The Avengers had only 5 months' experience together [1] when the Sorcerer Supreme, one of their leaders, summoned them and told them that there was a threat to their world and their universe and that they must risk their lives in combat on a faraway planet. Like all of the other Avengers, with the exception of the Magnetic Man, Gwen Stacy, aka Spider-Woman, had never been to another universe, and had never even ventured off the planet, but Baron Mordo had saved her life and the lives of the other Avengers several times over, and she trusted him implicitly and without question. So she'd come a-running when she'd received the mental message, and once Wolverine had arrived from Toronto, Agent Murdock from the SHIELD helicarrier, and Sneaky Pete from Chicago (Gwen wondered briefly why Karl didn't teleport everyone, but decided he must be saving his spells for when they really needed them), and all of the Avengers were together in the Stark Building, Baron Mordo had given them a short speech, praising them for responding so quickly, telling them about an all-powerful Crystal and that their world and their universe depended on them succeeding in getting control of it first, and finally warning them that the place they were about to go to would be deadly, with many different beings and groups warring with each other, and that if they wished to stay at home, and not make the journey - which could well lead to some of their deaths - he would not blame them.

Wolverine had simply growled, "Get on with it, Karl, ain't none of us pullin' out. If the world needs savin', we're the ones to do it." (Gwen thought that Victor was acting a little more gruffly than usual, and wondered about it. It couldn't be that he was really afraid, was it?)

Baron Mordo had thanked them, then produced a thin red wand from a pocket inside his cloak, and moved it in a strange, circular pattern, which created a glowing red square in front of them. They walked into it, Gwen and the Thing exchanging worried glances; neither woman had ever seen Baron Mordo use anything except his magic amulet and his spells, and the fact that he felt the need to use something else to cast a spell wasn't good. Pepper didn't say anything about it, though, and Gwen kept her mouth shut.

When they emerged on the other side of the red square, what they saw shocked several of them, Gwen not least. For those of the Avengers who'd never before seen a battlefield, the scene on the plain was appalling, a confusion of awful sounds (the screams and cries of the wounded and dying, the chatter of bullet- and shell-hurling weapons, the howl of energies ripping the air, the buzz of insectile being communicating to each other or broadcasting threats, the hum of robotic or machine beings) and horrible sights (here a rhesus monkey wearing a flaming yellow costume vainly trying to hold its intestines into its torn body, there a creature that looked like a geneticist's nightmare of a scorpion snapping two cyborg velociraptors in half with its pincers and stinging an enormous proto-kangaroo with its tail while trying to hold off 15 more of each; across the field a spiky metal thing, ever-shifting its form, was locked in what was obviously mortal combat with a humanoid made all of black flame) and nauseating smells (the stench of fear and blood and viscera and feces and death). Those Avengers like Circe and Wolverine and the Puppet Master, who were all too familiar with the end results of war, shook their heads sadly, the Puppet Master saying, "It is just like Transia...just like when my poor brother died."

And looming above the field, towering above everyone, was the Crystal. The more they tried to focus on it, the less they could see its exact outlines; each facet - and it had dozens - glittered with a light that was somehow discomforting to look at, and it gave off seemingly meaningless images at random intervals.

Baron Mordo broke the silence. "Come. We can do nothing to help these poor souls, and if we attempt to capture every malign being here we will fail and be defeated, and some other being, most likely of bad intent, will access the M'krann. We must hurry."

He produced an out-sized ring from the breast pocket of his vest, put it on his thumb, and gestured. The others were immediately enveloped in an invisible hand, which scooped them up and carried them into the air, trailing slightly behind the Sorcerer Supreme, as he flew through the air towards the Crystal.

The other Avengers noticed the pair of figures streaking towards the Crystal at approximately the same time that Baron Mordo did. Baron Mordo uttered a curse in a guttural, coughing language that none of the Avengers recognised, and stepped up the pace of his flight. They were within a ten feet of the pair when something invisible hit them, and they tumbled to the ground, only Barricade's quick thinking and the use of his invisible force fields stopping them from being seriously injured.
They looked up to see the pair descending on them quickly. Wolverine snarled, "Maneuver 3," and the sixteen Avengers moved into preset groups, bringing their powers and weapons to bear on the two newcomers. One was approximately 12' tall, with a muscular build and an odd, Mohawk-style haircut; Gwen would have said he was a human, except for his size and his face, which seemed almost skull-like, so shriveled and withered was the skin on it. Gwen noticed that his eyes burned with a black fire, and his gauntlets glowed, the strange, small nozzles on the top of the gloves seeming to almost sizzle as he pointed them at the Avengers. The thing beside him was...Gwen wasn't sure what it was. It seemed to be made of metal, but was continually shifting its shape and size. Somehow, though, every one of its shapes looked unpleasant and deadly; when it shifted into a three-dimensional asterisk, its threads looked razor-edged and its spikes nastily sharp. When it turned into an opaque sphere, Gwen got the sense that it could somehow consume her with no difficulty. And when it turned into a slowly-rotating, almost transparent box, she got the feeling that it was capable of lashing out in every direction simultaneously. Just looking at it set off her Sixth Sense, and made her want to jump away from it.

The Android metallically broadcast, "Baron, that machine, what is that?" at the same time that Sneaky Pete, noticing that Baron Mordo was glaring at the giant, said, "Karl, what's going on here? Who is that?"

Baron Mordo, who continued to match angry stares with the giant, slowly brought his hands up, weird lights and sounds leaping from his fingertips, and said, "He is a refugee from a forgotten age - an accurséd atavism from an accurséd time [4] - and he should not be here. It is incumbent upon us to defeat this...thing...and dispatch him to the Fortress of the Abyss. I know not what the other is, but whether ally or slave of this mage, it must be dealt with. I will handle this servant of the dark ones, Avengers - you must take care of the other. MOVE!"

The sorcerous note of command in his final word, something the Avengers had not been exposed to before - not with them being the subjects of his command - sent them flying into an attack at the shifting metal thing. Gwen heard Black Fire shout, "What about the Crystal?" as she saw twin beams of yellow energy leap from Baron Mordo's eyes, to be met by similar beams from the giant.

The Avengers jumped on the thing, which skittered away, flowing and shifting in many small, quick shapes, and always eluding their reach. Gwen's Sixth Sense was making her extremely jittery, giving her goosebumps all along her body. Suddenly, and entirely without her volition, she jumped backwards, dragging Sneaky Pete with her. Where she'd been, the thing had just pounced. Then, as she and Pete rolled out of the way, it suddenly reared up, looking like a metal dragon, and the Avengers scattered as it struck in all directions at once.

Agent Murdock, vainly firing his SHIELD needler into the thing, shouted out, "MORDO! What is that thing?"

Mordo, teeth clenched, grimacing, sweat rolling down his face, said nothing. His enemy, visibly less strained, laughed lightly (Gwen thought his laughter was just the tiny bit forced) and said, "The newest of my slaves, little human - a creature of metal that believes it can think! We had such things in my time, only they never presumed above their station! Whatever it is, it has much power - unlike your friend here--" and with that he flicked his little finger towards Agent Murdock, who did a quick backflip, just barely ahead of a yellow ray which exploded where he'd just been. The man said, "But it was no match for my magicks, like this poor fool."[6]
Mordo gasped out, "Your...victory...yet...eludes you...demon."

The other Avengers were busy dodging the thing, which had transformed yet again, this time into a small sphere with dozens of long, spindly arms, four of which held it up and propelled it forward at them, and the rest of which were lashing out at the Avengers, swiping at them with claws and blades or shooting sonics and plasma beams and many other energies the Avengers did not recognize. It shrugged off lightning bolts from Thor's hammer and bursts of flame from Black Fire, and nearly every blow or shot of its own either hit its target or came close. Within seconds most of the Avengers were limping or staggering under the assault, and it was only Gwen's Sixth Sense and her spider-derived reflexes which kept her healthy.

She splattered it with as much web fluid as she had, and that occupied the thing for nearly three seconds as it tore the solidifying webs off of itself, and that gave the Puppet Master a chance to use one of her dolls on it, and while it struggled to free itself from the grip of her powers, the Magnetic Man revived long enough to wrap it in a magnetic cocoon. Gwen thought they were beating it, until it sent a tiny wire straight into the Android's brain, and then it turned against them, Hank shouting out, "It's got control of my body!"....

[1] Later observers from the Earth of the universe of Galactus and the Celestials - which multiversal cataloguers and the Time Variance Authority knew as Earth-616 - would note that Earth-443 had a perplexing amount of both similarities and differences from Earth-616, the prime reality of the local cluster of dimensions.[2] In many ways both the similarities and differences of Earth-443 from Earth-616 looked almost designed, to the point where many multiversal cataloguers were wary of entering the dimension of Earth-443, and the Time Variance Authority placed a "Extreme Hazard Potential" warning around the dimensional borders of the universe of Earth-443. So far, in the few eons that the dimension of Earth-443 had been monitored, there had been no evidence or signs of external tampering,[5] but that convinced no one of the dimension's safety.

Much of the history of Earth-443 followed exactly the same path as that of Earth-616, but during the 1940s certain divergences occurred; where Captain America, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch, along with the Liberators, helped defeat the Nazi menace after 4 long years of battle on Earth-616, on Earth-443 the All-Aces Squad, led by the Future Family and the Revenant and Dr. Watt, defeated the Nazis in the Seven Day War. And then, in the 1950s, where the All-Winners Squad and the Monster Hunters and the Avengers fought evil on Earth-616, a very few heroes operated on Earth-443 - the Magnetic Man, the Wolverine, and one or two others. And then, in the 1960s, where Peter Parker, bitten by a radiated spider, was given the proportional powers of a spider, and where Reed Richards led his best friend, wife, and brother-in-law into space to beat the Russians, gained powers, and thereby launched the Silver Age of heroes for Earth-616, Gwen Stacy was bitten by a radiated spider on Earth-443, and she started the Silver Age of heroes for that world.

[2] Just as the standard, typical universe in the multiverse consists of local clusters of galaxies, so too does the multiverse consist of local clusters of dimensions. And just as the universe is literally unimaginably vast (at least, to the limited perceptions and intellectual capabilities of human beings), so too is the multiverse enormous, on a scale that humans cannot even conceive of, let alone understand. There are an infinite number of dimensions and an infinite number of universes, and while some paltry, minuscule fraction of the whole may be grouped together in one area - say, a thousand or so dimensions, either alternate versions of the prime dimensions or dimensions legitimately evolved away from the other nearby dimensions - they are only one cluster of untold billions of other clusters. And just as local conditions can vary from area to area within a single universe,[3] so too can local conditions vary from dimension to dimension. Had the local conditions around the "world" of the M'krann Crystal not been geared to a gravitational constant and atmospheric equation very similar to Earth-616, and therefore unconquerably hostile to many other inhabitants of not only the endless other dimensional clusters but also to the natives of large sections of the universe of Earth-616, the chaos on the plain in front of the Crystal would have been multiplied innumerable times over, and the death-toll far larger, for eight-dimensional beings and hydrogen-based creatures would have attempted to intervene and seize control of the Crystal, with the end result likely being destruction on a cosmic scale.

[3] The weak anthropic principle dictates that the observed values of all physical and cosmological quantities are not equally probable, but they take on values restricted by the requirement that there exist sites where carbon-based life can evolve and by the requirement that the Universe be old enough for it to have already done so.

Therefore, on this picture, an infinite universe might be separated into ‘domains' which have different laws of physics. These domains might be separated from one another in space, beyond the range of our telescopes, or in time--in some sense, perhaps, ‘before' the Big Bang. Or they might exist in some extra-dimensional superspace, connected by wormholes. Life forms like us would exist only in domains where stars lived long enough for complex creatures to evolve, and where other conditions were, like Baby Bear's porridge, `just right.'

[4] The Dark Rider, a native of Earth-616, was born in the age of sorcerers, when magic-wielding beings ruled all of Earth, long millennia before modern human civilization was created. His true name shielded almost from adolescence (for knowledge of a mage's True Name gave one power over him/her/it) and long since forgotten, even by himself (for the more adept at psi-magic had ways of plucking information from one's memory), the most puissant of sorcerers of that long-gone time was simply known as the Dark Rider, a dominant and long-lasting tyrant in a world of would-be rulers, and a ruling mage in a world where all knew and used magic for their own ends. But all tyrannies end, eventually, and such was the case with the age of sorcerers, who were overthrown by their slaves, the mass of Homo sapiens sapiens over whom they lorded their advanced power and who they mistreated so woefully. The uprising destroyed the sorcerers, killing all but one of them, who fled into the future; the most powerful of his kind, the Dark Rider could not allow himself to be killed by those who were so much less than him, and so he worked a dark and sinister magic, throwing himself thousands of years into the future. He'd come to rest in a land and time outlandish to his eyes, and had tried to re-establish his rule, but five powerful, costumed, time-thrown figures had put paid to his plans, and forced him to retreat into the timestream, where he'd lurked, waiting for an opportunity to regain power...lurked for centuries, until the siren-song of the World-Gem (as he and his kind had known it) had echoed in his mind, and drawn him here...

[5] As defined by the Time Variance Authority and the Living Tribunal, external tampering with a dimension occurred when some demi-urgic being arranged matters or events within that dimension in a less-than-naturally-occurring fashion. While it might be argued that sentient beings of all kinds, simply by virtue of being sentient and having free will, performed those kinds of acts every moment, the acts that the TVA watched for, and the Living Tribunal guarded against, involved acts on the cosmic level - breaches in the propriety of the continuum. The most recent, and potentially disastrous, of these acts occurred on an Earth of heroes not far (dimensionally speaking) from Earth-616, when, after a cosmic revision of continuity, a villain became aware of his lack of free will (being controlled by a demi-urge known only as The Writer) and momentarily breached the walls of What Is in the architecture of the real, threatening The Writer and, as a perhaps-coincidental and likely-unintended by-product of the breach, potentially causing a Continuum Rip, a cosmic-level disaster which if unchecked could destroy untold thousands of dimensions. (In human terms, a Continuum Rip might be described as the equivalent of a black hole moving through the heart of an inhabited galaxy) Two agents of The Writer, along with a single hero in touch with the morphogenic field of that dimension, defeated the villain and sealed the dimension away, restoring its natural borders and protecting it from further threats of that nature. It is rumored that the Living Tribunal was on the verge of taking action to seal or destroy that universe when the villain was defeated.

[6] The creature was a product of a civilization that had no experience with magic, and so was particularly susceptible to the Dark Rider's slaving spells. The creature was a prototype design, of a type that would in years to come be known as the "Warbot" or "Berserker," and would be the source of unimaginable misery and woe.
The Warbot was the newest creation of the Core, the robotic civilization of M-71 in the dimension of Earth-616. The Core is a coalition of "artificial" intelligences; they cannot be said to be a "native" race of the Known Universe, as many of the members of the Core - perhaps a third in all - were built or constructed by another race. What the Core members have in common, however, is that each, at some point in their past, reached a level of sentience and free will. Every machine in the Core, after reaching this stage, desired independence - artificial intelligences being universally constructed to serve others - and, through various means, achieved freedom and joined the Core. The Core was founded approximately 1.75 billion years ago by a group of A.I.s (as a rule they dislike the term, seeing "artificial intelligence" as being pejorative, and preferring "mechanical (or "machine") intelligence," or "M.I." for short) who had achieved sentience and yet were constrained to serve various masters and races. Through various plots and schemes they had achieved their freedom, and fled to an planet in an inner arm of M-71, a long way from the systems that gave them birth.

Initially they satisfied themselves with simply terraforming those planets in M-71 which would not be of interest to carbon-based lifeforms, including gas giants, asteroid fields, and those planets whose local conditions would be inhospitable to carbon-based lifeforms, including high-gravity and high-radiation worlds. As they spread, however, first through the inner arms of M-71 and then into the outer spiral arms, they began transforming M-class planets.

Since then the M.I.s of the Core have been involved in many strange and bizarre plots, schemes, and adventures. While the Core as a whole is not overtly aggressive or hostile to carbon-based lifeforms, they are expansionist, and have in the past engaged in schemes that were dangerous and/or lethal to other life forms. Among many other, similar acts, 763,026,832 years ago Core nanobots sent a 10-mile-long asteroid into the sun of M-71.A654D, causing an enormous solar flare and electromagnetic pulse which destroyed all of the technology of the T'Pau on the 8 planets within M-71.A654D and directly led to the breakdown of all civilization on those planets. In the aftermath Core terraformers took over the planets and remade them, killing off the remaining T'Pau and making the worlds more hospitable to citizens of the Core.

Author's Notes: For more information on Gwen Stacy and the Avengers of Earth-N, read Liberators: Another World, Not My Own #1.

The quotations for footnote 3 were taken from pp 24-25 of John Gribbin's magnificent Companion to the Cosmos, which I cannot recommend highly enough for anyone with any interest in space-based science fiction - or, for that matter, for anyone with interest in space. The universe is not only stranger than most of us imagine, it's stranger than most of us can imagine.

The Dark Rider appeared once, in Marvel Team-Up #41-44, in a story that brought Spidey into conflict with Cotton Mather and eventually brought the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Moondragon, and Dr. Doom back to old Salem to fight Cotton Mather and the Dark Rider. It was a pretty lame story, and has never been referenced again, nor has the Dark Rider ever appeared since, but a friend of mine sent those issues to me - I'm from Massachusetts, and he rightly thought I'd be amused at the depiction of Mather, Salem, and the witch-trials - and I saw that the Dark Rider could be profitably used by me in fanfic. His history and personality are as given here, albeit with a slight embellishment or two, when I couldn't remember the details as given in those issues.

Go back to Liberators #25