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THE END OF THE INNOCENCE

A Tale of Iron Mike & Guardian

By Doc Nebula

 

 

Dr. Richards reached forward and moved his one remaining spaceknight into a position his opponent felt was wildly untenable. "Mate in three moves," the Fantastic Four's professorial leader said coolly. "You are, frankly, my friend, fucked."

Across the table, Iron Mike's crystalline artifical optic sensors sparkled oddly; it was, in him, the equivalent of a curiously raised eyebrow. "Fucked?" he inquired in his usual perfectly modulated tones.

"Yes," Reed agreed, sitting back in the tall red leather chair and steepling his fingers. "I've noticed that the most colorful of our peers - Hercules, Hawkeye, Guardian, Pietro, Ben, even Crystal and Gorgon, on occasion - sprinkle their speech with vulgarities. I thought if I emulated this it might make me seem more... goddam normal."

"You want to seem more like Hercules, Hawkeye, Guardian, and Quicksilver?" Iron Mike replied, his dry tone nonetheless conveying more than a hint of how dubious he found such a concept. The mellow golden light from the Victorian green glass reading lamps Sue had furnished the FF library with gleamed pleasantly from the seamless, silvery bulk of his living metal body. He leaned forward to scrutinize the board more closely. There was something very ominous about that knight's position. For the umpteenth time, Mike wished someone would get around to inventing PCs in the Marvel Universe, so he could introduce DOOM. Not that Negative Zone chess wasn't fun, but...

Reed cocked his head to one side thoughtfully. "When you put it that way it does seem sort of... silly," he said doubtfully. "But, no. Shit no! HELL no! I want to seem more like one of the christly boys."

Iron Mike reached a smooth, metallic finger towards his hive-queen. "Just don't do it in front of Sue," he advised drily.

Reed smiled wryly. "No," he agreed. "She rarely welcomes such experiments."

Outside the library, in the spacious and impeccably furnished front living room of the FF's main suite, Johnny Storm sulked on a French brocade sofa. "I knew we shoulda got the She-Hulk to fill in for Ben," he muttered darkly. "SHE'd a'been more fun. Now we got two big brains and all they do is play stupid hologram games and turn my cars into anti-gravity sleds."

Across the room, Sue Storm didn't even look up from where she was crocheting a bulky cable knit sweater from a ball of unstable yarn roughly the size of a gunpowder hogshead. "I know exactly what your idea of 'more fun' would have been concerning Jennifer Walters, young man," she said rather waspishly. "I really think you should go find yourself a nice, normal girl, instead of all these Inhumans and foster daughters of Professor Horton and all this nonsense."

"Aw, sis," Johnny said. "She-Hulk wouldn't have been my type at all. I like 'em short and cuddly, like Dorrie or Crystal." Johnny looked thoughtful for a second. "Wyatt would have loved her, though. Hmmmm... I should give him a call."

Abruptly, the gold-trimmed antique reproduction phone gave a precious little burring ring. Sue sighed. "Johnny dear, my hands are full. Could you..."

Johnny, muttering under his breath, got up to walk over to the phone. "We oughtta hire some cute babe to answer the damn thing," he fumed. "Or get Reed to build a robot or something."

Not far away, on a gentle, grassy slope in Central Park, two Avengers sat on a red and white checkered tablecloth. One, male, looked to be in his mid to late 20s, with the muscular build of a superhero evident under his tight blue tshirt and black jeans. The t-shirt had a red and yellow Superman symbol emblazoned on it. The fellow's shoulder length brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail, a style which wouldn't become popular among males until the late 80s, but that he found convenient. His somewhat darker beard was neatly trimmed. He regarded his diminutive female companion for a moment, shook his head at what he saw, and reached into the wicker picnic basket. In a creditable imitation of Bullwinkle T. Moose, he exclamed "Hey, Waspie, watch me pull a rabbit out of this hat!"

Janet Van Dyne looked up from where she'd been rubbing her fingers absently over the smooth weave of the tablecloth and let a ghost of a smile curve her lips. She gave a small sigh and then, a voice pitched just a little higher than normal, replied "Again? But that trick never works!"

"This time for sure," the Avenger normally known as Guardian replied. He then did an exaggerated double take when he pulled out, instead of a rabbit, a large deli sandwich. "Um... time to get a new hat?"

Jan actually laughed. "If that's a turkey sandwich on a kaiser roll with mayo and hot mustard," she said, reaching out, "then I'd say your hat is fine. Gimme."

Guardian surrendered the sandwich without further struggle, smiling. He reached back into the basket and pulled out another sandwich, this one roast beef on half a split loaf of French bread. "There's potato salad in here somewhere, too, or I'm gonna have to sic Tigra on that deli..."

Jan giggled as she chomped wolfishly into her sandwich. It was a pleasant sound. The black eye her soon to be ex-husband had given her a few weeks before had faded, but she'd been in a profoundly gloomy mood ever since. Guardian wanted to reassure her that it was all just bad writing and that, a few years down the line, better scripters would come along, make Hank a nice guy again, and eventually, get the two of them back together where they belonged... but such reassurances would only lead to a lot of very difficult questions. What was he going to say? "I'm from a universe where all you guys are characters in comic books and I've read most of them? Right now we're in the middle of a really depressing run by Jim Shooter. Be grateful you can't see the art, it's awful... oh, yeah, and Tony, tell Mrs. Arbogast that she'll save us all a lot of trouble if she doesn't let that airhead answer the phones next week when Hank tries to call you and can't get through." No, no... other measures were definitely called for. But it seemed the picnic in the park idea was having the desired effect.

Just then, both of their communicards went off at once.

Through a mouthful of roast beef, Guardian muttered, "All work and no play..."

Abruptly, in the FF's library... their front room... over Guardian and the Wasp's picnic... in the Avengers Mansion billiards room, where Tigra and Thor were playing teams against Captain America and Hercules... in a warehouse across the river in New Jersey, where a large team of X-Men had assembled and was boarding a Blackbird aircraft... in a West Coast movie studio where the Thing and the She-Hulk were knocking each other through plywood partitions while the cameras rolled... in the command center of the SHIELD helicarrier... a huge, three dimensional image of a bald head appeared. Strangely slanted eyes gazed out at the various superbeings commandingly.

"Forgive me for making contact in such an abrupt way," the voice of Professor Xavier thundered in two dozen minds at once. "I realize that even now, most of you are being contacted about this current crisis by more conventional means, but this is faster. My Westchester mansion is under attack by Magneto and a massive force of evil mutants and combat droids. I have a small team of X-Men inside, but they cannot hold the mansion against such an overwhelming force, and they have fallen back into a specially reinforced bunker. Based on a report from them, I believe that it is Magneto's objective to secure a temporal warping artifact we obtained recently and use it to remove my presence from this timeline's history. I beseech you all to help my team protect it." The talking head vanished.

Guardian pulled his communicard out of his pocket in a daze. On its small screen, Peter Gyrich's florid face snarled and yammered. "Every goddam mutant on the friggin planet is attacking some mansion in Westchester!" the hot tempered Avengers liaison yelled. "You people..."

"We're on it," Guardian said tersely, and keyed the disconnect button. "Tell me you're wearing unstable molecules, Jan," he said, his thumb quickly punching out another number sequence on the card.

"After that Moondragon episode, I don't leave home without 'em," a tiny voice buzzed near Guardian's head. "Who are you calling?"

"The Baxter Building is slightly closer than Avengers Mansion," Guardian replied. "The Prof probably included them in that conference call, but if he didn't, I want Reed... and a certain living metal partner of mine... in on this party. Sounds like brains might matter a whole lot more than brawn and blasters." He glanced down at the communicard as he heard someone answer. "Hey, there, Team Traitor! Did you Fantasti-folks just get a mento-gram from the only guy on the planet nearly as bald as you...?"

At the Baxter Building, Ben Grimm was talking to Reed on the central viewscreen. "The rest of the West Coast Avengers are off somewhere, I dunno where," the Thing was saying in his raspy Bronx accent, "but Shulkie and me can grab a quinjet and be back there in a hour and a half... an hour if I take the souped up one Hawkeye was after me to test pilot last week."

"Just don't fucking blow anything up, you giant rocky asshole," Reed said. "We'll see you at the goddam mansion."

As Ben reached to break the connection, he muttered "What's with Stretcho...?"

Iron Mike was speaking into his Avengers communicard. "Sure," he said, "we're taking the big Fantasticar; you two can hitch a ride if you get here quick. You enormous pulsating wad of green uselessness."

"You remember who’s useless when you’re moving all your shit back OUT of the Baxter Building and into the Secret Citadel again and you want a little green energy beam help," Reed heard, before Mike chuckled and keyed the card back to inactive status.

"Who the fuck was that?" Reed asked, stretching his arm across the room to pull down a new bundle of isotope fuel-rods for the Fantasti-car off a shelf that would have been far out of reach of a normal human.

"Guardian and the Wasp," Iron Mike replied. "They're over in Central Park and as long as we're all heading in the same direction..."

Reed started shoving various unfinished looking devices into a big sturdy duffle bag. "What, were they on a christly picnic? Shit!"

Iron Mike sighed. "Uh... Reed... really... you might want to tone that down."

Reed frowned. "I was starting to enjoy it, but I'm sure you're right. The Avengers would probably think I was a Skrull."

Elongating his neck ten feet or so, Richards looked around the lab. "Can you think of anything else we might want? I've got the molecular depolarizer, the random particle accelerator, the photonic-bazooka, the graviton-flux cannon, the EMP-projector..."

"Make sure the safety is on that one," Iron Mike advised dryly.

Reed darted his head into the duffle bag, then a hand. There was a click and he emerged again, holding a small circular disk. "Good call," he said. "I took the power source out of it."

Iron Mike looked around the lab, and a horrible thought occurred to him. It was too early... Hank Pym had just gone berserk a few weeks ago, and the West Coast Avengers were still up and running... they were clearly only into the early to mid 80s of the Marvel Universe, even if here in the real version, it stubbornly insisted on only being 1974. But... his presence here, and Guardian's, and even that of Guardian's strange mutant friend Blackstar, had caused so many disruptions already. The New Warriors, just for one example, had formed years ahead of schedule...

"Yeah," Mike said suddenly. "I can think of something we definitely want to take with us."

As the Fantasti-car swooped low over Westchester, the dim blueish glow on the horizon quickly resolved itself into a shimmering hemisphere of energy lying over the smashed, burning remains of what had once obviously been an extensive mansion. Inside the energy dome, figures moved back and forth quickly, rushing to and from the perimeter. On the outer side, other colorful figures battered away at it. From where he sat near the main controls, Iron Mike could gaze down with his crystalline photon-receptors and see Mandroids, man-sized Sentinels, and various mutants of the 'evil' persuasion running around inside the force field dome, while various X-Men and Avengers, along with a few solo supertypes like Spider-man and Nova, gathered around the outer surface and tried to force their way inside.

"We're late," Guardian groused from the backseat, where he was wedged in between Johnny and Sue. The Wasp was curled up out of the wind inside one of his shoulder flanges. "I could have walked here by now. Jeez, the X-Men probably got all the good spots."

"Damn those energy dome hogging mutants," Iron Mike intoned gravely. "DAMN them."

"You can be replaced by a green guy with light bulbs in his head," Guardian muttered truculently into his beard.

"You didn't need to ride along," Sue said huffily. "You do have belt jets, you know."

"And I'd a used 'em if you hadn't kept saying 'just one more minute, one more minute, guys'," Guardian snarled back.

"You must never have lived with a girl," Johnny said morosely. "Lucky stiff."

"ChiiiiiiiiilDREN," Reed said warningly from behind the controls. "If you can't behave I'm going to make you wait in the Fantasti-car and you won't get to fight any of the evil mutants."

"Aw, Dad," the Wasp piped from Guardian's shoulder.

"HE started it," Sue insisted, nudging Guardian's armored torso with her elbow. "Ow. You're hard."

Guardian manfully restrained himself from retorting.

Down below, a couple of unhappy looking SHIELD agents with light sticks waved to direct the Fantasticar into a nearby field, where a quinjet, a Blackbird, an extensively customized Lamborgini, and several SHIELD hovercraft troop carriers were already parked. As Reed brought the vehicle straight down on its inverted gravity columns, one of the SHIELD agents ran up. "Any big brains in here? Professor X wants all the big brains over in that trailer over there."

Guardian raised his armored hands. "Don't look at ME," he said. "I just want someone to point me to the souvenir stand so I can get a t-shirt."

"Nobody was looking at you," Iron Mike informed him as he and Reed Richards jumped out of the Fantasti-car and headed off in the indicated direction.

As the SHIELD agent directed the four other heroes to the command area where General Fury and Captain America were deploying strike teams, Drs. Richards and Norton clanged up the short flight of metal stairs into the trailer they'd been sent to.

Inside, they were warmly greeted by four other figures already seated around an electronic map table with a built in cybernetic calculator. T'Challa, Hank McCoy, Charles Xavier, and Bruce Banner all stood, or at least, leaned over the table, to shake hands. Iron Mike looked quizzically at Banner. "Dr. Banner, are you sure it's wise..."

Banner's face assumed tragic lines. "I am no longer the Hulk," he said quietly. "I'm afraid young Richard Jones has assumed that curse. I've been working with SHIELD on a way to capture and cure him, and when the alert came in, I thought my services might be useful here."

Iron Mike's metallic face reflected none of his consternation. Were they in the middle of that particular run on HULK? Good God. He'd have to keep a sharp look out; Leonard Samson was always trying to psychoanalyze him...

Hank McCoy drummed blue furry fingers impatiently on the table top. "So where's my old buddy the other Hank? Pym, by name, Ants, by game. We could use a red hot cyberscientist on this deal. I've got an idea for sending millions of ants burrowing under the dome to find the power source and eat through the cables..." He trailed off, seeing the looks the various current Avengers exchanged.

"Dr. Pym won't be joining us," T'Challa said levelly. "He's going through some personal difficulties."

Reed sat down at the table. "How about Tony Stark? He in the States?"

T'Challa spoke up again. "We're in constant touch with Mr. Stark," he said. "He can hear everything we say." Iron Mike suppressed a smile. Doubtless, Tony would have had a hard time being out there in armor and in here without it at the same time, and the crowd in this trailer would have spotted an LMD at a hundred yards.

Xavier turned a sharp gaze on the duffle bag Iron Mike had carried in. "You come bringing gifts?"

Reed stretched a hand into the bag and pulled out the EMP-projector. "Electromagnetic pulse projector," he said, a tiny bit proudly. "Should shut down the whole shootin' match. Then we walk in and..."

T'challa sighed, reached under the table, and put a long polished vibranium cylinder on the table. Hank McCoy placed something that looked like a futuristic lighting rod on top of it. Professor Xavier silently added an oversized tuning fork wired up to a huge power pack to the pile. "They don't seem to be effective on this force field," he said coolly.

Reed pursed his lips and looked down at his own invention. "I fold," he said, dropping the two foot long length of flanged and node studded alloy on to the tabletop along with the other models.

T'Challa began carefully picking them all up and stacking them against the wall. "Tony would have a baby if he knew how many of us are working on these things," he said, smiling widely.

"I heard that," a voice crackled from a speakerphone. "And you're right. You're all very very bad."

"I have a few myself," Iron Mike volunteered, "but Guardian gets pissy when he catches me playing with one."

"The force field Magneto is using is, as far as I can tell, based on an old Kree prototype," Professor Xavier intoned grimly. "Pulsating wavicles in a desynchronized caviton flux-field. It reflects around 103% of the energy directed at it." Xavier wearily raised a hand. "I know, I know. Don't tell me it's impossible. He probably got it off one of the ships that fell to Earth during the Thanos War, and had the Toad modify it. The man steals all his technology, and then lets his followers think he's a genius."

"Ants," McCoy said mournfully. "Ants were the answer."

Outside, Guardian stood at the center of a small knot of SHIELD agents and superheroes. He was standing very still, facing the shimmering force dome, while Spider-man, the Thing, She-Hulk, Iron Man, the Wasp, Thor, Quicksilver, and the Invisible Woman looked on curiously. As they watched, the green armor covering his shoulders and arms seemed to shimmer, then ripple, then bulge. Massive armored cables seemed to pop out along the sides of his arms like huge, green veins. The heavy metal pods around his wrists seemed to grow even thicker, as did the sharp, triangular flanges projecting up from his shoulders. Metal seemed to flow like green glistening liquid around his collar and up over the back of his helmet, building up over his central helmet ridge into a heavy, horn like, apparently hollow metal snout pointed directly at the force field.

"Did your armor always do that?" Spider-man asked curiously. "'Cuz I gotta tell ya, I just got rid of a costume that did stuff like that. If you picked that outfit up on the Secret Wars planet..."

Iron Man's helmet grated against his flanged collar as he shook his head minutely. "No, I remember Iron Mike telling me about this. He redesigned the Trask Sentinel adaptability circuitry to be specifically integrated into Guardian's Kree-derived battle suit, and modified it to interact with the psychoactive high energy particles Guardian already controls."

"Yeah," Guardian agreed. "Or, in English, he made my armor able to transform itself into different specific forms at my mental command. Of course, the bigger adaptations take a few minutes..." The metal of Guardian's armor stopped shimmering and seemed to cohere into a new, solid configuration. "Ah. All done. Now we'll see..."

Captain America came loping over. "People! What are we having, a picnic? This isn't Central Park, you know." Cap's glare could have melted cinderblock; he hadn't been happy at all when he'd heard about Guardian and the Wasp's little tete a tete. "Guardian, if you're done with your fashion show, I'd like to put your audience to some kind of useful purpose..."

"Relax, O Sentinel of Liberty," Guardian replied. "We're just about gettin' ready to knock this force field down. Prepare to kick some mutie ass, sports fans."

"Watch it," Quicksilver growled.

"I beg your pardon, your Homo Superiorness," Guardian said. A low whine had started to build up from his armor as a greenish glow began to accumulate around the outthrust energy flange projecting from the front of his helmet. "Cap, here's the plan. I'm going to put every bit of power I've got into projecting the biggest field of power I can onto that forcefield. I'm going to match the particle flow and vibration pattern of the wavicles that comprise it as best I can... Shellhead already checked my configuration there... and when I do, I'm going to drop the whole thing into slo-mo. Hopefully, this should open a temporary doorway in the field. You guys pour through like the wrath of God and do the hero thing. We all go home happy."

Captain America turned to Iron Man. "Is this... feasible?"

Iron Man turned one gauntlet palm up. "It's a shot. He's basically adapting the same polarized particle field he used to set up an anti-magic aura around the Enchantress. It should work."

Cap shook his head. "Why didn't you radio me? People are spread out all over the dome trying to make an entrance. Give me a second to call a formation..."

Guardian, for once, wisely kept his mouth shut, knowing how much he tended to infuriate people, especially the Avengers field leader. Pietro jumped in. "That's why we didn't tell you, Cap. If everyone suddenly runs over here, Magneto will mass his defenses over here. We'll have a head to head confrontation with an army of Mandroids, Sentinels, and mutant criminals. This way, we have a small but powerful and relatively fast group ready to jump inside and head straight for Magneto's command post as soon as the shield opens."

Cap turned towards the dome. "Fine, then." Guardian silently bet himself Cap was going to put himself in charge of the attack. "I'm taking command of the probe," he went on. Guardian ruefully congratulated himself. "Everyone stand ready."

"Master, Master!" Croaker, the artificially-mutated frogman Magneto had created in the Savage Land, came bounding up breathlessly. "The evil ones are attempting to breach the forcefield in sector 8!"

From where he was bent over the controls of the modified negative particle projector, the Toad sneered and jeered, "Master O Master! The evil ones are doing things! O Master!" For some reason he hated Croaker. The way the amphibious mutate hopped around sucking up to Magneto really grated on the Toad's nerves.

"Silence, Toad!" Magneto commanded, cuffing his erstwhile sycophant across the ear. "You keep telling me this armament is astonishing, now get it working! Croaker, the evil ones are attempting to breach the forcefield everywhere. Why are you wasting my time with this latest attempt?"

"But Master," Croaker sniveled, bounding from one froglike foot to the other, "Mastermind says the one called Captain America is there, and your son, and the Thunder God, and the Man of Iron, and the bearded hippyfreak in the ugly green metalsuit is doing something he thinks is VERY bad, you should come see, Master!"

Magneto cursed in Serbo-Croatian. "Toad, get that cursed bunker open!" he snarled, making an effort to speak English again. "When you do, take in a platoon of Sentinels, slaughter all the X-Men, and get me that time machine!" With a melodramatic swirl of his heavy cloak, the Master Mutant turned on his heel and strode off after Croaker, a squadron of magnetically controlled Mandroids falling in behind him.

"Sure," the Toad muttered. "Make the Stranger's bazooka work. Get the bunker open. Slaughter the X-Men. Give me all the easy stuff."

Outside the force field, the small group of heroes could see new activity within. A squadron of Mandroids was rushing into place opposite the position of the hoped for breakthrough. Several figures the various Avengers recognized as Magneto's artificial mutates gathered behind them. "Iron Man, take out that witch Lorelei as soon as we get in," Cap ordered tersely. "She's a real pain."

"I got her, Cap," the Wasp countermanded quickly. "Sue can back me up. Her powers won't affect us as badly. Iron Man, I think I see Vertigo-go back there, though, if you want someone to repulsor..."

"Cripes," Ben Grimm rumbled. "Vertigo-go. I don' ever wanna fight anyone with that bad a name."

"Right," the She-Hulk agreed. "Only Nega-Men, Dragon Men, and Dr. Dooms for you, big fella."

"Ah, shaddap," the Thing replied.

"Some people shouldn't talk about really bad names anyway," Guardian muttered quietly to himself, cutting his eyes briefly over at the hulking six and half foot tall form of Jennifer Walters.

Abruptly, a lance of green energy so bright it hurt the unshielded eye pulsed out of Guardian's headpiece and intersected the forcefield. The oval cross section where both energy fields met was around eight feet high by five feet wide.

"Tight fit," Thor rumbled.

"Lose some weight," Quicksilver sneered.

The resonant whine of Guardian's energy beam suddenly deepened into the bass range. The oval cross section became translucent... transparent... and then cleared completely.

"GO!" Cap yelled, then raised his shield as a sudden hard wind kicked clods of dirt from Xavier's front yard into his face. He bounded forward hot on Quicksilver's heels, but even so, Iron Man had already blasted through the opening on his bootjets, repulsor rays pulsing. Behind the Mandroids, several of Magneto's mutates suddenly went pinwheeling backwards through the air. Close behind the Star Spangled Avenger followed everyone else. Thor leapt through the opening with astounding agility, until one reflected on just how coordinated an immortal wargod should actually be after a few thousand years of practice. The Wasp darted through like an arrow from a bow. Spider-man vaulted through, turning several somersalts in mid-leap, spraying webbing, and landing feet first on the shoulders of a Mandroid, whose helmet the Web-Slinger promptly ripped off so he could start tearing up its interior controls. The Thing rumbled through like an armored troop carrier, charging straight into several Mandroids. The She-Hulk followed to his left. Shards and fragments of golden armor plating began to fly through the air.

No one saw the Invisible Woman enter...

A hundred yards away, the Blob saw the heroes pouring in through the breach in the force field. "Fuck!" he bellowed. "They're in! Whadda we do?"

"Run away, run away?" suggested Mastermind.

"Oh HELL no," Unus and Pyro said simultaneously. Avalanche grunted his agreement.

"Mastermind," Unus suggested, "why don't you make us look like... oh... say... Cyclops, the Angel, the Beast, Iceman, and Marvel Girl? Then we can go... help." The rest of the mutants smiled... evilly.

Xavier's yard was scattered with empty trailers. Magneto had used some of them to transport Mandroids, others for Sentinels, a few for the various pieces of stolen alien technology he had accrued and could actually use that were easily portable... and this one, which was not quite so empty as the others. He opened the door and strode inside.

A shadowy figure lay on a bench, hunched over miserably. Magneto quickly walked over to him. "Wake up, Vanisher. I need you."

Professor Xavier sighed wearily as he tapped commands into the electronic keyboard. "Dr. Norton, really, I don't think it's necessary for you to bodyguard me. With the forcefield down, you should be out there with the others, helping subdue Magneto's forces."

Iron Mike didn't look around from where he stood by the trailer's door, looking out towards the battle. "This whole thing is about you, Professor. If Magneto can't wipe you out of history, maybe he'll settle for sending a few evil mutants in to cut your throat. I'm not leaving you here by yourself."

The Professor chuckled. "Because of my apparent handicap, my friend? I assure you, I'm far more capable than you might think."

"Anyone Magnus sends after you will have psionic-shields, Charles," Iron Mike said quietly. "You might need an old fashioned asskicker here. And it may as well be the only person on the planet you can legitimately call Chromedome without feeling like a hypocrite."

Xavier laughed out loud. "Very well, Michael. I don't suppose you brought a deck of cards...?"

Iron Mike didn't reply. He had his own reasons for wanting to be here besides protecting Professor X. He was very afraid something else might become necessary...

In the trailer, Magneto paced. He could hear the sounds of combat outside. He should be out there, fighting besides his loyal men... Feh! His mood swung maniacally. They were nothing but pawns, easily sacrificed if it brought him the victory he wanted! With another pace, his mood altered again. But he would honor their sacrifice... he would avenge them... he would do better, he would alter time itself to make them live again...!

The Vanisher reappeared with a faint pop of displaced air. He was holding a strange alien looking artifact in his hands. "It was right where you pointed out on those diagrams," he sniveled. "But that damned Blackstar nearly got me with one of his throwing stars..."

Magneto strode over and yanked the device out of the Vanisher's hands. He had it! It was HIS! With his hands on it, he could actually feel the strange energies flowing through it. He would reshape all of time in his own image...

But how did it work?

Pieces of Mandroid littered the ground. The mini-Sentinels were a lot tougher, but they had their limits, too. That nasty ambush the Evil Mutants had staged could have turned the tide, if Mastermind hadn't dressed up their illusory façade in costumes from five years before. Even the Blob had been willing to surrender after Thor bounced Mjolnir off him a time or two.

High above, the Toad straddled the erstwhile negative particle cannon and nudged its controls a trifle. He hadn't bothered to tell the Master of Magnetism that the cannon could also double, in a pinch, as a short range space vehicle. The particle field enclosing him contained enough heat and atmosphere for him to easily make Asteroid M. Perhaps he should rename it... something like... the Toadstool?

But... where was Magneto?

The Vanisher was whining again. "You SAID you'd take this inhibitor collar off if I got it for you," he insisted. "You SAID. Not just turn it off with your remote control and turn it back on, you said you'd take it OFF and let me leave..."

Magneto whirled on him, the light of sudden inspiration in his deranged eyes. "Time and space are the same thing," he said. "I've heard that."

The Vanisher cringed. "Um... so?"

Magneto grabbed the oddly garbed mutant by his strange, scaly cowl. "So YOU can warp space, you idiot. That means, with THIS, you should be able to warp time."

The Vanisher stared at Magneto. "Boy, you're crazy in hearts and spades, aren't you?"

"Silence!" Magneto roared. "You WILL do this. I will use a blast of electromagnetic energy to activate this device! I have no idea how to attune it, but then YOU will transport us both to the day of Charles Xavier's birth! This is my destiny and I WILL NOT BE DENIED!"

In the trailer, Xavier's eyes closed. "He's going to do it," he said in an almost inaudible voice. "I can feel it. He will succeed."

Iron Mike stared at the crippled mutant, a feeling of cold dread suffusing him. "What do you mean, Professor?"

Mike was afraid he knew damned well what the Professor meant, even if the Professor himself was unaware. Loki’s mind control spells would, of course, be very very subtle…

Xavier brought out a small pill. "Do you know what this is? A strange little compound. I got the formula from a mystic named Chondu. He claims it is a mental power amplifier. Apparently, he once used it to enhance his own intelligence and willpower to a point where he nearly defeated our world's sorceror supreme."

Mike turned towards the Professor in horror, ready to jump. Unfortunately, the one thing in the world he wasn't was particularly quick. The Professor swallowed the pill.

With a blissful smile, Charles Xavier said "Can you imagine that? A world like ours, and we have a sorceror supreme. Who would have thought that so much technology could exist side by side with magic?"

And Professor Charles Xavier... began to change. "I won't let him kill me," the entity in the wheelchair said, his voice rising into a shrill, howling scream of rage. "I WON'T LET HIIIIIIMMMM..."

If a pill could turn a hack magician like Chondu into a near match for Stephen Strange, what would it do for the most powerful telepath in the history of humanity?

Iron Mike's artificial larynx gasped out one single, nearly inaudible word...

"...Onslaught..!"

Inside the other trailer, Magneto suddenly gasped and raised his hands to his head. He couldn't breathe -- ! Instead of reaching his helmet, his fingers slipped across an invisible, featureless dome. It seemed to be covering his head. How strange. He... something... blood was roaring in his ears... as his vision began to darken, he could dimly make out a voluptuous blond woman in a skintight blue and black bodysuit standing on the other side of the trailer, a look of concentration on her very pretty face.

Invisible Woman, Magneto marveled to himself. My god, there isn't an ounce of sag on her body. That Reed Richards is one lucky dog. No, you fool, concentrate. He reached out with his mind to yank the metal wall behind her into shards of shrapnel. Hard... to focus...

The Master of Magnetism collapsed, slowly. First to his knees. Then, with a thump as the invisible force field encasing his head hit the floor, forward onto his face.

Sue Richards sagged back against the side of the trailer in relief.

The Vanisher looked around... and took a step towards Magneto's unconscious body. If he could get his hands on that remote...

"Don't try it," Sue said in a tired voice. "I'll put an invisible force field somewhere you really won't enjoy."

The Vanisher cringed back.

After a few seconds, Sue straightened up again. "And stop ogling me," she snapped.

The Vanisher raised his eyebrows. "I guess you get a lot of requests to turn your costume invisible, right?"

Sue groaned and walked out of the trailer, pausing to take the remote control from Magneto's cloak pocket on the way. "Over here," she said, waving her arms. "I need someone to carry a few people..."

Then she noticed the strange glow and weird, maniacal screaming coming from across the way. Where one of the trailers had been, something... monstrous... loomed up...

Iron Mike scrabbled in the duffle bag he and Reed Richards had brought. The assembled superheroes of Earth were about to attack the horrible thing Professor X had become... and he knew damned well what happened after THAT. He didn't want any part of it. Loki could go suck eggs.

Still, it wasn't something he really wanted to do to Professor X.

He brought out the device he'd suggested Reed bring along. Reed had been unhappy to be reminded of the device; it had brought back a lot of bad memories. But Mike had just had a feeling it might come in handy.

As the power of Professor X's horribly amplified mind, perhaps subtly aided by Loki's malefic magics, began to deform all of reality around him... Iron Mike pointed the weapon he'd taken from the bag and fired it.

The maniacal shrieking cut off as if a fuse had blown. The glow faded away. The horrible creature melted back into Professor X... sagging limply to the ground.

The X-Men crowded forward, murmuring amongst themselves, surrounding him.

Reed Richards, Iron Man, T'Challa, Guardian, and Thor encircled Iron Mike. Iron Mike looked up at his partner and saw that he, too, recognized the weapon in his hand. It did look an awful lot like the way John Buscema had drawn it.

"What did you do?" Iron Man demanded.

Reed took the weapon away from Iron Mike grimly. "I designed this a long time ago. I had to use it once, on my son Franklin. When Mike asked me to bring it today, I had no idea why he wanted it. Mike, how did you know...?"

Iron Mike shook his head. "I didn't know anything. I just... had a bad feeling. Some things... seemed to be falling in place..."

Guardian visibly paled beneath his beard. "It's way too early," he muttered.

"WHAT DID YOU DO?" Iron Man demanded again.

Iron Mike turned and looked over at the knot of mutants gathered around their fallen leader.

"His mind," he said simply, unconsciously echoing Reed's words of long ago, when he himself had had to perform a similarly terrible act. "I shut down his mind."