Written by Ann Nocenti
Summary: Wolverine reaches Level 10 in Miles’ VR game and is suddenly teleported with DJ Bone to UltraMax. Ricochet Rita recruits Wolverine to her side. Meanwhile, Beast receives an email Wolverine sent shortly before playing the game. He deduces that pure instinct is needed to beat the game, but Storm refuses Beast's request to finish Level 10. Later, Beast returns to the game, but forgets to turn on his failsafe. Phoenix discovers the Beast comatose. She joins the game and soon finds herself inside UltraMax. On Earth, Gambit decides he won’t let Rogue go to UltraMax alone. He allows himself to get caught robbing a store, then exposes his powers to the police. He’s sent to UltraMax, onboard the same shuttle that’s transporting Rogue. Later, Phoenix is taken to Mojo. Disoriented, she begins to invade his brain.
“Huh?” Moment: Rogue’s false identity has her as a death row counselor and security guard. Is this a real thing? It sounds utterly bizarre to me.
Review: This novel is worth buying if only for the opening of Chapter 14. Nocenti starts many of the chapters with a character study of one of the cast members, and her depiction of ten-year-old Jean Grey’s discovery of her mutant powers ranks amongst her finest writing. Back in the '80s, Chris Claremont crafted a dark origin story that had Jean’s powers emerge as she cradled her dying friend Annie and experienced her final thoughts. Nocenti continues the theme and creates an even more disturbing portrait of what telepathy could do to an adolescent. The day Annie dies, Jean discovers her dog loves meat more than he loves her. Soon, she’s learning the darkest secrets of her parents’ marriage. Her salvation comes in the form of Professor Xavier, who teaches her that “a trace of hate between a husband and wife” is common. The ethics, complications, and politics of telepathy are rich subjects that Nocenti could easily devote an entire novel to, one I’d love to read.
The rest of this section mainly consists of characters finding ways to reach UltraMax. It’s pretty standard as these things go, assuming you’re willing to accept the concepts of a) an outer space prison, and b) video games that can teleport you there. Nocenti packs in an impressive amount of character work while she’s setting the pieces in place for the climax. Beast is envious of Wolverine for beating the game first. Gambit can’t bring himself to let Rogue go alone as the X-Men’s mole, so he develops an insane plan to join her. Rogue has to silently tolerate the other guards’ casual bigotry. Storm finds herself increasingly frustrated by the team’s unwillingness to listen to her. Phoenix speculates that Mojo is incredibly lonely after surrounding himself with sycophants for so long, so now he’s desperate to interact with the minds sharp enough to beat his games. Later, she mentally scans the convicts at UltraMax and finds herself torn between wanting to help them and kill them. (The quickie profiles of the inmates Nocenti creates are also haunting.) It’s easy to argue that the book has several disparate elements that don’t quite gel, but much of the novel’s appeal lies in the way the cast is written. They’re engaging characters, and you truly want to reach the end of the story with them.