Future Pluperfect: Chapter 11
As the last of the sun's rays peeked over the horizon, the group assembled. It had been a long afternoon in more ways than one. Death and destruction had long been a fact of life among the X-Men, but the sheer scale of innocent lives lost and the manner in which they were lost... the team was subdued.
Mirrin pointed with one outstretched arm at the horizon, then traced the sun's path back towards its noon position, seemingly memorizing the route.
"You sure you can do this?" Wolverine asked as he watched her. "Don't want you bringing us back a month or two. The sun's position..."
"...changes with the seasons," Mirrin finished with a smile that showed no irritation with being questioned about her abilities. "In my own time, I am from not far from here. I know where the sun will be. We need eight hours, correct?"
"Bodies've been cooling about six, so considerin' how fast the killing went, that'll give us time to get set," Wolverine agreed. He reached for Psylocke's hand, completing the chain. Mirrin needed contact to share her mutant ability, much in the same way as did Shadowcat and Nightcrawler.
"Strengthen your mental shields," Mirrin warned. "The astral plane is quite noisy." With that, she closed her eyes and the air around the group shimmered.
A moment later, the warm sun was high above them.
Because of the lateness of the hour and her need to see the sun on the horizon, Mirrin had had to teleport them back through time from a hill closer to the Blackbird than to the town and in the opposite direction from which the Kurioon detachment would be arriving.
"All right, guys, remember what we're supposed to do," Cyclops cautioned. The plan, such as it was, had been formulated before they had jumped through time. It necessarily had to be loose, but certain elements were in place. "Stay in contact and be careful."
Rogue, Wolverine, and Psylocke made their way to the tall fruit trees to the far side of town. Rogue flew slightly ahead and Wolverine took up the rear, with Psylocke's ninja-trained silent footfalls in between.
The plan was to split into two groups, one to do the bulk of the fighting against the Kurioon and the other to pick up the overflow while defending the town. And as much as Wolverine loathed hanging back as part of the second wave, he understood the practicality of it. The four who had stayed behind were the best marksmen of the group while he, Rogue, and Psylocke were best suited for close combat, should it get to that. And it would. Considering how unevenly the previous battles had gone, Wolverine had no doubt that he would be seeing more action than he would otherwise care to without going into berserker mode.
"Ah think the spot me 'n' Cannonball found before is still gonna be the best one," Rogue called over her shoulder to the other two as she slowed her flight speed to barely enough to stay aloft. "There's a couple of buildings standing now, but all they do is block off the view from where the people are goin' to be. More cover for us, but only on the back flank."
"Well, that will make things easier," Psylocke mused aloud as she moved past some very tall trees that were obviously not meant to bear fruit. "I don't expect the locals will be that thrilled to see us blowing up their environs."
Once the trio reached their pre-determined hiding spot, Wolverine settled down on an old stump and lit a cigar.
"Don't smoke that thing now," Psylocke exclaimed, waving her hand in disgust. Rogue just snorted.
"Why not? Who's gonna notice," Wolverine asked with a playful smile that really looked just cruel. "You're blockin' everyone, right?"
"I was going to wait until we needed to be blocked," Psylocke said, then sighed as she realized the trap had already closed around her. As if Australia hadn't taught her enough about Wolverine's penchant for blackmail.
"Consider this practice," he said with a smile as he waved the cigar towards her.
Back on the hill, Gambit, Cannonball, Mirrin, and Cyclops stood waiting.
"Do you want me to bring us to our spot," Mirrin asked Cyclops, gesturing vaguely towards where they would need to be.
"Actually, no," he answered thoughtfully. "Can you shield us if we walk through the town?"
"Y'mean just march through the square?" Gambit asked as his eyebrow shot up.
"I want to get a lay of the land now that everything's standing. Case the joint, if you want to put it in familiar terms," Cyclops explained with a wry smile. "I don't think we're going to be lucky enough to keep the fighting away from civilization, so when we fall back, I'd like to have the advantage of familiar territory. Heaven knows, we'll need what we can get. Can you do that, Mirrin?"
"With ease," she replied, nodding at the idea. "Shall we go?"
The plans for defense of the town proper had been made somewhat loosely, the better to allow for flexibility in the wake of a village not yet destroyed. However, Gambit mused as they walked purposely down the only road that lead into the village square, nobody had anticipated the level of activity that had been interrupted when troops from the future stormed in on an otherwise pleasant, sunny day.
Children and animals ran about, cars and wagons rode by, and old men sat under trees drinking cold water and yelling greetings at passers-by. Telepathically shielded by Mirrin, the quartet walked through the streets with their trained eyes surveying the scene.
All of a sudden, a chicken flew straight at Cannonball. Knowing how strange it would look to any unsuspecting witnesses if the bird suddenly changed directions in mid-air, the young man jumped to try to avoid contact, knowing that if he blasted, he'd roast the creature. The other three couldn't help but laugh as the unknowing bird came back in the other direction for a second pass. "Ah traveled halfway 'cross the globe ta be chased by a chicken. Coulda done that back in Cumberland."
Gambit's laugh cut off abruptly as he happened to glance to his right. Three boys were shooting marbles, a fourth was scratching out the score with a rock against the nearby wall. He felt for the marbles in his pocket and squeezed them tightly.
"It is important to never forget that there is always more than the fight," Mirrin said gently next to him. When Gambit looked up, he could see that her eyes were still trained on the laughing children. For some strange reason, it eased his mind a bit to see her affected thusly. Even if the baby in the Ukraine had been a bomb, it was an image he wouldn't soon forget.
The rest of the walk through town was uneventful, save for the quartet nearly getting run over by the truck that Mirrin had tested out the EMP-blast on.
"Are you sure this is the best way to do things?" Mirrin asked after Rogue radioed to let them know the other group was in position. They were most of the way through town now and the bustle had faded to a more gentle level. A group of older women sat in a circle shucking beans into a bowl and talking to and over each other. "The villagers would most definitely be interested in defending their homes and families..."
"Problem is that they're gon' think that they gotta defend themselves 'gainst us," Gambit fairly spat, also watching the women. "Dere ain't no good thing as a good mutie. If we let them do what they will, they'd throw us to the Kurioon and then fight them on their own."
"It's better to fight a one-front war than a two-front war," Cyclops added in agreement with his teammate. Soon, they were standing in a clearing and Cannonball pointed out which trees had the best sightlines before blasting up to check on the imminent approach of the Kurioon soldiers. "I'd rather suspect the townspeople of anti-mutant bias than have that suspicion confirmed. Remember what happened in China."
China had been almost comical. The X-Men had chased the Harvesters into rice paddies and away from a large marketplace. On the way to the Blackbird, they had been pelted with rocks, melons, and a few substances they didn't want to think about. Mirrin had had to teleport them back to the plane.
"I am beginning to understand Nathan's... displeasure," Mirrin sighed and shook her head as Cyclops raised an eyebrow at her choice of words. "It is no wonder Apocalypse reigned supreme if his opponents chose to busy themselves with petty differences than take on a common enemy. It is a decadence that they will not survive to regret."
Cannonball flew back quickly through the trees. "They're on their way," he called ahead. "Three groups, Harvesters up front and energy storage tank in the rear just like the Sister said. They've got a new kind of robot. Not a lot of them, though."
"Do they look like the Colorless, except with red markings on their helmets," Mirrin asked carefully.
"Ah think so, it's hard to tell with the sun glare," Cannonball confirmed. "They're carrying backpacks of some kind."
Gambit poked his head out of the tree he was hiding in when Mirrin cursed loudly. "Dese are the next kind, right?"
"Yes. Tactically, they are not much different than the Colorless, except that they are not as slow-moving," the Askani replied absently as she tried to make telepathic contact with Rogue, Wolverine, and Psylocke. "But it is with those rear packs that we will have to be concerned. Only the red-level robots carry them. They contain an external battery as well as explosives. The Colorless were programmed to run away if their internal battery ran down, but these have a much longer active life."
"That would explain why the last of the Harvesters were left to defend themselves. But...," Cyclops prompted.
"But this second battery has a dual purpose," Mirrin finished. "Once the robot is incapacitated, the timer is activated on the combustible and the battery becomes part of the fuel."
"Sounds like one of Arcade's toys," Cannonball mused as he fiddled with his goggles. A moment later, he blasted straight up to check the approaching army's position.
"How long's the fuse," Gambit asked as he re-arranged his position in the tree. Idly he wondered if the cherry tree a few yards back might not be a preferable choice.
"Ninety seconds, but we treat it as sixty," she answered, taking out the plastic explosive she had in her pack and tossing half of it up to Cannonball, who had swooped down low enough to be below the tree line even if he wasn't close enough to contribute anything to the conversation. "Because of the way the power is routed throughout their system, they will keep moving even after the countdown has begun. Red-levels have been known to go off even as they were firing their own weapons."
"The charge couldn't be too bad, right? They'd be taking out their own side if they went off while in formation," Cyclops mused, completing his by now rote checklist of the contents of his utility belt pockets.
"Friendly fire is not a consideration of the Kurioon. They are all replaceable," Mirrin replied sourly. "The blast is extreme. These are transport troops, however, and as such are not in endless supply. They do send off a warning to the other robots, a reverse homing signal of sorts. Wolverine might hear it, although the rest of us cannot."
"So what if we're not 'round de Wolverine?" Gambit asked.
"If you see one start to twitch, run."
"Dat's not a comfort."
"It was not meant to be."
Cannonball came flying down from above. "A half-mile and closing," he reported. "Ah'm goin' to set them to scurrying." He rose into the air once more, keeping close to the tree line as he headed towards the Kurioon detachment.
"Enough chatter, people, they're on their way." Cyclops flicked the safety off his rifle.
Up in the air, once the immediate adrenaline run had been ridden out, Cannonball had time to think.
This, he mused to himself, was a Cable moment.
At some point in the past he couldn't quite remember, Sam had had enough down time to consider the differences in style of his three primary teachers. Careful consideration and minimal use of force was the way of Professor Xavier and his X-Men. Careful consideration and the application of 'necessary and sufficient' force was Magneto, even if that lesson had been taught while Magnus had been enemy and not mentor. But moments like these, when you realized that all the planning in the world wasn't going to matter if you didn't have a quick trigger finger, these were Cable moments.
"Ah hope you appreciate that Ah was payin' attention," he spoke aloud - as if Cable, back in New York (although considering that they were back in time, he could still be in Brazil), could somehow hear him.
He balled some of the plastic explosive Mirrin had given him. Another legacy of Cable's tutoring was the pop-caps he kept in one of his utility pockets - Sam didn't imagine Professor Xavier would be too thrilled to know that one of his minion carried detonators around on a routine basis.
Laws of projectile motion being what they were, and Sam an expert at being a projectile in motion, fifteen seconds would be just about the right time for the bomb to do damage to the soldiers in quick march below. Cannonball launched the ball at the middle group of soldiers and pulled his rifle around to be ready to pick off survivors.
"Fifteen seconds to contact," Mirrin warned the others. Cyclops nodded as the woman began what he suspected was some sort of Askani battle prayer. They were both hiding behind thick-trunked trees, parallel to each other and about ten yards ahead of where Gambit was perched in his tree.
Gambit, for his part, said his own prayer to an authority whose existence he sometimes doubted, at least away from the battlefield.
"...ten...nine...eight," Psylocke counted out loud. Mirrin had immediately passed on Cannonball's message, along with a suggestion for her to keep a telepathic ear out for her teammates. Psylocke had bitten back a curt response - this was hardly the first time she'd have to use her telepathic skills in combat - and instead concentrated on making sure their positioning was as sound as they thought it was. Wolverine has picked the spot and she was inclined to think that he knew what he was doing.
"You got the townsfolk covered?" Rogue asked, gesturing with her head towards the village.
"They won't hear a thing," she replied, reversing the way she was carrying her rifle so that it would be both easier accessed and more in the way.
Wolverine put his cigar out against a rock and stretched casually.
"...three...two...one," Cannonball muttered as he watched the explosion. Considering the amount of explosive he had used, the fireball was disproportionately large and he was close enough to feel the edge of what had probably been a very hot wind. "Musta hit a backpack."
The soldiers changed formation to deal with the wreckage. The front group of Harvesters and their Colorless bodyguards sped up their march, heading straight into the ambush laid out by Gambit, Cyclops, and Mirrin. The remnants of the middle group, of which there were mercifully few, were falling back.
The billowing smoke gave Cannonball a cloud cover by which he could blast closer to the third group, now halted.
Uh, Sister, when you have a minute, I have a question to ask, Cannonball thought in the direction of the Askani as he found more substantial cover. Alternating between the plasma charges and the rifle/pulse, he picked off robot soldiers from the middle group that were attempting to either fall back or speed up to join the others.
#What is it, Samuel?#
That last group... There are a couple of soldiers that I didn't see before. They seem to be the ones in charge. They don't look like the others.
A long pause, long enough for Sam to wonder if something had happened so that Mirrin was unable to answer him and debate whether he should return to where the trio was probably about to engage the onrushing Harvesters and Colorless.
#Will you let me see through your eyes?# Mirrin asked hesitantly, as if she knew the gravity of her request. #It will save time and prevent possible errors in identification.#
A pause. Come on in, Sam agreed, not bothering to hide his trepidation.
Letting someone in like this wasn't a comfortable feeling, even were Mirrin not still a relative stranger. During the battles against the Phalanx, Professor Xavier had needed to 'borrow' Sam's mind and that hadn't been a pleasant experience. Not only for the powerlessness - it meant leaving open access to all that you were - but also because the sharing meant a sudden shifting in visual perspective that left Sam terribly nauseous. During their X-Force days, Cable had only resorted to such a tactic as a last resort.
A moment later, Sam felt the barest whisper across his consciousness.
#Thank you for trusting me...#
Not for the first time, Sam noted that Mirrin's mental voice was much gentler than her spoken one. It was the same with Cable, he mused idly, but not with any of the X-Men's telepaths. Jean, Betsy, and the Professor all had a strident tone to their telepathic voices that Sam found off-putting.
#Oh, flonq,# Mirrin muttered from somewhere inside his ears. #Dayspring was right.#
And this means...? The other reason that Sam disliked sharing headspace was that it was a one-way connection. In return for the loan of his eyes and mind, the least he could hope for in return was some special insight. In Mirrin's case, pearls of Askani wisdom especially might prove useful especially now.
#It means that the soldiers are being controlled by a telepath. At least these soldiers are,# she explained ruefully. #The one with the strange helmet is your missing Geneva woman... Samuel, how closely do you follow the tenets of your Professor Xavier?#
He knew immediately where this was headed and fought the rebellion in his stomach. I've killed, Sister. I don't enjoy it, and I'd rather not do it again, but I've done it.
#I understand. I am not ordering you and I would never force you to do something that is so contrary to your principles,# she answered. Sam was comforted to hear the lack of recrimination in her mental voice - or maybe it was just the gentleness of it in and of itself.
#My ethics may be different than yours, Samuel, but to take advantage of your mental hospitality by telepathically forcing you to do anything is far beyond anywhere I would go willingly.#
I didn't mean... Well, maybe I did a little. But I was more thinking that you'd be disappointed or something, he answered back a little sheepishly.
#Understood,# she replied with something Sam was fairly sure was humor. #And you won't disappoint me... As for our more immediate concern, The cyborgs are programmed already, so removal of the telepath won't immediately render them helpless. But it would prevent them from easily changing objectives.#
Sam nodded, then shook his head at using a non-verbal gesture in a conversation with an unseen party. He knew what disabling the telepath would accomplish. The system of radio communication between the cyborgs had been explained to all of them, but Forge had yet to come up with an adequate means of disrupting the transmissions.
So it's not absolutely necessary, but it would really help should we get a leg up in this dance. Sam wasn't sure whether or not to be amused at the subtlety of Mirrin's request. She wasn't really asking him to act counter to his beliefs, just making it really hard to justify not doing so. Or maybe it was the circumstances that were making it hard.
# 'In times of struggle, pacifism is a theory dreamed of only by philosophers, cowards, and fools. The first will lose all that he has won, the second will regain nothing of what he has lost, and the third is incapable of understanding the difference.'#
So am I a philosopher, a coward, or a fool?
#You are among the few Nathan respects, and that is no small honor. Dayspring may resent much of what he has learned from the Sisterhood, but he understands that one must first be a victor before one may be a philosopher. There is a middle passage between fighting for one's principles and fighting without principles. The battle itself is the proving ground not only of the man, but also of the morals by which he stands.#
He who thinks best, wins.
#Not always, but enough.# Sam heard her chuckle gently. #And that concludes today's lesson in Askani philosophy. Don't tell Dayspring; he'll think I'm trying to turn you into Blaquesmith and then he'll be most unbearable.#
It'll be our secret. Sam's smile faded when he felt a sudden tickle as Mirrin withdrew hurriedly and he mentally smacked himself for forgetting that she was also supposed to be one of three fighting off a battle unit. Telepath or not, it wasn't a good idea to keep her distracted for too long.
It was only after the place where Mirrin's thoughts had sat in his mind had felt empty that Sam realized that she had never actually made the request. She was leaving it up to him.
Down below and behind him, the confrontation continued.
A trap, ludicrous in its simplicity, had been laid by Cyclops and Gambit. Based on his experience with the rebellion in the future, Cyclops had used his optic blasts to dig a pit in the road while the Gambit had found enough leafy tree branches to cover up the hole. Neither of the men thought the trap would work, let alone to the extent that it did. But a dozen Colorless soldiers, programmed by someone who had never seen such verdant locations, were eliminated from the field before a shot was even fired.
Cyclops was chasing the rest of the detachment towards Rogue, Wolverine, and Psylocke when Gambit realized that Mirrin was looking a little less distracted.
"Back amongst the living, hein?" He watched as she shook her head to clear the fog that invariably went with the end of her presumed psyche-hopping. "Though you're doin' all right without payin' the enemy any mind. Pun intended."
Mirrin raised an eyebrow in confusion. Like all telepaths, she was expert at doing two things at once. But when one of the two was warfare, her lifetime of soldier's training meant that she could operate almost on auto-pilot. "What did I do?"
Gambit gestured at the smoke pouring out of the pit he and Cyclops had created. The air was thick with the now-recognizable smell of destroyed Kurioon - part cooked meat and part acrid odor of plastics and metal. "Lit the fire on a clam bake. Don't crack nice when you hit 'em, though."
Mirrin looked no less confused for the explanation, but glanced behind her compatriot, felt the residue of the plastic explosive on her fingers, and drew her own conclusions. "Where is Cyclops?" Even as she asked, she sent out a mental probe.
"Tryin' to set the rest of them up wit' Wolverine. We oughta join the party," he answered, gesturing in the direction Cyclops had traveled.
Mirrin reached for Gambit's arm as she stood up. "I want to get there ahead of the rest of the troops. The worst is yet to come." With that, she reached out telepathically for the rest of the team and the two disappeared into thin air.
Above and behind the vanishing pair, Cannonball perched in his hiding spot and pulled his goggles up so that he could bring the gun sight to his eye. He had seen a picture of the Swiss telepath only once, a bad photo that had come from her driver's license, but the resemblance was obvious. The tired frustration of the official photograph had been replaced with a sort of angry calm. From a distance, costume aside, she looked normal enough. But with the sights trained on her eyes, Cannonball could see all of the changes wrought to the once-innocent victim. There was no humanity left. The woman wore a helmet that Cannonball suspected was more useful as a transmitter than as protection. The red-marked cyborgs surrounding her were more than sufficient for that.
The sight's magnifier brought his target into clear focus, but it did not provide such clarity for his peace of mind.
Years ago, a young Sam Guthrie had joined the New Mutants because he could not justify killing anyone at the behest of his then-employer Sebastian Shaw. In contrast to Shaw, Xavier had preached peaceful conflict resolution, even if it meant sacrificing yourself for the survival of a population that would just as soon do you in as would the enemy. Xavier would accept anyone who came seeking sanctuary, be they government killers like Wolverine or gentle suburban kids like Kitty Pryde. All you had to do in return was swear not to take a life unless other lives were at stake. And even then, refusal to kill was acceptable.
Young Sam Guthrie had grown up a little since then. He had seen that oath to preserve life cost as many souls as it saved as, time and again, opponents took advantage of the X-Men's reluctance to use lethal force. Frustration had led him to follow Cable even as the rest of the New Mutants had fallen away. Cable believed in the dream, but he was too battle-scarred to accept Xavier's means to their common end. And so Sam and the others that would become X-Force had been trained to shoot guns, blow up buildings, and, in short, terrorize those that would bring harm to mutantkind.
But Cable had been careful. He had never put his charges in a position where they were faced with having to break the oath they had taken to Professor X. They could do all the property damage they wanted, and usually did. But when it came time to end a life, that was left to Cable or Domino, if possible.
At some point, Cable had told him once, Sam would have to decide whether killing was an acceptable option. It's an irrevocable decision with permanent consequences far more severe than breaking a promise to Xavier, and Cable had warned him it was not one to be taken lightly. It was a choice that had been taken out of the hands of both Cable and Domino, but if the kids in X-Force were lucky, they'd never have to be faced with that decision. Sam had considered himself lucky, in a way, that he'd joined the senior X-team before having to cross that particular bridge.
Right now, however, Sam couldn't help but feel as if his luck had just run out. Shooting to wound wasn't an option with a telepath.
"Ah'm sorry," he whispered, but he wasn't sure to whom he was apologizing.
Down on the ground, the battle had moved from the trees to the road leading into the town itself. The Harvesters had been destroyed, but the Colorless were not backing down and retreating the way they had in the past. Thankfully for the X-Men, Forge's new weapon was proving to be more effective than its previous incarnations.
Gambit and Mirrin shot their way towards Cyclops, who muttered a greeting into his radio. Once they reached him, they could see Rogue fighting hand-to-hand with a pair of soldiers in the near distance.
"Cannonball in one piece?" Cyclops asked without turning around to face Mirrin.
Before she could answer, Mirrin winced as the psionic screams of a telepath in her death throes echoed in her skull.
"Just fine," she replied as they started to jog towards the next phase of the battle.
By the time the trio joined the group, a dozen more Colorless had arrived and the X-Men were clearly tiring. As they lost ground, the battle had meandered to the very edge of the town itself.
"Red-levels approaching," Cannonball called out over the radio sets as he blasted ahead of the incoming troops. He saw two Colorless approaching Gambit from behind. The Cajun seemed to have the pair in front of him under control, so Cannonball swooped down and picked up the two would-be ambushers and carried them off by the scruffs of their necks (really the edge of their body armor).
After Gambit finished with the pair he was dealing with, he looked around for where to head next. Spotting Cyclops firing away with both optic blast and EMP rifle at a Red soldier, he ran towards the pair.
Now that the team was reunited, they had been almost able to keep the Colorless from marching further towards the town. But the arrival of the Red soldiers was shifting the balance once more back in favor of the Kurioon.
"Why are they not stopping?" Cyclops called out over the radio. "The Harvesters are destroyed; there's nothing else to do here."
"Why do they desecrate the bodies of the victims after the Harvesters are through," Psylocke asked rhetorically in response. She saw a Red soldier bearing down on Rogue from behind. "Damned things have no honor whatsoever," she muttered as she took aim at its back. "And they bring us down to their level." The Red cyborg turned around after Psylocke's plasma blast hit it, giving Rogue a chance to fly off, but otherwise seemed unharmed.
Mirrin and Cannonball found themselves back-to-back as two Red cyborgs bore in on either side. "My back is your back," Cannonball called over to her. "When they get closer, I'll blast us out."
A pair of Colorless joining in made it a small circle closing around the pair. "I suggest a quicker get-away," Mirrin called back as she grabbed Cannonball's arm and teleported them a few feet away.
Wolverine was slashing through a pair of Colorless when he started to hear a high-pitched whistle. He didn't know how long it has been sounding before he was able to hear it over the din of the battle, and it took a few seconds to realize what it must be. "One of them's gonna blow," he called out as he scanned the scene to figure out which Red-level soldier it could be.
"Clear out, clear out," Cyclops yelled out over the radio. "We can come back after it blows. Clear out!"
None of them were standing immobile and all of them were in some sort of combat mode. Figuring that his healing factor would cover up for any mistake, Wolverine ran towards a pair to see if the whistling noise grew louder. It didn't, so Wolverine looked for the ones standing closest to teammates. Psylocke was still within arm's length of one.
Cannonball grabbed Cyclops under his arms and flew up into the air. Rogue dropped from the sky towards Mirrin and Gambit as they ran towards Psylocke and Wolverine closed in from the other side.
"That's the one," Wolverine screamed ahead, pointing to the one nearest Psylocke. "Get them outta here, Aska..."
The explosion was deafening, the light blinding. Even hovering over the tree line, Cannonball felt the hot air and flying tree shards bounce off of the blast shield that protected him and Cyclops. After the scorching wind died down, they dropped down to find the others.
Rogue had been thrown through the trees, her invulnerability making it a harder trip on the trees than on herself. She was making her way back through the path she had accidentally cleared, her uniform torn and shredded. Wolverine lay face-down, still smoldering from burns and covering in open wounds that were still horrifying even in full knowledge of the power of his healing factor. He groaned after a feeble attempt to move.
"Stay there," Cyclops told him gently as he knelt down next to Wolverine and pulled away a rock that was lying underneath his head. "Nobody's coming."
"Where're the Sister and Gambit and Psylocke?" Cannonball looked around. There was an eerie calm that was all the more so for having come right after the deafening cacophony of extended warfare.
"Anybody dere?" Cyclops' radio crackled as if on cue. "Gambit to anyone..."
"Where are you," Cyclops stood as he held the mouthpiece up from where it had fallen to his jaw. "Are you three okay?"
"Next to de plane and I'm fine, 'xcept for a coupla cuts 'n' bruises and a set of deep-fried body armor. Gonna have to make it back by foot, so it'll be a few..."
"What happened to..." Cyclops trailed off.
"Didn't get to Psylocke 'til after the blast went off." Gambit's voice sounded raw and he coughed hard and then stifled a groan. "Askani was flashin' us in-and-out, like a strobe light, until we got t'her. Den we popped over here. Askani took one look at Psylocke and took 'er home."
"Home? Back to Westchester?" Rogue asked as she fiddled with her radio set, surprised it still worked. She re-fastened it to a more secure part of her uniform. "Y'all were right next to the plane. The Blackbird's got enough toys..."
"But we ain't got no doctor," Gambit pointed out. "And Psylocke's gonna need a lot more'n dat."
"Gambit, stay there. Cannonball's coming to fetch you," Cyclops said, nodding to the young man before he blasted off. "I think I see a couple of Colorless coming our way. We're going to have to do this ourselves, it looks like."
At some distant point in the past, probably during his stint with the Avengers, Hank McCoy had come to wonder about how colors affected how something was viewed. Sure, everyone knows you shouldn't paint classroom walls yellow and so forth, but there were more subtle aspects. Would Nightcrawler be any different if he were green, for instance.
Nowadays, these sorts of thoughts - especially any involving dying Kurt different colors - only came when he was as he was now. Too wired from the recent mission in Brazil to go to sleep, but too tired to do anything really productive.
And so he was here, at his desk in the med lab, staring transfixed at a three-dimensional model of a double helix as he pressed the key that changed the color scheme of the model. The strands were shades of blue, then green, then purple, then some hideous multicolored scheme that he was sure he hadn't programmed into the projector, then red... but none of the color changes brought about any inspiration. The genome damaged by the Legacy Virus was still incurable no matter what color Hank made it.
They had gotten back from Brazil without any sort of injury requiring supervised medical care. Jean and Bobby knew where the bandages were and Ororo could be trusted to seek help if her wrist started to feel any worse. As a group, they had raided the fridge, tended to both wounds and weapons, made sure things would be ready for the next team to use, and then headed off to bed. All except Hank McCoy, who ignored Bobby's frown of disapproval and headed down to the underground complex.
Since he was going to be up for a while, Hank had sent young Guthrie to sleep an hour or two early before he had to leave for Lebanon, telling Sam that he'd keep both the monitor room and the med lab doors open. Technically, Hank should have officially moved his bouncing blue rear into the monitor room for duty an hour before the alarm had finally sounded, but his athletic prowess had gotten him in position from the med lab without too much delay.
That was hours ago. Alex was at the monitor now, having gotten up after only a few hours of sleep complaining of hunger. Of course, Alex had slept most of the ride home from Brazil, so it probably added up to sufficient rest. And even if it wasn't, Alex being a Summers, he was probably dozing in front of the screens anyway.
The DNA model, set to change colors every ninety seconds even when Hank wasn't playing with it, was back to being a multi-colored monstrosity when the air around it started to shimmer. Hank had had his back to the projection at the time, so the significance didn't register until a telepathic howl reverberated in his skull.
Shaking away his blurry vision, Hank spun around and froze. Mirrin was standing next to the projector holding the limp body of Psylocke.
Springing into action, Hank scooped the fallen woman out of Mirrin's arms and carried her into the hospice part of the med-lab, depositing her on the nearest bed and running her over with the Shi'ar scanner before he even asked what happened.
"A bomb. She was too far away from anyone to be pulled away." Mirrin's voice was more a croak than anything else. Were the readings on the med scanner not so alarming, Hank would have done more than just ask over his shoulder whether the teleporter was hurt. But Psylocke's vital signs were negligible and the blood loss profound.
"What the hell... Mirrin, you look like you were the guest of honor at an auto-da-fé... oh," Alex's voice trailed off as he looked around from the doorway. The telepathic scream had no doubt woken everyone in the house and it had sent him flying from the monitor room. "Who's that... shit. How bad is she?"
"Bad," Mirrin replied weakly, then shook her head and leaned against the projector for a moment before standing up again. "Alex, can you fight? We need support."
"I'm about half-charged," he warned even as he nodded. "Let me go change." He spun around and nearly crashed into Jean, who had the good sense to telekinetically close the hospice room doors behind him before anyone else could arrive. Surface thoughts had told her all that she needed to know to pass on to the others as they showed up.
Alex returned in his uniform and Mirrin gave a meaningful glance to Jean before she reached for Havok and the two disappeared.
"Warren," Jean said without turning around, "we need to talk."
Domino had long ago gotten used to this. Which wasn't to say that it didn't piss her off to no end. Just that when Nathan suddenly went glassy-eyed and silent and proceeded to drag her someplace without either explaining or allowing her to grab her sunglasses, she at least knew he wasn't doing it solely to piss her off. If he wanted to do that, he had a separate list of quirks to employ.
They had been getting eerily domestic, the two of them. Sitting a little too closely in front of the television, watching "Young Frankenstein" (even though Nathan didn't get some of the ethnic jokes), when all of a sudden, the psi-link resonated like a plucked violin string and Nate got a blank look in his eyes, and Domino knew that she'd be watching the movie alone for a while.
Just before the end of the movie, Nathan had gotten up suddenly and with only a "come on" had grabbed his jacket and headed for the door. Twenty minutes later, here they were.
She gave him until they were passing the 125th Street exit of the West Side Highway to say something. But the exit came and went and the only noise that could be heard was the rhythmic thump-thump of wheels on the road.
"... so I told the White Rabbit that I sure as hell wasn't going to be eating any strange chocolates. I mean, I didn't let the kids go Trick-or-Treating, I couldn't very well indulge in taking candy from strangers myself, right? Although watching the neighbors try to Trick 'Star instead of Treating him might have been well worth checking for razor blades in the apples... On the other hand, Jimmy's a royal pain in the ass when he's on a sugar high..."
"Uh, Dom?" Nathan didn't take his eyes off the road, but Domino could feel his attention snapping back into place along their psi-link.
"Did I hear something, Monchichi? I could have sworn I heard something, but no... I mean, who else could it be? You've got your thumb in your mouth, else I'd think it was you talking."
"Dom, you can stop talking to the mirror ornament now." Now he did turn to face her and was rewarded with a frown that echoed along the link.
"Can I? Will you tell me what the flonq we're doing going ninety on the crossover to the Harlem River Drive for? Not that I mind the speed, especially since it's your parents who are going to have to pick up the ticket should we get pulled over..."
"Lebanon ended badly," he said simply, then gunned the accelerator to edge in front of a Toyota with New Jersey plates.
"So I figured," she switched immediately from pissed-off sarcastic to pissed-off businesslike. And it was what she had expected. "Is there a body count?"
"No," Nathan replied, frowning either at the situation or at the minivan that was doing sixty in the left lane. "Mirrin says that Gambit and Psylocke are in bad shape. The Blackbird should be landing in about an hour."
"Mirrin? That wasn't Jean you were spacing out with?" Domino didn't know why she hadn't thought it was Mirrin, except perhaps the notion that the Askani sister seemed content to work apart from Nathan at a level that most of the others weren't. In the time since they had all banded together to fight the Kurioon, Mirrin had not once sought Nathan's advice on any sort of battle plan. Nor, for that matter, had Nathan tried to do the same.
"She was talking to both of us."
Domino was less surprised that the three telepaths could hold a conference call from halfway across the globe. "What else did she have to say? You were off-planet for a while."
"The Kurioon has been busy," Nathan snorted with what Domino knew was self-recrimination. She swallowed her groan and started mentally watching the psi-link. "They're starting to produce Red-Levels. The good news is that there weren't a lot of them in Lebanon. The bad news is that the ones that were there were enough to send two of the team home on bio-beds."
"So we got lucky in Brazil?" The operation had run smoothly, except for the part where the Kurioon soldiers had seemingly anticipated their plan to surround them. But Havok had deep-fried the pair of soldiers that had snuck up behind Nathan and Jean and things had improved from there.
"Only in the sense that we were battling the decoy and not the real thing," Nathan answered bitterly. "Mirrin had to 'port everyone back in time to save the village. The Red-Levels were probably in test phase there."
"And they passed," Domino concluded, trying not to cringe as Nathan cut off an SUV in order to get into an EZPass lane.
"They passed," Nathan confirmed flatly. "But the team did knock out the telepath pulling the strings, so maybe that solves our mystery from Brazil."
"Does it? If Lebanon was happening at the same time as Brazil..."
"They weren't simultaneous. Consecutive maybe, but not simultaneous," he shook his head as he spoke and Domino wasn't sure if it was out of anger or frustration or just that peculiar jealous-thing he did when someone else got into heavy fighting and he wasn't involved.
The rest of the ride was in silence. Not the tense silence that Domino's monologue had interrupted earlier, instead a reflective silence of the sort that two professionals on their way to their jobs might appreciate.
As expected, the mansion was in some sort of frenzy. Storm met the pair upon arrival.
"I am glad that you are here," Storm said, although from past experience Domino wasn't sure whether the woman included her in the greeting. "Jean is with Cerebro, keeping contact with the Blackbird. Cyclops reports a safe exit, but I do not imagine that the tension here will dissipate until the team has returned."
As if on cue, a commotion from down the hall approached and Warren stormed past the trio in the foyer, Bobby hot on his heels.
"Leave me alone, Bobby! Just leave me the hell alone!" Before the younger man could catch up, Archangel lifted off into the sky with angrily beating wings.
"All I'm saying," Bobby called after him, "is that you have to be patient..." He trailed off and turned around to face the group. "Hank wanted me to keep Warren out of the med lab, not to send him into a headlong collision with the next flight out of Westchester County Airport," he muttered, more to himself than to them.
Nathan, Domino, and Storm knew that Bobby was making light only to cover up for his concern, but since none of the three were especially close to either Warren or Bobby, they said nothing. Drake understood their silence and shrugged.
"Psylocke's here?" Cable asked Storm as they moved through the house towards the downstairs complex. "I thought you said Jean was in contact with the Blackbird."
"She is," Drake confirmed as they passed through the kitchen and he grabbed an apple off of the counter. "Your pal gave us all migraines with her telepathic yodel when she teleported into the medlab with Betsy. Then she grabbed Alex and popped back to Lebanon. They're all on their way back now."
"She just appeared, changed passengers, and then disappeared?" Domino asked, raising an eyebrow. Although considering the tales the others had told, this really shouldn't have been that surprising.
"It doesn't sound any better even if you were there when it happened," Bobby replied, punching in the code to the downstairs entrance. "Once Betsy's out of danger, we'll be able to laugh about it. Except Alex. He's been retired from this for too long - he keeps getting surprised. I don't know why she didn't make a second trip for Gambit; Scott said to have the med lab ready for him as soon as we land."
"She's teleporting across time as well as place," Cable explained as they walked down the stairs. "It's hard enough by yourself, let alone with others."
Twenty minutes later, the siren sounded to indicate the imminent arrival of the Blackbird. Hank stood in the hangar with a bio bed floating next to him, the others standing close but not in the way.
The plane door opened and Rogue flew out, a pale and dazed Gambit laying prone in her arms. She placed him gently on his back on the bed, but Remy turned onto his side and let loose wracking coughs that produced blood and a pained groan. Shooing Rogue away, Hank placed a Shi'ar breathing mask over his patient's face and walked quickly with the bed towards the hangar door.
While everyone watched Rogue chase after the departing pair, the others disembarked. Some were a little bloodied, but all were dirty and visibly drained as they stood around the plane.
Domino saw that Mirrin stood off to the side, a little apart from the others, exchanging telepathic conversation with Cable if the matching stares were any indication.
Jean gently fingered a gash on Cyclops' cheek, her brow creased with worry.
"It's just a scratch," he said hoarsely, but gently. "How's Betsy?"
"If she lives through the night," Storm answered, "then her prognosis is quite good. The internal injuries were such that Henry postponed using the Shi'ar equipment on her external wounds until he was sure that all of the internal ones had been detected. After this crisis has passed - and it will pass," her voice was imperial in its emphasis, "then she shall be up and about in no time... But what of Remy?"
"Ribs," Alex replied as he rolled his neck until it popped loudly. He frowned at the noise and then began walking towards the showers. "He didn't say anything until they had already punctured something, the idiot."
"Gumbo's gotta get over this guilt crap," Wolverine growled as he followed Alex towards the showers. "Getting Rogue back won't do any good if she's visitin' his tombstone."
"Noticed that," Bobby agreed dryly and looked around. "You're missing someone, aren't you?"
"Ah'm here," Cannonball's voice came from the Blackbird. "Ah just thought Ah dropped somethin'." He poked his head out of the door, the rest of his body quickly following.
"Speaking of missing flyers," Jean said, clearing her throat gently and looked pointedly at Bobby. "Now that I've seen everyone safely back, I'm going to get Warren out whatever tree he's hiding in."
"What did you do, Bobby?" Cyclops asked after Jean had left.
"Why is it what I did? Why does it have to be my screw-up instead of Warren's being high-strung and emotional?" It was a complaint without conviction, however. "I was a little too effective in getting him to stop hovering over Hank."
Scott had known Bobby and Warren since they were all teenagers and knew that Bobby was probably right in sharing the blame. But he understood Warren's predicament - he himself was a royal bastard whenever Jean got hurt - so his only reply was a sigh and a nod of his head before he, too, went off in the direction of the showers. The others followed at their own pace.
Domino was still leaning against the wall when Cable turned to her. "I think there's coffee upstairs. And cookies."
"You're awfully mellow," Domino drawled as she pushed off the wall to follow. "Normally, you're jumping down people's throats to get the debrief done faster. This... this is post-coital, almost. Or post-debriefing, which is really about the same."
"If I hadn't gotten so much information out of Mirrin, I'd resent that remark," he answered back, narrowing his eyes at her comment. "If it eases your paranoia, we're going to need the coffee. It's going to be a long meeting."
Once they were in the kitchen, Domino fiddled with the handle of her coffee mug. "Why was Sam hiding in the plane?"
"You noticed that, too?" Nathan asked as he sat down.
"It was kind of hard not to," Domino snorted as she followed him to the table. True to form, there were bakery cookies on a plate already out. "Even if you weren't witness to all of the brawls that started over who was first out of the PACRAT. Sam hates flying on anything but his own steam."
"I don't know what that was about," Nathan sighed, pursing his lips. "He was shielding much more strongly than he normally does. If anything, his shields have gotten softer since he left X-Force, but why he was screwed down like that..."
"Does Mirrin know anything?"
"I didn't ask her. I'm not sure she'll tell me if I do. We might have to get it out of Sam," he said as he drained his cup.
"I thought you two had that 'keeping secrets' discussion," Domino said curiously.
"We did," Nathan confirmed. "If she was pulling some Askani trick, she is going to go to every length not to tell me. Especially after that talk."
"You're assuming she's the source of Sam's little moment." She reached for a cookie and bit delicately.
"She was a little... dodgy when we spoke," Nathan explained as he pushed the crumbs on his napkin around with his index finger. "That, and Sam didn't look like it was his usual X-Men inferiority complex that was bothering him."
"Where did we screw up to get that effect?" Domino mused, although she didn't mean to sound so full of levity.
There was silence for a moment, but neither of them needed the psi-link to tell the other that they were still thinking about Sam's behavior.
In their more private thoughts, both Nathan and Domino considered the time spent together with X-Force as a quasi-family experience. And as dysfunctional children are the product of dysfunctional parents, so the X-Force kids all bore various evidences of having learned by watching them. All, that is, except Sam. Sam had somehow remained fundamentally untouched by the lunacy that surrounded him, an island of calm in a group known for shooting first and thinking second. His balance was what made him a good leader, but that balance was off-center now. And his two onetime ersatz parents saw and were worried.
"You want to talk to him, or should I?" Domino caught Nathan's glance.
"I think you'd better do it. If Mirrin's behind it, he might not want to talk to somebody with an Askani medallion around their neck." He fingered the medallion as he spoke. "After you're done, then I can corner him so that we can swap stories about being manipulated by the Sisterhood."
Domino was about to say something, but decided not to when the voices of various X-Men could be heard approaching the kitchen.
"Coffee, good idea," a freshly washed Scott said as he entered. "We're going to be at this a while, I suspect. Debrief in ten."