The magical place called Limbo
If you have the power and the knowledge, you can gaze forth from that haunted realm and behold all there is to see, and seeing, act: it is to this end that the Winding Road has brought Margali Szardos. In her wayward youth, she believed it her destiny to become the Sorceress Supreme of Earth, but that was not to be. Instead, she and her companions, Destiny and Legion – with scars on their souls to match her own and a karmic debt that must be balanced – stand as humanity’s unheralded, unsung defenders. No one knows what they do, nor will any cheers ever celebrate their victory. Considering the alternative, that’s a small price to pay.
In her throne room, Margali observes the Fantastic Four in her crystal ball, while the ghosts of Destiny and Legion linger silently beside her. “As you foretold, Destiny, regard the Fantastic Four,” Margali tells the precog. She informs her two consultants that she has set their champions on the field of battle. However, by Hoggoth, Margali wishes Destiny’s infernal prescience extended for once to reveal the outcome!
On another time and place, just then
“I hate to say this, folks… but I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” Human Torch remarks, as he and the rest of the Fantastic Four find themselves on a planet, gazing at another planet nearby. Thing replies they’re not even close. “Extraordinary!” Mister Fantastic exclaims. “To say the least,” Invisible Woman agrees. Judging from the local topography, Reed believes they’re standing on the same spot as when they disappeared. They’re still on the moon, in the blue area where there’s a breathable atmosphere. Impossible as it appears, the planet they’re gazing at is the Earth. He deduces the only logical explanation is that they’ve moved in time, either to the future or to some parallel dimension.
“Wherever, whenever, stretch,” Ben grumps. It seems to him there’ve been a lot of changes while they were gone. Reed asks him to look around himself. A moment ago, they were in the habitat of the Watcher, a structure human science can’t even comprehend, much less destroy. Yet here, it’s vanished without a trace. What force could have persuaded that celestial being to leave? Or worse, compelled him? “Maybe the same one responsible for redecorating the world, Reed?” Johnny remarks. He wonders what this thing akin to a “ring” around the other planet they’re gazing at is.
Reed explains it’s a torus, a great donut ring occupying a geosynchronous orbit at 22,600 miles above the surface, so that is rotates in perfect synch with the planet, anchored by pylons spaced at equidistant intervals around the equator. Reed admires it: it’s an utterly magnificent feat of engineering. But Heaven only knows its purpose.
Johnny asks him if he has any idea what happened to them. Reed has a theory. Somehow during their battle with Ronan the Accuser, the energies of the device he was attempting to steal, activated Reed’s experimental fold space transceptor. The transceptor was intended to allow near-instantaneous transports over planetary distances. Reed hoped it would prove an expeditious and environmentally friendly means of travel than spending days in a spacecraft and exhausting tons of propellant. Regrettably, there are few glitches in the system: it ‘folds’ space in too many directions, without a precise target lock. Ben puts it more elegantly: each time they use it is a crapshoot! They might never find their way home. Reed indeed fears so.
Suddenly, Sue points over a rise ahead. The team beholds a gigantic sculpture, a cluster of four forms: statues of Mister Fantastic, Human Torch, Thing and… Dr. Doom! Johnny assumes Alicia Masters finished that sculpture they saw her working on. Sue notices it has the look of some kind of memorial… only Dr. Doom is their oldest foe. Why is he standing amongst them? Where is she? Has it something to do with her transformation? The “mannequin” creature that Ronan infected her with didn’t simply make her his slave… it’s turning her into something alien!
Ben addresses Reed: he’s the “big brain” and the leader of the Fantastic Four; does he have an answer for his wife? He tells Sue they saw a scene from what may be this timeline, when Alicia was carving the model for this statue. Reed must have found her a cure, because she looked as fine and normal as ever. Sue wonders why that doesn’t sound like good news. Rest admits he can imagine any number of circumstances wherein they and Dr. Doom might form an alliance. But he refuses to accept the rest of what they beheld. Increasingly uneasy, Sue asks him what he’s talking about.
Human Torch reveals that the plaque of the sculpture says it all: “Erected in loving memory of these gallant saviors of humanity, who gave their lives that the universe might live…” It’s signed, Susan Storm Richards… Baroness von Doom! “That’s insane!” Sue snaps. Reed agrees; however, he confesses Ben, Johnny and he all saw her wearing Doom’s colors. Their son, Franklin, was with her, all grown-up. So was his teenage sister; Sue’s daughter. Doom’s daughter. “No!” Sue cries.
Ben urges them to snap out of it. How many wacko futures have they seen in their time? There’s no guarantee whatsoever this one’s for real. He asks them to remember Dickens: knowing what’s to come, just like Scrooge, they have the power to maybe change it. In the meanwhile, their first order of business is getting themselves home. For all they know, they’re still inside the Watcher’s house. Maybe this is one of his fancy illusions. At least, they’ve got company. Whatever happened, it looks like Iron Man got caught up in it with them.
Indeed, Ben motions them overhead. A flying Iron Man is approaching… and then, quite unexpectedly, begins blasting them! “Hey! What gives?” Ben roars. That transceptor gizmo must have made Iron Man’s systems go all haywire, same as last time! Invisible Woman admits she doesn’t care if he’s an Avenger… nobody attacks the Fantastic Four! She decides to see how well his fancy armor stands up to her invisible force field and instantly strikes him, throwing him off balance.
Puzzled, Reed wonders: is it the light here or are the colors of his armor… Suddenly, he alerts the team: the Scarlet Witch! A curiously blue-skinned Scarlet Witch lunges at them, just as Johnny realizes her hex power triggered a moonquake! Johnny grabs Sue and flies upwards. Reed pleads him to get both her and himself clear: stratagem 47! Johnny complies: as good as done, he tells him; they’re history!
Mister Fantastic’s already pliable hand stretches further and Reed urges Ben to grab it. Ben admits he’d love to oblige, but he’s kind of otherwise engaged. A blue-skinned Giant Man is about to pummel him with his gigantic fist, shouting “for the enemies of the Empire… there is but one fate!” He then slams his fist on Ben. Undeterred, Ben lifts the weight of Giant Man’s fist and mocks him. If Ben had a buck for every time he heard a variation on that theme, he’d make Bill Gates look poor!
Ben then uses his strength and manages to topple his adversary over. He then jumps on his opponent’s belly, arguing that he may have the size of Giant Man and some of his looks, but the big man’s moves, no way! He suddenly questions aloud: since when is Hank Pym’s face blue? “Ben, old friend… duck!” Reed suddenly shouts. Ben complies and manages to avoid a shield hurled at him by a blue-skinned Captain America. Cap proclaims that, despite their momentary advantage, their position is hopeless. He asks them to yield… or face the wrath of the Kree Avengers!
Ben mumbles there’s no question about it: this is the one future that they’re most definitively changing! Overhead, he sees an airship about to land. Johnny is heard from within the ship. Reed explains to Ben it’s stratagem 47: classic misdirection. He made their foes think Johnny’s running away, when in fact he was off to find them some transport. Further battle serves no purpose; what they need are answers.
Invisible Woman encases Ben and Reed in one of her force-fields, just as the Kree Iron Man realizes they’re escaping and vows to bring them down! “In your dreams, metalmouth,” Johnny scoffs at him, while piloting the ship. Sue asks Johnny whether she should block the Kree Iron Man’s blasters with her force field. Johnny suggests she concentrates on getting the others aboard. This guy’s such a lousy shot, Johnny can fly rings around him! As Ben gets aboard, he huffs: since when did Johnny become such a good pilot? Johnny admits he learned from the best: watching Ben. Ben quips he now knows the universe is upside down: the Human Torch just paid him a compliment! “Only ‘cause it makes you even more crazy,” Johnny giggles. Ben is surprised the kid’s learning subtlety; what’s next, he joins the Yancy Street Gang?
Sitting on the pilot’s chair, he asks Reed where they’re headed. “Earth,” Reed replies. Ben asks him if he figures all this happened because of that gizmo Ronan stole. Reed admits there’s insufficient data. He doesn’t figure anything as yet, beyond the obvious. He realizes, though, for the Kree to assume the identities of the Earth’s greatest heroes and for this monstrous station to be built, the entire social and political order of the planet must have been overthrown. Ben asks him if he figures that’s what the statue’s all about. Doubtful since it memorializes humanity’s saviors, Reed thinks. What truly disturbs him is the timeframe involved. They aren’t that far beyond their own era. Whatever brings about this transformation, it will happen fairly soon.
With the ship approaching this reality’s Earth, Reed notices the surface is completely different. None of the continents looks even remotely the same. Johnny points them at something else: if Reed thinks that statue and doughnut ring were impressive, he can get a load of this! What they all behold underneath them, on the ground, is a skeleton of monstrous proportions. It’s fantastic, Reed says. They’re at 200K, the same basic orbital altitude at the space shuttle and the bones of these skeleton reach even higher!
Ben surprises everyone: he knows what it is. “Will wonders never cease, since that’s generally Reed’s department,” Johnny banters. Reed shushes him and asks Ben if he cares to enlighten them. Ben explains that’s a creature the X-Men have encountered, a space-faring sentient species called the Acanti. In known space, they’ve got only one enemy, a race that enslaves them as their living starships: the Brood! Basically, the Brood are bugs. In Reed’s terms, they’re as merciless as a great white shark, as rapacious as army ants, as brilliant as they come. They find an exploitable world, they eat it alive, same as they do the Acanti. You get in their way, you pretty much die. The only folks who’ve ever stopped them are the X-Men.
“No offense, Benjy,” Johnny tells him – but how is it he’s such a font of this particular wisdom? Ben explains that he and Carol Danvers were buds. Before she was an Avenger, she hung out with the X-Men. The Brood monkeying with her genetic structure is part of what transformed her into Binary and from there, to Warbird. She doesn’t like talking about what happened. Ben figures it wasn’t very pleasant. Question is: are the Kree Avengers and that torus a last line of defense to keep the buggies out or to make sure Earth is as far as they go?
“Fools!” the Kree Iron Man suddenly roars as he propels himself towards them. He knew once they entered the planetary atmosphere, they’d slow enough for him to catch them. He wishes Pama will guide his aim and allow him to destroy these interlopers before they enter the interdiction zone! Saying this, he blasts the ship. Ben announces they’re hit. He’s losing thrusters, he’s got red lines across the board. If they take another shot like that, they’re done for!
Johnny tells Ben to leave this bargain-basement knock-off shellhead to him and opens a hatch that leads him outside the shuttle, protected inside Sue’s force bubble. As Johnny darts at his opponent, he ponders that what’s happening to Sue is so weird. He knows she’s his sister but every time he looks at her, she gives him the creeps; way worse than Ben ever did when he first became the Thing. He wonders: is it just him? Or do the others feel the same? And what happens if it gets worse? He decides they’ll deal with it, just like they’ll deal with this little problem, the Kree Iron Man.
Johnny flames on and finally faces the Kree. Kree Iron Man zaps Johnny but misses him – only barely. Johnny realizes this guy’s almost as good as the real deal. No matter which way Johnny hits him, his armor comes up with some gun or other to knock him down. The Kree Iron Man gloats: did Human Torch think he was unprepared for the likes of him? They train against the combat simulacrums of the greatest heroes in the Earth’s history. He has beaten the best his race has to offer! Johnny admits he’s suitably impressed!
On the ship, Sue tells Reed that this ‘Iron Man’ uses a far greater variety of weapons than the one they know, and they’re more powerful as well! She doesn’t know if she can deflect them all. Reed asks Ben on their status. Ben replies that if his wife has the moxie to spare, how’s about she uses her force field to hold this crate together ‘til he finds them a place to land?
Outside, the Human Torch realizes the quinjet’s is in bad shape; he has to end this now! He envelops Kree Iron Man in a globe of fire, to overload his sensor array and push his life support systems to the max. Then, he punches in with a focused blast of nova intensity flame. He doesn’t want to hurt the man himself, but this should fry every electronic circuit in his suit.
Suddenly, though, Johnny realizes he may be a little too far behind the technology curve. The Kree Iron Man is absorbing the full force of his attack! The Kree admits that the power unleashed by Human Torch matches that of a starship… but his surpasses it! He then releases a tremendous blast on Johnny. Johnny realizes this was some kind of pulse-cannon. That was his best shot; what the heck does he do now?
The Kree Iron Man’s blasts clips on the ribs of the Acanti skeleton. As the quinjet flies right through it, Ben realizes it’s coming right for them and tells Sue he needs her force-field: she has to give all she’s got or they’re goners! Sue complies and protects them with a force-field from the falling rib. Ben applauds her. However, the impact throws them into a flat spin. Ben realizes the quinjet’s too badly hurt: controls are sluggish, they don’t have the engine trust to regain flight stability. He apologizes to Sue but they’re going to need her again, to save their bacon! And Reed, too.
Ben uses Sue’s force field to blunt the impact of the crash and Reed’s elastic body to make like a cushion around the three of them, so they don’t get squished. He then spots the roof of a skyscraper under them and reckons it looks like as good a place as any to aim for. He asks everybody to hang on… this is going to be rough! Indeed, the ship crash-lands on the roof and the team emerges from its remains. Ben quips it’s just like they said in flight school: any landing you can walk away from! Sue retorts that’s easy for him to say; she can barely stand. She’s never felt so exhausted.
Watching all around him, Reed remarks this is incredible. The decomposition of the Acanti carcass has led to a whole-sale reordering of the local ecology. From the confluence of phylum and species, he gathers it must be a hothouse of hyper-accelerated evolution. Ben, on the other hand, admits he’s kind of glad to be viewing it from a distance. Some of those critters – namely, some dinosaur-like beings – strike him as pretty darn nasty. “Amen to that old friend,” Reed remarks and wonders where Johnny is… and then discerns a flash up in the stratosphere!
Ben explains that Johnny and the shellhead are slugging it out toe-to-toe; kid’s giving it all he’s got! Reed notices it isn’t enough. Ben believes there’s got to be some way they can help. “There is!” Reed argues… and then they see Johnny nose-diving to the ground as Reed uses his pliable body as a safety net and tells Johnny to relax his body as he catches him.
The Kree Iron Man propels himself downwards and admits that, when he scanned the histories of their exploits, he did not believe it. They had to be exaggerations, if not outright lies. No one could possess such courage or time and overcome apparently hopeless odds. However, he stands corrected. And he thanks the gods with all their heart and soul that he will have supreme honor of bringing their legend to its end…
Suddenly, the Kree is shot in his chest by an arrow and collapses to the ground, courtesy of two armed warriors, a man and a woman. “Amateur!” the woman pronounces with disdain. “If you want a foe dead, then kill them! Don’t waste your time with speeches!” she grunts. The man tells the team not to be alarmed; they’re here as friends. He introduces himself as Lucas and his partner as Redwing. Ben wonders: why does he feel their being here isn’t an accident? Reed replies that, whatever the reason, their arrival couldn’t have been more fortuitous.
Lucas tells Redwing that’s really them, right on schedule, right where they where predicted. Reed asks him what’s that he says; predicted by whom? They have so many questions; some explanations would be greatly appreciated. “We talk, we’re ghosts,” Redwing retorts. They’ve been static too long already. They’re on a mission. The Fantastic Four are part of it but she doesn’t much like that. She knows their reputation from history; she doesn’t know them. That means she doesn’t trust easy. Reed defies her by stating that sentiment cuts both ways. Lucas apologizes for Redwing: she has no respect. Redwing retorts that respect is like trust. It has to be earned. She then tells Lucas to move: clock’s running, window’s closing. They have one shot at success; she refuses to waste it.
As they slide on a ramp and proceed in the interior of the skyscraper, Reed admits they owe them both for saving the Human Torch. “Was it necessary to kill?” Johnny asks them. Redwing explains that those Kree pseudos consider any human walking the surface as fair game. They hunt them for sport; almost to extinction. So, they pay them back in kind. “How did this happen?” Reed wonders. Lucan can’t say for certain; all they know are stories. There was a cataclysm that changed the shape of the universe itself. It could have been a war or maybe something natural; nobody’s left from those days to tell. When it was done, the Kree ruled Earth.
That’s when the killing started. Whatever their plan, it backfired. Try as they might, they couldn’t kill them all. All the survivors got meaner, tougher, smarter. They don’t have their tech, they don’t have their powers, but they’ve learned to beat them all the same. That’s why they don’t come dirtside much anymore. Now, they hunt them.
They’d have reclaimed their world and their freedom… but then the Acanti came – carrying the bugs. “The Brood, ya mean?” Ben asks. Lucas explains they thought at first they were some new horror tossed out by the Kree but the Blues are more spooked by the bugs than they are. As for the bugs, they don’t care who they kill. Human or Kree, makes no difference. To them, they’re all meat. Thing is, they don’t kill indiscriminately. There’s a purpose to their butchery. If one has a talent or especially a super-power, one is assimilated into the genetic structure of the Queen. She then passes those abilities on to her offspring. She’s their target.
“Lucas… just ahead of you… that wall!” Reed suddenly cautions him, as they’re all walking along a corridor. The wall gives way as a number of Brood burst through it! “Intruders, my brothers!” one of them hisses in delight. “Fools on a fool’s errand, to trespass in the royal hive. Slay them!” it orders its companions. “Defensive configuration, everyone! Nobody works, solo!” Reed shouts. Their only hope is to take them as a team! Reed immediately grabs the leader with his malleable form and tells Torch to catch him on the rebound. Johnny asks him what his limits are. “Sadly, none,” Reed replies. The Brood seems incapable of restraint or mercy. Johnny asks him to say now more: he knows what he has to do and flames on the Brood.
Sue blocks the hole on the wall created by the invading Brood, but she doesn’t know how long she can sustain the barrier. Next to her, Ben pummels on the Brood, confessing that these critters are as tough as they are ugly! It takes his best Monday nitro haymaker just to get their attention! He hates to state the obvious but these sure ain’t the Brood Carol described: they’re worse!
Suddenly, they see Brood approaching in the corridor behind them! Johnny generates a wall of near-nova intensity flame to keep them back. However, like Sue, at this level of combat, his limits are pretty darn finite. Ben keeps count: they’ve hit them from a wall and from behind, so that leaves four more directions they can choose from. The longer the team stays, the better their assessment of their capabilities. Reed agrees. These attacks show the hallmarks of a fairly sophisticated strategy. He suspects, once their assessment is complete, their next attack will be overwhelming. Which means they could sure use a brilliant idea, Ben adds. “In process, old friend,” Reed promises.
Suddenly, he exclaims “There they are!” Before the attack, he managed to tag Lucas and Redwing with a scan-lock. Now, he sees they’re fifty levels beneath them. Bio-telemetry indicates they’re in a serious scrap themselves. They need to join them. Ben fiercely punches the floor and creates an escape route for the team. He wonders why they bother, since Lucas and Redwing ran out of them. Reed urges him to look past the obvious. He then informs them his scans indicate the bulk of the hive’s warriors are converging in their position, leaving these two a relatively clear path to the Queen.
Ben gripes that it’s nice of them to let them know they were being used as a diversion… “Holy Mother Macree!” he suddenly howls, as the team finally reaches the desired floor only to come face to face with the enormous Brood Queen… and the Queen swats Ben away like a fly! Johnny pants that his hottest flames aren’t even scorching her shell! Reed tells him that time is of the essence. They have to find a weakness, a way to neutralize her before her warriors rally to her defense. Johnny retorts that’s easier said than done against a creature who’s all claws and spikes!
As Reed attacks, the Queen manages to slash both his uniform and his malleable flesh. Reed didn’t think it possible. She’s actually drawn blood! Sue uses her powers on the Queen and realizes she isn’t immune in her force field. Another solid hit should knock her out… and then Sue realizes something’s falling from above! Some of the Brood warriors land on Sue, who instantaneously encases herself in her force field. Johnny tells her to put her force field around her body, as tight as she can and leave the rest to him! He generates a flashfire effect that incinerates the Brood so quickly there won’t be time for the heat to leach through Sue’s force field.
Just as suddenly, Lucas lands on top of the Queen and uses his sword to cut through one of her legs. “I told you they were good, Red,” he tells his partner. “Hooray for them,” Redwing ironically replies and also crawls on top of the Queen. Lucas tells her they bought them the opportunity they need. Redwing huffs she knows the mission; he can save the story for when they’re home! As they watch, Lucas and Redwing mount their final assault, the Fantastic Four can’t help feeling a thrill of apprehension and awe. Even though they’re only humans, fast as the Queen is, they are that much faster. When blood is shed, it is never theirs. When the final blows are struck, it is not they who die… but the Queen!
The team then pilots the quinjet and blasts its way out of the roof, leading to the building’s – and hive’s – obliteration. Redwing exclaims that the battle’s won; the war continues; there are other hives. Their wild will not be free until they all destroyed. “Heads up, troops,” Ben shouts. They’ve got company: the Kree ship approaching, looking to find their corpses among the ruins. Or worse, the living captive.
Redwing tells them they should go. She apologizes to Reed. She was wrong before about him. He has earned both her trust and respect. Without him, their mission would have failed. At her hearthfire, the Fantastic Four will always be welcome. Reed insists they’d still like to help. Redwing retorts that’s not possible… and just then the team is teleported away in a puddle of light! As he vanishes, Reed mumbles that his fold space transceptor is activating. The same force that brought them to this world is sending them away! Lucas bids them farewell: they will not be forgotten.
Back at Limbo, Margali clicks on her device, while Destiny and Legion are watching her. She explains this is not Reed’s world or his home or his fate. For him, this future must ever remain not a fact but a possibility. The Fantastic Four were summoned because there was a great and terrible need. That need fulfilled, they must be returned to their rightful place and time, to continue along the proper path of their destiny. For such is the purpose of the Defenders, to stand as the last bastion of humanity, against all the myriad forces of darkness. She asks the Fantastic Four to take care until they meet again… for the very first time.