He had missed the war – the one that killed all this friends. He doesn’t even know how it started, as most information he learned about it he received from second-hand. That doesn’t really make a difference though. The bottom line is that everyone he loved died. Take the female Captain Marvel for example. He shared a bond with her more intimate than with his wife. He was in her head when she died – technically the Negaverse. However, he still felt those last few thoughts fade as she took her last steps.
Her left arm was ripped off and was with the bodies of Spider-Man, Ant-Man and Captain America’s shield, among ruins. She barely reached her arm and fell right atop of it. She knew she was gone – half her face was burned away, exposing her brain. However, she wasn’t going down without bringing him back home. When she fell, she raised her right arm to bang the golden wristbands on her arms together.
Rick Jones has spent every night wishing she hadn’t.
Today, Rick Jones sits upon a slab in a radiation suit, speaking to a stranger. He tells his companion that he and Captain Marvel had this time-share arrangement. He had the same job with two Captain Marvel’s before her. He would bang his wristbands together and Captain Marvel would take his place. He would chill in the Negaverse while she saved the day; then she’d bang her bands and he’d be back. He never thought he’d return to this world. Most of his friends died when the nuclear weapons hit – his wife, Marlo, included. However, one guy actually prospered, and Rick is responsible for his creation.
While most people died from the nuclear fallout, his friend just soaked up the radiation and became stronger. The extra power brought out the worst in him. He has terrorized the world since and nothing can stop him. They should face the truth – the only thing that could ever stop the Hulk, is the Hulk.
Proteus, in the body of the Hulk from the year 2099, tells Rick Jones that this is his lucky day, since he happened along. He then mentions how Rick didn’t bat an eye when Proteus mentioned that he was from an alternate reality. Rick gets up and reminds Proteus that universe-hopping is an old hat for him. Proteus remembers, and then guesses Rick wants him to find this bad Hulk and take him down. Maestro, says Rick. He calls himself the Maestro. People are too scared to tell him how dumb the name is. Proteus asks Rick if he is afraid of the Maestro, but Rick responds that he stopped being afraid when he held his wife in a dust pan.
Right, says Proteus. He will be off to pick a fight then. Not without a weapon, says Rick sternly. To be clear, Rick isn’t asking Proteus to beat up Maestro. He wants Maestro dead. Proteus bears his dangerously long nails and tells Rick that nothing will be left of the Maestro when he is done.
First thing is first, orders Power Princess as she surveys her new headquarters. This dreadful lighting has to go!
Annoyed and unimpressed, Heather Hudson walks over to Power Princess and tells her to guess again. Their first priority is to get her and Spider-Man into the infirmary. Zarda tells Heather that she is not ill, but Heather explains that Proteus cannot take their bodies if there is metal in it, so she is going to put a strip of steel into their heads like she did for Blink, Morph and Sabretooth already.
Not really paying Heather much mind, Zarda pushes the woman away by her face and then announces that this light gives her a headache. She points to a sovereign caste worker and tells it to fix the problem. Scared, the worker complies. It reduces the intensity to a more human friendly level – much to the surprise of Heather. Frustrated, Heather yells at the Timebreaker and claims that it never told her it could do that. You never asked, replies to Timebreaker, who raises its arms to protect itself.
Zarda then turns to the Exiles and explains that she will now plan out a strategy to catch Proteus, whom the Exiles let loose. Morph shifts into a general’s outfit and tells Power Princess that she needs to learn a thing or two about their chain of command. Angry, Power Princess points her finger roughly into Morph’s chest and tells him that she is there as a courtesy to the Exiles. How many times has Proteus eluded them and how many has he killed along the way? They will finally defeat Proteus because they follow her lead now – understood? She doesn’t care how they used to run things, as it was obviously a flat out disaster.
Sabretooth tells Blink that he has had enough with Power Princess. Won’t Blink remind her of who really leads the team? Actually, replies Blink, no. Zarda is right. They have made a mess and she couldn’t even save her own boyfriend. If Zarda wants the job, then it is hers. Shocked, Morph tells Blink that he doesn’t believe reverse psychology will work. However, Heather tells Morph that Blink is serious. Blink walks out of the room and tells the group that if Power Princess thinks she can do better then they should let her try. She honestly hopes Zarda succeeds. Zarda smiles and is happy to hear Blink’s words. Admitting one’s limitations is the first step to overcoming them.
Spider-Man takes off his mask and tells Zarda that he doesn’t care who leads this team, as long as they are all on the same page. However, maybe the Exiles would be more willing to play along if she came off as a bit less severe. Perhaps she should take off her helmet once in a while. Zarda complies, but doesn’t understand how this will motivate their compliance. Upon seeing Zarda’s face, Miguel and Longshot fall in love and Miguel tells her that she probably hasn’t heard the one about “the face that launched a thousand ships.”
In a snippy tone, Heather takes a remote control and tells Zarda that this is what she is so keen on leading her troops into. The Exiles then see images of a post-nuclear holocaust world. The principal population is in North America in a rebuilt city called Dystopia. Anti-magnetic generators underground keep the radiation levels tolerable, but the wasteland glows in the dark. The people of Dystopia barely make enough to survive, and half of what they make goes to the man that rules them. In all of the multi-verse there is no more powerful, intelligent, or corrupt version of the Hulk than this one – the Maestro.
Scanners show that, eighty years from now, a younger version of him will come to the future and take him down. It will all work out if Proteus doesn’t interfere. Unfortunately, Heather is sure Proteus loves his Hulk body and won’t mind upgrading. Morph shifts his face into that of the Hulk’s and realizes that they must duke it out with Hulk-Proteus and watch their backs for an even stronger Hulk.
Zarda, however, smiles and puts her helmet back on. She knows exactly how they will pull this off.
Proteus and Rick reach Rick’s underground hideout, full of memorabilia of fallen heroes. He looks at a silver surfboard and notes that it had to have been some shark that bit a huge chunk of it out. You could say that, replies Rick, who takes off his helmet. Is there a Silver Surfer from where Proteus comes from? The name isn’t familiar, says Proteus, as he looks at some old Iron Man armors, but it looks like this realities Iron Man was cracked open like a lobster.
Rick tells Proteus that he warned Tony Stark not to fight Proteus one-on-one, but he never listened. As he walks past some old belongings of Magneto, Dr. Strange, Thor and the Black Knight, Rick tells Proteus that he did not bring him here to look at these old things. He brought him there to give him this weapon. He then unveils a rather large metallic rifle, which Rick explains was made by the mutant Forge. It was designed specifically to kill the Maestro, but the Gravity Cops captured Forge before he could use it. How would Proteus like to go Lee Harvey Oswald on Maestro?
Proteus, however, is a bit uneasy and explains to Rick that he has a small problem with metal – as in he cannot touch the stuff. Confused, Rick asks Proteus what kind of Hulk is he. You have no idea, responds Proteus. However, he has a trick or two up his sleeve that the Maestro has never seen. If Rick could just wrap the gun up in a cloth and leave a hole near the trigger it will do. Ok, says Rick, as he begins to adjust the grip to fit Proteus’ hand.
As Proteus looks at a display case containing Wolverine’s adamantium skeleton, Rick explains that he has a schematic of Maestro’s new fortress. This device will lead Proteus right to the main reception hall. Today is the day the Maestro gives all the sycophants and sell-outs their weekly audience. He then gives Proteus a large cloak. If he puts his over his head he should be able to walk in. Really, says the surprised Proteus. That is good, because stealth is not his forte.
Rick explains to Proteus that he doesn’t have to be sneaky. Big and green means only one thing in these parts. People will get out of his way. Proteus puts on the cloak over his head and back, but asks if his claws will not be a dead giveaway. Rick points out that he really must not understand how scared people are of the Maestro. They won’t notice the fine details. Rick then leads Proteus to an elevator, which will take him to the market square. As Proteus is lifted up to the street level, Rick somberly tells him to put Bruce out of his misery…and everyone else’s.
Above, Proteus enters the market place. He thinks about how clueless Rick is, but realizes that he was useful. Proteus will have to thank him properly when he takes over this world. However, looking upon the wreck that is Dystopia, he might have to change his name from Maestro to Master-Blaster. Proteus then walks through the crowded, dirty streets, full of people that quickly get out of his way and bow down to him. His destination is the emerald fortress up ahead.
Proteus reaches the main stairway and finds no resistance from the guards; people around the area cheer for him and clap. He then reaches the main reception area, where he sees the grey-bearded Maestro sitting in his throne, wearing his battle armor. Before him are five figures in monk robes, bowing. Maestro’s vizier, however, stops Proteus and tells him to wait his turn. Proteus, however, tells the Maestro that he should really get rid of his guards. He rips off his cloak and tells the Maestro that he thought he’d have to fight his way in, but no one even questioned him!
The Maestro smiles and addresses Proteus by name, telling Proteus that this is because he ordered his men to let him in. Proteus is dismayed and confused as to how Maestro knows who he is.
The five monks before Maestro turn around and pull down their hoods, revealing that they are Power Princess, Blink, Spider-Man, Sabretooth and Longshot. Zarda smiles and tells Proteus that the Exiles were always a step behind, so she suggested that they skip ahead. Shocked, Proteus tells Zarda that she and the Squadron Supreme were to stop the Exiles. Why is she cozy with them?
As the vizier shifts back into Morph, Maestro explains that the Exiles found a better business with him. He is a reasonable man after all – whereas Proteus was crazy enough to charge into here thinking her could steal his body!
Having enough of this, Proteus reveals his weapon and tells Maestro that Forge sends his regards. He then unleashes a blast from the weapon, which blows Maestro away and through the back wall. Power Princess deflects part of the blast with her shield and covers Spider-Man. She tells her team to take cover, but Blink has a better idea and teleports the weapon away.
Proteus asks Blink if she thinks she has really disarmed him, and then claps his hands together, causing a concussive force that knocks the Exiles down. Proteus then leaps after the Maestro, as they have a transaction to complete. Proteus gets the Maestro’s endless strength, and the Maestro gets sweet oblivion. The Exiles watch and worry as Proteus leaves Hulk’s body for the Maestro’s, but before he can enter, the Maestro reels in pain! The Maestro chuckles, and then shifts back into Morph, telling Proteus that the pain is the piece of metal in his head! He fell for the old bait-and-switch.
Proteus is taken aback by this trickery, giving Spider-Man time to web up his face. However, this causes Proteus to lose control, as he starts attacking wildly, causing the roof and pillars to collapse. As the Exiles scramble, Zarda grabs one of Longshot’s knives and tells the group that this will finish now. Longshot explains that his blades will not penetrate Hulk’s hide, but a determined Zarda explains that it will with her arm.
Morph gets out of the rubble and weakly asks if they got Proteus. Behind Morph emerges a large green form, which Zarda quickly throws the knife at. The knife hits the monster’s back and penetrates, causing the green giant to scream in pain. Longshot and Morph are happy and impressed, but Sabretooth begins to sniff the air and realizes that they have made a mistake.
As the dust clears, the Exiles see Proteus lying under rubble, while Maestro stands before him with Longshot’s knife in his back!
“That thing I said about being a reasonable man…?” tells an angry Maestro, “FORGET IT!”