Tales From the Marvel Universe Neo

Issue 27


Doctor Doom frowned as he headed back down to the containment cells for the second time that week. He'd been trying to get straight answers from his prisoner for over a month, and yet, she didn't seem to respond to typical tactics, like threats or solitary confinement. It was almost as if she really were the genuine article.

Soon, Doom was looking into the transparent cell, and there sat the prisoner. Her bright, red hair hadn't grown much longer in the month since she'd gotten into Castle Doom, and been captured by his security devices. In fact, she looked almost exactly the same as she had when he'd locked her in there; still defiant, and determined to give away nothing.

"You've been in there long enough, haven't you?" Doom asked, his words just managing to penetrate the enclosure in which Natalia Romanova was being kept, "Don't you think you'd better tell me who you are, and what you want."

"As I've already said," the woman replied, "who I am is obvious, and as for what I want, I simply can't reveal that."

Doom was starting to feel intensely frustrated by Natalia's continual resistance to his inquiries, and yet, there was only one conclusion that made sense. After all the tests, all the tricks, all the ploys to get more information, Doom was convinced that he knew the truth about the woman sitting in that cell; a truth that no other man on planet Earth would ever have accepted.

"I'm surprised you're not willing to be more open with me." Doom said, a bit sadly, "You've really had very good luck; running into me before anyone else. As a scientist, I understand the full ramifications of contaminating the timeline, so that nothing you tell me will impact my decisions in the slightest. However, if you decide not to tell me anything, I'm afraid that the puzzle of who you are, and where you came from will haunt my thoughts, and it may cause me to make a mistake that I didn't make in the previous timeline."

As Doom spoke, Widow's eyes narrowed, and he knew he'd come to the right conclusion. Somehow, the Widow who sat in the cell in front of him wasn't the one from his time; the one who'd played such a pivotal role in stopping him from conquering the world. She was a time-traveler from the future, though how far into the future, Doom couldn't say. Having designed the first time-travel device personally, Doom knew that it was indeed possible, and had no difficulty imagining someone else misusing his machine.

Still, Doom reasoned, if he could have picked any one person to send through time aside from himself, it would have been Widow. Her emotionless nature and ironclad sense of reason would have ensured that no matter what happened, she wouldn't risk contamination to the timeline, and when Doom had spoken to her about what effect her presence had already had on him, she seemed to realize the truth of what he was saying. The timeline was contaminated already. The best she could do was try to contain the damage, and she couldn't do that from inside a cell. Though the two were enemies, she had no choice but to take Doctor Doom into her confidence.

"Alright." Widow replied, "I'll tell you where I came from, and why I'm here. I'll also tell you everything you'll need to know to maintain the timeline the way it is. I'm afraid that amounts to a great deal of information, however. Your role in the history of mankind has been a very large one. However, when I've finished telling you all of that, you have to promise to let me out of this cell, and work together with me in helping to repair the damage."

Doom simply nodded silently in reply, as he listened to Widow's words with rapt attention.

"It hasn't been that long since Galactus left planet Earth, has it?" Widow asked, trying to get her bearings.

"Around a month." Doom replied with another nod, "He left at approximately the same time you arrived."

"In that case, I've come from about eighty years and three months into your future." Widow explained, though Doom found that a little surprising.

"You've aged well." Doom remarked suspiciously.

"Naturally." Widow admitted, "I age very slowly. I do, Miss Marvel does, Fury does, you do..."

"I do?" Doom asked, starting to feel puzzled, "What do you mean?"

"Apparently, within five years of the departure of Galactus, you're going to stumble onto the secret that was used to lengthen my own lifespan, and apply it to yourself. However, you won't share that secret with anyone else for a long time."

"Is there any record of how I came across your secret?" Doom asked immediately, at which point, Widow shook her head.

"You never kept a record of those experiments." Widow said, but just then, her expression started to take on a dumbfounded flavor.

"That much is obvious to me, then." Doom replied casually, "I assist you with repairs to the timeline, and you give me the secret of your longevity in exchange."

"So it seems." Widow muttered silently, "For some reason, that possibility didn't occur to me until just now."

"You're still accustomed to thinking in a linear sense." Doom replied, "I'm sure you'll get better at predicting these things soon. What else do I need to know about the future?"

"First, that no matter what else I tell you, you must continue to make plans against the superhumans for the next five years." Widow explained, "Your fights with them are a part of history that was documented very well, and removing those fights might prevent the future from turning out the way it did."

"You see, Doom, you and a number of other people and threats gave the Avengers something to defend people from. After a while, nobody questioned the loyalty of the Avengers, and the social climate of the world had been changing pretty drastically. You saw what was going on, and you could barely believe it, but after those first five years, you stopped trying to take over the world. When you were asked why, you said that it was because the Earth didn't need your help as desperately as it once had, and that it was only a matter of time before despots and unfair rulers all over the world died out."

"The Avengers were doing their job extremely well in the meantime, continuing to save people from disasters and criminals, and every time they did, Miss Marvel, Captain America, or one of the others would say a few words about what factors had led to the disaster or the crime. They'd assure people that the Avengers believed in helping to solve the problems that led to such crimes and disasters, but they couldn't do it alone. Then they'd explain what people could do in their own lives to help prevent things like that from ever happening again."

"From anyone else, statements like that would have come across as presumptuous, but people listened to the Avengers because of all the good they'd done in the past. Pretty soon, there were massive social changes happening all over the world, as people followed the team of heroes that had always tried to help them; the people they were sure they could trust."

"It was such a powerful movement, that seven years from today, the U.N. demanded to have Doctor Strange brought before the assembly of the world governments. They asked him why he and the Avengers were teaching morals to the people, and Strange replied that it was the secondary purpose with which the Avengers had been founded; not just stopping crimes, but helping to prevent them at the very source; the soul."

"They really got mad after that. They told Strange, in no uncertain terms, that he was forbidden to use his position to preach his own idea of right and wrong. However, Strange flat-out refused to follow that order. He said that they only wanted him to stop, so that they could control people's conduct instead, and I think he was directing that remark pretty sharply at the president of the United States."

"Strange had been at odds with the president a lot in the past. They'd never directly opposed each other before, but the president seemed to want public opinion to go one way, and as long as Strange was around, it persistently went in the other direction. They were enemies in a sense, though not openly."

"Eventually, Strange left that meeting by conjuring up a portal back to the headquarters of the Avengers, and that was when the world governments decided that they had to do something to try to earn the people's trust again."

"The government had had a new type of weapon in their warehouses for a while called a sentinel. Some looked like helicopters, others looked like tanks, but they all had one thing in common; they possessed true artificial intelligence, and they had the ability to think and reason with the speed of a computer. The government deployed quite a number of them as peace-keepers, to try to take the place of the Avengers, and if they'd just left it at that, things might have gone their way, but the higher-ups were so frustrated by the Avengers, that they personally started pointing out where they wanted the sentinels to be deployed next. If they'd put their trust in the intelligence of the sentinels, they might actually have won the trust of the people too."

"You see, the sentinels weren't really that much more effective than regular tanks or helicopters in battle. They had many weapons on board, but their real strength was in their ability to reason out complex plans in the blink of an eye. Because they were being forced to follow the orders of their superiors, rather than drawing plans in response to the situation, that advantage of theirs basically ceased to exist. It wasn't a competition between the Avengers and the sentinels. It was another stage of the rivalry between the Avengers and the world governments."

"That rivalry continued for about three more years, by which point the public in general trusted the Avengers much more than the sentinels, or even the government itself. Well, the world government leaders met again to decide what to do. Things weren't going their way, so rather than re-examining their tactics, and trying to find alternative solutions, they decided to simply smash the Avengers."

"The orders of the sentinels were changed, and they were instructed to hunt down and destroy any Avengers they met, using the excuse that the Avengers were a vigilante force that had to be stopped. A conglomeration of politicians, judges, and businesspeople were responsible for that decision, and it was only a matter of time before the public heard about it."

"Only a small percentage of the people in the world were pleased to hear what their governments were planning. Most people were horrified by the idea of the Avengers being killed or imprisoned, since they hadn't done anything wrong. There were only a few world governments that refused to take a militant stand against the Avengers at that point; Attilan, Atlantis, Subterra, Switzerland, Malta, the Vatican, France..."

"And Latveria." Doom concluded with a satisfied grin, which was well-concealed behind his mask.

"That's right." Widow said, "In fact, that was the first moment when the public of most of the world really saw eye to eye with you. You made your own stand at that time, saying that Latveria would be a haven if the Avengers should ever need it, and that not only were you pleased by their successes, but you'd be honored if they would treat you as one of them from that point on."

"Their victories must have been magnificent to elicit such a reaction from me." Doom said, starting to view the story with skepticism again.

"I remember the letter you sent to the world leaders word-for-word." Widow replied, "If you want, I'll recite it to you."

Doom just nodded once in reply, and soon, Widow had started reciting the apparent words of his future self.

"Naturally, I've been observing your decisions for quite some time now," Widow recited, "so it was only a matter of time before news of the vigilante agreements reached my ears. I can't say I'm too surprised to hear of you taking that tack, but I'm most displeased by this news as well. In the past, I've viewed myself as the only powerful person in the world who could be trusted, as well as the only world leader who still took action solely for the benefit of the people he governs. I've never been more convinced of the latter, or less convinced of the former than I am today."

"Though the Avengers have impeded my efforts many times in the past, I am a scientist, and I must look at this objectively. Time and time again, they've gone out into the world, doing battle with criminals, daemons, monsters, and aliens; risking their lives in a way that none of you have ever dared, and time and time again, they've saved the world on which we live, and asked for nothing in exchange."

"Though I considered them naive and misguided, I never once doubted that they were heroes, and I honored what they fought for; their wish to inspire the people of the world; to earn their trust, and in time, to help teach them the true difference between right and wrong, without the war and conquest that I've always viewed as necessities. I thought it was a fool's errand, of course, but I honored their determination, even while we fought."

"However, it's been a long time since I trusted, or felt any need to honor the leader of another nation. On the whole, I've found that leaders make far too many mistakes, not merely in terms of how to distribute the proper resources, but in trying to tell others what's right and wrong. That is not the job of a leader. No man can dictate what the right thing to do is. Reality itself does that. Empirical data alone can give us that answer. Leaders so often try to please one group, while alienating another; they bar off an opportunity which would be good for people, or adversely, more often, they afford people a freedom they do not benefit from at all, leading to debauchery, waste, and an even greater danger for those who wish to live their lives right."

"Now, after all this time, the Avengers have done something that I thought was impossible. They've earned the trust of the public, and are poised, even now, to save the world from its greatest enemy; the simple lack of responsibility among mankind. They've given people such a great example, and such an incredible sight, that even now, the people of the world are longing to cast aside many of their pleasures, and many of the ways in which they've wasted their time, and assist others instead, following in the footsteps of the Avengers."

"The people of the world are beginning to truly understand their duty as human beings. It's the best the Avengers could have hoped for, and far more than I'd dared to consider possible. With their power, responsibility, and determination, the Avengers have reached a height where their words can be heard by people all over the world. Only a few nations remain culturally-unaffected by them, and the rest are ready to take the first steps into a better, more fulfilling way of life. They've hurt no one to get where they are, and they deserve to reap the rewards of that great struggle."

"You fear the influence that the Avengers now possess; the power to inspire people in their efforts to improve themselves. That's the real reason why you rush to condemn them as criminals. You're afraid that your positions of power will be meaningless in the world from now on. You're afraid that people will no longer listen to you, to your agents, your edicts, your bills, or your administrative decisions. You're afraid that you can't convince people to live your way if the Avengers have suggested a different way of life, and you're right to be afraid. More than anyone, I've learned the folly of trying to fight against them. Don't repeat my mistakes. This is an enemy that you simply can't defeat."

"Then you signed the letter with your name." Widow said as she finished that part of the tale, "That was what you told them."

"Amazing." Doom replied, in a voice that sounded truly shocked, "I'd never have believed it, but those do sound like words of mine. It's true then? In the end, the Avengers win their victory over the world? The victory I've always wanted?"

"Something like that." Widow replied, "There were a few nations whose people were so brainwashed, that they considered the Avengers' good deeds on their behalf insulting at the beginning, but a lot has happened since then."

"I think I know which nations you mean." Doom said, "Tell me what happened, however."

"Well," Widow said, "for about two years, the Avengers were considered criminals by the U.N., but as hard as the world leaders tried, they couldn't seem to bring even a single Avenger in. Even the sentinels just weren't powerful enough to do much against the people who'd defended Earth from Galactus. The technology available to the military just wasn't that advanced. On the other hand, it meant that the Avengers and the Fantastic Four needed to build a new headquarters that could be moved at any time, and Tony Stark was on the verge of being arrested for his involvement with the Avengers, except that by that point, nobody could find any proof that he'd been funding their efforts at all."

"After those first two years, things started to get complicated. It was becoming obvious that over ninety-nine percent of the people in America were on the side of the Avengers, and most people would have rushed to defend them in a fight. By that point, people were realizing the truth; that as much as the government had denied that it was possible for such a thing to exist, America had become an oppressive democracy, with the government selected by parties, voted into office by the people, and then forcing its will on the public."

"As the sense of oppression and cultural tension in America grew to an intolerable level, you released a new technology onto the international market. It was a small device, about the size of a compact disc, and it projected a field around whoever touched it, which caused refined metal to scatter in all directions away from the person if it got too close. Essentially, your machine made bullets, and other metal weapons useless, and it was very inexpensive to produce."

"Soon, lots of people started to get hold of your machine, all over the world, and the world governments started losing their primary advantage when it came to preventing rebellions. There was still tear gas and rubber ammo, of course, but public discontent was so great that your technology, though purely defensive, led to organized attacks against the governments belonging to the U.N., on the part of the world's people."

"It was your final victory. The Avengers tried to calm people down, but it was no use. There'd been a spirit of discontent brewing in people's hearts for a long time, and it wasn't just going to go away."

"The rebellions continued for almost another year before the world governments started to collapse. Between pursuing the Avengers in vain, and trying to hold off the furious public revolutions that had started as a result, they didn't have enough resources to be anything but rich bullies, and it all ended for America when a group of rebels actually succeeded in imprisoning the president."

"Miss Marvel moved in at around that time, trying to fix the situation somehow, but it was too late to salvage the American government. By that point, the house, senate, and the White House had all been occupied by the rebels, who were receiving help from nearby citizens whenever they needed it. Miss Marvel could have forced the rebels out of Washington, but she would have needed to kill to do that, and she wasn't that desperate. The people had made their choice. She made a report to the Avengers, and the decision that they eventually reached, was that they would try to continue spreading the word about right and wrong, and in the meantime, would act to prevent as many deaths as possible."

"That choice was made just in time, as the military started to make their move on the capital as well. For a while, the Avengers had their hands full, disarming the bombs and sentinels that had been acquired by both sides, and I'm sure many more people would have died in that fight if not for them."

"Ultimately, there was a man who'd been leading rebel troops during the battle; a man who was intelligent and eloquent. He said that the government in America had stopped functioning to serve its people a long time ago, and that it was time for a new constitution to be drafted. It was time, he said, for people to start doing what was really right with their lives."

"The person's name was Peter McMann, and when people heard him speak, they wanted to make him their new leader, but he didn't want them to fall into the same trap they had before, so he simply proposed a few changes."

"'The new constitution will govern what rights the people have, and what rights they don't have, outlining them in plain, black ink, like a legal document.' McMann insisted, 'Then, anything that violates a person's rights as stated will be a crime, and a matter for the legal branch. The main purpose of the document, however, will be to describe the difference between right and wrong. There will be no compromising once the document is finished, but I know we've all learned a lot, thanks to the Avengers. I'm confident that we can arrive at the right decision when we draft this document, with their help.'"

"At the time, most of the Avengers weren't sure how to handle the situation, but I went to speak with McMann, and I told him that the problem wasn't determining right and wrong, but explaining why some things were bad, and others good; how they helped or hurt people, and why certain courses of action should be avoided. I was the only one who really accepted the rebels as a legitimate form of government from the start."

"In the end, the entire government changed before our very eyes, into a new nation, called simply 'United America,' and most of the people living in the UA were a little surprised by the change in power. The remaining news networks kept trying to spin the rebellion into some kind of horror story about terrorism, but they only swayed a few thousand people. The Bugle, ironically, was one of the few papers that actually treated the whole situation fairly, as an expression of the discontent of the American people over their own government's actions."

"Before the new constitution was even drafted, however, there'd been similar rebellions in Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and a number of other places, all of which established new leaders for each of those territories, and new documents for the protection of their citizens. As much as most newspapers wanted to insist that the revolutions were the result of a few dangerous lunatics with no sense of right or wrong, none of those countries would have held together so well if the rebellions hadn't been driven by responsible men and women, who knew what they had to do."

"Many countries adopted new names during the revolutions. A few kept the same name, but changed a lot of other things about the way the nation was governed. After a few years, it became obvious that the new rebel governments were not only stable, but were founded in much more dependable values than the previous ones had been. That was when the war against the Avengers stopped."

"The governments of the world had been slamming their heads against the Avengers for over five years by that point, and they were gradually starting to realize that it wasn't doing any permanent harm to us. Their position of power had been great, but it hadn't been great enough to challenge the will of the human race, and so many people trusted us, that when the war against us ended, there were parties all over the world."

"Over eighty-five percent of the world's countries ceased all attempts to capture or kill us, and even began adopting laws and government systems much more similar to the ones the UA was using, though usually with the same leaders at the top. That was alright, though. By that point, leaders only really served to keep society running, and make sure that all the people in charge of resources and public services were doing their jobs. They had no authority to change the laws."

"What about the remaining fifteen percent of the world's countries?" Doom asked, "What happened to them?"

"They were full of people who'd been brainwashed since childhood into thinking that all good deeds from people outside their group were offensive because they were done for an ulterior motive." Widow replied, "I'm sure you know the type of mentality I'm talking about."

Doom just nodded, encouraging Widow to continue explaining herself.

"Well, from that point on, they continued to make attacks on the world outside their nations, but only against the Avengers." Widow explained, "They seemed to be aware that they couldn't break the spirit of the rest of the world unless they could break the Avengers, and that was obviously their objective for quite a while. Of course, you must realize how that turned out."

"They failed." Doom predicted, "They failed badly, time after time, doing no lasting damage to the Avengers or the rest of the world, and every time they made an attempt, more of them were apprehended."

"Right." Widow replied, "That led to numerous wars, but the rest of the world was on reasonably good terms by that point, and they'd formed alliances with the Avengers, and based on their example. Again and again, terrorist groups and murderous extremists tried to bring down members of the Avengers, but they could never succeed against even a single member. Every time they struck out, we simply defended ourselves, and captured our attackers in our own way, but we left it to the nations of the world and their armies to retaliate against specific terrorist groups if they really wanted to. It wasn't the job of the Avengers to go to war with an enemy nation. At least, that's what most of us thought."

"However, Captain America, Thor, Namor, and the Mole Man had different perspectives. Eventually, the four of them decided to retaliate against attacks directed at them. At the time, Captain America was a little upset that the other Avengers weren't willing to respond directly to the aggression of enemy nations, and maybe he was right to be angry, but because none of us retaliated, what happened to him sent a much clearer message."

"About two weeks after he'd made that decision, Captain America was attacked by a group of seven terrorists armed with light weapons. He defeated them all, of course, and was able to tie them up within fifteen minutes of the time when the attack began, but when he brought them to the local police station, to try to have them detained, he discovered that there weren't enough cells at that station to hold his captives."

"I'm sure that must have made him feel pretty helpless, because his homeland just wasn't equipped to handle all the enemies it had. Captain America radioed for Thor, and the two of them brought the captives back to the new headquarters of the Avengers, where it became obvious that even there, there wasn't enough room for them. Captain America was pretty upset, but he was determined not to let the belligerent killers go. He dragged them onto one of the jets that the Avengers used for travel to other sections of the world, and flew out over the ocean towards Europe, making contact with you on the way."

Doom's expression softened slightly, as he heard those words.

"Lots of people still didn't completely trust you, even after all you'd said and done on behalf of the Avengers," Widow continued, "but Captain America wanted to give you a chance, and he knew he needed your help. He asked you for help in providing prison facilities for merciless terrorists, and you agreed without asking any further questions about it. Looking back on it, I'm sure that you knew exactly what Captain America was planning to do, and didn't want to get in his way."

"That very day, Captain America left his captives with you, and made his way to the nation where those terrorists had come from. He was determined to track down and imprison the entire extremist organization, as well as everyone who'd helped to promote their violent; almost nihilistic philosophy in that part of the world, and then let everyone in that country know exactly what had happened. He'd landed on their soil before the sun had even set."

"Captain America sent the other Avengers one message before he left the jet, to search for the terrorists. He told the Avengers not to look for him, and that he'd return to America in ten days. Within three days, there were news reports coming in from that section of the world. Brief outbreaks of violence had broken out, then stopped within an hour. Terrorist leaders seemed to have found there way into Latverian prisons, and more were arriving there every day."

"Captain America was massacring what little structure the terrorist group had had, and within five days of the message he'd sent to us, the remains of that group had started scattering in fear, as their leaders had vanished without a trace. Even then, however, they weren't safe. As far as I can tell, there wasn't a single one who escaped from Captain America by the end of his eighth day in that country."

"After that, however, even more people disappeared; the dictator of a neighboring nation, and several key people in his cabinet and military vanished, presumably to end up in the prisons in Latveria, and it was only then, at the end of his tenth day in that nation, that Captain America spoke to the people of that region, using a powerful radio broadcast, and a note sent to the few stable newsletters in the region."

"'Many of your people have decided that they need to scatter the people of the free world, and start killing them in order to get what they want.' Captain America said in that broadcast, 'As long as the Avengers exist, you're going to find it impossible to divide us, though, and I think you know that. That's why you attacked me. However, your attack not only failed, it provoked me into retaliating. The entire group that attacked me is imprisoned now, and I can assure you that none of them will ever hurt anyone else as long as they live. I haven't given them the satisfaction of a death in battle, and I haven't let them kill anyone else as I've been abducting them, but my greatest victory of all is that as I've been doing these things, this whole time, it's been very, very easy.'"

"'Maybe you're under some kind of false impression about the position you're in at this point. You want to kill your enemies? You want to die in battle? Sorry, but you don't get that choice. I'm one of the least powerful members of the Avengers, and I can afford to threaten you all by saying that if another attempt is made on my life, I'll come right back here and do the same thing all over again. I'll gather you up like spilled coins, and then you'll be at my mercy, and not one of you will have the chance to kill or be killed. You don't live in that kind of world anymore. Like it or not, you're going to be living in peace from now on. The only choice you get is whether you want to live in peace in your homeland, or in a cell in some far-off country you've never visited.'"

"'I don't care who you are, and I don't care who you think you serve. I'm Captain America. I represent a world of freedom and peace, and you're not going to overcome me or any of the other Avengers. You're too weak.'"

"Of course, everyone all over the world heard Captain America's message, and while a few in the free world found the message a little scary, the ones who were really terrified by it were the leaders and extremists of the enemy nations. Many of their teachers and authority figures had been captured during Captain America's initial assault, and for the first time, those nations hesitated on the brink of war, because they knew that Captain America had been telling the truth."

"I'm sure Captain America's words had been intended to get a reaction, rather than being an expression of any real contempt, but it doesn't really matter. He got pretty much the best reaction he could have hoped for, because there was a three-month pause in the fighting in all of the nations of the world that hadn't made peace with each other."

"For hundreds of years, they'd mercilessly made war on anyone who wasn't part of their group, teaching their children that all outsiders and nonbelievers had been cursed, and had to be killed. The bloodthirsty, violent mentality that had been created by those teachings had led them into war after war, multiplying, killing and being killed with brutal efficiency, and always having just enough time to pass the hate and violence on to another generation."

"They were used to the idea of fighting with an enemy that could kill them, and everyone they knew with the push of a button, but the Avengers were a different sort of enemy entirely. Suddenly, there was an enemy who no effort seemed to be able to overcome; whose weakest member could overcome their best operatives with ease, hunt them down, and force them to remain alive when the battle was over. It was, for them, the grimmest possible situation, and they made a number of choices as a result of that."

"A lot of extremist groups died unexpectedly at around that time, seemingly at each other's throats. Others continued trying to organize standard efforts against the Avengers after the end of the three-month period, while joining forces with other groups in an attempt to defend themselves from retaliation. It didn't work. The Mole Man proceeded to capture three separate alliances of that sort by himself, before typical attacks like those stopped completely. After that, there was one more tactic that had to be dealt with, though."

"About eight percent of the nations left in the world still couldn't accept the idea of living in peace with us, so they started working together with the Hand, and a few of our other old enemies, to attempt to design some means of creating artificial metahuman powers. We hunted them down, but eventually, they were successful in creating a few new metahumans, devoted completely to destroying the people who thought that it was alright to live peacefully, starting with the Avengers."

"Thor and Miss Marvel descended on them at once, while Ghost Rider, myself, and a few others started rounding up the last of the people behind the militant movements in the enemy nations. By that point, Captain America had thrown down the gauntlet, and we knew that we had to commit, and start doing our part to put an end to that last big conflict, which we referred to as the fourth World War. We succeeded eventually, rounding up the people who'd been in charge of the superhuman experiments, and defeating, then imprisoning the few metahumans they'd successfully created. By that point, all of the Avengers were convinced of your good intentions, Doom. You'd been accepted, not only as an ally, but as one of the Avengers yourself."

"There was just one problem. The machine that the terrorist leaders had used to create their own superhumans had been hidden somewhere, and none of us were able to find it. The terrorist leaders, though they'd been captured, along with most of their followers, insisted on threatening us; telling us that in time, others would discover the machine, and a new wave of superhuman power would sweep us all away. I doubted that the threat was really as serious as he claimed, but still, I didn't want to leave such a dangerous weapon just lying around. The problem was, I didn't have any sure means of tracking it down."

"However, there was one factor that none of us had dared to count on for help. Ever since the fight with Galactus, the Silver Surfer had been near the Earth, and traveling across the solar system, having apparently lost the ability to reach other star systems. He'd made contact with numerous people since the departure of Galactus from planet Earth, but he'd never taken any action to help one side in a conflict, or to oppose another side. He'd seemed very much like a pacifist to the casual observer, refusing to take part in any conflict between one group of human beings and another. However, thanks to a young lady from New York, who the surfer had once confided in, I knew a few things about his history that led me to believe otherwise."

"The surfer originally came from a planet called Zenn-La, which, it seems, was beautiful and serene. His people had lived in peace for a long time before he'd even been born, and it seems that they'd perfected a system of teaching their children proper values through love and discipline. Eventually, the children learned the futility of violence, the dignity of hard work, the joy of accomplishments, and the beauty of nature. They learned to love all the peaceful, pleasant sensations that they experienced in a spiritual sense, which, combined with their continuing determination to work hard for their own good, and a commitment to generosity, led each and every one of them to fulfillment and enlightenment by the time they were thirty, and most discovered those things before that time."

"That was the reason why the Surfer chose to pass judgment on Earth originally. In spite of all the horrors he'd witnessed, he was still viewing the universe from the perspective of the high values that he'd held on his own homeworld."

"When the Silver Surfer heard about the device that was threatening our chances for peace, he immediately took action, using his inhuman senses to track it down, then destroying it with his power cosmic. We hadn't expected him to help us, because as far as we knew, he never had in the past, but when he delivered the final blow to our enemies, we knew that we had to at least talk to him."

"Eventually, Miss Marvel was able to find the Silver Surfer, and the two had a discussion, in which she asked, more that once, if he'd be willing to join the Avengers. It took him a while, but eventually, he agreed, saying that he wanted the chance to enjoy a life of peace, but that even on Zenn-La, there had been some who'd needed to learn the art of war, so that peace could be maintained."

"He had so much power, he said, that it would have just been selfish to refuse, and from that point, he came to be known as one of the most respected members of the Avengers."

"After that, a lot happened. Terrorist groups either died off or dissolved, evil religious dogmas faded into thin air, as people realized that there was no way for them to be fulfilled, and after about fifteen more years, a single alliance was honored by every authority and legal system worldwide. Not every authority answered to that one alliance, but they all treated it with respect."

"Of course, even in the time I come from; eighty years into your future, people are still people, and there are still crimes to be solved, but at least the world governments seem to be doing their job, for the moment. A lot of careful dividing of resources has led to a significant decrease in starvation over the last fifty years alone, and of course, the crime rate isn't what it was. Terrorism is virtually dead, since nobody's gotten away with it for several decades, and political corruption is limited, since politicians have no real power over the laws. Even the judges seem to be mostly behaving themselves, and it's become illegal to teach anything in public schools unless it has a potential usefulness of some sort that can be proven to exist."

"Based on that, most theoretical sciences are saved for college, while the so-called 'health classes' of your time period have faded away into nothing, being replaced by physical education classes again. Of course, what really matters is that people finally have the chance to work together in peace, without killing each other, or feeling as if they've contributed to killings. There are still divisions, even in the time I come from, of course. People argue with each other over ideologies, religions and philosophies, but in doesn't escalate into violence, because there's no opportunity for it. They know they can't take things that far."

After she'd finished explaining all that, Widow fell silent, and Doom spent several seconds contemplating what she'd just told him.

"Yes..." Doom admitted, "That's a very hopeful tale you've told me. Still, you know that I have to view it as nothing more than that; just a tale. I can't be certain that any of that will happen in my future."

"You'll only be certain when it actually does start to happen in eight years," Widow replied, "but for right now, I need your help."

"Alright." Doom said, allowing his muscles to relax just a little, "What do you need my help with?"

"In two weeks, Anna-Marie Darkholme is going to be sentenced to an imprisonment term of eighty years without any news of the outside world." Widow explained, "It's something like solitary confinement, except that the Avengers will be in charge of it, since the government doesn't have the resources to keep her imprisoned."

"In my time period, Anna Marie finished her prison term, then immediately flew off towards Westchester. She found, at the time, that the X-men she'd known were long-dead, and that the Xavier Institute was being run by a mutant named Bishop, who was an heir to Xavier's legacy of teaching mutants to coexist peacefully with the rest of humanity. As a mutant herself, Anna might have welcomed the chance to learn from Bishop, but instead, she took off for Latveria, and broke into your castle while you were away, using your time machine to reach this point in history. I'm convinced that there's something about the past that she wants to change, but I'm not sure what it is, exactly. Of course, whatever it is, we have to stop her."

Doom seemed to be thinking about that carefully for a while, but at last, he shook his head.

"You're forgetting the issue of my longevity, and subsequent acceptance of your accomplishments." Doom said, "I wasn't aware that time travel could be used that way, but it seems that traveling through time doesn't necessarily endanger the present timeline."

"What?" Widow asked, finally starting to look confused, "Are you referring to the concept of a temporal paradox?"

"Yes." Doom replied, "It's the greatest possible danger in time travel. As I'm sure you know, a temporal paradox is when someone alters the past in such a way that it changes their own past, preventing them from traveling back in time to begin with. They go back in time, therefore they don't, therefore they do, etc, with each timeline looping into the other. Since our perceptions of time can't proceed past a certain point, without looping into the other timeline, time as we know it ceases to pass at all, and the universe would come to a very abrupt end. That, in turn, might cause a reverse causality backlash that would prevent the universe from ever having come into being, due to the annihilation of the eventual cosmic black hole that causes matter to travel forward through time."

Finally, Widow was out of her depth. Doom had clearly thought much more deeply about temporal theory than she had. In terms of strategy, determination and cunning, Widow was the closest thing Doom had to an equal, but he was definitely superior in his understanding of science.

"However, my experiences with time travel have, so far, taught me that temporal paradoxes aren't such easy things to stumble upon." Doom explained, "The first time that I used time travel, I went back in time to the days of Blackbeard the pirate, and received from him the Obsidian Stone. In the process of retrieving it, we were attacked, and two of his ships were lost. Even so, I got what I'd been after, and nothing about the history books changed from what I remembered reading. To me, this says one thing; the universe has some means of defending itself from temporal paradoxes. When you told me about how I discovered the secret of your lifespan, that only reinforced me in my believe that the universe is fully capable of protecting itself from any meddling with time that we might do. I've suspected it for quite a while, but now I'm certain of it."

"Maybe the universe is," Widow replied, "but I'm not the universe, and neither is the human race. If Anna's presence here does something to upset the future that I come from at this pivotal period in history, it could change everything that I remember happening in my timeline. We could lose the peace that we had to work so long and hard to acquire. Do you really want to risk giving up on that, Doom?"

Doom closed both of his eyes in thought for just a moment, and when he spoke, there was a note of amusement in his voice.

"In other words," Doom said aloud, pleased by the situation he'd found himself in, "You're asking me to help you save the world."

"Yes." Widow insisted, "This might be the only hope that mankind has for peace, and I need your help to make it work out. Will you help me, Doom?"

Doom didn't feel even the least bit reserved as he replied, "It's what I've wanted to do my whole life."

Within ten minutes, Doom and Widow were traveling out from his castle in an aircraft of his own design. Widow had gotten back the equipment that had been taken from her when she'd been captured, and she was already using a small device to track large energy signatures all over planet Earth. Though he was busy piloting the aircraft, Doom took a moment to notice Widow's machine. It had a display screen, with what looked like a map of the world on it, and there were several bright lights scattered across that map, with four in particular that stood out.

"The biggest one is the Silver Surfer." Widow explained aloud, as she held her device out at arm's length for Doom to see, "He's not involved right now. The two in Manhattan have to be Thor, and the Anna from your time, and that means that the last one is the Anna Marie from my time period."

"Where is she?" Doom asked, glancing at Widow for a moment, but unable to read the display from where he was.

"From the looks of things... Westchester. Graymalkin Lane. That's the Xavier Institute." Widow replied, though even she couldn't suppress a feeling of worry as she realized that. Anna had attacked the X-men quite a few times before the arrival of Galactus, and if she was going after them again, it could seriously compromise the safety of Widow's timeline. The X-men had played a large part in saving the Avengers from a number of scrapes in her past; Doom's future. If Anna managed to wipe them out somehow, she'd end up destroying any chance to preserve the timeline.

Those were Widow's thoughts as she and Doom headed towards Westchester, and the girl who'd suddenly become so dangerous to the whole human race.

Laurie Banks wasn't feeling safe as she sat down to her computer that evening. There was nothing terribly strange about that, of course. It had been a while since she'd really felt safe, because she was unemployed. She'd been living off her savings for over a year, and it didn't seem likely that a wealth of job opportunities would open themselves to her in the meantime, which was a little sad, because that was what she would have needed. Laurie was a person with a lot of strong moral hang-ups. It was the reason she'd left her last job, and it was what was keeping her from finding a new one, but even if she starved to death, Laurie could never have turned her back on her morals. That was just the kind of person she was.

Having paid the rent once more, Laurie sat down to her laptop computer, with its built-in, wireless modem, and connected to the internet. The day had been hard for her, doing odd jobs for her neighbors, and chores for herself, but sitting down to her computer, about to start typing messages to others on the internet, Laurie's worries started to feel less important, as if she could just seclude herself away from them, though she knew that in reality, that was impossible.

In only a short time, Laurie had logged onto her favorite message board, called "The Mortal Dreamer's Board," which she visited several times a week when she could. It seemed to have been written by people with high ideals and big dreams, with the intention of attracting other such people. However, when Laurie had first started posting there, very few of the other posters had seen eye to eye with her. In fact, she'd shocked many of them quite a bit with her posts from day one.

"The first thing people need is a firm sense of reason, and a strong emotional attachment to morality." she'd posted in her first minute on the site, "They need to know what it means to walk through grass barefoot, breathe in the scent of life from the world around them, and coexist with less intelligent animals or plants, nurturing and helping them. If everyone could do that, they'd have an easier time appreciating how precious life is, and they'd probably be a lot more ready to cope with one another too."

Several people had responded to Laurie's first posts, telling her that was impossible or stupid, and that she was being too sentimental and soft, but one person, much more recently, had replied to say that he understood what she was saying completely, and demonstrated that understanding by expanding on those points. The other poster had then expressed, scientifically, that humans, and all other living things shared many common types of energy, which fed the universe itself from, the smallest being to the greatest, and that the human inability to accept its common brotherhood with the rest of the world, and indeed, the rest of existence, was the source of many of their own problems. Laurie could tell at once that she was going to like speaking to that person, whose screen name was "Starpoet5."

Laurie had been talking off and on with Starpoet5 for something in the neighborhood of a month, before one message on the board caught her eye.

"I've heard enough." Starpoet5 had posted, "I'm convinced that what you really want is a better world; a more fulfilled and pure world, or at least a place to live, which doesn't imprison those who want to live their lives justly."

"Yes." Laurie had replied to that with her next post, "That's exactly what I want. It's what I need. People will destroy you if you try to be compassionate and righteous. A better world is what's really needed."

"Or several worlds like that." was the reply, "You've convinced me of your sincere intentions. I'll try to find you."

Of course, Laurie may have been a dreamer, but she wasn't naive. At once, an image popped into her head of a man with a backpack and a beard; hitchhiking across the country in search of her, and even if Starpoet5 turned out to be trustworthy, that wasn't an image she liked, so Laurie replied to his post as quickly as she could.

"Sorry, but I never give out my address."

The reply she got to that, only moments later was brief and more than a little worrying, however.

"It's not necessary."

"Not necessary?" Laurie wondered aloud, as she stared at the screen in blank astonishment. How could it not be necessary? There was no way for him to find her without knowing her address, or if there was, it was a scary thought. Laurie wasn't sure how computer viruses worked, exactly. She suspected it wasn't possible to track a person down using one, but she wasn't sure enough to feel comfortable with the idea of someone over the internet telling her that he could find her without an address. Starpoet5 had seemed like Laurie's only real friend for quite a while, but suddenly, she was a little scared of him.

However, very shortly, Laurie's fear of the internet poster faded into nothingness, as she heard a noise outside of her window, that sounded like a very far-off whistling sound. The noise seemed to build after a while, as if it were getting closer to her, but still, nothing could have prepared her when the entire wall of her apartment started to change in consistency, rippling as she sat there, watching in terror. Laurie thought about getting up, running, or trying to get out of that apartment, but she was too scared by what she was seeing. She'd never seen anything quite like it before.

As Laurie watched the spectacle, held in place by fear, an object began to emerge into her room. It was big, thin, and silver, and after just a moment or two, she could see that there was a man riding on it; a man who was just as silver-colored as the board on which he rode. It was only then, as the apartment wall once again took on the consistency of hard wood and plaster, that Laurie started to realize what was really happening, and just who'd taken an interest in her. Like everyone, Laurie had heard of the Silver Surfer, but she'd never actually seen him in person before, and she was surprised and worried that she'd somehow drawn his attention.

"I'm sorry if my means of arrival surprised you." the Silver Surfer said in a shockingly-compassionate voice, as he noticed that she'd fallen from her chair in terror, "May I help you up?"

As the beautiful, majestic figure spoke, his gleaming, silver hand moved out towards her, and for a moment, all she could do was stare at its lustrous sheen, but at last, she reached out her own hand and took his, just a bit thankful for the assistance. Her reaction to his presence seemed to have cheered him up a little as well. At last, when Laurie was standing upright, the surfer dismounted from his board, and it floated, unattended, into one corner of the room.

"I... I never expected to meet you." Laurie stammered a little nervously, still not sure what to say to the former cosmic emissary, who was standing right in front of her, in the middle of her own apartment.

"Your words of compassion and good sense moved me." the Silver Surfer replied, "I had to seek you out. You're very different from other human beings, Laurie. You actually crave a better world, and believe that it can come about. Those traits are rare and precious. They should be treasured."

Laurie had always expected the Silver Surfer's voice to sound intimidating or threatening, considering how many people viewed him as a menace to society, but it was light, smooth, measured, and he sounded very young. In fact, his voice sounded boyish, in a way; almost like a teenager; unconcerned with the struggle for masculinity experienced by Earth-boys. His voice seemed so beautiful and light, that for a moment, Laurie hadn't really caught what he'd said.

"You mean you're Starpoet5?" She asked, stunned.

"That's right." the surfer said with a simple nod.

"I didn't even know you had a computer." Laurie remarked in amazement, forming a funny mental picture of the surfer trying to sit and type, but he just smiled in a jovial way, before he responded to that.

"I don't need a computer to interface with your networks." the surfer said, "I can access the internet by altering energy impulses with my power cosmic."

"That's amazing." Laurie replied, truly stunned, "Why... Why did you... I mean, I know you said you felt moved, but..."

For a few moments, the surfer's smile faltered, and he said nothing, but after about fifteen seconds, he spoke, looking a bit depressed.

"For many years, I've been alone; forced to do a job that I found repulsive and depressing without the comfort of another sentient being to confirm or reprimand me. On a night like this one, when the stars are most visible, I often wish for someone to speak to under the skies of a world. Over this last month, I've learned to trust your judgment, and the emotions that you feel also ring within my soul. If you don't mind, I'll like to talk with you about a few things."

Laurie was flabbergasted to suddenly find herself in such a position. The Silver Surfer might have been the most powerful person on Earth, and he was asking her for her advice. Laurie knew that she might never find herself in another position quite like that one, in which she had the chance to truly socialize with such a strong and influential being. The feelings that flowed through her in that moment were many and powerful. They came in so many different types, that she could barely count them all, and each was enormously strong. She couldn't say no to his request. Laurie just nodded for the moment, and the surfer seemed to take the nod in the way it was intended.

"Alright." the surfer said, the hint of a smile returning to his face, "The first question I want to ask is this; you must know at least part of what happened a month ago; the arrival of Galactus, and the way the Avengers succeeded in driving him back. Since then, I've been on and around the planet Earth for one of your months. Knowing all of that, what do you think of me?"

That was a big question to ask all at once, and Laurie wasn't quite sure how to answer it at first, but after thinking about it for just a moment, she opened her mouth to speak.

"Well, you helped the Avengers draw up their plans to get rid of Galactus, and you haven't hurt anyone since then." Laurie explained gradually, "On the other hand, you also drew Galactus towards Earth to begin with, and a lot of people think that makes you evil."

"Yes." the surfer acknowledged, with what looked like a sort of calm patience, "I know what those people think, but what do you think of me?"

That was the real question, of course, and it was the hardest one for Laurie to answer. For a while, she'd been a little scared of the Silver Surfer, just because of the power he possessed, and the fact that, at one time, he'd seemed willing to sacrifice the entire planet. There'd been a coldness to that fact, that she couldn't just ignore. Still, in the end, the surfer had decided to help the people of Earth fight against the world-devourer, and that was positive. Not only that, but if the Silver Surfer really was Starpoet5, and he really did feel all of the things he'd said that he felt, then it may have just been the frequent repression of good moral conduct in Earth's people that had shocked him into making such a dangerous decision at first. People had a tendency to ignore their place in the universe; to spurn morals and good sense, when they thought they could get pleasure, and even to infringe on the rights of other human beings if they enjoyed it, frequently using the word "freedom" as a banner.

There were a lot of potential reasons for jumping to the premature conclusion that the world wasn't worth saving. Laurie had noticed quite a few of them herself. In that respect, it seemed like the surfer might not really be so bad. He might, in fact, be a kindred spirit.

"It's complicated." Laurie responded at last, "You make me a little nervous, and I'm not sure why you made some of the choices you did in the past, but I guess the real reason why you made me so nervous just now is the way you burst into my apartment like you owned the place."

"Ownership shouldn't be a barrier between people." the surfer replied, though he sounded a little sad as he spoke, "It shouldn't serve to divide people from their fellow man. People should be generous with each other, without so much concern for their own possessions. That's what you said you believed in."

Laurie recognized those words, because she'd posted them herself on the very message board that both of them had frequented; the one where they'd met and become pen pals, in a sense. They were, she knew, words that she believed in, or at least, had always wanted to be able to believe in. It stunned her to hear the surfer reciting them like some kind of biblical passage.

"Are you saying that you believe that too?" Laurie asked, still amazed by the surfer's openness.

"Perhaps more than anyone on this world does." the surfer replied, "On my homeworld of Zenn-La, the claiming of property as a personal possession was permitted, but rarely done. My people just didn't want to divide themselves that way; into haves and have-nots."

"So you really believed in the things I was saying..." Laurie muttered in amazement, "In that case, I have to ask you something. When you first came to Earth, you tried to evaluate the human race, and you ended up passing judgment on us. Why?"

The Silver Surfer looked a little remorseful when he heard that question, and for a few moments, it seemed that even he had a hard time explaining all of his reasons.

"Galactus was going to enter this galaxy within three of your months, and at that range, he would have been able to sense your electronic signals to each other." the surfer started to explain, "There was always a risk of him learning of your existence, even without my help, and failing to trust me after that. I was afraid that if he didn't trust me, I'd never be able to save another world from him again, and I'd decided that I had the right to choose who lived and who died. That was my mistake, and I know I can never make up for it."

"Well, what I mean is," Laurie replied, trying to clarify her position, "Why did you eventually rule against the human race?"

"I didn't want to be like Galactus, and kill indiscriminately..." the surfer began, "which meant that I needed to come up with some very clear criteria for mercy. I was a person who loved planets, stars, and even empty space. It all seemed like a wonderful, unified force. Even once I learned the role that Galactus played in the universe, I was never any less compassionate, and I always felt some sadness over the loss of any planet."

"However," the surfer continued, "I eventually decided that I had a special attachment to intelligent life; people who were able to think and reason, and could make loving and wise decisions, as individuals, and as part of communities. Because of the danger of Galactus finding the Earth, even without my help, I'm afraid that my judgment was a bit harsher than normal, but my judgments were never light, because I compared each world I encountered to Zenn-La."

"When I guaged your world's strengths and weaknesses, I was drawing a comparison to a planet several thousand years more advanced than your own. That may be the reason I chose not to try to save your planet at first. I was shocked and appalled by the need and selfishness of planet Earth; the meaningless hatreds, the misinformed prejudices and the killing. The killing was the worst of all. I was horrified, and I reacted in horror. I know you've experienced similar feelings of revulsion over the viler deeds of your fellow man."

Laurie nodded. Initial revulsion, followed by the realization that life was still worth living were things she had lots of experience feeling. The only reason those feelings had been so much more dangerous in the surfer was because of his great powers. In that moment, Laurie realized that she and the Silver Surfer really were alike in many ways, and that was when she began to trust him.

"There's a great deal more I'd still like to talk about, if you don't mind..." the surfer remarked, "Would you like to go for a short flight? This environment is a very confining one for discussion."

It was definitely an odd and worrying offer. Laurie couldn't be sure what the surfer had planned, but when it came down to it, she'd been powerless ever since he'd entered her room, and going for a flight did sound like it might be fun.

Laurie Banks gasped aloud as the clouds whipped by around them. She could feel only a very light breeze passing through the shield that surrounded the surfer's board. It was just enough to make her hair and clothes flap a bit in the wind, and yet, according to the surfer, it was still more of a breeze than he usually allowed through. He'd been modifying that to deliver the best total experience, he said, though she wasn't sure why he'd gone to such trouble just for her. The fact that the board seemed to have its own gravitational pull really helped Laurie to keep her balance. She could lean into the wind with both arms outstretched, and enjoy the delightful experience of flight, and there was no danger of her falling off the board.

For nearly an hour, the two flew through the city. Laurie knew that the surfer could have passed effortlessly through any buildings they neared, but instead, he weaved between them for a while, as if just for fun, his board rising further upwards all the time.

At last, the two broke free of the city, in full view of the starry sky above, and there, their movement seemed to have slowed for a bit. The ground had passed by underneath them, but the stars remained the same; looking, if anything, brighter than usual. Without the glare of the lights below in the city, they were more vibrant and distinct than Laurie had ever seen them, and for a moment, she thought that that sight of the starry sky alone had been the best experience of the night.

"That was once my home." the Surfer said, as his board descended slowly over the countryside, many miles from New York, weaving in between scattered trees as he spoke, and spooking a few turkeys, which were wandering through the underbrush, "The stars were beautiful and open to me, and I loved it all, but I gave it up, because I knew I couldn't keep causing death."

The surfer's board had drifted parallel to the ground for a while by that point, upsetting quite a few wild animals, among them coyotes, birds, squirrels, and one grisly bear, before he sped up, moving several miles distance in what seemed like the blink of an eye, to a ridge on a mountain, where no cities had ever been built. Laurie wasn't even sure where the two of them were by that point, though she suspected it was somewhere in New Hampshire, or Maine.

At last, the Surfer's board alighted on a mountainside; a place where there were no tree branches to obscure the full view of the starry sky, and there, he got off the board, waiting for a few seconds. She wasn't sure what to do at first, but eventually, Laurie got off as well, standing on that mountainside with him.

"This is a good place to talk." the surfer observed, looking around the mountainside in interest, "It reminds me of the mountains on Zenn-La; the strong ground that rose above the cities. I didn't spend much time on them, I'm afraid, but I've had the chance to learn appreciation for mountains since then."

"What did you want to talk about?" Laurie asked, as she walked towards the surfer, a little nervous, but no longer afraid of him.

"Tell me something..." the surfer said, "What's happened to you in your life? How did your life begin? What things have happened to shape it?"

Laurie definitely couldn't see the reason for that question, but she answered it very briefly, "Well, I was born in New York, and I've lived there all my life."

The surfer, however, shook his head.

"You have a will of iron, to devote to your morals, and a yearning for justice, trust, and love. Very few people have those things. They've motivated you to dream of a better world. Why?"

For a moment, Laurie didn't even understand the question, so she repeated it to herself in her head, over and over again. The yearning for justice... Her morals... How had they led her to the message board where she'd met the Silver Surfer? Why did she long so desperately for a better world?

"It's because I've been hurt by this one." Laurie explained, "It forced me out, because I wouldn't compromise myself. I wanted a better world, so that I didn't have to worry about that happening."

For a moment, the Silver Surfer just looked intrigued, captivated, and astonished, although Laurie couldn't see his pupils, and couldn't tell what, exactly, he was looking at.

"Tell me what happened." the surfer said, and there was deep sorrow and compassion in his voice as he spoke.

For a few moments, Laurie was silent, but finally, she decided that there was no good reason for not telling the Silver Surfer. He could have found out by himself if he'd wanted to.

"Alright." Laurie said, "The truth is... Until about a year ago, I was an elementary school teacher. I could have worked in high school, or middle school, but I picked elementary school, because I thought that I could make a bigger difference there. Very young kids are more impressionable, and easier to work with. They sometimes listen to the teacher, and it doesn't take all that much coaxing to get them to do what you say. I wanted to help the kids learn what they needed to know; not just basic skills, like reading and writing, but also the difference between right and wrong. As far as I could tell, it was the best way that I could help the people of America."

The surfer just nodded, encouraging Laurie to continue.

"Unfortunately, there were laws passed several years ago that forced certain things on the schools. I kept getting messages from the superintendent about my methods of teaching. You see, the government had managed to pass a bunch of laws that forced teachers in public schools to avoid teachings about morals, and to teach propaganda cooked up by the government instead. That alone took away everything I'd ever wanted from my teaching position, but on top of that, they wanted me to teach children that their parents and grandparents were bigots, for believing in morals that the government didn't."

"I wasn't going to accept that. Eventually, I met with the school principal about it, and he told me that I had to make a choice. Either I had to teach what the government told me to teach, or else, I had to give up my position, and try to find work doing something else. For me, that choice wasn't hard. I couldn't teach children things that I knew were wrong, no matter what kind of financial problems I was hit with as a result. I walked out that door for the last time an hour later, and I haven't had work since then."

"That's terrible." the surfer replied, looking crestfallen, "To be cast out like that, without any chance to contribute to the wellbeing of your people is a horrible thing. I can't imagine anything worse than being abandoned like that..."

"It was pretty hard to accept, at first," Laurie admitted, "but I know I couldn't have made my choice any differently. I wouldn't go back and change it. I think the government is wrong. I can't compromise myself, and I can't compromise on what's taught to children."

"Your courage is admirable." the surfer replied with a smile, "I made a similar choice when I decided to leave the service of Galactus. I've known for a long time that what I've been doing hasn't been right, but I hadn't seen the alternative as being any better, until about a month ago. That was when I made my choice, and I wouldn't take it back."

"Tell me something, Surfer..." Laurie said, curiosity building in her as she stood on that hillside, illuminated only by the moon and stars, "What's your real name?"

The surfer looked a little surprised by the question, but he answered it quickly.

"My name is Norin." the surfer replied, "My second name is Radd."

"You mean your last name." Laurie said, as she tried to clarify what the surfer was telling her.

"No..." the surfer muttered a little, as if trying to search for some way to explain the concept, "My people were given two names, to distinguish themselves from one another, but our second names were very different from the last names of your world. On your world, last names are used to denote heritage, and the family from which one hails. On Zenn-La, we were all family to each other, so last names weren't necessary as such. A closer comparison would be to the middle name concept that you use here on Earth. Both names were given to the child just shortly after the gender was identified, and each was distinct from the names of their parents, and other close relatives. Zenn-La was a place of great trust and joy."

"I can tell..." Laurie replied, though she honestly had a hard time even imagining such a place. After a while, she spoke up again, though she wasn't sure how to phrase her next question precisely.

"Is there anything from your world that you really miss?" Laurie asked.

"The wonders and advancements of Zenn-La were great, and I don't feel the same without them in my life, no matter how advanced my own technology might be." the surfer admitted, with an expression of tender, vulnerable sorrow, "but it's more the people of Zenn-La, than the things that I miss. The people of my homeworld were different from the vast majority of Earthlings. I can't even describe to you their strength of heart, their compassion, or their powerful minds. In my time spent on this planet, you're one of only a few who remind me of my own people."

"If it was so wonderful there, why did you leave?" Laurie blurted out, before she could stop herself. She hadn't meant for the question to sound challenging or offensive, but the surfer looked a little hurt when she'd asked it.

"I had no other choice." he said, "If I hadn't left Zenn-La, I would have died there."

Laurie looked taken aback by that reply, but the surfer just started to smile wryly, taking a seat on a nearby stone, as he began to tell his story in brief.

"My life on Zenn-La was rich with all that I could want. The laws of my world were complex and multifaceted, but outlined clearly and indelibly, as if in stone, and we were restrained, taught, and protected by those laws, which is just what laws should do. We were never hungry, thirsty, or homeless, because we had the technology to warp the shape of physical matter, creating whatever we needed. Even so, we worked hard for each other's benefit, because that was a need as well. Pleasure alone would never have satisfied us, so each of us had a task to perform. Mine was to maintain old machines, in case they should be needed again some day."

"I had a person who I loved more than any other on Zenn-La. She was what you might call a girlfriend. Her names were Shalla and Bal. I cared for her very much."

"Was she very beautiful?" Laurie asked, though that question seemed to cause the surfer to raise one eyebrow.

"By her own standards, yes. I found her beautiful as well, partly because of her great compassion, and her firm commitment to her beliefs. I suppose we were all beautiful to ourselves, though by human standards, I wouldn't say that she was especially attractive. The people of Zenn-La had a broader perspective on beauty than mainstream human society seems to."

Laurie wasn't insulted, however. She just nodded, understanding Norin completely.

"I know what you mean." she muttered.

"However, all of that was endangered when Galactus arrived in our star system." the surfer explained, his face taking on a look of anguish, as Laurie started to feel surprised. She hadn't known much about Galactus, but she'd suspected that his origin had been somehow tied into that of the surfer himself. Obviously, that wasn't the case.

"Yes." the surfer admitted, "I've been alive for a long time; by human standards; maybe even longer than your whole species, but as old as I am, Galactus is many thousands of times older. To trace his age, trace the age of the universe. Since physical existence as we know it first began, Galactus has always been there, and he was always needed to keep everything in balance; the end that makes the beginning of all physical matter self-sufficient, and gives it purpose. He's a true cosmic being."

"When Galactus visited my world, it was for the same reason that he visits any world." the surfer said sadly, "He'd meant to consume the energy of our world, and the star around which we orbited. The people of Zenn-La were helpless before him. We didn't have any ships or weapons, or any knowledge of how to use them, not that they would have made much difference against Galactus anyway. There was no resisting him by force."

"Most people just gave up when they realized what Galactus' intentions were. I was the only one on the whole planet, I'm ashamed to say, who even really wanted to fight Galactus; to give him something to remember the people of Zenn-La by."

"I built a ship for myself within only a few minutes, using my world's technology, and I approached the ship of Galactus as fast as I could. I was surprised, however, when he actually admitted me into his vessel, before I could fire off a single shot."

"As I was drawn into his world ship, my own vessel dissolved around me, leaving me without anything better than my fists to defend myself with. Suddenly, I found myself at the feet of the enormous, shining being called Galactus. At the time, he addressed me directly, telling me his name and his intentions. I'll never forget what he said to me."

"'Don't bother trying to speak. Your words would be meaningless, since I'm already aware of your reason for approaching my ship. Rest assured that I, Galactus, am not here to take any petty, mortal treasure or possession from you. What I need is the energy of your planet and star system, to sustain myself, and to support the balance of the universe. There's nothing more valuable to me than that precious energy, nor will I accept any bribe. No being in the universe can prevent me from absorbing the energy of rich systems like your own. It's inevitable.'"

"'You're only a mortal. There's nothing that you can do to stop me, though since you value your life enough to pursue me here, I see no reason not to let you stay aboard my ship for the moment. I warn you, however, that as long as you're aboard my vessel, you'll need to be present at the death of this world and many others, and watch great suffering, which only I know how to endure. You may find that too much to bear, in time, until even death might seem like a mercy."

"Well, what could I say?" the surfer asked, "Those words scared me out of my wits, but I hadn't gone to Galactus' ship to escape death for myself, but to save my world, and I made sure to tell him so. I told him that he could do whatever he wanted with me, but that he had to spare my world in exchange. My words seemed to bore him, however."

"'If only it were that simple.' Galactus replied to me, 'If one man's death could generate the energy that I need, I would indeed accept your offer, but you have nothing to offer me that could compare to the power of this star system.'"

"I was starting to get desperate by that point, so I tried to reason with him. I told him that with his wisdom, there had to be another solution. Surely, I told him, there must be other star systems; even stronger ones, with no intelligent life in them. He took my suggestion calmly, and then, he spoke to me again."

"'True.' Galactus told me, 'The stars in this universe number in the trillions, and the vast majority of them are uninhabited by intelligent beings. However, when I reach a system that has intelligent life, I can't simply pass it by, in the hopes that the next one will be more acceptable. I need to take energy where I can find it. If a system is rich, I need to consume it, because moving my ship consumes a great deal of energy by itself. To detect and reach a star strong enough to be worth the journey is a hard enough task. I can't afford to be wasteful.'"

"However, that was when Galactus made me his offer," the surfer continued, "I knew as soon as I heard it that I had to accept. He told me that if there were someone he could trust, to share his power cosmic with, he would give them the power to move through the star systems; the speed to search a thousand systems, using the same amount of energy that it would take him to reach only one. He said that if such a person existed, to summon him to the worlds richest in energy, they might save countless intelligent races from extinction at his hands."

"Neither of us were under any illusions about the offer that he was really making me that night. I asked him if he'd spare my world if I agreed to become his emissary, but the question wasn't necessary. He said that for the mortal who was able to live life as his emissary, he'd grant any single favor, including the life of an entire star system."

"I accepted his offer without hesitation, and I took up the mantle of his emissary. That was when I was merged with this armor that you see all over me, and with the board that I can use as an extension of myself."

"After that, I made only a brief trip back to the surface of Zenn-La, to say good-bye to my beloved Shalla Bal for the last time. Her tears spoke volumes to me. She knew that after that day, she'd never see me again, and I had no way to comfort her. I told her not to be afraid, because our world was safe, but I could tell that her love for me, and her pain over losing me had only grown greater when she'd realized the sacrifice that I'd made to save our people. Even after all these eons, the memory of those tears is still fresh in my mind."

"In spite of my sorrow over all that I'd lost, I knew the life that I had to lead from that point on. I left that world, and began scouting star systems, searching for strong systems with no intelligent life, and for almost a century, I learned to enjoy life among the stars. My role in the universe was a dark one, but I still found ways to enjoy it, until I found myself in a terrible position, almost a hundred and fifty of your years after I began my service to Galactus."

"Suddenly, I discovered that there was only one strong star within a distance of a hundred light years, and it bore living creatures on one of its planets. Their intelligence and maturity were inferior to the people of Zenn-La. In fact, they were what you might have called cave-people, in terms of their level of development, but they were using tools, and had discovered basic weapons, with which to defend themselves."

"They were clever, at least, if not particularly intelligent by some definitions, and I had no desire to see them perish. However, I knew that Galactus would pass through that stretch of space soon, and when he did, he'd notice the star that was stronger than all the others. There was no protecting that world."

"I summoned Galactus to that planet, and it was the first time that I'd ever doomed a developing species of intelligent beings. Though I've done the same thing many more times since then, it was always as a last resort, and I never felt comfortable with it, as Galactus did. I saw my role in that as nearly-intolerable, but it wasn't until I reached Earth that I seriously questioned the morality of my actions."

"I'd always viewed my role as a necessary one; preventing as much damage to intelligent beings as I could, and only giving in when there was no other choice. However, murder is still murder, even if one's intent is to prevent needless death and suffering. It took me a very long time to realize that."

"When I left the service of Galactus, I knew he wouldn't return to Zenn-La, to consume it over my betrayal. Galactus isn't such a petty being, that he'd waste so much energy reaching Zenn-La, all those light years away, just because I refused to follow him anymore. Still, I asked him if he had any intention of going back on his word, if he should ever be near Zenn-La again, and his reply to me was very surprising."

"Galactus told me that it didn't matter, because my people had already transcended the need for their planet. He also said that my service to him had been sufficient to purchase the survival of a species, even if they hadn't. At that point, though, he told me that although my service had been excellent, my betrayal was still devastating, and that I had to be punished in such a way that I could not return to the race of beings that had born me."

"Galactus' punishment was to trap me here, in this star system, by removing the power of my board to warp relativity, thus traveling beyond the speed of light in a vacuum. At this point, I could still try to travel the stars, but if I did, it would require a commitment of hundreds of thousands of years to cross the galaxy, even at my maximum speed. In a way, Galactus' punishment has been worse than removing my powers completely, since my power cosmic will remind everyone on Earth of the global devastation I nearly caused, but even without that problem, I still face the difficulty of trying to coexist with the human race. It's not easy, and I know that you understand that. When I first arrived on Earth, I was convinced that the people of your world were so mired in hate and selfishness, that they'd never be able to unite, and build a better world for themselves; not even in a hundred thousand years."

For a few seconds, Laurie paused, not sure what to say, but at last, she spoke, determined to try to cheer the surfer up.

"You're right." Laurie admitted, "It might not happen in a hundred thousand years, or it might happen tomorrow. There's no way to really tell."

"But surely, the evidence is that..." the surfer began, though he trailed off when Laurie started shaking her head.

"That's what it means to dream of something better." Laurie replied, "Not only do we work for a better future; but we don't need evidence to tell us that it can happen. I know that there can be a world where people actually understand the rules of right and wrong, and what makes them that way. In fact, I'm more convinced of that now than ever. I think our world has hope for the future, Norid Radd, and I think you do too. That's what it means to live the life of a dreamer."

A few seconds later, the surfer was smiling again, as his board righted itself, floating into the air, and he encouraged Laurie to get on. In a moment, the Silver Surfer had picked up a rock from the ground, and when he held it out for Laurie, it's whole color and consistency had changed.

"Thank you." the surfer said, as he held out the solid gold nugget for Laurie to take, "I needed that assurance. I feel a lot better. May I fly you home?"

However, in spite of the gold in her hands, worth many thousands of dollars, Laurie wasn't drawn in by it. Nothing in the nearby vicinity could distract her from the Silver Surfer. He was, in that moment, the centerpiece of her world.

"Can we take our time getting back?" Laurie asked sheepishly, as the surfer got onto his board, and she was happy to see that he reacted to her request with a broad, pleased smile. It seemed that he was just happy to have found one person who trusted him.

Within ten minutes, both Xavier and Anna were out on the lawn, watching in amazement, and a little worry, as the small, flying stealth craft of Victor Von Doom descended onto the grounds of the Xavier Institute without even a single sound, and without setting off any of the mansion's many security alarms. Xavier found that distressing, and reminded himself to install a few more sensors just in case, as the ship made a complete landing, then opened. At last, out stepped two figures; the thin, red-haired woman known as Widow, and the armor-clad figure that the whole world recognized as Doctor Doom.

"I see we were expected." Doom said, as he approached the two mutants slowly, "Curious."

"Never mind that." Widow replied, "We just need to resolve this issue without giving away any more information about this crisis than we have to."

"Giving away information to whom, exactly?" Xavier asked curiously, "To me? I already know why you're here. Anna's told me everything."

For a moment, Widow's eyes seemed to dart in multiple directions. She glanced at Anna, then stared at Xavier, then looked back to Anna again, and her eyes narrowed in contempt.

"I know you're afraid you'll be taken back to prison for what you've done..." Widow began, but in that instance, she'd read Anna's actions all wrong.

"Why?" Anna asked with a glare of her own, "Is traveling through time against the law? If so, you ought to lock yourself up too."

"It would be shortsighted to completely outlaw time travel." Widow replied, though her glare didn't soften at all as she spoke, "However, what you've done is completely unacceptable. You have no idea how badly you've endangered our whole timeline."

For a moment, Anna wasn't sure what Widow was talking about, but just then, she started to use the brilliant, scientific brain of Hank Pym, and began to grasp some of the danger of that situation. Temporal theory hadn't been his area of expertise, but he'd had it in him to understand the concept, at least.

"You mean this whole time..." Anna muttered in horror, "This is the kind of time travel that can damage causality..."

At once, Anna turned on Doom, and there were sparks of electricity visible in her eyes as she faced him directly, her rage almost palpable.

"You idiot! Why would you leave something like that lying around? Don't you even know how dangerous that kind of technology is?"

"Any kind of technology can be dangerous if it's misused." Doom simply replied calmly, "I kept my time travel device because I knew that I could trust myself to never misuse it's power. Now, I turn that question back on you. Did you have any idea how dangerous my technology was when you insisted on using it for your own selfish ends, or did you just act on your feelings, with no regard for the consequences of those actions?"

Anna looked like she wanted to make another angry outburst, but she couldn't think of anything to say. In the end, she just turned back away from Doom sadly.

"Fortunately, if you come back with me right now, there might not be any significant damage." Widow said, taking just a moment to check some sort of tracking device that she seemed to have brought with her, "You don't know that much about our timeline yourself, so you couldn't have told the Professor anything too sensitive."

"It may be easier to solve this problem than you think." Doom said, an amused tone starting to emerge in his voice as he spared Widow a short glance, "Widow, how much do you know about the superhuman population of the planet Earth as they're going to develop over the next five years?"

"Almost everything." Widow replied, "I could give you a name, description, and history of virtually every mutant and metahuman to surface in the next eighty years, although I obviously can't do that with the professor listening."

When he heard that, Xavier had to fight back the temptation to try to read Widow's thoughts. If she really knew all that she said she did, then she could have given him an incredible advantage in predicting and responding to future challenges, but the way she was reacting to what Anna had done gave Xavier the distinct impression that something about the situation was dangerous. It might, in fact, be hazardous for him to know too much about his own future, even if he'd had no moral objections to reading another person's thoughts without their permission.

"Tell me something..." Doom said, addressing Anna directly again, "Why would you bother coming here? I've known for months that this place was the headquarters of the X-men, but you must have known that fighting them one last time wouldn't accomplish anything. What did you really want from them?"

However, as Doom asked that question, Anna just started to look sadder than ever. A few seconds later, her reply was full of disappointment, and even a little fear.

"Ah guess that when the professor helped me sort things out, ah sort of figured ah owed him a little something. Ah felt like ah never really made things right with him; like ah never got the chance..." Anna said, "Ah knew ah'd made a lot of trouble; for him and for the X-men, and ah guess ah just wanted the chance to make it up to 'em; maybe even get to know 'em a little. These last few weeks have been really great."

Doom started to look just a little concerned, but it seemed obvious that for some reason, he believed Anna.

"There's something we need to decide on before we make any moves." Doom said, "First, the three of us need to talk, then I'll need to speak with Widow alone, but for the moment, Professor Xavier, I'd like to ask you one thing. If Anna were to stay here with you, would you be willing to accept her?"

"I've never treated a fellow human being with prejudice," Xavier replied, "only justice. Anna's presence here these last few weeks hasn't been overly disruptive, and I don't object to it. In fact, I'd say that she's managed to add something to the school that it needed, although things could get complicated if the Avengers find out she's here."

Doom just nodded, then said, in a surprisingly tender voice "Thank you."

Those two words alone shocked Xavier so much, that he couldn't have even said a word to stop the three figures when they stepped into Doom's aircraft, and the door to it closed behind them silently.

Widow wasn't sure what Doom was planning as the door to his ship closed, and the two found themselves alone with Anna. Doom wasn't from the future, like Widow was, but he knew all about the problem; maybe even better than she did. He knew that if a person from the future caused huge changes to their own past, the timeline would be fractured, and the very survival of the universe might be endangered. As one of the most gifted temporal physicists in the world, he must have had a thorough understanding of the danger that Anna posed, as long as she was around the X-men, and yet, for some reason, Doom didn't look the least bit worried. In fact, he'd even brought up the subject of Anna staying, as if that was a genuine option. Widow was definitely not following Doom's reasoning, in spite of her own well-honed intelligence.

"I just want to ask you a couple of questions, and then I'll need to discuss things with Widow." Doom said to Anna as she stood in the middle of his aircraft, still looking sad, "First I'd like you to tell me everything that you know about the future you come from. Everything. Don't leave anything out. Chances are, I know it all already."

Anna seemed a little nervous at first, so she glanced toward Widow, as if to ask whether it was alright to reveal anything to Doom. Widow, however, had already told Doom even more about the future than Anna knew, so she just gave the mutant girl a nod of consent.

"This is what ah know about the future." Anna admitted reluctantly, "Ah know that Thor is still alive. Ah know that Widow and Miss Marvel are still alive, and so are you. Ah know that you're a member of the Avengers, and that the cities are bigger than they are in this time period. Ah also know that the X-men ah knew are dead, but Xavier's school is still around, and being run by a man named Bishop."

Doom seemed pleased by the answer, but he insisted on asking again, "Are you sure that's all? You don't know anything else about the future?"

"Ah was locked in a lonely room underground for eighty years." Anna replied, "How much could ah know?"

"Alright." Doom replied, "In that case, I just need to speak to Widow alone for a moment."

Quickly, Doom walked through a metal door into the cockpit of the aircraft, and Widow followed him. The moment that both were through the doorway, Doom pushed a small button next to it, causing it to close silently, and completely separating the cockpit from the rest of the aircraft.

"No sound can get out of this cockpit from within right now." Doom said, "We're safe from prying ears. Now, explain something to me in detail, Widow. I want you to give me the names and rough descriptions of all the X-men from your time."

Widow's eyes narrowed for a moment when Doom said that, however.

"What's your game, Doom?" Widow asked suspiciously.

"I'll tell you once you've answered my question." Doom replied, however, still looking stern.

Widow didn't really like that arrangement, but she started listing mutants anyway.

"Bishop is a tall, black man with a beard. He has the power to absorb, expel, and redirect all forms of radiant energy. Driver is a young, white man, with blond hair and large forearms. He has the power to rotate whole sections of his body with superhuman speed, turning himself into a human drill. Phoenix is a white, red-haired woman of average height. She has both telepathic and telekinetic powers on a very large scale. Cannonball is a young-looking, white male with blond hair. He's invulnerable to most kinds of attacks, and has the ability to fly with superhuman speed, as well as generating explosions of destructive energy from his arms and legs. Wolverine is a short, shaggy, dark-haired, white man who likes to keep to himself. He has enhanced senses of smell and hearing, as well as the power to heal rapidly from severe injuries. His bones are unbreakable, and he has razor-sharp claws that emerge from the backs of his hands. Rogue is a young-looking girl with long, mostly brown hair. She has the powers of superhuman strength, speed, and endurance, and can generate electricity within her body. Olympian is..."

"Stop." Doom said, sounding amused, "I've heard enough. Widow, I'm convinced that Anna's presence in this time period is meant to be. You can't take her back to the future."

Widow was starting to look worried when Doom said that, but it wasn't long before she saw what he was trying to say.

"No, Doom." Widow said, "Rogue isn't Anna. Her real name is Alexis Raven. In terms of build, she's a little thicker than Anna around the arms and legs, and her face looks nothing like Anna's."

"Widow," Doom said, sounding a little disappointed by her reply, "all of that can be fabricated. If I want to, I can make an artificial past for her, change her facial features by coaxing her muscles into a new configuration with energy pulses, and give her the chance to alter her own muscle size by taxing her to whatever limits she might have. I'm convinced that Anna Marie Darkholme is Rogue."

"It's too dangerous." Widow objected, "It's too much of a risk. If you don't have any proof that the two of them are the same person..."

"Have you ever seen childhood pictures, or videos of Alexis Raven?" Doom asked, "Can you confirm anything about her past before she joined the X-men?"

Widow shook her head, however, as she continued to glare at Doom.

"That's not enough." she replied, "It's not proof."

"There's no such thing as absolute proof," Doom said in exasperation, "but fine. Have it your way. There's one more way to be sure."

In a moment, Doom had typed a few commands into his aircraft computer, and seven images had appeared along the monitor screen.

"When did Rogue first join the X-men?" Doom asked.

"It wasn't until several months after Galactus left Earth..." Widow said, "Although Alexis had been a student at the Xavier institute since almost a month after the incident."

"Well, these are all the people in the world named Alexis Raven." Doom said, gesturing to the images on the computer display, "Do any of them look familiar to you?"

Widow had been skeptical of the idea at first, but as she looked at those pictures, none of them looking even remotely like Rogue, she knew that she had to accept the truth of the situation. In fact, it was starting to appall her that she hadn't drawn that conclusion before then. After spending several seconds in thought, Widow finally gave in.

"Alright. So what's your plan, Doom?"

"I'm going to use my technology to alter Anna's features, until she begins to resemble Rogue by encouraging, discouraging, and shifting her muscles with a machine that I invented to help people with badly disfigured features. Unfortunately, it doesn't smooth out burned skin, or heal scars, or else I could use it on myself, but it should work for our purposes. I'll alter her appearance until she looks exactly like Rogue."

"How will you know when she looks enough like Rogue?" Widow asked.

"I won't, but you will." Doom explained, "You'll give me instructions during the whole process and let me know when I've got it right. After that, I'll fabricate a fake lineage for her, and with a little care, no one's going to question it. She'll be ready to return to the Institute by the end of the week."

For a few more moments, neither said a word, but at last, with a brief chuckle, Doom asked, "You're not worried she'll tell them anything sensitive, are you?"

"How could she?" Widow replied, still scowling, "She doesn't know anything. I just wish I could have predicted how things would turn out. This whole affair could have gone disastrously if I hadn't taken you into my confidence. I'm still not sure I understand what happened here today."

"You just can't get used to nonlinear thinking, can you?" Doom asked, sounding amused.

"No," Widow replied, "and once I return to my own time period, I hope I never see another time travel device in my life."

Doom seemed to mostly find the whole situation funny, however, as he opened a nearby compartment in one of the cockpit walls, drawing a small machine out of it; shaped roughly like a cereal bowl with sliding rods threaded through it.

In some ways, the experiences of that day had made Doom feel extremely good. There was a great deal more hope in his heart than there had been before the day had started. On the other hand, the knowledge that he possessed was going to make his future somewhat more difficult.

As Doom docked his plane at a hangar in his castle, there was no scraping noise, nor any sign of Widow. Undoubtedly, she'd headed right for his time machine, to return to her own time period, after giving him the information he'd needed, and in a sense, Doom was also pleased by the way that their mission had been resolved. It confirmed everything that she'd told him about the future.

At the doors of the hangar, Doom was met by Eugene Gorzenko; one of his many faithful subordinates, and it was there that Gorzenko asked him a question.

"How was your day, master?"

Doom had to think about that for a moment, before replying, but when he did, there wasn't any doubt in his voice.

"Today, I learned something that puts a great responsibility on my shoulders, and changes the whole tone of my mission on this Earth." Doom said, "That won't be easy to accept, but on the other hand, I'm convinced that there is hope for this planet. The children and grandchildren of this generation will have a great deal more to look forward to in their future... I'd say that it was a very good day."

"I think you just made it up."

"Nuh-uh. It was right over here."

"Maybe it's more to the left."

"Not that way, Katie. Your other left."

"How should I know what left?"

"Where was that thing you found, Julie?"

"It was right over here. I swear."

Julie Power pointed over the nearest hill, directing her brothers and sister onward. They were hardly organized, but then, they were still kids. Still, they were her brothers and sister, and they were also her closest friends. When she'd found the secret object in the wilderness, Julie knew that she had to show it to her siblings before she got any closer to it, but some of them were a little impatient, and they didn't know how far away the object was.

Of course, it was late, and the sun had gone down. They weren't even supposed to have left their bedrooms at that hour, but when Julie had found the object, she'd insisted that it was really, really important, and they had, in the end, all gone along with her. In just a few moments, they all climbed up, over the nearest hill, and there, they saw an incredible sight.

Lying on the ground, in the center of a small crater, was a structure of some kind; about the size of a school bus, and made of a sort of metal, that glittered in a hundred colors, and seemed to be smoldering, as if it had been on fire a moment before.

"Whoa." Alex said, as he looked over the hill towards the large, metal, saucer-shaped contraption, "This is serious. It looks like an alien ship. Do you think maybe Galactus left it here?"

"We should call the 'vengers." Katie piped up.

"Dummy." Jack said, from where he was, "Why would the Avengers listen to us? We're just kids."

"Well, we've gotta do something." Julie replied, as she started to get a little closer to the ship. Alex was obviously getting more and more scared, as she drew nearer to it, however.

"Hey, wait a minute!" Alex exclaimed, "Don't get too close. You don't know what could happen. There could be all kinds of alien monsters in there."

"We can't just walk away. We've gotta check this out!" Julie exclaimed, moving towards the alien ship. As she got closer, however, something in the ship started to react, and in just a moment, all four children fell silent in shock, not one of them able to move. Soon, a hidden door on the side of the ship had fallen off completely with a clattering noise, and inside, there was one of the most beautiful creatures that Julie had ever seen. It looked like a white horse, walking upright, except with three-fingered hands, instead of front hooves, and three joints on its legs. It would have been even more beautiful, however, if it hadn't obviously been injured.

In just a moment, the strange creature took only a few steps out of its ship, falling to the ground in pain, and Julie rushed forward on impulse, her heart going out to the odd being from space.

"Julie!" Alex whispered sharply, "Don't be an idiot! Get away from that thing!"

"He's hurt!" Julie snapped back at her brother, "We have to help him!"

However, just then, the being looked up, and spoke in a voice that seemed to tremble, like the neigh of a horse, but he was clearly speaking in English.

"No... There's no time. My injuries... too great... Have to complete my mission."

"Mis'sin?" Katie asked, not sure what to think.

"Doctor Power..." the creature said, "Have to warn him... His machine."

"Our dad?" Julie asked, suddenly becoming alarmed, "What about him?"

"Listen..." the being from space said quickly, "You have to destroy Doctor Power's machine. If not... Your whole world..."

At that point, he convulsed in agony, and it was only then that he seemed to calm down a little.

"Destroy his machine?" Alex asked, casting aside his reservations, "What machine? How?"

"The antimatter machine." the being said, "It won't work. Tell him... The danger... But that's the least of your fears. You have much to face... in the future. Such danger... Such vast powers..."

Katie started to cry silently, as she heard the strange being's words, but his mission was too important to be left alone.

"You'll need great power to protect your family through the times ahead," the creature gasped out at last, "and my powers will do me no further good. Take what's left of my power. Practice with its use, and... feel it grow as you do... Learn to... defend against your enemies... This is all I can offer you... My ship will... guide you... Save... your... world..."

Then, with those words, he breathed his last.

Suddenly, a bright, shining light emerged from the strange being's body, and in just a moment, all four of the Power children started to glow in different colors of the rainbow. They were terrified, not knowing what had happened to them, but as they rushed home that night, away from the alien space ship, they started to realize that they had a mission of their own to complete. They weren't really sure what kind of legacy the alien being had left them, but, Alex knew, if he'd been telling the truth, the future would be a very difficult and exciting time.


Well, I guess that's it. That's the end, and I can't say it hasn't been a fun ride. Honestly, I have so many other story ideas, that I could keep this up for years if I had the time, freedom, and motivation, because pretty much every time Marvel does something totally rotten to boost sales, it gives me another idea for a story in which it all goes right. If nothing else, I hope I've helped to prove that money is the root of many, many bad stories.

A friend of mine once asked me if I'd ever considered doing anything like this to DC as well, since they seem to have made many of the same mistakes as Marvel during the nineties and early twenty-first century, but when I really thought it over, I eventually decided against it. You see, a Neoverse version of DC Comics would be almost identical to the DC Animated Universe, except with the Golden Age version of Lois Lane (the one that was courageous and capable in her own right, without being rude or abrasive.) I would have needed to steal too much from Paul Dini, and as ironic as these words may sound near the end of a very long fanfiction, I don't enjoy stealing from other writers.

The truth is, I had (and still have, really) a lot to get off my chest, because even in their early years, Marvel made some major missteps, in my opinion. Ideally, these characters would one day fall into the hands of a whole team of people not unlike myself, who prefer hope to despair, and a happy ending over pointless pessimism and angst, thus giving each of these characters the chance to really shine on their own. I would, for example, have loved to do more with the Fantastic Four, the Power Pack, or the amazing Spider-man.

Of course, just because I don't have the time to tell whole stories doesn't mean I can't outline the kind of vision I would have had for the future of the Neoverse, if it wasn't ending, but before I do that, I have one more thing to say.

These last few chapters of the Marvel Universe Neo were rather tightly interwoven with their counterparts in my other Neoverse fanfic; labeled "The Xavier Institute Neo." I strongly recommend reading them too, if you haven't already.

Ideally, the next chapter would open with Peter Parker at school, meeting, and getting to know a girl named Gwen Stacy. They share a common interest in Spider-man, and in photography, and after a few days, they become friends. Peter even starts to question his crush on Mary Jane, but the Green Goblin learns about Peter's friendship with Gwen from Harry in passing, and kidnaps her, intending to use her as a hostage, thus leading to another battle between the Avengers and the Goblin's forces. In the end, Gwen falls from a high building, however, unlike in the original comic, Spider-man succeeds in saving her life.

This doesn't solve all of Peter's problems, and in the end, in a supreme moment of irony, Gwen assumes that her kidnapping by the goblin was due to something that her father; Captain Stacey did, and tells Peter that it's not safe to be her friend anymore, discouraging any chance for a real relationship to develop. Of course, Peter knows that Gwen is wrong about that, but can't tell her the truth without revealing his identity, and worse, without revealing that he was the reason why she was nearly killed in the first place.

This forces Peter to reconsider the wisdom of getting close to anyone; including Mary Jane, as long as the Green Goblin is on the loose, so he approaches Widow with the problem.

In the subsequent issue, Widow would be tracking down incriminating evidence on Norman Osborne, with the intention of shutting him down for good, only to run into several government agents; attempting the same thing. Widow doesn't trust them at first, demanding to know what agency they belong to, but they reveal nothing. However, the Sandman shows up shortly, and three of the agents manage to defeat him through a combination of martial arts skill, quick thinking, and borderline superhuman powers.

Only a week later, Osborne is arrested. Widow is almost certain that he'll be able to worm his way out with a few clever attorneys, but it gives her a bit of time to study the government agents who were gathering information on him. She quickly learns that they belong to the same group who assisted the Avengers against Doctor Doom; an international security organization, established to respond to threats against the free world, to terrorism, and to any threat of war between the Earth's major nations, but as for the name of the organization, or who controls it, no information is publicly available.

This leads Widow to yet another mystery, in which she learns of the identity of SHIELD, and their high commander; Nicholas Joseph Fury. More importantly, she discovers that he possesses the same powers and special traits as her; her unnatural longevity, rigidly-efficient mentality, and craving for a worthy cause to pursue.

Widow's search for more information about Fury, and how he acquired his special abilities would lead her to even more evidence about the Russian super soldier programs, and more information about herself, but as a government agent, there's also some question of whether Fury himself can be trusted.

After that, "Tales" would have been plunged into another cosmic crisis, with the birth of Sue and Reed Richards' new baby boy, and subsequent discovery of his superhuman powers. Franklin's young, chaotic thoughts, in command of his vast powers would put the heroes to the test again, as Reed searched desperately for some way to subdue his son's abilities, in the hope of saving his life.

Ultimately, it would be the Power Pack who would finally manage to keep Franklin under control just long enough for Reed to develop a means of suppressing his son's dangerous abilities, and giving him the chance to learn and grow up; almost like an ordinary child.

I'm sure that these storylines alone would have taken over a year to tell, but as I said, telling them in full would just gobble up too much of my time. A shame, really, but this is how the Marvel Universe would have gone if I was Marvel's editor at the time.

Who knows? Maybe somebody else will take up the cause. Maybe someone will tell these stories one day, and if they do, I hope they'll bare in mind the careful methods of storytelling that have made these tales so much fun.

What are those methods? I always allow three rules to govern these universes that I write.

First, all pessimism, and most pessimists and self-centered materialists are temporary, and they learn their lesson in time, as the heroes eventually prevail.

Second, the heroes do eventually prevail, though there may be setbacks, tragedies, and even deaths; the heroes remain heroic, and they continue to do the right thing, no matter what temptations may arise. All of these heroes have their weaknesses, but they rarely give in to them, and it's not dwelled on when they do. Everything looks positive. Neoverse Tony Stark may still drink sometimes, and Neoverse Hawkeye may still have some tension between himself and Widow at times, but the real focus of the stories isn't on what our heroes do wrong, but on what they do right; on the things about them that can inspire us to be heroes ourselves.

Most importantly, all of this is for the purpose of bringing the most out of these characters. If I've changed some characters, or allowed some to disappear, it's mainly been from a desire to see them improved, or to see something more impressive, inspiring, and complex come out of them.

At the end of it all, if there was one message that I wanted this fanfiction to convey, it's this; pessimism is not the same thing as realism, and corruption is not the same thing as character complexity. In fact, there's nothing less complex that giving in to your baser tendencies. What's really impressive is when people keep trying to be the best they can be; not just for themselves, but for all the people depending on them.

In the end, that's what heroes are really all about.

Excelsior, true believers.