[Actual Play, NSFData] Marvel's Agents of STRIKE - S4 FINALE: "Secret Invasion, Part 2"

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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    Elise walks across the street and calls Doom on her comm unit. That's still weird to her, having Doom's number. Being a technical Agent of Doom.

    For the first time, Doom responds to an unexpected phone call with something other than hostility. "Princess Elise. My satellite shows you are nearby. What do I owe the grace of you being on my doorstep?"

    "Silver Sablinova just tried to kill me in an alleyway,” Elise says. "She failed. She turned into a War Skrull. I killed the War Skrull. I'm not breaking this well. Shit. I'm sorry. Let me try again. Uh..."

    "It's fine," Doom says. "You did well. Thank you. I will have my agents find where the Skrulls are holding her. If a War Skrull was impersonating her effectively she's imprisoned in a Cradle somewhere."

    "Yeah." Elise sighs. "Okay. Can you...let me know when they find her?"

    "I will, yes." Doom sounds unusually....gentle?

    Elise sighs and sits on the curb. "Okay. Thanks."

    "I may need your assistance in this venture at some future point. If so I will call on you," he says. "Good day." The call ends.

    Elise looks across the street to the puddle of green. "You know what, Empress Whatever? I'm going to kick the shit out of you, too," she vows. "I'm going to fix everything."

    Jeremiah walks over rolling a barrel of gas. "Alright, we're good to go. You're going to walk away from this, burning corpses and gasoline smells real bad. Trust me."

    "Alright. Thanks Jeremiah."

    He nods, gives her a thumbs up, and rolls up his sleeves.

    Elise shoves her hands in her pockets and wanders down the street, processing what just happened. After a few moments, Bashenga joins her.

    "Sooo... that offer to leave still good?" he asks. "Because living here sucks."

    "Yeah, man, you're good," she says.

    "Alright. Alright alright alright. I'm going to go grab my shit."

    "Go for it, bud. You're gonna love New York."

    "I hope so. I've watched so many movies..."

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    I think we were all a little disappointed that Silver wasn’t real, because her and Elise catching up was great. Matt says that in the moment, it was so heartwarming he kind of felt bad and had second thoughts about the reveal, so panicked and sort of pulled the ripcord and had her just abruptly green out. Which, in-universe, is basically what she did - couldn’t see a graceful exit, panicked, and just went for it.

    On the other hand, what a twist! And Elise has had a moment of genuine character growth, finally putting the Jeremiah stuff behind her (we hope). I really enjoyed their double act and I hope you folks did too.

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    Matev
  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
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    Ryann, Julian, and Miles have arrived on the Peak, whereupon Miles and Carol Danvers head to the Anabasis' docking bay. Waiting for Ryann and Julian are two women they don’t immediately recognize.

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    "Hey," the woman with the cybernetic arm says to Ryann. When she speaks, Ryann does a double take. It's Nebula.

    "MASC and a hair prosthetic. I've started wearing it when I go planetside. Got used to it. A lot of the galaxy also knows me as Thanos' daughter so, figured I'd keep wearing it out there too."

    "Fair, the new look suits you," he nods.

    She shrugs. "Thanks."

    "Danvers do your hair?" Ryann smirks.

    Nebula rolls her eyes. "Some SWORD quartermaster did. I wanted a mohawk but they said that was too 'eye-catching.' Pfft."

    "I'm always surprised whenever I come back to see how stuffy SWORD is," Julian says. "You'd think they'd lean into a whole cool...space aesthetic, you know?"

    The other agent sighs. "They're unbelievably uptight." She introduces herself, "Agent Chimera. We've met." Her voice is unfamiliar to both, but they're pretty sure they know why.

    She waves the group in line to follow her across the docking bay. "The Corona is docked over here, I've got the full mission briefing."

    "Then let's get this show on the road," Ryann says.

    As they walk, Nebula leans over and whispers to Ryann, "For someone who is supposedly an anti-authoritarian rebel she slid right into the hierarchy real snug real fast."

    "Well...you know..." Ryann's eyes dart from Chimera to Nebula. "Skrulls," he mouths.

    Nebula puts her hands up. "You said it, not me," and she laughs, and Ryann laughs with her.

    Chimera ignores that, and continues to explain as she walks. "We're heading to Contraxia. It's a tiny iceball of a planet outside the reach of any major interstellar power. No major resources, even the ice is so soaked with non-potable elements it's not worth mining, no native population. The only thing that it's going for it is...how to put this...well, I've been watching some Earth movies that...Clay...recommended, the phrase 'wretched hive of scum and villainy' comes to mind."

    Julian's eyebrows raise.

    "It's a hole in the wall space port on a backwater planet of the backwater planets," Ryann says.

    Chimera continues her briefing as the group boards the Corona. "It's quite far from this system, so to get there faster, we're going to use a Federation Jumpgate. Normally, these are for high-importance commercial traffic, that sort of thing. But, since we have a Black Nova, he can just...you know, wave an unofficial you did not see me signal," she says. "Should get there in an hour relative to us, a day or two relative to Earth?"

    Ryann nods. "Sounds good. The Corona is a fast ship and the jumpgate shouldn't be too much of an issue."

    The crew settles in to the Corona, and Chimera gives Ryann the coordinates. Taking the old famIliar controls, he leaves the Peak's space dock, and they set out.

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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    edited November 2019
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    "Let's get some in-flight tunes going." Ryann leans over the console and presses some buttons.



    As the music blares over the Corona’s internal comms, Julian nods and drums his fingers on the console in time with the beat as Ryann nods along approvingly.

    The ship jumps to FTL.

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    "There it is," Ryann says, piloting the Corona toward a massive structure.

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    "Corona, have hailing channels open," he says.

    The Corona VI responds "Hailing channels open, sir."

    The Jumpgate port authority contacts the ship. "Approaching vessel, please identify yourself and your heading."

    "This a Black Nova transport vessel. We are traveling on assignment and are requesting jumpgate clearance with no further delays. I am sending an encrypted ID tag to confirm." Ryann presses several buttons.

    There’s a short pause, then the Jumpgate port authority responds "ID confirmed. On your way, Nova. Force be with you."

    "Our thanks. Black Nova out." Ryann turns to the rest of his team. "Piece of cake."

    He lays in the course, and the ship heads through the jumpgate.

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    While in folded space, Chimera turns to the team. "So, on Contraxia, we're going to head to a synth vice-den called the Iron Lotus. That's where we'll meet our contact. We don't have a name, or an ID. They're a Skrull so chances are they'll be hidden. They'll be looking for a Black Nova, so Valt, you need to go in uniform. It won't make you the most popular guy in the place, but we're not here to make friends."

    She turns to the others. "The rest of us, if asked, are your retinue. It's not uncommon for a Black Nova to have assets or a spy ring."

    Julian nods.

    "I'm sure I'll be fine. I made out of the Kyln in one piece somehow so I'm not worried about some space tweakers and mobsters," Ryann says.

    Nebula raises her hand. "Why the retinue, anyway? Not that I'm complaining about the chance to stretch my legs, but I think Ryann can handle one Skrull."

    Chimera answers. "We need to know who this defector is, and if their information is legitimate, and if this isn't a trap. If it is a trap, we need to be able to fight our way out. Adler and I are telepaths. Apparently Adler is very powerful, and I know the Skrull mind inside and out. Between the two of us, we'll know if the defector is telling the truth."

    Nebula shrugs. "Good enough for me." She turns around, spots the Corona's mini-bar, and wiggles her fingers in the air. "Oh, very good."

    "Help yourself," Ryann smirks.

    Jacobkosh on
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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
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    Chimera looks out the main viewer. "So, there's a small outpost that should be easy to spot where the Iron Lotus is...here..." she inputs some coordinates to Ryann. "Land there, and then we'll try to find the contact."

    Ryann nods and takes the ship down.

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    Once planetside, Chimera looks at Ryann. "So, what do you think we should do? Stay together, or split up? If we split up, how should we? Director Brand said you're in charge of the mission, I'm just supposed to provide information."

    "We'll stick together," Ryann says. Out of the corner of his eye, he catches Nebula mockingly mouthing Chimera's words like a petulant child. He frowns, and Chimera follows his gaze back to Nebula, who straightens up innocently. "Nebula, you come too."

    The group moves towards the Iron Lotus.

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    Julian realizes what Chimera meant by "synth vice." She meant robotic prostitution. He had seen these kinds of...entertainers before on Knowhere but only a few of them. Here, they're the main purpose of the establishment, besides a bit of drugs and gambling.

    He whistles in admiration at all the bright lighting on the building’s exterior. "Man. Wild how these places always seem to have that same vibe."

    Nebula looks at him. "When you think about it, a lot of the galaxy is shaped the same. Walks on the same two legs, breathes the same kind of air, uses the same parts." She grabs her crotch. "So if you want to hit our most base instincts, the bass notes are mostly the same."

    Ryann just stares at Nebula and shakes his head.

    Julian nods. "Yeah, it's cool seeing the patterns fall together." They pass a flashing sign advertising...something. "Man. Neon is always cool."

    "Like, look at that..." Nebula points out the green drink glass sign to Julian. "On Earth, what do you call that?"

    "A dive," Ryann smirks.

    "A bar?" Julian offers.

    "No, you dolts, the glass. On the sign." They follow her pointing finger to a neon outline of a drinking vessel. "What kind of glass is that, on Earth?"

    "Oh, like a martini glass?" Julian says.

    "Right. And on the Kree homeworld, it's called a Kava glass. Do you know how you make a Kava? You mix 6 parts of a berry-based sharp liquor native to Hala, and 1 part a fortified Kree wine.

    "A Kava is a Kree Martini. It's the same thing.

    "And somehow, somehow, thousands of different species still see that same symbol and think, 'yeah, this is the place I get fuckin' drunk.'"

    Julian grins. "That's rad."

    "Alright, well as much as I could stand around and talk about all the kinds of liquor in the galaxy for days, we got a job to do her. So we should get to it," Ryann says to his whole team.

    Chimera nods. "I agree, let's get inside."

    Nebula leans over and whispers to Julian, "...that's what she said."

    With a smirk, he follows the team inside.

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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    As they step into the Iron Lotus from the cold, Nebula continues her little rant to Julian. "You know what the funniest part is? The part I think is really crazy? All this convergent evolution, all these ways the various species are the same or come to the same conclusions on a long enough timeline, and yet somehow some dipshit civilizations end up thinking they're the master race that should rule the galaxy because they think they're unique and special and the best."

    Chimera turns slowly, her eyes narrowed at Nebula. Julian can tell that Chimera is suppressing her surface thoughts but there's seething anger pressing through, like heat from a fire on the other side of a door.

    Julian purses his lips, his usual grin forming into a hard line. "I dunno that I really find that funny."

    "Cut the chatter," Ryann snaps. "Eyes open." As he surveys the crowd, Ryann can feel one eye of every two on him. Or more specifically, his Black Nova uniform.

    The Xandar Federation has no jurisdiction here, but that is meaningless to the Black Novas and everyone knows that. Deep down, every dirtbag in this place giving Ryann the longer stares may be hoping he's not there for them.

    Ryann stares down the crowd, meeting their gazes as they look away one by one. Then he waves his team to fall in behind him, and makes his way through the bar.

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    He accidentally shoulder checks some random thug in the bar. "Hey, watch it!"

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    Ryann looks at the thug. "Do you want me to watch you?" He folds his arms. "Drink your drink, Ravager."

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    The Ravagers are the clan of space pirates that raised Star-Lord; you’ve seen them in the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

    "You think you tough guy, huh? Black Nova, huh? You think I scared of Black Nova?" the man leers down at Ryann. "Maybe I get tired of synth woman, huh?" He grabs Chimera and Nebula by the arms. "Maybe I take your skin-girls? Take em upstairs, eh? You try stop me, see what happens to you, Black Nova."

    Ryann grabs the Ravager by the top of his head and throws him upward. The man slams into the ceiling and crumples to the floor. Julian, who had stepped forward, ready to act, deflates at the anticlimax.

    Ryann looks around at the other patrons. People conspicuously turn their backs and go back to their drinks.

    The man groans. Ryann leans over him. "Maybe you ever lay your hands on a girl again, maybe I'll make sure you can't even use a synth," he hisses. "Moving on." Ryann stands and turns to Chimera.

    One of the synths walks over to Ryann and smiles at him. "Your room is ready, sir."

    Ryann cocks an eyebrow. "I see" He turns and nods to the team.

    She smiles and claps her hands, and two security guards come over and pick up the Ravager, dragging him away. The synth faces the group and gestures toward the back. "It is a group room for the four of you. Please enjoy."

    "Oooooh," Julian waggles his eyebrows.

    Nebula looks at Julian and snorts dismissively. "I would break you."

    "He'd bounce back," Ryann winks at them both.

    This gives Nebula pause. "...huh."

    Chimera squints at everyone suspiciously.

    "Just follow my lead," Ryann sighs.

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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    The group follows the synth to the back room. When they are led inside, a figure walks out from behind a curtain, putting down a glass that's just been emptied.

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    "You're our contact," Ryann says neutrally.

    Julian can feel Chimera's thoughts surge with panic.

    Hey Chimera,
    he thinks. You okay? What's wrong?

    Ryann recognizes their contact."Kl'rt," he says, folding his arms.

    It's Kl'rt, is Chimera's reply. As if that means something to Julian.

    Who? Ah, nevermind. We got this.

    Don't tip your hand that you don't know who he is, we're supposed to be Xandarians working for Ryann,
    she reminds him.

    The Skrull nods. "I am, yes. I'm afraid I'm not familiar with any of you, beyond the fact that you're clearly a Black Nova."

    "Centurion Valt, these are my companions. First off, what can you tell us?"

    I'll explain. Supreme Warlord Kl'rt is the leader of the Skrull Imperial Armada. He's...he's the greatest general that the Skrull Empire has ever had. He's also... he… Chimera is having a great deal of difficulty controlling her thoughts. Julian can tell. She's holding information back, which is hard for a telepath to do.

    Fascinating place to run into a Supreme Warlord. he thinks.

    Kl'rt pours himself a drink and sits down. "Here? I would prefer a debrief on Xandar. I've made sure the room is secure but...how do I know you won't just get what you need and leave me?" He pauses, sipping his drink. "Also, help yourself," he motions to the bottle and some glasses.

    "Those are not my orders," Ryann says with icy calm.

    Kl'rt looks at Chimera and narrows his eyes. "That one wants to leave me here. She's upset that I'm who you found."

    Ryann glances at Chimera, who gulps hard. She looks visibly upset. "She's not in charge," Ryann says.

    "I'm glad," Kl'rt nods.

    "So once again, what can you tell us?"

    "One thing first. Do you consider yourself a man of honor, Corpsman? I know you're a Black Nova, but my experience has been that even a Black Nova has a code, and even the blackest among them consider themselves men of a sort of honor."

    "I'm a Nova," Ryann says levelly. "That should answer your question."

    Kl’rt nods. "Then I want your word, as a Nova, that after I tell you what I tell you, you will take me with you. Even as a prisoner. A war criminal, if you want. Xandar doesn't execute such people. I could live out my days in the Kyln for all I care. But do not leave me here. I want you to swear it to me."

    "Again, those are not my orders. You're coming with us," Ryann says.

    "Good." Kl’rt seems mollified. "Very well."

    Chimera steels her jaw, and telepathically transmits to Julian. Alright, this part is on us. We have to monitor what he is saying to confirm what he's telling is true. We have to be careful.

    Got it,
    Julian nods.

    Kl'rt begins. "What I am going to tell you is highest treason. If I am caught by the Empire, I will be executed. But it is the truth. The Empress Veranke...is gone." He pauses for effect. "She is absent from the throne.

    "I do not believe she is dead, but she has been missing. For months. In her place is a pretender."

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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    "I assume this is a guarded secret among the court," Ryann says.

    He nods. "I'm not sure who knows. I know that I was not meant to know. The way I discovered was...accidental."

    Nebula raises her hand. She looks at Ryann, trying not to speak out of turn. Ryann nods. "Go ahead."

    Nebula looks at Kl'rt. "How is that possible? I thought the one thing you Skrulls can't turn into is each other? Isn't that how it works? Like you're physically incapable of taking each other's faces, your whole society would fall apart if that wasn't true, right?”

    Kl'rt nods. "That is true, yes. For a true Skrull. The imposter who sits on the throne is not a true Skrull. They are, I believe, a Chitauri. One who cannot change shape, but whose face and body has been surgically and cybernetically altered to appear to be Veranke in her base form. This technique would never work on a true Skrull, we would regenerate such changes away, but with Chitauri cyborgs, such changes could be made permanent."

    A body double...I've heard whispers of such ideas before in court, but it was considered profane, Chimera says telepathically to Julian.

    Hell, even we've got 'em to an extent, he muses. LMDs, that sort of thing, and of course just basic disguises with MASCs... It's surprising in a way, I suppose, but also kind of not.

    She purses her lips. If this is true, Veranke has crossed a huge cultural and religious line. Chitauri are an underclass in Skrull society and the Dard'van barely consider them people; to let one sit on the throne and wear the Empress' face is blasphemy. Veranke would lose her crown if word got out about this...why would she do that? And he's telling the truth! Or at least he believes it...how does he know this? Ryann needs to find out how he knows.

    Julian pokes Ryann. So, how does he know this?

    "How do you know?" Ryann asks smoothly.

    Kl'rt looks uncomfortable. "I... er..." He's having difficulty answering the question. Julian can sense he's ashamed

    Chimera scowls. We can't believe him unless we know how he knows. Even if he believes it's true, if he found out in a way that could be falsified, it's meaningless. He needs to tell us.

    Julian speaks up. "How can we be sure of what you're telling us if we don't have some idea of how you found out?"

    Kl'rt looks at him. "Very well...." He downs his entire glass.

    "You...you have to understand it wasn't my fault. When my betrothed, Princess Anelle, was exiled from the Empire, I swore I would never take another love. I maintained that oath for years. And then, one day...the Empress Herself came to me, hurling herself at me like some ladder-climbing heiress, telling me of my grand strategies and my prowess and I...what man am I to refuse an Empress? I..."

    Chimera balls up her fists. SHE'S MY AUNT YOU…

    Agh!
    Julian's mind fills with hate-filled static. He has to fight not to wince with pain. With great difficulty, he not only keeps his thoughts together, but manages to calm Chimera down too. She relaxes, her fists gradually unclenching.

    Ryann purses his lips. "Alright, I think we've heard enough for now. We're getting you off this rock and back to command."

    There's an explosion.

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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    Ryann gets an alarm blast from the Corona, and looks down at his gauntlet.

    "Sir, a Skrull Imperial ship has jumped out of folded space and fired on the outpost, taking out its orbital defenses. This vessel is not capable of engaging the Skrull ship successfully and has moved into a safe concealed position. The Skrulls are dropping ground troops."

    Kl'rt looks at Ryann. "Were you followed?"

    "No, but you probably were!"

    The door is kicked in.

    The Ravager that Ryann threw earlier storms in. "This is bullshit!" He looks over at Kl'rt. "Oh, hi Kl'rt."

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    Kl'rt looks at him and scowls. "Raksor." He turns to Ryann. "Yes, I was the one who was followed, it seems."

    "Old friend, I take it?" Ryann says he rushes forward. Knowing that Raksor is probably a War Skrull, he uppercuts the big man hard enough to send him out of the building and into the sky, away from the outpost entirely.

    Shattered alloy and stone rains into the room from the new hole, and a frigid blast of air blows in, carrying the sounds of blaster fire and screams from outside, as well as a droning, thrumming boom.

    Kl'rt looks at Ryann. "Where's your ship?!"

    "It's moved to a safe location. We need to get to it and get out of here."

    The general nods. "Lead the way."

    "Well we're not taking the front door." Ryann blasts a hole in the wall and jumps out. "Come on!"

    The others follow, and see a giant striding mech walking through the marketplace, mowing people down.

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    It's going to kill all of those people! Chimera telepathically shouts to Ryann and Julian. We have to stop it!

    Ryann transmits the location of the ship to Nebula "You two." He points at Nebula and Chimera. "Get him to the ship, Julian and I will deal with the big guy."

    With a roar, Julian charges at the mech, whipping at it with spectral chains. With an unearthly shriek, they tear through the metal and remove the pilot. He swings again, and shreds the mecha into small pieces.

    Out of the corner of his eye, Ryann sees Chitauri cyborg troopers land and begin moving towards the outpost.

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    "Guess I'm up!" Ryann flies through the cyborgs, zipping back and forth between them in instant teleport charges, taking them each out. Julian and Ryann's efforts rally the outlaws of Contraxia, so that their own self-interest in saving their own skins helps push the rest of the Skrulls back.

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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    edited November 2019
    Julian and Ryann rejoin Nebula, Chimera, and Kl'rt at the Corona's landing point. They load up, and the ship blasts into orbit.

    Kl'rt breathes a sigh of relief, and Ryann escorts the general to his holding cell. Kl'rt is compliant, and sits down.

    "Can I get you anything?" Ryann asks.

    "I'm fine, thank you." He smiles. "By the Shaper, it will be quite a thing to see Xandar again. Haven't done so since before the war. Even if it is from the witness stand of a war crimes tribunal."

    Ryann hits the jail’s lockdown button, and a force field shimmers to life over the entrance to the cell.

    "Now that I'm safely on the ship, do you want to know one more crucial bit of intel, Nova?" Kl’rt asks. "I was holding on to this."

    "Go on," Ryann says neutrally.

    "I think I know where Veranke went, and why." He leans back on his prison cot. "As I said, I don't believe she's dead."

    "So, what do you believe?"

    "Well, you know that world, Earth? The one that used to be a Protectorate of yours before that whole...you know…assassination of your Chancellor a few months ago?" The general pauses. "That was the Empire, by the way. I'm sure you know that by now. But Earth was the one who was blamed, and excommunicated from the Federation for it."

    Ryann grimaces. "Yeah."

    "Well, I wasn't part of that operation. I'm the Supreme Warlord, assassinations and other such skulduggery is someone else's job. But I did hear that it was never intended to be Earth as the patsy. They just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

    “Really, the ideal scenario was for Xandar to declare war on us and lose. Because most Federation members wouldn't support attacking us, etc. I'm sure you know all this, you're a Black Nova.

    "My point is, Earth just happened to be there. But, suddenly the Empress became very interested in this backwater little dirtball, Earth, when it was namedropped as the assassins? She came to me, as Supreme Warlord, and said, give me all military intelligence on Earth. All of its defensive capabilities. All tactical analysis.

    "I asked, Empress, why?

    "She said, I want to send a scouting fleet to probe it as a potential invasion site. So, I did the tactical assessment, and found some curiosities about it.

    "STL space exploration natively, only FTL travel comes from absconded Spartoi and Kree technology. Had some brief amounts of Kree and Skrull colonization during the First War, both abandoned. Backwater world, really, most planets in that sector are.

    "She said, perfect, thank you Warlord. She sent a fleet, and the fleet...lost? Turns out they had still-active Kree satellite defense networks, which...curious. And they had other defenses.

    "Anyway we wrote off the entire exercise." He waves his hand dismissively. "No invasion planned. When a scout fleet is defeated, we write off coming back. That's the current doctrine. The 'Empress', the pretender, even told us not to bother with it any longer.

    "But then it bothered me, why was Veranke so passionate about a world and then so quick to abandon it after one scout fleet defeat?"

    "Why did it have a Kree defensive satellite network on it? Those usually only exist on planets of great importance to the Kree. On a world they don't even own anymore that means it was at some point sequestered by the Accusers. Why?" He starts pacing. Ryann can tell it's a bit performative.

    "And then I thought about that sector of space. The backwater worlds. Earth. Centauri-IV. That whole region of space during the First War was minor skirmishes and outposts and lost colonies...and it was a region that was being explored by Crown Prince Z'Reg during his de-facto banishment.

    "When he vanished and was presumed dead." He stops pacing and steeples his fingers. "I believe that Empress Veranke...believes her brother is alive. I believe that she believes that Z'Reg is on Earth. And that she, in secret, traveled there to kill him. She left a body-double in her place to not arouse suspicion. There are likely very few who know this, only the most fanatical of the Dard'van, really.

    "I'm not a member of the Dard'van. Not really. I've only been tolerated for my military prowess, and I've known that all along. It's why I had to figure all of this out for myself. I'm not loyal to the Dard'van or their beliefs. I am loyal to the Empire. If what I think is true...then Empress Veranke's reign is illegitimate. And it always has been. The Emperor, the true Emperor, is alive and lives on Earth, and his name is Z'Reg. And he is in grave danger."

    “Interesting. I’ll have to have you speak with my commander,” Ryann smirks. “Settle in, we’re heading home.”

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    Of course, a lot of this we’ve known since season 1. But the biggest news is that Veranke is on Earth. And has been for months.

    Jacobkosh on
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    Miles and Carol arrive in the docking bay where the Anabasis is berthed. Mantis is there to greet them. "Oh! Miles! Hello!" She grins and gives him a thumbs up.

    "Hey, Mantis! Good to see you!" Miles grins. He finds her sunniness refreshing. "How's the new job?"

    "Very good! SWORD's people are very nice and do not ask me to kill or have sex with anyone unless I want to."

    Miles nods slowly. "That's...good! We should all be so lucky."

    She nods. "Captain!" she says excitedly to Danvers, "The ship is prepared. As per your orders, the rest of Alpha Flight is staying behind. There was a lot of grumbling and complaining, but I made sure everyone was happy about the situation."

    Carol frowns. "Mantis, we talked about that."

    She shakes her head and puts her hands up. "No no no! I used my words, I was very reassuring! I told them they'd get to go to space next time. Also that Centauri-IV is very boring and stinks and is full of what is basically meth, like the Ozarks." She looks at Miles. "Carol got me Netflix."

    Miles grins widely. "Carol's good like that. Has anyone told you about Bake-Off yet?"

    Her eyes widen. "No...what is this Bake-Off?"

    "It's...well, do you like sweets? It's full of those. And it's full of hugging and happy crying. I have a feeling you'll love it," he says. She gasps.

    Miles pats his tummy ruefully, thinking of the twenty pounds he put on as he experimented with snickerdoodles. "Anyway, what's this about leaving Alpha Flight behind...?"

    Carol nods briskly. "Yeah, so, Brand wanted me to send the whole team on this thing. I thought that was dumb. This is a milk run. We should leave the team behind in case they're needed for something important. What happens if the Skrulls attack again and..." She tightens her jaw. "Earth needs to be safe while I'm out there."

    He nods. "That's all true. I just wish you hadn't called it a milk run. You know that's a jinx, right? You know it."

    Carol sighs. "Yeah. Yeah it's true." She looks at Mantis. "Mantis, quick, run in a short circle and spit over your left shoulder." Mantis nods, and enthusiastically does so. Miles nods sagely. It's good to be prepared.

    Carol nods at him. "Alright, we're good now."

    He grins. "Alright. After you, ladies..." He follows them aboard.

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    A hologram appears from the interface as they enter the ship. It's Helen.

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    She...looks different from how she used to. A little less like the old Helen hologram, a little more like the Helen that Miles saw in the virtual space that he and X-51 went inside. "Hello, Miles. Hello, X-51."

    "Helen," he grins. He's a little nervous about this, but doesn't want to show it. Maybe it's fine? Maybe she's just...coming out of her shellen. "Looking good, lady. When did you get the new look?"

    "After our experience together when you were part of my crew. After my memories were restored, I began exploring and embracing my Spartoi heritage."

    X-51 interjects. Our interface is not directly linked, Miles. Tell Helen I think she looks nice.

    Tell her, Miles. Tell her it was from me.


    "X-51 says you look nice," Miles says. "He's got good taste. Wonder where he got that from." Miles winks at Carol, who smiles sheepishly.

    Miles reaches into his pocket. "Actually, here, instead of me playing messenger between you kids..." He pulls out a holoprojector he borrowed from the quartermaster's on the way out, and connects X-51 to it.

    Helen grins. "Thank you, X-51. Captain Danvers, I am putting in a formal request to you, as commanding officer, to override Directive Argent Echo-12 for the duration of this mission."

    Carol sucks her teeth. "Yeeeah, gonna say no to that, Helen, how about instead, we use this instead..." she gestures to Miles' holo-projector.

    X-51's holo-image appears. "Hello."

    Mantis squeals. "Oh! He's handsome!"

    X-51 looks at Mantis. "Thank you, Mantis."

    Helen turns to Carol. "With my request declined, I only have further to report that the ship is ready to depart for Beta Centauri, Captain Danvers."

    Carol nods. "Thank you, Helen. Let's get going. Mantis, be a sweetheart and square our gear? Miles, West Wing with me to the bridge."

    "Yes, ma'am." He follows the Captain to the bridge of the Anabasis.

    They walk and talk. "X-51, I'm authorizing you to access the files on Directive Argent Echo-12 and upload the file for Miles' perusal. You might the contents personally offensive. If you do, I trust you to share that offense and discuss it with Miles."

    Accessing...I see.

    Fill me in,
    Miles thinks.

    Miles, Argent Echo-12 is a SWORD directive specifically to limit the wireless data access of Helen outside and inside her ship to other computer systems. SWORD had concerns after our interaction that Helen not only became overly curious, but also seemed to have a disregard for system security if it fell below a certain threshold of stability or defensive quality.

    Her justification for this practice was based on a Spartoi cultural concept summed up in a phrase that does not directly and literally translate, but whose meaning amounts to 'armor determines if you are worth protecting.' Essentially, if something isn't meant to be breached, it should be guarded better. SWORD found this idea...troubling.

    I'm sorry Miles. I feel like this is my fault.


    Miles exhales. Don't be in too much of a hurry to accept guilt; let's just focus on the situation as it stands. In the best of your estimation, setting aside your feelings for her, is Helen stable? Can we trust her? That Spartoi AI was hostile, but she's not like that, and I want to believe that she's still not like that. But I need to know where we stand.

    I believe we can trust her, Miles. I believe she simply...acted poorly. I gave Helen access to the potent probabilistic determinative capacities of the Well of Mimir, and then that capacity was promptly closed when we severed all connection to Celestial technology. I had you to help me through the emotional conflict this created for me. I am not certain who Helen had, if anyone.
    I believe she lashed out, attempting to accrue data and more processing capacity as compensation.
    X-51 pauses. ...it's what I would have done.

    Miles nods. That makes sense. And in that case, she needs our help. Do you think we can talk her through it? I can't get you unsupervised alone time as things stand, but I could accompany you again.

    Possibly. For now, the task at hand. I do not believe the way SWORD is effectively sequestering her is good for her long term health. Repeatedly telling an AI 'no' does not produce beneficial results, as we both know from unfortunate experience.

    I hear that,
    Miles nods grimly.

    Miles and X-51's entire conversation has happened in a few seconds, and Carol looks over at him. "How's it going?"

    "X-51 and I are hashing out what to do about..." Miles eyes the ship around them, indicating the Anabasis and Helen in general. "Or...did you mean something else?"

    "Just making sure you and he are cool about all that." She takes a cleansing breath. "Okay, so, Centauri-IV. Mantis wasn't kidding about calling it Space-Ozarks." She pauses. "No, you know what, that's unfair. And kind of racist. Let me start over!"

    Miles watches attentively while whistling a bar or two of "Dueling Banjos."

    "So, Centauri-IV. Back during the First War, the Kree had a small outpost there. Nothing big. Like a listening post, basically, for if the Skrulls came out this way. Nothing even close to what they had going on Earth. But the planet did have natives. Blue-skinned people, the Centaurians. Look almost identical to Kree except they have this bony ridge on their heads. Kind of like a fin?

    "Most of them do, anyway." She shrugs. "Back then, they were stone age. But...uhhh...well, how do I put this. Take a bunch of soldiers, put them on a backwater outpost in the middle of nowhere, with a race of people who look more or less exactly like them but for one exotic physical feature that honestly isn't even unattractive and uh....

    "They weren't exactly Prime Directive about it?" Carol grimaces.

    Miles nods. "...Copy that. And then?"

    "And then the war ended, and the Kree soldiers just...left. Back in those days we didn't have policies of cleaning up after ourselves. They destroyed all of their gear. Nothing worked. But it deeply impacted Centauri culture.

    "Fast forward thousands of years and the Centauri have this whole pantheon of capricious star gods led by a Great Hunter named Anthos. Fun...fun fact! If you look way back in the Kree Imperial records, An-Thos just happens to be the name of expedition leader for the Centauri-IV base. Funny, huh! Whoops."

    "Whoopsie," he says. "So what does this mean for us now? Were the Centauri cross about meeting their space gods in the flesh? Or are you gonna be a rockstar there?"

    "Well, that's the funny part," she says. "Because like, a couple hundred years ago, they had like, a sort of Enlightenment-ish movement. Real break from religion, some smart guys going hang on, these aren't sacred relics at all, they're blaster rifles, etc.

    "Coincided with their own industrial revolution. They figured out all machines are machines. So, they had a bit of a societal schism, and that's what the Empire walked into about sixty years ago.

    "Now, the Centaurians are roughly in two big factions. There's the Akuun, the modern Centaurians who reject all the ideas that the Kree are space-gods and all that other stuff. The Akuun adapted remarkably fast to space travelers showing up to their world. Too fast. Like....colonialism too fast."

    "And the rest?"

    "The Habaktu, who reject the truth, still believe in Anthos, and have walked away from a lot of modernity," she says. "The Kree Empire wants to integrate Centauri-IV but with the war on, it's considered dicey to add a new colony, especially one that's so...religiously and culturally complicated.

    "So Mahr Vehl was sent here to assess the situation, and built a little safehouse here to fall back on, because it was a place he could always run to that people wouldn't generally follow. People don't usually willfully go to Centauri-IV."

    Miles purses his lips in thought. "Isn't Earth in kind of a similar boat? Was Mahr-Vehl just like, the Kree guy in charge of boonies planets? Did he lose a bet?"

    "He...upset some people in the Starforce, yes," she agrees. "Starforce agents usually operate in teams, sort of like STRIKE. Mahr...did some stuff. So he worked alone. On remote assignments." Carol shudders. "It was politics."

    Miles nods. "The one universal constant. So, okay. We've got a safehouse on a remote, low-tech planet where some of them might be like oooh, Kree, and others might have more complicated feelings. Got any thoughts on an approach?"

    "Yes. I'm going to Not-Kree this is as much as possible," she says. "I'm going in SWORD combat gear. As should you. We're flying under their flag."

    Miles nods. "Ugh. I've got to dress like you nerds?" As he leaves for the armory, he boops Carol's nose and she giggles.

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    For those of you who’ve seen the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, Centauri is the home of Yondu, Peter Quill’s piratical adoptive father.

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    edited November 2019
    In the armory, he dons the cool space armor that he never actually got to wear last time he was in space, and slings a blaster rifle over his shoulder for good measure. He takes a few moments to check himself out in the mirror. "How do I get out of this chickenshit outfit?"

    From behind him, he hears a feminine voice trying to sound overly masculine. "Hey Vasquez, you ever been mistaken for a man?" It's Mantis.

    He grins hugely. "Oh my god." She’s quoting Aliens! She's wearing the armor too.

    He stands next to her. "Strike a pose!" She grins and they pose together, and he has X-51 take a few holo-selfies.

    Helen appears. "All hands, prepare for jump."

    "Ooooh. I always like to watch this part," Miles says. They race to the bridge, and makes it just in time, joining Carol and the Anabasis’ executive officer, Dalton.

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    "I hope I never get jaded about that," Miles breathes.

    Mantis smiles. "I haven't."

    Carol looks at them both. "Alright, we're going to park in low orbit, and then take the Zephyr down to Zatoa. That's the largest city, and where Mahr's safehouse is."

    "Where will the Anabasis be during that?” MIles asks. “Up here in orbit?"

    "Yeah. She doesn't do so well with inter-atmo flying. She can do it, but she's not a fan."

    Miles nods, scratching his chin. "Okay. Here's what I'm thinking.

    "Helen, Dalton, I'm sure X-51 has told you I'm...persnickety about security. Try to keep her in geostationary orbit and be our eyes in the sky. I worry someone might have followed us from Earth, or might be wondering why a Spartoi cruiser is hanging around Centauri, or whatever...there's lots of ways we can get the wrong kind of attention.

    Drs. Skivorski and MacTaggert should be on standby in case we need weird science shit in a hurry. If this goes smoothly, we're going to have a lot of new toys for them.

    "Carol, could you like...sift through Mahr's memories? He knows what he stashed here. Do a little mental triage, rate the stuff from things we absolutely positively need to take back with us to stuff that we can afford to leave if things get weird for some reason.

    "Mantis, we're not here to cause any trouble—we just want to get Mahr's stuff and skedaddle—but if any of the locals give us a hard time, I'd appreciate it if you could calm them down. I don't want to fight anyone or hurt anyone. I'd like to just load up the ship and go. Sound good?"

    Mantis gives a thumbs up. Miles grins, remembering what she'd told him when they first met, then returns the gesture.

    Carol nods. "I've been thinking about that specific thing. There's going to be energy weapons, a small arsenal of them. At least a half dozen suits of body armor. A bunch of...I'm going to use spy terminology here...gadgets and doodads?" She rubs her forehead and frowns. "He has an inventory on his console."

    "Oooh. Doodads." Miles rubs his hands anticipatorily.

    "Big ticket item is the network console," she adds. "The Starforce Espionage Network."

    Miles’ eyes widen. "Oh. Ohhh. Yes."

    "Now, the Starforce aren't dumb. They practice good info-sec. None of Mahr Vehl's passwords or logins will work. But that's where X-51 comes in. He's hacked gods before. Literally. This should be no big deal."

    Miles nods. "Well, some of that was before we lost the connection to the Well. If he needs extra processing power, I'd like to keep the option open to bring Helen in on the decryption. Dr. Skivorski could supervise. It'll be fine. But I don't want to lose my shit in a cyber-realm again."

    "...okay." Carol is less comfortable with that. "We'll see how it goes. Let's load up. Helen, going ashore."

    Helen chimes in response. "Logged. Commanding officer is ashore. XO Dalton has the deck."

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    Poor X-51. Nobody trusts him, even though he’s come through for us over and over. We joke that he has “resting sinister face.”

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    Miles, Carol, and Mantis get into the Zephyr, and fly down to the surface.

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    Miles looks at their surroundings and sniffs the air cautiously. "Is this what a backwater looks like? It's hard to tell."

    The city is wildly disparate in poverty, technology, standard of living. It reminds Miles of Baghdad. He'll see some blue-skinned, red-finned alien in a long leather coat who is just festooned with gold jewellry, blaster pistols on either hip, talking loudly into a communicator while smacking his lips after eating some kind of greasy meat, and that guy will walk by an alien of the same species who is wearing barely a cloth around his waist and squats in a literal gutter quietly cleaning scales off of some otherworldly fish (?) with a stone knife.

    Light years away from Earth, and it's still the same kind of post-colonial, third world madness.

    Miles purses his lips and takes in the signs and signals. It's comforting, in a way. Familiar territory. He sees Carol doing the same. "What part of town are we headed for?" he asks.

    "I haven't been here in years. I'm trying to figure out my way. Mahr did this all by eye and memory. Which means that's how I have to do it."

    The trio go down winding, dusty alleys and eventually arrive at...a cracked brick wall. "Wait... why is this cracked?" Carol says, confused. "This shouldn't be cracked. It should be solid."

    She squints, then looks at Miles. "Be on your guard. I don't like this. This looks like forced entry."

    He nods and unslings his rifle. X-51, anything you can pick up wirelessly?

    Very little, as it turns out. It's a surprisingly quiet planet, and much of what is wireless is both insecure and uninteresting. However, I do detect a silent alarm signal emanating from that door. It's encrypted, I can't tell its intended recipient, but it has already been tripped by someone who was here before us.


    Miles nods grimly and fills Carol in. "We should put the Zephyr on standby in case we need to grab and run."

    Carol nods and taps a button on her gauntlet. "The silent alarm would have gone to...me. Or, more accurately, it would have gone to Mahr's original combat armor. Which got torched with him. So it's going nowhere right now. But it means someone did access this door. It looks like they got inside, too."

    "Well...should we see what they took?" Miles gestures with his hand to the door.

    Carol nods, and reaches over to flip down a false brick that would normally be the door's panel. It's been crudely...hot-wired? It's been forced in a way that looks extremely simplistic but effective. "Oh are you serious?!" she growls. She bangs on it, and the door opens with a hiss.

    Miles swings into the room in a smooth motion he's done a thousand times before, checking his corners.

    The cache has been looted. Thoroughly. Everything that wasn't bolted down, and some things that were bolted down bear the marks of the attempt. Carol gasps.

    "Fffffuck," Miles murmurs under his breath.

    Mantis puts her hand over her mouth. "Oh, this looks bad. Someone took your stuff."

    Carol walks into the room, and looks at an overturned desk. "Okay...okay, the console!"

    "it's still here?" Miles squats next to her.

    She picks up a smashed computer. "It's smashed to shit, but that might not matter? If you can connect directly to it and bypass the security, you might be able to access the datalogs of what happened here and get into the Starforce network!"

    Miles nods. "That's a couple 'if's and 'might's more than I'd prefer, but..." he moves to roll up his sleeve, then realizes it's a white ceramic carapace gauntlet and stares at his hand uselessly for a moment before shrugging. "Well, here goes." He touches the wrecked computer. Here we go…

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    Miles accesses the terminal. Looking back through the logs, it looks like several days ago, some Centaurian locals brute forced their way into the safehouse and looted it. They didn't look like religious pilgrims or something. They looked like thieves.

    He can get detailed facial data on them. Unfortunately, Centauri-IV doesn't exactly have something like centralized law enforcement or a central facial recognition database, but Miles would know these guys instantly if he saw them.

    "Locals," Miles says tersely as he reviews the footage. "We should probably work backwards - look at where they would have offloaded this stuff. It was just a few days ago."

    Carol nods. "I mean, this place has been sitting around for months, I guess it's a matter of time before someone found missing space in a building and got curious."

    Miles nods. "They probably didn't even know what it was. Your stuff might be sitting in a pawn shop or an interstellar swap meet somewhere."

    "Oh! Like Pawn Stars!" Mantis claps excitedly.

    "Exactly like Pawn Stars," he grins and points. "Got it in one."

    Carol looks thoughtful. "What about the Starforce database?"

    "Still working on that..." Miles confers with X-51 to take a cautious approach to the digital intrusion. He knows that something happened to him in cyberspace once, even if he can't quite articulate what it was, and he doesn't want to repeat that experience.

    It’s slow, painstaking work, but it pays off. He can find out Kree Empire fleet movements, current Kree Empire intelligence operations, everything.

    "We're in," Miles gasps. "We've got...everything."

    "Hack the planet..." Mantis whispers in awe.

    Miles, I can create a flash upload of all of this information for later review.

    Do it.

    The interface hiccups momentarily as X-51 accesses and stores everything it can. Miles, there's something else here.

    Most of the galaxy engages in FTL communication using tachyon ansibles, effectively firing bursts of tachyons at set locations to send and receive data.

    I'm with you so far…
    Miles thinks.

    The Kree network is different. It uses curvatures of space and time, entangling of quantum particles, I...I find it hard to explain in a capacity that is not an endless stream of equations. It is an intelligence, Miles.

    Miles’ blood runs cold. Uh-oh.

    It runs their entire Empire. This is the Supreme Intelligence. A galaxy-spanning data-network running at faster-than-light speed.

    Don't tell me it's seen us,
    Miles prays silently.

    It hasn't! X-51 sounds genuinely surprised. It's like we're a mite on the eyelid of God. We're fine as long as it doesn't blink.

    Okay...
    Miles' mind races.

    ...she's beautiful, Miles. We could learn so much from her. X-51’s mental voice is enraptured.

    She could delete us in a second, buddy. Focus! I've got a more modest idea. Miles takes a deep breath. Let's delete Earth. We know the Accusers are going to come for us. We can stop that. Just...boop off every record of Earth in the star charts.

    Yes. That should work. I'll need your help. Your...focus.
    X-51 says.

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    Go big or go home! Audacity is MIles’ trademark and I thought the idea of just...losing Earth in the bureaucratic shuffle was perfect.

    Miles nods. Okay. Okay. Let's hack the galaxy.

    Miles has a choice. This is so far beyond anything he has ever done. He could abandon this mad plan, pull out now, no harm done. He'll still get all the data records of the fleet movements and intelligence from earlier.

    Or

    He could go for it. The only snag is it needs what translates to 'Command Level Authorization,' and he doesn't know what that means? He can obtain it, apparently. Like it's something he can just go get. But he has to go into a digital space, inside the Kree network, to go get. Which is its own risk.

    He goes for it.

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    He enters the Kree Network, leaving X-51 behind. He is in a formless white space.

    Suddenly, a color forms. A color out of space.

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    It speaks to him. IDENTIFY. PROCESS.

    Is it asking him who he is? Or what process he wants? "I've come for Command Level Authorization."

    IDENTIFY.

    "Miles, servant of Anthos! I come to gaze upon the face of our lord!"

    The colors begin taking shape.

    "Hello, Miles."

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    "Your story doesn't seem very well fabricated."

    "I'm an improviser. Who are you?"

    "I am the Kree Empire," she says.

    "The people of the Kree Empire aren't the Empire?"

    "Of course they are. I am they, and they are me," she says. "Or, more accurately, I was them, and they will be me."

    "You..." Miles' mind races. "Are you a repository? Some kind of...digitalization?"

    She smiles warmly. She gestures, and a small seat manifests out of nothingness. She sits down on it, and folds her hands in her lap. "Have you ever noticed that all the other species of the galaxy invoke their gods, or their great philosophies?

    "The Skrulls invoke the Shaper. The Xandarians will say 'by the Force!'

    "But not we Kree." She meets his gaze. "We know who we are. What we are a part of. What the Empire represents and who it represents. We know where we go when we die, and what waits for us in the next life.

    "We know what eternity is. The Empire is eternity."

    Miles nods slowly. "Then I'd like to ask a favor of the eternal Empire. A favor...of patience. If you're going to be around forever, that shouldn't be too big an ask."

    "Well you do have my curiosity. I can't even tell what you are. You're some kind of synthetic life form. Accessing me digitally, from a synthetic body. But you have a binary intelligence. One here, with me, but another also in your body, pushing back on me, acting as a bulwark and limiting my access to your higher functions or memories. It's forcing this conversation. Rather ingenious, I do say. A credit to your creator.

    "So I will certainly hear out your favor."

    "It's a simple one. I ask that you do nothing. Specifically, do nothing to the planet Earth. We've been attacked by the Skrulls. We have no quarrel with the Kree. And we don't seek one.

    "But we will resist an invasion. It might be futile. But by whatever gods or powers you care to name, we can make it costly,” he vows. "All I want is time for us to settle our business with the Skrull Empire and the Dard'van."

    "I will answer your request on a condition," she says.

    "Name it."

    "You have to answer three questions, truthfully, and to the best of your possible knowledge."

    Miles considers. "You have my word."

    "First, during the first Kree-Skrull War, scientists created an experiment on Earth intermingling Kree and human DNA to express latent Celestial genetic modifications. I ordered that project cancelled, but I have reason to believe that these hybrids survived and prospered. Is this true?"

    Miles nods slowly. "To a small degree. A community. It's not...global."

    She nods. "Second, we dispatched an agent of the Kree Empire to Earth to investigate matters pertaining to the first question. We were told that agent was killed. Is that true?"

    "If you're referring to Mahr-Vehl, then yes. Mahr-Vehl is dead. If you mean some other agent, then I honestly don't know."

    She nods. "Thank you."

    Miles adds. "His vehicle was blown up while he was in human form. We don't know by whom, but we think it was to do with his human affiliations while on Earth. We only learned he was Kree when we saw the body."

    "Hm." She pauses, then continues. "Third, and most importantly. Among the small community that you mentioned in the first question, have there been any prominent births in this current generation that would significantly upset the balance of power in that community? Princes, princesses, bastards, prophesized births, things of that nature?"

    Miles grimaces. "Yes. That child is my friend's daughter. I hope this isn't going to be a problem."

    She grimaces. The Supreme Intelligence just grimaced.

    "I'm afraid it is,” she says. "Are you familiar with the concept of psychohistory, Miles?"

    "Intimately."

    "Then you understand that psychohistory is generally a factor of computing power."

    "You're a psychohistorical matrix," he realizes.

    "Yes. There is a reason the Kree Empire has persisted for thousands of years uninterrupted. There is a reason that I ordered the project on Earth destroyed," she says. "I predicted the events unfolding now.

    "Not, of course, down to the individual level. That isn't how psychohistory works."

    Miles stares. "It wasn't because you foresaw that Galactus would be drawn to your experiment...?"

    "Galactus has unfortunately always been beyond my capacity to fully map, as a precursor being," she admits. "But he's gone now, for reasons I do not fully understand."

    "I'm the reason. Part of it, anyway."

    She looks...surprised. "...I see.

    "No, the reason I ended the experiment is I foresaw that the experiment would inevitably create an individual that would destroy... me. The Kree Empire. The Supreme Intelligence."

    Miles nods. "I see. So let me suggest something.” He’s terrified. He’s trying to outthink a millennia-old computer that can calculate the future. But the only way out is through…

    "I know of at least two current Inhuman royal heirs. Maybe there are more? As I said, it's a single community. Isolated. We don't know very much about them yet. You know that Galactus stopped at my world. You know that we have unpredictable talents that psychohistory might not be able to fully account for.

    "I know that while we're talking, you're totaling up some kind of realpolitik equation somewhere about whether to blow up the planet, the costs and benefits, et cetera. That's fine. You're doing your job. I don't begrudge you that. But let me do mine. Let me look for a solution that keeps you and my people safe. Without doing anything...rash."

    "Counter-proposal,” she says curtly. "I will continue to monitor the situation as I see fit and make whatever determination I so choose. I do nothing rashly."

    She stands up. She looks mildly annoyed. It doesn't appear the Supreme Intelligence likes being spoken to this way.

    "Wherever you are, whoever you truly are, don't try this method of contacting me again, or I will not be so kind to your binary intellect, and I will bring my full force to bear to consume you. I care not for your veiled threats. I am the Supreme Intelligence and I will act as the Empire chooses, for I am the Empire.

    "This interaction is concluded."

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    Miles wasn’t trying to make a threat. It turns out that an entity that calls itself the Supreme Intelligence just has a mighty high opinion of itself.

    Talking to the Intelligence and answering its questions may not have been an ideal call, but Miles had his reasons, which he will elucidate in a bit. Also, bear in mind that neither Miles in-universe nor me, his player, out-of-universe were sure that there was any sort of exit from that situation. As far as he’s concerned, not getting deleted is itself a win.

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    Matev
  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    Miles is kicked back into his body.

    He blinks. "Well, that was something."

    Miles, X-51 chimes in his head, I don't believe I'm capable of straining a muscle, yet I feel I may have done so all the same. That hurt. I felt like I was holding back an ocean with a screen door.

    Miles winces. That wasn't the half of it. The Supreme Intelligence is mad at me. He stands up. "Sooo, honey?" He puts on a winning smile. "I've got good news and bad news..."

    Carol winces. "Your bad news is always worse. It's always like, 'good news, I got free hockey tickets. Bad news, I'm on trial for war crimes. These things aren't related!'"

    "Okay, firstly, that’s fair," he says, holding up a hand. "Secondly, mean.

    "Thirdly and fourthly, I've got us a complete download of Starforce intelligence. But I had a great idea and tried to delete Earth from the databanks and instead, uh, met the Supreme Intelligence? And she's kind of a B!"

    Carol gasps. "Miles!"

    "Things got out of hand!" he says.

    "I'll say!"

    Miles and Carol's SWORD gauntlets blink. "What the - " He looks down.

    Carol goes "Shit, Mantis is on lookout." She brings her gauntlet up to her mouth. "Come in."

    Mantis responds. "There's a guy who wants to come in. He's really polite and I'm pretty sure I can't stop him."

    Miles shrugs at Carol. "...Send him in."

    The individual walks into the turned-over safehouse.

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    "Hello there," he says. "My name is Huran."

    "Howdy!" Miles waves cheerfully. "I'm Miles."

    Carol freezes. Her face is trying not to convey complete and utter terror, but Miles knows that is what she is feeling.

    Huran smiles cheerfully at Miles, "Hello, Miles. I'm an Accuser. Do you know what an Accuser is?" He looks at Carol. "It looks like she does."

    qlGmSdP.pngKree Accusers
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    Kree Accusers are the most dangerous force in the Kree Empire. They are Kree super-soldiers, created to enforce the edicts of the Kree Supreme Intelligence. Those who “Stand Accused” are in violation of the Supreme Intelligence, and must be destroyed or otherwise brought into line with the Supreme Intelligence’s will.

    An individual Accuser is the equivalent of a space armada. More than one could annihilate a planet. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of the Accusers are occupied fighting the Second-Kree Skrull War, attempting to stop Dard’van genocides.

    It is unlikely that an Accuser will even visit Earth. In the event one is encountered, retreat immediately, evacuate all facilities, and engage in Emergency Protocol Argent 7.

    Miles nods. "Her? She's just got wicked bad social anxiety. But yes, we know what Accusers are. And knowing that, you know that we're happy to help!" X-51, have the Anabasis and the Zephyr made ready to run.

    Acknowledged.


    "Very good,” Huran says pleasantly. “Now, do you know what used to be in this place? And, try not to lie to me, we both know I'm probably pretty good at my job and have a pretty good idea of when people are lying to me."

    "Sure, though I'm not sure what of it was important enough to send one of you guys instead of regular police. Some guns? Armor? Nice gear, especially compared to what they have here, but It has to cost more in fuel and energy to get here than any of that stuff is worth."

    "I can see why you'd see it that way," Huran agrees. "So, important detail, just to get this out of the way; I don't think you stole this stuff. I know my job title makes it sound like I go around, you know, accusing people of things all the time," he laughs, "But no, I don't think you stole all these things.

    "You just got here too late to do so." He stops laughing. "But that's okay! Don't worry about that."

    "Okay!” Miles agrees. “I won't worry. What else should we be discussing, then?"

    "So, you're a sharp guy...you're right, we wouldn't send an Accuser just to investigate a little break-in on some dead Starforce agent's safehouse. And you and I know that's what this is, a dead Starforce agent's safehouse. And I know you're an agent of SHIELD. Or SWORD. Or is it HAMMER? Your planet and your weapon agencies. It's really cute.

    "I like HAMMER, personally, but that's just because of a fondness for them. See, here's the thing, Agent....?"

    "Mason." Miles offers his hand.

    "Mason." Huran shakes his hand. "We sent a Starforce agent to your world to do a job for us. This agent, Mahr Vehl's his name, absolutely terrible agent. Just the worst. What would be the Earth term for someone who is just the lowest of the low?"

    "Dogshit!" Mantis helpfully offers.

    Huran snaps his fingers. "Dogshit! Absolutely dogshit agent."

    Carol is trying her best to poker face this entire situation. Miles knows her poker face. Miles nods carefully at Huran. "Honestly, that sounds fair."

    "So, I'm sure, being an agency like yours, you have the equivalent of just giving dogshit agents a nonsense transfer to terrible jobs if it's too politically inconvenient to simply outright kill them or send to their deaths," Huran says. "You bureaucracy them to suicide.

    "That sort of thing. That's a thing in all cultures, right?"

    "The cool ones, anyway," Miles says.

    He nods appreciatively. "So, we send Mahr Vehl to your world which, no offense, you guys are not exactly on our level, like until you started hot-wiring Spartoi cruisers, which," he points upwards, "By the way, nice," he continues, "you didn't even have faster-than-light travel."

    "It's true. I'm not even mad."

    "Honestly, you should be proud," Huran says. "Then almost one of your years ago, Mahr Vehl's bio-implant that we insert deep inside the skull-base of every Starforce agent that is directly connected to the Supreme Intelligence goes off and tells us, he's dead."

    Carol's eyes shoot open wide.

    "We think, well damn, all's well that ends well. Maybe that op on Earth is a bust, who cares. His case officer goes to close the entire thing and get this, a little while later we get another report from Mahr Vehl." He laughs. "And it's not a forgery either. His exact writing style, all the correct code phrases, everything. Report is essentially, nothing yet, still looking, which to be honest for an agent as terrible as him is not surprising."

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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    Miles nods. "So you're...what, just trying to figure out what happened? You don't even care about your dead guy?"

    "Well, there's two possible scenarios here," Huran says. "Both of them are pretty troubling, not gonna lie, Agent Mason. Because there's a twist.

    "Mahr Vehl wouldn't have known about the skull implant. What I just told you, no Starforce agent knows. I told you because I like you, you're a good guy." He winks.

    Miles shoots him a thumbs-up.

    Huran is taken aback at the thumbs up. Mantis looks at Miles and shakes her head.

    "Oh! Oh wait," Miles says. "It doesn't mean that. I mean, not that...I'm sure you're a hit with the ladies, or dudes, or blobs, or whatever. I'm just not..." Of course, he knew that. But he got to break Huran’s concentration for a second.

    "...anyway," Huran says, with a grimace. "See, thing is with Mahr, a few months after we got the skull implant signal, we got informed Mahr died. Again.

    "This time, not from a skull implant, but from eye-witnesses. On Knowhere. Who saw him get into a transport, saw him blow up. I went out there, personally, to investigate. All the energy signatures looked right, certainly was enough damage to destroy a body....but…there shouldn't have been a Mahr Vehl after the skull implant thing.

    "So, again, two scenarios.

    "1. Mahr Vehl faked his death, is now a deserter, and is, say....hitting up his old safehouses and trying to make it look like break-ins to keep himself from getting caught!

    "2. Someone killed Mahr Vehl, but somehow gained access to his memories, access codes, or other details but realized they couldn't keep up the ruse, and tried to fake his death, but then thought, hey, we could steal his stuff! And now they've looted his safehouses.

    "Honestly? Scenario 1 is more likely. But either way...why are you here? You didn't steal this stuff. See, now there's the part where I accuse you of things. It was a whole process." He smiles.

    "Well, you've kind of got it, right? We were here to steal the stuff. Maybe you have an idea why? The whole Skrull fleet overhead thing? We don't have enough cool laser guns on Earth to just lock them up and forget about them.

    "How did we hear about the safehouse? Well, you already know your guy was embedded with us. When he went missing, he didn't...he didn't clean up after himself so great. So we were like cool, free alien guns!

    "But it looks like we wasted a trip. Although personally I think the stuff is just sitting around in a swap meet somewhere and I was about to suggest we go look for them next."

    Miles has a choice.

    Carol is sweating buckets She's terrified of this dude And the 'Starforce had skull implants' thing really blindsided her because she did not know that, and it really undercut a lot of her best laid plans.

    Huran seems deeply suspicious of her. And her behavior

    Miles could probably get Huran to buy the ruse if he can subtly indicate that Mantis should...calm Carol down. But he also has to choose to get Mantis to do that to Carol, knowing Carol hates that.

    The alternative is probably pretty bad though.

    X-51...ask Mantis to chill Carol out. She's gonna give up the game.

    Mantis subtly moves across the room and, without Huran noticing, calms Carol down. Huran pays attention to Miles instead, and nods thoughtfully.

    "Well, Agent Mason, you make an excellent case. Gosh, I was coming here prepared to plasma-glass the entire surface of the planet if I thought the deserter Mahr Vehl was hiding out here, but it looks like his stuff just got looted by locals and then some other locals tried to steal his stuff after. I can't stay mad at you guys." He smiles playfully.

    "No harm, no foul," Miles says. "Er, foul like in sports. Not fowl as in edible birds. I should probably specify that for my Autolang."

    "I tell you what, I'll confer with the Supreme Intelligence, and if I get the all clear, I'll let you guys just take whatever you can find on this jungley mudball, honestly I'm beyond caring about some pulse weapons and spy goobers."

    "It's all going up against the Skrulls anyway,” Miles points out. “Win/win for you guys."

    "Sure." Huran shrugs dispassionately. "To be perfectly honest? I came here to kill a deserter and now I'm just kind of disappointed.” He puts a hand to his temple. "Stand by."

    A clammy feeling grips Miles’ gut, and he has X-51 transmit to Carol and Mantis to be ready to roll.

    Huran touches the side of his temple, and his eyes go glowing white as he looks to the sky. After a few seconds, suddenly his eyes return to normal and his head snaps back and he looks directly at Miles.

    "Agent Mason, your first name wouldn't happen to be Miles, would it?"

    Miles grins. "Did the big lady say hi?"

    Huran. cracks his neck to the side. "I mean, kinda."

    Carol yells "Oh fuck."

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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    edited November 2019
    "Mantis, put him to sleep!" Miles cries.

    Huran attempts to swing at Mantis as she dives at him, but Carol grabs his arm. Mantis grabs the sides of his head and whispers sleeeeeep.

    Huran passes out.

    "Let's boogie!" Miles calls.

    Carol is stunned. "We...we just beat an Accuser!"

    Mantis throws her hand up. "High five!" Miles hits that high five, and Mantis pumps her fist joyously.

    Miles stares down at Huran’s body. "X-51, can we jigger the thing in the back of his neck? Cut off his connection to the Intelligence? It might buy us some time if ET can't phone home."

    It would be a risk, but yes.

    "....One more risk. Fuck it, let's do this."

    Huran's connection to the Supreme Intelligence is severed. The trio leave the safehouse and head for the Zephyr.

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    Matt says he was hoping to strike a Hans Landa vibe with Huran the Accuser - very urbane, chatty, friendly in a facile way, but deeply unsettling; a scaru sadist, playing with his next meal. I feel like that came through pretty well, although Miles wasn't that scared. I'd had that entire conversation to cook up the move with Mantis.

    After all, what is even the point of being a comic book hero if not to clown on guys way outside your weight class sometimes?

    Jacobkosh on
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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    sM6uHRGl.jpg

    Carol sighs. "Well, we didn't get any guns but we got valuable intel and clowned on an Accuser, so there's that?"

    Miles nods. "I made an immortal enemy of that Accuser and his alien computer god!"

    Carol rubs her temples. "I can't... I can't with that, Miles." She steadies herself and tries to explain. "Miles, for the Kree, the Intelligence isn't just God, it's like, the concept of God and Heaven and Patriotism all wrapped up together.

    "The only reason I'm not completely losing my crap at you is...Mahr actually...actually kinda was some of the things that Huran was saying." She slumps in her chair in the Zephyr.

    "That was him. Not you," Miles whispers, putting a hand on her shoulder.

    "He got assigned jobs like Earth and Centauri-IV because he sandbagged his way through his job. He didn't really believe in the Supremor, he barely even believed in the Empire. Do you remember Strontia?" she asks. "When I said Mahr had been there before?"

    Miles nods. "Yeah?"

    "He knew their secret, that there was a type of radiation that made them vulnerable. He found out."

    "And he didn't tell anyone," Miles says.

    "Yeah," Carol sighs. "He did that a lot. He'd check a place out for potential colonization or integration and just take a dive.

    "He sucked. And he knew he sucked."

    "Was it just because he sucked? Or because he had...some sense of higher purpose? Awareness of right and wrong?" Miles squeezes her shoulder. "I'm just saying it sounds like there was more to him than a slacker."

    Mantis goes over to Carol and sits down. "You know most people I met on Xandar, if they came from a world that the Kree made join their Empire, they didn't like that the Kree did that.

    "They'd ask me to help them forget that.

    "So I think Mahr was good at a job, just not the one Empire told him to be good at. I've been bad at bad jobs before. But I think I'm good at a good job!" She smiles at Miles for approval.

    Miles nods at her approvingly. "Exactly." He spins Carol's chair around to meet her gaze. "I tried talking to the Supreme Intelligence. I tried talking to Huran. Because it doesn't cost anything to be polite. And everyone deserves a chance. One chance, at least.

    "And you know what? They're dicks.

    "The immortal god-brain of the Kree Empire turned down a really reasonable offer because I offended its pride. Huran was all mopey that he didn't get to kill anyone today. Those guys deserve our fear, maybe, sure. But not our cooperation. And definitely not our respect.

    “But they're not even gonna get our fear. Want to know why?” His smile is hard-edged. "Because I learned one other thing.

    “I learned that something in Attilan is destined to kill the Supreme Intelligence. So let's go find it."

    Carol perks up. "Nice."

    Miles grins. "And uh, sorry for having Mantis whammy you. You were flop-sweating all over the place. It's all I could think of. But...sorry."

    "It's okay. It doesn't hurt. It just..." She trails off.

    "It's okay, Captain Danvers," Mantis says. "I've been learning boundaries."

    The Zephyr flies off to rendezvous with the Anabasis.

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    ”Everyone gets one chance” is as close as I’ve ever been able to come to the heart of Miles, I think. Someone gave him a chance, so he’s honor-bound to pass it on. He feels like he got kind of pantsed this time - and the dice were not as kind to me as they’ve traditionally been - but he came away knowing more, which is the most important thing, and now he’s starting to get the beginnings of a plan.

    Poor Carol had it rough this week. She’s normally more chipper but this stuff all kind of touched up on her trauma, so she spent a lot of time kind of pensive and paralyzed. Thankfully, Mantis doesn’t seem to be pensive about anything. We’re going to see more of the Miles/Carol/Mantis trio in the future, I think. Matt and I both liked their kind of loopy, quasi-family chemistry.

    Speaking of Matt, he tells me his other big regret was that we didn’t get to see more of Centauri IV this session. If Miles hadn’t dived deeper into the network, he could have talked Huran off, and we would’ve been able to go retrieve the weapons and deal with the thieves. But I suspect we’ll be coming back here in the future.

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    Clay Quartermain sits in his office. Victoria Hand, Deputy Director of STRIKE, walks in. The door closes, and as it does, there's an audible hum and the sound of an air pressure differential.

    "It does that automatically now?" Victoria asks him. "No need for the conspicuous button on your desk?"

    Clay nods and sighs. "It's annoying to realize I just had the work done to put that in, and now that it's here, we're going to have to kiss this entire place goodbye."

    She sits down and folds her hands. "You don't know that, Clay. Contingency-1 doesn't mean everything is over, we're done. That's why it's a contingency. By definition."

    Clay shakes his head. "I've already enacted it, Victoria. Sue and Reed have put everything into place. Nordstrom's doing the assetwork, Hook has done all the clean-up. Transfer will be ready by the time all the agents come in from the field. The bullet will be in the chamber and I'll just have to pull the trigger."

    Hand looks shocked. "Why so quick? The whole idea is..."

    "Vantage."

    Hand sits back in her chair and grumbles. "That fucking woman."

    Clay nods. "Dallas Riordan will be up in our shit within the next couple of weeks, and even though we 'do not exist' as an agency and all of that nonsense we try to feed HELM, she won't be having it. And you know what I think."

    "You think she's a Skrull," Hand says.

    "Yes."

    "You could prove it! Either way! Elise could...."

    "Even if she could, Victoria," Clay sighs, "It wouldn't matter. If the second-in-command of HELM is a Skrull, who is to say Garrett isn't? Who the fuck is John Garrett and why the fuck is he in charge all of a sudden? I don't like it. Not at all. If Miles were here, he'd agree with me, and when he is here, he will."

    She takes off her glasses and folds them in her lap. "So that's it, then?"

    Clay leans back. "The plan is, when Riordan gets here, we're not here. What that means for each agent is their choice, I can't force that on them. They'll all be back within the next week from their various ops."

    He takes a deep breath.

    "Next week…STRIKE is over."

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    NytewarriorFencingsaxMatev
  • PowerpuppiesPowerpuppies Registered User regular
    heeheehee, I love that warrick reaction to the reverse racoon

    smooth missions are great, good job Agent Westin

    If Elise's player had asked "Is Silver a skrull?" would your DM have said "yeah, actually?"

    "resting sinister face" is a great concept

    Hmmmm how on Earth is attempting to hack the Supreme Intelligence more than Miles has done before? He walled off the Celestials from time! He committed pantheon genocide in a second!

    Also dang I thought it was straightforwardly clear that contingency 1 was all about Elise going super saiyan. Didn't even consider that it was something else.

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    Fencingsax
  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    I had 100% thought that Contingency 1 was about Elise, too. I thought it was going to be some kind of like, Vlad prevention system. But it seems to be more about Clay's paranoia of HELM and the mystery of John Garrett's identity (which granted has been more of a background element so far rather than a big foreground thing that we deal with week to week). You'll find out more in the next story.

    I think regarding hacking the Supreme Intelligence, the difference is that it was consciously aware of Miles' shenanigans whereas Apocalypse's pyramid was more like just messing with the Celestials' modem. They're already asleep, or outside time and space; Miles was just futzing with their stuff while their back was turned.

    And yeah, I bet if Elise had thought to examine Silver, she would've sussed it out sooner. But it's funny, for all that she complains about everything, she's probably the most trusting member of the group. Silver acted completely like her old self and even seemed to be trying to enlist Elise's help picking up a dude, so Elise just went with it.

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  • jurnerjurner Registered User regular
    Awesome as always. Feels like we're building to the season finale. After beating Galactus though it's hard to feel any tension in it!

    I was wondering how the power upgrades work? Did Elise's player buy Captain Universe powers before hand, or is it narrative driven?

    FencingsaxMatev
  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    jurner wrote: »
    Awesome as always. Feels like we're building to the season finale. After beating Galactus though it's hard to feel any tension in it!

    I was wondering how the power upgrades work? Did Elise's player buy Captain Universe powers before hand, or is it narrative driven?

    You're not wrong. It's hard (and pointless) to top Galactus, so instead of doing that we're kind of building outward instead of going higher and higher. With so many things wrapped up and paid off (Shuma-Gorath, Vlad, Galactus) or just kind of put in suspended animation (the Phoenix), I'd say that season 4 is largely about kind of climbing back up the rollercoaster and building back up the world and the next set of plots.

    Though I can promise you that, for me at least, there are some moments in the next 5 stories that are legit some of the tensest moments I've had in the game, including a fight that almost turned into a for-real TPK.

    Re: Elise's powers - basically, grabbing the sword gave her player the option to buy those powers on her sheet. Our system makes provisions for "resources," which are basically...things your character has that give you bonuses but which are more easy-come easy-go, like equipment or money or whatever. Resources aren't sacrosanct and can be lost or taken away by events in the story (like being robbed, dropping your gun, etc), as opposed to things you actually pay XP for, which are yours (or you get to trade in the XP). For instance, Ryann has bought a sidekick with his XP, so it might be Nebula or it might be Sam depending on the story and what he and the GM decide, but he always gets something.

    Grabbing the sword gave Elise's player the option to buy those powers (which she did, to my knowledge) but if she had foregone that then the powers would only be temporary.

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  • jurnerjurner Registered User regular
    Oh man, how badly did you all roll to nearly TPK? Especially with Julian around! Speaking of, you gotta find that man some more power cosmic. I want to see Julian become a Celestial!

    So if Elise didn't have the resources to pay for the sword at the time would she have simply missed that opportunity? Or could she, like, go into debt to get them?

  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    edited November 2019
    jurner wrote: »
    Oh man, how badly did you all roll to nearly TPK? Especially with Julian around! Speaking of, you gotta find that man some more power cosmic. I want to see Julian become a Celestial!

    So if Elise didn't have the resources to pay for the sword at the time would she have simply missed that opportunity? Or could she, like, go into debt to get them?

    Well, the Captain Universe powers are canonically temporary (in the comics, you're Captain Universe for a little while and then it finds another host, to let them have a kind of Twilight Zone anthology series where you'd see how different people react to ultimate cosmic power) so I imagine that if her player had declined to buy them she would've just had them for a while and then not. They would've been a disposable resource, like when a character grabs a gun or a MASC disguise or whatever.

    Jacobkosh on
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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
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    Kristoff Vernard, the Scion of Doom, is being brought before the Parliament of Doom to bear testimony before Rabum Alal, the Doom Above All.

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    "Rabum Alal, I come to you as your humble Scion, to bear your judgment."

    The rest of the Parliament of Doom looks on.

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    Rabum Alal looks down upon Kristoff from his throne.

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    "Kristoff, you have failed in your assigned task. We have been informed that the Apostates known as 'Freedom Force' have returned to Earth-1491, and have continued their meddlesome ways."

    Kristoff stammers "It's not my fault, Doom Above All! I exiled them as instructed, using a Cosmic Cube! They returned to their Earth by the machinations of the Doom Who Refuses from Earth-1491."

    Rabum Alal slams his fist down. "Fool! I do not tolerate excuses!"

    The Parliament echoes a chorus of "FOOL! FOOL!" at Kristoff.

    The Doom who is the Sorcerer Supreme of his world speaks up. "Why were the troublesome cretins not simply killed outright? Were that not simpler than some convoluted exile?"

    Kristoff turns to Sorcerer Doom. "To kill them was to galvanize their allies, to martyr them. Exiling them made them a hopeless goal, a crusade for those who cared for them to invest themselves in and throw themselves upon. That...that was the plan."

    Another Doom, this one bearing Mjolnir of his world, demands answers. "Why not hurl them further into the vortex of worlds beyond worlds again, beyond the reach of the Doom Who Refuses and his temporal machinations?"

    Kristoff turns to the Doom Who Is Worthy, and explains, "There has been...a complication. They cannot be exiled again."

    Rabum Alal glowers at Kristoff.

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    "What is this... complication?"

    Kristoff rubs the back of his neck nervously. "Elise Arnell...she gained access to the Enigma Force, and now has the ability to traverse dimensions at will."

    "FOOL! FOOL! FOOL!" the chorus of Dooms howl with rage.

    Kristoff puts up his hands. "It's not my fault!"

    Rabum Alal puts up his hand, and the chorus silences. "What do you plan to do about this, Scion?" he demands.

    Kristoff breathes slowly. "I believe...I believe we have been going about this all wrong, Doom Above All.

    "We have made an enemy of these of the Apostates, but they have proven themselves powerful, resourceful, and clever beyond our anticipation. They destroyed the Galactus of their world, and sealed away the Celestials.

    "Perhaps, to use an adage from Earth-108, we should see the enemy of my enemy as a weapon."

    Rabum Alal cradles his chin in his hand. "Intriguing. And how do you propose to do that, Scion?"

    Kristoff's expression turns, and he begins to smile. "If I may, Doom Above All, and quote one of the most well-known pieces of fiction in the cosmos..."

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    "...I'm going to make them an offer they can't refuse."

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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
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    It's been a few days since STRIKE agents were dispatched on various missions across the world...and into space. Elise and Michael returned from their missions days ago, but Miles, Julian, and Ryann only recently made their way back to the Sol system. Miles and Carol have arrived on the tower, and shortly thereafter, Ryann, Julian, Nebula, Chimera, and their...guest also landed.

    On arriving planetside, Kl'rt has assumed a human (or, more accurately, a Xandarian) form so as not to draw attention. Per Clay's instructions, he's been literally black-bagged so he doesn't know exactly where he is. He still thinks he's going to Xandar.

    Clay has called an all-hands meeting of all STRIKE personnel, as well as visiting SWORD personnel like Nebula, Carol Danvers, and Chimera. He also advised Ryann to bring their prisoner along, Ryann having briefed Clay while in the air as to the prisoner's identity.

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    The department assembles in the STRIKE briefing room. Jessica Drew and Eric O'Grady are with Michael, and the other three members of STRIKE-2 (Omega Red, Longbow, and Excalibur) join them in the briefing room.

    Also present are STRIKE deputy director Victoria Hand, STRIKE-COMMS liaison Jeremiah Warrick, COMMS Agent Olivia Hook, Sam Alexander, and Susan Richards.

    Elise enters, sipping a cup of coffee, and takes a seat. She's re-arranged her features again back to their original shape, and she's mid-gripe to Julian. "Turns out when your wife comes from a culture that is at war with shapeshifters, and the 'true self' after Terragenesis is a big deal, it gets awkward when you...you know."

    "Really?" Julian clicks his tongue. "So you can't be your best self?"

    "Well, except for sex stuff. Obviously."

    "Oh, of course," Julian nods.

    Kl'rt, in his human form, looks around at the gathered personnel. "...this isn't Xandar, is it?" He looks at the SHIELD-STRIKE logos on the wall. "Well...shit."

    "Xandar sucks!" Elise says cheerfully. "It's way better here."

    Ryann stares. "You suck."

    "Don't you need an insult certificate to say that, bud?" she cackles. Michael chuckles and holds out a fist for Elise to bump. Ryann rolls his eyes. Ignoring all this, Miles chews his lower lip, watching Kl'rt warily.

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    Clay looks at the warleader, and says in the Skrull language, "Hello, General."

    Kl'rt squints at him. "Wait...that voice..."

    Clay sighs. "Best to just get this out of the way..." He shapeshifts.

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    Kl'rt stares at him. "...Emperor."

    Clay, or more accurately Z'reg, frowns. "I'm not...I have not officially been crowned, General." Z'reg has switched back to English.

    "But you are the rightful heir to the throne, my Emperor. By right of blood and law, you are the Emperor, and your sister is a usurper with no legal claim," Kl'rt says, also switching to English.

    Elise stares at the newcomer. "Wait, Clay, who the shit is this guy?"

    Z'reg looks at her, and then back to Kl'rt. "General, show your true face." The general nods, and shapeshifts as well.

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    "My name is Kl'rt, I am Supreme Warlord of the Skrull Armada. Or...was, until I abandoned my Empire."

    "Oh, great. More Skrulls," Elise grouses.

    "Elise!" Miles snaps.

    "What! A Skrull just tried to fuckin' kill me like, four days ago!"

    "So?!" Miles throws up his hands in exasperation.

    Ryann gives Sam a look that just says Yikes, but the boy is just gaping at the Skrulls in mute shock.

    Elise is continuing. "I'm just saying, don't you think having more shapeshifters around is a bad thing considering, y'know, we're dealing with Game of Thrones shit constantly?"

    Z'reg turns back into Clay. "I've read Valt's report. Kl'rt defected from the Empire because he found out that Empress Veranke is here on Earth, trying to assassinate me. Which, of course, means he realized I'm alive, and as he said...means Veranke's claim is bollocks."

    Elise crosses her arms and grumbles. "Still think we should airlock him."

    Chimera nods at Elise. "He was a general in the Dard'van's army and has committed genocide. He claims he wasn't a 'true believer' in their philosophy, but he still commanded their forces as they scourged worlds of life."

    Kl'rt grumbles "I...I did as my Empress commanded."

    Clay frowns hard. "Mate, I think you'll find 'I was just following orders' is not an argument that carries weight on this planet." He turns to the others assembled. "Regardless, his intel is solid, and is also corroborated by the Skrull that Elise took down in Wundagore. The Dard'van know I am alive. And I'm a target."

    "Like, okay, counter-proposal. We just use the you-know-what I picked up that lets me use the..." Elise waggles her fingers. "And I just fix things? I mean we know I can spot a Skrull from a mile off."

    Clay puts up his hand at Elise. "Put a pin in that." His face is grim. "We have bigger problems."

    "But --!"

    "Pin."

    "More bigger problems?" Miles frowns.

    Clay nods. "Yes."

    Elise crosses her arms and falls silent, but looks irritated. Ryann sighs.

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    Clay continues. "We have an inspection coming up. This is...very bad. Fury's given me a heads-up that Dallas Riordan, Deputy Director HELM, is going to be personally coming to the Tower in a few days to give us the run-down."

    "Oh yay," Michael sighs.

    Miles frowns. "So we need to all be taking a sick day, or...?"

    Kl'rt scowls at Clay. "Emperor, your bigger problem is...an inspection?" By way of response, Clay snaps his fingers at Kl'rt, who snaps at attention. Clay hasn't seen Kl'rt in over a hundred years. Clearly, Clay's been doing that for a long time.

    "Wait, shit, so, what is it that I'm supposed to lie to them about?” Elise asks. “I work in COMMS, right? I work in COMMS and am just a normal ol' Inhuman and diplomat!"

    "Bullshitting Riordan isn't an option," Clay says.

    "So like, we save the world from Galactus and yet we still get this bullshit?" Julian asks incredulously.

    "I'll let Susan explain," Clay says, motioning the doctor to the head of the table.

    Susan begins. "WHISPER has good intel that Riordan is a Skrull. Not just any Skrull, but a member of the Dard'van and possibly Veranke herself." The room falls silent. "Even if she isn't, John Garrett might be."

    Miles frowns. "So can't we just..." he draws a finger across his throat.

    "I mean...it wouldn't help our image, I'm sure," Julian chuckles darkly.

    Clay shakes his head. "Sure, kill the Deputy Director of HELM. If she's a Skrull, perfect. If she's Veranke, even better. But what if she isn't? Or, what if she is, but Garrett is also Dard'van?"

    "Let me look at 'em!" Elise says. "I can fix this, Clay! I can fix everything!"

    "Even before this potential revelation, we had to have suspected that they were shady as hell and had some kind of plan to deal with them," Michael says levelly.

    Clay looks at him. "I had several plans. And I have a plan for this too." He pauses, looking at everyone in the room one by one. "We quit."

    "What," Elise whispers.

    "We quit, and we go private sector," Clay says.

    Susan nods. "WHISPER will happily take you all on. You'll still be STRIKE, but you'll be a division of WHISPER instead. Clay will still have autonomy, your command structure will stay intact."

    Clay adds, "Folks, I've had one foot out the door since the Skrull Invasion. You may have noticed how...cozy our relationship with WHISPER has been."

    "Yeah I noticed that,” Michael nods thoughtfully.

    "I just thought that's because Susan is super smart," Elise says.

    Susan smiles at her. "It's also that."

    "I mean, it's worked out pretty good. I'm down for this," Julian shrugs.

    Miles nods slowly, taking all this in. He swivels to face Susan. "Doctor Richards, ah—how to put this tactfully—does this mean we report to your husband now?"

    Susan nods. "You report to both of us. Reed and I are both in charge of WHISPER equally. But really, Clay will have a lot of autonomy and STRIKE will be largely compartmentalized for a variety of reasons."

    "Like, say, plausible deniability," Julian says. Susan nods.

    "I gotta say, having met another Reed, ours is a pretty good dude," Michael adds.

    Elise chews on her lower lip in thought. "Problem."

    Susan looks at her. "Go ahead."

    "I'm the only person on STRIKE who's actually, you know, on the record as an employee? My wife's the Emissary to Attilan. I think I have some kind of diplomat title."

    Susan shakes her head. "You're not going to be criminals. All of you technically have official jobs with SHIELD, which you'll be resigning from. Will there be potential political blowback from that from HELM? Possibly. Can this screw over Crystalia politically? Maybe. Worst case scenario, her diplomatic credentials are revoked and she's sent back to Attilan."

    Clay adds, "Let's also point something out here, beyond just 'What if Riordan is a Skrull?' We have a lot of ugly secrets here, people. Secrets I don't want HELM poking around in.

    "Who I really am. The fact that Valt is a black ops agent for a foreign alien power. Where Robert really comes from. Elise's new powers. Omega Red's upsettingly high body count."

    Omega Red looks down. "I apologize, commander, I am working on it."

    Elise pales slightly. "Yeah. Working with someone...basically every day...you wouldn't want to have any secrets." She glances at Susan. "Can I talk to my wife first?"

    "You'll have 24 hours to decide," Clay says, "But my mind is made up, as is Victoria's, Faiza's, and Robert's. We're going. And more or less STRIKE is going with us. You don't have to come to WHISPER with us, but if you stay, you're staying on your own as whatever HELM finds you to be."

    Miles has been very quiet. "I'll...I'll think it over," he says. "This is a big change. Carol and I will need to talk it over. But...I'm in, in principle."

    Elise swallows, looking at Susan. Oh, fuck me running, what the shit do I tell her about Malice? ‘Oh, hey Susan, great working with you, by the way, I'm about to fuck your shit up with a revelation!’ I can't just be like, ‘oh, yeah, I told Doom I wouldn't.’ Fuuuuck meeee. She nods absently at Clay and puts on a sickly smile.

    Be cool, Elise, chides Julian.

    Fucking psychics!

    She already knows about Malice, Elise hears telepathically from Chimera. Father told her. She's thinking about how awkward this must be for you.

    How did HE know? Elise starts thumb typing a text to Crystalia explaining the situation in vague, non-specific terms.

    I don't know, you'll have to ask him. All I read off Susan was 'Elise is probably worried about Malice, I need to tell her it's okay. Clay already told me, I need to tell her that'

    Elise sighs. Borf. God. Okay. Fine.

    Ryann clears his throat. "Sir, what about Sam?"

    "Sam has a choice," Clay says, looking at Sam. "Kid, we're blowing this place and going to work for the Future Foundation. Want an internship?"

    Susan nods. "You know that Spider-Man used to be a WHISPER agent, Sam?" Clay looks at Susan and shakes his head.

    Ryann looks at Kid Nova. "You make the call, Sam."

    He smiles.

    Elise’s phone buzzes. The text has bounced. The room is electronically sequestered. "God damnit Clay can I go for a walk and call my wife?"

    "After," Clay responds. "Don't call her. Talk to her in person, you can use my office." He adds, "Don't tell her why, maintain info-sec. But don't text her with 'we need to talk,' don't do that to your wife."

    "Why, is that a dick move?" she asks.

    Every other married person in the room nods sagely.

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    Hee, I love that bit.

    So yeah, we now know what Contingency 1 is! To be honest, I’m astonished it wasn’t called Contingency 4.

    This wasn’t entirely a surprise to us the players; Matt filled us in the week before this episode, so we wouldn’t be blindsided and in case we had any questions or lingering business we wanted to resolve. As a player, I was surprised but intrigued; our model for STRIKE has always been a TV show format, and a TV show in its fourth season (especially a serial) often has some kind of format shake-up by this point.

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    Suddenly, there is a loud chime. Clay presses a button on his console, while holding up a hand for quiet. "Quartermain, go."

    While everyone is silent, Elise looks at Kl'rt and makes the 'I'm watching you' gesture. Kl'rt shrugs at her, confused.

    Vision's voice comes through the speaker. "Sir, incoming call for you."

    Elise continues to mime at Kl’rt in increasingly opaque but violent sign language. She feels a tap on her shoulder. Miles' arm has reached across the table to shush her.

    Clay scowls. "Vision, we talked about this. Important meeting, hold my calls."

    "I understand, sir, but in this case you may want to take the call." There’s a pause. "It's from Kristoff Vernard."

    "What!" Elise yelps. Ryann snaps his head to looks at Clay. Miles half-stands out of his chair. "What the -"

    Clay calmly says, "...yes, put him through." He puts Kristoff on speaker, and Kristoff appears as a hologram.

    Elise flips off the hologram.

    "Greetings," Kristoff says, "What a fascinating assembly...."

    Susan leans over to Clay and whispers, "How...can he see us..."

    Clay grumbles. "I don't know."

    Ryann turns to Sam and whispers "Be ready for anything."

    Kristoff smiles. "For those of you who do not know me, I am Kristoff Vernard, the Scion of Doom, and I represent the Parliament of Doom.

    "In the past, I have made a foe of your little cabal of ne'er-do-wells. But I would like to change all that."

    "No, fuck you!" Elise spits.

    "Ditto," Michael adds.

    He chuckles. "Hear me out before you decline, Captain Universe." Elise stands, 50% tremble and 50% hate, but lets him continue.

    "You currently face multiple wars on too many fronts. To use a colloquialism, you have four buckets, and five fires.

    "Aside from the Parliament, you also face the Council, the Kree Empire, the Skrull Empire, the schemes of the miscreant organization known as HAMMER, the upcoming Attilan civil war, and other such issues.

    "Perhaps a few less fronts would be to your advantage, yes?"

    "Counterpoint! I teleport to your dimension and kick you right in the dick, you smug piece of shit!" Elise says.

    "Would that stop assassins from trying to murder your infant child?" He smiles and shakes his head. "While you're distracted making war with me?"

    "Valeria." Elise sits, aghast.

    "Say what you’re here to say, Kristoff!" Ryann points in anger at the hologram. "Did you contact us just for threats?"

    "No, as I said, for a proposal." Kristoff spreads his arms in a magnanimous gesture. "I come here to propose an armistice.

    "The Parliament will trouble your world no longer, and I will give you an opportunity to render the Council no longer a threat. Our war will no longer be a hazard for your world to concern yourself with, and you can focus on internal threats to your dimension."

    Ryann glances at Miles and Clay and then looks back at Kristoff. Miles is just staring at Kristoff, unblinking. "Why?" Ryann asks. "And why now?"

    "Because I failed is why now."

    Julian smirks at this.

    "I was given the task to exile you across space and time, and I failed. Rabum Alal, the Doom Above All, has given me an opportunity at redemption.

    "You are formidable foes. So formidable, in fact, that I wish you to be foes no longer. And instead, wish to divert your wrath upon the Council, who are just as much a threat to your world, if not moreso, than the Parliament ever could be."

    "Oh, so the Council of Reeds is a greater enemy than the Parliament of Doom?" Julian laughs in disbelief.

    Michael blinks at Kristoff. "So you want to recruit us to fight the Council 'cuz you fucked up?"

    Kristoff nods fractionally, his face sour. "Quite."

    "Wait, prove -- prove you're not just fucking with us. Give us some kind of info besides the Council, something that doesn't just serve you," Elise says. "Tell me something I can use to save my daughter."

    Kristoff looks at her and sighs. "Very well. The one known as Maximus is a potential ally in the civil war to come. If you speak to him, he will prove himself to be a useful tool against your enemies in the court of Attilan."

    "What," Miles breathes.

    "Fuck that guy seven ways from Sunday," Michael growls.

    "I should have married a fuckin'...accountant." Elise groans. "A baker. A secretary."

    "As for what I am offering you, you don't have to use it against the Council. You could opt not to," Kristoff says. "But the Council is a threat to your world, and what I am offering can be used against them.

    "It could, in theory, also be used against the Parliament, but should you choose not to do that, the armistice will be maintained."

    "So what is it?" Miles grumbles impatiently.

    "It is a device known as the Final Tesseract."

    "That damn Cube..." Ryann grumbles.

    "It is a Cosmic Cube from a universe that fell into the Big Crunch, absorbing the entirety of all of its universe's Power Cosmic."

    "Wait, the Big Crunch?" Elise squints, confused.

    "It's...I'll explain later, Elise," Miles whispers.

    Kristoff continues. "It does not have the same powers as a Cosmic Cube. Instead, it allows the user to perceive, find, travel, and manipulate alternate realities."

    Elise laughs. "Nice peace offering, dingus. I can do that already!"

    Kristoff looks at Elise. "Can you find the Structure, Princess Arnell? The headquarters of the Council? Is that something Captain Universe can do?"

    "Yeah, fuckin' probably!"

    He smiles and tents his fingers. "I'll wait."

    "Wait, you mean right now?"

    "Certainly."

    "Uh..." She looks around the room uncertainly. She looks at Kristoff, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet in amusement. She vanishes.

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    Elise is in a place that doesn't make sense.

    Angles are inside angles. It reminds her of looking at the Council’s machines. Which she doesn't like looking at. "Fuuuuuuuck me." She takes out her phone and tries to snap a photo.

    She takes a picture of…

    ...Atul.

    The Watcher.

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    "Hey," he says.

    "Oh, hey man."

    "Don't do that." He points at her phone. "Delete that."

    "Shit, alright. Sorry. My bad." She deletes it and shows him the phone.

    "Thank you. I'd get in trouble."

    With her business concluded, Elise taps her toes together. "Alright, back home." She vanishes.

    Elise has a choice.

    She's...she's pretty sure she knows the way home. But...she has to guess. Or she could stay here a little while longer. See what happens. The more she stays, the more she can get some intel to show Kristoff up. But it might be dangerous.

    She reappears. Atul looks at her. He's staring right at her.

    "What?" she asks.

    "I can't tell you. Ignore me."

    "Uh, hello?" Elise slowly turns around. "Anyone there?"

    Atul walks around Elise, right back into her field of view. She cranes her neck to see past him, but she's having a hard time. He's big and has a robe.

    "Ignore me," he says again.

    "I'm trying to! C'mon, out of my way."

    "Well maybe if you can't see around me, you shouldn't be seeing what's here. Or be here," he says. "I don't know. I'm not interfering."

    "God! Fine! You are so lucky you're chill." Elise vanishes.

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    Elise is standing outside a castle. She hates castles. She's palace-ambivalent. (Crys lives in a palace.)

    "Let me guess, this is where all the Dooms get together and touch their dicks?"

    A loud, droning tone issues over the sky, like an alarm.

    "Okay. Uh, that's probably for me.” She vanishes again.

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    Elise knows where she is, at least? She's in the Microverse.

    "Oh shit I cannot be here, if I upset a monarchy Clay is going to be so mad." She closes her eyes. "C'mon, Arnell. Focus."

    She vanishes.

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    Elise reappears in the conference room. She sits, drenched in sweat.

    Kristoff has his arms folded. "...so?"

    "Found it."

    He is taken aback. "...o-oh."

    "Found the Parliament HQ, too."

    "....oh."

    Elise holds out her arms, waiting to be basked in applause, awe, and gratitude. Ryann just shakes his head at her.

    "Well...you...I..." Kristoff stammers. "Do you expect to take on the entire Council alone?"

    "I dunno. Maybe. Hey, Clay, can I go back and try -"

    Clay scowls at her. "Stop doing that."

    "But I -!"

    "Stop." Clay looks over at Kristoff's projection. "Vernard, how is this Final Tesseract actually going to help us? Giving us the address to the Council's backdoor isn't good enough if their technology can stomp us into the ground."

    Kristoff tries to collect himself, having been off-put by Elise's display. "Yes, well, that's what I was getting at. The Final Tesseract allows the user to command universal constants and law. You can, essentially, enforce physical law and rob the Power Cosmic.

    "It will allow the user to perceive the infinity of all reality, any dimension, anywhere, at any time, in any timeline."

    Clay squints, skeptically. "Why are you giving us this power, and not taking it for yourself?"

    Kristoff tsks. "Because you would never be able to use it to its full potential. You would use it as a weapon, to take down the Council and possibly your other enemies, which suits us just fine.

    "For the Parliament...it would invoke an internal schism. Every Doom would desire it. Rabum Alal would be convinced he alone should have such power, and no other Doom would accept that fact.

    "The balance of the Parliament is a careful one. As you can imagine, a cosmic coalition of megalomaniacs is a delicate thing." He pauses, with a slight grimace. "Also...we can't get it."

    "There's the catch," Michael says with a grim nod. Miles leans forward, eager to hear the rest.

    "We don't have it, nor can we acquire it. Not because we haven't tried. You think I'm the only Kristoff, or the only Vladimir? It's a test many Scions have been given. Or Dooms newly anointed to the Parliament.

    "It's not something we are about to accomplish on our own. But you...people, have proven unconventional and resourceful. So, if I tell you where it is, who has it, and how to acquire it, well...then it is as yours as you are able to get it.

    "Once you have it, what you do with it is your decision. My suggestion is to use it against the Council. Once you have it, the Parliament would be fools to make war with you, and we shall not. If you opt to make war with us, we will pitch all our efforts against you. Will we lose? Perhaps. But your world will be scoured.

    "Or we could simply...not. Mutually assured destruction, as it were."

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    "There's gotta be some kind of drawback that you're leaving out,” Michael says. “We saw what the Ultimate Nullifier's drawback was, and this seems to be on the same level or even higher."

    "Of course there are drawbacks. Like the Cosmic Cube or the Ultimate Nullifier, using the Final Tesseract requires significant willpower and cosmic awareness. Perhaps there are those among you who have such qualities. Not my concern.

    "Could the user be destroyed by its use? Possibly, but its current user is not. They are quite mad, and perhaps that is a danger or perhaps they were mad to begin with. Who is to say?"

    "Who's its current user?" Elise asks.

    Kristoff smiles slightly, steepling his fingers. "Well now....do we have an agreement?"

    Elise bites her lower lip and looks to Clay. Clay presses a button on his console, which causes Kristoff's hologram to vanish. "I've put him on hold. I imagine he doesn't care for that. Fuck em. What do you lot think?"

    "I don't trust him, I don't like any of this," Ryann says. "Didn't Vladimir do this same thing?"

    Michael nods. "I agree with Ryann, but it might be too good of a chance to pass up, trap or no trap."

    Miles pinches the bridge of his nose. "I...fuck. I don't know. It's very obviously a trap, but this might be one of those situations where the upside is so compelling that it doesn't matter."

    Julian shakes his head. "This is nuts. But..." He shrugs helplessly. "Fuck, what hasn't been lately? I will say, given how much Doom hates to even appear to grovel, that I'm pretty sure he really doesn't want to fight us."

    Miles nods slowly. "On the other hand, I really hate doing something that guy wants."

    "I don't trust him and I don't like him, but...I didn't see any signs he was lying,” Elise says. “Like, what's the worst case scenario here? The Parliament stomp our shit in? That's already a thing."

    "The bar of ‘what's the worst case scenario’ keeps getting raised," Ryann notes dryly.

    "If he wasn't lying about the fact that we don't have to use it against the Council, and it's just a weapon in our arsenal, then that means there's nothing we lose here except getting something we can put on the table and decide what to do with after," Susan points out. "We can always double-cross them later."

    "And to be honest, besides using it to defeat the various groups gunning for us, I'd like to use this thing to save Asgard from fuckin' going extinct," Michael adds.

    Elise nods. "I say we go for it, but we're all agreed that FUCK this guy, right?" This sentiment is greeted with a chorus of agreement and eager or grim nods. Ryann purses his lips and frowns slightly, but says nothing.

    "We take the deal, but no illusions that it means anything long term. But a breather would be nice. I mean, my daughter...I don't think he's lying about that," Elise says.

    "Hm. We'll cross that bridge later too," Clay says. "Alright, so, agreed then? We'll entertain this nonsense?"

    Julian nods.

    "Yeah," Miles exhales. "I guess."

    "Agreed," Michael says.

    Most of the people in the room agree. Some, like Ryann, stay silent. Kl'rt is completely baffled.

    Clay takes Kristoff off hold. "Vernard, we agree to your terms."

    Kristoff smiles. "I knew you would. So, here is what you need to know: the Final Tesseract is in the possession of an insane alien being who resides in an exodimensional region outside normal space-time. If you think of all space and time as existing in twisting spirals, his universe is...the bottom of the drain. It is where things fall when they are truly lost. I am surprised that Captain Universe hasn't ended up there."

    "Oh, fuck you," Elise glares.

    Kristoff sneers at her. "The alien is the absolute ruler of his domain, and has used the Final Tesseract to maintain that power. However, receiving information and signals from all the cosmos has driven him completely insane, and all he can think to do is push back against the information, and now attempts to...entertain the multiverse by using his realm as a sort of cosmic stage. Millions of alternate worlds are capable of receiving his 'entertainment.' Some don't even realize they are watching real beings live, love, suffer, and die for their amusement.

    "This creature calls itself Mojo,” Kristoff says. "And it is one of the most dangerous beings in the multiverse.

    "I am transmitting the coordinates to his…Mojoverse, he calls it, to you now. You can use your own portal technology to reach it but I will advise you that once you enter the Mojoverse, you are committed to finding the Final Tesseract and taking it from Mojo. Because, much like a favorite song of a rival of mine, you can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave."

    Elise's lips thin into a line, but she says nothing.

    He smirks. "So you see, that's the 'trap' of it. If you succeed, perfect, you now have a weapon you can use against your enemies and all of that. If you fail, you're permanently trapped in the Mojoverse and I never have to deal with you again. Just to be upfront.

    "I will caution you that once you enter the Mojoverse, you will be restricted in your abilities. Captain Universe will lose access to the Enigma Force. The Nova Force will be disconnected from you. Any ability that is not a direct result of your anatomy or equipment, your genetics or biology, will be sapped away by the forces of the Final Tesseract. There's ways to reclaim that power but...well..." He grins. "I'll let you figure that out.

    "The transmission is complete. Do as you will. After all, that is the whole of the law." He winks and the transmission ends.

    Kl'rt shakes his head. "By the Shaper, what an insufferable piece of shit."

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    "He just has this face I want to punch," Elise says.

    Kl’rt looks at Elise. "I understand why you despise him so."

    "Fuck you, you suck shit too."

    "Elise, can you maybe try being polite to our guest for five fucking minutes?" Miles throws up his hands.

    Kl'rt is stunned. "What did I do?"

    Chimera blasts telepathically, You fucked my AUNT. Every telepath in the room hears it, although she meant it for Kl'rt. Kl'rt looks at her, aghast. Clay sucks his teeth and looks incredibly awkward.

    "This dude scoured worlds for the Empire! He's just switching sides because of the rules of succession, not because he actually changed his mind!" Elise protests. "If he never learned about Clay, he'd be part of the problem!"

    "So did Vlad and we forgave him in the end," Michael says softly.

    "He...that's...that's different," Elise says.

    "Is it?" Julian asks.

    Michael shakes his head. "No, it really wasn't, Elise."

    "Everyone deserves a second chance," Miles says firmly.

    Clay puts his hands up. "Okay, okay, let's focus here. We're going to use the Foundation's portal, I want to keep ARMOR out of this.

    "I'm going to send STRIKE-1 on this since they're the most experienced with extra-dimensional shenanigans. I'm also going to send Childan, since 'uses a bow' isn't going to be impacted by Power Cosmic nonsense."

    Elise stares in disbelief. "Wait, we're going? Are you serious?"

    "Yes," he nods. "Elise, was Kristoff lying about anything he said? He's a smug piece of trash but was he actually lying?"

    She grimaces. "No."

    "Right, I thought not or you would have relished in calling him on his bullshit."

    "But I don't want to go!"

    "Can you think of someone more qualified?" He holds her gaze, awaiting an answer. When it doesn’t come, he continues. "It's an alternate dimension and the end-goal is getting an item of unbelievable cosmic power that will permit the user to perceive all of time and space and traverse realities.

    "That is literally your entire remit."

    Chimera shoots Elise a significant look. He's two seconds from calling you a baby in front of everyone.

    "Nuhh," Elise acquiesces.

    "Mason, Childan seems like a natural choice since his abilities are all...natural," Clay says. Bob gives finger-guns at this. "Anyone else you can think of you want to bring?"

    Nebula raises her hand. "I'm a cyborg. From the sounds of things, nothing about this place is going to affect me."

    Miles nods. "Sounds good, Nebula. Hey Carol, does your power come from...some weird place, or is it innate?"

    Carol shakes her head. "It's photonic power that I absorb from stellar radiation. I'd probably get conked out."

    Julian is pensive. "I think we want to seriously gear up for this. I…think I'll be fine to like, do my mind thing. I don't know that I'm gonna pull the Lazarus act so well, though."

    "...Do I get to take the Final Tesseract?" Elise asks casually.

    Miles stares at Clay. Clay nods at him and looks at Elise. "The objective is bringing the Final Tesseract back here. No trying to use it in the field unless doing so is necessary to bring you home. And only for that purpose."

    Elise nods. "Understood."

    Ryann pinches his nose. But before he vocalizes any objections, he receives a telepathic message from Clay. If you don't have powers, you can take her in a fight. If you do have powers, you still can. If she gets all grabby-hands, take her down. That's an order. Gently, obviously, but knocking her out is on the table.

    Ryann just nods acknowledgment.

    Good lad.

    "We should all gear up from the armory," Miles says. "Powers or no powers."

    "Good idea., Chief," Michael says.

    Clay nods at Susan, then turns to the team. "Alright people, fall out. Susan will give you a lift to the Baxter Building once you've geared up."

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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    edited November 2019
    The team loads up at the quartermaster's. On Niles' recommendation, the team grabs SWORD pulse weapons, some body armor, and universal translators given that it's likely they will encounter aliens aplenty.

    Julian looks at the assortment of equipment and checks his gear. "I don't suppose there's any way we can take a Skycycle with us?" Niles shakes his head and Julian sighs.

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    You have your own cycle, Julian! Stop trying to get a cycle monopoly.

    "I can't believe we're doing this. I can't see this Cube being so worth it we're going to the Clown Dimension," Elise says.

    "It is pretty weird, even for us," Michael agrees as he checks his pulse weapons.

    Nebula says to Elise, "Think of it like this: if it's a total bust, you know where this Kristoff guy lives and you can show up at his house and shoot him in the dick."

    Longbow frowns at Nebula. "...don't shoot people in the dick. That's fucked up. Just kill them or don't. Jesus."

    "That's exactly why you do it, though!" Julian says. Longbow shakes his head is dismay.

    "Sorry, Bob," Elise says, climbing on him for a piggyback ride. "Still team dick shooting."

    "But I'm the fascist asshole," Bob sighs.

    "I've never called you a fascist asshole," she notes.

    "Okay, fair."

    The team finishes gearing up, and meets Susan down in the motor pool. They load into cars, and drive over to the Baxter Building.

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    "Man, weird to think this could be our new HQ,” Julian says, peering up at the building. “Could be. Probably will be."

    "I mean, it does look pretty cool. That's important for an HQ," Julian notes.

    "We've already been prepping space for you guys," Susan says to Elise as the team files out in the underground parking.

    An idea seizes Elise. "Can I drive the Fantasticar?”

    Susan looks at her. "...we'll talk about it after the mission." Her eyes say no. A hard no. Miles nods solemnly at her over Elise's shoulder.

    Julian raises a hand. "Speaking of cool, Susan, I have two very important questions. First, can we take vehicles through the portals, and second, can I blast Silver Machine through the speakers?"

    "No, you can't, so the follow-up question is no, you can't," Susan says. "It's already complex enough to move things through the portal. More mass adds more complexity. Vehicles are right out."

    "Damn it," he sighs.

    Elise takes another tack. "What if I told you that, y'know, that thing I know? I know you know the thing I know. Isn't that a huge relief! We all know that we know the thing. Phew! Almost makes you want to...share the Fantasticar with a young protege you might have."

    "...what thing?" Susan squints. "What on Earth are you on about, Elise?"

    "The...thing? You were worrying about during the meeting?" Elise says, uncertainly.

    "...what?"

    "What?" Elise is equal parts confused and horrified.

    The elevator for their floor opens. "I...we'll talk about that when you get back, I suppose..." Susan says, as she leads them into the lab.

    Jacobkosh on
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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
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    Reed stands at a console near the portal. "Hello everyone," he says. "Susan messaged me while you were on the way. I have accessed ARMOR's database to see if they knew anything about this Mojo character. They do know a bit, it turns out.

    "Not from first hand experience, mind, but from other dimensions they have traveled to that receive broadcasts from 'Mojoworld.'"

    "Oh, cool! Susan said I can drive the Fantasticar when I get back, so hit us with that good intel," Elise says with what she hopes is a winning smile.

    Reed stares at her. "I am neither a telepath nor do I possess your extra-sensory abilities and I still know you are lying." He scratches his chin. "How you were able to be financially successful as a professional gambler is mystifying."

    "What!" Elise switches to pleading. "C'mon, I let you run hours of tests and it was boring, just fifteen minutes in the car!"

    Reed sighs. "Let's move on to something useful."

    Nebula leans over to Elise and whispers, "He didn't say no, remember that for later."

    "Yessss," Elise whispers back.

    Reed regards at the group. "What I have gathered is there is a variety of...programming from Mojoworld. Most of it is oriented around some variety of mortal danger to the participants."

    "Wait...it's The Running Man?" Miles says.

    Reed nods. "That is more or less some of their programming, yes."

    "Oh my god," Miles breathes. "Once again my entire childhood has prepared me for this moment."

    "The what?" Elise is nonplussed.

    "The Hunger Games," Susan whispers to her.

    "Ohhh."

    "Like...high-stakes Takeshi's Castle," Julian offers.

    "Or Smash TV," Miles adds.

    "So the guy who is holding this Final Tesseract went so nuts that he rules a universe that is basically a lethal Legends of the Hidden Temple?" Michael closes his eyes, breathes in and exhales. "Right, okay then."

    "Good reference," Miles nods at Michael appreciatively, and Michael grins back.

    Reed continues. "There's a contest called 'The Mojo Royale.' The person, singular, who survives it is granted something known as 'the Prize.'"

    Elise's eyes light up at that word.

    "You need a sponsor to participate in the Mojo Royale, so that should be your first order of business when you arrive,” Reed adds. “The coordinates we were granted should put you in Mojo City. You will...notice a theme in the nomenclature of the place."

    "Kristoff said there'd be a way to get our abilities back," Elise says. "Any idea what that is?"

    "Yes. There are 'monoliths' in the arena, and if you touch the monolith, you gain your abilities back."

    "Oh my god, like power-ups?" Julian asks. Reed nods, and Julian’s expression turns thoughtful. "I...like, I know it's fucked up, but I feel like this guy has something figured out here."

    Reed holds up a hand. "It is important to note that the Mojo Royale is to the death, and there can be only one winner."

    "Like, death death, or fake death?" Elise jabs a thumb at Julian.

    Julian shrugs. "I mean, if we sponsor me and I hit that monolith, maybe it's no problem. Maybe."

    "We should sponsor me." Elise grins and puffs out her chest. She also grows by a foot.

    "Good luck, puny mortals," Michael laughs, a little maniacally.

    "What do we know about Mojo itself? Is it a he?" Ryann asks.

    Reed nods. "Yes. He's...grotesque. A spineless blob with cybernetic augmentations."

    "Oh, gross, like MODOC,” Elise says with a face.

    "Heyyy, MODOC tries," Michael says.

    "Hey, I got an idea," Bob says. "We should all enter and just do what we did with Kang's contest. We flip the script."

    "Oh, like the end of the first Hunger Games book!" Elise claps. "When Katniss and Peeta have the berries, and they -"

    Susan sighs. "Elise I'm pretty sure we all read the book or saw the movie." Michael shakes his head no at this.

    "I've only seen the first Hunger Games," Ryann says. "A little after my time here."

    "That's all the information I have, if you're ready to go," Reed says. He stretches his arm to press a distant button, and with an almost imperceptible shudder of the room, the portal glows to life.

    The team enters the portal and departs for…the Mojoverse.

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    Mojo!

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    Mojo is presented here more or less as he is in the comics. He’s an alien from a race known as the Spineless Ones and rules an absurdist dimension of TV gladiator games.

    He first appeared as the main villain of the Longshot mini-series in 1986 and was created by writer Ann Nocenti and artist Art Adams. Nocenti, an associate editor at Marvel, was getting her Masters’ at Columbia and had been reading the work of linguist and political theorist Noam Chomsky and legendary media critic Marshall McLuhan, both of whom wrote extensively about television as a medium and its effect on our culture and our perception of reality.

    Mojo, a bloated, whimsically insane, utterly sociopathic being with an endless appetite for mindless entertainment, was a parody of television executives and the Longshot series, which followed the exploits of a refugee from the gladiator slave matches who escapes to Earth, took lots of parodic potshots at media trends. As the character of Longshot ended up hanging out with the X-Men throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mojo and the Mojoverse ended up becoming a recurring fixture of the X-titles, in storylines that often served as a darkly comic respite from the X-Men’s ongoing angsty soap opera.

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  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
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    The city is a mass of chaos. Parts of it are literally alive, with huge living growths. Floating causeways crisscross bazaars and markets that go on for miles.

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    It reminds Freedom Force of Knowhere, taken to an exponential level.

    Elise takes a deep breath and grins. "I kinda like it here."

    Michael looks around, eyes wide. "It sure is a lot."

    "I've seen a lot of places like this, but this one is something...unique," Ryann says, as he assesses their surroundings.

    Longbow looks up in awe. "...dude, is this what space was like?"

    "Better. Xandar fuckin' sucked," Elise chirps.

    "Yeah, seriously. Xandar was like...how do I put it?" Julian adds. "Xandar was like space Singapore, and this looks like...Vegas to the extreme."

    Elise grins. Ryann whirls on her. "By the Force, can't you just stop swinging at my home planet that I was exiled from? Do I have to spell it out like this?" He shakes his head in disbelief.

    Her face falls. "...Oh. Sorry." Julian nods, abashed.

    "X-51, can you analyze some of the local network traffic and give us a sitrep?" Miles asks aloud.

    ...there's a lot going here, Miles. I am...going to take some time.

    Miles nods grimly. Understood.

    As they walk through the market, a huge holographic ad starts up and starts blaring loudly.

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    "I am Rom, last of the Space-Knights of Galador, and I am here to save your world."

    "Oh my god," Miles says, staring.

    A narrator starts talking over footage displayed on a screen. Can Rom save Princess Valeria and the Moon Kingdom of Attilan from the Dire Wraiths?

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    "What?!" Elise shouts.

    Find out next time on:

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    "Wow," Ryann gapes.

    "Fuckin' what?" Michael stares.

    Miles nods. "Sweet logo."

    Nebula looks at the ad, her cybernetic eye glimmering. "That footage...isn't faked. It's not staged. Like...that's a real battle. Those people are in real danger. Rom, that woman, they're not actors. This place is messed up."

    "I wonder if we've ever been a show down here," Michael breathes.

    "Is that...my daughter?" Elise is still staring at the logo on the ad. The woman did have a resemblance to Elise and Crystalia.

    "It could be a Valeria, from any number of alternate realities," Miles points out.

    "That's a good point, we don't know if that will happen to your daughter, Elise," Michael murmurs, as he gently puts a hand on her shoulder.

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    ROM!

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    The real-world origin of Rom is almost exactly like that of the Micronauts: a toy company wants to market a new product line and licenses it for multimedia but hasn’t come up with any backstory yet, so Marvel takes the job of devising a story for the toy, and the task is assigned to truly hack-ass writer Bill Mantlo largely because nobody else wants the job, only for Mantlo - who, I cannot emphasize enough, was genuinely a terrible writer 90% of the time - to suddenly tap into some weird well of inspiration and create a story that outlives the toy that started it by years and years.

    There are a couple of crucial differences, though. Firstly, unlike the Micronauts, which were perfectly fine action figures for the time, the original ROM toy, which had some electronic noises and glowing LED eyes, was a charmless sweaty nutsack of a toy.

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    The other difference is that, while the world and characters Bill Mantlo created for Micronauts was working a fairly straightforward vibe of pulp sword-and-sorcery (the Conan stories had experienced a resurgence of popularity in the 1970s, and Marvel was currently producing a very successful line of Conan comics) mixed with a big dash of Star Wars in a very age-appropriate, wholesome way, a lot like He-Man, Rom was...weird.

    Rom is one of the Spaceknights, the noble defenders of the planet Galador. The human-looking Galadorians have an idyllic society devoted to peace, art, and science, but are attacked by the horrible Dire Wraiths, shapeshifting alien creatures that infiltrate worlds to conquer them (if that sounds familiar?). The Dire Wraiths have ruined world after world and the pacifist Galadorians have no defense against them, but a few brave citizens volunteer to have their brains transferred into robotic combat bodies to defend their world, while their real human bodies are kept safely in cryogenic stasis until their work is done.

    Unfortunately, the Spaceknights are betrayed from within and the Dire Wraiths destroy Galador and the Knights’ sleeping bodies. The Knights are scattered, and Rom crash-lands on Earth, which he soon realizes is the Wraiths’ next target. Now he, a gentle man trapped in the body of a terrifying seven-foot-tall metal robot, has to travel the Earth trying to warn us about the threat of the Wraiths.

    It’s a straightforward enough setup, right? Good guy aliens and bad guy aliens fighting it out on Earth, with the very Marvel twist that the good guys are mistrusted and feared. Marvel would go to a similar place a few years later when they devised the backstory for Transformers. What set Rom apart was the spin Bill Mantlo put on it.

    Firstly, the Dire Wraiths are truly, genuinely horrible. While their menace and general shtick resembles the Skrulls and other sci-fi stories of paranoia and body-snatching (and, in fact, it’s revealed the Wraiths are the Deviant offshoot of the Skrull race), the Wraiths don’t just kidnap someone and take their place; they jab a piercing tongue into the victim’s brain, eat their brain and consume their memories, then become the victim.

    Also, they’re a matriarchal society of witches, so they also have black magic at their command.

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    In an incredibly strange choice for a comic book of a toy, Rom leans hard into this body-horror element. Rom, a peaceful and noble man, keeps befriending Earthlings and falling in love only to watch those closest to him get eaten and his love for them used against him by these horrible gelatinous aliens wearing their skin. It’s incredibly disturbing!

    But the Dire Wraiths don’t have a monopoly on terror. To battle the creatures, the Galadorians outfitted the Spaceknights with two primary offensive systems - the Analyzer, which projects a red beam of light that instantly exposes any Dire Wraith caught in its rays…

    ...and the Neutralizer, which teleports them to Hell.

    Wait, what?

    Yeah, no. I’m not kidding. The Neutralizer “opens a portal to Limbo,” which is, canonically, how Hell is referred to in Marvel. It’s a realm outside of all space and time, a timeless eternal prison where malevolent beings like Mephisto dwell. See because Rom is sworn to pacifism, he can’t kill or injure the Wraiths, so...he just beams them to Hell instead. What a handy loophole!

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    So you put this all together and what you had in ROM was a comic where the hero’s loved ones are eaten by monsters who use his dead friends’ faces to try to trick and murder him. Then Rom exposes them, and as they weep and plead for their lives, he draws the Neutralizer and consigns them to eternal torment. Often this was depicted kind of surrealistically in the art as the Wraith’s true form exiting its shredded human body and spiraling down the page into a pit of flames with a scream of terror.

    It was creepy and horrifying and paranoid. It...kind of ruled?

    For some reason, Bill Mantlo, the guy who wrote half-assed fill-in comics of Spider-Man and Daredevil when the real writers were sick or slow or took a month off, was struck by inspiration when he wrote Marvel’s cheap toy tie-ins. Rom lasted for something like seventy issues - nearly six years of monthly comics - and in its pages he wove this weirdly grandiose, operatic tale of a hero worn down by unspeakable grief and trauma and trying to hold onto his fading humanity as he slowly became an implacable genocide machine.

    Enhanced by the frenetic, bug-eyed art of Spider-Man’s co-creator himself, Steve Ditko, who would still do work-for-hire at Marvel but refused on principle to work on any of the major characters, Rom’s loopy momentum seemed to catch on in the Marvel offices. Much more so than any of the other weird outside property, Rom became fully integrated into the Marvel universe, with the Avengers and the X-Men actually bringing him or the Wraiths into their own books, which for a toy comic is sort of like getting called up to the majors from high school varsity (the X-Men actually used the Wraiths a few times, despite having their own body-horror aliens in the Brood).

    Unfortunately, as with the Micronauts, Marvel lost the license, and in the intervening decade the rights became a tangled nightmare. Marvel retained the copyright to all the elements Bill Mantlo had created, so the Spaceknights, Dire Wraiths, and other original characters and situations created for the comic can appear in Marvel stories...just not Rom himself. Which is a shame, because this loopy, demented, unforgettable story deserves to stay in print. For whatever reason, this is the comic that Bill Mantlo pushed all his creative chips in on, and while it’s no Watchmen or X-Men, there’s nothing else really like it.

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    FencingsaxMatev
  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Moderator mod
    "Monoliths!" They hear someone shout. "Get your replica Monoliths here! Get your very own Monolith and feel the power during the Mojo Royale!" A vendor is hawking replica monoliths, it seems.

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    Miles goes to get a look. What Monoliths look like is useful basic information.

    As it happens, the monoliths look....extremely…2001. Black, smooth rectangles. These ones, the replicas, appear to be made of obsidian, which is actually quite nice and weighty. Julian hums the opening to Also Sprach Zarathustra.

    The prices are given in different currencies. Some are very exotic. One of them is $10 USD?

    "America," Miles grins."Fuck yeah." He pays the money and takes his new office paperweight.

    The monolith vendor looks at the tenner that Miles hands him. "Alexander Hamilton? What the hell is this? This is only worth five," the vendor grouses. "I need another one of these."

    "Only the star of a classic musical," Miles says indignantly, but reaches back into his pocket. "Fine."

    A tentacle reaches out and touches Julian's arm, and the startled Phoenix jumps a foot into the air. "Whoa!" When he faces what touched him, he sees a strange vendor holding up gooey, globular items.

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    The vendor jiggles at Julian, which his universal translator figures out is, "You hungry? Buy Gello! You buy Gello today!" He's saying Gello, with a hard G.

    "How much?"

    With further jiggles, the Gello vendor tells Julian that it's $5 USD for a Gello ball, and he has a choice of drink: Mojojuice, or Mountain Dew.

    "Ugh!! I'll take the Mojojuice." Julian produces a $5 bill and hands it to the squid, who happily takes it and gives him a Gello ball and a Mojojuice. The drink tastes...like Mountain Dew? Julian's very confused.

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    Matev
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