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Volume 4 -- Issue 94 -- Madness and Madmen

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Madness and Madmen
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Professor Charles Xavier and the X-men have always faced great challenges. In addition to pursuing a goal of peace and understanding between humans and mutants, they often use their extraordinary powers to save the world from destruction. Their efforts sometimes lead to battles beyond the bounds of planet Earth.

After the shocking discovery that Lilandra Neramani was part alien, a team of ruthless aliens known as the Imperial Guard arrived to capture her. As part of the royal Shi’ar bloodline, Lilandra is the only one who can oppose the tyrannical D’ken. Charles Xavier was driven to save his love from the clutches of the Imperial Guard. He and the X-men were able to rescue her with the help of the alien rebels, the Starjammers. However, he and Lilandra were forced to part ways as her obligations took her into deep space.

Despite this departure, there are still plenty of challenges left on Earth. While the X-men were fighting the Shi’ar, their network was hacked by the eccentric and talented hacker, Arcade. They stole the location of the imprisoned Graydon Creed and now the X-men find themselves in yet another compromising position. Even though Charles Xavier’s cancer is now cured, he finds himself vulnerable in his never-ending crusade.

Xavier Institute – Cerebrum Chamber

Charles Xavier had always been a champion of technology. He believed technology was the driving force for progress in all human endeavors including the struggle between humans and mutants. Thanks to his family connections, he had the luxury of using some of the most advanced technology in the world. He liked to think he used it wisely because it never became a liability. Then the Xavier Institute was hacked.

“This is a nightmare!” the Professor lamented as he analyzed the main console of Cerebrum, “The best network security money can buy and now it is in ruin.”

“You’re too hard on yourself, Charles. This was a failure of machine. Not man,” said Hank, who was underneath one of the consoles conducting repairs. 

“It was more than just a failure, Hank. Whoever hacked our system made sure the destruction was complete. I’ve had to move all our data to a new server while we rebuild our security. There’s no telling what kind of information was released in the interim.”

“Whatever it was, Tessa is on the case. She assured me that the new server will hold up until we pick up the digital pieces. She also gave me her word that she would find who is responsible for this attack.”

“Whoever they were, I fear they’re already long gone. They clearly got what they wanted. We don’t even know what information they stole and I shudder to contemplate what they will do with it,” said Xavier as he unplugged some of the hardware.

It was a twisted sort of karma. Charles was no longer dying and had the strength to refocus his efforts with the X-men. Conversely, the resources they relied on were now sicker than he had been. Their network was down, Cerebrum was compromised, and they were still short an X-jet. It was not a good time to be under-equipped. The situation on Genosha was still volatile and anti-mutant protests were giving General Grimshaw all he could handle.

While the Professor saw many reasons to worry, Hank tried to be more optimistic. He had been hard on the various computer arrays within Cerebrum for hours now and saw new opportunity within the destruction. The world had come close an interstellar incident with the Shi’ar and they made it through with a few gifts to spare. The Starjammers were nice enough to provide them with the advanced knowledge of the Shi’ar technology. This promised to give the X-men an even greater edge on the technology front when dealing with the likes of Genosha, the Mutant Security Agency, and the Friends of Humanity.

“While the destruction of our system is disheartening, at the very least it gives us an excuse to implement significant upgrades,” said Hank as he acrobatically slipped out from behind a server, “We now have the rare luxury alien technology. I’ve been reading over some of the data given to us by the Starjammers. They appear to have long since perfected the still theoretical notions of quantum computing, photon-enabled cryptography, and phase shifting data transfer.”

“I know you must be eager to utilize all sorts of Shi’ar equipment, old friend. I only worry that we may be getting ahead of ourselves capabilities-wise,” said Professor Xavier, smiling somewhat at his friend’s enthusiasm.

“On the contrary, Charles. We may be able to integrate it sooner than you think. I’ve learned from some memos left by Lilandra that her company has been utilizing this technology for years. How else would they be able to craft devices that are so far ahead of anything else?”

“That notion hasn’t been lost on me, I assure you. It makes sense considering her father was a full blooded Shi’ar. That solves one mystery regarding Lilandra’s many resources.”

“I’ll spare you the Wolverine-style innuendo concerning resources, but it offers us what Gambit would call an ace in the hole,” Hank explained, “We have knowledge on the workings of this technology that even the scientists of Chandilar Enterprise don’t possess. They have the pieces of the puzzle and we have the tools to put it together. I’m already drawing up plans for an advanced network for Cerebrum and the Danger Room.”

“I’ve already seen those plans, Hank,” affirmed Xavier, “Although I think you’ve been putting a bit more passion into your side-projects concerning transverse biotech recombination and zero-point energy powered avionics.”

“Can you blame a curious mind for wanting to experiment? This is a dream come true for any man of science!”

“While I share your excitement, I ask that you take things one step at a time. The team is still recovering from the Shi’ar and the Cambrian. There’s also the matter of Aerie Global continuing their efforts without Lilandra. I heard this morning she already lined someone up before she left.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised, nor can I say I’m worried,” shrugged Hank as he gathered his tools, “I for one am eager to move forward. I know you are too, Charles. But between your health and Lilandra, I would encourage you to seek a little optimism. I think it would be good for the X-men and for you personally.”

Charles smiled at his friend’s concern. His optimism was admirable and he made many valid points. The X-men had endured some painful lows lately. They were long overdue for some triumphs. That didn’t mean it would come easy for him.

Xavier’s thoughts drifted back to the events of the past few days. It was easier for Hank and the rest of the team to be upbeat because they didn’t have to deal with Lilandra’s departure. Even when they were growing distant, at least she was still on the same planet. Now she was away in the cosmos, helping a desperate people overthrow a blood-thirsty tyrant. While his students provided plenty of company, it was still lonely without her. It was going to be difficult adjusting to this fight without Lilandra’s loving support. They both had their battles. His was still here with the X-men.

White House – Oval Office

“I hope this isn’t all we have to discuss, General,” said an impatient President Kelly, “We’ve got an unstable public, faltering support, and skeptical political base just aching for a reason to throw bombs at our problems. Yet here you are telling me that progress on Genosha has been next to nothing?”

“Consider the forces working against us, Mr. President. Limited progress is still more appealing than no progress at all,” said a General Grimshaw.

“That may be true from your perspective, but the people in my position don’t have the luxury of being patient. If there isn’t a major change soon, expect something drastic.”

General Grimshaw suppressed his dismay with the president’s words. He understood that politicians of every kind loved unrealistic expectations. Most officers in his position wouldn’t have a problem with lying to his face. Unfortunately, he wasn’t most officers. He had a big problem when it came bullshitting the country he had vowed to serve.

These private meetings with President Kelly had been ongoing since NORAD detected that anomaly from Genosha. So many people were telling him conflicting messages about how this was some new plot by Magneto. None of the reports from the ground supported this, but that did little to stem the paranoia.

It also didn’t help that the situation on Genosha was still tense. Since all the mutants had recovered from the Cambrian, they were actively opposing the occupation. The ones that never went along with Magneto were especially vocal and he couldn’t blame them. Most of the mutants on Genosha just wanted to get away from the societies that oppressed them. Now that the only society they had left was under an international occupation, they were upset enough to fight back.

It certainly didn’t help that anti-mutant protests were still going strong. Reports of newly organized anti-mutant groups were sprouting up everywhere. There were even rumors that the Friends of Humanity was back in the fold. This was creating undue strain on the Mutant Security Agency. Grimshaw was still determined to maintain their stated mission of holding mutants accountable under the law equally. A growing number of people weren’t okay with that. They wanted unequal treatment for those of unequal ability.

“Mr. President, I know I’m not giving you the kind of news you want to hear,” said Grimshaw.

“Don’t start apologizing for that, General. You’re low tolerance for bullshit is the main reason I have these meetings without my defense staff,” said President Kelly as he roughly rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“With bullshit in mind, I ask that you not cave in to these pressures. I’ve heard the reports from the UN. Nearly every country in the world wants to start rounding up mutants and processing them for potential threats. Ignoring for a second the gross violation in civil liberties, this will push mutant communities even further towards Magneto’s camp.”

“I thought he didn’t have a camp anymore. That Cambrian thing supposedly messed him up in one too many ways.”

“His sanity may be on sabbatical, but his message is as strong as ever. This may come as a shock to some people, but nobody likes being blamed for the mistakes some idiot across the world made.”

“We’re still talking about a hell of a mistake,” argued President Kelly, “You think I haven’t tried pointing this out? Not everybody thinks as rationally about Magneto’s actions as they should.”

“Magneto screwed up. Nobody is denying that. But if we’re not careful, the unintended consequences will do us all in,” said the General sternly, “I’ve heard some rumblings from Congress that the Mutant Security Agency may be re-organized.”

“Congress rambles about a lot of things. Only a handful of them ever get done,” the President pointed out.

“I wish I could take as much comfort in government inefficiency as you, but I don’t like to take chances. We can’t give into irrational fears, domestic or foreign. The MSA hasn’t even been given a chance! I won’t let it turn into some mutant Gestapo on my watch!”

“That hinges on whether or not mutant affairs make such a shift necessary,” retorted President Kelly, “If you want me to throw the very idea away, you’re wasting your time. The public aren’t the only one losing their patience.”

“The public doesn’t have a mutant son to worry about. I hope a man in your position would be pretty careful with those options.”

The mention of his son was enough to make President Kelly shoot up from his chair and stare down the General in anger.

“Don’t you dare bring my son into this!” he shouted.

“Forgive me, sir. But I get the sense you’re losing perspective here,” said the General, remaining calm despite the President’s tone.

“I don’t need reminders! I need results! And if you can’t deliver, it’s my responsibility to do something!”

“Then give me a chance!” he said strongly, “I’ve been talking to my associates on Genosha. I think we’re close to reaching a deal with Wanda Maximoff. If we can formulate a treaty of some sorts, we can stabilize the situation. We work that out and mutants won’t have as many reasons to lash out.”

“Do you honestly believe her voice is going to carry the same weight as Magneto’s? Who, I might add, is still alive and uncharged for his crimes?”

“She’s her father’s daughter to a point. She’s willing to talk and we need to be willing to listen. I’m working on some proposals as we speak. We’re so close to a breakthrough and pulling the plug will only cause more carnage. I just need time to work, Mr. President!”

President Kelly continued to stare down the decorated officer. General Grimshaw was not easily intimidated, not even from his Commander-in-Chief. Most people admired that kind of toughness. For the unfortunate souls who had to work with him, admiration was the last thing they wanted to give him.

Frustrated, the President took a deep breath and settled back in his chair. He was not going to win a shouting match with General Grimshaw nor was he going to do his approval rating any favors by giving into his requests. The General seemed confident he could make this situation better and he had shown an ability to deliver on his promises thus far. He would be taking a big risk in trusting him with another promise.

While President Kelly meditated over this decision, their private meeting was interrupted when Reverend William Stryker walked in.

“Excuse me, Reverend. But this is a private meeting,” said General Grimshaw, who quickly confronted the approaching man.

“Spare me your administrative bullying, General. This won’t take long,” said Reverend Stryker, “I just came to give Robert my resignation.”

President Kelly was taken aback.

“Excuse me? William, you really didn’t just say what I think you said, did you?” he said.

“I’m as serious as the blood of Christ, Mr. President,” said Stryker as he walked around General Grimshaw and approached the President’s desk, “In wake of recent developments, I feel I can no longer do the Lord’s work as your advisor.”

“Seriously William? I know we’ve had our differences lately, but that doesn’t mean…”

“You’re wrong, Mr. President. It means everything you think it doesn’t,” Stryker continued, “I gave my blood, sweat, and tears to help get you elected. I thought we were on the same page. Based on the works of this administration, I cannot in good faith support you anymore.”

The Reverend took out an official White House document and set it on his desk. It was only one page, consisting of hastily contrived bureaucracy to make it legitimate and clean. For someone like William Stryker who rarely overlooked details, it looked pretty rushed. That was cause for concern on more than just a personal level.

“I see,” said President Kelly as he looked over the document, “Are you sure everything is all right? Just because we’ve had some disagreements doesn’t mean I no longer value your input.”

“This is about more than petty disagreements,” said Reverend Stryker, “Back in the days of our Lord, Jesus saw himself as a Jew before he saw himself as the messiah. He was smart enough and strong enough to realize how the people he once supported had strayed from their path.”

“You honestly aren’t comparing yourself to Jesus Christ, are you?” said General Grimshaw dryly.

“Don’t throw blasphemy into the conversation, General. It demeans us all,” scoffed Reverend Stryker, “The point is that Jesus did not compromise. He didn’t wait for the corrupt Jewish authorities to come around. He went forward with his spiritual endeavors and I’m merely following his example.”

President Kelly looked up from the resignation letter and locked eyes with the man who helped him win the election. He saw in William Stryker a man of conflicting merits. He was so driven, believing that he was on a mission from God. He was also arrogant, unyielding, and unrelenting. There was a danger in that kind of blind adherence and there was every indication that Stryker would continue his crusade with or without the support of the government.

“I wish it didn’t have to be this way, William,” said President Kelly.

“Don’t try to convince me to stay, Mr. President. My mind is made up. I’m sure you’ll find someone else who can rally support from the religious voters,” said Reverend Stryker dryly.

“It’s not just about the votes.”

“It’s still a significant portion…too significant. I thought you were better than that, Robert. I thought God had blessed you with the spirit to do what needed to be done. Either I was wrong or you chose to reject that blessing.”

“I didn’t reject anything!” said the President strongly.

“But you did. Now you’re on a path for which there is no absolution. That’s the spiritual equivalent of walking blind into temptation. If this is going to be your path, then I want no part of it.”

Reverend Stryker left President Kelly to ponder those words as he made his final leave. He passed General Grimshaw again, who gave him another harsh scold. Even though he was quitting, he was still suspicious of him. That didn’t bother the Reverend in the slightest. As far as he was concerned, Grimshaw was even more lost than Robert.

“Feel free to call security to escort me out. Go ahead and revoke my clearance as well,” said Stryker upon reaching the door, “I leave you with one last piece of spiritual advice…pray for mercy. You’ll need it now that you are no longer on the sight of the righteous.”

“You’ve made your point, Reverend. Enough with the holier-than-thou talk,” said General Grimshaw.

“General please…” said President Kelly in an exasperated tone.

He was about to say some parting words of his own for the reverend, but he was gone before he could get them out. Most people were reluctant to leave positions of such influence. Then again, William Stryker was a man of faith and not a man of reason.

“This day certainly isn’t getting any better,” said President Kelly, “When a religious man loses faith in you, that’s usually a bad sign.”

“This may be a case of addition by subtraction, Mr. President. Reverend Stryker was a liability with his inflexibility,” argued General Grimshaw.

“Yet were it not for him, I wouldn’t be sitting in the Oval Office right now,” he pointed out, “Say what you will about William Stryker, but the man was driven. He’s truly dedicated to his beliefs.”

“I think we can do without dedication like that.”

“I’m not saying we can’t. The problem is now Reverend Stryker will be working against us rather than for us.”

President Kelly now sat hunched over his desk. He had just turned a powerful ally into a potential adversary. His presidency was taking one too many wrong turns. It seemed on the brink of falling apart completely.

General Grimshaw maintained his confident stance. He never cared much for men like William Stryker. He was always suspicious that Stryker was looking for ways to undermine his authority. He didn’t like how he did things and the General didn’t care much for his theology. He understood that Stryker was a friend and spiritual advisor. But if he presented a potential problem for President Kelly, then that was cause for concern.

“Mr. President, if you’re concerned about some backlash from Reverend Stryker I could get some of our people to keep an eye on him,” General Grimshaw offered.

“No General, that won’t be necessary,” sighed President Kelly, “You have more important things to occupy yourself with. Namely making something happen on Genosha before all our efforts come crashing down.”

Genosha – Capital Building

The landscape of Genosha was changing every day. Much of the mutant population was eager to re-establish the lives they once had, but the occupying troops weren’t making that easy. Clashes were breaking out every day it seemed. Law and order was at a premium despite the best efforts of Wanda and Alex Summers. Hardly a day when by when there weren’t gunshots or piles of rubble collapsing throughout the cities and towns on the island. Some construction had sprung up, especially around the ruins of the citadel. However, most of it remained slow and cumbersome.

All this activity seemed utterly lost on Magneto. He rarely left his quarters in the capital building. Stripped of his political power and condemned even by his own people, he was now a pariah. He lived under constant watch from Wanda and a contingent of UN troops. The only privacy he had was in a hastily constructed bedroom near the top floor of the capital building and because of this he rarely left. Even when his children came to visit, he was withdrawn and distant. He didn’t eat as much and stopped shaving. His face was now rugged and his hair was unkempt. It seemed like a fitting reflection of his current state of mind.

“I had everything,” he said to himself aloud, “Insight…power…completion…and now it’s all gone. Every last bit of it.”

His words echoed within his head as he sat hunched over a small couch and table, writing and scribbling various notes on sheets of paper. This was all he did lately. This was all that mattered. His room was practically covered in stacks of crumpled up paper, each another failure in his own twisted mind. Everyone kept saying he had gone crazy. Perhaps they were right. Who wouldn’t be a little crazy after going from the mindset of a god to that of an ant in the span of a day?

‘This cannot stand. My people are counting on me. They can hate me all they want, but I made them a promise. The humans are conspiring against us all! Every last one of us will be taken away, imprisoned, and tortured. I can’t let that happen! Not as long as there is a breath in my body!’

The old holocaust survivor tore off another piece of paper from a notepad and held it up to a nearby light. It was hard to read because his handwriting was sloppy. Having not slept for three days, it was hard to focus. His mind hadn’t completely left him though. He could still make sense of the world around him and he could still formulate a plan.

“Yes…this will do,” he said silently, “I just need the right materials.”

For the first time in weeks, Erik Lensherr smiled. All these chaotic thoughts started to settle. The humans thought they could humiliate the master of magnetism into submission. He was going to prove them wrong.

While he was looking over his work, the door to his room opened and Pietro Maximoff entered. Like everyone who visited his room, he took a moment to cringe at how disheveled the once proud Magneto now looked. Since Wanda and Lorna were busy with their own affairs, Pietro found himself tending to his father the most.

“Father?” he said as he stepped over some piles of paper.

“Ah, my son. Your timing is always astounding,” greeted Magneto.

“What timing? I just came to see if you were going to eat any lunch today,” he said as he waded through some dirty dishes, “Blob is almost done wolfing down the latest shipment of food stuffs. If you want some you better hurry or you’ll go hungry.”

“The only hunger I have is for knowledge. It is the only craving that matters.”

Pietro rolled his eyes. These strange musings had become all too typical. While they weren’t nearly as bad as they had been shortly after the Cambrian affair, they were still pretty distressing. It didn’t help that his sense of hygiene hadn’t returned.

“Ugh! You really need to clean this place,” said Pietro as he stepped on a half-eaten sandwich.

“Why clean when you’ll only end up throwing away good ideas? It would be such a waste,” said Magneto, not taking his eyes off his paper.

“At least try to organize this junk! I seem to remember you yelling at me plenty of times for being a slob.”

“I only yell because I love. Like any parent, love requires discipline. Sometimes that discipline must be harsh.”

“Spoken like a man who obviously hasn’t slept in days.”

“There’s no time for sleep, my son. There is still so much to do!” said Magneto strongly.

“What you’re doing is worrying the hell out of me, Wanda, Lorna, and damn near everyone else in the world! I don’t know if you’ve really lost it, but you’re obviously a little off. If any part of you wants to stop living like some creepy hermit, you’ll pull yourself together or let us help you!”

Magneto finally turned towards his son. Unlike Wanda and Lorna, he looked more frustrated than worried. It seemed as though he was looking down on him. This was quite a shift since he always lived in his father’s shadow. It was tragic in a sense because the master of magnetism knew it was mere pity from which his frustration stemmed. He could care less for such pity at this point, even from his own children.

At the same time, his plea provided an opportunity. If Pietro was desperate to help him regain the sanity he supposedly lost, then he might be gullible enough to help him keep his promise.

“Very well, if you truly wish to help, then you can do so by completing a small task for me,” said Magneto.

“Time out, Dad,” said Pietro dryly, “You’re not in a position of authority anymore. You can’t order me around like your lapdog!”

“I may no longer be a king, but I am still your father,” said the master of magnetism more seriously, “And for once, it wasn’t an order.”

Sure it wasn’t,” he scoffed.

“Hear me out,” he went on, approaching his son with more focus, “Lorna told me earlier that the UN is still excavating the ruins of the citadel. By chance, did they find some of my personal belongings?”

“Are you kidding? That’s the first thing they looked for. The troops are treating everything from your books to your underwear as hazardous waste.”

“Then perhaps they found a sizable metal box containing some very important belongings. Since I forged it myself with no opening, I doubt they’ve retrieved the contents yet. If you could obtain this for me and bring it to my quarters, I would be very grateful.”

“Right,” said the speedster skeptically, “What exactly is in this box anyways?”

“You don’t need to know that. You only need to know that it is something best kept out of the hands of humans,” he said, “If you get this for me, then I’ll gladly cooperate with you, Wanda, and Lorna. I’ll clean this room, give myself a nice shave, and spend more time reassuring you that I’m not crazy. I’m merely going through a period of transition.”

Pietro studied his father’s demeanor. He seemed too lucid for this to be meaningless rambling. That didn’t mean it wasn’t crazy. For all he knew, this box was a figment of Magneto’s growing mental imbalance. Even if this was the case, it wasn’t healthy for him to keep going like this. He had to at least break him out of this hermit phase. That would go a long ways towards reassuring Lorna, Wanda, and the human armies looking for reasons to attack.

“Fine,” said Pietro, “I’ll get you your box. But you also have to shower as well! You smell like lead paint and taco meat.”

“Very well,” Magneto conceded, “Can I expect you to return with my box by tonight?”

“If by then you’ve made yourself presentable, sure,” he said, rolling his eyes, “In the meantime, try and catch up with Wanda and Lorna. I think Lorna especially needs some father/daughter time now that she’s banging Alex freakin’ Summers.”

Pietro didn’t stick around to hear his father’s reaction. He rushed out to fulfill his end of the deal before Magneto could throw in any additional caveats. He was ready for this transition as he called it to be over. Genosha wasn’t going to be the strong mutant nation without his charismatic leadership.

However, leadership was the last thing on Magneto’s mind. Pietro’s last words about Lorna resonated strongly. His expression grimaced as he looked down at the sheet of paper he still had in his hand. Clearly, he had been missing out on some key events. It added a whole new level of distress to his already fragile mind.

“Lorna? My own daughter? The humans must be plotting against my children now!” he said distantly, “It appears I’ll have to work even faster. I will not be left behind!”

Xavier Institute – Classroom

Between aliens and 500 million year old killer blobs, class was actually somewhat relaxing. It was ironic how the Xavier Institute was still a school, yet class was one of the least stressful activities they took part in. It almost made them feel normal even though what they did was anything but normal.

For some, class was still a new experience. Piotr Rasputin didn’t get much schooling where he came from. The only classrooms he was familiar with were the ones set up by the Russian Mob. Needless to say, they didn’t place too much emphasis on traditional academics. He had a lot of catching up to do as a student at the Xavier Institute. His reading and writing skills were below average and his math skills had plenty of room to improve. That’s why Professor Xavier created a special program just for him and Scott and Remy helped him implement it.

“You see how it works, Peter? Just follow each lesson step-by-step until you get to the quiz,” explained Scott as he and Piotr looked over his assignments on the computer, “You can take practice quizzes if you need to, but the real ones will be graded. After about five quizzes, you’ll take an exam.”

“And you don’t get any practice with those, so make ‘em count,” said Remy, “There also be some lectures in between. They ain’t that hard even if he throws in a billion extra words. He records them too, so you can relive the insanity as often as you want.”

“Impressive!” commented Piotr as he looked over some of the lessons on his computer, “I must say this is somewhat overwhelming. I feel so far behind. It does not look like I’ll be catching up anytime soon.”

“Never say never, homme,” assured Remy, “If this here Cajun can catch up after bein’ home schooled by thieves, you ain’t got no excuse.”

“It’s true. You’re not the only one who was denied a typical education. We all sort of had to catch up when we first joined the institute,” said Scott in a more serious tone, “That’s why the Professor puts a lot of resources into bringing us up to speed. In a ways we’re always catching up because missions keep getting in the way, but since you can go at your own pace you’re only limited by how much time you want to dedicate.”

“Seeing as how I promised Professor Xavier I would do my part, I plan on dedicating as much time as necessary. I owe it to him for what he’s done for me and my family.”

“Then you should be just fine,” said Scott with a friendly smile, “Who knows? Once you get the prerequisites out of the way, you may find a certain field you want to pursue. The institute has all sorts of options you can follow.”

“Or if you be fine with breakin’ all of Remy’s scores in the Danger Room, that be okay too,” said the Cajun.

Piotr smiled at his two fellow X-men. Their advice was encouraging. There was plenty of work ahead of him. He would have to get used to learning on a computer. He would also have to get used to looking for a future outside the Russian Mob. Where he came from, his future was so often set. Here at the institute, he had all sorts of opportunities. It was overwhelming yet exciting about what he could do with his life from here on out.

“We’ll let you take it from here,” said Scott, giving Piotr an encouraging pat on the back, “Remy and I have a project in the War Room that we’re still trying to complete so we’ll be busy for most of the day.”

“Translation, Summers roped Remy into helpin’ him test his engineering project because he got caught takin’ a smoke break while tuning up the Velocity,” said Remy.

“More like taking a smoke break when we were running some vital diagnostics that really screwed up the new hardware that Beast and I were testing,” Scott clarified, “Now if you have any further questions, you can ask Bobby and he’ll be more than happy to help.”

“You sure about that, homme?” chuckled Remy, gesturing behind them towards Bobby.

Scott and Piotr turned around to see that Bobby wasn’t in any state to be that helpful. He had fallen asleep at his desk again, using his textbooks as pillows while his Ipod was blasting rock music at full volume. He looked to be in a pretty deep sleep too if his drooling was any indication.

“On second thought, you might be better off asking Kitty,” said Scott sheepishly.

“Oui, you seem to get along with her anyways,” said Remy wryly.

“Lay off on the teasing, Remy. We’ve got work to do, remember?” said the X-leader as he dragged the Cajun away.

“Do you have a single funny bone in your body, homme?”

“I do. I just keep breaking it every time I have to wrestle people away from making trouble when we have enough as it is.”

“Your understanding is much appreciated, Scott,” said Piotr, grateful for being spared a potentially uncomfortable conversation.

“It’s what I do…even if it doesn’t make me the most exciting guy in the world.”

“No kidding,” said Remy dryly.

Scott shot him a look as he led him out of the classroom. They passed Bobby along the way, who didn’t look like he was waking up anytime soon. They also passed Jean, Kitty, and Betsy. They were sitting near the back of the classroom working on their laptops. They each offered them a smile before heading off to do their own assignments.

While there was plenty of work to go around in terms of class, there were also plenty of distractions as well. Jean, Betsy, and Kitty were as restless as everyone else. At the same time, it was nice to re-focus on less overwhelming concerns.

“What’s with Bobby? Why is he so eager to get an A-plus in snoring today?” asked Betsy.

“I’m not sure, but it may have something to do with him staying up all night talking to Jubilee,” said Jean.

“Talking as in sweet talk or talking as in something that would qualify as serious?”

“A little of both, I think,” sighed Jean, “I’m beginning to wonder if this fling he has going on with her is serious to begin with. This morning at breakfast he wouldn’t stop whining about how she keeps asking him for advice.”

“I take it she wasn’t referring to advice regarding romantic getaways,” made Betsy.

“More like combat tips for dealing with the mess in District X. They’ve been on the defensive since the Cambrian incident,” said Jean with a touch of more concern, “It hasn’t exactly left them with a lot of time for romance.”

“Sounds like that could cause problems in paradise.”

“As if it was paradise to begin with,” commented Jean.

The two girls stared towards Bobby. It was hard not to feel sorry for him at times. He had endured his share of rough relationships lately. First there was Lorna, which would have tested anybody’s heart since it involved Magneto, uprisings, dying mothers, and killer asteroids. Then there was his brief fling with Kitty, which really didn’t have a lot going for it from the get go. Now he was focusing so much energy on Jubilee and it seem to be exhausting him.

“What do you think, Kitty?” asked Jean, “You dated Bobby for a while. Is this relationship with Jubilee going anywhere?”

Kitty didn’t reply. She was just staring blankly at her computer, looking as though she hadn’t even heard the question.

“Kitty? Still with us, luv?” asked Betsy, snapping her fingers next to her head, “Am I going to have to perform an emergency psychic probe?”

“What?” said Kitty, broken from her daze, “Oh uh…don’t bother, Betsy. I don’t think my mind could take it right now.”

“So what about my question? Are you going to give us your input or what?” asked Jean.

“Sure,” she said, “Um…what was the question again?”

Jean and Betsy looked at her strangely. It was not like Kitty to be daydreaming during class. She was one of the most focused students in the institute, having had the benefit of a pretty normal high school career before she joined the X-men. Then they noticed her eyes diverting away from her computer and across the classroom. From there, it didn’t take a telepath to figure out what (and who) had been distracting her.

“Oh…I see,” said Betsy wryly, “Looks like Bobby isn’t the only one smitten with the lures of the opposite sex.”

“What are you talking about?” said Kitty, quickly turning back to her computer screen.

“Kitty, you’re practically screaming at the top of your mind,” said Jean with a friendly tone, “You’re saying to us ‘Oh my God! I am so in the mood for a Siberian stud!’ Need I go further?”

Kitty blushed at Jean’s somewhat crass assessment. Being Logan’s ex-girlfriend didn’t do much for subtlety.

“Knock it off, Jean! You don’t need to shout it when the guy is in the same room!” said Kitty under her breath.

“Relax. He didn’t hear that. If he did, then you would be blushing a lot more than you are right now,” assured Jean.

“If I’m blushing, then that should be a pretty big hint that I’m not ready to talk about it.”

“Why not?” asked Betsy, “We’re all girls here. We’re both in our own relationships. Who would you rather talk to?”

“A little someone I like to call nobody,” she clarified, “No offense guys, but I don’t share the same spirit of romance. Not after the luck I’ve had.”

Kitty wasn’t usually this serious when it came to relationships. Jean still remembered how she wouldn’t shut up about Bobby when they were together. She took Kitty for someone who wasn’t afraid to confront these sorts of feelings. She certainly did with Bobby and maybe that was the problem. Kitty was still younger than the both of them. She hadn’t had the same relationship experiences. Having gone through one rough venture into the world of romance, it was only natural that she would be more cautious.

“Sorry if we sounded insensitive, Kitty,” said Jean honestly, “You’re right. We have no right to tease you.”

“Don’t apologize, Jean. Teasing comes along with the package,” sighed Kitty, “To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I should go on this ride again…you know, the one where I start beating around the bush with some cute guy.”

“You could do worse, luv,” said Betsy light-heartedly, “Peter Rasputin is quite a looker. That I think we can all agree on. He’s got the tall, dark, and handsome bit going for him in all the right ways.”

“And if I recall, wasn’t that tops on your list of ideal guys?” asked Jean.

“Ideal guys are just that, Jean…ideal,” said Kitty distantly, “I admit there’s a whole lot of things about Piotr I’m attracted to. Those bulging muscles and that rugged crew cut just ooze with the kind of manliness girls like us can only dream of.”

“Now you’re starting to sound like Bobby when he describes the girls in his Playboy collection,” quipped Betsy.

“Maybe that’s how you girls would describe him too, but you’re too snooty to be that honest,” retorted Kitty.

Now it was Jean and Betsy’s feel awkward. Kitty’s blunt nature was always made for uncomfortable conversations. She often pointed out things most people had the good sense to keep to themselves. Even if they were crass, that didn’t mean she was wrong.

“Call me a naïve teenage girl, cast me in a sitcom, and pair me with Johnny Depp. It is what it is,” Kitty went on, “That’s exactly what has been bothering me lately.”

“What? You’re worried it will get as messy as it did with, Bobby?” said Jean, “Because Peter doesn’t strike me as someone who would let it get that bad.”

“It’s not him I’m worried about. It’s us that has me concerned,” she said, “I mean look at us. I’m a middle-class girl from Chicago who probably has the puniest stature in the history of the X-men.”

“You’re not puny, Kit. You’re not giving your feminine grace enough credit,” said Betsy, “Hell, you’re probably still growing.”

“Even if I am, I doubt I’ll catch up to Peter,” Kitty sighed, “He’s a big strong guy who towers over everybody he meets. It seems like it would be hard to see eye-to-eye with him in more ways than one.”

“Then what about this chemistry you two have going on? I’ve seen how well you get along with him,” Jean pointed out, “Take it from someone who has been in your position, Kitty…there’s no use fighting that kind of chemistry.”

“I’m not fighting it. I’m making an effort to keep it from blowing up in my face.”

“Sounds like a code word for stalling,” scoffed Betsy, “Seriously Kitty, Peter’s a wonderful male specimen. If you don’t act, then there are plenty of women out there who won’t be as shy.”

“I suppose you would know,” quipped Kitty, “Since you were so shy about tearing Rogue and Remy apart.”

“Hey! They were never even together! That’s a low blow and you know it!” yelled Betsy in a fit of outrage.

Kitty Pryde’s knack for saying the wrong thing had struck again. Before an all-out fight could break out, Jean got between the two women and held them apart.

“Whoa there, Betsy! Let’s not turn class into combat training!” urged Jean.

“Tell that to her!” said Betsy bitterly, “You really love throwing bullocks where you have no right doing so, Kitty!”

“I’m not afraid to let it slip. Sue me,” she sighed, “Sorry if my brutal honesty rubs you the wrong way.”

“A little tactfulness still wouldn’t hurt,” Jean pointed out.

“Wouldn’t be the first time I got that advice,” she said, “Which is kind of why I’m not sure about Peter. Relationships seem like more trouble than their worth lately. Seeing Bobby fall into old traps with Jubilee and watching things sour between Logan and Miss Munroe makes me wonder if the stars are properly aligned so to speak.”

“Timing or not, that doesn’t mean you should ignore it, Kitty,” reasoned Jean.

“I’m not ignoring it. I’m just waiting to see how things pan out. Peter’s still new here and there’s a lot to learn with him.”

“Well learn fast because it sounds like you need a man in your life,” said Betsy dryly as she pulled back from jean, “He might even get you to think twice before opening that big mouth of yours.”

“Sorry Bets, but even Peter’s strength has its limits,” said Kitty before finally turning back to her assignments.

It was a brutally honest answer from someone who had a knack for brutal honesty. Kitty looked back towards Piotr Rasputin one more time. By now he was engrossed in his assignment. He was tough yet mysterious. He was honest yet reserved. There was no denying the chemistry between them that Jean pointed out, but a lot of that was playful flirting. How serious could it be? Could this be something more mature? Kitty Pryde was intrigued with such a prospect and intent on finding out.

Betsy still rolled her eyes at Kitty’s intent, still showing some hostility from her earlier comments. Jean held her back, giving her a moment to cool off. The topic of her and Remy was still a bit sensitive since Rogue left. It wasn’t something she tried to ignore, but it wasn’t something she liked others bringing up either.

“Well I think I could use a break,” said Betsy as she gathered her things and got up.

“Are you trying to guilt trip me now? I said I was sorry!” said Kitty.

“Forget about it, luv. You’re lucky I’m too restless to hold a grudge,” she said as she stretched her limbs, “I could probably stand to unwind a bit. I’ll probably have to if I’m to survive Wolverine’s training session later today.”

“You might not have to worry about that, Betsy. I don’t think Logan will be up to it today,” said Jean distantly.

“Why do you say that?”

“Let’s just say he hasn’t been in the usual fighting spirit lately. I think it’s because he’s still working things out with Miss Munroe.”

“How bad is it? Should I plan on being in another zip code when all is said and done?”

“I’m Logan’s ex-girlfriend. Not his parole officer,” said Jean distantly, “Your guess is as good as mine. I’m still hoping for the best with those two.”

“In that case I’ll plan for the worst. Call me cynical, but all this relationship talk has me rather skeptical. In my experience, when love goes from a strength to a weakness then that’s usually a bad sign.”

Xavier Institute – Infirmary

Ororo groaned as she put her shirt back on after having re-applied some burn ointment to the charred parts of her skin. Being electrocuted from an alien super-being left quite a mark. She had been in and out of the infirmary since they returned from the battle with the Imperial Guard. For the most part, she healed up as well as expected. That wasn’t saying much considered how painful it was. Despite being in tune with the weather, she was not invulnerable to nature’s wrath.

‘How much longer must these burns heal? I don’t remember lightning burns being this painful and I was struck at least ten times when my powers first manifested. Who ever said lightning never strikes twice clearly hasn’t dealt with weather powers.’

Ororo cringed as she carefully rubbed her side. She didn’t usually whine like this about injuries. She was an X-man. She was used to toughing it out. She should be upstairs in the classroom teaching lessons to her students. It shouldn’t be this difficult for her to recover. If only the problems were purely physical.

‘I need to stop lying to myself. I’ve avoided every minute thought of Logan since I woke up. He’s been visiting me like clockwork and we haven’t said more than a few words to each other. Maybe this extra sting is self-imposed. We’ve let our relationship deteriorate too much. It isn’t fair to either of us to keep putting it off.”

The discomfort from the burns subsided as she made her way out of the infirmary. Just as she was about to open the door, it opened for her and she saw Logan standing right in front of her.

“Heya Ro,” he greeted in a flat tone, “Glad I could catch you before you ran off on your afternoon flight.”

“I wasn’t planning on flying off this time. I was planning on talking to you,” she said with a slight smile, “We’ve been putting off a certain conversation for a while now.”

“Yeah…we have.”

Logan’s demeanor tensed as he slipped into the infirmary. He was never one for hospital settings. Ororo moved in closer to offer him comfort. He unexpectedly pushed away. He looked grim than usual. It wasn’t the mood he was usually in when he confronted something unpleasant. This was something different and it had Ororo deeply worried.

“We have to stop doing this to ourselves, Logan. It’s gone on long enough!” said Ororo as she reached out to caress his burly face.

“Yeah…it has,” he said, his dark tone not changing.

“We’ve let too many things come between us. First there was Yuriko. Then there was Mystique. Now there’s this…whatever this is.”

“You mean you don’t know what this is, darlin’?”

“How can I know? You won’t even talk to me!” said Ororo desperately, “Please Logan…I love you. I want to keep loving you. I can’t do that unless you’re honest with me.”

Logan groaned to himself. She sounded so damn loving and sincere. That would only make this harder than he thought.

“Ro, this shit would be a hell of a lot easier if it were just Yuriko and Mystique. Maybe easy ain’t the right word because I still ain’t wrapped my head around those two, but it’s still connected. Everything is connected.”

“Connected to what?” she asked desperately, “Why won’t you stop avoiding me?”

“I’m trying to, damn it! That’s another part of the problem we ain’t got to yet!”

Ororo was taken aback by his outburst. It seemed there was nothing she could do to console him this time. He really was upset and it was for very different reasons this time. She still didn’t back away. He eventually had to turn away from her. He couldn’t even look her in the eye as he explained himself.

“You remember what happened during that fight with those alien goons? That Flashfire guy worked us over good and that ain’t a dirty joke.”

“Yes…I remember. I have the scars to prove it,” said Ororo, referring to her lingering burns, “Why is that a bigger issue than Yuriko or Mystique? I seem to remember you helping me.”

“I did. Problem was I only ended up doing more damage. Maybe you can’t remember because you were knocked out, but I sure as hell do. I was trying to protect you, Ro. I tried shielding you with my body. I didn’t realize until it was too late that I got metal bones and that prick was flinging lightning at us. Far as I’m concerned, he wasn’t the one that hurt you. I was. It was because you were near me that you got hurt.”

“You think I blame you for that?” said Ororo with hurt tears in her eyes, “Logan, that’s ridiculous!”

“It doesn’t matter if you blame me or not! What matters is that it happened! And every time I think about it I get a nasty reminder by a little thing called the truth!”

There was a lot of pain and anger in his tone. Ororo couldn’t help but feel some of that pain herself. She ended up looking away as well, hugging her shoulders and hiding the tears that were welling up in her eyes. Logan was still snarling in frustration. Everything that had gone wrong was his fault. No matter how much he loved this woman, all these problems were on his shoulders. It was time to confront cold, hard reality of their relationship.

“Yuriko was right,” he said in a low tone, “I hate her guts and I hate myself for admitting it, but it’s true. She was right all along.”

“About what? You not being able to love anyone?!” cried Ororo.

“No…that I hurt everybody I get close to. First it was Rose. Then it was Mariko. Now you’re the one I’m hurting, Ro. And you don’t deserve that.”

“I told you from the beginning! I can take the danger!”

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should!” he said strongly, “We gotta face facts here. I’m a fucked up mess of a guy with fucked up problems that even I can’t wrap my head around! The more I learn about my past, the more I realize how big a monster I am! You can love the man all you want, but you can never love the monster. That’s a side you can’t accept! Don’t tell me you can because you can’t understand it! Nobody can!”

Ororo let out more sobs as his harsh words sank in. Logan finally pushed through his anger and reached out to her, taking her in his powerful arms. His emotions were getting the better of him as well. He had to keep them bottled up as he gave this woman the resolution she deserved.

“We’re fightin’ a losing battle, Ro. Say we learn all the gruesome details of who I am and what I’ve done. If by then you can still stand the sight of my hideous mug, there’s other shit we can’t avoid.”

“You can’t know that!” she cried.

“Yes I can,” he said to her, “No matter what we do, time will keep moving on. You’ll get older and probably a lot more mature. And me…I’ll look exactly the same. I’ll probably be the same too…a screwed up excuse for a man who can heal from anything, but not the wounds that hurt most. You deserve better than that. You deserve a guy who you can actually grow old with. I can’t be that guy. I wish I could, but I can’t.”

Logan had to part from Ororo because she was on the verge of breaking down. The tears in her eyes were too painful to look at. He tried to wipe them away, but it was no use. One way or another, he was going to hurt this woman just by being with her. He might as well make this the last time.

“I still love you, Ro. I just can’t love you the way you deserve. Guess that’s something else Yuriko was right about. I can’t love anyone as much as they deserve. I’ll just end up hurting them.”

“You mean like now?” sobbed Ororo.

“Better to quit while we’re behind rather than set ourselves up for more pain,” said Logan, cupping her chin gently, “I’m sorry it has to be this way, Ro. I almost wish you could hate me for it, but I know you’re not. That ain’t your style. But I’m a sick, twisted son-of-a-bitch. I deserve to be alone. So I’m gonna be the asshole here and end this.”

“No Logan! It doesn’t…”

“Yes…it does,” he said in a deep tone, “Don’t try to change my mind. It’s better for you even if it ain’t for me. You deserve to be happy. I don’t. If you love me like you say you do, you’ll try and understand.”

The pain from her burns was completely overshadowed by the pain of Logan’s words. Ororo didn’t even try to hold back her sobs anymore. Logan was breaking up with her. It wasn’t fair. It was downright mean of him and that was the point. She was the complete victim while he was the heartless monster. It shouldn’t have been this way, but this is what he deserved. There was nothing Ororo could do to change it.

Having said what he needed to say, Logan burned the image of a heartbroken Ororo into his mind. No matter how long he lived, he wanted to remember this and all the pain it caused him. He deserved every ounce of torment and then some. As soon as he was content with the pain he would now carry with him, he broke away from the African woman and left to be alone with his demons.

The air grew stale as Ororo fell back onto a nearby table and kept sobbing. She endured her share of heartbreak in the past, but this was by far the worst. She truly loved this man and he was ending it without making an effort to repair their relationship. Now it was over and there was nothing she could do. It was so unfair. Everything was unfair.

Pentagon – Mutant Security Agency Division

‘Why does the world have to be so damn unfair? Just once, is it possible for someone on ANY level to catch a damn break?’

General Grimshaw’s mood was pretty sour. His briefing with President Kelly hadn’t gone nearly as well as he hoped. Their fragile partnership was becoming strained. If he the time came when he had to make a decision between their agreement and public sentiment, then the President would probably go with public sentiment. He was just as frustrated with his progress as the rest of the world. The Cambrian really screwed things up and the MSA may go under before it even had a chance.

Grimshaw refused to let that happen. He was an old time soldier in that a mission had to be completed. That’s all there was to it. Sometimes that required a few minor miracles. It looked like he was going to need at least a couple in order to rescue the situation on Genosha. There was no way he was going to let William Stryker’s departure be vindicated. He was going to prove to the President that this was right. To do that, he needed a little help.

“You wanted to see me, sir?” came a familiar voice from the secure entrance behind.

“Thanks for coming over here on such short notice, Captain Freeman. I know you’ve had your hands full with the Toad situation,” said the General as he turned to greet his most trusted soldier.

“You don’t know the half of it. That guy has completely lost it since he dove head first into a pile of that Cambrian sludge,” said Captain Jack Freeman, who was in Green Beret uniform, “It’s taken way too much overtime to put together a cell at Leavenworth for him.”

“You don’t need to tell me. I’ve been getting the complaints. I know the horror stories concerning the sights, the sounds, and especially the smells of Toad’s relocation, which is why I hope you’ll be pleased with a new assignment.”

“Far as I’m concerned, a trip to the killing fields of the Congo would be a step up at this point,” said Captain Freeman.

“Follow me and you might just change your mind.”

General Grimshaw led him from the rear entrance to the MSA security hub and into the heart of the main monitoring station. It was a lot less hectic now, but there was still plenty of activity with officers and MSA agents scouring computer feeds for various mutant-related activity. If the displays on the main screen were any indication, there was plenty of activity to go around. Mutant communities all over the world were up in arms and so were anti-mutant activities. There were shots of District X, the Morlocks, and mutant ghettos in Europe, Africa, and Japan looking like full blown riots. Captain Freeman assumed he would have to throw himself into one of these hell-holes.

The General led him to a corner just under the main monitor where there were a few holographic maps of various mutant hot spots. One of them was Genosha, which was understandable. It was amazing to contemplate how so much chaos stemmed from this small island nation.

“As you probably figured out by now, we’re in a hell of a predicament. Between the growing anti-mutant protests and the inevitable mutant counter-protest, every side is on a war path. It’s not going to take much to send everything to hell. If and when we do get that fateful nudge, it’ll probably come from where it all started.”

“Genosha,” stated Captain Freeman.

“I knew those jokes about your low IQ were bullshit,” said General Grimshaw as he manipulated the hologram to bring up a closer view of the island, “I won’t lie to you, Captain. The President is losing his patience and so is the public. They aren’t seeing any progress from the MSA and they’ll want a more proactive approach to mutant relations if it gets any worse.”

“By proactive do you mean mutant registration, pre-emptive strikes, and all that other shit that keeps the ACLU up at night?”

“Just assume these policies that will make the Middle East look like a Sunday School picnic,” quipped Grimshaw, “Which is why I’m sending you on a little diplomatic mission to Genosha.”

Captain Freeman shot his superior a look of bewilderment. This had to be a mistake. General Grimshaw couldn’t possibly have just said what he thought he said.

“Excuse me, sir? You did not seriously put me in the same sentence as diplomacy did you?” he said, trying to maintain his respectful tone.

“You’re not going crazy, Captain. You heard right,” the General clarified, “There won’t be any bullets or explosions on this mission. For once, I need you to be a peacemaker rather than a soldier.”

“Sir, with all due respect, the most experience I ever had with negotiating was when I was haggling weed on the streets of San Francisco!”

“I know and I’ll need you to tap that former street savvy to get this done,” said the General as he brought up a map detailing their military forces on the island, “It’s getting bad over there. I’ve been getting reports that a few countries are gearing up for an air strike on the growing Genosha resistance. They all fear a full blown insurgency if a diplomatic solution doesn’t come. I feel a comprehensive treaty between us and the government of Genosha is the only way to avoid this conflict.”

“When you talk about the government of Genosha, I assume you’re referring to Magneto, right?” dreaded Captain Freeman.

“He isn’t a factor anymore. Reports are he’s still messed up from the Cambrian. That’s why the treaty will have to come through Wanda Maximoff.”

“You think a treaty from her will carry the same weight?”

“If we can work with her instead of against her, we may be able to forge a valuable alliance. She’s got her father’s name and his legacy on her shoulders so she has the incentive to make this work. And if we can help her stabilize Genosha, then that will send a reassuring message to mutants and humans all over the world.”

It sounded like an all-or-nothing gamble. It was exactly the kind of gamble Captain Freeman went out of his way to avoid. He was a soldier, not a politician. He could see the logic behind the General’s thinking. A treaty would be a solid building block towards re-establishing peace. And for that very reason, Captain Freeman was completely ill-suited for this mission.

“Sir, I understand the importance of this treaty, but why are you sending me? You’re the one who negotiates rock solid deals in between afternoon naps. Why don’t you go?”

“Because I’m a General in a uniform,” Grimshaw replied, “You’re a soldier and a mutant. That’s something that will earn you some street cred with Wanda and the rest of Genosha.”

“Or they’ll string me up by my ankles and call me a traitor,” Captain Freeman pointed out.

“That we would like to avoid,” said the General in a more serious tone, “But like it or not, you have something in common with these people. I’ve spoken with Wanda Maximoff many times. She doesn’t trust me or anyone else in a human government to do what’s best for her people. You’re different. You have a personal stake in this just like her. She’ll give you a chance.”

“Even if she does, have you forgotten about my last trip to Genosha?” Freeman pointed out, “What if she finds out I was the one that broke in and stole her dad’s helmet?”

“She doesn’t have to know about that, which is why you better guard your mind to make sure none of their psychics picks up on it.”

“All while negotiating a world-saving peace treaty? Why don’t you ask me to juggle weapons grade plutonium while you’re at it?”

General Grimshaw sensed his reluctance. Jack Freeman was a brave soldier, but he knew his limits. Playing diplomat was beyond his expertise. He offered the experienced soldier a confident gesture. Knowing where this man came from, such confidence didn’t come easy. That’s why he felt this was a chance worth taking.

“Captain, you know I would never send you on a mission I didn’t think you could accomplish,” he said to Jack strongly, “I’ve seen you adapt to all sorts of situations and I’m not just referring to your powers. Now I need you to adapt again.”

“This goes beyond adapting, General. You’re asking me to conjure skills I don’t have,” said Captain Freeman, trying to hide his skepticism.

“What you lack in skill you’ve always made up for in heart. Few men in your position can say the same,” said General Grimshaw proudly.

“What about Charles Xavier? Or that hippie Lilandra woman from Aerie Global?” Captain Freeman suggested.

“Aside from Lilandra having stepped down from Aerie, you’re missing the point,” said the General, “Maybe there are others out there who would be better at negotiating a treaty. Maybe Charles Xavier or Oprah Winfrey could do the job more efficiently. But I don’t trust them nearly as much as I trust you. I know that when the odds are stacked against us and everything is going to hell, you’ll do what’s necessary to complete the mission.”

Captain Jack Freeman still had a long list of reasons why he shouldn’t go through with this, but General Grimshaw made his intentions crystal clear. He wanted no one else for the job besides him. At times he valued the General’s confidence. It was part of what allowed him to keep being a solider when everybody else wanted mutants thrown out of the military. He owed this man everything. The worst way he could return the favor was to let him down. As a soldier who had come so far, that was not an option.

“You have too much faith in former pot dealers from the west coast, General,” said Captain Freeman with an exasperated sigh.

“I’ll take that as your unique way of saying yes sir,” said Grimshaw as he turned back to the console.

“You’re still a General and I’m a soldier. Those two words are tops in my very limited vocabulary,” said Captain Freeman, “My only other question is when does my flight leave?”

“Immediately,” General Grimshaw replied as he started typing on the console, “I’ve organized a transport plane to take you to Genosha. I also plan on giving Xavier a call so the X-men can be on standby. I’ll set up a secure line so we can go over the details along the way.”

“Should make for a very entertaining flight,” said Jack dryly.

“As soon as you land, you’ll go straight to the capital building to meet with Maximoff,” the General went on, “We’ll make sure these meetings stay private so you can hammer something out as quickly as possible.”

“Does it really have to be that quick?”

“We don’t have the luxury of being slow, Captain. Like you said earlier, you’ve been to Genosha before. You know better than most people how quickly things can go bad. So be ready for anything. You may have to be both a peacemaker and a soldier.”

Genosha – Capital Building

‘They’re coming for us all! They’ll never stop until we’re all dead or worse! I need that box! I need to stop the humans before it’s too late!’

Erik Lensherr’s thoughts continued racing as he paced back and forth in his darkened room. Night had fallen over the island and the overall activity throughout the capital city had settled down. This was when Pietro was supposed to break into the military’s secure barracks and retrieve his box. With his speed, it shouldn’t be taking him this long. Is it possible the humans captured him? Could they be torturing him now? Every grim scenario coursed through his tormented mind.

‘Pietro…my son. Have I sent you to your death? Do the humans already know my plan? If they’ve set a trap, I will make them pay! Their filthy hands will not molest our people any longer!’

The master of magnetism fell short of breath. He had to stop pacing and lean on a nearby chair for support. All sorts of morbid visions plagued him. Images of Pietro, Wanda, and Lorna being lined up by the humans and marched into concentration camps played over in his mind like a nightmare. He could almost hear their cries as the humans tortured the men, raped the women, and then marched them into gas chambers for extermination. He had seen it before and it was happening all over again. A new holocaust was upon them and there was nothing he could do about it.

“Dad? Are you decent? Please tell me you’re decent!”

“Pietro!” gasped Magneto in a sigh of relief, “Please come in! We must hurry!”

“Yeah whatever,” he said dryly.

The door opened and Pietro came running in at full speed. Magneto met his son eagerly in the center of his room, hoping he did not disappoint him as he had so often in the past.

The speedster arrived to see his father looking a bit better than before. He shaved as he promised and cleaned up the room to a point. There were still dark circles under his eyes, indicating he didn’t make much of an effort to rest. He also appeared to be trembling as if he was in withdraw. It was disturbing to see his father like this. He had always been so strong and poised. Now he looked pathetic and weak.

“Jesus, Dad! Did you sleep at all after I left?” exclaimed Pietro.

“No time for sleep. Do you have the box?” asked Magneto intently.

“Of course I have it,” he said, “Those dumb ass soldiers didn’t know what the hell it was so they didn’t bother guarding very well.”

“So no one is aware of what you took?”

“Come on, you know I’m better than that. I was so fast I doubt the two under-trained guards will notice for an entire week if at all,” scoffed Pietro.

“Excellent! Now where is it?”

Pietro replied by swiftly running out of the room and running back within the span of four seconds. When he returned, he had with him the metal box Magneto so desperately sought. It wasn’t very big. It stood at about three feet by three feet and had a perfect metal luster on all sides. Along each of the edges were a series of alien symbols, looking very similar to the ones on the alien ship in the mines. There seemed to be no heat or energy radiating from the cube so Pietro didn’t think much of it when he set it down.

“I kept it in my room to make sure I was in the clear,” he said, “Now are you going to tell me what it is? And don’t say it’s too hard to explain because I’m so sick of that lame excuse!”

“Oh Pietro, you make it sound as though I’m never honest with my children,” said Magneto distantly as he trailed his hands over the cube, “Do you honestly think that lowly of me?”

“Is that a rhetorical question?”

“If you don’t feel inclined to answer, then by all means,” he said indifferently, “You still have my thanks and my approval. Now that we have this cube, there may yet be hope for our kind.”

“Right…and by hope that better include you keeping the promise you made me,” said Pietro, folding his arms in disapproval, “You said if I did this for you, we were going to get your shit together and sit down with Wanda and Lorna.”

“And we will,” he assured his son, “Go on and tell them to meet with me tomorrow morning. By then I should be alert and ready.”

“What’s wrong with right now?” scoffed Pietro.

“It’s past midnight, son. Give them a chance to sleep. We have an awful lot to discuss and they’ll need their rest.”

“Speak for yourself,” said the speedster.

The speedster wasn’t convinced. The way his father was looking at this cube was somewhat distressing. His attachment to this thing seemed eerily reflective of his deteriorating mental state. Maybe retrieving this box was going to do more harm than good. If that was the case, then having a little intervention with Wanda and Lorna was even more important.

“At least promise me you’ll make yourself presentable by then,” he told his father, “If Wanda and Lorna see you looking like a hobo, they’ll start calling the guys in the white coats with the strait jackets.”

“That won’t be necessary, my son. I’ll make sure they’re concerns are laid to rest the moment they step in this room.”

“I’m going to hold you to that,” warned Pietro, “Just to be sure, I’m locking down your floor and stepping up surveillance! We don’t need you making a scene. We’re already in enough trouble with the world.”

“Everything will be fine, Pietro. Trust me,” said Magneto with a confident grin.

Pietro was still unnerved by his father’s demeanor. At least he wasn’t trembling anymore now that he had the cube. However, he still looked like a man in need of serious psychiatric therapy. Hopefully, a long talk with Wanda and Lorna would be just as productive.

Despite his recent track record, the speedster reluctantly trusted his father’s word. He kept his eye on Magneto for a bit longer, paying extra close attention to his demeanor in order to make sure he was still competent enough to be left on his own.

“Fine then,” he said, “Now get some sleep, dad. We got a big day tomorrow.”

“Indeed we do, son…indeed we do.”

Pietro cast him one last suspicious look before leaving the room and closing the door behind him. The master of magnetism could feel his suspicious eyes on him. He certainly couldn’t blame him. The humans had corrupted them all. The world was trying to crush their spirits, making it difficult to trust their own senses. That was all about to change. He would see to it.

Grinning with intent, he slowly waved his hand over the top of the metal box. In addition to the long hours of research he put into the Cambrian, he still found time for a few side-projects. One in particular turned into a backup plan of sorts. This was something he put together in the event of a devastating defeat. He never expected to use it. Fate and bad luck had made it necessary.

“So beautiful…it’s just as I left it,” he said as he admired the luster of the box, “The foolish humans couldn’t take it from me! They could never appreciate such splendor!”

Taking a deep breath, Magneto waved his hand over the metal box. A few seconds later, the symbols along the edges started glowing in a soft purplish light. In an elegant display, the box levitated off the floor and started spinning. Then the symbols shifted ominously within the metal and formed a mosaic of symbols along the side. They swirled with such grace and purpose. It was as if it were alive.

“Archive backup initiated. Warlock AI online. Begin data interface.”

“Yes…” said Magneto intently, “Show me everything, Warlock. Show me what I must do to protect my family and my mutant brethren!”

Next Issue: Time Bomb

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