by DuAnn Cowart
Standard disclaimers apply.
"You're sure about this, darlin'?" Logan studied her, a quizzical look in his eyes. Something's wrong. Ro's givin' up too easy.
"I am certain." Ororo nodded, swallowing hard against the chest-constricting terror that loomed at the edges of her perception. The main lobby of the fortress was huge, but her elemental senses told of the tight, enclosed hallways and tunnels underneath. She caught her breath, forcibly willing herself not to think of it. Her claustrophobia was difficult to combat on the best of days, and now- despite her stately protests to the contrary, she was exhausted. The trip past Tolliver's defenses, exhilarating and exciting as it had been, had wiped out most of her energy reserves and the previous emotional upheaval of Nathan's rejection and her argument with Kitty had sapped the rest of her strength.
She drew in a deep breath. "Go. You have precious little time."
Domino regarded the other woman for a brief moment, then snorted, hoisting a large rifle under one arm. "You heard the lady. Move out."
Cable paused, glancing from one woman to the other, then nodded tiredly. She looks as bad as I feel. "If you haven't heard from us in 15 minutes, Storm, you know what to do."
Ororo didn't look at either of them. When she answered,her voice was cool and composed, hiding the bitterness she felt. She clasped her hands tightly together to hide the exhausted tremors. "I do. And as I said, you are wasting time." She smiled wanly at Betsy and gave Kitty's arm a brief squeeze as she turned to examine the room for a hiding place. Early thief's training immediately pointed out several places in the spartan lobby to hide herself and without a word to the rest of the team she ducked behind a stack of cartons to watch as they proceeded down a smaller side corridor.
Wisdom, shaking his head as he followed the route they had meticulously plotted, muttered under his breath "Bloody charmin', ain't she?".
Kitty, beside him, narrowed her eyes but didn't answer. As the team descended into the lower levels of the fortress, she moved effortlessly along with the others, body using skills so deeply ingrained that conscious thought was almost unneccesary. Just what the hell am I going to do about those two? she wondered, knowing her mind should be on her task. Sooner or later, something's gonna have to give.
They travelled in pairs, Logan and Domino taking point to lead them down a labyrinthine path into the bowels of the fortress to the research wing dormitories. There were no weak links in this team- all had extensive training in this type of operation and were well versed on the need for stealth. They moved quietly through the shadows towards their goal.
As they passed a barren entranceway, Kitty's eyes widened when she spotted a pair of Tolliver's lackeys coming up aside hall. Nudging Pete with her elbow, she spun flat against the wall. He did the same.
"I see 'em," her lover replied through clenched teeth. "Two targets spotted, Cable. Go ahead- we'll catch up." Pete spoke through the radio headset, wishing he could use his hotknives without running the risk of triggeringTolliver's alarms.
"Understood," Cable's deep voice sounded through the headset.
Falling behind for a moment, the pair waited until the guardsmen passed in front of them to turn the corner.Wisdom downed one with a quick, precise chop to the backof the neck while Kitty phased through him to grab the other by his hair and knock him out with a similar move.The bodies crumpled, never knowing their assailants. After dragging their lax forms into the shadows to hide them as best they could, Pete paused to stare at Kitty for a moment, wondering when his lover would wake up as to what sort of monster he really was, the cold horror of the life he'd chosen.
Despite all the missions and operations they'd worked together on, all the ugliness he knew she'd seen, some secret part of him still lived in fear she would someday truly realize the horror of what he did and denounce him for the murderer he was. He was to be disappointed today. She met his gaze, and in her eyes he saw nothing but an adrenaline rush and a hard compassion. She understood. God, she understood. Without a word, she reached over and took his hand, squeezing it gently as she led him away from the limp bodies at their feet.
When they caught up with the rest of the group, Cable glanced back with a favoring nod. "Good work," he sent through the radio, and Pete ground his teeth to bite back a smart assed reply. Bloody condescending bastard- Shaking it off to mere battle nerves, Pete turned his attention back to the mission.
The threat of a trap lurked in the forefront of all their minds, of course, but that potentiality had been there all along. In their line of business, that threat was a constant presence, an occupational hazard. Betsy's vision had made that abundantly clear, and after seeing firsthand those horrible scenes he'd been tempted to call the whole thing off. When Domino had assured them she wanted to go on with the mission, however, Pete had little choice but to acquiesce. Jardine had impressed upon him how very important it was to get the Black Air escapees back before they could reconnect with their former Genoshan employers.
They'd known from the start that this op was a calculated risk- one he'd never liked the odds of, especially afterKitty had insisted on tagging along. After that wanker Braddock's sister's vision he'd liked it even less. Still,he reassured himself, he'd never known anyone who could play the long odds like his old merc buddy Dom. Like that'll help any if. . . he didn't finish the thought, knowing full well the demons of guilt and self-recrimination that would consume him if something went wrong. He shook his head and refocused on the job.
When they'd gone several stories underground, pausing occasionally to take out unfortunate stray guards or workers, the small hallway dead-ended into a larger corridor that was lit with flickering fluorescent light.Domino suddenly stopped, and the tight, drawn look on his partner's features told Cable more about their location than any words could say.
This is it. His left eye flared brightly in the dimness,and despite the promises he'd made to her and all his intentions to the contrary he very nearly grabbed his partner by the arm to drag her out of this hellish place.Dammit, Nate, you know better than that- He remembered the earnest look, the veiled warning in her eyes that morning after their lovemaking when she'd cautioned him against just this kind of thinking. He knew better- he'd trusted this woman to watch his back for twenty years. She could take care of herself. Still, though- all the cold logic in the world counted for very little when measured against the primal man inside him that wanted nothing more than to keep her safe.
Nathan was doing his best to hide it, but even through their much dampened bond Domino felt his struggle. Her shoulders stiffened. Forcing down the unreasonable anger- anger she knew was not totally directed at him- she gave the arranged hand signal that told the others that they'd finally reached their destination.
Looking around the cold stone walls, for a brief moment Domino was overwhelmed with the force of memory. Sensing rather than seeing Nathan's reaction, she had to bite her lip in order to maintain the stone cold facade. This is exactly what I was afraid of- enough! Slapping another coat on her veneer of indifference, she made the quickhand signal that denoted this was the place to break into smaller units.
Cable, barely listening to her, didn't say a word. Snuffing out the fury at what he knew had happened here he stored it away until he could deal with it more properly. Images from Betsy's vision flared white-hot again in his mind, and it was all he could do not to reach out and stop her when Domino smoothly turned and motioned for Psylocke and Shadowcat to follow her down the hall.
Without Cable's telepathy, it had been decided that Logan station himself closest to the connecting hall so that his keen senses to give first alert of any approaching personnel. As the grizzled Canadian settled into his guard position, Wisdom and Cable followed the older man's lead. The latter's face was as cold and expressionless as Logan had ever seen it. He don't like this at all. Watching the three graceful figures of women he held dear slip down the cold hallway towards their goal, his shaggy eyebrowsdipped. An' for once I agree with him. It was a sobering thought.
Standing at the dead end of the hallway, Domino stood over the limp bodies of the two unfortunate guards that had been assigned watch over the scientists' dormitory. Obviously not of the highest caliber to begin with- Domino remembered that Tolliver only hired top dollar mercs like Wilson for his outside jobs- these two had been lulled by the boredom of the monotonous task and were easy prey for such professionals as they.
Standing outside a gunmetal gray door, Domino took a deep breath and raised her gas mask to her face, adjusting the elastic strap around her head. Remembering the plan, Kitty and Elisabeth did the same. No smart remarks, no color commentary- nice to work with people who actually knowwhat low-key means, for a change, Domino thought with grim amusement, thinking of loud mouthed brightly colored X-Force. I love those kids, but when we get back I think I'm going to hold a few refresher courses on the art of stealth-
As planned, she took a small olive colored sphere out of one of the pouches on her belt and gave it to Kitty, who calmly bent down to inconspicuously phase her hand through the bottom of the door and stick the grenade in the room.She counted to thirty, slowly, making sure her mask was securely tightened. When time was up, Betsy nodded, and they calmly opened the door.
Through a thick pinkish haze, they were greeted with the sight of about fifteen bleary-eyed people lounging arounda small commons area. Some sat- now lay- on a pair of ragged brown velour couches, while others were eating off cafeteria style trays at a long rectangular table. One man's head lay face down in what appeared to be potato salad.
A quick count- sixteen people, geniuses all, stared up at her like a gathering of village idiots. Like clockwork, Domino snorted. Today's special, roast beef with a sideorder of happygas. They'll be as obedient as little lambs now. Remembering all too vividly what these people were capable of, her amusement sharply faded. Vicious,sadistic little lambs who'd like nothing more than to vivisect the wolf. A thought came to her. Pete's intel said eighteen- there's two more floating around somewhere, but we don't have time to hunt them down right now. This'll have to do.
Kitty surveyed the room admiringly, waving a thin hand through the air. The air swirled in rosy-hued currents. "Lot easier than fighting them, eh?" she grinned. "I'm checking out the other rooms. You two handle the roundup."
Beside her, Psylocke reached into her pack to pull out a skien of thin, nigh unbreakable nylon rope and a double handful of thin ties. Succumbing to the extremely suggestive effects of the incredibly potent- and highly illegal- narcotic gas, the researchers smiled beatifically as Domino and Psylocke bound their hands and gagged themwith, eyes glazed and perfectly compliant as quick hands efficiently linked rope through their constraints.
Kitty emerged from the side room. "Clear."
Domino shook her head. This is way too easy. Shrugging her shoulders, she jerked her head into the hall. Psylocke led the string of captives out, herding them like cattle. This task accomplished, a heavy sense of foreboding seeped into her like a cold wind, and Domino took a deep breath. She knew what she had to do.
She still had Tolliver's twisted laboratory to deal with, and now that the primary goal was accomplished- now that they could make sure these twisted bastards wouldn't be able to finish their perverted work- it was time to take it out. Remembering Betsy's vision, she hesitated, then pushed her fears aside. Though they were extracting the team of Mengeles, their work remained. It had to be destroyed, and it was up to her to do it. After tonight's extraction, Tolliver's internal security would almost certainly be upgraded to the same level as his external system. This was her only chance.
Nodding to Psylocke to lead, she fell behind the line as Kitty and Elisabeth, still wearing their masks for protection against whatever lingering molecules of the potent mixture remained in the closed-in hall, herded the grinning researchers towards the others in the team and back to the outside. With a flick of her wrist, she activated their internal com units. "Alpha phase completed," she spoke quietly.
From where he waited outside the hall, Cable's deep baritone was husky with relief. "Copy."
For a moment she had been tempted to call him, tell him what she planned, but the hidden emotion in that single word strengthened her resolve. Domino closed her eyes, remembering the lab. Nathan should never see the inside of that hellish place- even with their link dimmed, almost completely surpressed, she could still feel the maelstorm of emotions he was fighting as he waited for her outside. He was coming apart at the seams. Damn, babe, nothandling this well at all, are you?
She swallowed, remembering glimpses of his nightmares that had occasionally seeped into her own over the years-horrific visions of future death and destruction that she now knew were dream reflections of the stomach churning punishments his twin Stryfe had inflicted upon him after his Clan's defeat in the future. Thinking of the night before and the fragile peace they'd finally found, she shook her head firmly. No. I can protect him from this much at least.
As the captives turned down a corner back towards Nathan and the others, Domino took a deep breath and adjusted her transmitter to speak to just Kitty and Psylocke. "I think I heard something back there," she lied. "I'm going to go check it out." Psylocke, in the front of the line, frowned.
Motioning for Kitty to go on without them, she slipped back to stand by Domino for a moment. "I'm going with you," she spoke on a private bandwith.
"There's no need," the former mercenary answered hotly, knowing she didn't have time to argue the point. Though the laboratory was relatively nearby, she'd need every spare second she could get to take it out and get back to the team before Nathan came after her.
Betsy just shook her head. "I've already seen it, remember?" she spoke quietly. Domino paused, torn. Shedidn't have time to waste like this, and dammit, Psylocke was right. She didn't entirely trust the other woman's precognitive vision- the telepath herself had said it was only a *possible* future- but she was entirely too pragmatic to discount it entirely. Despite her bravado, the vision had shaken her. Backup might change that frightening potentiality. And the woman *had* proven trustworthy, keeping the worst of what she'd seen from Cable and the others.
"Can you keep what you see to yourself?" Domino asked gruffly, and was relieved when Psylocke nodded.
A heartbeat pause. "Well, come on, then."
A hurried conference with Kitty, and then they slipped back the way they had come, back into the shadows.
"They WHAT?" Cable yelled into the radio transmitter, stark anger mingled with fear in his voice. Kitty winced.
"I *told* you, Cable, Domino heard something behind us and she and Betsy went to check it out. They said they'd catch up with us-" Kitty's high, clear voice sounded troubled. Beside her, one of the drugged captives giggled.
Cable stood very still. That flonquin' IDIOT! She KNOWS better than to make a stupid rookie mistake like that- this was supposed to be an in-and-out op- He ground his teeth. "I'm going after them."
"Not before we do the job," Logan growled, acutely aware that there was more going on here than he could see on the surface. He'd seen Betsy's vision, too- and he had no desire to leave either of the women behind. Especially after last night, he thought, then brushed that distracting thought away. They had a job to do, and all were aware of what would happen if they failed. "We need to GO, Nate. Now."
Cable spun to tower over the stocky Canadian. The frustration over waiting for Dom, alone in there with God knows what, after what she'd been through- the anger at Logan for doing what he'd been too cowardly to do himself-the guilt over losing Tyler in the first place- it allculminated in a dangerous wave. He was ready to kill. "Logan, don't press me on this. Not you, not here, not now-"
Looking around Tyler's- Genesis, as Logan chose to think of him- fortress, Logan remembered the agony he'd suffered at Cable's son's hands, and the anger overrode the remorsehe felt at killing Jeannie's blood- in essence if not inactuality. He growled under his breath. "Don't you push *me*, Nate. I ain't in the mood." Clenching his square hands into hard fists, he glared up at the much taller man. There was a long moment of silence.
Before physical violence could ensure, Pete Wisdom surprised them all by stepping between the straining men, thin face resolute. In a harsh voice that held no hint o fhis usual mockery, he barked in a disgusted voice. "Stop this shit right now. We ain't got time for it. We've been lucky so far, but we need to get these bastards," he grimaced at their slack-faced captives, "back to th' plane."
Turning away, Wisdom couldn't meet Cable's eyes, feeling the weight of responsibility for the mission. It had been *his* call that led them here, and he knew damn well that if it were *he* who had to decide between goin' after Kitty and the mission, well. . . He glanced at his lover, who was watching it all, compassion shining in her warm brown eyes.
Turning away, Wisdom couldn't meet Cable's eyes, feeling the weight of responsibility for the mission. It had been *his* call that led them here, and he knew damn well that if it were *he* who had to decide between goin' afterKitty and the mission, well. . . He glanced at his lover, who was watching it all, compassion shining in her warm brown eyes.
A soul chilling thought struck him. In his fury at her leaving like this, he'd forgotten about it for a moment. Oath, what if Betsy's vision *was* true, and Dom's alone back there? With that one horrifying possibility, his decision was made. There was no way he could fight that future without her. "I'm going after her," he repeated through clenched teeth. "Take these worthless wastes of carbon and get the hell out of here. Wait for us at the plane." Before anyone could answer, he was gone.
A quiet moment later, Kitty sighed. "You heard the man,"she told them, then squared her slim shoulders to follow Logan as he led them back to the surface.
Two short bursts of plasma fire, and the two men guarding the lab went down. Domino didn't even blink, just stepped over their bodies, bending down to snatch the keycard from around the smaller one's neck. A few moments later, the wide steel doors slid open with a hiss.
It was dark inside. A spill of light from the open door fell into the dim room, silouhetting the two women for a brief moment against its fluorescent glow. Frowning, Psylocke quickly stepped into the shadows, ignoring their faint call. Domino, half a step behind her, once more reached into one of the numerous pouches on her suit and pulled out a pair of streamlined nightvision goggles- a staple of the trade- to slip them carefully over her face. She spared a glance at Psylocke, but the other woman appeared not to need her goggles- she was looking around the room through the apparent darkness with much the same expression Domino knew she herself was wearing.
The room was completely empty, devoid of human activity. Though the loud drone of the ever present machines wasconstant, there was none of the usual din that Domino remembered all too clearly from the time she'd spent here. They were the only people in the room- there were noguards, no researchers, not even the few stray sanitation workers that usually lingered around at this time of night.
"Something's wrong," Domino whispered into her headset.
Psylocke arched an elegant eyebrow and whispered dryly "Really?"
Domino snorted and walked slowly into the room. The place was just as she remembered it- huge cylindrical tubes lining the wall, opening up to adjoining rooms full of tiny cubicles and cages and tubes and dishes and steel tables and sharp knives and soiled leather straps. The only difference was that now it was empty- completely and totally empty. Even the thick clear cylinders, still tinged with a viscous hint of lime green, appeared abandoned.
The floor under her feet was sticky, and as she turned to look at a particularly gruesome cage she almost bumped into a large, steel table. Taking a closer look at it, she gasped. This was the table she'd seen herself on in Betsy's vision. This was where she'd seen Tyler- a stark wave of nauseated clarity swept over her. A voice from deep inside her warned "GET OUT OF HERE NOW."
"Abort mission," she whispered through her headset, fumbling at her boot. Her plans to look around and see just how far the bastards had gotten with their work dissipated. All that mattered was destroying the foul place. Her hands fumbled uncharacteristically as she pulled out the powerful explosives she'd spirited away in her suit, leaving the substance in her bootheel in case she needed it later. This required more destruction than that small amount could manage. "Get out of here, Betsy- Make sure Nate and the others get out!"
Psylocke's eyes widened as she, too, recognized the scene. Nodding curtly, she moved with liquid grace towards the exit, pausing only for a brief moment to look back at the other woman. "Domino-"
Domino was reaching into another pocket for det cord. "Go!" she hissed, cutting off the amount she needed. "You've got fifteen minutes- get the hell out of here!" Reluctant to leave the other woman behind, Psylocke tilted her head curiously and peered deeper into the shadows as if looking for something just beyond the periphery of her perception. Domino cursed "You're distracting me, dammit! We can sort through the rubble later. GO!"
Betsy ground her teeth and did so, darting out of the thick steel doors they'd just come through to dash down the hall towards the others. Domino, fingers working in a pale blur, finished constructing the bombs and sprinted to the back of the room to tape the finished product to the central computer mainframe.
Without warning, the thick steel doors slammed shut.
Domino, heart hammering in her chest, stood and whirled around, letting her luck instinctively aim the rifle she'd kept tucked under one arm. Before she could pull the trigger, though, her arm froze in midair. She felt a familiar, oily mind brush her own, take control of her body and her thoughts. She couldn't move. Struggling against the iron hold, her lips parted in a twisted snarl but no words came out.
A door from the back of the lab opened. Tyler Dayspring stepped out.
*Domino,* he skillfully insinuated himself into her mind, ripping through her mental shielding like wet tissue, caressing her thoughts with lascivious malice.
*Welcome home, my pet. I knew you couldn't stay away.*
To Be Continued...
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