The planet Thrnn:
Emperor Vulcan addresses the crowd. Somewhat in the background stands Gladiator, watching him. He has accompanied Vulcan to dozens of newly conquered planets. Been present for this speech every time. But he has never listened to the words. That is not his place. His attention must be elsewhere. He is Gladiator. Praetor of the Imperial Guard of the Shi’ar Empire. His sworn duty is to obey the commands and protect the person of whosoever sits upon the throne. His appraisal of their policies is neither required nor asked.
In his push to expand the empire, Vulcan has exterminated entire civilizations. Enslaved countless others. He’s made more than a few enemies. One of them is a sniper, cowering in a rooftop.
Gladiator has already spotted him and finds the rifle is a unique marriage of Rigellian precision combined with Badoon lethality. The gunman can shoot his target from across a city and still place his shot in the victim’s eye. If not for his enhanced vision, Gladiator would never have spotted him.
Then he wonders why he hasn’t already slain this man. This is far from the first attempt on Vulcan’s life. He has never hesitated to put them down with extreme prejudice. What is different now? Can it be… that no one else has seen the danger? That no one knows he has seen it? He allows himself another moment. To imagine an empire, a universe, without Vulcan.
To even consider this possibility is treason. A violation of all he stands for, of his very existence, and yet… if he simply stood by a few moments more… no one would know he had failed in his duty. No one but him… The sniper fires… and the ghosts of his past.
Stronia, centuries ago:
Gladiator, back then only Kallark, is one of several young Strontian men and women, all dressed in identical uniforms with the exception of the symbol on their chest. All of them are flying and evading attacking missiles until one of them, Tennet, is hit.
Kallark immediately reacts and catches the other young man. An Elder, flying on a platform addresses the young cadet, reminding him that he abandoned his target. He would not expect a warrior of his proud bloodline to shirk his duty. Kallark corrects the Elder after putting down Tennet on the platform. He has not. Honor demands he aids his comrade if he may do so without compromising the mission and he assures him the target shall be acquired.
Kallark flies towards the target, a flying ship, and attacks it. But he is hit by a blast from the man aboard the ship.
The Elder orders Tennet to observe how Kallark’s confidence does no falter, when he is unexpectedly attacked by sorcery. Tennet protests that these arts are forbidden, by the Elders’ decree.
The Elder agrees, for even their strongest are vulnerable to magic, which is exactly why they allow certain adepts to study it, so they may prepare for its use by an enemy. A warrior must be ready for anything. Their psionically fueled abilities, fearsome as they are, depend entirely on their confidence. Should they doubt themselves, question themselves, as Tennet did when struck by the stronium missile, their power fades. They are not machines. They all feel uncertainty. But they must banish it, overcome it. Or they will fail, as he has learned.
Ashamed, Tennet promises to do better next time, but the Elder tells him that for him the trial is over. He will be a valued member of their army, but in these contests there is no room for error.
Kallark, in the meantime, has taken the enemy prisoner. The Elder commends him and informs him he has won a spot on the final roster. But, he warns him, do not think those challenges are done. The most difficult is yet to come…
One hour later, the chosen warriors stand in front of the Elders, who announce that by royal decree the Shi’ar’s new Imperial Guard will be a company of elites. Each race in the Empire may send only its finest warriors. To represent their people is the highest honor… and any of the ten of them would serve Strontia with distinction. However, there is room for but one, so there will be a final trial. Their natural abilities, already prodigious, shall be enhanced to Gladiator level. They will be able to survive in the vacuum of space. Their power shall be unmatched throughout the universe. Few can survive the Gladiator process. Fewer still possess the strength of character to be trusted with its gift. All of them are worthy. Even they, the Council of Elders, could not choose among them. There is only one in all the empire who can.
And so, soon the ten candidates stand on the Shi’a imperial flagship “Sharra’s Talon” greeting Emperor T’korr. This is the best the Strontians can do? he asks his Chancellor Vitana dismissively. They are young. The advisor explains that only the young can survive the Gladiator process. But they are capable. Even an ordinary Strontian has the power to decimate an army.
The emperor muses. Why did his father accept Strontians into the Shi’ar Empire? Did he not fear so powerful a people might threaten his throne? Chancellor Vitana explains that his father brought them the cure to the Wraith Plague that ravaged Strontia. In return, they swore unending loyalty to the Shi’ar throne. Strontians value nothing above honor and duty. Their fealty is without question.
Indeed? T’korr asks with a nasty grin. Let us see if that is true. He addresses the young Stronians. He will make his final selection after observing how they conduct themselves on a mission of utmost importance. There is a group whose existence concerns him. They are wise and powerful. One day, they may plot against his rule. They shall solve that problem for him. Their mission is to return to their home and slay the Council of Elders.
The young cadets are shocked. One of them, a female, calls T’korr mad. They would sooner die than harm the Council of Elders! The youth of today, the emperor remarks with a disappointed “tsk.” A moment ago, they were pledging themselves to his service as members of the Imperial Guard. Now they defy his orders and insult his royal person.
The woman attacks and T’korr shoots her through the head. He turns to the chancellor. It was as he said. The moment they doubt themselves, the Strontians’ power fades.
He turns to the other cadets, informing them their comrade doubted. Because she knew she had shamed herself. Their people prize honor and duty as the highest of virtues. They swore undying loyalty to the Shi’ar throne. To obey any order given them. Well, he orders them to return to their mudball of a planet and kill their council of Elders. Do they intend to heed their sovereign? Or would they prefer to do as their late friend there and follow dishonor with death? Decide quickly for his patience wears thin! They obey, Kallark announces and the others follow him.
On Strontia, they begin attacking the citadel. One of them, Harrald, tells Kallark this is wrong. The Elders raised them. They are as much family as their own blood. Kallark reminds him that they raised them with honor. To heed the command of their monarch without question.
Their fellows fall around them, their invulnerability leaving them because they know what they are doing is obscene. Perhaps that is best, Kallark replies. For them all to be slain in battle, rather than have to choose between their ruler and their home. Perhaps… No! he decides. Those are the mewlings of a coward. His feelings are irrelevant. He has sworn to obey their majestor. He breaks through into the citadel despite Harrald’s protests.
Kallark finishes off the guards while the elders just watch. Harrald fires eyeblasts at him, trying to stop him, even if it will cost his life. He talks as if he could, Kallark replies, but Harrald’s voice betrays his uncertainty. Kallark has none.
He smashes Harrald into the wall and then kills the elders. He flies outside.
Harrald tells the dying Elders he will try to help or failing that revenge them. One still alive, weakly tells him that Kallark had fulfilled their faith in him and saved their world. It was a test of their loyalty. The Majestor feared their power. Sought assurance that they would be true to the throne above all. The Elders agreed to a bargain. A Shi’ar starcracker orbits their sun even now. Had they all defied T’korr’s orders, he would have activated it and their sun would have gone nova. Kallark was their most promising cadet. Before they departed, the Elders told him what was at stake.
But why not tell him or the rest? Harrald stutters. Even knowing, could they have done what was necessary? Or would it have been too terrible? Would it have driven them to consider rebellion? Harrald hesitates and that is all the answer the Elder needs. They could have won such a war, Harrald insists. Yes, but that is not their way, the Elder replies. Only Kallark could carry the burden of what he now feels. He will serve the imperator, with the same honor and dedication he showed today. Above all he will obey. And with that the Elder dies.
After taking out the starcracker, Kallark returns to the Shi’ar emperor. What about his fellows? T’korr asks. They fell in battle, comes the reply.
He can tell from Kallark’s manner that he is aware of the true purpose of this mission. Despite what he may think, he is not a cruel man. The safety of countless worlds in the Shi’ar Empire depends upon him. There can be no room for doubt. In a ruler… or those on whom he relies on. Kallark has proved himself. T’korr puts a red cloak around Kallark’s shoulders. He shall lead his new Imperial Guard. He shall be its Praetor. Throughout the imperium, the citizens of all the Shi’ar worlds will praise the honor, the duty, the courage of Gladiator.
The planet Thrnn. Now:
T’korr was a hard man but a good leader, Kallark muses. He put his subjects before himself. Can he say the same for Vulcan? It does not matter. He is his Majestor.
Gladiator steps in front of Vulcan and catches the bullet. Then he uses his heat-vision to dispatch of the would-be assassin.
His planet is now gone. With but one exception he is the last of his kind. Why then does he remain loyal? Because it was the last wish of the Elders. Because if he does not, his centuries long existence and their sacrifice loses all meaning. Because he is Gladiator. And he has sworn to serve.
The Negative Zone. The Drulag Labor camp:
The prisoners are rebelling and the guards wonder how it is possible that so many different races could fight like a trained army. Who could have united them? One of them exclaims, wondering fearfully if Annihilius has returned. He is hit by an energy blast. Annihilius is a rotting corpse, they are told. Bow before King Blastaar! the leader orders as he kills the guards.
One of them scoffs though and calls Blastaar a barbarian. A minor regional warlord, whose own people rose up and tried to slay him. He is sure the prisoners are doomed to lose. Blastarr cradles his face as he admits his own people tried to kill him. And they failed as has everyone else. He defied Annihilius when he invaded the positive matter universe. He fought the Phalanx’ attempted conquest as well. They are gone. He still stands. There are none left to oppose him. He has the backing of the Kree Empire. The Negative Zone will be his!
The captured guard tells him the force that backs him considers him a tool. A simple minded brute who can plunge the negative universe into chaos and keep them from threatening them again. No doubt they expect Blastaar will eventually be killed, solving the problem of what to do with the ugly barbarian they were forced to ally themselves with.
He is clearly a learned man, Blastaar admits. Eloquent. He is not. Please pardon the inelegance of his rebuttal. With that, he blasts his captive’s head off.
He turns around to the freed prisoners, telling them the Captain spoke the truth, for all the good it did him. He is not some blueblooded aristocrat who feels entitled to power because of an accident of birth. He is like them. What he has gained in this life he took because he was strong and was willing to kill or to die acquiring it. For this, he was looked down upon by the sneering elites and intellectuals who turned to him for aid in war and found him an embarrassment in peacetime. These hypocrites condemned him for doing openly what they do behind closed doors or hidden behind the perfumed veils of diplomacy and commerce.
He knows the indignities and insults they suffered because he has shared them. Exile, imprisonment, regarded as little better than dogs. Well, the dogs are about to have their day. Join him and he shall lead them to victory. They shall rule the Negative Zone! Are they with him?
One turns away. He has been breaking rocks here for thirty rotations. He is off to find some expensive drinks and cheap women. Blastaar’s blast kills him. He asks again: Are they with him? Hail King Blastaar! they cheer.
Sometime later on the planet Balluur, Blastaar’s homeworld. Fire and explosions erupt, as Blastaar’s troops attack. King Grondaar asks how the attackers were able to breach their defenses and is told somehow the invaders disabled them. It’s like they knew all their vulnerabilities.
A messenger comes with the news that the invaders are led by Blastaar. Angrily, the king gets up – this must not be! In the time since Blastaar was disposed, they have rebuilt Balduur from a barbaric backwater to a place of civilization, of leaning, of intellectual achievement! He refuses to let that animal drag them down again!
A guard entreats him to remain in the safety of the palace. Most of their fleet was destroyed on the ground. Their defenses have been targeted with ruthless precision. They cannot properly protect him. Protect him? he scoffs. He is king. It is he who should protect his people, and he shall!
He flies outwards, blasting the invaders, until finally he faces Blastaar. Landing, Grondaar announces that Blastaar’s bloodlust threatens to tear Balduur asunder. Whatever hate he has for them – for him – it should not extend to their mutual home. He suggests they resolve this another way. He challenges him to single combat. If Blastaar is the victor, Grondaar’s people will submit. Bur if he wins, Blastaar’s army must lay down their arms and disperse. What say he? With a smirk Blastaar accepts. How can he refuse his honored father?
Energy crackles around them as Grondaar announces that to save his people he shall kill his own son while Blastaar assures him that he will slay him. Not for victory, but because he has it coming!
Grondaar blasts him to the ground, announcing he has become overconfident. He’s never had to face a foe with their family’s unique power. But he had it thirty years before Blastaar was born. He taught Blastaar everything he knows.
Yes, including treachery, Blastaar agrees and punches him in the gut. Grondaar led the uprising against him, his rightful heir. He slaughtered everyone he found in Blastaar’s palace and left him chained to an asteroid to die.
Grondaar wrestles him and reminds his son that he led the rebellion because the people asked him too. Blastaar was a despot, enjoying himself while Baluur starved. Leading them into one mad war after another. He headbutts him. His only mistake was not killing him on the spot and allowing one outside their royal bloodline to assume the throne out of shame for what his flesh and blood had done.
Blastaar hits him back. Yes, his handpicked successor, a weakling and a coward. When he returned, their people welcomed Blastaar with open arms.
Understandable, Grondaar replies. They had been besieged by invaders and craved a strong hand to protect them. Not realizing that strength without wisdom is the worst kind of weakness. He blasts his son and blames him for leading their people to the brink of disaster, pursuing this childish vendetta against the positive matter universe. They asked Grondaar to return to the throne to rebuild their world. He has his son on the ropes.
In short time, Baluur had become a paradise, a place of art, science and learning. He will not take that from them! He is hated here. They want him put down like a wild beast! But he is still of Grondaar’s blood. He will be merciful if Blastaar yields and renounces his foolish dreams of conquest. He may persuade the people to imprison him for life rather than kill him.
Yield? Blastaar scoffs. He chose the path of conquest over his wife, his last surviving son. And he cared for them. Surrender to a father he hates?! Never! He blasts all of his energy and vanquishes his father.
The guards tell him he has won and they shall keep word. They pledge themselves to king Blastaar. Do they now? he asks. He spits on their pledge! All his life he sought the acceptance of his people. By force if that was the only means available. And in return they have given him betrayal. Now he asks but one thing of them: that they suffer. Baluur shall be the headquarters of his army and its people their servants. They, who though themselves so far above brutes like them, shall now polish their boots, live and die at their whims.
Is it not as he promised? he asks his men. He who has been cast out of his home now rules it as shall they all. Their conquest has just begun. They have been underestimated for the last time and they shall prove it by bringing the Negative Zone to its knees! But it will not end there, he continues as his army slaughters their foes. The elite of the positive matter universe thought they could use him like some unthinking tool… a weapon. They’ll soon find out that a weapon can point both ways!