The Cast of Shadows
Remy LeBeau pressed his hand against the cool glass window, staring blankly into the darkened room beyond. He was standing in a long hallway lit with flickering fluorescent lights. Nearby, a janitor ran a mop over the linoleum tiles, a floor worn by the pacing feet of anxious and heart broken people. Remy could see his own reflection in the glass, his face made pale by the harsh lighting and many sleepless nights. His strange red on black eyes gave no reflection, the image before him had only deep shadowed pits where eyes would have been.
Inside the room a man lay still beneath a web of hospital equipment. Remy could just make out the faint beep of the heart monitor, the ghostly hiss of the ventilator. The man on the bed was dying. The doctors said he would not live much longer.
A tall serene figure approached Remy and stood just past the boy’s shoulder. Remy stole a glance at the tall man’s reflection. Like his own face, it was sharp and angular, but white and empty, giving the visage a skull like appearance.
“I need to see him,” Remy said, his voice dull and cracking.
“That would be unwise,” the tall man replied. “Given your mutant physiology you would be putting yourself at great risk.”
“I don’ care,” he said. He felt tired and hopeless. Remy rubbed his dry itchy eyes, which had only recently been overly wet with unshed tears. He heard the other man sigh. Nathan Essex was a patient man, and not given to frustration. He was relenting for the moment, and put a hand on the small of Remy’s back, steering him towards the door to the hospital room.
“A few moments,” Essex said, as he turned the handle on the door.
The door opened, but Remy made no move to enter. He was staring in stunned silence at his father, who lay on the bed. Essex gave him a small push and Remy began to approach the bed.
“Poppa?” Remy questioned as he came to pause at the foot of the bed. The man before him was still save for the rise and fall of his chest. Jean Luc’s once proud and handsome face was pockmarked with the dark pustules that had appeared at the onset of the virus that ravaged his body. One of his eyes was swollen shut, as was the corner of his mouth. Remy steeled himself and came to crouch by the side of the bed as he took one of his father’s dry hands in his own. “Poppa, can you hear me?”
An eyelid flickered, but did not open. “Remy?” his voice came as a whisper from cracked lips. “Shouldn’t be here,” he said.
“I didn’t want to be alone,” Remy said, his voice as soft as his father’s. “Please don’t leave me.”
Jean Luc’s lips grimaced. “Dis isn’t what I would have ever wanted, Remy,” he said. “To think I won’t see you grow up, become a man.”
“Don’t say dat, poppa,” Remy said, smoothing a strand of hair from his father’s brow. “You’re goin’ t’get better. Doctor Essex can still cure you.”
Jean Luc’s head turned slightly on the pillow and he willed his good eye open. “Hush, now chile. Y’got to be honest wit’ yourself.”
The young boy burst into tears and lowered his head to the mattress. Jean Luc laid a consoling hand on Remy’s head, and regretted not having the strength to hug his son. “I won’t leave you alone, Remy,” he said, and then turned to Nathan Essex, who hovered in the doorway. Incapacitated as he was, he could still sense the other man’s presence. “Take care of him,” Jean Luc said.
Remy sat up slowly, and Jean Luc’s hand dropped back to the bed.
“Remy,” Essex said. “It’s time to go.”
The boy stood and faltered, lingering at his father’s bedside. He struggled with the word goodbye, finding he was unable to speak it. Finally, he managed to stammer a brief ‘love you,’ before his throat tightened again. Essex approached and put a hand on Remy’s shoulder. The unexpected contact caused Remy to startle slightly, but then the hand squeezed in a comforting manner. He had never seen nor felt Nathan express any kind of affection, and he was momentarily paralyzed by it. Then the moment passed and Remy’s hand stole upward to touch Nathan’s cold fingers. The man steered Remy toward the door and the boy fell in step with the doctor, walking under the crook of his arm.
At the moment, Remy had trusted Doctor Nathan Essex implicitly. Three years later, when he would learn that Essex’s experiments had killed his father, this moment would come back to haunt him. He would recall the weight of the man’s hand on his shoulder and feel betrayal, hurt, and anger. Most of all, however, the memory would come with the feeling of overwhelming confusion.
The cabin inside the X-Jet was stifling, which did not help to ease the tension that hung in the air like a dense fog. The passengers were eerily quiet as the plane began to approach its destination. Then, silently, they all stood and donned the form-fitting suits they were to wear on their mission.
While Rogue pushed one of her feet into the boot heel of the suit, Gambit sidled past Kitty to stand between the two girls.
“Can I talk t’you?” he asked Rogue.
Rogue glanced up from where she crouched on the floor. “Now ain’t the time,” she snapped.
“No, now is the time. I don’t want to walk head-on into certain doom with you mad at me, chere,” he said.
Kitty was carefully sneaking away, leaving the pair alone.
Rogue gave and angry sigh and sat back in her seat. “Well, what have you got to say for yourself?”
“I wanted to apologize,” he began, “for de way I treated you t’other day. I, uhm, haven’t been myself lately.”
Rogue’s shoulders relaxed somewhat. “That makes two of us,” she said softly.
Gambit sat back down beside her, cradling the detached helmet of his suit between his knees. “Don’t wanna be doin’ this,” he mumbled.
“This is part of bein’ an X-Man,” Rogue said, staring resolutely forward. “Can’t all be snazzy costumes and private jets, now can it?”
Gambit gave a weak smile. “I never wanted dis gig,” he confessed.
“You’re eighteen now. With the money your daddy left you, y’could leave,” Rogue said, her voice was more compassionate than angry. “Why do you stay?”
“I was hoping you’d all ready know de answer t’dat, cherie,” he said. Rogue turned to meet Gambit’s eyes. Their gaze held for several moments before she broke it off, a flush of crimson blossomed on her cheeks.
“So what did the professor have to say to you the other day?” Rogue said, abruptly changing the subject.
Gambit sighed and leaned back into his seat. “He tole me he scheduled an interview for me at the College of Bayville,” he groaned. “Wants me to talk to the dean or some such. He’s all hot for me t’go back to school.”
Rogue smiled. “Here Ah thought he was going to chew you out for givin’ him lip. Anyway, Ah think you should go. Isn’t that why your father willed you the money? For you t’better yourself?"
“You and Chuck are like matching bookends. Send me on a guilt trip, why don’t ya?”
“So what are you going to say to the dean?” Rogue asked. “You gonna charm him into letting you in?”
Gambit laughed. “That’s what I suggested, but that only got the prof all riled up. Said something about gaining admission based on my ‘academic merits and strength of character.’ No tricks or bull.”
A giggle escaped her lips. “That sounds like him, all right.”
Just then, Gambit clasped her hand in his own and squeezed it. “So how’s about a kiss for good luck?”
Rogue tried to snatch her hand away. “Don’t even think about it, lover-boy,” she snarled, but something giddy danced behind her eyes.
Cyclops’ voice suddenly filled the cabin. “Okay everyone, we’ve got visual,” he announced. Through the front window of the jet they could see the cold white building sitting in the middle of a flat field. “Are we ready?"
“Ready as we’ll ever be, Fearless Leader,” Polaris said.
Kitty and Jean nodded in agreement. Rogue and Gambit said nothing, but their hands remained clasped. Wolverine landed the jet smoothly and the gangplank was lowered from the aircraft’s belly. Beast stood from his position as co-pilot.
“All right, kids,” Beast said, clasping his furry hands together. “We’ll be doing a double check on the integrity of your suits before letting you off. I will be constructing a decontamination center just outside the compound’s door. Okay, helmets on!”
The team complied, placing the hoods over their heads. They secured the helmets by locking the metal loop about the neck in place. The ventilators began to hiss as they breathed.
“Luke,” Kitty said between hissing breaths, “I am your father!”
Wolverine smacked his forehead in exasperation and everyone groaned.
“Aw, c’mon, someone had to say it!” Kitty cried.
They all filed out of the jet and onto the field. Despite the stiff breeze, the air was hot, making the suits uncomfortable.
“I’ll be happy t’get out of here, tout suite,” Gambit said surveying their surroundings. “And find someplace that has a horizon.”
“I think perhaps our Cajun friend here is a touch agoraphobic?” Beast speculated.
“I ain’t afraid of sweaters,” Gambit said. Kitty tittered.
“That’s agora-phobic, not angora--” Hank began, when Gambit stopped him by raising his hand.
“I was just joking,” he said with a grin.
Wolverine growled. “Let’s just get this over with! The more nervous these kids are, the worse the jokes get!”
Scott managed a grin. “All right. Jean? Can you link us now?”
Jean nodded and closed her eyes. She began with Wolverine, then Cyclops, followed by Shadowcat, Rogue, Gambit and Polaris. She created a stream of thought that flowed through the telepathic chain, so that each of them would be able to get a sense of the others’ thoughts. They all shifted uncomfortably at first, momentarily put off by the feeling sharing their thoughts with their teammates. Wolverine’s thoughts felt pungent, sharp and aware. The senses were opened, taking in scent, sight and sound. Cyclops’ thoughts were orderly and concise. He carefully repeated the steps of the mission inside his head like a mantra. Shadowcat was humming with nervous energy. To ease her tension, she was singing a cheerful pop song.
“‘You can try to resist...Try to hide from my kiss...But you know, but you know, that you, can't fight the moonlight!’”
Rogue shot Kitty a dirty look, and Kitty gave a self-deprecating smile. Rogue’s own thoughts were a like note of discord amidst a symphony. They came randomly; one memory would swim to the surface and tie into another. Many of her thoughts were not even her own, but memories she had absorbed from others. Gambit’s thoughts were masked by what Jean thought of as psychic static. Every once in awhile, an emotion would emerge and fade back out. It was like trying to tune a radio while driving through a tunnel.
“::Okay,::” Jean said telepathically. “::It’s done.::”
“::Can we sound off?::” Scott asked.
“::Check,::” Wolverine said.
“::Present!::” Shadowcat chimed.
“::Check,::” Rogue said and then was followed by a long pause.
“::Gambit?::” Jean queried.
There came a brief sound of static and then a dim: “::Check.::”
“All right,” Scott said out loud. “We’ve done this before, let’s just follow the program. Wolverine?”
The older man nodded and began to trek across the field toward the base, leaving a swath of flattened grass in his wake. The teens followed his trail, with Cyclops just behind Wolverine, followed by Shadowcat and Rogue, and Gambit bringing up the rear. Behind them, Jean, Polaris and Beast unloaded the metal constructs they would use as the skeleton for the decontamination center as well as the thick rolls of plastic that would serve as the walls.
Though the compound was not far, crossing the distance between the X-Jet and the building seemed to take an eternity. Yet when they reached the facility, it felt too soon. Wolverine did not pause in the doorway; he walked into the building without hesitation. The others were forced to follow. The interior was dark, and Cyclops turned on the light that was attached to the top of his hood. The others did the same.
“Okay, so we have no lights,” Cyclops said. He could sense Jean’s confirming nod. Polaris’ thoughts were relayed through their telepathic link.
“::At the end of the hall you’ll come to a T-shaped intersection. The control room for the compound’s lights and security will be the first door on the left,::” Polaris said.
They followed Polaris’ instructions and walked down the hallway. The metal pocket door to the entryway of the control room was shut, and with no power it couldn’t be opened without a struggle. Wolverine popped his claws out. The outer layer of his suit ripped, but Forge had designed the suits with a second layer made out of a gel that would solidify when it came in contact with the air. When Logan unleashed his claws, the gel congealed at the openings, preventing him from any possible exposure to the virus. The steel door fell open with a single slash of Wolverine’s adamantium claws.
“We’re in,” Scott said as he surveyed the room. Kitty immediately went to the control board.
“The computer won’t work without power,” she said.
“::What you’ll need to do is have someone turn on the electricity,::” Lorna said. “::There will be an auxiliary power breaker down the hall from the control room. Someone will need to go turn it on manually, while Shadowcat boots the computer.::”
“I’ll go,” Scott volunteered.
“No,” Logan said, holding up a hand. “Yours and Rogue’s powers won’t be any defense while you’re wearing those suits. I’ll go.”
“We’ll split the team,” Scott said. “No one goes anywhere alone. Gambit, you stick with Wolverine."
Wolverine and Gambit gave a curt nod of understanding and left.
“::Okay, you two,::” Lorna said. “::Follow the hall until you reach the dead end. The door on the right will lead you to a storage room. Behind the storage room you’ll find a back room with the circuit breaker.::”
Wolverine opened the door to the room in his usual fashion. Gambit followed after him, stepping over the wreckage Logan left behind. Inside they found a dusty room full of unused or broken medical equipment. There was a narrow passage between the boxes stacked against the wall. At the back of the room there was another door. The lights on their helmets cast strange flitting shadows across the room. As Gambit followed Wolverine towards the back door, his foot nudged one of the stacked boxes. Somewhere in the back of the room came clatter of metal and a dry rustle of fabric.
Wolverine paused and held out an arm, causing Gambit to halt. “What is it, mon ami?” Remy asked.
The other man growled and said: “Stupid mask is messin’ with my senses. Can’t hardly smell anything.” He then started towards the door. This one was of the regular variety and could be opened by turning the door handle. They found the gray painted boxes containing the power switches attached to the wall. Wolverine began down the row of switches, flicking them in order, then started down the next column. He moved to the second box and did the same. Gambit and Wolverine looked where the ceiling lights should have been, but there was no light. There were only mismatched ceiling tiles and wires dangling from random openings.
“Nothin,” Gambit said.
There was a pause as Polaris thought. “::Is there a switch there that looks like a handle?::”
Logan looked around. “Yeah,” he answered.
“::Try that, only you’ll have to pump it to get it started.::”
Wolverine put his hand to the switch.
“::Oh wait!::” Lorna exclaimed. “::You might want to turn the other switches back off, or you’ll get a nasty shock.::”
“Glad you thought of it,” Wolverine growled. “Go ahead, Cajun. Make yourself useful.”
Gambit had been facing the door, looking back into the room they had just left. The lack of peripheral vision made him nervous, and the light on his helmet cast strange, almost lifelike shadows. Gambit reluctantly approached the circuit breaker and flipped the switches onto the ‘off’ position. Once done, Wolverine pumped the handle on the generator a few times.
“That should do it,” he said after a few moments. He nodded to Gambit.
Gambit’s fingers danced across the switchboard, flipping each switch deftly.
In the hallway beyond the room, a greenish light illuminated, but the room Wolverine and Gambit shared was dark.
“::We’ve got power!::” they heard Shadowcat exclaim.
“Job done,” Wolverine said, wiping his hands on the front of his suit. “Let’s go back to the others.” He suddenly paused, staring at something on the ground ahead with the intensity of an animal at hunt.
Gambit followed his gaze to see a large moving shape on the floor.
“What is it?” Gambit asked as the creature skittered away.
“A rat,” Wolverine said as his muscles relaxed. “Just a rat.”
“What color was it?” Gambit asked, his voice suddenly quiet.
“What does it matter what color it is?” Wolverine snapped.
“Cause if it’s brown I’d just as soon think that it’s your average field rat. If it’s white, well then, it prolly came from somewhere else,” Gambit concluded.
“Somewhere else, like where?”
“Like a lab mebbe? You know what kinda work Essex does on people, d’you think he treats his rats any dif’rent?
“::Wolverine, Gambit,::” Scott’s voice entered their thoughts. “::What’s going on out there? Come back to the control room, we’ve got power.::”
“Yeah, I hear you Cyclops,” Wolverine replied. “But we might have a problem.”
There came another rustling sound, like that of crumpling paper or shifting fabric. Unlike the first time the pair had heard it, the sound was louder and lasted for several moments. Gambit looked up suddenly, sensing movement above him. The arc of light that swung from his helmet cast itself over a mass of moving bodies stirring in the broken ceiling tiles above. Wolverine’s eyes flew up, and the twin beams of light from the helmets reflected off of several dozen pairs of beady eyes. For a moment the two mutants and the strange, oversized rats stared at one another. The next second, furry bodies were streaming from the ceiling to land on the people below.
“Oh, hell devil!” Gambit cried as he toppled over under the weight of the falling rats.
Wolverine was snarling, grabbing the clinging rats from his body and flinging them away. The creatures bit and clawed at the protective suits Wolverine and Gambit wore. Many of them attacked their facemasks, scratching at the plastic that covered the hood. Gambit yanked one away from his face with a cry and then suddenly there came a bright flare of red light. The rats that were clinging to Gambit were suddenly blasted away to fall dead and burned on the ground. He reached down and grabbed a glass beaker, which had tumbled down from one of the storage boxes. After charging it, he tossed the beaker, where it shattered into explosively charged shards. The attacking rats ran from the blast or were killed by it. Wolverine and Gambit stood panting as they watched the remaining rats scurry back into the shadows.
“::Wolverine, report!::” Scott cried. “::Are you all right?::”
Wolverine growled an answer. “Other than being covered in rat shit, we’re fine,” he said as he fingered a hole in his suit. “Vicious little bastards.” He turned suddenly on Gambit. “You freakin’ lit up like a Christmas tree. Since when can you charge things without using your hands?”
“Since now!” Gambit snapped.
“::What’s going on?::” Cyclops sounded suspicious.
“Nothin’ Cyke,” Wolverine replied. “We’ll be there in a second.”
The pair returned to the control room without incident. Once there, they found Shadowcat perched on a chair as she tinkered with the computer.
“What are you doin’ up there?” Wolverine asked her.
“I saw a rat!” Kitty exclaimed.
“A cat that’s afraid of a rat,” Gambit remarked.
“You should talk, Gambit,” Rogue said as she elbowed him. “Ah heard that rather undignified shriek you gave when that rat fell on you.”
“Not ‘rat,’” Gambit said. “Rats, plural. And I did not shriek.”
“Can we be serious for a moment?” Cyclops asked sharply. “Kitty, how are we doing?”
“Pretty good, Scott,” she said as her fingers danced over the keyboard. “Looks like we at least have emergency lighting throughout the whole compound. The elevators and doors should all be working. As for the security measures, I’m not sure if there’s enough power to get them running. Which is great news for us. Anyway, according to the computer, we’ve got about an hour before we run out of juice.”
Scott nodded. “Then let’s get moving.”
The team found themselves down on the lower levels of the building nearly a half-hour later. They had been searching the massive compound while precious minutes slipped away, and they had nothing to show for it thus far.
Wolverine lifted a piece of sheet metal and leaned it up against the wall to clear the corridor. “Left yourself quite a mess when you left here, didn’t ya Polaris?” he asked.
They could sense, rather than see Polaris’ smile. “::I guess you might say I was a little upset at the time,::” she replied. “::You’re approaching the labs, they’re up ahead to the right. Hopefully you’ll find something there.::”
“Ew, ugh,” Kitty said suddenly. “What is that smell?”
Wolverine was growling softly, he had come across the scent moments before Shadowcat had, and had called the search party to a halt. Up ahead was the door to the laboratory. Lying on the floor half-in and half-out of the doorway was a body. Logan slowly approached, the teens reluctantly holding back. Reaching out a gloved hand, Wolverine turned the corpse so it lay on its back. Shadowcat gasped and they all recoiled at the sight. The body was barely recognizable as a human, and possibly could have been male. His eye sockets were empty puckers in a withered face. The side of his body, which had been lying flat against the floor, still bore some flesh, but the rest had been stripped away. He was naked, and appeared to have been struggling out of the lab at the time of his death.
“God,” Scott said. “What the heck happened to him?”
“::Essex happened to him, that’s what,::” Polaris said.
Cyclops slowly approached Wolverine. “What do you think killed him?” he asked. “The virus?”
“Can’t say for sure,” Wolverine said.
“Don’t look it t’me,” Gambit said. Cyclops startled, he hadn’t realized Gambit was standing just behind him. “He don’t got welts on ‘im.”
Wolverine nodded and looked into the interior of the room. He saw a broken tank just inside the room. “Doesn’t look like he got too far. And it seems the rats’ve had their way with the body.”
Rogue and Shadowcat hung back. “You okay?” Rogue asked Kitty, who had gone white.
Shadowcat swallowed convulsively, but gave no answer. Wolverine cast a glance up at the two girls.
“Here,” he said to Gambit and Cyclops. “Move back now.” The two boys stood back as Wolverine moved the body further down the hall. Cyclops took the cue from Wolverine and proceeded into the lab.
Inside they found a room that opened up into a vast space. The ceiling extended upwards, perhaps three or four stories high. Spilling down from the ceiling were wires and tubes that hung like curtains to the floor below. Directly across the room from the doorway was a massive computer with a large monitor and several satellite monitors anchored from it. Before the screens was a vast array of switches, keys and dials set onto a control panel. To the right was a separate room, divided by a low wall and a window. A sliding glass door allowed access to the room. The objects on the left, however, caused the X-Men to come to an abrupt halt. There were four glass cylinders, each about six feet in length. They were nestled in a mechanical cradle that held them at a forty-five degree angle. Various tubes and wires hung from the cylinders and wound themselves across the floor like a tangle of snakes. One of the cylinders was broken; the glass shattered by a metal pipe which had dislodged from the ceiling. It was empty, as were the two right-most cylinders. The middle cylinder, however, contained a young woman.
Cyclops was the first to approach. The woman lay in murky green water. Her skin was puffy and bloated. She was obviously dead. Her spine curved forward, causing her to hunch her shoulders. Through the murk, Scott could see that the fingers of her hands were fused together. One of her legs was shorter than the other, and the foot of that leg had curved in on itself, forming a club.
Cyclops was distracted from his listless focus on the woman when Rogue came to stand directly behind him. “Who was she?” Rogue asked. Scott shook his head dully.
“Maybe if we can get the computer up and running, we can find out,” he said, turning and focusing on Kitty. Shadowcat was frozen in the center of the room, her eyes slightly glazed and unfocused. “Kitty?” Cyclops prompted. The girl unfroze and began to shuffle towards the computer.
“But...But how could she have breathed in there?” Rogue asked, indicating the girl in the tank.
Wolverine had come over to study the tanks. “Water was oxygenated, maybe?” he suggested, nudging a tube at the base of the tank with his boot.
“Y’can breathe water?” Rogue asked incredulously.
Wolverine grunted in answer. “Must’ve lost power, oxygen stopped running.”
All the while, the telepathic link had been silent. Suddenly, Polaris’ thoughts burst through. “::I didn’t know there were people down there!::” she exclaimed. Everyone paused as they absorbed her thoughts.
“Lorna?” Wolverine began.
“::I didn’t know! I didn’t know!::” came her cry, which was followed by a sudden sob.
“O’ course, y’didn’t, chere,” Gambit replied. “None of us did. Wouldn’t of left ‘em here, otherwise.”
“::She’s dead! Because of me! Because I had to be so reckless...::” Polaris’ thoughts faded and then winked out. They were all stunned by the sudden lack of Polaris’ presence in their thoughts.
“Lorna? Lorna!” Wolverine called, but the link remained silent.
Slowly, they became aware of another stream of thoughts. “::Lorna is going to take a break,::” said Beast, his thoughts as warm and soft as his physique and demeanor. “::I will be joining you as soon as possible. I would like to retrieve the bodies of these poor unfortunates. They might be able to help us in the future.::”
Wolverine gave a nod of understanding. He then approached Shadowcat who was tinkering with the computer. “How’s it going, half-pint?”
Shadowcat shook her head. “I’m not going to worry about getting this thing started,” she said, her voice was raw and cracking. “I’ll just take out the drives and we can get the heck out of here!”
“Good idea,” Rogue agreed.
Gambit was on the far side of the room, looking through the window into the interior of the adjoining chamber. Cyclops turned his attention from the girl in the tube towards the room Gambit was examining. Inside were rows of small cubbies, set into the wall with glass-fronted doors. Some of the cubbies remained closed, but others stood open and empty. Together, Cyclops and Gambit pushed aside the sliding glass door that was barring their entrance to the room.
“Cages?” Cyclops asked, peering into the depths of one of the cubbyholes.
“Guess dis is where de rat problem come from,” Gambit replied, looking into one of the sealed compartments. “Control rat,” he said, pointing at the dead rodent inside.
“What’s that?” Scott asked.
“One of de animals not experimented on,” Gambit said. “Looks like de only ones to escape were them big meanies we saw upstairs. It figures.”
Just then, the lights dimmed and went out. “Aw, crap,” Scott said. “Is everyone all right?” he asked as he exited the room, leaving Gambit to linger behind.
The lights on Shadowcat’s and Rogue’s helmets bobbed in reassurance.
“Looks like we ran out of juice,” Wolverine commented. The helmet lights served to illuminate the ground ahead, but made reading facial expressions impossible. “Are you almost done, Kitty?”
“I just need a couple more minutes,” she replied. She had dismantled the control board, and strings of wires and pieces of computer parts were scattered on the floor at her feet.
Gambit had been standing back from the group, his arms crossed as he waited for Kitty to finish. Behind him a spark ignited, and for a brief moment, the lights of the compound flared to life once again. Startled, the group of mutants all cast their sights upward. Just over Gambit’s shoulder, a long pale arm reached out, parting the veil of wires and cables as it stretched. The hand clamped down on the boy’s shoulder and he stumbled forward with a frightened cry. As Gambit pulled back from the reaching hand, a shoulder and torso pulled free from the clinging wires. The cables parted, revealing a pale agonized face. Taught lips pulled back from mangled teeth in a silent scream. Red, pupil-less eyes burned in fury and anguish as the body fell free from the tangling wires. Gambit screamed, for the man that stumbled toward him like a thing half-dead bore the face of the man he so feared. Sinister ambled forward, his arms reaching to claim what he desired to posses.
At that moment, several things happened at once. Gambit’s heel caught on a fallen bit of metal, causing him to stumble backward. As he fell, a blinding flash of red light ignited the surrounding room. The light, which crackled with searing hot energy, shot in all directions like a poorly aimed fireworks display. Cyclops’ warning shout rang out just as the power failed once more and the room fell dark. Behind him, the cylinders shattered. So too did the monitor, which rained shards of glass down on Kitty and Rogue. Shadowcat shrieked and she fell back onto Rogue and the two of them sprawled onto the floor. In those few panicked seconds, an overwhelming fear had swept over them, carried through the telepathic link they all shared. Just as suddenly as the fear had boiled up, it melted away as the telepathic link was severed leaving them all to their own thoughts once again.
Wolverine leapt with a snarl towards the terrifying specter that was Sinister. The force of his lunge carried both men through the plate glass window and into the room containing the rat cages. Then the room, so badly damaged by the blast Gambit had caused, began to fall apart. Latent streams of energy continued to detonate, giving them all the feeling of being trapped in a miniature war scene. Finally, the room fell silent, save for the faint crackling of energy and the occasional spark of electricity.
Scott pulled himself upright, glass shards raining off of him. With a sickening lurch, he realized the cylinder holding the girl had broken, spilling her malformed body onto the floor. The upper half of her body leaned down onto the floor, while her legs remained tangled inside the tank. The light cast from his helmet fell along the exposed knobs of her spine, which glinted white in the glow. Long red hair spilled onto the floor and a pool of foul scented water pooled beneath her.
“I’m...I’m going to be sick!” Kitty cried and her hands frantically scrambled at the neck of her suit.
“Kitty, don’t!” Cyclops cried, but Shadowcat had pulled her helmet free. She stumbled away from Rogue and folded over herself as she retched. Cyclops scrambled toward her frantically and grabbed her helmet from the ground where she had thrown it. She fought him as he tried to force it back over her head. Finally, she fell gasping and sobbing into Cyclops’ chest.
“Aw, ow, shoot! Dammit!” Rogue was moaning as she clutched the back of her thigh. “Aw shoot!” She examined one of hands. Her fingers had come back tinged with blood.
“Rogue!” Cyclops cried. “Are you all right?”
Rogue winced and pulled her hands back from where she clutched her leg. There was a gash in her suit. Blood had welled in the cut, mingling with the protective gel inside of the suit. It had hardened, and the bleeding seemed to have stopped. “Ah think Ah’ll be all right,” she said finally, as she tested the cut with her finger. “Where’s Gambit?”
Cyclops pulled Shadowcat to her feet. Together, the three stumbled toward the wreckage where they had last seen Gambit and Wolverine. There was a shifting of metal and wires and they all stood paralyzed as a figure stood. They breathed a collective sigh of relief as Wolverine pulled himself free. There was no sign of Sinister.
“Stay there,” Wolverine said, waving the three kids back. He stepped free of the tumble of metal, glass, and cables and began to rifle through the wreckage. Finally, he uncovered Gambit, who at first appeared unconscious. However, his eyes remained opened, and he did not move or flinch when Wolverine waved a hand before the boy’s face. The slight hiss from the ventilator told them he was still breathing, but his skin was ghostly pale, with an almost blue cast to it.
“What’s wrong with him?” Rogue asked, as she tried to approach. Wolverine held out a hand to stay her.
“I think he’s in shock,” Wolverine replied. “Stay back.”
There came a noise from outside the room. Cyclops left the two girls with Wolverine and Gambit and went out into the hallway. There he found that the hallway, which they had come down, was blocked with fallen debris. Their exit had been closed off.
“Hello!” came a faint voice from behind the wreckage. “Hello! Can you hear me?”
“Doctor McCoy!” Scott called back, recognizing the voice. “Are you all right?”
The debris shifted. “Yes, I’m fine. What happened?”
“We had a major disaster,” Cyclops replied as he began to pull away pieces of fallen metal. “Rogue is hurt, and Gambit is in shock. Kitty took off her helmet.”
“Hold on a moment, Scott,” said Hank. “I can barely hear you. Let’s concentrate on moving the wreckage.”
For several long moments they worked until Beast’s head appeared. “I have brought a dolly. Do you think you could hand Gambit to me over this?”
Scott nodded. “And the girl in the tank?”
Beast nodded. “Her too.”
Scott continued: “The other body is lost somewhere under the wreckage.”
Wolverine exited the room, cradling Gambit in his arms. He precariously stood on the wreckage as he passed the long-boned thief over to Hank. Logan stepped back and began to turn back to the room.
“Wait,” Cyclops said. “You help Rogue and Shadowcat. I’ll get the girl.”
Wolverine turned to Hank. “What happened to Jean? The link is dead.”
Hank nodded as he reached an arm to Rogue. “Polaris has contacted me via the electronic communications link. Jean had fainted, but she is conscious now. Kitty, you next.”
Kitty was clutching several pieces of computer equipment to her narrow chest. Despite her trauma, she has still remembered to recover the drives to Sinister’s computer. Beast grasped her by the shoulders and pulled her up and over. Wolverine watched as her tiny feet disappeared over the pile of debris. Scott then appeared at his side holding the dead girl. Despite the insulating helmet, her scent assaulted Wolverine’s senses. Scott scrambled up the pile of twisted metal and was assisted by Beast. Wolverine followed after.
Once on the other side, Scott deposited the body onto the dolly and Beast covered her with a sheet. Wolverine squatted beside Gambit, who lay on the floor. Rogue was holding his head, trying to get him to talk to her. His eyes were dilated and his eyes were nearly all black. The dark eyes and pale skin gave him an eerie appearance. Logan took him from Rogue’s lap and started off at a quick pace. He cast a glance over his shoulder.
“Let’s get topside, quick,” he said.
Beast began to follow after, with Shadowcat, Rogue, and Cyclops following behind. “Kitty,” Beast said. “Scott told me your suit has been compromised. I have to ask you to remain in your suit until we arrive back at the school. You too, Rogue.”
Rogue nodded glumly and looked over at Kitty. Her face was stained with tears and a faint trail of dried vomit was left on her chin. The girl plodded along silently. Compulsively, Rogue put an arm around the younger girl’s shoulders.
“It’ll be okay,” Rogue said quietly and she squeezed Kitty gently.
Kitty’s eyes blinked several times and looked up. She smiled softly and nodded.
They continued on their way, leaning into one another for support. Cyclops brought up the rear. For the moment he was content to be by himself. The buzz of his anxious thoughts was more than enough company. Never again would he feel completely alone. The image of Sinister, denying death and plodding resolutely forward with outstretched arms, would always pursue him.
Continued in Chapter 4
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