A Continuity Obsessed Tale of Iron Mike & Guardian

by Doc Nebula

The figure sat in the so called Secret Citadel, apparently unaware of the irony his presence represented. His long, heavy cape, shot through with memory ceramic fibers capable of sweeping into many different protective configurations at a muttered word from its wearer, prosaically programmed by default to keep the garment from ever entangling or tripping him, was draped limply over the back and arms of the chair he sprawled moodily in. His gloved fingers tapped, tunk tunk tunk tunk, on the metal console in front of him.

Before he had awakened that morning, only hours before, yet millenia away, he had dreamed of this place. This place, this time... among many others, but right here, right now, seemed of specific importance. A shabby little underground complex, built and abandoned by the Kree Empire under the reign of Emperor Varr Lon the 82nd, distinguished only by being the last full blooded Kree emperor prior to the creation of the Supreme Intelligence... later taken over by two superhuman adventurers and used as a base of operations for their various colorful exploits in the late 20th and early 21st Century of the near-mythical Heroic Age. This place, these people... Guardian and Iron Mike, so called superheroes, historical figures of minor but persistent notoriety... Avengers... somehow, this was all vital. They were vital. He did not know how, but... he knew they were.

He knew everything was different, and he did not like it.

A faint thread of discomfort was beginning to pulse in his left temple. Absently, he rubbed it with thumb and forefinger as he pondered.

He had spent long, tedious hours previous to his current sojourn reacquainting himself with the details of this time period. He had chosen this particular date for his visit with great care. Both this complex's present day residents were currently entangled in adventures that would keep them away from this place for the next five days, fourteen hours, seven minutes, and... some odd seconds. He had that long to find what he had come here looking for... and see if any sort of corrective action could be taken.

He leaned forward and spoke. "Emna hurr, deela vo, seyed Avenger Guardian, bnar choskis." The alien language flowed off his lips flawlessly as his battle-calc's translator program formed the holographic phonetic glyphs in front of his eyes. The cloaked figure had never met a Kree; in his native era, they were long since extinct... weren't they?... or was that just something else he'd dreamed...? Regardless, records of the language still existed, and he had come prepared.

There was a longish silence as the computer appeared to contemplate this command. The figure tapped his fingers on the console again, trying to have faith. The override codes he'd found through mass data-collations from the galactic information energy Q-net should be effective, but his recent researches had told him the Kree were... had been... notoriously paranoid about their security. Still, if these two savages had interfaced with the machine, in late 20th Century Terran...

An artificial voice from the computer's speakers intoned a date, some fifteen years previous to his current time-space nexus point. Then another, obviously human, voice began to speak. The cloaked figure recognized it immediately. A light alto, speaking the primitive dialect of Galactic Universo known as 'English’ in the late 20th Century, in an annoyingly vernacular manner. A voice he had dreamed of, this morning, as he moved closer to his awakening in a world strangely changed from what some deep, fundamental part of him knew was right and proper. A voice he had heard several times going through historical audio files since then... speaking a classic radio message of hope and promise to an entire planet, as the Avengers departed for a distant galaxy, to end a war between two alien empires that threatened all of Earth. Denouncing a political initiative against mandatory registration, including fingerprinting and genetic sampling, for superhumans. That final, truncated transmission, from deep space, as the speaker and his partner had flown to investigate an anomalous sighting of some vast, unknown object that had suddenly appeared above the Solar System's plane of the ecliptic, less than an A.U. away from Earth, and which had then begun moving slowly towards the human homeworld...

The intruder knew that voice. He knew it very well. Just as he knew, somehow, in his heart and his soul... that this was a voice that had no rightful place in any history he had ever been part of...

His headache incrementally worsened as he began to listen:

Earthquakes suck. Especially when you're inside an underground cavern, and a fissure opens up underneath your feet, and suddenly you're plummeting into dusty hot darkness and thinking you're going to die any second.

Weirdly, we didn't, although I was too busy screaming to notice we had actually stopped falling, and were, apparently, hanging immobile and unharmed in the air, until a soft greenish glow came up and suffused the area immediately around us.

I should probably quantify 'us'. My longtime email buddy Mike Norton and I had still been inside the caves when the quake hit, completely unexpectedly. Mike's wife and two young sons were down the hill by the picnic area we'd staked out. We had been on our desultory way to join them, feeling kind of hungry, when suddenly... well. You know.

Now, though, I could see what appeared to be some sort of metal, rock littered floor surface a few feet under my strangely suspended sneakers. It didn't gleam, or seem to reflect the weird greenish illumination at all. The metal floor appeared to stretch off to the right, where it met a similarly smooth, apparently seamless, metal wall, with what appeared to be several rather utilitarian metal doorways in it. There was no readily apparent source of the illumination.

"Ahhh?" my buddy Mike said, tentatively, from where he was hanging a few yards away.

"Humanforms/Terrane are subjects," a pleasant baritone voice, as apparently sourceless as the weird green light, said neither softly nor loudly. "Intact and uninjured optimally through safety grav grid. Degastic hool kro varr."

I realized my throat hurt from all the screaming I'd been doing as I plummeted to my... not doom...?... and immediately had a spasm of coughing from all the dust in the air, which hurt even more.

"Picnic at Hanging Mike," I heard Mike mutter from off to the side.

"Cut that out," I muttered back, surlily. "I am Non Sequitur Boy."

The cloaked figure reviewing the personal log tape tapped a pair of fingers on the console top. He ordered the tape to rewind, so he could listen once more to what the computer had said, although his centuries-spanning intellect had long ago mastered the techniques of eidectic recall. "Degastic hool kro varr..."

"Dimensional shock metabolic effects present." Yes. Yes, that was what it had said.

This was... astounding. Their origins were otherdimensional? They were intruders from another timeline entirely? That... could explain much. "Find me the next reference to the place of Guardian and Iron Mike's origin," the figure said.

Numbers flashed quickly on the monitor screen, blurring together. Then, once more, the disembodied voice of Guardian came over the speakers buried in the console:

We just sat there silently for a moment, after telling the central computer to kill the news broadcast transmission it had intercepted and projected for us in the dining hall.

"1962," Mike said, sounding stunned. "It's... 1962."

"Mike," I snorted, "it's 1962 in the Marvel Universe. Let's not leave out the really trippy part. Somewhere in New York City right now, the Avengers may well be smacking the crap out of the original Masters of Evil."

Mike shook his head. "This is... this makes no sense, though. Even assuming we slid across dimensions into some actual, objective equivalent of the Marvel Universe... why would we slip back in time? It's the year 1998... I mean, why wouldn't it be the year 1998 here?"

I couldn't have begun to answer him. He knows a lot more about physics than I do. "Who cares? Mike, this is SO cool. I mean, you saw those powered Kree battle-suits in the armory... they've got to be at least as good as Guardsman armor, especially right now, before Tony Stark even invents Guardsman armor! We can be superheroes! We could never have done that back home!"

Mike sank his chin onto his clenched fists. "I don't think either of us would fit into one," he said. "Besides, I can't stay here. Ari and the boys are going to be worried sick about me. I've got to find a way to reopen that dimensional portal."

I sighed. "Yeah, I hear you," I said after a second. "But look, Mike, seriously... if you do find a way, make sure Dr. Doom or Dormammu or somebody doesn't see you do it. Any serious bad guy from here could conquer our whole planet in five minutes."

The figure listened intently for the next few minutes, but there was no further mention of the two Avengers' mysterious home world.

His headache was becoming worse. Stoically, he closed his eyes, meditated for a moment, and with an effort of will, stuffed the distracting pain into the back of his mind.

It troubled him, that they would refer to this timeline... his timeline... as the "Mar Vell Universe". As a student of military history, he of course knew of Raptor-General Mar Vell's career, although he had forgotten, prior to his recent research, that Mar Vell had been born Kree. His later accomplishments and rise to power through the Shi'ar Imperial Guard, to the eventual rank of Shi'ar Planetary Viceroy, rendered his earlier adventurings all but moot, although he had implemented some interesting tactics in the first Thanos War... still, it was troublesome to think that people, apparently scholars, from another dimension of the multiverse might label this one after so ultimately minor a historical figure. Perhaps their native culture placed great importance on medical breakthroughs... and it was true, the vastly successful array of treatments for rogue cellular metastasis were generally referred to as "the Mar Vell Treatment", even though they had actually been the product of an effort organized to cure the great Shi'ar warrior of the condition, rather than something he himself had invented.

The cloaked figure shook his head, and immediately regretted it, as the sudden motion brought his migraine back with redoubled intensity. He pressed his hands to his forehead, gritted his teeth, exerted his will. He... would... not... be... DISTRACTED... right now...!

There. For the moment, he had his focus back. He was here for a purpose, and it had nothing to do with historical military figures and their subsequent intergalactic political careers. It wasn't as if this bungler Guardian or his partner Iron Mike could have possibly had anything to do with General Mar Vell's later successes, anyway, although they had probably all met, briefly, during the first and second Thanos Wars, prior to Mar Vell's leaving Earth permanently.

A key event, apparently, had been the two extradimensional invaders joining the Avengers. As they had apparently arrived here without superpowers, it might be useful to examine the origin of their transhuman capacities.

"Computer," he said, after another moment's consideration, "search Guardian's logs for phrases like 'power enhancement' or other phrases of similar semantic content."

The computer hummed for a moment, and then, Guardian's voice spoke again:

I had to say Mike's name three time's before I got his attention. Finally, his photonic receptors flashed at me and he said, "I'm sorry, I didn't think that lag time would be noticeable to you. I heard you the first time, but I was working through a complicated chemical interaction simulation. What can I do for you?"

I sighed wearily and put my feet up on the table. "Oh... nothing. Forget it. I'm sure whatever you're doing is more important... I just wanted to bitch a little about life, the universe, and everything."

"How goes the apartment search in New York City?" Mike said, after a pause just long enough to seem human. His gleaming metal hands continued moving up and down the control console in front of him and his eyes...well, the faceted crystals he uses for eyes... never left the read out displays hovering over the console.

"Ahhhh," I said, disgusted. "Cap pulled some strings for me and I can move into a townhome SHIELD keeps as a safehouse if I want, but I know it will be under surveillance. Tony Stark has a permanent suite in one of the downtown hotels he'll let me have, but... I just want a place of my own, you know? One where the address isn't even in the Avengers computer, and they have to beep me if they want me. I'm sick of that mansion. With the Big Four all on leaves of absence, it would be bad enough just rooming with Cap, but the new guys..."

Mike's voice almost sounded like he was amused at me. "I thought the Cap's Four period used to be your favorite run of AVENGERS," he said.

"Yeah, well,"I said… okay, I whined, I admit it… "it's the Cap's Five with me around, and between me, Hawkeye, and that asshole Quicksilver, it's just too many hotheads and wise asses. We're gonna drive Cap nuts, assuming one of us doesn't kill the other one. Quickie actually belted me one the other day, the little prick." I rubbed my jaw as I remembered.

"I'm sure you did nothing to instigate that," Mike's synthetic voice came, mildly sarcastic.

I waved my hand. "Screw that. All I said was that if he didn't like Cap's leadership, he should go back to Magneto. THEN he punched me." I rubbed my jaw again more slowly, then chuckled. "Surprised the living shit out of him when I picked him up with a power beam and held him off the ground so he couldn't get any traction to do it again." I paused. "Cap made me put him down, though."

"It does sound... potentially explosive," Mike said.

"Yeah," I said. "You know, we're really short right now in the big brain-super scientist department, with both Hank and Tony gone. I don't suppose you could..."

Mike doesn't exactly sigh any more... he doesn't, as far as I know, actually breathe.... but I got the impression that if he could have, he would have. "I'll never get these power enhancements done on your armor, if I can't spend full time in a lab equipped to study Kree technology. Not to mention needing access to supplies of power crystals, which I would really prefer not to move to Avengers Mansion."

"Yeah, yeah," I said. "It was just a thought. Um... what... kind of power enhancements are we talking about?"

Mike glanced up at me. "Well, I've already figured out how to increase the efficiency of the molar leverage servomotors, as well as the mass inertial dampeners, in the armor," he said. "Should up your effective strength while wearing it by a good 30%.... A great deal more than that, if you want to run active energy through the power feeds, although I wouldn't recommend that for longer than a few minutes at a time. I've also worked out some neutronic circuit configurations, based on some schematics in the data banks, that should allow you to bend visible light around yourself for short periods, or even move yourself up and down the electrical valence table for even shorter ones. There's even an antigravity application I may be able to incorporate that would be more efficient than the belt rockets the armor has now."

I was impressed. I thought I was impressed. "I... think you just said I could turn invisible or intangible or fly better, right?"

"Basically," he replied dryly.

"Uh huh," I said. "So... if all this good shit was just lying around in the Kree data banks for you to find, then..."

"Why didn't the Kree build those functions into the armor in the first place?" he finished my unstated question for me. "Well, first, they require an enormous amount of energy, and I theorize that the power stones we found here were something newly discovered by the Kree in this outpost. Something they did not fully understand. They modifed the power plants in the complex for them, but hadn't gotten around to doing modifications on the battle suits yet. Or, for that matter, most of the individual weaponry." He stopped for a moment and tapped a control.

"Second... hmmmm... yes, that confirms that... I'm going to have to cannibalize most of the other sets of battle armor in order to get the pseudosentient molar circuitry I'll need to install these devices in yours. There simply isn't enough manufactured material to supply much more than one set... and that's assuming that the circuitry in the other battle suits is all intact, although the general levels of preservation we've found in the complex make me think they will be."

He stopped for a moment again as he appeared to read several more read outs.

"Third, both modes... invisibility and intangibility... will be somewhat hazardous to your health, due to some unavoidable metabolic side effects of that kind of fundamental transformation, and, I would guess, excruciatingly painful to experience."

He looked up at me. "However, any biological damage should be able to be regenerated by regular use of the metabolic optimization tanks. Also, once the salvaged, supplemental molar circuitry is installed, it should permeate your armor to a density and capacity that will give it virtually infinite redundancy. The number of possible pseudoneural connections will be in the trillions... which effectively means, I'll be able to install further improvements and features as fast as I can design them, with no pragmatic limit to how many options I can build in."

The cloaked figure said "Pause playback," and lapsed into silence again. His head felt muzzy with pain, stuffed with cotton, but... what were they talking about? What in the name of Thanos did they mean by all that "Cap's Four, Cap's Five" discussion?

He clearly recalled, now, his youthful attempt to humiliate the Avengers, which had led to their fighting by his side against his rebellious lieutenants to save Ravonna's kingdom... and he clearly remembered Guardian's role in that adventure, as well. Guardian's... well, you couldn't call the cretin 'quick witted', so, inordinately lucky, then... use of an emerald particle shield had saved his and Ravonna's lives, when that treacherous cur Baltag had seized a guard's blaster and made that desperate assassination attempt. Strange, but he hadn't thought about that in over a century... he'd been so young then... so brash. That brush with death had certainly stiffened Ravonna's spine. To think, he'd actually thought he might be in love with that bitch at one time...

Still, none of this told him what he needed to know. Apparently, Guardian wore modified Kree battle armor that, over time, had been extensively augmented by his brilliant companion. Guardian himself was nothing extraordinary; if anything, he was rather a nobody. A nothing, undistinguished in any way, a mediocrity catapulted by a chance concatenation of coincidence into a crucial nexus point of probability. An oaf who wore a primitive suit of powered armor and played hero among the savages. The cloaked figure snorted in contempt as he remembered more of his own dealings with the emerald-armored buffoon. A clown, in essence.

Guardian's partner, however, seemed to be rather more significant. Iron Mike had apparently arrived here as human, normal, mundane -- as... unimportant... as Guardian. Perhaps there was something usable in the details of his transformation from normal man to solid living metal golem. "Computer, play back Guardian's logs dealing with the transformation of this 'Iron Mike' from human to his later form."

The last of the fluorescent green gunk drained out of the bottom of the tank, and I found myself kneeling, sticky and naked, in a big transparent tube, hacking, coughing, vomiting, and spitting the nasty crap out of my lungs. Finally, I blearily lifted my head, and saw Mike standing outside behind a control console about ten feet away, regarding me with interest and some trepidation. "Are you all right?" he asked, when he saw my eyes focus on him.

I gave him a big thumbs up. "Rockin'," I said, dismayed to hear my voice come out as a rusty rasp. "You gotta try this thing. It's the bomb."

"Well, it looks like it worked, anyway," he said, dubiously, looking me over as I straightened up. "I mean, you really look... better." He hesitated. "Other than the green goo all over you, I mean."

For the first time, I looked down at myself. The rather large belly I'd been carrying around in steadily increasing stages of development since my mid 20s was shockingly gone; I could actually see more of my feet than just the tips of my toes for the first time in well over a decade. "Huh," I said. What I could see of my chest, stomach, legs, and... glancing from side to side... arms, looked considerably more muscular than I remembered myself ever being, too. Not exactly a Schwarzenegger build, but definitely some kind of bodybuilding had been going on while I floated in that tube for...

"How long was I in there for?" I asked curiously, holding up my leaner, stronger looking hands in front of me with interest.

"A little over 72 hours," Mike replied absently, looking back down at the readouts on the console... well, actually, floating over the console, but I couldn't see them from my angle... again. "How do you feel?"

I stopped and thought about that, and realized that other than a faint raspiness in my throat, I felt... fine. More than fine, actually, I felt good. In fact, I felt wonderful... no real discomfort anywhere in my body. My feet weren't sore, my muscles and joints didn't even mildly ache... I felt warm and loose and relaxed and... at home, in my body, in a way I hadn't felt since... well, probably, since childhood.

"Um," I said, rotating my hands back and forth in front of my face. "Um... good. Really good." I realized something with a burst of pleasant shock. "Hey, I can SEE!" I looked up at Mike, who, before I'd gone into the tube, would have been little more than a blur at that distance. I could see him, and the rest of the room, with a sharpness and clarity that I hadn't had even looking through thick corrective lenses before. I could swear I was seeing more colors and shades than I ever had before, too.

"How do your teeth feel?" Mike asked me, apparently consulting another read out.

Startled, I ran my tongue around the inside of my mouth, checking. The broken bicuspid on the right side of my mouth was whole again, and, more importantly, the hole in my left lower row where I'd had an infected tooth extracted back in the mid 80s was gone. From what I could tell, my teeth felt solid, even, complete, and... very clean, too. "Damn," I said. "Orto, you have to try this thing. This is fuckin amazing."

"Mmmm," he said, still studying his read outs. "What did you experience, subjectively? How did it feel?"

I tried to remember. He'd figured out how to make the smooth sides of the tube sort of melt open into an oval so I could get inside, which had sealed up again once I entered. I remembered the heavy greenish fluid simply starting to... bead up... condense... ooze, sort of... out of the clear walls of the tube, running in streaks down to puddle, then pool around my feet, lapping up over my ankles, up my thighs... I remember it was neither hot nor cold, but felt slightly... tingly. I remember how much I was dreading the moment when I'd have to breathe the crap into my lungs, as Mike and I had already figured you would have to do for it to work, just like Ed Harris had to do with the oxygenated fluid in THE ABYSS. I remembered the thick, viscous slop rising up around my waist... my chest... steeling myself to kneel down and take a deep breath, rather than wait longer, when it got just a little higher... and then...

"Nothing," I said. "I don't even remember starting to breathe the gunk. I just went blank."

"Hmmmm," he said. "No dreams? Nothing?"

I thought about it. "Nope. Nothing. Sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry about," he said absently, tapping the console in front of him in a few places. "Do you feel tired? Hungry? Mentally altered?"

I closed my eyes and contemplated the sensations I was feeling. "Nope," I said, finally. "I feel well rested, well fed, and perfectly normal mentally... well..."

"Normal for you," Mike said, smiling. "I know. Okay. Your brainwave patterns are normal... a little sharper than normal, actually; I think your brain is now a little more efficient... which will enhance your perceptions, reaction times, general coordination... Hmmm. You're right. I will have to try that. SAM, let him out."

SAM, or Stupid Asshole Machine, was the pseudosentient computer who did basic maintenance on the complex. Its... well, his... speech patterns had become discernably more human, even colloquial, over the ten days or so Mike and I had been here.

"Kwa vardoon tkellin," I heard SAM say now, and once again, the transparent substance of the tube melted abruptly into an oval opening I could easily step out of. One of the rectangular, three and half foot high pillars that the Kree apparently used for stools stood just outside the tube, and piled on top were some neatly folded clothes. I shook them out; bright green sweatpants, with built in feet like kid's pajamas, and a bright green sweatshirt, in a SAM manufactured fabric substance that almost successfully simulated cotton. SAM makes nearly everything green, for reasons we don't know; it was a major victory when, on the fourth day we were here, Mike and I together stumbled on a sequence of commands that would get through to SAM that we wanted the... well... gunk... he was brewing up for us in the commissary nutrient tanks to be something other than green and gooey. We managed to get him to come up with four different kinds of basic sustenance, ranging from a vaguely brown, chewy stuff we called meat loaf to an offwhite lumpy paste we called mashed potatoes. The other two weren't much better, but all four were a vast improvement over the green glop.

I put the clothing back regretfully. "I need a shower before I put anything on," I said. "Um... how are we doing on getting out of here?"

Mike sighed. "Well, we're no closer on reopening the portal back home. There's no Kree schematics anywhere in the database on interdimensional portals. They have some teleportation capacity, and Reed Richards might be able to adapt something from that, but I'm a lab tech, not a supergenius comic book scientist. Plus, SAM's sensor logs describe the portal pretty well, and opening something like that of a size to pass the two of us and keeping it open for even a few seconds... it would take more power than anything we can put together here."

"Yeah," I said, scratching my ear. A thought had occurred to me. The Kree complex had a long narrow room a few corridors away that Mike and I had discovered apparently cleaned objects through some sort of directed pulsating vibrations, but it wasn't anything like as much fun as a shower or a bath. "SAM, can you just fill that tube up again with warm, soapy water? I mean, if I get back in it, can you effectively let me take a bath in there?"

SAM's response came immediately. "The metabolic optimization tank is not designed for such decadent applications," he said primly.

"Yeah, but can you do it?" I asked him, well aware by now of how one had to question SAM to get a useful response.

"Yes," he said, with what almost sounded like an exasperated snort.

"Okay," I said. "Open it up, let me back in, close it, and fill it with warm, sterile water impregnated with a 2% biological cleanser solution about up to my chest level."

So I stepped back into the tube and had a bath. Mike continued to study the console read outs. "Hmmmm," he said. "I wouldn't have thought to use that thing for a tub."

I was whistling as I washed. "You would have," I replied, "if you'd just spent three days floating in here." I ducked my head under the warm soapy water and rubbed my hair vigorously. "Need a shave," I muttered, rubbing a bristly neck under my thick beard. "So," I continued, "how about Plan B? Operation: Kick Some Ass?"

Barring going straight back to our Earth, I had put forward the idea that Mike and I use the Kree technology laying around the abandoned complex to construct superheroic identities for ourselves so we could go adventuring in the Silver Age Marvel Universe that lay outside. Mike would have been as enthusiastic about the idea as I was, I think, if he wasn't so worried about his wife and two young sons thinking he was dead in a cave-in, back in our home dimension.

"Hmmm," Mike said, keeping his eyes carefully averted from the tube. "Well, good news and bad news there. The suits of battle armor we found aren't worth a whole lot. They're protective... I expect they'd be bullet proof, actually... and have some useful built in capacities, but from what SAM has told me, they seem designed to function in space, or at least, in much lower gravity fields than we have on Earth."

"Huh," I said, splashing around in the tube. "Maybe I'm stupid, but what difference does that make?"

"Well," Mike said, "they all have built in belt rockets, for instance, but in Earth's gravity, the best you could expect from them is that they'd help you do a Superman type leap over a tall building a couple of times before they had to be recharged. They might cushion a long fall, also, but they wouldn't let anyone with any kind of body mass actually fly. Naturally, in zero gravity, they'd be a lot more effective. The armor has some built in tractor and tensor fields that allow the manipulation of any masses it comes into contact with... effectively, greatly enhancing the strength of the wearer... but again, they seem designed to function in low or no gravity. There's a function for negating inertia, but nothing that really lets one lift or manipulate actual weight. There are offensive beam ports one could channel focused energy of some sort through, but SAM says they require the installation of modules that, themselves, run off power cells that need frequent recharging, and that are rather bulky and heavy. The helmets do have enhanced sensory capacity, though, including telescopic and microscopic vision enhancements, hearing enhancements, and the ability to increase ones visual and hearing perceptual ranges extensively outside those of normal human senses."

I sighed. "SAM, drain the water, then let me out. Oh, and if you can make a drying cloth similar to those clothes, I'd appreciate it." The water began to not so much drain out as simply, apparently, be absorbed back into the material of the tube. When the inside was bone dry again, the wall shimmered into an oval. I stepped out, and saw that a second pillar/stool was now standing next to the first one, and on it, a neatly folded towel lay, made of the same green pseudocotton as the clothing.

"I don’t get it," I went on. "Mar Vell’s first combat suit was pretty kick ass. He flew and everything, right? So what’s up with that?"

Mike rubbed his lower lip absently. "I can’t be entirely certain," he said, slowly, "but I don’t believe the battle armor we’ve found in the complex’s armory is the same sort as Mar Vell wore. It’s bulkier, for one thing, and a solid green color, for another. I hypothesize that Mar Vell wore a more technologically advanced set of Kree space-combat gear… which would accord well with the apparent age of this subterranean base."

"So, what, you’re saying Mar Vell had Kevlar, grenades, and an M16 A1, and what we’ve got here is chain mail and broadswords?"

Mike glanced up at me and grinned. "Well, that’s not how I’d have put it, but yeah, that’s what I suspect."

I began drying off as Mike went on, "However, there is some good news. SAM tells me there is no reason the linkage installed in the complex's power plant, which draws energy from one of these green crystals, couldn't be duplicated and installed in one of the suits of battle armor, as an alternative power source to the normal batteries. As far as I can tell, the actual servomotors, circuitry, mechanisms, and material of the armor has the capacity for vastly increased performance levels. So, theoretically, with a power crystal installed, assuming it gives out the same amounts of power as the one running this complex does, the battle suits' capacities would be significantly increased. Actual powered flight should be possible, as should the manipulation of sizeable masses, and even an offensive array of focused particle weaponry might become feasible. Combined with the protective capacity of the armor itself, this should allow the wearer to become a solidly mid-level Marvel superhero... more powerful than, say, Spider-Man or Captain America, while nothing near the level of a Thor or an Iron Man."

I paused, half dressed, in the sweat pants with pajama feet, as what he'd said sank in. "WOW!" I said. "Dude, that's AWESOME! Like emerald armored gods, we will swoop down out of the sun onto the unsuspecting heads of bad guys everywhere! Ferric fists flashing, we will pummel and pound the pernicious pug uglies into pulverized... um... what's a good 'p' word?"

"Pablum," Mike supplied immediately. "Pulp. Potpourri."

"...pablum." I continued. "It'll be great! We will kick some evildoer ASS!"

Mike sighed. "You would hardly be a god. Loki, the Enchantress, or the Executioner would quickly turn you into a rug."

I refused to allow him to spoil my good mood. "Daredevil villains," I said firmly, pulling on the sweatshirt. "Daredevil villains will fall before our pulsating power beams like ripe wheat. Steve Ditko Spider-Man villains, too. They're a buncha wanks."

Mike frowned. "Well, there are two problems with that."

"No problems," I said... well, sniveled, pretty much... walking up to the console and perching on a pillar-stool next to him, looking at the array of hovering, apparently three dimensional read outs which meant nothing to me. "Stop with the problems. You said we could soup up the armor with power crystals. You SAID."

Mike ran an apparently weary hand through his dark, close cut hair. "Two problems," he repeated stolidly. "First, according to SAM, the Kree clone all their infantry, so the armor is all one size. Now that you're lean and mean... and, being an inch or so under six feet tall... you'll fit into it. However, even after optimization, I'm much too large."

I paused. "Uh... well... we can... I don't know... make another suit in a bigger size. SAM makes sweatsuits, he can make armor."

Mike sighed again. "I asked him. He can certainly make larger pieces of armor. What he can't do is manufacture the molar circuitry that comes installed in the very subatomic matrix of the armor. That takes a major, completely dedicated manufacturing facility, the closest of which, according to SAM's data banks, is somewhere around Orion."

"You're kidding!" I said. "It takes a major, completely dedicated manufacturing facility to make powered battle suits that don't work on, you know, actual planets. No wonder everybody kicks the Kree's bony blue asses. Dude, they SUCK."

Mike just spread his hands, glancing around at the abandoned complex.

"Demonstrably," he sighed.

"Well..." I thought about it. "Still, SAM can make you a set of unpowered armor, and we can fit it up with a rocket belt from one of the sets we have, and some of those particle beam modules he mentioned, and we saw some kind of ray guns and rifles in the armory... we'll hook you up. You can be, like, a Kree version of the Punisher."

Mike looked exasperated. "Yes. The other problem..." Here he picked up one of the green crystals, this one a faceted chunk of shiny gem like substance about the size of ball bearing, and bounced it on his hand. "I don't know how to activate these things. They generate huge amounts of power... the one in the power plant does, anyway... but these just seem inert. SAM has no idea how the original Kree here activated it."

He held it up in front of his face and squinted at it. "Damn it, if I were only smarter..."

I couldn't begin to explain what happened next, other than that there was a blinding flash of greenish light, a crackling sound, a brief sensation of warmth.... and Mike was gone. There was a clattering sound, which I later figured was the crystal falling and bouncing across the floor, and a dry, sifting sound, which I later figured was what was left of Mike's body settling onto the floor and the stool he'd been sitting on in little heaps of ash.

I blinked through the green, shapeless dots floating in front of my eyes. At that very second, I had no comprehension of what had just happened. "Mike?"

After a second, SAM's weird, toneless, mechanical voice said, "...shit. What was that?"

Mike wasn't dead. I'm going to fast forward this log's narration to that part.

The intruder ordered the narrative to pause there, momentarily confused. Guardian had ‘fast forwarded’… was there some narrative he’d missed…?

He spent a long sixty seconds or so having the computer search backwards to make sure there was actually no recording that had been skipped over in linear sequence, before realizing that Guardian had merely been, as always, speaking metaphorically, and in his irritatingly vernacular manner.

"Gradzoon," the intruder snarled, a 40th Century phrase that, in its original Caelot referred to a harmless, nocturnal omnivore that was less than aesthetically pleasing by most human standards, and smelt terrible, but which in his culture had come to be pretty much the equivalent of the 20th Century English phrase ‘asshole’.

He tersely told the computer to continue the log:

Mike’s body was disintegrated, but somehow, his mind had been transferred into SAM. We were both very confused over the next couple of minutes, but eventually, we managed to establish that to our mutual satisfaction.

Awful though it was, Mike's... transformation... into some kind of living computer... actually made things a great deal more efficient. He didn't seem to mind much, at least, initially. The combination of his sentience and SAM's programming seemed to be a disembodied super-genius who was everywhere and knew everything. The various modifications he'd been talking about doing to a set of powered armor for me, which would have taken probably weeks or months if he had been doing it by hand, even with my nearly useless help and SAM's guidance, he managed in one nonstop 16 hour binge, with me to pick stuff up and move it around and put it down in the various labs and shops, to be modified and reshaped via particle beam welding and molecular reintegration and other stuff I can't even pronounce.

At the end of those sixteen hours, I put on the modified set of Kree battle armor for the first time, and I felt... well, it was a great feeling. I wasn't even noticing how tired I was; I mean, I was psyched. "Man, I'm gonna have a hard time keeping a secret identity in this stuff," I said, looking down at myself in the shiny green, pseudometal armor with enormous satisfaction, but not wanting to seem smug what with Mike trapped in the computer and all. "I mean, I can't exactly wear it under my clothes."

Mike's voice responded from the empty air, "I have some ideas about that. I may be able to install some teleportation circuits into the armor that would bring it to you, or send it back here, at some kind of signal. There are schematics in the data base that I think I can adapt and install."

"It's not gonna teleport ME, is it?" I asked, uneasy at the thought. I have a teleportation phobia; I've had it ever since I first watched STAR TREK. I always wonder if the person who materializes at the end of the teleport is the same as the person who dematerialized at the start, or just an exact duplicate who THINKS they're that person. The concept terrifies me. How would you, or anyone else, ever know?

"No," Mike said. "The attached data files and various usage logs don't give me a lot of confidence in its application to living beings. The Kree used it almost entirely for shipping freight. On a few occasions, they used it for prisoners... but a comparison of inventories would indicate that there was close to a 23% percent loss rate due to breakage whenever teleportation was employed on living creatures... as opposed to a .00001% loss rate on inanimate objects.... and that one time happened when a major solar flare was occurring in an extraspatial area the teleport beam had to transit on its way to this base. So I wouldn't recommend ever teleporting yourself with it, but it should make a handy method to store, and then get access to, the armor in a hurry."

"Huh," I said. "Sounds good. But... the armor's usable now, right? I mean, I have to put it on and take it off the old fashioned way, but it will work?"

"With the activated crystal in the belt buckle providing power, yes," Mike said. We still hadn't figured out how to activate the crystals, but when I had found the one he'd been holding right before his... transformation... it had been glowing in pulsing green flashes. From within the computer, Mike had scanned it and confirmed that it was now active as an energy source, and simply needed to be connected into a properly attuned conversion array to function as such. I had that crystal in the center of the armor's waist belt right now.

Smiling in satisfaction, I lifted the solid green pseudometal helmet with the fin running down the middle and settled it over my head. The cheek and neck greaves extended by themselves to just below my chin, covering my throat entirely. Other than my lower nostrils, mouth, and chin, I was fully armored.

There were optional helmets with built in life support systems that covered the head entirely, and I had tried one of them, but it was stuffy and it overheated quickly. Maybe Kree soldier clones didn't sweat, but I did. The lower fringe of the helmet mated to the greaves extending from the armor's chest piece to collar my neck with a firm click. I tested the various systems in the armor by looking from one activator to the other. The helmet had a sensor that tracked my pupil movements and gave me a small animated dot to mark what I was looking at; all I had to do what shift my attention and speak an activation phrase and I could bring up an entire array of sensory enhancers. Mike had told me that the antennae for the audio receptors, as well as the powerful visual sensors, were built into the fin running from the nose ridge up over and down the back of the helmet. And here I'd always just thought the Kree put them on their helmets to look cool.

"Everything works," I told Mike, a minute or so later, after scanning through the radio frequencies and testing out infrared, ultraviolet, telescopic, and microscopic vision. "Nice job."

Another sweep of my vision crossed the activation panel for the belt jets. I subvocalized "krenda" for the throat microphones in the armor to pick up, and the jets pulsed into operation, a stream of warmth washing down the outside of my now armored legs, lifting me a few inches from the floor. The armor had built in gyroscope circuits to keep me upright and balanced on the jet stream. Dust was blowing outward away from me in a radiating circle as I hovered there. I leaned forward experimentally and found myself wafting face first towards the wall. Reflexively I tilt-rolled to the left, towards the door, pulling in my left arm and extending my right in that direction, and slid through the doorway easily, like I was on rails in the air. I made the same sort of turn out in the hall and swept my vision-dot across the velocity control, murmuring the activation word again to toggle my speed up.

I went roaring around and around the outer perimeter hallway, learning to negotiate the right angle turns, picking up more expertise with each successful, or occasionally, unsuccessful, circuit. I rarely brushed the walls and only had one real collision at speed with a doorway, and I was pleased to find that in the armor, I didn't even feel it other than as a painless impact.

"Could you, you know, not break our living quarters?" Mike's voice rang through the corridors. "If that's okay?"

"Bitch, bitch, bitch," I muttered. "I'm fine, by the way, thank you very much."

"I can see your metabolic read outs," Mike said. "I can also see the buried stress fractures in the load bearing walls just waiting for a hurtling geek in armor to impact them at high velocity and bring down the whole mountain, so... be careful."

I suspect he was kidding... nearly every alloy the Kree use for heavy construction seems all but immune to entropy, I mean, the City in the Blue Area still looks brand new, according to Al Milgrom, anyway... but I tried to be more careful after that.

Finally, after an hour of so of making the same circuit, I told Mike to open the hatch to the access shaft he'd located from plans in SAM's databanks.

"Let's be careful out there," he said, as he opened the access panel.

The hatch was in the ceiling at the end of the corridor I'd just turned into. Grinning, I increased my flight speed again and went swooshing down the hall, flipping myself upwards expertly around my center of gravity as I reached the hatch, whipping up through it without touching any of the sides, my faintly thundering jets driving me up the shaft beyond like a bullet from a gun.

A hundred and twenty feet up through solid granite, the access shaft opened into a subterranean cavern opening into the outer air high up one sheer side of a particularly inaccessible peak in the Catskill Mountains. I blew out of the cave into the open night sky - we'd been careful to find out what time it was - with a war whoop of sheer joy. I was FLYING - like I'd dreamed of doing for as long as I could remember, like Superman, like Iron Man, like the frigging Rocketeer - zipping through the sky in a set of alien battle armor that had built in jets and blasters, that made me strong enough to pick up a car, that would make bullets bounce off me like rain drops. I was a superhero, by God! Now I was gonna fight some frickin' crime!

"Please remember," Mike's voice echoed in my headset, "the weapons and your armor are not toys. They are extremely powerful and potentially lethal..." He stopped. "Oh, shit, they're toys. Go play with 'em." I was sure I heard a wistful note in his cybernetically reproduced tone.

In point of fact, finding crime to fight in the area around the Catskill Mountains in New York State proved to be somewhat difficult. Even with the nearly unlimited range and potentially supersonic velocities the armor was theoretically capable of with the new power source, I didn't dare go too far, or that far off the ground, for that matter, in case of a sudden systems failure. That first night out, I helped a drunk farmer heft his truck out of a ditch and flew it and him back to the farm he stuttered out directions to... I'm not sure he ever believed it had actually happened, though. I also scared off some kids I caught vandalizing their school. That was about it.

Still, just flying around was exhilarating, and I practiced my aim with my gauntlet particle beam on a few big boulders and one old, junked car in the middle of a field, which was fun. The targets blew to tiny little bits very nicely. I calibrated various intensity settings on other targets, eventually getting to a point where I could do anything from knock a bunch of leaves off a tree without actually breaking a branch, to blowing a house sized chunk of granite into glowing, smoking marbles.

As my rocket belt lowered me feet first down the long, narrow shaft back into the complex at the end of that first night, I worried about Mike. Could he exist in the computer indefinitely? Wouldn't he get bored? Lonely? I had never really been on his intellectual level before, but we'd had interests in common and he wasn't really that much smarter than I was. Now, he was on a completely different mental plane from me. His thought processes would be hundreds or thousands of times faster than mine, and all the alien data he had now absorbed would change the way he thought about things, too. I wasn't sure I'd be much company for him any more... but who would be? We were in the wrong universe for me to go out and track down Brainiac 5.

At the bottom of the shaft I cut my jets off and walked down the straight, uniform, squarely configured corridors that were, apparently, endemic to Kree architecture. I pressed in with both hands on the earpieces of the helmet and rocked it from side to side; it obediently unsealed from the armor with a click, the neck flanges retracting neatly so I could take it off. The cool air felt good on my head. I pulled the rubber band out of the ponytail holding my long hair against the back of my neck and shook it out so it fell down over my shoulders; that felt good, too. Helmet tucked under my arm, I headed for my hammock. 16 hours of dogwork helping Mike assemble the armor, followed by eight hours flying around blowing things up... I was beat.

Mike and I had searched the underground complex exhaustively over our first three days there, and hadn't found anything that looked remotely like sleeping quarters. We ourselves had wound up crashing on the floor, which was monstrously uncomfortable, until around the fourth day, when SAM had learned enough English for us to ask him about sleeping quarters, at which point he had started to question us about 'sleep'. Eventually, it turned out that Kree… at least, pure blue Kree… don't sleep. In fact, SAM seemed appalled at the whole concept of 'sleep'. Looked at from his perspective, I could see his point. Having to lie down and become unconscious for several hours a day does seem rather... contrasurvival. SAM wound up convinced that humanity's need for sleep was some clever bit of bioengineering on the part of subtle alien attackers. Maybe he's right. However, once we convinced him that we DID need to sleep, he found a way, with input and suggestions from Mike and myself, to create material for and frameworks to hold hammocks in one of the larger lab/engineering bays.

I arrived at the room our hammocks were in and walked in, a little miffed. I'd expected Mike to be all over me with questions when I got back about how it had been, had the armor worked, were there any problems... and now, not a word.

"Hey, Mike?" I said, finally, as I sat on one of the pillar-stools and took my helmet off.

"Oh, you're back," I heard him say, as usual, from the empty air. "Sorry, I've been working on something."

Next project on the slate was building some remote control waldoes for Mike, so I wouldn't have to do all the high tech equivalents of water hauling and wood chopping for him and his lab procedures and engineering projects. But we hadn't done it yet; I'd really wanted to test out the armor. So what could he be working on...? "Uh," I said. "Some Avon lady dropped by while I was out and you used a Kree mind control ray to turn her into your lab slave?"

"No," he said, rather shortly. "Take a look at that cutting bench to your left, against the far wall."

This was an area I hadn't examined much previously. Still babbling about the advantages of Kree mind control rays in combination with random visits from Avon ladies, I wandered over there and found a slightly sloped shiny metal bench top littered with an array of high tech looking devices that all seemed to have been visually designed by Gil Kane, with maybe a few old fashioned looking Don Heck doojiggies tossed in for variety.

Right in the center of the bench, though, was a very simple, shiny, silvery looking circlet of thick metal, large enough to fit over a man's hand.

Something clicked in the back of my mind. "Damn," I said, whistling. "Is that what I think it is?"

"Being a sentient computer does not make me telepathic," Mike replied. "But if you're thinking that's a nega-band, then yes, it is. I discovered it when I ran a comprehensive internal sensor scan while you were gone, in order to start collating a full and accurate inventory of our resources and raw materials here. As a stroke of luck, it happens to be positioned on a work bench capable of full metallurgical scans down to a subatomic level, so once I found it, I was able to assemble a complete spectrum of data on the material its constructed of very quickly."

"Uh," I said. "Um... cool. So... that's good, right?"

Mike went on dryly, "Negametal has peculiar properties. On a subatomic level, it is lattice bonded, with its electron shells..."

He went on for five minutes or so, very enthusiastically, about neutron permeation levels in the molecular polarization grid, superdense infinite-chain Moebius particles, hyperaccelerated metajobbies and binary whoojamagoojits. I had no idea what he was talking about, but he sure seemed cheerful about it.

Finally, he shut up.

"Okay," I said. "Now say it in English, Stretcho."

I could swear I heard him sigh. "I have known Ben Grimm, sir. Ben Grimm was a friend of mine. And you, sir, are no Ben Grimm."

Contemplating the truly disgusting concept of rocky orange genitalia, I shuddered and said "Thank God."

"It's a very good substance for a project I have in mind," Mike said, finally. "It's nearly indestructible, yet at the same time, very versatile and flexible. It also interacts with and responds to focused sentient willpower to a truly extraordinary degree. Lastly, it's molecular protocols are highly compatible with those of complex organic life."

"Oh," I said. "Okay. So you're making me armor out of it?"

"Well," Mike said. "No. Unfortunately, for various reasons, it’s not at all compatible with the pseudoneural submolar circuitry that comprises the various distinct mechanisms in your armor. Mostly because negametal's basic quantum properties can flux and change with its wielder's mental impulses, which would make it virtually impossible for any kind of engineering to function consistently within its matrix."

"I... think I understood that," I said. "Um... you're saying it would be like trying to rig an electrical circuit with a material that could change its properties based on the thoughts of whoever was standing closest to it?"

"Exactly," Mike said. "It could only used as armor by an extremely disciplined mind. Otherwise, you might find yourself flying along, and suddenly, you think about Ally McBeal, or something, and the negametal resonates with something in your thoughts, and your belt-jets stop working because the electrical impedance rate has changed slightly..."

"Oh," I said. "Well, never mind that. What are you going to do with it, then?"

"Come on down to the metabolic optimization tank room and I'll show you," he said, and I'd swear there was a smirk in his voice.

I finished taking the armor off, first. Putting it on had been a reasonably lengthy process, but I'd been all hyped up then. Taking it off, hours later, while tired and sweaty and, I realized about halfway through unbuckling the torso-piece, hungry, was lengthier and much more tedious. Peter Parker had no idea how lucky he'd been, getting his powers from a radioactive spider.

I also realized that I had nothing to look forward to but SAM's less than delightful commissary menu. "Next time I'm out I'm stopping for a pizza before I come back," I grumbled as I pulled the armor off.

Finally, having stripped down and donned once more the pair of SAM manufactured sweats I'd been wearing before, and having carefully stacked the armor on a nearby empty bench, each piece isolated and ready to be put back on again in sequence, I padded wearily down the hall to the metabolic enhancement chamber.

This was a rectangular room, like everything in the complex that wasn't actually square. To the right, left, immediately across the chamber, and immediately in front of the door were bulky metal consoles with various bewildering, crisscrossing, geometrical patterns made up of different colored and textured grooves and channels inset in their surface. When someone who had a vague idea what they were doing stood in front of them, you could run your finger down one or up another one or touch a particular place where the channels intersected and get a three dimensional colored display of... something. Mike, with SAM's help, had figured it out well enough to reset the metabolic optimization tube for me, using a fingernail paring of mine placed in one of the little oval dimples on one console. I had no idea how to use any of it.

In the center of the chamber, in between the consoles on all fours sides, were two rows of six large clear tubes, projecting up from gleaming bronze bases. The tubes were each three feet across or so and rose cleanly up to the ceiling. They looked pretty much exactly like the sort of thing Sentinels were forever popping captured mutants into in Neal Adams illustrated X-MEN stories. Maybe Bolivar Trask raided old Kree complexes for his lab supplies.

One of those tubes was the one I'd just floated in for three days, having all the fat in my body reconfigured and redistributed as muscle fiber, in addition to having my eyes readjusted, my teeth regenerated, the electrical surface conductivity of my brain slightly heightened, my veins and arteries scoured out, some thinning of my heart tissue repaired, an incipient problem with my esophagus fixed, a few billion brain cells regenerated, my epidermal flexibility fully restored.... Well, suffice to say, the grey hairs in my beard had gone away, along with the faint wrinkles around my eyes and nostrils, and the big gut.

I was pretty sure THAT tube, which I now found I had a sentimental fondness for, was the third one from the right in the row closest to me. It was empty.

The one farthest to the left in that row, though, was full of familiar looking green goop... and something else.

Strange, solid looking projections hovered over all the consoles in the room, as winking, will o' the wisp lights chased each other up and down and across their oddly geometrical channels and grooves. The green goo in the tube was bubbling happily, and occasionally, little blueish sparkles of energy seemed to fizz through it. There was something floating in the middle of the goop.

I walked over closer, until I could make it out. A head... no, but it was about the size of a human head. What it actually was, was a little metal statue of a person, about a foot tall. Grey and shiny, it was almost like a bulky, overlarge figure from a bowling trophy. Smooth, seamless, almost featureless; it bore a generic resemblance to the Pillsbury Dough Boy, without the stupid chef's hat.

"Your new lab slave?" I hazarded a guess. "Isn't it kind of small? Or are you going to make lots of them?" It was kind of a cool idea; instead of assembling your typical mad scientist robot from circuits and wires and what have you, apparently, he was growing one in a vat out of some combination of nega-band metal and organic glop.

"It will get bigger," Mikes voice said calmly. "What you see is basically the matrix; more negametal bioceramic will continue to form around it, expanding on this cellular configuration, now that I know it's viable."

"It's kind of cute the way it is," I said. "Still, I suppose a big lab slave is better, for the heavy lifting."

"Not a lab slave," Mike said. "A new body."

I stared at it. "Uh..." I said, after a minute or so. "Uh... thanks... but I'll just stick with the armor."

This time I could definitely hear Mike snort. "Not for you, you idiot. A new body for ME."

"Oh, yeah," I said. "That makes more sense." I looked at the thing again. "How big is it... um... are you going to be?"

"I've incorporated my genetic material into the bioceramic composite body," Mike said, "so it should end up roughly the same shape and height I was. However, as I've said, the material is very versatile, and among many other capacities, I should be able to modify both its density and its mass to a certain extent. It will also, of course, be possessed of near indestructibility, extraordinary durability to most forms of entropic stress, and the body's very high tensile strength, in combination with its humanoid configuration, should allow me to exert very high effective strength levels."

"Cool," I said, sincerely impressed. "Flight? Blasties?"

"Limited flight capacity due to lowered density relative to the surrounding atmosphere, combined with some direct psychokinetic manipulation of the body substance itself, yes," he replied. "Not very fast flight, nor anything that would be reliable in a high wind, but still, yes, I should be able to fly."

"You will not so much fly as plummet," I interjected in a Monty Python accent.

"Well, hover, anyway," Mike replied. There was a pause, as if he was thinking, which, since the computer thinks about a thousand times faster than I do, I had to assume he did to make himself sound more natural. "As for focused energy attacks, the body will have no intrinsic capacity for that. However, the entire molecular structure will effectively act as an enhanced neural net… in effect, the entire body will be one big brain. That will vastly increase my memory capacity and data processing speed... over that of a normal human, I mean. Of course, I'll lose an order of magnitude or so from what I have now in those areas. Still, with that sort of super-intellectual capacity, I shouldn't have any difficulty devising an array of useful technological devices to carry into the field with me. Us, rather; I'm assuming the offer to adventure with you is still in effect?"

"Uh, yeah," I said. "Shit. I'm amazed you still want ME along. Superstrong, totally indestructible, super smart... what, you need me as a caddy?"

Mike's disembodied voice chuckled. "Well, of course. I need someone to carry the Bag o' Weapons."

"Cease playback," the caped figure said, exasperation in his voice. These details were frustratingly unhelpful. Every instinct he had cried out to him that fundamental changes had been wrought in his timeline, and that those changes emanated from the presence of these two in the late 20th Century Age of Heroes... yet he had found nothing, not a shred nor a clue, as to any action they might have taken that could have significantly altered the history he... he... no longer actually remembered, yet that he knew, on some fundamental level beyond reason or logic, had to have once existed. A better history...

His biofeedback techniques were rusty. The headache was returning, throbbing in the back of his skull now like a primitive drum. He closed his eyes and willed it away again, concentrating for long moments, until the pain backed away, reluctantly, like a snarling dog.

Perhaps... perhaps he was being too subtle. "Computer," he said, "search Guardian's logs for mentions of specific alterations to the known timeline." The two of them had claimed to be, not only from another dimension, but from a future point in that dimension. Perhaps, somehow, they had managed to use that vantage point to deliberately introduce changes into established history. He had been looking for inadvertent effects of their intrusion, yet if they had enacted such willfully, and with premeditation...

Once more, the computer whirred. After a few seconds, the now familiar voice of Guardian spoke again:

I wandered into the weekly meeting a couple of minutes late. From the head of the table, Cap eyed my sweat pants and old sloppy t-shirt disdainfully. "You're out of uniform, mister," he snapped. "In addition to being late for this meeting, and holding the rest of us up."

"Bite me," I muttered blearily, heading over to the hot buffet and picking up a plate. "What did I miss, the Pledge of Allegiance to the Avengers?"

"Guardian," Thor said, in a stern tone, "thou cannot retort to a reprimand from the elected Chairman in such a disrespectful manner. It is... unseemly."

Repeating the invitation to 'bite me' to the often... excitable... Thunder God struck me as a bad idea. "Bite me, Mr. Chairman, Captain America, SIR," I said, after a second's thought, piling my plate up with scrambled eggs - Jarvis makes them with little diced chives and onions, they're really good - bacon, sausage, some French toast, and a couple of fresh buttermilk biscuits. No sense having a Kree metabolic optimization tank at your secret citadel if you're not going to use the damn thing, right? "Geez, you guys, lighten up. It's 8:30 in the morning on Saturday. You're lucky I'm even conscious."

Incoming barrages of uru hammers and indestructible shields were interrupted by a translucent green, yellow and red figure wafting down through the ceiling. "My apologies for my lateness, friends," the Vision said in his weird high tech Moog synthesizer voice. "I... er... overslept."

"Automatic reactivation timer not working?" the Black Panther asked, sounding honestly interested.

The Vision cocked his head as he landed behind his chair. "Actually, it works quite well, although I'm still not certain I actually need periodic deactivations to simulate organic sleep... although my automatic maintenance programs make good use of the time. No, I was indulging in polite social circumlocution. In point of fact, I was caught up in a telecast of a Japanese baseball game and I lost track of the time."

I slid into my chair and set my loaded plate in front of me on the meeting table. After shoveling a big forkful of eggs into my mouth, I inclined my head at Vizh, who was re-solidifying behind his chair. "Yell at him, Mr. Chairman Sir," I suggested, after chewing and swallowing.

"He's in uniform," Cap said grimly. "He APOLOGIZED for being late."

I deliberately took another forkful, this time of sausage, then took my time chewing and swallowing, while Cap fumed. Finally, I said "Damn, Cap, we really need to get you laid sometime soon."

Wanda buried her head in her hands with a sigh. Hawkeye, feet up on the table, snickered. Iron Man waved a metal-gloved hand in what I'd swear was exasperation. "Cap... Guardian... please. Steve, could we just start? You don't have to let him aggravate you like this."

T'Challa regarded me through narrowed eyes. "I concur. We have now wasted more time discussing this than Guardian wasted by showing up late. I further note that as Guardian's 'uniform' is a set of powered armor he could hardly wear to bed, that he can teleport it onto his body instantaneously if he desires to do so, he lives in the mansion, and has obviously just gotten up... and furthermore, there is no actual rule stating any of us have to be dressed in any particular fashion when we attend scheduled meetings... this is an entirely pointless discussion."

"He could have gotten up earlier - " Cap started. Then stopped. "You're right, T'Challa. I apologize to everyone for allowing Guardian to aggravate me."

I shrugged and swallowed a mouthful of bacon. "It's my mutant power," I said. "Mike says so, too."

Cap closed his eyes for a moment and I could almost see him counting to himself. Then he sighed. "All right, all right. Never mind. We're all finally here... the first item on the agenda is the Sons of the Serpent rally scheduled for this weekend. I'm assigning the following Avengers to act as site security in Times Square..."

Life among the superheroes.

I behaved myself, more or less, all through the agenda. However, when Cap finally opened the meeting up to New Business, I raised my hand. I could see he wanted to ignore me, but was too damned noble to give in to the impulse. "Chair recognizes Guardian," he said, then added, "although it's difficult, since he IS out of uniform."

I stared down at my old, worn, grey sweatpants and rather shabby, now egg-stained, tank top. "This IS my new uniform," I said. "Jan designed it for me. Don't you like it?" Cap just stared stolidly.

"I myself find it most attractive," the Black Panther said, his deep, musical accent containing more than a note of mockery for everyone in the room.

"O my Prince," I murmured back, with a grin. Hawkeye stuck his finger down his throat and made gagging sounds.

"IF we could stick to the point," Cap said, sounding extremely aggravated. "Guardian, did you honestly want to bring up something serious? If so, please stand and address the group formally."

With a sigh, I stood up. "First, we need more babes. Um... I make a motion we recruit more babes. Preferably, babes who aren't already dating ten foot tall guys with ant powers, or have psychotic superspeedster brothers."

Wanda glared at me. Hawkeye drawled, "Second the motion."

"We don't need more women, for God's sake," Cap said, his tone long suffering.

Wanda, who had most likely been just about to collapse my chair with a hex sphere, turned on Cap abruptly. "What does that mean, Mr. Chairman? Is there something wrong with the thought of more women in the Avengers? It's not like there have ever been a great many of us... in fact, by my count, there have been exactly two."

"Three, counting the Black Widow," I offered helpfully. "Although I don't know if she was ever officially a member."

Wanda ignored me. She does that a lot. "Are you worried we'll weaken the team, or something?" she demanded, glaring at Cap.

You could see Cap suddenly getting verrrrrrry careful what he said next. Temperamental mutant witches with the power to mess around with probability aren't anyone you want taking a sudden dislike to you. "Ah..." he started, hesitantly. "Well..."

Iron Man said "More... er... babes isn't a terrible idea, Cap. Certainly you're not trying to say that Wanda and Jan aren't worthy Avengers...?"

"Bah," Thor rumbled. "There be no place for females in any roster of warriors." He paused, and did whatever it is he does that substitutes in battle deities for actual thought. "Other than as cooks and concubines," he went on. You'd think immortal deities would, y'know, get smarter over the millenia, but I have a theory about that. You know how most learning is done in childhood, and adults find it very difficult to actually acquire new knowledge, much less wisdom? Well, guys like Thor and Hercules have been adults for thousands of years.

Wanda flicked one finger irritably in his direction. Suddenly his chair collapsed, sending him sprawling on the floor. "By my troth, woman," I heard him grimly mutter, although I couldn't see him now. "If thou wert a man, I wouldst... chastise thee for thy insolence."

"I'd pay five bucks for a ticket to that," Hawkeye said, grinning.

"Mr. Chairman," the Vision noted calmly. "A motion has been properly made and seconded that we... ah.... Recruit more babes. I believe a vote is in order."

"Actually, we're still in the discussion phase," T'Challa noted, his liquid eyes dancing with amusement as Thor huffed to his feet, his nearly seven foot height towering over the Scarlet Witch, who was glaring up at him, utterly uncowed, red gloved fingers spread on the table, obviously ready to toss another, bigger hex sphere if he even fingered his mystic mallet.

Cap sighed again and then lightly rapped his knuckles on the polished mahogany surface "Order, people," he said. "Wanda, refrain from breaking Tony Stark's furniture, please? Thor, refrain from breaking Tony Stark's Avengers, please?" He gave me a microsecond, bright blue eyed glare, and said "Guardian, refrain from... instigating, please?"

I let my mouth drop open at this foul, despicable canard. "I'm not instigating anything! You're the one who said we didn't need any more women, for God's sake, in that tone you get. Thor's the one who said there was no place for women in the Avengers except as..."

"We don't need an instant replay," Iron Man interjected dryly.

I spread my hands. "I just want more babes, Cap. Hot babes. Super powerful babes. Babes without masculine size changing superspeeding insect commanding significant others attached like limpet mines. And then, I want to make a motion we not have goddam meetings at 8:30 in the morning on Saturday, but let's do the babes thing first."

T'Challa intoned "I don't think we can include marital status or... ahem... relative pulchritude... in the motion. However, the motion itself is perfectly acceptable. We do have an alarming lack of distaff members, and I, for one, find it deplorable."

Cap looked like he wanted to cry out 'By my own friends... betrayed!' or something equally melodramatic. But he just narrowed his eyes and drummed his fingers on the tabletop.

"Like them white women, huh?" I said to T'Challa with a big wise ass grin, moving slightly to the side so Jarvis could take my empty plate. Iron Man made a choking noise from inside his helmet. Cap looked, if anything, even more outraged; his tapping fingers suddenly going still. The Vision watched in fascination.

The Panther chuckled quietly. "I actually prefer the broad nosed, thick lipped Nubian beauties of my homeland, Guardian," he said. "Alas, that none of them would qualify for Avengers membership."

Cap leaned forward and rested his head on the table for a moment. "I think it IS his mutant power," I heard him mutter. "Even Clint never..." His voice trailed off to a mutter.

"Where would we recruit these... ah... babes... from?" the Vision inquired. "Reviewing my data banks, I find the selection of super powered women... sparse." He cocked his head to one side as if listening to music only he could hear. "In fact, they almost seem to be issued one per organized group of active superhumans. The X-Men have one... we have, apparently, only one at a time... the Fantastic Four have one... it seems a problem."

"Well, Guardian already mentioned Natasha... the Black Widow," Hawkeye pointed out.

"Isn't she out in Frisco boffing Daredevil?" I inquired, in an innocent tone. "From rooftop to rooftop?" Natasha, while certainly libidinous enough, would just start schtupping either Clint or Cap or Tony... or all three... as soon as she rejoined the roster; no big plus to me there.

Hawkeye glared at me murderously. "Shut up," he muttered.

Iron Man murmured, "If you'd actually married her, Clint, YOU could wear horns instead of DD..."

Hawkeye retorted hotly, "You want a blast arrow up YOUR..."

Cap had sat back up. He held up a hand abruptly. "Please spare us that over vivid imagery right after breakfast, Clint," he rapped out. "Guardian, the Vision has a fair point. There just aren't very many super powered women, which is doubtless why so few have been included on our roster. Did you have someone in specific in mind?"

I really did, but I figured Cap would shoot down whoever I offered up first and second. But by my third choice, I'd have worn him down enough that he'd think about it, if she were at all a reasonable choice. "Well, there's that chick Thundra," I said slowly, as if he'd caught me at a loss.

Iron Man made choking noises again. Cap looked like he'd half swallowed a fish bone. Thor, straddling his new chair backwards, stared at me in undisguised horror. Even the Vision looked vaguely discomfited.

After a pause, T'Challa spoke up. "She... er... challenges every super strong male she meets to hand to hand combat. I honestly think she'd be a bit disruptive."

Thor glowered. "She refers to men as the weaker sex," he said, almost petulantly, if a voice that rumbles like a thunderclap can be petulant.

"I like her," Wanda purred. "Let's get her."

Hawkeye shook his head dismissively. "Forget it. If I can't have 'Tasha, he don't get Thundra. Next."

I spread my hands. "I don't really want Thundra, I just thought... hmmmm. Okay. How about Marvel Girl?"

Iron Man snorted. "Great idea, there. Her boyfriend can kill you by looking at you."

Hawkeye stared at me, stupefied. "Are you NUTS? She's TELEPATHIC. You don't even have to LOOK at her for her to get offended. AND she's telekinetic. Man, I wouldn't be in Cyclops' shoes for all the friggin' adamantium on the planet."

"'You were thinking about WHO when you kissed me?'", Iron Man chimed in in a high falsetto. "Followed by the sound of some unlucky significant other being psychokinetically punted out a window. Noooooo THANK you." He and Hawkeye both shuddered in unison.

"Fine," I said. "Hmmmmm." I pretended to think for a moment. "Wait a minute. I got it. That chick who took over for Sue Storm in the FF for a while when Sue was knocked up. You know. What's her name. Redhead. Elemental powers. Big dog."

The Vision regarded me doubtfully. "Crystal?"

"Bingo," I said, and tried hard not to rub my hands together maniacally, bugle woo-HOO, or lick my lips in lascivious anticipation. Crystal. YEAH, baby. Premiere hottie of the entire Marvel Universe, not counting Tigra. Would, apparently and demonstrably, sleep with anyone, including mutants even more obnoxious than me, and real estate salesmen. AND drop dead gorgeous. I sat there, keeping my face completely expressionless, grateful we didn't actually have a telepath on the team. If I couldn't get laid living in the same house as Crystal, it was time for me to get the Mad Thinker to build me a female android.

"Her powers are formidable," T'Challa mused.

"But... didn't she go back to... wherever it is... her people go to?" Cap asked, plaintively. "And... I think Reed mentioned she has some sort of... allergy... to all the toxins in the outside world."

I managed to look doubtful. "Yeah... yeah... you're right... I mean, most likely Hank... or T'Challa... or Tony Stark... couldn't come up with a cure for that... I mean, if Reed Richards couldn't..."

"Now, just a moment," the Panther said, as Iron Man straightened up simultaneously. "Reed is an excellent general synthesist, but he is not a molecular biologist, or a practicing cybernetic engineer. I think there are approaches to the problem he will not have considered that could bear fruit."

I waved my hand airily. "Yeah, but she's only, like, what, 18? Maybe? And she's Johnny Storm's girlfriend... even if you guys did cure her, she'd just go back to the FF... bad idea. Let's forget it."

"By my troth," Thor declared, "if young John Storm wishes to fight for the maiden, I shall give him a thrashing he shall never forget!"

"Reed mentioned the girl was looking for a range of experiences in the outer world," Cap said. "And I really think our roster, and our more widely ranging responsibilities, would have more to offer her in that regard than the Fantastic Four."

I looked around, pretending puzzlement. "No, really, guys, I think it was a bad idea. I'll withdraw the motion. The Vision's right. There aren't very many superchicks. Wanda and Jan are plenty."

Wanda sat up, folding her arms resolutely over her truly spectacular chest, chin up in her most imperious posture. "I move we take all necessary steps toward the attempted recruitment of Crystal, formerly of the Fantastic Four," she said, giving me a 'so there' look.

There was a quick chorus of 'second the motion!'s. Cap smiled. "Any further discussion? No? Roll call vote. All in favor..." Everyone said 'aye'. I shrugged and said 'aye', too.

Hopefully, I thought to myself, that scotches the awful Crystal-Pietro marriage, and gets me some nookie, too. Hmmmm. Now I just have to keep the Black Knight from rejoining any time soon...

At the Secret Citadel, my fellow dimensional expatriate, citadel-mate, and crimefighting partner Iron Mike looked up at me, his crystalline eye thingies glittering. He'd just been reading the minutes of yesterday's weekly Avengers meeting. We get them in over our dedicated teletype lines. The Marvel Universe has tech way in advance of the one Mike and I come from, but in 1969, email is still at least a few years off. "You're screwing with continuity again," he remarked mildly. "Crystal is supposed to show up with Lockjaw and save Pietro from dying of Sentinel inflicted wounds."

"Somebody else will do it," I grunted, without glancing up from the new issue of the authorized AVENGERS comic. "Or not... Man, Roy Thomas writes shitty dialogue for me."

"That seems rather a blasé attitude to take towards the imminent death of a fellow Avenger," my often irritating partner said, still in his calm, well modulated tones. "You might want to consider he's the only person on the team more generally disliked than you are."

I put the comic down. "That is a point," I said thoughtfully. "Still, I don't know. I think Hercules gives me a run for my money. Plus USAgent will be along in a couple of years."

"Oh, good company to be in there," Mike murmured. "Almost as generally disliked as Hercules and Quicksilver, and in the running, eventually, with USAgent. Slightly less popular than Hawkeye. My. And... you did this Crystal thing in order to get some?"

I scowled. "You just admitted I'm more likable than Quicksilver. She MARRIED Quicksilver. She'll ball me."

Mike has little body language since getting his original biological corpus fried to ashes and having his mind transferred into a humanoid body made out of some kind of living negametal ceramic. Still, I could tell he would have been chuckling if he were still biological. Something about the way his eye crystals sparkle. "Watching you attempt to manipulate the Marvel timeline solely in order to get sex is more amusing than having a fist fight with the Executioner," he said.

"I can't help it if we don't belong here," I muttered. "If we were part of this place and had our own series, I'd have a girlfriend, dammit."

"Your very own Gwen Stacy," he said in response.

"As long as she gives head, I’m fine with that," I replied. "In fact, remind me to kick the Green Goblin’s ass for him just on G.P., okay? We should be coming up on that soon, right?"

Mike looked thoughtful… well, to me, he did; anyone else would have just thought he looked shiny. "Hmmmm," he said. "I suspect we are. Busiek’s MARVELS was a good solid attempt at putting the various aspects of cross-title continuity into a coherent, contemporaneously concurrent order, and we know Gwen’s death occurred sometime shortly after one of the Atlantaean invasions of New York… so, yes, we should start paying special attention to Norman Osborne’s mental health, Harry Osborne’s drug abuse, and the top of the support pillars of the George Washington Bridge." He nodded firmly.

"What," I demanded, "you’re not going to yell at me more for messing with Marvel continuity just to get some?"

Mike’s eyes flashed at me. "In the case of bringing Crystal into the Avengers two decades early, you are putting Quicksilver’s life at risk. In the case of rescuing Gwen Stacy from the Green Goblin before he throws her from the top of the George Washington Bridge, you will be saving a life. And you don’t fool me, Darren," he added, with a sigh. "Claim that you merely want to impress her all you like so she’ll go to bed with you, but I’m aware your primary concern is preventing a needless death… as it should be, and as mine is."

I blinked at him. "Well," I said, slowly, "sure, okay, but that’s not gonna stop me from letting her show her appreciation if she really wants to…"

Mike sighed, something he hardly ever does, but that I can apparently always drive him to. "Fine. Look, I’ve already agreed to go along with you when we attempt to save Roscoe from the Red Skull, even though it might well mean Steve Rogers will remain the Nomad for a great deal longer…"

"Yeah," I muttered, "THAT will be a big loss to the team, trust me."

"…and," Mike went on implacably, "I will go along with you in other attempts, such as saving Gwen Stacy, and even trying to save the Swordsman… although I suspect we won’t be able to do that last, since Rama-Tut tried and failed…"

"I told you," I said (this was an old argument) "Rama Tut is a prisoner of his own entropy-line. He can’t change the past, because he lived it. We only read about it in GIANT SIZE AVENGERS #2. We’re from outside the timeline, and anyway, it’s in our future, and our future hasn’t happened yet. We should…"

Mike waved one hand irritably. "There’s no need to go over this again," he said. "We’ll see what happens when it rolls around. But my point is, all these are cases where our interference could SAVE a life, and saving a life is good…" He paused, then went on, "…even the Swordsman’s, I suppose… but with this Crystal bit, you’re putting Quicksilver in mortal danger, and that’s entirely different. I don’t think you should be playing with Marvel continuity simply to get your rocks off if you know there’s a very good chance you’ll get someone killed."

"Okay!" I said. "Okay, okay, okay, when the Sentinels attack us, I’ll make sure Pietro gets taken care of. Cripes, I didn’t let Baltag shoot Ravonna, did I? Geez Louise, Orto. Give it a rest."

Mike looked back down at the print out he was holding. "You aren’t fooling me," he said. "You were planning to anyway. You talk tough, Madigan, but you wouldn’t let a Silver Age Avenger die, no matter how aggravating he is." I could tell he was grinning, although I doubt anyone else could have.

"No, no," I said, folding my arms over my chest. "Me am cold. Me am mean. Me hatem Quicksilver. Me lettum Quicksilver die."

"Bizarro-Guardian am one tough customer," Orto agreed, dryly. He went back to reading.

"That’s right," I grumbled. "And don’t you forget it, mister."

Mike no longer shrugs, but I knew him well enough to know that he would be if he still did. "Whatever," he said. "You know, there is some merit in this Thundra idea, though. I've always admired a hefty, tough, no nonsense woman who could pick up her end of a couch and help me carry it."

Something in the way he phrased that reminded me of something else, and I made yet another mental note, on a very long list of other things to try to keep from happening in the Marvel Universe... keep Jen Walters from needing a transfusion from her cousin Bruce.

I must have shuddered. Mike said "You just made a mental note to prevent the She Hulk from coming into existence, didn't you?"

"Maybe," I muttered darkly. "So? Dr. Richards is going to have to recruit someone to replace the Thing when Benjie-boy heads out west during the Byrne run. If there's no Shulkie, maybe you can get the spot."

"Hmmm," Mike said. "That... is an interesting possibility..."

"So," I said, "We can mess with Marvel continuity to get you into the Fantastic Four…?"

Mike continued reading. Without looking up, he said, "Jen Walters will be much happier if we simply prevent the car accident that led to her getting a transfusion from Bruce, yes."

"Ah," I said. "I seeeeeeeee."

"Shut up," Orto said amiably, as his eyes continued to scan the wide, folded paper. "Cap put T'Challa in charge of surveilling and providing security for the Sons of the Serpent rally? Does he WANT a riot?"

I smiled. "Actually, if you check the verbatim transcript instead of the minutes, you'd find me mentioning that very point, loudly. I think the words I used were 'are you even crazier than usual this morning? Did you skip your antipsychotic meds?'"

Mike, who knows me far better than anyone else in this universe... lowered his head into his grey, metallic hands. "Christ," he murmured, more in tones of prayer than curse. "YOU want a riot. You pushed Cap's buttons to get T'Challa assigned to open surveillance there."

"We've been over this and over this," I replied. "They've got a right to stand up there in front of the crowd and say anything they want. No matter how... toxic... it is, they've got a right. I believe in that right. But the minute they pick up those stupid snake sticks and try attacking anyone with them... especially an Avenger... man, they're gonna think the Wrath of God carries Avengers ID." I smacked my fist into my other hand with a clanging sound. "When they wake up. Goddam little racist FUCKS."

He shook his head mutely. After a second, he sat up again. "Well," he said, "in that case, I suppose I may as well put myself on the roster and assign myself to riot surveillance... if only to keep you from going totally wild in the streets. Remember that idea I had for the subsonic barrage cannon that would loosen people's bowels...?"

I gave him a grinning thumbs up. "Very appropriate for Sons of the Serpent. My armor is insulated from that, right?"

He looked thoughtful. "Almost certainly," he said. "Although, to make sure, I could upgrade the force field reinforcement circuitry..."

I picked the comic book back up again. Here in the real Marvel Universe, authorized writer Roy Thomas was rehashing a fictionalized version of our encounter from a year ago with the first Squadron Sinister. Even though Iron Man had fought and defeated Dr. Spectrum in the actual battle --- and in the comic I remembered from our original universe - here, Roy had written me into the roster and had me battling Spectrum. (Actually, around that time, Mike and I were having a truly weird adventure with the Defenders in Dormammu's dimension that I don't remember ever making it into any Marvel comic I can recall reading, and as such, we both missed a couple of months worth of Avengers stuff.) What with the Sons of the Serpent revival going on, and the Avengers already having history with the group, the authorized comics were staying far away from any mention of such touchy issues. "Little racist FUCKS," I muttered to myself again, as my eyes started scanning the Sal Buscema panels showing me wrapping Dr. Spectrum up in a big green energy sphere and squeezing him into unconsciousness with it.

"Halt playback." The cloaked figure barely managed to gasp the phrase, through the mingled horror and fury that suffused him. They... these two... somehow... from their other dimensional vantage point... they had some sort of knowledge of the future, and they had used it... deliberately... to alter the natural course of history.

To get SEX.

His head was pounding. He couldn't think... couldn't concentrate... No. He would NOT be undone by mere pain. He was the greatest military conqueror in the history of time. He... would... FOCUS...

It was strange. He could remember now, dimly... waking up this morning with the urgent, instinctive, inchoate knowledge that something was wrong... that his world had been fundamentally altered, that things were not right. He remembered, through the haze of migraine agony, rushing into his archives and interfacing with the central pseudomind... and how horribly wrong it had seemed, when he had chanced across a reference this 'Guardian and Iron Mike', as early members of the 20th Century neo-police group known as the Avengers. At the time, he... could he have forgotten about them? He'd have sworn he'd never heard of either of them, but now... now he could clearly remember encountering them several times, during his interactions with their era. Guardian... in addition to saving his and Ravonna's life... through blind luck!... Guardian had later led the faction of Avengers that had voted to destroy the Supreme Intelligence, and it had been Guardian's adaptation of the Kree's own psychic disintegration technique as a method of execution which had made certain that accursed artificial entity had actually, finally, once and for all, been removed forever from the universe. Later on, when his own accursed alternate dimensional self, the Immortal Praetor Rama-Khan, had attempted to destroy Rick Jones to prevent the manifestation of Jones' Omnipower, Iron Mike had been an integral part of the Timeless Avengers team that had allied with he, himself, in final battle against the Immortal Praetor and the wretched Timekeepers.

He hadn't remembered any of this this morning... had he? But... but how could he have forgotten such important events?

Strange... he could even remember, now, that Iron Mike had been part of the coterie of Terran scientists who had perfected the Mar Vell Treatments. In fact, hadn't Iron Mike been the one who had first diagnosed the condition in the Shi'ar General...?

The cloaked figure abruptly stood, shoving the chair back from himself with a grunt of displeasure. How could he have forgotten so much...? He had met these two, and their fellow Avengers, many times in battle... usually as an enemy, occasionally as a reluctant ally... he had always had a grudging respect for Iron Mike's competence and intelligence, while feeling little but scorn and contempt for his bumbling mediocrity of a partner... but still... how could he have stared at historical records of them only a few hours ago and wondered who they were? Where they came from?

Finally, his gods accursed headache was subsiding.

He snorted in contempt. Obviously, he'd been under some subtle psychic attack this morning. Some enemy, attempting to confuse him... to manipulate him... perhaps trying to cause him to somehow travel back in time and undo the very seed events that had led, inevitably, to his own existence! What a subtle irony that would have been. He smelled the Praetor's hand in this, oh yes. It had exactly his sly, skulking stink to it.

He glared one more time, over his shoulder, at the computer console. These fools. They thought they had come here, with some knowledge of some spurious, delusional future, and worked changes in the very fabric of history. Idiots! Everything they had done had been predestined. Saving Dominatrion Ravonna at that early stage in her career... why, if they hadn't done that, he would not have been able to take over her planetary hegemony so easily later on, with one simple assassination. Helping develop the Mar Vell Treatments... madness to think a history could ever have existed where General Mar Vell had not lent his strength to Empress Lilandra and helped her put down the Skrull rebellions... which of course had laid the foundation for the Empire of the Four Galaxies, and all that had come after... And the concept of a history in which the Supreme Intelligence had been allowed to survive the end of the Kree-Shi'ar War... he shuddered.

His headache was fading now. The fit... attack... whatever it had been... was over. Everything was exactly as it was meant to be... as it had always been. The best of all possible eras awaited his return.

The cloaked figure gestured, and the very fabric of reality began to warp a few inches from his extended hand, in obedience to his invincible will, as channeled through the subtle circuitry of his battle-garb's temporal displacement circuitry. A wormhole through time and space began to shimmer into existence.

Without a backward glance, history's greatest military mind stepped through the doorway he had just opened, crossing infinity in one long stride, re-emerging with a smugly complacent smile into his well pacified 40th Century.

Miles away, three Avengers sat on an artificial beach at the edge of a floating island named Hydrobase, taking the first opportunity any of them had had for days to actually relax.

The one with the ponytail... the smaller, more light skinned one with the ponytail, anyway... lay back on the expensively imported sand and sighed. "Goddam, it feels good to get that armor off. I just totally fuckin' despise undersea missions."

One of his companions, who appeared to be comprised entirely of some sort of living, gleaming, silvery metal, sat stolidly on the sand nearby. "True. On deep space missions there are always interesting experiments to be done. Undersea missions are a complete waste of time."

The gigantic green skinned fellow, also with a ponytail, snorted rudely as he sprawled face down on the sand. "Nffkll mmmlrrgggg drrnnnn," he muttered obscurely, his face buried on one hugely muscled forearm.

"We'll take that as heartfelt agreement," the gleaming metal Avenger known as Iron Mike said.

"Warlord Krang, Attuma, AND Tyrak," Mike's ponytailed partner, usually known as Guardian, said, digging his toes into the hot sand with a luxurious sigh. "That ever happen before, Mike?"

The hulking, emerald skinned fellow raised his head from his arm. "I don't think those three have ever teamed up before," he said in a deep, but somehow musical, voice.

"They might have met in some Gruenwald MARVEL TWO IN ONE," Iron Mike replied, somewhat obscurely. "But I don't really remember it, if so."

"Marvel... two in one..." the green skinned figure said, turning his head to look back and forth from one of his team mates to the other in puzzlement. "Um... what the hell...?"

"Never mind," Guardian said hastily. "Inside joke. So... I keep meaning to ask... what's it like being the Hulk? I mean, now that Doc Samson has managed to give you conscious control all the time?"

The huge fellow sighed in satisfaction. "Well... it's not the superhero gig I'd pictured, y'know? I always kinda saw myself with... I don't know... flight powers, or somethin'... I thought that would be cool. But... what the hell." He shrugged massively and smiled, showing splendidly white teeth, each the size of a child's thumb, in a vast, alarmingly green, yet still, boyishly handsome face. "Marlo really digs it."

Guardian rolled up on one side and picked up a handful of sand, then slowly let it trickle out through his fingers. "Flying IS the bomb," he admitted. "I'm just glad you finally made full membership, dude. I'd been pulling for you since you saved our asses from Kang way back in the day. I mean, it's not like Cap has any real superpowers, or the Black friggin Widow, fer Chrissake..."

The enormous green skinned fellow sat up ponderously and stared at his companion. "Um... saved your asses from who?"

The gleaming metal figure glanced over, his crystalline visual receptors glittering. "Kang. Warlord from the future? Time travelling tyrant? The centuries will toll his name like the endless banging of a something something something? Pharoah Rama Tut? Immortus?"

Rick Jones, who in his new identity as a completely in conscious control Hulk had just been initiated as a full salary, active duty Avenger, sat up, looking back and forth from one team mate to the other in obvious bemusement. "You guys been out in the sun too long? You mean the Scarlet Centurion, right? Or are you talking about his crazy alternate timeline twin Rama-Khan, the Immortal Praetor? I mean, not that ol' Red is particularly sane, but comparatively speaking..."

Guardian's eyes widened. "Oh. Oh, hey." He looked over at his partner, Iron Mike.

Iron Mike sat there very quiet for a long moment. "Yeah," he said, finally. "He... was the Scarlet Centurion, wasn't he?"

"Always has been, 's'far's I know," Rick said. "Are you guys okay?"

Guardian lay back down again and sighed. "Yeah, yeah. You know how it is with us old folks... sometimes our memories get... confused."

Iron Mike nodded, very slightly, a gesture no one but his long time partner would have noticed. "Exactly. I think we were both just remembering... a story we read... somewhere, once. It had a character in it... like the Scarlet Centurion. He had a different name, though."

Both men, flesh and living negametal biocomposite, sighed in unison then.

"Shit," Guardian said after a second. "I fuckin despise time travel crap."

Mike could only nod in heartfelt agreement. Rick merely continued to look puzzled.

"So..." Guardian said, after a moment's quiet, "you gotten any omni-wave mail from Mar Vell, lately?"

"Yeah," Rick replied. "Just last week. He made Stoop-Colonel, oh, must be a couple of months ago by now. Apparently, Gladiator is really jealous..."