Special thanks to all of the comic book creators who breathed life into these characters, but especially to Mark Gruenwald and Jim Starlin, without the work of whom, I couldn't possibly be having this much fun.
Benjamin Grimm shoulders his way through a small number of posher than posh pseudo-socialites loitering about at the threshold leading into Avengers Mansion. Some of the faces seem familiar to him, but who are they? Girlfriends? Boyfriends? Reporters? Pool boys? Who cares? The annual holiday party at the Mansion is exclusive, but it isn't that exclusive.
Is that Skeet Ulrich? He wonders who would invite Skeet Ulrich.
Before Grimm became a monster, weaving through this crowd might have required some modicum of ambulatory grace. After becoming a monster...not so much. Most human beings—save for the thoroughly oblivious—have something at least resembling an instinct for self-preservation. This tends to kick in right around the time Grimm enters a room. When you've got a rocky, hulking, orange man-mountain bearing down on you, the human body will reflexively attempt to avoid the unfortunate prospect of squashing. Grimm has been known to refer to this behaviour as "the red sea effect." An alternate explanation for the red sea effect is that Grimm is receiving the so-called star treatment. Respect and fear can be difficult to differentiate, but in this case, the result is satisfactory.
He mentally checks himself when he finds himself laughing at some poor schlub who has to leap out of the way at the last second. There is always one who seems stubbornly determined to play chicken. For the record, Grimm has never lost at this game.
"Eight hundred pound gorilla comin' through," he says.
He feels their eyes on his back as he extricates himself from his trench coat and hands it off to one of the many valets hired for tonight's event. He can't believe he let Reed talk him into wearing a monkey suit. It's scandalous, he tells himself—the ever lovin' Thing trying to act all high-society. Who was trying to fool whom?
Grimm strolls past the buffet table where Hercules is already gorging himself. He tells Hercules that he should save some for somebody else. Hercules laughs so hard that his last handful of shrimp cocktail actually falls out of his mouth. He is drunk. Grimm checks his wristwatch for the time. 9:00 p.m. That is early. He swears that last year it took Hercules until at least 10 o'clock before he was stinking. He just hopes he doesn't have to help break up any fights.
Grimm hears the voice of Jennifer Walters, the She-Hulk, off to his left, which is odd, because when he looks over to her, she seems to be the only one around. She is standing by the punch bowl filling up. Was she talking to herself? He starts to wonder who has been spiking the punch. Grimm and Jenny go way back. She was even a member of the Fantastic Four for a while, so he feels obligated to walk over and chat her up. Besides, she's the best looking thing in the room right now—if you were to ask him—looking far more sensational than savage tonight. The thing he likes about Jenny, she's got style. She doesn't dress like a tramp. She knows she has the goods, but she never flaunts them. Grimm doesn't care about the bling, bling. He respects class—maybe because he lacks in that department, himself.
"I gotta tell ya, Jenny, I really like yer Christmas outfit." She is wearing a red silk evening gown that probably came from Gucci or Prada or one of those people with fancy names. Red dress. Green skin. Red and green. Christmas. She gets the joke and laughs the way old friends do who always find your corny jokes amusing.
"Well, it was this or the Santa outfit," she says. Ben picks up one of the disposable plastic cups and starts ladling out some punch. "It's good to see you, Ben—you know, when we're not saving the city for a change. You look good all dolled up."
"Awww...stop yankin' my chain, Shulkie." Grimm mentally reflects that it's a good thing he can't blush.
"Who? Me?" Miss Innocent.
"Ya know, I do feel kinda like a doll in this getup. Maybe I can talk to our merchandisers about a new variation on my action figure. 'THE THING in civilian disguise.' Pull the string and hear him say one 'a eight stodgy phrases."
"I'd buy one," she says. "Just make sure it's got the Thing's famous, patented kung-fu grip."
"Oh boy. Everyone's a comedian."
"Come on, Benji. Lemme see your kung-fu grip."
"Oh, I'll show ya my kung-fu grip!"
He places his punch on the table and advances on her rigidly like Boris Karloff's Frankenstein, with associated facial contortions and grimaces.
"Oh no. Oh no. I was just kidding! Please, not that. Anything but that!"
She backs away feigning abject terror. Grimm and She-Hulk both get a tremendous kick out of all this goofing around. He lithely slides behind her and locks his arms around her waist, lifting her off the ground in a bear hug.
"Oh, you brute!" she cries. "You animal! Unhand me, you cad!"
"Whatsamatter, Shulkie? Can't handle THE GRIP?" This isn't an actual attempt and binding her very tightly. In any case, he thinks that if it ever came to it, she might just wipe the floor with him. Luckily, they're friends. "Just remember, wisenheimer, you asked for it!"
"Oh, Ben! Ben!" she cries out, turning suddenly serious. "Put me down. Potential client at two o'clock!" Jennifer Walters, when she isn't traipsing around in purple spandex, is a lawyer. Or tries to be.
"Which one?" he asks, peering around her body.
"The one in the black with red pinstripes. On the couch! Come on, Benji! Release me or I'll do something horrible to you—like tell the world about how you cried at the end of A Walk to Remember."
"Awright, awright. I'll putcha down."
Grimm flips her around in his grasp and drapes her over his shoulder in a fireman's carry.
"Oh no," she says. "What are you doing? I've got worse dirt on you than that." She squirms for leverage as he saunters over to the pin stripe man. Pin stripe man looks up from his conversation far more casually than you would expect a man to do in such a situation. This is when Grimm says:
And drops She-Hulk onto the couch next to him, to then walk away ho-ho-hoing and listening to the victim of his kung-fu grip segueing into lawyer mode. He walks about aimlessly for the next minute or so, hoping to see a crowd of people worth talking to, but he suddenly doesn't feel the garrulous type. He senses himself edging closer and closer to laconic, which for him, generally accompanies a sort of moroseness. Amongst the Avengers, he is fairly well-liked, and anybody would be happy to shoot the breeze with him at any given time, but he just isn't feeling it. Which is when he spies Wendell Vaughn at a table across the room.
Now, your average Joe on the street does not know Wendell Vaughn from Adam. They know Quasar. Well...same guy. Different name. Grimm is pretty good friends with Quasar, or "Quase" or just "Q" as he sometimes calls him. Quasar isn't one of the old-timers, like Tony Stark or Cap(tain America), so he hasn't got whatever passes for super-hero tenure yet, but he is a cool cat. Grimm thinks of him as one of the guys, and normally at a get together like this the kid would be gushing over Cap or blushing over the advances of one of the multifarious nymphomaniacs in attendance, but tonight he's sitting alone—though that isn't the reason Grimm finally decides to approach him. It is the dreidel.
Quasar always wears these solid gold wristbands with oval jewels inset evenly around their respective circumferences. He has got them on even tonight, despite the formal wear, which would probably seem gaudy in any other polite society, but at a superhero party, they are about par for the course. Besides which, the wristbands, or quantum bands, are Quasar's meal ticket. They allow him to turn light into matter. Or something like that. Grimm is no quantum mechanic, so whenever the workings of the Q bands have come up in the past, he tends to power down his brain. But the point of this is that Quasar can effectively materialise any physical construct, limited only by his imagination. Tonight he chooses to put his quantum bands to the task of materialising a dull-yellow driedel that he spins absent-mindedly on the table in front of him. Being Jewish himself, this kindred spirit naturally interests Benjamin Grimm. So he crosses the room to Quasar's table and strikes up a conversation.
"Sivivon, sov, sov, sov," Grimm says plainly, rather than singing it the way it is intended. This is the first line to a brief Hebrew song that he figures most Jewish people should have heard. It translates to "Dreidel, spin, spin, spin." The line of song has the desired effect on Quasar, and he smiles self-consciously, having been caught red-handed in the act of daydreaming.
"My grandfather used to sing that," Quasar says whimsically. "Well, don't just stand there—have a seat, Avenger." The seat next to Quasar pushes itself out from the table. Grimm catches only a glimpse of a translucent yellow hand, like one of those large Styrofoam jobs you can buy at baseball games, retreating under the table, and presumably back into Quasar's quantum band.
"I'll never get used ta that," Grimm says, as he takes the proffered seat.
"That's just a parlour trick, Thing-baby. You don't know the half of what the Q bands can do." He flicks his wrist and tosses the dreidel across the table. Grimm, reflexes honed to uncanny precision by years of adventuring, catches it without thought. "Keep it."
"Thanks for the party favour," Grimm says. "Didn't know you were a Jew, bubbelah."
Quasar laughs. Wendell Vaughn, with his long, golden hair, blue eyes, and square features, looks like the uebermensch and very distinctly not like a Jew. Grimm likes to think he has a good sense about these things. He calls this his "Jew Radar."
"Well, half Jewish, actually—on my mother's side. My father was Protestant. I'm still trying to figure out what I am." Quasar pauses as something seems to suddenly occur to him. "But you! Never would have guessed you were Jewish either."
"Yeah, I get that a lot."
"So does that make us the only non-gentiles in this crowd?"
"Ya know, kid, I dunno. Religion ain't a popular topic of conversation in this crowd. Always sorta wondered why that was."
A female voice interjects an unsolicited thought.
"I've got some theories," it says. They both look in the direction of the voice. Grimm has to turn in his seat because the voice comes from directly behind him. As it turns out, the voice belongs to Heather Douglas, which is pretty much what he had thought. Heather, or Moondragon—nobody ever calls her Heather—has an unmistakable diction. Her speech is almost too proper. And it isn't just the King's English or the precise pronunciation—it has more to do with some illusive quality of regality. Or is it sarcasm? Suffice it to say, nobody likes Moondragon. The Avengers must have invited her out of sheer obligation, he thinks. Quasar reacts first.
"Moondragon!" he says. And Grimm can tell that that's about the best Quasar is going to do. He senses, owing to an odd exchange of glances between the two, that there is some history there that he would probably rather not know about, which succeeds in punctuating a perfectly nice conversation with a bout of awkward silence. Ultimately, it's Moondragon who shatters that silence with a joke no less.
"Is this the Semitic-Only table, or is there room for an atheist amongst your ranks?"
Quasar starts to stammer something unintelligible. Grimm comes to his rescue by rising from his seat, telling her there's plenty of room at the table (which is technically true), and pulling out a chair, which Moondragon accepts (without so much as a word of thanks). He has heard from various, usually reliable sources, that Moondragon has lightened up some recently, though to him she still seems chilly. But he considers that maybe it is just the flawlessly bald head. The cue ball always makes Grimm think of some sci-fi story where human beings have evolved to a point where they are no longer emotional creatures and all the chicks are bald. He can't remember ever reading a story specifically like that, but it seems to him that there should be one. Something coherent finally spills from Quasar's lips.
"What's an atheist doing at a holiday party?" he asks.
"Believe me," Moondragon says, "being here tonight is not precisely my notion of a grand old time. I'm not...a people person." A member of the wait staff struts past carrying a platter with filled champagne flutes. Moondragon casts an almost imperceptible glance in his direction and three flutes float themselves off the tray, two landing on the table—one each in front of Quasar and Grimm—and the other floating directly into her hand. Somehow the mere fact of Moondragon's telekinesis doesn't impress Grimm as much as the fact that she managed not to spill any champagne. He hates this delicate crystal. Crystal, like anything fragile, has a tendency to break when he touches it, but he daintily raises the glass to his lips, nods to his benefactor, and takes a sip. Then speaks.
"Why'dja come at all then, Moonie?" Grimm asks. Her answer is childishly simple.
"I was invited," she says. "This may shock you both, but I am attempting to stay on the good side, such as it is, of the superhero community. I'm already persona non grata—I figured I was lucky to receive an invitation. I spent years systematically isolating myself from all forms of human interrelation." She pauses to sip from her flute. "In retrospect, that may have been counter-productive."
"Well," Quasar says, "this sounds like a new Moondragon. Are you sure you're not up to something? The last time we met, you were still pretty fond of touting your 'clear superiority.'"
"My motives are only as sinister as your own, Quasar—I'm trying to fit in amongst a group from which I am, by nature and training, meant to be, to an extent, separate."
"Whaddaya sayin' there, babe? That growin' up with a different set'a beliefs sets us apart from the crowd?"
"Well," Quasar says, "maybe a little...around the holidays, anyway. So what's your theory as to why personal beliefs seem to be tacitly taboo around here?"
"Isn't it patent? Because people are scared. They don't know what to believe."
"And you know this because...?"
Moondragon taps her temple with her forefinger. While Grimm is trying to figure out what she means, Quasar is already responding.
"Let us just say that you cannot be a high-level psionic without leaning a few things about your friends."
"You've been reading their minds? I can't believe you would violate other people's privacy like that! Man oh man, and for a second I thought—"
"Calm yourself, Quasar. It's nothing so devious, I assure you." She says this without ever raising her voice, and as if to convey the truth of that statement, she pauses to quaff the remaining champagne from her glass, clearly making no rush to explain herself, though she eventually does. "It has been, from time to time, my responsibility to make contact with the minds of our fellows—often for their own protection. You should, however, know the truth—that it is impossible to touch another mind without retaining some imprint of it. It typically falls somewhere between empathy and telepathy. I tend to pick up an abundant amount of mental and emotional clutter, which is, after all, perfectly natural. The things we have all seen, the places we have been, the beings with which we have come in contact—the more we expose ourselves to the realities of the universe, the less there is that seems unexplainable. Hence my atheism. There is no God. There are just beings that have got it figured out to a greater extent than we have. The notion that there is a higher power behind everything loses cohesion when it becomes obvious that all forces within the universe are, to an extent, comprehendible phenomena. We all live within the same universe, and in that respect, we are all equal on that level at least. I should think you of all people, Quasar, would realise this."
"She's gotta point there, Quase. I think about it a lot, ya know. Bein' with the Fantastic Four, I've probably seen every cockamamie thing in this dimension and lots'a others. After a while, ya start ta wonder how you coulda ever believed in a description of the universe as limited as the Torah. I wanna believe cos its family tradition, but I feel a little like Han Solo when he said, 'I've never seen anything to make me believe there's one all-powerful Force controlling everything.' The longer I do this adventurin' superhero thing, the more I gotta think that we're all kinda on our own together."
"Quite. But like your fellows, you hold onto your beliefs nonetheless, but you fear discussing them, because you doubt the unshakability of your religious convictions."
Grimm is not petty enough to detest conceding the point, but he wishes he didn't have to. He wishes somebody would bail him out of this damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't discussion, which is when Quasar decides he has waited long enough to throw in his two cents.
"I think I'm gonna have to take you to task on this one, Moonie. You were right when you implied I'd seen it all. I've battled against the avatar of Oblivion as the champion of Infinity, I've met up with Eternals, Celestials, and Infinites hell bent on rearranging the known universe in one fell swoop—you name it!—heck, I'm the god-father of the personification of the life force of the Universe, for cryin' out loud. (hm. That's a mouthful.) But none of it ever explains the big Q: where did it all come from?"
"Well you said it yourself! We all live in the same universe, but who made the universe? Even the cosmic abstractions, like Infinity and Eternity had to come about somehow. I can't explain it, but I just have this feeling like there's something behind the scenes that explains it all."
"Moons of Pama! Surely you realise that to a large extent, you have been brainwashed. It's easy to feel that there is something behind it all when you start from the ingrained assumption that there must be. But the very real fact is that there are explanations for everything. Superstring theory, for example, could easily account for the creation of the universe and all its many properties. We may not know all the answers, but the point is that they do exist. There's no such thing as magic—not really."
"Hey, you don't have to remind me about science. Just remember you're talking to the guy with bands that can manipulate quanta. I know the rules as well as anybody. I'm just saying, you can choose to look at the universe as a by-product of its intrinsic mathematics, but still, the more I learn, the deeper I delve, the more it gets me thinking that there's a reason for it all. I'm the Protector of the Universe. Do you have any concept of what that means? It's impossible for me to believe that there's no point to it all save for entropy. There's a meaning behind what I do. I'm serving some kind of cosmic plan."
"If it suits you. I, however, believe in nothing, save for power."
At this point both parties turn their heads toward Grimm, who comes to the realisation that he hasn't uttered a word in the past five minutes. He doesn't know if they expect him to say anything or not, but in any case, he hasn't got anything to say. The pause lasts about two seconds past comfortable when something breaks with an ear-splintering crash, and somebody is swearing in Ancient Greek. Hercules. Grimm internally reflects that he knew this was going to happen. He thinks it is funny how the only Ancient Greek he knows are the swear words. Standing up from the table he says:
"Feel like lendin' me a hand, kids?"
His two companions stand up, each with a quiet nod.
An hour later they are all nursing their wounds, which are fairly minor. Grimm thanks his lucky stars. Attempting to forcefully subdue a Greek demi-god is not something a person would want to do every day. Any time he can walk away with his hide intact, he counts his blessings. He makes a mental note to get here early next year and keep an eye on Hercules and another eye out for whomever is spiking that punch. He secretly suspects USAgent.
"So, Quase," he says, as the hired help swoops in to clean up the mess, and the three of them begin to walk out to the rear yard, "I guess you'll be headin' back up into outer space after tonight, huh?"
"Most likely. I've probably stayed too long planetside already. Being the P of the U is a demanding job, so I'll have to resume my lonely vigil sooner or later."
"How about you, Moonie?"
"California for me, Grimm. Speaking of which...here's my ride."
A one-woman shuttle, which Grimm swears wasn't there a moment ago, hovers overhead. The technology and design, Grimm realises, it not of Earthly origin. It is too compact and streamlined. For one thing, it is completely spherical with no visible propulsion drive. It is also effectively noiseless. The only human alive he knows who can put together a cruiser like that is Reed Richards, and this is not his work. He would know. But the most interesting part is how Moondragon gets into it. She levitates herself into the air until she is floating directly in front of it, then places a hand on the front glass panel, which somehow manages to dissipate sort of like evaporating a puddle of water, time-lapsed so that it takes place over a second's time. Heaving herself in, she positions herself behind the control panel, the glass reintegrates, and within seconds, the speeder is so far away it is a dot on the horizon. Grimm waits until her pod has definitely disappeared before speaking.
"So do you really believe all that stuff? About there bein' some reason to the universe and the role you play in it? Or were you just sayin' that to get under Moonie's skin?"
"I try to—believe it that is. As much as Moondragon's arrogance sometimes mars her reason, she isn't completely out of her mind. Folks like us, old buddy, are always going to live on the frontier of new and exciting challenges to our preconceptions. If there's one article of reason I've gleaned in the past few years of doing this Quasar shtik, it's that being a superhero means more than just knowing how to deck the bad guys—it means knowing how to cope with the answers to questions you never would have asked and still hold onto the beliefs that make you who you are."
"I like that, Q. Gotta nice ring to it."
"Doesn't it, though?"
The two of them laugh. Eventually they part ways. He stands motionless and watches as Quasar flies away, his eventual destination an asteroid somewhere out in the asteroid belt. Definitely a cool cat, Grimm reflects.
Grimm suddenly notices that he has torn his monkey suit in about a dozen different places. He thinks that he knew he shouldn't have gotten all fancied up.
Quasar explodes through a quantum fissure in space-time. A nifty little trick of his quantum bands—instant, personal wormholes. At least, this is the short explanation. Whenever he quantum jumps, as he calls it, he actually takes a shortcut past linear space through the quantum zone. With a quantum jump, he can traverse the distance from just outside the Earth's atmosphere to the solar system's main asteroid belt—somewhere between Mars and Jupiter—in seconds. No matter how many times he pulls it off, to him, it never loses its cool factor.
Quasar constructed a small space station out here in the belt not too long ago, and he wants to stop in and check on all of the workings before he heads out further into deep space. The station is equipped with a long-range telescope, which he can normally use to catch a glimpse of Earth if he can figure out how to point it in the right direction. The telescope uploads image information to a view screen, sort of like the one on the bridge in Star Trek. It's a nifty little device. This is how he weans himself off of his home planet whenever he plans on disappearing into the cosmos for indefinite periods of time. At any rate, it isn't really safe for him to stay on Earth for too long anymore, owing to the mass of the Ego Planet contained within him. He still worries that it could escape at any time. But he always hates to leave just the same.
When he steps through onto the other side of the airlock, his hackles stand up and start doing the jig on the back of his neck. He hasn't got cosmic awareness anymore, but he's still got a good deal of instinct. He knows he isn't alone. He reflexively tightens the quantum energy field hugging his body and heads for the telescope room.
A mountain of a man in form-fitting navy blue raiment stands with his back to Quasar gazing at the image of Earth on the viewer as it spins in real time. His costume is adorned by gold plating of sorts, starting at the collar, covering the upper chest and back, and extending to the shoulders, where it tapers upwards dangerously. Similar gold metal forms an elaborate belt, while gold mesh gauntlets encase his massive hands. Boots are of the same composite. His feet are planted on the ground like two tree trunks. The most impressive aspect of this man is the sheer sense of density. At only about six and a half feet tall, he looks as though he should have his own gravity. In repose, with his legs spread apart and his arms folded neatly behind his back, he could be a granite sculpture. Quasar wonders how long the two of them could stand there without either saying a word to the other. He decides not to find out.
"Have you come to wish me a Merry Christmas, Thanos?"
"Merry Christmas? An Earth custom?" His voice is as weighty as the rest of him, like two stone slabs rubbing back and forth against each other. Thanos is not from Earth, nor would anybody ever make the mistake of assuming he is. Originally, Thanos was a citizen of Titan, one of the moons of Saturn. A mutant amongst the ancient race of Eternals, which he single-handedly almost succeeded in destroying.
"A holiday. A time for giving."
"Ah. Then my timing is propitious. Though I believe you shall find that I am seldom merry...I do, however, have something to give you."
Quasar does not know what Thanos's game is, but he plays along with it until he has a reason not to. If Thanos wished him dead, he would be dead already. But he tries not to think about that.
"A present? For me? You shouldn't have! Really. Can I open it now or do I have to wait?"
"It isn't quite that sort of gift."
"What is it then?"
Without moving any part of his body with the exception of his torso, Thanos turns in Quasar's direction and gazes upon him sidelong with his terrible black eyes, shadowed beneath the rim of the gold crown-like adornment on his headpiece, tracing his brow. His broad, square face and craggy purple skin is like the side of a cliff. As he speaks, Quasar swears he can almost make out a sparkle of some sort of light within the dark recesses of his eyes, almost as a star seen from light years away.
"Why the only gift worth giving, of course," he says. A smile literally spreads itself the entire length of his blocky face, revealing a set of perfectly white, perfectly straight teeth.