Dr. Andrew Jones spared a passing glance at the glow of the neon sign as he shuffled into the alleyway. Arcadia Fine Arts, it read. He had no idea why his contact wanted to talk here, but he certainly wasn't going to complain. Despite the fact that he'd been meeting the man for months, he could never quite calm his nerves around him. Maybe it was the clandestine rendezvous or that he'd never been allowed to see the man's face. He reached the appointed corner, shadowed in darkness deep in the alley, though the darkness was hardly surprising at this hour of the night. A glance at his watch told him he had four minutes to spare. He shifted from foot to foot and drew his coat tighter, steeling himself against the blustery night.
The clang of a falling trashcan startled him. He jumped as a cat skittered past then disappeared around the building. In the silence that followed, he forced himself to take a calming breath. This was important, he reminded himself. People needed to know what was happening behind closed doors. He had long ago lost his trust in William Stryker, who had ascended to be far more powerful than his father, the elder William Stryker, ever had. His contact had approached him at just the right time and assured him any information he gave about Stryker's work would be considered anonymous and put to good use. The man's identity had to be kept secret for both their safeties, but Andrew liked to speculate the man was a member of one of those watchdog groups or maybe even an intrepid journalist.
It had gotten easier over time, the knowledge that he was reporting government secrets to, for all intents and purposes, a stranger. All he had to do was remember why he had accepted the man's proposal in the first place. His predecessors, the two scientists who had headed this project six years ago, had disappeared without a trace. Henry McCoy had begun trickling back into the academic world through random journal articles, but the man himself hadn't made a physical appearance since before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Carl Maddicks hadn't been heard from at all since his disappearance four years later. He'd scoffed at his flower child of a sister when she'd claimed it was a government conspiracy, but after two years of working with Stryker, he had begun to have his doubts. And that led him here…to an alleyway behind Arcadia Fine Arts Center waiting for a man he'd never laid eyes on at 10:59 pm in the middle of August. He once again tucked his coat around him as his watch clicked to 11:00.
"It is rather chilly, isn't it Mr. Jones?"
Jones almost tipped over the trashcan next to him. The smell of rotten eggs permeated the air.
"No need to be frightened. It's only me after all," the man continued. As usual, Andrew couldn't see the man's face, but he was positive his contact was smiling and not in a kind way.
"You just startled me is all," Jones defended as he straightened his coat. "You don't make a sound when you approach. You should be a spy."
"Who's to say I'm not?"
Jones had no idea whether the man was kidding. He choked out an uncomfortable laugh.
"You have information for me?"
"Yeah," the scientist said before clearing his throat and shifting into what he thought of as his professional mode. "Yes. Colonel Stryker is well on his way to finishing his project. He's still not telling any of us what he intends to do with it, but he let slip where the parts are being sent as we finish them."
"And where would that be?"
"Some place in Canada called Alkali Lake."
"Excellent. That's very helpful, Andrew."
Jones frowned. He always felt like the man was talking down to him, even though he was the one with the information. It gave him an odd desire to tell the man more. To prove his worth. "There's something else."
"Oh? Well, speak then. We don't have all night."
"Stryker wants to meet with some geneticist. I think his name is Charles Xavier? He's apparently been on the news talking about mutants."
The pause that followed was dangerous.
"And why would he want to do that?" his contact inquired, sounding every bit as dangerous as the preceding pause.
"I- I don't know."
"And I suppose it would be odd for you to ask without looking too curious."
"Probably. He called him today. He was still grumbling about having to leave a message when he came for my progress report."
"Not you," the man said airily.
Andrew heard a strange sort of popping sound. "What was that?"
"Nothing to concern yourself with. You really have no idea why he's trying to contact Xavier?"
"No…I mean, well, he's run into some difficulties procuring some of the supplies. Maybe he thinks Xavier can help him?"
"No," his contact replied absently, "that wouldn't make sense. Stryker hasn't directly contacted Charles in nearly two years. Even then, it wasn't…amiable. If Stryker is contacting him now, he has something up his sleeve. You're sure of this?"
"What supplies is he having trouble procuring?"
"Some types of metals I think and a few other parts for the user interface. The blueprints and results are all based off one test subject and the scale was so much smaller then. That's why we've been having difficulty figuring out how exactly to work the interface. Stryker has had us contacting doctors and scientists who specialize in brain scanning technology. I'm not quite the expert the first scientist who worked on this project was."
"Yes, Hank has quite the brilliant mind."
Jones' spine shot straighter, his eyes honing in on the shadow that hid the voice. "How did you know about McCoy? I've never said anything about- never mind, do you know where he is? Is he okay? What about Maddicks?"
His contact chuckled.
"This is serious!" Andrew shouted in frustration.
"Yes, yes, of course," the man replied, though the chuckle didn't quite leave his voice. "Hank is fine. I can't say the same for Dr. Maddicks, but we each make our own choices and we must live with their consequences."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"If you don't already know, it's too late to educate you now. It's getting late and I'm required elsewhere. To sum up, Stryker's pet project is nearing completion with the exception of shortages in needed supplies and he left a message with Charles Xavier to set up a face-to-face meeting."
"Any other information he gives you would probably be minimal, then, if you've done your part of the project design and he's going after Xavier."
"Probably," Andrew admitted grudgingly.
They were interrupted by the popping sound again, followed by a heavy voice Andrew didn't recognize.
"It is as he says. A message was left at Westchester by Stryker."
"Who the hell is that?" Andrew asked in a panic. "How did he get here?"
"You've been most helpful, Mr. Jones," his contact said in answer. "Unfortunately, you have reached the end of your utility and I can't have any loose ends floating around. You have my sincerest thanks."
The scientist didn't even have time to wipe the slack-jawed surprise from his face before the world disappeared.
The door closed with a click and Mystique padded to the chair beside Magneto's bed. It had been over two months since the accident and still he showed no signs of truly awakening.
Not long after Charles had left, Magneto's eyes had opened. Mystique had shouted loud enough to bring half the Brotherhood into the room, but their leader had shown no further signs of consciousness. He ate, drank, and even walked around if someone led him, but all with a blank-faced absence that had the heart of the group (Mystique and Emma for the most part…the other original members, as it turned out, were far better at following orders than leading) scrambling to keep his weakness hidden away from the younger members. Better for them to see their leader recovering from an attack than an empty shell. Most of the time, he slept. Emma still felt nothing of his mind and Charles hadn't contacted them with any developments on how to remedy Magneto's mental absence. The telepath called on occasion to check the other man's condition, but even those calls were getting fewer and farther between.
Mystique had taken to reading the news to her fallen leader in hopes that maybe, somewhere in his mind, he could hear her. She sat herself in the chair beside his bed and tossed the still folded newspaper on the bed.
"So, it's Thursday. Things are progressing as well as they can be. I mean, Emma and I are still running things, just like last time I was here. We hit a facility yesterday. That's why I didn't come by. It was already empty though. We found a few files. Nothing too revealing, not that that's too shocking. I mean, if they were going to leave it behind, why leave something important, right? There are what look to be offhanded mentions of codenames the match up with some of our other information. We still can't figure out exactly what it all means. You should probably wake up so you can help us with it."
She paused to stare at Magneto's face. After five seconds and no reaction, she sighed.
"Yeah, I didn't think that would work. I mean, it hasn't worked for over two months. But, hey, it's worth a try, right? It's been a week and a half since Charles called last. He wanted to see if there was any change in your condition. He used to call a lot more, but I guess he's busy. If you would just twitch a finger or do something of your own volition, maybe he'd have reason to call more…. Then again, I can't imagine he's on the best of terms with any of us after what we tried to pull. Sometimes..." a pained look crossed the shapeshifter's face, "sometimes, and this might sound stupid, especially knowing Charles, but I can't shake the feeling that he knows something. That he figures all this mess is just karma and that he's laughing at us behind our backs." She shook her head. "But, no, this is Charles we're talking about. I could see Alex thinking that, maybe…in fact, he probably does think that, but that's beside the point. Anyway, I should get to the good stuff. Emma and I have to go through what we found yesterday at the facility in an hour and we have two days of news to catch up on."
She spread the paper out in front of her and started looking through the stories.
"Let's see…the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. I'm sure there are things you'd rather hear about than human on human violence though." She skimmed the page and turned to the next one. "There's a bit on the Mutant Registration Act, but nothing new. News on that front has petered out as of late, if you haven't noticed. That's mostly because Stryker hasn't been pushing it so much. He hasn't been making a lot of appearances lately. We're trying to keep an eye on him, but he goes off the grid sometimes. Don't worry. We're trying to fix that. Anyway, the MRA at least isn't something we need to be concerned about for the time being. Oh, Charles spoke at a conference a couple of days ago. It seemed to go well. The usual…silenced a few critics, made a few yell louder. We have a list of the yellers. We'll take care of them in time."
She turned another page.
"And, oh look, some government scientist got himself mugged and killed in an alleyway. Wow, Charles would love this…you know, if it wasn't one of his precious humans being killed. It was by Arcadia Fine Arts Center. That was one of those classics he made me learn when we were growing up. 'Et in Arcadia ego'…'Even in Arcadia there I am'. Get it? Arcadia is utopia, but the 'I' is Death."
She paused and looked up for a reaction. Magneto remained unresponsive.
"You're right," Mystique said with a stern nod. "Now isn't the time for quoting classics. But, hey, one less government scientist to worry about, right?"
Magneto showed no signs of hearing her. By the time she got through everything, it was almost time for her to give her report to the Brotherhood. The paper crinkled as the shapeshifter refolded it with a sigh, her face turning serious. She stood and leaned over the man on the bed.
"I hope you're in there somewhere, Erik. I have a feeling something big is coming and this is just the calm before the storm. We're going to need you."
With that, she left the room. Magneto slept on.
Three hundred miles away, Charles Xavier turned the page of the newspaper and smiled.
"Et in Arcadia ego," he smirked to himself before closing the newspaper and picking up the phone to return William Stryker's call.