Future Pluperfect: Chapter 23


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

"<You rooted through the files on my computer,>" Cable said almost casually, the way one would talk about weather. He fiddled with the pack he was using as a pillow so that his flashlight wasn't poking into the back of his skull. "<You deleted some of them.>"

By the time Domino and Sam had returned to the camp, tempers had cooled and a strategy session could begin in earnest. It was agreed that waiting until dawn was the least bad idea - the downside of heading towards the Kurioon nest without the cover of darkness was minimized by the fact that they needed to wait until the current state of heightened alert had passed.

As such, the group had finished preparations on a small camp to wait out the storm. Iceman was taking his turn on ground patrol and Cannonball, the only real flyer on the team, was taking the air.

"<I did,>" Mirrin agreed in the same conversational tone.

A few feet away in different directions, both Domino and Jean watched the pair with concern. A lot had gone on in the last few days and there had been little chance to absorb it all. With Bobby gone, the group had fallen into an introspective silence and their conversation was all the more noticeable for its lack of competition.

"<Was it out of actual necessity or the usual Askani paranoia that I'd see something that would take me away from my mission?>" Nathan asked, trying to keep the sarcasm from sounding too heavy. He hoped he'd made it sound like he wasn't terribly concerned and was just curious. Instead of being taken completely by surprise and extraordinarily pissed off, which was what he was. Nathan was generally not a man for surprises. Telepaths rarely were.

The question earned him a flat stare from his clanmate, the kind that reminded Nathan that the only thing harder than trying to fool a telepath was trying to get one over on a telepath who knew your every mood intimately. Mirrin knew he was pissed off and didn't care.

"<Have you ever known me to be paranoid?>" She asked with an irritated frown. "<Of course it was necessary.>"

"<I'd read everything already. You didn't delete anything I hadn't already seen,>" he pointed out (admittedly churlishly) as he stretched his legs. Nathan idly noticed that Scott was fiddling with one of the modified plasma rifles the X-Men had been carrying since Lebanon. While he didn't think Scott would accidentally discharge the weapon, he was curious as to what Scott was attempting to do. His father was not an innovator, but he was good at re-working existing technology into something new and useful. A recycler. Nathan wondered if he had been like that before a dozen years of foraging in the thirty-eighth century.

"<That's to be expected,>" Mirrin replied, waiting for Nathan's attention to return to her. "<Besides, I sincerely doubt that Blaquesmith would have let you store any data that would be... problematic to the Askani cause. They're paranoid like that.>" Only her eyes gave away that she was mocking him.

"<This wasn't Mirrin-the-Askani doing the deleting, then?>" Nathan raised his eyebrows meaningfully. That was as much of an admission as he was likely to get from her. If Mirrin hadn't been acting for the Sisterhood, then what was her motivation? It would be completely against all of the Clan Chosen's ethics to tamper with - and destroy - another clanmate's possessions. Especially without explanation.

"<I am always Askani, Nat'an.>"

"<Don't get cute,>" he retorted, watching Alex unsuccessfully stoke the campfire with a stick before resorting to a tiny plasma blast. "<You know what I meant.>"

"I think I should get credit for working on this," Alex announced to the general population, which when reduced to those actually paying attention was only Jean. "Warming all of you up with no personal benefit to myself."

"It's called being selfless, Alex," Jean replied, looking up from the fruit she was peeling. She could have done it telekinetically, but really just wanted to keep her hands busy. "And you wonder why you live alone."

"I don't wonder," Alex retorted as he walked back to his pack that was resting alongside Mirrin. "I live alone by choice."

"Keep convincing yourself of that, brother mine," Scott said without looking up from the dissected guts of the rifle.

"<I know which files you deleted,>" Nathan continued after the others had fallen silent again. "<They had to do with Sam.>"

They had been, to be precise, the files he had used to make his determination to come to this time in the first place. The files contained evidence that an External born in this time would live into at least the twenty-fourth century. One External named Samuel Guthrie.

Nathan had meant to show them to Domino the morning before they had left for Vanuatu, a move partly inspired to ease her mind concerning Sam and partly to show Domino that he did indeed trust her as he trusted Mirrin. Not that Domino had said anything about the latter, but he could feel it.

But the very trusted Mirrin had at some point hacked into the system and deleted the files. And this was the first time he was getting a chance to find out why.

"Domino, would you like half of this?" Jean asked, holding out the papaya. "It's too big for me to finish and Summers men don't eat squishy food."

The other woman smirked knowingly at Nathan, then shrugged and nodded and was about to get up when Jean waved her back down. A large leaf floated down from a nearby tree and wrapped half of the papaya and the entire ensemble was levitated towards Domino.

"Thanks," Domino said upon receipt.

There was another long silence mostly spent watching Alex set up his sleeping bag. For reasons Nathan couldn't figure out, Mirrin seemed to have taken a shine to his uncle. Not that Alex wasn't a person worthy of such attention (anyone who shunned the X-Men on a routine basis couldn't be all bad) but Nathan would have suspected that Mirrin (a woman who lived her life bound by a duty that even Nathan wasn't sure he understood) would have found Alex's general unwillingness to make superheroing his life's work distasteful. Hindsight had, however, told him that Nathan had never really understood much about Mirrin's thoughts about relationships. Her... tasks... for both the Askani as well as Clan Chosen had almost precluded any sort of long-term commitment to anyone. Other than himself, Nathan added ruefully.

"<I had to delete the files,>" she explained after Alex had put on a (intentionally) melodramatic show of being wounded from the earlier slights and settled down with his eyes closed.

"<Why?>" Curiosity bordering on irritation melted into that about-to-be-pissed-off state of preparation that Nathan felt he had spent most of his life in, at least after Redd and Slym Dayspring had vanished. Mirrin had been doing what she thought was best for him, he concluded.

"<The why of any situation,>" Mirrin trailed off as Nathan mentally snarled. She knew she was baiting him. She had to know. And he knew he was responding to it anyway.

Across the campfire, a suddenly dangerously glowing eye did draw the attention of three people who had learned years ago which color glow was the happy one and which one meant ducking and running. This wasn't the happy glow and Domino, Jean and Scott shared a rare moment of communal concern. Alex, parked on the other side of Mirrin from Nathan with his eyes closed, missed the exchange.

"<Why, Mirrin?>" Quiet, almost menacing. Not curious anymore, just demanding and impossible to mistake for anything but what it was no matter whether or not you understood Askani.

Alex opened his eyes.

The young woman leaned back from a sitting position to rest her weight on her elbows. In any other situation, it would be an unconsciously seductive pose. Closing her eyes, she sighed. "Because I owe him a debt," she answered quietly in English.

The alarm flashing along the telepathic bond between Scott and Jean would have been impossible for either of the other telepaths to miss had they been paying attention. As it was, Nathan and Mirrin didn't even notice the matching sets of raised eyebrows as Alex and Domino exchanged glances.

It would not have surprised anyone to know that in Askani, there was no word for 'debt' as an abstract concept. There were words for specific types of obligation - owed wealth, a favor done with repayment expected, etc. - but no general word for the blanket condition of owing somebody something. As such, there was no way to discuss a debt in Askani without revealing exactly what sort it was.

Nathan Dayspring knew this, just as he knew that there was no word to use to apologize for a wrong committed. Rachel had put a lot of thought into such matters.

"<Why, Mirrin,>" he repeated, the unspoken demand to answer in Askani remained unspoken, but was understood.

"<A life-debt. I owe him a life-debt,>" she answered in a whisper, sitting up a little so that she could touch her forehead and then raise her fingers to the sky in a quick gesture. She leaned back again, taking a quick look around the campsite to see if Cannonball had returned from his scouting trip with Iceman.

Knowing that she was founding a war clan and knowing that such a distinction would need to be made, the Mother Askani and her disciples had come up with two words for the concept of a life-debt. The first was used when someone wanted to describe the situation where someone else had saved his or her life, either literally or metaphorically. It was used colloquially and without much consideration for any deeper meaning. The second was used when the salvation had come at the expense of the rescuer's own life, when it was a sacrifice. It was not a term used lightly and among the more spiritual of the Askani it was usually accompanied by a gesture to the heavens as a means of acknowledging the debt.

"<That's not in the files,>" Nathan finally said, his voice cold.

"<It would have been too dangerous for you to know,>" she explained.

"<It isn't now?>" Anger spiked up, but it was anger aimed at the Askani as a whole, not its representative at the moment and his voice stayed frigid.

"<You won't use it now,>" Mirrin answered softly.

"<How do you know?>" Not a challenge, not curiosity, but someplace in between that made it clear to Mirrin that there were moments when she and Nathan really didn't know each other very well at all.

"<Because I'll tell you that he lived past his four hundredth birthday and had pretty much seen and done all he wanted to see and do. He died in the arms of someone he trusted - even if I didn't know why yet - and for a cause he believed in. I know that you love that boy too much to deny him that comfort.>"

Nathan was silent for a long moment, long enough to stare menacingly at his parents, who continued to look concerned in spite of his snarl. "<What cause?>"

"<You already know.>"

Nathan did. And it nauseated him. Sam had died saving Mirrin in the future so that Mirrin could save Nathan in the present. Sam had died so that they could be here, now. So that Nathan could be alive to face Apocalypse and fulfill his own mission. Without meaning to, he flashed back to that dreadful afternoon as Aliya, his precious Aliya, lay dying in his arms. But as he relived that moment, he saw it change, saw Aliya turn into Sam, saw himself turn into Mirrin...

"<Don't. Don't you dare start to wallow, Dayspring.>" Mirrin's voice cut sharply into his thoughts. "<You have this amazing ability to forget that we're all mortal. We all die, even High Lords. You can't keep everyone you hold dear alive for as long as you want them around. It's not a matter of if, but when. So stop feeling all miserable that the inevitable happened and wondering what you could have done to change it. I won't let you change it. Not for Sam.>"

A searching look into Mirrin's face. "<Did you love him?>"

"<What? No! We weren't... I wasn't there-and-then long enough to start much of any sort of relationship,>" Mirrin said bitterly as she shook her head in a mixture of disbelief and remembrance. "<Just enough to get into trouble. Not enough to even get a decent explanation out of Sam as to why he knew me.>"

Nathan nodded.

As if on cue, Cannonball dropped suddenly from the dark sky to land gracefully right on top of his unrolled sleeping bag.

"<He doesn't know,>" Nathan said, not really making it a question. He couldn't help but remember how awkward Sam's early flights had been. Turns had been nearly impossible and stopping even worse. Sam had resorted to crashing into walls, trees, Nathan, or anything or anyone else who was strong enough to impede his forward progress. It was a crushing blow to Sam's self-confidence, especially as Xavier had expected him to be the junior version of the leader Scott had always been.

"<That's hardly something to lay at the feet of another,>" Mirrin said by way of agreement as she watched Sam quietly nod to them both then walk over to Scott to make his report, stopping by Domino for a long moment.

"<You did it with me,>" Nathan returned, not sounding nearly as bitter as the words would make it sound. What is, is. Askani training was peculiar that way - it became an automatic response even when you were consumed with anger at the institution itself. Rachel had been thorough.

On the other side of the campfire, Scott finished re-assembling his rifle and looked around for a place to put the parts he had removed. The island was too nice to litter.

"<You're not a boy,>" Mirrin replied.

"<He isn't, either,>" Nathan corrected as Sam lay down on his sleeping bag and curled up onto his side.

"<You're right,>" Mirrin allowed. "<But he is granted certain protections that you as clan leader are not.>"

It wasn't in Nathan's nature to seek the positive in anything, so instead of comfort he found relief in Mirrin's casual use of clan terminology instead of her having made reference to Askani dogma. It probably prevented another energy-draining fight. And the part of Nathan that was the warrior (contrary to popular belief, it was not the whole of him) knew that he really didn't have that much energy to spare even as the human part wanted to rail and cry out at the knowledge that his mission - the one that to wage had cost him almost all that he cared about and the one for which success would mean the ripping away of all that he had ever been - had just racked up another casualty. Sam. Sam, the boy he had come back in time specifically to find.

The conversation was effectively ended by the return of Iceman.

"I am proud to announce," Bobby called out in a loud whisper from the edge of their camp, "that six years of boy scouts provided me with absolutely no preparation for walking around in the dark in a tropical jungle. I'm calling the Better Business Bureau once we get back home."

"And they'll tell you first that the warranty has expired," Alex replied, sitting up, "And then that the Boy Scouts are a social organization and not a religious one and thus can't be expected to perform miracles like teaching you to survive on your own."

"Are you calling me uneducatable?" Bobby asked mock-menacingly as he walked over to where his pack was sitting between Alex and Jean. "Rock-lover."

"Bean counter," Alex shot back and leaned back and rolled over to put his back to Bobby. Now facing Mirrin, he winked at her even as she gave him a skeptical look. Or maybe it was a confused one.

"Don't turn your back to me," Bobby groused as he sat down. "I'm not finished insulting you."

"Go pick on someone else," Alex replied, still not turning back.

"I'm scared of everyone else here," Bobby explained.

"I'm going on next guard shift," Nathan announced, not flinching as everyone else broke into chuckles.

"It's my turn," Scott replied, standing up. "You've been up for a few days and need to rest. They'll bore each other silent in a few minutes."

"Hey!" both Alex and Bobby grumbled indignantly.

***

Banality and the X-Men. Two things that often seemed to go together, Remy mused. Which seemed kind of odd considering that this was supposed to be a superhero outfit.

The plane ride to Scotland had been a study in boredom, he decided as he looked over the sand dune, and the trip from Scotland to the Sudan only slightly less so if only for the added tension that Colossus and Shadowcat added to the already existing stress between himself and Rogue.

That, and the fact that with ten people (two of whom answered to the size-indicative codenames of 'Beast' and 'Colossus') the mini-jet had been damn cramped.

"Can you see if any of them looks to be a command post?" Archangel, lying on his stomach next to him, asked. Remy had binoculars, but Archangel didn't need them as the pair looked across the horizon at the Kurioon settlement. It was a small open circle of structures, low-lying and obviously built for long-term outdoor use. Each sand-colored building was almost perfectly smooth in its exterior with no visible moving parts to be gummed up with sand as well as seamless, sloped roofs to keep anything from collecting.

"Look identical," Remy replied. His own vision made the night-vision option of the binoculars unnecessary to see what was lurking in the growing shadows. Dusk was approaching, but slowly. Until then, they had nothing to do but wait and pick on each other. Which would be just like what they did at home, except with less sand. "Smart money says it ain't one of the ones on the end and it's not gonna be the middle one."

The plan, such as it was, was simple reconnaissance. Get in, look around, and get out. Blow up what they could, take good notes on what they couldn't, and leave with the same number of people as they had arrived with. Like many of the plans devised by the X-Men, it was elegant in its simplicity and because of that it would be utterly ignored once the action got underway.

"It looks like a trailer park, the kind with a satellite dish and a playground and all the other sorts of amenities that make you wonder why they didn't rent a house in the first place," Archangel said after a long pause.

"Don't think we're gon' be lucky enough to watch them get hit by a tornado," Remy answered ruefully, idly remembering a bit of a George Carlin routine. "Although we could check with Stormy..."

"The thought has indeed crossed my mind," Storm answered through the wireless communicators they all wore in their ears. "But while burying the entire installment under sand would be the simple solution, if the inelegant one, it would do nothing to fill in our admittedly large intelligence gaps."

Gambit had suggested - and Storm had been intrigued by the idea - that with three experienced thieves present (Shadowcat hadn't even looked mildly embarrassed at her inclusion), a bit of skulking around was not only possible but also possibly successful. There were a few issues, however, that had to be worked out before night fell and the team could emerge from its not-very-hidden hiding spots.

"Anyone come up wit' an idea on how to make Colossus inconspicuous?" he asked.

Rogue and Archangel were to fly surveillance and were thus not subject to such scrutiny. Apart from the three thieves, Nightcrawler and Beast had acrobatic training and Psylocke and Wolverine could walk over eggshells. Colossus, even if he wasn't in the organic steel form that would gleam in the moonlight, was very hard to hide.

"I suppose leaving him on the plane isn't an option," Psylocke chirped into her communicator from her position somewhere else in the ever-present sand.

The team had split up into five pairs and scattered themselves in a large circle around the Kurioon camp. The installment itself wasn't very large and the equipment the team had brought with them had been sufficient to detect and avoid the perimeter alarms that had been set up. Gambit was not alone in his apprehension at the relative ease with which they had set up their surveillance in broad daylight.

"I'm not carry-on luggage," Colossus grumbled from his position on the opposite side of the camp (where Nightcrawler had teleported them).

"Nope, just excess baggage," Psylocke replied back with a chuckle. "But we do love you anyway."

"So you say," Colossus returned, sounding wounded although Gambit suspected that the big Russian was just playing. Even with his binoculars he couldn't see any of the other pairs, but one did not become a Guild thief without having mastered the inflections and intonations of unseen voices.

"Mind puttin' your energy towards watching our friends instead of workin' your gums?" Wolverine groused.

"Oh, come on, Wolverine," Rogue chuckled, her clear alto voice making the receiver in Gambit's ear vibrate a little as she laughed. "There ain't nothin' to watch 'xcept sand. It's still hot enough to melt those metal men and they ain't goin' anywhere. 'Sides, you know we work best when we're pickin' on each other."

"It's better to pick on your friends than pick your nose," Shadowcat blurted cheerfully and from his own position Remy stifled a laugh at Storm's non-verbal noise of disgust. "Oh. Was that out loud?"

There was a mumble and then a bark of laughter that Gambit knew belonged to Wolverine. "She didn't get that from me!"

"Nice to know that given the chance the two of you will still act like my parents and blame each other for my bad habits," Shadowcat said, sounding bemused. "Which one of you wants to take credit for my inability to make my bed on a regular basis?"

"That's Cyclops," both Storm and Wolverine replied almost in sync.

General laughter ensued. Fearless Leader or not, inappropriate topic of discussion on a stakeout or not, Scott Summers was well known for being a member of the 'there's no point in making a bed if you're just going to get back into it' school of thought. Jean had long given up on trying to break him of the habit, had even gone past just making her side of the bed.

But thinking of their erstwhile leader's peccadilloes, amusing as they were, cast a somber pall over the group. Cyclops - and Phoenix and Cable and the others - were missing right now and nobody wanted to consider the danger they might be in.

The portable Cerebro unit that was automatically keyed into all of the X-Men's psi signatures registered none of Cyclops's group; they had all disappeared late the previous morning. Psylocke had been at the monitor when the alarm had sounded and had felt the dim background connections in her mind wink out even as the alarm pealed. The X-Men - and their friends - had been slightly edgy since then.

"I could use a Creamsicle jus' bout now," Gambit said, trying to dull that edge. Either Cyclops and his team were coming back (with or without Cable and Domino) or they weren't. Either way, Storm's group, be they sole survivors or second wave, had to keep on top of things and the line between being on guard and being in need of one was neither very fine nor very hard to trip over. Humor - even the lame, recycled humor that the X-Men tended to favor, had its uses.

"Ah thought you disliked everything Iceman brings into the kitchen on principle," Rogue retorted, her voice sounding forced like she was shifting positions in the sand. "His cuisine ain't chi-chi enough for ya."

"We're how close to meltin' into a puddle of mutant goo in the sand?" Gambit asked in reply, secretly pleased to hear the lack of venom in Rogue's voice. "No point in bein' picky right now. Lyin' right next to a guy with a natural sun shade and I'm ready to be dropped in a po'boy."

Next to him, Archangel snorted a laugh and angled one of his wings - the one he was using to shade himself - so that Gambit was a little more covered. A long talk with Scott after the Ukraine on not letting personal animosities get in the way of missions had him in a relatively amenable mood. "You just had to ask, although I'd appreciate no more food talk. I may resemble a bird, but I don't eat like one. That sandwich was hours ago."

Groans and grunts of agreement filled Remy's ears. They had left Muir Island ten hours ago and had not packed much in the way of food - water was the priority, plus there was the aforementioned space problem.

"Is this where all envision each other like roast chickens, like they do in the cartoons?" Shadowcat asked.

"There might be some advantage to a restricted diet here," Beast mused aloud, probably grateful for any change of topic that kept him from focusing on the amount of sand in his fur. "The more weight we lose, the less cramped the return trip will be."

"You starve yourself," Wolverine retorted. "I'm eatin' the first thing that runs in front of me - and that includes any of you if we have to wait much longer - and then makin' Rogue and Archangel fly themselves home."

"Why do I sense a staging of the first ever mutant-only production of 'Lord of the Flies'?" Psylocke asked nobody in particular. "Second ever, come to think of it. Australia should count for something."

"Where's Havok when you need him?" Colossus wondered aloud. Gambit noticed that the big Russian got more talkative the longer they were away from Scotland. "He could always find food in seemingly desolate locations."

"I have not yet gotten hungry enough that I miss the spit-roasted rodents," Storm replied, sounding elegant in her disgust. "'Chicken of the Outback' indeed."

"Is that what that was?" Colossus asked, sounding horrified. "He never said, just presented everyone with the cooked meat."

"It tasted like chicken," Rogue pointed out with a verbal shrug. "Wasn't so bad."

"As I recall, you were the one who used to do head counts after being served mystery meat," Psylocke pointed out. "Even after Wolverine told you we taste like pork."

"Coulda been Longshot," Rogue replied a little defensively. "He wasn't from 'round here. He coulda tasted like chicken..."

"Make a note to ask Al... Ow, no hittin', Storm," Wolverine coughed out between bouts of laughter.

"How long you reckon we gotta wait?" Rogue asked after the group had finally stopped laughing. "While this is fun and all, Ah'm gettin' stiff just lying here, 'specially since Ah don't tan. And there hasn't been any action in hours."

"Another half-hour should put the sun almost below the horizon," Beast replied. "But we still have not definitively answered whether or not there will be patrols later on. After nightfall, there is always more traffic in the desert."

"I think Wolverine had the right of it," Storm said. "The camp is just that - a camp. Perhaps it has not yet reached the point where heavy security is warranted."

"Didn't Mirrin say that the nest was booby-trapped so that it was supremely dangerous from early on?" Archangel asked. "Thermonuclear weapons is what she said, right? Even considering the Kurioon's shocking lack of concern about friendly fire, it would make sense for them not to waste resources guarding a site that could amply protect itself."

"Ja, but also remember that the Kurioon isn't expecting anyone," Nightcrawler pointed out. "We are hundreds of kilometers from civilization. And as far as they are concerned, Cable is dead and Apocalypse can accede to his thrown uncontested. The Kurioon has never shown any inclination to treat us as an adversary to be concerned about, nor, arguably have we done much to change their minds. Even before they disappeared from the radar, this looked like a low-level project. They could be taking their time."

"We've been watching the installation for hours," Storm said. "We have not seen any patrols and I would venture that were the Kurioon to use them, they would have been out day and night."

"Which puts us back to wonderin' where the video surveillance is," Gambit said by way of agreement. "Low-level facility or not, they're too sharp to be relying solely on a bunch of motion sensors half-buried in the sand."

"In their own time, in the future, there is a lot of desert," Colossus began slowly. "That is what I have gleaned, at least from the reports Cable and Mirrin sent to us. Video equipment is easy for us to fool; it must be even easier two thousand years from now."

"Heat sensors," Shadowcat finished. "Everybody leaks heat, no matter how well-armored they are. And in the coolness of a desert night..."

"And with all of the mutants on Apocalypse's side of the gameboard, there would be little reason for them to anticipate anything like Storm's ability to keep us cool," Beast agreed. "If our estimable field leader can manipulate the meteorology so that we might pass undetected through this sweet night without destroying any equipment, our odds do improve quite a bit."

An hour later and under a heavy fog unheard of in a desert, satisfied that no patrols were indeed forthcoming, the group reconvened and split into three groups. Rogue and a heavily armed Archangel took to the sky while on the ground Gambit, Psylocke, Wolverine, and Beast headed one way and Storm, Shadowcat, Nightcrawler, and Colossus the other.

"Hey, Monsieur le bête," Gambit whispered behind him, "You got that videocamera rolling?"

"Just call me Coppola," Beast replied as he adjusted the attachment to his goggles. He was privately quite proud of the almost weightless tiny camera he had developed so that he could better share Legacy virus data with Moira McTaggart, mostly because it had been his design (not Forge's) and he had received envious murmurings from Reed Richards upon its inspection. "The night vision color correction is looking spectacular, if I don't say so myself."

"I'll wait for the director's cut," Psylocke said into her communicator from her position as point. "It's clear around the corner."

The quartet skirted around one of the trailer-like buildings and on to the next. The first phase was investigation, so they were just looking around for the moment.

"Don't like this at all," Gambit muttered, running his expert fingers over the surface of one of the structures and detecting no weak points. "No such thing as an unguarded military installation. No such thing as an unguarded valuable. And somehow I don't think we're walkin' round in the Kurioon's garbage dump."

"A trap, more likely," Psylocke said by way of agreement. "A very elaborate one."

"Storage," Wolverine grunted out as he joined the trio from where he had been guarding the rear. "Non-essential materials storage. It's probably got some automated defense so if it's breached it'll blow and they won't miss it too badly."

"Comforting thought, that," Psylocke replied dourly. "But we go on, I gather, because non-essential to them doesn't mean non-essential to us."

On the other side of the compound, Storm and the three erstwhile members of Excalibur had reached a similar conclusion.

"If this were Arcade, I'd say it was a trap," Nightcrawler mused aloud as he watched Shadowcat run a portable x-ray scan over a large, smooth box lying next to one of the buildings. It was quite firmly entrenched in the ground, but whether it was attached to anything couldn't be determined. "But this is too elaborate for anyone who doesn't take joy from the thrill of the chase."

"We have been ignoring the option that this has nothing to do with the Kurioon," Colossus pointed out from where he stood leaning against a wall. "Advanced technology aside, perhaps we should not continue to do so. The Kurioon are not the only ones capable of such..." he waved his hand expansively.

"None of our other... more traditional... opponents have such abundant self-confidence that they would leave something unattended," Storm replied as she ran her hand over the surface of the box Shadowcat was scanning. No seams to get her lock picks into.

"And that means that it's either not unoccupied and it's a trap," Shadowcat said as she looked up and turned off the scanner that wasn't reading anything. "Or it's the Kurioon. Although to be perfectly honest, I'd much prefer to see Arcade at this stage of the game. Even the Technet..."

"We're 'bout done here," Gambit's voice came over the communicator. "You ready to give 'em the official X-Men grand entrance?"

"All right," Storm agreed, swallowing a sardonic laugh. "Archangel, Rogue, we shall need you two to keep your eyes open for anything coming to greet us."

"Will do," Archangel replied.

"Shadowcat?" Storm asked, gesturing towards the building Colossus was leaning against. "Gambit and Wolverine, wait for our signal," she said into her communicator.

Standing up, Shadowcat walked over to the wall and reached out, phasing her hand through the seamless surface and pulling it back out. There were no alarms, instead only a faint click and then a hum.

"Real good power back-up," Shadowcat mused aloud. "Too bad it doesn't matter." She stuck her head in this time, again to the sound of a click as her own mutant power disrupted the machinery. She passed the rest of her body through the wall moments later, leaving Storm, Colossus, and Nightcrawler to wait anxiously for her return. Trusting Shadowcat's abilities aside, there was seemingly no way for them to follow her in case of a rescue being required.

There was radio silence for five minutes, long enough for anxiety to melt into deep concern, until Shadowcat's voice came through on the communicator. "Gambit, you can probably short out the power supply long enough for Wolverine to cut through without shocking himself stupid," she said, her voice sounding brittle even through the communicator. "The circuitry is the same as the Danger Room, so use what you'd use to break into the Control Room."

"What?!?!" Came the collective response.

"Are you sure about that?" Nightcrawler asked.

 "How many times have I been sitting in the guts of the console?" Shadowcat asked in reply. "You know I've had my suspicions all along, but this confirms it. But that's really not what's important here."

"What is inside, Shadowcat?" Storm asked concernedly, leaning her head against the smooth wall as if it would either bring her closer or give her insight.

"Cyborg parts," was the reply. "Metal skeletons in tubes with flesh growing on them."

"We're on our way in," Psylocke announced over the communicator. "Wolverine's almost done with the door."

"Shadowcat, come and fetch us so we can see," Nightcrawler requested, putting his hand against the wall. "You shouldn't be in there alone."

"I'm working my way back," Shadowcat said, then yelped a curse.

"Katya?!?" Colossus banged futilely against the wall.

"I'm all right, I'm all right, I just tripped," she replied after a long moment. "I made myself solid so that I didn't phase through anything and trip an alarm by accident."

"Oh my stars and garters," Beast's voice came over the radios. "It's a veritable factory in here. We could inflict quite a bit of population control..."

A minute later, Shadowcat emerged several yards away from the trio and shook her head sadly as she joined her teammates. "This has to be where they've been growing them."

"How can that be?" Storm asked as she linked hands with Shadowcat and the other two so that they could phase through the wall. "If the nest is in Vanuatu..."

"There are empty cases," Psylocke replied over the communicator. "And there's nobody home otherwise."

Storm had no choice but to agree with the assessment once she was inside. The single room looked... lived in, for lack of a better phrase. Well used.

"Anybody wanna tell us what's going on?" Rogue's voice came through the radios.

"Archangel, remember Larry Trask's mutant storage tubes?" Beast asked as he walked slowly around, making sure he caught every detail on video. "Imagine that on a grand scale."

"Here," Psylocke said. "I'll telepathically send you two what I see."

"Oh my," was all Rogue could say as Psylocke's mental images started coming through.

"We're coming to ground," Archangel announced. "There's nobody coming and there won't be anyone coming."

"Why's that?" Gambit asked as he stared at a metal skeleton sitting in a tube of fluid. There was mesh over the metal, but the flesh that grew on it hadn't really taken yet.

"Because this has gotta be the nest," Wolverine said as he came up beside him. "Which leaves us with two questions... Where the hell did Cable run off to and how the hell are we getting out of here before the nukes go off?"

***


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