Issue No. 6
May 2003

The Many Loves of Wendell Vaughn: Part One

"Kindling Old Flames"

Writer: Justin Blum

He pauses in mid-air and barks in response, "Her holy highness is in the kitchen, but I wouldn't recommend bothering her unless you enjoy having a dinner guest inside your head." An acerbic barb intended for an absent recipient.

"Bad night?"

"Sorry. You caught me in the middle of some particularly nasty thoughts." The purring rockets in his boots eject a ballooning blue flame and he streaks on a direct line toward the horizon. He doesn't bother to say goodbye.

Quasar watches him for a moment, a red and white smudge in the distance, before dropping down lightly over the Presidio in northwest San Francisco. You could read the history of this corner of the country all in this one spot. For over two centuries the Presidio had been a military outpost under no less than three national flags. When the U.S. army finally decided to clear out, the state of California toyed with the idea of turning the property over to the National Park Service. The decision was taken out of their hands when the Presidio was usurped by the United Nations, in whose hands it still remains. It serves now as the west coast operational headquarters for the newly chartered Avengers. The world, perhaps, has grown a bit older and a bit wiser over the last two and a quarter centuries—or in any case, it has changed. And that truism is, in some way, reflected here in some microcosmic fashion, in the manner by which it preserves the past and expresses the future concurrently.

As Quasar enters the kitchen in the main building, he spots her with her smooth head buried in the refrigerator. Draped over her body is something like a pearl-white evening gown, but more casual. Her back is to him, but when he enters she says, "You're a little late for the recruitment drive, aren't you?"

"You're probably right, Moondragon," Quasar says casually in return, "but I'm not here to sign up. I'm pretty happy with my reserve status right now."

"Then why are you here?" Moondragon inquires with healthy skepticism. She turns around clutching a gallon of milk. The door to the refrigerator closes behind her as a result of the scantest exertion of her telekinesis.

"You're the mentalist—you tell me." The understood gibe between them has to do with the quantum bands, which provide him some level of protection from casual and not-so-casual mental probing. He smiles contentedly and takes a seat at the table. Moondragon sits across from him.

As she dumps her milk into a waiting bowl of cereal, she looks into his eyes and says, "How I'd love to be able to get inside your head just once, Quasar."

"Well, you know...all you ever have to do is just ask." Moondragon pauses momentarily, then shrugs and scoops up a spoonful of cereal. "I bumped into Stingray on his way out. What crawled up his rebreather?"

The priestess of the moon snickers. "I don't think he likes me very much. But that's perfectly okay, because the feeling is mutual."

"Ouch. This doesn't sound like the allegedly 'reformed' Moondragon I met back in December."*

* See Quasar No. 1 - Blum

"Please, Quasar, every woman has her limits. It's nothing personal against Walter, I just happen to believe that he has the potential to get us killed. As a marine biologist, I am sure that he is second to none. As an Avenger, he is, simply, second rate." She looks up at Quasar from her spoon. Quasar eyes her cynically. "What?"

"Nothing. None of my business," he says, brushing the matter off.*

* To find out the full story, see Avengers West Coast No. 1 - "Not done pluggin" Blum

"You still haven't answered my question, you know. Why are you here?"

"Call it a whim. I guess I just needed somebody to talk to."

Moondragon affects shock, though it might actually be something genuine. "And you came to me? To talk?"

"Your lucky night, I guess. You were just telling me how you'd like a glimpse into the workings of my mind."

"But—what I mean is, why?" She shoves another spoonful of cereal into her mouth, then puts down her spoon, leaning it against the side of the bowl. It sloshes down into what little is left of her cereal.

"Honestly? A lot of mostly nebulous reasons. The only one I can put a finger on is because you're the one person I know reasonably well who's had extensive dealings with Thanos."

Moondragon swallows her last spoonful hard and pushes the bowl off to the side of the small table impassively. "I think I just lost my appetite."

Recounting the events of last December—his encounter with Thanos at the space station, the offered proposal, the intricate machinations of their plan to recover Magneto, the recovery of Kayla only to lose her again—it occurs to Quasar that it all sounds more than a little implausible. He considers that it would make a contrived novel. Most people—even those in the superhero community—would be waiting for the punchline, but Moondragon takes it all in at face value and in stride. She has clearly heard stranger—yet equally as true—stories in her day.

"It's been almost four months already, and I still can't really rap my mind around it," Quasar says, putting his elbows on the table and propping his head up with a fist in either cheek. "I have this strange feeling that I was being tested somehow."

"You probably were. Thanos seldom does anything without good, solid Machiavellian intentions."

"This is true. Though come to think of it, I guess that's not the part that really bothers me."

Moondragon seems to be preemptively aware of what he's going to say. "mmm...knowing whether you passed or failed." Quasar nods. "Forget it. You'll never know. There is no passing or failing, really. There are just decisions. And how you live with them. Anyway, why do you care what Thanos thinks?" she offers with a small measure of haughty indifference.

"I don't care! Or maybe I do, but not the way a person usually cares what somebody thinks of him. It's just...what if he was on to something? Thanos wanted to know if I'd choose to be the P of the U again, even if I could live a blissfully happy but normal life instead. But why? At the time, I thought it was the choice, itself, that mattered. Now I'm not so certain. Maybe it has more to do with predestination."

"Explain."

"I'm not sure I can. It was something I remembered afterwards that was said to me about Thanos. Something about him unconsciously, yet repeatedly, 'sowing the seeds of his own defeat.' Let's try this: if a life is the summation of the succession of choices a person makes, does free will really exist, or are we all stumbling through existence on a series of cause and effect relationships somehow given momentum at birth?"

"Good question. Let's put that one right up there with 'What's the meaning of life?' as far as questions that don't need answers go. You're thinking too hard. We are what we are so why question it?"

"Are we?"

"Does the picture depict two faces at either side kissing or is it a vase drawn in the middle? Does it matter? Don't hurt yourself trying to come up with an answer. It's probably as simple as covetous curiosity. He told you himself, didn't he? Love, Quasar. The most basic and intuitive concept to some, it completely eludes him. As, I'm afraid, it still eludes me—and probably always will. But then again, maybe nobody really understands what love is, anyway."

Quasar tacitly acknowledges the subject change. "Pashaw," he says, chiding her. "Someday even your prince will come," Quasar quips, then stands up from the table in preparation of his eventual departure.

Moondragon clears her throat and offers, in an artificially off-hand manner, "You know, my offer still stands."

Quasar instantly makes the connection. Moondragon had for some time rather aggressively pursued a romantic relationship with him, even to the extent of trying to drive a wedge between him and Kayla, whom Moondragon deemed "too ordinary" for him. In a huff, Moondragon made some statement to the effect of, "Call me when you drop the loser," and stormed out of Quasar's life—for a while at any rate. At the time he was outraged, but like all emotions, said outrage has faded. She is, after all, almost human under the right circumstances.

Rather than embarrass her, he says, "I'll, uh, keep that in mind." He turns to leave and then remembers something he was supposed to pass along. "Oh yeah, Adam Warlock, Gamora, and Pip told me to say 'Hi'."

"Ah, the old gang. That's funny. Their Christmas card must have gotten lost in the mail."

"Well, you have to cut Adam and Gamora some slack. They are sort of stuck in a pocket dimension for the time being."

"I know. I've been there. Dreadful place really." A look of placid distraction spreads over her face. An awkward silence follows until Quasar says:

"But anyway..."

"Anyway..." Moondragon chimes in in unison.

"Thanks for talking, Heather. I'll let you get back to making the world safe."

"Uh, Quasar," she says, and he cocks his head slightly to the side to listen. "Any time."

Quasar smiles and swoops out through the door.


One month later Quasar is on a planet known as Hugassa, or Hogimini, or Hoijaiso, or some equally forgettable name, knee deep in wreckage.

"I just wish I knew what I was supposed to be doing with myself, Epoch," he says, looking down into a crystal on his left quantum band, upon which is displayed her yellowish visage.

The world-shaking earthquake that accomplished the absolute leveling of the largest city on Hugassa made it onto his radar through the appeals of a planetary refugee passing through one of the heavier trafficked ports in this region of the galaxy. Quasar is accruing a reputation in these parts for his good deeds. A reputation that came about so subtly that it wasn't until just a few days ago he had an epiphany: he had become something like the cosmos's equivalent of the Godfather. Don Quasar. They come to him offering everything from rare cultural artifacts to sexual pleasures in exchange for his benevolence, which, for whatever reason, is suspect. As a concept, the selfless championing of life doesn't go down easily within the collective throat of this galaxy. Pessimism abounds. His petitioners are typically quite insistent that he accept some form of remuneration. To spare them embarrassment, he will usually even agree, though often after talking them down to a mere token repayment. His collection of souvenirs has been growing substantial. He considers that it may be time for a public auction, but that might be too much trouble. Of course, there's always eBay.

Epoch responds, "I was under the impression you had gone to that planet to help them clean up and rebuild."

"That's not what I mean, you cosmically aware munchkin. I mean in general. Ever since Eon appointed me Protector of the Universe, I've never been so without direction. I mean, I always knew what I was supposed to be doing before. Originally I was looking out for the cosmic threat that was supposed to come from Earth. That kept me pretty well occupied for a while until I finally found and defeated Maelstrom. Then there was Operation Galactic Storm and the cleanup that came in the wake of that. The salvation of the Watchers. The midwifing of a cosmic abstraction. The Star Brand Fiasco. Ego, the Living Planet and that Maximum Security business. Helping to prevent the Infinites from reshaping the universe. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera," he says, doing his best Yul Brenner from The King and I.

"Your list of accomplishments is indeed impressive."

"Very true, but that's not the point. The point is that there was always some cosmic threat that needed battling. But everything's so quiet lately. I feel like some sheriff out of Earth's Old West who cleaned up town so diligently, he found himself out of a job. What does the Protector of the Universe do when the Universe doesn't need him?"

"But the Universe does need you, Quasar," Epoch says, appealing to him in her characteristically dispassionate manner.

He looks around at his surroundings. Four of his self-powered golden plows have been clearing out a square in what used to be a park on this planet. "What for? To clean up the trash?"

"It may seem that your activities as of late have been insignificant, but you must not look upon them as isolated functions. The good you do is the totality of all of your deeds. Every small action is as important as the whole."

"Thanks for the Zen, Epoch," Quasar says, chuckling. "I guess that's a positive way of looking at it."

"Enjoy your reprieve, my Protector. Perhaps you should take this opportunity to explore yourself even while you continue to explore the Universe. I must go now." Her image abruptly fades away from the surface of the crystal, and Quasar is left wondering just what her last comment meant. Epoch's behavior can be infernally difficult to translate into comparative human thought processes.

As to be expected in the life of Wendell Vaughn, the phenomenon of coincidence did not allow for time to dissect her words. A human-sounding female voice, sultry and mellifluous up above him, says:

"Do you require assistance?"

He looks up at a life-sized sculpture of an Amazon in jacinth as she floats to the surface. Something akin to a one-piece lavender bathing suit stretches over her body leaving her exposed at the sides and back—making few concessions to modesty—and a functionally useless golden belt with a large saucer at the front rings her sturdy waist. Her blonde hair cascades over her shoulders and back to mid-calf, billowing out in erratic curls like a thick smoke.

Coincidence isn't the right word. A better word would be:

"Kismet. Where have you been all my life?" he says jocularly.

"I don't follow." Kismet's notoriously absent sense of humor strikes again.

"That's my way of saying that I'd love some help. But you've gotta tell me what brings you out my way." He tries to remember the last time he actually saw her. Was it when he left Earth the first time after the Star Brand Fiasco? He tracked her down then and invited her with him, but she had other plans. In a way, this was the event that made him decide once and for all that he was doing the right thing throwing himself into his role as the Protector of the Universe. Having lost Kayla, he felt as though his personal life was kaput anyway. And then the one person he thought would follow him anywhere rejected him to spend time with the Hive scientists who gave her and her "brother", Adam Warlock, life.

Kismet extends her arm in the direction of a pile of refuse and a stream of plasma discharges and flash incinerates the pile from fifty feet away.

"I asked the Avengers where I could find you," she says offhandedly.

"Really?" he says, his interest peaking. "Lucky for you I always leave a forwarding address. How come you're looking for me, though?"

She approaches him seductively and pushes back her wavy hair. There's quite a lot of it. Then she places a hand on his arm. "Because we are destined to be together, Quasar."

Kismet suffers from the delusion that she and he are some kind of soul mates. This arises largely from the fact that Quasar is the only man who never flat-out rejected her, though the story gets increasingly complicated the closer one looks at it. When Kismet was rebuffed by Adam Warlock, she embarked on a quest to find the perfect mate. Unfortunately, her notion of mating amounted to a form of ingenuous rape. Her method was to attach miniature cocoons containing her genetic material to the bodies of a number of super-powered hosts, including Quasar, whose gene pool she initially considered beneath her. That she eventually changed her mind about him was a sort of consolation prize for the resourcefulness he showed in trying to stop her from carrying on. Eventually, when it turned out he was the only one who didn't try to destroy her gift, she concluded that they were meant to be, though she was willing to put motherhood on hold. The carnal facet of his personality was always left wondering if this bit with the cocoons was the only viable method of reproduction for Kismet.

"Oh boy. Don't start that again."

"Do you still decline my companionship?" she says, taking a hurt step backwards.

"It isn't like that, Kiz. It's...complicated. I like you a lot. I think you're really a sweet kid and I'd be lying if I told you I don't really enjoy the time we spend together."

"Then what's the problem? We are ideal for each other. Do you not see?"

"The problem is that I hardly know you. But that's not really it. All of this soul mate stuff...how can you believe it if you've never even been involved with another man?"

"Have you never simply known something to be true?"

Quasar thinks on this one before responding. "Look, I can't help it, but I'd feel like a heel playing into this role you've assigned to me. You don't love me. You love the idea of me. Or maybe the idea of loving me." He can't help thinking of Kismet's affections as a schoolgirl crush.

"What is the difference?"

"It's a big difference, but that's something you have to figure out on your own, kiddo. I promise that once you've had a little more experience...um...romantically, you'll see what I'm talking about."

Kismet's white eyes shift to the side while she considers his words.

"Protector of the Universe!" a man's voice calls from off to the side. Quasar's quantum shell automatically encapsulates his body. He turns to face a throng of soldiers each decked out in a suit of metal body armor and carrying what appears to be a type of energy staff. They are human in appearance except for a slight bluish hue to their skin and somewhat uniformly gaunt faces. Having gotten Quasar's attention, the leader then says, "We would have a word with you."

Kismet cries out, "You!" and then opens up with a cannon stream of plasma from both arms. The soldiers all depress some control on their right forearms and energy shields construct themselves in front of them, wielded on their arms.

"Scheming witch! We will deal with you now." The leader directs his staff in Kismet's direction and an energy discharge careens in her direction, and splashes against a wall of solid quantum energy.

"Hold your doggone horses just a second—both of you!" Quasar says, moving into position beside Kismet. He puts his hands on her wrists and brings them down to halt her plasma surge.

"Step aside, Protector. This is not your concern." The leader of the soldiers leaps in their direction, a pair of rockets in the rear of his armor propelling him forward. His thrust is too fast to close him up in a quantum bubble without potentially hurting him, so Quasar imagines a giant sumo wrestler standing in front of him. The quantum bands do the rest. When the soldier crashes into the expansive, cushioned stomach of the construct, the construct wraps its arms around him and morphs into a containment bubble.

"That's where you're wrong, buddy boy. If you intend to lay so much as a finger upon Kismet, you'd better believe it concerns me."

Kismet throws her arms around him, pushes herself up against him, and says, "I knew you cared!"

Beneath his breath, Quasar says, "Uhh, Kiz? Really not the right time."

"You fool! Do not stand in the way of our revenge. Men, attack the orange one!"

Without delay, a barrage of crackling energy pours forth from the numerous staffs of the soldiers.

"All righty then. You chumps asked for it. No more Mr. Nice Guy," Quasar says with battle-hardened composure, erecting a tunnel that diverts the incoming energy off to the sides. Turning to look at Kismet, he asks her, "Shall we?"

"Let's."

Moving so fast that they would be almost invisible to the naked human eye, Quasar and Kismet are suddenly in the middle of the group of about eight soldiers. From the inside, the two of them proceed to dismantle the unit.

The soldiers all turn to blast Quasar and Kismet with their energy rods, but Kismet has already knocked two of them back at least thirty feet into the nearest pile of plowed debris. At the same time, Quasar is employing a personalized crane form. The crane is one of the five basic animal forms of Tibetan kung fu, and one of the oldest. The crux of it is the art of the parry and quick, surgical strikes. Balance and evasion. It works particularly well when circled by a group of attackers with weapons. They won't discharge them without a sure shot or else they might hit their own men. The crane form is a bit fancy perhaps for this group, especially when he could just bottle them all up in quantum energy, but there is something to be said for sending a message.

He stomps the shin of one soldier, then spins slightly to the right as another attempts to expel a shock of energy from his staff. Quasar jerks the staff to the side with a slap from the front of his forearm and uses the backwards momentum to counterbalance a forward kick to the chest of the already off-balance soldier whose shin he stomped. He glances quickly behind him and sees Kismet literally peeling the armor off of another soldier. Quasar decides to switch to a more proactive method and begins releasing bursts of solid energy from his quantum bands in a pattern of elaborate hand movements designed to tactically cover the largest area. This was one of the more specialized martial arts skills taught in S.H.I.E.L.D. Ops training. It should really be used for gun fighting, but it works well here. As each soldier goes down, Quasar wraps them each up in a quantum straightjacket, restraining their movements.

Then one of them actually gets lucky and swats Quasar with the staff itself. The blow is exceptionally strong, and the momentum carries Quasar five feet in reverse and on to his posterior.

"Enough!" one of the soldiers cries out. Quasar had been watching this one since the group of soldiers arrived. He seemed to be the second in command. He clambers his way out of a pile of wreckage into which he had been tossed by Kismet. Everybody stops. "This is ridiculous. We didn't come here to fight you." He casts a wary sidelong glance at his bubbled commander, then steps forward, his staff held outwards, horizontal to the ground, gripped in both hands. When standing in front of Quasar, he places the staff on the ground before him and kneels there. "My apologies, Protector. My name is Rasson, and you may consider me at your service. You see, we were dispatched by royal decree to escort you to the imperial wedding."

"Imperial wedding?" Quasar runs a hand through his long hair and scratches his head. "Who's getting married? Is it anybody I know?"

Rasson screws up his eyes and stares skeptically into Quasar's face. "Perhaps I should have been more explicit. The wedding is yours, my liege."

Quasar looks to Kismet, who drops her captive soldier with a clanging thud. The sides of her lips twitch upwards into a chagrinned smile.

To be continued...


Next Issue: Somebody forgot to tell Quasar he was engaged. Is the married-life in store for our hero? And what is Kismet going to do when she meets the "other woman"? Find out in thirty.