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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Chapter 32
Chapter 33
Chapter 34
Chapter 35
Chapter 36
Chapter 37
Chapter 38
Chapter 39
Chapter 40
Chapter 41
Chapter 42
Chapter 43
Chapter 44
Chapter 45
Chapter 46
Chapter 47
Chapter 48
Chapter 49
Chapter 50
Chapter 51
Chapter 52
Chapter 53
Chapter 54
Chapter 55
Chapter 56
Chapter 57
Chapter 58
Chapter 59
Chapter 60
Chapter 61
Chapter 62
Chapter 63
Chapter 64


Written by Valerie Jones
Last updated: 05/10/2010 11:31:24 PM

Chapter 55

"Well, well. Look what the cat dragged in." Ben Grimmís craggy face split in a genuine grin as Bobby, Scott and Remy climbed through a small access hatch and into the interior of the Baxter building. Johnny Storm stood beside the huge scientist, arms akimbo and a wide smile on his face.

"Hey, Ben." In the lead, Bobby accepted the hand Ben offered to help him clamber through the narrow hatch. "Howís it going?"

Ben shrugged. "Canít complain." Bobby stepped aside to let Ben offer the same aid to Scott.

Scott gratefully accepted. His muscles quivered with exhaustion but he tried not to let it show.

Johnny rolled his eyes at Ben. "You canít complain, maybe. Iím bored out of my skull. Hey, Remy." Johnny craned his head to look past Scott. "Can you believe Iím going to miss the Monaco Gala this year?" His frown looked suspiciously like a pout.

Scott glanced behind him as Remy crawled through the small opening. The thief managed to make it seem like it was natural for a full grown man to fold himself in half to fit through a two foot by two foot hole.

Remy grinned up at the Human Torch. "Mí heart bleeds for yí, John. Really." He slid out of the hatch and stood, brushing dust and cobwebs from his uniform.

"You two know each other?" Scott looked between the two.

Remy shrugged. "We cross paths every so often."

Ben closed the access hatch behind the three X-Men and then turned to lead them out of the poorly lit sub-basement.

Johnny chuckled and shot Remy a sly look. "Wherever the actionís hottest, eh Rem?" He sauntered along beside Ben, looking every bit the playboy the media and gossip rags portrayed him as. "Hey, remember that time in Rio, what was it, two years ago? You had that crazy run at the blackjack table."

Remy flashed his scoundrelís grin.

Johnny went on without pausing. "Oh, and remember those twins? I swear, I thought Iíd died and gone to heaven. Monica and-and-" He snapped his fingers, trying to remember.

"Mandy," Remy supplied with a snort.

"Yeah, thatís it. Man, she was all over you." Johnny continued to chatter.

Scott watched with interest as Bobby shot Remy an inquisitive look, to which Remy responded with a tiny flicker of acknowledgment. Scott didnít know for certain what it meant but he could guess that Remy had been there for reasons other than the women and gambling. He found that strangely reassuring.

Ben led them into a stairwell. Scott took one look at the cement stairs doubling back on themselves as far upward as he could see and groaned.

"We cannibalized the elevator shafts to make room for your rocket, remember?" Ben reminded him.

"How far up are we going?" he couldnít help but ask.

Ben grinned at him with cheerful menace. "Forty-five stories."

Scott cursed under his breath. "Somebody, kill me now," he muttered.

Remyís laughter followed him as he started up the stairs.

Scott forgot all such mundane things as his aching legs as they walked into Reed Richardsí lab. The immediate vicinity looked like it had once been an office area, but had since been taken over for technology development. Banks of computing equipment formed impromptu walls between the support columns and in places the industrial grade carpet had been ripped up in order to run bundles of multicolored cables beneath the floor. Several of the modular-type desks that inhabited cube farms everywhere had been moved into the center of the floor and overflowed with more equipment.

But it was the view beyond the lab that stopped Scott in his tracks. The interior walls that should have divided the area off from the central core of the building had been removed. A narrow metal guardrail was all that stood between them and the vast empty shaft that took up the center of the building where the elevators had once run. And filling that space was the rocket.

Scott walked over to the edge to get a better look. By leaning out over the rail he could see the entire vehicle, from the massive, blocky engines on which it sat, up the hundreds of feet of cylindrical fuel tanks to the tiny pyramid-shaped passenger capsule located at the very top. The basic design was nearly identical to those used in the early days of the space program, though Scott suspected this one would prove to be far more sophisticated than its early ancestors.

A few minutes later, Remy joined him at the railing.

"Itís amazing, isnít it?" Scott asked. The sheer scope of what Reed had managed to accomplish took his breath away.

Remy glanced toward the rocket without reaction and then looked at Scott. "Dunno. What am I supposed tí be seeiní?"

Scott blinked, startled despite himself. He looked back out at the immense column of metal and composites, trying to wrap his mind around the idea that for Remy it simply didnít exist. He couldnít see it.

Scott spent a couple of minutes trying to describe the launch vehicle to the other man before a more practical curiosity took over his thoughts. He glanced over his shoulder at the tangle of tables and equipment Remy would have had to navigate to reach him.

"How did you get over here, anyway?" Bobby had gone over to a set of monitors on the far side of the lab area and was looking at something with Ben and Johnny.

Remy shrugged. "I jusí walked de same path you did. Since yí didní run into anytíing, it stands tí reason I wouldní either."

Scott had to smile at the blinding simplicity of that logic.

"So, does my design meet with your approval, Cyclops?" Reed Richards asked as he entered the room from a door off to Scottís left. His wife, Sue, and their son followed him.

Franklin immediately bounded across the room toward Ben and Johnny. Ben scooped the boy up and deposited him on the desk next to where they were working, giving him a good view of the computer screens.

Scott turned. "Iím thoroughly impressed," he admitted. Heíd had his doubts that even Reed Richards could build and launch a spacecraft from the middle of downtown New York.

Reed extended his hand in greeting and Scott shook it. "Itís good to see you again," Reed said. Beside him, Sue smiled and nodded her agreement.

"And you," Scott returned. Though the X-Men and Fantastic Four hadnít always seen eye to eye on various issues, their mutual respect had kept the groups on good terms.

Reed turned his attention to Remy, greeting him in similar fashion.

"We received an encrypted message from the X-Men earlier this morning," Reed said. He gestured for the two X-Men to follow him toward the far side of the lab.

Scottís stomach tightened instinctively. "What did it say?"

Sue flashed him a smile but then shifted her gaze to Remy. "íTell Gambit to call his wifeí," she answered.

Remy raised both eyebrows in curiosity. Scott felt his own tension dissipate. The message hadnít contained any of their emergency phrases so whatever Rogue wanted couldnít be too critical.

Johnny turned as they approached. "Is that some kind of code?" he asked Remy.

Remy shrugged. "Sure. Itís code fí I need tí call my wife."

"Youíre married?" Johnny gave him a supremely disappointed look. "How did that happen? You told me you were swearing off relationships for good once your divorce was finalized."

Remyís response was a tired sigh. "Tíings change, John." He looked over at Reed. "Phone?"

Beyond Reed, Sue reached over and smacked Johnny smartly on the back of the head.

"Ow." Johnny clapped both hands to his head and shot his sister a wounded look. "What was that for?"

Sue gave him a sweet smile. "You looked like you needed some help dislodging your foot from your mouth."

Reed ignored their antics. He picked up a small handset surrounded by what Scott presumed was the encryption equipment and handed it to Remy. He went through a brief description of the system which differed from what the X-Men had on the other end.

Scott watched Remy covertly as the other man went through the process of placing a call to the Guild complex. It hadnít occurred to him to wonder what Remy thought about his marriage to Rogue. The Guildmasterís opinion hadnít been asked, nor would it have changed anything.

"So how are you handling the launch itself?" Scott asked Reed while Remy talked with Rogue. "Has anyone ever launched a rocket into orbit from this far north?"

Reed shook his head. "Not to my knowledge. Thatís one of the reasons we can only get you there and not back again. It takes a lot of extra power to get into orbit from here and as you can see, we could only make the engines and fuel tanks so big." He gestured toward the huge shaft housing the nearly-complete vehicle.

"How are you going to keep the exhaust gasses from blowing up the whole building during launch?" Bobby asked curiously. Remy glanced their way at that; he was obviously keeping one ear tuned to the conversation.

Scott frowned. That was a very good question. "These are solid fuel rockets, right?" he asked.

Reed nodded again. "Even with Sue and Johnny to help, thereís probably not going to be a whole lot left of Four Freedoms Plaza after the launch," he told them. "In terms of livable space, at least. The forces involved are just too big to confine, even with our powers. However, weíve done a lot of structural work to the underground portions of the building in order to allow some of the blast force to vent into the sewer system and the subway tunnels. Enough, hopefully, to keep the building from coming down around our ears." He turned to Scott. "Weíll need your help to make sure those subway lines get shut down ahead of time-whether that means sabotaging the trains or what, I donít know-but you X-Men seem to have a lot of the right contacts for that sort of thing."

Scott just nodded as Remy concluded his conversation and hung up the phone.

"Everything okay?" Scott asked.

Remy frowned, but nodded. "Rogue says Bastionís announced heís goiní tí hold a press conference in about twenty minutes. All de major networks are poised tí cover it."

Sue tucked a lock of long, blond hair behind her ear. "This should be interesting. Bastion hasnít made a public announcement for months."

"Makes you wonder whatís brought him out of hiding now," Bobby said, his tone as uneasy as his expression. He leaned one hip against the nearest desk and crossed his arms.

Ben shrugged. "Every snake crawls out of its hole eventually." He glanced down at the boy still seated beside him. "Right, Franklin?"

Franklin nodded.

Scott turned back to Remy. "Is that why she wanted you to call?"

Remy shook his head, a glint of amusement in his eyes. "Non. Jeanís gone into labor aní they were hopiní we could make dis trip as short as possible."

"Labor?" Scott suffered a moment of full-blown panic before he managed to squelch it. Jean was going to kill him if he missed the babyís birth. Not only that, but he really wanted to be there. He needed to be there. "Did she say how long-?"

Remy shrugged. "Nope, but since sheís still sittiní in de office wití Rogue, Iíd say yí got a little time, at least. Theyíre goní watch de press conference aní then it sounded like Jean was goní go find Hank."

Scott instinctively checked his watch. "Itís going to take us a good six hours to get back out of here," he said and pinched the bridge of his nose at the thought of making that long climb in reverse. Jean was going to be lucky if he didnít fall asleep on her.

Remy snorted. "Seven, homme. Maybe eight." He gave Scott a piercing stare. "It took six tí get in, but weíre goní have tí take it slower on de way back. A body gets tired, makes mistakes if dey doní take some extra care."

Scott did his best to accept the admonishment, grateful Remy had spoken in generalities. It was a stupid bit of ego, he knew, but he really didnít want the Fantastic Four knowing that he was the one setting the pace-in the negative sense-on this trip.

"All right." He spent a quick moment organizing his thoughts. "Letís see what Bastion has to say first, and then Iíd like a tour of the capsule-" He gestured toward the nose of the rocket some two hundred feet above their heads, "and a walkthrough of the launch sequence." He glanced at Remy to gauge his reaction. "After that weíll head home."

Remy just shrugged. "Youíre de boss."

"Sir, Iím showing a significant increase in airborne sentinel activity over Manhattan. At least six additional sentinels have taken up station and a second flight of four is coming in from the west," a SHIELD officer reported, his tone clipped and efficient.

Colonel Nick Fury looked around his Operations center with a scowl. The X-Menís War Room had become SHIELDís new logistical center. It was filled with sensing and communications equipment and manned by his Ops crew from the Helicarrier.

"Ground activity?" Fury asked.

"No noticeable increase in ground troops," a different soldier answered from his station off to Furyís left. "But our people in the area are reporting numerous sentinels on the move." The man studied his readouts for a moment. "A large group-mixed CAT and humanoid-are moving north along Park Avenue."

Fury looked over at him in alarm. "Toward Worthington?"

"Theyíre moving in that direction, sir, but I donít think thatís their objective."

"Show me."

"Yes, sir." The man hurried to comply.

The main screen lit with a satellite image of the Manhattan area with streets and major landmarks labeled in dark print. Central Park formed a snowy, gray-white square in the middle of the picture. Red and blue triangular icons representing the two varieties of sentinels moved along Park Avenueís broad thoroughfare, headed north. Scattered set of additional icons, mostly pairs, also moved through the streets, but most of those appeared to be moving in a roughly southerly direction. The picket line of sentinels surrounding Four Freedoms Plaza remained in their standard position.

Fury worked his jaw as he studied the troop movements. "Lieutenant, status on those airborn sentinels."

A smattering of orange icons appeared on the map.

"Two of the four have peeled off and taken up stationary positions near Worthington. The remainder appear to be on patrol routes."

Fury didnít like it. His gut told him the changes were part of some bigger plan, though he didnít immediately see what.

He looked over at his communications officer. "Launch the alert fighters now," he ordered, "and I want an Eagle in the air as soon as possible." Eagle was their term for the Airborne Early Warning aircraft that would coordinate activity between all of their aerial assets. Like the AWACS system that had preceded it, the Eagle was a modified passenger jet capable of remaining in the air for long periods of time. It would feed information both to the SHIELD assets in the air and on the ground, and to the Operations center.

The officer nodded and turned to his console.

Moments later, a muted rumble came through the back wall as the pair of alert fighters launched from the hangar deck. The X-Menís hangar was too small for more than a handful of aircraft, though, so the rest of SHIELDís air power, particularly the larger aircraft, were hidden at temporary, mobile airstrips scattered about the northeastern U.S. It would take them a little longer to respond.

Fury nodded to himself. He didnít know what Bastion might be planning, but they would be ready to respond.

Bastion stepped up to the podium, whose solid wood front was inscribed with a filigree inlay of the Earth done in remarkable detail. He wore a dark gray suit with a black shirt and a pristinely white tie. The tieís color accentuated his white hair and helped make his pale skin look a little less unnatural.

Inside Four Freedoms Plaza, the entire group had gathered around one of the computer monitors which currently streamed a live feed from one of the major news stations.

"You know, Iím not entirely certain heís human," Sue said with a nod toward the television.

Scott turned to look at her in surprise. "What makes you say that?" Though there was precious little information to be had about Bastionís identity or origin, he hadnít heard anyone floating a serious theory that painted the man as something non-human.

She shrugged. "Some of his reactions are off, I guess. His behavior, his mannerisms... sometimes he seems more like a very good imitation of a human being rather than the real thing."

"Makes you wonder if maybe heís some kind of sentinel himself," Bobby added with a frown.

Scott glanced at Remy who cocked his head, his expression appraising. "Dat might explain why nobodyís been able tí come up wití much information on him."

Scott agreed, but kept his response to a nod as Bastion began to speak.

"Ladies and gentlemen. People of the Earth." Bastion gripped the edges of the podium and stared directly into the camera, his pale gaze steady. "A little over eight months ago, our world staggered beneath the terrible threat of the presence of mutants among us. Onslaught had just laid waste to a large section of New York City. Not long before that, Magneto held the world hostage to terror with the threat of a nuclear attack. Countless innocents have been hurt or killed by mutant aggression across the globe and property damage has reached into the billions of dollars."

Scott crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head. How much worse would the damage have been, he wondered, if there hadnít been mutant teams like the X-Men around to stop them, too? And what about the non-mutant threats theyíd dealt with? What would have happened to the Earth and its people if thereíd been no mutants to defend them from those?

Bastion paused briefly before going on. "At that time, I proclaimed to you my Zero Tolerance policy against mutants. With the help of several different organizations and with the support of the United States government and those of many allied nations, Operation: Zero Tolerance activated the ring of satellites over our heads that prevents mutants from using all but the most basic and physical of their powers." His gaze roamed the room as if looking out over his worldwide audience.

"Magneto-wherever he is and if he still lives-is now just a man like everyone else. You do not have to be afraid of him anymore."

The three X-Men exchanged glances at that. They still didnít know for sure if Joseph and Magneto were one and the same.

Bastion released the corners of the podium and folded his hands in front of him. "But despite these measures, mutant aggression has not stopped." His face took on a stern cast, like a father scolding his children. "By far the worst offenders are the X-Men who continue to wage an illegal war against the legitimate authorities of the United States."

Scott shook his head, disgusted. "OZT is not a legitimate authority in any country," he muttered. "He makes it sound like weíre trying to topple the government."

Reed turned toward him with a frown. "There is just enough confusion on that point to keep many people who might otherwise throw their lot in with us paralyzed with indecision."

Scott looked up sharply. "Who do you mean?"

"The vast majority of our armed forces, for one," Reed answered, "as well as the FBI and state and local law enforcement agencies." He shrugged. "As long as both the White House and the judicial system remain silent, no one really knows for sure just how legitimate OZT is." He paused. "Which is why the Worthington suit is so important."

"That was a stroke of genius," Sue interjected, leaning forward to look past her husband. "Whoever came up with it."

Scott couldnít help a small smile. "Warrenís idea," he told her. Warren had always had a highly political mind, as well as the necessary ins among the wealthy and powerful to push something like a lawsuit against OZT. Scott had no idea how many favors Warren had called in to make it happen, but he suspected the other man had squeezed just as much influence out of his family name as he could.

Bastion continued speaking throughout the conversation, and Scott quickly turned his attention back to the news feed.

"In recent weeks, several groups have made the regrettable decision to support the X-Men in their acts of terror," Bastion told his audience.

Beside Remy, Bobby rolled his eyes. "Geez, heís laying it on thick."

"Until today, the most notable among these has been SHIELD," Bastion went on. "A group originally formed to protect humanity from mutants, SHIELD has recently abdicated this duty and joined forces with the X-Men and their allies."

Bastion paused and his tone turned grave. "But today humanity is faced with a new betrayal by some of its most respected heroes."

An instinctive alarm in Scottís head began to ring. Beside him, he saw Remyís brow crinkle in concern.

"Doní like de sound oí dat," Remy said in an undertone.

Scott didnít get a chance to respond as the screen split and a multi-color computerized image filled the right hand side while Bastionís visage remained in the left. Scott identified it as a thermal image after a moment. Several people were visible in the image, their bodies shaded in oranges and reds that stood out against the murky greens of the background.

"This thermal image was taken less than an hour ago," Bastion said. "Ladies and gentlemen, you are looking inside Four Freedoms Plaza, and three of these figures are X-Men."

Trish Tilby sat bolt upright in her chair at Bastionís pronouncement. Her heels, which had been propped on the corner of the desk, dropped unceremoniously to the floor. The steno pad on which sheíd been taking notes on his speech slipped out of her fingers. It flopped on the ground beside her chair with the pen following a moment later. A chill skittered across her skin, making her gut tighten.

"Did he just say the X-Men are inside Four Freedoms Plaza?" Eddie asked incredulously from across the desk. Heíd been working on copy for their evening FreedomNet entry, but now he sat frozen, fingers poised over his keyboard as he stared at Trish.

She nodded. It wasnít so much that the X-Men were inside the Baxter building. After their sentinels factory break-in, she figured the X-Men could get into anything they wanted. It was the fact that Bastion knew-more than that-that he was announcing it to the world that made her journalistís instincts scream.

"Isnít that, like, fifteen blocks from here?" Eddie continued.

The comment had a galvanizing effect. Trishís thoughts sharpened abruptly and she jumped to her feet. "Címon. Grab the camera."

She grabbed her coat off the back of her chair and slipped into it. Sheíd gotten pretty good at doing the buttons one-handed, which was good because she hated having to ask for help.

"Where are we going?" Eddie asked as she led him into the stairwell and headed upward at a run.

"The roof. Hurry." They should have a decent view of Four Freedoms from there and her gut was telling her that she would miss the story if they didnít move fast.

Trish was breathing heavily by the time they got up to the steel door leading out onto the roof. Putting her weight into it, she shoved the door open and burst through into a thin, cold winter day. Gravel crunched beneath her shoes. Across the jagged landscape of buildings, she could clearly see the top half of the Fantastic Fourís home base. Like the other towers of its day, the Baxter building was made of stone, with narrow windows and heavy decorative crenellations at the top where it began to narrow into a tall spire. At one point in history it had dwarfed everything in the city save the Empire State building, but now it was nearly swallowed by the shining glass towers that lined the East Side of Manhattan.

A distant roar made her look up. A pair of fighters left dual contrails in the sky as they flew in a broad, arcing path around the city. Eddie raised the camera to capture the two. Airplanes always made for great background footage.

Trish pointed toward the Baxter building. "Over there."

Eddie obediently swung around. Trish had just a second to wonder if she was going to end up looking like an idiot for racing up there just to shoot film of a building that had been standing for sixty years when a massive blue-white beam speared down out of the sky to strike the top of Four Freedoms Plaza.

The top of the tower exploded. Trish uttered a little shriek of surprise as the upper floors shattered in a boiling cloud of dust and flame. Pieces of masonry flew violently outward to impact the faces of neighboring buildings and several immense chunks of stone broke away, tumbling toward the ground. The flagpole that topped the tower fell too, trailing the American flag like a broken banner in its wake.

The blast wave hit Trish a moment later, staggering her, and a deafening roar filled the air. The beam glowed white-hot, too bright to stare at. It remained constant rather than cutting out and while the first pieces of the tower were still falling, another section of the building bulged outward and then exploded with a roar even louder than the first. A massive orange fireball rolled upward into the sky, momentarily obscuring the white beam.

Beside Trish, Eddie chanted a constant string of Our Fatherís from his Catholic school days.

Suddenly a curving shield winked into existence somewhere in the middle of the building. Like an invisible umbrella, it shielded the floors beneath it. Dust, fire and falling stone all slid down the sides of the shield, disappearing from Trishís view beyond the neighboring buildings. Even the white beam seemed to cascade down it like liquid lightning.

"Look! Thatís got to be the Invisible Woman," Trish yelled over the noise of the explosion. She pointed with her good hand toward the shield. "The Fantastic Four are still alive in there!"

Then, just as quickly as it had appeared, the shield winked out. The beam struck the remaining stub of the Baxter building, destroying it in a fiercesome ball of fire. The explosion rocked the nearby buildings, making them shudder and sending a huge column of dust and smoke spewing into the sky.

Trish stared. The Fantastic Four couldnít be dead, could they? And the X-Men? Her mind began to race. Three X-Men, Bastion had said. Which three, though? A tiny pit formed in her stomach as she considered the possibilities. Surely not Hank... even though he was one of only a few people in the world who could understand Reed Richardís work in depth.

Please, not Hank, she found herself pleading toward whatever God might be watching, but just as quickly shoved the thought away. Her duty was to report the news-the truth-as completely and accurately as she could.

Heart pounding, Trish dug through her pockets, emerging with her cell phone. She dialed the personal number of an old friend who happened to be a news director over at CNN.

As she did so, several members of her crew came barreling through the door to the roof. Nearly in unison they slid to a stop, their expressions going slack with awe as they took in the scope of the destruction. One had their satellite uplink dish folded up and balanced on his shoulder.

"You read my mind," Trish told him and pointed to a spot off to her left. "Set it up right there."

The phone she held picked up after a couple of rings and she immediately recognized her friendís voice.

"Make it fast, Trish," he said breathlessly. "Bastion just attacked Four Freedoms Plaza."

Trish stared into the distance where several sentinels had risen into the air and were circling the column of smoke. "I know. I got it on tape." She smiled grimly at the stunned silence on the other end of the line. "Iím sending it to you now."



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