(space - roughly one week ago)
The X-Men, aboard a Skrull craft, entered the Earth’s atmosphere, only to be somehow violently repulsed. As the ship rocketed further and further away from Earth, its occupants slept. One man on board was having some particularly unpleasant nightmares.
Charles Xavier knows he is asleep but seems unable to rouse his way back to consciousness. At every attempt, he is assailed by the tragedies of his past. He sees the faces of Magik, Thunderbird and Joseph - just three who have lost their lives for his dream. He also sees some of the horrors to come; his X-Men fallen all around him whilst strange figures hide in the shadows. Perhaps he never stood a chance, he thinks. The forces against them are too strong. He is at their mercy - driven back into his dreams by shadows. He realizes that they are in very real danger, but from what, and who? He can’t even bring himself to look at the threat before him. Instead, he focuses on reality, and tries to remember how he came to be there.
He remembers saving the Oktid Dimension from the Juggernaut’s rampage. Ejulp teleported them home, but it wasn’t home at all. It was a Skrull training facility, or ‘Urban Infiltration Site.’ Worse than that, they were years in their own past and directly in the path of Galactus, who was intent on devouring the planet. Nothing Charles could do managed to dissuade him from annihilating the Skrull homeworld and, with it, eight billion Skrulls.
Kitty had discerned a way to get them home to the proper Earth and in the proper era. As it turned out, they arrived before they had actually left, just in time to stop Magneto from ransoming the world and to save the life of their teammate, Joseph. However, something hit them. They lost their second chance to defend the world from their greatest foe before he achieved his horrific victory. To Charles, it feels like everything’s unraveling at the seams - pushing and probing, inside and out from all sides. All around them… and among them. He realizes that he must face the truth. He must force himself to look to see who has managed to breach his mind. He sees a shadowy figure reaching out for him, and Charles screams.
“Noooo-!” he shouts at the top of his voice. His fellow X-Men are on hand to calm him down, assuring him that it was just a dream. Charles rubs his head, and mentions the Skrulls. “Lost, Charles,” replies Ororo. “A loss we have barely begun to feel, I fear.” Charles remembers that the ship was spinning out of control before he passed out. Kitty tells him to chalk that up to the wonders of Skrull technology. She explains that she woke up a couple of seconds before the big bang, the same as the rest of them but, from what she can decipher from the ship’s log, they owe their lives to a pre-programmed safety feature. When the ship was hit by a magnetic flare of some sort, the cravo-stasis field automatically reactivated. This protected them and preserved what little was left of their life-support reserves. Meanwhile, the auto-pilot set about returning them to their original destination.
Kurt adds that the chronometer indicates that they lost nearly eight days in the process, but they had that to spare. Charles asks if he’s certain that they spent a week in stasis. Logan replies on his behalf, saying that it’s been a long, strange trip. They should get down to Earth already, and back to normal.
X-51, otherwise known as Machine Man, is on the run, and hopelessly outnumbered by S.H.I.E.L.D. troops. He finds himself at a large crevice and opts not to jump. Instead, he faces the onslaught, running back towards a lone agent that aims a gun at him. He knows that he must be careful not to injure anyone. They are merely agents following orders. As he runs, the man shoots him with a small clamping device, which attaches itself to his chest. A massive electrical shock hits him, and X-51 goes down for the count. Two agents discuss his downfall, commenting that S.H.I.E.L.D.-Tech want Aaron intact. All the hardware in mint condition is destined for the new Project: Deathlok.
Meanwhile, the Skrull ship once again approaches the Earth. Charles admits that he feels utterly drained. His confrontation with Galactus appears to have taken more out of him than he realized. He apologizes for his earlier outburst. Ororo tells him that there’s no need to apologize. This hasn’t been easy on any of them.
Marrow sits at one of the ship’s windows, looking at her reflection against the blackness of space. Piotr asks if she’s all right. Marrow touches her face, and replies that it’s just that she is so different. Without random bone growths popping out all over her body, she looks… Piotr finishes her sentence for her “Beautiful.” He asks for forgiveness. It’s the painter in him speaking purely of aesthetic form. A radiant smile fills Marrow’s face. Coming from a hotbod like him, it’s a real compliment. He asks if she doesn’t think so herself. Marrow guesses she does, but it makes her nervous, too. One minute she’s fighting monsters in a whacked-out dimension, and the next she wakes up to find herself surrounded by Skrulls. It’s like a dream or something. She figures that she could wake up any second and it would be gone. She’s spent her whole life dealing with her mutation, and knew exactly who she was. But now…
Remy listens to their conversation, mulling over what she has to say. Kitty, seated at the ship’s alien controls, tells the team that it’s decision time. Landing the ship in Salem won’t go unnoticed, and it’s too big for the hangar under the school. Kurt recommends Muir Island. Moira was planning a well-deserved sabbatical with Sean Cassidy this month, so they run no risk of interfering with her Legacy Virus research. It’s also remote and isolated.
Kitty decides to contact Rogue who’s been fretting about the team since Ejulp whisked them away. Rogue later gets the message and is relieved to see not only the team, but Remy LeBeau alive and well.
(the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, 40,000 feet above the North Atlantic)
S.H.I.E.L.D. scientists operate on the synthetic body of the captured Machine Man. They intend to use him for spare parts on the new Project: Deathlok. Deathlok is delivered to the laboratory, or what remains of him, at least. He is inside a survival pod due to the massive injuries he suffered on his last field mission. These injuries include near-fatal third-degree burns over his entire body, resulting in complete loss of all senses except sight. The doctor doesn’t really care about the details. All he needs are the actual brain and nervous system that gave this particular agent his legendary reflexes and killer instinct.
The Skrull ship comes in low to avoid radar detection and, once off the ship, Piotr notices extensive damage to the exterior of the ship; more than he anticipated a magnetic flare to have had. Logan says they’re lucky to be alive, but they should lighten up. Kitty mentions a good restaurant a couple of miles inland which will help them do that, but Charles tells them that they’re leaving immediately. Kitty asks what the hurry is. She was hoping to catch up with Douglock, and maybe surprise the newlyweds, Captain Britain and Meggan. Charles replies that they haven’t time for social calls. There is work to be done at home. Kitty doesn’t think a few days will hurt.
To avoid a major argument, Ororo suggests that Kitty, Piotr and Kurt could remain while the rest of them head home. They deserve a break. Charles fixes her with cold eyes before looking away. “Fine,” he replies. Several yards behind him, Logan tells the others that he’s sure the old man’s losing it.
(the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier)
Colonel Fury finally gets to see what his scientists have been doing without his permission. When he lays his eyes on Deathlok, who is still a semi-formed cyborg at this point, he erupts in anger. He thinks it’s obscene, even by their standards. They’ve actually grafted a living, breathing man into the metallic mess before him without his say-so? He reminds them that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a federal defense organization, accountable to the American public. Tech Division is a research branch only; not authorized to pursue direct development. “Unless sanctioned by a project manager, of course,” replies the doctor. “Or better still, the projects co-ordinator himself,” adds another voice.
Fury looks up to a walkway and sees Major Remington Sole. He informs Fury that it seems that Congress has begun to question his ability to run the organization, especially in regard to the ever-so-sticky mutant situation. Less than a month ago, he explains, the rogue mutant known as Cable almost crashed the helicarrier over New York City. This in turn severely limited S.H.I.E.L.D.’s response capabilities when Magneto threatened the entire world. He adds that a few hours ago, they detected an inexplicable energy wave emission with a resonance similar to the mutant techno-virus which they traced back to Muir Island. The initial pulse went straight off the scale then fell back to a static signal.
Sole informs Nick Fury that one of their satellites has since tracked a partially-cloaked craft, far larger than any commercial aircraft, descending straight for the island. Sole asks Fury not to worry. He assumed command in his absence and dispatched a scout-squad to investigate ahead of the carrier. Fury isn’t impressed.
As the X-Men’s transport returns them to America, the three former members of Excalibur remain on the island, concerned for his health. Piotr reminds the others that recently he was incarcerated for months before they finally found him in San Francisco. Kurt reckons he’s been through as much as any of them - maybe more. They head to the complex, but Kurt notices a light on in the guest cottage. They head over there instead.
(on board the plane)
Gambit tries his best to apologize to Marrow for injuring her, but Marrow takes him by surprise when she informs him that Piotr told him everything. She tells him that she feels good, seriously good. All the pain’s gone, and she swears she never thought she could feel like this. She almost feels complete. She hugs him and tells him that he did a lot more than save her life.
The trio finds the guest house empty, but recently vacated. Kitty finds the computer system still open and idling on a screen-saver. She also notices that the keyboard is disconnected. She knows that Douglock’s techno-viral nature allows him to directly interface with all computer hardware and software. Kurt wonders where he is now. They go outside and call his name but, instead of a call back, they hear a sonic boom coming from the far side of a nearby ridge. Piotr comments that for such a small island, the place appears to be quite popular. Kitty recognizes the sound as that of a S.H.I.E.L.D. shuttle from her short stint as one of their operatives. Kurt wonders what they could possibly want on a private research facility.
As they head over the ridge, they see that the land is completely barren. Kitty notes that it’s been reduced to ash… literally. She runs her fingers across the surface and sees the glittering, metallic ash left in the wake of the techno-virus conversion process. Why would Doug do this? Kurt suspects he was trying to tell them something. He guesses that Doug wasn’t well when he was doing so. Kitty says they have to find him fast. He’s all that’s left of his two closest friends. She suffered through their deaths once before. She knows in her heart of hearts that she cannot do so again.
(Muir Island’s South Shore)
Two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents check the area and receive multiple readings. However, there is no one in sight. Suddenly, techno-organic tendrils emerge from the ground and clamp face-hugging helmets on the two agents. Douglock emerges in fearsome form and screams. It’s an unearthly roar, born on a world light years distant, but oddly human as well. It echoes across the island like the cry of a banshee, and Kitty’s blood runs cold when she hears it. She fears that there will be no choice, no hope… that once she will once more grieve for her lost friends.