a few centuries, they formed the Xandarian Collective.  They let us tour all the planets before we got our powers.”

            “They implanted something in us called a ‘bio-matrix’ that jacked us up like a crack head on steroids.  We were stronger, faster, and we could fly!  And that was just the beginning!  They gave each of us a suit that could a million things.  It was so awesome that first day, before training began.  Training probably the strangest, most uncomfortable part of the process.  We got all our skills downloaded directly into our brains while we slept, and while we were awake, the instructors made sure it took.  Every day, I could do things, knew things I didn’t the day before.  It was scary.”

            After training I was assigned to a Nova Corps legion, and then I spent most of the last year soldiering.  It was mostly killing Annakui, and blowing stuff up.  Exciting, but repetitive.  The worst parts were having to kill natives.  They had no clue they were dying for shape shifting assholes that’d rather lobotomize them than talk to them.  We were deep in enemy territory for weeks, sometimes months at a time.  I moved up the ranks a few times.  I got lucky.  I’d catch a commander and waste him before he knew what was up, or I’d pull some crazy stunt that worked.  I was in charge of 10,000 troops before they sent me on this special assignment here.  Now I’m here, and I’m here until I get orders to return.”

            Robert sat in amazement.  “That…is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard!  You’re a super-hero!  An honest-to-god super-hero!  You’ve got to go and join the Ultimates and-“

            “Not happening, Robbie.  I’m not here to be a hero; I’m here to do a job.  No one else can know about this.”

            Robert was disappointed. “All right.”

            “We cool?” Richard asked.

            “Yeah.”

            The two brothers hugged each other, relieved that they could talk again.

 

Two days later.

 

            Ginger Jaye’s job sucked, at least in her opinion.  Subway wasn’t what she had in mind when she thought of a job to get extra money for college.  She didn’t like being told that she had to cover for someone else on her day off.  She was supposed to have a date with her boyfriend today, but she was here working.  She wanted to feel sexy today, but no one she knew would describe her sexy now, with her black hair in a net and wearing an apron.  Plastic gloves covered her delicate hands, and the t-shirt and khakis she wore for work didn’t compliment her in the least. All had going for her was her pretty face and her beautiful green eyes.  Ginger looked at herself in the mirror and felt very ugly. She groaned and slumped over.  She hated the place sometimes.

            The door opened and in came her boyfriend, Richie.  He was wearing a pair of very nice black shoes, some faded jeans, and a black long sleeved shirt that he had rolled the sleeves up past his elbows.  He had left some buttons unbuttoned at the top, showing his pectoral muscles.  He was smiling that smile he always put on just for her.  The smile that said he smiled just for her.  She was ecstatic. Ginger bounced around the long counter and practically leapt into his open arms.  He held her close.  She was happy for the first time in a long time.

            “You came to see me at work!” Ginger squeaked out.

            “Of course I did, baby.  You think I’d let something like work get in the way of our date?”

            Ginger kissed Rich deeply.  He returned the gesture, and as she began to slip her tongue into his mouth, he pulled back.

            “What’s wrong?”

            Richie looked like he’d been shot.  “I gotta go baby.  I’m not feeling too good all the sudden.  I’ll be back when I feel better.”  He let her go and turned back to the door.  He ran out of the restaurant and down the street.  Ginger hesitated before she followed him. She got outside to the street, but he was nowhere in sight.  She heard what sounded like an explosion in the sky to her right and she looked up.  All she saw was a shimmering golden streak in the clouds that quickly vanished.  She had no idea where Richie had gone.  She went back inside, hoping everything was all right.

 

Washington, D.C.

 

The Annakui who now called himself Zorr was enjoying his new body.  Luphomoids were incredibly strong humanoids, since they came from a heavy gravity world, but this form was exceptional.  The low gravity of Earth made him one of the strongest creatures on the planet.  His black body armor and breathing apparatus he held in his mouth covered four tons of might.  All they humans who were trying to stop him saw was his bald blue head and a face that was squat and mean.

The work was going well.  He had overwhelmed the Xandarian ship as it had entered normal space and killed the crew.  He crashed the ship into the planet and now he was looking for the Xandarian’s covert agent, who was somewhere in this city.  The humans were fighting him of course, and he wanted them to.  If he managed to kill the spy and the human champions, the so-called “Ultimates”, in a short enough period, the cleansing would go much easier. The human’s weapons were ineffectual as he killed them.  He tossed their vehicles like they were toys and crushed their bodies in his hands.  This was marvelous entertainment, to wipe out the lower caste warriors, until the true threat came.  So it went, the carnage and destruction, until it came.

Streaking out of the sky, a humanoid landed directly in front of him, just out of reach.  The humanoid wore a tight blue bodysuit and a golden helmet that covered its entire head.  The helmet was slightly contoured to a human head, but was otherwise featureless.  It completely covered the entire head, revealing nothing underneath.  A yellow stripe ran down the shoulder from the helmet from each side, down the arms to golden bracers on the wrists.  Two more ran down the sides of his body from its armpits all the way down to the ankles where they met a pair of anklet bracers.  A huge yellow sunburst was on its chest.  He saw what he knew to be an insignia of rank on its collar, three yellow stars linked together on its left side.  Another six-pointed red star was on its right collar.  Centurion, Zorr told himself.  Nova Corps.  It looked male and strong, but appearances could be deceiving.  Zorr was a shape shifter, and didn’t put much weight into appearances of others.  Only his counted in his mind.

It spoke to him in Annakui.

“Surrender now and I’ll eliminate you quickly.”

“Surrender implies we are at war.  I am cleansing this planet, nothing more,” Zorr replied in Annakui.  “You die here, Nova,” Zorr added in English.

“Not likely, Skrull,” the Centurion retorted in English, just before it took an offensive stance.  “Freedom for the stars!”, it said in Xandarian, and attacked.

Zorr was struck first by a roundhouse kick, and then by a spinning back fist.  Zorr was unmoved.  The Centurion fell back, but was undaunted. It rushed forward again and delivered a palm strike at Zorr that sent him back and off his feet.  He fell into a building, but was unhurt.  He was almost to his feet, but then the Centurion was on him again, grabbing the sides of Zorr’s head before smashing its knee into Zorr’s chin.  Zorr began to fall again as the Centurion did a forward flip over Zorr and landed behind him. The Centurion wrapped its arms around Zorr’s neck and cradled Zorr’s head on his shoulder.  Zorr countered by grabbing the Centurion’s head in one of his massive hands.  The Centurion struggled as Zorr regained his footing and threw the Centurion as hard as he could away from him.  The Centurion was flung almost a kilometer away, bashing into buildings along the way.  Zorr followed the path of destruction to his opponent, but before he could reach him, he was hit hard and was sailing through the air.  The Centurion was carrying him through the air over the city they were in.  The Centurion dropped Zorr on his back next to a river onto a paved pathway. 

The Centurion mounted Zorr’s shoulders and pummeled Zorr in the face at an astonishing rate.  Zorr’s breathing apparatus fell out of his mouth and he couldn’t breathe.  Zorr could survive for several minutes without it, but he mimed that he was choking to the Centurion.  The Centurion stood up and let Zorr go.  Zorr pointed to the apparatus while holding his throat.  The Centurion picked it up and handed it to him.  Zorr thanked the Centurion by punching him in the head and sending him bouncing up the pathway.  Zorr leapt into the air, and landed on top of the Centurion, who hadn’t recovered.  Zorr saw a nearby lamppost, and wrenched it out of the ground.  Zorr stepped back and began to bash the unconscious Centurion over and over again. After the lamppost fell apart, Zorr stopped his assault long enough to find another lamppost.  Human authorities were coming on to the scene, but Zorr didn’t care.  They were inconsequential to him.  Zorr returned to the Centurion and brought the lamppost down, but something stopped it short of its target.  The Centurion had awoken, and had stopped Zorr’s swing with a single hand.  Zorr was stunned as the Centurion sent a huge jolt of electricity through the lamppost and into Zorr’s body.  Zorr dropped the lamppost, and couldn’t move as the Centurion got back up.

“You dumb bastard,” the Centurion gasped out in English.  “You could’ve fought me fair, and died with some respect. Now I’m just going to just kill you like the Skrull you are!”

Zorr felt intense pain as the Centurion unleashed two beams from his helmet that burned him.  Zorr howled in pain and retreated away.  Zorr stumbled and fell into the river.  The cold, murky river water did nothing to sooth Zorr’s pain as the Centurion pressed his assault.  Falling deeper and deeper, Zorr was completely lost in the darkness.  Without warning, the pain stopped.  The Centurion had stopped burning him with its eyebeams.  Zorr didn’t have time to understand why his foe had relented as a whole new pain wracked his entire body.  Zorr cried out, and his lungs filled with water.  Zorr was drowning, and couldn’t do anything to stop it.  He knew that death was upon him, and seconds before Zorr’s body was torn apart at the molecular level, he had one thought: How?

 

Earth orbit.

The Xandarian cruiser Dauntless.

“…And I finished him with a sustained gravimetric pulse.”

Richard looked at the holographic image of Sector Coordinator Garthan Saal, hoping to see if he was impressed or not.  The Coordinator wore a battle suit just like Richard’s, but the rank and unit insignias were different.  Saal had his helmet off just like Richard did, revealing his slicked back black hair, piercing blue eyes, and a hard face.  The Coordinator was clearly unmoved by Richard’s account of the battle.

“Your report is being distributed all concerned parties.  Please wait.”  Saal paused for a few seconds.

“Your new orders are as follows: You are to continue your old orders, in addition to the following:  you will protect Agent Kolo Finn from any other Annakui attempts to assassinate him. Another transport ship will be sent from Xandar in seven months, three days.  That is all.”

The hologram faded.  Richard was alone on his cloaked cruiser, high above the world.  He hurt quite a bit.  The Annakui had broken quite a few bones.  The suit was all that held him together towards the end, but it was all he needed.  His bones were already healed, and most of his other injuries would be gone in a half hour.  The pain didn’t bother him.  What did was this assignment.  He knew that if more like the one he fought today came, in greater numbers he wouldn’t be able to fight them all.  He knew they would come in force.  He couldn’t complete this assignment.  He knew that the Xandarians knew it too.  Earth wasn’t a priority to the Collective.  Why they had sent him, he didn’t know exactly.  Someone must’ve owed a favor on the Council of Peers, and returned it by sending him here.  He was a token.  He didn’t like that.

He looked at the world below him through a window as he rubbed his bruised face.  His father had always told him from the time he was a little boy he to reach for the stars, to be the best he could.  He had done it in the Nova Corps.  I did it, Dad.  I reached up, just like you wanted me to.  It’s just too bad the stars don’t care.