It is a time of fear and uncertainty. Professor Charles Xavier and the X-men are in the midst of a new conflict. From the destruction of the Legacy Virus, a new enemy has emerged. They call themselves the Mutant Liberation Front. Their intent is unknown, but they have already made their presence felt.
Led by Toad, who recently underwent a mysterious transformation at the hands of the Cambrian, the Mutant Liberation Front unleashed a series of terror attacks all over the world. These attacks are unusual in that civilian casualties have been low for reasons that aren’t yet clear. For the moment, the attacks are meant to cripple the infrastructure and economy of the world. They’ve hit shipping lanes, power stations, and major utilities. It has caused widespread chaos from Genosha to the United States.
As a result, the X-men have focused their efforts on the Mutant Liberation Front. The team is still in a beleaguered state from the aftermath of the Legacy Virus. To make matters worse, Charles Xavier has been keeping secrets about his health again. Since he over-exerted himself to stop the Legacy Virus, he’s been experiencing powerful headaches. He’s been taking medications to manage it, but it is only a matter of time before they catch up to him.
Xavier Institute – Cerebrum
‘So much psychic clutter…it’s like trying to wade through a foggy swamp blindfolded. There must be a psychic dampening field of sorts. If I’m to break through, I must…’
Professor Xavier groaned as he once again exerted himself a bit too hard. He had to abruptly stop his psychic scan and take off the helmet. His headaches were getting worse. It felt as though parts of his brain were on fire. He instinctively reached for a bottle of pills that he kept on his person at all times. Despite having taken an ill-advised dose earlier, he took another to stem the pain. It was the only way he could continue functioning.
“Damn these pills!” he muttered, “They’re challenging me almost as much as Toad.”
While he caught his breath, the doors to Cerebrum opened. The Professor quickly hid his pills as Scott and Hank approached him. They had just come from the Danger Room and seemed every bit as restless as him, but in a far more reasonable capacity.
“I specifically recall you promising to take a break, Charles,” said a somewhat irritated Hank McCoy.
“I actually recall two promises,” said Scott, “I was hoping at least one was serious.”
“I hope you don’t intend to stage an intervention,” said the Professor, “I’m making progress. Cerebrum has been picking up traces of mutant activity on an isolated island in the pacific. The Mutant Liberation Front hide themselves well, but they can’t evade Cerebrum forever.”
“By that same line of reasoning, you can’t evade the side-effects of using Cerebrum for four hours straight. Or did the damage you sustained during the Legacy Virus not make that evident enough?” retorted Hank.
The Professor’s memory of his limits was as clear as Hank’s. The strain his put on himself during that conflict was part of why he was hooked on these powerful pain-killers. He was pushing his luck by doing it again. His students hadn’t forgotten how he lied about his health before. They weren’t going to overlook it again.
“We all share your concern, Professor. We want to find the Mutant Liberation Front as well,” said Cyclops, “I still owe Toad a few optic blasts after the bruises he left during our last encounter.”
“Moreover, the team has been training hard,” added Hank, “Cyclops and I have limited classes so we can conduct more Danger Room sessions. I’ve been amassing reports from every attack thus far and I’ve put together a series of simulations. I’ve even managed to identify a few of the mutants who have joined them.”
“In other words, we’re ready for this!” said Scott strongly, “We’ve taken on the Brotherhood, the Shi’ar, and Sinister. We can take on the Mutant Liberation Front and we can do it without you straining yourself this time.”
Xavier sensed what Hank and Scott were trying to do. They were reminding him that he didn’t need to shoulder the entire burden. The X-men were strong. The Legacy Virus had left them shaken, but intact. However, losing a former student in John Proudstar made him more anxious about the X-men’s mortality.
“I still believe in my X-men. That is never in doubt,” said Xavier, “This new threat just feels so…different. I’m sure you heard the reports. The Mutant Liberation Front started attacking financial centers in Europe and Asia. They also managed to severely damage the Strategic Petroleum Reserve here in America.”
“We’ve been watching the news in between training, sir. We know their exploits,” assured Scott, “We’ve even sent a few out into the field to help. Although I worry that some are using it as an excuse to take a break from training.”
“While I can’t blame them, we don’t have the luxury of breaks,” said Xavier as he turned back towards Cerebrum, “We need to find the Mutant Liberation Front! With each successful attack, our leeway with President Kelly and General Grimshaw wanes!”
“All the more reason to give your mind a rest,” said Hank, grabbing his mentor’s wheelchair before he could reach the console, “There are other ways of seeking leads besides Cerebrum. Tessa and I have been picking up on some interesting energy readings from the attack sties. Perhaps you could help us look into it further?”
“I could lead a study period for the rest of the team since Miss Munroe is still out in the field,” offered Scott, “Hell, I’ll put on a clown suit and dance if it will keep you away from Cerebrum for at least twenty minutes.”
Professor Xavier managed a slight smile. Perhaps he would be wise to heed some alternatives. He relied so much on his psychic abilities. That seemed like his only strength at times due to his physical limitations. But he knew full well that he would only be aiding the Mutant Liberation Front if he pushed himself too far.
“Very well. I’ll help you look into these energy readings, Hank. It may be more productive at this point,” said the Professor as he set aside the helmet.
“Excellent. Now I can tell Jean we don’t need her to telekinetically drag you out of here,” grinned Hank.
“I’ll keep the clown suit handy just in case,” added Scott.
“But all kidding aside, we can’t afford to rest on our laurels,” said the Professor in a more serious tone, “The Mutant Liberation Front has already upset our fragile partnership with the MSA. We must remind them that the X-men can still be trusted to do the right thing.”
“Therein lies the problem, Charles,” sighed Hank, “It’s because we’ve demonstrated how well we can use our mutant abilities that it’s easy to forget we’re still human.”
I seemed like a no-win situation. The MSA, the President, and the world at large were depending on the X-men. They always had to prove their humanity. Even after all the lives they had saved and all the good they had done, they were never going to gain everyone’s trust because that trust was only as strong as their last mistake.
Worthington Industries – New Hampshire Medical Lab
‘Over a billion dollars in trust funds, full access to one of the world’s largest industrial conglomerates, and mutant powers that give me the gift of flight…yet somehow I find a way to make it all worthless. It’s like I look for ways to make life difficult. And for some reason I keep succeeding.’
Warren Worthington III once had to choose between his wings and the woman he loved. His whole life, privileged it may be, was defined by painful choices. But as painful as all these hardships had been, he never felt truly vulnerable. He could always rely on his physical gifts to get him through. Now even his strength was in question.
“They’re falling off again,” he said distantly, looking down at the floor where some of his feathers had gathered.
“That’s to be expected, Mr. Worthington. The damage done by that techno-organic compound you ingested was quite extensive,” said one of his well-paid personal doctors.
“I thought these treatments were supposed to repair that damage!” argued the winged mutant.
“This isn’t the kind of damage that can be fixed with duct tape and pills. Your body sustained damage at the cellular level and your DNA is in a constant state of flux. Without these treatments your wings would be giant tumors by now.”
“Don’t even joke about that, doc. You’re not being paid to give me the worst case scenario. If you can’t find a way to make these treatments work better, then don’t say another word.”
The doctor fell silent while Warren kept holding his head low, saying little else to the doctor or nurse. They were administering a series of treatments through an IV tube that was going into his arm and wings. It was the kind of treatment that the average person didn’t have access to. It was also the kind of treatment that left him feeling like he had a mild flu.
He shouldn’t be here trying hard not to throw up. He should be back at the Worthington Industries Corporate office in New York City, using his family’s vast resources to repair the damage done to the power grid. He knew the X-men were in a tough spot. They were under heavy pressure to stop the Mutant Liberation Front. He was usually in a position to help. Now he was too sick to even help indirectly. Worst of all, he had nobody to blame but himself.
As the doctor finished the treatments, Warren thought back to the grave mistake that left him so ill. He was desperate to stop the Legacy Virus. His army of scientists tried to concoct a cure using the techno-organic material that already did so much damage with Weapon Plus. Desperation bred bad decisions. He decided to play the role of human guinea pig. His doctors advised against it, but as an X-man he was used to taking such ill-advised risks. He never could have imagined that the side-effects would be so devastating.
“We’re just about done, Mr. Worthington,” said the doctor as he replaced the IV fluid, “Give the treatment an hour to work. By then the nausea should lessen. As always, I must advise against…”
“I know. No flying,” muttered Warren, “You don’t need to remind me doc. I can barely glide at this point. At the rate I’m going, a dodo will have more flight capacity than me.”
The doctor didn’t give any further medical advice. Warren wasn’t in a very friendly mood. His doctor left with the nurse, offering only a slight look of sympathy. But no amount of sympathy could change how pathetic he had become.
Looking down at himself, it was hard to believe he was once an X-man. The muscular build that was refined from years of Danger Room training had given way to a much frailer frame. He had lost over thirty pounds since he doused himself with that failed legacy cure. His wings had atrophied and a good chunk of his feathers had fallen off. They were so weak that flying was a real challenge. Being grounded was pure torment. The world was under siege from a new mutant threat and he couldn’t do anything about it.
“I see you’ve settled into your post-treatment sulking,” came a familiar voice, “Does this mean I should put on a slutty nurse uniform again? Or has that stopped working along with your self-confidence?”
Warren looked up to see Betsy Braddock standing in the door where the doctor had just exited. She had that look on her face again. It was a look he had grown to hate. If he hadn’t grown so fond of Betsy’s company, he would have told her to leave.
“Betsy? I…I thought you were in New York helping with the blackouts,” said the winged mutant, trying to show some composure under her gaze.
“The situation has stabilized,” said Betsy as she approached the sickly mutant, “Your father went to great lengths to get the power grid up and running again. I heard somewhere that it may earn him another commendation from the mayor.”
“Are you telling me this to make me feel even sicker?”
“Why would I need to do that? You’ve been making yourself sick enough with this attitude of yours. Far as I’m concerned, you’re doing more damage to yourself than the Mutant Liberation Front has done. Since X-men go where help is most needed, I decided to have Storm drop me off here on her way to Boston.”
Warren held his head again, trying to avoid Betsy’s glare. She eased her hostile demeanor somewhat as she sat down next to him on the examining table and offered a comforting gesture. Warren accepted it, but not without hesitation.
This wasn’t the first time Betsy paid him a visit like this. They took a healthy interest in one another after they hooked up briefly during a girls night out. It was interest of the most basic kind. He was an attractive rich man. She was a cute Asian woman with a British accent. Then the Legacy Virus happened and that interest turned to something very different.
“Why do you keep doing this, Betsy? Going out of your way to watch me pay for a stupid decision I made?” he muttered.
“Do you think I’m that shallow?” retorted Betsy, “Just because I’m capable of having a fling at a club doesn’t mean I’m not capable of feeling something slightly deeper for someone.”
“If that something is affection, you have a strange way of showing it. I feel like you come here just to belittle me while I suffer.”
“I’m not the only one. Everyone back at the mansion is worried about you,” said Betsy in a more serious tone, “After they heard what you did to yourself with that techno-organic sludge, I’d say they have a right to.”
“At least they have the decency to leave me alone when I ask them,” he muttered.
“Well I’m a bit more stubborn in case you haven’t noticed. I get that you made a mistake. I get that it was a pretty dumb mistake.”
“Yet you don’t get how much I hate you reminding me of it?” Warren groaned.
“Quit doing this, Warren! You act as though you have to beat yourself up over it and for what? Don’t say you deserve it because I’ve explained to you on several occasions why that’s bullshit!”
“Since when do I need a reason to be upset with myself? Especially after all the time I spent in the X-men learning to separate smart from stupid?”
“You may be rich, handsome, and powerful, but you’re still human,” said Betsy strongly, “You made a mistake. You’re paying the price. You can’t fly like you used to. You can’t eat those fancy catered meals like you used to. You can’t fall back on a career as a male underwear model with your current frame either.”
“Thanks for reminding me yet again. Coming from someone who runs around in skin-tight outfits, that’s very uplifting,” said Warren dryly.
“Even without all that, you’re still Angel,” she said while gently stroking the depleted feathers on his wing, “You can still be the man you were before. It’ll just be a lot harder. I’m pretty fond of that man and I know from his twisted thoughts that he’s pretty fond of me. That’s more than enough reasons for me to be here.”
Warren kept looking down at his hands. Betsy’s warm touch was not lost on him. It showed that she cared even though he wasn’t that dashingly handsome rich man she met at a club one night. She must have really seen something in him. Being psychic probably helped. Jean once told him that some people aren’t aware of their own thoughts sometimes. All this self-loathing made it difficult to keep up with himself.
Warren finally turned to look Betsy in the eye. Even though he looked sickly, he still had that angelic gaze that she found so captivating. No one else was going to support him during this difficult time. It was only fitting that she was here for him.
“So I guess this means there’s no throwing you out,” said Warren with a slight grin.
“I’m a psychic woman in a ninja’s body. Good luck trying, luv,” she quipped.
“Then my only choice is to hope you stick around until the medication wears off. I could use some help rehabbing. Even if I can’t fly, I need to be in shape so I can keep up.”
“Well I was supposed to meet up with Miss Munroe later, but if she’s caught up with James Proudstar I’m sure she’ll forget all about it.”
“You mean Warpath? What’s that about?” he asked curiously.
“I’d rather not get into it. Especially while you’re doped up,” said Betsy playfully, “For now, I’m going to find a way to distract you from your misery, even if it means telling you another crazy story from my modeling days back in Britain.”
“I’m sure no amount of medication will make that any less entertaining.”
Warren smiled again, already feeling a bit better. Despite feeling dazed from the treatment, he settled in with Betsy for what he hoped would be a reprieve from his suffering. He couldn’t afford to stay this weak. With the Mutant Liberation Front causing so much trouble, the X-men had little time for a vacation of any kind.
“This is so cool!” said Kitty Pryde gleefully.
“I couldn’t agree more, Katya,” said Piotr, smiling as he draped his powerful arm around his girlfriend.
“Just you and me, alone at night in Paris,” she said in a deeper tone, “It’s perfect!”
It was a beautiful setting. Kitty and Piotr were sitting on a rooftop under a crystal clear sky in downtown Paris. She was wearing a dress worthy of royalty. Piotr was wearing a suit that made him look like a perfect gentleman. Next to them was a small table of champagne and chocolate. It was served up on fancy plates that shimmered under the starry setting. In the distance was the Eiffel Tower, all lit up and shining brilliantly through the night. The air was crisp and cool. Gentle breezes swept across the roof as if to urge them to cuddle closer.
Kitty couldn’t stop smiling. This was so perfect. She and Piotr had gotten pretty serious since the Legacy Virus. It hadn’t been easy. There were still parts of his past that were difficult to get around. She was still learning how to be this close to another person. Despite all this, being in his arms like this made her feel so warm and safe. It made all her problems melt away.
“Want to get another bottle of wine before the fireworks start?” she offered.
“Nyet, I am too comfortable to get up right now,” said Piotr.
“Who says you need to get up? Oh waiter!” she called out.
Out of the shadows, a fully dressed French waiter approached them with a small tray that had two half-full glasses of wine. Piotr was taken aback, but didn’t refuse the offer.
“That is a new trick. How are you learning this so quickly, Katya?” he said as they each took the glass.
“It’s not a level nine scenario in the Danger Room, Peter. It just takes some extra imagination,” she said wryly as she swirled the wine.
“That seems appropriate. What else do you plan to do with this imagination of yours?”
“Finish your glass and you’ll find out!”
Kitty gulped down the wine quickly, not taking too long to savor it. Before Piotr even finished his, she pulled him into a deep kiss. He almost dropped the glass, but managed to hold on even as Kitty latched onto his muscular form. The way she clung to him was full of desire. With his powerful arms, he held onto her hips and returned the feeling.
Under the beautiful Paris night they made out. While their lips were locked, fireworks started going off around the Eiffel Tower. It bathed the rooftop in a perfect glow. It was so perfect that Kitty couldn’t contain herself. She kissed harder, gasping desperately as their lips wrestled. Then when it seemed as though their passions would completely consume them, an unexpected voice took them out of the moment.
‘Okay, I think this is getting too PG-13.’
“What?!” exclaimed Kitty, abruptly parting from the kiss, “Wait! Don’t even think about…”
But it was too late. This perfect moment faded into darkness.
Xavier Institute – Classroom
In a painful dose of reality, Kitty and Piotr found themselves in less serene settings. They were no longer in Paris, enjoying a romantic moment together. They were back at the Xavier Institute, sitting at their desks. Between them was Jean Grey, who had a bemused look on her face. It left Kitty pretty disgruntled.
“Seriously Jean? You couldn’t have held out just a little bit longer?” Kitty complained.
“It had nothing to do with my psychic limits, Kitty,” said Jean, folding her arms in dismay, “I told you the rules ahead of time and retold them just to make sure we were clear. You still couldn’t resist pushing it.”
“And you just can’t afford any leeway, can you?” scoffed Kitty, “I swear, dating Scott has made you just as stiff!”
“Calm down, Katya,” coaxed Piotr with a light gesture towards his girlfriend, “Jean was generous enough to take us on this brief vacation with her telepathy. We should be generous enough to abide by her rules.”
“Doesn’t mean those rules are fair,” she scoffed, “I bet you’ve let others go much further than PG-13. You’ve probably let them go completely unrated.”
“If you want someone who is comfortable experiencing other peoples’ naughty thoughts, go talk to Emma Frost,” said Jean, “Although I should warn you that her telepathic trips tend to get very graphic.”
Kitty continued to fume. It was easy to lose her cool when tensions were so high with the team. It was one of the reasons why Jean did stuff like this every now and then. Since they couldn’t take a real vacation, she used her telepathy to create vivid psychic trips as she called them. It was a trick Charles Xavier often used therapy for war victims. It also was a great way to escape the stress of being an X-man stuck on call.
Since their meeting with General Grimshaw at the Pentagon, their mission was the Mutant Liberation Front. The Professor was much more tense than usual. He limited classes and emphasized training. There had been tough times before, but not like this. After the Legacy Virus, they couldn’t afford another catastrophic loss. They also couldn’t afford to lose any leeway with their so-called partners at the MSA.
All this was lost on Kitty. As much as she loved being an X-man, there were times when she just wanted to go out with her boyfriend and enjoy being a teenager. That feeling of normalcy was something everybody had been missing lately.
“Would it help if I said you can make it to second base next time?” asked Jean, trying to coax Kitty out of her disgruntled state.
“Yeah right,” she scoffed, “Your definition of second base probably involves showing too much neck.”
“Katya…” groaned Piotr.
“I’m sorry, but I’m as confused as I am stressed,” she said, sinking into her seat, “Remind me again why we’re sitting in a classroom? Miss Munroe is in Boston helping with the blackout. Mr. McCoy is helping the Professor track the MSA. Scott’s probably configuring a new Danger Room scenario that involves chasing Toad through an active volcano.”
“I’m pretty sure he scrapped that idea, Kitty. If not, he’ll have to if he ever wants to see me naked again,” said Jean with a bemused tone.
“I still liked it better when he was obsessed with finding his long lost brother.”
“Now that’s too much, Katya. And you know it,” said Piotr with a touch of scorn.
“I know! It’s a terrible thing to say! I say stupid things when I’m stressed,” said Kitty, now hunched over her desk, “If only we could be as comfortable as Bobby during times like this.”
Kitty, Piotr, and Jean looked across the room. Despite their argument, Bobby Drake remained fast asleep. He was slouched in his seat, drooling slightly as he snored lazily in a deep slumber. He was probably the least stressed among the X-men.
“Hnn…ice cream,” mumbled Bobby as he shifted in his slumber.
“What I wouldn’t give to sleep that soundly in the middle of class,” sighed Kitty.
“We can all envy Bobby’s dreams of desert and Swedish underwear models on some levels, Kitty. That doesn’t mean we should get too fatalistic,” said Jean.
“It’s not fatalistic. If anything, it’s ironic,” sighed Kitty, “It used to be that we were students first and then X-men. Since the Legacy Virus, the Professor has completely changed that policy. I’m starting to wonder if he remembers that some of us still have grades to worry about.”
“He’s concerned about the Mutant Liberation Front. We all are, Katya,” said Piotr, “I do not wish to be caught off guard again like we were with Sinister.”
“Neither do I, but there’s just something about the way he’s handling this that seems…un-Xavierish.”
It still sounded overly dire, but there was a bit of truth in her assessment. Few ever had reason to question the Professor’s focus. He always remained strong and level-headed. Having known the Professor for so long, it was hard to not notice when his demeanor changed so completely. Lately, there were too many signs to ignore.
“You’re psychic, Jean. You can’t tell me you haven’t noticed it,” said Kitty.
“Should we really argue about this right now?” asked Jean, “We’re wasting what little time we have to catch up on class.”
“I say this is more important than any upcoming calculus exam,” she quipped.
“I say you are not doing yourself any favors by needlessly worrying, Katya,” said Piotr.
“Why is it needless? It’s not like Professor Xavier is a saint. He lied to us before. Or have you forgotten about the whole cancer ordeal?”
“That was an extreme circumstance,” Piotr pointed out.
“And this isn’t?”
“Not yet, it isn’t,” said Jean, “I don’t have my head in the clouds, Kitty. I’ve noticed everything you’ve noticed.”
“Then you should know way more than I do and be a lot more pissed off,” said Kitty.
“He’s the world’s most powerful psychic, Kitty. Even with the Phoenix Force, I can’t uncover all his secrets. I don’t even want to uncover them. I admit the cancer thing was pretty jarring. But contrary to our lofty notions, Charles Xavier is human. He does make mistakes and we all forgave him in the end.”
“So what’s to stop him from making another mistake? One that’ll be much harder to forgive?” questioned Kitty.
“He taught us to be better than that. It’s part of what makes the X-men strong. Even if Charles Xavier falls into the trap of human error, I have to believe he takes those lessons just as seriously. We’ve trusted him through a crisis like this and in almost every case, that trust has been well-placed.”
Kitty remained unconvinced. Being so overly blunt at times meant having a low tolerance for inconsistencies. She could hear in Jean’s voice that she had doubts as well, but she was willing to give the Professor the benefit of the doubt. Everyone in the X-men probably shared that sentiment. It would be nice if she could share it as well.
“If you’re really concerned, perhaps you should confront the Professor,” offered Piotr.
“I don’t know, Petey. I want to trust the Professor in everything he does. There’s just something about him that’s been off lately,” groaned Kitty as she sat hunched over her desk.
“Well once we find and beat the Mutant Liberation Front and beat the bejesus, we can get back to focusing on the little things,” said Jean, still trying to sound optimistic.
“I hope you’re right, Jean. Because if he’s keeping secrets again, I’ll be the first one to stand up and say Professor Xavier is a…”
Before Kitty could finish, the door to the classroom burst open and Logan stormed in. He was so loud in his entrance that he woke Bobby up.
“Huh? What…” he began, knocking over some of his books as he woke up.
“Recess is over, bub! Suit up and meet in the hanger in five minutes!” barked Logan, “Chuck and Hank just got a break on Toad and his goons!”
“So soon?” said Jean, shooting up from her desk, “I thought the Professor said he was stuck with Cerebrum.”
“He didn’t need Cerebrum! These punks ain’t as subtle as we thought! They’re making their move and they ain’t hiding this time!”
“That can’t be a good sign,” said Kitty anxiously.
“All the more reason to get off your ass and get it into a uniform!” said Logan firmly, “I wanna get rid of these dirt-bags so Chuck can stop acting like he’s about to have a damn seizure!”
“I’m definitely up for putting Toad on ice again,” said Bobby, quickly rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, “If he really is behind this mess, we need to remind him he’s no Magneto!”
Kitty, Piotr, Jean, and Bobby rushed out of the room with Logan, anxious to take down the Mutant Liberation Front. It was not lost on them that Logan mentioned the Professor’s mentality as well. And this time he may not have been exaggerating as he so often did. The Mutant Liberation Front was causing a lot of stress for everybody, especially the X-men. That gave them all the more reason to stop this now before it could get any worse.
The Alps, Switzerland
The mountainous Swiss landscape was well-known for its beauty and grandeur. It was also known for being a region that was as rugged as it was secure. For decades, this area was seen as a safe place to store valuable assets. The Alps provided a natural barrier that few dared to challenge. But the Mutant Liberation Front didn’t shy away from challenges.
The Mutant Liberation Front attacked at a time when the world was still vulnerable. Shipping, communication, and major utilities had taken a major hit. This was only the beginning. Once they finished this attack, every remaining notion of safety would be shattered. And for this vital task, Toad assembled his best operatives. Stryfe, Sauron, Strobe, Reignfire, Callisto, Caliban, Kamikaze, and the Klienstock brothers were all present as they appeared at a very specific location through one of Gateway’s portals. As soon as they arrived, Stryfe took care of any human obstructions.
“GET OUT OF MY WAY! I’M TAKING THEM IN!” yelled an enraged Swiss soldier in German.
“LIKE HELL YOU ARE! I DESERVE THE BONUS! YOU HAD THE LAST ONE!” yelled another.
“TO HELL WITH ALL OF YOU! I’M GETTING THE CREDIT FOR THIS EVEN IF I HAVE TO BEAT EVERY ONE OF YOU WITH MY BEAR HANDS!”
“I’D LIKE TO SEE YOU TRY!”
Stryfe’s psychic talents saved them the trouble of taking down the vast army of armed guards that stood in their way. His ability to turn any weak mind into an irrational fury of rage made their approach as simple as a walk in the park. The only obstacles were various gates and walls, which Caliban and Callisto easily blew through. It was an unceremonious way to begin this attack, but the rest of the team wasn’t complaining.
“I thought these guys were supposed to have psychic dampening gear,” commented Callisto as she watched two guards strangle each other.
“They did. Someone must have sent them defective hardware by accident,” Toad wryly.
“How did you manage that again?” asked Caliban.
“I know some people who know some people,” he said with a confident grin, “There’s a reason we’re making so many friends in between terrorizing humans. Somehow guys like Magneto never learn the benefits of being both loved and feared.”
“Doesn’t one make the other redundant?” said Reignfire.
“Not if you do it right,” said Toad, “Which reminds me, go easy on the homicidal rage, Stryfe. We need to…”
“I know the drill, Toad! We’re to minimize casualties,” said Stryfe, not hiding his frustration, “I’m still not seeing the benefit of such mercy.”
“You will, my favorite disgruntled cynic! You all will!”
Toad cracked his knuckles in anticipation as they made it past the final gate. Behind them the Swiss soldiers were oblivious to their intrusion. Alarms were going off, but no one was paying attention to them. They were too busy beating each other to a pulp. The final barrier was an extra thick wall. It required Reignfire and Kamikaze to use a little firepower to loosen the locks. The Klienstocks did the rest, shoving the gate open and revealing their target.
It was no ordinary structure. Behind all these gates was the entrance to a facility that had been carved deep into one of the many mountains of the Alps. It was so big that it was easy to miss the main entrance at the base. Around the entrance was a large plateau manned with planes, helicopters, and various combat vehicles. It was a stronghold unlike any other and the Mutant Liberation Front had the arduous task of destroying it.
“My fellow liberators, welcome you to Gstaad, Switzerland’s most infamous landmark!” proclaimed Toad.
“This is our target?” said Sauron as he looked up at the mountain.
“What exactly are we looking at, Toad?” asked Strobe.
“Well according to the undercover operatives at Wikipedia, this is the Swiss Fort Knox! It’s supposed to be one of the most secure vaults in the entire world.”
“What’s it secure? Gold? Diamonds? Non-fat chocolate?” scoffed Stryfe.
“Oh it guards something much more valuable!” grinned Toad, “You see, back when Google was just an obscure math term, a bunch of paranoid humans figured it would be a good idea to make a universal back-up of humanity’s digital tech. For every computer ever used, a working database was created. That way if someone figured out a way to wipe outevery system on the planet, there would be a way to get it working again.”
“Sounds like a glorified Radioshack,” commented the Klienstocks.
“It gets better! After the Y2K scare, the Swiss scaled it up. It added a second area to the complex. This one acts as a universal backup for all major data, public and private alike. So if every single computer on the planet shorted out at once, there would be a back-up to get humanity back into the 21st century. That’s why we’re going to turn this place into a glorified ski lodge!”
“Thus leaving humanity more vulnerable and without a backup,” surmised Callisto, “I like it!”
It was a deviously logical plan. Before they completely crippled humanity, they would make sure there was no backup. Even Stryfe seemed to agree. This would be a serious blow that would empower the Mutant Liberation Front and leave the world completely vulnerable.
“But what if there are other backups besides this?” asked Sauron.
“They’re all small-time compared to this. It ain’t gonna matter once we finish the final step!” said Toad as he stopped about halfway towards the complex.
“So if all we’re doing is destroying this place, why do we need to be here in full force?” asked Kamikaze, “Surely we don’t require this much firepower for a simple act of demolition.”
“You’re right. We all don’t need to be here. If we were only going to destroy this place, most of us would just be stuck watching Stryfe make a fool out of the Swiss army,” said Toad.
“Then what else are we doing? Why do you insist on keeping us in the dark?” asked Caliban.
“That’s to make sure nobody’s mind spills the beans to a certain bald-headed psychic with a super-psychic enhancing machine,” said Toad, “Now that we’re all out in the open like this, it’s only a matter of time before Xavier sends his X-people to herd us back to Leavenworth.”
“I thought you said we had sufficient psychic defenses from the X-men!” said Caliban.
“We do. I just lowered them,” said Toad casually.
“Wait…you want the X-men to find us?” said Callisto, “Do you have any idea how foolish that is?!”
“It would be if I didn’t have a plan,” explained Toad, “That’s why you all need to listen closely because this is about more than striking a blow to humanity. We need to humiliate the X-men! We need to show them that this is a fight they aren’t going to win!”
Skies Over Switzerland – Aboard The X-jet
“I don’t like this. Not even a little,” said Cyclops as he maneuvered the jet over the Alps.
“Normally I’d say you’re full of shit, Cyke. I’ll have to give you an IOU this time,” said Wolverine.
“That’s how I know it means something,” said the X-leader, “First we don’t pick up Storm or Psylocke. Then the Professor decides not to call General Grimshaw for backup. If he’s trying to prove something, I would love to know the theory.”
Phoenix, Iceman, Beast, Gambit, Shadowcat, and Colossus were in the same boat as Wolverine. There was something wrong with this scenario and they weren’t thinking it through. They were following the Professor’s orders. That usually wasn’t a big deal, but this felt different.
“You’re not the only one with suspicions, Cyclops. When a puzzle seems to assemble itself, it usually means that other intelligent forces are at work,” said Hank.
“Is that a Chinese proverb or something?” commented Iceman.
“If not, it should be,” Hank continued, “Tessa and I have been tracing these unique energy signatures from every site the Mutant Liberation Front attacked. At the same time, Cerebrum struggled to break the powerful psychic shielding they seem to be employing. Then about an hour ago, an energy signal as clear as the morning sun appears in Switzerland. This time without any psychic shielding.”
“Sounds like a trap and not a very subtle one at that,” said Gambit.
“That’s exactly what I told, Charles. He said we need to act on it anyways. He’s confident he can uncover their plan using Cerebrum.”
“I’m usually pretty confident in the Professor’s plans. This one, I’m not so sure about,” said Iceman warily.
“He’s not acting irrationally. He sensed the Mutant Liberation Front was moving quickly. He wants us to intercept them before they get away. He has been under pressure from President Kelly to do something about these attacks. That doesn’t mean this plan is wise.”
“Chuck never used to crack under pressure before. When the hell did he get soft on us?” made Wolverine.
“That’s not something to joke about, Wolverine,” said Cyclops in an irritated tone.
“It ain’t something I find funny, bub.”
The X-men were usually much more confident heading into battle. This was the X-men’s first major clash since the Legacy Virus and nothing about it sat well. The Mutant Liberation Front had all sorts of unknowns and the man they trusted most was throwing them into the chaos. It didn’t feel like something Charles Xavier would do. None-the-less, they were prepared to confront this grave threat to humans and mutants alike.
They were only a few minutes away from the target area. Then the encrypted communication like to Cerebrum was activated and Charles Xavier delivered a message.
“You’re almost in position, X-men. Proceed with extreme caution. I just received a report from General Grimshaw. The target the Mutant Liberation Front has set their sights on is more ambitious than any previous attack. They’re looking to take out the most vital data storage center in the world.”
“Data storage? What could they gain by attacking some oversized hard drive?” asked Phoenix.
“More than I care to dread. I’m told that this data center is a vital security measure to safeguard the entire world’s digital protocols. It was created as a back-up in case of a cyber attack or EMP attack. If it gets taken out, then the whole world is vulnerable in a way nobody can tolerate. I already sense the Mutant Liberation Front breaching the outer security barriers. They intend to destroy every component in the complex! You must stop them!”
“We’re on it, Professor. But this still feels like a trap,” said Cyclops, “If this data center is so important, then why were we able to find them so quickly?”
“I’m looking into that as we speak. If it is a trap, I will uncover it! I suspect it has something to do with some advanced weapon they bought from Black Tom. It’s probably how they intend to destroy the facility. I’ll keep using Cerebrum to uncover more details. They are still guarding their minds. Time is not on our side! The importance of our success cannot be overstated. Good luck, X-men. Over and out.”
The Professor sounded confident in their abilities to get through this. He also sounded tense. It was as if someone was holding his feet to a fire. He sounded every bit as intent on stopping the Mutant Liberation Front as the rest of the X-men. He just didn’t sound as focused as they were used to and that didn’t bode well.
“Still think I’m needlessly worried?” commented Shadowcat.
“Now is not the time for another argument, Katya,” said Piotr flatly.
“I’d say we’re officially out of time,” she said as she looked out the window, “I can already see them down there. It looks like their waiting for us.”
“Then let’s not disappoint them,” said Cyclops as he took the jet into hover mode, “I know we have our reservations. Even if they’re completely valid, we have a job to do! We need to hit these guys hard and fast! That way they don’t have a chance to spring their trap!”
“That may not be possible, Cyclops,” said Hank as the team prepared to exit the jet, “For all we know, we’re already caught in it.”
Swiss Fort Knox – Main Entrance
Toad stood confidently before his Mutant Liberation Front, watching as the X-men descended towards their position. Stryfe, Sauron, Strobe, Reignfire, Callisto, Caliban, Kamikaze, and the Klienstock brothers all showed a touch of nervousness. Even though Toad laid out a perfectly doable plan to them, this was still the X-men they were dealing with. They were going to put up a hell of a fight.
“Get your pizza and chicken wings ready, boys. This is our Superbowl!” said Toad in anticipation.
“You better know what you’re doing, Toad,” said Stryfe.
“I’ll let the results speak for themselves,” he retorted, “Now run along, Stryfe! You got a job to do.”
“I understand, my leader,” he said dryly.
Stryfe broke off from the main group, making a beeline towards the front entrance of the complex. Just as he neared his position, the X-men arrived. Phoenix carried Cyclops, Beast, Iceman, Wolverine, Shadowcat, Colossus, and Gambit in a telekinetic bubble over the chaos that the Mutant Liberation Front had unleashed. There were still hundreds of Swiss soldiers irrationally fighting one another. They presented a major obstacle for the X-men, but what caught their attention even more was Toad’s dramatic change. This was the first time many had seen him since he was sent to Leavenworth.
“Whoa…what has Toad been eating and where can I get some?” wondered Iceman.
“He don’t look like the slimy little runt we fought last time,” said Gambit.
“He even smells worse if you can believe that!” snarled Wolverine.
“Really X-men? That’s what you’ve been reduced to? Making fun of my hygiene?” Toad mocked.
“It’s no lower than needlessly terrorizing people for kicks, Slimy!” said Shadowcat.
“Don’t know if you’ve been watching the news, tiny! But we’re the Mutant Liberation Front! The kicks are just bonus!” said Toad as he turned to Reignfire and Strobe, “Fellas, show them what we mean!”
“Gladly!” grinned Reignfire.
Reignfire and Strobe fired the first shots. Using a mix of fire and solar blasts, they unleashed large bolts of heat at the incoming X-men. They were close enough to the ground so Phoenix redirected her telekinetic bubble and spread the X-men out. Wolverine, Beast, and Gabmit scrambled to the right and took cover behind some jeeps. Cyclops, Colossus, Shadowcat, and Iceman went left and got behind one of the helicopters to avoid the energy blasts. This allowed Phoenix to refocus her powers on blocking the incoming shots. It also allowed the X-men to land on the ground and launch their counterattack.
“X-men! Take down anyone with firepower first!” ordered Cyclops.
“You do that! I’ve got Toad!” said Wolverine, drawing his claws in anticipation.
“What about the people?” asked Colossus, looking around and seeing the angry soldiers tearing into each other.
“That’s all you, Phoenix! We’ll cover you!” said the X-leader.
Cyclops ran out from behind the helicopter and fired the X-men’s first shot. He adjusted his visor and unleashed an optic blast that hit Reignfire at right in the torso. He immediately fell back. Iceman followed close behind, forming an ice slide and launching an attack of his own. He took aim and fired an ice beam that put a shell around Strobe’s super-heated form. This halted his attack, giving Phoenix the window she needed.
“You’re as cool as I am now, Phoenix! Do your thing!” said Iceman.
“This won’t take long. Not with Stryfe’s psychic talents or lack thereof,” said Phoenix, who was still hovering in mid-air.
“I will help to ensure no innocent life is harmed.”
The Phoenix Force had learned many harsh lessons during the Legacy Virus. It better understood the value in protecting life. So when Phoenix focused her telepathic skills on the surrounding Swiss soldiers under Stryfe’s control, she was able to overcome his psionic influence with ease. Almost immediately, the affected soldiers clutched their heads and slipped into unconsciousness.
“YOU UGLY EXCUSE FOR A FREAK! WAKE UP AND FIGHT LIKE A MAN!” yelled a nearby soldier.
“FORGET HIM! I’LL TAKE YOU ON! I’LL TAKE YOU ALL…hnn.”
It happened quickly and painlessly. Every armed personnel within and around the complex went silent, as if they had been sedated all at once. They fell to the ground, now completely free from Stryfe’s powers. It cleared the area of civilian threats. Now it was just the X-men and the Mutant Liberation Front.
“Wow, that looked overly easy,” commented Shadowcat.
“Strange…there wasn’t much resistance from Stryfe,” said Phoenix.
“Any chance you could redirect those telepathic talents and end this battle before it begins?” asked Beast.
“Way ahead of you!” said the powerful psychic.
Toad and the rest of the Mutant Liberation Front looked remarkably calm. Seeing Phoenix take the civilians out of the battle was quite a feat. However, it was not unexpected. Even with Caliban and Callisto helping Reignfire and Strobe, they remained confident in their plan.
“Bravo, Phoenix! You saved us the trouble of knocking out the guards one-by-one,” said Toad, lightly clapping in amusement, “And for your information, our minds are going to be a lot tougher to break.”
“I don’t care what you’re using to block us out, Toad! But between the Phoenix Force and Professor Xavier, there’s no way you can guard yourselves forever!” warned Phoenix.
“You know what? You’re right! That’s why I’ve come prepared!” grinned Toad, “Hey Gateway! You’re up!”
Just as Phoenix prepared to unleash another telepathic assault, a strange black portal formed behind her. It formed so quickly that she didn’t have a chance to sense it. Before she could even turn around, she felt two powerful arms grab her by the shoulders. Those arms belonged to Gateway and as soon as he had a grip on her, he pulled her into his portal.
“Huh? What the-ahhhhhh!” Phoenix cried out.
Her cries were quickly cut off as she disappeared into the portal along with Gateway. Once the dark portal faded, Phoenix was no where in sight. It left the X-men horrified and dumbfounded.
“Jeannie!” yelled Wolverine as he ran out from his cover.
“What have you done with her?!” demanded Cyclops in a rage.
“Relax guys! She’s fine!” assured Toad, “I just figured a fine looking woman like her deserved a vacation!”
“A vacation?” questioned Iceman, “To where?!”
“Ungh! Hey, what did you…” began a dazed Phoenix.
The young psychic emerged from the darkened portal confused and wary. One moment she was in the crisp air of the Swiss Alps. The next she was in a much warmer setting. She was literally shoved out of the portal where she fell onto a strange concrete surface. She landed flat on her face, groaning from this unexpected trip. Through the discomfort, she turned around just in time to see Gateway leaving through another portal.
“Get back here!” she yelled, “Where did you…”
But it was too late. Gateway was gone and she was stranded. For a moment, Phoenix fumed in frustration. Then she looked around and figured out where she was. It wasn’t exactly an exotic locale, but she still ended up somewhere pretty unusual. She was standing on top of the Sydney Opera House. The sun was rising in the distance and she could see some people down below looking up at her in confusion.
“Australia?!” she exclaimed.
This was bad. It was a long ways away from the battle in Switzerland and even with the Phoenix Force at her disposal, there was no way she would make it back in time to help her friends. With a disgruntled groan, she took out her communicator and sent a message to the X-men.
“Uh…guys, I’m not sure when you’ll get this, but I need someone to pick me up. I’m pretty sure I can’t do much good from where I’m standing.”
Swiss Fort Knox
“You just made the biggest (and last) mistake of your life, bub!” roared Wolverine, ready to tear into Toad.
“Now that you guys don’t have an overpowered psychic to hide behind, I’d say that mistake makes this a fair fight!” said Callisto.
“I agree, Callisto!” said Toad, “Mutant Liberation Front…time to liberate some ass!”
“Now I really don’t feel good about this fight,” groaned Shadowcat.
“Only one way to reassure yourself, petite!” quipped Gambit.
The X-men ran out from their cover and attacked the Mutant Liberation Front head on. Wolverine went straight for Toad, intent on taking him out before he could give any more orders. Cyclops went for Callisto while Iceman was confronted by Sauron, who took to the air to go after him on his ice slide. Gambit went for Kamikaze, equipping his bow staff and charging a few cards in preparation. Shadowcat set her sights on Reignfire while Colossus went for the Klienstocks. Along the way they passed Strobe, who was still stuck in Iceman’s shell.
“Hey! Is someone going to help me or what?!” yelled Strobe.
“Help is never available when you need it nor useful when you’ve provoked your enemies,” said Beast, who made it a point to shove Strobe flat on his face.
Strobe let out muffled curses as Beast ran past him only to be confronted by Caliban. The former Morlock struck first, hitting him with a right cross and trying to tackle the imposing mutant to the ground. Beast was able to block the shot with his shoulder and counter with a drop kick. Caliban fell back briefly, but went right back in for another strike. This time Beast was ready, blocking and dodging a barrage of blows.
“Why would you join the Mutant Liberation Front, Caliban?” said Beast between his strikes, “The X-men has helped the Morlocks time and again!”
“There Morlocks…are dead!” grunted Caliban, not letting up in his attack.
“You’re merely trading sorrow for anger! This is not the way to cope!”
“And pretending to understand only makes me angrier!” seethed the former Morlock.
Caliban landed a powerful uppercut right against Beast’s jaw. This disoriented him and allowed Caliban to shove him up against a nearby tank. There was clearly no reasoning with this man. He and everyone else in the Mutant Liberation Front were set in their hostile mindset.
Right above Beast and Caliban, Iceman’s air battle with Sauron was just as heated. Sauron flew high and fast, avoiding a barrage of ice beams while trying to put himself in a position to attack. He couldn’t get close enough to use his hypnotic gaze and some of the blasts came dangerously close to his wings. In the thin air of the Alps that made it difficult to gain an advantage.
“Hold still, you little punk! The more you annoy me, the more it will hurt!” threatened Sauron.
“Dude, was Jurassic Park really that bad for you?” joked Iceman as he pulled off some mid-air flips to taunt the flying mutant, “I heard the book was way better!”
“Damn it, I am so sick of dinosaur jokes! When I’m done with you, I’ll be the one making jokes about the extinct!”
Sauron flew up in a high arc, making sure he was out of range from Iceman’s blasts. Once he was in position, he shifted his body and flew down at high speeds. He was heading straight for Iceman, looking to knock him right off his ice slide. Iceman didn’t maneuver out of the way this time. He steadied himself and took aim, willing to risk taking a hit in order to get a clear shot.
“That’s it, dino-boy! Make it easier on both of us!” he grinned.
Sauron got so close that he could see his determined gaze. That’s when Iceman took his shot, unleashing a concentrated ice beam right into his path. Sauron tried to avoid it, but he was going too fast. One of his wings and a good part of the other was covered in ice, causing him to tumble wildly through the air.
“Ahhhhhhh! My wings!” he cried out.
“You’re not in the jungle, you overgrown fossil! You’re in a snowy mountain range!” reminded Iceman, “I’m pretty sure that counts as a home field advantage for me!”
Sauron grunted through the blistering cold. He was falling fast. His wings were covered in a thick frost and he was unable to move them. He was only a hundred feet from the ground when he summoned his strength and broke through the ice. Once free, he used his wings to stabilize himself. Having regained his composure, he prepared another attack.
“You’re delusional if you think you have any advantage!” yelled Sauron, “You and your X-men have already lost!”
“And they say I’m cocky,” said Iceman as he prepared for another attack.
Sauron kept Iceman’s attention while the fighting raged on the ground below. Kamikaze was keeping Gambit on his heels, using a special katana that he charged with his energy powers. It caused the blade to glow bright red, indicating that it was was charged just enough so that it would hit harder without exploding. Gambit fought back by charging his bow staff, giving it an extra dose of energy to counter Kamikaze’s blows.
“You think a stick can overcome a sword?” scoffed Kamikaze, through his relentless slashing, “I believe you’re several millennia behind the times!”
“Sometimes the simplest weapons be the most effective,” grinned Gambit.
The Cajun mutant pulled off a nimble spin move as Kamikaze tried to stab him with a lunge attack. Gambit then used the opposing tip of his staff to trip him up, causing Kamikaze to fall flat on his face. It hurt his pride as much as his body, but he rose up quickly to counter. Much to his chagrin, Gambit was ready for him. Just as he was about to attack again, the Cajun casually flipped a half-dozen charged cards around him. As they fluttered around Kamikaze’s feet, they exploded.
“Ahhh! Son-of-a…” grunted Kamikaze as he stumbled about.
“Although it never hurts to be fancy every now and then,” added Gambit.
Kamikaze remained on the defensive. The rest X-men appeared to be holding their own against the Mutant Liberation Front. Toad’s minions were determined, but they were not well-trained. The strategic advantage appeared to reside with the X-men.
But some of the battles were less strategic and more steeped in brute force. Colossus and the Klienstocks exchanged heavy blows in a battle of strength versus strength. They hit each other so hard at times that they made cracks in the pavement beneath them. Not far from where they were fighting, Shadowcat was taking on Reignfire. He was trying to beat her by unleashing waves of solar blasts. However, Shadowcat was able to phase right through them.
“Are you done yet?” said Shadowcat, pretending to yawn.
“You use your mutant abilities in the most cowardly of ways!” yelled Reignfire, not letting up in his assault.
“And yet it works,” she grinned, “Go ahead and wear yourself out! It’ll make things easy on my boyfriend when he’s done with your friend. How much longer do you think it’ll be Petey?”
A mere fifteen feet away, Colossus exchanged more blows with the Klienstocks. He was focused on his fight, but his girlfriend’s predicament wasn’t lost on him.
“Just a few more minutes, Katya!” said Colossus as he took another blow, “I am losing my patience with this scoundrel!”
They got in a few heavy shots to the torso and face. Colossus took them with hardly a flinch, his metal skin and Spetsnaz training allowing a high pain tolerance. Once he had the Klienstocks moves down, he started hitting back. He struck the oversized mutant triplets hard in the torso, stunning him so he could get in a few head shots. This left the Klienstocks dazed and enraged.
“You Russians always fight dirty!” said the Klienstocks in their thick German accent.
“There is no such thing, comrade. The only fight that is dirty is a fight that is lost,” said the Russian.
“I see…” he said, rubbing his face, “Care to test zhat theory?”
The Klienstocks attacked again. This time when Colossus countered, they threw in a knee to the torso. This caught the Russian off guard for a moment. He responded by going for another head shot. This time the Klienstocks blocked it and used their extra size to shove Colossus back. They were pushing him towards Shadowcat and Reignfire. This put Colossus directly in the path of Reighfires solar blasts. Unlike Shadowcat, he couldn’t phase through them.
“I see what you’re trying to do,” said Colossus firmly despite taking another shot to the torso, “Still not dirty enough.”
“I see it too!” said Shadowcat, “Don’t worry! I got this!”
Braving Reignfire’s solar onslaught, Shadowcat went on the evasive. She forced Reignfire to redirect his blasts away from where Colossus was being pushed. She also moved in closer, sensing she had worn Reignfire out enough to make her move. He fired with more urgency, stumbling back in the process. His blasts kept going right through her. And once Shadowcat was close enough, he tried to strike her with solar powered punch. But she nimbly avoided it, slipping behind him and pulling him into a special choke hold.
“Ack! Your little bit-hhhh!” exclaimed Reignfire.
“Finish that sentence! I dare you!” said Shadowcat, “See what happens when I hit a certain nerve cluster on your neck!”
Reignfire didn’t expect a girl of her stature to hit so hard. She was clearly well-trained. Yet still, he was in a good position. This was exactly what he needed to turn the tide of this fight.
“Think you have me? Think again!” said Reignfire.
In a move that took Shadowcat completely by surprise, Reignfire took to the air. It was an ability he hadn’t shown yet. Now her choke hold on Reignfire became a lifeline. She struggled to hold on as Reignfire flew around erratically, trying to shake her off. When Colossus saw this, he was abruptly distracted from his battle with the Klienstocks.
“Whooaaaaaa! This is new!” groaned Shadowcat as she clung to Reignfire’s neck.
“Kitty!” exclaimed Colossus, “Hold on! I will…”
He never got to finish calling out to his girlfriend. While distracted, the Klienstocks grabbed a nearby jeep by the axels. Then with their collective might, the Klienstocks slammed it right on top of Colossus’s head. He didn’t get a chance to guard himself or deflect the incoming force. The jeep hit him so hard that it ignited some of the fuel inside, causing a fireball to consume the imposing mutant while the twisted metal of the vehicle bent and warped around him. Even with his metal skin, the force of the blow was devastating.
“Augh!” he grunted.
“I take it zhat is dirty enough…comrade!” grinned the Klienstocks.
“Peter!” Shadowcat cried.
“Your boyfriend will be fine. He’s got muscle and stature,” said Reignfire, “You on the other hand…”
Reignfire did a swift mid-air barrel roll, causing Shadowcat to lose her grip on his neck. Between the overwhelming G-forces and seeing her boyfriend get hammered with a jeep, there was no way she could hold on. So she fell to the ground with no one to catch.
“Ahhhhhhhhhhh!” she cried out.
Shadowcat’s peril didn’t go unnoticed by the others. Iceman saw her and was close enough to reach her. So for a split second, he took his eyes of Sauron and made his way towards his falling friend.
“Hold on, Shadowcat! Your ex is on the way!” said Iceman.
“And I thought dinosaur jokes were bad!” scoffed Sauron.
Iceman ended up diverting his attention for too long. With no more ice blasts coming his way, Sauron flew in and made his move. This time he didn’t miss. Flying at high speeds, he came in at a sharp angle and led with his feet to land a punishing blow right to Iceman’s head. It hit with such force that the ice shell around his upper body cracked and Iceman fell right off his slide.
“Ungh!” he cried out.
He was only a few dozen feet off the ground at the time so when he fell, he stumbled around on the pavement. It left him so pained and disoriented there was no question he had a major concussion. He couldn’t keep fighting in this state and he couldn’t come to Shadowcat’s aid either.
With no one to catch her, Shadowcat kept falling and landed on the pavement a mere ten feet away from Iceman. She tried to land as softly as she could, but given how high up she had been it did little to make the impact less painful. She hit the ground with a hard thud, feeling a harsh sting up her legs as bones broke and muscles tensed.
“Ahhhhhhhhhh, my leg!” she cried as she clutched her knee.
“Hnn…not so loud,” groaned Iceman through his concussed state.
The two X-men were down and injured. They were clearly in no fighting condition. Sauron, Reignfire, and the Klienstocks approached them in triumph. This battle had officially turned in their favor.
“I don’t remember this being part of the plan,” commented the Klienstocks.
“So I guess that makes this a bonus!” grinned Sauron.
“Does that mean we get to rough them up even more?” said Reignfire.
“Not if you wanna leave in once piece, homme!” came an angry voice.
The three mutants looked to their right and saw that Gambit had just taken down Kamikaze. If the bruise on the side of his face was any indication, he took a major shot to the head from the Cajun’s bow staff. He was groaning and his sword wasn’t glowing anymore, indicating he wasn’t going to contribute much more to this fight.
“Three against one? I like those odds!” grinned Sauron.
“Make that two-and-a-half!” came another angry voice.
This time it was Colossus. He was still a bit woozy, having shoved off the jeep that the Klienstocks hit him with. Whatever injuries he had were secondary. After hearing the cries of his girlfriend, his anger overshadowed his pain.
“The half is for the extra motivation I have after what you did to my girlfriend!” said Colossus.
“Oh well, so much for the bonus,” sighed Sauron.
“Remember, we don’t need to beat them. They’ve already lost!” said the Klienstocks.
“The hell do you mean by that?!” demanded Gambit.
“You’ll see soon enough!” grinned Reignfire.
The two X-men didn’t have time to make sense of their words. With two injured teammates to defend, Gambit and Colossus charged their adversaries. The Klienstocks and Sauron took a defensive stance while Reignfire slowed their attack with his solar blasts. Time was still on their side. Toad was going to make his move soon and there was nothing the X-men could do to stop it.
While their battle was raging, Toad and Callisto kept Cyclops and Wolverine occupied. They remained on the defensive from the very beginning. They didn’t make an effort to take either X-man down. Their main focus was to bide their time and have them needlessly expend their energy. Wolverine seemed to have plenty of energy to spare. Since the fight began he had been trying to slash Toad with his claws. The nimble mutant was able to avoid every attack, only countering with light blows.
“Hrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr! Hold still, slime-ball!” roared Wolverine as he tried to stab his claws into Toad’s thigh.
“This is rich. You still think I’m the old me!” taunted Toad as he easily leaped over him, “In case you ain’t figured it out, you’re fighting the new Toad!”
“New or old, you still stink!” said the feral mutant.
“Speak for yourself. When is the last time you took a shower anyways?”
Toad was having too much fun. He wasn’t concerned about his team or attacking the complex. He was basically toying with Wolverine. If this was part of his plan, it didn’t seem very logical.
Cyclops had a sinking feeling about this fight from the moment it began. Toad was up to something, but he wasn’t given much time to figure it out because Callisto kept him on his toes. She landed a few early blows. Cyclops was pretty sure he had a broken bone in his left forearm since it hadn’t stopped stinging. Callisto could have done far worse and she was certainly trying to, much more so than the rest of the Mutant Liberation Front. Whatever Toad’s plan was, it was secondary to her.
“You X-men have had this coming a long time!” yelled Callisto as she angrily lashed out at the X-leader, “You pretend to fight for our kind! You claim to protect our interests!”
“I don’t know where this is coming from, Callisto! But you know it’s wrong!” said Cyclops as he narrowly avoided a kick to the head.
“I wanted to believe that! But time and again, you’ve proven me wrong!” she spat, “It cost the Morlocks everything!”
“That wasn’t out fault! Whatever bullshit Toad is feeding you, don’t believe him!”
“This has nothing to do with him! Toad and the Mutant Liberation Front are merely doing what you’ve claimed to do all these years! They’re saving our kind!”
There was no reasoning with her. Losing the Morlocks was clearly painful. Cyclops saw it in her eyes. She would rather lash out than wallow in sorrow. In this sense he sympathized with her. However, he still had a mission to complete.
“I’m sorry you feel that way, Callisto,” said Cyclops, “I’m also sorry for this!”
The X-leader adjusted his visor just as Callisto prepared another attack. He made sure this one was wider and more difficult to avoid. When he unleashed it, Callisto was struck point blank. It sent her flying across the area. She ended up slamming right into Caliban, who had been wrestling with Beast.
“Ahhhhhhh-Caliban!” Callisto called out.
“Huh? Unf!” grunted Caliban.
Beast got out of the way just in time to avoid the blast. This left Callisto and Caliban stunned, giving Beast a much needed breather. It also gave Cyclops a moment to assess the situation. He saw how the fight was turning against them. Iceman and Shadowcat were injured. Gambit and Colossus were outnumbered. Wolverine wasn’t making any progress with Toad and Stryfe had been completely untouched. With this narrow window, they had to regroup. Based on how this battle had unfolded, Stryfe seemed to be the key.
“My appreciations, Cyclops! Caliban was being quite stubborn!” Beast called out.
“They’re biding their time! We can’t let them bide anymore!” replied Cyclops, “Go after, Stryfe! Whatever he’s doing, don’t let him finish!”
Beast turned towards the front entrance of the complex. Stryfe appeared to be doing something with the oversized doors. It appears a lockdown had been initiated the moment they set foot on the premise. This caused a series of reinforced doors to slam shut all along the entrance. These doors were the only thing keeping the Mutant Liberation Front out of the complex. It looked like Stryfe was going to blow a hole through the doors so they could get inside. Stopping him could put a stop to this whole attack.
While Cyclops turned his attention to helping Wolverine with Toad, Beast ran over towards the front entrance of the complex. As he drew near, he noticed Stryfe placing a number of ominous circular disks around an area about the size of a garage door. These must have been the advanced explosives from Black Tom that Professor Xavier mentioned. It looked like he had just placed the last one and was in the process of activating them.
“Excuse me, but I don’t think you’re qualified to handle those!” said Beast as he closed in on Stryfe.
“It’s about time you showed up. I was getting bored,” said Stryfe in a bemused tone.
“I strongly advise you step away from the door!” he warned, throwing in an animal snarl for good measure.
“Well if you insist…”
Beast was caught off guard by this move. He was fully expecting Stryfe to battle him like the rest of the Mutant Liberation Front. Instead, he held his hands up and swiftly backed away. Even with his intellect, Beast struggled to rationalize this. With the utmost caution, he approached the reinforced doors. The devices Stryfe placed on them looked active. It was hard to determine what sort of devices these were. Beast assumed they were explosives of sorts. He was now questioning that assumption.
“This…is disturbing defiance of logic,” he said as he looked closer at the disks, “What is going on, Stryfe? What trickery is this?!”
“I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Stryfe wryly.
Beast thought as quickly as his brilliant mind would allow, attempting to surmise an explanation. Then he received an urgent telepathic message from Charles Xavier.
‘Hank! Cyclops! Can anyone…’
“Charles?” gasped Beast, clutching his head, “Charles, I can hear you! What is it?”
‘Toad has…psychic…explosives…get away before…hurry!’
Whatever warning Professor Xavier was trying to deliver, it wasn’t getting through. Beast tried to make sense of it, but it was no use. Even with Cerebrum, the world’s most powerful psychic was shut out.
Xavier Institute – Cerebrum
‘No! This cannot be! Can anyone hear me? Why can’t I get through?!’
Charles Xavier tensed in his wheelchair. Sweat poured down his face as the circuits of Cerebrum hummed at full power. His head was throbbing so hard it felt like someone was chipping at it with a jackhammer. The pain was making it hard to uncover the Mutant Liberation Front’s trap. Toad was clearly hiding something and somehow he were able to shield it from his mind. He suspected there was some sort of mental shielding to sift through. Now he suspected it was something more.
If that weren’t difficult enough, Cerebrum kept blaring alerts across the main screen. They had little to do with uncovering the Mutant Liberation Front’s secret. They were all warnings about the interface. Cerebrum had several safety measures to protect the mind of anyone who used it. Usually, Charles Xavier’s mind was powerful enough to operate the system safely. This time, however, these operations faced some new complications
“Warning: Extreme Mental Strain Detected. Engaging emergency safeguard omega.”
“Initiate safeguard override! Code 168101!” shouted Xavier through the strain.
“Warning: Vital Readings Critical.”
“I just need a bit more time!”
The Professor concentrated harder, shutting out all the warnings Cerebrum was giving him. The veins in his neck and head bulged through the strain. The psychic static surrounding the Swiss Fort Knox was like a moving target. It was unlike any mental shield he had ever encountered. These shields seemed to have a mind of their own.
Then it dawned on him. Because of this pain, the world’s most powerful psychic failed to see what should have been obvious.
“Of course! These aren’t mental shields! The Mutant Liberation Front has a…”
Then through the complex psychic interface, the Professor heard an ominous voice.
‘Hello, Charles Xavier. This is quite an honor…and a disappointment.’
Xavier’s eyes shot open. That telepathic voice came from another psychic the likes of which he hadn’t encountered before. Just as he was about to respond, the mysterious psychic sent a telepathic attack that was too much for him to handle.
It was cry of defeat as much as it was a cry of anguish. Charles Xavier, the world’s most powerful telepath, had been defeated in one psychic attack. It wasn’t even a strong attack. Yet it was still enough to push him beyond his limits.
With blood coming out of his nose, Xavier fell out of his wheelchair and onto the cold floor. The helmet came off in the process, causing it to short circuit. This caused all the screens on Cerebrum to become scrambled. If the Mutant Liberation Front were planning a trap, there was no way to uncover it now. At this point all Charles Xavier could do was reach for his pain pills and ingest as many as he could swallow.
“The pain…it’s too much,” he said breathlessly, “My X-men…I’m sorry. I failed you.”
Swiss Fort Knox
“Charles? Charles, are you still there?” Beast called out, clutching his mind in an effort to reach his mentor.
“I don’t think anybody’s home,” said Stryfe, “Which means I can finally do this!”
While Beast was distracted with the disks, Stryfe retrieved an unloaded assault rifle that had been left against the wall by one of the soldiers. Since it had no bullets, he did the next best thing with it and swung it as hard as he could, striking Beast right in the head.
“Argh!” he howled.
The imposing mutant keeled over, his head spinning in a barely conscious state. Beast was smart enough to know the symptoms of a serious head injury. He was also smart enough to know that it rendered him helpless.
Standing over Beast’s woozy form, Stryfe sighed with mild annoyance. Toad left him with a pretty menial task. He was certain he did it just to annoy him. At least he still got to take out an X-man.
“For the record, I’m enjoying this mission as much as you are,” commented Stryfe.
He then grabbed Beast by the collar of his uniform and dragged him away from the heavy barriers. He was inclined to leave him so he would get caught in the coming crossfire, but Toad’s orders were clear. The X-men needed to stay alive to appreciate what they were going to do.
“Quit toying around with them, Toad! Do it already!” Stryfe shouted.
Toad was still fighting off Cyclops and Wolverine. He still wasn’t breaking much of a sweat. He kept leaping out of the way of their attacks. When Wolverine came in for a double-slash, he simply jumped right over him. When Cyclops tried to shoot him with an optic blast, he showed off his flexibility by ducking under it as if it were a limbo bar. He wasn’t retaliating with attacks of his own. He didn’t need to. Seeing Stryfe approaching indicated that it was finally time to show the X-men how screwed they were.
“What the hell is he talking about, Toad?!” demanded Cyclops.
“You better start dishing out answers or I’m gonna cut them outta you!” roared Wolverine.
Toad didn’t stop grinning. He was enjoying this too much, outsmarting the X-men. It was something Magneto never succeeded in doing. As much as he wanted to savor this feeling, he received an additional message via telepathy that it was time to finish the job.
‘He’s right, Toad. Charles Xavier isn’t a factor anymore. Go ahead and show them.’
“Well this day just keeps getting better and better!” proclaimed the amphibious mutant.
“Enjoy it the two seconds it’s wroth, bub!” snarled Wolverine.
“You really want answers? Well I was going to warn you, but you never said the magic word!” he taunted.
Wolverine tried slash him again. This time Toad countered with an attack of his own. Just as Wolverine was a few feet from him, he spat out a glob of greenish yellow slime. It hit Wolverine right in the face. Aside from being nauseatingly disgusting, the slime was laced with acid. So the thick goo ate away at Wolverine’s face, dissolving his flesh down to his adamantium skull. The pain was enough to stop even the most determined attack.
“HRRAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!” yelled Wolverine, falling to the ground in agony.
“Acid?! That’s original!” spat Cyclops as he prepared to blast Toad with his most powerful optic beam.
“For the record, I could’ve done that from the beginning,” taunted Toad, “Just as I could have done this!”
Before Cyclops could get his optic blast off, Toad did a nimble back flip and drop-kicked the X-leader right in the chest. The hit impact was so hard that Cyclops felt no fewer than three ribs crack under the force. He fell flat on his back, getting the wind knocked out of him as well. While he and Wolverine were writhing in pain, Toad addressed his Mutant Liberation Front.
“Alright boys, time for the fireworks! That means you can stop hiding, Ellie!”
‘Good. I was getting bored.’
This strange telepathic voice startled the X-men, who were still clear-minded enough to hear it. Stryfe had arrived, having dragged Beast all the way back to where the fight began. He picked up the injured Strobe and Kamikaze in the process. Reignfire, Sauron, and the Kleinstocks backed off from Gambit and Colossus as well. They were joined by Callisto and Caliban, having recovered from the shots they took earlier.
“They are…retreating?” said Colossus in confusion.
“What kind of mojo is this?!” demanded Gambit.
“The kind that’ll take that ego of yours down a peg,” grinned Callisto.
While the X-men were looking around in confusion, another dark portal appeared next to Toad. It was similar to the portal that took Phoenix out of the fight early on. From it, Gateway emerged again and this time he brought someone with him. It was the Mutant Liberation Front’s wildcard. She had chalky white skin, black lips, and dark clothes. She looked to be in her late teens or so. Her demeanor was ice-cold and her arrival brought a sinister grin to Toad’s face.
“Ellie Phimister, say hello to the X-men!” said Toad.
“That’s not my name anymore,” she said flatly, “I’m Negasonic Teenage Warhead.”
“Negasonic what?” said Gambit with a raised eyebrow.
“We’re…still working on a suitable codename,” said Stryfe, rolling his eyes.
“Doesn’t matter what we call her. She exceeded all my expectations on our first mission!” said Toad, “She actually beat Charles freakin’ Xavier!”
“The Professor?” groaned Cyclops as he picked himself up despite his ribs, “Now I know you’ve gone crazy, Toad!”
“Really? Why don’t you show them, girl?” said Toad boastfully.
“Gladly!” said the mysterious teenager.
Negasonic Teenage Warhead stepped forth and stared down the remaining X-men. Even Shadowcat, Iceman, and Beast took notice despite their injured state. Suddenly, they all felt a punishing telepathic surge within their minds. It was an attack Charles Xavier or Phoenix would usually protect them from. This time they had no defense.
“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” they all cried out.
“Surprised, X-men? I sure was,” said the young girl, “I thought guarding our thoughts from Charles Xavier was going to be hard. Guess that whole ‘world’s most powerful telepath’ bit was just a marketing gimmick.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, babe. You’ve got as much psychic potential as anybody. That’s why I got you out of prison in California,” said Toad over the X-men’s pained cries, “There are a lot of big brains in this world. The MSA saw yours as too dangerous for the public. Not only was your telepathy potent, but you could see the future as well.”
“Works great on the stock market and the California State Lottery,” grinned Negasonic Teenage Warhead.
“Now it seems to work on the X-men as well. You kept your psychic guard up and they never found out, even with two psychics in their corner. If they were as good as they thought they were, they would have known you and Gateway were already in the vault below placing explosives. They also would have known they were wired to blow as soon as they arrived.”
Cyclops, Iceman, Beast, Wolverine, Shadowcat, Gambit, and Colossus were as paralyzed as they were shocked. Now it made sense. When the Mutant Liberation Front said they had already lost, it wasn’t just creative boasting. This whole fight on the surface was just a distraction. Now they didn’t have Professor Xavier’s telepathic protection either. Under Negasonic Teenage Warhead’s psychic assault, they were completely helpless.
“Hnn…no!” grunted Cyclops, unable to move his body.
“Yep! You X-men walked into a shit storm and came out stinking!” said Toad, now standing over the X-leader, “Honestly, I thought you guys would put up more of a fight. You must be losing your touch.”
“All the more reason to kill them so they’re completely out of the picture,” said Stryfe.
“We could do that, Stryfe. I don’t blame you for wanting to,” said Toad, “But we’re not Magneto. We’re not Sinister. We’re the Mutant Liberation Front. One thing we have in common with these X-men is that we value people being alive more than dead. They need to be alive if they’re gonna appreciate what we have in store.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to let them live,” added Sauron.
“In my experience, the X-men have a way of regrouping,” said Callisto.
“I understand all your concerns, but my decision is final. The X-men are gonna live to see another day,” said Toad assertively, “However, that doesn’t mean we can’t kill their confidence. Ain’t that right, Gateway?”
The mysterious Gateway quietly nodded. He then reached into his pocket and pulled out the remote detonator to the explosives they placed within the vault. He tossed it to Toad, who proudly held it up over the X-men in triumph.
“The world is changing, X-men. You have to adapt or side with the guys who are doing the changing. I’ll leave you to think about that along with some fireworks.”
Toad eagerly pushed a large red button on the detonator and then led the Mutant Liberation Front into another one of Gateway’s portals. Sauron, Stryfe, Callisto, Calbian, Reignfire, and the Klienstocks followed them. Toad helped the injured Strobe and Kamikaze the rest of the way. As they disappeared into the portal with Gateway, Negasonic Teenage Warhead lingered.
“My telepathic paralysis should wear off in twenty minutes. That should give you plenty of time to appreciate how screwed you are,” she said.
The X-men could only struggle as the last of the Mutant Liberation Front disappeared. They remained paralyzed, unable to get up from the young psychic’s telepathic attack. It wouldn’t have made a difference if they could. Seconds after Gateway’s portal closed, there was an ominous rumble that shook the entire mountain complex.
Deep within the Swiss Fort Knox vault, the explosives the Mutant Liberation Front set went off. They were potent explosives, erupting with such force that it felt like a small Earthquake. The magnitude of this destruction was confirmed when the heavy blast doors at the entrance were blown out from within. A massive fireball shot out through the front entrance, filling the thin mountain air with a powerful shockwave. It left little doubt that the vital data this facility protected was utterly destroyed.
“Good Lord…” gasped Beast, barely able to hold himself up.
As fire and smoke billowed out of the complex, the harsh reality set in. The X-men had lost an important battle. Cyclops, Beast, Iceman, Wolverine, Shadowcat, Gambit, and Colossus failed to stop the Mutant Liberation Front. Now they were vulnerable, weakened, and demoralized. In a world already stricken by terror, such a loss was sure to have major consequences.
Up next: Pain Tolerance
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