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Volume 7 -- Issue 151 -- Volatility Sensibility Part 1

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Volatility Sensibility Part 1
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It is a time of division for Professor Charles Xavier the X-men. Where they once stood together as a team, they are now fragmented. On one side stands the X-men, an official arm of the Mutant Security Agency and governed by the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. On the other side stands X-Force, a team led by Cyclops that sees the initiative as inherently destructive. In the middle of this conflict, they must still protect a world that hates and fears their kind.

It has been over six months since the Mutant Monitoring Initiative began. In that time, Professor Xavier and his X-men did a lot of good. They worked to ease public fears that had been heightened by the Mutant Liberation Front and the Genosha exodus. They fought crime, led humanitarian efforts, and protected the fragile peace that emerged after the Mutant Liberation Front’s defeat.

However, they were also behind some controversial actions, most of which centered on their cooperation with the government and how it has created unintended conflicts. Just as these conflicts are starting to grow, X-Force made a bold move that may send them on a collision course with the X-men.

After working in secret for months, X-Force publicly freed four mutants and hid them from the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. They did this shortly after activating their own version of Cerebrum to track mutant activity. Now, as X-Force finds themselves in the public eye, they’re ready to make a bolder statement. This puts Charles Xavier in a very difficult position.


Xavier Institute for Mutant Research - Xavier’s Office

One of Charles Xavier’s greatest strengths was his ability to rise to a challenge. Whether it was Magneto or cancer, he always stepped up and fought hard for his principles. The Mutant Monitoring Initiative had already presented him with a unique set of challenges. None were as daunting as this.

Sitting at his desk, he looked over a detailed report concerning X-Force. The report included thick folders, a few computer disks, and a detailed list of scenarios for him to assess. It was unlike any threat he had ever faced before. These weren’t mutant terrorists, misguided humans, or hostile aliens. These were his own students, his associates, and his closest friends.

It made him sick to his stomach, seeing them depicted as criminals. He still had the greatest respect and affection for them. However, General Grimshaw and others within the government were expecting him to resolve the matter.

‘I trained you too well, Scott. You’re not a student anymore. You’re a leader. You’ve managed to rally others to your cause. You’ve successfully planned an operation that succeeded in every intended way. Now I have to oppose you and everything about that troubles me to no end.’

Xavier brought up a detailed sequence of images on his computer. These images had been compiled from news reports and footage from the public during the Oakland incident. They clearly identified some while speculating with others.

Cyclops, Wolverine, Warpath, and Domino were fairly prominent. Nightcrawler was a bit more obscured. Given his history with the Azazel, he preferred to keep a low profile. He also recognized Emma Frost as the telepath in the image, but she was so obscured that she couldn’t be identified. She was also not listed because she apparently had a solid alibi for this incident, of which Xavier was certain was a ruse. For her to take that big a chance, it showed that she and the others were truly dedicated to their cause.

‘You weren’t the only one opposed to my initiative, Scott. I still remember how upset Emma and James Proudstar were when I got the Academy of Tomorrow involved. I thought I had convinced them to give it a chance. I suppose you made a much more compelling argument. Emma managed to cover her tracks, but Warpath and the rest of X-Force aren’t even trying. It’s as if you want the world to know you’re opposing me. Why go this far, Scott? Have I alienated you THAT much?’

The Professor held his head low, having to look away from his computer for a moment to digest his sorrow. It was too difficult, looking upon his former students as enemies. It left him so conflicted that he didn’t realize Hank McCoy entering his office. His anxious mood seemed to reflect that of the whole team.

“Is this a bad time, Charles?” he asked warily.

“I don’t see how it can get much worse, old friend. I don’t see how it can get better either, so feel free to interrupt,” sighed Xavier.

“I don’t think anyone is expecting a clear course of action. In this instance, it would behoove us all if you took your time.”

“If only General Grimshaw and President Kelly felt the same way. They have no emotional stake in combating X-Force. They’re expecting a plan by the end of the day. If I don’t deliver, then they’ll find someone who won’t be nearly as careful.”

Now it was Hank’s turn to hold his head low. This was one conundrum where superior intellect did them little good. The X-men placed themselves in a vulnerable position by agreeing to the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. It marked the first occasion that put them at odds with their friends.

Hank had enough quandaries to ponder with his work on mutant research. He allowed the awkward silence to linger a bit before sitting down across from Xavier’s desk and addressing another heart-wrenching subject.

“I suppose this would be an inopportune time to bring up a personal matter I’ve been putting off,” said Hank in a solemn tone, “Tessa has been getting quite worked up lately. And for a woman who can turn off her emotions like a coffee maker, that’s saying a lot.”

“That would follow a growing trend as of late,” said Xavier, “Relationships on every level have come under quite a bit of strain.”

“This is somewhat different. She and I agreed to stop keeping secrets from each other. So when Sebastian Shaw showed up in District X six months ago, she did not hesitate to tell me.”

“Yes, I remember you bringing that up,” said the Professor, “I take it nothing has come of it yet.”

“Oh I would say plenty has come of it, Charles. It’s not unlike our current predicament with X-Force, which is why I’m bringing it up,” said Hank in a more serious tone, “Tessa has been walking on egg-shells since Shaw showed up. She’s been unable to stand in his way as dozens of mutants from District X agree to go with Shaw, disappearing from our monitoring capabilities in the process.”

“That’s another problem I’ve been working on with General Grimshaw,” said Professor Xavier, “I brought up Sebastian Shaw’s name, but he and many others in high places agree. He’s too well-connected to confront.”

“If we weren’t bound by the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, would we go after regardless of his connections?”

“I hope that doesn’t imply you agree with X-Force now,” said Xavier in a serious, yet wary tone, “It’s a little early to cast that level of doubt.”

“I’m not tendering my X-status just yet. I’m merely widening our perspective,” retorted Hank, “Working with the authorities is all well and good, but with additional resources come additional limitations. We both know Sebastian Shaw is trouble. It’s only a matter of time before he shows his true colors.”

“I don’t want to see that happen anymore than you or Tessa. That is exactly why we need to do better.”

“I agree, but I honestly don’t know what to tell Tessa anymore. Even Bishop and Multiple are buying into Shaw’s plan. She can’t say anything without revealing her sordid history. She’s trapped like us, bound by circumstances that prevent us from doing what is necessary.”

Hank’s heart ached for Tessa just as the Professor’s heart ached for the students, some of whom now worked against him. It struck at their confidence in the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. It struck at the very principles of the X-men. Many were wary of where this new vision of his dream lead. The onus was on Charles Xavier to prove that they were doing the right thing.

“We will help Tessa, old friend. I promise,” said Xavier, offering a comforting gesture to his friend.

“I don’t question your desire to assist my paramour. I merely question whether we’re in a position to do so,” said Hank in a morose tone.

“And I intend to answer those questions in kind. Just as I intend to show X-Force that we can make the Mutant Monitoring Initiative work,” he said strongly, “The key in their case, as well as Shaw’s, is addressing the fears that many still harbor. We need to show more mutants that it is beneficial to work with us rather than against us.”

“I hope you have a plan on making that case soon, Charles. X-Force certainly made an impression in Oakland,” Hank pointed out.

“As it just so happens, I’ve been working on such a plan this morning,” he said, “One that I hope to get the whole team involved with.”

The Professor turned back towards his desk and turned around his monitor so that Hank could see what he had been working on. He minimized the screen that showed the members of X-Force and brought up another screen that displayed a very different set of images. Despite his concerns about Tessa, he quickly became intrigued.

“What exactly am I looking at, Charles?” asked Hank.

“This is a detailed analysis on a new mutant signature,” Xavier explained, “Cerebrum detected it a few days ago. It’s small, but volatile. It’s exactly the kind of mutant activity that the X-men and the MSA are equipped to handle.”

“Robert Hunter. Home in Scranton, Pennsylvania and home to a power that involves rapid ion energy build-up and release,” said Hank as he read over some of the data, “A most unfortunate manifestation.”

“And one he’s struggling to control,” Xavier went on, “It has already led to the destruction of an old fire house. At the moment, the media is not aware that this is a mutant issue. They’re treating that incident as unfortunate accident involving an old furnace explosion.”

“How long can we expect that story to last?”

“Not nearly as long as we need it to,” he said seriously, “Which is why I plan on mobilizing the X-men. This is a good way for us to strengthen our case. We can help this poor young man. We can demonstrate to the world that there is merit to the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. By doing so, we may not even have to confront Sebastian Shaw or X-Force.”

“That’s assuming it’ll go smoothly, Charles.”

“I never said that it would. I understand that progress of any kind will require hard work. X-Force is doing theirs. It’s only fitting that we do ours.”


Nova Roma – X-Force Headquarters

‘Attention X-Force. I’m sending you this telepathic message on behalf of my humorless ex-boyfriend. I’ve detected some new mutant activity with our Cerebrum 1.0. It’s the kind of activity that the X-men and the MSA see fit to confront in full force. As such, Cyclops expects us all to be present in the staging area in ten minutes. If you had plans to partake in Nova Roma’s wine-soaked nightlife, you had best cancel them.’

Emma Frost’s telepathic orders were never subtle or polite. It seemed like an appropriate style for X-Force since they operated outside the law. That didn’t make it any less annoying. This unexpected announcement came early in the morning so some were more annoyed than others.

“Damn it! I hate it when this shit happens in the middle of a shower,” groaned Warren, who was making his way through the living area with Logan and Domino.

“I hate it even more when it happens before I finish a beer,” grunted Logan, who was already in his Wolverine costume.

“When are you not in the process of finishing a beer?” joked Domino.

“Your point being?” quipped the feral mutant.

Neither Domino nor Warren bothered arguing. They just followed Logan, who ran out ahead of them.

The staging area was in the basement where all the Cerebrum components were set up. Scott and Emma were probably already there. James Proudstar might be as well since he often responded quickly to any threat. Kurt was the only one that lingered. He had been in the kitchen when he got the call. As he watched his teammates run by, he figured he would have to set aside his oversized sandwich.

“So much for a hardy breakfast,” sighed the German mutant, “Zhere can be no rest for zhe Nightcrawler express.”

Despite his rumbling stomach, he stuffed the sandwich inside the refrigerator for later. Since his teleportation powers were their primary mode of transportation from this remote area, he needed to be on the front lines with X-Force. He was about to teleport down into the staging area when the door to the living area opened to reveal an unexpected presence.

“You’re putting away a sandwich without eating it? You must have another mission,” said the often-conflicted Wanda Maximoff.

“Oh…Vanda,” said Kurt, who nearly dropped his sandwich, “You’re as observant as you are sneaky.”

“Now why would I want to sneak up on you?” she joked as she made her way through the living area.

“Zhat’s a good question….one zhat I’d rather not answer at a time like zhis.”

Wanda’s demeanor shifted. She stood awkwardly across the room, watching as he put his sandwich away and grabbed a few snacks for the trip. He was avoiding eye-contact with her. He had been doing that a lot lately. There were many reasons for that, none of which he would talk about.

“I’m sorry, Kurt. I was just hoping we could…you know, talk at some point,” she said in a more serious tone, “Living here in Nova Roma would be a lot easier if I had someone I could relate to.”

“Zhis is a secretive, isolated city vith thousands of friendly citizens. You’re a beautiful woman vith powers in a society zhat values magic. I don’t zhink finding friends is as difficult as you make I tout to be,” said Kurt.

“You’re wrong and I would appreciate it if you would be less an ass about it,” she retorted, “Ever since I landed on Genosha, my whole life was consumed by global conflict. I worked day and night obsessing over it. Now I come here…and there’s nothing.”

“I thought you said you needed a vacation,” retorted the German mutant.

“That was six months ago. In that time the X-men have split up, the Mutant Monitoring Initiative has been set up, and the Brotherhood is still at large, along with hundreds of Genoshan refugees. You were there for me when I needed to pull myself together. I know I’m putting you in an awkward position, but I don’t feel comfortable addressing this with anyone else.”

Kurt finally looked her in the eye, no longer able to avoid her gaze. Wanda Maximoff knew how to maintain a strong presence. Being Magneto’s daughter made that a requirement of sorts. That presence was part of what led him to help her adjust to life in Nova Roma.

After he brought her to this city in wake of the Genosha Exodus, she was in a vulnerable state. Having stopped a barrage of nuclear missiles together, they were drawn to each other. That presented a hell of a problem for Kurt.

Amanda was still in a coma. She hadn’t showed up in any of his dreams. Margali and Shaman weren’t able to reach her either. It left Kurt helpless once again. He still loved Amanda and stayed by her side. Wanda understood that. He made that clear to her on their first day in Nova Roma. That still didn’t stop her from getting closer to him in ways that were more than just awkward.

“Kurt, you know I don’t mean to complicate your life. Neither of us asked to be in this situation,” she said in a more compassionate tone.

“I don’t doubt your sincerity, Vanda. I never do,” said Kurt.

“But you clearly have doubts,” she pointed out, “Otherwise you wouldn’t be avoiding me.”

“I don’t vant to avoid you. Between X-Force and Amanda, I’m just not sure I’m zhe best person you should look to for answers,” he told her.

“That’s where you’re wrong. You’ve given me more in the past six months than anyone has given me in years. You encouraged me to take a step back and look at the bigger picture…to think beyond my father or the Brotherhood. And guess what? It worked!”

“Zhen vhat do you still need me for?”

“More than I care to admit,” she said as she moved closer towards him, “All my life, I’ve been following the plans of others. First it was my father. Then it was Charles Xavier’s. I never stepped back and really contemplated what I wanted. I think I’m ready to start making decisions, but I don’t want to make them alone. Whether you like it or not, I’ve come to trust you, Kurt. I need to know how far that trust can go.”

Kurt shifted awkwardly in Wanda’s close presence. She had a commanding poise to go along with her honest sincerity. It was hard to pull himself away from her. He sensed more than just trust from Wanda.

There were strong emotions associated with that trust...emotions that conflicted with his love for Amanda. He struggled to find the right words with this woman. She didn’t make it easy for him. Then he received a rather harsh reminder in his head from Emma Frost that there were other pressing concerns.

‘Kurt, we’re waiting for you and getting extremely impatient. Finish stuffing your face and flirting with Magneto’s daughter. We have a mission and it’s not going to wait for your stomach or your loins.’

‘I’m on my vay, Emma. No need to bombard my brain vith needless migraines.’

‘When you’re thinking with the wrong head, I think the need is more than appropriate.’

Kurt clutched his head as a stinging headache set in. It was Emma’s way of reinforcing her point. She was not nearly as polite as Jean Grey or Professor Xavier when it came to telepathic urgings. Wanda seemed to pick up on this and sighed in frustration.

“I take it your friends are getting impatient,” said Wanda.

“Duty calls, I’m afraid. Emma Frost likes to make it hurt as vell,” said Kurt, still rubbing his temples.

“Then I won’t keep you. I believe you guys are doing the right thing, opposing this Mutant Monitoring Initiative that Charles Xavier has concocted,” she said in an accepting tone, “But I would still like to finish this conversation at some point.”

“You know I’m not one to avoid zhese zhings, Vanda. I am that heartless,” he assured her.

“Is that a promise?”

“It is exactly vhat it needs to be. Zhat’s all it can be…for now.”

He said those last two words under his breath. He probably didn’t mean to say them. He didn’t stick around to take them back either. He teleported away in a puff of smoke to meet up with X-Force and begin the mission. It left Wanda even more conflicted, but in an entirely different way. She found herself lingering in the sulfurous smoke, contemplating the long list of problems that confounded her.

“For now…right,” she said to herself, “Guess I’m not the only one who needs to do some serious thinking.”


Scranton, Pennsylvania

Since the onset of the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, it was rare when a mission required the full team. Everyone in the X-men had their own set of duties and specialties. Working with the MSA and the governments of the world made their work much more regimented. That didn’t mean the X-men weren’t needed when a difficult case emerged.

The incident in Scranton, Pennsylvania had already escalated. What started off as a random explosion had quickly become more volatile. The local MSA had descended upon the area, ensuring panic didn’t spread over a renegade mutant. The X-men were tasked with confronting the source of the threat directly. To do so in a world where X-Force was making headlines, the team needed a shift in protocol.

“So how big a catastrophe we be dealing with, Professor?” asked Remy from the passenger area of the X-jet.

“I would say it’s not quite catastrophe level just yet. It’s a far cry from an attack by the Mutant Liberation Front,” said Professor Xavier from the cockpit, who was monitoring the situation on the ground while Hank flew the jet.

“So why do we need the full team for this? Is this mutant really that dangerous?” asked Piotr.

“The potential for danger is certainly there. It simply hasn’t been realized. It will be our job to ensure it stays that way,” he replied.

“In any case, it helps to have numbers on our side,” added Hank, “We’re dealing with one mutant and in cases such as this, it’s wise to provide multiple sources of aid.”

“It worked for meh when mah powers kicked in. Ah doubt this poor fella is in nearly as bad a shape,” shrugged Rogue.

“That’s debatable,” said Xavier, “I contacted the Pennsylvania State Police for more information on this Robert Hunter. He’s no career deviant, but he’s not inclined to think things through either.”

“The bloke still has a bit of a record,” added Betsy, “He got involved with some bad people for the wrong reasons. Then when he tried to do the right thing, he found out that criminals don’t take kindly to snitches.”

“Guess he never saw the Godfather,” muttered Jean.

“Does this mean we’ll have to deal with hardened criminals on top of dealing with a volatile mutant?” asked Ororo.

“That’s something we hope to avoid,” said Xavier, “General Grimshaw has informed me that the MSA and local law enforcement have imposed an emergency curfew on the town. It’s currently this under the guise of a gas leak from an old coal mine. The area has a history of such leaks so I doubt it will cause much stir with the media.”

“I thought we wanted to get the media involved,” said Ororo, “After what happened in Oakland, you said we needed to make a public statement.”

“And we will,” assured the Professor, “We will demonstrate to the media that the X-men and the MSA can work together in an efficient manner. That’s why I’ve made a few changes to our operations for this mission.”

“What kind of changes?” asked Jean warily.

“You’re about to find out,” said Hank as he flew the jet in lower.

The X-jet shook as it settled over a local soccer field that the MSA had cordoned off. On the ground, a number of MSA armored vans were parked along the south end of the field. Several MSA officer and local police waved the X-men in for landing. As soon as they touched down, Hank cut power to the engines and opened the main hatch on the side. Within moments, they were greeted by a familiar, albeit unwelcome presence.

“Welcome to Nowheresville, USA,” greeted Captain Jack Freeman, “Hope you X-men are ready for a fresh round of crazy.”

“And he’s here because?” said Rogue dryly.

“Didn’t you get the memo? I’m the new field leader of the X-men.”

Jean, Ororo, Piotr, Rogue, Remy, and Betsy all turned towards Professor Xavier. They looked at him strangely, projecting a wide range of anxious and disgruntled thoughts.

“Please tell me this is General Grimshaw’s idea of a joke,” said Betsy in a cynical tone.

“Since when does the government get to decide who leads the X-men?” asked Piotr.

“Since your old leader decided to jump ship and start a solo act,” answered Captain Freeman, “Which, mind you, has a lot of people in Washington very worried.”

“You better watch what you say about our friends, Captain,” said Jean strongly.

“That’s quite enough, X-men!” said Xavier sternly as he walked out from the cockpit, “Nobody imposed anything on us. It is something that General Grimshaw and I came up with together.”

“And you didn’t think it be necessary to let us know?” said Remy.

“We decided to implement it sooner than expected,” he clarified, “Given the nature of this mission, we felt it necessary to move forward. Captain Freeman here has demonstrated his worth on many occasions. His experience and skill-set make him perfectly suited to head field operations. I do apologize for dropping this on you so suddenly, but this is an important operation. I trust you’ll treat it as such.”

Professor Xavier did not leave it open for debate. He and Hank followed Captain Freeman out of the jet, making it clear to the X-men that he expected them to do the same. It still didn’t seem right, someone like Captain Freeman leading the X-men as Cyclops once had.

Even though he was a mutant who had helped the X-men in the past, he made no secret of his attitude for the X-men. He saw their entire approach to the human/mutant conflict as flawed. Following him in the field would be awkward to say the lease.

“This better just be a PR stunt,” said Jean as she reluctantly followed the others, “A one-time thing to show that the X-men and the military can get along.”

“If it ends up working, then I doubt it,” said Betsy.

“And if it doesn’t, that will be even worse,” Piotr pointed out, “The man is a solider and a very good one from what we have seen.”

“It takes more than a soldier to lead the X-men, Peter,” said Rogue.

“I agree, Rogue. So why don’t we see if he has what it takes?” said Ororo.

“You guys almost sound eager to replace Cyclops,” muttered Jean.

“We’re not trying to replace anyone, Jean,” said Ororo, “This is a difficult situation. There’s no shame in getting help.”

Jean remained unconvinced. No one seemed convinced, but they were willing to give Captain Freeman a chance. He was a trained Green Beret in addition to being a mutant. Despite his conflicting views about the X-men, their missions were intertwined. Working together was in their best interests.

The X-men followed Hank and Professor Xavier and onto a makeshift staging area. A number of MSA officers and local police set up a row of tables with laptops and communications equipment. A few operatives were passing out the MSA’s advanced mutant weaponry to the local police and showing them how to use it. They were also setting up large containment areas that looked equipped to house a very dangerous mutant. It offered an ominous hint of what they were up against.

“X-men, this is Scranton Police Chief Alonso. He’s been helping us contain this messy incident before it started trending on Twitter,” said Captain Freeman as he turned around and addressed the team.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Chief Alonso,” greeted Professor Xavier.

“It’ll be a much greater pleasure if you X-men can help me clean this up,” said Chief Alonso, “Would you be less inclined if I said I’ve donated to Reverend Stryker’s ministry?”

“That depends. Did your wife make you do it?” quipped Rogue.

“Feel free to plead the fifth, Captain. We’re used to helping people who don’t like us,” said Betsy.

“This town will like you a lot more if we can end this,” said the police chief, “I’ve imposed a curfew for the past twenty four hours, but eventually the town folk are gonna get restless.”

“Which is why we need to act quickly and efficiently,” said Hank.

They then turned towards one of the laptops on the table. One of the MSA analysts nodded towards Hank and turned it around so that everyone could see. It presented a detailed map of the city that had been marked with a series of red dots.

“As you can see, I’ve linked Cerebrum’s mutant tracking program to the MSA’s encrypted VPN,” Hank went on, “Mr. Hunter’s first mutant manifestation is marked by the large red signature in the center.”

“That area is now a smoldering wreck of what used to be an old fire house,” said Chief Alonso.

“Following that destructive outburst, a series of smaller bursts were tracked down one of the south avenues leading out of the city,” he said while gesturing over the screen, “These bursts have been quite destructive. They’ve torn up streets, blown out windows, and rendered a number of cars in need of insurance.”

“Have there been any deaths or injuries?” asked Captain Freeman.

“This happened late at night so collateral damage has been minimal,” said Chief Alonso, “We’ve had a couple of traffic accidents, a few minor injuries from people in nearby buildings, and some light disruption in major utilities.”

“In other words, there’s nothing Fox News can obsess over just yet,” said Jean.

“That may change very soon,” said Professor Xavier ominously, “If you’ll look at the map, you’ll see the dots leading to a very dangerous area…one that could threaten the entire town.”

“That would be the old coal mines,” said Hank grimly, “While most mining operations were shut down over a decade ago, some of the tunnels are still up. Some squatters and gangs set up shop in them, but the real danger is in what would happen if Mr. Hunter has another outburst. Should he find himself in the right area at the wrong time, the destructive force of his powers could send shock-waves throughout the surrounding mines.”

“A number of which run under this city and a few surrounding towns,” added Chief Alonso, “There are so damn many that the coal companies never got around to filling those tunnels in.”

“You all passed my physics class so you know what this means,” said Hank, “I doubt Mr. Hunter is aware of this danger and it is up to us to inform him before he learns the hard way.”

Police Chief Alonso paled at the prospect. The X-men understood and empathized with his fears. An entire town could be wiped off the map if they didn’t get this unfortunate mutant under control. Regardless of their new arrangements, the goal of the X-men remained intact. They had to help this mutant before he could harm himself or others.

“Bloody hell,” groaned Betsy, “I’m not sure if I should feel sorry for this guy or be mad at him for doing something this stupid.”

“Speaking as the only one who didn’t pass a physics class, I’ll vouch for the guy if his powers haven’t made him an asshole,” said Captain Freeman.

“That is your primary mission, X-men,” said Professor Xavier, “I will work with Chief Alonso and the MSA to guide you to Mr. Hunter. By now he has probably reached the mines so proceed with caution.”

“Understood, Professor,” said Ororo, “But what if we reach him and he is unable to control his powers?”

“Don’t worry about that, my dear,” said Hank confidently, “Dr. Rao and I have been working on something that I hope will render such a scenario irrelevant.”

“That sure would’ve been handy when mah powers kicked in,” said Rogue.

“Such is the benefit of having access to SWORD resources,” said Hank proudly.

“I’m not as concerned with stopping this guy as I am about running into X-Force,” said Jean, “What if they know about this too? What if we can’t get out of each other’s way?”

“Then we’ll take the appropriate course of action,” said Captain Freeman, who was already prepared to move out.

“What does that supposed to mean?” asked Jean suspiciously.

“If we do this right, we won’t have to find out,” retorted the Green Beret, “Now let’s get going, X-men! This walking bomb won’t wait till midnight to start the fireworks!”

Captain Freeman’s tone was aggressive. It was his way of taking charge. He was the field leader and he expected the X-men to follow him. He was already making his way towards an armored MSA vehicle. Jean, Ororo, Rogue, Remy, Piotr, and Besy lingered a bit. Professor Xavier offered an assuring gesture to urge them along.

“Go with him, X-men. I know this is a difficult adjustment, but it is one we’ll need to make,” said Professor Xavier.

“That still be begging the question…just how many adjustments we gonna make,” said Remy.

“We’ll confront those challenges as they arise. For now, finding Robert Hunter is our primary focus,” said Professor Xavier, “You should hurry. I suspect he’s in more trouble than we think.”


South Scranton Coal Mines

‘Insides burning. Feels like I just drank a shot of acid. It’s gonna happen again! Can’t let it! Gotta get away before…’

Robert Hunter’s thoughts broke down as another round of agony consumed him. His whole body ached. He had been running since the previous night. Since that first explosion at the old fire house, his only focus was getting as far away as possible. His problems with his loan shark were light years from his mind. Something was happening to him and as he clawed his way up a rocky hill, it happened again.

“No! Not again! I can’t…AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

His body erupted in another burst of bright bluish energy. It started from his eyes and quickly consumed him from head to toe. When it got to be too much, the energy was released in a powerful explosion. It wasn’t as powerful as the blast that destroyed the fire house, but it was still powerful enough to leave a circle of scorched earth around him.

Robert’s ears kept ringing as he lay helpless on the rugged terrain. Somehow he made it all the way to the old coal mines where his father used to work. It seemed like the only place left for him. Looking back towards the city, he saw no way for him to return. He was so tired and weak, yet he was still dangerous to be around.

“What am I going to do?” groaned Robert as he stared at the cloudy sky above him, “I’m not just a freak. I’m a walking time bomb! It’s official. There’s no possible way for my life to get any worse!”

The dazed young man closed his eyes and groaned. His world had been falling apart before this happened. Now it was beyond repair. He was lost and no one was coming to help him. Perhaps that was for the better. At this rate, he would only hurt them too.

As Robert lamented at his horrendous luck, he heard a noise in the distance. It came from the main entrance to the coal mine where heavy construction vehicles used to enter. He rose up and saw three trucks driving alongside a large van. The terrain around this mine was pretty rugged so it was rare for anybody to come this way. At first he was hopeful. Maybe someone saw the explosion he caused and was here to help. Then he recognized a figure in the back of a truck and his hopes were quickly dashed.

“Hey Nitro!” yelled the voice of his loan shark, “We’ve got unfinished business.”

“Looks like I spoke too soon,” groaned Robby.

The weakened young man stumbled to his feet. He tried running deeper into the minds, making his way towards what was left of an elevator shaft. He didn’t make it very far. Within minutes, the three trucks surrounded him and the van behind them pulled up. There was nowhere for him to escape. Robert froze where he stood, watching as over a dozen intimidating men armed with baseball bats and guns stood over him.

“You guys are making a big mistake!” he warned them, “You saw what I did back at the firehouse. Do you really want to be around when it happens again?”

“I sure as hell don’t. Hell, I was hoping you saved us the trouble and blew your ass up,” scoffed the loan shark, “But this isn’t about what I want. It’s what the boss wants.”

The loan shark signaled the van to pull in closer. It stopped about ten feet from where Robert was standing. He stepped back slightly, only to be shoved forward by one of the lone shark’s over-sized friends. He tried not to tremble as a neatly dressed Latino man stepped out of the van. He had short hair, dark sunglasses, and fancy-looking jewelry. Robert Hunter had been involved with criminals long enough to know that this man was powerful and dangerous.

“So this is the man I drove all the way from New York to meet,” said the man, “He’s not nearly as imposing as I thought.”

“You’re in good company, boss. Mr. Hunter is what you may call a lazy criminal,” said the loan shark, “He wants the money and the comfort, but he lacks the balls and the heart to go through with it.”

“Typical,” the boss scoffed, “You lazy kids, not looking both ways before you cross the fucking street. I’m not a cruel man, but guys like you deserve far worse than a bullet in the head.”

“Please,” said Robert, his tone weakening under the man’s gaze, “I really don’t know who you are or why you’re here. If you know my story, then you know I’m already screwed!”

“You don’t need to know my name, Mr. Hunter. Just call me, Boss,” grinned the imposing man, “As for your story, I would say you’re anything but screwed. In fact, you may be the luckiest punk this side of the Mississippi.”

“I just started blowing up randomly in a way I can’t control! How the hell is that lucky?”

The Boss and his associates started laughing. Robert grew increasingly anxious. That sick feeling in the pit of his stomach was starting to build again. It meant this bad situation was about to get worse in so many ways.

“Wow...you really are as stupid as you look!” said the loan shark.

“Cut the man some slack. He’s clearly had a rough couple of days,” said Boss as he patted Robert on the back, “Allow me to spell it out for you. This power that’s got you whining like a little girl has a lot of otential. You just need a little imagination.”

“I’d rather not imagine. I’d rather it just stop!” cried Robert.

“Why would you want to stop something so useful? The way I see it, you’re a walking bomb that no sane person would suspect. In my line of work, that kind of surprise goes a long ways. For instance, there’s this nasty waste of flesh in Philadelphia that ran a few of my businesses out of town. I know where he lives. I know where he hangs out. Imagine if someone like you drops by, an unarmed weakling who he won’t suspect of anything. Then before he knows how fucked he is, what’s left of him is feeding the birds.”

Robert understood what he was getting at. It made him almost as sick as these powers. He would become a walking bomb for some ruthless criminal who didn’t mind blowing up populated areas. Having never aspired to be more than a petty thug, he would be thrust into a role he could not live with. He started shaking his head in disgust, clutching his temples as if to try and wake up from this nightmare.

“No! That…that’s madness. I won’t do it! I can’t!” he exclaimed.

“You must have missed the part where we said you was a choice,” said the loan shark, pointing a gun right in his face to reinforce his point, “As far as I’m concerned, Robert Hunter is no more. You’re Nitro! Our new secret weapon!”

“I don’t want to be anybody’s weapon!” Robert cried.

“You gave up the right to do what you want when you tried to screw us over. Or have you forgotten?” said Boss, “You have a debt to pay off and to do that, you gotta become Nitro. Do you understand?”

“Oh I understand. I understand it’s completely insane! I can’t even control this. How the hell do you expect me to go along with it?”

“Once again, you lack imagination,” sighed Boss, “Perhaps you should let me do the thinking from now on. My people and I are clearly better at it. Whether you like it or not, you must repay your debts. It’s only a matter of how uncomfortable you’re willing to make yourself.”

Before Robert could begin to resist, two of Boss’s imposing henchmen grabbed him by his arms and restrained him. He tried to break free, but their grip was too strong.

“No! Don’t!” he cried, “You’re making a big…”

The hapless man was silenced when one of the thugs restraining him punched him in the gut, causing him to keel over and howl in agony.

“Augh!” he groaned.

“Shut up!” said the thug that punched him, “You’re a disgrace to every other freak with a superpower!”

“Take it easy on him,” coaxed Boss as he signaled two associates from the van, “Nitro isn’t a freak. He’s a valued asset now.”

From the van, the associates emerged and approached Robert. They weren’t armed or dressed like thugs. One was holding a small case with a medical emblem on it and the other was holding a fresh syringe. Robert watched with dread as the man with the syringe reached into the case and pulled out a vial of clear liquid. He then proceeded to draw a carefully measured dose.

“You shouldn’t be whining. You’ll get to work with us all doped out on sedatives,” laughed the loan shark, “We should all be so lucky to do our jobs high.”

“These aren’t the kind of sedatives I used to sell on street corners,” said Boss, “These men are both doctors. This sedative that has too many syllables for me to pronounce will ensure you don’t blow your top until the appropriate moment.”

“Hnn...I won’t do it!” grunted Robert.

“You can and you will. Now that you have power, you’re gonna use it and you’re gonna use it however we tell you to use it.”

Boss stepped back so the two doctors could administer the syringe. Robert tried to struggle, but he was too weak. He grimaced as one of the thugs grasping him held his arm out. The first doctor swabbed an area around his upper harm while the other tapped the syringe in preparation.

“Hold still,” said the doctor, “This won’t hurt a bit.”

Robert closed his eyes, dreading what would happen next. For all he knew, he would wake up in Boss’s basement drugged and gagged like an animal. Or worse, he would end up in some crowded area ready to blow. Either way, he would be at this man’s mercy and there was nothing he could do about it.

The needle was about to go into his arm. Then out of nowhere, a deafening gunshot rang out. It sounded like a shot from a high-powered rifle. Before Boss and his men could react, the lone bullet struck the syringe and grazed the doctor’s hand. It was an impossible shot that shattered the instrument and put the doctor in more pain than he had promised.

“AHHHHH! MY HAND!” exclaimed the doctor.

“Someone’s shooting at us! Everybody down!” ordered Boss as he slipped back into his van.

“Damn you, Nitro! Did you screw us over again?” exclaimed the loan shark.

Robert fell to the ground along with the rest of the men. They all scanned the nearby hills and cliffs, looking for the source of the shot. Some got behind the trucks and van, clutching their weapons anxiously. It was a potentially bloody fight that Robert wanted no part of. Whether it was sheer luck or something else entirely, he needed to get away.

With renewed strength, Robert jammed his elbow right into the gut of the thug that was restraining him. He got in a hard blow, which loosened his grip just enough.

“Ow! You little...” grunted the thug.

“Sorry guys! But if the choice is between you and a bullet to the skull, I’ll go with the bullet,” yelled Robert as he stammered to his feet.

“Don’t you dare run, you little shit!” yelled the loan shark as he aimed his gun at Robert.

“Hold up!” exclaimed one of the loan shark’s henchmen, “You don’t want to shoot him! That may set him off again!”

“He’s also more valuable alive than dead,” reminded another, “We’ll get to him. Just as soon as we figure out who the hell got the drop on us!”

The loan shark and Boss watched in frustration as Robert ran into the mine, navigating past piles of rock and old mining equipment until he was out of sight. Some were tempted to run after him, but then more shots rang out. They bullets hit closely, striking the windows of the van and the tires of the car. Whoever was shooting was an incredibly accurate shot. They made it clear that they could be hit if they tried anything foolish.

“What’s happening, Boss? Who the hell could be doing this?” asked one of Boss’s body guards, who tried to shield him inside the van.

“Is someone else after Nitro?” wondered the doctor that wasn’t wounded.

“No. This is something else,” said Boss as he looked out into the hills, “We need to go after him, but we’ll need to proceed carefully. Someone is leaving this mine empty-handed and it won’t be us!”


Meanwhile

“Nice shooting, Domino. Hunter was able to escape,” said Cyclops, who monitored the scene from atop a hill with high-powered binoculars.

“Not the toughest shot I ever made, but still cracked half a sweat,” said Domino as she stared down the scope of her high-powered rifle, “Looks like they’re going after the kid in their trucks. Should I take them out?”

“Not yet, but keep them in your sights,” said Cyclops, “Now we’re ready for the hard part.”

The X-Force leader left Domino on the hilltop and met up with the rest of the team. Warpath, Emma Frost, Wolverine, Angel, and Nightcrawler had been waiting nearby in their X-Force uniforms.

They were able to track down Robert Hunter with the aid of Emma Frost’s telepathy. Nightcrawler teleported them to the mines where they hoped to meet up with the distraught mutant, but the unexpected heat he attracted forced them to take a different approach.

“What’s next, Cyclops? Are we ready to move in?” asked Warpath intently.

“That depends,” said Cyclops as he turned to Emma Frost, “What’s the latest on the X-men and the MSA?”

“Well we should probably hold off on firing more gunshots. They just arrived at the old rail entrance,” said Emma, who was clutching her temples.

“They expecting to fight us? Because that would be a damn good thing to warn us about,” said Wolverine.

“I’m having a hard enough time keeping the world’s most powerful telepath from tracking us. You can’t expect me to surmise every detail of their plan,” replied Emma.

“We don’t need to know what they’re thinking. We just need to know what they’re doing,” said Cyclops, “How close are they to Robert?”

“At the rate they’re going, they’ll run right into him within minutes,” said Emma, concentrating harder, “They’ve also arrived in full force. The whole team is here and so is that Green Beret you told me about. The one with the nice ass.”

“That would be Captain Freeman and I’d rather not talk about his ass,” grumbled Warpath.

“So if zhe X-men are going to reach him first, then vhy do I just move in and teleport him?” suggested Nightcrawler.

“Too many unknowns and too many risks,” said Cyclops, “This guy is a walking bomb. No matter where we take him, he’s going to be a danger to himself and everyone around him.”

“Besides, I think we should avoid kidnapping him for his own good,” said Angel, “That’s what the X-men are trying to do.”

“So then what do we do that’s any better?” said Wolverine skeptically, “You got a plan, Cyke? Or are we just gonna wing it?”

Cyclops took a moment to contemplate the situation. This was an unfortunate case with a mutant that had no control of his powers. Having been in that position himself, he understood more than anyone how volatile it could get. They had to find a way help this kid and work around the X-men in the process. The circumstances were still unfolding. Not everything was in place yet so X-Force had to be prepared.

“We’re not winging anything, Wolverine,” said Cyclops, “Right now, our best bet is to put ourselves in the right position. To do that, Emma will stay here and psychically monitor the situation from a distance. She’ll also relay orders to Domino if needed.”

“I take the time to craft this stunning uniform and you want me to stay out of sight? Even for an ex-boyfriend, that’s cold,” said Emma, still using her telepathy at full strength.

“I’m sure there will be plenty of other guys to ogle your cleavage, Frost,” said Wolverine, rolling his eyes.”

“We’ll also need a bird’s eye view of the area. Angel, that’s where you come in,” said Cyclops, “We may also need that bird to pack some heat.”

“No problem, Cyclops,” said Angel as he revealed his techno-organic wings, “But don’t blame me if I hesitate to fire on the X-men. Especially if Betsy is down there.”

“We’ll avoid that at all costs, but be ready,” said Cyclops in a serious tone, “We have to assume the X-men aren’t going to be happy to see us. If Captain Freeman is with them, he’ll probably try to arrest us. So Nightcrawler is going to teleport the rest of us in at close range, but we’re not going to engage them. Not until an opportunity presents itself.”

“How vill ve know vhen zhat opportunity arises?” wondered Nightcrawler, who also worried about having to face his sister.

“We’ll know, Kurt. And we’ll be ready,” he said confidently, “Now let’s get moving, X-Force. This is an explosive situation in an explosive setting.”

“We get it. Some shit may explode,” said Wolverine dryly.

“Just another day at the office, eh Wolverine?” said Warpath with a scorn.

Despite Wolverine’s lack of concern, X-Force carried out Cyclops’s orders. Angel took to the cloudy skies while Domino and Emma Frost lingered behind. Nightcrawler then used his teleportation powers to transport Wolverine, Warpath, and Cyclops into the shadows of the conflict unfolding below. For the first time, they would be working against the X-men on a mission. It was not a pleasant prospect, but one they might have to get used to.


Scranton Mines - Rail Entrance

The X-men arrived at the mines as quickly as the MSA’s armored vans would take them. Professor Xavier guided them from the staging area to a vacant rail yard.

This was an area that was littered in rusted old machinery. The rail tracks were warped, the shipping containers were rusted, and the roads were heavily weathered. It was tough terrain for any mutant to hide in, which made it ideal for someone like Robert Hunter. Once the van reached a point where the terrain was too tough, Captain Freeman parked along some old rail tracks and proceeded with a new set of orders.

“Looks like the smooth part of the ride is over, X-men,” announced the Green Beret, “From here, we proceed on foot.”

“Remind Remy again why we couldn’t just take the X-jet?” said Gambit from the back seat.

“We’re trying not to overwhelm this young man more than he already is,” said Storm, “Following him in a large jet would be overkill.”

“Besides, you X-men want to show the world that you’re willing to get your hands dirty to protect the public. You’ll go a lot further as hard-working civil servants than a costumed mutant militia,” added Captain Freeman, “And before you bust my balls, just give it a chance. You might actually like it.”

Captain Freeman’s attitude still hadn’t won over the X-men, but they followed him none-the-less. They didn’t have much of a choice. Phoenix, Beast, Storm, Rogue, Gambit, Colossus, and Psylocke emerged from the van and surveyed the area.

This mining facility was pretty big. The landscape was a mix of hills and jagged cliffs. Decades of mining had stripped the natural outline of the area, rendering the terrain fairly rugged. From the rail yard, a series of old tracks fed into a web of trails that led into the various mine shafts. There was also a distinct taste of coal dust in the air. Since they were dealing with a mutant that could cause explosions, the danger was definitely mangified.

With those dangers in mind, the Green Beret took charge. Captain Freeman led the X-men right into the heart of the mines. They followed the main track from the rail depot that led into the heart of the facility. The air was cloudy and dry, making for a very volatile setting.

“This brings back memories and not very good ones,” commented Colossus, “I worked in a coal mine back in Russia. It was a dangerous place where so many things can go wrong.”

“Did any of those things involve a mutant that could explode?” asked Rogue.

“Nyet, but I remember a mine where safety measures existed on paper alone,” mused the Russian, “When a drought struck the area, the lands were so dry that coal dust accumulated both above ground and below. Then one day a fuel truck caught fire and ignited the coal dust.”

“How bad was it? Or is it better that we not know?” asked Psylocke.

“The resulting explosion could be heard nearly ten kilometers away. There were no witnesses to describe it because they were all either killed or mortally wounded. I think we should be aware of such dangers.”

“As if we ain’t got enough to worry about,” sighed Gambit.

The threat of an exploding coal mine added to the X-men’s sense of urgency. Captain Freeman led the team deeper into the mine, passing by a few piles of blackened rock. This lone mutant was causing all sorts of trouble and he probably didn’t realize it.

“Thanks for a brief lesson in the dangers of coal mining, Colossus. I’m sure Greenpeace would love to have you as a spokesman,” said Captain Freeman dryly, “That doesn’t change the mission. We’ll avoid all that shit if we find this guy before he blows his top.”

“Agreed,” said Hank, “And according to Professor Xavier, we’re getting close.”

Close isn’t good enough,” said Captain Freeman strongly, “Any reason why he hasn’t just flashed the location in all our minds by now?”

“You really don’t know that much about telepathy, do you?” commented Phoenix, who scanned the area with her mind.

“I’m not in the mood for a lesson if you’re about to offer one.”

“I wasn’t going to,” she retorted, “One lesson wouldn’t be enough to explain this interference either. Something is scrambling the psionic energy in this area.”

“I feel it too, luv. I can’t pin down any minds,” said Psylocke, doing a quick scan herself, “I’m more inclined to believe that it’s someone that’s doing the scrambling.”

“By someone, could that mean X-Force? Or even the Brotherhood?” asked Storm anxiously.

“In either case, you better have that gizmo of yours ready, Beast,” said Captain Freeman.

“It’s been ready since we arrived,” assured Beast, “I can think of no better way to test it than to aid this unfortunate soul.”

He did a quick check of the device that he brought with them. It came in the form of a black suitcase that he had been clutching since he left the SWORD research facility. He hadn’t discussed it with the team yet. All they knew is this was supposed to be the next phase in inhibitor technology. If it worked, then the implications for the future of mutant containment were vast.

“This guy is going to be even more unfortunate if he blows his top before we get to him. If he becomes too great a threat, then we are authorized to take him out,” said Captain Freeman as they followed the old track to an open quarry pit.

“Take him out? Hold up a sec!” shouted Rogue, flying up and stopping Captain Freeman in his tracks.

“Rogue, need I remind you the pecking order here?” said Captain Freeman in an irritated tone, “I’m leading this mission. I’m the one giving orders.”

“Your orders! Not ours!” she said as she grabbed the Green Beret by the collar, “Maybe you didn’t get the memo, but X-men don’t kill!”

“Whoa there, chere! No mission be easier when we start overreacting,said Gambit, pulling his girlfriend away from their field leader.

“I would let go if I were you,” said Captain Freeman in a menacing tone, “Heed to your anti-feminist impulses and listen to your boyfriend.”

“While I don’t share Rogue’s hostility, I do share her outrage,” said Storm as she helped pull Rogue back, “What she says about X-men not killing is true. That is a line we do not cross.”

“I’m not asking you to cross any lines, X-men,” said Captain Freeman firmly, “I’m just reminding you that orders are orders. That’s not fine print either. That’s a major part of the Mutant Monitoring Initiative and if you’re serious about making work you’ll...”

Before Captain Freeman could finish, though, a desperate cry rang out from across the quarry. It was a cry that ensured this debate over X-men policies under the Mutant Monitoring Initiative would be set aside for now.

“HEY! WHOEVER YOU ARE, GET OUT HERE! GET AS FAR AWAY AS YOU CAN!” yelled the sauntering figure of Nitro.

“Hold that thought, X-men. I almost forgot we have a mission,” said Captain Freeman as he took out his handgun.

“You would be wise to forget the side-arms, Captain. At least for now,” said Psylocke, who prevented him from aiming it at the figure.

“You really want to get hung up on the no-killing debate?” exclaimed the Green Beret.

“That’s not that, I’m afraid,” said Phoenix, who was clearly sensing something, “But from what I can sense, this guy has enough guns pointed at him.”

Captain Freeman and the X-men took a defensive stance as they watched the desperate figure run towards them. He wasn’t running very fast either. He looked weak and tired, as if he had been running from something other than his powers. They soon found out what he was running from as it emerged in the distance amidst a cloud of coal dust.

From the cloud of dust, three trucks emerged. With them came echoes of gunshots. It looked as though they weren’t the only ones after this mutant. He was attracting more trouble and it wasn’t just explosions.

“QUIT RUNNING, NITRO! NO ONE CAN HELP YOUR MISERABLE ASS NOW!” yelled his angry loan shark from the back of the lead pickup truck.

Nitro’s legs gave out almost halfway through the quarry. He fell to his knees the clouds of coal dust were kicked up. The three trucks drove past him and surrounded him. Armed thugs standing in the back fired warning shots with pistols and semi-automatic uzis. It insured that the hapless mutant was outgunned. Some of the bullets found their way through the dust and towards the X-men.

“Dang! Ah don’t know this kid, but Ah alraedy hate his guts,” said Rogue as she covered her mouth from the coal dust.

“Fall back, X-men!” ordered Captain Freeman, “Rogue, take lead with me and Colossus. Everyone else, get behind me and watch for stray bullets.”

The team didn’t hesitate to comply. They scrambled back with Colossus, Rogue, and Captain Freeman remaining behind to act as human shields.

This mutant was in even more trouble than they expected. They watched as the three trucks started circling around him, kicking up more dust and choking the surrounding air. With Colossus’s warnings about coal dust still fresh in their minds, such danger was difficult to ignore.

“How about we do something about this coal dust while we’re at it?” asked Psylocke.

“I can help with that,” said Storm, looking up into the clouds, “I’ll make it rain. That should wash away some of the dust.”

“Why the hell didn’t you suggest that earlier?” exclaimed Captain Freeman.

“You never gave the order,” she quipped as her eyes started glowing, “We can argue the finer points of authority later, but I need a moment to…”

That moment never came. Before Storm could tap the power of the clouds, a stray bullet ricocheted from a nearby rock and struck her in the upper thigh. The resulting wound and the pain that followed it caused Storm to fall to the ground in a world of pain.

“AHHHHHHHHH! MY LEG!” she cried out.

“Stormy!” exclaimed Gambit, who caught her before she hit the rocky terrain.

“Shit! Guess we can count out that rain,” grunted Captain Freeman as he felt a few bullets fly past him.

“Your lack of concern is extremely reassuring,” said Phoenix dryly as she helped Gambit with Storm.

“Don’t get mad at him! Get mad at the blokes firing the guns!” said Psylocke, arming herself with psionic blades as she stood behind Colossus.

“I doubt they understand what they’re doing with Mr. Hunter. We need to get them out of the way so I can utilize the new inhibitor!” said Beast, who carefully protected the case.

“That should be the easy part,” said Captain Freeman as he surveyed the threat, “Gambit, you and Phoenix stay with Storm. Protect her and treat her wounds. The rest of you, get to the target! Play as rough as you want with his buddies!”

“If Wolverine were here, they would be halfway ripped to shreds by now,” commented Rogue.

Following the same example set by Wolverine, the X-men charged through the cloud of coal dust. Phoenix put up a telekinetic barrier behind them, which protected her and Gambit while they moved Storm away from the danger. She was in no condition to fight. The bleeding down her leg was pretty bad so the team was officially in short-handed. That didn’t make their attack any less potent.

The thugs were so focused on surrounding Nitro that they didn’t notice the X-men. The team quickly split off to attack the marauding trucks. Rogue went for one while Psylocke went for the truck behind it. Captain Freeman set his sights on the truck with the loan shark on the back, who was armed with a large sub-machine gun. Their presence quickly drew fire, which allowed Colossus to slip by with Beast behind him. They went right for Nitro, who looked to be in a bad state.

“Stay close, comrade Beast!” urged Colossus as several bullets bounced off his metal skin, “I will protect you from the bullets.”

“If we do not get my prototype on Mr. Hunter, bullets will be the least of our worries,” said Beast as he ducked down to avoid a stray bullet.

As the two mutants ran in towards the unmoving mutant, the thugs in the trucks took notice.

“Looks like Nitro has some buddies!” said an armed thug from the back of a truck.

“Don’t be stupid! This walking dick cheese has no friends,” scoffed the driver of the truck, “If they’re in our way, shoot ‘em! Boss will give us a bonus.”

“No problem!”

The thug took aim with his uzi, aiming right for Beast. He was about to pull the trigger when without warning, the truck was lifted off the ground and carried into the air. It started the driver and caused the shooter to nearly fall out of the back, dropping his uzi in the process.

“Whoa! What the fuck?” the shooter exclaimed.

“What were you saying about not having any problems, sugah?” taunted Rogue.

She carried the bewildered thugs in their truck to a steep hill on the west side of the quarry. Now they were out of the way and ready to be later.

Upon seeing one of their trucks get carried away, the truck behind was more reluctant to keep circling. This one had two thugs in the back armed with handguns and two more in the front armed with shotguns. Through they coal dust they saw Psylocke standing in their path, looking unafraid and extremely pissed. The driver stared her down nervously, uncertain of his next move.

“Damn! Boss doesn’t pay us enough for shit like this,” said the driver as he anxiously gripped the wheel.

“Don’t be a pussy!” said his associate in the passenger seat, “It’s just a chick. Keep driving! We’ll take her out!”

“But…” began the driver.

“You heard him! Quit being a chicken shit and step on it!” yelled one of the thugs in back.

The driver remained nervous, but listened to his friends. He stepped on the accelerator hard, his sight narrowing on the mutant up ahead. The others took aim, ready to riddle this woman with bullets.

Psylocke remained undaunted. She stood stoically in the path of the speeding truck, armed with two glowing psionic blades. She watched and waited, allowing the truck to get closer. As it drew near, she prepared to make her move.

“That’s it you, you stupid sods. Play chicken with a telepath. You’ll regret it,” she said.

The truck was only a few dozen feet away. Once it was going fast enough, Psylocke used her telepathy to attack the driver. His weak mind could not resist her psychic probe. In an instant, she had control of him. With this control, she made him slam on the breaks instantly.

“Hnn…purple means stop,” said the driver in a daze.

“Huh? What are you...” began the thug in the passenger seat.

That was all he managed to get out. As soon as the driver slammed on the breaks, the truck came to a screeching and turbulent halt. The two thugs standing in the back were thrown out just as they got their shots off. Since the passenger wasn’t wearing a seat-belt, he was throw right through the windshield.

“AHHHHHHH!” they all yelled as they tumbled onto the rocky pavement.

Bones broke and shards of glass opened serious wounds. It ensured that the three thugs were in no condition to cause more trouble. The truck ended up stopping about two feet away from Psylocke. At this point, only the driver was unharmed. He remained under Psylocke’s influence, but still deeply disturbed by what he just witnessed.

“When you get out of prison, luv…learn to drive safely,” she said to him.

“Uhh…yes ma’am,” he replied in a raspy tone.

“Good boy. Now turn off the truck and take a nap.”

The driver promptly took the keys out of the ignition for the truck and passed out within seconds. He and his three wounded associates were in a world of trouble. They would be in even more trouble if they pushed this mutant to the brink of another explosion.

Only one truck remained. This one was led by the angry loan shark, who had more reasons than anyone to see Nitro suffer. He and the other three thugs in the truck saw what happened to their associates. Rather than wait for Boss to arrive, the loan shark set his sights on their target.

“Shit! There goes another one,” said one of the thugs armed with a shotgun.

“Maybe we should pull back. These guys are out of our league!” said the driver.

“Not without Nitro!” yelled the loan shark as he loaded a new magazine into his uzi, “Head straight for the little punk. We’ll snatch him and run over anybody in our way!”

“What about…” began the thug next to him.

“Don’t argue with me! Just do it!” he barked, pointing his gun at the thug’s head to shut him up.

No one else argued. Swallowing their nervousness, they prepared for this daring maneuver. They held on as the truck swerved around, skidding along the rocky terrain until it was pointed right at Nitro.

By now Colossus and Beast had reached him. They were standing right over him and didn’t seem to care about getting shot or run over. Not bothering to warn them, the loan shark tapped the roof of the truck to signal the driver to gun it. He did so without hesitation and sped towards Nitro.

While the loan shark and his associates were distracted, they didn’t notice Captain Freeman running in through a cloud of dust. He saw what they were trying to do. They clearly weren’t thinking it through, a habit he could relate to. Since he couldn’t run the risk of getting into a gun fight and igniting the coal dust, he decided on another tactic.

‘This takes me back. Being a reckless thug, messing people up, and thumbing my nose at the law…too bad I fucking hate nostalgia.’

As he neared the oncoming truck, the Green Beret adapted his body to become hard and durable like a slab of granite. His skin changed color, taking on a tougher texture. Once he got close enough to the truck, he threw himself right in front of it.

“LOOK OUT!” yelled the armed man in the passenger’s seat.

“Whoa shit!” yelled the driver as he instinctively hooked the wheel.

What happened next was a testament to physics. The truck hit Captain Freeman in his durable form and the result was akin to hitting a large speed bump too fast. The Green Beret struck the front right tire, causing the truck to jolt upwards and veer onto its side. That caused the two thugs in the back as well as the loan shark to fall out and tumble onto the rocky terrain.

The experience wasn’t that better for the two men in the truck. With the engine still running, the truck skidded on its side and kept going until it came to an abrupt halt. By the time it was over, the two men inside were dazed and injured.

“Take it from someone who was ten times the low-life you pukes ever were. It sucks ass!” said Captain Freeman, “If you compromised this mission, it’s gonna suck even worse for you.”

The Green Beret made his way towards the truck to pry the two men inside out. Using his bare hands, he punched through the windshield and grabbed the half-conscious driver. Still in his durable form, he glared angrily at the injured man.

“You guys better start talking! What the hell are you doing chasing down mutants?” barked the Green Beret, “Is it a new extreme sport? Or is someone starting his own mutant collection?”

“Ack! Ribs…broken. Need…doctor,” coughed the driver.

“You’ll need more than a doctor if you don’t start talking!” yelled Captain Freeman, now squeezing the man’s neck.

The thug continued to cough. Captain Freeman’s patience wore thin. It wasn’t until Rogue and Psylocke caught up with him that he finally loosened his grip.

“Let him go, Captain! He ain’t got nothing useful to say,” urged Rogue.

“Well we won’t know for sure until he answers now, will we?” said Captain Freeman, still scolding the thug.

“You can play Rambo later, luv. We’ve got another more explosive problem, remember?” said Psylocke.

Captain Freeman grunted in frustration. He let the thug go, recalling that their primary mission was to help a volatile mutant. They were able to get these unexpected obstacles out of the way. Now came the more daunting task.

The battle against the thugs was nearly lost on Beast and Colossus. When they arrived at Nitro, they found a weak and distressed young man. He was still conscious, but in a very poor state.

Colossus focused on protecting him and Beast from stray bullets. While the bullets were flying by, he opened his metal case and took out disk-sized object that was about the size of a plate. Despite the clouds of coal dust swirling around him, Beast worked quickly to get the device ready. Since it was a prototype, it was a bit cumbersome.

“How much longer, Beast?” asked Colossus anxiously, “I hear no more bullets, but I do not sense we are safer.”

“Just another minute or so,” he replied, trying to sound calm, “I need to make sure the inhibitor field is balanced with the electrical pulse wave modulator so…”

“No need for explanations, my friend. I will take your word for it,” said Colossus, who wasn’t in a position to understand Beast’s technical jargon.

“My apologies, but this is unproven technology we’re dealing with,” Beast reminded him, “It takes time to properly configure.”

“Hnn…I think time just rain out,” said Nitro in a raspy voice.

Beast and Colossus looked down at the sickly mutant to see him convulsing in discomfort. He rolled around on the ground, clutching his sides as if he had just been stabbed. Colossus tried to help him up, but he continued to groan in pain. Then to their dread, an ominous field of bluish energy started forming around him.

“Remain calm, Mr. Hunter! We’re here to help!” urged Beast.

“No…they were right…about everything,” he groaned.

“Try and stay focused! Do not let your powers consume you!” said Colossus strongly.

“It’s…too late.”

The ball of bluish energy quickly grew, forcing Beast and Colossus to fall back. Nitro’s eyes started glowing again. This time it was worse than ever. Surrounded by coal dust and pushed to the brink, this was sure to be his biggest explosion yet.

“You have...to run,” he urged, “I am Nitro. I’m going to explode…and I can’t stop it!”


Scranton, Pennsylvania – Staging Area

The situation was tense for the MSA and the local Scranton police. There was little anyone could do besides wait. They had yet to hear from the X-men or detect any signs of activity. Professor Xavier kept working with the MSA’s up-link to Cerebrum, trying to pin down every psychic signatures around the mines. It proved more difficult than he anticipated. Everyone was looking for answers and he had none to give.

All throughout the town, the police and the MSA kept patrolling the streets. They were still operating under the guise of this being a gas leak. That cover could not last much longer. Reporters were already emerging throughout the area. Trends in social media were being tracked as well.

Suspicions were growing and there was a significant chance that this could blow up in their face. Charles Xavier had no desire to let this happen. Through a secure line, General Grimshaw made it clear to him that failure was not an option.

“You’re making a lot of people VERY anxious here, Xavier. This was supposed to be a quick and quiet mission,” said General Grimshaw over a computer monitor.

“There have been a few complications, General,” said Professor Xavier, who was still working to track the scrambled psychic signatures, “Phoenix reported that there was an incident of sorts. Some unsavory characters from Mr. Hunter’s social circle have made our jobs that much more difficult.”

“I don’t care if his mother is trying to kill him. We can’t maintain this cover! Why can’t your people pin this kid down already?”

“We’re doing our best, General,” said Xavier, trying to hide his frustration, “There is significant psychic interference in the area. We’re unable to move as efficiently as we hoped.”

“Is that because of those unsavory characters you mentioned? Or is there a chance X-Force is behind this? Because in either case, you know what must be done.”

Professor Xavier tensed under the General’s harsh scrutiny. It was difficult to hide. There weren’t many forces capable of creating this kind of psychic interference. If X-Force had a powerful telepath on their side, and Xavier knew full-well that they did, then that would explain why they were having such difficulties.

The General and everyone else back in Washington made it clear that they had little tolerance for interference. X-Force was a threat to them and they were expecting him to work around it. It left Xavier in an awkward position in which he was reluctant to act.

He had to respond carefully to General Grimshaw, knowing that he had the authority to complicate their affairs even further. He ended up not having to. Just as he was about to send his reply, the Scranton Police Chief came running towards him.

“Professor Xavier, sir! Come quick! You need to see this!” he yelled.

“Please tell me that’s not as bad as it sounds,” said General Grimshaw over the line.

“I’ll have to get back to you, General,” said Xavier as he promptly cut the line.

The Professor shot up from his seat and addressed the Police Chief. He didn’t have to look far to see what he was referring to. Everyone on the site could see it. An ominous blue glow was emerging from the mines in the distance. It was not a natural light by any means. It had a very volatile aura to it, one that filled the air with dread.

“Please tell me what this is, Professor. I need to know if my town is in danger,” said Police Chief Alonso anxiously.

“I think danger would be an understatement,” said Xavier distantly, “This is even worse than I thought.”

“How much worse?”

“Aside from the fact we can no longer call it a gas leak…significantly worse,” he answered.

“Significant as in we need to start evacuating?”

Xavier stared at the glowing light. It was growing brighter by the second, illuminating the cloudy skies. It could be seen by the whole town, indicating that this operation had taken a terrifying new twist.

“Significant as in I don’t think evacuating the town will make a difference.”

Up next: Volatility Sensibility Part 2

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