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Volume 7 -- Issue 152 -- Volatility Sensibility Part 2

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Volatility Sensibility Part 2
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Professor Charles Xavier and his X-men stand together for peace and understanding in a world that hates and fears them. Now his team has fragmented. One group stayed as he implemented the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, a partnership between the X-men and the authorities. Another broke off and formed X-Force, a group that opposes the initiative. Both teams believe they are doing what’s best for mutants and humans alike. It was only a matter of time before they clashed.

It started with a young mutant named Robert Hunter. After attempting to betray his loan shark, his life of petty crime caught up with him. He is now in debt and a target. He tried to run, but he didn’t run far enough. His loan shark and his hired muscle caught up with him and tried to make an example of Robert.

During the clash, though, his powers manifested. His ability to collect ionic energy and unleash destructive explosions have attracted attention from both the X-men and X-Force. They both sought him out, tracking him to an abandoned coal mine where Boss’s thugs had chased him. They attempted to aid him, but they were too late.

Now Robert Hunter has become Nitro, a walking bomb capable of immense destruction. He is poised to unleash his greatest blast yet. He threatens to ignite both himself, the coal mine, and many innocent people. Both teams must find a way to stop him before it’s too late. It’s a fragile moment. One way or another, someone will have to take a chance.


Scranton Coal Mines - Front Entrance

In every criminal endeavor, some deals were destined to go bad. The good criminals knew how to minimize the damage of those deals. Boss considered himself a pretty good criminal so when he saw an ominous blue light emerge from the other side of the coal mine, he saw it as a sign that his associates had failed to contain Nitro. That was his cue to slip away.

“Will you quit driving like a pussy and step on it already?” shouted one of Boss’s body guards, “That light show behind us is getting too flashy for my tastes.”

“I’m going as fast as I can,” replied the driver, “This van wasn’t built for shitty back roads.”

“Forget about damaging the rims. Just gun it already!”

“Both of you, pipe down!” said Boss firmly, “Bickering will not make us go any faster.”

The two body guards and the driver fell silent, fearing Boss’s wrath almost as much as the explosion. He earned his title by taking big chances. Having a walking bomb on their side would have been a potent weapon and a lucrative resource. It was too bad Nitro had to be so stubborn with them. However, Boss was not deterred.

The mood inside the van remained tense as they neared the front gates of the mine. The light behind them continued growing, but from the looks of it they were going to outrun it. As the van picked up speed, Boss was already contemplating ways to make this work for them.

“This was risky venture for all of us. It turned out to be riskier than expected, but the potential is still there,” mused Boss, “We missed out today. Our friend, Nitro, is clearly going through some growing pains.”

“Those pains may turn our boys back there to bird chow,” commented his body guard.

“Well it’s their own fault for not being efficient enough. They should have handled Nitro more carefully. They don’t understand that he’s an immature child. Like any immature child, he’ll grow out of it. Then we’ll be able to make another offer.”

“You think he’ll change his mind?” asked his second body guard.

“I doubt it, but I’m sure we’ll find a way to convince him,” said Boss wryly, “He’s a mutant and mutants are the future, my friends. It’s an untapped market that’s ripe for the picking. I plan on getting in at the ground floor. Once the dust settles from this incident, we’ll be ready to…”

Suddenly, the van was brought to a screeching halt. Boss was thrown from his seat in mid-sentence and so were his body guards. It was like they just ran into steel column.

“Ungh! What the hell just happened?” barked one of the body guards, now rubbing his head.

“Uh…we just hit something, Boss,” said the driver in a daze.

“Then drive over it already!”

“That’s…going to be a problem,” he replied, his voice filled with dread.

From the front seat, the driver was staring at an obstacle that was not going to let him through. That obstacle was Warpath. Just as the van was about to reach the main entrance, the Native American mutant jumped out in front of them and dug his feet into the ground.

The van had no chance when it hit him. Now he had his hands firmly dug into the hood. If that show of strength wasn’t intimidating enough, the anger in his eyes only added to the driver’s fear.

“Your boys just shot my girlfriend. So I’m taking my anger out on you!” barked Warpath as he rocked the van with his strength.

“Ahhhhhh! What the hell are you talking about?” the driver exclaimed.

“I think he means to say we’re making our escape on foot!” said the Boss from the back.

Despite the shaking, Boss only had minor injuries and was able to open the side door. One of his body guards had a concussion and was in no condition to follow. Since the glowing light in the distance was getting worse, he was in no condition to aid him. So as soon as Boss was out of the van, he prepared to run.

“We’re really going to try and outrun this thing?” exclaimed the other body guard that wasn’t concussed.

“Unless you want to take that chance, you’re welcome to keep up!” said Boss.

With his eyes set on the main entrance, Boss took his first step. It ended up being his last because another obstacle literally fell from the sky in the form of large metal shards. They struck within mere inches of his feet. They were sharp as well, cutting his oversized trench coat in the process. It was enough to make him fall back towards the van.

“Oh no you don’t, Don Corleone! You’re going to stick around for the show and the after party,” said the menacing voice of Angel from above.

“By after party, he means your arrest or the cleanup of what’s left of you.” said Warpath, still gripping the van.

“More mutants…figures,” groaned Boss, “Surely ,we can be reasonable about this?”

“Save your reasons. Unless I need to remind you that these wings aren’t made of feathers,” said Angel.

The winged mutant flexed his techno-organic wings, forming dozens of sharp tips and arching them so that they were pointed right at Boss. He got the message and slowly inched back towards his van. His body guards stayed put, not testing Angel’s patience. Angel made sure they didn’t try and take the cowards way out. He kept his wings pointed at them, ensuring they would be here to face the consequences of what they instigated.

With each thug secure, Warpath smashed through the front of the van to take out the engine. It further stifled their escape while giving him a means to vent his anger. Moments ago, Emma Frost gave them a telepathic update on what was happening with Nitro. It wasn’t pretty. He was poised to explode again thanks to Boss’s thugs. The X-men showed up as well and Storm had been shot. It left him with plenty of reasons to be enraged in addition to facing another massive explosion.

“I’ll let Cyclops know we’ve secured our wannbe Godfathers,” said Angel.

“Any idea if he plans on preventing this mine from becoming a crater?” asked Warpth.

“He’ll figure something out. He always does,” assured Angel.

“If by chance he doesn’t, at least let me break some bones with these guys,” said the Native American, cracking his knuckles as he stared down Boss, “They deserve a little discomfort just for what they did to Storm. Never mind the whole putting an entire town at risk.”

“I can appreciate your feelings for assholes like this, but we’re not here to break bones. We have a mission and it hasn’t blown up in our faces yet.”

“But it’s about to,” quipped Warpath, “Mission or no mission, somebody back there better do something. This kid blowing up is gonna suck for both X-Force and the X-men!”


Scranton Coal Mines - Quarry

“Any ideas, fellas? This kid’s gonna blow any second!” exclaimed Rogue.

“I’m working on it,” said Captain Freeman, who backed away from the glowing light.

“Well, work faster!” shouted Psylocke, “You’re the bloody field leader! Lead already!”

The X-men faced a very volatile problem in the form of a very volatile mutant. They successfully subdued the gang of thugs that tried to rough Nitro up. This didn’t stop Nitro from building up enough energy to explode. With clouds of coal dust surrounding them, there was potential for far greater damage.

Captain Freeman watched as Nitro levitated above the ground. His eye glowed bright white and his whole body was surrounded by a growing ball of bluish energy. It was so bright that it lit up the cloudy skies above them. It grew to the point where it was hard to see the volatile mutant through the haze of energy.

The Green Beret struggled to formulate a plan. He steadily backed away with Beast and Colossus, who had been trying to help the unfortunate mutant and had to fall back as well. They met up with Rogue and Psylocke, who had since left the defeated thugs behind. By the time they reached Phoenix, Gambit, and the wounded Storm it became clear that there was nowhere to run.

“CAN’T…CONTAIN IT…MUCH LONGER!” exclaimed Nitro from within the blinding light.

“Talk to me, X-men! What are our option?” exclaimed the Green Beret.

“Ain’t that that gizmo you brought supposed to prevent this, Beast?” questioned Gambit as he helped Storm back to her feet.

“It was, but I never got a chance to test it,” dreaded Beast, “I tried placing it on him, but…”

“No need to explain. It didn’t work. We get it,” groaned Captain Freeman.

“That’s not entirely true. It could still work. If someone could just brave this ionic storm and retrieve it…”

“Wait…are you telling me you dropped it?” exclaimed Phoenix.

Beast shrugged innocently. She made it sound as though it was easy to concentrate under these circumstances. The rest of the team let out a groan of frustration. This whole predicament was getting worse by the second.

“If it is still working, then Rogue and I could try and retrieve it. We can take the punishment,” suggested Colossus.

“Well good luck finding it!” grunted Captain Freeman.

“Say that doesn’t work. Can’t we just knock him out with a psychic attack or something?” wondered Rogue.

“What do you think I’ve been trying to do?” said Psylocke, who was clutching her temples anxiously.

“If you haven’t succeeded by now, then it stands to reason that we’re too late,” said Beast, now having to shield his eyes.

“I could try and kick up some winds. At least we can move the blast up and away from the mine,” said Storm, still wincing from the pain in her leg, “But I’ve never attempted it on one leg before.”

“I don’t think Mother Nature will be much help to us here, Storm,” said Captain Freeman, “Phoenix, what are the chances you can contain the blast with your telekinesis?”

“With the Phoenix Force…maybe 50-50,” she replied, “Without it…well, I was never good at long division.”

“So what does that mean? We be screwed now?” said Gambit as he and Phoenix helped move Storm back from the glowing light.

“He hasn’t blown yet, X-men. We can still stop this!” yelled Captain Freeman, “Someone just needs to get that damn device and make it work!”

It was every bit as hard as it sounded. The bluish light continued growing, so much so that it was hard to see if the device was still intact. All they could clearly make out was Nitro’s pained cries. Even if they could make it through, they might not be able to get there in time. The situation was dire and under Captain Freeman’s leadership, the X-men hesitated to act.

However, the X-men weren’t the only ones watching this situation with dread. Before the fight against Boss’s thugs even ended, X-Force had been closely watching the conflict. They started out from the top of a jagged hill. Once Nitro started glowing, they moved in closer. The X-men weren’t making a move so it looked as though X-Force would have to act.

“Any reason why we’re running head first towards this kid?” barked Wolverine, feeling the energy within the air growing around them.

“We’re doing what the X-men won’t, Wolverine. We’re going to stop this before we’re all specks of coal dust!” said Cyclops.

“I hope zhis means you have a plan, mien friend,” said Nightcrawler, who was trying to keep up.

“I do and it involves the both of you,” said the former X-leader, “Emma’s been feeding me stray thoughts from the others. She says Beast had a device that was supposed to inhibit this guy’s powers. He tried to activate it, but he dropped it.”

“Beast dropped one of his toys? The X-men must really be slipping without us.” commented Wolverine.

“Since it’s just a few feet away from ground zero, that means Nightcrawler will have to teleport you into it so you can activate the device,” said Cyclops, “You’re the one with the healing factor and you’ve worked with Beast on the Danger Room. You’re the only one who can do this!”

It was a dangerous and potentially painful plan. They stopped running to take cover behind what was left of one of the trucks used by the loan shark’s thugs. They took cover from the blinding light. Looking out into the volatile ball of energy, Wolverine let out a determined grunt.

“So let me get this straight…you want Elf to plop me in that shit, work one of Beast’s gizmos, and get my ass burnt to a crisp?” Wolverine surmised.

“Simply put…yes,” was all Cyclops said.

Wolverine’s determined grunt turned to a grin.

“Sounds like fun,” he said, “I’m ready when you are, Elf!”

“Only you can sound zhis excited at a time like zhis,” groaned Nightcrawler, “No vonder your dating my mother.”

For once, Wolverine didn’t stick around and belittle Cyclops’s plan. Nitro was about to explode and they needed to act. Despite the blinding light, Nightcrawler grabbed onto Wolverine’s shoulders and prepared for a very rough teleport. He stayed behind him so that Wolverine would take the brunt of the energy. Once he transported them, the final countdown began.

“EVERYBODY…GET…AWAY!” yelled Nitro, clutching his sides in agony.

The volatile mutant let out an ominous burst, indicating that he was getting close. He was trying to delay it for as long as he possibly could. He concentrated so hard that he didn’t even notice Wolverine and Nightcrawler appearing in front of him. They emerged only a few feet from him. So much energy made the air hot and stale. Sparks started to fly from the hair on their bodies and Wolverine’s flesh was burned by the discharges. It was a painful position, but the feral mutant never lost focus.

Through the pain, Wolverine found the device Beast had dropped at his feet. It was still intact and already turned on. Having worked with Beast’s gadgets before, he had a pretty good idea of how it worked. If it was anything like an inhibitor collar, he just had to put it on this kid and hope it didn’t get shredded.

“Hurry up, Wolverine! My fur…is starting to burn!” exclaimed Nightcrawler, trying hard to stay behind his friend.

“Errrrrr! Quit your whining! This won’t…take…long!” grunted Wolverine.

Clutching the device, Wolverine pushed hard against the radiating energy. It was like trying to push back against ocean tides. By now, a good chunk of his face had been burned off. The former living weapon endured the pain, pushing forward as hard as he could.

When he finally reached the hovering mutant, he roughly slammed the device against his chest. As soon as it was on, he felt a couple of hard clamps latch onto his sides. From there, a red light on the front of the device turned green and a series of yellowish sparks erupted from inside it.

“Hnn…what the? Something feels…AHHHHHHHHHHHH!” Nitro cried out.

“We’re done! Get us the fuck outta here, Elf!” said Wolverine.

Nightcrawler didn’t have to be told twice. He quickly teleported them both out of the chaos. As soon as they were gone, the device took effect.

The blinding blue energy that had been growing around Nitro started reversing course and was soon replaced with a greenish aura that surrounded his hovering figure. It caused Nitro’s body to contort awkwardly. It was like something was stretching him in a very uncomfortable manner. Within moments, the energy shrank to a point where it was no longer blinding. The explosion that would have done so much damage never happened.

This came as a pleasant surprise to the X-men. They were all bracing themselves for an explosion. Rogue and Colossus were still waiting for the order from Captain Freeman. It never came. It was no longer necessary. As they watched the bluish ball of energy rapidly shrink, they were confronted by a new round of concerns.

“What the hell? Remy ain’t hearin’ no big bang,” said Gambit.

“That is a good thing, yes?” said Colossus.

“It depends on who did what and under who’s orders,” said Captain Freeman apprehensively.

“Orders or not, it looks like my device has been activated,” said Beast, who recognized the energy signature, “It’s inhibiting Mr. Hunter’s powers, but…”

“Please don’t tell me there’s a but you forgot to mention,” groaned Psylocke.

“I designed the device to inhibit mutant abilities. Not to quell immense volumes of ionic energy.”

“I’ll try and redirect it. I shouldn’t need a cosmic force for that,” said Phoenix as she prepared her mind.

“While you’re at it, see if you can find out who did this. That thing didn’t activate itself. Someone is here and I’d like to know who they are!” ordered Captain Freeman.

“But focus on the ionic energy,” said Beast, “That is a far more pressing concern.”

Phoenix was more inclined to listen to Beast rather than Captain Freeman. He was no Cyclops, that was for sure. Even though she shared his suspicions that there were other forces currently in play, she was content to focus on more immediate dangers.

The glowing energy continued to swirl around Nitro. Phoenix stepped forth and used her telekinetic might to redirect some of that chaos, focusing it upward into the clouds where it could disperse harmlessly. In the process, it caused the clouds above to erupt in brilliant flashes of lightning that could be seen for miles. It would have been a lot easier with the Phoenix Force active, but she was able to mitigate some of the danger. She was careful to make sure that the swirling energy didn’t ignite the surrounding coal dust. As the chaos waned, the X-men carefully approached the beleaguered young man.

As the energy continued to shrink, Nitro collapsed to his knees on the rocky ground. He was still breathing hard and weakened from all the strain. His eyes kept glowing, but he no longer felt the building pressure.

“Ugh…did I blow up yet?” he groaned, “What’s this thing on my chest?”

“It’ll be okay, Mr. Hunter. Your powers are contained,” assured Beast.

“And I think that’s it for the light show,” said Phoenix, grunting from the strain, “Sorry if it looked like I was trying to steal your thunder, Storm.”

“Since my leg is still broken, I’ll let it slide,” said Storm, who limped along with help from Gambit.

As Nitro collected himself, he started recognizing the figures around him.

“You…you guys are the X-men,” he said.

“If you’ve seen us on CNN, then you know why we’re here,” said Psylocke.

“You’ve had a bad day. We all have,” said Captain Freeman, “We’re lucky only your buddies got hurt. You put this whole down in more danger than it’ll ever deserve.”

“Take it easy on him, Captain. We’re here to help, remember?” chided Rogue.

“And we will, but we have to contain this situation first,” said Captain Freeman assertively, “This kid put on a hell of a horror show. Under MSA authority, Mr. Hunter here must be held accountable. We need to play this carefully or it will blow up in a different, but equally destructive way.”

“I get there is protocol for these things, but can we at least try to help him first?” asked Colossus, annoyed with Captain Freeman’s attitude.

“Do you guys really want to have this argument now?” groaned the Green Beret.

What was supposed to be a reassuring moment for Robert Hunter quickly turned into infighting. Captain Freeman’s approach to addressing a distressed mutant was very different from what the X-men were used to. Professor Xavier taught them to be compassionate for mutants like Nitro. Captain Freeman was acting as though they were arresting the kid for something he had no control over. It distracted the team from their primary mission and it didn’t go unnoticed.

From across the quarry, Cyclops watched this debate unfold. He could tell the team was disorganized. They clearly weren’t getting along with Captain Freeman. It was a sign that the X-men had issues that went beyond the Mutant Monitoring Initiative.

‘They have a leadership deficiency. They’re disorganized in the field. That could work to X-Force’s advantage, but it’s bound to cause long-term problems.’

As Cyclops processed the scene before him, Wolverine and Nightcrawler reappeared next to him. When they emerged through a puff of sulfurous smoke, it looked as though they had just walked out of a burning building. Wolverine’s face, upper torso, and uniform were highly scarred.

Nightcrawler fared a bit better, but his fur and hair were standing up on end. It looked as though he just soaked up a heavy dose of static electricity. When Cyclops saw them, he had to hold back a humored smirk.

“Start laughing and I gut you in your sleep,” snarled Wolverine.

“I wasn’t going to. Not intentionally anyways,” said Cyclops.

“I hope orders like zhat are rare. I don’t zhink my fur can take zhat much punishment,” said Nightcrawler, trying to fix his static-laden hair.

“I’ll try to make it a rarity, but we have to do what’s necessary,” said Cyclops as he turned his attention back to Nitro, “We stopped what was sure to be another nasty mutant incident. Now we have to ensure the best possible outcome.”

“Well what’s wrong with letting Chuck handle this one?” said Wolverine while picking some of the charred flesh off his bones, “The kid’s okay. His powers ain’t blowing shit up anymore.”

“That doesn’t take into account what he wants, Wolverine,” said Cyclops strongly, “If he lets the X-men and the MSA decide for him, what are they going to choose? How do you think they’re going to use or misuse a mutant like this?”

Wolverine groaned and it wasn’t because of the sting from his wounds. He hated it when Cyclops made a valid point. He knew firs- hand what authority figures did when they had something that could explode in their arsenal. They always found ways to abuse it.

“I share your concerns, mein friend. But zhe X-men seem to have a firm handle on him,” said Nightcrawler as he gazed out towards Nitro, “Short of fighting our friends, how can ve possibly help him?”

“And you know I ain’t gonna attack the X-men so don’t even think about giving that order,” said Wolverine sternly.

Cyclops studied the situation closely, contemplating his next move. He couldn’t order X-Force to battle the X-men for possession of this mutant. That would cause far more problems than it would solve. He considered sending Nightcrawler in to teleport Nitro away, but that would be too direct. It would give the MSA all the reasons they needed to label X-Force a mutant terrorist group that abducted mutants against their will. He needed to be more subtle.

While the former X-leader studied the situation, he saw something out of the corner of his eye. One of the thugs the X-men had subdued earlier was still conscious. It was the loan shark that seemed to have a particularly strong hatred of Robert Hunter. He watched as the dazed and clearly wounded man arose.

He still carried his semi-automatic uzi. Since the X-men were so busy bickering, they didn’t notice him stammering towards Nitro and raise his gun. As he watched him inch closer to the X-men, a risky if not outrageous idea came to him.

“Cyke! One of those goons is still breathing!” barked Wolverine, who noticed as well.

“I see him, Wolverine,’ said Cyclops distantly.

“So why the fuck ain’t we doing something about it?”

“Because this is just what we need to end this in our favor,” he said cryptically.

Wolverine and Nightcrawler looked at him strangely. Cyclops didn’t have time to explain it to them. He made his decision. He began putting it into action by sending a telepathic message to Domino through Emma Frost.

‘Domino, you still got an eye over the quarry?’

‘Haven’t looked away since the first round of gunshots. Why? What’s up?’

‘I’ve got a plan…a very risky and dangerous plan. It requires you to make another perfect shot.’

‘Lucky for you, those are the only shots I do.’

Cyclops quickly laid out his plan for Domino. As he was giving her the necessary orders, the loan shark kept stammering towards Nitro and the X-men. Despite his injuries, he seethed with anger as he pointed his gun right the volatile mutant. The X-men were still arguing amongst themselves so they didn’t sense him approaching.

“NITRO!” he yelled, “BLOW YOURSELF TO HELL YOU LITTLE SHIT!”

Before anyone could react, the angry loan shark started firing. Several deafening shots rang out. The X-men quickly stopped their bickering and took cover. However, Nitro was too dazed to get out of the way. One of the bullets hit him right in the upper back, putting his weakened form in a new world of pain.

“AHHHHHHHHH!” Nitro cried out.

“Damn it! Someone take him down!” ordered Captain Freeman.

“I got this,” said Gambit, who sprang into action.

Reaching into his trench coat, the Cajun mutant took out a lone card and charged it. He threw it right towards the stammering loan shark, hitting his uzi right at the handle. When it exploded, it nearly blew his hand off. The loan shark cried out and pain and fell to the ground, but the damage had been done.

“Errrrr! Fuck you, X-men! Fuck you…for screwing my shit up!” yelled the loan shark.

“Next time, we’ll have to screw it up even more,” mused Phoenix as she used some telekinesis to make sure he stayed down, “Loose ends like this shouldn’t happen.”

“Before you start busting my balls again, hurry up and help the kid!” yelled Captain Freeman, “I’ll call in for a medic. And if it makes you feel better, I’ll tell the police to be extra rough with these punks!”

“It’s a minor consolation, Captain. Very minor,” said Colossus as he and the others gathered around the wounded mutant.

While Captain Freeman ran off to call in the MSA, the X-men assessed the damage. Phoenix and Beast carefully laid Nitro down to see the extent of the wound.

It looked bad. The bullet went right through him. It just missed the inhibitor device, but he was bleeding profusely. He had been weak to begin with and while they averted a catastrophe, they could hardly call this mission a success. Their bickering had cost them. Hopefully, it wasn’t a sign of things to come.

The mission for the X-men was quickly shifting. Now they had to focus on the far less glorious aspects of damage control. The Professor and the MSA would have quite a story to report to the media. The reaction was bound to be mixed, but it could have been a lot worse.

Still watching from afar, Cyclops took in the scene. So far it was unfolding exactly as he predicted. It looked as though X-Force would have a chance help Nitro after all. Unfortunately, it turned out messier than he expected.

“We’re done here, X-Force,” said Cyclops, “Nightcrawler, teleport us back to Domino and Emma. I’ve already told Warpath and Angel to meet us there.”

“Hold up, bub! We ain’t going anywhere until you tell us what the fuck you let that kid get shot!” barked Wolverine, “Was that part of your plan?”

“I had to improvise. So far, it’s working just as I need it to,” said the former X-leader.

“I apologize if I’m slow, mein friend. But how does that poor man getting shot vork to our advantage?” said Nightcrawler, who was equally skeptical.

“I’ll explain everything. Trust me. Right now, we need to act fast. A bomb didn’t go off today, but there are still plenty of ways this could get messy.”

Wolverine still wasn’t convinced. He kept snarling at the former X-leader, muttering a string of curses under his breath. Nightcrawler was a bit more understanding. Heeding the call for urgency, he grabbed onto his friends and teleported them away. The X-men were making their move. It was time for X-Force to make theirs.


Later

The dust started settling over Scranton just in time for the evening news. As expected, the dazzling light show caught the attention of the media. It wasn’t long before reporters descended upon the area and started asking questions. There would be no ambiguity or spin. It was a major mutant incident. That meant it was going to have repercussions for everyone.

The MSA and local police were certainly relieved to hear from Charles Xavier that Nitro didn’t explode. The police chief subsequently lifted the curfew on the town. With help from the MSA, they rounded up Boss and his men. They also called in paramedics to help Nitro. Professor Xavier traveled with them to the quarry so he could assess the situation for himself. Overall, he was relieved, but disappointed.

His X-men were in a conflicted state. Jean, Hank, Remy, Rogue, Betsy, and Piotr kept their distance as the local police and the MSA descended upon the area and started gathering information. They made their statement, but spared few details. They also aided the paramedics in treating Nitro and Ororo.

It looked as though Ororo’s wounds were merely superficial. She would not need to go to the hospital. Robert Hunter, however, was in critical condition. Xavier watched as he lay motionless on a gurney while they placed him in a helicopter that would take him to the hospital.

“Ah hell, this kid’s still bleeding,” said one of the EMTs that were monitoring Robert’s vitals, “His pulse and BP are dropping fast. I think one of his lungs just collapsed!”

“Well if we could take this damn chest plate off him we could check and make sure,” said a second female EMT, who held an oxygen mask to the young man’s face.

“I would strongly advise against that,” said Professor Xavier, who stood nearby, “You must keep that device on him at all times.”

“You mutants just love making our jobs harder, don’t you?” said the other EMT dryly as he stepped into the helicopter.

“Trust me, it’s in all our best interests avoid more explosive predicaments.”

“Fair enough, but working around this gizmo won’t help this kid’s chances,” said the lead EMT, “Given the extent of his injury, he’s got a 50-50 shot at best.”

“Do what you can,” said Professor Xavier solemnly.

The Professor watched as the EMTs closed the hatch on the helicopter and secured Robert Hunter’s prone form. Within moments, the aircraft took off. He kept watching it until it disappeared into the clouds, trying to put this affair into context.

Xavier wasn’t the only one conflicted either. Hank McCoy walked up next to him and watched the helicopter disappear as well. He was conflicted like so many others, but for very different reasons. So much of the mission depended on using his device to contain this situation. Even though his prototype had worked, he could hardly call this a success.

“I should have gone with them,” mused Hank, “I’m responsible for Mr. Hunter’s current condition.”

“You’re too smart to say such nonsense, old friend. Besides, you heard what the helicopter pilot said. They didn’t have enough room for someone of your stature,” said Professor Xavier.

“I’m normally inclined to contest such excuses. This time I haven’t the heart. I thought my device would end this quickly and peacefully. Given all the resources I’ve had with SWORD, there are no excuses for such failure.”

“But you didn’t fail, Hank. The device worked,” Xavier reminded him.

“That’s beside the point, Charles. This first prototype was simply not enough. I was in a position to make it work…and I failed. I dropped the device like a child drops a glass of milk. How it ended up on Mr. Hunter’s chest still baffles me.”

“I’ve been looking into that,” said Xavier, “Both Phoenix and Psylocke agree. Someone else was there. Phoenix thinks it was X-Force. If she’s right, then they may still be planning something.”

“Even if it was them, it doesn’t change the end result,” sighed Hank, “We need to be better. I need to think bigger. The old methods don’t work. The Mutant Monitoring Initiative has established that. I simply haven’t gotten the memo.”

“This could have been a lot worse for all of us, Hank. We’re lucky it turned out as well as did.”

“That luck will run out eventually. As soon as I get back to SWORD, I’m stepping up my efforts. I must venture into unexplored territory. It’s not enough to be resourceful. We must effectively use those resources if we’re to succeed.”

Professor Xavier offered some additional consolation. However, it only went so far. On many levels, he agreed with Hank.

The Mutant Monitoring Initiative gave the X-men so many new resources. They had the full support of the MSA and the international community. There was no reason for them to endure predicaments such as this. What seemed to hold them back from doing their job was disorganization. This mission made it painfully obvious.

As he mused over these issues, he turned his attention towards the X-men. They had gathered around a hospital van that wasn’t far from the police line where reporters were gathering. Their spirits were somewhat down. They were watching Ororo, who was on crutches after getting treatment from an EMT. There wasn’t much to say about a mission like this. When Captain Freeman finally joined them after chatting with other officers, he was very blunt.

“Well I just got off the line with General Grimshaw. Everyone on his end agrees. Our performance was unacceptable,” said Captain Freeman.

“He knows that the kid didn’t explode, does he?” said Rogue dryly.

“That was a lucky fluke. We won’t get too many of those going forward so we should all be pretty pissed at ourselves. It wasn’t supposed to get this bad.”

“Clearly, you ain’t been with the X-men that long. It tends to get bad no matter what the hell we do,” said Remy in a humored tone.

“You think this is funny?” scolded Captain Freeman, “You think this pitiful excuse for a mission is funny?”

“Hey, what are you getting mad at us for?” exclaimed Phoenix, “You’re the field leader! Isn’t a leader supposed to actually lead?”

“Don’t lash out at me because I’m not your ex-boyfriend, Grey!”

“I don’t care if you are a fucking Green Beret! You bring Scott into this conversation and you’ll have an angry telepath on your hands! And trust me…you don’t want that!”

Jean was getting pretty worked up. She stormed over to the mutant soldier, looking ready to unleash a full-blown psychic attack. Psylocke and Colossus held her back, albeit barely.

“None of us want that, Jean. Please do not make us want it less,” urged Colossus.

“I think what she’s trying to say is you can’t expect us to do our jobs when you bicker over petty crap like this,” said Psylocke in a calmer tone.

“It shouldn’t matter who’s in charge. It shouldn’t prevent us from completing our mission,” said Captain Freeman.

“You’re right. It shouldn’t. But it does,” she replied.

“As far as I’m concerned, we’re all responsible. We let Robert Hunter down by worrying about the mission more than his own well-being,” said Ororo, still leaning on her crutches, “We hesitated to act. It led to that poor boy getting shot. It almost led to a national tragedy.”

“Well we wouldn’t have hesitated if someone had given us some clear orders,” said Rogue.

“Quit trying to dump this on me, Rogue!” said Captain Freeman defensively, “You guys were fighting me every step of the way. If I had given you the order to run into that glowing ball of danger, would you have done it without busting my balls?”

“I don’t think that really matters now, does it?” scoffed Jean, who still had to be restrained by Colossus and Psylocke, “Apparently, someone was more organized than us!”

“Like who? X-Force?” scoffed Captain Freeman, “I bet that would make you happy. If somehow your ex was there to show us up.”

“You insensitive asshole!” exclaimed Jean as she lashed out at him again.

“Damn it, comrade Freeman! Must you keep testing Jean’s temper? Even my strength has limits!” said Colossus, having to hold her back once more.

The disorganization and animosity was apparent. The X-men were not sharing the sorrow of having mishandled a mission. They were arguing amongst one another, allowing anger and petty disagreements to divide them. It was not how the X-men were supposed to operate. Captain Freeman’s apprehensive attitude certainly didn’t help.

For Charles Xavier, it was a difficult sight. This was just one mission and his X-men were letting it divide them. Before they could lash out at each other any further, he stepped in with Hank to address them.

“That’s quite enough name-calling for one night. I insist you all calm yourselves!” he said in a calm yet firm tone.

“Tell that to him,” said Jean bitterly, gesturing towards Captain Freeman.

“He was the field leader for this mission. I’m directing my disappointment towards him as well. He knows what he did wrong. I’m sure General Grimshaw will be harsher with him than he is with the rest of you so please don’t make it worse by casting blame!”

The team was silenced under Professor Xavier’s stern presence. Even Captain Freeman’s hostility waned. They were all responsible for this mission, no matter who was leading it. They weren’t making it easier by yelling at each other. They had to take responsibility for their failures.

“I’m sorry, X-men,” said Captain Freeman with a sigh, “You’re right about my leadership. I’m not used to leading any more than you’re used to following me.”

“I guess we were holding you to an unreasonable standard,” said Psylocke with a tough of humility.

“We’re all too dang used to how Cyclops handles things,” added Rogue, “And you sure as hell ain’t him.”

“Nor would we expect you to be,” said Ororo.

“You’re expecting too much of each other and not enough of yourselves,” Professor Xavier went on, “You were disorganized, unfocused, and hesitant. It put this town of innocent people at risk. You shouldn’t be okay with that. You should strive to do better.”

“You ain’t gotta rub it in, Professor. We know we screwed up,” said Remy.

“Then the best way to respond is to learn from it. This isn’t the first time the X-men have been defeated. Chances are it won’t be the last. However, the margin for error is much smaller this time. The Mutant Monitoring Initiative has raised the stakes for us all. Now we don’t know how Hank’s device was activated. We don’t know what role X-Force had to play, if any. These are situations that we cannot control. Our operations may change, but our goal has not. We must do more and do it better.”

“No one is against doing better, Professor,” said Jean, still trying to calm herself, “With all these new resrouces at our disposal, it just feels like we’re not making progress.”

“That will change with time,” the Professor assured her, “Remember, we cannot operate as we once did. We must rethink our approach to being X-men. It won’t be easy. It may not even be comfortable at times, but it’s necessary. I cannot stress that enough. The world is watching us, X-men. They’re expecting us to be better. Let’s not let them down.”

The Professor’s words were inspiring, but were also filled with a less-than-subtle urging. He expected more from them. Looking at one another, they saw a team in disarray. They needed to pull it together because under the Mutant Monitoring Initiative it wasn’t just Xavier’s scrutiny that they had to worry about.

While the team was musing over this mission, the police barrier at the rear of the quarry opened. The MSA had let local reporters in and they all had plenty of questions. Most would likely go to Charles Xavier for answers and he had no attention of avoiding them.

“Charles, I believe the second most daunting task of this mission is upon us,” announced Hank.

“That would be the paparazzi, I assume,” said Betsy.

“It’s another aspect of this initiative that we’ll have to adapt to,” sighed Professor Xavier, “I’ll deal with them, X-men. The rest of you prepare for your debriefing.”

“What are you going to tell them, Charles?” asked Ororo.

“The truth,” he replied, “Although at times like this, the truth is rarely sufficient.”


Academy of Tomorrow – Lounge

There were many hidden costs to being a former X-man. For one, the threshold for boredom was a lot lower. It was too easy to get restless. The prospect of not facing a world-threatening crisis at a moments notice took some getting used to. It was a relief in some ways and a burden in many others.

Bobby Drake was an adventurous person by nature. It was part of what helped him fit into the X-men, despite his young age. So much of his life came to revolve around the X-men. He conditioned himself to deal with the training, the classes, and the life-threatening rigors of the Xavier Institute. For the past six months, it proved difficult to untrain himself. It was so difficult that even the distraction of a beautiful woman wasn’t enough.

“Bobby? Are you even listening to me?” said an impatient Amara Aquilla, “I need to know if we’re going out or not. I’d like to know if I wasted my father’s money on this new perfume.”

“Sorry, Amara. But it looks like I’ll have to smell you later,” he replied while sitting on the couch with Kitty, Julien, Roberto, Noriko, Dani, and Sam.

“Would you even consider tearing yourself away from the TV if I told you I bought new underwear for tonight?” she said.

“I would definitely consider it,” Bobby conceded, “But it still wouldn’t be enough, I’m afraid.”

“Wow…a hot blond in underwear isn’t enough for you anymore, Drake? I’m not sure if I should respect you or question your sanity,” said Julien Keller with a humored grin.

“This mess in Scranton is big. We can’t ignore it…even if we should.”

Amara frowned at her boyfriend’s stubborn attitude. At the same time, she frowned at herself. She had been trying to ignore the many controversies surrounding the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. It was a major source of contention, especially amongst X-Factor. It was a lot harder for them to put on masks and be the heroes they once were.

As a result, everyone at the Academy of Tomorrow was left to watch these various stories surrounding the X-men and the Mutant Monitoring Initiative unfold. It was tough for X-Factor, but even tougher for Bobby and Kitty.

As former X-men, they commanded a certain level of respect from the other students. They even helped train X-Factor. They never hid how miserable they were being left out. Amara tried to make it easier for Bobby when they started dating. She was dealing with forces that even expensive dates and many nights of sending prayers to Venus couldn’t solve. While she fumed, the news report on the TV kept blaring.

“More news from Scranton continues to trickle in by the minute. Moments ago, Professor Charles Xavier of the X-men addressed the media. He confirmed that this incident was mutant related. A young man, whose name is being withheld for privacy reasons, was chased by a local gang to an abandoned coal mine. While details are still unclear, the mutant in question had powers that caused him to explode. A number of smaller explosions were reported earlier. While there were no major injuries, the property damage is significant. As for the mutant himself, Professor Charles Xavier had this to say.”

The report shifted to an earlier recording of the Professor’s press conference. He was surrounded by microphones with the X-men in the background, guarded by the MSA. There was a lot of commotion from the reporters. Professor Xavier spoke over every one of them, offering a blunt if not oversimplified assessment.

“Let me start by making one thing clear. This was NOT a mutant terror incident. This was an accident. The mutant in question was a victim. He didn’t understand what was happening to him and a group of unruly criminals took advantage of him. Those criminals have been arrested. As for the mutant, his powers are stable. I cannot describe how they were stabilized at this time. I can only assure that he is no longer a danger. That said, he’s in critical condition after incurring a gunshot wound from one of his assailants. His predicament, as well as our poor handling of it, is without excuse. For that reason, I want to assure the public that the X-men and the MSA will strive to do better. Incidents like this are unacceptable. The Mutant Monitoring Initiative must be held to a higher standard and I intend to meet that standard. That is all.”

Upon giving this statement, the Professor retreated behind a barrier of MSA officers. This didn’t stop many eager reporters from bombarding him with questions.

“Professor Xavier! Can you comment on reports that the mutant came within moments of blowing up the whole town?”

“What about X-Force? Can you confirm or deny if they were involved?”

“Is it true that the X-men have canceled their appearance on the Tonight Show later this week?”

Kitty decided to mute the report at this point. They had heard enough. It wasn’t the first time they had all been transfixed on a news report about the X-men. With the recent emergence of X-Force and the mixed sentiment shared by many on the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, it became more upsetting.

“Well this certainly reeks of all kinds of bullshit,” said Kitty as she set the remote aside.

“How can you tell?” asked Noriko, “He said nothing blew up. It’s not like there was an obscene body count.”

“Believe me, I can tell,” she said as she looked at more clips of the incident, “The Professor is a smart man. When he starts sounding like a dumb politician, something is very wrong.”

“I see it too, Kitty. It’s disturbing in ways that remind me of Kurt’s midnight snacks,” said Bobby, who kept his serious demeanor even as Amara sat next to him.

“Disturbing how?” asked Roberto, “The way I see it, an exploding mutant could have played out in far worse ways.”

“It may be worse than we think,” said Sam, who was fixated on his phone, “These YouTube videos that just hit the web tell a different story. They show this big glowing light rising from the coal mine. Looked too dang close to going off if you ask me.”

“It was too close. The Professor wouldn’t be making excuses like this if it wasn’t,” said Kitty.

“Even if it was, I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest to obsess over it,” said Danielle, “That will only give people more reasons to doubt Professor Xavier’s initiative.”

“I don’t see why that’s a bad thing,” said Julian, “I sure as hell didn’t care for it. I know I’m not the only one. Every time I bring it up with Laura, it looks like she wants to stab someone.”

“Isn’t that how she always looks?” teased Roberto.

“I’m inclined to share her homicidal impulses,” said grumbled Kitty, “The more I hear Professor Xavier talk about this stuff, the more I’m convinced he’s turned into a complete asshole.”

“That’s being too harsh, Kitty. Not that I would expect anything less from you,” teased Bobby.

“Well I have some damn good reasons to be harsh! My old home blew up, I had to leave the X-men, and now I’ve been forced into a long-distance relationship with my boyfriend!”

“I think you’re confusing bitterness with excuses, Kitty,” Danielle Moonstar pointed out.

“Doesn’t make a difference either way,” scoffed Kitty, “The X-men used to tango with Magneto, Sinister, and the Mutant Liberation Front. They were never cocky, but they were never incompetent either. If the X-men struggle this much against some poor mutant with a volatile power, then they’ll be completely screwed when a bigger threat emerges.”

“And if the X-men fail, it’s bad for everybody,” added Bobby.

The young mutants looked back towards the TV, which was still replaying clips of the report from Scranton. It was written on the faces of the X-men. They were frustrated, disorganized, and restless. Since the X-men were the inspiration for X-Factor, it struck them all on a profound level. It led some to speculate as well. What would this mean for the X-men and the Mutant Monitoring Initiative?

Having heard these serious concerns, Amara decided to stop fuming. Now leaning against her restless boyfriend, she started watching the muted broadcast as well. She was not in Nova Roma anymore. These conflicts were sure to affect her. Since she was dating a former X-man, they were sure to affect her even more.

“So if I am not to be as harsh as Kitty, the X-men are shaken,” Amara summerized.

“That’s the most polite way of putting it, but yes,” said Bobby.

“So what do we do about it?” she asked.

“A better question would be what can we do about it?” said Sam, “You all heard what Sunfire and Miss Frost said. We can’t go out and play hero no more.”

“I think she said that just because she had to,” said Dani, “She’s made no secret of how much she despises the Mutant Monitoring Initiative.”

“Well if she hates it so much, then why does she go along with it?” questioned Kitty, “She hasn’t made much of a scene every time some poor mutant is forced to join this school when they clearly don’t want to.”

“She’s Emma Frost. She’s a complicated woman and I would rather not defy her,” said Noriko.

“But defying the initiative may be what’s making the team so wary,” Bobby speculated, “We’ve all seen how X-Force has stolen some of the X-men’s thunder. They may be onto something.”

“Well can’t you just call up Cyclops, Wolverine, or that Nightcrawler guy?” asked Roberto, “You and Kitty are former X-men. Don’t you keep in touch with them?”

“Don’t you think we’ve tried?” retorted Kitty, “They’re working under the radar. For all I know, the MSA is monitoring every call I make and every website I visit.”

“Guess that means you can’t do naughty web-shows for your boyfriend,” teased Julian.

“Shut up, Julian! You’re not helping. It was bad enough when they didn’t invite us to join.”

“Somehow I think your parents and the school would have noticed if you joined a secret mutant team,” Dani pointed out.

“If you think that would be enough to stop me, then you guys clearly don’t understand what it means to be an X-men,” said Kitty in a stronger tone.

She made a compelling point. X-Factor was still young and inexperienced. They had yet to push themselves. As soon as word came down from the Mutant Monitoring Initiative, they hung up their costumes. That said a lot about their dedication.

Being in X-Factor brought with it many inherent risks, but they never had to fight just to keep taking those risks. It led them to question just how much being on a team like X-Factor meant to them. As they watched images of the demoralized X-men, they realized it meant more than they expected.

Bobby and Kitty exchanged glances while the rest of X-Factor pondered the issues at hand. Amara took it more seriously as well. As much as she preferred going out on dates, this was becoming a big part of her life. She couldn’t afford to avoid it any longer.

“Maybe I asked the wrong question,” said Amara, “I don’t think there’s anything we can do to change the current state of affairs.”

“Spoken like a princess who has never had to worry about anything,” said Julian, rolling his eyes.

“Again, Julian…not helping,” barked Kitty in a way that helped silence him.

“Let me say it another way…I don’t think there’s anything we should do to change the state of affairs. Like the story of Icarus, we don’t want to fly too close to the sun…less our wings melt.”

“You’re assuming we even have wings, Amara,” said Sam.

“I think we do. Are we not in the same school where all these unfortunate mutants are being sent? Are we not in a position to reach out to them?” Amara questioned.

“I thought we’ve been doing that,” said Dani, “Miss Frost has us greet every new mutant that arrives.”

“We also have to cheer them up after they get their oh so fun checkup with Dr. Nemesis,” said Noriko, not hiding how much she dreaded that duty.

“So we have a sizable group of young mutants who are nervous, scared, and maybe a little angry at the Mutant Monitoring Initiative,” Amara went on, “If I were to channel my inner Aristotle, I would reason that it’s only a matter of time before we face an incident like the one they faced in Scranton.”

“I don’t know much about Aristotle, but I can’t say I disagree,” Noriko.

“Me neither, but I still don’t see the point,” said Kitty with lingering bitterness.

“My point is when that incident happens, we might be in a better position to do something,” she surmised, “If we can demonstrate a flaw in the Mutant Monitoring Initiative for all to see, then that could make quite a statement…one that could go much further than simple defiance.”

Everyone turned towards Amara with new intrigue. A few minutes ago, she was complaining about her boyfriend not taking her out on a date. Now she sounded like the only one with a logical idea.

It was easy to forget that they were close to the front lines in this conflict. The X-men may still do the heavy lifting, but the Academy of Tomorrow was ground zero for many upset mutants. As the incident and Scranton just proved, it only took one to cause a major problem. This meant that X-Factor wasn’t as sidelined as they thought.

“Okay, I take back any dumb blond jokes I may have let slip,” said Julian.

“In that case, I won’t set your underwear drawer on fire this weekend,” said Amara with a grin.

“Brains, beauty, and a great idea just when we need it. No wonder I’m falling head over heels in love with you!” said Bobby as he proudly hugged his girlfriend.

“Glad you’re so happy, Bobby. Like you ever have a right to complain anymore,” said Kitty, having to look away so she didn’t recall how much she missed Piotr.

“Ah see what you’re getting at, Amara,” said Sam, “But if and when some angry mutant blows his top, how are we gonna know the signs?”

“Have you forgotten we have three telepathic triplets that owe us their lives?” Roberto pointed out.

“You want us to get help from Emma’s daughters? I’m pretty sure she’d take issue with that,” said Dani.

“It’s a chance worth taking. I couldn’t call myself an X-man if I wasn’t willing to take risks,” said Bobby as he stood up from the couch, “Even if they don’t help us, this should be our new mission. For all we know, there’s some funny business going on right under our noses. The X-men aren’t going to sniff it out. Neither will X-Force. So if being in X-Factor is really important to you guys, you’ll take that chance as well!”

Being a former X-man, Bobby Drake’s words carried a lot of weight. Kitty didn’t need convincing. She was up for any action after six months of laborious classwork. Julian, Dani, Noriko, Sam, Roberto, and Julian all exchanged glances. They hadn’t had a chance to be X-Factor under the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. Now they had one and they were going to take it because the X-men sure weren’t going to.


Lee Claremont Memorial Hospital

‘Robert…it’s time to wake up.’

“Hnn…” groaned a groggy and confused Robert Hunter.

The powerful voice in his head reverberated like an echo. It steadily drew him out of his unconscious state. He tried opening his eyes, but there was nothing but a blurry light. For a moment, it felt as though this was it.

“Oh no…I’m dead, aren’t I?” he groaned.

‘Don’t be ridiculous. That’s just the morphine talking.’

The voice was a lot more forceful this time. It certainly didn’t sound like the kind of voice he would expect to hear during death. It jolted him back to conscious reality. Along with reality came a reminder of the injuries he sustained.

His chest was still burning and his left arm partially numb. He quickly remembered being shot by his loan shark after narrowly avoiding another explosion. He also remembered that someone had helped him during those fateful moments and they were now standing over him.

Emma Frost gave him a few more telepathic shoves, causing Robert to tense uncomfortably. Scott, Logan, Kurt, Warren, James, and Domino stood next to her. They were no doctors or hospital officials nearby except for two morticians sleeping soundly in a chair behind them. This was also Emma’s doing. Her telepathy was once again the key to making their plan work.

“Go easy on him, Emma. He’s still out of it,” coaxed Warren.

“Morphine will do that,” said Emma, “But if it’s all the same to you, I would rather not spend too much time in a morgue.”

“Why? Because dead bodies don’t appreciate that surgically enhanced wit of yours?” quipped Domino.

“Wait…I’m in a morgue?” said Robert Hunter, now even more confused.

“Take it easy, Mr. Hunter,” said Scott as he helped the young man sit up, “Yes, you’re in a morgue. Yes, you’re not dead. I know you have a lot of questions. We’re here to answer them.”

“We? Who’s we?”

“Who else? The guys who saved your ass, bub,” Logan pointed out.

Robert rubbed his eyes and took in his surroundings. Sure enough, he was in a morgue. He was lying on a table meant for dead bodies. The air was cold and sterile, the stench of death apparent throughout the room. On the tables to his right were a series of ominous-looking surgical tools. It looked like they were meant for him.

He tried getting off the table, but was quickly reminded that he still had a gunshot wound. He winced as he struggled to stay upright, blocking out the pain while his mysterious rescuers explained his situation.

“I’ll start with what you remember,” said Scott, “Those explosions you caused were the result of your mutation. Technically speaking, you have the ability to build up ionic energy and release it.”

“I don’t need to know the details. I figured I was a mutant or something. So far I can safely say that it sucks ass,” groaned Robert.

“Well those friends of yours sure didn’t help,” Warpath pointed out, “Near as we could tell, chasing you only agitated your powers. It nearly blew the whole town to hell.”

“But that didn’t happen. Aside from the unflattering injuries those thugs sustained, nobody else was hurt,” assured Scott, “Nobody else has to get hurt because of your powers. We saved the device that prevented you from going off again. We’ll let you keep it so you can control your new abilities.”

Warren handed the former X-leader the device they retrieved from the doctors. He gave it to Robert, who looked at it curiously. It was unsettling how the disk-shaped contraption was the key to controlling his destructive powers. He still remembered vividly how much damage he caused. Between that and his gunshot wound, Robert Hunter had many reasons to be troubled.

“I know what you’re going through right now,” said Scott, offering the young man a comforting gesture, “You’re worried about losing control and how it’s going to affect your life. It’s why I have to wear this visor every hour of every day. It’s why we can never go back to what we considered a normal life.”

“If you’re trying to lift my spirits, you’re doing a lousy job,” grumbled Robert.

“If you’re expecting Cyke to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, you’re expecting way too fucking much,” commented Logan.

“I’m not here to be your counselor. I’m here to lay out your options,” Scott went on, “I can tell you how it would have played out if we hadn’t shown up. Your wounds would heal. You would then be released from the hospital and into the custody of the MSA. For the next few weeks, MSA officials and bureaucrats would argue over what to do with you. With powers like yours, you would qualify for what they call special consideration. Your life would be more heavily monitored than most mutants. You would probably be forced into special classes at the Academy of Tomorrow where you would stay indefinitely. Years would go by and you would be stuck with no way of living your own life.”

“I guess it could be worse,” grumbled Robert, “If nothing else, it would keep my old loan shark and his buddies off my back.”

“Forget about the past for a moment, Mr. Hunter. What do you want? Say you had a chance to decide for yourself. What would you do with it?”

Robert looked up at Scott with conflicted eyes. It was an overwhelming prospect, deciding what to do with his life after having screwed up so much. He once sought an easy life, one where he didn’t have to work so hard just to end up like his blue collar parents. He had been willing to break the law to get it and that nearly killed him, along with many innocent people. A low-life like him should be in jail right now. However, being in jail would hardly make up for what he had done.

“I can tell you’re a kid who’s made some bad decisions and even worse friends,” said Domino, “Trust me when I say it’s not easy to make up for it, but it sure is worth it.”

“We wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of setting up this elaborate ruse if we didn’t think you had a good heart to salvage,” added Kurt.

“Ruse? What ruse?” asked Robert.

“I was just getting to that,” said Scott, “In order to give you the necessary options, we resorted some deceptive tactics.”

“By deceptive, he means that we’re the reason you were shot,” said Warpath.

“What?! You shot me?” he exclaimed.

“Hear us out before you hate us, kid,” said Logan, “It was either us or that loan shark friend of yours. And trust me, he would’ve shot you in ways that morphine wouldn’t help.”

“That’s where my sharp-shooting skills and my uncanny luck comes in,” said Domino with a grin, “I made it so your loan shark buddy missed each shot. Then I fired a carefully aimed shot of my own to wound you in just the right way.”

“How does wounding me count as right?” said Robert in a mix of outrage and confusion.

“The only right wound is the one you can heal from,” Scott answered, “It takes a perfect shot to create that kind of wound that’s also serious enough to be classified as lethal.”

“And since I’m a perfect shot, I’m happy to say you’re welcome!” said Domino.

Robert looked at the woman strangely. The sting of his bullet wound was still painful. It was hard not to feel a certain level of anger, but at the same time they seemed genuine. For that reason, he decided to hear them out.

“She didn’t hit any major organs or arteries so it was pretty easy for the doctors to treat you,” Scott went on, “However, that’s not what we had them think.”

“What do you mean?” asked Robert in confusion.

“Rather than explain the intricate details, I’ll just say I modestly tweaked a few memories,” said Emma proudly.

“By tweaked she means she purposefully twisted the thoughts of every doctor, police officer, and MSA operative into thinking you died from your wound,” Warpath explained, “As a result, they moved you down here to the morgue. As we speak, the MSA is processing your death certificate. Far as they know, Robert Hunter is no longer a problem.”

“Now before you get outraged again, let me point out that we can undo this very easily at this point,” said Scott quickly, “If you want, you can go along with the MSA and the Academy of Tomorrow. Emma will tell you first hand that it’s a viable option.”

“It is. Even if it’s not as viable as it once was,” she affirmed with a touch of sorrow as she mused over the many changes to her school.

“But we also want to give you a choice,” said the X-Force leader, “If you choose to stay dead, X-Force can help you forge a new identity. You’ll have a chance to make up for past mistakes on your own accord. You won’t have to rely on the Mutant Monitoring Initiative to do it for you. That, of course, depends on how willing you are to take this chance.”

“That way I know if I have to wipe your mind of this conversation,” said Emma, earning her a look from the others.

“Pay no attention to my ex-girlfriend’s terrible sense of humor,” said Scott, maintaining a serious tone, “This is what X-Force does. We give mutants a chance to live their lives outside the Mutant Monitoring Initiative. We don’t think it’s right for any authority to decide what a mutant should do with their lives. For some, going along with the government’s plan works. For others, it doesn’t. With that in mind, I ask that you make your decision now. Afterwards, we hope you never have to hear from us again.”

“Keeping in mind we have a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy,” added Logan, “You get once chance to live under the radar. You screw it up and we ain’t gonna be there to save you again.”

“So decide now how hard you’re willing to work to make a new life for yourself. That way we can all get out of this dreary morgue,” said Kurt.

Robert Hunter faced a critical decision. For most of his life, he avoided those decisions. He always took the easy way out. He never truly applied himself. This felt like his last opportunity to do something respectable with his life.

He had this mutant power that was dangerous and volatile. By handing himself over to the MSA, he would surrender control and responsibility to others. Looking down at his bullet wound, he felt the literal sting of that attitude. He didn’t want to feel this sting again. So with a determination he never mustered before, Robert Hunter made his decision.

“You guys are taking a hell of a risk, giving a mutant like me a second chance,” said Robert, “I could blow myself up again and make a bad situation so much worse.”

“We live in a time where we have to take those risks,” said James, “If we don’t, then no one else will.”

“That alone makes you either the ballsiest or craziest guys I’ve ever met,” he said with a wry grin, “If you’re willing to be that brazen for a runt like me, then I have no excuse. I’ll take that risk as well.”

Scott and the rest of X-Force smiled at his decision. This elaborate ploy of theirs actually worked out and they didn’t have to fight the X-men. The X-men and the Mutant Monitoring Initiative demonstrated that they were still disorganized. It wasn’t enough to bring change on a large scale, but it showed there were plenty of unresolved issues. X-Force was making their case and with mutants like Robert Hunter, their resolve grew stronger.

Having shown confidence in his decision, Scott and Logan helped the young mutant off the metal table. He was still sore from the gunshot, but he was eager to begin his second chance.

“You are more brazen zhan you give yourself credit for, Mr. Hunter,” said Kurt, “Ve vill help to make sure zhat zhis decision is right for you.”

“Thanks,” said Robert with a smile, “And please…call me Nitro.”

“We’ll have to make a slightly less conspicuous name for you to go by,” said Warren.

“Can I call myself Steve Starlin? Something about that name just has a nice ring to it.”

“Call yourself Michael Jackson for all I care. So long as we can depart for somewhere with less dead bodies,” said Emma Frost.

With Nitro having made his decision, X-Force gathered around and prepared for Kurt to teleport them away. As they vanished in a buff of sulfurous smoke, they left Robert Hunter behind along with a messy situation for the X-men to handle.

The stakes were constantly changing. This one incident counted as a minor victory for X-Force, but was sure to escalate tensions. It was only a matter of time before another incident tested their resolve.


Downtown Boston

‘They all hate me. Every last one of them. I can’t believe my parents sent me to this dump. Did they really think they were doing me a favor? Or were they just trying to get rid of me? It’s hard enough being a freak. I don’t need my own family throwing me away because dealing with a mutant son is too hard for them.’

Barnell Bohusk hid his bitterness in a stern gaze. That gaze was further shrouded by a thick sweat-jacket and a hood that obscured his face. Walking down the busy streets of Downtown Boston, he had to keep a low profile.

He was a mutant who had the pitiful luck of being disfigured by his mutation. His skin was lightly tanned and his limbs were misshapen, appearing slender and slightly bent. His arms hid a set of bird-like wings. Those attributes were easy to hide, but it was his nose that often stood out. It resembled the beak of a large bird. It was usually the first feature people noticed, so much so that he was often called Beak.

That nickname and the powers that came along with it didn’t used to bother him as much. Growing up in a remote farm town in the Ukraine, he didn’t have to hide what he was to nearly as many people. His parents and his neighbors knew him and were used to his appearance. It only became a problem when outsiders came in and saw him.

It led to some fairly serious outbursts on his part. They were the kinds of outbursts that got him into trouble with the authorities and kept him from ever leaving him. He couldn’t always help himself. He lived such a secluded life and as he got older, it started getting to him and his parents for that matter.

Then the Mutant Monitoring Initiative came along. Suddenly, mutants couldn’t hide from the authorities. This didn’t bother Beak at first, but his parents took notice. They were the ones that got in touch with the American Embassy. They were the ones that took advantage of the initiative’s dump-trouble-mutants-in-the-Academy-of-Tomorrow policy. They told him that it was the only way he could get a good education. Beak was convinced they just didn’t know how to deal with him anymore.

He was like so many other mutants whose parents were content to dump their problems on others. Unlike most of those mutants, Beak was going to do something about it.

‘This Mutant Monitoring Imitative is a joke. There’s nothing they can teach me at the Academy of Tomorrow that will make my life any less screwed. I see all those other mutants just accepting their fate, believing that this elaborate scheme will make their lives better. Well I’m not that stupid! I want out of this shit! Even if it means making a deal with the devil, I’m going to live my own life!’

Beak adjusted the hood on his sweat shirt, avoiding eye-contact with some of the people that passed him by. He received a few awkward looks. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The areas around the Academy of Tomorrow had become accustomed to seeing mutants in their neighborhood. That didn’t make their reactions any less annoying. As soon as Beak reached his destination, he slipped into an alley behind a fast food restaurant. He checked his watch, noting that it was almost time.

Once behind the restaurant, he looked around to make sure there were no witnesses. It was a dirty area surrounded by dumpsters so there were few reasons for anyone to come back here. He paced restlessly for a moment, eager to get this over with. He was taking a big chance. If the MSA or the Academy of Tomorrow found out about this, he would be in a world of trouble.

He didn’t have time to second guess himself though. After less than a minute of pacing, a purplish portal appeared behind him and two figures emerged. One was Blink, who was the source of the portal. The other was Pietro Maximoff, who was the source of Beak’s only opportunity to break free from his current predicament.

“Do you have it?” asked Pietro impatiently, “I’ve had to jump through way too many hoops to get this shit.”

“First of all, good day to you too, Pietro,” said Beak dryly, “You and Blink look cheerful today.”

“Please don’t play coy with him. He’s never in the mood,” groaned Blink.

“Listen to her, Beak. I offered you sanctuary with the Brotherhood. That is offer is extremely fragile so you better deliver,” said the speedster firmly.

“No need to remind me. I know I’m on a short leash,” said Beak, “I don’t have as much as I hoped, but I have enough for you to analyze.”

Rather than test the speedster’s patience any further, Beak pulled out a small canister from his pocket. It looked like a vial from a hospital. It contained a bright red liquid that glistened with a distinct hue. He carefully handed it over to Pietro, who scrutinized it closely. As he looked at it, Beak watched his expression tense.

“So this is it. This is that Mutant Growth Hormone we heard about,” said Pietro.

“Or MGH for some. The guy I bought it from called it Kick, Special K, and Jesus Juice,” said Beak.

“I don’t care what it’s called. This stuff is a serious problem and a potential solution all rolled into one,” he said as he clutched the vial, “Our networks picked up on it about a month ago. Someone sank a lot of resources to develop some sludge that gives humans powers and enhances mutant abilities.”

“I don’t know how much my contact bought it for, but it’s growing quickly. It won’t be long before the DEA, the MSA, and the CIA for all I know start calling this the next great scourge,” said Beak.

“By then it’ll be too late. It always is,” said Pietro grimly.

The speedster pocketed the vial and turned towards Blink. She nodded and prepared another portal to take them back to their base in the Savage Land. The Brotherhood and the Genosha refugees had been lying low since the Mutant Monitoring Initiative set in. They couldn’t lay low for much longer. They still had goals to carry out and plans to implement. The emergence of MGH completely changed the stakes. As such, they had to make sure it changed in their favor.

“You’ve almost done your part, Beak. I need at least a dozen more doses and I need them soon,” said the speedster.

“A dozen? The rate this stuff is going, that may be a problem,” said Beak anxiously.

“So solve it! Do whatever it takes!” said Pietro as he followed Blink into her portal, “Mutants have enough problems between the X-men and this damn initiative Xavier’s got going. One way or another, the Brotherhood is going to be the solution.”

Up next: Revolting Youth

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