Issue No. 5
April 2003

Loose Endings: Part Four

"Dirty Tricks for Dirty Players"

Writer: Justin Blum

"—ming through now."

"Wha—? Oy, my achiní—"

"I thought you might want to see this?" The voice is unmistakably Thanos.

"How come Iím not dead?" Quasar asks. He takes a look around just to confirm what he already knows—that he is no longer on the alternate Earth from which they were plucking Kayla. The scene is utterly sterile. Metallic. Manmade. Thanosís space ship, Sanctuary III. This is a familiar venue. It couldnít have been more than a day (Unless...? How long had he been out?) since he had dropped in on Thanos and accepted the proposition. That damned if you do, damned if you donít proposition. Help spring Magneto, the Master of Magnetism, from so-called limbo in order to save a doomed planet. Rescue ex-girlfriend from quarantine in the bargain. Good chance to put everything right with the world. Somewhat believable chance of having to contain a potential madman who just happens to be one of the most powerful mutants in the world. And it sounded like such a good plan at the time. Whatís more confusing is that everything seemed to be on the up and up. Then there was that unprovoked attack by Thanos and—oh god...the quantum bands!

"Dead? Would you prefer to be? It would be so easy for me to end you, boy." Is this more of that morbid humour? In any case, it isnít particularly funny.

"Hey now—letís not be hasty! Just—what happened?"

"How do you feel?"

"Come again?"

"A simple question, I believe. How do you feel?"

"I feel..." What is that feeling? It isnít quite like physical injury, but something else. Psychic pain, perhaps—something is missing. And then it occurs to him and he is sullen. Or more sullen. "Normal. So it wasnít just a bad dream. You really did steal the quantum bands. But I still donít get how."

"All in good time. Magneto is field testing them as we speak. As I was saying, I thought you might want to see this," and he gestures to the viewport, through which can be seen Magneto honing his atrophied talents within an asteroid belt. The point of note, however, would be that Magneto is in deep space without any of the customary regalia. Then, squinting, Quasar can see it: the slight hint of a yellow force field surrounding his body.

"So itís true then," Quasar says, heaving a sigh. "Youíve given possibly the most powerful weapons in the cosmos to a dogmatic lunatic."

"It was necessary to assure the success of my plan. You asked me once if Magnetoís abilities were enough to move a planet. The short answer is no. Not unamplified. But with the quantum bands..."

"Of course," he says drearily, dreamily, everything starting to come together. The quantum bands, amongst other things, allow the wearer to massively manipulate all forms of energy in the electromagnetic spectrum. So put together a guy whoís biochemistry makes him a master of magnetism with the quantum bands, and youíve got somebody who can—for all intents and purposes—locally alter the laws of physics, themselves, if he puts his mind to it. "Power to rival an act of God." Outside the viewport, two asteroids, each about the size of Delaware, dance around each other, precariously passing each other by mere feet, or even inches. Distance is actually impossible to gauge at this distance. It could, in fact, be miles. But in other words, they repeatedly come darn close to collision. Magneto, who directs their silent dance as though he were a maestro conducting an orchestra, brings them suddenly smashing together. Thanos merely grins. Quasar says, "But that still doesnít explain how."

"If you think about it, Iím sure you can figure it out. Youíre quite intuitive, Quasar. A rare trait in humans. But you should have put two and two together when you attempted to contact...Epoch, is it?"

"What about her? She wasnít responding."

"Yes. How odd."

"Thatís an understatement. Epoch is aligned with the axis of the galaxy and like the quantum bands derives her power from the quantum zone, itself. So the only way she could possibly be out of touch is if—" The explanation dawns on him like a kick to the groin. "Oy vey ismier! Donít tell me. The only way she could be out of touch is if I lost access to the quantum zone. And thatís only happened one time before: the first time I got stuck on that particular version of Earth. But that was when it was still outside of the multiverse embodied by Eternity."

"The Living Tribunal did its job almost too well," Thanos says. "When it quarantined that Earth—letís call it the New Universe Earth—from the rest of our universe after it had been pulled into ours, the Tribunal kept in tact all of the physical laws of the universe from which it derived. This, regretfully, goes even beyond my current understanding. I doubt it is even comprehendible to any being short of a Celestial, but I relish the notion of continuing my search for an explanation. Suffice to say that for now it was good enough for me merely to recognize this peculiar property when I first stumbled upon access to the New Universe Earth. From there it was only a matter of luring you there and draining your reserves until Magneto, using his unique relationship with electromagnetism, could liberate them from you."

Quasar grinds his teeth, rankled by his own gullibility. "Thanos, this is crazy even for you."

"Save your indignation. I said before that Thanos is a man of his word. Did I not keep my bargain with you?" For the first time since coming to, Quasar remembers the part where he got Kayla mixed up in this, and he spins around and locates her immobile, slumped in a something like a metallic high chair. Her carrot top has fallen down over her face leaving only one eye partially revealed. She looks to be, for all anybody might tell, resting. Thanos, always a step ahead, as though residing telepathically inside his brain (is telepathy really out of the question?), says, "Still in stasis sleep. All of her bodily functions are frozen, even down to the level of cellular decay. She is sleeping a dreamless sleep. Oblivion. As you well know."

"I know the experience first hand! You said it was for my protection when you put me under." He laughs sardonically.

"Perhaps you forget that your body still contained the mass of Ego, the Living Planet."

"Contained? As in past tense?"

"The energy of the quantum bands was the only thing keeping the mass of Ego penned up within you. That gone, it was poised to re-form itself and escape, and it probably would have killed you in the process. I had to put you in stasis until I could get you to my ship, where I performed, shall we say, the first ever mondectomy—the removal of a planet from the human body." Thanos has behaved fairly aloof throughout the course of the conversation, which is odd for the Titan who typically swings between poles of grim portentousness and an unsettling brand of self-satisfaction. The meaning of such behaviour is inexplicable to Quasar, though he supposes it could mean nothing at all.

"And I guess you plan to experiment on Ego to suit your gruesome curiosity? Or better yet, perhaps, just for laughs youíre going to set him loose again and see who heíll destroy first."

"I should think that my plans for the Living Planet are none of your concern. Nor do I require your approval. But, Quasar, I am chagrinned. After all that I have done for you, is it too much to expect some gratitude?" Thanos brims with self-contentment. "You may feel free to thank me any time."

"Thank YOU?"

"For relieving you of the burden of carrying around that planet within you. For reuniting you with your...lost love, shall we say?"

"And at what cost?" Quasar spits out in response, the bile bubbling up inside of him.

"An insignificant one, I should say, considering what youíve gained. Freedom, my dear Quasar. Freedom to go home. Freedom from the complications of your erstwhile position as Protector of the Universe. The chance to be happy with a woman you love. These are not gifts to be taken lightly. Owing to my singularly dark nature, I have never known...happiness. For countless centuries Iíve striven to fill that hole in my being, and failing that I sought to substitute power for happiness." He pauses and gazes through the viewport pensively. "I am not fool enough to think I would give up my power and all I possess in exchange for anything. Thanos of Titan has no regrets. But a way I envy you. In the end, when all is said and done, I wonder which one of us will come out truly ahead."

Quasar must go into a sort of trance staring through the viewport, because only when he snaps out of it does he realize that a good five minutes have passed since Thanosís last statement. The Titanís gravel-like voice startles him out of his semi-hypnotic state.

"Magneto is coming back aboard Sanctuary. Our next stop is Sigmus."

Her eyelids flutter as life quickly pours back into her. "Wendell?" Her voice is concerned but steady, as befits somebody accustomed to finding herself in unusual situations. When Kayla first showed up at Wendell Vaughnís security firm looking to fill the secretarial position, she was self-assured and assertive, but still somewhat easily intimidated. Whatever fragility of character, however vestigial, existed back then has long since vanished. Maybe it was having a superhero for a boyfriend. Or perhaps it was her own stint as a superhero owing to the power of the Star Brand. And what about the Star Brand? Does she still possess it? It is, after all, the reason that the Living Tribunal exiled her to the New Universe Earth. "Youíve got some explaining to do," she says coolly, sliding uneasily from her chair. Quasar helps her to stay on her feet.

"I know. I know. But where can I start?"

"You can start by telling me where we are."

"Thanosís space ship," Quasar replies. "Orbiting Sigmus. A planet with an inhabited moon that is falling into the sun. To make a long story short, the idea is that we let Magneto out here and he uses his powers over magnetism to draw the moon, S-5, back into the gravitational influence of Sigmus."

"Thatís incredible! How can he be so powerful? To move a planet! It boggles the old gray matter, you know what I mean?"

"Well, uhh..." Quasar falters, "heís actually got an ace up his sleeve." Raising his arms up in front of Kaylaís face, he chuckles self-consciously. "So to speak."

"Your quantum bands!"

"My quantum bands, Miss Ballantine." Magneto is standing behind her. Hovering, actually. Itís this thing he does. Quasar once read an interesting bit in Magnetoís intelligence dossier that attempted to get at the bottom of just how he effects this levitation act. The current theory is that by creating an intensely strong magnetic field around himself, he can, in essence, repel himself into the air. This is based on the properties of diamagnetism. In short form, water is slightly diamagnetic and thus repelled by magnetic poles, and since the human body is largely composed of water...voila. Levitation sans all the smoke and mirrors. This will do in a pinch, but Quasar also realizes that more often this trick is performed as a result of the myriad slivers of metal sewn into Magnetoís costume, which create a sort of mesh mail. Pliable but tough at the same time, not to mention easily manipulated if you happen to have vast control over magnetism. In a fully metal environment, such as the Sanctuary III, Magneto can easily hover himself just about anywhere.

"But how—?"

"A simple case of mind over matter."

"Donít forget to mention how you waited until I was cut off from the quantum zone. Pretty devious, since the q-zone is what kept the bands bonded to me."

"Forget? How could I forget how easily duped you were?"

Quasar bites his tongue and almost hisses between his teeth.

"I must admit, Quasar, that these tools of yours are quite remarkable," Magneto says, creating various quantum constructs in the palm of his hand and then evaporating them. First a block, then an tree, then an elephant, and then at last an action-figured sized replica of himself, complete with the bell-shaped helmet he typically wears, but which has been missing since Thanos and Quasar retrieved him from limbo. "I thought I knew power before, but I realize now I was just scratching the surface. To have control over electromagnetic energy itself at the quantum level...itís fantastic. And yet...these bands are simply what I said they are, arenít they? Merely tools. Without them I would still be Magneto. But you...without them youíre just Wendell, arenít you? I does it feel to be so...normal?" Magneto grins carnivorously, like a predator that has its prey fenced in and cornered. Their extremely one-sided discussion is interrupted by Thanosís arrival.

"If youíre quite done, weíre in position. Time to put things back the way they belong."

Through the viewport the three of them, Thanos, Quasar, and Kayla, watch as Magneto prepares to do the unthinkable. And—as Quasar is beginning to recognize as Magnetoís custom—he begins by raising his arms in that familiar pose of an orchestral conductor about to signal the opening notes of a symphony. Quasar wonders what goes through a man such as Magnetoís head before he attempts to perform some magnificent act of will and discipline. Does fear ever enter his mind? Concern? Lack of surety? Or does he make his mind a total blank? Meditation. Or perhaps he hears music. While Quasar wonders, space is warping.

Or at least, Quasar could swear space is warping. His perspective view on the starfield behind Magneto seems to turn suddenly convex, then back to normal almost as suddenly.

"I canít believe it," Quasar says, as the rocky, sienna mass of S-5 begins to, visibly now—he suspects it might already have been moving imperceptibly—draw closer to Sigmus. "I see it but I donít believe it."

Kayla leans closer to Wendell and speaks softly into his ear, presumably to prevent Thanos from hearing her words. "Listen, Wendell...when this is all over and everythingís hunky-dory, Iíve got something to tell you."

"Why canít you tell me now?" he whispers back.

"Humour me, okay?"

Giving her a raised eyebrow look, he shrugs his shoulders as if to say, "Have it your way." At the same time, Thanos is speaking through the radio transceiver to Magneto.

"Almost there. Slow it down. No, slower. Stop it there. Thatís perfect. Come back aboard. Weíre done."

Five minutes later Magneto is back within the cabin on the bridge of Sanctuary.

"Quite impressive," Thanos is saying. "I would be lying if I said I did not have my doubts."

"I suppose youíll think twice next time about doubting my abilities."

Thanos shoots him an interrogative glower. "Indeed. Back to Earth, then."

"Iíve been noticing, Thanos, that most of this shipís functions seem to be automated."

"For all intents and purposes, this ship is fully automated. There is no crew, so to speak, apart from my robots."

"Fascinating. How long then until we reach Earth?"

"Twenty hours, to use Earth units."

"Good. It is time I reclaimed what is mine."

Quasar interrupts. "I hate to break it to you, but Genoshaís a ghost town these days. Thereís nothing left."

"Genosha? What do I need with Genosha when I have a star ship?"

Without warning a collection of panels from the bridge bulkhead wrap themselves taut around Thanosís massive body. Thanos flashes a terrific grin.

"Ah, so your hand is played. As I knew it would be." In spite of his predicament, Thanos is ostensibly unconcerned. "And tell me, what will you do with my star ship when you get to Earth?"

It becomes Magnetoís turn to match Thanosís face-spanning smile. "I really should thank you, Thanos, for helping me to acquire these quantum bands and giving me time and practice enough to master their use."

"Gratitude. Do you see, Quasar, how easily even he gives it?"

"Shut up. You asked me what I intend to do, so I give you your answer: anything I want. I have scores to settle. Iím sure you can understand. Old wounds to mend. Places to go and people to kill. But as for the latter part, I think I shall start with you three."

Kayla pipes up, nonchalantly at first, "Revenge and terror. Same old story."

"Interesting. The control wishes to challenge me. You know, my dear," he begins, almost kindly, taking his attention off of Thanos and gracefully floating in Kaylaís direction, "at this point most people would be pleading with me for their lives."

"Plead with you? I wouldnít give you the satisfaction. Your type always demands submission, and not a one of your deserves it."

"Indeed? And what is my type?"

"Iíve been trying to figure it out exactly. Either youíre so insecure and full of self-loathing that instilling fear is the only thing that makes you feel worthwhile, or youíve got such magnificent delusions of grandeur that you need to be worshipped as a god. In either case, youíre a pretty sick puppy."

Magnetoís steely eyes waver momentarily. Monotone, he tells Kayla to "Shut up."

Kaylaís mood is getting hotter. "You self-righteous, pea-brained blowhard. You donít even realize the utter hypocrisy of your extremist crusade. Let me put it to you straight, Magneto, in small words that youíll understand: you are a monster. I donít know what happened that turned you into a raving psychopath—maybe mommy and daddy really wanted a girl, or maybe none of the other kids wanted to play with you, or maybe you were just plain born this way—but youíre seriously whacked! And nobody feels sorry for you, no matter how often and how loudly you cry for help."

"Shut...up" Magneto fumes. Quasar is absolutely staggered by Kaylaís brazen display of temper.

"I wonít shut up, you dim-witted excuse for a soapbox prophet. You think youíve got the answer to all thatís wrong with the world? Well how can you understand anything when youíre bereft of even the smallest shred of humanity?"

"As I have so often tried to tell you people," he seethes, lifting his imaginary conducting wand in the air, "I...," the ship moans like some prehistoric beast, "am...," more moaning (a prehistoric beast in labour?), "not...," a crunching sound now followed by a high-pitched shriek, "human!"

A section of the starboard bulkhead of the cabin tears away depressurizing the bridge and immediately sucking the gift-wrapped Thanos out through the opening. Quasar grabs a hold of the armrest of a metal chair with one hand and with the other hand, latches on to Kaylaís arm, not knowing what he hopes to achieve, and realizing that ultimately, they are both going to follow Thanos out into the vacuum of space. Unlike, Thanos, however, Quasarís unprotected body cannot withstand a vacuum. But in the meantime, Magneto has stepped directly in front of them, securely fastened to the cabinís floor. Over the howl of the depressurization, he leans close and loudly but calmly says, "I am superior." With that the chair tears out from the floor to which it was fastened and Quasar and Kayla are flying through the gaping hole in the bulkhead, as Magneto is already using his control over magnetism to repair it.

And then theyíre inside again. But in a different part of the ship. The explanation becomes readily apparent.

"Pip the Troll," Quasar says. Pip is disrobing from the space gear within which he had sealed himself before recovering Quasar and Kayla from outer space. "I never thought Iíd be so happy to see you again!"

"Yeah, donít mention it," Pip says off-handedly, withdrawing a cigar from the inside pocket of his sleeveless jacket.

Thanos stomps forward from their rear and casually brushes them aside. "Why you cretinous little toad. I donít remember asking for your help. Do you really think I canít handle my own problems?"

"Easy does it, big man. I was asked to keep an eye on Quasar here, so thatís what I was doiní. Holy spit! I mean ya save a manís life..." He goes to strike a cigarette, but the tip of his stogie ignites with a giant flame produced by the heat of Thanosís eye beams—a trick of Thanosís that is too weird and too complicated to explain. Pip pulls the stogie from his lips and waves off the flame, then sticks it back at the side of his mouth and starts lightly puffing on it. "Thanks."

"I donít get it, Pipster. You were asked to keep an eye on me? By whom?"

"Little girl about yea high. Gold skin. Curly hair. Covered in moss. You know her?"

"Epoch! Thatís my girl. But I donít get it. Kayla, all of that talk back there trying to get under Magnetoís skin..."

"Yeah, about that. I admit it—I stole that bit from James Bond. You should know, Wendell. You were the one who forced me to watch Dr. No."

"You told me you hated that movie!"

"I did, but Bond had the right idea. Force the bad guy to do something rash. I knew if we could convince him he had killed us, it would buy us time to come up with a plan of attack."

"But how did you know Pip was going to come along to pull our fat out of the fire?"

"I didnít."


"Hold that thought, hero. Uhh...Pip, is it? Did Epoch have any info to pass along?"

"Nah, just that if goldilocks doesnít get his quantum bands back, thereís gonna be hell to pay. Ya know, that old line."

"Get them back?" Quasar says. "But once theyíve been put on, thereís no way to get them off. Heck, the only reason I ever got them in the first place is because the last guy up and disintegrated himself when he couldnít handle the energy build up. And I mean—"

"I know that look," Kayla says smugly. "The manís got an idea."

"I donít really like our options, but itís the best Iíve got. I guess I can deal with the moral ramifications later on. Thanos, are you willing to play along?"

"Whatever will rid me of that troublesome gnat attempting to commandeer Sanctuary."

"Good deal. I think this should sound familiar to you then, but letís put our heads together and see if we canít make this plan really sing."

With a crack like lightning, a barrage of purplish plasma crashes against Magnetoís quantum shell and drives him back a solid four feet.

"Thanos!" he yells out, extending the shell around him. "I should have known I couldnít get rid of you that easily. Ah well. If I canít kill you the old-fashioned way, Iíve yet got a whole new set of tricks up my sleeve. For example," he contracts the field, crosses his arms in front of his face, and begins trudging forward, all the while Thanosís energies are flowing directly into the quantum bands, "did you know that these quantum bands can drain off and absorb your cosmic energies and use them to synthesize its own form of quantum energy? In fact, if we went at this long enough, I think I could probably bleed you dry."

Thanos presses on in his uniquely stolid manner, completely unphased by Magnetoís prattle, remaining utterly wordless until Magneto has come almost face-to-face with him. In such close quarters, he can really bare his fangs, so to speak. "So you think to usurp the energies of Thanos, foolish pup? Allow me to suggest, then, that you may be biting off more than you can chew."

Thanosís assault triples in intensity, and his body, itself, seems to be radiating energy like a white star. The effect is blinding. This renewed effort knocks Magneto back to the bulkhead, but he remains on his feet and recommences his willful stalking towards Thanosís person. Slowly but surely he again comes within spitting distance of the Titan, neither man willing to give an inch.

And then the Titan laughs. It is an extremely wicked laugh, but not in a cartoonish, black-hatted, moustache-twirling villain way. More in the area of he just thought of a good punchline to a joke that he already knows would go way over your head.

"Donít laugh at me, Thanos!"

"Youíre looking a bit peaked. Are you sure youíre feeling all right?"

"Donít try to distract me! Youíre going to be an empty husk when Iím done! Youíll be begging me to kill you!" As he says this, the room starts contorting, collapsing in on them.

"Take a look at yourself, you imbecile. Youíre literally coming apart at the seams. Hahaha!"

And he is. His molecules are already losing cohesion and as it occurs to him, the Master of Magnetism, naturally, begins to panic.

"You—! All of this energy...the quantum bands canít handle it all. Itís...producing some kind of feedback!"

Now is the time, Quasar thinks. Magneto may be insane, but heís also brilliant. Donít give him a chance to figure out how to bleed the excess energy off. The cabin is still caving in as though it were an aluminum soda can being crushed by a giant hand from the outside. Quasar gives the signal and Magnetoís wrists are snatched from above and lifted into the air, carrying him off the ground. The one thing Magneto never expected. Their ace in the hole. Kayla Ballantine.

As it turns out, Kayla has held on to an even larger portion of the Star Brand than the Living Tribunal had led them to believe. Thanos was right; when the Tribunal sealed off the New Universe Earth, it did a bang up job. What did he say? The physical laws of the universe from which it had derived were kept in tact? Amongst other implications that are now obvious to Quasar, this also meant that the Star Brand again became a viable method for tapping into the power of the infinite. And thus arrived the New Universe Earthís newest superheroine. To say the least, when Kayla offered up this information during the planning phase of this attack, it came as something of a shock. Though it did explain why she was willing to take her chances in the vacuum of outer space. The Star Brand, somewhat like the quantum bands, is sort of like a battery. Presumably, as Kayla spends time away from the New Universe Earth, the stored power will continue to ebb until it is no more. But for the time being, she still has plenty of power to expend.

As Thanos persists in his energy onslaught, Kayla is pouring her own one-of-a-kind brand of energy directly through her hands into the gems on the quantum bracelets. Magneto is past the point of no return now, and Quasar has seen first-hand what happens when the quantum bands produce this much feedback. Only one phase left in the plan now, and yet Quasar pauses before giving the signal. Is he doing the right thing? Maybe it would be for the best to end it right here, once and for all. When he finds himself zoning out, he shrugs these thoughts off with the personal reminder that he is one of the good guys. And though it isnít a perfect answer to his ethical quandary, it suffices for the moment. From his location in the wings, shielded from the vast outpouring of energy taking place on the greater bridge, Quasar signals to Pip. In an instant, Pip is directly behind Magneto, and laying his hands on Magnetoís discorporating body. Concurrently, Thanos breaks off his attack and drops to his knees in exhaustion, while Kayla maintains her grip on the quantum bands, floating above the dangling Magneto. A flash of light follows—Magneto seems to go supernova. Pip is thrown back a full ten feet and lands on his head. Quasar rushes to his side.

"Pip! Are you okay?"

"Peachy. Iíve got a hard noggin." Quasar pulls him to his feet.

"What happened? The plan was to teleport him someplace remote where we could come back for him later."

"I know the plan, bub. Iím just not sure what happened. Soon as I laid my hands on that creep it was like electric fire pumpiní through my veins. I think I teleported him, but I canít be sure."

"Okay, letís assume for a moment that you did teleport him somewhere. Where was it?"

"Uhh," Pip giggles skittishly. "Thatís the thing—I wasnít really thinkiní straight when I put the patented Pip express on him, so he could be anywhere. And for some reason I didnít go along with him for the ride. Go figure! So, uhh..."

"In other words he could be anywhere from the dimension of manifestations to Queens. Or maybe heís nowhere."

"Yeah, something like that. Anywhere Iíve been before, anyhow. And Iíve been everywhere. Ah-heh."

"Letís look on the bright side, Wendell," Kayla says. "At least this part of your plan worked out the way you expected." He turns around and snatches the quantum bands reflexively out of the air (Kayla had lobbed them in his direction while he still had his back turned). "Good reflexes. Good plan."

"What can I say? I know the quantum bands. Removing the bands from Magneto would have proven impossible short of waiting for his utter disintegration, but as soon as the molecular cohesive disparity between Magneto and the quantum bands became significant enough, it became possible to remove Magneto from the bands."

"Yeah, yeah," Pip says, inspecting himself for bruises. "What are ya telling us for? We were there, ya dope."

"Uhhh...yeah, I guess youíre right."

Thanos rises to his feet. "You still have a choice, you know? You havenít put the bands back on yet."

"A choice? To lead a normal life? To find happiness in living only for myself?"

"Precisely. Donít you think youíve done your service? Saved the universe countless times. Put your life on the line. Put your happiness on the line. Sacrificed what mattered most to you for the sake of others. The universe would forgive you if you decided to...what is it you humans say? Hang up the spurs."

"But would I forgive myself?" Quasar looks down in contemplation at the quantum band in each hand and tries to remember back to when he first put them on, though it seems almost a lifetime ago. It was one of Stark Internationalís labs, where he had snagged a security position after washing out of S.H.I.E.L.D.ís special operations program. S.H.I.E.L.D. said he didnít have the "killer instinct." And yet when the Advanced Idea Mechanics attacked the installation and he slid the quantum bands on in order to fight back, it was that very personality trait that kept him alive long enough to establish a perfectly synergistic relationship with the bands.

"Whatís he talking about?" Kayla asks.

He looks up into Kaylaís eyes. "Kayla, I know that me being Quasar was never anything other than devastating to our chances of a normal romantic relationship. And I know you can never forgive me for making the decision to stay a part of the larger universe so that I could be its protector rather than living in quarantine with you. But this is who I am. And I donít know how, but I know this is who I was meant to be."

"What are you saying?"

"Magneto was wrong earlier when he said that without the quantum bands, Iím just Wendell. I realize now that you canít separate Wendell Elvis Vaughn from Quasar. Thatís why, at the expense of everything else, I have to do this." The quantum bands slide back on like his favourite, old pair of shoes, and he can at once feel the power of the quantum zone seeping back into his every molecule.

"You big lug—donít you get it? The fact that you can make a decision like that is exactly what I always loved about you. I wouldnít have had you any other way."

"So why do I get the feeling thereís something youíre not saying?"

Kayla dons sheepish. "I wanted to tell you before. I donít know why I didnít. It had just been so long, and, I donít know, I missed you and just for a little while I wanted to live the other life I could have had—just one more time. It was selfish, I know."

"Hey, just spit it out. Iím a big boy. Iím prepared to hear whatever you have to tell me."

"Iím married."

"Except that. Youíre married? To whom?"

"You know him, actually. His name is Randy OíBrien."

"That antibody guy!"

"Well, heís no longer stuck inside his antibody like the last time you met him. Itís a long story. He reminds me a lot of you, actually. So selfless and noble. And smart. And handsome."

"Okay, okay. I get the idea. How did you even meet this guy?"

"Once I realized I was really stranded, I became friends with Chris Barrett. You know him. Calls himself the Metallurgist. Rides around on a flying hubcap. So anyway, through him I sort of fell in with the Displaced Paranormals. And the rest is, as they say, blissful history."

" about that? Thatís really—ah-heh-heh. Have I got egg on my face, or what? Married!" He whistles. "Hold on a second. I mean, what am I saying? Thatís great, Kayla! Iím really happy for you!" Oddly enough, he means it—at least to an extent. It would be a lot to swallow in one sitting for any man, and he is, after all, only human. Who could deny him just a modicum of envy? But he puts on his straight face. "Man, but I wish I could have been there for the wedding. I love throwing the rice." He imagines into existence a light shower of rice above her head. She chuckles.

"Well, donít seem too disappointed or anything! But you still havenít heard it all."

"You mean thereís more? Iím warning you, I donít think my heart can take much more excitement for one day."

"Well in that case maybe I wonít tell you that Iím pregnant!"

"What did I just say!" He snatches her up in his arms and hugs her generously. "When youíve got news to report, you go all out, donít you?" They both laugh uproariously at themselves until Thanos interrupts them by clearing his throat.

"I hate to interrupt, but if I had to listen to any more of your continued blathering, I would have strangled the life from you both."

"Is he always this grumpy?"

Pip interjects, "Iím with purple puss on this one."

"I take it, then, Miss Ballantine will wish to be returned to the New Universe Earth."

"I think thatís a safe assumption," Quasar says. "And I suppose thereís no time like the present. Ole Randy OíBrienís probably worried about his wife."

After a return trip to the New Universe Earth through limbo and back, Quasar is exhausted. Nobody would begrudge him a nice, long sawing of the log after the day heís had. Whatís more, he would simply prefer to get away from Thanos once and for all. In an odd way, the Titan has been growing on him. But in another, more rational way, merely being in his presence is mentally and emotionally fatiguing.

"Well, now that Iíve got access to the quantum zone again, I guess I may as well jump ship. And hereís as good a place as anywhere else."

"Before you go, Quasar, I had one more question. If I may."

"Iím listening."

"Today you had the chance to forfeit the role that, by your own admission, has precluded the possibility of a normal existence. You could have embraced the bliss of simplicity, but instead, for the second time, you made the decision to hold on to that role, even at—what you thought—was the expense of Kaylaís love."

"Your point being?"

"My point is: why?"

"Because the job is bigger than me. And because, at the same time, I am the job. Have you ever wondered, Thanos, whether or not there was something behind it all? Something...I donít know, maybe beyond comprehension, but some overlying reason for everything?"

"On many occasions I have asked myself that very question. Always, regretfully, with unsatisfactory answers."

"Yeah, I know the feeling. But deep down, I still believe that thereís that cosmic plan, and whatever it is, we all have our roles to play. And this is mine."

Thanos is silent. Speechless even. A rare treat, Quasar finds, when you can elicit it from the Titan.

"That being said, this is my stop. Guess this is where we say happy trails and all jazz." As he starts the walk to the airlock, Thanos trails behind him at an unthreatening distance, as if actually interested in seeing him off.

"Relieved of the burden of the Ego planet, I imagine you will be returning home."

"Since you mentioned it, I may as well tell you—I havenít forgotten about Ego. And I will find out what you did with him. But to answer your question, will I be going home? My people have a saying as far as that goes, Thanos." Quasar pauses at the entrance to the airlock and takes a long, hard look at the purple-skinned, rocky-faced Titan, into his dark, abysmal eyes. "You can never go home again."

The End

Next Issue: Does life return to relative normalcy for the Protector of the Universe now that he has tied up his loose ends?