He righted himself and scanned the murky depths, the pitch blackness no bar to his cosmic vision. Finding nothing of import he grabbed his surfboard, floating nearby, and quickly mounted it. A roiling tail of bubbles followed him as he sped toward the surface.
With a great geyser he exited the deep ocean and flew into the air. Coming to a stop, he looked over the dark clouds lying low overhead and then looked toward the mainland, which he estimated lay four hundred miles to the east, the bright lights of New York City a dim glow, even to his enhanced sight.
His head still foggy from the blow he had taken, the Surfer set off for Four Freedoms Plaza at a speed greatly reduced from his normal pace. His mind swirled with visions of another battle the size of the Infinity Gauntlet affair as the rain pinged off his silver skin. He knew that he could well be the heroes' only hope of stopping the Titan, possessing the information that he did. His face set in grim determination, he pressed on, the dull glow growing steadily brighter.
Quasar stumbled, dropping his drink to the floor. It shattered, liquid contents pinwheeling for several feet. Hands grasping his head, he made is way to a thread-bare couch and sat, waiting for the moment to pass.
"Quasar, what is wrong?" the Vision asked, seeing his comrade's discomfort. Thor moaned in the corner they had propped him, as if he were experiencing a nightmare.
The protector of the universe said nothing for several seconds, eyes still clenched shut. But slowly, breathing heavily, he lowered his arms and opened his eyes, a thin film of tears borne of shock and pain covering them, "A, a cosmic disruption...never felt something like that before...and it's all because of-"
"Thanos!" the Thunder God shouted, eyes snapping open. Standing quickly, he nearly fell over, still disoriented from the beating Esonn had given him, "The Titan will destroy us all! We must struck first, before all is doomed!"
"It's true..." Quasar whispered, his eyes looking back into his mind, "I saw...his face."
"Thanos' face?" the Vision asked with as much concern as he could manage.
"Yes. Something's happened. A feeling of dread...He must have gained a huge amount of power to do something like that, whether he created that cosmic 'shockwave' on purpose or not..."
"I will inform Mister Fantastic and Captain America immediately. If what you say is true we may all be in grave danger."
"Yes..." was all Quasar could say, his face pale, still visibly shaken. The android made his way to the other side of the long chamber, weaving his way in and out of hassocks, chairs, couches, and various bits of machinery. In one corner, the Thing, Hawkeye, and Namor were crowded around a pool table. Grim leaned over, focused on his next shot. Cigar ashes dropped onto the green felt. The Human Torch lay asleep nearby. In the middle of former storage room, Captain America, Reed Richards, and Iron man stood talking. None had seemed to notice either Thor's or Quasar's travails.
"Captain America," the Vision addressed the patriot as he approached, "we may have a serious situation."
"What is it, Vision?" Captain America replied, his attention now completely fixed on the android.
"Both Quasar and Thor have recently experienced some type of cosmic disruption. They are both convinced that it has something to do with Thanos of Titan."
"Shit..." Iron Man said under his breath, his armor managing to mask the word.
"I thought he had abandoned his conquering ways." Captain America replied, "The last time we were in his company, he was an ally of ours against the Goddess."
"It seems he has returned to being a villain." Richards said, "We must begin preparing for whatever threat he represents immediately. Quasar and Thor both sensed some kind of cosmic disruption, you said?"
"I should be able to detect such a disturbance." the leader of the Fantastic Four said, already heading for a large machine positioned next to a nearby wall, his comrades forgotten in a fit of scientific interest.
"Think old granite face is behind the whole Celestial/Destroyer thing?" Iron Man asked as the three Avengers followed the scientist.
"He's certainly capable of such a plot. I would count on it." the war hero responded.
Sitting at his machine, Reed numerous dials, hit a series of buttons and then looked down at the monitor. His eyes widened slightly.
"Have you found anything, Mister Fantastic?" the android asked.
"Indeed, something major. I'm picking up a wave-like cosmic disturbance that just passed over the entire planet, and elevated energy readings all over the galaxy. There's also an energy signature heading directly for earth at lightspeed."
"How long before it gets here?" Captain America asked, voice tight.
"At this rate, it'll be here in three days." the scientist said with concern.
"We better get ready, then. That's gotta be Thanos..." Iron Man interjected in a low tone.
"I will need access to your communications system, Reed. I will contact as many Avengers as possible. Earth will not fall to Thanos easily."
"It's right over-" Reed was cut off as Thor shouted, "Foul cur! What brings thee here? Thou will feel the wrath of the Odinson!" That got everyone's attention. Turning to where Thor stood, near the doorway, they all watched as the Asgardian raised his fist and threw a mighty punch at their silver intruder.
The Surfer caught it easily, and spoke in an even voice, "I don't have time for this now, Thor. The entire universe is in great peril!" He pushed Thor's fist away, and the Asgardian falling back a step. His face contorted in rage even further, though it had seemed impossible mere moments ago.
"Varlet!" he screamed, lunging at the former herald of Galactus. The Surfer caught both his arms, lifting the Thunder God into the air. He spoke loud enough for all to here, "I am sorry, Thor, for whatever pain I may have caused you when Mordrin was in control of my form. Please accept this, so that we might move forward. The universe itself doesn't not have time for this nonsense."
Slowly, he set the Thunder God down, as if he might break if treated too harshly. His eyes still suspicious, Thor said, "Aye, I accept your apology, Surfer, but-"
"Good." Norrin Radd turned and began striding toward Reed Richards at a quick pace, leaving the Thunder God stammering behind him, "Mister Fantastic, Avengers, the entire universe stands in great peril at the hands of Thanos."
"We know, Quasar and Thor informed as such." Captain America said as the Surfer approached.
"What have you done with Sue?" Reed said, eyes creased at the edges.
Norrin sighed heavily, "While I was Mordrin, I kidnapped her and took her to Tyrant's floating fortress. Thanos was planning to use her to destroy the Celestial guards around a certain World Sphere. I do not know if she still lives." Reed looked at the floor.
"You better hope she's alive." Johnny said, awakened from his slumber. His eyes glowed ominously.
"What is the Titan up to?" Iron Man asked. Captain America nodded, obviously curious as well.
There was a sudden flash of light, "Yes, please enlighten us further, Surfer. Eternity was rather reluctant to reveal exact details about Thanos' plan or the Infinity Equation."
"Adam Warlock!" the Thing exclaimed, now standing nearby the Silver Surfer, "And that bunch he calls the Infinity Watch!"
"Indeed. Now, Surfer, please continue your tale. I will share what information I possess when you have finished."
Norrin nodded slowly, then began his story, "Eons ago, there was a Celestial known as Aioros. Like all Celestials, he was a mighty being who meddled in the affairs of other species. But as time passed, he began to desire more than his lot in life, so he set about obtaining an equation, what you call the 'Infinity Equation,' from the mind of the Celestial Trinity, Death, Galactus, and Eternity. This was the most heinous sin that any Celestial could commit, but Aioros did not care. As a dream manifestation of Eternity, he entered that being's mind, along with two others. Using Eternity's connection with the other members of the Trinity, he quickly took the Death and Galactus portions of the Equation as well. After leaving, Aioros distributed the Eternity and Galactus Equations to his comrades, while he kept the Death Equation for himself."
"So that is why Eternity is so familiar with it..." Warlock whispered.
The Surfer continued, "The entire Host that Aioros had belonged to joined him in a mad attempt to either destroy or subjugate all planes of reality. From that time on he became known as Aioros the Betrayer. Unlike the Dreaming Celestial, Aioros' sin was so great that his name was to be remembered for all time, rather than scoured away, so that all Celestials could remember his great folly. The war between Aioros and the other Hosts raged for millenia. Entire galaxies shattered before him and his followers. The Betrayer very well could have attained victory had he not desired even more power than he possessed. He secretly slew his two allies and took the Galactus and Eternity Equations. But, unlike the Death Equation, complete mastery of the other two was not instantaneous. In this small window of weakness, the other Hosts struck and defeated him. The One Above All himself put Aioros into the Great Dream and imprisoned him within a World Sphere in the far reaches of the Milky Way. The Equation was never removed, for fear that whoever took it would become enraptured with the Equation's power and start another Celestial Civil War. And so Aioros lay asleep for eons, until recently."
"When Thanos took the Equation for himself..." Warlock finished.
"How'd Granite Face find out all this Celestial stuff?" the Thing asked.
"He captured an ancient Oracle some time ago and forcibly removed that being's memories. That demi-god had lived through the very end of what was called the Betrayer's War. He witnessed the Grey Celestial's imprisonment, as he was called. How the Oracle came across the information regarding the Equation is unknown, but Thanos speculated that the Oracle may have had a secret pact with Aioros so that he could gain true godhood when the Betrayer was victorious. A plausible explanation."
"And the Titan just voluntarily told you all this, Surfer?" Captain America asked, obviously suspicious.
"Yes, when I was Mordrin. Thanos helped my 'Dark Side' usurp control of my body for a time. It was he who kidnapped Susan Richards and tortured the Human Torch. And I must apologize to both you, Johnny Storm, and you, Reed Richards for my actions."
Reed nodded his head, "Accepted, Surfer. We'll get Sue back, soon."
"Yes, we will." Adam Warlock said, "But first we must formulate a plan to deal with Thanos."
"Indeed," Captain America said, "but I think all of us need some rest first. We've all been through a lot in the last few hours. Better to plot a strategy with clear heads and rested eyes."
Warlock nodded in agreement, "Our journey through time was taxing as well. When shall we re-convene?"
"Say, six hours?" the patriot looked at Reed. He nodded, "Six hours."
With that pronouncement, the entire group began to dissipate, ambling over to couches and chairs, sleep coming quickly to those who wished it. Warlock did not, his mind haunted with visions of battle and death. Every confrontation with Thanos had been for higher and higher stakes. He suspected this time would be no different.
For the fifth time in as many minutes Zarrko checked the energy charge of his pulse-rifle. Sweat beaded on his bald head as he then checked the straps on his energy harness. He looked nervously toward the three warlords. Each returned him a calm, expressionless glance.
Kang broke the silence of the small vessel, "It is time. We will time-jump now." His other selves nodded slowly. Zarrko said nothing but his rapid breathing heightened. The Conqueror grabbed a long grey lever and pulled it down in one quick motion. The Tomorrow Man nearly vomited as they travelled, lines streaking, flat surfaces bubbling, rectangles warping into circles, then triangles, then back.
And then it was all over. Zarrko let out a loud breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. He slowly uncurled his fingers from the rifle handle. They ached.
"Remote sensors confirm the probe's readings. Thanos' vessel is directly ahead of us." the Scarlet Centurion reported, looking at a small positioned near his gauntleted hand.
"How do we know Thanos hasn't detected us?" Zarrko asked nervously.
"Because we are cloaked, Tomorrow Man." Kang said as if speaking to a child, "Are you ready to perform your task, Zarrko?" All three of them fixed him with disturbingly similar, piercing gazes.
He took an unsteady breath before answering, in as steady a voice as he could muster, "Yes."
"Good." Kang smiled, "Step over to the teleportation pad." Zarrko did not move for a second. The Conqueror's hooded eyes narrowed. Quickly, he stepped onto the glowing square. He gripped his rifle tightly, keeping it at waist level. His eyes looked straight ahead, preparing for the appearance of Thanos' stony visage.
Kang pulled a lever and the Tomorrow Man visibly gulped as the small ship's surroundings faded around him.
Thanos sat on his throne, fingers steepled, staring deeply into the rich white cascades, waiting for the chronal disruption he knew was soon in coming. He did not know who or what would be appearing, but that he, she, or it would be a threat easily dealt with. Hours ago, he had had no perception of time other than the present, and a vague sense of deja vu. Now, he could see minutes into the feature with ever increasing clarity. The Equation worked quickly.
Right on time, space shimmered behind the stream of water. The short figure raised his rifle and with a shout of, "Die!" he fired a burst of hot plasma at the Titan's unperturbed form.
It struck him directly in the face, but as the thin wisp of smoke faded, Zarrko's eyes bulged at the lack of effect it had. He squeezed off another round, but it impacted harmlessly on the unoccupied throne, shattering it.
"What?" he shouted anxiously, looking around in a frenzy. A massive black hand closed over his face, totally blocking his vision. He screamed a muffled scream as Thanos effortlessly lifted him high into the air and his skull into one of the smooth walls, his occipital bone crunching wetly with the impact. The Titan let his small body go as it slid to the floor, leaving a trail of blood on the wall. Stepping back, Thanos surveyed his handiwork with a gleam in his eye. Physical confrontation was still the best form of combat at this stage in his merger with the Equation, it seemed.
There was another shimmer and he turned to watch as a bronze ovular rocket exploded in his face.
Kang looked at the blackened crater with a hint of worry as he lowered the bulky launcher. The Titan's might would be worth nothing if his body had been disintegrated in the process of subduing him.
"Fool!" the Centurion shouted, obviously thinking the same thing, "You've destroyed the very prize we sought!"
"I read no trace of Eternal material in the blast site." Rama Tut reported, looking at a thick wrist band covered in mechanical studs, "Biological or otherwise."
"He's still in here, somewhere..." the Centurion said now, suspicously, raising his grey pistol to a more ready position. His personal forcefield shimmered into view around him, distorting space slightly.
"Spread out, look for him." Kang ordered, "He can't have gotten far."
Beginning to walk along the left wall, Rama Tut said, "Reports have shown that the Titan possesses the ability to teleport. He could be light years away by now..."
"But he is not." Thanos' voice boomed loudly from the center of the chamber, his figure obscured by the waterfall's mist. He raised a thick arm, silver-covered fist glowing brightly.
"Shoot him!" the Centurion shouted, raising his own weapon. The time lord's bolt bounced off some type of protective covering the Titan had an inch from his form. It ricocheted around the chamber several times before quieting. Rama Tut crumpled to the ground, a smoking hole in his chest.
With a war shout the Scarlet Centurion appeared before Thanos in a burst of light, cuffing him once with an armored fist. Uneffected, the Titan raised his arm high and brought it down quickly, at lightning speed, the force field crackling for a moment as it died. The crimson-clad villain dropped to the ground, the side of his armored cowl crushed.
The Conqueror raised the launcher again, and fired. Thanos caught the missle in one great outstreched hand. Tightening his grip, the Titan's fingers dug into the tough metal shell as if it were soap. It exploded. Before the blast had ended, he stepped through the ebon curls of smoke, glowing eyes fixed on his foe. Kang stumbled backwards suddenly and he shouted in pain as Thanos' blast of energy caught him in the shoulder. The second sent him flying off his feet and skidding to the farside of the chamber, the pink and blue metal of his helmet smoking as it continued to blacken and warp after the body had come to a halt.
The Titan stroked his chin absently as he surveyed the carnage, his gazing sweeping over the smoking corpses of Kang and Rama Tut, and the limp form of the Scarlet Centurion. A course of action decided upon, he waved one great, gloved hand and cleared the chamber of all the remnants of battle. Once again, it was pristine, the only sound that of gentle water splashing in the basin below. Striding over, Thanos took his seat and looked deeply into the cascading white, waiting for his mind to open to ever greater horizons.
Reed sat in his darkened laboratory, the glare of screen highlighting his now haggard features. He had not taken Captain America's advice.
"Mister Fantastic," a voice said from the doorway, "I must speak with you."
Richards yawned and turned toward the speaker, shaking his head slowly, trying to keep awake, "Warlock?" he said without assurance, no longer trusting his own vision, "What do you want?"
The caped figure glided toward the hero, Karmic Staff standing higher than his head, "To speak with you, Reed Richards, about the salvation of the universe." He stared down at the sitting man with perfectly white eyes.
"Surely you're talking about Thanos, then. Can't this wait until the meeting in a few hours? I was just planning on going to sleep..."
His voice hardened, still placid, but with cold steel beneath, "No, this must be discussed now, in private."
Richards yawned again, "Okay, fine. But please be brief."
"The fate of humanity, and every other race depends on our actions in the coming days. If things are not planned perfectly, all will be lost. You must listen carefully to what I say, Reed Richards, and then perform your tasks quickly, and efficiently."
"Why should you be in charge of our little 'war effort?'" was all the exhausted hero could manage.
"Because without me, you will all die. You all would be dead, had I not intervened during the Mad Titan's previous attempts to both subjugate and destroy the cosmos. You may not trust me, but I am your only hope of victory."
Reed said nothing, though he did seem a bit more alert, now.
Warlock began to pace as he talked, speaking with his back to the hero, "We are blessed with several advantages in this conflict. First, unlike before, Thanos is not omnipotent, at least not yet. This failing will make him much easier to deal with. Related to this is the fact that the Infinity Equation has yet to fully bond with him. Thus, it is possible that we can remove it from his very being under the right circumstances with the correct equipment."
"And I assume my job is to come up with this 'equipment?'"
"Yes, but we will speak of that later. We are also possess one great disadvantage during this confrontation, one that was not prevalent during the affair with the Infinity Gauntlet."
"That would be?"
"Thanos' mental state of being. In all your previous encounters with the Titan, he allowed himself to be defeated. If he did not possess this fatal flaw, Thanos could very well still be ruling the universe with the Cosmic Cube as we speak. But in this instance, Thanos unconscious weakness can no longer be counted on."
"Because I, myself, in what could become the greatest folly I have ever commited, informed Thanos of his failing. This, coupled with his pronouncement that if he were to ever attain omnipotence again he would never lose it becomes a deadly combination. However, it seems that Thanos still thinks himself unworthy of the great power he currently possesses."
"How do you know that?" Reed asked, seeming to barely follow.
"He could not stop Eternity from informing me of the situation, but he could have prevented the Silver Surfer from coming here and warning you all of his plans."
"You believe Thanos wanted us to know what he was up to?"
"Yes, and for other reasons as well. Perhaps he could have halted the cosmic disruption that alerted Thor and Quasar to his intentions, I do not know. But with the power he has, it would be child's play for Thanos to mask his energy signature as he approachs earth. It seems that Thanos will defeat himself on this occaison, as he has on all others."
"You don't seriously believe that we will just stand by and wait for Thanos to allow himself to be defeated once again, do you? What if you're wrong? What if he doesn't unconsciously give up his power once again?"
Warlock stopped his pacing and once again stood nearby Richards' shoulder, forcing the scientist to crane his neck to watch the artificial man as he spoke, "You cannot be expected to do nothing during the crisis, Reed Richards. It is only human that you try to save yourselves. Now listen closely as I lay out my entire plan for you, and your part in it is as well. Earth will not be unprotected, even if Thanos does relinquish his power this time, as he has in the past."
And as he had said, Adam Warlock told Reed Richards exactly what he planned to do. The scientist listened intently, nearly all signs of fatigue vanishing in the face of a challenge, scientific or otherwise.
Continue to Chapter 14
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