Future Pluperfect: Chapter 24
Jean Grey shook her head at her husband. "Still nothing," she confirmed. Turning around, she looked for Cable. "Is this normal?"
They were at the edge of the treeline on their island, looking north to the one occupied by the Kurioon. Since dawn, the three telepaths had been taking turns scanning for life signs, for possible shields, or for anything that could give them any sort of concrete clue about what they were about to face.
"Maybe," Cable finally replied as he stopped fiddling with something Jean couldn't see in one of his utility pouches. "It depends."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Mind being a little more opaque? I almost got a clue that time."
"If the nest has reached a certain point in its production cycle," Cable expanded, frowning at the sarcasm. Somehow, it sounded less cutting coming from Domino. "It can go for long periods without supervision."
"They'd leave it unprotected?" Iceman asked somewhat incredulously as he leaned forward from where he was crouched. Resting one hand on the ground for balance, he tilted his head to see if he could spot the other quartet stationed further down the edge of the beach.
"It's not unprotected," Cable replied. "As it starts requiring less energy to produce soldiers, it starts turning the extra supply towards defense. It can be almost as dangerous as when it was first planted and it can be monitored remotely. Their energy source is nuclear; it's easy enough to trigger that to self-destruct as a last resort."
"What about prior to that?" Cyclops asked. "They've got to have something short of total destruction for a defense. They're not that inefficient."
"Low-level therms," Cable said with an almost invisible shudder. "Not enough to vaporize, but more than enough to incapacitate."
"So what do we do?" Iceman asked, standing up. He had caught a flash of Havok only with his binoculars and he could have sworn that Alex had flipped him the bird.
"Don't set them off," Cable replied mildly.
"Thank you, Captain Obvious," Iceman retorted with a frown. "Can we handle them?"
"Probably," Cable replied sourly. "They can take out portable energy shields, but weren't meant to be used against telekinetics or anyone else with a natural shield."
"I'm not surprised," Cyclops sighed as he put down the binoculars, remembering life in the thirty-eighth century. "What are the chances that we can take care of this telekinetically?"
"I don't think we have the range," Cable answered. "But two telekinetics plus Cannonball and a teleporter should be enough for everything else."
"Tell the others that they might as well join us," Cyclops told Phoenix as he turned around to face the others. "I don't see any advantage to a two-pronged attack that outdoes having Mirrin teleport us over there."
A few minutes later, the other group appeared.
"We go?" Havok asked without preamble as he stepped over a small plant. Behind him, he could hear Cannonball mutter impolite things about low-growing foliage. Their hiding spot had been in a shady area and Sam had put his hand down on some sort of nettle patch without being able to see it. Domino, right next to him, had missed them all, of course. Mirrin had stood behind the trio, keeping telepathic watch Alex suspected.
"We go," Cyclops confirmed. "We'll stick to what we agreed to once we're over there. Right, Cable?"
Cable gave him a baleful look as a response.
"Right," Cyclops went on breezily. Far be it for him to be intimidated by any of his son's impressive array of dirty looks. "Any last questions?"
A shimmering moment after the question was met with no reply, the group was in the middle of another jungle. Domino watched Cannonball look around.
"This is where we hid from the bird-boy, right?" he asked Mirrin, who nodded. "So we're headed thataway," he said, turning to Domino and Cable and gesturing with his chin.
"It starts getting rocky about a kilometer from here," Mirrin began, pointing in the same direction Cannonball had indicated. "Nothing that we couldn't traverse by foot, although it will slow our progress."
The group began to walk through the trees in close to single file, so it was only a matter of time before Bobby started whistling a familiar tune.
Alex was the first to snort back a chuckle, even though he knew better. But it really was pretty funny. So long as he got to stay out of the discussion of which one of Domino, Jean, or Mirrin got to be Snow White.
Sam coughed quietly to cover up his snickering. But he was okay, really.
Domino arched an eyebrow to frown at Sam, who looked utterly unrepentant much to her dismay. She used to be able to cow him with a glance. Although Drake did seem to know the whole song, so the familiar part that everyone knew wasn't repeating like a demented dirge. Besides, with both Mirrin and Nathan seemingly oblivious to any deeper significance other than the fact that the whistling might be overheard, the accompaniment lent itself to the surreal aura the whole mission had taken on ever since the X-Men had found them on a telekinetically driven rowboat a half-klick off the coast of paradise.
Jean watched Alex and then Bobby and then caught glances with Scott, who simply shook his head and stepped up the pace.
"Telling him to stop will only make him think he's succeeded in driving me crazy," he replied to the unspoken question. "And I won't give him credit for that yet."
"Cable's still got the inside track?" Alex asked.
"Family discount," Cyclops grumbled.
The octet moved on, pausing only when the trees began to thin out.
"The nest is probably on the ridge beyond those trees," Cyclops said as he looked up at the start of the mountain that comprised the north end of the island.
"Make sense," Havok agreed. "It's been an extinct volcano for as long as Vanuatu had been on the atlas. The tree line is intact and the top is sheared in the same direction as the cliff on the north end. If it's plateaued at all on the other side of the face that's closest to us, then they've got a perfect spot."
The trees thinned out in spots but never disappeared completely until they suddenly swelled to become a virtual wall about two-thirds of the way up.
"The geological maps we have say that the north tip is beach leading up to a sheer rock face," Havok continued to the rest of the group. He had spent almost the entire flight -- at least the time not spent bickering with Bobby -- studying the maps. "It's probably impossible to scale without discovery. Our only shot is to get through this maze without getting spotted."
He stepped back to allow the others to take a good look at the scenery.
"How do we like Domino's odds versus Kurioon ingenuity?" Iceman asked thoughtfully.
"I'm not a sure bet," Domino replied with a frown as she moved to the front of the group to get an unobstructed view of the rock formation. "I'm lucky, not blessed."
"Which means our next step is up to you, Cable and Mirrin," Cyclops explained, turning to face the two time travelers. "Everything I have ever learned is telling me to turn back now. We are on our own without support and without even a chance for rescue so long as we are out-of-time and we haven't a clue what we're going to find. More importantly, our mission objective has been fulfilled.
"But I also know that I don't know everything that's going on here," he continued, looking meaningfully at both of them. "Not only what I can't know because I haven't experienced it, but because the two of you keep secrets." He waved off the beginning of a protest from Jean, not surprised that neither Nathan nor Mirrin were offering a denial. "So here's your last chance: tell me something to justify going on or else we're going home. Now."
Sam watched the two telepaths 'talk' it out between them. The only sounds were those of nature and it seemed like everyone was holding their breath waiting for the answer. It wasn't fear -- well, it wasn't all fear. Anticipation. Staving off the rush of adrenaline in case it wasn't needed. And the nagging concern that Mirrin and Cable, now called upon to give full disclosure, would instead give voice to the X-Men's greatest fear -- that there was nothing to be done to stop the Kurioon and the best that could happen was to minimize the damage.
Finally, Mirrin arched her eyebrows at Nathan as if to make sure that they were in agreement and then turned back to the group.
"Time-walking is like crossing a river," she said slowly, carefully, as she wanted to express what was probably inexpressible. "You never step into the same place twice. We are here-and-now, but if we leave we can never be here-and-now again. It will be different in some way, perhaps better for us, perhaps better for the Kurioon."
"And is there a better way to decide that other than a coin flip?" Alex asked as he moved closer to her.
"We've got the equivalent of an X-team here," Cable said finally. "We've had intel reports, we know the terrain, and we do have a clue about what we'll find once we get there. Sometimes you can't sit around and plot it out like a chess game."
"I know that," Cyclops replied a little testily, stepping forward to put his foot on a rock and lean on his leg. "All I'm asking is if we'd be better served going home and coming back with a different group, different weapons, and a more complete understanding of what we're up against. Even if it's to a different here that we return. We came suited for one mission; this is another."
"It's not like we've never gone in unprepared before," Jean pointed out. "And we really have nothing left to lose."
"Just our lives," Bobby suggested, kicking a stone. "That whole 'no rescue' thing."
Domino watched the proceedings with interest. Nathan wasn't trying to bully the others into going on and Mirrin wasn't helping him. Experience had proven to Domino that anything that caused Nate to pause before charging headlong into danger was worth keeping an eye on.
"That won't be a problem," Cable said quietly. "Mirrin can bring people home. We know she'll survive."
An awkward silence fell over the group. Mirrin herself looked less embarrassed than grim.
"Well, that was a conversation killer," Iceman said dryly after the silence dragged. "So since we're going on, is there anything else we need to think about? Like, say, thermonuclear weapons?"
"In theory, the therms can be worked around," Mirrin said thoughtfully, waving away Cable's burgeoning protest. "They're set off by motion detectors and I can teleport us past them. The psi-shielding, if there is any, shouldn't be a problem."
Cyclops watched Cable... who looked as if he had swallowed arsenic. His eyes were narrowed and his visage pained and something was very obviously wrong. Or perhaps not so obviously as nobody else seemed to notice.
Except Mirrin. "What?" she asked him with a frown. "I can do it. The blast triggers are at the klick point. We just have to be generous in our estimation."
"How do you know about the triggers?" Cable asked accusingly, shaking his head either in disbelief or to shake off his earlier disturbance. "We never had any intel on that..."
"We never had any intel from our side," she corrected, giving him a meaningful look. "We always had intel."
Cable was about to say something when Cyclops cut him off. "Okay, so how do we know when we're a klick away? Away from what?"
"Away from the perimeter of the nest," Mirrin replied, holding out her hands to approximate the nest. "It should be a ring of structures surrounded closely by a barrier of motion detectors. Those are easy to knock out and are not meant as a defense."
Cyclops handed over the binoculars. "See if you can spot anything. I don't know what I'm looking for."
Cable took them.
"Maybe Ah can take a look," Cannonball offered. "A fly-by. Ah'll be blastin', so Ah'll be a mostly invulnerable movin' target."
Cyclops looked like he was about to dismiss the idea, so Cannonball went on.
"Our problem with the Kurioon hasn't been gettin' shot at," he reasoned, trying to school his posture into a more submissive one. It usually worked on Cable, who responded better to suggestions than challenges. "It's gettin' them to stop shooting. Ah've faced plasma guns before and Ah'm not going to be flyin' over the nest."
"You be careful," Cyclops said reluctantly. He really didn't like sending Sam alone near a possible Kurioon nest. He turned to Cable. "There's no chance he'll trigger the therms from the air?"
"They're built to keep humans away," Cable reminded him. "Humans don't fly."
Before anyone else could come up with any more suggestions (or, as earlier, before he could get forced into taking a co-pilot), Cannonball blasted into the air and off towards the remains of the volcano.
From the air, the pattern of ground growth was more readily apparent. Ancient lava flows had carved deep gullies in the sides, but while soil and flora had filled in many of the pockets many remained and provided additional shaded areas that weren't visible from where the others were.
As Cannonball flew north, something flashed below in the sun's rays. Out of the path of the reflected light, he could see a box of sorts on a pike. It looked like a lollipop, he thought idly, the kind with bubble gum on the inside.
Remembering how Mirrin's teleportation worked, Cannonball came to ground a few yards south of where the trees became denser. Not dimming his blast field, he looked around. Mindful of what she might need to see, he swept his gaze over the ground and trees, honing in on the distinctive curve one of the lower-growing plants close by had.
Satisfied at the attention to detail and wary of any approaching Kurioon soldiers, Cannonball took to the air and flew back quickly to the group, keeping a high altitude.
"Ah think Ah found something," he announced upon landing, turning straight to Mirrin and Cable. He pushed the memory forward and waited for Cable to slip past his shields and take a look at the out-of-place lollipop.
"That's it," Cable replied, turning to Mirrin. "There's nothing between there and the nest?"
"There never has been," Mirrin answered with a shrug. "Cannonball, did you..."
"Yes ma'am," Cannonball cut her off with a nod. He knew she hated when he called her that. He barely felt her access the memory Cable had just viewed.
"Okay," Mirrin announced, slapping Cannonball's shields as she exited them as if to scold him. "I'm ready."
As long as it took to join together and link hands, it only a heartbeat until they were standing next to Cannonball's peculiarly curved yellow plant.
"Dayspring, do you feel that?" Mirrin asked, frowning.
Cable cocked his head and closed his eyes for a long moment and then re-opened them. "A psi-bubble?"
Mirrin furrowed her brow and nodded. "It feels like one."
"It doesn't make sense," Cable said. "Why would they use one here?"
"What are you two talking about?" Cyclops asked with mild irritation. With his own telepathic bond to his wife, he often forgot how much he hated it when telepaths kept things to themselves.
"Withholding information is unintentional. But there is something telepathically weird here," Jean explained, a curious expression on her face. "It's like being in a really crowded room with an echo, almost."
Cyclops eyed his wife for a moment. Well, perhaps he had been subconsciously leaking...
"It's a sort of psionic shielding," Mirrin explained, looking around carefully. "Apocalypse favored it as a means of dealing with the Askani. It has a not-dissimilar effect to that of the fish tank in the recreation room back at the mansion. It is mirrored on the inside so that we can look at the fish, but the fish can't see us."
Iceman tried to imagine this. "So we're the fish? Does this mean that we can't tell if someone is watching us?" Privately, he wondered about the X-Men's continued absolute reliance on the information from the two warriors from the future. They were getting thing wrong at truly inconvenient moments of late. If it were anyone but Cable, would Cyclops be so willing to follow?
"If they're outside the bubble, then no," Cable agreed. "Which is why it makes no sense. We'd have seen anyone here without them..."
"This is a trap, then," Domino concluded, more disappointed than distraught. This was one part of trailing after Nate that she didn't miss. "Typical with you. Out of the frying pan, into the oil fire."
"Summers family trait," Cable half-snarled at Domino, then turned casually to Iceman. "Right, Drake?"
Even as Iceman shook off his confusion -- he knew he had been keeping his thoughts to himself and couldn't recall any point in time when he had said something particularly nasty to Cable, although it was not as if a reason was necessary -- the group looked at each other and immediately fell into a defensive formation, backs to each other and weapons ready.
"They're hunting a telepath, so it makes sense to render that advantage null," Cable said as he scanned the horizon. With his telepathy limited to within the bubble, it was next to useless. Especially with the weird echo. That wasn't typical of the few psi-bubbles he had found himself inside during his battles with the Clan Chosen. "Especially since we took out theirs."
"Wonderful," Cyclops sighed. "Can we burst this bubble?"
"It's like any other psi-shielding," Cable replied. "It has borders."
"That lollipop Ah saw," Cannonball began. "Could that have been it?"
"The trigger?" Mirrin asked. "Perhaps. It would be a logical choice. Set off one while trying to disarm the other."
"So we either set off the bombs or go in almost headblind," Jean summarized. The longer the echo persisted, the more annoying it became and it was proving impossible to tune out.
"Mirrin, if we get stuck, can you get us out of here?" Cyclops asked, turning around to face her. He watched her close her eyes for a moment, then open them in awe.
"No," she said, absolutely mystified. "That's odd."
Through their psi-link, Domino felt Cable's stomach lurch and knew why.
"Well, if telepathic thought can't get outside of the bubble," Iceman trailed off.
"But that's never stopped me in the past," Mirrin contradicted, frowning at Iceman. "It's got to be something else."
"So we're stuck here until we figure out what that something else is?" Havok asked, willing his hands to stop glowing so brightly.
"Not necessarily," Cable replied. "We just have to get outside of the border of the bubble. It's not a physical border. We can just walk out."
"Question is whether we want to," Cyclops said. "We know it's a trap, but it's certainly not the first time we've walked into one aware. We're here and if we have a chance of stopping the Kurioon from doing any more damage..."
"Our telepathy, for practical purposes, is unaffected," Mirrin added. "We can communicate with each other; the echo -- whatever is causing it -- is annoying but not incapacitating."
"And it's not like it was a terribly effective weapon against the Kurioon," Havok said with a shrug. Trap though it may be, it wasn't an imminent one and he felt the tension of the group relax. "Their brains stay computerized no matter how much of the rest of them becomes flesh."
"So all we're going to lose is Mirrin's ability to teleport us out of trouble," Jean mused. "Which is just as well. It was a nice comfort, but hardly an absolute necessity. No offense, Min."
"None taken," the younger woman replied.
"Let's go," Cyclops said with a nod of his head in the direction of the trees.
This time, there was no musical accompaniment as they walked through the trees.
"This cluster of trees looked to be about half a kilometer wide from the air," Cannonball said as he moved closer to Cable. "The trigger was about a quarter behind it... we should be comin' right out into the nest almost."
"Theoretically," Cable agreed, pushing away a vine from in front of his face.
"What I want to know is where all of the soldiers are," Domino grumbled from the other side of him. "If we got... attacked right after landing the boat and that was last night, then where are the soldiers that met us?"
"They were hopefully the ones that we ran into while waiting for you," Havok said from where he was trailing behind. "Could they be at the nest?"
"They could be anywhere," Mirrin replied as she stepped carefully over a fern. "They're impossible to trace telepathically."
"Keep up the good news," Iceman sighed.
"How about the fact that there's just a clearing on the other side of these trees?" Cyclops asked from the front of the group.
"What?" Cable pushed past Cyclops ahead to where Jean stood and pointed. "That can't be."
But it was, as the octet found as they came through the last of the trees and beyond the small stone barrier that had once been the side of a volcano. The jagged rocky ground was occasionally broken up by plant life that had found purchase in soil deposits, but there was no sign of any sort of technology, let alone a Kurioon factory.
"It can't be," Cable repeated, searching around furiously for some sort of clue as Cannonball danced away from his bullish charge towards the tree. "There were satellite photos of the nest being extracted. There were the soldiers..."
"Maybe the camp is on some other part of the island," Cyclops mused vaguely. There really wasn't any other place it could be and the other islands had been searched. "Are you sure about the photos?"
"I saw them as well," Domino assured him as she moved towards the edge of the cliff. They hadn't checked the north side of the island, the part beyond the cliff. Although the Kurioon were too savvy to put a base on the beach below and leave it so open to attack from above.
"But they may be that arrogant," Jean replied.
"Stop picking through my head, Jean," Domino growled.
"That wasn't aloud?" Jean asked, horrified. "But I'm not... It's so hard to tell with this echo... I'm sorry. I really am." She hadn't been so surprised at accidentally reading someone's mind since she was a teenager...
Behind them, Cyclops and Iceman were examining the ground for any sort of devices or explosives.
"This was a wild goose chase?" Iceman asked incredulously as he spun around.
All of a sudden, Jean cried out in shocked agony as she fell to her knees. "What the...?"
Mirrin and Cable seemed to be similarly affected, the former holding her arms out to balance a world suddenly thrown off kilter as the latter looked around shakily, one golden eye blazing. The others to watch in confused horror.
"The echo's gone and so are our shields," Cable gritted out to Domino and Iceman. "Some kind of psi-attack."
"<A better-laid trap than you expected?>" Cannonball asked, or rather, was asked through him. His blue eyes were dull and vacant.
"Sam doesn't speak Askani that well," Havok said as he ran over to Mirrin, who was still hunched slightly and visibly shaken. He pulled her upright and into his arms in an attempt to get her attention. "What's going on?"
"He's not speaking Askani," Mirrin replied in a whisper, squinting as though to keep him in focus. "Our shields were stripped away... the bubble... we couldn't tell because of the echo... it's gone now... that's how they got to him... to any of us."
Cable, breathing heavily through clenched teeth spun, around angrily. "<Show yourself!>" he barked furiously.
Next to him, Domino, who had seen Cable in almost every type of battle, idly realized that this was as close as she had ever come to seeing him as the clan warrior he had been in his own time. There was a wildness in his eyes that she had seen only once before... with the Six Pack, facing down Stryfe over a disk...
Cyclops shifted the crumpled Jean in his arms so that he had a free hand to go to his visor if needs be. Through his telepathic bond to his wife he could feel her agony, but he had six others to be worried about as well.
"<And we shall call ourselves Clan Chosen>," a woman's voice announced mockingly, still sight unseen. It was a melodic voice, even in its cruelty (obvious even to those who didn't understand the language).
"Oh, Bright Lady no," Mirrin whispered in Askani, a gasp catching in her throat.
Havok watched her twist in his arms to look for Cable, who looked similarly stricken. "You know who this is."
"<What's the matter, Ay'el?>" the musical voice asked mockingly. "<No false tears from a false friend, please.>"
Mirrin nodded, closing her eyes in pain as tears fell, but Havok wasn't sure if it was from the psychical or emotional distress. A heartbeat later, he could feel her back stiffen. "I thought I did," she said mournfully. "Apparently, I was wrong."
A rustling from the trees drew everyone's attention and the woman who appeared was in everyone's gunsight before she came out of the shadows completely.
"<Welcome to Hell, Dayspring.>"