Powers Cosmic #4
Written by Janus and Morfex, Edited by
(Note: This follows Powers Cosmic #1, #2, and #3)
Powers Cosmic #4
Voracity, Chapter Four: "The Enemies of My Friends..."
Starglow was alone.
Below, Terrax remained a prisoner on a once-verdant globe, now stripped dry of that rare potential for life. With no means of communication to the surface, Shalla Bal knew that Terrax could not aid her in the task to come. They had combined to push their powers far past their previous limits just to create a penetration in the new barrier large enough to pass through. It was not an occurrence that could happen twice. The price was too high.
Her teammates, the Silver Surfer, Firelord, Air-Walker, and Nova had all been driven mad with the Hunger of Galactus, and had departed to destinations unknown to satisfy their all-consuming voracity.
Starglow knew that she must save their souls from the burden of guilt that would crush them should they feed upon a thriving, inhabited world. Her time was limited. Through the Power Cosmic they all shared, she could sense their movement even now. The subtle rapport among them, the one that had brought them to Terrax's aid in the first place,* told her that, as yet, none but Terrax had fed. Although Terrax clearly cherished the world whose potential he had snuffed out, at least no species upon it had been sentient.
(See Powers Cosmic #1 for details.)
The Hunger was a result of an expenditure of energy greater than any that the Heralds had ever experienced. The reason that Shalla Bal, though beyond exhaustion, did not suffer the Hunger was clear. In recent days,* the Heralds learned that their years of servitude under Galactus were spent in bodies composed of living Power Cosmic. Their actual souls were housed therein, while their original organic bodies had been held, alive but soulless, in cryogenic suspension pods aboard Galactus' vast Worldship, Taa II.
(*See Cosmic Union #12 for details.)
With the passing of the cyclical cosmic phenomenon known as the Union, the Heralds' spiritual essences were returned to their healthy birth-bodies. These physical forms were re-imbued with the Power Cosmic by Galactus, while still remaining organic. This was the theorized source of the Hunger that now beset them.
Starglow was not in her original physical body. She did not suffer from Galactus' madness. This further corroborated the theory of the Hunger's source. Perhaps Galactus also maintained a link to his former physical form. Few Cosmic Beings suffered from Hunger, and yet those who did always seemed to have a physical bond with an organic form: the Phoenix and Adam Warlock's Soul Gem entity were two examples. Although the specifics of Galactus' origins remained a mystery to Starglow, she did know that he was once a mortal, physical, organic lifeform.
Now she pondered her next move as she drifted, nearly powerless, in high orbit over Terrax's decimated world. Her first thought was to contact the other teams of Protectors of the Universe. Her fear was that this would not be sufficient to the task. Adam Warlock might be able to separate their souls from their bodies, but the bodies would still Hunger, and might mindlessly proceed. She knew what she must do, though the thought of it chilled her to the core. She must address this challenge at its source: she must confront Galactus the Devourer alone.
Starglow's senses led her to a world filled with sentient life, overpopulated and decaying in a living death. The world of Nerrat Prime had once been the seat of a small interstellar empire, but that was centuries ago. Now, it had shriveled and devolved into an over-industrialized waste heap. Rivers, lakes, and oceans choked a slow demise. Euthanasia clubs were commonplace, but even with killing at maximum capacity, the clubs would need a millennium just to bring the populace down to levels the planet might actually be able to support. And that was assuming zero population growth, unheard of in this medically advanced civilization.
Still, the planet bore sentient life, and that was what Galactus now sought.
With the last iota of her available stores of energy, Starglow intercepted Galactus' vessel as it entered the Nerrat Prime star system. Any further, and she feared discorporation altogether.
Galactus was sitting in a low seat for his height. His elbows nearly touched the floor. "Starglow, why have you interrupted my foraging?"
"Master, forgive my intrusion. I am confused and unsure what to do. Your former Heralds have gone mad with a voracious Hunger akin to your own. I fear they may randomly harm sentient worlds if I do not act quickly."
"So, they finally begin to learn the lesson in humility I sought to teach them. Good. Perhaps now they shall no longer deign to pass judgement so easily on a Cosmic Force of Nature."
"But, Master! I have to stop them! Can you not find it in you to help those who might once have dared call the mighty Devourer 'friend'?"
"Shalla Bal, my need to feed grows more with every passing day. Terrax recently devoured an entire world and alleviated my Hunger, if ever so briefly. Perhaps it is their destiny to aid me in this manner."
"Mighty Galactus, you are beyond the petty considerations of mortals, but they are not. You can withstand the pangs of conscience that their morals and ethics cannot. They will find a means to annihilate themselves eventually. Is that your grand design for the Heralds you so carefully chose?"
"You must find some other alternative, Starglow. But their fates and mine are forever bound, so I will grant you this one boon to aid them." Galactus extended his hand. "Rise, my 'Ardina', my Starglow, fully empowered once more."
Energies emerged from the center of Galactus' palm, coruscating through and over Shalla Bal's form, forcing her to her knees. When the energy flow ceased, she stood again, truly a star's glow upon her. All fatigue had dissipated to nothing. "You seek to aid me, yet fall short of aiding those who served you faithfully. Have you no loyalty to them?"
"And you seek aid from one who imbues power. Seek assistance instead from one who can remove that power. Now be gone, lest you incur my wrath! My patience wears thin, and I shall brook no further interruptions. My new Herald has found a sentient species on which to feed."
"New Herald? Whom do you mean?"
"Be gone, I say. This last energy expense was ill-timed. The Hunger consumes me!"
Starglow knew that attempting to save the dying world of Nerrat Prime by staving off Galactus' attack would be suicide if attempted alone. The thought of dying children and wailing grandparents below saddened her to no end, but she knew that it was a simple case of mathematics. She opted to save the next four target worlds her insane teammates would inevitably attack instead of the one world that might already be beyond rescue. She departed Galactus' Worldship.
Being practical did not make the decision easier. She watched helplessly as the vessel continued its approach to Nerrat Prime. She caught a glimpse of this new Herald of whom Galactus had spoken. He was a male humanoid devoid of a visible nose. He wore a red outfit, but his flesh was a tanned color. He held a long sword in each hand, and the hood he wore bore several spikes. He grinned a sinister satisfaction that Galactus did not notice, consumed in his own desperate withdrawal symptoms.
One day soon, the Powers Cosmic would need to unite and address this mysterious new Herald. For now, more pressing considerations must take precedence. She thought of Galactus' subtle clue to the restoration of her comrades, and headed directly for Earth.
Shalla Bal remembered well the castle keep of Doctor Victor von Doom, sovereign of the tiny Eastern European country of Latveria. She had served as a kitchen maid for a time there, after Norrin Radd's betrayal of Galactus. She had been betrothed to the dictator as a means of confronting the Surfer, before Mephisto became embroiled in a plot for vengeance.*
(See Marvel's Silver Surfer Vol. 2, #1 for details.)
She bypassed all security to descend upon the bedchamber of the dread lord of the domain.
Although it was three o'clock in the morning by local standard time, Doom seemed prepared for her. As she entered his quarters, he was already sitting up in bed, placing his mask over his face. "The lovely Shalla Bal! Have you returned to reclaim our betrothal, my dear?" Doom's tone was mocking, yet hinted of an underlying attraction.
"Victor, I have come to seek your aid. I wish you to help me remove the Power Cosmic from the Silver Surfer and the other former Heralds of Galactus."
"I must say, I am surprised by your request. Not many people surprise me, dear Shalla. Why have you selected Doom to aid you?"
"I offer you a boon if you succeed in ridding the Surfer of his power. Anything within my power to give you, except the Power Cosmic itself. The energy now leads its organic bearers to a Hunger much like Galactus'. The price is simply too great."
"Do not seek to deceive me, Shalla Bal. Lest you forget, I too have briefly possessed the Power Cosmic, and experienced no Hunger pangs."
"You did not possess it long enough, nor did you expend enough energy to experience the onset of the Hunger. Things have changed, Victor. We have learned that Galactus created proxy bodies made from solid Power Cosmic for his Heralds. With the passing of the Union you took part in, the former Heralds are now returned to their original bodies, and with that, they pay a terrible price."
"I see. Very well, I agree. Doom has no use for the gnawing Hunger of Galactus within him. As for a boon, if I successfully rid the Surfer from his Power Cosmic, you will remain here as MY Herald for one Earth year."
Starglow considered the alternative, but knew she had no choice. "Very well. If you succeed in removing the Power Cosmic from the Silver Surfer, and aid me with the same process for Nova, Firelord, and Air-Walker, then I agree to your terms. And as a sign of good faith, I give you this, the merest fraction of my abilities." Starglow touched Doom's arm, and a jolt of energy filled his senses. His mask burst off, falling to the ground with a loud clatter. Doom turned to a mirror he maintained constantly covered by a black tapestry as a reminder of his hideous features. Pulling the tapestry brusquely, Doom bared the looking glass. His features were smooth and fine, his handsome, chiseled face as youthful as the day before he ever met Reed Richards.
Doom was careful not to let Starglow know his reaction to the transformation. "Shalla, you have my word. I will help you rid your comrades of the Power Cosmic."
"The safety of the Universe may well depend on our success, Victor."
Doom turned and smiled grimly. "We shall begin our work immediately. Come, the equipment I require is located deep in the catacombs beneath my castle."
Starglow felt uneasy at Doom's expression. Perhaps she simply was not used to seeing any emotion on his face, always concealed beneath an impassive metal mask. Had she made a mistake, agreeing to Doom's terms? Perhaps, but the unprecedented situation she faced required unorthodox solutions, and as he had reminded her, Doom had once succeeded in stripping the Silver Surfer of the Power Cosmic.
After several minutes of walking through seemingly endless chambers and hallways, Starglow and Doom arrived in a room filled with arcane technologies and gadgetry in various states of repair and completion. "I retain many of the devices I have built in storage. The cosmic siphon, for example," said Doom with a bit of flourish as he pulled a sheet off the machinery he had used long ago to transfer the Silver Surfer's power to himself. Abruptly, Doom's expression turned sour. "The Devourer once stripped Terrax of his powers, and he reverted to his original mortal form, that of Tyros. When I appropriated the Surfer's powers, he too appeared as he did prior to his transformation. If these were proxy bodies, why did they not disappear when bereft of the Power Cosmic? Your answer had best be satisfactory."
"Doom, I swear to you I am not trying to deceive you. Galactus created replicas so detailed that only he was aware any switch had ever been made, until the original organic bodies were found on his Worldship. I am not privy to the exact workings of the Power Cosmic bodies, but having them resemble organic flesh would be child's play for Galactus."
"This equipment will require some repair after all this time, of course. I would not want anything... unfortunate to occur to your comrades during the separation process."
"They must survive Doom, or we have no deal."
Doom's voice grew livid. "Ours is a bargain already wrought! Do not seek to renegotiate the terms!"
Starglow's skin grew bright, intense enough to blind Doom if he looked directly at her. "I would remind you, Victor, that I too am a being of considerable power, and I will not be dictated to, not until your part of the bargain is fulfilled. What is to stop me from stealing the cosmic siphon from you right now?"
"You are a woman of your word, Shalla-Bal. You prize your honor too much to exploit me so. Very well, I will not let them die during the process of energy removal if it can be avoided. You have my word."
Shalla Bal wondered if it could not be avoided, what then? She remained silent. Life and death decisions were never easy, even for a former Empress.
Over the next three hours, Doom rebuilt the machine piece by piece, tinkered with the device, fine tuning its controls and operation, replacing parts that he deemed inefficient or damaged. Seeing him at work, in the act of creation, Shalla-Bal felt sadness that Doom's genius had been used for such illegitimate ends, twisted and subverted by his pride and hatred.
"At last," Doom proclaimed. "It is complete."
"How does it work, Victor?"
"The principles are complex, and I do not wish to bore you with needless detail. The Power Cosmic, as you are aware, is a near limitless source of energy that permeates the Universe. As such, the mechanism transfers not the Power Cosmic itself, but the power with which Galactus imbued you and your ilk to allow access to the vast, awesome energies of creation and destruction itself."
Shalla hesitated before asking, "Will it work?"
"Do you doubt my abilities? Very well. How do you recommend we test the cosmic siphon? You are the only wielder of the Power Cosmic available," Doom suggested.
"No, Victor. Your machine will perform its intended task. It must. I will endeavor to summon the Surfer through the connection shared by all wielders of the Power Cosmic."
"Very good. I shall prepare for what must be done."
Starglow concentrated on somehow sending a signal through the Power Cosmic to the Surfer, telling him to help her, that she was in danger. As she pushed from her thoughts the image of Norrin's face once he were to realize it was a ruse, Shalla Bal hoped he would understand later the reason for her deception.
Doom appeared to be meditating. Shalla could only wonder at what thoughts passed through his mind. He might as well have still been masked, for all his expression gave away.
After what seemed an eternity, Starglow felt another being of equal power draw near. "Victor, he is coming. Be ready!" Doom nodded, but said nothing.
The wall blew inward, showering Starglow and Doom with ancient bricks. Air-Walker flew through the breach, his face appeared drawn, as though he were struggling with an invisible opponent. "Shalla! I came as quickly as I could, but, the pain! By Xandar, I HUNGER!"
"Oh, Gabriel, I'm so sorry," Starglow whispered.
Doom stepped forth and pointed at Air-Walker. "Nuala d'vizhenie!" Gabriel Lan's joints stiffened, and he fell forward.
"Doom! What have you done to him?"
"Fear not, fair Shalla-Bal. I have immobilized the Air-Walker with magic. But against a strong willed being such as he, the spell will not last long."
Starglow was surprised at how smoothly the plan was going. True, they had meant to capture the Silver Surfer, but all the Heralds were equally dangerous at this point. Doctor Doom and Starglow were on the cusp of a major victory.
Looking over at the siphon, Doom commented, "The process will only work if there is a vessel to receive the power."
"I will take in Gabriel's Power Cosmic, Doom. We've already agreed that you will not receive any."
"Did we? No. We only agreed that I would not receive it from you! You must learn to be a more shrewd negotiator, my dear." Before Shall Bal could react, Doom pounced on the prone body of Air-Walker, placing two square shaped, sponge-like paddles on Lan's temples. A cascade of energy rapidly washed over Doom, but just as rapidly dissipated as Starglow destroyed the cosmic siphon with a blast of pure cosmic force. With his concentration disrupted, Doom's hold over Air-Walker vanished. Lan cried out "I HUNGER! I must find an uninhabited world, or I will go mad!" He shot straight up through the ceiling, continuing his trajectory until he was in space.
"Vile betrayer! Your true motives are made plain. I should have known. Your legalistic justification is meaningless to me. Now I revoke my gift to you and condemn you forevermore to the hideous face you bore, a mild reflection of the true ugliness within you." Shalla-Bal left Doom and Latveria behind her. She knew that there was still one person she could turn to on this complex globe, someone with detailed knowledge of the Power Cosmic. Perhaps he could propose a solution before it was too late.
Continued in Powers Cosmic #5 - Voracity, The Final Chapter: "Energy Manipulation." Be sure to also check out our POTU Archive Page for more stories of the Powers Cosmic and other Protectors of the Universe teams. And don't forget to send some comments below!