by Alicia McKenzie
"Can he survive the procedure, healer?" Apocalypse rumbled irritably, staring down at the still form on the table in front of him. Annoyance was not an emotion to which he was accustomed. Dayspring had been in his hands for a mere two days, and already he had experienced it more frequently than he had in the last several centuries combined.
You are not escaping so easily, Askani'son, he thought, half-angrily, watching critically as the T-O mesh rippled, settling into the new pattern the latest injection of catalytic agent had been designed to produce. He felt almost--disappointed, as well as nearly enraged that Dayspring had almost managed to slip away. If the boy dies, Essex shall answer to me for his flawed craftsmanship--
"I couldn't say, my lord," the healer said nervously, not meeting his eyes. Apocalypse fought the urge to squash him like the insect he was. Later, perhaps. "The T-O mesh may be stabilizing, but his body temperature is dangerously high--"
"Then stabilize him," Apocalypse growled. "Promptly." The monitoring systems in the fortress had picked up the psionic disruption, even through the heavy shielding that had saved his servants from the effects of the shockwave. Every telepath on the planet had to have felt it; powerful telepaths, like Xavier and Jean Grey, could have used it to pinpoint Dayspring's location. It mattered not, in the end. The defenses of the fortress alone could hold off any attack. But he did not intend to brook any interruptions in his work--not this time.
She couldn't get in.
The admission made Madelyne want to weep--or incinerate the two Dark Riders who passed by her on some sort of patrol, both so pitifully mindblind that she could have put far less effort into remaining outside their perceptions and still have had nothing to fear. Ignoring the lingering static on the astral plane, the aftereffects of that colossal shockwave, she put all her strength into scanning the fortress, seeking some break in the psi-shielding.
Nothing. Nothing. How was she supposed to help him when she couldn't get inside? There had to be something, some way--one tiny crack in the psi-shielding would be enough for her to slip through. She just had to find it, that was all--
You're deluding herself, a voice that sounded very much like her own said caustically. Even if you get in there, what can you hope to accomplish?
She shuddered, leaning against the wall of the fortress, fighting back tears of frustration that insisted upon manifesting themselves, no matter what she did. Nathan--please hold on. Her memory presented her with the image of a bright-eyed, laughing infant, and she bit back a howl of anguish, sinking to her knees on the sand.
There had to be a way. HAD to.
Have to stay calm--think this through-- It would be so much easier to do that if this wasn't her son's life in question. Her son. HER son. A desolate sob burst from her before she could stifle it. At the moment, she would have welcomed help from Sinister. Or even Jean Grey.
It would be so much easier to look at this rationally if she didn't, in spite of herself and however little she liked admitting it, love him so much.
The stolen Acolyte plane shuddered around them, and Sam Guthrie winced. Ah sure as heck hope this thing gets us t'Egypt. He'd rather be in the Blackbird--or at least the PACRAT. To be honest, he'd rather have flown to Akkaba himself, even though he knew he probably would have exhausted himself halfway across the Atlantic. Sitting here, just WAITING--it was rubbing his nerves raw. He wanted to be there, to be doing SOMETHING--
His eyes strayed to Domino, sitting huddled on one of the passenger benches. Logan was talking to her, his growled words too soft for Sam to hear, but he didn't look like he was making much progress. The rest of the X-Men in the plane were avoiding looking at her, clearly uneasy at her forlorn demeanor, the red-rimmed eyes and hunched shoulders. No one wanted to broach the subject, to talk about what they might find--or not find--in Akkaba. Sam half-wished he'd gone with X-Force instead and taken her with him, but the prototype plane 'Berto had managed to scare up from his company wasn't quite as fast as the Blackbird. And, as miserable as she was, Domino was still pretty determined to get to Akkaba as quickly as possibly.
Sam rose, ignoring the looks he got from everyone else as he moved over to stand in front of Domino. "Logan, sir, mind if ah switch places with you?" he asked in a soft voice.
Logan gave him an approving look, and then undid his own harness, standing up. "Sure thing, kid," he said gruffly, and then half-turned, squeezing Domino's shoulder tightly. "You hang on, darlin'."
She nodded, almost apathetically, and then gave Sam something refreshingly close to a stern look. "If you've got a pep talk in mind, save it," she said in a hoarse voice, rubbing at her eyes. "I don't want to hear it."
"Ah wouldn't presume, ma'am," he said softly. "How're you doin'?"
Domino laughed. It was a wild, almost hysterical sound, and several of the X-Men eyed her warily. "How am I DOING, Guthrie? How do you think?" She noticed the looks she was getting, and bit back whatever else she'd been about to say. A bitter smile twisted her lips. "I'm making a scene, apparently," she said in a much quieter voice.
He reached out, took her hand. "Ah don't think anyone blames you," he whispered. Her hand felt cold and frail in his, and he felt her trembling slightly. "Not with everything that's happened." A tear leaked down her cheek, and Sam sighed helplessly, not knowing what else to say, how to comfort her. Whether there was any comfort to be had, at the moment--now, that was the question.
"Sugar." That was Rogue, leaning forward from her seat, her green eyes intent on Domino. "We'll find him," she said in a quiet, intense voice, and then gave the rest of her teammates an angry look. "Time we all stopped thinkin' about the worst case scenario here, ah think."
"Oui," Gambit said easily. "We should think positive, non? Dat homme, he be too stubborn t'give up. We should act de same."
"You didn't see," Domino whispered in anguish. Sam was near to tears himself. In her own way, Domino's self-control was as much a part of her personality as Cable's was of his. To see her so vulnerable, so hurting, and apparently not caring what anyone else thought to see her this way--it wasn't right. "You didn't see what he saw--how he felt--"
Sam wished that the Professor and Jean weren't both up front in the cockpit. "What did you see, ma'am?" he asked painfully, not knowing whether or not he should ask. Part of him didn't want to--but another part had to know. Was desperate to know.
"Fear--" she whispered, her face chalk-white and her eyes glazed. Sam realized that everyone in the cabin was listening, watching with a sort of avid horror. "His fear. Failure--failing you, Sam, and the rest of X-Force--and Tyler--seeing you all dead. Hating himself. And--" Tears were flowing freely down her face now. "He saw me. I told him it was going to be all right, told him to trust me, and then--stabbed him."
There were more than a few indrawn breaths. "Goddess," Storm whispered softly, her blue eyes full of sympathy as they lingered on Domino. "But it was not you, Domino. If Apocalypse truly left him out in the desert for that long, he must have been feverish, hallucinating. I cannot even imagine what it was like to see that through his eyes, but you must remember that--"
"I know it wasn't real." Domino said in an anguished voice, looking up from the floor, meeting Storm's eyes, her expression almost desperate. "But damn it, Ororo--hallucination or not, it had a cause!"
"Domino, ma'am--" Sam said awkwardly.
"I LEFT him," Domino almost moaned. "I walked out on him when he needed me, just because I--" She bit off what she'd been about to say, her expression going cold, blank. Her moment of openness was clearly at an end. The plane's cabin returned to its earlier, awkward silence. After a moment, Sam slid an arm tentatively around Domino's shoulders. She stiffened briefly, but then relaxed against him.
"It'll be all right, ma'am," he whispered, trying to hold back sudden tears. She didn't answer, the tears still pouring soundlessly down her cheeks. "It'll--" His voice broke, and he fell silent, unable to bring himself to say it.
There was faith, and there was the realism experience taught. The voice that said Cable would be okay, because he had to be, because Sam wasn't ready to lose the only father he had left, not yet--and the voice that calmly recited odds, measured probabilities, and told him to prepare for the worst.
He wanted to listen to the first voice.
He wanted to ignore the other.
The sun was setting, out over the water, and clouds were rolling in from the east. Thick, dark, ominous-looking clouds, carried on a chill wind that made Cable shiver where he sat on the sand. He drew his knees up to his chest, staring out at the ocean, trying to ignore the hollow sensation inside him, the feeling of dread that wouldn't go away.
"It's getting cold," he whispered.
"I know," his companion said gently. Cable turned his head towards him, and his son gave him a faint, sad smile. "Almost time to go, Father," Tyler said softly.
"I--" Cable turned back towards the blood-red sunset, his mind clinging to the light almost desperately. "I don't want to leave."
"I wish you could stay."
"But I can't," he whispered. It wasn't a question. He sensed, rather than saw Tyler nod. "Why?"
"It's too late to turn back." A hand fell on his shoulder, squeezed gently. "And the path's narrowed, Father. You can try to turn aside, and fall off. Or you can walk it to its end."
His mind was blank, empty, a vessel waiting to be filled. He didn't remember how he'd gotten here, or what he was about to return to. He only knew he feared it.
"What's at the end?"
The sun was falling below the horizon. Off the edge of the world, again.
A soft, rueful laugh from his son. "You know as well as I do that there's no such thing as an ending, Father."
The light was dying.
"I know. But you can't give up, Father. You have to fight."
A flash of pain, the shadowy echo of a vast, endless despair. Cable closed his eyes, trembling. "I've--lost already." He didn't remember to whom, or what kind of a battle it had been--but he knew the feel of defeat, and this was it.
"He can't take everything, Father. He can't take your soul, not unless you give it to him."
"I--can't fight anymore."
"Then survive. Just survive. Life is all that matters, in the end." The hand on his shoulder tightened. "Where there's life, there's hope."
"Hope--" The word nearly choked him. There was no hope. Hope had gone somewhere else, some faraway place, abandoning him.
No hope. No escape. No second chance.
He couldn't feel the sand beneath him, couldn't feel Tyler's hand on his shoulder anymore. The light was different, a brighter, harsher white light that he closed his eyes against, blinded by it. Pain returned in waves, crashing through him, growing in intensity. He opened his mouth to call out to Tyler, to beg him not to leave, but nothing came out, not a sound.
Voices, buzzing around him dimly. One deeper than the rest, that made him shudder. He didn't know where he was. Didn't know who he was, not really. Everything was cloudy, blurred in his mind. Even that somber face, sad blue eyes half-obscured by golden hair, faded, replaced by a strange, drifting apathy. It didn't matter. No one important.
He was being moved, lowered into something cold and wet. It soothed away some of the pain, and he let himself remain limp, unresisting. Something closed over him, blocked out the light.
Darkness. Only the sound of his own shallow breathing, for a time. Then, a soft hum, little more than a vibration. The dull pain in his head peaked sharply, and his mouth opened in a soundless, silent scream as images appeared in the dark, burning themselves into his mind. Angry voices and eyes full of contempt and faces turning away from him. Leaving. Leaving him alone.
--only what you deserve. Such a
Can't stand the sight of you--
--digust me. Goodbye and good riddance--
--your fault, all your fault. I wish I'd never met you--
Alone. Abandoned, dismissed, forgotten, loathed.
Alone. No voice to cry out with, not a tear left to shed. He laid there in silence, his body shuddering weakly as the images continued, unwinding in his mind. Memories rushing in to fill the void, yet somehow only managing to make him feel colder, more empty.
So much easier to let go. To drift away into the darkness, beyond the pain and the desolation.
So he did.
Scott stared down at the land rushing past beneath them, barely registering what he was seeing. His hands moved automatically on the controls of the plane, adjusting altitude and speed, but his thoughts weren't on what he was doing, however calmly and competently he was carrying it out. His heart wasn't in it, one might say.
It was too busy breaking inside him.
Jean and the Professor were silently, busy scanning. Leaving him alone with his thoughts, to wrestle with the anguish and fear on his own.
He wouldn't have had it any other way. At the moment, he couldn't have coped with understanding, or sympathy, or reassurance. Comfort couldn't exist, here and now. He wouldn't have wanted it anyway. He needed that ravening darkness inside him. Needed the pain and fear as a goad, the anger as strength. Logic, strategy--none of it mattered.
Apocalypse had his son. Apocalypse was going to give him back. There was no other option--that was the way it would be.
Nate-- Scott closed his eyes for a moment, jaw clenching spasmodically.
Thought I'd--stop by, see how you were. Nathan's deep voice had been so hesitant as he'd knelt down beside Scott's bed. Very unlike him. Scott remembered trying to supress a smile.
I'm glad you did. Remembered words, in a voice weakened by pain and fatigue. That conversation, Nathan's surprise nightime visit to the mansion just before he'd vanished--it had been only a day, or maybe two, after the end of Zero Tolerance and his brush with death courtesy of Bastion's nano-bomb. Most of that time was a blur, but that night stood out with crystal clarity in his memory. I've been worried.
Nathan's smile had been faint, almost reluctant. The only think you need to worry about is getting better. Everything else will take care of itself.
Not--turning into an optimist on me, are you?
Perish the thought. Nathan's face had been utterly straight, but the look in his eyes had been almost hungry, as if he was trying to devour the very sight of Scott. Hungry eyes, blazing with an overpowering relief that even that monumental self-control hadn't quite managed to hide. I--I'm glad you're-- A faint flush.
Alive? Scott had asked, almost teasingly. Likewise.
Again, that tentative smile. I'm not very good at this, he had admitted in a hushed, strangely wistful voice. About telling people that I--how I--
Not good at telling people that he loved them, of course. That's what he'd meant to say. What he might have eventually fumbled through, if Jean hadn't taken pity on him and changed the subject.
Scott took a deep, shuddering breath. Like father, like son. He'd told Nathan to take care as he'd left that night. That had been all. Just 'take care'. Nothing of all the things he'd thought of when he'd thought he was dying, the things he'd never imagined he'd get the chance to say.
Just 'take care'. Those wouldn't be the last words he said to his son.
He wouldn't let them be.
"My lord?" the healer ventured.
Apocalypse ignored him. There were some moments that should be savored. This, regarding his handiwork, was one of them.
The neural upload completed, his physical condition stabilized, Dayspring had been moved to a stasis tube for transport. His vital signs had slowed almost to nothing, but he seemed merely asleep. The tattered remains of his uniform had been replaced by a black skinsuit, cut around the armor-like techno-organic extrusions. Even in peaceful repose--Apocalypse almost laughed at his own choice of words--he was an impressive sight.
He would be formidable indeed. Properly trained, taught to see the world as it was in truth rather than waste his time with dreams that could never be, Dayspring would be a worthy servant. A disciple, even. And above all, more than anything else, a weapon of unmatched power.
Time to shape what he had wrought--but not here. Elsewhere, where he could complete his work in peace. How did the phrase go? To take one's time?
"My lord." It was the current leader of his Dark Riders, the one who called himself Longrifle. Apocalypse turned, regarding the mutant in anticipation. Longrifle bowed. "The recording has been prepared and coded to the bio-signatures you ordered."
"Very good. The teleportation systems are on line?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Excellent." Apocalypse laid a hand on the stasis tube. Soon, he promised the still form within, before turning away. "Have the stasis tube taken through to the other base immediately," he said brusquely. "Ensure it arrives intact." He didn't bother to inform Longrifle what the consquences would be, otherwise. The Dark Rider nodded jerkily, bowing again, and Apocalypse almost smiled. The man was intelligent enough to recognize a rival when he was faced with one. "I have a few last--details to arrange."
Details, he thought as the stasis tube was taken from the room. The recording wasn't enough. He needed something else--something to tell the 'rescue party' on its way that this attempt and any other they might make would be futile. Something to demonstrate to them, explicitly, that Dayspring was his, body and soul.
He thought of his 'trophies', in the central chamber of the fortress, and smiled coldly. Yes. One of them would do perfectly.
Charles Xavier wasn't sure what he had expected to find, once they reached Akkaba. Certainly, part of him had been prepared for the possibility of a confrontation. The logic was really quite simple. Either Apocalypse had abandoned Cable to die in the desert--which seemed unlikely, as they had found no trace that Cable had even been here, much less his body, in their sweep of the surrounding area--or the External had intervened. And if he had, he undoubtedly had other plans for his prisoner--plans which made it equally as unlikely that he would have returned Cable quietly.
A confrontation. Resistance. SOMETHING--but not this. Not an apparently empty fortress, the frustration and baffled anger of the advance team, made up of X-Force and half of the X-Men, so strong in his mind that he could almost taste it.
Had he misjudged? Could Cable be--no. He wasn't ready to draw any conclusions, not yet. Beginning to scan, pushing through the static on the astral plane and the haze of interference that surrounded the fortress--*the residue of some kind of psi-shielding,* he recognized immediately--he searched the area for any trace of life. Anything, anyone that might be able to tell them what had happened here.
He did not expect to sense a powerful, oddly familiar mind open up to him, darkened with grief yet still blazing in his telepathic 'sight'.
#Madelyne?# he asked, shocked.
For a long moment, she didn't respond. Then, finally, she offered an image--some sort of laboratory, near the center of the fortress. He reached out to her again, but she slammed up her shields without another 'word'. Formidable defenses, he noted. It would take considerable work to penetrate them, had he been so inclined--which he wasn't. In the end, she had to be here for the same reason they were, and they couldn't afford to let differences get in the way, not when the situation was as desperate as this.
Withdrawing, he gave quiet telepathic orders to the advance teams, and then turned to Storm where she stood beside him. "Madelyne is in there," he said softly. An indrawn breath was her only reply. Rogue muttered a curse, and Charles sensed a ripple of uneasiness go through the other X-Men who waited here with him, held in reserve for a confrontation that was apparently not going to take place.
"And Nathan?" Storm finally asked.
"I--believe we may be too late," he said. Hoping, praying, that he was wrong. "We should join the others."
Logan stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of the red-haired woman standing in the center of the laboratory beside the flat table, running a hand over the restraints attached to it as if tracing their outline. For a second, his brain seemed to stall, as if unable to cope with what his eyes were telling him.
Astral ghost or not, it sure SMELLED like Maddie.
He threw out a hand to stop Siryn as she started to move past him. Sean's daughter gave him a quick look, but held back obediently, which was a relief. Domino and Sam with with Scott, Jean, and the other half of the advance team, who'd entered the forest from the other side. He didn't know why Chuck had split the teams like this, sending him, Kurt, and Kitty off with the rest of X-Force, but he hadn't bothered wasting time with arguments, either. "Hold on a sec, Terry," he growled softly, not sure how they should be playing this. Chuck had told them Madelyne was waiting for them, but he hadn't mentioned anything about what kind of mood she was in.
Kitty moved up to stand beside him, her eyes wide and riveted on Madelyne. "I don't believe it," she whispered. Logan could sympathize. They'd all known, but it hadn't seemed quite real, not until now. Kitty took a deep breath, squaring her shoulders, and stepped forward. "Maddie?" she called softly.
"Kitty." Madelyne's voice was soft, hoarse. She turned to face them and Logan saw the tears on her face, giving the lie to the cold, neutral expression she wore. Madelyne gave Kitty a long, measuring look. "You've grown up," she said, in the same tone she might have used to comment on the weather.
"Maddie--" Kitty hesitated for a moment. "What happened? How did you--I mean, I can figure out how you knew, but--"
"I know what you mean," Madelyne said, her eyes finally moving to the others. "Kurt, Logan," she acknowledged before her gaze fixed on X-Force. A strange combination of emotions raced across her face--anger, sympathy, sadness.
"Madelyne," Logan growled. "When'd you get here?"
"About five minutes too late," she retorted bitterly. "Apocalypse brought him back inside, and I couldn't get in past the psi-shielding. I tried--" For a moment, the green eyes welled with tears again, and Kitty took an almost involuntary step forward, hand outstretched. Madelyne raised a hand to forestall her. Her other was closed around something--Logan couldn't make out what, from here. "I don't particularly want your sympathy," she grated.
"But you saw him?" DaCosta demanded. "He was alive?"
"Oh, way to be blunt, you jackass!" Tabitha snapped. Logan gave them both a warning look. Now wasn't the time for infighting. He could understand the kids were stressed--they all were--but they needed to keep cool heads here.
Madelyne either didn't hear or didn't care. "He was alive," she said curtly. "Not much more than that, though." She half-turned, back towards the table. "Apocalypse brought him back here," she whispered. "I can feel it."
"Fan out," Logan growled at X-Force. "Give the place a once-over." Cautiously, very cautious, Kurt and Kitty following him, he went over to Maddie. "You're right," he said gruffly. "His scent's all over the place." Different, though, Logan thought, suddenly troubled. More of that metallic edge to it. He stared at Maddie's clenched, white-knuckled fist.
Kurt noticed, too. "Madelyne?" he asked hesitantly. "You found something?"
She blinked, and then uncurled her hand, laying what she held down on the table. Logan nearly cursed. Beside him, Kitty gasped softly.
Cable's Phoenix-medallion. Still on its chain, but barely recognizable, as if it had been crushed by some giant hand.
"Shit," Logan whispered.
"A message, I guess," Kitty whispered, reaching out and picking it up. Her eyes were wide, horrified. "We are too late, then."
"Forged anew, he said." Madelyne's voice was quiet, level, but what he heard beneath the surface almost made Logan take a step backwards.
"Who said?" Terry asked, her face pale as she came over to join them.
"Apocalypse. To Nathan." Those green eyes met his, so intense, so much power behind them--so like Jean, and yet so different. Logan felt like a deer caught in the headlights of a truck. "I don't think it takes a great deal to figure out what that means, do you?"
He only wished it did. Before he could say anything in response, the rest of the 'cavalry' came thundering in. Madelyne whirled, her eyes blazing as she caught sight of Jean. Who, incidentally, looked almost as 'pleased' to see her.
Part of Logan contemplated hitting the deck, right then and there. Another, much more stupid part of him took over and was idiotic enough to open his mouth. "Don't you two start," he growled. "Got bigger problems at the moment."
Jean's eyes flickered to him for a moment, and then back to Madelyne. "He's right," she said quietly. She surveyed the room, looking almost sick. "My God. What is all this?"
"What does it look like, you stupid cow?" Madelyne spat.
"Madelyne--" Scott started, almost imploringly, and, amazingly enough, Madelyne bit back the rest of whatever she'd been about to say.
"Apocalypse must have teleported right out of the fortress itself," she said in a too-level voice. "I would have seen them if they'd left, but there was nothing. All of a sudden, the psi-shields were down, and the place was empty." Logan saw Scott swallow, as if past a lump in his throat. Something odd flickered in Madelyne's eyes, as if she saw it too. "He was alive," she said, more harshly. "And Apocalypse didn't want him dead."
Scott suddenly stiffened. "What are you saying?" he asked unsteadily.
"Take a look at this stuff, Cyke," Logan growled painfully, gesturing around at the laboratory. "Like something out of flamin' Shelley. Who knows what he's done to Cable already?" Domino, standing a little behind Scott and Jean, actually swayed, and Sam reached out hurriedly to support her.
"Damn it," Warren whispered, his wings ruffling in agitation as he stepped forward, gazing around the room in loathing, His blue skin had taken on a decidedly grey tone. "This wasn't supposed to happen. We were supposed to get here in time--"
"Well, that's very productive, Worthington, thank you very much," Madelyne snapped.
"Maddie," Kitty said softly, reaching out and laying a hand on her shoulder. Madelyne started to pull away, but Kitty didn't back away. "Maddie, we all want the same thing here."
"Ja," Kurt said earnestly. Madelyne's glare wavered for a moment. "We should not argue, Madelyne. The Schweinhund does not have teleportational powers of his own, correct? So there may be a trace--a trail to follow, if we know where to look."
"Not likely," Domino suddenly said, straightening, donning a professional mask that was about a hair's-breadth thick, by the look of it. "You really think he would have left coordinates for us to follow, Wagner?"
"He did leave something behind," Madelyne muttered, glancing at Kitty, who winced, and then headed over to Scott and Jean, the medallion dangling from her hand. Domino gave a sharp gasp and intercepted her. Kitty hesitated for a moment, and then handed it over.
"That son of a bitch," Domino grated, and Logan saw anger in those violet eyes, pushing aside the shock. "He's throwing it in our faces."
"Are you surprised?" Warren asked painfully. "He's been after Cable since he was a baby, and now he's finally got him. Hell, he's probably savoring this--"
"Merde," Gambit suddenly muttered, staring at a strange, pod-like object surrounded by a half-circle of screens and techno-organic-looking computers. The Cajun was as white as a ghost. "I've seen dis sort of t'ing before," he almost breathed.
"What?" Warren suddenly snapped. "Where?"
"Sinister," Gambit said, his red-on-black eyes going distant, sick. "Dis is--neural scanning equipment. T'download memories and change dem--upload new ones."
"Oh, fuck," Proudstar whispered, appalled. "You sure, Gambit?"
"Is de sun going t'rise tomorrow?" Gambit snapped back almost bitterly. "I never t'ought I'd see dis sort of thing again."
Uploading new memories. Rewriting the mind. Logan cursed under his breath, a strange, twisting pain in his chest, half-pity, half-fury. The silence dragged on awkwardly for a moment longer, no one willing to break it.
"There ya'll are," Rogue's voice called, jarring them all out of their horror. Flying into the lab, carrying the Professor, she was followed by Storm and the rest of the 'reserve'. Rogue landed, blinking at Maddie. "Well--um, hi, sugar--" Her expression would have been downright funny, under better circumstances.
"Oh, save it!" Madelyne snapped feverishly, and glared at Xavier, starting to say something. None of them would ever know what it was. As soon as Rogue took a few more steps forward, something high above, the shadows of the ceiling, started to hum, and projected a huge, familiar shape down into the room. Tabitha, who'd been standing right where the projection hit, yelped and backed away, a time-bomb already forming, but DaCosta reached out and grabbed her arm.
"It's just a hologram," the kid said unsteadily.
A hologram of Apocalypse, who clearly hadn't even STARTED to throw this in their faces yet. Logan gritted his teeth, trying to ignore the red creeping in at the edges of his vision as the hologram wavered and then steadied.
Cued to bio-signs, Logan thought. Had to be--but whose? It hadn't come on until Chuck had appeared.
The hologram shimmered slightly, dust-motes scintillating through the holomatrix's sheen. "Xavier," Apocalypse rumbled, his voice like an avalanche rolling inexorably down from a mountaintop. The hologram smiled, an expression that made several of the faces around Logan visibly pale. "Summers. Your best hope for your deluded dream has fallen to reality. My reality."
The Professor's expression was as calm as Logan had ever seen it. No reaction, no emotion. Scott, on the other hand, looked like someone had just torn his heart out of his chest and left him to bleed to death.
"Dayspring has learned, at last, what you and your foolish children have denied for so long. He has seen that your path is doomed, Xavier. Your way is for cowards and weaklings. Every day, thousands of your people are murdered, and while you wail and beat your breast about it, I encourage it. Why?
"Because it weeds out the weak. The unfit, the unworthy. Those who would falter in the struggle to come, who are unable to take up the burden of the future. You protect the weak. I will guide the strong--and I will cut away the dead wood." The thunderous tone had taken on a gloating note that set Logan's teeth on edge. "And you have given me the perfect weapon to do so. You, and Essex, and the Askani--you thought to use him to destroy me.
"But I have broken him."
The hologram changed, grew, until it showed a view of the desert outside, a circle in the sand underneath a blazing sun. Dark Riders stood at the edge of the circle, watching the two figures within its boundaries. Apocalypse--
And Cable. Logan stared at the image, seeing the relaxed readiness evident in his posture, warring with the way he held that oversized spear of his, like a kid clinging to a security blanket. His expression was blank, neutral, but the hologram was so perfectly detailed that Logan could see the look in his eyes, the battle going on beneath the surface.
Then his eyes cleared, and he fell into a defensive position.
Logan knew, as soon as he saw the way Apocalypse rushed him, how this had ended. Cable was knocked to the sand in seconds, but struggled back to his feet, guarding his right side, his face ashen with pain. There was no sound to this part of the hologram, but Logan could almost hear it anyway. Every blow, every labored breath and gasp of pain.
He watched Apocalypse hammer Cable to the sand, over and over again. Cable fought, desperately, brilliantly, stubbornly refusing to stay down. His psimitar whirled and flashed, spitting golden fire. He moved faster, more gracefully than Logan had ever seen him fight before. But every blow he landed was ineffective, any damage he did healing almost instantly.
It was enough to break your heart.
Even when Cable managed somehow to disappear, reappearing almost instantly and nearly crushing Apocalypse's throat telekinetically, the External was fazed only momentarily. He repaired the damage and struck back, seemingly faster, more dangerous--the expression on that massive face almost irritated.
From there, it went downhill. Apocalypse chased Cable around the ring, landing blow after blow. The elegant patterns of Cable's psimitar grew ragged, weak, that deadly, whirling dance slowing into stumbling, staggering retreat. Logan saw bleak realization dawn on Cable's face, the knowledge that he was about to lose this--
Then that left eye blazed, furious rage replacing exhaustion. Impossibly, forcing his battered body to turn, Cable brought his blazing psimitar down onto Apocalypse's arm in one powerful, vicious blow. A last, desperate attempt to turn the tide.
Apocalypse stumbled, his mouth opening in a soundless howl of pain. But then the External was turning, too, so fast, so terribly fast. In a blink of an eye, Cable's psimitar was flying out of the ring, to land at the feet of a Dark Rider.
Logan would never forget the look on Cable's face as Apocalypse advanced on him, not for the rest of his life. He watched that fierce, stubborn spirit he had always admired, almost despite himself, waver and flicker. Fading, dying, crumbling inexorably into ash as the full scope of the battle he'd just lost crashed in on him.
Then, Apocalypse was moving. Brutally, almost contemptuously, he battered him to the sand again, getting in one last, vicious kick. He reached down and lifted Cable without visible effort into the air, roaring silent words out to the desert sky--and then breaking Cable across his knee.
Apocalypse dropped him and Cable fell to the sand limply. His head sagged to the side, bewilderment, blank shock in his eyes for a heartbeat before they fluttered closed and he laid there at Apocalypse's feet. Motionless. Beaten.
The hologram contracted into Apocalypse's form again. The hologram stood there, waiting, its expression almost ironic. It was as if a spell had been broken. Logan was suddenly aware of the lab around him again. He realized he was breathing heavily, as if he'd just run a race--that his heart was pounding, and his claws were out. And that the deep, soft growling sound, the only sound in the silence, was coming from him.
He became aware of the others around him once more. No one said anything. Not a word. X-Force, his fellow X-Men, all were silent. Half of them looked like they wanted to scream. The rest looked like they wanted to find a corner to throw up in.
He forced himself to look at the faces he really didn't want to see. Madelyne and Jean were even more like twins at the moment, their numb expressions absolutely identical. Charles was still wearing that cool look, but the color was gone from his face, vanished utterly.
Domino was swaying on her feet, her breathing coming almost as fast as Logan's, her violet eyes uncomprehending, as if she couldn't process what she'd just seen. And Scott--
There weren't any words.
"It's a fake." That was Tabitha, in an anguished whisper, the first to break the silence. "It's not real--"
The part of Logan's mind still working properly examined the possibility and discarded it. Not possible. Not with what he'd seen in the holographic image of Cable. Apocalypse couldn't know him that well, couldn't have counterfeited him so perfectly.
"It's real." It was Domino's voice, but like he'd never heard it before. A travesty of that usual rich, resonant alto voice, as if her vocal cords were being shredded from within by the scream she was so clearly fighting to hold back. "It's real. It's why he--" Tears in his eyes, Sam moved hesitantly to her side, reaching out tentatively, as if she was glass, and would break if he touched her. "He LOST," she rasped, swaying again. "H-He lost, and he knew it--"
"But he's alive!" Kitty suddenly cried, tear-filled eyes blazing. "None of this matters! He's alive, he's out there--he needs us to find him and HELP him!"
"It makes sense, now," Charles whispered, as if he hadn't even heard Kitty's outburst. "All of it--"
The hologram moved, began to speak again. "Broken in body, broken in mind," Apocalypse said, his voice quietly menacing. "MINE to shape, now. As he always should have been."
Scott's mouth worked soundlessly. Logan could still hardly bear to look at him. Scott might look like this again someday, but probably not until he'd been a month in his grave.
"Your light of hope is no
more. He will stand at my side as was intended, the purifying
fire of my will exercised in the world. My paladin."
Again, that chill, soul-destroying smile. "Accept it."
The hologram was fading, slowly. "Accept it, dreamers--and
prepare to burn."
to be continued...
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