The race for the shards of the Cosmic Cube is on in Secret Empire #4 as writer Nick Spencer and artists Rod Reis and Lienil Francis Yu bring together Steve Rogers’ Hydra Avengers and Tony Stark’s underground team in Ultron’s stronghold. Along the way, longstanding questions about Secret Empire are answered - and secrets are revealed.
Spoilers ahead for Secret Empire #4.
Opening where last issue left off, Secret Empire #4 starts the Punisher being castigated by Kraken before Steve Rogers - the only leader of Hydra that Punisher is willing to answer to - steps in and asks for a progress report on Punisher’s mission to catch Black Widow. Frank says he has a new lead and is hot on the trail. Meanwhile, jumping to Black Widow and the Champions, Natasha investigates a low-level Hydra agent. As she threatens the agent’s life, the Champions step in, with Riri Williams offering to wipe the agent’s mind instead. Seeing an opportunity, the Hydra agent attacks, forcing Black Widow to shoot him down.
At this point, the stage is set for a confrontation between Tony’s team (Clint Barton, Quicksilver, Mockingbird, Sam Wilson, Hercules, Scott Lang) and Steve’s team (Odinson, Black Ant, Taskmaster, Scarlet Witch, the Vision). As Steve and Tony exchange barbs and prepare for a Civil War-style rematch, Hank Pym/Ultron intervenes, subduing all the combatants and sitting them down at a table in a replica of Avengers Mansion for “family dinner.”
The assembled opposing Avengers teams - minus Black Ant and Taskmaster, not part of Pym’s Avengers memories - argue, as Pym tries to recapture the team’s glory days. He explains that Ultron has not intervened in their conflict because the A.I. has deduced that the most efficient way to destroy the heroes is to let them follow their current course.
In the course of the confrontation, the reasons for some of the heroes joining Hydra are revealed - Scarlet Witch is possessed by the chaos demon Chthon, the Vision is infected with nanites, and Odinson simply believes he’s doing what’s right for Asgard.
When Tony picks a fight with Pym/Ultron - who says he’s angry that no one respects him as an Avenger - over the time he hit Jan, Ultron rapidly grows in size and prepares to destroy everyone. Just as he’s about to go over the edge, Scott Lang steps in and calms his mentor down. In return, Pym/Ultron gives him the Cosmic Cube shard in his possession. As Tony’s team leaves victorious, Cap is left in a rage over Pym’s actions, which he feels violate their treaty, which allows Ultron to build his own armies of robots as long as they don’t interfere with Hydra’s borders - and questioning whether he’s actually talking to Pym or Ultron.
After Tony’s team departs, vowing to track down the rest of the Cosmic Cube shards, they witness the unthinkable - Namor has arrived on the surface to solidify Atlantis’ treaty with Hydra by handing over his shard of the Cosmic Cube. With one remaining known shard in New Tian with Xorn and an unknown number remaining throughout the world, this means their advantage is short-lived.
As the heroes lament that the tally of shards is now one-to-one - and that they don’t know how many either side will need to access the power of the cube - Steve reveals privately to Zemo that it doesn’t matter how many shards Tony’s team steals, he’ll have them all - because Hydra has an undercover operative among them.
Secret Empire #5 is due out on shelves June 28.