Disclaimer: Marvel chars belong to Marvel, mine belong to me. Surprise, eh?
Author's Note: And the ending is FINALLY nigh...
"We've changed this thing five times already. Are you sure this is going to work?"
Karen chewed fretfully on the end of a screwdriver. She wasn't used to so many technical difficulties on one project. She hoped it was just a side effect of her recent separation from the Phalanx; her technopathic powers seemed to be at low ebb, and even easy things, like manipulating the metallic shell around her arms, had become markedly more difficult. It wasn't as bad as when she had first awoken, but she was still far from peak condition. This might be a problem.
"It'd better," Karen said at last, giving the device a final poke. "Scanning for psiprints probably ain't gonna work--if Jase'd been in any position to use his powers he'd have reached me already, which means they're probably shielded, and anyway, none of us are telepaths. So we're going to have to do things the old fashioned way."
"Which is?" Vance asked. The wraith was at the counter, fixing sandwiches. This was not so much because anyone was particularly hungry, he just wanted to get the meat out of the now defunct refrigerator. It had first been damaged in the Phalanx's attack, and the call for spare parts had been its death sentence.
"Genetic codes," Karen replied. She raised her left hand and, with some difficulty, reabsorbed the layer of metal that incased it. Forming a spike from the metal of her other hand, Karen pierced her palm deeply enough to draw blood. She held the bloody spot over a slot in the ridiculously complicated device she and Derrick had made and waited.
"Is it supposed to be doing something?" Vance asked after a few minutes of absolute silence. Karen scowled at him.
"I'm trying to get it to scan for a similar genetic code, not mine," she replied, raising her hand a little. Silvery threads of circuitry had crawled out of the wound, connecting her to the machinery. "This thing is made from bits of the 'fridge, the TV, the VCR, and an old ham radio of Derrick's. It's got a Frankenstein's Monster Complex."
"I liked that radio, too," Derrick muttered. He was leaning back in his chair, his hands covering his face. Karen ignored him.
"This may take some time," she sighed. "I frigging hate this."
"Yes, well, have a sandwich," Vance said, offering her the tray. Karen, hardwired into the piecemeal monstrosity that dominated the kitchen table, only stared at him.
Suddenly there was a click and a whirr, and the small make-shift screen that had been pried from a portable television lit up. A list of coordinates crawled across it like cautious ants.
"Oh, yes," Karen said softly, a huge grin splitting her face, "I am good. Someone wake Verney--it's time to go."
"Sir, are you sure this is a good idea?" Jefferey asked. His vision was fixed on the terrified young man's wide green eyes, which were in turn fixed on Sinister. As far as Jason was concerned, Jefferey wasn't even in the room.
"Quite," Sinister replied, rubbing his chin as he checked a nearby consol. "Yes... everything appears in order..."
"Don't," Jason whispered, his entire body vibrating with terror. "Please, please don't. Not again..."
Jefferey winced as hot, horrible tears spilled from Jason's eyes and cut a shining trail down his pale face. Sinister paid him no heed.
"Now, to reactivate the implant," said the scientist, his hand hovering above a particular button. The captive precog gave a heart-wrenching moan as Sinister's finger came down, and Jefferey turned away. He didn't see Jason's face go slack, but he did hear the strangled gasp. When he looked back the precog's eyes were rolled back in their sockets, and all expression was gone. Somehow this was even more disturbing than blank terror.
"So he... doesn't know what's goin' on anymore?" Jefferey ventured, stepping forward. He snapped his fingers in front of Jason's eyes. The man didn't even blink.
"I daresay he does, given past experience, but he is no longer in any position to express it. Now, let us begin."
Jefferey studied Jason's face as Sinister began to activate the hardware. He saw no sign that the man was comprehending anything that was happening to him.
Perhaps that was what made his sudden screams all the more frightening.
"Some initial discomfort always follows the expanding of awareness," Sinister said blandly as Jason's cries finally came to a sputtering stop and Jefferey allowed himself to remove his hands from his ears.
"He sounded like he was in agony!"
"Adjustments have been made, and it has been my experience that one can learn to live with anything. I would not worry about it." Sinister gave the equipment one last inspection, then turned away. "I would like you to check the settings daily. If they deviate from the norm, alert me to the problem. Otherwise, I do not wish to be disturbed. Barring difficulties, the setup should be quite self-sufficient."
"Y... yes, sir," Jefferey said woodenly. Sinister gave him a brief nod and departed, leaving his lab assistant alone with the helpless precog. Jefferey looked at the man's face and shuddered; a thin stream of saliva trickled down his chin. His eyes had rolled into their normal positions, but their gaze was dull and sightless. His cheeks were still moist from his desperate tears.
And Sinister hadn't cared at all.
How could the man be so cold? The depth of Jason's pleading had almost nauseated Jefferey, yet Sinister hadn't even batted an eye. How could he be so... inhuman?
This isn't right, Jefferey thought, wrenching his eyes away from Jason's blank face. I know it's for science, and I know it's important, but... it isn't right. It makes me feel sick inside.
And that sick feeling never seemed to go away, he realized. Ever since the two had been brought to the lab that hot, uncomfortable lump had weighed heavily in the pit of his stomach. His other duties were no comfort--mindless cataloguing only left his mind free to wander, as did number crunching. The constant sense of guilt wasn't doing anything for his mental health.
Perhaps he could have beared it if he had some assurance that things would be over soon--that Jason would have been "deactivated" and Dawn would be released. But Sinister showed no such inclination.
I could leave, Jefferey told himself as he padded through the corridors. There's no need for me to go against him. I can resign. I can... I can just leave them here to him...
Jefferey reached Dawn's cell and made a decision.
Jason was gone. I'd felt him scream telepathically, and then he'd just... disappeared. I'd spent a few minutes banging against the psi-dampers before giving up; I knew what had to have happened to him. Going wild was useless... I needed a plan. And I couldn't think of any.
I knotted the blankets of my cot around my fists, twisting the thin cloth. People, I thought, directing my prayers to the world at large, if you're going to go in for a rescue, you'd better do it quick...
And then the door opened with a hiss.
I sat there, blinking stupidly, as a Jefferey stepped in. He was wearing a black shirt and jeans--but not the labcoat or the latex gloves I'd always seen him in before. The hair on the back of my neck began to raise as he walked over to my bedside and stopped.
"Er..." I said intelligently.
"You're leavin'," he said shortly. "Come on, before I change my mind."
"Uh... okay." I got up and followed him out. Was this a trap? It didn't feel like it... and anyway, why would Sinister go through the trouble when I was already a prisoner? To break my spirit or something?
"Why the sudden change of heart?" I asked quietly as we passed through the hallways. Jefferey was walking fast, and I had to jog to keep up.
"Just..." he shook his head. "I'm tired of this. It isn't right." He sighed. "Now come on, we've got to get your friend."
Well, who was I to look a gift horse in the mouth? I followed him in silence.
By the time we reached Jason's chamber I was well on my way to an anxiety attack. The halls were quiet except for the sounds of Jefferey and I walking/jogging, but I kept imagining sounds. It felt like the top of my head had been peeled off and someone had poured a jar of fireants onto my brain. My senses felt stretched to the limit, but I was painfully aware that I was totally headblind. I couldn't feel a damn thing from anyone--not Sinister, not Jefferey, not even Jason, who should have stuck out like a sore thumb against the emptiness of the compound. Was it me, or was everyone else just shielded so well it was impossible to detect them? I don't think I've ever felt so helpless. It was too tight to fly, my telepathy wasn't going to work, and my medium power was still busted. What would happen if we got caught?
Jefferey didn't seem to be in a much better frame of mind. His hands were shaking slightly as he entered the keycode, and I realized that, as hard as this was for me, it was probably ten times worse for him. Sinister had made him, and from what I'd heard he didn't tolerate betrayal well. If this wasn't some kind of trap heads were going to roll. Probably Jefferey's.
"Look," I said awkwardly as the door slid open. "What are you going to do after this..? Run..?"
"I'm stayin'," Jefferey replied woodenly.
"But... he's going to kill you for this."
"That's his right. He made me, didn't he?"
"Yeah, but..." I bit my lip. "But... you shouldn't be punished just because you tried to do the right thing."
He smiled wanly. "This isn't the right thing, sunshine," he said softly, "this is me bein' weak. But thanks for the thought."
He entered the chamber, and I was forced to follow. Upon seeing the contents of the room I immediately wished I hadn't.
Jason hung against one wall, surrounded by circuitry and tubes. Judging from the expression on his face, the machines were doing most of the work.
"It'll take a while to get him out, an' I'll need your help to support him," Jefferey said, unfazed. As I watched he walked over to a control panel and began to shut things down. At least, I assumed he did--lights faded, and things started to bleep half-heartedly. Jason's body, which had been rigid and strained, slowly began to relax.
"Is he all right?" I asked, somewhat stupidly. Just from the look on Jason's face I could tell that even though the wheel was spinning the hamster was dead.
"He should be," Jefferey replied, moving away from the consol and starting to work on the tubes and wires that connected the precog to the machine. I reached out to help, but stopped when I realized I probably shouldn't mess with things I knew nothing about. (Not that this had ever stopped me before, but I drew the line when there was the risk of brain damage to another party.) I settled for supporting Jason's body as Jefferey slowly unhooked him. It seemed like the only thing left to do.
"You're going to have to help me with him," Jefferey said as the last of the restraints were released. "He has to be able to walk by the time you leave the complex. I can't come with you."
"He'll have to be at least half-awake, then," I replied dubiously. Jason wasn't showing any signs of regaining coherence, let alone consciousness. "I think I'm going to have to go into his mind."
"Let me get him out of this mess first," Jefferey said. "Here, take an arm..."
I did, and then had to avert my eyes as I blushed with embarrassment. Jason was... well, let's just say clothing wasn't one of Sinister's top priorities for him and leave it at that.
"Uh... are there any pants around here?" I asked, trying hard not to look. Sure, I'd taken anatomy lessons, but...
Jefferey looked down, and, to my amazement, blushed as well. "I guess it'd raise some questions once you're outta here," he said. "We'll stop by my room and get some clothes--it's on the way out."
"Right. But I need to wake him up first."
Jefferey lay Jason on his back, and I squatted next to him, placing a hand on his forehead. I wasn't sure how thick the psi-dampers were here--heck, maybe there weren't any; Jason had been able to get to me, after all--but physical contact helped me focus.
Gently, I nudged Jason's mind. It was heavily shielded, but I'd been invited into it before, and I knew the way back. I squirmed through the barrier just enough to poke my psychic fingers through and stroke the psyche beneath.
:It's okay now,: I whispered, my cheek pressed against the artificial walls that confined him. :Come out now, Jason. It's okay. Come out.:
I felt a feeble movement behind the walls, and soft fingers felt for my own. I pushed my hand through a bit further and felt Jason take it. There...
:All right, just a little push and we're out of here,: I murmured, and pulled. On the other side of the wall Jason heaved, and suddenly the barrier broke. I snapped back to reality and rocked backwards, hitting the cold floor with a thud. Jason, who was already firmly on the floor, had a much easier awakening.
"Karen..?" he said, his voice slightly strangled. He tried to push himself into a sitting position, and I wrapped my arms around his shoulders to help him up.
"You're a little timelagged, Jason," I replied, smiling faintly.
"Give me a... break," he groaned, rubbing his forehead. "Mind... feels so raw..."
"Actually, it's only been a few minutes, but the machine probably distorted your timesense," Jefferey said, glancing at the door. "We'd better hurry. Dr. Essex is workin', but for how long I don't know."
I nodded. "C'mon, Jase, upsy daisy," I said, looping my arm under his shoulders. "We need to get you walking."
The older man tried, and winced. "Ahhh... easier said than done. I've been... more or less paralyzed for the better part of the week." Jason staggered to his feet, or tried--Jefferey ended up having to haul him up himself. We held Jason between the two of us and somehow made it through the door.
"I'm... so glad... Karen isn't here right now..." Jason panted as he limped down the hall. "And Dawn... I hope you're averting your eyes."
"I am," I replied, pointedly fixing my eyes on a point further down the hall. "Oh, trust me, I am."
"Well... now I feel especially loved."
"Okay, Jase? Rock, hard place, me. Let's not go there."
"Here's my room," Jefferey said, sparing me further embarrassment. He glanced at Jason speculatively. "You're bloody tall, but I think I have some sweats that will do."
"Anything that covers the essentials," Jason snorted. He looked at me, and I nodded. He and Jefferey went into the room, leaving me waiting in the hallway.
:Is he for real?: came the telepathic inquiry. It was still shaky and faint, but it was definitely Jason. I quirked my lips a little.
:I think so,: I answered. :I hope so, anyway. I don't feel any maliciousness from him, but then, I don't feel much of anything.:
:No maliciousness? Didn't you stab him in the gut?:
:Yeah, and he doesn't seem to hold a grudge about it, either. I don't know, there's something about him...:
I trailed off as the two of them emerged from the room. Jason was wearing a set of ill-fitted sweats, and Jefferey a worried expression. He was looking more and more jittery, and I didn't blame him. The longer we stayed here the greater the odds of Sinister finding us...
"Let's get movin'," Jefferey said. He started to help Jason again, but I shook my head.
"I'm going to have to support him after this, right?" I put in, taking Jason's arm from Jefferey. "So I'd better get used to it, huh?"
"I suppose you're right," Jefferey said, and handed him off. Jason did not look amused.
"I'm not a child," he complained, although not too vehemently.
"Then you'd better learn to be in better shape when you get yourself abducted by mad geniuses."
"You're one to talk."
I stuck my tongue out, and he smiled weakly. Jefferey looked somewhat bemused. I couldn't really blame him--this probably wasn't what he'd had in mind when he'd decided to rescue us. Still, the poor guy looked as if he'd never seen friendly banter in his life. Then again, considering his maker, he probably hadn't.
"Can I ask you something?" I said, turning to Jefferey. He snorted a little.
"Why not?" he replied. "What is it?"
"Why are you doing this? I asked you before, but..."
He laughed shortly. "Why don't you just read my mind?" he asked.
"I can't. You've got shields I can't get past."
"Dr. Essex's doing, I suppose... well, that's too bad. At least then one'a us would've known."
I stared at him. "Are you serious? You're going to risk your life and you don't even know why?"
"Guess so. Just seemed like the thing t' do." He raised an eyebrow at me. "You can't tell me you've never done the same."
"Er." I could have, but it would have been a lie. Pretty much everything I'd done over the past few weeks had been based on a feeling, and nothing else.
The thing was, I was sure there was no way Jefferey could have known about my suicidal hobbies. Okay, the Onslaught encounter was partially televised, but that was it. Either Sinister had been keeping a closer watch on the X-people than they suspected, or...
Or what? That had to be it. Because the only alternative to that would be for Jefferey to actually know what kind of person I was, and there was no way he could.
...Of course, there was always the possibility I was overanalyzing this, and a statement was just a statement. Yeah, that was probably it. I tried to shove the thought to the back of my mind. I could think about this later... after we were out of here.
"Jefferey," I said slowly, "What's it going to take to get you to come with us?"
He favored me with another of his thin smiles, and I began to wonder if they ever reached his eyes. "The offer's appreciated, but I already told you that it's not going to happ--"
"Shut up for a minute, okay?" I interrupted. "You've treated me pretty well, all things considered... and I know I haven't been easy to get along with. I mean, I stabbed you in the stomach, for God's sake. And now you're risking your life to get us out of here. I owe you. Please, just come with us."
Jefferey was silent for a moment, deep in thought. Jason was being quiet as well, although whether this was from discomfort or tact I didn't know. I didn't care, either. Right now all I wanted to do was convince Jefferey to leave with us.
I don't know why it was so important, honestly. Obviously his appearance had something to do with it--I'm shallow like that, I admit it. But Jefferey wasn't a bad guy, and the thought of leaving him there with Sinister was abhorrent. Not just because he'd helped me, but because the thought of leaving anyone with the X-Men's designated mad scientist seemed inhumane. Even if the person involved wasn't technically human.
All right, I can't throw stones in that respect, but you know what I mean.
"What would I do?" Jefferey asked at last. "Join one o' your teams? Somehow I don't think that would work out. I'm not much of a fighter."
"Could have fooled me." We shared a memory of the events of the day before. For someone not used to physical combat Jefferey was damn good at holds.
"Okay, I still see your point," I continued. "But you're a lab assistant, right? We know a lot of scientists. Maybe Dr. MacTaggert could use your help...and trust me, I think you'd feel a lot more comfortable with her than someone who calls himself 'Mr. Sinister.'"
"Maybe..." Jefferey sighed, his forehead creased with tension. "But it doesn't feel... right... to leave him. I... I don't think I can."
"Of course not."
We froze, and Jason made a low, choked sound deep in his throat. Slowly, I turned around, and I was aware of Jefferey doing the same. There, standing behind us and to no one's surprise, stood Sinister. And he did not look amused.
"Jefferey will not leave because I did not create him with the wherewithal to do so," Sinister continued. "Nor, I suspect, does Smith. True, their behavior has been regrettable, but with some slight reprogramming all should be in order." He dragged his red eyes away from the chagrined Jefferey and rested them squarely on me. "And now, Ms. Embers, I believe we must have words."
And I, for maybe the first time in my life, couldn't think of anything to say.
To be concluded.