Future Pluperfect: Chapter 16
"Westchester, can you read?... We have a situation here... Damnit, people, where are you?... We have one down, one wounded and we're getting overrun... I'm cutting comm. so they don't trace... If you hear this, you'll know where to find the bodies..."
The message had been played over and over again as more of the X-Men filed into the conference room. Even though he knew it was impossible, Remy was sure that Domino had gotten a little more exhausted, a little more frustrated with each time her call for help rang out through the room.
Looking around the room, Remy could sense the mixture of guilt and concern mirrored in the faces of his teammates. Sure, they had all been quick to point out that it was all Cable and Domino's fault that they had run off on their own, no back-up, no message, no nothing. But that prim 'told-you-so'-ness had folded neatly in the face of the consequences of the results of those actions. Few of the team liked Cable, and Domino didn't even have that extra little buffer of being Scott's fate-tossed son, but there was nobody wearing an X who could imagine wanting this for the pair of mercenaries-turned-reluctant-heroes. Even if they didn't quite know what this was, or whether death the best or the worst option open to them.
Remy's eyes fell on Sam Guthrie, sitting eerily still on a table in the back of the room. Sam was normally a study of matter in motion. Consciously or not, the polite Kentuckian was never at rest, be it his child-like fidgeting during too-long meetings or his startlingly predatory stealth while in the field. Remy, trained from a young age to be ever watchful of all motion, had early on learned to tune out Cannonball's kinetic impulse as a kind of white noise. But that faint buzz was gone now and the stillness was jarring. Sam sat statue-like, his long legs dangling off the edge of the auxiliary table without even the hint of a kick.
From his seat at the conference table, Alex also watched Sam. Poor kid's trying so hard to be cool about this. He's scared shitless and doesn't want anyone to know... Alex turned his head as his brother entered the room carrying a pile of papers. "Any word?"
Scott shook his head without making a sound, although Alex could tell from the tightness around Scott's mouth just how hard his brother was trying to remain calm. It was one thing to know that your son (however old, however grizzled) was off doing something stupid and foolish. It was another to be confronted with the proof that you were correct in worrying about him in the first place.
The large, flat-screen monitor hung from the wall came to life and Kitty Pryde's face appeared.
"The transmission came from the northernmost of the Torres Islands," she announced without preamble. "I'm transmitting coordinates now." The screen split in two, the right side becoming a map.
"Where is that?" Bobby Drake squinted at the dots on the screen.
"West of the Fiji Islands, east of New Guinea and Australia... not near anything in particular," Kitty replied, sounding an awful lot as if she had asked that very question herself and was repeating the answers she had found. "Part of the Vanuatu islands, but not one of the ones they open to tourists and trade."
"Has there been any more communication from there, a beacon, a homing device, a radio..." Wolverine asked, making like he was ready to stand up and leave for Vanuatu as soon as he heard the answer.
"Not a beep. But that doesn't mean anything. If Domino cut communications, then there shouldn't be. We're talking the very edge of civilization here," Kitty added, her lips pursed in something between frustration and dismay. "Piotr spent a lot of time with the atlas getting the damned coordinates in the first place. None of the Torres Islands are hot spots. There shouldn't be any sort of noise for miles; you probably can't even pick up a radio station there without a short-wave."
"Is that why it took so long for the message to get through?" Rogue looked up from the printout being passed around the conference table. "Or was there even a delay? Could that have been a live feed?"
"The time-stamp is correct," Kitty confirmed, shaking her head. "But I haven't yet figured out why there was the delay in transmission. All of the satellites we mooch off of aren't been reporting problems... Have you guys tried anything with Cerebro?"
"Jean and Mirrin are in there now," Scott answered in a rough voice that caused more than a few of his teammates to look at him surreptitiously. "But I'm not holding out hope. Neither of them can sense Cable and both are linked to him in some fashion..."
"But they'd know if he was dead, right?" Alex asked, one eye on Sam.
"Not necessarily," Betsy spoke up slowly. "Unless you're actually on the astral plane, there's no telepathic difference between death, really good psi shielding, and the effects of a knock on the head. The line goes quiet, but you may not know why."
"Jean and Mirrin both had that headache, right b'fore the alarm went off," Remy remembered aloud. "Mebbe..."
"Ah felt something, too," Sam said in a voice not much louder than a whisper. Everyone turned. "Just before the alarm sounded. Like a nail goin' into mah head. Then it was gone."
Scott nodded. "As did I. It was probably the same thing as Jean and Mirrin, but we're headblind."
"It could have been anything," Betsy emphasized. "Cable must have expended quite a bit of energy to reach so many people. But it was a directed utterance. I felt nothing, for instance. Remember that telepath on Genosha who died of the Legacy Virus the other year. Every other psi on the planet had a headache from the death throes. Nathan is a much more powerful telepath."
Hank walked into the room, glasses in hand. "Kitty, you should be getting a message from the Avengers in a moment. A long time ago, they... acquired access to a decommissioned spy satellite. Despite some amelioration, it is not nearly as precise as most of the current models, but..."
"Beggars can't be choosers, right? Ooooh, good, it's coming through," Kitty's voice resonated throughout the room. "Here, I'll give you Kurt while I play around." Nightcrawler's face filled the screen, a frown creasing his brow.
"The satellite shouldn't be in position for another six hours," Hank warned, "but that is quicker than we will be able to get there, so it will be advance information after a fashion."
"We have a quicker way," Wolverine barked, still not having sat down. "The Askani can 'port us there yesterday. We can stop Dorothy and the Tin Woodsman before they even get to Oz."
"Mirrin's teleportation works in a similar fashion to Kurt's," Ororo corrected gently. "She needs to see where she is going. As none of us have ever been to our destination, the best we could hope to achieve is for her to bring us to Australia or Madripoor or some other location that is familiar to us. But we would lose any such advantage in that we would have to procure transportation from there to Vanuatu, not to mention acquiring arms and supplies."
"The guns I think she could probably do, but I don't want Mirrin trying to teleport the Blackbird," Scott broke in reluctantly. It wasn't as if similar thoughts hadn't crossed his mind. They certainly had crossed Mirrin's - it had been all he could do to keep her from teleporting to Nathan already. "She may have a far greater capacity in terms of tonnage and distance than Kurt, but she's not Lila. We're going to need Mirrin to help us fight the Kurioon and find Nate; we can't risk incapacitating her just when we'll need her most."
Frustrated but unable to do anything but concede the point, Wolverine sat back down. "So what now?"
"Betsy? Could you come here, please?" Jean's voice came through on the intercom. "We need another telepath."
Psylocke stood up. "I'm coming," she affirmed, curiosity on her face. "What can I do that you and Mirrin cannot?"
"Anchor us," Jean's voice answered.
With a shrug to the others, Betsy left the room and went around the corner after nodding at Cyclops' unspoken request to keep him updated.
"We can't find either of them," Jean said as soon as Betsy was within earshot. "I can't even get a whisper with Cerebro. Mirrin is better versed with trying to find people on the astral plane, but she neither has the experience with Cerebro nor the time to learn its use," Jean explained as she patted the console. "We want to link and combine our strengths..."
"But you need a tether," Betsy finished. Unspoken was the knowledge that out of the three women, Psylocke was the least talented telepath. Jean had the greater pure power, Mirrin the broader base of skills (even considering her experiences as a servant of the Hand, Betsy didn't want to think of some of the things the Askani had used her mental powers towards accomplishing), but there was no shame in coming in third after the two.
The three women sat on the floor in a close triangle with each finding a comfortable position, one that they'd likely be in for some time. Betsy looked each of the other women in the eyes, searching for the calm and acceptance that would be required for what they were about to try. Finding it, she closed her eyes and focused on establishing the link between them.
When first they had met, Betsy had expected that Jean's shields would be similar (if more formidable) versions of her own in that they had both received training from Charles Xavier. But various adventures, not in the least Betsy's own after stepping through the Siege Perilous, had altered both sets of psionic defenses so that there was nothing beyond a vague resemblance.
Even that suggestion of similarity had all but disappeared, however, after Jean had returned from her honeymoon in the distant future and Psylocke was quite sure that the changes had rendered Jean's mind all but inaccessible to those whom Jean did not want to admit.
But today, as Betsy reached out towards the normally impervious walls of living flame, they parted at her touch and allowed the bright pink rope of psionic energy to not only pass through, but also to be doubled in girth by a matching rope of fire-colored strength.
And that's for the easy part, Betsy mused to herself.
Extending her mind in another direction, Psylocke came across the gently blowing clouds that marked the start of Mirrin's mental shields. 'Like soap bubbles', Jean had explained the concentric spherical layers of swirling colors, but Betsy saw something else. During one of the X-Men's interstellar adventures, Betsy had looked out a viewer and seen the Earth with its cloud cover and that, if anything, was what Mirrin's shields made her think of. They looked harmless enough, but just as the Earth's atmosphere made unaided entry next to impossible, so were the Askani's shields.
The first time I tried this, back in the Ukraine, Mirrin nearly blew my head clean off, Betsy remembered with a mental frown.
#But you are friend now, not foe.#
From Mirrin's end, Betsy could see tendrils of dark blue energy weaving themselves around and through her own threads of pink psionic energy, which had started to pulse and glow. In short order, the link was complete and the blue and pink ran evenly throughout its length.
"Go with peace," Betsy spoke aloud. Mindlinks had always struck her as intensely spiritual moments - it was why she had usually opted to telepathically present herself 'outside' another person's consciousness - and it seemed the thing to say with two other minds so intimately attached.
Mirrin said something in Askani, but opened her eyes as she could now feel Betsy's questioning look. "It means 'And return with hope.' It is the traditional Askani response..." her voice trailed off as she shrugged slightly, a little embarrassed. But Betsy could feel the warmth behind the sentiment. Linked to Mirrin as she was now, Psylocke couldn't help but see her differently than she had - even after the woman had saved her life - and made a mental note to think about it later.
Jean, able to see things as an attached third party, kept her relief to herself - the lingering tension between the two women had been the cause of more than one conversation between her and Scott. After Lebanon, Betsy had been grateful, but politely so and Mirrin had refused to acknowledge anything more than duty done. It had not made things any less awkward.
Now, Jean turned her attention to projecting herself onto the astral plane. The transition felt a bit like diving into cool, deep water. It had been a while since she had attempted this without aid of Cerebro and she chided herself gently that she had quite fallen out of practice.
Feeling the gentle breeze that always seemed to be present on the astral plane, Jean opened mental 'eyes' that she had not realized that she had closed with the effort. The armor that did not weigh her down as it would have on the corporeal world was in place and she lifted her visor and tilted her helmet back slightly.
She was standing on a hill, but that was merely a construct. Charles had taught her to create a corporeal-reminiscent starting point so that the shift between the two planes would not be so stark. Above her, looking much like the Northern Lights that she and Scott would often see from their home in Alaska, were the presences of every living being. Jean's telepathy would only let her see the human elements, although she knew that the plant and animal ones were there as well.
"Shall we begin?" Mirrin asked from behind her. "Knowing Nathan, we should probably start in the most counter-intuitive direction."
Turning around, Jean found the young woman standing with arms outstretched in opposite directions and it was all that she could do not to double take. To cover her surprise, she nodded and started to follow Mirrin down the slope.
A telepath's astral form was a reflection of how they saw themselves, although it was usually affected by the circumstances that required their presence in the first place - hence Jean's armor. To see someone on the astral plane, then, was to see inside their thoughts on a level that went beyond merely boring through someone's shields. It was a glimpse at their essence.
The woman who walked next to Jean did not much resemble the warrior who had first presented herself carrying a bomb in a Central American jungle. But only on the surface, Jean realized. Instead, here was the physical embodiment of all of the principles that had guided Mirrin on that day and in the days since.
Mirrin's hair, normally braided back in an efficient knot even in casual situations, fell in long curls held back only by a pair of Askani phoenix-shaped clips and her face bore the tattoos around the eye that marked her place in the Sisterhood as clearly as did the medallion around her neck.
On the corporeal plane, Mirrin dressed either in her battle costume - a body suit that wouldn't have looked out of place on Rogue underneath body armor and a loose-fitting surcoat - or in Nate's old sweatshirt and similarly loose fitting bottoms. So Jean was surprised to see the young woman so elaborately dressed. Her current attire, Jean realized, was that of her native clan, a sari-like outfit with a flowing scarf and bare arms. In her corporeal form Mirrin studiously avoided showing any skin, so Jean did not know whether the intricate designs painted on both of her forearms were actually there.
"You might remember that there is a tradition of war paint among my native clan," Mirrin said quietly and Jean looked up. She hadn't realized that she was staring. She made an apologetic face, but Mirrin shooed it away. "The blue is my own and the silver represents the Clan Chosen. They interlock," Mirrin explained as she traced the shapes on one forearm with her index finger, "to show that we may never be parted. Nathan thinks it overdramatic, so I usually wear sleeves when he's around."
"They are real, then?"
"Here, on the astral plane, they are real, as is my eye tattoo. Back there," Mirrin waved vaguely as she spoke, "I need to pass as other than what I am. My body is an intimate part of my disguise and I cannot do with it as I would wish."
Jean started at the last words and Mirrin gave a sort of understanding look that made Jean sure that the other woman meant what she said in more than one way. The Askani live but to serve. "But Rachel..."
"Even to hide scars telepathically, the way the Mother Askani did and the way Nathan does now, would be treading upon dangerous ground," Mirrin replied. "You walk mostly among the headblind here-and-now. In my time, most of my subterfuge takes place only among mutants."
Jean didn't realize that they had stopped walking, but they must have as they began to move forward again. After a few steps, the ground disappeared and they were floating gently on that ever-present breeze and Jean could feel the touch of the minds as they came into contact with her body. Thankfully, the armor protected both Jean and the presences that floated by, so she only felt the slight contact, not any information or emotion. Looking over, Jean could see that while Mirrin was exposed to the brightly colored ephemera, they did not seem to come into contact with her skin.
"It is somehow inherent within me," Mirrin explained with a frown that said she really didn't know. "A side effect of my teleportation, I suspect, as I do my 'porting through this realm. Aliya once called it psionic insect repellent."
They moved along gently, wading through the light and hoping against hope that each golden flash would be the one.
"How do you want to search," Mirrin asked after a time. "We could listen and look for their signatures..."
"...But that didn't work with Cerebro and I don't think that our presences here would improve the results any," Jean finished ruefully. "If Nathan's alive, then he should be able to be seen, even if he's nulled out. Domino's headblind, so if she's nulled, then we're looking for a needle in a haystack."
Through the link, Jean could see that Mirrin understood and was considering alternatives. An unconscious mind did not disappear from the astral plane, instead it lost its ability to respond to stimulus. Telepathy, even with Cerebro, was dependent on such stimuli. Such an affected mind would be invisible psionically, but could be seen from the astral plane itself if the searcher was present the way Jean and Mirrin were. Cable, as a telepath, would have a greater presence than would Domino even were his consciousness nulled.
"I can illuminate every consciousness I've touched since my arrival here-and-now," Mirrin began slowly, as if pondering the idea's worth. "There will be many extraneous ones called forth, plus the rest of the X-Men, but it would cut down the search further than if we searched blindly or if you tried an equivalent summoning. I have touched fewer people... If Nathan and Domino are null, they will be made apparent wherever they are, as opposed to answering the summons."
"Go for it."
Mirrin closed her eyes and extended her arms and Jean could hear a vague whistle in the wind. Suddenly, certain colors brightened both close and on the horizon and came floating like ghosts towards the women.
"I'll hold them, you search," Mirrin called over the whistle of approaching consciousnesses.
Jean waded through the sea of minds, recognizing the familiar presences of her teammates and smiling gently at the red essence that was Scott and the silvery-gray of Ororo. But there was no violet and Nathan would have been impossible to miss from this closeness. Dispersing the consciousnesses like a school of fish, Jean raised herself up and looked on the horizon for any illuminations that had not answered Mirrin's beckoning call. There was nothing.
"You can let them go," Jean told Mirrin, her voice shaking slightly. "I didn't see them."
"Death isn't the only possibility," Mirrin said softly as she opened her eyes. "In my time, there is psi-shielding that will mask a presence from even a summoning like the one I just performed. You could be looking right at the person and not sense them. The Canaanites used it in inhibitor bands and for some of their elite war units. It is not inconceivable that Nathan and Domino have been captured and thus bound."
"So how would we find them?" Jean asked.
"The effect on the astral plane is to not only null the consciousness, but also to tie it to the spot where it was when it was captured. There is no other way to find them but to literally stumble across them."
"We are linked to each other even as we're linked to Psylocke," Jean mused, raising the wrist that wore the glowing pink bracelet that Betsy had used to manifest the psionic tether. "Splitting up is probably not the most efficient way of looking, but..."
"...We are rapidly running out of options," Mirrin agreed.
Even for those whose vision was restricted to humans, the astral plane was a crowded place as every single being was represented. Part of a telepath's training then was to learn not only to shield against this sea of consciousness, but also to be able to more quickly find familiar minds. As training advanced, the sea became a background against which the familiar consciousnesses stood out.
But even with Jean and Mirrin's combined training making the search much faster than for almost any other telepath other than Charles Xavier, there was no success. Jean found herself actively fighting a swell of agony as every alternative but one was being eliminated.
#I have found something,# Mirrin's voice echoed gently in Jean's ears. On the astral plane, telepathy was an external mode of communication.
Following the link, Jean found Mirrin standing on one of the many solid objects that dotted the astral plane. She had never figured out what they were, but suspected that they were other telepaths' constructs, their own versions of the hill from which she herself had started. In this case, it was a simple black box. "What is this?"
"I don't know what, but this is where Nathan and Domino's consciousnesses were several hours ago," Mirrin answered tightly. "I can still sense them."
Jean concentrated and after a moment could as well. Faintly, vaguely, and just as a residue, but definitely there. "What happened?" Whatever it was, it wasn't good.
"Let's find out," Mirrin replied as she fiddled with the pink bracelet that represented her link with Psylocke. The bracelet glowed angrily and Jean could feel distantly the mental effort Mirrin was expending to let Betsy know that the bracelet was being removed voluntarily. Finally, it came off and Mirrin placed it on the black box and then reached for Jean's bracelet.
"What are you doing?" Jean asked as she pulled her wrist away.
"Setting a beacon. We are going to time walk back to when Nathan and Domino's consciousnesses were here and I need a way to get us back."
Jean still covered her bracelet with her other hand. "What if something happens to us while we're back in time? How will Betsy..."
"If we get into trouble, then I have to get us out of it," Mirrin answered shortly. "There won't be anything Psylocke can do. We are going to time travel without our bodies. We either return to them or they die. No mind, no body, no life."
Jean stared at Mirrin as the younger woman finished removing Psylocke's bracelet from her wrist. "There's no other way?"
"We've been here too long; I don't have the energy to do this by myself and have you tether me to this time."
"But what about going back to our bodies and time-ripping there and then returning here?" Jean wasn't afraid for herself, but she knew that Mirrin shared Nathan's unwillingness to search for safer alternatives once a possible solution to a difficult problem had presented itself.
"We don't have the time," Mirrin repeated, a touch of irritation creeping into her voice. "Bright Lady knows where we are on the astral plane; it would take too long to find this spot again and the residue is fading quickly. It's been several hours."
Jean said nothing, but must not have looked convinced enough as Mirrin's eyes flashed and she muttered something that sounded unpleasant. "The residue of Nathan's consciousness is splattered upon this surface," Mirrin said and pointed. "However he died, it was with enough strain to shatter his mind into shards. I have sworn my life for his. And now I need to swear yours. This is our only chance to save them."
Jean stared mutely. It was no less than she expected, but it still hurt like hell. She closed her eyes for a long moment and only opened them when she felt Mirrin's arm on her shoulder.
"We will save them," the Askani woman spoke softly but fiercely.
Jean took a deep breath. "Let's go, then," Jean answered back in a matching tone.
"Time walking is an art learned relatively late in an Askani initiate's training," Mirrin began in an almost conversational tone as she reached for Jean's hands and closed her eyes. "Although the perils of it are impressed upon the students quite early on, for the obvious reasons. To attempt it without a beacon is suicide; to attempt it with a beacon is merely to forfeit claim upon your body. You may return, you may not."
Jean could feel the link between her and Mirrin burn and strengthen as the Askani spoke.
"If it eases your concern, my teleportation gives us much greater odds of returning. I've done this more often than most who attempt it."
"It doesn't. Ease my concern, that is," Jean admitted with a rueful frown. "But I didn't save Nathan as a child in your time to let him die in ours. I can't do that to him. Or to Scott."
On the corporeal realm, Mirrin's teleportation had the effect of making the air shimmer. On the astral plane, that shimmer was accompanied by an incredible shock of pain. When Jean's ears finally stopped ringing, the first thing she heard was the sound of gunfire. And then the squawking of a bird.
They were on a beach. Somewhere in the Vanuatu islands, if she had heard Hank's voice carry through the halls correctly. And less than a hundred yards away lay Cable and Domino.
They were both still alive, but barely. Domino was bleeding profusely from what looked to be a bullet wound to the shoulder and she was cut and bruised all over. Cable was in no better shape, the dim glow of his eye and the claw-like shape of his techo-organic hand as good an indicator as anything else.
"Can you 'port to them?" Jean asked Mirrin.
"It would not do us any good," the Askani replied quietly. "We are here in spirit, not in the flesh."
"So how are we going to save them?" Jean fairly screamed as she wheeled on the other woman.
"By making an effective evaluation of the situation so that we can bring a team in," Mirrin answered evenly.
"So we sit here and watch them die?" Jean couldn't believe what she was hearing.
"It would be better to watch their killers," Mirrin corrected flatly. Coldly. "So that we do not allow them a chance to succeed the second time around. I did not say that this would be either pleasant or easy, Redd. Just necessary."
Red-level soldiers, a half-dozen or so also surrounded Cable and Domino, all with weapons drawn. Another approached, but instead of a gun it carried a battle ax. The others made room for it to enter the circle and no sooner did it do so than the ax swung around and down.
The lifeless head of Nathan Christopher Charles Summers rolled down the beach towards the water.
Domino's scream was cut off by her choking, presumably on fluid in her lungs.
"Why didn't he stop the ax?" Jean asked after she stopped retching. Knowing that they would have a chance to undo this damage did not make watching the murder of the man she had raised as her son any easier.
"He was using his telekinesis to hold Domino together," Mirrin answered after a moment, putting a hand on Jean's hunched-over back before her. Over her years, she had watched her family, her lover, her clansmen all be killed. Blood, especially the blood of a friend, was no strange sight to her. But this had gutted her to the core even as it firmed her resolve not to let it happen at all. "Domino now dies of her wounds."
After a few moments, the Kurioon soldiers began to march towards the trees that lined the beach. They left the corpses to bleed out into the sand.
"Should we follow them?" Jean asked hoarsely as she stood up.
"We should, but we can't," Mirrin agreed. "We barely have enough energy to get us back to Psylocke's bracelets. She's going to have to bring us back from there. We saw the soldiers; we have enough information for now."
Jean was about to protest, but a wave of dizziness nearly knocked her over. Instead, she nodded weakly and reached for Mirrin's outstretched hands.
With eyes closed, Jean couldn't see the air shimmer and after what she had just experienced, she really didn't care about the pain. Opening her eyes, she found herself back at the black box. She picked up one of the bracelets and reached for Mirrin, who looked as if she were about to faint. Squeezing the bracelet, she used what little mental strength she had left to call for Betsy.
And then the world went dark.