The Imperial Guard Training Academy on Chandilar:
What does he remember most about his time on Earth? Kubark aka Kid Gladiator repeats. Definitely the punching. They love their punching, those Earthlings. Especially the X-Men. X-Men punch the bad guys. They punch Avengers. They even punch each other out. You never want for punching when you are among mutants. Has he ever told them the story how he—
About how he punched the Hulk? the instructor interrupts. Yes, very many times. Focus on his report, Cadet Gladiator!
What else then… Kubark muses. He covered punching… On Earth, their manufactured foods are all extremely high in sugar. He found that rather enjoyable. There were elements of their sport hockey that he deemed passable. They use their computers to watch each other mating, which he thought was rather—
The people, the instructor interrupts. What was his impression of Earth people? Stammering, he recalls his friends and teachers. The people are all quite… they’re all different. Those differences often divide them and yet a place like the Jean Grey School actually encourages people to be different. They teach students to celebrate their differences.
So he enjoyed his time on Earth? he is asked. Of course not! Kid Gladiator blusters. He hated it. The Earthlings are horrendous compared to trueborn Shi’ar and don’t have enough feathers! And their musical concerts rarely result in bloodshed and—
He is told this is enough. Are there any questions? The other cadets are grouped together by species. One Smasher Subguardian mocks if Earth is really as weird and stupid as he makes it sound? Or is it just him who is weird and stupid?
Kubak retorts how many punches does it take to smash a Smasher? Shall they find out? The teacher admonishes them that their behavior is unseemly. One warning for Subguardian Smasher-7 and 900 quintillion demerits for Subguardian Gladiator. He adds his grade is a fife-minus. His report was substandard. He failed to mention the Earthlings’ defining traits. Their gross technological inferiority, barbarian superstitions and narrow-minded tribal hatred. Two Fangs mock he is still at the top of his class… and the bottom.
In the cafeteria, Kid Gladiator muses that all he ever wanted was visit the Imperial Guard Training Academy on Chandilar and follow in his father’s mighty footsteps. He has dreamed of this school since he was old enough to fly. Yet now he has to say it’s not exactly like he dreamed. As he gets his food and finds a place to eat alone, he muses here are dozens of Smashers, Mantas, Plutonias and so on who all gather together. But no Gladiators. He has been here for three lunar cycles. And not once has this school been attacked. Not once have his teachers threatened to stab him with their claws, not once has he felt he belonged. He never imagined he would say this but he thinks he might actually miss Earth. He must be going crazy, because gods help him… he misses his old school.
Suddenly, an alert sounds and all Subguardians are ordered to report to their designated employment zones. By order of his imperial Majestor, all Subguardians class 6 and above are hereby called to active duty.
Cheerfully, the students fly to their ships. Kid Gladiator as well is happier, thanking his father wherever he is.
Don’t thank him just yet, he is told as a hologram Gladiator appears. Gladiator explains he is on the Shi’ar flagship, Lilandra. The entire cosmos is in grave danger. They face an enemy who calls themselves the Builders. They claim to be the oldest civilization in the universe, the ones who created them all and are now set on undoing that creation. Their armada is more massive than anything he has encountered. But he hopes they can take the fight to the Builders if they can gather the numbers.
Kubark promises he’ll b at his side soon enough. However, Gladiator tells him he won’t be joining the other Subguardians in battle. He is not ready for this.
He can’t leave him behind with the toddlers and the withered old teachers! Kubark shouts. He’s not giving him any choice, Gladiator replies sadly and a number of Warbird enters. Gladiator explains they will keep him safe and make sure he will follow his orders. He hopes to see him soon. The hologram fades out.
The Warbirds announce they are to escort him to his quarters. They ask him not to think of running. He would not get far. He promises not to run from them, Kid Gladiator announces. He had a Warbird of his own once… They scornfully call her the coward who lives among the Earthers. It is said she teaches art to children, they remark disgusted. He promises to tell his father that they served him well and will ask him not to punish them. Because what he is about to do to them now will be punishment enough… A brutal and quick battle follows.
A short time later in space:
Smasher is telling the Sub-Smashers that this is what they’ve been training for. They enter the drop zone, then they drop off into space. Smasher notices too late there is one too many.
Outside, Kid Gladiator drops his disguise and gleefully joins the fight. If only every school day could be like this, he figures. Happily, he attacks an enemy spaceship. Not paying attention, he is hit by a laser blast and breaches another ship’s hull.
He’s bleeding, someone points out. He turns around and finds one of the Sub-Smashers hiding. That’s all right, he shrugs. He can‘t feel it anymore. What about her? She hurt? She admits she is frightened of returning to the battle. She saw a WarStar get blown to bits. He tells her the Builders can fall too. They have to fight them. She can’t go out there, she sobs. At school, they’ve never told them about the fear. She doesn’t know how to stop being afraid. How does he do it? Try having study hall with Wolverine, he retorts. After that, the Builders won’t seem so scary. He tells her to get on her feet. He can’t make her fear go away. But he’s pretty strong. He can help her carry it. And she can show him how Smashers smash.
They leave the ship and Kid Gladiator soon finds himself commanding a group of Sub-Guardians into battle. After the battle aboard a ship, Kubark stares outside. He hopes he didn’t hurt his Warbirds, his father remarks conversationally. Only their pride, Kubark replies, and perhaps their faces. He sent four, Gladiator muses. He could have sworn three would be enough. He’s stronger than he remembers. Kubark asks him not to send him back. He won’t, his father promises with a smile. He has proven himself. Proven himself as disobedient as ever but a true warrior as well. He deserves to stand along his fellow Subguardians. And the way this fight is going they need every last one of them.
No, Kubark clarifies, don’t send him back to Imperial Guard school. He thought being a Superguardian was all he’d ever wanted, his father replies. It was for a very long time, Kubark agrees. But now he just wants to be himself. He’s not like those other kids. Their people are dead. There are no other Strontians. After the two of them, there will be no more Gladiators. If he is to be unique for the rest of his life, then let him be unique!
That isn’t the way of the Imperium, Gladiator points out. It will be hard for him as it was for Gladiator. No matter how much he fights he will never know peace. If he knows love at all it will be fleeting. And no matter how much the empire grows he will always stand at the heart of it… alone. But this is the price they must pay for the power they have. He can’t do that, Kubark replies. He is not his father. Gladiator assures him he will be greater than him in every way. He was five years older than Kubark before he dared defy his majestor. And even then he couldn’t best three Warbirds.
Kubark sulks everyone at that school hates him. Do they now? Gladiator asks. They join the others and the Smashers kneel down. Kubark doesn’t understand. Should he bow to his father as well? Gladiator tells him they are not bowing for him and Kubark begins to understand.
Again, he joins battle after battle, inspiring others. During downtime he tries to arm wrestle Thor. Alongside his father and the others, he fights. Eventually, the one Smasher he saved kisses him.
Another attack. Kid Gladiator sits in the ship next to the Hulk and sizes him up. Stop staring at Hulk! the green giant finally says. Sorry, just can’t help thinking how fun it would be to punch him, Kubark mumbles.
Five minutes, Captain America tells them and the Avengers. They come out of hyperdrive in five minutes. They beat the Builders. Now it’s Thanos’ turn!
Gladiator asks his son what he did to spook the Hulk. Just stared at him, he replies. Did he ever tell him how he punched the Red—
Many times, his father replies smiling. But he’d love to hear it again as soon as they are done here. As soon as they are done here, he returns to Imperial Guard school, Kubark replies.
He will go back to his school, Gladiator agrees. Once they’ve liberated it. Kubark doesn’t understand. It’s a big universe, his father replies. Bigger than their imperium. And among all the worlds and beings Kubark is definitely unique. So go be unique!
They continue fighting.
Later at the Jean Grey School:
And then they beat Thanos and helped the Avengers liberate the Earth, Kubark finishes his tale. They are welcome. Also he kissed a Smasher, did he mention that part? And beat Thor at arm wrestling.
Wolverine would like to hear more about Imperial Guard school.
The school? Kubark hesitates. Well, it was… It was quite awesome, of course. Lots of punching and… and never once were they forced to meditate. He was of course the most popular kid there. So, why did he come back? Logan asks.
His father made him. He is being punished again for … excessive punching. This is punishment being here with them. Terrible, terrible punishment.
An alert sounds. The school is under attack by subterranean forces led by the Mole Man. Wolverine runs off, shouting any of them leave the room and he’ll cut their legs off!
Wonderful, wonderful punishment, Kubark whispers and his friends properly welcome him back.