Disclaimer: Marvel chars belong to Marvel, others belong to me. Incidentally, Allison Crestmere was Magma, or Amara Aquilla, if you were more into the New Mutants than you were into X-Force, like I was.

Author's Note: Now we're getting into the fun part. I've updated http://www.dreamwater.org/tapestry/dofppage.html again, just a bit, but removed the images (except for the plaque made by Matt Nute) because I'll be moving them to their own gallery page soon. White pencil sketches on black backgrounds really don't go well...

Empty Men 5/?
by Tapestry

This is going to take forever, Manuel thought, wiping the sweat from his brow. He despised trying to turn telepaths; they were especially sensitive to the slightest change in their mental state, and there was nothing worse than trying to perform a complete emotional overhaul on someone who knew what you were doing.

He pressed the button on the intercom that was wired to the control room. "I'm going to take a break," Manuel said. "I will resume work in ten minutes."

"Acknowledged," crackled the distant voice. Manuel sighed and sat down.

:Thanks for the breather,: Dawn sent. Manuel snorted.

:Who said it was for you?: he asked. :Dios, you couldn't ease up any?:

:I said I understood what you were doing, not that I would let you do it. Come on, Manny, you know me better than that.:

:I suppose so.: He reached for the jug of water beside him and poured himself a glass. :Water, senorita?:

:Yes, please.:

Manuel held the cup to her lips and let her drink before refilling it for himself. It seemed only fair, after all, as she was the one strapped to the table.

:This reminds me of when I was in traction after the Shadow King affair,: Dawn continued absently. :Both legs and six ribs...:

:It served you right for rushing in,: Manuel replied. :Especially with Rasputin and Braddock under Farouk's control.:

Dawn snorted. :You have no sense of adventure, Manuel.:

:Why enter a fight when I can get others to do it for me?: He swirled the water in his glass. :Besides, empathy isn't much good against a psi-shielded mutant with the ability to grind your skull into a fine pulp.:

:Oh, you have to admit it was exciting.: The corners of her mouth turned upwards almost imperceptibly. :You, me, the Professor, Ms. Frost, Jono, Psylocke and Phoenix against the mind-controlled X-Men.:

:Only if you find the concept of certain death exciting, Embers. I have never found the life of an X-Man particularly appealing.:

:That's a pity. We could have used you.:

:As what, a punching bag? They never liked me, senorita.:

:You'd have grown on them.:

:I find that doubtful.: Which was an understatement, as his tenure at Muir Island had proven. The fact that several of the X-Men had a previous and unpleasant relationship with him while he had been involved in the Hellions probably hadn't helped, either. It hadn't been an easy time for him.

Still, he had to admit that it was pleasant to talk to someone again, even if it was about memories that he didn't particularly like. It had been a long time since someone had spoken to him willingly, save for Shaw and Ahab, and those discussions were rarely enjoyable. It was a slice of comfort in an indifferent world.

:This is silly,: Dawn sent after a moment. :I can't even look at you from this angle. Astral plane?:

:If you wish,: Manuel replied. He saw Dawn's eyes roll upwards, and prepared himself for a momentary feeling of disorientation. He was not a psi in the traditional sense, but he had always associated with them somewhat better than other mutants. They tended to be better shielded, for one. This being the case, he was well used to most of their tricks.

Still, the astral plane always took his breath away. It was like everything he sensed made real. The mingled emotions of the collective human consciousness drifted past him like a psychedelic mist, cool and calm. It was beautiful, in its way, and oddly reassuring. The face of the world might change, but the astral plane would endure.

:That's better,: Dawn said, stretching her arms over her head. Her astral form glowed against the fog of emotions, blue fading to white. She wore no armor; she trusted him.

:If you say so,: he sighed. :Look, Embers. You can prolong this as much as you'd like, but the fact remains that in five minutes I return to my job, and you to your position of victim. You can't pretend otherwise.:

She gave him a look, and for a moment he saw a shadow of that old obstinance cross her face. Just for a moment it seemed they were once more on Muir Island, and Dawn was getting ready to smack him.

:I'm not pretending,: she said at last, exasperation pouring from her in waves of yellow smoke. :I just don't see why we can't make the most of the time we have. Do you want me to be angry? Do you want me to fight you? Tell me, what's the use in that? It won't change anything.:

:It would make *me* feel better,: Manuel retorted. :Somehow I don't get the sense that you take this seriously.:

She stiffened. :I have a husband and two children,: Dawn snapped, glaring at him. :Trust me, I'm taking this *extremely* seriously. But until I find a way out or my teammates come for me, there's nothing I can do about it.:

:So you've decided having a cordial little discussion with me is the best way to pass the time? Believe me, senorita, you have no idea what Ahab is capable of. He is not the man you knew.:

:I know, Manny, but he can't be totally gone. The Professor thought there might be some lingering damage from the Shadow King's manipulation, but Dr. Campbell didn't stay with us long enough to follow up on it. Maybe if I can talk to him...:

Manuel actually laughed. :You think anything can be solved by talking, don't you? Oh, that is too good. Xavier must have loved you.:

:Just because the X-Men were formed primarily to deal with aggressive mutants doesn't mean we don't know how to be diplomatic,: Dawn retorted.

:Point taken,: Manuel replied, rolling his eyes, :but trust me, that won't work with Ahab. He's immune to projective empathy and telepathy, and surely you must have felt the sheer hatred he has for us. Nothing is going to change his mind.:

:Everyone can change, Manny,: Dawn persisted. :You did.:

:No, I didn't. I just learned to better control my powers.:

:Whatever you say, Manny.: And, much to his disgust, she smirked and tapped him on the nose.

:You truly nauseate me, Embers,: Manuel informed her, curling his lip. She only laughed.

:Someday you'll appreciate all I've done for you,: she said.

:And these are?: he inquired.

:Shall I make a li--erk.: Dawn's face contorted with pain, and she staggered backwards a step. Manuel started towards her, alarmed.

:Senorita, what is it?: he asked, extending a hand. She started to open her mouth, but before she could answer the astral plane seemed to dissolve around them like a Salvador Dali masterpiece. Suddenly they were back in reality--and they weren't alone.

Ahab was beside Dawn's prone body, one hand around her throat. Not tightly enough to completely cut off circulation, but enough to make her struggle to breathe. He looked, to put it mildly, displeased.

"I know I said you were free to use your off hours at your discretion, Manuel," the man said, eyes narrowed, "but telepathic conversation with your subjects wasn't quite what I had in mind." He released his grip on Dawn's throat, and was rewarded with a spluttering choke.

"My... fault," she gasped, chest heaving. "Just... wanted to..."

"Talk, yes, I know. We'll have to fix that. However, I'd rather talk to Manuel. De la Rocha, we need to talk."

Manuel felt his stomach turn. "A... all right, Ahab, just give me a--"

"*Now,* de la Rocha."

"Y... yes, sir."

He tried not to look at Dawn as he followed Ahab out of the room like a scolded puppy. He didn't think his pride could take the look in her eyes.

:I'm sorry, Manny,: she sent as he closed the door behind him, her signal weakening as he passed a baffler.

:No, senorita, I am sorry,: he replied, and broke contact.

After a moment, Ahab spoke. "I knew you two had a link, Manuel, but I didn't think you'd be stupid enough to use it."

"She implemented it, sir."

"Oh, I know. And I'll have a word with her later. I just want to show you something before I do." He turned another corner. They were entering another restricted area--one Manuel didn't recognize.

The silence dragged. Finally, out of desperation to fill the void, Manuel had to ask.

"Where are we going, senor?"

"Oh, you'll see." Ahab stopped in front of a door marked "Behavioral Control," nodding at the idle guards stationed at either side. "I just thought it was time you met one of your peers."

"Peers?" As far as Manuel was concerned, he knew all his "peers," if you could call them that. Telepaths, mostly, and only a few alphas. There were certainly no empaths of his caliber working for the program.

"Yes." The man brushed past a few drifting scientists, heading towards the raised mass in the middle of the room, nested in a clot of wires and equipment. Manuel frowned and looked closer. There was some sort of small, round tank in the middle of the mess.

"At the beginning of the mutant relocations, there were riots in the ghettos," Ahab continued conversationally, approaching the tank. It was no bigger than a hatbox, really, and covered by a black cloth. "We encouraged it; it keeps the population under control. I thought a sporadic burst of psychosis now and then would do them good, so I enlisted the help of Andrew Hamish Graves--Spoor."

Manuel felt a prickle of fear touch his spine. He'd never met the man, but apparently Spoor had been not only a serial killer, but also under Ahab's care for a time. Unfortunately, the erstwhile Dr. Campbell had misjudged Spoor's capabilities, and by the time the sociopath had been deported Rory had been missing not only half a leg, but a few marbles as well.

"Sadly, Graves had a deathwish," Ahab went on, studiously inspecting a tank. "Within the first month he tried to commit suicide seven times, no matter how many precautions we took. I believe he even attempted to smash his skull open on his cell wall, and only stopped once he lost consciousness. He was useful for crowd-control, however, so we didn't want to give him up. We found that certain... modifications were in order. Hence this." He twitched aside the cloth.

At first Manuel thought it was some kind of plant--cauliflower, perhaps, or at the very least something pickled. Certainly it was whitish and withered. It took almost a full five seconds before he noticed that cauliflower usually didn't have eyes.

Manuel realized he was looking at the disembodied brain of Andrew Hamish Graves.

"Now, since Graves' power to affect emotions was caused by emitting certain pheromones we had some initial problems," Ahab continued, not even looking up from the tank. "Luckily for us, there were artificial alternatives at our disposal. Thanks to Spoor here we've been able to determine that synthetic pheromones are every bit as effective as the real thing."

Manuel finally found his voice. "Is he... dead?"

Ahab raised an eyebrow. "Dead? What use would he have been dead? No, he's quite alive, much to his regret. Just sleeping. However," Ahab rapped sharply on the glass, to no apparent effect, "there are no touch-sensitive nerves in the brain. So we use a small electric stimulator, like so." His hand crept towards the adjacent consol and pressed a button.

There was no visible change in the brain, but suddenly Manuel was aware of another emotional presence in the room. The sheer volume of its hatred staggered him, overwhelming the background emotions of the scientists, paling even Ahab's glow of sadistic glee. For that one desperate moment Manuel felt himself drowning in the rage and despair of Graves, trapped in a tiny box of loathing and misery that he was unable to escape. Those floating brown eyes, before so dead and empty, suddenly seemed to blaze with a malevolence Manuel knew should have been impossible without a face.

Then Manuel returned to his senses, slamming his shields around him. The flood of emotion ebbed to something manageable, and his mind was his own again.

He realized that Ahab was looking at him steadily. Those flat, mirthless eyes set against a face twisted into a jaunty grin were somehow even more frightening than Graves'.

"Now," the man hissed softly, "aren't you glad you decided to cooperate?"

Manuel felt the blood drain from his face. "...S-si, senor," he whispered.

"Good." Ahab abruptly turned on his heel, away from Manuel. "Now, you have the rest of the day off."

"I..? But what about Embers?"

"I'm going to have that talk with her. She's a reasonable girl. I'm sure it won't take long."

Manuel suppressed a shudder. A talk from Ahab could mean anything from a civilized conversation to a medieval torture session. Against his will, his eyes gravitated again towards Graves' seething cortex, exhibited in the tank like a grotesque work of art.

"Yes, sir," Manuel said at last, his voice hollow. What else could he do? Fighting would only earn him an expulsion... or perhaps a tank of his own.

He wasn't sure how he got into the hallway. All he knew was that Ahab wasn't with him, and he could no longer feel Graves' rage.

Dawn is faced with torture or worse, and all I can think about is how grateful I am that it is not me, he thought bitterly, starting towards the exit. And should I rebel... no. I won't think about it. That won't happen to me. Not to me.

Once more, the image of Graves' brain filled his thoughts. He shivered.

He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn't notice the man trying to get his attention until he was actually touched on the shoulder. Consequently, Manuel almost knocked him over when he spun around, ready to strike out.

"Mr. de la Rocha," Seizure said, raising his good hand in a placating manner. "I'm sorry if I--"

"What do you want?" Manuel snapped. Seizure looked taken aback.

"I wanted to talk to you," he replied. "I want to know more about the Hound program."

"Then ask Ahab," Manuel retorted. "I'm off for the rest of the day."



Manuel left the man behind him, open-mouthed and hurt. He felt no pity for Seizure; he had learned long ago that being a mutant did not automatically evoke feelings of brotherhood in others. This was unfortunate, because with Manuel's personality he could have used the extra edge.

One day I'll see that grotesque on my table, Manuel thought as he wound down the halls towards the security checkpoint. And then he'll thank me for not getting his hopes up.

He walked in silence, pausing only long enough to sign out and undergo the mandatory search process. What they were expecting to find on him he never knew; he didn't work with any equipment that could have been concealed in a jacket, and it wasn't as if he could ferry out a Hound. Still, he had little say in the matter, and protesting only made it worse.

He returned to his building--not a barracks, but one of the miserable little apartment buildings around the complex that had been commandeered for employee housing. They had been renovated since their purchase, but Manuel found his apartments stifling. After his airy villa in Spain and the decadence of the Hellfire Club, a handful of miserable rooms was hardly enough to satisfy him.

The "doorman," an armed guard with a paranoid eye, watched him as he entered the building, but said nothing. Security cameras followed the empath through the lobby, into the elevator, and then to his rooms. The building was small, and no one wanted to live near him; he had the floor to himself. The faded carpet and water-stained walls smelled of must and mold. The superintendent had promised to fix the place up, but it was a building for the mutant employees, and no heroic measures were taken.

He spared a moment to fumble for his key, although why he bothered to lock his door was beyond him. He had little enough worth stealing, and the building's other occupants stayed as far away from him as possible. Anyway, the damnable door was always jammed as it was--he had a hard enough time getting into the place *with* a key.

The scent of stale air assailed his nostrils; the maid hadn't been doing her job, as usual. Manuel made a mental note to have a "talk" with her when he saw her next. She was an orange-skinned mutant, apparently powerless, and about as bright as the carrot she resembled. It wouldn't have surprised him if she'd been dull enough to decide Manuel's apartments were a good place to skimp on the service.

Manuel ripped off his jacket and collapsed into an armchair, his gaze falling on the liquor cabinet. He'd have to restock it soon; he had the tendency to let his mind wander while drinking, and before he knew it an entire bottle would be gone. Well, he had little else to spend his wages on, at any rate, so it mattered little.

He forced himself out of the chair and over to the cabinet. There wasn't much left--a little brandy, that was all--but he would have to make do. He took a glass and the bottle and settled back down.

Allison would never have stood for this sort of thing. She never would have fallen into Ahab's hands, for one thing--and even if she had, she'd have fought rather than submitting to him. He thought back to his days with her in Brazil, trying to rehabilitate the inhabitants of Nova Roma and using his powers for the first worthwhile cause in his life, then or now. Allison Crestmere had been a fierce, beautiful woman, and she had chosen Manuel. Manuel, who Xavier had once referred to as the incarnation of evil. He could still smell the scent of her golden hair, like sunshine and fresh flowers...

But he had ruined it, just like everything else. That had been so very, very long ago, and Allison was so very, very dead.

And my last chance of redemption gone with her.

He poured himself a glass of brandy and began to drink.

Continue To Chapter Six

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