A FRACTURED STATE


Disclaimer: If the X-Men really belonged to me I would be both very happy and very rich. Alas, they do not - I am borrowing them and will return them mostly intact. Sue me not.

A/N: This was initially posted in January of 2001; I'm reposting it in chapters for ease of reading, and I've done some minor editing. Enjoy!


PART ONE

Xavier Mansion
"I'm not backin' off this time, Remy!"

"Chere, I never said you should!"

"I mean it!"

A crack split the air, followed by a surprised "oof!" Shortly thereafter, a tall form hurtled through the air and crashed down onto the lawn thirty feet away.

"Body check!" Hank McCoy howled gleefully. Gingerly dusting himself off, the victim hauled himself upright just in time to see his opponent gracefully and smugly sink the basketball through the hoop - from mid-court.

"I warned you." Rogue put her fists on her hips and cocked her head at him, grinning. From across the court, Remy hollered, "Ref, that was a foul!"

"The young lady made a perfectly legal move, m'boy. In her defense, she's tolerated your hounding for most of the game - and she did warn you," Hank retorted, balancing his huge blue-furred body on one hand and peering up at the Cajun.

"Aw, whatsa matter, can't handle a girl winnin'?" Rogue teased, sticking out a provocative hip. By this time she had retrieved the ball, and now spun it idly on the tip of one gloved finger.

"No, no," Remy protested as he swiped it off her finger. "I just object to the lack of grace from so beautiful a mademoiselle as you." He pounded down the court, Rogue in hot pursuit. Abruptly she popped in front of him and deftly reacquired the ball. Startled, he almost tripped and had to backpedal to chase her. "You been takin' teleportin' lesson from Monsieur Nightcrawler?"

"Maybe so -" she puffed, going up for a dunk, "Maybe no", she finished as the ball plunked through the hoop. "That, my dear Gambit, is game."

Hank hooted and blasted a short shrill from his whistle as Rogue strutted off the court toward the mansion. Remy hustled to keep up. "You win, girl." He slung an arm around her waist.

"Careful, sugar," Rogue cautioned out of habit. She was wearing a tank top that barely cleared her midriff. He obliged by sticking a thumb through a loop of her jean shorts and letting his hand ride on her hip. "Dat better?" he asked with a twinkle.

Rogue blushed, a little annoyed with his boldness, but a wry smile quirked her mouth nonetheless. "Just tryin' to keep you outta my head - not that it's working."

Pulling her against him, Remy trailed a hand through her hair. "Now why you wanna do a crazy thing like dat?" he murmured. Rogue sighed and gave him a not-quite gentle push away as her face sobered.

"Cut it out, Cajun. I got enough on my mind without addin' you t' the equation." She shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her jean shorts and leaned back against the sun-warmed bricks of the mansion. Immediately, the former thief dropped his bantering tone and took a closer look at her.

"What's eatin' you, chere? You looked like you were enjoyin' the game - why the sudden long face?"

"I don't really wanna talk about it, Rem." She avoided his eyes, staring over his shoulder instead. Gambit took a step back and narrowed his eyes.

"Since when can you not talk t' me? We been over dis, chere. Holdin' out on each other makes fo' bigger problems in the long run." He waited to see if she would rise to the bait, but she only half-shrugged with one shoulder. "Y'know, I been tryin' t' corner you all week, but you kept makin' excuses - trainin' in the Danger Room, wanderin' around the property like you lookin' fo' somethin'. What is it?"

"I don't know. It's just been so - with Scott gone...You're always rushin' back to New Orleans on Guild business...The Prof's out with the Skrull somewhere - " She broke off, unwilling to continue, and he knew she had side-stepped the real issue. Again.

"Listen," he began, "if dis is still about the trial, I -"

That got him a reaction, though not quite what he was expecting. Rogue pushed off the wall and straightened up, her eyes flashing angrily. "No, Remy, it's not about the damn trial! For the umpteenth time, I'm sorry - I was sorry then, I'm sorry now, and I probably will be for the rest of my life! Not everything in my life is about you and that god-awful trial!" Gravel crunching under her feet, she marched up the driveway and headed for a side door, slamming it open.

Remy caught it as it bounced off the wall and closed it carefully. "Hey, what's dat for?" he called, and she stopped. "I asked you what was wrong, and you wouldn't tell me, so I jumped to the wrong conclusion. I'm sorry." It came out a little sharper than he'd intended, and she spun around, her face working.

"I just can't talk to you, sometimes, all right? You can't fix me," she grated out. They stood with locked gazes, his confused and beginning to show some annoyance, hers angry and upset. Someone cleared his throat, and they broke eye-contact.

"Hate to break up your idyllic moment, kids," Hank informed them from overhead with a concerned look, "but Jean wants us to meet in the Conference room. Cerebro's picked up some kind of spatial anomaly." He shot the troubled duo another vaguely worried glance but continued his way across the ceiling and around the corner.

"Furball, didn't you ever learn to walk normally?" Rogue called after him, halfheartedly, breaking the tension.

"My methods of circumlocution is perfectly reasonable!" his retort echoed back.

Rogue started to follow him, but Remy stopped her with a hand on her arm. "We gon' finish dis later, right?"

"Leave it alone, please," she told him, her shoulders tensing again in renewed frustration. Pulling free of his grasp, she strode quickly down the hallway.


In the ready room, Nathan Christopher Summers, also known as Cable, sat studying an enormous viewscreen. At his side, a tall redheaded woman leaned over a console, adjusting various controls to sharpen the image taking shape before them. Gradually, the static cleared to reveal a NASA space shuttle in orbit far above the earth. Jean Grey frowned.

"Nathan, I thought there was a problem. The shuttle looks fine." Indeed, the shuttle hung in the darkness of space, floating serenely among satellites and other space junk orbiting far above.

Leaning forward, his face darkening in confusion, he replied, "I don't think Cerebro is malfunctioning, and I'm picking up some odd psi-activity. Don't you feel it?"

Jean closed her eyes and opened a channel, questing outward. In a moment, her eyes snapped open and she nodded. "It's so vague, I don't know what to make of it. I can't even tell if it's an entity or just connected to that area in space."

"Perhaps if you join forces?" Ororo Munroe suggested, looking up from the satellite data she had been studying. With the absence of their mentor, Charles Xavier, on an interstellar quest to aid a group of mutants - alien mutants, no less - she had stepped in as reluctant leader of the mutant group known as the X-Men. In the two months since the tragic battle that took the life of their former leader, Cyclops, the team had retreated to their Westchester, New York, base to rest and recover. Some of their number had chosen to take a respite from their duties; those remaining took comfort in the familiarity of the mansion and its grounds. For a brief moment, Ororo had actually believed that the X-Men would be granted a reprieve from the never-ending battles they fought; ruefully, she chided herself at the wishful thinking.

Nathan inclined his head to Jean, and she smiled. "Let's take a look."

A moment later, she felt Nathan's mind merge with hers, and two of the world's most powerful telepaths focused their combined abilities up the five miles or so to the shuttle and that strange buzz of psi-energy very near to it.

Behind them, the rest of the team trickled in. Peter Rasputin and Elisabeth Braddock entered together, coming directly from a work-out in the Danger Room. After them came Logan, who materialized silently from somewhere and pulled up a chair. He turned it around and straddled it absently, intent on the two people in front of him. Above him dangled Hank, having completed his journey via the ceiling. After a moment, he dropped lightly to the ground and ambled over to Ororo. He was asking her a quiet question as Kitty Pryde, the Shadowcat, phased through the rear wall. Storm cocked an eyebrow at her unorthodox entrance, but the younger woman just grinned unrepentantly and moved to Logan's side. Last to arrive was Rogue, followed by an uncharacteristically frowning Remy, who stopped mid-sentence as they entered the room. Rogue stalked over to the conference table and leaned against it, facing Storm and clearly ignoring the Cajun. The silence stretched.
Suddenly the viewscreen exploded with color, and everyone shot to their feet. Where moments before there had existed only a starry background, a huge chunk of asteroid burst into existence that dwarfed the shuttle. Obviously distressed, the shuttle tried to move away from the rock, but it received a glancing blow that sent it tumbling slowly away from earth.

"They're hit" Jean yelped, opening her eyes. "Their guidance system has been damaged, and they're leaking oxygen."

"I know -" Nathan broke off and turned to Ororo. "We're going to need a retrieval team to get to that shuttle, Storm. There's no way they'll be able to land."

The windrider turned to Hank, asking, "Have you finished with the repairs to the Blackbird?"

Already nodding, he replied, "And checked out this morning. We're ready to run."

Storm faced the rest of the team. "Rogue, take Psylocke, Cable, Beast, and Shadowcat - speed is of the essence." Rogue started in surprise at the sound of her name. While she had been an integral part of the X-Men for years, she had never held a field command. Normally that position fell to Scott - but Scott was no longer here. Rogue swallowed against a sudden lump and drew herself up straight. She smiled and gave a brisk nod to Ororo, who continued, "What's your launch time?"

"Ten minutes," Hank told her and looked at Rogue for instructions.

"Okay, people, let's suit up," she ordered and led the way out of the room double-time. Unnoticed, Remy slipped out after them.

Storm turned to address the rest. "We're going to alert status. For the moment, we'll treat this asteroid as a variable - as such, Wolverine, please monitor its movement. Colossus, contact Dr. Keystone at NASA and offer him our assistance - I hope he'll be able to hold off the military from launching a counter-attack."

"You think it was deliberate?" Logan asked from his satellite relay station.

Jean, settling herself into a command chair, answered, "I don't know." She lifted a specially designed helmet that interfaced directly with their super-computer, Cerebro, and fitted it carefully over her head, adjusting sensory inputs at her temporal lobes and cerebellum. "I'm not getting anything like malice from it," she continued. "Of course, I'm not getting much of anything, period. Just - excuse the inadvertent pun - an alien feeling. A disturbance."

Peter spoke up from the communications board. "Dr. Keystone is on the line, and he wants to speak with you, Storm."

"Patch it through," she ordered. In a corner of the main viewscreen, a smaller box appeared, containing the tense face of Dr. Mark Keystone, a top official with NASA and sometime acquaintance of Professor Xavier. "Dr. Keystone, my name is Ororo Munroe. I'm a former student of Charles Xavier's. I wished to offer you any assistance necessary."

Keystone squinted into the visual pickup and asked, "Where is Xavier?"

"He has taken a leave of absence at the moment. I stand in his place to offer you assistance," she repeated.

Frowning, Keystone said, "How did you know about our...situation?"

Storm paused, choosing her words carefully. The line was not completely secure, and given the popular feeling towards mutants, she decided to couch her explanation as discreetly as possible. "One of our group picked up some odd energy readings moments ago. We enabled our long range sensors just in time to see the - accident. Have you been able to raise the shuttle?"

Apparently accepting her explanation, the engineer relaxed a bit and sighed, running a hand through greying brown hair. "Their communications array was damaged pretty severely, and they've lost both engines. The Russians are trying to scramble one of their shuttles - we've been caught flat-footed with Atlantis and Columbia both under repairs. We can get Columbia up in about twenty hours, but I don't know that the crew has that long. For the moment, the military is on alert, but they're not interfering - I convinced the Joint Chiefs that this thing is a natural entity, not controlled with sentience. Privately, I think we both know better."

Nodding agreement, Storm leaned on the edge of the communications board and looked Keystone directly in the eye. "I have a team going up in the Blackbird - they'll be on-site in about an hour and a half. It would be prudent have the Russians stand by, though. In the interests of preserving our anonymity, perhaps you could suggest that the Columbia was able to launch sooner than planned."

"A wise move, Ms. Munroe. I believe I can manage Mission Control on that matter. It is imperative that the crew and their information be retrieved. The crew was conducting a series of highly sensitive experiments, and the information they gathered is essential. If they were unable to download the memory core, I would ask that your team do so. I am transmitting the passcodes to your location - now."

A moment later, the computer screen at Logan's station flashed, and an encryption code scrolled past. He nodded to Storm and she said, "We've got it, Dr. Keystone."

"That is highly classified, and what I just did was blatantly illegal, so please use your utmost discretion. Of course, even talking to you constitutes a threat to national security, given the general political feeling towards mu - you and your friends..." He barked a laugh. "Good luck, Ms. Munroe. Contact me when your team reaches Discovery. Keystone out."

Storm flicked another switch. "Blackbird, do you copy?"

Rogue's voice returned instantly. "Blackbird here. Go ahead."

"I'm sending your onboard computer an encryption stream. It contains codes to the shuttle's memory core. NASA has asked that you download as much of the core as possible once the crew has been removed to safety. I don't need to tell you that the information contained in the shuttle's core is sensitive material."

"Yeah, we got it, 'Ro. No peekin'. We're doin' preflight - should be ready to go in a few minutes. Blackbird out."

Peter eyed the trajectory of the asteroid. "There's no danger of that impacting earth, is there?"

At his console, Logan had been trying to determine exactly that. "No - stayin' in some kinda orbit far enough out that it shouldn't interfere with anything. It backed off right after it hit the shuttle, almost like it overshot the planet from wherever it came from."

"You tellin' me dat thing's maneuverable?" Remy asked as he strode back into the room and moved closer to the display. Sure enough, he began to detect tiny spurts of movement whose power source was not immediately clear. They watched as it pulled out of the planet's gravity well, moving as ponderously as a whale.

A ping indicated that the hangar doors were opening, and Rogue buzzed in a moment later. "We're good to go, Storm. Beast's firing up the engines as we speak."

"Your first priority is securing the shuttle - we'll monitor things from here. If that asteroid turns hostile, chances are we'll catch it before you do. Cable?"

The camera switched, and Nathan's face appeared on the screen. "Yes, Ororo?"

"Maintain contact with Jean. Are you linked?" The strange star-burst scar over Cable's right eye flared briefly with blue sparks as he connected with Phoenix, and then both nodded. "We're ready to launch."

"Then clear skies, my friends," Storm wished as the monitor blinked off. The building quivered as the Blackbird's engines came online, and the heavily modified jet shot out of its camouflaged hangar and streaked toward the sky.


Earth: Geosynchronous Orbit
Space Shuttle Discovery
Two Hours Later


Rogue sat in the silent shuttle cockpit, vainly battling the failing life-support systems. With one oxygen tank completely depleted and the other going fast, she doubted they would have enough air for a landing sequence. Not that the perforated tiles over a large portion of the ship would allow that anyway; they would burn up if they attempted atmospheric reentry. Two of the astronauts were down for the count, having sustained injuries in the collision with the asteroid; conveniently enough, they were the pilot and the co-pilot. At present, they and everyone else were cooling their collective heels in the Blackbird, waiting to see if the shuttle could be salvaged.

Leaving her, the carefully absorbed knowledge she'd drawn from the injured, and Beast to find a way out of this mess. On top of everything, her near-argument with Remy kept distracting her, making her irritated with the mission in general and him in particular. Damn the man, anyway. Always convinced he had the answers for her problems. How could he solve the problems when he was one of them? Neither one of them was guilt-free in the damage they had inflicted upon each other in the past year, but she had long ago acknowledged that the time had come to move on, and yet he wrapped himself in his guilt, drawing her to him and pushing her away at the same time. Like nothing had changed. But it had. There was love - but not enough trust. On either of our parts, she thought, and then angrily shoved the voice away. Frustrated, she scowled down at the motherboard on her lap.

"Tell me again why we're botherin' with this hunk of junk?" she muttered as she tried yet another bypass of damaged circuitry. Hank didn't pause in his work as he answered her.

"Frankly, my dear, I don't remember. I know they were working on an experiment of some sort up here, but surely they could reacquire that information on another shuttle run-" He broke off as the crippled ship shuddered and those lights still working blinked out.

In an overly-calm voice, Rogue turned to her teammate and asked, "Hank, what did you do?"

"Nothing! It's something else - " He stopped, listening. The queer groan of stressed metal echoed through the cockpit. The two exchanged a look. "Uh, Rogue, where was our visitor the last time you checked?"

"On the other side of the planet."

"How long ago was that?"

"About forty minutes...oh." Together they looked up through the viewport above them. Towering overhead, eclipsing space itself, lurked the asteroid - and from the sounds emanating behind them, it was taking a decided interest in the battered spaceship.

Rogue swallowed hard. "Let me guess - this is where the little green men -"

"Grey," Hank corrected absently.

"Right - the little grey men come on board with their ray guns and say Take me to your leader'."

An explosion of static drew their attention to the radio. Rogue fussed with the frequency, trying to clear the transmission. Finally, they were able to discern Cable's voice.

"...Copy? This is... - bird to Discov...do you copy? Rogue?"

She tapped her headset and shouted, "Yes! Yes, we copy. What's going on?"

"That oversized boulder is between the Blackbird and you. Came outta nowhere - right around us. We can't see you - what's going on? Over."

"From the sound of it, I'd say they're trying to dock. Over," Hank returned.

Now Psylocke joined in the conversation. "Come on, kids, it's time to come home."

"Roger that, Bets. Got a question for you, though - how?"

"Do you have any maneuverability? Over." Cable again.

Hank thumbed his mike. "Negative. What do you think we've been trying to fix? If we bail, we're going to have to rely on the MMUs in the hold - if we can get to the hold. And once those run out it's all on our jetpacks."

"We're moving solar east. Location 23.45 by 43.66. It's about 4000 meters off your starboard. Think you can get there? Cable and I can reel you in if you're within about a hundred-fifty meters," Psylocke informed them.

"We'll try. Hank's goin' to check on those MMUs. I'll get back to you in a minute." Rogue released her mike switch and leaned back. Out her window to solar east, the stars glittered sharply, but the Blackbird was swallowed up in the deepness of the solar system. Even on the radar, she could barely see the tiny blip of the Blackbird moving into position. There was an awful lot of empty space between the two ships.

Hank returned, looking unusually grim. "I'm afraid the manned maneuvering units are out of commission. So is most of the hold. That hole in the second compartment was bigger than it looked - it vented everything in it out into space. The collision took care of the hold itself."

"How much fuel do you have in your jetpack?" Rogue asked.

He considered. "I'm at about one-third - enough for a controlled burst and a little maneuvering. You?"

"Less. I did the external surveillance, remember?" Rogue cursed under her breath.

"How about going twinkle-toes on us? Can you fly there?"

She frowned. "Yeah, but it's a lot harder without atmosphere. No surface friction to push against, and almost no directional control. Guess I'll have to push off the shuttle and use my jetpack just for maneuverin'. It'll be slow."

Hank shook his head. "I don't know if we've got that much time. Who knows what's going on in that asteroid and we can't leave you behind. No, we'll just ride double, then."

"Don't be stupid, Hank. There might be enough thrust to get both of us off this scrapheap, but there ain't enough to stop both of us. There's not even enough to stop you."

"That's what Betsy and Cable are for, remember? Telekinetics-Are-Us?"

"That's a lot of mass, Hank. If we're going to fast, they might not be able to stop us. And then there's that little matter of my Kree shielding. They can catch me fine, line-of-sight, but Cable won't be able to get a lock on me otherwise. I'll have to be pretty close before they can get me." She blew out a gusty breath.

Beast growled, "I thought I was supposed to be the scientist. Better hail the Blackbird and see if they can come up with something."

Rogue depressed her mike, "Discovery to Blackbird, do you copy?"

"Roger that. What's the sit?" Cable answered.

"We got a problem. The MMUs are scrapped, and we're both low on fuel. Hank's got more than I do, but not enough for a piggy-back. It'll take a lot longer to get me over - I've only got enough fuel for course correction. We're thinkin' maybe I'll have to try to fly over. Please advise. Over."

"We copy, Rogue. Hang on." Beast and Rogue exchanged a look and hoped silently for a short wait.

"Rogue?"

"What have ya got? Over," Rogue replied.

Cable's voice came back. "We'll just have to take you one at a time. Rogue, set your suit transponder to broadcast, and we'll get a sensor reading to track you. As soon as you're in sight, we'll scoop you up."

"All right, just be ready, guys. Discovery out." Rogue turned to Hank. "You go first. I'll finish the download from the main computer and come after you."

He didn't like it, but couldn't think of a reason to object. "Do you have enough fuel to stay away from the asteroid?"

"Hope so. I'll be slower than you, but you've got most of the info. They need it." She gave him a push. "Go. Do you have the coordinates?"

He tapped his wrist, to which was attached a small computer. "Be careful, Rogue." He sealed his helmet, gave a jaunty salute, and cycled through the airlock. In a moment, she heard a dull clunk as it cycled shut behind him, then watched on an external camera as he accelerated slowly away from the shuttle.

Turning back to the main computer, she let her fingers race across keyboards, attempting to download as much as possible before she made her own journey across the black void. Behind and above her, ominous noises continued to grow, and she wondered how much time she had left.

Suddenly, a siren wailed again as something breached the hull. She slapped on her helmet and sealed it just before a huge rush of air roared out of the cockpit. The suction was incredible. Straining, she grasped the last disk from the computer and shoved it into a pocket before succumbing to the pull. In vain, she grabbed for a handhold, but the rush of venting oxygen swept her out of the cockpit, through a short passage, and spit her out of the gaping wound in the hold's wall. Flailing wildly, she shot through space toward the asteroid, knowing that if she hit, she would be just so much mush buried in the rock.

At that moment, whether through fate or providence, a large piece of machinery slammed into her, causing her both to slow down and to ricochet in an entirely new direction. Granted, it was away from the asteroid, but it was now taking her closer to the atmosphere. If Earth's gravity pulled her in, she would suffer a very hot and very painful death.

She tried to trigger her jetpack, but the collision with the junk had rendered it slag. Spinning out of control, she closed her eyes and began to pray.


Aboard the Blackbird


"Gotcha Henry," he heard over his mike as his momentum slowed and he felt his uncontrolled drive at the Blackbird change to a gentle, directed path to the airlock. Moments later, he was inside and waiting impatiently for the lock to cycle. The moment it was finished, he bounded through and ran up the passageway to the cockpit. There, he came to a screeching halt. His teammates and the four conscious Discovery crew members were glued to a small computer screen in front of Betsy.

"What's wrong?" he asked, shouldering forward. Logan grunted.

"The shuttle just depressurized completely. We can't get through to Rogue."

On the screen, the strange asteroid dwarfed the tiny shuttle, even under magnification. Junked machinery was spewing from a yawning gash in the side of the ship, and suddenly a spacesuited figure shot into view.

"There she is!" Logan fingered white blur that was Rogue as it caromed towards the asteroid above her. "Betsy!"

"I'm on it," the dark-haired telepath hissed, beads of perspiration dripping from her forehead. "I can't get a lock on her -"

"She's hit!" Hank exclaimed as a chunk of metal spun their friend off on a trajectory straight towards Earth. "Bets-"

The red tattoo over her left eye stood out against Psylocke's pale, strained face.
"Cable-"

Hank whirled to face the bigger man. Tension knotted Cable's muscles, making the tendons in his neck stand out starkly. Through gritted teeth, he growled, "This shouldn't be so hard! It's that damned Kree shielding."

Outside, the distant speck began to slow and started to curve away from the atmosphere. "You've got her!" Hank crowed.

"No we don't! It's something else -" Psylocke opened her eyes and turned to look at the orbiting rock. "It's coming from there - some kind of tractor beam. It's too strong to break."

The cockpit fell silent as the stunned group watched the speck gather speed and return on a course to the asteroid. A small opening appeared on the surface Rogue was approaching, and almost before they could blink, she vanished into it.

Then the asteroid disappeared.


Westchester, New York
A day later

"Remy?" Ororo Monroe leaned over her old friend and shook him gently. He started and pulled away, blinking cobwebs. "Remy, I've brought you something to eat." She placed a tray with a simple meal on the small table next to his chair. He didn't even look at it.

"Thanks 'Ro." Slumping back, he rested his chin on his fist. "Not real hungry just yet."

Ororo straightened and laid a hand on his shoulder. "You must rest. I know your feelings for Rogue, but you're pushing yourself too hard. Wherever she is, we must believe that she is alive and that we will recover her. This endless review of her disappearance is an exercise in frustration."

"Yeah." If possible, he slouched even further down into the old armchair, scowling.

Ororo regarded him steadily for a long moment, noting the tension in his shoulders. "Something else troubles you?"

He looked up, torn from moodiness. The abruptness of the question induced an inadvertent truth out him. "We argued. Again. She was angry." His eyes flicked away in frustration, worry, and - shame?

Sighing quietly, Ororo shook her head slightly. "You need to learn to trust again, Remy, as does Rogue. You're blocking each other."

Remy grunted. Reaching down, she grabbed his chin firmly and forced him to look into her eyes. "There is more to love than words, but they are a first step. If you cannot use them, then you must find a way to show her." A wry smile touched her lips. "For all our sakes."

"I don't know what to do." He rubbed a hand over his stubble, his eyes suddenly tired, and she knew he was referring to more than merely the rescue operation. "I'm tryin', 'Ro. Somethin' just ain't right - and now..." He gestured in frustration at the computer screen before him, the image frozen at the moment a tiny spacesuit was entering a deep shadow on the surface of the asteroid.

Squeezing his shoulder gently, Ororo told him, "Eat, my friend. Strengthen yourself. Then we will find her." She looked down at him for a moment. "We will find her," she repeated softly as she left.

As the door closed, Remy fell back into brooding. What was wrong with them? Things always managed to boil over before he could stop it, and now it may have cost them any chance of ever hashing things out once and for all. With a vicious stab at the keyboard, he unfroze the screen.

In front of him, a computer monitor once again displayed Rogue shooting out of the shuttle and being caught by an invisible force, and then drawn into the asteroid. He slowed the replay to a frame per second, but still could find no indication of the asteroid's power source, or its astonishing "blink" from its position above Earth to...where?

This time, he slowed the sequence even further as the asteroid vanished. The picture streamed so slowly, it was hard to discern movement at all - and then he caught it. A strange flicker began at one of the corners of the monolith and spread so quickly that the camera had caught only a hint of it. It washed over the asteroid; and where it passed, the asteroid vanished.

"Huh." Remy propped his elbows on his knees and replayed the sequence as an idea began to form. After three more viewings, he had enough information to call in reinforcements. Reaching over, he hit a button.

"Beastie, mon frere, I got a question."

Hank responded almost instantly. "May I deduce that you have stumbled upon a clue whilst playing Sherlock?"

"Yup. Listen, what if the ship didn't move at all - what if it had some kind o' cloakin' device or somethin'?"

There was silence at the other end while Hank thought it through. "Well, it had occurred to me, but I think Cerebro would have picked up that kind of anomaly - like the one that alerted us in the first place," he replied at last.

Remy shook his head. "No, man, I think Cerebro only pick it up when it show itself. When we saw it the firs' time in the conf'rence room, I bet it been in dat spot all along. It just showed itself den."

"Yes, but why?" Hank wanted to know.

"How should I know? I ain't got antennae and googly eyes. I'm just wonderin' if maybe we can trick dat thing into showing itself again. Or change our sensors so we can see it." Remy blew out a gust of air in frustration. "I can't keep sittin' here when I don't know what's happenin' to her!"

"All right, let me take a look at whatever it is you see on that tape when I'm through with the Blackbird. And Gambit?" Hank asked.

"Yo?"

"Eat something. That was from Ororo."

Remy thought he heard a low, Storm-like laugh before the transmission cut off. He looked at the tray Ororo had brought him; and suddenly, he felt very hungry indeed.


Earth Orbit
Asteroid X


From out here, it did not look merely huge; it was colossal. A few minutes earlier, the Blackbird had commenced a specialized scan of the area, miles above Africa. After reviewing the visuals that outboard cameras had recorded with Gambit, Beast was inspired to reprogram the scanner to look for low frequency emissions of any kind - be it light, heat, or something else entirely. He held a theory that whatever powered the rock, it had to leave some kind of energy signature, and so he and Kitty had duly reconfigured the systems. Moments before, they had struck gold.

Currently, they stared at the fruits of their labor and came to the next question:

"Now what?" Beast asked.

Remy did not answer, studying the floating island of rock in front of them. It loomed. There was no other way to describe it. Hovering slightly off to one side of a jutting projection, Remy fiddled with the sensory inflow Hank was sending to his little skipboat. Roughly the size of an F-14 Tomcat, the small vehicle had been designed along Shi'ar lines, and as such, employed a clever cloaking device of its own to hide its sensory imprint from monitoring satellites.

None of that passed through his mind, though, as he fiddled with the scanner. An ambivalence had settled over him. Watching that tape over and over had only reinforced his anger and helplessness - not at Rogue's abduction, but at her. She was so stubborn, always running off to prove herself to....who? And even after months of a slow healing process, she still had a tendency to hold him at arms' length. Like she didn't trust him.

A small voice in the back of his head admonished him, You ain't exactly shown her the utmost faith, either, ami. Runnin' off t'do yo' own thing now and then, still apart from the team in more ways den one. With an irritated grunt, he told his brain to shut up. Den why you out here? Why not Logan or Ororo, neh? it came back slyly. You can fool her, but you can't fool y'self. With effort, he shoved that niggling voice away and focused on the task at hand.

After hours of reviewing the disc containing Rogue's disappearance, he had programmed his onboard computer with the exact parameters of the section of asteroid that had swallowed her. Now he turned his craft and started a precise scan of the rocky face immediately in front of him.

In a moment, a sensor beeped, and a small viewscreen froze on a section of the asteroid. Remy flicked his com switch. "Cameras jus' picked up a visual match, ami. Run it through your scanners, but I think we just found us a door."

He told the computer to send a tight data stream to the Blackbird, and then leaned forward a little to resume his study of the asteroid. Realistically, they had very little chance of breaching the thing if it did not want to let them in. In a twist of logic, though, Remy figured that if it was interested in lifeforms indigenous to Earth, then why settle for one when you could have two? Of course, he hadn't bothered to inform his teammates of his intentions; Storm and Psylocke would have fits.

It was rash, it was stupid, and yet he sensed that it was probably the one thing that could save her - namely, him. Over the course of his grueling escape from Antarctica and its aftermath, a rudimentary telepathy had manifested and grown. This would have been of no consequence, except that after Rogue and he had begun to repair their mangled relationship, her presence had begun to imprint itself on the telepathic part of his brain. It was a side-effect he attempted to ignore for the most part, since it never did much except flare up the closer in proximity she was to him.

In the past few week, as more walls had crumbled, however, he had noted an increase in the strength of the bond. It confused and frightened him a little - knowing she was about to enter a room seconds before the door opened, feeling her moving in and around him almost all the time. He wondered now if he had been subconsciously pushing her away a bit to get some relief from the odd pressure.

At any rate, he was counting on this tenuous link to help lead him to her.

He didn't fool himself into thinking that he and Rogue had the level of rapport that Scott and Jean had shared, but there was an undeniable tug of Rogue-ness that told him she was in there, somewhere. There was no more time to hatch rescue plans, or tiptoe under the watchful eyes of government spies. In spite of the frustration, in spite of the complex emotions that he was studiously ignoring, in spite of her likely anger that he was the one going after her, he had to reach her. She needed him; he would go.

Through a calculated drift, he had positioned himself exactly in front of an odd shadow to the left of the projection. It gave the impression of a depth much greater than a mere shadow of the protuberance to its right. He rechecked his computer; according the tape, this was the correct spot.

His communicator chimed and Hank's anxious voice filled the cockpit. "Interesting choice of resting spots, my friend. Now, be a good Cajun and come out where we can see you. Your propiniquity to the asteroid has knocked you off our radar." There was a pause, and then, "Gambit?"

Remy toggled off the switch and muttered, "Pardon, frere Bete. Need to do dis' my way." Gritting his teeth, he gripped the joystick tightly and rocketed into the shadow.

Immediately, something gripped his tiny ship - it felt as though a giant hand had taken hold of the fighter and was shaking it like a can of soda. Bright light poured through the forward viewport, which darkened automatically to protect his eyes. Another great jolt slammed into the ship, and Gambit closed his eyes, certain that a quick and very painful death by decompression would shortly follow.

The vibrating ship lurched again and then settled into a quick, steady glide through the shadowed rock and into something else entirely. Before his startled mind could register what he was seeing, a questing beam of green light penetrated the ship's hull and touched his chest, and his last thought was, I hope she appreciates this -


Aboard the Blackbird

"That does it!" Beast growled. He slammed an enormous furry fist on the console so hard that Psylocke winced. Before their disbelieving gaze, Gambit had deliberately turned his ship into the asteroid. Sensing something was afoot, Psylocke had managed to maneuver the Blackbird so that they could reacquire visual contact just in time to witness the other ship's abduction.

"Easy, mate. We need those instruments to get home," she chided.

"My apologies, Bets - but I am a wee bit put out by our bull-headed Cajun's recent antics. " He growled again, a low animal noise; and for once, Betsy thought he actually did resemble some kind of beast. "Remind me to rend him limb from limb when next we get our hands on him."

The radio beeped for their attention, and Psylocke reached over to acknowledge it. "Blackbird here, over."

"Betsy, please tell me I didn't see what I just saw," Jean returned.

"'Fraid so. He up and went on us."

"My friends, return to base. There's nothing more we can do for them now," Storm cut in.

"Acknowledged. Blackbird out." Psylocke cut the relay and looked at Beast, who returned her gaze silently. With a sigh, she fired up the engines to full throttle and started plotting a landing vector. As the ship moved away from the asteroid, they detected a faint shimmer - and then the asteroid blinked out of existence. Behind them lay only the stars.