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 nearby. “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.

The self-destructing Sentinel perfectly mimicked the appearance of Leonard Samson, Ph.!). taking the form of'a large muscular figure with shoulder-length green hair. A bright red vest covered the Sentinel’s brawny chest, beneath which surged the miniature gamma reactor that had served as the robot’s heart.

Time for a little cardiac surgery, Iron Man thought grimly. Magnifying lenses dropped into place before his eyes. A countdown appeared at the comer of his vision, projected directly onto his retinas by HUD (Heads Up Display) units mounted in his helmet’s eyepieces. 4 min 29 sec, it began to tick down, keeping him perpetually aware of the need for swift action. A pencil-thin laser beam, ideally suited for such delicate work, emerged from the index finger of his right gauntlet.

Before he could get to work, however, a freezing gust of wind enveloped the Sentinel, frosting its synthetic skin and garments. Iron Man’s helmet swiveled to one side, and he saw Storm standing by, her open hands elevated before her. The backwash from the frigid blast lifted her hair, whipping the snow-white tresses about her head.

‘ ‘My arctic winds are not nearly as cold as what Iceman can summon,” she volunteered, “but perhaps this can buy you a few more precious seconds.”

“Thanks,” Iron Man said sincerely. He wasn’t sure Storm’s icy gusts could actually slow the reaction on a sub-atomic level, not unless she cooled the gamma reactor down to absolute zero, but he wasn’t about to look a gift breeze in the mouth; he needed every edge he could get. “Keep it up,” he urged her.

His finger-laser sliced right down the middle of the Sentinel’s chest....

‘'‘Ach du lieber,” Nightcrawler muttered, biting down on his lower lip in frustration. If only there was something I could do ...!

Watching Iron Man perform surgery on “Doc Samson’s” mechanical innards, while Storm did her best to delay the predicted explosion, Kurt Wagner felt singularly useless. There wasn’t much his trademark acrobatics and swordsmanship could avail them in this crucial instance, even if his right ankle hadn’t already been crushed by that inhuman facsimile of the Abomination. He considered joining Wolverine on the roof, but Logan hardly needed any help watching out for danger, not with those incredibly acute senses of his. Instead Nightcrawler limped closer to the Samson-Sentinel for a better look at Iron Man’s efforts to defuse the bomb, the aluminum crutch beneath the German mutant’s shoulder making him uncharacteristically clumsy. Ouch, he thought, wincing as the movement caused a sharp pain to throb up and down his injured leg. His long blue tail twitched in sympathy.

Like Moira, he was no expert in nuclear weapons, but he could see that Iron Man had already exposed the Sentinel’s internal mechanisms and was now hastily examining a globe-shaped metal chamber located approximately where Doc Samson’s heart should be. A shame that Iron Man’s employer, the famous Tony Stark, is nowhere nearby, Nightcrawler thought, the man is supposed to be a mechanical genius. A devout Catholic, the demonic-looking X-Man prayed that some of Stark’s brilliance had rubbed off on his armor-plated bodyguard.

“I think I recognize the design,” Iron Man called out. “It’s similar to the bomb that destroyed that town in Arizona a few years back.” Fingers sheathed in flexible steel gloves carefully probed the interior of the Sentinel. “In theory, the damping rods must have retracted into the lower chest cavity—yes, there they are!”

“Yeah, yeah,” the Hulk shouted back impatiently. “I figured that out already.” Metal and plastic tore apart loudly as the Hulk dissected the imitation Harpy with his bare hands. “Race ya to the finish, Shellhead!”

It occurred to Nightcrawler that the Hulk had been created by a gamma bomb not unlike the ones that now menaced Muir Island, just as gamma radiation had spawned the real Harpy, the original Abomination, and even the malignant mastermind known as the Leader, whom, according to Storm, was believed to be responsible for the Sentinels’ unprovoked attack on the Centre. If even one of these bombs goes off, he wondered apprehensively, bathing the entire island with gene-altering gamma radiation, what sort of mutated menaces might emerge from those villages that survived the cataclysm?

Another Hulk, perhaps? “Mein gott,” he whispered, appalled by the frightening possibilities.

“Less than a minute to critical mass,” Iron Man reported. He thrust both hands into an assemblage of circuits and cables beneath the spherical reactor. “Here goes nothing.”

“Easy for you to say, mein freund,” Nightcrawler remarked, “you’re the one wearing the protective metal suit.” Not that he really thought the Avenger’s armor could shield lion Man at ground zero of a nuclear explosion; he was just trying to lighten the mood as much as possible. If this was indeed to be the end of his illustrious career, Kurt Wagner wanted to go out with a quip on his lips and a smile in his heart. And a bum ankle, he reminded himself. Let’s not forget that.

Something clicked into place within the Sentinel, and Nightcrawler held his breath, waiting for the firestorm to reduce him to atoms. The moment passed, though, and he heard a sigh of relief escape the anxious Avenger’s gilded faceplate before Iron Man spun around to check on the green-skinned component of this impromptu bomb squad. “Hulk! What’s happening over there?” The jade giant casually lifted the false Harpy by one enormous pinion, yanked both her wings off, then drop-kicked the mutilated Sentinel into the closest comer. “Don’t cry so hard you rust, tin man,” the Hulk said with a sneer. “This feathered fake ain’t ticking anymore.”

Nightcrawler recalled that the Harpy-Sentinel had been made to look like a mutated form of the Hulk’s late w'ife. He wondered if that had anything to do with the disdain and violence with which the Hulk had disposed of the disarmed Sentinel, or if the Hulk was just constitutionally cranky? He found himself leaning strongly toward the latter explanation.

Iron Man had better things to do than respond to the Hulk’s belligerent gibes. Jets flared from the soles of his iron boots as the Avenger launched himself down the adjacent pit after Iceman. Less than thirty seconds later, he rocketed up from below, carrying a Hulk-sized figure encased in a block of solid ice; through the frosty trans-lucence of the ice, Nightcrawler dimly glimpsed the scaly hide and reptilian features of the Abomination, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. His fractured ankle ached as he recalled how the absurdly powerful grip of this particular Sentinel had squeezed his ankle until it shattered. Moira had prescribed him enough painkillers to numb the pain somewhat, but the drugs were not enough to spare him from the memory of that excruciating ordeal. In his mind, he could still feel the splintered bones grinding against each other before he teleported to safety.

A beam from Iron Man’s chestplate scanned the Sentinel through six centimeters of ice. “What’s the story?” Iceman asked the Avenger, ascending from the basement atop a rising pillar of ice. His crystalline form glistened in the sunlight. ‘ ‘Did the freeze treatment do any good?’ ’

“You slowed the collision rate between the electrons and positrons,” Iron Man informed him, “but not enough to shut down the chain reaction.” The glowing sensor beam vanished in a blink, but the Avenger’s ominous words hung in the air. “It could go any moment,” he said; clearly, there was not enough time to crack open the ice, let alone defuse the bomb. Is that it? Nightcrawler thought. Are we doomed?

Iron Man refused to give up. His helmet turned toward the immense chartreuse goliath over by the window. “Get over here, Hulk,” he ordered. “Throw this blasted thing straight up as hard as you can. You probably can’t get it high enough fast enough, but it’s our only chance!”

He didn’t sound very optimistic, but, for once, the Hulk didn’t put up a fuss. He bounded across the laboratory in a single leap, then wrapped his massive arms around the frozen Sentinel, lifting it off the floor. Nightcrawler shook his head in disbelief; the Hulk’s colossal strength was legendary, but could even those herculean muscles propel the bomb into orbit before it exploded? Maybe with a little bit of help ...

“Wait!” Nightcrawler called out. Tossing his crutch aside, he somersaulted over to the Hulk’s side and placed a three-fingered hand against the giant’s ribs, using the Hulk’s unyielding mass to support his weight. “Excuse me, Herr Hulk,” he gasped, ignoring the sudden burst of agony radiating from his ankle. “Permit me to give you something of a foot up.”


Without further explanation, Nightcrawler teleported himself, the Hulk, and the ice-covered Abomination-Sentinel two miles straight up. A puff of sulfurous black smoke greeted their instantaneous arrival in the sky-high above Muir Island, as well as a wracking wave of discomfort that left Nightcrawler doubled over in pain and shock. Transporting such a heavy load over so great a distance would have been a strain even under the best of circumstances; in his drugged and debilitated state, the effort had nearly killed him.

Kurt prayed that the Hulk would take full advantage of the ’port, right before he blacked out and began falling back to earth.

What the heck? the Hulk thought, confused by his unexpected translocation. One minute he’d been down in that Scottish chick’s lab with Shellhead and the others, getting ready to fling an Abomination-on-ice for all it was worth; now here he was, up among the clouds. For an instant, he thought he’d been snatched by one of the Leader’s patented trans-mat beams. Then he got a whiff of brimstone and realized that the X-Men’s resident blue devil had hamfed them both into the sky, giving the Hulk a sizable head start in getting rid of the bomb.

The very thought of owing that mutant gimp a favor, along with the implication that he even needed the help in the first place, fueled the Hulk’s anger, adding strength to his already stupendous sinews. He used that extra oomph to hurl the ticking Gamma Sentinel away a split-second before gravity seized hold of him. The force of his throw sent him speeding downward, accelerating past the plummeting form of Nightcrawler.

Motivated by a certain crude decency that he would have vigorously denied if queried on the subject, the Hulk reached out for the unconscious mutant as they passed each other on their way to the island several thousand feet below. His outstretched fingers barely missed Nightcrawler’s sagging limbs, but, at the last second, he managed to snag hold of the X-Man’s ropy tail right above the triangular point at its nether end. Holding onto the tail with a clenched fist, the Hulk dragged Nightcrawler behind him as he plunged through the gray northern sky. “Great,” he muttered sourly to himself, a cold wind whipping against him, carrying his words away. “Now what do I do with him?”

A blinding flash of emerald light, followed almost simultaneously by a thunderous blast of sound and force, interrupted the Hulk’s sarcastic monologue. High above the clouds, at least an additional mile or two from where the Hulk had launched it skyward, the gamma bomb detonated, taking with it a near-perfect replica of Emil Blonsky, the Abomination. Good riddance, the Hulk thought, regretting that it wasn’t the real Blonsky even as the shock wave hit him, battering his indestructible frame and searing his flesh, which healed just as quickly as it burned away. Gotta hand it to Banner, he admitted grudgingly, while his clenched teeth rattled in his skull, those babies deliver one heck of a kick.

The impact was enough to loosen his grip on Nightcrawler’s tail, which slipped through his gargantuan fingers before he realized what was happening. Oops! He groped hastily for the escaped appendage, but seized only empty air. The force of the explosion drove their falling bodies apart, until Nightcrawler was well out of reach.

Above him a spreading mushroom cloud, distinctly viridescent in hue, blotted out the sun, casting emerald shadows over the bean-shaped island below, which appeared to grow larger by the second as the Hulk and Nightcrawler rushed toward the ground. He spotted MacTaggert’s think tank near the northern tip of the island, its imposing steel and glass structures standing out amidst the rural villages and rolling hills carpeted in purple heather. The Hulk hoped he wouldn’t miss Muir Island entirely and splash into the sea instead; he didn’t feel like getting wet.

The fall itself didn’t worry him. He’d walked away from every sort of crash landing before and didn’t expect that this one would be any different. Too bad Nightcrawler probably couldn’t say the same. Hey, I tried to catch him, the Hulk thought defensively. Nobody forced him to bamf without a parachute. He knew the odds.

The elflike X-Man sped earthward like a fuzzy blue meteor, until a purple ray of light swept over him, slowing his descent. The Hulk watched in surprise as the violet beam brought Nightcrawler’s freefall to a standstill. His wide green eyes followed the tractor beam back to its source: the glowing projector at the center of Iron Man’s chestplate. Yeah, right, he thought. I should’ve guessed Shellhead wouldn ’t let the gimp go splat.

While Iron Man carefully began to lower Nightcrawler to the ground, the Hulk fell past both X-Man and Avenger. He didn’t expect similar treatment, figuring he was on his own as usual, so he was caught by surprise when a sudden whirlwind arrived from out of nowhere, lifting him back into the sky well before he impacted with the waiting bedrock of Muir Island. The Hulk gasped out loud, puzzled by the timely twister, until he glimpsed Storm soaring above him, the black fabric wings beneath her arms catching the updrafts carrying her aloft. Her arms were outstretched before her, commanding the weather like a conductor leading an orchestra.

The whirlwind ferried him back to the roof of the Centre, where he found the X-Men and their Avenger buddy waiting for him, Dr. MacTaggert already leaning over the baked and battered form of Nightcrawler as he lay sprawled upon the rooftop. Storm touched down gently seconds after her tamed tornado evaporated back into the cool Scottish air. Miles overhead, the seething mushroom cloud had yet to dissipate entirely. “Praise the Goddess!” Storm exclaimed, eyeing the emerald turbulence with a mixture of awe and disgust. “We have been spared after all.”

“You praise her,” the Hulk snarled back. “I didn’t need any help. And still don’t.”

Despite his angry words, the sight of the gamma bomb’s unleashed atomic fury sent a chill down his spine, forcing him to remember another explosion, years ago in the New Mexico desert, that had changed Banner’s life forever—and given birth to the hated and hate-filled being now looking out over the North Sea. Hi, Mom, he thought to the bomb’s aftermath, reflected in the icy blue waters of Cape Wrath. Sorry I didn’t get you a card.

Thankfully, the Gamma Sentinels had not totally destroyed the Centre’s medlab. Many of the overhead lights were smashed, the walls bore serious dents and jagged scratches, the tile floor was badly scuffed, and at least one bedframe was now a crumpled mass of metal shoved into an unoccupied comer of the infirmary, but there was still enough intact equipment for Moira to immediately treat Nightcrawler for his injuries. An antiseptic medicinal smell, common to medical facilities everywhere, suggested, in a vaguely subliminal fashion, that, despite everything, the medlab was open for business.

Storm stood by, helpfully holding a tray of instruments, as Moira completed her examination of Kurt, now resting in bed beneath a display of sophisticated diagnostic monitors. It pained Ororo to see her friend in such a ravaged state. His once-colorful uniform had been burned away, reduced to charred black rags that were almost invisible against the patient’s dark indigo fur. In places, the fine blue fuzz covering his body had been scorched away as well, revealing reddened patches of caucasian skin. Beneath sagging eyelids, his normally incandescent yellow eyes were clouded and streaked with red. Blisters covered his pointed ears. At least Iron Man caught him as he fell, she thought, but look what that hateful bomb has done to him,!

Finished taking his pulse, Moira let go of Kurt’s wrist and inspected the monitors above the injured X-Man’s head. “He’ll live,” she pronounced eventually, granting Storm a welcome sense of relief. “He’s in shock, his ankle’s still broken, and he’s picked up some nasty radiation bums, but he should recover in time.”

Thank you, Bright Lady, Stomi thought. “Are you certain he’ll be well, doctor?” Nightcrawler had not truly regained consciousness since his selfless decision to teleport both the Hulk and the bomb away from the island. If only she could be sure that he knew how much his sacrifice had bought them. “I trust your judgment, Moira, but he looks worse than I ever remember seeing him before.”

Moira gave her a reassuring smile, then glanced at Wolverine. “Kurt may nae have Logan’s mutant healin’ factor, but I’ve learned never t’underestimate the recuperative powers of any X-Man.” She took the instrument tray from Storm and laid it down atop an adjacent bed. “You folks take the proverbial lickin’, then keep tickin’ along more reliably than Big Ben. Have nae fear,” she assured the other heroes. “He’ll be fine soon enough.”

“That’s great news, doc,” Bobby Drake said. Now that the immediate crisis was over, Iceman had defrosted himself, so that he now looked like nothing more than a brown-haired youth in a pale blue uniform. He stood at the end of Nightcrawler’s sickbed, beside Wolverine. Iron Man, not wanting to intrude on the X-Men’s bedside vigil, kept his distance, as did the Hulk, who sulked impatiently against an already dented supply cabinet. “Doesn’t look like he’s coming with us, though,” Bobby added.

“No,” Storm agreed, shaking her head sadly. She wished they could linger to comfort Kurt through his recovery, but there was no time for delay. Rogue and the Scarlet Witch remained missing, presumably in the hands of a diabolical villain, the Leader, whom Storm herself had never fought before, but whom both the Avengers and the Hulk insisted was a formidable foe. We must return to our quest, she realized, hoping that Cyclops, Beast, and Iron Man’s fellow Avengers had discovered some means of tracking the Leader to his hidden sanctuary. ‘ ‘The sooner we rendezvous with our comrades at Avengers Mansion, the better.”

“I’m coming with you, of course,” Bobby insisted. Visiting Moira in Scotland, he had missed the early stages of their hunt for Rogue, but could hardly be expected to stay behind now, especially since, as Storm now recalled, there had once been the early stirrings of a romance between Iceman and the X-Men’s missing southern belle; nothing much had come of their flirtation in the end, since Rogue’s heart remained inextricably bound with the mutant thief Gambit, yet Storm had no doubts that Bobby wanted to see Rogue restored to safety as much, if not more, than any one of them.

“Great,” the Hulk groused, his voice several octaves deeper than Storm would have thought humanly possible. ‘‘Just what we need, the human popsicle. The Leader must be getting the chills already.”

“Watch your mouth, bub,” Wolverine said, spinning around to confront the green-skinned titan. Silver claws jutted from the backs of his gloves and he dropped into an aggressive stance. “I don’t see you doin’ too much at the moment, except takin’ up too much space.”

“Oh yeah?” the Hulk shot back, clenching his anvilsized lists. His heavy tread shook the medlab, rattling the loose instruments on the discarded tray, as he stepped toward Wolverine, eager to renew their longtime rivalry. “Says the sawed-off runt who let that Hulk-Sentinel get away!”

Wolverine bristled noticeably. A low growl escaped his, lips, promising havoc on the horizon. “Hey, wait a second, guys,” Bobby protested, as alarmed as Storm at the prospect of a super-powered brawl breaking out in the medlab. He stepped between the Hulk and Wolverine, attempting to play peacemaker, but the Hulk effortlessly brushed him aside. Although little more than a tap, the Hulk’s gamma-charged backhand was enough to send Bobby tumbling backwards. Only the quick reflexes of Iron Man, who grabbed onto Bobby’s shoulders with both gauntlets, kept the de-iced Iceman from landing flat on his back.

“That is enough!” Storm declared with righteous indignation, punctuating her words with a resounding thunderclap that captured the attention of everyone in the infirmary—and probably the rest of the island. “Must we quarrel amongst ourselves even in the presence of our wounded companion? I thought we were united against the Leader, or have you both forgotten that?” Moira beamed in approval, clearly impressed by

Storm’s no-nonsense attitude. “You go, lass!” she whispered audibly.

Blessedly, Ororo’s heartfelt admonition had the desired effect; even the brutish Hulk looked slightly abashed. His gigantic fists retreated to his sides and he withdrew to the hallway outside the medlab, his disheveled emerald scalp barely clearing the top of the exit. Wolverine retracted his claws, but his glowering eyes tracked the departing Hulk until the bellicose giant lumbered out of sight. “Sorry about that, darlin’,” he muttered to Storm. “Guess there’s a time and a place for everything.”

“Indeed,” she affirmed. Wolverine’s reckless behavior disturbed her. The Goddess knew the Hulk was obnoxious, and Logan w’as not exactly the type to willingly turn the other cheek, but she would have thought he knew better than to rise to the Hulk’s bait in the middle of the medlab. For all his deeply-rooted ferocity, the Logan she knew was a wiser and more pragmatic warrior than that, one generally capable of keeping his most violent impulses under a tight rein when necessary. But picking a fight with the Hulk during a vital mission. . . ? That wasn’t like him.

Or so she liked to think.

CNN was the first to report an unconfirmed nuclear explosion in the upper atmosphere high above the Scottish isles. Due to the high altitude at which the blast occurred, no casualties were anticipated, although various nations in Europe and elsewhere had already accused their respective enemies of being responsible for the radioactive explosion, which they condemned in the strongest possible terms. No country or terrorist organization had yet come forward to take credit (or blame) for the unprovoked nuclear incident, but many commentators and self-described experts, in the absence of any hard evidence one way or another, pointed ominously at the remote Balkan nation of Latveria, long suspected of concealing a nuclear arsenal. “Has Dr. Doom finally come out of the thermonuclear closet?” Bernard Shaw asked during a special news bulletin. “We’ll be back with that question, after this brief commercial break.” Doctor Doom indeed! I should say not. Tapping gently on his lighted control panel, the Leader muted the audio component from that particular broadcast, one of many he monitored on the profusion of screens laid out before him. Over two hundred thousand miles from the hubbub, securely sequestered in his private control room on the moon, the intellectually over-endowed supervillain sighed in disappointment. Judging from the distressingly deathtoll-free details of the bulletin, he

reluctantly deduced that the Hulk and his occasional allies had survived the explosive death spasms of the captured Gamma Sentinels. I should have known it was too good to be true, he thought ruefully.

Although saddened, he was not too surprised. Nobody knew better than he, after all, how aggrivatingly hard the Hulk was to kill. His own calculations had projected a 48.83 percent probability that the Hulk and his costumed compatriots would escape death on Muir Island.

“Fine,” he murmured softly. He had allowed for that....

Air! I need air!

Logan awoke with a start, surprised to find himself still alive. His freshest memory was of gasping for breath on the moon’s lifeless surface, alongside Rogue and the Scarlet Witch. I’d thought we were goners for sure, he recalled, but, wait, hadn’t there been something after that? Racking his fogged memory, he called up vague, fragmentary impressions of cold, analytical eyes observing him like he was a bug under glass, and of a bulging skull whose pulsing hemispheres resembled cabbages on steroids. That’s right, he remembered all at once. I saw the main sleazeball himself The Leader!

Blinking, he tried to rub his eyes, only to discover that his wrists were pinned to his sides by unyielding metal shackles. “Blast it,” he growled. “Not this again.”

Sure enough; as his blurry vision came into focus, he discovered that he was right back where he started: crammed into a stainless steel casket, like he was already embalmed and fit to be planted six feet under, except that this stinkin’ coffin was leaning upright above the floor. So much for our great escape, he thought sourly. Time for Plan B—whatever the heck that is.

The wall-length mirror that had once greeted his eyes from this same uncomfortable vantage point was no longer there, shattered by Rogue with a single punch during their botched break for freedom. Now he had a clear view into the control room facing his cell, where row upon row of tv screens looked back at him. No sign of the Leader, though; the crumb’s elevated throne sat empty. I guess even a would-be ruler of the world has to take a break every now and then, Logan mused. Fine with me. I ain ’t in a hurry to see his ugly face again.

But what about Rogue and the Witch? He frowned, frustrated by the clamp over his throat. Without the convenient mirror, he had no easy way to check on his partners in captivity. He tried to locate them out of the comer of his eyes, but all he glimpsed were the sides of his cramped sarcophagus. He could smell the distinctive scent of each woman, though, so he knew they couldn’t be far away. Probably trussed up just like me. “Rogue? Wanda?” he called out, hoping to hear Rogue’s familiar southern drawl in response, or even the Witch’s Eastern European accent. ‘ ‘Are you alright? Can you answer me? Rogue?”

A whiff of ozone teased his super-sensitive nostrils, presaging by seconds a flash of bright light that faded quickly, leaving an unmistakable figure behind. Logan recognized the new arrival immediately. If nothing else, the economy-sized frontal lobes were a dead giveaway, not to mention the fungus-green complexion.

“You can save your breath, my atavistic guest,” the Leader said coolly, apparently unruffled by the abruptness of teleportation. His mutated brain was just as bloated as Logan had always heard; he had no idea how the Leader’s skinny neck managed to support its weight. “Lacking your truly remarkable recuperative powers, your female associates are unlikely to regain consciousness as swiftly as you have.”

The future conqueror of humanity was simply dressed, wearing a better-tailored, freshly-pressed version of the same orange jumpsuits Logan and the other prisoners had been dressed in. Black metallic wristbands, adorned with touchpad controls, granted him easy access to his advanced technology. Not much of a fashion-plate, Logan decided; guess he doesn ’t want anything to draw attention away from his overflowing gray matter, which, in his case, I bet is more green than gray. Wolverine’s claws slid out of his hands as he looked forward to finding out for himself the first chance he got.

“What’s this all about, brain-boy?” he snarled, straining against his restraints. “You got a reason for draggin’ us all the way up to the moon, or are you just starved for company?”

Glaring at the Leader with undisguised animosity, Logan waited for the inevitable long-winded recitation. These egghead types, he knew from excruciating experience, could never pass up a chance to blab about their ingenious master plans. How else were they supposed to show off their allegedly superior smarts, along with their oversized vocabularies?

The Leader proved no exception. To Logan’s expert nose, the mutated mastermind literally reeked of ego, arrogance, and cologne. “As a matter of fact,” he began, “you and your distaff counterparts have proven an invaluable source of genetic data, aside from a few intriguing and as-yet undefinable anomalies where the Scarlet

Witch’s powers are concerned. Thanks to my in-depth analysis of your mutant abilities, metabolisms, and DNA, I am almost ready to proceed to the next stage of my grand experiment, awaiting only the return of my silent partner in this enterprise.”

Partner? Logan wondered. What partner? As far as he knew, the Leader had always worked alone. Then again, it had been a long time since Logan had seen any of Department H’s intel reports on the Leader’s activities. One of the few disadvantages to leaving Canada’s intelligence forces had been losing his access to various classified material. He wished he could remember more about the Leader’s reported strengths and weaknesses.

“I don’t know who’d be stupid enough to trust you,” Logan told his captor, “but I’ll lay odds that the X-Men will be here looking for us before your idiot partner gets back. The Avengers, too, I figure.” It seemed safe to assume that the Scarlet Witch’s teammates wanted her back.

The Leader chuckled at Wolverine’s prediction. “You may be amused to know, Specimen #3, that my admirably devious associate has already taken your place in the ranks of the X-Men. Indeed, I can assure you that your mutant colleagues do not even know you’re among the missing.”

“We’ll see about that, bub,” Logan snarled. He doubted that any imposter, no matter how good, could fool Storm and the others for long. “And the name’s Wolverine, bub, not Specimen anything.” A red-hot surge of anger flared inside him, sparked by vivid memories of the experiments performed on him years ago in an isolated laboratory in the Canadian wilderness. Being treated like a test animal again touched a raw and painful nerve; it took all his self-control to keep his temper and bloodlust from boiling over. ‘ ‘What about Rogue and the Witch?” he asked, his voice hoarse with pent-up rage. “You come up with ringers for them, too?”

“That was deemed unnecessary,” the Leader admitted. “One spy in our enemies’ midst seemed more than sufficient.” He stepped out of Logan’s limited line of sight, perhaps checking on the other prisoners. “Besides, to be utterly frank about it, the womens’ abilities would have been significantly more difficult for an undercover agent to mimic.”

Yeah, that makes sense, Logan was forced to concede. Even he wasn’t exactly sure how the Scarlet Witch’s powers worked. He tried to guess who the Leader’s sneaky spy might be. Mystique? The Chameleon? Mastermind? It didn’t have to be a bona fide shape-changer or illusionist, he realized; these days anyone with a working image inducer could look like whomever they wished, greatly expanding the list of possible suspects. He’d have to drag some more clues out of the Leader before he had a chance of sussing out the second half of this sinister partnership.

A moan, coming from somewhere on his right, distracted Logan from his detective work. “Rogue?” he asked. ‘ ‘Is that you?’ ’

“Wolvie?” She sounded groggy, confused. “Wha’ happened? How’d we get back here?” Fury supplanted bewilderment, however, as she laid eyes on the Leader, or so Logan surmised. “Who the—? Ah know who you are!” she blurted angrily, apparently remembering Wanda’s description of the Leader. “Wait until ah get mah hands on ya!”

“Pleased to meet you as well,” the target of her rage replied archly. ‘ ‘Welcome back to the realm of the wakeful, Specimen #1. Good of you to join us at last.”

“Join ya?” Rogue sounded mad enough to spit. “Why ah’ll take ya apart piece by piece, you scrawny, turnip-headed sidewinder!” Logan heard her squirming against her adamantium bonds, keen to teach the Leader a painful lesson in down-home hospitality. He admired her attitude, even if he doubted that it would shake the self-satisfied confidence of the Leader, who pretty much had to have heard worse from the Hulk. “Ah’il kick your fat head all the way back ta Earth!”

As Logan had expected, the Leader ignored Rogue’s spirited threats. “You presented me with a singular challenge, Specimen #1,” he calmly informed her. “As you may or may not be aware, my considerable mental powers include the useful ability to control the minds of any individual I choose to touch, provided they have not also been transformed by gamma radiation. Unfortunately, as you well know, touching you is an extremely problematic proposition.”

“Like I’d even want your oily fingers anywhere near me!” Rogue retorted, madder than ever. Her inability to touch or be touched by someone without absorbing their memories and characteristics was a real sore spot with her, one the heartless Leader apparently had no fear of poking. “You keep your sweaty green hands away from me, you hairless varmint.”

Her incensed outburst failed to derail the Leader’s train of thought. “My own brilliant super-science has provided a solution to this apparent impasse,” he explained. “Based on close examination of your genetic pattern, conducted over the last twenty-four hours or so, I have developed a synthetic compound that I believe will successfully inhibit the proper operation of your unique absorption process.” He tapped a control panel upon his wrist. ‘ ‘A compound, which, I should probably add, is even now being introduced into your bloodstream via intravenous infusion.”

“You mean, you got a drug that blocks mah powers?” Rogue spoke in a hush, sounding like she didn’t know whether to be excited or aghast. ‘ ‘One that really works?”

“Only a short-term solution, to be sure,” the Leader divulged. “I doubt if my compound can suppress your parasitic talent-for more than a minute or two, but, really, that’s all that I need.”

Uh-oh, Logan thought. I don’t like the sound of that.

, Neither did Rogue. “Wait a sec,” she said apprehensively. “What do you mean?” An edge of panic crept into her voice and Logan swore in frustration, unable to see what was happening less than a yard away. Superstrength rattled her adamantium restraints, but not enough to break her loose. “Get back!” Rogue shouted helplessly. “Stay away from me!”

Her unleashed lungpower, although unlikely to deter the Leader, served to rouse the Scarlet Witch from her drugged slumber. Logan heard the captured Avenger stirring a couple feet to his left, trapped in her own customized sarcophagus, complete with a metal blindfold to prevent her from effectively employing her mutant sorcery. “Rogue?” she called out, and Logan couldn’t help noticing the sincere concern in her voice, quite a change from the cold shoulder she had given Rogue when they had first found themselves trapped together in the Leader’s chamber of horrors. “What’s wrong? Are you in pain?”

The Leader laughed coldly, and Logan heard him step away from Rogue’s upraised casket. “Go ahead and answer her, m’dear,” he said mockingly, enjoying a joke at his captives’ expense. “Tell your fellow test subjects how much better you are feeling now.”

“Yes,” Rogue answered mechanically. “Ah’m fee-lin’ much better.” Logan was shocked by what he heard. The hot-tempered X-Man’s voice had been drained of all spunk and defiance; he barely recognized it. Oh, dar-lin’, he thought bitterly, what’s that scumbag done to you?

Unfortunately, he had a pretty good idea; the Leader’s insidious talent for mind control was well-documented. “There we are,” he announced with smug satisfaction. “No need to keep you locked up anymore.” Logan heard the click of the Leader’s wrist controls, followed by the sound of metallic shackles springing open. “You may step down from there, Specimen #1.”

“Yes,” she agreed readily. Her bare feet slapped gently against the smooth metal floor as she landed in front of her former coffin. Moments later, the Leader strolled back into view, followed by a compliant and listless Rogue, displaying none of the justifiable indignation in evidence only a minute before. Her arms, which should have been enthusiastically wringing the Leader’s neck, hung limply at her sides. Wide brown eyes, usually full of sass and wicked humor, stared blankly ahead, glazed and unfocussed. Logan had seen Sentinels with more personality.

“Snap out of it, Rogue!” he growled at her, hoping to spark a fire in those snuffed-out eyes. “You can do it, darlin’. Break loose, just like Charlie taught us!”

In fact, Charles Xavier had trained his X-Men in various exercises designed to help them resist telepathic incursions, but just how strong was the Leader’s enormous brain anyway, and how did he stack up against the likes of Mesmero, Karma, or the White Queen? Too bad Chuck or Jeannie ain’t here, he thought, gnashing his teeth. We need one of our own psi-types to level the playing field. He was the best there was at what he did, but that hardly included psionic warfare. “C’mon, Rogue!” he urged her. “Don’t let him do this to you! Shake it off!”    ’

For one tantalizing second, he thought he saw a glimmer of the real Rogue in that vacant face. Long black lashes quivered and her forehead wrinkled in confusion. Her lips parted and, for a heartbeat, he thought she was trying to voice her own thoughts and opinions.

Then the moment passed. Animation fled from her features, which relaxed into unthinking lassitude. Without any prompting from the Leader to do so, the enslaved X-Man made no response to Logan’s angry pleas. She didn’t seem to hear a word he said, unlike the Scarlet Witch, who called out to him desperately. “What is it? Tell me what’s happening!”

Logan remembered that the blindfolded Witch could not see a thing. Probably better off that way, he thought grimly, but he answered her anyway. “It’s the Leader,” he spat in disgust. “He’s turned Rogue into a friggin’ zombie.”

“Proving the efficacy of my chemical suppressant,” the Leader congratulated himself. “Not that any such precautions are required when it comes to you remaining specimens.” He raised his hands before him, methodically cracking each sickly green knuckle, like a pianist getting ready to sit down at his instrument.

Logan saw where this was going, and his heart sank. Leaving Rogue standing stiffly in front of Logan, the Leader disappeared briefly to the left. Wanda gasped once, perhaps surprised by the sudden touch of a stranger’s fingers against her face, then she fell unnervingly silent. “For convenience’s sake,” the Leader instructed her. “You will answer to the designation: Specimen #2.”

“Yes.” Steel bonds unfastened once more, a metal visor slid away, and the aubum-haired Avenger stepped down from the open sarcophagus. At the Leader’s direction, she joined Rogue, padding barefoot across the floor until she came to a stop beside her fellow thrall. “Be careful, #2,” the Leader warned her as he paced back to where Logan could see him. “You don’t want to get too close to Specimen #1, formerly known to you as Rogue, at least not until we get a pair of gloves on her.” “Yes,” Wanda Maximoff answered obediently. Her exotic green eyes were just as empty as Rogue’s. Looking at them both, silent and docile, made Logan’s blood burn. He didn’t know the Scarlet Witch anywhere near as well as he knew Rogue, but that didn’t stop him from feeling enraged on her behalf. Nobody deserved to have her free will stripped away like this, and especially not an Avenger who had risked her life to save the whole planet a hundred times over. This bites, big time.

Now it was his turn. Logan gritted his teeth, bracing himself for the psychic violation he knew was coming. Was there any chance his high-powered healing factor could overcome the Leader’s mental mesmerism? It was a slim hope, but it was the best he had. Give me your best shot, he thought defiantly as the Leader approached, his enormous skull obscuring Logan’s view of the two entranced super-heroines.

“For what it’s worth,” the Leader informed him snidely, “you’ve already made a genuine contribution to my own brand of superior science. The insights I’ve gained from studying your mutant metabolism, particularly your extraordinary ability to heal, have given me some intriguing ideas as to how to counteract the Hulk’s even more astonishing recuperative powers.” He smirked beneath his bushy black mustache. “I hope knowing that you’ve played an instrumental part in the future destruction of the ever-incredible Hulk provides you some measure of comfort—in the brief interval that your mind remains your own.”

Unable to reach his tormentor with his unsheathed claws, Logan spit in the Leader’s face. He glared at the cerebral megalomaniac through a blood-red haze. ‘ ‘One of these days, buster, you’re going to end up at the wrong end of my built-in pigstickers.” Visions of bloody carnage flashed through his brain. “I can’t wait.”

“A rabid animal to the last, eh?” The Leader smirked and lifted his hands toward Logan’s exposed face. The fettered X-Man flinched at the touch of clammy, uncalloused fingers. A cold, numbing fog descended over his mind, driving out the red-hot blaze of his homicidal bloodlust like a high-pressure front dispelling a heat wave. No! he thought fiercely. Keep out of my flamin’ brain! He tried to construct a psychic barricade, just like the Professor advised, but the fog was already dulling his mental faculties, making it hard to think straight. Or even think at all.

“No!” he groaned, dragging the words up from somewhere deep inside him. “No, no, no ...”


‘ ‘Try not to lose all of that innate savagery, Specimen #3,” his Leader said approvingly. “I can always use whatever’s left.”

890 Fifth Avenue. Over the years, the venerable mansion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side had opened its doors to many unusual visitors, ranging from alien ambassadors to pagan deities, but Hank McCoy could have done without Avenger Mansion’s latest unwelcome guest: an immense humanoid juggernaut that bore an uncanny resemblance to the Avengers’ most infamous founding member, the rampaging Hulk.

“Identified: mutant designate: Beast,” the menacing simulacrum stated implacably. Two tons of lethal machinery, encased in synthetic green flesh and hair, stepped into the high-tech conference room, rattling the floor with its heavy tread. “Threat assessment: minimal. Immediate priority: termination.”

Oh my stars and garters! the Beast thought, momentarily transfixed by the imposing figure barging through the entrance, its massive shoulders shattering the reinforced titanium doorframe. Behind wire-frame reading glasses, the Beast’s blue eyes widened in alarm. He gulped loudly, his mouth suddenly dry as the Living Mummy’s desiccated bandages.

Despite the invader’s picture-perfect impersonation of the Hulk, the Beast recognized the Gamma Sentinel immediately; not only did the murderous robot’s speech patterns reveal its true nature, Nick Fury had earlier revealed to the assembled Avengers and X-Men that this

new line of Sentinels had been constructed to mirror the physical appearance of various celebrated gamma-mutated monstrosities, the better to provide S.H.I.E.L.D. with plausible deniability should another anti-mutant pogrom be deemed necessary—as they too often were.

“I beg to differ,” the shaggy blue anthropoid protested. He looked around quickly for a place to stow his glasses, then decided they’d be safest on his nose. Seeking higher ground, he bounded onto the circular meeting table, nimbly avoiding the pitcher of hot coffee that Jarvis had thoughtfully prepared for the Beast before retiring for the evening. Computer print-outs on the Leader’s past activities and bases of operation littered the polished chrome tabletop, which was emblazoned with a stylized capital “A” designed by one of Tony Stark’s best graphic artists. “Sorry to say, I fear our respective priorities are fundamentally irreconcilable.”

In other words, the bouncing Beast definitely hoped to stay alive. Which wasn’t going to be easy, considering that he was currently holding down the fort all by his lonesome, while the rest of the X-Men and the Avengers pursued undeniably urgent endeavors throughout the world. With the exception of Jarvis, the Avenger’s faithful butler, the Beast was on his own. I wonder if it’s too late to join the Fantastic Four? he speculated mordantly, even as the hostile Sentinel (a redundancy if ever there was one) reached out for him with the Hulk’s huge hands. “Hulk will smash!” the robot recited, programmed to perpetuate its perfidious imposture for the benefit of any possible witnesses, human or otherwise.

“You will have to do considerably better than that, o’ masquerading mechanism,” the Beast replied. His powerful legs propelled him upward, out of reach of the

Sentinel’s grasping arms. At the same time, one prodigiously dexterous foot flung the entire pitcher of steaming coffee into the robot’s face. “Have a heaping helping of mountain-grown java on me!”

The Beast’s leap carried him backwards over the table’s edge. Somersaulting in mid-air, he landed squarely on the floor behind the round table. He had no illusions that the spilled coffee would drive off the Sentinel for good; trying to repel even an imitation Hulk with nothing more than a hot beverage was tantamount to swatting a stampeding elephant with a lady’s fan. At most, he hoped the opaque liquid would foul the robot’s optical sensors long enough to buy him a few more seconds.

No such luck. “Switching to sonar targeting,” the Sentinel announced. Its cavemously deep voice captured the basso profundo quality of the real Hulk’s speech, if not exactly the flavor of his dialogue. “Eliminating physical obstacles prior to termination of mutant designate: Beast.”

The sturdy table, around which Earth’s mightiest heroes so often conferred, had been securely mounted to the floor, and built to last by the same unparalleled engineering expertise responsible for Iron Man’s armor. The Hulk-Sentinel wrenched it free of its steadfast moorings with a single tug, then shoved the dislodged table to the side. Sparks flew, and tortured metal shrieked, as the table slammed into the nearby communications console. A tray of half-eaten finger sandwiches clattered to the floor. Now nothing stood between the Beast and his attacker but a few yards of empty air and a couple of egg-shaped chairs. “Hulk will smash!”

Although spacious enough for its intended purpose, the conference room was too confined to let the Beast take full advantage of his preternatural agility. Fortunately, he had other options at his disposal. “Intruder alert!” he shouted with atypical succinctness. “Activate emergency detainment measures. Command authorization : McCoy-alpha-one! ’ ’

Voice-activated security systems came into play, no longer mistaking the disguised Sentinel for the real Hulk, whom had been welcomed into this very meeting room several hours before. Automated panels slid open in the walls, floor, and ceiling, releasing an impressive array of Stark-built and -designed mechanisms, intended to subdue and/or immobilize any uninvited visitors to Avengers HQ. Low-yield plasma guns, descending from the ceiling, blasted the chartreuse behemoth with coruscating bursts of ionized gas that had distressingly little effect on the robot’s artificial skin. Capture coils, snaking out from concealed apertures in the floor, wrapped around the Gamma Sentinel like electrified pythons, squeezing the counterfeit Hulk’s impossibly muscled arms against its sides while simultaneously delivering a high-voltage shock.

Thank providence that I never gave up my associate Avengers status, the Beast thought. He had retained his privileges, including access to top-secret Avengers security codes, even though his first loyalty remained to the X-Men. As an erstwhile alumnus of both distinguished super-teams, he had been the logical choice to man the communications center while his assorted teammates scattered hither and yon. Then again, no one had anticipated that one of the missing Sentinels would stage a frontal assault on Avengers Mansion.

Blue electricity crackled around the ensnared Hulk-Sentinel, causing the hairs of its emerald scalp to stand on end. The galvanic jolt administered by the coils was capable of overloading the nervous system of any ordinary being—which the Gamma Sentinel, lamentably, was not. Fighting back against the constricting coils, it flexed its mighty arms and strained to break free from the thick cables, each one a full six inches in diameter. The Beast heard concealed servomotors whirring madly within the fraudulent Hulk’s huge biceps, and realized that, if he was ever to make a break for it, the time was now, before the mechanical monster was loose once more. “Nothing can stop the Hulk!” it bellowed ominously, increasing the Beast’s understandable sense of alarm.    *

His natural agility matched only by Nightcrawler, and, maybe Spider-Man, too, the Beast leaped and rolled through the blistering barrage of plasma bursts, simultaneously giving the Hulk-Sentinel a wide berth on his way to the exit. The impromptu obstacle course reminded him of many a training exercise back in the X-Men’s legendary Danger Room, but this time the stakes were substantially higher. No sooner had he dived through the ruptured doorway into the carpeted second-story hallway outside the conference room, than he heard the unmistakable sound of sundered metal giving way before an irresistible force. The hiss of the electrified cables died out at once, and the liberated Gamma Sentinel barrelled noisily through the wall in pursuit of the Beast, who tumbled down the corridor only a few cartwheels ahead of the lumbering robot. Framed portraits of the Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and other distinguished former residents crashed to the floor, knocked loose by the Gamma Sentinel’s charge.

Jarvis appeared at the bottom of a stairway leading down to the ground floor. The middle-aged Englishman, clad in a dressing gown and slippers, had no doubt been roused from sleep by the bogus Hulk’s clamorous rampage. Shocked and confused, he stared aghast at the conflict and destruction upstairs. “Master Hulk! Master Beast! What in heavens are you doing?”

Despite his own peril, the Beast spared a moment to warn the loyal retainer. “Head for the hills, Jarvis, old boy! Contrary to appearances, this rambunctious barbarian is not the Hulk—it’s a Sentinel!”

“My word!” the balding butler gasped. Accustomed to the unusual occurrences that so often befell the mansion, he did not require any further explanation. “Understood, sir,” he said, moving briskly toward the front door., An ordinary man with no special powers, aside from his uncommon discretion and the ability to brew a first-rate pot of tea, Edwin Jarvis knew better than to stick around the mansion during an assault, where he might well end up a hostage or a casualty. “Good luck to you, sir! I will notify the authorities post haste.” Running atop the wooden bannister at the top of the stairs, the Beast heard the front door open downstairs. One less thing to worry about, he thought gratefully, relieved that the veteran manservant had escaped unscathed. He was sorely tempted to join Jarvis in fleeing the house, but that would mean unleashing the relentless Sentinel on the unsuspecting city streets, not to mention sacrificing his home field advantage.

Even now, the Mansion’s automated defenses continued to deploy new weapons against the ersatz Hulk. Bean bag guns pelted the Sentinel with weighted bags of silicon gel, concussive vibranium missiles exploded soundlessly against the robot’s verdant epidermis, and anesthetizing gas hissed out of pipes hidden above the landing. Do Sentinels breathe? the Beast wondered, holding his own breath until he was safely free of the narcotic fumes. Regretfully, I suspect not.

Alas, he recognized the ultimate futility of this automated exercise in pest control. Apparatus intended to administer non-lethal amounts of force against the likes of the Grim Reaper or Baron Zemo would inevitably prove insufficient against any mechanoid even approximating the quite literally immeasurable might of the Hulk. The most he could hope for was that the Mansion’s state-of-the-art security system would slow the Sentinel down.

“Hulk will smash mutant designate: Beast,” the Ga'rftma Sentinel said, mixing its syntax a bit. The Beast recalled that this trespassing automaton was, in fact, an experimental prototype stolen from S.H.I.E.L.D., so it only stood to reason that all of the bugs hadn’t been worked out yet. Not that the hijacked robot wasn’t perfectly capable of inflicting stupendous quantities of damage on whatever came within reach of its implacable fists, as proven by the brutal ease with which the Hulk-Sentinel uprooted the entire bannister, throwing the Beast off-balance.

“Allez oop!” the X-Man exclaimed. A crystal chandelier hung over the foyer below and the Beast kicked off from the broken bannister, his simian arms stretching out to grab hold of the chandelier, which he used to swing out over the foyer, away from the deadly Gamma Sentinel. Reaching the end of its arc, he let go of the pendent chandelier before it could swing back toward his enemy, whereupon he performed an aerial backflip that landed him feet first upon the ground floor of the Mansion.

Similarly eschewing the stairs, the Gamma Sentinel jumped directly from the landing to the floor below, hitting the bottom with a reverberating thud that shook the whole Mansion and cracked the marble tiles beneath his feet. “Nobody gets away from the Hulk!” he roared, still spewing incriminatory sound bytes as he chased after the Beast, who bolted for the auxiliary elevator at the back of the building.

Best to lure him below, the Beast strategized on the run. The Mansion’s sub-basements, where many of the Avengers’ most secure facilities were housed, had been triple-reinforced with an adamantium/vibranium-strand ceramic, which just might be enough to contain the Gamma Sentinel until help arrived. If nothing else, taking the fight underground reduced the chances of any innocent bystanders getting caught up in the conflict. Sometimes I’m so selflessly noble I scare myself, he thought; dividing one’s time between the X-Men and the Avengers could do that to a person.

With the world’s biggest and most dangerous “Hulk” action figure charging after him, trampling heedlessly over pricy antique furniture that was rapidly reduced to splinters, the Beast arrived at the rear elevator and jabbed the down button with a furry finger. According to the lighted display above the closed metal doors, the actual elevator compartment was currently residing two floors above. No time to wait, he thought, prying open the sealed double doors to expose a set of cables hanging in the empty elevator shaft. “Open sesame!”

The elevator car had already begun its descent from the third floor. Nevertheless, the hirsute X-Man seized onto the greasy cables with both his hands and his feet, then slid to the bottom of the shaft, another three stories below the ground floor. “Basement, Level Three,” he reported cheerily to an imaginary audience, pressing an emergency release button to open the bottom doors from inside the shaft. “Ladies Lingerie and Disabled SuperWeapons.”

He sprang from the shaft into the darkened storage space beyond, pushing the corresponding down button with his big toe as he leaped clear of the open doorway. Mere seconds later, a resounding tremor proclaimed that the Hulk-Sentinel had likewise reached the bottom of the shaft. Sentinel see, Sentinel do, the Beast thought, amusing himself at the expense of the killer robot’s imitativeness. A margin of a few moments made a tremendous difference, however, as the floor of the descending elevator smashed into the Sentinel before the Hulk’s manmade doppleganger had a chance to exit the shaft. The Beast watched with satisfaction as the crushed elevator compartment wrapped itself around the surprised Sentinel.

Unhappily, the collision was harder on the elevator than the Hulk-Sentinel. The Beast had to admire the preeminent quality of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s workmanship; the Sentinel had plainly been built to stand up to most anything. All the worse for yours truly, the X-Man thought. Feeling as though he were somehow trapped in an interactive remake of The Terminator, or perhaps Westworld, the Beast turned his back on the crumpled elevator even as the undamaged Sentinel tore the metal compartment to shreds in order to free itself from the wreckage. What would Linda Hamilton do in a situation like this? the Beast wondered. Probably call for her stunt double . . .

Seldom visited, the bottommost sub-basement was reserved for the storage of potentially dangerous artifacts and equipment that the Avengers had taken out of the nefarious hands of various defeated adversaries. In theory, all such confiscated apparatus, ranging from a trashed Omni-Wave Projector to fragments of a broken Cosmic Cube, had been rendered harmless prior to storage, but they were kept safely locked away just in ease, along with some of the Avengers’ own mothballed equipment. Basement Level Three also boasted a private shuttle to a submarine pen on the East River. Not an option, alas, the Beast thought with regret; the longer he could confine the chase to the Mansion, the better chance there was that reinforcements, in the form of multiple X-Men and Avengers, would show up eventually. Avengers, come home! he exhorted his absent colleagues while he scrambled past stacked crates of disassembled adaptoids and decommissioned dreadnaughts.

Would that I were more familiar with the current inventory . . . / he wished longingly, ducking around a ten-gallon tank labeled “Liquified Terrigen Mist” and vaulting over an enormous hourglass covered by a plastic tarp. Deep, umbrageous shadows added an aura of mystery to the dimly-lit basement. There might well be something amongst these salvaged souvenirs that he could turn to his advantage, although, realistically, he doubted that there was time enough to get anything up and running, even if he knew what to look for. Weapons, weapons, everywhere, he mused, paraphrasing Coleridge, yet nary' a defense for me.

Instead he bounced up the emergency stairs three steps at a time, racing past the secondary sub-basement (home of the Mansion’s thermal power generator and multitasking Stark-Fujikawa super-computer) until he came to Basement Level One. Hearing the Hulk-Sentinel hot on his tail, the Beast bypassed the underground rec room and gymnasium, hopping directly into his final destination: the Combat Simulation Room.

Although not quite as sophisticated as the X-Men’s Danger Room, which had the added benefit of advanced Shi’ar technology, the Avenger’s combat training system was nonetheless well-equipped to give most any Avenger, past or present, a grueling work-out, while Wakandan-built kinetic dampers in the walls generated impact-absorbing fields that prevented wholesale damage to the Mansion’s structural integrity, no matter how wild and woolly the simulated fighting became. Let’s hope T’Challa’s gizmos can keep a lid on Sentinel-spawned havoc as well, the Beast prayed.

Miraculously, his reading glasses had hung on through all his impressive acrobatics. Rapidly installing himself in an armored control booth at the far end of the spacious chamber, the endangered X-Man swiftly scanned a computerized listing of the various training programs available. To his disappointment, he couldn’t immediately find an exercise specifically tailored to the Hulk, whose rare stints with the Avengers had been mostly notable for their brevity. ‘ ‘Oh my, this could pose a problem,” he whispered at the very moment that the obstreperous automaton barged into the training room. The unstoppable Sentinel advanced across the wide, open floor of the combat simulation area toward the puny control booth, which offered the Beast little protection against the Hulk-like menace bearing down upon him.

“You cannot escape the Hulk, mutant designate:

Beast,” the Gamma Sentinel warned. The robot’s Hulk-ish histrionics were definitely starting to prey on the Beast’s nerves. “Nobody is stronger than the Hulk!”

Maybe. Maybe not. The Beast’s questing eyes fixed on just the program he needed. Maybe it wasn’t intended for the Hulk per se, but the Beast figured that any combat simulation designed to test the mettle of the mighty Thor, Norse god of thunder and the Avengers’ premiere powerhouse, might give an imitation Hulk a run for its money. “Let’s ragnarok-and-roll!” he declared, starting the program with a press of his finger.

Without warning, a force field weighing as much as the Empire State Building crashed down upon the Hulk-Sentinel, crushing it to the floor. At the same time, orange gelatinous goo gushed from vents in the walls, engulfing the trapped titan in a sea of viscous slime that kept the immersed Sentinel from achieving the leverage the robot needed to resist the tremendous force field pressing down upon it. The Gamma Sentinel’s awesome strength was useless against the ooze, which it could neither batter nor seize. The robot lay sprawled upon the submerged floor, flattened against the slick wet tiles.

This is more like it, the Beast thought approvingly, humming the score to Wagner’s Gotterdammerung as he watched the Sentinel straggle futilely in the mucilaginous morass. He mentally tipped his figurative cap to whichever Avenger had conceived of this ingeniously appropriate ambuscade. The genuine God of Thunder, he surmised, might be able to disrupt the force field by summoning a bolt of lightning with his mystic hammer, then miraculously part the sea of goo with a heaven-sent gale; how fortuitously convenient it was that the phony Hulk lacked any such divine prerogatives. “Mirabile

dictu!” he rejoiced. “Will wonders never cease?”

The Beast had about five seconds to bask in well-deserved triumph before the Hulk-Sentinel revealed that it, too, had a few unexpected tricks up its non-existent sleeve. Strenuously raising its face from the floor, the robot’s troglodyte-like jaws opened wide and a frosty white slush spewed from its mouth, freezing the orange goo solid in a matter of seconds. Holy smokes, the Beast realized at once, that’s liquid nitrogen! Although unquestionably taken by surprise, he really shouldn’t have been; your ordinary, standard-model Sentinel invariably came with all manner of hidden armaments, so why shouldn’t this spurious Hulk? Indeed, he had often seen old-fashioned Sentinels immobilize their mutant prey with, their patented frigi-blasts.

The flood of ooze hardened quickly. With the once-glutinous mess rendered stiff and brittle, the Gamma Sentinel easily cracked open the translucent shell encasing its muscular frame. Glistening fragments of solidified gel fell away from the prone Sentinel, breaking apart into even smaller pieces. A most unpropitious development, the Beast acknowledged.

That left only the constant downward pressure of the force field to pin the robot to the floor. Before the Beast’s horrified gaze, the Sentinel gradually rose to its feet, defying the crushing weight with all the indomitable stubbornness of the real Hulk. If the Beast hadn’t known better, he would have sworn he was witnessing the genuine article.

That is, until powerful jets flared beneath the Hulk-Sentinel’s large green feet, launching him upward at the ceiling like a Saturn rocket. Two invincible fists, raised high above the robot’s head, slammed into the top of the training room, smashing the intricate machinery responsible for projecting the vanquished force field. The Beast gulped as his control panel reported the entire Thor sequence off-line. Would he care to initiate the next program on the menu?

Given that, due to the vagaries of alphabetization, the following program was an acrobatic routine designed to test the fabulously feline reflexes of Tigra the Were-Woman, the Beast didn’t think that would do him much good. He suddenly found himself envying the inimitable Ant-Man, if only for his ability to shrink out of sight at times like this. Mother of mercy, he thought, is this the end of Mamma McCoy’s bouncing baby Beast?

He had nowhere else to run. He could only watch in ineluctable apprehension as the pseudo-Hulk yanked its fists free from the punctured ceiling, then dropped back to the floor, less than ten yards from the Beast’s control booth. Leftover tendrils of smoke leaked from the extinguished jets in the robot’s soles. “Targeting mutant designate: Beast,” it rumbled. “Hulk will smash!”

The Beast braced himself for the worst, but he never expected the earth-shaking tremor that suddenly rocked the basement, a seismic perturbation that evidently overwhelmed even the vibranium shock absorbers in the walls. The startled X-Man blinked in surprise and, when he opened his eyes again, he thought he was seeing double. Two Hulks, identical in size and surface characteristics, faced each other upon the floor of the training room.

Huh ? the Beast thought, his extensive vocabulary momentarily deserting him. Since when did Sentinels split like amoebas? And what caused that momentous quake a few heartbeats ago?

Then he noticed that the injuries to the ceiling now included a gaping hole large enough to fly an Avenger through, as made manifestly apparent when Iron Man came diving into the basement chamber, followed almost immediately by Storm. Moments later, both Iceman and Wolverine descended to the floor of the combat arena on a swiftly-growing chute of ice that touched bottom only seconds before the two mutant heroes did. “There’s that flamin’ Sentinel again!” Logan snarled loudly, silver claws snapping out like switchblades. “Let me at him!” The Beast literally leaped for joy, grabbing onto the ceiling with his toes so that he watched his friends’ timely arrival from a distinctly inverted perspective that lessened his jubilation not one iota. At last, the cavalry had, arrived! And what a superlative cavalry it was; the outnumbered Sentinel didn’t stand a chance.

But the Hulk—the real Hulk—was less than enthused about their salutary numerical advantage. “Everybody stay back!” he ordered angrily, making it sound more like a threat than a request. Chunks of fallen plaster and masonry were crushed to powder beneath the jade giant’s weighty tread. “This tin-plated copycat’s mine.” Stalking forward aggressively, Wolverine looked like he was ready to disregard the Hulk’s forcefully expressed directive and slice himself a sizable piece of Sentinel. But Storm, landing behind the scrappy Canadian hellraiser, laid a restraining hand upon his shoulder, and cooler heads appeared to prevail. A most judicious move on Ororo’s part, the Beast concluded; he wouldn’t want anyone getting in between the Hulk and his robotic double.

For the moment, it was not too difficult to distinguish the authentic man-monster from his emerald effigy.

“Identified: gamma mutate designate: Hulk,” the Gamma Sentinel intoned, betraying its artificial origins. “Recommended course of action: immediate retreat.” Flames jetted from the Sentinel’s feet, but the Hulk was way ahead of his twin. “Forget it, gears-for-guts!” he roared, leaping at the escaping invader. “That may be how you got away from Wolverine back in Scotland, but you ain’t going to give me the slip.” His dynamic leap intercepted the Sentinel’s flight plan fifteen feet above the floor. Grabbing onto his S.H.LE.L.D.-manufactured counterpart with both hands, he dragged the fleeing robot back to earth. The basement shook once more as the two Hulks fought head-to-head and hand-to-hand. Bestial grunts blended with the whirring of in~ temfil motors strained to their limits. Looking like he was battling his own reflection in a mirror, the Hulk gave no ground against the Sentinel. Veins the size of elevator cables stood out from his skin, throbbing above great slabs of muscle and sinew. “This puny planet’s not big enough for two Hulks,” he spat, “so one of us is goin’ down, and it ain’t goin’ to be me!”

Storm and Iron Man hovered in the air above the grappling titans, standing guard in case the jet-equipped Sentinel made another break for it. Meanwhile, Iceman further reduced the phony Hulk’s chances of escape by plugging the hole in the ceiling with a seal of ice at least three feet thick. Wolverine alone was left to fume and glower on the sidelines, somehow managing to override his primal yen to join in the fighting. “C’rnon, Hulk!” he shouted savagely, like a soccer hooligan watching a losing game. “Tear that friggin’ wind-up toy apart!”

At first, the twin Hulks appeared evenly matched. As they whirled and wrestled across the floor, the Beast quickly lost track of which green gargantua was the original and which was the cybernetic clone. Is it live or is it Memorex? he wondered, watching one of the Hulks try unsuccessfully to catch his opponent’s neanderthal skull in a headlock. Was that the honest-to-goodness Hulk pounding the other one’s ears between his fists, or was it instead the soulless imitation that just delivered a battering ram of a punch to his foe’s broad ribcage? If this tussle were on pay-per-view, the Beast thought, feeling rather like a spectator at Madison Square Garden the night of a heavyweight bout, the ratings would be ascending into orbit now.

He eased cautiously out of the control booth. Seeing his chance, he darted across the open floor to join Wolverine. “Lafayette, we are here!” he said exuberantly, slapping his fellow X-Man upon the back. 1 ‘As you can surely imagine, your fortuitous return is robustly appreciated!”

“Yeah, sure,” Wolverine said tersely. A scowl showing below the edge of his mask, he didn’t look away from the cataclysmic brawl going on a few yards away. “Glad we could make it.”

The Beast raised a quizzical and exceptionally bushy eyebrow. Logan could be moody and anti-social at times, but his present attitude struck the Beast as surprisingly standoffish under the circumstances. “What of Muir Island?” the worried anthropoid inquired urgently. “I see that Bobby is hale and hearty, but what of Moira and Kurt?” '

“Alive and kickin’, more or less.” Logan didn’t elaborate, and the Beast opened his mouth to ask for more details, but Logan cut him off with a severe look that brooked no dissent. “Later,” he decreed laconically.

Scratching his head, the Beast decided not to press the matter. He could always get the full scoop from Ororo or Bobby if and when the Hulk-Sentinel was disposed of. His own unsated curiosity could wait that long. But what was Wolverine’s problem? Merely a foiled desire to butt heads with the Sentinel?

“You are not the Hulk,” the mendacious machine insisted as it bludgeoned the real Hulk with its inordinately large fists. The Richter-scale blows did not even raise bruises on the Hulk’s invulnerable hide; the indefatigable monster held his own and then some. “You are an imposter,” the false Hulk lied, prompted by some preprogrammed imperative to mislead the public.

“If I’m not the Hulk, nobody is!” the Hulk thundered^ proving his point by slugging the Sentinel so hard that the flying robot smashed through a reinforced ceramic wall into the gymnasium adjacent to the combat testing area. The two-ton metal monstrosity hit the Avengers’ Olympic-sized swimming pool with a splash of truly nonpareil proportions, the impact displacing a miniature tsunami of chlorinated water that poured into the combat arena through the newly-carved gap in the wall. Only the Beast’s enhanced agility, and Wolverine’s tiger-like reflexes, kept both heroes from getting thoroughly drenched by the oncoming wall of water.

The Hulk, on the other hand, waded straight into the face of the tidal wave, eager to get his vengeful hands on the mechanism attempting to sully his already infamous reputation. “You know why you’re not ever going to beat me?” he challenged the Sentinel, cannonballing into the pool after his egregious double. “It’s cause you can’t ever get as mad as I am right now.” Water streamed down his ample head and shoulders as he lifted the pummelled robot high above the shallow end of the pool. The left side of the Sentinel’s face had collapsed inward, giving its fraudulent countenance a grotesque and distorted grimace. Blue sparks spurted from a cracked green eyeball. “And, as somebody should’ve told you, the madder I get, the stronger I get!”

. With that, the irate Hulk ripped the Sentinel in half, tearing it apart at its mid-section. High-tech entrails spilled from its sundered humanoid chassis: wires, nozzles, gears, and motors. Internal lubricants, mixed with jet fuel and unignited napalm, bled from severed tanks and conduits, polluting the formerly pristine water in which the Hulk stood up to his knees. The bisected Sentinel’s limbs flailed about spasmodically while its computerized mind tried to cope with its grievous condition. “Warning—zzz—unit integrity compromised—” it sputtered, bursts of static interfering with its coherence, “—zzz—self-repair requirements exceeding defined limits—zzz—systemic shutdown—zzz-—Hulk will smash!— ZZZ—activating failsafe procedure—’ ’

“Aw, shut your trap!” the Hulk snarled in contempt. He hurled both halves of the broken Sentinel into the fouled water swirling around his soaked purple trousers. A less durable being might have been electrocuted on the spot, but the Hulk wasn’t even stung by the flashing and sparking that briefly transpired once the robot’s exposed circuitry came into contact with the water.

“I guess I proved who the real Hulk is.” He leaped from the pool in a single bound, landing hard on the floor of the gym. His monstrous feet left deep impressions in the padded mat beneath a set of trapezes. ‘ ‘Accept no substitutes.”

For the first time since the pseudo-Hulk invaded the

Mansion, the Beast allowed himself to fully relax. All’s well that ends well, he thought, only to be taken by surprise when Iron Man zoomed past him at high speed. The Golden Avenger’s boot jets carried him into the gym with such velocity that the befuddled Beast had to wonder what all the rush was about. From where he was standing, the Sentinel was irrevocably kaput, so why such unseemly alacrity?

Iron Man touched down at the far end of the pool, next to semi-sunken remains of the demolished Sentinel. “All right, Hulk,” he said grimly, his amplified voice carrying easily across the length of the gym, “you’ve done your part. Now let me disarm that gamma bomb.” The Beast’s jaw dropped, revealing a mouthful of t pearly white fangs.


By the time Captain America returned to Avengers Mansion, along with Cyclops and the Vision, the threat of the last Gamma Sentinel had been neutralized in more ways than one. Comparing notes with the entire assemblage of X-Men and Avengers, the star-spangled champion of liberty was glad to hear that the various heroes had survived their respective adventures intact, even if the Scarlet Witch and Rogue remained missing and presumed captured. But not for much longer, he vowed, not if I have anything to say about it.

“There’s just one thing I still don’t understand,” Cap said to Iron Man. ‘ ‘How did you and your party get all the way back from Scotland before the rest of us could return from Alberta?”

Since the main meeting room had not yet recovered from the Hulk-Sentinel’s rampage, everyone had convened in an elegantly appointed parlor on the first floor, one often used by the Avengers for public receptions and to entertain visiting dignitaries. Commemorative plaques and trophies, presented to the Avengers by various grateful communities and organizations, adorned the mantel of a large brick fireplace over which a framed portrait of Tony Stark’s deceased parents, the original residents of the mansion, hung proudly. Avengers and X-Men occupied the antique sofas and chairs situated around the parlor.

Iron Man. whose heavy armor would be too much for mere wooden furniture, remained standing. He kept his helmet on to preserve his secret identity from their mutant guests. “It’s not hard to make good time,” he explained, turning his golden faceplate toward Storm, “when you’ve got a full-fledged weather goddess ensuring a strong tailwind.” Despite the iron mask covering his teammate’s face, Cap could readily imagine Tony’s charming smile accompanying his words of praise for the X-Men’s regal co-leader. Iron Man’s alter ego always had been a smooth talker where beautiful women were concerned.

“In addition,” the Vision pointed out, his sepulchral voice devoid of warmth or feeling, “we were delayed by the necessity to inform the Canadian authorities of our activities.”

That’s right, Cap recalled. Although it had been only common courtesy to keep the R.C.M.P. apprised of what he, Cyclops, and the Vision had encountered in that underground city beneath the Columbia Icefields, there was no denying that the lengthy debriefing had cost them a certain amount of time.

“That’s one of the few advantages of being an outlaw organization,” Cyclops observed. His ruby quartz visor turned toward the mantelpiece, where the Avengers’s numerous awards were displayed; Cap imagined that the feared and much-maligned X-Men didn’t get much in the way of public testimonials and citations. “Less paperwork.”

It’s a shame Xavier’s people don’t always get the recognition they deserve, Cap thought, hut they may bring some of that on themselves by being so secretive. His legendary shield rested against the side of his upholstered armchair. “Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I still think there’s something to be said for working within the system.”

“You might not feel the same way,” Cyclops said, his voice taking on a bitter edge, “if the system hunted patriots with the same enthusiasm it has for chasing mutants.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” Cap answered sincerely, ‘ ‘but I respect your right to disagree with me on this issue. Certainly, there’s a proud American tradition of civil disobedience in a good cause, such as protecting the civil rights of mutants everywhere.”

Cyclops’s tone mellowed as he offered Cap something of an olive branch. “If every American felt the way you do, Captain, then maybe we wouldn’t need to operate outside the law, or keep our distance from the authorities.”

Maybe one day you won’t have to, Cap thought. He had personally vouched for Cyclops on their mission to Alberta, but he had seen firsthand the wary treatment the X-Men’s other leader had received from the officials they’d dealt with on their way in and out of Canada.

Anti-mutant prejudice was no figment of the X-Men’s imaginations.

“Enough politics,” Iceman blurted impatiently. Having regained his human form, the defrosted X-Man sat on a red damask couch between Storm and Cyclops. “What’s all this about the moon?”

The Beast, perching atop a camel back sofa behind the Vision, cleared his throat loudly. ‘‘Ahem, that sounds like my cue,” he began as all eyes and a visor gave him their full attention. “As you’ll recall, S.H.I.E.L.D. provided us with aeronautical information on the Unidentified Flying Object believed to be involved in the heinous abduction of our fair teammates. I’ll spare you all the abstruse mathematics and tedious triangulating, but meticulous analysis of the UFO’s reported trajectories, conducted by yours truly while the rest of you were gallivanting about the globe, clearly points to Earth’s moon as the mysterious vessel’s point of origin.”

“The moon?” Wolverine snorted skeptically. Too restless to take a seat, the abrasive X-Man paced in front of the dormant fireplace. Although he had retracted his adamantium claws, Logan struck Cap as no less volatile. “I think you cooked your numbers too long, Beastie Boy. C’mon, the moon? Give me a flamin’ break.”

“I wouldn’t dismiss the idea out of hand,” Iron Man stated, “It wouldn’t be the first time one of our enemies took up residence on the moon. As a matter of fact, the Fantastic Four and I were up there only a few months ago, running interference against Ronan the Accuser.” “We’ve been to the moon as well,” Cyclops said somberly. From his tone, Cap gathered it hadn’t been the happiest of experiences. He saw Storm give Cyclops a sympathetic look, and wondered what the taciturn X-Man might have endured on Earth’s largest natural satellite. “And we can go there again if we have to,” Cyclops affirmed.

The Beast nodded vigorously. “One small step for a man, a giant step for mutantkind. Let us not forget,” he lectured in a quasi-academic fashion, “that the baneful Leader has previously demonstrated a marked predilection for establishing his devious domiciles in remote locations. Beneath a glacier, for instance, or aboard an orbiting space platform. What could be more remote and inaccessible than the abandoned stomping grounds of our revered Apollo astronauts?”

A persuasive spiel, Cap thought, but Wolverine still .appeared dubious. “So now you’re telling me the Leader is really the Man in the Moon. Get real, McCoy.”

The Beast blinked his eyes, seemingly taken aback by Wolverine’s persistent objections. “But my calculations—? The angles of approach and ascent are incontrovertible.”

Iceman, for one, required no further convincing. “I say we go!” he exclaimed, jumping up from the couch. Cap admired the young man's pep and spirit. “If there’s any chance that Rogue and Wanda are up there, we’ve got to check it out.”

“I concur,” the Vision stated, although the synthe-zoid’s icy reserve could not have been more different from Iceman’s youthful enthusiasm. His voluminous yellow cloak was draped over the arms of the small sofa. “I have reviewed the Beast’s calculations and concluded that his hypothesis has an 83.6 percent probability of accuracy. In the absence of any other plausible alternative, I can see no other logical course of action.”

“Then we are agreed?” Storm asked, searching the faces of the other heroes in the room. “As much as I regret separating myself from our mother Earth, I will gladly brave the barren vacuum of space to liberate our departed friends./’

I couldn ’t have put it better myself, Captain America thought. He didn’t know Rogue well, although she had punched him through a park bench, then put him in a coma, during their memorable first encounter, but he had personally taken the Scarlet Witch under his wing when she and her brother first joined the Avengers. Casual jaunts to the moon still felt like Buck Rogers to a wartime relic like himself, yet he’d pilot a starship to the Skrull Empire and back if it meant rescuing Wanda and Rogue from the Leader’s clutches.

But would Wolverine go along with the plan? Despite the gruff Canadian’s longtime affiliation with the X-Men, Cap regarded Logan as more of a loner than a team player. He’d always been that way, even when they first met back in World War II. It occurred to Cap that Logan was surely the only individual in the room who was older than he was; it felt a bit odd not to have seniority. “Well, Logan?” he asked the other man. “Are you with us?” ~

“Sounds like a snipe hunt to me,” Wolverine said. “But if the rest of you are deadset on blasting off, who am I to raise a ruckus? Count me in.”

Good man, Cap thought. Now only the Hulk remained to be heard from. Too large and heavy-set for even the most sturdy of hardwood furniture, the brawny titan loomed at the back of the parlor, blocking Cap’s view of a cherry-finish china cabinet. With some difficulty, Jarvis had persuaded the surly giant to trade his damp purple pants for a pair of Hercules’s old brown trousers. Even wearing hand-me-downs from the mighty Son of Zeus, the Hulk’s trunk-like legs had already torn out the knees of his new pants. “What about you, Hulk?” Cap asked. “Are you in this until the end?”

He half-hoped the Hulk would turn him down. A walking disaster area, the Hulk was also a loose cannon of the highest caliber; he made Wolverine look like Miss Congeniality. The prospect of going into space with such an ungovernable troublemaker was enough to give anyone second thoughts, even Captain America.

Scowling, the Hulk mulled the question over for several moments before answering. “Get this straight,” he said finally, sneering at the roomful of Avengers and X-Men. “I don’t need any of you costumed clowns to deal with my old pal, the Leader. Once we get to the moon, you’d best stay out of my way.” His angry green eyes and hostile expression dared anyone to object. “Still, I can’t think of any faster way to get to the moon ’cept by hitchin’ a ride with you losers. Just don’t push your luck.”

Cap rose from the leather armchair to confront the Hulk. This requires careful handling, he realized. He didn’t want to set off a destructive tantrum that could leave the mansion in ruins; they had already wasted too much time fighting the Hulk back at Niagara Falls. On the other hand, he wasn’t about to let the Hulk think he could intimidate the rest of them whenever he felt like it; that would set a dangerous precedent and undermine his leadership. Glancing over at Cyclops and Storm, he could tell they felt the same way. The Hulk’s an Avenger, though, at least sometimes, Cap thought. That makes him my responsibility.

To avoid provoking another senseless battle, he left his shield leaning against the chair. “All right, Hulk,” he said firmly. “You’ve got more experience with the Leader than anybody here, I’ll grant you that. You want to launch a preemptive strike against the Leader while the rest of us concentrate on rescuing our friends, fine with me. But don’t think you can bully anyone here, or put the mission in jeopardy. You try something like that, and I’ll personally make sure you toe the line. Got that, mister?”

A moment of tense silence followed, as everyone present awaited the Hulk’s response. Standing firm, Cap kept his gaze fixed steadily on the jade giant’s subhuman features, maintaining eye contact. Some people called Captain America a living legend, a label he often felt uncomfortable with, even if it occasionally came in useful in cutting through red tape and taking charge of a crisis. At this moment, though, Cap was willing to trade on his laurels for all they were worth. If ever my status as a so-called national icon counted for anything, he thought, let’s hope it carries some clout with the loyal American inside that green-skinned monster.

“Yeah, whatever,” the Hulk grunted, looking away. His huge lists unclenched and his bulging muscles relaxed a little. Shoving the couch aside, he lumbered toward the door. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

I don’t believe it, Cap thought, maintaining a stem expression to hide his relief. He actually backed down. Cap figured that was as much of a concession as he was ever going to get from the Hulk. Sergeant Duffy would be proud, he thought, recalling the leather-necked old drill sergeant who had tried so diligently to make a soldier out of an unpromising young private named Steve

Rogers, back during the fight against the Axis. He doubted if Duffy had ever had to deal with a recruit as recalcitrant and impossible to discipline as the Hulk, Cap surveyed the parlor, taking stock of their combined forces: three Avengers, five X-Men, and the Hulk. Nothing to sneeze at, even if transportation posed a bit of a problem. Now for the hard part, he thought wryly.

“One more thing, Hulk,” he said. The gargantuan brute shot him a dirty look, his annoyed expression asking now what?, but Cap pressed on regardless. “The quinjet’s going to be pretty cramped as is, with nine of us en route for the moon. It will be a lot easier on all concerned if you’ll change back into Banner until we get there.”

, Wolverine whistled in appreciation. “One thing I’ll say for you, Cap,” he said, grinning like a wolf on the prowl. “You’re not afraid to live dangerously!”

Even with the Hulk’s massive frame replaced by the slender form of Bruce Banner, the quinjet was still packed to capacity. Seated at the helm of the sleek, high-tech aircraft, Iron Man made a mental note to expand the passenger area the next time he upgraded the vehicle. Maybe if I reconfigure the engine assembly, he theorized, drawing up imaginary blueprints in his head, then increase the wingspan to compensate for the added weight. . . .

His gauntlets had been inserted into customized niches in the helm controls, establishing a direct cybernetic interface with the quinjet’s instrumentation. Iron Man had designed the helm to be compatible with both his and the Vision’s operating systems, not to mention Hank Pym’s cybernetic helmet. The controls could also be operated manually, of course, but Iron Man regarded that as embarrassingly clunky and retro.

Through the polarized plastic windshield, he watched the moon grow steadily larger as the ship neared their destination. They had already left Earth’s atmosphere far behind; according to the onboard navigational computer, they were less than an hour away from entering into orbit around the moon, preparatory to touching down on the lunar surface.

First, though, they had to pinpoint the location of the Leader’s headquarters. No small task; although the moon

was only a quarter of the size of the Earth, they were still talking over fourteen million square miles of craters, mountains, plains, and basins. “How are we doing?” he asked the Vision. “Any luck tracking down the Leader’s new address?”

The synthezoid sat beside Iron Man in the co-pilot’s seat. A fiber-optic cable linked the solar gem in his forehead to the ship’s computer banks. “Affirmative,” he reported. ‘ ‘A systematic survey of the most recent lunar reconnaissance photos, provided by S.H.I.E.L.D and Starcore, has detected what appears to be an artificial structure located in the Tycho crater on the earthward side of the moon. This structure, previously unreported, is too small to be seen from the Earth except by the most powerful telescopes. It is a domed structure, approximately one thousand feet in diameter, resting inside the circumference of a smaller crater in the shadow of Tycho’s outer walls.”

Yes! Iron Man thought, encouraged by the Vision’s news. “That’s got to be it. How many people could have set up housekeeping on the moon recently?’ ’ He quickly reviewed his lunar geography; Tycho, a crater the size of Yellowstone National Park, was located in the moon’s southern hemisphere, hundreds of miles from the Sea of Tranquility, where Apollo 11 made history decades ago.

Tycho was also significantly distant from the moon’s famed Blue Area, site of alien ruins over ten million years old. Given that the Blue Area currently housed the Watcher, the Supreme Intelligence, and a full complement of Starcore scientists, Iron Man wasn’t surprised that the Leader had set up shop in a less crowded neighborhood. The man likes his privacy, it seems. Too bad he’s about to get a whole passel of unwanted visitors knocking on his door.