by Alicia McKenzie
DISCLAIMER: All the characters within, except for Sira and Cyak (who don't really count) belong to Marvel. Parts of this story are based on events in the 'Fathers and Sons' storyline in Cable #6-8 and the first issue of 'The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix', but I've taken some liberties with the action and dialogue, as anyone who's familiar with those issues will probably be able to tell. And for those of you who missed the Flashback issue of Uncanny X-Men and don't know that Sanctity was revealed to be Tanya Trask--well, now you do! :)
I know it is morning before the novice draws back the curtains on my bed. She is startled to see me awake and sitting up, and bobs a nervous curtsy before she goes to get my robe.
I rise, wincing at the pain in my joints, and passively let her dress me. I can't help but make the comparison between her fresh youthfulness and my own scarred, age-ravaged body. But I do not envy her. At least I have lived my life, the joys and sorrows both. Her days are numbered. She is like a rose, just beginning to open to the sun. Far too fragile to survive the fire that is coming.
I haven't seen a rose since the twentieth century. Like so many other things of beauty, they don't grow in this world.
"Maybe I bring you the morning meal, Mother Askani?" the girl asks in a sweet, tremulous voice.
What is her name? Sara, Sina--no, Sira. That's it. I nod, and she hurries from my chamber. A nervous child, she is very different from the others who served me in the same capacity. Two of those will always hold a special place in my heart. Lyela was almost as nervous as Sira, her first day, but she soon relaxed. Every morning, I still half-expect to see her shy smile greet me. And Tyris--dear, brilliant, caustic, irreverent Tyris. She never feared me, but then again, Tyris never feared anyone. They were as different as night and day, but I loved them both.
And they loved me, I think. Certainly, they gave up everything to follow my dream. They left their families, their homes, laid aside name and identity to become only 'Askani'. I sent them both to their deaths, of course. The good always die young, here. Only those with blood on their hands, like Tanya and I, get to grow old. The universe's way of punishing us, I suppose. Lyela had left yesterday, back to play her role in the conclusion of Cable and Stryfe's personal tragedy, while Tyris had made the passage three days ago, on her doomed mission to rescue my brother as an infant before Apocalypse could get to him first. I knew they will both die--I knew of their deaths even before I traded places with Brian in the timestream and ended up here, a century ago--but that does not make the pain any less.
At least I know Lyela's mission to protect Scott and Jean succeeded. I have that small solace. But it still hurts, that I have sent Tyris back when I know she will fail to protect Nathan. I wish I could have told her it was meant to be this way, that the T-O infection had to happen. That her real mission was to bring Nathan here, where pain and struggle and heartbreak would shape him into the grim, haunted soldier I met back in the twentieth century.
If only there was another way! I am dooming my brother to a life even more terrible than mine had been. Will he ever forgive me? I know I will never forgive myself. But neccessity is often cruel, and this is no exception. In the true tradition of our family, he will rise like a phoenix from the ashes to save us all. There can be no hope without suffering.
I scowl, irritated at my own rhetoric. Buying into my own PR, again. Damn you, Tanya. No--not Tanya. Sanctity. That twisted creature half a world away in Ebonshire, busily building her own sick dream, is not the friend I loved. Even before her madness of the last few years, she had twisted everything. My Sisterhood had not begun as this farce of a religious order. I still feel a little ill at the web of doctrine and superstition I find myself trapped in. It seems faintly blasphemous, to me. I never wanted to become a demigoddess to these people. A revolutionary, yes. Even a prophet, as odd as that sounds.
But then, Apocalypse would have feared me in any guise. People in this world of his are not supposed to dream, you see, and at the core of the Sisterhood, beneath the religious veneer, that is what we are about. Sometimes I wonder why he has allowed us to survive for this long--
Sira returns with the morning meal. I find I have no appetite. My mind is racing, trying to anticipate what Apocalypse will do when he realizes Nate is in this time period. There is no way we can disguise his presence. I only pray that we will have enough time to make the neccessary preparations. Otherwise, we are lost.
Or are we? Will we be allowed to fail? The fact of Cable's presence in the past is unavoidable. But is it inevitable? Just because we succeeded in saving him once, does that mean we will succeed again? And if we do fail, will Cable as I knew him vanish from the timestream? We don't know the details of his chronal-variant abilities, whether they would allow him to exist outside time.
I sigh. I am old and tired--and a little senile, I am beginning to think. And part of me wants to do nothing else but weep, weep forever for Nathan and Lyela and Tyris.
"Mother?" Sira asks. Her quavering voice irritates me. I rise from my chair and sweep from the room with as much of the old dignity as I can muster.
I wander for a time, aimlessly. The halls are too quiet. Sanctity has attracted too many of my sisters and Guards with her more aggressive philosophies. Sanctity the traitor, my own personal Judas. The Sisterhood is split. Divided, we will fall. It is inevitable. It may be days, or weeks, or even months--may I be so fortunate!--but the end will come. Such a waste.
Later, I find myself on one of the balconies, high above the city. Outside the forceshield, the wind howls, but I am safe and protected. And trapped, like a fly in amber. I long for the days when I could move among the people, before the founding of the Order. Sealing ourselves away was never my plan. But sometimes I am glad. The city is a hideous place, just like the world.
I reach out and touch the thoughts of those waiting in vigil beside the transmat pad. They are anxious, afraid that their 'Chosen One' will not be delivered from time's womb. I could reassure them, but it would be pointless. This will be the end of us, our last victory in the face of night. I take a moment to curse Sanctity again.
Moving on, I sense the sisters working to prepare the cloned bodies to receive Scott and Jean's essences. Unlike the others, they know their days are numbered. They will die in the moment their task is completed, but they are unafraid. I admire their courage. I myself am terrified. I am still so tempted to try and rewrite history, to start anew with a blank slate and hope that things are different this time, for Nathan and the world.
But no, I can't take that chance. This timeline has gone too far. The X-Men, the XSE, the Scions of Genetics, the Xavier Collective, my own Askani--each of us reversed the decline briefly, but through it all, Apocalypse endured. He is what he calls himself, the end of everything. And he must be stopped back in the twentieth century, for any of the subsequent two millenia to be changed. No price is too high to pay--or so I keep telling myself.
I go through the motions, like a ghost, for most of the rest of the day. Attending the rites, even teaching a few of the novice classes--it is a treat for them, and knowing their fate, I haven't the heart to deny them such small pleasures. As I am passing through the halls, headed back to my rooms, the floor seems to tremble, and the lights dim. A power drain of some sort? I reach out again to the transmat pad, and sense the jubilation and fear in the minds of those waiting there.
Then, I hear fretful telepathic crying. The psi-imprint is familiar. "Nathan," I whisper, and despite the circumstances, I cannot help but smile as I turn and hurry towards the chamber that holds the transmat pad. Turning a corner, I nearly collide with Cyak, one of the other synthetics helping Boak with the preparations for Nathan's arrival.
"Mother, there is a--"
"Problem. I know," I say calmly, and let him lead me back down to the transmat chamber.
There, I find Boak and my baby brother. Crying weakly, Nathan is surrounded by an electromagnetic field with its own, very familiar psi-imprint. It is Ship--or the Professor, as Nathan will come to call him. I remember the conversation I had--will have with the Professor when Nathan and I fought on Muir Island. But I don't dare contact him now. I can't risk changing the future. Even when it is my past.
Boak, unaware of my previous knowledge, quickly explains the situation. I barely listen. Already, Ship's shield is collapsing inwards. I watch it happen, and realize with a shock what is going on. Ship's life-force is what has--what will retard the growth of the T-O virus until Nate can do it himself. Oh, the way things work out sometimes! I am not surprised that an artifical intelligence can show such loyalty. I have lived with Boak and the other synthetics for long enough to understand that they are, in many ways, more human than us creatures of flesh and blood.
But Ship's efforts will not become evident for some time, giving me one last chance to choose. I stare down at my brother, feeling empty, numb to the core. But as desperately as my mind searches for alternatives, I can't escape the truth.
The words tasting like ash in my mouth, I order the cloning tanks to be prepared.
"No!" someone cries from behind me. I turn, pushing my hood back. Most of the time, the sight of my scarred face is enough to quell protest. But not with this one, I know, as I see that the objection has come from Throeblood. First Guard, he too reminds me of someone who once stood in his place. But unlike Blaquesmith, Throeblood has no interest in the psionic arts. He is a soldier to the core. "Mother, never have I questioned you--"
Not true, I think wryly. Always he questions me.
"--but we do not clone each other! Eugenics is for En Sabah Nur! If we follow that path, Mother Askani, we are as guilty of forfeiting the value and meaning of life as Apocalypse is!"
Under other circumstances, I would applaud such sentiments. But there is no time. I have a monster to create. Part of me remembers what I saw after Nathan's battle with Omega Red, when I tried to probe his unconscious mind, and I mourn for the millions of people who will die at Stryfe's hands. I don't wish to even think of the Legacy Virus. I am sanctioning the birth of chaos, I know that, but I have no choice. Stryfe is the crucible, the fire in which Nathan will be forged into the only weapon capable of striking at the greater evil of Apocalypse. What was, what is, what will be--
I know, then, what must be done. I mouth words about making Tyris's sacrifice count. Throeblood continues to protest. Growing irritated, I warn him to watch his tone and order Boak to proceed.
"Give night a fighting chance for dawn! Give us all a dayspring, so that tommorow and yesterday will be a better place!"
Boak lifts Nathan gently from the transmat pad, and carries him over to the cloning tanks. My heart breaks as I watch. Please don't hate me for this, Nate. I couldn't bear that.
"Dayspring?" Throeblood murmurs. I close my eyes, holding back tears. Had I planned that, and forgotten? It had slipped out so easily--but then, it is perhaps the truest of his names. Beneath Nathan Summers, the lost child of the X-Men, beneath the hardened warrior Cable, beneath the pawn Sanctity will undoubtedly try to make him, there will always be a bringer of hope.
I wait. Throeblood leaves. He has always been a passionate man, uncompromising in his principles. I admire that in him, although it makes him a difficult man to deal with. I know Sanctity was surprised he chose to stay with me. By nature, he is more inclined towards her path. But he swore an oath, and to him, honor is life.
I send the mental signal to the sisters preparing the cloned bodies to proceed with the second phase of the plan. Scott and Jean must be brought here immediately; we are running out time. There is a Canaanite garrison only miles from the Cloisters, and Apocalypse will react quickly when his telepaths tell him of Nathan's arrival. We have hours left, at best.
"Mother?" Boak asks me, what seems like an eternity later. I realize with a shock that the second cloning tank is occupied, the baby within free of the T-O virus and sleeping peacefully.
"How is the clone?" I ask in an expressionless voice, although I can see for myself. I realize for the first time that Nathan isn't the only one I'm dooming to a life of pain. There is no Stryfe yet, only this innocent, sleeping child. I am the monster, I think.
"Save for a few scars, my lady, the clone is in perfect health."
"And the template?" I asked. "The true child?" I can't bear to look at the other chamber.
"Hard as it may be to believe, Mother Askani, the techno-organic virus has arrested its spreading malignancy!"
I nod, and walk slowly to the chamber to look upon my brother. He, too, is asleep, but it is still agonizing to see how the T-O virus has twisted his tiny body. He will be an outcast in this society shaped by Apocalypse's ideas of genetic perfection. A freak, they will call him. How ironic, considering the power he will one day command. I turn away, unwilling to reach out and touch his mind. He will see my guilt, the blood on my soul--
The walls shudder once more, but I realize this is not an internal problem when I hear alarms begin to shrill. Quickly, I scan throughout the Cloisters, and my heart sinks as I sense a seething mass of fanatical determination. Canaanite dog soldiers, storming the defenses. I turn briefly to the collective consciousness of the Sisterhood. It is going dark, minds vanishing from the collective at a rapidly increasing pace. I order them to flee, to save themselves, but I feel resistance, reluctance. Some obey, but most do not, and I rage impotently at those who remain. Their loyalty will be their death!
There are running footsteps outside in the hall, and Throeblood appears. "My lady!" he shouts. "Canaanite troops are incoming!" In his mind I see the defenses breached, the Guards being swarmed under.
No! Not so soon! "Quickly, Boak!" I rasp, and reaching out with my telekinesis, seal the lock on the clone's chamber. "Throeblood, prepare for an evacuation!"
The floor beneath my feet begins to shake, a low rumbling noise filling the air. "They are here already!" Boak cries, his eerie mechanical voice full of real fear. "But I have only been able to open one chamber!"
I scan to make sure it is Nathan he carries. Forgive me my deceit, old friend, if you can. The floor explodes, and dog soldiers erupt out of the crevices, shouting their battle cries. One of them levels a weapon at me, and I see my chance. This is not my battle--I must reach Scott and Jean before I can surrender to the inevitable. I must give them what help I can.
The soldier fires and I step between the moments, leaving behind a telepathic illusion of my own broken body lying in a pool of blood.
"No!" Throeblood roars, his eyes darkening with grief and a killing rage. He orders Boak to leave, and then heads for the second chamber, fighting his way through the dog soldiers. Stuck in transition, caught outside time, I cry out in despair, plead with him to leave. He has a wife and son in one of the villages, a family who needs him! Don't throw that away, Throeblood! Get out while you can!
But he is First of the Guards, the greatest warrior of the Clan. Their motto is 'No surrender, no retreat'. He fights like the lion he is, but the numbers are too great. I hear myself scream as I see him cut down.
Heartsick, I flee, knowing that Apocalypse is coming to take the clone. It will happen--it has already happened. I feel myself teteering on the verge of madness at the horrible logic of it all. Weeping, laughing, I float through the halls, heading for the chamber where Scott and Jean will soon awaken in their new bodies.
I see devastation everywhere I look. Dog soldiers slaughtering my sisters, my Guards--and me helpless to do anything, my transition back into space-time incomplete. The damage being done to the fabric of the Cloisters worries me almost as much. If the systems are compromised, the attempt to bring Scott and Jean here could fail. Without them, all of this will have been for nothing. I know I am not long for this existence, and with Tyris, Lyela and Throeblood all dead, there is no one else strong enough to protect Nathan.
I reach the chamber as my physical body takes shape again. And just in time--some of the soldiers have cornered Scott and Jean. I know better than to think they are defenseless, even without powers, but I can take no chances.
I kill the one most directly threatening them, and then give the others fair warning. They are stunned to see me alive, I sense. I should have known that my death would be broadcast almost instantly. Foolishly, they attack me, and I use the Phoenix-residue to stop them. I feel no emotion to see their lifeless bodies fall, except a mild regret.
I heard Jean's startlement, and warn her to be silent. But even as I am about to go to them, to lead them to safety, a psionic cocoon ensnares me. I am too exhausted from the timeslide and the slow collapse of the collective consciousness to fight it, and I telepathically tell Scott and Jean to flee, even as I hear a familiar, rumbling voice.
It is Ch'vayre, of course, the greatest of Apocalypse's paladins. Tyris's nemesis; the two fought on several occasions, during skirmishes in the provinces. I wish she were here, or that I had even a fraction of her indomitable will right now. Ch'vayre rants at me. His pride is hurt, it seems, from my deception. I find the breath to speak.
"There are still mutants upon this earth that don't believe having genetic attributes entitle them to--" He backhands me, and I can't hold back a cry of pain. Even twenty-five years ago, I would have had the strength to fight back. But I am old, and weak.
"What you or I believe doesn't matter, traitor!" he hisses, the fury in his eyes terrifying. "All that truly matters is the law of Apocalypse! It has always been a mystery to me why he has put up with the existence of your petty order for as long as he has!" He continues, ranting on in the same vein. I am too racked with pain to answer.
But I hear Jean call out to Ch'vayre, her voice full of a confidence I cannot share. He answers her mockingly.
"You have chosen to enlist your services to a broken religious order, just at the moment when the same religion is being interred in the ground?" he sneers.
"Yes," Jean says staunchly. "Where there's life, there's hope!"
Ch'vayre laughs as she leaps at him, ready to fight. He holds her off easily, and gene-scans her. The fact she scans as human amuses him--and horrifies her. I can feel her shock, that I have brought them here with no means of defending themselves.
He bats her away easily, and I feel Scott's rage. He leaps for a dog soldier's weapon, bantering effortlessly with Ch'vayre. And miraculously, he catches the Paladin off guard, and gets in a lucky shot, dropping him.
I feel myself being lifted, the remains of the cocoon being pulled away. I blink, seeing Jean staring down at me. Amazing, the resemblance of the clone body to her real one. The red of her hair is darker, the eyes blue instead of green, but the shape of the face is the same, and the spirit behind it, I would have recognized anywhere.
"Quickly," I whisper. "We must leave--"
"No!" she cries. "You're in no condition to be moved!" Her expression hardens. "We'll fight if we have to--"
"Shush," I say, as sternly as I can manage, and explain what's happened to them. That they are two thousand years in the future, a journey made with great cost to those who brought it about.
"Two thousand--" she whispers, aghast.
I try to smile. "I'm sorry--I would have asked first, but you being my parents and all, I didn't think you'd mind."
"Is there a way out of here?" she asks urgently. "Before Ch'vayre awakens?"
I nod, and gesture weakly at a nearby portal. Scott hesitates, but as Jean helps me to my feet, I give him a penetrating look. "All of us, Scott. Together."
We step through into the darkness, and fall. Down, through the maintenance tube to the bowels of the Cloisters, almost to ground level. I feel Jean lose her grip on me, but I am too dizzied by the descent to do anything about it.
Light, at the end of the tunnel, and we emerge, splashing down into waist-deep water. Scott lifts me into his arms, and he and Jean struggle towards dry ground. I look up at the blood seeping through the maintenance tube, and feel tears burn my eyes. The collective consciousness is dark, now.
But I can't let myself feel it. There's still too much to be done. Jean, baffled by the blood, asks me if the complex is alive, and I tell her about the massacre. Scott tells me to rest, that the details can wait until later, but I grow annoyed, and struggle free of his grasp.
"There will be no later! Not for me. Not for the rest of the world if you two don't stop interrupting me!" I use the strength given by that flash of anger to show them everything they need to know. A history lesson, of sorts. I tell them of Apocalypse's need for new host bodies, of how I arrived here and the beginning of the dark age that now grips the world. Jean is visibly shaken as I cast a telepathic vision for them, showing them the truth of Apocalypse's 'new order'. I tell them of the beginning of the Clan, and my decision to bring Nathan here. Then I lie, saying my original plan was for him and I to fight Apocalypse together. It is my last indulgence, to keep from them the truth that the creation of Stryfe was deliberate, rather than inadvertent. I don't want to die knowing that my parents hate me. Maybe that makes me weak, I don't know.
Drawing on the last of the Phoenix-force, I restore their powers, warning them that their abilities will be weaker in these bodies. I see them crumple to their knees, and I regret the pain the procedure causes them. But my own strength is draining away, and I know my time is quickly running out.
"Nathan?" Scott whispers, his hands covering his eyes.
I tell them where to find Boak, hoping that he knew enough to go to the safehouse. Jean tries again to let them tend my injuries, but I refuse. "You cannot, dear Jean," I rasp. "If I am to be of any use to you, it will not be on this plane of existence--" I feel very cold, very tired. It is time, then. Using the last bit of my strength, I pull free of my dying body and watch from above as it falls backwards into the water. Jean takes me in her arms, and the grief on her face is enough to touch me, even in this disembodied state.
Scott takes my body from her, and together, half in shock, they make their way to an opening in the walls and freedom. I feel real sympathy for them as they see the city and realize the truth of their situation, that they are a world away from everything and everyone they love. I felt the same, when I first arrived.
But Ch'vayre's voice echoes behind them in the darkness. Sounding terribly pleased with himself, he offers a trade. My body for--dear God. Nathan. Even in astral form, I feel terror. I should have followed Boak, made sure he escaped. But even I cannot be in two places at once.
Be careful! I beg my parents silently, knowing that the world rested on what they do in the next few minutes. For the first time in decades, I actually pray.
Scott and Jean cover their own reactions well. Ch'vayre continues smugly, offering them the child and their freedom in return for me. I feel Scott's rage and determination. He orders Jean to take me and go--foolish of him, I think bleakly. As if she would leave him!
She propels him telekinetically towards Ch'vayre. Skillfully, especially considering that he is still unused to the new body, Scott manuevers himself into the perfect position and blast Ch'vayre with everything he has. Then he advances on the soldier holding Nathan, his expression grim and implacable.
The soldier has no chance, of course. Losing Nathan back in the twentieth century scorched Scott's soul to the core. Nothing, not Apocalypse himself, would be enough to keep him from his son now.
"daa?" Nathan whispers. Scott clasps him to his chest, tears coursing down his face, and I am overcome with relief. Jean reminds him of the situation, and with a flash of the tactical genius that will come to full flower in Cable, Scott tells her to open the drainage pipes telekinetically and flood the chamber.
They are carried away on the tide, miles and miles downriver. I follow them both, Scott carrying Nathan and Jean with my body, until they find each other again, pulling themselves out of the water onto an ice floe.
Soaked, shivering, they assess their options. Jean believes I am in a coma. Perhaps it is better that way. When they find the remnants of the Clan, they will keep my body alive, hoping I will return. That those lungs that were once mine keep breathing, that the heart keeps pumping--that is all that matters, enough to provide me with the tenuous link I need. Not that I'd mind some peace, of course, but my work's not done yet.
"It looks like it's official," Jean said hoarsely. "If we're going to pull this off--raise Nathan, overthrow Apocalypse and liberate all those enslaved in this era, it's up to you and me."
Scott gives an exhausted laugh. "To tell you the truth, Mrs. Summers, if we accomplish even half of that, I'd say we had a fairly productive honeymoon."
They embrace, and Nathan chooses that particular moment to start fussing. I see the tender look on Scott's face as he cradles Nathan in his arms, and for a moment, I can almost forget everything else. Maybe this one act of goodness will balance the scales a little. If nothing else, I have brought my family back together again. Only fair that I shouldn't be there to share in it, after everything I've done, but even observing from a distance is more blessing than I deserve.
I reach towards Nathan. *Hello, little brother,* I say softly, projecting love and reassurance. *Remember me?*
He stops crying. I feel his shy recognition, and his puzzlement. What he sends back to me is in the form of emotions, not words, but it is perfectly understandable. He's glad to see me, but I feel different to him. And he's cold and hungry. I laugh, wishing I could cry.
*Soon, Nate, I promise. There are people waiting for you downriver. They'll help you and Mom and Dad. Just hold on for a little while longer.*
He is grumpy--he wants to eat now--but he trusts me. I don't deserve you, Nate, I really don't. I reach into his mind, very gently, and forge the link that will let me talk to him as he grows, and teach him what only I can.
*Rachel,* I hear a familiar, warm voice say. I turn, and look up into Roma's beautiful face.
*I was wondering when you'd show up,* I say dryly. The Rachel Summers I had been would not have talked back to a divinity--well, the Beyonder doesn't count--but I've been a 'goddess' for some time now, and they're not all they're cracked up to be.
*You haven't learned patience, even after a century in this era?* she asks humorously. I shrug. *Ah, well. You need to come with me for a while, Rachel. If you're determined to exist in this form, there are things you need to learn. Things I must teach you.* I start to protest, but she shakes her head. *Only for a time, Rachel, I swear.* I look down at my family hesitantly, and Roma smiles. *All will be well, trust me. Come along, now.*
She sounds almost maternal. I let her draw me with her, towards a plane of existence I could never have dreamed existed. But even as she opens the gateway, I reach out to Nathan. One last touch, to reassure both him and myself.
*I'll always be here for you, Nathan,* I promise. *Always. Time, death--nothing will ever separate us. I love you, little brother.*
I step into the light.
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