‘Ghost Box’ (Astonishing X-Men Issue 25-30) was written by Warren Ellis with art by Simone Bianchi, Andrea Silvestri and Simone Peruzzi. The team consisted of Cyclops, Emma Frost, Beast, Wolverine, Armor and Storm. Only recently relocated to San Francisco they were called into investigate a murder which led to them uncovering a secret war with another dimension.
The story is notable for a two part mini-series between issue 27 and 28 that consisted of a number of ‘What-If’ scenarios that illustrated what would happen if the X-men failed. This helped convey how high the stakes were, even if the main characters were generally unaware of this.
I like this story for the new elements of mythology it introduces to the Marvel universe, which is why I decided to concentrate on it first. There are many elements that can be used in our own games.
I will be discussing the plot in details so if you don’t want any Spoilers you should read the comics first before proceeding.
THE GHOST BOX
We’ll start with the titular ghost box. Physically this appears to be a large metal cube, its surface covered with an irregular grid and glowing blue lights. There are numerous Ghost Boxes made by a variety of different realities but have a common enough appearance that Agent Brand of S.W.O.R.D recognises it on sight.
A Ghost Box is designed to open gates to other versions of Earth. The Ghost Box in this story is set to open to its home dimension but is possible that a skilled operator could set it to open on other worlds.
In order to open a portal it needs a source of energy. It is unknown how much power it requires but the owner of the Ghost Box was attempting to use an abandoned spaceship to do the job, suggesting it could be quite a lot.
When activated the Ghost Box unfolds, revealing a dimension portal at its centre. This is large enough for a Sentinel-sized being to emerge from. The larger the Ghost Box the larger the portal.
The supporting material from the Ghost Boxes mini-series suggests that Ghost Box use warps nearby reality. Eventually this can cause time to break down, allowing those in Present to see ghosts of the past. Sometimes these ghosts appear to be aware of people in the Present.
Planets that act as hubs for Ghost Boxes, such as the Annex, eventually become uninhabitable due to this break down of reality. It isn’t clear how long or how many Ghost Boxes are needed to produce this affect.
For those who move in the right circles it can be quite common to encounter a Ghost Box. Agent Brand is actually surprised that the X-men have never seen one during their long career.
Agent Brand is aware of at least 20 parallel Earths that have developed Ghost Box technology. Since these are worlds that are variations of the same planet it is perhaps not that surprising.
Unless S.W.O.R.D has reason to conceal the technology, and there is no suggestion that Agent Brand wishes to keep the information classified, it is a safe bet that S.H.I.E.L.D will also know of Ghost Box technology.
The question remains whether Earth 616 has the same technology. It could conceivably be invented by scientists such as Reed Richards or Dr Doom or organisations such as A.I.M.
Groups other than the X-Men may very well encounter Ghost Boxes prior to their appearance in Astonishing X-Men. Adventures can be built around who created this particular Ghost Box and where does it lead?
A Ghost Box might not be used for sinister purposes. Other worlds might use them for exploration or even to find help. This could act as a good way to launch a group of heroes on an inter-dimensional adventure.
ANNEX and SUBJECT X
The source of the Ghost Box in this story is a parallel Earth designated Annex. Their name is drawn from their practice of Annexing other realities. Interestingly they only recently came into existence, with a retro-active history.
During ‘Avengers Disassembled’ the Scarlet Witch cast a spell that eradicated mutant powers not only on Earth 616 but on many other parallel Earths. In an attempt to find a cure former X-man Forge artificially implanted an x-gene into test subjects.
This was enough to create a new reality, Annex, where mutants existed, their mutant gene in the same location as the new artificial mutants. Annex possessed Ghost Box technology and began expanding into other worlds.
It would appear that they picked Earth 616 because they are saw them as vulnerable, due to the recent mutant depopulation. The Ghost Box mini-series showed that they could have equally selected Earth 889 that combined elements of Steam-punk with modern X-men.
Once a parallel Earth is selected a scout team lays the ground work. Subject X was one of these agents, possessing the mutant ability to set people on fire. It would make sense to use mutant agents, since they have advanced capabilities that wouldn’t be easily detectable by most worlds.
Agents are trained to sacrifice themselves and render their Ghost Box useless rather than face capture. To let the technology fall into enemy hands would risk a security breach on the homeworld.
It is suggested that once the Annex found a suitable world they would evacuate from their home reality. It is equally possible that they would simply strip the planet of its resources, once they had eliminated the native population.
Invasion is carried out by yellow Sentinels, designated Deathlok-Class Security Units. These robots appear to have trapped mutants at their core, allowing the Sentinel to make use of their powers. It possible that any super-human could be used in this fashion.
These Sentinels are shown to have the power to conquer Earth 616 in only a few weeks. It should be remembered that this is a ‘What If’ scenario and those always tend to be darker.
At the climax of this story the Annex Earth is destroyed by a death ray fired into the Ghost Box portal. This doesn’t mean that they can’t appear in your own adventures. In your campaign maybe the beam was never fired or the Annex had a way to avoid death (emergency evacuation or another Ghost Box to divert the beam).
It is possible that a scout team could be encountered by a group of heroes prior to the events in ‘Ghost Box’. We know that there was at least one team before Subject X was despatched.
You may also wish to run a group through the nightmare scenario presented in ‘Ghost Boxes’ issue 1. In this apocalyptic Event players can take the roles of heroes trying to stop the Annex invasion.
An example of how even wondrous things can become dark and grimy. The idea is that so many spaceships are shot down that not every country can deal with the toxic materials that such vessels contain or have the technology or inclination to make use of the alien technology.
Instead the remains are scuttled in the small Indonesian area called Chaparanga. The locals then risk their health to strip the vessels of anything valuable and sell parts and raw materials on to companies and their government.
Subject X heads here to make use of a spacecraft power system to activate a Ghost Box. This demonstrates that some of the technology here can be useful if you know where to look.
Chaparanga is a rich location for an adventure. The locals live in poverty amongst remnants of alien technology. Community minded heroes might want to champion the rights of the locals and improve their living conditions.
The toxins will cause cancer but in the Marvel universe they might also give someone super powers. New heroes and villains may trace their origins to Chaparanga. Prior to ‘Avengers Disassembled’ there could be a large mutant population.
Technology focused heroes might search the spaceships for parts they can use. They may also come here to prevent villains from making of the resources here to further their own aims. If an adventure requires a group of heroes make their way to the stars they could head here to find a working spaceship.
Located in China Tian long had a reputation in the Intelligence community for being a 5 square mile area of forest that proved completely reflective to any kind of scanning. The X-men were to find that this was due to presence of a secret group of mutants.
Tian meant Heaven, something the mutant group had tried to create in the form of a floating fortress. Half of the fortress was kept aloft using advanced technology. The other half was kept in the air using mutant abilities.
On M-Day the Chinese mutants died, half of Tian collapsing. The other half stayed active. A large section of it (the walls, ceiling and floor) were made of Spintronic computing material, using the spin of electrons to store information.
This proved to be a perfect location for Forge to operate from. A technologically advanced secret base that was invisible to all scans.
The Chinese mutant team are a great set-up for a series of adventures. Who were they? What did they do? Players can tell their stories. Other superheroes may have encountered them and just never mentioned their existence to the X-men.
After the events of ‘Ghost Box’ another group may move into what remains of Tian. This could be a group of superheroes, such as the Secret Avengers or some villains.The Chinese government may learn of the area and set up their own group here.
FORGE and THE NEW MUTANTS
Forge was contacted by Beast in the hope of find a solution to M-Day. His solution was to artificially create mutants. Shortly afterwards he became aware of scouts from Annex. In the process he obtained his own Ghost Box, which he stored in Tian.
One of his New Mutants began following Subject X but was detected and killed. Now aware that his cover had been blown Subject X attempted to activate his own Ghost Box and if he hadn’t been stopped by the X-Men an invasion would have begun.
By the time the X-men arrived at Tian Forge had assembled a small army of New Mutants to launch an counter-attack against the Annex. These subjects were little more than monsters, their abilities bolstered by cybernetics.
There are opportunities for further adventures during this period. It is entirely possible that Forge was much more sane when he began his secret war against the Annex. He may have recruited other superheroes he could trust to track their movements.
Forge may also be responsible for the creation of new heroes and villains. These artificial mutants may find that there are unforeseen consequences of their powers. They may need further medical treatment or experience a monstrous transformation.
You could play out a ‘What If’ scenario where Forge is able to launch his attack on the Annex. With the players taking the role of his New Mutants can they successfully prevent an invasion?