Knowhere To Run

His eyes opened.

 

What happened?  Where am I?

 

This was not the first time that Vance Astro had thought these thoughts.

 

When am I?

 

That one either.

 

Looking around the expansive room, Vance Astro did not know where he was.  Little did he know that he was literally Knowhere.

 

Knowhere, the decapitated head of a Celestial, floating near the end of the universe, created quite the paradox.  It had always been a desirable location, but the dregs of the universe found their way here as well.  There had been plenty of battles between men, women and other things …all hoping to control the riches and resources contained inside Knowhere.  Yet no one wanted to know how this became.  What in this universe could have decapitated a Celestial?  This was a question that only the bravest of all would even ponder.  And they would not ponder it for long.

 

Vance Astro did not know where he was and he did not know when he was.  It was part of his life.

 

Standing up, he reached down, pleased to feel the shield in his possession.  He had become attached to the shield that had, at one time, been carried by Steve Rogers.  It was part of him.

 

The area was eerily deserted.  Every way Vance looked, there was no sign of any living being.  Where did I wind up?  The last thing he remembered was being in the 31st century with the other Guardians, dealing with a threat.  What was it?  The memory of the events seemed distant, and continually slipping into the void.  What had happened was not that important and Vance Astro was not going to worry about the disappearance of his memory.  He had more pressing concerns.

 

The light was dim in Knowhere, and Vance Astro had a feeling of dread creeping down his spine.  Being alone in this mysterious place put him in a distinct feel of uneasiness, a tickling deep in his gut.  Something bad is going to happen.

 

That was when he realized that he could hear something.  It was soft, but definitely out there.  Clenching his shield to his chest, Vance moved cautiously through the empty cavernous place he found himself in.  Is that music?  In his previous trips to past worlds, he had always enjoyed his brief encounters with music of the time.  Music brought a feel of life.  However, this song seemed to fill the emptiness of his soul.  The closer he came to the source of the haunting ballad, Vance Astro became even more apprehensive.  He could feel the hairs beneath his suit bristling.

 

As he carefully entered the room, he could see the phonograph record playing, the tones of Johnny Mathias drifting from the speaker.  The record player was very old, perhaps antique, and the record was on vinyl. It was something that Vance Astro had not seen in years.  How could this be playing hereWho played it?

 

Vance could see no one nowhere.  There was no sign of anyone within his sight.  As he was looking around the room, the song came to an end, only to have the phonograph lift the needle from the record and place it at the beginning once again.  Some times we walk, hand in hand, by the sea…

 

How long has this been playing?

 

Vance shut the player off and turned to leave the room.  As he was about to leave, suddenly he heard:

 

Some times we walk, hand in hand, by the sea…

 

Peeking back over his shoulder, Vance could not believe this.

 

and we breathe in the cold salty air.  You turn to me, with a kiss in your eyes and my heart feels a thrill beyond compare…

 

“Where am I?”

Knowhere to Run Part Two

As the sound of Johnny Mathias disappeared in the background, Vance Astro continued his trek through Knowhere.  Without a single heartbeat found anywhere, Vance began imagining exactly what had happened here.

 

It was not as if he had not been present at scenes of terrible loss over the years.  Loss seemed to follow the lives of heroes.  And every time Vance began to think about the past losses, he could only focus on one person.

 

Angelica.

 

She was the love of his early life.  His time with her in the New Warriors and the Avengers were the best times of his life, and when they ended, he never truly got over her.  Despite the lack of memory of the near past, Vance Astro never had troubles remembering his Angel.

 

 

When she had gone to be with the X-Men, he was worried.  The X-Men existed in a special place in the world.  One of true danger.  And when he responded to the call for help… he knew, deep in his gut… that he would arrive too late.  That the days of possible reunions were over.  And despite the fact that most X-Men rarely remain dead, Vance could not bare to hope.  The pain of that loss stuck with him to this very day.

 

In all his attempts at time travel, Vance could not see his Angel again.  How could he go through that loss again?

 

And was fate taking the choice out of his hand?

Knowhere to Run (continued)

 

Confused and struck by the memories of a past love long lost, Vance Astro continued his voyage through the seemingly barren and deserted land that he found himself in.

 

I wish I could remember …anything.

 

The lack of his recent memories was as disturbing to Vance as his current predicament and the hopes of finding something…anything besides the nothing that he was finding.

 

And then there it was.  Something he recognized.  A museum… that Vance Astro had seen many times over the years, though never in a location such as this.  The containers, the creatures, … the collection.  Yes, it was the collection of Taneleer Tivan, The Collector.  However, there was something wrong.

 

Nothing was here.

 

The cages and containers were shattered.  There were no specimens around.  And there was no sign of the Collector himself.

 

 

What could have done this?  Vance knew Tivan.  He had met him in the future, at the time when he reclaimed the shield from him.  Yet this was different.    Tivan was an Elder of the Universe.  The thought of what could cause this kind of chaos within the collection of Tivan ripped through Vance’s head.  What force could have decimated the collection of the Collector?  His most prized possessions were gone, scattered to the wind, not a sign of anything remaining.

 

Vance Astro was even more on edge since this discovery than he had been since his awakening.  He knew what it took for him to get the shield away from Tivan.  He could not imagine what this could have been.

 

Where his memory and understanding lacked, Astro’s instincts took over.  He began examining the scene, searching for even the slightest clue that could tell him anything…the slightest sliver of an answer would ease his mind.  Astro knew that many of the Collector’s prizes were living specimens from across the universe.  Final members of doomed civilizations.  Could the Collector finally have tried to procure someone or… something that he shouldn’t have?

 

Astro found his way to a specific container.  All of the other containers had been shattered from the outside, Vance could tell from the manner in which the, for lack of a better term, glass had broken.  However, this one cage… the remnants of this cage… seemed to have exploded outward.  As if the blast centered at the heart of the container.

 

“This is ground zero,” said Vance, unafraid that anyone would hear him.  No one had heard him so far during his exploration of Knowhere.  “Whatever caused this destruction had spent time inside this container.  Looks like old Taneleer finally paid for his obsession.”

 

Vance Astro’s curiosity was piqued.  And since there appeared to be little else for him to do in this “ghost town,” solving a mystery appealed to him.

 

What happened to the Collector?

Vance Astro fought against the devastating internal struggle gnawing at his gut.  The fear was palpable and the hero struggled to keep it in check.  He had not had any success finding any further clues inside the Collector’s destroyed showroom, and the mystery of what exactly happened here started to feel like a mystery that would never have an answer.  The unbelievable situation burned at Vance’s self esteem like the core of the sun.

 

The pangs of hunger struck his stomach, and the continuous dry mouth that demanded satisfaction only added to the hopelessness of the moment.  Even someone as brave and as heroic as Vance Astro could be brought down from doubts from within.  Astro knew that something soon had to change or else there would be one less person living on Knowhere.  Without any other option, Vance continued his trek across the massive head of a slain Celestial.

 

But something did change.

 

Vance Astro was not actually alone.

 

There he was.  Sitting on the ground, back against the wall, a vacant stare gazing into space, an unlit cigar dangling upon his lip and an empty bottle of McCutcheon’s whiskey grasped tightly in his right hand.  Vance Astro had to do a double take, unsure if he could believe his senses.  Were they playing a trick on him because of the lack of sustenance?  Could it really be…

 

Pip the Troll?

 

Vance rushed to the side of the unresponsive troll, hesitating for just a moment.  If he had found another person only to find a lifeless husk…. Vance was not sure that he could handle that.  However, Pip was alive.  He was just staring ahead without any sign of understanding.  Even though it wouldn’t have been the first time, Pip was not drunk.  This was something else.

 

“Pip!” Vance said, grabbing the troll by his shoulders and shaking him, sending the cigar tumbling to the ground.  “Wake up, what is happening here?  Pip…talk to me!”

 

Pip did not respond immediately, and Vance was just about to stop when Pip’s eyes fluttered.  Was it a blink or was it just Vance seeing what he wanted?  No!  the eyes moved again.  Pip was coming back.  The bottle of whiskey was brought up to Pip’s lips and he desperately tried to find even a single remaining drop.  His eyes still stared blankly ahead as the bottle was unsuccessful drained.  Throwing the bottle to the side, Pip rolled his neck.

 

“Damn,” he swore.  “Where is my cigar?”

 

“Pip, are you all right?”

 

“Astro?  What the hell are you doing here?” Pip asked.  Finding his cigar on the ground, Pip snatched it up and placed it in his mouth.  “Got a light, kid?”

 

“What is going on here. Pip?”

 

Pip looked around the room, a quizzical expression on his face.  Vance was scared that Pip himself would not know anything of the fate of Knowhere and its inhabitants…to the Collector and his collection.  Vance was worried that the discovery of a second would not help solve the enigma that his life had suddenly become.

 

Pip’s expression changed again… this time it was one of realization…a flicker of a memory, and a memory of horror.  Pip’s face became a masque of fright… something Vance Astro had never seen before.  He opened his mouth but no words came out, as the troll continued to stare past Vance.  Pip barely breathed,  And then Vance understood what was going on.  Pip wasn’t staring off into space.  He was looking at something specific.

 

Vance turned quickly, bringing the shield up in front of him and his slightly inebriated friend.  And Vance saw what Pip was looking at.

 

They were surrounded.

Vance Astro cursed himself as he looked around at the suddenly, decisively non-alone status that he found himself.  The creatures that surrounded him and Pip were some of the foulest creatures in the galaxy.

 

Dire Wraiths

 

 

These shape shifters were scourges of the cosmos, being banished from many different worlds.  In an ancient battle with the Galadorians, the Wraiths went as far as the planet earth to avoid the banishment to Limbo.  In the future time that Vance Astro came from, most of these foul beast were gone.  Only a rare few still existed.

 

He had never seen as many as were here now.

 

“Damn,” cursed Pip.  “This ain’t good.”

 

The blob like monsters slowly moved toward Vance and Pip, their long snake-like tongue extending from their mouths with the drill that found its way into their victims cranium.

 

“No wonder I haven’t found any bodies,” said Vance.  He knew that when the Dire Wraith’s drilled their tongues into their victim’s head, the victim was reduced to a fluid.  If Knowhere was infested with as many Wraiths as he currently saw, it would not have taken long before everyone fell.

 

“Been nice knowing ya, Astro,” said Pip.

 

“Can’t you teleport us out of here?” asked Vance.  He knew that Pip had some potent teleportation abilities.

 

“Do you think I would still be here if I could?  Sure, why not just hang around Knowhere with a bunch of parasitic, mutated skrulls hanging around.  As if the Skrulls weren’t bad enough.  These things make my skin crawl,” Pip said.

 

The Dire Wraiths had some magical abilities, practically sorcery.  Perhaps they had done some hoodoo voodoo on Knowhere limiting the abilities of those within.  Kind of a dampening spell, but that was some serious power.  COnsiderably more than Vance thought they could manage.  A lot of this still did not make sense.  Even with the magical ability and the shape shifting skills, how did they take down an Elder of the Universe?

 

“How did these things kill the Collector?” asked Vance.

 

“Are you nuts?”  said Pip.  “These beasties didn’t kill the Collector.  That was…”

 

Before Pip could continue with his exposition, the nearest Dire Wraith leaped toward them.  Vance Astro deflected the tongue with the shield, kicking the Wraith away.  The other Wraiths began to close in even tighter.  Pip and Astro backed against the wall that Pip had been leaning against.

 

“I didn’t want to go out like this.  There was just not enough whiskey to knock me out.  I could have gone quietly into death with a snoot full,” said Pip.

 

Vance glanced around the room, seeing what he had hoped to see.

 

“We’re not out of this yet, Pip,” said Vance, striking the wall behind them with the shield.  The weight bearing wall was struck a second time and gave way, bringing parts of the roof down and opening a path behind them.  “Let’s go.”  Vance grabbed Pip by the scruff of the neck and took off down the path.  He did not know where he was heading, but he knew that there was nothing behind them but death.  He knew there were answers here somewhere.

 

And he was determined to find them.

 

Vance Astro moved quickly down the pathway, stopping regularly to wait for Pip to catch up to him.  The pudgy little troll had not been used to running much.  He would stop and hack, swearing with each hack that he was done smoking those “damned cigars.”.  Each time he would say that, Vance would roll his eyes. He knew that Pip wasn’t changing his habits.

 

Vance was not sure if they had gotten away from the Dire Wraiths, but they had not seen sign of them since the ceiling came down.  It was a move ripe with desperation, and he was not ashamed to admit it.  He knew that had that army of Dire Wraiths been given a few moments more, there would be nothing remaining of the two of them.  A strategic retreat was necessary.

 

However, Vance was curious as well.  Something that Pip had said earlier.  He claimed that the Dire Wraiths were not the cause of the destruction of the Collector’s museum, and Vance could not wait a second more.  Snatching the troll, he pulled him into an side pathway.

 

“Hey, whatcha doing, Astro?  We got to keep going,” Pip said.

 

“Not until you start talking, Pip,” said Vance.  “What happened here?  If the Dire Wraiths did not destroy this place, then who did?  And what happened to the Collector?”

 

“The Dire Wraiths did destroy this place.  This place is Knowhere.  And the Collector had a couple of Dire Wraiths in his prison. Old fool. They were released when it happened and they were able to use some of the technology that survived to release a bunch of the other monsters from Limbo.  They were like cockroaches…every where around Knowhere,” Pip rambled.

 

“Wait… when what happened?” asked Vance.  “You said they were released when “it” happened.  What the hell is “it”?”

 

“Oh… that was when it escaped,” said Pip.  “Tivan had just collected something new and he placed it in the center of the collection.  He was so proud of it.  I could tell it was a mistake, but who could ever talk to that obsessive pack rat?”

 

“What was it?”

 

“More like a who,” said Pip.  “It is called Atomsk.  Some people called it the Pirate King.”

 

“I couldn’t believe that Tivan had the Pirate King in his collection.  Not only did I think it was unbelievable…I couldn’t believe his audacity.  The arrogance of that man,” Pip said, getting on a soap box.  “He really deserved what he got.”

 

“About that,” said Vance.  “The Collector was an Elder of the Universe.  I thought they were immortal.  They couldn’t die, right?”

 

“That’s what we all thought too.  I guess they were wrong,” said Pip, nearly gloatingly.  “Cause once Atomsk was out of that container, that kid really took it to Tivan.  It was a sight to see.  And hear…kid can really jam on that guitar.”

 

“None of this makes any sense,” said Vance, still trying to sort through.  He could tell that there was an important piece to this puzzle missing.  “So what happened?”

 

“Every blast from Atomsk seemed to take a chunk from the Collector.  Honestly, it was a massacre,” said Pip.  “Who knew that this little kid would be the downfall of this Elder.”

 

“So how did the Collector collect this Pirate King in the first place?” asked Vance.  Pip looked quizzically at the future Guardian and one time Avenger.

 

“Damn fine question.  I never thought about it.  Tivan had a way of acquiring specimens that he wanted.  I never gave it a second thought.”

 

“How long after the Pirate King arrived did this one-sided slugfest go down?” asked Vance.

 

“Almost immediately.  Tivan barely had the chance to gloat about his latest acquisition,” said Pip.  With each question posed to the troll, Pip took a few seconds to think about it, considering the situation as if for the first time.  “What are you thinking, Astro?”

 

“I think someone set the Collector up,” Vance said.  “I think someone wanted the Collector dead, and sent the perfect person to get the job done.  Someone who this person knew would bring the Collector down.”

 

“Who could possibly know what could bring the Collector down?” asked Pip.  “I mean… Death herself had made the pact to keep the Elders immortal.  It would have to be someone who has an in with…”

 

Pip stopped.  The thought occurred to him at the exact time that it occurred to Vance Astro.  Pip slapped himself across the forehead.

 

“Damn,” said Pip.

 

“Yes,” said Vance.  “Thanos.”

 

Villain:  Thanos

 

Top of Form

Knowhere to Run (continued)

 

“So… Thanos wanted the Collector dead?” asked Pip.  “Why?”

 

“I don’t know.  Was there something in the collection that Thanos wanted?”
“Who knows what that psychopath wants?” said Pip.  “But, if it was that…how come we haven’t seen Thanos?  He hasn’t come along to pick anything up.  Plus, he wouldn’t have had to kill Tivan to take something out of the collection.  If Thanos wants something, Thanos usually gets something.”

 

“That means that Thanos really wanted the Collector dead.  Why?” asked Astro.

 

Before that question could be effectively pondered, one of the walls of the section Vance Astro and Pip the Troll were hiding in started to crumble.  The pair scattered from their hiding space, into an open area.  They once again found themselves surrounded by the shape shifting Dire Wraiths.

 

“I can tell you the answer,” said one of the Dire Wraiths, who seemed to be the leader.  “Death always resented the pact to give the Elders their immortality, it angered her.  Death hated Taneleer Tivan more than any of the other Elders.  Thanos has been the lap dog of Death for eons now, trying to win her favor through needless gifts.  You know he once even gained control of the Infinity Gauntlet all for her.  He realized that Death wanted Tivan dead, and so it became his goal.  I knew Atomsk was a trap.  How couldn’t I?”

 

“What are you gabbing about, Wraith?  You were inside one of Tivan’s tunes.  Why do you think you know any of this?” Pip said.

 

“You haven’t guessed yet?  Of course a buffoon as you, Troll, would not understand, but Astrovik disappoints me.  Have you not figured it out yet?” the Wraith asked.

 

“Yeah, I got it, Tivan.” said Astro.  The Wraith leader started to laugh, causing his outer shape to shift.  But he did not turn into any old form.  Seconds later, the Collector stood before them.

 

“What the hell?” Pip said.

 

“Don’t you get it, Pip?” asked Vance.  “Taneleer Tivan, aka the Collector, heard that Thanos was plotting a trap, planning his demise.  And with the knowledge Death would have given him, Thanos knew what the fine print of the deal was.”

 

“There is always a hook.  Immortality from Death herself?  There was bound to be a catch,” said Tivan.  “I was just resourceful enough to find out what it was.  And I was prepared.  Thanos was very sloppy.  He barely hid the fact that he was behind this.  Even a rank amateur would have sussed this out.  I prepared for his deception and made my own plans.  Yes it cost me many good men here at Knowhere, but the Dire Wraiths required sacrifices.  I needed them as an army.  They agreed to be my backup if I freed them from Limbo.  I prepared the magic curse around Knowhere, to prevent Thanos from arriving.  Of course, it also kept the little mouthy troll here as well.  Once Atomsk was inside Knowhere, I knew my plan was foolproof.”

 

“There is nothing foolproof when I’m around,” said Pip, causing the Collector to laugh.

 

“You have no arguments from me, troll.” said Tivan.  “I am just not sure how you arrived here Vance Astro.  Especially a Vance Astro not of this time period.  So how did you breach my defenses?  How did you come to arrive on Knowhere?”

 

“Your guess is as good as mine Collector, but I have no issues with you.  Let us leave and you can have this entire rock for yourself,” said Astro.

 

“Sadly, I cannot risk you giving away my deception just yet.  I am in the process of acquiring the proper weaponry to launch my retaliation against the Mad Titan.  I cannot afford the chance that you might reveal something that tips Thanos off.  I am truly sorry, but this is the end of the line for you.”

 

Tivan signaled to the Dire Wraiths, who had been surrounding Astro and Pip the entire time the three of them were talking.  It was obvious that they were primed and ready for an attack.  Astro gripped the shield tightly, bracing himself to go down fighting.  These monsters were not going to take him without him taking some of them down as well.  But the fight did not start.  The flash of light forced the shape shifter to back off and the appearance brought fear to the heart of even the Dire Wraiths.  Standing in the room was the Mad Titan himself, Thanos.

 

“Taneleer Tivon.  You are truly a fool to believe that your pitiful magics could keep me out.  I am Thanos, I am the Overlord.  And your time, Elder, has come.”

 

Energy glistened from Thanos’s hands, as he prepared to end the Collector, once and for all.  Tivon struck an aggressive stance, preparing to defend himself.  The Dire Wraiths around the room had the Collectors back.

 

And in the middle of the entire thing…Vance Astro and Pip the Troll knew they had nowhere to run.

 

“Vance, did our situation just get better…or worse?” Pip asked.

 

To be continued.

It has been a long time since I was happy.

 

As I mentioned, I find myself drawn to the bizarre, the paranormal, the supernatural.  Usually it is not a minor infraction either.  I have been in worlds breathing their last breaths,  Worlds consumed by the planet eater himself…seeing the despair and pain on the faces of the locals.  They never understand the emotionless, businesslike manner that Galactus goes about his meals.  It is frightening to see.

 

But seeing is what I do.  Ever since the “White Event” on my home earth, seeing is all I do.

 

I am Nelson Kohler.  I am the Witness.

 

I am always moderately confused when I materialize somewhere.  It is not like I have an unending knowledge like the Watchers.  No, I do not have unending cosmic power that I choose not to use.  In fact, I have very little power.  I am truly like a ghost.  I am just there.

 

Not that anyone knows that I am there.  My presence has only been sensed by a few.  Otherwise, it really is like I am not there.  This time was no different, except that I knew something terrible was about to go down.  The reason…I saw him.

 

Thanos.

 

This was not the first time that I had observed the Mad Titan and any time that I have, it did not turn out well.  Death.  Destruction.  Pain.  These were character traits for anyone who was unfortunately in the path of the villain.  But it did not take me long to realize what was happening.

 

Thanos was going to try to kill an Elder of the Universe.

 

The Collector to be precise.  The Collector had surrounded himself with reddish beasts with long, drill-like tongues.  I did not know them.  This was the first time that I had come across those things, and, by the looks of them, I wish it had stayed that way.  These creatures seemed to be an army supporting the Collector.  I didn’t know the Collector had any army, certainly not filled with nightmare inducing monsters.  Perhaps he had known that Thanos was on his way, and the Collector had taken steps to protect himself.

 

That was when I saw them.  Two others.  One of the men was dressed in a blue and white suit and held Captain America’s shield.  The second man was shorter, looking more like a troll or a hobbit than a man.  He chomped away on a cigar.

 

I did not envy their position.  They were at ground zero of an explosion that would certainly result in their deaths and the destruction of much of this place.  And it appeared as if these two men had nowhere to run.  My heart filled with pity for them.  My heart always filled with pity for the victims despite the fact that it never did any good.  They always ended up just as dead.  I wonder if they go and witness events when they die, or is that just something reserved for me?  Could this be all the after life is?

 

I can see the man with the shield.  He has assumed a fighting stance.  It is obvious that he is planning on fighting for as long as he can whereas the Troll does not appear to be interested in engaging the monsters.  It doesn’t look like he is going to have much of a choice.

 

Fate had brought me here to witness whatever it had in store for these beings.

 

Bottom of Form

The battle began.  The Dire Wraiths had launched their all out assault on the heroic Vance Astro and his foul-mouthed sidekick Pip the Troll.  The Wraiths had one main goal… destroy Vance Astro.  They were serving at the hand of the Collector, who, up until just a few moments ago, had been hiding in the form of a Dire Wraith.  The thought was that he could continue to fake his own death, something that the Mad Titan Thanos had been desiring.  Thanos was trying to please Death herself by fixing the gift of immortality that had been granted them.  In particular, Taneleer Tivan, the Collector was obnoxious.  His arrogance had drawn Thanos and his ire.

 

Vance Astro was caught in the middle of a war of survival that he seemingly had no stake in.  He did not know why he was here.  He did not know how he arrived here.  Everything before his arrival on Knowhere was foggy.  But his wits were sharp right now.  He used the former shield of Captain America to defect and deliver punishment to the shape shifters, though it appeared that it was at best maintaining the status quo.  Meanwhile, massive power was being exchanged between the Collector and Thanos with little regard for the others in the room.

 

“Pip,” said Vance, a thought occurring to him.  “What happened to Atomsk?  If he was someone who could hurt the Collector, and there was a magical spell around this place keeping those who arrive here, here… then where is he?”

 

Atomsk, known as the Pirate King, had been sent ahead as a Trojan Horse.  He found himself into the collection of Tivan, only to be used as a weapon.  It had appeared that Atomsk had destroyed the Elder, but instead Tivan had escaped into the form of a Dire Wraith.

 

“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Pip.  “Haven’t seen sparky since the collection went kablooie.  But if Thanos had sent him, maybe this spell that is affecting my teleportation does not affect him like it didn’t affect Thanos.”

 

I suppose… though Vance Astro.  However, it did not feel right.  He found it difficult to believe that Thanos would have taken a chance to lose an advantage in this war.  And since Atomsk could injure Tivan, he was an extremely valuable advantage.

 

Little did he know how close he was.  This entire exercise was just an experiment… a ruse… a game.  A game to see who would survive.  Tivan or Thanos.  Both had been manipulated by this pair.  And the had also brought Vance Astro from the future as a wild card.  A wild card that was meant to keep the challenge in balance.

 

The Grandmaster and The Champion of the Universe.

The Champion and the Grandmaster watched the events unfold from the safety of the Grandmaster’s ship, hidden just on the outskirts of Knowhere.  Atomsk was contained inside a energy container, existing in a state of control.  The two Elders commented calmly about the war that was

 

“Bringing Astrovik into this was a stroke a genius, En Dwi,” said the Champion.  “He brings someone into the mix with a real rooting factor.  The troll was not going to suffice.”

 

“Thank you, Tryco,” said Grandmaster, a sly smile crossed his face.  “I take that compliment to heart.  I am very happy that you were able to capture Atomsk before he did any lasting damage to our Elder brother, Tivan.  Despite how he is, I would not want him to truly die.”

 

“You have gone out of your way on more than one occasion to make sure that Tivan does not die,” said the Champion.

 

“Yes, he absolutely is a challenge.  If he wasn’t such an obsessive creature, he would be much more likeable,” said Grandmaster.

 

“I am very tempted to join in the fray.  I have always wanted to test myself against Thanos,” said the Champion.

 

“That would be a fascinating struggle, but this is not our game.  The game that we have set up is for Vance Astro.  He is the one who needs to win or lose.  Everyone else is nothing more than guest players.”

 

“Unfortunately, I am not sure that he will be surviving this,” said the Champion.  “There are only so many odds that one man can overcome.”

 

“Perhaps he requires further inspiration,” said the Grandmaster, smiling.

 

To be concluded.

The battle raged, Vance Astro not making much headway, but sufficiently keeping the vermin Dire Wraiths at bay.  Pip the Troll did what he could, but he tried to stick as close to Astro as he could.  This was out of Pip’s element.  Give him a drinking contest any day.  Physical fisticuffs… not quite his style.  Yet, he knew that the Dire Wraiths weren’t about to break out some whiskey and challenge him to drink them under the table.  So Pip pushed on.

 

Thanos and the Collector seemed unaware that a different war had been raging inside the compartment of Knowhere.  They were focused upon each other.  Locked hand in hand, Thanos and Taneleer Tivan, the Collector, fought for supremacy, and it was clear that one of them was winning.  Thanos forced the Collector down toward the ground as Tivan desperately struggled to maintain whatever he could.  The Collector realized his futile effort. Thanos slammed Tivan against the wall and, in a burst of energy, blasted the Elder.  Tivan understood that this was not a battle he was going to win.  He had one more ace.

 

“To me, my Wraiths!” the Collector cried and most of the shape shifters immediately left Astro and Pip and turned their attention to Thanos.

 

Nelson Kohler, the Witness, an invisible viewer of the day’s events, glanced at the moment of respite afforded Vance Astro.  The hero gathered his friend and it looked as if they were preparing to retreat from this war.  It did not have anything to do with them anyway.  Koholer dropped his head, knowing that fate had a different idea.

 

With a wave of his hand, Thanos opened a portal in the time-space, a portal the Wraiths knew only too well.  The sorcery ability of Thanos sent the Dire Wraiths back to Limbo, their screams lost in the void between the worlds.  The few who had not responded to Tivan’s call scurried away in fear.  The Dire Wraiths knew that they must live to kill another day when less power was on display.

 

The Collector’s head dropped as Thanos easily dispatched the army that Tivan had formed.  The realization had come to the Elder of the Universe, battered and bloody, and collapsed on the floor.  This was where he would die.

 

“This is for Lady Death,” Thanos said, as he stood above the fallen Elder.  Thanos raised his hand, preparing to deliver the coup de gras.  The bolt of flame came from nowhere, striking the Mad Titan unexpectedly.  Thanos took a step back, uncertain where this came from.  Vance Astro was just as surprised when he looked into the air above Thanos.

 

“Angel?” Vance said, his voice crackling slightly.  There she was.  Firestar, in all of her beautiful glory.  What is she doing here?  But before anything else could happen, a responding bolt of pure cosmic energy struck the lovely redhead.  Her scream cut deeply into Vance Astro’s chest.  The flaming mutant fell to the ground.  Thanos, as if swatting an annoying mosquito, turned himself back to the Collector, without a second look at the momentary distraction.

 

Vance Astro’s tortured cry echoed through Knowhere as he rushed to the side of his fallen love.  This woman had meant everything to Vance Astro.  In his darkest days, the memory of her bright, passionate flame kept him going.  He held her limp body as tears escaped through the suit.  Telekinetic energy bursting from his brain.  Please…Angelica…please.

 

Oblivious to the drama developing behind him, Thanos smiled his evil grin, standing above his immortal foe.  The energy projectile exploded from Thanos, directly at the semi-conscious frame of Taneleer Tivan.  This one would send the Collector back into the awaiting embrace of Death, from where he never should have been removed.  This bolt would correct the imbalance created by the immortality of Tivan, and would bring Thanos closer to the heart of Lady Death, or so he had hoped.

 

The red, white and blue shield appearing between Tivan and the blast was unexpected and effective, dispelling the powerful energy blast.  The shield flew back unnaturally, propelled not by strength and strategy, but by telekinesis.  The shield found its way back to the hand of Vance Astro and for the first time, Thanos turned away from the Collector and faced his new opponent.  Vance Astro stood defiant.  As Pip tended to the injured Angelica Jones, Vance felt the fuel of anger and grief ripping through his body.  The telekinetic energy had tattered the suit that he wore, and the glow from the hero filled the dimly lit Knowhere like a miniature sun.

 

The Witness turned to see.

 

“Boy, this does not concern you.  It would be wise if you …” Thanos began, but he was unable to finish his threat and the shield once again was telepathically hurled at him, drilling him directly in the over-exaggerated maw.  As it returned once again to the hands of Vance Astro, the one time Guardian and Avenger screamed a guttural howl, and he rushed the Titan.  Never before had Vance Astro felt the power coursing through his mind as he did now, and he would have given anything if this had remained inside.  But it was out now.  Astro pounded against Thanos with blow after blow, one moment from the shield, another from a tk blast, and then even with his bare fists.  The berserker rage consumed him, repeatedly pounding Thanos with an intensity level that few had ever seen.  Even Nelson Kohler’s eyes opened wide in amazement.  He had never seen anything like this before.

 

Thanos backed away from the onslaught, but Vance Astro was undeterred, raining blow after blow upon the body of Thanos.  The Mad Titan slouched back to the ground, confused and perplexed.  With both hands, Vance Astro raised the shield above his head, an image of sending the edge of the shield into Thanos crossed his mind.  In that slight moment, Vance Astro knew he could not…would not kill Thanos.  It wasn’t who he was.

 

However, that second of hesitation was all Thanos required.  Beams of energy came from his eyes, striking Vance Astro square in the chest, propelling him backwards into the cavern wall.  With a grunt, Vance landed hard on the ground.  The grief fueled power had burned itself out like a star that illuminated itself too fast.  Vance Astro was spent.  The battle was done.

 

But he would not surrender.

 

Despite the pain throughout his entire body, Vance jammed the shield into the ground, using it as an aide like a handicapped patient may use a walker, vehemently trying to raise himself from the prone position he found himself in.  But before he could regain his standing, Thanos towered over top of him.  Slipping back down, Vance Astro gripped at the shield like a life preserver.

 

Thanos looked down at the defeated hero and he knew.  He looked for Tivan, who had taken the distraction provided to him by Vance Astro as an opportunity to flee from Thanos’s wrath.  The Collector was nowhere to be found.  Thanos, stern and cold, looked back down at the exhausted Guardian.  A second sideways glance brought into view for Thanos the scene of Pip holding the injured and possibly dying Firestar.  When he refocused his gaze upon Vance Astro, the hero continued his struggle against his body to stand in opposition once again.  Something flared inside the heart of the Mad Titan, a feeling he had not experienced for decades.

 

Thanos turned away from Vance Astro and levitated into the air.  Without a word, Thanos departed the scene of this war.  Vance Astro watched as the villainous psychopath left without delivering the death blow Astro had expected.  It was a sign from Thanos.  A sign of respect.

 

A smile crossed the Witness’s face.  He did not remember the last time he smiled.  He would remember this encounter forever, and now, each time that he faced some horrendous, gruesome tragedy, he had a little piece of happiness to draw upon.

 

The Witness faded away to the scene of the next location of importance.

 

Vance struggled to his feet, his battle suit barely recognizable, but his face full of emotion.  He limped back toward Firestar, dropping to his knees at her side.  Pip picked up the cigar that he had dropped earlier and placed it in his mouth.

 

“If only…” Pip said, but his thought was interrupted by the slight blaze that lit the cigar.  He looked down to see the eyes of Firestar open, and her face smiling.  “Thanks, doll,” he said as he took some deep drags from the cigar, sending the puffs of smoke billowing into the air.

 

“Vance?” Firestar said, as he held her in his arms.  Tears filled his eyes as he held her tight.

 

“Yes, Angel, it’s me,” he said.

 

“Hi.”

THE END

Knowhere to Run

Epilogue

 

“Who knew Vance Astro had that in him?” asked the Champion of the Universe.

 

“He certainly called on some latent ability, what is the earth phrase… ‘dug deep for something extra?'” said the Grandmaster.  “I think he might have been able to kill Thanos.”

 

The pair were discussing the conclusion of the game set up by the Grandmaster.  They watched outside of the floating disembodied head of a long lost Celestial that has come to be known as Knowhere.

 

“Imagine, the universe could have been free of that psychotic if only Vance Astro had enough fortitude to do what needed to be done,” said Champion.  “He was extremely fortunate that Thanos took pity on him.”

 

“Pity?  I believed that Thanos actually enjoyed what he received.  That shows you how sick he is,” said Grandmaster.

 

“I will admit, En Dwi, that bringing the earth female into the fray was a stroke of genius.  Her near death brought the animal out from inside Astrovik,” said the Champion.

 

“Thank you for the kind words, Tryco,” said Grandmaster.  “I have been playing these games for eons now.”

 

“You are a master,” said the Champion.  “What happened to Tivan?”

 

“Our Elder brethren was able to make it to the ship we had provided.  He has countless collections stashed across the universe.  Who knows which one he will retreat to?  With any luck, Taneleer will have learned some modesty from this event.  A humble Collector would be much better than the brash fool that we have been suffering,” Grandmaster said.

 

“What is remaining?” said Champion.

 

“Only one thing.”  The voice that responded to the Champion of the Universe’s question did not come from the Grandmaster.  It came from behind them.  The pair of Elders turned and there stood Thanos.  Extending his arms, bolts of power cosmic exploded from the Mad Titan, crackling into the ship’s power.  “You two are immortal…you should be fine…” as Thanos disappeared.

 

The ship exploded.

 

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