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All Empires Laid Low

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In the time of Ago, in the kingdoms of All Forgotten and Lost, a mother told her young son that dying was very much like falling asleep. She said this, not bent tenderly over his bed or with him safely settled in her lap, but merely as she passed his tiny, sweaty hand over to the nanny.

Dying is like going to sleep forever and mind you, Bonnie, make sure he doesn't track mud in the foyer.

That was Ago, but it is also the eternal present-- for in this great silence, the delineation between past and future have been lost. All memories are NOW, and the child-self lies cheek to cheek with the aged whole.

 

The mud is from the cemetery, the strange city of fore-shortened towers and fading stone words. The boy is very small-- small enough to need help with his shoes, and a stool to reach the sink when he brushes his teeth. He looks strange and almost comical in his tiny tailored suit; his cheeks are flushed rosy with February cold and the pinching of far too many relatives. Despite his diligent and self-motivated study of the alphabet, he could not read the stones that stuck out, like strange dragon's teeth, at uncomfortable angles in the frozen ground. Snow-dusted totems, row upon row of them, surrounding an open and yet-unmarked grave. There were stone boxes too, granite and marble like illustrations in a geology textbook. (He may not be able to functionally read the ponderous encyclopedias, but he loves to look at pictures.) An angel lay draped across one such mausoleum, weeping carefully carven tears, and another boasted a far more terrible angel with a fiery sword.

 

This little boy's father is dead. Dead, and not sleeping; the shiny wooden coffin was shut tight the entire time and the little boy knows why. A loud explosion took place-- is still taking place, though now no one save this child can hear the thundering echoes. It was the shrieking destruction of a thousand million bits of organic clockwork, synapses and neurons and the _dorsolateral prefrontal_ (he can barely say it, but it can point to it in a diagram) which he has learned in place of nursery rhymes or Red Rover. And the smell. That smell of blood and gun powder, which the boy knows have nothing to do with sleep or even nightmare.

That's Father with the revolver, with sticky black thoughts all through his head. Furry shadows running 'round and 'round-- what is it all for, will it never get any better, why why why. Father was a believer in practical demonstrations. Once he was sure his son understood the illustrations, he took the little boy with him to the Institute one day, showing off a wrinkled pink-gray mass-- the color of taffy and wet dust-- suspended in a huge and faintly yellowing jar.

"That is real a human brain, son, not just a diagram. There's one inside my head, and yours too."

How terrifying! That all he-- all anyone-- is comes down to just a beige-pink thing no bigger than a cantaloupe. Not a pleasing sight at all; it looks like some infantile fungus, or else something viscus slowly dragging itself across the sea floor. And because it is inside of you, because it _is_ you, you can never get away from it.

 

'Blew his brains out,' is what the large important men with briefcases say, when they think the boy and his mother can't hear. As if the dead scientist bagged an elephant in darkest Africa. Dropped it with a single shot.

'It was all over the place,' the maid tells the gardner. 'Desk, drapes, rug-- you name it.' The boy wonders if all the sad and oozing thoughts got everywhere, too. Did they slink off like inch-worms, are they waiting to find and help themselves to his brain now, instead?

Mother lied. The boy knows this and she knows he knows this, which she attributes to his 'strange ways'.

 

He-- this thinking substance that was once a little boy-- is not dead. Not asleep, not even
(a wad of pink taffy)
a preserved cerebral cortex or organic neurotransmission patterns reconstructed in a database environment. He is only the essential animating force that little boy's father so hotly denied. That incorruptible spark, which cannot be weighed or measured or dissected.

It is not dark here. In order to have darkness, one must have light, and neither of those things have ever been whispered of in this… place. It is beyond void; the dull, convex curve of a sphere, Outside of everything that is alive. He's not meant to stay here, in this
(limbo, purgatory)
way station. He knows, with that instinct so long fermented in his hominid ancestors, that one is meant to cross
(styx, the river styx)
on the way to somewhere else.

What is that Else? He doesn't know. It's immaterial
(and ah, polite cocktail laughter)
because the way is shut. He is caught by the smallest tether, by a remnant of Life no more than a clump of cells or a stray thought-pattern. No matter how infinitesimal, the anchor weighs on him, always threatening to break his metaphorical
(spine)
back.

 

Who was/is he? The little boy in the story, yes, but the world is full of stories. What is a person
('--without their scars?' asks a beloved voice, tender yet full of indomitable strength. Then, not said, but everything implied, 'I am held together by scars-- without them, I would unravel and be nothing at all.')
without their own internal history, their personal mythology? He thinks he may have spoken-- taught, lectured-- about these things once.

 

So forget about that little boy. It's just one facet-- a sharp, painful one. These shards come to him, occasionally, in this place where there is only that which he brings with him. Memories reduced to objects; echoes of arguments, farewells, hellos. The black bird who never stays, peering at him with golden eyes like pools of molten, disappointed affection. A red bird, too, with wings trailing a lace of flame and whose cry is the rending of all universes. The brain, of course, floating pink in its aging jar-- though sometimes, inexplicably, the soft folds
(cerebro)
turn to chrome .

Or here-- see the lilies under glass? The white petals shimmer with the dried sweat of the dead in the way station of the morgue. The glass itself quivers with the tones of her voice, the instinctive wince

(so like him, so like Brian, and how can I ever expect that to end well?)

that crept in whenever she came upon him unexpectedly. These flowers are not kept in water, but float suspended in alcohol, the smell of it curling around words and hiding behind a blossom-scent so strong one might swoon. Elusive chessmen, empty chairs and place settings, the cool right side of the bed left when no one
(someone)
ever comes home.

 

These talismans drift past him and away, brushing against his awareness to inspire all the unexpected trepidation of a swimmer who feels a touch beneath still, dark waters. Mercifully,

(is it mercy? is it?)

while he still recognizes these artifacts as belonging to him, much of their visceral impact has been lost. Numbed, perhaps, is a better term. He remembers enough of his last moments-- tiredness, resignation, regret-- to know he wants the final cleansing whatever is… across would provide. And if he cannot have it? Then let the halls go dark on the endless library shelves, let dust cover all the painful chronicles.

 

There is a Voice which comes to him, stronger than all the strange ephemera of a life lived and relinquished for a cause he believed just. It is his bell in the fog, in the No-thingness he is less and less inclined to fight. It takes Will to register the pieces of himself, and he is as an animal in a trap-- bound so long he barely believes there was ever anything else.

There must have been, though. Discount the threads of stories, shuck off the chains of one life's sins like old shoes, but nothing else can account for the mournful, tolling call. And, if there is a Voice, then the story (all the stories) might be true. There might really have once been a boy, ignored or dismissed by most but finally-- redemptively-- loved by a girl he called sister and by one Other as tenderly violent, vibrant, as the necessary polarities which bind the universe.

 

'Let me go.' Mute, beyond words. A depopulated city with nonsense scrawled on every stone totem, for the sake of all that's holy let me go. But it is not the Voice that holds him here, though he lingers just outside the dim warmth of its memory as if it were some homey threshold. His clarion is mournful, longing, but ultimately penitent-- he does not think it would bind him in this purgatory out of malice.

And yet, yet…
'I want you by my side.
Did you think I didn't hear you', a part of him whispers, 'as we lay skin-to-skin?' The writing of that lifetime upon him, the etching of stone words, is not entirely worn away-- though he would relinquish much of it gladly. 'Our intimacy was vital and profound-- how could I not see your instinct to abscond, to miser me as a dragon hoards its gold?
And then, you spent me as easily as a shell casing.'
'It doesn't look like they're playing by your rules. Maybe it's time to play by theirs.
Goodbye, old friend.'

But then, who can anticipate the capacity for cruelty that exists within love? Though the details are lost to him, he labors still under the weight of un-enacted sin.
(quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo, opere et omissione…)
Had he not longed to smooth the sharpest edges of his beloved's anger, restraining himself only by inches, knowing in his bones it would take less than a thought? To gently hood that bird of prey, lulling until it no longer recognized the binding for what it was-- seduce it to stay of its own accord.

Perhaps
("Please, I must have quiet, I must! G-d damn you, Charles!")
the fact he lingers is a source of pain for his dear one, as well as himself.

 

He cannot deny his own weakness. One can deny nothing here-- it is the most abrasive and intolerable agony of this place. In spite of the suffering, the tatters of his resentment, he _wants_ to hear that voice-- the music of storms rolling through mineral rich mountains-- but not the… word it calls.

Merely a name, *his* name-- but to hear it would provide context. It would make the sad little boy and the broken man on the beach, the dependable patriarch and the hermit reeking of cologne and mother's other perfume
(on the breath, my G-d, what have I let myself become?)
real. These stories are a trap to encapsulate him, and so he must remain deaf.

 

Back across the vast infinities, no larger than the width of a casket, he murmurs his love in a voice he does not have. The word for his beloved
(Erik)
is not exactly what it would be in the old world of the senses. It is a thing of burning bone, shot through with veins of iron, but he has clutched the name close even as he has discarded his own.

'I have loved you for so long--'
( you are not alone )
'but you are the wound that will not heal. So do not ask me to answer as the person I was. Call for me all you like-- I am disturbed by your song, and have no wish to answer.'

The dead know how to hold grudges… and they dream.

 

He cannot move forward, or drink from the cup of Lethe, so he will lie here and listen; love, without reaching back in return. It is impossible to gage the potency of this promise, for all tools and concepts of measurement have been lost. Would stamina be a comfort to him when he does/will fail? Everything here happens in one thunderous cacophony, so tremendous the end result is silence of the worst kind.

If he is no longer able to lie to himself when he breaks that resolve
("Erik," a ghostly balm, the shadow of a memory of a touch)
then at least there is no one here to judge.

 

"Erik, I'm right here."

 

* * * * * * * * *

Hank's 'scientific outpost' has long since outgrown its name, but Erik appreciates the practical nature of the appellation all the same. It is functional, something wholly of the present-- no historical or mythological allusions to be found. He finds it particularly refreshing to be greeted by the sturdy Terran-style buildings when one has just teleported from New Muir. The planetary capital is the construction of mutants who have no memory of Earth, and architecture is an art more difficult to transmit and distort than folklore.

Though the sprawling, organic capital holds no grotesque mockeries of Old Earth, it is never the less extremely disconcerting to the immortal Emperor. The curvilinear spires, dangling walkways and tiered plazas offer no point of reference upon which his eye might readily settle. The whole city is a modern conception in the truest sense of the word; an expression of mutantkind both natural and disconcertingly alien. The citizens' willingness to adopt windows in the most exotic of shapes, for example, never fails to make Erik feel as though he is walking in a dream. The slant of sunlight through Genosha's ubiquitous milky stone masonry and trimmings of limited flora in every odd nook and cranny give one the nagging impression that all rules of geometry and common aesthetics have been suspended. The streets are dizzying, circuitous, almost spiraling as though they are an expression of this new generation's inward preoccupation.

By contrast, the virtual cloister-city that has sprung up from Hank's humble research outpost is a paradise of squares, rectangles, and appropriate 90 degree angles. Equally organic, it is never the less sensible and conscious of its own growth, with streets laid out in a neat grid-work pattern. Each time he comes, Erik experiences a moment in which he almost believes he could stand to quarter here, before he remembers that he cannot bear to live near anyone at all.

 

It is clear that Merry is also adjusting to the diametric change in scenery, though his sentiments are likely the reverse of Magneto's. The 'Porters Platform they've landed on is considerably smaller than the one they just left in the city-square of New Muir, though a bit larger than the 'reference stop' out in the desert. Merry has been able to bring them here in three jumps, moving like a game-piece between the platforms all lower-level teleporters use to navigate.

"Have you been here before?" the G-d Emperor asks idly. This far south, second sunrise is still in progress, a bit of jaundiced yellow showing through the thick clouds.

"Only once, during training," Merry says, falling into step as Magneto strides purposefully along the stone pathways. The young mutant stays a respectful three paces behind the sweep of the ruler's cape, which flutters lightly in the morning breeze. The heavy material appears black these days, only betraying its true royal purple weave under certain lighting conditions. All the colors Erik wears are darker now, though they stay true to the their progenitor violet and magenta hues. He recalls adopting those garish colors to make some sort of operatic point, an aspect of stylization he felt emphasized his cause, but the exact reason is lost to him. He operates on a great deal of half-disinterested habit.

 

("Explain to me again, about the cape," Charles' voice echoes softly. The professor's ghost is far more quiet this morning than it has been the last few days, but Xavier never missed opportunity to critique Magneto's wardrobe. His remembered tenor sounds fond and indulgent, almost replete. Perhaps he'd made such a comment after a bout of love-making, for there had been a considerable length of time during which Lehnsherr's nascent Brotherhood had not posed no direct threat or negative impact to his old friend's school. He has mercifully forgotten the whys and whens of that change, but those were their best years-- that much Erik knows. Charles was solace, salvation and indulgence faceted together; they made love like naughty children snatching time, or else like those reunited briefly in the midst of some war. Once or twice, he had taken Charles laid out on one of the cape's many incarnations. The love-making had been heady, reverently forceful, consuming. Though Xavier kindly refrained from commenting, there is no way the telepath missed the vivid fantasy such coupling pandered to. Sartorial criticisms aside, Charles' skin, his peony lips and shade-darker nipples, and even his then thinning hair looked luscious against the vivid imperial plum. Erik had clutched at his darling, his too-tender pacifist, and allowed himself to pretend Xavier a prize at last taken in conquest.)

 

Though his face betrays nothing, Lehnsherr is never the less grateful for the scant company here. The cloister boasts only pedestrian traffic, and those who spot Magneto and his courier invariably nudge one another, or look back with a second startled glance. The Emperor bears this impassively; he has never wilted under the public gaze, possessing his own sense of the dramatic, but he is still grateful that he was able to fend off most of the pageantry that would typically come with his position. After his many incarcerations, he loathes any impediment to his freedom. To say nothing of the instinct for concealment inherent in his roles as fugitive, assassin, and political saboteur. Let the scientists gawk and whisper-- he visits the Beast too infrequently to expect anything else. The denizens pass like well-behaved school-children, or the priests of science Erik often mocks them as. Mutants of every kind and House, all in clinical white tunics or cover-alls as impractical in color as they are sturdy in weave.

McCoy's laboratory and living quarters are one and the same, housed in a circular building just off the main center square. It is a veritable cave of tiered internal balconies, stacked one on top of the other just as the seemingly endless collection of books-- and those tomes rise in impressive towers, indeed. It is a mecca of traditional bindings which are on the planet as a whole, especially those antiquated articles from Old Earth. The Guardian's library is sprawling in more than one sense; books clustered on tables, chairs, and only sparingly arranged in their appropriate positions on shelves. Both Hank and Charles always suffered from the same academic malady. Namely, if anyone cleaned up after them or tried to organize, the scholar in question would complain for weeks that they couldn't find anything. Containers, equipment, environmental devices, active bunsen burners and mechanical parts also compose the debris which seems to radiate from the center of the large room.

 

The Guardian all Genoshans know as 'Beast' is currently hunched over a microscope, indigo fur standing out in stark contrast with his white cover-alls. He's never quite overcome the body-consciousness Mystique shed so long ago. Despite being the Outpost's nominal Prince Magistrate (or, at the very least, governor) the scientist also hasn't ever really adjusted to having more than a few colleagues. At the moment, the lab boasts only one other occupant: a mutant girl-child of about twelve Terran years, who is patiently maintaining a coalesced sphere of liquid with her powers, adding it drop by telekinetic drop to a glass tank. Encased within the tank itself is what appears to be a Terran flower. That is, it has none of the tell-tale coloring or tenacious delicacy that mark Geonsha's few species of flora. The more Erik stares at the yellow double-tiered blossom, the more he believes he recognizes it, though he cannot for the life of him remember what it is called.

"Magneto," Beast says by way of greeting, peering at Lehnsherr over an ancient pair of wire-rimmed spectacles. He is the only mutant who wears reading glasses, and Erik often wonders if the scientist has held onto them out of necessity, or as a source of comfort. Then again, given the G-d Emperor's own experience, it's probably both.

"Beast." Erik enters without breaking stride, but Merry lingers in the threshold with admirable decorum. Chuckling, Beast motions for the courier to enter as well. "You are in good health, I trust?" Which is about as close as Erik comes to small-talk.

"Yes," McCoy says, though he frowns as he peers down into the microscope once more. Shaking his head, he removes the slide and stores it carefully, before glancing over at the girl. "Are you almost finished, my dear?" To Lehnsherr, he says, "I wasn't expecting you for a few more days."

"My hunt was cut short," is the safe, dry response. He watches the mutant girl with the same fascination which never fails to overtake him when he sees a particular variant of power for the first time. She floats the ball of liquid across the room to another vat, letting it collapse even as she uses her hands to close the lid of the flower's tank. Hydrokinetic, then. When she turns, Erik can see that her ivory surplice is cleverly slit to allow for the protrusion of a stubby, hairless tail. While her skin is the color of yew or dark almonds, the tail itself tapers from that same shade at its base to a vibrant coral at the tip.

"Yes, Guardian," says Beast's little helper. Having apparently straightened the workstation to her satisfaction, she approaches them both, dropping a deep curtsy before Magneto. "My Lord Emperor."

Silently, Lehnsherr nods, and motions that she may stand at ease. Her black hair is done up in a complex and faintly aristocratic style he associates more with the telepathic houses. Of course, it's entirely possible that she is the daughter of members of the Scientific Cloister, and thus technically without a House altogether. As the Outpost outgrows its name, it is also outgrowing the small exemptions made for it within Genosha's complex system of clans, septs and guilds. Just another issue the Guardians will need to address in the near future.

"Why don't you take this young man down to the cantina with you?" Beast asks, casting a glance at Magneto for confirmation.

"I'll send for you when I'm ready to leave," the Emperor tells Merry. The Guardians watch as the girl guilelessly takes the teleporter's hand, and they both vanish into the vague illumination of Genosha's gray days.

 

 

"My hunt was interrupted by Lord Haller," Erik says without preamble. "Or his emissary, rather. The man is pushing his educational policy with a frankly fanatical zeal."

"How did he find you, out there in the Wastes?" Hank himself is staring off into the middle distance, clearly musing aloud.

"Prosaic, I'm afraid." A derisive sniff. "And foolish-- he sent Emma-Leigh."

Beast's eyebrows are always a bit hard to see, being only a shade darker than his skin and fur. Never the less, his surprise is great enough in this case to make the expression clearly visible. "That's a high coin to spend. He must know you'll never trust her now."

"I've never trusted her to begin with."

McCoy snorts, as if to say he hardly expected anything else.

"The Court spends far too much time prying into my affairs," the Emperor mutters darkly.

"The people want intrigue; visible strands of power, and their interplay-- it makes them feel the system is working. They wanted an Emperor," the scientist shrugs. "We all agreed you were the best suited to the role of figurehead." Which was a polite way of saying that a three day shouting match and plenty of lingering resentment from the First Mutant Conflict had resulted in Erik's 'nomination'. With Mystique's hot refusal to be bound by anyone's expectations, the only so-called 'alternative' was Wolverine. Before Lehnsherr can say anything to this effect, Hank continues, "It's not a position you could have resisted for long-- both personally and politically. What good is a general without an army?"

"Haller seems to create plenty of intrigue without my input," Erik says dryly, ignoring the dig. "Before, these favors and allegiances were mostly petty. Now I fear he's rallying to strike a divide between mutations."

 

"He's already started," Beast says, gracefully flipping to grip the lower rail of the next balcony with his agile toes. Erik is far too accustomed to it to be disconcerted-- at any rate, McCoy has always claimed it helps him think. "My new apprentice, the young girl? Her name is Bishop, of House Xavier."

Magneto frowns. "I thought children born here were Houseless?" To say nothing of the fact mutations other than telepathy were becoming increasingly rare if at least one parent had psionic gifts. A doubly curious trend, because the X-gene is polymorphic. In theory, a teleporter might give birth to a pyrokinetic, and so on.

"She wasn't born here." McCoy's bland tone belays the importance of this statement. Then, before Erik can needle him about taking such young acolytes for his pseudo-religion of Science; "Her older brother brought her here and asked me to look after her. I'm given to understand she was somewhat… ill-favored in her House."

"Because her mutation is not telepathic." Said flatly, because it is not a question. No one would dare to physically abuse a child under the G-d Emperor's reign, for object lessons have been enacted in that matter just as they have been illustrated in cases of murder and sexual violation. The legends of Genosha are filled with the examples made of those who have crossed Magneto in these matters of morality, though the most recent is itself over thirty years old. He has no desire to be a god but, since he has been cast as one without his permission, he knows wrath is a defining characteristic for any divinity. Whether he likes it or not, the now nameless doktor still lives in the lessons Erik was forced to learn at his feet. Fear and hate are the two sides of that coin, horribly incestuous cousins which burn and wrestle in the gut. Anger is their far more comfortable cousin and that, at least, can be more easily used as a weapon.

At the same time, he knows that love cannot be forced-- even the familial kind. Nor can its absence be made punishable, though the lack of it in a paternal relationship is unfathomable to Erik. Did he not see both the uncertainty and beautiful strength in Charles, who blossomed into such a impressive man despite the fact he'd been born with everything and nothing at once? Lehnsherr has been guilty of mocking him at times, true. The professor had held himself with such unassuming and gracious poise. It was only once the assassin had gotten closer-- skin to skin and minds entwined-- that he came to understand the fine fissures of damage. It had no comparison to the cold and ash in which Erik had been forged, but it also could not be treated as a trifle.

"Yes," Beast admits heavily, unaware of the thoughts behind the G-d Emperor's impassive expression. "He had no specific accusations. He adhered strictly to the statement that he thought she would have more opportunities for education and advancement here."

"Has anyone sought this girl out? Demanded she come home?" Lehnsherr is almost certain he already knows the answer.

A shake of that hair blue visage, "Her brother returned to his sept. I've promised not to readily volunteer his name, though a quick database search on his family would make that a moot point. He's a low-level telepath-- serves some minor function in the Court, I think-- but those of his House must know what he's done. Perhaps they even knew he was planning it." The cringe that follows is so quick and instinctive that Beast probably doesn't realize he's made it. "I'm given to understand that privacy is rather a fluid concept in those Houses."

"Doubtless he'll pay for it, in one way or another," Erik says, thinking of Gene. His other erstwhile 'minder' is also a low-level telepath-- epsilon class, he believes-- and had been added to the Emperor's retinue almost as an afterthought. The boy is young but, of course, everyone on Genosha seems young to Magneto. Much less powerful than his sigma level sisters, Gene spends most of the time running errands between the Court and the Emperor who will not take his place among them. He is forever pestering Erik to sign things and, most of the time, Lehnsherr believes the boy's father (Scott the Red) assigned Gene merely because he would seem less threatening than Emma-Leigh. The old 'good' cop, 'bad' cop. These obsequious little poseurs ought to know that their Emperor has been playing these games since before their Houses were founded, but they persist in their machinations. Ah, but then each generation always thinks it has a new angle, as if dressing up the wheel and calling it something else is an accomplishment.

 

"Perhaps the favoritism is largely unconscious," Beast is saying. When Lehnsherr merely arches a cynical eyebrow, the scientist summersaults gracefully from his perch to pace the floor instead. On one prowling pass, he removes a stack of plasi-film books and data disks from a nearby chair, finally inviting Magneto to sit. He gives no indication of having noticed his fellow Guardian's distraction, and Erik has at least become very skilled at picking back up in the middle of conversations.

"You give them far too much credit," he says, taking the offered seat and casting his cape behind him while the other mutant rolls his eyes. "If they let something like custody of a child go without comment, think of what they'd be willing to do away from the public eye. I suppose, if confronted, Haller and his ilk could probably claim this is an isolated incident. I imagine it's hard to plan a stealthy disappearance in a citadel full of telepaths."

"Of that, I have no doubt," Beast sighs, and will not cease his prowling. He looks very much deserving of his moniker as his powerful muscles ripple in a quadrupedal gait. The scientist is more tense than Magneto expected, though the matter before them is admittedly disturbing. Still, Lehnsherr suspects the other Guardian has more than Haller's arrogant behavior to go on.

 

The Emperor's eyes narrow, framed as ever by the his helmet. "What is it that you know?"

"Nothing!" Beast fairly growls. "The whole affair seems to have gotten out of hand rather quickly, but I have nothing to go on save conflicting rumors and a few facts that don't add up!" He rakes a hand through his fur, then compulsively shines his glasses-- both mortal gestures of old. "I have no way to prove half my suspicions without alerting Haller and his allies that those very suspicions exist."

"And those are?"

"Difficult to articulate, in some instances," McCoy says. "I've often chalked it up to accident or coincidence, and perhaps I've done so for too long."

Erik makes a twirling gesture with his finger ('do go on,' it says) even though-- and perhaps because-- he knows it annoys his companion. It's the discordant facts he's after, at least to begin with. The rumors can wait, since one may always assume them to be negative. People are rarely so eager to gossip about good news.

 

"For some time now, our extra-solar salvage efforts have slowed considerably," McCoy says, refusing to be rushed. What he means is the search-- carried out by the few truly space-worthy vehicles left after the long trek from Earth-- to locate abandoned vessels floating in the voids between the stars. Mutantkind did not quit Terra alone. At first, the humans had pursued them, unwilling to go down unaccompanied in atomic flames. That hunt had quickly become flight, as the Sentinels tracked their makers for similar annihilation. Neither homo sapiens or their cybernetic creations possessed the resources to make it quite as far as the Genoshans. There are ghost ships even now, circling tiny moons, skeletons forever frozen in a desperate attempt to mine fuel or hide from Sentinel trackers. Stryker-Trask frigates haunt the black, empty of oxygen and water but still piled high with weapons and technology. There are the space-based Sentinel nests too, of course, though most of those were smart enough to turn around or make planet-fall in the end. In this, their lack of 'humanity' served them well-- they did not have the same delicate, highly specific needs of their creators.

"Inevitable," Lehnsherr responds. "We knew eventually everything that could realistically appropriated would be used. I've opposed exploiting salvaged human technology from the beginning-- certainly, we can't rely on it forever." To be fair, the Genoshans have make significant and successful technological advancements on their own, always mindful of the ultimate taboo-- that no fabricated system should ever even faintly approach sentience.

"Logical," Beast says, faintly implying this is some sort of feat for Erik. "But the salvage teams hit on a dead fleet-- ten to fifteen ships-- in the Mizar-Alcor cluster, about 83 light-years from Earth That Was. We think they were trying to use the conflicting wavelengths of the six stars to avoid detection by the Sentinels." Inevitably, some of the scientist's excitement does begin to leak into his tone. "The salvage efforts have been going on for about five months now, and we've barely scratched the surface."

"Wonderful," Magneto says dryly. He doesn't wonder at not being told-- his made his opinion on the endeavor clear from the start. His species has inherited plenty of problems from their progenitors without direct hand-me-downs. More over, though Earth herself is an irradiated and rotting corpse, there are… things infesting those ruins which it would be unwise to rouse. Lehnsherr's never had a particular interest in or memory for astronomy, but he's fairly certain Mizar is too close to Terra for his comfort.

"The influx of equipment and parts alone has been amazing. But," the scientist's voice lowers, "then things started to go missing." He holds a blue palm out for silence, even as Erik starts forward in alarm. "Little things, at first. Things I could blame on errors inventorying items found, or write off as equipment that ended up being less salvageable than it looked. We've encountered such problems before, but never in such profusion."

"Don't tell me you think they're violating the AI Prohibition." A shake of that hairy head, and Magento says in exasperation, "What, then?"

 

"Microbiology equipment that gets lost or misplaced. Data-tablets on genome mapping that turn out to be corrupted. Records from a ship's mainframe-- you can't tell what has been taken or deleted of course but, when there's a stunning lack of information on bioengineering stored in what was obviously a scientific master computer…" McCoy takes a deep breath, gesturing towards the yellow flower in its tank. "And frozen DNA samples. Like the one we used to create that narcissus."

"Samples of…?" the Emperor prompts, surprising with an effort a genuine full-body shudder. How well acquainted he is with so-called innovators that rend living beings as though looking for space parts! To say nothing of the rejuvenation tanks and molecular tissue restoration responsible for his current position. The thought of samples any more complex than that innocuous blossom offends any slim thread of decency Genosha may have inherited.

"I don't know," Hank says honestly, sounding more than a little embarrassed, and resonating oddly with his first incarnation. "I've never had to worry about policing my people. This outpost exists so that all new and restored technology can be shared equally among the Houses."

"Clearly, certain parties are no longer content to wait," Erik says ruefully. "Or to share. What makes you suspect Haller, aside from general ambition?"

"Perhaps its naive, but I'd like to think that most who've made their home here don't have much in the way of divided loyalties." When he sees that Magneto is manfully restraining himself from rolling his eyes, Beast sighs again. "I know, I know-- people can be bought. A mole is not out of the question. But it needn't be that complex. The salvage teams themselves are composed solely of scientists, but the pilots are all volunteers from more practical use of shuttles, like geological survey. When items go missing, the flight crew tends to have at least one member from--"

"House Xavier," Erik growls, thinking once again that those who claim to be the professor's heirs hardly deserve to breathe Charles' name.

"Or Grey, or Frost," McCoy adds, "even Braddock." That last bit is surprising; Braddock-- always a relatively small sept-- tends to be more isolationist, to avoid being subsumed via marriage into the larger telepathic Houses. A policy of cooperation would indicate a larger agenda. "It's hardly conclusive proof."

"Neither is it something we can afford to ignore," the G-d Emperor opines. As much as he hates to admit it, this is no longer something that can be kept between himself and McCoy. "We may have to convene with the others."

 

A full gathering of Guardians is hardly a pleasing prospect. It's rare that Mystique and Wolverine can be in each other's general proximity for any length of time without some property damage. The less said about the heroic restraint Erik exercises in not ripping the adamantium skeleton from Logan's body, the better. Whatever odd mentoring relationship the burly mutant formed with Charles, its impression lasts to this day. Logan is more than happy to hold a grudge, enumerate Erik's failings, and jealously guard his own memories of Xavier-- all of which is a recipe for disaster. Hank-- decidedly Hank, in this moment of mingled camaraderie and exposure-- looks abashed. It's ever so slight, but Lehnsherr can read the other mutant easily, and it sends a coil of unpleasant intuition through his gut.

There is a slight but definitely perceptible tilt to the scientist's chin, coupled oddly with a slumping of the shoulders. It's a very 'Charles' gesture and, somewhere behind old scorches of resentment, Erik recognizes it for what it is. The defiance that comes with having proof, and the terrible burden of being right.

"That," Hanks says with ominous tonelessness, "is where the rumors come in."

 

 

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