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Volume 6 -- Issue 134 -- Natural Disorder Part 3

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Natural Disorder Part 3
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As the next stage of human evolution, mutants are hated and feared by humanity. Professor Charles Xavier trained his X-men to confront that fear, fighting for peace and understanding. As conflict between humans and mutants escalated, the X-men have fought many foes. But their latest foe, the Mutant Liberation Front, has proven very tenacious.

Led by a radically transformed Toad, these mutant seek to destroy modern infrastructure in an effort to revert mankind to a more natural order where mutant domination is assured. To do this they rebuilt the mutant amplification device once used by Magneto. After capturing his daughter, Polaris, they activated it atop a cargo ship anchored in New Orleans. The X-men arrived to stop them, but in the process something went horribly wrong. Now, the machine is poised to destroy much more than infrastructure.

And the X-men aren’t the only ones affected. While they battle the Mutant Liberation Front, another conflict involving a new anti-mutant force is unfolding. Henry Gyrich and General William Kincaid have been trying to convince President Kelly that their GRSO unit is better equipped to combat dangerous mutants. The unit’s first mission led them to a confrontation with Rogue and Domino. Now this confrontation threatens to clash with the X-men.


Skies Over New Orleans

“You cannot escape!” proclaimed Bastion, “Hiding behind the forces of nature will not protect you!”

“Who’s hiding? Ah’m just enjoying the fresh air,” quipped Rogue.

“Speak for yourself,” grunted Domino.

Escaping from Bastion proved both difficult and dangerous. The fight that started at the West End Park was now unfolding in the thick storm clouds that hung over the river. Rogue flew blindly through the dense mist, holding onto Domino while she fired back with her guns. Even with her marksmanship, the chances of her hitting much weren’t good. Bastion and the remaining GRSO soldiers were still determined to subdue them, despite the unfolding chaos around them.

Bastion was now getting uncomfortably close. Rogue was grazed by a few shots from the GRSO soldiers. Her response was to fly deeper into these mysterious clouds. At times she saw flashes of lightning. They grew more frequent with each passing moment. It was a dangerous position for them, but the same applied to Bastion.

“There’s too much interference!” said one of the GRSO soldiers, “We can’t track the targets!”

“A cunning maneuver, albeit one I’ve already accounted for,” said Bastion flatly, “All remaining GRSO soldiers, under my order you are to fall back. Maintain a secondary position while I subdue the targets.”

“Yes sir!” they all said in perfect unison.

The four GRSO soldiers broke their formation. They flew back from the darker parts of the clouds and towards West End Park, leaving only Bastion to take on Rogue and Domino. He was closing fast and preparing his final assault. No amount of interference was going to keep him from accomplishing his mission.

“He’s getting close and my bullets aren’t doing squat!” shouted Domino over the wind.

“At least there’s only one of him now,” said Rogue, her face numb from the rush of cold air.

“Our chances still aren’t very good. Even with my luck, we won’t avoid his next shot.”

“We don’t need to get lucky with Bastion’s shooting. We just need to be lucky with the lightning.”

Domino looked around and saw what Rogue was referring to. Up ahead they noticed an unusual lightning display. Powerful bolts were shooting out from a single point. The bolts were so large that they couldn’t be natural. It looked like a dangerous place to be, but with Bastion closing in they had to take a chance. However, they still needed their share of luck to get through this.

Luck was the last thing on Bastion’s mind. He had already figured out their tactic. If he wasn’t more machine than man, he might have admired them. But such drastic tactics wouldn’t do them any good. He saw the same anomaly and had no intention of flying right into it.

“A most respectable strategy…relying on lightning to vanquish your enemy,” he called out, “Unfortunately, your time has run out and so has your luck!”

Bastion prepared to fire upon the two mutants. They were still too far from the lightning for it to affect him. There was no escaping now. He was going to accomplish GRSO’s mission.

Then something Bastion didn’t foresee literally flew right by him. He was so focused on hitting his targets that he didn’t pick up on a large metal sphere flying in at high speeds from the east. It flew so fast that it caused a powerful wind shear, throwing Bastion off his mark.

“What is this?” he exclaimed.

“Whoa! Was that your luck again, Domino?” said Rogue, who felt it too.

“I wish,” said an equally baffled Domino.

Bastion tumbled through the air, drawing him closer to the lightning anomaly. It was much closer than he had calculated for his counter-attack and by the time he had stabilized and locked onto his targets again it was too late.

Through the clouds, they could see the source of the lightning. It was a large hovering machine with spinning rings that were glowing with tremendous power. Rogue and Domino were able to fly off to the side and avoid the bursts of lightning that came from it, but bastion wasn’t so lucky.

“I…had not calculated this,” lamented Bastion as he approached the machine.

“But Ah bet you can calculate what comes next,” taunted Rogue.

Unable to change course, a large bolt of lightning shot out from the machine and engulfed Bastion. After the first one struck, more lightning bolts found their way into him from the surrounding clouds. It became so bright that it lit up the evening sky for miles. And as the electricity surged through Bastion, his systems were overwhelmed and severely damaged.

“ARRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH!”

“Now that’s my kind of luck!” said Domino with a smug grin.

“Ah’m sure it was all you,” said Rogue, rolling her eyes, “But where the heck is all that lightning coming from?”

“Well since my lead with Vertigo was a bust, why don’t we follow up on this one? I’d rather not be here when sparky over there explodes.”

“Works for meh!”

The two mutants flew in lower to escape the chaos while Bastion, who was supposed to be the solution to the mutant agenda, continued to fail. Once the lightning around him ceased, he fell helplessly out of the sky. His last transmission was a grim signal back to GRSO headquarters.

“Bzzt-Bastion/GRSO offline. Bzzt-critical error. Bzzt-mission-bzzt- failure.”


Cargo Ship – Main Deck

The X-men faced a dangerous new threat. The Mutant Liberation Front had been defeated. Toad had been subdued and was kept docile under the telekinetic grip of Phoenix. She kept him under control while Cyclops, Iceman, Beast, Storm, Shadowcat, Gambit, Colossus, and Psylocke looked desperately for a way to stop the mutant amplification device. Madison Jefferies told them the device entered a dangerous state and if they didn’t stop it, the whole world could be at risk.

None of this bothered Toad. Even under Phoenix’s crushing psychic grasp, he was as smug as ever. His plan wasn’t supposed to threaten the world. Yet in trying to stop him, the X-men doomed them all.

“And you guys say I’m the bad guy,” scoffed Toad, “I wasn’t out to hurt anybody, but you X-men are willing to destroy the whole world to stop me. It would be the world’s funniest joke if it weren’t true!”

“Shut up, Toad! You were the one that was playing with fire!” yelled Phoenix.

“And you guys bought the napalm,” he quipped, “Some heroes you turned out to be.”

“You’re assuming we won’t stop it.”

“Maybe Jefferies isn’t stupid enough to not install a fail-safe, but I’d say the clock is ticking. Those storm clouds are looking pretty damn nasty!”

Phoenix pinned Toad harder to the deck of the ship. If it wasn’t enough to spite him, it would at least keep him quiet. She didn’t need to be reminded of how bad it was. Looking up at the sky, she could see the massive clouds erupting with more lighting. The machine was now a ball of glowing light and looked ready to overload at any minute.

Cyclops and an injured Beast helped Madison Jefferies with the control consoles. Iceman and Gambit stood close by, lending help wherever they could. Colossus and Shadowcat were helping gather some of the cables that had snapped. Storm and Psylocke were injured so they could only help sparingly. Most of the main controls had been fried or disconnected. The ship was still rumbling from what Wolverine did in the engine room, but the shaking was the least of their worries.

“This is bad! This is very bad!” lamented Madison Jefferies.

“You can stop trying to convince us, Mr. Jefferies. How do we fix this?” asked Cyclops.

“Surely there’s another fail-safe,” said Beast, who was still clutching his broken arm.

“Of course there is! But since the connections to the machine were severed, I don’t see how we can activate them!”

“And if we don’t activate them?” questioned the X-leader.

“Then the amplifiers will continue to draw upon that girl’s powers. It’ll keep building and building until the magnetic energy reaches a critical level,” Jefferies explained.

“And what happens when it exceeds that level?” asked Beast anxiously.

“At that point, the Earth’s electromagnetic field will become permanently distorted. Cosmic rays and solar winds will penetrate our atmosphere. The surface of the planet will literally be cooked with radiation!”

“So we end up fried like leftover gumbo,” surmised Gambit, “I say that be right up there with Magneto’s old asteroid gimmick.”

“Between being crushed and being cooked, I’ll take the asteroid,” grumbled Shadowcat.

“I would rather have neither,” said Colossus strongly.

“You and me both, big guy,” said Iceman, “Ex-girlfriend or not, I need to get Lorna out of that thing!”

“Then quit looking up and help me,” said Colossus as he moved faster, “We will not find a solution by running around with our…”

Before the Russian mutant could finish, he stumbled over a pile of wires and debris. In the process he revealed a component that had been blown away from the controls when the ship started shaking. It didn’t look like a computer. It looked like a head. Curiously, Colossus picked it up from the pile.

“Whoa! I’ve never seen that in at Best Buy,” said Shadowcat.

“What the hell kind of gizmo is it?” asked Gambit, who saw it as well.

“I haven’t a clue,” said Colossus as he looked at it strangely.

This commotion drew the attention of Madison Jefferies, who was still working with Cyclops and Beast to the systems running again. As soon as he saw the head of his most prized possession, his face lit up with new hope.

“Danger! She’s okay!” exclaimed Madison as he ran over.

“Danger? Who’s Danger?” questioned Iceman, who was nearly knocked over when Jefferies shoved him aside.

“This is exactly what we need!” he said as he grabbed the head from Colossus.

“I’ll table the questions about why this Danger looks like a woman’s head if you would kindly explain,” said Beast as he ran over with Cyclops.

“She’s my greatest creation for a reason,” said Jefferies as he made his way over to one of the active computers, “Danger is a conglomeration of all my research, including my work on the mutant amplification device. It was her AI that activated it. That same AI can shut it down!”

“Before you go into detail, how soon can you get it to work?” asked Cyclops intently.

“Soon enough!” affirmed Jefferies, “In every program I’ve worked on, I implanted a special resonance chip in the hardware. Think of it like a digital fingerprint with a back door built in. That chip is connected directly to Danger’s AI. Even without any connection to the machine, I should be able to use that entry point and trigger an emergency shut-down.”

“This sounds like great news and all, but there has to be a catch. It’s never that easy,” said Shadowcat.

“First time for everything, petite. Why can’t it be now?” shrugged Gambit.

“Give me a minute and I’ll let you know how easy this will be,” said Madison, “I need these lousy computers to hold up for just a little longer!”

“You need not worry,” assured Beast, “Even with one arm, I can keep these poorly assembled array running.”

Madison worked quickly, hooking a few wires into Danger’s head and using a computer with a busted screen to run the protocols. Beast and Cyclops went to work, holding the device together despite small bursts of sparks. Gambit, Shadowcat, Iceman, and did their part as well by added more connections to the cables while Colossus used his strength to hold the array in place in case of more tremors.

The next few moments were tense. Madison’s face dripped with sweat as the electronics within Danger lit up. The skies above weren’t getting any calmer. Back towards where Phoenix had Toad restrained, Storm and Psylocke watched the dazzling lightning display nervously. Psylocke was still injured and in no condition to help so she kept an eye on Toad. Storm was trying to buy more time for the others, using her powers to control some of the clouds.

“That lightning is getting uncomfortably close,” commented Psylocke, “Any chance we could get some extra breathing room, Storm?”

“I’m…trying!” said Storm, who was concentrating hard on the clouds, “This storm is not a product of nature. My control over it is…limited.”

“Well it looks like our tech boys are working on something, so push those limits as far as they’ll go. The last thing any of us need is more distractions.”

Storm concentrated harder, trying to disperse some of the clouds. The air was so volatile that it was hard to connect with them. Through intense focus, she kept the lightning from hitting the ship. She became so focused that she didn’t notice a strange object streaking down from the sky.

“The bloody hell is that? Storm, watch out!” said Psylocke, who did notice.

Despite stabbing pain in her ribs and a collapsed lung, the young psychic shoved Storm back to avoid the incoming object. It narrowly missed them, but it didn’t impact the ship as Psylocke expected. Instead, it landed. By the time the two X-women recovered, they realized it was one of Magneto’s transport spheres.

“Thanks for the assistance, Psylocke,” said Storm, rubbing her head.

“Don’t mention it, luv. But is that what I think it is?” said Psylocke as looked back towards the orb.

“I believe so,” said Storm, “It seems our activities haven’t gone unnoticed.”

Storm went back to holding off the lightning while Psylocke kept an eye on the orb. Phoenix noticed this sudden arrival as well along with the rest of the team. When it opened, Havok came storming onto the ship.

“Havok!” exclaimed Phoenix, who still had to restrain Toad with her telekinesis.

“Where is she? Where’s Lorna?” he exclaimed, his hands glowing with energy.

“Whoa there, little brother! You’re a little late to the show,” said Cyclops, “We’ve taken care of the Mutant Liberation Front. We’re still working on saving Polaris.”

“I don’t care how late I am! Where is she?” he demanded.

“Where do you think?” said Iceman, pointing up into the sky.

Havok looked up and saw what Iceman was referring to. He paled at the sight of the hovering machine. The way it lit up the night sky with simmering energy made it clear that his lover was in a great deal of trouble. There was no telling how much pain his lover was in, making the younger Summers brother all the more determined to save her.

“Damn you, Lance,” he mused, “I need to get to her!”

“Maybe you didn’t notice, but it’s not exactly safe to be near her,” Shadowcat pointed out.

“I don’t care! I didn’t overload a transport sphere and leave riot on Genosha just to watch her suffer!”

“Wait…a riot on Genosha? When did that happen?” asked Storm.

“One crisis at a time, Storm,” said Cyclops as he ran over to his brother, “I understand you’re anxious, Alex. I’m not going to bust your balls like you’re used to, but I need you to trust me. The X-men will handle this.”

“Cut the crap, Scott! If it was Jean up there, you would already be on your way up there! So don’t tell me to just stand here and wait!”

Cyclops saw that his brother was in a difficult state. He and Havok had their differences in the past, but Cyclops still wasn’t ready to see his brother needlessly risk his life. There was still a chance they could stop this madness without more danger. However, this was once instance where he understood the pain of watching his lover suffer.

While Havok was fixated on the device above, there was a noticeable shift in the activity. The glowing ball of energy surrounding the machine started pulsing erratically. The large bolts of lightning that lit up the sky began swirling around in a new pattern. It was as if they were being drawn back into the device. As this happened, Madison Jefferies looked up from the console.

“We did it! It worked!” he announced.

“What exactly worked, homme?” asked Gambit.

“I’m still seeing some nasty fireworks,” said Shadowcat.

“Consider yourself lucky. At this point, that’s the worst we’ll get aside from the damage that’s already been done,” said Jefferies as he looked over the computer screen, “Danger was able to initiate the emergency shutdown. The amplifiers are no longer feeding off of Polaris’s powers. That means the magnetic storm has stopped growing. The Earth’s magnetic field is safe!”

“So it’s over? We have succeeded?” asked Colossus.

“What about Polaris? Will she be okay?” asked Iceman anxiously.

Madison Jefferies paused to go over the data. As relieved as he was with this news, it wasn’t over yet. The machine was still going strong and there was a good reason for that.

“I’m afraid that’s a bit complicated,” said Jefferies anxiously.

“Why am I not surprised?” groaned Shadowcat.

“It appears the shutdown was initiated too late. Even though the machine is no longer amplifying the electro-magnetic field, it seems to have overloaded Polaris’s powers.”

“Quit talking like she’s broken computer! Will she be okay or not?” spat Havok.

“I honestly couldn’t tell you. These readings don’t make any sense. The machine isn’t amplifying her powers, but the flow of energy has been reversed. Now Polaris’ mutant abilities are stuck in overdrive. They’re effectively reverberating in increasingly volatile fluctuations. At their current rate they’ll either overwhelm her completely or tear her apart at the cellular level!”

It was a grim prognosis and one Havok refused to allow. Having heard enough, he made a decision. He was going to save his lover from this terrible fate no matter what the cost.

“Then it’s settled. I’m going up there!” he said.

“As Lorna’s ex-boyfriend, I’m obligated to point out how nuts you are,” said Iceman.

“You heard what he said, Alex. There’s nothing you can do for her,” said Beast.

“Bullshit! I need to try!” said Havok.

The determined young mutant turned to Phoenix, who could already sense what he had planned. It was clear that she didn’t approve either, but she did not attempt to dissuade him.

“Phoenix, I need you to fly me up there!” he said, “Can you make it through the lightning?”

“Even if I said I couldn’t, I’m sure that still wouldn’t bother you,” she replied.

Tasked with this new challenge, Phoenix released her telekinetic grip on Toad and handed him off to the others. Colossus pinned him with his foot while Iceman and Psylocke stood over him. They were not going to let him go after everything he had done.

“Don’t even think about it, swamp breath,” said Psylocke menacingly.

“One wrong move and I break your spine,” added Colossus.

“You guys take everything way too seriously,” sneered Toad.

With Toad restrained, Phoenix joined Havok. They were prepared to take off. Then Cyclops grasped Havok by the shoulder and turned him around.

“I’m going after her, Scott!” said Havok sternly, “Don’t even think about stopping me or so help me…”

“I wasn’t going to try and stop you, Alex. I was just going to say…be careful,” said Cyclops.

It was unexpected encouragement from his older brother. Havok suspected that Phoenix told him about the chat they had during the Cambrian conflict. After years of their bitter sibling rivalry, he resonated in a profound way. With Cyclops’s unspoken blessing, Havok was ready to save his girlfriend.

Havok joined Phoenix, who had already formed a telekinetic bubble around her. There was still plenty of lightning surrounding the device. Going after Polaris was sure to be risky. Havok had to care a lot about this girl to put his life on the line for her.

“Alex may be a douche, but I have to hand it to him. He’s dedicated when it comes to girlfriends,” said Shadowcat as she watched him and Phoenix fly off.

“That he is,” said Iceman distantly.

“Would you go that far for her? If you hadn’t broken up, that is?” she asked him.

“I uh…would like to plead the fifth on that one.”

“No need to explain, my friend,” said Colossus, “When you love someone, you will find yourself going to extraordinary lengths.”

“They may not be extraordinary enough,” said Madison Jefferies as he watched Havok fly off as well.

“What do you mean?” asked Cyclops anxiously.

“Not to make light of the kid’s dedication, but love has its limits…especially when the laws of physics come into play.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Iceman nervously.

“It means if that kid had given me a chance to explain everything, he would be going up there for a very different reason.”

Some of the X-men looked over toward Madison. He clearly knew something and didn’t get a chance to tell Havok. It left some with a sinking feeling that this was going to end badly for him and Polaris.

Up in the volatile skies, Phoenix and Havok ascended towards the machine. The lightning that had been emanating from the center was becoming increasingly concentrated. It swirled around the device like a tornado, getting smaller by the second and increasing in intensity. Even through the telekinetic barrier, they could feel the electricity in the air. The swirling lights around the machine were still blinding, but there was still a figure that was clearly visible in the center.

“I see her!” yelled Havok over the noise, “Get in closer, Phoenix. See if you can reach out to her!”

“That’s a lot of multi-tasking for a psychic. I’ll do my best, but don’t expect a smooth ride,” said Phoenix as she concentrated harder.

As they got closer to the machine, the swirling lightning shot out at them. Phoenix was able to divert it with her telekinetic barrier. It forced her to slow down, as if they were struggling against the repulsive force of a magnet.

With every inch, the forces opposing them increased. Once they were close enough, they could see Polaris suspended in the center of the machine. Her eyes were glowing and her body was radiating with immense energy. When Havok saw this, he reached out to her.

“Lorna! Lorna, can you hear me?” he shouted.

“Hnn…Alex,” was all she got out.

“She’s very weak. She can barely move,” said Phoenix, having to stop within several feet of the device, “Hold on, I’m going to link your minds!”

Havok kept reaching for her, looking on with desperate eyes. Her eyes seemed vacant and devoid of hope. The lightning kept swirling and condensing around her. It got to a point where it didn’t even look like lightning anymore. It was just swirling masses of energy. These masses seemed attracted to Polaris and began to engulf her. Through this escalating chaos, her mind was linked with that of her lover.

‘Alex…I’m glad you could make it. I…I don’t want this to end without seeing you one last time.’

‘Don’t talk like that, Lorna! It’s not going to end! You’re going to be okay!’

‘No…I’m not. My powers…they’re taking me somewhere. It’s as if my body is becoming the very energy I control.’

‘Then stay with me! Take my hand! Don’t let it consume you!’

‘It…it already has.’

Havok’s desperation turned to despair. Polaris had accepted her fate while he remained defiant. Tears formed in his eyes as he looked upon her tired face. Her body was turning into the exotic white masses of energy. In the process the machine started to crack under the strain.

‘Time is almost up, Alex. Before I go…promise me you’ll send Pietro and Wanda my love. Don’t let sorrow consume them as it did our father.’

‘No Lorna…please don’t do this!’

‘I…I’m so sorry. I…I want to stay with you. But I can’t. I’m not strong enough.’

‘You ARE strong enough! Please, Lorna…just hold out a bit longer! We’ll find a way!’

‘It’s too late for me. Know that…I’ll always love you. You’re a fighter, Alex Summers. Keep on fighting…for us.’

At that moment, the energy fully consumed her. All the lightning and the glowing masses of energy completely engulfed the machine. Then in a blinding flash it exploded. It didn’t release a loud bang or a punishing shockwave. The surrounding energy essentially faded as if it was absorbed back into the Earth. And as it faded, Polaris faded as well.

“LORNNNAAAA!” Havok cried out in anguish.

‘The girl…she’s gone.’

‘It’s worse than that, Phoenix…much worse.’

Havok broke down as a terrible new anguish set in. The girl he loved was no more. There was nothing left other than the warped shards of the machine. His heart sank in a way he had never experienced before. He had lost his parents. He had lost his brother. He spent much of his life in constant struggle, fighting to overcome so many obstacles. Yet nothing could compare to this.

Havok remained hovering within Phoenix’s telekinetic bubble, watching as shards of the machine fell to the river below. There were only slight flickers of lightning left. Soon, the sky fell silent. And through this silence, Phoenix offered the heartbroken young man her condolences.

“Alex I…” she began.

“Don’t say it, Jean,” said Havok through a strained voice.

“Fine then. I won’t,” she replied, “I’ll just think it. You already know what my thoughts are. Just know that I’m here if you want to share them.”

Phoenix embraced him, letting him weep for his loss. There would be plenty of time to reflect later on how so many things had gone horribly wrong leading up to this point. Now that this conflict was over, this was a time for mourning.

The destruction of the machine and the loss of Polaris was witnessed from below as well. Cyclops, Beast, Iceman, Storm, Shadowcat, Gambit, Psylocke, and Colossus sensed it when the lightning stop and the skies became clear again. It was also clear that something went wrong. The defeated look on Madison Jefferies’s face told the whole story.

“I can hear the mosquitoes buzzing again,” said Shadowcat, “I take it that means it’s over.”

“So it would seem,” said Storm as she looked up at a much calmer sky.

“What about Lorna? Is she…” said Iceman, his words trailing off.

“I don’t sense her anymore,” said Psylocke, confirming their fears with her telepathy.

“So…she’s dead,” asked Cyclops, worried for what this meant for his brother.

“It means I don’t sense her. That’s all,” she said flatly.

The X-men took some comfort in the knowledge that this battle was over. However, their success had once again come at a price. Polaris was more than a victim. She was one of those rare spirits that could bridge the gap between the X-men and their enemies. She reached out to Magneto when he was so lost in his hatred. She reached out to Havok when he became lost in endless fighting. And Iceman hadn’t forgotten that this was a girl with which he had shared plenty of passion. Losing her was difficult to process.

“Oh God,” said Madison Jefferies, now hunched over the console, “This is all so wrong. I…never wanted any of this.”

“You need not bear an unbearable burden, Mr. Jefferies,” said Beast, offering consolation to the beleaguered man.

“This was still my work…my responsibility,” he said distantly, “I’ve been running from it all these years. It…it has to stop. I can’t do this anymore!”

Madison stood fixated over the head of Danger. It was the key to his sorrows and his triumphs. Like Polaris, he didn’t ask to be involved. This conflict found him. It would be easy to keep running, but he could never escape the responsibilities. If he was to start accepting these burdens, then he had some tough decisions to make.

The X-men remained at a loss. In the distance, New Orleans was still pitch black. The machine may not have worked as intended, but it did plenty of damage. For Toad, it was more a setback than a defeat. He remained trapped under Colossus’s foot. Now that they were dazed from everything that had transpired, he could make his next move.

“Damn, I hate to see a pretty girl go to waste like that,” he said dryly, “Such a tragedy.”

“Shut up, Toad!” spat Iceman angrily, “This is your fault! You’re going to pay big time!”

“Hope you folks take a check.”

“You will not escape your fate. You will pay for your crimes,” said Colossus.

“Speak for yourself, comrade,” said Toad ominously.

While Colossus glared angrily at him, the amphibious mutant snorted. Having made sure they were looking directly at him, he spat out a large glob of slime. The greenish goo splattered right on the Russian mutant’s face. As a result, he stumbled back and allowed Toad to rise to his feet.

“Argh! My face!” exclaimed Colossus.

“Relax, it’ll come off…eventually,” grinned Toad.

“Iceman, freeze him!” urged Cyclops.

“Consider him a Toadscicle!” said Iceman.

Both he and Storm tried to converge on Toad. Storm used her winds in an effort to knock him down while Iceman fired a concentrated ice beam. However, Toad proved to be too nimble. Using his powerful legs, he jumped up over the ice beam and soared over the dazed X-men. He ended up landing perfectly on top a narrow rail on the starboard side of the ship. With a taunting sneer, Toad was poised to make his escape.

“It’s been fun partying in the Big Easy!” he told them, “You beat me this time. Don’t expect to be this lucky in the next round. The Mutant Liberation Front will bring order to this world. It just won’t be today. Later!”

The X-men watched Toad gracefully leap off the side of the ship. Cyclops didn’t give any orders to stop him. He simply watched as the amphibious mutant disappeared from sight. It left the others confused and upset.

“Dang it, Cyclops! You could’ve at least shot the little runt!” said Gambit.

“After what he did to Lorna, he deserves way worse!” exclaimed Iceman.

This sentiment was shared by Colossus and Shadowcat. Colossus finally managed to get the disgusting globs off his face, but with no Toad in sight the stench was sure to linger.

“Ugh,” the Russian groaned, “Even metal skin cannot protect from a smell so foul.”

“No kidding,” said Shadowcat, who helped him wipe some of it off, “Seriously, what gives? Shouldn’t we be going after him?”

“You’re assuming we have to,” said Cyclops, who was still staring at where Toad had escaped.

“I am no expert in strategy, comrade. But isn’t it wise to subdue the leader of the Mutant Liberation Front?” asked Colossus.

“I can’t believe you guys haven’t picked up on it yet,” said Psylocke, who was grinning for some reason.

“Picked up on what?” asked Iceman in confusion.

“That we didn’t hear a splash,” she said.

Now the others were confused. They looked over towards the starboard side of the ship. It soon dawned on them that they hadn’t heard a splash. Toad just jumped off and nothing else followed. Since Gateway had been taken out of the fight, he couldn’t have disappeared. Something else was going on and only Cyclops and Psylocke realized it.

Moments later, the reason revealed itself when a familiar figure rose up from the waterline and flew over the starboard side of the ship. It was Rogue and she had an unconscious Toad in one hand and a strange woman in the other. The smile on her face along with Gambit’s that could have lit up the whole city.

“Cherè?” exclaimed Gambit.

“Heya fellas! Someone order the Toad flavored gumbo?” said Rogue as she tossed the unconscious mutant onto the deck of the ship.

“Rogue!” said a jubilant Storm, “What are you doing here?”

“Were you hiding or something? Because if this a joke, it’s not very funny,” said Shadowcat.

“It ain’t no joke, sugah. Ah was just following orders like a good X-man ought to,” she said proudly.

“In other words I picked up on her presence shortly after the machine was destroyed,” said Psylocke, “I was going to call her in for backup.”

“Then I figured it would be much more satisfying to catch Toad by surprise,” said Cyclops.

“I only wish we could have seen the look on his face,” said Psylocke.

“Believe meh, it was every bit as satisfying as you thought it was,” said Rogue.

It was a pleasant surprise to a bittersweet moment. Rogue landed on the deck of the ship while Iceman froze Toad so he couldn’t get away. Gambit ran up to her and embraced his lover. She eagerly embraced him back while the others gathered around to greet her. In the process Domino stepped aside so Rogue could have her moment. That didn’t mean her presence went unnoticed.

“Who is your friend, Rogue?” asked Storm.

“Is that makeup or is your skin really that pale?” asked Shadowcat.

You must be Kitty Pryde,” said Domino, rolling her eyes.

“Told ya she would say something crazy from the get-go,” laughed Rogue, earning her a look from Shadowcat, “Her name is Domino. She’s become a very interesting friend of mine.”

“Interesting? Is that how you’re going to describe the past 48 hours?” chided Domino.

“Let’s save the meet-and-greet for later. Ah’ve been putting this off for too long,” said Rogue in a more serious tone, “We’re X-men. We ain’t supposed to run from our problems. It took meh a while to realize that. And Ah’m think Ah’m ready to move forward.”

“And we’re more than happy to welcome you back,” said Cyclops.

This was welcome news, especially for Gambit. Rogue had been away from the team for quite a while. Even after she gained control over her powers, she seemed reluctant to rejoin them. Whatever issues she had been struggling with were now behind her. The X-men had her back and her timing couldn’t have been better.

The X-men officially defeated the Mutant Liberation Front. They lost a friend in Polaris, but they regained another in Rogue. They would need her because Toad had left quite a mess in wake of so many attacks. New Orleans was still pitch black and there were probably a lot of anxious authorities looking for an explanation. At least they could now tell them the worst of it was over.

Just when it seemed okay for everybody to catch their breath, one of the doors to the deck burst open and an enraged Wolverine ran out with his claws drawn.

“Where is he? Where is that little slime-ball and his goons?” yelled the feral mutant.

The already beleaguered X-men turned around to see Wolverine seething with anger. It took a moment for him to process what was going on. When he saw Rogue and an unconscious Toad, he let out a disappointed groan.

“Um…nice to see you too, Logan,” said Rogue sheepishly.

“Damn it all to freakin’ hell!” groaned Wolverine as he withdrew his claws, “What did I miss and how much beer am I gonna need?”


GRSO Headquarters – Langley, Virginia

“Mr. President, please slow down!” yelled a desperate Henry Peter Gyrich, “At least give us a chance to assess the mission data!”

“He’s right, sir. This is not a good time to overreact,” said an equally desperate General Kincaid.

Their begging was getting annoying and President Robert Kelly wasn’t hearing it. He didn’t look back at the two men as he stormed out of the conference room. There was only so much failure he could take before disgust set in. These two men promised him something bold. They ended up giving him more headaches.

“Mr. Byrne, set up a meeting with the Joint Chiefs and the heads of FEMA,” he said into his cell phone as he stormed off, “I also need a diplomatic line open to Genosha at all times. If anything comes up on their end, I want to be the first to know about it.”

“Yes, Mr. President. The Secret Service will escort you to a motorcade immediately.”

The President ended the call and continued planning his next move on his phone. He had quite a mess to clean up and Gyrich’s failure was a big part of it. He watched through a live feed as their so-called ultimate mutant response unit failed miserably. The GRSO unit could not subdue their targets. Bastion proved once again that he was an unstable weapon at best. Worst of all, the intelligence that they had been relying on proved faulty. A quick chat with Cyclops of the X-men confirmed it. They walked right into a trap and it almost cost them dearly.

Robert Kelly was already a beleaguered President. He thought General Grimshaw’s ways weren’t working. He was willing to risk taking more extreme measures. In the end, those measures backfired. It could have been much worse if the X-men hadn’t pulled through yet again. And since this mission took place in a very public area, the details of these failures would be public as well. This meant he had to make some difficult choices. None would involve Henry Peter Gyrich and General William Kincaid.

He was almost at the secure elevator with his Secret Service staff following closely. Gyrich and Kincaid managed to catch up to him, shoving aside a few co-workers in the process.

“Mr. President, just stop for a minute,” said Gyrich, “Think about what you’re doing.”

“I know exactly what I’m doing, Henry. I’m cleaning up your mess,” said President Kelly with a harsh scold.

“My mess? Sir, the operation didn’t pan out as expected, but that doesn’t mean we should scrap the whole project,” he argued.

“Give us a chance to learn from this mission, Mr. President,” said General Kincaid in a more reasonable tone, “I’ve already sent my people to salvage Bastion. We’ve recalled the GRSO unit too. It doesn’t have to end like this.”

“No, General Kincaid…it most certainly does,” said President Kelly firmly, “Perhaps you didn’t notice, but this whole fiasco was broadcasted on live TV. That’s just how the Mutant Liberation Front wanted it. I’ve heard from the X-men and your own analysts agree. They were expecting us to send our best weapon so they could take it out. And they nearly succeeded!”

“We don’t know that for sure,” argued Gyrich.

“It makes too much sense and I’m not a fan of coincidences. Can you offer me a better explanation? What else could explain such a convenient tip that led us right to the location of their biggest attack? You saw that machine before the feed cut out. You know what it’s capable of. Face it, the Mutant Liberation Front outsmarted you.”

It was the cold, hard truth. Both men were so confident in the GRSO unit’s competence. But in the end they ended up making fools of themselves in front of the President of the United States. They nearly sacrificed their most valuable asset. The operation that was supposed to earn the President’s unyielding trust ended up completely alienating him.

Their silence said it all for President Kelly. They knew they had just lost a good chunk of their credibility. Rather than make his job easier, they only added to his problems.

“I should fire you both, but I’d rather not throw away badly needed manpower,” the President went on, “Wanda Maximoff told me about the machine. She received confirmation from the X-men that it has been neutralized and that they have Toad in custody. I was also sent an assessment of the damage by the Pentagon. Everywhere within 600 miles of New Orleans has been blacked out. That machine rendered many major utilities damaged beyond repair. It has the potential to get very ugly. That’s why I’m accepting the deal Wanda offered.”

“Sir, with all due respect, that’s a bigger mistake waiting to happen,” said General Kincaid, “No deal with Genosha ends well. Trust me on this!”

“She has an advanced power system that she says can have all those utilities operating again at full capacity within 12 hours. She even sent specs to the MSA and they confirmed it. How is it a mistake to spare millions of people from being cut off from vital utilities?”

“What she’s asking in return is outrageous!” said Gyrich.

“It’s no more outrageous than your failure, Mr. Gyrich,” said the President, “She saw Bastion. She saw that we were plotting against her. It was there for everyone to see. She could use it as an excuse to spark any number of conflicts. Instead, she’s using it as leverage to improve her country while helping ours. It’s a risky deal, but one worth taking.”

His mind was made up. There was nothing Gyrich or General Kincaid could say to change it at this point. It still didn’t sit well. It was yet another compromise for the mutant conflict. In their experience, compromise was always dangerous when it came to dealing with mutants.

“Mr. President, we’re all walking a fine line here. When the dust settles, the same conflicts from before will be there,” said General Kincaid, “The GRSO unit can help with those conflicts if you give it a chance.”

“I don’t doubt that they could. However, they have a long ways to go and so do you,” said the President, “I’m not demoting you two or disbanding this unit. As of now, the MSA still has a better track record. If that changes, you may have a second chance. In the meantime, you’ll have to earn the role you’re looking for. But I suggest you work on your competence first.”

“But sir…” began Gyrich.

“That is all, gentlemen,” he said firmly, “I’ll call you if I need further consultation.”

President Kelly’s harsh tone silenced the two men as they watched the commander-in-chief enter the secure elevator with the Secret Service. While they still had their jobs, he had no intention of seeking their assistance for future mutant conflicts. For now, he needed quality men and not weapons. As soon as the elevator doors closed, he made another call on his phone.

“Get me General Grimshaw,” he said, “We have some catching up to do.”

He made sure that Gyrich and General Kincaid heard him before he left, as if to send a message about how disappointed he was with them. They had their chance to win his favor and they failed. Now he was going back to General Grimshaw, leaving them back at square one.

“This is bad, General. The President is falling back into his old bad habits,” said Gyrich.

“I can’t say I blame him,” grumbled General Kincaid, “We offered a new weapon and it backfired.”

“And now he’s about to make another bad decision with Genosha. Even without the Mutant Liberation Front, it’s only going to get worse.”

“Then it’ll only be a matter of time before those bad decisions come back to haunt him,” reasoned Kincaid, “When that happens, GRSO must be ready. We can take the lessons we learned from this mission and improve. We can still create the ultimate counter to the mutant menace.”

“I wish I could share your confidence,” said Gyrich bitterly.

“You don’t think we can pull it off?”

“We’re the CIA. There’s very little we can’t pull off. We both love this country and we both know how vulnerable it is. My greatest concern is that by the time we get another chance, there won’t be much country left to protect.”


Genosha – Citadel

Throughout history, great nations have fallen when the will of the people overturned a weak ruler. Genosha had been the sight of many upheavals. From military dictatorships to the mutant-dominated rule imposed by Magneto, the country was always on the brink. It took a strong leader to impose order from this chaos. It also helped if that same leader had just endured a terrible loss.

“GET OUT OF OUR HOME! I’VE HAD IT WITH YOU WHINING BRUTES!” yelled an angry and distraught Wanda Maximoff.

“Whoa. Wanda’s gone off the deep end, mate,” said Pyro as he watched in a daze.

“I’m tempted to join her, but I think she’s enraged enough for both of us,” said Pietro solemnly.

Moments ago, Wanda sealed a deal with President Kelly that would help stabilize their country. She also received news from Alex that Lorna had perished at the hands of the Mutant Liberation Front. Neither he nor the X-men were able to save her. This news sent her over the edge and she took it out on the protesters.

In her enraged state, she unleashed her hexing powers on every protester that had stormed the citadel. She started with the mutants that tried to break into the dormitories. She paralyzed them where they stood and levitated them, throwing in a few painful shocks in the process. While they groaned in agony, she led them down the citadel where she hexed more protesters. The looters and the thieves that were so vocal about toppling her rule were silenced in a purplish burst of sparks. Some tried to flee. Few escaped her wrath.

“Quit trying to shoot her! She’s too powerful!” yelled a mutant as he and a friend of his were at the front door.

“What the hell got into her?” the female mutant wondered, who stopped trying to fire upon her with her energy blasts.

“I don’t know, but I’m not sticking around to-AHHHHHHH!” said another mutant before being consumed in the hexing onslaught.

Dozens of mutants involved in the protest were subdued. Many found themselves powerless and frozen. They could do nothing except endure the discomfort while Wanda led them back to the front gate. Once every protester was accounted for, she roughly dropped them onto the hard metal floor. She then stood over them, her body still glowing with hex energy.

“Consider what I just did to you a painful warning. If you don’t want to face my full wrath, you’ll listen to me and you’ll listen closely!” she said with rage in her eyes.

“I’m pretty sure they’re all ears, Wanda,” said Pyro, who caught up with her.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but try and be gentle,” added Pietro.

Wanda was still fuming, needing to catch her breath before she addressed these bewildered mutants. They were shocked by her outburst. Some were still in a lot of pain. However, they were still citizens of Genosha so she did her best to sound like a strong ruler and less like a girl who just lost her sister.

“Less than an hour ago, the Mutant Liberation Front launched their boldest attack. This time they failed. Toad was subdued and his teammates were arrested,” she said to them, “These outlaws you looked up to were nothing more than thugs. All they did was spread fear and hatred of our kind. As a result, a good deal of the southern United States is blacked out. This kind of damage gives people all the excuses they need to hate mutants. So while you’ve been yelling at me for being so inept, I did something about it.”

As her tone escalated, her hexing intensified. Some of them groaned in pain. Pietro had to console his sister to get her to lessen the sting. It took another moment or two before she gathered herself enough to continue.

“Recently, the Brotherhood began constructing a new power station with our Warlock technology. It’s capable of generating vast amounts of power and broadcasting it wirelessly. I called President Kelly and offered him a deal. Genosha will help re-power the areas affected by the attack. In exchange, he has agreed to end the occupation on the southern part of the island. In the coming weeks, all military personnel from every country will pull out. There will still be a naval blockade, but our island will be free of foreign soldiers once more. Now if you want to show the world that we’re capable of governing ourselves, you’ll quit these protests. We have a country to rebuild. I’ll still lead you, but I won’t take your bullshit anymore!”

Her message was as clear as it was menacing. They demanded more of her and she delivered. Having foreign troops on their island had been one of the many sources of tension. They dared call her weak, yet she had just freed their country from this burden. It effectively demonstrated her worth as a leader.

Having made her point, Wanda freed the protesters from her hex bolts. The bewildered mutants that were once so united in opposing her had been humbled. Now sore and dazed, they rose up before their stern leader.

“Now go,” she told them firmly, “Tell the rest of the island what I just told you. We’re all in this together. Do our kind a favor and keep it that way.”

Tears formed in her eyes as she said those words. It was difficult to maintain her tough demeanor, but none of the mutants dared to comment. One-by-one, they stood up. Some quickly ran out of the Citadel, not willing to risk more hexing. Others stayed behind and showed their loyalty to Wanda. They bowed nervously, making it clear that they were on her side again.

“We’re with you, Wanda Maximoff,” said an older mutant with purple skin.

“We’ll tell everyone!” said another, “If they complain, we’ll set them straight!”

“Just please don’t hex me again!” said a teenage girl, who carefully backed away before running out with the others.

Wanda weakly nodded to acknowledge their promise. She stood silent, waiting until every last protester had left the citadel. Some were slower than others, indicating that she had been a bit rough with her hex bolts. But the pain she caused them could never match the pain she was feeling right now. Once the last mutant had left, Wanda’s poise finally failed her. She collapsed to her knees and started crying.

“Lorna…my sister,” she cried.

“It’ll be okay, Wanda,” said Pietro softly, catching his sister as the sorrow overwhelmed her.

“I…I failed her,” she sobbed.

“No. We all failed her.”

Pietro held back his own sorrow as he let his sister cry into his shoulder. First they lost their father to madness. Now they lost their half-sister. Lorna was the best of all of them. Losing her was like losing the heart of the Brotherhood. She grew up apart from this conflict. She was the one that saw hope where everyone else saw despair. Moving ahead without her was going to be difficult.


Later

‘I used to think all of life’s problems could be solved with technology. I thought I did everything possible to avoid creating new problems. Too bad those problems couldn’t avoid me. Ironically, by trying to use technology I nearly destroyed it. An innocent girl lost her life in the process. So where does that leave me?’

Madison Jefferies was still catching his breath. Everything from the past few days had yet to sink in. Even though the conflict was over, he was at a loss. While the cleanup process had already begun, he sat on the hood of a police car fixated on the head of Danger. She symbolized his life’s work and now that life was forever changed. His wasn’t the only one either.

In the hours following Toad’s defeat, the X-men began tying up the loose ends. They contacted the MSA and local authorities. New Orleans was blacked out so they stuck around to help. They were able to restrain Toad along with some of his teammates. Strobe, Sauron, Caliban, Callisto, and Negasonic Teenage Warhead were all arrested and contained. Phoenix and Psylocke used telepathic blocks on their minds to keep them unconscious until the MSA’s containment personnel arrived.

In addition, a good chunk of the Mutant Liberation Front reserves were subdued. After Wolverine set fire to the engine room, many tried to flee the ship. A number of mutants got away. Others were rounded up by the MSA with help from Wolverine, Shadowcat, Psylocke, Iceman and Colossus.

Within an hour the MSA’s main response unit flew in from an area that was unaffected by the blackout. Most arrived in large helicopters while some arrived in armored SWAT vans that had been borrowed from the local police. Cyclops coordinated with General Grimshaw and other officials to process these mutants. After their experiences at Fort Leavenworth, they needed a new way of imprisoning dangerous mutants like Toad. It opened the door to many new problems and Madison Jefferies didn’t have the energy to confront any of them.

“Has your stomach settled yet, Mr. Jefferies?” said Hank McCoy as he approached with Ororo following close behind.

“If you need medical attention, some EMTs just arrived,” offered Ororo.

“I’m fine,” said Madison flatly, “Well…as fine as a man can be who fell ass-backwards into this mess.”

“Few ever seek to be part of great conflict. Conflict, like a nasty cold, has a way of finding us all,” said Hank in a friendly tone as he sat down next to him.

“Except we can’t treat conflict with chicken noodle soup or Nyquil,” groaned Madison, “None of this had to happen. I let the Mutant Liberation Front use me. If only I had a goddamn backbone. I could have spared everybody this madness. And that poor girl…”

“You can’t blame yourself for what happened to Lorna,” said Ororo, offering a kind gesture, “You didn’t put her in that machine. Toad did. This is all his doing.”

“It’s still my responsibility,” said Madison strongly, “I helped make that machine. My own foolishness helped them turn it on.”

“That same foolishness helped turn it off,” quipped Hank, “From one man of science to another, I can say with great candor that being brilliant comes at a cost. We become so captivated by what we can do that we don’t stop and think about what we should do. Sometimes it takes a harsh lesson in humility to realize that. If this is to be your lesson, consider yourself lucky that you didn’t end up with fur.”

This got a slight laugh out of Madison. He finally looked up from the Danger, having sulked enough at this point. These X-men were heroes. They had the clarity that he failed to grasp. He could see in both Hank and Ororo that they had been humbled as well. They found a way to rise above it so why couldn’t he?

“I’m just not sure where I go from here,” he sighed, “Where should I go from here?”

“By asking the right questions, you’ve already taken the first step,” said Hank.

“You have much to contribute, Mr. Jefferies. Don’t let something like this hold you back,” added Ororo.

“I don’t intend it to,” said Madison in a stronger tone, “I just want to start making the right decisions for once.”

“The X-men can help you make those decisions,” said Hank with a warm smile, “In addition to saving the world, we’re quite adept at making difficult yet appropriate choices.”

Madison Jefferies looked back at Danger and then towards the X-men as they coordinated with the authorities. There was an opportunity behind this madness. He would be even more foolish of him if he didn’t take full advantage of it. As a mutant, it wasn’t just his responsibility. It was the right thing to do.

Madison wasn’t the only one facing such a decision. Rogue had also faced many difficult choices. Returning to the X-men wasn’t just a choice. It was a means of redemption. She left the team for a number of reasons. Not all those reasons were valid. It took her a while to come around, needing help along the way from people like Isaac and Tessa. Now she was finally ready. After helping the MSA restrain Toad and secure him in a special SWAT van, she rejoined Remy and Domino.

“Looks like the feds can take it from here,” said Rogue, “Ah’m sure they’ll throw Toad in the deepest hole they can find.”

“You almost sound sorry for him,” teased Domino.

“Not long ago Ah would have thrown in plenty of sarcasm. Now Ah’m not so big on enjoying it when someone goes crazy or makes a mistake,” she said as she watched the MSA seal the SWAT van.

“I’m not sure Toad’s recent string of mistakes would qualify,” said Domino.

“We can’t know for sure. Something changed that man from a smelly little runt to a deranged mutant mastermind…who still smells, mind you. It could’ve been his choice or he may be a victim as well. Only God knows how bad it is. He’s the only one who can judge him now.”

That sounded like something Isaac would say. It showed that Rogue took his teachings to heart. It was a good sign that she was back on the right path. Having been in that position, Domino couldn’t help but be proud of her.

She wasn’t the only one smiling either. Remy hadn’t stopped since Rogue first showed up with an unconscious Toad in her arms. Looking at her, she looked like a new woman. It was like she had reconnected with a part of herself that had been lost. She had that special glow in her eyes that he found so alluring once more. As the SWAT van containing Toad drove off, he grasped her hand with his.

“That may be the most Remy’s ever heard you say without gettin’ overly cynical, cherè,” he pointed out.

“Does that mean you gonna have me committed?” she teased.

“Non. Far as Remy’s concerned, it’s about damn time. If you gonna start takin’ things seriously again, then maybe that means you and me can go back to being serious.”

“Serious as in fightin’ alongside you and the X-men again?”

“Among other things,” he said with a grin.

“Ah see,” she said, grinning as well, “Hope this is one of them.”

Rogue demonstrated just how serious she could be by pulling Remy into a deep kiss and he fully embraced the feeling. This is what they had been waiting for. Even after Rogue gained control of her powers, they never took the step that would take them from being lovers to something much more. Having come so far, it was all the more rewarding. Even Domino was impressed by how passionate they were.

“Not bad, Rogue,” she said in a humored tone, “Looks like you got a real catch here. But when I talk to Isaac, I’ll have to tell him you don’t use enough tongue.”

“You’re an ass, Domino,” grinned Rogue.

“And you’re luckier than I’ll ever be,” she quipped.

Domino rolled her eyes and smiled as she left her new friend to catch up with her lover. Rogue was back on the right path and she had a handsome boyfriend in her arms. She had come a long way both physically and spiritually. After everything she endured, she deserved this.

While Rogue and Remy’s reunion was a welcome sight to some, it only served to remind others of the painful cost of this victory. Alex Summers was among the few not satisfied with Toad’s defeat. As far as he was concerned, he lost this fight. He failed to save the woman he loved and it hurt in ways that he never thought possible. He could stand up to anything and anyone. But for once, he was utterly defeated.

“I’m sorry, Alex,” said Scott, who offered his brother a comforting gesture, “Lorna didn’t deserve this.”

“What are you sorry about?” scoffed Alex, “You get to go home tonight and curl up next to the love of your life.”

“That’s not fair.”

“I’m a little beyond fairness at this point!” he yelled, his voice strained by sorrow, “I had no chance at all in this fight. Toad took Lorna before any of us even knew what he was up to. I lost her before this bullshit was even over!”

“You were still there for her. Even after she knew she was beyond saving, you never gave up on her. That meant something to her…more than she ever had a chance to say,” said Jean, her caring voice helping to settle his wounded heart.

“Just because you’re psychic doesn’t mean you can understand, Jean,” said Alex sadly.

“It still helps in other ways,” she retorted, “When I linked your minds, I could sense how much she loved you. I could sense how much you loved her as well. Your love is what helped her fight back. It’s something she learned from you. It takes a lot of passion to struggle like she did. You should be proud of her even as you mourn her.”

Jean had a much better knack for compassion than Scott. Even Scott understood this, allowing his lover to embrace his wounded brother. It was the first time since their parents died that he saw Alex shed tears. He really did care for Lorna. It didn’t matter that he was hot-headed and immature. That girl meant a lot to her. Their bitter sibling rivalry seemed lost under the weight of such sorrow. It was moments like this that reminded them that they were still family and they still cared for one another.

While Alex accepted their condolences, he looked back up at the cloudy skies where Lorna had disappeared. There were still small flashes of lightning amidst the fading clouds. The air was still hot with the energy generated by the machine. That energy still felt like it was alive in some way. If Lorna was as strong a fighter he thought, then there may still be hope.

“I’m not sure it’s right to mourn her,” he said, “She could still be fighting this.”

“Alex, you saw what I saw,” said Jean, “She disappeared completely. I didn’t sense a trace of her mind.”

“That just means you didn’t sense her. It doesn’t mean she’s gone. They didn’t find a body.”

“There might be nothing to find,” Scott pointed out.

“Or something else might have happened that we don’t understand,” Alex reasoned, “I don’t expect you to believe me, Scott. I’m not psychic and neither is Lorna. But somehow, I still feel like she’s out there. Everyone else may think she’s dead, but I can’t accept that. Even if it sounds crazy, I’m not ready to let Lorna go.”

It didn’t seem healthy, Alex believing that Lorna was still out there. Scott shared that sentiment on some levels. However, he reminded himself of the news Gabriel told him. He said his father was still alive. That was news he still hadn’t shared with Alex yet. This probably wasn’t the best time to bring it up either, but it demonstrated how death was not always so absolute.

“It’s not as crazy as you think,” he said.

“Don’t baby me, Scott,” grumbled Alex.

“I mean it. I understand those kinds of feelings,” said Scott, “If those feelings are really that strong, then hold onto them. You never know when you’ll need them.”

Alex turned back towards his brother, expecting Scott’s usual condescension. He was surprised to see genuine sincerity from his older brother. Nothing else was said. Instead, he accepted a brotherly hug. Feelings aside, it was a painful moment for him and the Brotherhood. Losing Lorna was symbolic of so many other losses.

In addition to Alex, Bobby felt this loss as well. He looked back towards Alex, even as he helped the others assist the MSA. Even though his relationship with Lorna ended badly, he still cared about her. She was a kind, compassionate young woman who managed to hold onto those feelings as Magneto and the Maximoff twins tried to influence her.

“Hello? Bobby? It’s been nearly a half-hour since you make a joke about Toad’s body odor,” said Kitty, “Should I call another ambulance?”

“Cut him some slack, Kitty…as difficult that may be for you,” said Betsy, rolling her eyes, “He just watched his ex-girlfriend die. It’s hard to make jokes after something like that.”

“Sorry, but you know I’m not good at lightening the mood,” she said sheepishly.

“I appreciate the effort, Kitty. Even if you failed miserably,” said Bobby dryly.

“Since I respected Lorna for putting up with you, I’ll let that slide,” said Kitty, rolling her eyes.

“She did more than put up with difficult guys like me. She brought out the best in people. She could reach out to someone like Magneto and get them to think straight when everything else seemed crazy. Even after we broke up, she still had that special influence.”

“If she can make Scott’s little brother less a total sod, I’d say it’s more than special,” commented Betsy, who offered Bobby the consolation that Kitty failed to provide.

“You don’t know the half of it, Betsy. Not too many girls can make pig-headed guys think twice about showing off our latest pick-up lines,” sighed Bobby.

“I think that may count as a joke. It must mean you’re getting better,” Kitty pointed out.

“Coming from my other ex, I’ll take that with a grain of salt,” he said with a slight grin, “But losing someone like Lorna affects more than ex-boyfriends. Without people like her, the bad news gets worse and the good news gets ignored. If Alex and I are any indication, beating the Mutant Liberation Front today may not have the impact we hope.”

“I’d like to be an optimist for once, but I’ll stick to my usual wait-and-see approach,” said Kitty, “As far as I’m concerned, one less mutant terror group is a good thing.”

Kitty’s sentiment was shared by many. Watching Toad and his Mutant Liberation Front crumble before their eyes was a satisfying sight. Bobby and Alex were in the minority in not embracing it. That didn’t mean they were wrong or that others weren’t contemplating the same issues.

Piotr had just helped Logan subdue the last Mutant Liberation Front reserves. It was a young mutant woman with dark skin who had enhanced strength. Colossus had to hold her arms while Wolverine put a pair of heavy duty handcuffs on her arms. As he felt her struggle, he questioned the extent of this victory.

“YOU X-MEN SHOULD’VE JOINED US! FIRST GENOSHA, NOW THIS? NOW YOU’VE RUINED EVERYTHING YET AGAIN!” she shouted, “YOU KEEP SAVING A WORLD THAT SCREWS US OVER! SOONER OR LATER, IT’LL SCREW YOU TOO AND YOU’LL REGRET STOPPING US!”

“And you’ll regret listening to a guy who smells like a dead pig,” said Logan, “Now shut up and join your buddies. Maybe they’ll appreciate your bitching.”

Logan shoved the defiant mutant into the arms of three MSA soldiers, who escorted her into the back of an armored truck where a number of Mutant Liberation Front reserves had been detained. They were all much less vocal than their associate. They held their heads low, not even looking at the MSA soldiers as the doors were sealed.

“You think Bobby is right, comrade Logan?” asked Piotr, “Will stopping Toad be as productive as we hope?”

“You expecting me to say something positive, Ruskie?” scoffed Logan.

“Even in my metal form, I am not that dense,” quipped the Russian, “I am trying to foresee what will come of all this. We defeated the Mutant Liberation Front. However, that poor girl was lost to us. I hate to think of what that will do to Wanda and the others on Genosha.”

“She’ll be pissed. That much you can count on.”

“There are also the problems we face here,” said Piotr as he looked over the blacked out cityscape of New Orleans, “Many people are still without power. Not all of Toad’s associates are accounted for and I’m sure that will give people plenty to fear. Rogue also mentioned something about this new anti-mutant weapon.”

“Yet another dirt-bag I didn’t get a chance to cut up,” grumbled the feral mutant.

“Even so, it seems like a…mixed victory if that is a proper American term.”

“It ain’t,” Logan pointed out.

“Well it should be,” said Piotr, “In Russia, there is a long history of solving one problem while creating several others. And those new problems are not always easier. While I am glad that we defeated Toad, this conflict may have only masked others.”

Logan chose not to argue with Piotr’s concerns or contemplate them for that matter. Toad left a hell of a mess before he attempted this attack. This wasn’t a full victory by any stretch. The Mutant Liberation Front did a lot of damage and now Lorna was among the casualties. As far as Logan was concerned, the next conflict had already begun.


Worthington Industries Corporate Headquarters – CEO Suite

“Are you finished yet, General Grimshaw?” said an annoyed Warren Worthington Junior, “I would like to continue before the next major mutant attack.”

“I apologize, Mr. Worthington. It’s not easy to ignore a message from the President, especially when he’s graveling,” said the General, who was distracted by incoming messages on his phone.

“I hope you’re not enjoying yourself too much. I am part of the reason why he’s having such a bad day.”

“True, but he doesn’t need to know that. Nobody does.”

General Nathan Grimshaw was not a gambler, but he was willing to take chances. He wasn’t afraid to rig the game in his favor either. For the last hour or so he had been catching up with President Kelly. He already knew the details of what happened in New Orleans. That news was spreading all over the country.

Warren kept the TV in his office tuned to CNN since it related to the purpose of this very important meeting, which had been going on for nearly four hours. He coordinated with the President and the MSA to clean up the mess in New Orleans. It seemed Henry Gyrich and General Kincaid were out of the loop, which was just as General Grimshaw hoped counted on.

“There’s plenty of good news and bad news to go around,” said the General upon receiving his last message, “The world is still in one piece, World War III hasn’t begun, and Genosha seems to be re-stabilizing.”

“I assume that’s all good news,” said Warren, “How bad is the bad news?”

“Not as bad as it could be,” said the General as he set his phone aside, “We have Toad in custody, but a number of his associates are unaccounted for. It’s only a matter of time before they meet up with some other crazy leader.”

“At least you won’t have Gyrich getting in your way,” said Warren, “If the President is using the MSA for the clean-up, then it means you still have his trust.”

“Only as much as he can afford,” General Grimshaw pointed out, “His options are limited after seeing how badly Gyrich and Kincaid screwed up.”

“All the more reason to move forward with our arrangement,” said Warren, “I believe we were just getting to the part where we made it official.”

Warren Jr. sounded relieved as he rose up from his desk to retrieve a couple of wine glasses. He opened up the special wine cooler he had built into the wall of his office that was packed with all sorts of exotic wines. General Grimshaw was never one to celebrate, but when one of his enemies made a fool of himself he gladly made an exception.

“I must admit, I’m surprised that you came to me after Gyrich muscled you out,” said Warren as he took out his best bottle of Chardonnay, “You know my history with mutants as well as anyone else. Since the incident with my son, it’s a taboo issue to say the least.”

“Clearly, it’s not taboo enough for you cut a deal,” said General Grimshaw.

“I don’t think this qualifies as a deal. You needed me a lot more than I needed you, Nathan. I would still have billions to my name and fifteen cars in my garage if I ignored your call.”

“Yet you didn’t. Mutants may be a difficult issue, but you’ve never run from it. I’m sure your son would be pretty upset if he knew you were back in the game.”

“My son has other concerns…personal concerns that have kept him distracted,” said Warren as he filled the glasses.

“You only sounded partially worried,” the General pointed out.

“Oh I’m plenty worried. It’s just been…convenient that my son is so distracted. He would chew my ears off if he found out I let Gyrich take Bastion off my hands.”

“I’m sure he would have been very understanding once you told him that you rigged Bastion to fail,” said Grimshaw, “The President told me that he was shorted out by a bolt of lightning. No one ever suspected that his systems were corrupt from the beginning.”

“Even then, I’m sure my son would find a reason to despise me. He’s never been too fond of my dealings with mutants. I doubt this arrangement will change that.”

Warren remained conflicted even as he handed the General his glass of wine. The lingering animosity between him and his son remained a heavy burden. Ever since he tried to cure the Legacy Virus by using himself as a guinea pig, Warren Jr. was convinced that his son wasn’t ready for the role he had groomed him for. He still didn’t know what was best for him or this company. He needed more time set things right.

“My son may not understand, but given his recent recklessness, this is for his own good,” said Warren Jr. as he raised his glass, “You’re MSA has officially partnered with Worthington Industry’s NIMROD division.”

“I’ll drink to that,” said General Grimshaw, raising his glass as well, “Tell me what NIMROD stands for again. Seems like a lousy name for a secret research project.”

“I’d rather not say. All anybody needs to know is the technology from Bastion was a treasure trove of new ideas,” he said as he swirled the glass of wine, “We both agree that the MSA needs to be more proactive when dealing with mutants. Between this and the unexpected breakthrough my son stumbled upon, I think we’re in a good position.”

“Having the pieces is only the first step, Mr. Worthington,” said the General, “Putting them in place is going to require a bit more tact. Don’t worry though. I’m sure an opportunity will eventually present itself.”

“When that day comes, we’ll have another toast.”

“I’m already looking forward to it.”

The two men tapped their glasses and drank their wine. This clandestine deal was certain to benefit them both. They had seen their respective approaches fail. Warren Jr. nearly lost his son by trying to cure mutation. General Grimshaw nearly lost his country when his MSA failed to stop the Mutant Liberation Front. Neither could afford to rely on the X-men implicitly, so they had to take matters into their own hands. They had to have another option just in case. Between the MSA’s manpower and Worthington Industry’s technology, they could ensure that the mutant conflict would be contained if it ever became too dire.

While the two men celebrated, Captain Jack Freeman didn’t share the festive spirit. He was instructed by General Grimshaw to wait outside of the main office. Grimshaw invited him because he needed someone he could trust to cover him while he made this deal. Normally, the Green Beret wouldn’t have questioned such an order. This time, he couldn’t help but listen in on their conversation.

‘I don’t understand half the deals you make, sir. You probably don’t expect me to. I almost wish I didn’t because there’s so much of this deal that makes me want to puke. How proactive are you willing to be? How the hell is this rich asshole going to help you? I hope you don’t put me in an awkward position, sir. When the next pile of shit hits the fan, I don’t want to have to choose between my duty and you.’


New Orleans – Sewers

“Wake up, Vertigo! Quit napping and get up already!” barked an angry voice.

“Hnn…did we win?” groaned a very sore Vertigo.

“We’re in a sewer! What do you think?”

Vertigo groaned and it wasn’t just because of the putrid smell. The last thing she remembered was facing Bastion. Then both she and Arclight had been on the receiving end of an energy blast that knocked them right into the river. Toad tasked them with distracting whatever advanced counter-measure the humans employed. He might as well have used them as a human shield. Given how sore she was, it was a fitting title.

Vertigo coughed up the foul sewer water as she pulled herself up. She wasn’t sure where she was or how she got here. She assumed Arclight took a weaker blast, which would explain why she was conscious first. For all she knew, she shoved her in front of the blast. She was too sore to be mad at her and as she arose, a hand was extended to her. However, it didn’t belong to Arclight.

“Seeing as how you’re in so much pain, I won’t say I told you so,” said Stryfe, his coarse voice adding to her discomfort.

“You…suddenly the sewer doesn’t smell as bad,” groaned Vertigo as she took his hand.

“You should still consider yourself lukcy. You could literally be up a shit creek right now,” said Avalanche, who was standing next to Stryfe, “Gateway is MIA, but we found Reignfire floating around. He got you and Arclight out of the river before you got washed out to sea.”

“You’re welcome, by the way,” said Reignfire dryly.

“If we were flown out, then why the hell are we in a sewer?” questioned Vertigo.

“Because this is where I’ve scheduled our meeting,” said Stryfe, “While I’m as disappointed as the rest of you, I had a feeling Toad’s plan would fail. So I took the liberty of arranging a backup plan.”

Vertigo’s head finally stopped throbbing and she looked around. They appeared to be in a major hub for the New Orleans sewer system. Behind her was a shallow river of sewer water, which was flowing out through a large gated area with a maze of pipes that led up to the surface. In front of her was a large utility platform with a doorway that led to a maintenance area. Arclight was standing beside her while Stryfe, Avalanche, and Reignfire stood just in front of the platform. They were all sore, but Stryfe looked as strong as ever.

“You call this a backup plan?” questioned Vertigo, “Are we the only ones that escaped?”

“There are probably others, but we’ll catch up with them later,” said Stryfe, “Right now, we need to get moving. The authorities will be searching for us so we’ll need lay low and establish a new base. The Mutant Liberation Front doesn’t have to die with Toad’s failure.”

“I still don’t get why you’re keeping that name,” said Reignfire, “It makes us sound like a bunch of hippies!”

“It still provokes fear in many circles so the name stays. Toad’s plan was conceptually sound, but his approach was flawed. What we need now is a new approach with new leadership.”

“By new I assume you’re nominating yourself,” said Vertigo dryly.

“I’m the one who set this up when I could have just as easily allowed us to perish or be detained. I think it’s only fitting that I take the initiative,” he said smugly.

“Fitting only to the extent that the alternative is prison or death by sewage,” she muttered.

“But before you turn your back on me, I urge you to hear me out. I’ve made a few friends that have a vested interest in our success. When you see what they have to offer, I’m confident you’ll be intrigued.”

Vertigo remained skeptical. Arclight and Reignfire weren’t completely convinced either. Avalanche was the only one who accepted Stryfe’s pitch. He really didn’t have a choice. He was a traitor on Genosha and a known associate of the Mutant Liberation Front. They were all in a difficult position. Stryfe seemed to know this and was ready to exploit it.

He kept grinning smugly, as if he was waiting for something. He didn’t have to wait very long. The door atop the utility platform opened up, startling the beleaguered mutants. Stryfe waved them down as he turned around to greet a shadowy yet stunning woman.

“Right on time,” he said to her, “Thank you for meeting us under these unpleasant circumstances.”

“I assure you it’s not out of the goodness of my heart, Stryfe,” said the woman in an ice cold tone, “I didn’t brave a massive blackout to hear your whining. Toad failed. Get over it. You’re lucky my associate is in need of the Mutant Liberation Front’s services.”

“Um…excuse me, but just who is your client and who the fuck are you for that matter?” asked Vertigo.

The woman stepped into the dim light, revealing an ice cold face to go along with a very stunning figure. She was very nicely dressed for someone who just ventured into the sewer. She wore an expensive business dress with a blouse that flaunted her ample cleavage in ways that weren’t very professional. She had perfectly shaped legs and tough face that was masked with great beauty. As far as she was concerned, this was a simple business transaction.

“My name is Cordilia Frost,” she said to them, “I represent the interests of White Cell, a resourceful organization with a special interest in mutants. If you wish to share those resources, you’ll listen to my offer.”

Up next: Spirit Misguide

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