He was a Soviet super weapon until the wall came crashing down. Then he found employment as an enforcer for the government of Slorenia, an Eastern European nation riven by civil war. There are many of him - robot drones each as merciless as the master that commands them. This is the dismal northern sector of the Slorenian capital, Tblunka. He is Black Brigade. And this is just business as usual. ‘Attention, citizens! That was a warning shot! Your assembly here defies martial law dictate 173. Disperse now!’ Black Brigade announces in Slorene, after firing a burst of energy from his armory. He and his drones trudge across the snow-covered ground, towards a Red Cross vehicle, where volunteers are handing out aid parcels to the locals, specifically, to the impoverished Dudak ethnic minority.
It was a harmless, desperate humanitarian gathering that now finds itself stamped on by a steel-shod foot. Most of the Dudak run, but anger impels others to turn and vent their outrage. ‘Slorene butchers! State murderers! There shall be freedom for the Dudak! You cannot kill us all!’ a man shouts. ‘Watch me try’ Black Brigade replies, before one of the angry civilians throws a Molotov cocktail, leaving a searing trail like a comet. Black Brigade feels the flames that lick about his metal bulk. He has walked - unfazed - through artillery assaults in Zagreb and Kabul. He has shrugged off 105mm shells and the depleted uranium rounds of tank-buster aircraft. Not to mention torn the guts out of T-62’s and Abrams alike.
‘Dudak vermin! You had your warnings!’ Black Brigade shouts, as, engulfed by the flames, his glove cowling spits out a series of concussive pulses, and the protestors collapse in agony, battered and bruised by the assault, helpless and ready for interrogation. Nearby, amongst the crowd, a voice suddenly calls out ‘Cripes, Witch! We gotta help ‘em!’, but Wanda Maximoff a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch tells John Walker a.k.a. USAgent not to. Both are dressed in simple peasant clothing, to blend in with the locals. But the two powerful members of the American super team known as Force Works are anything but. ‘But…Wanda!’ USAgent utters as Black Brigade and his drones set upon the Dudak protestors. ‘I said no’ Wanda exclaims, assuring her teammate that she wants to help those people as much as he does, which is why they are here. She points out that if they blow their cover now, thousands more may suffer. She tells the handsome hero to let it go and think of the bigger picture. Wanda then drags Walker back into the anonymity of the dispersing crowd.
Meantime, other, more public events are unfolding on the far side of the city, at the Slorene Parliament building itself. Reporters have gathered at a stage, where several well-dressed officials stand, in front of a Stark Enterprises helicopter. ‘And after months of negotiation, I am proud to announce the formalization of a trade agreement between our government and the American industrial giant, Stark Enterprises’ Councillor Boshlovor announces. He adds that he speaks on behalf of the entire Tabissara Assembly when he saus that this is a monumental day for Slorenia, and one that ushers in a new dawn of industrial prosperity. Councillor Boshlovor tells the ladies and gentlemen of the Press Corps that it gives him great pleasure inviting to the rostrum their highly esteemed guest - Mr Anthony Stark.
Tony Stark - not wearing his Iron Man armor of course - steps forward and thanks the Councillor. At his side, Julia “Spider-Woman” Carpenter is wearing very plain business attire and glasses. Tony addresses the audience, remarking that the fact he, an American businessman, can stand here on Slorene soil and contemplate a trade agreement speaks volumes for international diplomacy, the thawing of the Cold War, and the tenacity of the Slorenian nation. ‘You’ve seen hard times the last few years, but you’ve struggled on for your country’s welfare…I’m sure that Stark’s manufacturing program here in Slorenia can help boost the economy, offer jobs, and strengthen your international relations’.
Tony smiles as he declares that there is a saying “Never mix business with pleasure”, and remarks that he would add to that “Unless you’re doing business with the brave people of Slorenia”. ‘Bravo! Bravo!’ someone calls out, while others shout out things in their native language. With the press conference over, Tony and Julia turn away with Councillor Boshlovor and his officials, and Boshlover tells Mr Stark that he said fine words and welcome sentiments. ‘Now, perhaps I may escort you and your charming aide, Ms Carpenter, out of this chill wind! The guest suites have been prepared’ he announces. Tony thanks Boshlover, while Julia whispers under her breath ‘At last’.
Following Boshlover through a sprawling corridor, Tony and Julia listen to him as he informs them that the state banquet in Tony’s honor has been arranged for 8 o’clock tonight, which should give them time to rest after their long flight. He adds that in their suites they shall find the traditional Slorene gifts of welcome samples of local industry - a ceremonial rapier of the finest Slorene steel, and a case of aniseed vodka. ‘How very…kind’ Tony replies, adding that he has brought gifts of their own for he and the members of the Tabissara, samples of their local industries. Tony hands to Boshlovor the gift of a combination wrist-watch / micro TV unit - one of Stark’s latest products, a small token of his esteem.
‘Wonderful! Wonderful!’ Boshlovor exclaims with delight as he puts the watch on. Tony tells the Councillor that he is pleased he likes it, as it is just the sort of technology Stark Factories based here might soon be manufacturing. ‘So…can you get MTV on these?’ Boshlovor enquires as he, Tony and the officials carry on down the corridor, while Julia holds back somewhat. She smiles to herself and discretely reaches for her Force Works communication stud, contacting her teammate Century, informing him that they are in.
High above Slorenia, the Hex Ship called Pegasus holds its position, stealthily invisible to ground-based radars and detectors, a ghost-presence on the edge of orbital space. ‘Understood, Spider-Woman’ the alien Century replies, before informing her that they are maintaining a geo-synchronous position above them, and that he is ready to provide assistance the moment it is required. ‘Good to know, Century’ Julia replies, before revealing that Tony has passed one of the watch-TV’s to their “friend” Boshlovor. ‘Are you picking up its signal?’ Julia asks. ‘Confirmed. The surveillance device is functioning correctly’ Century replies. Century adds that he has received a message from the Scarlet Witch and USAgent, and that they have successfully infiltrated the Dudak sector of the city. Century assures Julia that he will keep her appraised, and asks her to be careful, before signing off. During this time, the enigmatic Recorder has watched Century. That is his task. He watches, and assesses, and waits.
Below, in one of the suites, Julia tells Tony that this is an enchanting suite, and points out that it would be ideal for his “Hello” Magazine photo-shoot. Tony tells Julia to drop the personal assistant routine now, as he sit’s a table, laptop computer in front of him, he tells Julia that the portable scrambler should be foxing any bugs that have been placed in the rooms, so they can talk freely. Julia holds up the gifts of vodka and the sword, and asks Tony what will it be - a duel at dawn or vodka slammers all around? When she gets no response she calls out ‘Earth calling Tony -?’, to which Tony tells Julia that he is sorry, but he has a lot on his mind, and doesn’t like this cloak and dagger one bit.
Tony falls silent, remembering the Force Works’ last visit to Slorenia, responding to a Chaos Alert triggered by the civil war. The ruling Slorenes and Dudak ethnic minority were at each other’s throats, and it seemed the Dudak mystical champion Ember was the main cause of all the bloodshed. When Ember a.k.a. Pavel Chenklo, the Dudak historian the Ember spirit had possessed, fell to his death in the ruins of the old palace, taking with him the ancient triptych that had given him its powers, Stark believed this bloody crisis to be over. But the others, particularly the Scarlet Witch, claimed Tony was wrong to order a withdrawal. Wanda was sure there was more to the situation than Ember’s barbaric attacks.
The Scarlet Witch cited the ruthless methods of the Slorene state protector Black Brigade as proof. But the last thing Stark wanted was to cause the type of diplomatic incident that War Machine had recently sparked in Imaya. Weeks passed, and while Stark was away in Russia, Wanda got a call from War Machine, who had just visited Slorenia himself. What War Machine had to say shed a whole new light on the Slorene situation. Rhodey told Wanda about the ethnic cleansing - of how the Slorene Tabissara were using a breed of genetic super soldiers called the Targoth - the Brutal Ones - to exterminate the Dudak. In Stark’s absence, Force Works voted to return to Slorenia and investigate further.
Standing behind a screen as she changes clothes, Julia tells Tony, who is adjusting his tie while looking out the window, that like it or not, they are here. ‘If you’d wanted to debate the issue, you shouldn’t have gone to Russia’ Julia points out, before telling Tony not to blame himself for his double life. ‘I don’t’ Tony replies, adding that, given Rhodey’s tip-off, he is sure he would have agreed to this mission anyway, but that doesn’t change the facts, one false move on their part and they can kiss their careers goodbye. Julia peers out from behind the screen and declares that is why they are playing it so carefully with this whole under cover number - so they can be sure of the situation before they show their hand. Julia adds that she thought Wanda’s suggestion to come in clandestinely was a good call.
Tony agrees, and remarks that Wanda is really thinking like a leader now, but that it puts them under double pressure. Julia supposes that the sooner they can check out Rhodey’s horror story the better. ‘You know, it’s funny…last time it was my concerns over Rhodes that made me pull the team out of Slorenia. Seems like we’ve come full circle - Jim and I have patched things up enough for him to trust me on this…and we’re getting involved here because of him rather than despite him’ Tony declares as he continues to look out the window.
Suddenly, there is a knock at the door. Spider-Woman remains behind the screen, while Tony calls out ‘Come in!’, and an official enters the room, informing Tony that the banquet is about to start. Tony thanks the official and replies that he will be down at once, before asking the official to tell Councillor Boshlovor that his assistant will not be attending, as she is jet-lagged. ‘Certainly’ the official replies. When the official leaves, Tony asks Julia if she is decent. Now wearing her Spider-Woman costume, Julia steps out from behind the screen and replies ‘Matter of opinion’, before telling Tony to have a nice time at the banquet. ‘Right. Just be careful snooping around…real careful’ Tony warns Julia as she climbs out the window, and crawls down the side of the castle.
Meantime, in a dark and echoing place, the air smells of damp rock, rubber cabling, ozone and bare metal, all scrubbed raw by the reek of disinfectant. Behind that, there is another, less definable scent lingering in the air - despair, maybe hopelessness, perhaps grief. It is a dark, echoing place…six hundred meters straight down beneath the parliament building…. In amongst the various scientific equipment, wires connect to platforms, where civilians are held prisoners. From a ledge, Councillor Boshlovor stands with the mysterious Supreme Commander, informing him that at the banquet tonight he intends to press Stark over the precise details of the arrangement. The Supreme Commander replies that he looks forward to Boshlover’s report.
Hidden in shadows, the Supreme Commander adds that it is strange, ho foreign interlopers add speed to their purpose. He declares that if it had not been for the visit of the meddling Yankee super heroes, Force Works, they could not have advanced the completion of this facility where they now stand. The Supreme Commander adds that now the progam itself will become a thousand times more efficient thanks to the apparatus Stark can supply. Boshlovor declares that Stark is full of technological marvels. ‘See these television-watches?’ he asks, handing the device to the Commander, adding that there are gifts for each one of them in the eleven-fold. ‘Most impressive -’ the Supreme Commander remarks, before he keels over.
Bosholovor calls out to the Supreme Commander, who leans against the railing. ‘Black Brigade! Attend me!’ the Supreme Commander orders. Black Brigade rushes over, and the Supreme Commander announces that his power is waning, that he feels weak and unsteady. He orders Black Brigade to take a squad of Targoth to the northern quarter and harvest a fresh supply of Dudak citizens. ‘The program must be kept fully charged!’ the Supreme Commander orders, while demanding Boshlovor help him to the receptor, where he will renew his power. ‘At once, Supreme Commander!’ Boshlovor replies, leading the Supreme Commander to a chamber.
At the northern quarter, in the dead of night, on a filthy side street stands the little welfare mission, offering meager food and shelter to the Dudak poor. ‘You’ve taken an awful risk coming here’ Dr Ireno Renko remarks as she sits at a table with Wanda and USAgent, the trio huddled in their cloaks while holding mugs of hot drink. ‘Like we don’t know that’ USAgent mutters, while Wanda tells Dr Renko that their information is that she is one of the foremost aid workers in T’blunka, and that she runs this mission almost single-handedly. ‘We thought you might have seen things…things that the official channels might want to keep quiet’ Wanda remarks.
Dr Renko replies that she has seen plenty. ‘Spend any time in this madman’s war and you can’t help but witness things…’. She adds that she has seen Ember massacre innocents, seen bombs in Red Cross parcels, has seen Dudak refugees rounded up and away by those Targoth monsters. Dr Renko addresses Wanda and Walker as “Westerners” and explains to them that this is an ancient conflict, that the two tribes - Dudak and Slorene - the old champions, Ember and Volkhvy - ‘Who’s Volkvhy?’ USAgent interrupts. Dr Renko reveals that thousands of years ago, a racial feud turned into an eternal conflict when it became infected with mystical power, so now, neither side can win.
Dr Renko continues, explaining that as one side grows in power, the other shrinks, then the balance is reversed. She declares that until one side lays down its arms, they are doomed to blood-shed. Suddenly, there is a massive KRASHHH sound. ‘What the-?’ USAgent asks as he and Wanda leap to their feet. ‘Oh my God - the TARGOTHI!’ someone shouts as the oversized, strange looking Targoth enter the Red Cross sanctuary, and begin whipping the Dudak civilians. ‘They’re tearing the mission apart! Rounding up more victims for the Slorene labour camps!’ Dr Renko declares. USAgent leaps into action, ‘C’mon, Witch - we gotta -’ he shouts, but the Scarlet Witch holds him back. ‘HUH?’ Walker declares. Wanda points a finger at USAgent and reminds him that they came here to win the war, not the battle.
Wanda tells Walker that they want to get to the Slorene camps and learn the truth. ‘So I suggest we let the Slorenians take us right there’ Wanda declares. ‘Hurry them aboard! Come on!’ Black Brigade orders the Targoth, who use laser-prods on the Dudak. ‘This had better work’ USAgent tells Wanda as they and Dr Renko huddle onto one of the trucks that the Dudak are shipped away on. The trucks roll out into the cold Slorene night, and ominous glowing green eyes watch them go.
Meantime, beneath the Tblunka Parliament, Spider-Woman slides down into the blackness. According to the computer trace, ten of the eleven surveillance devices are upstairs in the banquet hall. One is down here in the cavernous cellars. Julia lands after climbing down, and examining her surroundings, remarks that this place is so old and grim. ‘And what is that smell? Like something really decayed’ she remarks, before noticing the bugged watch resting on a bench. ‘But no sign of any…’ Julia begins as she picks the watch up, only for a door to creak open behind her - and a horrid, scar-faced being enters.
‘You have taken a wrong turn, golden-hair...and seen far, far too much!’ he declares. He wears red, yellow and grey armor, and carries a sword, glowing with energy. Blue energy pours from the being’s eyes. Julia looks shocked, and shouts over the communicator: ‘Spider-Woman to Hex-Ship! Century! Come in! This is an emergency! I need that back-up! NOW, Century!’ Julia pleads.
But Julia gets no answers. ‘Century? Answer me!’ she calls out once more, but Century cannot reply, because he is slumped over the console of the Hex Ship. The Recorder stands over Century’s unmoving body, a wrench in his hand ‘Command: Computer. Prepare mobile video drones for release. Target on the positions of all deployed Force Workers as relayed by their collar studs’ the Recorder states. He presses a button on the control panel and releases the drones. The Recorder looks at a map of the globe, which focuses in on Slorenia and declares that a massive probability spike has just flared next to the last known as position of USAgent and the Scarlet Witch. The Recorder almost smiles as he states that he hopes the cameras get there in time.
Back inside the parliament building, Tony enters and calls out to Julia, telling her he is sorry that he is late as the banquet dragged on - but Tony soon realizes that Julia is not back yet. Tony checks his lapotop, which shows the chaos spike alert in Slorenia. ‘Guess the gloves are off’ Tony tells himself, before realizing he cannot raise anyone on the comm-studs, not even the Pegasus. He dons his Iron Man armor and decides that he best scout the parliament area and try to locate Spider-Woman.
But, Tony doesn’t get very far, as a blast of energy knocks him to the ground. Black Brigade and a drone approach Iron Man, and Black Brigade tells the drone to relay a message to Tabissara control, to inform them that he has apprehended a spy. ‘You’ve got this wrong, Brigade!’ Iron Man exclaims. ‘Not this time, little man’ Black Brigade retorts.
In the transport vehicles, USAgent asks ‘How often do they round people up like this?’ Dr Renko replies that it is every week, or every couple of days, and informs her new companions that she fears they will be dead before dawn - fodder for the labour camp’s genocide machines. Suddenly, there is a massive blast of green energy, and the vehicles are knocked over. Wanda helps Dr Renko up, asking her if she is all right, while USAgent peers around from behind the wreckage and announces that they are being rescued: ‘By Ember!’ Walker declares as the Dudak champion appears before them, taking down the Targoth, while speaking in his native tongue. ‘But…isn’t he dead?’ Wanda asks….