A Captain Scarlet/X-Men Multiverse Story by Caroline Smith
Paul Metcalfe was running.
Running for his life.
Running from a past he couldn’t remember.
He battled through the ice-storm; the wind a shrieking demon that tore at his unprotected skin, the freezing pellets stinging his eyes. He shivered, ploughing upwards on the slope, out of the natural amphitheatre that surrounded his underground prison, not daring to look back, hoping that the elements would prove enough to deter his pursuers.
On and on he trudged, half-naked and knee deep in the snow, his body hurting in so many places he could no longer distinguish individual pain. Several times he lost his footing, until at last he stumbled and fell face first into the snow.
He closed his eyes. The vague recollections of escape from some horror pirouetted around his tired brain. He could see the blood and torn flesh, hear the curdling screams – the slashing and ripping; pain – his – theirs; everything a blur, mingled and confused. He huddled his arms against his body, teeth chattering, limbs shaking, his core temperature dropping dangerously as he continued to lie within the frozen snow.
It would be so easy to sleep, to end the nightmare…
And then, the wind dropped. In that instant, his sensitive ears detected the distant, yet unmistakable sound of voices. Shouting, insistent voices…
His eyes snapped open, his innate instinct for survival taking over once again. He dragged himself to his feet, fear making him ungainly in his haste, and stumbled on. Through the swirling blizzard he could make out the dark mass of something looming up in the distance; he began to see the outlines of ridges and peaks.
He could die in their frozen heights, or he could die here. For him there was only one course of action. He smeared a hand over his rimed face, panting with the exertion as his exhausted legs pumped beyond the ability of most human beings. The adrenaline surged through his system, willing his tormented body on. Up into the untamed reaches he went, leaving his pursuers far behind.
Ordinary men would have been dead by now, but Paul Metcalfe was no ordinary human being. A mutant gene within his body bestowed a remarkable healing ability on him, giving him almost inexhaustible stores of energy and powers of recovery against injury. Even as the frostbite took hold of his extremities, his regenerative system was working hard against it.
By nightfall he had cleared a low summit and the track spiralled downwards again, towards a black mass of forest. He willed himself to reach it, hoping he had done enough to shake off his pursuers until he could find some sleep. Fatigue was taking a toll on his retro-metabolic system and he worried that if he didn’t find shelter soon it might truly fail him altogether. Downwards he trudged within the demon fury of the storm, until finally, after what seemed like forever, he reached the forest.
Within it there was some respite from the ice and the wind. Deeper and deeper inside he went, until finally, he was unable to go another step. He barely managed to scramble up one tall lodgepole pine, its scrubby bark providing enough of a foothold for his agile feet until he found a large branch where he could huddle in its velvet depths. He took deep gulping breaths, his heart still hammering in his ribcage. He realised he was totally exhausted, driven to the edge of sanity, and he closed his eyes again, revelling in the pause from his flight. He felt the tree sway in the wind, heard the wind howling against the uppermost branches, lulling him like a baby in a cradle. He couldn’t feel the pain in his extremities any more, and he wondered if his healing factor would break down under the onslaught of stress and fatigue.
It doesn’t matter; he thought idly, within the haze of pain, it doesn’t matter any more…
Too exhausted to make sense of anything else at this point, he dozed off into fitful sleep. He had no idea how long he sat in that dream-like state, but at some point his mind was assailed by images so terrifying that he jerked awake, shuddering into reality. He heard his voice cracking in a hoarse scream, his heart thumped against his ribcage and he felt the slickness of oily sweat coating his body. He clung to the trunk as if it was the only thing between him and insanity.
His mind was awash with these images, all jumbled together. He tried desperately to hold onto them – as if they might help him make some sense of his predicament, but like any dream or nightmare, they faded into insubstantiality the more he tried to recall it. When his shakes subsided, and his mind cleared a little, two things remained, like an echo: The first was a ghostly after-image; dominated by the colour green; a sickly, phosphorescent colour that filled him with a cold blind terror; second, the sound of a woman’s voice, sounding strangely as if she was echoing deep in the dark labyrinth of his mind. Absurdly, he had the impression that whoever belonged to that voice was screaming, as terrified as he was.
He lay there, breathing deeply, trying to calm himself, and trying to come to terms with what was happening to him. In this semi-tranquil state he suddenly realised that he had no memories of the time before his headlong dash into the wilderness. Panicked, he tried to recall everyday people and events that most people would call instantly to mind: his parents, siblings, lovers, friends, colleagues.
Parents, schooldays, vacations; career, births, marriages, and deaths; the happy and sad punctuations of life.
Not a thing, only a dim shadowy darkness where memories should be.
He rubbed his throat, and felt something cold and hard. He pulled it up over his head and stared at the chain culminating in a metal tag, dulled with age. He squinted at the word inscribed onto the surface.
He shook his head. The name made no sense to him. And yet, he was sure the tag was his, and had been for a long, long time. He slowly returned the chain to its place around his neck and turned his attention to his hands, staring at the solid knuckles, where faint indentations lay between the ridges. He gently focused his mind, and with a slow, wet, tearing sound, sharp glinting metal points broke through the skin, through the indentations, longer and longer, until they emerged fully; nine-inch claws. He stared at his hands again, and flinched as a door flew open in his mind, a flash of memory slashing through it, terrifying: these very same claws scything through flesh and metal and plastic and fibre.
My name is Paul Metcalfe…but Wolverine is my other name.
Then the door slammed shut again before anything else could get out.
His claws retracted, involuntarily, but the gashes remained open, taking too long to close. He felt weak, drained of energy. He threw his face into his hands, close to tears, and despised that weakness. There were obviously a few shreds of memory left to him, coupled with the certain knowledge that something awful had happened to him – a knowledge made real because of the metal claws.
And in his mind, another thought burned. Burned like fire. He had to stay away from them, whoever they were; the men who had chased him in the snow, running from the terror. For, he was sure, that if they caught him, the nightmare would continue. He shook his head fiercely. He wasn’t going to let that happen, and they weren’t going to break him. He’d find a way to elude them and recover the past that had he had been denied. He whispered this thought like a mantra until it lulled him into blessed unconsciousness.
By grey dawn he had cleared the edge of the forest and came upon a frozen lake. The storm was abating and he knew he was going to be an easier target, especially out in the open. He grimaced as he glanced down at himself. Dressed in only a vest and battered jeans, ripped and stained with blood and God knows what else, he didn’t need a mirror to know that the sight he presented would make anyone believe he was some criminal on the run; and for all I know, he thought sourly, I am. Hitching a ride from even the most hardened trucker might prove difficult; and the last thing he wanted was to attract unwarranted attention.
Several long trudging hours later he squinted at the city limits sign of Whitefish. A little further along the road he saw several houses. More like shacks really, however, one of them had a line of washing strung out in the back-yard. He moved closer to the house and his sensitive hearing picked up the sounds of a tele-viewer. He scouted alongside the rear of the house, and peered into the cramped kitchen. His eyes roamed the chipped painted units, the sink stacked full of dirty crockery, and gleamed, when on the countertop he saw a flat carton containing the remains of a giant-sized pizza. He tried the back door – unlocked. Minutes later, he was in the wood beyond the house, dressed in an almost-dry plaid woollen shirt and jeans, and wolfing down the cold pizza like a ravenous beast.
Professor Charles Gray sat at almost the highest point of the public gallery in the huge World Government Senate Assembly Hall situated at the heart of Unity City, Bermuda. Apart from his titanium-alloy streamlined wheelchair, there was nothing untoward about the silver-haired craggily handsome man that hinted at the fact he possessed one of the most powerful minds on the planet. For this former professor emeritus of genetics at Harvard, and now, the headmaster of a school for ‘gifted children’ in Winchester, Massachusetts, was a mutant.
From his vantage point he could see the room where it swept down into a bowl-like amphitheatre: the inner circle for the appointed senators of the world government, three outer circles for other member state representatives and the remainder for members of the public. The phrase ‘public’ had an ironic connotation, given the level of security they were required to pass through in order to view the proceedings. For, in this brave new world of 2068, with its tenets of unity and compromise amongst the majority of the nations of the world, there still remained splits and divisions on any number of issues.
And no issue was more divisive than the question of what to do with the seemingly inexorable rise in the world’s population of people who were being born with extra-ordinary abilities. World Senator John Roberts from the USA had embarked on a campaign (some used the word ‘crusade’) to stem the rising tide of these ‘mutants’, as he called them. The name he coined was eagerly pounced on by the world’s press and was used in a pejorative manner to refer to all people who displayed physical and mental capabilities different to the so-called ‘norm’. Roberts’ stance was that the ordinary citizens of the world deserved to be protected from what he saw as a potential threat to their safety and security.
His proposal, now being considered by a World Senate committee, of which he was also a member, was this: that anyone over the age of nine years old exhibiting extraordinary powers would be tested for genetic mutation. If they were positive they would be registered on a new global database created and maintained by the World Intelligence Network. The proposal was highly explosive, dredging up uncomfortable memories of past attempts in mankind’s history to control sections of society deemed to be different; practices that many members of the World Government had believed would be discarded in their new world order. But it seemed that nothing on this earth was new, most especially a fear of the unknown, and previously tolerant factions in the government were becoming concerned at the rise of mutant-kind, seeing them as a threat to normal humans.
Gray had long suspected that his former post-doctorial colleague at Harvard, Doctor Antonio Giadello, might break the fragile pact the two men had reached over their joint-research into mutant behaviour, and the discovery of the X-factor gene. Gray had hoped to keep these findings confidential, fearing that the knowledge could be used inimically against those who possessed the gene, however Giadello thought differently. Publicly, Gray affected no further interest in the subject, intending to pursue the research privately; however it seemed inevitable that his former colleague had found a way to capitalize on some of that knowledge to the detriment of mutant-kind.
It was known that the World President himself, James Younger, was not in favour of the proposal, however, personal preferences, even those of the most powerful man in the world, did not count. What mattered was the vote of the committee; and they would cast their decision after listening to the arguments for and against. Today was the turn of interested members of the public, which was why Gray was here, listening, like all the other individuals in this auditorium bursting at the seams, and the millions of people across the globe watching via live satellite transmission, for the first speaker to address the committee. He watched a young woman rise from her seat at the front and cross over to the podium, her long flame-red hair a shimmering beacon under the glare of the suspensor lights, and he felt rather like a fond father watching his daughter go onstage for her first play, with a mixture of admiration and trepidation.
Dianne Simms had been born into a long-established aristocratic family in England. However, she was the first, and perhaps only, member of that distinguished lineage to exhibit the talents of telepathy and telekinesis. Cerebro was nothing but a pile of neuro-circuits and potential programs when her own particular trauma activated the mutant gene within her body; but her cry of pain was so mind-shattering Gray ‘heard’ it three thousand miles away. Since then, she had studied at his school, honing both her academic and psionic abilities, and he very much hoped that one day those talents would even rival those of his own.
Dianne stood on the dais in the centre of the huge chamber and looked up at the myriad eyes of her audience – eyes that seemed to bore into her. She swallowed briefly, adjusted the tiny microphone on her classically-cut Verdain suit and raised her chin slightly, a self-imposed gesture of a confidence she didn’t feel. Get on with it, she thought, as she waited for the signal to begin her presentation.
The chairman of the committee was Linda Nolan, the World Senate representative for the United Kingdom, and a veteran of the Lunar and Martian space missions. She peered at Dianne over her pince-nez spectacles and then glanced down at her personal view-screen on the desk.
“Ms Simms. Would you care to go ahead?”
“Thank you, Senator.”
With only the briefest of glances at her data-pad, she raised her head to focus on Linda Nolan, who was seated at the centre of the large curving table where the ten members of the committee sat. She took one deep breath, just to steady herself, and then spoke up. Her voice rang clearly out into the hall, courtesy of its perfect acoustics.
“Mutants. That’s what these human beings are being called. Through no fault of their own, they are labelled, stereotyped, and categorised. But they are just human, and have desires and wishes like any one of us: to go to school, get a job, get married, have children; to do all of these things without fear or prejudice.”
“Many members of the public may not be aware that these people possess something called the X-factor gene. This gene is what causes so-called ‘mutancy’. It’s like any other gene within our bodies, like those that result in exceptional musical, artistic, or physical ability. It lies dormant within the body of certain individuals for many years; until some event, usually traumatic in nature, activates it, generally around puberty. Why the gene is triggered by extreme stress isn’t well-known, although studies are on-going by various –”
“Well, that is all very interesting, Ms Simms, but none of it is really the point,” Senator John Roberts interrupted her in his brusque voice, “What this committee needs to know is whether there is a threat posed by the existence of these mutants in our society. That is the real issue here.”
Dianne had studiously avoided looking at him despite the fact he had been impossible to miss on Linda Nolan’s right. He sat tall and heavy-set behind the desk, his solid features crowned by a head of thick, dark hair liberally streaked with grey. His eyes bored into hers with the studiousness of a raptor. His words caused a ripple of conversation around the hall and Dianne felt her mouth dry up.
Damn him, she thought, for his interruption. He was deliberately trying to rattle her; Charles had warned her of it before she took the stand. She returned Roberts’ gaze, stubbornly refusing to be cowed by the man.
Linda Nolan banged her electronic gavel. “Quiet, please,” her commanding voice rang out into the hall. The sudden buzz of conversation trickled to a halt.
“Please continue, Ms Simms,” she said, when silence reigned once again.
“As I was saying, these X-factor gene mutations are triggered at puberty, to children sometimes as young as nine years of age. I would like the committee to consider, is it a humane thing they are suggesting, to brand children of that age as outcasts of society? That is why this vote is dangerous; it seeks to incite prejudice – a form of racial hatred against these innocent people; whereas what we should be doing is trying to understand what has brought about this phenomenon, so we can deal with it in a rational, humane manner.”
“We’re hardly talking punishment, Ms Simms,” Roberts cut in again. “We are simply talking about registration, after all. But since you are so keen on telling us how noble and perfect these mutants are, perhaps you would like to explain why some of them use their so called genetic abilities to the detriment of society, such as the man who robbed a bank in San Diego the other day, using his – tongue?”
There were mutters of disgust from the audience at this. Dianne swallowed. “No one was hurt. And there will always be individuals who use brute force to get what they want, that doesn’t mean we have to label the entire human race.”
“Oh, come now, Ms Simms. Let’s not juggle with words. There is a difference between someone who brandishes a knife and someone who can kill with their mind. Or someone who can melt cars with a wave of their hands.”
“And you think that registering them will prevent that? Don’t you think it’s more likely to create more problems than you think it will solve? If I remember my history apartheid didn’t work very well either.”
Roberts didn’t reply. There was a faint murmuring within the tiered rows of the galleries again.
“Ms. Simms, what is your current occupation?”
Dianne felt her heart jump at his unanticipated line of questioning. Where was he going with this? She glanced around the committee desk, and saw the expectant faces, all waiting for her answer.
“I’m a teacher.”
Roberts nodded, and a glib smile slowly appeared on his face.
“A teacher,” he echoed; and waited for a few theatrical seconds to let this reply sink in to his listeners.
“That’s what I said,” Dianne said, feeling her confidence dissolve under Roberts’ cutting gaze. The man was an arrogant ass, and she tried vainly to keep her composure knowing Gray was sitting in the gallery and relying on her to keep focused on the presentation. She felt his whisper-soft touch in her mind, lending her strength and support.
“And do you teach mutants?”
Dianne licked suddenly dry lips.
“And what sort of things do your mutants get taught?”
“Things any student needs to learn; maths, science, history. I happen to teach them law and sociology. I teach them respect for the law; although quite frankly, they find it difficult to find respect for institutions that are prepared to so blatantly remove their fundamental rights.”
“And you wouldn’t happen to be teaching them to use their powers as well?”
“Senator, I protest, this line of questioning is entirely peripheral to my presentation to the committee.”
Roberts’ eyes narrowed and his voice grew louder, “Oh is it indeed, Ms Simms? I beg to differ.” He stood up, raked his gaze slowly around the amphitheatre, and then back to Dianne. He spoke directly to her, but she wasn’t fooled. His words were for everyone in the Senate Chamber and the listening millions beyond it.
“We all know how easy it is to be blinded by science, and that statistics can be made to shore up theories. What does it matter how this all happened – or even why? No the truly important thing is, do we dare to let it continue unfettered without some sort of control? We’re all in some way subject to controls from our birth, we are all required to be immunised, that information is kept on databases, we all have identity cards, to allow us to pass through national borders; so tell me, why is this any different? If mutants have nothing to hide, then why are they so resistant to this proposal?”
Dianne became aware of the myriad waves of empathic emotions sweeping around the chamber and the galleries. She knew then that she had lost them. Roberts had turned her argument around and twisted it for his own ends.
“I put it to you and all other supporters of these mutants – these ‘activations’ as you so curiously call it, are creating a super-race which could be a serious risk to the security of our member nations!”
Senate representatives huddled and conferred, adding to the sudden eruption of noise. Roberts took advantage of the dissent he had sown and wrested the last vestiges of control of the meeting from Linda Nolan. He stood up and gazed around the audience present, addressing them now, not Dianne. All eyes were riveted upon him, as, like a cunning magician, he held them in his spell.
“We are dealing with a ticking time bomb here, and if the World Government does not take control, then they are being extremely short-sighted, not to say foolish, and I’m sure the ordinary citizens of our world will be in agreement with me.”
At these words, people in the public gallery started nodding heads and clapping in support of Roberts’ comments.
Charles Gray sat above them, and felt saddened but not entirely surprised by the response from the Senate Committee. He had hoped that some sense of justice and rationality would prevail, but it seemed that many of the committee members, and Senator Roberts in particular, did not really want to listen to pro-arguments. He was proud of his former student, she was holding up well in difficult circumstances, but the situation did seem somewhat hopeless.
As the voices of dissent grew louder in the public gallery, he frowned and looked around him. They were drowning out any chance of Dianne pleading her case any further. He mentally shook his head in frustration and suddenly his eye caught a darkly-clad figure getting up from his seat in the public gallery about thirty feet away from where Gray sat. The man started to walk up one of the ramp ways towards the exit.
Gray’s breath caught in his throat with recognition.
In haste, he activated the controls on his state-of-the-art motorized wheelchair and followed the figure up the ramp out of the hall. As he motored into the corridor that ran parallel to the public gallery, he had to blink in the sudden glare from the sunlight streaming through the broad curving view-panes. He stopped for a moment to gaze beyond them, at the heart-stopping view of the spires and towers of the densely packed metropolis zigzagging all the way to down to the cerulean sea.
He dragged his eyes back to the corridor and frowned. The figure he followed had disappeared from sight. He wondered if he could have been mistaken about whom he thought it was. After all, it had been dark in the hall; the departing figure could just as easily been someone else. He shrugged. Perhaps it was just wishful thinking on my part, he thought. He activated his chair to return to the chamber when he heard footsteps approaching from his rear. Inexplicably, the hairs rose on the nape of his neck.
“So, Charles, you still think they’re going to let us live our lives without interference, that we can all live together in glorious harmony?”
Gray whirled his chair around with a sharp intake of breath. He had never expected to hear that eerily familiar voice again after so many years. He stared at him, the pale features contrasting with the mesmerizing eyes – eyes so dark as to be almost the same colour as the dark overcoat he wore.
Turner spread his hands, indicating the senate chamber to his left, the source of his disgust. “Well, as you can evidently see from this farce – it’s not working.”
“Conrad. It’s been a long time.”
“So it has. Seven years if I’m not mistaken.” A ghost of a smile played around Conrad Turner’s thin lips. “Which, of course, I never am.”
Gray felt time stand still as he searched the face of the man he had once regarded as the younger sibling he had been denied. He saw how the intervening years had changed Conrad. The man wore his bitterness like an implacable mask –the lines as deep as the hostility he saw burning in his dark eyes. Turner’s mouth curved in a cynical smile, as if it were he that was the telepath and could see the memories dredged up through time flickering through Gray’s mind.
“You’ve not lost your arrogance, that much I can see,” Gray said with an almost imperceptible sigh.
“Arrogant.” Turner laughed as if it was a good joke, but the sound swiftly turned contemptuous. “I say you’re egotistical, for still believing that your way of peaceful negotiation has any hope of succeeding. They fear and despise us… and this so-called joke of registration is only the beginning. Men like Roberts will not stop at something so simple. We’re being herded like cattle, and your young woman’s speech was pathetically ineffective.”
“I didn’t see you on the podium, Conrad, trying to make a difference. You could add your voice to ours.”
“And a lot of good that would do. They’ve no intention of listening. They never did, despite all our best efforts. See where this has led us?”
“Where have you been all those years – what have you been doing?”
“Oh, much the same as same as you… studying, researching, preparing, for - war.”
“I’ve seen enough to sicken the soul, or have you forgotten that?”
Turner’s laugh again echoed in the corridor, yet his dark eyes flashed with cold fire. “You’re only fooling yourself. You huddle with your young mutants in that mansion of yours and hone their skills for combat. How dare you accuse me of double standards? You’re a fool, Charles. I see now that you have always been one. I was just too blind to see it in the beginning. It’s our time now; these humans have had their day and if they do not stand aside for homo superior then they are destined to perish like the dinosaurs that they are. They say they fear us, but they don’t truly know the meaning of the word. I propose to enlighten them. And I warn you, if you’re not with me, then you’re against me. I will not hesitate to stop you - or your precious X-Men - if you get in my way.”
Gray felt his mouth dry up. “What do you intend to do?”
“You will see, Charles, you will see.”
He turned on his heel and walked sharply away back along the corridor, his dark overcoat billowing behind him.
Gray listened to the fading echo of footsteps, a curtain of foreboding descending upon him. He remained motionless for a while, his face impassive, but his ice-blue eyes betrayed his inner turmoil.
He had just been offered the chair of Professor of Genetics at Harvard when Conrad Turner had joined the research staff. The young man he had known then had a brilliant mind, his all-encompassing love of science the one thing that brought a semblance of joy to that emotionless exterior, the legacy of a tragic childhood. He had entered Gray’s life at a point where the older man had been suffering the heartbreak of bereavement, and the two became closer when they discovered, quite by chance, that they were both mutants. That knowledge had fuelled their mutual ambition: to discover the genetic make-up of the new mutants in their midst. And Gray shared his own particular dream with Conrad – one that saw a future where those born different could still co-exist peacefully with their non-mutant siblings.
But it wasn’t to last. The atmosphere of uncertainty and mistrust in a world beginning to suspect the existence of mutants drove a wedge between them. Gray continued to be determined to find a peaceful way to co-exist with humanity. Turner on the other hand became ever more bitter and more antagonistic to the human race until, at last, one day he stormed out of Gray’s life.
After all these years, Conrad Turner, pseudonym – Magneto – had reappeared.
As Dianne left the domed building and walked down the steps at the main entrance, she saw the large crowd gathered outside. Amongst them were journalists and members of the public, many of whom were waving placards. She saw a few in support of the mutant cause, but most of them displayed slogans that were at best distasteful, at worst downright soul-destroying. As she started to walk down the steps, feeling a nervousness she tried to hide, several of the journalists surged forward and she found herself bombarded by questions and microphones jabbing into her face.
“What’s your angle on this, Ms Simms, why are you in support of the mutant cause?”
“Don’t you think that Senator Roberts is right, and these folks are a threat to the security of the world?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t have anything more to say than I said at the hearing, please allow me to pass,” she said, as she tried to move past them.
The crowd was starting to show signs of unrest and Dianne tried to shut out the waves of their hostility, so palpable they made her feel ill.
“Muties! They wanna take over the planet!”
“Think they’re better than us!”
She struggled through the press of journalists, feeling suffocated by their stupid questions.
Where is the Professor? She thought in alarm.
Panic overtook her; she wanted to be far away from here. Suddenly from the back of the mob, someone threw a drinks can, aiming it directly at Dianne. It sailed over the heads of the crowd. Distracted by the pounding surf of their emotions, she lost control of her mind for a fraction of a second, and she reacted – instinctively. Her arm flew out in front of her face to protect herself.
The can hovered in the air inches above her head.
She swallowed hard as she heard the deathly hush descend on the gathering for a few breathless seconds. Then as people recovered from the shock there was a shout from someone in the crowd.
“She’s a stinking mutie too!”
The can dropped to the ground with a clatter and bounced down the steps. There was more chanting, and more shouting, the insults more strident, more hateful. Dianne fled down the steps, tears almost pricking her eyes as she tried to drown out the thought-waves emanating from the practically hysterical mob behind her.
<Charles, where are you?> she sent her telepathic summons to him, unable to stem the emotion behind it. She heard his answering reply in her head, and she made her way to one of the lesser side entrances of the huge building.
Every so often she glanced behind her, but saw no one bother to pursue her. They were most probably waiting to catch Roberts or the members of the committee as they left. When she arrived at the side-door she saw Gray waiting there for her in his wheelchair, and his eyes were sympathetic.
“I shouldn’t have done it; used my telekinesis,” she said.
“It was a normal reaction; don’t be so hard on yourself.”
Her hair swung as she shook her head, dismissing his comment. “No, I still can’t control my powers as well as I’d like. I made a mess of things; betrayed your trust in me, and possibly exposed the school by my actions. Maybe Rick was right; maybe you should have been out there addressing them, not me.”
Gray leaned across to grip her wrist. “Stop this, Dianne. I doubt I would have fared any better. Now, let’s get back to Winchester, we can’t do anymore here.”
Alpha-Red was not amused. Three weeks had come and gone, and their missing subject had remained firmly elusive. It was time to get another update from his deputy at the operations unit in the snow-bound wastes of the Canadian-Montana border. This situation was untenable, given that it was almost impossible for him to be at the base in person to oversee the operation himself. Resigning himself, he carried out his usual precautions, scanning his spacious office for listening devices, before scrambling the number connecting him with the base.
There were few people even at the highest level in the military of the World Government who were aware of this highly secret operation, and he was determined that it should stay that way. The small highly-covert unit had been assembled to engage terrorism in North America in the early 21st century. Now, part of its purpose had been re-engineered to take pre-emptive strike action against what Alpha-Red saw as the newest form of threat to the stability of the world, that of the rise in mutant-kind. They were engaged with a program code-named Weapon-Red, but at the culmination of all their work, disaster had struck. Weapon-Red had escaped. And all the firepower and muscle at their disposal had been unable to contain him.
“This is Alpha-Red, have you anything to report concerning the whereabouts of Weapon-Red?”
There was a beat pause before his second-in-command, Major Reeves said, “No, Sir, nothing yet I’m afraid.”
Alpha-Red kept his voice low. “This isn’t what I wanted to hear. How many teams do you have out there looking for him?
“Red-one, and Blue one and two.”
“How can one man elude you?”
“Well, sir, he does have military operations experience. He was one of the best, in fact, probably the best, and the memory wipe hasn’t removed any of his skill-set or genetic capabilities. It goes without saying he’s going to be able to hide his tracks. And it’s a big continent out there, he could be anywhere and we have limited manpower. ”
“Does he still have the implant trigger?”
“Yes, but unfortunately we were unable to activate it properly before he escaped. We think there’s some residual imprinting from the Traumatic Shock Imprint controller so that if he is exposed to a high threat situation it could trigger off the subcutaneous device.”
“Good God man, you can’t be serious!”
“I’m afraid so, sir, it’s our only hope of tracking him I’m afraid – and of course – ”
“If he does respond to the latent programming, he won’t be under our control – ”
“So he could be an extreme danger to the men?”
“Extreme is putting it mildly, sir. Remember the mess he left here when he escaped?”
Alpha-Red remembered. One dead and another six injured, two still on the critical list, not to mention shredded machinery that neared the nine hundred thousand dollar mark to replace.
“He could react like a cornered animal under extreme pressure,” Reeves was saying to him.
Alpha-Red pursed his lips. “Do we have any idea of where he is?”
There was another pregnant pause. “No, we lost the trail a few days ago.”
Alpha-Red snorted derisively. “Unbelievable! We have the technology to create a superhuman fighting machine – and then we go and lose him. Get another two teams out there, I want to see some results and soon!”
“But sir, what about the operation in Bereznik?”
“That’ll have to wait, Apprehending Weapon-Red is absolutely our top priority, and he cannot – I repeat – cannot be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. That would spell disaster. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yessir, absolutely. I’ll arrange for the other teams to be on it right away.”
“And we can only pray that the damn device activates…”
And God help anyone who happens to be in the vicinity when – if – that happens, Alpha-Red thought. He closed the line and sat back in his leather chair, making a steeple of fingers to his chin. His brows knit together as he thought of alternative scenarios, possible outcomes. Weapon-Red was a loose cannon, and these imbeciles didn’t seem to have a clue how to go about retrieving him. If things didn’t improve, he might have to go to plan B.
In the leafy suburbs of the smart New England town of Winchester, Massachusetts, stood the huge mansion belonging to Charles Gray. Some people might have thought it odd that an Englishman was in-residence at one of the state’s finest houses, but in fact it had been bequeathed to him as a beloved son-in-law by the wealthy Ellis family on the occasion of his marriage to their daughter Anne. Gray had met the beautiful and brilliant young woman at Harvard, and she had pursued him with a devotion that dissolved his naturally taciturn exterior. The English ex-war-hero had been welcomed into the family; an addition of hope, since their daughter was the last of their illustrious line. Sadly, the anticipated heirs did not materialise and if that insult was not enough, tragedy struck when Anne contracted an incurable cancer after many years of happy marriage. Grief-stricken after her death, Gray decided to convert the mansion into a school for mutant children, in particular those unfortunates that had been orphaned. He couldn’t have any of his own, so he was determined to do the next best thing.
The casual observer, who drove past the ancient stone wall hidden by oaks and maples, and up the long winding gravel path, to the imposing building, would never suspect at the secrets within. Ivy grew rampant against the walls, softening the harsh stonework and everywhere the lead glass windows spoke of an older, gentler time. It had been built in the late nineteenth century and retained many of the original features, however, some things had changed to satisfy mid-twenty-first century living. The old stables had been converted into garages for the many cars and motorcycles, and the house’s ancestors would have thought witchcraft had been practiced had they been able to sneak a look in the extensive basement.
The mansion was mostly in darkness; uncharacteristically quiet, as most of its younger occupants were tucked up safely in their beds. Light flickered into the darkened hallway from the communal lounge and the quiet drone of the tele-viewer indicated at least some of the occupants were still awake even at this late hour. Two men sat oversized burgundy-leather armchairs, watching a re-hash of the mutant registration hearings that day in Unity City.
The shorter and stockier of the two was Dr. Edward Wilkie, and the smudged not-quite-so-white lab-coat he permanently wore strained at the seams as he shifted his powerful body within the confines of the chair. His hands could easily crush the life from a full grown horse and he could scale the walls of the mansion like a monkey on speed if the inclination had ever taken him. But those hands were more disposed to sew a delicate suture or prepare micro-cultures, and he far preferred to spend his time in the company of cryo-chromatographs and particle-analysers.
The other was Richard Fraser. His shades looked like three hundred dollar Orion Aviators, except they were made of wafer-thin ruby quartz, and cost nearer to twenty-thousand dollars, and they were the only things that stood between the jelly of his eyes and punching six-inch-wide holes in anything he looked at. When Charles Gray found him, he had retreated into his own blind world, and it took some persuasion to make him return with him to the mansion in Winchester. Gray’s story of genetics and mutation sounded far-fetched even to someone who had molten eyeballs, but when he and Edward Wilkie presented him with the glasses that allowed him to see again, it was as if he’d been given a second chance to live.
Rick hunched forward, staring at the footage of the young woman being booed by the mob at the foot of the World Senate steps. A muscle ticked in his aquiline jaw as he glanced from the screen to his chronometer.
“That’s about the twentieth time you’ve done that in the last five minutes,” Edward said.
“They should have been back by now.”
“Maybe they got stuck in traffic from the airport, the weather was bad in-bound.”
Rick shifted again, restless. “I should have gone with her.”
Edward snorted. “She’s with Charles; there isn’t much he couldn’t cope with, you worry too much.”
Rick’s retort died as his attention was caught by a familiar sound just outside the lounge. He jumped to his feet just as the door opened, and Gray and Dianne entered. He felt his tension drain out and crossed the floor in three long strides to embrace her. She hugged him back and waved at Edward.
“Hi, babe,” Rick said, “We thought we’d wait up for you.” He gestured at the screen with the remote to mute the sound. “Well, I guess things didn’t go that well – we just saw the news.”
Gray gave a short sigh. “You have a gift for understatement, Rick. Such is the way of things I’m afraid. And, just to make matters even more complicated, I met someone at the Senate building who I hadn’t seen in a long time. Conrad Turner, Magneto.”
Rick’s eyebrows lifted over his glasses, “What did he have to say for himself?”
Gray’s face grew sombre. “Sadly, nothing that made me feel comfortable about the future.”
“That’s a cryptic comment,” Edward added.
Gray shook his head wearily. “He is quite incensed at this registration business. I see what it has wrought in him, though. I have no idea what he’s been up to since we last met, but what left nothing to my imagination was his stance against the non-mutant society. He practically threatened me if I stood in his way.”
“Of what?” Rick said.
“He didn’t feel it necessary to divulge it at the time – more’s the pity.”
“He was probably just yanking your chain, he’s just sore at you; I mean, what can one guy do anyway, even if he does have the power he does?”
“Never underestimate him, Rick,” Gray replied, sharper than he had intended.
Rick shrugged. Neither he nor Edward had been around during the argument that had finally sundered the friendship between the two men, but they never saw Turner from that time, and Gray never mentioned it. Truth be told, Rick didn’t miss the guy at all, from the few times he’d been to the mansion, he and Gray seemed to be mostly arguing about the latter’s vision of the future, saying it was nothing but a naïve fantasy, and bound to come to disaster.
“Where’s everyone?” Dianne asked, looking around her.
“Brad and I sent all the kids packing to bed early,” Rick said. “Didn’t want them listening to all this stuff, they were starting to get upset by it all. And I guess it’s late enough that Juliette wanted to get her beauty sleep.”
“Yes, it’s been a long day,” Gray said. “I think I’ll turn in for the night as well. Try not to dwell on today’s events, Dianne; you did the best you could under the circumstances.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that.”
“Goodnight, then. Sleep well, all of you.”
“Sure, you too, sir,” Rick echoed as Gray swivelled his chair to exit the lounge. They heard the whirr of his wheelchair as the only sound in the silence as he made his way down the corridor to his quarters.
Edward scratched his head and yawned, more forcefully than Gray had. “I think I’ll go do the same, I want to be up early to conduct a few experiments. Don’t stay up too late.”
Rick shook his head with a wry smile, as Edward disappeared after Gray, then turning back to Dianne to study her more carefully, noticing the faint lines of stress around her eyes. He might only be able to see the world in a limited spectrum of colour behind those ruby lenses, but his vision was one-hundred-and-twenty-percent perfect.
“You’re upset, babe, and I don’t blame you. I saw what happened, on the TV. Those stupid – ” he bit back his curse. “Want to tell me about it?”
She shook her head. “Not really, I’d honestly rather like to forget it. It wasn’t very pleasant.”
He regarded her for a moment. “You didn’t have to go on your own, you know.”
“I know,” she said with a sigh. “But you can’t be watching over me every minute of the day.”
He kissed her cheek and smiled lop-sidedly at her. “Hey, I don’t see why not, I am your slave, Lady Simms, your every wish is my command – well, in private anyway,” he added as an afterthought, waggling his eyebrows.
She wrinkled her nose at him. “You know fine well I’m not Lady Simms, I’m Lady Dianne, or I would be if I cared a jot,” she said, acquiescing to his attempt at levity. “All these years with me and you still haven’t cottoned on to the British peerage yet.”
He pulled her close to him and nuzzled her neck. “Not if I live till I’m ninety. However, I do know I’m a lucky guy, having a gorgeous young thing like you chucking it all to live with a boring old physics teacher on this side of the Atlantic.”
“You’re not old,” she said.
He nipped her this time, gently. “Cheek,” he whispered.
She pulled away, one hand flying to her mouth to stifle a yawn.
“You are dead beat, babe,” he said with a frown. He slung an arm around her shoulders, propelling her out of the lounge. “C’mon, let’s get you to bed.”
They ambled up into the sleeping wing where they shared a large suite. Gray had finally offered it to them after he – and the others – had finally tired of pretending they didn’t notice the two of them sneaking in and out of one another’s rooms.
He popped his head out of the bathroom to see her sitting on the edge of the bed, her head half turned away from him, exposing her profile in the muted light of their bed-lamps. He paused for a moment, seeing her bottom lip slightly protruding in that girlish pout when she was thinking too hard, like now. And then she rolled her head, obviously trying to relieve the tension in her neck and shoulders; legacy of the too-long day and its disturbing events. He threw the towel back across the hot-rail and crossed the room in several strides.
“Here, let me,” he said, pulling her gently towards him. He massaged his fingers deep into her shoulders, kneading out the knots of stress.
“Mmm,” she murmured, “that’s nice.” She leant closer to him, closing her eyes to his ministrations. At last, she stretched her neck and brought her chin down to her chest, as if luxuriating in the feel of his hands on her. When her silky red hair fell forward, baring the curve of her neck, he couldn’t resist dropping a gentle kiss on her skin. She trembled involuntarily at the gesture, and then turned slightly to him. She was upset all right, he thought, and he swore he saw dark clouds swirling within the blue of her eyes.
“Why won’t you tell me what’s wrong?” he tried again.
She chewed her bottom lip. “Didn’t you see it? On the tele-viewer?”
“Yeah, I did, I was worried about you.” He instantly regretted saying it. “Sorry, force of habit,” he added quickly.
She stroked his cheek, and the soft touch of her finger against the roughness of his skin made him shiver. “Well, love,” she replied, the flicker of annoyance altering into a wan smile, “I suppose there are worse things to be.”
They stared at one another for a long minute. He saw her eyes defocus, knew she was picking up on his drifting thoughts. And he knew damn well he shouldn’t be thinking such thoughts, so late at night, with her looking so tired; but he couldn’t help it. She had that effect on him, despite their years together. She reached out a hand to touch his glasses, and he automatically grabbed at her wrist, gently pulling it away.
“You don’t know how much I want to see your face. All of it,” she said.
“Dianne,” he said with a faint sigh, and not for the first time did he curse the X-gene mutancy that made him have to be so damn careful, twenty-four hours a day.
“Sometimes I hate these things,” she said.
His jaw tightened, as did his grip on her wrist. “And you think I don’t? You know it’s too dangerous. If I lost control, even for a second, I’d kill you.”
Her lip went into a pout again, and he thought she was going to cry on him. “C’mere,” he said, his voice going rough with emotion. He felt her hair tickle his cheek, and then he felt her lips slide along his cheek to find his mouth, and she was up close against him, soft and willowy against his own hard angles. He closed his eyes, felt the heat rise in him as the kiss drew them on. He was the first to break it, and they were both breathless.
“Dianne, I don’t want –”
She put two slender fingers on his lips. “Shh – I need to wash this day away. Make me forget, please?”
Moments later they were rocking together, skin to skin. But then, she gave a little whimper and he flinched. She was too tense, too tight. “I’ll hurt you,” he said, pulling back suddenly to scan her face; she was still pale, her eyes screwed up.
“I don’t care,” she said, through her teeth, and she thrust against him with such force the decision was no longer his to make. But there was desperation in her movements, as if she wanted to find oblivion in the mindlessness of sex. It bothered him, as if he was making love to someone who looked like her, and yet felt like someone totally different.
“Let it out, babe, let it go,” he whispered against her ear.
And, as if he had uttered some magic words, all the anger and tension seemed to crystallise inside of her; and then suddenly she clung to him, gripping his arms as if her soul was fracturing, and he felt her hot tears wet his cheek. And then, she melted warm and fluid against him; and her body fused with his, moving into the old, familiar rhythm, until she gave a little cry at last – and he followed her – losing himself to the night. Afterwards, they lay, clinging to one another, damp with perspiration, and he felt her breathing slow, until she drifted off to sleep, and it wasn’t a long time before he felt himself float off, his body locked together with hers against the world that hated and feared them.
Sometime around three am, Dianne was awakened by an empathic vision, accompanied by a stabbing pain that made her clutch her head in agony. She involuntarily uttered a sharp cry that startled him from sleep. He rolled over, instinctively feeling his eyes, satisfied his night goggles were in place. Turning the lamp on he saw her sitting up, eyes unfocused and rocking slightly, like a child frightened by a terrible nightmare.
He wound an arm around her shoulder to pull her against him, as if by sharing his warmth, he might somehow make it all right. But these dreams had been happening too often, almost to the point of being a nightly occurrence. It worried him. Gray seemed to think that she was somehow latching onto an individual’s mutant brain-wave pattern and was experiencing some aspect of their nightmares. Gray called it a unique and strange phenomenon; likening it to a psychic cry for help, with Dianne the intercepting medium.
Finally, she calmed down and said quietly: “I’m sorry. I woke you yet again.”
He tenderly pushed a few tendrils of damp hair away from her eyes. “Forget it. Was it another one of those – bad dreams?”
She nodded mutely, looked down at the tangled bed-sheets, and shivered. Her body was bathed in a fine sheen of sweat.
“Want to talk about it?” he said.
She shook her head in-between another bout of shivering and he gently pulled her down onto the bed again, holding her tightly in the crook of one arm, feeling the dampness of her against his own skin, wanting to protect her from these dreams, and yet knowing he was powerless to do so.
Her reluctance to talk about the subject bothered him more than he cared to admit. The fact that she somehow inexplicably knew this individual was male only heightened his feelings of confusion. But what was not up for debate was the fact that Gray was convinced that if this pattern continued, both of their minds would begin to deteriorate, so Rick knew that something had to be done about it. But the Professor’s proposal scared him almost as much as doing nothing.
The Spectrum Society was an exclusive private establishment in the heart of New York City. Its membership list read like a who’s who of the world’s elite. Membership could not be bought. Rather it was by invitation. The majority of the members were from the world of business and finance, although amongst their number were several world government politicians, A-list celebrities from the world of film and a sprinkling of heads of state.
The society’s chairman was John L. Henderson, one of the most powerful industrialists in America. His fair hair had turned early to silver, but his magnetic eyes and suave smile hinted at his powerful charm. He graduated from the Harvard Business School at twenty-one and had made his first million by twenty-five. There were few pies that he didn’t have his fingers in: food, cosmetics, heavy machinery, and biotechnology to name but a few. The pursuit of wealth and power was something that never ceased to fascinate him. It was burned into his soul, ever since the day he had discovered he was one of the chosen: homo sapiens superior. He might have entered politics, like his father did, but he didn’t see the need to prostitute himself in that arena, subject to the whims of the masses.
His own particular mutant ability was to be able to absorb kinetic energy and re-channel it into his own physical strength. He had been extremely careful to hide this aptitude and had become adept at using it subtly, all of which added to the powerful aura of the man. He was determined that money and influence would ensure he could not be touched for this particular affliction however. But after many years, the pursuit of these creatures had become a corruption, and the constant need for them consumed him.
It was late. And, although he never really tired, as a normal man might, it had been a very busy day. It was possibly time to retire to bed. He thought he might indulge in a nightcap so he went across the to drinks cabinet. For a second he admired the fine painting of Napoleon Bonaparte, set above on the wall. It was one of his particular favourites.
A sudden gust of wind blew the windows open and the drapes billowed into the room. With a sudden sharp stab of annoyance he marched across to close them – and then stepped back in surprise as he saw a tall black-garbed figure hover in the air framed by the open window. Conrad Turner floated silently into the room and alighted on the floor of the study as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Henderson stared at him as if he was a ghost.
Then his composure rallied and he blurted out, “My God, to what do I owe this entirely unexpected pleasure?”
Turner regarded the industrialist with baleful eyes. “I can do without your jaded wit.”
Henderson decided to be polite. “Would you care for a drink, now that you’re here?”
Turner shook his head, his arms folded in an impassive manner.
Henderson shrugged and opened the mahogany cabinet, pulling out a bottle of bourbon. “Fine by me, I don’t suppose you’ll mind if I indulge myself. I was about to go to bed, and I think I might need a nightcap.”
“Do go ahead. You’re aware alcohol dulls the brain?”
Henderson ignored the remark and poured himself a large glass, and then returned the bottle to its place in the cabinet. He took a draught of the amber liquid, savouring the burn, and regarded the man standing opposite him. He was not someone who frightened at all easily. However, he was prepared to admit, if only to himself, that there was only one other person in the world whom he would not chose to lock swords with.
Turner glowered at him. “I see you missed the hearing for the proposed Mutant Registration bill in Unity City. Instead I see you consorting with the man who created it. That concerns me.”
Henderson frowned. “I prefer not to advertise the fact. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one reality in this world, whether you are a so-called mutant or not, and that’s the power and money to do whatsoever you please, on any scale.”
“Your schemes are petty, when you could do so much more for our kind.”
“Oh spare me your sermonising. Our business at the Spectrum Society has nothing whatsoever to do with you. Have you forgotten that the Inner Council have offered you a place on more than one occasion, as our Black Bishop, and you have refused every time?”
Turner laughed shortly. “And do you think, you idiot, for one minute, that if Roberts knew what you were, that he would be so keen to fraternise with you?
“We go back a long way, the Senator and I. He has his little secrets – and I have mine. And as long as we keep it that way – we’re all happy.”
Turner’s lips broke into a thin smile. “So no, he doesn’t.”
“He knows what’s good for him.”
“Yes, I can imagine. He’s put himself forward as a presidential candidate this year. I suppose you might be contributing to his campaign fund?”
Henderson took another sip of bourbon. “Maybe.”
“And what has he offered you in return?”
“Does there need to be anything in return?”
“You’re forgetting that we go back a long way too. You don’t give anything away for nothing.”
Henderson took another draught, and pursed his lips. “He’s given me some information about a mutant on the loose. In fact, he’s on the run from the government.”
“That seems somewhat bizarre given his stance against our kind.”
Henderson shrugged. “He doesn’t know I’m a mutant, remember, and I offered to help find him, with my – resources.”
Turner raised a dark eyebrow. “And what’s your real motive?”
Henderson shrugged. “I’m a concerned citizen.”
Turner barked a laugh. “Of course. Whatever it is, I’m sure lining your pocket will be at the bottom of it.”
It was Henderson’s turn to frown. “Listen, I didn’t invite you in here tonight, and it’s getting late. What exactly do you want?”
Turner didn’t reply immediately. Instead he crossed to the open window and looked out across the street. Henderson sighed and took another sip of his bourbon. He had forgotten that Turner liked to make dramatic gestures. But he was clever, and potentially dangerous, it wouldn’t do at all to rile him. A log crackled in the grate, throwing up sparks and smoke and punctuating the silence in the room. When at last the dark-haired mutant turned around to face Henderson again he had a brooding look on his pallid features.
“I’ve decided enough is enough. I intend to act with strength against these blind fools.”
Henderson shrugged. “I don’t have any arguments there. You know that.”
“Yes, but you act in your own self-interest, I don’t.”
“You’re upset about this vote.”
Turner’s eyes were black stones in his face. “Upset? The word doesn’t even remotely describe my depths of anger I feel for this travesty of justice and the man who is responsible for it.”
“Okay, okay, so you don’t like Roberts. Personally, neither do I. But I never let my personal feelings get in the way of good business.”
He decided to change the subject. “Anyway, I am considering, if it makes you feel better, to attempt to find this mutant in order to help him, perhaps even offer him a reason to work for me. But I have a problem, he can’t be found, not even by the government.”
There was a few moments silence, and then Turner said, “I know someone who could.”
Turner’s unexpected change of direction confused Henderson for a moment. “Who?”
“A man called Charles Gray.”
Henderson’s eyes narrowed, his brain doing swift mental recall. “Gray – You don’t mean the Charles Gray, reclusive scientific genius?” he looked in surprise at Turner.
Turner nodded in the affirmative.
Henderson shook his head in surprise; he hadn’t given the man a thought in some time, but everyone who moved in the genetics and biotechnology circles had heard of the Englishman. Gray was regarded as a scientific genius; he had gained a professorship when most students were just graduating but had then turned his back on science to join the British Navy, becoming a war hero to add to his other accolades.
“I thought he’d retired from the public view? Some private tragedy? It was all hushed up – ”
“He wife died of cancer after the atomic war in Europe, and he decided to devote his time to pursuing his life-dream.”
“You know him well?” Henderson’s curiosity was piqued, especially as he saw the dark shadow flit across Turner’s face for a brief moment.
“We – shared a stupid dream once,” his voice trailed and his visage returned to its familiar hardness. Henderson knew any further reminiscences were over.
“What’s his interest in searching for mutants?” he asked, changing the subject.
“He happens to be one, as are we, and he gathers the young and the dispossessed so he can hypnotise them into believing they can exist in harmony with their fellow non-mutants.”
Henderson’s eyebrows shot up. This was news indeed. “And you think he could lead me to this mutant?”
Henderson rubbed his lower lip, his head whirling at the possibilities. Turner’s visit to the Spectrum Society seemed absurdly fortuitous in the light of things. Never one to dismiss coincidence or serendipity, he wanted to pursue this avenue. The only question was… what did he want in return? Perhaps now they would get to the real reason for his visit.
“So, you were saying about the registration vote. You’re upset, anything I can help you with?”
“As a matter of fact, you can. I conducted some research during my time with you at Henderson Technologies – in my own free time of course,” he added. “I – abandoned it for a while. But now, I feel the time is ripe to revisit it once again.”
He removed an electronic notebook from his long overcoat and handed it to Henderson. “All the details are in here. You have the facilities and manpower to carry out my wishes.”
Henderson pressed the scroll key, and the information scrolled up on the small screen. After he had scrutinised and digested, a frown of disbelief appeared on his face. He glanced up at Turner.
“You’re kidding me?”
“I never joke, you know that.”
“You come in here demanding – this. Do you know what you’re asking for here? What I would risk if I even agreed to it?”
Turner smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “No more than you risk every day.”
Henderson’s head snapped up.
“Oh yes,” the other man said, “I know about your private illegal cloning research. Of course, that and much of your other industry might be in jeopardy if certain facts were disclosed to the World Government or WIN about the true nature of your operations.”
Henderson’s eyes narrowed in anger but a sliver of fear iced through his guts. “Are you trying to blackmail me?”
Turner spread his hands. “Call it what you like. You’ve got the most advanced genetic research facilities on the planet; you should be flattered to be involved in such a noble aim for mutant-kind. But I’m a reasonable man. And it seems that I can perhaps offer you something in return, which I have to admit, I didn’t expect, until we had our little discussion about your mutant.”
Now, Henderson thought, here was the payoff. “I’m all ears.”
“I’ll help you find your mutant in exchange for access to your labs.”
“And you keep your nose out of my plans for him?”
Turner nodded. “Agreed.”
Henderson tried not to smile. Ideals were always sacrificed on the altar of ambition when the stakes were high enough.
Paul Metcalfe balanced lightly on the balls of his feet, jiggling his arms and shoulders, loosening up his muscles. He attempted to ignore the sounds and odours of his surroundings, so he could focus only on the task ahead; that of getting his hands on the prize-fight money. The air in the crammed barn – an excuse for a boxing ring – reeked with the tang of barely washed bodies, nicotine, and alcohol. Tobacco smoke writhed upwards into the dark, grimy ceiling, creating a drifting haze that irritated his sensitive eyes and nostrils.
Paul’s eyes trailed across the floor of the ring. Patches of dried-something, blood most likely, he thought, coated the grey surface. Upwards his eyes moved, to rest finally upon his opponent, Cannonball. That was a perfect name for him, Paul thought. He was built like a bulldozer, slits of eyes embedded in the freshly shaven ball of a head., with his thick neck sliding into a mass of brutish muscle, no doubt amplified by a cocktail of banned performance drugs. Paul wondered idly if this was the best he could do to get himself out of his predicament. But he knew the answer to that. He was done with stealing food and he wanted to feel something other than freezing lumpy ground or park benches under his back.
So here he was, following a tip from a truck driver he had hitched a ride with two days ago. He had casually mentioned a place where they ran a prize-fight, no holds barred, no questions asked. And highly illegal as well, he thought. You just had to pay the entrance money in order to take a shot at the champion, and if you stayed ten rounds with him, there was a nice fat pot of money for the winner.
Trouble was, as he looked at the hulking brute grinning evilly across from him, he figured that the likelihood of anyone coming away with said cash was nil to zero. He also suspected that the organizers made big bucks out of this operation. And chances were that the truck driver, who had mentioned that his brother ran it, was on the lookout for fresh mugs to send his way.
The referee, of sorts, threw his arm down to the ring between them, and Cannonball stood up to rise and shuffle lazily towards Paul, arms raised in typical fighter’s stance. He was several inches taller than Paul, who was no midget himself at six foot one inch, and the smirk on his face and the leisurely gait indicated what little he thought of his challenger’s chances.
Paul hovered a little away from him, waiting for Cannonball to make the fist move, so he could see where he punched. As he circled, he barely registered the sea of faces, avid for the spectacle tonight. He damped down his senses to ignore everything around him, odours, faces, sounds, so he could pay attention to the fight ahead.
Cannonball moved closer to him, and grinned, displaying a set of uneven yellow teeth.
“Let’s see if I can rearrange that pretty face of yours,” he said with a sneer.
With unexpected speed, he lashed out with a vein-rippled arm towards Paul’s face, but he was ready for it and sidestepped the blow with ease – except Cannonball lashed out with his left leg; scything across Paul’s shins, throwing him off balance. Cannonball took advantage and cracked a meaty fist into Paul’s unprotected side.
Paul staggered backwards, pain exploding in his ribs; he felt the second blow smashing into his face through a veil of numbness.
The crowd cheered, expecting the fight to be over very soon.
Paul licked his swollen lip, tasting the blood that had pooled inside his mouth. His bones might be nearly unbreakable but his tissue could still split like a ripe melon. He spat blood across the mat and shook his head to clear the ringing in his ears.
His vision cleared to see Cannonball rubbing his knuckles, a Neanderthal look of confusion in his eyes as to why his opponent’s body should hurt him that much. The puzzlement didn’t last long, however, and Paul’s respite was short-lived as he shambled, ape-like across the mat, intent on handing out another drubbing.
He squinted at Paul, and said with bravado, “No way out, pretty boy. Guess your money’s all mine.”
Cannonball let fly with another blow, this time obviously aiming to crack several of Paul’s vertebrae on the way through his stomach. Pure rage bloomed through Paul; he reached out like lightning and caught the hand. A fleeting expression of surprise flashed over Cannonball’s face, as Paul twisted his arm sideways, exposing his opponent’s midriff. Paul lashed out with his foot, smashing it into the bigger man’s unprotected flesh.
It was Cannonball’s turn to stagger away, and Paul could hear him retch. Paul moved towards him, ready to deliver a killer blow, and found the referee blocking his way.
The crowd were hyped up now, fuelled by the sight of blood and of a match that seemed to be more evenly contested than appeared at first sight. They were splitting into two camps, some openly betting on Paul now they could see the champion wavering.
“C’mon, hit the sonofabitch!”
“Beat the crap out of him!”
“You’re a dead man,” Cannonball said, with a grunt.
“Only if you catch me,” Paul answered, and danced sideways, catlike, keeping out of his range. That only served to make Cannonball madder; his eyes were glassy, fever-bright with the obvious enhancers, the veins popping along the surface of his shiny skull. The referee dodged out of the way, evidently sensing what was coming.
Cannonball lunged wildly at Paul, all of his brutish muscle behind the blow.
Paul ducked and the punch went wide past his ears. He sprang up under Cannonball’s guard and smashed the heel of his hand under his chin. He felt a savage rush of joy as Cannonball’s teeth clashed together. Paul didn’t waste the moment and followed with another smash into his nose with his other fist.
There was a loud crack.
Cannonball gurgled and fell back, blood streaming from his ruined face. The referee made to step forward, but the feral look Paul threw at him made him retrace that step with a look of sudden terror on his face. Paul sprang onto Cannonball and set into him with a series of savage blows to his entire body that left the giant reeling on the mat.
The crowd went wild. A couple of women tried to climb into the ring, only to be pulled out kicking and screeching by the organiser’s heavies. Cannonball dropped to his knees, and Paul ended it by lifting his head and landing a stunning roundhouse punch to his chin.
The giant toppled over like a felled oak onto the mat amidst the yelling and catcalls of the crowd.
Paul clambered out of the ring and strode over to the bar. The injuries inflicted upon him by the champ were healing fast and he didn’t want to draw too much attention to them. He didn’t imagine freaks were too highly thought of in this part of the world.
Paul grabbed his shirt, and threw it on, followed it by his leather jacket. He pushed his way up to the bar where the rodent-faced owner stood waiting, having watched the fight with a sullen glare in his beady eyes.
Paul wiped sweat away from his face with his forearm. “I won the fight, so pay up,” he said to the man in an even voice.
“There’s no one who could beat Cannonball, you must’ve been on something.”
Paul laughed shortly. “Right. More like the other way round. That guy had no neck to speak of. I won fair and square and you know it.”
The owner’s eyes narrowed further, if that was possible. “And what’s with your face? Seems to me like you had a lot of damage done to it – and I can hardly see a mark on you now. What are you – one of those mutants they’re talking about?”
Paul saw nods of assent from some of the bystanders; this wasn’t going too well, and he needed to be away from here quickly. He leaned over the bar, grabbed the man’s shirt so it almost strangled him.
“The money,” he said quietly. “And then I’ll leave, nice and quietly.”
Rodent-face flinched in sudden fear. His arm flailed under the counter and then appeared again grasping a large wad of notes wrapped in a rubber band. Paul grabbed it with his free hand and tucked it inside his jacket. He let go of Rodent-face’s shirt and the thin man dropped six inches to the floor behind the bar.
“Thanks. It’s been a pleasure,” Paul said.
He felt the glare of those beady eyes following him out, and then his ears caught: “The pleasure’s gonna be mine. You’ll leave all right, but you won’t be wearing that face when you do.”
Something in the inflection of the voice made Paul whirl around. From nowhere, six musclemen were making their way towards him. They all brandished heavy wooden baseball bats, and they looked like they meant business. Paul swore under his breath and attempted to dash through the crowd. But the six heavies piled onto him, whacking the bats onto every inch of his body with unrestrained fury. The crowd fell back; a few whoops by some delighted by the prospect of some unscheduled entertainment.
Paul’s hands flew to his head, desperately trying to protect his skull from the raining blows. One heavy smashed his bat into Paul’s ribs; there was a crack, as both bat and body shattered. Paul gasped out loud in pain, one hand flying to his side, only to feel the explosion of pain in his jaw as another bat connected with the side of his exposed head.
Paul’s heartbeat accelerated, adrenaline flooded into his bloodstream. Neurons clicked, processed, downloading a cascade into his brain that drove out logical thought patterns, leaving a brutal atavistic desire to fight. But yet, something in another part of his brain struggled to hold onto his rational mind, knowing deep down that to succumb to it would result in him losing part of himself. But the imprinting was too strong – there was a roaring in his brain as the red mist descended from nowhere and his mind slipped the shackles of lucidity –
A low guttural sound escaped his lips.
“Did you hear that?” one thug stopped for a second, having sharper hearing than the others, who continued to batter Paul.
No one replied, for in the next instant, they all heard the blood-curdling howl that rent the smoky atmosphere. Paul’s claws unleashed with a wet rasping sound and he sliced sideways with one arm, cutting clean through one of the bats.
“My God, it’s some sort of monster!” someone screamed from the crowd, as they shrank back as one, leaving the six thugs dazedly circling Paul, his transformation freezing them into immobility. His eyes glinted with a feral light; his lips peeled back from his teeth. He snarled like a cornered animal, and with blinding speed, sprang upwards, his claws ripping into the nearest two thugs, with a sickening sound of metal into flesh. The gurgling screams struck blind panic into the bystanders and there was a rush to the back of the barn, seeking escape from this beast. The remaining thugs’ courage burst like a popped balloon and they backed away from Paul, dragging their wounded with them.
Paul looked around, eyes glazed, breathing heavily, oblivious to the havoc he had created. But despite the dullness of the red mist in his brain, and the confusion, a tiny mote of lucid thought sparked within his mind – noted the clear space to the exit – freedom.
He took it.
“Sir, we have activity on Weapon-Red.”
Major Reeves looked over at the technician manning the computer console, the man’s fingers skimming rapidly over the touch-panels to retrieve the data.
Maybe their luck was turning at last.
“What do you have?”
“The transmitter just activated. We’ve got a track on it. Washakie County, Wyoming. “Which is the nearest team to that location?”
“It’s Blue-team sir.”
“Get them on it pronto!” Reeves barked.
He knew this might be the only chance they would get to recover Weapon-Red. Something must have happened to trigger the imprinting, and he would react like the wild-animal he was.
“ – and tell them to maintain extreme caution.”
Charles Gray sipped a china cup of Darjeeling tea, a habit he hadn’t discarded in forty years, even when he had been stationed on a British Naval destroyer back in Europe. It was his steadfast opinion that the minutiae of simple things kept one sane in an ever changing world. He sat within the calm oasis of his study, a refuge from the sometimes noisy atmosphere of the school. The late afternoon sun streamed through the blinds, casting slatted shadows across the room and bringing out the glow of the burnished rosewood desk where he sat reviewing the latest news items on his personal video-console, linked to the outside world. Three walls of the office were tiered from floor to ceiling with bookcases filled with tomes on almost every conceivable subject and it would have been a brave soul who dared suggest that Gray hadn’t read every single one of them.
A sharp knock on the door broke his concentration, in mid-sip of his tea. He swallowed before responding.
Rick popped his head around the door. “I hope you don’t mind me interrupting you?”
“No, not at all. What’s on your mind?”
Rick sat down heavily on a chair and ran a hand through his tousled hair. “Well, it’s more a case of what’s on Dianne’s mind.” He leant forward, and Gray could sense the pent up energy in the man, the concern radiating from him.
“Those dreams, they’re getting worse. I hate to say this, but I guess we have to do something.”
Gray nodded; a sombre look on his face. “Yes, I suspected it would happen. I really think it’s time we considered Cerebro.”
“But you’ve always said Dianne didn’t have the mental strength to hook up with the device, so why do you think that’s such a good idea now?”
“That was when she was younger. I believe her psionic abilities have matured enough to take that risk now, especially since we have little choice.”
“Why can’t you just pick up the brainwave patterns using Cerebro like you would do for any other mutant?”
Gray heard the plea in the younger man’s voice. “Believe me, Rick, if I could, don’t you think I would be doing just that?”
“Sure.” He sat back in the chair, his face tight. “Sorry, that was a dumb-ass question.”
“That’s quite all right. I understand your concern. It bothers me that I am unable to do this myself. It’s the first time I’ve been unable to find a mutant using Cerebro. But I wouldn’t risk Dianne’s sanity if I didn’t believe that she was capable of going through with this. Once Edward and I make the adjustments for her particular mental make-up, I am confident it will work.”
Rick didn’t reply, but the tight line of his jaw suggested he wasn’t quite as confident of his fiancée’s abilities as Gray was.
“You can be over-protective at times, you know,” Gray said. “Dianne’s abilities are becoming stronger all the time. Of course there’s always an element of risk, in everything we do. But I’m almost certain that if she does not make a physical connection, and very soon, then the minds of both of them will start to deteriorate.”
The younger man finally nodded, acquiescing to his former teacher, knowing that at least on the latter point, he agreed.
Cerebro was the code name for the Cerebral Pulsator. Gray and Conrad Turner had developed the theory behind the machine, as a way of locating the ever increasing number of mutants in their midst. The device amplified Gray’s telepathic ability and enabled him to ‘see’ the unique brainwave patterns of mutants in his mind so he could pin-point them in reality. Gray was the only one who operated Cerebro to this point; an unskilled human mind would be rendered severely traumatized, or, in a worst-case scenario, the individual might die when they attempted to use it. Gray however, was convinced that Dianne’s telepathic powers had matured to the point where she could use it without harm. Or at least, that was his hope.
Suddenly, without warning, violent waves of empathic pain pounded through Charles Gray’s skull. He clapped a hand to his forehead, as if to crush the pain. Rick leapt out of his chair to help him.
Gray waved a hand, as he felt the waves ebbing, leaving a mild throbbing as the only reminder of their visit. “I’m – fine. I sensed another mutant mind, in terrible anguish. I must locate them with Cerebro.”
“Sure, let me go with you.”
The two men took the elevator to the basement. As the door slid open one level down they moved out into a corridor that was the complete antithesis of the one they had just left. Where that was all mellow wood, this was gleaming stainless steel and white tiles. The basement itself was starkly high tech, and especially so in the soundproofed chamber where Cerebro was housed. They turned right and along another gleaming corridor that ended in a wall with an embedded massive circular stainless-steel door, similar to an entrance to a bank vault.
Next to the door, at Gray’s eye level, was a touch-key panel. Gray moved closer, his eye almost touching a tiny screen embedded in the wall. He activated several keys and the screen flickered into life. A vertical beam scanned his eyeball, comparing it with the retinal image stored in its memory. There was a beep, tumblers could be heard quietly clicking into place and finally, a loud click and the massive door swung outwards. They both entered the room the chamber, its light casting a bluish-silver shadow on both men’s faces.
Gray positioned his wheelchair at a curved console. Within its confines, trillions of terabytes of processing power gave Cerebro life. He picked up the simple skullcap, three curving bands of titanium terminating in a metal cable that connected to the console.
Rick stood back and watched as Gray placed it upon his head. He saw the professor’s body stiffen a fraction, as if he had been subjected to an electrical shock. Moments passed and finally Gray removed the skullcap, replaced it in its cradle and swivelled his chair around. Rick noted that his eyes still retained that peculiar unfocused state after operating Cerebro. He waited patiently until Gray’s vision returned to normal, then cocked his head.
“A mutant, female, I’ve located her in a hostel in Brooklyn,” Gray said to his unspoken query.
“I’ll go get her.”
“Take Dianne; the girl may be scared, and the presence of another woman might calm her fears.”
The hostel Gray had identified was in one of the roughest parts of the area. Dianne wrinkled her nose in distaste as she and Rick drove through the neighbourhood. Used condoms and broken needles littered the sidewalks and derelicts huddled in the dank doorways of boarded up premises. A general miasma of fear hung clung to the streets and the buildings. Dianne could feel it and she shivered.
“My God, how can we say we’re a civilised country when people still live like this?” she said, staring at a young girl barely dressed in skin-tight fluorescent yellow spandex, touting for business on the street corner. She couldn’t have been more than thirteen.
He shook his head. “Don’t ask me. Maybe if jerks like Roberts worried more about the state of the streets than chasing mutants...” he said, his sentence trailing off as he saw the street sign. “There it is, across the road.”
They activated all the car’s security systems and then entered the hostel. Dianne’s nose wrinkled further at the smell and the place looked like it hadn’t seen a coat of paint for about a century or two. Luckily, there was no one behind the filthy reception desk to ask questions they didn’t want to answer.
As they climbed to the second floor Rick said, “Are you getting any mutant activity?”
“Something faint, I can’t quite make it out, as well as I should,” she replied. “But my best guess is about the middle of the corridor.”
The door was locked. It looked flimsy enough to give way to a good shove, but Rick didn’t want anyone coming out to investigate the noise. “I hope Charles is right about this,” he said, removing his visor from his jacket. He slipped it on to replace his glasses and flicked the beam-controller to minimum. A pencil thin red beam emitted from the visor, crumbling the lock. The door sagged inwards.
They saw a pretty young black woman lying on the bed in the corner of the sparsely furnished room. Same age as myself or thereabouts, Dianne thought. She sat up quickly on one elbow, fear in her red-rimmed eyes as she looked at the strangers.
“Don’t be afraid, we’re here to help you,” Dianne said quietly, picking her way gingerly across the tattered and soiled carpet, as Rick put his glasses back on and kept watch by the door.
“How – why?” she babbled in a heavy Southern accent. She pushed back her short hair; the dark mass punctuated by strands of almost pure white framing her face. It accentuated the rich coffee of her skin and marked her as exotically different.
“You’re a mutant – aren’t you?” Dianne said.
“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,” the girl replied, glancing over at Rick.
“Please,” Dianne said, “you can trust us. We can help you. You don’t have to stay in this place.”
Still silence. She looked at them with wide frightened eyes, like a deer caught in the headlights of an onrushing car. Dianne’s brows drew together in a frown. She had opened her personal mental shield to try to gauge the state of the young woman’s mind but, unlike the usual blasts of naked emotion and mental chattering that she usually would receive from a non-telepath, this was more akin to a muted haze. Odd, she thought, but not entirely unusual, who knew what mysterious abilities were generated by the X-factor gene? Still, her fear was evident enough. Dianne hoped that perhaps asking non-confrontational questions might dissolve some of it.
“What’s your name?”
“Why would you care?”
“I just thought it might be nice to know who I’m having a conversation with.”
“Magnolia – Jones,”
“That’s a nice name.”
“Yeah, my momma liked it.” Dianne saw pain flash through the sullen brown eyes.
“You’re a long way from home,” Rick remarked.
“What’s it to you?” she said, glancing at him again.
Dianne sighed. This wasn’t getting anywhere, and she didn’t really want to spend any more time in this smelly dump than she had to. But despite the temptation, she did not even try to send a mental command of persuasion to this prickly porcupine of a young woman. The very idea made her recoil. But she was fast losing patience. Every moment they spent here in this place they risked being discovered. She didn’t know what trauma this girl had suffered to give rise to the painful cry for help that Gray had picked up, but Dianne didn’t want to meet the initiator of them first hand, even with Rick by her side.
“Look, would it help if we told you we were mutants too?” she said.
“I don’t believe you.” Magnolia’s eyes flitted from one to the other.
“All right,” Dianne said, and held out one hand – the rusty metal lamp on the bedside table floated upwards a foot into the air.
Magnolia’s eyes widened and Rick spoke up from his outwardly casual arms-folded position at the door. “You don’t want to see what I can do.”
Dianne said, “We know you’re a mutant because our – employer can read minds. He can trace people like you and me – mutants. That’s how we found you here. He heard your empathic cry. Someone hurt you, didn’t they?”
Magnolia nodded slowly, and Dianne swore she saw a glimmer of moisture in those brooding brown eyes.
“We have a place of refuge for people like yourself, somewhere where you can be safe, and learn to use your talent wisely. We really hope that you’ll trust us enough to come with us. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay.” Dianne hoped that this time, she would actually listen to them. For, despite being a telepath, she had never used her abilities to persuade another human being to do something against their will.
Magnolia sat up fully, and swiftly rubbed the offending eye. “You’re really not kiddin’ me?”
“Nope,” Rick said, from the door. “Really not. C’mon, here’s a choice. A nice warm house, safe from all the deadbeats and junkies out there – or this?” He thumbed the room with distaste.
“And no questions asked?” she said, a hopeful look beginning to replace the sullen one as she glanced back at Dianne.
Dianne shook her head. “Not if you don’t want to tell us anything. We offer our friendship and trust in a world that seems to have little of either…for anyone, far less mutant-kind.”
Magnolia seemed to summon some decision within herself. “Well, okay, it couldn’t hurt to try, I reckon. Better than all this – like you said.” She swung her legs off the bed onto the floor and stood up. She was a good couple of inches shorter than Dianne, but there was something about her manner that made one think, don’t push me, I’m tougher than I look.
Dianne smiled. “Well, we’re glad about that. And by the way, we’ve been rude, not introducing ourselves. I’m Dianne and this is Rick.”
“Sure,” she replied, hauling a black and green tattered hold-all from underneath the lumpy bed. She stood up and slung it across one shoulder. “Well, I guess I’m ready to go wherever you want me too.”
Dianne breathed a sigh of relief.
Paul awoke in the motel room, and from the pale light suffusing through the small window via the dingy drapes, he realised that it must have been well into the morning. As he rolled over onto his back on the lumpy mattress, damp with sweat, he swallowed to allow the saliva to take away the taste of ashes in his mouth.
He stared at the ceiling, trying to make sense of the last twenty-four hours in the latest chapter of his life. He remembered waking up in the woods, where he had stumbled after running from the bar. When the battle-lust had cleared, his focus had returned too – razor sharp. He used the money he had won and decided to find a motel for the remainder of the night. He had crashed on the bed, exhausted, before the inevitable nightmares woke him once again.
He had thought that he might have only imagined the blood and the screams and the destruction he had wreaked. But now it was all too clear that he hadn’t imagined it all. For a second time he had acted like some animal, as if someone else held the strings to his movements, and only one small part of his mind that cowered from the beast could see it all in mute horror.
He had been born with retractable claws, a freakish birthmark that he desperately kept hidden. But somehow, recently, before his memory fell into a black hole, the bones in his hands had been changed to metal. He wondered if the nightmares had something to do with it. How the hell could something like that be done – and why? Despite his lack of memory, Paul knew deep within him that it was all for some dark purpose.
Well, feeling sorry for yourself won't get you a ticket anywhere out of this.
Finally, he blew air out from his cheeks and pulled himself into a sitting position, running his hands through his damp hair. After a few more minutes, he hauled himself out of the bed, and shuffled into the tiny mildewed bathroom to turn on the shower. As he waited for the water to warm up, he threw off his vest and bottoms and wondered why he had chosen such a decrepit motel for his first night on a real bed since his escape. The answer was simple really – it was cheap. There was no telling how long he would be running, and no telling where the next windfall would come from. He needed to be mobile so he needed a car, and that cost money.
As he looked up, he caught his reflection staring back at him in the cracked mirror. His strong stubborn jaw was unshaven, and his eyes; electric blue, possessed a feral look in their depths. It made him think suddenly of some sort of hunted animal.
God, I look wrecked. I’m going to have to find a way out of this mess or I’m only going to get worse, he thought.
His fingers clasped his small metal dog tag on its thin chain around his neck – he twirled it in his fingers and stared at it with a brooding intent, as if he was a medium trying to make contact with the dead. It still didn’t resurrect any memories.
Dejected, he got into the shower and let the barely hot water stream over him to help clean the vestiges of the night away.
Try as he might, he couldn’t bring any pictures to mind. It was as if when he awoke, the memories drifted off into insubstantial mist leaving only the imprint of their terror in his waking consciousness.
He thought this was a ridiculous thought, but he imagined that she was trying to call him, but what she was trying to say – he never could remember, just like everything else in his dreaming state. His stomach grumbled at him as he dressed, so he walked briskly across the small plaza to a diner that he’d spotted the night before. The sky was gun-metal grey and he sniffed at the faint sharp tang of impending snow in the air. As he crossed the tarmac, his eyes shifted around, still creature-aware of his fugitive status. As he entered the diner he saw it was full of customers eating breakfast. No one paid any attention to him as he walked in and picked his way to a table near the rear, facing the door. Just in case.
The place looked like it hadn’t been changed in a hundred years, and probably hadn’t. Chrome-edged Formica tables and dark red peeling imitation leather banquettes gave it a genuine twentieth century look. The staff looked like they had been here about that long as well.
The waitress, at the wrong end of forty and wearing the results of an over-enthusiastic make-up job, sauntered up to him brandishing her notepad and a coffee jug. “What’ll you be having?” she said, and tipped the mug on its end so she could pour some coffee into it.
He glanced at the plastic menu. She waited, pen poised, noisily chewing gum. He rattled off a selection of items. He was ravenous.
“How’d you like your eggs?” She didn’t look up from her scribbling.
“Scrambled.” Like my head.
“Be right back.” She sauntered back to the counter and yelled the order before moving onto the next customer.
He sipped his coffee. Tasted like road tar. Still it took the ashes away, finally. He took his time over the meal, thinking of his next steps. Now that he had some money, he could afford to get a car. He needed transport to get him as far south as he could, and somehow try to patch together the shattered pieces of his life. Finally, the waitress had given up on refilling his mug, and he knew he had outstayed his welcome. He left her as big a tip as he could, given his finances, and as he darted one last look at the place he caught her eyes as she cleared his table. She winked at him, and he turned, a small smile curving his lips. He opened the door and stepped out into the cold. He felt the tiny motes brush his nose, frozen and wet. The leaden sky had fulfilled its promise and it had started to snow.
On the drive back to Winchester, Magnolia had fallen asleep on the back seat, only stirring as they approached the mansion. She rubbed sandpaper eyes and stretched cramped muscles.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me,” she said, stifling the yawn of the newly woken.
“That’s okay, we’re nearly there,” Dianne replied.
Magnolia peered out of the window at the change in the landscape. Fields and stick outlines of the trees replacing the drab streets and buildings she had left behind.
They passed through the town of Winchester, a bustling, thriving place, with all the virtues and stiff-necked pride of a prosperous New England town. They continued along a quiet road out of the town, stopping finally at a set of impressive black and gold gates, set in a stretch of moss-covered stone walls running either side of the gates, indicating the vast property within them. Rick tapped something into the on-board console and after a few seconds, the gates opened slowly. As they drove through Magnolia had time to note the legend on a big brass plaque stuck on the right hand wall.
"THE GRAY INSTITUTE FOR GIFTED YOUNGSTERS"
Rick took the car round to the garages while Dianne led Magnolia into the mansion. As she stepped over the threshold, into the huge hallway, she seemed awed by its stately elegance, and stood numbly by the door as if unable to go any further.
“Come on in,” Dianne said, and reached for one of her hands.
Magnolia’s dark eyes clouded and she instinctively put her hands in the pockets of her leather jacket. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude – it’s just that, I can’t touch people. If I do, I kill them.” She looked away and her face was pinched. “It’s a damn curse.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know. Is that your mutant power?”
Magnolia nodded again.
“Forget it,” Dianne said, giving her a reassuring smile. “The professor and the others are waiting for us in the library, they want to meet you.”
“They do?” she said, her voice coming out more like a squeak.
She followed Dianne’s lead, looking as nervous as a cat surrounded by water. She gasped as she entered the library. It was even grander as the hall; all light and space and expensive furnishings. And the books – there were more books here than in any public library she had ever seen.
The three occupants sitting in the room looked up as she and Dianne entered. The older silver-haired man in the wheelchair introduced himself as Charles Gray. She felt scared when his intelligent blue eyes bored into hers but his voice was tinged with warmth when he greeted her. However, she was under no illusion that that same voice could turn icy and command obedience when the occasion demanded it.
The woman called herself Juliette Pontoin and, Magnolia thought with a twinge of envy, she could only be described as strikingly beautiful; with her long ash-blonde hair and expressive almond-shaped brown eyes. She spoke with a French accent and she smiled at Magnolia in welcome.
The other man, dark haired, brown eyed and Mid-Western, introduced himself as Brad Holden. She basked in the warmth of his smile, which reached all the way to his eyes – then he held out his hand to shake hers and she saw his confusion when she automatically shrank from the gesture.
“I’m sorry, I should have mentioned that Magnolia can’t touch anyone,” Dianne said.
“What, no touch at all?” Brad looked at her with a touch of disbelief in his eyes.
“Yeah. Unless you want a one-way ticket to the afterlife,” Magnolia said.
Before Brad could reply, the door opened and the housekeeper, Mrs. Harris, entered the room with a tray of refreshments. She placed it on the low table and regarded Magnolia with cheerful eyes behind half-moon glasses.
“I see we’ve an extra body. Will you be staying for supper?”
“Yes, she will be staying,” Gray answered with a look in the girl’s direction. “Magnolia, you’re most welcome at the mansion. We’ll prepare a room for you.” He glanced at the others. “Perhaps one of you can show her around so she gets her bearings.”
Dianne was the first to nod.
“Didn’t the sign say this was a school?” Magnolia said.
“Yes, we’re all teachers, we give classes for younger students, who also happen to be mutants like ourselves,” said Dianne. “Why?”
“Well, I’d like to help out if I can, sort of pay back. I don’t have any money.”
“Don’t worry about that, young lady,” Gray replied. “But help is always welcome. We never seem to have enough hands to go round. What’s your forte?”
“I’m sorry, what are you good at?” he rephrased the question.
“Oh, physical stuff mainly. Swimming, running, you know.”
“Of course. Do you know anything about team sports?”
“Sure, I’m a big baseball fan.”
“Good, why don’t you help Brad? He takes the physical education classes.”
Brad grinned in agreement. “How about it, Magnolia?”
She couldn’t quite remember anyone smiling at her like that since Cody. It made her feel peculiar inside. “Yeah, that’s sounds okay. Sure, I’d like that.”
Gray looked pleased. “Good, that’s settled then.”
“Subject is now moving along Highway twenty-eight. Proceed with extreme caution, and repeat, he must be taken alive.”
Blue-One noted the radio transmission with a grim face. After all this time, they had him back on the track. Now it was up to him and his team to get Weapon-Red back to base. He turned to the pilot and nodded.
“Okay, this is it, you heard the man, let’s go!”
The helicopter lifted off the ground, spinning lazily into the leaden sky, its blades thrumming against the cold air.
After Paul left the diner he had headed for the nearest car dealership in the town. He wrangled with the salesman, not as successfully as he had hoped he might have, and finally took possession of a five-year-old red saloon car. It had seen better days, but the engine was sound and had good mileage. When he set off on the highway out of town, the snow began to fall harder, but the road was quiet, so he fiddled with the on-board-computer to activate the sound system. He was humming along to a song for a minute before he stopped in surprise. It was as if only selected portions of his mind had been subjected to memory loss. After all, he knew his name, how to eat, dress, read.
Fight, for God’s sake.
He thought of the pretty young receptionist at the car-dealership, remembered the way her pale blue eyes had flitted around his body, sizing him up, and a tight smile broke his sombre face.
Haven’t forgotten how to do that either…
So how come he couldn’t remember what he did for a living; who his parents were, if he had a girlfriend, a wife even? Every time he looked in the dark box of his mind all he had was an empty space, and the bitter mental aftertaste of his terrifying dreams. And the fact he had nine-inch metal claws where bones had once been.
He shook his dark head in disgust and settled to his gloomy thoughts as he travelled through the wintry landscape.
I could go mad.
He considered the possibility of visiting a psychiatrist. Maybe he or she could unlock the mystery of his past. But – what if his past was something awful? He shivered, horrified at the possibility. These dreams of his portended some dark frightening secret; one that haunted him with their ghastly after-images
So intent was he in his inner musings that he became only dimly aware of the moving shadow on the ground, to his left. He turned the radio down and heard the distinctive whup-whup of a helicopter. Suddenly alert, he stuck his head out of the car to look around, the vehicle weaving slightly as he strained to look upwards. Tailing him, and flying low, was a squat matt-black machine. He gave a start of recognition. It was a DT-19 helicopter gunship. He knew that the World Air Force used them extensively, though how he knew that fact also surprised him. It was so close to his car he could see the pilot, staring straight at him through his goggles.
Paul’s heart pounded with fear. His sixth sense screamed that they had finally caught up with him. How indeed that could have transpired, he had no earthly idea; now was not the time and place to try to figure that out. But there was one thing he knew for certain – he wasn’t going to give in without a fight. If they wanted him, they would have to come and get him. He felt cold sweat break out on his forehead, but he ignored it and slammed his foot on the accelerator.
The car shot forward and behind him the DT-19 matched his increased speed, dipping low as it manoeuvred skilfully only a short distance above and behind him. As Paul willed more speed out of the saloon, without warning, the road thirty feet in front of him exploded in a shower of tarmac and flame.
They’ve fired a blasted missile.
Paul swerved the saloon, and heard the tyres screeching in protest, the stench from rubber melding to pavement filling his nostrils. The DT-19 swooped low and to the side of him, blocking any escape he might have had. Paul barely had time to turn the car sharply around before he ploughed into the small crater. He threw open the door and bailed out, slamming against the road with a force that knocked the breath out of him. He gasped and rolled to his feet, his eyes darting about him, searching frantically for a way out. The DT-19 weaved in the air in front of him, a black predatory bird ready to strike. Paul knew he had but one advantage. They wanted him alive. Otherwise that missile would have struck the car, not the road. He needed to use that advantage against them.
The DT-19 hovered lower, then the side door slid noisily open and three men, dressed in full battle gear, jumped to the ground. They fanned out towards him, toting their weapons, brooking no argument. One man stepped forward, obviously the leader of the crew, wearing pale blue banding on the sides of their heavy uniforms. He waved his gun in what he thought was obviously a friendly gesture, which didn’t fool Paul for one minute. “You need to come back with us, Metcalfe,” he called over to him.
Paul blinked, looking from one face to the other. He had another bizarre flash of recognition; he knew the leader’s voice, although he couldn’t remember a name to go with it. It must have been a trigger though; was his memory finally starting to return to him? But it was far too soon to trust anyone, especially someone who had just fired upon him with a ruddy great missile. “Is that so?” he stared the leader down. “Give me one good reason why I should?”
The man sneered, his eyes never leaving Paul’s face. “You lost your memory, Paul; we were all in training, for a new operation. Something happened; you cut loose. That wasn’t the best thing to do, man. We don’t want to hurt you; we just need you to come back with us – so we can sort you out.”
Paul flicked his eyes all around, assessing his chances of making it to the woods. The trees would provide him some cover and the DT-19 would have difficulty in following him.
“That all sounds very nice and cosy – but what makes me feel that those sentiments are a load of bullshit?” Paul tapped the side of his head, playing for time. “I might have memory loss, but my common sense is still intact.” The words came out calmly but his heart was thumping in his chest, all the primitive fight or flight chemicals whooshing around his body. He experienced a flash of insight even as his body succumbed to the onslaught of the beast.
Make for the chopper.
They wouldn’t expect it, and they couldn’t afford to start shooting in case they hit the machine. The second man whispered something to the leader that Paul couldn’t catch. He nodded and then he turned his attentions back to Paul.
“Well, we can do this the easy way – or the hard way.” His mouth curved in an evil grin. “Personally, I prefer the hard way, I never did like you anyway, Metcalfe.”
Paul felt time slur – heard the sound of the chopper’s rotating blades as if through cotton wool. He moved his eyes, ponderously slow, stop-motion delayed as he saw the leader raise his weapon infinitely slowly, aiming for his body. Red-veined blooms billowed up behind his eyes.
Paul leapt forward, a blur of motion impossible for a normal human. He barely registered the disbelief on his antagonist’s face as he bore down on the three soldiers; his head pounding, his heart-beat going crazy, ignoring the muffled shouts surrounding him.
“Sonofabnitch – he’s –”
Paul’s razor sharp talons caught Blue leader in the throat, cutting off his shout with a gurgle. The red mist descended and he slashed about like a wildcat, catching the remaining two soldiers, their guns flying into the snow. The DT-19 started to lift, the pilot snapping out of his shock and realising he had better get his craft out of the way. Paul snarled and stared at the machine, a tiny thought at the back of his roaring brain telling him that to let this thing go was madness.
With a cry he launched himself at the aircraft as it lifted from the ground and grasped the landing struts, his adrenaline spiking to maximum; the powerful muscles in his arms pulling him up to cling onto one of the thin metal rails. The DT-19’s rotor blades beat against the cold air, rapidly lifting it into the grey snow flecked sky, the air whipping Paul’s hair and the snowflakes stinging his face. He pulled himself into a standing position on the strut, just as another of the soldiers stuck his head out of the open doorway, glancing down to the ground. His eyes opened in shocked disbelief as Paul leapt upwards and towards him, grabbing at the webbing of his uniform. They crashed backwards into the chopper, and the pilot swung his head around at the noise. He yelped in sudden fright; it was one thing facing Weapon-Red out in the open space, but in close confinement facing these nine inch daggers of death was totally another thing altogether.
“Holy crap –!”
“For God’s sake shoot him!” the
soldier screamed, as he rolled across the floor, Paul’s claws at his throat.
Paul leapt off
the him and back-swiped at the charging second man, his
claws shearing the long snout of the weapon in half.
The first soldier scrabbled to the side and grabbed another gun. In panic he let off a volley. The stream of tranquilliser darts sprayed around the interior of the craft, ricocheting off the cabin walls. The pilot cried out as one hit him in the back of the neck; he slumped forward onto the controls and the DT-19 slewed violently, throwing its occupants about the cabin. Paul was way out of control now. He lashed about him with a fury, injuring the remaining two Blue team members. The aircraft was spiralling and losing height rapidly; and there was no pilot to recover the stall. Dimly through the red haze, Paul realised what was happening and he scrabbled across the canting floor to the doorway.
But it was way too late…
The DT-19 smashed into the ground and the shock-wave of the explosion slammed into him.
A few days passed during which time Magnolia Jones had managed to settle down into the routine of the school. The younger students took to her at once. She exhibited a real rapport with them and right from the start the others could see her sad face take on a new energy when she worked with them. She couldn’t avoid her fellow mutants, but she mostly kept quiet, and listened to everything with an intent look on her face. Gray wished that she would open up a little and tell them something about herself, but he remembered Dianne’s promise to the girl.
Gray was currently in his study, and he turned his wheelchair to face the French-windows. They looked across to the playing fields, which stretched for some considerable distance beyond the mansion. Spring would soon be on its way to the eastern seaboard. There was a bright sparkle to the sunlight, and here and there were hints of green amongst the brown grass, too long spent under winter snows. The cool breeze carried Magnolia Jones’ drawl to him, barking orders to the kids on the grass, cajoling them to do just another push up, yet another lap of the track. A sharp rap on the door made him look around to see Bradley Holden’s head pop around it.
The American came across to see what Gray found so interesting.
“She’s good with the kids,” he said.
“Yes, I can see that,” said Gray, swivelling back to his desk. “I’m glad she seems to be fitting in with us.”
“She still keeps pretty much to herself though.”
“Well, it’s early days yet, I seem to remember we couldn’t get two words out of you when you first joined us.”
Brad smiled wryly.
“She seems to have taken a shine to you. Perhaps you could spend a little time with her and see if you can bring her out of her shell.”
“I’d already thought the same thing,” Brad said. “In fact, there’s no time like the present.”
Brad wandered across the playing fields. Magnolia was still shouting encouragement to the small group of youngsters, so he stood a little to one side so as not to disturb them. She seemed unaware of his presence, so involved was she with the kids. She glanced at her watch and clapped her hands to call time-up. Some of the students saw Brad and started waving at him and at their gestures Magnolia turned to see him leaning against one of the posts.
“How long you been there?” She gave him a wary glance.
“Not long, just admiring your coaching skills. You’re a natural.”
“Thanks,” she said, with a slight blush.
“C’mon, why don’t I buy you a coffee?”
“Uh, no, I have to finish up some stuff.”
“Hey, you know what they say about Jack, or Jill in your case?” he looked straight into her eyes and smiled, hoping it would thaw her a little.
She blushed again and nodded a little stiffly, “Sure, why not.”
As they wandered across back to the mansion in the wake of the students he said, “So, how do you like things here at the school?”
“You know, you’re the talk of the place, everyone wants to know about you.”
Her eyes darkened. “Ms Simms said I didn’t have to tell anyone anything.”
“Well, no, you don’t, but friends usually get to know one another by sharing things about themselves.”
“Is that so surprising?”
Her cheeks flushed. “No, course not, I mean, I don’t deserve this, people being so nice to me.”
“You know, it sounds like you deserve people being nice to you. You’ve had a hard life, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, I’m black, and a mutant. That makes anybody’s life a bag of candy.”
That stalled the conversation, and they walked back to the house in silence. Brad pointed to the back door of the large communal kitchen and once inside he grabbed two mugs of coffee from the dispenser. She pulled herself onto a stool at the peninsula unit and took one from him with a short bob of her dark head.
“Tell you what,” he said. “You can ask me anything you like. Of course, I don’t promise to answer everything either,” he finished with a wink.
She took a long sip, then glanced up to meet his eyes again across the space. He cocked his head, waiting.
“Okay, you win,” she said, putting down her mug on the counter. “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“I have a sister. She’s married with twins, a boy and a girl, and tornadoes do less damage,” he said with a fond smile.
“Are they –”
“Mutants? No, bless them; nor are my folks for that matter.”
“Don’t they think you’re weird, because you’re a mutant, I mean?”
“Hell no. My dad thinks I’m strange because I didn’t want to spend my life wedded to a ship, like he did.”
“He’s a sailor?”
“I guess you could say that, he runs his own little fleet.”
Her eyes widened.
“Hey, it’s no big deal. Yeah, sure, at first I followed the old tradition, got the degrees, joined the World Navy, everything was going great.”
“Then what happened?”
“Well, I found out I could do this…” He held out his hand and she watched, fascinated as a wisp of cooled air curled upwards from the palm. He shut it slowly, snuffing out the tiny ice cloud, and smiled wryly at her.
“My dad, he and Gray knew one another; old navy men – they stick together like glue.” He grinned. “Hell, the professor knows everyone. We always joke that he has more contacts than the USS and WIN put together. Anyway, I’m digressing. When I found out about this school of his, I knew I wanted to be a part of it, helping kids who might not be as fortunate as I was.”
“You all seem to think like that,” she remarked, in a rather wistful tone.
He shrugged. “What other way is there to think?”
She didn’t reply.
“So, you say you can’t touch anyone –” he began, and regretted it the instant he saw her face freeze.
“You really don’t wanna know,” she replied.
“You know, we all felt a bit like that you know, about our powers, at the beginning, hating them, hating ourselves. Maybe the professor will be able to figure out a way for you to deal with it.”
She shook her head, her black and white hair swinging. “Are you crazy? No way, Not like this, this will never be a good thing,”
Brad drank some more of his coffee, hoping none of the other students would decide to raid the fridge before supper. He suspected company would shut her up like a clam.
“I have a step-brother,” she said, out of the blue.
He raised his eyebrows, willing her to continue.
“We haven’t talked for a while,” she said finally. “Things happen, you know. Not everyone lives in a fancy place like this. Me and my momma, we were dirt poor, but sometimes I wish we’d stayed that way. My step-father, I mean, he used to like taking his hands to me and Seymour, any chance he got. We used to hide from him when he came home nights, hopin’ he wouldn’t find us.”
She pulled at the white strands in her hair “And I hated school on account of these –everyone used to call me a witch.”
“I think they make you look unique.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Like how?”
“Sort of exotic – and pretty.”
She let her hair fall. “Pretty, huh?” Her eyes filled with some dark pain. “It’s been a long time since anyone called me that.”
She picked up the coffee mug and grimaced as the cold dregs hit the back of her throat.”
“Want any more?” Brad asked her.
She shook her head, dropping off the stool, and Brad knew today’s heart to heart was over. Still, he’d gotten her to open up a little, until he stupidly put his foot in it by mentioning her appearance. As he chucked his cup in the dishwasher to follow her out, he wondered idly if her step-brother was a mutant as well.
I’m still alive…
That was Paul’s first thought as painful consciousness returned. He blinked his eyes and they widened as he saw vivid red splashes of blood on the snow. He slowly raised his head and saw the twisted remains of the DT-19 lying like some crumpled dark bird about thirty feet away from him. Shards of metal, glass and melted plastic were spewed all over him. A couple of the soldiers lay in the snow close to the wreckage, thrown out by the impact. There was no movement; the bodies contorted in crooked angles, the wine-red blood congealing in the bitter air. The pilot and the others were probably still in the remains of the chopper, he surmised. Black acrid smoke spiralled into the sky and the fumes caught Paul in his throat and eyes. He coughed and tasted metal in his mouth, and that action precipitated agonizing, intense throbbing nearly everywhere in his body. Rolling painfully onto one elbow he spat out, seeing his blood spatter onto the snow. Gingerly he pulled himself into a sitting position and saw more blood, soaked through on his shirt. The breath caught in his throat, as he cautiously pulled open the material to see how bad the damage was. What he saw made him stare uncomprehendingly.
There was a long gash in his chest, but worse than that, he saw something within his flesh; metal, a short wire protruding from the damaged tissue. Miniscule lights flashed in a multicoloured sequence. It was like some sort of microprocessor chip. A cold anger gripped him. This thing had been implanted in him – and maybe this was how they had tracked him down. He cast his mind back to his loss of control at the illegal fight. Could this thing somehow be connected with that in some way? Or did it cause the berserker rage? He squeezed his eyes shut with the misery of not knowing his past. When he opened them again he was determined that whatever this thing was – and how it was affecting him – it wasn’t going to be staying there a moment longer.
Gritting his teeth, he pulled on the wire and then gasped as the intense pain as it caught in tissue. He ignored the pain and pulled harder. With a horrible sucking sound the device came out, tearing the flesh wound open still further. That wasn’t a problem; he would heal, as he always did. He looked at the tiny bloodied thing in his hand, shaking his head in disbelief.
Already his retro-metabolism was repairing the damage in his muscle and tissue; he could feel the fractured bones knitting together as he sat on the snow covered ground. Within a short time he would be as good as new. He searched within his jacket and found the remainder of the money he had won in the illegal fight. He had to get away from here before the local police came on the scene and asked awkward questions. He mused silently. One thing was for sure: it seemed that these men who attacked him were soldiers of some ilk. He fingered his dog tag again. Seems that he must have been a soldier too; a soldier with nine-inch metal claws. Somehow, that didn’t bring a glimmer of comfort to him at all.
Could he have been working for some sort of covert operation within the WAAF? Whatever he had been, he was convinced that he must have rebelled against them in some fashion. Why else was he on the run? Deep in his mind, where no-one could trespass, he had known that they were lying to him, and that only a dark future waited for him in whatever hell-hole they were returning him to. When at last, he felt the pain subside and knew that his healing factor had repaired his damaged body to a point where he could drive, he stood up on shaky legs. He threw the tiny device on the ground and savagely stamped on it, crushing the metal. When he picked it up all the lights were dead and he threw it into the woods as hard as he could.
Maybe now he would get some peace to find his life again.
“It’s gone completely dead sir. We had a signal, and then, it just – vanished.”
Reeve’s eyes blazed. “What do you mean, just vanished?”
The technician went red-faced. “I – I, don’t know sir, it just did. We’ve lost him.”
Reeve’s swallowed hard. How the hell was he going to face Alpha-Red now?
The final adjustments had been made to Cerebro, now all that remained was for Dianne to attempt a link with the machine. Gray suggested that the most appropriate time would be in the early hours of the morning, when she normally experienced the nightmarish images, believing that it would maximise the merging of Dianne’s empathic vision with Cerebro’s psi-amplification capabilities. He further suggested that she slept before the ordeal. Rick accompanied her to ensure that she didn’t just sit and fret.
He gently stroked her hair as they lay together on their bed, and he never failed to marvel at its texture, as he let it slip through his fingers like a glittering waterfall. Was it really six years since he’d first met her? It only seemed like yesterday. His mind drifted back to the day she’d walked in the door of Gray’s fledgling school for young mutants –
She was a skinny thing, with wide-eyes and porcelain skin. He remembered her mother, tall and slim and glacially beautiful. Dianne scuttled in behind her parents like a frightened doe, dropping her suitcase in the process, the contents depositing themselves across the floor. He rushed to help her, and she gave him a flustered smile, and he felt his heart melt.
She was seventeen, he was twenty-five and a teacher and the rules were obvious, really. This would have been just peachy, except for the fact that under the tutelage of both himself and Charles Gray, the gawky girl emerged like a butterfly from its chrysalis and he found himself falling for her, bit by bit. The situation hadn’t been helped by the fact that Adam used to tease him about it.
It was easy for him to make light of it, Rick mused; he’d always attracted girls like iron filings to a magnet; any girl who strayed within the radius of that titanium smile was pretty much smitten. It wasn’t as if I was inept with the fairer sex, far from it, it was just with Dianne that I found myself tongue-tied and powerless.
He’d lost his original cocksure, practical joker self, when his parents had been gunned down before his eyes on the mean streets of Detroit. He believed that part of him had died forever, when, in the trauma of the aftermath, his mutant powers had manifested themselves, plunging him into the screwed-hell of self-imposed blindness. Although Doc’s shades had given him back his sight, they hadn’t restored the brash self-confidence of his youth – and what girl would want a guy who looked as if he was blind anyway?
Dianne had instinctively understood his situation; her introduction to her mutant powers had been as equally traumatic in its way, but somehow, even now, he couldn’t shake the conviction that he wasn’t good enough for someone like her.
Dianne had been overjoyed when she finally graduated with combined degrees in Law and Sociology. Charles threw a small celebration party at the mansion in her honour. Her parents were invited. Her father came - her mother didn’t.
Adam and Rick stood beneath the 20ft wide banner they’d hung all the way across the hall and watched her excited surprise as she entered the mansion. There was chocolate cake and champagne in the drawing room - and impromptu speeches, which made her laugh with their cringe-worthiness. But Rick saw how Dianne blushed when the professor toasted her, making a pithy yet eloquent speech celebrating her achievements. He also watched in an agony of jealousy when Adam swept Dianne into a hug and kissed her – even though he knew there was nothing more than a fraternal affection between the two of them. He was the only person watching closely enough to see her father kiss Dianne goodbye, and the sad, yet proud look on his face as he left the party.
Later, he hunted her down in her favourite place, the summerhouse in the garden. He made it inside just as fat raindrops splattered against the glass and filigreed ironwork, not entirely unexpected after the pregnant heat of the afternoon. She was staring out of the opposite window, her chin resting on her forearms, and turned around with a start when he hustled in.
“Hi there,” he said. “Thought I’d find you here.”
“I just had to escape for a bit,” she motioned to her head. “I can’t always keep the shields up, no matter how much the Professor tries to teach me.”
His heart thumped a little faster as he sat down opposite her on an oversized rattan sofa and pulled out a box from inside the pocket of his shirt. He watched her eyes shift with confusion as he handed it to her.
“I hope you don’t mind, I got you this, a sort of congratulations-on-your-graduation present,” he said.
She opened it and gasped, pulling out the necklace from its bed of silk. At the end of the platinum chain, a butterfly took flight in lapis lazuli.
“Oh, Rick, it’s exquisite, really, it must have cost you a fortune.”
He shrugged, privately delighted with the look on her face. “Hey, nothing’s too good for a beautiful lady.”
She stared at him with solemn face. “You think I’m beautiful?”
He began to laugh at the absurdity of her question, but the laughter died on his lips as he realised she really didn’t know how beautiful she was. The face that stared in her mirror every day wasn’t the one she saw inside. Aware that anything he said might betray his true feelings he just took the necklace gently from her.
“Let me put it on,” he said.
She stood up, and turned her back to him so he could place it around her neck. When she pulled her hair over one shoulder, the sweep of her pale neck in the lightning flash made his breath hitch. He quickly fastened it and turned her around so he could look at her.
“It matches your eyes.” he said, without thinking.
He froze as he uttered the words and for a moment he almost stopped breathing. The rain rattled on the iron roof like nails and all he could see was her eyes, fixed on his face, searching for any sign that he meant what he said – or perhaps more that he meant the way he had said it. He cursed the fates that had taken from him the use of his eyes to express his innermost feelings; no mutant power was worth an inability to merge your heart with another’s, through the ‘windows to the soul’.
And yet her eyes – wide and blue and dark, were drawing him ever closer. Then her fingers brushed his and the electric thrill shot through him, from head to foot. This was dangerous. He had to get out of here. But some invisible power held him back. To this day he’d never asked, but thought it might really have been her, trying out her telekinesis. Everything was changing, in the space of a marvellous, crazy moment. It wasn’t just him that felt this way, in this instant, in this secluded place, with the rain sluicing against the glass and the thunder overhead. Another flash of lightning created a nimbus around her hair.
She loosened her fingers from one of his hands and touched his cheek, gently caressed the skin around his glasses, and rested finally against his brow. He saw her eyes close; her brows draw together, as if concentrating hard. He felt something brush against his mind, and defences he never even knew he had built fell away like crumbling sand.
Her eyes opened and she looked at him strangely. “Rick, do you like me?” she said, in a voice that seemed to him to have a desperate, disconsolate edge around it. “I know I’m supposed to be a telepath, but –”
His throat suddenly constricted as if he had swallowed too fast, and then the words came tumbling out, as if with her touch she had breached the dam. “Like you? I’m in love with you – you beautiful girl. I think I’ve been in love with you from the moment I saw your underwear fly across the floor of the hall.”
She giggled then, just for a second, and then he saw her face turn deadly serious, as if she knew what he was thinking, what he wanted to do right here and now. She glanced up at him, and her eyes smiled into his as if the visor wasn’t there cutting him off from humanity – and they answered his thoughts with a simple, reassuringly confident…Yes. Sure now, he acted on that thought, their heads bending towards one another’s at the same moment, lips meeting, greedy, questing, he wrapping her up in his arms, she sliding her own arms around his neck, holding him in a vice-like grip incredible for someone so slight. Their kiss deepened, those lips he’d waited so long for responding to his with all the fervour he could ever have imagined when he had painted this moment over and over in his dreams. He found his hands moving across her hips, the gentle swell of her breasts; the heat rising within him like lava, shutting his mind down to everything save that primal need. Some moment of panic brought him back to reality. He broke their kiss.
“Dianne, I think we need to stop this –” Now his fantasy had become reality, he became painfully aware again that he was still eight years her senior and the last thing he wanted was being labelled a ‘cradle snatcher’.
“Why?” she said in a thick voice that he barely recognised.
He couldn’t think of a suitable answer, and she leaned across the space between them, her lips on his, soft and bold, and with a sense of wonder he succumbed to the rising concerto of love and desire that wouldn’t be denied any longer.
The rain danced staccato on the roof as they finally found the courage to express their feelings to one another, and when the storm was finally spent, they emerged from the summerhouse to enter a new phase of their lives – together.
And here he was, as much in love with her as on that fateful night. Perhaps that was why he couldn’t help what he knew was his annoying protectiveness. For deep down, he knew it was him that might fall apart if he ever lost her.
“Earth to Rick –.” Her voice brought him back out of his daydream and he saw her looking sideways at him, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
“Are you doing this to relax me or you?” she said.
He smiled somewhat sheepishly and she laughed softly, closing her eyes as an invitation for him to continue.
“You know, I’ll never forgive myself if you go through with this and something happens to you,” he muttered.
Her eyes flew open and she stopped his hand in mid-stroke. “It’s not your decision to do this, it’s mine, remember?” she said, equally as softly, but he couldn’t fail to catch the hint of steel behind her voice. “The Professor needs help to locate new mutants, and you know I’m the only other X-Man who has the ability to use Cerebro. We need to find them before unscrupulous people do, and use them for their own ends. Or worse, that they become a danger to themselves, coming into their powers and not knowing what to do with them, just like Magnolia.”
“Hey, I’m closing my eyes here, sounds just like Charles speaking.”
She forced a smile. “I do sound a bit preachy, don’t I? I suppose I can’t help it. He’s moulded both of us. Anyway, locating this mutant is a good excuse for me to start using Cerebro. You know it was only a matter of time before I had to anyway.” She drew her finger gently down the curve of his jaw. “Please support me on this, love. I don’t need negative thoughts; it’s going to be hard enough as it is.”
He sighed and kissed the tip of her nose. “Sure, I know, I know. I need my head examined for being so crazy about you, babe.”
For an answer, and as if to placate him, she nestled closer to his warmth, and after a while, he felt her heartbeat twinned with his; her eyelids drooped closed and all he could hear was the sound of her soft breathing. He stayed awake, stroking her hair as he watched over her.
Too soon, it was time. He gently shook her awake and they made their way wordlessly to Cerebro’s chamber, clutching one another’s hand.
Gray was waiting there for them. He studied his former student, sensing that behind her calm exterior, she was quietly scared. But he also felt the core of steel within her, forcefully adamant about the decision that had brought her here at this point in time.
“Are you ready, my dear?” he asked, really knowing the answer but wanting to hear it from her anyway.
She gave a nod. “I am.”
“Then we’ll proceed.”
In the basement, Dianne and Rick waited outside the vault door while Gray activated the retinal scan. As the massive steel door swung open he said, “We must see about getting the security access updated for you, Dianne.”
Dianne and Rick glanced at each other as they followed his wheelchair into the spherical chamber. Both of them wanted to believe Gray’s confident assertion that she would emerge from this intact. She sat down at the console at the platform’s end and lifted up the chrome skullcap. With a brief moment of hesitation, she placed it upon her head.
Cerebro came to life.
So vast and encompassing – an entire ocean of thoughts streaming flowing unfettered – illusions – hope – fear.
Caught in the maelstrom – battered by it – with the pain – the fear – drowning in the madness – her silent scream is bouncing off the churning chasms.
Must fight – must resist –
She feels her mental scream subside… the ocean of thoughts subsides with it, calm. The lights flicker then go dark once again.
Out of the darkness there is a flickering –
Billions of dim grey pulsing points of light, and scattered amongst them, brighter points of light, flaring with an intensity that awes her. The essences of thought of all the teeming masses of humanity; and within that grey sea, the fireflashes of mutant souls.
One of the lights flares up brighter than all of those surrounding her… She feels the pain, the terror, amplified a thousand times… and she almost breaks again with the intensity of it.
Her mutant – the one she has been searching for.
So red and bright.
Swelling with the power – her own magnified power – she casts a thread of thought across the void - latching onto the source – and feels his mind become one with hers for a brief second…
Paul jerked awake, the shock washing sourly over him. He licked sweat-stained lips and stared incredulously at the ceiling of the bedroom. At the end of the long tunnel that was his nightmare he had heard her voice again, and he felt as if someone had plunged a pure wire of red hot titanium into his brain and wrapped itself around that soft mass of thoughts and neurons and electrical impulses. He sat, breathing hard, trying to accept the repeating thought fragments that had manifested itself in his mind. I’m with you… Stay with me… I’ll help you.
It all seemed to happen in slow motion. As soon as Dianne placed the skullcap on her head the chamber’s walls flared into ghostly light, wreathing her hair with silver. Her body jerked violently, her fingers clutching the chair arms as if holding on for dear life. Her head arched to and fro swinging the curtain of her hair, preventing Rick from seeing her face. Without thinking, he moved forward, would have wrenched the damn thing from her head, but Gray’s arm moved quickly, barring him from touching her.
“No, it’s too dangerous,” the Professor said. “Let her find the way.”
Gritting his teeth, Rick stepped back a pace. Agonized seconds passed, his heart hammering against his ribs, and then she slumped onto the console as the chamber returned to normal. He removed the skullcap, cursing as her hair snagged, and lifted her head. Her eyes were closed, her face pale and damp with perspiration.
“Speak to me, Dianne,” he urged her, holding her limp body with one arm, as he bent an ear to her chest, hardly able to hear her own heartbeat over his own ragged one.
“She’s all right, I feel her,” Gray answered from behind him. The strain in his voice told Rick he was as bow-taut as he had been.
Rick pulled his head up, and saw her Dianne’s eyelids flutter open. She stared at him, for a moment, with incomprehension in her eyes, and then her lips parted in a wan smile.
“God, woman, don’t ever do that to me again,” he said, grabbing one of her hands. He felt the feather-light touch of her mind skim against his, calming, soothing. He gripped her fingers tighter. “Tell me you’re okay.”
“I’m – fine, I think.” She rubbed a hand across her temple. “I have a slight headache, but I can feel it receding even now.”
“And your mind, I mean, inside it – “
“You mean have I gone stark raving bonkers? Then the answer is – no more than usual.”
He let out an explosive breath, and hugged her tight against him again.
“Well done, my dear. I knew you had it in you,” Gray said.
Rick supported her body as she turned to Gray. The older man was smiling with fond relief.
“So that’s what you see, Charles,” Dianne said. “All those minds out there, their thoughts, their joys, hopes fears, pain. I was almost overwhelmed at first, it was like drowning.”
She grasped Rick’s hand again, and touched his cheek, and he saw behind the tiredness, that her eyes shone with a joyous inner light. “I’m sorry if I scared you, but I wish you could have seen it. It was so beautiful; like being a god.”
He smiled crookedly and pushed a strand of damp hair away from her eyes. “I wish I could too, babe, but I’ll just settle for having you back in one piece.”
“This is a milestone achievement, Dianne,” Gray added. “You are truly on the way to reaching your full psi-potential. And now, since you have recovered a little, did you succeed in finding the mutant with Cerebro’s help?”
She nodded. “I know where he is, I can track him for you, Charles.”
Paul drove along the highway, and he decided that sometime soon he would have to find another motel and get a shave and shower. The snow was starting to clear and up ahead to his right he saw a shack. Something buzzed in his head, like an odd tingle. His foot slowed on the accelerator. It was quiet, out of the way. As the saloon slowed to a stop, the buzz in his head became more insistent. He stared at the neon sign, two of the letters missing. Who was going to find him here anyway?
He sauntered into the bar, trying to look inconspicuous. The few local customers glanced up, then quickly lost interest. He hauled himself onto a stool at the ling pitted counter, his head flicking around to note the small booths lining one wall, dusty cafe-curtains half-hiding the even dustier windows, which stared out onto the nondescript wintry view.
“I’ll have a beer,” he said to the burly barman behind the counter.
“What d’you want?”
The barman shrugged and pulled a bottle from the fridge, cracked it open and passed it across to him. Then he wandered over to one of his cronies on the other side of the L-shaped bar to continue his chat and forgot about his new customer.
That suited Paul fine. He sat at the bar and saw that the vid-screen above the bar was set on a news channel. He watched it avidly, nursing his beer, as it seemed that he had been out of touch with the real world for so long. There was a news item about mutants. He frowned at the word; he felt sure he had heard it before, but as usual, the flicker of memory had departed. He stared at his knuckles – at the hidden claws that sprang from his skin in instant obedience to his mental command. Was that what he was – a mutant? He just thought he was a freak, but maybe, in the eyes of normal people, they were one and the same.
Another prickle went up along the back of his neck – a sensation brought about by the knowledge that someone was watching him – closely. His mouth went dry and his heart went back to that familiar thumping against his ribs.
He sat for a few minutes more, continuing to stare at the screen while he weighed up his course of action. Finally he decided he was so sick of running.
He turned, scanned the place and then saw the man, three booths down. He frowned slightly, as the man’s appearance was quite unexpected. He was in his fifties, wearing a heavy expensive coat for the season, and the word ‘distinguished’, came to mind. He met a pair of clear ice-blue eyes and the two looked at one another intently. Paul felt no sense of menace, only a sense of quiet restrained power that hung about the stranger like an aura.
May as well find out why he's so interested in me. He slid off the bar stool, wandered over to the booth and sat down facing the older man.
“So just what is it that makes me such a study?" He then blinked as he realised the man was sitting in a wheelchair. The clipped British accent was the second surprise.
“Please don’t be alarmed. I've no intention of harming you in any way.”
Paul laughed, but there was little humour in his blue eyes. “Harm me? I think you might be surprised that I'm not afraid of anything you might do to me.” And you're hardly going to be able to do anything confined in a wheelchair, mister, the thought bounced ungraciously in his mind.
Gray looked at him intently, almost as if he had read his thought. “Oh, there are other ways of inflicting harm besides the physical, but I assure you I intend none of them, as I've already said.” He held out his hand. “I’m Charles Gray.”
Paul saw only sincerity in the man’s eyes but he didn’t return the handshake. His sixth sense told him this man really wasn’t one of the bad guys, but that didn’t mean he was about to open up straight away. He twirled the bottle on the table.
“So, what’s your interest in me?”
“We may be able to help one another,” Gray replied, and the sincerity had travelled to his voice as well.
“How the hell did you find me?” Paul said, leaning forward so the other patrons wouldn’t hear him.
“We traced your thought patterns.”
Paul sat back and frowned. He didn’t like the sound of this at all. Just who was this individual?
Gray spoke low. “I don’t know how I can convince you to trust me, but I assure you, what I have said is the truth. I also know that you are in great danger, and your nightmares are starting to drive you insane. Am I correct?”
Paul twirled the bottle again. “You’re right. And I suppose you know my name as well?”
“No, I don’t. But I'd like to. After all, I did divulge my own.”
Paul raised the bottle to his lips and took a last draught to empty it. When he placed it back on the scored table he cocked his head to one side. “Why should I trust you?”
“Sometimes that’s what you have to do.”
Trust no one. Love no one. Never stay in one place.
He blinked, as the phrase jolted unbidden into his head. Was that a part of his past? He tried desperately to recall, but as usual, the dimness persisted. His focus returned to see Gray peering at him intently.
“Trust,” Paul said. “It’s a small word, but a big step you’re expecting me to take. I’m not going anywhere until you give me more information.”
Gray looked around the bar in distaste. “I don’t wish to be overheard.”
“So, we’ll huddle.” Paul leaned forward again so he was almost head to head with the older man.
“Very well,” Gray said crisply. “Your thought patterns were traced by a young woman called Dianne Simms. She is a telepath, someone with the capability to pick up on people’s stray thoughts. Several weeks ago, she began to experience nightmarish visions. We don’t know how this happened, but it seems that she has formed some sort of psychic bond with your particular mind. That is why we were able to trace your physical location.”
Paul’s face remained impassive, but his heart hammered in his chest. The timing Gray spoke of was consistent with his own awakening nightmares. It was too much like coincidence. Could this Dianne Simms be the voice that he heard echoing through his dreams?
He realised Gray was talking to him again. “You exhibit the brainwave patterns of a mutant. I take it you know that you are one?”
“I – uh – suppose I must be. I’ve no memories of my past you see, other than my nightmares.”
“As I said already, I may be able to help.”
“Why should you?”
“Because, young man, that is what I do. I help – people like you – and me.” He stared at Paul knowingly. “I am a high-level telepath, and I could – force you to return with me. But that is an anathema to me. I would prefer you made the choice of your own accord.”
Paul pursed his lips. “I don’t want to cause any trouble. Some people want me very badly, and I don’t know why. I thought that you might be one of them. I discovered a device implanted in me, a transmitter of some sort, I suppose. I thought it was the only one. Maybe it isn’t.”
Gray’s brow furrowed, making his silver eyebrows meet. “Hmm. We can check you out when we get back to the mansion.”
“All I want to do is sleep. I feel like I’ve been in some dark living nightmare for so long.”
“That’s not a problem. Sleep we can arrange – the rest might take a little longer.”
Paul tuned into his sixth sense. It told him that he should run with this, and he had the oddest sensation that perhaps his luck had turned at last.
He held out his hand to Gray. “I’m Paul Metcalfe.”
Gray bestowed him a benevolent smile, as if satisfied that some important decision point had been reached. He clasped Paul's hand firmly.
“I'm very pleased to meet you. And now, it’s time for us to leave this place.”
Gray tapped a touch control on the arm of the wheelchair and it rolled away out from the table. As they left the bar, Paul glanced around to see if any of the customers looked remotely interested at their departure together. But no one was.
Paul blinked as he stepped out into the relative brightness of the outdoors. Gray pointed to a huge white Rolls Royce. “I’ll introduce you to some of my people.” He motored towards it and the wheelchair left long tracks in the snow. Paul whistled softly at the car; it spoke volumes about its owner; Gray was obviously a man of taste and money.
The driver’s door opened and a man just a little shorter than Paul got out and waved at them. He was dressed in what to Paul looked like a fancy biker’s uniform, all black leather and heavy boots, except the matching leather overcoat sort of spoiled the Hell’s Angel effect somewhat. As he approached he noted that the man had thick black hair and dark brown eyes and when he spoke his voice bore an unmistakable Irish lilt.
“Well, Professor, I guess he decided to come with us then.”
Gray introduced Paul and the Irishman thrust out one hand, giving Paul an affable smile, his brown eyes crinkling with amusement.
“Pleased to meet you, I’m Patrick Donaghue; lately of New York State, but me heart really belongs to the wild country of Donegal.”
Paul shook the proffered hand, taking an instant liking to him.
“Do you have a car, Mr Metcalfe?” Gray asked him.
Paul thumbed towards his red saloon. “Just that pile of junk. I couldn’t care less if I leave it behind.”
“Any personal effects?”
“Just the clothes on my back. I suppose I should offer my apologies up front for any olfactory offence I’ll cause. But I haven’t had a shower for a few days.”
“Understood. When we return to the mansion we can take care of that.”
Patrick activated a control on the console and a small ramp slid out to allow Gray to propel his wheelchair into the rear passenger area. The rear seat had been removed and when he manoeuvred it in place several metal restraints clicked onto the chair to secure it. Paul was impressed.
“You go in the back with the Professor, and we’ll be off,” Patrick said.
As Paul got into the car, a young woman in the passenger seat turned to him. She nodded, saying, “I am Juliette Pontoin.” Boy, was she a sight for sore eyes, he thought. Certainly an improvement on anything he had seen recently.
“You’re French,” he said, dim-wittedly stating the obvious.
“My father was; my mother was Canadian and I spent most of my life in France.”
“You’re all a long way from home.”
“The Professor enjoys collecting waifs and strays from all over the world.” Her almond-shaped eyes crinkled at the corners. “But you haven’t told me your name yet.”
Patrick climbed back in the driver’s seat. “He’s Paul Metcalfe, me darling, and don’t go getting any ideas about him,” the Irishman interrupted with a grin. Juliette gave him a gentle shove on one forearm and Paul sensed the easy friendship between the two.
Patrick started the engine and the tyres crunched over the snow-covered parking lot and onto the tree-lined icy road.
“So, where are we headed?” Paul asked
“Winchester, Massachusetts” Gray replied.
Paul frowned. “We’ll be driving all night.”
“We have a private jet, parked a few miles away.”
Paul’s jaw nearly did press-ups, but he managed to avoid looking like a naïve idiot in front of the lovely Juliette. Instead he turned to Gray.
“I meant what I said, about having no memories of my past. I could be anyone – why are you taking this chance?”
“You could try to hurt me – and see how far you get.” Gray said, his face serene. “Just be assured that we, or you, are under no danger by your returning with us.”
Paul rubbed the back of his neck, shaking his head. “I was driving past the bar, and something seemed to push me to go in there… was that your telepath?
“Yes, I hope you’ll forgive the auto-suggestion. As I said, I do not like to do it, but in this case it was necessary to allow me to talk to you.”
Patrick spoke up then, and his voice had an edge. “I’m sure the car behind is following us, I’ve been watching them for the last mile or so. Nothing for sure, but you know when you get that intuition –”
Paul glanced behind him, the silver-grey MPV was accelerating, moving alarmingly close; his own heart-rate started to rocket. He heard Gray’s voice, saying: “Odd, I can’t sense any brain activity –”
Paul turned again – to see Patrick glance unhappily to the rear mirror, seemingly possessed of a similar frame of mind. The Irishman snapped: “I don’t like the look of this – hold on!” he shouted, slamming his foot on the accelerator.
The Rolls surged forward, and simultaneously another silver-grey MPV crashed out of the tree cover at the side of the road and bounced once, twice on the road in front of them.
“Shit!” Patrick viciously hauled the wheel to the left and pumped the brakes to avoid skidding and colliding with the vehicle. The resultant deceleration allowed the rear MPV to slam into their back end and they were all thrown against the seat belts with the force, and the car smashed sideways into the drainage ditch. In seconds, they realized they were trapped.
Patrick muttered, “Charles, you stay here, the rest of us, outside. Let’s see what we’re up against.” He opened the door and stepped out into the ditch, his hands climbing. “Don’t shoot!” he shouted at the figures alighting from the two vehicles.
As Paul followed him, he counted eight of them, clad identically in charcoal-grey rubberised uniforms and helmets. Heavy goggles masked their faces. They advanced towards the small group, mean and heavily armed. Paul heard Patrick mutter something to Juliette and she nodded, moving silently into a position near the car, triangulating with himself and Patrick. She was clearly protecting Gray’s position.
“Tut-tut,” said Patrick to the lead attacker in a bantering voice. “You’ve made a terrible mess of the car.”
“Shut up, smart ass,” he replied. “We only want Metcalfe; the rest of you can go, if you get out of the way.”
Paul was momentarily confused. Someone else wanted him? If he was not so fed up, he might have felt flattered. He rested lightly on the balls of his feet, like a leopard waiting to spring, and felt his pulse rate quicken with the possibility of a fight.
Patrick smiled and folded his arms, displaying brash confidence. “Well, it so happens that the man’s a friend of ours, and we don’t take kindly to threats.”
The lead-man raised his weapon and aimed it at the Irishman.
“Is that right? Well, let’s see how good you feel about it when you’re dead.”
Paul’s heart thumped and his skin prickled all over, and he wondered why Patrick was just standing there so calmly. He was about to launch himself at the gun-bearer when his ears were rent by a piercing shriek. He threw his hands over his ears, trying to shut out that keening sound; to his heightened hearing, it was agonizing. Grimacing, he saw the air in front of Patrick vibrating, like an invisible shock wave; it flowed right across four of the figures and they crumpled to the ground.
The other group recovered their wits fast and the sound of bullets was shattering in the cold air. Patrick hit the ground, the bullets splaying around him, spattering snow in all directions. He rolled and rolled, trying to get out of the way of the deadly spray.
“Banshee!” Juliette screamed as she saw him dive, but she stood her ground in front of Gray. The others advanced with speed upon her and Paul and he felt the pulse in his temple, the rush of adrenalin through his veins.
Paul leapt forward with the speed of a panther, at the same time extending both sets of his claws. The swiftness and ferocity of his sudden attack took the remaining men by surprise, not to mention Juliette and Patrick. He bowled one over by head-butting him in the stomach, swiping the second simultaneously with his claws. There was a scream as three long bloody gashes stripped open the protective suit he wore.
“Paul, look out!” he heard Juliette’s cry, an instant later, he felt the searing bite as the shots took him in the arm and leg. He grunted with the pain, but ignored it, turning on his good leg to avoid being clobbered with the butt end of a gun. He lashed out again and heard the scream of the second man as his claws found flesh.
From the ground, Patrick emitted another shriek, and the sound sliced into his eardrums, causing him to grit his teeth with the sudden pain. He turned swiftly to see the Banshee’s sonic power lash out onto another of the men. The stream of focused energy hit him like a pile driver, lifting him off his feet, high into the air, and sending him crashing into one of the trees. Paul gaped as he slid down its length, to flop onto the snow. He whirled around 360 degrees and saw all their attackers down. He retracted his claws back into his hands, shook his dark head and moved quickly over to the car to Gray.
“Are you all right?”
“Perfectly fine, thank you,” Gray replied, gazing across to the sprawled bodies on the snow, the blood a garish crimson against the pristine white.
Patrick trod across to them, wiping snow off his coat. He looked at Paul in concern. “You took some hits, are you all right?”
“I think the bullets just grazed me.” He saw their gaze drop to his wounds. They saw the blood slowly congeal, disappearing within his skin, finally the skin itself closing up.
“Mon Dieu,” gasped Juliette, “your injuries, they are healing already!”
“That’s an interesting ability,” Patrick noted. “I like the claws too.”
Paul splayed his hands out, and they saw only faint red lines between the knucklebones to mark the exit of his claws. “Well, that’s some shout you have on you, Patrick,” he replied with an ironic smile.
“Did you have to kill them?” Gray said to Paul.
“It was them or me. And personally I prefer me to be the one still standing.”
“True, Professor,” Patrick answered in Paul’s defence. “It was all happening too fast. We’re lucky none of us are dead.”
Gray said tersely, “We need to get out of here before anyone else arrives. I really don’t want to try to explain this to the local police.” He frowned. “Before we go, however, bring me their leader. I want to scan his mind.”
Patrick hauled the man up close so as Gray could reach him. The older man placed one hand on the man’s temple and closed his eyes to concentrate. A few minutes passed while the others looked on anxiously. Then Gray finally opened his eyes and shook his head, frowning with annoyance.
“This man’s mind has been shielded. I cannot get any images from him at all. I received the same curtain of blankness when I tried to sense their intentions in the seconds before we were rammed. I would check the others, but I imagine I would have the same problem. ”
“Tiens, Charles,” Juliette said, “the only person that would be able to do that would be another telepath.”
“Yes,” he replied, and his mouth had set in a grim line. “And he or she is powerful, to be able to install a command which defies my abilities.”
Patrick scowled. “Charles, you’re the most powerful telepath on this planet, why don’t you just break down the shielding in his mind?”
Gray shook his head. “It may cause irreparable damage to the brain.”
“So? They were pretty determined to cause us irreparable damage a few minutes ago.”
“You know that is not our way, Patrick, we cannot use our powers unwisely, otherwise we are no better than those who oppose us.”
The Irishman nodded, acquiescing for the moment. “Okay, okay – I know. It’s just so frustrating at times.”
“They were after you, Paul,” Gray said. “Gave you any idea who they are?”
He shook his head. “I ran into a bunch of them, a couple of days ago. This lot aren’t wearing anything like the same uniforms.”
“We need to search them, and the vehicles,” Patrick said, and Gray nodded in agreement. But the only thing that was of any remote significance was a book of matches that Paul found in one of the MPV’s compartments. It featured a stylised white and gold S in the centre of a rainbow circle and bore the legend: ‘The Spectrum Society’.
“Let’s take it with us,” said Gray. “And now, we really need to leave this place.”
The Rolls Royce was sadly in no shape to continue, so Paul and Patrick helped Gray out and into one of the MPV’s and then he piled the other six mystery men into the other two vehicles. They didn’t like leaving dead men amongst them but their options were limited. When their friends woke up, they would have to take care of it themselves.
“Are we sure they won’t come after us?” Patrick asked thumbing the vehicles.
Paul gave him a bleak smile. “Let’s take care of that, shall we?” He extended his claws again and slashed all four tires on both the MPV and the Rolls, he felt bad at destroying and leaving such a beautiful car. “Well,” he said, as he walked back to the others, “unless these gentlemen can fly, that should slow them down a bit.”
He saw Patrick’s curious look. “What?” he said.
“You sound so polite, just like the Professor, and yet you take things apart without a second’s thought.”
Paul grimaced. “Don’t put it like that; make’s me sound like some sort of animal.”
Juliette stopped the MPV three miles further down the road near a clearing past the woods away from the road. There was a small hillock covered in snow. Probably most people wouldn’t give it a second glance in passing from the road, but standing stationary and looking at it, Paul found it looked odd. Juliette got out of the car and walked over to the mound.
Paul looked out the rear window with curiosity. “What’s she going to do?”
Patrick said, “Wait and see.”
The blonde Frenchwoman raised her arms in an almost theatrical gesture – and from nowhere a wind whipped up. She caressed the air with her hands – the wind became more violent, and started to lift the snow from the hillock. It swirled in great billowing gouts, high into the sky, streaming away, reducing the size of the hillock as he watched. Paul stared dumbstruck. It hid the blackest, sleekest aircraft he had ever set eyes upon.
“What in God’s name –” Paul gasped, over the sound of the storm.
“That,” said Gray, “is our transportation; we call her the X-Zero.”
“And who is she – the Wind Lady?” he said, continuing to watch enthralled at the slight figure within the mistral. Finally it subsided, and she removed something from her leather outfit. Seconds later a ramp moved noiselessly down from the rear of the jet to settle on the ground.
“We might as well abandon this vehicle,” Gray said, as Patrick helped him into his wheelchair. “It’s possible it may have a homing device and we wouldn’t want anyone to trace us to where we’re going.”
Juliette walked swiftly up the ramp into the plane, followed by the Professor in his wheelchair. Paul marvelled at the high-tech interior and controls. There were seven super-smart chrome and leather passenger seats and a small cargo space at the back.
He whistled his approval. “This is a remarkable piece of machinery.”
“Certainly is,” said Patrick who activated the ramp as the last one of them was in. “I don’t fly this little sweetheart, but she’s top of her class. She can do Mach four at 80,000 feet, full compliment, no luggage.”
Juliette was already seated at one of the two seats in the front, presumably the pilot’s seat.
“You know how to fly this thing?” he said, as he took one of the passenger seats behind her. She gave him a look that said: Another smart-ass comment like that and you’ll be flying back on the wing.
“Is everyone strapped in?” she called back coolly, flicking switches and making checks at the console.
Paul struggled with the seat harness and Patrick leaned over to help him. “You pull them together like this and they slot in here.” Paul regarded the rounded buckle with its stylised chromium X symbol.
“Is this some sort of logo?” he said, his query lost as the engine note dialled up from idle to a screaming pitch in seconds; a gut-deep thrum that vibrated along his legs.
“It stands for X-Men. That’s us,” Patrick shouted back at him as he strapped himself in his seat. The X-Zero lifted off vertically and banked sideways, the engine pitch lowered, as Juliette achieved cruising altitude.
“X-Men?” Paul asked Gray, sitting next to him.
“It comes from the X-Factor, the gene that causes mutant powers to develop,” he answered. “Silly, I know, but the – team felt they had to have a name.”
“And who are you, some sort of mutant police force?”
“I suppose that’s what we might be. It didn’t start out like that,” Gray said, and his face seemed to grow distant, sad almost. “I had such great hopes that it would be different. But sometimes, the threat of force must be countered by force.”
“Yes, I was watching a news program about it, this vote they’re talking about; sounds like mutants are getting a bad deal.”
“Don’t get me wrong Paul; the X-Men exist to stop mutants taking advantage of humankind.”
Paul found his jaw dropping.
“We’re still human, despite rumours to the contrary,” Gray continued. “And human beings with their frailties have a habit of confusing what they can do with what they ought to do. My people, here and back at Winchester, have powerful levels of mutant ability. They have learnt to control their powers, using them wisely, with a sense of responsibility. However, this is a big planet, and I cannot truly believe that all mutants will do the same. There will be some who will choose to use their powers for their own selfish gains, or worse, start to use them against their not so powerful human neighbours. There has to be a balance, we intend to be that balance. A police-force, as you say.”
Paul looked out of the window, feeling an odd sense of deja-vu as he watched the clouds drift along far below the supersonic aircraft.
It was dark when the X-Zero arrived back home. Juliette piloted the jet low, sweeping around until it was practically over the top of the mansion. Paul looked out his window, and saw the turrets and sweeping lines of the building below. Were they going to park it on the bloody lawn? he thought.
“Switching to VTOL,” Juliette said.
The engine noise changed. They were hovering, Paul realized.
From her control panel, Juliette activated the massive doors hidden in the grass at one side of the mansion. Paul saw them slide open, and the fluorescent lights illuminated a huge underground hangar. Juliette descended the X-Zero into the basement bay, with barely a sideways or forward movement, until the jet came down with a gentle whump onto the reinforced synth-crete floor.
As the engines died, Paul removed his harness and looked admiringly at Juliette. “You
certainly fly this thing well.”
She tilted her head slightly in acknowledgement. “I am so glad you are impressed, Monsieur Metcalfe.”
“Please, call me Paul. I hate standing on ceremony.”
As they trooped down the ramp, he looked around the huge hangar, shaking his head. “Well, I’ve seen just about everything now. Doesn’t flying this thing around get the neighbours excited?”
“The estate is very large, and our nearest neighbours are several miles away,” Gray replied.
“And we usually just take this lady out after dark,” Patrick added with a grin.
Paul was ushered into a shiny steel elevator. Juliette, as the closest, activated a retinal scanner and the door slid shut with barely a whisper. The elevator halted with a slight bump and the doors slid open again. Paul blinked at the new décor of the upper mansion hallway, about as far removed from what he’d left as it was possible to be.
A sculpture of the Three Graces adorned the console table opposite the doors. Paul gazed at the beautiful statuary for a moment until he realised Gray was regarding him with an amused look.
“Reminds me of something I saw once, wish I could remember when, or where.”
Gray swivelled his chair and motored further along the corridor which widened out into a massive foyer. “We’d like to try and help.”
Paul smiled tight-lipped. “You have no idea how much I appreciate that.”
He was interrupted as a door opened at the far end of the corridor and a man and a woman walked briskly towards them. Then the young woman’s hair flew out behind her as she broke into a run, finally flinging herself into Juliette’s arms. With a shock he felt a wave of emotion flow from her and wrap itself around him like some living thing. When she spoke he felt the second shock – that of recognition.
That voice – the same voice he had heard in his dreams.
“Oh, thank goodness you're all right,” she said breathlessly. “I sensed you were in trouble.”
“Nothing we could not handle between us, and our new friend,” the Frenchwoman nodded towards Paul.
The redhead stared at him with astonished blue eyes, as if she had recognised him from somewhere. But of course that was impossible, as they had never set eyes on one another before now. Then, for a second time he felt that odd emotional flow emanating from her, a warm thing, that seemed to caress his consciousness, then at once he felt the sensation of the caress pulling away quickly, as if finding itself embarrassed at the gesture, leaving him with a most peculiar feeling of being bereft.
Suddenly the thought rose unbidden in his mind.
She’s the one – the one who’s been calling me in my nightmares.
He knew it now with absolute certainty.
Gray coughed, and this broke the sudden quietness that had descended in the corridor. “I think we need to make some more introductions." He pointed to Paul and introduced the new arrivals.
“You have Dianne to thank for finding you. She is the telepath I told you about.”
“The pleasure’s all mine,” he replied with a smile, and held out his hand to shake hers. His musing question was uttered only in his mind. <So you’re the mysterious woman who’s been haunting me?> and he felt a jolt of astonishment, as her reply, tinged with surprise, reverberated in his head.
He saw his amazement mirrored on her face and the tingle of electricity as their hands touched. Time was suspended for only seconds but it seemed to him like aeons. He was conscious only of her blue eyes locked with his, and the glow that streamed from her and surrounded him with warmth.
Something passed between them – something wonderful and incredible and he was stunned with the intensity of it. Then, the moment was broken and, as if conscious of her impropriety, she hastily released their grip from his. He felt her thoughts cascade over him like a fluttering wave, confused and tinged with regret.
Paul blinked and happened to glance beyond Dianne at the man Gray had called Richard Fraser. For the first time he noticed the dark-red shades he wore, and wondered if he was blind or something, however the muscle tic in his jaw line and the tightening of his mouth as he put a hand on Dianne’s shoulder made his message more than clear to Paul. It was a proprietary gesture, making little attempt to disguise the fact that Paul was making unwanted moves on his woman. The realisation slammed him in the guts. They were a couple – lovers more than likely. He smiled in a vain attempt to block the sudden anguish that had suddenly gripped at his heart. For, the moment he had set eyes on Dianne Simms and heard her beautiful voice in his head, he thought that he had found the other half of his soul.
“Well, let’s not stand around here making the hallway untidy,” Gray said, breaking a tension which had almost become palpable. He turned to Paul. “I suggest you get a good night’s sleep, young man, and we can talk again in the morning. Patrick, would you be so kind as to show Paul to one of the spare guest rooms?”
“Sure thing, Charles.” The Irishman motioned to Paul, who followed him down the corridor. He glanced back to see the remaining X-Men in discussion with Gray, and he wondered if the topic of conversation happened to be about him. Shrugging, he followed Patrick up the wide staircase that swept up from the main foyer. It divided about halfway up and a massive stained glass window, black with the night, stood sentinel at this junction. The stairs continued upwards in both directions, Patrick turned left and they continued up, and Paul found himself in another wide corridor with a number of polished mahogany doors on both sides. A deeply carpeted runner deadened the sound of footsteps over the ubiquitous walnut floors.
“This is a big house,” Paul commented.
“Yep, and you’ve only seen a fraction of it. We’re in the sleeping wing, and this is the adults’ floor. The juniors sleep on the floor above this one. They’re aged mostly between twelve and eighteen – the X-factor gene can manifest at an early age these days. For the oldies amongst us, we manifested relatively late on. In my case I was nearly twenty-one, but in the last few years, we’re seeing the pivotal age drop and drop. Doc – sorry, Edward – is working on why, but he hasn’t figured it out yet.”
Paul nodded as he passed several rooms. Big rooms by the distance between the doors, he judged. He glanced at one of the small brass nameplates on one of them.
Juliette’s room, he guessed.
He was clandestinely searching for Dianne’s name as Patrick chattered away to him. “Many of us wouldn’t be sane today without Charles’ help either.”
“Are you including yourself?”
Patrick nodded his dark head. “I was a wild boy in my youth back in New York. Got in with a bad crowd – so let’s say I was on the wrong side of the law more often than not. But, somehow, I kept my wits above me enough to get a scholarship at Yale, and even better – got a couple of degrees to boot.”
“Good for you,” Paul answered. “How did you end up here, then?”
“I lost my mam, or rather, some bastard took her from me.”
“What happened? If I’m not being nosy, I mean.”
“He tried to grab her purse; I told her she never should have gone back to the old neighbourhood; we had a nice new apartment with my first months salary advance, but she wanted to see her old friends –” He sighed, his genial face dark with sorrow. “She was a feisty old girl, and damn her if she didn’t fight him for it –”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to dredge up sad memories for you.”
“It was just after the funeral that it happened. Everyone had left, and I stared at the wall of our empty apartment. I was going to give her the world, and now she was gone. I couldn’t help it. I screamed out in my despair – and shattered every window in the block. It scared me witless. For a while I fell to pieces. I didn’t know what the hell had happened to me. I read everything I could about mutants. There wasn’t much at all back then, I discovered an article about one Professor Charles Gray, who was studying the phenomenon at Harvard, so I gave him a call. Rest is history. It wasn’t long afterwards I realised that there was more to life than getting my juvenile kicks. And some research. I got to develop most of the sub-routines for Cerebro.”
“What’s Cerebro? Some sort of computer?”
“You could say that. She’s the little toy that helps find lost mutants, just like you.”
Patrick stopped at a door at the far end of the long corridor.
“Well, here’s your room. I hope its okay for you. We can get your name up on the door as soon as you like.”
Paul cleared his throat. “Thanks, but I’m not sure I’ll be staying that long.”
Patrick shrugged, seemingly taking no offence by his remark. “We all said that when we arrived.” He swung open the door. “Five years later – some of us are still here, with no plans for leaving.”
Paul glanced around the room. There was a single bed, chest and triple wardrobe in dark stained wood, a chair next to the bed and a thick Chinese rug on the floor.
“I know it isn’t that fancy, but there’s a shower just off the room so you don’t have to fight with the others in the morning.”
“No, it’s great, really,” Paul replied. “Much better than I’ve been used to recently, believe me.”
Patrick nodded. “Well, welcome to our world. I’m not saying it’s any safer than the one you left, but we look after one another here.” He turned to leave. “I hope you sleep okay.”
“Thanks – and Patrick?”
“I appreciate you sticking up for me back there.”
“Not a problem. I’d do the same for anyone.” He held his hand out to Paul. “I hope we can be friends.”
Paul shook it, feeling better than he had done in weeks. “I hope so too.”
“Night then,” Patrick said with a cheery wave, and left Paul to his own devices. The latter sat down on the edge of the bed and tossed his jacket over the chair
Patrick seemed so sincerely likable; he didn’t doubt his offer of friendship for a second. The others did too, apart from Fraser, who had almost seemed openly hostile to him. And it wasn’t too difficult to figure out why. He sighed.
Dianne. He rolled her name around in his head.
It was too incredible for words. And the instant communion he had felt for her was made the more bittersweet for knowing that she belonged to someone else.
He looked at the bed longingly and wondered if he would be visited by his usual nightmares.
Probably, but at least this time the surroundings will be lot more pleasant to wake up in.
He threw his battered leather jacket onto the chair and had two buttons undone on his shirt when he heard a soft knock on the door. He opened it and saw –
“Dianne? What’s the problem?”
She glanced at his shirt, almost blushed, and uncertainty flashed across her face behind it. “Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to - ”
“No, it’s all right, come on in.”
She walked tentatively into the room, but maintained a safe distance from him. He sensed her nervousness as if it was something alive.
“How did you do that?” she said.
He frowned and then decided to see if what happened in the hall had been a fluke. <You mean like this> he projected at her.
Her face darkened. “Please don’t,” she said aloud.
“Why? I thought you were a telepath. I thought those sorts of people did all their talking in their minds.”
“I try not to if possible. Yes, I suppose I’ve always done it with the Professor, but no one else. We, that is, telepaths, feel it’s rude to do so with people without that ability. It’s a bit of a shock to find someone else can project as well as receive.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know, I got as much of a surprise as you, believe me. Can you see what’s in my nightmares?”
She shook her head at the sudden plea in his eyes. “No, I don’t remember anything of them. I wake frightened and confused and in pain.”
He moved towards her, with a feeling of empathy. “Like me. I’m sorry. Is there anything that can be done about it?”
“The Professor thinks so. We want to try anyway.”
He shook his head in amazement. “How is this possible, two people sharing dreams?”
“I don’t know.”
At that moment, Fraser appeared in the doorway, and she seemed to sense his presence, turning almost immediately. Paul couldn’t see the expression behind those tinted glasses, but his irritation was plainly obvious. Dianne flushed as she looked at both of them, staring at one another. Like two alpha males competing for the same doe, Paul thought wryly.
“Are you coming to bed?” he said to her. His voice was even but Paul wasn’t fooled by it. She nodded, reaching for his outstretched hand.
She turned back to Paul and gave him a little nod. “Goodnight,” she said. And then she was gone.
Paul sat on the edge of the bed, his thoughts in a flurry. He didn’t know what to make of her visit. He thought he could feel her emotions as if they were his own, but was he fooling himself that her interest in him was more than just wanting to get rid of her bad nightmares? He considered himself to be an honourable man, and falling for another man’s woman wasn’t the way he did things.
He sighed and started pulling off his clothes. Shirt and pants followed his jacket onto the chair. He sniffed his vest, grimaced and wondered if they would mind him using their laundry. He climbed underneath the coverlets, and switched off the light, and despite all the events of the past twenty-four hours, the exhaustion finally overtook him and he was asleep within seconds.
Rick shut the door and leaned back on it, his arms folded. “What were you doing in his room?”
She saw his jaw tighten, caught his yellow-gold aura darken and waver, tinged with confusion and hurt. She bit her lip, suddenly feeling small and upset in the wake of his emotions.
“I just wanted – I didn’t think I had to have your permission before I wanted to speak to anyone.”
She saw the crimson light flicker behind his glasses. He dropped his arms, and moved across to her, and she sensed he was calming down, back to his usual stoic self.
“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to suggest anything by it. Look, Dianne, we know nothing about him, and I just didn’t think it was a smart idea to go off alone with him.”
“I’m not defenceless you know.” She waved an irritated hand in his face. “Okay, my telekinesis isn’t what it could be, but I’m sure I could have warded off any unwanted advances by a man in a dirty vest.”
They looked at one another for a moment, as if realising the absurdity of their argument. He put his arms around her and kissed the top of her head, and she felt the tension dissipate –although not completely.
“Friends?” he asked her.
She hugged him, glad to have the sudden draught of cold between them evaporate in the warmth of his embrace. “Always.”
She sensed a question poised on his lips – and with a sudden lurch of her heart she knew what he was thinking.
“Can he speak to you – telepathically, I mean?”
She couldn’t lie to him, and nodded against the hand that cupped her cheek. “Don’t ask me how; it was a shock, when I heard him in my head.”
There was a moment’s silence, and then he added quietly, “I always wished I could talk to you –like that –.”
She stared into his handsome face, and wished, for the millionth time that her telekinesis was strong enough to hold back that terrible power, so she could see those brown eyes, just once, for herself. However, his expressions had become second nature to her, as a means of reading the emotions behind those red shades: The movement of an eyebrow, a tic in the jaw; the slump or lift of his broad shoulders. She tried to stop the tears that pricked behind her eyelids, and she gripped her arms tighter around his waist.
“Oh love, it doesn’t matter,” she whispered.
And yet, as she lay in the darkness, beside him, she was overcome by feelings she couldn’t explain. Paul Metcalfe could indeed share her thoughts, and her shock had been visceral, when he had touched her hand and made that mental contact.
Surely I can’t be so shallow, to be attracted to him because he can talk to me in my own mind? she berated herself. Well, that’s all it is, an attraction, he’s a good looking man, I’ll agree, but that’s not enough to turn my head. She felt Rick stir against her, his warm body a reminder of everything they had shared together.
But somewhere, deep in her soul, she knew something had changed, and that knowledge made her feel afraid for their relationship for the first time in her life.
Some time later in the night the door opened in Paul’s room. The corridor’s dim light outlined the figure of Magnolia Jones. She stopped to stare at the sleeping man, a look of uncertainty on her face. Then Paul started to moan and move in his sleep. Intrigued, she moved further into the bedroom, padding softly across the wooden floor. Paul’s motions became more anxious; his legs became tangled up in the bedclothes and his moans became more guttural. She saw sweat bead out on his forehead and his face contorted with some terrifying pain. She moved closer, startled at his anguish.
He sat up quicker than she would have believed possible, his eyes staring into her as if she was some black terror come to visit him.
His claws extended and she was too close for him to miss.
She screamed in agony as they pierced her abdomen, thrusting upwards into her ribcage and pulling her body towards his. In a reflex action, she grabbed at his head with her hands, locking them together in a parody of an embrace. Then it was Paul’s turn to scream as Magnolia’s mutant power sucked the life force out of him –
Light flooded into the room from the hallway as three of the others rushed in. Dianne had been awakened by Paul’s empathic scream, and she had shouted at Rick to follow her, and Brad had been roused from REM sleep next door to Paul.
“Oh my God, get her off!” Dianne screeched. “She’s killing him!”
Brad grabbed Paul’s jacket from the floor wrapping it quickly around his hands to protect them. He pulled at the young woman, struggling to prise her away. Her strength was awesome. The force of their momentum carried them both backwards and they rolled together on the floor. As they came to a halt, Brad swallowed hard as he saw the blood from her wounds pump out on the floor. Rick snatched Paul’s vest and stabbed it into the gashes, trying to staunch the blood flow. She moaned with pain and then mercifully passed out.
Dianne stared in horror at Paul. His arms were flailing wildly in his agony, the sharp claws thrashing the air and his body convulsing on the bed. The skin of his face, neck and torso skin was mottled and grey and covered in spidery-blue lines. Overcoming her feelings she directed her thoughts and the brief psi-bolt knocked him unconscious. He fell limply back onto the pillow, his claws swiftly retracting back in-between his knuckles.
The commotion had brought Gray and the other X-Men on the scene, as well as several of the younger students who had been woken by the screams. They were trying to peer into the room past their elders, avidly curious as to what was happening.
“Juliette, Patrick, get them out of here!” Gray ordered. They didn’t need to see this.”
As the two of them shooed the youngsters back to their rooms, Edward rapidly dropped to one knee beside the injured girl to assess her condition. He breathed a sigh of relief; her pulse, at first erratic, was becoming steady. He pulled the blood-soaked shirt away to look at the wound and gave a sharp intake of breath.
“I don’t believe it! The bleeding’s stopped, and her wounds are beginning to heal.”
As Brad hunkered down to join him on the floor, he whistled quietly. “No kidding, Doc, you’re right.” He turned to Gray. “How’s this happening?”
Gray shook his head. “I’m not sure, she said her touch killed, but perhaps its more than that. Perhaps she absorbs something of a person’s life-force, including any mutant abilities they possess. I can only deduce that she has somehow absorbed Paul’s rapid healing ability, and used it to save herself from the injuries he inflicted upon her.”
“And we got here just in time, or he would have been dead,” Rick said, glancing across to Paul. “What the hell was she doing in his room in the first place?”
No one answered his question.
Dianne meanwhile, was checking Paul’s condition. As she lifted his wrist to check his pulse, she saw his pallor darken and the spidery lines on his face and body beginning to fade. His eyelids fluttered open and she found herself staring into his blue eyes, groggy from his ordeal. His fingers almost instinctively gripped hers and she felt her throat constrict. She hastily removed her hand and stood up from the bed. “How do you feel?” she asked him.
He breathed deeply, his eyes losing focus again for a few seconds as his head swam with nausea. “I don’t know, exhausted, like a herd of horses ran me over”.
He blinked when he saw the strange markings on his arms and torso. Then his gaze dropped to see the scene on the floor. Just at that point, Magnolia coughed and her eyes blinked open.
“What happened here, Magnolia?” Brad asked her, in a gentle voice.
She breathed deeply for a few seconds, glanced around the room, taking in the anxious, curious faces; then saw Paul lying on the bed, the markings of near-death upon him. Her hands flew to her face and her whole body trembled.
Edward could see that the puncture marks on her skin had practically closed. He shook his head in wonder and helped her gently into a sitting position. “Does that hurt?” he said, when she winced.
“A little, it’s still sore inside.”
“Well, we’ll get you down to the infirmary and keep an eye on you.”
Gray interrupted. “Just one moment, Edward. Magnolia, what were you doing in Paul’s room?”
“I –I was thirsty, and I went to the kitchen for a glass of water. I passed here and heard him moaning. I just wanted to see what was wrong with him, see if I could help, then next thing I know he fixed me with those spikes in his hands.”
“Is that true?” Brad said, with a glance at Paul.
Paul frowned, the gesture bringing a fresh bout of nausea. “No, I was asleep, I’m sure of it. I was having a nightmare. If I attacked you, I didn’t mean it –I thought you were –” He felt suddenly stricken at the thought that he might have killed her. It wasn’t the berserker rage, but what if it had been? His mouth went dry and he tried to quell the sudden thumping in his heart. It was crazy to agree to come here – people could get hurt if he lost control again.
“I think what’s happened was an unfortunate accident. You are both extremely lucky,” Gray interrupted his morbid thoughts.
“Unfortunate?” Rick snapped. “What would have happened if one of the kids had come in here to investigate his nightmares? We’d be calling the morgue right now!”
“I didn’t ask to be invited here, remember?” Paul said.
“Be quiet, both of you,” Gray said sharply, as if he was addressing two schoolchildren.
They both fell silent - but only for a second. Paul spoke up again, a bleak look upon his face. “He’s right, though. I can’t stay here. I – I don’t have control over my claws – sometimes. It’s too dangerous.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Gray replied. He regarded Paul with a sombre look. “You have been on the receiving end of a lot of punishment in the last twenty-four hours, young man. Do you need to go with Edward to the infirmary as well?”
Paul shook his head, glad to note the absence of the nausea this time. “I just think I need sleep, my healing factor will do the rest.”
Gray nodded, apparently satisfied with the answer. “Very well. Lock your door tonight, and I will see you in the morning to discuss your situation with Dianne and Edward. I made a promise and I intend to keep it,” Gray continued, as if that was the final word on the issue. He swept his raking gaze around the room as if to ensure that they better take note of the words. Paul noted how they instinctively deferred to his authority, and he figured that they probably weren’t even aware that they were doing it.
“And now,” Gray said at last with a faint sigh, “It has been a long and harrowing day – so I suggest we all try to get some sleep for the remainder of the night.”
Edward nodded and he and Brad helped Magnolia to the infirmary. Paul saw Rick put an arm around Dianne to usher her out of the room and finally Gray turned to Paul just before he left, the last one out.
“You are not alone. We will help you. Now get some sleep.”
Paul was oblivious until he heard a sharp rap on the door. He sat bolt upright, all his senses screaming, his claws extending for the fight, and then he realized where he was.
“Paul, are you okay in there?” It was Patrick’s voice.
“Yes – I’m fine.”
The door opened and the Irishman stuck his dark head around it.
“Sorry if I woke you, it’s gone past ten. Wondered if thought you might need some breakfast, or brunch even.”
“How’s Magnolia?” It was the first thing that entered Paul’s head as the memory of last night’s events came crashing back to him.
“She’s fine. It’s as if nothing happened to her. Doc checked her out this morning. That healing power of yours is really something.” He studied Paul. “It looks you’ve made a good recovery too.”
“I guess I should see her. Apologise, I mean.”
“Well, I suppose you might want to shower first. I got to run I’m afraid, got a computer class to take. Think you can find the way to the kitchens on your lonesome?”
“I think I’ll manage. I take it that means I’m trusted enough to be walking around on my own?”
Patrick gave him a sly grin. “Don’t worry about Rick. He’s the naturally suspicious type, and he’ll be okay when he gets to know you better. And by the way, the professor said just to take it easy, you’ve had a rough time, you could use some rest and relaxation. He’ll call you when he’s ready for you.”
Somehow, those reassuring words sounded ominous to Paul.
He ran the water scalding hot and stood under the cascade until his skin hurt. Afterwards he felt as if the water had sluiced away at least some of the detritus of his recent past. As he hunted around for some clothes, he picked up his blood-soaked vest with disgust and stuffed it into the small washbasin, to be sorted later. The wardrobe held several items of clothing, amazingly in his size, so he pulled on a sweat-shirt and pair of casual pants and wandered along the corridor down the stairs to find the kitchen. The stained glass window above the staircase now refracted light in myriad colours of the rainbow. He blinked, a lump in his throat at the display of unearthly beauty, a million miles away from the dark, miserable lot of his life. He felt lightness in his step as he wandered down the stairs.
However, after he found himself back in yet another walnut panelled corridor, much like the other three he had just ended up in, he huffed in annoyance. His stomach complained noisily and he was no nearer the kitchen than when he had started. He listened to the sounds emanating from the various rooms branching off this corridor. Of course, he thought to himself, Patrick mentioned this was a school – so these had to be classrooms. From one he heard the music, some classical piece although he had no idea what it was. From another room he heard a clear female voice that he recognized immediately. He opened the door so as not to disturb the occupants.
“ –so, complete all the questions in section five for homework,” Dianne had her back to the small group of students, scribbling something on the white-board on the wall. Two pairs of female eyes turned to ogle Paul wickedly. Dianne heard the giggles and turned to see him standing there.
“Sorry, I can see you’re busy,” he said.
A flicker of a smile played along her lips as she saw the students gazing at Paul like he was fresh meat.
“I gather you’re lost.” She said it like it was a natural thing to suffer from in this house.
“I’m afraid so. I was looking for the kitchen and I think I must have doubled back on myself – once or twice.”
There was another bout of giggles from his admirers.
“I’m just finishing class; I’ll take you there myself.”
“Nice one, Miss,” this from a bespectacled sandy-haired student at the front of the class.
“A little less cheek from you, Mr. McClaine, or you’ll be scribbling detention until next Friday.”
There were some more outbursts of sniggering and a general clattering of chairs across the floor as the students got up and moved out the classroom. The two girls winked at Paul as they sidled past him.
He caught Dianne’s eye and she smiled at the little by-play that had just ensued. “It hardly seems any time since I was their age,” she said, closing the door. She started down the corridor. “This way,” she said, and he followed her.
She led him into an enormous kitchen. It was light and airy, painted in the colours of the South of France. A massive range on one wall stood next to a massive stainless steel refrigerator. The entire rear was a series of windows and French doors leading out to a lawn dotted with elegant shrubs and flower beds arrayed with the precision found in the gardens of the stately houses of England.
She waved a hand around the room. “There’s cereal in the cupboards and eggs and juice in the fridge, just help yourself.”
“Won’t you join me?”
She hesitated. “I’d better not; I’ve got some things do.”
“Please, I haven’t had anyone to talk to for what seems like forever. I’m not even sure if I’m the sociable type. It would be nice to find out.” He gave her what he hoped was a charming grin.
She returned his smile with a small one of her own. “I’ll make some coffee,” she said, and walked purposely to the workspace next to the window to busy herself with the brewer.
Paul poured some cereal into a bowl, splashed on some milk and sat down on one of the stools by the wide peninsula unit. He looked over to Dianne, who was standing with her arms folded, in an almost defensive posture, waiting for the coffee. He could sense her nervousness and suspected it had something to do with him.
“So, you’re a telepath, or at least that’s what I’m inferring from what your Professor Gray told me,” he said breaking the awkward silence. “Don’t all those people’s thoughts around you make you go crazy?”
She shook her head. “The professor taught me how to maintain a low-level shielding; it’s like a sort of mental barrier, which I can lower if I deliberately want to read someone’s mind; which I don’t do without asking, I might add.”
“I didn’t say a word.”
She bit her lip. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply anything.”
He cursed silently at stopping her flow. “I’m sorry too. Please carry on, it’s fascinating, what you’re telling me.”
She gave him a look. “Now you’re teasing me.”
He shook his head vehemently, and she relented. “Well, anyway, with low level shielding, another telepath can send a strong enough signal to get my attention, it’s a little bit like them shouting, to use an analogy.”
Paul frowned for a second. “One of the guys that attacked us yesterday, Gray said something about his mind being shielded, and if he tried to break through it, it would damage him. I have to admit I didn’t really understand what they were talking about.”
“A telepath can create different levels of shielding in their own or another person’s mind. The latter would be like a form of hypnosis, only much much stronger. It’s not something we would do to a non-telepath’s mind. It’s potentially hazardous, not to say immoral.”
“Well, these guys didn’t have too many morals. They were happy to shoot first and ask questions afterwards.”
She turned back to the kitchen units. “Ready for some coffee?” she asked him.
She stretched out her hand and one of the kitchen cupboards opened – all by itself. Paul stopped mid-spoonful in astonishment and watched as two cups floated from their shelf onto the top of the unit. She poured coffee as Paul pushed his jaw back into place. She handed one cup to Paul and kept one for herself.
“Well, that’s something you don’t see every day,” he said. “Gray talked about something called telekinesis, but seeing it in action – well, you people are just full of surprises.”
He took a sip of the coffee; it was delicious. “I’ve been meaning to ask you, the professor said that you somehow tracked me down. How did you do that exactly when half the world seems to have failed?”
Dianne shrugged. “I honestly don’t know, and neither does Charles. It really is very unusual.”
He looked up, caught her eye, and gave her a grin. <Maybe it’s because we’re soulmates> he thought at her, hardly expecting to get a reply.
He saw a cloud flit cross her lovely features for a second, and he instantly regretted his flippant thoughts, having enough sense to realise he had overstepped the boundaries of her comfort zone.
“This is some place,” he said, changing the subject. “This mansion, that basement. What on Earth is an Englishman doing holed up in a place like this?”
“The professor, you mean? He’s lived over here for years. It belonged to his wife. “
“Belonged?” he picked up the past tense. “Is she – ?”
Dianne nodded. “A long time ago. Don’t worry, time is a great healer, as they say. And it’s not a secret. This school became his means of coping with his loss. He retired from the World Navy, and came back to the house, to start his life over again.”
“Did they have any children? I mean like him, her, mutants? And if I’m asking too many questions, just tell me to well – you get the message.”
She shook her head. “It was something he always regretted. He had been an only child himself, and perhaps in some way, the students in this school, all of us in fact, are the children he never had and desperately wanted. ”
“So what’s with all the code names? I heard them being used, when you people rescued me back in the woods.”
She smiled absently, as if recalling some happy memory. He realised he loved seeing her smile.
“Oh, that sort of came about a few years ago. It was a bit of a joke really, but they’ve sort of stuck,” she said.
“So, I take it Juliette is called Storm because she can drum up the wind on call?”
“Oh she can do more than that. She can summon up lightning, rain, storms, even hurricanes – if she wants to.”
His eyes widened. “Impressive. I was pushing my luck then, when I suggested she couldn’t fly your jet.”
Dianne smiled at the thought. “She must have liked you.”
“Lucky me. So tell me more.”
“Well, Patrick is called Banshee, and that’s because he can emit deafening sonic screams which can cause unconsciousness in people, or even liquefy objects if he emits enough power.”
“Yes, I saw that.” Paul grimaced at the memory of their fight in the snow the previous day.
“Brad calls himself the Iceman because he has the ability to create solid ice out of any form of moisture. And when my fiancé first wore his visor, to fine-control his eye beams… the name ‘Cyclops’ sort of stuck.”
“He doesn’t like me much, does he?”
A pinpoint of red appeared on each of her cheeks again. “Don’t judge him too harshly. He just feels responsible for all of us. People don’t like mutants much, as you probably know. Like all of us he’s learnt to cultivate a suspicious streak for a long time.”
“Well, I suppose I can relate to that,” he said with a shrug. “Given what I remember of the past few weeks.”
There was silence for a few minutes, and then he said, “You didn’t tell me what your code name was.”
She sipped her coffee. “Oh, I don’t have one. I’m just plain ordinary Dianne Simms.”
“You? Ordinary – I don’t think so –”
Before he could stop it, the image was there; strong, too strong; he’d forgotten how she picked up on these things. He saw her drop the tea-cup in astonishment and heard it shatter on the tiles. Her face reddened as she telekinetically gathered up the pieces together and binned them. He stood watching, fascinated, even as he realised he had blundered badly. She might never speak to him again.
Then her eyes lost focus, as if she was concentrating on something.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
“Nothing,” she said, looking grateful for the interruption. “I just received a telepathic message from the professor. He wants to see you after you finish eating. I think he wants us to run some tests on you as well. He told me you might have some sort of device in your body?”
His entire body chilled suddenly inside, as if the word ‘tests’ triggered some dark terrifying repressed memory. “That sounds like fun.”
“You don’t mind?” she said, and he knew his face was pinched up and his eyes haunted.
He let out a slow breath. “Not if it’s you,” he replied, using the humour to defuse the wild thumping of his heart.
Following Gray’s telepathic request, Paul and Dianne reported to the basement laboratory. The older man and Edward Wilkie were there already, waiting for them. The latter was poking around in a set of drawers. The room was large with every inch of space utilized with ruthless efficiency. The walls were covered with pristine chrome and laminated benches and cupboards, on which several pieces of complex instrumentation hummed quietly, lights blinking. Wilkie waved a distracted hand at them, seemingly more interested in his equipment and monitors than the amnesiac visitor who accompanied Dianne.
“I hope the remainder of your night was peaceful?” Gray asked Paul
“Yes, thanks, it was. I’m sorry about what happened last night, I was just telling Dianne –”
Gray waved his apology away, shaking his head. “Consider the subject closed. But perhaps for now, you should lock your door while you continue to have these nightmares. And now, onto that subject at hand, that of your memory loss and the nightmares. I’ve been giving it some thought, and I believe your memories are somehow being suppressed, whether by you yourself, or by external tampering, I can’t say. However, these things have a way of asserting themselves. In your case, I believe your nightmares are a way of your subconscious mind trying to come to terms with a trauma you’ve experienced in your past.”
“But what can you do to stop them? You can’t stop someone dreaming – unless you plan to kill me of course,” Paul said with an attempt at humour.
Dianne studied Paul Metcalfe. She had caught the pain behind his emotions when he talked to Gray. She watched his dark handsome face, and then, suddenly, his eyes flicked from Gray to hers, and for a second, her heart skipped at the way the intense blue seemed to burn into hers.
She tried to stop the thumping of her heart and the pang of disloyalty that accompanied it. Just ignore him, she demanded of herself. It just wouldn’t do for the Professor to ‘see’ her like this.
Gray hadn’t seemed to notice, and Edward, thought Dianne thankfully, was oblivious to such intangibles when he was nose-deep into one of his instruments. She took a deep breath as Gray continued talking to Paul.
“Nothing quite so extreme as that, I assure you, young man. However, there are things a telepathic mind can do, coupled with some sophisticated machinery of our own construction, that might help to unlock the memories that you are having so much difficulty with. But first, I hope you don’t mind if we run some tests on you.”
“Now?” Paul almost jumped.
Gray raised an eyebrow. “It’s as good a time as any. You have other plans?”
He grimaced. “Not exactly.”
“Good, then I’ll leave you in Dianne and Edward’s capable hands.”
And with that he activated his wheelchair to leave the laboratory.
“Never would have imagined he had a sense of humour,” Paul said, turning back to Dianne.
She sensed the remark was designed to defuse the fear that she felt emanating from him at the mention of the scan. Something about it had scared him badly; she felt his red dual physical/mental aura vibrating in her own mind so she rapidly continued in the same light-hearted vein.
“He’s not always so straight-laced. He sometimes even lets his hair down at the Christmas party.”
“Now that I have to see.”
Edward walked over to one particularly complex piece of equipment and started flicking his fingers across the touch panel controller. Paul moved closer to see screens flicker and jump, most of what was being displayed was incomprehensible as far as he was concerned.
“What is this thing?” he asked.
“It’s a modified body scanner made to my and the Professor’s own specifications,” Edward replied, not taking his eyes off the screen.
“Right –”Paul said slowly. “And they are?”
“Oh – sorry, it has an extremely powerful X-ray analyser attachment.”
Paul turned to give Dianne a blank look, feeling like a complete idiot, and she tried not to smile as she saw her colleague engrossed in preparing the instrument for Paul’s scan. She answered for him. “It enables us to determine an elemental composition of someone’s body.”
“Right. Something tells me I wasn’t a scientist in my previous life –” Paul said, regarding the machine with suspicion. “So you can tell what metals are in my fillings then?”
Edward turned around finally. “Probably, but I’d like to do a whole body scan, if you don’t mind.”
Paul didn’t answer immediately. He wandered around the machine, scrutinizing it. Dianne felt his emotions roiling, the hesitation on his face that Edward evidently didn’t pick up upon.
“It won’t hurt you,” she said.
Paul shrugged. “The thought never crossed my mind; I’m just checking it out.” He came back around and sat himself on the body-sized tray in front of the tunnel compartment. He lay down and kept his gaze locked on Dianne’s.
She cleared her throat. “You’ll have to, uh, take your shirt off, and your jeans.”
He gave her a wry smile as he sat up to pull his shirt off. Dianne quickly averted her eyes and turned to watch Edward complete the scan cycle preparation. Paul meanwhile finished undressing and lay back down again on the tray, facing the ceiling. “I guess I’m the right way up?” he said cheerfully, eliciting their attention.
Dianne turned around, glanced only for a second at his bare chest.
“Yes, you’re fine.”
Edward touched a key on the brightly coloured screen and the tray slid noiselessly into the tunnel.
“Just as well I’m not claustrophobic,” they heard his muffled voice complain from within.
Dianne and Edward gave one another a look, and then turned their full attention to the screen. After a while the sensors began to transmit their information.
What they saw horrified them…
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. Hopefully, even for a CS fan who knows nothing beyond the X-Men movies, this story and its universe will make sense. And for those who might think – What – or Why should anyone write this – there were for me, enough other immediate comparisons to make me think the two universes could somehow combine and make sense:
Charles Xavier, just a surname away from Colonel White’s alter-ego, the red-haired Jean Gray (Rhapsody), the Irishman Banshee, (Captain Magenta), the Southern states mutant known as Rogue, (Melody - although I don’t use that moniker in the story), Storm the weather controller, (Destiny – who has a degree in weather control!!!) Some characters have less obvious connections, such as the brown-haired-brown-eyed-before-becoming a mutant Cyclops, but brown-haired-brown-eyed Captain Ochre fitted the bill nicely. The Angel, Warren-Worthington III, (Captain Blue) from a wealthy blue-blood family, and the Iceman, (Captain Gray) – well there IS a water connection I guess! And of course, I couldn’t end without mentioning one of the villains of the piece, the mutant Magneto, and I think Captain Black fills those shoes rather well, and the coat, actually.
Readers familiar with either the X-Men movies or the comics will recognise certain plot-elements in the story, (in Part One it’s the mutant registration bill hearings and the rescue of Paul in the snowy wastes.) Hopefully I’ve not just re-hashed them but put a different spin on them. I have to admit, despite the sometimes agonising times when writing an intimate scene or a fight scene was like getting blood from a stone, I had rather a lot of fun, trawling through the mighty Gerry Anderson Universe to pepper the tale with its characters and equipment and settings. I may never have so much fun again in fact and I hope you the reader, had fun spotting all the little cameos and asides in my affectionate nod to its wonders.
I almost forgot that one of the reasons I wanted to write this particular story was that it suggested a challenge to write fantastic action scenes – whether I pulled that off or not is not for me to decide. I only hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed (when they were written) getting them down on the page.
As ever, I have to thank 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 pics….)
And thanks again to 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’.
And 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!
Caroline Smith - May 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.