Future Pluperfect: Chapter 29
"All right, Rogue, you can let go now," Kitty Pryde called down from where she was partially phased through the body of the mini jet.
"Finally," Rogue sighed good-naturedly as she rolled her shoulders and returned to ground. "Ah thought you were takin' an especial long time with that one just for spite."
The group was in a generally good mood as they waited for the repairs to be finished. Food, water, shade, rest, and the lack of cyborgs trying to kill them could do wonders, Kurt Wagner mused to himself. Not to mention Storm offering up some localized showers to clean off the worst of the sweat, sand, blood, and grime.
Earlier, it had been tense. Very tense. The stress had been almost tangible in the smoky aftermath of the jet fuel fire and while the acrid smoke had been cleared easily, it took much longer to discern that there was no more danger. And by that point tempers had been running short.
In order to complete the safety sweep, the team had had to march around the circumference of the burn zone, a large crater still steaming from where the sand had turned to still-hot glass. Even beyond the bowl, dangerously hot metal shards littered the area and Kurt had been badly burned on the sole of his left foot by a partially hidden piece. The wound had immediately blistered outrageously and Rogue had scooped him up and flown him the rest of the way. [The unappealing alternative was to be carried like a sack of potatoes over the shoulder of either Colossus or the Beast and Kurt had figured that his dignity had suffered enough damage after squealing ("like a little girl," as Logan had gleefully reported to their rescuers) in shock upon contact.]
"Do you want to double-check my work, Cap?" Kitty called over to Brian Braddock, currently standing in the shade of one of the wings of the Midnight Runner. "Don't want to blow up the X-Men... well, not all of them."
Their destination had been the nest - they had to see if there were any more soldiers in hiding. There were none evident when they finally arrived, but a half-dozen soldiers (yellow-marked ones) had come marching up the steps of one of the underground bunkers shortly thereafter. For a group that had to rely completely on their own (in some cases depleted) powers, Kurt was proud to say that they had done well.
Colossus, impervious to the plasma cannons the soldiers were armed with, had grabbed two on his own and bashed them into oblivion. Kurt was sure that Colossus's... raw display... had come with full knowledge that the soldiers were not human at all, despite deceiving appearances, but a part of him wondered if it would have made any difference. His friend had been on edge for so long... but no. And yet the previously simple reasoning - this was Piotr, after all - was no longer so simple. Nothing was with respects to him after the Wisdom Incident. Kurt mentally chastised himself for letting that doubt take seed in his mind. It was up to him to get past that else he had no grounds to urge Kitty and the others to do the same.
The other four soldiers were then destroyed with a little less blunt force and, truth be told, a little more energy expended. Not as much energy, however, as was wasted in the subsequent argument over whether they should scout the underground bunkers before or after putting in a call for help to Scotland.
That had only ended when Kurt had erupted in true Bavarian dramatic fashion. Tired of the bickering and short-fused himself, he had demanded that, since he was of no use to anyone at the moment with one foot and very little left in the teleportation tank, Rogue fly him back to the mini jet so he could contact Muir Island while the others searched the complex.
"Warren, my very good, good friend. My comrade-in-arms, fellow alumnus, partner, buddy..."
"No, Hank, I am going to finish this sandwich all by myself. Go steal from Kitty."
"Because the alternative is Wolverine's food and I don't want to kill Hank, just keep him away from my dinner."
Kurt had been in a vile, black mood when he had called Excalibur. Dark enough so that Wisdom had put him through to Brian's lab rather than contribute his opinions on how they had come to be stranded in the middle of the desert. But it was hard to stay angry as Brian, in his usual dry fashion, asked polite questions that nonetheless managed to elicit ridiculous responses from Kurt simply because the truth was in and of itself ridiculous. And the look on Moira's face after had had repeated, for the third time, how Gambit and Archangel had torched the cyborg soldiers... It was with a clear heart that Kurt had radioed Storm to tell her that Brian had modified two of the spare tanks from the Midnight Runner and would be arriving with crew and fuel in a matter of hours.
Storm had reported back that the open underground bunkers had all proven to be empty, but a thorough search of the compound wreckage had revealed one more possible hiding spot. She and Kurt had briefly debated either getting Colossus to open it up or Kitty to phase down to take a peek, but in the end had decided that it could wait until reinforcements arrived.
It had been late morning when Kurt had contacted Scotland and it was late afternoon before the familiar outline of the Midnight Runner was spotted on the horizon. By that point, the others had returned to the mini-jet to get out of the sun, although Rogue and Archangel had taken turns flying back and forth between the compound and the plane to make sure nothing else had crawled out of the ground.
"A pence for your thoughts, Kurt," Psylocke said gently as she sat down on the blanket next to him. They were under the body of the Midnight Runner, aft of the cockpit but fore of the ladder.
"Just marveling at our latest adventure," Nightcrawler replied with a bemused smile.
"The part that had Warren, Remy, and Rogue working together or the whole idea that we escaped generally unscathed at all?"
"More the latter, I think, but the former bears consideration as well," Kurt replied thoughtfully. "If not outright thankfulness at the miracles the Lord does provide us."
Psylocke laughed, a sound Kurt always thought of favorably comparing to tinkling crystal. It was one of the few parts of Betsy that had stayed with her from the beginning and Kurt was thankful that neither the Siege Perilous nor the Crimson Dawn could take it away.
"I'm almost afraid to speak of it aloud," Psylocke confided. "Lest I bring too much attention to it and destroy such a delicate peace."
Kurt nodded understandingly, almost visibly fighting off the urge to check his foot. It had been treated and dressed by Meggan, who had fussed over him in a way that Brian never let her do with him (his muttering could be heard in the background as she had wrapped his foot).
The afternoon had been spent in search of shade and, as such, there was a limited amount of space to be in and avoidance was impossible. Thankfully, it had also proven unnecessary. In the aftermath of the forced intimacy of working with each other, Warren and Remy had been neutral in their dealings. It wasn't perfect, but it was a vast improvement over the polite hostility Warren usually favored and Remy's aggressive nonchalance. And, as Hank had pointed out, it wasn't as if the two of them had been best friends before Antarctica.
"Speaking of," Betsy broke the companionable silence. "Where are Remy and Rogue?"
Kurt looked around. It was Archangel's turn to fly surveillance, but Rogue was nowhere to be seen and the space by the tail section of the Midnight Runner that had been Gambit's hiding spot was empty.
"Cajun's off gettin' a smoke," Wolverine answered as he sat down heavily next to Psylocke. "Hank chased him away from the planes, said he didn't wanna violate any more FAA regulations in one day if he could help it."
Kurt noticed the other man's lack of his usual grace. "The bruise is not still bothering you, is it?"
Wolverine had taken on one of the Kurioon soldiers claws-to-body-armor and while he had eventually won, it had been a longer battle than had perhaps been anticipated. Wolverine had limped back to the plane sporting a bruise from thigh to shoulder along one side and a gash in his midsection that had had Hank seriously wondering if he'd have to use the man's intestines to tie the rest of his organs in place.
"Nah," Wolverine scoffed, tilting back to ease the strain on his midsection. "That's gone. Stomach's a little tight, still. But it'll pass."
"It always does," Psylocke agreed ruefully.
"So," Wolverine began after a few moments spent watching Kitty, Hank, Brian, Meggan, and Piotr fiddle around inside and outside of the mini-jet. "Are we startin' a pool on whether Rogue's gone off to kiss Gambit or kill him?"
"I am for romance always," Kurt announced over Psylocke's abandoned protest.
"Both of 'em are too damned stubborn," Wolverine grunted.
"Which is precisely why they'll end up alternately apologizing to each other and flaying each other for the next few months," Psylocke replied. "Women's intuition."
"Or a cheatin' telepath," was the sly return.
"I don't cheat," Psylocke sniffed.
"Hells you don't," Archangel chimed in as landed gracefully near them. "You're the only telepath here and someone was trying to use my eyes to find them."
"And someone else didn't let me," Psylocke answered ruefully.
"For the record," Warren said as he turned to walk away. "They're a couple of dunes away. He's on one and she's on another watching him smoke."
With that, he angled one wing to shield himself from the sun and headed off. Eventually he found who he was looking for. Storm was at the comm. unit of the Midnight Runner, attempting to watch meteorological satellite reports on the plane's computer.
"If you think it's safe," Archangel began, gesturing towards the map she had open on the desk, "Then we might as well go ahead. Nothing's been spotted for hours."
"It should be safe," Storm announced, standing up. "There have been no unusual disturbances reported."
She looked around at her notepad and the computer screen and laughed at the irony of it. "When I was young and a goddess, I cared nothing for the effects of my doings. I gave rain to the village that came to worship me and I neither knew nor cared whether the village a day's walk away starved because of an unexpected drought."
"Is there anyone living close enough to be affected by anything we've done today?" Archangel asked, genuinely curious.
"I am perhaps overcautious at times," Storm admitted, smiling gently as she cleaned up the desk. "The delicate balance in a desert is much more so than in a more temperate region. It is a lesson I did not learn early enough and one which still causes me to take extra precautions now."
Archangel nodded. He had his own lessons belatedly learned. "Do you want to take care of the burn zone before we return to the compound, then?"
"It will make our trip to and fro that much easier," Storm said by way of agreement as she led the way down the ladder and out into the bright sunshine.
"Well," Kitty announced as she came up to the pair at the foot of the ladder. "The mini-jet is back online. Both Cap and the Beast have looked over my work and we're ready to give it a test-drive. Colossus suggested taxiing both planes over closer to the compound once you're done filling in the hole, but we weren't sure if that might not be too close for when you cover that over. These engines will work with sand in them, but there's no point in grinding up the gears if we can avoid it."
"I suppose it depends if we decide to take everyone with us to the compound," Storm replied, gesturing to the other two to follow her to where Nightcrawler, Psylocke, and Wolverine were sitting. "I am open to suggestions."
"I don't know how quickly Brian's and Meggan's powers will be affected by their displacement from Great Britain," Nightcrawler pointed out. "And it would be unfair to embroil them in our own messes. Of course they will help us should we require it, but there is no need to involve them otherwise."
"Those were my thoughts as well," Storm agreed, turning to look over her shoulder where Colossus and the Beast were engaged in a seemingly pleasant discussion with the pair. "And while I know that your teleportation powers have undoubtedly recuperated, it would perhaps be wiser for you to remain behind as well."
Kurt muttered something unpleasant in German, but nodded reluctantly. "Between the three of us, then, we can bring the planes to you, I suppose," he said.
"Psylocke, if you would recall everyone so that we can get started?" Storm asked with a firm nod.
Fifteen minutes later, the group was standing around in a loose circle discussing strategy.
"All Ah'm sayin' is that we need somethin' a little more concrete than last time," Rogue said with exasperation, her hands up in a soothing gesture. "Ah'm not criticizin' the idea on principle. But if we're gonna collapse all the bunkers like old mine shafts, then we gotta have somethin' better as a fallback plan than hittin' up the planes for more fuel."
"Too bad we didn't bring the X-Force guy who makes earthquakes," Gambit murmured. "Solve all out problems in one boom."
"What was our estimate for the number of Kurioon soldiers that emerged from the three bunkers we've already examined?" The Beast asked thoughtfully. "Excluding the wayward six-pack that emerged after the guests of honor had already been introduced to the Pu-Pu Platter?"
"Couple hundred?" Rogue suggested with a shrug.
"Not unless some of them had no arm or legs," Archangel retorted with a smile. "Even considering what got destroyed beyond all recognition, we didn't find that many parts. Knock it down to maybe a hundred."
"Gambit, you were there as well," Storm prompted. "What was your estimate?"
"Closer to a hundred, peut-être a little less," Gambit replied, looking straight at Storm and not at the other two.
"Which divided by three, the number of bunkers we found, puts us at around thirty-to-forty soldiers per bunker," The Beast concluded.
"We're forgettin' something," Wolverine spoke up and the others fell silent. "These aren't soldiers. They're robots. They come with a remote control. And we haven't found that yet. Or the guy holdin' it."
"We're off to see the Wizard, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz," Psylocke sang out quietly to herself, then looked abashed when her brother pursed his lips and stared at her. "Sorry, didn't mean to do that out loud."
"It's a point, though," Meggan said, tilting her head thoughtfully. "These creatures aren't on their own."
"There is a chance they could be remotely operated," Colossus suggested. "We don't know if there are other nests elsewhere. A hundred troops here, the few dozen that we have encountered already in our past conflicts... is that all there is? We may find the bunker just as the others were. There may be no headquarters."
"Yeah," Shadowcat agreed, "There doesn't have to be any fancy reason why that last bunker didn't open up. It could be something as basic as a stuck door."
"Would that it were," Archangel sighed. "I still say my original suggestion is just as valid as any of the others."
"Your suggestion was no suggestion," the Beast retorted.
"No, it was that we don't analyze the plan to death," Archangel corrected with a smirk. "For all we know, it could be a bunker filled with barrels of the goo they used in the cyborg tanks. We've got two working planes now and the Midnight Runner's got weapons. Worst case scenario is we run like hell..."
"Which was what we did last time to such great effect," Rogue contradicted.
"Nobody got hurt," Archangel replied evenly. "Why don't we just see what we have instead of planning for every eventuality?"
"I'm with Wings," Wolverine grunted. "Talkin' ain't gonna get us home any faster and it's gonna be dark soon."
"All right," Storm called out over the mumbling. "I am going to cover over the pit we created with the jet fuel. When I return, we shall head over to the compound and see what is behind our mysterious door."
Taking a page from Cable's playbook when it came to dealing with the X-Men, Storm fled the scene before anyone could argue with her command decision. She rose into the air and flew gracefully over to where the damage had been done. From the sky, the darkened glass-and-sand combination looked like a wound on the otherwise pale flesh of the desert, an effect heightened by the pinks and golds of the sun just beginning to creep towards the horizon.
Careful to use low-to-the-ground air eddies, Storm filled in the chasm. The play of the sand over the glassy parts was captivating and she had to be careful not to get caught up in its beauty. It did not take long for the sand to be evened out over the ground and while it still had a cast of the unnatural about it - like the fake beaches of a movie set - there was nothing so erroneous that nature herself could not correct in a short time.
Returning to the planes, Storm was met by a ready squad. In addition to the food and water that had already been consumed, the Midnight Runner had come stocked with easy-to-carry water bladders and each of the X-Men was given one along with a granola bar. "Not to wish you anything but the best luck," Meggan had said upon issuing the goods. "But just in case."
With the sun at their backs, the group marched towards the compound and everyone took it upon themselves to remark to Storm on her work when they were halfway over what had been the burn zone before Wolverine had said anything.
Shadowcat volunteered to phase through the bunker door once it was reached, reasoning that if it happened to be a stuck door, there was no point in letting them out right away. She grabbed Colossus's flashlight and phased through to take a look before Storm could come up with a good reason why she should not.
"Well," she said upon re-emerging. "There aren't three dozen cyborgs eagerly waiting for someone to jimmy open the door."
"What is there?" Colossus asked, catching the flashlight tossed to him with (thankfully) no excessive force.
"Another computer like the ones we saw in the buildings with the tanks," Shadowcat replied. "No barrels of goo, but something that does look like it could be a radio transponder." She took a step back and exited the circle of the team and walked to the other side of the bunker door. "It was right about... here," she announced, retracing her steps except on the surface. At her foot was the small unopenable box that had stood next to one of the buildings.
"When we first got here," Shadowcat explained, tapping on the box's surface with one foot, "I couldn't figure out what this was. It wouldn't open, nothing scanned, and nothing made any noise."
"It's the antenna?" Psylocke asked.
"I think so," Shadowcat agreed. "Wolverine may be right about the entire place being run by remote."
"Well, then let's go down there and do what we do best," Archangel said, clapping his hands together. "Make a mess."
"Colossus, if you would?" Storm asked.
Colossus squatted down and felt for the edge of the door. Finding it, he stood up, taking the near edge of the door with him and then heaving the entire thing aside.
Everyone went down the steps to examine the bunker before Psylocke, Archangel, Storm, Gambit, and Shadowcat came back up above ground. The bunker wasn't wide enough for everyone to be down there at once and doing damage. Colossus and Rogue appeared next, each carrying a piece of equipment. Rogue flew the processing unit of the computer directly back to the plane and Colossus put the radio transponder on the ground to be carried back on the return march.
Wolverine and Beast emerged last, somewhat sooty and sweaty. "I'd say that was a fair bit of constructive mayhem," the Beast announced cheerfully as he pulled the top off of his water bladder. "That deserves a drink."
"I want a real one," Wolverine replied, nonetheless guzzling down his own supply. "Call the taxis, guys, we're ready to go home."
, somewhat sooty and sweaty. "I'd say that was a fair bit of constructive mayhem," the Beast announced cheerfully as he pulled the top off of his water bladder. "That deserves a drink."
"I want a real one," Wolverine replied, nonetheless guzzling down his own supply. "Call the taxis, guys, we're ready to go home."