“Hercules,” said Utaan, “unlike many of your multiversal counterparts, you have had minimal contact with modern world. Thus, I have taken it upon myself to inform you of what lies ahead in the universes into which you will accompany your teammates.”
“Tis much appreciated.” replied Hercules. “And refreshing as well. I hath often been judged a brutish oaf by mortal historians, when in fact my thirst for knowledge nearly equals my thirst for battle.”
“Excellent.” said Utaan. “Now, then, on the great majority of the known universes, there have been teams of brave warriors like yourself and your current teammates: the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and, most importantly, the Avengers, in which many of your counterparts have served.
“Where it becomes complicated is that far too many chroniclers paint the warriors’ conflicts in terms of black and white, ignoring the gray areas that are an inescapable fact of existence. This I am certain you already know having fought so many battles yourself, but it behooves me to remind you, as you are about to enter many situations in which you will have to make difficult ethical decisions and sometimes even take sides that may seem morally dubious.”
“As you say, Utaan, gray areas art an inescapable fact of existence.” replied Hercules. “Many times over millennia hath I been confronted with such situations, and I expect no less in the millennia to come. But thy reminder be understandable.”
The other four team members entered the monitor room.
“I trust you are all well rested and prepared for battle?” asked Utaan.
“Ready, willing, and eager.” answered a grinning Olivia.
“Good, good.” said Utaan, “As before, the timeline you must repair is displayed on the central monitor. In many universes, the shape-shifting aliens known as the Skrulls have attempted to infiltrate the Earth and carry out a full-scale invasion. Their efforts have always resulted in their resounding defeat...in every reality except this one. In order to prevent this catastrophe from occurring, you must journey to a point several years before the invasion, when the savage space pirate Nebula was attempting to conquer what was at the time a weak and fragmented Skrull empire.
“Your mission is to ensure that Nebula succeeds. This will mean you shall be going up against the Skrulls’ unlikely allies, the Avengers. Now, as I understand it, you, Magdalene, and you, Philip, did for a time fight alongside the Avengers of the core reality?”
“We did.” replied Magdalene. “But I assure you there will be no hesitation on my part to do what I must to fulfill the mission.”
“I’m curious,” said Philip, “who are the members of the Avengers in this reality?”
Utaan snapped his fingers, and the monitor changed to a diagram featuring names and images representing each of the Avengers of that reality: Wasp, Captain America, Black Knight, Starfox, Power Man, Spider-Woman, and Captain Marvel, the last of whom had a band across her image reading: “KILLED IN ACTION.”
“Thank you.” said Philip. “Although we fought alongside some of the core reality versions of these Avengers, we won’t let that affect our performance in the battlefield.”
“So be it.” said Utaan as he opened up a portal for his band of warriors to pass through.
Upon stepping through the portal, the warriors suddenly found themselves standing on the bridge of a massive alien starship. At the helm was Nebula herself, who instinctively pointed her powerful wrist-blaster at them, while the other crew members present also drew their weapons.
“Identify yourselves!” commanded Nebula in her shrill voice. “For if you are allies of the Skrulls, you shall die!”
“Whoa!” said a startled Olivia. “Switch to decaf!”
“We have come from across time and space,” explained Magdalene, “to ally ourselves with you.”
Nebula’s gaze wandered to her left flank, where her second-in-command, Gunthar the Rigellian, stood. “Gunthar,” she asked, “do they speak the truth?”
“Yes, Nebula.” replied the big-headed telepath.
“Lower your weapons.” Nebula ordered her crew as she did so herself. She paused and looked over the time-travelers before saying, “You have come at a most convenient time. Our shields have been shattered, and we are on the verge of being boarded by the Skrulls and their accursed allies, the Avengers.”
“We were briefed before coming here on the appearances of the Skrulls and the Avengers,” said Philip, “so we will know who to target.”
“Aye,” said Hercules, “we stand ready to join the fray.”
“What he said.” added Olivia.
“Excellent.” said Nebula, pointing at the bridge’s monitor. “This is the most likely point of entry for the boarders. I want all available hands to cluster around there and give them a most rude welcome. The rest of us shall be busy arming our secret weapon, the particle beam cannon. Now go. Speed is of the essence.”
As the outworlders came closer to the point of entry, they could hear that the fight had already started. Turning the corner, they spotted six humanoids amidst the Skrulls and the variety of aliens which made up Nebula’s crew. These could only be the Avengers, and one of them, an African-American in a yellow silk shirt and a silver headband, was fighting particularly hard.
“Outta my way, suckers!” belted Power Man. “I’m fixin’ to prove myself an Avenger by avengin’ my lady love, Captain Marvel! An’ that means Nebula’s ass is mine!”
“Power Man, wait,” said the Wasp, “something’s not right here – look who’s with them. Hercules, how did YOU get mixed up in this? And why are you on the wrong side?”
“I,” replied Hercules, “am not the Hercules who hath fought alongside thee. Tis complicated, but...”
“Course he ain’t Hercules!” interrupted Power Man, lunging at the Olympian. “It’s one o’ Nebula’s tricks!”
“Power Man, I warn thee, I have no desire to fight thee. If only thou and thy fellow Avengers would listen...”
“Listen to THIS!” snarled Power Man, landing a fierce punch on Hercules’ jaw.
“So be it!” growled Hercules. “The Lion of Olympus shall give thee no quarter!” And with those words, he returned Power Man’s punch, with interest.
Meanwhile, Philip was going toe-to-toe with the Black Knight, their blades clashing resonantly.
“You’re good, I’ll give you that.” said the Black Knight.
“I’ve fought another version of you, the core reality version of the Black Knight, and you’re not fit to lick his boots.” taunted Philip.
“Sticks and stones and all that.” replied the Black Knight.
Magdalene, for her part, was blasting away at the Skrulls, when, suddenly, she felt her mind cloud over. She turned her head to face Starfox.
“Whoever you are,” said Starfox, “you don’t really want to fight. In fact, you’d like nothing less than to get to know me better.”
Magdalene wasn’t having any of it. “GET...OUT...OF...MY...” she screamed as she swung her quarterstaff and blasted Starfox point blank, “...MIND!!”
“Starfox!” exclaimed the Wasp, who was locked in combat with Alice, her mighty bio-electric blast against Alice’s power prism beam. But the distraction caused her intensity to fade, and she was the next Avenger to fall.
“This is poetic justice!” said Olivia to Spider-Woman as she delivered the Avenger a kick in the ribs. “I got beaten up by another version of you, now I get to take it out on you!”
“You’ll find,” sneered Spider-Woman, “I’m nobody’s punching bag.” She then unleashed her venom blasts at Olivia, who flinched but then came back fighting harder.
“Ha!” laughed Olivia. “You just gave me an excuse not to hold back anymore. And in case you’re wondering, your blasts did slow me down, except my natural reflexes make Quicksilver look like the Slug.”
No sooner had Olivia finished off Spider-Woman than she felt a huge hand closing around her neck and lifting her up off the ground. “That’ll be enough of that, young lady.” said Captain America.
“Boring Old Fart says what?” snapped Olivia, landing a backward kick on Captain America’s stomach. This did little more than cause his grip to loosen, but that was all that Olivia needed to twist herself free.
Then, Olivia unleashed her fastest, most furious martial arts moves at Captain America. But he alternately blocked her with his shield and dodged her altogether. Olivia knew her only hope was to keep moving so Captain America’s punched and chops always failed to connect. By the time she wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep it up, salvation came when Hercules picked up the now-unconscious Power Man and slammed him, with tremendous force, into Captain America’s back.
“Twas good sport,” barked Hercules heartily, “but, in the end, merely sport.”
“And I’ve taken care of the Knight.” gloated Philip, holding his own sword in one hand and the Ebony Blade in the other.
On the ship’s bridge, Nebula watched the attacking fleet of ships, all but one part of the Skrull armada, on the monitors as she conferred with the ship’s helmsman. “We have an opening.” she said. “Prepare to fire the particle-beam cannon at the Titanian ship.”
“Ready.” said the helmsman.
“FIRE!” commanded Nebula.
The Titanian ship, by far the most powerful of the attackers, exploded in a colossal fireball. The Skrull ships frantically broke formation, trying to avoid being consumed by the blast or shattered by the shockwave.
“Fire anti-matter torpedoes.” ordered Nebula.
Within minutes, Nebula’s ship was floating triumphantly through the debris of the enemy armada. The cheering inside the ship grew louder by the nanosecond.
“A battle well fought indeed!” remarked Hercules. “Let us partake of the celebration.”
“I’m afraid not, Herc.” said Alice, pointing at Utaan’s exit portal.
“Besides,” said Philip, “I don’t want to stick around and find out what Nebula plans to do to the Skrulls and to the Avengers.”
“I want to.” said a wickedly grinning Olivia.
“You really are a sick puppy.” opined Alice. “But it’s all for one and one for all. Now come on.”
A bit later, having finished their report to Utaan, the outworlders went their separate ways to their private quarters within Utaan’s stronghold. Hercules was downing some of the finest wine in the universe when there was a knock at his door. He opened it to find himself face-to-face with Olivia, out of costume.
“Hiya.” she said.
“Greetings, milady Olivia.” replied Hercules.
“Did I ever tell you I love the way you talk?” Olivia asked as she sashayed into the room.
“A most unusual compliment,” said a puzzled Hercules, “but nonetheless gladdening to the Prince of Power’s heart.”
Olivia posed sultrily. “I know...some other ways of gladdening your heart.”
“Say no more.” said Hercules.
After enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company, Olivia caught her breath while Hercules sat up in bed, deep in thought.
“What’s on your mind?” asked Olivia.
“This battle we fought...” he replied, “we did verily force a universe to choose the lesser of two evils. Dost that not trouble thee?”
“Nope.” she said, grinning. “All I care about is survival of the fittest.”
Hercules ruminated on this before saying, “Thou art still young. Perhaps in time, thou shall realize how complicated existence truly art.”
“Until then!” laughed Olivia, merrily hoisting a bottle of wine over her head.
NEVER THE END