(Cashiers, North Carolina, 5:11 a.m.)
Inside a cheap motel, Renee Majcomb tries to calm down the young Mannite named Nina. She promises Nina that they’re safe. It’s been nineteen days without so much as a rustle from the shadows. She assures Nina that they’re going to figure out how to help her, and her friends. Nina cowers in a corner clutching her doll. “It’s too late, Dr. Renee. They’re comin! It’s jus’ the beginnin’…”
(the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning, 5:14 a.m.)
The alarm sounds, forcing the sleeping X-Men to quickly get out of bed and head for whatever is causing the emergency. Storm notes that the alarm is emanating from deep within the mansion - perhaps even the Danger Room itself. She fears something has breached the school’s defenses. As they rush through the corridors, a bright light shines at them, so they cover their eyes. A loud screeching alarm sounds, and everyone tries to protect their ears too. Storm manages to summon an electrical bolt, which she fires from her left hand, and the device that is making the noise and created the light explodes.
As the smoke subsides, Charles Xavier is revealed, calmly sitting there looking less than impressed. He informs them that the test is over. He is distinctly unimpressed. Their response time left much to be desired. Remy replies that between the Acolytes, Magneto, the Oktid, the Skrulls and the whole Red Skull mess; they haven’t had a break in weeks. Kurt asks if this is the best way to go about setting up a training session. Charles replies that it seemed the simplest way to prove a point. He needs them sharp and ready at all times.
Remy point out that it’s not even half-past-five in the morning, but Charles simply replies coldly that he has exactly the lax attitude that is responsible for their current decline in standards. Their enemies do not keep nine-to-five hours. If they’re not fully prepared, they are a danger to the public and each other. Remy asks if that’s a dig at him, and Charles tells him that he doesn’t need to point out his failings. He established this school to create an environment where mutants could develop the skills and discipline necessary to control the powers of their birthright. Anyone who is not interested in doing that does not belong there. Ororo figures that, as they’re awake, they might as well get started. Remy reckons it’s easy for her as she’s always up with the larks. Logan says that’s true enough, but since when did Chuck join the birdwatchers?
(somewhere in space)
Bishop and Deathbird are in a small craft heading through space. He asks her where they are. It’s been months already and he has to let the X-Men know that he’s alive and finally on his way back home again. Deathbird reminds him that this is despite the fact that she offered him the opportunity to be her consort; something she’s offered no one before him. He asks why it’s taking so long. Deathbird says that he heard the Xanderian smuggle-bug who sold them the freighter route. It’s the most direct path to his pathetic homeworld. Bishop connects a few wires, and replies that he’ll have to take her word on that, considering he doesn’t speak any Xanderian himself. Deathbird tells him that is why he labors and she commands.
An auto-alert sounds, and Deathbird explains that, to aid in his quest for Earth, she set the ship’s sensors to search for certain specifics such as recognizable star systems and rare trace elements of human civilization. It has detected terrestrial D.N.A., Homo superior D.N.A. no less. By the strength of the reading, there must have been an entire world with a population of billions. However, they’re all dead - fossilized. Bishop wonders how that can be. Maybe it’s a malfunction. They then see out of the window, a massive almost human-shaped world, glowing hot. Bishop asks how a thing could exist. Deathbird asks if he hasn’t yet quenched his thirst for adventure, there is only one way to find out.
(the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning, 7:47 a.m.)
The X-Men are well into a long training session, but are struggling against a seemingly inexhaustible supply of the Professor’s battle-drones. As they fly high above the floor, Rogue smashes a drone and tells Storm that it isn’t exactly the best day to be trying out a new outfit. Remy doesn’t know about that, and says that a sense of style is always appreciated. This comment seems to spur Rogue on further, and she smashes another drone with her full strength.
Unfortunately, Wolverine is concentrating on a couple of drones and doesn’t see the shrapnel approaching him fast. Luckily, Shadowcat manages to phase through the floor and grab his ankles at the last moment. She floats to the surface and seems curious that it appeared to take him by surprise. Wolverine guesses that he’s tired. “Try wasted,” replies Kitty, “Same as the rest of the team.” She doesn’t think that Charles has ever ridden them this hard before. It isn’t even about strategy or skill anymore. It’s about endurance. It’s almost as if he’s trying to break them.
Charles looks on with interest. Storm decides to have a chat with him, joining him in the control room. She says that they’ve been at this for hours and are exhausted. She realizes that he barely appears to be listening to her, but then he tells her that he’s fully aware of what is happening. Ororo asks if he thinks he is pushing them too hard. At this level of battle, the slightest error might prove fatal. Charles doesn’t even look at her, but replies that it’s just what would happen in the field. He thinks that they’re making mistakes because they are out of condition. They need to develop stamina and improved coordination under pressure.
He looks at Marrow below them in the Danger Room and remarks that she’s exhibiting significantly greater control of her bone growths since their stay on the Skrull homeworld. Has Ororo noticed any other unusual behavior? Ororo doesn’t quite know what he’s getting at. Charles informs her that he’d like to run some further tests, so could she bring Marrow to him, then she can return to her role in the exercise.
(Cashiers, North Carolina, 8:46 a.m.)
Nina is becoming uncontrollable, believing that they are coming. Renee tries to comfort her, understanding that she senses things. Renee knows how scared Nina is, but they’ve been through this before - chased by Cerebro, and they survived… together. It’s just a matter of finding the other Mannites now. “No!” screams Nina. A faint blue energy glow begins to form around her and, as she shouts the word over and over, the whole place starts to shake. Renee is soon toppled over as Nina disappears.
(the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning, 9:02 a.m.)
The X-Men continue to fight Xavier’s battle-drones. Charles watches Marrow manipulate her bones like arrows, and tells her that she clearly enjoys far more capability than any of them suspected. He touches her arm, and tells her that he witnessed definite distortion of her arm during her final barrage. The ulna and radius bones both elongated, demonstrating almost fluid qualities. He asks if she’s attempted to re-metabolize her calcified extrusions yet. Marrow doesn’t seem to know exactly what he’s talking about.
Charles asks her to focus on her horns; focus on pulling them into herself. She should picture them melting, soaking into her skull as if it were a sponge. She grimaces but says that there’s nothing. He asks her to concentrate. Storm asks if it’s necessary to push her like this. He again asks her to concentrate, only harder. Marrow closes her eyes tight, and Storm notices that it appears to be working. As the horns gradually retract, Charles tells her to retract them all the way. She sweats profusely and grabs her head in agony. It hurts too much. The bones emerge once again, and Charles asks her to pull herself together and try again.
At that moment, Gambit swings by and tells Charles that she’s had enough… and she’s not the only one. Sarah’s put her life on the line for the team and deserves some respect. They all do. They aren’t kids anymore, he explains. They don’t need this training garbage. He thinks Charles is the one with the problem here. Charles coolly replies that the purpose of the school has always been clear. It is there to create an environment where they can all realize their full potential. Remy asks him to give it a rest. He doesn’t want Charles’ frustrations taking out on them. They’re not fresh students anymore. They’re grown men and women. Charles agrees with him. He says he has no hold over any of them. Any time he decides he no longer wishes to be with the X-Men, he is free to leave.
Remy storms out of the control room, followed closely by Marrow. Charles tells the others to get back to it, only without the fourth maneuver deviation this time. Kurt replies, “It felt wrong to remain so low after…” Charles cuts in, informing him that his feelings are unimportant. This is an exercise in teamwork, and he is not a tactician. He expects Kurt to follow his plan… without improvisation. Kitty warns Charles that his comments are way out of line. Kurt proved himself a great strategist when he led Excalibur. To this, Charles coldly replies that Excalibur was a failed experiment. They must learn to work together as X-Men once again.
Kitty is furious, but Kurt asks her to remain calm. Charles tells her that she is excluded from the next battle simulation. She should join him in the control room for an examination on the effect of such intense physical activity on her analytical skills. She can start by preparing a basic flight tutorial for the Skrull Starship they captured - detailed enough to enable the rest of them to operate it as well. He taps on some computer keys as he speaks, totally focused on the task at hand.
Soon, Kitty is tapping away herself, when Charles asks what she’s doing. She replies that she’s doing what he asked for: a quick driver’s manual for their own private U.F.O-to.go. “In Skrull?!” replies Charles, incredulously. Kitty realizes her mistake, but explains that this is how the instructions were put in her head by the Skrull Thunderbird. She didn’t really think. “Precisely,” Charles replies. He thinks she is too used to acting as an individual now, without due consideration for her teammates. Kitty says it’s just a simple mistake, but Charles reminds her that a ‘simple mistake’ could cost Kitty her life, or one who trusts her.
Charles clenches his fingers together and almost snarls as he tells them they must be able to trust each other. There can be no allowance for simple mistakes. Ororo flies over to him and says his name. Charles looks at her blankly and tells the team that they are dismissed. Ororo’s face is full of disappointment and concern. As Kitty and Storm descend to the Danger Room floor, Kitty asks what going on with him. Wolverine thinks it’s pretty obvious. He and Gambit were right all along. The old man’s lost it. Colossus adds that it’s happened before and, with all the suffering that Charles has borne recently, from his imprisonment by Bastion to Magneto’s ascendancy in Genosha, it’s too much to bear. Ororo thinks they must find a way to share more of his burden.
Charles is deep in thought in his study. The X-Men arrive at his door and Ororo asks if they can speak with him. He turns and tells her that she may enter. The others need their rest. The door is closed firmly behind Ororo. Kitty begins to question whether it was a mistake returning to Salem. Maybe they should have stuck it out with their friends in Excalibur. Kurt asks her to calm down and maybe take a bath. He asks the others to leave, too. He will remain and see what transpires. Piotr says he’ll check on Sarah. She seemed upset when Remy stormed off.
The hours pass, and Kurt is finally rewarded for his patience when Ororo leaves Charles’ room. She tells him he needn’t have waited. Kurt figures that since he didn’t hear raised voices or smashing furniture, all went well. Ororo isn’t so sure. She thinks it’s something far worse than any of them feared - far outside the realm of their abilities alone. They must call Jean Grey.
(elsewhere, 12:01 a.m.)
Nina stops shouting when she realizes she is not where she was a moment ago. She looks up and sees her fellow Mannites standing before her. “S’okay, s’okay!” says Headcase. “Just us, sister… just us. Just us against the world.”