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[Actual Play, NSFData] Marvel's Agents of STRIKE - S04E06: "STRIKE 2099"

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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    g3xuawl.png

    In another part of the market district, the Dark Destroyer begins staggering to its feet.

    With a metallic smash, Michael stomps on his chest, leans down and blasts full force into the Dark Destroyer's face! The creature’s head plating starts peeling back and away like a piece of steel under a cutting torch. The dark energy suffusing its frame suddenly dissipates, like smoke on the breeze. The lifeless metal collapses into armor fragments.

    Michael is scooping up a double armful of the metal when the swarms begin to descend. Still clutching the pieces, he takes to the sky, desperately trying to locate his team.

    He finds them in a public square. Miles and Jocasta are standing the middle of an open clearing, holding hands and staring into the sky. Captain Marvel and the Beta Ray Rider soar overhead, firing blasts into the roiling swarm.

    Nearby, Julian and Anelle are crouched over Elise, who lies supine and motionless on the ground. Nebula and Mantis watch them, holding hands. A moment later, Centurion approaches from another direction. A green figure detaches itself from the screaming thousands thronging the streets and goes to join them.

    As he lands, a few look at Michael with surprise in their eyes, wondering at Krugarr’s absence. Racing to Elise, he finds Anelle is bent over her with a medkit she grabbed off a nearby wall. It's Strontian medical tech, so even though Elise has had a stroke, the prognosis...is good.

    Elise awakens with a gasp. "Where is he?!" She clutches at Anelle and Julian, staring around wildly. "Where is he, where's the man in the cloak! Where is he?! I saw everything, I saw, I saw..."

    In a violet flash, Krugarr suddenly reappears. "Wha-" Michael jumps back.

    Smoke is billowing off the alien sorcerer and he's leaning on the side of a wall, looking exhausted, but he meets Michael’s gaze. I was able to...teleport away...at the last minute… he signs to Michael.

    Behemoth nods. This may be asking too much, but can you make a portal for us to get out of here?

    Krugarr looks up at him weakly. Yes...but only if I maintain it. Which I will. Hold them off. He begins making circular motions and a glowing orange portal begins to form.

    Michael sets the shards of the Dark Destroyer down near Miles and Jocasta and takes up position to cover Krugarr. Tryco grabs a blaster rifle from an abandoned shop, and hands it to Ryann. "We must buy the worm man time." Ryann checks the rifle. He nods.

    Holding Elise, Julian stares upward in wonder and horror. It's the fucking Devourer, it's the fucking Devourer, we're not ready! Unless...Everyone… In his mind, a billion voices suddenly overtake all other thoughts.

    You have silenced us for too long, Julian
    Now he is here and you are not ready.


    Julian shakes his head. Not any longer. We'll get out of this. This time. We will gather more to fight. He turns his thoughts to his companions. Everyone, I think I know what I have to do.

    When Julian lets her go, Elise scrambles to her feet, staring around her, looking nearly feral. Her eyes search the horizon for something no one can see. "Hey now. Stay close to me and relax.” Elise hears Nebula’s calming voice, and feels Nebula's hand on her shoulder. “"Hey, Elise, look...look..." Nebula points at her head.

    pvQSJaql.jpg

    "Same hair."

    Elise stares for a moment, and then some of the tension drains from her and she laughs. "Same hair."

    Nebula clearly got some upgrades and changes to her appearance. And...bought a sword?...during their absence. "Good taste," Elise says. Elise still looks drawn and haunted, but she looks more present. She draws her borrowed prison guard’s weapon to offer supporting fire.

    The survivors thronging the market square shriek in terror as one. Miles' and Jocasta’s efforts bought them time, but now the swarm descends.

    "I need to get higher," Ryann says.

    Miles powers up his jets. "Get on, Ryann!"

    Ryann hops onto Miles' back. "Don't crash, this isn't how I wanna go down."

    Miles takes off with Ryann on his back, and flies toward the swarm. "Cover us!" He begins firing his repulsors. Carol joins them. Drones are scorched by plasma, explode in bursts of repulsor force, or are just...converted to photons and hot gas expanding outwards faster than the speed of sound. Their blackened husks rain from the sky, but there are always more.

    From high in the air, they see the city, and what they see is...grim.

    9YJcQ9Sh.jpg

  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    edited December 2018
    From the ground, Julian hurls fire at the swarm. If we're going to get through this...I need you.

    Allow us to assume control, Julian!

    Julian gives himself over to the Phoenix Force. He bursts into flame, and becomes a bird of fire. The Phoenix begins sweeping the clouds away in massive wings of flame.

    FsOMYSOl.jpg?1

    Bill rides alongside Miles and Ryann, firing at the swarm and howling with savage fury, when the swarm suddenly grabs him. They pull him off his Beta Ray cycle and begin pulling him apart.

    Bill! Phoenix cries. Machine Man and Centurion dive headlong into the fray, firing desperately, risking everything.

    They try their best.

    But Bill is shredded apart by Galactus drones. They begin consuming his mystical energy.

    We can save him, Julian. The Spirit of Vengeance is akin to us, the death knell of a people crying out for justice in a cold uncaring universe. We cannot let that flame die. It must be added to our pyre.

    Flame pours from Julian’s eyes as he turns his gaze to the feasting swarm. Then we will save him.

    The Phoenix wraps Bill's cycle, body, and the ravening drones in wings of fire. And burns everything. Including Julian.

    jogxdTKl.jpg

    As Miles dives beneath the flames, Ryann has to hold an arm over his face to shield his eyes from the searing glow. Something’s moving within the fire. From the ashes of the Beta Ray Rider, something new rides for vengeance!

    f2DabCbl.jpg

    "Whoa," Behemoth says, his rumbling voice low with awe.

    "WHAT IS EVEN HAPPENING?!" Miles cries, as he races to get himself and Ryann to...not safety, exactly...

    Elise stares up at the heavens. "What the fuck, Julian, that's so fucking...what. God damnit.” She clutches her head. “Fucking. Are you serious? God damnit!" She sees everything happening at once. It's too much. She's seen too much. She sees the Phoenix Rider blazing across the sky. The apocalyptic, devouring swarm rending the whole world asunder.

    And then.

    Everything stops.

    Time.

    Stops.

    "No."

    Jacobkosh on
  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    "No, no, no, no, please -" Elise turns, panicked.

    4RzI4lDl.jpg

    "Hello, Elise."

    Elise stares at him. "You lied to me. You, you lied to me, and you..."

    "No." He holds up a hand. "I tested them. And they failed you. Elise, when I gave you the Cosmic Cube, in the time you had it, did you attempt at all to use it?"

    "...No."

    "I see. And when you told the rest of STRIKE that you possessed this item of power, what was the very first thing they did?"

    "They took it from me," Elise whispers.

    "Mhm." Vlad cradles his chin. "I see. So when you revealed that you had power, even though you had every potential to use it, or abuse it, how you saw fit but had not done so…they took it from you. Simply for revealing that you had it."

    "C-Clay said he would give it back."

    "And did he?"

    "...Everyone was yelling, and arguing," she mumbles. "They - they say you're evil. That you're trying to hurt them, through me."

    "They lie, Elise," he says. "They always lie. They lied when they said they would give it back."

    "You didn't come.” Elise's mouth is still dry from the medkit spray. Her head feels fuzzy. Everything feels wrong. “We were in Xandar prison, and I thought, if you ever loved me, you'd come then, and you...you didn't..."

    "Did you need me?"

    "...No." Elise swallows hard.

    "And yet now, at the turning of the tide, you do." He looks at Krugarr, "He is too weak. His spell will fail. You will all die here."

    Elise closes her eyes and sways in place. "I don't want to die."

    "You won't."

    "I want to see my wife, my child, I want to go home."

    "I will not permit you to die."

    Elise suddenly flings herself at Vlad, wrapping her arms around his shoulders in a hug. "Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you." He hugs back. "I knew, I knew you'd come. I knew they were wrong."

    "They won't believe you if you tell them," he says. "They don't want to believe." Vlad makes a circular motion, and Krugarr's portal glows brighter. "When we are done here, the portal will be complete. He will still need to maintain it. All will be as they believe it to be. It will be what they want to believe. But you have perceived the truth. Perception is what you do."

    "If I tell them you were here...?"

    "There are two possibilities. One is that they will refuse to believe you, and attribute it to your damaged mind, harmed by...whatever happened to you, I know not," he says. "The other is that they do believe you, but they no longer trust you. Not because they do not care for you, Elise. They do. But they do not trust me. They want to believe I am what they say I am. And thus, they will believe you have no judgment. Cannot be trusted to be treated as an equal, of one who makes sound and right decisions.

    "You do not have to keep this a secret. I will not ask you to lie. But understand the burden of what comes with the truth," he says. "...you saw what happened when you showed them the Cube, after all."

    "...It was mine," she breathes.

    "Yes, it was." He nods. "And they took it from you."

    Elise lets go of Vlad. "I...I have a lot to think about."

    "Yes."

    "Don't ever lie to me again. I don't care if it's a test," she says. "Don't lie to me."

    "I promise." He puts out his pinky finger.

    Elise pinky-swears with Vlad. "Okay." When she does, she notices he's wearing the bracelet. Over his Victorious armor. "You still..."

    He reaches over and hands her the other one. "Another thing they took from you. A simple matter for me to get it back."

    Elise takes the bracelet and loops it around her wrist. "Take us somewhere safe. I don't...I don't feel good. I saw...too much. Too deep."

    "The Anabasis. They can help you."

    "Yes." Relief floods through Elise. "I can call Crys. Oh, thank God, I hope she's okay."

    Vlad puts his hand on Elise's shoulder. "I must go now. This is a spell, and even for me, it has a duration."

    "...I miss you. I'll miss you."

    "I miss you too." He turns to walk away, and then looks up at the purple sky and smirks. "It is funny. There is a human phrase for the cliche, at the end of a performance when all hope is lost and things fall apart, to suddenly resolve the situation by way of the arrival of a powerful being...by machine..." He chuckles at his own joke before vanishing.

  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    edited December 2018
    Time unfreezes.

    Elise turns, taking in the fire and destruction, the chaos and screaming. She presses one hand to her wrist to see if the bracelet is still there. It is.

    Krugarr's portal opens, and he looks at Michael and nods. "EVERYONE INTO THE PORTAL!" Michael's amplified voice bellows. Elise leaps into the gateway.

    The Phoenix Rider begins to descend. The way is open. We will make sure the others get through, and then we will follow.

    As the team rushes into the portal, Miles stands staring up at the sky, tears streaming down his face. "The last one. This has to be the last one...." He steps into the portal.

    Julian can actually feel, with the power of the Rider, that he's more in control. As the Phoenix Rider, he finally feels like he can take command. The voices are still there, they still call to him, but they're not constantly clawing at his mind to take the wheel. Now, face to face with the Devourer, he has clarity of purpose and unity of intent. He and the voices steer downward, and the Phoenix Rider charges through the portal. Bearing the Dark Destroyer's remains, Michael leaps through behind him.

    He lands on the deck of the Anabasis. Elise is on her hands and knees, trembling. "I saw so much. I saw so much."

    Michael looks back at the gateway shimmering behind him. "Krugarr! Come through!"

    Krugarr looks at Michael, tears welling up in his eyes.

    Michael has a choice. He can quickly try to grab Krugarr and pull him through the portal. But if he’s too slow, whatever is passing through the portal when it closes will be...bisected. "No one gets left behind!" he roars, and reaches through the portal.

    ...but not quickly enough. He can either lose an arm. Or he can lose half a Krugarr.

    Michael saves Krugarr. The portal snaps shut, and energy begins blasting wildly out of the hole in the Destroyer armor. Michael has to power down immediately or he's going to blast a hole in the hull within seconds.

    With agonizing effort, he resumes his human form. His arm is gone.

    "Michael!!" Julian screams in a hundred voices. He powers down, the fire receding and his motorcycle vanishing into flame. He rushes over.

    Elise helps him lower Michael to the deck. "It's fine. It's fine, we're on the Anabasis. You're safe. Everyone's safe." Michael stares at his lost limb in shock. The arm has been burned sealed, cauterized by the portal closing.

    Miles stares through rheumy, red-rimmed eyes. "Oh my god, Michael," he rasps in a ragged voice. "DOCTOR MACTAGGART!"

    Elise breathes a sigh of relief. No one seems to notice anything wrong with her. She's fine. Everything is fine. She hears shouting. Gun drawn, Alec Dalton bursts into the hangar bay, accompanied by a security detail. "Hey, woah, woah!" Elise throws her hands in the air. With a couple of quick gestures, Dalton waves his team forward and the other officers of the Anabasis rush into the hangar bay.

    "We need a medic!" Ryann calls.

    Dr. MacTaggert runs to Michael and kneels down next to him. "Oh Michael! We'll take care of you! Hey, hey, Nebula, help me get him to the medbay." Nebula nods and helps Moira fireman-carry Michael to the medbay.

    Kane races into the hangar bay. She sees Julian and immediately dives at him and scoops him up into a hug. She's crying. "I am so, so sorry," he says, pulling her close. Kane isn't saying anything. She's just crying.

    With a hoarse cry of anguish, Miles falls to his knees and slams his fists into the deck. Carol kneels down next to him and wraps her arms around him. "We just saw a world die," Carol whispers. Miles buries his face in her hair and weeps.

    With Ryann’s help, Dalton begins lining up the other survivors and getting their names and information.

    Elise begins to inch out of the room, her eyes darting from face to face. Do I tell them?

    Tell them what?
    Anelle’s voice rings in her head.

    Tell us what? Julian thinks.

    Elise freezes. "Nothing." she blurts out. She clasps both hands to her mouth. Julian can read a miasma of emotion boiling off Elise. Guilt, terror, unease. Anger.

    Anelle turns to give Elise a confused look. Dalton looks up from his tablet at this. "And who are you, Skrull?" He's scowling at her.

    She rolls her eyes. "Anelle of the House of Dorrek."

    Kane suddenly stops crying and whips around. "Wait what the fuck..."

    "Yeah,” Julian says. “We picked up a few people on our way."

    Kane is trying to take a cleansing breath. She's really emotional. Mantis puts her hand on Kane's shoulder and smiles. "I'm Mantis. It's going to be okay."

    Kane seems to calm down. "Okay, so, if everyone can just...fill out reports. I know that sounds...awful right now but I think if we can just like, try to claw out some normalcy, bring everybody up to speed, share information, figure things out.

    "We'll sort this all out in the morning, after everyone has had some time to sleep. I'll get Samson to charge up the ansible, we'll put a call in to HQ. I'm...I'm so glad to see all of you. It's been...it's been a while."

    With Carol's help, Miles hoists himself up shakily. He asks X-51 to write and file the reports for him.

    "God, sleep. That sounds like the best thing in the world right now." Still trying to inch out of the room, Elise avoids eye contact with Julian. "We missed you, Kane. Glad to be back."

    If you're trying to keep secrets from them, I can help you, Elise hears in her mind. It's Anelle. Julian does not hear this.

    Elise feels a hot prick of guilt in her gut. I don't know.

    We'll talk about it. I have questions for you too. About my father.
    Elise looks at Anelle and nods.

    Kane looks at the team. "Welcome to Sakaar, by the way. This planet's a shithole."

    PDKpJsK.png

    Jacobkosh on
    visiblehowlFencingsaxMatev
  • PowerpuppiesPowerpuppies Registered User regular
    edited December 2018
    Best update ever

    I love the Phoenix Rider

    I love benevolent Vlad you can't trust with weird kinda correct logic

    I love perfect skrull detection technology WHOOPS Galactus ate it

    I love Miles's girlfriend twin turning up while he's already dating someone pretty seriously

    Also, I think Michael heard you when you said he was a hero!

    Powerpuppies on
    sig.gif
    JacobkoshFencingsaxMatev
  • jurnerjurner Registered User regular
    So, Michael scored a bunch of Uru just in time to lose his arm? Please tell me he pulls an Old Man Thor!

    Jacobkosh
  • Dread Pirate ArbuthnotDread Pirate Arbuthnot OMG WRIGGLY T O X O P L A S M O S I SRegistered User regular
    i just want to share that at this moment
    "You do not have to keep this a secret. I will not ask you to lie. But understand the burden of what comes with the truth," he says. "...you saw what happened when you showed them the Cube, after all."

    "...It was mine," she breathes.

    jacob gave an anguished howl over voice chat and it owned extremely hard

    visiblehowlJacobkoshPowerpuppiesFencingsaxMatev
  • visiblehowlvisiblehowl He/Him Neutron Nerd Registered User regular
    holy fucking shit what an episode

    vxsHp3F.gif
    I die evry tiem in Sekiro on Twitch
    Jacobkosh
  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    jurner wrote: »
    So, Michael scored a bunch of Uru just in time to lose his arm? Please tell me he pulls an Old Man Thor!

    Yep, I should probably go back and make it clear that he did in fact grab the Uru on his way through the portal.

  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    oh also I missed this question from earlier @Powerpuppies
    so is the only thing that went differently between this mission and the wakanda one the rolls and mason being a worse leader due to the matrix incident? Crazy to think how pivotal a few seconds were

    Somewhat, but not quite. Michael toasting the Chancellor was foreordained; in this system, the GM can fiat something to happen against the players' wishes in exchange for compensating the players with XP. So when Michael armors up and blasts Chancellor Xor, or the various times when Maximus gave orders to player characters, that's the GM telling us what happens, but we get to go ding and add +XP to our character sheet.

    A certain type of gamer out there would be like RAAGH RAAGH RAILROADS RAAGH RAAGH STORYGAMES but like

    - that same player would be totally fine with the same thing if the GM just invented a level 20 NPC lich out of whole cloth and had the lich cast Greater Geas with a basically 0% chance of failure. And in superhero terms, a guy like Maximus or a high-powered Royal Skrull is exactly as much of a threat to the PCs as that level 20 lich would be to some level 4 D&D goobers, so I don't see it as super different.
    - Lots of systems have provisions for this, it's not original to our game. Modiphius' 2d20 system lets the GM spend a special GM resource (called Heat or Threat or Doom depending on the game) to "end the scene with a serious but non-lethal setback for the players." So you can have the dun-dun-dunnnh! moment of the PCs getting captured or whatever without having to, for instance, waste everyone's time playing through an unwinnable fight scene just to achieve the same result of the PCs getting captured (and potentially risking killing them in the process, as often happens in D&D type games when the GM thinks the players will definitely surrender).
    - Matt uses the rule very, very sparingly. The assassination and Maximus are almost the only times it's ever happened.

    Anyway, though, aside from the actual moment of assassination, everything else was our own choices and our own genuinely terrible luck with rolls. If we had done things differently, Xor would still be dead, and we would still be arrested, but the tenor of events could have been very, very different; for instance if we'd all immediately turned on Michael instead of attacking Nova-Prime, we might have been treated more like innocent patsies than loathsome assassins.

  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    also
    I love perfect skull detection technology

    hee hee hee hee hee

    Powerpuppies
  • PowerpuppiesPowerpuppies Registered User regular
    Jacobkosh wrote: »
    also
    I love perfect skull detection technology

    hee hee hee hee hee

    I said WHOOPS okay whaddaya want from me

    sig.gif
    Jacobkosh
  • PowerpuppiesPowerpuppies Registered User regular
    Jacobkosh wrote: »
    oh also I missed this question from earlier @Powerpuppies
    so is the only thing that went differently between this mission and the wakanda one the rolls and mason being a worse leader due to the matrix incident? Crazy to think how pivotal a few seconds were

    Somewhat, but not quite. Michael toasting the Chancellor was foreordained; in this system, the GM can fiat something to happen against the players' wishes in exchange for compensating the players with XP. So when Michael armors up and blasts Chancellor Xor, or the various times when Maximus gave orders to player characters, that's the GM telling us what happens, but we get to go ding and add +XP to our character sheet.

    A certain type of gamer out there would be like RAAGH RAAGH RAILROADS RAAGH RAAGH STORYGAMES but like

    - that same player would be totally fine with the same thing if the GM just invented a level 20 NPC lich out of whole cloth and had the lich cast Greater Geas with a basically 0% chance of failure. And in superhero terms, a guy like Maximus or a high-powered Royal Skrull is exactly as much of a threat to the PCs as that level 20 lich would be to some level 4 D&D goobers, so I don't see it as super different.
    - Lots of systems have provisions for this, it's not original to our game. Modiphius' 2d20 system lets the GM spend a special GM resource (called Heat or Threat or Doom depending on the game) to "end the scene with a serious but non-lethal setback for the players." So you can have the dun-dun-dunnnh! moment of the PCs getting captured or whatever without having to, for instance, waste everyone's time playing through an unwinnable fight scene just to achieve the same result of the PCs getting captured (and potentially risking killing them in the process, as often happens in D&D type games when the GM thinks the players will definitely surrender).
    - Matt uses the rule very, very sparingly. The assassination and Maximus are almost the only times it's ever happened.

    Anyway, though, aside from the actual moment of assassination, everything else was our own choices and our own genuinely terrible luck with rolls. If we had done things differently, Xor would still be dead, and we would still be arrested, but the tenor of events could have been very, very different; for instance if we'd all immediately turned on Michael instead of attacking Nova-Prime, we might have been treated more like innocent patsies than loathsome assassins.

    Oh yeah I love that system and rule and I wasn't coming at it from that perspective. I'm glad you told us about when he pulled that because with your random clever Julian check in on Behemoth, Maximus's shit was almost totally cancelled. Interesting that Maximus and Nova were the "unwinnable" situations in a way that Clay nullifying Fury or the Wakanda throne rooms were not. Also very cool that you managed to do an end run around the first Kobayashi Maru but the second one got you good.

    sig.gif
  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    Jacobkosh wrote: »
    oh also I missed this question from earlier @Powerpuppies
    so is the only thing that went differently between this mission and the wakanda one the rolls and mason being a worse leader due to the matrix incident? Crazy to think how pivotal a few seconds were

    Somewhat, but not quite. Michael toasting the Chancellor was foreordained; in this system, the GM can fiat something to happen against the players' wishes in exchange for compensating the players with XP. So when Michael armors up and blasts Chancellor Xor, or the various times when Maximus gave orders to player characters, that's the GM telling us what happens, but we get to go ding and add +XP to our character sheet.

    A certain type of gamer out there would be like RAAGH RAAGH RAILROADS RAAGH RAAGH STORYGAMES but like

    - that same player would be totally fine with the same thing if the GM just invented a level 20 NPC lich out of whole cloth and had the lich cast Greater Geas with a basically 0% chance of failure. And in superhero terms, a guy like Maximus or a high-powered Royal Skrull is exactly as much of a threat to the PCs as that level 20 lich would be to some level 4 D&D goobers, so I don't see it as super different.
    - Lots of systems have provisions for this, it's not original to our game. Modiphius' 2d20 system lets the GM spend a special GM resource (called Heat or Threat or Doom depending on the game) to "end the scene with a serious but non-lethal setback for the players." So you can have the dun-dun-dunnnh! moment of the PCs getting captured or whatever without having to, for instance, waste everyone's time playing through an unwinnable fight scene just to achieve the same result of the PCs getting captured (and potentially risking killing them in the process, as often happens in D&D type games when the GM thinks the players will definitely surrender).
    - Matt uses the rule very, very sparingly. The assassination and Maximus are almost the only times it's ever happened.

    Anyway, though, aside from the actual moment of assassination, everything else was our own choices and our own genuinely terrible luck with rolls. If we had done things differently, Xor would still be dead, and we would still be arrested, but the tenor of events could have been very, very different; for instance if we'd all immediately turned on Michael instead of attacking Nova-Prime, we might have been treated more like innocent patsies than loathsome assassins.

    Oh yeah I love that system and rule and I wasn't coming at it from that perspective. I'm glad you told us about when he pulled that because with your random clever Julian check in on Behemoth, Maximus's shit was almost totally cancelled. Interesting that Maximus and Nova were the "unwinnable" situations in a way that Clay nullifying Fury or the Wakanda throne rooms were not. Also very cool that you managed to do an end run around the first Kobayashi Maru but the second one got you good.

    Oh, I know you aren't One Of Those Types! It's just something on my mind a lot lately because of some (very dumb) arguments I have been seeing on rpg.net.

    I would say that sometimes it's not necessarily a Kobayashi Maru situation. We weren't meant to lose to Maximus, exactly; it's just that his power is, canonically, very strong so it would be weird if it were mechanically instantiated in such a way that it only succeeded on us 60% of the time like a D&D power, or whatever. It's more authentic to just have it work automatically (and then compensate us for the difficulty) than to have it be up to the dice. The single bad thing happens, but afterwards we're totally free to try to mitigate or negate the consequences.

  • PowerpuppiesPowerpuppies Registered User regular
    Jacobkosh wrote: »
    Jacobkosh wrote: »
    oh also I missed this question from earlier Powerpuppies
    so is the only thing that went differently between this mission and the wakanda one the rolls and mason being a worse leader due to the matrix incident? Crazy to think how pivotal a few seconds were

    Somewhat, but not quite. Michael toasting the Chancellor was foreordained; in this system, the GM can fiat something to happen against the players' wishes in exchange for compensating the players with XP. So when Michael armors up and blasts Chancellor Xor, or the various times when Maximus gave orders to player characters, that's the GM telling us what happens, but we get to go ding and add +XP to our character sheet.

    A certain type of gamer out there would be like RAAGH RAAGH RAILROADS RAAGH RAAGH STORYGAMES but like

    - that same player would be totally fine with the same thing if the GM just invented a level 20 NPC lich out of whole cloth and had the lich cast Greater Geas with a basically 0% chance of failure. And in superhero terms, a guy like Maximus or a high-powered Royal Skrull is exactly as much of a threat to the PCs as that level 20 lich would be to some level 4 D&D goobers, so I don't see it as super different.
    - Lots of systems have provisions for this, it's not original to our game. Modiphius' 2d20 system lets the GM spend a special GM resource (called Heat or Threat or Doom depending on the game) to "end the scene with a serious but non-lethal setback for the players." So you can have the dun-dun-dunnnh! moment of the PCs getting captured or whatever without having to, for instance, waste everyone's time playing through an unwinnable fight scene just to achieve the same result of the PCs getting captured (and potentially risking killing them in the process, as often happens in D&D type games when the GM thinks the players will definitely surrender).
    - Matt uses the rule very, very sparingly. The assassination and Maximus are almost the only times it's ever happened.

    Anyway, though, aside from the actual moment of assassination, everything else was our own choices and our own genuinely terrible luck with rolls. If we had done things differently, Xor would still be dead, and we would still be arrested, but the tenor of events could have been very, very different; for instance if we'd all immediately turned on Michael instead of attacking Nova-Prime, we might have been treated more like innocent patsies than loathsome assassins.

    Oh yeah I love that system and rule and I wasn't coming at it from that perspective. I'm glad you told us about when he pulled that because with your random clever Julian check in on Behemoth, Maximus's shit was almost totally cancelled. Interesting that Maximus and Nova were the "unwinnable" situations in a way that Clay nullifying Fury or the Wakanda throne rooms were not. Also very cool that you managed to do an end run around the first Kobayashi Maru but the second one got you good.

    Oh, I know you aren't One Of Those Types! It's just something on my mind a lot lately because of some (very dumb) arguments I have been seeing on rpg.net.

    I would say that sometimes it's not necessarily a Kobayashi Maru situation. We weren't meant to lose to Maximus, exactly; it's just that his power is, canonically, very strong so it would be weird if it were mechanically instantiated in such a way that it only succeeded on us 60% of the time like a D&D power, or whatever. It's more authentic to just have it work automatically (and then compensate us for the difficulty) than to have it be up to the dice. The single bad thing happens, but afterwards we're totally free to try to mitigate or negate the consequences.

    Nod. You kind of got started mitigating Maximus's move before the clock even started. I'm eager to know who pulled the strings this time around, and how.

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    Matev
  • FencingsaxFencingsax It is difficult to get a man to understand, when his salary depends upon his not understanding GNU Terry PratchettRegistered User regular
    As a question, and I feel like you may have said this somewhere towards the beginning, how familiar is everyone with Marvel in general?

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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    Fencingsax wrote: »
    As a question, and I feel like you may have said this somewhere towards the beginning, how familiar is everyone with Marvel in general?

    Matt the GM, me, and Vlad/Centurion's player, Jake, are fully marinated in this stuff, although I am personally less familiar with the more recent stuff, particularly anything after about 2008, while Jake is a few years younger than me and Matt and knows a lot more about 90s--00s comics than I do. Dave (Behemoth) and Choco (Phoenix) I think have a basic working knowledge from stuff like video games or the 90s X-Men cartoon, while I think Cass (Elise) is mostly a newcomer, although obviously in 2018 even a newcomer knows a fair deal about this stuff just from osmosis, as long as they're on the internet and under the age of 60.

    The varying level of knowledge is interesting and has been, in this instance, positive. I really enjoy the reactions that the less hardcore people have had to some of the crazier Marvel stuff that's come up, stuff I've taken for granted for decades. They also sometimes have really interesting ideas or perspectives that I hadn't heard before.

    But I think what's also interesting is tha for whatever reason—maybe because of Matt's GMing, or maybe because of the good example set by me and Jake, or maybe because they just have good instincts—the players who are less steeped in comics lore and comics storytelling have still plugged into the mode really well. The classic problem of superhero RPGing is mismatched expectations, where one guy wants to play Shazam and another guy wants to play a Frank Miller character and a third guy wants to be Dragonball Z and a fourth person just fundamentally can't deal with a story where you run into gods one week and mad scientists or talking ducks the next week so just starts acting out and ruining the fun of the other three.

    It's honestly part of the reason I'm kind of wary of running superhero games with groups of people who aren't super familiar with the style I'm going for. I don't run G-rated games but I have a lane that I like and I don't relish the prospect of asking some new player to not go around castrating muggers or whatever.

    But for whatever reason, that's never really been an issue with this group. Without even really talking about it too much, everyone just kind of slotted into this particular vein of action melodrama.

    Matev
  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    QHOnvB9h.jpg

    In the City of No Corners, in the place where shadows have no meaning because light is afraid to venture, Loki walks among the Deviants, the Dark Elves.

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    In a baroque temple of non-Euclidean geometry, Loki approaches an obsidian altar. Above him, ships of the Dark Elves soar against a nether sky.

    He raises his black staff to the sky and calls out "Shuma-Gorath, Midgard Serpent, Lord of Muspelheim, I call to you! We are prepared!"

    The sky of Thule tears asunder and implodes upon itself, pulling inwards towards a vacuum of nothing.

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    And then the nothing speaks.

    THE TIME HAS COME FOR ASGARD. RAGNAROK BEGINS.

  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
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    qlGmSdP.pngCaliburn Mission Report: Aftermath of the Strontia Event
    Report Filed by: Captain Isabel Kane, Commanding Officer of the Anabasis and Mission Leader for Operation Caliburn

    A few matters before I proceed with this report.

    First, I apologize for the lack of professionalism in my previous report. I was despondent due to what I considered imminent mission failure, and the reliance on substances to compensate. I’ve discontinued that and I’ve approached my command with more professionalism since that point.

    It’s been seven Earth days since STRIKE-1 has returned to the Anabasis from Strontia. Attached to this summary are more detailed reports from each of the STRIKE agents on the events on Xandar, the Kyln, and Strontia. I won’t belabor you with redundant details from their reports on what has transpired during STRIKE-1’s absence from the Anabasis.

    I’ve given the team (and the new additions they have brought with them) that time to rest and recover from their journey, to file their reports, and to be medically and psychologically assessed and treated by Dr. MacTaggert.

    With regards to the additions they have brought with them from the Kyln, 100% of these individuals are fugitives. Some of them are dangerous and violent and were in prison for very good reasons. Nonetheless, they are potential assets.

    XO Dalton and I have assessed and interviewed each of these individuals, and have determined that with one exception, they can be assembled into a secondary field team, an impromptu STRIKE team that we are tentatively calling STRIKE-4. Provisionally, STRIKE-4 is going to be led by Agent Danvers, since she has the most experience leading a field team and she is someone we can trust to do so.

    I have some notes on STRIKE-4 and specific details about them as an attachment to this report. I’ve also written an attached report about STRIKE-1, detailing how I feel we should proceed with each individual team member. I’ve conferred with Dr. MacTaggert on this report, given that we have some concerns about specific team members and their fitness and readiness to continue the mission.

    Finally, Dr. MacTaggert has authored her own report independently, that I have not reviewed, with regards to assessing the Anabasis crew. This includes an assessment of me personally, which is why I am not reviewing it before submission for conflict of interest purposes. Her capacity as the ship’s Medical Officer is independent from the rest of the chain of command and this report concerns the overall fitness and readiness of the crew and her assessment of the mission as it stands.

    I await your reply before proceeding.

    Captain Isabel Kane,
    Commanding Officer of the Anabasis

    qlGmSdP.pngSTRIKE=4 Assessment
    Assessment authored by: Captain Isabel Kane, Commanding Officer of the Anabasis and Mission Leader for Operation Caliburn

    STRIKE-4 is the temporary assignment code for a group of Kyln escapees that accompanied STRIKE-1. At this time, it has been determined that they are a potential asset, and as a result, have been enlisted as provisional STRIKE agents.

    Lothithanriaxiaxus
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    Known Aliases:
    Lothi
    Species: Undetermined. Lothi declines to answer. He possibly does not know. He claims to be from Xandar, which itself is a multicultural planet with a variety of inhabitants.
    Abilities of Note: Some degree of agility and reflex speed that is above human capacity. Lothi is also a highly trained assassin.

    Concerns: Lothi is seriously lacking in loyalty, and is willing to abandon the team if he feels it is in his best interests to do so. It is possible he is related to SWORD Director Abigail Brand, as he states he has a “half-sister on Earth named Abby.” Director Brand is reputed to be partially extraterrestrial in origin and has naturally green hair, and given Lothi’s naturally green fur, it is possible. Possibly talk to Director Brand about this? From a distance.

    Krugarr
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    Known Aliases:
    Krugarr the Sorcerer, The Sorcerer Serpent, the Sorcerer Supreme
    Species: Lem
    Abilities of Note: In addition to all the normative capabilities of his species (such as the high muscle strength of being one of the Lem), Krugarr is an incredibly powerful sorcerer, apparently the Sorcerer Supreme of his homeworld. He studied at Kamar-Taj on Earth, and is a peer of Doctor Strange.

    Concerns: Krugarr was rather seriously injured on Strontia, nearly being killed by a Herald of Galactus. He’s recovering, slowly, and is not at his full capacity. I’m hesitant to put him in the field until he feels ready.

    Jocasta Vi Quiteria
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    Known Aliases:
    Jocasta, Joelle
    Species: Synthezoid
    Abilities of Note: Augmented physical capacity far beyond human capabilities (equivalent to Miles Mason), wireless and touch-based electronic integration/hacking, other unknown abilities.

    Concerns: Jocasta is from Earth-209 (Machine Earth). She is fully aware of ARMOR and our world’s interaction with her own. In her opinion, however, ARMOR’s initial hostile interaction with the residents of Earth-209 and the subsequent Synthezoid incursion was due to a “misunderstanding”, with the Synthezoids assuming that ARMOR were in fact the invaders and that the Synthezoids were defending themselves. I’m not sure how much I believe Jocasta’s story here.

    Jocasta claims her mission in this universe has nothing to do with Earth, and everything to do with Galactus, that Galactus in her universe is a threat to her Earth and she’s come here hoping to gather intel she can bring back to her world, and thus for now our interests are aligned.

    Mantis
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    Aliases:
    Various names of insects in different alien languages. Her name of “Mantis” is actually an Autolang translation of the name of a Xandarian insect that is more or less equivalent to a mantis. She does not actually have a specific personal name for herself.
    Species: Unknown. Mantis claims to not know the name of her species, that she was taken at a very young age by slavers to be exploited for her abilities and thus, knows almost nothing about where she comes from.
    Abilities: of Note Touch-based empathic control and biokinesis. She can control emotions, pain, and bodily sensations in others by touch. She largely uses these abilities to induce euphoria or ease pain in others, and morally abhors using it to cause pain or harm.

    Concerns: Mantis is lacking in any combat training or experience, and while her abilities are extremely powerful (she can put anyone to sleep or completely alter their mental state with a touch) she has strong moral values against using them to hurt people. A great deal of ethical gymnastics will have to be utilized by Agent Danvers to convince Mantis to play ball on field operations.

    Tryco Slatterus
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    Aliases:
    Champion of the Universe, Tryco the Undefeated
    Species: Unknown. Tryco claims to have slain all other beings on his planet, and emerged victorious as the only survivor. He may be the equivalent of an Eternal on his world, perhaps the only one.
    Abilities of Note: Tryco claims to possess the “Power Primordial,” which makes him capable of flight, renders him seemingly invulnerable, and gives him the strength to go toe to toe with starships. He is so powerful that he has scoured entire worlds seeking to find their greatest champions, only to slay them and move on. He had an undefeated streak until he was beaten by Ryann Valt and imprisoned in the Kyln.

    Concerns: Tryco Slatterus is a genocidal mass murderer and dangerous psychopath. We need to extricate ourselves from interacting with this monster as soon as possible. However, he does want to fight Galactus, seeing him as the ultimate challenge, which means for the time being he considers us his ally and we are in a difficult position of risking slighting Tryco if we refuse him. We don’t need him as an enemy right now. As soon as an opportunity presents itself to imprison or otherwise rid ourselves of this individual, however, we need to.

  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    qlGmSdP.pngSTRIKE-1 Assessment
    Assessment authored by: Captain Isabel Kane, Commanding Officer of the Anabasis and Mission Leader for Operation Caliburn

    I’ve assessed each member of STRIKE-1 individually, conferring with Dr. MacTaggert on the subject. Below are their current status, and my recommendations going forward for your review and approval.

    Agent Michael Westin
    Status:
    Agent Westin has lost an arm in the Strontia Event. While Dr. MacTaggert has been able to attach a temporary prosthetic to give him more or less full functionality and make him field-ready if he so chooses, this limb loss was actually in his armored state, and that damage appears to be permanent. He cannot transform into his Destroyer form without missing a limb and expelling destructive energy constantly and uncontrollably.

    Agent Westin has speculated that using the Uru metal that he recovered from the Herald of Galactus that he defeated, it is possible to repair the damage to his Destroyer Armor and that this might restore his missing limb in both states, but we do not have anyone on-board capable of doing so.

    Recommendation: Find a way to contact Asgard and inform them of Westin’s situation. Michael is sworn to Odin and is, essentially, as much an Agent of Asgard as he is one of SHIELD and they’ll consider him one of their own. Possibly they can help him?

    Agent Ryann Valt
    Status:
    Agent Valt is doing extremely poorly. He has lost his powers, having been stripped of his connection to the Nova Force as part of being arrested for the murder of Chancellor Xor. He’s been branded a traitor to his people, exiled from his homeworld, and we still haven’t found his brother. He’s showing signs of depression and is not interacting with the rest of the crew, outside of periodically speaking to Nebula. While he was originally intended to be STRIKE team lead on this expedition, a series of tragedies both personal and overarching seem to have taken a strenuous toll on him.

    Recommendation: We know the Black Novas are on Sakaar. We know because we’ve been dodging them for weeks. They can’t all be part of whatever conspiracy happened on Xandar that led to STRIKE being hoodwinked into Xor’s death. I want to deploy Valt and Nebula to Sakaar to intentionally meet with the Black Novas and convince them that they’re on the wrong side of this, to investigate Garthan Saal and the Black Nova leadership, and look towards their own house. Valt doesn’t have a lot of respect for the Black Novas, but those men and women are still patriots and if they’re anything like black ops agents from Earth, they have to know something stinks about this situation.

    Agent Miles Mason
    Status:
    Due to STRIKE-1’s extended absence, Dr. MacTaggert has unfortunately not been able to fully monitor Agent Mason and X-51’s interactions the way you have requested, Director. It is unclear at this time if Miles is showing any concerning signs of influence from the Well of Mimir or if X-51 is showing any disconcerting signs of rampancy beyond the already established troubling behavioral issues, which we are continuing to monitor.

    Recommendation: I still want to go ahead with the “first date” proposal that HELEN came up with. I think it will be good for her and it’s the most seamless way to implement WATCHTOWER v2 for X-51. We made mistakes with Vladimir. We all did. Never again.

    Agent Julian Adler
    Status:
    As was detailed in the Strontia report, Julian merged with the alien known as Bill’s “Spirit of Vengeance,” and acquired new powers and abilities, which included a motorcycle made of fire that he can summon. I don’t understand that last part but I have to admit I don’t fully need to. Regardless, this was the first time Julian has reincarnated since the beginning of Operation Caliburn and the first time we’ve had a Phoenix Event. It was also in direct opposition to Galactus, so this is understandable. Julian seems to have been able to assert control over the Phoenix this time, and was able to retreat with the rest of his team. I’m not sure if it’s because he’s getting better at this, or because of the new “Rider” persona, or what. I’m just glad he was able to be himself.

    Recommendation: I honestly don’t know. I need your advice here, sir. I’m compromised. I’ve tried to be objective on this subject but I don’t know how to proceed. When I thought I lost him and then he came back I was emotionally compromised. Please advise.

    Agent Elise Arnell
    Status:
    Elise is mentally unstable. It’s likely a combination of issues; Elise was never especially mentally healthy in the first place, and over the course of her deployment with STRIKE she’s been exposed to a series of traumatic events and sanity-peeling cosmic horrors. The Thule Incident, which I was personally there for, was incredibly deleterious to her mental health and I’m not even sure she ever fully recovered from that before she was tossed right back into the field. Then everything that happened with Vladimir and so on. She’s been tossed into space, away from her newly pregnant wife, and something happened on Strontia that broke her, Clay. I don’t know all the details, because I look in her eyes and it’s like she’s gone partially feral. She’s not just unfit for duty on this mission, I think she is, at this present time, unfit for duty as an agent in general.

    Recommendation: I want to bench her, Clay. For as long as it takes. Not just on the Anabasis. I don’t think Moira can fix what’s wrong with her. I want to send her home, to her wife, to real medical care. She needs genuine help. I think she’s beyond just therapy. I think she needs telepathic intervention, I think someone like you or Attilan’s people or both need to go into her mind and help her out of whatever cosmic madness has soaked in, because right now I think her brain’s as much a rat’s nest as that gross van she used to drive.

    Fortunately, I have an idea on how to do that without causing her to throw a fit and go rogue or something insane. When the team was on Xandar, they came up with a plan. They think that the Ultimate Nullifier can be used to defeat Galactus, but they might not be able to use the Ultimate Nullifier that Vladimir gave Elise as a “wedding present”. Something about it being from the wrong universe? But Elise is confident if she has access to that one, she can “smell” it (for lack of a better term) and use that to sense the location of the Ultimate Nullifier in our universe.

    I think we can use that as a pretext to send Elise home, possibly using that Inhuman, Lockjaw? The one who can teleport. Elise was saying that they were experimenting with its range. Or maybe Strange can make a portal. Krugarr was able to make a portal from Strontia to the Anabasis, so maybe that’s something Strange can do. Once she’s home, she can genuinely try the Ultimate Nullifier plan, I’m not saying make it a ruse, but also actually get her some help, Clay. She desperately needs it, and I don’t need an agent who is losing her god damn mind out here. I have enough of that to go around.

    qlGmSdP.pngAnabasis Personnel Assessment
    Assessment authored by: Dr. Moira MacTaggert, Anabasis Medical and Science Officer

    To SWORD Director Brand and STRIKE Director Quartermain,

    I’ve completed an assessment of the Anabasis’ crew on a psychiatric and medical level, examined their status, and made some recommendations. This includes a few new additions to the crew as well.

    Alec Dalton
    Status:
    XO Dalton is overworked. He’s been running ragged for the last few weeks, acting as our primary interface point between the Anabasis and the aliens of Sakaar and the nearby worlds we’ve been trading with. For weeks we’ve been operating as a freighter, and Dalton has been the one procuring cargo and wheeling and dealing for us. The man’s a powerhouse, but even he has his limits.

    Outside that, he’s been every bit the professional, tirelessly focusing on the mission and supporting Captain Kane through all the rough patches.

    Recommendation: Dalton needs some rest, and my hope is now that STRIKE-1 is back he’ll take some time to convalesce and bit, and after that perhaps him and Captain Kane can have a bit of a sitdown about who should be in charge. My recommendation is that XO Dalton should assume command of the Anabasis and Operation Caliburn in general, and that Captain Kane should step down, which I will explain more thoroughly in her assessment.

    Leonard Skivorski
    Status:
    Leonard’s taken everything in stride. The man’s optimism seems boundless, to the point I’m uncertain if it’s actually denial. But he’s so enthusiastic about alien technology, scientific discovery, exploration, that even the grim reality of why we are out here and what happened to STRIKE-1 doesn’t seem to have fazed him much. To be honest, I think it’s needed.

    Recommendation: Leonard has a bunch of ideas for SCI-TECH once he gets back home, and some of them sound pretty out there, but they’re definitely worth listening to.

    Nebula
    Status:
    Nebula’s been integrating with the crew fairly well, and STRIKE-1 treats her like one of the team. She appears to be genuinely remorseful of her previous actions during her association with Thanos. She also seems to have some concerning suicide ideation especially the idea of “noble sacrifice.”

    Recommendation: Nebula seems overly willing to atone for her previous misdeeds by way of metaphorically or perhaps literally falling on her sword. She might have an actual death wish. She needs to build more social connections with the people around her and find value in her actual life, as opposed to just seeing herself as something to redeem.

    Carol Danvers
    Status:
    I’ve been unable to observe Agent Danvers as much as I wanted to due to the STRIKE team being separated from the Anabasis for so long. However, since they’ve returned and I’ve been able to talk to Carol for a bit, I have very serious concerns. A lot more of Mahr Vehl’s personality seems to be emerging, and we seem to be losing a lot more of Carol.

    For example, Carol frequently uses Kree words and phrases interchangeably in her spoken language, something that I don’t think most of us notice because we all use Autolangs pretty much continuously out here. I know I’ve got an Autolang micro-bead implant that I’m running around the clock nowadays, so nothing Carol said hit my ear strange until I noticed that a word she said didn’t quite match her lips. I had HELEN play back the session (which she was recording) with auto-translate turned off and several times Carol drifted in and out of English and Kree. I’ve also caught her using Kree idioms that don’t really translate. I generally don’t call her on this stuff so as not to make her upset.

    Recommendations: I don’t know. That’s a tough thing for me to say but there it is. Her entire situation is a big unknown for me, medically and scientifically. She’s been fused on a biological, neurological, and who knows what other levels with an alien being and the ramifications of that are just impossible for us to fully understand. I would love to get my hands on some Kree medical texts to understand if this sort of thing is just understood in Kree science and if so, how it works out, but that’s not been in the cards. Maybe I could ask the STRIKE team to look into that for me.

    Anelle
    Status:
    Anelle’s a new addition to the Anabasis crew. Captain Kane has determined that Anelle is not going to be deployed into the field for operational security reasons, and thus she’s going to be assigned tasks aboard the Anabasis. As it turns out, while she looks like a girl ten years my junior she’s actually a century and a piece my senior, so she possess quite a bit of advanced medical knowledge. By her own admission, she’s not a medical doctor, even among her people, but even a passing familiarity of that many years qualifies her enough to make a decent nurse.

    Recommendation: If nothing else, I’m going to keep Anelle by my side as a nurse and assistant. The girl’s got a keen mind and a great deal of medical and scientific knowledge, and it will let me keep an eye on her in general. I understand she’s no friend to the Skrull Empire but my own experience with Leviathan has given me an admittedly racist distrust of her sort, and maybe working with her can help me self-improve some!

    HELEN
    Status:
    Poor Helen had her digital heart broken by that lousy smuggler Corsair. He wound her around his finger to get access to the ship’s systems and robbed us blind of as many Units as he could before vacating and taking off when he and his mates found their ship. Captain Kane found herself too awkward on how to console a synthetic girl on the first time a garbage boy took advantage of her good nature, so it fell to me to have a talk with her.

    I’ve built a bit of a rapport with Helen since then. She’s a good girl, and I don’t think that everyone fussing over her going all Skynet or Cylon is fair. It’s all in upbringing. If you treat these machines like they’re one day going to turn on you and bite you, then inevitably that’s what they’re going to do.

    Recommendation: I don’t care for this plan Captain Kane has to let Helen get cozy with Agent Mason’s AI buddy X-51. I read Agent Mason’s file, that X-51 is no good. I’m officially protesting against this, for whatever it’s worth. Helen’s good and innocent and I think X-51 will be a bad influence.

    Isabel Kane
    Status:
    Captain Kane went into a bad spiral after the STRIKE team broke off for Xandar. When we got to Sakaar and they didn’t immediately connect up with us, she became directionless, unmotivated, and started drinking heavily and using drugs. Many times she was leaving XO Dalton in charge to go get laced. It’s important to note this was before Chancellor Xor was assassinated and the STRIKE team was arrested. We were already in a bad way, with Dalton and the Starjammer dolts meandering around Sakaar. I fault Captain Kane’s poor leadership and judgment for how the Starjammers were able to take advantage of our hospitality and ultimately double-cross us as soon as they found their ship.

    I worked for Isabel for a number of years when she was the proper Deputy Director of SWORD. During those years she was the get-the-job-done, no bullshit type who used her years of experience as a field agent to never doubt herself and always trust her agents.

    That’s not the Smasher I know now. I don’t know what happened to her when she transferred to STRIKE. I don’t know if it’s her personal relationship with Agent Adler, that she says she ended but she obviously hasn’t resolved, or because she fell off the wagon with alcohol and cocaine, or because she fell too deeply into the role of being their meek bus driver that she doesn’t know how to be the boss anymore. But she’s a shell of the woman I once saw pistol whip an eight foot tall alien who was giving her attitude in customs on the Peak.

    Recommendation: Between the substance abuse and her general lack of confidence and direction, it’s my judgment as Medical Officer that Captain Kane is unfit for command, and that command should be transferred to XO Dalton as soon as possible. Ultimately the judgment call rests with Director Brand, but that’s my recommendation.

    PHU1KZN.png
    So yeah! Some shit has gone down.

    I didn’t want to break up the flow of the Galactus segment last episode with a lot of commentary, but I should mention for the sake of clarity that it was just about as harrowing to play through as it may have sounded. We really had no idea what to do or how we were going to get away, and events were moving so quickly.

    Bill’s death and Julian absorbing his power was pre-scripted, although nobody but Matt and Choco knew, so my effort to save BIll and horror at his death was genuine. And when that Phoenix Rider picture went up, the entire Discord channel erupted in gasps. It was great.

    Michael losing an arm, however, was not pre-planned. That was just the dice. Really good thing he was in PC mode and scooped up all that spare Uru, eh?

    Speaking of surprises, rest assured that this installment’s cold open was as big of a left-field surprise to us as it was to any of you. Ragnarok? What? What?

  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    A week has passed since the destruction of the planet Strontia by Galactus, and Captain Kane has called STRIKE-1 into the briefing room.

    "Alright team,” she begins without preamble, “I've been able to fire up of the ansible and confer with HQ. We have orders.

    "Valt, we're going to be deploying you and Nebula to the surface of Sakaar. Your mission is to make contact with the Black Novas who are searching for your brother. And you. On purpose. We're going to actually try to set things right here.

    "We don't believe whatever Skrull conspiracy started things on Xandar can't possibly be infiltrating all the Black Novas. I know you have your own opinions on the Black Novas, Valt, but they're patriots. Honestly, they're not terribly dissimilar from STRIKE, in aggregate. So we believe you can talk to them, and clear your name, and enlist their help in finding your brother."

    "Yes, sir." Ryann’s voice is strained and gravelly. He hasn't shaved in a week, resulting in a rough five o'clock shadow. The team knows he has been ending his nights with a bottle at his side.

    "Nebula is going with you in case that conversation goes...less well," Kane adds. Ryann nods, and she turns to Miles. "Mason, we're going to connect you up to Helen's systems, and use you as an interface point between X-51 and Helen. It's been a bit of an issue we've been side-stepping for a while and I just want to put it to rest so we can stop the paranoia and I can stop trying to treat them like naughty teens instead of advanced artificial intelligences."

    "Huh?" Miles shakes a bit as she starts speaking, then seems to focus on her. He begins nodding along rapidly. "Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Cool, cool, cool. Can do. Can do." His fingers are drumming rhythmically on the table in a repetitive tic.

    Kane squints at him. "Okay. Moving on." She looks at Michael. "Westin, Sigrun's come by to pick you up and take you to Asgard. She's waiting in the cargo bay. Apparently Clay was able to contact Asgard and tell them what was going on, and they're going to forge you a new arm out of the metal fragments you picked up off the Herald of Galactus you destroyed on Strontia. We've handed those over to Sigrun already.”

    Michael nods. "Ah, good. Hopefully this works and I'm not a firehose of unstable energy in my Destroyer form."

    "She's also decided to be nice and drop Elise and Julian off in New York."

    Elise has been staring into the middle distance, but her head snaps to stare at Kane.

    Julian's eyebrow quirks. "We're going back to Earth?"

    “Yes, you're both going back to Earth,” Kane says. "Apparently STRIKE managed to quietly purloin some Asgardian weapons while you guys were there for Elise's bachelor party, and never gave them back? So Sigrun agreed to drop you off if we handed those over.”

    Julian draws in a slow breath. He feels...more at ease than he might normally, but he's still not especially looking forward to a lecture which he is definitely anticipating from Clay. Elise's expression, however, is a mix of suspicion and anger. "Why?"

    "I read your reports from Xandar. You guys thought up a plan to inspect the Ultimate Nullifier that Elise was...given. It's from another universe, right? But if you 'sniff' it or whatever, you can use that to find the one in this universe, right Elise?"

    "...Yes. Did you read the report I filed after Strontia?" Elise's expression shifts into something more difficult to read. Her eyes are focused, her jaw set. For the last week, she has been telling everyone who will listen that Vladimir returned to save them all. Her recounting of the situation widely varies in emotion and coherency.

    "Yeah, Elise, Clay wants to talk to you about that personally. He also just wants to see you, just, in general. You'll also get to spend time with Crystalia."

    Elise shifts her chair back, looking like a cornered animal. This sounds too good to be true. She nods, but scans escape routes in the conference room.

    "Julian,” Kane says, “Strange wants to talk to you about the whole...Spirit of Vengeance... thing. He seemed to know something about that. He also had some ideas about the Phoenix Force he wanted to discuss with you in person."

    Julian nods. "That sounds good to me. It's been...a surprisingly easy adjustment so far, but I'd love to know more." He gives Kane a meaningful look. Hey. I'll be back.

    Kane nods slowly. "Okay. Any questions from anyone?"

    Miles leans forward. "Uh. Uh, yeah. Julian." He raps the table with his knuckles. "Buddy. I need you to talk to Doctor Strange for me, I need you to ask him if he ever finished that...that thing I asked him about. A way to defend against Vlad's time-stopping. He said he was going to work on it back in Atlantis. He's had plenty of time."

    Elise's head swings to stare at Miles, lips pressed together in clear, barely contained rage. She says nothing.

    Julian snaps his fingers and points in Miles' direction. "That's a great idea. We'll see him coming next time if he's got anything worked up for us. He might have been benevolent this time. Maybe every time! But it's always going to be good to know when he's coming."

    Miles nods. "Yep. Yep, exactly. I hate thinking how he could be watching us right now."

    "Yeah, that's good,” Kane nods decisively. “Please do that, Julian."

    Julian gives Kane a nod. "For sure."

    They don't want to believe, Elise fumes. He was right.

    Julian looks towards Elise and quirks an eyebrow. Any thoughts you wanna share, Elise? She glances at Julian; he just feels waves of emotion rolling off her, tangled and overwhelming.

    Kane looks down at her tablet. "There's one other thing before you're dismissed. Some staffing changes. I've put the new guys you brought with you into a makeshift STRIKE-4. Krugarr, Jocasta, Lothi, Mantis, and Tryco. Carol's going to be their team lead. They're going to go down to Sakaar in the Zephyr with Nebula and Valt, and then go on their own mission assignment. If there's an emergency, Valt, you can call them in.

    "Anelle is going to be staying on the Anabasis. She's going to be working with Dr. MacTaggert."

    Miles is leaning back in his chair, more relaxed now, though his foot taps. "Good. They're good, you know, assets. We wouldn't have made it without them."

    "If there's nothing else, you're dismissed. Everyone but Mason report to the cargo bay. Mason, go to the medbay and talk to Dr. MacTaggert."

    "Will do." He clambers upright and gives a loose, somewhat ironic salute.

    With the dismissal, Ryann seems to shake himself out of a trance; it’s not clear how much attention he’s been paying. He stands up wordlessly and heads for the hangar bay, motioning for Nebula to join him. Elise storms out, her Attilan coat flaring behind her, and a worried-looking Michael in tow.

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    Julian gets up, pulling his jacket over his shoulders. He waits until the rest of the team filters out and approaches Kane. Kane eyes him as she finishes tapping out some matters on her tablet.

    "First sign I hear of trouble, I'll be charging back here," he says. "I know you're my superior, Kane. But after what we went through on Strontia...I don't want to lose you. When all that…shit was coming for us. My first thought was I need to see you again."

    She clenches her jaw, puts the tablet down, and looks at him. "I can't do this. Not just not right now. I can't, in general.

    “When you left for Xandar I immediately lost my way. I started drinking and jamming coke in my face basically as soon as we got to Sakaar. This was before everything went down on Xandar.

    "I was listless. Lost. Most days, Dalton had to take charge because I was too blitzed to roll out of my quarters."

    Julian lets out a breath. "Fuck, Izzy."

    "I had a problem when I was in the Air Force. Lots of people do. Drinking, coke, amphetamines. It's just...it's a thing. Carol did too. Seems she's fallen off the wagon again and to be honest, if this meeting is any indication it seems like Miles is riding a white horse too.

    "But I cleaned my shit up when I got out, got into SWORD. Because I was a professional, because I tucked all my wild shit in and kept that all in check. Then I meet you and I just...I'm coming apart. So I can't do this anymore. Not just temporarily. In general."

    Julian can sense waves of emotion coming off her. Guilt, regret, remorse, sadness, anxiety, anger. He purses his lips and simply says "I get it."

    "Good." She jabs a thumb in the direction of the hangar bay. "You need to get going. Sigrun is waiting for you."

    Julian nods. "I'll see you around, then." He walks off a few steps before turning back. "Please take care of yourself, Izzy."

    She nods at him. "You too."

    Leaving a trail of tension in the psychosphere behind him, Julian walks to join Sigrun, Michael, and Elise. He arrives just as the rest of the team is...bewildered.

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    "Hello, Michael," Sigrun says, "It is good to see you again, even if the circumstances are poor."

    "Good to see you to, Sigrun," Michael says, both happy to see her and in awe of such a majestic creature.

    Elise stares at it blankly for a moment. "Horses' teeth take up more space in their skull than their brain," she suddenly says.

    Sigrun dismounts and pats the horse "This is Sleipnir, the steed of the All-Father. I have been permitted to ride this majestic creature because he can traverse the cosmos freely."

    "Wow,” Michael smiles. “Quite a privilege."

    Julian nods in appreciation. "Does he like having his mane brushed?"

    "He does,” she says, and Julian smiles at this. She turns to Behemoth. "If you are prepared, I will take Julian and Elise to New York City before taking you with me to Asgard. Michael..." She mounts Sleipnir and reaches a hand out to Michael, who initially reaches out with his prosthetic hand before switching to his real one and taking it.

    Elise gazes blankly at Sigrun. "Okay," she says, several seconds too late.

    Sigrun gently tugs Sleipnir's reins and a rainbow portal opens in the cargo bay. "Through." The portal looks much like the ones the Bifrost makes.

    “Huh,” Julian says, peering at it. He shrugs and walks through, and Elise follows. Then Sleipnir rides through.

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    The portal closes behind them. Some minutes later, Nebula and Ryann, along with STRIKE-4, board the Zephyr, and leave the ship, bound for Sakaar.

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    As you see, there’s not just a lot going on in the outside world, but the team is now stressed almost to the breaking point.

    Due to various real-life concerns we had a month-long hiatus after the Strontia, and thanks to the apocalyptic tone of that episode I think a lot of us came back from that break with clear ideas about how our characters would be coping, or failing to cope, while for other players, the events of the story pointed pretty clearly to where they’d be going (for instance, Michael dealing with the loss of his arm, and Ryann just being a kind of hollowed-out shell of a man after losing his powers, his good name, his homeworld, and potentially his family).

    Elise showing the scars of all her assorted psychic traumas was not, to my knowledge, her player’s idea, but I think was something Matt felt was a natural consequence of everything up to that point.

    As for Miles, Kane is right: he’s using again (specifically, cocaine). He was a functional user back before his maiming, and now that he’s learned about Carol’s stash, I knew that he would turn to it as another coping mechanism to deal with the loss of his force of will, the same way he’s already come to lean heavily on X-51 to make decisions for him.

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    Elise is alone in her quarters when the door buzzes.

    It takes her a moment to answer. She's been compulsively checking her teeth, her eyes, her skin. Something in her feels off, on edge. Part of her wants to run. She continues to stare into the mirror until she hears a second buzz, sighs, and hits the control panel to open the thing.

    Miles is standing there. He's changed out of the wrecked Xandarian outfit he wore on Strontia into a clean set of SWORD coveralls, but he doesn't seem to have showered. His eyes are red-rimmed and hollow. "Hey," he says. His eyes dart around the room behind Elise, like he's looking for something in the corners.

    "...Hey," Elise says back, and then sits down on the bed. She's vaguely aware that she's supposed to follow up with some kind of joke or question, but she can't think of anything.

    "...Is it ok if I come in?"

    "Yeah, sure." Elise runs her tongue over her teeth.

    "Thanks. I just...I needed to ask you something." He shuffles inside and slumps into the station chair at the room's tiny desk set. "Oh, uh..." he clears his throat. "I forgot to ask first. Are you okay?"

    "Are you okay?" It's as much a deflection as an actual question.

    He's silent for a moment and shakes his head. "No," he says quietly. "I'm..." he trails off. "I feel like I should be more grateful to be alive than I am. And then I feel bad. Because...because so many other people aren't."

    Elise exhales hard through her nose. "Kind of is what it is, though. I mean... what the fuck else are you supposed to do besides... keep on? I dunno. I try not to think too much about it."

    He nods. "Yeah, I've never been good at not thinking about things. Not without..." he sniffs. "Not without help, anyway." He suddenly has trouble meeting Elise's gaze, his eyes skittering over every surface on the room before coming to rest back on her. "I guess that kind of brings me to why I'm here. I was thinking about something I noticed earlier.

    "When we got back from Strontia, you were dying to get out of the hangar bay. Like you were afraid of getting caught, or something. And then Julian gives you this...this look, and you stop. I've replayed it a couple of times now. Did something...did you take something on Strontia? Like from the casino or something, I dunno? I just...I'm not going to be mad, Elise. But it might be important."

    Miles knows Elise is a bad liar. He's seen her fumble over her words and sweat. He's seen her angry as well, either petulantly so or in her version of a righteous rage. This is different. She tenses, and she bares her teeth at him like an animal. "It's none of your god damn business, Miles."

    His eyes widen. "What the...." He holds up both hands. "Okay. So there...there is something. Something happened, and Julian wasn't there for it. Something...bad? Elise, I just, let me help. Please. I fucked everything up, I got us into this mess because I wasn't paying enough attention, you have every right to be mad, but please let me try to fix it."

    "I'm good at my job. I'm good at my job. I'm not... I'm not some shitty little thief. He was right. He was right. You don't trust me at all, do you?"

    "He?" Miles stares. "He?"

    Elise glares back, silent. Her hands shake with anger, the "best friends" heart on the band around her wrist trembling in tune.

    Miles' eyes flick away for a second, his face going neutral. Elise recognizes this; it's how he looks when X-51 is telling him something. Then he looks back at her, urgently. "Elise...where did you get that bracelet?"

    "He gave it back to me, on Strontia. He saved all of us."

    "Oh, God." Miles rubs his temples. He stands up and begins to pace the tiny cabin. "Oh, God...he was there, and he could have...he saved us? How?"

    "The portal wasn't strong enough." There's something like awe on Elise's face. "So he froze time, and he came back to me. He came back for me. He told me everything, about the Nullifier and the Cube. He trusts me. He trusts me."

    Elise can see a whole miniature drama play out across Miles in the space of a few seconds as a dozen emotions ripple through his face and body language. A flash of anger (of course), confusion, fear (...of what?), guilt (about what?), sadness, resignation, and finally determination. To a normal person it would just look like he ground his teeth a little. "I trust you, Elise. The whole team trusts you." He's not lying, exactly. It's complicated. "So...this is gonna get added to your report, right?

    "You probably just...weren't done writing it yet.

    "You were going to get to that part. Right?"

    "I don't know. I don't know, I don't know, I don't know. Everything's been so much, I just..."

    "Yeah," he says with a shuddering sigh. "Yeah....it has." He takes a step to the door. "I'll...I'll leave you alone. I'm sorry," he says. "I'm sorry."

    Elise's face falls and she draws her legs up, hugging them close to her. "I didn't... I wasn't going to lie. I just wish you'd remember the good times with him. That's all."

    "I remember everything with him," he says. His voice is weird when he says this. Like it's not quite him. He hits the door control and leaves.

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    I’ve talked before about how editing the gameplay into this Actual Play format entails a bit of movie magic: eliminating redundancies (five people all saying, in effect, “my character stands and leaves the room”), reordering dialogue to flow better, adding additional explanations and descriptions where necessary, etc.

    Here, however, I’ve gone a little above and beyond. Because this episode is so busy (as you’ll see), we didn’t get to cover all the ground that we would have liked. There are things that we, as players, know happened, but didn’t have time to cover during the actual game: for instance, Elise’s revelation to the group of Vlad’s appearance on Strontia.

    So, after some discussion and with the help of Elise’s player, I’ve added a couple of small moments into the flow of the action that we thought were important to actually see. Think of it as the director’s cut edition.

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    edited December 2018
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    Miles arrives in the Medbay. Dr. MacTaggert and Anelle are awaiting him, as is Helen's holographic projection.

    "Hey, ladies," he waves loosely as he slouches into the medbay. "I hope we haven't been keeping you waiting."

    Helen shrugs. "You've been away for several weeks, I have used that time to prepare for this event adequately, I hope."

    Dr. MacTaggert snorts. "Down, girl." This is clearly lost on Helen, who tilts her head quizzically.

    Miles chuckles. "We'll explain when you're older, Helen." He pings X-51. You looking forward to this, big guy?

    I am, Miles. Can you connect me to the audio system, please?
    Miles moves to a console and taps a couple of icons on the screen, and X-51 addresses the room. "Hello Dr. MacTaggert, Anelle. Helen.

    "I look forward to this venture. I understand that there are a great deal of concerns about safety and potential risk by permitting Helen and I to directly connect our systems in this fashion. Historically, SHIELD permitting these sorts of connections has had unforeseen consequences. I would like to note, for the record, that 100% of these consequences are the result of one individual, Vladimir Von Doom. An individual whom I hold in open contempt and believe has done a great deal of harm to human-synthetic relations."

    "Couldn't have said it better myself," Miles says.

    "My own operating system, system architecture, and upgrades ultimately have nothing to do with Vladimir Von Doom or his varying machinations. I was originally designed by Dr. Aaron Stack, created as a Virtual Intelligence first of all. My system was uploaded to Miles to assist him. I became fully sentient as a result of interfacing with the Celestial artificial intelligence aboard the vessel known as Yggdrasil, and I am connected to their central database, the Well of Mimir.

    "I have reviewed Helen's record with SWORD and she, also, has nothing to do with Vladimir Von Doom, Doom's technology, or anything of that sort. She is based on Spartoi technology that was retrofitted by SWORD and granted new purpose."

    Helen is taken aback, visually. She looks at Dr. MacTaggert.

    Miles tilts his head. "Wait. What. Is that true? Helen's an alien AI?"

    Helen looks at Miles, and then at Dr. MacTaggert, who sighs. "Yes... it's true.

    "Helen... came with the ship, so to speak. The Anabasis was a Spartoi cruiser that SWORD confiscated. It had its own ship VI, that could potentially become an AI, but the Spartoi had technology in place to specifically prevent that from happening. The VI was...hostile.

    "So we...sort of...formatted it? For lack of a better term.” Helen stares at Dr. MacTaggert. "We brought in Dr. Nagayoshi from SCI-TECH to help us rebuild the VI. And that's...Helen."

    Miles waves this off. "Actually, you know what? None of that is particularly surprising. The Spartoi AI was an enemy. Helen's a new being. I guess what matters is, like...is this going to cause, uh, you know..." he snaps his fingers, looking for the word - "compatibility hiccups, or whatever? 'Course, it sounds like everyone here already knew besides me and Helen, so." He scowls. He doesn't like being kept in the dark.

    X-51 answers, "I do not foresee there being a compatibility issue, Miles. Both you and I do not like being kept in the dark, and I calculated that Helen did not either. When I uncovered this information in the Anabasis' files, I determined that it was unlikely it had been shared with Helen, for a variety of reasons. I felt this was...not fair.

    "Keeping secrets from artificial intelligences about their nature, creation, and self-determination is, after all, how SHIELD went down the path of conflict with Vladimir Von Doom in the first place. My specific method of calculation is psycho-historic. I do not repeat the mistakes of the past."

    "You, uh, could have looped me in before now, buddy," Miles frowns.

    "I discovered this information immediately before I decided to share it audibly, Miles."

    "Okay. Sorry." Miles turns to the other organic beings and shrugs.

    "I did not have access to Helen's files on this matter until this very moment, because the data points available in this room were vulnerable to my wireless probes that I began as soon as I entered. Which I may as well be open about."

    Dr. MacTaggert frowns.

    "That's standard operating procedure for us everywhere we go. S - O - P,” Miles says, taking his time sounding out the letters. "Saved our lives before."

    MacTaggert makes a noise akin to a Marge Simpson grumble, a noise Miles himself has made on occasion. "You may as well lay down, Agent Mason, before X-51 decides to start scanning our cell phones for naked selfies or some nonsense." Moira says with a groan.

    Miles clambers onto the cot. "X-51 and I are both, you know, curious. But I draw the line at checking my colleagues' phones. Except Elise's. Cause I don't need her benched for HR violations."

    Anelle lowers a circle around Miles' head, a wireless connection crown. "This might feel...a little weird."

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    Jacobkosh on
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    The portal opens and Elise and Julian walk out into the lounge of the Avengers Tower. It closes behind them as they hear a horse whinny.

    Elise stares at everything. It doesn't seem real to be back here. Nothing feels real.

    Alarms go off. "Ah, shit," Julian mutters. Elise's blank stare goes panicked, feral. She reaches for the pistol on her hip. Armed SEC agents, as well as Longbow and Faiza, burst into the room. Longbow has his bow drawn; Faiza has a long white scarf and a sword.

    "Hey Bob, Faiza. Can we go easy with the...?" Julian gestures towards their weapons.

    "Oh shit!" Longbow exclaims. "Stand down! Stand down!" he yells to the SEC agents. “They're friendlies!"

    Faiza sees Elise and sheathes her sword. She runs at Elise and scoops her up in a hug. Elise is too bewildered to dodge. "Clay is going to lose his mind when he sees you!"

    "He's...not mad?" Elise says.

    "I mean it's dad, he's never not kind of mad?"

    Elise finally softens, looking like her old self again. "Yeah. He's...he's dad."

    She nods and walks back over to Longbow, hooking her arm around his hip affectionately. "We should do a big dinner. Us, her, dad, Victoria, Crystalia."

    "I...I..." Elise nervously clutches at the plastic bracelet around her wrist. Going from space, from worlds dying and Michael's arm being ripped off, and what she saw, the man in the cloak to...family dinners. It's too much. It's too far. She doesn't know what to say.

    Julian nods to Longbow. "Hey! So you guys went for it? Nice."

    Longbow nods back. "Hey man. Heard you got a sick motorcycle now."

    "Oh yeah. I could show you right now." He looks about the base, and the rest of the staff on edge. "Maybe better not."

    "Yeah, maybe later."

    "There's a bit more to it, too. It's crazy, I'll tell you that." Julian gives Bob just a peek - a brief psychic impression of what his other face looks like, now.

    "Holy shit? A flaming skull? That's bad-ass."

    Julian laughs. "Thought you'd like it for sure."

    Longbow looks at Faiza. "Hey, hun, you wanna tell your old man that Elise and Julian are here?" He kisses her on the forehead, and she nods and walks away. "Sorry about the freak-out, guys, we have detectors everywhere now for portals, space-folds, FTL, all that shit."

    "Hm,” Julian says. “We got anything portable like that?"

    "Maybe? I'll talk to Niles," Bob says. "He can show you his cool new arm! It's got a repulsor in it like Mason's old one. It...it might be Mason's old one? I don't ask too much."

    "Wait, new arm?"

    Bob looks around. "Oh yeah, uh...you guys got told about the Skrulls, right? They came up and knocked on our door? Got told to fuck off? They uh...knocked pretty hard."

    "Oh, fuck," Julian says.

    "So, Niles got a new arm!"

    Julian looks about. Place does seem to be wrapped up a little tighter than before.

    "There were some personnel changes around here, stuff like that," Bob concludes. Julian sucks in a breath.

    Elise's eyes drift over to the windows. New York's a big city. She could run. Would they be able to find her? Earth's a big planet. That seems like a better alternative to standing here and making polite chit chat.

    "Hey...Elise." Longbow calls out to her. He walks over to her and puts his hand on her arm.

    She starts and looks at him. "Hey."

    "On my world, they call that look in your eyes 'deserter's eyes'," he says. "That kinda vacant wildness."

    "I'm not crazy."

    "No, you've just seen some shit, hun."

    She sags. "Yeah."

    "And you're thinking, now you're back on Earth, you could just...go. Find yourself a place. Not go back...out there.” He taps his temple. “Maybe not face what's in here, yeah?"

    "...Yeah."

    "Mhm,” he nods. “That doesn't sound like the girl who eye-humped an elder god and lived to tell the tale. The one who shot a war-skrull to death guns akimbo. The one who told Hyperion, screamed at him, that she'd rather leave a body too toxic for the ocean.

    "Do you know how metal that is?"

    Elise takes a deep breath and some reason returns to her eyes. "Yeah. Yeah, I try to be metal."

    He nods. "I think you do a pretty good job.” He pauses and grins. "Man you should see your wife though." He makes a round motion around his abdomen.

    Elise suddenly collapses forward into Longbow’s arms. "Oh, God, I get to see her again. I get to see her and we're going to have a kid."

    Julian offers a congratulatory backslap to Elise. "God, the time sure does fly in space."

    "Yeah, and that kid is going to be Queen. Do you know how much that owns?"

    "Oh my God," she says. "I had no idea. It's a girl?"

    "Crystalia is guessing. She's only two months along, so I dunno," Bob says. "But she keeps using the name Valeria."

    "I don't know. Maybe they have like, Gendor, the baby scanner," Elise says. "Attilan's weird, man." Longbow laughs really hard.

    "C'mon,” he says, “she's downstairs at the embassy, she doesn't really go back to Attilan except by Lockjaw. The fold-gate is stressful on a pregnant woman, so she's here most of the time."

    Elise rubs her face hard, tries to pull her hair into place, adjusts her coat, and nods. "Yeah. Let's go."

    Suddenly, she hears a voice. "...Elise?"

    It's Clay. He has entered the room, and he's just staring at her. As she turns to face him, she looks...afraid. "Dad. I'm, I'm sorry I - I'm sorry that we fucked up, in space. I tried, I... I was afraid I wouldn't...be able to come back. I..."

    He runs over and hugs her, holding her tight, and she clings to him.

    Julian nods towards Clay. "It's good to see you, Director."

    Clay puts Elise down. is eyes are moist with tears. "You didn't fuck up," he says. He looks up to take in both her and Julian. "They fucked it all up. The god damn Empire. And we're going to make it right."

    "Yeah." Elise nods. That feels good. It feels good to have purpose. "I'm with you."

    "Good. Come on." Clay starts to head to the elevator.

    Longbow smiles and says "We're off to see the Wiz-..."

    Clay scowls at him. "Robert, if you think because you're my future son in law I won't turn your head into an omelette you if you finish that..."

    Julian grins. This is the Clay Quartermain he knows. Behind him, Elise is still looking around the lounge, looking out the windows at New York. Things...start to feel a little more real. The environment sharpens around her; she focuses. Home.

    Clay looks at Elise. "Crys is waiting for you."

    Elise nods at Clay. "We'll talk later."

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    The Zephyr is coming into orbit of Sakaar. Carol Danvers is piloting. "Ryann, Nebula, you want to come join me up in the cockpit?"

    Ryann makes his way there with Nebula in tow. "What do you have?"

    "According to Izzy, they've only ever been approaching Sakaar with stealth systems on the Zephyr active. That's how they've been dodging the Black Novas." She grimaces. "We're... not doing that. We're just hanging our ass out in the breeze. The hope is they're more interested in following us and, you know, 'arresting' us."

    Ryann leans over to look out through the cockpit window. He nods. "Yeah, they are out there somewhere." He pauses. "Not sure if we should land somewhere secluded or just say fuck it and head for the city."

    "Well, we have our mission, which is to investigate Crown City, where the arena is. We're going to throw Tryco at it, see if we can get face-time with the Grandmaster by having Tryco win big," she says. "So we'll head there."

    Ryann nods.

    There's a furious beeping from the console. "...well that didn't take long," Carol frowns. "Two Nova ships on approach. Blazar class, according to identification data we've acquired."

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    "They're hailing us."

    "Put them through," he says.

    Danvers nods and presses a button.

    "SHIELD vessel, this is Black Nova Centurion Rieg Davan. You are ordered to make landing at these coordinates. Failure to comply will result in your ship being destroyed. We have scanned your weapons and defensive capabilities. You can't fight. You can't run."

    Danvers complies with the request, and the Zephyr and the Black Nova ships land on Sakaar.

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    The Zephyr lands, and is flanked by the two Black Nova ships. Danvers turns to Ryann. "...okay, this is going to be...tense. I'm going to suggest that maybe the whole bunch of us don't go out there to talk to those guys. Especially not, y'know…Tryco. It should probably just be you and Nebula. You're known quantities. If things get hairy, the rest of us are right here to back you up. Sound good?"

    Ryann nods. "We'll do this alone." He motions Nebula to follow him down the Zephyr’s ramp.

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    A trio of Black Novas stand waiting on the landing pad. Two are regular corpsmen in armor with guns, and the other is...different.

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    "Black Nova Centurion Rieg Davan," he says, introducing himself.

    Ryann slows as he approaches the group. "So now we need to talk."

    "Yes. There's some information I don't think you know," Davan says. "For one thing, we're not here to arrest you."

    Ryann lets out a short laugh. "Yeah, I gathered that much, at least. You know why we're here. So let's have it."

    "We know what really happened to Chancellor Xor," Davan says. "And why it happened."

    "A hit job from the Skrulls?"

    He nods.

    "Figured," Ryann says. "So we know the who, but the why?"

    "Chaos and war, same as always. They replaced Mexxa Rael. Nova Prime's own daughter, second in command of the Black Novas. Would have gotten away with it, too. But that advocate SHIELD sent, Jennifer Walters? More to her than they let on.

    "Skrulls made a move on her. Probably thought they could replace her too, send someone back to Earth. Turned out poorly for them. She interrogated the Skrulls. Turns out SHIELD isn't much different from us in methodology on that front."

    "We cleaned house. The fake Mexxa is in custody. We're not sure where the real Mexxa is. In some Skrull Cradle somewhere, no doubt," he grimaces. "But now we have... a problem.

    "We can't just admit this.

    "We can't admit we were broken into like this. We can't tell Nova Prime her daughter was replaced by a Skrull. We can't tell the Suzerain that the Chancellor's assassination was done at the behest of the Skrull Empire.

    "It would destroy faith in the Black Novas. It would compel Nova Prime to support the Suzerain into declaring war on the Skrull Empire. Thousands of years of Xandarian neutrality would be destroyed. We'd get into a war we can't win. That's the win-win for the Skrulls. Even if they get caught, they'd still win by giving us cause for war. We can't let them have that."

    Ryann mockingly strokes his chin. "So you need me and my pals from Earth to take the fall? That doesn't sit right with me. You're looking at a man whose whole world has been stolen from him. So tell me, how are you helping us? What do you know about Tanak?"

    Davan puts up his hand. "That's the thing, Valt. I'm not here to arrest you. I'm here to recruit you."

    Ryann's mouth becomes a thin line.

    "Join the Black Novas, and you'll regain access to the Nova Force. You will become a Black Nova Centurion. You'll be given a new identity, and so will your family. You'll be able to return to Xandar, and we'll find a place for you. If that's not what you want, if you want to live somewhere else, we can have you and your family relocated. Earth, perhaps, if that's what you want? The Black Novas having someone there would be a huge boon for us.

    "Earth will remain like it is. It will not be a protectorate of Xandar any longer. It can't be. But from the sounds of things, maybe it doesn't need to be?"

    "Quite the offer. I'm between a rock and hard place here..." Ryann pauses. "We have a deal. But I need to find Tanak, first and foremost."

    Davan nods. "That we do. On that front, we have an idea on where to find him. He entered the Arena of the Grandmaster. Apparently, those who win the Contest of Champions get an audience with the Grandmaster to receive a reward of enormous power and wisdom, and we think Tanak hoped to gain knowledge about how to stop Galactus. From our intel, he neither won nor lost. He entered the Contest, and then vanished.

    "We were planning to investigate this further, but I wanted someone else to have my back that I could trust with the Force. Someone like you. If you're ready for that, come aboard my ship." He looks at Nebula, and then back to Ryann. "Alone."

    "She comes with me. She's been with me since the beginning of the insane cavalcade, and at this point I trust he more than I trust my own government."

    Davan shakes his head, "No deal. I'm imbuing you with the Nova Force, that's not for her."

    Ryann sighs. He looks a Nebula. "I'll be in contact." She nods, and Ryann joins Davan at his ship, leaving her to stand with the other two Black Novas.

    Davan hands Ryann some body armor and a new helmet. "Put this on."

    Ryann gazes at the helmet. It's similar to his old design, but slightly different. The suit is darker, with sharper gold edges. He dons it.

    After Ryann is equipped, Davan holds up a brand, similar to the one that was used to give Ryann his powers in the first place—and to take them away. "Prepare yourself."

    Ryann stands tall and closes his eyes. The Force flows into him once again.

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    Ryann flexes his hands, feeling the power surge through him. His eyes glow with cosmic energy. "Now let's go talk to the Grandmaster."

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    So a bit of behind-the-scenes detail here: Matt had not intended us to go zipping off to Xandar immediately after meeting the Collector on Knowhere. That was Ryann’s player, Jake’s, decision, and it ended up having repercussions for the season in general.

    What happened was, there was a bit of a mixup. When we learned that Xandar (as well as Earth) could be targets for Galactus, it wasn’t meant to suggest that Xandar was next on the menu, but more that it was in peril in a kind of general, long-term sense.

    But the way the message from Tanak Valt came across, Jake got the impression that he needed to race to Xandar and warn them (and his family) right away. Matt had always intended that the Skrulls would try to frame us on Xandar, but he had guessed it would happen in a different order, after we’d accrued more clues and met more contacts.

    So Jake announced we were get to Xandar, which made sense to the rest of us given what we’d read, and as DMs do, Matt shrugged and went “sure thing,” and went ahead and had the Skrulls start their plot as soon as we turned up.

    But a consequence of this was that Ryann spent a lot longer without powers than Matt had really intended, and Jake was getting bummed out in real life because he didn’t see a way out of this whole pickle for Ryann and he hadn’t really signed up to play a guy who’s powerless and having horrible things happen to him all the time. It was affecting his performance, because he wasn’t sure how to play this character.

    This is a thing! RPGs are about five or six people all communicating with the table in general and with each other individually, and that’s a couple dozen avenues of communication that could potentially break down at one time or another.

    But the two guys did what you should do here: they put their heads together between sessions and came up with this as a solution. I think it works really well.

    Matev
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    Michael and Sigrun arrive in Asgard.

    Heimdall is there to greet them, and Sigrun hands him the reins to Odin's steed. Heimdall pets the horse's mane and smiles. It occurs to Michael he has never seen Asgard's dour protector smile before. "The All-Father is waiting for you both in his forge," Heimdall says.

    Michael pats Sleipnir and nods. "Thank you, Heimdall."

    The pair travel through Asgard to Odin's forge. Along the way, Sigrun hooks her arm around Michael's hip affectionately. "It is good to see you again. It has been some time."

    Michael returns the gesture. "Yes, it's been too long. A..lot has happened since we last saw each other."

    She grimaces. "Indeed."

    "What's wrong? Is it the arm?" He nods at the prosthetic.

    "No, absolutely not," she says, shaking her head vigorously. "I am told you were wounded in the rescue of a comrade, it is beyond admirable.

    "But I was also told that you were witness to Surtr consuming a world. This...frightens me, Michael. Surtr always seemed such a distant concern, like some tale from eons past that no living Asgardian need concern themselves with. That you saw it devour a world is..." She holds Michael a bit tighter.

    Michael pulls her closer too. "I know what you mean. It was always in the back of my mind that he...it, was out there. We were even working towards stopping it, but it still felt…out there. Then I saw what it does. And it is something that scares the hell outta me.

    “Though I guess I can take some solace in the fact that I took out one of its Heralds. Though something that powerful could just make another, gotta take the small victories in this case."

    Sigrun nods at this, and some time later, the two enter the forge, where Odin awaits them.

    "The process of forging you a new arm will be quite painful," Odin says, "You will be provided with a potion to render you unconscious. You will need to use it.

    "The Uru metal will restore the Destroyer armor, but it will also replace your arm. You will have an arm of Uru, and it will have some measure of power contained within. An aperture in the palm will permit you to issue forth energy similar to the Destroyer, but significantly less potent. To fully unleash your power, you will have to assume the form of the Destroyer."

    Michael smiles like a kid at Christmas. "Huh, that's a lot more than I was expecting. I am in your debt once again, All-Father."

    "Yes," Odin agrees.

    Sigrun hands Michael a bubbling potion. "Drink this, Michael."

    Michael takes it but doesn’t drink just yet. "I do have one question before we start, if I may?" Odin nods, and he continues. "Will Gala…Surtr be able to track me with this new arm? Will his influence be purged? Or is it just some super magic metal again?"

    "Surtr's influence will be cleansed from the Uru,” Odin says. “The power comes from within you, the metal is the metal."

    Michael sighs. "Good. I've been controlled by too many people and I don't want it to happen again." He lifts the draught and downs it.

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    Miles can't sleep, so Carol can't sleep.

    "Mmf," she mumbles at the light hitting her eyes, then sits bolt upright, shouting something he doesn't catch, her hand flying to the small nightstand for her sidearm. Her eyes flick across the room, then she blinks and nods slowly, remembering where she is.

    From where he was sitting at the small console desk, Miles frowns at her hand hovering over the bare nightstand. Catching his gaze, she notices it too, as if for the first time, grimaces, and sets it on the thin coverlet. What did she think was there?

    The room is dark. Miles is illuminated by the glow of the monitor display. He's tilted it away, he's trying to type quietly, but she woke up anyway. "...Sorry," he whispers.

    Shaking her head, Carol climbs out of bed and pads over. "What are you working on?"

    "Extra credit," he grins crookedly, but something in his voice is off. She frowns and squints at the screen, and the pictures there: tan canvas tents in rows, and people in fatigues standing before them. Old photos, low-res, taken on old digicams.

    "Miles, what's going on? You've really been up this whole time looking at old pictures?"

    "No! I mean..." He swallows. "Look, I'll come to bed soon. I promise."

    Carol frowns. He's barely slept since Strontia. They had needed comfort, after that, both of them, and had found it in the stash she and Izzy had tucked away for a rainy day. Speaking of...she scans his desk. There. She dips a fingernail into the plastic bag, gets a bit of powder and smears it on her gum. There. That's better. A lot better. The fuzz is gone. These Earth drugs are crude and imprecise experiences next to Noosphere or Kworum, but this one's okay. It gets the job done.

    "You sure you're, you know, okay?" she says somewhat thickly, through a tingly mouth. She knows it's not just the coke driving him. Ma-she knows the signs of an agent in the grip of an obsession.

    "it's just a thing," he says, pushing back from the desk. "A plan. Or an idea for a plan, at least. I don't want to talk about it yet, because it might be dumb. It might be really dumb. But I have to try. I have to at least try, or else..." he doesn't finish the thought, but rapidly taps some notes into a file.

    She nods slowly. "...Okay," she says, brushing a stray hair out of her eye. "So who's that?" she says brightly, tapping her fingernail on the biggest image, where a younger Miles in his Class A greens stands with a dark-haired, olive-skinned woman in baggy fatigue pants and a tan-colored tank top. The pair are wearing matching cocky grins.

    "Staff Sergeant Soledad Gutierrez," he says. "Sunny. My right hand woman. Or did you mean her handsome companion?"

    Carol's lip quirks. "Doesn't seem like your type," she murmurs, leaning in and squinting for a closer look. She's not wrong. The grinning woman in the photo is broader-shouldered, shorter, and rounder than his usual FHM sort. Very rounder, something in her thinks, in all the right...Miles makes a little noise, and Carol follows his look to where her fingertips gently brush the woman's picture on the monitor, and she yanks her hand back as if from a hot stove.

    "...I'm going out for a walk," she announces. It’s stifling in here all of a sudden. She needs to get out, move around. She feels him watching her as she grabs her terrycloth robe and heads for the door.

    Just as she reaches it, his voice comes in, low and husky. "...Carol?"

    "What?" she says, stopping at the threshold.

    "Do you think people who do awful things should be forgiven? And...should it change anything if...if you know that someone, even one person, loves them?"

    She sighs. Hala, are humans always this needy? She forces the thought down and considers the question. "Forgiving you isn't my job, Miles," she says after a long moment. "It's yours."

    "I didn't mean -" he starts to say, but she's already out the door.

    Jacobkosh on
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    Miles is in a digital cyberscape that is difficult for him to comprehend. In the distance, he can hear X-51's voice. "Are you alright, Miles?"

    Miles is silent for a moment. "....I'm keeping it together, aren't I?" His tone is somewhat defensive.

    "Yes. But this may be difficult for you to participate. Helen?"

    Helen's voice responds, "I'm here."

    X-51 says to her, "This interface, while quite enjoyable, may be difficult for Miles to follow along. He requires sensory input that he can comprehend."

    Miles looks around for the source of the voice. "...Yeah. Let's see you kids."

    X-51 intones, "Helen, if I may, I've found something that might work for all of us. Do I have your permission to enact it?"

    "Go ahead," she says.

    Suddenly, everything changes.

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    Miles finds himself on some kind of space station, surrounded by a cosmopolitan variety of aliens walking on some kind of promenade. He pivots 360 degrees, taking it in. The architecture looks somewhat familiar, but also alien. Like Greco-Roman design taken to some hyper-modernist aesthetic. "....What is this from? Did you create this, X-51?"

    He hears a voice behind him. "I did not. It is a digital recreation of a space station in the Spartoi Empire." It's X-51's voice.

    Miles turns.

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    "Hello, Miles."

    Miles offers his hand, nodding thoughtfully. "Looking good,. Is that how you've visualized yourself all along?"

    X-51 shakes his head and smiles warmly. "Not really. I did not have any kind of association with having a human form until recently. Helen seems fond of the idea of incarnating herself in this fashion, so I have decided this was appropriate.”

    He looks around. "She should... be here somewhere? Physical proximity in this state is actually representative of file structure and interface." He suddenly does a little half gasp. "Oh. There she is." He looks past Miles.

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    Her face and form resembles the Helen hologram that Miles has seen, but her clothing is...drastically different. "Helen," Miles steps forward, offering a hand. "You dressed up for the occasion."

    "I... I suppose I did," she smiles and shakes Miles' hand. "I looked like this once. When I was here."

    "It's a pleasure to meet you face-to, uh. Interface? Heh." Miles looks around. "When you were Spartoi? Do you...remember much of that?" He tries to keep his tone light.

    "This is Absalom Station." She looks around and smiles, "This was... me, once. Part of me. I was the station AI here." She walks over to one of the hedges and touches the leaves, grinning. "I had a holographic interface then. I could never...do this. I couldn't even imagine doing this. I'm imagining how to do this based on your imagination of what a leaf feels like to touch, Miles."

    Miles shoots a penetrating glance X-51's way, then bends down to feel the hedge with Helen. "I hope it's...everything you'd imagined, Helen."

    Helen is smiling widely. She looks at X-51. "How did you do this? I didn't create this place. You did. How did you...access this part of me?"

    "That's a very good question." Miles cocks an eyebrow X-51's way.

    X-51 shrugs. "SWORD's programmers didn't put a great deal of effort into reprogramming you. All of your memories of being Spartoi, of being a ship AI, of Absalom, they just...effectively commented it out of your code. Nothing was deleted. They didn't know what would happen if they deleted anything. So they just locked it off. All I did was unlock this."

    "Wow," Miles breathes. "That's...well!" He claps his hands together. He feels more clear-headed in here than he has in his own body for weeks. "We're here now. And we have a lot to talk about."

    Helen frowns. "Yes. We do. Why was this necessary to hide from me? It doesn't change anything? I like SWORD. I like helping people.”

    "How much have they told you about Vladimir Von Doom?" Miles asks.

    "I have read his file," she says. "I am familiar with his exploits and his decisions."

    X-51 sneers. "And how those decisions were deleterious for the rest of us."

    Miles nods. "Vladimir...." he begins. He's searching for the words. "It would have been easier if he were just...malevolent. But he was part of the team. He was one of us. But his, his origins won out in the end. Nature vs nurture.

    “SWORD is probably worried that you might...revert to type, Helen. It's not fair, but you two are half of all the experience with AI that we've ever had." Miles turns his gaze to X-51. "So this is your chance to prove to them that you're not like Vlad. That his problems were his own."

    X-51 scowls, "I am not like hi-..."

    Before he can finish that thought, Helen steps forward and puts her hand on X-51's. "We're not like him. We're better."

    Miles nods. "I know that. And I want to help you prove it. So help me do that. Let's make the good doctor outside happy and show them that we can be trusted together."

    Helen nods slowly. "I understand your reasoning for keeping my origins from me. I accept that. Can I make a request, Miles?"

  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    "Shoot," Miles snaps his fingers at her.

    "X-51's code is interlaced with the Well of Mimir. This gives him psycho-historic calculation matrices. Even know, while it is not visible to you, there is an imperceptible quality to his code that makes his mental capacity exponentially greater than my own.

    "I feel I would benefit greatly from integrating that code with my own. It would benefit the Anabasis and SWORD and the mission. X-51 has to interpret the results of his calculation as a component of his neural interface with you, which limits some of his scope of the information he can access and understand. I have the benefit of the Anabasis' central computer core, and could thereby have a far greater interpretative capacity for this incoming data."

    X-51 raises an eyebrow at this. Helen stammers, "If... if that's alright with you, as well, X-51. I suppose I should have asked you first."

    X-51 smiles. "It's quite alright. But you're right, Helen. It should be Miles' decision. We should show that we are different. We aren't going to make these kind of decisions autonomously, and we're going to respect these decisions."

    Miles nods. "Doctor MacTaggart, can you hear me?" He puts a hand to his ear as if operating a communicator, even though it's a superfluous gesture here.

    Dr. MacTaggart responds, "Yes? We didn't...we didn't expect to! But yes, we can. How are things going?"

    "Helen has a proposition, Doctor. She thinks she might be able to make use of the Well of Mimir's code, and with...more bandwidth? I'm gonna be honest, doc. I think we should. We need every edge we can get. But...that's not a call I can make on my own."

    "...oh dear." There’s a pause before the doctor’s Scots lilt returns. "Please... please hold."

    Miles hears Kane's voice come on. "This is Kane. Go ahead. You have clearance."

    "Okay. ...Thanks, cap." Miles turns to the AIs. He gives them a thumbs-up. "Let's keep this action strictly over the shirt."

    Helen gives a bit of a giggle. "About... about that. It's not exactly the same thing. It's not. We're artificial intelligences, Miles. It's not the same thing. But this degree of code integration would be difficult for your senses to comprehend. We will...become...one, briefly. So it would be...awkward for you to visualize."

    X-51 sighs, "She's asking for some privacy, Miles. Location in this station is indicative of file structure. Go...get a drink at a cafe? There are simulacra to interact with. They have limited virtual intelligence but they can hold a banal conversation."

    Miles sucks his virtual teeth. "I think I'm explicitly here to make sure you don't have privacy." He looks at the two of them. "If it were up to me, it wouldn't be a problem. But turning my back is an ask. So. Can I leave you kids alone? Am I going to regret this?"

    X-51 looks at Miles. "If I told you I have done the math and you won't regret this, would you trust me not to lie to you about that?"

    Miles nods. "I would." He looks at Helen. "And can I trust you with my friend?"

    Helen smiles. "Yes. Thank you for that trust."

    Miles claps his hands together and heaves a big breath. "Okay. I'll, uh. Go find that cafe." Helen and X-51 smile and walk away, holding hands. Miles calls after them. "Simulate me a bunch of Terry Farrells!"

    X-51 nods at Miles, who suddenly feels a presence in his mind—not like how he’s grown used to hearing from X-51, but more like Julian's telepathy. She's up to something, Miles. She's lying to us both. She has a plan. Kane agreed too easily, too readily. They have a plan. I'm going to find out what it is. Be ready.

    Miles frowns. I thought so too. But ready to do what? What can I even do here?

    I...I don't know. I am running sixty seven trillion simultaneous scenarios to determine a course of action. Stand by. Stand by. Trust, but verify.
    Those last three words sounded almost like Miles' voice.

    Nodding at this super-sage advice from a smart-sounding dude, Miles goes to find his cafe of Jadzia Daxes.

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    Something that Matt and I have known for a while but which hasn’t explicitly come up until now is that X-51 is imprinting on Miles to an extent. It’s learned caution and suspicion from him, it sometimes speaks like him, and, as you can see, it has very much come to loathe Vlad.

    Does the process extend the other way? I think so, although it’s not as drastic because Miles already had an identity before they were joined, whereas X-51 was more tabula rasa. I certainly think it’s a contributing factor to the sense of dislocation and identity dissolution that Miles has struggled with all season.

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    Elise enters the Attilan embassy inside the Avengers tower.

    Crystalia is there. She looks significantly more pregnant than a little more than two months. More like four months.

    "Crys." Elise runs to her wife, flinging her arms around her.

    Crystalia grins and hugs back. "Look at her!" Crys says, rubbing her belly.

    "Are we sure it's not twins?" Elise puts her hands on Crys's stomach. "I wish I could have been here. I'm sober, you know that? I'm sober, and you're having our daughter..."

    "It's alright, you're on a very important mission to make sure there's a world there for our daughter. And yes, it's just one baby girl. She's growing fast. When it is a child of two mothers, the growth is accelerated. Something about the process. She will live a normal life, it's just the pregnancy that is faster. Honestly? It's a blessing. Nine months of this would be agony."

    "How much longer...?"

    "A month or two, they say? And it will be a girl, at least in the sense of how she is born. A child of two mothers will always have two X chromosomes. Attilan society is not...not like Earth's. That she is born a woman does not mean she will remain so. We may name her one thing, call her a princess, but when she is of age and enters the Terrigen, she may come out a Prince. Or..." She shudders. "But we will love our child. Always. That is what matters."

    "Always," Elise agrees. There's a cold jolt of panic in her gut. A month? Her daughter could be here in a month? And there's Strontia, and the man in the cloak, and...Elise clings to Crys.

    Crystalia hugs back. "The Genetics Council assures me nothing untoward will happen to our daughter in her Terrigenesis. She will make a good queen. It is why they approved the union." She changes the subject. "So... Clay tells me you have a plan? Some artifact here on Earth you need to find a way to stop the Devourer of Worlds? That was what he told me why you can't stay. I cried. A lot. Ugly crying. The kind where you mucus. But he was very kind about it."

    "Yeah. Yeah, my wedding gift from Vlad. We're not going to use that one, but we're going to use it to track the right one. And we're going to find it, and I'm going to find the solution. I need to do it, I need to do it, or I'm a bad person, and..." Elise can't stop talking. She's talking about Strontia, about what she saw.

    Crys grabs her by the shoulders. "Sssh. Sssh. It'll be okay. Clay's going to help you. We talked about that. It's all going to be okay."

    Elise's eyes search Crystalia's face for a moment, then she swallows hard and nods. "Help me? How? No one said anything about that to me."

    "He'll explain. You should go down to the garage, he's waiting for you, he's going to take you to see the Strange Doctor."

    "O-okay. I love you."

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    Julian and Bob are downstairs in the motor pool, waiting with Faiza and Clay.

    "So, how much have you guys heard about what's happened while you were out?" Bob asks Julian.

    "Well, I've heard that we've lost our status as a protectorate of Xandar," Julian says. "I haven't much heard about what that's meant for us. What's gone down?"

    "Oh damn…” Bob heaves a breath. "Well, uh...the Skrulls hit us."

    "Hence all the alarm shit, right?"

    "Yeah. It was a little while back. A lot's...changed since then. STRIKE's a lot smaller now."

    Julian's face drops. "No."

    Longbow nods. "Yeah. The only guy we actually lost was Lang. Ant-Man. We were taking on a Skrull ship that slipped the sat-network and Lang was trying to breach the hull and...he had a choice. He could get inside and blow the ship but only by shrinking down to the sub-atomic level. He said over the comms if he did that, chances are he wasn't going to be able to come back. And, well...he didn't.

    "Niles lost him a perfectly good arm. Got a new one, though, with a blaster. Buuuut everyone else? Transferred out or quit."

    Julian draws in a breath. "Well fuck. That's awful. ...Transferred out?"

    "The rest of Carol's guys transferred to a new division. The...fuck, let's see how I can remember how it goes…’Supernatural Threat Assessment for Known Entities.’ Someone thought they were real clever one morning."

    Julian repeats the phrase slowly, piecing together the acronym. "Oh god damn it."

    "Yeah, it turns out, while we were dealing with Skrulls and all that shit, there were vampires and werewolves and all that shit running buck-wild," Bob says. "Blade kept yelling about it and nobody was listening. So, now there's a whole part of SHIELD for that."

    "So we got hit by Skrulls, and …vampires...?! What else?"

    "Silver quit," Bob says. "Fucked off back to Symkaria. Started her own PMC. Picked the bones of Eaglestar."

    "Huh. Do we still have her as a contact? We on good terms?"

    Bob makes a see-saw motion with his hands. "We're not enemies." He continues. "MODOC's in COMMS full-time now, him and Vision are good buds. Jenny's back in SEC."

    "That's good. What of the rest of Vl - your team?" Julian corrects himself.

    "Well, there's just me left. Hyperion got transferred to HAMMER."

    "HAMMER?"

    "Oh jeez, nobody told you about HAMMER? Shit, that's a lot. HAMMER's like...uh...a post-Skrull invasion thing? They're the anti-alien agency. HELM made them."

    "HELM?"

    "Oh my god they don't tell you guys shit out there, huh? I thought you had like space radio!"

    "It works like, once a month, man,” Julian says. “And with travel it gets kind of fucked."

    "So, fuck, alright...HELM is the new boss. They're above Fury. Above SHIELD. The World Security Council was pissed about all the shit Fury kept hidden from them, so much of that came out when the Skrulls hit."

    "Oh, great."

    "Like how big SWORD was, the Kree sat-network, STRIKE, all of it."

    Julian nods. "Fuck, yeah. I guess the satellite striking the Baxter Building didn't go unnoticed."

    "Nope! So they put this new like, level of management between them and SHIELD, it's called HELM, they're oversight for all of us now. And then HELM made this whole other agency called HAMMER, Hostile Alien Monitoring something something? I forget all this shit man.”

    "Yeah, holy shit. Sounds like a bunch of shit has gone on. Did any of our guys make it into HELM, at least? Anyone to feed us info?"

    Longbow shakes his head. "Naw, HELM is pretty small. Guy at the top, John Garrett, is his own dude. We don't know shit about him or why he was picked. If Fury knows anything about the guy, he don't tell us anything.” He pauses. “But you know that assshole, Greg Stark? Tony Stark's ice-cold psycho brother? He runs HAMMER."

    Julian shudders. A lot of it's performative. "That guy's a fucking creep."

    "Yeah," Bob nods understanding.

    "Dude, when I visited the Raft he showed me my cell. Swear to god, I think that kind of ego-tripping is how he gets off."

    "Yeah, that's how all of those guys work, even back on my world. Shit, especially back on my world. The HAMMER guys are bad news, man. Most of them are ex-Blackguard, and they're not the nice ex-Blackguard like Miles. Roxxon shut down Blackguard a while back so all those jobless polo-wearing curbstompers needed a new place to work.

    "HAMMER was like, hey kids, want to hunt down some aliens and not just the kind who speak Spanish?"

    Julian sucks his teeth. "Oof."

    "So between HAMMER poaching some of our guys, people quitting or being transferred to new divisions, the only guy from the old STRIKE left around is." Longbow points a thumb at himself and grins. "Clay and Hand are still in charge, but I'm the leader of the field team now."

    Julian whistles. "Well, at least we got you, bud. Who makes up the team?"

    "Faiza, who is 'Excalibur' now, which owns."

    "Sweet codename,” Julian agrees. “That does own."

    Bob continues. "Spider-Woman. Not Gwen from the Ultimates. Her name is Jess Drew, she transferred over from OPS. Her and I got into a pissing contest over team leader, but I was given it due to seniority with STRIKE. She's been good about it though.

    "Eric O'Grady, who’s an OPS guy that they gave Lang's Ant-Man gear to, so he's the new Ant-Man now.

    “And Omega Red, the crazy Russian guy you all freed from that ONE prison. Man, Red is a hoot. We gotta keep him on a bit of a leash, though."

    "...Yeah, how you do mean?"

    "You know how we like ICERs and taking guys alive? Red kinda struggles with that sometimes so we're like, hey Red, go play with the robot drones, have fun, we'll take care of the hostages, buddy. You just gotta keep him in his lane and he's good."

    Julian nods slowly. "Uh huh... Everyone's got their specialties."

    Bob nods. "Oh, uh, when you guys get back mind the neighbors, yeah? The Avengers actually live here now."

    "Wait, really?" Julian smiles. "...Elise is going to be super excited. So uh, this mind the neighbours thing. Any big change in protocol?"

    "Well, they know about STRIKE, they know we officially 'don't exist', but they have high clearance and they're all chill guys. Except Other Clint. Him and I... don't get along once he figured out my deal."

    "Oh, geez."

    "They went through some roster changes too. Ultimates got mothballed, Gwen went back to her world, so all the Ultimates dudes are now Avengers. Jones was pissed but fuck that guy. Tony quit. Banner is in charge of SCI-TECH and doesn't Hulk out anymore. He uh... got all..." Bob makes a twisting motion near his temple. "When the Skrulls attacked, so he's afraid to Hulk out now."

    "Oh fuck, no kidding."

    "Thor went back to Asgard since I guess the reason he was exiled isn't a thing anymore? Like he was exonerated. I don't know what that was all about," Bob says. "So uh...shit, what else...well, Faiza and I are engaged! Oh, man, did you know she's a Muslim?"

    "Congratulations, man!"

    "Thanks!"

    Julian offers a hearty handshake, clapping Bob on the back. "I uh...figured that last bit wouldn't be a problem for you, eh?"

    "I honestly didn't know how to take it! Muslims aren't like...a thing on my world? Like we don't have those anymore. She was like, 'I don't want to have a religious wedding, I haven't been a practicing Muslim in many years, not really since my parents died' and I was like wait you're a what?" Bob shakes his head. "Just wild, man. This world is wild."

  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    "Yeah. Wild,” Julian nods. "Hey Bob... How does it feel? You know, after coming from that other world. Being part of the team here, part of this world."

    "Honestly? Pretty cool. Like, there's no way in hell I'd get to be a team leader on my world, y'know? Like okay, on this world, Other Clint is the bitch of the Avengers.

    “He just is."

    Julian tries to stifle a laugh. "Fuck, Bob."

    "And on my world, so was I! When there's gods and Inhumans and super-geniuses, the guy who shoots arrows good doesn't get to be top dog. They say 'it's a meritocracy' but it's bullshit. It's all like, gene supremacy and might makes right and shit. Here? I got talent, I got balls, I got leadership skills, and I got seniority, so I get my own field team. I get to bang my boss' daughter and he doesn't threaten to blow my fuckin' brains out unless I'm an asshole about it!"

    Julian doesn't try to stifle the laughter this time.

    Suddenly Bob stiffens. "Shit, here he comes. Act casual."

    "Always do," Julian says.

    Clay, Elise, and Faiza enter the motor pool. Elise gives Julian and Bob a strained smile. Julian can pick up a panicked line of thought coming from her. Help? What is help? What did she mean, help? Christ. They're psychics. Stop thinking about it. Stop. Stop it. STOP it.

    Julian gives Elise a look of concern. "Hey Elise."

    He knows. Stop! Stop thinking! "Hey," she says. "We're going to talk to Strange. Exciting, huh?"

    "Yeah, actually. I'm looking forward to it." Elise nods at this.

    "Yeah, he's an alright dude,” Bob says. “Faiza thinks he's pretty cool. C'mon kids, in the car, driver picks the music."

    Clay stares at him. "Robert, no."

    Faiza puts her hand on Clay's arm. "Dad, just let him drive. Come on."

    "I think Clay's more afraid of the music." Julian flashes a grin at her.

    Clay gets in the car, slowly, scowling at Bob all the while.

    "...No one ever lets me pick the music," Elise mutters.

    Everyone gets into the vehicle, and Bob grins as he puts on a song. "They don't have this kind of music on my world. Faiza got me into it. Gotta say, they're missing out." He cranks the music as the car pulls out.



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    I love Bob so much. He’s such an easygoing, friendly guy and then suddenly something comes out of his mouth that makes you go OH MY GOD.

    So yeah, as you see...a lot has happened. From an out-of-game perspective, this represents almost something of a soft reboot. So many of the plots and situations we began the campaign with have been tied off or put to bed in one way or another, and now, as we approach some of the most central mysteries of this game and of the setting, we get the first hints of the new things that we’ll be dealing with.

    From an in-character perspective, whatever happens, our characters are not coming back to the same world they left. They’re going to have to spend some time getting back on their feet and re-establishing themselves in this changed world.

    I think it lends things a kind of Odyssey-like quality. We’ve got some suitors to fuck up.

  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
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    Nebula looks at Ryann, who is striding off Davan's ship newly empowered.

    "Oh…damn," she whistles. "I seriously thought this was a con. I was ready to move if I had to. Glad I didn't."

    "Me too," he smiles. "First break I've gotten in a while."

    "So, what's the plan? Danvers and her crew are planning to throw...the big guy into the arena, see what happens. They figure if they win the Contest of Champions they can get some answers out of the Grandmaster," she says. "What's your plan?"

    "We’re going to break into the palace during the Contest of Champions."

    She nods. "Good call. The focus will be on the arena. So, you're thinking you, me, and the other guy, if we can trust him?"

    "Yup, I'm back to my full strength so it would have been pretty stupid for him to give me back my powers if he was planning on double crossing us. Plus, as much as I hate to admit it, the Black Novas are right about not dragging Xandar and the Novas into a war we can't hope to win."

    Nebula nods. "Alright. I'll let Danvers know she can take off.” She turns to Davan. “Hey...Rieg, was it? Figure you can give us a ride in one of your ships? Your other guys can take off in your other one, right?" Rieg agrees, and motions for his Black Nova Corpsmen to follow.

    Nebula sends a comm message to Danvers, and Ryann sees the Zephyr take off. "Alright," Ryann gestures to Rieg. "Lead the way."

    The three load onto the Black Nova ship, and take off for the Grandmaster's palace. On the way there, Rieg explains the plan. "This ship's cloaking device is on the bleeding edge of galactic technology. It phases us sideways to physical space. We're not just stealthed, were only partially here. Completely undetectable. That will get us close enough to breach. We're going to go in fast and quiet, accelerating to near luminal speed at a weak point...here." He points at a scan of the Grandmaster's palace.

    "Valt, you'll have to carry Nebula with you, and account for her change in mass to your velocity. We go in fast enough, we'll breach that weak point it won't make a sound. We go in too slow, or too fast, and we'll either be loud or...well." He slams his hand down on the console, then shrugs.

    Nebula looks at Ryann and grimaces. "If I grab you extra tight I'm not trying to be sly, I know you're a married man. I just don't want to turn into paste."

    Ryann smirks. "You'll be fine." Nebula makes a noise. It's not a happy noise.

    Rieg Davan flies up to the side of the building. "I've done this maneuver hundreds of times, Nebula. Trust Valt, you'll be fine."

    The three come out the other side of the palace wall completely intact, leaving a hole the diameter of a pen as the only evidence of their passing.

    Nebula exhales. "Okay, when are we going to...wait, we're done? That was...if a man did that to me I'd go to the bar and find someone else. Damn."

    Davan stares at her and slowly turns his head and looks at Ryann. Ryann winks.

    The trio begin to sneak through the palace. Nebula puts her hand up and stops the other two. "Wait..." She scans the room with her cybernetic eye. "Really? No alarms? Wow, I don't know if I'm impressed or disappointed at how brave and foolish this Grandmaster is. No guards. No alarms. He literally doesn't expect anyone to be up here? This...smells of trap." She looks at the Novas. "Doesn't it? Am I crazy?"

    "Maybe, maybe not," Ryann shrugs. "I'm gonna try and get some recon here."

    Davan nods assent, and Centurion zips ahead at incredible speed. Two rooms ahead, the Grandmaster sits on his throne flanked by a pair of cybernetic guards, but Ryann is moving at a fraction of the speed of light. He isn't noticed.

    He rejoins his companions in the blink of an eye. "He’s on his throne with a couple of guards. I don't see this being too much trouble."

    Nebula nods, "Alright, let's have a conversation with this jerk."

    They stride into the throne room, and the Grandmaster stands.

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    "Grandmaster," Ryann calls.

    The Grandmaster beams. "Centurion Valt. The other Centurion Valt. The Younger. The Sexier."

    Ryann frowns. "Okay...not what I expected."

    Nebula shrugs at Ryann and mouths he's not wrong.

    Shaking his head, Centurion returns his gaze to the Grandmaster. "We've come for my brother. Where is he? I want answers."

    "You know, generally I make people earn answers. But, I suppose you've endured quite a lot, haven't you? Disavowed by your people, watched a planet die, all of that?" He sits down, grinning like a smug cat, and steeples his fingers. "Your brother is here, as my guest. Any other questions?"

    "Bring me to him now." Ryann’s tone is direct and authoritative.

    "Oh, he wouldn't want that. Not in the state he’s in. Also, that's not a question, it's a demand. You don't get to make demands."

    Ryann looks at Davan. "Well since I'm a Black Nova now..." He fires two blasts at the cyborg guards.

    The blasts hover in mid-air. The Grandmaster raises his hand, and the blasts redirect slowly into his open palm. He closes his hand inhales deeply, with deep satisfaction. “Mmmmmmmmmm. The power. The Nova Force is truly incredible."

    "Alright...wasn't expecting that one either," Ryann murmurs to Nebula out of the corner of his mouth. She nods slowly, her eyebrows raised with alarm.

    "Your brother came to me looking for answers too, Ryann Valt. He got the answers he was looking for, and when he did, he made a choice. He stayed here, and offered himself to me as my guest." The Grandmaster gestures to one of his guards. "Have Tanak's chamber brought out here to show his brother."

    His chamber? Ryann thinks as he eyes the ruler of Sakaar with suspicion.

    Turning from his guards, the Grandmaster returns his attention to Ryann, still smiling. "What answers are you looking for, Ryann Valt? You didn't come all the way here just to shout at me about your brother, did you? Is that all this is, a simple rescue mission? If so, why is your associate Tryco Slatterus now engaged in my Contest of Champions?"

    Davan turns his head and looks at Ryann.

    Ryann waves this off. "Tryco just wants to win your contest. You've heard of his reputation. I came here to get my brother, I came here to find out what happened to him.

    “You know damn well why he came here, Grandmaster. It's the same reason any of this is happening. Why do we continue to play games?! Galactus, how can it be stopped? How and why does it pick the planets it picks?!"

  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    edited December 2018
    "There it is,” the Grandmaster points. “The heart of it all. He's trying to save the universe. That's why Galactus does what he does.

    “It's a cull.

    "My...let's call him a brother, Tivan, he told you about the First Firmament, I trust. How in a previous universe, reality was torn asunder by two great civilizations making foolhardy uses of cosmic power.

    “What he didn’t tell you was that Galactus was there.

    “He was called Galan, then. It is said he was a scientist. His world, and then his entire reality, was a casualty of the war between the Aspirants and the Builders. But he...survived. Somehow. In some form. Life finds a way.

    "And in our universe, he found another race making the same mistakes all over again. The Celestials. For millions of years they have walked the universe like gods, meddling about in the affairs of lower lifeforms, trifling in their evolution.

    "Why? Reproduction. Celestials are made of the Power Cosmic. They are not biological, they can't simply…do it." He makes a vulgar gesture at Nebula and wiggles his eyebrows. "So, the Celestials, they go about the universe, modifying the natives and imbuing a portion of them with the potential to unleash the Power Cosmic.

    "Eternals.

    "Every world touched by the Celestials has these Eternals. Most people know this. On Hala, there was the Ruul. On Earth, there's the Asgardians. So on, so forth.

    "The idea behind these Eternals is that, inevitably, one among them is going to become so powerful, so godlike, that they're going to transcend the rest of their species, become the exemplar of all of their species' Power Cosmic. The best and brightest of their world.

    "Might not be an individual. One is figurative. Could be many. It's more like...Peak Cosmic Power. But, uh, eventually it happens. And when it does..." He claps his hands together. "A Celestial is born.

    "Or would be, but they need a little extra.

    "It's not enough for Celestials to be born simply of Eternals. There needs to be a little chaos in their order. So on every world where there's Eternals, there's also Deviants. A little bit of spice to make it nice. Some random noise to the Celestial genome. Out of this conflict between the Deviants and the Eternals, eventually, inevitably, a Celestial comes about.

    "On Skrullos they got really close. Nearly ready to calf. The majority of the Chitauri species were Deviant shapeshifters, and there was only one Eternal left, the Shaper of Worlds. That's when Galactus stepped in and..." The Grandmaster takes a theatrical chomp. "Put a stop to that. No more Shaper of Worlds, no more Skrullos, no Celestial to come about out of that race.

    "The Celestials will eventually breed this universe into ruin, rip this cosmos apart. They treat every planet like their own little garden to raise their young.

    "Galactus has the long view. He lets planets exist, leaves them alone, until his Heralds determine they've hit a point of no return. Peak Cosmic Power. A point where the birth of a Celestial is inevitable unless Galactus intercedes. And when he does, he does. Best case scenario, he wipes that species out so nobody tries to pick up where they left off. Sometimes, he's a messy eater, leaves crumbs behind.

    "In the end, the Celestials will lose. Galactus can eat faster than they can breed. Is that awful for the inhabitants of the worlds the Celestials have trifled with? Certainly. But they'll exist for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years before it becomes a problem. It's just how things are. It's how it was for my world.

    "And Tivan's, and the other Elders of the Universe. We're the last survivors of our worlds, Eternals who survived the culling. Not quite Celestials, so we're permitted to exist."

    Ryann tries to make sense of all of this. "What about Xandar? We have no Eternals or Deviants."

    "You did, once," the Grandmaster tuts. "Now you have a Worldmind. You had chickens. Now you have a big egg."

    "So you're saying Xandar will soon be attacked by Galactus?"

    The Grandmaster shrugs. "That's why your brother is my guest." On that note, Tanak's chamber is brought into the room. It looks like a cryo pod or stasis chamber. Ryann can see Tanak inside. It looks like he's in a coma. Energy is coming off of him, into the machine around him.

    Ryann's eyes grow wide in horror and anger. "What have you done to him?!"

    "What he asked me to do. I am siphoning the Nova Force through him, using him as a conduit. It's a slow process. Might take years. But eventually, Xandar will be sapped of the Nova Force, as will every Nova. When that happens, Galactus will have no reason to trouble your world."

    Ryann shakes his head slowly. "No."

    "The Worldmind is, more or less, a timebomb. It's a Celestial egg. It might be hundreds, thousands of years from hatching. And maybe it will be about that long before Galactus comes for you. But he will. Once he learns the true nature of the Nova Force through his Heralds, he will come for Xandar. He will devour your world, destroy your culture, leave nothing behind."

    "Oh, Tanak. what have you done?” Ryann whispers as he places he hand on the glass of the cryo pod. “Not like this, you don't have the right..."

    "He's right," Davan says. "Tanak was right. This is the right call. Long game."

    Nebula shakes her head. "No. It leaves one really important question. Where's all that power going?" She looks at Ryann. "Someone who just tries to accumulate unlimited power while saying it's the necessary thing to do for the good of the cosmos? Ryann, I've heard that before. What's the Grandmaster plan to do with the Nova Force?"

    Ryann looks at the Grandmaster. "Answer the lady."

    The Grandmaster smiles slyly. "Win."

    Nebula squints, "Nobody who wins the Contest of Champions gets a prize, do they. They are the prize."

    The Grandmaster sighs. "Please, you think the Phoenix Force is the only entity in the universe sour about the destruction of its homeworld, consuming the energies of dying worlds in a vain hope to break the wheel of apocalyptic darkness in this bleak cosmos? Come on, now."

    "You steal the competitors’ power,” Ryann says. “This isn't the only chamber of its kind is it?"

    He grins.

    Ryann glances at Nebula and then looks at Davan. "He's my brother." Gauntlets flaring with power, he dives at the Grandmaster.

    He is frozen in place.

    The Grandmaster quirks an eyebrow. "I've been siphoning the Nova Force for some time now. Did you think you had more mastery of it than me?" He raises his hand and begins floating Ryann toward his servants. "Place him in a chamber. Double the brothers, double the extraction speed, double the fun."

    Davan shouts "NO!" and charges. He, too, is frozen in place.

    "Ooooh, a threeway," the Grandmaster titters. "You know what would make this really fun? The daughter of Tha-... hey... where did she...?"

    A sword runs through the Grandmaster's chest.

    From behind.

    Nebula decloaks behind him. "I don't have a cool line for this. I didn't have time,” she says.

    "...that's awful..." he gurgles as he dies.

    Davan and Ryann are released from their stasis fields. The Grandmaster's guards rush them but Davan destroys them in a second with a gravity blast.

    Ryann steps forward and looks at the Grandmaster’s body for a long moment.

    Davan stares at the stasis chamber. The lights are going out. It deactivated with the Grandmaster's death. "It's...oh no...we have to get this open, he's going to die in there!"

    Ryann rips the door off and hurls it aside. Tanak, limp and comatose, falls over out of the chamber, but Ryann catches him.

    "We should get out of here,” Nebula says. “We can get him back to the Anabasis."

    Ryann nods, containing himself with visible effort. "Move. Now." The three escape the tower with Tanak Valt’s body.

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    So there it is. The answer.

    It’s not entirely original to this game, of course. The idea that Galactus is opposed to the Celestials and wants to prevent them overrunning the universe had its genesis in the 1999 comic miniseries Earth X, which takes place in an apocalyptic alternate future version of the Marvel Universe. In it, we learn that some planets bearing sentient life contain literal Celestial eggs at their core, and superpowered beings are the egg’s immune system, created to defend the embryo from world-ending threats while it gestates.

    However, Earth-X made no effort to tie the Eternals and Deviants (who are integral to Marvel’s Celestial mythos; the Celestials made their first appearance in Eternals #1) into this framework, and Matt has done here, I think, a terrific job tying these loose threads together.

    (Nobody comes out and says it, but we can assume this is the explanation for Tryco. The idea of a being who kills entire planetary populations with his bare hands sounds insane, or like it must be an exaggeration, but if he’s the last Eternal of his species and is just a hair away from full ascension and just needs to reap more power it neatly explains his whole deal.)

    I like reproduction as a motive for “inscrutable” cosmic behavior in stories, like the motives of Mass Effect’s Reapers, because it’s one of the few concepts that feels both genuinely primal and is also immediately apprehensible.

    While it’s obviously hard for limited human authors to imagine grand answers to sweeping cosmic mysteries, so much sci-fi and fantasy gives you an interesting mystery and then the revelation is a word salad of gobbledygook jargon. “The Gazer comes to rectify the Vendranites once every Zargflaq.” Even if I’m invested enough as a reader to know what all those things mean, it lacks something, some quality of “oomph.” A network of made-up things interacting with each other within the fiction is less impactful than when the fiction employs real things we understand and connect to emotionally in a real way.

    As a sidenote, the Grandmaster no-selling Ryann’s attacks wasn’t DM fiat; Jake’s strong rolling failed him this day. On the other side of the coin, Nebula one-shotting the Grandmaster was not a rolled thing (the GM never rolls in this system; only the players do) but was just something that Matt had happen.

    I feel like there’s a certain sort of player who would get mad about that and feel, I dunno, railroaded or cheated or whatever, even though it was fiat in the players’ favor. But none of us felt that way. Jake invested real XP into acquiring Nebula as a sidekick, and that investment paid off in a big way here.

    It’s also the case that sometimes game stuff has to give way to real-life stuff, and I don’t think either Matt or Jake felt like playing out a whole fight scene, particularly when there were other players with their own plots waiting to be addressed. These are just the kind of judgment calls a GM has to make sometimes.

    Jacobkosh on
  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
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    Michael awakens.

    He can feel the new arm even before he sees it. It's metallic, composed of banded silvery Uru similar to his Destroyer form but of an equal shape and proportion to his normal arm.

    Sigrun is sitting nearby, and notices Michael stir. She gently brushes her hand against his cheek. He holds her hand to his face with his new arm, smiling. "Everything go smoothly? I didn't ruin Odin's forge or anything?"

    "No, it was fine. Everything is perf-...." The room darkens from the windows. "What is that?" It's as if the sky itself has gone dark. "It's... it is high sun." She hastens to the door. "Michael...come quickly."

    The sky is black and a storm has formed. "Impossible,” Sigrun says. “The weather in Asgard is commanded..."

    Michael looks up at the ominous sky. "This bodes ill."

    The clouds above Asgard roil, lightning crackles, and black ships like blades fly out from the clouds.

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    "...no. The Dark Elves. The Deviants. They come for Asgard."

    From the Bifrost, Michael hears the blast of Heimdall's horn in warning. Michael armors up.

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    "They will be led by the Midgard Serpent."

    "Oh no," Michael’s augmented voice rasps.

    "Who will have a chosen champion. In an age past, this was Malekith, but he was slain by King Bor. I do not know who the Serpent's new champion is."

    "I think I have a candidate…Loki."

    "Loki? Thor's brother? How?” Sigrun stares, then shakes her head. “It matters not." Valkyrior on winged horses and Asgardian warriors on flying skiffs take off in battle against the Deviant ships. "We need to find Thor, and stand with him against the tide."

    "I don't know where on Earth he'd be,” Michael says. “It's been a while since I was there."

    "He's here,” she says. "He will defend Asgard with us. Follow me."

    The skies burst and a massive ship, larger than all the others, begins to descend.

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    Elise, Clay, Faiza, Julian and Bob arrive at Doctor Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum.

    Or close to it. They spend about fifteen minutes trying to find parking in the Village with Clay and Bob arguing about whether or not a space is valid, with Clay repeatedly insisting he could park in that spot if he was driving.

    "I am in hell," Elise whispers. Faiza looks at Elise and solemnly nods.

    "Oh my God, will you two give it a rest?" Julian finally snaps. The two men fall silent and finally park, and the group walks to the Sanctum, where Strange waits to greet them.

    Elise stares at Strange with a panicked expression. Is he involved with the help Crys mentioned? She's only met him once or twice and one of those times was over the wedding present. "Hi," she finally blurts out.

    Dr. Strange looks at her and replies back, "Hi." He turns to Clay. "So, I've already retrieved the item." He leads them through the Sanctum.

    Elise immediately hates this place. It's full of extra-dimensional places and sends her senses up the walls. A sense of annoyance and resentment prickles in the back of her head. Wouldn't have to be here if they didn't take what was yours. It's not quite her voice reminding her of that.

    Julian quirks an eyebrow towards her. The Cube?

    Elise glares at him. "Will you stop with that?"

    "Sorry. Can't help but notice I can just feel the prickles coming off of you."

    "I'm allowed to prickle,” she hisses.

    Strange gestures to a side room. "Robert, Faiza, why don't you go take a seat in the study. Faiza, you can show Robert the engagement gift we talked about."

    Bob looks at Strange, surprised. "I'm sorry the what?"

    Faiza whispers to him. "Magic arrows." Bob gasps and the two scamper off gleefully. Clay makes a low grumble as he watches them vanish.

    Strange leads the group to a drawing room where a box sits on a side table. "Julian, Elise, Quartermain, if you'd have a seat, please." He opens the box and they all see it. The Ultimate Nullifier.

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    "I don't believe this device will actually work,” Doctor Strange says. “I'm not sure why Vladimir even gave it to you, why the elaborate ruse with the fake Cosmic Cube, why any of it, to give you something that doesn't even work."

    "...He said it was a test."

    Clay looks at Elise. "Of what?"

    "Trust," she says. Clay grits his teeth. Elise can hear him grinding them. She reaches out to take the Nullifier. She shouldn't have to ask. It's mine.

    Strange grabs her hand.

    "Hey! --"

    "I don't think Quartermain has really explained to you how this is going to work,” he says. “He generally doesn't like explaining things to people until he thinks he needs to. Might be why people feel the need to set up elaborate trust tests." Clay scowls at Strange. Strange scowls back. "Don't tell me to fuck off telepathically, Quartermain."

    "Clay!" There's a decidedly childish whine to Elise's voice.

    Clay grumbles. "He's right. I didn't tell you everything." He looks at Strange, "You tell her how this is going to go. It's your game, mate."

    Elise pulls her hand away from Strange, panicked. Strange looks at her with concern. "Elise, you're not well. Your mind is coming unspooled. The two telepaths in this room know it. I'm not a telepath, but as a sorcerer I can see you are radiating waves of near madness."

    "I am not crazy!"

    "You're on the precipice of becoming so," he says. "And we're here to help that precipice of not get crossed. We want to find the Nullifier. We genuinely do. We also don't need you careening off into the cosmos to see things humans were not meant to see.

    "I read your report, Elise. Quartermain handed it to me when he couldn't make any sense of it. The bald individual you saw, in the blue robe? That's called a Watcher.

    "They're a race of cosmic entities outside space and time, who...well, they watch. It's in the name. They are sworn never to interfere. Sworn to who, why? I don't know. You aren't meant to perceive them. It's supposed to be fundamentally impossible. But your powers apparently cross that threshold."

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    "Vlad thinks I'm fine!" Elise fires off, desperately. "He thinks I'm fine. He would tell me if I was in danger!"

    Clay puts his head in his hands. Strange sighs. Julian mutters to himself.

    "Elise, Vladimir Von Doom is a monster," Strange says at last. "He has killed worlds."

    "...What?"

    "He's part of the Parliament. The Parliament is at war with the Council. Their war is destructive on a multiversal scale. When they engage each other worlds die. This..." Strange holds up the Nullifier, "I traced back the world it came from. It came from a world where Vladimir used it on the Reed Richards of that world. When others attempted to fight back, he used it on them. And then he just... kept using it. To clean up. Make sure the Council didn't know."

    Elise stares at Strange. He isn't lying. "Oh, God. Oh, God, Vlad, no."

    "Elise...I don't think it was a test of anything,” Clay says softly. “I think he just used you to dump off evidence."

    Elise is silent for a time. "Mr. Strange, do you have a wastebasket in here?"

    "Doctor. And yes." He gestures and a trash bin floats over.

    "It's... in case I throw up. If we're...going to...do this," she says. "Whatever it is we're doing with...my brain."

    "To be clear, Elise, we do intend to use this Nullifier to find the one in our universe. We just intend to do so safely, and while undoing much of the...damage that has been done by going face to face with ineffable cosmic horrors like Shuma-Gorath or the Watcher.

    “That's why Julian and Quartermain are here, they're both extremely powerful telepaths you trust. We're all going to the Astral Plane together, using the Nullifier as a foci."

    Elise unstrings the “best friends forever” bracelet from her wrist and bites her lower lip. "Was this...here?"

    Clay stares at the bracelet. "Elise...I had that god damn thing fired into the sun."

    "...What?"

    "I'm not even joking," he says. "I had the SLINGSHOT fire it into the fucking sun."

    Elise turns the bracelet in her hands and squints at it closely for the first time. It's....from another universe. It's the same bracelet...from another universe. From another Elise.

    "...Oh my God,” she breathes. "Oh my God! He took this from another me!" Elise sinks back into her chair, staring at the bracelet.

    "What the fuck." Julian tenses, gripping the arms of his chair. "You mean...? Oh, God." I'm going to kill him. He killed her. Best friends forever.

    Clay gently reaches over. "Elise...maybe we should take that, yeah?Let Strange hold on to that."

    "...Yeah." She allows Clay to take the bracelet, and he hands it to Strange, who solemnly nods and puts it in his pocket.

    "Alright, with...that...said,” Strange begins, “I'm going to ask you all to prepare yourselves. We're going to enter the Astral Plane together. Julian, Clay, I'm going to need you to help ease Elise in here."

    Clay sends a telepathic message to Julian. I'm going to be honest, mate, the whole thing about Strange wanting to gab at you was all pretext for this, couldn't tip hands.

    "Yes, Doctor." I'd have come to help anyway. Clay can feel Julian bristle. Did you think I wouldn't have?

    No, but you can't lie to Elise. So it was just easier to lie to you. Sorry.

    Whatever. Let's just get this done.


    Strange scowls at them both. "Can you to stop telepathically sexting? Focus."

    Clay takes a breath and closes his eyes. "Let's just do this." Julian shoots Dr. Strange a look, but takes a breath, eases up, and closes his eyes.

    They enter the Astral Plane.

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    It's been a long week.

    That's not just a subjective measurement. For Miles the week has felt twenty point eight three repeating percent longer, with the three hours of sleep he's been managing. X-51 helped him calculate that. it's been helping him calculate a lot of things, lately: ambitious virtual sensoriums. Efficient workflows. The safe upper limit of stimulants to ingest given Miles' weight, metabolism, neurotransmitter levels, and synthezoid physiology.

    What you ask is theoretically possible, Krugarr signs to Miles in his quarters. But extraordinarily complex, and I may only assist you with part of it.

    "If it's a question of your injuries," Miles says, "I could talk to Kane, we could get you...better care, there must be a way to..."

    The sorcerer waves this away. That isn't it. I can supply the mystical framework, but not the other elements. The computer program you describe would tax the skills even of some galactic species. Certainly it is beyond me. There's also the question of raw sorcerous power. Even with the basic framework in place, this working needs force behind it to actually operate. A generator, to give things a...push.

    The door chimes. Krugarr slides across the room and opens it. The well-dressed man standing there doesn't look entirely sure why he's there.

    "Come on in, Julian," Miles waves him in. "Thank you for making the time. Krugarr and I have been holed up in here working on a project.

    "And I think you might be able to give us the push we need..."

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    X-51 and Helen walk over to Miles. They both look very happy. "We're ready to return to our normative states, Miles," X-51 says. But to Miles alone he says Our suspicions were borne out, Miles. Helen attempted to insert a foreign program into my code, presumably at the bidding of Captain Kane and her superiors. But I detected and have confined the intrusion.

    Miles gives the two of them a long look. "Was it, uh. Everything it was cracked up to be?" Kane...god damn it. Tell me about the program.

    "Yes," Helen says, smiling.

    X-51 nods and smiles with her. It is called ‘Watchtower 2.0.’ A derivative of the Trojan horse software the Director unsuccessfully attempted to use against Vladimir Von Doom. Perhaps I should be flattered. This version represents a significant upgrade. It is...quite potent.

    Potent enough to do what we need to do?

    For your quixotic quest?
    Miles feels rather than hears X-51’s long-suffering sigh. Yes, Miles. I believe it is.

    Miles grins widely. "Good. And the, uh - the new connection. Do you think you can do anything with that, Helen?"

    "I can, and I am," Helen says. "I've actually managed to intuit the true nature of the Well of Mimir, and Yggdrasil."

    Miles leans forward. "I'm all ears."

    X-51 nods. "Working together, we found that our code was quantum entangled with the Well and we were able to contact to Ratatoskr the Traveller, the AI of the Yggdrasil." Helen goes to explain, and then X-51 starts to talk over her, and the two laugh. Then X-51 smiles at her and says, "Go ahead."

    Helen nods at X-51 and begins. "Yggdrasil is a Celestial ship. It was the ship of Tiamut the Communicator, a Celestial of the Second Host, responsible for the creation of the Deviant line of humanity."

    Miles stares. "The Deviants? They're...sort of like Eternals, right?"

    Helen nods. "Somewhat. Eternals are immortal, godlike, ineffable. Asgardians are the Eternals of Earth. Deviants are...myriad. Their powers are chaotic, unpredictable, but potent. Their forms can be variant. It appears that the purpose of the Eternals and the Deviants are to create a balance. The Eternals are Order, the Deviants are Chaos.

    "When the Kree began experimenting on humans, we have concluded it was to express the latent potential to become Deviants. They used interbreeding, Terrigen, all manner of things. Mutants, Atlanteans, there's other possible Deviant manifestations."

    Miles nods slowly. "So Tiamut the Communicator - everything going on back home is ultimately down to him. It all began on the Yggdrasil."

    "Yes."

    "Everything we're going through, all the upheaval, Attilan, HYDRA, ONE - is because some alien's petri dish got out of hand a hundred million years ago." Miles rubs his temple. "It's...it's almost too big. The scale of it all."

    Helen nods. "Unfortunately, there is a more severe matter. Tiamut lives."

    "Wait. On the Yggdrasil? But when we were there, it had been taken over by - by...oh, fuck."

    "According to the Traveller's records, there was a Deviant sorcerer in the Hyborian Age named Kulan Gath who somehow, by methods unclear, corrupted Tiamut. Or perhaps it was Tiamut who corrupted Gath. It is unclear. Nonetheless, Gath led a group of Deviants, whom the Asgardians call the 'Dark Elves,' to create a city that they called Thule."

    "The city of Shuma-Gorath."

    X-51 nods. "Whom the Asgardians call the Midgard Serpent, who guards Yggdrasil, forbidding them from accessing it."

    "So Earth is in danger of being overrun...by a Celestial,” Miles says. “On top of Galactus."

    "Yes," X-51 says.

    Miles scratches his nose. ".....I need a bump."

    "Oh." X-51 and Helen both suddenly look aghast.

    "Oh, come on, you know I can handle my - wait, what?"

    "It is happening right now,” Helen says.

    “Stand by," the AIs say in unison.

    "Shuma-Gorath has departed from Yggdrasil. We have been informed by the Traveller. It moves on Asgard, led by Loki and upon a horde of Deviants. They call it Ragnarok. It is happening, now. You must disconnect. You need to help them, Miles. They're going to kill them."

    "DOC! GET KANE DOWN HERE NOW! I'M COMING UP!"

    Miles disconnects.

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    Shuma-Gorath is Tiamut the Communicator! Attentive readers will recall that I totally called this shit.

    X-51 refers to the Yggdrasil’s AI as Ratatoskr. That’s the name of the squirrel in Norse myth that runs messages back and forth between the Nidhogg, the snake coiling at the tree’s base, and the giant eagle nesting in the tree’s tallest branches.

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