Future Pluperfect: Chapter 5


What am I doing here? Oh, yeah, right. Me and my big mouth. "Where and when, Big Boy. Where and when." Nathan, you owe me.

The message had come to her in Monrovia, halfway through some relatively routine damage doing. Well-paying damage doing. The kind that one didn't normally want to hurry through, lest it not be done right and future similarly well-paying gigs be directed elsewhere.

But it had come. How, Domino wasn't sure. She strongly suspected that someone short, brown, and answering to the name Blaquesmith was involved, but, well, anything involving Nate meant that one should never close the door on any possibilities.

She'd shoot herself before admitting that it was precisely that reason that she had come to Canada. As much to help as to see if the door was still open on one particular possibility.

I don't need him. In fact, my blood pressure has probably dropped fifty points since the last time I saw him. But there are times when it would be nice to have him around. He'd have gotten a big kick out of the job in Jakarta. And I could have used a little TK in Mali. And, well, maybe I miss him a little. Not a lot. Not enough to pick up a phone and try to track him down. Just enough to come when he calls.

And so here she was, stepping off a streetcar in downtown Toronto almost exactly one year after telling Nate to go flonq himself one last time. The directions had been specific, but they obviously described the scenic route to the destination. Go to Chinatown, Dundas Street West and Bathurst, through the park towards the black building, down Ryerson, around the corner and a few houses in... nobody answered the doorbell.

Looking at her watch, Domino noted that she was a little early and decided to wait a few minutes before indulging in anything so petty (and satisfying) as personal property damage. Sitting down on the stoop, she waited, one hand resting in the pocket of her coat that held a handgun.

All of a sudden, a buzzing in her head caused Domino to stand up. Like a radio suddenly being tuned it, emotions suddenly flooded her system and it was all she could do to capture them and remember that they weren't her own. The psi-link? Wasn't that broken and we 'forgot' to fix it?!? Exhaustion, frustration, and pain poured through, plus that weird slightly happy thing that she knew from past experience went along with the humming of Sinatra songs.

"What are you doing here?"

"Nice to see you, too, Nate," Domino drawled as Cable came up the walk carrying a grocery bag.

"Not that I'm not happy to see you," he hastily corrected, clasping her shoulder and planting a peck on the check, all the while looking around to see if anyone noticed that the paper bag was floating in mid-air as he opened the screen door and waited for the psi-scan to complete and the door to unlock. "I'm just surprised. I thought you were in parts unknown."

"I was," Domino confirmed as she followed the floating bag inside. "Until I got a telegram in Askaniglish asking me to show up here."

"Askaniglish?"

"You know, that strange version of English you revert to when you start hanging out with Blaquesmith too much."

"I know what you meant," Nathan replied with some exasperation. "But I don't know who could have sent it. Blaquesmith's not here-and-now and I didn't do it."

"So I just came halfway around the world for a prank?" Dom fumed as she sat down on the arm of a couch. "But... the message... the only reason I bothered with it in the first place was because it sounded too much like you to be anyone else. It had stuff in it that only you would know."

Cable was silent and Domino could swear she heard the gears turning inside his head.

"Earth to Nate? Come in Nate?"

"There's something going on," he finally spoke aloud, sounding quite distracted.

One eyebrow shot up in amusement. "When is there not?"

"This is one too many coincidences for my liking," he continued, still talking to himself as much as her. "I think it's time to stop in and visit the folks."

"So then I can go back to doing what I was doing, right?" She asked. Part of her was relieved - she had feared the worst when the message had come, for what else but the worst could force either Cable or Blaquesmith to summon her? And the rest of her crestfallen that her re-appearance hadn't done anything to shake Nathan out of the distracted trance he had spent so much time in before the last time that had gone their separate ways. The trance that had, in fact, been most of the reason they had chosen to go their separate ways. Well, I chose, Nate just went along with it uncomplainingly. "Catch the next flight outta Pearson?"

"If you have to... I don't want you to lose a job over this... especially since I don't know what this is..." Cable trailed off and looked at the wall behind Domino. He looked at the floor before her. Eventually, he knew, he'd get around to looking at her. But that would entail thinking about other things.

Such as trying to come up with a good reason why the psi-link that had broken so long ago was suddenly up and running (and why the jangly buzz that was Dom at her most sarcastically bemused was echoing in the back of his head).

Such as how to dance around apologizing for driving her away. Again. Not that Dom was expecting one. She knew him too well for that.

Such as how much he realized he missed Domino (again) now that she was standing before him. Not that he'd ever 'fess up to that. Certainly not to the lady in question. She'd get all squirrelly. Or was it rabbity?

"You're going out on me again, Nathan," Domino warned.

All of a sudden, Nathan grinned lopsidedly. "Come along? To Westchester. We can freak out Scott and Jean, maybe blow a few things up if we ever figure out what's doing all the damage..."

 "You offered me something similar a lot longer ago than either of us would like to think about," she said with a shake of her head. "And I'm still regretting it."

But not enough to not go along and this Nathan knew.

It wasn't an apology. It may not even mean anything other than a shared love of shit-disturbing anything X-related. But it was more than nothing. And sometimes that was a start.

***

Finally, she was free. I shouldn't be thinking like that. I may not have much experience in the relationship department, but nobody should feel relieved at ditching their boyfriend. Nonetheless, Rogue couldn't suppress the surge of relief that flooded her system as she moved down the stairs towards the basement complex.

With the craziness surrounding the recent attacks, no effort had been required in making time for herself away from Joseph. Be honest, girl, you mean avoiding him. But now, with things having calmed down slightly and some sort of rough schedule back in place, care had to be taken. Rogue didn't want to drive him away, not yet at least, but she needed time to think.
There had been precisely two men to gain admittance to the most precious part of Rogue's heart, Erik Magnus Lehnsherr and Remy LeBeau. Both men with a past they couldn't shake, both hard to hold even in the present. She had, perhaps foolishly, believed that she could change both men enough so that their futures would make them easier to grasp. She had been wrong, dramatically so, in both cases. But now, it seemed, both men were giving her second chances. Unfortunately, they were doing so simultaneously.

After going through the Siege Perilous, Rogue's life had been saved by Magneto. His reasons, he had said, were absolutely pragmatic. But in the time that had followed in the Savage Land, Rogue had wondered about the sincerity of those comments, never more so than that final afternoon in the battle with Zaladane. She had grown to be able to read Magnus' expressions (and he was 'Magnus' by then, not Magneto, although she liked 'Erik' better) and she saw how torn he was about driving her away. It may not have been love, but he certainly felt something. And then it was gone.

In the time that had followed her return to the X-Men, Rogue had lay awake many a night wondering whether, had there been no Zaladane, Magnus could have been as he once was, back before the Morlock Massacre. When he was gentle and remorseful and... well, human. But then had come Dallas and then Australia and then Inferno and then the Legacy Virus and then Acolytes. And by that point, there had been too much time and Magnus was too filled with rage to be anyone but Magneto.

But then came Joseph. Rogue honestly didn't know if Joseph appreciated her position. Or his own. He should have been Magneto as he might have been, Magnus without a Holocaust to serve as crucible. But he wasn't. Magneto completely without anger wasn't Magnus, he was Joseph. And Rogue wasn't sure she liked Joseph as much as she had Magnus. Or, now that he was back, Remy.

Remy. Now there was a walking conundrum. After the kiss in Israel, Rogue thought she finally knew him. She saw his thoughts, felt his emotions, traveled miles beyond mere intimacy. It had been an experience, one that (while informative) she wasn't keen on repeating.

But she did, in Antarctica. And then there were no more secrets.

For a long time, Rogue had blamed Remy. Why else would she have left him in the snow, why else would she have said those terrible words if she wasn't operating under the influence of Gambit's psyche? How could she have left the man she loved to die, broken and broken-hearted, if she had been in her right mind? If the damned man had had the courage to tell her the truth in the first place, if he hadn't fought so hard to keep his secrets from her, then maybe Rogue would have handled the transfer better.

But she didn't. And then there was no more Remy. Or so she thought.

It had been Logan - who else but that hairy little harbinger of dirty truths? - who had first broached the topic with Rogue. Wondered out loud about second chances and the X-Men's oath to preserve life and then, halfway into a too-graphic description of just how long it took for a body to freeze to death (he'd almost done it a few times, apparently), he started telling the story of how Bobby and Hank and the others had shaken Warren out of his conditioning as Death. Logan had gotten some of the facts wrong - Bobby had previously told her the story and she trusted Drake's first-hand account - but he had gotten the point across. Warren had been shocked into sobriety when he thought he had killed his friend. Rogue, on the other hand, was still living in denial long after Remy's body should have turned into a Popsicle.

But, of course, Remy never turned into a Popsicle. The luck of the X-Men being what it was, one of the seemingly endless casts of characters from Cable's past-present-future had decided that Gambit was a good tool and had recycled him.

And now here he was.

Remy was acting once more like a thief, Rogue had realized. He had come back and started picking up the pieces of his life that were lying shattered under the feet of everyone else. But only the pieces that no one would miss trampling on. Nothing to cause a stir. He was going off to Harry's with Wolverine and Sam, spending hours in Ororo's attic, working out in the Danger Room and smoking up on the roof. But there were no early morning arrivals with the motorcycle getting walked up the drive. There was no flirting with Jean in front of Scott or with Betsy before Warren. The result was somewhat ghostlike.

Not that Rogue would really know. She'd hardly seen the man since he had returned. But the grapevine had borne its gossipy fruits.

"Who's in the Danger Room," she asked as she entered the control room. Storm was at the console, brow furrowed as she sat 'spotting' whomever was down below.

"Gambit," Ororo replied neutrally, swallowing the urge to say anything else. It was easier to practice forgiveness towards Rogue - a forgiveness Remy had begged her to accept - when she was not confronted with the evidence of why that forgiveness was necessary in the first place.

Rogue nodded and sat down to watch and wait.

To the casual observer, of which the aforementioned grapevine was one, Gambit was almost back to normal. He had put on weight, if anything he was physically stronger than he had been before Antarctica, and his sense of humor would make an occasion appearance before a select audience. The other morning, Betsy and Jean had nearly died of laughter trying to recount what had gone on while they had gone to the farmer's market with Remy and Bobby.

But neither woman in the control room was a casual observer. Gambit had regained most of his lost pounds, but they were purely in muscle and both women had noticed that Remy's features had not regained the softness that they had been privy to see, the softness that only appeared when he was 'Remy' and not 'Gambit'. His moves in the Danger Room below were as powerful and as graceful as ever, but they were not done with their usual joy. Instead of echoing the man's pleasure in his own skill, they bore a desperation that had never previously existed.

Rogue felt her heart squeeze as she watched the scene below. She had avoided Remy whenever she could, telling people that she was afraid of what she might say or do. But in reality, she was afraid of what she might see if she looked at him too closely. And now, confronted with her worst fears come true, Rogue didn't know what to do.

"Man's always been too vain for his own good," she finally whispered aloud, knowing Storm would understand what she meant. Remy was beautiful, he always had been, and here he was hiding his scars on the inside where they wouldn't mar the perfect surface. Where they could then fester and corrode because nobody would know to look for them.

After Israel, Rogue had known to look. After Antarctica, she knew exactly where each scar was and how deeply it ran.

Ororo nodded silently, both at Rogue's comment and, secretly, at her own successful plan. She had known who was scheduled for the Danger Room after Gambit when she had neglected to turn the sign on the control room door from 'vacant' to 'in use'. Rogue always liked to stop by early if she was running a program and Ororo figured that she would be early enough to catch Remy in action.

Rogue's appreciation of the significance of what she was seeing pleased Ororo in that it meant that the woman was not as hard-hearted as she looked, that perhaps Remy's faith in her was not misplaced. The next step, however, was up to Rogue.

"Oh mah god," Rogue gasped and clasped her hand to her mouth. "He's using that program. Ah thought Ah'd deleted it..." That damned man. I damned him. Why is he doing this to me... or can I stop being self-centered enough to realize that maybe he's too intent on doing to himself?

Below, Gambit fought on, unawares of what was going on in the control room. The Alley stretched on before him, the Morlocks fleeing behind. And there, around the tunnel corner, stood the remaining Marauders: Harpoon, Sabretooth, Vertigo, and Blockbuster. The others had been dispatched already.

Ororo had unceremoniously deleted some of the modifications Remy had made to Rogue's semi-secret program - she had refused to let Gambit face a doppelganger killing for the Marauders and she had erased all traces of a battle between Harpoon and Angel. "You may battle your demons, Remy, but I will not let you wallow in guilt that is not yours to accept," she had whispered to herself as she had set up the program. He would be upset, but he wouldn't say anything to her afterwards.

Rogue got up suddenly. It's like Carol Danvers all over again. I've caused a living death and it's being thrown back in my face. He's a ghost and I've killed him. He's not 'almost back to normal'. He's nowhere near normal. Ororo knows it. And she wants me to, as well. "Ah'll be back in a few minutes." She needed time to think about this later, but right now, she needed time to clear her head before her own session. Else she'd not live long enough to figure out what to do with Remy.

Ororo nodded again, left to herself once more. It was, she decided, quite amazing how much could be accomplished while only speaking one word.

***

"Have the labs turned up anything?" Cable asked Cyclops.

They were standing around the table in the War Room, looking down on a wide spread of papers, maps, and printouts. Domino still wasn't sure what to make of their reception - or lack thereof. There had been a total lack of surprise when the two of them pulled up. Nobody had asked why they were there, why Domino was with him, or if something was wrong. That alone should have tipped her off. Summerses, as a rule, didn't visit casually.

"Nothing we can use. There are no fingerprints, no recognizable boot marks, nothing left behind, no clues whatsoever about who's behind the attacks," Cyclops replied with a frown.

Domino had been out of the loop for most of the incidents, either on the job in Monrovia (there had been one bar with CNN on, but it had been the business report and she hadn't been that interested in emerging tech stocks) or en route to Toronto. But the bit she had caught during the layover at de Gaulle hadn't been anywhere near the real truth. For once, the media hype machine was playing down the damage.

"This isn't anyone on the merc circuit," she confirmed, skimming over a fat binder of reports. "If it was, we'd all have been out of business a while ago."

"That's what I figured," Cable agreed, reaching for the thermos of coffee and pouring himself a refill before picking up a map marked with tiny neon pink flags. "It also looks like the work of mutants. Cerebro pick anything up?"

Jean shook her head no.

"We're checking around with the Hellfire Club and the Brotherhood, but so far, nothing's come up," Iceman added.

"You didn't think they'd just volunteer that sort of information, did you?"

"Give us a little credit," Wolverine snarled, sitting down heavily in one of the chairs. He had not been there when they had arrived, but apparently had returned to the mansion in the interim. "We didn't take their word for it."

Jean gestured towards a printout. "Did you show him Gambit's disk?"

Cyclops picked up the paper and handed it over.

"Where did you get this list?" Cable asked as he skimmed.

"Gambit's connections," Scott explained vaguely, knowing how unsatisfactory an explanation that was. "And don't ask where Gambit got it; I don't know."

Cable looked over the message, a vague explanatory paragraph followed by a list of locations. Villages in Myanmar, Belize, the Ukraine, Chad...

"Oath! I should have known," Nathan suddenly spat out, slamming his coffee cup down. It was empty and thus didn't make a mess when it tipped over. "I did know. I just didn't trust myself to believe. Flonq it all! I could have stopped this..."

"Nathan?" Jean interrupted what she was sure was going to be a long trail of self-flagellating invective.

Cable looked up blankly as if just seeing her for the first time.

"Beat yourself up later, explain to us now," Domino prodded.

"Evensea Isthmus is on this list," he sighed, combing his fingers through his hair.

"You know where that is?" Wolverine asked. Logan considered himself an advanced world traveler - even an intergalactic and interdimensional traveler - and had been stumped by the location. The atlas had proven no wiser.

"It's called Corinth in this time," Cable sighed. "I don't know when the name-change took place... will take place... but it's Evensea Isthmus by my own time."

"And you obviously have a theory behind this chronologically aberrant nominalism," Hank McCoy prompted. He had been in the lab, as the white coat might indicate, and was leaning against the doorway.

Not that Domino minded McCoy all that much, but the whole situation was reminding her of why she had liked having X-Force as far away from the main team as possible - everything turned into a coffee klatch.

"Cyborgs," Cable replied darkly.

"We're reliving 'Terminator'?" Drake asked skeptically. Of course, I'm sitting here talking to the half-metal man from the future himself, so...

"In my time, the elite units of the Canaanite armies are made up of cyborgs. Dog soldiers. Hard to outwit, harder to outrun, and almost impossible to defeat."

"But why would they be here?"

"I'm going to find that out," Nathan ground out. He turned on his heel and gestured to Domino to follow him. She bit back the urge to bark her obedience. Eight hours together and she was back to being an accessory. So much for a change.

"I'll be in contact presently."

"Nathan, wait," Jean called after them, but to no avail.

"Don't look at me like that," Cyclops spoke over his shoulder to his wife as he started typing on the computer mounted into the wall. "He didn't get his enigmatic bent from my side of the gene pool."

***

"So you redecorated," Domino said too casually as she walked through the door of the safe house. "I suppose I should be honored that you've decided to let me see it." It came out a little more bitterly than she meant it to sound. Not that she wasn't bitter, just that she didn't want to show her hand so quickly.

"You've already seen the Toronto one," Nathan replied and shrugged, sensing Domino's irritation but not wanting to deal with it just yet. Past experience had shown that she'd still be just as pissed after he started the computer program and then she could have his full attention. "Although I'm obviously going to have to relocate it if someone knows about the location."

"Are you sure it wasn't Blaquesmith who sent the telegram?"

"It couldn't have been. He's been out of this time for weeks."

"The little marionette master left you alone?" Domino raised an eyebrow as she sat down next to Nathan at a massive computer console.

"Strange though that may seem, yes," Cable replied dryly. "He said it was an emergency equipment run, but he didn't sound very convincing then, and now, well..."

"Could it be that perhaps he just went off to another of your little hideaways so that he could do his thing without you suspecting it? Or that someone else got into one of them and is stringing you along?"

"The only ones that anyone could break into don't have any useful information in them, just a bed and a few spare guns and rations," he explained. "But the logs don't indicate anything out of the ordinary. Nobody's been playing around on the system. The last major activity was the replication of some Askani robes... huh. Blaquesmith must have wanted to go home in formalwear."

"It's not hard to erase activity records, Nathan," Domino reminded him with a sour expression as she sat up and pointed at the screen. "We've done it ourselves enough times."

"Not on this operating system. It wasn't designed by either of us and there are still features that we don't understand. It took years just to disable the Askani calendar reset... What are you laughing at?"

"I'm just picturing Blaquesmith trying to keep you from blowing this thing up when you couldn't make it do what you wanted."

"I wouldn't have blown it up."

"Try that line out on someone else. I've watched you take out your frustration with the regularity of sunrises on too many alarm clocks."

"Those are alarm clocks. This is irreplaceable machinery."

"Since when has that bothered you?"

A beep from the monitor caused Cable to lean forward and return to whatever he was doing. Unable to make out the Askani on the screen and tired of waiting for a translation from Nathan that was not forthcoming, Domino got up to walk around.

So what am I doing here again? Watching Nathan ignore me. Have we not seen this sequel more times than we'd like to count? The ending doesn't change. It never does... But something is different this time. Nate asked me to tag along while he takes care of the very sort of crap that he insisted he had to do alone. The same Mission he didn't want to involve others (me) in because it would only get us hurt and it wasn't our fight. But instead of offering to drop me off at the nearest airport (and we've been in two today), he's handing me menus from the local Thai place.

Maybe he's getting his kicks out of pissing off the X-Men and doesn't need to yank my chain. Maybe he hasn't figured out that I'm still here. Maybe I'm his replacement conspirator since Blaquesmith's gone. Or maybe he's been replaced and this is really pod-person Nathan...

#Or maybe I just trust you, Dom, and think I could use your help. You said you were free...#

"Okay, I'm definitely going with the pod-person theory. Who are you and what did you do with Nathan?" Domino called back into the other room.

She felt amusement trickle down the psi-link. #I'm hurt. You don't believe me.#

"Give me one good reason, buster."

No sooner were the words out of her mouth than did images appear in her mind's eye. A few missions from their Six Pack days, a few more private ones that made her cheeks flame.

Make sure none of those are of Copycat, she thought, careful to keep shielded.

"Oath, Dom, I thought we'd gotten past that," Nathan sighed regretfully, eyes closed.

"You sneaking inside my head, Summers?" Domino asked, much closer than Nathan thought she was.

"No, but I can tell what you're thinking by the color of what you're letting through the link," he replied almost mournfully. "I'm sorry, Dom."

"I know you are, Big Boy," she sighed and sat down again next to him, resting a hand on his arm to solidify her words. "I guess it was my turn to check the gift horse's teeth." For once, Dom, just enjoy the fact that the two of you are together without being shot at... yet.

"If you want to see what I'm looking at, the monitor on the left should be running the translation program," Nathan said after a few moments. "I'm going to be sending it up to Westchester."

"What is it?"

"A brief history of the cyborg raids from my own time. They're similar to what's been going on now. There are differences, some pretty significant, but it could be useful."

"You're convinced, then?"

"I don't know what else it could be. Seeing that name on the list of possible hit points... I don't know who's here, but it can't be a friend."

***

"Alright everyone, stay in contact at all times," Cyclops warned as the ladder from the Blackbird touched down.

The teams had been split up in accordance with the list Gambit had provided. Cyclops tried to match powers with climates - bringing Iceman with them to Belize would make less sense than sending him to the Ukraine, for instance. Cable had been absolutely insistent on taking Corinth, the place listed by its Askani name, and had only taken Domino with him. Jean extracted a promise to send a telepathic call should something happen, but Cyclops wasn't at ease with the setup.

"Feels like home," Rogue announced with a groan as she flew out of the plane. "'Xcept even more humid."

"Bitchin' 'bout it won't make it any better," Wolverine growled, out of sorts himself with the heat. "Got everythin', Storm?"

"Indeed, although I do not know why Gambit was so insistent upon us taking weapons," she said as she brought the crate out to where Phoenix could telekinetically pick it up to carry.

"He mumbled somethin' 'bout a rumor sayin' that the bad guys were impervious to energy blasts," Wolverine replied and shrugged. The Cajun had been positively freaked about them leaving without guns, he recalled. Moreso than he had ever remembered him being. "These folks may be able to withstand energy blasts, but there ain't nothin' that's impervious to these," he added as he extended his claws and then retracted them."

Rogue pointed up to the sky. "Ah'll go scout ahead."

Cyclops nodded approval to Rogue and watching her fly off.

"Even though I understand the need," Storm acknowledged. "I wish we did not have to bring the guns. They are very restricted in their use; they are to threaten and to kill, not to seek alternatives."

"I don't know that anyone we're going to encounter is too interested in alternatives," Cyclops pointed out. "Almost a thousand souls lost in the last week can attest to that."

The quintet marched quietly and slowly through the jungle on the south side of Belize, senses and telepathy attuned to any sort of motion. Within the hour, they reached the road leading to the village on the list.

"Hold up," Wolverine cautioned. "I smell somethin'."

"Why don't we break into that crate while we've got the chance?" Cyclops suggested. "We'll look a little less peace-loving carrying guns, but I don't want to get caught unprepared."

Almost on cue, a noise coming from the nearby brush caused everyone to turn. A young woman, dress torn and face dirtied, came tumbling out, crying in broken English and they dropped their weapons ashamedly.

"Help me, help me please! The men... they are killing everyone!"

"Stay here," Jean warned her. "We'll take care of it."

"Gracias, gracias... please hurry, please..."

Storm and Phoenix each grabbed one of the men and took flight, landing at the edge of the village. They arrived to find Rogue looking perplexed.

"Ah can't find anyone," she explained, her palms open and pointing up in the universal symbol of confusion. "Were we too late?"

"The girl..."

"Look out!"

A wide-beam laser blast burned a hole in the ground where they had been standing.

"Someone's here," Cyclops yelled as he rose to his feet looking around. "Spread out, keep in contact with Jean, and be careful!"

They scattered in different directions, weapons at the ready.

Rogue took to the air and flew in the direction the laser had come from, hoping whoever had fired it was dumb enough to hang around. She landed carefully, looking around.

"Yoo hoo, anyone home?"

The buzz of the laser wasn't loud enough for Rogue to hear it before it struck her mid-back.

"Ouch! It ain't polite to shoot someone in the back, yah know," she called out, ducking and trying to roll away from the next blast. Looking up, she could see the man wielding the weapon. "And Ah'm a stickler for manners."

When the man didn't make any move to either fight or flee, Rogue took action.

"Well, if you're gonna stand there stock stupid," she trailed off as she stood up. Taking a page out of Cannonball's playbook, she took off in a low-trajectory flight directly at her attacker, knocking him over.

"You're a robot!" Rogue cried out as she stood up, perplexed. It wasn't even a very good facsimile of a human once you got up close to it. All of a sudden, she felt hands on her arms.

"Bad idea, mistah," Rogue grunted as she tried to duck down and flip her new assailant over her back.

"What?!?" Despite her strength, he didn't budge, nor did she when she tried to take flight. Instead, she found herself lifted off of her feet a few inches. The robot at her feet rose and Rogue could see that the hand not holding the laser was not a hand at all, but a golden claw. A claw that was coming straight for her face.

Kicking him away with her still-free legs, she concentrated on getting out of the other attacker's vise-like grip. The clawed robot rose again, this time coming at Rogue at an angle that prevented her from kicking it away.

"Damned thing, Ah can't even make ya pay for touchin' me if ya ain't organic," she fumed. "Ah just hope Ah can make you pay once ya let me go."

The claw was inches away when, suddenly, lightning struck.

"Thanks, Storm," Rogue muttered.

The claw froze, but the robot didn't seem damaged. Instead, its eyes glowed bright green as it stepped back and turned around, marching slowly away.

"What the..."

Rogue and her keeper were walking slowly in the same direction as the clawed robot.

"Are ya a robot, too, or flesh-'n'-blood," Rogue asked her keeper as they moved towards the center of the village. "Ah'm inclined to say the former, 'xcept I can see skin by your wrists... Is it real, or is it rubber like the other guy? Ya ain't much of a conversationalist, that's for certain."

Storm landed next to the pair. "Forgive me sir, but I don't like it when my friends are taken off without their consent." She raised the rifle she was carrying, not to fire, but to take a baseball-type swing at the soldier's head.

Suddenly, his - its? - head turned and it was all Storm could do to fly out of the way of the laser issuing from the mirrored mask.

"Ah think it's time ya fired that thing, if ya don't mind," Rogue called behind her. "Ah'll survive gettin' that laser blast in the back of the head, but the headache Ah can do without."

"But to resort to murder so quickly... and the shrapnel that would be coming at you at such a close distance..." Storm hesitated even as she raised the sight to her eyes.

"Ah'm invulnerable enough to deal with the pieces, Storm, Ah just would like this thing be in pieces rather than me. It ain't human." *I don't think, at least...*

Storm shot into the back of Rogue's captor, but it did not even slow, let alone stop.

"Aim for the head," Rogue called.

"Goddess protect Rogue... and me," Storm whispered as she raised the gun once more. She was not concerned about her aim - Wolverine's insistence on teaching her how to fire a gun had already been proven prescient during the year she had lost her powers - but that did not erase the growing gnaw of concern for the others. Logan's lessons had been informal; target practice had never been a part of training for those who did not have ordinance-like powers. Perhaps that should change.

#I think you're right. It's all I can do to use my telekinesis to hold them in place. In the interim, I'm sure your aim will be true.#

"Thanks, Storm," the freed Rogue called over to her teammate as she joined her in the air. "Ah don't know what that was, but Ah do know that it's a lot stronger than we thought."

#Indeed they are. My telepathy has no effect on them.#

"That's 'cuz they ain't human, Phoenix, they're robots," Rogue answered aloud.

"Look ahead, Cyclops and Wolverine have run into a nest of them," Storm called out, pointing down on the ground.

#I'm on my way.#

Cyclops was in the grip of another of the mirrored soldiers. As Rogue before him, he was unable to break free and his gun was caught between his own back and the front of his attacker. A golden-clawed robot was approaching him and Cyclops was firing full bore with his optic blasts, to no apparent effect.

Suddenly, the clawed robot stopped its advance and turned away, heading off down the road. Another golden clawed robot approached.

"Same as before. Ah don't think we're lucky enough to have that toy go off and explode," Rogue called over to Storm as they watched from above.

#Cyclops says that it doesn't look like his optic blasts were damaging the robot. Gambit was apparently correct about the resistance to energy-based weapons.#

After telepathic urging from Phoenix, Wolverine abandoned his own fight to help out his teammate. Claws extended, he jumped on the back of the mirror-faced soldier and slashed away. All of a sudden, he howled and fell away, landing motionless on the ground.

"Wolvie!" Rogue flew down and scooped him up. "What happened? Yah smell like singed hair."

"Guy's a walkin' electric chair," he answered groggily. "Felt like I was plugged into a power line. Let me down, I'm fine. Healin' factor took care of the damage already and I gotta get Cyke free."

Rogue returned to ground and the other three X-Men. A combination of Jean's TK and a localized blizzard by Storm had gotten Cyclops out of the grip of the soldier. The rest of the attackers had disappeared.

"Well, that was a humbling moment," Cyclops sighed. "If we had so many problems, the villagers must have been easy prey... we still haven't seen any of them, have we?"

Wolverine looked around. "Nope, don't smell 'em, either." Instead, there was the heavy, warm scent of the jungle mixed with sweat, rotting fruit, and the faint scent of gear lubricant.

"Maybe they got carried off like Cyclops and Ah nearly did," Rogue suggested.

Storm pointed. "Our assailants went off in that direction."

"Well, let's go then," Jean exhorted. "If the villagers are still alive, then perhaps I'll be able to sense them once we get closer."

"And until then, we can try and figure out how to improve our chances against those 'bots," Cyclops added with a frown. "I don't know what that claw does, but I don't think it's anything pleasant and I'd rather nobody find out from personal experience."

Rogue and Storm flew above the trees and reported that there looked to be some sort of settlement half a mile ahead.

"I don't sense anybody between here and there," Jean warned, "but if these are robots, then that doesn't mean anything..."

The group reached the next clearing without interruption or intercept. On the other side of the clearing, there was a bridge over a gully. Skirting the open areas, they approached it with caution.

"There they are. And there are the villagers," Jean called softly, pointing at the area. Just over the bridge, the hundred-plus townspeople were sitting on the ground in rows. Mirror-faced guards stood at each end while the smaller, clawed robots were moving from person to person, touching each one.

"Their thoughts are blank... clean mindwipes," Jean hissed. "I can't even feel what that claw is doing to them."

"Killin' 'em," Wolverine spat out. "Watch, they fall over after the claw goes away."

"Some of the clawed ones are turning away like they did when I shot my optic blasts. They're going to that structure over there..." Cyclops added, his voice full of wonder and puzzlement. "What is that? It looks like a submarine."

"One way ta find out," Rogue offered. "Fly reconnaissance."

"Careful, Rogue," Cyclops warned. "We don't know what kind of weapons they have."

"Partial invulnerability has its privileges," she called down as she rose into the air.

"No!" Wolverine called out as the wind picked up, carrying a familiar scent. "Rogue!"

But the woman had no chance to heed any warning as a laser blast issued from somewhere on the other side of the bank.

Gawd, that hurts, Rogue thought as she fell. Like Viper's blaster way back when... Wonder if Wolverine's gonna have to save me this time...

Storm immediately took off after her falling comrade, ducking another blast from the laser.

"Can you see where it's coming from?" Jean asked her husband as Storm returned with Rogue.

"No, It's too crowded over there... and I can't risk blasting the civilians."

"Then let's get over there and get a better shot," Wolverine growled angrily, extending his claws and heading for the bridge.

"Wait," Jean called after him, freezing him telekinetically. "If we go over there pell-mell, we're going to end up in as bad a situation as we were in the village, and that was pretty much one-on-one."

"So whattya wanna do, Jeannie? Watch them get slaughtered from here?" Wolverine snarled, but relaxed his stance and Phoenix let him go.

"Look," Rogue said weakly. "They've got a hostage."

Two of the mirror-faced soldiers were each gripping the arm of a woman as they marched her towards their end of the bridge. Unlike the passive villagers sitting on the ground, this one was kicking and screaming.

"That's the girl from before, isn't it?" Cyclops asked. "Why did she run back instead of running away? And how did she get ahead of us?"

"She didn't want to see her people get slaughtered," Wolverine snarled. "And I don't, either. We..."

Two shots rang out in the silence of the jungle. The hostage girl screamed in agony and collapsed in her keepers' arms.

"Look!" Rogue pointed to a spot on the other side of the gully. A woman in flowing robes was holding a shotgun.

"She must be the leader. She looks human, so maybe we've got a chance," Cyclops said as he fired optic blasts in her direction. "Rogue, stay here with me. Everyone else head over the bridge and see if we can't get the some of the villagers free. See if that hostage is still alive. Rogue, here's my gun, let's give them some coverage."

The figure on the hill took aim once more at the hostage, but did not appear to hit her again and then was forced to duck away from Cyclops' optic blasts. She disappeared behind some rocks, then re-appeared closer to the robots, and then suddenly stopped. Lowering the shotgun, she raised her right arm and pointed towards Storm, Phoenix, and Wolverine. A brilliant dark blue energy blast issued forth, destroying the bridge entirely.

"No!" Cyclops cried out, even though he knew that two of the three were capable of flight and one possessed a healing factor. Sure enough, Phoenix and Storm, each with an arm under Wolverine's shoulders, landed safely next to Rogue. "Everyone all right?"

"Fine," Jean breathed. "Let me see if I can't get to our foe telepathically... AAGH!" She sank to her knees, but waved away any help. Catching her breath, Jean stood up again. "Her shields are impenetrable... they're unlike anything I've ever seen. She gave me a jolt for trying to get through them, but not enough to hurt me."

"So she is a telepath then," Storm mused. "But where is she?"

The five looked over, but the woman had disappeared from view. The two soldiers holding the woman hostage had started to drag her limp body back towards the submarine-like structure and the clawed robots were continuing with their task as if nothing had happened.

"We have to get over there one way or another," Cyclops said, looking back and forth for possible weak points. "Let's see if we can't fly over there without getting blown to bits."

"There's better tree cover over on that side," Rogue suggested and pointed to her left. "Ah shoulda tried that route first."

Running over to where the gully narrowed and the trees grew larger, the group managed to get across unscathed. Sneaking along back towards the robots' encampment, the quintet was startled by a voice behind them.

"I would not try further progress were I among your number," the robed woman warned, shotgun resting on her left shoulder like a seasoned hunter's would. "Your opponent's strength has already proven too great and your tactics too futile to risk further attempts."

Wolverine snarled as he extended his claws and spun around, but suddenly found that he didn't have either the energy or the will to move. The others seemed to be similarly affected.

Their opponent held up a crude package with her right hand. "This is enough explosive to reduce to shards everything within its radius," she said, then disappeared into thin air. She returned a moment later, empty-handed. "The villagers are already lost. You have fifteen seconds to save yourselves."

With that, she disappeared again and the X-Men found themselves free to move.

"Is she bluffing?" Rogue asked.

"It's not a good idea to find out," Cyclops answered. "Let's go, everyone, pronto!"

The explosion sent waves of searing heat past the fleeing X-Men, a hot wind strong enough to shake the flight of the normally sure-sailing Rogue. In her arms, Wolverine seethed. He was angry at the loss of life, he was angry at their defeat, and he was angry at his own impotence in the face of it all.

But most of all, he was angry at himself for not following his own instincts the other week.

"The Cajun's got a lot of questions to answer once we get home."

Nearby, Cyclops - being carried in Storm's grip - and Jean were also uneasy.

Those robes... she couldn't have been...

#Everything else about her was all wrong. She's not Askani. We'll have to ask Nathan once we're home.#

***


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defeat, and he was angry at his own impotence in the face of it all.

But most of all, he was angry at himself for not following his own instincts the other week.

"The Cajun's got a lot of questions to answer once we get home."

Nearby, Cyclops - being carried in Storm's grip - and Jean were also uneasy.

Those robes... she couldn't have been...

#Everything else about her was all wrong. She's not Askani. We'll have to ask Nathan once we're home.#

***


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