by Alicia McKenzie
Light everywhere, light so bright and painful that it stabbed like knives into his brain when he tried to open his eyes. The dull roaring in his ears slowly resolved into a broken, unsteady rhythm, and beyond it, somewhere in the distance, he thought he could hear the echo of children's voices, laughing. The echoes grew stronger as he focused on them. He realized they were singing, a song that he remembered from his own childhood in the future about a clan that found itself trapped in the desert, far from any way. Desperate, they sent their strongest warrior to fight the sun and save them.
But the sun couldn't be fought, couldn't be defeated. The sun had no pity, no mercy. Laughing at the warrior, it burned him to ash and then killed his clan, one by one.
Maybe it was the sun that was laughing at him now, in that thunder-deep voice. A shadow moved in front of the light, blotting it out as it leaned over him. It, not the light, was the source of the laughter. Cable struggled to focus. Slowly, his vision cleared just enough to let him make out the face above him.
The coldly smiling face of an External who looked far too pleased with himself.
Cable stiffened instinctively, only then realizing that he was lying on some sort of table, so totally immobilized that he couldn't even turned his head. Pain pounded steadily inside his skull, stabbing into his right side with every shallow breath he took. But growing horror blew away the last wisps of the enveloping haze as he realized the restraints weren't the only reason he couldn't move.
He couldn't feel his legs. Or much of anything from the waist down, to be perfectly honest. A strangled moan escaped him, as the memory of where he was and what had happened returned with the force of a tidal wave.
The ring. Apocalypse, coming at him like an unstoppable force of nature, no matter what he did to try and hold him off. Being battered to the sand, over and over. Apocalypse, disarming him almost contemptuously--and then breaking him over his knee like a piece of dry wood.
Lost. He'd lost. A vast hollow feeling suddenly opened up inside him, as if he'd just stepped off the edge of a cliff.
"You are awake," Apocalypse said. It was a statement of fact, not a question, and he sounded oddly pleased. "Do not try to move. Your back is broken."
Cable tried to reach for his powers. Nothing. Had the psi-vamp drained them away again? Oath, what does he want? Why didn't he kill me? Then, Apocalypse's words sunk in, and he shuddered, cold fear mingling with the pain and shock. Bad enough to have lost, but to be crippled, even more helpless than he had been in that ring--
Apocalypse moved away for a moment. "The damage is easily enough repaired. You are, after all, of no use to me if you are unable to walk."
"No--won't be--u-used--" The voice was a broken, pain-racked whisper, so faint, so weak, that it surely had to belong to someone else, not to him.
Apocalypse turned back, holding something in his hand that Cable couldn't see. "There is a point past which pride becomes mere foolishness, Dayspring," he rumbled, removing the restraint that kept Cable's head immobile. "You would do well to learn that now." Cable tried feebly to pull away, but Apocalypse, without a word, turned his head firmly to one side. Cable found himself staring at a wall sheathed in the vaguely alien technology that was the basis for his own.
Something indescribably cold touched the base of his skull, something with claws that bit into his flesh. A tremor ran through him as icy tendrils radiated out from each point of contact. Digging deeper, probing.
Apocalypse replaced the head restraint, and stood there, watching him. Cable fought to keep any expression from showing on his face, but knew he was losing the battle. The cold continued its slow, inexorable advance, and, almost involuntarily, Cable started to pull futilely against the restraints, his breathing growing ragged and his heart racing desperately.
Apocalypse nodded slowly. "Your body remembers," he said.
The comment totally escaped Cable for a moment. Then, realization hit, and despite his resolve to stay in control, to not give Apocalypse the tiniest bit of satisfaction, a half-choked growl of denial broke free from behind his gritted teeth. The virus, he's doing something with the virus-- He continued to struggle, but there was no give in the restraints, none at all, and his telekinesis was totally out of reach.
The tendrils seemed to hesitate for a moment, and then started to move faster, wrapping themselves around his spine and reaching deep into the left side of his body, stimulating techno-organic fibre, reawakening nerve endings long since corrupted by the original T-O incursion. The pain soared, and a strangled sob escaped before he could stop it.
Studying the display that showed the progression of the catalytic agent carrying the new commands to adapt the techno-organic virus, Apocalypse half-turned at the sound of choked pain that came from the table.
He leaned over Dayspring, noting the sheen of sweat, the clenched jaw. "I am altering the techno-organic mesh to compensate for the damage to your spine," he informed him. His only answer was a glare that wavered somewhat after a moment. "It will serve as a junction between the severed nerve fibers. Incidentally, it will also be more efficient."
Dayspring swallowed, seemingly about to say something, but then shuddered, pulling at the restraints again. An instinctive reaction, nothing more, Apocalypse judged. Of far more concern to him was the T-O mesh. Watching it carefully as it began to react to the catalytic agent, Apocalypse nodded to himself slowly, feeling a sense of growing satisfaction.
For him, it had been merely an eyeblink since he had begun his work with the son of Scott Summers. Yet for Dayspring, it had been a lifetime--a stolen lifetime, Apocalypse thought darkly. But it was merely an interruption in his work, nothing more.
He watched the screens as the T-O mesh began to infiltrate the spinal cord, carefully, selectively. There was a need for finesse, here. It was why he had taken so much care with the commands encoded in the catalytic agent. Even so, some adjustments would be required to achieve the desired effect. Moving smoothly from display to display, he kept a close watch on each tendril that snaked into Dayspring's battered flesh.
"Flow control is nominal," he rumbled, mostly to himself. "Forty five percent and rising as per normal curves." A warning chime sounded, drawing his attention to the machinery monitoring Dayspring's vital signs.
Apocalypse noted his rapidly rising heart-rate impassively, and moved back to the table. Ashen, trembling spasmodically in the grip of the restraints, Dayspring stared up at him, a trickle of blood running from where he'd bitten his lip. The hatred in his gaze was an almost palpable thing, and Apocalypse smiled slowly. He had seen that same loathing, that same defiance, from the infant Dayspring had been.
It had amused him then, as well.
The pace of the procedure was very slow, dictated by the sheer complexity of what he was doing. Apocalypse monitored the advance of the T-O mesh, making adjustments as needed. For a quite respectable length of time, Dayspring endured the procedure in absolute silence, his labored breathing the only sound coming from the table. It was nearly an hour before the pain wrung a stifled moan from him, and not until the T-O mesh actually began to rewrite the neural pathways themselves did Dayspring begin to scream.
Apocalypse, continuing to monitor the procedure closely, listened to him scream for some time, relishing the sound. It was a crack, if a small one, in Dayspring's control; one tiny opening through which more effective measures could be brought to bear. Apocalypse had always known that pain alone would never break him. But it was a beginning.
Soon, though, he grew tired of the sound, and adjusted the T-O mesh to disable Dayspring's vocal cords for the time being. Cut off in mid-scream, Dayspring continued to thrash ineffectually in the restraints, his eyes wild, any trace of that stubborn resistance gone. Livid bruises were already appearing on his flesh from his continued struggles with his unyielding bonds, but he was past the point of noticing or caring, Apocalypse knew. Much more of this and he might do himself serious injury. Apocalypse toyed with the idea of sedating him, but rejected it. The procedure was almost complete.
"You will be even stronger," Apocalypse said, staring down into the pain-blinded eyes. "And you will use that strength to serve me--as it was always meant to be."
Yes. Dayspring was no longer an acceptable host for his essence, but there was still a place for him among Apocalypse's servants.
A prominent place.
"You should be pleased, Askani'son," he said with a laugh. "You will be Death, in the end. Only not as you wished."
In the ruins of a town that had the singular misfortune of having been the birthplace of En Sabah Nur, a hunched, vaguely insectoid figure disembarked from his small aircraft and studied his surroundings intently. As alien as his features were, there was no mistaking the worried expression he wore.
As she followed him out of the plane, Irene Merryweather noticed it immediately, but kept any observations to herself. The enigmatic old Askani known as Blaquesmith was not someone she had ever felt particularly comfortable striking up even the most casual of conversations with. Under these circumstances, she felt even more intimidated. It wasn't a sensation she particularly enjoyed.
She shivered as she looked around at the ruined town. It was blazingly hot here, but something about this place just made her feel--cold. "I should have come with him," she said, unable to resist voicing the self-reproachful thought that had been running back and forth through her mind ever since Nathan had failed to check in.
Blaquesmith whirled on her, scowling. "Don't be foolish, girl!" he snapped harshly. "He has taken you into enough situations where your presence was inappropriate. This was a reconaissance mission--what use could you have been to him?"
Irene met Blaquesmith's glare without flinching. His anger wasn't directed at her, and she knew it. "At least he wouldn't have been alone," she said tightly, and felt a touch of regret at the flash of pain in the old man's eyes. As much as he pushed Nathan to do things his way--often bordering on such outright manipulation that she was constantly fighting back the urge to shake some sense into Nathan--somehow, Irene had never doubted that Blaquesmith cared for his student. Maybe more than he himself was willing to admit. She bit her lip. "Can you sense him anywhere?" she asked hesitantly.
Blaquesmith turned and took a long, hard look around, slowly shaking his head. "Nothing," he said, an edge of desperation in his voice. "Nothing at all. Not even a whisper. He was here, however. A fight--there was a fight." The old Askani swore under his breath.
Irene hugged herself, feeling even colder. "Do you think--" Her voice broke, and she couldn't bring herself to finish the question.
"I pray not, Irene," he answered. It wasn't the answer she'd wanted to hear.
Her son was crying. Jean could hear him, somewhere out there in the mist. Lost, afraid. Alone.
"Nate!" she called desperately. "Nate, where are you? Answer me!"
Panic threatened to overwhelm her. Why would he have wandered off like this? He might be only a toddler, but he knew very well that he wasn't supposed to go anywhere without her or Scott. It wasn't safe for a little boy to be out there by himself, all alone. They'd told him that, over and over again--
The crying trailed off, suddenly. "Redd?" a scared little voice called out. Jean squinted, seeing a small figure, barely visible in the mist. "Redd?"
She ran towards him, arms reaching out instinctively, but then screamed as the ground suddenly disappeared beneath her feet. One last, desperate, pleading call of her name reached her before she fell down, and down, plummeting into the darkness--
--and awoke, the echo of her own scream ringing in her ears. Beside her, Scott sat up, blinking groggily, instinctively reaching out to comfort her.
"Jean? Honey, it was just a nightmare," he said sleepily.
Breathing heavily, she stared around at the darkened room. She still wasn't used to being back in the boathouse, especially as spartan as it was now. It didn't feel like home anymore. "A nightmare," she whispered. "One hell of a nightmare--"
Scott started to massage her shoulders lightly. "The usual?" he asked softly. She could sense his concern, protective love reaching out to enfold her like warm arms.
Jean shook her head vehemently. After the Psi-War, she'd had recurring nightmares of being trapped in the dark, blind and deaf, unable to hear her own screams. Even though her powers had returned, she still hadn't been able to shake the dreams.
This, though, had been something entirely different. "It was Nate," she said, still trying to regulate her breathing. Scott stiffened behind her, but she plunged on, unable to stop herself. "He was just little--and lost--" Her voice broke, and she hugged herself, shivering. "Damn it, Scott, where is he?" she said hoarsely.
The last time either of them had seen him had been just after Zero Tolerance, when he'd come to the mansion to check on Scott and tell them he was going to Europe on some unspecified 'mission'. They hadn't heard anything from him since then. Not even after the Psi-War. Their only word of him, the news that he'd been on the SHIELD Helicarrier when it had nearly crashed, had come from a second-hand source whose identity Logan hadn't offered to share.
Scott didn't answer for a moment. She was glad; she didn't want to hear any platitudes at the moment. "I'm worried, too," he finally said, with an honesty that was almost painful to hear. "But it was just a dream, Jean."
She shook her head, even more violently. The sick feeling in the pit of her stomach was only getting worse, not fading like it should be if he was right and this was just a demon from her subconscious rearing its ugly head. "No," she said, scrambling out of bed and pulling on her robe. "It wasn't."
He swore and followed her, but she was already on her way downstairs, where she slipped on shoes and a coat. "Jean, where are you going?" he called, doing the same and trailing after her. "There's nothing you can do right now--"
"Wrong," she said brusquely, throwing open the door. Outside, the night was windy and cold, straggled wisps of clouds streaking across an ominous-looking sky. "Moira went to all the trouble of shipping us a new Cerebro unit, we might as well use it."
A few minutes later, Scott was placing the helmet on her head, muttering something about 'waking up the entire house'. But, even with her telepathy not quite up to snuff, she could still sense his gnawing fear. As she was pulled onto the astral plane, she wondered, dimly, if she should have at least tried to reassure him.
But the urgency of the dream had been unmistakable, and the sense of--rightness she felt, doing something about it, was even stronger. Her avatar took shape, wearing heavy armor. An unconscious reaction, she knew; not just to the dream, but to her own subconscious anxiety at simply being back on the astral plane. She doubted she was the only telepath to feel that way, either. Farouk had a great deal to answer for--
Clearing her mind, she started to scan, glad for Cerebro's help. Before the mind-trap had been sprung, she would have been able to do this sort of plane-wide scan easily, no mechanical assistance required. But now, with her power levels still below normal--and considering the added obstacle of the EMP Magneto had released--she couldn't have done this alone.
#Nathan, where are you?# she thought desperately, searching the turbulent waves of color and sound for some trace of his presence, for the faintest shimmer of that familiar sun-gold light that marked a psi-signature as familiar to her as her own. He had to be here! she thought in anguish as she continued to search and found nothing.
Wait--an echo. Jean latched on to it frantically, letting it draw her towards one particular corner of the astral plane. #Nathan?# she called, tentatively. #Please, Nate, answer me--please--# But as she followed the echo to its source, all she felt were more echoes, emotions so intense they had been imprinted temporarily on the fabric of the astral plane. Startlement--bleak desperation--pain.
And the trail ended here.
"Mark it," she said aloud, in a trembling voice, and took the helmet off before she could burst into tears. Nate--oh, kiddo, what did you get yourself into this time? Blinking rapidly, she looked up at Scott, who was staring at one of the screen, his posture rigid, almost frozen. "It's a trace, just starting to fade, so it's got to be fairly recent. Where does it originate?" she asked hoarsely.
Moving slowly, like a man in a dream, Scott stepped aside and let her see the map displayed on the screen. Jean stared in horror at the tiny red 'X' blinking steadily over a very specific spot in Egypt.
"Akkaba," Scott said numbly.
Apocalypse stared out over the desert, at the rising sun, and laughed. It had been a long, long time since he had welcomed the day with such--exhilaration. He had thought himself centuries past such emotions. But victory was always sweet, and a victory such as this--ambrosia itself.
"It was a good gambit, Essex," he said mockingly, as if his former servant could hear him. "A worthwhile expenditure of your talents--and I shall take advantage of it, yes. Your masterwork, your precious weapon, will serve the one he was meant to destroy." Perhaps he would send that weapon against its maker, eventually. It would be poetic justice, would it not? He laughed again at the thought.
"Lord?" It was the colorless slip of a healer, bowing as he stepped out onto the balcony. "You wanted to be informed when the neural download was complete."
Apocalypse turned, regarding the healer impassively. "His condition?" Attempting this had been a risk, but one he had been willing to take, after weighing the options.
"The subject's vitals are within acceptable levels, and there was a minimum of neural damage from the process," the healer reported, staring fixedly at the floor.
"Acceptable," Apocalypse said, and strode past the healer, dismissing him from his mind as he returned to the main laboratory.
The techno-organic creche in which he had placed Dayspring several hours before was still closed. Apocalypse waved a hand over it, and the material of the creche reacted automatically, irising open with a wet, slurping noise.
Inside, Dayspring lay half-submerged in the thick, neuro-conductive gel. His eyes were wide open, glazed and vacant, staring at nothing. The muscles in his face were slack one moment, spasming faintly the next. Blood trickled sluggishly from his nose, and Apocalypse frowned, glancing back at the healer, who had followed him into the laboratory.
"A minimum of neural damage, you said."
"Yes, my lord," the healer said, betraying an emotion--faint nervousness--for the first time. "But it may work to your advantage. Any telepath, even a damaged one, is capable of resisting--alteration. This will undoubtedly cut down on his ability to mount such resistance."
"So long as that is all it diminishes," Apocalypse growled. The fine strands of the neural probe, snaking through the gel from where they were connected to the implant at the base of Dayspring's skull, were still glowing with faint traces of residual energy. He half-lifted Dayspring from the creche and removed the probe. The bloodied ends waved frantically in the air for a moment, and then stilled. The healer stepped forward wordlessly to take the probe, and Apocalypse laid Dayspring back into the creche. "Have him cleaned up, taken back to his cell," he ordered.
"Yes, my lord," the healer said quietly. Without another word, Apocalypse went over and sat down in front of the computers where the neural download, the sum total of all of Dayspring's memories, had been stored.
"The sum of his parts," Apocalypse murmured. It would be--educational, to see the results of altering the equation.
Carefully, delicately, with the skill of a master artisan, he began to edit the memories. When the new memories were complete, he would upload them, rewriting Dayspring's mind. Love, loyalty, friendship--he would remove the sources of strength to which his prisoner clung.
Bereft of that support, even the strongest will could be broken.
"Do we put him back in the restraints?" The voice was distant, but vaguely familiar.
"No." That voice he knew, too. "He is in no condition to attempt an escape. There is no need."
The other voice snorted. "Getting soft, healer. The Master wouldn't like that."
Slowly, Cable realized he was being half-dragged, half-carried between two people. He tried to lift his head, but failed. It was like his whole body was beyond his control at the moment, as if it belonged to someone else. Oh, he could feel it, could register the pain of his broken ribs and bruises and the new, agonizingly intense sensations in his legs and left side, but he couldn't move, not so much as a finger.
Still, the panic provoked by not being able to move couldn't quite banish the hollow, aching sense of relief he felt. Over--it's over-- he thought weakly. But inside, part of him was still screaming soundlessly, fighting to get out of that obscene--pod Apocalypse had put him in. He shuddered inwardly, trying feverishly to push away the thought of cold, callous hands reaching into his mind, ripping brutally into memory after memory, no matter how he tried to resist.
The people carrying him stopped, lowering him to the floor with a surprising amount of care. They could have dropped him like a sack of potatoes, and he would have been helpless to even try and break his fall. He laid there, breathing, fighting to focus on the here and now, not the unspeakable hours in the pod, unable to even scream as his mind was violated. It's over, it's over-- he repeated to himself feebly. Let it go-- But he couldn't.
There was some more quiet conversation, the voices too low to hear, and then the sound of a door closing. Then silence. He wondered if he was back in his cell, or somewhere else. Not that it mattered.
Nothing mattered, anymore.
One involuntary tear escaped, sliding down his face. More followed, as the black despair he'd barely managed to keep under wraps until now finally wormed free of his control. Alone in the dark, he wept quietly, hopelessly, unable to find it in himself to care whether anyone was listening.
Pride could only take you so far.
to be continued
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