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

 

 

eXtrapolations

 

 

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

 

 

Part Three

 

 

 

Eighteen

 

Adam Svenson stared with haunted eyes at Karen Wainwright, the so-called White Queen of the Spectrum Society, as the woman he thought he loved tortured his friends right in front of his eyes. They had been resuscitated briefly, in order for their cries to be heard at the other end of the line, and then, almost immediately afterwards, they were sedated again. Through the entire nightmare, Adam had been powerless to do or say anything. He felt sick to his stomach.

Henderson spent a few more minutes talking to Karen. Adam watched her, the way her gaze flicked his way when she thought Henderson wasn’t looking. Finally, Henderson left the laboratory, leaving him and Karen together.

Her high heels clicked across the floor, until she was a foot away from him. For a long moment they stared at one another – frozen in time. She ripped the gag from his lips and he screwed up his eyes at the sting. When he opened them a second later he saw the hard-set line of her face, and yet beyond the expression, in the depth of her eyes, there was something else…

A wild and crazy notion entered his head – the only thing in his power that he had to turn the tables on the Spectrum Society. Despite her appalling actions, he was sure she still felt something for him, and perhaps he could use that, to resurrect the young woman he now truly believed might be hidden, deep down under all that protective armour that she wore.

But, am I so sure, even with what happened between us, that I can reach her?

“Do you get some kind of kick out of hurting people?” he said.

She moved closer to him and touched his temple with one of her long fingers. She slowly and deliberately scored a fingernail down his cheek. And he closed his eyes, remembering how in another time and place, those same fingers had caressed him to sweet jagged ecstasy.

“I do what has to be done. Gray would hardly be convinced of our intentions otherwise.”

 “So why didn’t you try your mind-probes on me?”

The fingers stopped their caress and her eyes narrowed. “Don’t push me.”

“Or, just maybe, you care more about me than you really want to admit.”

“Nice try, but you’re wasting your time.”

She snatched her hand away from his face and turned her back on him, heading for the door.

Okay.

“What made you into such a bitch, Karen?”

She whirled around and he felt his throat tighten. He hadn’t thought her eyes could get any harder than they already were.

“Life,” she answered in a flat voice.

“Oh, yeah, that. Funny, we all have to suffer it.  But we poor stunted souls on our lonely islands, we don’t have the privilege of being able to share our thoughts and emotions, as you can. Just imagine what you could have done with a power like yours – a gift – a wonderful gift – but you’ve perverted it and yourself.  Does the realisation of what you’ve done really make you feel happy – deep down? 

“You don’t know anything about it.”

“I know you aren’t happy, Karen, I can feel it, and I guess in some way, you’re not to blame for any of this; it must have been hell, locked away for all these years.”

Her eyes flared wide, uncertain.

“I know that you were placed in a mental asylum, at fifteen, by your parents, because you heard voices.”

The slap echoed loudly in the laboratory. “You have no right to pry into my life,” she said in a voice as cold as the wastes of the Arctic, and yet, there was turmoil behind her eyes.

He clicked his jaw; that had hurt. “No mind blast? I’m honoured.”

“My mental power could turn you into a jabbering, drooling idiot, right this second.”

“So, what’s stopping you?”

She didn’t answer him, but he noticed her chest rising and falling, as if she was fighting for breath.

“What hold has Henderson got over you anyway? Has he warped your mind so much that you can’t think for yourself?”

“I can think just fine.”

“No, I don’t think you can, and I don’t think all this is what you want – not really. In fact you know what I think?  That deep down, you’re still that frightened young girl who was sent away. I want to bet you’re so terrified of anything that might make you vulnerable again. You daren’t let anyone too close, or you just might crack wide open –”

“Shut up, damn you!”  

Her hand slammed palm down against his forehead, and was followed by a savage agony; raw fire that burned every nerve ending in his entire body.  He sagged against the gurney, his breath ragged, and his eyes feeling like they were melted into his skull. Dimly, through the pain, he saw Karen’s face contort with myriad emotions; bitterness, regret and shame, struggling with the years of desire for control. 

Come on Karen, I know you’re in there. He willed the thought to her mind, knowing she could pick it up. But she turned away from him, staggering, and sat down heavily on a chair near him. 

“I’m sorry, I only want to help you,” he said.

“You have a strange way of showing it.”

“Karen,” he pleaded. “We all have had to suffer in some way for being born the way we are, but at some point we have to stop blaming others and take responsibility for ourselves.”

She whirled to face him and he saw the ragged trail of tears along her cheekbones. “Well, I took responsibility; I paid back everything they owed me.”

“Not like this. This doesn’t resolve anything.”

 “And how the hell would you know, Mr. Know-it-all Svenson, with your happy childhood and loving parents?  How could you know what I feel? They put me in that place – left me there to rot, beside all the other lunatics. They didn’t want their precious lives – their so-wonderful existence - to be tainted by even a whiff of scandal.”

“Surely they were only trying to help you?”

She gave a shriek of laughter, and he heard the hysterical edge in it. “Oh, just like you’re trying to do. I wasn’t crazy when I went in there, but by God I nearly was when I finally escaped. Drugs, electro-therapy, oh, my parents agreed to anything just so I could be normal again. All I ever wanted was for them to love me, and they ignored me, ignored my cries for help.”

“How did you escape – from the sanatorium?”

“One of the wardens, I always saw him watching me, and I could tell what he wanted. I hadn’t spent my time in that God-forsaken place entirely for nothing. I found that my mind was capable of things beyond hearing people’s thoughts.”

“You seduced him?” Adam failed to keep moral indignation from his voice.

“I had to get myself out of there.” She smeared away tears, fighting now to regain her self-control, and Adam suddenly felt out of his depth; perhaps he was a fool to believe he could repair the damage to this young woman. Nevertheless, he tried to reach out to her for one last time.  

“Don’t do Henderson’s dirty work, Karen. Stop now before it’s too late, before you go down the path so far you can’t find your way back.”

“Forget your amateur psychiatry. There’s nothing you can do for me. I’ve had too many years of using my mind to get what I want; you have no idea what it’s like.”

“My God, it really is like a drug, isn’t it?” he said, and her haunted eyes told him he had hit the target dead centre. He felt an uncontrollable wave of sympathy. “You’re addicted; you’ve found the ultimate stimulant.”

“Yes, God help me, and I never cared –” Karen trailed off, but he heard her voice ringing in his head.

Until now.

“Henderson won’t let me go,” she said in a flat voice, as if all the emotion had suddenly drained out of her.

Adam felt an unreasonable stab of jealousy. “What is he to you anyway, some sort of Svengali figure? Your lover?”

“Yes, he was. And when you join the Inner Circle of the Spectrum Society, there’s no way you can leave.”

The way she said this sent a chill into his heart. “Professor Gray is a telepath; he can help you. I know he can. You don’t have to do this anymore.”

“I’ve said enough, Adam. I need to go,” she said, and rose from the chair. He took a last look at her face, that haughty mask of control in place again.

“Damn you. For God’s sake, just think about it.  You have to let us go!” he shouted at her departing back.

 But all he heard was the sound of her heels clicking across the floor, and then the slamming of the laboratory door. He threw his head back on the gurney in frustration and anger as Juliette and Brad remained comatose – silent witnesses to his failure.

 

 

 

 

            Gray called them all together in the basement conference room to discuss the ultimatum from John Henderson.  Edward had been burrowed away in his laboratory and was horrified when Gray brought him up to date with the situation. Fraser insisted that Magnolia was kept under surveillance and out of earshot; he wasn’t going to take any chances she would find some way to contact the blackmailers again. Paul privately agreed it was a sensible course of action, but as he watched the girl leave with Edward, her face a mask of dejection, he found only pity in his heart for her. She struck him as a lost soul, a bit of a loner, much like himself. Something inexplicably told him that her part in this was not as clear cut as it first appeared; she just didn’t strike him as a cold-blooded betrayer. For the moment, however, he thought he would keep his thoughts about the matter to himself; after all, it wasn’t his friends who had been tortured, hundreds of miles away.

            They sat around the table, tight-lipped. Fraser looked even moodier than usual and Paul was under no illusions as to why. He suspected that the American blamed him for all of this, and in a way, Paul thought grimly, he was at fault. Ever since the first moment he had encountered the X-Men, he had caused them nothing but trouble with a capital T - Dropped into their cosy little group like a fox in a chicken–coop.  He glanced involuntarily across at Dianne, her face a picture of anxiety. You’ve tried everything in your power to help me, and look at where it’s got you.

Gray’s voice broke into his gloomy reverie. “Well, at least we now know where our people are being held. So I’ll throw this meeting over to suggestions.”

Fraser opened his mouth to reply when Paul leant forward, interrupting him before he could say a word.

“There’s nothing to discuss. I give myself up to these guys, whoever they are, end of story. This has gone too far already, and I can’t allow them to hurt your people any more on my account. I was always going to leave after you sorted my memories out, looks like this is a good time.”

Out of the corner of his eye he saw some fleeting emotion cross Dianne’s face. Dear God, how much he wanted to talk to her in her head – to know what she was thinking. Did she really feel something for him – or was her emotion just compassion? He tossed the yearning away – he didn’t need any distractions now that he had come to his decision. 

“I had hoped you had begun to feel a part of this extended family, Paul,” said Gray, and Paul thought he could detect just the slightest hint of disappointment in his voice. “Whatever action we plan to take, I don’t expect that you should have to sacrifice yourself to these people.”

“I appreciate that,” he said, “You don’t know how much – really. But, it seems that all my life, every time I got close to people, they got hurt. It’s far safer if I just leave, give myself up to them; that way they’ll leave you alone. What if next time they were to attack this mansion – you have kids here, think of them.”

 “I refuse to be blackmailed,” Gray said. 

Fraser spoke up: “I don’t trust him – this guy, Henderson, if that’s who he really is. What’s to say he doesn’t just keep Juliette and the others, even if he gets what he wants?”

“What are you suggesting?” Gray asked.

“That we do what he says we’re not supposed to; follow Metcalfe and go in after our people –”

“And get Paul out of there too.” Patrick added. “We can’t really expect to leave him in their clutches, not after all we’ve done to keep him out of them. Right, Rick?”

Dianne placed a hand on Fraser’s arm, and said: “We don’t know what other terrible things they might do to Paul. We can’t allow it to happen – you know we can’t.”

Fraser seemed to be struggling with himself, and for a few minutes the silence in the conference room hung like a heavy curtain.  At last he said: “I know.” 

Paul pursed his lips and a feeling he didn’t recognise stole over him. 

 

             After three exhausting hours, during which time they prepared a plan of rescue, Gray finally opened the doors from the conference room to find a small group of students outside in the basement corridor. The rumour mill had run riot, and they crowded around Gray’s wheelchair, firing off a barrage of questions in excited, anxious voices.

“What’s happened to Ms Pontoin?”

 “– We heard they were attacked at the mall; Davy Parks was there with his mom, and he just called me about it,” Joe McClaine jabbered, pushing his glasses up onto his freckled nose.

 “– Where’s Magnolia?”

 “We’re gonna rescue them, aren’t we?”

Gray waved his hands. “Quiet, please, all of you.” The clamour died to a hush and Gray felt a small knot in his throat as he noted their tension-filled faces. But they deserved the truth.

“Yes, it’s true, I’m afraid.”

“But why?” a girl called Cecily wailed. 

“The people who were searching for Paul; they tried to capture him, they didn’t succeed in doing that, but they took the others as prisoners instead.”

“Are we gonna rescue them?” Joe shouted.

“Bags I be on the team!” Chip Morrison, another young mutant, added his voice to the general clamour.

“Magnolia was going to coach me today,” Cecily said in a dejected tone.

Gray shook his head, amazed at the resilience of youth, for some of them looked eager to rush off and save their teachers from the bad guys at that very moment. He said gravely, “We will get them back, of that you can be certain. But Cecily, I’m afraid Magnolia was sent here to spy on us – to reveal Mr Metcalfe’s whereabouts to his enemies.”

There were looks of dazed astonishment on the young faces.

“Not Magnolia, surely there must be some mistake,” Cecily wailed.

Gray shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry, but it’s the truth of the matter. I know how hard it is for you to deal with all of this, but the way you can all help us best is to continue with your life as normal. I’ve cancelled classes for the next couple of days while we sort things out.”

“Are we going to the police?” another said.

“Not yet, and all of you must promise me that you won’t say a word of this to anyone outside the school; do you understand?”

Heads bobbed and nodded, but not even the thought of some unanticipated free time could chase away the sadness on their faces.

 

 

 

 

Paul hummed quietly along to the radio as the black saloon ate up the miles to their destination. Beside him, in the passenger seat, Magnolia slept, her dark head facing away from him, her hands gloved and bound so she couldn’t use them to attack him. He hadn’t been happy about Fraser’s suggestion but he supposed he saw the sense in it.

The plan they had hatched to rescue the others and, hopefully save his own skin into the bargain, was all good and well; but he wondered just how much chance they had of pulling it off and, for the hundredth time, he asked himself just why he was doing this instead of just making a run for it, and he kept coming up with the same answer.

Because I have to.

He saw a diner up ahead, and made a sudden decision.  He flicked on the aural commlink. Fraser wasn’t sure how reliable his ability to telepathically chat with Dianne was – or that was his story anyway - so they’d wired him up. He’d have no choice but to get rid of it once they reached journey’s end. Afterwards, his untried mental-link with Dianne would be their only way of keeping in touch if things got out of hand. 

He heard Fraser’s voice in his ear. “What’s up? You can’t be there already?”

“I’m making a quick rest stop.”

He could almost feel the American frown. “That isn’t a good idea, what about the girl?”

            “She’s been perfectly behaved, and I’ll make sure it stays that way.”

“You’d better. Don’t screw this up, Metcalfe. She escapes or causes a scene, you’ll be signing the other’s – ”

“You have my word.”

 “What’s your estimated time of arrival?”

“About another hour and a half counting this stop.”

“Right, we’ll take off in the jet to get us there ahead of you. Stop about three miles from the facility and signal us. Then we’ll make our way on foot. At that point we’ll have to assume you and Dianne are able to maintain contact telepathically. Sign in when you’re within a mile from the facility.”

Paul took a deep breath and gently shook Magnolia’s shoulder to wake her. She tumbled out of her doze, her eyes wide and startled as she realised where she was.

He thumbed at the diner on his right. “Fancy a cuppa? I’m parched.”

She shrugged and indicated her bonds. He untied her, hoping his sixth sense wasn’t telling him lies. “Are you going to be a good girl and stay right by me?”

After her initial surprise died down, she gave him a nod. Paul got out of the car and escorted her into the glaringly-lit interior. They sidled into opposite sides of a booth and Paul ordered coffees and pastries for them both.  As they waited, he watched her, tight-lipped and taut-strung. The waitress poured coffees, and afterwards they sipped out another uncomfortable silence. Finally she seemed to tire of his appraisal and flushed beneath her dark skin.

Paul was a trained soldier; his former life had relied on reading signs and minutiae other people would normally ignore. Right now, he was convinced that Magnolia Jones wasn’t keen to return to her masters, and for some bizarre reason, given that she had betrayed him, the notion bothered him.

“You must really hate me,” she said in a quiet voice, breaking the tortured silence.  

“I can’t find it in me to hate you, Magnolia. I don’t know why, but I feel we’re not so different, you know. What were you really doing in my room that first night?”

She shrugged. “Just curious, I guess; needed to see this guy I was supposed to be spyin’ on. When you raked me with those claws of yours, maybe I felt it was some sort of warped justice.”

            He grimaced. “You still don’t think I did it on purpose?”

She shook her head and took a deep breath. Her words came out quickly, as if she had finally tired of her reticence. “Betrayin’ you –and the others – just makes me hate myself.”

“They have a way of getting under your skin, don’t they?”

“Yeah, they sure do. At times I found myself wishin’ I really was just a mutant they’d found and I could stay at the mansion, the school, forever, work with the kids and have a good life. I wanted so badly to tell the truth – but I was so scared. Those guys who sent me to the school to spy on you – they’re bad.  I knew it and I didn’t know what might happen to me if I disobeyed them.  Do you believe me?”

He saw the tell-tale shimmer of moisture in her eyes.  “Yes, I think I do. I just wish you could have trusted Gray and his people enough to believe they could have helped you.”

“Brad said the same thing, not long after I came to the mansion. He wanted to help me so much, he was a good friend. I feel such a fraud, such a coward and now he’s –”

She wiped her eyes and nose as the tears started to spill over now. “And the kids – they know about me, don’t they? They all looked at me in the hallway as we were leaving with such awful looks on their faces –”

She put her face in her hands, her shoulders shaking in silence. Paul didn’t think it was an act.  He reached across and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“So what do you want, Magnolia?”

She swallowed again, and took another deep breath before she answered him. “I thought I knew. I thought that I’d already found someone who cared about mutants, about me and my stepbrother, but seeing all of you - living with you all - made me realise what I had was just a fantasy. It took seeing it at a different angle to know it, I guess.”

He smiled in understanding.

“I’m sorry, I’m rambling,” she said, looking up at him. “Anyway, how can you be so calm about this? I don’t know what they want with you, but I know it can’t be for any good.”

            The conversation halted as the waitress came over to refill their cups. When she was once again out of earshot, Paul changed the subject.  “Do you want to go back to these people?”

She stirred another sugar into the coffee and seemed once again to retreat into her self-imposed shell, not meeting his eyes.  “What I want doesn’t matter. I’m a spy; I’m the one who sold you down the river, so why should you care what I want? Anyway, if I don’t return, they might make it worse for Brad and the others and I sure won’t be the cause of any more hurt.”

 “It’s never too late, I know that. Why don’t you run, get away from here? I’ll say you escaped. No one has to know.”

She shook her head vehemently. “No way, I did enough to endanger all of your lives. I’m not runnin’ away again.”

 

 

 

Nineteen

 

Karen paced up and down in the bathroom after she left Adam Svenson. Her heart thumped with the adrenaline rushing through her body. She wasn’t used to losing the control her life had been built around. It had given her a purpose when she felt she had lost her way in the nightmare of her teens.

When she caught sight of her reflection in the long wall of mirrors, she was shocked at the stranger that stared back at her.  Her face was pale, streaked with tears mingled with mascara. She stopped pacing and leant over a sink, ran the faucet, and splashed some water over her cheeks in an attempt to repair some of the damage. Henderson and Kruger would expect her to join them soon; she couldn’t afford to let them know what had transpired between her and the prisoner.

With his mind and body, Henderson had moulded her, like Galatea, into his White Queen of the Inner Circle. She met him at a recruiting drive at Yale, after she fled the sanatorium. Back then, she called herself ‘Honey’ Wainwright and the money for her studies came courtesy of a visit to the family banker. It hadn’t taken much effort to use her telepathy to ‘persuade’ him to change the details of her account so that she was able to access her frozen trust fund.

It was Henderson who finally wrested her inheritance back from hungry relatives, once he’d discovered her haunted past; secretly buying up all the shares and returning the company to her. She had been swept away by the sexual power of the man, and the excitement he offered, even more so when she discovered that he knew and understood the telepathic power she possessed, and didn’t find it abhorrent. When their sexual relationship finally ended – he was too egotistical to remain with one woman for long – Karen was devastated. However, still in thrall to him – her saviour, she continued to be bound in allegiance to both him and his Inner Circle. But, she had long ago promised herself she didn’t need love.

She wiped her face dry, and reapplied her make-up. But her hands shook as she did so, because she still couldn’t get that weekend she’d spent with Adam Svenson out of her head. She couldn’t forget the simple joy of lying in his arms, of his heartbeat in tune with hers. Something about him threatened to turn the fragile stasis of her carefully constructed world crashing down around her, and looking back, she imagined she had known it from the moment she set eyes on him in that crowded ballroom at the Spectrum Society. He had started the melting of the heart she had believed buried under the ice of her resolve. But there was only one problem. They were on opposite sides.

She swallowed, fluffing her hair and taking several deep breaths to calm herself. It was time for the White Queen to return.

 

 

 

 

Under the cover of darkness, Rick piloted the X-Zero towards Henderson Technologies, his hands firmly gripping the controls. For some time since they’d left the mansion, he had surrendered to the minutiae of flying, the feel of the sleek, beautiful craft under his command; it was a hell of a lot better than brooding needlessly over the mission ahead.  There were way too many variables, and despite the number of times he and the others had thrashed out all the possible scenarios for a rescue – and at one point he and Metcalfe almost came to blows – they still had a thirty-percent possibility that it could all go to hell in a handbasket. Metcalfe, he admitted grudgingly, knew his stuff, obviously had field experience of getting hostages out of tricky situations against all the odds, and most of the people he’d had working with him hadn’t had the extraordinary abilities of the X-Men.  But the Spectrum Society had a lot of firepower at their disposal, and they weren’t afraid to use it.

He felt a hand on his arm, and turned to catch Dianne’s face smiling encouragingly at him, although her smile was a little forced, as if she had gotten hold of the strands of his thoughts. He hadn’t even tried to stop her when she insisted on coming with them - just one look from her had killed his objection at birth. He realised she possessed a fiery spirit beneath that docile front. Maybe she always had – he’d just never seen it before – or wanted to.

He removed one hand from the controls and placed it upon hers, their fingers entwined in a gesture of solidarity. The time for drills and practice was now over. They were going to rescue their friends and they might get hurt in the process, for despite their extra-ordinary abilities any one of them, apart from Metcalfe, could die with a bullet between their eyes.

Sweeping in close to the coordinates displayed on the on-board computer, Rick scanned the ground for signs of the facility. Bright lights in the distance announced their target – and for miles around dark woods spread across the land. He flicked on the jet’s infra-red sensors. They needed somewhere to leave the X-Zero, somewhere out of sight but close enough to make a fast getaway if they needed one, which he was pretty damn sure they would.

There.

 He could hardly believe his luck. The sensors showed a small clearing within the woods. Some tree felling had taken place; there were low stumps scattered around and a man-made path leading out of the wood to the main road. He judged the space was large enough to land the jet safely so he switched to VTOL mode and lowered the X-Zero into the clearing, with only a few broken branches as testament to his landing.   They trooped down the ramp and, as last man out, he keyed in the remote-code to lock-out the ship.

Twenty minutes later they were at the perimeter of the facility and stopped for a few minutes to catch their breath. “Remember,” Rick said, “it’s code-names only when we get inside. No point in giving these guys any more information about us than they already have.” 

The headquarters of Henderson Technologies comprised of three large gleaming black glass and steel buildings nestled in a beautifully landscaped setting.  Not quite so pretty, however, was the ten-foot high perimeter fence that said: ‘keep out’ to unwanted visitors. The chain-link construction, with enmeshed sensor wires throughout its length, ensured there was no way that anyone could cut through, or climb over it, without activating the alarm systems that undoubtedly existed within the facility.  Inside the fence perimeter, surveillance cameras mounted at intervals monitored the entire area of landscaped grounds and building entrances. Fifty yards to their right, electronic steel gates barred the front entrance and next door was a single-storey security block.

Patrick gave a low whistle. “Nice set-up. Wonder what little secrets they have in here?”

Rick nodded. This Henderson guy wanted Metcalfe really badly, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out they wanted to get hold of whatever genetic make-up made Metcalfe practically indestructible, with the intention of using it,  as Charles put it, for nefarious ends.

“What I’m saying is, he’s not playing by the rules, and neither should we,” Patrick continued.

 “What are you getting at, Banshee?” 

The Irishman shrugged, but a gleam had appeared in his eyes. “I’ll just keep a look out for anything that we might use as insurance.”

“A bargaining chip, you mean?”

“Something like that, I’ll bet there’s a lot of interesting stuff burrowed away inside their systems.”

“You can’t hack into their computers!” Dianne gave Patrick a horrified glance.  Rick’s own sense of moral order didn’t square with it either; he had too much of his dad in him. But Patrick came from a different world, even if he had mellowed since his years with the X-Men.

“If this company’s on the level, then fine. But I want to keep our options open.”

 “We’re limited in both time and resources,” Rick said.  “Our first priority is to get Storm and the others out of there, if this place is where they’re being held; we don’t even know that yet for sure.”

“Hey, if I get the chance, without jeopardizing the rescue, I’d like to try.”

“Okay, but first we have to get in. I’m making an assumption that the security block is where their surveillance equipment is.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Patrick agreed. “So we go there first.”

“Yes. Wolverine should be here by now, I’ll contact him.”

 

 

 

 

Paul was about a mile from the facility; he could see the floodlights casting a blue haze into the chilly night sky.  Then he heard the tiny crackle from the comm. and heard Fraser’s voice in his ear.

“We’re at the perimeter fence.   Can you talk?”
He grunted in reply, and rolled the car to a halt. Magnolia looked at him, a question in her eyes.
“Give me a minute,” he said, opening the door. “I just need some air to clear my thoughts – before I go through with this.  Is that all right?”

She shrugged. Paul had seen her draw further into herself as they drew even closer to their destination. He stepped out of the car and moved far enough away so he could speak without her hearing him and activated the commlink again. “Okay, I’m out of earshot.”

“We’re going in over the fence-line and will head for their security block at the main gate where Banshee will rig the CCTV system. But just as we figured, we’ll probably need a diversion to get past the guards. Are you up to it?”

Paul snorted quietly.  “Oh, I think so.”

 “Good, but remember to ditch the comm. before that. And when you’re inside you really are convinced that you can keep Henderson, or whoever, occupied long enough for us to find the others?”

“I’ll do my best. They haven’t gone to all this trouble just to kill me straight off. I’ll keep them talking with my natural charm.”

 “Wait a minute –”  he heard Fraser say.

Then Paul felt her – butterfly-soft – brushing against his mind and his stomach fluttered.

<Paul, can you hear me?>

He closed his eyes at the sound of her silvery voice in his head, and couldn’t speak for a few seconds. 

<Yes, every word,> he said at last.

<Keep your mind open, and concentrate on my name when you want to contact me, I’ll make sure my shielding is at a low level.>

<Okay.>

<And, Paul – >

His stomach fluttered some more at the gentle tone in her mind-voice.

<We promise we’ll come for you, before anything happens to you.>

<I’ll hold you to that.>  he sent back with as flippant a mind-tone as he could muster, and he swore that he felt an invisible touch on his left cheek, as if she had placed her lips there, but, as the echo of her thoughts slipped away, he realised with dim annoyance that he was probably just imagining things. 

 

 

 

 

Rick shifted the leather knapsack on his shoulders and studied the fence with pursed lips. He turned to his fiancée. “Dianne, do you think you could get us over this fence, without disturbing any of their alarms?”

“I’ll try,” she said. She’d never lifted an actual person before, but it couldn’t be any more difficult than the tallboy in our room, she thought. She focused on Rick first of all, stretching her hand out as if that somehow gave focus to her telekinetic power. She envisioned his contours, the shape, the mass of him in her mind’s eye – converting it all into the force required to lift him from the ground as a dead weight.

He rose jerkily and his arms flew up to counterbalance himself.   She tried not to giggle, and thought it might be her panic-response to the deadly-seriousness of the situation. She concentrated.  It really wasn’t difficult at all - just a nudge here and there – and up and across the fence he sailed.   She settled him down gently on the other side, far enough away not to trip the fence’s ground sensors.

“Nicely done, babe,” he said, nodding at her through the mesh.

“You were only a little heavier than I expected,” she said with a self-satisfied smile.

“Gee, thanks,” was his miffed reply and he shot a dark look at Patrick who was stifling a laugh. 

The Irishman was the next to go, but just before he left, he placed a small device in the ground, close to the fence.

“What’s that?” Dianne inquired.

“Locator beacon,” he replied, standing up again and winking at her. “Just in case we get lost. You just never know what might happen.”

She smiled and sent him over the fence.

Finally she floated across and dropped down to stand beside her fiancé. They locked eyes with one another and the enormity of what they were about to do hit them both simultaneously. On impulse Dianne kissed him softly on his lips. He started at the affectionate gesture and gave her a lop-sided grin.

“For luck –” she whispered against his cheek.

Patrick grinned. “Hey, you two lovebirds, time to go.   We have a rescue, remember?”

The floodlights of a car at the main entrance ahead made them stop and look. Paul had arrived right on schedule. 

“Quick, now’s our chance,” Rick whispered, and they moved rapidly in silence towards the main reception area. As they drew near, a guard emerged from the brightly-lit security block as the vehicle approached the gate.  Paul leaned out of the car window and spoke to the man, who nodded and stepped back inside the building to make a call. Several minutes later two other men appeared, both of them wearing the ubiquitous charcoal-grey, padded uniforms and carrying heavy-duty firearms. They strolled up to the car, deceptively nonchalant.  

Patrick said quietly, “They’re wearing the same uniform as those guys in Minnesota. Looks like they’ve got quite a private army here, not the sort of thing you see in your average corporate American company.  If this operation is on the level, then I’m a leprechaun.”

Dianne touched her temple, signalling a telepathic interchange taking place. “Paul’s ready,” she reported. Rick nodded grimly and they waited.

 

One soldier went around the back of the car, and lifted the trunk, presumably checking to see if they had smuggled anyone in. He shook his head at his partner, and then waved the gun at Metcalfe. “Okay, get out of the car, hands up and no funny moves.”

Metcalfe slowly got out. Rick knew that these guys wouldn’t stand a snowflake’s chance in hell if he cut loose, but it was obvious the Englishman was keeping his claws to himself for the time being. 

The second guard came up behind Metcalfe with some metal binders and attempted to put them on him. When Metcalfe whirled round defensively, cracking the guy’s cheek with the edge of his palm, Magnolia let out a shriek and the two security-men rushed outside to see what the fuss was all about.

“Quick,” Rick muttered. “That’s our cue.”

Dianne glanced backwards with concern as she heard the scuffle as the soldiers tried to subdue Paul, but he seemed to be handing out some punishment of his own, throwing a few desultory punches just to keep up the pretence of a fight. He didn’t even flick his eyes in their direction as they slid quietly into the security block.

 

Patrick made for one of two computer terminals in the room. He was familiar with the system; a Sphinx380 Terminal running a Sirius mainframe operating system. Thank the holy Virgin, he thought with a smile, as he saw that the screen was still open and the guard hadn’t bothered to activate the password lock. 

 

Fearing that the fight would get out of hand and their prisoner escape, one of the soldiers pulled a stun-stick from his utility belt and jabbed it at Paul’s neck. The shock, strong enough to disable a bull elephant, convulsed his body and with an inarticulate cry, he crumpled onto the ground. Rick glanced at Dianne.  “Is he okay?”

“I think so,” she whispered with a catch in her voice.

“I’ll say this for him, he’s no coward. That must have hurt, indestructible body or not.”

The two soldiers clamped the binders on the unconscious Paul and then another set on Magnolia. They dumped Paul in the back seat and got into the car to re-start the engine. The security guards turned around.

“Banshee!” Rick hissed into his commlink, “We’ve got company.”

The Irishman tapped his ear in acknowledgment, and backed out of the screens on the terminal, leaving it as he found it. Rick and Dianne scooted behind a convenient slatted-divider, effectively screening them from anyone at the desk.  They crouched low and Patrick hurriedly slid across to join them just as the two security guards came back into the block. One of them crossed over to the desk and triggered a sensor on the large control panel. The gate mechanism activated and the car trundled into the facility. The three X-Men could hear the two guards joking with one another.

 “– there’s sure some weird things going on around here.”

“Joe, my man, as long as we keep getting the fat pay-checks – who cares?”

“True. Hey, I gotta take a leak, mind the store.”

 “Okay, but don’t be long, remember the last time you got caught reading those magazines –”

One guard left the room. The other one settled down in his chair, flicked on a personal holo-vid and immediately became engrossed in a basketball match, ignoring the bank of monitors displaying images relayed from various locations via the on-site security cameras.

Patrick whispered, “I didn’t get to finish messing with their camera system, I need to get back to that terminal.  Dianne, can you keep the guard occupied – and I mean really occupied?”

She frowned. “I don’t like using my telepathy to tamper with people’s minds.”

“Well, it’s either that or knock him out and that little gambit might arouse a bit of suspicion,” he muttered back to her. “And I don’t have any better ideas at this point.”

She gave a small sigh and her brow creased in concentration as she sent a gentle probing command in the remaining security guard’s direction.

 

Patrick crept silently across to the terminal and entered the system again. It would only take him a few moments more to access what he required to fix things.   He silently tapped the keypad, glancing every few seconds behind him, not that he didn’t trust Dianne, but…

 

From behind the divider Rick squinted at the cycling images on the camera-monitors through a pair of high-powered binoculars. He saw the guard, oblivious, and thought wryly, so much for their security. One image attracted his attention – that of a large single storey building with the legend ‘CLASSIFIED AREA – RESTRICTED ACCESS.’  He noted the building number on the upper left of the entrance. Drawing his eyes away, he scanned the room and found a large schematic of the facility pinned onto one wall – he trained his lenses onto it, and found its location – about half a kilometre from their current position.

His eyes narrowed behind his visor as another camera-screen flicked into life – this time showing a corridor in one of the buildings. The two goons strode into the camera’s vision. Metcalfe was slung over one’s shoulder and the other prodded Magnolia Jones towards a door. They knocked and entered the room beyond, closing the door firmly behind them. Rick caught the door number just before the image dissolved to another area of the facility.  He cross-checked the location numbers on the wall-map and made a mental note of it. That would be their next stop if – and when – they had found the others.

 

Patrick was still busy at the terminal when the sound of a flushing toilet made him stiffen. Sweat broke out underneath his leathers – he ignored it – frantically sending the last code-string to activate the high-level worm-program. He could almost feel the others willing him away from the terminal. There was a sound of a door banging and he dived to the floor, at the same time as the guard at the desk whooped with joy at his team scoring a point over the opposition. Joe came back in the room just as Patrick scrambled behind the divider. Joe joined the first guard at the desk and they both remained engrossed in the match. While Dianne continued to send soothing messages of calm to the seated guards, the three of them crept silently out of the room and into the corridor. 

“Nice timing, buddy,” Rick muttered once they were out of earshot.

“You know how much I like dancing on the edge,” Patrick replied with a grin. “I did enough, so as long as they don’t look too closely at those monitors they should be fooled.”

Rick gave him a look.

“What?” 

“Anything else?”

“Well, I did have enough time to download another little program,” he said airily.

Rick and Dianne glanced at one another as they padded softly down the access corridor.            

“To do what exactly?” Rick queried.

“It’ll start to quietly open up the low-level operating systems in their database. Mind you, I’ll need access to another terminal so I can hack into the higher, encrypted levels – just in case we need that insurance we talked about.”

 Rick shook his head in mock resignation and Dianne stifled a smile. Patrick looked like a small boy looking forward to a day out at a fun-park.

 

 

 

 

Paul had been feigning unconsciousness for some time.  His healing factor had cut in quickly to overcome the effects of the stun-stick. He’d been bound onto a chair, and heard a commanding voice tell Magnolia to sit next to him. After another few minutes he made what he thought was a convincing show of pretending he was coming out of his little nap, by groaning and fluttering his eyelids.  When he opened his eyes he was hauled into a sitting position by the two men who’d brought him in, one of them he recognized as being the charming Doig, who’d masterminded the failed kidnap attempt at the mall.

They were in some sort of conference room, sparse but luxuriously appointed.  A holographic image of the double-helix DNA molecule dominated the wall behind the sweeping desk, where several occupants sat regarding him with interest.

The big, silver-haired man was most likely Henderson; he radiated charisma of an unsavoury sort even at this distance from Paul. There was a chunky-faced man seated next to him at the desk, and his two bodyguards moved away to stand by the door. The left-hand wall was made entirely of glass and overlooked a cavernous factory area, its floor almost thirty feet below the conference room. A dark-clad figure with arms folded, stood beside the massive window, his sunken eyes dominating a pale face.  Paul felt an uncontrollable shiver when the obsidian eyes turned their burning gaze full-force on him. But this man remained silent as the silver-haired man walked towards Paul, a suave smile on his face.

“Mr. Metcalfe, how splendid to meet you at last. I’m John Henderson.” His greeting was affable, almost as if Paul was an honoured guest at his dinner party. Henderson indicated the chunky-faced man still seated. “This is Matt Kruger. I’m sorry I can’t shake your hand, for you’re bound at the moment, for obvious reasons.” He strolled out of Paul’s eye-line, walking to his rear. “You know,” he continued, “I have to admire the way you eluded both the US Government and the Spectrum Society’s finest troops. No wonder the government is so keen to have you back.”

“And you plan to return me to them, right?”

Paul saw the dark man’s brow furrow at the question, but he remained silent and brooding in the background.

“Not necessarily.”  Henderson continued to walk a circle around Paul, appraising him as he might a stud horse.  Paul kept his temper in check, the more time spent here keeping the bad guys occupied with chit-chat the better. Abruptly, Henderson turned to address Doig at the door. “Did they come alone?”

The man nodded. “As far as we could tell.”

            “There will be others,” the dark figure said. “Gray wouldn’t allow his people to be left here and I don’t believe he’ll trust you to keep your bargain.”

            “For a change I agree with you, Conrad,” Henderson replied.

“Hey,” Paul interjected, “I told him I didn’t want to stay with his boy-scout outfit anyway.”

“That wasn’t the impression I got.” Henderson’s face was sceptical.

Paul shrugged. “That’s what he wanted to believe. But I don’t fit in there. I offered to trade places with his people. Maybe you and I could come to some arrangement?”

Henderson ignored him and addressed Doig instead. “Check the area – just in case.”

Damn, Paul thought, as the soldiers nodded smartly in salute and left the room. He thought Henderson must be pretty convinced that these binders would hold him, allowing the bodyguards to leave. But he couldn’t start a fight anyway; he had to wait for a signal from the others.  He glanced sideways at Magnolia, she was regarding the black-clad man with a curious look of revulsion, and he obviously noted her stare because he walked directly towards them. He gave her a cold smile, evidently well satisfied with something.

“You played your part to perfection, my dear,” he said to her, and then turned back to Henderson saying: “I’ll have what I came for.”

Henderson nodded, and pointed a remote at the holographic image; it slid to one side to reveal a wall safe. He walked up to it and activated a retinal scanner. The thick door popped open and he pulled out a small chrome canister. He crossed over to the man called Conrad, who held his hand out to take it. Henderson hesitated, before placing it there. “You won’t change your mind, about joining us in the Circle?”

Conrad shook his head. “Our aims are not the same; money is of no consequence to me.”

“What about power? You want to be in control, don’t you?” Henderson said.

“Of my destiny, yes, and the destiny of all mutant-kind.”

“And you think this will help?”

Conrad held out his hand, and his obsidian eyes narrowed in warning.

With a faint sigh, Henderson placed the canister into his palm. “I had to try one last time. So now, I guess that all dues are paid between us?” 

Conrad nodded as he tucked the canister carefully inside the pocket of his long coat. Paul’s curiosity itched to know what it was. It was evidently part of a bargain, that much was clear as far as he could deduce from the conversation; perhaps it was some reward for Magnolia’s part in handing Paul over to Henderson and his cronies. She was obviously this ‘Conrad’s’ accomplice, and yet, his animal senses smelt her fear. She was afraid of him.

Conrad stepped across the room and took her arm firmly. “Come, my dear, we’re finally returning you back home.”

She said fiercely, “It’s not my home; I hate what you are, what you’ve done! You tricked me and you’re still tricking Seymour. You mouth all this shit about how much you care about us mutants –”

Kruger laughed wickedly.  “It looks like your little minx has developed some bad habits during her sojourn with Gray!”  

“The girl has spirit,” Henderson said. “You’ll have your hands full, are you sure you wouldn’t care to leave her in my tender care? I could do a lot with that DNA of hers.” 

“I think you have mutants enough to experiment on,” Conrad snapped, and gripped Magnolia’s arm so tight she gave a little yelp. “Quiet, or I will have to gag you,” he said coldly.

Paul felt his temper rise. He didn’t like bullies, especially rich ones. He yanked on the binders and cursed silently as they refused to give way. What could withstand his tritonium-enhanced skeleton? Conrad dragged the whimpering Magnolia to the door and Paul gave up struggling to free his hands. He bolted from the chair and launched himself at the man, his claws extending –

 – And was struck by an invisible wall of force. He dangled in shock – suspended in mid-air.

Conrad Turner glared at him with implacable menace, one hand still holding the struggling Magnolia and his other reaching out to his prisoner.

“That wasn’t a very good idea, Mr Metcalfe. You have all that metal in your body – and I have the power to control it. Why do you think I am called Magneto? I can bend you – twist you – as if I were pulling on strings –”

He flicked his fingers and Paul’s head jerked backwards of its own volition. He struggled to move it – or indeed, any part of his anatomy without success. Magneto flexed his fingers outwards – and Paul’s felt his claws stretching apart, and the pain shot like knives through his hands.  Sweat broke out on his face and the veins stood out in his neck like cords as he fought the forces holding him in thrall.

 “Arrogant bastard,” Paul muttered between clenched teeth, and then regretted his impulsive comment as Magneto’s eyes closed to slits.  Suddenly he felt the metal in his body flow – and the pain shrieked through him like a saw against bone and sinew …

He screamed.

            Magnolia’s shrill voice cut through his torture. “Please let him go! I’m comin’ with you, I won’t make any more fuss, I promise. Please just let him go.”

            Magneto let his hand drop, and Paul felt the agony recede for a blissful second – and then every bone in his body jangled with the impact as he smacked onto the floor. He coughed, wet-fire still trailing around his insides, and dragged himself up to a sitting position. Out of muzzy eyes he saw Magnolia’s tear-streaked face, and Magneto regarding him as if he was an insect he wanted to crush beneath his foot.

“That was a warning,” Magneto said, “Next time I might not be so lenient.”

Paul dragged in another sobbing breath. Lenient? The guy was a psycho.

He could only watch as Magneto half-dragged the tearful girl out through the door with him.  He had no idea where Dianne was, but he had to contact her, tell her about Magneto – about Magnolia. They had to intervene, help him to help her.  As Henderson hauled him back onto the chair Paul closed his eyes and pushed his mind outwards to the red-headed telepath…

 

 

 

 

 

Silently, the three X-Men moved through the darkness, keeping to the shadows. Thankfully, most of the administration buildings were unoccupied; it seemed most employees had gone for the night, which suited them just fine – the fewer souls around to witness them, the better.

They crossed a grassy, central quadrangle, its decorative fountains all turned off for the night. All at once they heard male voices approaching.  Shrinking back into the shadows they saw several uniformed men come around the corner of one building, carrying their weapons at the ready.  They fanned out, their movements in typical search pattern. They hardly dared breathe until the men moved away from where they crouched.

“I wonder if your camera scam has been discovered,” Rick muttered.

“Maybe, we’d better get a move on,” Patrick replied as they moved out again towards the classified area that Rick had spotted in the security block. The building’s main entrance was under guard, and the two uniformed men toted their semi-automatic weapons with casual alertness. Rick motioned his companions to a halt several meters from it, behind a fortuitous line of dwarf conifers. 

“You think Storm and the others are in there?” Dianne whispered against his cheek.

He nodded. “It’s my best guess, and judging by the security, it looks promising. This time I’m afraid we’ll have to use force. Are you okay with this?”

Patrick snorted quietly. “I have no compunctions whatsoever.”

“Dianne?”

“I suppose so, if it’s absolutely necessary.”

“No heroics, we do the minimum damage to get the job done – understood?”

“Hear you, boss-man,” Patrick said with an evil grin. 

“Dianne, how about using your telekinesis to knock one of them out, and I’ll get the other. We’ll have to do it simultaneously to avoid one of them raising the alarm.” 

She nodded grimly at her fiancé; he knew she hated doing this: using her powers against non-mutants. It seemed to rail against everything that they stood for.

He flipped his visor.  The force-blast shot out, neon-red, into the darkness towards one of the guards, and she responded simultaneously with a psi-bolt directed at the other. The two guards crumpled to the ground in perfect unison.

Rick squeezed her shoulder. “Nice one, babe, let’s go.”

They sprinted across to the building. The entrance had a security retinal-lock. Rick hefted one guard up and dragging his face close to the scanner, opened one eyeball. The scanner red-lined and there was a satisfying beep and a click as the door opened. They dragged both guards inside the corridor, closing the door shut and then bound and gagged the men leaving them in an alcove.

They moved through the brightly-lit corridor, passing several darkened and unoccupied laboratories containing myriad high-tech equipment. They turned a corner; the room at the end was lit, and Rick heard a voice from within. He flattened himself against the door and sneaked a look though the small circular window. A mixture of relief and outrage filled him as he saw the three kidnapped X-Men lying on gurneys.  Across the room, he saw the owner of the voice, a middle-aged guy dressed in a pristine white lab-coat. He was seated at a desk, talking to someone on the phone and tapping something into a terminal.  Rick motioned to the others. They’re here.

The room was protected by another retinal scanner.  It was likely the guards wouldn’t have authority to enter the room - and Rick didn’t intend to waste time finding out – he’d had it with pussy-footing around. He made a decision and signalled Dianne and Patrick.  Get ready.

He waited until the man had finished his phone conversation and turned his sole attention to the terminal, then he flipped his visor to minimum width and a laser-fine beam emerged, smashing the lock-mechanism. Mr Labcoat’s mouth opened in a wide O when he saw the three figures swarm into the room. Rick knocked him out cold with another stabbing blast before he could raise an alarm.

Patrick pulled the unconscious man from his seat and placed him, none too gently, on the floor, taking the vacated chair at the computer terminal as the others tended to their colleagues on the gurneys.  He tapped keys, searching for the second program he had activated through the terminal in the security block.  He had some unfinished business to take care of and with any luck he could get into the entire network without anyone even knowing he had paid them a visit.

Rick shook Adam’s shoulder. 

 “What…” the blonde flyer slurred, and his eyes began to open, and grew wide with surprise at the sight of the leather-clad figure in the signature ruby-visor leaning over him. “Rick – Cyclops – how did you get here?”

 “The hard way,” Rick replied with a grim smile. He flicked the control on his visor. “Brace yourself.”

Adam flinched as the beam shattered the locking mechanism of the restraints. He flicked them off his wrists and feet with disgust and waved Rick away when he tried to help him sit up.

“I’m okay, apart from cramp in every muscle. It’s no picnic lying here in one position for hours.” He stretched and allowed his wings to unfurl. “It sure is good to see you guys.”

Dianne was trying to scrutinize the screens above the other two X-Men.

“What about Iceman and Storm?” Rick asked her.

Adam shook his head. “They’re under sedation.  I think it’s pretty powerful stuff in those drips.”

“Not good,” Rick said. “What’s the chances of reviving them, Dianne?”

 “I’m not sure,” she answered, as she studied the information screen next to Juliette’s gurney.  “I don’t know anything about this; we should really have brought Doc.”

Rick grimaced. “Can you talk to Charles telepathically? Our chances of getting out of here drop exponentially if Storm and Iceman are still unconscious and we have to fight our way out. See what you can do.”

She nodded and she closed her eyes. Rick watched her for a few seconds and then turned his attention back to Adam. “Do you know who we’re dealing with here?”

“Henderson, his crony Kruger, and a bunch of goons,” Adam told him. “There’s also a woman telepath called Karen Wainwright. She was the one who captured us back at the mall.”

Rick noticed a bleak look on Adam’s face as he mentioned the woman, but he dismissed it with a mental shrug. Adam flexed his wings again and asked:  “What happened? How did they know we were at the mall?”

 “Magnolia was spying on us all along, she was a plant.”

Adam paused from rubbing his wrists and forearms with surprise, and Rick continued, briefly bringing him up-to-date with the events that had brought them here.

“So, what’s the game plan?” Adam asked finally. 

Rick opened the knapsack and hauled out a leather combat suit. He threw it to Adam who caught it with a look of surprise.

“That should still fit you,” Rick said, “If you haven’t put on weight.”

Adam unrolled it, and smiled wryly. “I didn’t imagine I’d be putting this on again so soon.”

“Okay, game plan,” Rick continued, as Adam changed. “We wake Storm and Iceman, then me and Banshee, and you, if you feel up to it, will go get Metcalfe – Wolverine, rather.”

Adam scratched the stubble on his jaw, and nodded. “I feel more than up for it.”

“Dianne, did you get through to Doc?” Rick asked her.

She nodded in reply. “We need to look for something called pentazamil, it’s a counter-sedative.”

They had started searching through drawers and cupboards when Patrick gave a small whoop of delight. “I’m into their database; now let’s just see what I can find.”

Rick gave Adam a mock look of despair as they watched the Irishman flex his fingers.

 

Patrick set to his task with relish, his fingers dancing across the touch-pad. Screens resolved and dissolved as the terminal talked to the data-core. A sub-header flashed up on the screen marked ‘CLONING RESEARCH’.

Excitement streaked through him. Human cloning was banned under World Medical Council rules; of course, it might just be some stuff on animal cloning, which wasn’t forbidden. He tried to open the file – and not surprisingly it was password-protected. Undaunted, he fished out a small device from his suit and plugged it into a port at the back of the terminal.

He felt Rick’s eyes on him. “Password scrambler,” he replied to his answered query with a shrug.  “It cycles billions of number and letter combinations in seconds using information from the files and users to find a match. I always carry one – you never know.”

Rick shook his head as he watched Patrick’s brows knit again in an intensity of concentration, then he turned back to continue rummaging in the cupboard. His hand grabbed a plastic bottle of fluid and he read the label.  He stood up, and handed it to Dianne. “Is this what you’re after?”

She glanced at it. “Is there only this one? It’ll slow things down if I can only revive them one at a time.”

“I’ll keep looking, you do what you can.”

Patrick announced, “I’m just going to circumvent the firewall systems and security locks so I can transfer this information to a holding space on the cybernet and then download it onto our database at the mansion.”

“You sure they don’t know you’re in there?” Rick frowned above his visor at the Irishman.

Patrick grinned back. “Hey, trust me, Cyke, I tiptoe silently like a fairie.”

Suddenly Dianne’s expression altered abruptly to that curious blankness that signalled a telepathic interchange. Rick saw it at once. “What’s up? Is it from Wolverine?” he asked her.

She nodded, her eyes widening as she received Paul’s staccato thoughts.  “He says – oh my God – Magneto’s here – he’s taking Magnolia with him – she doesn’t want to go – Paul wants us to help her – ”

They exchanged shocked glances. This piece of news was as unexpected as it was unwelcome. Rick made an instant decision, the only one he could under the circumstances. He shook his head. “Magneto’s too powerful, maybe even for all of us combined. Tell Wolverine we’ll come for him when the others are free, just as we promised, but we can’t fight Magneto as well.”

“But, what if he’s right?” Dianne protested. “We can’t just leave her to his mercy?”

Rick scowled and pointed to the gurneys where Juliette and Brad still lay unconscious. “And what about all this? She betrayed all of us and I’m not prepared to put all of our lives on the line for her. Henderson’s got the goon squad roaming around looking for us – we don’t take any more risks than we have to. That’s my decision and it’s final.”

He glanced around the room, checking for dissent from his team. Patrick shrugged at the terminal as if to say, no argument from me. Adam pursed his lips and nodded. Dianne sighed and finally acquiesced. She channelled her reply back to Paul, heard his resentful reply to that judgment in her mind. She didn’t bother to let Rick know what it was.

 

 

Paul stared at the door for a few moments; Dianne didn’t say as much, but he knew that Fraser had made the decision to seal Magnolia’s fate.  Still, maybe he was right; and it was his call as team leader.  Blowing out a breath he knew there was little he could do except be ready for when they planned to spring him.

 Henderson strolled back to stand alongside Kruger at the mahogany table.  They were obviously enjoying this, and he had no intention of spoiling their little party, at least not until Dianne showed up in his mind again to say they were coming for him.

“So,” he took the initiative, “now that you have me, are you going to release Gray’s people?”

“They’re not your concern,” Henderson said. “At this moment all you have to do is listen to what we have to say.”

What a surprise, Paul thought, he’s got no intention of letting them go. Double-crossing bastards… it was just as well we launched Plan A.

“What exactly did you have in mind?”

“What would you say if we asked you to join us?”

Paul’s jaw would have done press-ups if he’d let it. “Excuse me?”

Henderson smiled a devil’s smile, obviously enjoying wrong-footing him. “The Spectrum Society, or more precisely, our Inner Circle, chaired by myself and my esteemed colleagues.”

Kruger gave a slight bow of his head, which Paul thought looked ridiculous, and Henderson continued with his speech.

 “I call myself the Black King, and Kruger is the Black Knight. Our White Queen is otherwise engaged at the moment, but I’m sure she’ll join us shortly.  We thought it might be amusing to have a – Scarlet Bishop or even a Scarlet Knight within our ranks. It’s sort of appropriate –” he glanced at Kruger for a second and they exchanged smirks. “– under the circumstances.”

“You sound more like a bunch of cranks. What’s this – some bizarre role-playing game for rich guys?”

Kruger’s smirk turned into a scowl. “This is no game, Metcalfe. We’re deadly serious. Haven’t you ever played chess?”

“Too sedate for me.”

Henderson laughed.  “Oh yes, we forgot, you’re more of the action type. A soldier, trained to kill people instead.”

“What the hell do you know about my life?”

“Evidently more than you, it seems.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“You didn’t answer our question,” Kruger said.

“What, about joining you? What’s in it for me?”

Kruger grinned wolfishly. “How about saving your life for starters?”

“Oh, so we’ve moved on pretty fast,” Paul retorted. “I’m now facing a death sentence if I don’t sign on the dotted line. You know, I was doing pretty good until you lot stepped in and took pot-shots at me.”

“Perhaps we were wrong, eh, Kruger?”  Henderson’s smile suddenly turned nasty. “Perhaps Metcalfe isn’t worthy to join our Inner Circle after all.  I suspect he’s no knight – no, maybe he’s just a little red pawn in the chess game of life.”

Paul’s face darkened. His patience with these idiots was dissolving rapidly and he wondered how long he could sit here before he lost his temper completely and showed them exactly what an ‘action type’ did.  “I’d say you’re just winding me up for the fun of it. You people just love talking in riddles, how about letting me in on the joke, huh?”

Henderson stood up, shaking his head. “It’s really quite pathetic, you know. You talk about your life – as if you had one. You’re so wrong, Mr Metcalfe. You have no life – you’re Weapon Red, designed to do the bidding of your masters.”

Paul froze at the mention of that name, and it triggered the last vestiges of his forgotten memories…

The name he had heard as an echo as he lay restrained in that hellish laboratory with those sickening green glowing lights, before he was changed into the beast:

Weapon-Red.

He tried to keep his voice from shaking. “Why should I believe a word you say?”

“Because it’s the truth. Don’t you remember anything, Metcalfe?” Henderson sneered.

“Why don’t you just go ahead and enlighten me?” Paul tried to sneer back but his veneer of bravado was crumbling. “You seem to know all about me.”

Henderson walked towards him, and each word he uttered hit Paul with the force of a battering ram.

“The government filled you full of tritonium metal. They created your extremely durable skeleton.  And then they systematically broke down your mind, blocked out your past – set up codes and triggers in your mind so that you would obey their every command – become their slave no less.  And finally, they took your DNA so that they could clone more of you – to create an indestructible army to do their bidding – their sole purpose – to hunt down and kill mutants.”

Henderson allowed a smile to twist his lips as he watched the horror unfold on Paul’s face. “It’s quite Machiavellian, really – send a mutant to catch a mutant.”

Paul would have stumbled and fallen if he hadn’t been sitting in the chair. Instead he slumped heavily, feeling his world come crashing down around him.  He tried to tell himself that Henderson could be making this up, but his instinct told him that it was in fact the truth. He could no longer hide it from himself. Too many things now made sense as pieces locked into place like some monstrous jigsaw. 

“You’re lying,” he said thickly. “The World Government would never be a party to this.”

Henderson and Kruger guffawed in unison. “But that’s the sweet thing,” Henderson said. “Most of the Senate know nothing about this. You’re the result of a highly hush-hush experiment conducted by a small, highly secretive and powerful faction within the World Government; a means of taking things into their own hands with respect to the mutant problem. The vote is just a front, while they get on with their real aim of dealing with the mutant problem – their way. But of course, you escaped, before they could finish the job.”

 Paul’s mouth grew dry and alarm bells clanged in his head. He felt his world swim around him – the dark, mysterious nightmare of his past came rushing up to meet him in all of its hideous reality. Something occurred to him then, something so bizarre that it just had to be true.

“My God – Roberts,” he said in an agonized whisper. He looked hard at Henderson, and although the industrialist said nothing, there was something in his eyes that confirmed Paul’s extrapolation.

“It’s him – he’s behind all of this – behind me – isn’t he? And you’re working together with him, you were part of this –”

“You catch on quick, Metcalfe,” Henderson replied. “And Roberts’ is a clever man, almost as clever as myself. But you were too strong for them; you fought the conditioning regime – and actually managed to escape. They obviously never expected the force of will that drives a mutant’s need for survival.”

“And what’s your part in all this?”

“The Inner Circle gave them the equipment and technology they’re going to use to create the clones from your DNA.”

“So they haven’t created any more of me yet?”

 “That’s not your problem.”

“The hell it’s not!”  Paul was appalled at the thought of these instruments of destruction being grown from his own cells.  “Why are you telling me all this?” he said hoarsely.

“To prove we meant what we said about you joining us. Knowing all of this now –wouldn’t you want to be free? Roberts doesn’t know you’re here yet, with us. We can rebuild your face, change your looks, you can have a new life.”

“I am free,” Paul said between clenched teeth, “and I like my looks the way they are - stubble and all - thanks. And my new life sounds just like the old one – servitude dressed up in money and new clothes. You hunt me down and hurt my friends and yet you expect me to want to join your cosy little club?”

Kruger said nastily, “If by that, you mean hiding with the noble Professor Gray and his little band of mutant freedom fighters – what would they think if they knew their precious students were rooming with someone designed to kill them?”

Paul swallowed in a dry throat.  These bastards seemed to know just the right words to hurt him – using them like knives, stabbing him in his vitals, twisting for maximum pain. And yet – the very same thought had occurred to him. Gray had assured him he was free of the tampering in his mind – but what if that wasn’t true? What if he was still under their influence? What about…

Dianne, please get me out of this nightmare…

Paul lifted his head, and glared at the two industrialists. “So you’re planning to double cross Roberts and his little cabal? That’s a highly dangerous game you’re playing, mister.”

“We’ll handle the senator, don’t you worry,” Kruger answered him.

Paul laughed, and hated the note of growing hysteria in it. “Why should I? Maybe you should lose sleep over your other prisoners; Gray might take offence and get them back by force.”

 “Is that right?” Henderson said, with a big confident smile. “Well, all I can say is, that if he does – he’ll get more than he bargained for.”

That stopped Paul short, for there was something in Henderson’s swaggering tone that bothered him.

Henderson’s smile was evil as he continued, “They’re not the only mutants in this country, you know.”

The way he said it - he means himself!  My God, I have to let the X-Men know.

And then his mind raced, as a horrifying thought occurred to him:  Is it possible that Henderson is a telepath?

He realised he might have already exposed the others by communing with Dianne; maybe he’d just been lucky this far. He couldn’t take any further risks; warning them via Dianne’s empathic link might only result in Henderson picking up on his thoughts and endangering them all. No, he had to make sure they freed the others before worrying about himself.

Henderson was grinning again, as if mulling over an enormously satisfying joke. Paul wished for a sudden, brief second that he could wipe that smile clean off his face. “You say you’re a mutant,” he said, “and yet you’re in bed with someone who wants to destroy them?”

 “Needs must, Mr Metcalfe, you understand how it is sometimes.”

“Oh, I understand all right,” Paul muttered in reply, and then he shut up, morosely staring at his feet, trying to keep his mind focused on anything but the others and what they might be doing. A few minutes later his head jerked up as the door opened. He saw a beautiful, blonde woman walk in, her face tight with suppressed emotion. Henderson turned to watch her as she took her seat at the conference table next to Kruger, who leered at her. She ignored him, turning instead to stare at Paul.

“Ah, Karen,” Henderson said. “Glad you could join us, is everything under control?”

She took a few seconds to reply, as if her mind was elsewhere. “I haven’t spoken to Breck in the laboratory for a couple of hours; I assume everything is – under control.”

Kruger arched an eyebrow at her. “You assume? That’s not like you, Karen.”

She glared at him. “And what’s that supposed to mean?” 

“Not a thing,” he replied, spreading his hands in a defensive gesture. 

“You’re a little edgy,” Henderson said smoothly, regarding her closely. “Is there something I should know about?”

 Her eyes snapped away from Paul and back to the silver-haired man. “What are you planning to do with them?”

“Why, Karen,” he replied. His voice was silky, but his eyes were hard. “If I didn’t know you better I’d say you are in danger of crossing a line. Your job was to seduce Svenson and now it turns out he’s potentially on the side of the X-Men. I hope he hasn’t got to you, my dear?”

“No one ‘gets to me’, as you so wonderfully put it,” she said in a diamond-edged voice.

He suddenly slammed his hand down on the table in front of her, making her jump. “Then listen up, Karen, don’t go getting any funny ideas about saving his hide, because I won’t like it, do you understand?”

She nodded sullenly.

 

 

 

 

Twenty-one

 

Dianne removed the IV bottle containing the sedative and replaced it with the antidote. She started the pump, her eyes riveted on the thin tube as the replacement liquid flowed slowly through it towards the syringe protruding from the back of Juliette’s hand.

“What now?” Rick asked, as he watched at her side.

 “Doc told me it takes about five minutes to get the stuff into their bloodstreams; another ten for it to counteract the effects of the sedative.”

“Will it work?”

She bit her lip, and then blew out a breath, keeping a close eye on the monitors. So far Juliette’s vital signs remained steady, and that was a good sign.

“Hard to tell.  It’s dangerous to give them too much; they might end up overdosed on all the drugs. I just wish Doc were here, he’d be much better at this than me.”

He squeezed her shoulder. “You’re doing fine.”

She gave him a small smile and peered anxiously at the monitors. Adam joined them and after what seemed like an eternity, Juliette moaned.  Dianne leant forward, grasping her wrist. “Juliette, it’s Dianne. Can you hear me?”

The Frenchwoman’s eyes fluttered open.  She stared vacantly at the redhead and Dianne’s heart missed a beat at the thought that the drug might have unforeseen side effects.

Then, at last, Juliette’s eyes focused, and she managed a small smile as she saw the three X-Men peering anxiously at her. “Dianne, Mon Dieu, am I dreaming?”

Rick gave her a smile. “No dream – you think we’d leave you here?”

She shook her head, still looking somewhat dazed. “Non, of course not. But what has happened to me?” She put a hand to her mouth. “My throat, I am so very dry.”

“You’ve been under sedation,” Dianne answered. “I’ve just administered an antidote. I’m so grateful that it worked.”

On hearing Juliette’s plight, Adam hunted down some ice-cold water from a cooler in the corner of the lab. He returned to place the tumbler to the young woman’s dry lips, supporting her gently with one arm. She sipped the fluid avidly and when she had satisfied her thirst, she smiled at him gratefully.

“How do you feel?” Rick asked her.

 “I am not sure; perhaps I should stand up?” She swung her legs gingerly off the gurney and placed her feet on the floor. She wavered and turned pale, and would have fallen forward if Rick hadn’t steadied her. He helped her back onto the gurney. “Not as strong as you thought, huh?” he said with a concerned look.

She held up a hand.  “Give me a little time please, I will be fine.” 

            “Now, let’s see about getting Brad out of his little nap,” Dianne said.

 

 

 

 

Joe, the security guard, heard the thump of heavy boots in the corridor and he hastily shut down his holo-vid.  Doig swaggered into the room and flicked his eyes around, pinning the two men with his gaze.

“Trouble?” Joe asked, hoping Doig hadn’t seen or heard him watching the sport. He figured he wouldn’t be too pleased.

“We’re just sweeping the facility, making sure that our visitor didn’t bring any uninvited guests with them.” Doig thumbed the monitors. “Have you seen anything suspicious?”

Joe glanced at his companion and back at Doig. “Quiet as the grave,” he said.

Doig glanced at the screens. Everything certainly looked normal. And then, one screen flickered, imperceptibly. At first he missed it, but as he stared harder he realised there was something odd about it.

“Cycle camera twenty-one – now!” he snapped at Joe.

Joe gulped at the hard edge in Doig’s voice and hit a key command on the console. He was stunned when nothing happened.

“What’s wrong?”  Doig demanded.

“I – I’m not sure,” Joe stammered. “The system seems to have locked up –”

Doig’s eyes narrowed at the image of the Classified Area building on one screen, moved closer to stare at the slightly grainy image of the two figures of the guards outside the building.

“Zoom in - now!” he shouted.

“I can’t –”

Doig swore under his breath and then barked into his radio-mic, “Spectrum is red – we have intruders in the facility!”

 

 

 

 

Paul had watched the little by-play with dim astonishment. This woman obviously had dealings with Adam before his capture by the Spectrum Society. Henderson said she seduced him?  Just what the hell is going on here?

            A red light flashed on a console embedded in the conference desk. Kruger, who was nearest, activated a speaker array and Doig’s voice echoed out breathlessly into the room.

“We have a situation; I’ve sent a crew to the classified area.”

            Henderson’s face tightened in anger and his eyes swivelled to Paul. “So, now who’s double-crossing who? Gray sent his little helpers to rescue you while we engage in chit-chat?” He didn’t wait for Paul’s reply. “Get down there, see they don’t escape!” he barked at Karen.

            For a second, her eyes widened, and her head turned to Paul, watching the sudden way his face changed, as if he was gathering his concentration.  She swiftly dropped her shield and caught his thoughts in her wide wave-scan.

She focused – fast and hard – and Paul cried out once, then slumped heavily back on the chair, out cold.

            “What the hell did you do that for?” Kruger demanded in response to her psi-blast.

“He was trying to channel someone – somewhere in the facility. There’s another telepath here, there’s got to be.”

Henderson scowled. “Then sort it out, Karen. Don’t screw this up.”

As she swept out of the room Henderson nodded at his partner. “Looks like Metcalfe is on the wrong side after all. Pity.” 

“You think they know he’s up here?” Kruger asked.

“Depends on how much of a warning he gave them, but I would probably bet on it.”

“So, what now?”

“We wait.” 

 

 

 

Rick watched anxiously as Dianne replaced the antidote bottle onto Brad’s IV drip. Her fingers froze and he saw her head flick up, confusion painting her face.

“What’s up?” he asked with a frown.

“For a second, I thought Paul was trying to contact me – then I lost him, he may be unconscious.”  Her eyes grew wide and concerned. “You don’t think they’re torturing him?”

“I don’t know, what would be the point?”

“Maybe there isn’t one,” Adam said.

“We’ve got to help him, he may be in danger,” Dianne said, looking at her lover pleadingly.

The reply died on his lips at the abrupt sounds of banging and shouting at the building entrance.

“We’ve got company,” Adam’s wings flared unconsciously with his words. 

Too soon, dammit, Rick thought. Someone must have spotted the fake camera images. He’d hoped to have more time than this for their rescue attempt, but it was starting to look like they were going to have to fight their way out – and they didn’t even have Wolverine yet. His analytical mind raced – evaluating the options – what few there were.  

            “Okay, first we take out whoever’s in the building,” he stated.

            “Then you have to rescue Paul,” Dianne insisted.

            “I’m damned if I’m leaving you here alone –”

            “I’ll stay here with her,” Adam said.

            “I have my telekinetic power, I’m not exactly a helpless infant,” Dianne added, her eyes flashing.

            Juliette dropped to her feet off the gurney, now dressed in the combat suit Rick had brought for her.  “I’m coming with you, Cyclops.”

            “Storm, honey, you’re still as weak as a kitten.”

She arched her brows at him. “When we return we will have to do something about your chivalrous tendencies, chéri. We are a part of the X-Men, Dianne included, and we do not hide behind the men – understood?”

He cleared his throat to hide his embarrassment.

“Loud and clear.  Banshee, you’re with us. We should have enough firepower to see this lot in Hades. And then we get Wolverine and get out the hell out of this joint.”

“Careful. The telepath – Karen,” Adam said sourly. “You don’t want her to get in your head. She’ll mess it up if you give her half a chance.”

Rick nodded, and laid a hand on one of the winged mutant’s shoulders. “Thanks, and if things look like they’re gonna go to hell in a handbasket, just get out and make for the X-Zero, it’s parked in the woods. Dianne knows where.”

She looked up sharply. “I’m not leaving without you.”

He shook his head. “No arguing.  Just do it, if you have to.”

“We’ll make sure we get Brad out, one way or the other, don’t worry,” Adam reassured him.

Rick nodded and pulled Dianne into his chest, almost crushing her to him. He kissed her brief and hard on the lips. “For luck,” he said, and felt an absurd rush of pleasure at the anxiety that swirled in her dark-blue eyes –  a fear for his safety. He held her gaze for a fraction more, gave her a crooked smile, then he reluctantly let her go, their fingers trailing apart. He swallowed, and turned abruptly, with Juliette and Patrick right behind him.

 

 

The syncopation of heavy boots echoed in the next corridor; they would turn the corner in an instant.  They flattened themselves against the wall and Rick pointed to his ear – get the protectors in. Juliette obeyed and Rick waved his hand in another code sign to Patrick. Do it.

The Irishman nodded. The footsteps thumped to a halt. With a blood-curdling shriek, the Banshee leapt out into their path – and for a second his element of surprise froze the seven figures in front of him – the air rippled and they clapped their hands to their helmets, crying out with the pain –

Rick immediately followed through behind Patrick, firing through his visor, fast and hard – the long hours of practice paying off. His red beam hit one body – then another – then another –– dropping them like ninepins. Weapons clattered to the ground from numb hands.

Only one managed to dodge his blasts and loosed his weapon – the bullets splattering plast-crete chips from the walls. Rick pivoted on one heel and his roundhouse kick knocked the man’s weapon out of his hand to skitter to the floor. He followed up with a smash to the man’s unprotected chin, and felt the satisfying crunch of his leather-clad knuckles against tissue and bone. The man crumpled to the floor. He saw Juliette peer around the corner and raise one eyebrow as she surveyed the scattered bodies in the corridor.

“Well, I see you did not need my help after all,” she said with a smile as she removed the ear protectors.

 “Let’s go,” Rick urged. “We’ve got to get Wolverine before any more of them come after us.”

They swiftly exited the building and headed away from it, avoiding the main paths and, by doing so, they didn’t see the young woman striding purposely towards the building they’d just left.

 

 

Sprinting across the quadrangle, they encountered no more opposition until they hurtled into the polished, black-granite lobby of the main building. Two soldiers standing guard at the elevator attempted to fire their weapons, but the two male X-Men had the advantage of surprise and they disarmed them with surprising ease.

Rick grabbed one and slammed him against the foyer wall, pinning him tight against the smooth surface. “Where is he – the Wolverine?” 

The man’s head lolled slackly.  “I can’t tell you.”

Rick stuck his head an inch away from the man’s temple and hissed fiercely in his ear, “I’m gonna ask you just one more time – at this distance my eyebeams will drill a hole in your skull like a laser through marshmallow.”

The man flinched, his eyes rolling wildly.

Rick heard Juliette’s gasp, “Cyclops, you cannot!”

His gaze didn’t leave the guard’s face. “I’m losing patience, Storm, and we’re running out of time. I’m asking you again, where is Wolverine?”

The man’s eyes rolled again.

Rick’s jaw tightened, his free hand flicking his visor. “Okay, that’s it –”

“No! Top floor – conference room –” the man jabbered.

Rick let him go. “Tie them up,” he commanded the others, “and throw them in the elevator.” 

After they dragged the two men inside, Rick motioned them upstairs. “Banshee, you take the stairs with Storm, just in case they decide to use them to make a getaway.  I’ll meet you up there.”

The ascent seemed to take an eternity, and he fidgeted – adrenaline surging through him as he watched the lights blink: ‘1 – 2 –.   For a second he wondered what he would have done if the guy really had refused to talk. Then it flashed ‘3’ and he dismissed the hypothetical question. 

The doors slid open again and he saw Patrick and Juliette waiting for him. The Irishman pointed to the conference room along the corridor, He nodded, glancing up at the wall-mounted camera, and mentally shrugged; they know we’re here anyway.  He shut the elevator doors and destroyed the opening-mechanism with a blast from his eyes. The two troopers were locked inside and it was one less means of access to the conference room they were headed for.

 They padded quietly across to the door and heard the sound of muted voices. Rick counted to three then slammed one heavy boot into the wood. As it burst open, his team-mates followed, taking up ready fighting stances both sides of him.

Rick saw Paul slumped in a chair, his wrists clamped, resting on his thighs. He didn’t look like he’d been hurt, but that didn’t mean anything given his healing ability. Only two other men were in the room with him and the taller of the two bestowed a nasty smile on them.

 “Come in, we’ve been expecting you.”

“You’re Henderson, I assume?” Rick asked him.

He inclined his head a fraction. “Correct. And you must be the rest of Gray’s little bunch of teachers.”

Rick moved further into the room, edging towards Paul. “That’s right. And, if you are expecting us, then you know why we’re here.” He indicated Paul. “He’s coming with us.”

Henderson shrugged. “And just how do you plan to get him out of here?”

“We don’t want to hurt anyone, but we’ll use force if we have to.”

            Kruger laughed, and it matched Henderson’s smile on the nastiness scale. “I’d worry more about your state of health, mister,” he said.

 Paul uttered a low groan from the chair and all eyes immediately swivelled to look at him. He raised his head and opened one bleary eye. When he saw the three X-Men he sat bolt upright.

“They’re mutants!” he shouted.

What? Rick was momentarily stunned at Paul’s outburst. He darted a look at Henderson. The tall man folded his arms in defiance.  

“Are you serious?” Rick glanced from him to Kruger, who had risen from the long table, advancing towards them.

“You think I’d joke about it?” Paul snapped. He raised his arms. “And I can’t get out of these; they must be made of bloody tritonium.” 

Translation. I’m not going to be any help.

“He’s right,” Henderson said. “And now you’re going to have to ask yourself: are you tough enough and smart enough to take us on and win?”

He’s taunting us, Rick thought.  He wants the X-Men to fight him. What’s his game? He was painfully conscious of time running out; it wouldn’t be long before more of the goon squad came charging upstairs to join them, and he had Dianne to think about – what if she was under attack back at the lab?

He made a sign to Patrick. Take them out.  The Irishman nodded and muttered ‘sorry, Paul’ under his breath, and cut loose with his sonic scream. The concussion wave hit both Kruger and Henderson full on – and caught Paul in its peripheral edge. His eyes screwed shut in agony at the assault on his eardrums, and the pain knocked him almost senseless again. Kruger staggered and fell over, but to Rick’s astonishment, Henderson, who had taken the brunt of it, stood his ground, shaking his head as if to clear it.

Rick’s hesitation lasted only a second before he blasted him with an optic-beam, aiming only to stun, as he didn’t want to bring the wall down as well.  The tall man’s head flicked back, as the crimson energy thudded with a direct hit onto his chest – and still he stood – his mouth splitting in a menacing grin.

Rick blinked. He had hit him with over three hundred pounds of concussive force –

“Surprised?” Henderson said with a chuckle. “You will be. As Nietzsche said, ‘what does not destroy me, makes me stronger’, as you’re about to find out.”  His eyes narrowed as the smile faded.  “I absorb all manner of kinetic energy. And I’d like to return it with my compliments, enhanced so to speak!”

He leapt low and blindingly fast for such a tall man.  Rick barely had time to sidestep and he hadn’t expected Henderson to pivot equally swiftly to strike a hammer blow directly between his shoulder blades.  He felt as if a pile-driver had smashed into him; the force of it threw him to the floor face first and only the thick carpeting saved his nose from being broken, but he still felt the warm surge of blood in his nostrils.

As he lay dazed, his vision blurry through his visor, he saw Henderson grapple Juliette.  Her eyes were filming over in a desperate attempt to call on the power of Storm. As if recognising her intent, Henderson grabbed her long hair and swung her by it, smashing her into the wall, the force rattling every tooth in her skull.

She slumped downwards and fell in a heap to the floor.

Patrick hurled himself at the mutant, grabbing at his neck and his eyes, trying to blind him in a vain hope that brute muscle might work where their powers so obviously didn’t. Henderson, still flush with superhuman strength, contemptuously grabbed Patrick’s wrists, and bent low, throwing the Irishman over his shoulder, arcing his body downwards – thumping him hard onto his back on the floor. Henderson slammed the heel of his boot into a vital nerve and with a grunt and violent twitch the Banshee fell still. Henderson stood gloating over the two of them, barely breaking sweat.

Rick hauled himself painfully back onto his feet, his mind searching desperately for a way to defeat this man.  It was obvious that matching force with force was going to be a no-win scenario.

 “Come on then,” Henderson sneered. “Give me your best shot, and see me send you into oblivion like your friends here.”

Just one possibility –

Rick aimed his visor at the floor and let off a blast – he just had time to catch the look of indignant surprise on the industrialist’s face before Henderson dropped through the newly created hole to crash to the level below.

He limped over to Juliette, and helped her to a sitting position. He swallowed, praying that she hadn’t suffered any serious injuries; she had hit that wall awfully hard. Her answering moan lifted his spirits a fraction.

“Are you okay, honey?” he asked.

She opened her eyes, and put a shaky hand to her temple. “This will not help my migraines.”  And then he saw her eyes widen with fear, staring beyond his shoulder…

“Cyclops!”  she uttered breathlessly.

He craned his neck around, ignoring the shooting pains in his shoulders as he did so, and saw Kruger rise from the floor, murderous intent in his eyes.

Then, Rick’s body turned to lead.  He tried to move an arm, a leg; but like the nightmares he’d had as a kid trying to run from the monsters – his limbs just swam in treacle. Something took control of his eyelids, slamming them shut behind his visor. Kruger’s voice was muffled through the sludge in his ears. “I can keep increasing the mass of your body until your heart gets crushed under the strain.”

Labouring for breath – fighting to stay conscious – Rick felt a black blanket slide over him –

Until another shrill scream ripped though the sludge and miraculously the suffocating compression was released. The crushing weight left his chest and his lungs sucked in air, wheezing like a pair of old bellows.

Patrick stood unsteadily on his feet, and Kruger was shaking his head, dazed, still standing, not completely incapacitated by the Irishman’s sonic blast.

But the distraction Patrick had created was enough.

No more Mister Nice Guy.Rick flipped his visor to full range and the six-inch wide red optic-beam slammed into Kruger’s chest, lifted him off his feet and smashed him through the glass partition wall into the room below. Rick and Patrick ducked as reinforced glass chunks flew out in all directions. Kruger wailed as he sailed through the air – which was cut off abruptly with a dull thunk as the body hit the solid floor below. Rick limped across to the smashed window, looked straight down onto the floor of the huge manufacturing area – and saw the body lying sprawled and still.

“Way to go, Rick,” Patrick said as he joined him. “Think you killed him?”

“God knows. I hope not. But I’ll be happy as long as he stays out of the fight. But we’re not out of the woods yet. Henderson’s still on the loose and we need to get everyone out of here.” He turned away from the gruesome sight to focus on something else. The reason they were here.

They crossed over to Metcalfe. He was still dazed but raised his head slowly as they approached.  “How are you doing?” Rick asked him.

 “I’ll live; just get me out of these,” he replied, and waved his manacled hands at them in frustration.

 

 

 

 

Dianne fumbled with the tube, her heart thumping with anxiety as she tried to ignore the muffled sounds of the fight in the corridor.

Please let them be okay – please let him be okay…she thought to herself as she started the pump again. She had to get Brad conscious quickly, for despite her bravado in front of Rick, she had no real desire to actually involve herself in a fight. She watched the fluid cycle round, flicking her eyes to the monitors and the face of her sleeping colleague.

“How’s he doing?” Adam’s wing brushed her arm as he moved alongside her to peer at Brad.

“Be a few minutes yet.”

There were a few seconds more of silence, then she said, “Adam, it’s none of my business, but what did she – this woman telepath – do to you?” 

The door flew open, cutting off any chance of Adam replying. They whirled around in unison to see –

 “Karen.” Adam’s voice was emotionless, but Dianne felt the sour wave of bitterness that radiated from him.

“Is that her?” Dianne whispered beside him.

He nodded, but his eyes never left the blonde woman’s face. She stood legs akimbo, hands on hips – not at all pleased, Dianne guessed.

“So what have we here?” she said in a tight voice.

“Karen, please let us go.   Surely you can see what Henderson’s doing is very wrong,” Adam pleaded with her.

“I told you, Henderson would kill me if I betrayed him.”

“He’s betrayed you in a thousand ways already. He’s taken advantage of you. You’re better than this, you know you are.”

“Just because you spent time with my body doesn’t mean you know my mind.”

Dianne didn’t have to read Adam’s thoughts – or the White Queen’s – to know what was going on here. This complicated matters, to say the very least.  

Karen drilled her gaze onto her as if for a moment she had suddenly realised there was someone else in the lab other than Adam.  Dianne felt a sudden waver in her mental shield – she was probing; instinctively, she threw up her own shield to protect herself.

Karen’s eyes narrowed at meeting the unexpected resistance to her probe. “So – you’re a telepath.”

“Didn’t your mother teach you to have better manners?” Dianne answered without thinking.

Beside her, she felt Adam flinch, heard his whisper, “Dianne, don’t antagonise her.”

“My mother,” Karen said icily, “can rot in hell, and you can join her, if you try to push me.”

“Karen, stop this!” Adam cut her off, moving towards her.

“Stay back, I don’t want to have to hurt you again.” She stood her ground, her voice strident, and yet there was a note of uncertainty in her tone.

“Adam, we don’t have time for this,” Dianne said quietly. “We have to get Brad awake, and get out of here.”

“No one’s leaving this room!” Karen yelled.

Dianne’s anxiety mounted as the IV drip kept pumping into Brad’s arm. She was fearful he might get an overdose. “At least let me attend to my colleague, please?” she asked Karen.

“Go ahead,” she replied tersely, her eyes returning once again to Adam, her face tight.

While Dianne activated the relay, Adam continued to try to talk to his estranged lover. “You’re stronger than you think! You say you need control; how much of it do you really have? Come with us, please; we can help you. I promise I won’t let Henderson or the others find you. Think back to the time we spent together; so what if it was only a few days?  You don’t need me to tell you how I feel about you – and you know no other man makes you feel as I do…”

She flinched at his words, staring at him, jaw tight, teeth clenched; her face a cauldron of seething emotions: bitterness, desire, anger and fear, all fighting for supremacy.

To the warring lovers she might have ceased to exist, but Dianne stopped attending to Brad because over and above her instinctive embarrassment at eavesdropping on such an intimate conversation, what she was hearing was causing her concern. Adam was involved with this woman on some deep personal level; because somehow she’d sunk her talons into him in a big way. Psychic seduction?  Surely he wouldn’t side with her against his own friends?

Dianne’s heightened telepathic senses couldn’t help absorbing the waves of emotion radiating from the two of them, and as Brad moaned quietly under her hands, she was filled with fear, a fear that drove her beyond her natural loathing of tampering with another’s mind. She focused on the blonde woman, and for the moment at least, her mind was elsewhere, fixated with Adam.

That’s good, Dianne thought,  just keep her off-kilter – give me a chance to –

“Bitch!” Karen’s eyes dragged away from Adam and fastened on her, narrowing as she became aware of Dianne’s intent.

And Dianne barely heard the edge of a thought, skimming through the blonde telepath’s own shielding; and knew instantly that both she and Adam would be hit by a psionic blast. She threw up her own shield, casting it around to protect them both and she felt it reverberate with the telepathic kiss of death.

“Love me?” Karen screamed at Adam, and there was a fleck of spittle on her lips. “You’re just as bad as them; trying to trick me,” she glared at Dianne, “so she could attack me.”

Adam’s face turned white as he looked at Dianne. “What have you done?  I was getting through to her.”

 “We have to leave now, Adam, she’s not listening,” Dianne said, and she felt her own self-control dangerously unravelling as the seconds ticked past. She thought of Rick battling Lord knew what, and Paul, still held captive. 

“Karen, please,” Adam tried again.

“She’s not going to let us go.   We have to fight her,” Dianne said.

Adam’s face pinched and his shoulders slumped, his wings flaring in defeat. “All right, Karen, if that’s the way you want to play it, we don’t have any choice.”  He stepped back to the gurney towards Brad, pulled him over to heave his dead weight body across his left shoulder.

“No!”

Karen’s mind bolt was thrown as much out of panic as malevolence – but it was damaging all the same. Dianne threw a wide shield – parrying it sideways – and even so, she was almost stunned with the force of it. She heard Adam cry out as if he had been physically struck – she hadn’t succeeded in deflecting it enough – and he slumped across Brad’s body. Bewildered, Dianne barely had time to throw up another shield before she felt another thrust of Karen’s unrestrained power.

Dianne had never used her mind to consciously fight someone before, but as she looked into the White Queen’s blazing eyes she realized that she was going to have to learn fast if she didn’t want to die.

 

 

 

Twenty-two  

 

They lost a few important minutes in freeing Paul from the tritonium cuffs, but he’d insisted, saying that he was going nowhere defenceless.  On close examination, Patrick figured that the lock was the weak point, and could shatter with the appropriate force. Rick obliged, setting his visor at minimum width to drill a fine point through the tiny hole containing the tumblers. Paul grunted with relief as the cuffs fell off his wrists. He flexed his fingers, unsheathing and sheathing his claws – releasing all his pent up frustration.

Then he nodded at the others, as if to say, Let’s go. They joined Juliette who was stationed as a lookout at the door. She signalled the ‘all clear’ and they padded cautiously along the corridor – down the stairwell – in silence all the way.  The wide glass doors beckoned and they made a dash for it –

Henderson was waiting for them, blocking their escape from the building, his face a mask of anger.

“That was a clever move,” he coldly addressed Rick, whilst he advanced slowly towards them. “But it’s going to be the last one you’ll ever make. As you can see, there are no more floors for you to drop me into, and everything you try to throw at me will just feed my own power.” He balled his fists, as if to illustrate the point.

Rick whispered into his commlink, “It’s up to you now, Storm. I’m betting everything we have that he can’t survive freezing to death. Can you do it?  We’ll cover you, give you a few minutes.”

She looked across to him, nodding slowly in comprehension, and lowered her head, her eyes starting to film over.

 “Very gallant of you, gentlemen,” Henderson said with a touch of sarcasm as he saw them shielding Juliette from his view.  He took up a fighting stance – almost indolently – as if to say – try your best – it won’t be good enough.

 

Paul didn’t think. Thinking time was over. It was action that was required.

He suddenly broke away from the little group, his claws unsheathing as he launched himself at Henderson. For an enjoyable second he saw the flare of panic in the big mutant’s eyes as he bore down on him. Henderson side-stepped at the last minute but Paul was like a jungle cat – arms slashing sideways, catching Henderson’s arm and spraying blood.

“Wolverine, you impetuous –!” Paul heard Fraser curse behind him, but he ignored him, bouncing off the floor, springing up again to face the maddened Henderson. But he didn’t see the blow – it caught him on the chin – hard enough for red lights to dance in front of his eyes.

Then without warning, Paul felt a strange cold steal over him, seeping into his bones, like he’d been thrown into a freezer and left there for several hours, except it was all happening in mere seconds. His nervous system took over and he started to shiver uncontrollably. He swayed, surprised to see Henderson matching his own tottering steps, the same perplexed frown appearing on the other man’s face.

He vaguely heard Fraser barking at Juliette, “Keep hitting Henderson, Storm! Wolverine will have to take his chances!”

Out of hoar-rimmed eyes, Paul saw Henderson’s body start to frost over, just like his own. He felt his body temperature plummet and fought a dizzying desire to fall asleep. From the corner of his eye – as if in slow motion – he saw Henderson reach out, his hand a claw –

“W – w – witch,” Henderson chattered, and the light in his eyes dimmed. Paul felt his blood congealing; an overwhelming lassitude crept over him and he started to black out…

 

 

Rick and Patrick dashed forward to grab Paul, dragging his frost-coated body away from Henderson. The latter toppled stiffly onto the marble floor, his immobile body coated with ice.

 “Quickly,” Rick said tersely, “we have to get out of here now, while we have the chance. Storm, I know it’s asking a lot, but can you create a diversion using one of your fogs?”

Bien sûr, I can do it,” she replied. “But what about Dianne and the others?”

“I’ll go back for them. Banshee, you take Wolverine and get to the perimeter, towards the X-Zero.” He threw Patrick the remote-keypad. “Get her ready, we’ll join you as soon as we can.”

Patrick nodded.

 

 

 

 

The two telepaths were locked in a duel – a fencing match in the arena of the mind.  At first, Karen had the upper hand, with mind probes of such intensity that Dianne could barely defend herself against the murderous psychic onslaught, battered by wave after wave of raw emotion from the blonde telepath.  So much pain – so many images of hurt and bitterness and - layering over it all – an awful, all-consuming need to be loved, a possessiveness, edged with lust, which was shocking in its intensity.  Karen Wainwright did reciprocate Adam’s love all right, but Dianne doubted he had any idea just how much that might cost him. Still, she began to understand why he’d tried to help her.  Now, she thought, how can I use Karen’s own mind against her?

 Bit by bit she began to see gaps in her adversary’s strength and with every moment that passed she was better able to deflect Karen’s mental battering; parrying and thrusting in tune with her opponent. By now, Dianne was working on sheer instinct, and she did not dare to think of the consequences of the plan she had in mind. From deep within her, the latent power gathered and surged like a molten stream. She let it lengthen –– strengthen – sharpen –– a rapier of psionic energy that burned like Excalibur in the darkened recesses of her mind. And with another part of her consciousness she collected fractured pieces of her opponent’s damaged memories into herself – the tortured traumas of Karen Wainwright’s life – to fashion a psychic shield – Dianne’s mirror against the power of the Medusa.

She cast out her shield – and saw Karen’s face crumple, and in that instant of distraction, Dianne slid her rapier deep into the blonde telepath’s mind, striking hard with everything she had. It short-circuited every neuron within the shock-zone. 

Karen gave a high-pitched scream that chilled Dianne’s blood. Then she fell backwards onto the floor, to lie as still as a waxen dummy, her glassy eyes staring into nothing, and then Dianne felt her own legs give way and she sank to the tiled floor after her.

 

 

 

 

 

Charles Gray sat in the cold courtyard, his eyes fixed on the clear night sky. Outwardly he gave the impression of complete calm, both hands resting lightly on the curved metal arms of his wheelchair. But inside, his guts churned with suppressed emotion. In his mind’s eye, negating the distance between them, he sensed Dianne fighting on the psychic plane of existence – felt her pain and distress through their link. And yet he could only sit like an impotent observer – unable physically to help her – and not daring to intercede on a mental level.  Then – suddenly - without warning – Dianne’s mind blast echoed all the way across the void, almost crushing him with its intensity. He heard the two telepaths’ piercing cries as if they resonated in his own mind, and he knew something dreadful had happened. He sat for a few long moments before he raised a hand to wipe the cold sweat from his brow.  

 

 

 

 

Rick charged into the lab to see Dianne slump to the floor several feet from the White Queen’s prone body. His heart rate rocketing with panic, he dropped down on one knee beside her, pulling her around to face him, and saw the physical evidence of her mental battle, with skin the colour of milk and dark bruises under her eyes.

 “Are you okay? Speak to me, babe,” he whispered hoarsely.

She took a ragged breath, and then she saw the streaks of blood under his nose.

She touched his face, and he saw her eyes scanning his body for more damage.  “What happened, are you hurt?” she said in a shaking voice. 

“I’m fine,” he replied, wiping the blood away with his sleeve and then pulled her tight against him, and he winced as he forgot about his other injuries in his relief at her safety.

 “You are hurt,” she said and then relaxed against him, glad to lean into his strength for a moment.

 

Peering over his shoulder, Dianne caught sight of Adam’s face. He had just come to and seen the body of his former lover motionless on the cold, tiled floor.

Exhausted though she was, Dianne left Rick’s embrace and crawled across to check her fallen adversary. Karen’s wrist felt cool and clammy, her nostrils pinched. Ear to chest she both listened and felt for a pulse. It was shallow, and erratic, but it was there. Relief washed through her. She hadn’t intended to kill.

“Is she – ?” Adam’s voice was brittle.

She shook her head. “She’s still breathing.”

“Dianne,” Rick interrupted her, and tried to pull her up, even though the action sent shards of pain through his shoulders. “We need to get out of here, before reinforcements arrive.”

She twisted gently out of his grasp. “No, wait. Please, just a minute.”

She sent a hesitant mental probe into Karen Wainwright’s mind. The others watched, Adam’s face in particular growing ever more fearful as he saw the dawning confusion and shock on Dianne’s face. At last she broke away, putting her hands in her face.

“I can’t sense – anything at all from her mind,” she said in a shaken voice, and she felt the raw empathic flood of loss emanating from Adam, and the sudden realisation of what she had done made her nauseated.

“What have you done?” the winged mutant said, as he ran to Karen, pulling her up and cradling her against his chest.

 “I’m sorry Adam,” she stammered. “She was trying to kill me –I had no choice – we had no choice –”

 “Hey,” Rick gripped her arms. “It’s okay; whatever happened here is not your fault.” She felt his warm, golden aura as he tried to console her. 

She shook her head and pulled away from him, distraught. “No, I acted without thinking, I –” Her voice trailed away as she watched Adam stand up, holding Karen tightly to his body.

Rick gave him a sharp look. “What are you doing?”

“I’m taking her with us, there’s no way I’m leaving her here.”

“Are you out of your mind? This woman tortured you and the others, and just tried to wipe Dianne off planet Astral – what the frigging hell is going on?”

“It’s too complicated to explain – here. But if she doesn’t come with us, I fly back with her myself.” Adam’s jaw set in a resolute line that Rick knew from old. Arguing would get him nowhere.

            Dianne gently laid a hand on Rick’s arm. “Please, let him. Maybe the professor can help her.”

Rick threw his hands into the air in a gesture of frustration, and then he heard a long groan from the gurney. He forgot his dilemma for a minute and reached Brad’s side in three long strides.

Brad’s eyes squeezed open and shut as he tried to clear the last remnants of the drug from his brain.

“Thank God,” Rick said, helping him sit up. “How are you doing?”

“Like a freight train ran over me,” he replied, looking around with blinking eyes at the little group in the laboratory. He passed a hand over his forehead. “It looks like the universe changed hands while I was out. Last thing I remember – jeez, Magnolia, Paul –”

“Brad, sorry, we don’t have time,” Rick interrupted him.  “We’ll fill you in as soon as we’re out of here. Can you walk?”

“I think so.” He hobbled off the gurney and the embattled little troupe made their way along the corridor.

As they stepped outside the building, they could see the mist swirling around, its opacity obscuring almost everything in its path. Only the glow from the high security arc-lights filtered through the haze, creating a surreal atmosphere in which their voices were amplified.

Brad blinked in surprise, as he looked out, bleary-eyed. “Where did this pea-souper come from?” he said in a whisper. 

“Storm,” Rick replied. “I asked her to create something to allow Banshee and Wolverine to reach the fence-line unnoticed.”

They could hear orders being barked from within the depths of the fog. The Spectrum troops had obviously regrouped and were everywhere – searching for them.

“It’s a long way to the perimeter,” Rick muttered, “and only one of us can fly.”

Dianne said quietly, “I can get us all out of here.”

She saw his look, the surprise in it – and it mirrored her own – that she could even think of attempting it after –

But they would all be caught and everything would have been for nothing if she did not act; so she pressed her hands to her temples – focused hard – and beyond the pain and the fear – the power blossomed within her once again. One by one they rose from the ground, enveloped in her telekinetic embrace, to soar upwards into the cold mist, until the stars greeted them.

 

 

 

 

Patrick struggled with Paul’s dead weight across his shoulder, his thoughts with Juliette. She had insisted on staying close enough to Henderson to keep him out of action until everyone was clear of the area. He didn’t like it, but she just raised those perfectly arched brows of hers to let him know that any further display of gallantry would earn him the same dressing down that Rick had received back in the laboratory.  He smiled ruefully to himself as he shifted Paul’s weight again.  He was damn glad of the thick leather of his suit or he was sure the Englishman’s body would have frozen him.  He gritted his teeth as he padded through the swirling fog and all around him he could hear the confused and annoyed shouts of the Spectrum troops.

“ – Where the hell did this mist come from?”

“ – I can’t see a thing!”

He moved on, avoiding them with ease and studied the tiny mother-device in his left palm. The locator beacon he had planted was winking red – showing him the way.  Luck of the Irish – or maybe it was just as well his mam made him go to junior rangers when he was nine years old… He grinned to himself as the perimeter fence loomed up in front of him. When he was there, he slowly settled Paul down onto the ground.

Paul began to stir, his healing ability fighting the trauma, and he started to shake again as his body temperature rose. His eyes opened, and he was about to cry out in his confused state. Patrick swiftly placed a gloved hand gently over his mouth and put the other to his lips in a shushing gesture. He hunkered down beside Paul.

“How you doing?” he murmured.

Paul nodded. “Fine.” He gave another shiver and rubbed his arms, glancing around him as he fully recovered consciousness. “Where are the others?”

Patrick turned back to stare through the fog.  “Storm’s nearby, we’re waiting for her. The rest of them, I don’t know –”

As soon as he uttered the words, Juliette appeared, as silent as a wraith from within the mist. Her brow was furrowed in concentration as she maintained her control of the weather surrounding them. 

Patrick glanced anxiously at her. She waved a hand. “Please – I need to focus – until we all reach the X-Zero.”

He nodded in understanding. Words could wait. Just then, his commlink activated with a sudden hiss in his ear.

“Banshee, give me an update.”

“Cyclops – glad to hear from you,” he whispered. “We’re at our break-in point, but getting over the fence will be a mite difficult unless Wolverine shreds it.”

“Hold on, we’re close by. Angel will come and get you all over.”

“Best news I’ve heard all night,” Patrick muttered into the link.

 

 

 

 

 

The united X-Men trooped into the bowels of the X-Zero. Adam hauled the emergency stretcher from the wall and strapped it across two seats. He gently placed Karen in it and fixed her limbs in place while Dianne pulled out a medical unit from a locker and swiftly set up an oxygen flow to the comatose young woman.

 

Patrick buckled himself in across from Juliette. At last he saw the milky opalescence fade from her eyes, and she exhaled and slumped in her seat, her face pale and drawn, exhausted with the effort of battling with Henderson and creating the fog.  He leaned over and helped her fasten the harness, and after doing so, clasped one of her hands in his own.

She saw the anxious look in his eyes and smiled wearily at him. “I am fine, just a little tired.”

“You saved us back there.”

She gave an imperceptible shake of her head. “Non, I was but part of the team, and we are a good team. Charles would have been proud of us.”

 

Paul quietly buckled himself into a seat by the window on his own, and stared out at the dark woods as the others prepared for take-off. His mind burned with the stunning revelations that Henderson had thrown at him. For one minute when he had met Dianne again he had almost turned tail and ran into the night, seeing her smile of genuine relief for his safety, and the next minute, a small frown as if she sensed the waves of desolation coming from him. He clamped down his mind so she couldn’t read him and gave her a smile to say – everything’s fine.  Then thankfully she was busy with the blonde telepath and he had been able to slink away to a seat on one side with his solitary thoughts.  

 

Rick eased gingerly into the pilot’s seat and started his pre-flight checks.  Now that he was back in the relative safety of the jet, following the aftermath of masterminding their fight and flight, his nervous system was staging a rebellion and he felt a splitting headache joining the stiffening pain in his back. He fought back a wish to curl his aching body onto the seat and go to sleep.  He was still keyed up about Paul jumping the gun with Henderson, but it seemed the Englishman wasn’t suffering any ill effects as a result of his heroics. He admitted sourly to himself that they had needed some sort of distraction, and he had provided it.

 So what am I so mad about? He’s a damn soldier, so he said, used to taking orders. Except from me…  He shook his head to forget it. Now wasn’t the time or the place.  Straining his head around, he saw that everyone was buckled into their seats apart from Dianne and Adam, who were both still occupied with the comatose Karen Wainwright.

“Hey, you two,” he called. “Get yourselves in chairs; we have to take off – now.”

With an guilty look, Dianne scrambled up the aisle and threw herself in the co-pilot’s seat. He felt rather than saw her concerned gaze.

“What?” he said, without stopping his checks. The pre-flight sequence gave him green lights all the way so he punched the ignition.

“You look tired, maybe Juliette should fly,” she said.

The engines fired into life with a powerful roar and he turned briefly to her – saw what her battle with the telepath had done.

“She’s exhausted too – she needs to rest. And you’ve taken a battering. Contact Charles, and tell him what’s happened, he’ll have to know about the woman.”

She sat back in the seat, and he felt a curious regret that she didn’t have her usual argument about him fussing over her.  “I think he knows already,” she replied, “but yes, I’ll talk with him…”

He gave her one last glance, saw her close her eyes to channel her thoughts, and then he turned away to focus on getting them as far away from here as possible.  He lifted the X-Zero from the clearing and up into the night sky, glancing out of the curved window of the jet; he saw the flashing lights of an ambulance below, hurtling along the road towards the facility. He grimaced. For Kruger, more than likely – the sound he had made when he hit the floor hadn’t been a healthy one. And despite the fact the man had tried to kill him, he hoped fervently that he wasn’t dead, or even badly injured. That thought brought another to chill his guts; that the Spectrum Society would continue to exact revenge for their failure to capture Paul Metcalfe – and try yet again. Just what was it about the guy that made him such a prize for them? Rick felt himself tightening up as he extrapolated possibilities.  A direct attack on the mansion didn’t bear thinking about and he made up his mind to discuss enhanced security procedures with Charles and the others at the earliest opportunity. And just maybe, Patrick was correct with his idea about cracking their computer system – perhaps it would turn out to be the only insurance they could rely on.

He let out a long breath as the jet levelled out at cruising altitude, then the swing of Dianne’s hair caught his attention and his eyes followed her turning head to see Metcalfe there behind them. His eyes were sombre and he cleared his throat before speaking.

“I just wanted to say – thanks – for coming back to get me.”

“We promised, didn’t we?” Dianne replied, looking at Rick for confirmation. 

“Yeah, we promised,” he replied evenly.

Paul held up a hand. “Before you say anything, I know you’re annoyed as hell about me jumping Henderson – but I wasn’t going to let anyone else get hurt.  You needed a distraction – I knew I could give you one.”

“And almost got frozen in the process –” Rick retorted and then bit the rest of the remark back.

“Better than it happened to you, or Patrick.” Paul said, ignoring it. “I come back from the nearly-dead, remember?”

“Yeah, I remember,” Rick replied. “Thanks. But there’s only room for one leader in a team, Wolverine. If you plan to stay with the X-Men, you might want to think about it.”

They looked at one another for a moment, and then Paul shrugged with a faint smile. “Point duly noted,” he said. “I’ll get back and leave you to fly this jet back.”

Rick turned back to the controls and checked the landing sequence, an activity that was as much to fill the sudden lull in the conversation between him and Dianne as it was really necessary.  

 

 

 

 

 

Edward and Gray were already waiting anxiously on their return.  They trooped down into the infirmary, raw and numb with fatigue. Edward immediately set about making Karen Wainwright comfortable, and with his usual stoic manner, he restrained himself from asking any other non-medical related questions until he had done what was necessary. Gray knew most of what had transpired via his telepathic discussion with Dianne and he’d been gravely concerned to learn of Conrad’s involvement with the Spectrum Society. He was about to question Paul further on the subject when Edward stepped in.

“Charles, they’re dead on their feet. They need a few hours sleep at the very least. Can’t it wait till morning?”

Gray frowned, as if the thought hadn’t occurred to him. “Yes, yes, I suppose it can.” He nodded at all of them, noting the strain and exhaustion on their faces. “Good work, all of you, let’s talk when you feel rested.”

They said their goodnights as Gray left the infirmary for his quarters above.

 

 

“What were you thinking about – flying the ruddy plane back?” Edward scolded Rick, as he probed the tender muscle between his shoulder blades; the bruising was the colour of a ripe plum.

The American winced at every touch.  “Hell, I got us back here, didn’t I?” he said, too weary to make an argument of it.

“Well, you’ve no broken bones, luckily, but you’re not going to be pushing weights much the next couple of days, that’s for sure.”

“All I want to do is sleep, but we need to have a plan to deal with the fallout from this mission. I’ll get a couple of hours and I’ll be fine.”

“Over my dead body you will,” the Australian retorted. “You won’t make any sense of anything the state you’re in. And that goes for all of you.” He handed Rick a glass of water and two pills.

“What are these?” he asked, looking at the blue caplets in his palm with suspicion.

“Something to make sure you get the sleep you need. And don’t think you can chuck them in the pot plants either.”  Edward folded his arms in an uncompromising gesture.  “Take them, now, while I have my beady eyes on you.” He shook his head wryly. “It’s just as well someone stays behind here to mop up the mess you all make.”

Rick sighed, and gulped the pills down with a swig of the water, then eased himself off the stool. “You checked Dianne out already, is she – okay?”

Edward nodded. “She needs sleep too, a lot of it, but no long term damage, at least as far as I can tell at the moment. I’ll do a proper brain scan a little later, when I check Ms Wainwright here.”  At the mention of that name both men glanced across the infirmary to where their friend sat beside the young woman’s cot.

 

 

Adam looked at the prone figure of his former lover; at the deep dark circles around her eyes. He bent over and gently pushed a few strands of hair from her face, and he felt his throat tighten.  She lay there so still, so pale.

I have no idea why she’s gotten such a hold over me – I must be mad – the others think I am.  I’m being selfish, and they know I am, but I can’t let her go.  I’m determined to wait right here until she recovers and then…

“Adam.”

He turned at the sound of Rick’s voice, and swallowed hard. His friend was standing beside him, looking at him and at Karen.  He felt he had to give some sort of explanation, but he wasn’t sure that he could make Rick understand.

“Look,” he said, “I’m sorry, for what I said back there, but I just couldn’t leave her. I know it’s hard to believe, but she’s as much a victim of the Spectrum Society’s machinations as any of us. I know it doesn’t make any sense to you, I’m not sure it makes any sense to me – oh God, I’m babbling.”

“I’m listening.”

“Somewhere in that comatose mind, there’s a lost young woman wanting out – she just needs the right people to help her.”

“The right people – meaning you? C’mon Adam, get real. She’s nuts, and you’re just infatuated. Are you thinking with your head – or your libido?”    

“I’m thinking with my heart. I think I’m in love with her – maybe that’s screwing up my senses, but I can’t help how I feel – and what I feel inside is that she’s worth saving.”

“I’m sorry, but she’s – well, I mean –”

 “You know how you felt when you fell for Dianne?”

The question caught Rick off guard.  “You know damn fine. You teased me enough about it.”

“Yeah; me and my smart mouth. ‘The bigger the idiot the harder he falls’ is the phrase that comes to mind.  I might have joked that you were infatuated at the time, but maybe that was just a front to hide my envy for what you both had – what you still have. And I thought maybe this was it for me – the big one – the woman I’d been waiting for all my life – only she turns out to be our enemy.” Adam shook his head as if to dissipate the thoughts of their short, yet blissful, time together that were too painful a reminder of what he might have had. “God, this is such a mess. There’s no way I can excuse what she did to Brad or Juliette. But she suffered a terrible trauma as a kid and I sense deep down that she hates what she’s become.  I know Charles can help her, they’re both telepaths – maybe he can repair the damage – make her whole again…”

Rick placed a hand gently on his shoulder and spoke in a voice edged with new-found sympathy, “We can’t keep her here, Adam, that’s just crazy talk. Henderson and his cronies will come looking for her. We’ve got the school and the kids to think of.”

Adam sighed deeply, as if he was well aware of that possibility. “I know. Maybe it would be better if she’s moved somewhere else. The last thing I want to do is endanger the students.  I’m sure I can get her in a suite at a hospital back in Manhattan.”

Edward chimed in as he joined the pair of them, peering once again at the beeping monitor above the young woman’s cot. “Except the doctors there wouldn’t have the expertise to deal with what’s wrong with her, Adam. Even I’m stumped for the moment. We still haven’t the medical know-how to pull a patient from a comatose state. It’s still very much a question of leaving it to nature and to the individual’s internal recovery system.”

“And how long might that be?” Adam asked bleakly.

Edward shook his head. “I really don’t know. Let’s discuss it with Charles; I think he has the final say on what should happen – after you all get some sleep – agreed?”

The two Americans looked at one another, and then acquiesced, heads nodding wearily.

 

 

 

 

The mansion was darkened, the corridors silent. At four A.M. most of its occupants were asleep – except one.

Paul lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling in the darkness. He’d refused the medication, insisting that his healing factor would take care of any residual fatigue. Now he almost wished he had taken Edward’s advice. He was tossing and turning, totally unable to find the desperate sleep that eluded him. All he could see and hear was his conversation with Henderson, going around in his head like a holo-vid caught in a time loop – and those fatal words – pirouetting in his mind:

Weapon Red – Mutant killer…

He felt shattered like glass, obliterated, annihilated. And he wanted revenge, to make that bastard Roberts pay for what had been done to him. The only thing was trying to figure out how to do it.  Some indeterminate time later a primal switch cut-in, as if sensing that the body could no longer cope with the exhaustive repetition of his delirium. Slowly, Paul’s thought processes shut down and he drifted fitfully off into a fevered sleep…

 

 

 

 

Twenty-three

 

Seymour Griffiths swiped his bare forearm across his face. He was sweating, despite the fact that the filtered air was set at the correct temperature and humidity for normal activities. He was just too anxious, that was the trouble. He stooped down to the device he was working on, and made another delicate adjustment with the vibro-spanner. He had been working without a break for five solid hours, lost in the purity of creating solid reality from his thoughts.

As easily as others could use simple words and musical symbols to create complex poetry or symphonies, so he could visualise the concepts and structure of physical matter right down to the photons and quantum particles. Invention of intricate and fabulous technology was to him as simple and easy as the time it took to create the image of the technology in his mind.  If his IQ had ever been tested, they would have had to invent a completely new scale.

But even mutant geniuses tired.

“Oww!” he yelped, as the vibro-tool slipped, and he sucked hard to quell the sudden sharp pain in his finger.  He sighed, and knew that he should have taken a break already, not to mention a drink of fluid.  Despite the time pressures, he knew that it would be no good if mistakes were made. Ever since Conrad Turner had taken him and Magnolia into his care, Seymour shared his vision of a safe world for mutant-kind, free of hate and distrust. Seymour wanted this with all his gentle heart, and with blind faith, he believed Conrad Turner was indeed the saviour of their kind.  He wanted Conrad to be proud of him. 

He finally stood up, stretched cramped muscles, and wandered along the white corridor to the small kitchen area. He poured himself a tumbler of ice-cold water from the recycling unit and took a long draught.  As he leaned back on the compact counter-top, he wondered if a stroll would help defuse his tension. 

He missed Magnolia. Despite the fact they were only step-siblings, she had come to mean more to him than anyone else on this earth.  Before her departure, she had gotten real jumpy, but she wouldn’t tell him why. He asked Conrad about it, but he would only say she was on a mission of vital importance to their cause. He, Seymour, wasn’t to concern himself about it; his job was to keep working on their defences.

He glanced at the wall chronometer.  Conrad had promised to return soon with her and the thought that he would see her again lifted his spirits and gave him fresh impetus to go back to his work.  He drained his tumbler and wandered back along the corridor.

 

 

Almost an hour after Seymour returned to his work, Conrad Turner and Magnolia returned. Magnolia had remained silent during their journey back to what she had once considered home, except now, she felt as if she returned to a prison. Turner activated the palm-lock to open the door of the chamber beyond, and when it swished open, she saw Seymour raise his head quickly at the sound.  Even from here Magnolia saw the joy flare up in his gentle eyes as he saw her standing there. He dropped what he was doing and rushed across to embrace her. She held him tight, burrowing her face in his chest to stop the tears from flowing again.

“Little sis – are you okay?”

Turner answered for her, his face unsmiling. “I’m afraid your step-sister has been – contaminated somewhat by her prolonged stay with Gray’s X-Men. However, I’m sure you would like to have a few minutes alone together. Perhaps you can convince her of the importance of what we are doing.”  He nodded curtly, turned on his heel and left the chamber.

Magnolia wandered across to the intricate device; it was almost complete, apart from a few minor details. She studied it, her brows creasing, seeing it now in a totally different light, as she had seen everything these past few weeks.  Such a short time, and yet, it was if the blindfold had been removed from her eyes.  How could she have been so stupid to believe that Conrad was actually trying to help mutants?  Because, if he succeeded, people like her and Seymour and the X-Men and all the other innocent mutants out there, living their ordinary lives, would become real pariahs.

Sure, there was prejudice – but when in this world hadn’t there been? She knew deep down that violence and retaliation were never going to be the cure. They just picked at a scab, never allowing it to heal.  She had seen another side to the story – and it was a side that struck a chord in her heart, realising that the stuff she had been fed by Conrad – force-fed, she thought on reflection – was every bit as poisonous as the stuff that Roberts and his like droned on about.  But how could she possibly hope to convince Seymour?

He waited, watching her move slowly around the device, and as she glanced at him she could see he was totally unsure of this new development.

“What did Conrad mean when he said that?” he asked. “Contaminated?”

She hugged herself, as if that would somehow help to bolster her words. “They were good people. Professor Gray, he looks after them like a father figure.  And he treated me with the same respect, even though he hardly knew me. He trusted me, never insisted on knowing where I’d come from.”

 “Conrad’s been like family to us! You know how we lived before he found us?” Seymour interjected, his eyes sparking with sudden indignation.

“Yeah, just like all the family we’ve ever known; he’s just another bully – hittin’ on the weaker ones, or anyone who don’t share their way of lookin’ at the world.”   

“So Conrad was right; I can’t believe that you can just give up everything we believe in such a short time.”

Magnolia’s eyes flashed in equal anger. “You weren’t down there, you didn’t have to stand there and lie to people who were honest and decent with you. You didn’t have to watch while these so-called friends of Conrad tried to hurt innocent people – an innocent kid for God’s sake.” Her face creased with the memory of the little boy cut down by the shooting in the mall, and she prayed he was all right, because somehow she felt that it was all her fault that he’d suffered his injury, and she knew she had somehow to atone for that.  

She shook her head wearily. “Seymour, maybe this sounds plumb crazy, but I’m thinking it’s only you who wanted to believe Conrad. I just tagged along because I’ve nothin’ else. But that’s changed, ever since I met the X-Men - that’s what they call themselves – I see things differently. They look at life with hope and love, not bitterness and hatred, and they don’t want to cut themselves off from the rest of humanity, like Conrad does.”   She looked at him with pleading eyes, trying to convince him of her feelings. “You’d feel the same way if you knew them too. I swear you would.”

His dark face was filled with confusion. “Don’t say this Magnolia, please; this is the only way.”

“Do you really know what you’re doing here, with these missiles?”

“Sure I do.  They’re our line of defence against attack. No one will be able to attack us. We’ll be safe. I always thought you wanted to be safe?”

“I do, you know I do, but not at the expense of other folk. And are you so sure they’re just for defendin’ ourselves?”

He looked at her, as if she had gone slightly crazy in the head, which, she guessed she might well have done these past couple of weeks.

 “What else would they be for?” he said, and turned back to his tinkering.

“Something’s goin’ on, Seymour…I can feel it. And I don’t think Conrad’s been truthful about everything he said to us. He’s changed, he’s got, darker, more intense, and usin’ me as bait for those rich guys in New York was just the start.”

He put down his tool and frowned at her. “I’m busy, Magnolia; maybe you should get some sleep.”

She sighed, heart-sore at their arguing, and his inability to listen to what she had to say. And what do I expect? Maybe I’m only foolin’ myself. As his head bent, seemingly once again engrossed in his tinkering, she knew this was a ruse to avoid any further conversation. How weird, she thought, that you can change your loyalties so fast

She turned away from her step-brother and wandered listlessly along the corridor to the small room that served as her quarters, all the while continuing to be obsessed with thoughts about the X-Men. She was wracked with feelings of remorse and guilt, not knowing what fate befell Paul at the hands of the Spectrum Society, or what had happened to Brad and Juliette. Why didn’t I trust Gray at the beginning?  I could’ve told him what was going on; but, I reckon I was so scared that Conrad might do somethin’ bad to Seymour if I didn’t do what he wanted.

That thought didn’t, however, make her feel any better, and she tossed herself on the bunk, her eyes clamped shut, desperately seeking the solace of sleep to make the guilt go away, just for a little while.

 

 

 

 

Twenty-four

 

Paul awoke in the grey, dawn light that filtered through the slatted blinds. For a few seconds he was disoriented, his mind still in the half-dawn of semi-waking. But his inertia was soon dispelled by the sour taste of his new-found self-knowledge. He squeezed his eyes shut, wishing for one moment that he could just fall back into that blessed, dreamless sleep. It was so ironic really; he’d finally got some peace after recovering his memories, only to find he was besieged once again by another nightmare, gnawing at his insides like an insidious cancer. He owed Gray so much – for the recovery of his memories, and for saving his life. He knew deep down he couldn’t keep this knowledge about the warped plans of Senator Roberts to cull mutant-kind to himself. 

And yet, that would really be the death-knell in terms of his position here at the mansion, and to his surprise he found he didn’t really want to leave this place.  Something had changed within him since his tritonium operation and subsequent rescue by Gray’s X-Men, and oddly this feeling of interdependence made him feel stronger, rather than weaker. There was cohesiveness between these people – a feeling that he wanted to share.

He rubbed his face hard. Who was he kidding – he was a loner, always had been – all throughout his life. Trust no one. Love no one. He was destined to live forever, and what man could stay sane when all of his loved ones were left behind?

Except that Penny had finally got through that hard exterior of his, and he remembered the sweet, aching joy of their short time together. After she died, he swore he could never love another woman – it hurt too much. And yet, here he was, making the same mistake with a girl who wasn’t even free to begin with. 

He stared at the small digital chronometer on the bedside table and wondered if Dianne or any of the others would be up and about yet. He couldn’t hear any activity and deduced that they were probably still observing the after effects of Edward’s medication.  His mouth set in a grim line. Enough of this.

His healing factor had repaired all the damage of Juliette’s attempt at deep-freezing him, and although his mind hadn’t been so easy to repair, he could only wallow in self-pity for so long.  He uncoiled his body off the bed in one lithe motion, padding quietly along the corridor, so as not to disturb the others. Happily for him, Gray was entrenched alone in his study, a china pot of tea by his terminal, standing guard to the outside world. He nodded as Paul sidled into the room.

 “I hope you don’t mind the intrusion,” Paul said to him.

“Not at all,” Gray replied, motioning him to a chair. “I always rise early, I feel that time is stretched in the few hours before the world grinds into gear. And I still have a school to run, despite our recent difficulties.”

Paul flopped onto the chair and Gray handed him a cup of tea without asking. Paul’s lips curled in a wry smile. “You’re a mind reader.”

 “I was rather hoping to talk to you this morning,” Gray said.  “I hope your short rest allowed you to recover from being frozen.  Dianne apprised me of the situation during the flight back.”

Paul shrugged; a nonchalant motion that lied about his inner turmoil. Gray noticed it and his attuned senses picked up Paul’s anxiety, the feeling that he was about to impart something of great importance.

A small frown creased his brow. “You have something to tell me.” It was said as a statement.

Paul took a deep breath; there was absolutely no point in hanging back.  “If I believe what Henderson told me - and I do, because, unfortunately, too many things make sense now - I know why they did this to me.” He held up his hands allowing the metal talons to protrude from his skin. “And I now know who they are.”

“Go on, I’m listening.”

Paul found his words came out in a rush, as if by venting them to this man he might erase the knowledge from his mind. Throughout it all, Gray listened gravely, his hands a steeple at his chin. Paul saw his ice-blue eyes register shock only once as his tale unfolded.

When Paul had finished, he looked bleakly at his hands as if he hated the very sight of them. “Roberts made me into this thing – this animalso I would kill my own kind – you – Dianne – the students.” He stopped, lowering his head into his hands in a sudden burst of profound shame.

When at length Gray replied, his voice was calm, drained of any hint of judgment.  “I can only imagine what it must have cost you to tell me this, but I’m glad that you had the strength of will to do so.”

“There really wasn’t anything else I could do. I’m in your debt in more ways than you can imagine. You had to know about this threat to the mutant population, although, God help us, I’ve no idea how we’re going to do anything about it.”

 “At the moment, neither do I,” Gray replied grimly. “But, mark my words, I will.”

Paul saw Gray give a shake of his head, as if he could barely comprehend that people would resort to such tactics. But Paul knew only too well humanity’s propensity for striking back at what they didn’t understand when they felt under threat. In the quiet of the study, with the ticking of the antique clock in the corner, Paul felt Gray’s calm unruffled aura surround him, making him feel like a child enfolded within the embrace of a loving parent.

Gray continued to study Paul thoughtfully. “You believed that I’d want you to leave, after telling me this.”

Paul’s breath blew out in a long silent whistle. “It’s the only sane option; I’m a mutant killing machine – and I’m staying in a school full of them. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that one out.”

Gray arched an eyebrow. “Well, I happen to disagree. Leaving is the last thing you should be doing.”

“You’re not serious?”

“If you leave the safety of the X-Men and are recaptured, then we may truly be endangered.”

“But after what I’ve just told you – they conditioned me – I could still be a danger –”

 “From these ‘berserker rages’ of yours, you mean? Think man! You’ve been subjected to several high-stress situations since you removed that microprocessor implant in your chest. I don’t believe you’re under their influence anymore.”

 “What about the night I arrived?” Paul countered, his desperate hope tempered by his unwilling belief that he was completely free of their influence.

“You had told me you often woke up in a fright with your claws unleashed after one of your nocturnal dreams. Magnolia, sadly, was where she shouldn’t have been.”

“Then after the last mind probe?”

“I don’t have a complete explanation for it, but –”

“So you’re not sure.”

“I’m as sure as I can be. Look, all of our hard work could be reversed if you were to fall into their hands.”

 Paul sat silent, momentarily at a loss for words. He had been all ready to confess and take his punishment, and here was Gray insisting that he stayed put. 

Gray didn’t need to be a telepath to note the indecision and confusion on Paul’s face. “Don’t you want to stay with us?” he asked.

“I – I suppose I expected to be thrown out on my rear.  I’ve caused nothing but trouble since I arrived. If you hadn’t tried so hard to find me, you wouldn’t have got into this mess.” 

“Again, I disagree,” Gray said. “It’s perfectly possible that we would have found ourselves in a worse situation. And perhaps you’re forgetting the fact that we had to find you, if only to stop Dianne’s empathic nightmares, remember?”

Paul looked up. For a moment, he had forgotten that fact. It seemed so long ago now; so much had happened in between, so much had changed for him. “Fraser won’t be happy about this –  me staying, I mean.”

“Rick is a rational man, he’ll see that this option is the most logical, given the circumstances, and if he doesn’t, well – I still run this school, and the X-Men. I suggest you continue to remain here for the foreseeable future, while we consider this situation with regards to Senator Roberts. We certainly cannot leave it unresolved.”

There was nothing Paul wanted more than to get even with the people who had implanted him full of metal and wiped his mind. He knew that the man he had once been would have scoffed at the idea of mounting an operation against the government with a bunch of civilians.  But Gray’s people were different. They had discipline, strategy, fighting skills and were as tough as he was in the heat of battle. Staying with them would put him in the best possible position to achieve the revenge he sought so deeply.

There was only one problem…

Gray broke into his thoughts and was regarding him curiously. “Paul, are you all right? You suddenly seemed to be miles away.”

“Sorry, I was just trying to think about what you’ve said, and whether I take you up on your offer to stay.”  Paul somehow just couldn’t bring himself to admit the real reason he was hesitating, so he had no real excuse for refusing Gray’s offer. He returned a watery smile. “Just as long as I don’t have to go to the mall again.”

Gray’s mouth quirked at the corners. “I think that can be arranged.”

“And, I want to ask a favour.”

“Consider it granted.”

“I don’t want the others to know about – me being a super-weapon – this is between you and me for now.  Please?”

Gray nodded. “Very well. We shall have to broach it at some point, but for now, yes, it will stay between ourselves. And now, moving onto originally why I wanted to speak with you – Dianne told me you encountered Conrad Turner, the mutant known as Magneto, in Henderson’s bio-facility?”

Paul nodded, wholly relieved to be on a different subject for the moment.  “He forced Magnolia to go with him.”

Gray’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “He did?  But I thought she was Henderson’s spy?”

“So did I, but Magneto marched off with her – and she wasn’t happy about it, I can tell you. She confided some things to me while we were on our way to upstate New York.  She’s a very unhappy young lady, and frightened with it. I think she did these things under duress, and believe me, I know all about that,” he finished grimly.

Gray shook his head. “I couldn’t break through the shielding without damaging her mind. If only she had seen fit to confide in us, and perhaps we could have continued to offer her a place of sanctuary. I’m ashamed to say that even I felt anger at her betrayal.”

Paul shrugged. “We’re all human I suppose, and then again, if she was still here you might have Magneto knocking at the door.”

 Gray frowned deeply, his mind mulling over the link between his former friend and the Spectrum Society. “I simply don’t understand it. From what you are saying, Magneto must have been in league with Henderson, but he loathes Roberts. What would make him take sides with his so-called enemy?”

“I’m not sure if Magneto knew of Roberts’ connection with Henderson. It was only after Magneto had left that Henderson told me about it, as if it was a big secret. The man struck me as someone who’d sell his own grandmother to a pimp if it suited his aims, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Inner Circle were double-crossing both Roberts and Magneto.  They even had the nerve to try to recruit me… but I think he was just winding me up. In any case, I told him where he could stick it.” Paul stopped for a moment, and let out a long breath.  “You know, since I dropped in here I seem to have put your X-Men at the top of the most wanted list.”

“Perhaps I am too naïve after all, just as Conrad said – an old fool to believe that mutants can raise themselves above the prehistoric past of their base human emotions.”

“Emotions are what make us human, Professor, otherwise we’d just be animals, digging in the dirt.”

 “I didn’t imagine you to be a philosopher, Paul.”

Paul gave a wry smile. “No such luck. I’m just a dumb soldier.”

“Oh, I don’t think so.” Then he shook his head in sadness.  “Something like this was bound to happen, sooner or later; power struggles between mutants who wish to impose their power and shape the world the way they see fit; and of those who want something better, to live within this world in peace. It’s why I created the X-Men, and this school. They are my hope for the future and the embodiment of all that is good and noble about mutant-kind. And not everyone is like Roberts; the entire human race does not deserve to be lumped together with him and his ilk. We want to protect the innocent, and that includes the non-mutants as well as those like ourselves.”

“Even though some of them hate what we are?”

“Even because of that, yes.”

“Then you’re a better man than me, Charles Gray.”

 

 

 

 

By the time Paul was finished talking to Gray, the other X-Men were finally stirring from sleep, as was the rest of the school. It came to life with the excited chatter and whooping of the students as they fought for shared bathrooms in the dorm areas. No doubt the grapevine had done its usual sterling work and they were aware their teachers had returned safely back to the mansion.

Gray called a formal meeting at midday to discuss the fall-out from the rescue mission, about the time that Edward’s finely-tuned medication petered out. They had been forced into a good eight hours undisturbed sleep, but even so, the X-Men wandered into the basement conference room in one’s and twos, holding mugs of hot coffee from the dispensers in an attempt to keep alert. Gray noted the tiredness, the stifled yawns and groggy eyes. His gaze alighted on Dianne, his butterfly child, her face still bearing the stress of her fight with the White Queen, and he suspected that perhaps she, of all of them, had experienced full-force the ambiguous temptation of using one’s powers unwisely. Ah, my X-Men, he thought, we prepared for this day, but we didn’t know it would come so soon, or with such deviousness. With this fight our innocence has been lost – and every one of us now knows how easily our powers can be corrupted.

Oblivious to his sombre thoughts, they installed themselves around the large, polished table, sipping their drinks and waiting patiently for Gray to address them. He cleared his throat and began, “First I would like to say how relieved I am to see you all sitting here; that you have all returned in one piece.”

There were muted smiles.

“It is of course, terribly unfortunate that there were casualties –”

Patrick snorted. “Hey, if you’re talking about Kruger, good riddance to the bad guys…”

Gray saw Dianne’s face pale and instantly regretted his remark, knowing she blamed herself for one of those casualties.

 “We were short on options, sir,” Rick protested. “We had no idea the members of the Spectrum Society were mutants, other than the telepath.”

“Calm yourself, Rick, I’m not criticising you, or any of you, for that matter. You did very well under extreme circumstances. You went into the lion’s den with limited intelligence, and we had no idea Magneto was involved. If anything, it’s my judgment that was lacking here, I blame myself for that.”

“Chalk it down to experience,” Brad cut in.  “It’s always a risk, meeting the enemy on their own turf, but we all got out pretty much intact, and we have a lot more intel about the bad guys than we started with.”

“Speaking of which,” Patrick said, “I need to spend some time this morning going through the files I snatched from the Henderson Technologies’ data-core.”

“And we need to update our security procedures for the mansion,” Rick added.

“I agree about the computer files,” Gray said, “but I am unhappy about turning the mansion into Fort Knox. This is a school after all.”

“Yeah, I know, but circumstances have changed,” Rick replied.

“Even so, we cannot advertise our presence with barbed wire and security cameras. That will only serve to draw the eyes of the world upon us, and we are not ready for that yet.”

Rick’s frown deepened, but he kept any further comments to himself – at least for now.

“And now,” Gray continued, “to the matter of the telepath you have brought here, Adam.”

Adam cleared his throat. “I know how Rick feels about this, he believes we’ll suffer retaliation from the Spectrum Society if Karen stays at the mansion, and I have to agree with him; so I’m willing to take the responsibility myself. I just got a call this morning from my personal secretary; I have to return to Manhattan for a board meeting. I can arrange for her to be moved to a hospital close by.”

 “I’d like to take the opportunity to study trauma in a mutant mind,” Edward interrupted. “It could be the chance to do some invaluable research.”

Adam’s face darkened.  “She’s not some lab-rat, Doc.”  

“I didn’t mean it like it sounded, sorry mate. I’m afraid I get a bit carried away sometimes.”

“She means a lot to you, obviously?” Gray asked Adam in a gentle tone.

Adam nodded and glanced around the table at these people who were his dearest friends. He owed them the whole truth. And after he had told them – almost – everything it was Dianne’s turn to speak up.

“I feel dreadful about what I did, even if she did try to hurt us. I feel responsible. Charles, in this state, she’s no threat to any of us, the basement is well protected, and perhaps if I worked with you and Doc, we could help her.”

She glanced at Adam, who smiled wanly, grateful for her support. Then, she reached for Rick’s hand and he closed his fingers around it, squeezing gently with a small shake of his head in resignation.

“Charles, it’s your call,” Rick said finally.

“I have no idea whether the Spectrum Society will insist on her return or not,” Gray said in response. “But for the moment, I believe it’s for the best if she stays here with us. At least that way, she remains under our supervision, and unlikely to cause us any immediate trouble. We will deal with Henderson’s demands when we cross that particular bridge.”

“The two of them didn’t seem to be on particularly good terms from what little I heard of their conversation back there,” Paul remarked.

“Karen wanted to escape Henderson’s clutches, I know she did,” Adam said bleakly.  “She was just too scared of him, I think he’d been controlling her for a long time. Charles, I’m very grateful to you, and the others, and I’m sorry I have to run out on you, but I just need to show my face to the board for a few days, then I’ll be back.”

 “Very well. I’m just sorry that your return to Winchester was not as happy as it might have been. Getting kidnapped was probably not what you had in mind when you came to visit us for the weekend.”

A few wry chuckles around the table broke the tension, as Gray had hoped it would.

Gray cleared his throat, all seriousness again. “Now, onto another subject. I spoke to Paul this morning; evidently Magnolia was Magneto’s accomplice.”

Gray saw the surprise on the faces, especially from Brad.  “I couldn’t believe it when you guys told me she was a spy. I guess I’m not as good a judge of character as I thought I was,” he remarked in a bleak tone.

“Or any of us, for that matter,” Gray added. “But we don’t know the whole story. Paul seems to think she is ambivalent to Conrad.”

“Does it matter? She’s gone now,” Rick said.

“I felt she deserved a second chance,” Paul answered him.

Gray could sense a looming argument and swiftly headed the subject in another direction. “More importantly, I am concerned about Conrad’s presence at Henderson Technologies, which is, after all one of the top-ten genetic bioware companies  in the world and –”

“Good God,” Paul interrupted him sharply, “I’ve just remembered! Henderson gave Magneto a canister. It was silver, about this long and wide,” he made gestures in the air.  “I forgot all about it during our little punch-up and subsequent getaway. Then you mentioned the G word.”

Gray’s brows almost met, as he remembered snatches of his conversation with Turner in the corridor of the Senate building in Unity City. ‘I’m studying, researching, preparing, for – war…’ -  ‘These humans have had their day…’  “Then I suspect the worst,” he said aloud.  “I didn’t want to believe his words; I didn’t want to believe he had changed so much –”

“Are you saying this canister may be used as some sort of weapon, against the human race?” Rick looked distinctly uncomfortable, as if he suddenly realised that perhaps, his refusal to answer Paul’s summons for help might have unforeseen and disturbing consequences.

“Anything is just speculation for the moment,” Gray said. “And we cannot act on theory. But if I know Conrad, he will let us know soon enough. For now, we have no choice but to wait.”

 

 

 

 

Twenty-five

 

Senator John Roberts, designation Alpha-Red, made one of his extremely rare visits to the underground base that served as the nerve centre of the Weapon-Red program.  As the primary representative for the United States on the World Senate, he had been in a superlative position for maintaining this covert operations group. Slowly, as his position of power increased, matched by the money from Henderson’s coffers and the latter’s biotechnology know-how, Roberts had slowly begun to achieve his goal: that of ridding the world of the insidious mutant threat. And although the entire program had not been compromised, the loss of Weapon-Red - the Wolverine - had made a severe dent in his plans.

His own hand-picked agents had still been unable to trace the man, and after the failure of the subcutaneous transmitter, it seemed there was little chance they would; except that Henderson claimed to have a plan, which he wouldn’t divulge, much to Roberts’ frustration, despite several calls on the latter’s part after his initial request for assistance.

He couldn’t put his finger on it, but despite his alliance with the Spectrum Society, Roberts was convinced that they had their own ulterior motives. Altruism wasn’t Henderson’s strong point, although Roberts had to admit, neither was it one of his own. Perhaps that was why he didn’t totally trust him; it was far too like dealing with an unpredictable identical twin.

He exhaled and raked his eyes around the cavernous room; the dark, non-descript walls were lined with arrays of monitors and computers. None of this would be of any use if they didn’t get Metcalfe back.

He scrambled the channel and waited for the audio-line to engage at the other end. Henderson was there at his Spectrum Society headquarters.

 “I’m calling for an update on the situation,” he said. “Have you had any luck in tracing Metcalfe yet?”

“I was going to call you. We did find him –” Henderson’s voice sounded uncharacteristically agitated.

“And didn’t inform me immediately?” Roberts felt his anger blossom at Henderson’s deviation from their agreed plan. “You find him, you tell me – that was the deal!” 

“We thought we could handle it – we had to move fast, any delay might have resulted in him jumping ship again.”

“You had no right!” Roberts seethed with fury. “You were supposed to inform me when you discovered his location, not take it upon yourself to capture him. Where was he?”

“At a school for mutants.”

“School, school –” The word triggered Roberts’ memory, which he then promptly forgot in his agitation with Henderson. “And what the hell happened that you lost him again?” 

Henderson briefly related events. “We did everything we could, but these damned mutants were more powerful than we thought, and organised with it. I barely escaped with my life, and Kruger’s been hospitalised, so as you can see we’ve hardly come out of this laughing.”

Roberts couldn’t tell over the line, but he could almost smell that Henderson was being economical with the truth.

“Sounds to me like it more than serves you right,” he replied coldly. “You said your Spectrum Society  troops could handle just about anything, it sounds more to me like you had your asses well and truly kicked.”

And maybe I shouldn’t have trusted this to non-military personnel.

He was a politician now – but he hadn’t forgotten his military roots. In hindsight, he cursed himself for allowing such an important job to be left to amateurs.

But, damn the man, Roberts still needed him as an ally, if he was ever to get enough money to run for the world Presidency. Then he would have unlimited resources. And then, well maybe he could dispense with Henderson after all. But until that fortuitous day arrived, they were enmeshed in one another’s dark secrets, and arguing wouldn’t improve the overall situation. At the moment, he thought grimly,  I need that sonofabitch more than vice-versa. Making a Herculean effort to regain his composure, he finally spoke again.

“Can I assume that he’s still hiding out at this school?”

 “To the best of my knowledge, yes.”

“Well, perhaps it’s time that the professionals took over.”

He could almost hear Henderson shrug, but his voice over the scrambled link was quiet, almost deferential even.

“Perhaps that’s the best thing after all. Their school’s located in Winchester, Massachusetts…”

 

 

 

 

Conrad Turner invited his two acolytes to join him in the communal refectory for supper. It was a large room, designed to hold more than the three of them, and at the moment, they seemed lost in the space as they sat at one long table at the end of the room.

“You have completed the missile array, Seymour.  I thought we should celebrate that achievement altogether.”

Magnolia glanced across at Seymour. He gave her an imperceptible nod, as if to say, do as he asks…or we’ll be in trouble.

The pallid-faced mutant raised his glass. “To our future.”

She bit back her sigh as the sound of clinking glass echoed within the room. Conrad didn’t seem to have noticed her lack of enthusiasm, or if he did, he was choosing to ignore it.  As they commenced their meal in silence, once again Magnolia sensed a coiled tension in him.  He positively radiated it. Something awful was going to happen; she felt it in her bones.

 

 

 

 

The next couple of days saw some semblance of routine descend upon the school. Patrick, true to his word, had, with Dianne’s and Gray’s assistance, regurgitated the contents of Henderson Technologies’ data-core. As he had suspected, the protected files were jam-full of research on illegal human cloning projects. There was, unfortunately, no documented evidence to directly implicate Senator Roberts in the program.  Patrick saved several copies of the data, sending one of them to Adam in Manhattan. The X-Men might never need the information, but he wanted to ensure that if they ever did, they could lay hands on it at a moment’s notice.

Dianne and Juliette took classes, while Rick and Edward assessed the security around the grounds and the mansion, identifying several areas of concern above ground. The basement was still as secure as they originally intended it to be; but the mansion itself was wide open to a potential attack.

Adam returned to Manhattan. A board meeting was imminent and he knew that there would be problems if he was absent.  He realised he was acting like some besotted love-sick teenager, and yet, somehow, he didn’t care. Karen Wainwright’s recovery had suddenly become one of the most important things in his life, and he couldn’t change the way he felt about her, anymore than he could lose his wings. He promised Edward and Dianne that he would return as soon as decently possible, then he departed with a heavy heart, as if afraid that she would take a turn for the worse while he was gone.

“Go on, Adam, get out of here,” Dianne finally shooed him from the doorway of the mansion to the waiting taxi after both she and Juliette had exchanged tearful embraces with him. “We promised you that we’d keep an eye on her, and we will.” 

 

 

Charles Gray had followed his X-Men’s example and taken a biology class. The questions and interest of his young charges deflected his mind from the unsettling events of the past few days. He never failed to be impressed by their curiosity and their unbridled joy in life. They had of course breathlessly badgered him with questions about the rescue, but after that, they settled down to listen and learn.  As they left the room, giggling and chattering with one another, he permitted himself a small smile. They were the future. All of this, in the end, was for them – in order that they were able to deal with their talents responsibly, and he was determined that nothing would stop him achieving that goal. That thought warmed him, and gave him strength for the fight for their rights that he knew was still ahead of them.

The beep of the desk-phone pulled him out of his reverie. He activated the speaker, a premonition hitting his guts like ice-water.

            “Gray – is that you?”

“You really have some nerve calling here, Henderson, but it suppose it was to be expected.”

“Kruger has been hospitalised by your mutants, it was touch and go whether he would live –”

“You have my sympathy, and I expect yours in return,” Gray interrupted. “My people also suffered injuries at your hands.  And I believe every one of them would have been killed without compunction if they didn’t possess the combat skills to beat you in a fair fight. You lied about being mutants, and you lied about returning my people. Admit it; you had no intention from the start. You hardly expect me to just sit here idly and let that happen?”

“Perhaps not. But, whatever the morality of this situation, you still however, have something that belongs to me.”

“And that is?”

“My White Queen.”

“I rather thought slavery was abolished in this country?”

“Cute, Gray. I spent years cultivating that young woman, I don’t plan to let her be corrupted by your pathetic – ”

“No, you listen to me! That young woman is in a coma, so until she recovers consciousness and makes a decision of her own free will as to whether she wishes to return to the Spectrum Society, she stays here. And I’m warning you… that if you continue to harass me or my people, you’ll be very sorry. We have copies of your database at Henderson Technologies and we know all about your illegal cloning research, not to mention your part in the ghastly process to change Paul Metcalfe into a human cyborg.”

There was an explosive silence.

Gray thought, Henderson hadn’t found out yet about his security breach. Patrick Donaghue, you are a clever Irishman…

“So,” Henderson at last replied in a sober voice. “You’re a smart one, Professor. I’ll give you that. I admire a clever man. But, files can be faked, and it’s my word against yours. Why should anyone believe you?”

“That’s true. But how would you like us to inform Magneto of your little pact with the devil? I assume he doesn’t know anything about it or you would be dead by now.”   

Another short silence, by which Gray assumed Henderson was trying to figure out a response to his ultimatum. 

“Why don’t we just agree to call this a draw, Henderson? You stay away from Metcalfe and my school and I give you my word I won’t divulge what I know about you to Magneto. You know he will believe me – don’t you? And he’s not the most stable of creatures right now; this registration has pushed him to the edge. I don’t care to think what he might do if he knew the real story behind it.”

There was another pregnant pause as Henderson considered this. When he spoke there was a grudging respect in his voice.

“Very well, I agree, as one gentleman to another.” He chuckled deeply in contrast to his earlier tone, as if he had decided to concede the match with good grace.  “You play a good game of chess, Gray; you’re a worthy opponent indeed. You’ve checkmated the Inner Circle this time, but, who knows, our paths may cross again.”

“I shall endeavour to keep well away from any you may care to tread,” Gray responded archly. “And now, if that is all, I have things to attend to.”

Gray cut the connection, then sat back heavily in his chair, allowing himself to exhale with the release of suppressed tension.  Had he really managed to secure them a reprieve?

            He sighed; and now he had to deal with the Weapon-Red project. He wanted to believe that the World Government, and President Younger in particular, had no part in this despicable plan against mutants, but trust seemed to be in short supply these days between the two factions of humankind.  His thoughts were interrupted when the door flew open and Rick breathlessly demanded he turn on his terminal.

“This is the voice of Magneto, Master of Magnetism,” the sepulchral tones that boomed out into the room caused Gray’s hair to stand on end. “This is a message for the World Government, and in particular, for the leaders of all countries intent on the subjugation of those souls who have committed no crime, save that of being different.”

“He’s hacked into the satellite transmissions,” Rick said, “he’s beaming on all frequency broadcasts.”

Gray cycled fast through the channels, but the same picture greeted his eyes, that of a seated Conrad Turner, shrouded in darkness. He shivered with premonition.

            “ –  travesty of registration is a signal that tolerance has been dispensed with and its place taken with prejudice and hostility. I refuse to stand by and allow that to happen. In five days from now, there will be a gathering of the world leaders at Unity City. There will not be one mutant amongst them – and yet, they demand the right to decide the fate of my kind. World President Younger, and the World Senate, I demand that you abandon this path of self-destruction!”

The picture on the screen flickered in a burst of static, as if the transmission was being interrupted. As if realising the intent to remove him from the screens of the watching millions, Conrad Turner leaned forward dramatically, speaking quickly.

 “I give you a chance to redeem yourselves. Rescind this mockery of a law, and you will be spared my revenge. If not, then the inhabitants of Unity City will be the first to witness a new dawn in this universe. I shall release a virus which will eventually wipe out humankind –President Younger – Senator Roberts – and the rest of the world’s scheming politicians – the fate of the human race is in your hands.”

 The transmission ended as abruptly as it had commenced. The screen went black; there was another flickering and a burst of static and then a situation-comedy resumed. The canned laughter sounded fatuous in the aftermath of that ominous ultimatum.

Gray switched off the console and rubbed his jaw. Events seemed to be hurtling from one calamity to the next with barely time for them to gather breath. True to his word, Conrad had indeed laid his cards on the table.

“We can’t let him go ahead with whatever he’s planning?”  He heard Rick state the obvious.

“Of course not,” Gray concurred, “but in order to do that, first of all, we have to find him.”

 

 

 

 

 “And the breaking news item today is the sudden interruption to the network broadcasts by this mutant who calls himself Magneto, or at least he purports to be a mutant.   We now join our reporter, Tina Palamac, in Unity City just outside the World Senate Building. Tina – what’s the latest update on this situation?”

The camera jumped from the studio to an exterior shot of the Senate Building, There was a fractional pause as the relay kicked in and showed an attractive blonde, her hair swept up over her head, framed by the white dome of the magisterial building. She nodded to acknowledge her cue and spoke briskly:

“A spokesman for the President issued a press statement just thirty minutes ago and it seems that the government at Unity are treating this as an elaborate hoax.”

“What about the other member countries of the World Senate?”

“From what little I can gather, for the best part they are mostly highly sceptical. Senator Roberts has been quoted already as saying this is sheer scare-mongering tactics and should be ignored.”

“Even so, surely this supposed threat is bound to cause panic in the city and surrounding areas?”

The woman reporter agreed with a nod.  “Yes, from what I can gather the local police and World Intelligence Network agents are appealing for calm, although many people are heading for the airports, and some local boat hire companies have evidently been dong a roaring trade in the last few hours. The majority of the island population have been staying calm, however, and are adopting a wait and see approach.”

The newscaster’s perma-tanned face broke into a smile. “Yes, Tina, even with the possibility of Armageddon on the doorstep, there’s no stopping free enterprise.”

She smiled back and then the split screen vanished leaving the newscaster facing the screen once again. “And we have other reports coming in that there have been hundreds of callers claiming that they are the perpetrators of this ‘hoax’ transmission. Stay tuned to this network for further updates and for news of the impending presidential address. And now, let’s go across to our sports desk for the latest news on the Unity Tigers – ”

 

President Younger activated the off-control for the vid-link and swivelled in his chair to face the assembled group. The atmosphere in his elegant office in the Presidential Building at Unity City was sombre. Younger had called a hasty meeting with the joint chiefs of the world security forces in the aftermath of Magneto’s transmission. He regarded the four men sitting around the ancient, mahogany table with him. It was rare for such a senior group of the military branch of World Government staff to sit in person together, but Younger had a gut instinct that the broadcast by this unknown terrorist warranted it. 

Those physically present were General Ian Loover, the head of the World Intelligence Network, General Jim Martin of the World Security Patrol and Generals Tiempo and  Peterson of the World Army Air Force.  The fifth member was present via a scrambled vid-link.

Loover spoke first.  “Well, there you have it gentlemen, we’ve managed to convince the major media groups that this is a hoax, at least until we find out whether this guy is for real or not.”

“We can’t just lie to everyone about this, there’ll be an almighty stink if they get wind that this threat is real,” Younger frowned.

Loover shook his head. “We have to, sir. At this point we can’t prove anything, so in technical terms, we’re not actually lying as such.”

“Hmm, just bending the truth a little?”

“Well, what we have,” Loover replied with an equally dark frown.

“Well, if you want my opinion, I think we should treat it with the contempt it deserves,” growled Commander Sam Shore. The grizzled veteran chomped on a Cuban cigar and glared at the others from the vid-link screen with his one good eye. He could have easily restored his sight with a corneal implant, but for some perverse reason, known only to him, he preferred to keep it under a dramatic black eye patch.

“That’s all very well for you to say, its unlikely Marineville will suffer the consequences if a bomb goes off in the heart of Unity,” retorted Peterson. The WAAF man was military through and through, but there was no love lost between the two men. Shore’s sometimes draconian tactics upset his sense of justice and fair-play.

Younger sighed inwardly. Keeping things civil between all these military egos would be a hard-won thing.

“You realise we can’t give into his demands?” Jim Martin spoke up for the first time. At first glance he wasn’t as vociferous as the others, but there was steel beneath his calm demeanour. “We have the crisis in Bereznik to consider as well. Our stated policy is that we do not negotiate with terrorists; that is something that has been borne out for decades. The fact that this potential terrorist is a mutant doesn’t – or shouldn’t – change that position.”

“Still, perhaps we should consider a postponement of the vote?” Younger suggested.

“Great Saturn, are you mad?” Shore growled his interruption. “And open the gate for any other mutant with a chip on their shoulder to hold us to ransom?”

Martin blew out a breath and sided with Shore.  “The vote has to go ahead as planned. There’s no alternative. If people see the rule of law being broken on the whim of any Tom, Dick and Harry with a cause, who knows what can of worms that will open.”

“But a mutant! Who knows what they might be capable of?” Peterson said quietly.

“Hell,” Shore interrupted, “they might have frigging x-ray vision or flippers, but we still control the weapons around here, don’t we? We get the slightest whiff of this guy’s ass, we blow him all the way to kingdom come.”

  “Well, what do we have so far?” Younger turned to Loover again.

 “Not much I’m afraid, sir,” he replied. “We’re running the broadcast through the latest WIN voice recognition software, comparing it with all known criminals and terrorists on our files.”

“What if this guy isn’t a known terrorist?” Martin suggested.

They glanced at one another. Of course, they had all thought of that, but it didn’t help to state the facts. Loover replied grimly, “Then we have a bigger job to find him.”

“Did we get any fix on the frequency of the transmission?” Younger asked. “Figure out where it originated from?”

Loover shook his head. “Afraid not. Somehow the signal was encrypted; we can’t trace the source at all.” As he saw the incredulous looks around the table he shrugged, almost with embarrassment. “I know, only the WIN has the technology to do that.”

Shore barked a laugh. “Yeah, and we all know how much of your stuff goes missing – sold to the highest bidder.”

“Now wait a goddam minute –”

“Gentlemen, please,” Younger raised his voice for calm. The last thing they needed was internecine arguments breaking out. He bit back another sigh.  Despite the outward show of civility, each of the Security Council members was always convinced they did the job of protecting civilisation better than the other.  “Since we lack any intelligence on this individual’s whereabouts there’s no possibility of taking military action for the moment anyway.” He looked at General Tiempo. “However, I assume we are ready to go if the need arises?”

The Spanish-born soldier had risen through the ranks of the WAAF backed by a powerful intellect and an understanding of world politics. His no-nonsense style equally matched that of Shore’s except he knew when to be diplomatic.  

“We have alerted Slaton and Base Concord, and Red Deer Base is also standing by.  But until we know where, and what the nature of the target is, there is no point in doing anything at the moment. They can be on their way in one hour once we have a tangible assignment.”

“Damn mutants,” Shore interrupted again. “They might as well be from Mars for all we understand them. Christ, I’m beginning to think Roberts is right and we should just nuke the frigging lot of them.”  Shore was a hawk, and although he didn’t exactly come out and stick his flag beside Roberts, it was most probably true that out of any of them, he had the most experience fighting a species alien to their own. For years now, they tried to keep the peace in Earth’s vast oceans with an underwater civilisation that had finally answered all the mythological questions about mermaids and suchlike.  Shore most probably lumbered mutants in the same basket.

 “We can’t evacuate the entire city without any positive proof that this isn’t just a crazy hoax. The logistics are too nightmarish even to contemplate,” Martin said. “However, we suggest that you leave Unity, sir,” he addressed Younger directly this time.

The President shook his head vehemently.  “No way can I do that. Leaders just don’t run off in a crisis.”

  “I have to disagree with you, sir,” Martin replied. “If this threat is real, then you need to survive it… or real panic will ensue. We’ll have Unity One standing by on the runway at the airfield, just in case.”

“Well, she can stay there. I’m not budging,” Younger replied firmly, staring Martin down.  As he regarded the group of men, he realised that they had pretty much exhausted the possibilities for now, and any further discussion was probably just going to lead to more arguments. He would let them get back to their people, who would no doubt continue to beaver away trying to find the source of this terrorist threat.

He stood up, to indicate the meeting was over. “Thank you for coming so quickly, gentlemen, and let’s find this character, before disaster strikes. We have a deadline – the vote.”

 “Don’t worry, sir, we’ll do our best to find him before that happens,” Loover replied with a determined look on his face.

 

 

 

 

Charles Gray sat brooding in the library and looked out of the French-windows across the garden. Conrad was playing right into the hands of the mutant hard-liners like Roberts, and he wondered if that brilliant mind had become so twisted with the years of frustration and bitterness that he couldn’t see that an ultimatum like this would only fuel the desire to subjugate mutants even further. In fact, it was likely to precipitate all-out war between mutant and non-mutant. The fragile balance would be smashed to pieces, perhaps irrevocably.  He shuddered and realised he couldn’t allow that to happen. Conrad had to be stopped, one way or the other.

Of course the first thing was to find him. Gray knew that he was the only one capable of doing that.

And if I do - what then?

In his heart he also knew that he was possibly the only man capable of persuading Conrad to abandon his desperate course of self-destruction.  

A few minutes later, Gray sat alone in the dark Vault Room, connected to Cerebro, casting his powerful mind across the void. His consciousness flowed like molten quicksilver through the formless fabric of thought-space. Time stretched out in this strange dimension, his mind spreading like a net to gather the wave patterns of countless motes of humanity – the brighter trails of mutants - his mind expanding and contracting at phenomenal speeds…

One he sought –

Only one…

But the path was dark –

Only darkness…

This was the second time he had failed to locate a mutant mind with Cerebro. Yet, this time, he doubted Dianne would have any more luck than he. Something else was preventing him from connecting with Conrad’s brain patterns. That conclusion, mused Gray, was a most unhappy one…

Finally, with a deep frown he removed the skull-cap. This left him only one option. Somehow he had to warn the people of Unity City to take heed of Conrad’s threat; for Gray was under no illusions that his former friend would follow through on it. He immediately made a decision. He had no idea if it would work, but he knew only that he had to try.

 

To be concluded in Part Four

 

BACK TO PART TWO

 

 

 

Authors Notes

 

            Seymour Griffiths (Lieutenant Green) is, in the X-Men universe, a mutant known as Forge, a Native American with an unusual talent for inventing mechanical and electronic devices.

            Kruger (the head villain from the CS episode – Heart of New York) is identified with Harry Leland, one of the Hellfire Club’s Inner Circle in the X-Men comics. He has the ability to increase mass of any object, including people.

            I borrowed some plot elements from the seminal X-Men story: “Dark Phoenix”, most notably the capture of some of the X-Men by the Inner Circle and some fight sequences from that story. (I hope Marvel, Stan Lee, Chris Claremont and John Byrne will not take offence.)

            I have taken some liberties with the Gerry Anderson timelines, as some characters I have included in this story may not exist in the same timeframe. I hope the readers will forgive my artistic licence. I referred to Keith Ansell’s Unity City timeline for some characters used in the scene with the World Security Council, any mistakes or omissions are mine.

 

Once again I give grateful thanks to my beta-readers Chris Bishop and Marion Woods for their valuable suggestions and insights and for the usual grammar and punctuation corrections. Any mistakes are entirely my own.

 

I do not own either the characters, or their names, from Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons or the X-MEN.

All use of the X-MEN names and characters are ©  Marvel Comics and ©  20th Century Fox.

All use of names and characters in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons are © ITC/Polygram/Carlton Entertainment.

 

The manipulated images in this story were done by myself, unless otherwise specified. All use of original X-MEN film character images are © 20th Century Fox. All use of original Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons images are © ITC/Polygram/Carlton Entertainment.

 

 

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