"That should do it for the upgrade, Aaron. The Watcher's dimension-scanning technology should be able to widen its focus now."
"Good to hear, Reed. I'm starting up the machinery now. This shouldn't take too long."
"You're telling me that this is the first time since this technology was installed on the moon that it's needed any improvements?"
"Hard to believe, but yes. And the human race was young then. The Watchers certainly built their equipment to last."
"Where is Uatu, anyway? I haven't seen him since I got here."
"He isn't thrilled about you being here, Reed. The last time you were here, you made some theories about the nature of humanity's relationship to the Celestials that threatened to force him to rethink his low opinion of humanity."
"Oh, well that's a shame. Every time I visit this lunar installation, I find myself inspired to explore new theories and create new things."
"It's funny you should mention that, Reed: the nature of inspiration is the very thing I plan to investigate."
WATCHER'S OBSERVATORY -- EARTH'S MOON
"Very recently, Uatu and I discovered the existence of an entire strata of reality very much like our own, but positioned at a section of the cosmos where no alternate Earth should exist. Upon further inspection, the dimensions turned out to be the constructs of some entity -- or entities' -- imagination. I've dubbed those beings 'The Authors' because the realities I'm seeing appear to exist as stories told by the beings."
"An understatement if I've ever heard one. Ah, the equipment is now operational."
"What happens on those fabricated worlds?"
"The ones I've seen so far seem to focus on the X-Men for some reason. On one, Charles Xavier died in a battle at the mansion, and the survivors held a funeral pyre. On another, a virus ravaged the world, and those who weren't killed were deeply affected, both physically and psychologically. The X-Men especially. They're falling apart at the seams.
"Now I'm attuning the equipment to scan for other similar worlds. Let's see what kind of trouble the Authors have gotten the X-Men into this time."
"Must they always be X-Men, Aaron? I would hope they'd have interest in other Earthlings. Perhaps some of Earth's other heroes?"
"All right. I'll search for a story about Spider-Man."
"Actually, I was rather selfishly hoping for one involving the Fantastic Four, but this could prove interesting."
"Here, he's facing down a Sentinel in an alley. He looks scared, rambling a mile a minute. I don't think he's very experienced as a superhero at this point."
"It's always been my experience that Spider-Man hid his insecurities behind jokes. That might be why he retired and sank into a depression before becoming a policeman: the jokes weren't an adequate cover anym-- oh. Where did that energy blast come from?"
"The mouth of the alley, I think. The blast just cleaved off the Sentinel's head. That looked painful."
"Painful? The Sentinel is a robot."
"So am I, remember?"
"Sorry. I believe the crimson energy blast is familiar. Ah, just as I thought: it was fired by Cyclops."
"And here we were trying to gain a respite from X-Men. This Cyclops is rather young like Spider-Man. And apparently possessed of a penchant for leather."
"The two aren't getting off to a very good start, are they?"
"Considering one is telling the other how to do his job, apparently so."
"It makes sense. I don't see Cyclops and Spider-Man having much in common."
"Their costumed personae might not, but their human identities -- Peter Parker and Scott Summers -- actually possess alarmingly similar past histories. Peter Parker's parents were killed in an airplane accident. So were Scott's. They were both orphaned. The difference here is how they were raised. Peter was taken in by his Uncle Ben and Aunt May; Scott was a ward of the foster system and bounced from home to home. Shortly after his optic beams manifested, he struck out on his own and lived on the streets, forming a hard edge and need for discipline. It wasn't until he was found by Charles Xavier that Scott had a direction in life as a founding member of the X-Men."
"Peter's life was more sheltered, I take it."
"Yes, but no less embattled, Reed. His small stature and affinity for science caused him to be the object of antagonism among his school peers. He was able to find peace in very few people: his uncle, his aunt, his best friend Mary Jane Watson, and a jock named Harry Osborn, who at first used Peter to do his homework. The legacy of Peter's father turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing, it seems."
"Yes. On our Earth, Peter's parents were government spies. In this reality, it seems Peter's father was a scientist instead. He passed along his intellect to Peter, as well as his scientific equipment and research notes. Peter finished one of Richard Parker's last experiments by using it as the base formula for his web fluid."
"Which he used as Spider-Man. That seems like a blessing to me."
"Yes, but Richard's possessions were bequeathed to Peter after his parents' death, so they are constant reminders of what Peter no longer has. He grew up in his uncle's care knowing that he is following the footsteps of someone lost to him.
"Even worse, the accident which endowed Peter with the abilities of a scientifically-altered spider set into motion a chain of events which led to his uncle's death."
"Which is why he became Spider-Man in the first place."
"Exactly. In fact, it seems Peter has only been Spider-Man a short time when he encounters Cyclops. Which brings us to what the two have in common: Cyclops and Spider-Man have both become heroes for the sake of self-redemption."
"What would Peter have to redeem himself of?"
"The murder of his uncle by a burglar was indirectly Peter's fault because Peter had refused to stop the thief when he had the chance previously. Peter now feels a heavy responsibility tied to his power, as does Scott. The two have enough in common -- unbeknownst to them -- that a bond between them is being formed as we speak."
"It looks as if Peter's view of Cyclops is turning into hero worship. I see him now in his room studying a device Cyclops gave him. Looks to be a communicator or a homing device. How is Cyclops handling their encounter?"
"Not so well, from the looks of things. Focusing in on Scott in Westchester, he seems to be unimpressed with Spider-Man, and a conversation about him with Iceman is annoying Scott to no end."
"Then if I may make a theory to tie all this together: if this is in fact an alternate-reality story the Authors are telling about Spider-Man and Cyclops, then the focus must be on their interpersonal dynamics."
"Maybe the Author wanted to see what would happen if those two were put together in the same situation, to see how their differences and similarities mesh. The inspiration to do that must have been enough for the Author to create a story--"
"Which happens to be the alternate world we're seeing. The possibilities here are astounding, Aaron."
"My thoughts exactly. Now, I'm going to scan for another alternate reality with narrowed parameters. Let's see if we can find something having to do with the Authors' inspiration. Ah, here we go."
"Is that what I think it is?"
"If you think it's a mass of energy that looks like a half-ton rabbit, then yes."
"The Authors dreamed this up?"
"Apparently so. It seems there's more than one. They're multiplying exponentially."
No one had been in the steel corridors below the mansion for decades. No one human or mutant, anyway; the spiders, on the other hand, had made themselves right at home.
It was cold as well, and his students complained about the the lack of heat. All but two of them, anyway: Dogface had a natural fur coat, and Tower was forced to stay aboveground in the mansion, because he was too big to fit in the corridor.
The hum of the generators increased in volume, then sounded strained from neglect. At least the generators still had power.
Scott entered the communications room, tossing a comment at his students, "I'm adding 'clear out cobwebs and dust from lower levels' to your list of chores, class." He smiled slightly at their collective groan and started up the main computer.
Half an hour, two faulty startups, three crashes, and a connection error later, he was finally in business.
"When do we get to see the Danger Room, Mr. S?" Dogface muttered as he sat on the cold floor with his back against the wall. "We've been here forever."
"Just be patient," Scott answered as he dialed up Marshall Jack Muldoon's headquarters in Manhattan. Or at least prepared to. A dialog box appeared on the screen, heralding an incoming message. "What in--?"
Muldoon's face appeared on the screen, grey-haired and craggy with age. "I've been tryin' to reach you for two days, Summers," he drawled, his accent making it obvious why he was known as Texas Jack.
"Well, speak of the devil," Summers replied. "I just got this thing back up and running, and I was just about to call you."
Muldoon's eyebrows raised. "What for? Somethin' wrong?"
"Other than the Cerebro device being stolen from this place? Not much."
"A mutant-detecting computer system."
Confusion crossed Jack's features. "Why would you need that? Ev'rybody's a mutant."
"I'm well aware of that, Marshall. It was created by Charles Xavier long before the world's population mutated. Now it's missing."
"But who'd want to--? Never mind. I'll start an investigation on it."
"Thanks for your help, Marshall. The Cerebro unit is an important part of the mansion." Even if it is useless, he mentally added. "You said you've been trying to contact me. What did you want?"
Muldoon's brow furrowed and his lips pursed in thought, as if pondering how to phrase his next sentence. "I was wondering if you'd, ah, like to take on some more students."
Summers paused. "Come again?"
"Since you're startin' up the Xavier school again, I thought you might like to--"
"At this point, I barely have the resources to teach the five students I have, let alone--"
"I'm well aware of that, Mr. Summers. But I think you should consider takin' these particular youngsters under your wing, and give 'em a direction."
Summers made an informed guess. "They're juvenile delinquents, aren't they?"
"Well, uh, yes," Muldoon confirmed. "They're good kids, but they need a second chance, an' I figured with your past history an' all--"
"What about my past history?" Scott's question was sharper than he'd intended, but he hated the idea of someone using his long-buried past as a lever to get him to do something.
"Well, accordin' to files," Muldoon drawled, "you were a juvenile delinquent yourself, once upon a time, so you'd be a good choice to give these kids a second chance. Prisons're gettin' overcrowded with young people who don't know what t'do with their powers other than t'cause general hate an' discontent. You got a school for mutants, there, Mr. Summers, so it'd be highly irresponsible not to--"
Summers let out a sigh. "Fair enough. But as I said, I don't have the resources--"
"I thought you regained control of the Xavier estate an' fortune?"
"Just what's left of his estate. His fortune is gone."
"Oh. In that case, I'll give you the funding you need."
"How many kids are we talking about?"
"Thirteen for starters."
Summers frowned. "Three."
"Mr. Summers, you--"
"I still have misgivings about this. I don't know how this is going to work out. And if there's anything I know about teaching, it's that schools get the short end of the stick where funding is concerned. I'll start out with three of yours to add to the five I already have, to see how that works. In a month, if it works, I'll take on more students. But I don't want this to get out of hand right off the bat. Otherwise, no deal."
Muldoon emitted a long-suffering sigh. "Okay, three students. It's a deal."
"So who are the three?"
"I'll have to get back to you on that. Give us a while to narrow down the list."
Which means I'll get the ones who need teaching the most, Summers thought, which of course means I'll get the three worst ones of the bunch. Oh joy. "All right. I'll be in touch. Bye."
Summers terminated the signal and shook his head. "I'd ask what else could go wrong today if I weren't so afraid of the answer," he muttered.
"Perhaps it's showing us exactly what we asked for, just not the way we expected. One thing I've learned in my years of scientific investigation is to have an open mind about the discoveries one comes across."
"Fair enough, but how could this possibly relate to the Authors' inspiration?"
"Let's examine what they're made of. You said these constructs were created by the Authors' imagination. The energy signatures I'm reading seem consistent with--"
"With the physical makeup of the Asgardians, I know. They were also shapeless energy beings that took the shape of the myths and legends of the humans they encountered."
"So I've heard, but actually I was thinking of someone else. Like my son Franklin."
"Galactus? Oh, that's right."
"He became Galactus when he reached the third tier of mutation: physical identity given shape by the whims of others. The first thing he saw when he reached that stage was Galactus' empty helmet."
"You'd turned the original Galactus into a star before that."
"Yes. But because there needed to be a balance to the cosmos, I had to let Franklin believe he was Galactus and assume his form. I had to go against every parental instinct I had in order to do that. I had to let him go and deny who he was . . ."
"Because if he knew he was Franklin, he couldn't be Galactus. And the Silver Surfer tagged along to enforce the charade and to steer Galactus toward uninhabited worlds. He also played on Galactus' newfound benevolence so he could have his old love Shalla-Bal back."
"All that was possible because the form he acheived at that mutational stage was vulnerable to suggestion. My son was shaped by imagination."
"Okay, now about the rabbits . . . ."
"Oh, yes. I believe this relates to something I found out when Franklin was young. He was afraid of the balls of dust that had collected under his bed, and because his young mind couldn't understand what those things were . . . he was frightened and shrieked for his mother and myself to protect him. I was about to explain to him what those dust particles were -- sadly heedless of the fact that he wouldn't have understood anyway -- when Sue simply calmed him down by calling them 'dust bunnies'."
"Yes. His perception of them changed now that he had a less-threatening concept of them based on a simple name. Giving something a name establishes a point of reference based on perception, after all."
"Yes, I'm well aware of that. Like naming these entities Authors."
"Exactly. Storytelling may not even be their purpose, for all we know."
"I still don't see how this relates to rabbits."
"I'm not sure, either, other than perhaps we're not seeing a specific 'story' being told. What if we're seeing their terminology for an aspect of the storytelling process? I'd wager that concepts can be given physical form just as easily as stories."
"Perhaps. Hmmm. Interesting: the rabbits are continuing to multiply on the screen. They number in the thousands now. And on this other monitor, which keeps track of the realities themselves, it seems the worlds themselves are increasing in a similar fashion."
"Alternate worlds are being split off from a single host world."
"Exactly. It seems to me these rabbits -- whatever concept they represent -- are the key."
"We might be seeing stories being spawned from a common idea. If we must call these rabbits something, why not 'plot bunnies'?"
"You must be joking, Reed."
"It's the same principle as dust bunnies: an affectionate name for handy terminology. I can certainly see the similarities between the multiplication of realities and the reproductive capabilities of rabbits."
"I believe this scientific exploration has taken a turn for the bizarre."
'Bizarre' was the best word Susan Richards could think of to describe what had happened to Manhattan. Her nephews, Buzz and Chuck Grimm, had a different word for it:
The four of them -- counting the twins' mother Alicia Grimm -- rode in a cable car making its way across the East River and up toward the center of Manhattan Island.
The center was now two miles above ground level, and looked vaguely human.
"So who was that, anyway?" Chuck asked as he and his brother gazed at the city's human-shaped face."
"Carl Creel, the Absorbing Man," the tram car's tourguide answered. "He could change his body texture and mass to copy anything he touched. In this case, he touched and absorbed the entire cityscape into himself before he was talked out of destroying everything."
Chuck looked up at him, adjusting his glasses. "Who talked him out of it?"
"You ask too many questions, Chuck," Buzz chided, poking his head out of the window as if trying to decide where to spit.
"Loki, from what I understand," Sue answered, to the guide's surprise. "He was a trickster god trying to do good, I guess. Even though I heard he was the one who allowed Creel to be reassembled in the first place. But Loki convinced him to turn himself into vibranium in order to replace what was missing from the Earth's core. Creel wanted a statue to be left in his honor for saving the world, so he left a shell of himself behind instead of reverting the city back to the way it was."
"Now we're getting used to living in a sideways city," the tourguide commented. "But hey, New Yorkers have always been known to adapt to anything."
"Which explains how that louse Norman Osborn was in office for so long," another New Yorker groused, referring to the former President of the United States.
The guide ignored the comment. "We're almost to the top, now. You can see pretty much everything from here." His brow furrowed in thought, noticing something. "That's weird . . . this car should be going a lot faster than this. Feels like it's sluggish. Must be a problem with the pulley."
Sue and Alicia smiled at Chuck and Buzz, two growing boys who possessed both the image and the relative bulk of their father. Combined, their weight was almost enough to exceed the cable car's weight limit along with everyone else in the car. "No jumping around, boys," Alicia warned them. "You're shaking the car as it is." Her eyes glowed brighter for extra emphasis.
"Sorry, mom," they chorused, then took turns spitting out the window.
"And no spitting off the cable car, either," she added.
"Aww, mom . . . ."
Below them, the hollow shell that put the 'man' in 'Manhattan' remained silent, a remnant of a feat of imagination gone out of control.
Bruce Banner saw hollow shells everywhere.
As he and the Hulk made their way through the hospital -- once a Terrigen-Mist-burning 'Human Torch' tower -- they had to carefully step over the bodies of the injured. There were more dying people than there were beds, and that number increased daily.
However, Bruce debated the appropriateness of applying the word 'dying' to these people. Because the cosmically-powered Mar-Vell had obliterated the physical manifestation of Death, no one could die, no matter how badly injured.
That was why he was here. The giant green gorilla otherwise known as the Hulk gingerly carried the body of once such victim, backpack and all, on his back while Banner walked by his side. They stopped at the reception desk, and Banner announced, "I've got a new patient for you: assault victim" to the receptionist and nearest doctor.
If there was a word to describe the medical staff, it was haggard. They had been working nonstop to attempt to treat their patients, but there were just too many. "Name?" the receptionist inquired, her tired voice barely audible.
Banner opened his mouth to say something, then realized he didn't know the victim's name. He'd determined her sex, but that was it. "Uh, hold on." He felt around blindly and reached into the pocket of her jeans as she lay unconscious on Hulk's back, and rooted through it to find a wallet. He found one and removed it, opening it and placing it in front of the Hulk so he could read it by proxy.
Sure enough, there was her ID. "Lizzie Campbell," he reported to the receptionist, who proceeded to hand him a stack of paperwork to fill out. "Great," he muttered. "I don't even know anything about her, and Lizzie's not in any condition to help me out."
The orderlies, though weary of the Hulk, managed to take Lizzie off the creature's back and put her on a stretcher so she can be taken to an examination. As they did this, Bruce (via the Hulk) quickly snagged the backpack she was carrying and walked over to the waiting room to sit down and fill out the paperwork. He unzipped her backpack and rooted through it for any information on her that would be useful. He discovered five college textbooks, countless papers, the name of her college and apartment address, and other vaguely helpful items.
Her wallet provided insurance information, but it was an item in her bag that kept drawing Banner's attention. He pulled out a small spiral notebook with the word, "POETRY" written on the cover in magic marker. He debated the pros and cons of snooping into her personal items. "I'm already going through her wallet and backpack anyway," he reasoned, then opened the notebook. Half the pages were filled with poetry, the subject matter mostly happy and optimistic at first skim.
He noticed a few of them seemed to be about poetry itself, suggesting that she was still fairly new to writing. Banner knew very little about poetry, but he had to admit he liked what he saw so far. Sort of. He decided to read the poems a bit more extensively, to see if he could gain insight into who Lizzie was as a person. That was a question that intrigued him all of a sudden. A good place to start, he hypothesized, was a piece called "Inspiration":
When I place pen to paper
Fingers to keys
I am carried by a spark
like a match struck against
a glance between two people
an unanswered question
an idle thought
a single word
Starts a domino effect
strike into spark
spark into thought
thought into theme
theme into framework
frame into story
story into poem
All fall into place
with mounting energy
leading to the next
toppling the next
a rising tsunami
"By observing Bruce Banner on Earth, I believe we may have just uncovered a large part of the puzzle concerning inspiration."
"Well, that is why I've kept the scanners tuned to Earth. As for the story worlds, Reed . . . I think I see something interesting."
"As you can see on the monitor, the number of realities is now in the tens of thousands. The equipment has picked up so many that it's hard to pick out individual Earths in the cluster.
"But look closely: there's something in the middle connecting them all."
"I see it, Aaron. A reality composed differently from the others, and extending vertically in either direction. A central hub, if you will."
"Could that be where the Authors are located?"
"Perhaps. It's certainly too soon to rule anything out. But look at these readings. All identifiable lifeforms inside the hub seem to be of the same type as the beings inside the 'stories' themselves."
"Then that would mean . . . what exactly? That the constructs are all aware of each other? That seems to be a central meeting place."
"See if you can get a peek inside the hub."
"All right. Reconfiguring sensors . . . interesting. The hub is certainly created the same way as the other realities. The interior decoration -- for lack of a better term -- is consistent, yet . . . ."
"Yet it's still unique."
"Yes. Apparently, this is a place for the various 'characters' to interact, and everyone seems to see this place differently."
"Which might suggest that these beings are sentient."
"It might. But then, they could only be aware of this arrangement only because the Authors will them to be."
"And then they return to their own worlds, oblivious to this, when the Authors use them in their stories."
"The logic is rather odd, don't you think? The Authors create these characters out of the fabric of this group reality, base them on beings from our reality -- or alternate versions thereof -- and use them to tell stories. Then they create a subjective central place -- called 'Subreality', according to several signs and documents therein -- to give the characters 'downtime'--"
"Even though the characters wouldn't need it if the Authors didn't cause them to need it."
"So what do you think that says about the Authors themselves?"
"I don't know, Aaron. That they have more control over this framework than they probably should?"
"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."
"Loners" by Wyzeguy
C-FAN's "Subreality" Round Robin by Kielle, et. al
"Inspiration" poem inspired by the poetry of Perch_and_Creep
(Endnote: the Subreality mentioned by Reed and X-51 includes not only the official Subreality conceived by Kielle, but all imagined OOC meeting places for fanfic characters and authors. This will be made clearer as the series progresses.)