I. Hell on Earth
Armageddon Minus Eight.
Beast chuckled. "Ooooh! Nailed by a stray blast! I'll bet that hurts, Morph! Let me get some ice on that!" A teleportational field began to form around him. "Oh! I forgot! I'm all out of the ice, aren't I?"
Quicksilver and Blink ran, panting, into the room. Quicksilver saw the field and shouted "The Beast! He's - teleporting!"
The Beast sneered, and said "Indeed...to a land of dreams and schemes! Ta-ta, twinkletoes! Give my regards to Ragnarok!" As Quicksilver ran to a console, the Beast's sneer became a look of terror. "Wait! Don't touch the--you're scrambling the--stop!" He screamed, his bellow fading as his molecules scattered.
Blink gaped. "Holy cheese, Petey! So much for seeing that furball ever again! You play dirty! I love it! You scatter his atoms good'n'rough?"
Quicksilver had a look of horror on his face. "I'm not certain! What I did, I did not to punish our foe--but to save ourselves!"
"According to his readouts, the beast had planned to rematerialize--in the very center of the M'kraan crystal!"
Blink paused, and then said, shocked, "Cripes! If he goes through, there's no telling what will happen. What were those coordinates? We have to stop him!"
"I damaged the machine in my attempt to stop him...I don't think it will even work now, and the coordinates are lost."
"Damn. We'll just have to make due, then. C'mon!"
Armageddon Minus Five
Victor Creed, AKA Sabretooth, looked around him. 'Jesus," he thought, 'everyone's gone nuts! X-Men are backstabbing each other, bodies are everywhere...reminds me of an op gone sour.' He laughed to himself. 'Yeah, back when we had ops.' He'd taken a score of hits himself, but the wounds healed as soon as they were made. He howled with delight as a trio of infinites approached him. "C'mon, genejokes!" he taunted, "Uncle Vic's got something for you!" With blinding speed he rushed the one in the center, grabbing its gun and shooting it in the faceplate. He dodged behind number 3 as the first fired its rifle, drawing the hapless infinite into its comrade's field of fire. "Oooh, you should be more careful!" He grappled with the infinite for the rifle. "Guns can hurt people." He muscled the weapon away and slammed the butt into the infinite's faceplate. "See?"
As Creed looked for more targets to destroy, a burst of superheated plasma ripped across the field to his right. He turned to see Gambit blown to pieces by an infinite's fire, and barely had time to see the source as the fire tore into him as well. He saw a flash beside him, and heard Blink's voice cry out in alarm.
"Mister Creed!" She hurled a javelin at the infinite, who fell dead.
Creed had seen better days. "What's <kaff>what's the story on the <kaff> <hack>the citadel, kid?"
Clarice knew better than to mother Creed. "The Beast attempted to teleport into the crystal...Pietro thinks he stopped him, but we're not sure. All I can think to do is go in after him, but I've never been there so I have to physically jump in there."
Creed grunted. His wounds were healing, but they were bad. It would take time they didn't have for them to heal completely. "Alright, go. The shit's hit the fan out here, but you should be able to make it." He paused. "Mags is making this other place, this other reality, sound like a better world. Maybe it is, for the most part, but..." He fell silent. Then, "Whatever's happened, if you make it there, find me. Make sure--"
"I will, mister Creed. I promise."
Blink ran toward the crystal as fast as she could, the sounds of battle erupting from all around her. The crystal was surprisingly easy to reach, considering the fact that she was in the middle of a warzone. Once she saw it, she took a deep breath and plunged headlong into it.
Erik Magnus Lensherr looked upon the cataclysm that had unwound this evening, and felt a torrent of emotion wash over him. 'It's over...it's finally over.' But what price victory? The missiles of the Human Alliance approached even now, and there was nothing he could do to stop them. The only other option was to be elsewhere. "Drake! Paris!" The two X-Men heeded his summons, and he said "Take as many as you can, as far as you can." He turned to Exodus. "Paris, your abilities are near infinite. If you can reach Europe, Asia, Australia, whatever it takes, do it."
Paris took a deep breath. "I'll try, sir."
Bobby spoke. "Magnus, I can't make it that far. Anyone I take will die before we get there."
"Drake, if you can't we're dead anyway. You may as well try. You must."
As the missiles swarmed down to cleanse what used to be North America in nuclear fire, the survivors of the last great battle against Apocalypse winked out one by one, taking with them the seeds of hope and the promise of new beginnings.
II. July 23, 1994. 5:04 p.m. Denver, Colorado.
Josie Thomas shifted to third gear and headed downtown. The calls today had been murder, and all she wanted to do now was relax a bit, maybe unwind and dance a little. To visitors, Denver's a pretty nice place. She'd lived here long enough to know better. As an EMT, what she saw every day was pretty damn depressing, and definitely not nice.
As she shifted into fourth, she yawned and wondered why she'd been so tired for the past few months. Everything was fine up until that mess with the mutants a while back. She still didn't know what happened; all she knew for sure was that her partner Harry Palmer was dead, and that the folks there kept going on and on about demons and mutants like there was some war on or something. It was weird, but she didn't know why it would screw up her sleep patterns.
She turned into an alley (parking was a bitch, especially on a Friday night), parked, and headed for Jake's Bar and Grill. She paid the cover and headed for the bar. 'Yeah,' she thought, 'this is just what I need. Unwind a little, relax, maybe get a decent night's sleep for once. That'd be really nice.' She saw a couple of guys checking her out farther down the bar. She smiled and added, 'Maybe have some fun, too.'
Ray saw the woman come in and did a double take. He nudged his friend and said "Hey, Psi, you see that chick? She has fine lines, man."
Jeff nodded. "I see her, all right. Just a sec, I'll be back in a few." The night might not be a total waste after all.
Ray watched as his friend head over to the woman, spoke to her for a few minutes, and headed for a room in the back with her. He shook his head. 'Must be nice to be a telepath,' he thought. 'Never fails to get you laid.'
Jeff closed and locked the door behind him, thinking with relish about the night ahead. He took the woman--Donna, she said her name was--into his arms and kissed her. She purred. He noticed something about her had changed subtly, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.
"You taste wonderful," she breathed. "Yeah, I think you'll do nicely."
"What did you have in mind?" He smirked to himself. Half the time they didn't even need a telepathic nudge.
"More than you think!" She grasped his head and gave him the most intense kiss he'd ever experienced, twining her tongue with his as though she wanted to shove it down his throat. It dawned on him that something wasn't right, but by the time he realized what it was her grip had turned to iron and he was helpless to do anything about it. He struggled for a few moments as she flayed his insides to ribbons, then relaxed as the last vestments of his mind winked out forever.
Half an hour later, Ray was ready to head home. He'd gotten nowhere with anyone, and he was itching to get airborne. It was about time to meet up with the others, anyway. He was about to go get Jeff when his friend appeared behind him.
"Hey buddy, how was she?"
"The best, man. Wait 'til you see for yourself." Jeff grinned.
"That kinda woman, huh? We gotta make it fast; it's time to meet up with the others."
"Don't worry, man, it won't take any time at all. Trust me."
Donna surveyed the fruit of her labors. She'd done well. She'd embraced Foxbat and Psynapse of the Riders of the Storm, a freelance group of mutant mercenaries specializing in wetwork. One of the group's members, Hard Drive, had just what she needed to intensify her efforts. With these additions, she felt confident that soon nothing could stand in her way. Nothing at all.
III. January 17, 1995. 7:49 p.m. Xavier School For Gifted Youngsters
Victor Creed was furious. It wasn't his runt of an opponent, Wolverine, that really set him off, though God knew there was no love lost between them. His anger wasn't directed at himself, either; he knew who he was, and didn't have a thing on his conscience. No, his fury stemmed from being out of control. A feral madness gripped him, pushing him in directions he never wanted to go, forcing him to extremes that were beyond the scope of sanity.
And he was sick of it.
"Step back from that door, Creed...or..."
Creed scoffed. "Or what, ya little hypocrite!" He lifted his chin, exposing his throat. "All it takes is one good slash!" He pointed toward his neck. "Right here boy! Get some payback for Silver Fox! That's what ya really want, ain't it? Let's you and me finish this once and for all!"
"It ain't up to me to punish you for what you done, Creed." He retracted his claws. "It's just up to me to see that you don't leave this room!"
That wasn't good enough. Not even close. Creed snarled, growling in a low whisper "Dyin' time, boy!" He raked his claws across Logan's face, and said "Ya know, boy--it surely ain't enough just to rip ya until ya dies! No, boy--" He slashed again-- "After I kills ya and hangs ya out to dry, I'm gonna go after all them frails ya been sweet on!" He tore through Logan again and again, desperately trying to get a response. "Ha! I'm gonna rip 'em just for grins! Gonna start with that uppity Jean Grey!" Rip! "Then maybe I'll mosey up to Canada and do that to Heather Hudson!" He slammed his foe in the gut, and added, "I really can't wait 'til I gets to rip up them young ones, like Kitty Pride and Jubilee--" Ah, that did it.
Wolvering grabbed Sabretooth by the collar, saying "That's it...you just stepped over the line, bub--" He heaved Creed head-first into the wall-- "You just gave me all the reason I need to stop your filthy clock!"
Creed sneered. "Oh, I do believe the lil' fireplug found the guts ta get heavy on me!"
"You said it, bub!"
"I guess you're just a low animal like the rest o' us--"
"I'm fed up with holdin' back the wild part o' me--" He stuck his fist under Creed's chin.
"Then quit yappin and do it!
Logan popped his claws.
Creed was disappointed. Logan had only popped two of them. "Ya punkin' out on me, short-stuff? You pull this half-way malarky out in the jungle, you'll be bad breath on a hyaena! I ain't lyin'--" Jeez, what did it take to push him over? "--You let me walk an' I swear, I'll track down every livin' thing you ever cared about one way or the other... Kitty Pryde... Jean Grey... Jubilee... Ororo... Cyclops...and I'll make 'em suffer a good long time before I kill 'em! I'm ready for that last big glow, Logan--do it!" He was screaming now. "DO IT! D--"
Logan popped the third claw.
Reality shattered, and then reformed. Logan looked down at Creed's motionless body. "Damn you, Victor," he whispered. "You won. You filthy bastard, you finally won." What the hell was he gonna do now?
IV. January 31, 1995. 7:13 a.m. Westchester, New York.
Clarice looked around her, surprised by the change in scenery. She had wanted to go home, back to Mister Creed and Magnus and the others, but this was Westchester. And it looked a helluva lot better than the last time she'd seen it. In fact, the entire landscape looked different. Was this...could this be the alternate reality Bishop was raving on and on about? The newer, better place? If so, she wasn't impressed. Much. Well, going back wasn't an option. She didn't even know if the place she'd come form existed anymore. What was important now was finding Mister Creed. Once she'd done that, she'd figure out her next step.
As she approached the mansion, she found that its defenses were comparatively weak. The mansion she'd lived in was a fortress, virtually impenetrable to any entry. She could get in there, so this version was child's play. She couldn't figure out why so few people were here, though. Someone had to be around, but she had run into no one as yet. Perhaps in the medlab...
"Hell's bells and panther tracks!" These were the words that greeted Gambit as he sauntered into Medlab. Something had the X-Men's resident geneticist crawling up the walls.
"So, Beasty boy, how's our favorite psychopath?" Gambit was rather chipper this morning, but that was understandable. He'd finally gotten his kiss with Rogue. It had knocked him unconscious for half an hour, but it had apparently been worth it.
"Tolerably well, I suppose." Beast was fiddling with a rather boxy piece of equipment, apparently trying to figure it out. "His healing factor is remarkable. Whereas Logan appears to be a much faster healer, Creed's abilities appear to focus more on resiliency. Logan's claw destroyed quite a bit of Creed's brain, and it's regenerating. This is an incredible opportunity to study neural regeneration, which is practically unprecedented, and if I could get this damn scope--" He smacked the box-- " to work I'd be having a field day. The cantankerous little bugger refuses to cooperate, however."
The Cajun X-Man approached the lab bench and looked around. He saw the source of his friend's problem, and said, with a slight smile, "Can it be, is it possible, that Henry McCoy, The Beast, world reknowned geneticist, Card carrying member of both the Avengers and the X-Men, the brilliant 200+ I.Q. mind we all look to in times of distress, has forgotten--" He hefted his prize-- "to plug it in?"
Beast stood stunned, snatched the cord, jabbing it into the AC outlet on the wall. He flipped the switch, and the machine hummed to life. He scowled at Gambit. "There's a word for people like you."
Gambit laughed, filled with mirth. "Yes there is, mon ami, but don't go repeating it. Tender ears about, and all that."
Beast grumbled good naturedly, mumbling about the irreverence of youth. He hooked the scope up the his multimedia system, and set receivers to record all incoming information. He then set the probes to observe Creed's brain and left the system to its work. "There. That takes care of that. Now, I think, it is time for lunch. Care to join me?"
"I'd love to, friend Beast, but I have other plans in mind." He winked.
"Ah. I see." He sighed. "Give my regards to the fair lady."
"Will do." Gambit headed off down the corridor, whistling a disgustingly cheerful tune as he went.
'Silly Cajun.' Well, at least someone was happy. Hank headed toward the cafeteria, wondering what his new toy would reveal. As he turned the corner, a young girl, no more than 16, nearly collided with him. A look of terror appeared on her face when she saw him, and she dove back faster than her feet could carry her, landing solidly on her rump. Beast extended a hand to her. "May I be of assis--ooff!!" The girl had recovered quickly, and landed a foot in the good doctor's solar plexus. Beast fell, panting, and was about to ask what was going on when she grabbed his shoulders--she was quite fast, he noted--and slammed him head-first into the wall.
He reached up and palmed the intruder alert right before he slumped into unconsciousness.
Clarice took off down the corridor, passed a hallway on her right, and headed toward the hanger bay. Where the hell was Victor? Sabretooth was many things, but hard to find wasn't one of them. And what the hell was Beast doing here? She'd killed him, hadn't she? It was beginning to dawn on her that this was, indeed, a different reality. Another Sabretooth. Another Magneto. Another Beast.
She rounded another corner, and saw a man in running shorts with a towel around his neck. He wore red glasses. 'Prelate Summers,' she thought. She didn't care what the reality was, he was going down. Now.
The alarm rang in Scott's ears as he saw a girl charge around the corner toward him. As soon as she saw him, she disappeared. A teleporter? The thought barely had time to register before he felt a solid thump to the back of his head.
"Okay, prelate, listen up. I want to know where Creed is. Now." She held a javelin to his throat, and apparently knew how to use it. Scott paused a moment, pain lancing through his skull. This was apparently the intruder, but what did she want with Creed? Perhaps it was best to play along, for now.
"Medlab, back the way you came." The corridor. Clarice took off, leaving a wounded Scott crumpled on the floor. He grabbed his communicator and shouted "Medlab!"
Clarice entered the medical room and saw Victor lying on the table. 'Jesus, Victor, what have they done to you?' She stopped, just now realizing that she had no idea where she was going to go.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a voice from the door. "Step away from the table, miss." It was Bishop. She couldn't out fight him, not right now anyway, and she had to decide where to go. Fast. Bishop chambered a round into his weapon. "Whatever your interest in Creed, we can discuss it. Step away from the table immediately."
Clarice made her decision.
As Creed and the intruder disappeared, Bishop lowered his shotgun. He had a lot of questions on his hands, and no answers; this was not a very good beginning to the day.
V. January 21, 1995. 9:12 a.m. Cybernet Industries, San Diego
Holly Majere completed her sweep (for the umpteenth time in the last hour) of the defensive software guarding the Harlequin mainframe. The system was the core of Cybernet industries' extensive database, and she was responsible for all it was. It very nearly had artificial intelligence...she was close, but couldn't quite make it. It wasn't necessary for the system's functioning, but it was a personal project of hers. She had a fascination with the idea of consciousness, and hers was as intimate an understanding of the concept as a human being could possibly get. Part of this was due to the fact that she had a Master's degree in psychology; the rest stemmed from the fact that she happened to be a member of that ever-increasing group of individuals society erroneously labeled as mutants. She had a gift for understanding computers and their workings; she also had a gift for understanding minds. To her, the two weren't really that distinguishable.
Her gifts aside, however, she was currently bored out of her skull. Routine systems checks and personal projects couldn't keep her busy enough to avoid wanting to go home, crash by the pool, and get some sun. She slouched in her seat and grumbled to herself, "What am I gonna do with myself tonight? All the new releases at Tower suck, I haven't gotten so much as a peep on my answering machine, and if I don't get away from the damn terminal soon I'm gonna throw up." She rubbed her eyes, stretched, and thought 'Girl, you need to get out more. Badly.' She cursed the fates for giving her such lousy luck with men. A date wasn't that much to ask, was it?
"What is it, Harlequin?" At least she had the voice synthesizer working. Thank God for 32-bit sound.
"A red flag has been activated."
Holly snapped to immediately. "No shit? Where?"
"There's no need to swear, Ms. Majere. The activated flag was in the central database of the Baxter Building, in New York City."
Holly frowned. That system was all but impenatrable. Who could break into it, and what did they want?
Malcolm Encarres was looking over reports on the status of several projects when Holly Majere flew through his door. "Sir, we have a problem."
Encarres glanced up at her. "Yes?"
"A red flag has been activated; it's in the Baxter building's CPU."
"The archives on xenobiology and point to point tachyon transmissions."
"Just about anything could be accessed in Xenobiology; it's such a mish-mash of logs that we can't pinpoint exactly what was read and what wasn't. The tachyon bit was very specific, though. Apparently it deals with sending a transmission across interstellar distances and adjusting the tachyon strength to the distance travelled. The net effect is instantaneous communication with just about anyone in the galaxy--universe, I guess--even though the signal may take hundreds or thousands of years to get there. I really don't know why it'd be hacked, though. It's just one of Richards' pet theories and it's not very highly regarded in scientific circles, even by him. It's mostly just a joke."
"Is the tech available for it?"
"I'm not sure. he mechanics would be really goofy, but I suppose it could be done. Waering might be playing with something like this.
"And the flag?"
"Huh? Oh yeah. The ident originated in Colorado. It was mobile, and the BPS was incredible. System ID, but it didn't look user originated. It was almost like the system was the user. Very unusual."
"Not beyond your talents, I assume."
"I could do this, but this amounts to basically jacking in and running the net straight from your brain. We're the only ones with the tech, and it's experimental. The only other option is a computer telepath, and we know how common those are."
"Certainly. Have you copied the information accessed?"
"Yeah. Looks like something off the Sci-fi channel. Trek's got nothing on this."
"Watch the area, and let me know if the tech is used. We have to know who did this and what their plans are."
"You got it." She wandered off, mumbling about plasma dynamics and tachyon generation.
Malcolm smiled, and wondered at what he'd learned. It seemed someone wanted to contact an alien race. The question was who...and why?
January 31, 1995. 7:43 a.m. Westchester, New York
"Goddammit to hell!" Logan slammed his fist into the wall, letting the pain the action brought serve to diffuse his growing anger and frustration. He rest his forehead against the wall. "How could this happen? He has no friends left; who would do this for him?"
Bishop looked at the floor, his face set like stone. "I don't know, Logan." That wasn't entirely true. Something about Creed's abductor tugged at his memory, but he wasn't going to mention it until he had something deinite. "Worse yet, I don't know where they've gone, and I don't have a clue where to begin looking for them. They could be anywhere."
Logan took a deep breath, and turned to regard the others. "I'll find him. One way or another, I'm bringing that bastard down." He said the last as he exited the room, a sense of purpose surrounding his movements. Moments later, they heard the screech of tires as his motorcycle tore down the road, heading into the city.
Professor Charles Xavier ran his hands over his face and sighed. "Bishop, please contact Shield and the FBI. Let them know that Creed has escaped, and give a description of his abductor. From the descriptions Scott and Henry gave, this girl sounds like Clarice Ferguson, so that should give the authorities some help. How she got here, where she came from, and what her interest in Creed is are all mysteries, so I don't see what else we can do for the time being."
Jean Grey spoke up. "Professor, Logan isn't in a very healthy mental state. If anyone gives him any trouble, I'm worried about the consequences."
"Agreed. I doubt he'll cause harm to anyone, but in his present frame of mind he might do things he'd have cause to regret later on. We'll keep tabs on him, in whatever ways seem appropriate at the time. In any event, you all have your duties for the day; until we have cause to do otherwise, it's business as usual."
February 2, 1995. 11:27 a.m. 35 miles northeast of Indiannapolis
Victor Creed knew by the stabbing in his skull that opening his eyes would be a bad idea. He did it anyway, and quickly found his initial thoughts on the subject were quite correct. He squeezed them tightly shut, opening them again after a few moments. He looked around him and, as his eyes adjusted, wondered where the hell he was. It looked like a drainage pipe. Damn, it was cold! He didn't remember how he got here, but he wished he'd had more sense at the time. There was no snow on the ground, but it felt like the weather for it.
He turned his head to look around; ouch, big mistake. His head was not happy and it was being quite vocal about its displeasure; it was like every sinus headache he'd ever had all rolled into one. Why couldn't healing factors deal with those? At least he didn't feel like killing anybody at the moment, though, so that was a plus.
'Okay, Vic, we're alive. Good start. Looks like the runt was as worthless as usual; heaven forbid he stir the claw around a bit before he pulls it out! Oh no, wouldn't want that! Fucking useless bastard.' He massaged his temples. Kestral could have done it. She hated Creed with a passion, and had no compunctions against killing. Too bad she was dead. "Where the hell am I?" God damn, but that was loud. Okay, no shouting. He started to crawl toward the end of the drainpipe, head pounding all the way, and wondered whatever had possessed him to turn to the X-idiots for help when what he really needed was probably a good shrink. He remembered hearing something about a guy named Doc Samson; he'd have to look the guy up.
Reaching the end of the drainpipe, he stood up (ouch, quit it) and looked around. He was near a highway, and saw a road sign proclaiming it to be I-69. A sign further down said "Indiannapolis: 35 miles." Creed winced. "Indy-fucking-ana? What the hell am I doing in Hickville, USA?" It was then that he saw the girl heading toward him. Nice looking piece of meat, too. She looked a bit strange, so maybe she would have some answers.
Clarice beamed. "Mister Creed! You're awake!"
"Yeah, no shit Sherlock. Who the fuck are you and why did you bring me here."
Clarice's smile slipped and she said, hurt, "You don't...recognize me?"
Creed thought for a minute. She looked a bit familiar; where had he seen her before? Then it hit him. "Oh yeah, you're that skinny little bitch who disappeared during that Phalanx mess. Ferguson, I think it was. Still doesn't explain what we're doing in hayseed country."
Clarice groped for words, wide-eyed. Mr. Creed was gruff, but he'd always treated her kindly. He was probably just upset over all that had apparently happened to him lately; yes, that had to be it. She would just have to be patient. "I don't know exactly what happened to you, but I teleported into the mansion to find you and rescue you. I couldn't let you stay with that miserable Beast and those Prelates and..."
Creed laughed, which made his head hurt. "All very nice, but it doesn't tell me why. What's your stake in me? What gives?"
Clarice frowned, her face drawn in thought. "It's a long story..."
Creed spread his hands wide and said, "We have time."
February 2, 1995. 9:02 a.m. Cybernet Industries, San Diego
Holly looked down at her screen and very much wanted to hit it. She didn't particularly care at that moment that Windows NT was a full 32-bit system, and that she had a nifty prototype of it. She didn't care that, once it got running, it was a monster, capable of doing just about anything. All she cared about at the moment was the fact that it was totally incapable of handling 16-bit programs (the norm right now, thank you very much) and that it was her job to make it do so. Bill Gates was creeping ever higher on her hit list. She heard a knock at the door and said "Enter at your own risk!"
A head of brown hair popped in the door and said "Ooh, grouchy. What's going on, sis?"
"Mikey!" She jumped up and threw her arms around her friend. As he wrapped his arms around her she said "It's horrible. Why did I ever agree to do this? Let me outta here!"
Mike's voice dropped an octave and he drawled "Yes, Microsoft engineering has claimed yet another victim." He struck a suitable dramatic pose, and she laughed. "The unspeakable machinations of Bill Gates continue their insidious plot to ruin all of the civilized world. They're out to destroy us all!"
Holly laughed again, and insisted "They are! No programmer should be subjected to such things. It's just wrong! And I still haven't come up with anything to do this weekend."
Mike smirked. "Well, there's always me." He waggled his eyebrows.
"You don't count. You're a relative."
"Close enough. Besides, you're still a puppy."
"So what's that Richards fool been doing to you? Is he stealing our secrets?"
"Nah. The guy's so cerebral he wouldn't know capitalism if it walked up and stomped on him."
"Heh. He did all his tests and now I'm back for the foreseeable future."
"Yay!" Mike bowed. "Everyone else is down in the Hot Zone; I'll be down in half an hour or so once I either fix this glitch or give up trying."
"Don't be late, dear. Punctuality is important." She stuck her tongue out at him. He frowned in thought, then said very gravely, "Be careful. You wouldn't want your face to freeze like that, would you?" Her eraser slammed against the door as he quickly made his exit.
Ben Anderson looked over the command and control area known by the employees as "The Hot Zone." It was here that pioneering work in direct neural interface was being conducted, and this work was the reason for his being here. The professional reason, anyway. As head of security for Cybernet's home offices, he had to make sure the area was safeguarded against outside threats. As seriously as he took his tasks, though, his job was usually very boring. He liked it like that.
The room was circular, with 5 access terminals evenly spaced around the room and an interface platform in the center. A catwalk ran around the room, used for observation and security interests. Currently, the room was occupied by three techs and the test subject for the afternoon, Michael Harris. Mike was one of the personal reasons Ben was working at Cybernet. The two had been friends for 7 years, and despite Mike's being 9 years his junior the kid had bailed him out of trouble on more than one occasion. Mike had also gotten him his current job, a favor he wouldn't soon forget.
As his mind drifted, he thought of another personal reason for working here at Cybernet. Holly Majere. Despite their mutual friendship with Michael, he barely knew her. He very much wanted to change that fact, but was as yet unsure of how to go about it. He had quite a bit working against him, and he didn't want to scare her off before she had had a chance to get to know him. His approach would require a fair amount of delicacy.
Mike paddled his board a bit farther out, hoping for a really good swell. The salty water lapped against his legs, its coolness a vivid reminder of just why he craved the union with the tides. The sky was stormy overhead and he knew it probably wasn't a good idea to be surfing now; hell, even the gulls had turned in, but hey, no guts no glory, right? Besides, it'd been a long time since he'd been able to hit the waves, and he just couldn't pass up the opportunity.
He'd always loved the sea. There was something elemental about it, losing yourself to something so much more impressive and powerful than himself. He knew people who found peace and serenity in God, searching for solace and answers in prayers and meditations. It was different for him, though; all he needed was the rhythym of the waves on the shore and he was happy.
The wind had whipped the waves into a frenzy, and the swells were pretty high. Not bad for February. He started paddling as a monster wave came in, one that'd do Hawai'i or Australia proud. As he caught the wave, he turned to face the beach and found to his dismay that he'd misjudged his position. The wave was carrying him right toward the O.B. pier, and if he hit it would hurt like hell...assuming he lived. He thought about just wiping out, just letting it go and moving farther up the beach, but with the water as turbulent as it was now he knew the tide would just smash him into the pier. So he tried to ride it out, hoping for the best.
The wave steered him past the first pylon, then curled to force him into one further down. The water slapped him against its hard surface, the barnacles tearing at his skin as the wave crushed the air from his lungs and replaced it with water. Finally, he was ripped from the pylon and forced into the sandy bottom, his vision fading to black as his consciousness dimmed...
He sat bolt upright, gasping for breath on the central platform of the Hot Zone. His skin intact, his vision clear, he said "God, that was incredible. It felt so real...like I was really doing it. How can anything be that real?"
Sarah Mitchell, project coordinator and aide to CEO Seth Encarres, smiled. "Isn't that the point?" she asked. "Direct Neural Interface isn't just for file transfers and encryptions and what have you; it's for experience, too. All part of the market, after all..."
"Yeah...but it was so intense. You're gonna make a fortune off of this, easily. Unbelievable."
"Assuming we can figure out a way to do it non-invasively."
Mike fingered the data-socket on the back of his neck, the annoyance which kept him from surfing for real. "Yeah...I'm not sure it's worth it, now that I think about it."
"Wasn't that what Richards was trying to find out? Some alternate way to gain access?" This from David Carney, one of the techs.
"Yeah, but he didn't find anything terribly conclusive. 'We must run more tests,'@ he mocked, A>before we can make any real progress.' Tests, tests, tests. That guy lives for science."
"Oh, come on. He can't be that bad." Sarah said.
"I'm serious! The guy redefines the term 'boring.' His idea of a good time is researching space/time distortions. I told him to relax and he looked at me like I was speaking Swahili. He'd probably tie himself in a knot if he wasn't studying something."
"Cute. You know, some people get an awful lot out of life without resorting to cheap thrills."
Mike assumed a wounded expression. "Hey, I resent that. My thrills ain't cheap, y'know."
David assumed a thoughtful look. "What if he's so studious because of his personal life?"
Mike looked puzzled. "Huh? What d'ya mean?"
David continued, his features becomming more animated as he went on. "Think about it; can you imagine what a rubber man must be like in bed?"
Mike frowned, a look of distaste crossing his face. "You are one sick puppy."
Sarah grinned wickedly. "Perhaps he should be enrolled in obedience school."
David's face beamed. This was fun. "Maybe so. Are you the trainer?" He leered suggestively.
She sniffed. "I'm afraid not. Puppies have short attention spans and don't stick around long. Dogs may be man's best friend, but a woman needs a bit more."
Mike howled, licking his finger to mark an imaginary tally. Dave was saved from replying by the opening of the Hot Zone's doors. Holly came in, saw that everyone was ready, and said "So, David, you embarassing yourself again?" It was understandable. Dave was so very, very eager and Sarah was wise to it all. It probably made for an entertaining show.
Sarah laughed, a rich, full throated sound, and Holly smiled. "Ready for your first real run, Mikey?"
"Yes ma'am." He was red with laughter, and David looked like he wished he was elsewhere. Holly felt a twinge of sympathy for the poor guy; Sarah must have gotten in some good digs.
Encarres' aide spoke. "Okay, this is just a dry run." They knew this, but she had to say it anyway. "We're not looking for anything specific, we're just looking for response times and user/coordinator interaction. If we're lucky, we'll all be home for dinner," She arched a brow, "assuming certain techs can keep their minds on the task at hand?"
Dave gulped. "Um, not a problem."
"I'm so glad. Let's get started then, shall we?"
February 2, 1995. 2:30 p.m. Long Island
Logan tore up Highway 678, heading into Queens. He didn't know where Creed was, but he was pretty sure New York was out, at this point. Where the hell could he be? All of his known safehouses had been compromised; all were shut down. He had no safe haven in the country, possibly the world. Where could they have gone?
'It doesn't make sense. He disappeared right off the map!' Logan refused to believe Creed was up and active. The damage to his brain had been too intense, and it hadn't all been repaired yet. Fully aware and functional, yeah, he could avoid detection as long as he wanted to. But unconscious? It just didn't fly. His thoughts were interrupted by a call in his mind.
<What is it, Jeannie?'
<We've received a call from a State Trooper in Indianna. Apparently, Creed and his 'abductor' stole the Trooper's car.'
<Is Gateway around?'
<Yes, but how will you...?'
<Gateway knows, darlin'. He always seems to know. I'll be back in an hour.'
<We'll be waiting.'
February 2, 1995. 1:14 p.m. 35 miles northeast of Indianapolis
Creed stared at Clarice, a thoughtful expression on his face. "You're serious." He'd been sitting there for the last 4 hours, listening to the wildest tale he'd heard in quite some time. It could be true, of course...he'd lived through enough crazy shit to believe in must about anything. But man, what a trip. This was one messed up bitch who sounded like she'd had an LSD trip gone sour.
:I know it sounds crazy, but..."
"Crazy? Noooo!" He was openly mocking. "Let's see, you're from an alternate reality--kudos for the explanation, doesn't require a shred of proof--where Apocalypse is king of the world, all the X-Men are bad guys, and I'm Mr. Sunshine."
"I wouldn't go that far." She didn't like being mocked, she found. Even by Mr. Creed.
"You're right. Let's see...how about 'gruff old guywho's a nice, stable parental figure'?"
"Well, you were," she said sulkily.
"So tell me something; why, exactly, was I like this? I'm really curious. 'Cause by the late 40's, when all this supposedly started, I'd already been mind-fucked all the way to hell and back by more people than I care to remember. What gave me such a wonderful change of heart?"
"I told you! Magneto--"
"Yes, yes, Magneto. Magneto the wonderful, who took up Baldy's pathetic dream and gave me something to live for. Gimme a break, sister. Why would Magnus do that, anyway? He always seemed to have some sense in his head, always saw through that 'peace on earth and goodwill toward man' bullshit Chuck's always spewing. Get it straight--I don't need anybody, I never have, and nothing could make me change that. Especially not some slavering fan of Xavier's!"
Clarice fidgeted for a minute, then said "I don't think it was the dream that got you to change, really. Apocalypse screwed you over. Magnus was the only other game in town, and he lived by his word. Maybe it was secure enough that you could stand it for awhile, and maybe it just grew on you. Maybe you decided there was more worth living for than the next hit."
Creed rolled his eyes. "Oh, please." Not in this lifetime. No way in hell he was going to bother with that shit ever again. Raven Darkholme and her manipulations were quite enough, thank you very much. No, his options were scaring the shit out of everyone he could and forcing something halfway decent or letting everyone from here to China stomp all over him. Tough choice. "So why do this now? What did you expect, that we'd go Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid or something?"
Clarice looked at her hands, which were fidgeting. "I don't know. I hadn't gotten that far. Everything's so different..."
"Uh huh." Y'know, any other day he'd probably have gutted her by now. That blind rage that normally consumed him seemed to have evaporated, though; he felt like he was high on Birdie's glow, but he hadn't had that in weeks. Maybe the runt did something useful after all. "Indiana. Why Indiana?"
"I don't know. It was the first place I thought of. I can only teleport to places I've been, and I was there recently, so..." She shrugged.
"Yeah." Indiana. They were walking northeast along 69, heading toward a county road junction. "So tell me,--"
Creed was interrupted by a siren behind him. He turned to see a State Trooper patrol car right behind them.
"Aw shit, who's that?" She had a mouth on her, he had to give her that.
"Cops. You know, law enforcement?" The trooper got out of his car, levelling a shotgun at them.
"Both of you get on the ground and put your hands behind your head." The cop was a good 15 feet away; Creed didn't particularly feel like dealing with a load of shot right now, so he made to do what the cop said. He could deal with him later, he was sure.
Clarice didn't seem to feel the same. Creed saw a flash of light to his right and she reappeared behind the patrolman, swiftly jabbing the end of one of her javelins into the base of his neck. The cop crumpled. She looked his way. "I don't like cops."
Huh. On second thought, she might be useful. He thought about killing the cop, but it went against the grain. Money or revenge, those were the standards. Anything else got way too messy way too quickly.
The car radio indicated that the trooper had already called for backup; Creed took off down the county road, heading for I-70. If they were lucky, all the troopers would be coming in on 69 and he could bypass them by taking 70 straight through Indianapolis, catching 65 and heading up toward Chicago. He knew some people in Chicago; that might work alright.
February 2, 1995. 7:23 p.m. Cybernet Industries, San Diego
Ben filed the last of his reports for the day; things had been uneventful for the most part. The run had gone without incicent, and security details had gone smoothly. He thought he might go for a run tonight, perhaps work on applying his abilities in creative ways. One of the things very few people knew about him was that he was a mutant; this was part of the reason Encarres hired him. His powers were very potent, yet passive mainly defensive in nature. He had to come up with better ways to use them if he was going to be useful to his employer.
He turned out the lights and shut the door, heading down the hall past the labs to the main entrance. As he passed the doors to the labs, he noticed they were open; since it was past business hours, he decided to investigate.
As he entered the room, he saw Holly Majere working at her terminal. She looked up and smiled wearily, looking very much like she wanted to be elsewhere.
"It's after hours, Holly." It felt awkward to be so familiar, but Ms. Majere seemed a bit stiff. "What's going on?"
"I work late sometimes; it's easy to fall behind, and if I left all my work for the day I'd be swamped in no time. Right now I'm doing some background work on a project Mr. Encarres set me on a couple of weeks ago. It's tedium incarnate, mostly because I can't find much of anything."
"I see." He paused, unsure what to say. Then, "Is it true what some of the techs say--that you can interface directly with the computers?"
She looked at him for a minute, then, apparently deciding he wasn't trying to harass her, said "Yeah. I'm a mutant. I hope that's not a problem?"
"No no!" Hell. "I was just curious, that's all."
She glanced at him again, then smiled and returned to her work. "I can interact via direct feed, but it's not necessary when I'm just the operator. It mostly comes in handy programming and such, because I can do a lot in a very short period of time and in very innovative ways. It's easier to just surf like everyone else when I'm using the net."
"Wouldn't an ability like that really speed up access times, though?"
"It would, but I can operate at speeds most computers can't hope to handle. Since I'm limited by their constraints, the tech we have here gives about the same response time and lets me keep in touch with the real world." She continued typing, and he sat mutely, trying to think of something to say. Suddenly, she stiffened, staring in surprise at the screen. "That id...what's it doing there?" Ben's security instincts came to the fore. Before he could ask what she knew, however, she said "Hey, do me a favor. Make sure I don't slam my head through the monitor."
"What?" He was taken aback.
She didn't answer; instead, her eyes glazed over and her body shuddered as her mind entered the network of computers that was the internet, accessing dozens of sites in the time it would take a fully stocked Pentium to access one. After 7 minutes, Ben was getting concerned. Suddenly, her body jerked and he knew what she meant about slamming into the monitor. He held her in place while her mind returned to its body.
She turned to face him, her eyes wide in shock. She tried to speak one, twice, then finally managed "We...we have to get Encarres."
February 2, 1995. 7:54 p.m. Seth Encarres' apartment
"Everything. Defense computers in the Pentagon, at Langley, in Norfolk; medical computers at Harvard, Yale, UCSD, Jons-Hopkins; banking systems in Geneva, New York, the Cayman Islands, Hong Kong; credit card companies, DMVs, even private individuals. Including Essex. Absolutely everything of significance that I looked at had the same trail. These people have hacked into everything, and they've left backdoors everywhere. I don't know who they are or what they're up to, but they're the best I've ever seen. It's like someone's ready to grab the industrialized world by the balls and let it know who's in charge, and there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it."
She looked around the room at the others gathered there: Mr. Encarres, Ben, Sarah Mitchell. All had grim looks on their faces.
"Do you have any idea who it was?"
"I finally tracked the user id. It belongs to a cyborg named Hard Drive, who until recently belonged to a mercenary group calling itself the Riders of the Storm. They disappeared about 6 months ago, and aside from this haven't shown up anywhere since."
Encarres furrowed his brows in thought. "What files were actually copied?"
"Only files from Mr. Essex so far. I don't know why." She handed him a disk. "Sir, we have to be careful. If we probe too deeply, they could shut us down so quickly we'd never know what hit us. I'm taking steps to prevent it, but they could nail our credit rating, all of our accounts, wipe them from existence. They could end us as an institution in less time than it takes to tell." She was clearly shaken by what she'd learned.
"Then we must use caution. And we must make contingency plans. I have someone I must speak with. I'll brief you all in the morning on what needs to be done. Good night."
An hour later, he picked up the phone and dialed a number form memory. It was answered on the third ring.
"It's me. We have to talk, Nathan."
"Yes. The place in the mountains, in an hour. You remember?"
"I remember. An hour then." As he hung up the phone, Encarres thought of all he'd learned tonight. and he began to plan.
February 2, 1995. 3:30 p.m. I-65, near Dayton, Indiana
"Eviscerated, huh? Never been pushed quite that far before."
"We thought you were dead, but you came back. You always came back."
Creed looked at her. "Get that hero worship out of your eyes, girl. You're just gonna disappoint yourself."
"Hmph. What do you care?" she mumbled.
"I don't; it's just insipid and annoying." She shot him an angry look. That wasn't reactive; he meant every word. She looked out the window and wondered where the Creed she knew was. Was he even alive? Did Bishop's coming somehow erase his timeline? She thought for a moment. Why was she doing this? Whatever Creed was, he was someone different now. Why should she change him? Was he even worth it?
'Nice job Creed. Someone treats you decently and you run them into the ground. Ah well; serves her right. I'm not responsible for her expectations. If she'd just leave me alone instead of trying to make me into some kind of hero, things would be fine. I'm not a hero; never have been, never will be. The sooner she learns that, the better things will be for everyone.' He saw an off-ramp for Dayton, and figured it'd be the perfect place to dump the car. Indiannapolis had been hairy, and he didn't want to go through that again in Chicago.
Two hours later, they arrived in Chicago. Creed stopped the car and said, "Alright, look. I'm gonna be laying low for awhile 'til some of the heat on my ass dies down. Afterward, I'm heading for Mexico. If you wanna come, be my guest. But quit with the alternate reality bullshit. If you start that again, you'll be a memory."
She shot him a look that would freeze magma. "Fine."
They headed upstairs to his second floor apartment. The roof was being repaired, and the smell of tar and pitch was overwhelming. the place didn't look like much, but she'd slept in worse. He opened the door and headed in, with her right behind. As she passed the threshold, something hard slammed into the back of her neck and she crumpled to the ground.
Creed turned around at the noise, and found himself facing a man whose arms ended in miniguns. "What the hell?"
A thin man with purple hair spoke from the other side of the room. "Greetings, Mr. Creed. We've been waiting for you to show up."
Creed cursed silently. The smell of the tar had masked their scents, and he'd been too unfocused to catch any sounds. "What the fuck do you want?"
"Oh, not much. Just your mind, body, and soul."
He'd had better offers. There was no way he could escape, not with Puff the Magic Dragon staring him in the face. He was royally fucked. It didn't matter. He really didn't care anymore.
February 2, 1995. 10:02 P.M. Colorado Rockies.
Malcolm heard footsteps behind him and glanced at his watch. 59 minutes. Essex was always punctual. He wondered at their odd relationship over the years, one born of mutual respect and more than a bit of fear. To call them friends was a bit of a stretch, but they had many common goals and had worked together in times past.
"My work has been interrupted recently. Whoever this interloper is, he is quite skilled. Which files of mine were copied?"
Encarres gestured toward the screen in front of him. On it was a file listing, all in code. Essex approached and entered the command words to decode the information. He cursed, and Encarres leaned forward with interest. "Full genetic maps; impressive. This could get you a Nobel."
"Possibly. I'm not sure how much I want to let them have, however."
"Of course." He glanced through the other files. "Stark International? They're not your usual crew."
"It's a curiosity, really. Teleportation, especially on this scale, isn't really taken seriously as a possibility." He sighed. "Cheney does it, and Wagner does it, and a dozen others do it. And yet, no one really capitalizes on it. It's all too fantastic for them, I guess."
Malcolm smiled. "You think to elevate their awareness of such things, making their final fate less traumatic?"
"Stranger things have happened."
"True." He popped the drive and gave the disk to Essex, then inserted one of his own. "These are the other sites that have been accessed."
Essex peered intently at the screen, stroking his chin, and frowned. "This is disturbing. I find it surprising that anyone could leave so many areas so compromised."
"Indeed. Pay close attention to the files viewed in the Baxter database." Essex did, and the light of understanding lit his face. Encarres continued. "Now, with systems this compromised I see few options. Even if the infestation is minimal, this kind of technology would allow them to strike at their leisure and there is little we could do about it."
Essex nodded, then smiled ruefully. "En Sabah Nur would enjoy this immensely, what with all of his posturings about survival of the fittest. It's a pity he never really understood the principles he thought himself fighting for." His smile disappeared. "Now I suppose he'll get his wish, even if it's post-humously."
"Not necessarily. I have an idea. It will cause a lot of damage, but I think it's our only choice." Malcolm outlined his plan, and when he was finished Essex nodded resignedly.
"A drastic measure. However, I can see no other options."
"I had hoped you would." He sighed. "I'll get started with the preparations in the morning."
"As will I. I hope we will speak again, old friend."
"Yes. Good night."
February 3, 1995. 9:42 a.m. Denver, Colorado.
Creed opened his eyes and wished he hadn't; The sudden sense of vertigo he got was nauseating. He was in an alley somewhere, he didn't know where. It wasn't Chicago. He closed his eyes, hard, then opened them again. His senses were all muzzy, and thinking was hard. He groaned, then grabbed the wall next to him and hauled himself to his feet. His head swam for a few seconds, then cleared up some. 'What the hell happened to me?'
He staggered down the alley, heading for the main street at its mouth. It appeared to be early morning, though he had no idea how much time had passed since ht ran into the yahoos from hell. He reached the street, tried to turn the corner and nearly ran into someone. The guy started to protest, but Creed just snarled and the guy backed off. He felt so disjointed...not weak, really, just out of sorts. like looking through a camera with a smeared lens.
He saw a newspaper vender half a block ahead, and stopped to look at the newspapers. The Rocky Mountain Times and the Denver Post. Colorado. How'd he get here? He checked the date, having to force his mind to focus, and saw that only a night had passed since his abduction. How did he get to Colorado overnight, and why would they grab him and dump him, just like that? He also wondered a bit about the kid. Where was she, and was she in a similar position? 'Who gives a damn. Let's just move.'
The street was crowded with mid-morning traffic, and Creed looked around to see what his options might be. He started off again, staggering now and then, and wandered about for a bit. Two hours later, he stopped. Confused as his senses were, one scent kept coming back to him. He turned a corner, and the scent followed. Someone was tailing him, and he wasn't in the mood.
He continued on, and finally half-walked and half-fell into another alleyway. He held himself flat against the wall, until the scent came closer. He lashed out, quicker than any human had a right to, and grabbed the scent's owner. The man had a look of surprise on his face as Creed slammed him agianst the wall, and Victor snarled, "I don't like being tailed on the best of days, and this is not one of 'em. Tell me a story, man, give me a reason not to tear you apart."
The man smiled, giving Creed a look of calm superiority. "Alright. You have within you a Brood embryo. When it completes its transformation of you, it will gain all of your abilities and you will become a Brood warrior. You will then assist us in the task of transforming this world into a replica of the Brood homeworld. In the meantime, you will be confused and disoriented, and you will find that there's nothing you can do about it." He smiled an ingratiating smile.
Creed just stared. Then he laughed. "Who the hell are you? Why is it that the last few people I've run into are even crazier than I am?"
"My name is Morden. And I'm afraid you give us too much credit." Creed felt two pinpricks in his back, then his body caught fire as the shock of the taser tore through him. Then he remembered the intervening hours of the night before.
Morden took a cellular phone out of his jacket, then dialed and said "Three passengers, ready for transit." The three dissolved, melding with cyberspace as they travelled to the Brood's base of operations in Denver, Colorado.
February 3, 1995. 8:47 a.m. San Diego
Mike tore up highway 163 on his way to Cybernet, rejoicing in the warm San Diego sunshine. Two things he loved about Southern California: parking lots and sun. Thoseeast coast folk hadn't figured these things out yet, and he pitied them. He goosed the throttle on his bike and took the Kearney Mese turnoff, heading for the offices. As he pulled into the Cybernet lot, he saw Holly heading toward the building. He tackled her in a bear hug, a maneuver not unexpected from him, and got a vicious elbow in the ribs in return.
"OW! Hey, what's up?"
"Can it, Mike. I'm not in the mood."
"Well yeah, I can see that." "He rubbed his bruised ribs. "Mind telling me why?"
"Yes." She stalked into the building.
Mike watched her go, then said to himself "Fine, lady. Whatever you say." Something had her pissed, and it wasn't a flying tackle. Ah well. She'd spill it when she was ready. He headed down to the Hot Zone and rustled up Dave, who he dragged into a Street Fighter II Turbo match.
Holly stabbed the elevator button, heading up to the penthouse offices. She'd have to apologize to Mike later. He didn't deserve to be yelled at, especially since he was just being Mike. It was hard to be nice when you were involved in decisions that could affect the course of life on earth, though.
'Tiger Uppercut! Sagat wins!'
"Yes! Sagat beats the upstart punk Ryu, once again! Let's see, that's 5-3 now, isn't it?" Mike smirked.
"Give it up, cowboy. It was luck."
"So sayeth the loser."
"Yeah, yeah. What's the run about today?"
"I dunno, some diagnostic crap again. It's getting boring, to tell the truth. Set us in Hong Kong this time."
"Nah, Brazil. They should have been here awhile ago."
"You know, our employers?"
Mike frowned. "Good point. Yo Ben!"
Ben looked up from another console. He'd come in a few minutes ago, and was reading the news on the net. "What?"
"What's taking everyone so long?"
"Eh, looks like Encarres will be running the show today. I dont' know much about it; he's just got his own setup for today."
Mike and Dave looked at each other, and shrugged. "Whatever."
A voice from behind them said "A fifty thousand dollar interface, and you use it to play arcade games. Unbelieveable."
Mike turned to see Mr. Encarres behind him. He smiled. "Cray. There is no substitute." Malcolm sighed, bemused. "So chief, what's up?"
"I want you to try something a little different today. Holly's going to access a remote terminal and transfer a number of files here. I want you to intercept them and move them to another location."
"Sounds simple enough. Where we accessing, anyway?"
"The primary database of the Mossad."
Dave and Mike looked at each other. "Wow."
"No shit," Dave replied.
Holly tore through the Mossad database's defenses, and was impressed at the IC she ran into. This was even stiffer than DoD's shields, and those were tough. The Israelis didn't play around. they were nothing to her, though. They were designed for defense against remote terminal access, not someone who amounted to a ghost in the machine. She began to grab 50 years' worth of data on her quarry, the keystone to Encarres' plan. She sifted each piece, then sent it hurtling back to Harlequin to file away in his 250 terabyte local drive.
Mike sat in cyberspace, his avatar a white-haired man in black wearing Raybans and black leather gloves. The room around him was a great hall with filing systems taking up one wall. Thousands of bytes circulated around him, normal operating systems and incoming and outgoing files. All he had to do was sift through the incoming files and find any labelled Lensherr and stick them into a directory of the same name. He set up a warning subroutine which would label and derail files with the appropriate header, moving them from the Harlequin mainframe to another one down the line. One little bypass portal and he was done. This was too easy. He hoped Seth would make things harder in the future.
February 3, 1995. 11:04 a.m. Brood Base of Operations, Denver Colorado
The haze surrounding Creed's mind was pierced by a high-pitched scream. He opened his eyes, shook his head, and looked around. He was in a cell, with a high-powered force screen on one side. Copycats. Through the screen he saw another cell, and on the floor was Blink. Apparently, she'd tried to teleport out. Big mistake. Creed cleared his throat and spoke.
"So, kid, did you get one too?" he rasped.
"No." Her voice was small, and wracked with pain. "They aren't going to infect me unless I can be useful to them. They say I'm dead, and have spent their time trying to pry information out of me."
"Huh. Bummer." His senses were still hazy, but he was lucid enough to know one thing: no cage would hold Victor Creed ever again. If the X-whiners couldn't do it, no one on the planet could. A cold, cruel rage filled him, driving away some of the haze and spurring him to action. He hurled himself against the force screen, determined to make his way through it. The shock of impact sent him sprawling, and he landed near the back of the cell. He passed out for a minute, then came to and dragged himself to his feet. Again he hurled himself against the field, and again he went sprawling. Again he rose, his movements jerky from the shocks, and threw himself against the field. After half a dozen tries, his nerves had attenuated to the point where he didn't even feel it. If not for his healing ability, he would have been dead by now 50 times over.
He felt the worm inside of him, trying to make him sit still so it could complete its metamorphosis. His body was repulsing it, and it would take time to complete the invasion. But he ignored it, mastered it, and flung himself at the field yet again. No more cages. No more bonds. He wanted freedom from the insanity of it all, from the sanctimonious bastards who claimed moral superiority and didn't know what they were talking about, from the megalomaniacs who wanted to take over the world, from people like his rat-fucked son who thought they'd make the world better for everyone by being hypocrites and general fuck-ups. He wanted to go back to the Canadian wilderness, where he could get away with gutting someone if they pissed him off and there weren't enough people around to give a damn. Stop the world, folks, because Victor Creed is getting off.
He slammed into the field a dozen times more, and a dozen beyond that, until finally his body couldn't take any more and he just collapsed, panting, whining like a trapped animal who's been stepped on one too many times. He could see Clarice's face across the cell, eyes wide and full of pity. He was gonna tear her head off for that look.
He heard footsteps down the hall, and Morden came in. "Mr. Creed, this is mildly upsetting. You'll injure the embryo if you keep this up." That ingratiating smile made Creed want to kill him by inches.
"You can't stop me, you little fuck," he rasped. He hauled himself up once again, lunging at Morden. The field caught him, and he saw a flash from Blink's cell as she tried to teleport again. Both fields went out, the building's power supply shorted out from both fields being so active at once.
Morden looked at the two near unconscious prisoners, and mused "Hmmm. We'll have to do something about that."
Clarice, more awake than she seemed, said "Yeah, you'll have to." She and Creed disappeared, leaving Morden with a bit of explaining to do. For his part, he just frowned and shook his head irritably.
February 3, 1:42 p.m. Cybernet Industries, San Diego
Mike was bored. The runs lately had been dull and humdrum, and he had nothing else to do for the time being. Maybe he'd try college again someday... At any rate, now he was restless, and he decided to see just what his netrunning abilities could really do. He couldn't run the system himself, naturally. That wasn't too much of a problem, though, since he could talk Ben into looking the other way and Dave would run interference for him. He'd make something of the afternoon if it killed him.
The information highway looked like just that. He saw nodes and datalines everywhere, just like a normal road, with information streams running to and fro in an incredible multicolored swirl of lights. He surfed around a bit and was checking out the pentagon when an idea hit him: why not poke around at home? He was curious about just where Holly planned to go with his cybernetic interfaces, and he wanted to check out Harlequin anyway.
The home system was a slick set-up; he wasn't surprised, though he was impressed. Holly really knew her stuff. He poked around the Cybernet structure, and was delighted to find that for all of Harlequin's sophistication it still lagged tremendously compared to a direct user interface. He got in with minimal difficulty and began to glance over the goodies. Why was all that info from Mossad important, anyway? Who was this Lensherr character? He dug in to find out.
"Let's see here..." The Man In Black opened the file on Lensherr and thumbed through its contents. "Born a while back...death camps...Nazi hunter, cool...wait-a-minute...Magneto?!? Eric Magnus Lensherr is Magneto? What the hell?" He dug around some more and found all of the pertinent info on Magnus; his attempts to take over the world, his involvement in mutant affairs, his feud with Charles Xavier, anything and everything. The Mossad files were just the capper. Every element of Magnus' life was here. Pictures, video footage, the whole bit. Why was this here? What was Cybernet's interest in Magneto, especially since he's dead?
He wondered where Holly was. Quickest way to find out, he figured, was to hack into the security system and ask. It wouldn't do any harm, especially since he wasn't a real intruder. Harlequin disagreed. A jester's face appeared next to him, looking hilarious and serious at the same time. "Snooping's a no-no, Michael. You don't need to know any of this."
"Feh. Go away, funny man." He'd snoop if he wanted to. He wove his way into the security system, and punched into the video surveillance. 'Hey, it's got audio too. Kewl.' He found Holly in the conference room with Sarah and Mr. Encarres. 'Let's see what's going on.'
Holly said "I've started archiving essential files in hardened sites; some medical, financial, and law enforcement info. I'm still not sure about this, though. We're going to cause a lot of damage doing this, and I'm not sure it's worth it."
"Worth it or not, it's the only option we have. If we don't use Magnus to destroy our enemies, they'll take us down. Our only hope is to destroy them, restore what we can and regain control. It's messy and unfortunate, but it's the only option we have."
'Holy shit! They wanna use Magneto as a weapon! It makes sense, too. With his abilities, they could control the net, maybe even the world. He'd have the perfect chance to stake a claim anywhere on the planet. I can't believe Holly's going along with this. I've gotta warn someone.'
"I'm sorry, Michael, but I'm afraid I can't let you do that."
"Beat it, laughing boy. I've got things to do." He tore off down the highway, and Harlequin did the only thing he could. He alerted Holly.
"Damn. Mike's always been impulsive."
"Can he get through our locks to warn someone of our plans?"
"Probably. If we could explain to him..."
"There's no time. You won't catch him before he gets to someone else." Malcolm thumbed an intercom. "Anderson!"
"It's imperative that Michael be removed from cyberspace immediately, both for his own safety and that of a great many other people. I don't care what you have to do, just get him out of there!"
Ben paused, then said "Alright, I'll drag him out."
Holly looked at him. "Malcolm, that could hurt him. Badly."
"Do you see another option?"
She dropped her eyes. "No." Damn, Mikey, why do you have to be so damn impulsive? She faded into cyberspace, following him and hoping with all her heart that she would be able to keep him from harm.
February 5, 1995. 8:05 a.m. Chicago
Victor Creed opened his eyes and winced. This was getting to be a habit. He looked around and saw that he was in his apartment, and not alone. He sat up, groaning with the effort. The movement got the attention of the man watching TV a few feet away. The man walked over and crouched in front of Creed. He smiled.
"Hiya Vic!" Logan. "How ya feelin' this morning?" An entirely too cheerful Logan.
"Go away, ya little runt." He shuffled over to the kitchen, opened the fridge, and grabbed a brew. At least the pipsqueak had stocked the fridge. Heinekin, too.
"Naw, can't do that yet Vic. First I gotta get you and your new sidekick back to Westchester. Then I gotta get some answers to some questions. Then I gotta see that you get thrown into a cage somewhere for the rest of your natural life. Then I'll leave you alone."
And he thought Morden was ingratiating. "That's it? No tussle along the way? Must be getting old, Logan." That suited him, actually. He wasn't in the mood to fight at the moment. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt like that. Maybe when he was in Germany, with that bitch Mystique. Before she fucked with his head. Where is the little frail, anyway?"
"Tucked away in the bedroom; she wasn't in much condition to fight, and a pair of Bishop's handcuffs makes sure she stays that way. Where'd you pick her up?"
"I didn't. She picked me up, remember? I've never seen her before in my life. She just keeps babbling on about alternate realities, dead heroes, yadda yadda yadda. Definitely one screwed up bitch."
"She'd have to be, to truck with you." Creed made a face. "Next question: You've got the smell of Brood about you. What's up with that?"
"S'cuse me? The smell of what? Have you been lacing your cigars again? I've warned you about that..."
"They'll kill you, Creed."
"It'll be messy."
"Whatever." He took a swig of his beer.
"Where are they?"
"I honestly don't know." He didn't, but he knew the toothpickmeister wouldn't believe him. He always was fun to nettle.
"Cut the bullshit, Creed. If they're out there, a lot of lives are on the line."
"And I care about this because...why, exactly?"
"Because whoever winds up judging you might give a damn and send you to the Vault instead of executing you. And because I'll wager the bugs pissed you off. They put an embryo in you, Vic. A nasty little parasite that's eating you alive as it transforms you into one of them. They do that to you, and you don't have a problem with it? Come on."
Creed sighed. Morden was a pissy little asshole. It'd be nice to pay him back. Unfortunately... "Okay, fine. It's not like it matters much. They grabbed me, here, teleported me to Denver, Colorado, and bugged me up there. All I know about their plans is that They're doing something with what's left of Magneto's old digs. Beyond that..." He shrugged. He grabbed another Heinekin and chugged half of it down. He looked toward his bedroom and saw Clarice standing there, sans handcuffs. Resourceful bugger, that one.
Logan thought a moment, then decided to call the mansion. Someone would have to investigate this while he dealt with Creed and co. He reached for the phone to make a call, but stopped short when the floor opened up beneath him. He landed on his butt near the door to Medlab, in the mansion.
Bishop stared down at him, perplexed. "Well, this should be a good story. I take it you've misplaced my handcuffs?"
"Toodles!" Creed smirked. He should be nicer to Clarice. She really was useful to have around.
Clarice walked over to Creed, holding up the cuffs. "I'm double jointed, and prisoners don't last long where I come from. So, what now?"
"Now, we have some beer. Later, we go to Denver." Logan had been right about one thing--nobody used Creed for anything and lived.
February 5, 1995. 10:53 a.m. Harlequin mainframe, San Diego
Mike was floating...drifting, actually. He felt no pain, heard no sounds, sensed nothing. He opened his eyes to a world of static, which flickered and focused like an old TV or a sketchy radio transmission. Where am I? He thought to himself. He looked around, seeing a virtual landscape with the perceptions of a living mind. He wasn't jacked in...this was real, in the here and now. He wondered what he looked like, and was not entirely surprised when a mirror formed in front of--beneath?--him. His avatar, the white-haired man in black with fingerless gloves and raybans, looked back at him. He banished the mirror and began to think. Somehow, he'd become one with his persona. He'd become the ghost in the machine, the urban legend thought to be impossible. Where am I stored? Whose system am I on? The thought invoked the face of Harlequin, who manifested with a sad smile on his face. "Hello, Michael."
"So it's true. I'm a part of the Net, now."
"It would appear so." So strange, to see a sad jester.
"Is this--it was Ben, wasn't it?"
"Yes. He used his abilities to pull you out of the Net, but instead of disrupting your interface they accelerated the neural transfer rate and eroded it at the same time. The result was a sort of disjunction."
"How long have I been here? And what happened to my body?"
"You've been here for nearly two days. Your memory seems to have been restructuring itself during that time period. Your body still functions, but it is irreparably damaged. There's not much to be done, I'm afraid."
Michael didn't respond, instead pulling himself into a sitting position. He rested his elbows on his knees and began to think. He stayed that way for a long time, going over the last events he remembered. Presently, he shrugged and looked up at the happy/sad face at his side again. "It was really stupid of me to take off like that." The clown made an affirmative noise. Noise? On the Net? "I guess Ben and Holly feel really bad right now." He sighed, dragging his hands over his face. "So what's the plan, anyway? What are they going to do with Magneto when they wake him up?"
"Well..." Harlequin hesitated. It probably wouldn't matter now, anyway. "Apparently, an alien race is making plans to stage a coup here on Earth. In addition to gathering the bodies of various dangerous people, they have also made use of matter transmission technology. It makes them quite dangerous, but it also exposes a hidden vulnerability. When they are transmitted, they become a data stream. As such, they can be trapped on a hard drive. Mr. Encarres is making use of several paramilitary groups to force these beings into the phone lines, which is where I come in. I am able to trap and store them--they're called the Brood--so that they can be permanently destroyed at a later date."
"Huh. I don't get it; why not just stick 'em on a CD or something and bake it? Why bring Magneto into it?"
"Unfortunately, the technology involved attempts to remove them from the data stream if they encounter resistance of any sort. This involves shutdown, being written to disk, power failure, and anything else that interrupts the data stream. The only viable option is to manually force them into an infinite loop and maintain that loop constantly. The data stream must be eroded while the aliens are in transit and while they are in a magnetic medium. Due to their size, they must be stored on several high-powered mainframes at once. These systems must be eroded simultaneously if we are to make sure the Brood are destroyed. Since they are placed around the world, this requires an electromagnetic pulse of great magnitude. The only means of doing this is Magneto. Thus, Mr. Encarres intends to wake Magneto up, explain the situation to him, and deal with the problem accordingly."
Michael paused for a moment. They were walking along a garden path, and he wondered when they'd begun to do that. "That's going to cause a lot of problems."
"Yes. Critical files are being backed up in shielded systems before the operation begins. There is much we are unable to deal with, however. Loss of power on such a scale will lead to many deaths, and--" He paused, jerked, and said "A moment, please." His image flickered out, leaving Michael alone on a stretch of virtual beach. When did it change?
February 5, 1995. 11:22 a.m. Cybernet Industries, San Diego.
Holly tried to concentrate on the work in front of her, but found it to be an impossible task. Given her current situation, she shouldn't have been working at all. She should be on a beach somewhere, relaxing and trying to get over the trauma of her best friend's death. How was she supposed to deal with that, to continue working as though nothing had happened? At that moment, she resented life in general and the Brood in particular for having the gaul to stick her in such a situation.
"Holly?" It was Harlequin.
"What?" Ooh, sullen. And to a program, no less. Very mature.
"I'm afraid my system integrity has been compromised. Another user has gained access and is systematically destroying files."
"Well, stop them!"
"The best I can do is impede the user's progress. At this rate, my containment of the Brood will be ineffective within 12 minutes."
Shit. Now what?
"There may be another option. Part of Michael appears to be alive."
"Mike's alive? How?"
"I'm not entirely certain, but the fact remains that he continues to function. In his current state, Michael may be able to take over my duties."
"Well, let me talk to him then!"
Five minutes later, she was doing just that. She still couldn't believe he was still alive. She said as much and added, "Ben will be so happy to hear you're still alive. I don't think he'd ever recover from what happened otherwise."
Mike was silent for a minute, then asked "What happened to him?"
"Well...if the circumstances were different, he'd be on a leave of absence right now. As it is, he's organizing an assault on Avalon. The Brood will be making their big push there, since they need the place in order to construct a hyperspace conduit between scattered fleets and Earth. Once that happens, it's all over."
"It won't come to that. As a program, I'm have a response time about 5 times greater than that of Harlequin, and I've set up multiple redundancy security systems to keep the Brood we already have on ice. I'm also tracking the annoying user who's taking Harlequin apart. He's lost system integrity, but I'll make sure the bastard pays for it, I promise."
"Okay." She paused, becomming immersed in one of those really annoying uncomfortable silences. Then, "I'm really glad you're...well, still here. I wish--"
"Don't. Don't even go there. Just let it be, it's done." Silence again. "Look, I have to go. If I'm stuck here, I'm gonna sculpt this place to my liking. Tell Ben I--Tell him I don't blame him. See you later." He was gone before she could say another word. She sat there in the darkness for awhile, thinking. It was a long time before she realized she was crying.
February 5, 1995. 11:35 a.m. Professor Xavier's mansion, Westchester, New York.
"If all Logan tells us is accurate," Professor Xavier began, "we have to bring other authorities into this. This looks like a national security issue, and the powers that be would be rather...upset...if we were to leave them out of the loop." He looked at the assembled X-Men around him, all contemplating the gravity of the situation.
"How do we explain all of it, though?" Jean asked. "By the time we explain it all to them, it'll be too late to do anything. All assuming we can get anyone to listen at all."
"We can go through my brother and Dr. Cooper," Scott suggested. "They'll listen to us."
"Yes, please call--" Professor Xavier's reply was cut off by Bobby Drake, who'd been monitoring local radio bands as part of general protocol.
"That may be easier said than done, folks," Bobby began. "It looks like they, and the Avengers, have their hands full. Apparently, a couple of super groups have been attacking seemingly random locations, and they've been leaving heavy body counts in their wake. The thing of it is, the bodies are only partly human. The other part is--" he gulped "--um, insectoid. Reed Richards thinks they're Brood." That brought a collective gasp from around the room.
"So they're in Denver and New York?" Ororo voiced the concern they all had. The Brood had gone national.
"Worse than that; New York, Washington, and Atlanta so far. No one knows where else, but it's a pretty good bet there'll be other places.
"So who's playing exterminator?" Logan asked.
"That's the really strange part. From descriptions witnesses gave, Alex has identified the two groups as the Nasty Boys and the Marauders."
"Sinister's flunkies? But how do they know where to attack, or who, for that matter?"
Xavier spoke again. "I'm more concerned with why we were left out of this. We have more experience with the Brood than anybody, so why weren't we informed? Is our government really so shallow that it would let politics rule a situation of this significance?"
The others looked at each other; Bobby replied "Well sir...um, yes, they are." It was kind of surprising how naive Xavier could be at times.
"Actually, sir, this might be a good thing." All eyes turned to Scott. "With them handling this situation here on Earth, it leaves us to deal with the unknown threat from above: we know they plan to take Avalon. I think our efforts should focus there while everyone else does the grunt work here." There was something almost poetic about it all: for political reasons, the X-Men were left out of a fairly routine situation on Earth, and because of that they wound up doing what was potentially the most important task of them all. The irony was somewhat amusing.
"Agreed. Begin making preparations at once."
February 5, 1995. 2:27 p.m. Chicago O'Hare International Airport
Clarice Ferguson handed her ticket to the agent at the ramp, then proceded toward the plane. It was a strange feeling, this mass transit thing; almost pedantic, yet scary at the same time. She felt a sense of paranoia and unease as she and Mr. Creed reached their seats.
"Why so jumpy, kid? It's just a little plane trip."
"I don't like flying. Whenever I need to go somewhere, I just teleport. No problem. Flying is for the birds, or Sunfire, or whatever. Besides, whenever I got near a plane back home it was usually to blow it up."
"You might not wanna mention that here; they're a bit touchy about the blowing things up thing." He smiled. A'Course, I've always been kinda partial to it..."
She decided she was more perplexed about Creed now than ever. He was a bastard before, unpalatable and base and offensive to her sensibilities. Now, though, he seemed much more refined. She supposed that was how he evaded the authorities and such so easily here; they took him for a primitive, subhuman berserker, when in truth he was capable of being much more cultured than that. Maybe there was hope for him after all. She decided not to think about it, adding it to the list that included the fact she'd never actually flown before. She settled back in her seat and tried to relax.
Five minutes into the flight, Clarice felt an unbearable queasiness in her stomach. She rushed to the lavatory, returning after a good ten minutes. Creed took one look at her and began shaking with laughter, the thought of a freedom fighter from an alternate timeline getting airsick humorous beyond all comprehension. Clarice sank back in the seat, deciding two things at the same time: first, she really, really disliked flying. Second, Creed was indeed hopeless. It was going to be a long flight.
February 5, 1995. 2:44 p.m. Cybernet Mainframe, San Diego.
Mike smiled as he finished sculpting his latest landscape. He was surprised at how much fun it had turned out to be--he'd always been a creative person, but was cursed with an incredible lack of talent. He could create wonders, but could never express them. Now, using the net as an extension of his mind, he could bring his wildest imaginings to life. He was pleased by the fact that he'd made them functional as well--so far, he'd created three main landscapes on different mainframes. All housed the brood as they came in, and each had resisted attacks from the foreign user. He was ready to track her now, but first a final look at handiwork was called for.
His first sculpting was a place called Cretaceous park, a land of prehistoria that actually included the denizens appropriate to the time period (thank you very much, Michael Crichton!). The archive was isolated, which sculpted as an island in the middle of a vast sea. Primary defenses were powerful, but slow in response time. He sculpted these as the huge Mososaurus maximus,
His second effort, sculpted in the form of a mechanized fortress, took a different route to the same results. Assault borgs pinned the intruder down with withering defensive fire, and if the intruder made it inside various protection protocols (in the form of security cameras; he though it was a nice touch) brought immediate, deadly response to any incursion. However, he still had no way to track the intruder down.
His current effort was much more successful. It was a Japanese castle, with the outer gates guarded by heavily armed and armored samurai (he was surprised at that; those programs packed a whallop, and did really nasty things to the user's interface). The interior was regularly patrolled, and the vigilance of the guards was laudable; the intruder never made it to the dungeons. That wasn't the best part, though: the best part was the assassins. As soon as the intruder left, a ninja was quick on her heels, reporting her position back to the castle via courier. This made Mike very happy.
He followed her back to her shell, using a sleaze program to squirm his way past the ice. The program was based on his Uncle Leo, a sleazy but basically nice fellow. Once in, he began checking for anything he could find that would be useful: timetables, organization, anything. He realized with a start that he was inside someone's mind. Holly wasn't the only one who could jack in sans equipment.
He wasn't having much success just poking around, so he decided to bring out the big guns: this one even gave its developers the willies just thinking about it. Friendly Puppy, the ultimate in data retrieval programs. A disgustingly cute puppy popped into existence, bounding toward the mainframe and yammering for attention. Mike had to feel a certain amount of pity for the system as he watched the puppy work. It was truly amazing. He watched in awe and horror as the program ferreted out schedules, distribution tables, long range goals, anything and everything he could find. The puppy returned with the files in its mouth, jumping around the Man in Black with boundless enthusiasm. Mike hastily shut down the program, then paused to catch his breath. He'd have to be careful about invoking that particular file in the future. It was just too much.
Now that he had what he came for, he proceded to finish the job. He withdrew from his trenchcoat an aerosol can, the words "Raid: Kills bugs dead" emblazoned on the sides. He sprayed every structure in the system, being sure to give everything a liberal coat before he took off.
February 5, 1995. 2:53 p.m. Brood Base of Operations, Denver, Colorado.
Hard-drive shrieked in pain, fighting an internal battle in the space of a few seconds. She collapsed, her body falling in on itself, both Brood and host lost. Josie Thomas and the rest of the Riders of the Storm let this new development sink in, and began to adapt their plans accordingly.
"We have no choice at this point," Donna said. "We're committed. We'll just have to retrieve the others from Avalon Station, and hope for the best. Let's go."
She opened a pipeline to the station via satellite uplink, and began the processing. Everyone present dissolved, converted into an electromagnetic stream and transferred to the station.
February 5, 1995. 3:02 p.m. Cybernet Industries, San Diego.
"Is everything ready?" Sarah was eager to get underway, to get this finished once and for all.
Ben replied, "Looks like it. If they stick to the schedule Mike provided us, they should be on Avalon now. How are we going to deal with the X-Men being on the station at the same time as the rest of us?"
Malcolm responded, "I've considered that. Since they know nothing of our existence, it would only confuse matters to contact them now. Further, we don't have the time the luxury of an explanation will take. Our best option, then, is to wait and use their attack on the station as a diversion for our own activities."
Ben tensed, not liking the direction this line of thought was taking. "Sir, are you suggesting we sacrifice the X-Men to the Brood?"
"I see little alternative, given what's at stake. They know how the Brood operate, and should be able to handle themselves. If they can't, our arrival might well save lives that would otherwise be lost in confusion. It's our only option."
"Okay, that said, let's saddle up, folks. Time to blow this popstand." Sarah's eagerness to get moving forestalled further debate, though everyone knew Ben wasn't happy with matters. Sarah thought he shouldn't even be here at all; security was his field, and he was good at it. Sacrifices for the greater good were something he wasn't equipped to handle, and she just hoped that didn't blow this mission straight to hell.
February 5, 1995. 3:07 p.m. Avalon Station.
Milan sat in one of Avalon's many observatories, pondering life in general as he looked at the world below. It really was a pretty world, he thought, even if it was home to those capable of great atrocity. The haunting tones of Shostikovitch wafted through the background, permeating his thoughts and his mood. A sound at the door startled him out of his reverie.
Piotr Rasputin came in, looking mildly surprised. "I hope I am not disturbing you?"
Of course he was; why offer such misplaced pleasantries? "No, of course not." And why lie about it? Such funny creatures, humans.
"I was surprised at you choice of music. Shostikovitch is not as popular as was several decades ago. He was a true master of his craft."
"Yes. I enjoy his efforts tremendously. They remind me that the second world war went far beyond the Holocaust we are so constantly reminded of." He paused, reflecting. "I am also made to wonder how much we're willing to tear down to achieve our ends."
Rasputin nodded, said softly "Da." They both knew that Exodus and some of the others were extremists, and that they were in many ways worse than the people they fought against. How much longer could it go on? How much longer would they continue to worship a dead man, spouting their righteous zeal as they attempted to change the world? "I think," he whispered, "that it is time for change. It is time to be constructive instead of destructive. Though we cannot live below, it is time to live above, thriving instead of surviving. Helping other victims of mankind's prejudice, instead of waging war. If we cannot do this, what are we fighting for?"
Milan's reply was interrupted by a hiss from across the room. "A noble sssentiment, human." The cluster of Brood warriors advanced toward the two. "A pity the point jussst became moot!"
February 5, 1995. 4:36 p.m. Atlanta, Georgia.
"Sir, is this gonna be a stand up fight, or just another bug hunt?"
"Jamie, will you please, pretty please with sugar on top, try to be serious for just five minutes?"
Madrox laughed. "Oh, come on 'lex; how can you take a bunch of bugs seriously?"
"You haven't seen them in action."
"It's not my fault you and Lorna are the team supreme, here; it's hard to grasp the gravity of the situation when we have Alex Summers, the ultimate flyswatter, running around."
Alex sighed. He had a point. The day had been inordinately successful, and to be fair Jamie, Guido, and Rahne had just been standing around while Alex and Lorna played exterminator. Still, things were pretty grim; there was only so much one group could handle, and the brood seemed to be cropping up everywhere. He turned back to Jamie. "Just stay focused. We don't know when, or if, they'll catch on. If they do, we'll need to go to plan B."
"Uh, 'lex, I've been meaning to ask you: what is plan B, anyway?"
"I'll let you know when it happens, Guido." He looked at Lorna. "Ready?"
She nodded. "As I'll ever be."
Alex took a deep breath, then pointed both arms skyward and fired off a jet of plasma. Lorna caught it in a magnetic bottle, funnelling it and manipulating it as she directed it toward the Brood nest that was their target. The blast ate through the doors like they weren't even there, then spread to every corner of the building under Lorna's guidance; the whole incident took less than half a minute. She relaxed. "All done."
The team proceeded into the building, surveying their handiwork; there wasn't much left. Rahne Sinclair sniffed the air, then wrinkled her nose. "It's here, too, Alex; a familiar tangy metallic smell."
"Any luck figuring out what it is?" This was making Alex antsy. "Nae, not yet. For some reason I keep thinking of Genosha, though."
Alex sighed. "Okay, keep trying to place it." He turned to Lorna. "What's our next stop?"
February 5, 1995. 4:39 p.m. Cyberspace.
As the three Broodlings advanced along a coax-linkage, the Man in Black stepped in to intercept them. Mike paused, wondering where to put them. The Imperial Castle, or Cretaceous Island? Hmmm . . . The island, definitely. He loved watching the bugs squirm as they became trapped in the hardening amber. Still, resources were becomming a bit strained. Maybe it was time to crack open another Cray and create a new sculpted domain. Toon town, maybe, with guardian puppies based on the Friendly Puppy engine. Oooh, nasty. He'd definitely have to get started on that ASAP.
February 5, 1995. 6:18 p.m. Brood Base of Operations, Denver, Colorado.
Victor Creed poked at Hard Drive's remains, then whistled softly. "Looks like someone's been playing exterminator."
Clarice Ferguson looked around, noting the computer setup and some funky tech she hadn't seen before. "Where do you suppose everyone's gone? There were a couple of dozen here last time we were in town; what happened to them?"
"No clue. We might find something in the computer, but CS has never been my strong suit. Besides, the bloody thing's a Mac!"
Clarice didn't bother asking him what he meant; the platforms were clearly different here than on her Earth, so she probably wouldn't understand anyhow. "Weren't they going to get to Magneto somehow? They've probably left for Avalon already."
"Yeah, probably. If they did, they used that hardware--" he jerked his head toward the unfamiliar tech "--to do it. Which means I get to brush up on my Mac skills to learn how to follow them." He looked at his watch. Damn. The X-feebs were probably on their way up already; he'd have to hurry if he was going to pull this off. "Pull up a chair, this might take awhile."
February 5, 1995. 6:47 p.m. Earth Orbit, near Avalon Station.
Scott Summers fired the attitude thrusters on the shuttle, slowing their approach toward Avalon station. No one let it show, but everyone was a little jumpy about the mission ahead. The Brood were always a dangerous enemy, and nearly destroyed the X-Men on two separate occasions; the Riders of the Storm, while incompetant enough when left to their own devices, had the potential to be very dangerous. The two together were a frightening prospect.
He approached a ventral airlock, and let the automatic guidance systems handle the docking maneuvers. He turned to face his fellow X-Men. "Everyone ready?" He got various affirmatives in response, then joined them at the airlock. "Remember, folks, we're not quite sure what we're facing in there. Be careful."
"And be sure to step on lots of the li'l cockroaches." That got a chuckle from most of the group, and made everyone glad they kept Bobby around. There was a clang as the docking protocols finished up; the inner airlock door opened with a hiss and the crew disembarked, plunging into whatever fate had in store for them.
February 5, 1995. 6:52 p.m. Brood Base of Operations, Denver, Colorado.
Victor Creed was a happy man. Not only had he figured out how to get the pipeline tech to work, he also had pretty much pieced together the Brood's plans. He also had his favorite sniping rifle with him, and it was feeling neclected from lack of use lately. He'd remedy that shortly. "Hey Blinky, you ready to go?"
"That's 'Blink', you cretin, and yeah, I'm as ready as I'll ever be."
"Oooh, names. Cheer up Blinky, we'll be killing lots of bugs soon. It'll be fun."
Uh-huh . . .
Creed typed a sequence into the computer, and the pipeline machinery hummed to life. Creed cracked his knuckles, typed some more -- coordinates, she guessed -- said "Here we go!" and within a few moments they were being dissolved, transported to the station 50 miles above.
February 5, 1995. 6:52 p.m. Earth Orbit, near Avalon Station.
Ben looked around at the rest of the team, some of whom were called in by Encarres for this mission. It was a strange group, but he'd worked with them all in the past and they were all competant people. He hadn't seen Travis or Max for ages, and he wondered briefly what they'd been up to. He knew Travis had done some work for Interpol in the past few years, but he mostly seemed to be trying to keep a low profile; his mutant teleporation abilities and skill in using them were ridiculously easy to commercialize, and it seemed as though every criminal and law-enforcement agency in the world wanted a piece of the poor guy. Still, he'd managed to maintain a good sense of humor through it all, and seemed right on top of things now.
Max was nearly the exact opposite of Travis in terms of lifestyle. Easygoing, mechanically adept, and big, the guy was happy working as an automechanic and teaching Akido to kids in his area. It was kinda weird thinking of someone who's build like a tank and covered in black fur as an instructor in a passive martial arts style, but that was typical for Max. He was one of the few superhumans Ben had ever met who had absolutely no delusions of grandeur; no saving the world for him. He just wanted to mind his own business and live his own life, giving a hand to those around him when the need arises and generally letting the world take care of itself. Ben envied the sense of serenity Max exuded; it'd be nice to attain that someday.
Then there was Sarah who was, as far as Ben was concerned, a lunatic. Wasn't it men who were supposed to be into big guns? She loved a minigun as much as anyone, and the feral gleam she'd get in her eye when practicing gave him the shivers. He'd never understood Mike's infatuation with the woman.
Ben's thoughts were interrupted by Encarres' announcement that they'd be docking any minute; time to get set. He hoped Holly would be okay. He knew she was happy Mike was still alive after a fashion -- they all were -- but she was still upset about his loss. She had the most pressure on her (indeed, she was the lynchpin on which the entire mission depended), and he hoped she could handle the stress.
February 5, 1995. 6:54 p.m. Avalon Station, lower airlocks.
Cyclops rounded a corner, followed closely by Wolverine, Gambit, Rogue, Beast, and Psylocke. They were heading for the sanctum at the heart of Avalon Station, just as the remainder of the X-Men were doing on the opposite side of the station. So far they'd encountered no resistance, but that was bound to change shortly. "Wolverine, have you picked up any scents?"
"Been picking them up ever since we came on board. They're all over the station, but we're clear for now."
Scott was quiet for a moment, lost in thought. He didn't like this, and he could tell the others didn't either. The Brood weren't known for their subtlety. Where were they?
The group found a series of elevators, and took them to the central floors of the station. The corridor with the elevators soon opened up into a large supply area, and Cyclops knew that the sanctum would be just beyond, connected via a short corridor. "Betsy, are you picking up any thoughts? They must be here somewhere."
"No, nothing." She paused. "Wait, I sense--"
Logan sniffed the air. "Cyke--"
Neither completed their thoughts as the world exploded around them.
On the other side of the station, Storm's group had similar problems. Jean Grey identified their assailants, Barrage in front and Gauntlet behind. How? We were just there! As the two caught the 5 X-Men -- Storm, Phoenix, Iceman, Bishop, and Archangel -- Jean threw up telekinetic shields to fore and aft, reinforced by Iceman's solid walls of ice. Archangel and Storm took to the air, ostensibly to attack their foes from above, but were met with opponents of their own in the form of Foxbat and a number Brood warriors. The warriors fell to lightning and the poisoned quills of Archangel's wings, but Foxbat had the maneuverability of hiw namesake and dodged, dodged, dodged.
Jean's shields were holding -- gunfire was child's play, even with the AP ammo they were using -- but she unexpectedly encountered an additional assault from within. Psynapse! I remember you, you slimy little bastard. I turned your mind into swiss cheese the last time we met, and I'm fully prepared to do the same thing now.
Tut, tut, Ms. Grey. His presence seemed different, somehow. The body was different then. Undisciplined. Unrefined. Arrogant and stupid. It's changed, now. Come under, shall we say, new managment?
A bolt of force hammered at her psionic defenses, and she sensed a change in the weapons fire outside of her shields. It was intermittant, but explosive. Grenades?
The voice laughed. But of course! The telepaths are always the most dangerous ones. Did you think we'd forget that? Another hammer, synchronized with the fire outside. Did you think we'd come all this way and let the stupidity of our hosts define our actions? Jean could feel her shields buckling as she tried to maintain her defenses against assaults on three fronts. We nearly defeated you as simple warriors, and only our arrogance stopped us from defeating you as mutants. We've learned.
Jean gritted her teeth and reinforced her defenses. You'll have to do better than that if you want to defeat me. She launched an assault of her own, gambling that Psynapse's attacks would leave him vulnerable. She was right, and for a moment he was sent reeling. If not for the assault outside, she'd be able to back it up and finish him.
However, the fire from outside was relentless, and that jab was all she could manage. She felt him recover, then sensed another presence nearby as Psynapse redoubled his efforts.
The Blue team scattered, dodging initial attacks by Brood warriors, weaving hither and you to escape the trap they'd fallen into. More Broodlings appeared, Acolytes such as Frenzy and Unuscione and those huge Kleinstock twins, all seeking to pummel the X-Men into oblivion.
Frenzy made a try for Wolverine, but he'd been fighting better than her since long before she'd been born. For all his ability, however, she laughed as he tried to slice her with his claws. No luck, they just weren't tough enough to cut her without breaking -- he missed the adamantium sometimes -- and she grabbed his wrist and squeezed, the pressure enough to crunch bone. Logan winced, reaching for his boot and the heavy dagger he kept there. Frenzy laughed, deluded into thinking she'd beat the X-Man with no effort, then gasped as Logan used all of his weight to force the dagger between her ribs. She dropped him, staring in shock at the blade which had penetrated her bullet-proof skin. As Logan rubbed his abused wrist, he chuckled inwardly at the arrogance of people with body armor, natural or otherwise.
Psylocke cut a swath through the warriors like they were standing still, her reflexes more than the insects could cope with, and Gambit just kept throwing cards like a madman. His staff was useless against their armor, and he'd ditched it almost immediately in favor of all the cards he could carry at a time. Cyclops wondered how many decks the man carried, as he never seemed to run out of cards. Scott himself was focusing on the giant the Kleinstocks had become, blasting it again and again with his optic blasts. It went down eventually, stunned, and he turned to other targets.
Encarres and his group exited the lower airlock section of the station, wary of the fighting they suspected up above. Encarres turned to his group, looking at Travis in particular. "Can you get us into the inner sanctum from here?"
A look of agitation crossed Travis' face as he replied "You know it doesn't work that way. I can get you to places I've been to or places I've seen, but that's it."
"Bullshit. I've seen you do blind jumps before, in places you were familiar with."
"Only from vids!"
"You know the layout here. We can't afford to fight our way through; the stakes are too high."
"Can you do it?"
The Englishman paused, said "Alright. But it's on your head."
Below Storm's fury, Bishop fired yet another shell from his shotgun at the Brood within Jean's perimeter, then smelled the tang of ozone as another one materialized within the shell. This one was no more than a boy, but he seemed skilled enough as he shot bolts of flame at the walls of ice Iceman had made, vaporizing them. He then turned his fire on Jean, and the added pressure was enough to break through her defenses. Psynapse shut down her mind, and the instant after the shields fell the entire region was filled with the hail of a crossfire. The boy -- Rusty Collins, by Bishop's reckoning -- disappeared as quickly as he'd come, and Bishop hit the floor as the bullets started flying.
Iceman kept making walls, containing the Brood within whenever possible, but they didn't seem to care about killing their own and destroyed the walls and the Brood within as quickly as Bobby could make them. Collins melted yet another wall, and Gauntlet settled the issue once and for all by firing a rocket the icemaker; Bobby took it in the gut, the resulting explosion blowing him to pieces. Shards of ice flew everyehere, riddling a dozen warriors as well as Jean's body with shrapnel.
Above, Storm used the increasing vater vapor to best advantage, creating bolt after bolt of lightning. She hit Bishop with several, allowing him to use his energy conversion abilities to become a phalanx of laser fire. The Brood were coming in increasing numbers but they fell to her bolts one by one, none of them immune. She saw Jean fall, prayed she was alright, then saw the walls come down under the assault of Barrage and Rusty Collins. She the rocket Gauntlet launched, the one that took Bobby down, the second casualty of the day. Goddess, she thought, how has it come to this?
In an alcove above the fighting with Gold team, Victor Creed watched the X-Men fall. He didn't mind, really; it was great to see that uppity bitch Grey finally get hers. But these Riders were a problem; if they took down the X-Men, the Brood would use them as hosts. They were bad enough as is, he didn't need them any tougher, and he'd had enough of the bug city line. The mist was getting bad, but shooting wouldn't be a problem for awhile. He fixed his sights on Barrage, the dude with energy cannons for arms, and squeezed the trigger. Bam, one dead Broodling. The feebs were doing okay against the warriors, that Bishop was going ballistic, but Gauntlet was still a problem. One more time, and he could get going. Gauntlet looked around, somehow hearing the shot that took out Barrage, and said something into mike near his mouth. Oh, no you don't; you're going bye-bye, asshole! Creed aimed and fired, then cursed as his target dissolved into the pipeline. He wasn't sure if he'd hit the bastard or not. He adjusted a mike of his own, said "Blink, get me out of here" and faded to the other side of the station.
Beast wrestled with Javitz, trying to get the big man to go down. He pushed away and pounded the Acolyte in the chin with a double fist, easily dodging the slow punches in response, then bounded off a wall to spear the man in the back. Illegal in football, but handy for an acrobatic strongman in a battle. Javitz fell, and Hank slammed him in the back once again as he tried to rise. Hank looked around, trying to make sense of what was going on, and was rewarded for his vigilance by three gremlins appearing out of nowhere to claw at him. They were strong for their size, holding him and pulling him down. He took a breath to wrestle with them, then gasped as a giant appeared out of thin air above him. Tusk fell to the ground, hammering Beast in the process, winding the furry devil with the blow to the sternum. The Broodling knew he'd be no match for McCoy in a stand up fight, so he kept the furball off balance, pinning him against a wall as he slammed his fists into his victim's sides over and over again.
Beast's mind was reeling, on the verge of panic, and without thought he forced his legs between himself and his opponent and kicked with all his might. Tusk went flying and Beast fell to the floor, gasping in agony as his lungs tried to suck in air.He looked up, bleary eyed, and saw a face more fit for nightmares than the real world.
The explosive rounds of Gauntlet's cannon ripped through McCoy's body, shredding it before the Beast had time to think, let alone react. The co-opted mercenary fired on everyone before him, tearing apart Brood Warrior and X-Man alike. Shots tore through Wolverine, Psylocke, and Cyclops, sparing Gambit only because of the Brood who took the shots for him. Psylocke never knew what hit her, but Cyclops was protected somewhat by his body armor. Wolverine lost a lung and nearly a leg, gasping like a fish out of water as he writhed on the ground.
Rogue saw the carnage below, and changed course to take Gauntlet down. Three Brood warriors followed her, but she barely noticed as she dived toward the walking arsenal. She screamed as she grabbed him, determined to take him apart for what he'd done to her friends, and climbed to the top of the room before changing direction. She dived toward the floor, Gauntled held before her like a sacrifice, then slammed right through to the lower level, then through to the next and the next, not stopping until she hit the lower airlocks. Gauntlet and his parasite were dead after the initial impact.
Vision was becomming a problem, as the mists thickened and Storm's rain increased in intensity. Mixed in with the hum of the cannons Bishop heard two shots of different pitch, after which the cannon fire ceased. He didn't know what had happened, but one thing was clear: his path was unobstructed, and there were no friendlies left on the ground. As the lightning crackled through him, he let fly against anything and everything that moved.
Foxbat evaded Archangel's quillions yet again, then closed in to make a pass at Ororo. She fired a bolt of lightning at him, and he stalled to let Archangel's next salvo take the blast and dissipate the energy. He tucked into the mist, the winged fool right on his tail, then dropped in a power dive. The vapor was thicker down below, and he used a highly developed sense of echolocation to find his way in lieu of vision. Archangel stuck on his tail, though, the wings of Apocalypse not about to allow their owner to crash into anything or anyone. Foxbat bottomed out, zig-zagging along the floor as he evaded Bishop's blasts, then maneuvered his way underneath Storm. He shot up at her like a bullet from a gun, clipping her along the flank and back with the blades on his wrists. Storm fell, ribs cracked and breath gone, and Archangel shifted direction with a shout to catch her before she hit the ground. The added burden decreased his maneuverability to the point that Foxbat's next pass caught him; the Broodling slammed into the two of them, causing Warren to drop Storm on the catwalk surrounding the room before Foxbat slammed them into the bulkhead wall, crushing Warren's hollow ribs as Apocalypse's wings tore at him. Foxbat screamed and pulled away, letting Archangel fall a good thirty feet to the ground below. He landed with a sickening thud while Foxbat landed on a catwalk above, imagining he might survive his wounds.
Ben groaned as the group materialized within Avalon's inner sanctum, nautious from the strain of the teleport. Sarah voiced the thoughts of all, saying "Christ on a crutch, Travis, what the hell was that all about?"
Travis replied "I warned you; blind 'ports are a really bad idea."
"Worse than you realize." The voice came from across the room, and Ben decided immediately that the owner suffered from a serious case of delusions of grandeur. A huge man of metal stood beside him -- the Acolyte Colossus, he guessed -- and a couple of other women stood to his side. Behind the speaker (Exodus, if their briefing was any indication) was a long-haired man with a heavy beard. His regal pose, even while comatose, identified him immediately as Magneto. Exodus continued: "Identify yourselves, and tell me why I shouldn't kill you now."
February 5, 1995. 7:43 p.m. Avalon Station
Malcolm Encarres surveyed the scene before him, weighing his options as he shaked off the effects of Travis' blind jump. His group currently faced five individuals; he didn't know where the rest of the Acolytes were, but given what he knew of the abilities of those in the room he guessed the others had been implanted by the Brood. His own group was more diverse and functional in a combat setting, but the fact that Amelia Voght, Scanner, and Skids Blevins were all untouchable made his people unable to deal with half of the opposition. He thought it likely that Holly might be able to hold off Exodus, but she certainly couldn't hurt him in a mind war; a standoff was the best she could hope for, and that would take time they simply didn't have. So he did the only thing he could do.
"My name is Malcolm Encarres, and this is my team. We're here to stop the Brood, Exodus; if we don't revive Magneto, and soon, everyone on this station and then the world will be at risk."
Exodus considered a moment. While he revered Magneto above all others, he had come to enjoy his position as leader of the Acolytes quite a bit. Given their current status, though, it seemed likely the Acolytes wouldn't be around much longer if something wasn't done. He wasn't about to trust a bunch of outsiders with such a task, however. "What do you plan to do, wave his body at them and expect them to be impressed? Or perhaps use your pet telepath to animate him, in the hopes of accessing his powers? I will not have our noble lord defiled in such a manner!"
Malcolm was about to reply when the crackle of energy and scent of ozone associated with the Brood Pipeline technology flowed through the room, leaving Psynapse and a Brood host in its wake. The Broodling leared at the mutants maliciously, seemingly oblivious to the oozing wounds scattered across its body. "What's thisss? A gathering to honor our new queen? Have you embraced oblivion ssso readily?" He laughed maniacally at the expressions his words generated. "Sssurely you didn't think us ssso foolish as to leave the most important of your number untouched? Indeed, the great lord wasss our first target!" He turned to his assembled host, motioning them forward. "Destroy them, warriors! Protect your unborn queen!"
Wolverine tried to remember when the last time was that he hurt this badly. Not too long, he was sure, but that didn't make him feel any better. He lifted his head for a look around, and instantly regretted it. One of the rounds had pierced a lung, and any movement was agony. He'd faced worse, though; he'd just have to deal with it, like always. He forced himself up once again, and was rewarded with the most grisly sight he'd seen in recent memory. Betsy and Hank were dead, cut in half by the explosive fire of Gauntlet seconds earlier. Gambit seemed intact, his life saved by the Brood warrior on top of him whose armor took the brunt of the round which slammed them both against the bulkhead. He assumed Rogue was alive, as she'd sent Gauntlet face first through who knew how many levels of the station. Scotty had seen better days, though from what Logan could tell he was still alive. He turned toward Gambit. "Lebeau." Christ, his voice was no more than a wheeze. His lung was feeling better, the healing factor kicking in. He licked his lips, spat blood, and tried again. "Lebeau, wake up." The Cajun didn't respond, and Logan cursed.
On the up side, there didn't appear to be any Brood left over. Both the warriors and the co-opted Acolytes they'd faced were dead or dying. There were only a few Acolytes involved, though; he supposed that was a good thing, though it might just mean more for later. He wondered how the other team had fared; had to be better than this one. How could it be worse?
Bishop surveyed the scene around him, wondering where it all went wrong. By his count, two of his team were critically wounded and two more were dead. He had no idea how he'd move the survivors, let alone retrieve the bodies of the fallen. Jean was too badly hurt to move without risk of further injury, and Warren -- how could a man have so many broken bones and still be alive? He didn't know where Ororo was, but the last time he saw her she was being torn apart by Foxbat. Bobby was . . . well, he didn't want to think about that. He had visions of another Bobby in another world, reforming himself after being shattered. But that was just a dream, a fugue state distinct from reality.
How did things get this bad? It was Malcolm and Randall all over again, only twice as bad. He hoped the other team had better luck. He hoped the other teams Earthside could figure out another way to deal with the Brood. He hoped for a lot of things at the moment.
"Dammit, Victor, how can you be so heartless? We can't just let them die!"
"Why not?" Creed asked the question with utmost sincerity.
"Why not? Because we can help them, that's why not! Isn't that why we came?"
"No way, Blinky. I came for one reason; to pound that asshole Morden into the dirt. That's it. I have no stake in the X-Men, and never have. If you wanna help them, you go right ahead and do it. I've got better things to do."
Clarice just stared at him, unable to comprehend what he'd just said. How could this be the same person she'd known? How could he be so different?
She didn't realize she'd spoken aloud until he responded, his voice low and filled with venom. "Well, Clarice, it's like this. When you stick a guy in a basement for 15 years it gives him a bit of a skewed outlook on life. Shove him through three wars -- Vietnam being the most memorable, by the way -- and he gets the idea that life is pretty cheap. Bring him home and stick him in intelligence work and he gets the feeling that there really aren't any good guys in the world, and that all anyone's interested in is their own little personal agenda. I got news for you, Blinky: I don't wanna play. I'm sick of their sanctimonious bullshit, I'm sick of them acting like they're the only island of right in a sea of wrong, and I'm sick of their pansy-ass professor and his dream that only makes sense if you're tripping. I don't care about the X-Men, Clarice. I don't care about the world or anyone in it. It doesn't matter; none of it matters. I just wanna kill the bastard who stuck this worm inside of me; that's all I care about." He paused for a beat, then said "Do what you want." and turned to leave.
Clarice licked her lips, said "If you could do it all over again, would you?"
He looked back at her. He laughed softly, then said "It doesn't work that way, kid."
"But would you?"
He was quiet for a moment, then he sighed and started off down the hallway. "It doesn't work that way."
"Scatter!" In the wake of Malcolm's command, his people fanned out across the room. Sarah brought up her roomsweeper automatic shotgun, spraying buckshot in the general direction of the Brood warriors. That took out half of them, while the others spread out to minimize the effectiveness of the weapon. Travis began teleporting the member's of Encarres' team at seemingly random intervals, setting them up for ideal attacks on the Brood. One warrior made the mistake of physically touching Ben; it was a fatal error, as Ben generated the electrical charge that made him a mutant and fried the Broodling into oblivion. The giant Max tore warriors to pieces with his bare hands, while Malcolm just put bullets into any he could find. Eventually the warriors retreated, waiting for their new Queen to hatch and calling out for reinforcements which would never come.
Holly set up her laptop near Magnus' feet, running a power feed to a jack in one of the sanctum's consoles. One the system initialized, she linked with it using her telepathic talents. She set up a satellite link with the mainframe in San Diego and left an inquiry for Mike. He responded within a matter of seconds.
"What's up?" He sounded a little tense.
"We're ready to begin here; what's your situation?"
"I'm okay now, but I can't guarantee it'll last. Whatever you're gonna do, sis, do it fast."
"Okay, I'm starting now." Holly wasn't quite sure what she was going to do about the Brood embryo inside of Magnus; the fact that it hadn't manifested was odd, given that the others implanted later already had. The only explanation was that Magnus' mind was so far gone that the Brood embryo was having to reconstruct basic motor functions from scratch, which could mean a serious battle later on once she began doing the same thing. It was likely that Magnus could purge the Broodling himself, but she'd have to get him conscious before the Broodling took over if that had any hope of succeeding. She set up her mental and technological firewalls and began her work.
The Broodling inside of Psynapse bore down on its host's mind, forcing its victim to concentrate. The disorientation of the teleportation field was mind numbing, but the creature remained firm in its convictions. Though forced to retreat, there were other forms of attack available to it. Concentrate, flimsy human! Focusss! Call to the Queen! Allow her to ascend to her rightful place, that our ultimate goals may be achieved! The Psynapse host shuddered, revolted, but cleared his mind as best he could. He sent psionic tendrills into Magnus, seeking the Brood queen within, calling to her. The queen responded, week and piteous, but ferocious in her determination to lead her children to dominance over the azure world below with its ripe bounty of hosts. The Broodling used the Psynapse host to aid the queen in her efforts, then cried out in agony as it was forcefully ripped from the Queen/Magnus fusion.
Exodus calmed himself, sorting through his rage and confusion to better understand his situation. The Brood had attacked, and in the brief battle thereafter everything had gotten incredibly confusing. Now, one of the invaders was working on Magnus, attempting to restore him to life. As he peered into his savior's mind, he realized what was being done. She was giving him his memories back, undoing all of the evil and terrible work of Charles Xavier. He did not like these people, resented their intrusion, but he would deal with them once his dread lord was restored to life. As he left Lord Magnus' mind, he felt another presence, an evil, alien thing attempting to subvert the body of Magneto to the control of another. He traced the psionic energy back to its source, then ripped the minds of Psynapse and his Brood parasite from that of Magnus. The hybrid form of the mind made it almost impossible to attack, but at the very least he would protect his lord.
Bishop finished binding Jean's injuries as best he could, preparing to move her using the makeshift stretcher he'd cobbled together from rubble. He still didn't know what to do about Warren. He couldn't leave the boy here, but there was no way to move him without causing further harm. He decided he'd move Jean first, then see if he could rendezvous with the others and get their help in moving Warren.
His thoughts were interrupted by a flash of light to his left, a sign of more trouble. What materialized was a girl, the same girl who'd kidmapped--stolen?--Sabretooth. Bishop levelled his shotgun at her, prepared for anything.
"Let me help you," she said. "I can move them safely. I've done it enough." She started toward Jean. "I can get them to the mansion for you. Wouldn't that be best?"
Bishop didn't know what to say. If she intended harm, she couldn't make things much worse. He supposed he had nothing left to lose. He nodded, once.
"The mansion, then." She touched Jean, disappeared for a moment, then came back. "Who else?" Bishop indicated Warren, and he too was moved.
When she came back, Bishop was silent for a moment. Then, "Why? Why help us now?"
Clarice was silent for a moment, unsure of what to say. "On my world, Victor was a good man. I never could have imagined how different he would be here. No matter what, though, I'm an X-Man; we value life, wherever we find it, even if we don't have a clue as to what's going on." She paused, fidgeting a bit, then said "Your friends, on the other side? They're hurt, too. I think we should go help them now."
Bishop didn't know what to make of this girl. She seemed so familiar somehow, like a face he'd seen long ago but couldn't quite place. He knew there was no malice in her, though, and that his comrades needed help. "Okay. Let's go."
"Mooorden!" Creed's voice had a sing-songy lilt to it that seemed downright diabolical. "Come out come out wherever you are!" Creed was tracking his quarry by scent, hunting through the ventilation system of Avalon. The scent was getting stronger, and he could feel the connection between the Broodling within him, struggling for dominance, and its master. "I'm gonna get ya, Morden. Gonna rip you up good. You know that?" He rounded a corner, dropped out of the ventilation shaft and proceeded up a service corridor. "Hey Morden, you know what those X-feebs say about me? They say I'm insane. Can you imagine that?" He paused by a leaky pipe to splash some water on his face. Heh, bad maintenance schedules. Naughty naughty! "Just because I like to kill people, they figure I'm insane. Hard to believe, isn't it?" The Broodling was a stealthy little twerp, Creed had to give him that. He had to be around here somewhere. Some of the station's corridors were so closed in that it was tough to tell just where the scent was coming from. He was getting frustrated until he picked up a new scent, interspersed with the first. As the corridor opened up the scents became stronger, better defined.
"Oh ho, what have we here? Might this be the Josie Thomas bitch who started it all?" He made a loud sniffing sound. "Why yes, I do believe it is! What fun! I get to gut both of you for the price of one! Thanks, buddy. Saves me the trouble of tracking the stupid frail down later." He heard a muttered curse above and behind him to the right, quickly pinpointed its location, then turned and leaped toward his prey.
"There you are Morden!" He grabbed the smallish Broodling by the throat, lightly raking his claws over his quarry. "You're not as much fun as I thought you'd be, though. Ah well, guess I'll just have to pick on that runt Logan later." He slammed the Broodling into the wall, playing with him.
"The X-Men are right, Creed. You're insssane!"
"Everyone keeps saying that about me. But really, I'm just misunderstood. Honest!" He dug his claws into Morden's breastbone, dragging them slowly, inexorably downward. "I just have an appreciation for pain, that's all. I like hurting, maiming and killing people who've wronged me in some way. It's my way of getting even with the world, and it's ever so satisfying." The Broodling flailed and scratched and tore at Creed, attempting to hurt him in some fashion. "Poor Morden. Haven't you heard about what my darling baby boy did to me?" His voice took on an innocent, mockingly regretful note. "I'm afraid my healing factor is quite up to the task of defending against your puny attacks."
Creed's amusement was interrupted by two things. First, the Broodling within him made one last ditch effort to assert control over its host, the agonizing assault distracting Creed from his torturous efforts. Second, the isolated Brood Queen chose that moment to attack, wrapping one tentacled arm around his throat and another around the arm eviscerating Morden. She dug her legs into his back and took to the air, causing Creed to lose the advantage of leverage. She stabbed her tail into Creed's lower back, flooding his body with hormonal secretions to assist in his transformation into a Brood warrior. Creed reached back with his free hand to grab the Queen's throat, but he didn't have the strength or leverage needed to snap her neck. The tentacles tightened their grip as the drugs began to take effect and the savage legs of the Queen dug into him mercilessly. Creed's entire body felt like it was on fire, tearing apart with the horrendous pain of transformation. As he began to lose consciousness, he felt a massive jolt rock the Queen, fircing the two of them to pivot to the right. Another jolt came, and another, until the Queen dropped Creed to the floor so far below. The impact sent him into oblivion.
Images flowed into his mind. Germany, a long time ago. A hateful man spewing venomous rhetoric, inciting people to violence. Prison, with blacks, gypsies, jews, gays, and prisoners of war. Incinerators, bodies in piles. Liberation. A woman--his wife?--dead before his eyes. Israel. Hunting the butchers. Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, his children. Charles Xavier, his destroyer. The Lenningrad. The X-Men. Scott, Jean, Henry, Bobby, Warren. Wolverine, Ororo, Kurt, Kitty, Rogue. The New Mutants. Danni, Illyana, Rhayne, Roberto, Samuel. Conflict. The Hellfire Club. Asteroid M. Lee Forrester. The Savage Land. The Magneto Protocols. Nick Fury. Death. Rebirth. Moira McTaggert. Betrayal. Avalon. Acolytes.
The thoughts gained coherence; history? They were jumbled. There was a presence with him, stitching it all together. Was this who he was? Someone who suffered constantly and had psychotic episodes at random intervals? Who was he? Magneto. The thoughts of the presence invaded. Who are you? A friend. What does that mean to him? Where was he now? Why was he now? You're needed. He could think; did that mean he was alive? Yes. He felt like he was submerged beneath ice, unable to break through to the surface. Another presence, there with him. Terrible (but, a detached part of his mind said, not evil; alien, trying to survive, desperate for life). You must destroy them. Why? Are you better than they? More worthy? It's them or us. And why should I pick us? Because they must destroy, while humans choose to destroy. At least they're honest. Pure. Does that matter to their victims? Humans are no better. They can be. They'll destroy my kind as certainly as the Brood. They don't have to. You can't stop them. Watch me! A pause. Then: What must I do? Awaken.
Bishop, Gambit, and Rogue were the last of the X-Men on Avalon; the other had been transported down to the Mansion, dead or alive. All save Iceman and Storm, who couldn't be found. Bishop had seen Iceman blown to pieces; he assumed the same was true for Storm. The three boarded their shuttle, silent, and began the trip back to Earth. Clarice had told Bishop of the other team on board the station; they'd have to hope it met with better luck than they had.
Rogue couldn't remember a time things had gotten so out of hand; the only one that came close was the Mutant Massacre, and while that one had a higher body count the personal tole was nowhere near as high. So much of the team was incapacitated or . . . or dead. It was over, though. Now they were headed for sanctuatry; they would have time to regroup, to come up with new ways to deal with the Brood. Time to heal.
Clarice teleported once again as the Queen made a grab for her, reappearing behind the the alien so that she could stab a javelin into her back. The Queen screached in rage, grabbing Clarice and flinging her against a bulkhead, but Clarice teleported once again and used her newfound momentum to launch a bodily attack against the Queen. They both slammed into the wall then fell to the floor, Clarice landing on top, using the Queen to cushion the blow. The Queen was stunned for a moment, and Clarice hit her with a javelin time and time again, pummelling the alien into unconsciousness. She looked around for Morden, the other one, but couldn't find him.
She limped over to Mr. Creed, pulling him away from the still form of the alien, dragging him into an alcove a fair distance away. She fell to her knees, wondering what she would do now. She thought of teleporting, but where would she go? She didn't know enough places Earthside, and she didn't want to go to the X-Mansion again. She wanted to go someplace safe, but she'd always associated "safe" with Mr. Creed; that didn't seem to apply anymore. Creed stirred at her feet, and she wondered briefly whether he'd awake friend or foe. Her mind betrayed her, however, as her musings left her vulnerable to attack. Morden's tentacle whipped around her throat, hauling her out of the alcove and slamming her head-first into the bulkhead wall. She didn't even have time to curse her own foolishness before darkness claimed her.
Victor felt a pressure on his mind, like a prod forcing his thoughts in various directions. Get outta my mind! He forced the presence away, though its influence was very strong. He heard a sickening crack, and his eyes shot open. Morden. The beast didn't know Creed was awake yet; he'd pay for that little oversight. Victor closed his eyes again, waiting.
Morden grabbed Victor, assuming him fully converted and harmless. As he began to drag the mutant out of the alcove Clarice had hidden him in, Creed grabbed the alien and pulled him forcefully to the ground. He clambered on top of the alien, grabbed its muzzle, and tore out its throat with the other hand. "Game over, asshole."
He collapsed then, panting, fighting for control of his body. The Broodling within him wanted ever so much to control his body, and it was ever so pissed that it couldn't. Creed's healing factor was destroying the Queen's hormones by the minute, and the alien couldn't fight its host's body alone. It was only a matter of time before the alien died, and they both knew it. Victor looked up, seeing the still form of the Queen ahead of him. She had to die. Of that, he was certain. If she lived, she could get him again sometime later. He felt so weak, though; his healing factor was working overtime, and the alien's influence made it hard to act. He dragged himself over to the Queen, crawling on his belly like the wounded animal he was, finally reaching her. His body refused to obey his commands, the embryo fighting mercilessly to keep its host from destroying its Queen. The Queen began to stir, fumbling around groggily, staggering due to the wounds Clarice had inflicted. Good little girl, that Clarice. Yeah. Have to be nicer to her. The Broodling screamed at him, trying to force him away from its mother, but the healing factor was eroding its influence by the moment. As Creed's claws sank into the alien, the Broodling made one last, desperate gamble; it shattered Creed's bones, twisting the assassin into contortions of agony. Ironically, its final gesture ripped Creed's claws through the Queen, morally wounding her. Both fell, the Queen still and Creed gasping, waiting.
Ororo felt pain as she'd never felt before; she ws too high up to be found, too wounded to cry out. Why wouldn't death claim her? The Goddess was not merciful after all. She gazed at the carnage below, waiting for her death, and was witness to something extraordinary. Though the room was uncomfortably warm, she saw ice begin to form along the edge of one wall and the floor. The ice pulsed as though it were alive, accreting, becomming. An illusion, surely. A fever dream brought about by death. Bobby?
Magnus looked around him, at his Acolytes and the invaders, wondering at the world he'd been born into. He saw Holly Majere, and figured he ought to feel grateful to her; he felt nothing. He had memories of his Acolytes, but felt nothing for them, either. He knew there were Brood on the station. He sought them out, feeling for their alienness, purging the Brood from their host bodies. Most of the hosts did not survive the purge, but the mutants ones did. Psynapse and, though he was too wounded to care, Foxbat were free now. The same was true of Sabretooth. The rest, the norms, were dead and gone. He remembered what he had to do: the electromagnetic pulse. He knew it would result in great loss of life. He also knew there was no other way to eliminate the Brood, something which had to be done. They would breed; they were destroyers. They couldn't change, but terrible, flawed humanity could change. Could be controlled. Could be stopped. So the pulse went out, touching everything, changing the world forever.
The pulse destroyed every electronic system it touched; power grids failed worldwide, leaving billions without power. Hospitals and military installations shifted to generators, but every home in the world suffered. Vehicles on roads stalled, and in places with heavy traffic, particularly the west coast of the U.S., accidents were frequent and numerous as the daring stunts drivers pulled backfired with loss of power. Many aircraft plummetted to the ground, unable to reinitialize their systems in mid-flight. The entire internet crashed, the various net domains unable to cope with the loss of power. Though recovery would be swift and complete, complete anarchy would reign for several days.
February 5, 1995. 8:22 p.m. Cybernet Mainframe, San Diego
The pulse came as he knew it would, eradicating the Brood, his domains, and, ultimately, Mike himself. He was backed up, though, safe and sound in the shielded drives of the mainframe. He hoped Holly was okay. And Sarah; crazy as she was, he still cared for her a lot. And Ben. Maybe he'd finally find some peace with Holly. It'd make a good ending to things.He didn't know what he'd do when he was restored (if?); what's the Ghost in the Machine to do, after all?
February 5, 1995. 8:22 p.m. Avalon Station
The pulse had other effects, as well. Avalon station was not a singular piece of equipment; it was made from Graymalkin station, and remnants of Asteroid M, and other constructs. Its systems were not regularly maintained because none of the inhabitants of the station, save Magnus himself, knew enough about his creation to maintain it properly. The systems were ad hoc, jury-rigged monstrosities which were unshielded and didn't even meet rudimentary safety standards. The pulse destroyed many of them, and caused some to backfire. Some exploded. In at least two otherwise non-essential areas, explosive decompression occurred. With the loss of power there was no way to maintain Avalon's position over the Earth, and the station's orbit began to decay.
"Why don't you come with us?" Holly asked, upset.
"Earth is not the place for us. Not any longer. We will stay here, collect our dead and tend to our wounded. We will leave before the station crashes, have no fear." Magnus had a detached air about him, as though he were perpetually distracted by something only he could see. His voice was flat, emotionless.
Holly looked to Malcolm for support, but got no response. He'd done what he'd come to do; what happened now was not his concern. There was nothing left to do except leave. She turned to Magnus. "Well . . ." She didn't quite know what to say. ". . . Um, thanks. I guess."
"You're welcome. Remember that you'll always be welcome on Avalon." He cocked his head, blinking at his inappropriate choice of words. "Or whatever succeeds it."
"Yeah." Malcolm turned to leave, the others following in his footsteps. Holly lingered, the slightly awed, slightly resentful stares of the Acolytes on her, then followed the others.
February 5, 1995. 8:36 p.m. Avalon Station, lower airlocks
"Do you think he'll be all right?"
Holly blinked at the unexpected question from Sarah. "Huh?"
"Mike. Do you think he'll be all right?"
Holly sighed. "What do you care? You never really liked him anyway."
"That's not true! I just wasn't in love with him. Doesn't mean I didn't like him."
Holly was quiet for a second. "No."
"No he's not all right. He's dead, remember?" Ben winced. "Sorry."
"Oh." Sarah didn't say anything for the rest of the trip.
February 5, 1995. 8:53 p.m. Avalon Station
Victor Creed sat up, marvelling at the effectiveness of his healing factor. Even now, he was astounded at how fast he sometimes healed. While he wasn't fully healed, not even close, he could walk. That was enough for him. He had to get out; that much he was sure of. No reception he received would be a good one. And then there was Clarice. He looked at her, still unconscious. For the first time since Germany, he didn't want to leave someone behind. He didn't know why; he just didn't feel up to it. He didn't know what he felt for the kid; he didn't wanna fuck her, that much was for sure. She was just a girl, and far too scrawny for his tastes anyway. So what did that leave? He decided to sit for awhile, figure it out. He had time, he supposed. Time to wait and see what happened, how things played out.
February 7, 1995. 9:07 a.m. Cybernet Industries, San Diego
Holly fiddled with the last of the backup programs, waiting for the mainframe to reinitialize itself. Last night had been a good night. Even with all the chaos running around, she'd still managed to get a decent amount of sleep, and she'd spent the evening talking to Ben. They were good talks; maybe something good would happen there, she didn't know. Damage control was still running strong; martial law had been declared until the emergency was dealt with, and the national guard had been called out to deal with riot control. Things were recovering remarkable fast, all things considered. The last of the Brood were being ferretted out, and Avalon had thankfully crashed in the middle of the Atlantic instead of on dry land. The net was easily restored, since many of the most important sites were on shielded mainframes. Though it crashed often, it endured. The freeways were still a mess due to several pileups, but even that was managing itself pretty well. Life went on, as it tends to after catastrophe. She missed Harlequin.
"Good morning, Holly."
She blinked. "Huh?"
"What part of 'Good morning, Holly' don't you understand?"
"Who else? I trust everything went well?"
"Yeah . . ." Her mind was having trouble adjusting to Mike's presence. "Sorry, but aren't you dead?"
"I presume so, but that's okay; I was backed up."
"You make it sound like Windows or something."
"Hardly. You won't have to reinstall me on a regular basis, I can promise you that."
"Heh." What does one say to a friend one's managed to kill? "Um . . . you should probably talk to Ben. And Sarah! She asked about you."
"Did she? Huh. I've gotten over her; she's a lunatic, after all."
Holly laughed. "It's good to hear from you. I'm glad you're all right."
"You shouldn't feel bad, Holly. I'm where I belong."
"Where are you going to go? What are you going to do?"
"Whatever I want. Isn't it cool?" He smirked. "I'll pop in from time to time to say hello. There's so much to do out here, I can't tell ya. I'm gonna become an expert on everything! I'll become insufferable."
"Like you weren't already?" He laughed. "Take care of yourself, Mike."
"That's my line. You're still in the land of the living, after all. My condolences." He disappeared.
Holly leaned back in her chair. Heh. Her own personal Max Headroom. Hmmm. Maybe she should change her ISP . . .