Title: Ad Astra
Featuring: Dan Highlander
Date: Various
Location: Various
Show: Northern Crown 2018



[NOTE: THIS IS PART 4 OF A MULTI-PART STORY - READ THE CARLTON AND OMEGA PIECES FIRST!]

 

It’s been a very long road, getting here. 

 

But you don’t care about that, do you? You’ve just finished reading Omega’s story, you want to know what happens next. 

 

Well, tough. It’s been a long time, and I want to talk about my journey. 

 

For all important respects, we begin over a year ago, in Glasgow. With a few simple words.

 

‘Elisha. You and me. Frozen Over. In the Tower.’ 

 

What a fool I was. 

 

To think that I could take on Elisha, in a match almost tailored for him, while keeping my hands clean, not staining my precious morality. Really, it’s surprising I lasted as well as I did; it’s surprising that Elisha didn’t break my back beforethrowing me off the Tower. And yet I somehow managed to last all the way to the top, managed to come within an inch of victory… but he prevailed. 

 

This is where you might expect me to say that “something changed in me that day”… but the truth is, it didn’t. Not yet. Oh, things were a little different, sure, as I grappled with the reality that, well, I may never grapple with anything else again. But I remained, in my heart, the same man I was. Good. Noble. Honourable. Moral.

 

Weak. 

 

In the months that followed I was forced to watch from the sidelines as my wife began her astronomic rise through the ranks of CWF. In those months the first icy fingers of doubt began to enter my mind. 

 

Maybe it should have been her. Maybe it should have been Caledonia who set out to be the trailblazer, the one who stamped down our impact on CWF. 

 

Maybe she’s better than you. That one, I could at least dispute… for now. Caledonia was unabashedly successful in the tag team division and even gave Jace Valentine a run for his money… but she had not yet claimed the top prize, as I had. 

 

Maybe you should stay out of her way.Well… there wasn’t much question of that anymore. My back was broken, I would be lucky to walk again. 

 

But all of that was alright, I told myself, because I was genuinely happy for my wife’s success, even if my happiness was tinged with envy. And I had other avenues; I had been a moderately successful economist before returning to CWF. And yet… and yet when I returned to the ivory tower of academia, I found doors closed that I thought eternally open. I was unemployed, seemingly unemployable. 

 

And so I sat around, a useless shell of a man. Waiting for the miracle I knew in my heart would never come. 

 

God doesn’t send us miracles. We must makethem from our own Will. 

 

And then that night, that fateful night, when I would let slip a crucial detail to a crucial group of people. Perhaps there was some degree of Providence, perhaps there wasn’t. But the reality was the same. I was offered a chance to stop the Institute, a force that unleashed terrible evil upon the world. 

 

Ah, but! you cry. But! What is the point of stopping this evil if you sacrifice your soul to do it? 

 

Which sin is greater - to stain one's soul in pursuit of a noble good, or to stand by in silence through desire to remain pure?

 

I had tried to remain pure in the fight against Elisha, stood as Morality’s greatest champion - and I had been cut down. I thought I was better than anyone else: the good man keeping his hands clean while evil rose in power. I realized, seemingly too late, that evil would triumph, and my rigid morality would crumble into blood-stained dust, the only victory afforded to me that I stuck to my guns. 

 

A fool… to my last breath. 

 

And so I agreed to become the weapon the Order needed me to be. 

 

Some part of me, some foolish part of me, maintained stubbornly that it was temporary; that once the business was concluded and the Institute was in ashes, I would walk away, try and find myself anew. But that part grew quieter and quieter as reality became clearer. There would always be evil in the world, true evil, deep evil; and unstained good cannot triumph over such an unstoppable, eternal force. 

 

And so I embraced amorality. 

 

Lowercase “a” amorality, incidentally; the ideology of the Institute was itself laced with chicanery, too much so to be truly practical. I learned as much when I studied under Elijah, the prophesied Teacher of the Moonchild; now the pragmatic instructor of the Starchild, the symbol which would outshine Elisha and his Institute. 

 

The Order cured my back. Elijah cured my mind. 

 

And I set out to cure the world of the cancer of the Spirit Science Research Institute. 

 

But now back to where we were…

 

 

Thunk

 

Elisha screamed in pain, an animalistic sound like I’d never heard him make. He fell to the ground, clutching the stump where his right hand used to be. With a guttural growl I kicked him in the side of the head, my boot colliding with his temple and knocking him cold. I looked at Eris. ‘Cauterize it. He’s coming with me.’

 

‘With us,’ said Elijah. ‘Your intervention was welcome,Starchild, but this was and is our operation. And you willabide by the terms we agreed upon.’

 

‘Wait,’ said Eris, who had not yet moved. ‘You plannedthis?’ 

 

‘We planned for this… contingency,’ said Elijah. ‘For my own part I had hoped to successfully detain the Moonchild without Daniel’s intervention, but…’

 

‘But you failed,’ I said. ‘And as you can see,’ I gestured at the fallen Elisha, ‘I have already abided by the terms you convinced me were optimal: the Moonchild lives. Now, he shall be taken to the Order; there to be kept as a prisoner.’

 

Nobody said anything. I continued. ‘Though the Moonchild will notlive much longer if first aid is not administered.’ I looked pointedly at Eris, who began binding Elisha’s wound. 

 

‘We shouldn’t stay here,’ said Dean Coulter. There were murmurs of agreement from the James Skelton Brigade.

 

For once, I agreed with the drongo. With Zach van Owen and Dean Coulter carrying the Moonchild, we made for the roof of the Epicentre. Flying low, under the radar, a helicopter approached at great speed. Coulter and van Owen boarded first, followed by the rest of the brigade. Eventually, only Elijah, Omega and I remained. As they made to board, I stopped them, pulling a flask from my coat, along with three plastic shot glasses. Both of them looked at me distastefully.

 

‘This occasion should be marked,’ I said. ‘We are victorious at long last - the Moonchild has been taken, Pierreia will fall, and the Institute will follow.’ I poured a small amount of whiskey into each glass. ‘To victory.’

 

I drank deeply, but both Elijah and Omega simply looked at their glasses, pouring them on the ground. My nostrils flared. That was sixty-year-old scotch they were wasting - a drink chosen deliberately, as it was the same age as the Institute. But I chose to let it pass; the mission was paramount. 

 

‘Well then. Let’s get to it.’ 

 

‘Hold,’ said Elijah. I raised my eyebrows. He continued. ‘When we spoke of the endgame of this mission, you eventually agreed that it would be better to detain the Moonchild rather than kill him.’

 

‘I did,’ I said. ‘What of it? I’ve bought us some time with the Order by sending the picture of Elisha’s hand; I expect they will not object when we arrive on their doorstep with the most valuable prisoner available.’

 

‘See, here’s the thing, Danny boy,’ said Omega, ‘we don’t think it’s such a good idea to go to the Order’s doorstep.’

 

‘Is that so?’ I asked. 

 

‘You agreed that detention, permanent detention, was better than simple execution,’ repeated Elijah, ‘but you know as well as I do that taking the Moonchild to the Order is tantamount to execution.’ 

 

‘I can convince the Order that -’

 

‘But you can’t,’ said Omega. ‘The Order won’t listen to you. The Moonchild’s a threat, and they want him removed. They’re not going to leave that threat in place just because the Starman shows up and says pretty please.’ 

 

‘You underestimate my influence within the Order,’ I said, growling.

 

Youunderestimate the Order,’ said Elijah. ‘They do not practice the same form of Amorality as the Institute, but they are utterly amoral. If you no longer serve their purposes, if you present a risk…’

 

‘… then they’ll toss you aside like a Jeremy Clarkson spoken word album,’ finished Omega. 

 

I scowled, throwing my coat to the ground. ‘So. It’s come to this.’

 

‘It has,’ said Elijah. He lunged at me, and I ducked under his blow, countering with a spin kick and driving my heel into his ribs. Elijah winced and doubled over, but I was just off-balance enough that Omega capitalized, pouncing on me and grabbing me in a chokehold. I grabbed at her arm, attempting to pry her loose, but she maintained the hold, eventually pulling me to the ground. I felt the burning in my lungs, in my throat, in my brain, as she tightened her grip. 

 

And so, as Elijah had taught me to do, I gathered my Will. 

 

Break the hold.

 

I roared, elbowed Omega as hard as I could in the ribs, and threw her to the ground over my shoulder. 

 

Subdue.

 

I stomped repeatedly on her, until she herself had fallen unconscious. I looked up to where Elijah had fallen… but he wasn’t there. ‘I’m sorry, Daniel,’ came a voice from behind me. Elijah. I spun in place, and he socked me across the face with brass knuckles. I crumpled, falling to the ground, unable to rise. Elijah scooped Omega up into his arms. ‘I regret that it came to this,’ he said. ‘Be seeing you.’

 

That was the last thing I remember before passing out. 

 

 

When I awoke on the cold ground of Pierreia, I was alone. I was also freezing - discarding my coat, in retrospect, had not been wise. Shivering, I pulled it back on. I did not return inside the building; even with Elisha taken, it was still an Institute stronghold. I had been fortunate so far; they had not sent anyone to search the roof. Whether that was sheer incompetence, or confusion borne out of the absence of the Moonchild, or the actions of the Order’s agents within Elisha’s inner circle, I knew not. But I didn’t want to risk anything. So I sent a message to the Order leadership - “WE HAVE A PROBLEM. THEY’VE TAKEN HIM.” They would know what it meant. 

 

Within about an hour, another helicopter descended - this one belonging to the British Royal Navy. As I ducked inside, I found Vice Admiral Spencer awaiting me, dressed in combat fatigues. 

 

‘So. “They’ve taken him,”’ said Spencer. ‘By which you of course mean his corpse.’

 

‘I…’ I was furious with myself. Why had I let them manipulate me like that. But Spencer chuckled. ‘Don’t worry. We knew about your “deal”. And we decided that it would, indeed, ultimately be beneficial. After all, we wouldn’t want to risk martyring the Moonchild.’ Just as I betrayed a hint of relief, he continued, his tone sharper and colder. ‘We had, however, hoped that you would successfully bring him to us, rather than letting him be taken.’

 

‘I was  -’

 

‘You were foolish,’ he said. ‘You allowed them to blindside you. Really, we expected better of you, you had to know this could happen.’ 

 

‘I thought they’d be reasonable,’ I said, unsure whether I was angrier with Elijah and Omega or with myself. 

 

‘They’re anarchists!’ cried Spencer. ‘A pair of lunatics with grandiose ideas of utopian societies with no basis in reality. Not so unlike yourself before you saw reason. But there is no reasoning with Elijah and Omega. Not unless they were… reconditioned.’

 

‘So that is my next mission?’ I asked, my eyes narrowing. 

 

‘Indeed. You know where they will hide. It was your responsibility to ensure that our prize was brought to us; it remains your responsibility. And as for those two… they have flouted at the Order. This cannot stand.’ 

 

I said nothing. Spencer continued. ‘Mr. Carlton is en route to London from Los Angeles. He will accompany you to the dwelling of Elijah and Omega. The two of you will assault the Academy; meanwhile, an additional team will deploy to retrieve the Moonchild.’

 

‘I don’t need any help.’

 

‘Clearly,’ he said, ‘you do.’ 

 

 

Hours later, I sat in a different helicopter. I was dressed all in black, as were the Order troops sitting beside me. Below us, the lights of one small British town after another approached and faded as we made our way north. I spoke into my headset’s microphone. 

 

‘Now that we are underway,’ I said, ‘I want to make sure that our mission is fully understood.’

 

All eyes turned to me. I continued. ‘The overall objective of this mission is the capture of the Moonchild, and his deliverance into the hands of the Order. There will be resistance; the rebels Elijah and Omega have mustered forces for the defence of what was once called the Academy. And it is possible if not likely that the Institute will, having guessed this place as a possible destination, deployed their own troops. Our job is to subdue the enemy forces.’

 

‘If that’s our job,’ said one of the Order soldiers, ‘why don’t we have guns?’ 

 

A few murmurs of agreement. I raised a hand. ‘For the same reason that the Institute did not deploy troops with guns when they attempted to take this building, and why they do not generally use lethal force outside of their sovereign territory; accountability. Murder is messy, and, if discovered, could do considerable harm to those we represent. So we subdue, killing only if we must.’

 

I said nothing of my own reservations. I had embraced the Order’s amorality…  but still I struggled when forced outside the abstract. Images floated unbidden to the front of my mind: Eris’ broken body splayed upon the ground outside the Academy, struck down this time not by a faceless Institute soldier but by my hand; James Skelton shot through the stomach by someone under my command.

 

Caledonia, her arm split almost in two, collapsing to the ground, as I stood over her. 

 

I mentally shook my head, careful not to betray my weakness to the men I must command. ‘Are these orders understood?’

 

‘Yes, Starchild,’ came the shouted reply. I noticed that Carlton did not join in. I raised an eyebrow at him and he shrugged. I managed not to laugh, but I was amused. 

 

After a few hours, the pilot informed us that we were passing over Leeds and would reach the Academy within a few minutes. So prepare for battle, was the unspoken message. 

 

It was interesting - despite all that had happened in the war between the Academy and the Order and the Institute, despite my centrality to the conflict, I had yet to personally participate in a major battle. The closest I had come was my losing effort against the Moonchild at Frozen Over, an encounter that seemed so long ago now that it almost belonged to another lifetime. My time since then had been spent, healing from the injuries inflicted upon me by the Moonchild, training for the battles to come, and ultimately participating in skirmishes around the provinces of Pierreia, sowing tales of a rebel, an equal to the Moonchild who would step forth and strike him down. 

 

Well. We would see whether I would succeed.

 

Despite Elijah’s claims to the contrary, he and Omega could not possibly contain the Moonchild. He was too strong, too cunning; and Elijah and Omega were but two people. True, they had friends now… but they had had friends before, and those had scattered to the wind as soon as they realized what friendship with those two entailed. In the long run, they would be guarding Elisha alone… and Elisha would bide his time, waiting for the moment to escape. No… better that he be kept by the Order, with their near-unlimited resources. That way the blight of the Moonchild and his Institute would never darken the doorstep of the world again. 

 

I felt the unmistakable shift of aerial descent. I glanced out the window; darkness. That made sense. Elijah and Omega, as I understood it, now dwelt primarily in the Vault below the Academy, since so much of the main building had been destroyed in the battle with the Institute. But sure enough, we landed and our spotlights showed the old Academy manor. 

 

I exited first, with Carlton shortly behind me. As our troops filed out, I saw the front doors of the Academy swing open - but instead of the deluge of fighters I was expecting, instead came three drones. 

 

‘Eris,’ I growled. I knew the defenses that Eris’ drones carried; explosive paintballs, that I had seen wreak havoc on Institute forces. I turned to Carlton. ‘Take them down.’

 

He nodded, and drew from his belt a pistol of special design. He aimed, and with marksmanlike precision shot the drones down. They plummeted, their propellers still moving, but their circuitry having been fried by bullets carrying microchips designed to overload their system; even a glancing blow would disable the drones completely. 

 

I stepped back into the helicopter and activated the PA system. ‘If that is all you have, you would be well advised to surrender now. Send out the Moonchild and no more of Eris’ drones need be destroyed; I know how much they care for the little scrappers.’ 

 

But if Eris heard me, they ignored me -  shortly afterwards, two more drones soared out through the door, and Carlton shot them down once again. ‘Really, Eris?’ I said through the PA. But then something happened that I wasn’t expecting. There was a buzz of harsh static, and Eris’ voice sounded over our PA. ‘Not really,’ they said. ‘I just wanted to distract you so they could get behind you.’

 

The Order troops turned almost as one, as Academy defenders, led by Elijah, burst forth from the forest canopy; our spotlights had been trained towards the nearly-totally-dark building. I swore loudly. Then I swore loudly again as Elijah clocked me across the face. I fell hard but sprung quickly to my feet as I saw the Order troops being overwhelmed. I knocked Elijah down with a crescent kick and charged down Dean Coulter, knocking my fellow Australian to the ground. Zach van Owen made to jump at me, but Carlton intercepted him, crash-tackling him to the ground as I went on to fight off Matthias Eddy, rallying the Order troops.

 

But wait - this wasn’t their full force. Omega would not stay on the sidelines of a battle like this, if nothing else. Where are the rest of them? And then it struck me. Eris had another drone. Damn it all!They’d spotted our second team - the rest of the Academy forces had to be lying in ambush. ‘Carlton!’ I yelled. ‘Get around the other side - they know!’ 

 

Carlton dispatched Coulter with an uppercut and nodded, sprinting off. Two of my soldiers followed him. Good. The second team was the more important one. But now we had lost our numbers advantage. We had five, including me; against us, Elijah, van Owen, Coulter, Eddy, and “Rebel” Ray Skelton. 

 

Five by five. 

 

I squared off with Elijah, as the other fighters descended into a general melee. 

 

‘A smart move,’ I said, throwing a left hook, ‘ambushing us. You don’t like to fight on even ground, do you?’

 

‘Says the man who brought twenty soldiers against ten,’ said Elijah, blocking my swing and circling. 

 

‘And the fight in Pierreia?’ I asked, snapping out a front kick that was more intended to establish range than actually hit. ‘Two on one there.’

 

‘What of it?’ said Elijah. ‘How many times must we tread this path, Daniel? In combat there are two: the honorable…’

 

‘… and the dead,’ I said. ‘True. And I must say, I never thought that our little chess games would lead to all this.’

 

He charged, throwing a series of calculated punches. I parried. Neither of us was really trying; our back-and-forth was intended to provoke the other into just enough distraction to deliver the finishing blow. In the background I thought I heard an engine roaring, but I dismissed it as background noise. 

 

‘I regret what has transpired between us, you know,’ said Elijah. ‘What the Order turned you into.’

 

‘I don’t,’ I said flatly. ‘The Order has tempered me, stripped away the weakness that held me back. I am twice the warrior now than I was a year ago.’

 

‘We will see,’ said Elijah.

 

‘The fact that you beat me last time we fought one-on-one means nothing,’ I said. ‘Yesterday you didn’t dare take me on without your bitch girlfriend.’

 

That did it. Elijah scowled and lunged, this time genuinely wanting to hurt me, to punish me. It was only a second of lapsed control, but it was enough. I ducked under his clothesline and struck hard with a back kick, driving my boot deep into his ribs with a satisfying crack. Elijah fell, gasping for air and cursing me in languages I didn’t understand. I turned and, seeing the fight going awry for my fighters, waded into the fray, picking up Zach van Owen and slamming him down in a backbreaker, driving my knee into his spine. The young man screamed in pain as I discarded him, turning to Skelton and laying him out with a big left cross. Behind me I saw Elijah rise to his feet, fury etched onto his scarred face. 

 

Time to end this

 

With a bestial roar, I delivered a Superkick, my boot heel connecting squarely with Elijah’s chin. He seemed to fall in slow motion, collapsing to the ground. I looked down with tremendous satisfaction; this particular affront to the Order had been avenged. Elijah would accompany his “Student” to the Order’s prison; perhaps there he would come to understand why things had to be this way. 

 

Suddenly, out of nowhere, I was knocked to the ground from behind. Whoever had hit me had hit me hard, and I fell face-first onto the dirt. I scrambled to my feet and faced down my attacker, ready to strike him down. But I was not prepared for who I faced. 

 

Caledonia. 

 

 

TO BE CONTINUED

 

 



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