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Survivors

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Valeria's team arrived on time between the two giant feet, each of them having taken different routes around the enormous corpse taking as many readings as they could. Her own instruments were giving precious little insight; of course, it was hard to pick out anything other than the background radiation which permeated Battleworld, but seemed particularly powerful here. Then again, perhaps that was why the Sheriff had recommended building the castle here in the first place, although he would doubtless have some maddeningly imprecise way of describing the phenomenon.

Dragon was the first to speak. "This is truly fascinating."

"But with the added appeal of being ever-so-slightly gross," Bentley put in cheerily.

"It's certainly the weirdest autopsy I've ever taken part in," Alex said.

Valeria rolled her eyes. "I think Dad's going to want just a little more detail than 'very weird'," she said.

"It's some giant guy in a purple suit," Bentley said. "With a funny-looking helmet."

"But no strange power readings?" Dad had asked Valeria quite specifically to be on the lookout for anything anomalous.

"Only from him," Alex said, nodding to where Sheriff Strange was deep in conversation with Mom and Uncle Johnny, while Franklin played in between their legs. Alex showed Valeria the inverted readings they had begun to associate with the Sheriff, which seemed to be spiking as he spoke. Dragon had built some theoretical models around the idea of "Strange particles", but so far they always had problems with unresolvable singularities.

"So this corpse is ... just a corpse?" she asked.

"A giant corpse," Bentley said gleefully, "with a funny-looking helmet."

"Yes, thank you, Bentley."

"There are similarities to the 'Sentinel' robots we've observed in several domains," Dragon said. "But only superficial ones. This is definitely an organic being."

"There's definitely something strange going on," Alex said. "In terms of surface area to volume ratios alone ..."

"So you're saying there must have been some sort of power involved while he was alive?" Valeria asked.

"There must have been an immense power involved simply to keep him alive," Alex said.

"If there was, there's no detectable residue from it now," Dragon said.

"OK," Valeria said with a sigh. "Thanks everyone. I'll go and report our non-findings."

"A null result is still a result," Alex said.

"And absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," Dragon added.

"Ask your dad to consider putting me in charge instead of disbanding the Foundation entirely," Bentley said, in his infuriating way that made it impossible to tell how much he was joking.

They had been gathering data on Battleworld for months now, albeit mostly remotely given that Dad said that many areas were still too dangerous, despite his ongoing efforts to expand the ranks of the Thors, and Uncle Ben's mysterious and still ongoing mission to the south. They'd been able to make a few field trips to the two Manhattans, which were at least relatively stable against external threats thanks to their high concentrations of metahumans, but this was the first time they'd been invited to be involved in a major project: the completion of Castle Doom itself.

As she walked over to Dad, Sheriff Strange peeled himself away from her family and fell into step beside her. She would have to get used to him being involved, she supposed. In a way, his taking an interest was the strongest proof that the Foundation wasn't just a little project to keep her out of everyone's hair.

"So, child," Dad said when she reached him. "What did you find out?"

"We didn't detect anything unusual at all from the corpse. Apart from the obvious."

Dad didn't respond; Valeria searched his eyes within the mask for any sign of an emotion -- she'd got good at that -- but they were unreadable.

"Then the last vestiges of the Power Cosmic are truly gone," Sheriff Strange said eventually. At that, there was a flicker of sadness in Dad's eyes, just for a moment.

"You're not mad that we didn't find anything?" Valeria said.

"No, child," Dad said. "I have full confidence in your ability to find anything that is there to be found."

He turned away. Valeria was unsure what was going to happen next.

"Please could you all come over here?" the Sheriff said. Mom, Uncle Johnny, her team from the Foundation, and the two Thors who had been patrolling the whole time gathered around them.

"Today marks a new chapter in the history of Battleworld," Sheriff Strange intoned grandly. "You are all privileged to be here to witness the placing of the final piece in the construction of Castle Doom: Galactus himself."

Dad raised his arms and the giant figure lying on the grass levitated into the air. Slowly, carefully, he rotated it into an upright position and floated it up to the highest battlements, where it fused with the structure of the castle. Valeria couldn't resist sneaking a peek at her instruments: the readings were off the scale, but indistinguishable in kind from the background. She could feel new hypotheses beginning to form in the back of her mind, but couldn't quite articulate them yet.

Franklin applauded, but no one joined in, so he stopped again.

"So what is a Galactus anyway?" Valeria asked once the rigid posture Dad had adopted while exercising his powers had relaxed into the merely stiffened one of his everyday self.

"A symbol," he said.

When he didn't elaborate, Valeria pressed the point. "A symbol of what?"

"Fear," Sheriff Strange said. "And power. Almost all of the Barons will have at least an atavistic memory of the Devourer. To visit Doomstadt and see that their ruler commands even such fundamental constants of the old universe will be a proper reminder of their liege's omnipotence and put them in a more ... tractable state of mind for their audience."

"NO," came her father's voice in its full God Emperor tone, the one that made Valeria's spine shake inside her, that made it hard to imagine that he could ever be anything as mundane as anyone's father.

It was rare for him to directly contradict Sheriff Strange. Rarer still to do it like that. Wisely, he didn't press the point. But Valeria wanted to know. "Then what?"

She looked up into her father's mask entreatingly. Seeing her own diminished reflection made her feel suddenly very small.

"A symbol of survival," he said eventually. "Galactus existed in the world before this world, but he came from the world before that. He built a giant worldship, an ark, to survive its end and come to the next universe. And we, the survivors of that next universe, have built an entire world."

Dad didn't usually like to talk about the world before. Valeria had a thousand more questions she wanted to ask, prompted by both this sudden openness and the specific details he had just given her, but they fell into irrelevance when she heard Mom yell "Franklin!"

Looking up, she saw Franklin scrambling up the side of the castle towards the Galactus figure. She began running towards him instinctively, and then everything was happening at once: Mom was extending her forcefields and Uncle Johnny was a flaming streak in the sky above flying towards him.

Suddenly, there was a huge roaring flame rising from between the prongs of Galactus's helmet. Had Uncle Johnny set light to it by mistake? Where was Franklin? Beside her, Mom seemed to be genuinely panicked in a way that scared Valeria more than anything else. Then she spotted Franklin and grabbed Mom's arm, shouting "Look!"

He was sat -- no, levitating -- cross-legged in the heart of the flames. "Franklin?" she shouted upwards in unison with her mom.

And then, the ground suddenly disappeared from under her. Valeria realised that they were all moving up towards him, propelled by nothing less than the will of the God Emperor himself. She had never been the direct object of his powers before now; in any other circumstances she would have been taking careful note of any variations in the readings and their subjective correlates. As it was, she merely experienced relief that Franklin seemed to be OK.

Soon, all of the family and Sheriff Strange were stood at the top of the castle, next to the head of its oversized gargoyle. Out of the corner of her eye, Valeria saw Bentley waving up from the ground, but her attention was almost entirely focused on her brother, smiling serenely in the middle of the chaos he had caused.

"Franklin, get down from there this instant!" Mom yelled.

It took a moment for Franklin to realise what was going on, but when he did he jumped down. As he did so, Galactus's head went back to its previous inert state. "Were you all worried? You didn't need to be." Catching the expressions of the grown-ups, he added a "Sorry" but Valeria could tell that it was very definitely for form's sake.

"What were you thinking?" Mom asked.

"I don't know," Franklin said. "It just felt ... right, somehow. When Val was looking over him on the ground he was just some strange giant, but once I saw him upright, it didn't seem right that he wasn't ... awake." He looked around at the grown ups pleadingly. "I know I worried you all -- I am sorry -- but can I come and play with him again?"

Mom seemed about to reply when Dad said, "Of course, child."

Franklin ran over and hugged his leg. Valeria caught the uncomfortable look in Dad's eyes, and Mom's cold anger at his overruling her, but her brother was oblivious, almost blissfully happy.

Eventually, Mom took Franklin away, lecturing him about asking permission. Uncle Johnny followed, giving examples of his own irresponsible behaviour giving rise to problems, but as always at such times he made them sound all too fun to count as cautionary tales.

"What just happened?" her father asked, all business. "I am not displeased, if some vestige of some type of power subsists within your brother. It may even be of benefit to have the castle's beacon lit. But I am surprised."

"Me too," Valeria said. "I had no idea that was going to happen."

"I am also at a loss," Sheriff Strange admitted.

"It wasn't Galactus," Valeria said, thinking on her feet. "We would have seen something. It must have been Franklin. Or some ... synergistic thing between the two of them." She looked up, beaming brightly. "We'll figure it out. I'll get Franklin to come and we'll run some tests. He should get more involved in the Foundation anyway. Maybe he can figure out his own story."

"Very well," Dad said. "I will leave it in your capable hands. You will both excuse me; I have some other matters to attend to." His cape swished behind him as he retreated into the staircase.

"Well, that was a more eventful day than I had anticipated," the Sheriff said. Valeria thought she detected a shift in his manner towards her; he was speaking as one colleague to another, not adult to child. Something had happened here today -- either the work she had done, or the way Dad had responded to it -- that had made him reassess how he related to her.

She tried to respond in a similar fashion. "Every day on Battleworld is eventful, judging by the reports you give Dad."

"True enough," he said. "And like your father, I have business to attend to, so I'm afraid I must leave you." But he stopped at the stairs, turned back, and said, "Always remember, Valeria, your father is omnipotent, but not omniscient."

"Well, that's what he has us for, right? You to tell him all that boring stuff about which barons are feuding with each other and where the Thors were busy today, and me to figure out what's really going on around here." She looked down at the team from the Foundation, saw them poring over their instruments as they tried to make sense of what had just happened with Franklin. "With a little help, of course."

"You mistake my meaning," the Sheriff said. "Your father is omnipotent. Whatever he believes to be true is true, by definition. Those of us with the opportunity to shape his beliefs must be very mindful of the potential consequences. For ourselves, for those around us, for all of Battleworld."

"So what are you saying: what he doesn't know can't hurt us?"

"Something like that. But please do think very carefully before sharing your theories with him. Especially where your brother is concerned."

Valeria nodded, then said, "So, Sheriff, what are the things you don't tell Dad?"

As he turned to go, Sheriff Strange gave her a smile, but Valeria noticed that it didn't reach his eyes.