"We have a few ideas, but nothing that I'd like to base a mission on," Kurt said and shrugged at the video screen. "Piotr's off at the library looking up some things and we'll hopefully know more then."
"We'll be glad to have whatever he comes up with," Scott assured. "We seem to have stumbled upon a few possible leads of our own. One of Gambit's guild contacts coughed up something and we're trying to work through that."
"Gambit? Kitty's going to be even more touchy to be around if she finds out she's been outdone by a thief who once made a microwave explode," Kurt chuckled. "What sort of information does he have?"
"A list of possible locations for future attacks," Scott replied, not missing the edge of something behind the mention of Kitty. Kurt didn't complain, but Excalibur was not exactly sitting around the fire singing Kumbaya these days and it was clearly wearing on him. "We're trying to find the common thread between them, as well as between those and the sites that were already hit. Speaking of, have you got anything new on the Slovenian village?"
"That's part of the reason Piotr's in Edinburgh at the university library, but as for the rest... Interpol hasn't come up with anything yet and the local authorities are just helpless," Kurt said with a frown. "They're too busy trying to keep the neighboring villages both from looting and from starting rumors about vampires and werewolves. We're poking around on our own, but I don't know that we're going to come up with anything that Ororo, Logan, and Sam didn't spot while they were here. Moira's running some tests and we'll let you know when they're done."
The conversation continued for a while longer, but with nothing more pertaining to the crisis at hand. At the outset, Scott had originally been surprised to see Nightcrawler as head of Excalibur, but in hindsight wondered why that was so. Perhaps it was the conversations he and Xavier had had back when Kurt had first become a field leader of the X-Men. The Professor had described Kurt as able, if inexperienced and a little doubtful of his own tactical abilities. But both Scott and the Professor had always known that behind the swashbuckling lady's man (or was it lady's elf?) stood a man of utmost responsibility and devotion, so it should have been no shock to see Kurt put aside his lighthearted ways and accept the yoke of leadership.
And that's what it was - a yoke. Now that Kurt was comfortable -- relatively so -- in his leadership, he was less reluctant to talk to Scott about its difficulties, something Scott appreciated both as a measure of respect and also just as someone to bitch with about things that nobody else understood. Not even Jean. And although Scott was sure that Kurt would consider these bitch sessions as advice seeking, he was similarly sure that he got as much - if not more - out of them than did his counterpart. It required someone in a similar position of authority to understand the skill involved in learning from mistakes while trying to minimize them.
Logan entered the monitor room as the two were comparing notes on who had a tougher job - Cyclops trying to re-integrate Gambit into the X-Men or Nightcrawler's attempts to reconcile Kitty (and Excalibur) with Colossus. It was a topic Logan could both understand and find ludicrous - both pariahed men had proved themselves enough times for him to be satisfied with their strength of character. But he wasn't most people.
"This an exclusive bitch session, or can anyone join in?" he asked as he flipped the cap off of his beer bottle and tossed another to Scott, who caught it one-handed. He had only come looking for Summers after Jean had implored him to get her husband off-duty one way or another. And anything Jeannie wanted, Jeannie got.
"Guten abend, Logan," Nightcrawler greeted him warmly, one side of his mouth quirking in a sly grin. "Long time, no see."
"I was already on your side of the pond, seemed as good a time as any," Logan said and shrugged as he put his boot-clad feet on the console, smiling inwardly as Scott frowned. Of course, he knew Scott was only upset because he liked to snack while on monitor duty and Logan was putting dirty boots on an otherwise prime eating surface.
"Ja, but since you are a friend, there is no need for you to break in. Next time, use the doorbell and I guarantee you'll get a warmer reception. Or cooler one, as the case may be."
"You broke in?" Scott asked, only half-surprised, as he lifted his glasses and blasted the cap off of his beer bottle, creating a smooth surface.
"Don't want my friends gettin' hurt 'cuz they're gettin' complacent," Logan replied casually. "Tell Lockheed the hair grew back already."
Scott shot him a look as he reached down to retrieve the shorn-away cap. Logan shrugged.
"Will do, mein freund, will do," Kurt yawned. "It is quite late on this side and it's been a long day. I shall speak to you both soon, ja?"
Everyone made their goodbyes and the monitor went blank. Neither Scott nor Logan moved, though.
"You really going with the Cajun's story 'bout where he got that disk?" Logan finally asked.
Scott took a long drink from his beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his free hand. "It's just plausible enough to be true and I don't want to get his hackles up by calling him a liar, especially if it's just a white one. I won't pretend I'm familiar enough with the... underworld... to know whether thieves would be friends with mercenaries."
"Mercs deal with both guilds," Logan replied with a shug. He privately wondered if it came from a guild at all, but that wasn't his secret to share yet. "Cajun could just be protectin' his sources like he said. I don't think he's settin' us up, which would be the only reason to check out his story."
"Yeah," Scott agreed, sounding like he'd already had this conversation, probably with himself. "I'll pass it on to Nathan and see what he comes up with, but at this stage of the game, it's not like we've got anything else with which to work."
"Speakin' of work," Logan prompted, taking a long draught off his beer. "Yer wife says you're off duty."
Scott chuckled, knowing that that was probably not what Jeannie had said, which it wasn't.
"I can't leave the monitor unattended," he said instead. "I'm covering for Warren so he can get some dinner."
"That ain't what he's gettin,'" Logan retorted. He'd run into Warren heading off toward Betsy's room. "I'll watch the screen until the bluebird gets back. Say goodnight to Jeannie for me."
Scott laughed gently, drained his beer, and stood up. "I will. Thanks."
Logan nodded, but said nothing.
"Gambit, wake up!"
"Huh? Askani?" He shook his head to clear the sleep from his eyes as he stopped reaching for the daggers he kept under his pillows. "What're you doing here?"
"The Harvesters are about to feed. Get dressed," she whispered as she looked around the moonlit room as if searching for something.
"Let me get Cyclops or Storm so they can set up a team." Remy swung out of bed and towards his closet. He could see the clock's reflection in the mirror. Half past four.
"We don't have any time," the Askani replied, "Do you require arms?"
"You want to do this solo?" Remy didn't hide his surprise as he dug out his uniform parts. "I got my cards and my staff. Anything else, I'll make do wit' what's around."
"That won't be sufficient for our task," she told him shortly. "Finish readying yourself. I'll return presently."
Before Remy could say anything about that, she disappeared. He debated going downstairs and getting Scott, or at least across the hall to get Logan, who already probably knew everything anyway, but before he could even finish pulling his cowl up over his jaw, the Askani returned carrying a Kalashnikov and a double-barrel shotgun and a string of grenades.
"You look like Rambo," Remy said, swallowing a laugh but then grinning broadly when she looked at him askance. "A movie character. Sort of like Cable, 'xcept fake."
She nodded cautiously, then frowned. "Are you ready? I'm not as familiar with contemporary weaponry as I should be for this mission, so this was all I felt comfortable bringing."
"Stuff's kinda old, you know that?" Remy said, gesturing to the long gun. "The AK's semi-automatic, but we can get some plasma rifles downstairs that'll be much more effective."
"No plasma rifles," Mirrin insisted. "Energy-based weapons would counteract what we're trying to do."
Remy was about to point out that bullets imparted their own energy when fired, but she made a gesture to indicate that she understood that as well and had been speaking comparatively.
"You know, you never got around to telling me exactly what we are going to do," he said as he finished tying his boots. "Or how you keep bein' able to get past the mansion's security system."
"Cut short the feeding season," she replied, reaching for his arm. "The other is, shall we say, a trade secret."
The room started to shimmer before Remy could protest.
"Où sommes-nous?" He looked around. It was dark here, too, but whether it was the dark before the dawn or after dusk, he couldn't tell. It was cold, though, and the ground was rocky and bare.
"Does it matter?" The Askani handed him one of the rifles, eyes searching the craggy horizon for signs of movement. It was dark enough that it was hard to find the horizon at all, even with his eyesight.
"Call it idle curiosity," he replied dryly as he checked over the AK he'd been handed. It had been quite a while since he had bothered with such conventional weapons. Growing up, guns were the province of the Assassins, not the Thieves, although his father had forced him to learn how to shoot. Once his abilities had manifested, however, Remy had decided that there was no use in a gun when a deck of cards would do just as well, if not better. He'd thrown bullets, but he hadn't fired one from a gun of any type in a long time.
"Quebec," she whispered. "The nearest major population center is a place called Chibougamau."
"Least I speak the language 'ere," he mumbled to himself.
The askani stood next to him, eyes closed and Remy thought she was doing something telepathic.
"There are about a dozen here," she said opened her eyes. "They have already spread out, so we shall have to split up. At least they have not yet begun to feed."
"You still haven't told me what I'm looking for," Remy pointed out. "Will I even be able to tell a 'Harvester' from a civilian in the dark?"
She nodded and reached out for his arm. A moment later, they were next to a building. "There, that is one of our quarry."
Remy looked. Across the street, a young man walked. He would have looked like an accountant on an off day except for the golden claw that was where his right hand should have been.
#You have to aim for the head,# the Askani said telepathically as she raised the rifle. #They are implanted with transmitters and will inform the others if they are attacked or impaired.#
One shot later, the Harvester lay on the ground, his head blown apart in a spray of gore. Remy caught the Askani as the shotgun recoil forced her to take half a step back.
"The Harvester tracking signals are sent out every ten minutes, more or less, to collect data and update instructions," the Askani said as she worked the shotgun bolt. It's not a constant communication network. They'll know we're here after the next one, so we've got less than ten minutes to improve our odds as best we can."
"That don't sound so good," he said sourly. It sounded like a video game or a horror movie.
"They are not very good fighters," she assured. "But their stamina and durability are impressive. Close combat should be avoided at all costs - once that claw touches skin, there is no way to stop or reverse the damage."
Remy had no intention of boxing one of those things. "What does the claw do?"
"It absorbs life force, converting it into storable energy," the Askani replied with a shudder. "The Harvesters don't stop until their source is drained dry."
"Which is death."
"Precisely," she confirmed. "Your skills as a thief should serve well to surprise the remaining Harvesters. We shall keep in contact telepathically."
"Harvesters aren't psis, are they?" Remy asked. He was curiously ambivalent about the idea of running around some Quebec logging village shooting people just because some lady from the future told him to.
"They are not even human," she replied, then nodded, as if she'd gleaned the real reason for the question. "It's too dark to see from here, but their exterior is for aesthetics only and only from a distance. That wasn't blood spatter -- it was lubricant and coolant. Should you get close enough, you'll see for yourself -- just don't try to touch. Harvesters are early cyborg prototypes, very elegant robots really. They have relatively poor defense capabilities and their AI is very rudimentary. Enough to act, not enough to react.
"Once we are discovered, their plan of retaliation will not be a complex one, no matter who is controlling them - the Harvesters are not combat machines and cannot implement most tactical schemes. They are used at all only because the machinery is already existing and easy to store and assemble."
"But you found them wit' your telepathy," Remy pointed out.
"It's a fault in their programming, one that was corrected by the time Haight's men created the Kurioon. The Harvesters transmit and receive information much in the same fashion a telepath would, except it is similar to a radio signal. A trained telepath can trace the signal as a homing beacon, but only a few can understand the message. I cannot," she said, then frowned. "We are wasting precious moments. I will satisfy your curiosity after we are returned safely to your quarters."
And so Remy found himself wandering the streets of the tiny town, rifle at the ready, looking for robots to shoot like he was at some amusement park going through a Terminator ride. His own instincts and training kept him on the lookout for any movement - in a place like this, anyone out at this hour was doing something wrong. Not excluding himself and his mysterious partner.
The Askani was right, though. In the ugly glow of the infrequent street lights, the Harvesters didn't look human at all and he felt nothing as he loosed the first three-shot burst to take one down. He'd found a second and eliminated it before a voice in his head warned him that the next information wave had passed and the Harvesters would, at the very least, be aware that their number had been thinned even if they didn't know how or why.
Running across the street to the warehouse to better avoid the gusting wind, Remy saw the glow of a golden claw in the moonlight and brought the rifle up to get the Harvester in his sights. It was not until he was out of the whistle of the wind that he heard the steps behind him, just in time to see another claw inches from his shoulder.
Spinning away from his would-be assailant, instinct took over and two small knives were charged and thrown before Gambit remembered the Askani's warning about energy-based weapons. The Harvester's eyes, a dull green glow, flashed bright emerald with the impact of the knives in its forehead and the Harvester seemed renewed instead of repelled.
The claw reached out once more, backing him up against the warehouse wall, before it fell away with the sound of a shotgun blast. As the body fell, Gambit could see a non-plussed Askani checking her supply of remaining shells.
"Oath! Is it your instinct in battle to always do that which will help you the least and harm you the most?" she hissed. "These Harvesters may lack the mental acuity of a kilap tree, but even they will not fail when presented with such a gift. Harvesters do not leave survivors, Gambit, and as you have seen, they do not let anyone escape."
Remy only nodded. He knew she was correct. It had been too long since his last test beyond the Danger Room. "How many more left?"
"Four. None nearby, although..." she cut herself off with a hiss and sank to her knees, eyes squeezed tight shut. A deep breath, then she looked up. "They have begun to feed."
"Then it's time we stopped playin' hide-and-seek, hein?" He offered her a hand up and felt the air shimmer before she let go. They were on the other side of the small town, judging by the position of the tall buildings.
"The first house," she pointed. The two silently entered the open front door. "Upstairs." In the three bedrooms, parents, grandparents, and children lay dead.
"They look peaceful, like it was natural," he mused aloud. "Yet how come the villages were so... brutalized?"
"Mutilation comes afterwards. Usually, it is a method of training the soldiers, not an effect of the Harvesters' thievery." She looked at the bodies impassively. "Although, truth be told, sometimes the baseness of ordinary man rivals the programmed cruelty of the machines. Looters of all sorts come to feed after the Harvesters have quenched their thirst."
Finding the four remaining Harvesters, eyes already glowing bright green in satiation, was easy enough. Like hunting overfed foxes. After their destruction, Remy used his powers to charge the bodies until they melted into unrecognizable lumps and the Askani transported them to the junkyard away from the town center. Finally, as dawn broke over the horizon, they left, disappearing and then reappearing in Remy's room at the mansion.
"I thank you, friend Gambit, for your aid," she said formally. "I pray that you still have time to rest before your day begins."
"A little while," he admitted, noticing that only an hour had passed according to the clock, although it had felt like much longer. He threw his duster on the back of the chair. "Guess I'll be seein' you around." It wasn't a question, more a statement of fact. Remy knew his debt was not nearly paid.
"Bright Lady willing, in more pleasant circumstances," she agreed. "Dream peacefully, then."
Remy was going to ask about the odd coincidence that not a single person in the town had awoken while they were shooting rifles and dragging metal carcasses down the streets, but the Askani disappeared. Just as well, he thought he knew the answer anyway, just as he knew that she would be doing her best to avoid fulfilling her promise to answer questions.
"Betsy, look at these printouts," Jean Grey-Summers called out as she waved a collection of papers at Psylocke as she walked into the kitchen. "According to these, I've been missing an anomaly on the astral plane, but I watched as these graphs were being produced and I didn't feel a thing."
Betsy put down her teacup. "I was going to ask you about something similar. The reports from overnight indicate some sort of action, but Cerebro not only couldn't identify the source, it also couldn't identify the type of activity. I was wondering whether the poor thing needs a recalibration."
"Or maybe a vacation," Bobby Drake muttered as he sat down with his cereal. "That thing hasn't been used so much since Professor Xavier just had the five of us to worry about."
"Maybe you're right. I'll get Forge to do a remote diagnostic today," Jean agreed. She knew Bobby was making a joke, but that didn't mean that he was wrong. "Otherwise, I take it we escaped the night without any more disasters?"
"First one in a while," Betsy confirmed and then looked over Jean's shoulder. "Good morning, Remy. Pardon me for saying so, but you look like you didn't sleep too well last night."
Jean turned around to see Remy, looking somewhat worse for wear in jeans and a Saints t-shirt, shrugging as he combed his fingers through his hair to keep it back. To her surprise, he didn't deny Betsy's claim. "Strange dreams. Think I've been on monitor duty too long. I'm seein' attacks in my sleep."
"Well, I don't see why you can't get into the rotation like everyone else," Jean replied, having discussed just that with Scott last night. Then a thought struck. "What sort of battles were you seeing in your dreams?"
"Don't remember the details," Remy murmured, turning toward the fridge. He was hard to scan telepathically under the best of circumstances and Jean wasn't going to try to do it undetected, not now. "We got that message from my source, plus the footage of the ruined villages... I think I'm just creating possible scenarios out of nothing. Like when you watch horror movies before you go to bed."
"Could be, but if Forge can't find anything wrong with Cerebro, I'd like you to tell me about your dream, if you can," Jean said slowly. "We've got some strange readings from last night that we can't make heads or tails out of."
"D'accord," he agreed, not turning away from where he was crouched in front of the fridge trying to liberate one of the melons from the bottom shelf.
The two telepaths exchanged a glance behind his back.
#You don't think maybe Remy's dream was related to Cerebro's reports, do you?# Betsy asked Jean.
#It could be. We're at a point where we really have to investigate all possibilities.#
#Including the one that says that maybe Remy's not dreaming? He's hiding something from us, Jean, I can see that even though he's shielding. And this really shouldn't be a time when he starts hiding things from us again.#
Jean could see Betsy's thoughts colored by her emotions towards Warren, a lingering suspicion born out of the mental and physical scars Warren still bore from losing his wings and his stint as Death. #He's hiding something, that's for certain, but Remy's not obligated to tell us everything. We all have our secrets and our shames.#
"D'you want me to leave de room so you two can continue out loud?" Remy asked pointedly. He'd closed the fridge and had half a canteloupe in hone hand. "Or should Drake come wit' me, too?"
Both women flushed with embarrassment. "That won't be necessary, Remy," Betsy apologized. "Jean and I will mind our manners."
"You might as well talk out loud," Bobby sighed. "It's not like I'm doing too well understanding anything the female of the species says right now."
"Remy, however, has no such problems," Jean replied with a smile. She inclined her head toward him in apology. "I'm sorry, Remy."
He nodded, but there was too much recent history for it to be any kind of real acceptance.