Depending on which circle you happen to get around with, you might know Thanos by any one of his multifarious epithets. Amongst the Kree, for example, he is known as "the dark lord"; the grey-purple-furred A-Chiltarians of the R-Monocerotis system have been inclined in the past to refer to him as the "overmaster"; while certain sects of the Archernonians of the Alpha Ukraine star system have called him "masterlord" or on rare occasions, even "friend". But by far, Quasar's favourite moniker for the living sculpture in purple, blue, and gold standing before him is "the mad Titan." It has a ring to it that the other names lack.
Quasar has never been of the "attack first and ask questions later" school of superheroics. It was, to be sure, his lack of "killer instinct" that made him the ideal candidate for Protector of the Universe in the first place once the position came up for refilling. The quantum bands, themselves, have this tendency to accumulate highly unstable levels of quantum energy unless the wearer has the presence of mind to bleed it off. At least two of the previous owners vaporized themselves. This is something you would not want to witness on a full stomach. For a short while at the start of his career, Quasar figured it was only a matter of time before his molecules decided that they were tired of corporeal cohesion and would simply rectify this inconvenient state of affairs by scattering themselves across the universe like so much bread crumbs. But these days he and the bands exist in a state of perfect symbiosis, and Wendell has, through necessity or through his nature—he's not quite sure which—attained near Buddhahood. He is the Cosmic Buddha. So summoning his vast reserves of Cosmic-Buddha-like patience—he decides that he enjoys this concept—Quasar resolves to play out the mad Titan scenario with a level head.
The thing about Thanos is that he operates on an intellectual level most humans could never even begin to fathom. Take three or four of the better brains on earth and put them together, and maybe you would have one Thanos. Juxtapose this with his alien origin, and you are looking at some serious cultural/intellectual disparity. The bottom line is that you may never know exactly how much of what he says and does can be chalked up to said disparity and how much can be chalked up to what is probably best described as Thanos's "weirdness". But in any case, when the Eternal speaks, Quasar has good sense enough to listen. How much this has to do with the safety of his life and limb is debateable, but he will not deny the existence of a morbid intellectual curiosity.
"I will not waste your time," Thanos begins, "by mincing words. I require a favour. One, I believe, that you are thoroughly qualified to provide." He pauses here and the ear-to-ear smile slides from his face to be replaced by something more difficult to decipher. The strong muscles of his jaw tighten about the crevasse of his mouth as he sucks on the tartness of his next words before spitting them out. "It is an honour, really. It is not often that Thanos requests assistance."
"A favour?" Quasar shoots back. "I'm flattered, T-bone, honestly and truly—but you're not exactly the kind of guy most people are beating down your door to do favours for. Can you give me a reason I should want to?" This is mere bravado. Quasar's hands begin to sweat and he wants to wipe them against the side of his costume. This could, however, be perceived as mortal terror, or if nothing else, a weakness of character. At this moment in time, his greatest asset is what passes for his machismo. If it came to fisticuffs, Quasar might be able to account for himself, but any bookie who knew the score would likely lay long odds on his surviving wholly intact—if at all. Thanos's response chills him to the bone, not least of which because of the casual, almost lazy manner in which he delivers it.
"I suppose I could compel you through duress were it necessary." Threats from the Titan spill as easily from his lips as the phrase "What's for dinner?" might spill from somebody else's. "I have faith that we both realise the undesirability of this eventuality—and furthermore, that it would be wasteful of time and energy." Thanos turns to observe the Earth in rotation on the space station view screen, carelessly presenting his broad back, as if to communicate to Quasar either good faith or a total lack of trepidation. "I resort to force only when unavoidable. However you might construe the meaning of this meeting, I tender this offer out of respect, and because I believe you will find it mutually beneficial. But do not think for a second, whelp, that I would not gladly crush you, body and soul, should you persist in your insolent attempts to annoy me."
"I imagined it would be." Thanos leans over the control panel in front of the view screen and fiddles with the controls. A lumpy planetoid in burnt-sienna replaces the Earth. "I have patched your monitor into the visual receptors on my starship. They are much more advanced than the primitive equipment at your disposal."
"What am I looking at here?"
"You are viewing a moon of planet Sigmus. The name of the moon, itself, as used by its inhabitants would prove unpronounceable to our tongues, so let us call it simply S-Five, as it is the fifth and furthest moon of the gas giant Sigmus. The population is six hundred million. A small number cosmically speaking, but crucially important in this quadrant. S-Five is a mining planetoid."
"What do they mine?"
Thanos spins flat-footed from the viewer to face Quasar. The size and presence—for lack of a better word—of the purple-skinned Eternal would put most humans in mind of a lumbering beast somehow extracted from an old stop-motion monster flick—a shrunken King Kong—which makes his true speed and fluidity of motion almost more disturbing than it otherwise would be. "Super-resilient alloys for the most part. To a lesser extent, naturally occurring crystals used by some for the regulation of matter/anti-matter reactions."
"Gotcha. So what about it?"
"A meteor strike recently set S-Five on an errant orbit away from Sigmus, throwing off the delicate tug-of-war between Sigmus's gravity and the system's star. The gravitational pull of the star will, in time, draw S-Five into its fiery embrace. The inhabitants have the equivalent of two of your weeks before it becomes unliveable."
Quasar, who has been listening sceptically, offers what, to him, seems like an appropriate, four-star solution. "So evacuate the population."
"Six hundred million people? To where? And to what end?" Thanos affects something akin to pained exasperation. "Extraction does not concern me. I make no pretence of being interested in helping them for their own sakes. Clearly, I am not some...cosmic saviour. There are others far more qualified by disposition and abilities to play that role." He pauses for a beat. "You for example." Another beat. "And besides which, evacuation of such a sizeable number is easier said than done."
"I don't get it. What is all of this to you? If you don't care about the people of S-Five, what difference does it make whether they stay or go?"
This indictment draws back to the surface Thanos's Cheshire grin. "In fact, I do care about them, though not, perhaps, in any sense of the word you would acknowledge. They serve my needs. Therefore it is in my best interest to aid them."
Something in Thanos's response has the flavour of deception, but this may be Quasar's personal bias exerting itself. The possibility exists that any perceived deception has been superimposed by Quasar's inherent distrust for the Titan. "Hmm...well, just hold onto your silver tongue for a second there. What are you planning then?"
"I plan to shift S-Five back into its proper orbit around Sigmus."
"Oh-ho! So evacuation is easier said than done, but moving the moon, itself, is a walk in the park?" It occurs to Quasar that he may be overdoing the standoffishness bit, but Thanos's last statement strains even his credulity.
"A simplification, but essentially correct."
"Oh." Quasar is crestfallen—he was sure he had Thanos on that one. "As much as I'd like to help, this seems a little out of my league. Moving planets is a tall order after all. What can I do to correct an errant orbit on my lonesome?"
"Directly? Very little."
"Ah, well—good then! We agree on something." Quasar crosses his arms in a huff. "What do you need me for?"
From behind his mile-wide smile, Thanos appears to be mentally calculating, though the soulless depths of his eyes give nothing away. "Because you can aid me in securing the services of one who can."
"Oh? Got a name for this all-mighty planet mover?"
"He goes by the appellation 'Magneto'. I presume I do not need to go into further detail."
"The self-proclaimed Master of Magnetism? Yahoo!'s 2002 Man of the Year?"
"Don't worry about it. Of course I know Magneto. The thing about Magneto, though, is that he's dead—killed at the massacre of Genosha along with sixteen million other mutants. Are you telling me he escaped? That he's still alive?"
"In a manner of speaking. Though many would debate that his current condition constitutes living. It is...complicated. Only one as...acquainted as I am with Death could understand its true significance. Suffice it to say that he is recoverable."
"Recoverable? Are you saying—?" he catches himself before totally abandoning himself to overreaction, breathes in and out meditatively, and then restarts. Cosmic Buddha. "Okay, slowly now, so I'm sure I know what you're saying here: you're thinking of bringing Magneto back into this universe—never mind how or from where right now—to somehow correct S-Five's errant orbit."
"Can he do that?"
"I intend to find out."
"I suppose 'Will he?' is the better question. Let's just say for a second that this crazy plan of yours to somehow bring Magneto back from the dead—"
"Not death, precisely. Limbo would be more accurate."
"Whatever. Back from limbo then. Let's say we can do this. As far as I know, Magneto is an untreatable megalomaniac. What makes you think he'll be amenable to your plan?"
"Because I have already talked to him about it."
Quasar is completely unprepared for that answer and he raises his eyebrows high, suspecting not for the first time that he might be the butt of a joke that is going way over his head. After a pause that allows for the full weight of Thanos's statement to completely sink into his grey matter, he ventures to question it: "Care to explain that?"
Thanos watches him for a moment, pacific/contemplative/irritated wrapped up in a single, stone-faced expression. "In good time. I see no need to waste my words if you have no intention of agreeing."
"Well, it's like this, Thanos. I mean, even you've got to admit, you're asking a lot. Not only do I have to take your word for it that you haven't got any ulterior motives for the salvation of this planet, but you want me to turn Magneto loose on the galaxy again? There are a lot of people out there who are saying good bye and good riddance, if you know what I mean. I just don't know..."
"Then allow me to sweeten the deal, boy—the boon I mentioned earlier. I believe you are familiar with the being known as the Stranger."
"How could I forget him?" The Stranger earned a permanent spot at the top of Quasar's "cosmic jerk" list when he participated in the abduction of Quasar's girlfriend, Kayla Ballantine. He ruefully thinks of this as the "Star Brand Fiasco."
The Star Brand is a sort of tattoo for tapping into the power of the infinite. Originating in the Omniverse (this is the name Uatu, the Earth's Watcher, used in describing the set of universes and realities outside of the standard Multiverse), Quasar brought a piece of the Star Brand into our universe as a result of a bit of universe-hopping, and a piece of the brand quickly managed to transfer itself over to Kayla Ballantine. Hence the Stranger's interest in her, and hence the reason Quasar will probably never see her again. In the course of events so convoluted he will probably never understand them, the Stranger managed to bring the alternate, Star Brand Earth of the Omniverse into this universe. In the end, the Living Tribunal itself chose to exile Kayla to the Star Brand Earth and quarantined it forever in order to prevent the Star Brand from contaminating the universe at large. And that, in short, is the Star Brand Fiasco.
"Then you know of his laboratory planet, and the planet in orbit," Thanos says.
Quasar gets the distinct impression that the Titan is being rhetorical. The answer comes out timidly. "I have a pretty personal stake in that planet in orbit, so yeah—I know the one."
"Yes, it is my knowledge that you know somebody there whom you would like to recover."
"Not that it's any of your business..."
"I intend to make it my business. If you wish, I can get you in and out."
"Now I know you're pulling my leg. The Living Tribunal sealed that planet in a special force-field—and I mean hermetically—nobody can get in or out."
"The Tribunal, for all its bluster, is...limited by matters of jurisdiction. This is all I can say on the matter now. I must know if you intend to agree to this proposal."
Quasar finds himself utterly nonplussed as a dozen different trains of thought stream through his skull simultaneously and invariably crash into each other. The overriding idea dominating all others is "Don't say no." His silence carries the weight of about a page full of ellipses. Finally, he says: "I think I'm gonna need some time to think on this."
"You have one day," Thanos counters with a ready response. "After that, the offer is withdrawn." A door of some sort rips open from top to bottom across a two-dimensional plane of empty space in the middle of the room. The threshold radiates in shifting tones of aqua and jade and does not seem to actually lead to anywhere as far as Quasar can tell from his vantage point. "Find me just outside of Jupiter when you have made your decision. Decide as you will, but do not try my patience. For while I may be eternal...my patience is not," he says as he disappears into the doorway. Because of the total flatness of the entrance, the effect reminds Quasar of the cartoons he used to watch as a kid. Daffy Duck disappearing behind a sapling he could never possibly squeeze behind. As Thanos's foot crosses the threshold, the door draws shut the same way it opened, like the dropping of Venetian blinds over a dimension tangent to reality.
"Twenty-four hours, huh?" Quasar says to himself, allowing his quantum field to disperse and breathing in the comparatively fresh air of the space station. He suddenly realises that he has been breathing recycled air for the duration of the conversation. There should be a better way to breathe inside his field, he decides, for when he takes his longer sprees through outer space, but he has yet to come up with any clever ideas. "Why do I feel like, against all better judgment, I'm still about to open up this can of worms?" He pauses long enough for a sigh. "But I guess the real question is...why am I standing around talking to myself?"
The Crab Nebula doesn't really look like a crab. It acquired its name in the mid-1800s based on the drawing by William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, which depicted a sort of comet-like body with branching trails of crab-like filamentary appendages. The nebula, itself, would, with time and better telescopes, prove to be far more complex.
Chinese astronomers observed the nascence of this phenomenon in 1054 A.D. when the light of a supernova reached Earth, which would throw a cloud of chemical gasses out into the surrounding cosmos, leaving a spinning neutron star, or the Crab Pulsar, somewhere at the centre. This event has the virtue of being one of a very few actual supernovas witnessed by humans on Earth throughout astronomical history. As a result of this and its ready visibility, it tends to receive a lot of attention—and not just from Earth-based astronomers. As the quantum zone folds up behind Quasar, his blinders automatically kick in in response to the ambient candela, which would probably fry his unshielded retinas. This is a trick he taught his quantum bands after a near-blinding experience around the time of Galactic Storm. The quantum bands are like a computer. They can be programmed to react in certain ways to incoming stimuli or information. With a thought, he constructs a pair of goggles on a head rig to cover his eyes. The lenses gradually polarize to allow a level of acceptable light radiation through, and Quasar begins the search for his goddaughter. From Earth, the Crab Nebula looks like a dense patch of filaments, but once you're actually inside of it, it's about as vacant as any other part of space, except for that bright light that he refuses to look towards. Searching for a human-sized body in the vastness of the nebula would be more or less impossible, but as it turns out, his quantum bands let him out of the quantum zone just about on the money, and he doesn't have to look for long.
"Hiya, Epoch," he says. "How's my little girl doing?"
To refer to Epoch as a little girl is thoroughly preposterous. As the personification of the life force of the universe, Epoch transcends gender, amongst other things. When she manifests in this dimension, however, she has a penchant for assuming the form of a sort of golden cherub, wrapped loosely in the occasional vine, something straight out of one of the more far out Renaissance paintings. It is in this vein, then, that Quasar is inclined to think of her as a little girl, despite her—or its—virtual omnipotence and cosmic awareness, and even though she has never quite behaved like a little girl. In fact, neither Epoch nor her late "mother", Eon, have or had much of a personality whatsoever.
"If you refer to my research into the properties of this nebula, it is quite satisfactory." Epoch seems completely unsurprised to see him, which does not shock Quasar. He wasn't expecting a hug or anything, though he reflects that it would be nice to feel missed.
"Yeah, I'll bet. There are a lot of Earth scientists who would probably wet their pants at an offer to study a real, live pulsar nebula up close. It would put them one step closer to understanding how everything we know came into being."
"Wendell, what is the correlation between scientific exploration and the release of bodily fluids?"
This remark catches Quasar completely by surprise, and he fumbles at his response. "Uhh...well...you'll...understand when you're older."
"I am already, in effect, billions of years old."
"Don't be silly. You were only born a few years ago," he chides.
"But I am aware of everything Eon knew before me."
"A technicality." Quasar beams saccharinely. "Listen, spudling, I was hoping you could help me out with something."
"You are my protector, I shall help in whatever way I can."
"There's a planet called Sigmus. Do you know the one?"
"I know of it."
"The fifth moon—I need to know two things: First, how many people live there? Second, is the current orbit really taking the moon directly into the sun? And how long before the conditions on the planet become unliveable?"
"That was three questions."
"Why, you little—!" Quasar gesticulates with a two-storey tall fist construct, which he shakes with Dick Dastardly-like cartoon menace. "So do you know?"
"Not offhand, but I can find out."
"Great, you're a darling!" Quasar sweeps the little cherub up in his arms and kisses her on the forehead. He swears he may have just caught a glimpse of a smile on her plump toddler's lips. An expression? Emotion? Maybe you can teach an old cosmic entity new tricks, he thinks.
"Wendell," she asks, once she has been safely released from his grip, "may I ask why you require this information?"
"Why do you ask? Just curious?" He has no objection to curiosity, but Epoch has never set any real precedent for concerning herself about the reasons behind his frequent requests for information.
"Yes. I suppose so."
"Wellll, it's something to do with Thanos. I guess you know who I mean—we've run into him a few times."
"He claims he needs me to help him save the lives of the people on that moon, but his story is fishy to say the least of it. And then there's the fact that if I do go along with it—even if it works the way he says—I may still be unleashing an even greater threat to life in the universe than I'd be preventing in the bargain." He exhales as though exhausted and slumps into a plush recliner that materializes directly beneath him. "But still...the repercussions I could take care of if I have to. I guess the real problem is that I just don't know how to take Thanos. What's his game? What's he all about? You know...I don't understand the guy."
At this point Epoch pipes up with an idea beautiful in its simplicity. "Have you considered talking to somebody who does?"
"From the mouths of babes..."
"Epoch, that's brilliant. Why didn't I think of that? But who do I talk to? Don't tell me a guy like Thanos has any friends."
"In a manner of speaking. There are two who come to mind."
"Don't leave me in suspense. Who are they?"
"The first is Gamora, his adopted daughter. The second is the being known as Adam Warlock."
"The green chick and the orange guy?" Quasar isn't so sure he likes the sound of this. He has tussled with Adam Warlock before. It was one of those typical "misunderstanding battles" that seem to happen all the time in Quasar's line of work. Eventually they cleared up the misunderstanding, but the general consensus seems to be that Adam Warlock is a bit on the frigid side. Captain America, in particular, does not like him. And Captain America likes everybody! "So where are they anyway?"
"To my knowledge, they are in a subpocket dimension outside of Time and Space called the Heart of Darkness."
"Uhh...can you draw me a map?"
"You would not be able to get there through conventional means." Epoch says, which throws Quasar for a loop. What does she mean by conventional means? What other means are there?
"So how then?" he inquires.
"I can tell you the location of one who will be able to bring you there," she pauses midthought for a solid beat. "Unconventionally."
Quasar's faint bemusement transforms itself into a crooked smile. This mission just got interesting, he reflects.
To be continued...