They are considered heroes. Martyrs in the endless battle for the salvation of man and mutantkind. They are the X-Men. Blessed with para-human powers, cursed with the desire to use them responsibly. They came to this isolated Siberian town of Neftelensk in order to stop the mental degradation of its tortured, desperate citizens. They faced the physical onslaught of a mind-controlled Omega Red and the mental ravishing from the mutant telepathic mind surgeon called the Skinner of Souls. The X-Men came to do what they have always done. They came to help. They came to stop evil mutants. But they failed.
And now, Scott “Cyclops” Summers, Wolverine a.k.a. Logan, Betsy “Psylocke” Braddock, Bobby “Iceman” Drake and Jubilation Lee, better known as Jubilee, lie motionless on the snow-covered ground, victims of the Soul Skinner and Omega Red, who stand over them, while Laynia “Darkstar” Petrovna and Father Alexi Garnoff a.k.a. Blind Faith, also victims of the Soul Skinner, sit motionless behind them.
‘You don’t feel their pain, as I do, Omega Red’ the Soul Skinner declares. ‘What you miss, my friend, you will never know‘. He adds that he can sense it strongly - and by linking minds with them through the telepath, Psylocke, he transforms and reveals their agonies from the inside. ‘Whose frayed mind do I dig into first? Psylocke, entwined with Scott summers, the X-Men’s taciturn leader…in love, or is it hate?’
The Soul Skinner moves on to Jubilee, the youngest of the X-Men, seeing her parents alive - but it is a dream - the reality is her nightmare, and that nightmare is her eternal loneliness.
Iceman is next, so human beneath his cold shell - but unable to find the warmth and love of Opal, the woman he wants but can no longer have.
‘Wolverine, shredded inside and out, so many, many times he has no conception of his true self. Now, having forever lost Marikoa Yashida, you have also been gutted by the memory of the death of Silver Fox’.
The Soul Skinner declares that best of all is Cyclops: ‘What misery you’ve endured! What pain - what tremendous guilt! You dream of Jean Grey, but how can you provide for her? Help make her whole - when you have so sadly failed in providing for yourself, for Madelyne, and most of all, your lost son, Nathan’.
The Soul Skinner wonders how Scott has survived this continuous torment. ‘How can you face tomorrow with any semblance of hope for what the new day will bring? Are you that much stronger than I am, Summers? When our sins are so similar?’. Images flash through the Soul Skinner’s mind - of he and his wife standing over their daughter, Oskana. ‘I miss you so, child. I tried to ease your pain. I did the very thing I had sworn never to do - I entered your mind - I tried to influence your thoughts, to ease your pain - but I could not even do that for you - I could only feel you slip away’ the Soul Skinner reminds himself, an image of he and his wife standing over their daughter’s grave appearing before him.
‘So like your agony, Summers - when faced with the bitter choice of saving your dying son - and losing him forever. How it haunts you!’ the Soul Skinner exclaims. He wonders if he could have done more for Oksana, or if her mother could have done more. ‘Your death shattered my life in more ways than one, daughter. For I learned of your mother’s secret. Of her employment by the State to watch over my very existence! A Flagwatch she called herself’.
The Soul Skinner continues, exclaiming that he was the mutant his wife was assigned to watch over. ‘Like a pathetic animal in the zoo. For fourteen years, she knew me in ways I did not know her. She did nothing to try and use her State ties to save you, daughter. Her precious employment was deemed more important than your very life!’ he exclaims, revealing that he gave his beloved wife the chance to fulfil her appointed task - let her watch as he opened his mutant mind - and shredded her body and soul as she had done to their daughter, and to him.
The Soul Skinner crawls across the ground: ‘And now? Now I live only to find pain in others. And I cannot stop - or be stopped - until I have shown everyone the pain I have felt - the loss - the guilt - the failure!’ he declares, before gathering himself by standing up and brushing the snow from his body. He adjusts his spectacles and almost casually asks Omega Red about the ones who escaped. ‘State Security Agent Vazhin and the X-Man codenamed Colossus?’ Omega Red replies. ‘Yes. Find them. Stop them. Before they have the opportunity to discover my hidden secret!’ the Soul Skinner declares. He tells Omega Red to find them before they find the means to stop him. ‘Find them, my mind-shorn puppet - and kill them!’. With that, Omega Red trudges off through the snow.
Nearby, in a run-down shack, Colonel Alexi Vazhin asks Piotr “Colossus” Rasputin if he feels it. ‘The psychic tremors, Vazhin? I do’ Colossus replies as he stands amongst a group of children. Colossus explains that Professor Xavier taught him well enough to know this Soul Skinner is losing what little self-control he may have had. ‘We’re scared!’ one of the children exclaims in their native Russian. ‘Please help us - what is going to happen?’ another child asks. Colossus tells Vazhin that they must learn why the Soul Skinner’s assault did not corrupt the children of this town. ‘For there we may find the key…and then we might be able to prevent your state scientists from abusing my sister!’
Colonel Vazhin replies that it may be too late for that. ‘As you well know, your sisters latent mutant abilities involve inter-dimensional warping. It has already been determined that should we fail to stop the Neftelensk incursion - Illyana Rasputin would be genetically evolved to the point where her nascent abilities can accomplish the task’ Vazhin reveals. Colossus declares that he will not allow his sister to be placed in jeopardy.
Vazhin tells Colossus to calm himself, as his armor’s sensors have just registered a plasma spike. ‘Which indicates?’ Colossus asks. ‘One of two things - Cyclops has triggered a massive optic energy release - which is doubtful in his current state - or the Special Investigations Unit has arrived in their psi-shielded transport ship’ Vazhin declares. He tells Colossus that if he is of a spiritual inclination, then he should pray - ‘Because our debate over the welfare of your poor sister may have become a moot point!’.
Colossus and Vazhin step outside, and Colossus sees the armoured members of the Special Investigations Unit secure a permieter area. ‘I won’t permit them to proceed any further, Vazhin’ Colossus exclaims. Vazhin asks Colossus what he plans to do here. ‘As unbearable as this situation might be, is not the life of one city and its residents more important than the life of one person - even if that person is a child?’ Vazhin asks. ‘Your argument is based on logic, bureaucrat. Mine on passion. On love’ Colossus replies, frowning.
Piotr declares that he will not allow his sister to be hurt. ‘No matter what the noble cause. And this is not intended to be the start of a “debate on the greater good”!’ Piotr adds, telling Vazhin that it is a fact, as cold, hard and final as a tombstone. ‘Do you understand, Vazhin?’ Colossus asks. Vazhin replies that he does understand. ‘A brother’s devotion is a wonderful thing - but try and explain your position to them!’ he exclaims as several of the members of the Special Investigations Unit are carrying a container which holds the captured Illyana!
‘ILLYANA!’ Colossus shouts, before rushing through the snow towards his sister. ‘Manipulative butchers! How could you do this? She is only a child!’ Colossus shouts, but Vazhin catches up to him and grabs him, begging him to think this through. Colossus tells Vazhin to move out of his way, otherwise he will crush the life out of him. Alexi tells Colossus that he knows how hard this must be. ‘But you are an X-Man. You know such choices must sometimes be made. Your sister may very well be Neftelensk’s last hope!’
‘No. Not if it means Illyana’s death. Nothing is worth that price!’ Colossus exclaims. ‘Not you - not me - not - Heaven forgive me - not even this cursed town!’ Colossus shouts as he punches Vazhin in the face, smashing his armor. This catches the attention of the Special Investigations Unit. ‘Stay your ground! Release Colonel Vazhin!’ one of them orders. ‘Weapons primed!’ another exclaims. Colossus marches towards them. ‘You were warned, mutant. FIRE!’ another of the soldiers shouts. Colossus is not fazed: ‘You took Mikhail from me - you twisted his mind, his soul - I won’t - I can’t - lose Illyana! Why can’t you leave my family alone?’ he shouts as gunfire residue smolders off his armored form.
Vazhin runs after Colossus, and shouts ‘We could continue to fight you - and we both know you would eventually win, but the choice is yours -do you honestly believe that the selfish needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many?’. Alexi declares that Colossus’ sister is a mutant with a gift - a gift not only capable of saving the people of this town, but preventing the spread of the Soul Skinner’s sickness. ‘You are a student of Xavier’s! You know the danger of evil mutants‘. It is the reason for your existence. I ask you, Piotr Nikoleivitch, how, in good conscience, can you stop us?’
‘I - I -’ Colossus begins, before the Special Investigations Unit personnel all tumble to the snow in agony - as the Soul Skinner makes his presence felt. ‘Tsk tsk. Don’t weaken now, X-Man, for you only know half the story!’ the Soul Skinner exclaims. He tells Colossus that the state agents have much to reveal to him. ‘Allow me the luxury - the pleasure - of showing you what their minds have already shown me - open yourself up, you raw unyielding power-house’ the Soul Skinner begins, as he opens the memories of the agents. ‘Let me peel you open, layer by layer, and feed you the pulpy anguish of others - the anguish of your very parents, Piotr Nikolayevich - as they were gunned down - murdered, Piotr, butchered - in your home just hours ago!’ The images of his parents’ murder flood into Colossus’ mind, and he drops to the snow in horror. ‘NNOOOOO’ he screams.
Meanwhile, at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, in Westchester, New York. ‘You crazy, girl?’ Remy “Gambit” LeBeau asks as Rogue takes to the air, carrying him as she flies higher. ‘Maybe so, Cajun, but Ah haven’t flown in weeks, and Ah need to feel the wind rip through my hair!’ Rogue exclaims. Gambit tells Rogue that in case she has not noticed, she is still blind as a bat. ‘Tell me something Ah don’t know!’ Rogue replies, pointing out that bats fly, and well, too. ‘Sure, with radar or sonar or something’ Gambit exclaims. ‘Right. That’s why Ah have you along for the ride, sugah’ Rogue declares, telling Remy that she wants him to be her radar. ‘Oh. Sure. No problem. In that case - watch out for that wall!’ Gambit exclaims as they quickly approach the Mansion.
Rogue flies upwards to avoid collision, just in time, while watching them through a window is Dr Hank McCoy a.k.a. the Beast, who frowns. Rogue tells Gambit that it is kinda fun to see him all fidgety, to which Gambit assures Rogue that he is calm. The Beast watches his teammates and thinks to himself that they play as if they do not have a care in the world. ‘Like we used to when we were their age - when we first got here…so many years ago…’. He thinks of those days, and remarks that it is hard to believe, that as the original X-Men, they used to be so carefree, so innocent, so naïve.
‘Hank McCoy, are you saying that you’re afraid of becoming an “old man”?’ Jean Grey asks as she enters the room. ‘Jean -’ Hank begins. ‘Grey. Friend. Fellow mutant. Lousy code-name. Telepath’ Jean replies, assuring her friend that she didn’t intend to read his thoughts, but that his mood has been so obvious lately. ‘Has it?’ Hank asks, turning away. ‘Well, young lady, just wait until you start approaching the big three-oh - as those lovely flaming tresses wither into shades of grey - and I direct my aspersions toward the color, not the name!’ Hank declares, bounding down some stairs.
Jean follows Hank and tells him that if he would rather joke than talk, that is fine with her. ‘No - I’m sorry. You’re right. I need to talk. I’d love to talk’ Hank replies. Jean tells Hank that she will put on a pot of coffee and they can sit and talk in the library. ‘Enchanting. We can even prepare some rather unique blends which I was recently shown by our dear Guido…’ Hank replies.
Back in Neftelensk, ‘YOU KILLED MY PARENTS!’ Colossus booms, as he throws Alexi into the air. ‘No - Piotr - no - I swear to you that was never the intention of the Flagwatch agenda!’ the Colonel exclaims. ‘You claim to be ignorant of what your own people were doing?’ Colossus asks. Alexi replies that the operation called for the genetic acceleration of Colossus’ sister, but assures him his parents were not to be harmed. ‘I don’t know why they were killed, Piotr! I -’ Vazhin exclaims, as Colossus holds him up above his head. Alexi is interrupted by the Soul Skinner, who lurches forward: ‘Because it was expedient, you ignorant butcher~ And the State loves expedience, no matter the cost!’
The Soul Skinner continues: ‘Dear God, how you ruin people’s lives. They killed the parents of Piotr Nikoleivitch because they were certain the girl, Illyana would die trying to stop me!’ The Soul Skinner asks Vazhin why there must be such finality in this game. Colossus drops Vazhin to the ground as Vazhin tells the Soul Skinner that no matter what he claims, this operation as it was always conceived, was meant only to send him to another dimensional plane, not to kill the Illyana or her parents.
‘But as happens in the games your kind play - someone out-schemed the schemers of the schemers, no?’ the Soul Skinner exclaims, transforming his arms into long coils, he attacks Colossus and the Colonel. ‘The plan was “sanitized”, was it not, Vazhin? Restructured to prevent any of you from staining your precious hands in the blood of innocents!’ the Soul Skinner exclaims as his coils wrap around Colossus and Alexi, exclaiming that both of them are party to this madness, no matter the innocence they plead.
‘No - not I -’ Colossus exclaims, but the Soul Skinner calls him a liar, and declares that he slides through the folds of his mind like a snake. ‘I know that inside your tortured soul, if but for a moment, you did consider the possibility of using your sister against me!’. Piotr goes wide-eyed. ‘No - I weighed the cost - the lives - I thought -’ Colossus exclaims. ‘Lie to me all you want, twisted mutant fool - but do not lie to yourself!’ the Soul Skinner shouts as Colossus and Vazhin continue to struggle.
‘Before you learned of your parents’ murder you considered the option of allowing these security pigs to use your little sister!’ The Soul Skinner tells Colossus that he can feel his guilt. ‘And I only ask you to ask yourself - “how could I - how could I think of watching this innocent child die -”?’ ‘She was only a child -’ the Soul Skinner exclaims, as his daughter is suddenly vomited from his mouth! ‘Like I was, right, father? I was only a child, too. And you watched me die, father. Why so holier than thou with the metal one if he wants to watch his sister die? Would that not make him no better - and no worse - than you are?’ The apparition of the Soul Skinner’s daughter vanishes, and the villain shouts ‘No. Oskana - I am 0 I - WHYYYY?’
The Soul Skinner reverts to his true human form, and falls to the ground, as do Colossus and Alexi. ‘Inside your soul - I see your guilt overwhelms you’ Colossus declares. ‘My guilt - it would appear - overwhelms us all’ the Soul Skinner replies as he lies near the container where Illyana is held. ‘Sir? Please don’t hurt my brother’ Illyana exclaims. ‘No. I will try not to, little Snowflake. I am tired of inflicting pain on others for my own sins. But neither am I willing to allow all these people to walk away from here and play their twisted games of deceit on others’ the Soul Skinner declares. He adds that in order to prevent them all from hurting each other, he must instead hurt I>her.
The Soul Skinner presses a button on the container, which causes something to happen, and Illyana clutches her head, screaming. Piotr gets to his feet and exclaims that the Soul Skinner is going to kill them all. ‘I cannot stop him - I know that now - for I have too many painful memories which stain my past, too much readily available for him to manipulate and slander. But he can be stopped’. Colossus turns and walks away: ‘Heaven help me and forgive me for what I am about to do - but he can - he must be stopped - no matter the guilt of the act or the innocence lost in the cause!’, leaving Colossus’ sister screaming.
‘Please, Sir - please - it hurts’ Illyana cries out, banging on the container. The Soul Skinner reverts to his other form, telling Illyana to be brave. ‘We will all be gone from here -’ he begins, before exclaiming ‘WHAT?’ as Cyclops, Iceman, Psylocke, Jubilee, Darkstar and Father Garnoff appear nearby. ‘Is it really that much easier to ask a child to be brave, Skinner - than it is to ask it of yourself?’ Scott asks. ‘Or - say it loud, say it proud - wouldn’t it be just a molecule easier to ask us to kick the crud outta you here and now?’ Jubilee asks.
At that moment, half a kilometer away, Colossus enters the building where the children are hiding and tells them that they must come with him. ‘I need you to come play a game - a game, I am sorry to say - of life and death!’ Piotr exclaims.
Back at the scene of the battle, Cyclops and Father Garnoff are attempting to free Illyana, while Bobby, Betsy, Laynia and Jubilee battle the Soul Skinner. Scott tells Illyana to be brave, assuring her that they will have her free soon. But turning to Blind Faith, Scott tells him that he is lying, as it will take hours to figure out the shut-down sequence. Blind Faith replies that he knows, and points out that if they do it incorrectly, they may harm Illyana.
Suddenly, Colossus returns, and calls out to Cyclops and Father Garnoff, telling them to stop. ‘The means of our salvation lies not with one child’s life - but with the many!’ Piotr exclaims. Colossus tells Psylocke not to ask any questions, to just do as he says: ‘The children - as they hold hands - knife one of them!’ Piotr exclaims. ‘Peter, I -?’ Betsy replies, before looking at the children and announcing that she understands. ‘’The children - linked in body - linked through my mind - their innocence - collected through my telepathic bond!’ Betsy declares after knifing one of the children, holding hands with the others - Betsy then takes the energies from the children, and stabs the Soul Skinner’s mind with the innocence of the children.
The Soul Skinner screams, and reverts to his human form. ‘Betsy - what did you do to him?’ Iceman asks. ‘It is what the Skinner did to himself, Bobby’ Colossus points out, standing by the children. Piotr explains that the Soul Skinner could not deny his feelings of guilt over the death of his daughter, but he could not deal with them either, so when flooded by the innocence of what he lost, he has chosen to do neither, simply choosing to turn himself off and forget the pain. ‘And I never even got one good shot in!’ Jubilee complains as she looks at the motionless Soul Skinner. Suddenly, a bullet is shot into the Soul Skinner’s head. ‘But I just did’ Vazhin declares.
Colossus goes over to the container where his sister is being held and rips it open, pulling his sister into his arms. ‘Piotr!’ Illyana exclaims. Hugging his sister, Colossus tells her to hush, assuring her she is safe now, and that he will never allow her to be harmed again. ‘That was cold-blooded murder, Vazhin!’ Cyclops exclaims as he and Blind Faith confront Vazhin. ‘Was it?’ Alexi asks. ‘The Flagwatch program was created to protect humanity from mutantkind, not to eliminate them. ‘This was an aberration’ Vazhin exclaims. He adds that the program will continue as a live operation because, as long as mutants like the skinner exists, the need exists as well.
At that moment, Wolverine approaches the X-Men, Darkstar, Father Garnoff, Illyana and Colonel Vazhin and announces that there is no sign of Omega Red. ‘He got away again’. Jubilee points out that they got away too, with their lives. ‘The only question I got is - just how in the name of Oprah-Montel-Rafael do you guys deal with this kind of pain all the time - and still look at yourselves in the mirror?’