Future Pluperfect: Chapter 17


Textual Poaching Alert: Marvel owns everyone but Mirrin, although Social Services would have stripped custody long ago...

Scott Summers choked down his food with the aid of a large glass of milk. He didn't want to eat, no more than he had wanted to sleep or wanted to do anything other than pack everyone into the Blackbird and set off for Vanuatu the minute Jean had explained her and Mirrin's adventure yesterday evening.

He had been ready to go immediately, which was precisely why Jean had telepathically knocked him out after he had carried her back to their bedroom to recover from the effects of the mental travel. He had woken up an hour ago next to his wife, not at all pleased at her actions.

Jean was in the shower now, getting ready for today the same way she would get ready for any other day. They had fought about that as well, right after he had yelled at her about slipping him a mental mickey. Jean had been unapologetic. She had pointed out that they were going to need Cyclops-the-leader to be at his best, which meant that Scott-the-man had to be reasonable. It had not been a good choice of words.

Scott had replied (at a decibel level he only rarely reached when not in the field) that he was being nothing but reasonable. It was eminently reasonable for a man to grieve over the loss of his son and even more reasonable for a father to want to get started on saving his child as soon as possible.

And there, hindsight-enabled Scott admitted, he had misstepped by implying that he had greater claim to Nathan than did Jean. No matter if it were true - and Scott didn't think it was, not after he walked out on Maddie and the baby - it was the absolute wrong thing to say considering how Jean had spent the previous afternoon.

Jean hadn't said anything, but suddenly, Scott found himself hiding behind a tree next to a sunny beach. Jean made him watch their son's murder through her own eyes, made him feel the anguish she had felt and that had been magnified by the flash of self-hatred and pain that came through the link with Mirrin, made him taste the bile as she fell to her knees and retched until there was nothing but dry heaves. And then he felt the comfort that came from Mirrin's hand on her shoulder; it wasn't the warm touch of shared tragedy, but instead the cold promise of pain returned tenfold at the least. For a moment, Scott thought he felt Jean, in her rage, searching around for some way to access the power of the Dark Phoenix.

That last bit Scott wasn't sure about and he certainly couldn't ask Jean now. Their telepathic link was shuttered - not closed, but just very quiet - and Scott knew that it would remain that way until he apologized. He was working his way up to that, starting with Jean's last pre-fight exhortation that he make sure he ate something.

"Scott, a moment please."

He turned around from his plate to face Storm, glad for once that his glasses obscured most of the expression on his face and still wishing that it would have the same effect on some of the people who looked at him. He was tired of the pitying eyes, the wary concern, the need to be delicate around him that his teammates had suddenly discovered they possessed. Not that he expected any of that from Ororo, but she was the only one apart from Logan from whom he didn't.

"Yes?"

"I would like to suggest that the two of us switch teams for this mission," she began. It was a tone Scott recognized as one where Ororo was sure that she was right, but wasn't about to force the issue should he prove unreceptive. It was a tone he had learned years ago to respect as one that required close listening and it was his reminder that as comfortable as Storm was deferring to his leadership, she was more than capable in her own right.

 "Why?" Not demanding, just curious.

"It is inconceivable that either you or Jean would not be on the away team, so there will have to be some reorganization and this will minimize the feeling-out period," Storm explained as she sat down next to Scott. "Also, my team is fresher and less... battle fatigued. Your squad has faced two rough missions in a row and does not need a third. This will be the toughest challenge yet, I fear."

He nodded. It was something he had, in fact, been thinking about as he ate. He already had Mirrin, needed Jean, and would prefer to have Sam, but didn't know how to go about handling any sort of re-organization. It wasn't the bruised feelings he was worried about -- Scott honestly couldn't care less about egos right now. Instead, it was a matter of putting together a strong away team for this mission without leaving only a remnant of the necessary force behind should this suddenly become a two-front war. He wanted his son back, but it really wasn't fair to sacrifice a small country to do so.

A swallow of milk before speaking. "You're right," he agreed. "Should we anticipate any complaints?"

Ororo gave him an imperious look. "There will be none."

"The briefing's in fifteen minutes," Scott said after a moment. "I guess we'll be leaving right afterwards."

"I guess," Ororo agreed.

Scott nodded and there was a long, not-uncomfortable silence.

"It doesn't get any easier, does it?"

Scott didn't even pretend to not know of what Ororo was speaking. "No. I've almost lost count of all the times I've thought I've lost him for good. On the moon, when his T-O has flared out of control, when we left the future... and that's not even counting all of the times he's gotten himself blown up, knocked out, captured, and who-knows-what-else done to him that he doesn't think I'd react well to knowing about so he doesn't tell me..." his voice trailed off into a sigh. "I think he tells Jean some things. She's less protective of him that way. It's usually the mother who's overprotective and the father who doesn't mind... Maybe it's the Phoenix thing. They can bond over a joint capacity for violence."

"Or perhaps, my friend, it is that he wants you to think well of him and tells you only that which he feels will accomplish that aim," Ororo said as she stood up. After letting Scott digest her words, she looked to the stairs. "I should go and look in on Mirrin."

"Is she still asleep?" Scott wouldn't be surprised if she was. Jean had been exhausted after they had returned from their adventures on the astral plane and she had told Scott that Mirrin had done much of the work.

"No, she has been meditating amongst my orchids for the last hour or so," Ororo replied. She had already been awake when she heard the gentle knock on the door. Mirrin had tried to explain, but while her heavily accented English was perfectly fluent, she could not find the words. So instead she sent a simple mental image, one that was met by a knowing nod from Ororo and a sweeping gesture towards the greenhouse part of her attic loft. The young Askani - and she did look so frighteningly young as she knelt on the ground surrounded by grass and flora - did not look as though what peace she had achieved was easily won. "I do not think she is taking this as well as she is trying to make everyone believe."

A hollow laugh from the kitchen entrance drew both Scott's and Ororo's glances.

"I have failed to uphold the oath I took to my clan," Mirrin said quietly from the doorway. "I have failed to carry out the mission I had been fated to undertake since before my birth. And I have let my oldest, most precious friend be slaughtered by the very enemy I was sent here-and-now to stop. I have, through my own weakness, abrogated every single one of my responsibilities. Until Nathan and Domino live and breathe again, I stand before you as a failure to the Clan Chosen, the Askani Sisterhood, and the Dayspring Unit. Among my birth-clan, I would be thrice due for ritual suicide. All considering, I think I am taking things rather well."

"Don't talk like that, Min," Scott commanded gently. He may have been an abysmal failure when dealing with Jean, but if there was one thing he was good at, it was dealing with guilt over Nathan doing something dangerous. "Nate is who he is and Domino enables him in the same way you do. You were upset with him taking off without you until you found out what had happened to him."

He shook off her burgeoning cry of protest. "'The why of any situation is secondary to the situation itself', right? The situation is that you were left behind, Mirrin, and that is going to be your chance at redemption. You would have gotten caught in the same trap he did and then there would have been nobody left here to go back in time to get you back."

Mirrin, looking chastened, nodded.

"Mirrin, why don't you come with me downstairs," Ororo offered gently, holding out an arm. "I'll need your help setting up the computer recreations..."

Again, the young woman said nothing, but followed quickly behind as Storm swept gracefully into the hallway leading to the entrance to the underground complex.

"I think this is 'Ro's way of setting us up, don't you," Jean commented evenly as she entered the kitchen from the other doorway.

"We promised to never to leave angry for a mission," Scott allowed, pushing away his plate, appetite gone. "She's just helping us keep it... I'm sorry, Jean. For what I said. I didn't mean it. At least not the way it came out."

Jean nodded and sighed. As a telepath, she had known from the outset that Scott hadn't meant to imply the things he did. And Scott knew that she knew as well. He also knew that that knowledge couldn't be taken for granted; he had to apologize just like anyone else would. It was something that they had come to a silent agreement upon early on in their relationship, something that was particular to Jean herself - the Phoenix entity had been content to telepathically pick up on Scott's remorse back when it had been impersonating Jean.

"We were tired and stressed and grieving and neither of us was thinking clearly," she agreed. "I shouldn't have made you see... that."

"I'm almost glad you did, in some perverse way," Scott shook his head as he spoke, not quite sure how to explain his feelings. "I missed Nate's birth... this isn't coming out right, either."

"He'll be all right, Scott." Jean walked over to where her husband was still seated on a tall stool by the island and hugged him from behind, resting her cheek against his shoulder blade. "He has to be. He's our kid, remember? Not even Apocalypse could keep him dead for long."

Scott turned slightly, waiting for Jean to loosen her grip on his midsection before turning completely into her embrace and resting his head on her shoulder. They stayed like that until the clatter of feet in the hallway grew to herd-like proportions, indicating that most of the team would be assembled for the briefing.

"I keep telling myself that he'll be okay," Scott said as he stood up, dumping the remains of his sandwich into the trash and then dropping his plate and glass in the sink before turning back to Jean. "But we both know that one of these times, he's not going to be okay. He's not going to just 'get better'. What happens if this is it?"

"I don't think Mirrin will let it happen," Jean said after a long pause. "No matter the cost."

A sigh. "That's what I'm worried about."

The two exchanged a knowing look. What cost was too high to bring back their son? They both knew that they would have no problem laying down their own lives - what else was a parent for, even if the child had already lived twice their years - but it was not their place to ask their teammates to make a similar sacrifice.

"You two coming?" Warren poked his head in the kitchen doorway. He had been waiting there a moment until he could find a less-than-awkward moment to interrupt. Deciding that one would not be forthcoming, he opted for the famed Worthington Bluster. It didn't fail him.

Once assembled in the War Room, the briefing quickly became a discussion of attack strategies. As Storm had assured, there had been no quarrel with the suggestion that she and Cyclops switch teams. The shock of the deaths was somewhat dulled by both the fact that it was merely confirmation of an earlier suspicion as well as by the knowledge that time travel (and the X-Men's own uncanny resiliency) made it a possibly temporary condition.

Mirrin had programmed a terrifyingly realistic re-enactment of Cable and Domino's final moments to better aid the planning. For all of Mirrin's unfamiliarity with the accoutrements of twentieth century life, it was a sharp reminder for most of the team to see how comfortable she was around the computer system. It shouldn't have been, they all realized, considering that their state-of-the-art technology was the equivalent of an abacus to her. But they had gotten accustomed to her perplexed expression when confronted with items like lawnmowers and pencils and the Rangers game on television and it was easier to think of her that way. Less frightening.

"Are we going to be able to get much of a headstart on this?" Alex asked as the lights came back up. "Or do we have to pop back in time to when Mirrin and Jean showed up?"

"I could probably do any time that day," Mirrin answered slowly, as if she were doing the mental calculations as she spoke. "But we will have to arrive at that spot. At least initially."

"We'd best give ourselves as much time as possible," Scott suggested. "Presumably, Cable and Domino weren't there the whole time and we'll have to find them before they are captured. They had to have been there for a reason, however, and that's going to be the problem. I'd bet anything that we're going to be up against a whole lot more than just those guards," he pointed at the schematic on the screen.

"If Dayspring was correct, it might be the nest of the Kurioon," Mirrin supplied. After he had left with Domino (and without telling her) Mirrin had broken into Cable's safehouse to try to ascertain where he and Domino had gone and why. It had been a childish act of jealousy (at being left behind) and anger (that he had knowingly dodged his 'bodyguard') at the time, but it had turned out to be a valuable experience in light of that which had come later. Mirrin had been shutting down Nathan's computer when she had felt his death.

"Nest? As in base of operations?" Bobby asked.

"Not necessarily the base, but at the very least where they arrived here-and-now," Mirrin confirmed, squirming in her seat so that she was sitting on one leg. "A kernel doesn't just spontaneously start producing troops. There is a gestation period. For this reason, the kernels are planted in isolated areas so that they stand the greatest chance of going untouched until they are in production mode."

"Harvesters come first," Gambit half-asked, half-assumed.

"The Harvesters are part of the self-extracting core. The first troops produced are the Colorless. But that is by-the-by to what we need to discuss now. We will be facing Red Levels at least, probably in greater numbers than we have previously been exposed to. Perhaps even an Orange Level prototype, depending on how quickly the Kurioon production has been advancing."

There was a murmur around the crowded room.

"But we have been largely successful in preventing mass amounts of energy collection," Storm pointed out. "Even assuming the mass amounts of unknown victims, there should not be as much... supply as there once was."

"The Kurioon has been created to adapt to such resource problems," Mirrin replied. "The longer a kernel is active, the less energy it requires to produce that which it needs."

"Grand," Hank sighed. "Our adversaries not only have the advantage of strength, numbers, and weaponry, but they are also increasingly energy efficient. The first three can be overcome with ingenuity, but that last one..."

"We're going to be doing a lot of doing-over," Psylocke finished.

If anyone were waiting for Mirrin to contradict the dire prediction, they would have been sadly disappointed.

"A question, Mirrin," Rogue spoke up. "If this spot is the nest, why can't ya just pop back in time and destroy it before it does anything?"

"Were that possible, I never would have been forced to involve any of you in this war," the Askani answered. "Even were I to find out when the kernel arrived here-and-now, I would not attempt to disarm it. The effects would be on a level that is too high to be acceptable."

"Too high considering how many hundreds have already died?" Warren asked in frank disbelief. "I don't even pretend to understand 'ripples in the time stream' and even I know that we've already altered the course of the future in a major way. Probably not for the good, either."

"Probably not," Mirrin agreed. "But the alternative is not a viable one. The Canaanites learn from their mistakes, so the Kurioon is armed against temporal defenses. According to the last records for an attempt to defuse a kernel, the reactors used to power the self-extracting core can be automatically reconfigured to present itself as a therm cluster."

"A self-destruct sequence," Wolverine elaborated. "Blow up whatever tried to stop it. But we've disabled unstable reactors before. Right, Alex?"

Havok nodded. India had not been high on his list of escapades he'd like to put on his résumé, but it had ended without explosion. Just a dead lover and the remnants of plague in his system.

"This isn't merely a power plant rendered dangerous, Wolverine. This is thermonuclear holocaust. A dozen Havoks could not absorb or channel the energy. This one," she pointed to Alex as she spoke, "would be vaporized along with anything in a hundred kilometer radius, at the least."

Alex tried to smile prettily, but suspected he looked a little deranged and stopped. "So we do things the hard way, then."

Two hours later, the plans for the rescue were as final as they were going to be without anyone stepping foot into the theatre of battle. Storm's new team would stay on alert, prepared to be whisked in by Mirrin as a second flank should it prove necessary. As Cyclops turned the projector off, he looked around the table at his teammates.

"Alright people, anything else?"

"Actually, I'd like to ask you something," Warren spoke up. "I'd like Sam to take my place on the mission."

Sam, who had been covering up his disappointment at not being able to accompany the away team by taking a deep interest in the papers handed out during the briefing, felt everyone's eyes upon him and tried to ignore the stares.

"Before you say anything, Scott, hear me out," Warren continued, putting up his hands in a supplicating gesture. "I may be one of the more senior X-Men, but there isn't anybody here who'd argue that Sam's better equipped for what you have planned. Lebanon proved that. For better or worse, Nathan and Domino have made sure that he's used to running through jungles chasing down enemies that outnumber him. I'm used to more metaphorical jungles, especially recently.

"Let's be honest here. There's a good chance that a lot of the principles Professor Xavier raised us to hold most dear are going to be blown by the wayside off in Vanuatu," he went on, not letting Scott (or Sam, who looked like he was about to lodge some sort of protest) get a word in edgewise. Worthington Bluster was most effective here, around a conference table, before spectators. "And, well, Sam's used to not playing by those rules. We can both fly, but Cannonball can do a lot more. And you're going to need more. More than I can give you, most likely."

There was silence for a long moment as Warren watched one of his oldest friends consider his words. Scott was going to be absolutely logical about this, he knew, and wouldn't care whether he hurt either Warren's feelings by agreeing with him or Sam's for turning down the request.

At the other end of the table Sam held his breath, not sure whether to protest Warren's claims of unworthiness or pray that Cyclops took them to heart. Sam wanted nothing more than to go on this mission, but if the away team was going to consist of almost all of the most veteran members of Xavier's group, he didn't see whom he could suggest to replace.

"Cannonball, you have fifteen minutes to pack your gear," Cyclops told the younger man and then turned to leave the room.

Ten minutes later, with the maps printed out, the data loaded into portable data stores and a mini-Cerebro fitted with both Domino and Cable's signatures, the away team members were making their way towards the Blackbird.

"Wait up a second," Warren called out from behind Cyclops. He waited for the other man to turn and walk back towards him. "I just wanted to... I'd be failing you as a friend if I didn't pull myself off of this, Scottie."

"I know, Warren, I know," Cyclops said with a smile that was dragged down by pain. "I was trying to come up with a way to get Sam on the team... short of Mirrin, I can't think of anyone else who might be as well suited... And, considering how close he is to both of them, he's really got as much right... But thank you. For making things easier."

"I just didn't want you thinking that I was chickening out, or that I didn't want to risk my neck just because I'm not close with Nathan." They said nothing for a moment, and then Warren sighed. "You'll bring them home, Scottie. That son of yours will be pissed off that his Dad had to rescue his steel-plated ass again, but..."

"But that would be par for the course - the bitching, not the rescuing - and just this once, I won't mind," Scott finished.

"I'll see you later, then," Warren said and clasped his friend's shoulder. "Tell Jeannie I'll have a stiff drink waiting for her when you get back. Between you, Alex, and Nathan, she's going to wish she never married into that clan of yours."

Scott was about to say something, but the clank and clang of the hangar doors unlocking drew his attention away. With a wave, he hoisted his gear over his shoulder and headed off towards the Blackbird.

***


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