The world has become a dangerous place for mutants. Ordinary people hate and fear what they can do. So Professor Charles Xavier took it upon himself to train his mutant team, the X-men, to use their powers for the greater good. He hoped to inspire a new generation. That inspiration turned to desperation when he developed a crippling addiction to pain killers. Now his X-men are without his guidance.
While Xavier is healing, the X-men have managed themselves respectably. Under Cyclops’s leadership, they were able to defeat the Mutant Liberation Front. They were also able to reestablish relations with Genosha. In exchange for full sovereignty, Wanda Maximoff utilized alien technology to beam vast amounts of power all over the world. It helped mitigate the damage done by Toad. It also helped General Grimshaw regain the trust of President Kelly. Yet despite these triumphs, new complications have emerged.
Recently, Rogue and Phoenix ventured to Nova Roma. Along with Nightcrawler and Illyana they defeated the Cheyarafim, who were intent on taking Amanda’s comatose body to their realm. The ordeal left Amanda in a dire state and caused Nightcrawler to manifest enhanced powers. This gives Rogue cause for concern, who has found herself in may awkward positions lately. It helps remind her and the rest of the X-men how Professor Xavier’s presence is desperately needed.
Muir Island – One Week Ago
‘Pain…so much pain. It burns…stings…festers. Feels like…something piercing my brain from the outside. Mustn’t think about it! Must…concentrate!’
Professor Charles Xavier was entering new levels of agony. His detox period from his was entering a critical stage. His mind and body reached the threshold where it could no longer torture him into taking more pills. In order to escape this agony, they had to adapt. As the world’s most powerful psychic, his mind functioned on a different level. This kind of pain couldn’t be processed by normal minds, making it all the more complicated.
“Keep breathing. Stay focused. Keep breathing. Stay focused,” he repeated to himself.
His face was drenched with cold sweat. The veins around his head and neck bulged. His body contorted uncontrollably, so much so that Moira and Sean Cassidy had to come in and strap him to his bed. It was a terrible feeling, having no control over the agony that plagued him. The only way he could get through it was to endure.
His groans could be heard outside the main door. For Moira MacTaggart, they were difficult to listen to. She and Sean had been watching over him for the past several hours. It would have been a lot easier to leave him under the supervision of a nurse, but she was intent on being here. Charles Xavier meant a lot to her. It was only appropriate that she remain present during the worst of his recovery.
“Oh Charles…this isn’t fair!” cried Moira, sitting with her back against the door to the chamber.
“You’re right, lass. It isn’t,” said Sean, who was holding her closely.
“It should be over by now! The brain scans said his neurochemical regulatory system was almost repaired!”
“There’s more at work here than biology. Ye know that almost as well as Charles.”
“It just doesn’t make sense! We have him isolated in the most secure psychic chamber in the world! Yet for hours we’ve been seeing telepathic outbursts! It shouldn’t be possible! It’s as if some outside force is still reaching him!”
“Or it could just be the random firings of a powerful mind not used to this process. We’ve done all we can for him. We’ve honored his every wish. I don’t like listening to it either, but Charles is the one who has to get through this.”
Moira hugged her knees firmly. Tears kept streaming down her face as more groans echoed from the chamber. Sean tenderly wiped them away. She leaned on him for support. It was so unfair, allowing Charles to suffer like this. Even if it was necessary, there was something wrong with how this was unfolding.
Inside the chamber, Charles Xavier gasped sharply through a new round of pain. He struggled harder against the restraints. Now his head wasn’t just throbbing. The inside of his skull felt like it was on fire. The pain had gone beyond physical. It was now psychic in nature. His mind was warped by the agony. His vision became blurred. He started hearing bizarre tones. Within this pained state, he heard thoughts that weren’t his own.
‘Charles…come to me, Charles.’
It should have been impossible within this chamber. Somehow, his powerful mind was sensing something. In this pained state, something profound was happening. He couldn’t make sense of it. All he could do was keep endearing.
“That voice!” he gasped, “No, I can’t! Must…stay focused…mustn’t…AHHHHHHHH!”
Present Time – Location Unknown
“Where am I? Scott? Phoenix? Anybody?!” said a deeply confused Jean Grey.
“I’m here, Jean. I…don’t know what’s happening. Yet it feels familiar.”
The words of the cosmic entity were hardly comforting. Jean found herself wandering a strange realm. It didn’t feel like anywhere she had been before. It didn’t even feel real. It felt like she was dreaming, yet at the same time it was more real than anything she ever experienced.
It was like being in a star. Everything was white hot. There were no defining features to speak of. In every direction, there was more bright light. Yet it was a gentle light, not blinding or hot. If anything, it was peaceful. It was like being in the heart of all light. The cosmic entity inside her flared with activity. It was like an excited child returning home after being lost. Jean also noticed she was wearing her Phoenix costume, but it looked slightly different. It was all white. It matched nicely with the ambience of this mysterious realm. Still deeply confused, she floated aimlessly through the light.
“Hello? Is anybody there?” Jean yelled out, “If this is a dream, I’d like to wake up now.”
“It’s no dream, Jean Grey. Not entirely.”
Jean was startled by the sound of a deep voice. She looked around for the source. It was hard to make out in all this white light. She tried scanning for minds. What she found was more than she expected. There was definitely someone here, but it was a mind unlike anything she sensed before.
“That voice…” she said.
“I have heard it before. I feel as though I haven’t heard it in a long time.”
“That would be an understatement of cosmic proportions,” said the voice.
Jean turned around and saw a shadowy figure emerging from the light. She tried floating over to it. The figure was definitely humanoid, but the mind did not feel human. As she moved closer, she made out more details. It appeared to be a man of sorts. He was tall and slender, his disposition reminding her of someone older. She tried to make out his face. It was still shrouded by the light.
“What the hell is this?” demanded Jean.
“This is an old being making another feeble effort to reach the young and ignorant. I’ve got no mortal form left so I have to reach you with my mind. I thought I would be too late. Turns out you defied the odds, Jean. I hope that’s a sign.”
“Well you reached me. Now who are you?” she asked strongly.
“Someone who needs you a lot less than you need me,” he replied, “It doesn’t matter who I am anymore. I’m no one to everyone. So just call me Stranger.”
“Stranger? If you’re a mutant seeking help, there are easier ways to get it. The institute does have something called email.”
“I’m not a mutant. I’m not even human,” said the man called Stranger, “I do not seek your help. However, you will be seeking mine very soon.”
“Is that a threat?” said Jean suspiciously.
“No…a warning,” he said ominously, “For you and the cosmic entity you wield.”
“A warning? For what?”
“The universe is a big place. There are many forces that prey on great power. Forces that you cannot seek, but are always seeking you. You cannot avoid it. You can only prepare.”
Jean felt a chill run down her spine. In a realm surrounded by white light that was quite a feat. Even the Phoenix Force felt it. Even a cosmic entity could sense the danger in his tone. With more urgency, she flew closer to the figure. In an instant, he started fading.
“Wait!” urged Jean.
“Do not go! I must know more!”
“You will soon enough,” said the voice, “I’ll be waiting.”
Xavier Institute – Scott and Jean’s Room
Jean Grey shot up in her bed as she emerged from a deep sleep. She was startled to find herself back in her bed, covered in bed-sheets. She wasn’t in her white Phoenix costume anymore. She was wearing the black pair of panties and a small shirt she wore to bed. In her dazed state, she took deep breaths to collect herself. She was so confused that she barely noticed Scott rush out from the bathroom.
“What is it, Jean? Are you okay?” he asked.
“Scott I…” she stammered, “It was nothing. Just a dream.”
“Are you sure? We’ve gone through the ominous dream routine before. Seeing as how we’re psychically linked, I would like to skip it.”
Jean let out another groan, hugging her knees as morning wooziness set in. Scott came over to the bed and sat next to her. It was five-thirty in the morning and he was already dressed in his uniform. She remembered he was scheduled to meet up with General Grimshaw on Genosha today. It was an important deal, but for the moment she sensed it wasn’t his top concern.
The X-leader sat down next to his girlfriend and slipped his arm around her. She hugged the sheets close to her body. They had been through this before when the Phoenix Force was seeking her out. That ordeal turned out to be pretty perilous. It taught him to never discount the nightmares of a powerful psychic.
“Come on, Jean. Tell me what you saw,” he urged her, “Otherwise I’ll be obsessing over it all the way to Genosha.”
“I honestly don’t know,” said Jean, leaning into her lover’s warmth, “It was just white hot light in every direction. Like it was the center of something.”
“Your mind maybe?” Scott suggested, “The Professor did once say that psychics tend to dream within their own thoughts.”
“I don’t think so. There was also this weird guy that showed up. Hell, I’m not even sure he was a guy to begin with. He said something about a warning.”
“Did he go into specifics?”
“Come on, Scott. When is it ever that convenient?”
Scott smiled sheepishly. He embraced his lover a little harder, letting her know that he was there for her. This was something significant. He could feel it in the way Jean tensed in his grasp.
Jean shifted in his embrace. Having caught her breath, she looked over towards her lover and caressed his face. She could feel his concern for her through their link. This was not a burden that she wished to share with him.
“Look, I don’t want this to be a new obsession,” said Jean, “You’ve got enough on your mind with Genosha. You need to focus on convincing General Grimshaw and Wanda Maximoff to be friendly with one another.”
“Compared to helping my girlfriend with some mysterious dreams, that’s a far more daunting challenge,” he pointed out.
“But one that’s more worthwhile,” she pointed out, “There’s only so much you can do with dreams. I’d rather you focus your energy on being the X-men’s Operation Commander. You’re as good at it as you are a lover.”
“I know you’ve grown to enjoy the large-and-in-charge version of Scott Summers. You wouldn’t regularly sleep half-naked with me if you didn’t,” he said with a grin, “But no matter what responsibilities I have, you’re still the most important person in my life. I love you and I want to be there for you.”
“I know, Scott. And that means a lot to me. Unfortunately, you can’t attack everything head on. You need to focus on what’s most pressing. Right now, real conflicts on Genosha are more important than potential conflicts in my dreams.”
He remained concerned. Jean offered a reassuring smile and kissed him on his freshly shaven cheek. There wasn’t a lot they could do. Dreams were almost as hard to confront as political issues on Genosha. She dealt with them before. She didn’t need them interfering with more immediate issues.
“Now go on. Meet with Wanda and General Grimshaw. Make sure they play nice,” she said to him, “I’ll be okay.”
“Can you make that a promise?” asked Scott.
“You know how I feel about promising the unknown. If something comes up, you’ll be the first to know about it. I know you’re always just a gentle thought away.”
“Good enough for me.”
Scott smiled again and kissed her softly on the lips. Her promise sealed, he released her from his embrace and rose up from the bed. Jean watched him until he left, the X-jet probably waiting for him in the sub-levels. Once he was gone, she lingered in the bed for a bit longer. It was still early, but she didn’t feel inclined to sleep anymore. Still hugging a blanket to her body, she rose up and made her way to the window.
It was still dark out. There were some morning clouds settling over the institute, but she could still see plenty of stars. Being a vessel for a cosmic entity gave her a special appreciation for the stars. Having seen some up close, their beauty was all the more meaningful. At the same time, she was aware of their inherent volatility. The dream still fresh in her mind, something about the stars seemed more volatile now.
‘If you’re looking to me for answers, I’m afraid I’m as confused as you are, Jean.’
‘I figured as such. Is this another case where being an ember of what you were is a problem?’
‘I wouldn’t call it a problem. It’s more of a side-effect. Every time I’m reborn, my history gets a little more unclear. Given how many times I’ve died and risen from the ashes, there are some issues where I am completely ignorant.’
‘Whatever it is, I’d rather it stay unclear. At least until Professor Xavier returns. He’s always been better at uncovering psychic mysteries.’
‘This goes beyond mere psychics, Jean. I’m a cosmic being. I’ve made it clear from day one that this is unknown territory for me. I sacrificed untold cosmic power to be part of you. I am still but a trace of what I once was. I will grow as you grow. I can’t pretend that I know what this will mean for the both of us. I’m only certain that I need you every bit as much as you need me.’
It was a daunting reminder. She had in her the very fires of creation. Those fires had grown since she and the Phoenix had been reborn together. The Phoenix Force helped her overcome many challenges. She had grown close to this inhuman being as if it were another friend. At the same time, she felt that power growing inside her. It wasn’t clear to either of them just what it was growing into. Whatever came of them, they were in this together. So were her friends.
‘You know I’m in this for the long haul, Phoenix. I’ll be strong for you, but I’m still human. I have my limitations.’
‘Those limitations are also a strength. The cosmos are more vast than the human imagination can contemplate. There are always conflicts that seem too great to understand. Whether you find them or they find you, it’s important to maintain a certain perspective. From my experience, it often helps if that perspective is human.’
Shi’ar Empire – Starjammer
The empty blackness of space seemed so calm even when chaos surrounded it. In and around the boundaries of the Shi’ar Empire, chaos was never far away in stellar terms. The cold vastness of the cosmos offered little protection. Even seemingly remote areas were wrought with danger. For those who were enemies of the empire, that danger was difficult to avoid.
“Corsair! It’s getting worse back here!” said a desperate Lilandra, “I think this plan of yours has officially backfired!”
“We’re still alive. Don’t call it a failure just yet,” said Corsair from the cockpit.
“We allowed the Imperial Guard to capture our crew so we could escape! I fail to see how this constitutes an escape!”
“Who said the escape was over?” quipped Corsair.
“Unless you have a Plan B, D’ken’s forces will blow us into cosmic dust! I’m supposed to be the last hope for the Shi’ar Empire! Not a martyr!”
“Then quit yelling and let me work!”
The ride aboard the Starjammer was getting rough. Systems were failing. Lights were flickering. It was hardly the condition which Corsair hoped to be in when they made this daring move. It could have gone a lot worse. It could have gone a lot better as well.
The arrival of the last Neramani was initially a boon to the rebellion. Lilandra became a rallying point for many of the diverse factions that opposed D’ken. She provided a legitimate alternative to the imperial throne. The empire was too established to simply destroy. The only way they could overthrow D’ken was to put someone else on the throne. It gave the rebels a clear goal for once and they made a great deal of progress as a result. D’ken was actually getting more desperate as his forces were stretched thin across his empire.
Then D’ken made an unexpected move. He went into desperation mode, concentrating every last resource into a final endgame. It was taking place deep in the heart of the Shi’ar home world. Somehow he managed to gain control of a vast new power. It was a power that decimated a daring raid on a nearby system. There were rumors that D’ken was about to do something big. It promised to be so big that it would end more than just this war if he succeeded. The Starjammers attempted a secret attack, but were blindsided by unexpected forces. They had to retreat. D’ken wasn’t about to let them go.
As soon as Corsair escaped with Lilandra in the Starjammer, D’ken deployed his elite R-class stellar interceptors. These spacecrafts were armed with high powered rail guns, pulsed laser cannons, and ion/fusion missiles. Ten of these powerful ships were sent to intercept the Starjammer. They were near the edge of the Shi’ar solar system. The interceptors were closing fast while firing warning shots that severely damaged the Starjammer’s defenses.
“Attention Starjammer,” came an alien voice through the ship’s communication console, “By order of Lord D’ken, you are to surrender immediately. Failure to do so will be grounds for immediate termination.”
“Immediate termination?” scoffed Corsair, “You’ve been chasing us through hyperspace for the past three hours! You’re as immediate as the postal service back on Earth!”
“This is your final warning. The Lord D’ken does not wish to terminate his half-sister. You may escape with your lives if you stop your ship at the nearest stellar outpost.”
“Like the way my wife escaped with her life when she was captured?” spat Corsair, “I’ve seen D’ken’s idea of hospitality. I’d rather jump naked into a black hole than listen to him! If you can get a message to D’ken, send him this special greeting that all humans share…fuck off!”
Corsair slammed his fist against the controls to turn off the communication systems. He heard enough from D’ken’s goons. They could keep shooting at him for all he cared. He was prepared to oppose that monster with every last breath.
“You’re really pushing it, Corsair. Pissing D’ken off has never been a viable strategy,” said Lilandra, who was sitting in the seat behind him.
“You think I care how much I upset that asshole? Let him be pissed!” said Corsair sternly.
“Need I remind you he has the rest of your crew in custody? Aren’t you worried about him taking out his anger on them?”
“They knew what they were getting into. They hate D’ken as much as I do. Sorry if my manners aren’t of royal caliber, Miss Neramani. But I’m the guy who has to save your ass right now! A little vote of confidence wouldn’t hurt!”
Lilandra had to hold onto her seat as the Starjammer was struck by a series of high energy laser blasts. It triggered alarms throughout the ship, indicating that their shields were reaching critical levels. If they took too many hits, they would be nothing more than cosmic debris.
Corsair ignored these ominous warnings and clutched the controls of the spacecraft. Flashbacks of Desert Storm surged through his mind. He maneuvered the ship in a series of tight turns, pulling off a few barrel rolls and flying in a series of zig-zags. This made it difficult for the R-class interceptors to hit him with their rail guns. They had to keep using laser cannons. The whole time they stayed in perfect formation. Five spacecrafts formed a v-shaped attack pattern while the others swarmed around Starjammer in an effort to divert its course.
“Just hold on a bit longer!” he told the Starjammer, “We’re almost at the star gate!”
“That same gate that D’ken is probably closing as we speak?” questioned Lilandra.
“Raza overrode it to get us here. That same program will get us out of here.”
“How do you know they won’t follow us?”
“I’m working on that,” said Corsair intently, “I have a few ideas, but I’d rather not discuss them until they’ve worked!”
It didn’t sound too promising. It was enough to give Lilandra another pounding headache. Ever since D’ken launched this ambitious endgame of his, her head had been killing her. It wasn’t just stress either. Something was affecting her powers. Unfortunately, she had little time to investigate. Her life rested in the weary hands of this broken old man.
Corsair’s maneuvers grew more daring. They were at the edge of the star system, which meant they were entering dense fields of comets. Corsair flew the Starjammer right into several clouds of these icy chunks. His shields took more damage, but it disrupted the attack formation of the interceptors. Their laser canons started hitting stray debris more than the ship. It bought them some badly needed breathing space. Once beyond the cloud, Corsair kicked the Starjammer into overdrive. The star gate was finally within range.
“We’re almost there!” announced Corsair, “I’m broadcasting Raza’s program on the same quantum frequency! Hopefully D’ken’s tech boys haven’t closed the back door!”
“You’re placing a great deal of faith in Raza’s-AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”
“Lilandra? Please tell me you’re not having a seizure at a time like this!” he groaned.
Corsair looked back and saw Lilandra clutching her head in agony. It was happening again. Recently, Lilandra had been afflicted by these mysterious psychic migraines as she called them. They seemed to coincide with D’ken’s latest plan. Lilandra suspected there was more to it. Corsair was no psychic expert, but as time went on they got worse. Even the advanced technology of the Shi’ar couldn’t figure it out.
Lilandra’s cries echoed over the alarms warning him about the shields. The interceptors were catching up while the star gate was drawing near. Corsair had to think fast. His original plan was to get Lilandra back to the rebels. That plan was looking increasingly foolish. The interceptors would just follow him and in Lilandra’s condition she may not be able to summon psychic help. That left him with few options, one of which he hoped to avoid at all costs.
“Damn it, Lilandra! You’re putting me in an awkward position!” grunted Corsair, “I didn’t want to resort to this, but you’re giving me few options!”
Corsair activated Raza’s special program through the ship’s computer. He entered in a different protocol, one that would change the destination of the star gate. On his main scope, he could see the gate closing in. The interceptors were closing in as well. They were firing their laser canons again to wear out his shields. Since he had to fly straighter in order to enter the star gate, that meant they could arm their rail guns. It was a race against time and the laws of physics.
“Hnn…my head! So much pain…can’t shut it out!” groaned Lilandra.
“Hang in there, empress! We’re almost there!” said the determined Corsair.
The Starjammer’s shields were almost gone. Corsair pushed the thrusters to their maximum output. He could see the star gate through the forward visual display just up ahead. These gates were designed to transport large cargo across interstellar space. They were tightly controlled by D’ken’s forces. It was up to Raza’s program to send them to the right part of the galaxy.
“Warning. Enemy target lock detected,” said the system AI.
“Quit bugging me! Just keep the shields up a little bit longer!” he urged the system.
“Shield levels down to three percent. A hit from a rail-gun will cause critical damage.”
“Then be a good alien piece of shit and divert all remaining power to the thrusters!”
More turbulence followed. Corsair gripped the controls tightly, watching as the star gate neared. It looked like Raza’s program was working. A glowing portal was forming within a large circular device. He would be cutting it close. If he passed through before it was fully formed, the Starjammer would be torn apart on the sub-atomic level. If he slowed down, he would be obliterated by D’ken’s rail guns. The margin for error was razor thin.
“Hnn…Charles,” groaned Lilandra in the back.
“Come on…just a little bit more!” said Corsair.
The interceptors trailing behind him took their final formation. All ten crafts were in a perfect V-shape. Their rail guns were armed. Their target was locked. With a clean shot ahead of them, they fired.
Just as their rail guns erupted with energy, the Starjammer reached the gate. It passed through just as the portal reached full power. The moment it disappeared, the shots from the rail guns struck the star gate. The impact from the high-speed projectiles was so great that several sections of the circular structure shattered, causing blinding bursts of energy that caused the interceptors to break formation.
“This is Imperial Interceptor One! That is a negative impact! I repeat, a negative impact! The Starjammer made it through the gate!”
“And we just destroyed the gate. Which of us is going to report this do Lord D’ken?” reported another interceptor over a quantum radio.
“It doesn’t matter who reports it. We’ll all be thrown to the Sperkacs if we don’t track where it went!”
“Sensors indicate the gate was reprogrammed by a malicious signal. It wasn’t encrypted so I was able to trace the path, but I don’t think D’ken will want to go after it.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because sir…they’re heading for Earth.”
This was grim news for Lord D’ken. It was even worse news for their squadron. They were tasked with bringing in the two most important fugitives to the Shi’ar Empire and they failed. Now they were in the one sector of the galaxy that even their emperor didn’t dare venture. It left Lord D’ken’s entire operation in jeopardy.
“Come on! Ah’ve had mosquito bites more pesky than you!” said an adrenaline-filled Rogue.
“Grrrrrraaaaaaaawwwww!” seethed a hoard of demonic creatures.
Rogue flew through a maze of hellfire and brimstone to confront her determined foes. She remembered them being more determined the last time she ran this scenario in the Danger Room. It was a new program that she helped develop. Shortly after her encounter with the Chayarafim on Nova Roma, she realized that the X-men hadn’t trained much for mystical foes. So she took it upon herself to be prepared the next time her brother crossed paths with creatures from another realm.
With help from Mr. McCoy, she crafted what was supposed to be a worst-case-scenario for a mystical battle. The environment was a hellish area taken right out of Dante’s Inferno. There were lakes of fire as far as the eye could see and mountainous volcanoes erupting constantly. The creatures themselves were based on the goblins used by Madelyn Pryor, Jean’s demonically obsessed cousin. Rogue insisted they be bigger and more aggressive. They included goblins nearly twice her size with wings and claws that could rip a less durable mutant to shreds. This was supposed to be a high level challenge. Either she didn’t program it correctly or she was too frustrated to realize it.
“30 seconds remaining,” said the Danger Room computer.
“Already? And Ah’m barely pissed off!” grunted Rogue as she slugged a demon across the face.
The demonic creatures attacked with greater force. They led her up to the rim of one of the volcanoes. Two large green demons with wings flew in from above and forced her to land. One managed to kick her upside the head, causing her to tumble to the ground. She fell within inches of the lava lake. She picked herself up just in time before one of the creatures tried to land on her. Behind it was an army of smaller creatures. They flew in like a swarm of bees, surrounding her and attacking from all directions.
“DIIIIEEEEEEEEEE MORTAL!” cried one of the demons.
“Guess Beast didn’t program you all with much personality,” grunted Rogue as she prepared to defend herself.
The first wave went right for her head. She instinctively put up her arms, allowing them to scratch and claw her durable form. Little damage was done. Once the first wave had passed a second wave of larger demons flew in. This time Rogue countered by taking to the air again, flying at high speeds like an unstoppable ram and striking the first creature she saw. She ended up driving him back into the others like bowling pins.
With time running out, the smaller demons came in for another pass. Rogue didn’t play defense this time. Using her strength, she reached down and dug her hands into the volcanic rock. With brute strength, she ripped up a heavy slate of rock. Once the smaller demons were close enough, she hurled it like a frisbee and forced them scatter. A few were crushed like bugs.
“Fifteen seconds left!” she shouted, “Tell the devil he’s gotta raise his standards!”
Rogue stood poised for victory. She didn’t realize the two larger demons from earlier sneaking up behind her. When she noticed their shadows, she turned around to defend herself. She was caught completely off guard when one blind-sided her with wing attack. It sent her flying back towards the lava lake.
“Ungh!” she cried out.
“Now you die!” seethed the demon.
While Rogue was dazed, the two demons moved in for a final attack. They were about to strike her when a new roar echoed through the hellish air. This time it wasn’t a demon.
The two demons turned around to see an angry Wolverine attack. He pounced from atop a bolder, landing right on the head of one of the demons. He used his claws to impale it right in the eye, causing it to cry out in agony. From here he leapt to the other creature, which tried to grab him. It missed by mere inches. The former living weapon landed on the shoulders of the creature and used his claws to slice off it’s wings. Once he leapt off from it, the scenario ended.
“Time limit reached. Scenario complete. Final score, 5900.”
“So much for mah new record,” groaned a dazed Rogue.
“Your welcome,” said Logan as he withdrew his claws.
The holographic scene faded along with the demons. Rogue still needed a moment to gather herself. Logan extended a hand to help her up. She reluctantly accepted it, not hiding the awkwardness that inevitably followed.
“Ah thought Ah set this up to be a solo session,” she said, “Ah skipped an English quiz to run this on mah own.”
“And you ended up falling flat on your face. Should’ve stayed in class, Stripes,” retorted Logan, “You’re lucky I caught up with you.”
“Why? You think Ah couldn’t handle a demon attack on mah own?” scoffed Rogue.
“Nah, I know you’re tough enough. Busting up demons just looked like fun so I joined in. It also helps blow off steam. After our little chat, I don’t blame you for needing it too.”
Rogue groaned to herself and avoided Logan’s tough gaze. This was supposed to be behind them. After she and Jean returned from Nova Roma, she finally sat down with Logan to talk about Mystique. There wasn’t much to say. Mystique was this Rose woman from Logan’s past. They were close. Now that she remembered, she and Logan were getting close again. That was the extent of their talk.
Even though this issue was out in the open, Rogue still had a hard time processing it. She found it easier to distract herself. These Danger Room scenarios helped and they were a lot more exciting than class. It still masked her lingering feelings. She wasn’t in a hurry to explore them.
“Can we not do this again, Logan?” groaned Rogue as she started walking away, “You said everything that needed to be said. Ah accepted it. We don’t need to dwell on it.”
“Who’s dwelling? I’m supposed to be the one tearing up the Danger Room. I’m the guy who gets worked up over shit like this,” Logan pointed out as he followed her closely.
“You don’t have a monopoly on being grumpy, Logan. Some of us need to vent every once in a while too,” she replied.
“Time was a pack of cigarettes and a fully charged iPod was all you needed.”
“Well nicotine has its limits and so does mah punk rock collection. Sometimes the only way to deal with something is to randomly punch demons in the face.”
“Hard to argue with that logic so I won’t bother,” said Logan, “So how about we get to the real issue before Hell runs out of demons?”
Rogue tensed and fell silent. She kept looking forward, walking a little faster as she reached the main door to the Danger Room. She was about to press the button to open it when Wolverine drew his claws and put them in the way. He was not going to let her run away from this. He didn’t need her acting as messed up as him.
“Cut the bullshit, Rogue. You’re talking to a guy who can actually smell it when you’re avoiding your problems,” he said, “I told you everything about Rose and Mystique. I even threw the bits about us meeting behind everyone’s back.”
“Yeah, like meeting is all you did with her,” muttered Rogue.
“I ain’t gonna give you ‘the talk’ so you’ll just have to stomach it,” said Logan without missing a beat, “You’ve done much kinkier shit with the Cajun so I know that ain’t what’s bothering you.”
“You know Ah’m perfectly capable of punching you through a metal door, Logan. Ah can’t guarantee you’ll heal from it either.”
“I’ll risk it in order to make my point.”
“What point is that?” she scoffed, “That you and mah mama can’t stay away from each other no matter what Ah do?”
“That you never got to have your say, even after I had mine,” said Logan in a serious tone, “I can tell you’re holding it in. So let it out already! Tell me what you want to tell me so we can get over this shit.”
Rogue tensed even more. This time it was out of anger instead of frustration. Logan was pushing her buttons. He was tempting her to just blurt it out. He wasn’t going to plead with her. He wasn’t going to be polite about it either. She was seriously contemplating punching him through the door. Instead, she closed her eyes and said what she had been holding back.
“Fahne! You wanna mah take? Since the Legacy Virus, mah mama has changed. She’s still a bitter old woman, but she actually has a backbone now. She ain’t lying to herself anymore, thinkin’ she knows what’s best. She ain’t comin’ after meh and Kurt, trying to force us into her messed up world. She ain’t even mixing it up with the wrong people as far as Ah know.”
“And that’s a bad thing?” questioned Logan.
“Hell no! That’s what’s bugging meh, okay?” she shouted, “Since she changed, she ain’t so much as called meh or Kurt. It’s always been through you. She’ll only talk to you as if somehow she’s too ashamed to confront her own damn kids. All these messages you’ve sent on her behalf say she’s turned the corner or something. But how am Ah supposed to know mah mama is still mah mama when she won’t look meh in the eye? Instead she’s rather shack up with her guy friend from another life!”
Rogue had to pause for a moment to catch her breath. Her impassioned shouting was almost as draining as the Danger Room session she just completed. Logan kept standing in front of her, stoic until she finished.
“Ah may never know who mah real parents are. For better or worse (mostly worse), Mystique is the only parent Ah have,” she said in a calmer voice, “After what happened with Kurt in Nova Roma, Ah feel like we both need her. If she’s really trying to do the right thing like you say she is, then what’s keeping her from being mah mama? Why can’t she just tell meh this shit to mah face? It shouldn’t bother meh, but it does.”
Now emotionally drained, Rogue sighed sheepishly. Logan’s gaze remained stern. It was hard to tell if he was upset with her or if he was just taking her verbal punishment like he took every other kind of punishment. She had to look away for a moment while she gathered herself. Eventually, Logan broke the awkward silence.
“Feel better now?” he said.
“Yeah…a little,” she said with a light groan.
“It’s a start. At least we’re on the same page now. There’s some shit you just can’t keep bottled up.”
“Ah know. It just felt…wrong to take it out on you.”
“Even if it is, I can take it. I owe you that much,” said Logan with a smirk, “We’re both in a fucked up position. I don’t want to come between you and your mom. We got enough crazy shit between us.”
“So you’ll tell her what I just told you?” said Rogue warily.
“I won’t yell it, that’s for sure. But I’ll bring it up…whenever she’s done with this crazy mission of hers.”
“The same mission you told meh about? The one that involves digging up the skeletons from both your old lives?”
“It’s gotta be done. For you just as much as her,” he told her, “Mystique still cares about you and she’ll be there for you. Just not until the time’s right.”
It still sounded daunting, having to wait while Mystique got her act together. All the while she was still her mother. After having gone through so many changes in her life, it didn’t seem right to shut her mother out. Rogue was bitter about a lot of things. It would be nice if she could remove her mother from that list. At least she had someone like Logan watching her back. With him pushing her, she had all the right motivation.
“Now if you still wanna punch me through the door, give me a fair warning. The whole venting deal only goes so far,” said Logan as he moved out of her way.
“Ah’ll pass this time, Logan,” she said with a grin, “But if you ever go into excessive details about what you and Mystique do during your meetings, Ah will reconsider.”
“Sure thing, Stripes. Any other threats you wanna dish out before we drop this issue entirely?”
“Just one actually,” said Rogue as she opened the main door, “Ah don’t know if you love mah mama or just love who she once was. But if she means anything to you, watch your back and make sure she’s watching yours. No matter what form she takes, she’ll always have her mystique.”
Rogue left Logan to ponder this so-called threat as she exited the Danger Room. He lingered for a bit, taking in everything she said and the emotions that went into saying it. Rogue was a good friend and teammate. Now that he was involved with Mystique, it was going to be a bit more complicated. It was hard to say whether or not he could love Mystique as James Howlett once loved Rose. Only time would tell and a lot could happen in between.
Genosha – Southern Region
“Let’s hurry it up! This is the last ship leaving Genosha! Make sure you’re on it! You do not want to be left behind!” yelled a uniformed officer through a bull-horn.
It was a bittersweet moment for various military forces that had occupied Genosha. The once prominent base that housed troops from America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America was being abandoned. As part of the latest deal between Genosha and the governments of the world, there would be no more foreign troops on this island. It would go back to being run solely by mutants. For many soldiers it was a big relief.
For General Nathan Grimshaw, there was no such relief. The mission was never over in his eyes. The circumstances simply changed. Sometimes they changed for the better. Standing on the southern dock of soon-to-be vacant military base, it was hard to determine just how this would change the mission. Wanda Maximoff and Scott Summers stood with him. Various acolytes and a few members of the Brotherhood watched over in the distance. They made sure everything went off without incident while recording the event for history. This was a pivotal point in the fragile human/mutant dynamic. It could go right or wrong in so many ways.
“Looks like I’ll be the last human to set foot on Genosha for a while,” mused General Grimshaw, “I’m not sure how I should feel about that.”
“You’re not having second thoughts on our arrangement, are you?” asked Wanda in a suspicious tone.
“I’m a man of my word, Miss Maximoff. I have no intention of going back on it. I’m just wondering if this is going to do more harm than good in the long run.”
“Our island functioned perfectly well before these soldiers arrived. It’ll function just as well the second time around.”
“The past isn’t always key to the present. Not when circumstances are constantly changing,” said General Grimshaw, “Genosha was occupied for a reason. Trouble of a global scale kept popping up here. That tends to attract big armies with nervous politicians hiding behind in bunkers. When Magneto tried yet another world-wide attack, the circumstances warranted the occupation.”
“I could honestly care less about these circumstances of yours,” said Wanda harshly, “All I know is the presence of these troops pissed off my people. They had no one besides me to take it out on. If we weren’t so busy trying to hold our country together, then maybe Lorna wouldn’t have…”
Wanda had to stop herself. The mere mention of Lorna was enough to stir her lingering emotions. The loss of her half-sister wore heavily on her. She had to hold back tears while coming off as strong to General Grimshaw. Scott placed a hand on her shoulder, lending the comfort that was so sorely needed.
“Don’t torment yourself wondering what could have been,” said the X-leader, “We don’t know if changing anything would have made a difference.”
“Quit trying to sound empathetic, Cyclops. I’m the leader of a country. I don’t appreciate being belittled,” said Wanda bitterly.
“I’m not belittling you and right now you’re not just the leader of a country. You’re someone who just lost a sister. You can’t stop one from affecting the other. That’s why we’re trying to work with you.”
“Listen to him, Miss Maximoff. I’ve lost people close to me as well. You don’t always think straight when you’re grieving,” said General Grimshaw.
“Neither of you understand what I’m going through,” scoffed Wanda, shoving off Scott’s gesture.
“Maybe we don’t. But none of us has the luxury of being wrong,” said Scott, “We’re in another shaky transition period. One wrong move and we’ll have another Mutant Liberation Front on our hands.”
“And having watched the President’s hair actually turn gray over the past few months, I don’t think we can stomach another,” added the General.
Wanda’s demeanor hardened. These two men were asking the impossible. She was supposed to think clearly and rationally while mourning her sister. That was all the more difficult when she had so many reasons to be suspicious. Even with these troops leaving, humanity still had a massive naval blockade surrounding her island. The X-men were supposed to handle all these emerging threats and without Charles Xavier no less. It used to be that her father instigated the trouble and the conflict followed them. Even when they tried to do the right thing, that same trouble found them.
“I’m doing my best, General. You’ll have to excuse my vigilance, especially when the X-men tell me that your government is working on new anti-mutant technology,” said Wanda sternly, “You actually brought Bastion back into the mix! Even after he tormented those poor mutants in District X!”
“That wasn’t my call. That was the CIA,” retorted General Grimshaw.
“Same government. Same people,” she shrugged.
“No Miss Maximoff, it isn’t the same people. Just as there are mutants like Toad who want to do irreparable harm to humanity, there are humans out there who want to do the same harm to mutants. Henry Gyrich and William Kincaid are in the same category as Graydon Creed and William Stryker.”
“Yet they’re not in jail. Last I checked they still had their jobs.”
“That’s not my call. The President has already been very transparent with you. We told you about Bastion and the GRSO unit. That was part of the deal you made us in exchange for being an ally and not an enemy.”
“I’m not sure we’re either at this point,” Wanda pointed out.
“We need to be allies for the world to remain intact. I conceded to the President that the MSA didn’t have the hardware to take on mutants. We’ve had to make adjustments. We’ve had to escalate our efforts to ensure that mutants are held accountable when they harm people with our powers. Seeing as how you have alien technology on your side, I say that’s a fair balance of power.”
“That’s debatable, General,” said Scott, “You’re right about needing to be allies. But I agree with Wanda in that mutants have reasons to be concerned. Were it not for this technology, what would stop the governments of the world from attacking Genosha or maintaining the occupation? Professor Xavier may not be here, but he taught me a lot over the years. He often said that avoiding conflict isn’t the same as pursuing peace.”
It definitely sounded like something Charles Xavier would say. It was naïve in a number of ways. That didn’t mean it was invalid. The Mutant Liberation Front was putting both sides on the defensive. Paranoia was guiding their actions. Mutants feared that humans would develop new weapons to wipe them out. Humans feared that more mutants would use their powers to subdue them. There was little to gain and much to lose on both sides.
“That’s easy to say, Scott. Putting it into action is another matter,” said Wanda.
“I heard the Professor say that as well. That’s why we need to focus on more than just the parts of this arrangement that explode,” said the X-leader, “You have control over your country again. Look at your fellow citizens. They’re happy to see these troops leave. You can use this to either rally them towards more hatred or inspire them to embrace peace.”
“Peace on Genosha has been associated with many bad jokes,” she said, folding her arms skeptically, “My brother could write a book of them if you dared him to.”
“It would be much more satisfying as his twin sister to prove him wrong,” Scott retorted, “Beyond having your country back, you have a chance to do undo the harm done by Toad. The technology deal is back in place. I’ve helped your people coordinate the distribution of wireless power receivers. They got the southern United States fully powered again in time for sweeps.”
“I would also point out that those same devices are selling like imported chocolate all over the world. The MSA hired a PR firm to make sure the world knows that this technology is coming from mutants,” said General Grimshaw, “On an equally important note, selling cheap energy only goes so far. Just keeping the lights on isn’t enough to make humanity forget about the Mutant Liberation Front.”
“Which is why it’s so important we all make the right decisions,” reasoned Scott, “Mutant communities have dwindled since the Legacy Virus. There’s only so much the X-men or the government can do. Now that you’re free of troops, Genosha can show the world that mutants can inspire good in this world.”
“I thought we were already doing that,” said Wanda.
“Really? You didn’t do much when the Mutant Liberation Front was out making a bad name for mutants everywhere,” Scott pointed out, “You didn’t donate to any charities. You didn’t make any public statements. You didn’t even reach out to the X-men. Maybe the troops aren’t the only reason your people started rioting.”
“Be careful with your words, Cyclops,” said Wanda sternly, “You’re not Xavier. Your voice doesn’t carry the same weight.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m wrong,” he went on, “You guys had a chance to do something and you did nothing. Your only focus was Toad and the influence he was having on your people. You were so worried about defending yourselves, trying to show that you could hold your country together without help. Well if you don’t have to rely on anybody to get along in this world, then what’s the point of making peace in the first place?”
“I don’t remember Xavier ever saying something like that,” said General Grimshaw.
“That’s because he didn’t. I did.”
Scott Summers was no Charles Xavier, but he spoke with assertiveness well beyond his years. It was a demeanor that commanded respect. Despite her emotional turmoil, Wanda saw the merit in his words. She did so much as the leader of Genosha. Not everything she did was productive. The big difference between her and her father remained. He was willing to lead mutants into conflict. She was not. She was still stuck in his methods of brute strength and arrogance. It was only giving humans more reasons to attack them.
General Grimshaw was impressed as well. This kid was no Charles Xavier. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. He saw these volatile dealings as another mission while others saw it as diplomacy. The rules of this game were different and changing by the hour. He would do well to adapt to those rules, especially with the new plans he set into motion.
While this and many other issues lingered, the final transport was ready. Captain Jack Freeman came out from the loading area. He avoided eye-contact with Wanda, assuming she still remembered the night that mysterious masked mutant stole her father’s helmet.
“Are you done here, sir? We’re ready to go and I’d rather not let our guys linger,” said the Green Beret.
“I think I’ve said all I need to say, Captain,” said General Grimshaw as he turned back towards Wanda, “I’m willing to do more if you are.”
“We both have a lot of firepower on our side, General. I’d rather use it for both our benefit. Otherwise it’ll only lead to both our destruction,” she said.
“Then I guess we’ll work out the details in time. I’ll assume at all times that you have your biggest guns waiting in reserve. Assume we’ll have ours so we can focus on not using them. Good luck to you, Miss Maximoff.”
The two strong leaders shared a tentative handshake. There still wasn’t much trust on either side. It would take a while to build. They were content to have a foundation in place. They had a long way to go and this was just the first step.
General Grimshaw took one last look at the now vacant base before boarding the transport. Captain Freeman stood by to lead him in. His eyes drifting back towards Scott and Wanda. He felt Wanda’s suspicious eye on him. Being a mutant in the military was a big deal. So long as she didn’t know about the helmet incident that’s as big as he wanted it to get. At the same time, he met a concerned gaze from Scott Summers. The unspoken trust between them just grew in importance.
“I know you’re a man of your word, General. But that assumption about a big gun…was that a bluff or a real warning?” asked the Green Beret.
“You’ve played poker with me, Captain. You know what I do when I bluff.”
“That’s not an answer, sir.”
“It wasn’t meant to be,” retorted the General, “Some questions have to remain unanswered for the more important questions to take precedent. That’s how we fight the right battles.”
Captain Freeman was silenced by the General’s response. It wasn’t as reassuring as he needed it to be. He was in no position to do anything about it. He may have to be if the circumstances kept working against him.
Scott and Wanda kept watching as the General disappeared into the transport. The last troops had left Genosha. The island was once again a mutant haven. It was a surreal moment. It was also a turning point. With tensions so high, their next set of moves were crucial. Somewhere along the line, Wanda would have to set aside her grief over Lorna and be the ruler she needed to be.
As the transport departed, a cheer erupted in the distance. The dozens of mutants on hand for this event could share in a liberating moment. Only a few did not cheer. Pietro was one of them and he ran up to his sister once the transport was a mile away.
“And don’t come back!” shouted the speedster.
“Don’t start, Pietro,” groaned Wanda.
“What? Those humans were causing most of the trouble!” he said, “I’m sure if Lorna was here, she would be cheering as well.”
“At least she would be polite about it,” she retorted.
Ignoring Pietro’s immaturity, Wanda turned back to Scott. He seemed to be the only other one who understood the seriousness of this new phase in mutant relations.
“I can’t guarantee that losing sister won’t affect my judgment,” she told him, “Can I count on the X-men to be there when necessary?”
“And more importantly, not screw up?” added Pietro.
“We’ll be there,” assured Scott, ignoring Pietro’s remark as well, “As we all make progress over time, we won’t have to be.”
Muir Island – Psychic Isolation Chamber
“Charles…I need you.”
“Hnn…the voice,” groaned a beleaguered Charles Xavier.
“Easy Charles,” said the warm tone of Moira MacTaggart, “I’m sorry I woke ye. I just needed to log your latest psionic scans. Then ye can go back to sleep.”
Charles Xavier emerged from a tired daze. The whole week had been a long string of dazes. After he made it through the worst part of the detox process, the focus shifted to recovery. He was so drained from all the pain. For the past few days he had been sleeping for several hours at a time, so much so that he had to be woken just to eat. The pain still lingered, but it was much more bearable than before. It was waning more with every day. Now the pain was secondary to something more ominous.
“Looks like you’re doing even better than we hoped,” said Moira with a smile, “Your latest scans show a solid web of new connections. Your opiate receptors are working again and your psi readings are almost normal.”
“That’s…good news,” said Xavier as he lay on his side, “Have you noticed any random psychic activity or lingering brain damage?”
“So far, that brilliant and wonderful mind of yours is intact,” she replied, “As for psychic activity, it subsided along with the worst symptoms. There should be no more flare-ups. This chamber made sure of that. Forge assured me that no stray thoughts would penetrate this chamber.”
“You sound quite confident in his building skills.”
“He’s made everything work for me since he arrived. I’ve no reason to doubt him.”
Xavier offered a weak smile in response, but it hid a growing concern. It was a concern that bothered him even as Moira placed a series of electrodes on his head to check his psi readings. Everything she told him sounded so positive. She never mentioned anything about telepathic messages reaching his mind or side-effects that may explain these strange feelings. That led him to a number of unnerving conclusions.
The pain of his recover had been agonizing in ways Xavier never expected. He was told from the beginning that there were a lot of unknowns. Beyond the discomfort, he was sensing something. His mind hadn’t been completely shut off. Something or someone was reaching it. He didn’t have the energy to figure out what it could be.
“Your numbers are up threefold since yesterday,” Moira announced, “At this rate ye can venture out of the chamber in a few days.”
“A few days…it sounds much longer than I know it is,” said Xavier.
“Aye, that’s to be expected,” she said as she jotted down a few notes, “You’ve been cooped up down here for some time. Between the isolation and the pain, ye may be a bit disoriented. That should lessen as ye continue to heal.”
“Could there be other side-effects?” he asked, “Could this process make me feel like I’m sensing things in a peculiar way?”
“Based on my diagnostics, that’s highly likely. Ye did this whole detox period without any medications. This along with the isolation shouldn’t affect your senses. If they did, we would have detected it in our scans. As far as we can tell, everything in your brain is in order. At least it will be once your neural pathways stabilize. Our psychic treatments will ensure it.”
Xavier was unable to provide a smile this time. Even a good prognosis posed more questions than it answered. As Moira removed the electrodes, he tried to contemplate the possibilities. His head was still throbbing so he could only contemplate to a point.
“Why are ye so concerned about side-effects, Charles? Is something else wrong?” asked Moira while finishing up some paperwork.
“I’m…not sure,” he said as he rubbed his temples, “The pain isn’t as debilitating, but at times I still find myself disoriented. I feel like I’m sensing something even though I know it shouldn’t be possible.”
“Pain can have many effects. Being disoriented isn’t the worst ye could have.”
“How can I even be sure that it’s a side-effect? What if it’s something else entirely?”
“Even if it is, we can’t be sure until you’re better,” said Moira with a comforting gesture, “You’re still in a fragile state, Charles. Ye shouldn’t push yourself before you’re ready. If I recall, that’s what got ye into trouble in the first place.”
“Indeed,” he sighed, “But what if…”
Moira silenced him by placing her finger on his lips. He was getting worked up. At a time like this, that was only going to make his recover more difficult. She put away her notes and made sure he was comfortable in his bed.
“Calm down, Charles, it’ll all be over soon,” she coaxed, “For now, ye need your rest.”
“Believe me, Moira. Nothing would please me more than sleeping these feelings off,” he told her.
“So try anyways,” said Moira with a touch of humor, “Whatever effects ye may have, we’ll deal with them when the time is right.”
“It feels like that time is drawing closer.”
“Then ye better start resting now so ye can be ready. Rahne will be by later to bring ye some dinner. Until then, work on getting your strength back. You’re not the only one that needs it.”
Moira smiled once more before rising up and dimming the lights. Xavier didn’t voice any further concerns. Moira was right on some levels. He was in no state to confront anything. He needed to be stronger and not just for his own sake.
Even after Moira left, it was difficult to ignore this feeling. Xavier lay back in his bed and allowed his mind to wander within these confining walls. He was still tired. His body needed a lot of rest after enduring so much pain. Yet there was no escaping this lingering feeling. In his weakened state, he found himself reaching out with his mind beyond these dense barriers.
‘I know you’re out there. Who are you? What do you want? Please…I have to know.’
Outer Solar System – Starjammer
“Charles…” groaned a tired Lilandra Nerimani.
“Rise and shine, Empress! We’re almost there,” said the gruff voice of Corsair.
“There? Where exactly is there?” she asked through her tired mind.
“The last place any Shi’ar or semi-intelligent life form would ever want to be…Earth.”
This revelation jolted Lilandra from her dazed state. She shook off the strain and looked out the nearest scope. The Starjammer was just passing by Jupiter. There were no Imperial interceptors behind them. The ship was damaged, but intact. It was relieving in some ways and distressing in others.
“My head,” she groaned, “It’s getting worse.”
“I hear you. It was hard enough coming back to this pile of dirt the first time,” grunted Corsair, “I’d rather be on Salanis Six with those desert creatures that looked like giant rats.”
“No, it’s not that. I’m sensing something,” she said, clutching her temples, “I’ve been sensing it for weeks now and it’s never been this bad.”
“Being shot at and having your crew captured will give anyone a headache,” Corsair reasoned.
“No, this is different! If it’s getting stronger, then maybe the source is on Earth!”
Corsair groaned at the prospect. The last thing they needed was another excuse to go back to Earth. That planet had been a pain ever since he left. It got to a point where he hated to even think about it. The Shi’ar Empire was a chaotic and bloody place to be. It still didn’t cause him as much distress as Earth. There was a lot of pain waiting for him on this tiny speck of a planet. He wasn’t looking forward to confronting it.
Lilandra got up from her passenger seat and joined Corsair in the cockpit. Setting aside her pain, she had a renewed sense of focus. Her people were in a dire predicament. D’ken got the better of them when they tried to take the fight to him. He was preparing something big. They needed to regroup and Earth was the perfect place to do so. She hadn’t been back since she left with the Starjammers. Their mission and this mysterious feeling she was sensing gave all the more reason to return.
“What’s the status of the ship, Corsair? How much damage did the interceptors do?” asked Lilandra intently.
“Sounds like you’ve had your royal espresso,” muttered Corsair, “Far as I can tell, we’re still intact. Our shields were shot to shit and the fusion/gravity engines are still purring at around 70 percent.”
“So what’s the bad news?” she asked him.
“Where do I start? Our quantum stabilizers are barely holding up and our weapons systems are completely offline. We’ll be lucky pop a balloon with the laser cannons at this point. The power core is below fifty percent and the main computers are running on auxiliary nodes. I was barely able to send a status report through the secure quantum channels. The resistance knows we’re okay, but they aren’t coming to our rescue.”
“They’re still wary about coming close to Earth?”
“That and D’ken’s forces have them pinned in the Shi’ran quadrant. Your darling brother doesn’t want any more raids while his master plan unfolds. We’ll be lucky to get a post card with all the hardware he’s throwing at us.”
It was a bleak assessment. Lilandra remained undaunted. If her darling brother was getting this desperate, this meant the pressure was getting to him.
“We’re going to keep attacking. He’s getting desperate and it’s only a matter of time before he gets sloppy,” said Lilandra strongly, “How soon can we get back to the rebels?”
“That’s the other reason we need to make a pit-stop,” sighed Corsair, “We didn’t take the star gate just because it was fancy. We took it because our warp engine was shot to shit before we even left Chandilar. The only way to fix it is pray we’ll come across the right components on Earth.”
“That won’t be necessary. The components are there,” she said confidently, “My family company has been utilizing alien technology for decades. We’ll have the warp drive online soon enough. That should give me time to investigate these psychic anomalies.”
“With all due respect, Empress, we don’t have time to be playing psychic Sherlock Holmes!” shouted Corsair, “It’ll be hard enough slipping into Earth’s airspace without some people thinking it’s an alien invasion! We stay there too long and we might not get a chance to meet up with the rebels!”
“This isn’t up for discussion, Corsair. This anomaly is important! It’s connected somehow to what D’ken is planning! I know you hate Earth and I completely understand your reasons. However, I need you to stomach that hate and work with me! This may be the key to defeating D’ken once and for all!”
Corsair remained unenthused. He wasn’t Shi’ar. He was human. The Empress of a stellar empire didn’t carry the same weight as it did for the rest of the resistance. His hatred of D’ken was deeply personal. Any chance to uncover a way to defeat him was a chance worth taking, even if it meant spending more time on Earth than he wanted. So despite his reservations, Corsair sucked it up and activated the secondary thrusters. Earth and all the headaches it caused awaited them.
Xavier Institute – Library
The library was usually the quietest place in the institute. It was also a place where Bobby wasn’t known to spend much time. When he wasn’t in class or training, the library was the last place anyone would ever look for him. So even he found it strange to be hanging out there after class.
‘Why am I still a mess? I make all these jokes about being the coolest guy on the team and for once I’m not laughing. I should be used to coping with shit like this. We win the day, we pay the price, and we move on. Everybody else seems to be back on track. Now I’m the one falling behind.’
Bobby let a deep sigh as he rested on his arms atop a stack of books. He had been doing homework for the past hour or so. It had to be a bad sign when he was using homework to distract himself rather than parking himself in front of a TV. He had a whole list of recorded wrestling shows he had yet to watch. There was also a fresh bag of chips in the pantry if he recalled. It should’ve taken an attack by Magneto to keep him from the couch. Only lesser yet equally powerful forces stood in his way.
“There you are, Bobby!” came a voice from across the library, “I was starting to worry. When I saw that you hadn’t parked yourself in front of the television, I knew something was wrong.”
“Did Kitty point that out in her usually crude way, Miss Munroe?” said Bobby flatly.
“No, she’s out with Peter. She wouldn’t be the first one to notice it either,” said Ororo in a concerned tone, “Your presence in class today was unusually limited. I can’t recall the last time you went this long without saying a word.”
“Maybe I’m out of material,” he said.
“That’s obviously not it. If nothing was bothering you, I’m sure you would have come up with a better excuse than that.”
Miss Munroe knew her students. Bobby never doubted that. She was also the most compassionate teacher she knew aside from Professor Xavier. So it didn’t surprise him when she walked over sat down at the table where he was sitting. He didn’t rise up to address her. His head remained buried in his arms while he gazed out a nearby window.
“If you’re not ready to talk, I understand. I will settle for some assurance that this is nothing serious,” said Ororo.
“Believe me, Miss Munroe, if it was serious I wouldn’t be this quiet,” said Bobby, “Half the mansion would be an ice sculpture if I was really that upset.”
“But you clearly are upset. It seems to have lingered since our battle with the Mutant Liberation Front.”
“Why shouldn’t it? That fight was hard on all of us. I still have Toad’s stench on my uniform,” quipped Bobby.
“Smells fade over time. When an ex-lover is lost under dire circumstances, it doesn’t fade as easily.”
Bobby groaned to himself and looked away from the window. At least Miss Munroe was more tactful than Kitty. She would have made at least several less-than-appropriate comments about Lorna’s death by now. It might have been easier because at least then he would have an excuse to be outraged. With Miss Munroe, it was different. She offered him a comforting gesture and that made it difficult to brush aside.
“It shouldn’t bother me this much. It’s not like I’ve done a good job of hiding it,” said Bobby in a solemn tone.
“Why would you hide it?” retorted Ororo, “It’s perfectly understandable. You and Lorna were very close. Even if your relationship didn’t work out, I remember how much you loved her.”
“Me loving her isn’t the issue. Seeing her caught up in that mess was almost as bad as our breakup. Ex-girlfriend or not, some of those emotions we shared were still there. It took losing her to remind myself of that.”
“Emotions are always strong when it comes to lovers. I’ve had plenty of experience with that myself,” said Ororo, recalling her relationship with Hank.
“Those emotions are only part of the story. Lorna was more than just this girl I used to love. She brought out the best in people. I may not have lost my love of fart jokes, but she still made me a better guy. She reminded me why we endure the heartaches of relationships in the first place. I notice it more when I see Kitty and Peter. When she’s with him, she’s a lot nicer to be around even if she still has that crass personality.”
“Yes, I’ve noticed a change in both of them,” said Ororo, “They’ve been very good for one another.”
“They’re not the only ones either. Rogue’s been a lot easier to get along now that she and Remy are official. I mean, she was only ten minutes late to class today! I also haven’t forgotten how uptight Scott was before he and Jean got together. They make each other better. They make dealing with losses like this easier.”
“Having someone’s love to fall back on goes a long way,” she told him, “Is that what’s troubling you? Not having someone close to share your grief?”
“I’m not sure. It feels crappier than that,” Bobby groaned, “The more I think about Lorna, the more I question my whole be-single-and-drama-free philosophy. After I broke up with Jubilee, it seemed so appealing. The more I think about it, the more I question it. Part of me doesn’t want to sift through that baggage. My fling with Kitty and Jubilee got pretty aggravating after a while.”
“Maybe that’s because you had the wrong expectations,” suggested Ororo, “You’re still young. It’s perfectly normal to not know what you want in a relationship. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth the effort. It just means you need a different approach.”
Bobby finally rose up and rubbed his tired head. His gaze drifted towards the window again. There were storm clouds in the distance. Some had flashes of lightning. They reminded him of Lorna and how she had been lost to him. They also reminded him of the better times they shared. Being alone and single was great when everything was stable. He understood as well as any X-man that nothing ever remained stable. Sooner or later, another crisis would erupt. When dealing with it, there was only so much coping he could do on his own.
Ororo reached over and placed her hand atop Bobby’s. His immaturity may be an issue at times, but she never doubted his heart. Bobby Drake had a lot of love to give. It was part of his boyish charm. He didn’t just deserve someone to love him back. He needed it.
“Whatever it is you’re feeling, I advise you not to shut it out,” Ororo said to him, “You’re questioning your current approach to relationships. That’s a good thing.”
“Is it? It feels like I’m setting myself up for more insanity,” he groaned.
“That’s the chance we all take when we open our hearts to someone. The risk is always there, but it’s a risk worth taking. Sometimes we require a push in the right direction. Whether you meet someone new or already have a special someone in mind, that insanity you mentioned can be overcome. You just have to figure out how to confront it.”
Bobby turned towards his teacher. It sounded like she was talking from experience. He heard the rumor about her being involved with James Proudstar. She was probably working on a way to confront that issue on her end. For him, it was different. The desire was there. It was the motivation that was lacking. He did a lot of things wrong with Lorna. He did even more things wrong with Kitty and Jubilee. Youth and immaturity aside, he was ready to do something right. He even had a certain girl who emailed him regularly that might be worth confronting.
“Guess that’s something else I’ll have to work on,” said Bobby distantly, “Although it may cut into class. Do you really want to deal with me texting during exams again?”
“Since you’re already making jokes again, I’ll take that as assurance that you’ll be okay,” said Ororo with a warm smile.
“I’m still a long way from putting whip cream in Kitty’s hair gel. I’d like to get to that point sooner rather than later. You never know when the next crisis will throw us back into the fire.”
Ororo chuckled. Bobby sounded a bit more like his old self. That was a good sign, but hopefully he was wrong about the crisis.
“Even in our line of work, a little patience goes a long way,” Ororo reminded him as she got up from her chair.
“That’s a luxury we may not be able to afford,” said Bobby as he diverted his gaze back to the window, “Sooner or later some ridiculous crap involving mutants, magic, or even aliens will emerge. Who knows how bad it will get the next?”
Shi’ar Empire – Chandilar
Pain and suffering were inescapable fates for all sentient life. No matter how primitive or advanced, a species had to endure in order to dominate. The Shi’ar Empire was full of many such species. They had all reached a certain level of development. They could build starships, tap the vast energies of the universe, and develop computer technology capable of thinking for itself. All these advances came with a high cost. The emperor of the Shi’ar, D’ken, was more than willing to pay such a cost ten times over.
From his vast imperial palace on Shi’ar home world of Chandilar, he looked out over a planet that had endured so much suffering. There was once a time when this world was beautiful and lush. It teamed with all sorts of life from insects to beings of high intelligence. Millennia of battle had stripped the planet of such beauty. Now it was covered in vast cities and industrial centers. Like all civilizations that reach a certain point, the planet becomes consumed with the technology of the dominant species. The need for resources outweighs any beauty the planet once had. These technological triumphs were being turned into a planet-sized slaughterhouse. It was all part of D’ken’s grand plan and no being dared question it.
From the top of his vast palace, D’ken gazed out over his world. Once shining cities had since fallen into disarray. With his ironclad rule, he redirected his entire planet’s manpower into a single task. That task was taking place on this world and one of the three moons that orbited Chandilar. It all connected to their home star, which shone brightly on the Shi’ar for eon. That was about to change soon.
“My Lord, D’ken. I have an update on the recent rebel raid,” said Gladiator, who was one of the few bold enough to enter the emperor’s chamber.
“Proceed,” said D’ken in his deep tone.
“We successfully captured the main crew of the Starjammers. They had some rebel commandos with them as well. Most were taken out by lethal means, just as you commanded.”
“I know there’s some bad news, Gladiator. Do not spare me the details,” he said.
“There was one such shortcoming,” said the powerful being with a touch of fear, “Corsair and Lilandra managed to escape. We sent our elite interceptor force to take them in. They made it through a star gate before they could be subdued.”
“Did they bother to follow them through the gate?”
“No, they did not.”
“Why? Are they incapable of tracking a damaged hunk of trash like the Starjammer?” asked D’ken angrily.
“We know where they went, my Lord. That’s exactly why they weren’t followed. The Starjammer programmed the gate to take them outside the Empire’s boarders. Their destination was traced to Earth.”
D’ken turned around and scolded with a gaze that could make entire galaxies tremble. Gladiator remained in a kneeling state, his head held low as he gave his emperor this news. The mere mention of that planet was grounds for death by torture in his empire. An entire generation of Shi’ar had learned to dread that tiny speck in the galaxy and he was among them. He was more determined than anyone to destroy his half-sister, yet even he knew there was great danger in dealing with Earth.
“Rise and stand proud, Gladiator,” he said sternly, “Do not shame yourself at the mere mention of that cursed hunk of rock.”
“Forgive me, my lord,” said Gladiator as he rose up, “I would have flown after them myself, but I understand and respect the Shi’ar decree to avoid Earth at all costs.”
“Lilandra and that human pest, Corsair, know that too. They’re daring me to come after them. They want me to disturb that which nearly destroyed us before,” the Emperor reasoned, “I will not risk this operation for something so petty.”
“About this operation, my lord,” Gladiator went on, “I’m compelled to inform you of the growing cost. We’ve been importing workers of every species from all over the empire. The depletion of manpower is causing widespread chaos in every quadrant.”
“I’m aware of this, Gladiator. I anticipated it before I gave my edict,” said D’ken coldly as he turned around.
“The problems continue to escalate on our home-world as well. Billions are being worked to death completing this bold project of yours. We’re plundering every last resource. The local magistrates are worried that it will do irreparable harm to the empire.”
“Tell them that if they deviate in even the slightest, they’ll be tortured for ten cycles and eaten alive by the carnivorous races in the Shi’lan quadrant.”
“I understand, my lord,” said Gladiator.
The loyal acolyte was not in a position to question his emperor. He was incapable of feeling any such doubt. That was his role as the guardian of the Shi’ar imperial family. That didn’t mean he was incapable of seeing the impact of his lord’s plan.
The Shi’ar emperor looked back towards the landscape of his home world. In the distance, his grand plan was taking shape. It came in the form of a massive antenna. It was so big that it extended right out of the planet’s atmosphere. There was another such antenna on the moon. This one was so big that it took up an entire side. In and around this structure, billions of Shi’ar residents labored with countless drones. The work was backbreaking if not lethal. Thousands died every day of exhaustion and starvation. None were allowed to stop. They were all working to fulfill D’ken’s grand vision. Gladiator was obligated to serve that vision, no matter how high the cost in blood may be.
“The suffering will end soon enough,” mused D’ken, “Understand, my dear acolyte, that I would never do this if it weren’t absolutely necessary.”
“It’s not my duty to understand, Lord D’ken,” said Gladiator, “I seek only to protect.”
“This goes beyond duty or protection. This will effectively end the strife that has consumed the Shi’ar Empire for generations! I’ve seen the suffering on my people, our allies, and even our enemies. There is but one solution. It involves power that defies the collective imagination of our entire race. This power would not have been within my grasp had the opportunity not presented itself.”
“You mean himself,” came an unexpected voice.
Gladiator instinctively turned around to guard the emperor. D’ken waved him down as he recognized the voice. It belonged to the only other being daring enough to barge into his imperial quarters unannounced. Fittingly enough, it was another human.
“Jason Wyngarde,” D’ken greeted, “I’m never sure whether I should dread your presence or welcome it.”
“I accept that humans are as welcome to the Shi’ar as another Kree/Skrull war. I’m also willing to endure that disgust to see this plan of yours work,” said the old man in the Shi’ar native language, “Which is why I found it so distressing when I heard that the rebel empress escaped to Earth.”
“Whoever told you that news should be executed for treason on the spot,” said Gladiator.
“No need for theatrics, my alien friend. I picked up on a few stray thoughts. Alien or not, thoughts are thoughts,” said Wyngarde smugly.
“I don’t care how you received this information. It’s not worth pestering me over,” scoffed D’ken.
“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong. Keep in mind that I was the one who stole the M’krann crystal shard on Earth. I used it to contact the Shi’ar and you agreed to unite it with the shards you found. I wouldn’t have given it to you so readily if I didn’t understand what I was bargaining with.”
D’ken scolded Wynegarde’s crass as he approached him. Unlike his billions of other subjects, he did not cower in fear. This being was unusual even for a human. He always ensured he had leverage. It made him a frustrating yet necessary asset.
“I’ve been overseeing the final phase of the crystal’s re-integration. Recently, I sensed some…peculiarities.”
“Your species has many words for that which is peculiar. Why is this worth wasting my time?” said D’ken.
“Because I traced the source of it back to Earth. Now I hear the Empress is fleeing to Earth. I may be an old man, but I’m not senile. A coincidence like that can’t be ignored.”
D’ken looked at the old man strangely. If he was right, then it meant Lilandra’s escape was more dire than he anticipated.
“You are sure of this?” asked D’ken.
“Have some of your psychics look into it. They’ll agree with me. The M’krann Crystal is radiating a new kind of energy. It’s almost as if it knows what we’re about to do to it.”
“You believe a rock can think?” scoffed Gladiator.
“That rock you speak of is the key to everything,” Wynegarde reminded him, “If we’re to utilize its full potential, we would be wise to heed this anomaly.”
Jason Wynegarde was as snide as he was unsavory. This made it especially infuriating when he said something that made sense. Had this human not possessed a large shard of the M’krann Crystal, he would have thrown him into the nearest supernova just for speaking to him. After Lilandra joined the rebels, D’ken needed an endgame. He did not care to see the Shi’ar go through yet another devastating civil war. The M’krann Crystal had long been a treasured relic. The Shi’ar had gathered numerous shards over the ages. Now they had enough to do something truly grand on a cosmic stage.
Unfortunately, this meant giving credence to Wynegarde’s expertise. He understood the crystal better than the psychics he had in his midst. It was demeaning, a human having more knowledge than a Shi’ar. Looking back towards the massive antenna his people were constructing, he realized this was no time to become complacent.
“Gladiator, get in touch with our forces in the Shi’ran quadrant. Tell them to begin an all out offensive into rebel territory,” said D’ken.
“It will be done, my lord,” said Gladiator without hesitation, “What do I do with those who hesitate? I expect many of them to say that such a move would incur heavy losses.”
“Kill them on site and promote any officer who will carry out the command,” said the emperor coldly, “We need only delay the rebels until the apparatus is complete.”
“And if forces from Earth get involved?” questioned Wynegarde.
“I will not divert resources to that accursed speck in the cosmos,” he said strongly, “Right now, the plan is to triple our efforts. We will finish before any forces, Earthly or otherwise, have a chance to stop us! The power of M’krann has gone unrealized for eons! Now by the blood of the Shi’ar, that power will be mine!”
Up next: Outer Limits
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