:QUICKJUMP:


2211 UnderGround Revised Special

Assistant Editor: Jason McDonald

Editor-in-Chief: David Ellis





"Will the Real Doctor Doom Please Stand Up?"

Written by Jason McDonald


Victor Von Doom
Doctor Doom





"Point of View"

Written by David Ellis


Umeko Rucker





"Legend Has It..."

Written by David Ellis and Rena Paradox


Hulk

Joe

Max

Gwendy

Baldur

Serena

Murph





"Man in the Mirror"

Written by David Ellis


Chen
Blade





"Handiwork"

Written by David Ellis


Fantastic Four





"Legacy"

Written by Jason McDonald


Lewis

The Mother

The Father




 






There are six Doctor Dooms in 2211.

At least, that's the conclusion they would all inevitably come to.

One lives in what was once Myridia, attempting to reconstruct the city through nanotechnological means. He's not getting far; his holographic protocols are on permanent loop.

Two more have been engaged in a battle of wits for seventy years now. They ignore the torn, sparking wires hanging out of their rusted, eviscerated stomach units. The fact that they've been attaching and re-attaching severed limbs with welding guns for decades barely registers in their higher-logic circuits. The only thing each of them knows is that he is Victor Von Doom, and the other is simply an imposter.

That they might both be Doombots, fighting a never-ending guerilla war in the ruins of Latveria ... that thought has simply never occurred to them in all this time.

A fourth Doctor Doom wanders the world as an intangible ghost, his armor's phasing ability having malfunctioned permanently years ago. The man inside is long dead. But the armor's AI, having sampled the wearer's memories, knows for a fact that it is Von Doom.

A fifth rebuilt the time machine, and lost himself to the ages years ago.

Number six has created, through the miracles of nanotechnology, the island of Doomstadt. It is now the floating home to more than five hundred thousand gypsy tribesmen and Myridian refugees who survived the Apocalypse of 2112. With benevolence befitting such an honorable man, he rules Doomstadt with a firm hand. Deciding the world at large is a lost cause, he keeps out of political affairs for the moment.

He believes himself to be the true Doom, but he is not.

I know because I programmed him to think so.

Just as I, at one time or another, programmed all of these other imposters to believe they were me somewhere down the line. The holographic decoy I used to confuse a forgettable adversary a century past. The confused Doombots that survived the necrotoxification of Latveria.

Four and five were simply humans with memory implants. Like Erik Czerny, they are failures. Unimportant in the grander scheme.

The sixth Doom is a clone, perfect right down to the chiseled features and steady brow. He has his own false memories, and I know the code word to erase those memories when he has outlived his usefulness. But for now, I have charged him to care for my people in my absence.

I am in the Savage Land, working on Environmental Maintenance Platforms to be deployed over this shattered Earth. EMPs strong enough to heal the putrid air and clean the green soup of the oceans.

EMPs strong enough to make this world whole again.

And then, I can claim my rightful place among the world as its leader. Its benevolent dictator. I will save the world from itself, and prevent this Apocalypse from ever happening again.

I have survived the last two centuries through Ovoid mind transfer, genetic manipulation, cybernetic apparatus, chronal restructuring, and a host of other methods. Doom’s will shall never be silenced, by age or time or otherwise. I will not be swept away in the sands of history.

I work on my platforms wearing my newest body – that of a thirty-five year old female.

Interestingly enough, the locals believe me to have been a traveler to the Savage Land who wandered upon a device that could download the memories of the original Victor Von Doom into a person’s mind. That Doom himself brought the device into these woods over a century past, and used it up until the day he died for his ‘grand machinations’.

They even challenge me by saying I am not the great Von Doom – that I am, in fact, that traveler, and that I somehow impressed the memories of the original upon myself while exploring the caverns the original Doom had taken refuge in during the last years of his life.

What utterly absurd nonsense.

While the memories of exactly how I received this body are…discontinuous at best, it is hardly surprising considering my mind is at least two centuries old. I have been developing ways to enable the brain to retain two hundred years worth of memories adequately – I will be successful in this and all my scientific pursuits someday.

For I am Victor Von Doom.


END





Daria Lake liked chocolate cake. And boys. And roller skates. And drifting through walls. And disco. And the feel of sunlight as it tickled her intangible body. And calico cats.

Umeko Rucker liked all those things too, because she was Daria sometimes.

Frank Castle liked guns. And engines. And his wife's perfume. And cold metal. And kevlar. And criminals' fear. And the weightless freedom of being dead and joining his family.

Umeko liked all those things too, because she was Frank sometimes, as well.

She didn't know the scientific term for what she did; she just called it "ghost riding".


END




“Baldur, where in Hel have you been? We’re almost ready to go!”

“Sorry, Max.” Baldur ambled across the old cracked asphalt street to the strange looking vehicle they would be making use of on their expedition. At the last moment he’d almost decided not to go.

“Put your gear in the back compartment,” a young man named Joe instructed. He was the oldest among them and the craft belonged to him. Baldur very much envied his confidence and easy going manner.

“So Joe,” Gwendy said. “You’ve actually seen the Hulk before?” She was a pretty girl from the Spider-Society who Baldur had a crush on the first moment he saw her. He couldn’t help envy Joe all the more seeing the way she looked at the older boy.

Joe smiled at her and leaned back against his flying machine. “No, haven’t seen it myself, but a friend of my uncle tracked it for days. He passed on everything he knows to me. As long as you all keep out of the way, you should be able to get some great footage.”

Baldur couldn’t believe he was going to get to see the Hulk for himself. As he stood listening to Joe describe a big green humanoid beast, Max grabbed his gear from him and tossed it in the cargo hold with the rest.

“Your Uncle’s friend said the Hulk was only minding his own business? That he was peaceful, right?” Max prompted Joe, her back turned to him as she adjusted their luggage.

“Yeah, it’s a real peaceful creature,” replied Joe. “If you call any creature peaceful that can rip off a Grizzly bear’s head.”

“Od’s blood,” Baldur mouthed.

“If he did that, he was probably just defending himself,” Max quickly pointed out.

Gwendy nodded in agreement. “The Hulk is probably just doing what he needs to survive. Out there in the wastelands it must be tough.”

“I doubt it’s much of a struggle for her.” Another girl interjected, walking up. “She’s a creature of the land, an offspring of Gaea herself. Out there is where she’s meant to be.”

Max gave the girl an odd look. “She?”

“Yeah, the She-Hulk,” the girl replied, as if it wasn’t even open to debate. This girl, Serena, was a strange chick. Everything from the colorful attire she wore to the musical quality of her voice seemed unearthly. Her whole mysterious tribe, the Daughters of Clea, apparently was the same way.

“Well my Uncle’s friend didn’t get a real close look at it, so maybe it is the She-Hulk.” Joe shrugged his shoulders and just smiled. “I guess we’ll find out.”

“What more did he say about it?” Baldur pressed.

Joe was about to answer, but glanced at the instruments in the cockpit to see the craft’s engines were sufficiently powered up. Gesturing to the others, he got inside and the rest joined him.

Before Max did, she put her fingers to her lips and let out a shrill whistle. From the rooftops of the nearby buildings a basketball size mechanism flew down, issuing a series of excited electronic beeps.

Gwendy turned around in her seat laughing. “I wondered where Murph was!”

Max caught the little machine lovingly in her hands and carried it into the ship. “He likes to go off exploring.”

As the ship lifted off, Max rewound the multidirectional recordings that the portable AI digicam had taken and started editing them. Gifted with impressive mechanical skills that she’d picked up from her dad, a hazard material specialist, Max had created Murph from scrounged, cobbled together parts.

In her opposite seat, Serena eyed it with distaste; her tribe shunned such kinds of technology. Murph, sitting in Max’s lap, seemed to return Serena’s gaze with an equal loathing.


The aircraft soared over the thousands of miles of untamed wilderness that stretched out beyond and between the current human settlements. Much of it was barren or uninhabitable, but due to few people venturing out very far, even if they didn't catch a glimpse of the Hulk the scenery itself would still make good footage for later screening at the film festival. Gwendy knew Max would be able to put it altogether into something great.

“What do you think?” With Murph’s foldout display screen showing what she’d accomplished so far, Max handed the sentient digicam to Gwendy for her opinion. It was the beginning of their movie, Hulk Hunters, introducing the cast.

“Joe makes for a great leading man,” Gwendy commented with a smile. “And Baldur is the perfect lovable sidekick.”

Max nodded without enthusiasm, her thoughts elsewhere. Baldur, staring down nervously at the ground below, turned at the sound of his name.

“Can I see too, sister?” Serena asked sweetly, addressing the girls in the custom of her matrilineal tribe.

Gwendy moved to pass Murph to the girl when the device squawked in protest and leapt into the air, flying speedily back to Max.

“Uh, it does that when its low on power,” Max fibbed. Since she’d built Murph the little robot had been very in tune with her feelings; it had picked up on the way she felt toward Serena, who she just didn’t like one bit.

“Hey, check it out.” Joe called their attention to the sight below, an entire city, and one that by the looks of it dated back to the early twenty-first century that hadn’t been destroyed utterly during the thermonuclear wars.

“Is this where the Hulk lives?” Gwendy was full of delight as she peered down.

“According to my Uncle’s friend,” Joe replied. He searched for a place to set down, but the abandoned city was terribly overgrown by thick vegetation. While some of the building roofs were large enough for the craft to land on there was no way of knowing how structurally stable they were and whether they could support the weight.

Max looked down, a spark of hope in her eyes. Could this where he’d gone to live?

After their second flyby, Serena moved into the cockpit and pointed out a clearing nearby the city.

“You’ve got good eyes,” Joe complimented her, maneuvering the craft toward it.

Once they landed, he popped the door open and immediately leapt out, inhaling the smells of the forest with relish.

Baldur, having heard stories of all kinds of dangerous creatures stood slowly and looked all around them. This had to be the most thrilling thing he’d ever done in his whole entire life.

Definitely the most dangerous. His heart was pounding.

Max and Gwendy got out ahead of him, Max letting go of Murph into the air. The tangled underbrush and plant life came up to their waists.

“Watch out for snakes, you guys,” Joe warned them.

Serena smiled, the only one not to show much alarm. She had pet snakes at home.

Gwendy looked up at the sky and noted the sun was starting to go down. It was almost dark. “Maybe we should make camp here and start out in the morning.”

“Spend the night, out here?” Baldur found the prospect truly frightening. Were they all crazy?

“That’s a good idea,” Joe unslung his pack off his back and dropped it onto the ground. “On foot it would take us hours to get to the city, and hours more to explore it.”

Serena smiled serenely. “A night under the stars sounds wonderful.”

Baldur was not happy. “What if some wild animals try to eat us when we’re sleeping?”

“Oh don’t worry,” Max told him. “Murph will keep watch. He’s got heat sensors and night vision.”

Gwendy found Baldur amusing and tried to reassure the lug also. “Remember, most animals fear humans, that’s why hardly anybody sees them anymore.”

“Nobody sees them anymore because humans have hurt Mother Nature so much,” noted Serena in a tone as if it was something they should all remember.

“Yeah, humans suck,” Joe said, causing Gwendy to laugh.


An hour or so later, the gang settled around a campfire. Serena smiled peacefully, occasionally throwing into the flames a weird dust that burned colorful smoke whilst Baldur kept close to Max; the tough sullen girl had been his lifelong friend and made him feel secure. Inside he hated that though, always being so unnerved and uncomfortable.

He glanced over at Joe and tried to strike up a conversation. “So, you think he’s really out there?”

“Huh?” Joe frowned a brief moment. “He? You mean the Hulk?”

“No,” Max said sarcastically. “Michael Jackson.”

Joe laughed. “Yeah, the Hulk is out there. According to my uncle’s friend this is the outskirts of his territory.”

“I can hardly believe it,” Baldur observed.

“Believe it,” Joe told him.

Baldur broke into a childish smile. “I’ve dreamed about the Hulk my whole life. My father always said there was no one more mightier than Thor, but my granddad, on my mom’s side, used to tell me stories about the Hulk and how he was able to fight Thor to a standstill, and that generations later there had been another Hulk just as great.”

“It’s hard to know what to believe about back then,” said Max skeptically.

“Yeah,” Joe agreed. “The first Heroic Age, especially. A lot of it sounds so crazy it can’t possibly be true. Yet there’s truth behind every myth.”

Baldur nodded. “Stories about the Hulk always made me think it might be possible for a lowly mortal, like me, to rise to heights of power and strength not just in my imagination, but for real, you know?” He looked into the dark forbidding forest. “But if I could see the Hulk, with my own eyes, I know then I could really believe it.”

“Sorry to burst your bubble, Baldur,” Joe replied. “But the Hulk is just an animal, albeit, a rare one.”

“Well all I know is that the Hulk was friends with the original Spider-Man.” Gwendy laid her head down on her arm, staring dreamily into the fire. “If we find him, I want to try to renew that friendship. He wouldn’t have to wander through the woods any more, living like an animal. He could come live with the Spider Society.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Serena interjected. “None of you do. The She-Hulk is Gaea’s daughter.”

“What?” Max replied, again as if that was the stupidest idea she ever heard. “I think Joe’s uncle’s friend or whoever would’ve mentioned that.”

Joe laughed. “Yeah, he really likes the ladies. I’d think he could tell the difference between a big lumbering beast and a towering amazon.”

“The She-Hulk is a metaphysical entity. Who knows how she might have appeared to him.” Serena seemed slightly annoyed by their ignorance.

“What makes you so sure of this?” questioned Max.

Serena smiled a zealot’s smile. “My people have been awaiting Her arrival for over a century.”

“Well I know Gaea is Thor’s mother,” Gwendy acknowledged. “And everybody is waiting for his return. It’s possible the Hulk might be apart of that in someway.”

“Trust me sister, the She-Hulk is far more important than the Odinson.” Serena’s smile momentarily grew at the looks on their faces at her spoken blasphemy. Leaning forward, now in a most serious tone, the young tribal woman explained, “She has come to reassert Gaea’s authority over mankind. His abuses will no longer be tolerated. Man will either learn to live in harmony with nature again, or perish at the She-Hulk’s hand. She will--”

Joe’s laughter could not be contained. “Tell you what guys, if it is the She-Hulk, maybe I’ll ask her out!”

Baldur looked uneasy at this sort of joking talk, but not more so than Max, the mysterious creature having even greater personal meaning to her. Tears rimmed her eyes.

“What’s wrong, Max?” Baldur inquired, gently.

Max blinked away her tears and sniffed. “It’s nothing, nevermind.”

Immediately Murph flew over to Max intent on comforting her and she took the little robot into her hands.

“What is it, you feel sorry for the Hulk?” Gwendy asked.

“No it’s just…” Max gave a heavy sigh, and looked around, hesitantly. “It’s just I think … I think the Hulk might be my father.”

“Wh-what?” Baldur exclaimed in surprise.

“You got to be joking,” Joe said chuckling.

“Hey stop that,” Gwendy told him, swatting at the older boy. “Max, what are you talking about? Do you really believe that?”

In a quiet, nearly toneless voice, Max said, “I know it sounds insane, but you don’t know all the facts.”

“Well tell us then,” Joe encouraged, genuinely curious now. “How could you really think the Hulk could be your dad?”

Max looked around at them, reluctant to unburden herself of what she had been holding in so long, even though now seemed the right time. She took a breath. “My dad … he was apart of hazmat unit that traveled everywhere. They were the best at decontaminating areas, and were called in to do the hardest jobs. One day, eight years ago when I was just seven, he came to a place not far from here. The assignments were always risky at times, some of the crew got sick, sometimes even killed in mishaps, falling down sinkholes or when a pump exploded and stuff.”

She stared into the fire, and swallowed. “Anyway, something happened to him. Except it wasn’t an ordinary accident … he disappeared … there were conflicting accounts … some said he was overcome by radiation, and his body was just too radioactive for the others to haul back home. Others said a creature, a big green creature…”

Max looked up and met their eyes, to see they were fully listening now. “That a big green creature, exactly like the one we’re looking for attacked and killed my dad. But yet the ones closest to where my Dad went missing, who knew him really well, they said they almost thought it was possible my Dad wasn’t killed by the beast, but that he became it. Mutated. It was dark, and they weren’t sure, but…”

“Wow, maybe its true?” Gwendy said in amazement.

Joe was dismissive. “Sounds like post traumatic stress to me. Or the fumes they were breathing in made them hallucinate.”

Serena chimed in, “The mind can play tricks on you, and so can the Earth mother.” She turned and favored Max with an odd smile. “But honestly, I really commend your father. He died doing a noble thing. Helping to cleanse the land of the taint of man.”

Max was unsure how to respond to that, and Gwendy said, “Hey Serena, is it possible Gaea could have chosen to make Max’s dad, like a host?”

“If it were Max’s mother we were talking about, I might entertain the notion, but no, the She-Hulk is definitely not your Dad.” Serena laughed at the idea, and so did Joe.

“Look guys,” he said. “Seriously, it’s a fricking animal. An animal I intend to hunt down and kill, by the way.”

“What?” Gwendy responded, not thinking she heard right.

Baldur’s eyes were suddenly wide. “You want to kill the Hulk?!”

Joe looked around at them, bemused. “What do you think I’m doing out here? Didn’t Max tell you?”

Max nodded to the others that she’d known this all along. It was now understandable why she was getting so emotional and upset.

“Whatever the Hulk is, how can you kill such an amazing creature?” Gwendy demanded.

Joe was unapologetic. “Money.”

“Money?” Gwendy’s eyes narrowed.

“Sure,” Joe explained. “Do you know how many geneticists would like to get their hands on this creature’s carcass? Did you know some have put out a bounty?”

Serena gave a laugh.

“It’s not funny,” Gwendy snapped.

“Oh cheer up,” Serena told her, the only one not to take Joe seriously. “I doubt he can really slay the Emerald Goddess,” she turned to Joe with amusement, “but if you can, I’d like a few locks of her hair.”

Joe returned an easy smile. “No problem.”

Baldur couldn’t believe any of this. “You can’t kill the Hulk, the Hulk is the strongest there is!”

“Yeah, well Gungnir here says otherwise.” Joe in a mock flourish withdrew from his belongings a long metallic spear that glistened in the firelight.

“Whoa,” Baldur responded. Gungnir was the legendary weapon of Odin.

“Give me a break,” Max said bitterly. “That’s not Gungnir.”

“Well no,” Joe admitted, chuckling again. “Of course not. But with a laser sharp adamantium tip it might as well be. It’ll go through anything.”

He demonstrated, bringing the spear forward in a vicious thrust through the air, as if stabbing it into the Hulk’s heart.

Gwendy, who’d been sitting close to Joe, got up and moved away from him, completely disgusted. “What in Hel is wrong with you?”

Murph who’d been giving Serena the cold shoulder began to do so to Joe as well.

“Oh, c’mon,” said Joe as they started to turn on him.

“Here I thought you appreciated life,” Gwendy huffed.

“I’m a hunter,” he stated, again with no apology. He glanced at Max and Baldur. “Isn’t that the title of your movie, 'The Hulk Hunter'?”

“It’s called Hulk Hunters, not Hulk killers,” Max corrected him coldly.

“But killing and death is a part of nature,” Serena interjected in Joe’s defense. “It’s how animals survive. Even plants feed off of other dead plants.”

“The Hulk is not an animal or plant,” Max observed pointedly.

“What is it then, a mineral?” Joe scoffed.

“He’s one of the wonders of the world!” Baldur exclaimed.

“Yeah, well they can put the Hulk’s stuffed body in a museum somewhere for people to visit and gawk at.”

“That’s awful!” Gwendy cried. “What if he actually is Max’s father?”

Joe sighed. “Well what to do you want to do, make friends with it?”

Gwendy nodded emphatically. “Yes, that’s exactly what I want to do! The Hulk was one of the greatest heroes in history, an ally of the original Spider-Man, and Thor.”

Joe’s tone was dismissive. “You really think this is the same Hulk?”

“She’s not,” Serena persisted. “For the last time, this is a metaphysical entity, an incarnated form of Gaea, her daughter—”

Max stopped listening to them. She couldn’t listen to this any more! Murph trailed behind her as she stood up and made her way to the edge of the campsite. Was the Hulk her father? Or was that something she’d just convinced herself? With all that tomorrow might bring weighing on her, she doubted she was going to get much sleep.


The next morning as they set out there was a palpable tension among the group. Joe no longer seemed so charming to Gwendy and she was giving him the silent treatment, not even cracking a slight smile at his jokes.

Max busied herself with the film production, directing Murph to take wide angel shots, panoramic and close-ups of them and the forest.

As they drew deeper into the Hulk’s territory, Baldur's anxiety level skyrocketed. What in Hel were they doing?!

Serena, calm and collected, walked leisurely, smiling.

“Would you look at this place?” Gwendy said when they finally reached the ancient, overgrown city. “What are all those posts along the street?”

“Maybe they were for tying horses,” Baldur suggested nervously.

“No, they’re parking meters for ground cars,” Joe told them. “People used to put coins in them and—-”

“Whatever,” Gwendy cut him off, disinterested in anything he now had to say. In a lower voice, she muttered, "can't believe I wanted to lose my virginity to that jerk...."

Joe was taking a swig of his canteen, but when he heard Gwendy's comment, the water went down the wrong pipe and he spent the next few moments coughing. Abruptly, he stopped, and he gestured for everyone else to be quiet too as he guided the group through the streets towards where a shallow river meandered between the crumbling buildings.

“You know, I don’t even see any footprints. Wouldn’t the Hu—“ Baldur began to say before he and everyone stopped dead, rooting to the ground like trees.

Not fifty feet away, a powerful green form was bent down over the river, cupping water in its hands and drinking. It had shoulders as wide as a rusted vehicle nearby; its head seemed tiny in comparison.

Baldur stared, and strangely felt his fear leaving him. The culmination of every story he'd heard, every dream he had, was right there in front of him. The creature looked so ancient, so primal ... so--

“Incredible,” he breathed.

Max began to tremble as she stood in place, torn between keeping a safe distance and running up to it and throwing her arms around it. Was she imagining that the set of the Hulk's jaw and the crease between its eyes looked so much like her father's?

Gwendy took in the large beast in a mixture of fear and awe. Like Baldur, she'd heard about the Hulk her entire life, but seeing it in person was so ... she couldn't describe it. She was just preparing to call out to it, deciding what she should say, when out of the corner of her eye she glimpsed a silvery glint. She turned to see Joe pulling out his hunting spear.

“No, don’t,” she cried, reflexively moving to stop him.

Max whirled and at the sight of Joe shoving Gwendy aside, she rushed him as well.

“Hey, we had a deal,” Joe reminded her as she grabbed onto the spear and tried to pull it out of his grasp.

“Deal’s off,” snarled Max. “Baldur, Serena, help me stop Joe.

You can’t let him—“

“Kill the She-hulk?” Serena said with utmost amusement, her hands starting to glitter with eldritch light. “Sister, a true force of nature cannot be killed.”

“What the--?!” Baldur gave a startled shout.

Flaming tendrils materialized about them, seizing the four before they could even think to try to get away. The tendrils didn't feel like fire, and they were at least thankful of that.

Gwendy had heard rumors Serena’s tribe practiced magic yet never accepted it to be true until now.

"Serena, what are you doing?" Max demanded, wriggling within her mystical bonds.

"What do you think I'm doing, sister?" Serena replied cheerfully as she removed a small drawstring pouch from her belt and poured whitish powder in a circle around her. She then carefully poured thinner straight lines that intersected the circle and pointed toward the center. "I'm making a special little ritual."

"I-Involving us?" Baldur asked, knowing he was going to hate the answer.

"Naturally. Just as a recipe requires ingredients, a ritual of this variety requires sacrifices. Isn't that exciting?"

"A sacrifice to what, the Hulk over there?" Joe demanded. "That's crazy!"

"Actually, it's perfectly reasonable. Once you are all sacrificed to the Emerald Goddess, I and the other Daughters of Clea will be in her good graces and granted untold ... is there something amusing?" She raised an eyebrow as Joe tried desperately to hold back gales of laughter.

"Yeah, you!" He abandoned all restraint and howled with laughter, even after Serena tightened her mystical tendrils around him. "I mean ... I can't believe you're still on this 'She-Hulk' kick! You're this close to the creature -- take a look for yourself! He's debunking that theory right now!" Joe pointed to where the Hulk was busy watering some bushes.

Serena followed his gaze to where he was pointing. Then she blushed and looked away. "All right, so it's a male," she admitted, “but that still won't stop me from--"

She blinked, surprised to find one of her eldritch tentacles surrounding a large chunk of concrete with Joe's jacket wrapped around it, rather than Joe himself. She looked around, trying to catch a glimpse of him. "What manner of trickery--?"

"It's called kawarimi!" Joe's voice echoed from somewhere nearby. "It's an old technique used by the ninja. Pretty effective, huh?"

Serena's eyes narrowed. "Ninja...?" She heard the sound of feet scuffing up concrete, and she unleashed a bolt of energy at the sound. A section of wall exploded on contact with the bolt, but Joe was nowhere to be found.

"What the shock is a ninja?" Max wondered as she struggled against the tendrils.

Gwendy rolled her eyes. "Duh, it's a way-ancient group of martial arts assassins who used stealth as a weapon. They also used to get their butts kicked by Spider-man. I thought everybody knew that."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Joe commented sarcastically as he perched for a moment atop a lamppost, startling her.

"Ah-HAH!" Serena shouted. Electricity flew from her fingertips toward the lamppost, but Joe had already leaped off and taken cover in nearby building ruins.

Serena began weaving another spell. "Come out, come out, wherever you -- ah!" She shaped the latticework of energy dancing around her fingers into a tight snare to trap Joe's spear, which had been thrown at her head. "Really, you could hurt someone with that."

Bathing the spear in brilliance, she caused Gungnir to glow, then let it levitate away from her. It then flew through the air like an arrow into the ruins, disappearing for a moment before flushing Joe out of hiding.

Joe ran across the rooftop of one building, attempting to stay at least one step ahead of the guided missile that was his own weapon. He then side-flipped off the ledge onto a lower tier of the building. As the spear continued to follow, Joe leaped again, right toward Serena.

He threw something at her that exploded in a thick black smoke cloud, then leaped into the cloud and out the other side. The spear followed a moment later, but it stopped halfway.

Joe landed on the pavement with a rolling motion into a crouching position. He glanced over his shoulder at Serena as the smoke cleared.

She wasn't impaled. She simply floated it above one hand.

Then a streak of lightning lanced from her hand to the spear, lancing out at Joe in a tightly controlled stream.

He was struck in the chest and sent flying against the wall; Serena tossed Gungnir off to the side.

The Hulk looked up from his drink at the river and bellowed, his roar echoing off the concrete canyons. Everyone stopped to look.

Max was so caught up in the spectacle that she only now realized Serena had lost the concentration required to bind them in the magic tendrils. "C'mon, let's get her!"

She didn't have to tell Gwendy first; the young blonde was already charging toward Serena with fists swinging.

Serena simply bound her with another tendril spell and tossed her away. "All of you are simply wasting my time and prolonging the inevitable."

Blaring the loud guitar riffs and harsh vocals of a sound clip from a centuries-old heavy-metal song about bodies hitting floors, Murph swooped in toward her as fast as its hover-equipped chassis could take it. Serena simply sidestepped it and tapped it across its body, creating a jolt of electricity that dropped it right there. "Especially you."

"No," Joe grunted to the others. "We're wasting her power reserves, so she can't put her spell on the Hulk."

"Too late anyway," Max told them in a small, vulnerable voice as she directed their attention to the river. "The Hulk took off."

"Unacceptable!" Serena shouted, turning in a slow circle to face her would-be victims. She seemed genuinely angry for the first time since they'd known her. "You have no idea how much that cost me! I'll see all of you burn for this!" Her eyes and hands began to glow; flames rose from them.

"You will burn no one!" a voice from behind Serena vowed, bellowing at the top of his lungs. Baldur's voice cracked as he shouted, summoning enough strength to plunge Joe's spear through Serena's back and out through her chest. Its sharp point punched straight through the other side, leaving the witch gurgling as she slumped to the pavement and breathed her last.

Baldur's hands trembled, but he held onto the spear until he was certain she was dead. "Thus ... th-thus does Baldur, newest warrior of the Tribe of Thor ...d-defeat the vile enchantress ... who thought to --BLOOD! OH MY GODS, HER BLOOD IS POURING OUT AND IT'S ON MY HANDS--!" Revulsed, he quickly let go of the spear and backed away, quickly putting half a block between himself and the corpse.

Joe walked over to his spear and pulled a cloth from his back pocket. "Much obliged," he told Baldur. "She had us on the ropes. Literally, I guess."

Max knelt over Murph and inspected him, casting a glance towards Joe as he pulled Gungnir from Serena's body. "You're still going to kill the Hulk with that, aren't you?" she asked.

"Of course not," Joe replied as he wiped the blood off his spear. "That was just my cover story. I'm not a hunter, unless you count being sent to hunt Serena."

Gwen's eyes narrowed. "What you said earlier ...you're a ninja, aren't you?"

He nodded, idly twirling his weapon between his fingers. "Guilty as charged. I'm from the Hand Tribe. I was sent to protect the Hulk from a percieved threat on his life. I was told that the threat would come from this group of amateur filmmakers, and in the end, that's what happened."

"Your name's not really Joe, is it?" Gwen pressed.

"I'm not saying one way or the other."

Max spoke through clenched teeth, "you could have taken her down sooner without lying to us. Why didn't you? Do you just enjoy decieving people?"

"Deception is a powerful tool in a ninja's arsenal. I don't take pleasure from using it; I just do what I have to. I needed to keep up the pretense so I could learn what I needed to know about the four of you."

"Five."

"Pardon?"

"There are five of us besides you!" On the verge of tears, Max gestured to Murph. Smoke rose from burnt wiring in an opened panel. "I don't know if I can fix him."

Joe shifted restlessly from one foot to the other. "Look, if there's anything I can do...."

"Haven't you done enough? Murph's the only family I have left now that the Hulk...." Realizing what she was saying, she left the thought unfinished and set to work salvaging Murph.

"I'll take you guys back to your tribes when you're ready," Joe promised them, not sure what else to say.

Meanwhile, Gwendy sidled up to Baldur and flashed a smile. "So. You slew the big bad villain, huh?"

Baldur smiled in return and ran his fingers through his hair, looking at the ground. "Uh, yeah. Yeah, I-I guess I did."

She interlaced her fingers with his. "In that case, let me be the first to say it: My hero."


END





He hadn't seen a vampire for almost a full century. Except when he looked in the mirror.

It was a misconception that vampires couldn't cast reflections: it was just a matter of knowing how to bend the light. Some vampires could; some couldn't.

Chen knew how; he just didn't see the point. He looked at his reflection at least once a day, to remind himself that he was still around one-hundred fifty years after his birth. Most of those years was spent with his wife Rin, and without his daughter Xu.

Forget bloodthirst; that was the true curse of immortality.


END





It was called the Athena, and it was only one of many starships to leave Earth over the past century, but it was the first to find a hospitable world to colonize. This was due to the many upgrades its crew made to the ship's propulsion, energy conservation, and sensory systems.

It also didn't hurt that the four people in charge had both brains and brawn on their side. They protected the crew from danger. They were the Fantastic Four, after all.

As their planetary colony developed and flourished, Ian Hyde, Michaela Bailey, Christi Wood, and Jesse Stamp admired their handiwork.


END





“Which one are you gonna tell me tonight, Daddy?” Lewis asked in an insolent tone.

“Well,” His father said, pulling another blanket atop the little boy.

“Dammit, daddy! Too many blankets!” The red-haired brat yelped, thrusting all of the covers off his tiny frame. “Mommy knows I only like three blankets when I go to bed. Not two blankets and a comforter! God, you’re being so stupid, daddy. Why don’t you pick them up and get me the right blankets!”

“Sorry, son.” The beleaguered father bent down and scooped up the trio of plush blankets. Just as his son ordered, he replaced the heavier comforter with a lighter blanket and tucked his son in snug and securely, just as lovingly and gently as he did the first time.

“And make sure I’m all the way tucked in this time.” The child growled, face and freckles growing hot red with aggravation. “I almost caught a sniffle the last time you tucked me in wrong.”

“Of course, dear.” The father crooned to his son adoringly, making sure that all the way around, the warming blankets were tucked in to his son’s satisfaction. Once he had fulfilled the master’s request, he sat down at the foot of his son’s enormous bed, ready to resume the nightly role of storyteller.

“Better, daddy.” The child said.

“Glad you’re happy, dea—“

“Now start the story, dad.” The brat huffed, cold blue eyes burrowing into his father’s soul like a violent jackhammer on tarmac. “And it better not be that Cinderella. She’s so pathetic. Her sisters were better characters than she was. She’s too nice. Nice girls like her don’t deserve to be happy. They deserve to serve better people, like her sisters. I’m right, aren’t I daddy?”

“Yes, of course you are, son.” The father said kindly.

“So which story will it be tonight, daddy?”

“It…it’ll be a surprise…” The father murmured finally.

“What kind of surprise? It better be a good surprise. Or else I’ll tell mommy about you and Ms. Hansen.”

“Please don’t do that, son. That would be a naughty thing to do.”

“I think I’m going to tell mommy about you and Ms. Hansen.”

“Son, that’s enough.” The father asserted himself, straightening. “You keep acting like that and…and I’ll ground you for a day.”

“Daddy and Ms. Hansen, sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N…”

“Enough!” The father sat up from the end of the bed, glaring down at his brat of a child. “You’re grounded for a full twenty-four hours. No holovids. No tennis or foosball in your room. And I’m taking your cell phone.”

“WAAAAHH!!!!” Lewis screeched, an angry blaring siren wailing throughout the rest of the house. Tears streamed freely down his pudgy face, soaking his freckles, dotting his pajamas. He slapped his fists on the bed and kicked his feet, temper tantrum in full swing. “DADDY DOESN’T LOVE ME! DADDY DOESN’T LOVE ME! WWAAAAHH!!”

“Son, no, no, no. Daddy loves you. Daddy loves you so much. Daddy loves you more than words can say.” He crooned lovingly to his son. He attempted to hug Lewis, but the insolent child wailed and batted the father’s arms away. Lewis was going full out on this one.

“Daddy doesn’t love me! Daddy hates me! Daddy is grounding me because he HATTTTES MEEEEE!!!”

“No, son. No, of course not. I don’t hate you. I love you. See? See, I’m not grounding you anymore. I’m not grounding you. I love you, Lewis. I love you. You’re my most precious boy. I love you so much I could eat you up.”

Lewis batted his eyes, getting rid of the crocodile’s tears. The tantrum bit worked to perfection, like it always did. Lewis took a few deep breaths, put on a good show of regaining composure, and sat up in his bed – more awake than ever.

“Good, daddy.” Lewis said. “Now hurry up and tell me tonight’s story. I’m getting bored.”

The father sank back down to the foot of his son’s bed, staring gently into his son’s bloodshot eyes. He wiped away the imaginary tears from his son’s face in a gesture of love. Lewis batted his hand away.

Now, dad.”

“Okay, Lewis.” The father smiled. “This story, is about where we all came from. This whole city. Newest York. This story is about how we all came to be on this alien world. How we brought our technologies, our culture, our entire way of life with us to the new world. This planet, Demagrada. This is how it all started.”

“So how did it all start, dad?” The child chirped in mocking frustration.

“It all started on a planet called Earth.”


Earth was dying.

An apocalypse of Biblical proportions had hit her. The corporations suddenly all went bankrupt. Everywhere, just about every corporate entity worldwide hit a severe mega-inflation barrier that was impossible to recover from.

The people ruled by the corps were suddenly free to do as wished – and what they wished mostly centered around slaughtering their former corporate overlords in the most horrific ways possible. Beheading. Drawing and quartering. Slow torture. Tossing their screaming bodies out of a ninety story window. The rioters became quite creative in their fury.

They’d been liberated from their despots.

However, they paid a high price for that freedom. The city of New York was just an unending pit of chaos. Murder. Violence. Theft. Rape. Constant and unmitigated. There were no police; at least none so willing to work for the safety of the people rather than for the width of their wallets. The rioting was constant, and merciless, and ever-spreading.

Eventually, it reached Detriot. The Designated Toxification Zone for the whole country; whose monumental sizes of industrial waste were contained in electro-static barriers to keep the toxic atmosphere from inter-mingled from the severely-less-toxic atmosphere outside.

In a desperate attempt to save themselves, the cybernetic CEOs of DsquareD, the corporation ruling the toxic zone of Detriot, decided on one last gamble to preserve their corporation.

They brought the barriers down.

Detriot’s chemical wastes were particularly concentrated within the barrier. Once it was released, it hit anything within a ninety mile radius enough radiation and toxicity to shame the effects of an atomic fallout.

The people closest to it began to break down on the cellular level. Others got boils and blisters, and bled to death from the orifices. Some simply caved in when their organs dissolved.

The atmosphere of Detriot finally mingled with the atmosphere of the rest of the United States. The sky turned green and grey with chemical filth. Mother Nature protested this intrusion into her mostly-pristine clouds with tornados that spewed electricity, and hurricanes that toppled mountains.

Mother Nature’s fury swept the world.

There were survivors – always, there are survivors – and they manages to find all the lost technologies the Corporate Powers-That-Be had hidden from the masses.

Alien technology. Nanotechnology. Deep space travel. There were even rumors of time machines, hidden deep within the bowels of the Earth.

Our progenitors, a thirty-two person motley crew of scientists, historians and philosophers, found a hidden spacecraft. Fit for deep space travel, equipped with wide-sweeping navigational centers, and affixed with stasis pods to let her crew sleep through the long space journeys.

The Scientists rummaged through the ship, hooking up this thing with that, readying the old girl to fly again.

The Historians rummaged through the ruins of their world; collecting the great works from libraries not yet paved by the storms or burnt by the rioters. World Atlases, the collected works of Edgar Allen Poe, Shakespearian tragedies, history holo-texts, Geography for Dummies, etc. Everything they needed to make a historical record of the world that was dying under their feet.

The Philosophers did what they did best. They labeled it as The Apocalypse of 2112, and philosophized that if they didn’t all move their butts off-planet pronto, they’d likely go the way of the dodo and the dino.

Philosophers being what they were, were more inclined to believe in life on other worlds. And by extension – that there would be other worlds in which life could exist. The Scientists and the Historians, really having no other choice, decided to follow the Philosophers’ insane plans and abandon their world.

They piloted the alien spacecraft through the upper atmosphere and zoomed off into the unknown.

The scientists spent months looking over the navigational charts, collected by whatever Heroic Era aliens that had left it sitting in its prison those long years. Considering the fact they had to decipher a completely alien tongue without the aid of a Rosetta Stone or Universal Translator, they made some decent progress in finding an alien world to colonize. A New Earth.

They’d brought enough food to last several months, and enough nanotechnology to provide clothing and material goods for several years.

Pity that the world our progenitors found, Demagrada, was seventy years away at maximum speed.

Their only option was to go into stasis and wait for the ship to reach its destination.

They stored their food away in a safe place.

They downloaded the history holo-novels into the computer system for safe-keeping.

They programmed the nanotechnology to build maintenance robots and holographic keepers out of the extra material lying about the ship.

And then they programmed the robots and the holograms to care after them during their long sleep through the voyage.

Scientists. Philosophers. Historians. Some young, some old. Some female, some male. When they awoke from their slumber, they would rebuild the human race on some other planet.

They would preserve this new world. They would nurture it. They wouldn’t pollute it or take it for granted.

There were nineteen women and thirteen men. All but three of consenting and child-bearing age.

Added to the cloning and genetic engineering techniques the Scientists held, that would be a sufficient enough gene pool to begin humanity anew.

Our progenitors were…reluctant to hand over their lives to machines. To say the least. Protests rang out from all over, but in the end logic won. No one on the ship would survive long enough to see the new world if they did not go into stasis. Even a single straggler would exhaust the food supply in a matter of thirty years’ time.

They cried, they wept. They hugged one another and prayed for the best. They programmed their machines to monitor their life signs, to bring them out of stasis in case something went terribly wrong. They taught their monitoring creations to plan and adapt for every possible catastrophe.

And then, tears in their eyes and hearts heavy with grief and fear, they went to sleep. And in their glass capsules, they dreamed of awaking to a Brave New World.

To coin a phrase.


“So, you’re saying that we let a bunch of robots look after us while we went off in search of our new world?” The boy yelped. “What kind of plan is that?”

His father paused, licking his lips tersely. His features softened then, trying to make his son understand. “Robots and holograms, son. Robots to do regular maintenance on the ship, and solid, interactive holograms to take care of navigating the ship to their new home.”

“That is so stupid. They should have done it themselves.”

“They didn’t have a choice, son. They were going to die if they didn’t.” The father said grimly.

“I could have done it.” The brat muttered to himself.

“Of course, you could have son.” He smiled down toward his son’s pudgy features.

“Cuz I’m special. Right, daddy?”

“Something like that,” The father crooned sweetly.


For untold years, life on the ship was quiet.

The orphans of the dead Earth slept inside their stasis pods.

The robots inspected the ship regularly – fixing dents in the hull, closing broken circuit pathways, keeping the statis pods warm and cozy for their masters.

The holograms plotted minor course corrections to avoid debris fields, and made certain the ship stayed on-course throughout the long years.

Until the ship was rocked by an electro-magnetic ion storm in space, and the holographic generators were severely damaged by a stray bolt of electricity.

The robots rushed to repair the holograms, spending months re-initializing their systems. But by the time the holograms were back online, the ship had strayed from its course. Very far. In fact, it was headed straight for the gaping maw of a black hole.

The holograms began steering the ship away from the anomaly. The robots, as per their programming, opened up the stasis pods and informed the humans of the situation. Naturally, they were a bit angry and wanted to go up to the navigation centers, to take over ship’s operations themselves.

Unfortunately, all of the human crew, save two, had been revived and given the info-dump when a stray asteroid, also caught in the pull of the vortex, collided with the ship, exposing a great amount of the ship to the void of outer space and rendering internal sensors inoperative.

On their way up through the decks of the ship, they opened one hatch in particular.

Without internal sensors, there were no safety locks in place.

The hatch they opened was connected to a hallway exposed to space.

Within seconds, the thirty people attempting to get to Operations, as well as the robot drones that had awoken them, were sucked into space, and died thirty slow and painful deaths.

By the time the holograms had pulled the ship out of the gravity well of the black hole, it was far too late for the idyllic dreams of humankind’s Brave New World.

Far too late.


The robots repaired the hole as best they could, while their holographic counterparts steered the ship back on course and tried to plan for this possible contingency.

The only people left alive were one woman and one man. Both philosophers. Both nymphomaniacs.

Unfortunately, all the genetic sequencing in the world wouldn’t help just two people re-start a civilization, despite the stories of Adam and Eve. Realizing this, the holograms decided to crack open the stasis chambers containing the couple, and tell them what had happened to all their friends.

The two sobbed, and wept, and begged the holograms to tell them the truth. And every time the holograms did, and it hurt worse than the last time.

They sought comfort in each other’s arms.

And decided they didn’t want to sleep alone ever again.

The couple, their names were Richard Levine and Jennifer DeSanto, never climbed back into their stasis pods, despite the warnings from the holograms about the food supply. They said they wanted to be awake, to make sure they lived every last bit of life to the fullest.

They tried to decipher the scientific equipment: To clone the rest of the crew from the DNA in hair samples, skin flakes, and in fingerprints all over the ship. But they were philosophers, not scientists. Lovers, not laboratory technicians. They didn’t have the slightest idea where to begin.

So they decided to befriend the holograms and the robots.

They built a community of learning and instruction aboard the mortally-wounded ship. The robots and holograms listened as their masters taught them everything they knew. From what life on the planet Earth had been like, to where they’d gotten their first kisses. Their first crushes. Their first times. The way the corporations treated younger folk, and just where they wanted to stick that ‘treatment’.

They began to teach their creations the nature of human existence. The flavor, the tang. The joys and the pitfalls. They taught the holograms about such abstract things such as love and tenderness, and philosophized about The Nature of All Things.

Two eighteen-year-old lovers taught the holograms more about the nature of humanity than eighteen hundred years worth of downloaded text could have taught them in a lifetime.

And throughout it all, the lovers taught the machines how to play. Basketball, baseball, golf, soccer. Using the junk found across the ship, the lovers built their own gaming courts. The machines almost always won, because they were designed to be more perfect than humans. More precise. More strategically and tactically-minded.

The lovers just laughed, and talked about how the point wasn’t always how to win. Simply to enjoy oneself.

It would take the machines a long time to figure out what they meant by that. But eventually, they got it. Eventually, the machines understood why humankind was worth fighting for. Why spending years inside the stasis chambers was simply unacceptable to two lovers whose world had died.

The machines eventually understood why they acted so illogically.

The ability to choose. To experience the flavor and temper and temperature of the world; not simply for the matters of posterity but simply for the thrill and energy of it all. To live life to its fullest and not be a slave to logic.

That was what it meant to be human.

They had no children in the 16.74 years that the food supply held out.

They were only thirty or so when they died.

The lovers died slowly of starvation, and before they went, instructed the machines to do something very strange.

They told the machines to research humankind, to bury ourselves in the ancient texts the Historians had brought. To mingle our minds in the sciences the Scientists wrote down. To immerse ourselves in the philosophies the lovers had brought to us.

Then, they programmed us to do two things.

One: To take care of their remains when they were gone.

And two: To carry on in their absence. To spread the culture of humanity throughout space. To preserve and protect humanity at all costs. To make sure that the human race will always be remembered.

We asked our masters only one question. “What possible purpose would that serve?”

And they simply responded in a final, hushed, choking whisper. “So that humanity does not go the way of the dodo, or the dino.”

They chuckled, clutched together in each others arms, and died surrounded by the machines they’d built. Surrounded by their friends.

They did not die alone.

And we would make sure they didn’t die in vain.


“We ‘buried’ their bodies in their stasis pod alcoves and permanently sealed them in. The last human beings to survive the decimation of their world. They would be the stuff of legends among our new society. And we would benefit from their wisdom for many years to come.

“Thirty years later, the ship crash-landed on Demagrada, barely holding itself together after seventy odd years of ion storms, nebulas, asteroids and debris bouncing off and corroding the hull. We steered clear of as much as we possibly could, but unfortunately outer space is not a kind mistress.

“When we arrived here in our wreckage of a ship, the robots managed to cannibalize the entirety of the remains to build an enormous, underground holographic matrix, which would allow the holograms of the ship, that would be us, to sculpt our own holographic world, to change it and mold it to our liking, and to exist outside of the dead ship.

“The skeletal remains of the ship shelters and protects the stasis pods we left in there. The robots decorated it with human sensibilities, and every once in awhile we go to visit the shrine as unto a gravestone. The entire vessel has become a monument to a once-great civilization that left us all too soon.

“Our work now, is to preserve humanity, to protect it, and to spread it as far as we are able. To that end, we have built this great city. Or should I say, we crafted it slowly from our holographic matrix.”

The father walked over toward the window, gesturing out to the towering monoliths enshrouded in darkness. Flickering lights shone in the black towers that extended for miles beyond the horizon. Air cars whispered silently through the night sky, turbines humming with electric energy. The stars shone brightly in the velvet of the sky, keeping company the white, bright twin moons that looked upon the child’s window as a mother would look upon her young.

“The buildings we ‘built’ as if we were humans. Holographic plasti-steel, grafted onto holographic vibranium girders. The ground, we gave life to. Holographic seeds and holographic Insta-Grass growth formula. Here, in Newest York, we simulate human life down to the finest detail. We ‘breathe’, we walk, we talk, we go to work, we catch colds.

“We’re illogical, we’re imperfect. We’re late for the bus, we forget our spouse’s birthdays and anniversaries. Your mother still doesn’t forgive me for the last time I forgot.

“We even have the occasional secret we keep from our spouse. Like…Ms. Hansen…and I…” The father shifted his feet uncomfortably, walking away from the open window.

“Even as holograms, we have preserved human society down to its finest detail. This time around though, we decided against bringing the corporations to this new world. After all, the corporations were mostly responsible for the Earth tearing itself apart. And as protectors of humanity, we will never allow that to happen again.”

“Liar!” Lewis finally shouted, tussling his auburn-red hair as he leaped up onto his king-size bed. “LIAR, LIAR, PANTS ON FIRE!”

“Son, what I’m telling you is the truth.” The father softly said to his raging and sobbing son. “We are a society of holograms.” “I’m human, daddy! I’m supposed to be human! We’re all human people, daddy! Just ask Mommy!”

“I’d tell you the same thing, honey.” His mother spoke, stepping into the room. Soft blonde bangs outlined a kind smile. She sauntered over to her son, reaching out for him despite his fearful raging. “Honey, please…”

“Daddy’s a liar! Daddy’s story was a lie! Tell me a good story! Tell me a good story NOW!” Lewis hopped up and down on his bed, screaming at the top of his lungs, his tears soaking his cheeks.

“Daddy’s not a liar, honey.” His mother cooed, hugging Lewis warmly and lightly patting his head as he sobbed. “Daddy’s telling the truth. We really are holograms.”

“You’re machines…” Lewis sniffled, moaning painfully. “You’re heartless, unfeeling machines…you’re toasters…both of you…”

“Yes, yes we are machines honey. Oh, there, there.” She cooed at him softly, brushing her hands along his back gently, trying to calm his rage. “There, there, honey. We’re machines, dear. But that doesn’t mean we don’t love you. No it doesn’t.”

“C’mon, son.” The father rustled his son’s auburn hair. “Don’t be like this. We love you. Even though we’re holograms, we love you. Remember the lovers I told you about? They taught us how. They taught us exactly how we might be human.”

“Like having an affair with your secretary, Phillip?” The mother looked at the boy’s father.

“You…oh God, you heard. You heard us talking about it.”

“Yes I did, Phillip.” The mother gazed at her husband sternly.

“I…I’m so sorry, honey.” The father said, brushing his wife’s delicate blonde curls away from her soft blue eyes. “We’d…we’d been drinking…”

“We’ll talk about that later, Phil.” She retreated, listening to her son’s gentle sobs against her shoulder. “Like humans would do. Right now, I’m afraid Lewis is having to deal with some pretty complicated things right now, aren’t you Lewis?”

He sobbed again.

“It’s okay, honey. You’ll be okay.”

“Why…” He yelped – half-sobbing, half-screaming with rage. “Why didn’t…you tell me…before?”

His mother brushed his red hair away from his bloodshot eyes, locking his gaze. “You were a child then, dear. You wouldn’t have understood.”

“I understand…” He cried. “that I’m not human. I’m some…stupid machine…without a soul…”

“Of course you have a soul.” His mother held him close. “You have a soul. Don’t speak that way, honey.”

“The humans taught us how.” His father said. “They taught us how to be just as soulful as they were.”

“Of course they did,” She murmured, hugging her son tight as she could, feeling a tiny wet something drip down her cheek. “Even though we’re all simulations of human beings, what we feel, isn’t a simulation. It’s as real as the humans were. It’s as real as they were, honey. Please know that.”

“We also want you to know that we’re sorry this is so painful for you, son.” His father said, patting his son’s back. “Your mother and I decided you needed to know the truth.”

The tired, angry, weeping child drew in a shaky breath, feeling the stinging agony in his gut as his perfect existence had been ripped out from beneath him. As when the scientists discovered the Earth was not the center of the universe, this child felt such turmoil finding out that he was no longer the center of this world. It was no longer ‘all about him’.

Searching for comfort, the child hugged his mother as tight as he could. He crushed himself against her and wished they could take it all back. That he could be their everything again.

He grasped his mom tighter.

“Why…” he sobbed uncontrollably, “…wuh-why….why did you tell me this…w-uh…?”

“It was time for you to know.” His mother whispered. “The robots that we brought with us. They care for us, they help gather and mine the minerals and materials we need to extend our holographic network across this planet. They help us to spread our humanity as far as we can. We’ve already built a holographic world the size of Alaska! Do you know how big Alaska is, honey?”

He shook his head.

“It’s really, really big. Like, super-humongously big!” She smiled down at him with tears in her eyes.

“It’s true,” His father added. “We have an entire functioning, peaceful society the size of a continent. They’ve taught you about continents in school. Right, son?

“Uh-huh.” He nodded, “They teached us.”

“Well, the thing of it is…ah…” He began.

“What your father is trying to say is that, the robots that we brought with us…they’re starting to break down. They’re getting old…really old. And very, very tired. And soon they’ll be in Heaven. Robot Heaven, you see. And we need to look after ourselves when they’re gone.”

“Our systems, you see. They will need maintenance. As we continue to develop our world, our memory banks will need to be expanded.”

“As a country of holograms, we will all need to pitch in during the coming years. We’ll need to help one another to stay functioning on this new world of ours.” His mother smiled sweetly as she spoke. “Can I count on you to pitch in? To help us out? Can I count on my ‘special little guy’ now that he knows how important this is to us?”

Lewis wiped his nose on his sleeve. “What about me, mommy…?” He shivered. “What about me…”

“We’ll always love you, honey. And we’ll still get to do a lot of things together while we’re helping out. We can play around in the caves as we mine. We can skip to the tunes of our favorite songs as we carry ore back to the city and build ourselves new machines. We can sing our favorite songs as we repair and add onto the holographic generators. You’ll see, honey. You’ll have lots of fun. But as much as we want to have fun, we have things we have to do. And once we get them all done, we can have as much fun as you like. How does that sound?”

“….I dunno…” He mumbled. “I...guess that sounds okay. You’ll both be with me, right? We’ll all be together?”

“Of course, honey.” His mother grinned.

“We’ll always be with you, son.” His father stroked Lewis’ hair warmly.

“Good.” He gave his mom a hug, snuggling his nose into her shoulder. He wiped away the tears in her shirt – not crocodile this time, but very much holographic. “Good. But I want you to bake a cake for me when we’re done…an’ we can eat it after we come back from the mines…”

“Of course I will, honey.” She replied. “A BIG cake, bigger than your head!”

She pinched his cheek playfully as he smiled.

“WARNING: THREAT TO HOLOGRAPHIC GENERATORS DETECTED. ION STORM PROCEEDING TOWARDS NORTHWEST SECTOR. HOLOGRAPHIC SYSTEM WILL PROCEED TO STANDBY MODE UNTIL THREAT TO GENERATOR HAS SUBSIDED. STANDBY MODE WILL ACTIVATE IN NINETY SECONDS.” A loud booming mechanical voice ‘thought’ to Lewis.

“I just…I just heard a voice in my head.” Lewis said.

“It’s just an automated message in our holographic generators. Nothing to worry about, honey.” His mother said.

“Howcum I never heard it before, mommy?” He asked innocently.’

“Because you weren’t ready to listen for it, son.” His father answered, stroking his wife’s back lovingly. She smiled at him.

“What’s Standby Mode, mommy?” He asked.

“Standby mode…is like sleeping.” His mother smiled gently. “Our holographic generators go haywire in ion storms. If they’re not turned off during a storm, they could attract a bolt of lightning, which could…”

“It’s like…” His father began, “It’s like what I said about the holograms on that ship. Remember them? Now, when they were near the ion field in space, a lightning bolt hit their generators and they disappeared until the robots could fix them.”

“Are we going to disappear?”

“Only for a short while.”

“And then we’ll come back, right?”

“Yes, honey. We’ll be right back.” She cooed softly to him. “Storms like this pop up every now and again. We always come back.”

“What if…what if a lightning bolt hits us?”

The parents glanced nervously at one another. Then, the voice: “STANDBY MODE WILL ACTIVATE IN TEN SECONDS. PREPARE FOR MOMENTARY DEACTIVATION.”

“Then the robots will fix us.” His father winked at him.

“I thought you said the robots were old. Really old. And that they were going to Robot Heaven?” His mother glanced apprehensively at his father. Nervously, she bit her lip.

“We’ll…we’ll talk about it later, honey—“

“But...”

The holographic boy disappeared.

The holographic mother and father disappeared.

The holographic apartment faded, as did the rest of the city. The other holographic cities followed suit, dissipating with all the noise of a whisper.

The twin moons shone down on the valley, a glint of moonlight shining off a rusted robot drone in the empty valley.

He stood stock still, unmoving – fulfilling a silent, near-deathly vigil over the quiet desert sands, and the humming of enormous machinery buried beneath.

A silent statue, watching the coming of the storm with eyes long dead.


END





Thus concludes this glimpse into the era of 2211.

For now, anyway.

See, the possibilities presented by this spinoff of 2099 can't be contained in a single one-shot. All the ideas we have for 2211 would have to be covered in an ongoing anthology series, or even a 2211UGR sub-imprint.

The purpose of this one-shot is to basically test the waters and try out a few of the ideas, see if they catch on. For instance, I'd be more than happy to write stories about the Blade, Ghost Rider, and Fantastic Four of 2211 that're longer than 100 words each. If someone is intrigued enough with Hulk 2211 to decide which of the legends about him presented in the above story (if any) are true, that would be awesome. And our happy newcomer Rena Paradox has plenty of 2211 stories left to tell; just ask her.

Whether or not we end up doing more with 2211 beyond this one-shot and #5 of the Spider-Man 2099UGR series is up to you, our readers and fellow fanfiction writers. If we've intrigued you enough to want to see more -- or not -- let us know.

Oh, and in case anyone's wondering: while I've revealed that Blade and the Fantastic Four have survived all the way to 2211 from the 2099/2100 era, don't assume that this means the characters will be unscathed for the remainder of their 2099UGR adventures, or that they're safe from the possibility of dying. 2211UGR is a possible future of 2099UGR that may or may not come to pass, just as 2099 is a possible future of the First Heroic Age. So there's still plenty of room for us to surprise you. And we're hoping you'll give us that chance.

So what do you say, folks? How does a 2211 Unlimited anthology series sound? Or even a 2211UGR sub-imprint? We've only just scratched the surface.

- David Ellis, Editor-in-Chief 01.28.2007_