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"A Matter of Pryde"

A Matter of Pryde

Author's Notes
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8

This story is still in progress.

A Matter of Pryde


"Scientia est potentia," Milan whispered, as he ran his fingers over the smooth glass of the monitor, feeling the electricity crackle through him. Apart from having a deep and endearing love for Classics, he was one of the few, remaining electropaths - mutants could access and manipulate data in the same way as telepaths did minds. In the same way that psions would often touch the person they were attempting to scan, he connected himself to the computer via a length of organic wire that was plugged into an implanted jack in his forehead. Strictly speaking, he did not need it, but it reduced the amount of concentration needed to maintain the connection and, as he typically dealt with terrabytes of data, any crutch helped.

At the moment, he was involved in the technological equivalent of lockpicking; trying to find the back door into a computer system. It was a tiring, finicky process that involved sending bursts of data to ports and discovering which were vulnerable to entry. He had never been a good cracker, preferring more legal and less subtle applications for his electropathy, but he had had to adapt since joining the rebellion. He was one of the best now, which did not make the work any less exhausting or any less slow.

"Which means exactly what, Milan?", the young, rebel leader snapped from his perch on the console, "Other dan de fact dat ya buyin' f'r time."

Breathing deeply, the electropath forced himself to remain calm. Like him, Remy LeBeau had been working for sleepless days on this project, using more traditional cracking means to complement Milan's powers. Both men were tired and frustrated, and both were too proud or too stubborn to admit that the security might be too tight for their skills.

"Knowledge is power, I believe," he replied.

"Damn straight it is," Remy grinned, glancing down at his monitor where his software program tirelessly and relentlessly tested every port on the network into which they were trying to infiltrate. Compared with Milanís powers, port scanners were the equivalent of an EEG, but they were brutally, clumsily efficent for all that. The console beeped and, eyes flicking to the side, Milan could see a green door among the red keys.

"Mon dieu," the young man sounded excited, "Try de file shariní port on - "

He did not need to finish his sentence. Milan had already spotted the dark gap in the glowing mesh that was the firewall, and was making his way through it. He emerged into a vast, electronic nebula; a swirling mass of data that passed through and around the mainframe at its core. He always felt like an astronaut, connected to his body by the slenderest of cables, floating in the middle of space too immense for him to be detectable. Unfortunately, given modern security protocols, that was hardly the case and too much gaping tended to lead to electropaths being caught.

With a stream of serial bits, he reached his mind out to the mainframe, to the sun at heart of the electronic galaxy. He gasped as data flooded his mind, overloading his own delicate neurons and synapses with pure, undiluted information, but was able to tamp it down in a corner of his mind. Delicately as a lover, he then accessed the portion of it responsible for identifying users and inserted the rebellionís IP address among the rest. That done, he could access it in exactly the same way as any member of the Mutant Peacekeeping Force.

Breaking the connection and removing the cable from its jack in his forehead, he cleared his throat: "Computer. Acknowledge user No Man."

A rich, synthesized tenor replied: "No Man acknowledged."

"No Man?" Remy sounded amused, "I doní know about ya, Milan, but, last time I checked, I was all man."

Smiling at his success as much as at his leaderís joke, "Itís a Classical reference to Odysseus and the Cyclops. He introduced himself to the monster as ĎNo Maní, so, when Odysseus attempted to kill him, the Cyclops cried out to his fellows: ĎNo Man is killing me! Come stop No Man!í. Naturally, they did not come to his aid. I thought it apropos."

"Oui," he raised an eyebrow, "Jusí doní go spreadiní dat name among de ladies, non? So, lessee what we can do now dat weíre inside."

Milan nodded, "Computer, show all information on . . . the start of the Era of Humanity."

"Loading . . . ." The synthesised voice rumbled, as the main screen above the console faded from black into an image of a burning double helix Ė the symbol that the humans had adopted for their cause. They said it represented the fate of humanityís genes if they failed, but it seemed that few remembered the burning crosses that had stood for the oppression of another people who had been considered inferior. The few that did were probably sickened by the irony.

"Project Wideawake saw the start of what political commentators call the Era of Humanity.The name was appropriate, as it was the first time that humans woke up to the true danger that mutants posed and took steps to prevent a potential genetic apocalypse."

The screen shifted into the torso and head of a man. His small moustache did little to disguise the fact that his features were weak and his unsmiling mouth was thin and feeble. He was dressed in a black suit, a mayoral chain around his neck, but, for all that, he did not exhude the same air of effortless, confident authority as the Emissary did in her appearances.

"Aided by the Sentinels - adaptive, intelligent machines created by Trask in 13 PH, humans had the power to eliminate the other species completely."

The manís face was replaced by an old, newsreel that jumped and spluttered. It showed a sky filled with Sentinels, row on row of robots landing in Central Park. Around them, people cheered, waving American flags and throwing confetti. The camera, then, zoomed in on a woman, dressed in the armor of a highland chieftain with a claymore at her side. Her face was square and plain, her hair cut in a blunt bob. Moira McTaggert, better known as the Emissary, was the most powerful and influential person alive and she carried herself appropriately.

"The following years were those of unrest, as humans fought mutants in a bloody, civil war. Under the divine leadership of the Emissary, the humans triumphed, but, rather than waste more lives needlessly, she chose to be merciful. Mutants were allowed controlled employment, as well as regulated reproductive rights. Areas of settlement for mutants were also created and it is hoped that these regions will become independent under mutant-rule in time, allowing them in time a measure of self-determination."

The digitised voice was silent, as were the two men sitting around the console. Milan glanced over at his leader and saw his own expression of angry disappointment mirrored on the younger manís handsome face. It was not so much the blatant lies of the Emissaryís version of history, as the fact that they had failed to get to the truth.

"Shit, if Iíd wanted propaganda, Iída gotten a book from de library. All dat work, jusí tísee one oí de Academyís traininí videos."

As if he did not quite believe it himself, "I believe we have only begun to penetrate their systems, sir. We are in the outer-layer of a ring of computers and the deeper we dig, the more information we will find."

"Den we better start digginí, Milan," Remy said grimly, "Call it prescience, but Iíve got de worst feeliní dat sometíingís going tígo down soon."

From the tower from which she controlled the northern portion of the United States, Moira McTaggert looked out at her sleeping city. A blanket of smog hung over it, pierced in places by luxury, high-rise apartments and glass skyscrapers. The few lights, that were still on at midnight, glimmered like stars against the dark sky, dwarfed by the neon blaze that was the sleepless headquarters of the Mutant Peacekeeping Force. It was a showy waste of energy, she knew, but worth it for the constant reminder that Big Sister was watching you.

Beneath the pollution, she could vaguely see the ruddy glows of the fires in the ghettos and her lips curled in distaste. A few years ago, they had had electricity, running water and all the other trappings of civilisation, but all those amenities had been destroyed by the riots and Moira was in no hurry to repair them. Unless trained otherwise, mutants were not civilised and they would simply ruin them again.

A knock on her door disturbed her private contemplation, "Emissary?"

"Ororo, come in," Moira turned to face her personal assistant. Refined and well-spoken, Ororo Munroe had been raised by human parents and was a perfect example of how upbringing could overcome even genetic disposition. Today, two silver barrettes held waist-length, white hair out of her face and her tasteful, dove-grey suit was tailored to fit her slim figure snugly. As always, she had an air of effortless elegance about her that the Scotswoman envied.

"I came to say goodnight, Moira," her voice was musical and low. She had been raised in Egypt and her lilting accent had not yet been erased by years spent in New York.

"And tae serve as a gentle reminder thaí I should be going home by now." she added wryly, seating herself at her desk and steepling her fingers. Neatly-labelled folders needing her urgent attention were piled in front of her, and she wondered if there would ever be a day when she would see the top of her table again.

"It is late and you have worked hard all day."

Smiling, "Aye, but not as hard as my pencil-pushing advisers who seem tae have spent thí entire day inventing documents for my approval. . . Ororo, did you set up thaí meeting wií Lieutenant Parker tomorrow?"

"At ten oíclock, yes," her personal assistant paused in the doorframe, "Sir, who is Soldier Alpha?"

"Good night, Ororo," her tone was firm, "Iíll see ye tomorrow."

The younger woman looked on the verge of argument, mouth opening a fraction before she snapped it shut. She did not have the blind zeal of the majority of the Emissaryís followers, nor did she believe in Moiraís claim of being chosen by God. She did not take her leaderís pronouncements as divine, therefore. Ororo was an intelligent woman, and supported the Emissary because it was the only intelligent option. Despite that, she had her principles and might balk if she discovered what went on the research laboratories. Moira was too fond of Ororo to want to execute her, but she would have no choice if she had even the slightest suspicion of disloyalty. Ororo knew too much, could be too dangerous, and, thus, her ignorance in this matter ensured her survival.

Shaking her head but knowing better than to press the point, "Good night, sir."

The woman was trouble, Carosella knew it from the moment she walked into his bar. Years of dealing with the detritus of society had developed in him an expert eye for troublemakers and this one set every self-preserving instinct humming. It could have been the buzz-cut, peroxided hair; the tight, red spandex that she was wearing; the fact that her skin glinted in the dim light, but it was probably the large energy-weapon at her waist.

"No firearm rule," he said, pointing to the sign at the wall. "Hand it over, sweetheart."

She slid onto a barstool with a sinuous, easy movement and smiled, revealing startlingly white teeth. "And if I don't want to?"

"Then you deal with my security," Guido nodded in the direction of the two man-mountains, standing in the corner. Unlike the patrons, they were clearly not bound by the no firearm rule and each of them conspicuously displayed his stocky gun. The dark pits in the plastered wall of the bar gave ample evidence that they knew how to use them.

"Good thing I want to," she dropped it on the counter, her grin becoming feral and challenging, "For your men, that is."

Lifting his eyebrows a fraction, he picked the weapon up and placed it on the rack behind him with a motley assortment of guns and homemade knives. He had an instinct for people - it was what had kept his bar open and him alive in a less-than-savoury neighbourhood. He could tell which government official could be bribed and which had to be eliminated in an unfortunate accident. He could tell which patrons would get drunk and think they could sing and which would sob into their beer until he lightened their pockets before throwing them into the alley. He could tell which girls were plying their trade and which needed to be protected from men who took their clumsy advances for more than they were worth. In the case of this one, he could tell that she was scared out of her skin-tight suit and covering up for it with her tough girl act. She was trouble, yes, because he did not know how far she would go to maintain the illusion of strength.

Gently, "What can I get you, sweetheart?"

"You can stop calling me sweetheart, the name's Pryde," her voice could have split diamond, "And I'm looking for information. Iíve heard that you know how to contact Remy LeBeau and . . . ."

Stiffening at the sound of the familiar name, Guido quickly scanned the room for MPF-spies. No matter how good their disguises were, they were always a little too alert, a little too eager to join in a conversation, a little too on their guard. Fortunately, the only one he could identify was a woman sitting by the jukebox and flirting with a swart, scarred man who Carosella knew would end up in a cell by that morning. The music was loud and she was absorbed in her work, so he doubted that she would have heard anything the girl had said.

Lowering his voice, "You donít look stupid, sweetheart, so donít act it. If the soldier in that booth hears even a squeak from you about the rebellion, sheíll haul you off to a cell before you can say his name again. Weíll both be shot, then hung for good measure. Just for the danger you put me in, itís going to cost you now."

To her credit, she looked shocked. Evidently, like so many other loose-lipped clients of his, she thought that his bar was safe from the everpresent surveillance of the Emissary. Big Sister watched even the seediest of bars and she did not look kindly on traitors.

"Iím sorry. I didnít think . . . . Here," she fumbled in a pocket and slipped a crystalline sliver across the counter, "This should cover it."

"Triadium chip. Very nice." Carosella examined it with a practised eye, noting the subtle crosshatching of the fibres that made up the chip. Gold was interwoven with green, forming a tiny grid within the glassy slice. To someone old enough to remember life before electronics, it seemed unreal that it could contain the contents of entire libraries. Whole branches of human knowledge and acheivement could be recorded on it. Of course, he thought wryly, the person to whom he sold it would probably use it for virtual porn.

Grinning, he exchanged it with a set of playing cards from his chest pocket, "In return, you get to pick a card. Word to the wise, sweetcakes, the ace never loses, especially if you show it to the right person. "

"Who is the right person?" Pryde asked, an intent expression on her face as she palmed the box of cards.

"Heís outside," Guido replied, "He should be right beside the doorway."

"Thanks," she paused on the verge of sliding off her seat, "If Iím leaving, can I have my gun back?"

"If I were you, babe, I wouldnít go armed," he suggested, voice heavy with irony, "It can send the wrong message. Your toy will be safe here until you return."

"Thanks," her smile was no less feral than it had been before, but Guido saw the fear in it. She bared her teeth in the same way that a cornered animal would, hoping to chase off her predators. He did not hold her terror against her - Remy LeBeauís rebels had survived because they believed that moral ends justified immoral means. They would kill anyone who they suspected of betraying or infiltrating them. They would kill this child - Guido realised now that she was barely out of her teens - if they thought the Emissary had sent her.

"Take care of yourself, sweetheart," the comment was gentle, but the implicit warning was deadly serious.

"My nameís still Pryde," she retorted, "And I always do."

Heart in her throat, stomach roiling and churning, ace of spades gripped so tightly that it cut into her hand, Pryde ambled over to the man. She could see little of him - what was not covered by the trenchcoat was shrouded by the shadows into which he melted. She hoped her show of being casual was having more effect on him than it was on her, because she wanted to do nothing more than run in the opposite direction and continue going until she reached Canada. It was said that the government there was mutant-friendly, although the little she had heard of their Weapon X project sounded all too familiar.

"The barkeeper gave me this for you," she kept the tone of her voice light, as she slipped the card into the manís hand. He turned to face her and she let out the breath that she did not know she was holding in a hiss. His brimstone eyes glowed in an indigo face, while tufted, triangular ears and pointed teeth suggested that he was more demon than man or mutant. The thoughts which she had tried to suppress bubbled back into her mind - was she dealing with the devil? Was she making the right decision by taking the information she knew about the Emissaryís latest perversion to the rebels?

"My appearance startles you," the smile he gave her did nothing to calm her queasiness, "Which is why I was chosen as the Contact. Both MPF soldiers and those who are uncertain about their desire to join the rebellion tend to be frightened off by devilspawn. Rest assured, fraulein, I am merely a mutant."

She dropped her eyes in shame, "Sorry, I . . . I didnít mean to . . . Anyway, I need to speak to your leader. My message is of vital importance and must be delivered in person."

"Good," he lifted her chin with a hand and looked into her eyes with his own disquieting, golden ones, "I will teleport you into a holding-cell a hundred or so metres from our base. It is merely a precaution, but, once you are there, I must ask you to submit to a mindscan."

Although the thought of a telepath rifling through her memories, her private fears and hatreds, her secrets, almost caused her to refuse, she nodded her agreement. The information she had was important enough to sacrifice her privacy, and odds were that the psion would only scan superficially for signs of conditioning - signs, which she hopefully would not have had time to acquire in her brief time in the Emissaryís laboratory.

"I apologise in advance for the vertigo and nausea," the Contact said as he took her hand in his own gloved one, "Itís an inevitable side-effect of the transport."

Her stomach twisted with the world around her, as she slipped into the sulphurous shadows . . . .


Continued in Chapter 1.


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