"So this is limbo, huh?" Quasar says, his hands at his hips, looking around at...nothing. His companion, the only other visible object as far as the human eye can see, stands out in purples and blues against the totally white backdrop as though he were a cardboard cut-out glued upon a sheet of copy paper. Without context of any kind, Quasar finds that depth perception somehow begins to function differently.
"Is it not what you expected?" Thanos says blankly, concentration superficially divided.
"Well I guess itís pretty much how you described it. Itís just...well, maybe you can never really prepare yourself for utter nothingness. Itís so strange—like somebody forgot to draw in the rest of the pictures."
"A quaint description."
"Yeah, yeah. Itís still amazing to me you can track Magneto down without any sort of visual environment to navigate."
"We should count our blessings—it is actually quite easy. Specific human brain activity would be far more difficult for my computers to home in on almost anywhere else."
"Since you bring it up, I meant to ask you about that. Isnít the reason weíre wearing these funny headsets because our brains would shut down in limbo otherwise?"
"Shut down is a rather clumsy explanation. I miscommunicated the exact extent to which we would be incapacitated without mental shielding. Think of it more like a state of undreaming sleep. Your brain would still be busy producing alpha waves, but your presence of mind would be spread so thin that at best you might have some vague sense of your own existence."
"So...just to be sure exactly what I can expect—Magneto is some kind of drooling, vegetative prisoner here then?"
"More or less."
"Thatís another thing I donít get. Why him of everybody who has ever died?" One of Thanosís gauntlets produces a beeping sound, and Thanos begins moving swiftly and with determination toward someplace unseen. Quasar has to chase after him as Thanos responds to his question.
"You are assuming that Magneto was killed that day in Genosha."
"You mean he wasnít?"
"Did they find a body?" Thanos says, his ivory-white teeth, so brilliant elsewhere, blend in with the background here and lose their definition when seen in profile.
"Uh, no, I guess youíre right about that. But still—"
"The people who run this corner of reality have a strange sense of humour," he elaborates. "They like to collect things. More specifically, they like to collect people just before their death."
"Will just anybody do, or is there some prerequisite?"
"Generally speaking, they desire certain of the more powerful beings, but not exclusively or wholly. They offer them a choice."
"Drooling, vegetative imprisonment, to use your term...or judgment."
"Wait a second, big T. What are you saying? That when we die we really do have to face some sort of divine judge that determines whether weíre eternally damned or eternally saved?"
"I said nothing of the sort."
"Then what did you say?"
"This is a discussion we cannot have."
"Oh, I get it. More secrets. Itís no wonder you donít have more friends; you donít really inspire trust."
Thanos sighs not quite imperceptibly. "It has nothing to do with being secretive. In order to discuss this, you would have to have died, yourself, as I have."
Quasar shakes his head, dismayed. "Then I guess weíll have to save this discussion for another time. Iíll look you up when Iím in the next world."
Thanos chuckles. Naturally his sense of humour is morbid, and his laugh, itself, is comparable to the rumble of a mild rockslide, but that he can laugh at all is somewhat relieving. To Quasarís memory, this is the first time Thanos has ever expressed any sort of evidence of a sense of humour—despite the almost ever-present grin.
"So why do they do it?" Quasar asks. "I mean, who runs this place?"
"Do not attempt to understand their motivations. It would be impossible for you. Suffice it to say that they do it."
"But how do they get away with it? Doesnít Mistress Death have anything to say about it?"
"You know of Mistress Death?"
"Iíve had some run-ins with her manifestations."
"Well, well. You continue to surprise me, Quasar," he says, not sounding particularly amused about it, or surprised for that matter. "They get away with it because this Ďlimboí, as I have dubbed it, exists outside of the material universe embodied by Eternity and Death. I originally came here to escape...Her," he says, clearly referring to Death, itself (or is it herself?). "I was insulted. Searching for a way to hurt Her—as though such a thing were possible. Instead I discovered this universal crossroads. Connected to many aspects of reality, but, itself, separate from it."
"And this is what you meant by the limits to the Living Tribunalís jurisdiction?"
"Yes. The Tribunalís authority extends only over the material multiverses."
"Thatís incredible. I thought that the LT was basically the most powerful guy around."
"Everything has its limits, Quasar," Thanos says, then stops abruptly. "We are almost there. We had best prepare."
Infinite and powerful, he stands his guard as he has for nearly as long as he can remember. One of the appointed guardians of the nexus outside of the realm of known reality, the rules of this nothingness largely bend to his shaping. This limbo is, in a way, an extension of himself, and within it, his every whim is reality. But this is a boring existence and a lonely one. It is, then, natural that his heart, or whatever passes for his heart, races when the blocky purple figure, fitted out cap-a-pie in a navy blue body armour, presents itself.
"Have you come to speak again with your friend, Lord Thanos?" he asks.
"That brings up an interesting question, Timeless One," Thanos says, stopping within a few inches of the other. Timeless One is the name he provided to Thanos the first time their paths crossed in limbo. It may or may not be intrinsically accurate, though it is probably, if nothing else, close enough. As a guardian of this plane of unreality, time would almost certainly have a different meaning to him, if it had any meaning at all. The Timeless Oneís potential mastery over all that is within this plane, would never be betrayed by his physical appearance, which is of a rosy-cheeked youth. A joke of his, perhaps? Or his actual appearance? Both possibilities are equally likely, and made even more curious in either case by the boyís ostensible immaturity. A timeless being should, to the Titanís mind, exhibit some modicum of wisdom and reasoned composure. Fixing the boy with a domineering stare, he continues. "Why is it that you have allowed me to come here and converse with your prisoner?"
"Why not? Itís so rare that we get visitors," the Timeless One laughs gaily.
"And if I were to attempt to free this one from your imprisonment?"
"Uhh...maybe in your dreams, buck-o! I hate to break it to you, but I ainít afraid of you."
"Many fear me. Perhaps it would be wise for you to do the same."
"Puh-lease. You may be big league on the outside, but in here youíre a minor threat at best, buddy boy."
"You sound so sure of that," Thanos says.
"Maybe youíd like to give it a try?" the Timeless One says puckishly.
"How would you possibly hope to stop me? On our first encounter, I conducted extensive diagnostic surveys, which I have had years to study. And having analysed your power signature, I submit that I could swat you like a fly."
"Perhaps," a voice says from behind Thanos. He turns to find an exact duplicate of the Timeless One. But could you swat two of us?"
"Fascinating. You can multiply then?"
"Youíre almost there," the original boy says. "To be exact, I can be anywhere in time."
The second boy carries on. "Iím from a point in time subsequent to this moment. I knew you were going to be here because, for me, this has already happened. Of course...last time I was him," he says, pointing to the other. "As one whoís held complete mastery of time, space, and reality in the past—you see, even here we know all about you, Thanos—Iím sure you can understand what weíre saying."
"The memories of omnipotence are dim, though not that dim. Not only do I understand, but I anticipated this."
"I knew you would say that," the second boy says. "But you knew I knew, didnít you? We may as well get this over with. Itís never as fun the second time around. Or the third or fourth for that matter. I know everything already."
"Then you know that Thanos of Titan has never been able to resist a challenge," Thanos says. His gauntlets commence to build up a head of cosmic energy. In the next moment, an army of Timeless Ones is literally falling upon him.
Quasar ducks beneath a stray stream of erratic cosmic energy. The multitudinous Timeless Ones swarm over Thanos, who fends them off stolidly, and not doing too bad a job of staying one step ahead of the blitzkrieg, however inevitable his defeat. In the end, he may as well be one of the Pharaohís men attempting to fight back the crushing weight of the Red Sea. But for the time being, the Titan is keeping them at bay. Thanos has made his move, which indicates that itís time for Quasar to make his own.
Quasarís invisibility trick seems to be working well so far, which is a relief, because he wasnít truly sure if he would be able to pull it off outside the realm of known reality. And besides which, it is not something he has ever seriously attempted to maintain for a long time before. The ability to make something disappear is simple in theory. He employs this trick all the time in order to camouflage his quantum bands when walking around in public—he bends light around them so that they appear invisible. Think the Predator movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger would be proud. This stands up to all but the closest scrutiny, at which point a careful observer would notice a hint of refraction. Bending light around a pair of bracelets, however, takes considerably less control than bending it around his entire body—and this isnít even half of what he is going to have to pull off before the end of the day.
He sees Magneto, sitting slumped like a rag doll in a sort of featureless throne that would appear to be a part of the landscape. Magneto is completely oblivious to the battle for his freedom that is being waged within shouting distance of his position. Quasar would recognize this costume anywhere. Burgundy, flexible metal garment—like a light chain mail—with purple boots and gloves. A simple but imposing design. The red-dyed adamantium helmet, typically hiding the better part of his face, is missing, but thereís no mistaking the man beneath. Quasar looks into the steely gray eyes of this mad man he is about to set free, and he attempts to read something within them. Futilely. Mentally incapacitated as Magneto is, his eyes stare straight ahead in an expression of something akin to a childlike or idiotic stupor. As Quasar wonders to himself whether or not he really knows what he is doing, he is already doing it. But this is the way with men of action, who often find themselves doing even before they have realized they have already made the decision to do it.
The quantum bands have begun constructing a shell around Magneto, very thin at first, like a second layer of skin building upon his body, taking on the properties of whatever lies underneath. The effect of the cast construction is so subtle that even Quasar can barely notice it being effected. When the quantum bands have completed that task, he makes the cast porous enough to allow the molecules of the real Magneto underneath to slip through without collision. Intangibility. And no matter what Vision says, Quasar was using this idea long before he ever saw his android and fellow Avenger doing it. As Quasar draws the real Magneto through with a sort of tractor beam from his quantum bands, he exercises every measure of mental control in order to perform the same invisibility trick on the Master of Magnetism that he has used on himself. This feels like a very slow process, but it could not take more than ten seconds. The invisible, yet still incapacitated Magneto floating on a quantum tow cable beside him, Quasar completely blocks out the sounds of the battle behind him and focuses carefully on his next task, which is to make this cast of Magneto into a believable replica. This, really, should not be that hard. Quasar has constructed far more complex instruments out of quantum energy, but the idea of it is a bit intimidating. Replicating a human! This has to be a work of art. If not for Magnetoís mental, and therefore physical, incapacitation, this could be a lot harder. As it is, all this dummy needs is, essentially, to be filled in and given some sort of illusion of breathing—the faintest hint of life. When this is accomplished, he has replaced one rag doll with another, and with any luck, nobody will ever be the wiser. And if somebody is going to catch on, they probably would have attempted to stop him by now. Right? Still, that is no reason to get cocky.
Magneto in tow, Quasar moves away from the action and sends a signal to Thanos to end the battle. Mission accomplished.
"Enough!" the Titan roars, and the surreal army of cherubic guardians backs off, realizing that the skirmish has ended. They begin disappearing one-by-one until only the original remains. At least Thanos assumes him to be the original. He really has no proof one way or the other.
"So you see, Lord Thanos, that you never stood a chance," the boy speaks, grinning.
Thanos checks his body armour. Smouldering but still in one piece. He puts a heavy thumb to the pad on the underside of his right hand and massages it, testing his knuckles in the process.
"I see now that I was mistaken in believing I could ever flout your eternal vigilance," he says calmly.
"So will you be talking to your friend or what?"
"No, this one means nothing to me, Timeless One. Simply part of a game."
"Sorry to hear that."
"Why is that?"
"It was good to have a visitor. I havenít had this much fun in ages." Thanos says nothing. The Timeless One looks to him expectantly for a moment before shrugging his narrow shoulders and saying: "Well, farewell then, Lord Thanos. Hereís hoping we meet again."
With a crooked smile and a half bow, Thanos takes his leave.
"Where do you think you are?" a heavy voice says, but Magneto cannot think whom it could belong to.
Glancing in the direction of the voice, he can only make out a purple blob, like a giant Technicolor amoeba. Staring blankly at the amoeba for some time, the image eventually begins to resolve itself. Suddenly Magneto makes the connection.
"I. Thanos," Thanos replies. "Now you remember."
"How long have I been gone? Is this Earth? Why do I feel so weak? Answer me if you value your life."
"Ah, such pluck, even in such a depleted and vulnerable position. To answer your questions: Long enough. Technically. And because you have spent a good deal of time in a state of near-death and paralysis. I believe this will be enough for now. And I trust you remember our bargain?"
"Itís...coming back to me, Titan. Something about...moving a planet, no?" he says. Thanos nods. "A role for which only I am powerful enough, and which the Master of Magnetism will gladly perform as repayment for his freedom."
"What is it about all of you megalomaniacal types that you have to speak about yourself in the third person?" Magneto is surprised by the intrusion of a new voice and turns to see that damned holier-than-thou Avenger known as Quasar standing off to his other side.
Thanos smiles shark-like. "Perhaps you should try it some time, Quasar. But enough talk. Can you walk?" he says, addressing Magneto. Magneto nods and gets to his feet shakily. "Then we should try to spend as little time here as possible lest the Living Tribunal realizes weíre here."
"The Living What?" Magneto asks.
"The manifestation of the abstraction of universal law and justice. I would not expect you to understand. Come, we have business to take care of here."
And there she is. Right there. Just like that and just as he remembers, with that top-heavy petit physique and that shock of amazing tangerine-coloured hair. It seems unbelievable to him. Like a dream. He had resigned himself to the fact that he would never see Kayla Ballantine again. Ever. And suddenly, with the help of Thanos—the mad Titan, of all people—he has slipped through the nearly unthinkable crack in the Living Tribunalís quarantine of this alternate Earth, and there she is, crouching amidst a flower garden in the backyard of what he would assume to be her house, sowing seeds in the dirt. Quasar sets down noiselessly behind her, Thanos and Magneto following at a distance. What can he possibly say to make up for the Star Brand Fiasco? How can he redeem himself for abandoning her?
"Can you ever forgive me?" he says, and she turns around immediately with a look of pure shock across her face.
"Wendell?" she says stupidly, clearly mystified by his impossible reappearance. "Wendell, how did you—?"
"Itís a long story, Kayla, and Iíd love to tell you about it, but weíre a little rushed."
"We?" she says, and then she notices Thanos and Magneto as they wordlessly slither into view. Her mouth drops open.
"Say hi to...uhh...my travelling partners."
"A long story indeed!" she says.
"Yeah, and I promise youíll hear everything as soon as we get out of here, but first Iíve got to contact Epoch and let her know the score," he says, looking down into one of the jewels in his quantum band, but to no effect. Epoch isnít answering. "Thatís weird. Iíve never known Epoch to be out of touch before." Looking back in Kaylaís direction, he sees that she has passed out in Thanosís arms, which seems wrong for so many reasons. A secondís longer observation and he notices that Thanos has placed some sort of band around her head, over her eyes. If he didnít know better, Kayla would appear to be sleeping peacefully. Naturally he knows better. And Thanos does not wait for the inexorable inquisition.
"For her own protection," the Titan says. Then laying her carefully down off to his side, he pulls out an identical set of headgear and begins stalking towards Quasar. "Now for yours."
At this, Thanos is propelled by a battering ram of solid force through the nearest stone building.
"I knew it!" Quasar hollers as Thanos scrabbles out from the debris. "I tried to believe you really had good intentions this time—I really did—but I should have trusted my instincts. Youíre one of the bad guys, Thanos, and you always will be!"
"Enough talking, boy. Action is the universal language." And he erupts into a giant ball of cosmic radiation. The hastily constructed quantum shield around Quasar and Kaylaís prone form is barely holding up, and for some reason, Quasar is having trouble siphoning off and refocusing the Titanís cosmic energy the way he should be able to. A minute passes and Thanosís attack is relentless, and despite his best efforts, Quasar simply canít marshal the energy to effect a substantial offensive. As he sees it, he only has one choice, and that choice is to quantum jump to a safe distance where he can regroup. So even as he fights against the unyielding energies of his attacker, he gathers up Kayla in his arms and prepares to quantum jump from inside of his force bubble. And...nothing happens.
In the meantime he has broken into a healthy sweat and it is looking increasingly as though nothing he does is going to save them, when unexpectedly, the onslaught ceases. Woozily, he struggles to regain his balance, not wasting a moment of his reprieve. With Kayla in his arms, he makes to fly away, but ends up collapsing chin-first into the singed dirt of the flower garden after about two seconds of shaky levitation. As Thanos advances upon him grimly, head gismo in hand, Quasar cannot even muster the strength to back him off with a well-composed threat. Weakly he gasps:
"We had...a deal."
"We still do. Thanos is ever a man of his word. Unfortunately, I have found it necessary to make other deals, as well."
Then something unbearably strange happens. The Quantum bands slide from his wrists. They shouldnít be able to do that. They should never come off once theyíve been equipped. But they float right off his wrists and directly into the hands of...Magneto, about whom Quasar had practically forgotten.
"Indeed, Quasar. You forget that he also had to deal...with me."
His last sensation is of something being slid down around the head. And then there is blackness. Oblivion. And you can never prepare yourself for utter nothingness.
To be continued...
Next Issue: Come back next month for further proof that you can never trust a magalomaniacal supervillain.