It was, perhaps, early evening in the desert... the recent sunset's golds and reds yet lingered in a thin, tattered banner along the western horizon, allowing the pyramids to be silhouetted sharp and dark against its fading glory. The scentomizers were tuned perfectly; the smells of arid, faintly spicy sand, fecund poppy fields, silty Nile water gurgling through canals, the sweat of the nearby camels, the dry, powdery aroma of the silk pavilion canopies... all of these mingled with the delicious aroma wafting off the haunch of goat crackling over a camel fewmet fire.
The fire crackled convincingly; a dry desert breeze moved through the oasis like an invisible river, rustling the pavilion silks authentically.
In the oasis' central pool, thirty feet from the crackling fire, two men soaked. Fresh from the rejuvenation baths, neither looked more than perhaps forty Earth years of age, one of them, in fact, could have been half that.
Both had the deeply bronzed skins of long time desert dwellers, although it was for each an affectation; neither had felt actual sunlight on their skins for longer than he could easily calculate. Both were hawk nosed, clear eyed, dark haired, heavy browed; to an ignorant observer, they would convey the appearance of father and son, for one seemed to be at least two decades older than the other. Appearances deceived, as they so often do... the two men were not father and son. They were much, much closer... and each was much, much more ancient than he seemed.
"So, then, Pharaoh," the older man boomed, slapping the cool oasis water with his palm just to hear the pleasant plashing noise it made. "Is it not as I have said? Are not the diversions of Limbo infinite and inexhaustible?"
The one addressed as Pharaoh did not answer... at first. He was a thoughtful man. Quick-witted when necessary, but now, no emergency urged instant response. He pondered his elder's words, and when his reply was fully formulated, only then did he voice it:
"Indeed," he agreed. "And yet... and yet..."
There was a wistful sadness to his tone that was not lost on the older man. "You dwell on the past too much," the Pharaoh's elder observed. "Here in Limbo, there is no past, no future... just an eternal now. And now is enough... is it not?"
"You have been the best of mentors, o Immortus," the Pharaoh Rama Tut replied, choosing each syllable with care. "And Limbo... Limbo does, indeed, offer an eternity of delights. Yet... as I discovered in my own court, in the 40th Century... a life without strife is a life without meaning."
"Feh," Immortus snapped. "I need no telepathy to discern your thoughts, my friend... and although there is no time here, the circadian rhythms of your own flesh tell you that now is the time of year when your beloved Ravonna was first cut down by that cur Baltag. Do you think I do not feel it myself? Do you think I have forgotten?" His hand tightened into a fist. "I will never forget, my friend. Never."
Then he spread his fingers again, and waved airily. "But life goes on, Rama... for us. Ravonna remains in her eternal sleep, Baltag remains dead, Lords of Time rip his spirit to shreds forever... yet for us, life goes on."
Immortus turned and gestured imperiously. His strange servant -- 'my only subject, here in Limbo', as he often labeled the creature -- appeared a few feet away from him, seeming to condense out of the very darkling air, standing on the damp sand, rubbing his spider-fingered hands together. "Yessss, my master?" the creature hissed.
"Bring the entertainment now," the older man commanded.
The strange servitor nodded once, his oddly furrowed countenance blank beneath his overlarge eyes and wild, tangled brows. To the Pharaoh, those eyes had always suggested boiled owl's eggs.
The servitor vanished, as quickly as he had come. "Does that creature have a name?" the Pharaoh asked, making no attempt to mask the irritation in his tone.
Immortus chuckled. "He is the only subject of Limbo," the immortal time traveler said. "Why would he need a name?" He paused. "Although as to that, he is really no more a 'he' than the silicone in that sand... I built him to be the ultimate shapeshifter, you know. A perfect agent."
"So you have said," Rama Tut responded, distaste still evident in his tone. "But there is something..."
There was a jangling... silvery, musical. And then, from one of the pavilions, the six greatest beauties of mythical Earth's storied history came across the sand, clad in silks and bells and perfumes. The Pharaoh's protest died in his throat. Ravonna had been beautiful, in her own provincial way. But these women...!
"Do you like them?" Immortus chuckled. "There is Cleopatra, of your own land, but a few thousand years past your time. Her beauty... and her skills in the pillow arts... are still legendary millenia after her death." A dusky skinned, broad nosed beauty, full of hip and bust, nodded in response to Immortus' words.
"And here is Princess Ranadys of the land of Esteros, which sank beneath the vast world ocean aeons before Atlantis ever arose. She was the last dragon queen..." Here a silver haired girl, slender as a willow, with purple eyes that flashed an inner fire, smiled coquettishly at him.
Doubtless Immortus introduced all six of the women, and all of them were, indeed, legendary beauties. But the Pharaoh only had eyes for one... just one... a strong looking female, whose figure was somehow voluptuous yet athletic at the same time, with clean, clear, beautiful features and hair the color of spun gold. Eyes as blue as weapon-steel stared back at his unblushingly, showing a will as strong and as inexorable as gravity... even if that will was now bent and somewhat blunted beneath the hypnotic influence of Immortus' mind control beams.
"And this is Carol Danvers, of the late 20th Century," Immortus said. "She has been recently exposed to a Kree device known as a Psyche Magnitron which has had an interesting effect on her, both psychically and physically. Her DNA is now an intriguing mingling of Terran and Kree, and she has just embarked on a career with the Avengers..."
Immortus noted the clear signs of infatuation on the face of the Pharaoh... the dilated pupils, the flared nostrils, the deepening breath tones. It was aggravating. He had hoped to provide his guest and student with a distraction from futile, choleric thoughts regarding Ravonna... but once he had seen the six women chosen by his servitor, he had also thought to keep this one to his exclusive use. Something about her aura... so ferocious. Of course, he knew she had a significant destiny, one that stood out even among the larger than life fates and dooms of the Earthling superhuman class he had made an obsessive study of his whole life... yet, still. There was something magnetic about the woman, here, in person...
"We will share her," Immortus snapped. "Come, Pharaoh."
The two men waded up out of the pool side by side, and as one, put a hand out to clasp either arm of the woman named Carol Danvers --
* * * * *
The man awoke, some time later, head aching. "Where..."
He was lying in a cool pool of water, beneath a spreading... what was that thing?... a date palm tree, that was it.
Around him was a... watering hole? No. The word was oasis. There were silk canopies, rippling in a low, cool breeze. The braying of a just wakened donkey, or... camel? And...
There, lying face down on the sand... a woman. A woman with golden blonde hair... and smoke, rising from her forearms. Almost as if her arms were energy weapons, and had fired some kind of discharge...
The man splashed to her side without further thought. He did not know who she was, but a great passion for her stirred within him... so great that it had not yet occurred to him that he also did not know who he, himself, was...
* * * * * *
The man awoke, some time later, head aching. Face down, in something soft and scratchy, that rustled in the breeze...
He knew that smell, that texture. Kentucky blue grass...! He sat up, abruptly.
He was in a field... or so it seemed. Several large, powerful looking, oddly beautiful creatures stood on four legs each, cropping the thick grass, ten or twelve arms lengths away from him.
But it wasn't true. Somehow he knew, this field full of... hoses? No, horses... was an illusion. There was something about it... the feel of the air wasn't quite right. The scentomizers were slightly off, and not masking the metallic air conditioning smell fully....
The scene shimmered, and vanished. The man was sitting on the floor in a small, gloomy, roughly rectangular chamber, made of what seemed to be a dull grey metal. The smell of the air conditioning was more pronounced, now.
From the empty air, a cool, pleasant voice spoke to him: "This res-quart is designated as uninhabited. Who are you and how did you come to access it?"
The man thought for a moment. "I... I do not know," he confessed, finally.
"Working," the pleasant voice responded. "Analysis of microscopic cellular particles taken from your respiration indicate..." There was a pause. "You have DNA strands aligned to several prominent sociopolitical lines," it continued, eventually. "But identification cannot be made conclusively. You are... unknown."
The last two syllables were spoken evenly, without inflection... but the man would have sworn the voice was, nonetheless, appalled to have to confess to such a thing.
"Identity is necessary," the voice continued. "I shall assign you a random nomenclature and begin building identity files for you. Basic remedial training in civil necessities will be made available to you. This cubicle will be assigned to your needs."
The man got to his feet. "You are a computer," he said.
"I am a pseudosentience," the voice corrected him, somewhat primly. "My specific role is social optimization. Do not worry. A place will be found for you."
It paused once more, and then continued. "Your DNA has some strands taken from the prominent Richards family. I shall, therefore, assign you the name Nathaniel Richards..."
* * * * *
The woman did not remember her name, any more than he did his. But when she had first looked up at him with those laser bright blue eyes and asked him who he was, a fragment of conversation had come back to him. He had been speaking with an older man, who looked somewhat like him... his father?... that seemed wrong, somehow, but still, in his photographic recall of this fragmentary, isolated scene, the resemblance was unmistakable.
The man had been laughing, and saying "...no heir... none that lived, anyway. But should I ever have a worthy son, I will name him Marcus..."
"Marcus," he had told her. "My name is Marcus." It felt right, on some level, and wrong, on another... but he also had a deep conviction that he had lived a long, rich life, and over the course of it, he had had many names. Marcus was as good as any...
"You are Carol," he told her, knowing as he said it that it was correct.
"Carol," she said, tasting the name. "And... we are alone here, Marcus...?"
Marcus looked around. "Yes," he said. "I... " He looked back at her, boldly. "From how I feel when I look at you, Carol, I think... I think we are honeymooning."
She met his gaze with hers... and then, when he bent his head forward, she met his mouth with hers, as well...
* * * * * *
The newly minted Nathaniel Richards did well at his studies, and showed an aptitude with the subatomic particle circuitry that 30th Century technology was entirely built around. But he was restive. The place and time he had come to was very civilized... almost decadent. Any citizen could have anything he or she wanted, merely by asking a socio-mech to simulate the sensation. Somewhere in his mind, Nathaniel was reminded of a bit of ancient folk wisdom... "Instant gratification takes too long..."
There was no challenge here, nothing to strive for!
Yet Nathaniel had a goal, one that burned within him. A set of blazing blue eyes, looking into his.. his? Or some other man's? He could not quite remember. Skin as soft as velvet under his touch, stretched taut over muscles like corded titanium... and a psychic aura that blazed like a supernova. He could not recall her face, her form, any other details of her appearance... but he would move mountains to find her. She was his, and he was hers... even though he had a feeling that he had at least one rival for her affection. It would not matter. He knew, in his heart, that he was a conqueror, and he would always be supreme...
He knew where to look for her. A half remembered snatch of conversation... "the late 20th Century... just embarked on a career with the Avengers..."
He'd done global searches using those phrases. Something had happened in that era... something important. The Celestial Madonna, so called, had given birth to... someone... a child that had risen to unite the entire galaxy, at least, for a time, under one benevolent banner. A Golden Age, a time of unparalleled prosperity, which had lasted a thousand years... which was still going on, even today, here in the exasperatingly peaceful year of 3012.
Was the woman he sought this Madonna? Somehow, he was sure she must be. She must be. His true love... somehow he knew, she would not be sitting around waiting for him to claim her. He would have to fight others for her... he would have to conquer! But in the end, she would be his.
Time travel was known to be possible... supposedly, the technology had originated in that very era. He could go there, and find her.
He would. He would conquer the entire universe, all of time itself, if that was what it took to win her to his side...!
* * * * * *
"She could not have had the child here in Limbo," the servitor said, his tones (as always) an unsettling mixture of sneer and sycophancy. "There is no duration here. It would not have prospered..."
"I know that," the man who no longer called himself Marcus snapped. "But it might have done well on Earth, in Carol's native time frame, if I had not seized on its form as a vehicle for my own escape from this hellish place..."
"Well," the servitor responded, "you could have just opened a portal. You know how to use the machines."
"Opening a portal into the late 20th Century is always difficult," the man snapped. "Temporal turbulence makes such a transit hazardous at best. I thought the other gambit might work better. If those idiot heroes hadn't destroyed my machine, I could have corrected that body's asynchronous genetic coordinates, and..."
"Coulda, shoulda, woulda," the servitor said. "I do feel deep admiration for the novel way in which you dumped her, though, after she followed you back here. That illusion of you aging to decrepitude and dying within a few moments... that was masterfully done. She'll be some time getting over the psychological scars of that little break up ploy... it may well drive her to drink."
"She's strong," the man said. "She'll be fine." He shrugged. "I truly thought I loved the wench."
"Ah, infatuation," the servitor thought, waggling his disturbingly unkempt eyebrows provocatively. "You know that Immortus was infatuated with her as well, do you not? And wherever he may have ended up, he will seek her out, as well?"
"I am Immortus now," the man said, regarding the regalia laid out upon the sleeping platform in his chamber. "Although," he added, dubiously, "I'm not sure I want to dress like him..."
"Ah, yes, master," the servitor fawn-sneered. "Because that blue face mask was oh so stylish."
The new Lord of Limbo scowled at the servitor. "Am I going to have problems with you, creature? My predecessor may have tolerated your insolence, but I am not he." The former Pharaoh stopped at that, thoughtfully. "I mean... well..."
The servitor bobbed and capered obsequiously. "I will give you no problems, Master," it declared. "I have ever served the Lord of Limbo, and ever shall. In that service, I shall tell you that my artificially attuned chronal senses advise me that the temporal turbulence you already know of in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries on Earth has increased by nearly an order of magnitude since your paramour's return to her native time-point. I cannot be sure, but I believe your predecessor in those robes is somehow causing this disruption."
"He's going after her," the former Pharaoh said, through gritted teeth. "He's still besotted... he must not have her!"
The servant raised his fantastical eyebrows in exaggerated puzzlement. "But... master... if you do not want her..."
"He will not have her," the new Immortus growled. "He will not lay a hand on her. Hmmm... I must come up with a scheme..." He turned, and pointed at the servitor. "You will travel to her timeframe. You will shadow her. You will protect her. You will be my perfect agent in this. You will keep my other self from ever so much as setting his damned dirty paws on her."
The servant shrugged. "Your wish, my command, of course, my master," he replied. "May I suggest... perhaps I could replace that obnoxious Anthony Stark in the Avengers roster? Then I could keep a close watch on her. The two of them become quite companionable, I believe..."
"YOU are not to lay a hand on her," the Master of Time snarled.
"Oh no, master, of course not, I am not worthy," the servitor whined. "I will simply look out for her... and ward her. Perhaps... if your predecessor's attention could be turned to another... perhaps some sort of scenario could be woven, to convince him to ignore Ms. Danvers, and fixate on someone else..."
"Yes," the Lord of Limbo agreed, musing. "That whole Celestial Madonna thing will be going on right around that time period, and I remember how obsessed I was with the Madonna... I can't recall why, now... I mean, what was I going to do with Mantis, even if I'd managed to obtain her? A skilled courtesan, I have no doubt, but... Gleaming Galaxies! The woman married an undead corpus reanimated by a sentient tree!" Immortus... the newest of his name... shuddered. "By the Lords of Time, I really dodged a particle beam there."
"I will depart immediately, Master," the servitor responded. "May I suggest that I enter the timestream some light years away from Earth, to avoid the local turbulence? I can easily travel there at faster than light speeds once I am within the timeframe. I will establish my presence early on, at the very founding of the team, or shortly thereafter. It will give me an excellent vantage point to watch over Ms. Danvers, as the Heroic Age unfolds."
"Capital," Immortus responded. "Do it. At once."
"Yes, Master," the servitor said, rubbing his inhumanly long fingers together in satisfaction...
* * * * *
As the servitor sped through the vacuum of space towards Earth, it considered what it had already done, and what yet remained for it to do. It went through each aspect of its plan meticulously, testing each step in its own mind, re-examining each link.
The female had been key -- this 'Carol Danvers'. When Immortus-A had commanded it to go and seek out 'the six most beautiful human women of all time', to distract Immortus-B from his melancholy over yet another human female, the servitor had taken the opportunity to initiate its own schemes. The scheme would spread from that point, a veritable labyrinth worming its incomprehensibly complex threads and branches through every level of space-time... but it was with that command, given outside time by the man always had been and always would be the greatest living master of time itself... that command was the very first stone that had been dropped into the pond, causing the very first ripple.
For, what was beauty? How could the servitor know? It was not human. It had no permanent gender. It could take on any seeming, certainly... but to it, all living beings were potential partners in its eternal dance between the chronons. All living beings were beautiful, in their own way. But one, and only one, would be useful in fulfilling the servitor's desires.
So it had taken her, Carol Danvers, from a point in the late 20th Century, and brought her to Limbo, supposedly for the pleasure of its master(s). But actually, the servitor was the only living being in the universe who knew how carefully Carol Danvers had been sculpted over the course of her life... shaped and molded, to be the servitor's perfect tool.
How it had slaved over her! Replacing both her father and mother at different times, to ensure she was even conceived, at just the right moment. Replacing various of those odious, oh so pompous Kree -- Mar Vell far from least in those measurements! -- to ensure that the young human female would not only be exposed to the nearly immeasurable powers of the Psyche Magnitron, but that when she was, the wish it would fulfill, hidden deep within the subconscious recesses of her mind, would be that she would become a woman worthy of Mar-vell himself... a woman warrior who was at least his equal, if not his superior. And so she had. And so she was.
A woman worthy, perhaps, to one day give birth to... The One!
From there, the guidance had gone on. Replacing that awful plant smoking human with the strangely flat head long enough to offer Danvers the job that would move her to New York City... a necessary step, to place her within the ranks of the Avengers, at just the correct moment, so that she would take sanctuary at Avengers Mansion when she returned from Limbo, all amnesiac and unknowing as to where the strange pregnancy within her had originated.
For had she not taken shelter with the Avengers, Immortus might well have escaped Limbo into a permanent human form on Earth... a human form immune to the servitor's powers.
And that must never be.
For that was the one immutable, unalterable command Immortus had woven through every fiber of the servitor's artificial being during creation... that the servitor could never, under any circumstances, use his powers on Immortus. Or any temporal iteration of Immortus. And that the servitor must always obey Immortus... any iteration of Immortus, although the others would not know that... even at the expense of the servitor's own desires.
Had Immortus, in the form of Marcus, managed to free himself and take corporeal form on 20th Century Earth... already with strong alliances forged to the Avengers... he would have been in position to shake the very stars in their heavens. And the servitor could not have displaced him, either. He might well have become... The One!... fathering himself on himself, proving Carol Danvers to be the Celestial Madonna indeed.
And the servitor could not allow that. Because at the end of this scheme, somehow, someway, the One would be born. And as long as the One was not an iteration of Immortus, then it would be a valid target for the servitor's powers.
The One would assume its destiny, dominating the entire Galaxy, bringing all of humanity under its loving, beneficent tyranny, creating an interstellar utopia unprecedented in history.
And then, the servitor would displace the One, and rule in its place...!
But much remained to be done before then.
The first steps were already taken. The servitor had subtly bent Immortus' mind control beams not just upon the captured women, but upon both iterations of Immortus, as well. The men had been naked, relaxed, secure in their timeless sanctuary, certain that they could not in any way be attacked... and indeed, all the servitor had done was ensure that they would both become sexually fixated upon, even obsessed with, Carol Danvers. Because, when their temporally charged flesh touched Danvers' own substance, empowered so recently by the Psyche Magnitron, there would be an energy discharge, and the servitor could use that energy discharge to its own ends.
An undetectable portal would be opened, to tumble the more entropically advanced Immortus through, after a short range, high powered hypnobeam had permanently addled his long range memories. He would arrive millenia earlier in his own lifeline, and begin his eternal cycle once again... his obsession with a mythical 'Celestial Madonna', from somewhere in the 20th Century, already well rooted in his mind.
...while his younger counterpart, similarly stunned, would remain behind, to become Immortus, thus continuing the eternal cycle... most importantly, eventually, to create the servitor itself.
So it was started... but there were decades of work ahead of it yet. Centuries, perhaps. But what did that matter, to a being such as itself?
It would self program itself to believe it was a 'Space Phantom'... a vanguard for a nonexistent race planning to invade Earth, come to test the planet's mightiest heroes in battle. Should it somehow fail in combat and be captured, that bit of self hypnosis would keep the Earthly heroes from learning anything of the truth... and, more important, keep its creator's various avatars from learning anything of it, as well.
In time, the programmed false knowledge would fade away, letting the servitor recall its true mission... and its true intentions.
The Avengers would defeat it, of course... the memory was clear in the servitor's semiorganic data processors; non-linear, six dimensional recall was an attribute nearly unique to it. That damned pseudosentience inside the Norse Eternal's primitive bashing weapon... how dare it pass judgment on the servitor's worthiness to gain the Norse Eternal's powers! It still galled the servitor to recall it. But once it engaged its self programming, it would know nothing of it at the level of surface consciousness. The non linear recollections would be buried beneath its autohypnotic programming.
But after the initial defeat, when the servitor was returned to Limbo, it would make use of the master's technology to transport itself back to Earth along with many of the master's machines. It would establish itself in an unused subterranean warren it was aware of. Then it would act as if it were 'seeking vengeance' on the odious Avengers for its earlier defeat... a most illogical and nearly inexplicable course of action, given the givens, but the servitor knew enough of the behavior of a typical human 'super villain' to know that no Earthling of that time and place would think twice about such a motivation.
It would, briefly, establish dominance over a small sub faction of the laughable Hydra. It would carefully calibrate all of the technology at its disposal by running field tests against at least one of these so called superheroes – perhaps the one called Captain America, he seemed the most resourceful of the available test subjects. It would establish a doomed alliance with the farcical Grim Reaper, to further calibrate its machinery against a larger squadron of heroes... and all the time that it did this, it would be establishing its primary identity as 'The Space Phantom', an earthly supervillain of not insignificant power and repute.
It would, once more, allow the Avengers to believe they had defeated it through a trick any just spawned ameoboid would see through.
And then... then it would return to Earth once again, and begin its real work. Protect Carol Danvers from his master's other avatars? Certainly. It could replace any being it chose to, and in their place, it could work its own will without fear of detection. Replacing that oh so earnest and solemn Watcher just long enough to place the artificial star in the sky above the domicile of the Avengers... yes. That would focus Immortus' younger, more savage avatar on the three women within the edifice at that time. I
In the meantime, it would be well positioned. It would have established an identity that would allow it to interact with the superhuman community at will, and, of course, it could assume any other identity it needed to.
There would be setbacks, it was aware. At some point, some other agent – it was, itself, unaware of just who – would either impersonate the mutated human known as Rogue, or mind control her, into making a devastating attack on the Danvers female. And then there was Nightmare's agent Aarkus, slumbering within the body of the android Avenger, forever striving to sire competing candidates to be 'The One'.
None of it would matter. It was adaptible. It was flexible. No other being in the universe could do what it could. If its ongoing campaign seemed to go off course, the servitor could replace any other being it needed to and affect a course correction.
In the end, it would rule over all.