Conversation in the crowded Guild council chamber stuttered to a halt as Remy entered with Malcolm Lotho a step behind him. Scott paused as the thieves around him all turned attentively toward the two Guildmasters.
"Afternoon, everyone," Remy said as he made his way to the head of the table. People returned the greeting and there was a general shuffle as they found their seats.
Scott took the spot on Remy's left, directly across from Lotho. Logan settled on the senior Guildmaster's far side with a friendly greeting which Lotho returned. The rest of the Think Tank - Chess, Marcus, Jean, Bishop and Mystique - along with several additional thieves and Rogue, filled the remaining seats around the table.
Malcolm Lotho leaned forward, fingering the four even holes in the table near where he sat. He glanced over at Logan and raised an eyebrow.
Logan managed to look abashed. "Temper got the best of me."
Scott kept his expression still. He didn't want Lotho asking questions about that particular confrontation and he was certain Remy didn't either. He wondered if Lotho even knew the Guildmaster of New York was - genetically, at least - an omega mutant on par with Magneto for raw destructive capability. He doubted it.
Lotho scowled at Logan, though without any real anger that Scott could detect. "This table is a piece of art," he said accusingly.
Logan shrugged. "Gives it character."
Lotho snorted and a twitter of laughter ran around the room.
Remy watched the exchange with a faint smile. He leaned casually back in his chair, but Scott could read the subtle tension in the set of his shoulders and knew he was anything but relaxed. The same tension twisted Scott's gut into a knot. A lot rode on the outcome of this meeting, and Scott couldn't imagine how Remy intended to talk the leader of the American Guilds into giving him permission to break Guild law yet again.
Or what price he would end up paying for it.
Beneath the table, Jean squeezed his hand. Even without her telepathy she always seemed to know when his thoughts started to turn dark. Scott returned the pressure and tried to give her a reassuring smile. This time, at least, Remy would have backup.
After a moment, Remy leaned forward and rapped his knuckles lightly on the table. The room quieted.
Remy turned to Lotho. "Guildmaster, y' asked to see the assault plan for Bastion's space station, so we're gon' walk through it in detail."
"Here?" Lotho asked curiously. He glanced at Logan and then Scott before turning his attention back to Remy. "I thought that would be an exercise with the three mutant teams."
Remy shrugged. "Dis de brain trust dat came up with the plan," he said. "They know it best. An' f' obvious reasons we can't put all of them in de same room with X-Force and Excalibur without havin' t' answer a lot o' questions better left unasked."
"Point," Lotho conceded.
Remy turned to Scott. "All yours, Cyclops."
Scott nodded. "All right." He clasped his hands together on the table in front of him as he organized his thoughts. "First, the basics. There are four major categories of obstacles that have to be overcome before we can take control of Bastion's space station." He paused. "Five, if you count getting up there, but that's taken care of."
He heard Jean's breath hitch on the tail end of his words, but didn't look at her. Knowing what they were giving Sinister felt like a spear driven straight through the middle of his chest, too.
Lotho turned to Remy. "Can this Sinister person be trusted?"
Remy shook his head. "Never. But, he wants us to succeed, so he'll help until he gets his payment." He shot Scott a hooded look. "An' only then will he doublecross us."
"There's a lot of bad blood between the X-teams and Sinister," Scott added. "But he values mutants way too much to want Bastion to stay in power. His parting shot will hurt us, for certain, but he won't sell us out to OZT."
Lotho scowled. "If he's that untrustworthy, why not simply kill him and take his technology?"
Logan snorted darkly. "He's immune."
Before Lotho could respond, Remy laid one hand flat on the table and leaned forward. "One o' de more terrifying t'ings I've done in my life is have tea wit' dat man." He paused, letting Lotho absorb that. "I've instructed my t'ieves dat if they ever see Sinister, they're t' drop everyt'ing and run. Even de mutant teams have t' be very careful around him."
Scott figured that was enough on Sinister. "Like I said, that part is taken care of. The remaining four obstacles are all on board the station."
When he had the attention of the room, he continued, "First is the station's power suppression system." He turned to one of the more junior thieves in the room. "Could you bring up the station schematics, please?"
The thief nodded, and a few moments later the large flatscreen display mounted at the far end of the room filled with the familiar diagram. Scott picked up the small laser pointer that sat on the table.
"We're going to arrive here, in this maintenance area." He pointed out the appropriate place on the diagram. "It's one of the highest points on the station - the farthest from Earth - and should be outside the planetary suppression field full-time. It should also be only lightly guarded. However, those guards will be sentinels."
"Distracting them will be Jubilee's job. She can communicate with sentinels and knows their protocols well enough to run them around through their own red tape for a little while. In the meantime, someone will have climb through the ducting into this centrifuge shaft to reach the nearest access to the reactor's cooling system." Artificial gravity systems still required large spinning parts, usually designed as long shafts through the structure. Scott always thought of them as being like the axles on a car. But those spaces also worked well for running wiring and tubing, including the coolant for the nuclear reactor that powered the station. "From there, that person will need to sabotage the cooling system and force a reactor shutdown without melting us all with radiation."
"There are four layers o' security protocols," Remy added. "Plus de physical security devices. Bastion's set it up t' melt down if de safeguards aren't handled properly. It's a tricky job, though not nearly as bad as de assembly plant reactor. Bein' in space forces some compromises in de design."
Scott had learned enough thief jargon to know that "tricky" was a code phrase for master-level work.
Lotho's gaze flicked to the various thieves around the room, then returned to Remy. "Who will be taking that job?"
"Undecided, for de moment," Remy answered, but Lotho wasn't fooled.
Anger darkened the senior Guildmaster's gaze. "Remy LeBeau, you will not put the Guild at risk again. Some agencies have already linked the X-Man Gambit to the Guildmaster of New York and if you set foot on Bastion's station wearing an X-Men's uniform and then do something like this, there will be a clear link between mutants and the Guild. I won't allow it."
Remy didn't react beyond a nod and a mild, "Bien." Scott would have sat back and shaken his head if he had that luxury. Remy had predicted, almost word for word, what Lotho's reaction would be.
Lotho looked around the table again, his anger undimmed. "The wells of talent run deep in New York. Are you honestly telling me you don't have anyone who can do this?"
A stir ran through the thieves in the room. Good or bad, Scott doubted many subordinate thieves got the chance to witness a direct assessment of their capabilities, one Guildmaster to another. He didn't envy them. He'd been in that situation before, though he suspected the Professor had been far gentler with his negative opinions than Remy would be.
Remy didn't take his attention off Lotho. "Oui, there's a lot of talent in New York," he agreed. "I c'n name three men right now dat I'm certain can eventually earn a master's mark. But none of them are there now."
Lotho shook his head, seeming exasperated. "Well what have you been doing for the last year?" he shot at Remy.
Remy gave the senior Guildmaster a dark look. "Reorganizin' de entire trainin' structure. An' in my copious free time, tryin' t' save de world from OZT."
His sarcasm earned him a raised eyebrow, but not the anger Scott expected. Perhaps that was as close as Lotho could come to acknowledging that Remy's predecessor had been exceedingly bad at his job.
Lotho leaned back in his chair and laced his hands across his stomach. "Completing a job like this would go a very long way toward earning that master's mark, should New York have a thief with the inherent capability, if hampered by a lack of proper training."
Remy's expression didn't change. "An' de cost of failure would be a whole lot more than forfeit o' de Guild's share."
"Gentlemen," Scott said once the silence had stretched long enough. "Maybe the rest of this conversation can be postponed until we've finished the briefing?" He focused on Lotho. "There's quite a bit more to cover."
Lotho frowned, but gestured for him to continue. Scott marshalled his thoughts.
"Once the reactor is disabled, power will switch to the secondary system - battery power backed up by a solar array. That system doesn't have the juice to run anything more than basic life support and functions like computing and emergency lighting so the station's power suppression system will go down."
Scott looked around the room. "And then we're all going to need a minute or ten to adjust to our powers coming back." That was one of the big unknowns they had no way to prepare for. None of them had ever had their powers suppressed this long.
Lotho's brow crinkled. "It'll be that bad?"
Jean tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. "For some of us it will be horrible."
She shrugged. "I'm a telepath. I hear the thoughts of people around me - all of them, all the time - if I don't actively block it out. After so many months, though, my shields have fallen apart so at least at first I'm going to get slammed by the thoughts of all those prisoners up there who have suffered who knows what at Bastion's hands. Until I rebuild my defenses I'll likely be curled up on the floor in a fetal ball." Her gaze on Lotho was uncompromising. "The same goes for Psylocke, and Cable."
"Some of us will be affected at a less severe level, as well," Scott added. "I'll likely have an instant migraine." His brain had no doubt forgotten how to shut out the painful pressure from the goggles containing his optic blasts. "Rahne will probably go full wolf and have to be contained until she puts herself together again. Logan's healing factor will go nuts for the first few minutes, which I understand to be a painful process though not something that will take him out of action."
"Whoever isn't affected will take down the nearby sentinels while those who need time to adjust do so. Jubilee has learned how to impersonate different sentinels, so as long as we destroy the ones in the immediate area quickly, she should be able to keep any of the others from noticing for a little while."
Lotho digested that, then, with a lingering glance at Logan, turned his attention back to Remy. "Where do you fall on this mutant incapacitation scale?"
The muscle in Remy's jaw bunched, and for once Scott could sympathize with his pathological hatred of giving out information. This wasn't going to help their case. But, he was also pretty sure Remy couldn't get away with lying outright to the head of the American Guilds.
"It'll be bad," Remy admitted.
Remy gave a noncommittal shrug. "Nausea and disorientation. I c'n work through it."
Lotho's gaze narrowed. "And how exactly does the ability to charge objects with energy lead to nausea and disorientation?"
"It doesn't." For a moment, Remy looked like he wasn't going to say anything else, but then he continued, "De biokinetic charge is one power. De disorientation comes from de other."
Lotho's eyebrows arched sharply. "Two alpha powers?" His expression turned challenging. "Is there some reason you've withheld this information?"
Remy met his gaze. "Y' never asked, an' a good thief never gives away an advantage."
Scott grimaced at that bit of deja vu. But, unlike himself, Lotho seemed to find Remy's answer perfectly acceptable.
"Very well," Lotho said, and gestured for Remy to continue. "Now I'm asking."
Remy sighed. "It's a kind o' kinesthetic sense," he said. "It actively senses t'ings like de distance, speed an' acceleration of everyt'ing around me." He paused when Lotho held up a hand.
"'Things like'? I want the whole list." There was no compromise in the Guildmaster's voice.
Remy's expression thinned, but he didn't hesitate. "Dimensions, density, distance, speed, acceleration an' de derivative of acceleration." While Lotho absorbed that, Remy went on, "We teach our t'ieves calculus so they better understand what their brains do automatically every time they catch a ball or jump from one roof t' another. My brain jus' has dis massive computer built into it that does de same t'ing, only a thousand, million times more. When dat first gets switched back on…" He trailed off with a shrug.
Scott had already worked out just how much Remy's kinesthetic sense could do, and in the back of his mind he had been tinkering with ideas for how he might be able to put it to use as the backbone of a team-wide spatial awareness system that could take their combat tactics to a whole new level. But that would have to wait until the X-Men were back to business as usual.
Scott cleared his throat, regaining the attention of the room. "Once the station power suppression system is disabled, we'll move on to the second obstacle: the sentinels themselves." Scott turned to Lotho. "I know you're aware of the sentinels' capabilities. Bastion keeps a force of just over a hundred sentinels on his station. Nearly sixty of those are CATs." He saw the alarm that flickered across Lotho's face at that statement. "With the ability to communicate and coordinate between units, that force will be more than we can handle without eventually breaching the station hull and killing a lot of people."
"Now, the sentinels' communication network is tied into the station's primary computing hub, which serves up most of their direct tasking."
Lotho's expression turned suspicious and Scott smiled blandly at him. "Yes, more work for our thief to do. The sentinels are fairly limited on their own-"
"Dumb as posts," Logan injected with a wolfish grin. "Accordin' to the human soldiers workin' for OZT."
Scott nodded. "The CATs are a little more independent and intelligent, but not hugely so. The station's computing hub is located here-" Scott used his pointer to highlight an industrial looking section of the space station near the hangar. It was nearly as far away from their entry point as it was possible to get. "So we would probably be dead by the time we got to it. That means we need a thief to hack into the system via one of the remote terminals and disable the communication and tasking systems." He pointed out the nearest remote terminal, located at a much more survivable distance from their ingress point.
"Why can't your sentinel girl - Jubilee - do that?" Lotho wanted to know.
Logan's lip curled at the description and Scott sent him a warning glance before turning back to the Guildmaster. "She could, maybe, but if there's any possibility of Bastion taking control of her, it'll likely be through that system. I don't want her having contact of any sort with it."
Lotho frowned, but acknowledged his point with a short nod. He turned to Remy. "How difficult?"
"If y' not a sentinel… very."
Lotho didn't look pleased at his answer, but didn't dispute it. "All right. Then what?"
Scott took a deep, preparatory breath. "Then things get hairy. We're going to have to fight our way through the sentinels and human security forces all the way to here-" He pointed to a section of the station separated from the rest by a heavy pressure bulkhead. "The central control center for the planetary suppression field emitter array. It's conveniently co-located with the prison facility so that mutant resistance fighters like ourselves will think twice about trying to blow it up - which wouldn't work anyway because there are backup controllers."
"Along the way, we will be increasingly at risk of losing our powers at random intervals due to the constantly changing shape of the planetary suppression field. So it will be some combination of mutant team tactics and regular old military operations. Chaos, in other words."
Scott surveyed the table. "And then we get to our third obstacle: the prisoners."
"Unless we're extraordinarily lucky, those mutants will get their powers back at the same time we do and it will be a few minutes before our telepaths can hope to do any kind of crowd control." Scott shrugged uncomfortably. "By then it will probably be too late. The good news is that they're going to be trying to escape and will occupy some portion of the sentinels. The bad news is that they're going to be trying to escape and who knows what they might be willing to risk in the process. They may be a greater danger than the sentinels. There's going to be a lot of rage needing to vent up there."
Lotho gave him a troubled, thoughtful look, which Scott took for a good sign. "And the fourth obstacle?" he asked.
Scott laid his hands flat on the table. "Bastion himself. We're pretty sure he's not human, but we don't have any idea what he is or what he can do."
Scott turned to the thief running the display. "Would you please queue up the video I brought?" he asked.
The thief nodded, and Scott turned back to Lotho. "My understanding is that the Thieves Guild doesn't have much experience with alpha mutant conflicts, so I thought it would be helpful to show you exactly what any thief that goes with us will be facing."
Lotho's eyebrows rose, and Scott continued, "We brought what data we could with us when the mansion was destroyed. Some of it is recordings of our training sessions." The screen flickered and the image of Bastion's space station was replaced by a still image of the X-Men arrayed inside the Danger Room.
Scott gestured to the screen. "We ran these scenarios three to four times a week for years. This is standard stuff for us, and not nearly as crazy as some of the real situations the team has faced."
The video began to play. The first few seconds contained nothing but the X-Men themselves; ordinary men and women yawning, talking, cracking jokes. Scott found it distinctly odd to see all of them in their old, diverse uniforms even though he'd looked through hours and hours of these recordings in search of the right one to use. The black uniforms spoke so much more eloquently of unit cohesion, of trust and comradeship, and he wondered if he'd be able to convince the team to keep them.
Then the chime sounded, signaling the beginning of the simulation, and everyone took their ready positions. Wolverine, Psylocke and Gambit anchored the corners of the ground operations space with himself and Bishop arrayed behind them for support. Phoenix hung suspended in the center of the triangle to provide shields and communication, while the airborne Rogue, Storm and Cannonball took up similar anchor positions to their counterparts on the ground. Beast, Iceman and Angel waited in reserve outside the camera frame until it became clear where they'd be most useful.
Doors opened on either side of the Danger Room, spilling dozens of spitting, snarling creatures into the room. Behind them came a cloud of something that looked like mechanical dragonflies, each three feet long and armed with laser cannons and grenade launchers. In an instant, the room dissolved into familiar mayhem punctuated with explosions, brilliant flashes of lightning and flying bodies.
Scott didn't watch the video. He watched the thieves. He'd chosen this recording for two reasons. First, because it was a physically violent scenario. There'd been no telepathic element to it at all, which the thieves would not have been able to see or appreciate. But his secondary reason was because it had been one of those days when Gambit and Rogue were flirting almost as much as fighting, and had kept the team laughing through half of the exercise. Scott wanted to bring home to Lotho, in particular, that despite the extreme level of violence this was just another day at the office for his X-Men.
It didn't hurt that the New York thieves were all rather taken with the romance between their Guildmaster and mistress. Lotho wouldn't be swayed by that, but Scott knew he was watching the Remy on the tape, who danced through storms of bullets unscathed and spewed pink-tinged destruction with the kind of speed and accuracy most people wouldn't believe if they saw. And he was only one member of the team, all of whom could do similarly incredible things.
Finally, Scott gestured to the man running the equipment and the video froze. In the silence that followed, he turned to Lotho. "It's more than just that this plan requires the skills of a master thief." He pointed to the screen. "I need a thief who can survive that."
Lotho's expression hardened. "It breaks Guild law." There was no compromise in his voice.
"And knowingly sending a thief to his death breaks Guild honor," Scott returned. He'd gotten Chess to give him a thorough run down of the Guild's laws, and had found that gem. Upholding the honor of the Guild was as much a part of the law as obedience.
Lotho sank back in his chair. He stared at the tabletop in contemplative silence. Eventually, though, he stirred and raised his eyes to Remy's. "We cannot risk the Guild's safety."
"We risk de Guild's safety no matter what we do," Remy countered. "We risk de Guild's safety by doin' nothing. Do y' really think L.A. is de last Guild Bastion will ever hunt down?"
Lotho only shook his head. "It breaks Guild law."
Remy's firm expression never changed. "Oui, it does."
Lotho sat forward abruptly and pinned him with a cold, hard stare. "It. Breaks. Guild. Law. If you were to do this, there would be no punishment left for you but execution, Guildmaster."
Further down the table, Rogue went starkly pale and Mystique laid a restraining hand on her arm. Scott clenched his hands into fists beneath the table. Lotho could not possibly be so rigid that he'd sacrifice Remy's life when they'd given him an out, could he?
Remy's face slowly emptied of expression. "Then, unless y' have an alternative t' offer, Guildmaster… Guild law stands." Scott's stomach went into freefall as Remy started to push himself back from the table.
"I agree that this operation of the X-Men's requires a master thief if it's to be successful." Lotho's words froze Remy in place. He looked around the table before settling his gaze on Scott. "Fortunately, there are two master thieves in this room."
Lotho smiled as a jolt ran through the gathered thieves. Even Remy looked like he'd been shocked speechless. "My fee is substantial, but so long as that's not a problem, I don't see why we can't come to an agreement."
Scott stared at him until Jean nudged his knee. Shaking himself, Scott extended his hand. "You're hired."