Episode 4: Rites of Conquest

He exulted in his reality.

His army was legion, the shades of imagination, the thick gloom of night, darkness personified. The Atlanteans’ first pitiful pickets were absorbed like so much krill, caught unaware in a whirlpool of razor claws, unable to scream, dark blood billowing in the water like a thunderhead, rent asunder, torn to shreds, to nothing, to less than nothing. Gone.

He advanced through the wreckage and smiled at the devastation. He had chosen his troops well.

Wordlessly, he thrust his glowing pikestaff forward. His troops gathered above his head and swarmed eagerly at his direction. They needed no further prompting. Soon, he knew, the alarm would be raised and the battle joined in earnest. By then, of course, their efforts would come too late. Indeed, it was too late already.

Soon his conquest would be complete. He laughed. The water in his lungs turned it into a strange strangling sound, eerie and foul.


Trailing a blurred purple smear, the Goblin screamed down the twisted crystal corridors of the Point. Miguel O’Hara pushed his superhuman leg muscles to the limit to keep up. “Gabri, wait!” Miguel shouted. “Whatever’s wrong, I’m sure we can fix it!” He fired webbing from the back of his wrist, but missed the careening Goblin by centimeters.

If the Goblin heard, he gave no sign, streaking along a wildly erratic flight path. He did an uneven barrel roll and vanished around a corner; the purple contrail hung in the air for a moment, then faded. Breathless now, Miguel leapt forward, sunk his claws into the crystalline material, and swung around.

And almost vaulted straight off into nothingness. Miguel dug in his heels and windmilled his arms like something from an old comedy vid. The talons on his toes extended reflexively, shredding the thin soles of his shoes and squealing on the smooth crystalline flooring. Finally he came to a stop at the very edge of the endless precipice.

He looked out on a gigantic cylindrical space, dimly lit, extending straight down to the limits of his vision. Apparently he’d stumbled across the main ventilation shaft for the Point. Even inside the fully submerged building, Miguel could feel a slight stirring of air pull at his hair and clothes. He fought back a fleeting moment of vertigo.

An echoing cackle drew his attention high above. The Goblin’s contrail spiraled upward in the shaft, already far out of Miguel’s webbing range. As he watched, the Goblin looped once and disappeared through one of the many holes in the shaft wall. There was no way Miguel could trail him.

“Jammit!” Long-denied anger and frustration raged to the surface, and he smashed a fist into the glassine wall. Cracks webbed out a meter in all directions.

“May I ask,” came a familiar, deep voice over his shoulder, “what the wall has done to merit such punishment?”

Miguel didn’t need to look. “Hello, Domo3,” he grated between clenched teeth.

“Please be advised,” the voice went on, “that any other violent actions on your part will be dealt with.” The undertone was unmistakable.

Miguel turned toward the humanoid fountain, burbling independently in the center of an otherwise dry floor. “Don’t worry, I was just venting. It won’t happen again.”

“I’m certain it won’t.” Domo3 made a slight gesture. Glass squeaked, and Miguel looked back to the wall. The cracks from his punch were already healing, no doubt due to the nanotech Doom loved so much.

“I fear,” Domo3 continued, “that your divergence from your predetermined path requires me to conduct you personally to your destination. Please follow me.” It turned to leave.

Miguel followed glumly, brushing crystal crumbs from his knuckles. “What’s the use? I came here to find my brother. If he’s escaped, he could be anywhere in the Point by now.”

For a nanotech construct, Domo3 reacted with what looked like genuine consternation. “Excuse me a moment, I must query my datalogs.” Domo3‘s trickling froze for an instant, then resumed. “Data access complete. Your brother remains in stasis.”

Now it was Miguel’s turn to be surprised. “Stasis? Where? What are you talking about?”

Domo3 wavered. “The Master left a message to be played upon your arrival,” the construct said. “It should explain everything you need to know.”

Curious, Miguel followed the nanotech creature deeper into the complex. A few minutes later, they entered a brightly lit, dome-shaped chamber. Camera views and computer readouts ghosted across the asymmetrical facets of the walls. A low bank of surprisingly ordinary computer panels lined the back. Off to his left, tubes loomed floor to ceiling among a tangle of strange twisted pipes. The only exit was the hallway behind them, now glowering deep red. “I will activate the message for you now,” Domo3 said.

Before Miguel’s startled eyes, Domo3 changed. The rough, rippled surface smoothed, bulged, expanded, folded in upon itself. The creature gained half a meter in height. Flowing water stilled. An instant later, the full-sized image of Doctor Victor von Doom, wearing some version of his armor Miguel didn’t recognize, stood in Domo3‘s place. The armored mask held an unusual expression for Doom, almost … thoughtful. *

“Nice outfit,” Miguel said. “Better than that retro-twencen stuff you ended up wearing.”

The Doom water-sculpture turned a condescending eye in his direction. “We are not here to discuss sartorial choices, Mister O’Hara. We have more pressing concerns.”

Miguel blinked at the image’s direct reply, then remembered: Doom was one of the early pioneers of artificial intelligence. Stories still circulated about Doombots which could fool even the man’s loyal subjects and greatest enemies. So for all intents and purposes, this image was Doom, at least while the real Doom was away. Or dead.

“Yes,” Miguel sighed, resigned to dealing with this watery creature on its own terms. “More pressing concerns like my brother.”

“Indeed.” The Doombot turned its back on Miguel and strode toward the irregular video panels. “On the subject of your brother, I wish to offer an explanation …” It hesitated, glancing toward him. “And my apology.”

Well. Surprise was mounting upon surprise today. “Apologize for what? Are you saying you’re responsible for turning my brother into that Goblin freak?”

The Doombot ignored the rising anger in Miguel’s voice. “Only tangentally,” it remarked. Its watery fingers stroked a nearby keypad; schematics appeared on the surrounding viewscreens. “Does this look familiar, Mister O’Hara?”

Impatiently, Miguel gave the blueprint views a cursory glance. “It looks like the plans for Jordan Boone’s Virtual Unreality portal. So what?”

“So what indeed,” the image said with just a hint of irony. “During my period of rightful sovereignty over your United States, I uploaded all of the megacorps’ research data into Myridia’s central information bank. One intriguing experiment was Alchemax’s foray into Virtual Unreality. I became curious as to the nature of VU itself, as well as finding any practical applications to Boone’s work … beyond his unorthodox experiments in Las Vegas, of course.”

The Doombot tapped a few more keys, and different plans appeared. “As it happened, my inquiries into practical uses for VU was more fruitful than I had projected. The powers contained in that pocket dimension greatly exceeded my expectations. To a degree, VU waves mimic the effect of alien artifacts known in earlier times as Cosmic Cubes. The more waves released into our dimension, the greater their ability to warp space-time. In my desire to harness this power to a more personal degree, I designed … this.”

It gestured to a monitor, and Miguel frowned at the readout. Doom’s invention looked like a metallic skullcap, a smooth hemisphere bulging outward in two spots a few centimeters above the eyes of its wearer. Miguel instantly understood the significance. “The Goblin’s mask,” he whispered.

“Very good,” said the Doombot in a pedantic tone which Miguel instantly disliked. “I constructed this prototype during my convalescence in Halo City. The forehead emitters project a small amount of VU energy, shaped by the conscious brainwaves of its wearer. With this helmet, the wearer can create illusions utterly indistinguishable from reality, as well as some direct physical alterations such as flight capability, increased physical abilities, and so on.”

“I see,” Miguel growled. “And what underhanded purpose did you — jammit, did Doom have in mind when he designed this thing?”

The Doom construct stared down at his seething guest. “Doom’s plans are his own,” it replied in a steely tone. “It is none of your concern.”

Something snapped in Miguel’s brain. He stalked forward and jammed his finger into Doom’s chest — literally, sending small ripples through the image. “You’re wrong, it is my concern, you two-bit AI! That VU helmet is responsible for turning my kid brother Gabri into the Goblin!”

The Doombot took Miguel’s outburst with surprising aplomb. “Your brother is not the Goblin,” it said mildly.

“Doom led me on this world-wide goose chase,” Miguel ranted on, unheeding, “all over Europe and Africa, sometimes to places that don’t even exist anymore! Do you have any idea how many fortunes I’ve had to give away on this quest? Do you understand how it feels to be led from place to place like finding your own brother is some sort of twisted scavenger hunt? What did you just say?”

The Doombot had only an iron faceplate to show emotions, but somehow it still managed a slight smirk. “The Goblin,” it repeated patiently, “is not Gabriel O’Hara.”

Well. Miguel drew a complete blank on that revelation. For several seconds, his mind ran very fast in very tiny circles between relief, confusion and incredulity. Finally, he found his way far enough out of the muddle to work his mouth again. “Then, who … ?”

“Unknown at this time,” Doom said. “I personally destroyed the original apparatus when certain details about the Virtual Unreality dimension came to light. I chose to archive the plans for its construction rather than delete them. Sadly, my Halo City apartments were not as secure as I could have hoped. The files — and the holotapes they were stored on — vanished before my final sojourn to Washington.”

Still dizzy with revelations, Miguel cocked a sarcastic eye at the Doombot. “Someone actually stole something from the all-seeing, all-powerful Doctor Doom? Amazing!”

The Doombot regarded Miguel coldly. For an instant, Miguel feared he’d stepped over the line. A moment later, however, the image merely shrugged. “I had not anticipated the number of mutant refugees crowding into Halo City in flight from Herod’s regime. Privacy was difficult to come by. In retrospect, I relied too much on it. Other security measures were in place, of course, but whoever stole the tapes had some method to circumvent them.”

Something else clicked in Miguel’s brain. “And apparently he still does,” he murmured. “Were you aware that the Goblin is loose inside the Point?”

The Doombot drew itself up in a very realistic attitude of surprise. “What? Impossible!”

Miguel discovered he liked seeing Doom on the defensive. “I don’t think so. I was chasing him all through the corridors. Why do you think I suddenly changed course? In fact, I must have been within his sphere of influence, too. Why didn’t the lasers start firing on me as soon as I stepped out of the green zone?”

The counterfeit Doom marched across to another bank of controls. A few quick keypresses brought up screens of scrolling information. “There was an unauthorized access of the top hatch four minutes and thirty-two seconds ago,” it said. “Several rooms were partially flooded, and maintenance bots were dispatched. And still my security alarms failed to go off. Impressive. We face a wily opponent, Mister O’Hara.”

“Is there any report of when he got here?” Miguel asked.

Information scrolled by faster than the human eye could follow. The Doombot watched coolly. “There have been no other accesses, besides your own entry, since before the Point became submerged. The logical conclusion is that the Goblin has made this his home for the past few months, presumably awaiting your arrival.”

Months? Miguel was astounded. Whoever the Goblin really was, he certainly had it in for him. While he could easily number the people who wanted to see him dead, both as Miguel O’Hara and as Spider-Man, this showed an extra level of dedication. One last question niggled at him. “So why would the Goblin wait here? How did he know I’d show up in Captain Nemo’s lair?”

“Because he somehow knew this would be your ultimate destination,” the Doombot said simply.

Miguel stared at the construct for several seconds before he made the connection. “My brother.”

Doom nodded. “Gabriel O’Hara has been kept here, in stasis, for his own safety. I suspected the Magus could have easily kidnaped him and used him as leverage against you during a time when I had need of your services.”

“So, to ensure my servitude, you kidnaped him and used him as leverage against me.” Miguel tried to force anger into the statement, but the past few minutes had taken too much of an emotional toll.

“Indeed,” remarked Doom. “Although it may be of small comfort to you, your participation was necessary to ensure the future of all humanity. Above all, you have earned Doom’s respect, which is not easily won.”

“Doom’s dead,” Miguel said bluntly. “And I’m tired of trying to be pleasant to an ice sculpture. If my brother’s really here, hand him over and let us go. I’ll have nothing more to do with Doom or his constructs.”

Doom pressed a button. Something hissed to Miguel’s left. “As you wish,” the robot said.

Machinery was moving. A huge tube slowly lifted, releasing cold billows of white gas. Miguel could see hints of a transparent compartment within. The Doombot looked on smugly. “Miguel O’Hara, may I present Gabriel O’Hara.”

Cryonic gases flowed over Miguel’s feet, chilling them. As the clouds cleared around the chamber within, a similar chill gripped Miguel’s mind. Even the Doombot did a double-take.

The chamber stood empty. Gabriel was gone.

Ben Grimm tried to walk quietly through Ares Base doors too narrow for his shoulder span. The lights were set to night mode, dimmed almost to nothing, with only two narrow light tubes lining the corridor floor ahead of him. The crimson points of his eyes shifted furtively as he passed open doorways. His wasn’t a body built for stealth, but he was doing the best he could.

Soon he reached the end of the deserted corridor, where a large circular door stood open just a crack. With surprising gentleness for his size, Ben eased the door quietly inward, poked his head in, and glanced around. “Anyone in here?” he whispered, but only dry echoes answered. Perfect. Just what he was looking for.

He slipped inside and pushed the door back to its original position. The room beyond was apparently a storeroom, lit only by what light made it through from the corridor outside, but Ben could see perfectly. Apparently low-light vision was a bonus of his current “condition.”

Ben wandered into the gloom. The storeroom smelled like Mars dust, like rust and baking bread. He recognized some of the things stacked against the walls: pressure suits, rolls of solar cells, excavation equipment, tables and chairs. But here and there he saw an oddly-shaped piece of machinery with no known function. Taker technology, brought to Ares Base from the caverns for further study.

Ben nestled himself between two pieces of equipment and slid to a sitting position on the floor. With blunt fingers, he pulled a couple of small packages from his waist pocket. His eyes glinted greedily as he struck a spark on the floor. A brief glare of light from between the machines soon settled down to a steady red glow of satisfaction.

Then all the lights came on. Blinded, Ben started up wildly, almost knocking over the machines next to him. “Benjamin J. Grimm!” a sharp female voice chided, and someone poked him in the chest. “I should have known it would be you!”

His darkness-adjusted eyes had a hard time focusing on the small figure in front of him. In a confused rumble, he asked, “Suzie … ?”

“Look again,” said the figure, who resolved into the dark-haired form of Father Jennifer. “Just what do you think you’re doing, skulking about in the middle of the night, setting off alarms? And where did you get this?” Swiftly she plucked the contraband cigar from between Ben’s fingers. “Ugh,” she opined, wrinkling her nose. “It smells like a smouldering trash heap.”

“Hey!” Ben said defensively. “That’s a replica of a perfectly good Havana yer makin’ faces at. An’ I’ve already set off the fire alarms in my room with these things. C’mon, give a guy with a cravin’ a break. It ain’t gonna hurt anyone way out here. ‘Sides me, that is.”

“Hmmm.” Father Jennifer eyed the offending stogie narrowly. “You know open fires are against Ares Base rules, don’t you?”

Ben smirked. “Well, it ain’t exactly a fire …”

The priest raised an eyebrow at him, and he quickly wiped the smirk off his face. She regarded the cigar a moment more, then surprised Ben by taking a long puff. Slowly she exhaled a plume of smoke, making Ben’s eyes water. “Not bad,” she said, and handed it back to him. “But no more midnight walks for you. I’ll talk to Maintenance about fixing your room’s alarms to ignore tobacco smoke. And next time, try replicating the 2011 Royal Leaf Gold instead of the 1963 Havana. Much better flavor. Now come on, back to bed with you.”

“All right,” Ben groused. He let Father Jennifer take him by the hand and lead him toward the door. “So, yer a cigar afficionado, too … hey, waitaminnit.”

Ben examined one of the alien pieces of equipment closely. “Did you find all this stuff back in the Taker caverns?”

“Most of it, yes. I’m involved in the collection and cataloguing end of the excavations. We’re still trying to make heads or tails of it. I think they found that piece even before we arrived here.” She peered up at him. “Why?”

“‘Cause I think I know what this is,” Ben murmured, looking the machine over. “It’s a weird way of puttin’ it together, but it looks just like one of Reed’s old experiments. If we’re lucky, that is.”

“Lucky? Why? What do you think it could be?”

“I think this thing is a Radical Cube. An’ if it is, it might be our ticket home.”

Blood thundered in Whisper’s temples. The pulse rifle bucked like a live thing in her hands. Its beam vanished into a sheet of darkness; there was no visible effect.

Screams and weapons fire erupted from everywhere around her. The battle was going poorly, it seemed. The strange creatures had torn through the city of Atlantis’ defenses as if they didn’t exist. Much of the outskirts lay in ruins, dozens of civilians dead or missing. Queen Whisper had insisted on leading the main assault on their invaders herself, meeting them here, in the main market area of the city. Unfortunately, all her training at the hands of the Sisters of the Howling Commandments was useless in the face of opponents who could apparently phase to nothing at will.

One of these creatures, an amorphous sheet of darkness which moved like mercury, flitted through the shadows nearby. Whisper pumped several rapid-fire shots into it, but the high-energy pulses merely disappeared into its shifting mass. Before she could switch to another firing mode, the monster swirled like a blanket around a nearby soldier. His screams ended abruptly with a sickening crunch.

Too many people were dying needlessly. “Pulse weapons are useless!” she shouted. “Retreat!”

The soldiers followed her lead, hastily swimming for the inner perimeter. Already her communications officer was radioing for heavy weapons support. Over her shoulder, Whisper watched several of the beasts descend on a large market building and literally rip it to pieces. Debris swirled. Huge chunks of pearlescent building material tumbled into the surrounding thoroughfares and smashed into buildings nearby. Almost as if they were searching for something, Whisper thought.

The high whine of skimmers echoed from down a nearby thoroughfare. Yes, she could see them now, numerous small one- and two-man high-speed underwater fighters bearing down in attack formation, leaving a white haze in their wakes. Balls of unbearably bright plasma arced from their short fin-like wings as they rocketed overhead. The buildings in the market district suddenly erupted, knocked apart like children’s blocks, silt and debris flung high in the water, testimony to the power of Atlantean weaponry. Her polarized goggles hummed as they compensated for the explosions’ glare, but not in time to warn her of the shockwave. Even here, blocks away, glass domes imploded. Whisper and her fellow soldiers tumbled helplessly for a moment before fighting their way back to equilibrium.

The skimmers parted formation above the marketplace, turning for another pass. The water was littered with silt, bits of fabric, stinging sand, tatters of sharkskin paper. Whisper tried to focus her goggles into the debris cloud, but all she could see was billowing destruction.

“Nothing could have survived that,” murmured the soldier next to her. Whisper silently agreed with him, but continued watching just to make sure. Absently she waved a fragment of cloth out of her vision.

Wait a minute. Something moved in the debris cloud. Whisper punched up the magnification, then blinked. A figure seemed to be striding out of the murk toward them. That couldn’t be right. She increased magnification more and was dumbfounded to see a man wearing bronze Greek armor and carrying an eight-foot-long pikestaff in his left hand, his only hand. The figure’s waist-length shoulder-cloak fluttered as he stepped unhurriedly forward. The confused exclamations of her comrades reassured Whisper that she wasn’t hallucinating.

The skimmers were lining up for another pass. The Greek figure glanced up, then pointed his pikestaff in their direction. Without warning, all whine of skimmer engines ceased. Whisper glanced up in time to see the skimmers, all lights out now, dart through the water above. Through her goggle magnifiers, she could see the pilots struggling with the controls of their powerless crafts before they disappeared behind nearby buildings. The dull thunks of ejection mechanisms sounded in the distance; a few moments later, a rumble marked their crashing beyond the outskirts of the city.

The Greek figure planted the butt end of his pike against the ground and looked in her direction.

The soldiers’ heads swiveled to follow the figure’s gaze. Whisper realized she was the center of attention now. The strange Greek figure stood impassively, his eyes locked on her. She considered her options and decided on the least confrontational one.

She stood and deliberately dropped her pulse rifle to the ground. “Wait for me,” she said quietly, never looking away from the figure in the distance. “I’ll meet him alone.”

“No, Majesty!” cried the enormous soldier named Akvo. “We cannot allow you to –”

She silenced him with a look. “You do not ‘allow’ us anything,” she snapped, using the royal plural. “We ‘allow’ what we will.”

Akvo lowered his gaze. “Yes, Majesty.”

Whisper touched his shoulder as an acknowledgement of his concern, then swam out to meet her foe on the battlefield. When she settled to the ground in front of him, she was surprised how clean his armor was, considering he had just walked out of a cloud of dust. She, in contrast, still wore her scarred battle armor, and she was certain bits of flotsam hung from her every strand of hair.

“Majestrix Whisper,” the figure intoned, his voice oddly strangled. “I have a proposal for you.”

Whisper raised an eyebrow. “I make it a point never to accept proposals from strangers.”

“Ah, yes.” He flashed her a brief smile which stopped at his colorless eyes. “My manners are a bit rusty these days. I am Thanatos.”

“Indeed.” Whisper sized him up again. Tall, well-formed, but otherwise unremarkable; certainly not the sort of man she would expect to take the moniker of the Greek god of death. “And your proposal?”

“Is quite simple. You and your forces may surrender to my command, and be allowed to live.”

Whisper fought the urge to laugh right in Thanatos’ face. Atlantis had a long history of conquest, and surrender was almost completely unheard of. “I … see,” she finally replied. “Quite interesting. And if we choose not to capitulate?”

Thanatos raised his staff above his head. A deep rumble rose from the ground underneath their feet. The debris field, which had begun to settle, churned up again. “Only one alternative,” Thanatos said.

An inky mass lifted up from the cloud and spread in the water. At first Whisper thought it was a single entity, but a moment later she realized it was made up of thousands, perhaps millions, of the shadowy creatures, swimming very rapidly around a common center like a whirlpool. The rumble grew in intensity.

“Your weaponry is useless against us, Majestrix,” Thanatos called above the roar. “My army is tireless, my resources unlimited. With a gesture, I could wipe all of Atlantis off the face of the earth.” His eyes glowed a depthless white. “That is, unless saner minds prevail.”

Whisper stared at the expanding maelstrom. One edge touched a building which had survived the explosions. As she watched, the speeding shades shaved off the outer wall millimeter by millimeter, smoothly exposing interior walls and floors. The concave opening widened, more and more of the building whipped away, until nothing was left, not even rubble.

She turned her eyes to meet Thanatos’ terrible gaze. “Well?” he asked.

There was no choice to make. With the feeling of a terrible weight in her chest, Whisper bowed her head, then dropped to one knee in submission.

Thanatos nodded. “Excellent,” he said, and made a sudden jabbing motion upward with his staff. Instantly, the whirling shadows exploded outward, whipping throughout the city.

Whisper looked up in alarm. “We surrendered! What are they –”

“No one will be harmed,” Thanatos said. “Not yet. My army is fearsome, but ill suited for manual labor. Atlanteans, however, are quite good at it.”

Cold rage replaced the weight in Whisper’s breast. “You’ll make us a slave race.”

“For now.” Thanatos plunged the butt of his staff into the sea bottom and proffered his hand to her. “But first I have one project which I require of your populace. The Imperial Palace is straight ahead, I presume.”

Whisper rose haughtily, without his help. “It is. Why?”

“Take me there,” Thanatos commanded. “I wish to examine the Imperial Archives.”


The air smelled so sweet as to be intoxicating. The grass was thick and springy under his feet. It was a pleasure to move, to walk upright, to be a man.

Garokk breathed in deeply. At long last, he was free again.

The Antarctic sun filtered through the jungle canopy of the Savage Land, dappling the ground with shifting patterns. What a joy it was to taste fresh air, to see, to hear, to feel! Garokk was glad to experience the fruits of his long years of service. As the mystical protector of the Savage Land, he had given up his human abilities so that his lifeforce might keep the land whole. Now that he had drawn the stripling girl Strange into his position, he was once again free to enjoy the world on the more personal level he had craved for years.

He could feel a wellspring of magical power pulse deep within him. The opportunity to become Sorcerer Supreme had been a powerful extra incentive, he had to admit.

An iridescent dragonfly the length of a man’s forearm hummed up out of the deep jungle brush and snatched at his shoulder with cruel pincers. Garokk merely watched in amusement as its jaws scraped along his stony grey skin. Baiting these flesh-eaters had been a favorite pursuit of his childhood. Eventually the insect tired of its futile attacks, wavered uncertainly in the air as if picking up a new scent, and buzzed back into the darkness.

Indeed, Garokk could hear the hum of many such insects swarming nearby. At the same time, a thick pungent odor he could not quite identify wafted toward him. Nimbly he slipped into the forest, following the scent.

The odor became stronger and more unpleasant as he approached. The air was thick with flesh-eating dragonflies and blue bottleflies the size of his thumb. Soon he crashed through the underbrush into a clearing.

At first he was unsure what he was seeing. Nearby appeared to be an enormous mound of insects, constantly crawling over and on top of one another. As he came closer, however, he realized what it truly was: a dead apatosaur, now a feast for the bottom of the food chain. Garokk felt a pang of regret; the dinosaur population of the Savage Land was small enough that losing mature, breeding-capable adults would be a strain on their survival. He shook his head sadly and walked on.

And discovered another dead apatosaur directly behind. This one was smaller, presumably the mate of the first, and in a similar state of decomposition. Its head lay next to its mate, as if nuzzling it in despair before it died. Garokk could see no signs of violence on either carcass, although they were apparently mature but not aged specimens. By the looks of it, they had both lain down together … and simply expired.

A horrible premonition clutched Garokk’s heart. He walked quickly beyond the second corpse to see … a third, a dimetrodon this time, back plates already picked clean. Beyond that, he saw two ankylosaurs, a triceratops, and worst of all, probably the only adult allosaur in all of the Savage Land, all neatly lined up, all dead of no apparent cause. They all seemed to have died around the same time, maybe even simultaneously.

Garokk’s eyes filled with tears. He stumbled to his knees and gasped, overwhelmed by the thick stench of rotting meat. All gone. All his work, his interminable years as the living force of the Savage Land, his power sustaining these noble beasts, all for nothing. Why? Why?

OLD FOOL. A voice like an earthquake, coming from nowhere.

Garokk jumped up, looking about wildly. “Who’s there?”


“Who is that?” Garokk demanded. Reflexively, he framed an incantation in his mind; dimensional power flooded his body, itching for release. “Who speaks so to the Sorcerer Supreme?”


Garokk’s eyes widened. “Strange? No! It can’t be! I’ve bound you!”

The voice roared amusement, laughter like the end of the world. YOU BOUND THE GIRL. BUT YOU DIDN’T BIND ME.

Before Garokk could react, the ground erupted around him. Earth and stone shot skyward, spun impossibly in midair, and screamed back down in fiery streaks. Garokk shouted, “NOOOO –”

The earth closed over him with a thunderous report, then settled like waves in a calming ocean. Soon nothing remained to mark his passing. The insects droned on, oblivious.

December had never seen so much excitement in Ares Base before. After Ben’s discovery of an alien Radical Cube in their warehouse, the thought of any way home, even one through something as dangerous as the Negative Zone, had galvanized the scientists into a fever of activity. In a surprisingly short period of time, the scientists were ready for their first test run.

Dr. Isaacs, after discussing the nature and inhabitants of the Negative Zone with Ben, had decided that the first few tests would err on the side of caution. She had drafted a whole laundry list of requirements, including a standing order that all inhabitants of Ares Base carry a sidearm and that enhanced-power residents must be present at every portal opening.

As a result, both December and Ben stood nearby as Dr. Isaacs counted down to the opening of the first test portal. The gallery above the test chamber burbled with onlookers. December wouldn’t have been surprised if every Ares Base resident were up there. A little self-consciously, she shifted in her revealing costume; unstable molecule fabric or not, too much movement the wrong way and she’d be busting out all over.

Isaacs’ voice echoed through the room: “Three … two … one … now.”

Energy fizzled and swirled inside the “Doorframe”, a hexagonal grouping of field generators standing next to the alien device itself. December thought she could see stars, sunbursts, even whole planets in the shifting weirdness beyond. The gallery erupted with cheers. “Portal’s steady,” the operator called over the din to Dr. Isaacs. “Looks like we … what the — !?”

Suddenly the portal wobbled like ripples spreading through a pool of water. Small coruscations of magenta energy foamed from the center. The cheers from the gallery died down quickly, replaced with a rumble of consternation. December thought she could see movement in the portal beyond, but she couldn’t be certain. She glanced to Ben next to her for an explanation.

Instead, her confusion grew. Ben Grimm seemed mesmerized by the open portal, his jaw slack, red eyes pulsating dimly with a regular beat. “Ben?” December asked, but he gave no indication that he’d heard her. Unsteadily, he took a half-step forward, then another, as if being drawn forward against his will.

“I don’t get these readings,” the tech said as the energy pattern grew. “The power’s fluctuating all across the spectrum.”

“Emergency shutdown,” Dr. Isaacs called. Still eyeing the portal warily, she drew her pistol. “Now, please.”

The tech fumbled with the controls. “It’s entering a cascade. I can’t isolate the bandwidth!”

Meanwhile, the Thing continued to jerk slowly forward. December put her hand on his arm. “Ben? Mr. Grimm? Are you okay?”

“Must enter … for the harvesting …” Ben husked, eyes transfixed on the portal.

Okay, this was as creepy as December could stand. She knew she wasn’t powerful enough to stop him, but she had to get his attention. She summoned up the icy lump in the center of her being and channeled it through her fingertips.

“YEOWTCH!” Ben jumped and yanked his arm back, rubbing off frost. “Whaddaya think yer doin’!? You could give a guy freezer burn, here!”

“You were freaking out,” she replied. “You made like you were walking into the portal, and said something about ‘harvesting.'”

“Harvestin’?” Ben frowned. “Why would I say somethin’ like that? It ain’t my style.” He looked up and started. “Whoa!”

December followed his gaze. The portal was almost totally obscured by the reddish energy now. A loud crackle echoed off the walls. The air stank of ozone. Several technicians struggled to work the control panels, but showers of sparks sent some of them flying. “The cascade is growing!” Isaacs shouted, working controls with one hand and clutching her pistol in the other. “Stand clear!”

Suddenly the magenta swirl of energy turned yellow, and its rising crackle suddenly ceased. In the eerie silence, Ben put his hand on December’s shoulder. “Looks like somethin’s comin’ through. Get ready fer anything,” he growled.

December strained to see past the energy tendrils rising out of the portal’s face. As they grew, the tendrils changed color from yellow to white, gaining an odd solidity.

With a sick horror, December realized the tendrils were what was coming through the portal. Strange, pallid, thin tendrils, extruding into the room, writhing, drooping toward the floor …

December dropped into an action stance. In revulsion, she called her icy core into her hands, ready to blast those unholy things into ice cubes. Half a dozen guards burst into the room behind her and leveled heavy power rifles at the portal. December smirked. Whatever those things are attached to doesn’t stand a chance.

“Hold yer fire!” Ben shouted. He lurched forward and scooped up the tendrils in his huge hands.

“Mr. Grimm!” Dr. Isaacs cried from behind the picket of gun barrels. “Stand away!”

December gaped. “Ben, what are you doing?”

But Ben had already started hauling the wormlike things in like a longshoreman with a rope. “C’mon now,” he muttered. “Yer okay now.”

December watched in amazement. The four tendrils which had entered the portal were attached to a single, thicker strand, which had a fifth tendril attached limply to one side. Ben continued to pull on the elastic stuff as white coils piled up on the floor behind him. After a few moments, the white stuff gave way to midnight blue, but still Ben pulled hand over hand.

Then a man’s head emerged from the portal and bobbed on a fantastically long neck. “Ben? Ben! Thank God! It is you!”

“Hey, Reed,” Ben grunted, grinning. “Good to see ya. ‘Sbeen a while.”

The Atlantean Archives were a madhouse.

The shadow creatures had turned all the ancient writings out of the stacks. As Thanatos entered with Whisper in tow, shades continued to rip through shelves of scrolls. Tattered bits of centuries-old parchment flowed out through the open doorway, some still bearing fragments of original handwritten text. Whisper’s heart sank at the thought of all the ancient philosophies and learnings destroyed.

“Summon the chief librarian,” Thanatos ordered her.

Whisper gritted her teeth but called for the chief of archives. Soon the archivist, a middle-aged, dark-haired woman named Hypatia, flanked by two shade creatures, entered the room. “What have you done to us?” she demanded in a rage of Thanatos.

“Not as much as I will do if you don’t produce the Chronicles of Namor the First right away,” Thanatos said warningly.

Hypatia raised her chin in defiance. “The Holy Chronicles are not for the likes of you.”

Thanatos merely lifted an eyebrow. “Hypatia. Interesting history of that name. She was the last librarian at the Library of Alexandria. Are you aware of her fate?”

“The history of the surface-dwellers means nothing to us,” Hypatia scoffed.

“It should.” Thanatos glanced to the shades on either side of the librarian and nodded. Instantly, they pounced on her, rending her flesh. The librarian’s screams echoed throughout the library. Whisper averted her eyes. A moment later, the shades whisked away, leaving only a gleaming white skeleton which collapsed to the floor. “I apologize for the lack of appropriate touches,” Thanatos said to the pile of bones, “but abalone shells are in short supply these days.”

“Murderer!” Whisper grated.

“And worse,” Thanatos agreed gravely. “I’ve come too far to be sidetracked by irascible librarians. Perhaps the next in line will be more willing to help.”

Indeed, by the time Whisper tracked down the second librarian, he was returning from the deep stacks with the tome in question. Soon they all stood around the ancient book. Thanatos’ eyes glowed as he devoured its contents. “Ah yes,” he whispered. “Yes. Brilliant!”

To the librarian’s apparent but silent horror, Thanatos ripped a page from the book and waved it in their faces. “This is it!” he cried in jubilation. “This is what has been denied to me for so many years. This is the task I will set before you and your people. You will build these machines, from these plans, at the place I determine. And then …”

His face twisted in an expression Whisper found infinitely frightening. “And then … my dreams will come true.”

*NOTE to 2099’ians: This is the armor Doom wore around the time he created the Point, just before the “Rage Against Time” storyline when the artwork was done in the “Popeye meets Ziggy” style. Not that I’m bitter. –C.

Next episode: Old enemies clash, old friends are reunited, and new alliances reveal themselves. Plus, Cerebra gets her groove back! What more incentive do you need? The future continues in a mere (yeah, right) thirty-ish!
DISCLAIMER: 2099 (including all prominent characters and the distinct likenesses thereof) is a property of Marvel Comics Group. Used without permission, but with the greatest admiration. “2100: The New World” and original characters are © 1998 Chris Casey. This text is freeware. No part of this text may be sold or changed in any way without the express permission of the author. Comments and e-mail should be addressed to Christopher Casey.