Future Pluperfect: Chapter 7


"She says she's Askani," Jean explained to Nathan and Domino as they went towards the room their prisoner (Jean frowned at the word) was being kept in. "But she doesn't look like one. She's got that... look to her, but I can't get through her shields."

"Have you gotten anything out of her?" Cable asked as he walked side-by-side with Jean. He had been utterly unsurprised when his cell phone had rung the moment he and Domino had landed at JFK. Cyclops had told him that they had brought back a prisoner who said she was from the future. The conversation had been necessarily brief, so he hadn't gotten enough answers to know whether to feel apprehensive or relieved. Although at the mention of a visiting Askani sister, he was inclined towards the former.

"Other than a version of name, rank, and serial number? No."

They stopped outside of what Cable knew was a spare bedroom. "I don't sense anything," he said, tilting his head as if that would improve his telepathic hearing. It was a habit he wished he could break.

"The room is dampened and she's got an inhibitor on her," Cyclops explained with a frown. He shook his head at the memory of the trouble the woman had caused. "Not only is she a telepath, but she's also a teleporter, from what we can tell, and we didn't want her disappearing before you got here."

Nathan quirked an eyebrow. "A teleporter?" There had only been one teleporter, at least from the time he was aware of such things. But that was impossible, so who...

He gave the door a quick knock and then opened it and crossed the threshold. What he saw stopped him so suddenly that Domino, walking behind him, crashed into him.

"Nate?" Domino asked, concerned by the sudden burst of emotion pouring down their psi-link. Shock, anguish, guilt, and joy.

Peering around Cable, she could see a young woman sitting on the bed, knees drawn up to her chest and the inhibitor on her ankle glowed in the afternoon sunlight. She had the forced-relaxed posture of someone who had been in captivity before and knew how to stay alert at all times, but that changed suddenly.

"Min?" Nathan's voice was suddenly hoarse, a whisper conveying all that Domino could feel on the link and she stepped back.

"Fair tidings, brother Nathan," the woman answered back in Askani, a self-mocking smile playing on her face even as her eyes went from cold detachment to warm delight. "I have a way with ingresses and egresses, do I not?" She extended the leg with the inhibitor and rolled her eyes.

With a flash of rage so strong that Domino nearly collapsed into Jean, Cable extended his arm, the anklet exploding into tiny fragments from the telekinetic burst.

He turned, then, and faced Jean, Domino, Scott and the newly arrived Logan. "Never put anything like that on her ever again," he hissed, eye glowing bright as the sun.

"I take it she's legit, then," Logan drawled, outwardly unaffected, but inwardly impressed. Girl must be something impressive for Cable to be shaking with anger, he mused to himself.

The woman, having carefully padded on bare feet across the now shrapnel-covered floor, poked her head around Cable's massive frame and Logan looked at her closely, this time examining her has a possibly ally instead of as a threat. The cold, distant, haughty look that had so irritated him before was gone. Instead, mirth was the dominant expression, coupled with a shocking youthfulness that had been covered up by the severity and imperiousness. She's a kid.

"I am called Askani," she said, holding out her right hand in greeting. "But my name is Mirrin."

"You two know each other, then," Jean began after a sigh. She could still feel the maelstrom of things leaking through Nathan's normally impervious shields that had so overwhelmed her a moment before and hoped that he would explain eventually. Especially before it was too late.

"She's an old and dear friend," Nathan said quietly, not trusting his voice.

From where he was watching the scenario from behind Jean, Scott tamped down the slightly giddy thoughts raced through his mind, something about how his son's friends always visited accompanied by explosions. But they went away as quickly as they had come. And then he started to plot how to deal with the rest of the X-Men's reaction to the new situation. It was not going to be pretty.

There was a thoughtful silence for a moment, but it was shattered by a new arrival.

"Is everything all right?" Sam Guthrie asked, concern on his face as he stopped short in front of the group. "Ah thought Ah heard Cable and Domino - good ta see you ma'am, sir - and then Ah heard an explosion..."

"Nate's found an old pal, Sam," Domino explained dryly, hiding her happiness to see the young man behind a smirk. "Don't worry. He hasn't done in his family... just yet."

"She's... you're... oh," Sam trailed off and scratched the back of his head in mild embarrassment. Long ago, he had learned that when dealing with anything involving Cable's past, the only approach to take was the Taoist one - just go with it. "Then Ah suppose Ah should apologize for the rude welcome from before."

Mirrin raised an eyebrow, but didn't let her smile falter. So it was him. Earlier, in the Ukraine, she had thought it might be. But he had sounded so young... which only stood to reason. Because here-and-now, he was so young. But the way he seemed so genuinely happy to see Nathan, it couldn't be anyone else..."It was understandable under the circumstances," she told him, pushing the thoughts aside. They didn't matter now.

"Sam, why don't you go find people and meet us in the conference room downstairs," Scott suggested, not bothering to hide the vague hint of foreboding he felt. He had been on everyone's case enough as it was with Remy and now he was sure that he was going to have to play the heavy again, this time with Nathan's friend. "Might as well get the whole story out at once." It'll cut down on the number of rebellions I have to quell, he added mentally. He heard Jean chuckle.

Sam nodded and ran back the way he had come. Domino half expected him to blast, he was so excited. And the greater half of the source of that excitement was currently making her seasick by having their psi-link swing wildly between profound sorrow and childish mirth. Mostly towards the former.

After one too many swings, she elbowed Nathan as they walked down the hallway past the entry foyer and towards the dining rooms. "Spit it out already."

"Pardon?" He sounded genuinely confused.

"Whatever it is that has you halfway to hysteria," Domino elaborated bluntly as she slowed her gait so as to give them that much more distance from Logan, who was walking ahead of them, as close to Mirrin as he could. Not that he wouldn't be able to hear them anyway so long as they spoke aloud, but he respected privacy as much as anyone with enhanced hearing could. "Either tell me what it is or keep it off the link."

"Sorry," he mumbled vaguely. "I just didn't... Mirrin's not someone I ever expected to see again. Certainly not here."

Domino nodded. Everything would come out sooner or later, either in the impending X-powwow or when they were on their own. But right now, Nathan was starting to slip into that depressed funk that would only manifest itself as irritation and argumentativeness, so she grabbed his arm as they passed the kitchen and pulled him towards the refrigerator.

"I'm hungry," she said as he looked at her questioningly. Eyeing the fruit bowl on the counter, illumination struck. "Oh, look. They have Bosc pears. And they're ripe, too. See, it's not genetic."

The pursed lips and matching glare Nathan gave her pleased her immensely. The X-Force kids had explained to her after her arrival years ago that Nathan was forbidden to buy fruit, as he had absolutely no concept of how to pick out good ones. He had claimed it was a family trait, a side effect of being Alaskan.

"No one said they got them," Nathan replied sourly, his focus now fully back in the present.

Domino shrugged blithely as she picked two up and headed back the way they had come, towards the stairs that led to the basement complex. "Even if they weren't," she said over her shoulder. "At least they have the good sense to let someone else who can do it, do it."

She felt more than heard his reply along their psi-link.

Bobby was coming out of the Danger Room as they walked past on their way to the conference room across the hallway. "Why am I not surprised that our newest resident psychopath is a pal of yours, Cable?" He asked with his usual good humor. "You gonna introduce us?"

"Actually, Jean and Scott already know her," Nathan answered with suspiciously good humor as they found seats in the already-crowded War Room. Mirrin was seated next to Scott and there were two empty spots on her other side.

"We do?" Scott asked.

"<They do?>" Mirrin asked in Askani.

Domino sat down slowly, not wanting to miss whatever it was that had Nathan suddenly heading towards giddiness.

"Redd and Slym Dayspring, you remember Min, don't you?" Cable asked, waving his hands as if he were making casual introductions.

"Min?" Scott repeated. And then comprehension dawned and his eyes opened wide, his eyebrows visible over his glasses. "Not little Min, the one who used to follow you everywhere when we were staying in the north country?"

Mirrin swallowed hard, staring hard at both Jean and Scott. She had known the First Ones all along? She had been only a child when the Dayspring Unit had joined with her Clan to make a difficult land crossing together; she only knew Redd and Slym as the kind ones who had taken Nathan in, who had acted as surrogate parents to her as any of her own Clan had. And while she remembered the faces of Redd and Slym even now - and could see Redd in Jean's face - she had not come in to her telepathy yet and did not sense any familiarity in their minds now. Oh, Bright Lady, you planned this all so well, she muttered to herself in a not entirely pleased awe.

Clearing her head with a shake, Mirrin saw Scott - Slym - was still waiting for her to say something. "Following him around is a bad habit I have yet to break, unfortunately."

Jean watched Mirrin, trying not to stare. Now that Nathan had brought it up, she could see in the young woman's face the resemblance to the child she and Scott had gotten to know during their time in the future. As with Nathan, Mirrin looked world-weary, an unavoidable effect of life in the dark and foreboding future. But what Jean didn't understand was how Mirrin could look so young when she was really only a few years younger than Nathan.

"Of course," she suddenly exclaimed. "Your telepathic shields. Just like the soap bubbles."

Expectant eyes demanded an explanation.

"I used to entertain the kids with the bubbles from the washing," Jean elaborated, demonstrating by creating a telepathic image. The resultant bubble grew as it floated over to the table. "Mirrin's shields are like a series of concentric soap bubbles. It's really an ingenious system, almost impossible to get through and very little energy to maintain."

"Fair tidings, friend Gambit," Mirrin said, tilting her head towards the new arrival.

Remy nodded in return. Sam had taken his suspicion at the news - confirmation of his own story, really - with typical aplomb. Now the biggest problem was simply in the Askani - Mirrin - being a friend of Cable's. Of course, Warren being Warren, he'd probably find something else new to give him cause to be so cold. But for the time being the burden of walking on tenterhooks would now fall on the winged mutant, who now owed him an apology.

"You knew Cable as a kid?" Bobby asked Mirrin. The whole situation was getting surreal, he felt, so he might as well go with the flow. "You saw the transformation from cute little Nathan Christopher to... this?"

There was an uneasy chuckle through crowded room, easing the tension that had been building before it could become too thick. Friend of Cable though she may be, friends of Cable tended to have the same problem with "thou shalt not kill" that Nathan Summers did - prime example being the violet-eyed woman currently sitting between Cable and Wolverine - and almost everyone in the room had served witness to the mysterious young woman's capacity for murder.

"Not to this...," Mirrin mimicked Bobby's tone of voice, not quite managing to flatten out her accent. "I am accustomed to a younger version..."

Jean caught glances with Nathan then and was surprised at his pleading look. Feeling for him, she clapped her hands once. "So, shall we get down to business?" She felt a vague wave of thanks.

"What do you know about the cyborgs, Min?" Cable asked her in English. "Why are they here?"

"It's not just the cyborgs, Nathan," Mirrin replied sadly. "It is the Kurioon."

Everyone took their cue from Cable, whose face darkened considerably. "How far has it risen?"

"Faster than I expected," Mirrin answered with a shake of her head. Switching to Askani, she added, "<There were Colorless at the last energy harvests. It is too soon for that, even considering the differences of the here-and-now.>"

Cable cursed. "<If they have enough to produce Colorless...>"

Cyclops cleared his throat. "Not to interrupt, but the rest of us would be a lot more helpful to your cause if we understood what was going on..."

"The Kurioon is a special unit of Canaanite dog soldiers, intended for long-distance transport," Mirrin spoke slowly, as if trying to negotiate around her accent. "Or in this case, transport through time. They are composed of varieties of cyborgs and are almost always led by mutants. Almost invincible."

"The soldiers are color coded," Cable continued, leaning back in his seat. "The soldiers Mirrin says you saw in Belize and the Ukraine were early-stage versions, just dangerous enough to protect the Harvesters. We called them 'colorless'."

Between the two soldiers from the future, the nature and danger of the Kurioon was explained. The worldwide massacres suddenly were no longer mysteries, nor were the disappearances of powerful mutants.

"Not to throw doubt on your story," Psylocke interrupted, using that peculiarly British tone of voice that dripped irony off of every syllable. "But you said that the people these Harvesters were attacking were helpless civilians... so why were you shooting at harmless women and babes?"

"They weren't harmless," Cable spat out bitterly, irritated that the X-Men were obviously going to get hung up on relatively minor details (there are casualties in war, people, let's move on). "Haight and his men realized that the Resistance would try and save any lives we could. So they created their most dangerous weapons in the form of women and children."

"Trojan horses," Wolverine, thinking back to a little girl named Elsie Dee, murmured loud enough to be heard.

"They're either rigged with explosives or otherwise armed and able to kill everyone who 'rescued' them," Cable confirmed. "They always came with tracking devices."

"Clan Chosen sustained heavy losses in such attacks until we realized that Haight never takes hostages," Mirrin added, pausing to remember the legions of dead. "He kills prisoners outright, at least once they have given him whatever it was that made them worth keeping alive in the first place. Anyone they parade in front of us is a cyborg or some other tool of the Canaanites."

"Usually," Cable amended and both Mirrin and Domino eyed him carefully as a strong wave of guilt and grief washed over him.

#Cable all right, Jean?# Not that Psylocke was especially concerned, more that an especially-touchy Cable tended to make everyone's life miserable.

#You felt that, too, Betsy? I'm guessing that it's just Nathan reacting to Mirrin. She uses the present tense when talking about these creatures of destruction. This is part of the past to Nathan, or it was until Min showed up.# Jean didn't think it appropriate to mention the age discrepancy just yet.

#Bad memories, then.#

"Similarly," Mirrin continued, still watching Cable, "They often use the forms of women and children to protect their own valuables - they hide data chips in vessels that would give any unsuspecting person pause to destroy. It is a strategy that no longer works against the Clan Chosen, but it is one that would find much success in this here-and-now. Especially as your cohort has sworn against taking lives. I did not want you to fall prey, although in hindsight, I imagine the view must have been unpleasant." Here she nodded at Warren and Betsy, who could only nod in agreement. "That was no mortal infant."
 
"Ah, here is everyone," Hank McCoy cried out as he entered the room, bustling past Betsy. "I was wondering..." his voice tailed off as he saw Mirrin seated next to Cable.

"Doctor," Mirrin said by way of greeting.

"Take a seat, Hankster," Drake offered, waving his arm expansively. "Or, take a spot leaning against the wall. Henry P. McCoy, meet Mirrin, one of Nathan Christopher's little friends."

"Ahem." Hank frowned and tried to apologize for earlier in spite of Mirrin's protestations. Mirrin would have none of it, however, and a silence fell over the room.

"Well, now that we've gotten introductions out of the way," Scott began, rubbing his hands together and standing up. He knew from past experience that whatever problems he was going to have hadn't even begun yet - the X-Men always sat and listened carefully at meetings, saving their irrational behavior for later on, when it was impossible to control easily. "Why don't we take five minutes to stretch our legs, go get coffee or something to eat, and we'll start up again."

***

"We can't pursue a 'scorched earth' policy," Domino repeated for the umpteenth time. You knew you were in trouble when she was the one arguing to take it easy. "The population distribution is just too dense for that, Nate. We have to work around the civilians, not through them."

They had been at this for more than an hour, the fundamental differences in philosophy too profound to be ignored for too long. Mirrin and Nathan were inclined to take preventive measures to an extreme - far beyond not only what the X-Men were willing to do, but even beyond what was perhaps reasonable for anyone to do.

"Besides, how are we going to figure out who to move and when?" Archangel added, sounding tired as he pushed himself back in his seat from where he had been leaning on the table with his elbows. That had been the standard reply to almost any suggestion - how?

"Mirrin already did." Cable gestured towards his clanswoman. "That list of Gambit's was hers."

"If we are not more quickly to action than we were," Storm said ominously, "Then it will be a moot point. Even when we were aware of where to be, we were unable to prevent the destruction of two more villages and all of the lives therein."

Suddenly, Phoenix started. A moment later, Cyclops stood up and left the room.

"Feel like sharing?" Iceman asked.

"We've been talking about energy stores and the co-opting of mutant powers," Phoenix replied, brow creased with worry. "But what about when those two needs of this Kurioon are met by one individual?"

"Alex," Rogue hissed.

"There's no answer," Cyclops said, anxiety creeping into his voice, as came back into the room. "I left a message. He just might be out, but I don't want to take that risk. Anyone up for a trip to New Mexico?"

"Can you 'port us out there?" Cable looked at his clanswoman. "Someone can give you directions."

"A part of the group, but not everyone," Mirrin answered, looking around at the crowded room. "My control is still not perfect in this here-and-now. I know I am capable of greater efforts in this time, but I don't dare risk stranding everyone on the astral plane."

"The astral plane? Is that how your teleportation works?" The Beast perked up. Idly, he noted that the metal strands that had been bonded to her hands had disappeared.

"As much as I understand the mechanics of it," she nodded, not wanting to discuss the specifics of it.

"Ay'el, take Domino, Cannonball and me with you and everyone else who's coming along will follow in the Blackbird," Cable ordered as he stood up, getting and keeping eye contact with Cyclops. Unspoken was the agreement between father and son that the former would take care of any lingering issues involving Mirrin. "Cyclops' team will bring the heavy weapons."

Mirrin stood up automatically at hearing her battle name, only realizing after she got to her feet that it really didn't matter where-and-when it was, she followed his orders without thinking. "<I need directions>," she told Cable.

"Redd, can you let Mirrin see an image of where we should go?" he asked, gesturing for Cannonball to join them.

Phoenix met glances with Mirrin and pushed a memory from the last time she and Scott had visited towards the other woman.

"I thank you," Mirrin said, bowing her head before turning to Cable. "<Let's go.>"

Cable put his hand on Cannonball's shoulder and held out his other to Mirrin, who took it with the hand not holding Domino's. There was a shimmer and then they were gone.

"Well," Iceman coughed in surprise. "That was intriguing."

The murmur around the room seemed to concur.

"Tell me 'bout it," Gambit laughed mirthlessly, shaking his head slowly.

"I take it our lovely newcomer has discorportated you before," the Beast said. "I really would love to sit her down and get her to describe the mechanics of it..."

"'That's how she got me back from Antarctica," Gambit answered, looking down so that he didn't have to watch guilt flash across anyone's face. "And a to few other places."

"Mirrin rescued you?" Rogue asked, sounding surprised. She had heard about it earlier, but had chosen not to say anything. "Why?"

Psylocke sighed frowned. Even if Rogue didn't mean it how it had came out...

"Mebbe not everyone t'inks I'm as much a waste of space as you do, chère," an expressionless Gambit replied, shrugging casually before pushing in his chair. "Goin' to get ready to leave."

Rogue was still staring after Gambit when Wolverine's chuckle broke the sudden silence. "Didn't think the Cajun had it in him." Logan was still chortling as he headed for the hangar.

***

"What the fu..." Alex Summers' hands were glowing brightly by the time he saw who had suddenly appeared in his living room. He had been on his way into the kitchen when the space in front of the couch had started to shimmer with blue light.

"Afternoon," Cannonball greeted Havok, trying to cover up his own embarrassment for arriving unannounced by sounding casual.

Alex took deep breaths, willing his heart to stop hammering in his chest. Now that the flight-or-fight instinct had been triggered and the correct answer was 'neither', it was hard to make the endorphins go away. "Nathan," he finally began. "While I am pleased and flattered that you have finally come to visit your dotty Uncle Alex, haven't your parents discussed with you the necessity for telekinetics to knock and ring doorbells like everyone else?"

"You always said I could drop by any time," Cable replied as he turned around to face his uncle.

"So I did. And you brought friends," Alex sighed, partly at the futility of this line of discussion and partly because of what was in his nephew's arms. "Not all of them conscious," he added, noting the young woman being cradled. Not someone he recognized - Scott would have said something about a new teammate - and, judging by what little of her outfit he could see, not a local.

"What defect in Askani training makes all of you determined to the point of diminished returns?" Domino griped irritatedly, still discombobulated from the teleportation. Not as bad as Nate's body sliding, but still...

"Teleporting four across the continent proved a bit much," Cable said tersely, although he privately suspected some aftereffects of the sedatives they had pumped her full of. Mirrin had always reacted strongly to medications. "She's just tired."

"The couch isn't very comfortable for sleeping," Alex warned as Cable started to lay the sleeping girl down. "Take her to my bedroom. Good thing I did laundry today."

He pointed in the proper direction and Cable nodded and headed off. While he was gone, the other three sat down on the couch. Cannonball tried to explain who Mirrin was. Alex was less surprised than amused, especially after Domino indicated that the woman had been working through Gambit.

"I got a message from Scott, he sounded worried," he was saying as Cable returned sans Mirrin.

"Your nephew's brought back more trouble from the future," Domino explained, shrugging to indicate that this was neither novel nor news and ignoring the dirty look she was getting from the nephew in question. "This time, they're looking for energy sources."

"And I'm a battery waiting to happen," Alex finished bitterly, cursing genetics for the millionth time. He slapped his knees and stood up. "Well, I suppose I should call big brother back and tell him that I've been found in one piece."

"Ah'm afraid you'll be too late ta reach him, sir," Cannonball said.

"Blackbird'll be arriving in a while," Cable elaborated. "Just as well. Mirrin's going to be in no shape to 'port us all back. I suppose we should call Jean, though." He got up and headed towards the phone he knew was in the kitchen.

Alex sat down heavily. "Do I really want to know what's going on, or can I just play dumb?"

"It's some kinda cyborg army," Cannonball ventured, not quite sure whether Alex really wanted to play dumb or not. "They've been behind the massacres..."

Alex nodded slowly. "Figures. Well, I suppose I should go pack a bag or something. Would anyone like a drink? Something to eat?"

Cannonball and Domino shook their heads and Alex went off to his bedroom to get some things together. While ideally he'd just be spending a relaxing visit with his family, in reality he knew it was something else entirely. As such, he took down a small backpack from the hall closet en route to his bedroom. Not that I'll be needing much in the way of clothes - good thing I've been working out on my own, don't want to put on that skin suit and see love handles - but it helps preserve some slight sense of normality. I'm going to stay with my brother and his wife for a few days, that's all. Nothing involving killer robots or mutant hunters or time travel. My nephew and his girlfriend and his protégé and his childhood buddy just came to pick me up, that's all.

Walking carefully to avoid the creaky floorboard just inside his bedroom, Alex paused to take a good look at the woman sleeping on his bed. While Sam had made it sound like she was Linda Hamilton from the Terminator movie, really she just looked like a strangely dressed grad student passed out after an exam. He moved on to his dresser when he heard footsteps in the hall.

"She's awfully young," Alex whispered over his shoulder as Cable's massive frame filled the doorway.

#She's older than she looks,# Cable answered telepathically. #I'm not sure when in the there-and-then she came back from, but I'm pretty sure she's older than Sam by this point.#

You didn't ask? Alex was surprised by both the intimacy of the communication - he had never known Nathan to prefer telepathic conversations - and by his... loquaciousness. Back when he was Havok, Alex knew all too well that getting information out of Cable was like prying fillings out of teeth.

#We haven't had much time together. I've only known she was here for a few hours and we've been busy since then. Besides, I'm not sure she'd tell me.#

Alex closed his underwear drawer carefully and turned to make a surprised face at Cable. Sam indicated that you two were... close.

#Not like that,# Cable retorted, pursing his lips in what Alex could only describe as mild disgust. #But she always kept a few secrets.#

Alex could almost feel the wistfulness in Cable's mental voice as he noted the tense of speech.

***

"Jean," Hank called after his teammate. "About our guest..."

"You'll have to talk to her if you want to know about how her teleportation works, Hank," Jean called over her shoulder, not slowing down from where she was headed towards Cerebro.

"It's not that."

Jean stopped and turned around. Seeing the expression on Hank's face, she frowned. "She is who she says she is," she assured. "I remember her, as does Scott. And Nathan obviously thinks it's the genuine article. I know everyone is uncomfortable with what she's... done... but she was protecting us as best she could."

The Min she and Scott had met during their honeymoon had been a free-spirited and precocious child, a playful little girl who had taken her self-appointed task as Nathan's shadow quite seriously, much to Nate's embarrassment once he had realized that she meant to 'protect' him. Jean idly wondered if Nathan's conditioning as the Askani'Son and Min's now-obvious membership in the Askani sisterhood had robbed them both of the ability to appreciate the irony of the situation.

"It's a violent time that she comes from, that they come from. Her survival instincts and sensibilities aren't going to be any different from Nathan's. It's kill-or-be-killed, all the time."

"I don't doubt that," Hank replied, holding up his huge hands in a placating gesture. "Nor do I doubt that she indeed holds a special place in his thoughts, which is no mean feat. I haven't seen Cable quite that protective... well, ever. But have we considered the possibility that she may not be the same person that Nathan remembers her as being?"

"A clone?" Jean raised an eyebrow. "I couldn't tell you, but Nathan..."

"Fair Domino might have something to say about that," he replied wryly. "But I was more pondering the notion that Mirrin may have appeared in this time with something other than Nathan's intentions at heart."

"You think she's changed sides since Nathan came back?" Jean thought back to the fondness she had seen in Min's eyes as she had looked at Cable. There was no regret, no anguish, nothing that would indicate - especially to a telepathic observer - that Mirrin was being anything but faithful to one of her oldest friends. "I didn't see anything."

"I couldn't possibly know for certain," Hank allowed, "But it is a possibility that can not yet be eliminated. Especially if it is a kind of 'sleeper' programming. Considering Nathan's reaction to her, Mirrin would certainly be viewed by the enemy as a prized plum. As naturally suspicious as Cable is, I doubt he'd even suspect her..."

"I would think that she would be the first whom he would suspect," Ororo said quietly as she joined the pair. "Especially after Domino. Cable does not seem the type to allow himself to twice be fooled by the same trick. For what it is worth, Logan sensed no duplicity."

"Who knows, maybe she's another of Sinister's pets," Warren called over quietly from where he was standing against the opposite wall, presumably waiting for Betsy.

"Yet she rescued Gambit," Storm reminded. While Rogue was a friend and her reaction to Remy mattered to Storm, Warren was thus far only a teammate. She would trust him with her life, but Ororo felt no compunction to point out his hypocrisy and save him from himself, so to speak. Self-awareness cannot be given; it must be earned.

"And how would that differentiate her from one of Sinister's minion?" Warren asked, wings fluttering in emphasis.

"Warren, please?" Jean buried the flash of anger before it could get anywhere. "Remy's sorry for what happened to you. And we should be sorry for what happened to him. Neither of you deserved it. Neither of you. But now that you have both survived your ordeals, it is time to put them in the past. Remy is here, you are here, and you will both have to learn to trust each other again."

"Maybe it's time to change the situation, then," Archangel replied flatly, not breaking his glare.

Jean took a deep breath to calm herself. "You're a better man than that, Warren. Running away has never been your style." And for Warren's ears alone, Jean added telepathically, #I remember once upon a time in the Savage Land when Magneto saved your life and you nearly repaid him by ending ours. We all make mistakes, Warren.#

Betsy emerged from the ladies' room looking mildly confused, as if she was aware that she was missing something. She raised her eyebrow meaningfully at Warren, who shook his head and indicated that she should precede him upstairs.

"Right now, I think it is my style. I'm running away upstairs," Warren told Jean, but nodded slightly to acknowledge the telepathic comment before he turned and left.

After Ororo left them alone, Hank stopped and put a hand on Jean's shoulder. "What did you say to Warren, if I may so inquire?"

"Remember 'the Maker' in the Savage Land?"

Hank looked blankly at his longtime friend for a moment until recognition set in. It had been early on in their X-Men days, after Scott had found Alex, but before the recruitment of Storm and the others. Just another mission, just another near-fatality. That time it had been Warren, brought back from the dead after an accident to lure the other four into a trap. Warren had no idea he was setting up the pieces for a massacre of many. Just as Gambit hadn't expected it. "I had nearly forgotten that."

"So had Warren."

***

Out in the living room, Sam walked to the window. "Sunset's pretty," he ventured, not sure whether Domino would agree or take his head off for such a comment. But the red and yellow glow on the horizon, framed by the dark ground and the darkening sky, really was nice. Much prettier than the pollution-induced pink glow over New Jersey that was visible from New York.

Footsteps behind him. Domino looked out and Sam could see her eyes soften in appreciation. But before he could feel relieved that Domino wasn't going to ridicule him for being a softie, her brows shot up. "It's gorgeous all right, but there's a problem. That's not the sunset, unless it sets in the east out here."

Sam looked out again. "That's east?"

Domino nodded. "And that's one helluva fire. I hate coincidences," she grumbled as she turned away. "Get ready to bug out."

Alex and Cable were already coming into the room by the time Domino reached them. "Get Mirrin and let's go," she told them briskly.

"What happened?"

"There's a sunset out your front window," she replied, gesturing with her chin towards the window where Cannonball still stood.

"But there's nothing to burn out in that direction," Alex said slowly, already understanding what Domino meant. Sunsets were viewed from the bedroom. "It's desert and there's isn't enough brush between here and town to get that kind of glow... town. Damn it."

Cable turned to get Mirrin.

"<Arise, fair maiden>," Cable whispered gently in Askani with a lightness of tone he didn't feel. He could sense her exhaustion. "<The horizon's alight>."

"<And somehow, I know it isn't sunrise>," she answered back groggily, rubbing her eyes, sitting up, and looking around. "<I'm assuming we are where we are supposed to be. Are the others here yet?>"

Cable sat down on the edge of the bed. "<No. We're probably going to have to hide until they do come.>"

Mirrin made a face. "Are you not armed?"

"<That's not the point,>" he told her. "<There are five of us - four of us, really. That teleportation shouldn't have knocked you out, Ay'el.>"

"<I'll be fine>," she gritted out, trying not to give lie to her brave words by admitting that the room was spinning. "<Is your cohort not all naturally armed?>"

"<We'll be able to defend ourselves, should it come to that>," Cable admitted as he watched Mirrin fight off her dizziness. "<But in this case, discretion is the better part of valor.>"

"<You want to run, Dayspring?>"'

"<Sometimes the greatest victories come in the battles not fought>," he growled quietly, ignoring her angry glare. "<We aren't running. We're falling back until we're ready to fight. You know we aren't ready to take on the Colorless as we are and we don't even know what's out there. The others are coming with weapons and numbers. It would not help our cause should they show up to find us already defeated. Havok himself could power them up to blue, so we can't let him fall into their hands.>"

Cable got up as Mirrin sighed angrily and swung her legs off of the bed and got up slightly unsteadily, refusing his proffered hand. They went into the main part of the house without another word, although from the matching expressions it was obvious to the other three that there had been some sort of disagreement.

"Alex says there's a cave near where the Blackbird is going to land," Domino told them. "Unfortunately, that means heading towards the fire."

"Let's go," Cable said, looking around. "We've been sitting ducks here for too long."

"Quack, quack," Domino answered automatically.

The quintet headed towards the jeep parked nearby and Alex got in on the driver's side, thankful that he had topped off the gas on the way home from the market the previous day. The winding cliff-side road was empty, as it usually was, and after a half-hour of unremarkable driving, he was almost about to relax when a bright light flashed and the front left tire blew. Brakes squealing, he tried to see from where the laser had come as instinct guided him to pull the car away from the edge of the road.

"So much for the easy getaway," he sighed as the jeep came to a halt. "The landing pad's on the other side of this mountain."

"The lower-level cyborgs aren't built for mountain climbing," Mirrin said as they exited the vehicle and pressed up against the rock face. "They will have to stay to the road."

"Can we get to it by climbing down here, or do we have to stay at this elevation?" Domino asked, gun out as she looked around. Alex was a smart driver, but her luck had probably kept them from going over the edge.

"It's possible, just a lot longer and it gets very tricky in some spots," Alex replied, looking around for possible shooters before he rummaged around in the back of the jeep to find the emergency water canteens.

"Is there cover, or is it open ground?" Cable asked.

"Some rock cover and a little brush, but there's enough space for us to be open targets from above," Alex answered, closing his eyes to better visualize the terrain. "But I know the way in the dark." He'd done the trek a few times as a workout, but after the first time, when he had nearly died of sunstroke and Lorna had had to float him back on a makeshift metal gurney, never in daylight.

"We'll have to risk it," Cable said. "The cyborgs will be running on heat sensors and soon our night vision won't be enough to compensate."

They found a spot where the sun-fried roots allowed for handholds to start their descent and slid down carefully to lower ground. The path was wide and relatively flat, so the going was not difficult. The biggest challenge was to avoid tripping in the deepening darkness until they reached a steep drop-off.

"There a way around this?" Cable called from behind.

"Do you want to break into open ground?" Alex asked.

"Not if we can help it."

"Then no," he replied, stepping aside so Domino could take a look down.

It looked to be about a thirty-foot drop, too far to jump and to steep to try to slide down the wall without a grappling rope.

"I can bring us down there," Mirrin said as she edged towards the ledge, careful not to bump into Domino. "It's not that far."

"You're still weak," Cable objected. "We'll need you at full strength later."

"<It's five body-lengths, Nathan>," Mirrin growled. "<I could move a battle unit that far by the time I was sixteen. And I don't see any other options that won't give our positions away like a flare.>"

Domino watched the two glare at each other for a long moment before Nathan nodded curtly and gestured that they should draw closer so that Mirrin could make contact.

A few moments later, they were continuing on through the darkness.

"Not that I'm complaining or anything," Alex said after twenty more minutes of steady progress over the flat-ish ground of an old hiking path. "But shouldn't they be shooting at us by now?"

"Maybe they're waitin' for us somewhere," Cannonball suggested, hoping that he was wrong. "Could they know where we're headin'?"

"Mirrin and I have been shielding since we left the house," Cable replied, nonetheless looking up at the road circling around the mountain ridge above them. "And I didn't feel any scans before."

Mirrin spoke up. "They could be following our nullspace."

Cable shook his head. "The entire desert is pretty much null and we're not even sure they have a telepath with them. There's only been one reported missing so far."

"Then we're almost home free," Alex said as he stopped before a sharp bend in the train and pointed. "The bowl and the cave are just on the other side of that ridge."

Getting to the ridge took a little doing, the path being in the opposite direction as the trail and the ground therefore a lot rougher than that which they had already traversed. Once they crossed to the penultimate peak of the ridge, Cable indicated that the others should hang back. He climbed the last stretch alone and looked over. A stream of muttering in Askani drifting down to them sent Mirrin scurrying up to join Cable.

Not for the first time that day, Domino felt a pang of what she assumed was jealousy - consulting on a course of action was her job - and mentally slapped her wrists. She had just gotten used to the absurd naturalness of the way she and Cable and fallen back into sync, especially after spending the day in Corinth where nothing had happened except banter about when to visit Florence.

But now there was someone else, someone with as much stake to Nathan, if not more, than she did. You didn't need a psi-link to realize that Mirrin was obviously a significant part of Cable's past. And Domino hated herself for being bothered by that.

That thought faded, though, as she started to be able to make out some of the words. Domino's Askani vocabulary was restricted almost exclusively to language unfit for public usage.

"Nate, I know that's not Askani for 'the coast is clear'," she called up in a harsh whisper.

"Might as well come up here," he called down. "Cannonball, don't blast."

The three joined Mirrin and Cable on the small outcropping.

"I think I'd rather some of them have been taking pot shots at us before," Alex mumbled as he watched what were probably three dozen soldiers lined up in ready formation in the bowl below. "That way we could have thinned their numbers out a little. Where did they all come from?"

"They've been here a while," Cable replied. "They don't look like they're recharging."

Domino checked her watch. "The Blackbird should be here soon."

"Can you mind-call them - or Jean - and warn them?" Alex asked. He wasn't sure about the answer - all this time and telepathy was still a bit of a mystery to him.

"While we don't know for certain that there is a telepath here or not," Mirrin explained, shaking her head. "We can't take the risk that the psionic motion would be detected..." She trailed off, then perked up. "<Remember Paloi Lake?>"

Cable's eyebrows furrowed for a moment and then he broke into a grin. "It just might work."

"Anytime you feel like cluing us in," Domino sighed tiredly.

"And ruin the surprise?" Cable asked almost mirthfully. He pointed towards his left. "Cannonball, go with Mirrin and Domino. Alex, come with me. We're going to split up. I'm going to mind-call Jean and Mirrin's going to be the decoy. We'll meet up afterwards. Go!"

Mirrin took off before Domino could voice a protest and she raced to catch up.

"Uh, Sister?" Cannonball called ahead where the two women were climbing over rocks. "Where're we going?"

"A quarter of the way around the bowl from whence we were," Mirrin replied.

"This isn't going to be one of those decoys where the three of us are going to be running for our lives until the plane lands, is it?" Domino asked and then groaned inwardly. Mirrin was smiling that crooked smile that Nathan got when Domino would ask him those sorts of questions back in their Wild Pack days. If this ended up being a re-run of Nicaragua...

"Not if we are successful," Mirrin answered as she looked over her shoulder.

"Well, at least it's a better answer than 'oh, ye of little faith'."

"Here is good," Mirrin said and stopped, then tried to climb the nearest outcropping. "Ah, Master Guthrie, could I get some assistance? I can't see the ledge well enough in the dark to teleport up there."

"Yes, Sister," Cannonball replied, then paused as he realized that agreement meant putting his hands on the woman.

"She's not a nun, Guthrie," Domino chuckled. "You can touch her and not be damned to hell."

Sam was immensely grateful for the darkness that hid his furious blush.

"That's enough, thank you," Mirrin said with a smile after Cannonball finally hoisted her by the waist until she could climb on her own. "Feel free to join me up here."

Cannonball turned to Domino, inwardly praying that he didn't have to give his former teacher a lift up. Especially since Domino knew exactly how much she was embarrassing the hell out of him.

"I'm gonna go over there," Domino replied, indicating a lower outcropping, trying to hide her amusement at Cannonball's obvious inner distress. No need to rub it in too much. "Stay close to Mirrin."

Surveying the scene below, Mirrin started to work. "This might tickle," she warned.

Almost exactly across from the trio, Alex and Cable watched the scene below. The soldiers were unmoving, eerie in their stillness.

"How will you know when it's safe?" Alex whispered.

"You'll see."

A moment later, he felt a tingle run down his spine. "Nathan..."

"That's our sign. Watch." Cable gestured with his chin to the spot where their tiny group had split up.

Suddenly, without so much as a flicker, five forms appeared. Alex had seen Professor Xavier's telepathic projections before, and Psylocke had gotten pretty good at projecting herself where she was not, but these were truly impressive replicas of the five of them.

Alex was dumbfounded, however, to see the projection of himself jump up to the top of the bowl ridge, hands glowing, and fire a plasma bolt down upon the regiments of foreign soldiers below. Mirrin had never seen him in action, didn't even know that he had a uniform, yet the projection version was correct down to the expression on his face when he fired his blasts.

"How'd she..." but his voice tailed off as it became apparent that Cable wasn't listening. Alex suspected that he was trying to mind-call Jean.

A laser blast brought his attention back to the scene before him. The laser was from the suddenly active soldiers below, most of who seemed to be mobilizing towards the spot that the projections had just vacated.

From her perch, Domino watched with concern. The troops were marching quickly up the dirt road and would soon be at the same elevation as they were. Should any of the troops break formation to chase after the five of them, they'd be in for one hell of a battle. She felt for her gun, which was where it was supposed to be but still felt quite insufficient.

"Where're they goin'," Cannonball asked Mirrin as the robot troops marched forward without even pausing to look in the direction they were standing in. Although, with their mirrored faces, Sam wasn't sure they could look at all.

"They are following their quarry down the path we ourselves came." The Askani woman was not even facing the action, however. Instead, she was leaning against the rock, eyes closed in concentration. "Their unfamiliarity with the terrain in addition to their limited climbing abilities should buy us some time. Especially if we can get them some distance away."

"Sister..." Sam began hesitantly. "How come none of the robots came after us?"

"They're following the freshest psi tracks, if I've got it right," Domino answered as she hopped down from her perch. "If you're getting shot at from three sides, you go for the one where you can still smell the gunpowder."

Mirrin opened her eyes and nodded. "An ancient and worthy strategy, except when battling psionic powers."

"How come I was carrying my old flamethrower," Domino asked after a moment. "And how'd you know what Havok looks like?"

"My images were based on how you see yourself in battle," Mirrin explained as she jumped down. "Can you see Nathan and Alex?"

"Ah think Ah see Alex lightin' the way," Cannonball reported. "Can you teleport them here?"

"I need close proximity, if not physical contact," Mirrin replied with a quick shake of her head.

The trio waited, watching the remaining robot troops reform ranks in the bowl below. Only about a dozen of the troops had marched past them, so the numbers were still close to being suicidally imbalanced, Domino decided, but not quite at that critical mass that she'd fight Nathan if he wanted to attack them. If they were going to have to avoid an energy-based offense, they were a little light on the weaponry, however, so she hoped Nate had had a good conversation with Jean.

"What now?" Domino asked once their impromptu team was together again.

"Blackbird's still about a half-hour away," Cable reported. "But it's going to land somewhere else."

"Didn't trust your casualty approximations?"

Cable shrugged, that 'you can't expect to fight a war without killing' shrug that often accompanied any discussion of the X-Men, at least when he wasn't in the mood to argue about it. "Let's get going."

"Are we going to run into those robots?" Cannonball wondered aloud as they started to climb back down to the trail they had abandoned earlier. "Surely they must've figured out that they're chasin' ghosts by now."

"We're not going back the way we came," Alex replied, hoping that that would solve their problems.

"We shall no doubt run into a few," Mirrin added, trying to balance after stumbling on a loose rock. "But that is better than running into all."

The group started walking along the trail again. The path was less treacherous geographically, but it was entirely through ground completely visible from above and even the slightest noise was grounds for falling into combat formation with arms drawn. Finally they reached the point where they would have to move away from the edge of the mountains and into open ground and the group paused, intending to wait until the plane arrived before moving out into an area where there was absolutely no protection except for isolated rock groupings. They stood pressed against the rock wall, relaxed but ready.

"There's the plane," Domino said, pointing up as a blur sped overhead. All that was visible was a patch of darkness against the otherwise star-filled night, but a strong gust of wind blew sand in all directions.

"Let's go," Cable ordered, taking one last look around and above. "Alex, start."

If they weren't at risk of fire from behind, Alex could have lit the way in what was fast becoming pitch darkness of the moonless night. But now they would be running a series of flat sprints between rock formations. He just hoped he didn't trip.

The rock groupings weren't large enough for everyone to hide behind, so they leapfrogged in pairs with Cable by himself. By the last one, after which everything would be an open dead run, Alex ventured a look behind him. "Wonder if they'll know where to find us."

"Ah really don't think that's gonna be a problem," Cannonball hissed as he and Mirrin became the last to arrive. "The sound of gunfire'll give us away."

Turning around, they could see two dozen or so soldiers, arms poised at the ready, running towards them in formation. The soldiers started firing even before they were within range. Cable and Domino started to return fire as Cannonball blasted into the air and Mirrin pulled Alex behind the rock.

"Ahh!" Cannonball cried out as a laser shot hit his shoulder and he fell from the air to the ground. He had been blasting, so it was just the concussion, not an actual wound, but it didn't matter. The shock, Cannonball decided, was for the moment worse than the pain.

Mirrin grabbed the stunned Cannonball and pulled him behind her. "Extend your blast field, Samuel. Reflect and repel, don't absorb." Right arm braced as a shield, she pointed her left at the soldiers. Blasts of light issued from the metal ribbons on her extended hand while the bracelet on her other wrist seemed to be generating some sort of small shield.

Cannonball nodded mutely and with a deep breath, blasted up again. Considering the situation, he realized he'd be better running defense than offense and moved closer to Cable and Domino.

Domino felt for her extra clip without ceasing to fire, counting on her luck to avoid getting shot as she stood above the glowing border of Cannonball's blast shield. But while her luck (and the blast field) held, her offense didn't. "Hey, Nate, is there any part of them that doesn't deflect whatever we shoot?"

"Insides of elbows, backs of knees..." he replied as he threw up a telekinetic bubble to shield them from the laser fire. Without his bigger guns, he felt like he was flinging pebbles.

I hate this, I hate this, I hate this... "Would setting myself to 'deep fry' help?" Alex asked, hands glowing.

"Isn't that just what they want?" Sam asked in reply, still half-crouched before Domino from when he had been blasting. His shoulder still smarted and he idly wondered how sore it would be the following day.

"These aren't Harvesters," Mirrin called over. "I'll cover you." She nodded at Cable, who pulled back the shield to leave Mirrin and Alex exposed. She stood in front of him, crouching as Cannonball had, to allow Alex to fire his plasma blasts.

"Ugh, burning flesh," Domino groused as the last of the soldiers fell.

"Ah thought you said these weren't human," Cannonball accused as they started running in the direction the plane had been traveling.

"They're not. But their skin is," Cable answered. "Backup's on its way."

"You got the Blackbird?"

"No point in hiding psi patterns now," he replied, not breaking his gallop.

Running through open desert meant that seeing and being seen were equally possible, so it was with great relief that Alex reported that he saw help on the horizon just as Domino called out that the next wave of troops were closing in from the other side.

The three groups met explosively. Mirrin was shielding a noticeably depleted Alex, supplementing his weakening plasma blasts with her own weapons as Gambit, Wolverine, Cyclops, and Iceman caught up to them. Cable's telekinetic shield was showing its first signs of softening under the barrage, but before the tell-tale smell of ozone got too strong, an ice wall bought the group time to run.

"Ay'el, get Alex out of here," Cable called as the laser blasts broke through the icy barrier. "He's done all he can." Left unsaid was that Alex was now wobbly on his feet and would slow down their retreat to the plane.

Alex heard Mirrin mutter something in a language he didn't understand as she grabbed his hand and dragged him towards Cable. His nephew let out something sounding suspiciously like a string of curses as she reached out for him as well. And then the world shimmered.


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