Disclaimer: Empath, Masque, Sebastian Shaw, Robert Kelly, Ahab, Emma Frost, Charles Xavier, the Summers family et al, Caliban, and Moira MacTaggert are all copyright Marvel. Seizure is mine. I think that's it for this chapter, but don't hold me to that. PG-13 for language and some general ickiness.

Author's Note: First of all, special thanks to Redhawk for supplying some much-needed Empath dialogue when I got stuck. Dare you to guess which parts. ;)
Secondly, I've added annotations for this thing, since I've encountered a little confusion so far. The page is at http://www.fortunecity.com/rivendell/zelda/98/dofppage.html, and I apologize for the banners in advance. This page should be updated whenever a new chapter comes up, so keep an eye on it.

DoFP: Empty Men 2/?
by Tapestry

Champagne, evening dress, and caviar... it was difficult to believe a place like this could still exist in the world they had created. But here they were, the top dogs of the government's branch of the mutant control agency, drinking the night away as if there was nothing outside this room.

Manuel stood in the shadow of an enormous decorative plant, sipping his champagne. He was drinking a bit too much, as he was beginning to develop a habit of doing, but that hardly mattered. There was no one here he would wish to talk to, especially not while the mandatory red M was pinned to the lapel of his tuxedo. There was the occasional mutant here and there, true, but mostly those associated with the Hound program. Masque, for example, who was responsible for physical modifications in the subjects, was sulking in another corner, glaring at the soiree as if it bore him some personal repugnance. And, with Masque's misshapen features and sour nature, it might as well have.

Neither of the two would have been there at all had it not been for Ahab's express orders. This party was directly related to their area of expertise, after all, and anyway, it reminded them of who was in charge. There were few things Ahab treasured more than the opportunity to make his subordinates uncomfortable, and this was turning out to be an excellent opportunity.

All around him he could feel the brush of emotions. Amusement, curiosity, distaste, apathy, lust... they were all there, in one capacity or another. He did his best to ignore the sources--it was easier that way. He dared not exercise his influence over any of these people, not with Ahab watching him. But someday, someday soon... he hailed the waitress for another glass of champagne.

His eyes were, almost inexorably, drawn towards a young technician. He'd forgotten her speciality, but he had long since ceased to care. He knew her as one who despised mutants, and took special pleasure in her position in the Hound program. She glanced his way, and her disgust rolled over him like a bitter yellow wave before she averted her gaze. The emotion (was it his, or a reflection of hers?) was mutual. She was one of the few technicians who had volunteered for the program. She took a very real, very personal delight in her role in the degradation of mutantkind, and regarded him, and all mutants, as something less than human.

Well, Manuel could vent his frustrations on her, at least.

Ahab frowned upon the use of his powers against subordinates, but only on paper. As long as Manuel's antics did not escalate the suicide rate, the man could have cared less. And surely interoffice flings were not against the rules...

But not with himself. Even through the pleasant haze of vindictiveness and alcohol, Manuel was certain about that. No, there was a better way...

His thoughts fell again on Masque. The man was a sharp shard of hatred and loathing in the midst of the party, and his opinion of Manuel--and indeed, all mutants who did not harbor the same sort of horrible disfigurement as he--was less than friendly. Manuel had often heard him laugh when discussing his work on the Hounds, gloating about how he had twisted yet another normal mutant, reveling in the petty victory torturing the helpless afforded him...

Yes. Manuel made up his mind immediately. He reached into the pretty young technician's mind and stoked a lust, parallel to her hatred of mutants, and directed it towards Masque. It was surprisingly easy. The woman froze for a moment, stricken by the unfamiliar sensation, then immediately made for Masque. There was nothing delicate about the woman's overtures, and Manuel made sure Masque's response was appropriate. After scarcely two minutes the two departed, doubtless searching for somewhere more private, and Manuel allowed himself some smugness that, thanks to his manipulations, it was unlikely the sour mutant would be able to muster sufficient emotion to complete the transaction.

Strange. It was the sort of job that would have delighted him in his days with the Hellfire Club, but somehow it left him oddly empty.

"Well, de la Rocha, I see subtlety is no longer a priority."

Manuel turned to see Sebastian Shaw, Black King of what remained of the Hellfire Club, standing a little off to one side. He could feel disapproval sleeting from the man like silver pins.

"I do not need chiding, Sebastian," Manuel said, draining the last of his drink. "My mutancy is well-known, unlike some. They made no secret of their hatred for me."

Shaw shook his head. "Sometimes, boy, discretion is the better part of survival. I will speak to you again when you're in a more receptive mood."

As if he would have spoken to me here anyway, Manuel thought sourly. Shaw, a prominent supplier of government technology, had not yet been exposed as a mutant. Manuel deeply suspected that Ahab had, at one point, been fully aware of Shaw's genetic status, but had either decided to overlook it or had forgotten it. The latter was entirely possible; Shaw's telepathic aide, Tessa, was still around, somewhere, and the woman was nothing if not competent. Perhaps she had managed to pierce Ahab's vaunted telepathic shields.

Whatever the reason, Shaw continued to enjoy all the benefits of both high- priced businessman and government supporter. He and Robert Kelly, one of the President's closest advisors, remained good friends. Somehow the Black King always knew how to come out on top.

Nonetheless, he was, if not friendly towards, then at least on speaking terms with Manuel. Manuel had been the closest thing his colleague Emma Frost had ever had to a protege, and perhaps Shaw felt some lingering sense of responsibility towards him. It was unlikely the man held any actual affection for him, but these days Manuel took what he could get.

He set his champagne glass on a ledge, his appetite for drink gone. Maybe now would be a good time to leave. He'd put in an appearance, after all, perhaps he could beg off for the rest of the evening. It was unlikely Ahab would agree to it, but it was preferable to waiting for sobriety to overtake him.

He left his corner and began to mingle, scanning the party. Ahab was nowhere to be found, of course--that would have been too convenient. Well, perhaps that was for the best. That way no one would notice if he slipped out.

As he made for the door he noticed a discreet crowd in the corner. The emotions emanating from it were a mingling of disgust and fascination, not necessarily out of place here, but unusually concentrated.

Manuel edged forward, trying to catch a glimpse of what had captivated the crowd, and was surprised to see an unfamiliar face. The man was definitely a mutant--he wore the dress uniform of the Executive, and the mandatory red M. Even despite all this, his genetic status was undeniable. The man was hideous; his head was bulbous and deformed, his body obviously withered even beneath the starch of the uniform. His right hand held a crutch, and beneath his pantleg there was a faint suggestion of a brace. He was being discreetly--but quite obviously--cornered.

Somewhere deep in the bowels of Manuel's tattered pride a tiny worm of anger stirred at the touch of the mutant's red-gold flush of shame. The empath had been left with blessed little dignity thanks to Ahab, but he had begun to abhor seeing the same degradation done to others. It took little effort to dispel the crowd's interest in the mutant, and within moments they had dispersed.

Even this, though, left Manuel with no feeling of satisfaction. Instead he found himself thinking about the hounded mutant. Why didn't he stand up for himself? If he were one of the Executive then surely he was an alpha-level. Why didn't he defend himself? Had the man no pride?

But then, Manuel thought, with a sort of dull resignation, who am I to judge? I submit to Ahab's taunts and demands like a beaten dog. Who am I to question a man's pride?

As the thought ran its course, Manuel felt a brush against his psi-shields. He knew who it must be. He responded with a sense of dull inquiry, and immediately wished he hadn't. The resulting psilink, though light, scraped across his consciousness like rusty nails.

:I am Seizure,: the mindvoice said, and Manuel felt his eyes gravitate back towards the speaker. The man was even uglier now that he had a clear view of him; one of his eyes bulged while the other remained a mere slit, and his nose was snubbed and skewed against his greyish face. Manuel could not help but suppress a shudder of revulsion.

:I am Manuel Alfonso de la Rocha,: Manuel replied. Across the room, the withered form nodded its head.

:The empath,: rasped the voice, harsh as steelwool. :Thank you.:

And with that, the contact was gone, and their eye contact broke. Manuel could not say he was disappointed. The psitouch had been grating, almost painful--nothing like the cool, crisp touch of the White Queen, or the soft, osmotic presence of Dawn. Seizure was obviously a psi not used to casual conversation, which wasn't unusual--the Executive had been chosen for their offensive skills, not their expertise in communication.

Unfortunately, Manuel's careless act of benevolence had ruined whatever chance he might have had to escape. While he had been distracted, Ahab had arrived. He was dressed in a standard controller's uniform, which was actually a step up from the turtleneck and slacks he generally wore. Sadism, it seemed, bowed to no dress code.

Someone tapped a glass with a spoon for attention. It was hardly needed--Ahab's presence was all it took to quiet the room.

"Let's not mince words," Ahab said once all eyes were upon him. His ever- present five o'clock shadow and slightly wild hair made him seem oddly intense, even had he not had the benefit of an obsession one could drown in. "You have been called here to witness the next phase in mutant tracking and apprehension. As you well know, for almost a year now we have been developing a method for creating mutant-hunting Hounds--genetically and psychically altered beings programmed to aid Mutant Control Officers. Tonight I have been authorized to announce that there have been two successful Hound converts, both of which have completed their first hunt."

There was movement behind Ahab, and an assistant stepped into the spotlight. He was holding a leash attached to a very reluctant young girl. It was Rachel Summers, Ahab's first Hound.

"As you can see, the initial process makes them somewhat docile," Ahab said calmly as Rachel cowered before the crowd, her eyes wide with fear. Ahab gave her an absent-minded pat on the head, fingering her bright, buzzed hair. "However, Summers here is the prototype. We expect that, in time, Hounds will be able to interact in society without a handler. We find mutants with psychic power to be preferable, but we have also had some success with those who possess heightened senses. This particular Hound is a telepath, and it is very likely its power will increase with age."

Especially considering she's only fourteen years old, Manuel thought acidly. He cared little enough for the X-Men, but Rachel had been his first assignment. She had screamed and fought, her psychic defenses surprisingly resilient. She had manifested her powers early, and it seemed that Xavier had taught her to reinforce her natural defenses. He remembered that the first time he had sat down beside the girl she'd surprised him with a telekinetic hammerblow so powerful it sent him flying right out of the observation room, and he'd required several weeks' leave to recover from the cracked ribs. Ahab hadn't let him retaliate. Rachel was... special, he had said, and so she had turned out to be. In the months it took to condition her, Manuel had become familiar with every facet of Rachel's psyche. Her love for her mother and father had been stripped down and redirected towards Ahab, which, perhaps, was for the better. Both parents had been killed in the initial raid on the X-Men's mansion.

As for Ahab, he seemed to reciprocate the emotion, as much as someone as fractured as he was able. It had occurred to Manuel that Ahab saw her as something like a bonsai tree; something to be nurtured and protected, but never allowed to grow free. He had been present for every moment of her conditioning, and had developed some of the more sadistic techniques himself. He treated the girl like a prize bloodhound--which, in many ways, she was.

Of course, Manuel thought as Ahab continued to list the merits of the Hound program, what he hadn't mentioned was that only one in three mutants became successful trackers. Well, roughly. They had two Hounds and five... things. Mutants who hadn't even lasted past the initial breaking, and which Ahab still kept around as berserkers or guinea pigs. It seemed that a certain kind of mind was needed for the current Hound process: one strong enough to survive the conditioning, as Rachel was, or one already used to being a tracker, like the other one...

Ahab's lecture wound down, and Manuel could taste the audience's reactions as the applause began. Most were... well, "pleased" wasn't the right word, but there was a general feeling of muted enthusiasm. A few fanatics were almost dancing with excitement, and many of those funding the program were at least vaguely satisfied to see their money well-spent (the fact that their contributions were deductible had nothing to do with it, Manuel was sure). A small part of the audience was frankly disturbed by the display, and Manuel wondered which were or would be supporting a bill to ban such procedures in the future. Surely some of them were already involved with resistance groups. Perhaps there was hope for the future yet.

However, there was one small, almost conspicuously violent pocket of agitation in the crowd. Manuel recognized the flavor of the telepath, Seizure, on these emotions, and automatically turned towards where he had last seen the man. He was not clapping along with the rest of the crowd. Indeed, he was staring at Ahab and Rachel with a look of sheer horror on his face.

He can't possibly be surprised, Manuel thought, his lip curling with disgust. How long did he believe that mutants could earn a respite by hunting for the government? As soon as Ahab has developed some practice that will make me obsolete, I'll be finished. So will the Executives. The only reason they allow us our position in society is because there is, at present, no way around it.

Manuel glanced at Ahab. He was smiling that cold, cruel little smile that made shivers crawl up the empath's spine. For a moment his gaze shifted to Manuel, smug and mocking, and then it was turned to Seizure. Manuel flinched. He knew that look. "This is what's in store for you," it seemed to say. "This is your future, and you and I both know it."

Seizure held Ahab's gaze for a long, shocked moment, then abruptly spun on his heel. He hobbled out, clutching his crutch like a lifeline, and was gone far faster than seemed possible. Manuel wished he could do the same, but Ahab had seen him. He would know if Manuel left, and find some way to punish him for it later. So, Manuel improvised. He headed straight for Ahab, doing his best to look utterly neutral and businesslike. As a student of Emma Frost, it was what he did best.

"Yes, Manuel?" Ahab said as Manuel stopped a respectable distance from the man.

"I wish to inspect the kennels," Manuel replied. "Your speech is done, and I feel the need to do something... productive."

"Very well," Ahab said after a moment. Manuel exhaled. Apparently his employer had decided that he'd made his point for the night.

"Well?" Ahab snapped, abruptly turning towards the aide, "Return Summers to the kennels. De la Rocha will accompany you. That is all."

"Yes, sir," the aide said, saluting. Technically, Ahab did not have any military rank to speak of, but it was better to be safe than sorry.

Rachel was eager to go. She had already pulled back from the crowd as far the leash would allow, and was straining to go farther. Manuel absently sent a wave of calm towards her, and she eased a bit.

He and the aide left the party in silence, Rachel padding a little before them. The girl's alert green eyes scanned the hallway continuously, eager to please. She probably wasn't even aware of the tiny ball of resentment and rage that burned deep below her conscious thoughts. She had a particular hatred of Manuel, which he had let pass untouched. He felt that he had earned her loathing.

"More special treatment from Campbell, eh?" the aide said as they walked through the hallways. "Between you and his sick obsession with Red here some of the boys think we know why we never see him with a woman. Tell me, de la Rocha, how many pieces of silver does your pretty white ass go for these days?"

Manuel stopped walking, as did the man. Rachel, sensing the tension in the air, pulled away.

Manuel turned to the aide, his perfect Spanish features twisted in a hateful grimace. "Just *pray* that there's always someone else there to kiss Campbell's ass. Because you really don't want to be in that position. Do you want to know what it's like, boy? Do you want to feel what he feels when he breaks another mutant? I could arrange that. I could make that the *last* thing you ever feel. So how about showing a little fucking gratitude, okay?"

He could feel the aide's through his developing headache, and small wonder. Manuel was rarely inclined towards verbal abuse, especially when it was so much easier--and more difficult to detect--to simply press the emotional buttons. Tonight it no longer seemed worth the effort.

They continued on in silence. After what felt like an eternity, they reached the kennels. It was a dark, filthy hall lined with cells, each equipped with an observation window. Scarred faces watched him as Rachel was returned to her cell, their eyes haunted and ravenous. One, a massive, craggy mutant called Caliban and Ahab's only truly successful Hound besides Rachel, turned away. Manuel had heard that Caliban had been a tracker for a group of subterranean grotesques called the Morlocks, then a servant of Apocalypse. It made sense--Caliban had been astonishingly easy to condition. Previous programming had formed a virtual roadmap for Manuel to follow. It had hardly taken any time whatsoever.

The other faces, on the other hand... Manuel shuddered. There was no trace of sanity in their eyes. Their emotions were primal and chaotic, full of pain and undirected rage. They were rarely bothered. The last time a guard had attempted to remove one from its cell he had been ripped in half. It had taken Manuel, two other psis, and a dozen guards to get it back under control. Ahab had been mildly amused.

The aide deposited Rachel in her own cell, a little apart from the others. It had no window. Instead there was a small sliding panel high up on the door, and another panel near the ground where food could be inserted. It seemed almost as if Ahab were trying to keep Rachel all for himself, even in darkness of the kennels.

Wordlessly, Manuel sat down in the cracked plastic chair that was the kennel's only furnishing. The guards barely noticed him. They were talking to the aide, voices lowered in some private joke. It was about him, no doubt, but he couldn't seem to muster the energy. Somehow the party had left him very, very tired. Ironically, the turbulent emotions of the Hounds soothed him. They, at least, were straightforward.

He closed his eyes and leaned back, the Hounds' dull, empty need washing over him. He reached out, smoothing the raw pain of isolation and rage. He turned their despair into contentment, their pain into pleasure. He knew he was working around Ahab's directives; the Hounds' longing for human contact was an integral part of their conditioning, and the unbearable isolation of the kennels served as an incentive to obey human commands. The anger was something to be turned towards their targets, as it tended to make them keener on finding them--or, in the berserkers' cases, to killing them. Manuel's influence would have to fade with his departure, but at least until then he could give the creatures some small manner of peace.

Why did he do it? He wasn't sure. Guilt, possibly. As his control had increased and he had learned to more effectively separate the emotions of others from his own, Manuel had learned to empathize with the human psyche, especially a broken one. Perhaps it had been MacTaggert's accursed nagging while he had been at Muir, or his repeated exposure to mutant rebels, transient though their loyalties were.

Or, the more cynical side of himself said as he watched Caliban's scarred face slack with bliss, perhaps all those noble ideals were wishful thinking, and he simply enjoyed the measure of control he held over these pathetic beings. He controlled so little in his life, after all--didn't he deserve something?

Pushing his empathy to its limits, Manuel sighed and wished for another glass of wine as he gave the Hounds the peace he himself would never feel.

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