The year 2997. The Age of Stryfe. T minus three seconds until time jump…
What is strength? I once believed that the ability to crush one’s enemies was all that was required to prove one’s strength…to prove one’s worthiness. But I was wrong. Warpath leaps at Stryfe. There is another kind of strength, one that cannot be quantified. Strength of spirit. Of will. An inner force so powerful, it strips fear, doubt and weakness from those endowed with it, even in the face of overwhelming odds.
At T-minus two seconds until time jump, Stryfe tosses Elixir to the floor. I have seen this power in action. Watched as those with it continue to fight battles long after realizing they could not possibly survive.
At T-minus one second until the time jump, Wolverine slashes furiously at Stryfe’s telekinetic bubble. To refuse defeat in the face of certain death is an act of strength so rare, I have only witnessed it but a handful of times, Stryfe thinks, and mine is a lifetime that spans across the ages.
With T-minus zero seconds remaining, the time jump activates. Warpath, currently slashing at Stryfe’s shield with his bowie knives, feels some strange effect of their time in the future ending. Elixir feels it too. Barely alive as he crawls across the floor, he realizes they have run out of time. They’re dying. Wolverine refuses to submit just yet. He reminds them Domino and X-23 are tackling the time-blockage issue and commands Elixir to get on his feet. Warpath, he orders to move to Stryfe’s backside so they can flank him.
Stryfe tells him it is too late. He spins around and knocks everyone to the ground.
The Celestial Ship…
Wailing at the top of his lungs, the Vanisher claims he feels like something is pulling out his insides. He tries to cover his mouth as he vomits up blood. He asks Domino if she can identify the source of that strange light they just saw as well. It was the time devices, Domino explains. They must have hit zero and tried to return them to their present. “…well, that’s just %@*%ing great!! What do we do now?” Vanisher asks.
Domino turns to X-23 and tells her it has to happen; they have to execute Kiden Nixon. X-23 pays no heed to her words and instead continues staring at Kiden, who mumbles nonsensically about running and hiding. Do it, Domino shouts! Instead, X-23 reaches out to her old friend and gently strokes her skin. She remembers the time they spent together back in New York City; Laura felt happy during that era of her life. With sorrow, she speaks Kiden’s name and begins to explain herself, but when Kiden speaks in response, she simply asks Laura to kill her.
Laura cannot believe it. Before she has time to struggle with Kiden’s wishes, however, Domino makes the decision for her by putting a bullet directly through her brain. “NO!” X-23 says, whirling around to face Domino with her claws extended. Domino apologizes; there was no other way.
With the chronal net destroyed, a burst of light appears over the Celestial City and spreads outward like a shockwave.
As he crawls across the floor, Bishop, his heart filled with dread, feels the time field vanish. Now his targets can escape. Similarly, Cable struggles to get to his feet and grab Hope so they can escape. Between fits of hacking and coughing, Josh tells Cable that Hope is in the corner. Unfortunately, between Cable and Hope stands Stryfe, who asks Hope if she is ready to fulfill her destiny.
The entire room begins to rumble. Suddenly, one of the walls comes crashing down, kicking up a cloud of dust and debris. Cable and Stryfe both turn and face the new arrival with horror. “Bright lady, no,” the terrified Cable says.
For years, I survived on the brink of death, tortured by physical pain and tormented by the failures that led to my defeat. Every day I drove back death and focused every thought on how I would rise from my own apocalypse. I contemplated that which makes one strong. What makes one worthy to survive, Apocalypse thinks. But it was not until my Horseman returned to me that I found the truths I sought. My defeat was a gift, in which my suffering revealed my imperfections. My torment exposed my failures.
Slowly, Apocalypse lumbers into the chamber with Archangel bringing up the rear. Death did not destroy but instead restored me with the same life I gave him ages ago. I am En Sabah Nur. I am the Apocalypse, now and forever. And I must return to the world as its savior. “Stryfe,” he says as he enters the room. He informs Stryfe that failed to kill him earlier and is therefore weak—and weakness must be culled.
The Celestial Ship…
The dead body of Kiden Nixon hangs from its restraints with its eyes opened wide. Laura slides them shut. Vanisher asks what they do now. If the girl who was keeping them there is now dead, why didn’t they just disappear? The conclusion he reaches is frightening: they’re going to die. Domino tells him to shut up so she can think. Going back to the time devices Beast gave them to wear around their arms, Domino recalls they were programmed to return them to their present—but couldn’t. Maybe it’s the devices that are still keeping them there. Before she can vocally suggest they may have to remove them to get home, Vanisher strips his off and disappears before Domino’s eyes.
The ruins of the Xavier Institute. Present day…
Materializing where the Xavier Institute used to stand, Vanisher looks around in awe. He made it back! He throws his head back and laughs.
Elixir crawls across the floor toward Hope, assuring her along the way everything will be okay. Apocalypse observes this pathetic scene. Just like his Horseman, the boy is dying—but they continue to fight. In the corner, Apocalypse sees the young mutant girl. Although she is merely a child, she has survived all those who would destroy her or possess her as if strength were something that could come from without. Stryfe fires a blast of energy at Archangel and Apocalypse, but Apocalypse ducks the blast and smacks Stryfe with the hammer-shaped end of his modified hand.
Nearby, Hope screams and runs for her life, dodging yet another one of Bishop’s bullets. She falls to the floor and turns over to find herself staring down the barrel of Bishop’s shotgun. “For what it’s worth, girl,” he says, “…I’m sorry. I’m sorry you were ever born.” He aims the gun at her face. Before he can fire it, however, Cable dives at him and knocks him to the ground. As they tumble, Bishop urges Cable to just believe him! He has to let go of the girl! She has to die!
Cable counters by telling Bishop he is wrong and that he’s lost his way. He asks him to look at what he’s done, and what he continues to try to do. Bishop has gone insane; he just can’t see it.
Bishop sees it differently. He believes he is the only one who can see things clearly. After all, he was there when it happened. He’s seen Hope destroy everything. However, he understands the severity of what he’s done—the lives he’s taken and the destruction he’s caused—while trying to stop Hope. However, he can fix everything, he says.
“So can I,” Wolverine says as he cuts a gash across Bishop’s face. Bishop hadn’t noticed him sneaking up from behind.
Meanwhile, Archangel fires a barrage of wing fletchettes at Stryfe. Apocalypse observes this, noting that Death is one of his chosen. He was always destined to shape the world at his master’s side, but the strength he exhibits this day exceeds even Apocalypse’s expectations. Of him, Apocalypse is proud.
Of Stryfe, he is not. Stryfe claims to be his heir? No heir of Apocalypse could ever be such a coward, En Sabah Nur says. He thrusts Stryfe into the wall. Such weakness! Apocalypse has spent many years of suffering reflecting upon the mistakes of his past, and Stryfe’s mere existence has warned him of the mistakes he has yet to make. Now that he knows what is to come, he will ensure those failures never occur. Never again will he allow this world and its destiny to be stolen by a creature as unworthy as Stryfe! Stryfe, he says, no longer has a place in this life; he is truly nothing.
Leaning against the wall, Stryfe coughs up a few words before swiveling around and unleashing a full-scale energy attack on his former master. “No! I am Stryfe!” he shouts. “And you are dead!”
Apocalypse stands in awe of this display of power. However, it isn’t backed by any strength. He tells Stryfe he must mistake him for what he once was. He must not realize Apocalypse has been born anew, recreated from the DNA of his greatest Horseman and fueled by the hate for what he had let himself become—hate for what allowed him to create Stryfe.
Stryfe looks up at him with the frightened eyes of a ten-year old. “I am sorry, father,” he says. “I did not mean to… I did not mean to disobey,” he begs. Apocalypse corrects him as he smashes him into the ground. He is not Stryfe’s father; he is his executioner—and the Age of Stryfe ends now!
Hope, meanwhile, crawls out from under a pile of rubble in search of Cable. Across the room, a blood-spattered Bishop levels his gun at her, assuring himself once again that none of this is real and that it’s finally almost over. Nearby, Cable—resting alongside an injured Wolverine—picks himself up off the ground as well. They have to get Hope, he says. Wolverine asks where Bishop went.
At that moment, Bishop has Hope right in his sights. He’s going to save everyone, he says as he steadies his aim on the side of her head. He pauses. With a simple “no”, he decides not to take the shot.
Apocalypse observes this scene and once again declares that only the strong survive—and Bishop’s strength has failed him.
Hope stands up and leans against a concrete wall for support. Behind a veil of energy, she sees a large, hulking figure who she assumes is Nathan. She calls out to him. However, it is Apocalypse who emerges from the veil, and he gently scoops up Hope into his hand. He tells her she is indeed special; he can feel her strength. In fact, she would be a worthy host of Apocalypse. “But you,” he says, turning toward Bishop, “you are just sad. Frail creature trying to destroy the future of your species.” He nails Bishop with a surge of slate-colored matter. Bishop chokes and gasps but refuses to die at the hands of Apocalypse. In a last-ditch effort to stay alive, he activates his time-device and leaps into the timestream.
His disappearance stuns the members of X-Force, but Cable explains he merely leapt into the timestream. Keeping his mind on matters at hand, Wolverine orders his team to spread out and prepare to battle Apocalypse. Apocalypse asks if they truly wish to test themselves against him. The X-Men have defeated him before, Wolverine reminds him; surely they can do it again. “I see no X-Men here. Your band of children can barely stand, much less fight,” Apocalypse says. Wolverine turns to Warren and tells him he has three seconds to choose a side. As backup, he asks if X-23 and Domino have a lock on him. They assure him they do. Cable too levels his gun at Apocalypse, despite that his target holds Hope in his hands. As he lines up his shot, Cable asks Hope to close her eyes and always remember that he—
“Stop,” Archangel says from behind Apocalypse. En Sabah Nur asks if Death can feel what approaches. “I can,” Archangel says, “but I won’t let it happen.” Apocalypse asks if he believes he can stop it. Shifting back to his more human-looking form, Warren tells his former master the girl is strong, but so is everyone else present. They don’t ask for mercy—unlike Apocalypse. Instead, Warren lays claim to the girl. Apocalypse owes him for saving his life, and in return, he wants to take responsibility for Hope’s. Apocalypse begins to argue, but Warren snaps at him and demands he give him the girl immediately.
X-Force watches anxiously. It’s going to be bad, Warpath says. Wolverine asks him to wait and see what happens.
Surprisingly, Apocalypse hands the girl over to his Horseman without any further argument, conceding her as payment. Warren immediately carries her over to Cable, who embraces her like a parent reunited with a lost child. He assures her he will keep her safe in his arms. Apocalypse watches this joyful reunion, but neither his face nor voice betrays any emotion. “Take the girl. I have time. I am infinite. But know this,” Apocalypse says, “…we will meet again, when the girl is ready.” He reminds Cable emotion is weakness. If he does not teach this to the girl before he returns for her, it will be her undoing.
Meanwhile, until they meet again, his essence will survive. He gestures toward the battered Stryfe. Although Apocalypse’s once-future self was weak, today, he intends to erase his life’s greatest failure and restore the course of his destiny. He drags Stryfe away kicking and screaming. He calls him a pathetic wretch who is always searching for a purpose in life. Well, now he has one, the greatest any being could ever have: to be the vessel of Apocalypse! Stryfe screams at this, his agonized wail reverberating throughout the Celestial City.
X-Force, Cable and Hope watch as Apocalypse drags Stryfe away. “Okay. How about we get the $#%& out of here?” Wolverine says. Cable agrees.
Later, on the moors outside the city, Logan gives Cable the go-ahead to depart into the timestream with Hope. Cable initially resists abandoning his friends in their current state, but Wolverine insists. Not one to linger around pointlessly, Cable tells Hope to prepare herself for another time-slide. He finds her surprisingly resistant. She doesn’t want to leave Laura and James and Josh! They’re all sick, and they were the ones who saved her! They can’t just leave them!
Josh assures Hope that Cable is right; they need to leave. “You have to… have to go, Hope. You’re…” Josh pauses, “…oh, God. I know. I know what she is!” Just as Josh uncovers Hope’s true nature, she and Cable jump away into the timestream. Hope screams as she is sucked away from her friends, the first she’s ever had in her life.
With little time to spare, X-Force tries to return to their starting position so they can arrive in the past in position to save their friends. Archangel carries Elixir in one hand and Wolverine in the other, who shouts out orders and encouragement to his team. He tells Warpath, Domino and X-23 to rescue Boom Boom while the rest of them head for the United Nations building.
Archangel’s strength finally runs out in mid-air, however, and he crashes to the remnants of the New York City streets. As they land, Wolverine, Elixir and Archangel rip off their armbands and disappear into the timestream.
Behind them, Warpath carries X-23 and Domino as he flies toward their starting position. His strength gives out as well, and the three of them go crashing to the ground. Domino picks herself up and begins staggering to the source. However, her nose bleeds profusely, her skins rots, and her eyes turn white as she begins losing her eyesight. She doesn’t have long. Laura makes the decision for her and slices off Domino’s armband. She couldn’t help Kiden, but Domino did, Laura says. In return, she vows to save Domino’s friend. Domino yells at her to stop as she slices the band off her arm, but it’s too late; Domino disappears from the timeline and travels back to her present.
The only one of her team remaining, X-23 staggers like a zombie toward the “x” she carved in the metal plate upon her arrival. Her progress is slow. The will to live is in us all, but it is the will to live with purpose that separates the strong from the weak, the worthy from the worthless, and the past from the future. Mere meters from her starting position, X-23 falls flat on her face, nearly dead from exhaustion. Refusing to give up, however, she slowly drags herself toward her mark, reminding herself she must complete her mission. And it is this purpose that fuels the courage needed to fight on even in the face of certain death—for that which does not kill us, simply makes us stronger. Laura arrives at the mark, sits upright, draws her handgun, and cuts the time-travel band off her arm. She vanishes, and the armband falls to the ground—landing right in the middle of the crudely drawn X.
Epilogue. The near future…
They still don’t understand, Bishop says as he arrives back at Betty’ Noir’s, the bar where he met Stryfe. The more the X-Men fight and resist, the worse Hope becomes. He was born into the Hell-on-Earth that she created; God only knows what kind of monster she might become now. However, he refuses to let himself dwell on that. He has seen it through this far and therefore must see it through until the end. He found her once; he can find her again.