Original series Suitable for all readersAction-oriented/low level of violenceImplied adult situations

 

 

eXtrapolations

 

A Captain Scarlet/X-Men Multiverse Story by Caroline Smith

 

 

Part Four

 

 

Twenty-six

 

Magnolia Jones paced up and down in her cramped quarters, gnawing on her knuckles and knowing that with every moment that passed she had to do something to stop Conrad Turner. After supper her premonition had continued to bother her, and so ignoring what was practically a command for her and Seymour to retire for the night, she followed Conrad, unseen, to the Control Room. Once there she eavesdropped on his ultimatum to the World Government.  She listened with mounting horror – he planned to hurt millions of innocent people – and she knew she couldn’t stand idly by and have more blood on her hands.

But realistically, what could she do? It was her alone against Conrad, for she had grave doubts that Seymour would believe her unless he heard it from Conrad’s own mouth. She put her face in her hands in dismay.  Somehow she had to get into the control computers and find out where the virus was located, and maybe she could destroy it before it was too late.

Determined now, she crept back along the corridors to the Control Room. Thankfully, on entering, she found it empty, silent except for the hum of the computer systems. She crossed swiftly to the main console, the nerve centre of operations, and ran a hand across the smoothly contoured surfaces, jittery at the thought of what she was about to do. Taking a seat, she flicked her fingers hesitantly across the touch panels. The system requested an authorisation code. With a dry mouth she entered the alphanumeric sequence from memory, praying that nothing had changed – it had been a while since she had last accessed the system. She gave a gasp of relief when the code was accepted and a multi-coloured holographic image-screen activated above the console.   It took her agonising minutes to search – and she glanced nervously at the doorway every now and then – as if she expected either of the two men to appear at any minute - but she persevered until she found what she sought – the location of the virus canister.  With a feeling of exhilaration she started to back out of the system when the sound of the door sliding open made her jump. 

Her heart sank like a stone as she saw Conrad standing there. Suspicion chased surprise across his face.

“What are you doing here?”  he demanded.

She flew to her feet, the chair sliding backwards, and desperately tried to keep the guilt from her face.  Conrad walked cross to her with measured strides, his eyes narrowing as they raked over the holographic image suspended above the console.  He hit a panel on the desk and the image dissolved.

“What’s your interest here, Magnolia? I wasn’t aware of your technical skills.”

The cold, flat tone scared her and she feared he must surely hear the thudding of her heart against her ribs. How could I ever have been so crazy to have believed he cared about either of us?

 It was only now that she realised how little warmth he had in his soul.  He was using them all right; if only Seymour wasn’t blind enough to see that for himself.

He leaned towards her, his dark, mesmerising stare pinning her into immobility.

“What a shame I can’t read minds like Gray. I wonder what I’d find in your pretty head.” His eyes narrowed, as if he really was trying to unlock the hidden thoughts of her mind.

God, don’t let him hurt me

“I’ll ask you once again, why are you rooting around in the system?”

“Please,” she said quietly, her voice pleading. “Don’t kill those people down there, don’t make Seymour do it, please don’t.”

She tried to stop herself from trembling as he towered over her: a vision of black malevolence. She was backed up against the console, her escape route blocked. And in any case, where would she go? She had to bluff him out. She jumped suddenly, as he raised his gloved hand to her face and stroked the curve of her cheek in a gesture that was a peculiar mixture of intimidation and tenderness.

“So, you obviously overheard my address to the world. That’s a great pity, my dear.”

She was drawn into those dark eyes, felt swallowed up in them. For a second she couldn’t breathe. She nodded quickly, trying to swallow the hard lump in her throat, hardly daring to speak in case anything she said made it worse, or, heaven forbid, revealed that she knew where the virus was kept.

His eyes glittered, and he gripped both of her wrists hard, so she was unable to touch him.

“Stop it, you’re hurting me,” she said.

“I do not trust you, Magnolia, and I believe you will try to turn Seymour against me.  You know I just can’t allow that to happen.”

Her heart twisted inside with sick terror, and in desperation she struggled, and opened her mouth to scream, hoping against hope that Seymour would hear her. When he saw Conrad’s act of naked aggression against her – surely that would be enough to convince him of the man’s evil intentions? But Conrad clamped his hand firmly over her mouth, silencing her cry. He brought one finger of his other hand slowly towards her temple. Her eyes widened in terror and she squirmed within his vice-like grasp – his finger stabbed against her temple –

- the sudden jolt of electricity through her brain stunned her instantly and she crumpled like a deflated doll in his arms. He lifted her up, cradling her against his body.

 “I’m sorry, my dear,” he whispered to her deaf ears. “You’ve become a liability. I can’t allow you to deflect your step-brother from his tasks; he’s far too valuable to me. You however, are not, anymore.”

He carried her all the way to her room, remaining alert for Seymour’s presence. He would think of some explanation for her absence. A virus perhaps, caught on her sojourn at Gray’s mansion. That amused him. He smiled grimly as he dropped her gently onto the bed. He changed the access code to her room and reminded himself he would have to bring some foot and water to her quarters while she slept.  He was not so sadistic as to starve her to death.

 

 

 

Dianne fidgeted with her engagement ring as she watched Rick slip on his thin black under-sweater in the basement locker room. “Why can’t I come with you?” she asked him.

 “The fewer bodies on this trip the better.”

“Why aren’t you taking the X-Zero?”

“The security in Unity is going to be at fever-pitch; even with its stealth cloaking, our baby would stand out like a lap dancer in a convent. We’ll just take a Trans-World flight from Boston and mix with the locals.”

“You’ll be gone for ages.”

He smiled and tipped her chin up. “Hardly; we can make it back in twelve hours or less, assuming we don’t get arrested by the Secret Service.”

She bit her lip at his attempts at levity, unable to raise a smile. Ever since she had returned from Henderson Technologies she’d been overcome by feelings of misery and guilt, and time only seemed to make it worse. The few occasions she’d attempted to discuss her battle with Karen Wainwright with Rick, he seemed to brush off her concerns, insisting that she hadn’t had any choice, and he was just damned thankful that it wasn’t her lying comatose in the basement infirmary.  But she needed to talk this out, not just have it dismissed with a hug and a kiss. He just didn’t seem to understand what she was going through. It was all right for him, he had such control over his power, so much control over himself – even to the point of seeming emotionless to people who didn’t know him better. 

“Hey, babe, you’ve gone space-walking again…” she heard him saying. He took one of his leather jackets from the closet and pulled it on, zipping it closed. Then he pulled her tight in a strong embrace, and whispered against her hair.  “I know this is hard, and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but as soon as I get back, I’m going to treat you to dinner, just us, all candlelight and romantic music, and the hell with Magneto and his threats - just for a few hours – what d’you say?” 

She drew her hands up to cup his face, and then his lips were on hers, warm and soft, his golden aura encircling her.

She held her tears back with force of will.

 

 

 

President Younger smeared a hand across his face, as he cut the connection to the vid-phone. It was late, he was tired, and Loover had thrown no crumbs of comfort his way in their conversation. At the end of another frustrating day, the limits of their technical intelligence had become painfully apparent. Loover’s people had been unable to trace the breach into the communications satellite, which meant they were no further forwards to determining the location of this Magneto character. They were, of course, assuming that he was running around Unity City somewhere, planning to carry out his attack. Looking for him amongst the teeming millions in this tightly-packed cityscape would be like searching for one particular ant in an anthill. But what if he wasn’t even in Unity? That resulted in an even more depressing scenario.

And, he thought grimly, despite their assurances to the public that the threat was some fruitcake’s hoax, he and the Security Council had to assume that it was in fact, wholly legitimate. Even as he sat here, in the luxurious surroundings of his office, extra forces were being drafted in; silently and surreptitiously scouring the city for evidence of potential terrorist activity, and trying to accomplish it without alerting the general populace. For three square miles around the Senate Building the entire complex was being swept with detectors for explosives and biological agents. Traffic had been discretely diverted on the premise that there were problems with utility lines in the area. That kept ordinary members of the public away from the most probable area of attack.

But it was a painstaking task, and as the appointed time approached, they would have to come to a decision as to whether the risk was real or not.  But one thing was sure. Stopping the voting process would make the government look weak in the face of a mutant terrorist threat. And that wasn’t a good thing. Shore and Martin were right about that. 

An odd sound made him glance up – and his breath caught in his throat as he saw two intruders in his office, just a few feet away from where he sat at his massive oval desk.

His eyes narrowed as he took them in. He judged one of them to be a little older than himself, smartly dressed in a dark-blue suit and seated in a wheelchair; his tall brown-haired companion wore dark-red, polarised glasses and was dressed in a black leather flight-suit. He wondered for a heart-stopping moment if one of them was this Magneto guy, coming to him in person to exact his vengeance, yet his intuition told him that these people were not a danger to him. The thought calmed him, even as he wondered why none of his assigned U.S.S. agents were barging through the door and slamming both men onto the floor of his office.

“How in God’s name did you get in here?” he said, in as even a voice as he could muster.

The older man lifted a hand and said quietly, “Don’t be alarmed, Mr President, we’re not here to threaten you in any way.”

“My service staff –”

“Are exactly where they’ve always been. No one’s been harmed.”

Younger had been thinking he knew the man’s face from somewhere, but try as he might, the name refused to pop into his head.

The white-haired man spoke again. “Mr President, I apologise for this intrusion and for this rather childish display of our abilities. Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Charles Gray, and this is my colleague, Richard Fraser.”

On hearing Gray’s name, Younger’s memory kicked in at last. “Professor Gray, I don’t understand; why couldn’t you just have made an appointment to see me?”

“Sir,” Gray replied, “I knew there was little chance of getting in to see you personally without some lengthy process, and we don’t have that luxury of time. I must speak to you regarding the threat made to Unity City by the rogue mutant who calls himself Magneto.”

“What do you know of him?” Younger said, in a harsher tone than he’d intended.

“We were good friends – once upon a time - and I know him well enough to believe that he is not bluffing.  I ask you to consider taking his threat seriously.” 

 “Of course I take it seriously,” Younger retorted. “The world security forces have been on high alert since this terrorist’s broadcast.”

“Have you been able to locate his whereabouts?” Gray asked.

Younger frowned. “That’s classified information, I’m afraid.”

Fraser, silent up to now, cut in, “You haven’t, have you, sir? And chances are – you won’t.”

Before Younger could make a reply, Gray held up a hand. “Mr President, I would have preferred not to disclose this information, but under the circumstances I feel that honesty is necessary so that you begin to trust me. I too am a mutant, like Magneto – in my particular case it is the ability to read minds – ”

 “So that’s how you got in here,” Younger interjected. “Did you tamper with my people’s minds?”

“It was merely an auto-suggestion to ignore us, so we could pass undisturbed into your office. I hope you won’t berate them for that lapse. I detested the action; using my powers in that fashion is anathema to me. However, as I said, circumstances sometimes force things upon you. Now, if I may continue on my original point?”

Younger exhaled, he had the distinct feeling that anything he might do would be pointless anyway.  “Go ahead.”

Gray nodded and continued, “Another of my abilities is to be able to locate other mutant minds; however in Magneto’s case I have been unable to do so. That is why I’m here. I beg of you, please consider postponing the vote, in order to give us all some time to resolve this situation.”

Younger shifted forward in his chair, and frowned. “As I’ve already said in my statement to the press – we simply cannot allow ourselves to be blackmailed by the demands of any terrorist – but most especially one who is a mutant. Surely even you can you imagine what would happen if we did?” 

Younger saw Gray’s face move in the faintest of sighs. No doubt thinking I’m just peddling that old politician routine. Well, I have to, or there would be chaos. He frowned as something Gray said niggled at him. “What do you mean – give us all some time?”

“I intend to find Magneto and stop him myself.”

“From war-hero to vigilante – a strange path you’re treading, Mr Gray.”

“We live in extraordinary times, Mr President.  But I fear we digress. I repeat, the man I knew as Conrad Turner, who calls himself Magneto, is entirely capable of carrying out his proposed terrorist threat to the inhabitants of Unity City, and he will not postpone it. If you refuse to stop the voting process, then you must evacuate as many people as possible from the city, otherwise innocents will suffer; that I can promise you.”

“Are you out of your mind? Do you realise the resources that would take? Not to mention the widespread panic that would ensue. We are taking it seriously, but it could still be a hoax. We can’t afford to make the wrong decision.” Younger narrowed his eyes and he shook his head. “I can’t believe I’m sitting here having this discussion with you, why should I believe anything you say?”

“You’re an intelligent man and you didn’t get to this particular pinnacle without being able to rely on your own particular intuition. Do you believe I’m lying?”

Younger shook his head slowly. “Damn me if don’t believe you, just as you say; although if I were any of the other heads of the security forces….” Younger pictured Sam Shore sitting in this chair, “…let’s just say they probably would have nuked the building by now.”

“Which is precisely why I came to you directly, sir. This is not simply insincere flattery; I truly regard you as a reasonable man.”

“That I may be, but even so, I can’t accede to your requests.  I’m sorry.”

Gray gave another almost imperceptible sigh, as if accepting the inevitable. “Then, Mr President, it’s entirely probable that you will be in the firing line as well.” 

Younger smiled thinly.  “Hazards of the job.” Another thought occurred to him.  “You say you were unable to locate this Magneto up to now. That implies you will continue to try to find him. So, if you do succeed, you realise that the information should be disclosed to the security forces. We cannot have other mutants acting in vigilante fashion – do you understand me?”

Gray regarded Younger with an even gaze. “Indeed, if I succeed, you will be the first to know, sir. And I hope that you will still consider my alternative.  Here is my card, if you need to contact me - if you should change your mind.”

Younger accepted the proffered white card, noting Gray’s moniker and contacts details in silver. There was something trustworthy and sincere about the man, even though Younger knew that to grant his request was out of the question. He glanced up then, about to shake Gray’s hand in farewell, and with a start of surprise, realised he was sitting alone in his office.

 

 

 

 

Twenty-seven

 

Dianne stared at Karen Wainwright. She hadn’t meant to come down to the infirmary, but something drew her here, even though it felt like pouring alcohol on a graze. Karen lay, dressed in white, beneath stark white sheets, her head cradled on the pillow. Her face was shockingly pale, her breathing shallow. On the screen above her head, a moving blip traced the fragile murmur of her heartbeat.

“Are you in dreamland, Dianne?” Edward’s hand was waving in front of her eyes, dragging her out of her reverie.

She blinked. “Oh, Doc, I’m sorry, I was miles away.”

He smiled. “So I see. But now that you’re with me – what do you think of this?”

She wandered across to the body scanner with him, and looked at the direction of his pointing finger on the screen. The three-dimensional image of Karen’s brain was a complex array of vivid colours – each one representing different areas of cerebral functionality. Edward pointed to a section of chromatic blue, his other hand flicking crazily over the console which flipped up various windows on the split screen next to the images. 

“Look here, this is interesting. This is part of the brain that Charles and I believe is where higher order telepathic activity takes place.”

Dianne peered closely at the display, and thought it was nice of him to assume she was more intelligent than she was. “I give up,” she said at last, with a sigh. “All I see are pretty colours, what does it actually mean?”

His voice rose in that excited way when he was afforded the chance to explain his work. “It looks as if activity in that area has stopped; the neural pathways seem to be bypassing it altogether.”

Dianne frowned. “So that’s what’s causing her comatose state?”

“It might only be a symptom of the primary cause.”

“What are you saying?”

Edward drew a deep breath. “I think she’s psionically numb.”

Dianne felt her stomach drop. “You mean she’s lost her telepathic abilities?”

He nodded.

“Do you think she’ll recover from her coma?”

Edward scratched his head. “Not entirely sure, she might, or might not. There’s still so much we don’t understand about this fascinating lump of tissue…”

Dianne bit her lip; Doc could be so infuriating at times. “That fascinating lump of tissue belongs to Adam’s lover,” she said, “and that’s not a lot of comfort to give him when he returns.”

And it’s my fault, she thought miserably.

“Her telepathic ability comes from the X-Factor gene and that’s still within her bodily make-up,” Edward tried to reassure her. “So, it’s possible she’s just suppressing her powers, almost like – a self-defence mechanism.” He stopped and sighed. “Look, at the moment, I just don’t know and that’s the truth of it. But I’m going to keep at it.”

He saw her doubtful glance. “When did Adam say he was coming back to the mansion?” he added.

“Tomorrow, I think,” Dianne replied, rubbing her forehead. “He had more problems with his board than he thought he would. And he doesn’t need all of this distraction. He blames me, I know he does.”   

 “From what I heard, there was little else you could do. When you’re in the middle of a fire-fight you’ll chuck water anywhere to put it out.”

She shook her head. “No, that’s not the point. We’re supposed to use our powers for good, not to maim.”

She fell silent, and he pursed his lips, unsure of what to say to her. She traced a finger along the screen, at the vibrant colours, aware of the irony – vibrant wasn’t a word to describe the state of Karen Wainwright’s brain functions.

She said absently, almost to herself: “When I felt her mind crumple, I had the strangest sensation that a tiny part of her welcomed what I was doing – and I thought I felt that part of her mind join with mine – making my psychic-knife stronger…” She paused and turned to Edward with wide eyes. “Oh, God, what have I done?”

Distraught, and hardly able to look at the screen, she glanced across to the cot where Karen lay silent. The monitor continued its slow beep. For long minutes she waited in vain for a movement of fingers, a flicker of eyelids that would herald the awakening of the young woman. Whatever she had tried to do to her, Dianne did not want to be responsible for her being a vegetable.

Edward pursed his lips and swallowed uncomfortably as he draped an arm clumsily around her shoulder. “Look,” he said, “don’t torture yourself with this. There’s no point in hanging around here. Staring at her isn’t going to make her suddenly wake-up.  Get upstairs and have something to eat.   I’ll keep an eye on her and let you know if there’s any change.”

She shook her head. “I’m not hungry.”

He looked at her with a touch of concern. “You’ll be a bag of bones at this rate.”

She sighed, and thrust her hands in the pockets of her skirt. “All right, I’ll eat something, if it makes you happy.”

“Good girl,” he beamed, and turned back happily to his work.

Dianne wandered back along the gleaming corridors of the basement and up into the main hallway of the mansion, still deep in thought. Psionically numb, it was the telepathic equivalent of going deaf and blind, and she tried vainly to imagine how she would feel if it happened to her….

During her ransack of Karen Wainwright’s mind, she had glimpsed so many images of hurt and betrayal. Forced into a mental institution.  She shivered involuntarily. Despite everything, at least her mother had cooperated with her father to find a solution that was infinitely less traumatic than the one bestowed upon Karen Wainwright by her parents. She tried to imagine what might have happened to her if she had suffered the same misfortune. There but for the grace of God, she thought with dismay.

All of a sudden her legs gave way and she leant against the shiny smooth wall in the basement corridor for support. She clutched her head, as if to expunge the ability inside of her that caused all this sudden self-flagellation. Wasn’t this what she had always wanted? To have an ability as awesome as that of Juliette, or Gray, or Rick himself and to be able to control it and have it do your bidding?

And now, just as she had begun to feel the latent power finally blooming strong within her, she had used it to harm. The image of Karen Wainwright lying comatose on the cot refused to go away. She realised she had slumped down the wall, her bottom resting on the cold surface of the floor. She closed her eyes, letting her mind drift, silently repeating a mantra that Gray had taught her, steadying her inner universe. As she became calmer, she allowed her mental shields to drop, sending herself into a meditative trance, feeling her mind expand with butterfly wings, picking up the free-floating emotions around the mansion, her inner eye catching all the colours that she associated with each individual –

And she found one in particular – that familiar passionate red-hot aura – dangerous – unpredictable.  She stopped. Felt her breathing ratchet up again. She knew where he was.

In his room. 

Don’t even think about it – a little voice warned silently in her head.

She pulled herself up from the floor, her heart fluttering. With faltering steps she moved, like a sleepwalker: into the elevator, then along the corridor, up the sweeping staircase. She stopped for a moment at a window, and saw flakes of snow fluttering in the leaden sky to coat the grass below – winter still tenaciously refusing to give up its hold to spring. The grey sky only exacerbated the feelings of desolation that gripped her.  For a moment she stood immobile, knowing she could turn back, and yet that scarlet-aura drew her. On she went, along the corridor of the sleeping wing until she reached the source of that siren-call.

The door was ajar, and she could hear him moving around inside. She took a couple of steps closer, her eyes searching the room, saw him, with his back to her, at the window, looking out towards the gardens at the rear of the mansion, as if in deep thought.  Dianne stood still and breathless for a second; she knew that she stood on the edge of an abyss. One direction would keep her on the landscape she knew; comfortable, secure and loving, and another step forward would throw her into the unknown; treacherously exciting, volatile.

She lost her nerve, and turned away.

“Dianne, is that you?” he called out, and his head peered around the doorway, his sapphire-blue eyes locking onto hers like heat-seeking missiles. She used every ounce of her telekinesis to stop her face from burning.

“I knew it was you, halfway up the stairs,” he said in a low voice, tapping the side of his nose. “I always do.”

She gave a little laugh, to hide her embarrassment, and even as she did so, she sensed his mind – brittle and tight – as if he was trying to hold onto something – as if he was afraid of –

“You look tired,” he said, as if he sensed her focusing on him and wanted to interrupt it. “You should go sleep for a while.”

“You’re as bad as Doc; I couldn’t sleep if I tried.”

“What’s the matter?” he asked her, his dark brows knitting together. “You’re not still feeling guilty about that Wainwright woman? Seems to me she got what she deserved.”

She didn’t reply, and dropped her gaze in sudden embarrassment, but continued to feel his eyes burn into her.

“There’s something else, isn’t there?” he said quickly.

She lifted her head with a little start at his perception, forgetting that he always seemed to see right through to her soul. It scared and thrilled her, and she remained rooted to the floor, even as her thoughts floated like wraiths, some of them whispering: go, go – before it’s too late

“Yes, yes there is, but I don’t know if it makes any sense…”

He cocked his head at her. “You could try me and see.”

She swallowed the burgeoning sense of betrayal – stronger than ever at her desperation to pour out her heart to someone, anyone that would listen. How she had wanted Rick to hear her out, but he preferred to be miles away, trying to save a world that could care less about them, while she burned inside with fear and self-loathing.  She stood, breathing deeply, her eyes shut fast. “I’m scared of my mutant telepathic power, of what my mind is capable of doing. I felt so strong after I merged with Cerebro, after finding you; for a while I felt I could do almost anything. But now, it all tastes like ash –” 

The words came out in a flood now, as if desperate to finish what she had to say before he could interrupt her flow.  “When I was fighting Karen – the White Queen – a tiny part of me actually enjoyed that sensation of power over another human being. It’s almost as if, how can I explain it, as if my darkest desires have come seeping to the surface.  Adam says that’s what happened to her – that using her mind to control people was like a drug, and she got hooked.”

She looked up at Paul with wide eyes, and dared to speak the thought that had jabbed at her for days.

“What if the same thing happens to me?” she whispered.

He considered it carefully before answering. “It hasn’t happened to Gray, has it? From everything I understand about him, he’s a pretty powerful telepath. Perhaps you’re more like him than her, with his willpower, or – maybe - your sense of morality will kick in to protect you from it.”

She chewed her bottom lip. “I don’t feel that way right now; not at all.”

“You have people around you who are strong, and care about what happens to you. From what I gather, she had little of that to mould her sense of self. Anyway, the first rule of addiction is knowing when you are addicted. So, at least you’re recognising the fact, if that’s the case.”

He stopped for a moment, no doubt noting the uncertainty and agitation on her face. He opened his mouth, shut it again for a second, and then gave voice to his own thoughts. “Why are you talking to me about this? Have you told him about your feelings?”

She jumped.  “The professor?”

“No, your fiancé.”

She felt her cheeks heat. “He doesn’t understand.”

She saw him smile – almost, and she suddenly felt foolish at the admission, and guilt at even discussing such intimate details of her and Rick’s relationship with this man she hardly knew. And yet I do know him in a way, I know every intimate detail of his life…

She sighed deeply. Oh, what’s happening to me?

As if sensing her confusion he said quietly: “What makes you think I understand what you’re going through?”

She clutched her arms to her chest, as if for support. “You’ve been around so long…you must have seen so much of life. You’re a soldier – you must have hurt people, killed them even… I wanted to know how you live with it.”

He shifted uneasily, the faint smile wiped off his face by her words. She saw it darken, and she instantly wished she could take them back. “I’m not sure I want to talk about it,” he said.  “That era of my life holds no pleasure for me.  It’s too easy to become desensitised to violence, to killing. That’s why what they did to me was so bloody awful. I behaved more like an animal, single-minded, no compassion, no rational thought beyond the kill. I was scared witless. I still am. Though all the pointers say I’m free of their conditioning, I still can’t shake the feeling that it’ll happen again. And if it does –”

His face was tight, devoid of emotion, but his hands had gripped the edges of the bed’s wooden footboard. Through their link she sensed his aura turn dark-red – swirling like molten lava – and from its depths – rose the black raptors of despair that she had glimpsed fluttering in his mind back at the X-Zero in the woods. Her mind suddenly became wide-open to his thoughts – and the raptors were let loose. They flew at her – swooping and shrieking – bombarded her with the secrets he had tried so hard to hide from her:  mutant killermutant killer –

She uttered a little cry of shock, and stumbled against the edge of the footboard, grasping it to keep from falling. She sat down and stared at him with horror.

“So now you know,” he said in a dull voice.

Dianne tried to speak but her tongue was thick in her mouth. She had come looking for help only to find that Paul was wrestling with his own demons. And then, she heard his voice in her head:

< I told Gray not to tell you, but I knew I couldn’t hide the truth from you – and now you hate me for it and I don’t blame you. I never wanted any of this, please believe me.>

So stunned was she that she found herself unable to form a telepathic reply, and she watched helplessly as he strode across to the wardrobe, hauling his hold-all from the shelf. He dragged open a drawer and began to stuff clothes into it.

“W – what are you doing?” she stammered finally, out loud.

“Leaving, like I should have done already. It’s too dangerous for me to stay here.”

 “But you can’t! I mean, what about Roberts, what about helping to stop him, and Magneto?”

“I’m not going to be a help, Dianne.   I’m a crazy man.”

Her thoughts flew wild. “You’re not crazy, I won’t believe it.”

He shook his head, stuffing another vest into the bag. “I daren’t take the chance. Maybe Gray thinks everything is fine and I won’t lose control again, but I’m not convinced of it. I’m going to have to face hard facts, Dianne; it’s only a matter of time before they trace me here to the school, and then what happens? You saw how easy it was for Henderson, how hard do you think it’s going to be for the government to get into the school?”

“So what are you going to do – keep running for the rest of your life? What sort of existence is that?”

He stopped from packing for a second, and his eyes flashed with pain as he looked at her. “It’s my life, my choice, and after everything that’s happened I would have thought you would be glad to see me go.”

<You know that’s not true!>

For a moment the two of them remained rigid, staring at one another. The next, Dianne was only dimly aware of a blur of motion – and in the space of two heartbeats her wrist was grasped by strong fingers, and he was pulling her roughly across the bed towards him. With a slicing sound of metal through wet flesh the claws of his other hand extended, the points cold and sharp against her exposed neck.

 “I’m a killing machine, Dianne,” he hissed savagely in her ear, “designed to destroy mutants; I can’t take the chance I’ll be responsible for that - that I might kill you….”

She tried to swallow in a dry throat; she hadn’t counted on this at all.  Myriad thoughts and emotions teemed in a sparkling kaleidoscope of passion and fear and anguish that spun too fast for her to absorb. An obliterating sense of madness gripped her, washing away reality, leaving only the fact that they were touching – skin-to-skin – mind-to-mind.

<Paul, don’t do this…>  

<Dianne – I - >

His emotions; pent-up desire, frustration, bombarded her, making her dizzy. And then she was seeing the images of her in his mind – saw him undressing her in his imagination – seeing the soft skin that haunted him. She gasped at the strength of it and closed her eyes, swept away by the intensity of the sensations. She felt as if he was actually touching her skin. It felt so real – all too real –

Then she felt the cold points retract from her skin, and her eyes flared open. They stared at one another for a moment, then some wild instinct and inner desperation moved Dianne’s head forward of its own volition. Her lips pressed softly against his and she heard him groan; it was almost a growl, a rumble deep in his throat as his eyes clenched shut against the sensation of the sweet pliancy of her body against his.

Her scent mingled in his nostrils, and through their link she felt his nerves tingle with fire. His cheek brushed hers, his rough stubble scraping her skin.

Her mind unlocked – self-control slipped, slid sideways – their colours blending, dissolving, until they had no idea where one of them began or the other ended.  Being caught up in the maelstrom of their joined mental bond shattered what little self-restraint Paul had left, and she, the powerful telepath, felt her own carefully controlled will dissolve with his touch, becoming wholly subservient to the command of their bodies. Dianne’s mouth opened to his ravaging kiss, her arms sliding up and around his neck, locking her fingers in his hair. The kiss led into madness; he tore at her blouse and brought his lips to her neck, her breasts. No frustrated imagination this time; it was her, it was him, the taste of one another firing their blood. She was a flame that consumed him – a fire incarnate that threatened to burn away every sense of who he was, who she was.

He fell upon her; lost in the insanity, his teeth abrading her skin, like an animal in heat.

The beast…

 

His cry was a ragged, incoherent thing, dragged up from the depths of his psyche, shattering the siren-like grip of Dianne’s aura.

Through the searing heat of their passion had come an image: a tall man, wreathed in a golden aura, a man who personified a secure love, protection and a joy that had given her a solid base to her life.  He froze – it was Fraser – he had no doubts.

With a superhuman effort he wrenched his mind and body free from her all-encompassing hold – his sense of honour the only thing that saved him from drowning in the awful sense of loss that followed the action. A vast chill swept into the empty space between them, like air rushing to fill a vacuum. Paul sat up as the red mist cleared; cold ash on his tongue in the aftermath of the conflagration. He wiped his face with one hand, and blindly staggered off the bed. Dianne rose to follow him, her eyes soft with despair.

“No!” he cried hoarsely.

She fell back, and again Paul saw the slippage in her eyes; and something shifted, displacing the momentary mix of lust and compassion that had triggered the yearning to comfort him with her kiss. With a strangled cry he did the only thing he could. He fled the room before giving her the chance to stop him.

 

 

 

 

Twenty_eight

 

            A sudden storm had blown in from Canada, creating blizzard conditions around the eastern seaboard all the way to the Great Lakes, so Rick and Gray’s flight back to Boston from Unity was delayed by some twelve hours. Stuck in the airport, Gray had tried several telepathic summons to Dianne, but for some reason her thoughts were hazy, indistinct.  After he admitted that he was unable to contact her, he saw Rick’s face tighten up and the younger man resorted to using his cell phone. Edward picked the call up and in answer to Rick’s anxious query about Dianne, he told him that she was probably still asleep. Rick asked about the others and Edward told him Brad, Patrick and Juliette had taken the students tobogganing and snowboarding, since the unexpected fall of snow had made them all stir-crazy. He assured the two men that everything was calm and no one had tried to break down the doors of the mansion in their absence, and Rick breathed a sigh of relief.

Finally they were able to board the plane, and Rick sipped abstractedly at a glass of mango juice as they waited for their clearance out of Unity. His other hand gripped the edge of his seat, the only outward indication that he hated sitting anywhere on an aircraft except in the pilot’s seat.  He admitted to himself that he had gone with Charles for more than just the obvious reason. He felt guilty – but truth be told, ever since returning from the mission to rescue the others from Henderson’s clutches, he had felt a strange sense of exhilaration.

He didn’t try to explain it to himself - for fear that it showed a dark side of him he wasn’t sure he liked - but using his powers in real battle seemed to release all the pent-up frustration and anger he felt at life with his mutant curse. Despite All his years of self-control, all his fear about hurting anyone close to him with the slightest slip of his protective glasses, in upstate New York, fighting those mutants who wanted to kill and hurt him and his friends, he’d been able to cut loose, no holds barred, and he’d felt a sick pleasure in the process, like some teenager high on drugs.

Dianne wanted to talk about her issues with using her powers, but he was afraid that his own feelings on the subject might come out at the same time. And then he could imagine how much of a juvenile jerk she would think he was.

Dawn was breaking when they arrived at the mansion. Gray excused himself immediately and made for his quarters. Rick nodded, and made his way towards their quarters, cradling the exquisitely wrapped bottle of Verdain No 5 he’d spotted in the airport gift-shop in one hand – a small token to ask forgiveness for ignoring her before he left for Unity. Maybe they could spend a few hours in precious isolation together away from the others, and rekindle that spark of passion that had brought them together in the first place. 

He keyed in the access code to his and Dianne’s suite and padded in quietly as the door slid open. His vision quickly adjusted to the gloom and he saw she wasn’t in bed. He frowned as he noted it was unslept in. He put the perfume down onto the dresser and left his room, to wander the remainder of the house looking for her: kitchen, den, library, and finally the basement. Doc was still sprawled across one cot in the infirmary, snoring softly and Karen Wainwright on the other, still comatose. Ignoring the fluttering in his guts he bolted back up the stairs to Metcalfe’s room; the door was ajar and he simply hadn’t noticed it first time around. With an almost uncontrollable sigh of relief he saw that this room was also empty with the bed unslept in. His eyes trailed to the hold-all on the floor, clothes half-strewn around it.  Rick frowned again, anxiety gnawing at him. Where the hell is she? For that matter, where’s Metcalfe?

 His thoughts in disarray, he didn’t think to wake any of the others, instead some inexplicable notion took him and he dashed out into the garden, leaving footprints in the slush on the lawns, all the way to the summerhouse – where she always went when she was upset or simply needed to escape –

Maybe I shouldn’t have left her, she was trying to reach out to me and I just – just –

He found her there, sitting on the curved bench, knees up against her chest, in foetal position, her head leaning against the glass, staring out to the garden. His heart thumped in his chest, dread stealing over him. There was something very wrong – he could feel it. She turned her head from the glass at his approach and he saw the haunted look in her eyes.

His mouth went dry; maddened thoughts whirling around his mind at what had got her into this state – trying to make sense of her tousled hair, swollen lips, and reddened eyes. His gaze dropped to the intense blue of the lapis lazuli butterfly around her neck.

And then he saw the marks imprinted on her skin…

“What in the name of God –” he grabbed her shoulders, shaking her, and he heard his voice crack, “Who did this to you – who did this?

There were tears in her eyes, large, wounded tears that she struggled to hold back.

 “It was Metcalfe, wasn’t it?  That’s it, I’m gonna kill him, he’s a dead man,” he said in a flat voice. He pulled away but she clawed at him with surprising strength, dragging him back.

 “Rick, no!”

            “Dianne, let me go…just look at you, for Chrissakes!”

“It wasn’t his fault, it was mine!” 

 “What?”

He stared into those wide, blue eyes and saw the guilt swimming with the tears and he felt his whole world crumble into pieces around him.

“Rick, Oh, God, please I can explain! It isn’t like you think,” she said in a whisper.

“I don’t believe I’m hearing this. I trusted you – I trusted you! All the time he’s been sniffing around you - since the day he arrived - I was jealous as hell – but you told me to trust you – and I did – like the frigging idiot that I am!”

“I was lost, Rick!” she shouted at him. “You didn’t want to listen to me!”

“So you ran to Metcalfe?” he couldn’t stop himself shouting back. “Don’t kid yourself, Dianne, or me!  Admit it; you haven’t been able to stop thinking about him since he arrived. What was it about him – did you like the way he made you feel?  Was I just way too tame for you?”

 He was sweating and shaking inside, and he felt his control fraying. She backed her bottom across the seat padding, her eyes widening in dismay as he loomed over her.

“Rick, stop it, this isn’t like you –”

He leaned in – almost nose to nose with her - his breath hot and his voice harsh.

“You don’t want me to be like me! You don’t want good, old, reliable Richard Fraser; you want someone dangerous, someone unpredictable. Did he give your fantasies the edge they needed? Were you always thinking of him when I made love to you?”

“You’re scaring me. I didn’t want any of this to happen; you have to believe me – I just couldn’t help it!”

He ignored her, grasping her arm hard and her breath caught at the force of it.

“You want me to cut loose, hurt you the way he did – is that how you really like it?” 

            <STOP IT!>

Her eyes flared wide-open, the irises flashing fire and his fingers were forced away from her wrist and he was whirling, his back pinned against the glass, spread-eagled – unable to move. In utter shock, he realised he had heard her telepathic scream in his head. Then, her hands flew to her face and she fell back on the bench again, her shoulders convulsing in silent sobs.  He felt her telekinetic grip dissolve, releasing him from the window frame…

            <WHAT IN THE DEVIL’S NAME IS GOING ON?>

            Rick flinched as Gray’s voice boomed inside his head – something that had happened only three times before that he could remember. He was instantly transported back to being a nineteen-year-old teenager again and it acted like a basin of cold water in his face.

            Dianne had heard him too, and she sat up, sweeping her hair back from her face.

            <I’d like to see you both in my study – now!>

           

 

Charles Gray stared sombrely at his two former pupils standing in front of his desk, and he didn’t need to be telepathic to sense their embarrassment. Rick ran a hand through his hair, pushing his glasses up onto the bridge of his nose. Dianne’s mortification was painfully obvious from the pink suffusing her cheeks.

“Wolverine has left the mansion, hasn’t he?” he said to her.

Rick’s mouth dropped open and he glanced sideways at Dianne, whose head bowed a little lower.

Gray allowed his face to soften, and wondered why he hadn’t seen this coming – so intent on bringing one more mutant into his fold that he didn’t foresee the potential consequences –  too tied up with wanting to do the right thing, that he had failed to pick up on the simmering emotions between these young people. His anger was directed at himself, for failing to foresee that the mind-link between Dianne and Paul Metcalfe could turn into something sensual, something that had begun to destroy her relationship with Rick. Oh, indeed, hindsight is a marvellous thing. Unfortunately for them, I’m just telepathic, not prescient.

“I should imagine every telepath for miles around felt the force of your emotions, Dianne, in fact you were both venting enough anger and pain to make my head hurt. I did not want to read your minds but I need to know what is going on. We cannot allow Paul Metcalfe to fall into the hands of our enemies.”

“Why?” Rick blurted out. “What’s so frigging important about him anyway? If he wants to go – let him.”

Gray sighed inwardly. His promise would have to be broken. He continued: “He was being brainwashed into becoming a hunter – to track down and destroy mutants for a secret government faction headed up by Senator Roberts.”

Gray saw Rick’s jaw sag, and then his nostrils flared, and the crimson flashed ominously behind his glasses.  “You knew this – and you let him stay?”

“Belay your emotions for one moment, Rick, and think about what you would have done in my place. I believe Paul has overcome the conditioning, although he himself does not. He wanted to leave the mansion, so as not to endanger us. I tried to dissuade him, for if he falls into Roberts’ hands again, he will become the hunter, and we will be the hunted. Furthermore, Roberts plans to use his DNA to create more of him – an army of indestructible clones, hell bent on killing mutants. Better that Paul is on our side to fight with us against this madness.”

Rick listened with a stone-set face and Dianne gave another soft sob.

“It’s all my fault,” she whispered. “He was trying to leave the mansion. I tried to persuade him not to go but – I – we – it all happened so fast, I never meant to –” she trailed off.

Gray felt the waves of conflicting emotion – the stray thoughts too easy for him to hear – and for a second time he cursed his stupidity and lack of foresight.

Rick meanwhile had removed his glasses, and Gray saw his face screw up as he rubbed at one clenched eye. Gray wasn’t fooled, he knew how Rick’s mind worked – he was digesting this information, extrapolating – and he knew he would arrive at the same conclusion that he did. Rick returned his glasses and pushed them firmly up onto the bridge of his nose again.

“So, I guess we have to find him and bring him back.” He said it as a statement, his voice calm and even.

“Dianne,” Gray said gently, “Do you know where he’s gone?”

She shook her head mutely, as if she hadn’t quite understood what her fiancé had just said.

“Can you try now?” Gray asked.

She took a breath and closed her eyes; a few minutes later she shook her head again.

“He’s closed his mind to me, I can’t seem to get a track on him.  I’m sorry, this is all my fault.”

“Shh,” Gray said with uncharacteristic kindness, “if this is anyone’s fault, it’s mine. But we have to keep calm and repair the damage before it’s too late. Why don’t you use Cerebro?”

 

 

 

 

The sound of the Harley was a banshee’s scream along the sedate country roads, shattering the tranquillity.  The snow had melted quickly, and the tyres threw up muddy spray behind the bike. Rick hunched forward,  leaning into the searing bite of the wind as it whipped through his hair, using speed to try to drive away some of the pain in his heart. He notched the gears down as he hurtled around a sharp corner, throttled back out of the curve to tear along the straight. He knew every inch of the sleek, beautiful, machine underneath him, and he drove on auto-pilot, allowing his thoughts to roam free –

He cursed his analytical mind – for being able to lock down his emotions in a crisis, and for his ability to dispassionately consider all the angles, even when it involved the woman he loved. It was, after all, why Charles had suggested he lead the X-Men. And Charles was right, damn him, the Wolverine just couldn’t be allowed to roam free with that sort of price on his head. He didn’t know who was more surprised when he said he was going to find Metcalfe: Dianne, Gray or himself.  Gray merely nodded, as if he understood Rick’s inner motivations better than he did.

He’d driven – ice-calm - for the first few miles, with all the self-control that had allowed him to exist all these years of his life with his mutant curse without reducing the world around him to rubble.  He told himself that to send either Brad or Patrick to get Metcalfe was the coward’s way out. And much more than that, because he owed Charles Gray his life – and because he’d promised to fight for the older man’s dream of a better future for mutants - he’d made a pledge that they would save other mutants from harm and from the wishes of others to experiment on them.  But here, on the road, with only his thoughts as companions, the anger that he had buried was seeping to the surface.

He saw the GPS panel blink and beep, telling him he had reached the coordinates stored in its memory just before he left the mansion.  He braked hard and the bike slid to a halt along the gravel-edged road. He stared for a few moments at the thick woodland on a rise to his right, attempting to marshal his thoughts before going in after Wolverine.

He hadn’t trusted himself to say anything to Dianne after their fight. He didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t come out torn and twisted.  When she’d entered Cerebro’s vault she wore a high-necked sweater to cover up the marks on her neck. He watched wordlessly as she located Metcalfe, and the look of sheer misery that accompanied her voice as she told him his location, made his heart start to melt in that so-familiar way, before his injured pride reminded him of her betrayal.

Now that he replayed their argument in the summerhouse, so much of it didn’t make sense. He still felt the memory of her power – her telekinetic grip – her voice ringing within his mind. He felt an involuntary shiver ripple through his body. She’s never had the ability to do that before – I don’t know who she is any more. Then the nagging voice of his conscience:  She was trying to tell me – she’s been trying to tell me all along – and I didn’t listen. But why did she have to go to him? He wasn’t sure he trusted himself not to cut loose and smash Metcalfe into a million fragments. He ran a hand through his hair and then kicked the side-stand out, resting the Harley’s weight on it. He slid off the bike and started walking into the woods.

 

 

Paul Metcalfe sat huddled in the high reaches of the tree.  This time around he wasn’t running for his life, but the feeling of desolation chilled his heart every bit as much.  Back there with Dianne’s beautiful mind pressing up against his own – overpowering – overwhelming – something snapped inside and once again he had lost control of the beast.

Oh, he had seen it coming, and yet he made no attempt to stop himself. He had reacted in blind lust – like the pathetic, feral creature that he was. In that instant he knew he had to flee; his world was coming apart at the seams. He had to get away, so far away – he didn’t care any more – let Roberts find him – maybe that was the only way to destroy him and his bloody sick plans – from within.

His ears pricked up. He sensed someone moving within the woods. He sniffed the air, caught a scent – masculine, familiar. His heart thumped a beat faster

“Wolverine!”

The sound of Fraser’s voice echoed around the trees and Paul estimated the other man was about a hundred yards away from where he sat. His mind whirled for a moment in confusion – he had a bad track record at hiding from these damn X-Men. And then he knew Fraser could only have come looking for him with one thing on his mind.

“I know you’re in here…”  Fraser’s voice had risen in tone and Paul clenched his eyes shut, willing the American to go away and leave him alone.

“Metcalfe, you’d better get your miserable hide down here or I’m going to do it by force.”

Long seconds passed.

Next thing Paul heard the sound of one of Fraser’s optic beams scythe through the silent air, followed almost instantaneously by the detonation of shattering wood, and finally the crashing of something onto the floor of the woods.

And into the silence afterwards, Fraser’s voice rang out again. “I’ll blast this god-dammed wood into smithereens if I have to.”

Paul heard the sound of another tree crashing to the ground, and he grunted in disgust. He shimmied cat-footed down the branches of the thick trunk, dropping to the ground and slinking against the trees in the direction of Fraser’s voice. There he stood, to his left, with his back to him, staring up into the trees with one hand on his ruby-glasses.  Paul moved forward on silent footsteps, avoiding loose branches that would give away his presence – except that Fraser seemed to possess some sixth sense as well. 

He whirled to face Paul before he could get any closer than five feet away from him. The two men stared at one another for a long minute, and Paul wondered, not for the first time, what confrontation had taken place between Dianne and her fiancé after he’d left. He felt a coward for leaving her to deal with the damage he’d caused.

“Look, if you’re here for a fight –” he started to say.

Fraser hissed air through his teeth. “I want to rip you apart with my bare hands, but that’s not the reason I’m here.”

Paul felt surprise flood into him, and it must have morphed into a vacant expression on his face.

“You’re far too dangerous to run around all by yourself… mutant-hunter,” Fraser spat the last words out as he walked closer to him. He stopped less than a foot away from Paul, his stance nonchalant and controlled.

Paul wasn’t fooled. But he felt despair slide around his guts at Fraser’s words. So they all knew – wasn’t too hard to figure really when he thought about it. 

“So, I’m here to bring you back,” Fraser continued after a moment’s silence, as if to allow his insult to soak in. 

“A lot of people have tried and failed – who says you’re going to have any more luck?” Paul snapped back.

Fraser balled his fists, and Paul scented the anger seeping up from within him, floating across the space between them.

“Maybe I don’t want to come back,” Paul said. “Maybe I just want to be left alone.”

 “Ditch the self-pity act, Metcalfe, it doesn’t suit you.”

“I would have thought you of all people would be glad to see me go.”

 The red lights of Fraser’s eyes gleamed behind his glasses. “You got that right, mister. But luckily, even with shades on, I can see past my own nose, which is more than you’re evidently capable of.”

Paul felt all his own anger and frustration boil up within him.  He snapped waspishly: “Maybe it never would have happened if you’d listened to her.” And with a sick sense of satisfaction he saw Fraser visibly fighting for control at his words.

“She was upset,” he went on, as a red devil sat on his shoulder, egging him on, even as he knew what the outcome would be. “She’s scared of what’s she’s become. And she said you wouldn’t understand.”

 “I don’t believe this. You hit on my girl, and then you blame me for it. Jeez, you’re some sonofabitch.”

“Just go back to her, sort it out and leave me alone.” 

“Sort it out – after you’ve destroyed everything that was wonderful between us?”

“Maybe things weren’t as perfect as you thought.”

He turned his back on Fraser.

            “Don’t you dare walk away or I’ll –”

“Blast me with those eyebeams of yours? Fire away, I don’t care anymore. I’ve had enough. I’m going to get Roberts my own way.”

The scent of anger was thick now in the air, and Paul got an adrenaline rush – knowing he was pushing too far and things were going to tip over. And what was funny – he almost welcomed it. 

“Take one more step –” Fraser said through clenched teeth.

Paul shook his head, and took it.

Next thing, Fraser’s hands were grabbing at his jacket, whirling him around and shoving him to the ground, and he grunted as the air was forced out of his lungs with the other man’s weight. Fraser’s face was an inch away from his, the crimson flaring behind his quartz shades. He just lay there and let the American’s fist slam into his jaw, and another into his stomach, and yet another and another. Fraser wasn’t holding anything back, each blow smashing into his body with all of the pent-up frustration and fury Paul knew lay behind them.  Paul just took his penance, grunting as he felt a rib crack. Finally the other man fell back, breathing heavily; his face flushed with the effort.

“Damn you, don’t just sit there. Fight me!

Paul licked the trickle at the corner of his lip, tasted metallic blood, where one of Fraser’s punches had landed. He shook his head slowly.  “I’ve been in more scraps than you can possibly imagine. You wouldn’t stand a chance.” 

Fraser swore, and launched himself on Paul again, and the two men rolled onto the damp ground. Fraser’s hands grappled with his throat, his rage out of control, until Paul finally had enough. He side-chopped into his ribs, pulling the blow – he had no intention of doing him any serious damage. Fraser grunted in pain, his hands loosening their grip on Paul’s neck.

Paul followed through with a closed hand punch to his chin, snapping him back so Paul could reverse their positions, this time he was on top, a judo-hold preventing Fraser’s hands  from reaching his ruby-glasses. The American’s leather jacket was slippery so he punctured it through the chest with his claws, the razor sharp tips slicing through to touch Fraser’s cheeks.

“I warned you, give it up,” he whispered, listening to the sound of the other man’s gasping wheezes as his air supply was cut off by Paul’s left arm. A thin trail of moisture leaked from the American’s shades, but whether it was sweat or tears, Paul didn’t know, and wasn’t going to ask.

“Damn you to hell,” Fraser muttered, his body sagging against Paul’s grip.  

“I’m already there,” Paul said wearily. “I’m a hundred and two years old and I’ve known nothing but death and destruction and war and hatred. I thought I’d found my haven but it seems I’m only fit for destroying that as well, just like you said.”

Fraser only grunted, but Paul sensed the shock in him. He didn’t know – Dianne hadn’t told him that much.

Paul leant closer. “Dianne has got more power in that head of hers than you can imagine and she’s scared of it. I felt it – overpowering. And I’m not the man she needs to help her control it, you are.”

“You’re sick, you know that? You tell me that after you messed with her mind?”

“She loves you, not me.”

 “Crap.”

“Listen to me – I saw it when she – mind-melded with me – saw deep down how much she cares for you – she only feels pity for me, in a perverse way she was trying to help me – and I was too much of a weak bastard to get away before it was too late.”

“You’re just saying this so I won’t turn you into a smear on the ground.”

Paul shifted his grip slightly and winced as his rib knitted back into place. “You could have done that already – if you’d really wanted to,” he replied. “Instead you just wanted the satisfaction of beating me to a pulp with your bare hands – and I deserved it, every bit of it. Now are we going to call a truce or continue knocking down this nice bit of countryside?”

Fraser didn’t answer, but Paul caught the subtle change in his scent. His anger was starting to ebb, as if some of Paul’s words were sinking in. Paul took a chance and withdrew his claws. He watched as Fraser dragged himself to a sitting position against one of the trees and stared at Paul with that unsettling red gaze for a couple of minutes.

“You’re still coming back with me,” he said finally. And the tone of his voice suggested that if Paul didn’t do what he said, he was going to start the fight all over again.

Paul felt his mouth threaten to break out in a wry smile but thought better of it under the circumstances.  “It looks like I don’t have much of a choice, does it?”

 

 

 

 

Twenty-nine

 

Time expanded, contracted, searching across space and time as Charles Gray’s mind surged in tandem with Cerebro’s neuro-circuitry. This time he was not going to give up his search for Conrad Turner. He continued to probe, hour melting into hour into hour, until after a while, even his vast and powerful mind grew fatigued with the strain; and he felt weariness seeping into every inch of his body.

So tired…

And yet still he searched, the thought of giving up never occurred to him.

For a brief, blinding, second the patterns wavered and glittered and he latched onto the dark-silver thread of consciousness that was Conrad Turner – fast-spooled the thread into the Gray-Cerebro mind. The pain lanced through his skull like a knife and he felt himself cry out. That mind – so dark – so full of bitterness and hatred – and then it was gone – the thread unravelling fast. 

But it was enough.

“Charles!”

Gray heard the male voice calling him through water. He felt strong hands pull his slumped weight into a sitting position in his wheelchair.

He blinked slowly and felt the cold trail of moisture on his cheek.

“Tired,” he whispered. “So…tired.” He opened his eyes fully to see Patrick with Cerebro’s skullcap in his hands and Dianne next to him, her eyes filled with fear.

“What in the Virgin’s name are you doing?” Patrick demanded. “Dianne picked up your telepathic cry. Are you okay? You look like hell.”

Gray gave a small smile. “I – I’m fine. I didn’t realise how long I had been in here. But I had to find him.”

“Who?” Patrick said, as he and Dianne exchanged a brief confused glance.

“Conrad. I believe I know where he is.”

 

 

 

 

As Dianne and Patrick were helping Gray from Cerebro, Rick returned to the mansion, Metcalfe riding pillion on the Harley. The bike screeched up the driveway and Rick saw the taxi-cab parked at the front entrance to the house. Two seconds later the door opened and Adam Svenson got out. He regarded the two men on the bike for a second, and raised one eyebrow.  “Out for some fresh air?” he enquired.

“Something like that,” Rick replied evasively.

The three men watched the taxi roll away down the driveway before Rick turned to Adam. “You heard the news, about Magneto’s threat to Unity City?”

Adam nodded grimly. “Kind of hard to miss. I knew I had to come out here and see if I could help. Has Charles had any luck locating Conrad via Cerebro?”

Rick shook his head. “No, and we had no luck trying to persuade the World President to postpone the vote either.”

Adam whistled softly, his face solemn. “You have been busy.” Then his eyes flicked to the mansion and Rick knew what, or rather, who he was thinking of.

“I don’t think there’s been any change,” he said to Adam.

“I didn’t expect there would be,” he replied softly.

The three men trooped into the mansion together.

 

 

The full complement of X-Men waited in the small conference room in the basement, waiting for Gray. The news that the Professor had located Magneto created an atmosphere of expectant tension and that was exacerbated by the obvious strain in relations between several of the occupants of the room. Paul Metcalfe’s disappearance and return hadn’t gone entirely unnoticed, and although only a foot separated Rick and Dianne around the table, Juliette had the impression that it might well have been a vast chasm. She moved her gaze to Paul, and annoyingly, he refused to look at her either. She wrinkled her nose; she would get to the bottom of it soon enough.

 

 

Charles Gray hesitated in the corridor for a moment before opening the door to the conference room. He had made a decision, and he hoped that his people would accept it. He couldn’t ask them to take an active part; that was his responsibility alone. Conrad was too dangerous to allow them to risk their lives on his behalf. He took a deep breath and the door slid open, and he saw them waiting, expectantly.

“So, what’s the deal Professor?” Rick asked immediately. “Now that you know where Magneto is, I guess we have to let President Younger know.”

Gray shook his head. “Not just yet. I have to meet with Conrad, to try one last time to convince him that the path he is taking can only lead to more mistrust, desolation and destruction. Perhaps I can reason with him before he takes this irrevocable step.”

Rick regarded him with astonishment. “Excuse me, sir, but maybe I didn’t hear correctly, you want to reason with him? Up to now I don’t see him exhibiting any sort of reasonable behaviour. In fact, do you know what I think? I think everyone here is going nuts and trying to play – ‘save the lost cause.’ First it’s Adam with Karen Wainwright, and now here you are, thinking you can somehow save Magneto from himself.  We need to get to the President and get him to blow that thing out of the sky before he carries out his threat!”

Gray shook his head. “Without giving Conrad a chance to back down? No, I can’t allow that to happen, I know much has happened to sour relations between us, but I would never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t try to persuade him by peaceful means.”

Rick ran a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry, Charles. I’m way off-base, so just tell me to shove it.”

“We’ve known each other for a long time, Rick. I recognise concern when I hear it. But you must see I have to do this.”

Paul spoke up. “I don’t know this man like you obviously do, I only met him once, and he tried to warp all the tritonium in my body. I hate to say it, but Fraser’s right, he’s got a crazy streak running though him. I got his scent, and I say you’ll be wasting your time.”

“Nevertheless, I must try. I do not expect any of you to accompany me.”

“The only way you can reach him is in the X-Zero,” Rick said, “and he’ll spot that hunk of metal without batting an eyelid. What’s to say he won’t just blast it out of the sky without raising a sweat?”

“None at all I’m afraid,” Gray replied. “But I cannot believe that he would do that, despite his threats.  Despite what he did to Paul, he still didn’t actually kill him. I have to trust that he will not kill me.”

“You need a pilot, you can’t fly the X-Zero by yourself,” Rick said.

“I can try,” Gray replied.

“No way. This is what we spent all these years honing our skills for; the possibility that a mutant out there would turn renegade. Well, it’s happened. I can’t speak for the others, but if you’re hell-bent on going up there, I’m going too.”

Gray noted Dianne’s face pale at Rick’s words, but she remained silent.

“Then you’ll count me in too,” Brad said. “I’m not staying here when you might need me.”

“And I,” Juliette chimed in. “My powers may also be of use.”

“What about me?” Dianne said. Gray saw Rick unconsciously let his gaze slide to her, and felt the accompanying wave of conflicting emotions – and he wished with all his heart that this situation had occurred any time but now, when they faced so many other pressing problems.

 “I need you to stay here, my dear,” Gray replied gently. “You may be our only link with this team and the mansion. It seems as if Conrad is able to evade detection by all normal communication systems, and that may mean that we will be unable to contact you by radio or otherwise.”

“But –” she started to protest.

“And we can’t afford to leave the school unprotected,” Rick interrupted her. “Adam, Patrick, sorry to land this on you, but we need you guys to stay with Dianne and the kids.”

“Planning on keeping all the fun to yourself, eh, Rick, me boy?” Patrick said with a sly grin.

“This will hardly be fun,” Gray admonished the Irishman.

 “Rest assured, Charles,” Adam said in a more serious tone, “you don’t have to worry about the school, just make the rest of the world as safe.”

“I don’t like it,” Dianne said. “I have a strange feeling about all of this. Call it a silly premonition, but I’m afraid for all of you.”

Her words caused an uncomfortable silence to fall on the group until Paul finally broke it.

 “I want to come with you to stop Magneto,” he said firmly.

 “You’ve got some nerve, Metcalfe,” Rick snapped. “This is an X-Men mission, and you’ll be more of a liability than a help with all of that metal inside you.”

Paul’s lips curled in a faint smile. “You prefer I stay here?”

The tension in the room racked up to snapping point. Gray saw the deep-crimson light flash behind Rick’s glasses and a muscle tick in his jaw.

Paul sat impassively, holding his gaze. “Make me an X-Man – for this mission. You need a fall-guy, let it be me. He might be able to control me, but he can’t kill me. And maybe that’s something you can use to your advantage. Put me on the front line. I’ll do whatever dirty work you need doing. Don’t forget, I’m a soldier, and I’ve had years of combat experience.”

“He has a point,” Patrick said.

 “What makes you so keen to risk your life?” Rick replied curtly.

“Let’s just say I owe every one of you, and I feel it’s time to pay my dues.”

 Rick’s jaw ticked again and he sent a fleeting glance at Gray.  The older man nodded slightly and the air of tension was dissipated when the American finally nodded curtly at Paul. “All right, Wolverine, you’re on the mission.”

“He will need a suit, I shall find one suitable for him,” Juliette said crisply.

Paul groaned inwardly, suspecting her interest went beyond kitting him out for the mission.

 

 

             I might as well submit to it, he thought, as he followed her into the basement locker room. His mind flicked back to the conference room. He had noted the tension between Dianne and Fraser. And she kept her gaze averted from him as well. Well, was he surprised, after what had happened?

 I’ve made a decision and finally thrown in my lot with the X-men by returning with Fraser. I just have to knuckle down and get on with the job.  And afterwards? He gave a little shrug.  Afterwards will have to take care of itself.

Juliette rifled through the racks of black leather uniforms and Paul stood back in silence, his arms crossed, watching her. She chose one with red piping and lifted it out on its chrome hangar to place it against his body for size. He flinched involuntarily at her choice of colour. Was she deliberately trying to goad him? He decided he wasn’t going to rise to the bait.

She flicked her eyes up at him as of reading his thoughts. “Something has happened between the three of you, n’est-ce pas?

            “As in?” he replied, feigning ignorance.

“Do not be obtuse, Monsieur Metcalfe, you know very well what I mean. This was not a good time. Not that there ever was a good time. I sympathise with your – past, and I have no objections to you becoming an X-Man, just as long as you do not upset the dynamics of this team –”

“It’s none of your business, Juliette.”

Her eyes narrowed; flickers of white appearing at the edge of her irises.

“I am making it my business,” she said coldly, cutting him off. “Rick is our leader and he cannot afford to be distracted on this mission.  Perhaps I should have said something before now, but I had hoped Dianne’s infatuation with you would burn itself out on its own. I was mistaken. However much you may believe she is attracted to you, she loves Rick, and she would suffer terrible guilt if she betrayed him, it is totally unfair of you to play with her emotions like this.”

“Look, I care for her –“

Tiens! You will say next that you love her –”

Paul grabbed the suit from her in exasperation and threw it to one side. “Look, will you let me get a word in!” 

She lifted her chin and he saw the white flickers dissipate. “Very well, I wish to hear your explanation.”

“I don’t have one; I can’t even explain it to myself. But all I’m saying is that I was lost for a while, and now I think I’ve found myself again. And I promise you, my only aim now is to help Gray counter this threat by Magneto and nothing will divert my attention from that. You can rest assured; I will stand by Fraser all the way, as leader of this team. We had a – discussion, man-to-man, and we – sorted things out.”

“I can well imagine –” she replied, giving him a narrow stare as if to determine whether he was serious or jesting.

“So, are you happy now?” he said, picking up the leather uniform.

She cocked her head slightly at him. “Perhaps, just a little. But I will be watching you.”

 “I was afraid you’d say that,” he replied dourly. He picked up the suit and gave her a hard stare. She finally took the hint and left him to change in peace.

 

 

 

 

Dianne entered the hangar bay. The X-Zero’s ramp was down and the lights on within the aircraft.   She trod quietly up the steps and swallowed hard as she approached the figure in the pilot’s seat. Rick had skilfully managed to avoid speaking to her directly ever since their awful argument in the summerhouse and her misery was becoming almost too much to bear.  The small team he was leading to find Conrad Turner was leaving in less than an hour and who knew what might happen after that?

Rick didn’t turn around as she drew nearer, but she knew he knew it was her. She sat down in the co-pilot’s seat and watched him stare resolutely at the screens and consoles around him, his fingers flicking across them as he ran his pre-flight checks.

“I’m busy, Dianne.” His tone was distant, level, and she could sense only the merest flicker of tension in him – he had his emotions battened down so tight that she knew she would have to scan his mind forcefully to detect them – and that she would never do. They sat in the heavy, intense silence, the words she wanted to say sticking in her throat like glue.  I want to explain why I nearly betrayed you -  the man I’m supposed to love – the man I pledged to marry – I want to make you see that it didn’t happen – but it nearly did – it was only Paul’s strength that stopped me from betraying you.

But the only words that would come out were: “I’m sorry. I just wanted to wish you – good luck.”

He nodded, still avoiding her eyes, and she could feel only the hard-edged, gold of his aura. “Thanks.”

His voice was as cold and rigid as his body language, inviting no conversation, no words of love or sweet goodbyes. With her loss of self-control in Paul’s room she had destroyed everything that was good in her life, and her fiancé sat like a stranger next to her.

She left the X-Zero, despair congealing around her heart.

 

 

 

 

The X-Zero knifed upwards, a radar-invisible wraith against an indigo sky. At 60,000 feet Rick levelled her out, on course for the coordinates briefly glimpsed by Gray during those few vital minutes of the long hours he was connected to Cerebro. He constantly scanned the sky, even though Brad manned the sensor arrays next to him in the co-pilot’s seat. Civilian traffic was another twenty thousand feet below them, and they were running on stealth mode, they couldn’t take the chance they’d be picked up on radar by either civilian or military. Whether Magneto knew they were coming was another thing entirely.

Brad studied the green sweep of the radar against its dark background. He turned to call back to Gray. “Charles, we’re nearly at these coordinates, but the sensors don’t detect a thing. Are you sure about this location?”

Gray shook his head. “Cerebro is never wrong. And although I was linked to Conrad’s mind for only a few seconds, it was enough to ascertain his location. It must be here.”

“We’re right on top of the coordinates,” Brad replied, “and I can’t see a thing on these screens.”

Rick was gazing out of the plane, hardly listening to their conversation, when he saw what looked absurdly like a ripple in the dark sky –

 “Hey – something out there,” he said, half to himself, “ – looks weird… ”

            There.

 He hadn’t been mistaken. There was a faint undulation in the dark, indigo, backdrop of the stratosphere, as if some part of the sky had been transposed like a 3-D image on top of a starry background. On closer inspection he could make out where space curved slightly, outlining a massive shape in the sky.

“Jeez, there is something there, I swear it. Brad, tell me I’m not hallucinating.”

Brad leaned over and squinted where Rick pointed. “Yeah, I see it.”

“Looks like someone got holographic cloaking to work on a massive scale. That’s some engineering.”

“How the hell are we supposed to land on something we can’t see?” Brad gave him a look. 

As if by coincidence, the sky wavered, and shimmered, and they were practically on top of it. Rick yanked on the throttle, pulling the X-Zero practically vertical, slamming everyone against their restraints in the cabin.

“Whoa, sorry guys,” he called back, and as his heartbeat slowed back to normal he banked the jet in a gentle curve above the uncloaked station.

It floated in the stratosphere as serenely as a pale satellite. Roughly circular and an off-white colour; the several large domes and towers on its surface gave the absurd impression of a floating Basilica San Marco. Several massive protuberances on its underside suggested power turbines of some sort, likely keeping the structure aloft. As Rick banked the jet ever closer the entire structure filled the viewing windows.  There were no windows or lights within the interior or surface of the structure to suggest anyone at home, and no obvious indications of weapons emplacements or batteries – but that didn’t mean there wasn’t anyone ready to fire at them. 

“Charles,” Rick called back, keeping his eyes pinned on the structure for any sign of impending attack, “looks like whoever’s in there has thrown the welcome carpet our way; any ideas on our next move?”

Gray pursed his lips. “I still cannot sense Conrad, but my intuition tells me he is on this structure. We’ll accept the invitation.”

“Said the spider to the fly,” Rick muttered, his eyebrows furrowing above his visor as he banked the jet closer to look for a landing spot.

 Within the centre of the domes he spied a flat circular area, with darker markings picked out on the surface. He reckoned that was as good a landing site as he would see, so he eased back on the throttle and brought the X-Zero slowly down onto the decking below.   As the whine of the motors faded, a metallic clang made them all jump. There was a jolt as the entire section of the landing platform descended, taking the X-Zero into the bowels of the station. About thirty feet down it stopped with another jolt. A secondary airlock door shut above them enclosing the bay from the outside atmosphere. Ahead of him on the wall Rick noted a panel with red flashing lights – and heard the whine as the system re-pressurised. A synthesised androgynous voice uttered the words – ‘PRESSURISATION EQUALIZED – AIRLOCK SEALED’ and the light on the panel ahead flashed a fluorescent green.

For better or worse, they were successfully inside Magneto’s lair.

 “Okay,” Rick called back as he opened up the exit ramp, “I guess that means there’s probably no need for breathing units.” The others were already unbuckling their harnesses, and Brad helped Gray back into his wheelchair. 

 

 

Paul peered out into the large hangar bay. Large struts arced overhead flanking the roof entrance and the surrounding walls were gun-metal grey. The only possible entrance to the rest of the ship was suggested by a large panel-door on a far wall. Rick joined Paul, the others following, flanking Gray in his chair. As they approached the door, it started to slide open with a faint hiss. What looked like another grey corridor lay beyond.

Paul laid an arm across Fraser’s chest.  “Want me to take point? That way, if we run into trouble, I’ll take a hit first.”

“I have no problem with that,” he replied in an even voice, and fell back to the rear of the small group. 

Paul ignored the other man’s dry sarcasm and leant tightly in against the doorframe, peering out to scan the corridor. There was silence, apart from a faint thrumming sound. No welcome committee – so far.  He motioned the all-clear and stepped out into the corridor, the others following him in single file. The surface of the walls was constructed of a ceramo-polymeric material, smooth and warm to the touch. The dim light came from glowing panels at intervals along the walls and there was no sign of ducting, or cables, or any of the other expected trappings of a space station.

“This is some place,” Brad remarked absently, behind Paul.

From somewhere, from within the bowels of the base, the muted percussive thump grew louder, and the sound vibrated up into the soles of his boots.  As they walked Paul sniffed the air, the dry, metallic tang catching him in the back of the throat.  It wasn’t hot in the corridor but he ran his finger around his leather collar – just a fraction too tight. He licked dry lips and he could feel his pulse thudding off the seconds as his boots hit the floor. Some premonition raised the hairs on the back of his scalp…he had the undoubted sensation he was being watched.

A rush of adrenaline hit his system – making him feel absurdly alive – flashing him back to the countless times he had followed this same path – stalking the enemy – living on the edge of danger – the odds stacked against him.

Up ahead, the corridor ended abruptly in a T-junction. He stopped, taking a second to turn to the others, before making a decision as to which way to proceed.

Then he heard the sound, cutting in on his sensitive hearing.

A hissing, sibilant sound…

 “Gas – it’s a gas!” he shouted, whirling around to warn them.

He saw everything as if in slow motion.

The tell-tale film flickering across Juliette’s eyes as she attempted to summon a wind to dissipate the gas –  but the flickering died as her hands clawed at her throat, gasping for air – 

 He stumbled towards her, feeling his own senses swim, as his healing factor resisted the attack of the nerve agent.  Juliette had no such advantage – he saw her eyes slide shut and she sprawled to the floor of the corridor. Paul threw out one hand against the wall to steady himself, as his own vision started to blur.  

He saw Fraser and Patrick stagger – finally drop senseless next to Juliette’s prone body; saw Gray slump over in his wheelchair – and then, thinking that this was becoming a very bad habit, he ultimately felt his own world go black.

 

 

 

 

Thirty

 

Dianne wasn’t sure exactly when she became aware that she had lost the link that she and Gray shared as telepaths, but when she deliberately dropped her shields and tried to send a message to him, she experienced an empty silence where his thoughts should have been. Cold fear arrowed through her, and she ran through the corridors in search of the others. She found Adam and Patrick in the den with a couple of the kids, Joe McClaine and Chip Morrison. The two men looked with concern at her ashen face.

“What’s up?” Adam said, immediately getting up from the sofa to come to her.

“I just tried to contact Charles – I hit a blank wall – it’s as if he’s just vanished!”

“Calm down,” Adam said, making her sit down. She took a couple of deep breaths as he squeezed her hand tight. As her breathing steadied he said:  “Want to try again?”

She nodded, took another deep breath, let it out slowly, and sought to clear her mind of all extraneous clutter.

I have to relax…to let go…

She frowned in concentration and heard herself saying his name out loud, as if that would somehow magnify the power of her thought.  “Charles…

But there was nothing but a roaring silence in her brain – an empty void. She tried again – and again – and again: to Gray, and then to Paul and finally a silent shout of desperation to her fiancé.

<Hear me, please hear me, please…>

She felt Adam’s hands gently prising her fingers away from her skull. She realised she had dug her fingernails so hard into her skin she had drawn blood.

She shook her head numbly, and was only barely conscious of the stares of the younger boys. Adam noticed them however, and he caught Patrick’s eye, motioning his head slightly at the two boys. The Irishman nodded in understanding and stood up, with a tap on his chronometer.

“It’s about time you two were in bed,” he said directly to Chip and Joe. He ignored their cries of ‘aww’ and ‘not yet’ and practically manhandled them out of the den, leaving Dianne and Adam alone in the den.

“They can’t be dead,” she said in a dull whisper.

“We don’t know that for sure,” he replied.

She grasped his hands, suddenly terrified. “You know what Charles asked of us – if we lost contact – and you agreed because we never believed it would happen.”

“I know, but not yet. We still have time.”

But she heard the anxiety in his voice too.

Just then, the internal phone beeped and Adam rushed across to switch it on.

“Adam, it’s Edward.  I think Karen’s starting to recover consciousness.”

Dianne’s shields were still down and she caught the raw slipstream of Adam’s emotions. She rammed them up with embarrassment and guilt as he headed out of the door for the basement.   She followed him with a sense of dread.

 

 

Once below, they found Edward leaning over the young woman. Her eyes were open, but glassy and unfocused.

 “It’s normal, Adam,” Edward said, noticing the blond man’s anxious face. “Go on, speak to her; hopefully she’ll respond to your voice, it’s the one she knows the best, I guess.”

Adam moved quickly into Edward’s place beside the cot and caught hold of Karen’s hand, gently squeezing her long fingers in his own. “Karen, you’ve been in a coma, but you’re okay now.”

She turned slowly to stare at him.  There was nothing in her eyes except a blank incomprehension.  Karen frowned and a look of confusion spilled into that pale, frail face, as if she was trying to interpret what he had said and find the words to reply, but was having great difficulty in accomplishing even that simple task.

A sudden fear gripped his heart, and he grasped her hand tighter. “Karen, it’s me – Adam.  Say something, anything, please?”

She shook her head, and then brought her chin back up to focus her gaze on him again. Tears shimmered in her eyes as she forced the words out. “Who – who are you? I don’t remember – anything.”

Adam pulled the young woman into his arms and she shuddered against him.   Dianne bit her lip and watched as Karen Wainwright dissolved into sobs.

 

 

 

 

 

Paul floated back into consciousness. He had the remains of a pounding headache, which was rapidly receding, courtesy of his healing factor,  and an unpleasant taste in his mouth, as if he had slept for days without benefit of saliva.  He swirled his tongue around his mouth, and felt the taste dissipate. He was lying sideways on a narrow padded bunk; and miraculously - just for a pleasant change - he wasn’t bound, clamped or otherwise restrained.  He heard a low groan and he rolled over to see Fraser stirring opposite him.  Gray was lying at the far end of the bunk, with Juliette and Brad on the upper level bunks; all three of them were still unconscious.

“Jeez, my head,” the American said, groaning again as he raised himself into a sitting position. He looked around their prison. “Where the hell are we?”

“I don’t know; I just woke up too.”

Fraser rubbed the side of his head and arched his brows above the carbon-fibre edge of his visor. “I feel like I have a frigging hangover. That gas, whatever it was…Damn, damn, damn,” he cursed. “I’m an idiot; we should have worn the breathing masks, after all.”

Paul flexed his claws with a grimace; there wasn’t much he could say other than to agree with the American, but he didn’t venture that thought out aloud. They looked around their prison.  The bunks were comfortable enough, but that was where the concessions ended. The room was cramped, with no windows, walls made of the same ceramo-polymeric material of the corridor where they had fallen prey to the gas, except this time the light from the wall mounts had a bluish cast.  There was what looked like a door to the far end, and where there should have been a wall there was a shimmering hazy curtain of muted pearl and blue, and at the edges sequenced splinters of light flickered.  A low humming accompanied the flashing and it looked out onto a narrow corridor. 

“What the hell is that?” Paul said.

“It looks like a force field.”

“That should be easy enough to break out of.”

Fraser didn’t reply so Paul dropped off the side of his bunk and strode to the screen. There seemed to be no controls on this side that he could deactivate. He flexed his claws and slashed both hands into the shimmering curtain –

The shock threw him backwards, slamming him into the side of one of the bunks.  He shook his head to clear the scrambling in his brain.  He peered up to see Fraser at his side, on the floor, a quizzical look on his face.

“I’m okay. Just,” he said, by way of answer, scrambling dizzily to his feet. Fraser stood up as well and the two of them stared at the force field. 

“I don’t suppose you want to take a shot at it with your eyebeams, then?” Paul said.

Fraser gave a short grunt of disgust. “I’d thought about it, just before you got thrown to the ground.”

“What now?”

A soft moan and a bout of coughing interrupted them. They turned to see Gray open his eyes. He stared blearily at the two younger men.

“You okay?” Fraser asked him.

Gray nodded. “Apart from a damnable sore head, I think so.”

“How about you, honey?” Fraser looked up as Juliette sat up on one elbow and looked down at them from her bunk.

 “Merde,” she swore uncharacteristically. “I cannot believe Brad and I have been knocked out again!”

“It’s a habit I want to break myself,” Paul muttered.

Any further remonstrations were curtailed at the approaching footsteps in the corridor outside. All heads swivelled to the force field as Conrad Turner appeared like a silent ghost behind the shimmering curtain.

 

“I’m sorry, Charles; the nerve gas has that effect. But I hope you do understand I really couldn’t have you wandering all over the corridors of my sanctum.”

Turner wore the same monochrome garb as when he met with Gray in the Senate building, except that this time his head was covered by a helmet; like something worn by the ancient Greeks, minus the nosepiece.

“What’s with the fancy headgear?” Fraser muttered to Gray from the side of his mouth.

The older man frowned, an idea occurring to him. He sent a subtle tendril of thought in Turner’s direction, and met a blank wall.  

Turner obviously noticed Gray’s concentration – and his perplexed look - because a thin smile broke his severe face.  He tapped the side of the helmet. “Something I created a little while ago. I didn’t want to have you wandering around my mind either.” He spread his hands in a wide circle, indicating the room and beyond. “The exact same technology is crafted into this base – a psionic null-zone - impenetrable to your thought-waves. You are, Charles, for all intents and purposes, blind; so don’t bother to try any mind-bending tricks on me.”

Gray tried once again to cast a spear of thought energy, this time out of the confines of the station, attempting to contact Dianne directly. Distance was no object; he was capable of telepathic communication over many thousands of miles, but all he received back was the echo of his own thoughts, reverberating around in a dark and impenetrable cavern.  He tried again and again but to no avail. He couldn’t sense Dianne’s thoughts, her presence – anyone’s mental presence. For the first time in a long time, Charles Gray was frightened.

“You okay?” Rick said in response to the obvious anxiety on Gray’s face.

“Yes – yes, I’m fine,” he replied to the younger man. He didn’t want to impart his panic to the others; they had enough to be concerned with. But he knew now that if he couldn’t persuade Conrad to back down by reasoned argument, he had little hope of using his telepathic power to persuade him more forcefully.

 “You’ve gone to a lot of trouble, Conrad. I take it you were expecting us?”

Turner laughed. “I could sense you trying to find me, the implementation of the field took a little longer than I anticipated and I had to take this off at some point.” He tapped the helmet again. “But, you’re nothing if not tenacious. I expected my lapse might have been enough for you to latch on to my brainwave patterns. And indeed – here you are.” He smiled briefly, but the gesture didn’t travel to his eyes.

“You don’t have a monopoly on mutants willing to work for a cause.  I had the good fortune to run into a young man who has the ability to create whatever technological marvels he or I can dream of. He was instrumental in constructing most of this station, under my direction, of course.”

“And what exactly is this place? What is the point of creating such a technological marvel?”

“This base above the clouds – Cloudbase – is my refuge. For me, and all mutants who would rather not wait for the human race to grind them down under their heel.  For mark my words, they won’t stop at registration. No, that’s just the beginning. But I’m going to stop them before they can even start.  And I’m going to construct a more powerful Cerebro and search for mutants, just like you, except, this time they won’t care about saving humanity.”

“I understand the young woman does not want to remain here,” Gray said sharply.

“She’s none of your business! I didn’t barge into your school laying down my law, Charles, yet you see fit to come here and lecture me!”

“Why did you allow us to get so far?” Rick changed the subject. “You could have blown us out of the sky before we landed if you really wanted to.”

Turner gave a cold smile.  “In a bizarre way, I relished the idea of meeting you on my own turf; but under controlled conditions, you understand. I always knew you wouldn’t be able to resist finding me, Charles, so I made some preparations of my own. I decided I wanted you to witness the dawn of a new age.”

“Oh yes – your ultimatum to the world,” Gray said. “What exactly are you planning to do?”

“You’re not the only one still researching genetics. But while you study mutant behaviour, I’ve studied the weaknesses of our enemies. I suppose I ought to tell you really... since you were the one to start me on the track in the first place.”

“I wouldn’t be a party to anything like that and you know it.”

“No, not directly. But it was while we were working on the X-Factor gene that I came across some interesting anomalies in the human genome. I worked on it for some time.”

“I don’t believe it, I thought we had an understanding...”

“Oh, I hadn’t planned to use it, but I kept the knowledge germinating,  just in case things didn’t work out your way, Charles – which, as you see – they haven’t. So, seeing the way things were going with this parody of democracy, I returned to my research, and in the process built this base with the help of my acolytes. I gave that excuse-for-a-mutant Henderson what he wanted, in return for engineering my virus at his plant.”

 “I’ve created a gene that will splice into the human DNA, leaving the unique DNA of mutants untouched. It’s designed to make the unfortunate recipient sterile. I’ve contained it within a virus which will be released on detonation into the atmosphere above Unity City,   The virus will transfer the gene through the process of inhalation, much like someone catching a cold, and sooner or later, of course, everyone will infect everyone else, the numbers will multiply geometrically, with no cure to stop it. The human race will eventually just die-out, as they deserve to. I find it fitting to start with the centre of corruption, don’t you?”

“You’ve lost your mind,” Gray said in horror, scarcely believing that someone he had so once admired, had considered a friend, could engineer such a nightmare. He felt sorrow score a line across his heart. The man he knew was truly gone. “Do you hear yourself, Conrad? You once said you abhorred violence – the taking of life. What is your plan but slow genocide, however you try to pretend otherwise?”

“They started this war, but I will finish it.”

“There’s no war! Not yet - but if you go ahead with this plan, there surely will be. Do you really care about our mutant brothers and sisters, or has this become a one man-vendetta - an obsession - that has warped your mind so totally you can’t think straight? For God sake, man, extrapolate the consequences of the action you’re planning! It will fuel a hatred of mutants in every ordinary non-mutant on the planet. And they’ll act in defence of their future – whatever their leaders might dictate - mark my words. If they find themselves threatened with extinction, they’ll fight to the last breath, taking as many of us with them as they can. We will see a blood-bath the like of which has never been seen in earth’s history - for, if you back them into a corner, they will resist with the savagery that took them to the top of the evolutionary tree.”

“We’re at the top of the tree now, Charles,” Turner said flatly.

“And behaving with no more sense than them, so much the pity. Have you any idea what will happen, what horrors you’ll unleash in the wake of your attack? There are thousands of them for every one of us, and even with our abilities, we can’t hope to fight all of mankind in all-out war. They’ll hunt us down, and not all mutants are born with defensive powers like us. What of them? Or is it too easy to forget about the numbers on the board when theorising?  I know about war, Conrad, I’ve been there, remember? Are your heart and soul so black that you’d condemn Earth’s children to a legacy of never-ending conflict? ”

“It’s their choice! If they cancel this vote, I’ll do the same.”

“You know they’ll never bow to blackmail.   I’ve already spoken to Younger.”

“You really are pathetic. You really thought they’d listen to you? And I suppose you gave them the coordinates to this base as well?”

Gray shook his head slowly. Not yet, Conrad, he thought.  “Not everyone is like Senator Roberts,” he replied aloud.  “The committee could still vote in majority against his proposal, and Younger has the casting veto in the case of a hung result.”

Turner’s eyes flashed. “And if it doesn’t go our way? What if they decide that we should wear numbers emblazoned on our skin to show how we’re different? And what will come next? The ghettos? The death camps? No one stopped it then and there’s no likelihood of it stopping now. No - someone has to take a stand - and you, Charles, are too weak.”

Turner stopped, as if realising he was shouting.  When he spoke again his voice was quieter, but still edged with hard intent. “I knew you’d want to convince me otherwise - and I wanted to hear what you had to say - but what I’ve heard gives me no reason to curtail my plan. For old time’s sake, and for what we once meant to one another, I won’t kill you, Charles, or any of your X-Men, unless of course, you escape by some chance of fate and try to stop me. Then, I’m afraid, all debts are cancelled.”

“You’ll be treated with respect during your stay here. There are bathroom facilities behind the sliding panel to your left, and I’ll make sure you won’t starve to death, you’ll get some food shortly.  And one more thing, don’t bother to try to escape your prison by force. The screen is designed to withstand an assault greater than any of you can mount, even you, Cyclops. Any energy will be absorbed by the field to strengthen it, a little idea I borrowed from that fool Henderson.  And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have pressing tasks to complete.”

He turned on his heel and strode back along the corridor, out of their view.

The others had stayed mostly silent, as they listened with mounting horror to Magneto’s plans. Now all eyes were focused on Gray.

“So, now we know what he’s going to do,” Rick said bleakly. “How the hell are we going to stop him? We’re stuck in this cell with no conceivable way of doing a Houdini.”

“Could this cell be monitored?” Paul asked no one in particular.

 “It’s possible,” Gray answered him. “I think we should be careful what we discuss, although Conrad seems to consider we’re no threat to him.”

“More fool him then,” Paul muttered in a guttural voice.

“Perhaps we will have some chance when the food will arrive,” Juliette said, giving them a meaningful look. 

Rick and Paul caught her drift immediately. They nodded and waited by the force screen.

 

 

 

 

Paul felt the familiar aftertaste in his saliva just as consciousness returned to him. He blinked and felt the floor cool under his cheek. Rolling up, he saw the other X-Men – all out cold. He noted two trays of food on the floor, just inside the perimeter of the force field. He leant over and gave Fraser’s shoulder a shove. The American stirred at the movement and then jerked awake suddenly.

“What –” he gasped.

Paul thumbed the trays and Fraser’s face registered the obvious. “So much for Storm’s good idea,” he said sourly.

“I’m afraid so,” Paul replied, planting himself down on the edge of one if the bunks. “Looks like Magneto’s thinking one step ahead of us. We obviously got another shot of knock-out gas before he dropped the force field to deliver our rations.” He ate a spoonful of what looked like stew of some sort. “Well, it tastes all right,” he announced.

Fraser’s jaw tightened in annoyance. “You’re worse than Brad. I don’t know how you can eat when we’re no further forward on getting out of here.”

Paul shrugged, ripping a hunk of bread to dip in the stew. “First rule of soldiering:  food and sleep, always take it when offered, because you never know if it’ll be your last for a while. I’m going as mental cooped up in this box as you are, but we might as well make the best of it; well, at least for the next five minutes it takes to eat this stuff.”

“I guess being Methuselah gives you an insight on just about everything, huh?”    Fraser muttered darkly as he shook the others awake from their unscheduled naps. Juliette let out a rare curse when she discovered her idea was dead in the water.   However, Brad stoically followed Paul’s example and groggily stretched across to take one of the trays. He handed a bowl of stew to Juliette who sniffed it delicately. Resigned, she started to eat. Fraser gave a short sigh before he hauled over the remaining tray, handing one bowl to Gray and keeping the other for himself.

They sat back on the bunks and chewed and swallowed in silence.

 

 

Some time later, they had a visitor. The young man edged towards the screen cautiously, his eyes wary, as if they might all just spring out of their prison and attack him, which was about as likely to happen as Conrad allowing them to go free.

“Hello, there,” Gray spoke up first, in a pleasant soothing voice, so as not to frighten him away. 

He sidled closer to the screen and Gray saw his glance rake over each of the X-Men, saw the slight frown mar the rounded face, almost as if he was disturbed by what he saw.

“Are you the young man Conrad told us about, the genius who built Cloudbase?”

The young man flushed slightly, and gave a small indication of affirmation.

Brad spoke up. “Then you have to be Magnolia’s half brother - Seymour?”

He nodded again.

“Thank you for the food,” Gray said. “It was very good. And to what do we owe the pleasure of your visit?”

He swallowed. “I – I just wanted to see if you were all okay.”

“Does Conrad know you’re here?”

Seymour shook his head, a look of uncertainty hovering on his face. “I’m supposed to be working, I’d better go.”

“Please wait,” Gray called out.

Seymour stopped mid-turn at the pleading tone in Gray’s voice and waited for the older man to speak.

 “Seymour, I don’t know what Conrad has told you about your mission here; but I’m sure it cannot be  the whole truth.  The majority of humankind is not our enemy, you know. I grant you there are some factions who wish to see a war between us, but that is the very thing that will happen , if Conrad pursues the course of action he is hell bent on.”

Seymour gave another shake of his dark head. “You’re as bad as Magnolia; what makes you say such things? He only wants to make sure people like us don’t get treated badly; what’s so wrong with that?”

“Certainly that aim is a noble one, and is consistent with my own views, but it’s the way Conrad intends to achieve it that I’m at odds with. How much do you know of Conrad’s plans?”

“He said he would tell me everything when the time was right, and that’s good enough for me; after all he did for me and my step-sis.”

“Seymour, the time is now, believe me.   Conrad has just told me what he intends to do if the Senate doesn’t stop the registration vote.  He plans to rob humanity of their future – any future - with a virus he intends to unleash first upon Unity City. That makes him no better than those he professes to despise.”

Seymour’s swarthy face reddened, and yet he raised his chin in a silent gesture of defiance. “I don’t believe you, and I don’t have to listen to this.”

“No, you don’t, but you were the one who came here. I assumed you wanted to talk.”

There was a sullen silence for a few seconds. “And how is Magnolia?” Gray asked quietly, changing tack.

Seymour’s gaze shifted. “She’s fine.”

“I’d like to speak to her; I want to tell her that I forgive her betrayal of the X-Men and that she is still welcome at my school.  When we return, she can come with us.”

“She’s not going back there, and she doesn’t want to speak to you.”

“I’d like to hear that from her. Where is she, Seymour?”

The younger man’s eyes shifted again. “She’s in her quarters. Conrad said she wasn’t feeling too good after coming back from your school.”

Paul spoke up, his claws extending with the wet slicing sound. “Conrad forced her to return here with him; she didn’t want to come back. In fact, she only agreed in order to save my skin. Your so-called saviour tried to twist all the metal around in my bones – it hurt like hell, I can tell you.”

Seymour’s eyes darted from one man to the other. “You’re lying!” he said between clenched teeth. “I don’t believe he’d do that, and Magnolia would never leave me here on my own.”

“Really?” Paul said dryly. “Maybe you’re just too scared to face the truth: that she’s on one side now and you’re on the other.”

Gray frowned and raised a hand as Seymour took a step forward, his face pinched with inner turmoil. He opened his mouth to say something, thought better of it, and fled down the corridor.

Rick shook his head, glaring at Paul. “Great, Wolverine. You just yanked his chain so hard he’s gone off to tell Magneto.”

Paul shrugged. “Maybe, but I can smell his uncertainty like rats’ pee. Maybe he needs a good enough yank to tip him over onto our side.”

“I wish I could read his mind,” Gray said with a sigh. “I confess I am somewhat lost without recourse to my psi-powers.”

 

 

 

 

Thirty-one

 

Dianne awoke with an ache in her neck. She had finally succumbed to the exhaustion of her attempts to contact Gray and the others and fallen asleep on her bed, still fully clothed. She turned sideways to blink at the blue digitals of her bedside clock in the darkness. In her semi-groggy state she heard subtle flashes of conversation, as if ghostly bodies filled the room. Ever since her melding with Cerebro it seemed to become ever more difficult to filter out intruding thoughts and keep people’s emotions at bay. One conversation was louder than the rest, harder for her to ignore, because of the warm, sensual glow that accompanied it. Dianne felt her face flame as she realised it was Tin-Tin and Alan Tracy, and she was overcome by a crushing sense of loss. She suddenly felt decades older than the Asian girl, rather than the few years that separated them. For a moment she envied the innocence of their passion, devoid of duty and responsibility.

She rubbed her eyes and sighed, staring at her feet under the covers at the bottom of her lonely bed. She hadn’t realised how much she missed Rick’s warm body next to hers - the physical comfort of him – and for the calm assurance he always projected.  The sparkle of the diamond on her left hand caught her eye and an ache grew in her chest, the pain rising up into her throat and threatening to choke her.

She felt helpless, bereft of choice, like a woman whose husband had gone off to war, with no news of whether he was alive or dead.

And Paul too. Like a silly little fool I encouraged his attraction for me, instead of backing off, like I know I should have. But I only thought of how I felt, not what the consequences would be.  She stuffed the end of the sheet in her mouth and fought back the tears.   Her mother’s face floated unbidden into her mind, and she heard the echo of her admonishing words: ‘don’t expect any help from me when it all goes wrong, which it will, mark my words.

Her lack of control had hurt two men she cared for and the thought that she might never see either of them alive again, filled her with a sense of total desolation. .

She clambered off the bed and wandered into the bathroom for some water to extinguish the fire in her throat.  She gulped the water down and then ran it again to splash her face. For a few moments she practised firming her mental shields, locking them in place so that she could no longer hear a single thought or feel a stray emotion from the others in the mansion. But she couldn’t stop her own thoughts, and this time Gray’s parting words haunted her:

If we lose telepathic contact, you must assume that the worst has happened, and we are unable to stop Conrad from going ahead with his threat. In that event, you must contact President Younger and give him the coordinates  I obtained via Cerebro.  It may be the only chance we have to avert a war between mankind and mutants…

She felt like screaming; there was no way she could return to sleep now, and so she switched the small televiewer on. When she saw the news highlights her mouth went totally dry.

 

 

 

 

In the mansion back in Winchester, the remaining X-Men sat around in the den in the aftermath of Magneto’s latest ultimatum. He had jammed telecommunications yet again to broadcast over the world’s airwaves. His message was the same, with one difference; he was bringing forward his threat. If President Younger did not stop the vote in the next twenty-four hours, he would unleash the virus in Unity City.

Dianne had immediately tried to contact Gray and the others, this time using the amplified power of Cerebro. But like Gray before her, she had no success.

Now, with time running out, Adam sat with the others, the decision he had to make hanging over his head like the Sword of Damocles.  Almost automatically, Patrick and Edward had deferred to him as leader of their small group, but he himself was filled with hesitation and remorse. How could he possibly make a call that would effectively sign the death warrants of Gray and the others?

Dianne seemed to sense his train of thought. She fidgeted for a moment, then blurted out. “I suddenly don’t care about the big picture, not when it means the lives of the people we love are destined to be sacrificed, for the sake of people who don’t give a jot about mutants.”

Adam was about to reply when the external phone line beeped. They all jumped, but Adam was the first to react and in three long strides had reached the desk to activate the loudspeaker.

 “I’d like to speak to Professor Charles Gray,” the caller said tersely. “This is President Younger.”

Dianne’s face paled. 

“He’s not here, I’m afraid.  I’m Adam Svenson.”

“The Svenson – of Svenson Corporation?”  

“That’s me.”

There was a moment’s silence, as if Younger was pondering the connection between the CEO of one of the United States’ foremost private companies and a school for mutants.

“Then, may I speak with Richard Fraser?” 

“He’s not here either, sir, but you can speak with me if you wish.   I’m a very close friend of the professor.”

Another pause, as if Younger weighed up that option. “I’ll be frank with you, Mr Svenson, since we have little time. Professor Gray visited me a short while ago, and gave me this contact number. I need to know if he has any knowledge of the mutant Magneto. The lives of seven million people may depend on it.”

How much can I trust this man? Adam thought, wary despite Gray’s assurances. For better or worse, fate had stepped in and made the decision for them, so now it was up to him to negotiate something out of the whole dreadful mess.

“Professor Gray did find Magneto’s location, an airship of some kind. They went there, to try to persuade him to abandon his threat.”

There was a short pregnant pause, and Adam could feel the tension build.

“I see. And was Gray successful?”

“We lost radio and telepathic contact with them, shortly after they found the station. We don’t know what’s happened to them, if they’ve been taken prisoner by Magneto, or if they’re – dead.”

“Then they failed.”

“It looks that way,” Adam replied bleakly.

“Then I’m afraid I have to ask you to give me those coordinates.   You’ve tried your way and now it’s my responsibility to secure the safety of the people in Unity City. Bear in mind some members of the Security Forces would already consider what you have done treasonable behaviour, so be careful how you answer.”

“So you can blow it out of the sky?” Adam said flatly.

Younger gave an audible sigh. “If that’s what we must do, yes.”

 “Before we give you anything, we want a favour in return.”

“That depends, on what the favour entails.”

Adam stifled a bitter laugh at the typical politician’s evasion. Before answering, he swept his gaze around the room at their embattled little group. Dianne had clenched her eyes shut, valiantly trying to keep herself together. Patrick had taken her hand and was squeezing it gently. Edward nodded at him. He took a breath to say the words he had rehearsed in his head so many times.

“There’s a faction within the government who want to wipe out mutant-kind. They’re attempting to clone super-warriors and use them against mutants. Their leader is Senator John Roberts –” 

Younger’s hiss was loud, but Adam swiftly finished, “ – and in exchange for the lives of our friends, we want the lives of innocent mutants to be saved. We want Senator Roberts’ operation stopped.”

“Do you have any proof of this – incredible accusation?”

“Not yet, we don’t know where Roberts’ base is. But one of his super-soldiers was rescued by Professor Gray. A mutant called Paul Metcalfe, an ex-WAAF soldier who was barbarically operated on.   His body was filled with tritonium metal and he was brainwashed into killing mutants. Professor Gray found him before they could finish the job. He went up there with the X-Men, putting his life on the line to save those people in Unity City.”

“Even if I did believe such a fantastic story, how could I do anything to help? John Roberts is a powerful man.”

“So are you, sir,” Adam pressed on. “If we give you these coordinates you’ll attack that station, and in all likelihood, our friends will die. Standing next to me is a young woman whose fiancé is up there. I don’t want his life or any of the others to be sacrificed in vain.”

Younger’s voice was soft and sombre. “If what you say is true, then it cannot be allowed to continue. I give you my word on that. But I need irrefutable proof that he is involved, you must understand that. I cannot just simply accuse him of the deed.”

“I know, sir.” Adam replied grimly. Roberts will just go completely underground. We’re going to have to do it our way. 

“Well, Mr. Svenson, time is of the essence, so I must regretfully ask you again for those coordinates.”

The tone in Younger’s voice was polite, but forceful. Adam sighed, feeling defeated; he had done his best, now they had to pray for a miracle.

 

 

 

 

The moment after Younger cut the connection with the Gray mansion he contacted General Tiempo on his hot-line. He was aware that what happened next might sentence Gray and his team of mutants to death; but he knew of no other viable option.

Within minutes of relaying his message to the Spanish general the fighters at Red Deer base were scrambled, and three supersonic VF-4 Viper jets screamed into the rose-tinted sky of the desert, on track for Cloudbase. In the leading aircraft, Angel Leader flicked his fingers to activate his Heads-Up-Display system, which flickered luridly in front of him. 

            “This is Angel Leader to Base, tracking on coordinates.”

            “Base to Angel Leader, we have you on comm.”

            He barked orders to his wingmen, “Angel Leader to Angel Flight, check all your systems are locked and ready, we don’t want any nasty surprises when we go head to head with this guy.”  

            “Angel One, copy that Angel leader.” 

            “Angel Two, ditto.”

“Angel Leader to Base, on vector approach; still nothing on visuals or HUD.”

“Angel One to Leader, I got nothing either.”

“How the hell are we supposed to hit something we can’t friggin see?”

“Hold position, Angel Two, and cut the cackling,” Leader cut in. “Switch to attack vectors.”

“Base to Angel Leader, do you have anything on visuals?”

“That’s a negative, Base, and a big fat zero on radar too. Repeat - nothing on radar, but no countermeasures from anyone up here either.” Thank God, was his silent thought.

“Okay Flight,” Leader barked into his comm. “Coming up on coordinates, punch in final approach vectors for attack confirmation.”

“Angel One, locked and loaded.”

“Angel Two, copy that.”

Okay, Leader thought, let’s hope the intel-boys got this right.  If there was some kind of floating ship out there, there was no way it could stay up here in thin air without big engines, and that meant tell-tale heat signatures. The bogies they carried underneath the wings of the Vipers would seek them out like mosquitoes after blood – that was, of course, assuming the coordinates they had been given were anywhere close enough to the mark.

“Coming up on final approach…” he said out loud into the comm. for his wingmen.  And there was still nothing to see. He saw his display flash to tell him that the coordinates were locked and he was ready to go.

“This is Angel Leader. Bogies away…”

The half-ton missile disengaged from the underside of the fighter and leapt forward with a thunderous roar, heading for nothingness as far as he could tell.

“Firing Sting Two,” echoed Angel One, and after the next five second delay, Angel Two’s voice was a whoop in Angel Leader’s comm.

“Firing Sting Three! Take that you mutant bastard!”  

 

 

 

 

Rick scrunched his eyes up behind his visor and banged his head gently against the unforgiving wall of his prison. The others had drifted off into asleep, obeying his command to conserve their energy. He chose to remain awake, in the remote possibility that their luck would change and they could somehow escape and stop Magneto.

His anger with Dianne had slowly melted into remorse and a creeping sense of desolation. Gray had finally confided to him that he was unable to communicate telepathically either within the station or outside it. That also meant the possibility that the blocking mechanism was two-way – which meant that Dianne wouldn’t have any way of penetrating the psi-shield around Cloudbase either.  He knew without a shred of doubt that she would be frantic with worry.

And here am I, trying to save the world when I couldn’t even save my own relationship.

Not for the first time he wondered how something he had thought to be so perfect could crash and burn so fast. Then Metcalfe’s words returned to haunt him.  Maybe it hadn’t been as perfect as he imagined?  And maybe Charles had been right all those years ago when he suggested Dianne was perhaps too young to settle down to a serious relationship with someone so much older than her. He thought of the butterfly he had given her, all those years ago. Was that how he regarded her love?  Something to be impaled on to his heart so that it couldn’t escape, couldn’t ever change?  And was she to be pinned down too, so she couldn’t leave him – like his parents and his brother had left him when they died in a pool of blood on the street?   

 He clamped down on his morbid self-psychoanalysis. It wasn’t doing him any good. He’d made a choice to be here, to do this job as leader of this team, and that was what he had to concentrate on.  If, God willing, he returned to Earth, then he’d make sure things would be different.

 “Can’t sleep?” Metcalfe’s voice broke into his gloomy reverie.

“Someone has to stay awake.”

“You grab some, I’ll take over; I don’t need much.”

“I’m surprised you can sleep at all.”

“I can’t.”

Rick had meant something else entirely by the jibe, but a dark cloud passed over Metcalfe’s face and he glanced involuntarily at his hands. For an absurd moment, Rick actually felt a twinge of pity for him and he felt awkward, caught between that emotion and the one he preferred to feel - anger at Metcalfe for interfering in his life.

He surprised himself by wondering what it must be like to be so old and yet to remain looking ageless; to see people die and not die yourself.  To have your memories destroyed and your body broken and re-made into a killing machine and to be aware of that and desperate to fight it. Rick wondered if he would be that strong if all these things had happened to him.  

He opened his mouth to say something to fill the hanging silence, when the androgynous voice echoed into the cell, and sent ice through his veins:

 

‘WARNING – INCOMING MISSILES DETECTED – TIME TO IMPACT TWO MINUTES’

 

 

 

 

 

Conrad Turner detected the planes minutes before Cloudbase’s tracking systems did.  As the proximity alarms blared throughout the base, the exterior sensors detected what his mutant abilities already sensed – three missiles – heading straight for Cloudbase – the winking red dots showing their deadly trails on a screen  before him.  He dismissed anger at Gray’s obvious betrayal in order to marshal his thoughts for the battle to come; to fend off this foe that dared to attempt to destroy his sanctuary. But his gathering will was rudely interrupted as Seymour stumbled into the room, his face stricken with horror.

“Conrad, I haven’t completed the launch cycle, how are we going to defend the station? You said they would never find us!”

“I need to concentrate.   Get out of here!” he snapped.

“What do you mean?” the younger man’s horror turned to confusion.

But Magneto had gone silent, his face stone-like with intense concentration as Seymour stood, listening as the sound of  impending doom echoed in his ears. 

 

 

 

 

 “My God – they must have launched a strike attack from Earth,” Rick said, as the noise of the alarms woke the others from sleep.

Gray nodded gravely.  “Adam must have contacted Younger after all. I dread to imagine what that decision must have cost him. I never really believed it would come to this, I’m sorry,” he added, seeing the tense faces - the sudden realisation they faced imminent death – for his dream.   He felt a sudden searing stab of anguish. Was this really worth it?

            Paul sheathed and unsheathed his claws.  “I can’t just sit here and wait to get blown to bits!”

 Before anyone could stop him he leapt across the short distance to the force field, his claws shrieking across the curtain of energy; there was a sizzling crack and he was thrown backwards with the very same force as it did the first time he had tried the manoeuvre.  He scrambled to his feet, ignoring the rattling in his skull and the fire in his muscles, and threw himself at it again.        Brad and Rick each grabbed hold of one of his slashing arms the third time he launched himself at the force field, in an attempt that would likely kill him.

            “Quit it, Wolverine!”  Rick yelled at him. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and the missiles will damage enough of Magneto’s systems to shut the field down!”

Paul’s claws slid back into his knuckles and he stepped back, wiping the blood streaking his cheek. The smell of singed leather filled the cramped space.

“I cannot speak for the others,” Juliette said quietly but firmly, “but I have no regrets. If we have to die sometime, it is better that one gives their life for something that we believe in.”

  “Right enough I guess,” Brad said, with a wan smile. “We knew the risks, just so long as our deaths mean something.”

 “I’m not dead yet,” Paul said with a snarl. “None of us are, and I’m not going down without a fight. I’ve come too far to lose it all now.”

‘TIME TO IMPACT ONE MINUTE’

“Wolverine’s right, people,” Rick said. “Let’s not count ourselves out before we have to...” 

Paul raised an eyebrow in surprise, but said nothing in reply.

Gray swept his gaze wistfully at the group, and suddenly he was afraid of dying; a thought which surprised him. But then, he had never been this close to death before this moment.  My brave X-Men…he thought, it’s been a rare thing in my life, to have known all of you…perhaps if things go badly now, I hope we’ll meet again in a better place.” 

Seconds remained to oblivion…

 

 

 

 

Thirty-two

 

Conrad Turner’s eyes closed in rapt concentration. He dismissed everything from his mind except contact with the approaching daemons of destruction; searching for the smooth metal curves, the cold unfeeling surfaces.

One…

Two…

Three…

Beads of perspiration broke out along his brow as he fought the forward momentum of each missile, the power of their thrust thrumming in his brain. The force was irresistible, and yet, he was ultimately stronger. Inexorably, each missile began to veer away from Cloudbase, arcing around, turning on its axis…

With a supreme effort he gave the mental equivalent of a vast shove…

The Sting missiles streaked back to their origins.

 

 

 

 

 

‘MISSILES ABORTING.’ the androgynous voice floated into their prison, causing the X-Men to glance at one another in surprise.

“What the heck is going on?” Brad said.

“Magneto,” Gray replied grimly. “It has to be; he must have taken control of the missiles and diverted them away from Cloudbase.”

“He’s that powerful?” Paul said with a look of disbelief.

“I’m afraid so, and I hardly dare to think what he’s intending,” Gray said with a deep frown.

 

 

 

 

The first thing Angel Leader knew was a stattaco voice from his comm. telling him what his HUD was already saying.

“Angel Leader from Base! Missiles have lost target, they have veered off and are heading back in your direction – repeat – in your direction!”

 “You’re not kidding me,” he said to no one in particular as he stared aghast at his visuals, unable to believe what it was telling him.

Angel Two’s voice was a squawk in his ear. “Friggin missiles are tailing our fighters! How in hell – ”

“Angel Two, break left.  Angel One, break right. Split them up!”  Angel Leader barked, and watched for a second as Angel One’s delta-winged craft tumbled away from his peripheral vision, the afterburners kicking in like solar flares. He immediately snapped his attention to his own problem, pulling hard on the controls to veer his own Viper away from the streaking hulk of metal bearing down on him. He couldn’t see it yet, but his visuals were flashing like crazy and the proximity alarms shrieked in his helmet-comm.

“Can’t – shake it!” Angel Two’s voice again.

“Eject! Eject!” Leader barked into his comm., at the same time flicking the controls to fire his own mechanism. But nothing happened, the canopy of the jet stayed shut. In desperation he repeatedly tried to unlock it while he heard the rising shriek of Angel Two’s voice in his ear.

“System – locked out – can’t eject – Jesus wept!”

Angel Leader’s eyes flicked left as a blinding flash lit up the sky.  And then another one to the right as Angel One’s Viper suffered the same fate.

Sweat poured across his brow as he fought for his own life with every instinct he possessed; twisting and turning his fighter to evade the demon chasing it. 

He saw the flashing lights on his HUD and he knew with an instant of mingled terror and regret that he had finally lost the race.

His last thought was for his wife and two kids. Sorry, Susie.

And then Angel Leader exploded in a ball of orange flame. 

 

 

 

 

‘INCOMING MISSILES DESTROYED’

 

As the impersonal voice echoed into silence Seymour Griffiths saw all evidence of the attack wiped out on the screen in front of him.  “You killed them, those pilots, didn’t you?” he said to Conrad in a ragged voice.

“It – was – no more than they deserved,” the other man replied, breathing heavily. His cheeks were sunken with the strain of diverting the missiles and destroying the planes. “They fired the first salvo.   We were simply defending ourselves.”

“They could have ejected –” And then a thought occurred to him. “You – you stopped them…”

Conrad stood up to his full height and gave Seymour a penetrating stare. “It had to be done. Now perhaps, they’ll believe that I don’t issue empty threats.”

Seymour opened his mouth and shut it again, shell-shocked, unable to find any reply. Up to this point he hadn’t wanted to believe what Magnolia and Gray had told him. But Conrad really had lied after all, and he – pathetic fool that he was –

It had finally taken this act of violence, those three lives snuffed out in a terrifying blink, to finally open his eyes to what Conrad was prepared to do in pursuit of his vision.  Somehow he managed to nod, keeping the sour pain of betrayal locked inside, hoping that the gesture would make Conrad believe that he had accepted his actions. He knew that if he didn’t, he would suffer the same fate as his step-sister.

At the first opportunity he left the control room and practically ran along to Magnolia’s quarters. He heard the muffled banging on her door moments before he reached it. He glanced at the access code and saw it had been changed. She was locked in – a prisoner. Swallowing, he circumvented it with ease and the door slid open to reveal a frustrated Magnolia about to take a thump at the empty space. He caught her hand just before she made contact with his jaw. She stared at him with a mixture of surprise and relief, and grabbing his arm, dragged him inside the relative privacy of her room

“Seymour, thank God. Conrad zapped me. And I heard the alarms going off – what’s happening?”

“They sent missiles to destroy the station. I could have used our defence system to blow them up safely – but he took control of them – sent them back – I never thought he would really kill anyone…”

 “He’s gone crazy. He’s got a virus and he wants to use it on Unity City. I saw everything on the main data-system. That’s what I was looking at when he found me and locked me in here. It’s gonna stop the human race havin’ kids.  He’s tryin’ to wipe them all out. We have to stop him, do you hear?”

Seymour shook his head at that echo of Gray’s conversation with him. “The X-Men told me – I didn’t want to believe them –”

She grasped his arms, and he saw hope ignite in her eyes. “Did you say the X-Men – they’re here on Cloudbase?  Listen to me, Seymour. Conrad’s not the same man we first met, that’s if he ever was. Maybe all he fed us from the start was a worthless bunch of lies. But none of it matters any more. All that matters is we try to do something about it to make it right. We have to free the X-Men; they’ll know what to do.”

“But what if Conrad finds out?”

Her jaw set in a determined line.  “Then we have to make awful sure he doesn’t.”

 

 

 

 

General Tiempo stared in disbelief at the screen in the control room. There was a stunned silence following the drama that had just played out in the room. Three planes had been lost and God alone knew what had happened. Their tracking systems had shown the impossible. Three Sting missiles had somehow turned on the Vipers that had fired them, without any evidence of an anti-missile attack from the rogue station. Tiempo fought to quell the feeling of loss that threatened to choke him like bile. Three pilots were now dead. They were fine men, he knew them, and their families, personally.

He swallowed hard and straightened up. The time would come later to mourn. For now he still had to contend with one big problem. Someone was up there all right. And that someone had the technology to turn their weapons against them. He wondered what he could do now, against a base they couldn’t see, equipped with cloaking technology and a weapons capability that far surpassed anything owned by the WAAF. But one thing was certain; this was no longer a hoax. The threat to Unity was very real indeed.

He saluted the men in the control room, and returned to the office he had been assigned temporarily during his visit to Red Deer. He immediately activated the channel to speak to President Younger.     

 

 

 

 

            Adam Svenson felt numb. Although the woman who had stolen his heart like a thief had returned to consciousness, it seemed he was paying a heavy price for it – the loss of his friends. He sat beside Karen’s cot, his long legs stretched out and his wings trailing on the floor behind the chair. There was nowhere else he wanted to be at the moment. Dianne was almost comatose with grief, believing that her fiancé and friends were dead, and Edward had forcibly put her to bed with a sedative for her own good.

He couldn’t even begin to imagine a future without Gray and the other X-Men. Despite his self-enforced absence from the mansion in the last few years, he had considered them to be his dearest friends. Adam winced at his involuntary use of the past tense. But he had to face facts. Who would look after the school if Gray and Rick were truly dead?  Patrick and Edward had no desire for leadership and Dianne…well, she was in no shape to do anything at the moment. Adam knew with certainty that he couldn’t run out on them. He would have to inform his board that he was taking a sabbatical. He knew it might cost him, but there were more important things in life than making money.

He stole another glance at the former White Queen of the Spectrum Society. Some time following her traumatic awakening she had finally succumbed to sleep again, with some help from Edward. A small moan pulled him out of his reverie and he saw her eyes flutter open again. She turned to look at him, and his stomach flipped. He sat bolt upright and grasped her hands in his own.

“Karen, it’s Adam,” he tried again. “You remember me, don’t you?”

“A-dam,” she drew out each syllable, frowning in concentration, her eyes locked with his. On impulse Adam leant forward and brushed her lips with his, willing his spirit into her, as if it were a kiss to awaken the Sleeping Beauty.  He pulled back, but the incomprehension in her eyes killed his hope.

So much for fairytales, he thought.

And yet, as he continued to hold her gaze for long moments, he thought he saw a spark in those hazel depths, a comprehension that hadn’t existed when she’d regained consciousness.

“Adam,” she said his name again, this time with more surety.  She looked around, as if seeing the infirmary for the first time, at herself dressed in nightwear, blinking, frowning. Adam had the impression of a computer rebooting itself.

His heart hammered against his ribs. She was remembering. And he realised that he didn’t have any idea how she would react when she figured out what had happened to her in Henderson Technologies.

She scrunched her eyes up suddenly and cried out: “The light – blinding light, so much pain!”

She dug her fingernails into the skin of his arms, her eyes wild – and he knew she was desperately trying to read his mind.  But although he himself willed it, he felt nothing from her – not a whisper of sensation like he experienced in her apartment, so very long ago now, it seemed to him.

Finally, she gave a short anguished cry and fell into his arms.

“My telepathy, I’ve lost my telepathy,” she gasped between sobs that tore at his heart.

He stroked her shoulder, and whispered soothing words, as if he was talking to a child, her damp hair clinging to his cheek. After some time her tears subsided and she drew back from his embrace, her eyes still clouded but with the knowledge of her past evident behind their gaze.

“Is it all coming back to you?”  he asked her.

She nodded, then slowly, her eyes travelled around her surroundings.  “Where am I?” 

Adam hesitated, just for a second, but if what she said was true about losing her powers, she wasn’t a danger to them any more. “You’re in the infirmary of the Gray School.”

Her eyes widened.  “You brought me here, and they let you? Why did you do that?”

“Because I care about you.”

Her face twisted, and she looked close to tears again. “After all I’ve done to you,” she whispered, “I can’t believe you still want me. I just don’t understand it.”

“Well, I do want you, and I truly want to help you. I don’t know how to make it clearer than that. Don’t be afraid of love, Karen, it doesn’t always have to hurt.”

“I’m not sure I know how to. I feel as if my entire life has been a monstrous lie.”

He grasped her shoulders and although he had no idea how – he was, after all, no telepath – he felt the change within her, a fluttering tension, like birds about to take flight.

 “Then start again!” he urged. “Not everyone gets a second chance – I’m asking you to take that chance – with me!  I know what you’re thinking – that Henderson will never let you go, but you’ve lost the only thing he wanted from you, your mutant telepathy. You’re of no use to him now. You’re free.”

“Free,” she whispered in echo. “Hold me, Adam, I’m frightened.”

He enfolded her once again in his arms, the damp bed-smell of her making him dizzy, feeling as if he had, at last, found the core of her –  that torn and battered part of her soul that she despised and which he knew he loved. He held her tightly, rocking her, wrapping them up in a cocoon as if the rest of the world didn’t exist.

But it wasn’t to last, His raptor-like hearing picked up the gentle footsteps padding into the room and he reluctantly turned his head to see Edward come back into the infirmary with a grave expression on his face.

“That was President Younger,” he said. “Patrick took the call. He’s up there with Dianne now.”

Adam felt his stomach drop. “It was always going to be bad news.”

“That’s just it; Younger doesn’t know what’s happening. He won’t go into any detail, says it’s classified.” His face made a grimace. “What a joke that is. All he’ll give away is that they haven’t been successful in destroying the base.”

“You’re saying Charles and the others could still be up there alive, with Magneto?”

“There’s always that chance.”  

Adam blew out a breath. So there was hope. But there was still nothing they could do about it but wait.

 

 

 

           

The X-Men exchanged uneasy looks. Despite their relief at still being alive, they knew that all the might of Earth’s forces had been unable to destroy Cloudbase and stop Magneto’s plans. Paul said finally, “Every minute we’re breathing still gives us a chance to stop old iron-head.”

“Speak of the devil,” Rick muttered, glancing at the force screen. Conrad Turner had re-appeared. His sallow face looked even more funereal with even darker bruises under his eyes.

“So, you decided you’d sacrifice yourselves to save their pathetic worthless lives, Charles?  They can’t detect this base with the cloaking in place, so you must have given them the coordinates of our current position. Well, as you can see, their attempt to destroy it has failed. I have to admit, I didn’t expect a strike so quickly, but no matter, the threat has been dealt with.”

“What happened out there, Conrad?”

“I returned their missiles - with interest, let’s say.”

Gray knew instantly what he meant, and realised that whatever trace of his old friend had remained, had irrevocably vanished with this act of violence. He passed a hand quickly over his forehead, trying to stave off a poignant sense of loss.

“They’ll just send more to stop you. You can’t hide from them forever.”

“We’ll see, Charles. Cloudbase doesn’t simply float up here in the sky, it moves, wherever I choose. This time, there will be no one to discover us, and you will bear witness to the dawn of the new era.”

He allowed a disdainful smile to flicker across his lips, before he turned on his heel to leave them.  

 

 

 

 

A short time later, they heard the change in pitch of the engines and the soles of their feet picked up the small vibrations through the floor.

“The base is moving,” Paul said.

“And who’d like to bet we’re heading for Unity?” Rick answered tightly.

 “Well, we can’t just sit here waiting for it all to happen,” Paul said. “We have to try blasting our way out of here.”

            Gray looked beyond them, at the screen, a sudden hope flaring in his heart. “Perhaps we don’t have to –”

            Seymour Griffiths peered nervously into their prison. Gray acknowledged the mutant genius with a smile and rolled his chair towards the screen. The younger man’s eyes darted around, as if half-expecting to see Conrad Turner materialise behind him.

“Magnolia and I want to help you,” he said in a whisper, so Gray had to strain to hear him.

Relief flooded through Gray. “I’m so very glad to hear that. What changed your mind?”

“Mostly Magnolia, I couldn’t see it before, and I didn’t see what I was doing.  He hurt her, locked her up. And he just destroyed those planes – those men’s lives…”

“I know, I’m sorry, I know how you feel. He was my friend too.”

“I was a fool to believe him.”

Gray shook his head gently. “What’s done is done. What is more important is what you do from this point onwards.”

“Magnolia said she found the virus you were talking about.”

“We have to destroy it; you know that, don’t you?”

Seymour nodded.

 “This prison of ours,” Gray continued, “can you shut down the force field?”

“Of course, I built it, the null-zone, and this base, all of it.”

“You’re an extremely gifted young man.”

Seymour hung his head, a blush of shame coating his cheeks. “Yes, but all I’ve done with it is to –”

Gray shook his head. “There is still time to make amends. Are you willing to help us?”

Seymour nodded.

 

 

 

Patrick plodded upstairs to the adult’s wing at the end of the gruelling day.  He had taken classes, in a hope of pretending some sort of normality existed in their turned upside-down world, but his students had more interest in what was happening to the X-Men than quantum-computing. After fielding their questions he had pored over schematics for new security upgrades for the mansion; trying to figure out ways to do what was necessary without it being obvious to the outside world. And through it all, thoughts of his friends in danger continually threatened to crack his genial mask. He had finished with a mother of all headaches and all he wanted to do now was to get some sleep.  He ran a weary hand through his hair, pulled off his sweater and fell backwards onto the bed. Before he knew it, his eyes closed drowsily and in the next minute he was snoring gently in blissful sleep.

 

 

The mansion was in darkness as two figures crept silently into the games room on the corridor adjacent to the younger students’ dorms. Alan Tracy pulled Tin-Tin Kyrano close to him and shut the door quietly and firmly. There was no lock, which bothered him a little, because at this precise moment playing pool was the last thing on his mind.

“This is most unbecoming,” Tin-Tin breathed against his lips as he skilfully backed her up against the table. One of his hands slid inside her thin top and she shivered at his touch, the pupils of her slanted eyes enlarging as she stared at him in the dim light.

“Don’t. Someone might catch us,” she said.

 “They’re all asleep,” he said, moving his lips to nuzzle her neck, and she slid her arms around his shoulders and he kissed her fervently until they both had to stop for air.  He gently pushed her back against the green baize but she resisted his efforts. 

“Hey, I thought you said you wanted to do this,” he said, with a hint of petulance in his voice.

“I know, but I cannot help thinking of the others – up there. Somehow this does not feel right – not when they might at this very minute be in danger for their lives.”

“We can’t exactly do anything about it, can we? And worrying ourselves half to death won’t change anything. A little loving has gotta be better than sitting around moping into our beers. ”  

“Maybe, but doing it in here wasn’t exactly what I had in mind –”

“You’ve no sense of adventure,” he whispered against her hair and his hands moved across her skin, eliciting soft gasps from her.

“That’s easy for you to say when I’ll be the one on the hard surface,” she retorted as she squirmed against him.

He groaned. “So where else are we gonna get some privacy?” he said, softly biting her neck. “If I don’t… if we don’t – I’m gonna blow a fuse.”

She giggled suddenly. “You’re always blowing fuses. I would have preferred the swimming-pool room, at least there are cushions there,” she whispered at the same time her hands wickedly did some research of their own. 

“I don’t think I can wait that long,” he said between clenched teeth.

She kissed his nose and said airily, “Oh well, maybe I’ll take pity on you, if you’re a good boy.”

He kissed her again, caressed cool skin until her amusement mutated into gasps of pleasure, and he gave her a grin.  “Oh, baby, I’m gonna show you just how good I really am…”

 

 

Joe McClaine and Chip Morrison were curled up on the oversized sofa in the den flicking through the X-rated channels on the viewer. As a dare, Joe had found a way to bypass all the parental controls; it wasn’t overly difficult for a nine-year old with the mathematical capabilities of a computer.  The two adolescents muffled their giggles as they surfed by the dying glow of the log fire.

“We’ll catch it if they find us in here,” Chip replied. The younger boy had been drawn into Joe’s antics despite his own reservations.   

“Nah,” Joe chuckled, his nose wrinkling. “Everyone’s asleep and anyway, they’re way too worried about the Prof and the others to care about what we’re doing.”

“I heard they sent some missiles up there, do you think they’re all dead?”

Joe tapped the controls, his eyes locked on the screen. “Hey, they’re X-Men, our heroes, how can they get killed? Only the baddies get killed. It’s a natural law.”

            “That’s only in the movies. Real life isn’t like that.”

            “Speaking of movies…” Joe gasped with widened eyes and unmitigated delight as he found one particularly absorbing channel. “Would you take a look at these –”

 

 

 

 

The transports touched down a safe distance from the mansion. Doors slid open to disgorge groups of dark-garbed figures, moving with swift intent. The intruders stealthily crossed the fields and woods, covering their approach to the darkened hulk of the mansion. Within a remarkably short time they were within twenty feet of the buildings.

 

 

 

 

Dianne woke up, a dream scurrying out of the back of her mind, half-glimpsed. For a moment she lay there, her heart thumping in the blackness of her room. She took a breath and settled her shields down, blocking out the thoughts of those around her once again. She had already spent too much time in the black void, searching for her lost mentor and her lost love. Whatever had happened up there, in Magneto’s base, it hadn’t restored the telepathic link between herself and Gray.  She somehow managed to get through yet another day like an automaton, for the sake of the students, until the chance to sleep.

 She glanced at the clock. It seemed awfully like she had gazed at clocks constantly in the last twenty-four hours. There was so little time until Magneto’s deadline for Unity City, and she felt time rushing away like rapids through a narrow canyon. She punched her fists into her forehead, then threw the coverlet to one side and pushed her feet into her slip-ons. 

Tying her robe shut, she wandered downstairs to the communal kitchen only to find Adam there. He leant against one of the countertops, also dressed in a loose bathrobe, and with a mug of half-finished coffee next to him on the counter. For a moment she stood in the doorway, unsure whether to intrude, as he seemed deep in thought. And then, his head jerked up, as if suddenly aware of her presence.

 Self-consciously he pulled the robe tighter and gave her a wry smile, as if realising he was in a state of semi-nakedness. “Sorry, I should have put some more clothes on. I guess I’m too used to wandering around alone in my apartment.”

“Adam, there are worse things,” she replied. “I’m sorry I disturbed you. Is – Karen still in the basement?”

“I feel it’s best, under the circumstances, until –”                                                                                       

He cut himself off, and Dianne felt his sense of awkwardness and she rushed to fill the uneasy silence.

“Adam, I’m so sorry for what happened; if I could take it back, I would.”

“No,” he said, moving towards her.  “Crazy as this sounds, maybe it was a blessing in disguise.”

Dianne stepped back in surprise. “How could it possibly – ”

“Her telepathy,” he argued, “was the one thing that made her valuable to Henderson and the Spectrum Society. With it gone, she has the chance to start again.”

“You really are in love with her, aren’t you?”

He smiled wryly. “Yes, I am. More than I ever imagined I could be, with any woman.”

He hesitated, his search of her face revealed to him her sadness for the first time. “Look Dianne, whatever happens, I won’t run out on the X-Men, on this school.”

“Don’t say it, please, don’t say it like that. I still want to believe they’re coming back.” And she lowered her head, ashamed of the tears that threatened to flow again. She felt his arm encircle her shoulders and a stray feather brushed against her hair.

“I’m an idiot; stupid thing to say,” he said. “Of course they are, I just meant –”

She looked up, blinking back her tears and touched his cheek gently.  “I know, you dear sweetheart.”

“Dianne, is everything all right, between you and Rick, I mean?”

“Of course it is; why shouldn’t it be?” she said quickly, unable to bear the shame of him knowing what she had done.

“It’s just – you both seemed – well – cool with one another, in the conference room, before they left on the mission. You haven’t had a fight, have you?”

She bit her bottom lip and the winged mutant straightened up, removing his arm. “I’m sorry, it’s really none of my business, but I’ve known you both so long – I mean – I’d hate to see the two of you –”

“I just want him to come back, so I can tell him I –” She swallowed, a ball of pain choking her words.

He wrapped his arm around her shoulder again. “Come on, I guess you didn’t come down here to be reminded of what’s happened. You probably wanted something to drink, huh?”

Dianne nodded mutely and Adam steered her to one of the stools. “You sit here,” he said, “and I’ll make you some hot tea, if you can stand the way I make it.” He gave her a wink and she gratefully surrendered to his solicitousness.

 

 

 “Did you hear something?” Chip said, his ears pricking up.

Joe didn’t take his eyes off the flickering screen. “Nah.”

Chip wasn’t so sure. He looked nervously towards the door. “Maybe it’s that Mr Svenson; he looks kinda like he’d bawl us out if he found us here. Maybe we’d better get back to the dorm before–”

Chip’s voice froze as he saw the door swing open. His heart stopped in fear at the two dark figures that appeared malevolently in the doorway. Joe’s head whirled, sensing the danger too late. Before either of them could utter a cry of help, the masked men fired their weapons. There was a muffled sound as the darts thudded into their bodies. The two youngsters slumped on the sofa, instantly unconscious.

 

 

 

A group of dark-garbed figures slipped, silent as wraiths, through the massive hallway.  The point-man signalled upstairs and his men nodded, following him up the grand staircase and along the corridor to the adult X-Men’s rooms. Patrick slept on, oblivious to the danger lurking feet away. The soldiers scanned the names on the doors, stopped at the one bearing Paul’s name.  The point-man tried the handle, and it turned easily. They slipped into the dark room, and within seconds fired a multitude of darts into the bed. The muffled sound barely echoed around the room, and it all happened so fast, they scarcely had time to register that their target wasn’t there.

 

 

 

Cecily Ames shifted restlessly in her bed. She felt hot and sticky, and couldn’t get to sleep. She wondered if she was coming down with something. She thought about the class she had taken with Mr Donaghue. He hadn’t looked his usual bright self either, his face even paler than usual. Although he had tried hard to reassure them, she could tell he was worried about the missing X-Men, just like she was. Funny how adults thought they could hide it better.

She got out of bed to visit the bathroom, tip-toed across the corridor to the communal dorm shower-room, and opened the tap into one of the sinks along one long wall. She splashed her face with the cold water and squinted at her flushed expression in the mirror. Just as well Mr. Fraser couldn’t see her looking a fright like this. She scrunched up her nose, the image of his face floating in front her. She missed hearing the sound of his voice and the way her stomach did funny, fluttering things when he looked at her, earnestly trying to explain some god-awful maths problem, pushing those sexy shades of his up onto the bridge of his kissable nose. Okay, she was kidding herself, there was no way on earth she could compete with Ms Simms, but it was still nice to pretend. Mind you, she wasn’t exactly looking her stunning self either, her eyes red-rimmed as if she was constantly crying. She’d heard they’d had a fight, a little bit of gossip that had come from Joe McClaine, and she knew he was a genius at ferreting out all sorts of things people didn’t want him to know. But she couldn’t believe any one would choose that Wolverine guy over Mr Fraser, even if he was okay looking - for those that liked the unshaven look.

When she came back out into the corridor she shivered at the sudden draught. Glancing left, she saw the window open at the far end of the corridor and a small frown drew her brows together. She couldn’t remember it being open when she came out of the dorm. Curious, she walked slowly towards it. She reached the intersection of the corridor and a light flared in her eyes, dazzling her. The next thing she felt something punch into her chest and the blackness overtook her.

 

 

Tin-Tin’s eyelids fluttered, and opened, and she realised they were both still on the floor, their legs tangled together. Oh gods, they had snoozed off. All right, they were hardly underage, but the sheer embarrassment would have been too much if anyone had found them.  Next time she was definitely going to choose their tryst and just because he liked fast cars didn’t mean she had to act like a fast woman. She sat up, hastily rearranging her clothes, wondering what on earth her father would have made of this, and glad, in some way, that he hadn’t left Tracy Island to take up the post of chef here at the mansion. That would have really cramped her style.

She shook a dozing Alan.  “Wake up, lover; it’s cold on this floor. I need my comfortable bed, for what’s left of the night.”

He groaned and rolled up onto his elbow. “Come here, just another kiss,” he mumbled, reaching for her with his other hand.

She deftly moved out of his grasp and onto her feet and wagged a long, manicured finger at him. “No way; I’m exhausted.”

He grumbled as he dragged on his jeans, then stood up and planted a kiss on her nose. “Okay, lead the way,” he said, pushing her gently towards the door.

She peeked out into the darkened hallway, her stilettos dangling from one hand; and her heart missed a beat as she saw several figures round the far corner of the long corridor. She pulled into the doorway, elbowing Alan in the process.

“Ow, what gives?” he muttered.

She clamped one hand over his mouth. “Shh –  there are men out there.”

Alan’s blond brows creased and he slipped in front of her to glance out of the doorway again – saw several dark figures at the far end of the corridor, and a prone form with floppy red curls slung over one of their shoulders.

“My God, they’ve got Cecily,” Tin-Tin gasped, louder than she intended. The rear man heard her and whirled, his gun raised. The others followed, their footsteps muffled on the thick carpet.

In those few desperate seconds Alan tried to remember everything Cyclops had tried to teach him during their last session in the training room, but he seemed to have turned to stone – unable to summon a shred of his awesome power. As the intruders bore down on him and Tin-Tin, he stood rooted senseless to the floor with fear – his hesitation dooming them both.

He heard Tin-Tin’s shriek and then the light poured out of her unrestrained, like an out-of-control fireworks display. Alan’s brain sang with the intensity of the pyrotechnics, but for the soldiers in their night-vision goggles, it completely overloaded their synaptic functions. Screaming hoarsely with pain, they fell writhing to the ground. In the confusion that followed, Tin-Tin came to her senses and grabbed Alan’s arm, dragging him blindly across the downed men.

 

In the kitchen, Dianne was sipping the tea Adam had made for her, and sure enough, just as he’d predicted, it was too weak. But it was wet, and it was hot, and as for the maker, his calm, solid, presence was a balm to her aching heart. From the corner of her eye she saw his blond head lift to the ceiling, his face intent. 

“What is it?” she asked quickly.

“I thought I heard noises – could just be the kids fooling about upstairs…”

With a sudden churning of her stomach she dropped her tightly-held shields, scanning the breadth and depth of the mansion. All at once she sensed them, their dark minds filled with brutal, hateful thoughts. With a despairing little cry she realised what a fool she had been by keeping her shields tight, making her oblivious to the danger that surrounded them –

“Dianne, what’s wrong?”

She felt Adam grip her arms.

All at once the kitchen was suddenly plunged into darkness.

 

 

 

 

Thirty-three

 

Adam’s vision reacted in microseconds, and he saw the two darker outlines loom in the doorway. With her telepathy now at full level, Dianne felt the sour waves of loathing sweep over her.

            The soldier’s guns spat. Adam involuntarily threw up one wing in front of his face, shielding his body – the dart shredded several feathers as it passed through.

Dianne, at his side, uttered a short cry, yet, even as the powerful tranquiliser drug rushed into her bloodstream, she lashed out with sheer force of will. One of the copper pans was wrenched free from the wall and flew across the room, smashing into the face of the assailant with a sickening clang.

The soldier followed Dianne onto the tiled floor of the kitchen.

One down.

Adam pirouetted away from the second soldier who was already moving around the peninsular unit to fire again at him. As the man aimed, he flung out one wing like a maddened swan and there was a sharp crack as it broke the man’s arm. With a cry he dropped the weapon and Adam smashed the copper pan onto his skull to finish the job. His attacker fell in a senseless heap onto the tiles.

Two down.

Only now was he aware of a dull drone beyond the sound insulated windows. His heartbeat accelerating, he threw them open and looked skywards. A roaring sound flooded his sensitive ears and a wailing downdraft whipped through his hair and wings. Searchlights flared in the sky like miniature suns, blinding him. One hand flew to his face, shielding his eyes from the light, while the other fumbled for a door handle. Gasping, he stumbled back into the kitchen, dragging the double doors shut. With shaking hands he locked the door, knowing it was a futile gesture designed to give him only minutes of time. Frantic thoughts ran through his brain. How many others were swarming through the mansion at this moment?  What about the kids upstairs?  Had the basement been breached?

He picked up the unconscious Dianne, and with his head buzzing, he staggered into the corridor, hoping fervently that they wouldn’t encounter any more soldiers on the way to safety.

 

 

 

Patrick woke with a start. Disoriented, he could hear sounds outside his room.  Coming to instantly, he leapt out of bed, and pulled open the door. The corridor was empty, but he could hear the thunder of many feet towards from the direction of the students’ landing. Pulse racing, he stormed along the corridor to the stairwell. A crowd of youngsters, led by Alan and Tin-Tin, burst onto the landing.

 “’Bunch – of – guys – attacking the mansion,” Alan shouted breathlessly, “we got most of the kids.”

“Except Cecily,” Tin-Tin added tearfully. “I dazzled them, but it wasn’t enough.”

“Good girl, you did your best, we’ll try to get her –”

Patrick’s words were cut off in a resounding crash and then the stained-glass window shattered, spaying sparkling shards of colour everywhere, amidst screaming from some of the terrified youngsters.  Five dark figures appeared in the broken space, silhouetted against the flare of the searchlights behind them. The sound of rotor blades filled the hallway, blown in on the wind. The screaming stopped, replaced by a new terror that struck them dumb.

Patrick acted with an instinct born of years of training, turning his voice into a weapon, his scream loud enough to whip the air into a solid frenzy.  Like a writhing anaconda it whipped around the five figures, swatting them away like black flies through the yawning break in the window and into the night beyond.

He turned, to see the frozen faces on the landing staring at him.

“Go, go! Get to the basement!”

They jerked out of their catatonia at his command, and stumbled down the steps two or three at a time, their gasps punctuated by the sounds of their feet crunching on broken glass.

Lights stabbed into the main hallway as the students ran towards safety.  Patrick urged them on, his heart hammering against his chest in a nameless fear. At the end of the corridor they slid to a halt in front of the massive portrait of Admiral Nelson. Patrick activated the light switch and the painting slid sideways to reveal the elevator to the basement.  The door slid open and he stared the man already within: Adam, clad in his black combat suit.

“We’re under attack,” the Irishman replied quickly, “but I’m guessing you know that already.”

Adam nodded grimly. “I was with Dianne, in the kitchen, when we were taken by surprise. I left her with Edward. Thought I’d better come up here and help.”

 “They’ve got Cecily.”

Adam’s face darkened as the sounds of pursuit echoed around the mansion.

“Where’s Joe and Chip?” someone wailed.

Adam and Patrick exchanged a pained glance, and in an instant they both knew the young boys would have to fend for themselves, at least for now while they got the others to safety.

“Get in!” Patrick urged the milling students, and they crowded into the elevator, crushing together, the older ones carrying the younger ones, trying to muffle their tears.        There wasn’t nearly enough room for everyone, and anxious looks were traded. Patrick gripped Alan’s shoulder, pushing him in with Tin-Tin. “Look after them,” he said. “Send the elevator back for us as fast as you can.”

The doors slid shut, and Adam glanced at the remaining youngsters, seeing their blood-streaked faces for the first time.

“Who are these guys?”

Patrick shook his head. “I don’t know – doesn’t matter really, whoever they are, they’re playing for keeps.”

They experienced an agony of waiting for the elevator to return as the sounds of pursuit grew louder in their direction. A crashing sound came from the front hallway; someone had blown in the main door, Feet impacted heavily on the wood floors, orders were barked, all attempts at stealth by the intruders evidently abandoned. 

The elevator door slid open and the students jammed in, panic stricken, smothering sudden yelps as feet were trodden on. Adam was the last one in, and he slammed a hand against the panel to close the doors. Several black-garbed troops rounded the far corner, their pace increasing as they saw the escaping mutants. Adam’s breath hitched as they pounded ever closer, and then, the doors were shut and all they could hear was the frustrated thumping become a muffle as the steel box took them down to relative safety.

“Damn, they found the location of the elevator,” Adam muttered grimly.

 “Don’t worry,” Patrick replied. “There’s no way can they bypass the retinal scanner.”

“I hope so.” Adam leant the back of his head against the cool mirrored wall and let out a long breath, his wings drooping as the tension drained out of him. “I’m out of practice. Sitting in boardrooms doesn’t exactly prepare you for something like this.”

 

 

As Adam, Patrick, and the remaining youngsters reached the infirmary, Edward had just finished administering a hypo-syringe containing a potent counter-stimulant to Dianne’s arm on Adam’s request. They were going to need every high-level, adult mutant awake to counteract this violent threat to the school.

The Australian was now busy applying swabs and gel plasters to the cuts sustained by many of the students when the window had blown in, assisted by Tin-Tin and Alan, both of whom sported thin gashes, across their cheek and temple respectively. Edward was only grateful no one had suffered worse injuries.

Patrick had also changed into his combat uniform, and both men presented a calming and formidable sight to the gathered students. Several of them stared openly in amazement at Adam, the black of his suit a contrast against his snow-white wings – an avenging Angel.

But, Adam thought wryly, their attackers upstairs wouldn’t be quite so impressed.

“We need a couple of those suits,” Alan said to the two older men. His hand still clutched Tin-Tin’s, they hadn’t left one another’s side since their arrival in the basement.

“Maybe in another year, me boy,” Patrick replied good-naturedly.  

Adam did a swift head count, and as his eyes trailed around the room Karen Wainwright wandered into his line of sight. She was gazing abstractedly around at the milling students, confused by the palpable sense of fear permeating the large room.  As she studied the signs of bewilderment upon the young faces, Adam crossed over to her and steered her gently towards her cot.

“What’s going on?” she asked.                   

“The mansion’s under attack.”

Her face paled.

“Look, we don’t know by whom,” he tried to reassure her. “It may not be Henderson, but I have to –”

She stroked his hand where it lay on her shoulder. “I know; you need to take charge. I understand. I’ll stay out of your way. After all, I can’t help, can I?” Her last sentence held a trace of bitterness, not lost on the winged mutant. 

“Not now, Karen, please. I need you to stay calm.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll be a good girl, I promise. Just don’t send me back to bed, please? It’s not doing anything for my hair, not to mention the bed sores.”

He reluctantly let go of her hand, and squeezed her shoulder with a small smile. “I do believe that rapier wit of yours is returning.”

She allowed him to go, but he felt her watch him with hooded eyes as he turned his attentions to Dianne, who was stirring to wakefulness.

 “I wish we knew what the hell was going on up there,” Patrick said, appearing beside him. “I feel dreadful leaving Joe and Chip in the hands of these morons, whoever they are.”

Adam nodded grimly. “I’m hoping Dianne can answer that question for us.”

Just as he finished speaking she coughed, jerking her eyes open. She regarded them with wide-eyed surprise. 

“We’re under siege in the basement,” Adam answered her unspoken question. “How are you feeling?”

She rubbed one eye. “A little woozy, but my brain’s intact.”

Adam handed her a suit. “We brought you something more appropriate for defending yourself than a nightgown.”

She grimaced, but took it from him just the same.

 “Just before you change,” Adam said, placing one hand gently on her shoulder. “We’ve lost Joe McClaine and Chip Morrison, can you scan for them, figure out where they are?”

Her eyes widened further in shock, followed by a determined frown. “Let me try.”

 

 

 

 

Joe and Chip shrank back in terror as the man loomed towards them. The night vision goggles distorted his face, making him look like some bug-eyed alien.

 “I want to know where the Wolverine is,” Major Reeves asked them in a quiet, even voice.

Joe bit his lip to stop himself from trembling, and stuck his chin out. “Don’t know who you’re talking about.”

“Don’t lie to me, mutant-boy,” his voice remained calm, icy. “Maybe you know him better as Paul Metcalfe. We know he’s hiding out here. We’ve seen his room. Only problem is…he wasn’t there.”

Joe attempted a shrug, while inwardly fear skittered in his stomach. “He went out for a beer.”

“Funny. They’ve gone underground, haven’t they?”

Joe’s mouth clamped shut and he crossed his arms, glaring defiantly at Reeves. The soldier turned away from him and hunkered down in front of Chip. The younger boy muffled a sob as the man’s shadow enveloped him.

“I’d like to think that you’re a smarter little mutant than your wise-mouth friend here, so I’ll ask again. Where is Metcalfe?”

“Don’t tell them!” Joe hissed from the side of his mouth.

Reeves didn’t bother to sigh. He stood up, slowly, regarded them for a few seconds. “Okay, we can do this the easy way, or the hard way.”

One of his team stiffened and moved towards him.  “Sir, you’re not going to –”

“Stand down, soldier!” Reeves barked at him.  “That goes for all of you. These aren’t human kids. They’re aliens, threatening all of us, our way of life, our very existence. Remember that. Now, we have a job to do, and we do whatever necessary to complete it.”

The soldier nodded sharply, moving back to his position. Major Reeves waited for the nods of confirmation, for their unswerving belief in his leadership, before he proceeded.

 

 

 

Dianne concentrated, her eyes closed, her probing thoughts floating unimpeded through the reinforced synth-crete walls, searching for the minds of those above ground.  All at once she was assailed by the images – single-minded, cold hatred – fear – determination. And then – the sharp, stinging slaps – the punching, her link almost severing under the cries of pain, the feelings of terror, the pleading for it to stop.

Her hands flew to her head, clutching it as if to drown out the young voices, and her dark-blue eyes flicked open in shock. “They’ve got them, they’re hurting them, the cowards!” she spat the word out.

All nervous chatter stopped, heads swivelling to the red-headed telepath.  She ignored them, clenching her eyes shut again, stretching her capabilities to the limits, dragging the knowledge they desperately needed from the dark minds of the boys’ captors, without them ever knowing she had been there.

Adam and Patrick saw the colour slowly drain from her face.

“Dear God, they’re planning to blow up the mansion. Bury us alive. Such hate, such –” She stared woodenly into space. “They want us all dead.”

One of the younger girls started weeping, breaking the stunned silence. No one doubted for a moment that what Dianne had sifted from their assailants’ minds was anything but a dreadful reality.

Abstractedly, Dianne saw Karen Wainwright move tentatively towards the weeping girl and gingerly put one arm around her, as if tenderness was a gesture new to her.  Dianne was drawn to Adam’s flurry of emotion and she saw her friend swallow hard, as the girl accepted the proffered hug from the former telepath.   Karen’s eyes lifted shyly to his, as if to say, I’m trying to make amends, and Dianne caught the thoughts behind her look.

Dianne felt her heart turn over. 

Adam quickly tore his eyes away from Karen. “I’m calling Younger.”

“There isn’t enough time!” Dianne cried. “They’re starting to set the charges already.”

“I never thought they’d do this, I’ve signed our death warrants coming down here,” Adam said and the look on his face suggested he blamed himself for the decision.

Patrick shook his head. “No, we’d all have been captured by now if we hadn’t, or worse. With all those birdies they have in the sky, we would have been picked off easily running over open-ground. This way, we at least have a fighting chance.”

“Spoken like a true Irishman,” Adam said with grim humour.

“I pulled other thoughts from their minds,” Dianne said, breaking their conversation. Their eyes focused sharply upon her. “I know where they operated on Paul – the location of their secret base!

            Adam and Patrick exchanged incredulous glances, all of them remembering Younger’s words: I need proof.

“We can contact Chan,” Patrick said.

“Are you kidding?” Adam responded. “One girl against God knows how many government soldiers?”

“Correction, young woman, you’re forgetting she’s older too, Adam. Her phasing powers make her almost invisible, she’s been trained as a ninja, and I taught her everything she knows about cracking computer systems. She can get the data we need to bury Roberts.”

“Maybe,” Adam said, after a pause. “But first we need to get out of this mess. Dianne, I hate to ask this of you but –”

            In her heightened state of telepathic awareness she caught his thoughts before he could speak them, and fear rippled along her spine.

“I can’t do it.” 

“You’re the only one who can. Stun them with a psionic mind-blast.”

“I’ve never tried to do such a thing. Charles, yes, although he’d never agree to it, but me?” She shook her head.   “Even if I wanted to, there’s too many of them.”

 “Then use Cerebro! It’ll give you all the power you need.”

“I don’t want any more!”

She flushed at the faces intently fixed upon her. “I’m afraid, Adam,” she said in a hushed voice, her eyes involuntarily flickering across to where Karen stood. “I don’t want to lose myself. I don’t want to have all that power and be unable to control it.”

“You won’t end up like me, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Karen said, gazing thoughtfully at Dianne.

Dianne thought she looked as fragile as she herself felt, as if she might blow gently apart with a sudden breeze, and yet, beneath that exterior, Dianne sensed the tenuous signs of strength returning to her former adversary. But her colours were mellow and cream, soft around the edges, not the hard and white-cold Dianne had sensed when they had fought in the laboratory.

“You’re not about to abuse your talent,” Karen continued. “You’re going to use it to save people you care about. And they care about you. They won’t allow your telepathic powers to corrupt your life.”

She didn’t say the words, as it did to mine, but Dianne picked them up floating on the ether just the same.

“I forgive you for what you did to me, so don’t let it stop you doing what you must, to save us all.”

Dianne could hardly believe she was being lectured by the White Queen of the Spectrum Society, and yet, there was nothing but sincerity colouring her words. 

Patrick squeezed Dianne’s arm.  “She’s right, Dianne, we’ll stand by you all the way, if we ever get out of this mess. But we can’t just sit here waiting for them to bury us alive. Even with the reinforced ceilings we might be unable to get to the surface.  You are the only one of us who can save these kids now.”  He swept his arm around and Dianne’s gaze followed in its wake, focusing on the frightened faces, every single one of them waiting for her answer.

She thought of all the times recently where she had rebuked Rick for treating her like she was made of glass. Now she stood to make a choice, hers alone, between saving her family – or what was left of it – or not.

You wanted to be a big girl – so now’s your chance to prove it.

            “All right, I’ll do it.”

Adam let go a small sigh of relief.

“Just promise me you’ll call Chan while I’m with Cerebro,” she called back, halfway out of the door. “She can do it too.”

 

 

 

 

Determined now, she practically ran along through the corridor towards the vault, and slammed her face against the retinal scanner. Before Cerebro’s female voice could complete its welcome, she threw herself into the waiting chair. With shaking hands she pulled the skullcap over her head and closed her eyes. The room vanished and was replaced by the spinning wondrous vista of the mental plain – the ceaseless chaotic energy flowing in the darkness. She became one with Cerebro, the feeling of power a joyous symphony within her.

She fought the joy, knowing its dark side. She took control and within the great dark sink of the sea of thoughts the lights flickered into existence. The Dianne/Cerebro combined mind zoomed in at dizzying speeds – into the space around her. She homed in on the shards of hate spinning around her – reached out with her amplified aura – sought them out, every one.

Then she pushed

 

To a man, they staggered – overwhelmed by the flaring shockwave of blinding light – the white-hot roaring in their skulls. They crumpled where they stood, all over the mansion, on steps, landings, stairways, outside on the grass, their mission of destruction cauterized in its tracks.  The remaining airborne helicopter lurched drunkenly in the sky, losing height and finally plunging onto the grassy lawn with an almighty explosion.

One minute Joe and Chip were cowering, waiting for another blow to fall, the next minute, their attackers shrieked in agony, and fell to the floor unconscious. The two boys clutched one another, terrified, until they heard a familiar female voice calmly whispering in their ears: <It’s Dianne, you’re both safe now, they won’t hurt you any more.>

 

 

 

 

Thirty-four

 

Dianne slowly pulled off the skull-cap and shook her hair free. Her skin and body glowed with an inner fire, and she barely felt fatigued, as if this particular melding with Cerebro had released reserves of energy that she never dreamed she possessed.   She became aware of everyone’s thought patterns, stronger than ever, and she sent a thought to Adam: <It’s done, and it’s safe to go upstairs, to secure those men until the authorities arrive. Chip and Joe are in the den, they’re hurt, and terribly shaken, get them to the infirmary for Doc to take care of them.>   She felt his surprise echoing back to her on silent wings, at the touch of her mind against his..

For a moment she was unable to move, and she sat at the console, sensing the movements of the others, Patrick and Adam tentatively emerging from the basement to go to the upper floors of the mansion.  She finally stood up from Cerebro’s console intent on assisting them, and, in the aftermath of euphoria, the familiar ache of loss seeped in. She exited the vault and was about to activate the door closure when a familiar voice floated into her head, insistent, worried.

 <Dianne! Please answer me – please answer!>

The shock and relief made her clutch at the wall for support. <“Charles – you’re alive?”>

<We are all fine,> he returned, and she sensed his note of puzzlement. <Your shields, they seem –stronger – >he added.

Instantaneously, her thoughts transferred to him, recounting everything that had happened, and this time, his relief at their escape from a horrible fate communicated itself across the vast distance separating them. For a brief moment, the two telepaths shared the mental equivalent of an embrace. Then Dianne told him she had stolen the location of Roberts’ base from the soldiers’ minds and Gray’s emotions sharpened with intent.

<You must contact Chan, she can be of help in accessing the information we need to prove Roberts’ part in this charade – and inform Younger at once – he needs to see for himself what Roberts is capable of – killing innocent children.>

 < Charles –> her mental voice scrabbled at the edge of hysteria in his mind.

<Don’t worry – we plan to come back, my dear, all of us. We still have the X-Zero.>

<Wait, you need to tell Rick that I –>

<You can tell him yourself – when we return, and now I must go, we have little time.>

Dianne felt the last brush of his mind upon hers and then he cut their link.

 

 

 

 

Rick watched as Gray attempted his mind-to-mind connection with Dianne, now that the null-field was down. When he saw Gray’s craggy face turn ashen, he felt a lump of ice congeal in his guts. Somehow he maintained his self-control, waiting patiently until Gray at last opened his eyes, signalling that the conversation was over.

 “You got through to her? What’s happened?” And he managed to keep the note of fear from his voice.

“The mansion, they were attacked by Roberts’ men –” At the others horrified gasps he raised his hand. “They’re all right – safe in the basement. Dianne saved them. She used Cerebro to stun all of the attackers with a simultaneous psi-bolt.”

Rick shook his head in amazement. “She did that? My God.”

“I know. I wish we could have been there,” Gray replied.

“They came looking for me,” Paul said in a dull voice, his face tight with emotion. “Everywhere I go, death and disaster follow.”

“Not this time,” Rick said grimly. “They picked on the wrong people this time around.”

“So what now? Do we go back?” Paul asked Gray.

“No, we have a job to finish,” he replied firmly.

“You’re joking,” Metcalfe answered with a look halfway between incredulity and anger on his face. “You don’t really mean you’re going to leave them down there alone, just to save a bunch of worthless politicians who couldn’t give a rat’s arse about any of you?”

“They have the situation under control for now. We cannot leave just as we are able to stop Conrad, or Dianne’s efforts will have been for nothing. We must prove to Younger that not all mutants are a danger to society by removing Conrad from threatening Unity City.”

“And that goes for you too?” Metcalfe stared at Rick.

He stared back, feeling all sorts of conflicting emotions reeling around inside of him. Dianne had been in deadly danger, and he hadn’t known, and yet, she had risen to the occasion, saved them all. Relief, anger, pride – they all washed over him, making him feel giddy. He had an overwhelming desire to run full-tilt to the X-Zero and fly down to the mansion. Instead his own sense of duty, drummed into him by his father long before even Charles found him, kept him rooted to the spot.

“It’s what the X-Men were created for,” he answered finally.

The Englishman sighed and flexed his fists. “All right. Let’s get on with it then.”

 

 

            Conrad Turner was resting in his quarters. The effort of redirecting the missiles had taken more out of him than he had expected, and in a few hours they would be nearing Unity City. He listened to the strains of Chopin’s Sonata No 2 in an attempt to calm and sooth his psyche. He loved the composer’s music, perhaps aided by the fact it was from the country of his ancestors, before they fled to Britain, escaping the atrocities of the Nazi regime. They took a new name to forget their past, but, he thought grimly, the past had an inexorable habit of catching up. This time however, there was a new scapegoat for the world’s ills. He was damned if mutants would suffer the same fate.

For a moment, he felt a twinge of regret, for hurting the girl and locking her up. He clenched his fists, and swatted away the emotion; he couldn’t afford the luxury of compassion, not when so much was at stake. She’s at fault, not me, he thought, by her actions she has betrayed me, and chosen which side she prefers.

 He had almost drifted off into sleep, lulled by the music, when the buzzing of his comm-console next to the bunk rudely interrupted the silence. He opened one eye to see the red light flashing and he hit the intercom.

            “What is it, Seymour?” he said, more harshly than he’d intended.

            “I’m sorry, but the prisoner they call Wolverine, he’s been slashing against the force field for the past twenty minutes demanding to talk to you.  The others are trying to stop him, but he seems to have gone out of control.”

Conrad exhaled slowly. It really had been too much to hope for that his prisoners would remain quiet, like good boys and girls.

 

 

As he approached the force-field, he saw the Englishman standing close to it, his face sweat-streaked, with scores of thin burns criss-crossing his face and uniform. Gray and the other X-Men watched him; their faces filled with suspicion. He wondered what had transpired between them; perhaps all was not well in Camelot after all. Instead he asked: “What can you possibly say that is of any interest to me, Mr Metcalfe – or should I call you Wolverine?”

“This cell is driving me insane. I can’t be cooped up; I need to get out of here.”

“I don’t think that would be a very good idea now, would it?”  

“Look, I’m a pragmatist.  I can see how powerful you are and I know this bunch don’t stand a chance against you. Me, I want to be on the winning side. And I care for the girl, Magnolia, you know that. You’ve said this Cloudbase of yours is a haven for mutants who want to join your cause. Well, I’ve made my decision.”

Cyclops leapt up from his seat, his visor flashing crimson. “Wolverine, you double-crossing bastard –”

The Wolverine sidestepped out of the way as the American vaulted towards him, his claws rasping their exit from his knuckles. The two men stood facing one another, their faces tight with emotion.

“Go on, hit me,” Wolverine taunted him, “if it makes you feel better, but it won’t make any difference. You may as well admit we’ve lost. I just want to get out of this bloody cell before I lose my mind.”

Cyclops clenched his fists, and the woman, Storm, laid a hand on his shoulder, pulling him away from Wolverine.

“He’s not worth it,” Iceman added in a tone of disgust. “It’s like you said, Cyclops: once a traitor, always a traitor.”

Turner pursed his mouth, watching the performance. “You intrigue me, Wolverine, but your play-acting is merely amusing, I have no intention of letting you out of here.”

He turned to go and heard Wolverine shout after him through the force field: “Don’t you want to know my secret?”

Magneto froze for one second, despite himself, but he remained with his back to the force-field as the Wolverine continued to call to him:   “Didn’t you ever wonder why everyone was so keen to get their hands on me?”

He turned slowly at last, his curiosity finally piqued. The thought had crossed his mind, once or twice, during his meetings with Henderson, but his own objectives overrode any interest he might have had. However, now face-to-face with this runaway mutant, that curiosity flared again.

Metcalfe was talking again: “Get me out of here and I’ll tell you how to change your future.”

“You can tell me from there.”

Wolverine laughed. “Oh, no. You get me out of here first, that’s my deal. I’m saying nothing in front of them.”

Magneto’s gaze swept the room, noted the sullen, hostile looks of the other X-Men towards the traitor in their midst. “So, Charles,” he said, “it seems you can’t keep control of your little flock. I pity you more than ever.”

 “So what do you say, Magneto?” Wolverine called out again, and a sardonic smile floated to his lips. “I can’t do a damn thing to you, as you so succinctly put it at our last meeting, unless of course, you’ve lost your edge.”  

He felt his eyes narrow, this upstart creature was actually trying to goad him, and by God, he was succeeding. He said calmly: “I might amuse myself by indulging you for a few minutes, against my better judgement.”

            “You’ll regret this, Wolverine,” Cyclops said.

The Englishman turned to give him a deep shrug. “You people can try to save the world. I’m just interested in saving myself.” 

“Yeah, that’s about all you’re good for,” the American muttered sourly and sank down on his seat again, seemingly resigned to him going across to the ‘other side’.

Turner shut down the force field to allow Wolverine to step across the threshold, and activated it to keep the others prisoner. If his old friend Gray had any thoughts on his mutant leaving, he gave no sign. Magneto inclined his head for Metcalfe to precede him along the corridor, and he couldn’t help the merest feeling of victory.

 

 

     Moments after the two men disappeared, Magnolia and Seymour appeared at the force field. The girl was trembling as she faced Gray and the X-Men for the first time since she had left the mansion, but Brad smiled at her when the force-field turned off.

“Are you all right?” he asked her solicitously as she and her step-brother stepped inside the cell for a moment.

“Yeah, I was just scared Conrad would figure out we were tailing him, and there aren’t a lot of dark places to hide in these damn corridors.”

“I’m glad you’re on our side,” he said.

She gave him a grateful smile. “You don’t know by how much.”

“Hey, Iceman,” Rick said with a grunt. “Save the hearts and flowers until we get out of this place.” 

Juliette said to her, “I too am glad that you finally trust us.”

Magnolia could only nod, still a little in awe of the beautiful mutant, and amazed, how she, like all of them, was prepared to forgive so easily and forget what she had done by betraying them to Henderson and his Spectrum Society.

            Gray activated his chair towards the open doorway of their former prison. “You know what we have to do,” he said to Rick. “Good luck, both of you.”

            Rick gave a nod to Seymour, and said grimly, “Lead the way.”

The two men disappeared along the corridor. Then Gray, Brad and Juliette followed Magnolia in the opposite direction.

 

 

 

“Sir!”

The sound of the radar technician’s excited voice drew General Tiempo quickly across the room to the control console in Red Deer Base.

“Something just popped onto our screens, sir. One second it wasn’t there, the next –”

“Could it be the mystery base that we’ve been searching for?” Tiempo demanded urgently.

“Wait a minute, sir; I’m just checking some stuff here. I want to be certain.”

Tiempo rubbed his bottom lip distractedly, trying to quell the excitement he felt inside as he watched the young man flick fingers over his screen, assessing the data streaming in from the sensor arrays at Red Deer.  They had never stopped looking, every minute of the last twenty-four hours since they lost Angel Flight, keeping their eyes pinned on the radar, waiting for one moment when the mutant terrorist would make a mistake, revealing himself in some way. And now, perhaps God was answering their prayers.

 The technician took a ragged breath.   “These coordinates are different to the originals, but I’ve extrapolated them backwards and they fit. It’s the same location where the Angel Flight was destroyed.”

Tiempo felt hope for the first time in what seemed like forever. 

“But sir,” the technician’s voice grew agitated.  “I’m extrapolating forward. If it continues on present course and speed it’ll reach Unity City in three hours.”

 “And you are sure that it does not belong to us, or the Russians or Chinese?” Tiempo demanded. They had to be sure.

The technician shook his head firmly. “All frequency call signs negative, it’s a rogue for sure.”

Tiempo tried to keep his voice even. “Then it’s too much of a coincidence.  Get me Base Concord, and fast. This time we will send up the ground missiles.”

 

 

 

 

“Where are we going?” Paul asked Conrad Turner as he followed him into the bowels of the station.  

“You’ll see when we get there.”

Paul fell silent, one part of him happy to keep Magneto occupied for as long as possible, and the other part nervous about where exactly he was being taken. During their hasty discussions on a plan, Seymour had warned him that the control room was the one place where Conrad would discover the cloaking shield was inoperative. That couldn’t be allowed to happen until the others had accomplished their tasks. The only problem, Paul thought, was that he had no idea where the control room was.  Still, he mused wryly, at least he was out of that cell.  He really hadn’t been joking about being cooped up in there, with the constant feeling that the walls were closing in on him.

 

 

 

“It’s in here,” Magnolia said, stopping at a door emblazoned with the legend: DANGER - BIOHAZARD.

“No kidding,” Brad muttered as she tapped in a six number sequence code. The door slid silently open to reveal a small laboratory, and in the centre of the floor, a raised circular polished-steel unit. Magnolia walked gingerly towards it, the other three X-Men following her. They gathered around the unit whilst she touched a panel on its surface. It rose up on a stalk, revealing the metal canister within.

“I think that’s it; the virus,” she said.

 “Freezing ought to inhibit its function,” Gray said, quietly, “if not destroy it absolutely, but that is something we shall have to determine when we return it to Earth.”

Brad removed the canister gently and placed it upon the unit’s surface.

“Here goes nothing,” he muttered to himself, then glanced at the others, saying in a louder voice, “Time to stand back, it’s going to get awfully cold around here.”

They took several paces backwards as vapour started to curl around the canister. Brad’s brow furrowed with concentration, the surface of the metal shimmering with hoarfrost. When it was done he placed the canister inside his uniform.

“And now,” Gray said in a terse voice, “we must proceed to the hangar bay, and rendezvous with the others.”

As they quietly left the room, Gray closed his eyes and sent his thoughts spiralling unimpeded through the station.

 

 

 

 

 

Thirty-five

 

 “Where the hell did Magneto get this stuff?” Rick asked, almost to himself, as he studied the wicked looking array of missiles in the bay.

 “I don’t know, I didn’t ask.” Seymour replied, opening up a side flap on one of the sleek-nosed missiles. He began to reassemble the wiring, continuing to speak in a rambling, distracted voice. “I wish I had. I wish – I’d had the sense to listen to Mags.  I wish I could turn back time as easily as I can change this – thing.  To think I nearly allowed –”

“Forget it, okay?” Rick cut him off, then immediately regretted his harshness.  The young guy was fragile and anything might tip him over again, despite his assertions that he was on their side. He continued in a calmer tone. “Magneto brainwashed you and your step-sister, but you’re both doing the right thing now, and that’s all that matters.”

Seymour cast a longing look around the bay, and Rick noticed it.

“Look,” he said, “This Cloudbase is a fantastic creation, but we have to ensure Magneto can’t threaten anyone else in future. We have to destroy it.”

“I know!” Seymour snapped, as he shut the metal flap on the missile. Then he   bowed his dark head for a moment. “It’s the only way.”

Rick squeezed his shoulder, to acknowledge the understandable sacrifice the young man was making when he felt, or was it heard – a peculiar tickle in his ear, like a voice straining to be heard.

<Cyclops, can you hear me?>

<I hear you> he thought back.

<We have the virus.>

“How’re we doing?” Rick asked Seymour, lapsing back into speech.

Seymour stood up, his stolid face a grave mask. “We have ten minutes to get away.”

 

 

 

 

Paul resisted the urge to flex his claws as he stood beside Magneto in the cramped elevator which whisked them upwards. Turner didn’t offer any conversation, but he removed his helmet and tucked it under one arm, running a hand through his hair, as if glad to be free of the device’s constricting embrace. When the door slid open, Paul found himself in a huge room, the curved ceiling arcing upwards. He was probably inside one of the central domes. Banks of computers lined the walls, blinking and beeping, controlling this massive airborne station. In the centre of the room, a massive curved console stood in pride of place, with yet more panels and lights on its surface. Paul swallowed hard, and his heart thumped faster in his chest. This had to be the control room, the nerve centre of Magneto’s operations and the very place he was supposed to avoid at all costs.  

Turner continued to walk away from the desk towards one curved wall and even from here, Paul could see the soft light coming from an opening there. It was real light, not the artificial glow in the corridors. As they approached the well of light, Paul saw with astonishment the transparent tube that extended twenty feet out into what looked like open sky. 

 “Go on in, it’s quite safe,” Turner coaxed him.

Paul went in, cautiously, He wasn’t sure what he expected to see, but as he looked down, there was the dizzying impression of being suspended in thin air high above the clouds which moved sedately below the moving station.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Turner said from the room beyond, in a voice that didn’t expect an answer.

Paul turned back and nodded, grimly impressed that Magneto didn’t even think that he would attempt to smash the glass of the tube open, causing massive decompression. But Gray had told him that’s what he was counting on: Conrad’s Achilles heel; his supreme arrogance, the belief that nothing or no one could touch him. Paul was the epitome of that desire for control, a person capable of being totally under his physical command.

“Why did you bring me here?” he asked the other man.

“You said you felt claustrophobic, I thought you might appreciate seeing the open sky.”

“You obviously get a bad press.”

For a second a grim smile flickered across Turner’s lips.  “Perhaps it’s my human part coming out. One of these days I must eliminate it completely.”  Then the smile faded as fast as it appeared. “So, now that we’re quite safely out of earshot of Gray and his X-Men, your so-called friends, what is this important secret that you wish to share with me?

“I’m a hundred and two years old.”

Turner’s eyes narrowed and Paul felt the tritonium in his skeleton quiver. He threw up his hands, as if to ward the other off.

“I’m telling the truth. My body contains a gene that speeds up the healing process within my body, allows me to recover from almost any injury, and lessens my natural ageing process as well. That’s why the government want me back; they want my DNA to develop a serum for prolonged life and indestructibility in their soldiers. Just think about it, Magneto, do you want an army of humans capable of that?”

Turner’s brow arched sardonically. “I suspected Henderson had ulterior motives for finding you.”

“He tried to sell me to the highest bidder. I wanted no part of it.”

“That doesn’t surprise me; and no doubt Charles and his X-Men saved you from his clutches. I sincerely hope he suffered in the process.”

 “We left him a little ‘chilled out’.”

Turner gave a satisfied grunt in reply. “And now you betray the X-Men, after all their efforts.”

 “I only stayed with them because it suited me, at the time.”

“How sad Charles must be, to lose you again. But you still haven’t told me what exactly your motive is for leaving his little band of human-lovers.”

 “I’ve got no love for the human race either. I’ve watched them try to destroy themselves - and me - with their xenophobia for nearly a century, and believe me, it starts to pall after a while. I’ve finally had enough, except I didn’t know what to do about it. Things have been becoming clearer every day since I met Gray, and you.”

“You know, I want to believe you, Wolverine.  Really I do.”

“But you don’t?”

“I’m naturally suspicious.”

“Comes with the territory, I know.  But, think about it, with my DNA, you could live long enough to see your dream realised.”

Paul saw the fanatical gleam grow in those dark eyes, and felt a small glow of satisfaction. He was buying it. Then the light dampened down and was replaced by a cold glare.  

“I could just take what I want from you and keep you prisoner anyway.”

“Then you really would be as bad as the government. That’s what they wanted to do to me.”

Turner shot him a sneering look and with a flourish, turned away, walking towards the control desk.

Paul felt a thin line of sweat trickle down his spine. Was Magneto going to figure out the cloaking device was turned off?  Paul almost ran after him into the dome, and in desperation he used the one card he had left in his deck – the only thing that might hold the other man’s attention for a few more vital minutes.

“There’s more, Magneto.  I’m not what you think.”

The mutant glanced away from the console, and with relief, Paul pressed on. “This metal in my body, Senator Roberts put it there. I’m a half-cyborg, created by him to kill mutants – like you.”

“So. Wheels within wheels. I suspected there was so much more to Henderson’s machinations at the time. But you’ve made a mistake telling me this, for now I shall have to kill you. But before I do…”

To Paul’s dismay, Turner strode to the desk. His eyes raked over the screens, and then his whole body froze, his face darkening.

With a sense of hollow despair, Paul watched as Magneto’s hands flew over the panels, his shoulders hunched. Paul flexed his fists unconsciously, expecting the worst.

“So, this was all just a ruse after all,” Turner said in an ice-cold voice. He raised his face from the control-desk and Paul found himself staring into a death’s-head mask.

 

 

 

 

Rick and Seymour caught up with Gray and the others on their way back to the hangar bay. They had made it halfway when Gray’s cry of alarm stopped them in their tracks.

“Conrad!” he blurted out. “He has discovered the cloaking device is inoperable; I sense his terrible anger!”

“Looks like we just ran out of time,” Rick said. “We need to get moving people.”

 “What about Paul?” Magnolia asked in a worried voice.

“We’ll just have to hope he’s as tough as they say he is,” Rick replied tersely, and shoved her none too gently, to quicken their pace along the corridor. “In a couple of minutes Magneto’s going to be too worried about his precious base to care about anything else. That should give Wolverine the diversion he needs to slip away and meet us at the X-Zero. Seymour, is the control room the only place where Magneto can activate the cloaking device?”

The younger man nodded. “Yes. But he won’t be able to override it; I’ve changed the access commands.”

 “Then he really will be mad,” Brad replied grimly. 

“It’s amazing we had this long, Wolverine came up with goods, just like he said he would.” Rick said, and missed the glance Brad and Juliette exchanged as they ran behind him. Was the battle of wills between the two men finally coming to an end?

They raced towards safety, hurtling along the long corridor, turned the corner –

Magnolia shrieked.

Conrad Turner barred their way, hovering a foot off the ground, murder in his eyes. Paul floated behind him, like some grotesque inflatable being towed by an invisible thread. His face was screwed up in agony as he flailed in the air.

“Charles! You’ll tell me where my virus is, or I’ll wrench every bit of metal out of this mutant’s body, and every last atom of iron out of yours!”

The next second, they heard a hoarse scream dragged from the depths of Paul’s chest.

Rick flicked a glance at his chronometer, and made several signs to the three X-Men: Get ready. “Too late, we rigged the missiles, this place is gonna blow.”

For a second, Paul stopped wind-milling, and Turner’s eyes lost focus, as he stared at something beyond them. For a heart-stopping moment they all realised their plan was doomed.

Turner’s eyes refocused on them, his pupils glittering at the edge of madness. “Oh, I don’t think so. I’ve ripped out all the detonators and crushed the timers. This station will remain aloft, and I will have that virus, and my plan will – what!”

He broke off, his face paling, once again staring past them, beyond the walls, beyond Cloudbase – 

“Damn you all to hell!”

 

‘INCOMING MISSILES DETECTED – TIME TO IMPACT FOUR MINUTES’

 

 The androgynous voice echoed through the station again.

 “Game’s over, Magneto,” Rick yelled, quickly recovering from the surprise and taking advantage of the diversion.

Turner’s eyes widened in outrage. “Not until I say so!” He stretched his arms wide, his head bowing to gather his power. Paul was forgotten and he dropped to the floor with a hard thump.

“Hit him – now!” Rick barked at the three remaining X-Men, simultaneously flipping his visor wide-open. As the concussive beam left his eyes he was semi-conscious of the white flash of Brad’s ice-bolt.

Turner’s reactions were astonishing. A glowing nimbus of light surrounded his body, and both red flare and ice-beam zigzagged away, hitting an invisible wall. Turner continued to ward off their continued attacks, and, unbelievably, continued to maintain concentration on the approaching missiles. Rick cursed under his breath, even as another of his concussive blasts shunted into the walls, tearing chunks of it away.

Stalemate.

Then, a flicker of movement caught his eye. He saw Magnolia Jones edging along one wall of the corridor, behind Magneto, her eyes focused on the hovering mutant.

 

‘TIME TO IMPACT TWO MINUTES

 

Rick waved a hand signal at Brad to stop their attack. He suspected Magnolia’s intentions and he locked his gaze onto the renegade mutant, in an attempt to keep his attention away from the girl approaching from his rear, unnoticed.

Turner smiled evilly, convinced he had won. But his moment of victory was brief, as Magnolia launched herself at him, grabbing for one of his bare hands. He cried out hoarsely as his skin shrivelled where her fingers dug in, his cheeks sunken as his very life was being sucked away with her touch. He dropped to the ground and staggered, trying to prise her off.  As Rick looked on, hope flared and died in an instant when he saw Magneto stiffen, as if summoning some reserves of energy within. There was the sound of arcing electricity, and Magnolia screamed, falling backwards to the floor.

Brad darted across the floor to catch her but Rick yelled a negative, waving at Seymour to get out of the way. “We have to hit him again – everything we’ve got!”

 They obeyed with a barrage of unrestrained power. Magneto grunted, his body jerking spasmodically as Rick’s concussive blasts slammed into his body, one after the other. Brad wreathed ice around his skull and cable thick strands to twine around his arms, his legs, blocking off his circulation. Juliette sent lightning to crackle around the dark mutant’s body, and whirling gusts of wind that tore at his clothes, blinding him. Weakened by Magnolia’s attack, Turner was forced to his knees under the crippling offensive.

 

‘TIME TO IMPACT TEN SECONDS’

 

Through the cascade of pain, and the incessant barrage of the blows being delivered to his body, Rick could still see Conrad Turner fighting to save his sanctuary, and felt a grudging sense of admiration for the man. As if in slow motion, he saw him stretch out one clawed hand in a futile gesture.

There was a terrifying boom –

The detonation rippled through Cloudbase and the station responded with a sickening lurch, throwing everyone to the floor. A fraction of a second later Rick heard another explosion as a second missile grazed one of the domes. Alarms blared as part of the outer hull was breached.  Cloudbase lurched again, spinning drunkenly for several long minutes on its axis as the anti-gravity systems automatically cut-in to equalise the pressure.

Rick slid over to Metcalfe who had finally managed to stand up and was leaning against one wall. “Are you okay?” he demanded.

“I’m fine, healing factor’s kicked in.”

Rick nodded. Brad was already holding Magnolia in his arms. The young woman was unconscious, the burns on her hands and arms testament to her bravery. As Rick and Juliette hauled Gray from his chair, Brad caught his eye and they shared the same thought: She’s paid her dues too.

He yelled over the noise: “Let’s get the hell out of here and go home.”

As they ran, he took one last departing glance at the prone and battered body of the fallen mutant before the bend in the corridor hid him from view.

 

 

 

 

 

Seymour led the way, choosing the fastest route through the base’s tangled maze to the hangar bay where the X-Zero waited. They stumbled through smoke-filled corridors, the walls scorch-marked and the floors slick with water from the sprinkler systems.  All around them the percussive thump of the engines sounded fractured, as if the station was dying.

Light panels flickered as they passed.

“We’re losing power throughout the base,” Seymour called breathlessly, “the systems are breaking down, we don’t have much time before the engines go the same way.”

As if to underline his words, a muffled explosion was heard somewhere behind them. They arrived in the hangar bay, the welcoming sight of the jet beckoning them on. They ran across the deck, and another explosion filled the roof of the hangar bay with fire. One of the huge ceiling struts tore away and Paul watched in open-mouthed horror as if, in slow motion, the monstrous hunk of metal bore down upon them.

And then he felt himself being shoved sideways, and Gray with him. He caught sight of Fraser’s head arcing upwards – saw his neon-red flare smashing into the strut, deflecting it away from the group. But he saw it catch him a glancing blow, and Fraser’s exclamation of pain was cut short as the force of it threw him to the deck. Mercifully, the metal clanged to the floor a few feet away, otherwise he would have been trapped under it. Paul dropped on one knee to check the American’s injuries. He had a contusion across his left temple, and was out cold. Paul cursed inwardly. He should have taken the brunt of it; his healing ability would have sloughed off the injuries. He caught Gray’s unspoken question as he lifted the unconscious X-Man to carry him into the jet. He nodded and said: “He’s still alive.”

Gray sighed with relief and grimly took charge. “Storm, take control of the X-Zero please.”

She nodded wordlessly, and activated the entry ramp to the jet. It settled down on the floor and the light flooded into the hangar bay. They got in quickly as Seymour’s voice rose in agitation: “We running out of time – Cloudbase is going to drop like a stone before long.”

Paul settled Fraser gently in one of the seats, then straightened up with a frown at Seymour. “How do we get the hangar roof open?”

“Conrad controlled the system when your jet touched down on Cloudbase,” he replied.  “I forgot, we’ll have to open it manually – I can do it from here.”

He ran back down the ramp and danced around the wreckage of the metal strut to the doorway. From a side window Paul saw him tap several keys on a control panel by the wall, and then he repeated the action, with the beginnings of a frown on his face.

“What’s wrong?” Paul called out to him.

“It won’t respond –I can’t get the sequence to start,” he yelled back. “I can’t even get the airlock doors to open manually, we’re stuck in here!”

Mon Dieu,” Juliette said with a gasp, behind Paul. “What are we going to do?”

“What about Magnolia?” Paul asked Gray. “Her mutant ability is to absorb people’s memories and abilities with her touch – could she have borrowed some of Magneto’s metal manipulating powers and push the door off?”

Gray frowned. “We know so little about the way her ability works, I’m not sure she would be capable of it whilst unconscious.”

“Cyclops,” Brad interrupted, “Maybe we can still use his power to punch through the roof.”

Gray frowned, a gesture not lost on Paul.  “He’ll have to be moved outside, there’s no way we could attempt that inside the X-Zero. That could aggravate his injuries, and his visor is useless whilst his eyes are shut – we would have to remove it, and with his beams uncontrolled, he could bring the entire roof down upon him and ourselves –”

Paul snorted in frustration. “You don’t sound too positive, and unfortunately, I have agree with you.” He turned to yell at Seymour across the hangar bay. “Is there any other way to open the roof?”

The younger man nodded. “There’s an override on the main console in the central Control room.” His face tightened, as if he wished he had thought of the idea earlier. “I’m going back to reset it.”

“Hey, wait,” Paul shouted as Seymour disappeared into the smoke filled corridor. “Damn,” he muttered. He turned to Gray. “He’s right, it’s the safest option. I’ll watch his back – keep the engines warm for us.”

He left before Gray could make a protest.

 

.

 

 

Thirty-six

 

Paul caught up with Seymour, and they ran together to the control room. The emergency lighting had cut in, bathing everything in a pale glow. Lights winked crazily on the wall panels and the air was filled with crackling sounds of electrical circuits fizzing, and the stench of burnt plastic. Paul glanced around the room, looking for Magneto, but with a feeling of relief the other mutant was nowhere to be seen. Seymour meanwhile was busy accessing the system.

“Just here,” the younger man muttered to himself. “Get to the next level, then we’ll have it.” His hands worked busily and he made small grunts of satisfaction. He turned to Paul. “Right, that should have started the activation, I’ve bypassed it to run a short delay, to give us time to return to your jet and –”

Paul half-saw a blur of movement to one side, too late – and Seymour gave a cry of pain as the energy bolt crackled across his body. He slumped across the console, breathing heavily.

“I should have killed you where you stand, you traitorous young pup –”

Paul whirled around to see Conrad Turner standing in the doorway of his ruined control room, his face ravaged by scores of contusions, and blood running in rivulets down onto his shredded clothes.

“What have you done with the virus?” he demanded hoarsely.

“It’s in a place where you won’t get your hands on it,” Paul replied in a voice that sounded more confident than he felt. Great words, he thought, but if Magneto gets anywhere near the X-Zero, all this effort’s for nothing. He’ll rip it apart and all of us will die when Cloudbase falls from the sky, I haven’t come back here to get the hangar door open just to have it fall to pieces now.

Paul saw Seymour shaking his head and rising from the console. He sidled over to him and muttered,“I’ll distract him, you get to the X-Zero.”

The younger man shook his head quickly but Paul silenced him. “Do it, don’t argue.”

“The mutant killer tries to become the hero,” Turner sneered, hearing their brief conversation. “You won’t change; you’re nothing but a programmed cyborg.”

Paul stood up straight, flexed his claws. “Better than someone who lives pie in the sky and pretends he’s going to lord it over mutants and what’s left of humanity. You think they’ll all join you after you’ve ruined their world? Seymour changed sides because he doesn’t want to be a part of it.”

“Don’t try to psychoanalyse me, you pathetic excuse for a mutant,” Turner hissed. He weakly raised his arms and energy bolts crackled outwards, searching for earth.

Paul’s animal reflexes cut in and he somersaulted off to one side, rolling underneath the console, missing a sparking cable by inches. He sprang to his feet and taunted Turner, hoping to keep him from thinking about the other X-Men.  “Face it, the X-Men have beaten you, Seymour and Magnolia have deserted you. You’ve got nothing left, Magneto, so why don’t you just admit defeat and let us go?”

Turner snorted bitter contempt. “Beaten, by the likes of you? I’ll destroy you as I promised.”

Paul expected it, and was still taken by surprise. The bolt streaked across the room, tearing into him. Pain convulsed every muscle, and he caught the sickening odour of his burnt flesh. He lay on the floor, feeling blood trickle down his cheek, then gasping, he cried out to Seymour: “Go – get out of here!”

The younger man instinctively obeyed the tone of command, and sprinted towards the doorway. Turner whirled, but his aim was off, and the energy bolt cracked against the doorway, sending up a flying shower of sparks onto the metal door as it hissed shut.

Paul got to his feet and leapt at Magneto, slamming into him, his claws slashing through fabric and skin like butter. The momentum threw them both to the floor, and Paul dug into Turner’s flesh, twisting and deepening the wounds. Bolts of electricity crackled between them, coursing through Paul’s body, singing his hair, and blistering his skin red to black. They rolled together over a floor slick with their blood, joined in a macabre dance of death. Paul dug in harder, refusing to let go, as if insight revealed that this was a nexus, his true destiny – to make something right where everything gone before had been wrong. Perhaps it was his one chance to prevent a war between man and mutant.

Paul felt the station tilting, and knew it was only a matter of time before he passed out, maybe never to wake up.  He’d prayed for death, an end to his long, lonely, existence, except now, he had everything to live for. He felt a laugh bubble to his lips amidst the pain. It was mind-numbingly ironic really. His mind floated, and the nimbus of light around him seemed to coalesce into a face, with flowing red hair and wide, blue-eyes.

I give you your life back – love him with it – he’s a good guy really, maybe in another time and place we would have been friends…

 

 

 

Juliette rapidly checked all the pre-flight controls, while Brad attended to their wounded, gently applying sterile gel-wraps to Magnolia’s burns. He was checking on Rick again, when another explosion from deep within the base made his head jerk up. The jet juddered and they all felt the aircraft list precariously sideways.

Gray stared out of the ramp entrance, his face tight with suppressed emotion. God in heaven, where are they?

As if in answer to his question, Seymour came running across the hangar bay up into the X-Zero.

Gray shouted: “Where’s Paul?”

Seymour gulped a tearing breath.  “He’s – fighting Conrad – told – me – to get out –”

His words were cut off by the synthesised voice. ‘WARNING – BAY DEPRESSURIZING’

Juliette cried out.  “We have to close the ramp!”

All eyes except hers remained riveted on the entrance to the hangar bay, but still there was no sign of Paul Metcalfe. They continued to watch with dry mouths as the ramp door relentlessly closed. A minute later they heard the announcement: 

PRESSURISATION EQUALIZED – AIRLOCK DOOR OPENING’

The hangar door slid open, the dark star-filled sky beckoning.

Rick groaned, and his head lifted up, an action which was followed by another moan of pain. He slumped back in the seat, clamping a hand to one shoulder, staring at Brad in confusion.

“What’s going on? Last thing I –”

“The airlock door,” Brad interrupted tersely, “It was stuck fast; they had to release the mechanism via the control room.”

“They?” he replied, glancing around the jet. “Where’s Metcalfe?”

Brad shook his head. “He hasn’t made it; the bay’s depressurized, ready for take-off.”

Rick’s jaw tightened.  “Then re-pressurize it, we can’t leave him here.”

A series of terrifying shrieks signalled the base’s turbines finally giving up their losing battle. 

“I have to take-off!” Juliette yelled above the surrounding noise.

Rick’s face twisted. “Someone’s got to –” He tried to get out of his seat, only to be restrained by Brad’s firm hand on his good shoulder. “Let me go, damn you,” Rick said, trying again to get up, but Cloudbase lurched again, started freefalling…

Brad grabbed the edge of a seat to stop himself being thrown against the bulkhead.

Juliette acted on instinct, pulling up sharply on the controls of the jet. “Get strapped in!” she yelled to them above the roar of the engines. “We have to leave now!”

 The X-Zero jolted hard as a wingtip scraped the edge of the hangar entryway, then the jet was lifting and spinning like a tea-cup on a carousel, away from the crippled station. Once clear, Juliette activated horizontal flight mode and banked the jet, skimming downwards.

On the starboard side, all eyes stared out the view-windows in horrified fascination; from outside the base they saw the true extent of damage wrought by the missiles and the secondary explosions. Several of the domes were cracked; one shattered completely, the smoke and flames issued from the base, winking out as the velocity of air rushing through the structure snuffed them out.  It fell away from them, accelerating with the forces of gravity, plunging towards the earth at terrifying speed. 

“My God, he did it, he saved us,” Gray said quietly. “But at the cost of his own life.” 

“It’s my fault he had to go in the first place,” Rick said flatly. “I should have deflected that strut away enough so I didn’t get myself knocked out cold. I could have blown the roof open.”

Gray patted his arm. “Your optic blasts were weakened, first by the lack of sunlight in our prison and your fight with Conrad. You saved us when you deflected that pylon; don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Rick didn’t reply, but stared out of the window with a roiling mixture of emotions and watched the rapidly dwindling speck; a winking, white falling star trailing black smoke.  Despite his injuries, he was alive – they all were – and he would make it back to Winchester and see Dianne’s beautiful face once more.

“Where’s it going to crash?” he demanded of Brad, now in the co-pilot’s seat next to Juliette. He scanned the screen flicking the sensors to extrapolate the trajectory of the airship.

“Looks like it’s headed straight down into the Himalayan range.”

“We have to search for survivors.”

“Are you kidding?” Brad called back. “The speed that thing’s going to hit the mountains it’ll practically vaporise. Even a so-called indestructible man won’t survive that.”

Rick knew he was right.

Damn you, Metcalfe, this isn’t the way I wanted it to happen.

 

 

 

 

Dianne waited outside the hangar door in the mansion basement with Adam and Patrick, as they waited for the flashing display on the wall by the door to signal that it was safe to enter the bay.

There had been more than enough to occupy her mind since she had foiled the attempt by Roberts’ soldiers to blow up the school. Chip and Joe were recovering under Edward’s tender care, and they’d had to deal with the WAAF troops dispatched to the mansion by President Younger after Adam called him at Unity City. True to his word, they arrived within the hour and hauled the furious Reeves and his men into several military air-transports. Reeves, defiant to the last, was still shouting vicious epithets at the X-Men, as the victorious defenders stood watching at the rear of the battered mansion.  The darkness and quiet of the night were a mixed blessing as the troops helped remove tell-tale signs of forced entry, although the smoking debris of the helicopter and the charred lawn would take some time to put right. The WAAF commander promised Adam, who was wearing an overcoat to hide his wings again, that the local police would be informed. Adam was concerned about the local or even national press licking up on the incident, but the commander assured him again that it would be taken care of – with President Younger’s personal guarantee.

Sometime, during these distractions, Dianne received a message from Gray, and joy and sadness overwhelmed her once again. They were returning to the mansion in the X-Zero, safe and sound, with one notable exception: Paul Metcalfe wasn’t with them on board the X-Zero.

A short time later, she had imagined for one brief moment that she had felt Paul’s presence in her mind, and heard his voice whispering: goodbye. And then –

Nothing.

 

Finally the hangar door beeped and slid open, and when Dianne entered, the X-Zero’s ramp was descending to the floor with a sharp hiss.  Her heart leaping, she flew across the synth-crete when she saw Rick limp down, with the others.  She felt him wince as she crushed herself up against him.

“You’re hurt,” she whispered breathlessly, pulling back for a moment, seeing the large plaster across his left temple for the first time in her haste.

“Nothing that won’t heal,” he said, and she caught the bitter guilt-driven thought behind his words. I’m still alive, Paul isn’t.

She wrapped her arms around his neck, and felt hot tears scald her cheek, to wet his face. “I’m sorry, but I thought I’d lost you up there,” she whispered again.

They broke apart for a moment, as Gray and the others joined them. Karen Wainwright clutched Adam’s arm, next to Patrick and Edward, and Dianne saw Rick’s eyebrow raised for a brief second, but whatever words were poised on his tongue, he bit them back.   They crowded around one another, exchanging backslaps and friendly punches and fond embraces. Dianne embraced Magnolia warmly, and welcomed her back to the school, for good, this time, she said with a smile. Brad introduced Seymour to Adam and Patrick, with a few words regarding his part in foiling Magneto’s plan. The younger man’s apparent nervousness evaporated with the friendly handshakes and warm welcomes.

In the general melee, Gray reached over and took Dianne’s hand. “Well done, my dear,” he said with a proud smile.

“The mansion’s in an awful mess,” Adam said to Gray. “It’s going to take some effort to return it to normal.”

“Houses can be repaired,” Gray said firmly, and then his brow creased in a concerned frown as a thought occurred to him. “Goodness, what will Mrs Harris think about all of this? It might be enough to put her off working for us completely.”

Patrick laughed. “No, she’s as tough as old boots. She arrived an hour before you did, muttered about ‘all the poor dears’, took one look at the damage, then immediately launched into preparations for the clean-up.”

“Well, I wonder if she might spare a moment to oblige us all with some tea, I happen to have a raging thirst, which only a cup of Darjeeling can douse.”

 “Just so long as Adam doesn’t make it,” Patrick said with a grin.

A muted bubbling of laughter followed, the tension dissipating at long last. Everyone followed Gray’s wheelchair towards the basement corridor, but Dianne hesitated. She had so many things to say to Rick that couldn’t wait, and she sensed the moment was to be seized here and now. The professor obviously read her feelings of indecision, as that very second she heard his mind-whisper: <Stay and work things out, we’ll see you soon enough.>

 

And then they were alone under the glow of the hangar lights. For a moment Dianne felt the same tongue-tied awkwardness that had overwhelmed her during their parting conversation in the X-Zero.  Then, Rick clasped one of her wrists with his good hand, and gazed at her, his face sober. 

“Look,” he said, “I did a lot of thinking up there, on Cloudbase, and I realise I acted like a jerk.  I took out my anger on you; and I tried to hurt you, before I even gave you a chance to explain.”

She found her voice again. “Rick, please…I’m the one who needs to apologise.  I was the one who hurt you, remember?  I’ve acted like a spoiled little girl; you never deserved what I did to you…”

He shook his head. “But maybe, nothing would have happened if I had listened to you, stopped treating you like glass, even before – he came on the scene.” He paused, exhaled, a slow breath, and then continued in a quiet voice. “I’m sorry, about Paul. I mean it. And whatever happened between you and him, and me, isn’t important any more…”

He let go of her wrist, and ran his hand through his hair with a lopsided half-smile that made her heart flutter. “I guess I’ve had some growing up to do too, babe, and I don’t want to make assumptions about our relationship any more. The only thing I know for sure is that I love you. I used to say it so many times without really knowing what it meant. Now I know it’s accepting someone for who they are, not what you imagine you think they are.”

She felt a hard lump congeal in her throat, and once again, words failed her when she needed them most. But she didn’t have to be afraid any more. She was a telepath, she didn’t need words. She touched the diamond on her finger and closed her eyes and sent the thought to him.

<And I love you…and I want you…for richer for poorer…in sickness and in health…till death do us part.>

She opened her eyes again, and they gazed at one another, as if they stood at the brink of a new beginning. Tentatively, they kissed, like teenagers, re-exploring one another, like two blind people who had suddenly regained their sight. Dianne felt love waiting on his lips, and mind-to-mind she allowed the symphony of joy to swell within her, engulfing them in liquid fire. It poured in through them like a benediction; throwing out all the pain and regret and anger. Suddenly the chasm that had separated them closed up, the ground sure beneath their feet, solid, like the first months where nothing or no one could impinge on their love.

Then, she heard his elated reply in her mind: <It’s good to be home.>

 

 

 

 

Twenty-four hours later, it was Rick’s turn to wait for his fiancée to disembark from the X-Zero. Still recovering from his injuries, he remained at the mansion with some trepidation while Dianne accompanied the others on a mission to break into the Montana base to ‘obtain’ documentation to prove Senator Roberts’ guilt.  However, in his new-found wisdom he knew that she had earned her place as a fully-fledged member of the team, with or without his presence. He watched with wry admiration as she strode purposely down the ramp with Patrick and Juliette, looking every inch an X-Man.  A petite Asian girl followed them, and Rick felt the years melt away at seeing her again. Chan Kwan, codenamed Shadowcat, had finally set foot in her former school after a long absence.

Chan moved straight over to Gray, waiting next to Rick, with the grace and elegance of a Siamese cat. Gray embraced her warmly, and then gave her an expectant look. She removed several shiny discs from her suit, which he took gratefully.

Patrick gave her a hug, saying: “Our little ninja – you did good, lass.”

“She was in and out; we hardly had to do a thing.” Dianne said, as she linked an arm through Rick’s good one and gave him an affectionate kiss on the cheek.

“Yes, I was but a taxi-driver,” Juliette added with a yawn of mock boredom. 

Chan gave them all a small impish smile. “We did not destroy anything, much as I would have liked to, but we can hope that the World Government will do that for us after they see what resides on these files.”

Gray nodded solemnly. It was time to call a halt to Senator Roberts’ fiendish plans for mutant-kind.

 

 

 

 

Chan stayed for a few more days, as did Adam before his intention to return to Manhattan with Karen Wainwright. The loss of the White Queen’s mutant power seemed to have been, ironically, replaced by a greater empathy for her fellow human-beings. Her support during the crisis at the mansion was not overlooked, and there was a general consensus that for her own sake as much as for Adam’s, they were happy to accept her into their small community. The depth of feeling between the couple was not lost on the others, and Patrick joked that Adam might be in severe danger of losing his ‘World’s Most Eligible Batchelor’ status in the not too distant future.

Seymour had already begun to make his usefulness felt. He and Patrick collaborated to incorporate some of his advanced technology within the school and the basement complex. Now it would become a lot tougher for anyone to break into the X-Men’s headquarters.

Gray and Rick returned to Unity City, this time as official guests of the World President. Gray handed over the data files, assuring Younger that no blood had been spilt during their acquisition. The President merely gave a wry smile, along with his thanks for saving Unity City, a sacrifice that, naturally, could never become public knowledge. Gray smiled in return, stating that he preferred it to be that way. Before they left Younger’s office they had his promise that Senator Roberts’ project would be stopped. 

Several days later, tele-news broadcasts announced the shock headline that John Roberts’ was resigning as a World Senator due to ‘personal problems’. When the second round of voting on the Mutant Registration bill took place, it was voted down on a narrow majority. President Younger was quoted as saying ‘This is a time for good sense, understanding and reason.  We need to accept the existence of mutants in the world and treat each one, not as a collective mob, but as individuals, with the same rights as that for anyone in the world.”

Gray welcomed the heartfelt words, even as his anger still simmered at the way Roberts’ escaped practically ‘scot-free’ considering his vile actions. But, with the resigned acceptance of someone who had seen it all before, Gray knew it was the best he could hope for. Concerning the deferment of the registration bill, Gray also knew that Presidents changed, and there was no guarantee that they would be as sympathetic towards their kind as Younger obviously was.  The X-Men might have stopped Magneto from carrying out his plans, but there would be other powerful mutants waiting in the wings, ever willing to upset the status-quo, and use their powers for self-gain.  Gray and his X-Men would continue to be vigilant.

Of Paul Metcalfe and Conrad Turner, there seemed no trace of mind-activity via Cerebro, suggesting there was little hope that either man was still alive. The time had come to lay their souls to rest.

 

 

 

 

In the mansion’s rose garden, the X-Men stood in a sombre semi-circle before a black granite marker bearing Paul Metcalfe’s name inlaid in gold. Spring had finally burst free from the grip of winter, adding a note of poignancy to the occasion, for the season symbolized hope and new life, and yet, they stood here to say a farewell to someone who, for a brief time, had become one of their own – an X-Man who had sacrificed his life in order to save both them and humanity.

Rick and Dianne stood close together, and he sensed the sadness within her. Only yesterday she had created a special psychic-bond between the two of them, a rapport that she believed would strengthen their relationship. He’d agreed gladly. He didn’t want any secrets to come between them in the future.

It was through this newly-forged link that he felt her grieve for Paul Metcalfe, and this time, he didn’t feel a shred of jealousy. The Wolverine had saved his life, all of their lives and those of countless millions who knew nothing of his sacrifice or that of the other X-Men. He thought of his future with Dianne, and, whatever it held – it would happen because of Paul’s selfless actions.

Gray sat in his wheelchair, next to the marker, facing the assembled group, He cleared his throat and began to read the simple but resonant eulogy, while the others bowed their heads in tribute. He ended with a small quotation by Lord Byron:

        “The truly brave,

            When they behold the brave oppressed with odds,

        Are touched with a desire to shield and save:-

        A mixture of wild beasts and demi-gods

        Are they--now furious as the sweeping wave,

        Now moved with pity; even as sometimes nods

        The rugged tree unto the summer wind,

        Compassion breathes along the savage mind.” 

       

As Gray’s words drew to a close, Rick felt Dianne tremble. He glanced at her face and saw the flat tell-tale track of moisture on her cheek.    He reached gently for her hand, felt her fingers encircle his, gripping tighter as Gray bent over in his chair to place the single red rose upon the grass in front of the black stone.  

 

 

 

 

 

Epilogue

 

Paul ascended a long dark staircase. Luminosity beckoned to him, willing him to climb out of the shadows of his mind, begging him to return to reality. The light grew stronger, until there was nothing but white, all around him.

His eyes flew open, and he stared into the bright sunlight flooding the room. Disoriented, he found himself looking out of a vast, crystal-edged window at a sublime panorama of soaring snow-capped mountains, their stark outlines jagged against the backdrop of an achingly blue sky.

He jerked up in shock, as the last moments of his life came tumbling back to him with numbing vividness. He uttered an incoherent cry as, like a movie running at full tilt, events came crashing back to his mind. Almost immediately he fell back onto the bed as nausea and dizziness overcame him

 “Ah, you have awoken at last.”

The calm baritone voice was strange, and unrecognisable, but its timbre soothed his psyche.  Paul searched the room, still blinded by the ethereal light, until his eyes alighted on the voice’s owner, or so he guessed. He was a male of indeterminate age, with a peculiarly large head wobbling on reed-thin shoulders. The simple green and white robe he wore hung loosely on his spare frame; a cross between a roman toga and a Tibetan monk. His eyes were a mesmerising green and Paul found he was unable to draw away from the knowing gaze. The man seemed to float towards Paul, or perhaps it was only his imagination; either that, or he was hallucinating.

“Wh – where am I?” he asked in a dazed voice.

“You are in my home.”

Paul sat up again, carefully. This time, the dizziness was less. He raked his eyes over his body, expecting the worst, but all he saw was a network of faint lines, like silver, criss-crossing his body like a web.

“These are what remain of the scars from your injuries,” the monk said, noting Paul’s wandering gaze. “You were broken beyond repair, or so it seemed at the time.”

 “I was falling with Cloudbase,” Paul said abstractedly, “with Magneto – so much pain. Then just red and black – and nothing.”

He looked out of the strange window again and wondered if he was in some out of the way monastery perched in the mountains of Tibet. The man looked like a monk, in the calm serenity of his moon-shaped face.  He remained patiently, close to Paul, as if watching all the moods flitting across his face.

“How long have I been here?”  Paul asked, finally.

“For three months.”

“Bloody hell.” 

“Your skyship crashed into the mountainside, starting an avalanche. You were buried in the snow for a long time before I found you, and within your mind there was only the merest spark of life that hovered between this world and the Great Unknown.”

“Then you brought me back to life?”

“Yes. But without the metabolic processes within your broken body, it would have been impossible. I merely helped the healing process along. But it was a slow, hard-won thing, and during it, your mind was in darkness.”

“I was in a coma?”

The monk nodded, and Paul thought with sadness: Dianne and Gray would think I was dead for sure, no mind-signs to pick up on. He was convinced that they would have used their mutant scanner Cerebro to try and figure out if he was still alive. He exhaled slowly. “Did you find any other bodies amongst the wreckage?”

The monk shook his head and Paul wondered if Conrad Turner was truly dead.  He passed a hand over his forehead, felt his strength returning to him. “You said this was your home, are there any more of you here, in the monastery?”

“No, it is just me.”

Now that Paul was feeling more like himself he realised that this monk looked very odd.

“Are you a mutant, by any chance?” he asked, the question coming out before he could stop it.

The monk gave what passed for a smile, and replied, “It does no harm to tell you, for now. I am not of this planet, I am a Mysteron.”

Paul’s felt his jaw sag. “Excuse me?”

The monk gave that smile again. “The nearest translation in your language is ‘Watcher’.”

“Watching – what?”

“Yours is not the only species in this vast universe, Paul Metcalfe.”

“You know my name?”

“We know many things far beyond your limited comprehension. There are others of my race, observing beings below us on the evolutionary scale. It is my remit to watch the third planet of Sol, your Earth. For millennia I have seen the paradox of humanity; your capacity for destruction, and your capacity for selfless sacrifice, as I witnessed your sacrifice, Paul Metcalfe. We are forbidden to interfere in lower species affairs, I should have left you where you lay, broken and dying, but I could – not. ”

“I’m very grateful you didn’t.”

The Mysteron gave a short wave of his thin arm. “But now, your time here is complete, and I must return you to your own existence, and with regret I must ensure that this world continues to be unaware of our existence.”

Paul’s mouth dried up as the being approached, his eyes glowing with green radiance, two circles of green light, burning into his consciousness.   He felt himself tumbling into darkness.

“Do not be afraid,” the voice boomed in his mind. 

 

He blinked. Opened his eyes fully, to find he was standing knee-deep in pristine snow. He whirled around, but all he saw for miles around were the snow-capped peaks of the mountains.

I thought –

He slapped the side of his head, as if to restore his memory.

Last thing I remember is fighting Magneto in Cloudbase – I never believed I’d get out of that place alive.

But here he was, and as he squinted into the glare of the sunlight he saw, not far away, what looked like a village.  Smoke rose from the rude dwellings into the sky, and he thought he could make out the sound of bells. It was hardly civilisation, but he might be able to arrange some way of getting back.

Back to where?

In his heart, he knew. He had to know the X-Men had survived; that his sacrifice hadn’t been in vain. He wondered if he should let them know he was alive, he could send a thought in the hope it would reach Dianne. He shook his head, despite the fact there was no one to see the gesture. No, he wouldn’t spoil anything, he’d take his time, figure out the best way to get in touch, but he knew, in the end, he was going home. The years of wandering in his self-imposed wilderness had finally come to an end and he was prepared to sacrifice a love he thought he might have had, for the community of family that, deep down, he desperately desired. He wanted to fight alongside the X-Men against Roberts, or any other power-mad humans or mutants that threatened the status-quo. Gray’s dream was now his. And he laughed then; a joyous sound that was music to his ears. He began to tramp his way through the snow towards the village below, his breath crystallizing in the thin air, and within him, a lightness of spirit, a sense of freedom won.

There was only one problem. It was going to be a bloody long walk back to Winchester.

 

 

End

 

 

 

 

Authors Notes

 

This story has been in the making for two and a half years, on and off, and down myriad blind alleys ever since the first announcement of the Multiverse challenge.  I have to thank Ono for the first spark of inspiration, for after reading her story: ‘Chan Kwan – Bounty Hunter’, I was fascinated by the use of the OCS alter-egos transferred to another setting. I’ve been a fan of X-Men since the 1970’s and it struck me that there were a few similarities between the characters, the most obvious of course, between Paul Metcalfe, Captain Scarlet, and Logan, the X-Men’s Wolverine – both pretty much indestructible men. I hope that the narrative makes enough sense throughout, for the story to stand on its own without too much prior knowledge of the X-Men Universe.

I’ve had so much fun, trawling through the mighty Gerry Anderson Universe to pepper the tale with its characters and equipment and settings. I hope you enjoy it and spot all the little cameos and asides in my affectionate nod to its wonders.

           

The Marvel universe Magneto’s base of operations was on an asteroid (Asteroid M) orbiting the earth in geosynchronous orbit. 

The ‘Watchers’ in the Marvel Universe, are a vastly powerful, ancient extraterrestrial race who untold eons ago undertook the task of passively observing the phenomena of the universe. They can convert their bodies into some form of energy in order to "teleport" through space at hyper-light speeds and manipulate energy in the electromagnetic spectrum.

 

            As ever, this story would never appear in print without the help and support of the following people:

Chris Bishop for her patience in waiting for a story that looked like it would never be finished, and for her totally invaluable comments in helping me resolve some very sticky plot elements and characterisation. Chris – you don’t know how much you helped – so THANK-YOU!!  (As well as allowing me to use up all her bandwidth with my pictures.)

Marion Woods, my ever-wonderful beta-reader, whose endless supply of virtual (and real) hankies, and inexhaustible supply of help have sustained me through this (for me) marathon. Without both of these ladies, eXtrapolations would still be in ‘development hell’.

A final note of thanks to the rest of the ever-lovin’ writers crew; Mary J Rudy, Sue Stanhope, Siobhan Zettler, Clya Brown and Hazel Köhler for their support and encouragement – and for staying around while I got to the end of this.

 

Caroline Smith -  November 2006

 

I do not own either the characters, or their names, from Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons or the X-MEN.

All use of the X-MEN names and characters are ©  Marvel Comics and ©  20th Century Fox.

All use of names and characters in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons are © ITC/Polygram/Carlton Entertainment.

 

The manipulated images in this story were done by myself, unless otherwise specified. All use of original X-MEN film character images are © 20th Century Fox. All use of original Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons images are © ITC/Polygram/Carlton Entertainment..

 

 

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