Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Manhunter From Mars Annual #1 (Conclusion)

Bel Juz refused to confirm B'rett's guess that she must be involved with the failure of the Guard Belts. "Something this big keeping quiet so long? That's got your prints all over it!" B'rett had joined up with the Pole Dwellers as they slowly collected themselves in the plains outside the city. B'rett felt no loyalty to the Desert Dwellers, who did little to save his own people from the Blue Flame's path of destruction. Besides, B'rett was always looking out for himself, and it was the Pale Martians who had scavenged the downed maintenance droids that had sustained the convicts while in orbit.

B'rett presented Bel Juz to Commander Blanx, who was far from pleased she had not been granted access codes to the weapons cache... nor that a scientist who had was dead "by his own hand." Blanx was in the process of rounding up and executing the Pale Martians who had renounced his leadership to live amongst the Desert Dwellers, and had little use for a treasonous Green. B'rett intervened on Bel's behalf, believing her keen mind might prove useful to him later. B'rett and Bel set off alone, as he explained that he and the Pole Dwellers had been watching movements with the city for weeks from afar. The occasional dressed-down Pole Dweller was also sent on spying missions, as the Desert Dwellers had grown to at least tolerate the presence of the occasional Pale in their midst. B'rett did make a point of parading Bel Juz in front of her fellow Green Martians, to insure her reputation with her own people would finally be ruined. "You're one of us now, and don't you forget it!"

By morning, the Manhunter's company had enlisted Vulkor's gang, and were on a foot march into Crystal Mountain. They were soon met by guards under Re's Eda command, who admired J'onzz audacity, and allowed him to proceed alone. The Manhunter found his way into R'es Eda's inner sanctuary, where he was surprised to find Quork had also taken up residence. R'es Eda and N'yth Cott were having a laugh at J'onzz's expense. The sister of the treacherous N'or Cott recounted how she had been secretly drugging J'onzz's food prior to his being framed for murder, accounting for his irratic behavior during that time. J'onzz was not amused, as he explained the dire circumstances of his visit. Eda resented J'onzz for having turned his own people against him, forcing him to live as an outlaw. The pair hurled accusations at one another.

"You were a decent, wise Martian once... my closest friend... All those years I spent away from my family, only to find them dead... our world lost... and to watch your betrayals mount."
"I'm sure it was easy holding on to your ideals while you were away on your precious Earth. Try living fourteen years under Blanx's rule, J'onn-- and then the Thythen. Condemn me, if you must... but I think your perspective would be quite different if you'd walked in my shoes. Maybe then you would have fed Blanx and his Pales to their fire, like they deserved... instead of bringing them here and holding them over our heads."

Eventually, J'onzz was able to play to Re's Eda's pride and sense of loss, not to mention the fury he felt for Blanx. As for making the journey to the city, Quork had been proving himself by constructing a massive assault vehicle from the unsalvaged remains of the Old One's Gyrometer, which had previously been wrecked by Superman. J'onn J'onzz returned to his party, where he found Re's Eda's guardsmen had formed a circle around the Marshal, who had been swaying them with an oratory about Martian superiority and the need for renewed empowerment amongst the stars. "I suppose simple minds think alike, as well."

Re's Eda armed the primaries on the expedition from his reserves. The Marshal and Vulkor rode on the assault vessel, while Re's had a pair of his men join J'onn J'onzz and his Countryman on the ATV. One of the new arrivals chose to confide to J'onzz en route, "Sir... during the march on Baltaz... that day you were shot... I was among those men."
"I know. I was there. Between the residual strength from my time in Earth's atmosphere and your blasters having been leveled at a minimal setting, I was on my feet in a matter of minutes."
"Those of us with blasters had spoken amongst ourselves, and chose to avoid lethal force if at all possible. We never expected to have to turn our weapons on you. I just didn't want to live the rest of my existence being thought of as a Martian who tried to kill J'onn J'onzz."
"I appreciate that."

A beat later, the Countryman leaned in:
"If I heard correctly, you returned me to years of imprisonment in the black emptiness of space for larceny, but he shoots you and walks clean? Count your blessings I didn't have a blaster-- then or now."
"I appreciate that, as well. That's why you got the sword."
"Say, Martian steel would do more than bruise you these days, right?"
"I'd rather not say, and anyway, that's why I have the blaster."

Returning to the caves, the Marshal was dismayed to find the Red Brotherhood had been smoked out and captured by the Pole Dwellers... at least, those not left too weak to escape the fire. The Manhunter feared for J'en, as well as their plan of attack, having lost a sizable portion of their forces. At twilight, J'onzz gathered the collective to plot a revised offensive.

Re's Eda and his men piloted the assault vehicle straight into the city at nightfall. However, the Pole Dwellers managed to disable the craft partway to its destination. Re's Eda's forces continued to use the craft for cover while firing on the Pales. This gave the Marshal, Vulkor's troop, and additional Crystal Mountain men time to form a second wave to rush toward the vessel. Amidst the confusion, Manhunter's crew on the ATV made a rush for the weapons cache, but were sent skidding out of control by blaster fire from B'rett, who had disarmed a Brotherhood trooper.

Having set the assault vessel ablaze from afar, Commander Blanx observed Re's Eda and his men rush for safety. The Pole Dwellers watched as the Marshal's weakened force doused the fire, then moved in for the kill. Vulkor and his men fled during the melee.

J'onn J'onzz returned fire, but he was at a disadvantaged position. The fellow who'd confessed to shooting him earlier volunteered to take the blaster rifle and lay covering fire. The Manhunter agreed, and while B'rett was distracted, used him limited powers of flight to reach the villain's nest. The foes struggled, and though J'onzz was able to disarm B'rett, it cost him in blood. "Hah! You always forget, Manhunter! You're just a scientist on his world-- not a killer like me!" B'rett had drawn a dagger on J'onzz, but just then, R'es Eda's man arrived with guns blazing. B'rett skewered the man with a knife throw, but was sent scurrying to regroup. "This
Martian saved my life, and I never even knew his name."

Desert Dweller casualties were mounting, as R'es Eda faced Commander Blanx in combat. Both the Marshal and Quork had taken their leave, while Re's alone was no match for Blanx-- but he would not go down without a fight.

J'onzz reached the weapons cache, but as he was entering, he was struck from behind by Quork, who coveted the arms for himself. In a turnabout, the Countryman bashed Quork in the back, and Manhunter finished him off. "I thought you had abandoned me out there. That was a pleasant surprise. I hope I can trust you at least once more." Unable to arm his losing troops, the situation had grown dire. Manhunter informed his fellow that there was a set of the protective suits developed to counter Baltaz's atmosphere on site, and that they had an interesting side effect. Within the sealed system, and with their surroundings artificially interpreted through visors, Martians were enabled to not only withstand but wield fire. The pair suited up, sealed the cache behind them, and ignited their portable flame throwers.

The Marshal recognized the likely outcome of the hostilities, and decided if he was to die this day, he would do so beside his own soldiers. The Marshal fought his way through the now thin guard to where the Red Brotherhood were being held, and released them. The sudden rush of troops jarred Commander Blanx before he could finish Re's Eda. Flames became visible from blocks away, forcing the Pale maniac's retreat. J'en gave chase, as the Marshal headed toward the source of the fire. Collapsing midway, he was approached by his Countryman. "J'onzz was right. You guys aren't very bright, are you?"

J'en followed Blanx to the water treatment plant, where Bel Juz was already waiting, trying to decide which side to choose for her greatest advantage. The decision was taken out of her hands, as J'en's hatred caused her to launch into an attack on her rival, allowing Blanx free reign.

The Marshal proved too large to fit into a protective suit, so he assigned several of his Red Brotherhood the task of burning the Pole Dwellers into submission. The Marshal himself led a clean-up crew to lock down prisoners in their weakened state. Suddenly, an explosion could be heard from the distance. Pressure had been allowed to build at the water treatment plant by Commander Blanx, until all seals had ruptured, flooding the city.

Bel Juz cursed J'en's stupidity-- allowing her vendetta to blind her to Blanx's course of destruction. The pair confronted the Commander, who fended them off until the arrival of a furious Manhunter. "You madman! When will enough lives have been lost to your schemes?" Still in his protective suit, Manhunter fended off blaster fire as he launched into a brutal attack on Blanx, beating him to a bloody pulp. The Marshal arrived, and it was all J'onzz could do to prevent his finishing Blanx for good.

The remaining Pole Dwellers were gathered up and secured. A scout was dispatched with a protective suit to the Baltaz Ruling Council, who were apprised of the situation and asked to contact Takron-Galtos to secure the wealth of prisoners. The Council agreed to pay some of the cost for such a large scale confinement, while the All-Martian Council was also ordered to contribute. J'onn J'onzz suggested that Martian troops should be offered as super-powered guards for the planet-sized penitentiary. Quork, Blanx, and his men were taken into custody, while B'rett and Vulko remained at large. Though no evidence could be presented against Bel Juz, her notoriety left her ostracized and powerless. In exchange for his forces' sacrifices, the Marshal was granted additional weapons and protective suits for use at their discretion.

Epilogue One: J'onn J'onzz prepared to disembark from Takron-Galtos, where he had traveled to see to his foes' captivity. He also congratulated Re's Eda and the former Magician-Thief, who had chosen to continue their rehabilitation as voluntary guards. "To have stood and fought for Mars... to again feel the pride of my people for me... I could not go back to life in exile. If this is what it takes to return to my Mars with honor, so be it." Meanwhile, from a dark cell, Despero looked on in anger.

Epilogue Two: Gazing out over the ravaged city, the Marshal considered the various gains and losses of his recent campaign. From out of the night, Bel Juz approached him. She reminded the Marshal of a story J'onn J'onzz told of his time in exile, when he helped apprehend a fugitive Martian from the future named B’enn B’urnzz, who was being pursued by Earth authorities. "Is that our fate, Marshal? To waste away on this hell-world? To be hunted by Earthlings for the crime of our presence, when the very powers that world grants us should be ours by the divine blessing of Vrom?" Bel Juz reminded the Marshal of all those young Martians on Crystal Mountain in need of a leader, and of the terrible years to be faced in attempting to rebuild the water treatment plant. "These suits will give us the hope we've lost, and the will to conquer... all at your command, my Marshal..."

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