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Volume 7 -- Issue 150 -- Walking A Fine Line

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Walking A Fine Line
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In a world that hates and fears their kind, Professor Charles Xavier and the X-men once united against many sinister forces. Now they are united no more. In a daring deviation from his dream, Professor Xavier made a deal with the government to integrate the X-men with the Mutant Security Agency. From this deal came the international organization known as the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. Ideally, the partnership promises to help humans and mutants work together. Realistically, however, there are issues that have led some to walk away from the X-men.

The first six months of operation have positive for the most part. The X-men gained more respect with the public and the authorities. Their efforts to contribute to society have been a boon for Charles Xavier. At the same time, new concerns are arising. The X-men are becoming tools in political affairs that some argue will lead to greater danger. For those who walked away from the X-men, they have taken matters into their own hands.

While Charles Xavier joined forces with the law, a new team of X-men seeks to work around it. Scott Summers was among those who quit in wake of the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. Now under his leadership, he has gathered former X-men and new recruits alike to form X-Force. The goal of this team is to do what the X-men are no longer capable of doing. Now they’re ready to make their mission known.

Oakland, California

Being a mutant was a mix of good luck and terrible luck. The lucky mutants were imbued with powers that made them stronger, faster, and more durable than ordinary humans. The unlucky dealt with powers that were unmanageable in that it either made them look inhuman or it made them dangerous to be around. In either case, they were still freaks that the authorities were obligated to deal with. The Mutant Monitoring Initiative further complicated matters because it took so many decisions out of their hands.

Allison Crestmere was just one of the many mutants who couldn’t make those choices. Her secret was out. She was a mutant. She had been trying to hide her powers for weeks. Then three days ago, they erupted in a way she could not contain.

In the middle of class, her ability to control fire flared up when a teacher belittled her in front of her peers. That flare burned down half a hall in her school. Nobody was hurt and the only way she could avoid charges was to go along with the Mutant Monitoring Initiative’s special education program. It meant leaving her whole life behind. If that wasn’t bad enough, her parents were all too eager to get rid of her.

“I’ll...try and call you once you arrive,” Allison’s mother told her as they stood outside the front door of her house.

“You’ll try, but I’m sure something will come up,” she said dryly.

“It’s not like that, sweetie,” she coaxed.

“Of course it is, mom!” barked Alison, “Could you please stop pretending this is harder on you than it is on me? I’m the one being sent away. You and dad are completely off the hook and I can tell you’re just thrilled.”

“Don’t talk to your mother like that, Alison,” said her father sternly, “You know the law. This is how it’s done now and I think it’ll be best for you.”

“Sending me away to a school when I don’t even like school to begin with is hardly what’s best. Did it ever occur to you that I don’t like having my life decided for me? If you cared, you wouldn’t have caved in the second the school reported me. Some parents you are.”

Her words stung, almost as much as seeing the large black MSA van parked along the side of the street. Three armed MSA operatives were set to take her away where she would walk the same path that every other mutant had gone down lately. It looked more like a prisoner transport. Armed with only her suitcase and her purse, the teenage mutant saw any bit of control she once had on her life slip away from her. She didn’t even look back at her parents as she started walking towards the van.

“You sure you want to leave home on a bad note, Miss?” asked one of the MSA operatives.

“Does it really matter? It’s not like I have an incentive to come back,” she muttered.

“If you say so,” sighed the other operative indifferently, “I’m required to tell you that under the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, you are not to use your powers for the duration of this trip. Please note that any mutant activity can and will be tracked and you will be held responsible for any damage it may incur.”

“Are you warning me or arresting me?”

“You’re not in trouble, Ms. Crestmere,” said the third operative, “This is just a formality. Your parents have opted to send you to the Academy of Tomorrow. Since you are a minor, you’re obligated to go.”

“That doesn’t mean I have to like it,” groaned Alison.

The young teenager held her head low as she was escorted to the MSA van. She tried to hide her face because some of the neighbors came out to see what was going on. The long street of houses in Oakland was pretty tight nit. So when they saw that someone they knew was a mutant, it was a big deal. Judging by the way they looked at her, she wasn’t welcome back in this neighborhood.

‘I get the message. They’re throwing me away. That the easiest thing to do with mutants these days. Who are they going to turn to? The X-men are on the MSA’s payroll now. They know we’re screwed. They get to keep living their cozy lives while I have stay under Uncle Sam’s thumb. I don’t care how many people like the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. For me, it sucks!’

Alison was silent as she was led into the back of the van. The area was walled off from the front seats and hanging from the top was a special greenish light. This was a power dampener, which helped ensure that she would not use her powers. She could already feel it affecting her. It didn’t feel very good.

She also noticed that she wouldn’t be the only one riding along. There were three other figures in the van, each were about her age. There was one girl and two guys. They looked just as thrilled about this as she was.

“Looks like it’s going to be a crammed ride to the airport,” sighed the girl.

“It could be worse. So why not try to make it easier?” shrugged a tall young boy who looked plenty restless, “I’m Grant, by the way. The cheerful girl next to me is Ami. The guy who will probably sleep through the whole ride is Adrian.”

“I’m Alison,” she replied as she handed her luggage off to the MSA, “You guys excited about our new lives that have been so kindly dictated to us?”

“Like Grant said, it could be worse,” said Adrian, “My parents are fans of that Reverend Stryker guy. If I’d stayed home, they would probably do exorcisms on me until I died.”

“We still don’t know if this will be worse,” said Alison as she sat down next to Ami, “If it’s all the same to you guys, I’d want to talk about it.”

The three other mutants silently agreed with Alison’s sentiment. Nobody was in too talkative a mood. They were on their way to a new life where their lives would be forever scrutinized. It was not rosy outlook to say the least, but what was their alternative?

Once Alison was inside, the three MSA operatives secured her luggage up front and prepared to depart. These transports had become routine since the Mutant Monitoring Initiative kicked in. Not every mutant was thrilled with the new arrangement, but there had only been a handful of incidents that got messy. Compared to how rough it was before, everyone in the MSA was satisfied with this new procedure.

“This is MSA Unit 16 Alpha C checking in,” said the driver of the van through a radio, “We’ve completed our last stop. On route to Oakland International Airport with four new mutants. Will relay full report to the Academy of Tomorrow upon drop-off.”

“10-4, Unit 16. Proceed with caution and make sure report is cleared for processing.”

“Understood. Over and out.”

The three operatives set aside their weapons and settled in for the drive. It was getting cloudy out. A light rain was falling over the area. Since it was late in the day, it could make for bad traffic. So with extra urgency, the driver pulled out from the front of the house and drove down the street towards the parkway.

The first ten minutes were uneventful. The van made several turns onto a moderately busy street surrounded by a couple office buildings and shops. The dreary weather ensured there weren’t too many pedestrians. The traffic soon picked up as the van neared a major intersection. In the back seat, Alison and the three other mutants sitting next to her watched as the world they knew passed them by.

“So…anyone here know much about this Academy of Tomorrow?” asked Ami.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Grant, “I hear it was once just some mutant prep school. Mutants would go there, finish school, and that’s about it.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad,” said Adrian.

“That was before the Mutant Monitoring Initiative,” Grant pointed out, “After the feds stepped in, they’ve imposed a new regiment on the school. I don’t know the details, but the main goal now is to make sure our powers aren’t dangerous and to monitor us at every possible turn.”

“Sounds a lot like Juvenal Hall,” said Ami.

“Why do you say that? You ever been?” questioned Grant.

“That would be none of your goddamn business, pretty boy,” she retorted.

“I’ll take that as a maybe.”

Ami scolded Grant, looking ready to strike him for his attitude. Alison held her back. This was not the time to make a scene.

“Knock it off, you two!” barked Alison, “As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter if this place is the Ritz. Our lives are basically set now. Everything we do from here on out is going to be scrutinized.”

“Guess that means I should do a better job of hiding my porno stash,” said Adrian.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to hide anything. We’re mutants now. The world wants to keep an eye on us and no matter how much it bothers us, we’re stuck having to…”

Alison’s brooding was cut off by a loud bang from just outside the van. They were pulling up to a major intersection when it happened. When it struck, the whole van rocked as if it had hit a major speed bump. Before the van could even settle, two additional bangs rang out followed a smaller bang at the front of the van.

“We’re being shot at!” exclaimed the driver, “Activate the distress beacon!”

“You sure? I didn’t hear any shots,” said the MSA operative in the passenger seat.

“I know what getting shot at feels like! Now get your gun and do your duty!” he demanded.

With little hesitation, the three MSA operatives grabbed their weapons and stormed out from the van. Outside, the rain was falling harder and cars were still passing them by. They quickly assessed the situation.

They saw that three of the van’s tires were blown out. It looked as though they had been shot out with a high-powered rifle. There was another large hole right in the hood of the van, which struck the engine perfectly to ensure that it could not move.

“The fuel lines in the engine are damaged. This thing isn’t going anywhere without a tow-truck,” said the driver.

“How the hell could anyone manage a shot like that?” said the other operative.

“It’s not normal. That’s for damn sure,” said the third operative, “That could only mean one thing.”

Before any of them could draw conclusions, a puff of smoke appeared on top of their van. From that smoke, three figures emerged. The three MSA operatives identified them as Cyclops, Wolverine, and Nightcrawler. Since they were former X-men, they were reluctant to shoot at them with their weapons. This proved to be a mistake.

“They’re immobilized. Now we disarm them!” said Cyclops.

“Be gentle, herr Wolverine,” said Nightcrawler.

“No promises,” snarled Wolverine as he drew his claws, “HRRRRAAAAAHHHHHH!”

His feral roar echoed through the dreary streets. It drew attention from pedestrians and motorists still passing by. It also drew dread from the MSA operatives, who were no longer as reluctant to shoot.

“Open fire before he-AHHHHH!” yelled the driver, unable to get a shot off before Wolverine reached him.

The feral mutant attacked swiftly, slicing through the weapon with his claws and then using adamantium coated skull to head-butt the operative. It didn’t knock him out because he was wearing a helmet, but it did leave him dazed. The two other MSA operatives watched in horror as their comrade fell. They quickly turned their own guns towards Wolverine before he could launch another attack.

“Damn it! Shoot him already!” yelled one of the operatives.

“Nightcrawler, that’s your cue to get Warpath,” said Cyclops assertively, “I’ll make sure these guys play nice.”

“Have fun, mien friend!” said Nightcrawler.

The German mutant teleported away in a puff of smoke, leaving Cyclops to take care of this increasingly volatile situation. Wolverine stayed on the move, drawing their fire away from the van and towards the now empty intersection.

They got off a few shots. Their high-tech weapons were more advanced than before, sending out powerful blue bolts of energy into the dreary skies. None hit Wolverine, but it caused surrounding pedestrians to take cover. To keep collateral damage to a minimum, Cyclops took careful aim with his visor and fired two shots. Each hit the weapons the operatives were carrying, knocking them right out of their hands.

“Argh! My hand!” groaned one of the operatives.

“I think it’s broken!” groaned the other as he clutched it in agony.

“You’re lucky that’s all you broke, bub. We’re usually a lot more subtle,” said Wolverine as he approached the two MSA operatives menacingly.

“Don’t scare them too much, Wolverine. We’re already in Oakland,” said Cyclops as he jumped down from the van, “X-Force has made it’s point. We don’t need to make too big a spectacle. We just need to make sure these guys understand before they take their nap.”

“Nap? What are you…” began one of the operatives, but his words suddenly ceased.

The three ailing MSA operatives were abruptly silenced. This time, it didn’t come in the form of an attack. Despite their injuries, they fell fast asleep as if they had been hit by a tranquilizer dart. By now the cars behind them had come to a complete stop. When shots went off, the intersection was effectively blocked. This allowed another figure to emerge from across the street, who had been watching from a coffee shop.

“Their shielding is as faulty as I thought it was,” said Emma Frost as she casually crossed the street, sporting a trench-coat and umbrella, “They’ll be dreaming of me and Domino having a pillow fight for the nest three hours.”

“I’m sure they’ll appreciate that,” said Wolverine, rolling his eyes, “Probably won’t stop them from branding us as criminals.”

“That’s what we want,” said Cyclops, “It’s how we’re going to show everyone why Mutant Monitoring Initiative is a mistake.”

“Speak for yourself. I’m still the public face of a school,” said Emma, “I still have to protect my anonymity, which is quite a feat with my fabulous dress sense.”

“That mean you’re jumping ship on us?” said Wolverine.

“Are you kidding? This is the most fun I’ve had with my clothes on in quite some time,” she said with a wry grin.

X-Force had made their point. The MSA had been subdued with only minimal violence and moderate disruption. Cyclops looked around and saw pedestrians and other motorists taking notice. Some were even taking pictures with their phones. They did not hide from it. Only Emma had to obscure her appearance with sunglasses, a trench coat, and her umbrella. Now that they had an audience, they could make their next move.

“Hey guys! Did we miss the action?” came a voice overhead.

Cyclops, Wolverine, and Emma looked up to see Angel flying in with Domino in his arms. Like the rest of them, Angel was wearing a new costume with a mask that obscured his face. They landed right next to them, eager to proceed.

“The hard part’s over, darling. We were just getting to formalities,” said Emma.

“Done in only four shots? That’s too damn easy. I thought this was supposed to be an important mission,” said Domino, who proudly held the high-powered rifle that had fired the first shots.

“It is,” affirmed Cyclops, “You’ll see why in a few seconds. Everyone will see.”

With a strong demeanor, Cyclops led his team towards the back of the van. Wolverine, Emma, Domino, and Angel followed. This team was his vision. They all bought into it and they were buying into this bold move he was making.

When they arrived at the back of the van, Nightcrawler reappeared. He brought with him Warpath, who had been observing from up ahead where he monitored the traffic. As soon as he emerged from the sulfurous smoke, he made a more hands-on contribution. With his superhuman strength, he tore into the rear doors of the van and ripped them open. They revealed four baffled mutants, who had seen the entire scene unfold from inside.

“There’s been a detour, kids. The MSA had a change of heart,” announced Warpath.

“Wait…this isn’t some elaborate recruitment scheme, is it?” said Alison, “You guys better not be another Mutant Liberation Front!”

“Don’t insult us. Do we really look that crazy?” said the Native American.

“Speak for yourself, Warpath,” teased Nightcrawler.

“Not to sound ungrateful, but if this is what I think it is you guys are getting us in a world of trouble,” said Grant.

“Given the circumstances, you’re already in a world of trouble. Does it really make a difference at this point?” quipped Domino.

“You’re not helping, Dom,” snarled Wolverine.

Domino glared at the feral mutant, who shrugged it off as they all stood in front of the four young mutants. Warpath and Angel helped each of them out of the van. Domino shot out the mutant dampening field for good measure. Once they were outside the van, Cyclops addressed them.

“I apologize for coming off as hostile. We wouldn’t have done this if we didn’t feel it was necessary,” he stated.

“Who are you guys anyways?” asked Ami.

“Aren’t you Cyclops from the X-men?” asked Adrian.

“No…we’re not the X-men. We’re X-Force. We’re doing what the X-men should be doing, which is helping mutants control their own destiny. I can tell that none of you are thrilled with your current situation. The Mutant Monitoring Initiative essentially decided your fate. Make no mistake. Professor Xavier and everyone back at the MSA thinks they have your best interest at heart. My question to you is…what do you want?”

The four mutants exchanged glances. It was a simple yet profound question. When their powers manifested, their lives became tied to the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. They didn’t have a choice. Now this mysterious mutant team was giving them another chance. Only Alison Crestmere was bold enough to answer.

“I probably couldn’t answer that question before my powers kicked in,” she said, “But it was nice knowing there were still possibilities. If I go with the MSA, those possibilities are pretty much out the window.”

“You don’t think the Academy of Tomorrow would be a good environment for you?” posed Emma, approaching this girl as if she were a prospective student.

“I don’t think school is for me. I could count all the A’s I ever got on one hand and have room left for long division,” said Alison, “I don’t care if the school is nice or if the MSA actually cares. I’d like to decide my own life.”

She spoke with a strong conviction. That sentiment was shared by Ami, Grant, and Adrian. They preferred control over their lives, even if it flew in the face of public policy.

“Yeah…I’d like to have that choice as well,” said Ami.

“Seeing as how my parents have been deciding everything for me lately, I’d be a real pussy if I didn’t take this chance,” said Grant.

“My parents probably prefer me dead. So I’m either under their thumb or the MSA’s,” said Adrian, “I prefer door number three.”

“Good,” said Cyclops in approval, “Then we can help you. We know some people in District X who feel the same way we feel. We can get you off the MSA’s radar. Follow us and you’ll be able take control of your lives. You have my word.”

It seemed somewhat outrageous, placing their trust in this unusual twist group of mutants. They certainly didn’t carry themselves like X-men. In many ways, that helped their credibility. It indicated that they felt the same reservations regarding the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. They may be their only chance to escape it.

“So what happens next?” asked Alison as she looked around, “We’re in the middle of a busy street and I imagine this stunt will hit Fox News within the next ten minutes.”

“We’ve already made arrangements,” said Angel, “Once we get you out of here, you’ll disappear from the Mutant Monitoring Initiative’s sights.”

“And how do you plan on doing that?” asked Ami, “You guys got some fancy get-away car or something?”

“Actually, we have something better,” said Domino as she turned towards Nightcrawler, “One that saves us the trouble of going through airport security.”

“It vill still be a bumpy ride, mien friends. I hope you are ready for zhis,” said Nightcrawler as he approached the four mutants.

“They made their choice, Elf. Don’t make ‘em second guess themselves,” said Wolverine, “Just smile for the cameras and get us outta here.”

X-Force stood without reservations in front of a growing crowd of civilians. Despite the rain, the sidewalks had become cluttered with curious onlookers. Some just watched in amazement. Others recorded the footage with cameras and phones. Under this harsh scrutiny, Nightcrawler teleported X-Force and the four young mutants away from the scene. Thanks to his enhanced powers, they disappeared in a puff of smoke.

X-Force had made their point. They were openly defying the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. They left behind a perplexed and anxious public. Just when it seemed like security had returned to the human/mutant conflict, a new complication emerged to show that this initiative wasn’t as solid as previously assumed.

Xavier Institute – The Next Day

“How much longer are you gonna make us watch this?” groaned a restless Rogue.

“However long it takes to get the point across,” said an irritated General Grimshaw, “This is something we can’t afford to deal with right now. It’s also something only the X-men should confront.”

It had not been a pleasant morning at the Xavier Institute for Mutant Research and it wasn’t because of the General’s foul mood. At their daily briefing, the General dropped some rather unpleasant news on them.

Some of their old friends and former teammates made quite a scene in Oakland the previous night. It wasn’t a protest or a statement either. It was an act of open rebellion. They were the opponents of the Mutant Monitoring Initiative and they were making sure the public knew this.

In a special conference room, General Grimshaw had the large TV in the front of the room turned to CNN. Rogue, Remy, Hank, Jean, and Colossus were all present, taking in the report. Professor Xavier was sitting at the head of the table, looking more distressed than anyone else as he listened to the broadcast.

“Recapping our top story, an MSA unit was attacked last night. Four young mutants that were on their way to Oakland International Airport when an unknown group of mutants attacked the convoy. According to witnesses, the group calls themselves X-Force. Video footage of the incident confirms that within this group are several former X-men. This includes Cyclops and Wolverine. While they did not make a statement on camera, they subdued three MSA agents and released the four mutants from custody. The MSA agents did not sustain any major injuries. There is no word on the state of the four mutants whose names are being kept confidential. Reports have been circulating that this act was a protest of the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. These reports have yet to be confirmed. The X-men and the MSA have not made a statement.”

General Grimshaw muted the broadcast and confronted the X-men. He was silent for a moment, allowing the X-men to take in this story. The Mutant Monitoring Initiative had faced its share of obstacles since it was implemented. This was something very different.

“Refresh my memory, Professor Xavier. I distinctly remember telling you to keep tabs on your former team, didn’t I?” said General Grimshaw firmly.

“You forget that I trained them, General. One of the first lessons I taught was how to strengthen their minds to resist psychic intrusion,” said Xavier, trying to restrain his discontent.

“Now why the hell would you teach them something like that?”

“Because I respected their privacy,” he said in a stronger tone, “It wouldn’t be fair if I always had the option of accessing their minds.”

“Fairness is the new F-word when dealing with matters such as this,” said the General with a scold, “We can’t have a pack of super-powered thugs defying our initiative like this!”

“Hey! Those thugs happen to be our friends,” said Jean, shooting up from her seat and staring down the irate officer.

“They also didn’t hurt nobody,” Remy pointed out, “Aside from messin’ up a perfectly good van and given three MSA hommes a good nap, it ain’t like they terrorizing folks.”

“It doesn’t matter if nobody was hurt. This incident sent a clear message. They don’t like the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. They’re openly opposing it. Now I’m all for debating the issues, but in a civilized society we can’t allow citizens to thumb their nose at the law.”

“Is this really as bad as you’re making it out to be, General?” asked Colossus, “I thought in America there was tolerance for those with opposing views.”

“This isn’t a simple disagreement. These friends of yours are obstructing vital government operations. If they want to protest, that’s one thing. If they want to debate, that’s something else. But when they start working against us, they’ve left the bounds of law and order that make society work. Now I understand that the Mutant Monitoring Initiative has its flaws. However, we cannot tolerate this kind of public opposition.”

The General was putting the X-men in an awkward position. He was saying that their friends were criminals. Even if they supported this initiative, they didn’t support fighting those who didn’t agree with them. General Grimshaw was clearly upset. He had always been strict when it came to upholding the law. To him, X-Force’s behavior was an act of open rebellion.

“What do you propose we do, General?” asked Hank with the same restraint as Xavier, “If you’re expecting us to fight our friends, then I think you’re expecting a bit much.”

“I’m not telling you to hunt them down. Not yet anyways,” said the General in a calmer tone.

“Sounds like you’re considering it,” quipped Rogue dryly.

“That depends on how far X-Force takes this protest of theirs. I may seem like a grumpy old man in a uniform, but I’m not senile. I know some of you have been in contact with your old friends. I know some of you may even be sleeping with them, which may be why Miss Braddock and Miss Munroe aren’t here.”

“I hope you’re not implying that we’re keeping secrets, General,” said Professor Xavier.

“That’s just it, Charles. I don’t think you are. I just think you’ve been willing to look the other way. That way when men like me confront you, you don’t have to bullshit me.”

The Professor and the rest of the team to shifted uncomfortably. General Grimshaw wasn’t psychic, but he could sense when someone was keeping the full story from him.

While some like Cyclops and Wolverine avoided talking to the X-men, others weren’t so secretive. It was well-known that Ororo had grown close to James Proudstar, who was obviously involved in X-Force. The situation was similar with Warren and Betsy. Rogue also kept in touch with Domino and Kurt. It was a little hard to ignore that they had been involved with something lately. Now they were making it a public spectacle.

“There are some serious ramifications here,” the General went on, “The report I got this morning from Captain Freeman painted a distressing picture. Those four mutants X-Force confronted have slipped under the radar. Even Cerebrum can’t track them. They’re four more in a growing list of mutants who seem to be avoiding detection. I suspect X-Force has their hand in many of them. There may be others involved as well. So I’m leaving it up to you X-men to figure this out. I’m giving you a chance with the understanding that if you don’t do something, then I will.”

“Does that mean you’re going to treat our friends like terrorists?” said Jean angrily.

“Because if you’re expending us to draw battle lines amongst those close to us, that is a fight we cannot support,” said Colossus, making his anger apparent as well.

“I won’t get into specifics. But if you’re this upset, then you have a chance to do something about it. Do yourself and your friends a favor by not wasting it.”

General Grimshaw hid no subtext in his tone. He made it clear to the X-men that he expected them to resolve this. He walked out of the conference room with an unspoken encouragement, as if to make clear that he preferred the X-men resolve this because they were not going to like how he would handle it.

Once the General was gone, the X-men turned their attention back towards Professor Xavier. He looked beleaguered in the dilemma he faced. This wasn’t the Brotherhood or the Mutant Liberation Front opposing them. These were his own students.

“Ah don’t care if the law says we’re on the same side. Ah still feel the urge to punch Grimshaw for dumping this on us,” said Rogue, finally letting her frustration out.

“A punch wouldn’t be enough, Rogue,” said Hank, who shared her sentiment, “What worries me even more is his concerns are completely legitimate.”

“Don’t tell me you agree with him. The man just asked us to attack our friends!” said an outraged Jean Grey.

“Since Scott and Logan are not hear to calm you down, I may have to restrain you, Jean,” said Colossus, who got up to coax the angry redhead back into her seat.

“You’re welcome to try,” muttered Jean under her breath.

“Please, my X-men…let’s not make this harder than it already is,” said Professor Xavier, standing up from his seat to address his team, “I know you all despise the notion. I do as well. But Hank is correct. General Grimshaw has legitimate concerns about X-Force.”

“That don’t mean we gotta agree with him,” argued Remy, “We be hearing the stories from Stormy and Betsy. We all knew they’re up to something. They just ain’t given it a name until now.”

“Except now our former compatriots are no longer content doing their work in the shadows,” said Hank, “In the months since Cerebrum came back online, we’ve discovered a growing list of undocumented mutants. This list grew as Cyclops, Wolverine, and Nightcrawler became increasingly secretive about their activities.”

“I also suspect that Warren may be providing them with resources,” added Professor Xavier, “His father has been calling me lately. He says his son has been negating his duties at Worthington Industries.”

“I cannot imagine that is going over well with Betsy,” said Colossus.

“Well she did skip this meeting to go see him so I guess we’ll get an update soon enough,” said Jean.

“Same with Stormy,” said Remy, “Guess this means we’ll be gettin’ hailstorms that go along with her mood.”

“The effect on relationships is a secondary concern. X-Force may undermine the Mutant Monitoring Initiative before it has a chance to succeed,” said Xavier as he started pacing, “Cyclops made his opposition clear. He believes we’re making a mistake and he’s willing to prove his point in a very public manner.”

“So what do we do? We’re not going to actually fight them, are we?” asked Rogue anxiously.

“I want to avoid that at all cost, Rogue,” said Xavier strongly, “However, we must be prepared to oppose them as ardently as they oppose us, even if we must do so with a heavy heart.”

The notion of attacking their friends did not sit well. Professor Xavier could sense that some were fighting the urge to yell at him. The schism within the team was a high price to pay for this initiative. They had made so much progress. There were still plenty of issues that needed to be resolved, but they wouldn’t have a chance if X-Force undermined their efforts. So as much as it pained him, Professor Charles Xavier was prepared to respond to X-Force’s incursion.

“The General expects us to act and so does the public,” Xavier went on, “This conflict against X-Force is best waged in the court of public opinion. Right now, X-Force is attacking the weaknesses of the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. The incident in Oakland demonstrated that some mutants don’t care for our current methods.”

“We have a one-size-fits-all policy that involves funneling mutants into the Academy of Tomorrow. We can’t expect everybody to be too excited about such prospects,” said Hank.

“That’s why Emma Frost was quite upset with me when I got her school involved with this initiative. It is entirely likely that she is the unidentified psychic assisting X-Force,” said Xavier, looking back up at the muted TV that was still broadcasting the incident.

“So my boyfriend and his ex are on a team that’s highlighting a problem we’re all painfully aware of,” Jean summarized, feeling increasingly anxious, “Is there anything we can do that will ensure I get more than two hours of sleep tonight?”

“I’ll start working with the MSA to institute reforms. It will take time. But until we have something to announce, we’re going to scrutinize future operations. If one comes along where X-Force might be involved, we must be there. We must show the public that we’re committed to making this work. In the process, I hope our friends are as intent on avoiding conflict with us as we are with them.”

Boston – Academy of Tomorrow

It was not unusual for the weather to reflect Ororo’s mood. When she was sad, it rained. When she was angry, there was thunder. On a day like this, the conditions were mixed. Downtown Boston was already shrouded in an overcast. It was as if nature couldn’t decide whether it should rain. In some ways that was a fitting analogy to what she was going through.

“James, I don’t like what you’re telling me,” said Ororo in an exasperated tone, “I like even less what you’re not telling me.”

“I wasn’t keeping secrets from you, Ororo. You know I can’t keep my mouth shut around you,” said James as he stood with her at a park bench.

“I get that you were involved with Wolverine and Cyclops. I even get that you were helping them do things that may directly conflict with the X-men.”

“Then what’s the problem?” he groaned, trying to avoid eye-contact with his lover.

“The problem is you never told me how deep your involvement went!” she shouted, triggering a slight burst of thunder from above, “It’s one thing to support X-Force. Now I find out you’ve been fully committed since day one. Does this mean these past few months together was a waste of time?”

“Hell no! I meant it when I said you’ve been the best thing that’s ever happened to me!” said James, now shouting as well.

“So why are you telling me we need to avoid each other from now on? Do I not have a say in a decision that so deeply affects the feelings we share?”

More thunder echoed in wake of Ororo’s heated words. James finally faced her, seeing that she had tears in her eyes as well. He went to wipe them away, but soon turned his attention back towards the Academy of Tomorrow. Ororo didn’t understand why he was doing this. Looking back at the Academy that had given him a second chance, his reasons were painfully apparent.

The Academy of Tomorrow was a very different place after the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. He remembered the day Charles Xavier visited Emma Frost and detailed his plan. She seemed on board with it at first, but when he got to the part where he turned the Academy into a government supported mutant education program she got defensive.

Eventually, he convinced her that the Academy was the best place for the mutants they encountered to go. While Emma chose to go along with it, she and many others were not too keen on the initiative. He was among them and he decided to do something about it, which Ororo didn’t seem to understand.

“Look at the Academy, Ororo,” he told her in a calmer tone.

“Don’t change the subject, James,” said Ororo in a firm tone.

“I’m not. I’m making a point,” said the Native American in a serious tone, “I want you to see what I see. That way you’ll understand why I’ve decided to go all in with X-Force.”

Ororo was still fuming, but she decided to oblige him. From where they were sitting, they could see into the backyard of the Academy. They had to look through an imposing fence that had been recently put up by the MSA. Through that fence, she could see a few young mutants causally walking around the campus. Some were on their way to class. Others were eating lunch. Then there were those just walking aimlessly, looking as conflicted as the weather.

Those conflicted mutants stood out most. Among them were Julian Keller, Sam Guthrie, Noriko Ashida, Tabitha Smith, Danielle Moonster, and Roberto DeCosta. They were once part of X-Factor, a mutant team that followed the example set by the X-men. Because of the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, their vigilante activities had been curtailed.

For Ororo, the looks on their faces spoke volumes. They no longer had the spirit that once defined them. It had been taken away. For James, these mutants were the reason he decided to join X-Force.

“You weren’t here when the ink dried on the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. You didn’t listen to all the arguments I had with Emma, Dr. Nemesis, and Sunfire,” he said distantly, “We’re all passionate about this academy. We love it as much as you loved the Xavier Institute. But after the Mutant Liberation Front and the Genosha exodus, we were targets. We didn’t know how we were going to protect our students and our vision. Before we even had a chance, Professor Xavier came along and decided for us.”

“You make it sound like he went behind your backs,” Ororo pointed out, “You said the Professor talked with you in preparation for this deal.”

“He did. He was brutally honest about it, almost to a fault,” sighed James, “He played the trust card. He said if the Academy didn’t become the landing point for troubled mutants, then the MSA would make their own. He didn’t want to see that and neither did we.”

“None of us had a choice. It was a difficult situation for everybody.”

“Circumstances are not excuses. We found that out before we got our first influx of students. Emma agreed to the proposal in principle, but in practice she was against it. If you look at these students, you can see why. They’re living in a world where Magneto, Genosha, and the Mutant Liberation Front has made being a mutant dangerous. Their only option is to either live under constant scrutiny or come here for a government-sponsored containment program.”

“That’s a harsh choice of words, James,” said Ororo.

“It’s still pretty damn accurate. They walk through this school knowing that this is what humanity has decided for them. All their hopes, dreams, and aspirations are curtailed because everyone is too scared of what they may or may not do with their powers. This academy is now a dumping ground. I’m not overly political, but even I think that’s bullshit. That’s why when Cyclops came to me and told me about X-Force, I joined without a second thought.”

James got up from the bench and looked away. Ororo remained fixated on the students walking by in the distance. Seeing their conflicted faces put this initiative in a new light. She never assumed that the Mutant Monitoring Initiative was without flaws. She just never saw the face of those flaws like this. It helped make sense of James’s decision to join X-Force. It didn’t make the emotional strain between them any easier.

“I think I understand where you’re coming from, James,” she said in a more empathic tone, “You’re right. There are problems with the initiative that should be fixed. But are you sure this is the right way to respond?”

“What’s done is done, Ororo,” he went on, “For the past six months, I’ve been working with X-Force in secret. Now that the Oakland incident has made it public, I’ve officially stepped down. I’m no longer affiliated with the Academy of Tomorrow.”

“So you’re willing to make that great a sacrifice?” questioned Ororo, her anger giving way to sorrow.

“For my students, of course. Hell, they cheered me on when I resigned,” said James with a light chuckle, “Emma is still on board. But let’s just say we’ve made arrangements. From here on out, I’m with X-Force full time. I need to be if I’m going to do the right thing.”

“Then I suppose it’s pointless for me to convince you otherwise.”

“That doesn’t mean I want to leave you behind,” said James, offering her an affectionate gesture, “I don’t want this to force us apart. In some ways, it’s a test. It’s a way to show that we’re more serious than two people who make time for each other.”

“I don’t know, James. It seems a bit soon to test our relationship like this,” said Ororo distantly.

“Well I’ve always been one to seize the moment. Before I walk away, I want to make sure we can keep this going. I believe we have something special and I’m willing to take a big risk to prove it.”

With Ororo still gazing towards the Academy, James reached into his pocket and pulled out a small slip of paper. He had it all folded up so he could give it to her in a covert manner. He placed it in her hand and made sure she held it firmly.

“This paper lists a series of encrypted email addresses and communication lines. Warren set it up so we can keep in touch without anyone getting too suspicious. Now Cyclops and Wolverine are against this, but I trust you, Ororo. If you can return that trust before this is over, then we’ll know our feelings for each other are strong.”

“But how will we know when this is over?” she wondered.

“We’ll know,” said the Native American confidently, “Once X-Force and the Mutant Monitoring Initiative runs its course, we’ll all know.”

It sounded like a warning of sorts. Ororo finally looked away from the Academy and up at James’s powerful gaze. She remained seated, clutching the piece of paper he had given her.

She had nothing left to say. James had made his point and she had nothing with which to argue. For a moment, they stood in silence. His gaze conveyed to her a depth of emotion that reflected the trust he placed in her. Such emotion was overwhelming. It started raining harder, the conditions now fully reflecting on their conflicted state.

Through the rain, James Proudstar leaned in and gave Ororo a soft kiss on the cheek. Tears formed in her eyes as she took in the feeling. While the rain was pouring around her, James walked away. Now that he was on board with X-Force, there was no telling when she may see him in person again. It left Ororo to ponder the feelings she had for him. As evidenced by the rain, they were much stronger than she imagined.

‘I understand, James. I don’t like it. I’m not looking forward to all the heartache this is sure to cause. But I’m in. That’s how far love will take. I don’t know if X-Force is right or if the Professor is wrong, but for you I’m also willing to take a chance.”

New York City – Worthington Penthouse Suite

“Back up, Warren! Can we please slow down for a bloody second? I’m having serious problems with this logic you’re using,” said a frustrated Betsy Braddock.

“Who said it was logical? I just told you what I’m doing, Betsy. It never bothered you before,” said Warren, who was moving feverishly around his opulent penthouse.

“We never even talked about it before!”

“Is that really my fault? You never brought it up. You were more than content to ignore it,” quipped the winged mutant, who sounded annoyingly calm, “Now nobody can ignore it. This is happening whether we like it or not.”

There was a certain smugness to his tone. Betsy wouldn’t stop scowling her on-again/off-again lover. It didn’t do her much good because Warren was moving back and forth within his penthouse so quickly that it was hard to make eye-contact. She was tempted to tackle him to the ground. Even that might not get the message across. They were at a complete impasse and it left her quite upset.

When news of the Oakland incident started spreading, Betsy dropped what she was doing and caught up with Warren as fast as the nearest flight would take her. She arrived at Warren’s penthouse early in the morning to see him packing. The penthouse was almost completely cleaned out. Even though Warren Worthington III was not identified with Angel, he was acting as though the world recognized him with X-Force. That led them to the heated argument that had yet to be resolved.

“Seriously Betsy, what did you think was going to happen?” he asked her as he flew by with a mid-sized box in hand, “You knew I didn’t agree with the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. You probably knew I was hanging out with Cyclops and Wolverine when I wasn’t taking you out on all those fancy dates.”

“You never gave me a reason to worry about it. If had known it went this far, I would have probed your mind in between foreplay and pillow talk,” she said angrily.

“Don’t give me that. I know the Professor had some inkling that we were up to something. You could have yelled at me at any time just like you’re doing now, but you didn’t. You chose the ignorance-is-bliss approach.”

“Don’t you turn this around and say it’s all my fault.”

“I’m not saying it’s anybody’s fault. I’m saying you knew something like this was coming, but you didn’t do shit about it. You liked what we had. You liked it every bit as much as I did and weren’t willing to risk it.”

Betsy’s scowl gave way to a begrudging awkwardness. His words were arrogant, but there was truth to them.

She couldn’t deny that she had been living in a fantasy world for the past few months. Warren didn’t hide his association with Cyclops and Wolverine. He never talked about what they were up to because she went out of her way to avoid it. She was enjoying the relationship that had been blossoming between them. Given her position with the X-men and his position with X-Force, it was bound to be a difficult complication to overcome.

Warren paused his frantic packing and confronted his lover. He approached her with an overt sincerity. He was not using these harsh words out of arrogance. He was confronting a painful truth that they had been all too happy to ignore.

“I don’t want to be the bad guy here, Betsy. But something had to give and we have to deal with it,” he told her, placing both hands on her shoulders in a caring gesture.

“That doesn’t mean you have to be so crass about it,” she said bitterly.

“It’s not crass. It’s part of something bigger…something that goes beyond us,” said the winged mutant in a more serious tone.

“In other words, going along with X-Force is more important than being with me.”

“Betsy, if I don’t do this, being with you might not even be possible.”

“Don’t get fatalistic on me. I know you didn’t agree with the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, but this is not the way to fix it!”

“That’s easy to say when you’re comfortable working with the authorities,” retorted Warren, “You’re the daughter of a cop in the body of former soldier. This sort of thing works for you. But not everyone has the same respect for authority. For some people, authority has screwed them over in one too many ways.”

“So why not work with it rather than against it?” said Betsy, “You’re a rich, handsome man with so many resources at your disposal. You could do so much to fix these problems.”

“There are some problems that money and good looks just can’t fix. If you can’t see that, then maybe you’re not seeing the bigger picture. And for a psychic, that’s saying something.”

He was somewhat harsh with his tone. Warren stepped back from his lover and looked away, hiding his sorrow.

The tables had been turned on their relationship. Before the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, he was the one who couldn’t see beyond his own problem. Betsy reached out to him and helped him overcome his limitations. Now Betsy was the one who couldn’t see the issues that he had been experiencing directly with X-Force. This is left them at an impasse that they could no longer avoid.

“At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of Professor Xavier’s plan. I was content to be completely indifferent. It would have been a lot easier for both of us,” mused Warren in a more emotional tone, “Then Cyclops came to me. He told me what he was planning. He was willing to defy the man who made us X-men. That’s how strongly he opposed the Mutant Monitoring Initiative.”

“And you think he’s right?” asked Betsy, her voice becoming strained.

“I can relate to his position. The core of the initiative is to put legitimate power in the hands of the X-men. The Professor believes he can decide what’s best for mutants. It reminds me too much of how my dad thought cutting off my wings would be best for me.”

“This is different, Warren. Much different,” she argued.

“You’re right. It’s a lot worse,” said Warren, turning around to face his lover, “Since I started working with X-Force, I’ve seen the hidden cost of the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. Mutants everywhere are losing control of their lives. I’ve seen parents throw away their kids free of guilt, assuming the initiative will do their job for them. I’ve seen mutants go into hiding, fearful that any move they make. It’s happening more and more frequently. Those four mutants in Oakland were prime examples. Their powers flare and nobody tries to help them. They just send them to the MSA. It may not seem so bad from your perspective, but for others it’s just wrong. So I’m doing something about it.”

Betsy’s lips quivered as emotion overshadowed outrage. There were a lot of harsh things she could say to this man. None of them could make his words any less valid.

He was speaking from another perspective, one that she had not considered. Even as a telepath, it was hard to see the unseen complications of the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. It left her conflicted, so much so that she resisted the urge to slap Warren when he came to embrace her again.

“I know this is going to tear us apart…at least in the short term,” said Warren sadly, “X-Force has plans. We intend to keep defying the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, which I know is going to bring us into directly conflict with the X-men.”

“Sounds like you don’t give a damn if we end up having to fight each other,” she said bitterly.

“I do care about you, Betsy. I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for you.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

“It’s my way of saying thanks for being there for me when I needed somebody. That’s why I have every intention of being there for you when the time comes.”

“Why? So you can say I told you so?”

“So I can see if this kind of strain makes you love me any less,” he clarified, “I believe in what X-Force is doing. Just as you believe in what the X-men are doing. One of us is going to be vindicated. Or maybe neither of us will. All I know is that when everything becomes clear again, I want come back to you. If you’re there waiting, then I’ll know I mean as much to you as you mean to me.”

It was a twisted way of saying he was still loved her. He was not the weak, sickly man that had once been so lost. She sensed in his mind that he believed what he was doing. He was fully committed to X-Force and he had every intention of proving Charles Xavier wrong.

It left her in an awkward position. She would be on the front lines when they found out who was right and who was wrong. Even if she believed in the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, she did not look forward to that day.

Warren embraced her again, conveying as much love to her as he could before separating. He had packed everything he needed. The movers were scheduled to arrive later in the day. He had no intention of returning until X-Force’s job was complete. Hopefully, Betsy would be waiting for him. He hid sad gaze as he made his way towards the window.

“I could blow your secret, you know?” said Betsy before he could fly away, “I could tell everyone that Angel and Warren Worthington III are the same person.”

“You could, but you won’t,” he conceded.

“What makes you so sure?”

“Because I trust you,” said the winged mutant, “You know what that will do to me and to us. So I’m assuming you’re not that cruel. If you prove me wrong…well, then I guess that gives me one more reason to go with X-Force.”

Warren placed a lot of faith in their relationship. It left Betsy feeling even more solemn. She didn’t turn around to watch him fly away. Instead, she hugged her shoulders while holding back some hard sobs. Warren was using this conflict to test the depths of their relationship. It would also test her commitment to the Mutant Monitoring Initiative.

Betsy and the rest of the X-men had little reason to question Professor Xavier’s plan until now. While they were trying to make it work, X-Force was trying just as hard to prove them wrong. The lines had been drawn. X-Force was poised to oppose the X-men. They both couldn’t be right so something had to give. Only time would tell when and how this conflict would be resolved.

Unknown Location

‘It used to be a running joke. Scott Summers was the guy with the proverbial stick up his ass. He lived, slept, and ate by the rules. He always did what he’s told. He never questions authority. Now I guess the jokes on them because I’m doing something that’s so against the rules that I’m technically a fugitive. Now that I’ve made my first critical decision, it’s my responsibility to make sure X-Force succeeds.’

Scott Summers wasn’t living by the rules anymore. In fact, the core of his new mission was to oppose the prevailing rules. It made him and those that followed him outlaws. As such, they had to live like outlaws.

Now that X-Force had a public face, they had to live off the grid and away from the scrutiny of the authorities. Since the X-men and the MSA had Cerebrum on their side, there weren’t too many places for them to hide.

Of the few places equipped to avoid such scrutiny, Nova Roma was the most robust. It was remote and well-equipped, providing a solid defense against psychic intrusion. It certainly helped that mutants were more welcome since the battle against Selene. With the addition of Margali’s influence and Warren’s money, X-Force could set up shop in an unmarked building nestled on the south side of the city.

The building was once used by the Praetorian Guard. It had since been turned into a storage area for unused or outdated military equipment. The Nova Roman Senate was more than happy for them to take it off their hands, provided they didn’t need to deny or confirm their activities to outsiders.

Over the past few months, Scott had been working with little rest to turn this facility into a fully equipped base of operations. He and his team scrapped together some of the unused computer components to create their own mini-Cerebrum. Thanks to advanced Nova Roman technology, they had access to the information they needed to do what needed to be done.

With some outside help from some trusted parties that wasn’t entirely legal, they had nearly as much access as the MSA. It was all centered around a central area modeled after the War Room in the Xavier Institute. This is where Scott met up with his new team to discuss their next move.

“Where the hell have you been, Slim? We’ve been waiting on your ass for over an hour!” greeted Logan, who was in his usual foul mood.

“Nice to see you too, Logan. Have Warren and James returned?” asked Scott as he emerged through the main entrance.

“They’re in as bad a mood as me so you better have something productive to say,” retorted the feral mutant.

“Don’t listen to him, Scott,” said Warren, who was sitting on a couch with James, “I just got back from a fight with my girlfriend and I’m still not that grumpy.”

“If anything, but Logan’s sunny disposition made me feel better after parting ways with Ororo,” said James with a bemused grin.

“You guys are assholes,” muttered Logan.

“Speak for yourself,” quipped Domino, who casually was cleaning her rifle.

“Not to defend Logan’s mood, but he has a good reason for being upset. The stakes have changed with X-Force. We’re no longer a poorly kept secret. That’s what we’re here to address,” said Scott as he approached his teammates.

“I’m all for high stakes, but why now?” asked Domino as she set her gun aside, “I thought were doing plenty of good beforehand. We helped desperate mutants avoid the MSA and hide from Xavier’s mind games.”

“It wasn’t enough, Domino. Just helping a handful of mutants isn’t going to change anything. We need to make a bigger statement,” said Scott.

“Well you’ve compromised some of our identities and cost some of us our jobs,” James pointed out.

“And possibly our girlfriends,” Warren added.

“That too, and technically we’re fugitives,” James went on, “We’re not on the top ten most wanted list, but the media and the MSA have definitely taken notice.”

“That’s the point, James. We’ve all had to make sacrifices to get our message across. Now the world knows there’s a legitimate opposition to Professor Xavier’s Mutant Monitoring Initiative. The next step is to make our point.”

“And just how are you planning to do that, bub?” asked Logan, his impatience still apparent.

“That’s exactly what Emma Frost is working on as we speak,” said Scott assertively.

The X-Force leader turned his attention to the center of the room. Logan, Domino, Warren, and James followed him as they approached the central computer they had set up.

It was shaped like a doughnut with a special projector in the center. It projected a crude, but usable holographic image for them to see. Sitting at main console was Emma Frost. She was deep in concentration, wearing a special helmet that was wired into the console. It was not as refined or powerful as Cerebrum, but they didn’t need it to be.

“I hope you all aren’t looking over my shoulder again. Using this shoddy incarnation of Cerebrum can’t be rushed,” said Emma as they approached.

“Trust me, Frost. Nobody looks at your shoulder,” said Logan with a suggestive undertone.

“You’re as charming as you are moody, Logan,” quipped Emma, “I’m glad I managed to cover my involvement with X-Force. It would definitely hurt my credibility back at the Academy.”

“So that alibi you mentioned worked?” asked Scott.

“As well as I hoped it would,” said the powerful telepath, “My darling Cuckoos are competent psychics. They were able to plant telepathic suggestions into everyone’s mind. As far as they’re concerned, I never left the campus.”

“What if someone brings a camera? You know how some of your male students aren’t shy about snapping pictures of you for their Facebook pages,” grinned Domino.

“I’ve got that covered as well. One of my new students, Morph, has been more than happy to cover for me. I also made it clear that if he took advantage of my position or my appearance, the Cuckoos had permission to melt his brain.”

“If he’s smart, he won’t test them,” said Scott, maintaining a serious tone, “It’s important that one of us remains in a legitimate public position. We’ll need the insight and the access if we’re to make our next move.”

“How far do you plan on taking it this time?” asked Warren, “We’ve already made ourselves targets. We won’t have the stealth advantage anymore.”

“We won’t be needing it. For our next mission, we have to be visible to a certain extent.”

“And why is that? So we can smile for the cameras again?” asked James.

“No. It’s so we can confront the X-men in a very public way,” said Scott.

This came as quite a surprise. Since X-Force began, they made a significant effort to avoid clashing with their friends and former teammates. The idea of purposefully fighting Charles Xavier and the X-men didn’t sit well. Scott seemed dead serious about it and didn’t shy away from it.

“Back up, Summers! I didn’t sign up for that shit,” barked Logan, “I still think Chuck has lost his damn mind, but I ain’t picking a fight with him!”

“Calm down, Logan. I didn’t say we would be fighting them. I just said we would confront them,” Scott explained, “My decision to make ourselves public didn’t come from nowhere. I planned on doing something like this as soon as our base was fully operational. Since creating our own mini-Cerebrum took longer than I thought, we had to bide our time.”

“Exactly how did you get your hands on Cerebrum technology again?” asked James.

“I’d rather not say,” said Scott, “For now, assume it was as legitimate as using Nova Roma’s networks to hack every mutant database on the planet. Now that we’re officially linked in, we can stay on top of the MSA and the X-men. That way when they take on the next mutant threat, we’ll be ready.”

“This is the primary task my charming ex-boyfriend has given me while the rest of you enjoy your tropical getaway in Nova Roma,” said Emma, “Charles was always better at me when it came to processing minds on a global scale. However, we need only one mutant incident with the right set of circumstances.”

“Define the right circumstances,” said Domino.

“The kind that will put the X-men and the MSA in a difficult position,” said Scott, “Remember those mutants we saved in Oakland? Picture something like that, but with the potential for more explosions.”

“In other words, meet up with Chuck when he’s bound to make another bone-headed decision,” Logan summarized.

“After what he’s done over the past six months, that’s actually as easy as it sounds,” said Warren.

“Say we do drop in and upstage the X-men. What’s that gonna solve?” said James skeptically.

“It’s not going to solve our problems, Warpath,” said Scott, “It’s another step we need to take towards showing that the Mutant Monitoring Initiative is doing more harm than good. We need to make it count because it’s already doing more harm than anyone cares to admit. Especially if the situation we’ve been tracking in District X gets worse.”

Scott turned towards Emma and nodded, which prompted her to bring up a new image on the central hologram. She had to hide her disgust for this part. One of the other major reasons she joined X-Force went beyond simply protecting her Academy. The Mutant Monitoring Initiative had created many unintended consequences, one of which involved a man she hoped had stayed dead.

On the holographic screen, an image of Sebastian Shaw emerged. It was an image that made Warren groan and Logan snarl. Shaw had a knack for making any crisis worse and this was once instance where his schemes could do a lot of damage.

“We’re operating under the assumption that this man, Sebastian Shaw, is going to exploit this situation in an obscenely terrible way,” said Scott, “This is the true cost of the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. This is what X-Force must stop.”

“God damn it, I wish I stabbed that scumbag harder,” grunted Logan.

“Next time, be sure to decapitate him. He’s giving us morethan enough reasons,” said Emma coldly, “My old BFF, Tessa, told me about Shaw’s little visit to District X six months ago. He’s been making headway ever since, convincing mutants to skip the Mutant Monitoring Initiative controversy and join him for whatever sadistic venture he’s concocted.”

“For a price, of course,” said Warren.

“With Shaw, there’s always a price,” said Emma, reminding herself of the high price she had paid because of this man, “The problem is there are many mutants willing to pay it. He’s offering them jobs and some strange hardware that allows them to evade Cerebrum’s detection.”

“So he’s doing our job and making money off it,” said Domino, “It’s a dick move, but pretty damn smart.”

“There’s nothing smart about it. He’s not doing this to oppose the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. Shaw is never that charitable,” said Scott, “He’s working an angle. We just can’t figure it out. Neither can Tessa.”

“If Shaw has that kind of pull, then shouldn’t the X-men know about it?” asked James, remembering all too clearly how rough his encounter with Shaw had been.

“Tessa is sleeping with Hank McCoy. Of course they know,” said Emma dryly, “They’re just not in a position to do anything about it. Nobody is. Shaw is too good at covering his tracks.”

“And since the X-men are now tied to politics, we can assume they’ll have too much in their way,” surmised Warren, “I know how Shaw works. He has half of Congress in his back pocket.”

“It may be worse than that,” said Scott, “The timing of Shaw’s return is too convenient. I suspect he may have a bigger hand in exploiting the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. I don’t think the Professor or the X-men will realize it until it’s too late. That’s why we have to act fast. The only way we can prevent this initiative from doing irreparable harm to us all is to stop it cold in its tracks.”

“Even it means bumping heads with our friends, huh?” said Logan, who still had reservations.

Especially if it means bumping heads with our friends,” he affirmed.

Scott painted a pretty grim picture. The stakes for X-Force were high enough. Adding Sebastian Shaw into the conflict promised all kinds of horrors. The hardest part of all was actively opposing the X-men.

Professor Xavier genuinely believed he was doing good with the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. He wouldn’t realize the problems created by men like Shaw until it was too late. For the sake of their friends and mutants in general, they had to succeed in their mission.

Now that the team knew what they were in for, Scott turned around to make his leave. X-Force now understood what they would have to do and why they would have to do it. He still sensed some wariness, but that was probably a good thing. X-Force needed that kind of mentality to avoid the arrogance that Professor Xavier had succumbed to.

“Now that you know what we have planned, you know what to prepare for,” said Scott while he was on his way out, “As soon as Emma detects the right activity, drop what you’re doing and move out!”

“We’ll be ready, Scott. What will you be up to in the meantime?” asked Warren.

“Meeting up with Kurt and checking in on the mutants we’ve freed. If we’re going to succeed in any of this, we’ll need to make friends and allies every step of the way.”

Portland, Oregon

Staring a new life and leaving behind an old life wasn’t supposed to be easy. However, was somewhat more tolerable when an old life wasn’t worth saving to begin with. Alison Crestmere didn’t care much for her old life anymore. She had never gotten along with her parents. Having also been expelled from school, there was little reason for her to go back. So the prospect of a new life was appealing.

It had been a bumpy ride since and three fellow mutants escaped from the MSA. Thanks to X-Force, they laid low and waited for the heat to die down. For the past few days, they lived in a safe house set up by X-Force. From this safe house, X-Force was somehow able to block the Mutant Monitoring Initiative from detecting them. They didn’t explain how, but Alison could care less so long as it meant she had a second chance. Grant, Ami, and Adrian seemed to share that sentiment as they prepared to start anew.

“I just spoke vith Cyclops. He confirmed zhat zhe MSA has halted their search. As far as zhe rest of zhe world is concerned, zhe four of you have vanished vithout a trace,” said Kurt Wagner, who addressed Alison and her three friends.

“Does that mean we can finally stop hiding in this dump?” asked Adrian.

“I don’t know. This place is a lot nicer than my old room at juvie,” said Ami, who was munching on a candy bar.

“It’s not the worst house I’ve stayed in, but I wouldn’t mind a change in scenery,” said Grant.

“Vell ve never had any intention of keeping you here indefinitely,” Kurt went on, “In addition to keeping track of zhe MSA, my friends have been vorking on new identities for you. Ve have made all zhe necessary arrangements. You have new identities, a new background, and a new life to do vith as you please. I have zhe paperwork vith me. Be sure to keep track of zhis. Zhere is also a few hundred dollars in cash to get you started.”

Kurt, who arrived with several files in hand, passed out these new documents to the young mutants. They each took a moment to look them over. They all looked clean and legitimate. They completely separated them from their old lives. In a way, it was liberating. It was also somewhat daunting, knowing that they a clean slate before them.

“I’m all for new beginnings, but what about our powers?” asked Alison, “How are we going to prevent the MSA from tracking us again if our powers flare up?”

“I vas just getting to zhat,” said Kurt as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a series of watch-like devices, “In addition to your papers, ve are also giving you some special dampeners. Do not ask how ve obtained zhem or how zhey vork. All you need to know is zhey block Cerebrum’s scans.”

“I’m all for staying hidden, but do they have to look so tacky?” complained Grant.

“What’s more important? Not looking tacky or living your own life?” quipped Adrian as he eagerly took one of the devices.

“They could have Hello Kitty stickers on it for all I care. So long as they work, I’ll take it,” said Ami.

“Oh zhey vill vork,” assured Kurt, “However, you can still cause a stir vith your powers. Zhat is vhy it is important you be responsible. X-Force does not have zhe time or resources to rescue someone twice.”

“We don’t need a lecture about responsibility,” said Alison, “We all know the price we’ll pay if we get cocky. If it makes you feel better, I’ll keep in touch with these guys and make sure they stay in line.”

“That’s awfully generous/crude of you, Alison,” said Grant dryly.

“It is also a good idea,” added Kurt, “Zhe four of you should keep in touch. In zhose files, zhere is also contact information for other mutant groups such as District X. Zhey should be able to help you should you need it. I von’t say zhis new life of yours is going to be easy, but as mutants you have great potential. I vish you luck in realizing it.”

Alison, Grant, Ami, and Adrian took another moment to process this. It was happening so quickly, going from normal humans to mutants like this. They nearly lost control of their lives. Then X-Force gave them a second chance. With these materials, they had both the resources and the incentives. It was up to them to make the most of it.

Now that they had everything they needed, the four mutants were ready to part ways with X-Force. While the others contemplated what they would do with their new lives, Alison took a moment to confront Kurt. Since Ami, Grant, and Adrian weren’t going to thank him appropriately, she took it upon herself to thank him for what he had done for them.

“Thank you, Kurt Wagner,” she said graciously, “I know we’re all pretty jaded, but we really do appreciate what you and X-Force are doing.”

“I’ll say! I’ll terminate my X-men fan club membership as soon as I get a place,” said Grant.

“No thanks are necessary,” said Kurt, “All is not lost vith zhe X-men. Ve are just doing vhat needs to be done until sanity returns.”

“Well even if it doesn’t, you guys are doing important work here,” Alison went on, “You see things from our perspective. We’re mutants, but we just want to live our lives. By giving us a chance to do so, you’re more than just heroes.”

Alison smiled at the German mutant and gave him a warm hug. This didn’t surprise Kurt too much at first, but then she added a kiss to the cheek. It caught him off guard, causing him to blush in a way that was apparent even with his blue skin. An awkward grin lingered on his face even after Alison parted and followed the others out through the main staircase. Along the way, they couldn’t help but tease her.

“Didn’t know you were that kinky, Alison,” teased Grant.

“I’m from Japan and even I’ve never seen that fetish,” said Ami.

“Get your heads out of the gutter, guys,” said Alison with a grin, “With crap like the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, we need to let X-Force know they’re doing the right thing. It sure as hell can’t be easy, but it helps us all if they succeed.”

The grin on Kurt’s face widened as he watched the four mutants ascend the stairs and exit the safe house. They were venturing into a world that was still hostile towards mutants, but they were not afraid. X-Force gave them a chance to live their lives as they saw fit. This desire to seize their destiny resonated with Kurt Wagner and it went beyond the mission of X-Force.

This new life for Alison, Grant, Ami, and Adrian had just begun. The challenge for X-Force was still far from over. It was sure to get tougher now. There were many other mutants out there in a tough situation because of the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. It was only a matter of time before they confronted one that tested their resolve.

Scranton, Pennsylvania

“Robert! Robert, you pitiful excuse for a shit stain, get back here!”

“Would saying I’m really sorry help in any way?” said a breathless Robert Hunter.

“You think you’re sorry? Wait till I get my hands on you! You don’t just apologize for screwing me over!”

Bad decisions always had a way for coming back with a vengeance. It was difficult enough dealing with it when it was unexpected. When a long list of accumulated bad decisions came back all at once, the difficulty was magnified. It put men like Robert Hunter in a very dangerous predicament.

Robert was no criminal mastermind. He wasn’t a petty crook either. He was just a high school dropout who thought he could stand to have a more comfortable lifestyle without working too hard for it.

He allowed himself to get involved with a number of gangs, a few loan sharks, and some drug dealers. He never intended to make a career out of illegal activities. He planned on saving up some money, moving out of Scranton, and starting his own business. Those plans were pretty much in ruin right now.  Getting involved with bad people was the easy part. Getting them out of his life proved far more difficult.

‘You’ve really done it now, Robby. You screwed yourself in ways that even your old man would laugh at. What the hell was I thinking? Going to the cops and offering to wear a wire so I could get away from these psychos? You made your money and now it’s gonna kill you! I’m getting sick just thinking about what they’ll do to me!’

Robert coughed and groaned as he lungs burned from so much running. He made it all the way to an abandoned fire station across the street from a mini mall. He could hear the footsteps of his irate loan shark and over a dozen angry associates. This evening went bad before it even started.

He had been scheduled to meet up with his loan shark where he was expected to pay off some old debts. He agreed to wear a wire for the police so they could bust him. But as soon as he was arrived, he was greeted by the loan shark and a contingent of pissed off associates, many of which were enforces from the gangs he worked with. They did not take kindly to someone snitching on them. All those old deals he made in hopes of getting ahead may end up costing him his life.

“We got him cornered!” yelled the loan shark, “Surround the building! Don’t let this sniveling pissant get away!”

“Dibs on his rib-cage!” said a particularly tall thug who was armed with a baseball bat.

Robert heard them closing in. His legs refused to carry him any further. Feeling weaker and sicker by the second, he stammered into the empty garage of the old fire house. It was rusted, dirty, and full of old debris that his former associates could use to rough him up even more. Fatigue finally set in as he collapsed next to an old work bench. The unlucky young man keeled over, gasping for air and feeling even sicker.

“Ugh! It hurts! Why...does it hurt?” he groaned.

The loan shark and his associates closed in. They converged around the fire house, seeing that Robert wasn’t running anymore. Now he was lying helpless on the floor, ready to accept his punishment.

“We got you now, you little snitch!” said the loan shark, cracking his knuckles in anticipation, “You should know you brought this on yourself, Robert. We’re just the glycerin. You’re the nitro that set it off!”

“We gave you a shot and you pissed it all away,” said another thug, “Don’t know if you’re a wimp or if you’re just plain stupid. Now you and every bone in your body is gonna pay the price!”

The angry thugs closed in on Robert, eager to dish out the punishment he so rightly earned. He was a small-timer who thought he could only be half a criminal. Whether it was stupidity or lousy luck, they were going to make an example of him.

But as they approached, something unexpected happened. While Robert was writhing on the floor, his eyes started glowing. As the glowing grew brighter, his groans grew louder. The pain of fatigue soon turned into a very different kind of pain.

Robert felt it growing rapidly inside him. It was like a volcano within his veins that was preparing to erupt. Just as his loan shark was about to land the first blow, the glowing in his eyes turned into a glowing ball of energy that completely engulfed his body.

“Whoa...what the hell? What kind of trick are you pulling, Robby?!” demanded the loan shark.

“Ungh! I…I don’t feel so good!” groaned Robert.

As he rose up, the glowing energy around him turned into a blinding flare. It was so powerful that the loan shark and his associates fell back. As angry as they were at Robert, this was getting too volatile for them. It seemed this poor guy’s bad luck was going to rough him up enough.

“To hell with this! I’m getting outta here!” yelled one of the thugs.

“This guy’s cursed!” yelled another.

The glowing soon engulfed the whole firehouse. Even the loan shark decided not to linger at this point. As they stammered out of the old firehouse as fast as they could, the glowing energy around Robert started pulsating ominously. In the middle of it all, the young man felt this mysterious power inside him reach critical mass.

“What’s...happening...to me?!” he cried from within the chaos, “Feels like I’m gonna...AHHHHHHHHHH!”

What happened next was seen by everyone within a five-block radius. Robert and the energy around him exploded in a massive outburst that utterly destroyed the old firehouse and severely charred the surrounding area. It was destruction on a terrifying scale that would not go unnoticed. Like everything else in Robert Hunter’s life, his luck was about to get much worse.

Up next: Volatility Sensibility

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