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Volume 4 -- Issue 93 -- Starcrossed Part 3

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Starcrossed Part 3
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Professor Charles Xavier seeks a world where humans and mutants live in peace. Together with his X-men he pursues that dream in a world that hates and fears them. The dream has been carried forth on his strong shoulders through many tribulations. Now those shoulders are poised to falter as Xavier faces death in more ways than one.

After encountering an alien ship on Genosha, Professor Xavier has had visions of an alien war at the hands of the powerful Shi’ar Empire. Those visions took form and substance when a ship from the Imperial Guard arrived on Earth in response to a mysterious signal. They were there to exterminate the bloodline of the Neramanis. This included Xavier’s love Lilandra, who recently discovered that she was part alien.

The X-men arrived to save Lilandra, but the Imperial Guard proved too strong. They overpowered the X-men and took Xavier hostage. Now they seek to exchange his life for Lilandra’s. On top of it all, Xavier recently revealed that his cancer had returned. His life is more fragile than ever and Lilandra has made the difficult decision to sacrifice herself to save the man she loves.

As the X-men remain immersed in this alien conflict, Colonel John Wraith and William Stryker are planning an attack of their own. They’ve enlisted a hacker named Arcade to hack the Xavier Institute for information vital to their mission.

Outside Xavier Institute

“We seriously don’t get paid enough for this shit,” groaned a lone Purifier as he and two associates stood outside the walls of the Xavier Institute.

“Do you want to keep complaining? Or do you want to help me configure this damn antenna?” said another Purifier who stood hunched over a complex device.

“I’m in a shit lousy mood from listening to this computer geek rant for twenty minutes straight! Don’t test me with dumb ass questions!”

The three men had plenty of reasons to be frustrated as they worked under the cover of darkness. The Xavier Institute was highly secure place. One wrong move could set off all sorts of traps. Charles Xavier may have been a filthy mutant, but he wasn’t going to make this easy for them.

In order to help Arcade hack into Xavier’s network, they had to set up some specially designed broadcast antennas. They were shaped like little satellite dishes and powered by some components they had configured in a nearby van. They had to work near the eastern wall since this area offered the best reception.

“Will you please hold those things still! The signal is still all over the place!” groaned the Purifier working in the van.

“I’m almost done, damn it! And keep your voice down! You don’t want Xavier to sick his X-men on us, do you?” said the man configuring the antenna atop the tree.

“Our intelligence indicated that nobody was home. Why bother?” he scoffed.

“The mansion may be vacant, but it’s still locked down. That means whatever exotic security system Xavier has in place is on high alert! Now are you going to keep putting this mission at risk? Or are you going to nail that thing down!”

The lone Purifier groaned as he carefully restrained the antenna with duct tape to ensure it was steady. While he did his job, his associate in the van was calibrating it. This was a delicate procedure because there was no telling what kind of defenses Xavier would employ. All their faith was in the hands of some snot nosed hacker. While they were still checking the stability of the connection, the Purifier in the van got a message from Arcade through a secure link.

“My hair is turning gray over here! Please tell me you guys have the signal port in place!”

“Keep it in your pants, Mr. Arcade. We’re almost finished,” said the Purifier.

“Well finish quicker! I need to stay in my groove if I’m going to crack this system!”

The three Purifiers rolled their eyes as they kept working. Nobody doubted the importance of this mission, but God sure didn’t make it easy on them. If there was any weak link in their crusade, it was Arcade and his juvenile attitude.

“Should we run the final encryption test?” asked one of the Purifiers.

“Let’s not and say we did,” said the one in the van, “Arcade is about as patient as a hungry dog. Just fire the damn thing up and hope we don’t hear from him until this shit is over.”

Buffalo New York – Naval Reserve Center

The signal from the Xavier Institute was coming in strong and Arcade was ready to begin. He had already made his way into several local networks in Westchester. He also rerouted every outgoing signal so that it couldn’t be traced by the X-men or the authorities. His focused mind was keeping track of all of every monitor before him, making sure they were doing everything he needed to do in order to make this possible.

Behind him, Reverend Stryker and Colonel Wraith watched intently. They also directed some of their technicians to keep the servers and various components running smoothly. So far everything was unfolding without incident. The success of this mission now rested solely on Arcade’s shoulders.

“Yes! We are live and broadcasting at full strength from Hacker Bowl I!” he grinned as he cracked his knuckles, “I have my signal. Now I should be able to navigate my way inside!”

“How long before you can extract the information?” asked Reverend Stryker.

“Hacking is six parts science and four parts art. You can’t put a clock on it any more than you can with Einstein and Picasso,” replied Arcade.

“At least assure us you can access the network within the night. That way we’ll know if we need to restock the coffee machine,” said Colonel Wraith.

“I never make guarantees on time-lines, Colonel. The only certainty I can offer is that I will crack this system. We’re dealing with computers here. On a basic level, they’re all the same.”

“You can’t even give us an estimate?” scoffed Wraith.

“Estimating requires brain power I can’t spare at the moment. So does talking. Now if you want this job done, you’ll stop playing 20 questions and let me work my magic!”

The two men scolded Arcade’s attitude. It was little wonder why he spent so much time in front of a computer screen. The only thing they couldn’t fault him for was his focus. He had already been typing feverishly at the computer array for over an hour and showed no signs of slowing down. He almost seemed obsessed, as if the mission itself wasn’t as important as the challenge.

“I’m still not sure about this man, Colonel. His skills may be apparent, but I worry that his spirit is not righteous enough,” said Reverend Stryker under his breath.

“If you know another hacker of his caliber with a spirit up to your ridged standards, you’re welcome to seek him out,” retorted Wraith, “Sometimes you have to bring in the people with the wrong attitude for the right skills.”

“It sounds too much like a deal with the devil,” said Stryker.

“The guy may not be a saint, but he’s hardly demonic. If it bothers you that much, try distracting yourself by writing up plans on how we’re going to free Graydon Creed.”

“Forgive me for not being so trusting, but I never turn a blind eye to potential darkness.”

“There’s a first time for everything, Reverend. If you don’t trust him, then at least trust me. You need to just as much as I do.”

The Reverend still scolded Arcade, but was in no position to call him out. His partnership with Colonel Wraith was still tenuous. As a man of God, his faith was one of his greatest strengths. But faith in the divine was not the same as faith in men. Colonel Wraith and Arcade were both tools of his crusade. If helping one another meant furthering the will of the Heavenly Father, then so be it. That didn’t mean he was without reservation.

All eyes were now on Arcade now. He was officially in his own world, typing at near-superhuman speeds and looking over a myriad of computer screens. Data was coming in rapidly, utilizing the full capacity of the surrounding equipment. Arcade’s brain was working overtime, directing the flow of this information and determining what he was going to do with it.

‘These guys don’t appreciate my craft. If they did, they would understand a private system like this is like the holy grail of hacking. Say what they will about Charles Xavier, the man isn’t cheap. Whoever configured these firewalls must have an IQ near the 200s. It’s almost a shame I have to break it.’

Having compiled his data, Arcade tapped into the signal set up by the Purifiers. This allowed him to literally force his way into the system. It was the computer equivalent of a smart bomb. But when he hit his target, there was some blowback. He expected as such from a system this advanced, but once he found an entry point he attacked it with all his hacker might.

Within moments, he was able to navigate his way into the digital domain of the Xavier Institute. Now that the signal had penetrated, the next step was to find a hub with which to access the network. Any system that guarded sensitive data had very few channels to access it with. The key was finding that channel and exploiting it in every possible way.

After a good five minutes of searching, he found what he was looking for. There was some hub that seemed small by comparison. It was most likely a secondary connection. He attacked it head on without hesitation. That’s when he encountered his first setback. As soon as he tried to access the hub, something or someone tried to push him out.

“Oh no you don’t!” he grinned intently, “You’re not shoving me out that easily.”

Several computer screens flashed yellow and red warning signs. That hinted that dangerous digital forces were at work. Arcade sensed the wariness from Stryker and Wraith.

“Don’t start shitting yourselves just yet. I expected this,” he told them.

“Expected what? Is it grounds for me to shoot someone?” asked Colonel Wraith.

“Not quite, but it may be an option,” said Arcade wryly, “The signal managed to pick up on a personal computer within the institute. In addition to having an unhealthy amount of crossword puzzles, it appears to be linked into the network.”

”That’s a good thing, isn’t it?” said Reverend Stryker.

“Not quite that simple, Reverend,” said Arcade, “You see, these flashing lights don’t hint at a mere security breach. They hint that someone else may be on the other end fighting back.”

“That’s impossible! My men verified nobody was at the institute!” said Stryker.

“I never said they were in the mansion. I just said they were fighting back,” said Arcade, “But don’t you worry. I can take them! If nothing else, it’ll make this job more entertaining.”

“Why does that not ease my concerns?” said Wraith dryly.

“Save the sarcasm for later when I nuke this network back to the Commodore 64 days! Trust me…you’ll like what you see!”

Utah Desert – Velocity

Lilandra Neramani had made a profoundly difficult choice and the X-men were the ones helping her carry it out. Upon revealing her decision, a heated argument ensued. Nobody in the X-men liked the idea of surrendering to the Imperial Guard. They struck them as the kind of alien race who didn’t value keeping promises. For all they knew, they would kill the Professor just to make sure they wouldn’t be an obstacle in the future.

None of this was lost on Lilandra, but this was her choice to make. Her primary concern wasn’t her own life. It was that of Charles Xavier. It was because of her lineage that he was caught up in this. That mean it was her responsibility to make sure he was rescued.

“This is a bad idea, Miss Neramani. Handing yourself over like this will probably do more harm than good,” said Cyclops as he counseled the distraught woman aboard the Velocity.

“I’m worried about Charles as well, but the Imperial Guard has little incentive to make good on their word,” added Beast, “They’ve already expressed how little they care for our world. Therefore, we must assume they have no intention of leaving us be.”

“I know there are many reasons why I shouldn’t go through with this,” said Lilandra sadly, “But it wouldn’t be right for me to sacrifice the man I love. He tried to save me from a fate he had no control over. And if I have to defy that fate to save him, so be it.”

“And how do you hope to accomplish that?” asked Phoenix, “If you have a plan, please share it! We want the Professor back as much as you do.”

Lilandra contemplated this grim scenario. She looked down at her mother’s necklace and mused over the secrets she had uncovered over the past few hours. It was a lot to take in. She had the fate of the man she loved and that of an entire galaxy riding on her. How could anyone, half-alien or not, possibly cope with such a burden?

“I take it you’ve all figured out that Charles has been dying of cancer,” said Lilandra sadly.

“You mean he actually told you?” said Phoenix with a touch of bitterness.

“No…I found out,” she clarified, “I was so upset that he seemed to be accepting his fate. He said that he wanted to make the best use of what little time he had. I didn’t understand it at the time. Now I do…more so than I wish.”

Lilandra clutched the necklace and looked towards Xavier’s students with the kind of sincerity that could only come from someone who loved Charles Xavier more than they did.

“I need to do the right thing,” she said strongly, “Even if it means putting my life on the line, I need to save Charles.”

“The question remains, Miss Neramani…does the risk warrant the price?” said Beast.

“For Charles Xavier…definitely,” she replied.

There was no doubt in her tone. This is what she wanted. There was nothing the X-men could say or do to dissuade her. Despite the X-men’s reservations, their mission was clear.

“Then buckle up,” said Cyclops, “We’ll take off in five minutes. We should be at the mesa in ten if you can direct us.”

“That gives us very little time to come up with a viable plan,” said Lilandra.

“Even though we’re used to it, that doesn’t make it any easier,” sighed Beast.

Cyclops and Beast entered the cockpit and prepared for take-off. Phoenix helped Lilandra strap herself in, not hiding her disgruntled look every step of the way. She didn’t hide from the X-men’s scrutiny. Her mind was made up and even the Phoenix Force couldn’t change it.

“She’s very brave. If not foolishly so. While I don’t remember my past encounters with the Shi’ar, I feel I know them. And I don’t believe they’ll keep their promise.”

‘Me neither. Which is why we better think of something fast! There are way too many ways this could go wrong.’

Phoenix signaled the others in the back to strap themselves in. Wolverine, Psylocke, Gambit, Shadowcat, and Colossus had been tending to the injured Storm and Iceman. These two sustained some pretty nasty injuries in the battle with the Imperial Guard. They were now resting comfortably on some makeshift infirmary beds after having received some first aid. Iceman had suffered some nasty burned and Storm was pretty out of it after enduring a heavy shock. These were the kinds of injuries they had come to expect from being X-men. That didn’t make them any easier to endure.

For Wolverine, these wounds struck deeper. It was his fault more than the Imperial Guard’s that she was in this condition. If she hadn’t been close to him, she wouldn’t have suffered. It was painfully symbolic of all the reasons why he didn’t deserve to be her lover.

“I’m sorry, Ro. I hurt you…again,” said Wolverine as he gently caressed the face of the unconscious woman, “That’s all I seem to be doing lately. Every day my fucked up life finds a way to make you pay for being my girl. You sure as hell don’t deserve that. Guess that means I really don’t deserve you either.”

“Don’t be getting down on us yet, Wolverine. Remy knows it’s your thing and all, but Stormy wouldn’t want you beat yourself up like this,” said Gambit, who was looking over Storm with Psylocke as well.

“I know she wouldn’t. Doesn’t mean I should spare myself a good ass-kicking for being the wrong guy for the right woman,” grunted Wolverine.

“You know Remy used to think that too. You may not be givin’ Stormy enough credit. She’s a tough femme. If she loves someone enough, she’ll go the distance.”

“I know she will, damn it! That doesn’t mean that she should.”

Wolverine let out a bitter growl and stormed away from Gambit. Even though the Cajun had known Storm longer, he didn’t know the first thing about making it work with a woman. His track record with Rogue was proof of that. Storm deserved better and he was starting to wonder if he could ever give it to her.

Gambit turned towards Psylocke and shrugged. Debating with Wolverine was like debating with brick wall with razor sharp claws.

“Funny, I thought Logan would be the last guy to have self-esteem issues,” commented Psylocke.

“It got nothing to do with self-esteem. Stormy has a strange effect on the fellas she dates. I should know,” said the Cajun, offering the unconscious Storm a tender gesture.

“Guess you were one of the lucky ones,” she said with a smile.

“Maybe Remy was. That don’t mean Logan’s in the same boat.”

“Let him work it out. If he really loves Storm, they’ll find a way to make it work.”

“I wish I could agree with you, cherè. But with all the voodoo that be coming out today, Remy ain’t sure of anything anymore.”

“Now you’re the one with the self-esteem issues? Is it contagious around here or something?” said Psylocke with increasing worry.

“Non…it’s part of being an X-man. You grow up a lot faster than you wanna. You also start thinkin’ things you ain’t ever thought about,” said Gambit, giving his lover a tender gesture.

“That makes no bloody sense.”

“It will one day, cherè. Trust me.”

Psylocke was left to contemplate this strange notion while Gambit led her to her seat. Maybe she was still too new at this or maybe she was still getting used to her new identity, but it seemed she was always catching up to the rest of the team. And with all the overwhelming challenges such as aliens and 500 million year old entities, she had better catch up soon.

“Bloody hell, I am so ready for this day to be over,” she sighed as she turned to Shadowcat and Colossus, “Come on you guys. We have a date with a bunch alien hooligans.”

“Don’t remind me,” said Shadowcat.

The Velocity was about to lift off. Shadowcat did one last check on Iceman to make sure he was secure. He was in a near-unconscious daze, mostly from exhaustion. Having to ice up repeatedly and cope with all that heat really took a toll. It was difficult to see any X-man in such discomfort, but given their romantic history it was a bit harder for Shadowcat.

“You always have to be overly macho, don’t you?” she sighed, “I know I told you it was annoying when we were together. Now I kind of miss it. Bet Jubilee loves that side of you.”

“He’ll be okay, Katya. He’s in no position to talk at this moment,” said Colossus as he placed a hand on her shoulder.

“I know that, which is why I’m telling him this now,” she said while still smiling at Iceman, “He’s a lot easier to talk to when he’s like this. He can’t push my buttons like he usually does. It’s one of his most annoying talents.”

“Oh…I see,” said the Russian mutant, now somewhat confused.

“It’s just one of the lessons you learn as an X-man. You can’t leave loose ends because you never know when a hoard of killer aliens put an end to everything you hold dear.”

“I thought you and Bobby had long since resolved your relationship.”

“We did. That doesn’t mean we covered every detail. Bobby and I both have a tendency to avoid the past when we know we shouldn’t,” said Shadowcat as she rose up, “The way I see it, we all need to grow up a bit when we face threats like this. Part of growing up is laying the past to rest. It makes things a hell of a lot easier in the long run.”

Colossus still didn’t quite understand. He smiled none-the-less as he followed Shadowcat to his seat. American girls and relationships in general were complicated. The part about growing up made sense though. He was certainly getting his share of experience in his brief X-men career. Kitty Pryde was younger, yet she already had more maturity than most girls older than her. There was a lot to admire about that and a lot to be learned as well.

Now that the team was strapped in, the Velocity was ready for take-off. The hour the Shi’ar gave them was almost up. The final confrontation awaited them and Professor Xavier’s fragile life hung in the balance.

“Here we go, X-men!” said Cyclops as the aircraft ascended over the desert, “We’re about to walk into an alien trap. If anybody comes up with a new idea along the way, don’t be afraid to share it.”

“Even it if involves storming their ship, beating up every last alien dirt bags, and prying the Prof outta their hands, tentacles, and or whatever the fuck they have?” said Wolverine.

“I meant within reason, Wolverine,” said Cyclops dryly, “We need something realistic and we need it within the next fifteen minutes!”

“Nothing like a time limit to add a little pressure, non?” commented Gambit.

“Deal with it!” said Phoenix in a strong but saddened tone, “This is Professor Xavier we’re talking about. He’s already dying of cancer. I think he would choose to have that do him in instead of these alien thugs.”

“Yeah…some choice,” said Psylocke dryly.

The health and well-being of their mentor lingered heavily on their minds as the Velocity headed northward. This wasn’t the first time they had to rescue the Professor, but due to his condition it could be the last even if they succeeded.

District X – The M Building

“Tessa! Yo Tess, where you at, girl?” said an impatient Lucas Bishop as he barged into Tessa’s quarters.

District X was a bustle of activity. Bishop rarely had to come running to Tessa because she always did her job. She was as efficient as her computer-like mind. So when he and Madrox started getting interference with the District X security feeds, it was a sign that something was very wrong.

Upon entering her room, Bishop found Tessa exactly where he expected to. She was locked into her desk, staring with laser-like focus at several computer screens while she was typing rapidly on a couple of keyboards. She looked like she was working, but the continued interference with District X’s systems said otherwise.

“Tess, we got us a problem and I sure hope you’re working on it!” he said as he stormed towards her desk, “Since that Cambrian shit, them anti-mutant fools have been sabotaging our security! You said you would have the new system up and running, but every time Madrox and I check in…”

Bishop stopped himself when he moved in closer to Tessa. She didn’t respond to his presence. It was as if she didn’t even know he was here.

“Tess…you hearing me? You didn’t lose your damn mind in those computer, did you?” said Bishop as he waved his hand in front of her face, “If so, I now owe Jubilee fifty bucks!”

“I heard you perfectly fine, Bishop. No need to get aggressive,” said Tessa in her stoic tone.

“I don’t mean to bust your balls, girl. Madrox and I are just worried that someone’s gonna start fucking with us while we’re vulnerable!”

“We’ll be fine. I’ll make sure of it,” she said, her tone starting to sound a little frustrated, “I would fix it now, but something important has come up.”

“More important than District X?” said Bishop critically.

“I would say this qualifies. Someone is trying to hack the Xavier Institute…someone who seems intent on accessing their most secure data.”

Now Bishop was more curious than outraged. While his first concern was always District X, he understood how important the X-men were to mutant communities everywhere.

“I thought you and McCoy took care of that shit. Your exact words were ain’t nobody gonna crack this code!” said Bishop as he glanced over Tessa’s computer screen.

“Those were hardly my exact words. And if you knew anything about computers, you would know that no code is unbreakable. Find an obsessive hacker smart enough, equip him with the right tools, and you can hack anything. That’s why I’m trying to fight back. Do you have any idea what kind of sensitive data is stored in Xavier’s database?”

“Do I even wanna know?” asked Bishop.

“Not if you want to keep your focus on District X,” she replied, “That’s why I’m not letting this guy through.”

“Can’t you just call that boyfriend of yours and have him and his crew bust some heads?”

“I tried calling. Nobody’s home,” she said, “They’re probably out on a mission. For all I know, that’s why this attack is happening now. I need to stop it and that means you dealing with our local problems just a little bit longer for me.”

Bishop looked at Tessa and then back at the computer. He was anything but a computer whiz and even he could see that something big was going down. He had seen Tessa focused before. Focus for a mind built like a computer was nothing to scoff at. If this hack job was as important as she claimed, then they might have problems bigger than District X.

“I’ll catch up with Jubilee and get the lowdown on the streets. We’ll keep these suckas in check with our bear hands if we have to,” he said as he turned to make his leave.

“Tell her and Madrox it may be a while,” said Tessa as her gaze narrowed on her computer, “Whoever is behind this, they’re no slouch.”

“Keep us in the loop. If something’s going down with the X-men, we need to know about it. Whenever them fools get caught up in some shit, it’s only a matter of time before it finds its way to the rest of the world!”

Utah Desert – North Ridge Mesa

The Velocity reached their mesa sooner than any of the X-men would have preferred. It was hardly enough time to put together a plan other than hope these aliens were more foolish than they looked. Lilandra guided them over some jagged rock formations until a large flat plateau came into view. It stood as tall as a thirty story skyscraper and as wide as several city blocks. There was only little space for them to run or hide, making it the perfect strategic location.

As they approached the formation, they did not see the alien ship. They assumed it was still cloaked. These aliens seemed keen on not being detected by the rest of the planet. Why a race as advanced as the Shi’ar would go to such lengths was a mystery. They had clearly been on Earth before. They spoke perfect English and were aware of the landscape. There were all sorts of details that didn’t feel right, but the X-men weren’t in a position to do anything about it.

“I see them!” said Lilandra, pointing out the window from her seat, “Charles is down there and so is Gladiator.”

The team crowded around the windows. Sure enough, Gladiator was standing in the center of the plateau with the trapped Charles Xavier right next to him.

“I’m taking us down. We’ll land on the south ridge,” said Cyclops, “As soon as we step out, nobody make any threatening moves. We can’t risk another fight with the Imperial Guard. The Professor may get caught in the crossfire.”

“After what they did to Popsicle and Storm, you expect me to be polite?” said Wolverine dryly, “Why don’t you ask me to cut off my arms and legs while you’re at it?”

“I know it’s against your better judgment or lack thereof, but for now we have to play by their rules, Wolverine,” said Phoenix, “The Professor’s life is at stake here!”

“No need to keep reminding us, cherè. We know the cards ain’t staked in our favor,” said Gambit.

“When are they ever?” sighed Cyclops.

The team held on as Cyclops skillfully landed the aircraft. As soon as they touched down, they gathered near the side hatch. Beast did one last check on Storm and Iceman before joining Cyclops, Phoenix, Wolverine, Colossus, Shadowcat, Gambit, and Psylocke. Lilandra remained in front, ready to lead the way. She was the most nervous of them all and kept clutching her mother’s necklace for strength.

“Are you ready, Miss Neramani?” asked Shadowcat.

“I wish I could say I was. Unfortunately, I’m a terrible liar,” said Lilandra.

“We don’t hold it against you, luv,” said Psylocke with a humored grin, “Just stick with us. The X-men will find a way to get through this.”

“I wish I could share your confidence, but I don’t remember us coming up with a plan.”

“For now, just assume we have one and do your part. We’ll take care of the rest,” said Cyclops.

Lilandra had no choice but to place her trust in the students that Charles Xavier loved so dearly. She put on a strong demeanor as the hatch opened, revealing the treacherous path before them. She led the X-men out into the brisk desert night, walking slightly ahead of them so that Gladiator could see that they were honoring their part so far. It remained to be seen if these alien guardians would do the same.

The air was tense as they approached Gladiator. He stood a stoic as ever, the encapsulated Professor Xavier right beside him. He saw in Lilandra a mix of fear and longing. It hardly seemed befitting of someone D’ken deemed so threatening.

“We’re here, Gladiator!” Lilandra announced, “Now how are we going to do this?”

“You and your human cohorts surprise me. I thought you would be foolish enough to oppose this little arrangement,” said Gladiator.

“Guess we’re ain’t as primitive as you space folk think,” said Gambit.

“We don’t want another fight. We just want you to release the Professor,” said Cyclops strongly.

“Ah yes, this human means a lot to you,” said Gladiator as he looked over the frozen figure, “That also surprises me. This man is so frail he should have expired on his own already. Based on Mentor’s scans, he’ll be dead even if I release him to you.”

If you release him? You’re going back on the deal already?” said Phoenix, her eyes flashing with fiery cosmic anger.

“Hardly,” scoffed Gladiator, “I just find it pathetic that you’re willing to trade the last of the Neramani bloodline for someone who will most likely be dead before this planet completes another cycle.”

None of this was comforting to the X-men. They had no idea what he meant by cycle, but it was a painful reminder of how frail Professor Xavier had become. It promised to make any plan they hatched more dangerous.

“Enough with the posturing!” said Lilandra, her voice straining with emotion, “I won’t take a step further until you release Charles!”

“You’re in no position to bargain, Lilandra. I could just as easily reach out and take you,” scoffed Gladiator.

“You would still have to go through us,” said Colossus, “You may not respect our kind, but understand we will fight to our last breath.”

“Keeping in mind there are other cosmic forces working against you,” said Phoenix, showing an extra touch of her power as well.

Gladiator scowled the insolence of these petty creatures. Never-the-less, his patience was waning thin and so was D’ken’s. He had already been on this planet longer than any Shi’ar ever dared to venture. If these pathetic humans wanted this dying man back, who was he to argue? It would be much quicker than having to oppose them again, especially with the Phoenix Force on their side.

“Your resolve is admirable,” he conceded, “Even if it is misplaced.”

“Flattery ain’t gonna do you any good with us, bub!” snarled Wolverine, “No can we cut the pillow talk and do this already?!”

“Very well,” said the alien powerhouse, “While you may not believe it, I too am a being of honor.”

The X-men kept a defensive stance as Gladiator reached into his pocket and pulled out the small remote control he used earlier. He casually pointed it at the frozen Professor and pushed a small white button. Within seconds, the egg-shaped energy shell around his body flickered. After a few small pulses, it faded completely and Professor Xavier fell limply onto the rock.

“Ungh…” he groaned weakly.

“Charles!” gasped Lilandra.

“He’ll be fine…in a manner of speaking,” said Gladiator, “Now are you going to come quietly, Lilandra? Or will I have to be more direct in my use of this man?”

“Please don’t!” she said desperately, “I…I’ll come along. I promise. Just give Charles back to his students.”

“Come to me and I’ll hand him over myself,” he said.

“Sorry luv, but you haven’t exactly earned our trust. What with you and your goons attacking us earlier,” said Psylocke bitterly.

“You have my word as an Imperial Guardsman,” said Gladiator.

“That may be good enough for the Shi’ar, but it’s not good enough for us!” said Cyclops.

“You dare question my honor?!”

The discussion was getting heated. Gladiator was getting annoyed and the X-men looked ready to attack at any moment. Before it could get any worse, Lilandra stepped in.

“Enough!” she yelled out, “This is my decision. There’s no need to fight. I’ll go already!”

“Miss Neramani, I must interject,” said Beast, trying to hold her back, “This is Charles we’re talking about. We would be wise to work out some kind of assurance beforehand.”

“Gladiator is giving us his word. That is good enough for me,” said Lilandra, roughly shaking off Beast’s grip.

“But Lilandra…” he went on, trying to reach out for her again.

“Let her go, Beast. If this is what she wants, let her do it,” said Phoenix, putting her arm out and preventing anyone else from following.

The X-men honored her wishes. Lilandra didn’t let anyone else stop her. Her gaze hardened, Lilandra started making her way away from the X-men and towards Gladiator. Professor Xavier saw this despite his weakened state. Seeing the woman he loved give herself over to this madness was too much. He refused to fail the woman he loved.

“Lilandra…don’t do it,” he gasped desperately.

“I’m sorry, Charles. But I must,” Lilandra cried.

Gladiator’s vision narrowed as the last Neramani approached. At last the bloodline was secure. His Imperial Lordship, D’ken, would be very pleased. It meant his reign would be secure and they would never have to come back to this accursed planet again.

When Lilandra got close enough, she stopped just next to Charles. His breathing was highly labored. His cancer ridden body was on its last whims. He looked up at her with desperate eyes and she looked right back, trying to stay strong despite the tears streaming down her face.

“Please Lilandra…turn back. I…I love you,” he said to her.

“I love you too, Charles. I’m sorry we missed so many chances,” she said with strained words.

Xavier tried to reach up for her, but Gladiator stopped him.

“Enough stalling!” he said impatiently, “Your petty emotions are pathetic.”

“There’s nothing petty about them, Gladiator,” said Lilandra, her tone shifting somewhat, “And you’re in no position to call anyone pathetic.”

“What makes you think you’re in any position to make such a judgment?” scoffed Gladiator.

“Because if you weren’t pathetic yourself, you would realize that one of the X-men has disappeared since I first stepped out.”

Gladiator looked at her strangely. She was actually smiling now. Confused, he looked back towards the X-men. Some of them were smiling too. It quickly dawned on him. There were seven of them when they first stepped off their aircraft. Now there were only six. Which of them could have possibly slipped by his sight?

“What treachery is this?!” he demanded.

An unexpected voice from below answered his question.

“Look down and see for yourself!”

Sure enough, as soon as Gladiator turned his head the nimble figure of Shadowcat emerged from the rock below. She had phased right through the hard desert surface and managed to slip right beneath him. Once in position, she shot up towards him. Gladiator instinctively moved to defend himself, but no attack came. Instead, she grabbed the small device he had used to free Charles. As soon as it was out of his hand, Lilandra dove for Charles and latched onto him with her strongest grip.

“Now Phoenix!” Lilandra called out.

“Errr! Insolent primates!” Gladiator yelled out.

It was too late.  Phoenix had already levitated Xavier and Lilandra with her telekinesis and was flying them away from Gladiator at the fastest and safest speeds she could manage.

“I’ve got them!” she said.

“Dang…Remy can’t believe that worked!” said Gambit.

“Advanced civilization my ass,” grunted Wolverine.

The rest of the X-men were there to quickly surround them while Shadowcat ducked to the side of the imposing alien and looked at the device she just stole.

“Hmm…so many buttons so little time,” she said coyly, “I wonder what this one does?”

“Stop! You dare…” began Gladiator.

That was all he got out before Shadowcat pushed the first white button near the top. This caused a series of lights to erupt from above. Gladiator and the X-men looked up to see the cloaking shield their cruiser had been using fade within seconds. Not only was it visible now, but some of the bright lights on the underside were flashing ominously.

“Cool! Now let’s try this one!” she said, pushing another button and pointing it at Gladiator for good measure.

“You pestilent…”

Once again, Gladiator was cut off. As soon as Shadowcat pushed that button, a number of on-board energy weapons automatically armed themselves and took aim right at the imposing alien. They all fired at once, unleashing a torrent of concentrated blasts that struck Gladiator with punishing force.

“Arrrggghhhhhh!” he yelled as he was engulfed in the energy.

“Ooh…looks painful and humiliating!” laughed Shadowcat, “It’s like using a real-life Wii!”

“You’re having way too much fun with that, Kitty!” Psylocke called out as she and the others started rushing Xavier back to the Velocity.

“Are you kidding? I’m just getting warmed up!” she boasted.

She pointed the device towards Gladiator again, who was still alive despite being pummeled with more energy blasts. He was struck so many times that it left a blackened scar on the rock around him. He emerged from the smoky crater royally pissed and before Shadowcat could get another shot off, he sent a message to the ship through a secondary communicator on his belt.

“Mentor! Initiate the endgame protocol! These dishonorable primates must pay for their treachery!”

“It will be done, Gladiator.”

From the bottom of the ship, a large opening formed and a brilliant column of light shot down towards the surface. It was so bright that Shadowcat nearly dropped the device she was holding and the X-men stopped cold in their tracks before they were even halfway to the Velocity. When the light faded they saw that the rest of the Imperial Guard had joined him. This included Starbolt, Smasher, Hussar, Flashfire, Neutron, and Oracle. They appeared to have fully healed from their previous battle already and were looking for a rematch.

“Didn’t we already deal with you alien assholes already?!” snarled Wolverine.

“Not like this, you haven’t,” said Gladiator ominously, “Prepare to face total annihilation!”

The blinding light from the ship didn’t fade once the Imperial Guard was present. Now that same light had spread to the edges of the ship so that hundreds of smaller lights were lining the perimeter. In a series of blinding bursts, smaller columns of light shot out from each point to form a series of laser columns. They formed the equivalent of a laser grid jail around the entire plateau, providing yet another reason why they chose this setting. Now their escape was completely cut off.

“This is not good,” lamented Colossus.

“Guess they had a backup plan too,” said Cyclops.

“Do we have a backup to their backup?” asked Psylocke.

“I do not remember contemplating this kind of retaliation so I would say no,” dreaded Beast.

Having been helped up by Smasher and Neutron, Gladiator took to the air and hovered just over the X-men with rage in his eyes. The X-men hovered protectively around the weakened Charles Xavier, who was being watched over by a terrified Lilandra Neramani. It seemed another fight was inevitable and this would not be one they could run away from.

“You have spat in the face of the Emperor D’ken! You have turned back on a deal sealed by the Imperial Guard! In the eyes of the Shi’ar, this is a capital offense punishable by the greatest of punishment!” Gladiator proclaimed.

“I got a high pain tolerance, bub. Bring it on!” roared Wolverine as he drew his claws.

“You think I’ll just stop with your feeble forms? Within ten of your Earth minutes, our ship will unleash a gamma pulse that will sterilize half your planet of all traces of life! This hallow speck has been a bane to the Shi’ar for too long! By the laws of D’ken, it shall suffer for its crimes!”

“Merde…Remy don’t think you got the pain tolerance for that, Wolverine,” said Gambit.

“You’re crazy! We won’t let you destroy our planet!” yelled Cyclops.

“I don’t know what we did that hurt you guys so much, but if this is how you deal with it I’m guessing you probably deserved it!” said Phoenix.

“Your ignorance only adds to your insult! Justice to the Shi’ar will be done! This planet dies now!” said Gladiator.

Gladiator was serious. He and D’ken were willing to tear this planet asunder. He was beyond reason at this point. They clearly had little love for their planet to begin with and had no qualms about destroying it. If that meant a fight to the bitter end for the X-men, so be it.

“Imperial Guard!” yelled Gladiator, “Slay these traitors for the Emperor!”

“For the Emperor!” they all proclaimed.

Starbolt, Smasher, Hussar, Flashfire, Neutron, and Oracle prepared to charge the X-men. Cyclops stepped forth with Phoenix, Wolverine, Beast, Colossus, Gambit, and Psylocke to oppose them. Shadowcat remained off to the side, still armed with the remote.

“X-men, get ready for Plan B!” said Cyclops.

“What does Plan B entail, comrade Cyclops?” asked Colossus warily.

“You really gotta ask?” seethed Wolverine.

“In its simplest form…we wing it,” said Beast.

“Works for me!” said Psylocke as she formed a couple of psionic blades.

The X-men prepared for yet another clash with the Imperial Guard. In the midst of it all, Lilandra clung to Charles Xavier lamenting on the chaos she had wrought. This was all her fault. All this damage was because of who she was.

“It’s over, Charles. I’ve failed,” said Lilandra with a heavy sob.

“You did the right thing, Lilandra. You didn’t fail,” he said weakly.

“Well I’m about to,” she cried.

While the Imperial Guard was closing in on the X-men, Shadowcat scrambled to find a way to use this remote against them. If she could figure out a way to work it, then maybe they could stop that gamma burst or bring down the laser shields blocking their escape.

“Come on! This thing has to be good for something!” she said as she randomly started pushing buttons, “Work you stupid thing! Work!”

The Imperial Guard was about to unleash their fury on the X-men. Suddenly, their attack and that of the X-men were unexpectedly halted by something that literally rocked their world.

Out of nowhere, a series of pulsing green lights rained down from the sky above. They were the size of small passenger jets and when they strike the Shi’ar cruiser, it unleashed a massive burst of energy that shook the whole plateau. The shaking was so bad that the Imperial Guard fell back and so did the X-men. Even Gladiator was confused as he frantically looked around for the source of the commotion.

“Whoa…did I just do that?” said Shadowcat in bewilderment.

“Um…I don’t think so, Kitty,” said Phoenix as she started sensing some new telepathic signatures.

“No…it can’t be!” grunted Gladiator before activating his communicator, “Mentor, what is going on?! What trickery is this?!”

“It is not coming from the X-men, Gladiator! We’re under attack!”

“That’s impossible! Who could possibly attack…”

Gladiator’s doubts were quickly answered with another attack. More mysterious energy blasts erupted from above, striking the Imperial cruiser with more devastating energy blasts. This time they caused damage on the cruiser itself. Gaping holes were blown into the hull and several major weapons compartments blew up in violent fashion. In the process, the laser grid that had surrounded the plateau and cut off the X-men’s escape flickered out. It seemed the cruiser was now in dire condition.

As this attack continued, the source emerged in the skies above the desert. Another ship appeared through a cloaking mechanism similar to the one the cruiser had used. This ship was only about half the size of the cruiser and not nearly as imposing, but it was still had weapons powerful enough to penetrate the cruisers shields. Only so many ships could do this and Gladiator knew most of them by name.

“The Starjammer! I should have known!” Gladiator seethed.

“How did they track us here?!” exclaimed Smasher.

“And why didn’t we detect them?” wondered Oracle.

“On a world like this, I shouldn’t be surprised,” said Hussar, “I swear this world is cursed!”

The Imperial Guard seemed to know what was going on and weren’t happy about it. The X-men, who were still recovering from the tremors, looked up and watched the approaching ship descend.

“Uh…this either be really good or really bad,” said Gambit.

“Whoever they are, they just shorted out that laser grid! This could be our only chance to escape!” said Cyclops.

“And miss seeing these guys get their asses kicked?” scoffed Wolverine.

“As curious as I am, I don’t think we can afford to be spectators for this stellar event,” said Beast.

Most of the team seemed to agree. This was as good a chance as any to escape with Lilandra and the Professor. But when they turned to meet up with their mentor, both he and Lilandra didn’t seem to share their urgency.

“Professor, we must be going!” urged Colossus.

“No Colossus…I don’t think that will be necessary,” said the Professor as he looked up at the other ship and smiled.

“What do you mean?” asked Cyclops, looking as confused as the others.

“Charles is right,” said Lilandra as she clutched her temple, “I sense we’re in the presence of new allies.”

“New allies?” said Wolverine skeptically, “How in the hell can you be sure of that?”

“Watch and see for yourself, Wolverine,” said Professor Xavier through labored breaths.

Confused yet intrigued, the X-men looked up and saw the mysterious craft descend towards them. Shadowcat ran over to meet up as the craft settled into a silent hover not far from where the Velocity had landed. The rest of the Imperial Guard was scrambling to check the status of their cruiser. Only Gladiator stood by to confront the incoming ship open.

A hatch on the bottom of the ship opened and three figures stepped out wielding ominous-looking weapons. They included Corsair, Ch’od, and Hepzibah. With Corsair leading the charge, they stormed past Lilandra and the X-men.

“Welcome to Earth guys! Let’s make this quick!” he told his teammates, “Remember to speak English! It’ll help with the mission!”

“I hate this language, but fine!” snorted Ch’od.

Once in position, they took aim at the Imperial Guard with their weapons. Gladiator clenched his fist and prepared to attack these all too familiar foes.

“Corsair! You dare show your face around the Imperial Guard?” roared Gladiator.

“We’re not in Shi’ar territory anymore, Gladiator! You’re on my home turf!” said Corsair, “I don’t see the royal armada backing you up and frankly I’m insulted. I thought you of all people would make my homecoming more exciting!”

“You insult yourself and the Imperial family! You’re a fool to think you can confront us like this!”

“Who said anything about confronting you? I’d much rather throw myself back into D’ken’s torture chambers!” quipped Corsair, “We’re here to stop D’ken from getting his hands on the one thing he’s afraid of.”

“The bloodline…” Gladiator seethed, “So you know about it as well!”

“It was thought lost for many cycles,” said Hepzibah, “Imagine our surprise when we decoded that signal and found out that a survivor remains.”

“Can you imagine what this will do for the resistance?” said Ch’od, “For the first time, D’ken will have some competition! That means you may be out of a job soon!”

Gladiator’s gaze narrowed on Corsair and his rebel thugs. Emperor D’ken rarely gave much credence to the resistance. There were only a few pockets that really caused problems in his affairs and the Starjammers were among the worst. If they were to acquire the last of the Neramani bloodline, it could cause too many problems to contemplate.

“If you think the Imperial Guard will stand by while you make off with the bloodline, you’re deluding yourselves!” said Gladiator.

“Oh I know you won’t do it willingly. That’s why we’re providing some incentive,” grinned Corsair.

Reaching into his back pocket, the veteran space pirate pulled out a communicator.

“Raza! Fire the disruptor cannon!” he ordered.

“With supreme satisfaction, Corsair!”

From the top of the Starjammer, a new compartment opened and an ominous missile-like device emerged. It didn’t look like much to the X-men, but when Gladiator saw it he actually tensed. He watched it unleashed a quick burst directly at the bottom of the Imperial cruiser. When it hit, it didn’t just explode. It unleashed a strange purplish aura of energy that caused the whole ship to buckle under its own weight.

For the first time, the Imperial Guard looked anxious. More tremors shook the cruiser and several small explosions rocked the weapons compartments. Their ship was becoming more crippled by the second and without any support from the main fleet, they were in an unusually vulnerable position.

“The way I see it you have two choices, Gladiator,” said Corsair snidely, “You can either stick around and keep fighting, crippling your ship in the process. Or you could cut your losses and get your ass back into space! You know as well as I do that the Shi’ar don’t like coming to this planet and D’ken will not be pleased if you strand yourself here with the Imperial Guard.”

“As if he’ll be pleased by anything short of the universe exploding,” said Hepzibah dryly.

“Face it, this is a part of the universe no Shi’ar wants to be and you’re bound by Imperial decree to preserve the integrity of Guard. The royal family penned these decrees themselves and I know how much you hate going against imperial decrees.”

Gladiator’s scorn hardened. He despised the Starjammers with every fiber of his being. He despised them even more when they made a valid point. Looking up at the cruiser, he saw the extent of the damage. Most of their weapon systems were disabled and there were some gaping holes in the hull. The entire ship was only a few blows away from being crippled and there was no way D’ken would accept his Imperial Guards being stranded here. It left him with limited choices, all of which undermined his honor.

“So what’s it going to be, Gladiator? I’ve got Raza lined up for a few more shots,” taunted Corsair, “You may think poorly of us lowly rebels, but you would be surprised what kind of hardware we find in the Shi’ar black market!”

Gladiator continued to scold Corsair with unparalleled hatred. Then he got an ominous message from Mentor.

“Gladiator! That disruptor blast severely damaged our stabilizers! One more hit and we’ll be marooned for sure! What are we to do?”

With this grim news, Gladiator’s choice was clear.

“Imperial Guard, initiate protocol alpha!” he said sternly.

“Protocol alpha?!” exclaimed Smasher.

“That’s just a fancy way of giving a retreat order!” said Flashfire.

“Do not question my authority! We are still bound by the decrees of the Imperial throne!” yelled Gladiator, “We cannot protect the integrity of the Guard if we are stranded on this cursed world!”

No one in the Imperial Guard supported the order. They continued to angrily stare down the Starjammers and the X-men, wanting nothing more than to maim them in the name of the emperor. That would have to wait for another time. Gladiator was the voice of Imperial decree and what he said was law.

“Very well,” said Neutron bitterly.

“This isn’t over, primates!” said Hussar towards the X-men.

“You know we have a saying on Earth for that attitude,” said Wolverine dryly.

“What is it? Don’t go away angry?” asked Beast.

“Nope…more like piss off!”

This earned the X-men another round of harsh scorns. The Imperial Guard was still clearly tempted to finish the job, but they obediently followed Gladiator’s orders. They gathered under the center of the ship where a bright column of light shot down and enveloped them. Within seconds, they were levitated back onto the opening from which they descended. Only Gladiator lingered. Before he left, he had a few choice words with the X-men.

“Mark my words, humans. Our paths will cross again. You have thrust yourself into a conflict greater than your feeble minds can imagine. Were this any other planet, the Shi’ar would have overtaken it long ago. Since your circumstances are so unique, you’ll eventually have to confront your transgressions before the Shi’ar!”

“Sounds like so much fun,” said Shadowcat.

“But what is so unique about our circumstances as you say?” asked Beast intently.

“And how in the bloody hell do you blokes speak our language so well?” asked Psylocke.

“If you have to ask, then you’re not yet ready to know,” retorted Gladiator, “The truth will eventually be revealed and you will all succumb to the will of D’ken…some more than others.”

Gladiator’s gaze fell on Phoenix, who felt a strange resonance with this warning. He already revealed that the Shi’ar knew about the Phoenix Force. There was no telling what else they knew.

“What could he mean by such words?”

“Since neither of us can remember, I’m guessing we’ll have to find out the hard way,” said Phoenix distantly.

Gladiator finally turned away and flew back into the ship. The X-men and the Starjammers kept watching just in case they tried something. Gladiator stayed true to his word and the ship left, activating a damaged cloaking field before lumbering back into the heavens. Within the span of a minute it disappeared into the depths of space..

Once they were gone, the X-men turned to confront the Starjammers. Cyclops, Phoenix, Beast, Wolverine, Shadowcat, Gambit, Psylocke, and Colossus could finally breathe a sigh of relief and maybe get some answers from their mysterious saviors.

“Well I guess some of us have some explaining to do,” said Cyclops, “But first, I’d say introductions and thank-yous are in order.”

“Don’t feel obligated to thank us,” said Corsair dryly, “You just made D’ken’s shit-list. That’s nothing to be grateful for.”

“You’re…human, aren’t you?” surmised Beast from Corsair’s rugged appearance.

“What gave it away? My skilled use of native swearing?”

“Nah, you smell more human than the rest of these clowns. Don’t know if that’s a good thing,” said Wolverine, looking towards Ch’od in particular.

“Hey! Isn’t that a human means of insult?” said Ch’od apprehensively.

“Take it easy, Ch’od. We’ve had enough fighting for one day,” said Hepzibah.

“She’s right. We’re here for the last Neramani,” said Corsair, “You have no idea how important she is in the fight against D’ken.”

“No need to convince us there. I think those Shi’ar thugs made it quite clear that she is of great importance,” said Colossus.

“But why?” asked Shadowcat.

“Yeah, is she royalty or something?” said Gambit in a half-joking tone.

The Starjammers looked at the Cajun seriously, indicating there was nothing in his words to joke about. Gambit shifted awkwardly, not needing a response at this point.

“Oh…I see,” said Beast with more intrigue, “That’s it, isn’t it? Lilandra is royalty of some sort!”

“That makes no sense!” said Shadowcat, “Why would a regular human be royal in some alien empire?”

“Why don’t you ask her? I suspect she already knows,” said Hepzibah.

The X-men turned to Lilandra, but found she was in no condition to say much. She was still cradling Charles in her arms. The spectacle of Gladiator leaving with the Imperial Guard was practically lost on her as yet another crisis emerged. The X-men soon realized it as well.

“Miss Neramani?” began Shadowcat anxiously.

“Oh no…Professor!” cried Cyclops as he and the others rushed to her aid.

“He…he passed out!” Lilandra cried, “He’s barely breathing! He was trying to tell me something, but…”

A new dread came over the X-men. Professor Xavier had never looked so weak before. His face was ghostly white and his body was limp. It appeared the strain of this conflict had finally pushed him beyond his limits, leaving his cancer to do the rest.

“Is he…” began Psylocke.

“No! He’s not dead!” said Phoenix, “Don’t even think that!”

“He looks bad. We need to get him to a hospital!” said Beast.

“That wouldn’t do us any good,” said Lilandra sadly, “I read his mind before he passed out. He knows the extent of his condition.”

“You don’t mean…” said Gambit.

“He knew this would be too much for him,” she said, tears now streaming down her face, “Yet he pushed himself this hard for me. There’s only so much a man can take. Charles understood his limits better than anybody. But he didn’t care. He didn’t let it stop him.”

“You talk as if we’ve already lost him,” said Colossus sadly.

“I don’t think we can keep lying to ourselves any longer. He accepted it. Now we have to as well.”

It was the hardest realization the X-men could possibly face. As they stood over the frail body of their mentor, a great sorrow fell over them. Some were already sobbing. Phoenix clung to Cyclops, burying her face in his shoulders. Shadowcat did the same with Colossus while Gambit and Psylocke shared an embrace. Even Wolverine had a hard time hiding his emotions. This man gave him the same chance he gave everyone in the X-men and they were all better for it. Nobody was ready to see him die.

It was especially hard on Lilandra. This man had forged a special place in her heart. She had come to love him in a way she never thought she could love another human being. Learning she was part alien was overwhelming enough, but it paled in comparison to this. Holding the dying body of Charles Xavier in her arms, she was truly at a loss.

Watching this scene from afar, Corsair and the Starjammers weren’t sure what to make of it. Ch’od and Hepzibah were empathetic to such a scene, having lost plenty of loved ones to D’ken. Corsair remained stoic, having been somewhat hardened to such loss. He saw this more as an obstacle than anything else. They had to get Lilandra out of here and back into space. That wasn’t going to happen until something was done about this.

“I know what you guys are thinking,” said Corsair.

“You aren’t going to tell me it’s a bad idea, are you?” said Hepzibah.

“Hell no. I just hate it when you give me that look,” he said.

Hepzibah and Ch’od smiled. Corsair may have been a bitter and jaded human, but he understood the importance of taking advantage of an opportunity. They needed Lilandra’s trust and this situation presented them with a perfect means by which to earn it.

“Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but notice your friend looks a little ill,” said Corsair.

“Nice observation, bub! You wanna be an even bigger dick and say it with more sarcasm?” snapped Wolverine, forcing Phoenix and Cyclops to hold him back.

“It’s not sarcasm. It’s an offer,” said Corsair ominously, “Follow me aboard the Starjammer. We may be able to help.”

Buffalo, New York – Naval Reserve Base

“Oh no you don’t! Not today! Not on my home turf! You’re going down!” seethed Arcade, who was working on his third hour of non-stop computer hacking.

It was disturbing to watch. Colonel Wraith and Reverend Stryker backed off slightly from this obsessive computer whiz. It seemed he had long since passed that threshold between obsession and madness. This was no longer about completing the mission. This was about besting whoever was on the other end trying to stop him.

“Is this normal behavior for a hacker, Colonel?” said Stryker dryly.

“Clearly, you haven’t spent much time with the hacker crowd. They’re an eccentric bunch to say the least,” said Wraith.

“You call this eccentric? I’ve seen demonic possessions less eccentric than this!”

“Any guy who spends most of his life behind a computer screen is going to be a little bit off. That’s why this guy is supposed to be the best. He’ll get the job done. If it costs him his sanity, how is that our fault?”

Stryker scowled as he watched on anxiously. He invested a lot of resources into this plan. He also placed a lot of trust in the hands of Colonel Wraith. This was supposed to help him continue his crusade for God. He lost the soul of President Kelly. He wasn’t going to let that hinder his obligation to the divine.

The Reverend’s criticisms and that of the Colonel were completely lost on Arcade. He could care less if they thought he was crazy. This was his fight, even if it was on their agenda. Never before had he encountered this kind of resistance in cyberspace. Most of his competition in the past had been weak at best. He never thought there was anyone out there with his kind of aptitude. It challenged the core of his hacker ego and he simply could not let that stand.

“Trying to force me out, huh? Like these firewalls even worth cracking? I bet you think you can jump ahead and encrypt every passage I try to follow! That’s assuming you’re quicker than me! I stay on your tail and you may just lead me right where I want to go!”

It was an unorthodox tactic in hacking. Then again, there was little about this attack that was orthodox. The Xavier Institute had firewalls for its firewalls. It was the kind of security the CIA would kill for and for all he knew, they probably have. Getting through this security was hard enough even after hijacking a computer within the institute. Now he was being pushed out at every turn. It was like a firewall with a mind of its own. But having a mind made it prone to mistakes.

He switched up his tactics. Instead of using blunt force, he used a little finesse. He focused all his energy on following his adversary thought the digital gateways of the network. The point was to make it look like he was trying to get around so that his nemesis wouldn’t uncover his little ploy. It was the kind of deception that would have made Houdini himself proud. With a network as large as the Xavier Institute, it was a test of endurance. His hand were already numbing up and eyes were getting heavy from the intense focus. Through it all, Arcade never missed a step.

It took another fifteen minutes of constant digital chasing. Colonel Wraith and Reverend Stryker began pacing anxiously. They were looking increasingly annoyed with his lack of results. Then finally, his foe made the mistake he was hoping for.

“Got it! I’m in the central database! This idiot just led me right to it!” Arcade announced.

“How long before you can get Graydon Creed’s location?” asked Colonel Wraith.

“It’s not exactly copy and paste, Colonel! I try something and this prick will just shove me out! I need to make my move and make it fast! Otherwise this operation is going to take a lot longer!”

“Heaven forbid you’re stuck with us for that much time,” added Stryker.

Arcade ignored the Reverend’s remark. He narrowly gazed at one of the smaller computer screens he was using to track his progress through the database. The encrypted trail his nemesis left began to accelerate. He had to time this just right, watching the stream of code until it got to a certain point in the database. That’s when he made his move.

“Here goes!” he said intently.

Switching his view to another larger screen, he diverged from the encrypted trail and poured through the database. Images came up on the screen denoting a great deal of information regarding the X-men. Images of current X-men and past X-men flashed briefly. Other images of prominent anti-mutant figures including Stryker and Wraith came up as well. There were even some figures they had never seen before, including this strange sinister-looking guy and some woman in black lingerie. It all looked extremely sensitive and worth retrieving, but time was still a factor.

After a few tense seconds the image of Graydon Creed showed up on the screen. It was just what they had been looking for. As soon as the information came streaming in, Arcades mysterious adversary caught up to them.

“I’ve got the data! I’m transferring it now!” said Arcade, “But we’re going to cut this close!”

“How close?” asked Wraith strongly.

“Close enough that talking is going to hurt our chances!”

The Colonel brimmed with frustration, but kept his silence as he and Stryker watched on. A small data bar showed up briefly on Arcade’s screen, indicating the information was coming in. They all held their breath as the bar reached the end. That’s when every screen flashed briefly and reverted to the ominous image of a locked screen.

“Damn it! That son-of-a-bitch code blocked me!” yelled Arcade, slamming his fist on the keyboard, “Nobody has ever code blocked me before!”

“What about the data? Did you get it?” asked Stryker intently.

“Of course...as if you care about my wounded pride,” said Arcade bitterly.

He started typing again, entering a series of commands to break the lock on the system and access their database. Sure enough, the information on Graydon Creed was there.

“We got it,” he said flatly, “I’m printing it out right now.”

“Excellent!” said Wraith, “Now we can proceed with the next step.”

“There may be a slight complication,” said Arcade.

“I hope that’s a poor excuse for a hacker joke,” said Reverend Stryker.

“Does it look like I’m laughing?” said Arcade with a serious look in his eyes, “It wasn’t enough for that asshole to code block me. He also had to damage my data probe so that when I downloaded the information, it exposed our network in all its glory. It’s the digital equivalent to your mother walking in on you while you’re jerking off!”

“Please dispense with the crude metaphors and just tell us the bottom line,” said the Reverend impatiently.

“This means the secrecy of your little operation may be exposed. Someone may find out where this attack came from and trace it! From there, it’s basically a game of connect the dots until they figure out what you’re up to!”

Colonel Wraith tensed. This was not good. He couldn’t afford to have this operation exposed. With General Grimshaw already looking for reasons to charge him for treason, they were already on fragile footing. He could not allow this project to suffer the same fate as Weapon X.

“That leaves us with only one recourse…evacuate,” said Colonel Wraith.

“I was afraid you would say that,” muttered Reverend Stryker.

“Call your men and tell them to start laying low!” said Wraith as he rushed towards the back of the room, “We’re going to have to shift our operations to a new location away from Grimshaw’s jurisdiction!”

“What about me?” asked Arcade.

“Take the data regarding Creed and follow Reverend Stryker! It seems we’re still going to need your services!”

“You can’t be serious!” groaned Stryker.

“You want to be a part of this? Get over your aversion to hacker culture and bring him with us! My men will make sure this place is wiped clean!”

Wraith was gone before Stryker could voice his discontent. He turned towards Arcade, who didn’t look thrilled either. It seemed their fates would be tied for a bit longer. Whatever Colonel Wraith was planning, it had better be worth the frustration.

Utah Desert – Starjammer

‘Charles…please come back to us. Don’t leave us yet. We’re not ready to let you go.’

Warm thoughts from this tender tone washed over Charles Xavier as he opened his eyes to see a series of blurry lights above him. He was so tired and drained. He could barely move. At the same time, he felt good. The usual discomfort that came along with having cancer had subsided. It led him to wonder.

“Is it over? Am I dead?” he said weakly.

“Far from it, Charles,” said a familiar voice.

Xavier took deep breaths as his strength returned to him. His vision cleared and he was able to make out his surroundings. He was on a hospital bed of sorts. The air felt sterile and clean. There were also these strange IVs going into his arm and chest. It didn’t feel like regular IVs, hinting that this might not be a regular hospital. In addition, he could make out some distinct figures hovering over them. One in particular drew his attention.

“Lilandra…” he said, smiling at her warm presence.

“Good morning, Charles. Did you sleep well?” said Lilandra while gently caressing his face.

“I feel…amazing. What…what’s going on?”

“That’s a long story, Charles. It involves aliens, half-aliens, and humans who hang out with aliens. It’s not as crazy as it sounds,” said another voice behind Lilandra.

Mustering more strength, Xavier rose up to see Hank, Scott, and Jean standing close by. They looked to be in good spirits as well. They were smiling almost as much as Lilandra. Clearly, they knew something he did not.

In addition to the presence of his X-men, he was able to better process his surroundings. It may have felt like a hospital, but it certainly didn’t look like one…at least not one from Earth. The walls, the equipment, and the lighting looked very advanced. It was more advanced than anything he had seen before and he had seen the best. It actually looked alien, which helped him surmise where he was.

“Is this what I think it is?” he said.

“If you think you’re on an alien ship loaded with technology advanced enough to make the average guy’s head explode, you’d be in the ball park and maybe a little unbalanced,” said Corsair, who was standing on the other side of Xavier’s bed with the cybernetic Raza.

“You…Corsair, is it?” said Xavier, “You’re the one who saved us from the Imperial Guard.”

“I like to think I did my part,” he replied, “And since the Starjammers were in such a giving mood, we did you one better and saved you from something else.”

“Indeed we did,” said Raza, who had his cybernetics linked into some of the equipment, “You seemed quite ill when the fight was over. So Corsair kindly offered my medical services. Since I, Raza, have the medical knowledge to replace the limbs D’ken blew off with machines, it wasn’t too difficult to evaluate your condition and apply the proper remedy.”

“You mean…”

“Yes Charles,” affirmed Hank with a beaming smile, “Your cancer has been cured.”

It took a moment for that statement to sink in. His cancer was cured. It wasn’t in remission or slowing down. It was cured. Even for the world’s most powerful telepath, such a notion was difficult to wrap his mind around. So many emotions overwhelmed him. He felt relief, confusion, happiness, and uncertainty all at once. His racing thoughts were soothed by the warm presence of Lilandra, who continued to lovingly caress his face.

“This is…miraculous,” he said.

“Not in the slightest,” said Corsair, “Just you’re typical Shi’ar medical technology.”

“Corsair is correct,” said Raza, “Your condition was quite dire. I would deem any being brazen enough to take on the Imperial Guard with such ailments a fool. Whether that applies to you or not is irrelevant. The Shi’ar have known the intricacies for human biology for many cycles. It’s also how we know your language. Curing an ailment such as this cancer thing you were suffering from was no major feat. I’ve seen Corsair here recover from far worse.”

“You always have to find a way to bust my balls, don’t you?” said Corsair.

“It’s a perspective worth reinforcing, wouldn’t you agree?” said the cybernetic alien, “The only problem was we were unable to reverse the damage to your legs. For that we would need medical equipment that is a bit harder to come by.”

“That’s perfectly fine. I’ll gladly settle for being cancer free,” said Xavier with a beaming smile, “I don’t think I can ever express how grateful I am.”

“Do not bother. It seems the least we could do for having kept the Neramani bloodline safe.”

Professor Xavier smiled graciously at Raza and Corsair. They had given him a most precious gift. He had his life back. He could continue living and dreaming. It left his spirit as well as his resolve stronger than ever.

While Xavier was relishing his newfound health and strength, Lilandra’s demeanor shifted. Raza’s mention of the bloodline reminded her of something they needed to discuss. It was something that was certain to be every bit as dramatic as his newfound health.

“While we’re on the subject, there’s something else we need to discuss, Charles,” said Lilandra.

“Of course, Lilandra. We now have plenty of time to talk. But first, I want to see the rest of my students,” said Xavier as he started removing the IVs and probes.

“I know you do, but I’m afraid this cannot wait.”

The Professor’s demeanor grew more serious as Jean and Beast helped him back into his wheelchair. Lilandra almost looked sad. Even though she was happy to see him alive and healthy, there was something else bothering her.

“While you were being treated, Corsair and the Starjammers explained their mission,” she said through a strained voice, “They didn’t just come here to save me from the Imperial Guard. They came here to retrieve the bloodline and return it to its proper place.”

“By proper place you don’t mean anywhere on Earth, do you?” said Xavier, who began to piece the puzzle together.

“If only it were that easy,” she sighed as he looked down at her mother’s necklace, “My father told me the whole story in this little heirloom he left me. It’s actually a high tech storage device that vindicates me as a descendant of the royal family. It’s like a high tech birth certificate, granting me claim to the throne my step-brother D’ken is occupying.”

“That’s D’ken as in the genocidal tyrant who has been inflicting mass death on the galaxy for dozens of cycles,” said Corsair.

“You saw the visions from that ship on Genosha. You have a small idea of just how bad it is,” said Lilandra, “The Starjammers have ties to the resistance that has been trying to overthrow D’ken, but their forces are weak and disorganized at best. They need a leader and a visionary to rally behind. My father couldn’t fill that role. That’s why I have to pick up where he left off. That means I have to leave Earth and go with the Starjammers to help end this carnage.”

Professor Xavier’s heart sank. Moments ago he received the best news of his life. Now he was receiving some of the worst. Lilandra Neramani, a woman he fell so deeply in love with, was leaving. And she wasn’t just leaving for some remote part of the world. She was leaving the world completely, venturing far away where they couldn’t visit one another. It was right up there with cancer in terms of pain.

“I’m so sorry, Charles,” she said sadly.

“No Lilandra. Don’t be sorry,” said Xavier in a deep tone, “I understand. You have a chance to stop D’ken’s carnage. It would be selfish of me to keep you from that.”

“You’re too forgiving,” she said with a slight smile, “You make it sound as though it’ll be easy for us to part ways.”

“I never implied that it would,” he said, reaching out and grasping her hand, “I meant what I said earlier. I love you. If that love requires that I let you go so you can do what you know to be right, then so be it.”

Lilandra smiled despite a fresh round of sobs. Xavier smiled back and squeezed her hand harder, adding some tender telepathic thoughts to express the feelings that could not be put into words. They had come together through a common vision. Now their lives were taking them down different paths and their love would have to endure the vast distances of space.

As touching as this moment was, Corsair cleared his threat to get their attention. He hadn’t been a romantic in years and needed to keep the interests of their mission a priority.

“I don’t mean to be a killjoy, but whatever you two have to work out you need to do it fast. We have to get the Starjammer back into space if we’re to stay a step ahead of D’ken,” said Corsair.

“I’m aware of our time restrictions, Corsair. Just give me a few more moments to say goodbye to Charles and the X-men,” said Lilandra, still choked up.

“Of course,” said Raza with more understanding, “I’ll catch up with Ch’od and Hepzibah. We’ll fire up the engines and be ready to leave shortly. Corsair will escort you outside to say your goodbyes.”

“Thank you. I think that’s the fifth time I owe you,” smiled Lilandra.

“Enough with the gratitude,” said Corsair dryly, “Let’s get a move on.”

Raza nodded and was soon on his way. With the Professor back in his wheelchair, he and Lilandra followed Corsair out of the medical bay. Scott, Jean, and Hank followed as well despite Corsair’s dark demeanor.

“He’s a bit off, wouldn’t you say?” commented Hank.

“I wouldn’t say he’s off. More like a real hard-ass. Kind of reminds me of someone,” said Jean, shooting Scott a wry grin.

“Not funny, Jean,” said Scott as he grinned back, “He’s human, that’s for sure. I can’t help but wonder why he’s off as Hank put it.”

“Me too,” said Jean, “His mind has been shielded since he first showed up. I can’t get anything from him and I don’t think I want to.”

“Some mysteries are best left unsolved,” said Hank, “We have enough to explore with this new alien technical encyclopedia that Raza so graciously gave us. He says it contains a catalog Shi’ar technological development!”

“I’m guessing that’ll make for some interesting new toys for you to play with,” added Jean.

“Amongst other things, I hope.”

Hank smiled as he held up a small metallic case full of alien data disks and computer tech. He now had a wealth of information from an advanced alien technology at his disposal. It was a dream come true for a man such as him. Not only would this give the X-men the technology edge they needed to continue their dream, it may also provide insight into how the Shi’ar have interacted with Earth. If it was as extensive as the Imperial Guard implied, then there was certainly a chance that their paths could cross again in the future.

After only a brief walk, they arrived at the hatch. It was almost sunrise over the Utah desert and the brisk morning air was already settling, making for a fitting scene when Xavier arrived. As soon as Corsair opened the hatch, the rest of the X-men were waiting outside. Ororo and Bobby had emerged from their injured state to join Logan, Kitty, Remy, Betsy, and Piotr in welcoming their mentor’s return.

“Professor! You’re okay!” said Kitty with gleeful enthusiasm.

“And you look healthy too,” grinned Piotr, “I take it your aliment is behind you, yes?”

“Indeed it is. It is certainly good to be up and running again…in a manner of speaking,” smiled Xavier as his X-men gathered around him.

“You even got your sense of humor back. At least that’s one of us,” said Logan, who was more distant than the others.

“Even your attitude is a welcome sight, Logan.”

Despite Logan’s attitude, the X-men celebrated their mentor’s renewed health. He shared a number of hugs with the team, even from Ororo and Bobby who were still a bit woozy from the battle.

“You scared us, Charles,” said Ororo distantly.

“Yeah, we thought we were going to lose the X in X-men,” said Bobby.

“I know I worried you all. I also know I kept secrets from you regarding my condition,” said Xavier in a more serious tone, “I know it was wrong and won’t attempt to justify it. I should have trusted you as you have come to trust me.”

“You act as though we hold grudges,” said Betsy in a humored tone, “You think for everything we put up with we would hold this against you?”

“Oui, you taught us better than that,” said Remy, “Far as I’m concerned, we can chalk this up to good ol’ fashioned mistakes.”

“Da, you are only human,” said Piotr.

For the emotional toil he put them through, he deserved far worse than this. It didn’t seem fair that he had such forgiving students. Those were just the sort of values he instilled in his X-men. It was reassuring and strengthening to see how well they took those values to heart.

“We’ve got a long road ahead of us, Professor,” said Hank, “I hope your perspective will be different now that you won’t have a terminal illness looming over you.”

“It most certainly will, old friend,” assured Xavier, “I let my cancer get in the way of my primary goal one too many times. There is still much to be done and I plan on sticking around to be a part of it.”

“That’s music to our ears, Professor. But first things must always come first, right?” reminded Scott.

Xavier sighed, knowing all too well what the X-leader was referring to. He and his X-men shifted their attention to the Starjammer where Corsair and Lilandra stood by the hatch ready to depart. They heard the engines of the ship fire up, indicating that it was ready for takeoff.

This was a moment that was coming all too soon for Professor Xavier and Lilandra. Their relationship had just taken a vital step. They were willing to look each other in the eye and say how much they loved each other. Now Lilandra was leaving and they wouldn’t get a chance to explore that love. It was a bittersweet moment as the two of them met for one last goodbye.

“Lilandra…” he began.

“Please Charles, you know how bad I am with goodbyes,” she said with a weak smile.

“I wasn’t going to say goodbye. I was going to ask one last favor of you if it isn’t too much,” he told her.

“For you, my love? Of course not,” she said warmly.

Xavier smiled back and grasped her hand once more.

“Promise me we’ll see each other again,” he said, “Grant me the hope that one day we can be together regardless of the vast distances that separate us.”

“For the challenge I’m about to undergo, that may be asking a lot,” she said, giving his hand a squeeze, “But for everything you’ve given me, how can I say no?”

“So do I have you word?”

“That…and so much more, Charles Xavier.”

Lilandra sealed her promise by pulling Charles into a passionate kiss. It may be the last such gesture they would share for a while. From here on out, they would only have this fateful promise to go on. For the love they shared, they had everything they needed to keep such a promise.

They kept smiling while holding back their tearful emotions as they parted and Lilandra returned to the ship with Corsair. As the hatch started closing, they waved goodbye.

“Take care, X-men,” said Corsair, “You got balls and you can fight. You’ll need that for this crazy universe. I wouldn’t be surprised if our paths crossed again.”

“For another fight with a prick like you, I’m already looking forward to it,” said Logan.

Corsair’s stoic glance remained hard even as he disappeared with Lilandra into the ship. Her fate was now in the hands of the Starjammers. Even though Corsair seemed to have his share of problems, the X-men were confident that she was in good hands.

Professor Xavier and his X-men stepped back. They watched as the Starjammer rose into the air and shoot towards the stars as blinding speeds. Taking on an alien menace and learning that someone they knew and trusted was not of this world really humbled them. It put the struggles they thought were so overwhelming into a new perspective. While the world they were part of was still filled with so much conflict, in the grand scheme of things they were still just specks in a big majestic picture. The future held so much new promise now and the X-men were ready to confront it with renewed passion.

Then this profound moment was interrupted by the sound of Hank’s phone. Most were content to ignore it since they were still trying to wrap their head around everything that just happen. Unfortunately, Hank found out that this wasn’t a call they could ignore.

“Put that thing away, Beast. We don’t need any more crisis today,” said Jean.

“Oh dear, I don’t think that would be wise,” he said grimly.

“If this leads to another mission, I’m throwing myself off this mountain right now,” groaned Kitty.

“Why? What is it, Hank?” asked Xavier intently.

Hank sighed as he read over the message. It appeared the X-men already had another challenge before them.

“I just received a text message from Tessa. Apparently, the Xavier Institute has been hacked.”

Next Issue: Madness and Madmen

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