A man with long black hair, clad in blue garments with a tattered blue cloak trailing his movements, cuts through a horde of Mongolian warriors with both sword and energy blasts. His face bears strange blue markings, and he utterly destroys any who attempt to oppose him. Amid this setting, the External known as Saul begins to narrate his memories: it was the middle of the twelfth century, if memory serves him. The blue-clad man came alone from somewhere in Egypt, his name preceding his arrival even as far away from there as the Mongolian steppes were. En Sabah Nur had come! The apocalypse was here!
This tidal wave of fury and destruction rolled over the Ho-Lan Shan Mountains, endured the ravages of the Ordos Desert, and waded through Saul’s warriors like a primal force of nature. This barbaric journey was undertaken, this much blood was spilled, all for the express purpose of meeting with Saul. En Sabah Nur asks Saul if he is the one who claims to be an immortal magician, the one named Garbha-Hsien. Nur asks if the rumors are true that Saul’s magics are such as to cause legions to scurry in fright from a mere wisp of a man such as himself.
Saul’s ancient self replies that if power invites fear, his very existence is an open invitation to all who know of him. Really? asks Nur. He questions whether Saul is really so certain that a force may not exist which is more fit for survival than he. Then Nur asks Saul to show him this incredible power of his, to make Nur afraid of him; if Saul does so, perhaps his “immortal life” shall be extended to the rising of tomorrow’s sun.
Outside, Saul levitates himself into the air and asks Nur if he is, then, to perform parlor tricks for Nur’s amusement; if this is what is required to meet with his arrogant approval. Nur is impressed, noting that the “dismissal of this world’s shackles” is something which not even he is capable of. Saul floats up the mountainside, asking that the Egyptian come with him and allow him to show why he has chosen to reside where he did after several lifetimes of nomadic existence.
This last statement catches Nur’s attention, and he asks whether Saul truly is like him, a “forever-walker.” Saul replies that his feet have trod times beyond Nur’s imagining. But, he continues, allow him to show why even ones such as he, and indeed most especially one such as Nur, must always be willing to put their abilities within the proper sense of perspective. Stab their eyes, mutters Nur at the sight before him.
Amid the snowfields of the high mountains, a massive alien ship stretches high into the sky like a monolithic gray citadel. Saul explains that, on that day, for the first time in his already long life, En Sabah Nur gazed upon something more powerful than he was. As it had done for Saul fifty years before that day, when his tribe had first found the strange “chariot from the stars,” the construct both humbled and humiliated Nur.
Saul, during that moment in the past, then speaks to Nur, explaining that, in the time he has studied this marvel, in all it has taught him, one lesson stands out most glaringly: the fact that even eternal beings such as they shall always find something more to learn about. Perhaps, concedes Nur, he is right. Nur then continues, explaining that the homily well applies to him, but he is afraid – referring to Saul – that this celestial body has nothing more to teach him, because on this day – with this he plunges his sword into Saul’s back – his life ends!
The sword ripped through his back, narrates Saul, and he watched it come out from the front of his chest. Then Nur walked away, never, in his arrogance, wondering exactly why it was that beings such as they had lived for so long. In his memory, Saul collapses backwards, a pool of his own blood forming against the crisp white snow, and Nur stalks away toward the citadel-ship. The wound Saul received, he explains, was great, but not mortal… not to an External anyway. Words failed, in a gurgle of his own blood, to escape his lips as he watched Nur disappear inside the wondrous craft, whose secrets were denied to Saul for so long and were now for another to decipher.
Ceasing his reminiscence, Saul explains in the present that he learned a very valuable lesson that day, centuries gone by. He learned that there will always be someone on this earth more cunning, more ruthless, and more powerful than he. It is something which many among “their” exclusive, though dwindling, club of immortal mutants still refuse to acknowledge. He wanted to teach that lesson today to one in particular among his audience… Samuel Guthrie, Cannonball.
Duh, chimes in Boomer. She, Cannonball, and Saul, along with Gideon, sit around a campfire near the Guthrie residence in Kentucky. In the distance stands Absalom, brooding and removed.
Hush, replies Cannonball to Boomer before continuing to address Saul. He was taught, explains Cannonball, long before he was told he was an External, that he wasn’t better than anyone else on God’s Earth. And Apocalypse… Saul says he’s an External, but he isn’t like the rest of them, he’s… sort of mechanical, isn’t he? Saul replies that he told them he saw En Sabah Nur walk into the celestial star-vessel on that day; he never said he saw Apocalypse walk out. Gideon explains that En Sabah Nur found his own path to power, and Saul learned his life would take quite a different direction. They have all been taught that lesson at one point in their lives. Sam notes that, obviously, the Externals didn’t come to his family farm just to tell them that. Gideon agrees; they didn’t.
Enough, screams Absalom, having approached the gathering. This dance of avoidance bores him, he complains, and asks that they tell their newest ascendant why they have come here to seek an audience. Why, he asks, do they step lightly all around the little fool? Is it because he remains a mystery to them? Well, he adds haughtily, he’s never seen Candra or Selene come to the gatherings and they’ve never treated them this kindly. Grabbing Cannonball by the shirt and hefting him into the air, Absalom asks why they keep humoring this brat of Xavier’s. Is it because they think they need him? Is that it?
Hurling Cannonball against a nearby tree, Absalom continues: is it because two of them, Nicodemus and Burke, have already died from this damnable pox of mutants? Tearing open his shirt, Absalom reveals a chest scarred with familiar purplish lesions. And soon, he continues, they will add his name to the list of Legacy virus victims, won’t they? But he’s not going to see his long life end on some sod farm in a dredge-of-a-hole like this, he screams as he grabs Boomer by her hair, just because “Sammy-boy” would rather spend his days in blissful ignorance with this eyeblink of a sow!
Hey, buddy, retorts Boomer, the eyeblink has a name: it’s Boomer, on account of these cool explosive plasma bombs she can make. At that, she explodes one of said plasma bombs into Absalom’s face, causing him to release her and reel back. He then calls her a fool as sharp, grayish protrusions begin to erupt out from his skin, tearing apart his coat completely. Bellowing, he explains that he may be ill, his life may be drawing to unfair close, but he refuses to be treated like some commoner. Not even by an “eyeblink” whose mutant potential is as great as Boomer’s. Stepping forward and putting his blast field up, Cannonball asks about himself – does Absalom care to give him a shot?
No, states Gideon, restraining him, he does not. Absalom, says Gideon, apologizes to Cannonball and his friend. His actions notwithstanding, they did not come there to fight. No, concedes Absalom, they did not. Forgive his outburst, he asks; staring death in the face for the first time in so very long has left him a tad high-strung. You see, continues Saul, they have all faced death once before and managed to triumph over it. It is the defining moment for an External, the moment of transmutation into something more. But this virus represents the unknown for them, a challenge to their sense of self. It is the inevitable end to their existence.
We were born, explains Cannonball, and we’ll all die. That’s just the way it is. He accepted that long ago when his father died, then Doug Ramsey, and then Illyana a few months ago. But for some of us, counters Absalom, death was just the beginning, a continuation of a very torturous, wasteful way of existing. Absalom begins to remember back, as Saul did, to an important time in his life.
The last century was drawing to a close, and he had come to a small town in Wyoming, on the run from about six sheriffs in as many states. He was a thief and a killer, and his life was going to end on the twisting end of a hangman’s noose. Two days there, he ran into an old man; once, when he was younger, the man had been a legend. Absalom challenged the legend to a duel, for he was young and the man’s best days were gone, and he wanted to best a legend. The old man said no, smiled, and walked away… so Absalom shot him in the back. That’s not, he muses, the way a man like Caleb Hammer was meant to die. But how could someone like Absalom, who didn’t even know how a man was supposed to live, or understand how he cheapened it further by cowardly murder?
He was caught by the townspeople and put to the noose before a gathered crowd. He remembers the feeling of the breath slipping out of his lungs as his feet were dropped out from under him, and he wondered what kind of a special place would be reserved for him in Hell. Then something happened, for the first time: his powers manifested themselves. Bone-like spikes erupted out of his body. A noose was no longer a fearful thing, and he was free. In his memory, the townspeople scatter in terror as he drops down from the hangman’s platform, unharmed.
It was, adds Absalom, 1896 in Wyoming, so they can well imagine how the good townsfolk reacted to everything they were seeing: guns were immediately drawn from coats, and Absalom was slain in a hail of bullets. There he was; he’d gone from staring death down, to feeling a life inside him like he’d never felt before, to being shot down like a rabid dog in the street. As he died, recalls Absalom, he thought, “If only I could do it all over again, then I’d do it right, I’d make something useful out of myself.” Two days later, he woke up inside a wooden coffin behind a funeral parlor. He was no longer dead, and he took advantage of this unexpected deliverance and quit the village under the light of the moon. And, he concludes, he never went back to being the man he was… but he was never strong enough to become the man he wanted to be.
Reaching into the fire unharmed, Saul pulls out a burning piece of wood and contemplatively examines it. For Absalom, he says, death was the defining moment of his life. He has allowed the sad, pitiable self-awareness he gained on that day to prevent him from ever becoming anything more or less than he had been before the moment of change. So, asks Cannonball indignantly, is he supposed to feel sorry for him? A self-confessed murderer? Looking at all of them, hearing what they have to say… it doesn’t particularly make him feel he needs or wants to be a part of their “club.” He’s only twenty years old and it seems to him that he’s done more with his life, learning and growing, trying and failing, than any of the Externals have done over the course of countless centuries!
Do not, replies Gideon with carefully restrained menace, belittle all they have brought to the eternal puzzle. Nicodemus brought wisdom, Burke fortitude, Saul provides patience, Crule ferocity, Absalom despair, Candra and Selene add guile and corruption, he himself provides opportunity, and Cannonball, their newest ascendant… to him they come for hope.
Meanwhile. Camp Verde, Arizona, the current location of X-Force’s base. Somewhere amid the high bluffs and cliffs sits Warpath, alone in the quiet night, wondering: is this enough for him, to just endure? Shouldn’t there be more? Shouldn’t there be a change? These thoughts are echoed somewhere below, in one of the camp houses, by Cable and Domino. Domino relaxes, naked in a crude Jacuzzi, while Cable stands nearby in T-shirt and shorts, negotiating with her. Domino asks if Cable is sure he wants to go through with this. He replies that he doesn’t think they really have much of a choice… does she?
X-Force has outgrown Camp Verde, he expresses, in more ways than one. Well, replies Domino, they have narrowed the new site proposals down to a few possibilities… and now he wants her to get out of this nice, warm, scented Jacuzzi to go check those sites out? Cable admits that it’s terribly selfish, but requests that she look at it this way: if her search pans out, she won’t have the desert dust and grime to put up with anymore… because X-Force will have a new base of operations!
Meanwhile still. The South Bronx, New York. A little slice of heaven on Earth… if despair, poverty, misery, and madness is someone’s idea of paradise. A homeless bum sifts through the wreckage of an old apartment complex. He finds a barricaded opening and begins to tug off the wooden obstruction as rats scurry away; finally, he breaks off enough pieces to peer inside, and the sight is sufficient to elicit a surprised scream from the man.
Shortly thereafter, the phone rings at the desk of the 44th precinct’s Detective Hidalgo; he answers and asks the voice on the other end, “Bernie,” what he has for him. Bernie replies that a body was found an hour ago, pretty soupy; been dead for about four years. They’re pulling the dental now, but his gut tells him they got a match. Hidalgo says that he thinks so too. After all this time, he adds, pulling a file folder off his desk labeled “Callasantos,” he thinks they may be able to finally nail those two sisters for the murder of their family.
The Guthrie farm, Kentucky. Cannonball is confused by Gideon’s claims that the Externals need him to give them hope. Gideon explains that they all bring something to the tapestry of the infinite. Each of them is a thread, which winds through the fabric. Okay, enough with the metaphors, cuts in Boomer, warning Gideon not to try to play nice with her and Cannonball after all this time. They haven’t forgotten what Gideon did to their pal, Sunspot, killing his father, or how Gideon kidnapped her in order to force Cannonball to join their “yahoo bunch.”
How saucy, replies Gideon. He never came there to make amends, as Boomer seems to perceive it, he states. Indeed, he made the decision long ago about seizing the opportunity of the new, gaining power through the accumulation of wealth and control. You see, he says, he was a deckhand aboard the Pinta as it sailed with Columbus across the Atlantic Ocean five hundred years ago. He was dying of scurvy, a horrible disease, he notes; your teeth loosen, your gums swell, and the bleeding… oh, so much bleeding. And to think, all that suffering, all for the lack of a few limes and lemons.
But enough of that, he says. Weak and wasted, he was dumped into the hold with his other shipmates who had also taken ill. He has no idea how long he laid there, but he knows that somewhere during the night he died. Then, where there had been nothing but the darkness, there was suddenly light. He arose, alive once more, and everything had changed. Surrounded by the human decay, he found himself invigorated by the renewal of his ascendancy and gazed out upon the landing parties; the ships had reached the shores of the New World. It was a land of change; it beckoned with the promise of change, while Europe spoke to him only of decay. He vowed to the Virgin that day to make the most of this change that had been given him. He lived through the centuries, watching the formation of the new continent, becoming a part of the very fabric on which this nation was founded. He thrived in the New World.
You see, he concludes, on that day he saw a world for the taking. He knows, he adds, in his more introspective moments, that such avarice is not the most noble of building blocks to start from, but they have served him well over time. In what way? asks Cannonball. He observes that Gideon is rich in money, maybe power, but it seems to him that he’s poor where it counts most: he hasn’t got any heart or soul. They all say they want hope from him, but it’s obvious that whatever he may have to give, none of them understands the meaning of the word. Absalom interjects: before Burke died, he used his precognitive skills to foretell many things. The Virus took him unawares, but still he tried to see things beyond. In his fevered dreams, he saw Cannonball as the architect of their salvation. They don’t know how, or why, or even what role Cannonball will truly play, but within him, or perhaps within one close to him, lies the key to curing the Legacy Virus.
Staring down at his father’s grave, Cannonball says that he doesn’t know what to say; he doesn’t see how he has anything to do with the Virus. He’s no doctor or scientist, but he thinks their precog got something mixed up there. The Lord, he goes on, never meant for us to live forever, but what Stryfe did was cruel. His virus is meant to murder them all before the natural course of events. It just seems to him that the Externals were given something special, a chance to make a difference, and all they did with it… was nothing. Now, they get the first real challenge of their lives, and they’re all acting like frightened children, coming to people they’ve tried to kill…
In a rage, Absalom steps forward, shouting: how dare he? Presumptuous, arrogant… how dare he judge them? Gideon puts his arm forward to try to restrain Absalom, requesting he try to&mdash But he is interrupted as Abasalom asks him what he should try to do, control himself? In response to this suggestion, he grabs Gideon and bowls him over before continuing his tirade: why? How can Cannonball judge him until he has walked through lifetimes in his shoes? Absalom addresses Cannonball, asking him to watch the decades pass by, to stop caring about life and death, and then wake up staring death in the face. Then, once he realizes that his life was nothing but a series of missed opportunities, then he can tell him who’s a frightened child!
So what, shouts back Cannonball, does he want out of him? To absolve him of his sins? He wishes he could, but he doesn’t have that kind of power. Seems to him that no earthly power does. Absalom says that he wants to live, but if that choice is denied to him. If he is to die, then he wants the chance to have someone mourn his passing. As Absalom collapses to the ground in despair, Cannonball approaches him, stating that he was taught that the loss of any life is worth mourning, and when his father died he mourned hard. He mourned, he guesses, the loss of possibilities more than anything else. We mourn the things that could have been, and never can be now.
Absalom whispers that he knows, and begins to cry as a crackle of energy starts to release from his body, rapidly erupting into a massive storm as his mutant powers go haywire in one final burst: the death knell of the Legacy virus. He doesn’t scream, though, because he knows, somewhere inside him, that his life and his death are not worth shouting over. Cannonball places up his blast field to protect the remainder of the gathering as Boomer asks if there’s anything they can do to help Absalom. Cannonball replies that he doesn’t know, and he wishes he did; the least he can do is protect them.
Finally, the storm of energy seeping from Absalom’s body subsides and he collapses to the ground, smoldering. Cannonball is shocked to observe that Absalom is still breathing, which Gideon finds “fascinating.” He truly did not think that Absalom would have such a strong will to live. As Gideon hefts up the unconscious body of Absalom, Cannonball makes him a guarantee: if all of the Externals do more with what they have, whether it be an hour, a day, or a century, then when the time comes, if the time comes, where he might be able to help save their lives, then he’ll do everything he can to see that happen. Gideon muses that “everything he can,” in Cannonball’s case, is quite a bit more than most anyone else has to offer.
The Externals, announces Gideon, accept Cannonball at his word. But before they go, he is curious… what has been Cannonball’s defining moment, when his purpose was made clear to him? Cannonball replies that he’d like to think that maybe it hasn’t happened yet; it gives him something to strive for. Gideon contemplates this and bids Cannonball and Boomer farewell. The Externals take their leave.
In the remaining moonlight, as the campfire dies down, Boomer states that her head hurts from thinking so much. Then she adds that she was wrong to be so scared of Cannonball being immortal; it doesn’t matter whether he lives forever or one more day, does it? No, replies Cannonball, it really doesn’t. They exchange vows of love for each other and then kiss. Boomer asks “what now,” and Cannonball replies that they go back to Camp Verde, sit with their friends, talk with them, laugh with them. They live day by day and fight the good fight, because who else will? As dumb as it sounds, he concludes, they try to make the world a better place for their having spent time on it. Boomer replies that when she hears it coming from him, it doesn’t sound dumb at all.