XXY: First Genesis

MARCH 22, 1976

"We could drive you there," Mom said for the fifth time. "It wouldn't be any trouble. Salem Center's not that far away."

John Grey, Jr. sighed and plastered a placating smile on his face. "It's all right, Mom. I want to take the train." Quite aside from feeling like the world's biggest mama's boy if he had his parents drive him to Dr. Xavier's rather than proving his independence by taking the train, he'd been warned that some of his fellow students... were of unusual appearance. Indeed, he'd caught glimpses of them when he'd gone to Dr. Xavier's home for "therapy"-- actually, training in the use of his powers-- before. The one with the wings was hot, but John would rather prefer his parents didn't see her and start asking awkward questions about why one of his classmates had wings. And if you wanted to impress a good-looking girl, you didn't start by making her hide in her dorm room because your parents were on the grounds.

"He'll be fine, Elaine," Dad said. "He's 15 years old. He's not a kid anymore."

"Yes, but... Johnny, honey, are you sure this is what you want to do? I know you have a lot of respect for Dr. Xavier-- after all she's done for you, so do we!-- but you're so young to be going away to school. We'll hardly ever see you."

That's kind of the point, Mom. Not that John didn't love his parents, but 15 was a bit old to have your mom hovering over you like... well, like a mother hen. Since It had happened, Mom had gotten it into her head that John was fragile, that he needed a lot of heavy-duty extra-strength coddling. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"Your powers are greater than any of my other students, and I'm very much afraid they'll need that extra power... I can't make you join my team, John, but I can tell you that I've every reason to believe that they will need you. That the world needs you-- the dream needs you.

"Will you come?"

He hadn't even needed the sales pitch. He'd have crawled through broken glass for Dr. Xavier if she needed him to. If she thought her team needed him, he was there, no questions asked.

That wasn't the reason he'd given his mom, though.

"You know I haven't been doing as well as I could be in school, Mom. Too many distractions." Too many times when the Wall got to be a bit thin and the voices crowded in from outside, drowning everything he could hear. "Dr. Xavier's school is specifically for gifted students. I'll be able to stay better focused. I really think it'll help me." Getting training in improving his powers and his control over them was the only help he really needed-- that was the distraction; it was hard to concentrate on geometry when you were thinking about flying. Or, for that matter, when the cute girl across the row kept thinking about you. Very very loudly. And there was only one place in the world he could get that kind of help.

Even if the idea of going there was... well, kind of terrifying.

"No, you're quite right-- it was a girls' school. So many other schools nowadays are going co-ed, I didn't think there would be a problem with opening it to boys, and none of the other students' parents have raised any objection. But you would be the first male student there. Would you have a problem with that?"

Be the only guy in a boarding school full of girls? Sure, no problem. It wasn't like he was afraid of girls, or anything.

It wasn't like he was going to make a godawful fool of himself in front of Dr. Xavier and a whole horde of hot chicks, and never be able to get away from them and go out with guys, because there wouldn't be any guys... oh, no, he wasn't going to do that. Because if he did do that, then he'd have to shoot himself in the head, and he was too young to die. So, despite the near-absolute certainty that he would, in fact, end up looking like an idiot in front of all those girls, and they'd laugh, and he'd just have to kill himself or maybe them, here he was on the platform, and the train was coming.

"Just don't get 'distracted' by your classmates, Johnny," Dad said gruffly, grinning. Dad, of course, could probably guess better than Mom how pointless it was to go to an otherwise-all-girls-school to avoid "distraction."

"There's the train. Gotta go." He hugged his mother briefly. "Love ya, Mom."

"Call me! Do you hear me? Call me as soon as you get there, all right?"

"I will. Thanks for everything, Dad."

His father took his hand and pumped it firmly. "I expect to see those grades improve, all right?"

"You bet. See you guys--" And he was on the train, carrying luggage that his mother was probably unaware was far too heavy for any normal human male to lift. Had it really been necessary to pack every suit he owned? How often was he going to have to wear suits at Dr. Xavier's? But he hadn't tossed out the useless stuff the way he would have if he'd actually had to carry it with nothing but his muscles alone. He was a telekinetic, and Dr. Xavier said he was a damn powerful one, and he could humor his mother by taking the ridiculously overstuffed luggage without straining his back.

Fifteen minutes later, it was starting to sink in. Really sink in. He was leaving home. Not just Mom and her well-meaning hovering, not just arguments with Dad about his grades, but everything else. Chris and Joe and Steve and all his other friends. He was leaving them and going to live with total strangers. Mutant total strangers. Female total strangers. He got along fine with girls-- his tall, athletic body and good-looking face ensured that, and he liked to think it had a little to do with him being a nice person too-- but neither that nor regular lessons from a lady telepath had been able to change the fact that they were, essentially, a weird alien species, and if you ever managed to understand them, the Guy Police came along and took your guy membership card way. Dating them was fun, but living with them? Having them as his only classmates? Living in a house where there was not one single other guy at all?

He snorted. Dr. Xavier wants you to come to her school to learn how to control your powers and fight evil mutants. Instead you're worrying about living with a bunch of girls. Hello? Earth to John, are you receiving?

It was hard to get too worked up over the notion of fighting anyone, though-- even "evil mutants." John wasn't a brawler-- it wasn't like he came from the wrong side of the tracks, or something-- but he'd always been ready and willing to defend himself and his friends with his fists, if he had to, and he was good at it. Fighting just wasn't something he was afraid of. Looking like an idiot in front of a ton of girls, however, that was frightening.

Still. The die was cast, now. Mistake or not, he was stuck with this.

He'd been to the mansion before. It was large enough to be creepy if you weren't used to it; footsteps would echo on the wooden floors. No rugs inside; they interfered with wheelchairs and walkers. For a moment he hesitated, before going in, looking up at the bright afternoon sky... and then down, where three girls were peering at him through a window. The hot blonde wasn't one of them, but from what he could see they weren't bad-looking. He smiled and waved at them, and walked up to the door.

Minda met him there before he could ring the doorbell. She looked very much like what she was, secretary to an important woman-- not the bimbo type of secretary, but the kind who wore coke-bottle glasses and had brown hair skinned back in a tight bun. John didn't much like her; she always looked as if she were sneering at him, or anyone. He'd mentioned that to Dr. Xavier, who'd told him that Minda had emotional problems, the result of her powers, and found it hard to see other people as real. He could sympathize-- he couldn't imagine what her life was like, what he would have been like without the Wall-- but he couldn't find it in him to like someone who saw him as nothing but an annoying droplet of rain against her head.

"Velcome," she said in a thick mock-vampire accent, bowing. "Ze doctor vill see you in un few minutes. Please to vait in ze library." She pronounced "minutes" like it was plural small things, me-NOOTS rather than MIH-nuts.

That was the other thing about her, which John wasn't sure if he liked or not. Instead of being the buttoned-up, totally professional secretary she looked like, she was... well, weird. She took nothing very seriously. That should be a good thing, shouldn't it? But it could be annoying.

"Thanks, Minda," he said, and headed up the stairs, to the library.

//I'm in the middle of something, John. I'll meet you shortly.//

He was never going to get over the ease with which Dr. Xavier did that-- used her telepathy, like it was second nature. His own had to be held off behind the Wall, and when the Wall got thin the chorus of voices started to drown his thoughts. Someday, he too would be able to converse with people who weren't there, just as if he was talking to them on the telephone, nothing scarier than that. Then, maybe, it wouldn't seem so odd when Dr. X did it.

The library was full of thick hardbound books, many on highly esoteric topics. He read the titles. Social Change and Prejudice by Bettelheim. Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious by Jung. Notes of a Feminist Therapist by Williams. Unliberated Liberals by Tavris. Lovely light reading. Well, you probably didn't get to be a famous psychologist and civil rights activist by sitting around reading Jacqueline Susann.

He heard a thumping noise from the other side of the library, a clatter as if something had fallen over, and then a girl's voice, frantic. "Oh, shoot!"

John circled around the table to see a brunette kneeling on the floor, hand over her eyes. The other hand was feeling around on the floor. A chair had been tipped over; it looked as if she'd tripped and fallen. "Can I help you?" John asked.

"Oh, no! You're the new guy! Stay back-- if I can't find my glasses I might accidentally hurt you, I can't control my optic blasts! You have to leave, now!"

"How about if I just give you your glasses?" He teeked them into his hand, leaned down and put them into hers.

"Um... yeah. That would work." She put them on. "Thank you, thank you so much. You have no idea how important... these... are."

Her words trailed off as, now with glasses securely on, she looked up at him. An emotionflash broke through the calm of the Wall. Oh my god he's gorgeous and I've made such a complete idiot of myself oh he must think I'm an absolute moron way to go Stephanie so handsome and he probably thinks I'm the world's biggest dork just peachy...

Embarrassed for her, John tried hastily to strengthen the Wall, but before he could do so, a wall of her own slammed into place and cut off the frantic thoughts. She stood up. "I'm really sorry about that," she said calmly, without giggling or falling silent or turning red or any of the other things he was used to girls doing when they were attracted to him and embarrassed. "My glasses are pretty vital. I don't normally lose them like that."

"Hey, it's no problem. I'm glad I could help." She was skinny, a little bit underdeveloped, with a touch of acne, and the square red glasses weren't particularly attractive on her, but her face was kind of cute and she had nice legs. Not bad. He smiled at her, wondering what she'd look like without the glasses. "I'm John. I guess you girls know all about me already?"

She shook her head. "Just that you're joining the school. Which I think is great. I don't believe in segregated education for guys and girls. We're never going to have equality of the sexes if men and women don't share classes."

"So, you're a feminist too?"

"Yeah, I really kind of have to be. Everything I've seen in my life indicates there's no reason women can't do anything a man can. Then you add in the mutant thing, and, well, it's kind of stupid for a person with superpowers to be acting like she's some sort of weak helpless thing."

"Unless you lose your glasses. Then you're pretty weak and helpless."

She laughed. "I wish. The glasses are so I don't blast everything in this room to smithereens."

Oh. That was definitely interesting. He decided he was less interested in seeing what her face looked like without the glasses than he'd thought. "Is everyone in the school that powerful?"

"Not everyone, no." Her head lifted slightly. "I, uh, I've gotta go. Dr. X is calling me."

"See you around, then. Oh, I didn't catch your name--"

"Oh, I, uh, I'm Steph, I mean Stephanie. Stephanie Summers, but everyone calls me Steph. I, uh, see you around." She left. John wondered if she found the telepathy even more disconcerting than he did, to get so flustered by it.

He waited another few minutes in the library, wandering about and looking at the books, before he heard Dr. Xavier's mindvoice. //Come on downstairs, John.//

There was a burbling of excitement filling the space beyond the Wall. He tried to shut it out, but it was harder to push emotions away than thoughts-- rather like the difference between trying to not read words in front of you and not hear conversations around you. A lot easier not to read than to not hear. And, well, it was flattering.

He met them all in the large living room of the mansion. Dr. Xavier was sitting in her wheelchair, smiling at him. "Hello, John. I'd like you to meet your new teammates. Students, this is John Grey, our newest recruit."

Teammates. Not classmates. He was used to the concept of female classmates -- his high school was co-ed -- but female teammates were new. As Dr. Xavier introduced them, he looked at each one, trying not to stare.

"This is Henrietta McCoy, also known as Amazon."

A very large girl, broad-shouldered and bulky, wearing blue jeans and a sweater, with arms and legs too long. Her face was okay, but her body was sufficiently freaky-looking that he couldn't quite meet her eyes as he smiled and nodded. She dropped into a curtsy with an imaginary gown. "I'm delighted to make your acquaintance, dear Mr. Grey."

Despite himself he laughed. "Um, John is fine. Mr. Grey's my granddad. And you're Henrietta?"

"Dear me, no. A Henrietta would be a fragile, flowery young woman, replete in the feminine virtues of delicacy and grace." She grinned broadly. "I prefer Ettie, or my cognomen, Amazon, under more formal circumstances."

"Bobbi Drake, a.k.a. Snowflake."

She smiled nervously at him, briefly nodding her head. She was kind of pretty -- short and athletic, with close-trimmed blond hair and bright blue eyes. Not all that hot in the breast department, but her skin was unusually clear, and she was wearing a light cotton short-sleeve shirt that displayed what advantages she did have rather well. He smiled charmingly at her and tabled her as a "maybe".

"Wendy Worthington, Angel."

Now she was definitely an "oh yes". Tall, long-legged, with the face and body of a supermodel. Long blond hair, ice blue eyes, perfect breasts. Oh, and huge, gorgeous white wings, currently folded at her back. He wondered if they felt as soft as they looked. She didn't smile at him, merely nodded coolly.

"And you have already met Stephanie, a.k.a. Focus." The girl with the glasses nodded at him.

Dr. Xavier continued. "John, your code name will be Dynamo. I expect all students to use each other's code names when in class or in training -- you may use personal names when you're off duty, however."

"If it would not be terribly forward me to ask, might I inquire as to the nature of your powers, John?" Ettie asked. John was beginning to get the notion that she really talked like that.

John shrugged elaborately. "Nothing special," he said, lifting the sofa with his mind. He brought it up to clear over the girls' heads -- the ceiling of the living room was very high, allowing for plenty of clearance -- and spun it about in a circle, then flipped it upside down. A number of coins and pens rained out of it, and he caught those. "I'm just a telekinetic."

//John, enough,// Dr. Xavier sent.

John put the sofa back where he found it, smiling at the girls. Bobbi, Ettie and Stephanie were looking at him with something akin to awe; while he couldn't see Stephanie's eyes, her open mouth said all that was needed. The gorgeous blonde, Wendy, was trying hard to conceal her own amazement, but the slight widening of her eyes and, more importantly, the emotions radiating through the Wall, tipped him off that he'd impressed her too.

"An astonishing display of mind over matter," Ettie said. "What do you do for an encore?"

"And more importantly, how fast do you think?" Bobbi asked.

"Fast do I think?"

"Yeah, think fast!"

She lobbed a snowball at him out of nowhere. It smacked soundly into John's chest before he could react. Suddenly she was covered in a thick layer of frost, like some sort of sparkly ice princess. She was juggling a second snowball. "Guess you don't think too fast, do you?" she said, giggling.

Wendy rolled her eyes. "Really, Snowflake. You are so childish." It was the first thing she'd said. She had a New Englander moneyed accent, and a voice like sweet music. The name Angel certainly fit her. If a choir of God's messengers were to come down from heaven singing, John imagined their voices would sound like that.

"Maybe we can get a round of Girls Against The Boys going in the Danger Room later," Bobbi said.

John looked around. "I'd be a little outnumbered, I think." Danger Room?

"Let us not terrorize the poor lad, Bobbi," Ettie said cheerfully. "After all, should we cause him to run for the hills screaming, Dr. X may not let us have another classmate of the male sex."

"Ignore them, they're just teasing you," Stephanie said. "I, uh, Dr. Xavier, don't you think someone should help John get settled in, or something?"

"An excellent idea," Dr. Xavier said. "Show him to his room, Stephanie."

"Maybe you can show me around the place as well," John said. "I've been here before, but I've never really looked around."

"Sure," Bobbi said. "Let's all give him the three-hour tour, and end up stranded on a desert island someplace!"

"A desert island?" Stephanie asked, sounding bewildered.

John grinned. "So I'm Gilligan?"

"No, no. Bobbi will be Gilligan; her talent for foolishness is unmistakable," Ettie said. "I, of course shall be the Professor, and our fearless leader can be Skipper." She nodded at Stephanie, who, judging from the confusion radiating from her, had never seen Gilligan's Island.

"Only question is," Bobbi said, "what's that make Wendy? Mrs. Howell, or Ginger?"

"And who am I?" John asked.

"You have red hair. You can be Ginger, which leaves you --" Bobbi spun and pointed at Wendy -- "to be Mrs. Howell."

"I can't believe you're wasting your time with this," Angel said.

"It's a TV show," John told Stephanie. "About a bunch of people who get stranded on an island."

"Oh." Stephanie didn't sound enlightened. "Do you want to drop off your bags now?"

"Sure," John said. He turned to Bobbi. "No offense, but I'd really rather not be Ginger. I just don't have what it takes, y'know?"

"Oh, well in that case..."

"I'll see you guys later, okay?" He hoisted his bags telekinetically. "Lead on."

As they left the living room, he heard Bobbi's giggly voice floating behind them. "Think we should send chaperones along?"

The tour was thorough. By the time Stephanie was done showing him the entire mansion, it was dinnertime, and after dinner, he was bushed. He spent the rest of the night unpacking and reading; Dr. Xavier had given him a reading list to do in his spare time so he could catch up with the rest of the class.

The next day he woke at 7:30. At home in Annandale-on-Hudson, it had been necessary to get up at 7:30 am to catch the bus to school. John, not a morning person, consistently did this in a dull haze. So today, when he woke as usual, he realized that his alarm had not gone off, and would not go off because he didn't have to get up until much later. Happily he turned off the alarm clock and went back to sleep.

//John, wake up!//

He blinked rapidly. Now the clock said 9:30 am. Why hadn't the alarm gone off? He inspected it, and then recalled turning it off this morning in his sleepy daze.

Sorry! I'll be right there! He couldn't Send per se-- not like Dr. Xavier could, not with the Wall in place-- but he could make his thoughts loud enough that she'd hear them.

A great way to impress his new teammates, he though sourly as he dressed as quickly as he could. Show up late to the first day of class.

When he arrived at the room Dr. Xavier had directed him to, he was startled to see that it was not a classroom, but a dimly lit control booth. Dr. Xavier was seated at a console in front of a large transparent window that took up the whole wall, rather like an air traffic controller's perch. And through the wall--

"She's being attacked!" he shouted as Angel, in flight, barely managed to dodge ray beams firing from some sort of tentacled thing's eyes.

Before John could do more than even think about gathering the power to help her, Dr. Xavier said, "Sit down, John," in a calm tone that confused him. If her student was under attack why would she be so calm?

"But--" Angel had dodged the beams, and the head of the tentacled thing exploded, as a red ray beam-- coming from Stephanie's eyes?-- struck it.

"This is the Danger Room, where members of X-Factor train their powers in combat simulations. Since you're late, you won't be included in the session today. I want you to sit down and observe."

The girls were all wearing skin-tight blue and gold uniforms (with the exception of Snowflake; he couldn't tell for sure but it looked like she might be wearing nothing but a bra and panties under her thick rime of frost), with pullover masks concealing the top part of their faces. Stephanie's glasses had been replaced with some sort of visor, through which she was firing ray beams at another robot, to no apparent effect. Bobbi-- Snowflake-- it had to be her, who else would look like a snowwoman?-- was gesturing at a thick wall of snow that a robot was slowly trudging through. Snow came from her hands, congealing onto the wall and making it higher and thicker, but the robot kept trudging. Ettie-- Amazon-- was dodging out of the way of the tentacles of another tentacled robot.

"Isn't this dangerous?"

"It's why it's called the Danger Room, John," Dr. Xavier said distractedly. "The simulator will shut off if anyone is injured, but this is a high-level training exercise."

"Where do the robots come from?"

"I have a contractor build them to my specifications, and then I reprogram them for the Danger Room simulations." She wasn't paying attention to him. John couldn't "hear" her telepathic projection, as it wasn't directed at him, but he could feel it, like feeling the wall rumble because your music was too loud. Wendy, who was doing an elaborate loop-de-loop, lifted her head, and said something that John couldn't hear through the thick glass.

"What's going on?"

"Angel could be a bit better at teamwork. I've asked her to assist Snowflake."

Angel divebombed the robot that Snowflake was unable to stop, removing a flattish round object from her belt and slamming it against the robot's head with her palm. The robot jerked, twisted, and fell still, while Wendy arced upward and away from it.

"What'd she do?"

"She's using an electrical stun weapon. Against human opponents, or more precisely mutants and superhumans without invulnerability powers, Angel's flight and hand-to-hand skills are more than sufficient, but one can't beat up a robot all that effectively." This time she let him "hear" her telepathy. //Good work, Angel. Snowflake, now that you're free--//

"Right, right, right. One sno-coned robot coming right up." John couldn't actually hear her words, as the glass blocked sound, but Dr. Xavier was letting him "hear" her telepathic perception of Snowflake's reply. Again John was impressed-- he would never get the level of skill necessary to "hear" only intended speech instead of the thoughts underneath it, he was sure.

Snowflake rode a wave of ice, surfing it as if she were on a California beach, over to Amazon, who was having difficulties with her robot. "Teamwork, rah!" she caroled, blasting the robot with slushy stuff that hardened to ice almost immediately and immobilized the robot's tentacles.

"Your timely assistance is greatly appreciated, Snowflake. Might I suggest we both render assistance to Focus, as her attack appears less than efficacious against her assailant?"

Snowflake giggled. "I think I even understood half of that!"

"I was wondering if any of you folks would be free to lend a hand," Focus said, panting. "This thing just seems to reflect my optic beams."

"No problemo! It's Snowflake and Amazon to the rescue!"

Within short order, Amazon and Snowflake had disabled Focus' robot. Dr. Xavier projected to the four, //This exercise was specifically designed to emphasize teamwork. As you've probably guessed, each person's robot was designed to be impervious to her specific attacks, but vulnerable to her teammates' powers. I'm glad to see that you're working together as a unit, but I'd like for it to become second nature, so that assisting a teammate in trouble becomes as natural as fighting one's own opponents.//

"Sorry," Snowflake said, sounding abashed-- or at least Dr. Xavier's telepathic transmission of her "voice" sounded that way.

//I'm not disappointed with your progress, Snowflake; you've all only just started team exercises. I'd just like to see improvement in that area, from all of you. Now, everyone shower and change, and come up to the booth.// She turned to John. "Next is your solo run. I'd like the girls to observe you in action-- they'll get a good idea of your strengths and weaknesses, which will be necessary to integrate you into the team."

The blue and gold uniform was skin-tight. Normally this wouldn't have bothered John in the slightest. Normally being ogled by four girls in the control booth wouldn't have bothered him either. Somehow, though, the fact that those four girls were the only people in the school, the only classmates he had, made this embarrassing. He felt as if he might as well be naked. At least, thankfully, the jock strap within the suit-- designed apparently to protect him without the discomfort of a cup-- seemed to be strong enough not to budge if he spent too much time thinking about Wendy and what those feathers would feel like against his skin. It wouldn't be comfortable, but it wouldn't be humiliating, either. Of course, having Dr. Xavier overhearing his fantasies would be humiliating, so he tried not to let his thoughts go in that direction, but there was only so much temptation a teenage boy could take.

//Your objective is simply to cross the Danger Room and hit the stop button. You must hit it with your hand, not telekinesis. Be careful, and good luck.//

John took a deep breath, and started across the room.

Two robots charged at him, tentacles swirling out to catch him. John could "feel" their weight, their mass-- too heavy to lift easily. Instead he levitated, shooting straight up. The tentacles followed, extending toward him, and a ray beam fired from one of them, catching him squarely in the chest. It hurt, but more importantly, it winded him-- like a good hard kick to the chest, breaking his concentration and sending him flying. He plunged, stunned, managing only to barely catch himself before he hit the ground hard.

The robots turned toward him, looming, tentacles reaching for him. "No more Mr. Nice Guy," John muttered, and pushed. The one on the left, closest to him, tottered back and fell hard against the other, knocking both robots to the ground. Their tentacles twitched and waved directionlessly.

John got to his feet and started across the room again. Projectiles shot out at him from both walls-- punching mitts, fired with high velocity. He flung up a TK shield. The first two mitts impacted harmlessly, but then the projectiles started firing harder, slamming into his shield with force enough to stagger him. His head pounded. Again John tried to fly up, to get out of the range of the mitts. This triggered mitts to fire out of tubes in the ceiling, hitting him and knocking him to the floor again.

No mitts fired as he lay on the floor, winded. This was ridiculous. He was not going to let this room beat him, especially not with Wendy and three other girls watching him. If he failed, they'd think he was a loser, and boy wouldn't that be a great first impression.

John focused, remembering Dr. Xavier's lessons. "Raw power is a dangerous tool to use-- it threatens the innocent bystanders and it risks burning you out. You have to be able to think creatively, to use power in subtle ways to accomplish the same objective."

Okay. Brute force wasn't working. Try subtlety. He found the tubes the mitts were firing from. They could bend in order to aim. So when he got up and they fired at him again, he grabbed the tubes and telekinetically forced them up, so they fired mitts at the ceiling, harmlessly.

Another few steps. The floor gave out under him. Frantically, John grabbed himself telekinetically, levitating up from his fall. His head was starting to pound. Was he overdoing it? The headaches were a side effect of using too much power, according to Dr. Xavier. He levitated past the hole in the floor and landed on the other side.

The walls suddenly closed on him with the speed of a battering ram. He shoved, and was driven to his knees by the effort of it, pushing the plates back. And then, while he was standing between the plates, pushing frantically to keep them from closing on him, a robot came along and fired a net at him, tangling him and knocking him to the floor. This disrupted his concentration. The walls closed in again.

No! For a moment John tapped the deep power, the frightening power, the well inside that couldn't be controlled--

Dr. X clamped down on his mind. //Not that way, John!//

Too late. He was out of resources if he didn't use that one. But he hesitated. The walls slammed in toward him and jerked to a stop less than an inch from where he lay tangled in the net.

//The exercise is over.//

His face burned. He wanted to hide, to flee, to smash something. If Dr. Xavier hadn't halted the exercise, he'd be dead, and they'd all seen it. He'd failed.

//No, John. You succeeded. You resisted the temptation to use levels of force that would certainly have killed innocent bystanders, even if it meant your life. That's a hero's choice, not a failure's.//

But they all saw me screw up! he wailed mentally, knowing he sounded like an idiot but not quite able to stop.

//None of them got that far the first time. The Danger Room is designed to make you fail the first time you cross it, John; I can't tell what your limits are and assess what needs work if you never hit your limits in training. None of X-Factor holds the fact that you didn't cross the room against you, John. Let me show you--//

--got a lot farther than i did first time a lot farther gorgeous and powerful stop drooling you've got no chance--

--hey not bad kinda impressive can tell ettie likes him better not make fun of him then too much anyway--

--well i have to say that wasn't too shabby can fly too though he hasn't got much fine control wonder how much his father makes--

--be still my beating heart oh shall i compare thee to a summer storm? thou art more lovely and more wild but let us not wax poetic too soon, it remains to be seen how he works with the rest of us and i for one shall be unamused if he plays macho but surely dr. x would have trained him otherwise?--

The flashes passed too quickly for him to cleanly identify who was thinking what; the only impression he got was that his teammates were impressed with him. Impressed, and attracted, despite his failure to make it through the Danger Room.

He grinned, and got to his feet. "So, do I get a second shot at it?"

//Later. Shower and change; the rest of the day we'll be spending on academic study. But tomorrow is another day.//

One never got emotions from Dr. X's transmissions unless she chose to send them. This time, though, her feelings came through loud and clear. Pride, and pleasure that he'd chosen to come to her school.

Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.

Interlude 1:

Minda drove like a New York City cabdriver. In the City, this was probably the only effective way to get anywhere, but it always made Carolyn nervous as the Rolls-Royce crossed four lanes of traffic, cutting in front of several honking drivers, including a small truck. "I really wish you wouldn't do that."

"Everything's under control." Minda grinned fiercely. "I'm reading the grid. Going with the flow."

"That's what you said last time."

"The moron was asleep at the wheel. I couldn't see his part of the grid if he couldn't either."

"Truck drivers are chronically overtired. It's one thing to be sideswiped by a Beetle, another entirely to be hit by a truck."

"It's okay. Everyone drives like this in the City. You're a Nu Yawkah, you should know."

"I'm a suburbanite. It's hardly the same th//Watch out for the van!//ing."

"I was watching out for the van. Sheesh, you want me to drive like a traffic hazard? How'sabout we just put a big sign on the car that says 'Little Old Lady In Charge Of Driving?'"

"Mommy isn't little!" Danielle said. She considered. "She is old, though."

"Thank you," Carolyn said dryly. "I'm sure you think I'm a contemporary of your dinosaurs, but I'm not decrepit yet."

"You drive like you are," Minda said.

"I'd rather drive like a little old lady than end up like a dead teenager."

"I could drive instead," Danielle suggested.

"You most certainly could not." Danielle actually knew how to drive-- one never knew when a child's life might depend on an illegal skill-- but quite aside from the fact that she was not tall enough to see over the dashboard in the Rolls Royce, Carolyn didn't relish trying to explain to anyone why she was letting an 8-year-old drive, nor did she approve of telepathically convincing other drivers that an adult was at the wheel.

"You have no sense of adventure," Minda said.

They slewed past a cab, surely no more than a quarter inch from hitting him. She could hear the man screaming curses-- the Rolls was soundproof but strong emotions boosted thoughts until a telepath would hear them without meaning to. "Let's race him!" Danielle shouted, bouncing up and down.

"Let us not," Carolyn said emphatically, gripping the seat rest for dear life. Next time she was taking the train. No matter how annoying the wheelchair accommodations, or more precisely, lack thereof, were.

Minda parked like a lunatic too; when she spotted an open space they'd just missed, she threw the car into reverse and angled it back at high speed, where it thumped over the curb and nearly hit a parking meter before she went forward and straightened it out. //I can feel what remains of my hair falling out already.//

//No one will notice. You've got your wig on,// Minda replied.

There wasn't any point. Minda was profoundly affected by the tenor of an area, even with her shields up; just as you couldn't get her to drive normal speed in a retirement community, you couldn't get her to drive safely in the City. Fortunately drivers in Salem Center weren't lunatics, and Carolyn rarely had occasion to come into the City anymore; when Minda and Danielle went without her, she could make them take the train.

She sent a telepathic hello, the equivalent of a knock on the door of someone's mind, to her target, while Minda got the wheelchair out of the trunk and Danielle bounced out of the car. A moment later, the mental door opened enough to let a thought through-- //Expecting you. Come on in.//

Minda opened the back car door and reached in, grasping Carolyn around the waist. Carolyn wrapped her arms around her assistant's neck, supporting as much of her weight by leaning on Minda's shoulders as she could, as Minda pivoted around and deposited her in the now unfolded wheelchair. Minda then grabbed the blanket out of the back of the car and dropped it on Carolyn's lap. "You really need to get a handicapped van."

"Heads of extremely prestigious private schools go about in limousines, not vans. I have an image to establish."

"Then just let me make everyone think it's a limo."

"Your driving is already suicidal. I shudder to think what would happen if you were distracted by broadcasting as well." If she'd thought Minda meant it seriously, she wouldn't have responded with a joke; of course, it was ethically wrong to tamper with people's minds like that, but Minda knew that. Her arguments in favor of using her powers were pro forma, Carolyn was sure-- a private joke among them.

"Can I push Mommy? Can I?" Danielle asked.

"Not today," Carolyn said. "You can push me when we're at home."

"Then can I ride on your lap?"


//No problem with me, if it's okay with you. She's not too heavy.//

"Certainly. Come on up. Careful of Mommy's leg-- there you go."

Danielle sat carefully on her lap, avoiding the leg that had been shattered and that could not bear any pressure in favor of leaning on the leg that had been entirely blown off at the knee, but whose remaining upper portion could take the weight. Still, for all the care she took, she was getting bigger. "Oof. Soon you'll be so big, Minda won't be able to push us both."

The girl laughed. "You're being silly, Mommy!"

"I'll just do weight training," Minda said as she pushed the wheelchair down the street to their destination. "Build those abs."

"Will you get as big as Ettie?"

Carolyn frowned. "It's not nice to talk about Ettie's size in a derogatory way, Danielle."

"But I wasn't being dero-- dergo-- //derogatory.//"

"If you can't pronounce a word, ask. //Telepathy is no substitute for speaking properly. Use telepathy only for privacy, not because you don't know the word. What if you were speaking to an ordinary person?//"

"We're heeeere," Minda caroled.

"Here" was an ordinary-looking brownstone apartment building, and a narrow alley between it and the brownstone next door. The alley was clean and unpopulated. A metal door, looking like a garage door or a door for deliveries, ratcheted up and open in front of them, revealing an elevator.

"All right, off with you," Carolyn said, pushing Danielle lightly. "Have fun, both of you, and I'll call you if I need to be picked up earlier or later than scheduled."

"Can we go to the museum first? I wanna see the dinosaurs!"

"Whatever your little heart desires," Minda said.

"Bye, Mommy!"

Carolyn rolled into the elevator and pushed the button for down. "Goodbye, Danielle. Listen to Minda."

The doors shut. //I'll buy you a book!// Danielle shouted telepathically, and then the static of the anti-telepathy field drowned out anything else she might say. Carolyn could punch through the field if she had to, but Danielle didn't have that kind of power yet and Minda had never been able to focus tightly enough. Neither of them would be able to read the owner of this house, or overhear the conversation.

That was just the way Rafael Wilcox wanted it.

He was waiting for her at the bottom of the elevator-- a big, muscular, pale-skinned man with brown hair that he dyed for some reason, and a small, neatly trimmed, beard and mustache, also dyed. He was careful and the roots didn't show, but Carolyn was entirely too experienced with the horrors of unpleasant hair situations not to be able to tell; she often wondered if he were hiding some obvious sign of mutation, such as blue or purple hair. He affected a pair of wire-rim glasses that he didn't need, which offset his large size and gave him a professorial air, one he reinforced with tweed clothes that were carefully out of date. It was designed, she thought, to give the impression that Wilcox was a harmless intellectual, physically unchallenging and probably absent-minded and out of touch with reality.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

"Dr. Xavier." Wilcox inclined his head formally. He was a young man-- she didn't think he'd broken 30 yet-- but he affected a formal air that, coupled with the rest of his clothing and mannerisms, made him seem much older. "What can I do for you today?"

"The test array. I need it installed right away, Rafael."

He frowned. "I'm not done with it."

"I've recruited my telekinetic. He'll need it to train against."

"Train him with the robots for two weeks. There's some fine-tuning that needs to be done."

Carolyn frowned. "You're working on other projects, aren't you?"

He shrugged. "I never violate my clients' confidentiality."

"I want you to drop them and focus on the array. This is a matter of grave importance. I'll compensate whatever you lose, but really, if you push it how long could it take you?"

"The work that needs to be done is testing-- I have to do that real-time, speeding up doesn't help. Why is it an emergency all of a sudden?"

"You've been keeping up with the news of late?"


"So you've been following the coverage of the Atlantean War."

He nodded. "I noticed the similarity between the array and the reports of the new weapon."

"It's not a weapon."

She couldn't read Rafael's mind unless she tried-- he had trained shields, and electronic psi-jamming, and she was staying out of his head anyway-- but she could hear his mind, a soft whispering burble that could not be made out or resolved into distinct thoughts, at the edge of her mind. Now the burbling changed tenor suddenly, speeding up frantically, like an LP being played at 78 rpm. Now, even if she tried, she wouldn't be able to make out a single thought; his mind was racing too quickly for her.

"A mutant, then, and you think the array can duplicate his powers. So you're getting involved in the Atlantean war?"

"Not exactly. And it's 'her' powers. I've been tracking this particular mutant for years-- classified military intelligence has put her in Vietnam, Cambodia, South Africa and the Soviet Union before turning up with the Atlanteans, and she's been with the Atlanteans a lot longer than they're letting the media know."

"Have the military put this together themselves?"

"It's different militaries, Rafael. And different agencies within the same ones."

"Ah. You know her, I take it?"

She didn't want to go into that. "After I realized she'd gotten involved with the Atlanteans, I made contact."

Short of an actual fight, or the circumstances of their last encounter, a more unpleasant meeting would have been difficult to arrange. Carolyn remembered standing in her walker, leaning heavily against the warm wooden handles, and knowing the wooden construction wouldn't save her if it came to that. The soil under her foot was dark, and she'd imagined it due to blood and ash soaking into the ground, imagined hate and fear and pain so strong it turned the soil black. Telepaths couldn't pick up psychic miasma from the past, but she had choked on the force of her imagination, on memories not her own from a dozen different patients, rising up like black worms coiling in her throat and around her mind. She'd said nothing of her own discomfort at being here, of course. The woman who had stood before her had been here, had been one of the screaming voices of the tormented that haunted Carolyn's other-memories; her blood stained this soil. If she could stand being here, Carolyn would be damned before she'd admit to how hard it was to bear being here.

And it had been long past the time when she dared show this woman any weakness at all, anyway.

"What level of threat are we talking about?"

"She's the threat. She's our worst nightmare-- a powerful mutant bent on associating our people with terror in the eyes of humanity."

"I know you believe you're doing what you have to, to save our people. But you're being driven by self-centered forces that you're far too hypocritical to acknowledge. You're still the little girl who was told she was a filthy subhuman, trying to join the Master Race. You want power, and you want control, and in the end you'll destroy our people for your own selfish goals, demonizing us and setting the world against us, all the while claiming it's for our sake you're acting."

"They hardly need me to demonize us. Fool. You're so intent on not provoking them, on being harmless and hoping they leave us unhurt, you don't realize you're playing directly into their hands. They want us to go unresisting to the slaughter, hoping that if we behave ourselves they will spare us. You have neither the vision to see what must be done, nor the will to do it. Call me hypocrite, call me monster? I call you fool and traitor, Dr. Xavier, and if you stand in my way, I will bury you."

"So why Atlantis?"

"I don't know, though I can make guesses. She doesn't care about Atlantis, or the Cambodians, or any of that. She cares about mutant supremacy-- she's a power-hungry bigot who thinks mutants should rule the world, and she should rule the mutants. And she has the power to do it, if she isn't stopped. Everything she's done thus far has been test engagements, I think-- honing her combat skills. But she won't stay in the shadows forever, nor will she stay at Namora's side; whatever deal she made with Atlantis, she'll betray it eventually, and even before that, I think she'll move out onto the world stage openly, and soon. The very fact that she struck openly enough this time that the evidence made the papers makes me think she's ready to move. I don't know how much time we have, but my team needs to be ready."

Rafael nodded. "All right then. I'll have it for you tomorrow. You'll have to work out the bugs as you go, but it's better than nothing."

"I trust you. Thank you."


The Xavier School was, academically, both the weirdest and the toughest school John had ever attended. There were no communal classes. Instead each student spent an hour and a half a day with Dr. Xavier privately tutoring them, and four hours (at least) in independent study, mostly reading, writing papers and solving word problems. This sounded as if it would be a less grueling pace than six hours of classes with other people, taking lecture notes the whole time, but in fact it was much worse; Dr. Xavier pushed harder than any teacher he had ever had before.

She could get away with it in part because of her telepathy. Telepathic learning was frighteningly easy. When she was teaching him and there was a concept he didn't get, she would show it to him telepathically. It would be alike a light going on in a dark room. To keep the light on-- to make the understanding his and not a temporary side effect of mental communion-- he would have to work with the concepts, to use them. Thus, all the reading and paper-writing and problem-solving.

Sometimes the telepathic teaching was so powerful it unnerved him badly-- his second day at school, Dr. Xavier simply dumped fluency in Spanish into his brain. To keep the language, he had to study a Spanish grammar-- in the language, aimed at high school students in Spain-- and read half a dozen novels in Spanish, ranging from contemporary experimental fiction like Borges to adventure novels aimed at boys his age. He also had to listen to LP recordings of Spanish and Argentinean radio plays, and write reports on them in Spanish. So it was a lot of hard work-- but nowhere near as difficult as learning a language from scratch had been. He'd studied French for two years in high school and was barely able to ask for directions to the men's room; now, Dr. Xavier assigned him and his classmates to do science labs together and speak Spanish exclusively while doing so, and they all could without difficulty. Spanish was the first language you got, the girls told him; each of them had at least two others by now, and Ettie was collecting them, having absorbed fluency in six. John had to wonder how many Dr. Xavier knew. Or maybe it was a moot question. Maybe as a telepath, she could learn any language she wanted, when she wanted, and so effectively she spoke all of them. Maybe someday he'd be able to do that too.

Two hours a day was powers training. There was independent practice for an hour-- all of them working in the Danger Room, but independently, with Dr. Xavier monitoring all of them and advising at need-- and then teamwork practice for an hour, where all five of them used their skills in concert against simulated foes. They were also permitted to engage in additional practice on their own, without the Doctor, as long as they did so with a partner to spot them. John occasionally did so with Ettie and Bobbi, the three of them spotting each other, but the truth was he didn't need the solo practice; he'd been training in his powers since he was eleven, and even if most of it had been to build the Wall, a lot of it had dealt with his telekinesis. (Dr. Xavier had recommended that they not tell any of the others that he'd been training longer than them, for fear of jealousy, and he'd agreed. Being the only guy was probably tough enough without the girls deciding he was a teacher's pet or something.) It was teamwork he really needed the practice in.

The first time he'd worked together with the team, he'd thought he was doing very well, better than any of them despite the longer time that they'd done team exercises. He'd put this down to his natural skill, his extra training with his powers, and the fact that, as a guy, he had more experience in team sports than they did. Dr. Xavier had other ideas, however. When the exercise was done, she chewed the girls' heads off for trying to underplay their skills in front of a guy. Not that she shouted or anything-- she was soft-spoken and cold, using her words as a precision instrument. "It is, among other things, insulting and hazardous to John to let him do better than you in practice. Do you think he will be impressed if, because you let him think he needed to protect you, he died in combat? Do you think his poor masculine ego cannot take the strain of seeing girls perform better than him? You truly think that little of him-- and of me, for recruiting him?" John had squirmed, though he wasn't the one on the carpet, as Dr. Xavier used him in the riot act she was reading the girls, making it seem as if they'd done him a grave insult. She also made it clear that she was terribly disappointed in all four of them.

After that they treated him like one of the guys, or rather one of the girls. Truth be told, it was a big relief. He was used to helping girls out, he didn't normally mind it at all, but Dr. Xavier was pushing him to his limits, and having to cover for the girls as well had piled more stress on him than he could handle. He'd tried to take it-- you weren't a guy if you backed down to a challenge, especially not in front of four girls-- but it was a lot easier after they started pulling their full weight.

Classes were six days a week, and no summer vacation. It was a grueling pace. When he complained good-naturedly about the lack of free time, however, Stephanie had said, "It's not normally like this. Have you noticed that Dr. X is putting in ten hours training us a day? Plus, any of us can go to her with a problem after hours? We only have three and a half hours of class and practice, plus whatever we take on on our own, but she's got to train all of us. Have you noticed that?"

He hadn't, actually. Dr. Xavier was an icon of strength and wisdom to him. It would never have entered his head to notice that she was working too hard. "Is that because of me? Did she do this before I came?"

Stephanie shook her head. "I know Danni's getting upset because they have no time together; Minda, well, who knows, but I think she thinks Dr. X is pushing too hard too. But Dr. X told me it's because we've got to be ready. Something's going to happen, and it's going to happen soon, so we have to pull together as a team unit as soon as possible. And once that happens, we can get more time to ourselves. Right now, though, making X-Factor a reality is the most important thing."

He nodded. "Like pushing to make the championship. When you're in the running, it's practice, practice, practice. You get no life."

"Yes, that's exactly it. As soon as we're ready, we get a life back. Until then, no."

John had joined the school on a Thursday. The Wednesday after that, at his one week mark, they had no Danger Room practice; workmen came in to install something there, and Carolyn had them spend the two hours doing group science lab instead (and speaking Spanish while they did it.) The next day, he found out what they'd put in.

"John's performance so far is a good indicator that telekinetics, and mutants with telekinetic-style powers, are among the most dangerous mutants we might encounter. How do you go about defeating a person who can put up a force field that you can't penetrate? Focus?"

"You'd have to concentrate on making them drop the field, wouldn't you? Hit the field and keep hitting it until the teek no longer has the strength to maintain the field."

"Couldn't we go through the field? I mean, like, Focus, you could just shoot through it, right?" Snowflake asked.

"I can't block Focus' powers," John said. "So couldn't she just do what Snowflake said?"

Focus shook her head. "According to Dr. Xavier--" who was right there, nodding-- "it's theoretically within a telekinetic's abilities to block energy blasts of any sort; the only reason you can't do it is that you haven't practiced enough. We've gotta assume that if we're up against an evil telekinetic, he knows what he's doing." She flushed. "I mean, not like I mean you don't know what you're doing, but you just came to the school last week."

"It's all right. I don't know what I'm doing, I can admit it." He flashed a grin with her, observing with some pleasure how she turned redder and smiled back almost goofily.

"Sorry. I guess that was a stupid question, huh!" Snowflake said.

"There are no stupid questions," Dr. Xavier said. "In fact, while what you say is absolutely true, Focus, in your first strike against a new opponent you should always assume that they might not be able to block your optic blasts. If you went full force against a telekinetic who didn't in fact know how to shield herself, you could accidentally kill her-- which would, of course, make us no better than the evil mutants we're fighting. If the telekinetic deflects you the first time, then you strike full force. Amazon?"

"I've observed in practice that Dynamo's force fields are to the largest extent merely walls of intangible force, rather than being spheroid in construction. Could not one then be most efficacious against a telekinetic by striking where his or her shield is not? Say, a strike in the vertical dimension, over the shield and down?"

"Good thinking, Amazon, but a combat-trained telekinetic with experience is likely to manifest a spherical shield, like a bubble. Dynamo is working with me to build one himself. Again, try it, but consider that it might not work and take it into account when planning your attack. Dynamo?"

"What happens if I were to attack another telekinetic directly? Could my TK go through their shield?"

"No, I'm afraid not."

"What if I wrapped my TK around their shield and tried to crush it?"

"It would depend on relative strength, then. Rather like arm wrestling. It's a good strategy when you're up against a telekinetic you know is less powerful, but if the other telekinetic is stronger, she'll be able to break your shield. He or she, I should say. I think it would probably be very painful for you and likely disrupt your powers for some time if your shield was broken, so if you try that strategy, make sure your teammates are available to protect you while your powers are rebounding. Angel, you've been quiet. Any thoughts?"

"Oh, I don't know. Divebomb him from above when he's not paying attention?"

"If his shield is spherical, he doesn't need to be paying attention," Dr. Xavier said.

"No, that's it." Focus looked at Angel and back at Dr. Xavier. "Distraction. If there's five of us and only one of him, we can all keep attacking, until sooner or later someone gets through. Maybe he can hold up a spherical shield so Angel and Amazon can't attack him from above or behind, and maybe Dynamo can't crush his shield, and maybe Snowflake and I can't project our powers through his shield. But if all five of us are doing those kind of things at once... I'll bet even a combat-trained telekinetic would have a hard time managing all those things at once, right?"

Dr. Xavier beamed. "Very good. In the long run, no one individual of you has a very good chance against a powerful telekinetic or a mutant with powers that work in a similar way. But with teamwork, I believe the five of you can take on anything."

In the Danger Room, she demonstrated a new tool for simulating telekinesis. "Thus far, science hasn't found a way to duplicate telekinesis artificially, so we're using a battery of electromagnets to simulate it." The items she placed in the Danger Room to be utilized by the "telekinetic" were thus all made of iron and steel, though most of them were also covered with padding so if the "telekinetic" hit a student with it, it wouldn't do too much damage. The "telekinetic" herself was a mannequin, and the team's objective was to fight their way over to her and knock her out.

"Why are we fighting a 12-year-old?" Angel asked. The mannequin did indeed look like a 12-year-old, a pre-adolescent beauty queen with a fluffy blonde wig and big blue eyes. It seemed an odd choice of dummy opponent.

Dr. Xavier tsked. "Appearances are deceiving, Angel. This is Griselda, a 300-year-old evil mutant who stopped aging the day her powers manifested. As a result, she's spent 300 years looking 12, which has led her to become bitter, hateful and vicious. She wants to crush you all. I wouldn't go easy on her if I were you."

"Dr. Xavier, I had no idea your imaginative faculties were so developed," Amazon teased. "We are speaking of a product of the imagination, aren't we? Or is there in fact a villainous Griselda to be our bane?"

"I believe either Minda or Danielle came up with Griselda," Dr. Xavier said, smiling. "However--" she lost the smile-- "she illustrates a point. There really are mutants who will seem harmless, but are in fact evildoers bent on harming others. With mutants, one can not go by appearances. A person who appears shambling and monstrous may be a highly intelligent and gentle soul, while a small child or an old woman may in fact be a phenomenally powerful and dangerous individual. I, after all, appear to be a middle-aged woman-- or an old one, if you listen to Danielle-- in a wheelchair, completely helpless in battle, but I am probably one of the more dangerous mutants on the planet in terms of power. We may be fighting mutants who look no more dangerous than I do, and are every bit as powerful, without my ethics to constrain them. So I've chosen the image of a pretty young girl to reinforce the notion that anyone can be a threat, if they are a mutant; they need only lack our ethics, they do not need to look impressive or dangerous."

In the first battle, "Griselda" clobbered them. Dr. Xavier would telepathically advise a student when he or she was "dead", struck with a blow that, if not for the training session's safety precautions, would have killed or knocked him or her out. In the second battle, John cheated. Since the array that mimicked telekinesis for "Griselda" actually used magnetism, not teek, he took his shirt off (there was nothing else non-magnetic in the Danger Room, aside from teammates) and teeked it onto Griselda's face, wrapping it around "her" head. Then he knocked her over by dragging it hard enough that she fell.

"Way to go!" Snowflake shouted, and promptly buried "Griselda" in a pile of icy slush.

Amazon frowned. "That would hardly have worked in combat against an actual telekinetic," she pointed out, looking at the mannequin and carefully not at John's sweaty bare chest.

//No, it wouldn't have.// Dr. Xavier didn't sound particularly upset, but she didn't sound happy, either. //It was a good tactical move, exploiting a weakness in the enemy's defenses-- in this case, that Griselda is actually using magnetism instead of telekinesis. However, the simulator is supposed to be rendering a telekinetic. After all, since Griselda is really a mannequin, and it's actually me controlling the array, I could have kept up the attack after you brought her down.//

"But it did work, Doctor," Focus said, also carefully not looking at John... unless she was rolling her eyes to the side under the glasses. It was impossible to tell.

//Yes, but the wrong way. Sometimes how you win is more important than that you win. Real life doesn't allow you to cheat the simulator. So, let's try it again. Minda?//

And they were somewhere else, standing on a desert pain. Heat baked John's skin, dry air leached the sweat from his body. Quickly he put his shirt back on-- could he sunburn in a mindscape? "What the heck?" Snowflake asked.

"It's an illusion. Minda's compositing experiences other people are having, right now, and broadcasting them to all of you," Dr. Xavier said. With some part of his mind, John knew she was still using telepathy, but here in the mindscape it "sounded" like speech. She was standing (standing?) on the plain, on a small rise a few feet away from the five of them. Her hair was long and blonde, not the professionally short brunette cut she sported now, and she looked ten years younger, wearing a loose, flowing blue gown that rippled in the slight, hot wind. John stared. He'd seen her on the Astral Plane before as a bright sun, or as a woman made of light, vaguely Dr. Xavier-shaped. The detail of her self-image in this illusion was incredible. In the real world, she was a smallish woman in a wheelchair with dark brown hair and frighteningly intense blue eyes, with a face and body that simply didn't get registered as attractive or unattractive. She was Dr. Xavier, that was all. It would be like trying to figure out if your mom was hot or not. But in this realm, wherever they were, she was young and beautiful.

"Your objective is the same as before," she said, pointing up the hill. There was Griselda, no longer a mannequin. She looked fully realized, a beautiful little girl with a sullen twist to her face, the kind of pout you'd see on the face of a spoiled brat.

"Why, I do believe I've met her," Amazon murmured. "Her name was Linda, though."

"I've met two or three of her," Focus said grimly.

"Your physical bodies are still in the Danger Room; Minda's illusion won't allow you outside it. The array will still be in use, but you won't be able to subvert it in any way that you could not if it were not truly telekinesis." She stepped backward, out of the way. "Good luck, team."

The session felt like it lasted for hours. Griselda beat them again, but at least it wasn't a rout this time-- they held their own against her up until the bitter end. When John got "killed" by what seemed to be an enormously heavy rock slamming through his TK shield and into him, he woke up lying on the floor of the Danger Room. Focus, Angel and Snowflake were still fighting, keeping the battle away from his "corpse." Ettie extended him a hand up. "We should clear the area posthaste. The others aren't dead yet, and our ambulatory corpses may stand in their way."

"Right." He left the Danger Room with Ettie and went up to the control booth. Within the next five minutes the other three were dead as well.

Afterward, Dr. Xavier dissected their performance-- she'd given advice during the battle, but here she reviewed overall strategy and general patterns-- while Minda, her hair out of her bun and dangling all over her face, slouched in an overstuffed armchair drinking Gatorade and looking positively ill. Dr. Xavier praised them, pointed out ways they could have improved their performance, and expressed confidence that they'd do better tomorrow.

And they did. The next day they kicked Griselda's imaginary butt and sent her packing.

After two weeks at Xavier's, John was fitting in well. Wendy still seemed a bit more reserved than he liked, so he hadn't yet worked up the courage to ask her out-- but then, there was no time for dating on their current schedule anyway, and he was sure that by the time they were ready as a unit, and therefore had free time again, he'd be able to approach her. He liked Ettie and Bobbi as friends-- they were funny, and once you got past Ettie's weird appearance, it wasn't hard for him to look straight at her without being afraid of staring anymore. They were fun, and since he wasn't attracted to either of them-- oh, Bobbi wasn't bad, but she was too much of a ditz for his tastes-- he didn't have to worry about making a fool of himself the way he was sure he was doing around Wendy.

Stephanie made him uncomfortable in a different way. She stared at him. Constantly. One couldn't directly tell if Stephanie was staring, as opposed to her head simply being pointed in one's general direction... but even though Dr. Xavier had helped him strengthen the Wall since he'd come here, and even though Stephanie's own shields were as good as a non-psi's could get, he thought, he could still tell she had a massive crush on him. And he didn't return her feelings. He liked her, but only as a friend. She was a nice person and he didn't want to hurt her feelings, quite aside from not wanting to get a teammate whom he might depend on for his life angry at him. But she just didn't do it for him. She was skinny and too intense, everything so very life and death and black and white with her, and she sometimes acted like she knew everything, and, well, he wanted Wendy and that was that. It bothered him that she stared, that she wanted to date him and he could tell, because he didn't want to hurt her, but he couldn't give her what she wanted. So he had to pretend he didn't notice, and the fact that Ettie and Bobbi were frequently joking about it didn't help.

Minda and Danielle were also somewhat discomfiting. Minda had always been uncomfortable, her light brown eyes behind her glasses looking straight through him as if he weren't there, her laughter too high-pitched and grating, her habit of randomly breaking into song or coming out with nonsequiturs annoying. And Danielle, apparently, actively disliked him; when she saw him in the hallways she would run away, sometimes to hide behind a doorway and taunt him. He couldn't complain to Dr. Xavier without getting the kid in trouble. Ettie said that Danielle had done that to each of them as they arrived, and that it was probably because she didn't know them. She was only eight. But John had met her before, and she hadn't acted like that in the past.

But all in all things were going well, and the team was coming together. There was always a point in team practice of any kind where everything started to click, where nine or eleven or five separate people transformed into a single unit. When the band began to sound like a band and not a random collection of instruments, when sports players turned into a team instead of a group of athletes. Two and a half weeks after they'd been training together, John felt like they were finally starting to coalesce into a team.

And that was good. Because if they'd taken any longer than that, things might have gone very differently.

Interlude 2:

The old man was blind, had been since his 14th year, when cataracts had crept across his vision and turned the world into a bright mottled gray, and shortly afterward even that had vanished. But he had never felt he'd suffered a loss. The vision he'd received in exchange for that of his eyes was more than a sufficient replacement.

As he mounted the steps, he "saw" the woman upstairs, in her study, poring over her plans for the morrow. On the third step, he "heard" the beginning of the conversation they would have. By the time he reached the top of the stairs, he knew that most likely this conversation would have no effect. But he had to try, if for no better reason than to leave her believing that he would warn her, and that his warnings were to be heeded.

He rapped on the door to the study.

The metal door slid aside in front of him. "Destiny," she said, her voice harsh. "What brings you here tonight?"

He had seen that if he stepped inside and to the left, there would be an unobstructed path to a chair in which to sit. He did so now, and sat, facing her. "I've come to warn you about tomorrow."

"Indeed. And what of tomorrow have you come to warn me of?"

"You will fail," he said calmly.

"Will I now?" He had seen that she would fix him with a fierce gaze, as if trying to bore through him with her eyes. But it was happening now, and now he could not see her eyes, and so he was unmoved. "Why will I fail?"

"You will encounter unexpected opposition." He steepled his arms on the armrests and leaned his chin on where they met.

"No one knows of my existence, old man." He was ten years older than she was. Somehow this came up in conversation more often than it should, despite the fact that she was by no means young herself. "What sort of opposition could possibly stop me? The humans have nothing that could stand in my way. Even Namora's technologies would be no threat to me."

"I see mutants arrayed against you, Polaris. Young mutants, highly trained."

"What?" It was not a question. Her voice was tightly controlled, fury on a tight leash. "Mutants? Who..."

And then the fury slipped its leash for a moment, and she snarled, "Xavier."

"So you know of these mutants."

"Them? No. But there is only one person who would train young mutants and send them against me. She as much as warned me so." He heard her cape swish, the slight chiming of metallic armor moving as she paced. He smelled ozone. Power had been raised, was leaking, and he had seen before that she would be glowing slightly, fists clenched in rage. But it was now, and now he could not see it.

He remained an island of calm facing the brewing storm. "Wouldn't it be wiser to call off the mission, then?" he said, knowing what she would say and that this would be futile. But he had to try. "Attack at a time when you can succeed?"

"And when would that be? Xavier is implacable. She will continue to oppose me until she is dead, and when she is dead those she has trained will likely fight on for her idiot Cause." She was silent a moment. "Destiny. Do you see my death, in battle with these children of Xavier's?"

The man sighed, and rubbed his temples. His head hurt. Raven was the one suited for these sort of things. Raven lied easily, but Rene found the truth coming to his lips regardless of what he intended. "There are many possible futures. It is certainly a possibility that you may die. It is also a possibility that you will succeed, and gain the weapons. Both are unlikely. What I see in the greatest number of timelines is that they will defeat you, but they will not kill."

"I see." Her footsteps receded, her cape swished again as he heard her pace away from him. "In that case I will go nonetheless." In the future, he had seen her turn to face him now. In the now, he heard her voice grow fractionally louder, her motion still itself. "I will take the measure of these brats of Xavier's. If they can defeat me, I will study them, and understand how and why I am defeated. And the next time, I will destroy them.

"And if you are wrong, and they do not defeat me... I am forewarned, now, and that they will not expect. If I can, I will turn them from Xavier's folly... and if I cannot do that, I will destroy them."

APRIL 13, 1976

She came out of the north with the dawn, descending on the base like some sort of spirit of retribution, Nemesis in helm and cape, a bright and terrible demoness with a sword of lightning.

The men of Cape Citadel detected her approach as a localized electromagnetic storm, moving more quickly than any storm had ever before. They assumed it was an attack from Atlantis, since Atlantis had been recently using a weapon that generated electromagnetic storms, and prepared as best they could, bringing the computers off-line, readying the backup generators.

But nothing could have prepared them for her.

Radar, for obvious reasons, was useless, but they could see the approaching storm as a cloud of glowing blue energy, crackling with power, when it was still miles away. The light it generated lit the dawning sky. Assuming still that it was a weapon, they fired missiles at the center of the corona. The missiles flew toward the storm, and then turned and flew back, raining down on them as inert chunks of slag, falling from the sky. Two men were injured by falling pieces of metal, but thankfully there were no fatalities-- yet.

A soldier trained Cape Citadel's telescope, designed to track rocket launches, on the crowd, and reported back. There was no weapon. There were no warcraft from Atlantis, or anywhere. There was only a single person-- the light at the center of the cloud made it hard to see, but with appropriate filters and polarized lenses in place, he was able to report that it was a woman floating in the center of the cloud-- a woman in crimson armor with a purple cape, a Grecian-style helmet on her head, and long white hair flowing from the back of the helmet. A superhuman, then. A dangerous freak, like those people in New York City. A mutant.

Sharpshooters used rifles to bring her down when she was still too far away for anything else to make a difference. The bullets simply bounced off the cloud. Clearly, they needed more bullets, higher-powered, to have a hope of getting any in past the electromagnetic repulsion the woman appeared to be generating. The commander of the base called his superiors, in hopes of getting one of those superhero teams down here, the Avengers or the Fantastic Four or somebody. The phone was dead, and the radio jammed. They were on their own.

When the woman descended within range of automatic weaponry, the commander had his men open fire with machine guns. For a second or two it looked as if it might work; the bullets were not being deflected any longer. And then the commander realized this was because they were being caught in the woman's corona, like flies on sticky paper, hanging there. No sooner had he realized this then the bullets transformed, melting into spikes, which flew out from the woman and slammed into the tripods the machine guns were mounted on, knocking the guns down, in many cases knocking the men behind the guns down as well.

Then all the guns, including the ones the men wore at their belts, tore free and flew into the air.

"Fools! When I returned your missiles to you, when I deflected your assassin's bullets, did you not learn? Your weapons are useless against Polaris, Mistress of Magnetism!"

It was a woman's voice, as loud as if it came from a PA system, and crackling with static. They were all familiar with women's voices on PA systems, however, secretarial businesslike voices paging people or making announcements. This voice was not like that. It was harsh, deep for a woman, with an indefinable Eastern European accent, and powerful, and full of contempt. "Count yourselves fortunate, humans. I could crush you like the insects you are, but today I choose to spare your lives. Run, and report back to your masters that you stood bravely, if foolishly, against a force you could not hope to defeat. Today you have felt the might of Homo superior. Stand down and cease to annoy me, or I may rethink sparing your lives!"

Of course they had no choice. Cape Citadel was a nuclear base. An insane female superhuman, particularly a foreign one, could not simply be allowed to walk in and take the missiles. Men charged out from the barracks with new guns to replace those the woman had torn away. These were snatched away as well. Meanwhile other men blocked entry to the base with their bodies, bravely forming a human wall against her. Some rushed the forcefield, pounded on it with their fists and threw their bodies against it. It was hot, and somewhat painful to touch, and sharp sparks of static electricity jumped from it constantly into the bodies of the men attacking it. But they were soldiers, and disciplined. Whatever it took, they would stop the attacker or die trying.

For a moment, it looked as if the woman inside was disconcerted by the attack, as for a minute or two-- a very long time, in a battle-- she did nothing. But it didn't last. She raised her arm, gesturing, and the guns she'd torn away came flying back to shred themselves into thin cords of metal, which wrapped themselves around the men's wrists and dragged them to their knees.

"And still you are fools! I warned you not to stand against me!"

Men were flung into each other, glued together by the metal cords around their wrists. Other men tried to run, but it was useless-- what had once been their own guns flew through the air, tangled in their feet and tripped them, and the cords grabbed their wrists and dragged them down. Many of the men were bound with their wrists behind their backs. The cords were magnetized to other cords, so that two or three men at once would be stuck to one another by their bindings, forced to their knees on the ground, bruised and humiliated. The base commander shouted a retreat for the sake of the few men free to take it. A moment later he was a prisoner himself, wrists bound behind his back, ankles bound together, a cord wrapped around his neck, and the bindings on neck and ankles magnetized to iron spikes she'd driven into the concrete, so he was pinned on the ground, prostrate before her. He could look up only with effort.

But he was a soldier. He made the effort, defiantly, and saw the mutant woman smiling down at him. Her expression was one of fierce joy, like a predatory animal studying fat, slow prey.

And then she looked up and strode into the base, and not a single man could stop her.

//Meet me in the Briefing Room, not the Danger Room. We have a mission. This is not a drill.//

John was still yanking his boots on while trying to fly to the Briefing Room at the same time. This was, perhaps, not the smartest thing he could have done, as he collided headlong with Wendy, knocking them both to the floor.


"Watch where you're going, you overpowered oaf!"

He got up as fast as muscles and TK could take him. "I'm really sorry. I was just trying to get to the Briefing Room as fast as I could, and I couldn't get my boots on, so I was trying to save time, and--"

Wendy shook her head impatiently. "Never mind. It's all right, but we'd better get moving."

"Right." His face was bright red. Smacking into Wendy, of all people! But he tried hard to forget the embarrassment, and at least temporarily forget what it had felt like to be lying tangled with her, pressed against her body. He had other things to worry about right now.

They had a mission!

In the Briefing Room there was a large projection display of Florida, with a second display beside it of the East Coast running from New York to Florida. Glowing red dots on the Florida map and at the Florida end of the East Coast map showed the target.

"I've been expecting this for some time," Dr. Xavier said, her voice oddly calm. "X-Factor was founded, among other things, to fight those mutants who use their powers for ill, to harm humanity or their fellow mutants. But I've been pushing you so hard these last few weeks because I've been tracking a specific evil mutant, expecting her to make her move soon. And she finally has."

"Her?" Snowflake said. "Don't tell me, Doc. It really is Griselda?" Her eyes were comically wide. Everyone except for Stephanie and Dr. Xavier laughed nervously.

"This is a serious business, Snowflake," Dr. Xavier said sternly. Everyone shut up. "She calls herself Polaris, Mistress of Magnetism. I... have encountered her before. She is powerful, intelligent and a ruthless madwoman who seeks to dominate humanity. In her belief, humans are inferior, and should be ruled by mutantkind, with herself as ruler of mutants. She also despises men, and believes in female domination, rather than the equality of the sexes."

"This morning she attacked Cape Citadel, a nuclear base at the southern tip of Florida. Previously she has been allied with Namora of Atlantis, striking from the shadows. Now, she plainly feels confident enough to come forward and attempt to take power in her own right. She must be stopped.

"The Griselda simulations will give you some basis for how to fight her. She controls magnetism. Don't, however, expect to be able to take her down by hitting her with non-magnetic objects. She's far more powerful than the array, and can generate force fields. Be on guard.

"This is our chance to prove to the world that mutants can be as much a boon to humanity as a danger. There are innocent lives at stake. I know you can do this; good luck."

Focus got to fly the plane. This was because she was afraid of planes, and had therefore been required to log more flight hours than anyone else. The logic of this seemed shaky to John, but the result was that Stephanie was a good, dependable pilot. John felt a sense of excitement, a bubbling anticipatory thrill throughout his body. Finally, they were going to get to see action! He was supremely confident of their ability to succeed-- after all, they were the heroes here, right?

Focus wasn't so sure, apparently. "What happens if we fail here?" she asked, white-lipped. "Are we really ready for this?"

"Sure we are," Snowflake said cheerily. "We'll kick her butt."

Amazon shook her head. "I share your concern, Focus, but indeed I don't think it's well-advised for us to dwell on the possibility of failure. If we simply resolve that we will succeed, whatever the odds, our chances of success are far greater than if we enter combat fearing for our ability to triumph."

"I hope so," Focus said. "I really do. But, I mean, we're going up against someone much older than we are, much more skilled, much more powerful--"

"Speak for yourself," John said, grinning. "We don't know this chick's more powerful than me, or you, and we've got a team. Five against one."

"Besides, she's been fighting ordinary soldiers," Angel pointed out. "These men must have no concept of what to do when faced with a mutant. We know her powers and we know what to expect. And she doesn't know we're coming."

"Yeah... yeah, that's true," Focus said, sounding unconvinced. "It needs to be done... I just hope we can do it."

Focus, John decided, was a worry wart. Everyone else thought they were going to win. He just hoped her downer attitude didn't get her hurt.

They landed the Blackbird at the far end of the base, well away from the electromagnetic disturbance at the center of it, and approached. There were dozens of men on the tarmac, hands bound behind their backs and sometimes bound to other men, struggling to get up or free themselves.

"What the heck?" Snowflake murmured.

"There appear to be some fashion of metallic bonds, binding them," Amazon said.

"Three guesses how that happened," Angel said.

"All right. Dynamo, Snowflake and Amazon, and I will start untying people. Angel, I want you to find the base commander, get one of us over there to free him if he's tied up like the others, and tell him what we're here for. We need to free most of these people before we try to take down that force field, or they could get hurt."

"Right." Angel took off gracefully, searching for the base commander with her keen vision. John began wading through the men, untangling the metal wires that bound them, as his teammates did the same-- Focus slicing through the wires, Snowflake freezing their centers and making them brittle so Amazon could simply pull them apart without hurting the men.

"Who the hell are you?" a soldier asked.

"The name's Dynamo. I'm with X-Factor. We're mutant superheroes."

"Mutants?" One of the men he was freeing scowled at him. "Like that bitch that attacked us?"

"We're mutants, but we're not like Polaris. We're here to help. And kick her butt, once we've gotten you guys free."

"Hey, all the rest of you mutants are girls."

"How old are you, kid?"

"Aren't there any men on your team? Why're you running around with a bunch of girls anyway?"

John took a deep breath. "Old enough, no I'm the only one, and because they're my teammates. You might've noticed that me and my girl teammates are rescuing your butts."

"You can't trust mutants," a man John had just freed said. "They're not natural."

"We'll we don't like bigoted idiots like you much either, but I untied you anyway because I'm not a complete asshole."

"Dynamo!" It was Angel, above him. "Focus is with the base commander. We're going in."

Most of the men had been freed already. The base commander was standing back, looking worried.

"I don't mind telling you I don't feel good about this," he said. "You kids aren't any older than my daughter. That mutant woman who attacked us is evil. It's one thing to risk my men, but a bunch of teenage girls..."

"Don't worry," Focus said, a lot more calmly than John felt. A bunch of teenage girls? What was he, chopped liver? "We're trained specifically for this."

"We tried everything against that forcefield. Missiles, bullets, nothing works."

"We've got a few tricks up our sleeve, sir," John said, trying to control his irritation.

He tested the feel of the force field with his mind, probing at it with his TK. Amazon punched it, full force. "Amazing. I'd have expected it to dispense an electrical shock of a more severe nature, but actually, this seems constrained enough to almost seem material. I shall have to discuss the physics of it with the miscreant, once we have pummeled her into submission."

"I don't think I can break it," John reported, after testing the field. His TK felt it as a solid wall, pulsing slightly as if it were alive but solid nonetheless. When he pressed his power against it, it gave a little, like rubber, but then started resisting more firmly than any other substance he'd encountered.

"Let's see what I can do." Focus took a deep breath, hand going to her visor. Ruby-red beams blasted forth from the visor and slammed into the force field. John could "feel" with his TK how the field shuddered under Focus' attack-- and after a minute or so of steady, concentrated power, buckled. "We're in! Go!"

The five of them charged into the open space beyond what had been the wall of magnetic force, Angel in the lead. She outpaced them by a good bit, her wings carrying her faster than any of them could run. And then she screamed, and headed straight up. John could see small missiles following her, pursuing her. The missiles appeared to be locked on-- they changed direction as she did. She came racing back toward X-Factor. "I can't outrun them!"

"I'm on it!" Snowflake shouted, riding a wave of ice into the air and intercepting the missiles. Four of the five missiles iced over completely at a gesture from her, and thudded harmlessly to the ground. "Pretty neat, huh?"

"You missed one," John said as he grabbed it with his TK, forcibly yanked it away from its pursuit of Angel, and dumped it quickly in the bay, where it exploded with a "whump." "Got that one just in time!"

He turned back toward the base-- and came face to face with Polaris.

She was standing in the middle of the tarmac, several yards away from X-Factor. The helmet she wore concealed most of her features; what was visible was stern and old and frightening. The irrelevant thought flickered through John's mind that she looked like his scary third grade teacher, the one he'd lived in a state of terror of for a year.

"Mutants," she said, her voice echoing weirdly and staticky, and suddenly she didn't seem like a schoolteacher anymore. "Why do you oppose me? Do you not realize it's for your sake and the sake of all mutantkind that I am fighting?"

Angel had swung back for another pass. "We can do without that kind of help, thanks!" she shouted, divebombing Polaris-- who gestured at her, and metal bands shot out from the wrecked vehicles everywhere, to wrap around Angel and pin her wings. She screamed, and plummeted.

"I've got you!" John yelled, running toward her and focusing his TK to catch her.

"Dynamo, look out!" Focus yelled.

He looked up at Focus ' warning-- his TK was tied up catching Angel, and so there was nothing he could do to stop the metal ball half his size from rolling into him and crushing him.

Fortunately he didn't have to. Amazon slammed into the ball full force, feet first, causing it to carom away madly, only inches from him. "One doesn't need to control magnetism to utilize elementary physics," she said cheerily.

"Nice save. Thanks!"

"Yeah, thanks, Amazon," Angel said.

"Not a problem. I-- oh dear."

He followed where she was looking. Polaris had just picked up a car, which she flung at Focus. Focus cut it in half with her eye beams and Snowflake caught the pieces in thick balls of snowy ice. "Looks like Focus and Snowflake could use a hand," he said. "Give me a moment--"

He concentrated, and pulled the metal bands around Angel's slim body apart, freeing her. She flexed her wings. "Thanks, Dynamo. Let's go see about making Ms. I Have No Fashion Sense pay, and pay hard."

"Plan B, people!" Focus shouted. "Let's do plan B!"

Plan B was a maneuver they'd practiced for taking down Griselda. John grabbed a rubber tire off a vehicle Polaris had destroyed, and flung it at Polaris. Despite the fact that rubber was not in the least magnetic, it bounced harmlessly off another force field. The idea was to distract her, Focus, Snowflake and himself all attacking the force field physically, while Amazon and Angel slipped around the back and got physical. To that end, the three of them crossed the tarmac, heading for their teammates. The plan would be for John to station himself sideways to Polaris, forcing her to concentrate on maintaining her field on two fronts, and hopefully leaving her back open for Angel and Amazon to circle around.

"You are all fools!" Polaris shouted. "I did not wish to hurt mutants, particularly children. But if you will oppose me, you will pay the price!"

And then, while the three of them were just coming into position, ten feet away from Focus and Snowflake, a fuel truck 300 feet away lifted into the air and flew toward them at high speed.

"I can't! Snowflake!" Focus yelled.

"On it, on it, oh my god--" Frantically she threw up a wall of ice between the five of them and the oncoming truck.

John tried to deflect the truck, his head pounding. Something was pushing it, something far stronger than the truck itself was carrying it, and all his attempts to deflect could barely budge the truck's trajectory. He threw all the force he could muster, and the truck jerked sideways, deflected-- and then came right back, correcting its arc, heading straight for the wall of ice. "I can't block it--"


A wave of heat/wave of bitter cold/pressure against his shield, painful and crushing, more weight than he could easily bear/red light splashing the air, the ground cracking, the crackling sound of Focus' eyebeams/Snowflake gasping with effort, water pooling around their feet/concrete dust in his lungs, small bits of concrete flying from the ground as Focus dug and hitting him/melting ice falling on his head, the heat of burning fuel melting Snowflake's protective ice wall/heat searing him and cold biting him simultaneously--

"Get in! We're clear!" Focus had to scream to make her voice heard over the roar of the flames.

"It's melting!" Snowflake shouted. "I can't hold it!"

"Go, go, go!"

John couldn't spare attention for teammates jumping into the hole Focus had dug-- he had to try to hold back the exploding fuel truck from falling on them, to keep back as much of the burning fuel as he could, until they were all clear. The ground under his feet trembled. Focus was still blasting, down in the hole. "Come on!" Angel screamed.

He backed into the hole, Amazon helping him down because he was concentrating so fiercely on holding up the burning fuel truck that he couldn't spare concentration to jump down. She pulled him back into the tunnel Focus was digging, well away from the hole. Snowflake backed in, ice still flowing forward from her to combat the fierce heat. As soon as she was in, assisted by Angel, she flung her hands up and completely covered the top of the tunnel, clearing everyone's heads. The ice barrier immediately started to melt, dripping down into the tunnel. They all backed away as fast as Focus could dig, as the burning fuel finally ate its way through every barrier and poured down into the hole, heavily diluted with melted ice but still burning.

"Snowflake, you've got a better temperature sense than any of us. Tell me when I'm clear of the heat to go up," Focus said, still blasting away with her eye beams, digging a tunnel through the concrete. Angel beat her wings, fanning the dust and some of the little bits of concrete away from the five of them.

"Right. We're good-- now!"

Focus blasted upward, John catching the chunks of concrete that fell down. They came out several yards away from the fuel tanker, upwind from the billowing fumes and heat. Polaris had moved, and was standing in front of the flames-- John assumed her force field was up from how close she stood to them. She was speaking, and apparently hadn't noticed the team resurfacing.

"...on your head, Xavier. They could have had bright futures in the world that I will build. Instead you brainwashed them and forced me to kill them. For that, you will pay--"

John struck her with a TK bolt, hard enough to fling her directly into the burning fuel spill. "Firstly, Dr. X didn't exactly hold a gun to your head, and secondly, we're not dead!"

Polaris came flying out of the flames, unhurt, as John had expected. "Insolent boy! I shall have to rectify that error--"

She gestured, and one of the tanks lifted.

"Now!" Focus shouted.

John, Focus and Snowflake launched a concerted attack on Polaris, Snowflake in the air on one of her ice waves lobbing very large snowballs at Polaris' force field, while Focus blasted it and John struck with TK. As they'd expected, Polaris landed, unable to spare the power to levitate, throw a tank, and protect herself at the same time. The tank rose into the air again and flew toward them.

Angel divebombed Polaris from behind-- the shield, as they had hoped, was dramatically weaker in the back-- and kicked her hard in the head. The tank fell to the tarmac with a crash. Polaris spun about to face the winged young woman, and Amazon swung a tire at her, smacking it into her stomach. The force field flickered and went down entirely, and Focus blasted her again in the back.

Polaris screamed and went down. Amazon swung a kick at her, and was flung back by a gesture. Polaris rose straight into the air, her body straightening as she did so.

"Oh no you don't!" Angel pursued, rising higher into the air after the departing terrorist until John couldn't clearly see them anymore.

The base commander was approaching them. "My god. I thought you kids were goners when I saw her hit you with that fuel truck. Are you all right?"

"Thanks, we're fine, sir," Focus said.

Amazon grinned. "Your concern is very kind, Colonel, but we are made of sterner stuff than our villainous opponent supposed. Snowflake and Dynamo were able to hold back the flames long enough for Focus to dig us a speedy escape route."

He shook his head. "Mutants. I don't understand why you'd be fighting one of your own kind. Most of you look like little girls, but you fight like grown men."

Snowflake giggled. Focus shook her head, looking annoyed. "We fight the way we were trained to, to protect humanity. And the reason we're fighting our own kind is that, unlike Polaris, we believe humans and mutants should be equal. One shouldn't rule the other."

Angel landed. "Sorry, I lost her. She went up like a rocket-- there was no way I could keep up."

"What do you want to bet she'll be back?" John asked.

"Bet for or against?" Amazon asked. "I personally would not like to bet anything of value against."

"Hey," Snowflake said. "We kicked her butt once, we can do it again, right?"


"Let's go home," Focus said. "We're done here."

Epilogue 1:

Her back wasn't broken. If it had been, she wouldn't have been able to feel her legs at all, rather than having the sensations from them merely dimmed by the excruciating pain in her back and her head. She could still see electrical impulses traveling unimpeded up and down her spine. So her back wasn't broken. But it certainly felt as if it might be.

The fierce agony in her head had almost started to ease by the time she reached the base. And then, as she entered, Leaper hopped over to her, springing at her face. "You're back, mistress! What happened? Did you crush them all? Did you--" The babbling, grating voice, the fawning posture, the fact that the younger woman was bouncing up and down in her personal space, all combined to bring the headache crashing back, full force. Polaris gestured, summoning power, and a bolt of force flew from her hand and flung Leaper across the room, away from her.

"Owwww!" the small woman wailed.

Polaris ignored her. "I am going to my quarters," she snarled at the rest of the Menace, who were staring at her. "Do not disturb me."

She was aware of Mystique's golden eyes on her back as she stalked out, of what he must be thinking-- pathetic fool, we told you so, can't trust a woman to win a military engagement, you're no better than me, failure-- and had to resist the temptation to blast him on general principle. Unlike Leaper, he was a dangerous foe, and she could not afford to punish him if he'd successfully kept his mouth shut. Instead she strode out of the common area of the base and into her quarters, ramrod straight, showing no sign of the pain she felt. Pain was a weakness, and she would not give in.

In her quarters, she sat down in a stuffed armchair, without removing her helmet, and leaned back, propping her body against the chair in such a way as to not put pressure on her injured back. She could take painkillers-- they were in her lab, within easy reach, and none would see her-- but she would know she had given in to weakness. So she endured the pain in her back. Damn that girl. Damn Xavier. How had a pacifist weakling managed to train such formidable fighters? Carolyn had always been a feminine little thing, in need of the protection of someone older, stronger, wiser in the ways of the world. How had she trained a team to beat Polaris?

The door opened. Without even looking, Polaris flung a metal table at whoever had just entered, and rose to her feet, facing the door. The table clattered out into the corridor, nowhere near the intruder-- who was Wanda, already standing deep within the room, facing her. Wanda was the only member of the Mutant Menace who could have dodged that, and the only person Polaris would not kill to keep out of her room right now. It didn't mean the intrusion wasn't annoying, though.

"I gave orders that I was not to be disturbed!"

"I know, but you look awful. I wanted to make sure you were all right."

"I am quite well. Now go away."

"Mother," Wanda said, shaking her head in exasperation, "you did not raise me to be stupid. Come on. Let me take a look at you."

"I said, I am fine. I did not raise you to pry into what is none of your concern, either."

"All right, then. At least let me do something about the headache. You can't tell me you don't have a headache."

"It will pass."

Wanda's fists clenched. She took a deep breath and released her fists. "I think sometimes you forget who I am."

Polaris was not in the mood for coddling Wanda's teenage histrionics. "I know you better than you know yourself, daughter."

"That's my point. Daughter. Dreamweaver is a pig and Leaper is a toad and I still wish you'd let me serve Mystique his heart on a stick, but I am your daughter. You don't need to hide when you're hurt from Pietro and myself. We will never think less of you because you lost some idiotic battle. We're your children. So why won't you let us in?"

She was too old for this. Too old, and too tired. Polaris sat down heavily, exhausted by Wanda's words and the emotions they evoked, and Wanda took this as her cue to move in and pluck the helmet off her mother's head. In the interests of not starting an argument she didn't feel like having, Polaris allowed it-- if Wanda felt like being affectionate, it was still reasonably safe. Things hadn't gotten that far yet.

Wanda stood to the side of the chair, her hands on either side of her mother's head, vibrating rapidly as they moved over the scalp and the back of her neck, melting the tense muscles. Polaris closed her eyes and let it happen. There was so little time left, and what had happened today only confirmed it-- she had thought to buy more time, and instead ended up with less. Too soon she would have to send her children into battle against those damnably competent warriors of Xavier's-- she'd hoped to put off the day, to keep Wanda and Pietro safe as long as she could, but her defeat today proved that she would need allies to succeed in doing what must be done. And for all the allies she'd gathered here, Wanda was right-- the only ones she could trust were her own children.

Too soon she would have to give up being a mother entirely in favor of being a general, for she could not lead her children to victory if she let herself think of them as her children, to be protected the way a mother should, and not warriors for her cause. If she accepted Wanda's physical affection and desire to ease her pain right now... it was a weakness, but not a damaging one, not yet. Soon she would not be able to allow this. So this one time she permitted it, knowing it might be the last time until they had won, or died.

"I know you have to be hard to win," Wanda murmured, her hands easing the headache as she'd done many times before. She could be a willful, spiteful and rebellious little witch sometimes, but at other times, like this, she was the closest thing to a friend and confidante Polaris had. "But you don't have to be hard when you come home. Not to us."

But I will, Polaris thought. Soon enough, I will.

She reached out, pulling Wanda onto her lap. The girl had inherited her height from her short father-- she was full grown, but still a head shorter than her mother. Polaris hugged her daughter fiercely, unmindful of the pain this was causing her injured back. Soon enough to be hard, when she took the Mutant Menace into battle and they crushed Xavier's brats. This might be the last chance she had in a very long time to be a mother.

Epilogue 2:

Carolyn could not quite keep from beaming as she debriefed the students. There were things they could have done differently, faster and more efficient tactics they could have used-- but they won. Their first real mission, and they had defeated a deadly and formidable foe. She could not hide how happy and proud that made her-- and perhaps it was best that she didn't try. Children responded well to praise, and all the research showed that it reinforced them to keep striving, to earn more praise, better than negative reinforcement did.

"We can't stop training and sit back on our laurels," she concluded. "Polaris will be back, and there will be other foes to face. But we can slack down the pace to give you students a bit more free time in your lives, now that you've proven you have the basics down." The smile broke loose and spread across her face. "I am very proud of all of you. Take a soak in a hot tub, let me look at your injuries if you have any, and tomorrow you get the day off. You've earned it."

"Yes!" John high-fived Bobbi and Ettie, Ettie hugged Bobbi and swung her around in a circle, then did the same to Wendy only by holding her hands and swinging her rather than crushing her wings by hugging her, and Bobbi high-fived Stephanie, who seemed slightly bemused by the whole thing.

"I vote pizza party!" Bobbi shouted. "Hey, can we, Dr. X? Can we?"

"Certainly. Let me know what toppings and sizes and I'll have Minda go pick us up pizza for dinner." In training, she'd made the students eat vegetables and whole grains and meats, no sugar or fatty snacks. They deserved a pizza now.

As the students filed out of the room, singing cheerleading fight songs supplied by Bobbi the former cheerleader, Carolyn called John aside telepathically. He turned back. //Yeah, Doctor?//

"I just wanted to know how you feel about all this. Are you glad you joined?"

A broad grin split his face. "Heck, yes! I really like being able to cut loose with my powers, and know I'm making a difference, I'm protecting people. Even if the people are boneheads sometimes." His face clouded, and she saw in his memory the soldiers who'd insulted X-Factor as they rescued them.

//Don't worry about it, John. That's what we're fighting for-- to make them understand that we're on their side, that human or mutant, man or woman, we're all the same in the end.//

//I know, Doctor. I know.// He grinned. "Makes it a challenge, doesn't it?"

"It certainly does." She smiled. "Go get your bath. I believe I have some pizza orders to attend to."

"Sure thing!"

She watched him go, happily. All of them believed in her Dream. All of them had proven their ability to fight for it.

Someday, Erika. Someday even you will have to see that my methods work, that I was right. She glanced out the window. Let Polaris run off and tend her wounds. X-Factor had proven themselves ready to handle anything she could do. And if they could beat her, they could beat anyone.

Lightly she queried her students, her daughter and Minda as to what pizza toppings they'd prefer, and wrote them down. Time to celebrate.