#21 - Suicide Run
"Stark Invasion, Day Five, Part One"
Mankiller’s drinking buddies had sometimes had drunken conversations on ways they might die on the job. The possibility of dying while fighting alongside the Avengers in outer space under the flag of Doctor Doom was never even considered.
The world had gone crazy. It was the only thing that made sense to Katrina Luisa Van Horne, former terrorist and now the newest member of the Thunderbolts. She had to have gone crazy too. How else to explain her current actions?
She was not and would never be a hero, but she was in outer space. Freaking space! This was not what she had signed up for when she had reluctantly decided to take up Dani Moonstar on her offer to join the government sponsored Thunderbolts a few weeks ago. The planet was seriously screwed up, she concluded, even before the Stark had attacked. She had tried to take over the world a couple of times herself, always because she had thought that it was the only way to end female suppression by the males she had hated so much. Now she was earning a pardon from the US government by helping to defend their country, albeit after some serious poundings from every hero and his mother. Her experiences with the Thunderbolts while she had been on the run had led her to a growing realisation that things were not as black and white as she had once thought. Her own father had been the greatest piece of scum she had ever met, and putting him six feet under was something she had no regrets about even now, but she had finally realised that not every man on Earth was as evil or as twisted as him. She still never expected to be fighting to defend men though, but she had recently realised that she could help other little girls the way no one had helped her by joining the Thunderbolts. That was worth accepting that men would be saved by her actions along with their daughters.
The Avengers now looked at her with distrust when they bothered to look at her at all. She was not one of them, or even someone they recognised as being part of the so-called community of heroes. She had fought against them often enough so she could not blame them for that, but war made strange bedfellows, and the ship they were on was more of a testimony to that fact than her presence among them ever could be.
She had been in Los Angeles completing a SHIELD training program when the Stark had first struck, and had therefore spent the first four days of the Invasion fighting separately from her new teammates. Then the word had come down – the Stark had been disabled. The greatest scientific minds of their generation had devised a virus capable of neutralising the Stark, and had successfully implanted it in the mothership of the alien race. All Stark were gradually being infected by the virus, which had turned out to be far deadlier than even their creators had predicted. All of the Stark would be incapacitated or dead within three days. Earth had won. Or so it had seemed. For the leader of the Stark had sworn vengeance, and had decided to destroy the world he had invaded as his final revenge before he died. Laserface ordered his fleet to crash into the Earth. Already ships had crashed into Paris and Denver, causing untold damage. But the mothership was still on course to crash into the North Pole. The impact of such a huge ship ripping through the earth’s atmosphere and exploding upon contact would make the meteor that had caused the Ice Age resemble a pebble hitting the Atlantic Ocean. There was no decision to be made. They had to be stopped, whatever the cost.
Which is where Doctor Doom had proved to possibly be the Earth’s most unlikely saviour. The dictator had revealed a hidden armada of highly armed spacecrafts with space for a seven-person crew on each. His fleet allowed the heroes of the world to fight possibly the most important battle in their planet’s history, all under the national colours of Latveria. And people say God had no sense of humour.
Katrina looked at the heroes she had some how found herself sharing a craft with. They were mostly Avengers from the organisations’ west coast branch. She recognised Wonder Man, although he was a lot more human than the last photos she had seen of him. He looked just like he did back when he made those action movies she had secretly liked. The metal chick was a stranger to her, although she heard one of the others call her Chrome. The Mexican woman was possibly the most interesting of them all. She had heard stories from some of her old drinking chronies that Firebird was the most insufferable of the Avengers because she was so pious – that being busted by her was like being arrested by a nun with a burning halo. Katrina couldn’t see it herself. When Katrina looked at her, she saw only a traumatised and battle scarred young woman. The expression on her face reminded her of what she had seen looking in the mirror the day after she had buried her father’s body in a forest twenty miles from where she had grown up. Mind you, she had not had any one looking at her as protectively as Hercules was looking at Firebird. She had tangled with the supposed Greek god of power a few years ago in Reno back when she had been duped into working for Hydra. He was clean-shaven and wearing a bit more clothes than then, but she would recognise him anywhere. It would have killed her to admit it, but he was one of the few men she had allowed herself to fantasise about after the bruises he had given her had finally faded.
Her other two fellow passengers weren’t Avengers as far as she knew. The young black guy had introduced himself as Jesse Bedlam. She guessed he was an X-Man from the shaved X in the back of his head, but she was never one for following fashions. Maybe he was just a big fan of Malcolm X for all she knew.
The final passenger was someone she remembered reading about. Diamond Lil and Katrina eyed each other cautiously. They understood each other more than the others on the craft ever could. From what she had read about the Canadian, Katrina figured that they had a lot in common, although Katrina’s criminal activities had been a lot more colourful than the member of Alpha Flight’s ever were. “Hey,” she addressed the dark-haired woman.
“Hey,” Diamond Lil replied, while the Avengers manned the weapons of Doom’s ship against the smaller Stark ships that were attacking them and the rest of Doom’s fleet. “It’s Mankiller, right?”
“Until recently. You’re a long way from Canada,” Katrina commented.
“My husband was helping all of the brain boxes develop the virus,” Lil explained. “I came with him, but figured I’d help more by finding something to hit. Didn’t expect to end up as an extra in the latest Star Wars sequel.
“Know the feeling,” Katrina empathized. “I go by Amazon now by the way. Seems the government thinks Mankiller gives the wrong impression for one of their employees.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Lil smiled, and the two ex-criminals shared a small laugh as they acknowledged the similarities between their pasts and their current improbable situation.
“Ship 17 – aim towards the coordinates I’m sending you,” a commanding female voice suddenly resounded out of the speakers installed throughout the craft. Doom had always wanted to be sure that all of his minions could hear him.
“Ship 17 – that’s us, right?” Katrina asked.
“Receiving you,” Chrome replied to the Avenger called Warbird who was coordinating all of Earth’s combined forces in space.
“Thor has managed to inflict major damage near a docking bay. It’s still open. You’re the closest ship to that position. We probably only have minutes before the ship repairs itself – can you make it in?”
“Absolutely,” Wonder Man replied. Chrome used all of her CIA training to steer the craft around the attacking Stark while Wonder Man flew out into space to help the injured Thor and to join Quasar and It, the Living Colossus in running interference with the Stark that stood between their ship and the Stark mothership.
“I don’t understand why those magic guys can’t just teleport us into the bloody mothership!” Katrina complained to Lil while she held on to the seats of her chair tightly as their ship headed towards the docking bay at maximum speed.
“They conquered dozens of worlds before coming to us and ripped them dry,” Jesse explained, having apparently heard their entire conversation. “Apparently they made their ship magic proof! The only guy who could teleport into the damn thing is currently in intensive care from the strain of rescuing the remains of the Stealth Squad that implemented the virus! Even the Avengers’ Photon can’t get through.”
“It’s rude to eavesdrop!” Katrina snapped, as she involuntarily closed her eyes as their ship zoomed into the docking bay just before the walls of the mothership sealed around them. She hated flying, but this took that to a whole new level.
“We have atmosphere,” Chrome told them, checking the readings of the docking bay seconds after landing. “Go! Go! Go!”
“Time to be a –“
Katrina was going to say ‘hero’ but she never got the chance. Before she could disembark from their ship, a laser from one of the Stark ripped through her neck. Her decapitated head fell to the shocked Diamond Lil’s feet before her body even had time to register it was dead.
“Kill them all!” Laserface’s voice echoed throughout the vast mothership from his command post in the main bridge. “Kill them all!”
He sat down, seething with rage as he stared at his dying crew. He did not care for them as individuals, but he was intelligent enough to know what losses of this magnitude meant. The Stark were dying. The virus inflicted by the damned Terrans had spread from the mothership to the cyber-systems of all his minions, overloading the technology that had made them strong. Already forty percent of the Stark were dead – their remaining organic components being incapable of sustaining them once their more efficient artificial systems had been corrupted. Embracing technology over their own biological functions had made the Stark strong, but now it was killing them. His best scientists were working on a cure, but intricate science had never been the Stark’s strong point. Their history consisting of conquering and plundering secrets that were relatively easily understood. Laserface knew that ninety percent of his people would be dead within seventy-two Earth hours. He was certain of one thing though. If they were to die, then he would make sure that he took this damned planet with them.
“Maintain course!” the Stark leader shouted to his few remaining soldiers who were directing the mothership on a collision course with the Earth’s surface. “We must have the final victory!”
He stepped away from his seat to kick the battered corpse of one of the hated Terrans that had caused his people’s demise. His implanted armour had been badly damaged by his battle with the false god that his people were named after, but he was determined to have vengeance. The remains of the Terran in front of him had killed almost four dozen of his finest warriors with merely a sword before they had finally eliminated him, but Laserface had no respect for his accomplishment. He was merely a symbol to Laserface of all that had caused the Stark’s downfall. The Stark leader picked up the sword of the fallen Avenger and used it to start hacking his corpse in a mad frenzy.
Nebula the First merely watched from the shadows. The Stark had been useful up to now, she conceded to herself. The self-proclaimed granddaughter of Thanos had easily manipulated the Stark into attacking the home world of her enemies by playing on their ridiculous religious philosophy of being Uncreated. It was a pity that they were going to be of no further use to her once their ship crashed into the Earth, but she could live with the sacrifice if the cursed Avengers went with them.
Still, she had no intention of dying for any one. It was time for Nebula and the Stark to part company once and for all. Nebula made a discrete exit from the main bridge, but she was determined to leave Laserface and the Avengers a small gift to remember her by…
Hercules watched with concern as Firebird unleashed waves after waves of flames at the decaying Stark, who continued to attack the heroes like lemmings leaping from a cliff. It was all madness, even to one as long lived as him. Hercules had fought in more wars on more worlds than history could ever record., but he could see no intelligence in the eyes of the surviving Stark. Whatever intellect or individuality they had once had was apparently replaced by the abused technology that converted them into warriors of the Stark, no doubt so that they would follow Laserface’s orders without question. With that disabled, the dying survivors were almost mindless and even more eager to obey any commands of their leader. Hercules swore that this would end today, whatever the cost.
Poor Firebird, whose life had been so tragically annihilated by the Stark mere days ago, struck against the Stark with a calm fury that startled him. He had seen such behaviour before, some times even in his own reflection. She cared not whether she lived or died, as long as she took her enemy with her. She was by nature a gently soul, who had instantly reminded him of a woman called Madison whom he had briefly loved and ultimately lost, so her current behaviour was as out of character as it was disturbing. His feelings for Firebird were more protective than romantic, but he was determined to save the woman whose great kindness was evenly matched with a warrior’s steel will.
“Oh my god… Oh my god…” Diamond Lil was muttering to herself as she and Chrome used their strength to take out the few Stark that survived Firebird’s assault while Hercules’ golden mace and Jesse’s electromagnetic abilities ensured no one followed them as they progressed down the corridors to the bridge of the mothership. Hercules could see that the Canadian hero was being overwhelmed by the horror of their situation, but she continued to fight alongside her new colleagues as heroes do in times of great need. He approved.
Chrome was almost as calm as Firebird, but without the coldness that had engulfed the normally genial Firebird. “We’re almost there! Every one stay close!” she instructed the others, following schematics of the mothership downloaded by Mockingbird and Ant Man during the Stealth Squad’s attack the previous day. Hercules recalled Chrome’s words as they had travelled through the stars together to get to this decisive point in the war. Once this would have shocked her as much as it did Diamond Lil and the boy, but she had spent years travelling from troubled reality to troubled reality as part of the dimension hoping Exiles. She had more experience against world threatening events than perhaps even Hercules. Her experiences were certainly more compressed than his, as she had regularly been transported against her will into situations such as this.
“How fare thou, boy?” Hercules asked Jesse, as the youth used his abilities to advance the decay of some of the Stark who were following them.
“Just about coping,” Jesse tried to smile, while Hercules used his mace to smash through the armour of a Stark who attempted to jump on the X-Man from above.
“God! Didn’t see that one coming! Thanks!” Jesse replied, expanding his electromagnetic pulse to include above him as well as in front of him.
“Fellow warriors must always have faith in each other to defend one another,” Hercules explained. “Or else the battle is lost before even the first blow is exchanged.”
“Well, all I can say is that I’m glad Paige has you on her side now she’s joined the Avengers. It’ll make me rest a bit easier seeing as I can’t be there to look out for her myself!”
“Perhaps you can?” Hercules replied. “The maiden Husk is proving herself a worthy addition to the ranks of the mighty Avengers. It would seem that her chosen mate is a man of equal honor who could stand proudly beside those who wear our noble mantle.”
“Me? An Avenger?” Jesse asked, shocked. “Wow… If you are serious, let’s talk when we get through this!”
“This is it!” Chrome shouted, pointed to sealed metal doors three metres in diameter. “The main control room is on the other side of this bulkhead.”
“Then stand aside!” Jesse told her, as he used his mutant abilities to cause the circuitry controlling the doors to explode. The doors slid aside to reveal an enraged Laserface, who immediately ordered the Stark present in the control room to attack the heroes. There were over a dozen Stark who immediately followed Laserface’s instructions, but in their weakened state they were no match for Firebird’s flames or Jesse’s electromagnetic pulses.
“It’s over, ugly! The War ends here!” Jesse proudly declared, as Chrome and Hercules both seized Laserface’s arms to stop him from attacking them. He would have broken free easily if not for the combined damage Iron Man had previously inflicted and the virus ravaging his body, but almost all of his strength was being directing in maintaining his life long enough to have his final revenge.
“Fool! My name is not just a mere affectation!” Laserface shouted, as his face began to glow and energy emitted from his headpiece without warning, ripping through Jesse’s chest before any one could stop the Stark leader. Jesse stumbled and fell to the ground, his face showing shock as he tried to comprehend what happened. There was no pain. Why was there no pain?
“Monster!” Firebird screamed, flames erupting from her arm as she angrily pointed at Laserface. “Why always more death??? What’s wrong with you???”
Hercules rushed to Jesse’s side, and rested the boy’s head on his arms as Jesse tried to speak despite the blood that pumped from his mouth.
“Rest easy, boy,” Hercules tried to comfort him. “You fought well and the battle is almost won. They can not hurt you any more…”
“Paige…” Jesse tried to speak. “You have to… tell her… You have to tell her that…”
“I will, boy,” Hercules told him, as Jesse breathed his last. “You have my word… as one Avenger to another…”
Deep within the engine room of the mothership, Nebula signalled a loyal henchman to teleport her back to her ship. She smiled with satisfaction as she wondered how long it would take the Avengers to discover her latest stroke of genius. They may have been foolish enough to think they could stop her, but they would learn otherwise soon enough.
Eventually, Nebula would always win.
It was her destiny.
“I’ve plotted in another course! We’re moving away from Earth!” Chrome shouted to her surviving team mates as she furiously studied the console of the mothership. “The technology isn’t too advanced. It’s basically not that different from my Spitfire suit before I became a paranormal. I… Uh oh...”
“What is it, Jennifer?” Hercules asked.
“There’s some sort of override!” she shouted, frantically trying to change the indisputable readings she was getting to her horror. “The ship is… it’s beginning self-destruct. I can make sure we stay on this trajectory, but I can’t shut down the self-destruct. This thing is going to blow, all I can do is move it away from Earth before it does!”
“Then do it,” Firebird told her, emotionlessly. “They have chosen their fate. They must not be allowed to take any one else with them.”
“I don’t feel too good…” Lil suddenly said. She had been silent, horrified by what she had seen, all of the death bringing back memories of a confusing time in Omega Flight that she had tried to forget. She had tried to just follow orders and hope for the best, but in the last minute or two she was beginning to feel queasy, and she was not alone.
“I’m… not feeling to good either, now that you mention it,” Chrome replied with suspicion, realising that she was not the only one.
“You are such… fools…” Laserface coughed, his charred form still containing an element of life. “Did you really think that the Stark… would be so easily… defeated?”
“What are you talking about, foul coward!” Hercules demanded, picking up Laserface and violently hurling him into a bulkhead.
“I have activated the self-destruct. It... is wired to me! When I die… this ship will explode… and there is nothing you can do about it. My remaining troopers are all on their way here. They… will kill you all, and change the trajectory back to your damn mudball. And all of you will be too dead to do anything about it… Nebula has seen to that!”
“You speak in riddles!” Hercules shouted, pointing his mace threateningly at the Stark leader.
“She has flooded the ship with radiation!” Laserface told them proudly. “It will kill us… but it will kill you all first if any of you… survive my soldiers’ assaults. Already… you are beginning to suffer…”
The Avengers looked at each other with concern. Chrome and Diamond Lil were already feeling the affects of the radiation, although they had not known what it was. Even Hercules was beginning to falter. Only Firebird appeared unaffected.
“Then we must make the ultimate sacrifice,” Hercules told the women in his company. “Lets the gods the Stark would destroy be witnesses to the final courage of warriors I am proud to stand beside! We must ensure that this wretched craft is as far from the Earth as possible before we breathe our last, whether it be by poison or by Stark. Our last action must be to kill this creature and ensure the craft explodes before they can take it back to our planet. Are we agreed?”
Chrome and Diamond Lil slowly nodded, Lil thinking of her husband and Chrome thinking of the home that she would probably never see again. Neither wanted to die, but they both realised that there was no other option.
“Firebird?” Hercules asked the silent Bonita Juarez.
“It is a good plan, Hercules, but with one alteration needed.”
“What do you –“ Hercules words were cut short as his entire body were covered in white flames controlled by his fellow Avenger. He screamed and tried to extinguish them, and did not see them fade the moment he lost consciousness.
“What the hell are you doing?” Diamond Lil demanded, fists clenched. “Have you gone mad?”
“There has been enough death, and he would never agree to what I am going to do. He will recover once you take him back to Earth”
“You’re staying…” Chrome realised. “Alone…”
“The radiation has no affect on me,” Firebird explained. “I do not know why, but I feel fine. I once drank poison in the company of the Collector that killed my teammates but left me untouched. I once flew into space with Iron Man and continued to breathe. I do not know how I have these abilities, but I will survive you all from this radiation. There has already been far too much needless death. If I am finally to die now any way, then I do not want my friends to die needlessly with me.”
“This is nuts, lady!” Lil told her. “I don’t want to die – I want to grow old with my husband who is far too good for me and who doesn’t even realise it! But we’re not leaving you alone!”
Chrome put her hand on Lil’s shoulder and shook her head sadly. “She’s right. If I’ve learned nothing else as an Exile, it’s that sometimes sacrifices must be made.”
Diamond Lil tried to protest, but the looks on Chrome and Firebird’s faces told her there was no point. Lil and Chrome hugged Firebird sadly, and reluctantly took the comatose Hercules through an escalation shaft that was detectable only from the main bridge. They did not stay to try to persuade Firebird of an alternative course of action any longer. They knew there was no point, and that they might only have minutes to make it back to their craft before the radiation struck them down. Firebird’s sacrifice on their behalf was not to be wasted.
“Do you really think… you can win…?” Laserface asked Firebird as flames errupted from her towards the Stark warriors that attempted to rescue their leader.
“I already have…”
“Move it!” Chrome shouted to Lil as she attempted to hack the mothership’s systems from the inside to open the docking bay doors again.
Hercules began to stir as Lil strapped his body into a seat, trying to ignore the second degree burns that were already beginning to heal.
“What…” Hercules muttered, regaining consciousness. “Firebird! Where is Firebird?”
“Sit down!” Lil told him harshly, pushing him back in his seat as the docking bay doors opened and their craft sped out back into space.
“I’m sorry,” Lil told him, more sympathetic now that they were racing to safety. “She’s saving us all…”
“No…” Hercules whispered, as the meaning behind Lil’s words became clear. “Bonita! Bonita!!!!”
Within the bridge of the mothership, a bleeding Firebird allowed herself a small smile as she watched her friends escape from the main monitor. How many Stark has she killed in the last twenty minutes? One hundred? Two? She had lost count, but she knew that it was coming to an end.
“What… what do you have to say… for yourself… woman…” Laserface coughed, as his artificial heart began to slow.
Firebird stared at the Stark leader, realising that he had at most seconds left, and therefore so did she before the mothership exploded with her in it. Her next sentence would be the last thing she would ever say. What should her last words be?
Her life did not flash before her eyes as the cliché went, but as she thought back on her life she knew that there was one thing that had always defined her, despite every thing that had happened in the previous seventy two hours. Perhaps it was not too late for her to find redemption. Perhaps it was not too late for faith. Would that not be the ultimate victory over the Uncreated Stark?
“God’s will, not mine, be done…”
The mothership exploded silently in the vacuum of space, eliminating the scourge of the Stark from the cosmos forever.
Shortly afterwards, Warbird flew through space to fly along the craft of the heroes who had saved the Earth. The survivors were flying back to their home planet to get treatment for radiation poisoning for Chrome and Diamond Lil, and for burns for the already healing Hercules.
“You did it!” Warbird told them proudly through the communications system provided to her by Reed Richards.
“Firebird did. We paid a high price,” Chrome answered sadly. “We lost Amazon and Jesse, and Firebird deliberately gave her life to save us all.
Warbird was silent for a moment, as she tried to think of the right words to pay trbute to those who paid the ultimate price so their planet would survive. “They are all heroes. We owe them a debt we will never be able to repay.
Warbird started to fly to Earth with the wounded crew but she was hailed by a communication from Photon. “More ships are approaching! It looks like some sort of fleet! It… oh my god…
What is it, Photon? What can you see?” Warbird demanded, but she did not need an answer as a fleet even larger than that of the Stark approached the Earth, and an image the size of a planet suddenly appeared before them. It was of a woman whose name would now forever be despised by every inhabitant of Earth. And she was smiling.
“You didn’t really think this was over, did you? Nebula asked, and began to laugh…
Next: The exhausted heroes might make their final stand against the architect of the Invasion of Earth in Avengers Annual #1 by Des Davies. Then come back here to see the shattered AWC regroup as old foes take advantage of their darkest day!
Phew! Dark days ahead for the Avengers. Hope you enjoyed the Whacko’s traumatic battles during the Invasion of the Earth, even if the Avengers certainly didn’t!
Here's a mail from Puff on AWC 19:
I liked Chrome's confusion regarding Brad Pitt. And the porn star line...priceless!
Thanks. :) Just trying to get it across that she is actually from an alternative earth, so the things we take for granted don't necessarily have the same meaning for her. The only reason she's coping so well is the unknown length of time she spent as an Exile.
Liked the X-Men cameo on the Golden Gate Bridge, very nice. Makes me wish there were a Av2000 regular X-Men title, but I guess it sort of defeats the purpose of Av2000.
Just a little. :)
Hercules, "...tell it to the fist." Always loved Herc. He always seems to get the best lines, no matter who is writing him.
I always find Herc the hardest to write, yet a lot of people tell me I write him well. Go figure. This is actually the first issue where I’ve been really happy with my portrayal of him. Hopefully you agree!
The Firebird scene in the church was worth more than the price of admission. Good stuff. No, great stuff. Grim, dark, vengeful...wonderful.
Thanks! It was my personal favorite scene of the issue.
And Hank is going to cheat on his new wife with his old wife, isn't he?
Now that would be telling...
No, thank you. Here's what he thought of issue #20:
So Firebird's...uhhhm flare up last issue wasn't a one time reaction to the death of her family. Interesting.
Well, it is less than twenty four hours since the deaths...
So an Uncreated Avengers member...very interesting.
I like the Hercules and Firebird dynamic.
Yeah, they're sort of writing themselves. No one was more surprised than me that they grew close. Of course, that meant I had to rip them apart…
And Miguel's wanting to disappear down a hole when a girl shoots him down. Yep, feeling that.
A nice read. Looking forward to more.
Thanks for the feedback. Hopefully this issue was to your taste as well.
Finally, here's a mail about #20 from the inimitable Barry Reese:
A great issue! Gary is really making me jealous with his ability to showcase characterization through dialogue. The Karma/Living Lightning scene was fantastic and really made me wish that a couple of these x-folks would stick around in the series (Karma and Havok, mainly). The scene between Jesse and Paige was sweet as well, esp. the "was I okay" line.
Thanks Barry! I appreciate the compliments. No more X-men after this
issue though, as I don't want to overdo it now that Husk is on the
team. There might be the occasional cameo when appropriate though, such as the upcoming funeral issue for those lost in the Invasion.
Plot-wise, I'm enjoying the revelations about Firebird's identity and find that the Hercules/Bonita subplot is entertaining. I'm anxious to see where Gary is going with the series post-Invasion.
What did you make of Bonita's sacrifice this issue? Thanks for the continuous encouragement - now every one go read an issue of Pendragons!