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X-Men and the Avengers: Search and Rescue, Page 1

Greg Cox




  GAMMA QUEST

  BOOK 2

  SEARCH AND RESCUE

  GAMMA QUEST

  BOOK 2

  SEARCH AND RESCUE Greg Cox

  Illustrations by George Perez

  MARVEL*

  BP BOOKS, INC. NEW YORK

  BERKLEY BOULEVARD BOOKS, NEW YORK

  They also serve who only stand and wait.” Milton’s immortal words came readily to Edwin Jarvis’s thoughts as he worriedly watched an emergency news bulletin on television. He often turned to that particular quotation in times of trouble; indeed, over the course of his long tenure as butler to the mighty Avengers, it had practically become his credo.

  Alas, that seldom made the waiting any easier....

  His hands kept busy polishing a silver tea service while his gaze stayed glued to a small television monitor mounted above the kitchen counter. The middle-aged Englishman wore an apron over his starched proper attire. At the moment, he had the spotless kitchen to himself, along with the rest of Avengers Mansion. On the screen overhead, live footage from Niagara Falls revealed that a trio of his superheroic employers were once more pitted against formidable antagonists in a battle of epic proportions; to be more specific, the combined strength and extraordinary abilities of the chamption of liberty, Captain America, the high-tech knight, Iron Man, and the synthetic human, the Vision, were now matched against both the notorious outlaw mutants known as the uncanny X-Men and the fearsome green man-monster called the incredible Hulk. A daunting combination, the butler assessed, although he clung steadfastly to his faith that the Avengers would emerge triumphant in

  the end, as they so often had before. They have consistently prevailed over even greater odds, he recalled, and against far more merciless foes.

  Both the X-Men and the Hulk, in fact, had sometimes fought beside the Avengers as allies, for all that such partnerships tended to be strained and somewhat fractious. Whatever cruel combination of circumstances had led to this present conflict, Jarvis held onto the hope that neither the Hulk nor the X-Men truly desired the Avengers’ total destruction, as might, say, the Grim Reaper or Ultron, although where the undeniably volatile Hulk was concerned, anything was possible. Nor could such reassurances rule out the possibility of a tragic accident, particularly in so hazardous a setting.

  The awesome heights of Niagara Falls, over which torrents of frothing white water cascaded impressively, provided a scenic backdrop to the spectacular struggle, but also obvious opportunities for the various combatants to come to harm. Even now, as Jarvis methodically buffed the exterior of a tarnished tea kettle, the Hulk had fearlessly taken up a position along the very crest of the famed Horseshoe Falls, tempting fate, not to mention the raging current, to topple him from his precarious perch. Jarvis gulped involuntarily as the Vision alighted in the rapids above the Falls, only a few feet away from the bestial green goliath known as the Hulk. I certainly hope Master Vision knows what he is doing, Jarvis fretted. Never mind the Falls, for a moment; on his own, the Hulk could be as savage as he was inhumanly powerful.

  TV newspeople speculated shamelessly about what might have brought all these costumed champions to this titanic clash, the reporters’s urgent voiceovers accompanying vivid action footage from cameras on the shore. Jarvis turned down the volume. He already knew far more than the commentators about the origins of this latest adventure.

  It had all started yesterday, when Mistress Wanda, professionally known as the Scarlet Witch, failed to return from a morning’s outing to a local museum. Subsequent investigation revealed that the mutant heroine had been attacked and abducted by, of all things, one of the displays of a coterie of wooden marionettes. As though this were not puzzling enough, Iron Man’s sophisticated electronic sensors had detected lingering traces of radiation at the site of the Scarlet Witch’s disappearance. Gamma radiation, to be precise, of the sort associated with both the rampaging Hulk and his more rational alter ego, Dr. Robert Bruce Banner.

  Led by Captain America, the Avengers had already resolved to seek out the Hulk and/or Banner to question him (them?) about the incident at the museum when word came that the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, airborne headquarters of the world’s premiere intelligence and anti-terrorism organization, had been invaded by several super-powered mutants linked to the X-Men. According to Nicholas Fury, the irascible director of S.H.I.E.L.D., the mutant renegades had stolen the top-secret prototypes of the Gamma Sentinels, a new generation of robot enforcers powered by the same form of gamma radiation that had created the Hulk. Given that the Gamma Sentinels were expressly designed to seek out and contain dangerous mutants, a preemptive strike by the X-Men seemed a plausible explanation for the assault on the Helicarrier, even if Captain America continued to entertain doubts about the X-Men’s guilt, judging them innocent until proven otherwise—according to the best tradition of British and American justice.

  How very like the Captain to give the X-Men the benefit of the doubt, Jarvis reflected. But whatever could the stolen

  Sentinels, and the X-Men, have to do with Mistress Wanda’s abduction, especially since the mutant-hunting robots were purloined several hours after the Scarlet Witch’s bizarre encounter with the animated puppets? Her Avenging teammates had been equally baffled by the peculiar chain of events.

  Then the evening news had reported that Bruce Banner, a wanted fugitive, had been spotted in Niagara Falls, just south of the Canadian border. The three Avengers on hand, including Mistress Wanda’s estranged husband, the Vision, had immediately winged toward Niagara, only to land squarely in the middle of a tense confrontation involving the Hulk, the X-Men, and the armed forces of both the United States and Canada. Precisely whose side the X-Men were on remained unclear to both the on-the-air commentators and Jarvis himself; at various points in the ongoing crisis, they had appeared to be both allied and opposed to the Hulk, who seemed typically ill-deposed to all concerned. Jarvis did not know the X-Men well, having in the past had but fleeting contact with those of their number, but past encounters with the Hulk led him to suspect that the brutish Hulk was on the side of nothing save yet more chaos and strife. Jarvis had cleaned up after the Hulk enough to know that where that uncouth ogre went, violence and wanton destruction surely followed.

  But although the faithful butler expected the worst of the Hulk, he was still caught by surprise when the great green monster ripped the Vision’s arm from its socket.

  “Good heavens!” Jarvis exclaimed. The teapot slipped from his fingers, landing in a clatter upon the kitchen floor. Telephoto lenses caught an unmistakably human expression of agony upon the synthezoid’s sculpted features. A shower of sparks erupted from the Vision’s right shoulder. Oily lubricants and hydraulic fluid sprayed from severed tubing as the Vision’s head jerked spastically. The amber jewel embedded in his forehead flashed on and off, the solar glow within the gem flickering weakly. Crimson lips whispered some plaintive plea or warning, but all Jarvis could hear was the roar of the Falls and the breathless commentary of the stunned newspersons.

  He watched in horrified silence as the Hulk callously discarded the Vision’s crudely amputated limb, hurling it over the edge of the Falls. Then the Hulk shoved the Vision and the tottering synthezoid followed his severed arm over the Falls. Jarvis prayed that the Vision would save himself by taking flight, reducing his artificial body’s density until it was lighter than air, but instead the camera tracked his terrifying plunge until the android Avenger vanished into the swirling mists at the bottom. Could even the Vision survive such a precipitous drop? Jarvis hoped for the best, but decided to have the engineering laboratories in the Mansion’s sub-basement up and running by the time the Avengers returned.
Perhaps I should alert Dr. Pym as well, Jarvis thought, and want him to be on call. The brilliant scientist, now a reserve member of the Avengers, probably understood the Vision’s construction better than any other human on Earth.

  With the maiming of the Vision, the ominous stand-off between the assorted heroes escalated into a veritable battle royal, fought on the land, the water, and the air. As the X-Men inexplicably came to the Hulk’s aid, for reasons Jarvis could not begin to imagine, the two teams came to blows. Darting TV cameras were hard-pressed to keep up with the conflict while the worried butler struggled to identify the principals and track the course of the skirmish. The silver teapot, now dented on one side, lay forgotten at his feet.

  Iron Man was the first who sought to avenge the Vision by taking arms against the Hulk. Jetting above the Falls, he subjected the defiant green behemoth to a barrage of re-pulsor rays, until struck from behind by an unexpected lightning bolt. The jagged electrical spear came from a flying woman whom Jarvis swiftly identified as Storm, one of the X-Men’s leaders. Her tempestuous nom de guerre proved uncomfortably apt as she and Iron Man conducted an aerial dogfight that reminded Jarvis of the Battle of Britain, except that these flying aces jousted with beams of incandescent energy and electricity instead of old-fashioned machine guns. They proved well-matched in maneuverability and speed, although the female mutant had so far managed to keep one step ahead of her armored adversary', swooping and banking through morning skies that grew increasingly gray and thundery. Was the latter Storm’s doing? The butler suspected as much. The once-blue skies soon looked as dark and forbidding as the Hulk’s disposition.

  The cameras quickly lost Storm and Iron Man amidst the roiling clouds, so the view switched to Goat Island, a small, wooded wedge of land nestled between the American and Canadian Falls. At the rocky tip of the island, the surrounding greenery laid waste earlier by the Hulk’s rampage, Captain America faced off against Cyclops, the grim X-Man known for his devastating eyebeams, which were even now directed against the Avenger’s stalwart leader. Cap (as his friends called him) blocked the crimson ray with his unbreakable metal shield, deflecting the attack back at Cyclops, who responded in turn by intercepting the returning beams with fresh blasts of ocular energy before unleashing new beams at whatever portion of Captain America’s anatomy appeared unshielded, only to have each new attack parried deftly by the agile Avenger. It hurt Jarvis’s eyes just to watch the coruscating beams bounce back and forth between the two rivals; it looked like some sort of newfangled videogame of the sort his nieces and nephews played, and each player seemed at the top of his game. The butler knew how skillfully Captain America could wield his shield, but he was surprised to see that the slender young X-Man seemed to be able to target his beams with equal precision and dexterity. What if he succeeds in getting past Captain America’s guard? he worried. He had heard that Cyclops’s eyebeams packed quite a punch. What’s more, he could not help noticing that one of the decorative eagle wings adorning Captain America’s blue cowl had already gone missing, no doubt the victim of a distressingly close call with a crimson beam. Master Rogers has a sturdy constitution, but he is not invulnerable. That’s why he carries a shield.

  With the dueling heroes deadlocked for the nonce, the camera zoomed in on a faint blue figure lying in the background, where the desolate wasteland left behind by the Hulk surrendered to the encroaching woods. “My word!” Jarvis gasped, stricken by the distressing sight of former Avenger Hank McCoy, alias the usually ebullient Beast, trapped beneath the trunk of a fallen maple tree. The shaggy, blue-furred mutant lay sprawled upon his back, the substantial tree trunk stretched across his torso. A heart-wrenching close-up revealed that the Beast looked dazed and only semi-conscious. His eyelids flickered and his thick, mud-covered indigo pelt was soaked. Dear me, Jarvis thought, I hope Master McCoy has not been seriously injured. The Beast had once been a cheerful and welcome presence within the stately walls of Avengers Mansion, before he chose to return to his roots as a charter member of the X-Men. What a shame as well, the butler reflected, that the Beast should be incapacitated at so crucial a juncture; as a trusted member of both teams, Henry McCoy alone stood the best chance of bringing about a timely cease-fire between the two teams.

  But could any individual, no matter how charming and sincere, quell the unquenchable fury of the Hulk? Before the loyal manservant’s anxious eyes, the Hulk leaped from the crest of the Falls, his unbelievably powerful leg muscles propelling him high into the sky before landing on the island, dramatically interrupting the duel between Cyclops and Captain America. Even the anonymous cameraman on the shore was rocked by the impact of the Hulk’s meteoric arrival on the island, as evidenced by the way the picture on the TV screen lurched awkwardly soon after the Hulk hit the ground. Jarvis well remembered all of Avengers Mansion shaking the same way whenever the Hulk threw a tantrum—which he did pretty much throughout his shortlived stint as an Avenger.

  The Hulk’s crash landing carved a crater in the soil of Goat Island, from which he emerged unscathed. His troglodyte-like visage filled the TV screen, conveying so much primordial menace that Jarvis stepped backward involuntarily, almost stumbling over the dented teapot. The Hulk glared malevolently at the world, baring jagged teeth the size of slates, and the camera itself retreated, drawing back to capture as well the more heroic figures of Captain America and Cyclops, who broke off their own contest to eye the Hulk uneasily. Their wary stances bespoke what Jarvis considered a prudent caution in the Hulk’s presence. I suppose it’s too much to hope, he thought wryly, that the Hulk simply wants to break up the fight between Cyclops and the Captain.

  Not exactly. The other heroes’ apprehensions proved justified when the savage green gargantua lunged first at Cyclops, then Captain America. A single swipe from the Hulk’s huge hand downed the X-Man, forcing Captain America to come to the defense of his own opponent from moments before. The valiant Avenger fared little better than

  Cyclops; although even the Hulk’s fantastic strength was not enough to bend Captain America’s indestructible shield, the monster took out his anger on the Captain’s more fragile human body. One gamma-powered blow sent Captain America skidding backward across the island and, before the groggy hero could recover, the Hulk seized him with both hands. Triumphantly, the Hulk raised his unconscious foe above his misshapen head, then flung Captain America over the American Falls.

  Jarvis gasped in fear. He had once visited Niagara on holiday and well-remembered how dangerous those particular Falls were. Unlike the adjacent Canadian Falls, which emptied into a deep pool from which brazen daredevils were occasionally fished, the American Falls fell directly upon a shelf of deadly and unforgiving rocks. No one had ever survived a trip over that lethal cataract. No one could.

  Not even Captain America.

  Five thousand feet above Niagara Falls, Iron Man pursued Storm through black, swollen thunderclouds. All his attention was focused on the task of catching the mutant weather-witch within the purple radiance of his tractor beam, yet the female X-Man was proving devilishly hard to snare. I thought my armor was the latest thing in aerodynamic maneuverability, he thought, but Storm rides the winds like they belong to her, which, in a way, 1 guess they do. There was no question that her elemental ability to control the weather gave her a distinct advantage in this airborne chase; Storm literally had the wind at her back at every instance, while the armored Avenger was forever flying into the face of an opposing gale. Fortunately, I built this metal suit strong enough to ride out a hurricane.

  Encased in gleaming gold and crimson steel, Iron Man zoomed through the sky like a humanoid missile. Powerful boot-jets kept him aloft as he searched the turbulent atmosphere for the attractive but elusive X-Man. He had lost visual contact with his target, who had vanished into the foggy terrain of her “pet” clouds, but kept track of her via his radar and other long-range sensors. Unfortunately, the dense nimbostratus clouds provided Storm an arsenal of sorts, as demonstrated by the bolt of l
ightning that suddenly struck his armor, producing a shower of sparks.

  “Sorry, lady,” Iron Man muttered, “but you’re going

  to have to do better than that.” Insulation within his armor protected Tony Stark from electrocution while the built-in energy conversion system absorbed the bulk of the thunderbolt’s voltage, channeling it into Iron Man’s own power reserves. Storm’s first few lightning blasts had thrown him for a loop, but now that he was ready for her, she was just feeding him more power. In fact, judging from the current readings, projected directly onto his retinas by virtual imaging units in his eyepieces, he was beginning to exceed capacity. At this rate, he thought, I’m going to have to start firing plasma blasts at random just to discharge the excess energy.

  Perhaps realizing that her galvanic assault had lost its effectiveness, the unseen mutant crusader abruptly switched her tactics. Without warning, Iron Man found himself pelting with sleet, hail, and freezing winds. Fist-sized chunks of frozen rain pinged against his armor, already dented by a bumpy trip over the Canadian Falls, and ice began to form over his armor, including his boot-jets. The bitter cold penetrated sixteen layers of tesselated metal fabric, raising goosebumps on his skin. Brrr, he thought, cybernetically channeling some of that excess electricity to heat up the exterior of his armor.

  The frosty coating melted away, but the instigator of the hailstorm remained out of sight, hidden behind billowing banks of fog. Iron Man felt like he was up against the meteorological equivalent of guerrilla warfare, with Storm free to strike out at him from the relative concealment of the cloud cover. Too bad Thor’s off on his own quest right now, he thought. We could use our own Thunder God at the moment.

  Almost as elusive as Storm herself were the nagging questions behind the dogfight. Why had Storm come to the Hulk’s defense after he mutilated the Vision? What did the

  X-Men have to do with Wanda’s abduction? Granted, the Scarlet Witch was the only daughter of the X-Men’s greatest enemy, Magneto, but Xavier’s mutant strike force had never held that against her before. The unsolved mysteries preyed on Iron Man’s mind; all his high-tech sensors and computer capacity could not illuminate why the X-Men and the Avengers were now at odds. Only by apprehending Storm and her companions, including the Hulk, did they stand any chance of finding out what had happened to the Scarlet Witch.