‘JEAN!’ shouts Scott “Cyclops” Summers, holding his lover and teammate Jean Grey in his arms. Optic blast residue streams from Scott’s eyes, as he exclaims ‘What have you done to her? What have you done?’. Behind Scott are the Dark Riders known as Tusk and the Underlings. ‘It was your idea to attempt an escape, Cyclops. We’re only here to take you back to your cell - and Jean Grey, it would seem, down to the morgue!’ Tusk booms.
If it is true that a picture paints a thousand words, then this is a portrait of exhaustion - hopelessness - and finally, despair. But Cyclops unleashes a massive optic blast, knocking Tusk and the Underlings back - telling Tusk that they will not be able to join him or his “extensions”, as he and Jean have other plans. As a teenager, Scott Summers lived in mortal fear of his mutant power. Cursed with uncontrollable optic blasts capable of pulverizing adamantium, he vowed never to use them against another living being. That was before the X-Men. Before he became the leader of a team of mutants sworn to defend a world that hates and fears them. Before he discovered Jean Grey - and learned there is very little a man won’t do to protect the woman he loves.
Jean looks up and smiles at Scott: ‘Not the brightest Dark Rider, was he?’ she points out, but Scott tells Jean not to judge Tusk too harshly, as he could not have known their psychic link allowed Jean to telekinetically restrain his optic blasts. Scott and Jean begin to run, while Jean replies ‘Just as well, or we wouldn’t have been able to set him up like that’ But as they find themselves running onto a balcony, which goes nowhere, but lets them see into the massive complex they are trapped in. ‘Then again, Scott…maybe we’re the ones who’ve been set up?’ Jean suggests, pointing out that the complex goes on for miles, and that it looks vaguely familiar.
‘Could be because you’ve been here before!’ snarls Harddrive as he appears above Jean and Scott. ‘Another of Apocalypse’s henchmen - but why are they serving Stryfe?’ Cyclops asks. Harddrive replies that the Dark Riders’ loyalties have always been to the first among mutants - a mantle Stryfe recently wrested from their former master Apocalypse. ‘With all this in-fighting, where do you people squeeze in your bids for world domination?’ Cyclops asks as he unleashes an optic blast at Harddrive, while Jean attacks him telekinetically. Jean tells herself that Scott must be more nervous than she thought, as what he just said almost sounded like his version of a joke.
Jean throws a telekinetic “line” up to another balcony and tells Scott that the line is in place. ‘Ready to complete our escape?’ she asks him as they embrace. ‘Now! I’m ready!’ Scott declares, and they leap from the balcony, leaving the injured Harddrive behind. They kiss passionately as Jean lifts them both upwards. As opposed to Cyclops, Jean Grey has always embraced her mutant abilities. Blessed with the natural talents of telepathy and telekinesis, she felt she couldn’t be happier with her genetic “gifts”. That was before Scott Summers. Before she’d sacrificed her life on his behalf, only to learn there are greater powers than death in the universe…and the greatest of those is love.
Elsewhere in the sprawling complex, the robotic Zero turns from a monitor depicting Jean and Scott’s escape. ‘Surprised, Zero? You shouldn’t be’ Stryfe tells him. Sitting on his throne, Stryfe asks Zero if he believes Cyclops and Jean Grey would have escaped had he not allowed it. But Stryfe receives no answer from his silent soldier - the only member of the Mutant Liberation Front to escape justice at the hands of Xavier’s students. ‘Summers and Grey are nothing if not predictable. And in the end - that predictability will destroy them. As surely…as it destroyed me!’ Stryfe declares cryptically.
Meanwhile, in Salem Center, inside Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Home of the X-Men, where Dr Henry McCoy a.k.a. the Beast holds something between a pair of tweezers and examines them through a microscopic enhancer over one of his eyes. ‘That’s it, then? That’s the techno-organic slug that’s been altering Charles’ nervous system?’ asks Lorna “Polaris” Dane. ‘We can only hope’ Hank replies, before remarking ‘The truth…the extraction of said “slug” has done nothing to impede the deterioration of his condition’. Suddenly, Dr Moira MacTaggert, via communication monitor, informs her two friends that her computer has just broken the virus’ binary code.
‘You don’t sound overly optimistic, Moira’ Polaris remarks. Moira replies that she is not, and announces that Stryfe left them a message. ‘Here. See for yourself’. With that, Moira’s image vanishes, replaced by a headshot of Stryfe, grinning, while the words “You’re smart, but I’m smarter” flash across the screen. ‘Like a child’s taunt!’ Beast exclaims, grimacing. Lorna tells the Beast that it is important he does not give up hope. Hank replies that he exhausted his supply of hope about two o’clock this morning. ‘All that’s left is anger, frustration, and an overwhelming desire to cram 355 lbs of blue fur down Stryfe’s throat!’. Polaris informs the Beast that he might just get the chance to do that, as Wolverine, Cable and Bishop are working together trying to learn the whereabouts of Stryfe’s secret base. ‘Of course, if they live up to their less than sterling reputations as team players…the three of them have probably killed each other by not’ Lorna thinks to herself.
At that moment, inside Graymalkin, ‘Anyone for a cup of coffee, Wolverine? Bishop? Anyone?’ Cable calls out. ‘I have no need of liquid refreshments, Nathan. Thank you, anyway’ the computer system Professor remarks. ‘I was speaking to our guests, Professor’ Cable declares. While Wolverine a.k.a. Logan and Bishop sit around a holographic display of Xavier’s shooting, Professor remarks that their guests do not seem eager to engage in conversation. Professor suggests that perhaps Wolverine and Bishop are uncomfortable aboard Graymalkin. ‘Space travel - even our tight orbit around the Earth - is an acquired taste’ Professor adds.
Cable suggests that they are just concentrating on the task at hand - locating Stryfe. ‘Gentlemen, I appreciate the importance of a strategy session as much as the next seasoned warhorse…but running through this scenario ad infinitum is getting us nowhere. You’ve been at that for hours, son. Why don’t you take a break’ Cable remarks to Bishop, who just stares at Cable, and orders the computer to run the holo-program again. ‘Proceeding’ Professor confirms.
Bishop watches as the holo-scenario plays out, and remarks that, as near as they know, this began with an assassination attempt on Professor Xavier by, all appearances to the contrary, someone other than Cable. ‘It has been established Stryfe, sans his helmet, is an exact replica of Cable’ Professor points out. ‘Or the other way around’ Bishop mutters, before pointing out that, in the meantime, Cyclops and Jean Grey were kidnapped by Apocalypse’s Horsemen, as the Professor, despite the Mansion’s Shi’ar technology, lay dying one cell at a time.
Professor points out that at that time there was little evidence to connect the tragedies. ‘Until Mr Sinister’ Bishop declares. ‘For whatever his reasons - he intimated Stryfe was behind this well-orchestrated assault’. Cable adds that the kids in X-Force could not corroborate his innocence upon their capture, since “private matters” had forced him underground for a while. Professor reminds Cable that this is not the first time Stryfe has set up his people in order to get at him, while Bishop adds that Apocalypse is apparently also a target for Stryfe’s revenge, and according to the Gold Team, he had not authorised his Horsemen to attack, any more than Stryfe had anything to do with the assault on the Professor. ‘As you managed to explain to our satisfaction. For the moment’.
‘Stryfe is out for vengeance - but why? Against whom? For what?’ someone asks. ‘Perhaps a display of the key elements to date?’ Professor suggests, displaying the key elements as holograms. ‘Perhaps’ Bishop agrees, and the elements appear - Cyclops. Jean Grey. Apocalypse. Stryfe. Professor X. ‘But you’re missing one’ Bishop declares, before an image of Cable appears in the hologram. ‘There you go. Cable - a general without his troops. Stryfe - a man from the future obsessed with the past. Apocalypse - stripped of his honor guard…as the Professor is nearly stripped of his life. Finally, Scott and Jean - the heart and soul torn from the body that is the X-Men. Find out what these disparate players have in common - and we’ve found the very key to defeating Stryfe!’.
Back in the complex, Jean tells Scott that perhaps now isn’t the time to be questioning the motives of their captor, and remarks that she can’t help wondering ‘Why us?’. Cyclops replies that as near as he can tell Stryfe blames the two of them for something that happened in his past, a single event which changed his life. ‘But how is that possible? He’s got to be twenty years older than us!’ Jean exclaims. Scott tells her that they can ponder the specifics of it later, after they have escaped and altered the rest of the X-Men - suddenly, Scott stops in his tracks, as he and Jean turn a corner - and find a baby connected to some strange circuitry.
Meanwhile, it was never his intent to rule the world. Instead, Apocalypse was content - determined - to assume the role of “care-taker” to his fellow mutants. He has spent the past several centuries of his life pruning and cutting - when necessary, hacking and slashing at the genetic weeds which threaten to strangle the ever growing branch of humanity known as homo-superior. Over the years, he has made many enemies - and precious few allies. ‘Sufficiently recovered from my confrontation with Stryfe - we can resume our negotiations’ Apocalypse announces as he heals himself in the X-Men’s Danger Room.
‘Oh? Were we in the middle of a deal when you passed out on the front stoop?’ Alex “Havok” Summers asks, a burst of plasma energy ready to fire at Apocalypse, while Ororo “Storm” Munroe readies her own powers, asking ‘More to the point…why do you believe you are of any use to us?’ Apocalypse tells the leaders of X-Factor and the X-Men, respectively, that he can do what they can not - he can save their sacred Xavier. ‘Your services in exchange for ours, as you have said. But in the Goddess’ name - why should we trust you?’ Storm asks. Apocalypse motions to the other side of the Danger Room where most of X-Force are being held in makeshift cells and points out that half of the x-teams are imprisoned or have fallen in battle. ‘Frankly, child - you have no choice’ he tells Storm.
Sam “Cannonball” Guthrie steps into view, asking ‘Who’s to say you can even save the Professor?’, to which Warren Worthington a.k.a. Archangel announces ‘I…I do!’. Warren steps forward, his metallic wings in full display and remarks that Apocalypse is a master of mutagenic. ‘He once infected Scott’s son - Nathan Christopher - with a virus which resembles the one threatening Charles’. Warren remarks that his wings - “gifts” from the madman - are techno-organically derived from Apocalypse’s own shape-shifting cells. ‘For better or worse - though I loathe to admit it - I am living testimony to his genius, twisted or otherwise’. Warren assures Alex, Ororo and Sam that Apocalypse may be Charles’ only hope.
‘If Warren believes him - there is nothing left to discuss!’ Storm declares, asking her companions to bring Apocalypse. Storm leads the way, while Archangel walks at Apocalypse’s side and Alex and Sam bring up the rear. Apocalypse tells Archangel that he is curious. ’You have never made a secret of your hatred for me. Given this opportunity - why don’t you acquiesce to your heart’s desire? Why not slay me, son?’ Apocalypse asks. Warren quickly replies ‘I am no more your “son” than I am the “Angel of Death” you sought to turn me into. When I do kill you - and rest assured I will - it will only be after you’ve suffered the way I’ve suffered because of you’. Archangel declares that it will be at a time and place of his choosing, not simply because the situation has presented itself, to which Apocalypse smiles wickedly.
Back inside Graymalkin, Bishop tells Cable and Wolverine that, as a child, the only way to avoid a Nimrod was by hiding among the norms. ‘Relationships between mutants and - pardon the term - “flatscans” were…strained at best. A human home was the last place a Sentinel would look’. Cable replies ‘Not that reminiscing over memories which have yet to be isn’t fascinating…but how in the ancient future is this going to help us find Stryfe?’. Wolverine replies that what Bishop is saying, and he is inclined to agree, is that Cable’s mirror image is probably hiding in plain sight - among his enemies. ‘The Mansion?’ Bishop asks. ‘Cerebro would have pegged him’ Cable replies. ’Here?’ Bishop asks. ‘Similarily, I would have detected him’ Professor points out. Wolverine suggests that leaves Apocalypse’s base of operations, to which Professor commences gene-scan. ‘Focus on California…Egypt…’ he begins.
Back in the strange complex, Jean smiles as she picks up the baby, still connected to the wires and circuitry, while Scott thinks to himself that the child looks so much like Nathan. ‘But when Askani took my son to the future to save his life - she said it was forever. She said I’d never see him again’ Jean tells Scott that she is sorry, and that she doesn’t need her psychic powers to know how difficult this is for him. ‘It’s hard for me, too. It’s as if Stryfe knew we played out a similar scenario not that long ago. But, again…how could he know?’. ‘Yes, how would he know…unless he was there?’ Scott suddenly suggests.
While Jean holds the baby, Scott tells her not to get careless. ‘How do we know it’s not an automaton - a trap? Stryfe doesn’t seem above that’. A tear in her eye, Jean replies that she can sense a thought pattern. ‘He’s alive’ she tells him. Suddenly, a projection of Stryfe appears above them. ‘Alas, a state of being he will not enjoy for much longer!’ This child’s mind has been genetically linked with my own consciousness - similarly, his body is interwoven with the life support system of this entire complex!’ Stryfe announces. ‘You’re saying we’re powerless to stop you without hurting the boy? You son of -’ Scott exclaims, while Jean asks Stryfe how he could do this. ‘Hiding behind the life of an infant, Stryfe?’.
Stryfe tells Jean that she misunderstands, and that he hides behind nothing. ‘Rather, in invite. You have the opportunity to rid the world of the Dark Riders…this apocalyptic tomb of pain and misery…and me - simply by destroying the child’. ‘You’re insane!’ Jean screams. ‘Do you honestly believe we value our own lives - over than of an innocent child?’ Scott asks. Stryfe replies that they do not need to make a decision right away - that they have thirty seconds.
Sitting on his throne, Stryfe tells Zero that he is beginning to annoy him with his questioning expressions. ‘There should be no doubt they would sacrifice the life of the child simply to save themselves…my death an added incentive. I can guarantee they would do this and more’ Stryfe declares, quietly remarking that it happened once before.
‘Anything?’ Jean asks. ‘If I was Hank of Forge - or had a month to figure this out - I’d find a way to free the baby from this circuitry without hurting him. I’m afraid if we attempt to remove him now - he’ll die’ Scott reveals. ‘Then there’s no choice, is there, Scott? None at all. We have to give ourselves up in order to save the baby!’ Jean declares. Cyclops cries out in pain as a beam of energy strikes him. The baby falls back into the wires, while a projection of Stryfe booms ‘Not an option! You have to destroy ME!’ he booms, while the Dark Riders appear - Foxbat, Gauntlet, Tusk and the Underlings, Psynapse, Harddrive and Barrage. Rush towards Scott and Jean. ‘Destroy the Dark Riders! You even have time to flee the complex before it explodes!’ Stryfe booms.
‘Surrender is not one of your choices! Kill the child - kill us - before we kill you!’ he declares, while watching from his throne, Stryfe is shocked as Cyclops and Jean Grey begin fighting back. He stands up and moves closer to the monitors. Long before he had ever met them, Stryfe believed he knew all he needed about Scott Summers and Jean Grey. He was wrong. It is not a realization which comes easy to this man…or more importantly, the child within him. He has spent a life-time hating them for a multitude of sins. Sins he can no longer be sure they committed. Their actions this day have put a lie to his memories. His resolve has been replaced by doubt…while his hatred - is all that he has left to call his own. Stryfe frowns furiously.
Back at the scene of action, Scott and Jean move toward the edge of the balcony, without so much as even a thought between them. They know what they have to do. Win or lose, to stay would endanger the life of an innocent. Rather then…the abyss. For the “life” Jean sensed was but a fraction of the villain’s own psyche - reposited in the techno-organic construct that was the “Child”. The need for pretense is past, the vessel reverts to its original techno form. Guided by Jean’s telekinesis, they fall downwards. ‘Scott, my love…?’ Jean telepathically remarks. ‘Hold that thought - we’re a long way from dead!’ Cyclops declares, telling Jean that he will provide the escape route, and unleashes an optic blast against the side of the complex, while Jean uses her telekinesis to pull them both through - but before she can, they are sucked through by a whirling vacuum. ‘Yanking us…where?’ Scott asks, before shouting out for Jean.
Back inside Graymalkin, Professor announces that the gene scan is negative. ‘A global search might be -’ he begins, but Bishop interrupts him, telling him it would be a waste of time and resources. ‘Wherever he is, Stryfe feels safe - out of reach - confident’. Cable declares that Stryfe is among his enemies. ‘We’ve ruled out the Professor, myself and Apocalypse…so where on Earth could he have taken Scott and Jean?’ Cable asks. ‘That’s it - it’s why Jeannie hasn’t been able to fire off a psychic cry for help. Till now. They’re in the last place X-Factor battled Apocalypse and his Dark Riders’ Wolverine announces, claws ready. ‘Don’t you see, people…they’re not on the Earth at all!’
And at that moment, Cyclops and Jean Grey fall from the complex - onto the moon, with a furious Stryfe projecting his image in the background, and Earth shimmering in the starlit sky….