X men and the avengers f.., p.1
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       X-Men and the Avengers: Friend or Foe?, p.1
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           Greg Cox
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X-Men and the Avengers: Friend or Foe?


  BOOK 3


  Greg Cox

  Illustrations by George Perez




  Their names were the Scarlet Witch, Rogue, and Wolverine. The first was a member'of the acclaimed super hero team the Avengers, the other two were members of the controversial group of mutants known as the X-Men. All three were mutants—humans with extraordinary powers. They had been prisoners—guinea pigs, actually—of the super-villain known as the Leader. They had escaped from his hideous laboratory. But, instead of breaking free on Earth, they had discovered that their prison was on the moon.

  The stunned prisoners were only seconds from ex. tinction, gasping soundlessly upon the barren surface of the moon, their lungs desperate for oxygen that was nowhere to be found amidst the desolate lunar landscape. The two mutant women, Rogue and the Scarlet Witch, had already succumbed to unconsciousness while only Wolverine’s superhuman endurance had kept the feral X-Man alert for a few heartbeats more. He knelt in the fine gray powder beside his fallen comrades, clutching his throat with both hands.

  This won’t do, the lethal Leader concluded. Like the incredible Hulk, he had been mutated by gamma radiation; like the Hulk, his skin was green; unlike the Hulk, the gamma radiation had made him a super-genius. Now he was observing the escapees’ plight on one of the

  many closed-circuit monitors lining the curved wall of his control room, located at the center of his secluded headquarters elsewhere on the moon. He still had use for the three mutants, whom could not be permitted to expire so prematurely. With the press of a pale green finger upon the lighted control panel, the Leader retrieved his captives via a trans-mat beam that teleported the dying heroes from the harsh environment outside to the relative safety of a containment cell within the Leader’s lunar base.

  On the screen in question, the X-Men and the mutant Avenger vanished in a flash of viridescent light that was duplicated, a nanosecond later, a few yards away from where the Leader sat. He rotated his futuristic metal throne 180 degrees until, his back to the wall of monitors, he now faced the cell containing the newly-transported mutants.

  Haydn’s Symphony No. 1 in D major played softly in the background. The one-way mirror that had until recently divided the control room from the containment cell lay in shards upon the floor, a casualty of his unwilling test subjects’ foolish and futile attempt to escape captivity. Thus, nothing but pressurized air stood between the Leader and the three figures who materialized within the gleaming metal sarcophagi they had vacated less than half an hour before. There was one open steel coffin, propped up at a forty-five degree angle from the floor, for each of the wayward mutants. Adamantium clamps snapped back in place around their wrists, ankles, and throats. Automated waldoes went to work replacing the sensors, electrodes, and I.V. lines that the escapees had torn free from earlier. Robotic fingers expertly inserted hypodermic needles into their victims’ veins, thrusting the sterilized needles through the thin orange fabric of the captives’ matching jumpsuits; finely-attuned heat sensors embedded in the mechanical arms allowed the phlebotomy apparatus to detect the exact location of veins and arteries beneath the subjects’ clothing.

  Rogue flinched as a sharp adamantium needle penetrated even her invulnerable skin. Neither she nor the Scarlet Witch had regained consciousness yet, but the Leader was both surprised and intrigued to find Wolverine glaring at him from the cramped confines of the savage mutant’s sarcophagus. “You!” he snarled, locking his gaze on the Leader’s unmistakable countenance: a thin green face surmounted by a swollen, bulbous dome.

  Wolverine’s blood-rimmed eyes were wild and full of hate. Polished metal claws spasmodically extended from his knuckles, flashing impotently out of reach of his restraints. “Witchie was right! You’re the sleazeball responsible for all this!”

  “Well, to be quite honest,” the Leader replied coolly, his epicene voice holding no trace of alarm at Wolverine’s obvious fury, “my newfound partner played some small part in this particular operation.”

  “Partner? What partner?” Wolverine barked. He writhed within his unbreakable metal bonds, struggling unsuccessfully to break free. “What in blazes are you talking about, you swell-headed scumbag?”

  The Leader took no offense at the X-Man’s tactless disparagement of his enlarged cranium; I could hardly expect an atavistic throwback like Wolverine to appreciate my superior cerebral capacity. Nor did he feel any obligation to alleviate the X-Man’s impertinent curiosity, especially since the powerful narcotic flowing into Wolverine’s veins through the reattached I.V. line was already causing the enraged mutant’s eyelids to droop despite his nearly indomitable will. “I’ll getya,” he slurred, even as his body slumped within the sarcophagus, held up only by his unyielding restraints. “You .. . c’n . . . bet. . . on’t.”

  Wolverine’s primitive display of defiance held no interest for the Leader’s elevated intellect. Confident that his errant lab animals had been restored to their rightful place, he spun his chair back around toward the wall of monitors. Now that the would-be jailbreak had been stopped, he wished to assure himself that the rest of his elaborate machinations were proceeding exactly as he had anticipated.

  Over three dozen video screens, stacked row upon row, greeted his inspection. His vastly capacious brain easily absorbed data from every monitor simultaneously, allowing him to track events in several arenas at once:

  1. Elsewhere in the lunar base, an airlock or two away from the control room, his mindless humanoid servants were already hard at work repairing the rest of the damage left behind by the ill-fated escape attempt, including the gaping hull breach carved out by Rogue when, dragging her fellow prisoners in her wake, the super-strong mutant heroine had smashed her way free of the compound—only to encounter the debilitating vacuum outside. That must have come as a dreadful surprise, he assumed, without much in the way of sympathy. Too bad I never bothered to tell them precisely where they were being held.

  Automatic safeguards had protected the control room, along with the bulk of the base, from explosive decompression, while even now his pliable humanoids, immune to the ravaging effects of the lunar environment, were patching over the breach. Chances were, by the time the Leader’s partner returned from his own urgent mission, he would not be able to tell that anything had ever been amiss.

  Probably just as well, he thought. His current associate had a paranoid and pessimistic disposition, especially where Earth’s super-powered defenders were concerned; he would not be pleased should he discover that their captives had managed to escape their bonds, however briefly. I just know I’d never hear the end of it.. . .

  2. Concealed cameras allowed him to look in on Freehold, his former refuge beneath the Columbia Icefields, where a mixed assortment of X-Men and Avengers had -come in search of their purloined compatriots. Captain America, Cyclops, and the Vision comprised the rescue team dispatched to the underground city, site of the Leader’s most recent “death,” where they had hoped to find clues pointing toward his current residence.

  A frown tugged on his thin green lips as he recalled just how close he had come to dying for real during that final battle at Freehold, his gamma-mutated body riddled with bullets during a three-way confrontation between the Leader, the Hulk, and the murderous hordes of Hydra. That was a narrow escape, he reflected soberly. Someday I will make Hydra pay—and dearly—for their crimes against me.

  But not today. Other pawns occupied his attention at present, most notably the various super-powered confederates of his recaptured specimens of mutantkind. He had
known from the beginning that abducting Wolverine and the others would draw in the rest of the Avengers and the X-Men, and had planned accordingly.

  The mission to Freehold, predictable as it was, was a wild goose chase, perfectly suited to keeping a percentage of his foes occupied while he continued his experiments upon the defenseless bodies of his captives. The Leader had covered Ms tracks well; no evidence remained beneath the icefields that could betray the existence of his new lunar lair, constructed with the considerable assistance and resources of his current associate. Captain America and company would find nothing in Freehold.

  3. Another team of X-Men and Avengers had fared somewhat better, if not for much longer. On Muir Island, off the coast of Scotland, a group of heroes led by Storm, Iron Man, and, as always where the Leader’s plans were concerned, the hated Hulk, had vanquished three-quarters of the Gamma Sentinels that the Leader had sent to Muir Island to obtain valuable scientific data from the isle’s famed Genetic Research Centre. Three consecutive screens, designated GS-#’s 1-3, through which he had been able to gaze through the cybernetic eyes of each Gamma Sentinel, had gone blank, indicating that a trio of robotic enforcers had been rendered inactive by the Hulk and his uneasy allies.

  A pyrrhic victory, that, the Leader thought with a smirk, given the insidious failsafe devices implanted in each of the Gamma Sentinels—and programmed to activate in the event of the robots’ capture and/or defeat. I wonder if Banner will even recognize his handiwork, before it destroys them all. He stroked his black handlebar mustache in malicious anticipation. I certainly hope so. . . .

  Granted, his partner, who had infiltrated the heroes’ quest in the guise of “Wolverine,” was theoretically threatened by the same imminent cataclysm, but the Leader trusted that his formidable associate was fully capable of shielding himself from what was to come; while hardly a genius of the Leader’s caliber, his partner possessed cunning and physical faculties enough to guarantee his survival, at least until the Leader had no further need of him.

  4. A fourth screen, GS-4, showed another scene, proof that the fourth and most powerful of the Gamma Sentinels remained in operation. Fashioned in the image of the Hulk himself, the surviving Sentinel now stalked the venerable halls of Avengers Mansion, where only a single inconsequential hero, the clownish anthropoid known as the Beast, offered feeble resistance to robot’s rampage. The destruction of their stately headquarters, along with the probable demise of the Beast, would further delay and demoralize the Leader’s foes.

  In short, all was as it should be, throughout the entire Earth, as well as here upon that spinning globe’s only natural satellite. The Leader leaned back against his throne, more than pleased with each new development in his unfolding scheme. His experiments upon his mutant specimens, taken in concert with the stolen data his Sentinels had transmitted from Muir Island prior to their undoing, had brought him within hours of his ultimate objective.

  Haydn’s symphony winded to its close as the Leader sat in contemplation, his long fingers steepled beneath his chin. He had no illusions that he could evade either the Avengers or the X-Men indefinitely; despite all the obstacles and adversaries strewn in their path, a few redoubtable heroes were bound to survive long enough to carry the fight to the moon.

  No matter, he thought confidently. By the time the surviving adventurers braved this selenological sanctuary, it would already be too late.

  He had more than one surprise prepared for them.

  “they’re not just Sentinels!” Iron Man announced, his 1 horrified voice electronically amplified. “They’re walking, talking Gamma Bombs—programmed to detonate upon defeat!”

  The Golden Avenger clicked off the sensor beam emanating from the chestplate of his gold-and-crimson armor. His dire pronouncement echoed off the battle-scarred walls of the Genetic Research Centre. Although Iron Man’s helmet concealed his own expression, shock and surprise registered on the faces of the other individuals occupying the remains of Dr. Moira Mac-Taggert’s once pristine laboratory. A quartet of X-Men— the weather-controlling wind-rider known as Storm, the demonic-1 ooking, nimble Nightcrawler, the feral fighter, Wolverine, and the aptly-named Iceman—listened in hoiTor, while even the incredible Hulk looked disturbed by the news. As well he should be, Iron Man reflected, given that his human alter ego, Dr. Robert Brace Banner, invented the very first gamma bomb many years ago.

  Iron Man felt a twinge of sympathy for the man inside the monster; as Tony Stark, billionaire industrialist and inventor, the armored hero knew too well the pain of seeing the fruits of one’s scientific ingenuity twisted to malevolent and destructive ends. Banner hadn’t personally placed these new bombs into the so-called Gamma Sentinels, but Iron Man had to assume that, deep beneath

  the brutish exterior of the Hulk, some part of Bruce Banner felt responsible for the danger bearing down on them all. ' '

  “Are ye quite sure, Iron Man?” Dr. MacTaggert asked anxiously. The Scottish scientist, who was a longtime friend of the X-Men’s, wore a battered white lab-coat over her civilian garb. She peered through her glasses at the nearest Sentinel, sculpted to resemble the green-haired super-psychiatrist, Doc Samson. Lying stiff and unmoving upon the debris-strewn floor, the inert robot appeared to be harmless at last.

  “There’s no mistaking the emissions coming from the Sentinel’s power core,” Iron Man stated. He glanced across the lab toward a second Sentinel, shaped like the mutated bird-woman known as the Harpy, lying on its side near a shattered picture window looking out onto the North Sea. Protective metal shutters had not stopped the artificial Harpy from blasting her way into the third-floor laboratory. Now the faint morning sunshine snuck through the jagged gap in the shutters, providing little in the way of warmth or hope. “The chain reaction has already started; I estimate we have less than five minutes before detonation.”

  He stared through the ruptured shutters at the open sky beyond; even with the Avengers’ quinjet parked at the docks below the Centre, there was no way they could evacuate the laboratory in time. The explosion of three separate gamma bombs, the third residing inside yet another defeated Sentinel, currently gathering dust in a basement four stories below, would incinerate the entire research complex, the prison that held some of the most dangerous mutant villains, along with most of the surrounding geography, including a few nearby villages. The death toll, even on this small island, could be horrific, he realized.

  His gaze locked on the X-Men’s beautiful leader, the regal African woman codenamed Storm. “Ororo,” he addressed her urgently. “You’re the only one of us who stands a chance of outracing the blast—if you fly away now, as fast as your winds can carry you.”

  His own jets, of course, could bear him away from the island at supersonic speed, but he couldn’t leave, not while there was still a chance to deactivate the bombs— and save the innocent inhabitants of Muir Island. I have to try, he thought, even if time is running oat.

  Storm shook her head. * ‘An X-Man does not abandon her allies,” she said firmly, an exotic accent flavoring her,words. Her fellow mutants gathered around her, showing equal courage and determination on their faces, regardless of whether those faces were covered by ice, dark indigo fur, or, in Wolverine’s case, a forbidding black mask. “The technological is your field of expertise, Iron Man. Tell us what, if anything, we can do to assist you.”

  “Ain’t nothing I can do about those G-bombs,” Wolverine grumbled. At least a foot shorter than Iron Man, the stocky mutant didn’t look a bit intimidated by the armored Avengers. He sniffed the air warily. “I’d better keep a look-out for that runaway Hulk robot, just in case it gets the idea into its computerized skull to come back and catch us by surprise.” He loped toward the exit, adamantium claws extended. “You can find me on the roof,” he told the others, “if we ain’t all blown to smithereens, that is.”

  The Avenger did not waste valuable seconds arguing with Storm or her comrades. Instead he turned toward the looming green behemoth standing nea
rby. “Hulk!” he challenged the surly titan. “Gamma bombs are Banner’s baby. Can you—or he—help me disarm these?” Considering the frequently adversarial relationship between the Hulk and his better half, invoking Banner’s name was a risky plot, but Iron Man didn’t see where he had any other choice. With luck, the Hulk could look past his perpetual rivalry with his more intellectual counterpart long enough to lend them a bit of Bruce Banner’s genius.

  The Hulk scowled. “You don’t need that weakling, Banner,” he rumbled. Concentration dug deep furrows in his sloping brow, and he tapped his temple with an oversized finger. “I got all of his memories right up here.”

  Iron Man prayed the Hulk was telling the truth. “Let’s get to it then,” he asserted. “I’ll take Samson. You handle the Harpy.” That left a replica of the Abomination in the basement, no doubt ticking away like the other time bombs. “Dr. MacTaggert, I don’t suppose you know anything about defusing gamma bombs?” “I’m afraid not,” she answered, stepping back instinctively from the Samson-Sentinel. “My specialty’s genetics, nae nuclear physics or w'eapons design.” “What about us?” Iceman asked. The X-Man’s body was composed entirely of translucent blue ice. Puffs of wintry mist accompanied every syllable he uttered. Iron Man could feel the intense cold radiating off the young mutant even through his insulated armor. “What can we do to help?”

  An idea struck the desperate Avenger. ‘ ‘Get down to that third Sentinel and freeze it as cold as you can. It’s almost surely too late to halt the chain reaction, but you might be able to slow it down long enough to give us a chance.”

  “Got it,” Iceman said, nodding. Coating the floor ahead of him with a slick layer of frozen moisture, he slid toward a yawning pit behind the counterfeit Samson. A robotic version of the Hulk had created the pit earlier, when it leaped from the basement to the roof of the Centre, tearing a hole through every floor and ceiling in-between. Iceman’s self-generated track transformed at the brink of the pit into an ice chute that earned the refrigerated X-Man out of sight. Iron Man wished him luck before turning to his own task.

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