For the first time in what seemed like ages, Laura suspected that she might actually enjoy herself in the moments that loomed on the horizon.
With the limited and primitive systems of communication that the various, vaguely unified tribes of the isle of Manhattan employed, it had been rather difficult to arrange anything resembling a formal meeting between all of them. Ramrod and Gorgeous George had been tapped to undertake the less than glamorous task of acting as messengers and liaisons between the different factions of gangs and hovels that existed on the island. Sinister had been serious about implementing a more controlled environment on the island as quickly as possible, and the cooperation of the tribes was preferable to that end, if seemingly impossible to organize.
But, once the Dukes of New York had become involved, requesting a formal meeting with Sinister, the whole process has smoothed noticeably. From what Laura had been able to gather, Ford and Francis Dukes, the identical twin offspring of the late Fred 'The Blob' Dukes, had become, for all intense an purposes, the reigning sovereigns of the island of Manhattan. It seemed their status as some of the last remaining descendents of the original Brotherhood of Mutants, combined with their formidable strength had been more than enough to secure that position, not to mention their reported penchant for brutality. There was not a single group of Morlocks or mutant gangsters or communes that did not pay them tribute in some form or another.
In many respects, the Dukes were the only ones worth talking to. While it was certainly true that the process of organizing and cataloguing all of the mutants immigrating to the island by the hour combined with those who already occupied the territory would have been entirely possible without any cooperation at all from the organized gangs, having them on Sinister's side would make the entire ordeal significantly less...unpleasant for those who might have second thoughts about the shift in power. It was a tacit trickle-down effect that would be the most useful to their purposes; Whatever the Dukes agreed to, the rest would certainly follow.
It seemed that fact was not lost on the Dukes, who had sent word via messenger to a squadron of genome troopers on patrol around the Ark that they would meet with Sinister and the other representatives of the Manhattan mutant factions only within the security of their own stronghold, the Empire State Building, now commonly referred to as the Dukes Tower. Also apparent was how casual the Dukes had become with their unquestioned control over the island, because they were currently twenty minutes late to their own meeting. That was fine, though. Laura knew the facts of the coming events better than anyone besides Sinister himself, she would guess, and there was no amount of posturing or threats that would save for the twins a larger piece of the pie than Sinister deemed them to deserve, no matter how powerful they might be. What was more, in the end, it would not even matter.
To say that the lobby of the Empire State Building had seen better days would have been a gross understatement. The high ceilings, glossy floor, the art-deco accents and decorum that had once glowed with an almost golden luminosity had fallen into various stages of rot and decay and disrepair. Everything had been coated in a thick layer of dirt and grime, and there was not a single surface that had not been vandalized with graffiti or damaged in some other fashion. Still, Laura could not deny the majesty of it all. It still had an impressive air to it that even decades of neglect and war could not taint. It was precisely why, she imagined, the Dukes made their home here. Nevermind that it was near-suicidal to live in a skyscraper as old as this one that had seen nothing but abuse and zero maintenance in years. It was still damned imposing. Besides, if the stories were true, the Dukes needn't be concerned with something like a building falling down around them.
"Haven't seen you around before, cutie."
It took Laura a moment to understand that the words had been directed at her. For the past twenty five minutes, she had stood in a dark corner of the lobby while she took in the mindless chatter of the two-dozen mutants who had heeded the summons of the Dukes. Laura wagered that they were all fairly big fish in the hierarchy of Manhattan's current politics. There were Morlocks, generally identifiable by mutations that made them almost unrecognizable as humans, which was the factor that tended to unite them, even after the outright persecution of mutants had ceased after the war. There were the community leaders, who were not necessarily bad people, but who nevertheless had to play the ruthless game if they wanted to survive on the island. Then there were the goons. The lieutenants. Mutants who had inherited powerful positions in the flimsy structure of gangs and bosses because their mutations had made them physically imposing and irresistible. They were far and away the most irritating. They postured and clucked at one another, even in the semi-formal setting of being invited to the Dukes' headquarters.
The one who had spoken to her had been in the last group. She glanced at him. He was slightly taller than her, but not by much, especially with the slight curve in his frame that seemed to be a product of his reptilian, scaled form. He was clad head to toe in leather, but that only seemed to enhance his snake-like body. He regarded her hungrily with glowing, slitted eyes. His mouth parted to reveal rows of hooked, needle-like teeth.
Laura did not have the inclination or patience to humor him.
"Step away from me. If I have to say another word, I'm going to kill you."
The reptilian mutant shuddered in surprise, as though a small shock of electricity had passed through him. His yellow eyes narrowed. The tiny flaps that were his ears pressed back against his head.
"Who the fu-"
Laura popped the claws in her left hand with their characteristic hiss of metal scraping bone. The noise cut through the large room, echoed and amplified by the high rigid walls and ceiling. A deep and profound silence followed as all conversations ended suddenly. She didn't brandish the gleaming blades at the snake mutant, or even make any special effort to let him see them. She continued to stare straight ahead at the bank of long-forgotten elevator doors at the far end of the lobby, barely registering the many eyes now fixed on her.
The gesture served its purpose well. The reptilian mutant quickly and quietly stepped backward, away from her, rejoining the crowd of mutant leaders, who all stood similarly transfixed by the noise and sight of adamantium. Laura had a great deal of difficulty suppressing a grin then. She had wondered idly mere moments ago if the mutant world's memory of Logan and herself had begun to wane. Clearly, this was not the case.
She let the claws slide back into her forearm where they found their housings with a click. She had been right. This might actually be enjoyable.
A new sound cut through the room then. The sound of applause.
All heads turned to the other end of the lobby, where two tall, lithe, blonde figures stood, both clapping slowly, and in perfect unison. At first glance, it was not easy to tell that the near-identical forms were in fact male and female, respectively. They looked so much alike, with severe, angular, almost elven features that the only real dead giveaway was Francis' long hair and slightly curvier figure. But even that difference was slight. It seemed that neither of the Dukes had inherited their father's predisposition for bulk. In fact, their severe, graceful looks made one honestly wonder who The Blob had managed to shack up with to produce them, and whether she had gone into the arrangement willingly. They were so slim that anyone might guess that their genetics had seen what had become of Fred Dukes, and run screaming in the other direction.
"X-23," Ford and Francis both said with a synchronicity that was unnerving, "we've heard a lot about you."
"We've heard some things about your employer too," Ford said, this time on his own.
"But not as much as we would like," Francis added.
Laura studied them for a moment. They were almost alarmingly inscrutable. It seemed as though they did not make a single movement or gesture that had not been agreed upon by the both of them at some earlier time. She eyed them. Inhaled. Exhaled. She stepped forward out of the shadows, into the thick of the crowd of mutant delegates.
"Well," she said, "I'm not here to discuss him. Nor are any of you."
It seemed as though many of those present wanted to take issue with Laura's words, but it was the Dukes who spoke next, despite the consternation she saw in many of the faces around her.
"If Sinister thinks he's going to land his ship on our island and not have to tip his hand just a little, he's sadly mistaken," the Dukes said. "If you are here to threaten us into coercion, you'll find your audience sorely unimpressed, especially when the man himself does not deem it necessary to show himself before us. Is he afraid?"
Laura gave an exaggerated sigh. "He's busy."
"Too busy for us?"
The mood of the gathered crowd shifted then, with muted, angry voices bubbling out of the murmured whispers.
"Let me explain what's going to happen," Laura snapped, her voice cutting through and silencing the chatter all at once. "You all may think that you've carved out a very secure little fiefdom here, but just to be absolutely clear, the only reason you've secured this little slab of rock is because no one gives a shit about it or you anymore. You've been flying under humanity's radar, and thank god for that, because if any of the armies left in the world felt like it, they'd turn you and this whole island into a block of radioactive glass.
"Sinister is here to unite mutantkind as a whole. Not as a group of starving tribes trying to scrape by on the leftovers of a species that left us to die a long time ago. As a nation of unified people. Let me say it loud and clear for all of you: Sinister has the cure for Terminus, and he intends to use it, but anyone who utters even the slightest word of insurrection against him will be cut down before they even know what happened."
The room was silent for a moment, but Laura paid no mind to the other occupants of the lobby. Her eyes stayed fixed on the Dukes, who continued to gaze at her with their cool, placid stares. With no preamble, they began to walk towards her, their booted heels clicking on the floor in unison. Any mutant who fell within ten feet of them as they moved forward scrambled away like roaches avoiding a flashlight.
"That is very, very tough talk for someone who is a guest on our island," Ford said.
"Especially someone who comes to us alone," Francis added.
"No," Laura crossed her arms, "it's just a series of facts."
The twins stopped two feet in front of her. All around them, the rest of the gathering formed a circle about twenty feet in diameter. Laura knew what was coming. Every nerve that had been conditioned to predict incoming threats was practically burning with warning signals, telling her to prepare for a fight, to strike first. Her skin tingled as muscles and tendons twitched and flexed with movements too small to be seen by the naked eye. She ignored all them and maintained her relaxed posture.
In any other situation, she would have been glad to put the two young upstarts in their place, no matter how powerful they had come to believe themselves to be. Things were different now though, and not at all because she was there on Sinister's business. She had more to worry about now than just her own body. She had more to defend than her ego.
"How did Fred die?" she asked suddenly.
For the first time, the twins seemed to falter. Ford frowned slightly, and Francis' eyes narrowed, her thin lips pursing.
"What did you say?" Ford asked.
"Your father. How did he die? They used to say he was invincible. The Immovable Blob. The Ironhide."
"Don't talk about our father," Francis said quietly, her lips turning up in a threatening grimace.
"I heard that SHIELD got him. They spent years studying him, you know. His patterns, his fighting, where he went, what he did. They tried shooting him, blowing him up, they even dropped him out of a Helicarrier once. Do you know how they got him in the end? Poison. They got into his food supply and loaded him with enough Batrachotoxin to kill a dozen elephants, and it still took three long days for him to croak. I'm sure you remember that."
"What's your point, bitch?" Francis said.
"Yes," Ford added, "please tell us before we break you in half."
Laura lowered her hands, put a fist on a cocked hip. When she spoke, it was barely above a whisper. "What did you do about it?"
The silence that followed was palpable, and for once all eyes were fixed squarely on the Dukes, rather than their intended prey. Francis and Ford shifted uncomfortably, stealing a glance at one another.
"I thought so," Laura said, turning away from them and walking several paces before continuing, not looking back to face them. This time, it was from her that the other mutants retreated. "What have any of you done about it?"
She erupted then, her voice becoming a booming growl, sweeping her arms out in front of her in a grand gesture, startling a good number of the lobby's occupants. "Let me remind you all that we are an endangered species. Even if every living mutant left on the planet makes their way here to this island, we will not even break one hundred thousand. This island alone used to house over eight million humans. We are sterilized and diseased and humanity believes that if they let us waste away and kill each other in pointless squabbles, in another few decades we won't even be worth remembering. What have any of you done about that, besides hiding in your holes and praying you'll have enough food to feed yourselves tomorrow?
"Sinister is offering you the means to finally stand up again, to reclaim our place as the dominant species on this godforsaken hunk of rock. It's time for the humans to fear us again, because I can tell you for an absolute fact that they don't fear you now. You're a joke to them!
"So," she snarled, "what are you going to do about it?"
There was no roar of applause and no shouts of loyalty, and she had not expected any. There was fear. There was uncertainty. And that was good. She was not here to rally troops, she was here to shake the hold that the Dukes had over the tribes of the island, to make them see just how paltry and weak their attempts at an empire were. She was here to remind them what real power was.
"So what are you suggesting?" the Dukes asked coldly, regaining some of their composure, trying to reign back some of the control over the meeting. "Are we expected to go to war against humans?"
"You're expected to fall in line," Laura said, "and let Sinister make us strong again. When that happens, 'war' won't even be the word for what we do to the humans. 'Slaughter' would be more appropriate."
That did have an effect. Voices picked up in the crowd, enthusiastic whoops and yips of approval. Someone nearby let out a low growl of assent. It might have been the reptilian mutant that had sized her up earlier. It was waking up in all of them. The years of death and imprisonment and outright degradation was bubbling to the surface. That was what she needed.
"It starts here!" Laura barked, cutting off the chatter again. "It starts with you, right now! We are organizing the ranks, and anyone who won't be a part of it will be cut from the herd and left to wither, as apparently are your wishes."
She began to turn in a circle, looking as many of them in the eye as she could. Deep down in her subconscious, there was the sting of knowing just how badly she was leading them astray. It didn't matter to Sinister if the Dukes and their associated gangs complied with him. If they didn't, it would be no small matter to crush them under the treads of his war machine, sampling the genetic composition at his leisure. She could not let that cloud her mind, though. If she was going to save the fools from themselves, it had to be now. She began to count off on her fingers.
"One: No more crimes against fellow mutants. No extortion, no murder, no rape. This will be strictly enforced, and anyone in violation will be dealt with lethally. Believe that more than you believe in god, or more than you don't. Two: All mutants seeking the protection and asylum of Sinister's empire will be expected to register with us at the Ark. We need to know how strong our ranks are, who is fit to fight, and who is best suited for what tasks. Three: All current inhabitants of the island of Manhattan will be expected to be nothing but accommodating and cordial to mutants making their pilgrimage to the island. You are to welcome them with open arms as your brethren. Sinister will be supplying food and supplies to anyone in need."
"What about the cure?" someone in the group shouted.
"That is why the registration is tantamount," Laura said. "Administering the cure is not as easy as lining everyone up to get a shot in the arm. It requires extensive gene therapy catered to each individual over weeks. I promise you that we can cure each and every one of you, but it will take time and organization. If we cannot protect this island and unite as a people, there is no hope for anyone. No hope. No cure. No future. That's the way it is, cut and dry."
She finished making her circle and turned to stare at the Dukes. This was the moment when they would decide if they would process her words for the truth contained in them, or if they would lash out in defense of the small chunk of power they had made for themselves. Laura prepared herself for violence, for the very real possibility that she would be attacked from all directions in the next few seconds. Her limbs practically burned with anticipation.
The Dukes scanned the room, and Laura knew they were taking the temperature of those they called their subjects. If they were smart, they would recognize that attacking Laura, snubbing the offer that Sinister had extended, would do nothing but weaken their hold over the island's tribes. Word would get out of Sinister's snubbed generosity, and it would not be long before the Dukes were stripped of their influence. But Laura was not banking on these two making the smart choice.
"We..." the Dukes began, again in perfect unison, the entire room drawing in an anticipatory breath, "Will accept Sinister's terms."
Laura turned then, making her way for the exit. She would let them think it over, discuss it among themselves. It didn't matter what the Dukes or any other dissenters might say after she had gone. Two dozen sets of ears had been privy to the Dukes' assent, and that would be enough. The seeds were sown now, and there was no other alternative for anyone who wanted to survive and amount to something more than marauders and nomads. Even those who had developed a taste for the power and pillaging would be swept up in the fervor for a cure and a future that didn't involve the constant threat of death and starvation. Mutants parted for her as she walked, out of reverence and awe more than fear. She would wager that few had ever stood toe to toe with the Dukes, challenged their authority in their own house, and lived to tell about it.
"X-23," the Dukes called out after her, their synchronized voices bouncing off the high ceiling.
"What?" Laura said without turning or even breaking stride.
"If anything you say is even slightly false, we are coming for you. And we will make an example of you."
"Yeah," Laura replied, "I've heard that before."
Damien shuddered slightly as his astral form re-entered his body. Bridget knew immediately that he had occupied the body of whatever rodent or bird or cat he had found within the walls of the Dukes Tower for too long. The boy began to look ill as soon as he regained consciousness, what little color there was in his face draining completely, leaving his features a sickly shade of pale yellow, with a darker blue creeping into the flesh of his lips and the bags under his eyes. Damien coughed loudly, squinted against the scant light of his surroundings, and searched for his sunglasses within the folds of his clothing, found them, and replaced them on his head.
"Did you see him?" Bridget asked. Normally she would give Damien as much time as he required to recuperate himself after such a long 'dive,' as he called them, but she could not contain the urgency she felt for him to relate what he had learned while eavesdropping on the closed meeting that the Dukes had called.
Damien scowled, more she guessed out of physical discomfort than irritation at her question, and shook his head from side to side. "No."
Bridget's long ears pricked as she heard soft, almost indiscernible footfalls towards the entrance of the abandoned storefront where they had hidden themselves away while Damien performed his astral dive. They were still nearly a block from the tower itself, but for almost an hour, Bridget had been in a state of near panic at the thought of being discovered by one of the Dukes' sentries. She relaxed a little when she made out the shape of Rat as he quickly ducked into the shattered glass window of the shop, but did not for an instant let her guard down completely.
"He's up?" Rat asked.
"Help me," Damien reached a free hand out to her, his other firmly gripping his wooden walking stick. Normally, Damien would have never asked for such assistance, but he was honest enough with himself to know how thoroughly his strength had been sapped by being away from his own body for such an extended period of time. Bridget grasped his hand in hers and hauled him to his feet. She made to offer him continued support, but he lightly shrugged her off.
"It wasn't Sinister," Damien said. "He wasn't even there."
Rat frowned, obviously disappointed. "The Dukes called the gathering to meet with him, didn't they?"
"It was an envoy of his. Some kind of lieutenant. A woman the Dukes called 'X-23.'"
The name had no significance for any of them. They each glanced at one another searchingly, trying to find some foothold of remembered history by which they might apply that information, but nothing came.
"Whoever she is, everyone there knew her. Or at least knew of her," Damien said. "She scared the piss out of Jeremiah when she showed him her claws."
The mere mention of Jeremiah's name sent a cold shiver down Bridget's spine, terminating in her short tail, which shuddered back and forth involuntarily, as it often did in times of stress.
"Claws?" Rat asked.
Damien found his footing enough to free his hand that held the walking stick, so that he could use it to illustrate what he had seen through the eyes of whatever vermin's mind he had been in possession of. He held out a fist, then drew two imaginary lines with the fingers of his other hand, from the outer knuckles, ending after about a foot.
"Like knives," he said. "Two long blades that popped out of her fist."
"Wait," Bridget said, putting a hand up, "like The Wolverine?"
Mona, her protector, had related enough stories to Bridget about the X-Men that she could remember the names and key features of the most prominent members. It was fun, in an odd way. Like learning about the fabled gods of dead civilizations. The Wolverine, the agent of battle and war, had been famous for the gleaming metal claws that would burst from his hands at a moment's notice. Mona had said the man was as unbreakable as his claws. But he was dead now, so how true could that be?
"I guess so," Damien shrugged. "But she was definitely working for Sinister, so I don't know how the two could be related."
"So what did they talk about?" Rat asked, not nearly as interested in mutant history as Bridget was.
"It looked for awhile like the Dukes weren't too pleased that Sinister didn't come himself," Damien related. "I thought for a minute they were going to flatten the X-23 woman right then and there. But then she just... stopped them."
That seemed wrong to Bridget. No one stopped the Dukes from doing anything. Whatever the Dukes wanted, no matter how insane or brutal, they got. "What did she do to them?"
"Nothing. She just... talked to them."
Rat and Bridget were both equally perplexed by this. They exchanged silent glances before Damien continued.
"She told them that mutants are going to be the dominant species again, that we won't have to starve or scrape by anymore. She told them that the cure is real, and we all have to register ourselves at the Ark so that they can administer it properly. She also told them that any mutant who committed crimes against another mutant would be killed. Anyone who doesn't go along with Sinister will be killed too."
"Just like that?" Bridget said. The sheer audacity of this strange woman was almost beyond her understanding. To tell Ford and Francis Dukes to their faces that they would be executed if they did not follow someone else's will was, in her mind, tantamount to clinical insanity. It simply wasn't done.
"Sinister's going to have a kill list a mile long by the end of the day," Rat said, grinning humorlessly with his overly large, pointed teeth.
"I don't think so," Damien said. "As soon as X-23 left, a few of the lieutenants asked the Dukes if they should follow her and kill her for talking to them so disrespectfully. The Dukes... They said no. They said that everyone should do exactly what Sinister was asking. That it was the only way to ensure mutantkind's survival. They told the Morlocks and the Marauders that they would deal with anyone who broke Sinister's new rules personally. I wanted to stay and hear more, but..."
He didn't need to finish. Both Bridget and Rat could see how badly it had taxed him to be outside of his body for that long. If he had stayed any longer, who knew what the damage could have been?
There was a long, contemplative silence between them then, as each mulled over the new information. They had all been confident that Sinister was just another thug. An incredibly well-equipped and organized thug, but a thug nonetheless. Despite all he promised in his broadcast, all he claimed, it had seemed too good to be true. Most inhabitants of the island, while cautiously optimistic, had been bracing themselves for some kind of massive turf war between Sinister and the Dukes as Manhattan was carved up even smaller between warring factions. The idea that more mutants were pouring into the city by the day only served to intensify the fear that they would all be caught in the crossfire of a conflict the scale of which had not been seen in years. This though... This was something they had never even dared to hope for.
"Something else," Damien added finally, "X-23 said that Sinister is going to feed us. Feed everyone. She said that there are enough supplies on that Ark to accommodate everyone."
Rat shook his head so furiously in disbelief that Bridget could hear his lips as they waggled back and forth on his head. "Are you serious? Enough food for everyone?"
"Like you ever had to worry about that," Bridget joked.
"Hey," Rat smiled, "I can get by eating garbage until the end of time, but I do have tastebuds you know. And digesting trash may be easy for me, but actual food on a regular basis would be a nice change."
They laughed nervously, muffling the noise with their hands over their mouths, still entirely mindful that, even with Sinister's new laws apparently in acceptance, their presence this close to the tower would not necessarily go unpunished if they were discovered.
"I can't help wondering why, though," Damien said.
"'Why' what?" Bridget asked.
"Why would Sinister go through the trouble? I mean, he's got an airship bigger than anything I've ever seen. People uptown are saying he's got hundreds of armed troops patrolling the perimeter of the park. He's got all the power he needs. You can tell just by the fact that none of the human governments have just up and nuked the island just for him being here. Why open his arms to all mutants everywhere? Why offer the cure and food and protection with nothing asked in return? I'd like to think it's pure, naked charity, trying to rebuild the ranks of mutantkind in a way that we're all unquestioningly loyal, but I just can't wrap my head around that."
"What's wrong with unquestioning loyalty?" Rat asked. "That sounds like plenty of motivation to me."
Bridget was on to Damien's train of thought, though, and answered for him. "Why would he need the loyalty of all mutants if he didn't have some larger plan beyond curing Terminus? Why do you need troops and a warship if you mean to be entirely benevolent?"
"Because he wants to go to war with humanity."
Bridget and Rat turned to look at Damien expectantly.
"It was something else X-23 said," he explained. "But she said that 'war' wasn't the right word. She said it would be slaughter."
Laura had only made it a few blocks from the Empire State Building when it happened.
She had been walking alone, making her way back up to Central Park where the Ark had made its port. When she had left on her 'errand,' a squad of genome troopers had attempted to escort her, but she had laughed them off and told them that if they tried to follow her, she'd kill them where they stood. They had backed down, but only after several uncomfortable moments of quiet deliberation. Nevertheless, they had obeyed. She of all people did not need an escort. Not here. There were no threats on the whole island that she was not prepared to handle.
At least that's what she had believed.
From years of training and firsthand experience, Laura could detect the barbs of a telepathic mind skimming her own as deftly as she could feel someone else's fingers on her skin. It was what had allowed her to survive this long in Sinister's presence, with his ever-growing mental abilities constantly searching for entry into her expertly-guarded head. Instantly, she turned on her heel, the claws in her feet and hands exploding from her flesh nearly on instinct alone. Only a meta-talented telepath could have accessed her mind from a distance larger than several hundred yards, which meant whoever had spoken into her mind had been close. The voice itself, the mental presence, felt vaguely familiar, but she was too focused on launching a physical counterattack to pay it any mind. She sniffed the air, searching for any sign of a human presence.
"Try that again and you die!" she shouted into the unnervingly empty canyon of derelict buildings, her voice caroming off their facades in either direction. In the distance, she spotted the figures of two mutants whom she had passed earlier as they rummaged through a pile of rubble. At the sound of her cry, they darted into a nearby building.
I don't think so, Laura.
The light tone of mockery in the telepathic voice was almost enough in and of itself to drive Laura into a frenzy, but with no way to direct her compiling anger, she was left fuming and frustrated in the middle of the cracked and cratered street, crouched low into a fighting stance, her head twisting this way and that as she searched desperately for any sign of the psychic infiltrator.
In the alley. No, behind you.
She turned and peered down the street until her eyes fell on a noticeable gap between two buildings about a block away. It was not the only alley within her sightline, but somehow she knew that this was the one where she might find the source of the unwelcome presence in her head. She was faintly aware that this certainty was almost definitely a product of a mental suggestion being fed into her consciousness, but she didn't care about that. Someone had the gall to reach into her mind and call her out, and she was going to find out who.
She retracted her foot claws and began to sprint toward the alley, only slowing when she was ten yards away. It was not a wide gap. Really only enough space for two people to walk abreast. It had likely been used primarily as a path for maintenance and bringing garbage to the front of the buildings for pickup, back when the destitute island still functioned as a proper city. Strategically, Laura should have turned and left right then and there, put as much distance between her and this telepath as possible, rather than risk such a close-quarters environment in what was almost certainly an ambush.
She didn't hesitate for more than an instant before rounding the corner and stepping into the alley, ready for whatever she might find there. Or so she thought.
He wasn't unarmed, but he wasn't hiding either. Not crouched low in the shadows, not ready to attack. He sat casually on the rusted skeleton of an iron fire escape stairway, a sleek and vicious-looking repulsor pistol in one hand resting on his knee, pointed at the ground. He regarded her as she stepped closer, one eye emitting a faint, yellowish glow in the relative dimness of the alley. His other arm, naked below the elbow, was an unnerving collection of coiled metal shaped and wrapped to mimic the muscular working of a real human arm. He drummed his thigh expectantly with fingers that were horrifying to behold; Metal bones wrapped in wires and rings of almost liquid chrome.
Laura cocked an eyebrow and tilted her head, frowning in disbelief and confusion.
"Nathan Summers?" she asked, not able to mask her incredulity.
"It's been a long time, Laura," he said. He feigned a relaxed attitude well, but Laura could still smell the battle-stress on him, the faint souring of body odor that everyone emitted when they were anticipating violence, or at least the possibility of it. Be that as it may, she could smell no fear or anger on him, nothing that would predicate an opening attack from his end. She relaxed the tiniest increment, and let the claws slide back into her forearms with a snap. She didn't know what he was doing here, but he was not looking to attack her. Not right away, in any case.
"I thought you were dead," she said. "Sinister's techno-virus... No one ever survived more than a few years without keeling over or going insane."
"Well, not me, it seems," Nathan said, apparently not interested in humoring Laura's curiosity about his continued survival. "Speaking of Sinister, I see it's true that he's finally cooked up the right cocktail to grant himself some telepathy. I can feel his sloppy mental imprints all over your head. He's getting stronger, but not much more skilled. He's still nowhere near getting into your brain. I guess that's why you're still alive, hmm?"
"What do you want, Summers?" Laura asked. Now she was the one deflecting lines of inquiry.
Nathan sighed and rubbed at the growth of stubble on his hard, leathery jaw. Laura could not believe just how old and weary he seemed. He could not have been more than forty years old, but he already appeared more aged and weather-beaten than his father Scott Summers had ever been before his untimely death. Laura herself hadn't seen Nathan in nearly twenty years, back when the X-Men had still existed, before the human and mutant war had begun in earnest, and perhaps it was the fact that her own healing factor had kept her stubbornly suspended at roughly the same age and appearance for decades now, but the man before her seemed to have aged an unnaturally rapid pace. His hair, which had once been the same reddish chestnut as his father's, was now noticeably speckled with grey. Around his eyes were starbursts of crow's foot wrinkles that were as deep and pronounced as any she had ever seen on older men. All across his face and neck, she could see scars upon scars. He looked tired. But she wouldn't let that fool her into thinking he wasn't still as lethal as he had been as a younger man.
"I wanted to understand why you were working for Sinister. I thought for sure he had brainwashed you or gotten some telepathic hook into your brain, but I can already tell that he hasn't managed either."
Laura felt the tiniest bit relieved. Nathan was a gifted telepath. Much more adept and skilled than Sinister. He could access the more immediate areas of Laura's consciousness easily enough. But he was no Charles Xavier, or even his mother Jean Grey; He couldn't simply crack open her mind on a whim and divine her most intimate memories and thoughts at a glance. If he could, he wouldn't be speaking rhetorically the way he was, trying to figure her out by piecing logic together.
"It's not your business, Nathan," she said sharply. "What are you actually doing here?"
"You do remember it's his fault you lost the baby, don't you?"
The words hit Laura with the force and intensity of a knife in her guts. She gasped, gritted her teeth, eyed Nathan with hot barbs of rage in her eyes. By reflex, she brought a hand up and touched her stomach, just below her navel. Quickly, she realized what she was doing and put the hand back down to her side.
"I lost the baby because of Terminus."
"Which was created and released by Sinister."
"Which would have never been made if humans hadn't asked him for it," she snarled.
"Come on, Laura," Nathan sighed. "You're not stupid. You're a soldier, not a maniac. I've read all the reports. After shit hit the fan, and after you... Well, you disappeared into South Africa, dismantling mercenary groups, hitting Sentinel production plants. You were doing good work before you sided with Sinister. You stacked up quite a body count, but you still had your moral compass. I know it hit you hard when you lost the-"
Laura popped the claws in both hands once again, the shriek of metal bouncing off the tight quarters of the alley, amplifying it, effectively cutting him off.
"Choose your next words very carefully, boy," she hissed, "because I don't think you know the first thing about what 'hit me hard' and what didn't. You don't know anything about me. You've never felt a child suffocate inside of you because your womb filled with so many tumors that it choked the life out of her. You never had to cut your dead baby's corpse out of you because you were alone and afraid and the dead fetus inside you was poisoning your blood. Don't tell me what you know about me."
Nathan studied her for a long, tense moment, then nodded. "Granted, that may be true. But I knew you when you were still an X-Man. And I know what you would have done then if you found out that Sinister was the creator of Terminus. The Laura I knew would have buried him."
"Believe me, I tried," Laura said. "I spent years looking for him, and all the while trying to turn aside the thought that whoever released Terminus is a moot point. The humans have wanted us dead for decades, and it was only a matter of time before they found the excuse they were looking for. Did you fall asleep for the past twenty years? Did you not see what they did to us when we reacted to Terminus with anger and confusion? They imprisoned us, Nathan. They murdered us. They killed our children. They tried to erase us. So when I finally found Sinister, I realized that, however horrible his actions and his reasons, he's the only one with the power to get us out of this hole we've been thrown into. Terminus may have sterilized us, but it was the humans who tried to exterminate us."
"More and more," Nathan sighed, looking upward contemplatively, "I'm wondering if we don't deserve it. We were given the power of gods. Not because we earned it. It was sheer, blind luck of the genetic lottery. And what did most of us try to do with it? The same thing humans have tried to do since we crawled out of the trees. Violence and lust for more power."
Laura sneered. "You're sounding like Logan now."
"Is that why you helped Sinister kill him?"
She faltered. "How did you-"
"I didn't," Nathan gave a mirthless, almost menacing grin. "You just told me." He pointed at the claws she wore in her belt, Logan's claws that Vascha Aleksandrov had fashioned into weapons. "That was a bit of a giveaway too."
Laura swept a hand out in front of her, as though clearing dust from the air. "He was just as content as you are to let mutantkind rot if it means your precious human lives won't be lost. I'm not proud of what I've become, Nathan. As much as you might hate me, believe me when I say you're not even in the same ballpark when it comes to how much I loathe myself and what I've had to do for the good of all of us. Sinister's cure is the only way out, and like it or not, he's holding all the cards."
For a long time, Laura's last words hung in the air, punctuated only by the light breeze that played at the open mouth of the alleyway. Nathan stared at her, his one bionic eye burning like a microscopic sun in his skull. She felt as though he was peering into her soul. She would have sworn that he was trying to read her mind, but she felt none of the telltale alarms in her psyche that would have warned her against telepathic tampering in her head.
"What did he offer you?" he asked finally. "What did he promise you for all of this?"
Laura returned his penetrating gaze, her hands defiantly balling into tight fists. She maintained her silence.
Nathan sighed, stood slowly with a low groan of effort, and replaced his pistol under his arm, holstered in between the heavy combat armor he wore. He took a step toward her.
"I said..." he growled.
She felt his telepathic hooks sink deep into her mind without warning. Like an axe in her skull, she felt her psyche split open and fall out. She cried out, gripped the sides of her head in her hands, hunched over and nearly lost her footing from the shock. It was not pain, per se, there was nothing about the aggressive psychic probing that hurt physically, but the sensation of Nathan diving into her with his entire astral presence made her brain feel as though someone had attached and air hose to her mind and opened the valve. The hidden power of his telepathy was as staggering as it was surprising. It was overwhelming, dizzying, and violent. She felt him crawling through her memories with the delicacy of a butcher, her thoughts, her secrets laid bare. And as hard as she tried, she could not force him out again. She was like a child arm-wrestling a grown man.
And just like that, it was over. He drew out of her with such speed and force that the emptying sensation was almost as disarming as when he entered her psyche in the first place. She stumbled, nearly retched, put a hand out against the closest filthy brick wall to steady herself.
"You think you can stop him," Nathan said, no longer asking questions. He knew now. Knew everything. "You think if you let him play this out for as long as possible, you can swoop in at exactly the right moment and take him out of the picture."
"Fucker," Laura growled, spitting a stream of saliva stained pink from a place inside her cheek that she had evidently bitten into during the mental assault. She stumbled, still fighting the imbalanced state he had left her in. "It's the only way. That's what none of you understand. Logan didn't understand. His students didn't understand. Now two of them are dead because they were too fucking stupid to see the big picture. And if you're looking for an apology, you'll be disappointed."
"You can't possibly believe that will work," Nathan frowned. "For god's sake, you've been helping him augment his powers for years. You know how strong he is now. You know he'll take you out long before he ever lets you that close to him at this stage. That's why you didn't wait for him to give you what he promised. That's why you took matters into your own hands."
He stepped closer to her, knelt beside her. "God, Laura, I'm so sorry for what you've gone through. What you've had to do. I know you think you've got this under control, but you don't. You're not thinking clearly. Now more than ever."
He tried to put a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged him off viciously. "Go to hell, Nathan. I don't need your goddamned pity."
"Join us, Laura. Help us put a stop to this before it goes any further. I have as much reason to resent humans as anyone, but this is going to end with an all-out extinction. Not just for humans. For everyone. That's the only way this plays out if it goes the way you think it will."
Laura glanced up at him, her orientation finally returning to something resembling normal. "'Us'?"
Nathan stood. "The Sons of Logan. The X-Men."
She laughed through gritted teeth, despite herself. "You can't be serious. Those kids? There are only four left, and they're scattered to the wind if they know what's good for them. If they're smart they'll submit to Sinister like everyone else. They'll never be X-Men, no matter what you might think. Logan trained them to be killers and zealots, not agents of peace. The X-Men are dead and gone, Nathan."
"You're wrong," Nathan said coldly. "They're coming for him again. Coming for you too, if you don't wise up. Two of them are here already."
The last part shocked Laura. "Two? Here? How?" Then after a moment she added: "Why are you even telling me this?"
"Because I want you to know that, even after all you've done, you're not as alone as you think, Laura. And I don't believe you'll tell Sinister. I don't believe you'll stop me here, either."
Laura grinned sardonically. "You hide it well, Nathan, but you're still the bleeding heart optimist that your father was. It got him killed in the end. Just like..."
Faster than any normal person could track, faster than a human body had any right to move, Laura popped the claws in her right hand, swung around, and drove them into...
She stumbled, not accounting for her claws cutting into nothing but open air. She turned on her heel, rolled, and came up in fighting stance, all of her senses tuned to finding Nathan Summers. But he wasn't there. What was more, her nose told her that he had never been there to begin with. His presence, their entire conversation, had been a telepathic facsimile Nathan had placed in her head.
She had gravely underestimated how far Nathan's powers had progressed. In a way, it made sense. She guessed that the only way he could have survived the techno-virus as long as he had was by keeping it in check with his telepathic and telekinetic abilities. Over the years, that kind of constant vigilance had probably done nothing but hone his psychic weapons into the sharpened daggers she had felt only moments ago. Using them was probably a strain on his physical body, but that did not discount that he had become a formidable telepath indeed.
"Shit," she said to the empty alley.
Think it over, Laura.
She didn't bother looking for Nathan then. Knowing what she knew now, he could be clear across the city and still send such a message into her head. She closed her eyes and concentrated on forming her own thoughts into words: Tell your brats to stay out of my way, Nathan. If they know what's good for them, they'll leave this island and never come back.
She couldn't even be sure if he was listening anymore. She re-sheathed her claws, flexing her fists, feeling the adrenaline that had been released into her blood in the tips of her fingers.
Nathan knew everything now. There was no reason to think that there was a single thought in her head that he had not pillaged. He even knew what Sinister had promised her, what she had taken for herself when he had been incapacitated, and she considered that to be her closest, most secure secret at the moment.
She reflected on what he said. That she had no chance of removing Sinister from the picture as soon as he had administered the cure to mutantkind. Of course that had been her intention all along, whether she had admitted it to herself in the past or not, regardless of any plans she may have had to steal away from him at the first chance. Nathan had looked into her heart and seen it, and she realized that he was absolutely correct. And of course she would do it. She had to. No one knew Sinister they way that she had come to know him over the years. He had let her in close. He had put her in a position where she was the only one with a clear view on how the events must play out. That was why Logan had to die. That's why the Sons of Logan had to be stopped. Strike too early, and it was all for nothing.
She let her hand caress her stomach again, feeling the muscles beneath the layer of thin armor. Beneath that, she imagined she could feel something more. Something deeper, beneath the skin and flesh. Despite everything, she allowed herself a smile.
Well, not entirely for nothing.
Vascha's entire body ached with a deep soreness as she crept over the sleeping forms of her teammates, but the discomfort barely registered in her mind as anything more than a slight annoyance. By this point, she was far beyond ever caring about the near-constant state of physical wear and fatigue that had become her daily life under Logan's teaching. As soon as one bruise or lesion healed, there would be three more piled onto the top of it. That was simply the way things were.
She had lost all sense of relative time since she had come to Yuriko's estate with the others. At times, it seemed she had only been there for months. At others, it seemed as though it had been years. Days bled into nights seamlessly, with every waking hour consumed with training and drilling and conditioning. Combat and stealth were becoming ingrained into each of their muscular memories, their minds honed to think of everything in terms of strategy. They knew that they were coming close to the point where Logan would deemed them ready for actual missions, but when that might be, none of them could guess.
It was however, the reason Vascha was up and out of her sleeping cot. While she may not have feared the idea of injury or death, at least not as much as she might have before Logan had begun their training, there was one thing she needed to do before the possibility arose that one or all of them might leave for a mission and never come back. Logan had never let that contingency stray far from their minds. They were all on the brink of becoming soldiers in a secret and covert war against the forces that had conspired to turn mutants into slaves and targets for their armies.
Their sleeping quarters were cramped and utilitarian. It was essentially one long room with bare wooden floors where each of them would have room to roll out a small pad to sleep on, with a single thick, heavy blanket and a pillow. Arranged as they were, with Vascha at the far end of the room, she had to carefully step over each sleeping comrade before she got to her destination at the front of the room.
Ciara and Vascha slept the farthest apart, not by any design, but mere chance. Madame Yuriko had assigned their sleeping places at random, but it was understood that they were not meant to be changed once it had been decided. It meant that, to get to Ciara's cot, Vascha had to cross the entire room in total silence, lest she awaken them. Not that they would have done anything to get her in trouble if she did. It was a kind of game she played.
It was not the first time she had done this. Early in their training, Vascha had sought out Ciara to sleep next to on the nights when it was the coldest, or her training that day had been particularly brutal. Having a mild healing factor to soothe her own wounds, Ciara had always been sympathetic to Vascha's aches and pains, and would always let her crawl under her blanket beside her, provided she was gone by the time Logan or Yuriko came to wake them. Vascha supposed it was their early interaction and tentative friendship, before they had been swept away into Logan's tutelage, that let her do this without Ciara questioning it.
Ciara was already awake by the time Vascha had stealthily crawled over Gansükh, as was usually the case. Somehow, she could always tell when Vascha didn't want to be alone. In a way, it was a sort of secret the two shared. Early on, Logan had recognized Vascha's penchant for quick strategic thinking, and often placed her in a position of leadership, which in turn forced her to behave and carry herself the way a leader ought to, which certainly did not include seeking a teammate's comfort when she was bruised or lonely or afraid. It was a side of herself that Vascha allowed no one to see except Ciara. And Ciara knew it.
"Hi," she mouthed, knowing Vascha would be able to read her lips even in the low light of the sleeping quarters. She smiled and lifted her blanket, patting a spot next to her. Vascha gratefully knelt and rolled onto her side, scooting backwards until she felt Ciara's body pressing into her back. As was always the case, there was an immediate churning of butterflies in her stomach and throat as she felt Ciara's heat and breath washing over her tar-colored skin.
"You okay?" Ciara had put her mouth directly next to Vascha's ear so that she could whisper at the lowest volume possible. Vascha couldn't suppress the shudder that ran from her scalp into her neck and back, where it seemed to travel into every nerve like electricity coursing through a circuit.
Without being asked, Ciara began to trace the muscles of Vascha's back. It was not a playful, intimate gesture, rather a calculated, deliberate effort. When she found knots or muscles hardened by over-use, Ciara would dig in with the wide, flat pads of her thumbs, painfully excising the tension, sometimes punctuated by a soft pop where a fiber or ligament had been wound so tight that the sudden release of pressure was like cracking a knuckle. It could have been called a massage, but Vascha suspected that most massages didn't bring tears to people's eyes or make them bite down on the meat of their palm to stop from crying out. Still, despite the pain, she knew that what Ciara did was out of kindness, and it always left her feeling worlds better the next day.
"Good as new," Ciara whispered as she finished working through a particularly stubborn series of kinks in Vascha's right shoulder, which had been intense enough to make Vascha's eyes widen in shock and arch her entire body, pressing against Ciara as she worked the muscles into submission. When she found her breath again, it came in short, stuttered gasps. The soreness radiated up and down her back like pulses of white heat, but it was the kind of pain the precluded relief, rather than the deep, penetrating ache that she had felt before.
Vascha reached behind her without looking, found Ciara's face, and patted her lightly on the cheek. "Thanks."
Ciara didn't respond with words, but instead wrapped her arms around Vascha and held her tightly, rocking her gently.
For a few minutes, Vascha felt as though she could fall asleep right then, coiled in Ciara's warm, deceptively powerful limbs, cocooned in the girl's blanket, making a pleasant furnace of their body heat. In many ways, she would have been contented with that. But she had come to Ciara tonight for a reason besides personal comfort and Ciara's special brand of kindness. The butterflies came back again as the gravity of the coming moments began to sink in. Of all the physical and mental challenges Logan had subjected her to, she could recall nothing that terrified her as much as what she was about to do.
Vascha shifted in Ciara's embrace, turning so that they were face to face. Ciara was already well on her way to sleep, her eyes barely open, her mouth slightly agape, her breath rhythmic and steady. That was one thing Vascha had always envied about her; The girl could fall into a deep sleep at a moment's notice.
"Hey," Vascha said softly. She reached up with a hand that would not stop trembling.
"Hmm?" Ciara replied quietly, only slightly conscious, her face already doped with sleep.
Vascha stroked the other girl's cheek, feeling the soft, warm skin under her jet-black fingertips. She tried to speak, and found her throat suddenly dry. She swallowed, wet her lips, and tried again.
"I... I love you, Ciara."
"Mmm..." Ciara grinned slightly in her dazed, half-asleep state. "Love you too, Vasch'."
"No," Vascha pulled closer, pressed her forehead to Ciara's, putting her hand under the girl's jaw, near her ear, stroking the soft skin of her neck, "I'm in love with you, Ciara."
"I'm in love with you." The words felt heavy leaving her mouth, as though speaking them was drawing physical weight out of her body. Her skin prickled, her limbs felt weak and soft, as though they had turned to jelly. Her stomach twisted from the sheer, naked honesty, the vulnerability of the moment. If Vascha had been asked in that instant what the most beautiful thing in the world was, she would have answered without hesitation: Ciara Monetti, half asleep, her arms wrapped around her.
She didn't know what else to do. Vascha closed her eyes, leaned forward, closing the scant centimeters between their mouths, and kissed her.
Or she would have. Instead of feeling the girl's soft lips on her own, she felt the rough callouses of Ciara's fingertips, gently stopping her.
Vascha opened her black eyes and saw Ciara's staring back.
She tried to speak through the fingers still softly pressing on her mouth. "I..."
"Shh..." Ciara whispered slowly. She reached up and held Vascha's face in her hands. She pressed her lips to Vascha's forehead, lingering there for a long, painful moment.
When she finally pulled away, Ciara looked again into Vascha's eyes, still cradling her head.
"I love you," Vascha said again, but this time is sounded faint and desperate, like the pleading of a child.
"I heard you," Ciara smiled sadly, "and I would be so lucky to be yours, Vasch', but..."
Vascha felt tears welling up in her eyes. She wanted to wipe them away, wipe away the past few minutes from the face of time altogether, but her body felt numb and cold and would not respond to her mind's desires. It was stupid, what she had done. She had the impending sense of dread that she had made a terrible mistake.
"But you don't like girls," she said, finishing the thought that Ciara was unwilling or unable to articulate.
Ciara shrugged, frowning. "I don't know. I don't think so. You're beautiful, Vascha. Everything about you is beautiful. If I could flip a switch for you, I would. I just..."
"I feel so stupid," Vascha gasped, her bottom lip quivering. She bit down on it. She wouldn't cry. She couldn't cry.
Ciara pulled her close, hugging her tightly around her waist. Even then, feeling ashamed and foolish, the urge to press her mouth against hers drilled through Vascha's mind like a spike. All it did was make her feel even worse. She wanted to push away from Ciara, to run...anywhere that would take her far from this moment. Ciara's embrace felt like a cage, holding her in with her shame, trapping her in the moment of regret and clumsiness.
"It's okay," Ciara whispered. "It's going to be okay."
There was no stopping it then. Softly and quietly, Vascha began to cry. The tears ran down her face and pooled against Ciara's neck and collarbone, quickly growing cold against their body heat. Vascha gripped the other girl's shoulders as though she might fall off the earth if she let go, her fingers digging into Ciara's skin. If Ciara minded, she offered no complaint.
"It's not going to be okay, Vascha."
The world seemed to drop out from under Vascha's body, sending her whirling into a seemingly bottomless dark abyss. Ciara was gone, like dust from under her fingers. The sleeping quarters were gone. Her teammates were gone. It had all dissipated like oil paint doused with turpentine, smearing and running and fading away into a vacuum.
"What..?" Vascha said stupidly into the blackness. She felt disoriented, lost, all reference of time and place gone. She felt all at once as though she was floating and chained to one place at the same time, her body refusing to respond.
"It's never going to be okay."
The voice came from behind her, and suddenly she did not feel shackled by some invisible force. She turned to see who had spoken.
She was in a room she did not recognize. It was not only that she had never been there, it was that she could not fathom the purpose of the space she found herself enclosed in. It was stark white on all sides, with unusual hoses and wires and robotic apparatus that she could not place. Standing before her was a man that was similarly unfamiliar to her, but nevertheless, she felt she had seen him before somewhere, met him at some point. He was ghastly to behold, and if there had been anywhere to go, Vascha would have turned and ran at the sight of him. He was tall, broad, and dressed in a severely cut dark suit that only seemed to make his face more awful.
His skin was perhaps whiter than the walls of the room, if that was at all possible. On his scalp there was a thin layer of black hair that looked as though it had recently been shaved off. His eyes burned with an unsettling sheen of crimson, and in the middle of his forehead was a delicate red jewel that looked as though it had been implanted deep into the bones of his skull. His visage was skeletal and gaunt, the flesh looked tight and stretched over his bones. He smiled at her with dark, stained-looking lips.
He stood in front of something, blocking it from her view. It looked to Vascha like a medical bed, but it was of a type she had never encountered before. For some reason, she felt the irresistible urge to see who was in the bed, hooked up to more machines than she would have believe possible.
Every urge in her body told her to fight this stranger, this skeletal figment that had pulled her out of reality. But she couldn't.
"What... Who are you?" she asked.
"I'm Mister Sinister," he grinned. "We have met before."
Vascha shook her head slowly, not able to hide her skepticism. "No. I don't think we have." She was not sure if she was trying to convince him, or herself.
He cocked his head, eyeing her with a bemused expression. He crossed his arms, placing one hand under his chin as though taking in a piece of art on a gallery wall. It made Vascha's skin crawl, the way he looked at her.
"You were so beautiful," he said. "It's such a shame."
"What are you talking about? What is this?"
"This is your future, Vascha. This is the product of all of your efforts," Sinister said. "As I told you, it's never going to be okay."
He stepped aside, for the first time allowing Vascha a full view of the medical bed behind him.
Vascha stepped forward. At first, she could not comprehend what she saw. There was a person in the bed, attached to dozens, perhaps nearly one hundred different machines, but what she was looking at made no sense to her. The figure that lay there was missing parts, whole sections of their body, their form seemingly kept intact only by the equipment that maintained the flimsy state of life.
A small robotic arm sprang to action and swiftly moved from its perch among the other mechanisms to spray a misting of water into the figure's one remaining eye. It was only then that Vascha looked at the face of the person who lay there in a state of horrifying medical stasis. The eye and skin were black, the color of fresh asphalt. Despite the lack of a discernible pupil, Vascha knew that eye was staring at her.
It was her. The mangled, butchered form in the bed was her.
Vascha opened her throat and screamed. When her lungs were empty she sucked in another breath and shrieked again, bringing her hands to her face in terror. She wanted to turn away, wanted to break her gaze away from the single dead eye that leaked clear saline solution like artificial tears, but she could not.
She stepped backwards, stumbled, fell to the floor, and began to hyperventilate. Her mind was a blank hiss of static. No words or thoughts formed. No reason or plan of action unfolded. There was only the roar of pure, unadulterated terror.
"No!" she managed finally, shouting it like a prayer. "No! No! No!"
Sinister was kneeling beside her now. She had almost forgotten he was there at all. He reached out to her, and while a part of her knew to back away, she could not make herself obey. He touched her head, his skeletal white fingers working through her short black hair, reaching her scalp. His hand was cool and hard, as though carved from marble.
"This is what becomes of you, Vascha. It is not conjecture or warning. This is you as you are now. I have kept you living, pulled you out of your own memory, seen your entire life play out before my eyes. Your existence is nothing but pain and misery, my dear."
"No," Vascha squeezed her eyes shut. It was a dream. A horrible nightmare. It had to be. She tried to shake her head, but Sinister's grip on her scalp, while not painful, was firm and unyielding. "No, this can't be real."
"It is, Vascha," Sinister said, speaking in the assured tone that one would use to address a child. "Your parents killed in front of you. Your time spent in the human internment camps. All those years of brutal training under Logan. All the violence you commit in the name of people who will never care for you or even know your name. The girl who will never love you back, no matter how fierce your love and loyalty to her might be, and then dies because you couldn't save her. Your body, broken and lifeless. All of this is the sad theater of your existence. Nothing you have done or will do matters. Nothing ever changes. Nothing ever gets better."
Faintly, Vascha was aware of a presence in her mind, a calming, soothing influence that was not of her own mental state. She felt the hysteria subside, felt the panic and shock being pushed into the background noise of her brain. Her breathing returned to something akin to normal.
She opened her eyes again, looked beyond Sinister, stared at the body... stared at herself in the bed.
"He was wrong, Vascha. He never really believed in you. He was a man driven by guilt and shame. He never intended to save you or anyone. He wanted to be a martyr, and nothing more."
Sinister placed his hands under her arms and hauled her to her feet. She felt woozy, drugged, as though her body was a thousand miles away. He stood behind her, his cold, powerful hands on her shoulders, both of them looking at the medical bed where her mangled form lay.
"I can change it, Vascha."
She looked up at him with tears in her eyes. She sniffed, ashamed of her hysteria and panic and wanton emotion. "How?"
"All the horrible things in your life, all the death, all the suffering, all the loss... I can make it all go away. I can make it all stop. I can help you be something more than an agent of life's cruelty." He gestured at the bed with an open hand. "This could be your end, Vascha. Having accomplished nothing and failing to save the ones you love. Or you can become something more. Something better. You could be the one to help bring salvation to all of mutantkind. You could help me change everything."
She stared again at the open, dead eye of her inert, artificially alive body. She thought of Ciara, the girl she loved with all of her heart, pushing her away, gently but firmly. Rejecting her. She thought of all the good things in her life that had been taken away or kept just out of her reach. All the effort, all the training, all the pain, to end up like this?
No. No, that couldn't be how her life ended.
"What do I have to do?" she asked.
She felt Sinister's fingers tighten around her shoulders. Just as before, the scene around them began to melt away, to turn intangible and fluid, sucked out of existence by some invisible black hole.
"All you have to do, my dear," Sinister said softly, "is say yes."