Restraint

by Duncan Johnson

Now

Neil Conran sits at the back of the hall, fidgeting in the wooden chair that rocks on the cold stone floor. He raises a hand to his mouth distractedly, preparing to chew on one of his nails. Then he thinks better of it and replaces his hand in his lap.

The hall is draughty and the two banners on either side of the stage snap in the breeze. The banners are brightly coloured, red and yellow, and their movement reminds Neil of dancing candle flames, hardly the raging fires Purity would like to stir up.

Neil checks his watch. The meeting is due to start in less then three minutes now. His mouth is dry, even swallowing hurts, and he wishes he had thought to bring a water bottle. He does not want to go out there, does not want to get up on to that stage and address all of these people, but he knows that he has no choice.

Neil Conran is here to tell them the truth about mutants.

* * *

Twenty-one hours earlier

Cassie Benedict could hardly believe her luck. She knew that she was taking a risk every time she went down to the club, but the rush alone was worth it. There was something about the danger, the risk of getting caught, that made it all the sweeter. Plus, the pounding bass-line helped her forget who and what she was, if only for a few hours.

It was not the first time a guy had hit on her either. Cassie knew she was pretty. Elfin as the word most people used. Of course, they did not know the half of it. Flirting with a guy was fine, kind of a thrill really. But she could not let him get too close, could not leave with him and, most important of all, she could not let him see what was under that had she always wore.

But Jake had seen and Cassie could hardly believe her luck.

Jake had seen those two, feathered antennae that curled up out from her forehead and he had not freaked. He had not shouted or screamed or taunted or run. Instead he had told her they were beautiful, that she was beautiful. And now she was skipping away from the club, arm in arm with this guy she had just met, the only guy she had met who did not mind what she was, and she was floating, carried away on a high like she had never known.

And it all came crashing down when they rounded the corner.

'Look what I've found,' Jake said to the three guys waiting in the alley. 'Another freak trying to pass herself off as one of us.'

'Wh-what's going on here?' Cassie said. She tried to back away, but Jake was still holding on to her arm, only now his touch did not thrill her, it hurt.

'What does it look like, sweet-cheeks?' Jake taunted. 'We're trying to clean up the gene-pool.'

'But you said' Cassie began. Tears filled her yellow-green eyes.

'Hey, dude,' one of the other guys said, 'I love it when they get like this, all scared and innocent. It's so much more fun this way.'

Jake hurled Cassie on to the ground at the other guy's feet.

'Feel free to have as much fun as you want, Kyle,' Jake said, 'just remember to finish her off when you're done.'

'Oh, don't worry, dude,' Kyle said, snapping taut the length of chain in his hands, 'that's the best part.'

'You don't get out much, do you?' a girl asked. She had wavy brown hair and was wearing a denim jacket over a yellow T-shirt and blue jeans.

'Who asked you?' Jake demanded.

The girl shrugged. 'Just showing an interest. Wouldn't want you guys doing something you might regret.'

'No chance of that,' Kyle replied, laughing.

'Is that so, bub?' A short, hairy man crept out of the shadows to stand beside the girl. Three metal blades protruded from the back of each hand.

'You're a freak too,' Jake deduced. 'You're as bad as she is.'

'No,' the man said, 'I'm worse.'

He sprang forward and sliced open Jake's shirt. Panicked, Jake looked down to check that he was still intact.

'Next one opens you right up, bub,' the man with the claws promised. 'Now get the hell out of here before I forget to be nice.'

'Yeah, well maybe we'll take her with us,' Kyle said, reaching for Cassie.

But even with his arm at full stretch he could not quite make it. In fact, she was getting further away from him. Or rather, he was getting further away from her. And from the ground. He slapped his hands over his eyes, peering out between his fingers.

Another girl floated next to him, a redhead in black leather.

'Maybe you won't be going anywhere at all,' she said, eyes blazing. 'Maybe you need to be taught a lesson. Maybe scum like you need to be taken off the streets for good.'

She raised a hand and Kyle's chain floated up off of the ground and wrapped itself around his thick neck.

'Lesson begins,' the girl said.

The chain began to tighten. Kyle pawed at it with his pudgy hands, but it refused to budge. And it was becoming harder and harder to breathe. He face was turning red, then purple and his eyes were threatening to burst from their sockets.

'Rachel,' the man with the claws shouted, 'let him down.'

'He deserves to die,' Rachel shouted back.

'Rachel, don't do this,' the man insisted.

Rachel looked down at him, hate etched on to her face.

'Why not?' she asked.

* * *

Now

'I'd like to thank all of you for coming,' the man on stage says. 'Quite frankly, I'm amazed by the turnout and delighted to see that Purity's message is getting out to so many people. Tonight, you're going to hear from a lot of people, people just like you, all of whom have their own stories to tell regarding their encounters with the mutant menace. And they are all here to remind you, the one true race, of one vital fact: mutants are dangerous. Mutants are a threat to God's green earth and to God's children and, unchecked, they will wipe us all out. But there is hope, my friends, there is always hope. And that hope is this, that we put a stop to them before they do they same to us.

'Are you with me?'

'Yes,' the audience shouts in return.

'I can't here you,' the man on stage shouts back. 'Are you with me?'

'Yes,' the audience shouts back even louder.

'Yes,' Neil Conran shouts along with them.

* * *

Eighteen hours earlier

Jake poured himself a drink. Enough of these and maybe his hand would stop shaking.

'We could have taken them,' Dylan insisted.

'So you keep saying,' Kyle retorted, 'but it wasn't your head being popped like a zit.'

'Enough already,' Jake snapped. Did he sound as authoritative as he thought or was he slurring his words just a little? ''We all knew the freaks were dangerous when we started this. Why are we acting so surprised now? We just need to be better prepared next time.'

'Oh yeah, dude,' Kyle said, 'and how do we prepare for that? That guy had, like, knives sticking out of his hands.'

'Then we shoot him, you idiot,' Jake explained. Oh yeah, this was good. All these ideas were coming so fast now. 'All these mutie freaks, they have their enhancements built in, but we can buy out own enhancements.'

'From where?' Dylan asked. 'Not that I don't like the idea of more firepower, but we're not exactly sitting on a cash mountain here.'

'Then we just need better friends, Dyl,' Jake said. 'I hear that Purity group is mobilising. Betcha they'd supply us with what we want in return for a few mutie scalps for their trophy cabinet.'

'You think?' Dylan asked hopefully.

I know,' Jake promised confidently.

'You know nothing, little man.'

The wall of the apartment caved inwards, revealing a trio of freaks. The first was a woman with hard, grey skin and arms like tree trunks. The second was a scrawny teenager in clothes several sizes too big for him. He wore yellow goggles over his eyes. The third figure was naked from the waist up. He was covered in smooth red-brown fur and wings of skin stretched from his sides to his arms. When he smiled, he showed his fangs.

'We hear you attacked one of our sisters today,' the woman continued. 'We don't let that kind of thing go unpunished, do we boys?'

'Yeah, well you picked the wrong guys to mess with, freakshow,' Jake replied, hefting a baseball bat.

The teenager pointed a finger at him and Jake's legs gave way, oozing across the floor like treacle.

'This won't take long,' the woman said.

The bat-creature snarled.

* * *

Now

'Hi, I'm Chris Baker.'

The guy that takes the stage is short, shorter than Neil by a head. He moves with an easy swagger, though, which Neil envies.

'Guess you want to hear what I think about muties, huh?' Chris says. 'Well I say, kill 'em all!'

That draws a cheer from the crowd.

'I used to date this girl, right,' Chris continues. 'Real hottie. Tough she must be a model or something, but she never told me and, truth, I wasn't in it for the conversation if you know what I mean. So a couple of months went by, we got together couple of times a week, great time had by all, you know. Then one day I decide to surprise her, real old-fashioned like, flowers and chocolates - the works. So I burst into the room and I catch her at it. She's making dinner, but she's doing it by heating it up with these laser beams from her eyes. I mean, God knows what I've eaten at her place, what mutie radiation I might have been exposed to. I've been to the hospital a few times since, go back every couple of months. They can't find anything, but you never know right, not where freaks are concerned. Anyway, way I figure it, she was only shacking up at me to make more mutie-spawn. God forbid I might be responsible for any more mutants entering this world. So I picked up the knife on the kitchen counter and, well, I did what any other God-fearing human being would have done. And I'm proud of it, you hear. I'm human and I'm proud.'

Chris punches the air in triumph and the crowd cheers along with him.

* * *

Nine hours earlier

Rachel Summers hit the punch bag again and again and again. She had lost track of how long she had spent down here. She was trying to burn off her rage and did not seem to be having much luck.

'Want to talk about it?' Logan asked as he strolled into the gym, towel draped across his shoulders.

'Not particularly,' Rachel replied, increasing the frequency of her punches.

'This is about last night, isn't it,' Logan said. 'You did the right thing, you know, letting that guy go.'

'Why, so he can kill again?' Rachel demanded.

'So what, you want to kill him because of what he might do?' Logan asked.

'Because of what he will do,' Rachel shot back, 'and don't try and pretend he won't because we both know better.'

'And where are you going to draw the line, kid?' Logan asked. 'You going to line up every mutant-hater in New York and shoot them, is that it?'

'Why not?' Rachel asked. 'Why is that so wrong?'

'You need me to explain to you why killing is wrong?' Logan replied.

'You got to admit, it'd be rather hypocritical coming from you, Logan,' Rachel said. 'But I get that killings not a good thing. I've already seen more than enough of it. But think for a minute. I've seen where this wars going, I know how it turns out and it's bad, Logan, really bad. Worst nightmares and beyond bad. But we could stop that. A little bloodshed now would save a whole load of bloodshed later and I'm just not seeing how that can be the wrong decision.'

'The end justifies the means, huh, kid?' Logan said.

'If it saves lives then yes,' Rachel retorted.

'And where exactly are you gonna draw the line?' Logan demanded. 'Just what does a person have to think or do not to fit in with your philosophy?'

'Don't tell me you haven't thought about this,' Rachel said. 'We have the power to make a real difference. We could be a real force for change, for good.'

'Violence is never good, Ray,' Logan told her. 'Never.'

'Force is the only language these people understand,' Rachel insisted.

Logan shrugged. 'Maybe, but just because you can do a thing doesn't make it right.'

Rachel screamed and the punching bag was torn apart by telekinetic force.

'Charlie ain't going to like that,' Logan remarked.

'Screw Xavier,' Rachel spat. 'It's his idea of peaceful coexistence that's so off base. It's a nice little fairy-tale, but you can't tell me you really believe all that, Logan.'

'Maybe not,' Logan admitted. 'But you hang around here long enough, maybe you start wanting to believe.'

'Or maybe the great and powerful Xavier just brainwashes you,' Rachel said, ''cept he wouldn't because that would dirty those lily-white hands of his.'

There was the sound of a muffled explosion and an acrid stench filled the gymnasium.

'Kurt?' Logan greeted the newcomer.

The fuzzy elf smiled at him and nodded at Rachel.

'Sorry to interrupt your little tete-a-tete, mein freund,' he said, 'but we have a problem.'

* * *

Now

'Mutants are everywhere, that's the trouble,' the woman on stage is saying. She is wearing a floral-patterned dress and has her hair in a bun. She does not look much like an activist, Neil muses. 'They're like roaches, only a roach looks like a roach and a mutant, well, they could look just like you or me and that's the hell of it. My daughter used to go to a school not far from here. I thought it was a nice school at first. You here all these stories about what it's like to bring up a kid in this city, but this school seemed okay and the teachers that I spoke to seemed a nice, caring bunch.

'Then my daughter started to bring home these stories. At first I thought it was just locker-room talk, you know how kids are. But then I slowly began to realise there was more to it than that, that some of the students might not be quite normal. So I started asking questions and hanging around the school and following the kids home to see what they got up to. And my worst fears were confirmed.

'There were mutants in that school, sitting in the same classes with my daughter, eating in the same canteen, showering in the same showers. I didn't know what to do. I mean, this was my flesh and blood they were violating here. But I wasn't going to stand for it. So I pulled my daughter out of school, made sure she was taught at home till I found somewhere else for her, somewhere I could vet thoroughly this time.

'But that wasn't good enough. There were other, normal kids in that school, kids whose parents didn't know the truth, kids who were being exposed to the mutie plague. I had to do something to protect them. I had to. So I burned down the school. And I'd gladly burn down every other school that houses mutants until we can claim this as a free country once again.'

* * *

Seven hour earlier

Someone was hammering on Neil Conran's door.

'Who is it?' he yelled.

'It's me,' Gavin called back. 'Let me in, Con-man.'

Reluctantly, Neil got up off the couch and opened the front door.

'You forget your keys again?' he asked.

'Hey, we can't all be perfect,' Gavin replied. He opened the fridge and took out the pizza left over from last night. 'Want some?'

'I'll pass,' Neil said.

'Suit yourself. Say, have you seen the news?' Gavin asked around a mouthful of pizza.

'What news?' Neil asked absently. He had plonked himself back down in front of the TV and was channel surfing again.

'Seems some muties offed a bunch of humans down town,' Gavin explained.

'Seriously?' Neil asked. He turned to face Gavin, the TV al but forgotten.

'Hand on heart,' Gavin insisted, gesturing with his pizza slice. 'Jeff and some of the guys from Rio's are talking about getting together and getting some payback. Thought you might want to hook up with them.'

'Maybe,' Neil replied cautiously.

'Hey, if you don't want to then that's cool too,' Gavin replied, 'only I thought, what with all that Purity stuff you've got that this would be right up your alley. My bad.'

'No, mine,' Neil told his friend. 'This is what we've always been saying would happen and if the government won't put a stop to it then someone else should.'

* * *

Now

'I was treated by a mutie nurse once. Didn't find out till later she was a freak. Not something the hospital wanted to make public, see. Now, thing was she seemed a pretty decent nurse. I'm no judge, course. I just own a convenience store so what do I know of medicine, but she seemed to know her stuff. But, you know, she was still a mutie and they got them mutie diseases that you read about. If she really had my best interests at heart you'd think she'd know better than to go poking around in my insides. Who knows what she might have infected her with? Anyway, I got on to the hospital about it, threatened to go to the press if they didn't let her go. I almost feel sorry for her, she was a nice kid and all, but them muties need to know their place, right?'

* * *

Seven and a half hours earlier

'We sure this was mutants?' Logan asked Kurt.

They were sitting in the van, parked across the street from the apartment block were the murders had occurred. There were two policemen standing at the entrance.

'One of the victim's bones had been turned to jelly,' Kurt replied. 'Nothing baseline human could do that.'

'Figures,' Logan muttered. 'I'm going to need to get in there if we're gonna learn anything, elf.'

'Then hold on tight, mein freund,' Kurt replied. Then he put an arm around Logan and teleported.

They rematerialised in the middle of the wrecked apartment. Kurt doubled over, coughing violently.

'You okay, elf?' Logan asked, supporting his friend as he led him to a chair.

'Just give me a minute,' Kurt replied, waving away Logan's attentions.

Logan cast a doubtful eye at Kurt before turning to survey the rumour. One wall was a mess, barely there at all anymore. Yellow tape criss-crossed across the gap in a vain attempt to form a barrier. The rest of the room did not look much better.

'Looks like we missed one hell of a party,' Logan muttered.

'And someone's sick idea of fun,' Kurt agreed. 'You do realise that the police have already been through here.'

'I know,' Logan admitted, tapping his nose, 'but they didn't have one of these.'

He sniffed the air, then went down on his hands and knees like the wolverine that was his namesake.

'There were seven of them,' Logan said. 'The four humans and three mutants. They didn't stand a chance.' He stood up. 'You know, Rachel was suggesting we do something like this. Take them out first.'

'And with all our power they wouldn't stand a chance, would they,' Kurt mused.

'No, elf,' Logan agreed, 'they would not.'

* * *

Now

'I own a handgun,' the man with the unkempt blond hair says. 'I keep it next to my bed in case someone decides to break in at night. It's only for self-defence, you understand, but I still gotta have a licence for the thing.

'Now picture this mutant. He can fire death rays from his fingertips. But does the government licence him? No sir, it does not. We here all these people preaching about human rights, but face facts, ladies and gentlemen, are these things even human. And so what if they are, hm? What about my rights? What about my family's rights? Think for a moment. We are talking about people who can bend steel bars in the hands or who can drip acid like sweat or summon lightning. These people are dangerous.

'Now, I know what those people in Washington are going to say. Guns don't kill people, people kill people. Just 'cos a mutie can kill, doesn't mean he's gonna. But should we really take that chance. We're letting heavily armed people walk around in our midst unchallenged. These are living breathing weapons of mass destruction. I'm telling you now, we have the right to live without fear. We have the right to know that when we walk our children to school, some psycho isn't going to vaporise them just by looking at them funny. We shouldn't have to wait until people start dying. We can't wait.

'We know what the danger is, my friends, and we have a right, no, a moral duty to put a stop to it before it's too late.'

* * *

Six hours earlier

Rachel stabbed at the remote and the television picture condensed to a small blob of light in the centre of the screen, then disappeared completely.

'Can you believe this stuff?' Kitty Pryde asked. She was sitting near the bay windows, working on an essay for college. Rain tapped against the glass. 'It's hard enough convincing the rest of the world mutants aren't dangerous without mutants going out of their way to prove otherwise.'

'Mutants are dangerous,' Rachel pointed out.

'Well, duh, Ray,' Kitty replied. 'But there's a big difference between being dangerous and, well, being dangerous. It's not like we go around using our powers to hurt people.'

'Well, maybe we should,' Rachel said.

'Rachel?'

'All I'm saying is that if the humans are determined to wipe us out then we've got a right to defend ourselves,' Rachel continued.

'Well, yeah, I guess,' Kitty agreed dubiously, 'but that's not what these people were doing. That wasn't self-defence.'

'Isn't the best defence a good offence?' Rachel asked. 'These people want to kill us. If it's us or them then I know whose side I'm on.'

'It shouldn't be about sides,' Kitty protested. 'I've got friends at school, lots of them and most of them are human. That doesn't stop them being my friends. It shouldn't matter.'

'Do they know you're a mutant?' Rachel asked. 'Would they treat you the same if they did? Wake up, Kitty. The sides exist whether you want them to or not. The only question is which sides going to come out on top.'

Kitty ran a hand through her hair. 'I can't believe I'm hearing this. What's gotten into you, Ray?'

'Well start.' Rachel got up and walked over to the window. She leant her head against the cool glass and stared out into the slate grey sky. 'You don't know what it's like inside my head, Kitty. You can't. I've seen thingsfelt thingsthat I wouldn't wish on anybody. And it was your precious humans that did those things, Kitty, and you still expect me to treat them as something more than animals?'

'That was a different time,' Kitty insisted.

'Was it?' Rachel asked. 'Because from where I'm standing - with all the hate and the slogans and the marches - it all seems very much the same.'

'Most humans aren't like that,' Kitty told her.

'Maybe,' Rachel conceded, 'but they're not going to protect us from those that are.'

'Then we need to do something about them ourselves,' Kitty said, 'something that doesn't involve violence.'

'You think I enjoy hurting people?' Rachel asked. 'Do you? They made me hunt down my own kind for them. Have you any idea how that makes me feel? But if violence is the only answer'

'Violence is never the only way,' Kitty replied. 'It can't be.'

'Why not?'

'Because' Kitty looked away. 'Because if that's the best we can come up with then I don't think either humans or mutants are worth saving.'

Rachel shook her head.

'I need to get some air,' she said before walking away.

* * *

Now

'Have you heard some of the stuff those freaks are saying? Have you? They reckon that they're the next stage, that they're here to replace us. The say that our time is coming to an end and that they are the future. They've declared war on us, don't you see, and they're using a poorly thought out argument about evolution to justify genocide.

'Well I say, if they want a war, then let's give them one. Who's with me?'

'I am!' a man in the front row shouts, jumping to his feet.

'I am!' Several more people have leaped up.

'I am!' Now the whole hall is standing, punching the air and chanting. And Neil Conran is shouting along with them.

* * *

Five hours earlier

'We rule, man,' Goggles said. He high-fived Grey-skin, but it was like hitting concrete. He did not care. He was on top of the world.

'Can't argue with that,' Bat-boy agreed, slicing open another beer with his talons and pouring it down his throat. He belched.

'Hey! Where's your manners?' Grey-skin demanded.

'Oh lighten up,' Bat-boy replied. 'We're entitled to a little fun.'

'A little fun maybe,' Grey-skin conceded, 'but you think this is over. Have you any idea how many humans there are out there? We have to teach them all what it means to mess with a mutant.'

'Sure, whatever,' Bat-boy said.

'Can't we at least have a little fun first?' Goggle asked.

He reached for a can of beer, but Grey-skin slapped his hand. Hard.

'Listen, Ricky,' she said, 'you're not old enough for this stuff. Your Aunt Freda would have a fit if she found out I let you anywhere near it.'

'Aw, you're no fun,' Goggles protested, retreating into a corner to sulk.

'Was it more fun killing defenceless humans?' a voice growled. 'Is that how you get your rocks off?'

'Who's there?' Goggles demanded.

'Yeah, let's see you,' Bat-boy agreed.

'Is this better?' a voice with a German accent asked.

The three mutants turned to see a demon hanging from the ceiling, suspended upside-down by his tail.

'Who are you?' Grey-skin demanded.

Goggles nudged her.

'Don't you recognise him?' he said. 'He's one of the X-Men.'

'So that's an X-Man, huh?' Bat-boy said. He extended a hand. 'Pleased to meet you.'

Kurt did not take his hand.

'Wow, this is incredible,' Goggles said breathlessly. 'You guys are like heroes. We look up to you. We want to be just like you.'

'Put a lid on the gushing enthusiasm, Ricky,' Grey-skin chided him. You'll frighten our guest away.'

'Oh yea,' Goggles said sheepishly. 'Sorry about that.'

'You want to be like us?' the first, gravelly voice echoed. The owner of the voice stepped out of the shadows.

'Wolverine,' Goggles gasped.

'So you're a fan after all, kid,' Logan said. 'You've got a funny way of showing it.'

'I don't understand,' Goggles stammered.

'What's the matter, guys?' Bat-boy asked. 'I thought you were all about mutant rights. We were just trying to enforce them.'

'By killing people?' Kurt asked.

Bat-boy shrugged. 'They were only human.'

'We're all human, bub,' Logan pointed out.

'Well, sure,' Goggles conceded, 'but we're like human, but better.'

'And that gives you the right to murder people?' Kurt demanded.

'It was self-defence,' Grey-skin explained.

Logan laughed. It was a sound completely without humour.

'Like they could do anything to threaten you guys,' he said. 'This wasn't defence, this was vengeance.'

'Like we're not entitled to some, after what they did,' Bat-boy remarked.

'And what next?' Kurt asked. 'Aren't the non-mutants entitled to vengeance for what you did to them? And if they kill some of you will you then kill some more of them? Where does the cycle end?'

'I'll tell you where it ends,' Logan continued. 'It ends here and it ends now.'

There was a snikt sound as claws extended from the backs of his hands.

* * *

Now

'Have you been on the subway lately?' a woman asks. 'You can't walk ten feet without tripping over a beggar. But I've noted a disturbing trend. I mean, they've always been wrapped up against the elements, but now their wrappings are there to hide behind, to hide what they are. Next time someone asks you for their spare change, count how many fingers they've got and make a note of whether they're webbed. It's disgusting, that's what it is.

'But that's not all. A saw a woman in a shop doorway the other week, a collection bowl on the sidewalk in front of her. She didn't even try to hide what she was, which probably explains why the bowl was nearly empty. But she wasn't alone, that's the really horrible thing. She had a little girl running up and down near her, pulling faces at the rest of us and a little baby freak was hanging from her neck. Do these people have no shame? What kind of a life is that for a child, even a mutant one? Mutants are breeding out of control and it's hardly helping them. A population cull is what's needed, in their own best interests.'

* * *

Four hours earlier

'I'm not sure about this,' Neil said as Marty pressed a gun into his hands.

'You know how to fire a gun, don't you?' Marty asked.

'Course I do,' Neil replied.

'Then what's the problem?' Marty said. 'Just point and click and then problem no more.'

'It's just, I don't know, killing?' Neil continued. 'It seems a bit drastic, don't you think?'

Marty shook his head. 'It's not like shooting a human being. They're animals, Neil. Vermin. You'd shoot a rabid dog, wouldn't you, to make sure it doesn't hurt anyone? Same rule applies. They gotta be put down.'

'I guess,' Neil conceded.

'Good man.' Marty thumped him on the shoulder, then stepped out of the back of the van. Neil followed.

There were five of them gathered on the sidewalk outside the run-down tenement building. Rain was falling in a steady drizzle and the hair of those without hats was plastered against their heads. All of them were wearing shirts emblazoned with the Purity logo.

'Listen up, people,' Marty said. He was an ex-military man and it showed. 'You all saw the news this morning. You all now what those mutants did, what they could all do if left unchecked. It falls to people like us, strong men and women, to stand up for humanity and say to the mutie filth, 'No more!' We've reason to believe that some of the scum are holed up inside here. Breeding. Multiplying. We need to give these freaks a message that this is not acceptable, that the true human beings will not stand for it. Are you with me.'

'Sir, yes, sir,' the others chanted.

'Then lets go teach these freaks a lesson,' Marty said before leading the way into the building.

It was dark inside. The watery light the fell through the windows could only illuminate small portions of the space.

'Man, it stinks in here,' one of the troop remarked.

'Smells like time to clean house,' Marty agreed, pumping his shotgun.

There was movement over on the far side of the room, dancing amorphous shadows.

'There they are,' Marty shouted.

He fired at the shapes and his team followed suit. Neil raised his own gun, but he did not pull the trigger. Then he felt a shape brush past him and he fired. There was a wet thud as the thing, whatever it was, fell to the floor at his feet.

She was green and covered with tiny scales and was wearing an overcoat that was more crude stitching than original material. And she was heavily pregnant. Blood flowed freely from the remains of her arm.

'Please,' she begged. 'Please don't hurt my babies.'

Marty stomped over, the sound of his heavy combat boots echoing throughout the room. He raised his shotgun.

'You really think filth like you deserve kids?' he demanded. 'Trust me, darling, they're better off dead.'

Marty levelled his gun, but it was trying to leap out of his hands. He struggled to hold it level, but it flew up out of his reach and spiralled away.

'What the hell?' he exclaimed.

Those windows that still had glass in them suddenly shattered, spraying fine shards inwards. But the glass did not touch the ground, instead it swept around the room like a hurricane.

'Better off dead,' a voice said. It was barely a whisper, but it echoed and echoed and echoed. Neil shivered.

'You don't know what that means,' the voice continued, 'but I'll be happy to educate you.'

A woman stepped out of the shadows. She was slender, all but swallowed up by her leather jacket.

'Who are you supposed to be?' Marty demanded. Neil could not speak.

The woman's eyes flashed. 'I'm your worst nightmare.'

She walked slowly forward and every object in the room - a sofa, a TV, a stack of CD cases, whatever - was lifted off of the floor, as if by an invisible hand, as she approached. The objects whipped around her, like planets orbiting a sun.

'I felt their pain,' the woman continued. 'I could hear their screams in my mind. Would you like to know what that feels like?'

Marty screamed and fell to his knees, hands clutching his head. Blood trickled from his nostrils. Neil looked at the man writhing in pain at his feet and panicked. He raised his gun and fired three shots at the monster, the mutant, stalking towards him.

The mutant waved her hands and the bullets halted their flight in mid-air.

'Is this your great answer to the mutant problem?' the woman asked, watching the still-spinning bullets. 'Is this how you think we should deal with everything we see as a threat?'

The woman waved her hand again and the bullets rotated to face him and then shot across the room in his direction. Neil screwed his eyes tight shut, not wanting to see what was coming. Then he heard the sound of metal hitting the floor and realised that he was not dead.

'Y-you're not going to kill me?' Neil stammered.

'No, I'm not going to kill you,' Rachel replied tiredly. 'Though you probably deserve it.'

'Why not?' Neil asked. 'Not that I'm not grateful, but I thought that was what you mutants did.'

'We're supposed to be the next stage of human evolution,' Rachel explained. 'If we're so much better than you then we ought to be able to find a more advanced way of dealing with our problems. Now get out of here before I change my mind.'

Neil turned and fled the building.

Sighing, Rachel closed her eyes and allowed the objects floating round her to fall gently to the floor.

* * *

Now

It's Neil's turn. He doesn't want to go out there, does not want to open his heart to these people. But he has a duty. An obligation. He has to do what is right. So, with a heavy heart, he gets out of his chair and walks towards the stage.

* * *

One and a half hours earlier

Neil sat in the back of the car, pressed into as small a space as possible. He had not said a single word on the whole ride over. He wanted to keep his thoughts to himself.

They were going to the big Purity gathering. He had been looking forward to this for months. This was his big chance to say what he thought about mutants. Some guy had spotted his posts on the Purity forums on the net and had invited him to speak. Neil's heart had done flip-flops.

His heart was still doing flip-flops.

He could hear a news item on the radio. Those mutants who had killed those four humans last night had been found outside a police station, gift-wrapped and all too willing to confess.

Neil closed his eyes and massaged his temples, trying to ignore the rest of the world.

* * *

Now

Neil grips the sides of the lectern, steadying himself. His sweaty palms keep slipping on the wood. He clears his throat and his cough is picked up by the microphone and echoes around the room. Neil reddens, embarrassed.

'Sorry,' he says.

There is a smattering of light laughter from the crowd.

Someone has left a glass of water on the stage and Neil sips from it, hoping to wash the tightness from his throat. It does not help.

'Guess there's nothing for it just to dive straight in, huh?' he says.

More polite laughter.

'I'm sure by now you all know what I came here to say,' Neil continued. 'Mutants bad. Humans good. We must make a stand or be wiped out. All that great stuff you've been hearing all evening. Well, that's what I came here to say. But it's been a long night and while I've been sitting there at the back of the hall I've been thinking. And you know what I've decided? I've decided to try something different for a change. So I'm not going to give you a lecture about the evils of mutants. I'm not going to share a personal anecdote about my own horrible experiences or about how I stood up against the mutant menace. Instead, I'm just going to offer you three words.

'I was wrong.'

A deathly silence fills the hall and, head held high, Neil descends from the stage and walks slowly back to his seat.