X-men Supreme Volume 5: Dark Truths
Tech Spec Terror
AN: Another era of X-men Supreme has arrived. This is the fifth, and possibly final, volume in my ongoing X-men Supreme series, which I've dubbed Marvel Universe 1015. This series has progressed a great deal. Now it nears its 100th issue since it began nearly five years ago. A lot has happened with these characters. Some have come. Some have gone. Some have yet to appear. I even had a chance to introduce some of my own characters. But the biggest event of the previous volume was the creation of a new, fragile peace between humans and mutants. Magneto is gone. Wanda Maximoff now rules Genosha. And a treaty is in place trading alien technology for peace. It's a different world and the X-men have to adapt, even as new threats emerge.
Disclaimer: I don't own X-men or any of the characters. Marvel and Disney own them. This is pure fan work that fits within the Fair Use clause. Please don't sue.
'These mean thoughts or psychic communication.'
As always, I urge everyone to take the time to leave reviews. I've noticed a slight downward trend of feedback as this series has unfolded. I hope to change that with this Volume. I'm still not decided on whether I will continue X-men Supreme after this volume. A lot of that depends on the feedback I get and the circumstances I'm dealing with once this volume is complete. But please note that I appreciate all forms of feedback and I go out of my way to respond to ievery bit I get. So please send your reviews to me via email, post it on the fanfiction website, or post it on my X-men Supreme website. The link is on my profile. Either way is fine. Now without further ado, I give you X-men Supreme Volume 5: Dark Truths. Excelsior!
A major shift has occurred in human/mutant relations. The chaos wrought by Magneto has settled and a new peace has been forged. The world has entered a new era and Professor Charles Xavier and his X-men remain on the front lines, fighting for peace and understanding in a world that hates and fears them.
The treaty that created this peace has led to rapid progress over the past six months. At the heart of this progress is the alien technology that Magneto extracted from a crashed alien ship. This technology has flooded the market, opening all sorts of possibilities and creating a vital trade link with Genosha. This link that has become the key incentive towards maintaining peace and has led to a boom in the economy like no other. This has caused a dramatic re-assessment of the human/mutant conflict, but problems still remain.
While there are anti-mutant forces still active, the X-men now have help through an uneasy partnership with General Nathan Grimshaw's Mutant Security Agency. However, the treaty has brought unexpected consequences that the MSA has had to deal with. Whereas one conflict has ended, a whole new host of conflicts is set to begin.
White House – Oval Office
President Robert Kelly was in a good mood for a man with one of the toughest jobs in the world. There were only a handful of times when the President of the United States could sit back and enjoy the good times. Since his first day in office, it was just one conflict after another. Few of those conflicts ever resulting anything positive, but that was before this unprecedented treaty with Genosha.
Over the past six months, this treaty had become the new foundation for human/mutant relations. Both sides benefited in many ways. Genosha regained much of its sovereignty, save for one sizable military base on the south end of the island. The rest of the world got to enjoy the fruits of Genoshan technology that had been hidden and guarded for centuries. It delivered a much needed jolt to the world economy and a robust economy often had a way of stabilizing the political climate.
"Moving on, we'll touch on your new favorite issue, Mr. President. I won't bore you with the details so I'll skip to the numbers," said General Nathan Grimshaw, who was standing across from the President's desk along with Charles Xavier.
"I need more than numbers, General Grimshaw. Give me the big picture," said President Kelly as he sat comfortably in his chair.
"In short, your approval rating is at record levels. The latest numbers have you at 63 percent approval. That's even factoring in people registered in the other party."
"So even the ones that actively campaign against me think I'm doing a good job? That's a pretty rosy picture if ever there was one," he said with a grin.
"It gets better," said General Grimshaw, "According to the World Bank, the influx of Genoshan technology has caused an economic boom that makes the roaring twenties look like whisper. The numbers across the board are breaking every previous record by a huge margin. The DOW Jones Average, the S&P, and even the international exchanges are shooting up higher than the speculators can keep up with."
"So the money is outpacing the people trying to get it. That's a first," said President Kelly in a humored tone.
"It's not just the boys on Wall Street either. This economic boom has sent unemployment to its lowest level in 48 years. I don't think I need to tell you what that's done for tax revenue."
"I'm sure I can expect a fruit basket from the Budget Office and Goldman Sachs by the end of the year."
"It goes without saying that a record economy does everybody some good. That goes for human/mutant relations as well," said Charles Xavier, "An influx of prosperity along with the highly publicized nature of the Genosha deal has done much to reverse the anti-mutant sentiment that developed after the Cambrian incident."
"I'm not the telepath, but I sense a 'but' coming," said the President.
"I would call it an 'aside.' While the General and I welcome these latest developments, we do some logistical concerns about how the Mutant Security Agency has evolved since its inception."
It was a perfect way to shake President Kelly from his good mood. He expected as such whenever he had these private meetings. They took place every week since the deal with Genosha was finalized. They were his official insight into human/mutant issues and the extent of this emerging status quo. Usually, only General Grimshaw and a few advisers took part in these meetings. Today, Charles Xavier made a rare visit.
He was still a controversial figure and it wasn't just because he was the world's most powerful telepath. Even when things were going well for human/mutant relations, he always found some pressing issue that couldn't be ignored.
"I thought this issue had been addressed, Xavier. My administration has kept you in the loop through this whole process," President Kelly reminded him, "Considering our less-than-friendly history, that alone is an accomplishment."
"I know and I appreciate your efforts in that respect. But while the technology from Genosha has been a benefit to many, managing it has become an increasingly difficult task. I don't think I need to tell you how dangerous some of this technology could be in the wrong hands. It has already led to a new black market for terrorists, rogue nations, and drug cartels."
"I'm well aware of the danger. The Joint Chiefs have already given me a long list of problems this new tech has caused, but that's exactly why we're going to great lengths to ensure these resources end up in the right hands. We treat this tech the same way we treat weapons grade plutonium."
"Your dedication to security is not in question, Mr. President. It's the unintended consequences that worry me," said Professor Xavier, "It has already led to a greater expansion of the Mutant Security Agency than was laid out in General Grimshaw's proposal. It has also required that my X-men divert a sizable portion of our time and energy into policing these matters."
"Why is that a concern? Are your X-men not capable of handling it?" Kelly suggested.
"They can handle it fine," he said confidently, "What I'm less certain about is the way you have them working alongside the MSA. Sometimes I get the impression that your people are seeing the X-men as tools rather than allies."
"You make it sound as though we're using them as puppets, Xavier," the President scoffed.
"I never said that, Mr. President. I only meant to…"
The President quickly silenced him. Even if this man was the world's most powerful telepath, he was not the elected leader of the United States of America.
"That's enough, Professor," he said strongly, "I know your X-men have a proud history of playing hero, but this is a different game with a different set of rules. And since you agreed to be part of this process, you have to play by those rules. Now if you don't like them, that's fine. But if you don't abide by them, then don't expect us to keep you in the loop."
"Mr. President, if I may…" began General Grimshaw.
"This goes double for you, General. The MSA has expanded out of necessity and is already the fasted growing agency in government. In just a few months' time, we have a department in every state with no fewer than three divisions. It's been so successful that other countries like Britain, Germany, and Japan have adopted it. The purpose is still focused on policing mutants. Now that we have this technology, their role will continue to expand as needed. You can either keep up or be left behind. But bear this in mind…now that we have the economy is part of the equation, there's no going back."
Professor Xavier had nothing with which to respond. He couldn't expected any special favors for his X-men, even though they saved him and his family on more than one occasion. Now that money was involved and his approval was so highly driven by this economic prosperity, there were significant incentives to continue with the current way of doing things. That meant he and his X-men were stuck in their current role for the time being.
"If you have no response, I assume I've made my position sufficiently clear," President Kelly stated.
"You have, Mr. President," said the Professor flatly, "In that case I believe this meeting is finished."
"Yes, I've nothing further to add," said General Grimshaw.
"Good, then I trust we won't have to discuss this again. This is still my presidency. If one of us fails, it's going to have my name on it. So expect a little extra scrutiny on my part. If possible, take comfort in the knowledge that I have as much to lose as you do in this deal."
Professor Xavier nodded while General Grimshaw gave his formal salute. They exited the Oval Office together with mixed feelings. President Kelly seemed pleased with the current state of affairs, but he didn't seem overly concerned with the complications associated with it.
While it was true that his name was attached to the Genosha treaty, it was General Grimshaw and Charles Xavier that were making it work. The treaty had its share of challenges to say the least. Getting it legally approved on an international level was hard enough. Delivering the goods was another matter altogether.
In order to maintain leverage, Wanda Maximoff made it so Genosha had near monopoly on the vital components that drove this technology such as the power cells, the advanced materials, and the know-how to work them. Creating these components with Warlock cost next to nothing. Getting it to the markets without someone trying to steal or disrupt it was the real challenge.
The MSA and the X-men were on the front lines of this challenge. General Grimshaw utilized his military ties to protect the shipments while the growing ranks of the MSA ran the nuts and bolts of the operation. The X-men were basically the cavalry and were expected to be on call for any number of situations. It forced both men to change their way of doing things. Naturally, this came with some reservations and Professor Xavier voiced some of those reservations via telepathy.
'I hope you don't mind, but I would rather not say out loud how unsatisfied I am with the President's answer.'
'No need to apologize, Xavier. I wouldn't keep my mind this open if I didn't have thoughts I was willing to share.'
'I understand the pressure President Kelly faces now that he has an economic boom to sustain. What I don't understand is how he can expect my X-men to share that pressure and continue to pursue our main mission.'
'Ideally, my MSA should be able to take on these responsibilities as we get better at what we do. Then we won't need to keep calling your X-men whenever the going gets tough.'
'And are you confident you can make your organization work without it overstepping the bounds you said you wouldn't cross?'
'So long as your X-men, and the rest of the mutant race, don't give me a reason to, it shouldn't be a problem. But before I shut my mind off, let me echo one of the points the President made. This treaty depends on mutants being willing to cooperate and respect the law. As soon as that cooperation ends, expect those lines to get real blurry.'
Port of Calcutta – India
"Falcon one! Falcon one! This is Bravo Three, do you copy? Hello? Do you copy?"
A lone man ran desperately through the corridors of the fully stocked cargo ship aptly named the SS Big Bertha. It was one of the largest commercial cargo ships sailing the seas. When fully stocked, it could haul enough cargo to support a small city for weeks. Yet it was just one small portion of the cargo that attracted some unwanted attention.
This large ship had the dubious duty of making a pit stop on Genosha to pick up a fresh load of Genoshan hardware. As a result, the main crew yielded authority to a special team of international officers, sponsored primarily by the Mutant Security Agency. They were equipped with all the standard armaments that were supposed to help them deal with any kind of threat, mutant or otherwise. In the span of an hour, that false sense of security was completely shattered.
"Falcon one! Are you there?"
"Bravo Three…code omega…in black suit…has the-AHHHHHHHHH!"
The communicator went dead in a burst of static, offering an ominous clue as to what happened.
"Falcon one! Are you there? Falcon one! Is anybody out there?!" he yelled desperately.
His hopes for reinforcements were crushed. That was the last of his support team. As soon as the ship docked, they were supposed to check in and prepare to offload the precious cargo from Genosha. Around that time, every hand on the ship started disappearing. It was no haunting or Bermuda Triangle crap either. Gunshots were fired. Dead and injured bodies were showing up everywhere. One-by-one, the crew and the officers were taken down and nobody had a clue who was behind it.
The lone officer had run out of options. He was stuck on the third sub-level below the main deck. Getting out of this alive involved navigating through a maze of corridors and stairs with some killer on the loose.
"Damn it!" he cursed as he threw the communicator against the wall, "They don't train us enough for this shit."
Frozen in place, the officer held his special MK-19 in a firing position and swiftly made his way towards the stairs. His legs trembled as he stood ready to fire at the slightest provocation.
All seemed quiet. There was nothing in front of him or behind him. He kept moving at a brisk pace until he reached a junction near heart of the ship. As soon as he entered the hall, he scanned in the direction he was planning to take. It seemed clear. He then checked behind him and that's when he came face to face with the source of this madness.
"Oh hell…" he lamented.
Standing before him was a tall, masculine figure that seemed almost robotic in his demeanor. He wore a tan camouflage pants, a dark green jacket with a bullet-proof vest, and a black mask with goggles that completely covered his face. He looked like one of those paramilitary soldiers, but there was something disturbingly off about him. Behind him were two large handheld crates about the size of large toolboxes that had special stickers on them. They were plundered from the precious cargo they picked up from Genosha, making it all too clear as to what this was about.
With mechanical-like gestures, the figure slammed his fists against a nearby wall. Upon doing so, his entire arm became engulfed in a strange pinkish energy. It indicated some kind of mutant abilities and the officer was not looking to find out what it entailed.
"Why can't you people wait in line for this shit like everybody else?" groaned the officer as he took aim with his gun.
The figure shot forth with an inhuman burst of speed, managing to slip out of the officer's line of sight as he fired three shots with his high powered rifle. Before he could even adjust his aim, the figure slammed his glowing fist against the weapon. In an instant, it shattered like glass. With his hand still glowing, he slugged the officer with a punishing haymaker.
"Aagh!" he cried out.
The man was knocked clear to the other end of the corridor, landing with a hard thud against the opposing wall. The blow wasn't fatal, but the injuries were mortal. This effectively rendered the ship's crew and security fully neutralized.
The mysterious figure, who hadn't broken a sweat, returned to his robotic state. Now able to move freely within the ship, he received an encrypted message through a special earpiece to communicate with his superiors.
"Agent Zero, report on the obstructions."
"All clear," he said flatly.
"Good, then proceed with the next phase of your mission. You're to load six boxes of the Genosha shipment onto one of the emergency rafts. Get everything to the deck, load up the cargo, and rendezvous with your contact down south. We have a jet waiting for you. Work quickly. We just picked up some chatter and MSA backup is already en route."
The operative known as Agent Zero went to work, turning his attention back to the two bulky cases he had been carrying. Now that he had no more obstacles in his way, these cases were the focus of his mission. They contained the advanced power cells that only Genosha could manufacture and that major companies paid top dollar to secure. The only tragedy here was that neither he nor anyone else was going to see a dime of that money.
Leaving both cases where they stood, he started making way back towards the secure holding area where more of these crates were stored. It would likely take a few trips to get the six his superiors desired. He had to remain on guard every step of the way. There was no telling when MSA backup would catch up with him.
That moment came a lot sooner than he expected because before he could even reach the stairs, a deafening bang ripped through the ceiling over the corridor just a few feet in front of him.
"We found him," said the authoritative tone of Cyclops.
"Told you I could handle his mental shields," said a confident Psylocke, who was staring down through the gaping hole with Gambit and Colossus by her side.
When Agent Zero looked up, he knew he was in trouble. These new obstacles weren't the MSA's backup. These were the X-men. He had been warned about them and they promised to make his mission infinitely more complicated.
Zero pulled out his two 45 caliber pistols and started shooting through the hole in the ceiling. This forced Cyclops and Psylocke to duck out of the way. Colossus then used his metal form body as a shield.
"Stand behind me, comrades. Our nemesis is well-armed," said Colossus as his metal body absorbed and deflected the stream of bullets.
"Armed enough to take out this whole dang ship?" questioned Gambit.
"They called us for backup, didn't they? I think that goes without saying, luv," said Psylocke.
Zero's shooting held the X-men back just long enough for him to grab the two cases and make a break for it. Since the path to the cargo hold now had the X-men in front of him, his only choice was to head to the surface and make his escape. As much as his superiors wanted this cargo, they also stipulated that he was not to be taken under any circumstances. That meant these two crates would have to suffice.
As soon as the shooting stopped, Cyclops jumped down through the hole and into the corridor. Colossus followed him and remained in front, using his metal form as a shield in case their adversary got trigger-happy again.
"He's heading for the deck," said the X-leader, "Psylocke, you and Gambit get there first while Colossus and I try to take him out."
"You expect this half-rate pirate to try and swim for it?" said Gambit skeptically.
"Given how valuable this stuff is, he just might."
The four X-men split off to implement Cyclops's tactic. The masked assailant moved a lot faster than they expected. They clearly weren't dealing with a typical pirate. If Psylocke's earlier telepathic sleuthing was any indication, they were dealing with a well-trained mutant.
Running at full speed, Agent Zero scaled a flight of stairs to get to the next level. Along the way Cyclops fired an optic blast that grazed his shoulder, causing him to stumble. This gave the two X-men valuable time to close the distance between them. They were now close enough for Cyclops to get off a more accurate shot and with Colossus in front of him, shooting back was just a waste of bullets. Zero's only option was to use his powers again. As soon as he made it up the steps he slammed his hand against the wall, causing it to glow again.
"You can make this easy on yourself. We just want to talk," Cyclops shouted.
"Do not waste your breath, comrade. I know his type. They do not talk," said Colossus.
The Russian mutant would know. He had heard of this man during his days in the Russian Mob. That was why the MSA called the X-men in. Rumors of the very dangerous and very skilled Agent Zero had come in through Interpol and the Pakistani secret police. He had been more active than usual lately and that was rarely a good thing. Zero was a bit of a mystery, but he did not come cheap. His unique skills, which were widely believed to be mutant in nature, made him perfect for high risk missions such as this.
They followed their target through the next round of corridors. This time the stairs were much closer. Standing just below the deck, he was close to completing his escape. Along the way he kept banging his fist against the wall, building up more energy so that his hand was charged with even more power. It got so intense that it turned dark red.
"Watch out, Colossus. I doubt he's just showing off," said Cyclops as they closed in.
"I can take it, Cyclops," said Colossus confidently, still running full speed.
Agent Zero stopped at the base of the stairs. At first he raised his glowing arm and pointed it right at Colossus, who had every intention of absorbing Zero's shot. He seemed pretty tough, but Zero was in no mood to test that confidence.
Instead of firing at the charging mutant, he diverted his shot up above towards the ceiling. Taking a play right out of the X-men's tactics, he unleashed the power he had absorbed. A bright red bolt shot out form his hand, causing a similar level of damage that Cyclops's optic blast had inflicted earlier. In addition, Zero hit a series of pipes, causing a burst of steam to fill the corridors along with a chunk of debris from the floor above. It was so cluttered and destructive that it stopped the two X-men dead in their tracks.
"Chert poberi!" cursed Colossus in his native Russian.
"Copycat," grunted Cyclops, "Guess we'll have to circle around. It's up to Psylocke and Gambit now."
The two X-men got moving again while Agent Zero scaled the stairs and burst out onto the deck. It was big and crowded with containers, but the cool breeze of the crisp night air was a sign that he was close to making his escape with two cases of the product still in hand.
He ran full speed through the maze of containers, making his way towards the starboard side of the ship that ran parallel to the water. This was where he had been instructed to climb aboard a raft and get out to sea before the authorities came after him. He was almost home free. There was already a large inflatable raft near the edge of the rail. The only problem was that he wasn't the first one that found it.
"Took you long enough," said Psylocke dryly as she casually stood over the raft.
"Thinkin' this be your ticket outta here, homme?" said Gambit, tapping the raft with his bow staff, "Next time, take the bus."
With just one finger, Gambit effectively ruined the escape plan. He touched the inflated raft, using his powers to charge it up with explosive energy. As soon as it started glowing, he and Psylocke jumped behind it and, with their collective strength, kicked it right at him.
Agent Zero turned around and ran full sprint back in the direction he came. The glowing raft came within just a few feet of him before exploding. When it did, it unleashed a potent blast that illuminated the cloudy night and sent him crashing against a nearby crate.
"Ain't nowhere left to run," said Gambit, "You gonna cut the voodoo and save yourself the pain?"
Zero responded by pulling out one of his guns and firing right towards the Cajun. He and Psylocke ducked behind a nearby crate for cover. He may have been low on options, but the man still had guts.
"Why does Remy bother asking?" he said as the pullets flew by him.
"This bloke doesn't say much. I can't imagine who hired him for a stunt like this," grunted Psylocke as she formed some psionic blades in preparation for an attack.
"These days, could be anybody. This here tech be attracting every kind of thug from every kind of hell."
"Good thing they aren't as smart as they are dangerous."
With Zero still backed up against the crate, Gambit and Psylocke needed only to wait. He was bound to run out of bullets at some point and reinforcements were already close by. From the same stairs Zero had walked up earlier, Cyclops and Colossus emerged. When Zero saw this, his options quickly narrowed even further.
"There he is!" Colossus yelled out.
"We've got him now. Let's box him in!" said Cyclops, following close behind.
Zero put away his gun and went back to running. He cut through a few lines of crates, buying precious seconds and avoiding another optic blast from Cyclops. He made his way towards the other side of the ship, which was running parallel along the dock. If he couldn't make an escape by sea, he would have to take his chances on land.
By the time the other side of the ship came into view, Psylocke and Gambit were closing in. Gambit charged a couple of playing cards and aimed for his feet to trip him up. He missed on both shots, but it caused him to stumble. Psylocke tried to take him out with a well-aimed psionic blade. She tried aiming for his legs where there wasn't any body armor. She missed her first shot, but by the time she was ready for the second, the assailant had run out of room.
Now standing over the rail of the massive ship, Zero looked down to see he had quite a fall before him. As he took in his situation, Gambit and Psylocke arrived along with Cyclops and Colossus. Now they had him completely surrounded. There was no way out.
"Nowhere left to run and no more ceilings to shoot," said Cyclops, his hand menacingly gripping his visor.
"Are you going to quit while you're behind? Or are you going to keep up the silent treatment and do something outrageously stupid?" said Psylocke.
Zero looked at the X-men and then over the rail. The choice was a lot easier than she made it out to be.
Without hesitation, the masked figure jumped over the side of the ship and plummeted towards the hard pavement below. The four X-men rushed towards his position, not allowing him to escape their sights.
"Are we to be surprised?" said Colossus.
"Not as much as we should, Peter," said Cyclops in a bemused tone.
"So are we gonna go after this rat or what?" said Gambit, who still several charged cards in hand.
"We don't have to, luv," grinned Psylocke, who had already picked up up on a few welcome telepathic signatures.
The four X-men stood over the deck and watched Agent Zero plummit to the ground below. There was no chance this was some suicide tactic or desperation move. Based on the power he demonstrated earlier, they assumed he had a few more tricks up his sleeve. However, he wasn't the only one.
When Agent Zero struck the hard pavement, rather than become a mangled corpse, he absorbed the energy of the impact. It caused his whole body to glow bright red and left a sizable indent in the concrete. It was a lot of energy and should have equipped him for his escape into the city of Calcutta. However, his glowing form revealed something else that he didn't expect.
"Hands in the air, Tinkerbell. That's more than enough pixie dust for one night," said the caustic voice of Captain Jack Freeman.
Suddenly, facing the X-men didn't seem as daunting. His glowing form revealed that the MSA backup his superior mentioned had arrived. All over the port, there were dozens of well-armed, well-equipped officers from the Indian branch of the MSA. They bore the distinct uniforms that had become so recognizable all over the world. They were dark green with shades of blue around the shoulders and arms. All were heavily armed, sporting more advanced weapons than the officers on the ship. At every angle surrounding Zero's position, he faced a dead end with a gun pointed at him. The success of the mission was now question.
Captain Freeman, who was wearing a special uniform that bore the emblems of the Green Berets, stepped forward to confront Agent Zero. Psylocke's telepathic insight worked to perfection. Their coordination with the X-men allowed them to box in this latest attempt at high tech piracy. It was a game he and the MSA had been playing for a while now and while their record was not perfect, it was still playoff caliber so to speak.
"Agent Zero, is it? Interpol has had you in their top ten most wanted list six years running. I can see why," said Captain Freeman as he fearlessly approached.
Agent Zero stayed silent, clinging to the two cases and remaining still as a statue.
"I know you don't say much so I'll get to the point," Freeman continued, "None of these guys have any problem with shooting you, but we're not hit men. We're the MSA. We're sick of this tech being on every greedy bastard's Christmas list. We're more than willing to make deals if it will keep this tech flowing to the people who actually make useful shit out of it. Long story short, if you come with us, we might be able to work something out."
It was a standard speech that Jack Freeman rarely said with much enthusiasm. He was more soldier than police officer. But as General Grimshaw's most trusted subordinate, he was required to be political at times.
"So what's it going to be, Zero? Your move," said the Green Beret menacingly.
Agent Zero stared down Captain Freeman. Then he looked over the vast contingent of Indian MSA officers before him. Then he looked up at the X-men, who were still watching from the cargo ship. He had no way out. If he was to escape, it was going to cost him something. Looking down at the two cases he was carrying, he saw only once chance. His superiors probably weren't going to like this. However, they would like it even less if he got caught or came back empty handed. This forced him to make a fateful decision.
With his body still glowing with energy, Agent Zero made his move. Taking one of the cases, he threw it up into the air as hard as he could. Then with all the energy he had absorbed, he unleashed it in a concentrated burst. When that blast hit the case head on, the reaction was immediate.
"GET DOWN!" ordered Captain Freeman.
Everyone in the area took cover. A blinding explosion then erupted over the entire port. It was so powerful that Captain Freeman had to use his powers to change his body in a way that would allow him to survive a shockwave that would have otherwise left him mortally wounded.
The power of the explosion ripped through the port, damaging machines and even causing the cargo ship to rock. It left both the MSA and the X-men blinded and stunned. It was all over within the span of five seconds. That was all the time Agent Zero needed because by the time the air cleared, he was gone.
"I've lost visual," groaned one of the MSA officers.
"Figures," muttered Captain Freeman, the shock wearing off for him before anyone else.
The Green Beret braved the lingering heat and fires to investigate the area where Zero had been standing. A quick survey revealed little trace. Then he looked into the narrow waters between the ship and the port. He noticed some bubbles coming up, giving away what Zero had done. Between the murky waters and having no idea of what direction he was heading, Agent Zero may as well have vanished.
"So much for picking up souvenirs on my trip to India. The General will be as disappointed as he will unsurprised," he sighed.
"Sir! Can you track the target?" asked one of the Indian MSA officers.
"Don't bother. If you bothered to read Zero's file, you would know he's long gone by now," said the Captain.
"Shouldn't we still pursue?"
"We have other priorities," he said, looking up at the ship, "The main objective is securing that cargo everybody seems to love. If the President and all those tech lobbyists in Congress are to sleep easier, we need to guard the rest of the shipment."
The rest of the MSA squad was disappointed. Nobody enjoyed seeing a dangerous target get away, especially after he did so much damage. It was usually a guarantee that they would have to confront him or someone like him again in the near future. Such was the price of shifting priorities. As long as this technology remained vital to peace and prosperity, it was up to them to protect it.
Before Captain Freeman began re-orienting his troops, he looked up towards the cargo ship where the X-men were standing. There were still some mixed feelings between them. He still didn't like how the X-men operated and he liked even less how they often influenced MSA missions. However, he had come to respect them a bit more these past six months. They showed they were more than capable allies. Hopefully, that was all they would need to be.
Up on the cargo ship, Cyclops and the other X-men acknowledged Captain Freeman's gesture. He still wasn't very friendly with them, even when they helped out on operations like this. But the X-men came to expect that. It was just one of the many complications they had to deal with it during these turbulent times.
"Well this trip turned out to be a bust," said Gambit.
"I wouldn't say it is a complete failure, comrade. We did stop him from stealing more than two cases of Genosha technology," said Colossus, trying to somewhat optimistic.
"Given how valuable those things are, two is still enough to make some people cry bullocks," added Psylocke.
"Plus, that Zero fella got away. If Wolverine be here, he'd have dived right in after him," said Gambit.
"Wolverine's mission capabilities have been hit or miss the past few months. But lately, they've been mostly misses," said Cyclops bitterly.
"The extra drinking isn't helping much either," added Psylocke.
"Is he still that hung up on what happened with Storm?" asked Colossus.
"Among a long list of other issues," the X-leader sighed.
It was a sore subject. While the X-men were moving forward with these new missions, Wolverine was falling behind. He kept on fighting his own personal battles in ways that really hurt his performance with the team. Some battles stemmed from his breakup with Storm. Others stemmed from some incident with this teenage girl with claws he met in New York a while back. But for the most part, Wolverine just kept fighting for the sake of fighting, leaving him so jaded that he was even more unpleasant to deal with than before.
Cyclops tried to work around it. He entrusted Jean to babysit him when necessary and bust his balls when he needed it. She was one of the he didn't throw empty whiskey bottles at when someone tried to talk to him. The jury was still out on how Wolverine was going to pull himself together. He would have to because there was no shortage of treats wanting to disrupt this fragile peace they had created with Genosha.
The technology they were selling now drove the economy and made human/mutant peace very profitable. As such, the X-men were expected to help maintain that peace by working closely with the MSA. It often clashed with the usual heroics the X-men were accustomed to doing. However, there wasn't much room for alternatives.
"Regardless of what Wolverine would have done, I think it's safe to say that nobody won today," stated Cyclops, "Zero didn't get what he wanted and the MSA has a ship of dead and wounded bodies to clean up. This marks the third incident this month that we've had to back them up because of someone trying to steal this hardware."
"I had it at four. Or did that incident with those Fenris people in South America not count?" asked Colossus.
"For the sake of argument, let's just assume it's three," said the X-leader, "I'm more worried about the bigger picture. REgardless of how many incidents we end up dealing with, this is a disturbing trend."
"But we ain't gonna to change it, are we?" said Gambit, still bearing a pessimistic look.
"Bloody Hell, Remy, enough with the attitude," groaned Psylocke, "As your girlfriend, I'm inclined to knock some sense into you. Unless, of course, you plan on going on more lunch-dates with Rogue and letting her have the honor."
"Please don't start with that, cherè," said Gambit defensively.
"Why not? It's made for less than ideal teamwork and that includes the bedroom."
Now it was getting personal. This was neither the time nor the place for this debate. Gambit and Psylocke had been having a number of heated debates lately, most of which involved affairs outside their X-men duties, and Cyclops wasn't about to let it continue so he intervened.
"Easy Psylocke. Not to take sides here, but this sort of thing is best handled in a bedroom or with one of you sleeping on the couch," he said.
"Any guess as to who that will be?" scoffed Psylocke, which earned her a glare from Gambit.
"But getting back to the matter at hand, I think we should see this mission as a sign of things to come. As long as this tech keeps the peace, we have to keep dealing with it. At some point, we're going to stretch ourselves too thin and we need to be more willing to adapt. I'm just hoping someone will find a better way at some point."
"Me too, Cyclops," sighed Colossus, "Otherwise I may prefer Wolverine's hangovers."
Xavier Institute – Logan's Room
A single groan in the light of the morning sun hardly did justice to this kind of agony. Everything was spinning. Nothing was coherent. This was the kind of hangover that even a healing factor had hard time with. Only a truly tormented soul could ever stoop this low.
If ever there was a standard for such a soul, Logan had already exceeded it. His entire world was a case study in torment. He broke up with Storm, a beautiful woman who loved him for all the right reasons and went out of her way to share that love with him. He found out he killed yet another woman he loved in Mariko Yashida, which consequently made her adopted sister, Yurkio, dedicate her life to killing him. Then there were these these strange encounters with Mystique that he kept having, each one making him feel things that didn't make sense.
On top of it all, there was a teenage girl running around with metal claws, a healing factor, and the mental scars of Weapon X. When he put it all together, it created a complicated web of torment that gave him plenty of reasons to drink. Lately, he had been doing more than his share. It affected his X-men duties, his demeanor, and his already precarious mental state.
'Damn…it happened again. Must've gotten shot in the head…again.'
He had long forgotten the circumstances that led him to this latest hangover. At the moment, his primary concern was figuring out his immediate surroundings. He sensed it was early morning. He sensed he was in his own bed. He also sensed someone else was in there with him and not smelling half a bad as he did. It was almost too painful to open his eyes. When he did, he saw a very irritated Jean Grey sitting next to him with a glass of water in one hand and some pills in the other.
"Morning sunshine," she greeted, "Have fun last night?"
"Hnn…had a blast," he muttered, "You couldn't close the damn curtains?"
"You're lucky I'm not yelling at you through a bull-horn, Logan," she retorted strongly, "You look terrible. You smell like an bad mix of vodka, tequila, and gasoline. There are stains on your shirt that I don't even want to begin to identify. Your motorcycle is somehow parked next to the pool out back. And oh yeah…you passed out on top of the stove last night."
"The stove? That's a new one," muttered the feral mutant.
"You're lucky I was in a good mood. I had to telekinetically lug your drunken ass up here and lay you on your side so you wouldn't choke on your own vomit. I can't tell you how tempted I was to leave you to roast."
"Since you're my ex and I've seen you naked, I won't take that too personally."
"Shut up and take the damn aspirin," said Jean as she literally shoved the pills and water into his hands, "You might as well sober up before the Professor gets back from DC."
Logan grumbled a string of curses under his ragged breath. Jean continued to scorn him even as he took the pills and gulped down the water. It was a look she was tired of giving him.
She felt like a beleaguered parent trying to manage a rebellious child. But this child drank heavily and got into bar fights that sometimes required a hefty check for assorted property damage. It was not a role she enjoyed playing. It was hard enough being Logan's ex-lover and one of the few close friends he hadn't completely alienated. Watching him self-destruct like this over the past few months was as tragic as it was agonizing.
"This has to stop, Logan," she said in a more caring tone, "A bender every other week is excessive enough. Now it's gotten to the point where managing your superhuman alcoholism is like my own little side-mission. Are you really this determined to destroy yourself?"
"I'm a supremely fucked up guy who can take a lot of punishment. You really don't have to care, Jeannie," said Logan as he now sat hunched over the side of his bed.
"But I do care, Logan. I can't stop caring. I don't want to stop either. I understand you're a tormented soul, but I also understand that you're a fighter and you've always found the strength to fight back. It's part of what gives you that big heart you always deny having."
"Too bad it ain't as big as my liver," grumbled Logan.
"It may not matter how strong your liver is in the long run if you keep this up," said Jean in an almost desperate tone, "It literally pains me to see you like this, Logan. All the progress you've made with the X-men… it's like you don't even care anymore. Are you really that willing to throw it all away?"
Logan closed his eyes and rubbed his throbbing head. He could still feel Jean's worried eyes on him. He could even smell the tears forming in her eyes. If he looked at her, it would only make a bad hangover even worse. It didn't always bother him when he disappointed himself, but it definitely bothered him when he disappointed someone like Jean Grey.
"Logan please…talk to me," she said, placing her tender hand on his shoulder, "What keeps driving you to do this? Is it because the Professor isn't letting you take part in missions anymore? You know you can easily earn that role back if you participated in more training."
"If it were that simple, don't you think I would have done it by now?" grunted the former living weapon.
"Then what is it? Are you still hung up on your breakup with Miss Munroe? Does it have to do with the whole Yashida affair? Or the fact that Deathstrike is still trying to kill you? What that other girl with claws you found? Or that whole Mystique thing you told me about?"
"Hell if I know. Take your pick," he muttered.
"Logan!" she shouted in a fit of frustration.
"What do you want from me, Jeannie? A single reason that you can go out and tidy up before my next hangover? It ain't that simple."
"And somehow that requires drinking yourself into oblivion?"
"Does it even matter?"
"Since I'm the one stuck babying you, I'd sure say so!"
Her harsh tone reverberated in his head as if someone was shooting cannons off between his ears. There was no use arguing with Jean Grey. She knew him better than he knew himself in many respects. A lot of his friends in the X-men seemed to have that talent. That said a lot about just how much or how little he knew himself.
A brief silence fell over them and Jean's gestures became more caring. She sat down next to him on his bed, her hand still on his shoulder.
"Let's not turn this into an argument, Logan," she said softly.
"I ain't trying to. But like everything else I've tried lately, I fail. Mystique…Yurkio…Ro…all that shit you listed were failures. They prove that for everything I've accomplished with the X-men, I'm still a monster."
"That's not true, Logan. You know it's not," said Jean firmly.
"Maybe it ain't for the whole Weapon X side of it. That's not what drives the drinking…not entirely anyways," he said in a low tone, "Since I joined the X-men, I've found out that the man I was ain't much better than the weapon. First, I found out about Rose. You would think I learned my lesson after that. Then Yurkio spills the beans about Mariko and I find out I fucked up again in the same damn way."
"Neither one of those was entirely your fault, Logan," Jean pointed out.
"It doesn't matter, damn it! Their blood is still on my claws. Even when I don't end up killing people, I still hurt them. Ororo loved me in a way I didn't deserve. She loved me after I freakin' kissed Mystique for reasons I still ain't clear on. I wanted to love her too. But I just…couldn't. I failed again."
"It's never a failure to love someone. It's not something you can force either. We both know that first hand."
"It goes beyond love, Jeannie," said the feral mutant, "Lately, I've been thinkin' back to all the shit I've found out about myself from assholes like Wraith, Cornelius, Sinister, Omega Red, and even Deadpool. Even when I try to make up for my failures, I find new ways to fuck everything up."
Logan stopped rubbing his head and just kept staring down at the floor, lost in his sorrows. Jean kept trying to console him, but it was no use. There was no bringing him up from this alcohol induced stupor.
"It's like something's missing that I ain't found yet…something I know is there, but I just can't grasp. It's like losing Rose started some crazy cycle that I can't escape. Even when I do, it's always too late and I'm right back where I started. And anyone who gets involved along the way ends up suffering. Seems like just a matter of time before it catches up with the X-men."
"Do you really think we're that inept?" said Jean, "The X-men are strong. Or did we not prove that enough by fighting cosmic forces, killer robots, and ancient globs of promordial sludge?"
"Doesn't mean it's enough," he said, "Far as I'm concerned, the more Chuck keeps me outta the loop, the better off everyone will be."
Jean glared at her former lover with a mix of compassion and frustration. Logan had come so far since he first joined the team. Now he seemed to be regressing. He wasn't pushing himself to rise above the failures of his past. He was on the verge of giving up, something she never expected from this man that she once called her lover. With so much conflict surrounding the X-men, that was a tough pill to swallow.
Yet she chose not to belabor her sentiment. Yelling at Logan was as pointless as trying to prevent him from drinking. She offered him one more comforting gesture before rising up from his bed and leaving him to sulk.
"If that's the attitude you're going to have, then I've nothing left to say to you. When you're ready to talk, I'll still be here," she told him, "But if you remember anything from this latest hangover, remember this…if you stop fighting because you accept it's doomed for failure, then maybe you're not as strong as I thought you were."
She left his room, closing the door behind her. Coming from Jeannie, they hurt like a hundred beatings from Sabretooth. His head still hung low, Logan closed his eyes and clenched his fists. He couldn't keep calling himself an X-man if he stayed on this path. He was a fighter who wasn't putting up much of a fight. For a guy who was literally built to fight, that was downright pathetic. He had to do something. Sooner or later, to get back to being Wolverine again.
Central African Plains
The African Savannah had always held a special place for Storm. Hovering in the sky surrounded by clouds and warm sunlight had always been her sanctuary. Here in Africa, it took on a special meaning. This was where she grew up. This was where she established her connection with nature. As such, this is where she often found peace in a constantly chaotic world. This time was no exception save for one important difference. Her connection with nature was part of a mission, but it was a very different mission this time.
In a rare change of pace for the X-men, they were doing more than fighting anti-mutant sentiments, subduing deviant mutants that couldn't be handled by the authorities, and helping the MSA uphold the treaty with Genosha. For once, they were getting back to their roots with simple heroics. Such heroics had become increasingly rare for the X-men, yet even when they had opportunities, they were complicated by various circumstances. But for those they helped, that didn't make their deeds any less meaningful.
"How's it going up there, Storm? We almost ready?" yelled Shadowcat from the ground below.
"Almost Shadowcat! Just give me a few more minutes," Storm replied.
"Take your time. We've got plenty to keep us busy down here."
"Speak for yourself," said Iceman, who was working alongside her, "At least you've had the luxury of breaks."
"Don't let that annoying voice distract you, Storm. That's probably just a dying vulture gagging on its last meal," said Shadowcat, playfully ignoring her teammate.
"And you call me immature?"
She still didn't acknowledge his complaining. Shadowcat didn't often give the silent treatment, but when she did it was usually for the better. It saved Iceman the energy of getting into another argument with his ex and allowed him to focus on the task at hand.
This mission was a far cry from the operations Cyclops and the others were running in India. This was purely a humanitarian/PR mission. The Savannah of East Africa had been ravaged by drought and a recent civil war. Thanks to the recent economic boom, there was more incentive to stop the fighting and get rid of the corrupt leaders who were exploiting these people. Since this was Storm's homeland, she felt obligated to participate.
She was working on bringing the rains back while he and Shadowcat got some of the necessities for a functioning community up and running again. Shadowcat had spent the last few hours phasing through rubble, retrieving power lines, and fixing plumbing systems. Iceman's main job was to use his ice powers to carve out irrigation and soak the parched farmland as best he could. They had already helped two other towns get everything up and running again and the third was among the toughest thus far.
They weren't doing it alone either. A large team of UN peacekeepers, some with ties to the MSA, were helping out with aid and security. The local population was grateful, although at times it seemed they were operating under the UN's thumb and not their own.
"We need ten more rows of ditches running parallel to the well," one of the UN officials called out in a thick African accent, "Make sure they're in place before the weather witch brings the rains."
"Not to sound like smug or anything, but in America we do have this word called please," replied Iceman.
"Easy Iceman, remember what the Professor said about diplomacy," said Shadowcat, stepping in before the official could reply.
"Now you stop with the silent treatment?"
"It's for a good cause, remember? The X-men need this and so do mutants. We never would have had this chance six months ago so try not to make light of it," she reminded him.
Iceman rolled his eyes and let Shadowcat coordinate with the official. She took charge, giving status reports to various UN peacekeepers while hundreds of anxious villagers waited impatiently. It was probably bizarre, seeing a teenage girl talk as if she was some veteran diplomat. It was probably even more bizarre for the people to see them using such amazing powers. It may have been a little scary too, but the promise of a more peaceful and prosperous life outweighed the underlying fears.
In a sense Iceman couldn't be completely cynical. Shadowcat was right. The X-men never would have had this opportunity six months ago. They wouldn't have even had it back when they were wearing masks, running around the world and playing hero wherever they could. This was a politically sensitive part of the world and thanks to their partnership with the MSA, they had opportunities to go into areas where their powers were needed most. These people were desperate and placed a great deal of hope in the X-men. Yet there were still times when their heroics didn't have the same luster they did beforehand.
'Years of playing hero and now I get to be a real humanitarian. I should be relieved. It sure beats the hell out of fighting a giant robots. So why does it make me feel like less a hero and more an errand boy?'
Iceman tried to ignore the politics and focus on his job. Using various ice slides, he formed large wedges that literally carved a path into the hard dirt. It wasn't easy forming ice in these arid conditions. It took more energy than usual, but it was energy well-spent. The once dead farmlands were already looking better, needing only seeds and water to start producing. It was hard to stay completely focused. Everywhere he turned, there were UN peacekeepers scrutinizing his every move. Even though this was supposed to be a humanitarian mission, it still felt a bit too much like a war zone.
In addition to the peacekeepers, there were a number of international media crews. They were mostly government sanctioned and played their typical role. They reported on their heroic acts, showing how the X-men and the governments of the world were working together. It gave the X-men and the MSA some much needed PR. There was still a lot of fear out there in wake of the Cambrian incident. Doing humanitarian work could help just as much as aiding the MSA, but not nearly as much as it should.
"Are you done channeling your inner Cyclops, Shadowcat? I'm almost done here," Iceman called out as he made another pass.
Shadowcat smiled for the cameras and offered a few more diplomatic gestures to the officials before catching up with her teammate.
"I think we've averted an international incident if that's what you're asking," she said to him.
"I guess that's a good thing. We should probably save those for when the cameras aren't looking," he said dryly.
"Still with the attitude, Bobby?" groaned Shadowcat, "Am I going to have to give you the silent treatment again?"
"Before you do, can I pose at least one serious question?" said Iceman as he formed one last ice wedge.
"Is it about who gets stuck with what job?" she said dryly, "Unless you think phasing through sewer lines and sifting through mountains of rubble is better, I don't see anything worth arguing."
"It's not that. It's this whole government sanctioned heroics routine," he said, grunting a bit as he drove through some particularly tough terrain, "You weren't around when we were just mutant teenagers wearing masks. You don't know what it was like when we could just find a place in the world that needed help, jump into the X-jet, and go there without anybody sanctioning it."
"If you're about to go off on a right-wing political rant, then I'm calling it in. The world as we know it is over."
"There's nothing right-wing, left-wing, or whatever wing about it. Just look around, Kitty. We're acting like humanitarians, but we're pandering to people like President Kelly and Wanda Maximoff. Is this because we're trying to be heroes? Or is it just because we're trying to stay in their good graces? I don't think I need to point out which one I prefer."
Shadowcat had been avoiding the more unpleasant circumstnaces of this mission. She did not want to distract herself from the good they were doing. However, Iceman made some valid points, much to her surprise. It was impossible to ignore these government sanctioned peacekeepers and their specially selected media crews to cover their deeds. It changed the feeling of what it meant to be an X-man and she hadn't yet gotten used to that feeling.
Trying to stay on the good side of men like General Grimshaw and Wanda Maximoff wasn't what she signed up for when she joined the X-men. She didn't sign up for fighting giant robots or going toe-to-toe with aliens either. That was supposed to be part of their struggle as mutants. Perhaps her perspective was a little skewed in some respects, but she still had reason to believe that they had made progress with their struggle.
She glanced over towards the villagers they were helping, few of whom even spoke English or understood what the X-men were. Pandering aside, there were people that needed help here and that's what they were doing regardless of the logistics.
"These people need help, Iceman. That's all there is to it," she told him, "The brown points we get with the guys in fancy suits are bonus. That's all."
"So it doesn't bother you?" said Iceman as he finished with the last ditch.
"Of course it bothers me. I'm just trying to remember the big picture. We're still doing good, aren't we? That should be enough."
"You're right. It should be," he said distantly.
Shadowcat scolded him for his ironically cold tone. Bobby Drake was usually not this cynical. That role usually fell to Rogue, who wasn't even an active member of the team. It led her to believe that there may be another reason behind his attitude.
"You know, I'm starting to miss the old Iceman who would have at least cracked six jokes about how there are more wildebeests than bathrooms in this country," said Shadowcat, "Makes me wonder if the real Iceman is still back in District X getting cozy with Jubilee."
"Here we go again," Iceman groaned, "My ex-girlfriend is about to give me another lecture on my current girlfriend."
"More like pseudo-girlfriend," she pointed out, "Not to sounds like your mother here, but you don't seem as serious about her as you used to be."
"Is this really the time to talk about relationship issues? I doubt those villagers would appreciate hearing how messed up the mutant dating scene has been lately."
"Seeing as how you used the words messed and up, I'll take that as a sign that things aren't so jubilant with Jubilee."
Iceman groaned again. Now he was really missing Shadowcat's silent treatment. He almost forgot that whenever this girl did decide to talk, she was about a subtle as a punch to the gut.
"Maybe you're right about this not being the place, But if something like this is affecting that charming attitude of yours, I think it's worth bringing up," she said.
"My attitude is not the problem here," said Iceman.
"It's still a close second," Shadowcat retorted, "Now I haven't been keeping up with your love life for a reason. I've got my own personal stuff to deal with and it's way less complicated then you're making yours out to be."
"Does that stuff happen to have a Russian accent?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?" she replied coyly, "All I'm saying is that if something's wrong, do you want to deal with it or do you want to keep giving everybody an attitude? I think I speak for everyone when I say we can do without the attitude."
It was hard to tell how serious Shadowcat was with that blunt nature of hers. But just because she was his ex didn't mean she stopped caring. She did know better than most people about what happened when his personal affairs got complicated. She was also not the kind to stay silent on the issue. Six months was a long time to keep all the intimate details to himself. Maybe it was worth confronting.
While Iceman inwardly debated this issue, the skies grew cloudy and a rumble of thunder echoed from above. The blistering sun that had baked the land in a burning African heat was soon shrouded and the dry air gave way to some long overdue rain. It took a while to put together, but Storm had worked her magic. The drought in this war-torn area had officially ended.
"The clouds are ready!" she called out from the clouds, "Is the irrigation system complete?"
"Locked and loaded, Miss Munroe," Shadowcat yelled up from below.
"Then you had best find an umbrella. The forecast is about to change very quickly!"
With a grace that astonished both the peacekeepers and the villagers, Storm triggered the pent up energy within the clouds. Through the echoes of more thunder, the heavens opened up and rain poured down upon the barren land. When the people felt this life-giving moisture upon their faces, they smiled and cheered in their native language.
"The rains have returned!"
"At last we shall not stave!"
"Praise to the weather goddess!"
Upon hearing these cheers, Iceman finally cracked a smile.
"I don't speak whatever language they're speaking, but I think we've made some friends," said Iceman.
"The X-men can never have too many," shrugged Shadowcat.
The UN officials clapped, showing their support as well. They seemed content with the results and so was Storm. With her eyes still glowing, she descended back towards the surface to meet up with her fellow X-men.
"That's the third drought ended this month," she said proudly.
"Not bad for political pandering as Iceman here calls it," said Shadowcat, giving her friend a teasing nudge, "You want to tell our resident weather goddess how missions like this are tainted by relations with the MSA?"
"At the risk of getting a bolt of lightning between the eyes, I'll plead the fifth," said Iceman sheepishly.
"No need to be coy, Bobby. I could hear you two arguing. It's not as loud up there as you think," she said with a friendly smile.
"Oh…well there goes what's left of my dignity."
"Don't start apologizing. The X-men are operating under a different set of rules since the Genosha deal. We may have more responsibilities in guarding Genosha's cargo, but we also have opportunities as well. Those opportunities are only enhanced when we have some official recognition."
"Plus, the extra PR really does help," said Shadowcat.
"Whatever," sighed Iceman, "So it really doesn't bother you, Miss Munroe? You're really okay with how the X-men operate right now?"
Storm kept smiling. He had her reservations. She had been on her share of missions that involved walking side-by-side with the MSA, protecting the technology that was driving this prosperity. They weren't always successful, nor were they nearly as fulfilling. But it was still the same mission. The details may have changed, but the X-men's underlying vision had not.
"I won't say it's perfect. The world is changing and the X-men should change with it. We may have to work under conditions we do not like. But so long as we keep doing good things with our powers, then our purpose will continue to hold true…even if it means overcoming challenges we're not used to facing."
"You mean like posing for news cameras and shaking hands with guys in suits?" Iceman pointed out, gesturing towards the approaching media.
"Among others," she smiled, "Compared to what others are facing, I'll gladly take it."
District X Headquarters – Tessa's Quarters
"The FBI, the CIA, the NSA, Interpol, Homeland Security, the UN, NATO, and even the Chinese secret police…all hacked with a level of skill that I can't help but admire. Each bears the same digital fingerprints. Whatever cyber punk left them is the same punk that hacked the Xavier Institute."
"I think we've established the skill level of this nefarious computer whiz, my darling. It doesn't get us closer to the answers we seek," said an exasperated Hank McCoy.
"I know it doesn't. I just like to restate the obvious so I remember how much these dead ends piss miss off."
Sage's voice was as mechanical as the computer she was typing on. She had turned her emotions off again. She had to in order to avoid the burning frustration she would otherwise feel. Her room in the heart of District X became the equivalent of a crime scene and foor the past six months she had been obsessing over one disheartening failure.
The Xavier Institute had been hacked and she failed to stop it. She had a computer-like mind and a mastery of all things digital. Yet somehow, she had been bested by some faceless hacker. She was a trusted ally of the X-men and she happened to be in love with one of them. They relied on her to protect their network and she failed them. As such, she had to atone for that failure.
Hank knew better than anyone how much it affected her. She had been a lot more uptight since it happened and for her, that was saying something. He was just as upset to discover that someone bested the network security that he designed for the institute. There was still no telling what it was this hacker stole. Worst of all, Sage's obsession with this failure had distracted her from other more pressing matters.
"I'm usually on the other end of this criticism, but I may soon grow jealous of all the attention you're giving your computer," said Hank, who was sitting behind her with his laptop.
"We've both been working tirelessly for last eight hours without food, break, or sex. Seeing as how that's not even close to our record for a computer date, we shouldn't make an issue of it," said Sage flatly.
"I disagree. I maintain that we should be making a much bigger issue of this matter," said Hank more assertively, "You've been intently focused on the institute security breach while I've been juggling several other projects regarding the latest string of attempted technology thefts."
"I thought Cyclops already provided a report on the Calcutta mission. Based on what I saw, there was nothing ground-breaking about it. Zero is a well-known mercenary. Calcutta is not known for its port security. They stopped him from stealing much, but since Zero got away, it's just another dead end."
"That's not the point," said Hank, frustrated by her cold tone, "You're not just my digital confidante. You're my girlfriend. That breach happened six months ago. There are a whole new host of problems facing me and the X-men. The technology Genosha is exporting helps maintain a fragile peace for our kind. That has made it an enormous target that more than a few have taken shots at. And I need help from the one I trust most to uncover who is taking those shots."
Sage finally stopped typing on her computer. The emotions within her continued to fester. Her machine-like mind kept them turned off. Even so, the harsh scrutiny of her lover was difficult to ignore. This was not the first time he brought up this subject, but it was the first time he got visibly upset. On her computer screen, there were still terabytes of data that needed processing. Her mind was inclined to keep going, but her heart pulled her in another direction.
Hank sighed and set his laptop aside for a moment. If only he had the luxury of turning off his emotions, then outbursts like this would be unnecessary. He made his way over towards Sage's desk so he could embrace her in his powerful arms.
"I'm sorry, my dear. That was uncalled for," he said remorsefully.
"No…it was overdue," she said.
"Then why does it still sound like you're completely indifferent?"
"Because when I flip that proverbial switch at times like this…it hurts."
Hank watched as the expression on her face finally shifted, turning to one of painful sorrow. There were even a few tears, indicating that she had just flipped that switch as she described. Even with more data streaming onto her screen, she reached up and placed her hand over his.
"I don't mean to be cold. It's in my nature to turn it off when I get upset," she said.
"That's perfectly understandable. Emotions tend to be very distracting. We've shared many distractions in this room, as a result," said Hank.
"Don't be too understanding, Hank. I don't deserve your empathy at the moment," said Sage through strained words, "I wouldn't have to be so damn cold if I had stopped that breach in the first place. I was responsible. You and the rest of the X-men were off saving the world from aliens. All I had to do was stop some hacker with the vast array of resources I have at my disposal here in District X. And I failed!"
"You make it sound as though this was an amateur cyber bully who bested our collective computing brilliance."
"That's just it. This was just a man. His operates under the alias, Arcade, and by all accounts, he doesn't have a computer for a mind or a room full of custom-built equipment," said Sage distantly as she gazed into the incoming data, "Granted, he's one of the best. Homeland Security and Interpol listed him as one of their most dangerous hackers. But he shouldn't have been able to beat me."
"You may have a computer for a mind, but you're still human, Sage," he told her, "Besides, he may have had more of an advantage than we think. We concluded months ago that he was using some advanced equipment, most likely military grade."
"Seeing as how I've bested the Pentagon's top hackers with monotonous regularity, that's not much consolation," she muttered, "The more I look into this breach, the more I'm convinced that there are other forces at work. I suspect it may have ties to the same people who have been trying to disrupt the Genosha peace treaty."
"Exactly how certain are you?" Hank questioned.
"Certain enough to be very frustrated," she clarified, "Maybe I am obsessing more than I should, but I'm not used to so many people relying on me. Keeping District X together is hard enough. Being with you, working with the X-men, and helping to uncover the countless threats that stand against us is more difficult than even the best computer could have calculated."
Sage needed a moment to filter these emotions. She clung hard to her lover's furry flesh, almost to the point of digging her nails into him. Hank did not complain. She needed this. It seemed at times he was the only one she showed her deepest emotions to. She was also not used to dealing with the X-men's overwhelming conflicts. With mutants facing shifting roles in wake of this Genosha deal, the burden was greater for everybody.
"I'm sure you'll upgrade as new challenges unfold," offered Hank.
"That's not funny," said Sage, despite grinning somewhat.
"I apologize if my wit is not up to par. I'm burned out and so are you. We must face the difficult truth that despite our efforts, we cannot uncover the details behind the institute breach or comprehend these plots against the Genosha deal with the data we currently have."
"It's still out there. I can feel it," she said, not taking her eyes off her computer screen, "Beneath all these plots between tech thieves, industrial espionage, and general mutant hatred, I sense there's a much bigger plot developing behind the scenes."
"If that is indeed the case, then we aren't going to uncover anything if we keep trying to kick through the doors rather than finding the keys to open them."
"I thought your wit wasn't up to speed," she said with a larger smile.
"That may just mean you're in more need of a break than me."
Sage finally shifted her gaze away from her computer screen. Hank continued to express his concern, trailing his furry hand over her face. The warm sensations always had a powerful effect on her. Even with all the data she had yet to process, her energy for doing so was clearly in need of refreshing. She also owed Hank some long overdue intimacy.
"So are you going to take my advice? Or shall I prepare a 13 gigabit AI algorithm to explain in detail all the reasons why we should rest?" said Hank.
"I'll save you the trouble and the bandwidth," said Sage as she got up from her seat and stretched a bit, "In this instance I'll yield to my boyfriend's concern. But don't go reporting to Bishop that I've lightened up. I still want to atone for this breach."
"You'll have your chance, my dear. Now what do you say we go for a nice walk? Some fresh air would do us well."
"In the middle of New York City?" she pointed out.
"Relatively speaking," he said sheepishly.
They laughed together, something Sage hadn't done in far too long. Already, she was feeling more refreshed. A romantic outing with her boyfriend would surely do more. Still grasping his hand, Sage followed Hank out of her room.
One way or another, she was going to best Arcade just as he had bested to her. Whatever secrets he was hiding, she was convinced it was part of something bigger. There were too few clues to go on right now. However, that anonymity could only last but so long. Sooner or later, their digital wits were going to clash again. When that time came, she would be ready for him.
"David Nord. Also known as Agent Zero. Your mission is complete. Please confirm neuro-mechanical re-alignment."
"Alignment confirmed," said a stoic, middle-aged man in response to a computerized voice.
Colonel Wraith had come to appreciate the robotic obedience of one of his few remaining assets. His military career may have been hindered by Weapon X, but he still had his share of connections. Agent Zero was one of them and despite his shortcomings, he still delivered.
At the moment, he and a contingent of Reverend Stryker's Purifiers were de-briefing Agent Zero after his return from Calcutta. He also enlisted help from a few former Weapon X technicians who owed him a number of favors. They helped guide Agent Zero through this mission and through various other tasks. In this instance, the mission hadn't been a resounding success. However, he did manage to return with one case of Genosha power cells. That was better than nothing considering how valuable they were and they stage they had recently entered.
"This man looks possessed," said Stryker as he watched the technicians, "What trickery is this, Colonel? Another one of your toys from Weapon X?"
"More like an outdated iPod," replied Wraith, "David Nord is a skilled mercenary who used to do contract work for the CIA. Since he's a mutant, he never earned his stripes. That didn't stop Dr. Cornelius from convincing him that he could make him a better soldier. He became the guinea pig that helped us refine the mind-wiping technology we originally planned for Wolverine."
"So he's a mindless drone now?"
"More like the result of some creative brain manipulation. Cornelius installed this special chip inside his frontal lobe that we can interface with. Right now, these former associates of mine are essentially putting Agent Zero into hibernation while David Nord takes over. He doesn't have a clue he's a highly skilled mercenary. Thanks to the chip, he thinks he's just a patient at a mental ward that a friend of mine happens to run."
"Sounds like a cumbersome way to turn a mutant into a weapon," scoffed the Reverend.
"He was a beta test. Nothing more," shrugged the Colonel, "He can still get the job done. And when Zero isn't active, his essentially brain dead. That way a telepath can't look into his mind and figure out what he does. Granted, this makes giving him complex tasks a problem, but when it comes to stealing hardware from a ship he still delivers."
"Partially anyways," Stryker reminded him.
"With some minor tweaking, it should still be enough for us to proceed."
"That's for our resident computer genius to decide. If only he would stop obsessing over these new Genoshan electronics."
"That's a big if, Reverend."
While David Nord returned to his docile state, a number of Purifiers passed by carrying some crates. Behind them was a very jittery Arcade, who had the case with the Genoshan power cell that Agent Zero retrieved securely in his arms. His demeanor was one of someone who hadn't slept in days thanks to an excessive influx of caffeine. They couldn't entirely blame him either because what they were planning required a great deal of hardware and considerable time in implementing it.
"Will you guys at least try to hold those crates steady? Those components are more fragile than they look," exclaimed Arcade as he rushed the Purifiers along.
"Ease up, Radioshack. It's not like we're carrying fine china or anything," grunted an annoyed soldier.
"Fine china does not contain the latest nano-scale, PX6116 dual-processing matrix. This is the kind of gear that only Genosha can provide. In a fools language, that means they're very powerful and very valuable."
"Keep your pants on and clean out your pocket protector, Poindexter. The last thing I wanna hear is we have muties to thank for this."
"If you're intent on changing that, you'll listen to what I say," retorted Arcade, "I also hate having to rely on Genosha for this kind of hardware. But when I'm through with them, that island won't be worth the rock it's made of."
Arcade had quite a flare for the dramatics, even if his obsessive nature was annoying. Colonel Wraith and Reverend Stryker watched him lead the Purifiers towards the central control room where all this hardware came together in what promised to be the nerve center for the first step of their plan.
It had been in development for the past six months. Since they breached the Xavier Institute's security, it was a test in patience. The Genosha deal changed things a great deal, stemming the outrage towards mutants that had once been their major advantage. That didn't mean this new status quo was without advantages either.
"I hope the boy can turn that annoying attitude of his into results," said Reverend Stryker, "Our crusade has become quite difficult now that an economic boom is being driven by deals with the wicked."
"None of that will matter in the long run. Even if Arcade's ego is too big for his stature, his skills should more than suffice."
"I'm still not sure about keeping him on board for the next step. His soul troubles me," said Stryker.
"Holy or not, we need him. He'll be instrumental in putting that power cell to good use. Since we don't have as many as I planned, we'll have to improvise. That means getting our old friend, Graydon Creed, out of his prison cell may get a little messier than expected."
"The mess isn't what bothers me. Creed is a noble soul who was imprisoned for standing up to the wicked. My chief concern is how we'll maintain our anonymity once we have him on our side," said the Reverend.
"That's where the very faith you preach about comes in, Reverend," said Wraith ominously, "Now I may not be a man of the cloth, but I'm more than capable of relying on a good, well-connected friend."
Colonel Wraith was as confident as he was cryptic. He loved to play things close to the chest. Reverend Stryker admired and despised that aspect to him. It did little to dissuade the determined officer. He kept on grinning as he took out his cell phone and made a call to one of those friends he mentioned.
"I apologize, Mr. Shaw. We've had a few setbacks, but we're still on schedule."
"Good. Everything is ready on my end too. I'm sure you don't care enough about how much this Genosha deal has ruined my business so I'll skip the pep talk. Just do what you promised and take Graydon Creed as consolation. We'll discuss the finer details later."
Up next: Escaping Destiny