Liberators #24

The End Of All Things, Part One: Armageddon

by Jess Nevins

What has come before: The German sorcerer Der Zauberer, crippled in combat, decided to risk all in a last-ditch effort to heal himself; he performed a rare incantation and journeyed to the planet of the M'krann Crystal. However, this effort was foreseen by many other beings (good, bad, and neutral, but all of them powerful), and they, too, traveled to the M'krann, intent, like Der Zauberer, on claiming and mastering the all-powerful Crystal.

[rated R for language]

Steve Rogers, swimming back to consciousness, blinked several times. The explosion, which he remembered as somehow having come from inside the M'krann Crystal, but not having destroyed it, seemed to have thrown him flat on his back, along with the other Avengers. He slowly rose to his feet, looking around. On the wide plain in front of the M'krann were scattered what looked like hundreds of figures, all gradually awakening.
The Avengers of Earth-994 are, like the rest of their world, talking primates. For reasons that the scientists and archaeologists of Earth-994 still do not understand, the Hominidae family died out quickly, leaving the Pongidae family - apes, gibbons, orangutans, chimpanzees, and gorillas - to further evolve and, eventually, develop sentience and then civilization. Even on this world, however, evil exists, and Pongidaes of goodwill fight it. Years before, the evil gibbon god Loki tried to manipulate metaprimates into fighting his brother Thor, only to have the superprimates team together to form the greatest force for good Earth-994 has ever known: the Avengers!

There was a prolonged moment when it seemed like everyone on the plain, and indeed the universe itself, was drawing a breath, and then everyone started shouting and moving at once. Steve opened his mouth to speak to his team, then squinted at several other figures not far from his team; most of the beings on the plain he did not recognize, but several of those near to him were familiar. Some more than others; some seemed close, but not exactly like those he and the Avengers had fought in the past. But Steve Rogers figured that anyone who looked Stryfe was up to no good, regardless of minor changes to his helmet or armor. Captain America pulled his mask tighter around his head (smoothing the fur that his mask ruffled), slid his shield along his arm, pulled his gauntlets along his large hands, and shouted "AVENGERS ASSEMBLE" to the gorillas and apes and chimpanzees of the Avengers.

All along the plain of the M'krann dozens of figures moved, many running or flying towards the Crystal, others launching themselves at those they saw as their enemies. Plasma bursts and heat rays and concussive beams and energies with no name crackled and surged across the plain. Few of the figures looked up, at the beings hovering over the plain and looking down at it and at the Crystal. Had they seen them, some few of them might have understood that the barely-visible energies that seemed to flow between them; the enormous, red, armored humanoid seemed to be sending long, intricate broadcasts to, and receiving the same from, the human-sized figure with the glowing eyes and the white robes and the large white wings. Others might have noticed the large figure with the huge head, clad in white robes, deep in mental conversation with the purple-skinned humanoid in the green robes, with the large, mostly bald head and the sad eyes. Had the figures on the plain stopped to really look at the bengs looking down on the plain, they might also have noticed the way they seemed to shift in size and space, as if they were only partially there; too, they might also have seen the strange expressions that passed across the faces of the beings. Although they all looked placid and unconcerned, sometimes their expressions seemed to betray a sort of concern, or perhaps, even, worry.

The Conqueror activated his boot jets and shot into the air, gaining speed as he flew towards the Crystal. A black and almost opaque haze was gathering over and around the Crystal, making it nearly impossible to see through. The Conqueror sent a mental command to his armor, and the lenses over his eyes quickly adjusted, magnifying by several degrees, and eventually the Conqueror could just make out shadowy and indistinct figures shifting about; they seemed to be two-dimensional shadows or silhouettes, flowing across the surface of the Crystal. But their actions seemed random and haphazard, and the Conqueror could make no sense of what they were doing. When he sent a query to his armor's computer, the computer accessed its onboard library (stored in quantum bubbles and possessing the knowledge of millennia & dozens of races) for what seemed like an unaccountably long time, eventually returning with the answer that the shadows' actions made no sense.
In the realm of Myth Space, where all myths are real, there spins a world like Earth. This world, designated Earth-1000 by the Time Variance Authority, is similar to Earth-616, but much, much larger, and encompasses all human myths and legends and magic lands. On this world, where different pantheons co-exist - some peacefully, some not so peacefully - the Presence (the One Above All, who created the multiverse and who reigns eternally over Heaven) let it be known to the heads of all pantheons that evil existed even on the Earth of the pantheons, and that that evil must be fought. So the various gods and figures of myth chose a figure from each pantheon to come together and fight evil and vanquish fear. Taking on new avatars and names (for names have power on the Earth of the pantheons), these gods and mortals came together to stop the evil deeds of other, evil beings of myth and legend. These immortal crimefighters are...the Avengers!

The Conqueror, his armor's piloting programs adroitly dodging the energies and missiles and toxic clouds and other obstacles in the sky over the plain, was drawing close to the Crystal when two separate rays struck his armor and brought him back to earth, hard. Although he was momentarily stunned, his armor's defensive systems took over for him, rolling him over and bringing him to his feet, his defensive shields up and his weapons' systems active and tracking. The Conqueror recovered full consciousness as several figures he recognized fanned out in front of him, pointing their weapons and limbs at him. Captain America pointed his magic sword at the Conqueror and said, "Surrender, Conqueror, or face the wrath of the Avengers!" The Conqueror snarled, "NEVER!" and opened fire with his gauntlet weapons and eyebeams. Captain America brought his shield around in time and defended himself, while the Scarlet Witch's spells neutralized the eyebeams. The Conqueror spat a curse in the language of one of his slave-races and leapt forward, his armor growing twelve energy arms which lashed out at the Avengers. Captain America, who had once been known as King Arthur, sighed and waded into combat with the Conqueror as the Swordsman, formerly Siva the Destroyer, parried and struck with his eight arms, and the Avengers fell to battle.

More figures flickered into view on the plain, each responding according to their natures - attacking their enemies or rushing towards the Crystal or helping others. One figure, standing on the edge of the plain, adjusted his tall hat and stroked his beard for a moment, then waved his hands, creating a glowing yellow sphere. From it emerged what seemed like an endless stream of humans, from Neanderthals from the dawn of humanity to 54th century Neo-Pangeans, all armed and all ready for battle. They swept down towards the other figures, making the plain (which stretched out to far horizons on every side) seem suddenly crowded, and filling the air with still more missiles and weapons. Another figure, standing tall in a suit of red-and-silver, brought his hands together and swept them apart, opening a black hole in front of him, out of which stampeded dozens of strange and seemingly-misshapen animals, which looked at the armored figure, bobbed and nodded their heads, and ran to attack everyone else on the plain. Near the base of the Crystal stood a figure, one hand held against the intricate machinery on its chest, seeming to speak to itself; in shades of green, it was clearly a robot, and while it ignored the weapons and energies which bounced and deflected and beamed off its metallic and humanoid body, it was clearly very interested in what was happening on plain itself. Those with superspeed who were close enough to it could hear it speaking to itself at a very rapid pace (those without superspeed hearing its voice only as a high-pitched squeal), and they could also follow its super-fast movements as its head jerked and swivelled around, tracking every movement of every figure on the plain and above it. Although the beings above the plain, deep in discussion with each other, seemed to pay it no attention, it clearly was interested in them, and thought its metal face was expressionless and its voice a smooth monotone there was something about its stance and movements and the way it spoke to itself that betrayed a great curiosity and even uneasiness.

A little over a mile from the base of the Crystal a strange being spun in place, surrounded by dozens of fresh corpses. Each being unfortunate enough to look at it saw it differently; the Neanderthals who had attacked it had seen it as a Tyrannosaurus Rex, while the robotic beings from M-71 and M-59 saw it, respectively, as quintinary code that equated to memory-loss or creeping-intelligence/circuit-dysfunction, and as an enormous metal-eating amoeba. The creature which had slithered up from beneath the City of the Old Ones saw it as an enormous, five-pointed yellow star, and the Zauberer (still in his form of a flaming cyclone, and trying to make his way, unnoticed, to the Crystal) saw it as an enormous Captain America.
Following the successful Moscow putsch of 1992, the new, totalitarian Soviet Union of Earth-607 pursued a hard line and aggressive foreign policy, one that incorporated and used metahumans to an unprecedented (for Soviet history) degree. A severe depression in the mid- and late-1990s in the United States, and the lack of any unified will or response on the part of the United Nations, led to only minor and futile actions to stop the Soviet Union; crime and misery shot up in the United States, and those heroes who once could have stopped the new People's Heroes and the Red Army were busy at home. Then came The Flash, the fusion bombing which destroyed Washington DC and everything around it in a 300-mile radius; of unknown origin, The Flash was never claimed by any terrorist group, and rumors (forever unproven) persist that the USSR was responsible.
The USSR moved in almost instantly, taking control of a shocked and paralyzed US. Bloody rebellion and repression followed, but in five years, with the help of the People's Heroes, the USSR had taken control of North America in toto.
Then the People's Heroes, seeking to make a new reputation and image for themselves, reformed, naming themselves after a group of dead heroes who they'd always respected. Now they fight crime in the Americas and in Asia, representing a government whose other functionaries they often come in conflict with, as...the Avengers.

Only those beings on and above the plain who had True Sight, with which they could see through all deception and illusion and see things as they truly were, saw the spinning being in the same way. They saw it as a spiky thing of glowing white lines whose configuration shifted with every passing moment, and recognized it as the Over-Meme. One of those beings, the human-looking figure with the white robes and the white-feathered-wings and a flaming yellow sword (which seemed to appear and vanish at random moments), looked at it, and for a brief second an expression of what in another being might have been called rage passed across its face. A mental burst from the white-winged being swept across the field, catching a telepathic hero from Earth-609 in the middle of combat and frying his brain. The burst was so strong, and the feelings so intense, that it had actually leaked past the winged being's normally-impenetrable mental shields and broadcast across the plain; those Sensitives with telepathy heard the words "diabolic thought being" accompanied by a feeling of almost dispassionate hatred for the Over-Meme. The winged being looked at the young telepath and glowed, briefly; the hero found himself sane and healthy again, and with an impression (which dwindled even as he reached for it) of ineffable compassion and sadness.

Six figures charged forward, through the ever-growing crowds (cutting down and throwing aside, when necessary, cowboys and samurai warriors and cyborg Guardians from 22nd century Neo-Beijing, and blasting their way through the strange-looking animals which jumped over and tried to block their way every 30 seconds or so), until they reached the spinning being. The lone woman with them stared at the being, then opened her mouth to shout at the others, but was too slow, and saw that they had gone on the attack, and that the spinning thing was somehow attacking all five of them at once. The leader of the six Avengers, seeing the spinning thing as a giant man in a green jumpsuit with a red, shriveled skull, glaring yellow eyes, and twin automatics, leapt and rolled under thing's fire, swept aside with his shield (a white background with one large, red star painted on its center) one down-clutching hand (under his chainmail his flesh goosepimpled as he felt the weight of the grasping hand against the shield), and thrust up into its groin. The second of the Avengers, a large figure in green power armor, exchanged beams and rays with the thing; he saw it as a tall man in red-and-orange armor, and he knew - he knew - that beneath its mask it was taunting him with a smug, self-satisfied smirk. The third of the Avengers, a giant bear, saw the thing as a short, hairy man in orange and brown, with long, gleaming metal claws on its hands, and they came together with an exchange of claw blows and swipes. The fourth of the Avengers exchanged hammer blows and lightning bolts with the figure it saw as the blond-haired god of Thunder. And the last of the Avengers, seeing it as a large, orange, rock-skinned humanoid, rained superstrong punches on it and took them from it.

As the five other Avengers fell back, panting - they had only minimal luck penetrating its defenses, and each took damage in the exchange - the woman finally made herself be heard. She said, "Alexi! Fall back - only I can defeat this thing!" She concentrated, muttering in a sibilant, arcane tongue, and as the thing swept towards her a beam of blue light shot from her hands towards the spinning thing.

As the dozens of battles raged above and across the plain, humans and animals and aliens and Others falling with every passing minute, more beings arrived to observe. Like those figures that seemed to hover in the black skies over the plain and the Crystal, these new arrivals were not so much seen by those on the plain as sensed, and that only imperfectly; those Sensitives on the plain, and those with enhanced senses, and those with magical ability or knowledge, somehow knew that the arrivals appeared differently to each being who observed them. There were dozens of them, arrayed in ranks, and they immediately began a discussion (or so surmised the more perceptive of those who could sense them) with the being who seemed to randomly phase into place in the dirt of the plain; like the new arrivals, the being in the dirt of the plain could only be vaguely glimpsed by the Sensitives and others on the plain. The being seemed to be a giant humanoid face, angled and yellow, who sometimes seemed to have a green hood partially or fully drawn over itself, and sometimes not.

Several miles from the Crystal a thing that looked completely human flew towards the Crystal, clearing a space before it with a continuous stream of energies from its eyes and hands and chest. It drew within three miles of the Crystal when several figures flew up from the ground to meet it. The thing first raked its eye beams across the figures, and then tried to bull its way through, but found that the leader - a tall, costumed humanoid with a red S on his chest - successfully got in the way of his beams, and then, with the help of the others, threw him to the ground.
Earth-23 faced a terrible fate: dozens of superhumans, warring over the ruins of a massive gulag erected on the radioactive dirt of Kansas, were about to be bombed by a multi-megaton nuclear device, in an effort by the United Nations to free the world from the tyranny of amoral metahumans. But the bomb disappeared due to the intervention of a mysterious force who identified himself as "Captain Future," who then let Superman and Batman and those who followed them know of a great threat to their reality (as well as many other realities). So two of the three sides set aside their differences (Captain Future, who seemed hauntingly familiar to Superman, letting them know that he and the rest of the Forgotten Heroes 2 would deal with the rioting prisoners) and ventured forth to take care of the threat , as the greatest team of all time: the Justice League!

The thing flowed backwards, the memory-bearing metal of its body flickering from shape to shape in fractions of seconds, and reassembled itself several feet away from the others, who spread out around it. One of its minor tactical programs counted 42 of them, humans and metahumans, and it quickly ran through several hundred offensive simulations before deciding that it lacked sufficient data to provide a greater than 77% chance of success. The thing decided to use one of its favorite ploys: stalling. It said, "I am Ultron-666. Who are you, and why do you endanger yourselves by interfering with me?"

Three of the figures stepped forward, their expressions neutral but their body language screaming out to Ultron-666's tactical sub-routines that they were the leaders of the group. The lead figure, the one who'd brought him down, said, "I'm Superman. This is the Justice League. The multiverse faces a threat - all of Hypertime is at risk. You're not helping matters. Stop, or we'll be forced to destroy you."

Ultron-666's recognition sub-routines finished a scan of his memory banks and came up with nothing; although many of the 42 figures in front of him bore some vague similarity to other metahumans that Ultron-666 had encountered, heard about, or were in the fictions of its homeworld, the similarities were clearly coincidental, and "Superman" and "Justice League" meant nothing as proper names. Ultron-666's microscopic observation modules, which floated about his head constantly, providing him with 360o of observation, had noticed other figures drawing close to the Crystal and relayed this to Ultron's primary tactical program, which collated the data from his secondary defense programs, which had performed Level Two scans of the 42 costumed figures and calculated their potential power levels and found them to be high - perhaps higher than Ultron-666's. Ultron-666's primary tactical program recalculated its chance for success; the new sum was 32.5%. Ultron-666 shifted from Stall to Evade mode and sent a tiny stream of metal into the ground and drove it under the "Justice League." The head of the metal emerged fifty feet behind the "Justice League," and Ultron-666 then shifted into liquid form and drew himself up to the head of the metal, reforming himself above ground, behind the Justice League, in under a second's time.

Ultron-666 instantly activated his boot jets; his speed was such that, once he got a lead, the "Justice League" wouldn't be able to catch him, and he could reach the Crystal. But a red blur grabbed him before he got a yard off the ground and threw him towards the 42 members of the "Justice League." "Superman" whirled around and punched him into the ground. Ultron-666's primary defensive subroutine calculated the damage from the punch while his tactical program shifted him into two forms which flowed, puddle like, behind "Superman" and then grew into two Ultron-666's, each half the size of the original, both of which moved to flee.

Alerted by Superman's movements, the other Justice League members sprang into action. Red Tornado I leapt forward, saying, "I'll moidalize da bum!" and punched one of Ultron-666's bodies off his feet, directly into Atlas, who grabbed the android and threw him hard into the ground. The other Ultron-666 was blown off his feet by Avia's Mega-Rod, and then was burned by a gout of heat from Phoebus. Ultron-666 primary tactical subroutine decided a shift in tactics was in order and transformed both bodies into two blobs which rapidly flowed together on the ground, and then shot forward, snake-like, along the plain towards the Crystal, moving too quickly for the Justice Leaguers to draw a bead on.

Starman VII flew into the air, followed by Green Lantern VI and Fate; Starman VII drew a bead on the silver river that was Ultron-666 and flexed his gravity powers, pinning the robot down, and then Green Lantern VI used her emerald powers to scoop up Ultron-666 (suddenly caught under the pressure of 20 Gs, Ultron-666's primary tactical subroutine was frantically trying to find a form for Ultron-666 to shift into) and carefully threw the robot into the glowing body of Fate.

Another figure appeared in the sky over the plain, this one looking like a human female in a long, flowing robe, with a headband across her forehead. After giving the events and beings on the plain a brief inspection she turned to the huge red humanoid, whose head, covered in what looked like an enormous cylindrical helmet, was slightly inclined towards the plain. Streams of barely-visible energy leapt from the woman's head and into the red humanoid's helmet; from there it branched out and linked with the other figures above the plain. A missile, sent - by accident, perhaps - flew into the sky towards the female, and exploded; its 14-megaton payload did not touch the figures, and the explosion never reached the plain or the Crystal, seeming to dissipate almost immediately.

A half-mile from the Crystal, a stand-off developed. On one side eight beings, clenched their fists and snarled, while in front of them their leader, a black-haired, glowing-red-eyed man in silver armor, wearing an arrogant sneer, glared at the seven figures opposite them. Six of the seven figures, in matching black uniforms, were all clearly human, the seventh being what looked like a helicopter of some kind. The eight beings, on the other hand, were of an astonishing (to the seven) variety of beings, some - like their leader - human, and some clearly...not. One looked human, but had long metal claws and wild, glaring eyes, and was crouched, frothing at the mouth, restrained only by a chain that the leader of the eight held. Another was a tall, battleship-grey robot with a skull-face. A third was clearly human, but clad head to toe in what looked like an incredibly advanced suit of armor. And another was...the seven didn't know what to call him. He was nearly seven feet tall, with gray hair, grey skin, and grey eyes, fangs, and grotesquely overmuscled - and his hands were glowing yellow.

The leader of the eight said, "You are from an Earth I have not yet encountered, and you are clearly no match for my Guard, and yet there may be room in the Gatherers for you yet. Join me; the alternative is your destruction. But as members of my Gatherers you would have access to the spoils of many Earths."

The leader of the seven, who carried a red and white striped shield with a white star at its center, and who had an American flag on the chest of his black uniform, opened his mouth, paused, and then said, "Would you excuse me for a moment? My friends and I need to discuss this." He turned and gathered his team together as his opposite on the eight sighed impatiently.
Earth-11 is one of those worlds known to dimensional travelers and to cataloguers of the multiverse as a Fallow Earth; that is, while humanity develops in the usual ways, there is a distinct lack of the advanced, esoteric, and generally marvelous energies & scientific principles that make so many other worlds interesting and interesting and/or dangerous to visit. On Earth-11 the square-cube law works, so that beings cannot grow to giant size, for their limbs will collapse under them. On Earth-11 exposure to radiation never brings super-powers, only radiation poisoning. On Earth-11 flight can only be achieved mechanically. On Earth-11 telepathy and ESP are only fantasy. On Earth-11 there are no superheroes. But there are heroes. In 2010 on Earth-11 a group of teenagers and young adults - Generation Z, as they are called by the mass media - decide that they are going to fight crime in their neighborhoods by modeling themselves on comic book heroes, naming themselves after them. They use real science, fight real criminals, and achieve real gains. They are the Avengers.

The teenager who called herself "Tigra" whispered, "Steve...are these...?"

"Hawkeye" spoke before "Captain America" could and said, "Katie...I don't know who else they could be."

The woman calling herself "the Wasp" said, "Oh, god. You mean--"

The man inside the helicopter-like machine, hovering in the air not far above them, broadcast to them via the ear-receivers in their helmets, "We're up against real supervillains. We're fucked."
"Tigra" said, "Oh, Jesus. That's Blastaar, Ultron, Dr. Doom...oh, Christ."

"Thor" said, "How the hell are supposed to deal with--"

"Captain America" said, "Enough." The others, hearing the note of command in his voice, fell silent, as they always did when he spoke like this - he'd founded them, after all, and was the best of them. He whispered, "I don't know how we got here. I don't care. That's Proctor. He's the bad guy, and we're heroes. I think that's the M'krann Crystal up there - and he wants it. You've all read the X-Men - you know what it can do. We can't let him. Right?"

Slowly but surely, the others nodded. "Captain America" said, "Right. This may kill us - but we gotta try to stop him or slow him down. Okay - everyone with me?"

The others nodded again, some swallowing convulsively and sweating, some merely looking pale but resolute. "Captain America" nodded and smiled and said, "I knew I could count on you.'s what we'll do."

After several more seconds of watching them whisper urgently to each other Proctor finally gave in to his growing irritation - how dare these little humans even consider resisting? - and said, "I want your answer. Now." He spared a glance for the Crystal - although many figures (some he recognised) were rushing towards it, no one had yet reached it, and so there was still time for him - and then turned back to the seven faux-Avengers facing him.

The one dressed as Captain America turned to him and said, "Just one more second, please" and then turned back and continued to whisper. The Proctor shrugged and exhaled with irritation. Ultron-14, behind him and to his left, suddenly straightened up and said, "Warning! Posture analysis reveals--"

"Captain America" and his "Avengers" suddenly dropped to the ground as the helicopter-like being (on whose side the Proctor suddenly glimpsed the words "Iron Man" neatly stenciled) hovering in the air above them shot backwards and up several yards and opened fire. The minimissiles and .90-calibre bullets struck the Proctor and his seven Gatherers before any could react. The Proctor, like several others, was not seriously harmed by either the bullets or the explosions of the missiles, but the force of both threw all of them off their feet. The Proctor, of course, never let his personal force field drop, and so he was not permanently harmed by "Iron Man"'s fire, but "Iron Man" continued to rake Proctor and his Gatherers with machine-gun fire, and the hammering impact of the bullets punched the eight further into the ground.

Finally the Proctor managed to struggle to his feet against the force of the bullets. Seeing this, "Iron Man" ceased fire. The Proctor looked at his Gatherers and found himself shocked and enraged - these humans had killed Arkon, the Goblin, and the Wizard, and the others were only slowly regaining their feet! He whirled around, shouting "KILL THEM!"--

--and saw the "Avengers," already on their feet, firing darts at him and the others. The Proctor snarled as the darts bounced off his forcefield, but the darts made contact with Blastaar, Gambit, and Wolverine, who, still stunned, to various degrees, by the explosions and the impact of the bullets, were slow to react and could not dodge fast enough to evade the darts. The darts, shot from the tasers of the "Avengers," carried several thousand volts each, and instantly knocked out Gambit, stunned Wolverine and impeded his healing ability a great deal, and hurt and outraged Blastaar.

Proctor cursed in the fluid, vivid language of the Timorese (the second world he'd conquered had been dominated by the Timorese, and he'd spent a relatively long time there - the world had had very few superbeings, and he'd had to conquer them the hard way, and he'd been there long enough to pick up their tongue) and leapt forward, intending to throttle all of the "Avengers" himself; Blastaar and Dr. Doom were right behind him. Ultron, arms raised, began to fire his encephalo-beams and plasma weapons but found his line of fire blocked by the Proctor; his programming instantly kicked in and he held his fire. He heard "Iron Man" send a band-wide broadcast, "HELP!" but the broadcast was too quick for him to block.

"Captain America" threw a flash grenade in front of Proctor, Dr. Doom, and Blastaar, who reflexively jerked backwards. A large, unwieldy arrow hit Blastaar in the chest. He spat and ignored it, but then the wires running from the cylinder on the arrow to the small box on the back of "Hawkeye" carried the electrical charge to Blastaar's body, and the 50,000 volts threw him off his feet. Proctor reflexively turned his head to look at Blastaar, and then "Tigra" hit him at the knees and "Captain America" hit him on the side of the head with his shield. The impact didn't hurt very much, but it knocked him over, and "Captain America" kicked him once he fell, driving his head further into the ground. The "Wasp," her jetpack keeping her some feet above the ground, continued to fire tasers from her gauntlet "stingers" at Dr. Doom, and "Thor" followed suit with the taser-launcher in his "hammer." Dr. Doom was forced to keep his forcefield up, which kept him from using his weapons on the "Avengers."

"Iron Man" began flying higher up into the sky and away from the "Avengers," and Ultron dismissed him as fleeing - which was the logical thing to do, he thought, for "Iron Man" - and turned and began aiming his weapons at the "Avengers." "Iron Man" instantly opened fire again with his minimissiles; Ultron got his forcefield up in time, having detected the laser that "Iron Man" used to sight his weapons systems, but the impact again threw him off backwards, off his feet. "Iron Man" kept up the stream of fire, alternating between missiles and .90-calibre bullets, which continued to punch Ultron into the ground and throw him farther and farther backward. Ultron heard "Iron Man" resume broadcasting his "HELP!" and dropped his forcefield, to jam the broadcast, but "Iron Man" quickly shifted his aim and sent both bullets and missiles into Ultron's head. The missiles, guided by pocket-lasers, streaked forward into Ultron's head and destroyed one "eye" before Ultron got his forcefield up again. "Iron Man," noticed that Wolverine was slowly climbing to his feet and beginning to move towards his friends; "Iron Man," inside the craft that was his "suit," rapidly punched several buttons. Wolverine, picking up speed, felt something burst in the air over his head and coat him with a greasy, familiar-smelling liquid. Had he been fully conscious and coherent, he would have known what was coming, but the Proctor had long ago put a Deviant brain-spike in his forehead, which reduced him to a constant berserker rage, and so he didn't recognize the smell of gasoline.

The burst of napalm that "Iron Man" sent into Wolverine very gratifyingly reproduced a fuel-air bomb explosion and threw the burning Wolverine many feet to the side, rolling in a futile attempt to put out the liquid fire clinging to his body. "Iron Man" snorted, satisfied, to himself; let Wolverine's healing ability deal with that.

"Hulk," meanwhile, judged the moment right and began using his feet and steroid-fed leg muscles to keep hammering the Proctor's head into the ground, and "Hawkeye" kept putting taser-arrows into Blastaar, never giving him a chance to fully regain consciousness or balance.

Unfortunately, all of the "Avengers" ran out of taser-darts and taser-arrows at the same time that "Iron Man" ran out of minimissiles, and were forced to back off as Doctor Doom, Blastaar, and Ultron ran forward and helped Proctor out of the dirt. He turned, slowly and ominously, his face awesome in its rage, continually flexing his fingers and breathing very heavily. He eventually said, in a low voice, through gritted teeth, "You will join my Gatherers - your ingenuity and training will be a great advantage to us - but only after a hundred years of torture. Which I will personally lead." He and Blastaar and Doctor Doom raised their hands at the "Avengers," who were spread out, crouched defensively and obviously ready to dodge. Ultron's arms were tracking "Iron Man," who was performing evasive maneuvers in the air over the plain but was nowhere near fast enough to dodge Ultron. Proctor looked at Doctor Doom and Blastaar and said, "Wound them only; I want them alive." He then turned to the "Avengers" and said, "Any last words?"

"Captain America" smiled and said, "Yes. Duck." The Proctor had only a second to puzzle over this when he heard a voice singing the words, "Here I come to save the day!" Something brutally strong hit him between the shoulderblades and drove him several feet into the ground, and he felt a sudden strong wind, and then Ultron and Doctor Doom and Blastaar were thrown down on top of him. They looked up, and saw a four-foot tall, over-muscled humanoid mouse grinning down at them. The mouse said, "No evil-doers triumph while Mighty Mouse is on the job!" In the background the Proctor heard "Captain America" say, "I told you someone would come if we called."

The figures above and underneath the plain, all of them expressionless, continued to exchange streams of energy. Eventually the beams began to flow to a center point, above the plain, where they gathered in a pale, glowing ball. The ball built slowly until it was roughly the size of a small moon, or so it seemed to those on the plain who looked up and watched it; nearly all saw it grow in size and shape, but also knew, somehow, that it wasn't really there, at least in any terms they could understand - it was over the plain and at the same time only an illusion. The ball then rolled forward into the Crystal. In response an enormous robot stepped forth from the Crystal and began stomping its way towards the mass of battling figures on the plain.

It got only two steps when a horrible Thing rose up from the plain and engulfed it. The organic metal that made up the robot seemed to melt under the touch of the Bad Thing, which waved the tentacles of its face at the beings over the plain. The face of the Thing, half-human and half-squid, betrayed no expression that any human would have recognised, but those with the True Sight could easily read the Thing's malign self-satisfaction as the metal of the robot's face twisted into an expression of unbearable agony and then dissolved, with the rest of its body. Those above the plain remained expressionless, but something about the posture of the more human-looking figures expressed anger, and fear.

Nine figures ran and hovered across the plain towards the Crystal, occasionally halting to let dozens of soldiers or long files of rabid, angry animals run by them; the nine, though roughly human in appearance, were just different enough that most sentient beings and animals knew to avoid them. Those that didn't quickly discovered the mistake in their thinking. The nine only briefly paused to observe what was going on around them, instead focussing almost solely on the Crystal. Those among the nine who wanted to fly ahead did not; by now there were so many projectiles and energy beams and obviously hostile beings flying through the air that getting too far above the ground was a sure way to get killed.
Acts Of Vengeance, as organized by Loki on Earth-621, succeeded. The heroes died - all of them, Loki being quite...thorough. The villains and criminals then ran rampant, provoking a backlash from the normals, and leading to a state of war, literally and figuratively, between humans and metahumans, with tens of thousands of ordinary humans dying and atrocities committed on both sides. And, after a time, certain criminals, guilt-ridden over what they and/or their companions had done, banded together to form a group dedicated to stopping the warfare by hunting down and stopping - by whatever means necessary - their former comrades. Taking the name of their most admired and respected opponents of old, they are...the Avengers.

They stopped in their tracks when two figures flew over their heads. One was a 10 foot tall cyclone of fire, its open end faced towards the Crystal; the other was a muscular and powerful-looking man in a blue costume with a red cape and a red S on his chest. One of the nine, a yellow cloud that continually flashed with tiny white and yellow sparks, said, "We have to take them down."

The leader of the nine, a lithe men of average height, wearing a crimson uniform and carrying a red and white shield with a white star on it, smoothed out the points of his mustache and said, "How zo, mon ami?"

The voice crackled from the cloud. "We just do, Batroc. Take my word on this."

A third member of the nine, a squat man in a thick green jacket with thick, square goggles and a long yellow pole which he carefully held in both hands, grunted and said, "How do you expect us to get him, Jackson?"

A fourth member, wearing a red, scaled costume with a long orange cape, of the group said, "I'll take them, Harvey. Jackson, get ready." He snapped his cape around and disappeared with a snap.

He reappeared a foot above the body of the man in the blue costume, dropped on top of the man, then whirled his cape around and the pair disappeared before the man could react. He reappeared back on the ground and jumped off the man, who let out an incoherent snarl and whirled around. Another member of the nine let fly and wrapped the man up in a barbed net at the same moment as the squat man jabbed their target with the end of his staff. The others watched, expecting their target to fall down - those shocked by the Mole Man's staff always did.

Instead, the man howled with anger, flexed his arms - shredding the net like so much wet paper - and flew forward, shockingly fast, at the nine. Before he reached them the largest of the nine - orange, muscular, ugly and hairy - jumped forward and swung his right hand into the fist of the oncoming man.

The impact threw the man in blue backwards and produced a resounding boom that echoed across the field, drowning out many of the other sounds. The man in blue recovered in mid-air and flew back towards the nine. This time they could see the frothy white spittle trailing from his mouth, and the more acute among them could hear him muttering "littlebugsinmymindlittlebugsinmymind... they'reinmymindlittlebugschompchomp." He came back and tackled the orange figure who'd hit him, and together they rolled across the ground, exchanging powerful punches that hurt to look at. The orange figure shouted, "HA! At last Ulik has found a worthy foe!"

The other eight looked at each other. One of them, who seemed to be a mobile pile of sand, said, "Think we should help Ulik?"

The sparking yellow cloud said, "We have concerns of our own, Will." A green-clad arm solidified from the cloud and pointed to the sky, where the flaming whirlwind was descending upon them. The eight spread out, and the mini-tornado of fire landed and spun in place for a moment. Finally a voice emerged from it, one that all of the nine took an instant dislike to; it said, with obvious irritation bleeding through its British accent, "Always the 'heroes,' you never think about what you do." It paused a minute, and then said, in a voice increasing in volume and anger, "Do you think me so powerless that you can take my slave away from me? How DARE YOU?"

The pile of sand, now in the shape of a man, muttered, "Uh-oh," and the other seven figures shifted in place, but they were not quick enough to dodge the fireballs that flew from the cone of fire at them. Each went down, screaming in pain, the flames of the fireballs burning their minds and souls more than their bodies. The small whirlwind chuckled evilly and said, "Do you regret what you've done now?"

The eight slowly and shakily got off the ground, on to their hands and knees. The whirlwind cackled again and said, "Apparently so. Do you have any final pleas for mercy?"

The squat man in green fumbled for his staff and grabbed it. He ignored his trembling hands and turned the staff on the whirlwind, and touched three buttons along its side. A cone of high-powered ultrasound leapt from the staff, and the whirlwind shuddered sideways several feet, snarling in pain. The leader of the eight overrode the pain in his body and leapt to his feet; he shouted, "AVEN-GAIRS ASSEMBLE!" and, not noticing the peculiar looks that his shout drew from other figures and groups around him on the plain, ran to help Ulik while the others moved to attack the cone of flame.

In the space around the world on which the M'krann Crystal sat two new beings arrived simultaneously. They were enemies of old, and recognized each other immediately. One, a black hole whose intelligence resided in the stratified semi-solid energy flows that continually circled the consuming maw of its singularity center, sent a coded burst of staggered x-rays towards the other; the x-rays translated to a series of symbols of their last serious battle, five centuries ago along the galactic rim of Andromeda, along with a group of insults untranslatable and meaningless to any non-space-traveling sentient. The other, a being that looked like an small, old, meteor-scarred moon, sent back a long, intricate message on the 26th alpha wave band, comparing the black hole to various interstellar scavengers (including the widely-loathed rodential Swarms) and reminding the black hole of the inconsequential results of its last attack. The black hole responded by leaping forward at the other and attempting to draw it beyond the event horizon of its gravity; the other sent back a laugh and flew circles around it.

Eventually the black hole gave up and moved closer to the world of the M'krann, focussing its gravity on the world and attempting to consume everything on it as a way to gain control of the Crystal. It quickly found that something - perhaps the cosmic-level beings hovering over the M'krann, which the black hole could see clearly only when it focussed all of its senses on them - was blocking its gravity, and deflecting it around the M'krann's planet. It shifted tactics and flew forward, deciding to let its gravity well and event horizon do the work for it. The black hole found the going extremely difficult - again, it was sure that the beings around the planet were somehow slowing it down - but struggled forward anyhow, intent on the prize.

The thing that looked like a moon sent the black hole a contemptuous message and settled down to wait for an opening. Over the long millennia it had learned patience, and its memory banks held all there was to know of tactics and strategy, and it knew that a direct confrontation with the Powers observing the battles on the Crystal would be suicidal. And so it resolved to wait; it had all the time in the universe, and even if the Crystal ended up in the hands of one sentient, or even a group of sentients, it knew that it could defeat them and seize the Crystal before the other Powers could act.

A scant 300 yards from the Crystal several dozen figures squared off against each other, hand and eyes and bodies glowing with diverse energies. The air between them was thick with mutual distrust and loathing. The two groups had materialized on the plain within feet of each other, and both had taken an instinctive dislike to each other. They'd separated into two sides and drawn together into the groups and teams they were most accustomed to; those with True Sight and/or magical knowledge on both sides who'd tried to glean information about the other side were repelled by what they learned. Both sides, intent on the other and waiting for the other to do something, anything, so that they could in clear conscience attack, did not notice the pale white light coming from the Crystal and illuminating them. They didn't smell the cordite and ozone and blood and the dozens of other smells washing across the plain. They didn't hear the screams and explosions and the battlecries and the endless other sounds that are common to every battleground. They concentrated on each other, their hatred deepening with each passing moment. Finally three figures from each side raised their hands in what was clearly meant to be a peacemaking gesture, and walked forward, meeting halfway between both sides.
Earth-666 is only a decade or two in the future of Earth-616, but those decades are bad ones, for almost all that the heroes of Earth-616 fought for were betrayed by their children in this world. The older heroes of Earth-666 finally came out of retirement, to rein in their rogue scions, but this attempt, exacerbated by the schemes of certain villains, led to a massive conflict, one that the humans of Earth-666 attempted to stop by means of a powerful nuclear weapon. Saved from the nuclear devastation of SHIELD's atom bomb - saved by the hand of a mysterious, unknown benefactor, who swapped skeletons with their bodies at the moment of detonation - the children and heirs of the current heroes of Earth-616, and certain new heroes and heroines, were shown (again, by this unknown benefactor) what their behavior and actions had finally led them and the world to, and were sobered into changing their ways. Now devoted to doing good and fighting crime, they have taken on the name of the greatest team of heroes to ever walk their Earth: the Avengers.
"Perfidious Albion," Napoleon called it, and after 1940 all of Earth-593 found how true this description of England was. Pressed hard by the Nazi armies, the English troops fleeing for Dunkirk were rescued by a miracle: the intervention of 41 British super-men, all previously unknown to the public. They went on to crush Germany and the other Axis forces in a matter of days. Then, deciding that they and their superiors in the British military knew best, they went on to conquer the rest of the world, making the Empire the one true power in the world - a sprawling United Kingdom on whom the sun truly never set - and reinstituting the Pax Britannia. From there they spread through the galaxies and across the dimensions, bringing the "enlightened rule of the Crown" to world after world and universe after universe, despite the resistance of the natives. Unstoppable, and feared in the dozens of dimensions and thousands of worlds in and on which they have established the "United Kingdom of Worlds," they are the pride of the Empire; they are Albion's Crusaders.

The three from the more numerous side stopped first, their leader - a tall, lithe, muscular blond man with a close-cropped haircut and a skin-tight blue costume - looking at his two companions - a blond man wearing sandals, a winged metal helmet, and the white robes of a ancient Greek, and a shorter man in an overcoat, whose fedora, pulled low over his face, did not entirely block out his glowing eyes - and then sneered down at his opposite and said, in a Home Counties accent, "We claim this world and the Crystal in the name of His Royal Highness King William the Fifth. We formally demand your surrender; any resistance will lead to your destruction and those of your loved ones." He said this with the bored manner of one who has made similar speeches endless times previously and who expects that, since his words were never listened to before, that they will not be listened to now.

The three opposite him took a moment to absorb the deeper meaning of their enemy's words. The leader of the three, a tall, athletic, handsome blond man in his twenties, wearing a workman's suit, glanced at his companions for a moment; one, a slim and muscular woman with cafe-au-lait skin, an outfit with a plunging-v-neckline and a hood that covered her eyes and nose but left her mouth free, shook her head in a barely-perceptible way. The other, a strikingly-beautiful woman with long, flowing white hair and a red and black half-cloak whose design seemed to swim and shift as it was looked at, frowned and sighed. The blond man shook his head with obvious regret and said, "I'm sorry to say, Overman, that we just can't do that."

His opposite looked surprised for a moment, and then, now obviously paying attention, said, "You've heard of us, then?"

The blond man opened his mouth, but said nothing for a long moment, finally saying, "Yes. I...know of your history."

Overman said, curiously, "Then you know that we have never been defeated?"

The blond man nodded sadly. Overman said, "Come, come, then, surely - what is your name?"

The blond man looked at the women beside him and nodded, and they started walking back to their allies. The blond man turned back to Overman and said, "My name is Franklin Richards - and, no, I'm afraid we can't join the Crusaders."

Overman exhaled and shook his head. "Surely you see the benefits of the Empire? The civilization that we would bring you? We are more enlightened than any other race, we British - is that not obvious?"

Franklin Richards shook his head, slowly and sadly. "No, I don't. We like our civilization just fine the way it is,, I'm sorry. We can't."

Overman said, "You know we will slaughter you, don't you? And once Wish and Avatar alert New Halifax II, the armies of His Royal Highness will be brought here and sweep the field; there are many powerful beings here, but none that can withstand British armies and cold British steel. Don't you wish to save your friends? I can guarantee that you will be treated as well as British citizens, as long as you do not resist."

Franklin Richards shook his head again and began walking back to his friends and allies. Overman said, in a louder voice, one that carried to both sides, "One last chance, Richards - if you surrender now you will not be harmed. If you attempt to resist us, you will be killed, and those of your friends who survive will be sent to the diamond mines at New Kimberley, to work to your death alongside the wogs and the niggers."

Overman's final words had the opposite effect that he'd desired; Franklin Richards stiffened, and the faces of Richards' allies grew angry. Overman, mystified, shrugged and waved his right hand forward, saying, "Crusaders - attack, for King and Country!"

The beings looking down on the plain and observing the many battles were motionless for a long time, the energy flows between them slackening off. Although the fights on the plain increased in pitch and violence, with casualties mounting all around them, those above and below the plain seemed to be waiting for something, although none on the plain could tell what.

Meanwhile the Liberators, two miles from the Crystal, huddled together, momentarily protected by one of Monako's spells, and held a quick and hurried discussion about why they were there, and what to do.

Author's Notes:

I've always loved Alternate Earth stories. I think they provide writers and readers with an opportunity to see how familiar places and characters in a different light, or to see how they might have turned out if various things are different. And as a writer they're a lot of fun to write, because it gives you a certain amount of freedom with various characters that you might not otherwise have, if you are stuck with continuity.

Which is what gave rise to this story. I've dabbled in Alternate Earth stories before, or at least alluded to them (see Breeze Barton's passage in Liberators #13 for a riff on the world he came from, and how it ties in to a certain obscure 1970s Marvel hero). But I wanted to do an all-out, full-bore Alternate Earth Marvel superhero story, and (me being me) I wanted to make it big (too big) and inclusive (as many Earths as I could come up with) and impressive. And since Liberators #25 is around the corner, I thought I'd make it so that it coincided with the 25th issue, which once upon a time in comics was a special thing.

So...this is my Alternate Earth story. 20 Alternate Earths, 481 (at last count) characters, and a fight for all the marbles. I know that the issue of the X-Men in which the M'krann Crystal debuted said that nobody had been on the planet of the M'krann for untold centuries, or somesuch Claremontian hyperbolic nonsense, but I think it's fair game to dismiss that.

That being said, if the M'krann is so all-powerful, being able to affect not just one universe but all of them, why hasn't anyone tried to make use of it? Oh, sure, it's got its guardians - but if the Phoenix could defeat it, surely others could, as well? This story will address that.

Understand that the numerical designation for the Earths (Earth-994, Earth-607, etc) is not my idea; it's a Claremontian invention from the pages of Excalibur (Chris Claremont: everything he touched, he made lame), with Earth-Marvel being Earth-616. All else being equal, I'd rather not be stuck with this system for the Marvel multiverse - it works well for DC, but I think Marvel can and should do something different. But I am, so I'm running with it. In the Author's Notes of the last issue of this story (which will in all likelihood by Liberators Annual #1) I will give a list of the new Earths and what's on each of them.

By the way, the Earth-Prime Avengers are my attempt at creating a "real life" group of superheroes. Given how much and how fast science is advancing in the real world, and what I think will be the very real development of nanoscience in the next decade, I think it is quite possible that a group of teenagers in 2010 could have this group of weapons, and could make themselves into "superheroes." I don't think such a thing would happen in real life, since the bad guys would have equal or greater access to weapons, and being a vigilante in real-life is not only staggeringly dangerous but extremely discouraged by the police - but it could happen. (I have, of course, given all of the seven Earth-Prime Avengers weapons and equipment that I think will be possible in 2010 of our own world) And lest you object that Proctor et al were taken too easily, consider this: most villains aren't bulletproof, and if they're taken off-guard, and shot - especially by a heavy-duty Air Force attack `copter machine-gun - they're going to die. Too, most comic book villains & supervillain groups don't use teamwork or tactics, so that even underpowered heroes with good tactics and training - which the Earth-Prime Avengers have - can fight much more powerful villains to a standstill, or even beat them. Training and teamwork and tactics aren't shown enough in comics, but they are powerful weapons, if properly used (for a good example of this, look at the sequences in Hitman where the SAS wade through everybody).

Our Cast:

I'll be listing Our Heroes in the various sidebars. What I'll do instead here is list the villains, some of whom are obscure and may be new to you, and some of whom are my creation.

Conqueror - an alternate of Kang. Kang's never really inspired me, frankly, mostly because I've never really seen him handled well (although Busiek's doing a decent job of it in Avengers Forever). I've always thought that Immortus & the Scarlet Centurion & Pharaoh Rama-Tut were better. But, still, none of them particularly lit my fire. So I decided to make my own alternate of Kang, one with a personality I like better than the relatively-simplistic Kang (although, again, Busiek's done a not-band job of him in Avengers Forever). Where he's been all this time is another question, however.....

Over-Meme - a "meme" is an information pattern which is contagious and which propagates itself by replicating, parasitically, in the minds of human hosts, and which causes them to alter their behavior so that the pattern itself can be further propagated. A typical meme is something like a slogan, catch-phrase, popular melody, or icon. The song-stuck-in-your-head syndrome is an example of a meme at work.

The thing fighting the Avengers from Earth-Soviet is the Over-Meme (my own creation, though influenced by David Brin's Heaven's Reach); it's from the galaxy of Fornax, where it has conquered many star systems and peoples. (Perhaps the Xartans tried to conquer Earth because they were driven from their homes by the Over-Meme?) It represents the concept of predation, which is going to seem to be different things to different people.

Proctor. The alternate universe version of the Black Knight who memorably gave the Avengers a run for their money a few years back. Yeah, I know he was dealt with there - but I don't see why that precludes him from hearing about the M'krann Crystal and trying to take it over. Moreover, even though it's 1943, Earth-MV1-time, we know that Proctor had a captive Watcher as his prisoner, and that would, in my eyes, provide him with enough power to travel in time and space. As for the eight he brought with him...well, if you grant that Proctor has been traveling from Earth to Earth, killing Sersis and capturing alternate versions of the Avengers, then it just makes sense that he would have taken versions of other characters, too, and brought them into the Gatherers. And, frankly, the team that he assembled to go after the Avengers was just not that impressive - of all the characters to gather, why them? I like my team much better, frankly.

Stryfe - introduced in X-Men as the clone of Nathan Dayspring, aka Cable (the child of Phoenix & Cyclops), with pretty much the same weaponry & equipment. We know that Stryfe can time travel, and he's a somewhat crazed nutter, so this is the sort of shindig that he'd crash.

Ultron-666 - I don't know from when, exactly, he comes - probably a century or so in the future - but if you're going to have a major dust-up with the major powers of the Marvel Universe, you pretty much have to include a version of Ultron. He's just made of liquid metal and a lot more advanced than the other versions of Ultron we've so far seen; which reality he comes from is uncertain, though.

Next issue: The End Of All Things, Part 2: Apocalypse Then.