TENSEN
2099UG
Writer/Artist/Editor: Gary M. Miller  |  Creators: Archie Goodwin & Peter David 
Editor-in-Chief: Michael Shirley  |  AEIC: Chris Lough
February, 2002
#16

Click the pictures to see character profiles!
Click for Profile
Click for Profile
Click for Profile
Click for Profile
Click for Profile
Click for Profile
Click for Profile
John Tensen
Nightmask
Stephen 
Hazzard
Theodora 
Remsen
Xina Kwan
Meanstreak
Thanos

Previously in TENSEN 2099: NO JUSTICE:

The denizens of the New Universe Earth, the world of Tensen's birth, were at civil war.  The dictatorship headed by Emperor Reed Richards, the Counter-Earth duplicate of Mister Fantastic who calls himself the Brute, instituted a paranormal regime that lasted for many decades.  Tensen, along with Nightmask and the Witness, formed the front of an army that had been building for just as long.  They, together with the human resistance leader Stephen Mark Hazzard, and the many denizens of the Coney Island hideout for Diseased Paranormals, charged the Mount Pittsburgh volcano to take down Richards.  So, too was the apparent goal of the cadre of former employees in Richards' army known as the Collection Agency, whose allegiance actually belongs to another, unseen entity.  But all have found only death, in the form of Tensen's mortal enemy and ally to the Collection Agency, Thanatos--who stood revealed as the Mad Titan, Thanos.

Thanos emerged from apparent death in the oceans of lava beneath the Earth, having usurped the Reality Gem--the power source which enabled the New Universe Earth to remain in its current location.  Without the gem at planet's core, the Earth entered its death-throes, to destroy itself within hours while attempting to return to its rightful universe.  Many paranormal resistance fighters lay dead on the battlefield, the civil war now rendered moot.  Nightmask returned from battle with his evil double, in control of his body for the first time in several decades, but was too late to prevent the massive upheavals in the Earth from killing his sister Teddy.  He and Hazzard watched as Tensen interfered in battle between Thanos and the Emperor, killing Richards in retribuition for the death of Tensen's daughter, Angela.  Then Tensen engaged in a decidedly one-sided conflict against Thanos, during which he was beaten within an inch of his life, his powers rendered useless.  The triad of Tensen, Nightmask and Hazzard had no choice but to give up, even as Thanos decided to meet the Collection Agency's mysterious leader/benefactor, leaving the planet to ruin, confident in his triumph....perhaps too confident.  The trio of warriors teleported to the Baxter Building, Richards' imperial palace, in hopes of finding the portal back to the world of Marvels before their world dies.  Meanwhile, in 2099, the group of jackal-men known as the Warrens healed Meanstreak, and the mutant shared a joyful reunion--and romantic liaison--with his ex-Alchemax classmate Xina Kwan.

Did Tensen and co. find the portal and device in time?  If so, will he get another chance to exact justice upon Thanos?  Look no further than the concluding chapter of TENSEN 2099: NO JUSTICE... "...And Justice For All?"


***Special Note***
Footnotes have been added which, when clicked, will pull up a special listing of sources for the many, many in-continuity references in this story.  You shouldn't need to know any of it, but just in case you're interested, keep the window open while you read and check it out!

Re-edited on 02/03/2002.

Arlington, Virginia, USA
Early 1976:

Robert Frost once wrote, "Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice; From what I've tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire."  There are more words, but they mean nothing to me.

My world died in fire.  Now, and several decades ago, the result identical.  Fire is my scourge.  Fire is a demon that seeks to take me, twist me, destroy me.  But it only changes me.  Try as I might to guard my life against the evil flame, those flames rise all the higher.  I did not think them capable of taking away that which I no longer believed I had--my heart, my soul.

I have just seen my world--the physical reminders of my past entire--perish.

Ever still, ever clearer, I remember the last time my world died.1  Just as this one, moments ago, also died.  Died.  Dead.

The storm that started Sunday night caused Irene's alarm clock to read behind.  Somehow, I awoke from some dream--I don't remember what I had been dreaming, never could--took a look at the black number tiles in the clock, then gazed at the curtains and the shadow that fell across my edge of the bed.  It just couldn't be four twenty-seven in the morning.  More like six-thirty, I thought as I peeked through the curtains at the well-risen sun.

I stepped out of bed, my feet hitting the cold wooden floor.  The first day of my week off.  I'd corralled Moretti and Jacobsen for drug trafficking last Thursday after three months of hell.  It cost me--it cost me more than I could say, more than I wanted to talk about, even to Irene.  Lord knew she pried, though, and we'd fought about it over last week, and the weekend.  I still didn't know totally what to make of the situation.  What I did know was that I still considered myself invincible; had been so ever since I started climbing the ranks.  The thought that the crooks I arrested would be out for vengeance never entered my mind.  Mike Hanley, my boss2, gave me the whole week off as recompense for my heroics, as well as to relieve the...feelings.  Although a part of me would rather have been getting ready for another day at the DEA3 busting addicts and pushers, I planned to take full advantage of the forced vacation time. But first, I would make Irene breakfast in bed.

She and Angie, blessed little Angie Marie, were both still sleeping as I walked past the window to the closet, just across from the foot of the bed, whereupon I pulled out my red-and-black plaid flannel shirt and a pair of faded blue jeans. Turning around while still in a pair of blue boxer shorts, I looked at my wife and daughter's faces as they slept so peacefully.  They both had the same auburn hair, the same smooth, ever so brightened cheeks, and the same gentle fingers as they grazed the yellow bedsheets atop them.  Six years old, and already Angie was so much like her mother.  I smiled, knowing I'd give them both a big surprise inside a very few moments.

The night before, Angie had been so afraid when she'd heard the first rumbles of thunder, seen the bolts of lightning throw scary shadows into her room.  She shuffled her way past the stairs and into our room, easing the door open and wondering with a whisper if she might, pretty-please, sleep with mommy and daddy where it's all nice and safe.  Just like whenever her mother made any kind of demands, I couldn't resist.  Maybe, I thought as I opened the door so as little light as possible shone in, I'd even make pancakes and throw in the red food coloring she likes.

After hitting the shower across the hall, I put on my clothes while descending the staircase.  I left the top two buttons of the flannel undone, as Irene liked, and turned left as I stepped off the stairs, standing at the front door.  Opening it, I looked down and picked up the morning's Post, then turned an eye out front, looking at my Buick parked along the side of the road, water beads streaking down all sides.  Not so much on the hood, but then again, I did run out for eggs late, so the engine probably evaporated most of the moisture.  At least Angela's car was safe and dry in the garage, to my far left--again, so I'd assumed.  I closed the door and walked around, stairs to my left, through the dining room, to the kitchen nook.  Once there, I tossed the paper onto the orange countertop, tuned the AM radio to 1210, and finally set about assembling the grand feast.  Eggs, sugar, baking powder, flour, coffee grounds, butter, bacon.  And food coloring, couldn't forget the red food coloring for Angie.  Outside, through the windows above the sink, at the rear of the house, gray sparrows perched themselves on trees teeming with new, green life.  Dew slipped off branches and leaves, cascading all the way to the earth, giving the landscape a brilliant sheen.  What a wonderful day, I thought, pulling a brown bowl and measuring cups from the cupboard and giving them a quick rinse.

I put fresh Folger's in the coffee pot and mixed the pancake batter to the tune of the Carpenters' "Rainy Days and Mondays." When the griddle was all fired up and buttered, I paused, smiled, and reached for the red coloring.  A few drops later, I poured a couple regular-shaped cakes down, then tried as best I could to pour two into heart shapes for Irene.  Red, heart-shaped valentines.  A few weeks late for the big day, but plenty early for our seventh wedding anniversary--if they came out okay.  In between turning the cakes and watching the bacon fry, I quickly made the table, trying not to arouse suspicion.

Alas, Irene could've smelled the coffee brewing a mile away.  As I brought the finished pot to the table and poured the contents into the "World's Greatest Mom" mug, she peeked her head around the corner, from the dining room.  I still remember seeing her bare feet as they tiptoed across the cold linoleum; the rose-covered, long nightgown as it hugged her lithe body; and the accompanying robe, tied across her waist.  Her wavy, strawberry-blond locks framed her pale face and rosy cheeks well, stringing down over her shoulders and down her back.  Stray hairs flew this way and that, as she was fresh from rising, but she looked all the prettier for them.  The alarm hadn't been set for me this morning, but rather, her; Trinity College was offering elementary education classes she'd started taking a little over a year ago.  Within another year or three, she'd be certified and ready to teach--earn her keep, she'd say.  Class on Monday started at nine, but the trick always was going the ten miles through bad traffic to reach the northern edge of D.C.

Suddenly, running up from behind as if to steal her mother's thunder, was darling Angie, in her light yellow gown. "Daddy!" she yelled, within seconds nuzzling herself against my leg, wrapping both hands around it.

"Hello, sweety!" I told her, looking down.  Then, just as quickly, I glanced upward, where Irene immediately kissed me on the cheek.  "Oh, and good morning to you, too!"

"What time is it, John?" Irene asked; and here I thought I was the only one who was all business first thing in the morning.  She reached around my left side and rubbed my shoulder gently, and I put my own left hand atop hers as I continued fixing the pancakes with my right.

"Radio said six forty-two, hon," I told her.  I'd heard the time before the Carpenters started to play, so I was guessing.  "How are you feeling?"

"Fine," she replied, stretching.  "Not feeling as sick as I did last week.  I think I'm finally settling down."

"Well, why don't you sit down and I'll finish making your breakfast?  I was going to surprise you and Angie in bed a few minutes from now, but I guess you've gone and spoiled it."  My voice was light and playful.  And Irene, I could swear, she was getting prettier by the day.  Old 'Narc' Tensen sure got lucky, didn't he?

She pulled Angie away, and they both sat at the tiny, round, oaken table as I retrieved a plate from the cupboard beside the sink.  With the spatula, I flipped the pancakes onto the plate, and did the same with the bacon.  As mother and daughter looked at their meals, Irene asked if any interesting news had happened, having glimpsed the paper at the end of the kitchen counter.

Pouring my own cup of coffee, I looked at her, a crooked smile at my lips.  "Breaking news just in from Madrid."

"Oh?" she said as I put my gray coffee mug at my place and reached toward the refrigerator.

"Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead," I said, deadpanned, as I looked for the milk.  Bringing it out onto the table, I continued, "And I'm still married to the most beautiful woman in the whole world."

"Eeeeeeeyyyyyyyeeeecccchhhhh!" Angie groaned, watching us kiss as I sat.  "Daddy!"

I opened the milk and began to pour it, but once in the coffee, it clouded and curdled along the rim.  On the red carton, I noticed the expiration date.  Drat.  I looked at Irene as I rose from my chair, mug and milk in hand.  "Guess I know where I'm going on my day off," I remarked, dumping the coffee down the sink before pouring myself a new cup and adding sugar.  Then I offered some sugar to Irene.

The rest of breakfast passed.  Irene and I, well, we fought, again, as the sun continued to rise outside the window.  Lucky thing Angie broke it up.  Irene eventually forgave me for the lack of presents on Valentine's Day, and as I apologized for losing my cool, we made plans to go out later in the week.  She wore a magenta bath towel and styled her hair in the upper-floor bathroom, getting ready for class.  As I leaned in the doorway, she asked what my plans were.

"First day of vacation...so...I was thinking of driving Angie to Kindergarten, picking her up at noon, then if she's good, I'll take her to the National Zoo and show her the pretty birds."

"Fla-min-goes!" Angie corrected, smiling, and hopping up and down, vying for a space in the doorway with me.

Irene finished brushing her hair, and while looking at me, put her gold studded earrings in.  "You spoil her, John!  I think you're right to take in the weather, though.  It's been awful around here for a while.  If I didn't have class, I'd come with you two!"

"So why don't you?" I asked.  "Take the day off."

Mock concern became evident in Irene's face.  "Wait a minute.  Who are you?  What have you done with my husband?"  All laughed.  "This, coming from Johnny the Narc?"

I shrugged my shoulders as I backed off from the bathroom.  "So I've been told to take the week off.  I just thought having you off with me would make things more tolerable."  I pursed my lips, then just as quickly, smiled.  "And maybe later this week, we can discuss if a little brother or sister is in Angie's future?"  Although from Irene's recent aches and ills, the only discussion I thought needed to be had was when to make up the nursery again.  Sad, now that I think about it.

"Away, away!"  Irene playfully shuffled past us, entering our bedroom and closing the door behind her.  "We'll discuss that later.  But you'll win, I'll have you know right now."

"I always do," I told her, and took Angie by the shoulder, leading her to her room so she could get ready for school.  About ten minutes later, Angie and I met Irene at the foot of the stairs.  She wore a simple, long-sleeved white blouse and a jean skirt with a slit most of the way up the side, complete with high, brown boots.  Her hair was tied back in a ponytail, and as I brushed the forelock away from her face and kissed her lips, I noticed the hint of jasmine on her skin.  "Last chance to change your mind," I told her.  "Angie'd be happy if you could join us!"

Smiling and sighing, Irene didn't say a word, and just kissed me again before we walked to the kitchen and right, down the hall that led to the garage.  I watched as her hips swayed wonderfully, her entire body moving so fluidly, so beautifully.  Inside the garage, Irene's red Camaro sat, in the same place as she'd parked it last night.  It was lucky the spring thaw had come early, for the winter weather made the car something terrible to navigate, and Irene never ceased complaining.  At least she'd avoided any accidents.  Angie moved in front of me as Irene opened the driver's side door, and practically dove into her mommy's arms.  "Be safe, mommy!" she said.

"Enjoy school, darling," my Irene told her in return.  Angie moved away, and Irene closed the door.  But when Irene turned the key, she was rewarded with a screeching.  The engine was trying to start, but wouldn't.  She tried again; no dice.  Again, again, again.  Finally, the O'Leary anger kicked in, and she banged her fist against the wheel, honking the horn in staccato fashion.

"Easy, hon," I told her, easing my head through the open window.  "If it's not going to start, there's nothing you can do to make it."  I breathed deeply, then smiled.  "Looks like somebody's trying to tell you to play hooky."  If only I knew the distributor cap had been stolen.

Irene tried to remain angry, but ended up starting to laugh.  "Be serious, will you?"  She opened the door and climbed out of the vehicle.  "What am I going to do now?"  She gave me 'that look.'  "Don't tell me to stay here.  Not today. Soon!  But not today."

So I went back in the house briefly, to the key rack just inside, along the outer wall.  Seconds later, I came back out with the Buick keys.  "You can take my car.  And don't say no."

"But, but...you can't!  You want to go spend the day with Angie--!"

I shook my head.  "I still can, Irene.  Look, soon as you leave, I'll open the hood, call Sly over if I'm stumped.  Even if Angie has to take the bus, I'll try my darnedest to have the Camaro up and running so the day will proceed as planned.  And if not, we'll just reschedule everything for later this week, and I can just have fun with Angie indoors today."  Famous last words: "It isn't that big a deal."

"Are you sure?" Irene asked as I walked over to open the garage door.

As water droplets that lingered on the door fell onto the concrete, all I could do was smile.  "Sure I'm sure."  I gave her the keys, then gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek.  A hug that was nowhere near tight enough.  A kiss that was nowhere near passionate enough, not even on the lips.  And I took her hand and kissed it, lingering, holding her hand as long as I could.

Then she let go, and walked along the concrete toward my Buick, opening the door and climbing inside as Angie walked up beside me.

I held Angie's hand and we both waved to Irene from the front walk, not twenty feet away.

I saw her wave back with her left hand as her right pushed the key into the ignition.

She pushed the key forward...and the world exploded into a ball of flame that engulfed the vehicle.

Instantly, I heard my beloved's anguished scream, saw the flames rise high into the air with plumes of ashen smoke.  Schrapnel blew outward in every direction, onto the street and into the yard.  I covered Angie in my arms even as tears fell from both our eyes.  I'm not sure Angie knew what had just happened, but somehow, I knew: it was all over, every second of blessed peace I had ever known, finished right on that spot.  Someone had intruded right where I lived, sabotaged everything I held dear.  The screams took a lifetime to die down, and I could do nothing but watch in horror as the Buick continued to burn with intense ferocity.  Choking, the scent of burning metal and scorched flesh and smoke buried deep within my lungs, I slumped to my knees as the fire truck and police cars arrived.  Robert Frost was right; my world did end in fire.  It was true those many years ago...just as it was true now.

I am now dead.

But why isnít Irene with me?

* * * * *

Las Vegas, 2099:

There just wasn't enough time.

One moment, Henri and Xina were in the car, shields up all around so the blazing hot, pre-noon sun wouldn't bake them like fresh dough, and the next, the Virtual Unreality portal was giving off sonic alarms that could likely raise the dead.

Henri immediately zipped out of the automobile, dressing himself in his "work clothes" in several tenths of a second.  In almost as little time, Xina roused from her slumber to the tune of Henriís chanting:

"Are you with me?"

As fast as she could, Xina tried to catch up, pulling the blanket off her body and recovering her bikini, pants, and shoes from the rear of the vehicle.  Over and over she cursed, shock this and shock that, as every attempt she made to hurry was only frought with further disaster.  By the time she'd clothed herself, Henri was running back and forth around the huge metallic dome, typing in commands, analyzing data.  The portal began to glow, the sticky sheen separating Interspace from Earth melting, becoming ever more fluid.

"What's happening?" Xina demanded, jogging over near the machine even as Henri zipped back and forth so quickly she could hardly see him, but feel the rushing, cooling winds.  She knew Henri didn't like the portal--had detested the very idea of rebuilding it from Jordan Boone's design in the first place4--and yet, here he was, running around like the proverbial pro, checking and rechecking the calibrations, programming hundreds of lines of code into the mainframe in nanoseconds.  He worked ever faster, more furiously, the sand kicking up, fusing to glass at his feet as it had when they'd made their dramatic escape from the Vegas ruins last night.  The perfectionist streak in him was driving him, charging him up.  Whatever was happening, whatever Henri was trying to do, it would reach its event horizon in mere moments.  As much as Xina wanted to stop him, to find out just what was happening, she didnít have the words; the vortex was sweeping them away like sands.

She only knew that one thing, one device had the power to open the portal from the other side, and that was Tensen.  But after such a short while?  What could have happened to him in there?  Could he have found the world of his birth?  Obviously, or else he'd have used the portal sooner; then again, what if something sinister had stolen the device and used it?  What if some lumbering creature from Tensen's homeworld was on its way, right now, toward this Earth?  The odds were probably incalculable, but then, Xina recalled that Thanatos, that loathsome demigod who nearly killed Henri, also fell through the portal.  Had Thanatos won?  Was he coming back to have another go at Henri and herself?

No, jammit.  Too many questions.  Too few seconds before--
 

*****BOOM*****


With a crash that stopped Henri dead in his tracks, one being rocketed out of the portal with a SPLURT, cast outward and landing with a dull THUD on the hot sand.  He was dressed in green United States military garb from head to toe.  Damp with sweat, his body was covered with hard muscle which quivered and blistered as it hit the ground.  The bald man shrieked and tried to stand, but instead could do little but kneel, his boots and trousers protecting his legs from the burning heat.

Before either Henri or Xina could react, another figure, this one garbed in flowing, midnight-blue robes, flew from the portal, another SPLURT and THUD in his wake.  A sizable, white-shrouded package escaped his grip and rolled away from him as he tumbled over and over, so feathery light was he.  Finally, miraculously, he landed on his feet, legs spread, his lithe body ready for anything, his eyes staring outward in disbelief of his surroundings.  He looked downward at the smaller, limp form wrapped in the sheet--what it was, Xina couldn't quite tell. A body?  A tear from this manís eye dried upon immediate contact with the ground.  But quickly, he turned back toward the portal, shouting the name Xina wanted to cry out herself: "TENSEN!"

Exasperated, Xina ran toward the dark-clothed man; Henri, careful to not surprise the lad, jogged slowly as he was able to join her.  From out of the portal, a vortex spiralled, making the sands swirl in a manner infinite degrees worse than Henri's running had done.  Thunder crackled and storms of light surged within the portal.  As another shadow fell beyond the orange-tinged liquid wall, the winds increased, whistling, whipping so that the words Xina and Henri tried speaking to the robed man were rendered useless, carried away, far away.  And then, with a massive boom of thunder, the liquid portal burst, gelatinous pieces flying several hundred feet.  In the midst of the jelly belched forth another body, whom Xina did, indeed, recognize.  Wrapped in blood-drenched duster and a similarly-dirtied uniform that was definitely foreign, crimson-and-black lightning bolt strike down the torso, with blue jeans and black cowboy boots, John Tensen sputtered and coughed as he crashed to the earth.  The orange gel covered his body, but did little to cushion his fall.  And his shields also offered no protection, for Xina saw none.

Xina tried to scream Tensen's name, but again, the wind carried it off.  Louder she cried, and the barest of sounds could be heard.  The former Justice quivered in paroxysmal pain, limbs twitching, teeth gnashing, fists clenched.  Just as quickly, his uncovered eye snapped open and the attack subsided; the immediate danger, however, did not.  The winds threatened to blow Tensen and his friends backward into the mess of debris Las Vegas had become.  Only by deep concentration, and maintaining a rigid stance, could any of them hope to remain before the portal--and even that wouldn't last forever.

As the winds continued to intensify, Tensen cast off the hands of those surrounding him, slapping them backward and trying, desperately, to maintain his own sense of balance.  Xina and Henri had no idea what manner of torture he'd endured within the past few days, nor would they learn soon if what was to happen, did.

Tensen stared directly into the portal, now a mass of psychedelic color and formless shapes.  Debris of unknown origin now began to fly through the portal, but Tensen, remarkably, raised no shields to protect himself.  Instead, he raised one hand to shield his face, and while gesturing toward the gateway, yelled back at the others.  At first, they couldn't hear him over the din, so louder he shouted: "WE HAVE TO CLOSE THE PORTAL.  NOW!!!!"

Even if Henri hadn't heard the message, he knew what Tensen wanted.  Dodging the chunks of flying rubble, he leapt into action, running at superspeed out of the vortex's path and to the rear of the Virtual Unreality device.  As he did so, he spun to see the man in the dark robes hit alongside the head by a piece of rock, and subsequently fall into Xina's arms. No time for error, he thought, and as Tensen tried his best to glance around the main device at Meanstreak's progress, he worked to fix the device, repair whatever damage had been wrought by opening the gateway.  He tried reprogramming the computer, giving it a simple 'off' command, rotating every dial and trigger, but the results each time were just as futile as the time before.  Boone's original calculations couldn't be the root of the problem, Henri told himself; he'd fixed each error he remembered, completely retrofitting the parts, reprogramming the computer.  There was no earthly reason why the portal was not shutting down.  It seemed as though something on the other side of the portal were keeping it open!

"IT'S NOT CLOSING!" Henri yelled, running back to see Tensen begin to stumble.  "WHAT THE SHOCK DID YOU DO IN THERE?  THE PORTAL WON'T SHUT DOWN!"

"YES," Tensen simply said.

"DO SOMETHING!" Henri demanded.

Tensen gazed at Meanstreak, shrugging his shoulders and raising his hands up in a gesture of surrender.  The implication was striking: he was powerless.  Resignedly, he said, "I CAN'T.  WE'VE GONE AS FAR AS WE COULD THINK TO GO, BUT IT'S BEEN FUTILE."  He shut his eye, faced the portal again, and felt his feet slipping as the winds intensified.  "WE'VE RUN AND RUN BUT WE'RE JUST GOING TO WIND UP AS DEAD AS EVERYONE ELSE."

Collapsing to the ground, and with no one close to hear, Tensen then mumbled, "Damn you, Thanos."

* * * * *

Across the universe, earlier:

Miles above an Earth from another Multiverse, its dominant lifeform, paranormal human beings, at the cusp of extinction at the hands of the death-god Thanos, a wrinkled man, older than time itself, sits in wait.  Over the last several years, he has kept watch over the planet, over its nefarious emperor, an otherworldly analogue of the famous Reed Richards, by means of his footsoldiers, the second group he had deemed "the Collection Agency."5  He remembers having teleported them aboard his larger ship, light years from here, and convincing them that they should appear to the emperor, such as they were, in their own way, doppelgangers, dead ringers of people Richards had known and had let die.  Victor Stone, as good as Benjamin Grimm; Richard Proudhawk, in effect Jonathan Storm; and lastly, Kylie Munro, the blonde who was conditioned to serve as Susan Storm, Richards' closest confidant and lover--she who would be able to get closer than the others, close enough to Richards if he should discover, and discover he must, the prize at this Earth's center: the Reality Gem.6

The Reality Gem: that which once belonged to this man, this creature.  That which he once possessed, but lost.  Lost to Thanos!  Lost to the one creature in all the universe whose prophesied coming, it could be argued, led to his all-consuming obsession: to collect.

The ancient-yet-ageless figure, upon hearing that Thanos, a very human, mortal Thanos dressed in Earthen Centurion armor, had returned to this planet and been captured by the regime, quickly prepared an antique space cruiser, a renovated Quinjet7, stocked with a sampling of the things he'd collected over the years, and headed out to be closer to the events as they happened.  Indeed, the time he'd been waiting for was upon him; Thanos obviously now knew where the gem was, and he would lead the Collection Agency directly to it.  Then, his crew would very easily subdue the mortal demon and wrest the gem from him.  He'd then teleport them up to his ship, and take the Reality Gem.  Yes, it could happen.  It would happen.

Taneleer Tivan, the Elder of the Universe known as the Collector, willed it so.8

And yet, something had gone wrong.  Proudhawk and the others had not reported to him in hours.  The last communique had come when they had just retrieved Thanos; no more.  The monitors which told of their heart rates, respiration, and other bodily functions had simply ceased, flatlined.  His warriors were dead.  Or at the very least, the implants he'd given them had been torn out by someone who knew they were there.  Either way, Tivan cursed himself for underestimating the death-god of Titan.

Rising from his pilot chair, the Collector made his way to the rear chambers of the small ship, wherein a series of cells were stacked, floor to ceiling.  These creatures, inside each case, were his trophies, some of his most prized possessions.  He walked by the rows of cages, the gentle air flow making his purple cloak and rust-brown tunic sway almost too gently.  Through pupilless eyes, he looked at the contents of each cage: a Glxian9 here, a Thurasian there, even a small, flesh-eating pet from Moord10 with the same flowing, silvery hair as he.  Breathing in the scents of the creatures assembled, the Collector laid his orange-gloved hands against the cages, sighing deeply, a smile coming to his dry lips.  How wonderful it was to have these things.  How wonderful it was to be one who collects.

"I do hope those mongrels have had their shots," a dark, gravelly voice came from the pilot chamber behind Tivan.  He turned to behold the visage of the one he dared not meet face-to-face: Thanos, in his original form and raiment, no less.  "I'd hate for one of them to catch something from you."

"G-greetings, Titan," the Collector said, trying and failing to maintain his composure.  For most of his existence, he lived in fear of the creature who now stood before him.  Matani, his wife11, had died shortly after sharing his vision of the demon's coming, so ghastly was what she saw.  He thought, erroneously, he'd escaped the awful destiny that had been foretold when Thanos had been killed by Adam Warlock, over a century ago; but Thanos had been given new lease on life, again and again, since that time.  And yes, one of those times, Thanos constructed his Infinity Gauntlet, stealing the Infinity Gems from their wielders, including Tivan's Reality Gem.12

"How nice of you to keep watch over your precious little group," the Titan said, arms outstretched as an orator's. "But they are now all dead.  I claim...more than half responsibility for their deaths...but would claim all responsibility for I knew your stink upon them when first I glimpsed them, Collector."  He watched Tivan's mouth open wider, his eyes losing some of their sparkle. "Surprised?  I knew of your entire plan from almost the moment I arrived back on this malefic mudball.  You could say that your presence alerted me that I was on the right track to find my missing beauty."  Upon Thanos' brow, the familiar orange stone Tivan had desired suddenly appeared.

"The gem!"  The Collector snapped out of his stupor and outstretched his arms.  "Give it to me!  I must have it, Titan!"

Thanos removed the gem from his forehead and tossed it from hand to hand. "I should think not.  At least, not yet.  Not until I illustrate the finer points of its use, as well as your own...shortcomings, as it were."

His brow furrowing, the Collector didn't quite know what kind of game Thanos was playing--but clearly, his interest had been piqued.  As he stroked the outside of the case containing the Moordian Fugh, he bade the Titan: "Continue.  But if you think to treat me as a fool with your insistence of my having 'shortcomings'--"

"Now, now," Thanos heightened his gaze, as though looking through the roof of the craft at the stars. "You must know me better than that by now.  What's past is past.  I have no use for trickery now.  I hold the Reality Gem.  It is my sole 'trick.'  Now, then..."

Suddenly, the Fugh the Collector had been admiring disappeared from its case in a black fog, reappearing within instants within Thanos' mammoth hands.  The eight-legged, silver-furred creature mewled as Thanos caressed each thick, gray, thorny spines along its back; its twin tails suctioned themselves to Thanos' right arm; its four eyes and two fang-filled mouths responded with looks of inordinate ecstasy.  The Collector, meanwhile, started to tremble all over.

"I have here your Moordian Fugh, a creature I used to admire for many generations.  In fact, on Titan, I tried my best to have father import one when I was a boy.  Even then they were rare, but you, Collector, have the last one in existence.  She's your trophy, isn't she?  You like having her attach her tails to you like electrical prods.  But in collecting such creatures, you have allowed yourself to have a dreadfully limited sense of uniqueness."

"I beg your pardon--!"

"Imagine," Thanos said as the gem twinkled, "from this one, comes another."  Immediately, a bead dropped from the underside of the Fugh, growing quickly into another, full-sized Fugh which Thanos, too, held.  "And then both multiply again."  Four Fughi now pawed their way around Thanos' body.  "And again."  Eight.  "And yet again."  By now there were sixteen Fughi, and the Collector looked like he might regurgitate any second.  "But wait."  All but one Fugh disappeared as though they had never been there.  Tivan's angst declined.  "What if, right now, on the far corner of this galaxy, there existed an entire planet, filled with Moordian Fughi?  Imagine, dear Collector, several billion such innocent-looking creatures, such wonderful specimens, multiplying like nothing you've ever seen, living out happy, worthless lives.  Imagine transports coming from all over the galaxy to herd these blessed creatures, taking them to remote locations all over the cosmos, as pets for little girls and little boys, such as I should have had.  Imagine the pets devouring their owners' parents, friends, and perhaps even the owner itself, then giving birth to a smattering of more Fughi.  Sufficiently deprived of nourishment, a Fugh may even turn to feeding off itself.  Imagine that it all exists, it all happens right now, because I, as master of reality, will it so, Collector."  Thanos then threw the quite angry Fugh back toward its keeper.  "Where is this creature's uniqueness now?  Where indeed?"

The Collector caught the Fugh, only to quickly throw it down to the floor of the spaceship.  Taking a thick metal rod from behind one row of cages, he proceeded to bash the animal repeatedly, until its milky white blood leaked in large puddles on the floor and all over his clothing.  He then sneered at Thanos, who snapped his fingers.

"I'm sorry, Collector," the mad Titan said, "but it appears that whole world of Fughi never existed.  It was all...in your twisted imagination."  He chuckled, then just as quickly straightened his demeanor.  "But alas, poor Tivan, you see what I mean.  You lack....originality in your search for original things."

Tears streamed down the Collector's cheeks as he looked down at the bloody corpse.  "You've made me kill the last remaining Fugh in the universe entire, Titan, and you ask me to understand?  What is there to understand about your madness?"

"My dear Collector, madness is all in the mind!  You make me seriously question why I have shown you all that I have.  You know," the Reality Gem twinkled again, "I have glimpsed realities where an Elder can die.  So much has been made of your highly-vaunted immortality.  I could take it away, Tivan.  Right this second, I could watch you wither into a cosmic husk, turn you into an invalid at the very least.  Now what would my mistress think if I actually found a way to kill an Elder for her, hm?  She wouldn't mind you being there.  After all, it wouldn't be like I was killing the Grandmaster--no threat of you conquering her realm like he attempted."  Tivan turned white as a sheet while staring into Thanos' red eyes.  "But then again, you died once already, didn't you?  And you were brought back.13  You may be the most mortal of all the Elders...and not worth Mistress Death's time or concern, after all.  Then, again...

"But enough talk," Thanos said, and immediately the Collector cried out, cowering at the Titan's feet, flailing his arms, wishing to be spared oh-so-desperately.  "I have shown you that I can make anything in the galaxy, anything in your precious collection, lose its uniqueness.  You have missed the obvious flipside of what I have been telling you."

"You mean--?"

"What I can make common, you can make unique, Tivan.  You can catch your dreams with the gem.  You just need to concentrate.  Open your mind and know the possibilities!  Create new, unique things from the carcasses of the old!  Experiment!  Experience what is unique, as never before.  Embrace the Reality Gem, and embrace your destiny at long last!"

Thanos' suggestions were too good for the Collector to doubt. "Yes, yes!" he shrieked, clapping his hands and rising swiftly to his feet.  He looked at Thanos, and then behind the mad god--and stopped dead in his tracks, his expression immediately changing.  Out the glass was not the Earth, but rather a myriad of whites and darks, spinning into infinity, with debris floating everywhere around the craft. "What have you done, Titan?" he demanded. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?"

Thanos wore his icy-cool demeanor only too well.  "Relax, dear Collector.  I mentioned all the possibilities inherent in the gem, and in your own mind.  Why not then, at least, bring you to an area of the universe best suited for such experimentation?"

"The Negative Zone?" Tivan queried.  He knew the area well.14  Thanos nodded.  "What do you expect me to find here, Titan?"

"I take you here for a few reasons.  One, for safety,  Any moment now, the Earth we just left will explode and doom anything within several hundred miles of itself, including most certainly any spacecraft nearby.  And the second, and more important reason is that, seconds thereafter, a very unique thing, perhaps that which is most unique in this universe, shall be on its way here, to this very spot, to rendezvous with me."

"The most unique thing in the universe?"  He chuckled.  "Oh, Thanos!  You do take me for a fool!  There is no such beast!"

"Why, Collector, I would never lie about something so important.  But, I tell you this because you can steal this fantastic thing from me, by being here, instead of me!  And you can do it with the Reality Gem's power!  I offer you this: you have no chance, no chance at all of obtaining this item without the Reality Gem.  However, even with the gem, you have, at best, a...one-in-a-sextillion chance of harnessing ultimate uniqueness!"  Thanos held the gem closer to the Collector, whose eyes shone with fiery passion.  "What say you, Collector?  Will you risk the almost certain death for a chance at this...miracle?"

The Collector didn't even hesitate.  "We Elders do not die," he said.  He didn't consider Thanos' previous boasts in the least.  "I am not dissuaded.  Give me the gem!"

"So be it," Thanos said, and tossed the stone toward the Elder while teleporting away in a rainbow of light, using the last remnants of the Reality Gem's energies he'd transferred into himself.

As soon as Thanos left, the Collector stood smiling, satisfied with himself.  He walked toward the front of the Quinjet, holding the gem, feeling its power extending outward, seeing it glow.  He looked outward, then, to see a rift on the outer regions of the Negative Zone.  It was almost unnoticeable at first, but then three distinct beings flew at speeds to break the sound barrier, past the ship, out of his reach.  Within seconds, he heard a titanic explosion rock the very fabric of the Zone as the Earth he'd monitored was destroyed, as per Thanos' prophecy.

And then, from beyond the ether, he swore he could hear Thanos' incisive laugh.

Tivan's eyes went wide as the astral remnants of that world blew wide open what had been a small tear in the barriers between the real universe and the Negative Zone, Interspace.  Ten billion souls, filled with unnatural, unfathomable, unconquerable energies, flooded into Interspace.  They all screamed for Thanos' death, pounding through the Zone and whatever lay in its path.

The Reality Gem was its beacon in the darkness of infinity.

* * * * *

The winds continue to blow, paving a destructive path in the desert; and you, John Tensen, loathe to stop what you perceive as destiny, just stand there.  Your feet slide backwards through the gritty sand, boots trying and failing to take hold.  The whistling winds all around you effectively deafen you from the cries of Xina, Henri and Hazzard.  Henri, racing back and forth, is struck by a stray rock and falls; he is now unable to assist you, unable to do anything to avert destruction, joining Nightmask in sweet oblivion.  Try though they may, the remaining voices can't penetrate the storm, leaving you alone, face-to-face with the portal, with all that bleeds forth from it.

The truth is, you believe there's nothing you can do to close the portal to the subspace realms.  Right now, the material belching from the Negative Zone moves slowly enough so that it still passes through the distortion field long enough for the negative matter to become positive.  Soon, however, if whatever is causing such a terrific disturbance isn't stopped, the matter won't have time to complete the transition.  Anti-matter would collide with positive matter, and the ensuing explosion would surely destroy the Earth--again, if whatever was inside the portal, creating the storm, trying to come through on this side, didn't decimate the planet first.

And that's what bugs you, isn't it, John?  The feeling burns you all the way down to your bones.  Something out there, created by the explosion of your world, is coming.  It crossed through the same portal as you used to enter that other series of realms, and now, sensing that you created another passageway here, it wants to complete its journey.  It's searching for something, to touch something--you, or Nightmask, or Hazzard, perhaps?  You all skipped out on death, and it's coming back for another pass.  You know that's the truth.  You're never wrong about evil things, are you?  Ever since you were with the Justice Department, your judgments of what The Evil Element would do next were seldom off.  The only bad part about having that sort of--selective precognition, I guess you'd say--was that sometimes you were too late in acting.

You remember losing, don't you?  The morning your Irene died, you fought with her, didn't you?

The previous week, when you got the call from your informant that Moretti and Jacobsen were making their move at the warehouse in Downtown D.C., you thought it would be easy.  You didn't count on all those innocent people being in the way.  You didn't count on your sources being wrong with the time, your agents being trigger-happy, and your boss being so insistent.

Moretti and Jacobsen eventually were caught and arrested, but the people commuting to work that morning weren't as lucky.  No, not nearly.  The druglords killed several men and women, and you couldn't do a thing, couldn't lift a finger until it was too late for them.  They knew you were coming, didn't they?  They were prepared.  And you knew that they knew.  It didn't stop you.  You damned nine men and women because you thought you were unstoppable.

You were congratulated for containing the situation as far as you did.  If Moretti and Jacobsen had gotten away, there would have been no telling how many more lives would have been lost.  You stopped it from getting blown even further out of proportion, didn't you, and Hanley swept the whole deal under the carpet.  Others had their jobs taken away, flushed down the corporate commode because of what happened, but you, you got two whole weeks off because the department liked you.  You weren't content to rest on your laurels--when you wanted things done, by God, they got done.  Sure, things had gone badly for you before, but never had nine people lost their lives during one of your cases.

Irene understood what you were going through, John.  She really did.  She knew that you were under a lot of strain, that anyone in your position would suffer.  You couldn't win.  You shouted at your wife, telling her how much you just wanted to back out of the whole business, how sick it made you.  It disgusted you to think that Hanley could make such a small matter out of the losses of all those lives, didn't it?  You wanted to tear his throat out and mope for several weeks.  Irene wanted you back at work, and that's what you two argued about.

You know Irene was right.  She tried telling you that there was a time for mourning, and there was a time to just move forward.  She thought you would understand the fact more than anyone, but she was wrong.  You curled up in yourself.  You wanted nothing more than to have some happy days at home, and to hell with Hanley.  She struggled with you, telling you that just because this one job looked bad, it wasn't the end.  John, you had--have a gift with your intellect, with your intuition for what is right and wrong.  You shouldn't give it up just because a situation looks bad right now.  "Sure," Irene told you, "there were a few moments of lapsed judgment last week, and some people died.  I don't want to discount the worth of human lives, but if you let this get to you, it will only lead to more mistakes.  You'll become someone you won't want to look at in the mirror.  Get right back to work as soon as you can, and get over the terrible mess Hanley made.  Two wrongs don't make a right, John."  She was right, wasn't she, John?  If she wasn't, after she died, you never would have bothered to bring her killers to justice.  You never would have called Mark Hazzard, who was just starting his mercenary work15, and had him investigate the leads the forensics gave you, about the detonator being a link to a group of ex-Marine firebugs.  Hazzard knew the group all too well, and wanted to pay them back for some close calls back in 'Nam, so your alliance was an excellent fit.

However, the cost of your wife's death, and the vengeance you exacted upon her killers, was your very own daughter.  You very nearly neglected her over the next decade, spending just enough time with her so that Civil Services wouldn't start breathing down your neck.  She felt your love, but the two of you could never truly connect, for in her looks, she was so much the spitting image of the one you lost.  In the days after you gained your fantastic powers, true, you tried to do the right thing and renew ties; in some ways you were even successful in repairing bridges burned.  All the while, you struggled within yourself to find your path, to find your way in the new world in the wake of the White Event.  Above all, being with your daughter was the right thing to do.

So you let Thanos go.  So you let him destroy your world.  But you, John, escaped!  You defied the odds!  And now, you're going to let another world perish because you won't let go of your grief for even a tenth of a second?  Hasn't the past taught you anything?  Irene came to you in the afterlife, when you thought you were dying, dead, and told you that you weren't done with your heroic service to The Almighty.  Not by a long shot, you weren't. "You've still got a long time before you'll come back to me," she told you.  "You've been doing the right thing, John.  I know it, you know it too.  But you've got to let a little of the you I know--the you I love--in.  Or else...all is lost."16

You think all is lost now, but it isn't!  You survived, John!  You knew when to make the right moves; when to fight, when to flee.  And you cared enough to save those you could.  But push onward!  You must at least give this next battle your all.  This series of events is that which Irene warned you against, you know this in your heart!  Remember what Irene told you.  Remember, whatever the current situation, however terrible things may seem, you can make a difference!  You must make a difference!

* * * * *

As Tensen looked at the portal, his fists clenched, and despite the severe forces threatening to overwhelm him, to wrap him in a web of despair and debris, he began once more to stand.  Muscles aching, bones, flesh and clothing threatening to splay from his bones, he managed to look the disaster eye-to-eye, as it were.  His hands began to glow uncannily, the paranormal energies building, impossibly, within them for one final, dramatic act.

Xina and Hazzard watched, and Henri struggled to rise to his feet, as Tensen's right hand glowed brighter than his left, fairly crackling with blue-white energies, straying this way and that.  It was all he could do to aim the energies toward the portal, and half a second later, the energy enveloped the entire VU device, overloading its circuitry, burning its way through the doorway.

Coda.

From the inside out, the rift collapsed in white fire.  Sparks flew for several yards as the winds from the Negative Zone were replaced by gusts of equipment breaking apart, flying through the air.  The structure collapsed directly atop Tensen, the device's standing door and the flat platform appearing like jaws of some technological monstrosity swallowing him whole.  Nightmask awoke to the enormous clatter, less like a mere small structure falling than something ten times larger, ten times uglier.  The entire mess was engulfed in flame, and remained that way for another minute.  None of the men and women could move, so paralyzed were they with the fear that to save them all, Tensen had sacrificed himself.

Then, inexplicably, pieces of the VU device began flying outward and upward, hundreds of feet in the air before beginning their fiery descent into the still sands.  Rising forth from the wreckage was Tensen, his uniform partially immolated, flesh and hair scorched from the hot metal within the pile.  He stood before Xina, Henri, Nightmask and Hazzard, shoulders slumped, brow weary and worn; and yet, his continued presence, his continued existence was all that mattered in this one instant.  He did not laugh, he did not quip, he did not smile; in fact he did nothing but walk from the wreckage and stand before the assembled crew.

None among the group could speak; no words were adequate.  A picture, frozen, in silence.

* * * * *

Epilogue I:

In the muck-encrusted, horribly-overgrown swamp once and still known as the Everglades, a special singularity exists.  This singularity, a few miles outside the former location of Citrusville, appears in the form of a rift that appeared thousands of years ago--a rift in the space-time continuum, whereby myriad worlds within worlds may be accessed; whereby creatures from those worlds may arrive upon this Earth, however unceremoniously.  A creature from the ill-dubbed "Duckworld" was caught in this Nexus of All Realities and appeared here, well over a hundred years ago.17  The path was treacherous, and it appeared, one-way only.  Such was the structure of the Nexus, that if one did not know, did not feel its ins and outs, a creature could be lost between realms, unable to trace the steps home.

Such was not a difficulty for the being which now emerged from the Nexus.

Orange boots struck the green mosses, twigs and roots laying at the mouth of the Nexus, marking Thanos' return to the universe he knew and loathed.

The Titan scampered from the Nexus, feeling inexplicably drained, but at the same time filled with unmitigated joy.  He looked left and right, over the area entire.  The green of life, that enemy of Thanos' mistress, was painted upon the scene, washing, saturating every single tree and pond.  Muck seemed to reach from the depths and wrap itself about the villain's feet.  Such things were almost beautiful enough to remind him of death; and yet, the microscopic creatures riddled throughout the landscape were, irrefutably, alive.  As such, they sickened Thanos.

The entire swamp was almost uncannily covered in a different texture of green than Thanos had ever seen before.

"Curious," he said; and then gave the structures no further thought.

Stifling laughter, Thanos thought about his victory as he walked amid the grassy sludge.  What things he had done for his mistress!  He could now go to the European continent, where he would surely avenge his previous death.  Oh, the pain of having been turned to carbon in the bowels of Las Vegas, when on the verge of his ultimate triumph against the heroes of Earth!18

In the last several hours, the Titan tried to achieve all his successes in one swift motion: reclaiming the Reality Gem, reassuming his original form, exacting vengeance upon Tensen, and killing billions upon billions of people, committing them to his mistress' icy embrace.  While he had, indeed, found the precious gem, shed the name and form of Thanatos, and eliminated Tensen, he balked at his attempt at mass genocide.

The pitiful creatures upon the Earth he destroyed just wouldn't die!

True, Thanos had removed the gem from the planet's core, leading to its destabilization.  The planet exploded; people by the billions were engulfed in flame, awash in seas of bloody terror from which there should have been no escape.  They should have walked the path to Mistress Death's domain, but that was not to be so!  How?  Some force must have done something, changed the souls somehow, helping them to escape.  The Star Brand perhaps, as weak as it had been in Kayla Barrett's possession?  Unlikely, and yet, the gem had warned him about that particular force; it was, after all, initially responsible for the peoples' parabilites.  Or could the gem itself have somehow saved them, betrayed the Titan?  Perhaps.  The simple fact now was, the souls became a force unto themselves, and woe unto any being that came in contact with such a destructive entity.

The energy could potentially seek one of two things: death for Thanos, or the planet's restoration via manipulation of the Reality Gem. Either way, its power would cause untold destruction--possibly, although not probably, more than Thanos dared dream.  If the souls wanted to recreate their precious world, Thanos knew they were doomed to failure, for he and he alone was the only being who had ever been able to harness the gem's power without aid of the others like it.  Since Thanos believed the souls hunted the gem, he felt he had no choice but to relieve himself of it--a regrettable, but necessary decision.

How exquisite it was that, knowing the Brand would home in on the Reality Gem's power, he left the gem in the Collector's care.  There was precious little risk in giving it to the Elder, after all.  He knew Tivan couldn't fathom the gem's true power; so had it been many years ago when he'd first taken it, trading him another Elder, the Runner, transformed into a mere babe by the Time Gem, for it.  Tivan, the fool, couldn't even remember that last time, he practically begged Thanos to take the gem away after he beheld its true power!  Wonders never ceased!

The energy, he thought, had dispersed the Collector's atoms, and even if the Elder hadn't died, he would at the very least be incapacitated for eons.  Lucky, Thanos was, to have taken the gem's advice and separated it from his person, making Tivan his patsy.  Were the energy to find the gem it coveted, the instrument that had kept the other Earth's denizens alive for the past several decades, in the custody of the creature that caused its removal and hence, the planet's destruction--well, Thanos didn't want to lay odds on how well the Reality Gem's power would match that of this mysterious energy in pitched battle.

Come to think of it, Thanos wondered how exactly those souls found their way into the Negative Zone in the first place, seeing as he'd teleported the Collector's ship there.  The only explanation he could fathom was that somehow, the souls sensed the presence of the Reality Gem inside the alternate Reed Richards' Negative Zone portal in the Baxter Building, and opened it even as the world ended.  Preposterous as the idea was, Thanos would not believe anyone survived to throw themselves through the portal.  Ah, well.  So long as no further pinholes opened between the subspace dimension and this reality, so long as no Jordan Boones opened more Virtual Unreality gateways, Thanos was safe from those energized souls' wrath.

But, if someone of infinite stupidity should open the Negative Zone to this reality anew...

...or, if the Star Brand had somehow teleported itself into the Negative Zone...

If...?  If, nothing!  Thanos leaves nothing to chance!  No longer shall I fail!  For am I not Thanos, Mistress Death's chosen one?

As Thanos trudged through the bog, his footsteps grew increasingly hot as his boots struck the grassy sinews of the swamp.  Looking down, he felt his feet tingling, and looked behind to find smoke rising from his trail of footprints.

"Curious," he said aloud as a cold, burning sensation crept up his body.  His voice nearly hiccupped with--but no, that was impossible.  "Most curious indeed."

The Titan walked northward, undeterred.

However, the Everglades, it seemed, were keenly aware of the true emotions running through the Titan.  Begging to differ with the Titan's surface thoughts, the swamp responded in kind.  Within the grass and water, the rootlike nervous system of an immense being felt the true inner pain and fear.  Emotions, picked up by receptors like nerve impulses, traveled along long tendrils, far away from Thanos, arriving at one particular tree in less than an eyeblink.

Upon the giant, misshapen tree that served as the swamp-creature's nerve center, the sensory messages were received within its primitive brain.  The creature relied more upon instinct and others' emotions than anything else; so it had since its creation in the latter Twentieth Century.  It was hard to believe that this creature served as ultimate guardian of the Nexus, stranger in this form than any it had worn over the decades.  It had been alive; it had been dead; it had been fully sentient, speaking; it had relied on instinct as now, having evolved more times than it could possibly recall--again, if it had the capability to truly think.  The greenish-brown muck on this particular tree arranged itself peculiarly, marking the nerve center.  A thick, brown, membranous brow stretched up and around half the tree,  around and above two deep-red orbs that looked, vaguely, like eyes, with an elephantine trunk made from the same brown material hanging down between them.  The creature once had a torso, arms, and legs, but now, that which had once been a human man, Dr. Theodore Sallis, simply existed as one with the swamp, one with the Nexus, now its perfect guardian.  The dark green, organic matter coiled around the Nexus, as if protecting this reality from anything that might escape it.

And as Thanos contined to swagger along the guardian's far-reaching corpus, the areas where his feet struck erupted in bright, yellow-orange flame...

...for whatever knows fear...burns at the Man-Thing's touch!19

The Man-Thing! (Art by Tennyson Smith)

* * * * *

Epilogue II:

"Tensen?"  I hear Keith's voice, but I don't want to listen.  After everything that's happened, he wants to thank me.  I'm so mad I could almost kill someone, and he walks right up to me in the sweltering heat, after I just destroyed that portal which led us back here.  "Tensen, I just want to say--"

"Skip it," I tell him, shoving him away with a slap of my hand.  "Goddammit, just leave me alone!"  Xina, Henri and Hazzard all look on in horror.  Not one minute ago, I saved them--but I couldn't save anyone else.  Why don't they see?

The desert winds die down and I watch Keith go back to the rest of the group.  They stand in a small circle while the body of Keith's sister, wrapped in white sheet, lies by their feet.  I can't hear their voices, but obviously they're making their late introductions.  They say they're friends of mine, from the other world, the world I came from, that they're ever so glad to be here, wherever and whenever here is, and that I only brought them here because I had no other choice, because--because--

Damn.

I watch Keith's body language as he tries to explain the entire situation, in a nutshell, to Henri and Xina.  Henri holds Xina tenderly as she begins to cry, hearing the terrible results of sending me back.  Still, they don't really know what happened.  They couldn't, not unless they lived it themselves.  Even Keith and Hazzard, who were there right along with me until the bitter end--I don't even think they realize the full scope of what happened, what they lost, what I let them lose just because I came back.  Awash in a world of illusions, they comfort each other knowing, or supposing, that everything is fine where they are, and that's fine with them.  Not for me.  Never for me.

I saved everyone here on this world.  But what does it matter when my people are all dead, my world is dead?

The group's words don't matter, and I turn my back from them, looking again at the wreckage.  The metal yet burns, the sun reflecting off its surfaces and making it ever hotter, glowing a warm red color as smoke rises into the noonday sky.  Minutes pass, perhaps hours, I don't know--until finally, I feel a hand upon my right shoulder.  After flinching quickly, I turn to see Keith.

"John," he says, "I know you don't want to hear this, but we want you to come with us."  I don't respond. "Xina said that in this time period, California suffered an earthquake several years back, and as a result, the coast's only about eighty miles west of here."  Still nothing.  "We're going to bury my sister.  Please come.  It won't take long.  I can take the image from Xina's mind and transport us there in an eyeblink.  We"--he changes his tone, his already gentle manner breaking down--"I need you there with me, John."  His voice flags.  "I think it'll do you--us both--good.  To say goodbye."

Goodbye.  Goodbye.  What can I do?  I rest my own hand on his, but then quickly turn to look at him.  No longer is he clothed in the garb of the Nightmask, but rather an ordinary, blue, button-down shirt and tan trousers.  Sweat soaks through his black hair and runs down his face and through his eyes, making him blink.  The sweat mixes with obvious tears streaking down his cheeks.

Family.  It all comes back to family.

I nod quietly.  The next few minutes are a blur, but soon, we are eighty miles west, looking from a sandy beach out to the Pacific Ocean.  The island called Lotusland20 floats thirty more miles out toward the sea.  Crystal-blue skies belie the demeanor I feel inside of deep heartache and loss.  Everything feels hollow as Keith and Hazzard dig the grave on the shore, with shovels generated from Keith's reality-altering powers.  As before, I simply stand watch, never speaking; in turn, no one speaks to me.  Within an hour, the grave is dug, and Keith lowers his sibling inside.

"I miss her," he tells everyone, holding the shovel and kneeling at graveside.  "She's all I had, and I don't think there's a time in the last fifty years I was able to tell her I loved her.  But...I did, I do, I always will."  He stammers as more tears stream down his face, some dropping onto the white burial sheath.  Leaning further toward the body, he says, "You always wanted to see the west coast, Teddy.  You loved the ocean.  Now..."  He sniffles, resting his head down, running his fingers through his hair and resting his head against his forearm as a veritable flurry of tears emerge.  His body quakes with grief.  "Now you're here."  He stands and waves his hand across the grave; instantly, the dirt and sand he'd dug out replaces itself, filling out atop the body.  Another wave, and nearby wood assembles a cross which embeds itself at the head of the gravesite.  Along the horizontal slab, the words appear to write themselves:

THEODORA REMSEN
1970-2099
BELOVED SISTER
REQUIESCAT IN PACE

As Keith returns to us, the weight upon his soul apparently lifted, he smiles weakly.  The grave tells him of closure; it reminds me of that which I could not stop, the lives I could not save.  As we prepare to leave the site, to climb in Xina's automobile and head eastward, I feel no closure, only hollowness.  The others, they try to comfort me, but I push them aside and shout at them angrily.  They don't understand.

True, a voice made me save myself, destroy the portal.  Right now, I don't know whether that voice belonged to my own subconscious, Angela or Irene or anyone from the realm beyond, or another, supernatural force.  What I do know is that I have learned who I am all over again.  I am John Roger Tensen, Justice Killer--rather, the Killer of Justice.  Perhaps, with these most recent perils, I have at long last paid the ultimate price.  A world is gone.  My world.

Billions of people, all dead.  A world, wiped out.  Because I came back to save it, and ended up dooming it instead.

I look down at my uniform and see that which was not there before.  Somehow, in the transition back to this sphere, my ordinarily purple-and-white uniform has turned scarlet-and-black.  A black lightning bolt appears where the white once shone proudly.  Coincidence, or an omen?21

My powers are gone.  When last I used them, to destroy the portal, it took all the concentration I could muster.  I have since tried using them repeatedly, to no avail.  Again, there may be several physical causes--brain damage from my encounter with Thanos, or overuse, or perhaps the Interspace dimension has again twisted them.  Perhaps The Almighty has relieved me of duties, my last challenge met.  Or more likely, I have fallen out of favor with The Almighty, and He has stripped me of them.  Perhaps He has no further need of me.  Perhaps The Lord has judged my arm more vengeful than just, and denied me.

I am certainly a hero no more.  I have failed myself and I have failed Him.

It is over.  There is no more to say.  No more wishes to be made on stars.

And no justice.

"No more wishes to be made on stars."
(Epilogue 3: The Negative Zone...)
As if responding to Tensen's words, the energy of the several billion souls, trapped, unsated, begins to dim, to coalesce into a strange, yet familiar shape...and a new star is born in the ravages of the Negative Zone...

~FINIS~


I don't wanna hear you say
That I will understand someday
No, no, no, no

I don't wanna hear you say
You both have grown in a different way
No, no, no, no

I don't wanna meet your friends
And I don't wanna start over again
I just want my life to be the same, just like it used to be

Some days I hate everything
I hate everything
Everyone and everything
Please don't tell me everything is wonderful now

--Everclear, "Wonderful" (2000)


Writer's Lament:

(Or, "I Just Finished Writing This Whole Blamed Limited Series and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt!")

Seventeen issues, four years: Finally, it's over!  The storyline of Tensen's return to his homeworld has concluded.  Was it what any of you expected?  I hope it was something different amid the other 2099 Underground titles.  And I hope that whatever your background, whether you were reading this story after being introduced to the character in SPIDER-MAN 2099, or if you knew the character from his New Universe days, you've come away satisfied, or shocked, or a lot of both.

I'm afraid I must apologize for the length of these last few chapters, especially #15 and this one.  I had so many plot elements to wrap up, I didn't realize until it was far too late just how long I'd run!  Of course, nearly five years ago I'd set the original borders of the story for 16 issues plus the zero story, and rather than extend the series another few issues and split up the content (which I thought would have been inexcusable!), I just decided to grin, bear it, and give everyone a few extra-sized final chapters.  If you enjoyed the extra length, that's great.  If you didn't, well, just keep your mouth shut and make it seem like you did enjoy.  (Just kidding!  Your comments are, of course, valuable!)

Speaking of valuable comments, I'd love to hear from everyone who's made it this far, just what you thought of the entire saga, beginning to end.  Help me make the next Tensen story a smash hit! (Hint, hint!)

This entire series has been one tremendous group effort.  If not for the talents of Tom "Drillnot" Imboden, Wendy "Yankee Witch" Doucette, Rodney Myers, and Jim "TwoSnakes" Stovall, this series would have been very different--but not nearly as good.  Take your bows, gang!

Also, herewith I gratefully acknowledge the works of the following Marvel Comics writers and artists:

Bob Brown, John Byrne, Gerry Conway, Peter David (whose run on the Justice character I've just tied!), Steve Englehart, Gary Friedrich, Steve Gerber, Archie Goodwin, Tom Grindberg, Mark Gruenwald, Gil Kane, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Rick Leonardi, Ron Lim, Ralph Macchio, Bill Mantlo, Ron Marz, John Francis Moore, Gray Morrow, Doug Murray, Fabian Nicieza, George Perez, Marshall Rogers, Jim Shooter, Walter Simonson, Roger Slifer, Jim Starlin, Tom Sutton, Roy Thomas, Lee Weeks, and Len Wein.

Take a look at what's coming up!  Excelsior!

-Gary M. Miller
done at last 02/01/2002

Like what you read?  It's your last chance!  Send me feedback here!


Back to Home Site created and maintained by Gary Michael Miller, tensen2099@yahoo.com
Tensen and all related characters are © 2001 Marvel Characters, Inc. No copyright infringements intended.