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Jonathan Hickman (writer), Dustin Waver with Mike Deodato (artists), Justin Ponsor (colorist), Virtual Calligraphy’s Cory Petit (letterer), Dustin Weaver & Justin Ponsor (cover artists), Joe Quinones (variant cover artist), Jake Thomas (assistant editor), Tom Breevort with Lauren Sankovitch (editors), Axel Alonso (editor-in-chief), Joe Quesada (chief creative officer), Dan Buckley (publisher), Alan Fine (executive producer)
On Mars, Starbrand and Nightmask meet with Ex-Nihilo and Abyss, explaining that they need help, as they have changed. Abyss tries to analyze them, but Starbrand isn’t have it, and forces her away. She analyses Nightmask, and realizes that Ex-Nihilo did something to the Earth. He admits that he was bored, so he did something new, sending “bombs” to change the world itself. The alien pods have landed in various locations, including Regina, Canada. Abyss informs Starbrand and Nightmask that they can remain on Mars, while Ex-Nihilo suggests they could go back to Earth and see what happens. At Avengers Tower, several Avengers are trying to track Nightmask and Starbrand, and locate them at one of the quarantined event sites, in Croatia. Nightmask and Starbrand walk across the quarantined beach, and witness the pods hatching, and the alien slugs start to form what looks like a large brain. The Avengers team arrives, just as the large brain tries to pull Starbrand and Nightmask into it - before Starbrand’s power destroys it - it being what Nightmask calls the living consciousness of the planet. The entire Avengers team engages Nightmask and Starbrand in combat, which results in the both of them being confined to the Dyson Sphere.
Mars, where Nightmask and Starbrand stand before a golden being whom Nightmask addresses as “Father” and explain that they need his help. Ex-Nihilo turns to the woman beside him, called Abyss, and remarks ‘They run away on a whim. Infatuated with the shiny new things… and then the moment something goes wrong, they come running back home’. He quietly asks Abyss not to let them know, but it is so predictable, he is disappointed. ‘Now, brother… don’t jump to conclusions. Oftentimes, things aren’t quite what they seem’ Abyss points out, before casting down some black energy, and remarking that is quite possibly the case here. The black energy swirls around Nightmask and Starbrand, while Ex-Nihilo smiles and tells Abyss that now that she brings it up, he can’t help but notice: ‘Son, is there something different about you?
Nightmask replies that it happened to the both of them, that they have changed, but something is wrong. ‘What do you mean? Biologically? Chemically? Structurally?’ Abyss asks, while instructing them to hold still, as she casts more energy around them. ‘What are you doing?’ Starbrand asks, confused. ‘Having a closer look’ Abyss explains. Wide-eyed, Starbrand exclaims ‘Uhhh, no. I don’t think so, lady. Now get away from me’. Abyss frowns and tells the young man to relax, as fighting only makes this more difficult. ‘I said…GET AWAY!’ Starbrand shouts as he concentrates hard, and casts energy back at Abyss - which cuts her in half at her stomach. ‘Urkkkgg’ she utters.
Wide-eyed, Starbrand announces that he is sorry. ‘Nasty creature…’ Abyss scowls, before uttering something in her native tongue. Nightmask says something back to her, then tells her that they do not know what is happening. ‘Start with me’ he suggests as he and Ex-Nihilo go over and put Abyss’s torso back on her lower body, as she reforms. ‘Hrmpt’ Abyss grumbles, before casting energy around Nightmask, calling him Adam she tells him that he is highly sensitive, so this might feel a bit uncomfortable for him. ‘Try not to move’ she suggests. Her energies tell Abyss that Nightmask is a genetically perfect human, modified, with a secondary builder system, with an incomplete download. ‘But the conflict…is not with you. It’s Earth!’ she announces, wide-eyed. She turns to Ex-Nihilo, ‘It was you’ she calls out. Ex-Nihilo casually glances back and smirks, ‘I was bored. So I did something new’ he remarks.
Ex-Nihilo recalls that in other worlds, they, the Gardeners, have always judged life, and if it was flawed, they terminated it, but if it had potential, they encouraged evolution - only this time, he changed the rules. ‘What have you done, brothers?’ Abyss asks, shocked. Ex-Nihilo raises a hand and admits that he tweaked the mix, that he played goddess. ‘The bombs I sent were not just to change the people, but the world itself. I’m attempting to make the Earth sentient’ he explains. ‘You did what?’ Starbrand gasps. Ex-Nihilo grins and reveals that each bomb carried a specific charge, a trait that all evolving species possess - self awareness, self-sustenance, self-repair, reproduction, communication, evolution and self-defense.
In Split, Croatia, several pod-like things with tentacles attached to them wash up on a beach. At the Fallen Heights in the Savage Land, a tribe rushes about. In Chhatarpu, India, large rock-like pods start to glow. At the same time, in Kobe, Japan, ninjas sit around a large glowing pod. And in Perth, Australia, an inner-city street is covered in spiky pods the size of shrubs, while in Regina, Canada, a large furry white beast, and a man and a woman in red and white costumes make their way through a strange landscape. On AIM Island, several scientists are attempting to analyze an ice-like pod they have in their lab.
Back on Mars: ‘Who knows what will happen when all the sites begin their change state… but I guarantee it will be different’ Ex-Nihilo announces. ‘Can you stop it?’ Nightmask asks. ‘You can’t stop life without ending it’ Ex-Nihilo explains. Abyss adds that even if they could do something, they are not permitted to go to Earth. ‘We have our garden, and that’s it’ she adds. Rubbing his head, Starbrand asks what they are supposed to do now. ‘Behave, and you and Adam can stay here as long as you like’ Abyss tells him, while Ex-Nihilo points out that they could go back and see what happens. ‘It might just be something to see’ he grins.
Meantime, at Avengers Tower, in New York City, Tony Stark, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Smasher and Manifold are gathered in a lab. Tony looks up at a monitor while his Iron Man armor is stored nearby. A shirtless Captain America a.k.a. Steve Rogers is putting his uniform on, while Captain Marvel a.k.a. Carol Danvers reports that tracking places Nightmask and Starbrand at the Garden Site of Mars. Carol adds that she has no idea if that means the Garden members might get involved. ‘Maybe they just went home?’ she suggests. ‘Maybe we just let them be?’ Carol asks, but Steve points out that they have got an obliterated college and a rogue dynamo responsible for it, so there is no letting this lie. Turning to Manifold, he instructs him to get ready to jump them to Mars. Tony turns to Steve and tells him that he might want to hold off on that, as the signal just disappeared from mars and popped up local - Earth’s atmosphere. ‘Where?’ Cap asks, frowning as he puts his helmet on. Tony tells him that it is the quarantined zone in Croatia.
At that moment, the sun shines down over Croatia as Starbrand and Nightmask walk across the beach, littered with the strange alien pods. Nightmask remarks that he has never been to the beach before, and that this is nice. It’s usually better’ Starbrand replies. Nightmask continues to look around at his surroundings, before Starbrand remarks that he has been meaning to ask - ‘If they grew you in a sack, how old does that mean you are?’ Nightmask casually replies that 467 days have passed since he was born. ‘I don’t even know what to say about that’ Starbrand replies. He is about to ask another question, when there is a strange noise, and Nightmask asks his companion if he hears it. ‘Like a buzzing’ Starbrand reports. ‘But almost words…’ Nightmask adds. Starbrand points at one of the pods that appears to be moving, when suddenly, it pops open. ‘It’s happening o the others as well’ Nightmask announces.
Indeed, more and more of the pods start to pop open, and a large pink slug-like alien emerges from them all. ‘Fascinating’ Nightmask remarks, as the aliens speak to each other in their native tongue, which translates to “join”. ‘What are they doing? It’s worm sex, isn’t it?’ Starbrand asks as he hovers in the air, above the beach as the alien slugs start to converge in one location. Nightmask replies that this is consciousness, individually, each one is a simple organism that can signal a single order, seemingly random commands. He explains that together, they will form a complex structure, a sentient overmind, creating a sentient world. ‘My father is a madman, but he was right…this truly is something to behold’ Nightmask announces as he looks at the aliens, their forms starting to form what looks like a massive brain. Looking upwards to the sky, Starbrand tells his companion that it looks like they won’t be the only ones to see it.
A portal opens, and an Avengers Quinjet emerges from it. Several Avengers emerge from it - Thor, Iron Man, Smasher and Hyperion. ‘There, below us’ Thor calls out as he sees the strange happenings on the beach. ‘What is that?’ the female Smasher gasps as the slug-alien-brain gets even larger. ‘Alive’ the brain calls out. The brain continues to speak, and hovering up high alongside it, Nightmask replies ‘Yes. I can hear you. Your code…your are a system’. Tentacles emerge from the brain, which wrap around Nightmask and try to pull him in. ‘No! I’ve got you! I won’t let….let go!’ Starbrand calls out as he tries to pull his companion away. But the tentacles that emerge from the brain are strong. ‘LET GO!’ Starbrand screams. ‘LET GO!’ he screams again, and suddenly, his power radiates around them, like an explosion, erupting outwards and upwards. Iron Man shields himself from the energy, before Nightmask and Starbrand fall to the beach.
‘No. No. No. No. What did I do?’ Starbrand calls out. ‘That was the living consciousness of the planet… you… we… just killed the Earth, Starbrand. We broke the world. We will be judged’ Nightmask announces. As Starbrand’s energy starts to dissolve, the Avengers have all gathered on the beach. Captain America, Hawkeye, the original Spider-Woman, the Falcon, the Hulk, Superior Spider-Man, Thor, Shang-Chi, Cannonball and Sunspot, Hyperion, Captain Marvel, Smasher, the Black Widow, Captain Universe, Wolverine and Iron Man surround them. ‘You’re out of control, Kevin. This has to stop’ Captain America announces. ‘It has to end now’. Starbrand collapses in the water lapping at the ruined shore, and exclaims ‘I didn’t mean to… I don’t know what… it was hurting Adam, and I just lashed out and… I didn’t mean to’. Nightmask declares that this is all too new, that Starbrand wasn’t prepared for this. ‘But he can learn. He can grow. All he needs is time’.
‘Well, we’re fresh out of that…and you’re in this neck deep as well, Nightmask’ Captain America warns him. ‘Mother. Is there nothing you can do?’ Nightmask asks, turning to Captain Universe, who replies ‘I told you to do what you thought you must - and I told you if you did how this would end…with you in a box’ the woman replies. ‘That’s not…NO’ Starbrand declares, looking at Nightmask, who replies ‘No, indeed’ and announces that they are leaving here. ‘Don’t try to stop us - don’t, or you’ll regret it’ he warns the Avengers. Raising his shield, Captain America declares that he already does, and tells Adam that he is sorry it has to be this way. ‘Avengers - take them down!’ Captain America orders.
The Avengers rush forward, while Starbrand and Nightmask cast their energies towards Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. It was the spark that started the fire - a legend that grew in the telling. Thor’s hammer slams into Starbrand. It happened after the light. Before the war. Before the fall. Nightmask releases some energy which sends the Hulk and Iron Man backwards. Starbrand releases more energy, keeping the Avengers at bay. They were the high days of the great idea - an Avengers world. A time of life, before a season of death. Iron Man casts forth some enrgy at Starbrand, who keeps Smasher at bay, and knocks Sunspot and Cannonball into Captain America. Manifold attacks Nightmask next, while the Hulk and Captain Marvel lunge for Starbrand. They were titans and gods and mortals doing immortal acts. They had been summoned, and they did not pause to answer. They were perfect…they were heroes. Energy beams pour from Hyperion’s eyes.
And then, they were broken. More Avengers fall as Starbrand forces them away from him. Not called… but made. The Avengers are relentless, and they gather themselves, moving towards Starbrand once more. Errors in the system, anomalies. Planet killers and world breakers. Final options. Last resorts. Things it was not time for…yet. The Avengers pile onto Starbrand, forcing him down, his powers subside. ‘Stop’ Starbrand utters, as the Avengers back away from him. ‘Please stop. I didn’t mean to do this…any of it’ he claims. ‘Most people don’t son. But they still have to pay for their mistakes’ Captain America points out. Starbrand replies that he was holding back. ‘We know. You think that doesn’t terrify us?’ Iron Man asks. ‘I never asked for this power. I don’t want it’ Starbrand declares. ‘We know, Kevin… maybe that fact gives us hope’ Iron Man replies.
‘We’re going to try to help you - we will help you, because that’s what we do’ Iron Man assures Starbrand. But he tells him that for now, they are out of options, and that he is too dangerous to run free. ‘Because we have the world to think about. And today, it’s safer with you not in it’ Iron Man explains. And, Starbrand and Nightmask soon find themselves contained in the facility known as the Dyson Sphere, floating in space.
Black Widow, Cannonball, Captain America, Captain Marvel VI, Captain Universe IV, Falcon, Hawkeye, Hulk, Hyperion V, Iron Man, Manifold, Smasher VI, Shang-Chi, Superior Spider-Man, Spider-Woman I, Sunspot, Thor, Wolverine (all Avengers)
StarbrandNightmaskEx-Nihilo & Abyss III
Kingdom, Validator, Wendigo (all Omega Flight)
First appearances of Kingdom and Validator, although they are not named this issue.
The Builder Machine Code is revealed this issue, which has the symbols the aliens speak and the corresponding letters from the English language.