The small town of Almost Reno, in New Mexico, is far from the idyllic slice of America mythologized in Norman Rockwell paintings. Instead, it is a place where the good intentions of its citizens went horribly wrong - and the town’s children have been made to pay for their parent’s mistake. Now, main street stands deserted, and there is almost no one to notice the unusual presence of the teenage mutant heroes known as X-Force - almost no one that is, as a flaming figure stands on a rooftop overlooking main street, where Samuel “Cannonball” Guthrie, Theresa “Siryn” Rourke, Danielle Moonstar, Domino, Bobby “Sunspot” DaCosta, James Proudstar, Tabitha “Meltdown” Smith and Jesse “Bedlam” Aaronson are currently gathered.
‘Strange. There’s not a soul in sight’ Danielle remarks, to which Siryn agrees, pointing out that it is practically a ghost town. ‘Personally, I think it’s a whole lot nicer without the rednecks we encountered here a few months ago’ Sunspot declares, to which Domino announces that nothing is what it appears in this little town, which is why she has brought them all here.
Above the young mutants, a creature that was once human burns with all consuming fear and overwhelming agony. The fire that rages within makes it difficult to think straight. His eyes explode as his body temperature rose to inhuman levels. Now, he senses the heat patterns of the strangers below him, strangers that he deliriously blames for his condition. ‘You did this to me!’ he screams as he lunges at the young heroes. ‘We’re under attack!’ Sunspot exclaims, taking to the air. ‘Holy!’ Aaronson calls out. ‘It’s got James!’ Cannonball announces as the flaming being latches onto the surprised Proudstar, while Domino orders everyone to be on their guard, as there may be others.
James’ strength and senses are heightened to a superhuman degree because of the X-Factor gene that brands him a mutant. But the volcanic touch of this fiery creature is more than even his semi-impervious skin can bear. ‘Make it stop!’ the flaming being screams. ‘Okay, smokey, you’re not the only one who can make things hot around here - let’s see how you like a taste of exploding bio-plasm!’ Meltdown exclaims, before Theresa tells her to think about it, ‘If ye set off one of yuir time bombs near that thing, ye risk hurting Jimmy, too’ she points out, before telling her to move out of her way while she sees if she can separate them with a focused blast of her sonic scream.
But James tells his closest friend that will not be necessary, as he has everything unde control, and flips the flaming being off him, and slams him into a wall, with a loud THWAM, while the flame-engulfed person moans. James declares that the fire and fight within it seem to be waning. ‘Think there’s any chance he’ll tell us why he ambushed us?’ James asks his friends. But as they gather around, and Domino kneels beside him, she checks his vitals and remarks that this wasn’t a premeditated attack. ‘This poor creature’s just a kid. I think he was lashing out in fear and pain’ she remarks, before deciding that he couldn’t be more than thirteen years old.
Siryn reminds everyone that the town is full of mutant children on account of all the nuclear testing that was done nearby. ‘That’s what the locals were trying to hide from us the first time we were here’. Proudstar remarks that the boy is lying so still, and asks Domino if he is okay. ‘No. He’s dead’ Domino announces. Everyone looks shocked, but none more so than James, who gasps ‘But I didn’t throw him that hard. He can’t be…oh dear God, what have I done?’. Theresa embraces her best friend and assures him it was just an accident, while Domino tells James to listen to him, as she declares that the child’s death is not his fault. ‘He was burning up on the inside - a victim of a genetic instability in his mutation.
Domino reveals that she watched a little girl from this town die in a Los Angeles hospital because she, and every other child born here in the past two decades, are part of a eugenics experiment engineered by the Aguilar Institute. ‘Experiment? But the last time we were here, we rain up against SHIELD Agents…who told us the children’s mutations were connected to nuclear testing that took place in the 50’s’ Sunspot remarks. Danielle declares that either SHIELD is connected to the same outfit that turned Ekatarina Gryaznova into the Gryphon, or their SHIELD story was a sham. ‘Either way, we were lied to’. A concerned Meltdown exclaims that this isn’t fair, and her mind wanders back to the little girl from this town called Mary, exclaiming that all she knows is that town used to be filled with healthy, happy kids, including a sweet little girl named Mary, some of whom happen to be mutants. ‘That don’t deserve to be treated like guinea pigs. No one does’ Tabitha exclaims.
Cannonball remarks that Domino is the expert and asks her what she knows about the Aguilar Institute. Domino replies that to the public, the Aguilar Institute is a biotech research company with a number of on-the-level government contracts, ‘But we learned recently that the Institute has a disturbing interest in mutants’ she reminds her teammates. Aaronson points out that the adults are missing as well as the children, and asks if they have ruled out some kind of contagion. ‘What if we’re in the middle of a hot zone and don’t know it?’ he remarks. ‘The only people who are sick here are the monsters who play with innocent children’s lives’ Moonstar declares.
Tabitha suggests that their first priority should be finding the children, as they can deal with the Aguilar Institute later. Domino remarks that the one thing they do know about the Institute is that they are willing to go to any lengths to cover their tracks. ‘I want to find out what they’ve been up to here before they torch this town like they blew up their facility up North’ Domino declares.
A short time later, Domino, Cannonball, Sunspot and Aaronson have finished their search of Almost Reno’s main street storefronts. Aaronson points out that somebody left the store in a hurry, as there are baskets half filled with groceries. Cannonball remarks that nobody touched any of the money in the cash register. ‘This sure is mighty odd’ he tells his teammates. ‘Maybe everyone finally realized they were living in a dead-end town, and just took off’ Sunspot declares, adding that he was joking. Domino tells the men to can the chatter and pay attention, adding that they are looking for anything, no matter how small, that might tell them how the Aguilar Institute made the townspeople disappear, or where they took them.
Aaronson and Cannonball walk one way through the store, as Jesse tells Sam that he heard he used to be leader of this team. ‘It must be hard to be just another grunt now, huh?’. Sam replies that he doesn’t mind taking orders, and explains to Jesse that being part of a team means you check your ego at the door. He adds that it makes sense to defer to the person who knows most about a situation, especially if that person happens to be Domino. Jesse admits that Sam is a pretty easy going guy, and tells him that he admires that, before remarking that he doesn’t know if he would be comfortable being part of a team where his ex has hooked up with his best friend.
Sam frowns and suggests to Bedlam that they drop this conversation before he forgets what an “easy going guy” he is. Jesse tells Sam not to be defensive and claims that he is just curious, before opening the freezer. ‘Wonder if anyone would mind if I grabbed a Popsicle?’ he asks, when suddenly, an elderly man falls out of the freezer. ‘Look, I’m not Quincy, but it’s plain to see that Mr Hooper’s dead, right?’ Jesse remarks, while Domino checks his vitals, and announces that he died of hypothermia. ‘Now why would a guy lock himself in his freezer?’ Jesse asks, while Sam suggests he was hiding from something, or someone.
Across town, Siryn, James, Danielle and Meltdown scour the residential area for clues, coming to a stop in the playground. James tells his friends that ever since they got here he cannot stop thinking about Camp Verde, and how it felt when he returned there after all his friends and family had been massacred. ‘Everything was so still and quiet - just like - wait…do you hear that? It sounds like…coins dropping in a machine…’ he exclaims. Meltdown frowns as she tells James that not all of them have his heightened senses and that all she hears is the wind. ‘Then you don’t hear the music that just started…’ James begins, but Siryn exclaims that she does, and that it sounds familiar. ‘Los Lobos?’ she remarks. James motions to the nearby diner, ‘All I know is that it’s coming from that diner’ he declares.
The young heroes makes their way to the diner, and see a young girl at the jukebox. ‘Looks like the bad guys missed someone’ Moonstar points out, before Meltdown realizes that it is Mary. ‘She’s alive!’ Tabitha exclaims. ‘The telepath’ Moonstar remarks. ‘I remember’ Proudstar exclaims, before Siryn asks ‘How do you think she slipped through the net?’. Meltdown declares that Mary is a little fighter. ‘Remember how she stood up to all those SHIELD Agents?’ she asks. ‘I bet she’ll be surprised to see me!’ Tabitha exclaims as she makes her way to the door, but James tells her to stop. ‘What’s your problem, James?’ Tabitha snaps back. ‘Look. She’s not alone’ James declares, motioning inside the diner.
‘Oh!’ Tabitha gasps, as being resembling a gray-colored version of the Fantastic Four’s Thing sits at the diner counter, watching Mary. ‘Do you think that Ben Grimm wannabe’s one of the Institute goons - or is he another one of this town’s mutant children?’ someone asks. Siryn tells her friends that if he is a child then she is betting he is probably traumatized by what has happened here. She suggests that she will go in alone and act as non-threatening as possible. ‘And if the creature’s with the Institute…?’ James asks his best friend. ‘That’s why I have you guys watching my back’ Siryn replies, before telling her team to follow her lead.
‘Hey, buddy. Sorry I’m late. The alarm didn’t ring. Couldn’t find a clean thing to wear. It’s been one of those days, don’t ye know’ Siryn tells the being at the counter as she smiles at him and ties her hair in a ponytail. Siryn sees that he is eyeing her suspiciously, not sure who she is. ‘Gotta keep laying it on thick’ she tells herself, before telling him that it is a real scorcher out here. Must be over a hundred’ she remarks, before telling him that he must be dying of thirst, and not to worry, as she can do something about that. He looks at her puzzled, but Siryn realizes he seems to be calming. She knows she has to keep moving slowly and make no surprises.
‘Mmm’ the rocky man remarks, while Siryn hands him a glass of ice cold cola. ‘What do you know, it worked!’ Siryn tells herself before the diner door bell rings as Meltdown enters. ‘Hi Theresa, hi big guy, hi Mary’ she exclaims. The rocky guy looks at her puzzled, while Siryn quietly tells her to play it cool. Mary is still browsing through the jukebox, when she suddenly turns her head, ‘Tabitha!’ she exclaims, smiling. Tabitha kneels down and hugs Mary, ‘That’s right, sweetie, it’s me, you know. I was worried. I’ve been looking all over for you’ she tells her, to which Mary replies that she knows good places to hide. Meltdown asks her if there is anyone else besides her that hid, to which Mary replies it is just her and Zak, as they are the only ones who didn’t get sick. Meltdown tells her not to worry, as they are going to make sure nothing happens to her now. ‘Uh, Red…we could use a couple of burgers over here…with fries…’ Meltdown exclaims, smiling at Siryn, who frowns, ‘Coming up, ma’am she replies coldly’.
At the same time, on the outskirts of the deserted town, Sam, Bobby, Domino and Aaronson are standing around a gas station when Sam suggests to Bobby that he power down in case any fuel is leaking. But Bobby tells Sam to relax, as he is in his incendiary state. ‘I’m all heat. No fire’ he declares, before exclaiming that is the first time Sam has spoken to him directly since he rejoined the team. ‘Are you still mad about me and Tab?’ Bobby asks. Sam frowns as he tells Bobby that he doesn’t see much point in getting into that here, before Aaronson offers to referee. ‘Okay, Sam you went off with the X-Men leaving your lady’s needs unfulfilled. And, Bobby, you should’ve told Sam about you and Tabitha instead of letting him find out himself’ Aaronson declares. ‘Nobody asked you, Jesse’ Sam snaps back, to which Aaronson mutters that he will shut up, before using his powers on the locked garage door.
Jesse remarks that he knows Cannonball and Sunspot could have busted the door down or burned a hole through the metal, but they have to admit his way is simpler and just as effective. ‘Time to find out what’s behind door number three’ he jokes as the door rises, and the four mutants enter, ‘Wow. This place’s filled with video equipment!’ Cannonball exclaims as they look around. Sunspot tells his teammates to look at the monitors, pointing out that they are all focused on nurseries, schools and people’s homes. ‘There’s no place that isn’t under surveillance!’ he exclaims, while Domino remarks that the Aguilar Institute must have set up the cameras all through the town. ‘What were they watching?’ Aaronson asks. ‘The children’ Domino replies.
Back in the diner, dirty dishes line the counter, while the rocky guy, Zak, asks for more. ‘Ye heard the man, Dani. Keep his burgers coming!’ Siryn exclaims as she turns to Dani, who, in the kitchen, frowns at her and tells her not to look so smug, as the only reasons she is doing this is because she spent the summer before she joined the New Mutants working behind a grill at the rodeo, ‘And because I’ve tasted your cooking’ she tells her, while Zak hungrily devours some French fries. Sitting in a booth, Tabitha and James watch over Mary, while Tab tells her that she knows the last couple of days have been difficult for her, but they really need to know what happened here. ‘Okay, Tabitha…’ Mary says as she begins to recount the last few days:
Flashback images, narrated by Mary:
Mary explains that on Wednesday, in the middle of math class, Lewis Hammond started glowing like a light bulb and couldn’t stop. Mary explains that he kept getting brighter and brighter until no one could look at him, so their teacher made them leave the room. ‘The Principal sent everybody home, which I thought was great, because I hate math - but then the scary men came and started making everyone, even the grownups - get into these big helicopters’ Mary reveals. Mary recounts how her mother did not want her to go with them, so she told her to hide until she came back. ‘And she made me promise not to use my powers because that’s how the bad men find you’ Mary adds.
Mary tells Meltdown and Proudstar that now it is just her and Zak, except that Zak doesn’t talk very much because he is all rocky. ‘Which I don’t think is very fun for him’ Mary adds, before exclaiming that this is all her fault. ‘If I hadn’t made the bad men’s noses bleed, they wouldn’t be doing this to everybody’ she remarks. As X-Force lead Mary out of the diner, Danielle tells her to never think this is her fault. Siryn agrees, and tells Mary that there are some people who are scared of anyone who is different. ‘And you should always be proud of who you are, and the things that make you special’ Tabitha tells her. ‘I wish my Mom was here’ Mary replies.
Suddenly, ‘Your mother sent us to bring you to her, Mary’ a voice exclaims. ‘She’s very worried about you, and you don’t want to make your mother worried, do you? Now, why don’t you say goodbye to your friends and come with us?’. X-Force look up and see several men dressed in black suits, armed with various weapons, standing before them. ‘Agent Briggs, I was hoping we’d meet again’ Dani exclaims, asking ‘This isn’t a SHIELD project at all, is it?’. Dani exclaims that if she called GW Bridge, she bets he would tell her that he has never heard of Agent Briggs or the Almost Reno Project at all. Agent Briggs points a weapon at the former SHIELD Agent and tells her that he doubts she is going to make that call, before reminding her that he asked her to walk away the first time they met. ‘I won’t be so polite the second time’ he assures her, before demanding that they hand over the girl.
‘No way, creeps. She’s staying with us!’ Meltdown exclaims, putting her arms around Mary. ‘Very well. You’ve forced my hand’ Agent Briggs exclaims, before ordering his colleagues to eliminate ‘These annoying children’ as he calls them. But just as the men in suits begin to fire, Zak bursts though the diner window, and in between the gunfire and X-Force. ‘ZAK!’ Moonstar calls out, while Meltdown tells Mary to get down. Siryn immediately modulates the pitch and decibel of her voice, thus creating a miniature sonic boom that causes the ground beneath the agents to buckle, knocking them over.
‘What about Zak?’ Moonstar asks, to which Meltdown checks his vitals and replies that the concussion blasts did not pierce his rocky skin, but that she thinks his insides have started turning as solid as his outside. ‘Mary…it hurts…’ Zak utters. ‘Not again. Tabitha, you’ve gotta do something. Help him. Please…’ Mary pleads. Crouching beside Zak, Dani remarks that this is way out of her league, before telling Zak that she is sorry her psionic ability has diminished, for otherwise she could ease his pain, but there is nothing she can - Dani stops herself as she touches the boy’s stone-like skin, and Dani unexpectedly becomes aware of energy patterns that move through Zak’s body.
Then, just as unexpectedly, Dani feels a different energy channel through her and into the wounded child, miraculously healing his calcified body. ‘Feel better…’ Zak whispers. Siryn asks Moonstar how she did that, but Dani replies that she doesn’t know. ‘It was like I suddenly tapped into some elemental force that repaired all his internal damage’ she explains, adding that she wished she knew what was happening to her. Suddenly, Agent Briggs reaches for his weapon while contacting control, informing them that they have a situation, condition black. ‘Request back -’ he begins, but before he finishes his sentence, he screams, as Domino stands on his hand reaching for the weapon. ‘Sorry, pal. To quote one of my favourite bands - “Your phone’s off the hook…”!’ she exclaims.
‘”But you’re not”!’ Domino adds, finishing the lyrics, before telling Briggs that he is going to tell her everything he knows about the Aguilar Institute. ‘You’ll get nothing from me!’ Briggs retorts, to which Domino tells him that he must know there is a fine line between interrogation and torture. ‘Don’t make me cross it’ she warns him. ‘Ah give him five minutes before he spills his guts’ Sam remarks to Bobby. ‘No, this weasel will never last that long’ Bobby replies.
Mary, holding Meltdown’s hand, remarks that she knows she is not supposed to use her special ability, but that Briggs is thinking really, really loud. ‘He doesn’t want to tell you about something called the Dam…Damocles Foundation’ she reveals, before asking if she is in trouble. ‘Not a chance, Mary. You did good’ Meltdown assures her, while Bedlam remarks ‘Damocles Foundation? I thought we were investigating the Aguilar Institute?’, while Sunspot wonders where he has heard that name before. ‘Uh-oh…someone bad is coming’ Mary announces as a black car drives towards them.
Moments later, a strange looking being with gray skin steps out of the car, ‘Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I’m sorry I didn’t arrive sooner. If I had, perhaps we could have avoided all this unpleasantness’ he remarks, before introducing himself as Odysseus Indigo, who represents the Damocles Foundation, which he explains is an organization dedicated to the betterment of the future. ‘I hope we can avoid any further physical confrontation. I’d hate to ruin this suit’ he remarks. Standing before X-Force, he tells them that if they heart him out, he believes they will find their interests are quite similar.
Siryn asks what the Damocles Foundation’s connection to the Aguilar Institute is, while Meltdown asks ‘Am I crazy, or does he remind you guys of the Deviant we met in Kentucky?’. Cannonball points out that Ulysses and Odysseus were the Roman and Greek names for the same warrior. ‘Seems more than a coincidence’ he adds. ‘One question at a time’ Odysseus exclaims, before revealing that the Aguilar Institute is one of the Damocles Foundation’s many satellites. ‘And as to my relationship with Ulysses Dragonblood, that traitor is my brother’ he explains.
‘You’re a bad man. I’m going to make you go away and leave us alone!’ Mary suddenly exclaims, surging with power. Unimpressed with Mary’s outburst, Odysseus declares that sometimes, children should be seen and not heard, and suddenly Mary keels over in pain. ’What did you do to her?’ Meltdown shouts angrily as she grabs Mary. Odysseus explains that Mary tried, in her own fumbling way, to use her limited telepathy against him. ’I shut her down’ he explains, revealing that he was born with the rather fortunate ability to neutralize extra-normal abilities. ’Neutralize this, ugly!’ Meltdown shouts as she throws a barrage of plasma time-bombs at Odysseus.
But the Deviant stands his ground, ’Tsk…tsk…Ms Smith…you weren’t listening’ he declares, telling her that her time bombs are useless against him, but now the very attempt to generate them will prove painful. Indeed, Tabitha keels over as she attempts to create further explosives. Sunspot calls out to his girlfriend, but Tabitha mumbles that she doesn’t want that overdressed goon to see her hurt.
‘If you’re done, I suggest we get down to business’ Odysseus Indigo declares, remarking that he understands X-Force has run afoul of his operatives in the past - first in Northern California and more recently in Kentucky, and he suggests they put their past differences behind them. ‘We fought the Sword in Kentucky. Get it? The Sword of Damocles?’ Proudstar whispers to Siryn, who replies ‘Aye, and I don’t like it one bit’. Domino informs Odysseus that his Foundation is responsible for arming Ekatarina Gryaznova - the Gryphons - in her vendetta against her. ‘That makes things personal’ Domino declares.
Odysseus replies that Ms Gryaznova’s personal agenda cost the Damocles Foundation an entire research compound. ‘Let’s call it even’ he suggests, before assuring Domino that the Damocles Foundation bears no ill will towards her or the rest of X-Force. He remarks that, in a legend, a sword was suspended by a thread above the Sicilian Courtier Damocles to demonstrate to him the precarious nature of life. ’All of this planet’s inhabitants - human, Deviants and Eternals - are living on the brink of political, ecological and social destruction’ Odysseus exclaims, adding that the Foundation’s work is to insure all of their survival.
Flashback illustrations, narrated by Odysseus:
Odysseus remarks that the beginning of the nuclear age is only one of the harbingers of the apocalypse the Damocles Foundation seeks to avoid. ‘This town paid the price for the American military’s atomic weapons testing during the Cold War’ he adds, explaining that the resulting radioactive contamination in the air, water and earth left the men and women of this town sterile and unable to have children. He reveals that the Damocles Foundation was aware of this, and came to the town fathers with a proposal - that the Foundation would use their advanced technology to undo the reproductive damage caused by high levels of radiation. ‘And so, through genetic engineering we introduced both the human X-Factor chromosome and the Deviant equivalent to these children’.
Odysseus declares that, unfortunately, the genetic alteration proved unstable, and the children’s mutant characteristics began killing them. He explains that the Damocles Foundation was forced to quarantine the entire population to determine what went wrong. ‘What gives you the right to play games with people’s lives?’ Meltdown asks, while Cannonball exclaims that he wants to know where the rest of the town are being kept. Odysseus reveals that the adult populace of this sleepy town are safe and will be released as soon as possible, while the death of the children was most unfortunate, they were to be the first of a new generation. He tells X-Force that is why they must place Mary in his care, as she has continued to show no signs of genetic destabilization. ‘She may hold the answer we need to keep the next generation alive’ he adds.
‘If you think we’re going to give you Mary, you don’t know how wrong you are’ Domino tells him upfront, adding that they will make sure Mary gets whatever treatment she may need. Odysseus tells X-Force that they are mistaken to assume that he is their enemy. ‘I am your salvation’ he declares. ‘Join me. Or perish in the coming cataclysm’. All eight members of X-Force stare back at Odysseus, none of them saying anything, and after a moment, Odysseus returns to his car. ‘Your mistake’ he tells them, announcing that he leaves Mary and Zak in their hands, before announcing that he will return for them eventually. ‘And at that time, you won’t stope me’ he boasts, before he is driven away.
Domino tells her teammates that she doesn’t think Indigo is used to being told “No”, while Meltdown asks ‘That’s it? We let them go?’. Cannonball remarks that he doesn’t think they could have stopped Indigo, but wonders if they did enough, and asks ‘What about the rest of the town? Do you think they’re really safe?’. Domino points out that Indigo was only interested in the children, and with the exception of Mary and Zak, they are all dead. She declares that right now, they need to get Mary and Zak somewhere where they can get the emotional and medical help they will need after all this. ‘As for this town it can burn to the ground for all I care’….