Inside the Kremlin, Moscow, Dr Tania Belinksy a.k.a. the long-suffering Starlight, and Sergei Krylov a.k.a. the diabolical Presence approach a coffin lying on display. Tania tells her beloved that they must be swift, as they still cannot stay in inhabited areas long without contaminating them. ‘And we have come to this chamber often’ she reminds Sergei. ‘Yes, yes. We cannot alarm them, cannot cause them worry. We brought them the body of my son - my son - but still they fear us, and we must remain quantum-shifted that they may not see or hear us. And we can only snatch moments with him. Oh, Nicolai…my son…!’
‘They honor him, Sergei. As a hero of the motherland’ Tania declares as they stand beside the glass coffin, holding one of Russia’s champions of the people. ‘As a hero. Pah! A dead hero!’ The Presence retorts. Sergei reminds his lover that he sacrificed his humanity for power, and received it - but it is a power that cuts him off from his homeland, his people, from everyone he loves except she. ‘And for all that cost - all this great power - I cannot prevent my country’s crashing from greatness into chaos, dissolution and ruin. Cannot even save my own son’.
In all of Russia there are none more powerful than Sergei Krylov and Tania Belinsky. And none more feared. ‘It is not enough. I have power - am power - and I shall act!’ the Presence shouts. Tania tells Sergei that the guards here are innocent. ‘If you unleash your power -’ she begins, but the Presence raises a hand: ‘Silence, woman!’ he snaps, standing over his son’s body, he declares that he is not about to go on some mad rampage, and tells her to return to the Forbidden Zone where they live in isolation, while he alters his physical state once more, to seek the truth! And with that, the Presence alters his atoms, becoming intangible, microscopic, and enters the body of his son.
The government keeps Vanguard’s corpse preserved in gasses designed by the Presence, both thinking that the gasses prevented decay. But as the Presence plunged deep within Vanguard’s atomic structure, into the space between atoms, he discovers that this was not so. Vanguard’s power gave him certain control over energy as well, and on an infinitesimal level, faint and undetectable from outside, a trace of that energy remained, keeping Vanguard alive - a faint spark of life glowing weakly at his core. The Presence adds his own power to it, giving it willingly, gladly - and though it takes virtually all the vast fires within him, he drained himself, giving his son the energies of his heart and soul - and that small spark within Vanguard flickers and flashes…
….and Vanguard convulses and bursts through the glass coffin as he comes to life. The guard nearby is shocked, while an exhausted Presence remains adrift at the subatomic level of reality - for many, many months, drifting, regaining his strength, studying and learning, he saw how the energy that permeates matter, the energy of life itself, functions and harmonizes, replicating and glows - he makes a fascinating discovery….
Several days ago:
In the area known as the Forbidden Zone, Khystym, Siberia. A lonely Starlight sits in the desolate region, when suddenly, ‘I have returned! And with me I bring salvation!’ the Presence booms as he appears behind Starlight, who is shocked to see him. ‘You - you live! I had thought…’ she begins as she rushes over to Sergei. ‘Yes, yes - but that it not important, not now!’ the Presence exclaims, telling Tania to listen as he declares that their nation and its former dominions face economic collapse, and worse - they face cultural pollution from the West as outside forces seek to profit from rebuilding Russia, seeking to change her people, her very nature. ‘But I saved my son - and my discovery will save Russia as well!’ Sergei boasts.
Tania remarks that surely some level of assimilation is inevitable - ‘As people leave, as outsiders come in -’ she begins, but Sergei shouts ‘No!’ an announces that he can change Russia’s people - make them a new form of life - a nuclear form. ‘Something you and I can be part of once more!’ Sergei tells Tania as he exclaims that their people will be bound together, sharing strength, sharing life. ‘They will need only each other, and repel all efforts to change them - will be free of all poison, whether it comes in the form of force or of creeping economics!’ The Presence begins to emit a green nuclear energy as he declares that Russia will be a new land, standing alone and strong. ‘We will be powerful once again! Powerful, proud, united! And it begins…NOW!’
The Presence has returned…and heralded the salvation of his homeland with a beacon of radioactive fire that could be sensed for countless leagues….
Khystym, right now, where several of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are battling the altered Winter Guard. ‘Strike, Avengers! Strike hard - and sure!’ the mighty Thor booms as he blasts one of the unrecognizable Winter Guard members backwards. Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America takes on the transformed Vanguard, while Dane Whitman a.k.a. the Black Knight defends himself against the transformed Josef Petkus a.k.a. Steel Guardian. Thor tells his allies to force the unnatural creatures back lest they overwhelm them. ‘And after us, the world!’. Suddenly, Bonita “Firebird” Juarez calls out to Thor as one of the Winter Guard moves towards her, unfazed by her power. ‘They’re surrounding us - boxing me in!’ Bonita exclaims, when suddenly Pietro “Quicksilver” Maximoff speeds across the uneven landscape and grabs her. ‘Quicksilver!’ Bonita exclaims. ‘I have you, Firebird! But this battle - we’re accomplishing nothing!’ the speedster exclaims.
It was only hours ago that the time travelling Kang the Conqueror addressed the United Nations and spoke of dangerous futures, of threats he’d witnessed. He spoke of a menace from the East - a menace whose very touch would be poisonous - would transform others into beings like them. He said that if unchecked, this threat or others would end humanity - and only he could guide the world through the dangers to come. And as these Avengers battle what was once the scientists, soldiers and super heroes who investigated the Forbidden Zone - it appears that Kang may have been right.
Quicksilver calls out to Captain America, telling him that the only way to stop these radioactive freaks is at the source, by getting to the Presence. Pietro adds that they cannot get through them if they can’t fight them, and points out that they are soaking up Thor and Firebird’s power like it is a cool drink. The speedster exclaims that there must be anti-radiation foam back at the sentry stations on the borders of this hellish place. ‘Maybe that will have an effect!’ Pietro exclaims. ‘Good thinking!’ Captain American exclaims, before telling Pietro to go. Thor agrees and remarks that Quicksilver’s time in the Inhumans’ Militia has taught him well. ‘He thinks like a leader of men’ Thor declares. Pietro replies that he has learned a lot about tactics in the time he was becoming a failure as a husband and a man, before speeding off. ‘Black Knight! Incoming - two o’clock!’ Captain America calls out as the battle rages.
But that wasn’t all Kang said, for on Prince Edward Island in Canada, a battle rages. Kang announced that he would conquer the world in order to save it - and that anyone who seized territory in his name would have a place in the new order. Among those who took up on his offer was Attuma, the usurper warlord of Atlantis. Right now, another squad of Avengers battle Attuma’s Atlantean warriors, and the giant creature called Torg, while a contingent of soldiers tries to help the Avengers. Janet van Dyne a.k.a. the Wasp calls out to Jack Hart a.k.a. Jack of Hearts and Wanda Maximoff a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch, telling them to concentrate their power on the monster, as he is the key to driving back the invaders, before telling Delroy “Triathlon” Garrett that the two of them will focus on the troops. ‘Fine by me, Wasp - these bubble-heads are more my speed, anyway!’ Triathlon replies.
Jack of Hearts blasts Torg in the face, while telling Wanda that this guy is no slouch. ‘If I really open up, it could endanger the Canadian troops!’ Jack exclaims. The Scarlet Witch tells Jack to fall back and announces that she will try to reach his mind, hoping she can put him to sleep - but too late, as Torg lashes out at Jack, knocking him to the dirt. ‘Blast it - where’s Hank? We could really use the strength of Goliath right about -’ Wanda begins, when, as if on cue, Hank Pym appears - but as Yellowjacket, singing ‘Here I come to save the day!’. ‘Huh?’ Wanda gasps, while Hank’s wife, the Wasp, flies over, also confused. ‘Save your cheers for later, gals - cause I’m about to wrap this up with a dose of hand-dandy one of a kind bio-disruptor blasts!’ Yellowjacket exclaims as he blasts Torg with the bio-disruptor. But the angry Torg swats Yellowjacket away. ‘Okay, okay - looks like it’s gonna take more than one shot!’ Hank mutters.
As the battle rages, two beings stand on an Atlantean vessel observing. Attuma tells Serestus that Torg fights well, and that it was good they found him in the frozen north and that the control pearl keeps him a mindless slave. ‘Hag! The Avengers should have come in greater numbers, eh?’ Attuma adds, boasting that they could have crushed more of them. ‘Please Lord Attuma! This is difficult - and I must concentrate!’ Serestus exclaims, holding the pearl which keeps Torg under control.
Meanwhile, in Wuwei, China, another bid for territory rages, this one at the hands of the hidden offshoots of humanity known as the Deviants. ‘Hey, fellas! Hope you can get a refund from whoever sold you these big old robo-tanks - cause this one is toast!’ Jennifer Walters a.k.a. the She-Hulk exclaims as she holds one of the Deviant tanks over her head. Maria De Guadalupe Santiago a.k.a. Silverclaw has turned herself into a snake as she tangles herself around one of the Deviants, while Natasha Romanova a.k.a. the Black Widow uses her skilled fighting abilities, the android Vision takes down several Deviants at once, and Carol “Warbird” Danvers unleashes a powerful blast of energy.
‘Fall back! Fall back!’ one of the Deviants calls out, exclaiming that they must regroup, and boasts that they will still know triumph in the battle. ‘The Deviants know no fear - and will never be defeated!’ he exclaims. ‘Sure, sure. That’s why you’re scuttling back underground like roaches, right?’ Carol remarks, offering to help them along as she throws blasts of energy at them. And soon, Carol drops down beside Natasha, ‘Okay, that’s that - for now’ she remarks, adding that she doesn’t know why the Deviants are in China, and that they will have to go after them once they have caught their breath. Carol asks the Black Widow if she can tell the Chinese troopers what they Avengers are up to, and coordinate with them. ‘My Chinese is a little rusty’ she explains. ‘Of course’ Natasha replies.
The Vision approaches Warbird and asks her how she is doing. ‘I think we’re doing fine, Vision’ Carol replies, pointing out that this squad has not had much experience working together, but she is glad that Silverclaw, She-Hulk and Black Widow were available and that they have got the situation under control for the moment. ‘We’ve got to plan an attack -’ she begins, before the Vision tells her that is not what he meant, pointing out that Carol has focused on the mission since they left New York, allowing nothing else to enter her mind. ‘I think that is a reaction to the unexpected appearance of the Scarlet Centurion. That must be…troubling…’ the Vision exclaims.
Carol smiles and tells the Vision that he is a good friend and that it is nice to know she has the support, that someone cares. ‘But I’m fine’ she assures him, adding that she was a little shocked. ‘It’s nothing, really…’ she begins, her mind wandering back to her recent encounter with the Scarlet Centurion, who told her that he hopes there will be peace between them. ‘…it’s nothing’ a wide-eyed Carol tells the Vision. ‘Is it?’ the Vision asks. ‘I…no.’ Carol replies, while the She-Hulk smiles, ‘Some fight, huh, Silverclaw? I’ll tell you, when Jan called, I’d been in depositions all week - and man, it feels good to break things!’ the renowned lawyer exclaims, though Silverclaw does not respond, instead she watches Warbird, concerned.
Meanwhile, back in Khystym, Quicksilver has returned, and the five heroes are armed with anti-radiation weapons, and are using them to squirt foam at the radioactive Winter Guard and others. ‘It’s working! It’s working!’ Firebird exclaims, while the Black Knight reminds everyone that these are the Winter Guard and innocent scientists. ‘They’re not themselves!’ he exclaims, pointing out that they want to stop them, not kill them. ‘We are surrounded by deadly foes - our avenue of retreat cut off - and your first thought id of their safety? It’s good to be an Avenger again!’ Quicksilver exclaims.
‘Enough chatter!’ Captain America orders, telling the Avengers to fight carefully and not to waste the foam, as it is the only weapon they have. Suddenly, the weapons all combust, exploding foam all over the Avengers. ‘The canisters - it’s as if they’re being super-heated from inside, by microwaves, or -’ Dane begins, when suddenly, a bright green light engulfs the area, and a horrid voice exclaims ‘You still live, Avengers?’. ‘Oh yeah. Or by him’ Dane mumbles as the diabolical Presence comes into view, with Starlight at his side, and the radioactive beings surrounding them.
‘When I left you, I thought my followers would have disposed of you far sooner than this!’ the Presence exclaims. ‘We don’t fall that easily, Presence!’ Captain America retorts. ‘Pff. You are invaders. Impure and unclean. But that - that can be remedied!’ the Presence exclaims. ‘No, Sergei. They…they are not Russians. They do not belong here!’ Tania exclaims. ‘Starlight?’ the Presence replies, frowning, before Starlight suggests to the Presence that he sends them home, to let them serve as a message to the world not to annoy them. ‘We want to talk, Presence. These people - if you’ve mutilated them unwillingly, if you’ve got hostile intentions…’ Captain America exclaims.
‘I think not, Starlight. I originally intended my gift for Russia alone, yes, but you know I have rethought that. We will not be safe, not be left in peace - not while any oppose us!’ With that, the Presence raises his hands - and unleashes his deadly power on the Avengers. Earths Mightiest Heroes feel their skin burn away…and their hearts rupture….
Back in Canada, Yellowjacket rides a hover-disc as he darts around Torg, blasting him with the bio-disruptor. ‘That’s it, big and hairy! Follow the birdie - away from the nice soldiers!’ Hank exclaims. ‘No, Torg! Forward - crush them!’ Serestus exclaims. Yellowjacket sees Attuma and calls out, ‘Hey, Tri-guy! Geek in the bay with the glowing sphere! Might want to check it out - but quiet!’ Hank exclaims. Triathlon races through the Atlanteans, and bounds toward Attuma, who tells Serestus that soon triumph will be all theirs. ‘Scuse me! Hi there! Mind if I borrow this? Thanks!’ Triathlon exclaims as he grabs the pearl and speeds away.
‘Huh? What…is this? What is Torg doing here?’ the creature calls out. ’Awright! Go me!’ Yellowjacket exclaims, pleased that his plan worked. ’Well, I’ll tell you, Torg - if that’s your name - right now, what you’re doing - is taking a nice, refreshing dip!’ Jack of Hearts exclaims as he flies towards the creature and knocks him into the water, also knocking Attuma and Serestus from their ship. ’Blast you!’ Attuma calls out.
Later, the Wasp meets with several of the soldiers. ’Without the monster, they retreated. And with any luck, it won’t be coming back’ someone remarks. ‘Yes, but the Atlanteans will - Attuma’s too wrapped up in ego to just walk away’ the Wasp replies, adding that if things go as she hopes, they might be able to better cover this with fewer Avengers and then handle some of the other trouble spots. ‘Hi, babe!’ Hank exclaims as he enters the tent. The Wasp excuses herself from the soldiers and approaches Hank, who smiles, ‘What, no sugar for the king? I think I was pretty key out there today’ Hank exclaims.
The Wasp tells Hank that he did fine, before asking why the identity change. ‘And why Yellowjacket? We needed strength, not -’ she begins, but Hank replies that he just felt like it, and points out that it worked. ‘We…need to talk, Hank. But later. Right now - I’ve got some business to attend to’ the Wasp exclaims as she leaves Hank and approaches Wanda, Jack and Triathlon, asking Jack of Hearts of he has a minute. ‘No - no sweat…I’ll just get some air’ Hank whispers, seeming sick, he clutches his stomach and leaves the tent.
Janet tells Jack that they have not had time to do this officially, and now that they are not up to their necks in hostile mermen, she wants to thank him for agreeing to step in while Iron Man is unavailable. ‘So welcome to the Avengers, Jack of Hearts!’ Janet adds that they will inform the press and get him his credentials as soon as they have a chance. ‘Thanks, Wasp! I’m honoured to be an Avenger - and I’m grateful for the opportunity. I just hope I won’t let the team down’ Jack exclaims, shaking the Wasp’s hand. Wanda smiles and tells Jack of Hearts to fight the way he did today and he will not have to worry about letting the team down.
‘Hmph. Big welcome for the new guy. This time, anyway’ Triathlon mutters to himself. Suddenly, a soldier informs the Wasp that a radio messages says a Doctor Newell will be here any moment. ‘That for you?’ the soldier asks. The Wasp thanks the soldier, and exclaims that is definitely for her. Moments later, the Wasp is waiting by the water front, when ‘Stingray!’ she exclaims as the one-time Avenger leaps from the water and onto land in a spectacular display. Dr Walter Newell greets Jan, explaining that he got her call and came as soon as he could. ‘I’m mostly active as an oceanographer these days - but if the Avengers need me, I’m here’ Walter explains, asking Janet what she needs. ‘It’s Attuma, Walt. We want to cut his supply lines - and I think you’re best suited to that’ the Wasp announces.
Of course Kang the Conqueror is watching as all these events transpire. ‘Hmmm. The Avengers have changed - they are more suited to a global crisis’ Kang declares, telling the Scarlet Centurion that the Avengers still have much to cope with. ‘AIM in Africa, the Wizard in Sao Paolo, armed uprisings on all continents, and more -’ Kang begins, while the Scarlet Centurion calls him father, ‘All as you wished’ he tells him, before remarking that it does not seem honorable letting others fight their battles for them. ‘Honorable? Make no mistake, Marcus - honor is a man’s greatest possession, and it must be guarded above all else. But honor is personal. War is fought through surrogates - otherwise it would merely be a duel’ Kang declares.
‘Yes, father’ Marcus replies, while Kang tells him to listen carefully, for this is not something he should mistake. ‘The true commander uses all factors that influence the outcome of a battle, not just the movements of armies. I did not wish to take advantage of the Avengers’ weakness - but I have no hesitation in causing weakness. That is our goal’ Kang explains from within their sword-shaped ship aimed high above planet Earth. ‘We did this - we set these forces in motion, in order to sow dissention and chaos. And it is working. The forces of this time are scattered, and they are unable to organize a concerted defense’.
Kang declares that now they shall take the next step - another worldwide message, this time calling for recruits to the cause of Kang. ‘Military men, outlaws and so-called “super-villains.” We shall welcome them all. Send out the call, Marcus - providing contact places and times for them to congregate’ Kang announces. Marcus points out that they already have an army massed in the future, awaiting their call. ‘Yes, we do. But against an invading army, a populace unites, becoming stronger. Against their own, however - they hesitate, choose sides - and inevitable, are lost. No go’ Kang declares. ‘Yes, father…’ Marcus replies, though he frowns as he leaves Kang’s side.
Back in China, Warbird, She-Hulk, Black Widow, Vision and Silverclaw make their way through a tunnel, while the Black Widow tells her companions that the Chinese seem to think they are insane to take on the Deviants along. ‘But they’re not going to stop us’. She adds that the Chinese have no great love for her, ‘And as far as they’re concerned the rest of us are tainted by associ-’ she doesn’t finish her sentence as the Vision informs Warbird that he is sensing seismic activity - strong, local and increasing. ‘What?’ Carol asks. ‘What he’s trying to say, fearless leader, is - EARTHQUAKE!’ She-Hulk shouts, and for a quarter-mile in all directions, the ground heaves, buckles, and gives way. The Chinese soldiers run for their lives, while Warbird grabs hold of Black Widow, the Vision becomes intangible, and Silverclaw transforms into a human-bird hybrid, enabling herself to fly. ‘Hey!’ She-Hulk shouts as she hit’s the ground, finally.
The Vision announces that his sensors indicate the effect is fading, but that the entire village is no more, having been dropped beneath the Earth’s surface. ‘But Earthquakes don’t just start and stop like that! What could have -?’ Silverclaw begins, before Carol lets some light on the situation with an energy pulse, ‘The Deviants, Silverclaw - it was the Deviants!’ she exclaims as countless Deviants surround the five Avengers. ‘Yes, human. You are in my domain now - so let us see how well you fare against us this time!’ one of the Deviants shouts.
Back in Canada, the Wasp sits at a desk, communicating with the Avengers liaison, Duane Freeman, ‘Perhaps we can send Hercules to Sao Paolo’ Janet suggests, but Duane informs her that the Human Torch is already on his way there, adding that the government wants the Avengers to concentrate on Kang, to mount an assault on him as soon as possible. ‘You’re our liaison, Duane, and in this case, we’ll let the feds make that call. We’re stretched a little thin right now, but we’ll deal with him directly as quickly as we can’ Janet replies. ‘Understood. My only fear - is that that may not be soon enough!’ Duane replies. Suddenly, ‘Madame Wasp! Quickly! Come quickly!’ a soldier calls out.
‘What on Earth -? Hank!’ the Wasp exclaims as she races towards Yellowjacket, who is lying face down on the ground, with soldiers standing around him. One of the soldiers announces that Yellowjacket was offering to teach them “Mademoiselle from Armentieres” when he gasped and fell to the ground. ‘He’s barely breathing - his pulse is erratic’ another soldier exclaims. ‘Blast it - he’d been acting oddly, but I thought it was just him getting his confidence back! Maybe it went a little far, but - oh, Hank - what’s happened to you?’ Janet exclaims, before shouting ‘HANK!’ as she sees his hand, then arm, turn transparent. ‘Starting to fade away!’ the Wasp gasps.
Back in Khystym, Bonita moans as she gets up, her costume in tatters, an eerie mist floating around her. ‘I’m - I’m alive? But what I felt - radiation of that level - it should have been more than enough to -’ she exclaims, before suddenly falling silent. Horror fills her eyes as she remembers another time she should have died but did not. That time she had ingested enough poison to kill anyone, but it did not effect her. Bonita wonders again, wishing she understood the Lord’s plan for her, and why she was chosen to receive these powers. But Firebird shakes her head, clearing her thoughts, after all, she is an Avenger, and has a job to do.
Bonita sees Thor up ahead, gathering his helmet. ‘Thor? Thor, are you all right?’ Bonita calls out. ‘Firebird?’ Thor asks as his teammate approaches him cautiously. ‘Good. The madman’s lightning could not affect me, of course, but if thou art hale, then the others must be as well’ Thor exclaims. ‘I’m - not so sure -’ Bonita begins, ‘Eh? Nonsense, girl!’ Thor exclaims, motioning to where Captain America is rising ahead of them. ‘His shield must surely have protected him - and thou, no doubt, from the onslaught’ Thor suggests.
‘Ho, Captain! Let us gather our forces and -’ Thor begins, before the radioactive hand of Captain America grabs him! ‘NO!’ Thor shouts. ‘It cannot - it cannot be!’ he gasps as the transformed Captain America, Quicksilver and Black Knight confront the and Firebird. ‘Captain America - dead? Avengers - transformed to these un-dead monstrosities?’ Thor shouts.
While, up in his ship, Kang laughs, ‘I must admit it - there is such joy in a campaign so successful!’….