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The Persistence of Iron

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Searing heat. A roar of deafening noise. An irresistible, inestimable torrent of impact or agony that buffets him from everywhere at once, tears at him, crushes him; breaks him apart. He can't breathe, can't move, can't think, can't

"Max? Max!"

Falling.

He wakes with a gasp and a whole-body jerk, breath seizing in his throat. The world is harsh and sharp around him. The chaos raging through his mind tears a sound from him that he can't hear, ears numb with the thundering echoes in his head. He tries to cover his face with his arms, tries to curl into a protective ball, but his body is too sluggish to respond.

It takes him an eternal instant to realize that – there's nothing. Only silence, roaring like an explosion. No heat. No pain.

There is no pain.

He opens his eyes to a smear of cold and light, hazy and indistinct. His breath shudders unevenly, his eyes sting and tear; he can hardly see, and the indistinct shapes in front of him are slow to resolve into anything he can understand.

When they finally do, the first thing he sees is the face of a stranger, haloed by metal.

"It worked," the stranger says exultantly. He's pale and flushed at the same time, exhilarated; his eyes are a fever-bright, electric blue. "It worked! Thank god. Of course we knew the theory was sound, but you never really know, do you, and this was so uncontrolled for a first trial."

"What happened?" he tries to ask. The words come out as a near-soundless wheeze.

The man raises his hands to his head and lifts off the metal. It's a helmet of some kind.

No, not a helmet. Of course not. It's a neurotechnical interface, miniaturized to a degree that seems impossible. He wants to open it up, find out how the sensors have been adapted to function without spectrum amplifiers.

More than that, though, he wants – needs – to understand what's going on. His mind is a jumble of remembered uproar and confusion, and nothing at all is clear. He doesn't know how he got here, where this is, what's happening.

"There was an imperfection in the imprint matrix, but I was able to compensate," the man – a scientist, clearly – says, turning away briefly to rest the interface on a padded stand. "You'll definitely need to have another look at the imprinter, though, Max. We should build in some additional failsafes."

None of this makes any sense. And that includes the fact that his name isn't Max.

He collects himself as much as he can, tears his gaze away from the scientist to look around. He's in a lab, lying on a concave aluglass table with too-bright lights glaring down on him.

"I can't wait for your opinion on the readings I got during the transfer. I also want to run the complete spectrum of tests as soon as possible, but I think we need to give the imprint some time to settle first. There's a bit of turbulence, and it seems to be rather a lengthier process than I had anticipated. Which does make sense, actually. Now that I've seen the process in practice…"

If he thought he could speak, he would tell the scientist to be silent for a minute. As it is, he tunes him out, letting the stream of words wash past without paying them any attention.

He can sit up, if he moves carefully. He decides that he can, spends a moment gathering himself in preparation, and then does it.

It's easier than anticipated, although his head swims once he's sitting upright. He pauses to let his body catch up with its new position, gripping both sides of the aluglass table for balance.

When his vision clears once more, he looks down at himself to find that he's wearing loose white drawstring pants, and nothing else. His skin is smooth and unburned. His fingers – when he raises a hand in front of his face – are unbloodied; clean. The stale taste on his tongue is nothing at all like iron, ozone and ashes.

Everything is strangely distant, as though he's separated from the world by a layer of transparent gauze. Nothing feels the way it should, though he's at a loss to define the exact problem.

A closer look at his surroundings yields the information that he's in a replication lab. Most of the equipment in his line of sight is immediately obvious in function, if unusual in design, but some of the machinery is only recognizable on second glance.

"Do you remember what happened?" The scientist steps closer, worry creeping into his expression. "Do you remember the accident? So far, we haven't been able to isolate the cause. How clear are the last seconds?"

He has no answer, and so simply ignores the incomprehensible question. Instead, he turns – slowly and carefully – in order to take in the entire lab.

A second scientist in a lab coat is standing at a bank of monitors to his far left. She gives him a smile and a nod; he doesn't return either gesture. It's growing inescapably clear that something is seriously wrong.

"Max? Please say something. You're beginning to worry me, and I don't want to risk –"

"My name is Erik," he interrupts. This time his voice is actually audible, if scratchy and hoarse.

The instant he says it, he realizes it's true. His name is Erik.

It's a start.

The scientist frowns. Then, he lifts one hand to his temple, staring at Erik –

And the world goes away.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"I was opposed to the idea of you doing the trial yourself, you know."

Given that they've spent the last two hours establishing just how profoundly Erik does not know, Xavier might have chosen his words more wisely.

Even so, Erik can't manage a glare worthy of the name. Being told that you're the identical – if significantly younger – copy of someone's esteemed colleague, who died in a lab accident a week ago, will do that to you. At least that's Erik's experience. He doubts there's a significant evidence base to support any kind of general psychological hypothesis.

But then again, who knows. Given that Erik doesn't remember much of anything, and that he has apparently existed (in any meaningful sense of the word) for all of three hours and sixteen minutes…

"It seems unprofessional, wouldn't you agree? It's certainly highly unconducive to objectivity. And to be honest, the thought of having two of you around was a bit overwhelming."

Xavier's smile is affable, even charming – an invitation to share something. Erik wonders if most people find it as irresistible as the man seems to expect, or if it's merely that Xavier finds himself irresistibly delightful.

The smile turns into a rueful wince, and Xavier sighs, running a hand through his hair. "Quite a biting wit you have, my friend."

What…?

"Oh, did I neglect to mention? I'm a telepath."

Well. That explains the unusual neurotechnical interface.

Erik should probably be concerned. After all, he doesn't know anything about Xavier; doesn't know if he's the kind of man who will abuse his ability. Instead, Erik can hardly find the energy to be surprised. He's been feeling dazed ever since Xavier started talking, almost as though he's been clubbed in the head. Right now, it would take more than the idea of someone rummaging through his mind to disturb him further.

If Xavier finds anything of note in there, it's more than Erik can do.

A name, though. He's remembered his name. That's a beginning, regardless of the fact that the name in question isn't the one Xavier claims it should be.

Don't trust him.

Xavier has been claiming many improbable things. Clones don't remember anything when they wake. Acquired knowledge cannot be present in the brain of a newly awakened clone, just as the brain of a newborn child cannot carry information beyond hardwired instincts and reflexes.

"There's no need to worry," Xavier says quietly. "The human brain is a complex construct, Max. The XIM transfer is clearly a full success, or we wouldn't be talking right now. All we must do at this point is wait for the imprint to settle in fully, as it inevitably will."

Erik has grown tired of repeating that he is not Max, and that he does not know Xavier, so he says nothing.

He's cold. Xavier has provided him with elegantly casual clothes that fit him perfectly, and the room they've relocated to is warm, wood-panelled and comfortably furnished in a manner vaguely reminiscent of an old-fashioned country squire's library. A while ago, the second scientist (whose name is Martinez) brought in luke-warm broth and a giant pot of tepid herbal tea. None of this has had an effect on the chill in Erik's bones.

Everything about this seems unreal. Everything. Xavier, the room, this unlikely tale… Erik himself.

His hands don't shake, but that may be because he's wrapped them very tightly around his latest mug of tea.

"Inevitably," he makes himself say. His voice sounds flat and toneless in his ears. "Interesting choice of words, considering this is purportedly the first trial."

For some reason, this seems to delight Xavier, who laughs before bestowing another of his affable grins on Erik. "This is why I need you, Max. You always cut me down when I try to fly too high. But in this instance I'm afraid that I am right, and you are wrong."

How reassuring.

Xavier snags a datapad from a side table and keys up a schematic that he flashes at Erik, giving him only a short glimpse. "What is this?"

It's an LCT control circuit, most likely for the nutrient switch – but it's been modified, and Erik can't tell what the modifications are or what they're meant to accomplish from such a brief look.

"How about… let's see. This?"

Erik gives Xavier a disgusted look. "That's a field-programmable gate array, Xavier. Nobody uses that kind of antiquated technology anymore."

Xavier's grin is smug, now. Erik gets the point; he does remember some things, which would be impossible if what Xavier calls the XIM imprint transfer had been entirely unsuccessful. However, clearly it did not fully succeed, either, given that –

"One more."

Erik stares at the new schematic for a long moment, trying to make sense of it. It's part of a highly compact sensor array, but he can't tell more than that without seeing the entire device it's part of.

"It's the main sensor unit for the portable imprinter you designed," Xavier says at last. "Along with the neurotechnical interface, it's the heart of the Xavier Imprint Method… the XIM."

A bark of laughter sticks in Erik's throat, choking him. Four hours. If Xavier is to be believed, Erik is barely four hours old. He hasn't designed anything. He hasn't done anything, experienced anything. Everything that's in his head is copied from someone else's brain.

Tea slops from his mug onto his trousers, and Erik puts the mug down on his knee to steady it. He sits carefully straight, shoulders back, chin just high enough. Breathing is almost impossibly difficult for a moment.

"Perhaps you have transferred the wrong imprint to –" The final word refuses to cross his tongue, and he falters to a halt. Me doesn't seem to have real meaning in this context. Imprecise, inaccurate, fallacious... but there is no palatable alternative, either. The clone, the copy, the replication...

No. He exists. He possesses sapience, regardless of how he has come by it. He is a self-aware entity. Me is the most precise term, indicating a sapient being referring to itself. Isn't it?

"Of course it was the right imprint," Xavier says impatiently. "This isn't like trying on jackets, you know. If the imprint doesn't match the neurological formation absolutely, the brain will not accept it. It's impossible to achieve even a partial transfer with an imprint taken from anyone other than the subject's biological template."

Xavier is certain in a way that implies extensive testing, and Erik finds, quite suddenly, that he cannot talk about this anymore. The realization is sudden and overwhelming and seizes up his throat, tangling all his thoughts into stillness. He can't. He simply can't. Not now. Not –

"Of course." Xavier's smile is gratingly sympathetic. "Perfectly understandable. This has all been very much to take in – you should get some rest. I'll show you to your rooms. Who knows, the familiar surroundings may jog a memory or two into place."

It's a minute before Erik can convince his fingers to let go of the mug. Xavier doesn't even pretend not to notice. No doubt he'll be making note of this potentially important detail of the clone's first hours.

Erik would.

"Obviously you would," Xavier says, once Erik has finally put down the mug on the tray. "You're a scientist, as am I. So yes, I will make note of my observations before any details are lost to the vagaries of memory. I want you to do the same, Max. Your experiences will be invaluable. An inside perspective is something we've only been able to dream of until now."

There's no reason why Erik should be reluctant. No reason. This is an experiment, and he is a scientist. At least, he – someone used to be.

His heart is racing, and he feels dizzy. "Fine," he gets out.

The corridor in front of Xavier's study could have been deliberately designed to be nondescript – it's all beige carpet, white walls and metal doors, with only small plates set into the wall next to each door providing some measure of orientation. A limited measure, considering that instead of clear labels, they bear incomprehensible strings of numbers and letters.

They go up a set of stairs and down another hall, which is indistinguishable from the first in every way. On the other side of a small foyer – complete with sitting area – is yet another hall.

Xavier stops at a door about halfway down. "Here we are."

The door is locked, of course. Xavier is no help; he just stares at Erik, clearly willing him to suddenly remember everything he has supposedly absorbed from the mental imprint of a dead man.

Very well, then. Erik has no key, no card, and no other physical means of unlocking the door. There's no keypad anywhere in sight. So…

Yes. A hand's breadth below eye level, a strip of lighter-colored metal slides aside at the touch of his fingertip, revealing a retina scanner.

Memory has nothing to do with Erik's success in opening Dr. Maximillian Eisenhardt's door, and Erik isn't sure how he feels about the fact the lock immediately releases once the scanner has swept over his eyes. But Xavier beams at him anyway, looking like a proud parent.

Not a comparison Erik actually wanted to draw, given the circumstances.

"Max," Xavier says. "Please try to calm yourself and rest. I know how difficult this is for you right now, but the imprint transfer was successful. You are perfect. I've seen your mind, and I know. All that's needed now is some time for everything to settle."

He doesn't know what to say, and so merely gives a curt nod.

Xavier makes no move to follow when Erik steps forward. The small entrance area inside immediately floods with a natural, pleasant light that's completely unlike the harsh fluorescent lighting in the corridors.

"One more thing," Xavier says.

Copies are never identical.

Erik turns around slowly, almost reluctantly.

"You have no idea how glad I am that you didn't listen to my objections, back when you proposed doing the first trial yourself." Xavier's voice is quiet and very earnest, his gaze locked on Erik's with disquieting intensity. "You are the best replication engineer I have ever met. It's tiring to work with people who can't keep pace, not to mention that it holds up my work. But you have always been able to keep up with me. Half the time it's me keeping up with you."

What exactly is Xavier trying to say?

The rueful, good-natured quirk of Xavier's mouth is almost familiar by now. "In short, I am very glad you're here. I can't do this without you, Max. I need you."

Erik shuts the door in the man's face.

"My name," he says to the empty room, "is Erik."

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

He dreams of fire, smoke and blood, and wakes choking on the stench of burning plastic. Darkness and still, cool silence catch him when he starts up with a gasp. It's dark all around him; only four small green numbers float to his left. Zero, three, one, three.

For a long moment, Erik can't make sense of the sight, or of anything at all.

Facts coalesce slowly, almost reluctantly. He's in bed. The numbers are an alarm clock. It's thirteen minutes past three o'clock in the morning.

Another minute passes full of nothing but the sweat cooling on his chest and shoulders, the sound of his rapid breathing and the minute rustling of bedclothes. Then, everything else returns – a cut-glass stretch of memory almost six hours long, sharp enough to draw blood. And beyond it, nothing.

Except that it's not that simple. It's not that he recalls nothing except the paltry stretch of time since he woke up in Xavier's lab. It's that he can make no sense of what else he recalls. There's – it seems like a lot, or like it could be, but at the same time, it's nothing at all, only an inchoate, intangible fog. Fragments of sensory impressions, jumbled wildly together with the fire and pain and death that must be an echo of Max Eisenhardt's last moments.

No wonder the imprint was not fully intact. Erik will have to bring himself up to speed on XIM technology, but it seems logical to assume that death, perhaps particularly violent death, must necessarily corrupt the readings. How can a brain that's shutting down relay intact data?

There should have been a failsafe. What kind of a scientist is Xavier, that there was no failsafe? The self-proclaimed leading neuroscientist of his generation should know better. And what kind of scientist is – was –

No matter. No matter. There's no changing it now. Erik must be pragmatic.

So he lies back in tangled, sweat-damp sheets, calms his breathing and relaxes his limbs. He knows how to do this; there is a technique to relaxation, as there is to so many things. His body goes through the steps without his prompting, heart slowing, muscles untensing.

Once he has let go of as much of the tension as he can, he tries to gather the fragments of dream, recollection and random fact into a coherent whole. A unity with a clear timeline: past, present, future. A life. An identity.

He tries until his temples throb with the effort, pain pulsing in time with his heartbeat. Nausea curls in his stomach, and his skin is slick with sweat. He gets nothing except confused impressions of places and events he cannot quite make out, smeared nonsensically across his memory like wet paint across canvas.

By the time he gives up, it's almost four o'clock.

The light switch is beneath his questing fingertips before he can think. He flinches at the sudden brightness, but the too-sudden glare isn't what sends a cold stab of shock through his gut.

"Light off," he rasps.

Immediately, the light turns off.

"Light on." And the room snaps back into overly harsh detail.

Erik hadn't realized there was also an old-fashioned switch. And yet, he'd reached for it automatically, unerringly.

His hands are not entirely steady when he reaches for the switch again, flipping the light off and on, off and on.

Xavier said the imprint transfer was a success. He said the memories would settle into place eventually. Not two minutes ago, Erik was actively trying to grasp them. Why is he now so shaken? This is a positive sign. Of course it is.

Erik reminds himself of this until he believes it.

In the light, Eisenhardt's bedroom is clean, orderly and devoid of personal touches. There are no pictures on the walls. No clothes or random effects lie about. No effort of any kind has been made to alleviate the hotel character of the pre-furnished room.

He gets up to take a shower. The bathroom is every bit as clean, empty and impersonal as the bedroom, but the cabinet holds an array of expensive grooming products. There's even a half-full bottle of cologne.

Scent is the sense most strongly associated with memory in the human brain.

Erik stares at the elegant designer bottle for too long before reaching out.

It's a light, wood- and citrus-based scent, unobtrusive but distinctive. Erik finds it pleasant, but doesn't remember anything when he sniffs at the spray head. Neither does he remember anything when he sprays it onto the back of his hand, where it matures into a slightly warmer, spicy scent that appeals to Erik even more.

He washes the scent off in the shower, using more of Eisenhardt's products.

He dries off with a fresh towel. There's a new toothbrush in the cabinet; Erik throws the old one away.

Erik doesn't recognize the body he just cleaned. It feels like a natural and unremarkable part of him when he doesn't think about it, but when he does pay attention to the hands, the light dusting of hair on his chest, the penis or the line of the thigh, the shape of the knees… then, he doesn't remember ever having seen any of it before yesterday.

Nevertheless, he feels comfortable in the body – in his body. It's healthy and well-proportioned, with long limbs and spare muscle. A hint too thin, however, which is a common but avoidable issue with clones grown beyond teenage years. The nutrients can be adjusted to counter the changing requirements of the maturing shell, and Erik finds himself irritated at this sign of inattention to detail.

As for the face…

Erik has avoided looking in the mirror up to now, but it's less jarring than he expected. There's an odd familiarity about the man looking back at him. He doesn't look like a stranger, the way Xavier had. It's as though Erik has seen this man often, recognizes the pale color of his eyes, the slight frown drawing his brows together, the high forehead, wide mouth and angular chin.

There's something odd about the way he looks, however. It takes Erik a moment to pin it down, but then he realizes that there are no wrinkles or lines. He looks like a man in his thirties, but his skin is as smooth as though he's never laughed in his life, never frowned, never grinned or squinted into the sun.

Which is, of course, because he hasn't.

There's no beard stubble, either. It usually takes two to three weeks for hair and nails to find to normal growth, once the carefully controlled accelerated maturing process is halted.

Erik's beginning to breathe quickly enough to become light-headed, so he turns away from his reflection.

The closet in the bedroom holds a large selection of clothes and shoes, all of which – Erik has no doubt – will fit him perfectly. Eisenhardt favored high quality throughout: Most of the suits and shirts are custom-made, as are the shoes, excepting only two pairs of running shoes. Everything is kept in neutral, understated shades.

Erik dresses in the clothes Xavier gave him yesterday. No doubt they're Eisenhardt's, too, but it still feels different than taking clothes from the closet of a dead stranger.

Like the rest of the small suite, the living room refuses to surrender so much as a hint of Eisenhardt's personality. Erik is beginning to feel like he's trying to grab hold of a phantom. He'd almost suspect Xavier had the room cleared of Eisenhardt's possessions, but that wouldn't make any sense. Xavier wants to jog Erik's memory by putting him into 'familiar' surroundings, after all.

There's one more room, but it's locked with an old-fashioned combination lock rather than a biometric system. Both the door itself and the frame are made of steel, like all the doors Erik has seen in here so far. Trying to break it open would only get him a bruised shoulder.

And why should he try? It's probably Eisenhardt's office, locked for no other reason than to safeguard his computer and his data backups. The fact that it's locked doesn't mean that the solution to all of Erik's problems is hidden behind it. What kind of solution could there be, anyway?

Erik spreads both hands against the door and leans forward, resting his forehead on cool metal. It's not as soothing as it might be – not soothing in the least.

Quite the contrary.

The realization comes over him slowly but inevitably. There's something wrong; very wrong. Everything's wrong with Erik at the moment, of course, but this is beyond that. The door is flawed. Inert and unassailable. Immaterial. Wrong.

Shaken, he backs off. Distance doesn't dispel the feeling, but does allow it to fade a little.

Now that he's paying attention, though, a more subtle sense of wrongness begins to creep in at the edges of his senses, niggling at every thought and sensation. It's not merely the locked door hiding Eisenhardt's secrets that's fundamentally flawed. It's… everything.

That's nonsense, of course. He knows it is. But even so, the feeling is profoundly disturbing.

Damn it, he has to get out of here.

The door leading to the hall opens for Erik readily. It's highly probable he sets off an alarm by leaving Eisenhardt's rooms, but there's nothing he can do about that, so he puts the thought aside.

Motion sensors set into the ceiling activate the lights as he walks along the corridor, a wave of illumination sweeping before him. The facility is silent and dark, waking up only for him. Too silent, too distant, wrong in exactly the same way Eisenhardt's steel door is. Something is missing – something vital, something vibrant and essential. Erik feels almost like a ghost, an unreal creature taken out of the context of the living world.

He puts his feet down more solidly. It makes him feel slightly ridiculous, but he does feel better for the muffled, quiet sound of his own footsteps.

The hall leading to the replication lab is now shut off from the rest of the facility by a clear pane of aluglass. It's cold and lifeless beneath his fingers, disturbingly solid for something that – nonsensically – seems all but unreal.

There's a key pad set into the wall next to the pane. Erik flips up the clear cover and types out all four required access codes, the numbers dropping into his head completely without fanfare. Memories of typing the same codes dozens, hundreds of times follow with a delay of several seconds, distracting him so much he nearly misses the quiet beep of the mechanism.

Memory is a function of neurons, whispers a thought that doesn't feel like his own.

A green light blinks a brief all-clear, and the pane slides soundlessly into the wall.

The replication lab is at the far end of the corridor. Erik touches every door he passes on his way there, and in every case, he knows what's behind it. Bioprocessing engineering, structural molecular research, genetic sequencing, biochemical analysis… imprint processing.

This code is longer, and combined with a fingerprint scan.

The imprint processing lab is large and sterile, filled with the quiet hum of machines. There's the full-size working model of the imprinter, which is used to test new refinements. There's the remote back-up unit, which ensures an imprint is available even should an imprinter be destroyed while in use. There's the reader, ready to receive an imprinter and download a neural file holding the entirety of a person's knowledge and experience.

A portable imprinter hangs in a clear case on the wall, shimmering in jewel-hues like the rarest of diamonds. The aesthetic appeal is intentional; after all, these devices are meant to be worn around the neck at all times in order to catch an imprint as close to the moment of death as possible.

Erik doesn't go inside. He merely stands in the hall looking in until the lights in the lab go out and the door closes automatically. Then, he walks on.

In some facilities, the replication lab is called 'The Awakening Room'. Leaving aside the puerile, unscientific romanticism of the appellation, Erik dislikes it for being entirely misleading. It reduces the lab's functions to what is arguably the least difficult stage of the LCT process. A fully-grown clone whose metabolism has been properly slowed to the human norm, who has been brought out of chemical hibernation correctly and whose body chemistry has been accurately calibrated will wake up on their own.

Oddly, the lab's main room seems larger than it did yesterday. The vault that holds the growth chambers is not locked; every chamber is empty, although one is in the middle of a cleaning cycle.

He touches a hesitant hand to the curved aluglass surface of the chamber in question. This is where he – where the body, the –

Not that it matters. Erik can't imagine any way in which it could matter.

Beyond the replication lab, the corridor is blocked by a second aluglass barrier, which also opens to his codes. The scientists in this place must have a good head for remembering random strings of characters. Of course, most of them probably don't have access to every area.

As though in confirmation of this theory, Erik finds he only has access to one of the offices behind the labs.

Bookshelves line three of the walls; the fourth is occupied by metal cabinets holding tools, design prototypes of various machine components, data storage media and orderly stacks of schematics.

Interesting. Most engineers don't bother with printed schematics anymore when three-dimensional holographic versions are far more versatile. It seems Eisenhardt was something of a traditionalist.

He was evidently also a man of varied interests. First and foremost, he owned books on cloning, though most aren't concerned with its technology but rather its history, its morality, sociological aspects and the like. However, there's also numerous historical volumes and biographies of people ranging from painters, writers and composers to rulers, soldiers and philanthropists, with a sprinkling of reformers, scientists and explorers mixed in. There's philosophical, political and sociological treatises, the selection seemingly not weighed towards any particular side or issue. There's a shelf of psychology, one of military strategy, and one of theology, again with no clear emphasis.

This room is the closest Erik has yet come to an answer to who Eisenhardt was, and yet, he finds himself unable to deduce much of anything at all.

He pulls out a book on the beginnings of cloning and flips through it idly. It falls open on a page showing a young man in outdated clothes, smiling brightly into the camera. His eyes are as wide, curious and expressive as a child's. A large compound sprawls behind him –

– and that is the instant in which Erik remembers the other clones.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

It takes the guards thirty seconds to arrive. In that time, Erik has entered the access code four times. The response is the same every time: a red light. Access denied.

He doesn't understand. It's the right code, he knows it. He remembers his fingers typing it in, remembers hidden steel sliding back, opening the way to –

Copies are never identical.

White keys beneath his desperate touch. Nine. Three. One. Five. Seven. Four. One…

White keys, black numbers. Black keys, white numbers. Nine. Three. One. Five…

He doesn't notice the guards until they round the corner at a run, weapons drawn. They drop immediately into a practiced stance, one crouched low on one knee with an assault rifle steadied against her shoulder, two more fanning out to either side, covering Erik and the hall behind him with their own rifles.

They're clad in black body armor from head to toe, wearing helmets with opaque, full visors that entirely conceal their faces. A large logo Erik has seen before adorns their chests – a silver flame enclosed in a circle. All three of them carry heavy assault rifles, with smaller handguns and knives visible at their belts.

Erik can't understand how he entirely failed to notice them coming. How could he have missed such a thing? He should have known. He should have –

"Identify yourself," says the guard on the left. Her voice is tinny and flat, filtered through a speaker.

Erik doesn't mean to laugh. He knows he should be afraid, but it's impossible. Their guns don't seem like a threat, they don't even seem real, and then they have to go and ask that question of all questions – the one question he has absolutely no answer for.

To their credit, the guards don't react to the laughter. Either Erik doesn't look like much of a threat, or they're simply that well-trained. Whatever the reason, there's no trace of nervousness or superfluous aggression in their stances; they are alert and on guard, but neutral. Professional.

Erik can appreciate that.

"My apologies," Erik says, once he's wiped tears of laughter from his eyes. The guard on the right tenses a little at the motion, but that's the only reaction he can see. "As for your question, the most accurate answer I can give is that I am Dr. Maximillian Eisenhardt. However, I'm afraid that this is still entirely inaccurate, perhaps even completely untrue."

This does appear to take them aback somewhat. It's hard to tell, given the opaque helmets and carefully toned-down body language, but Erik finds that he is good at reading small clues. The guards' minute changes in posture, the length of the pause between his words and the reaction by the evident leader of the small group…

More running feet, and another group of three arrives, to fall into the same stance on the other side of Erik.

There's a brief interval in which the guards speak to each other on a closed frequency. Erik can see the leader's throat moving beneath her body armor, and one of the newcomers has less than perfect control over his body language and actually looks back and forth between Erik and the guard who's speaking.

That one would panic, Erik thinks. If something were to go awry, that guard would start shooting, even without orders, even if it were clear there was no point. Even if he were to endanger his comrades by his actions.

"Sir, I'm going to need you to sit down," the leader orders. "Step away from the door and sit down by the opposite wall. Back to the wall, hands on your knees."

Erik steps away from the door, slowly. Six rifles track him; six featureless black helmets swing to follow his movement. If Erik looks closely, he can see his reflection in the polished faceplates. He looks calm, perhaps even slightly amused.

The leader is closest to him, along with one of the new arrivals. If they start shooting while Erik's in the middle of the hall, they'll be in danger of hitting each other. Given how well-trained they are, Erik is certain they won't shoot under these circumstances… with the exception of the one man who may lose his nerve.

The neck is chronically vulnerable with this type of body armor. First the leader, then cross behind the crouching woman (who won't be able to turn quickly enough, and will provide cover from the three newcomers) to take out the second of the original trio. Then…

Erik is careful not to move too quickly as he sits down with his back to the wall, hands in plain sight on his knees.

Xavier takes nearly half an hour to arrive. The guards don't try to speak to Erik in the interim, and their vigilance never flags. Erik appreciates the silence as well as the professionalism.

"Max, for god's sake," Xavier says, sounding harried. He looks rumpled and tired; it's obvious he was roused from sleep and is less than enthused at being awake. "It's not even the crack of dawn yet. Was this really necessary? You – oh, Lieutenant Stanton, Sergeant Reynard. Stand down. He's not an intruder, he's Dr. Eisenhardt's XIM replication. Don't you recognize him? He's younger, of course, but the facial expressions and body language –"

"Dr. Xavier," Erik interrupts sharply. There is no need for Xavier to prattle on about subjects irrelevant to the situation at hand.

Xavier swings around to give him a disgruntled look, but subsides with an annoyed sigh. The leader of the guards nets the exact same disgruntled look when Xavier turns back to him. "Yes, yes, I know, I should have informed security. I'm afraid it was not the first thing on my mind after the resounding success of my revolutionary new technology, Lieutenant, but I assure you, I will remedy my dreadful oversight forthwith."

The interaction between Xavier and the guards is interesting to watch. The casual authority infusing Xavier's every word and move is met by an equally straightforward acceptance on the part of Lieutenant Stanton. Xavier is undisputedly the one in charge.

Within minutes, Xavier has dispatched the guards, helped Erik up from the floor, and ushered him back to the lab wing and into a cluttered office that's the complete antithesis to Eisenhardt's starkly ordered rooms.

Erik says nothing, even when Xavier sits him down on a shapeless beige couch and takes up position behind his desk. The way he steeples his fingers and frowns at Erik makes him look like a schoolmaster who's summoned an unruly student to his office. Erik is not an unruly student, though; he doesn't feel the need to fill the silence or attempt to justify himself.

Xavier breaks first. "What on earth was that little display in aid of, Max?"

"My access code isn't working anymore." As soon as he starts speaking, Erik realizes that this is something he has to talk about with Xavier, after all – except that when he tries to go on, his words dry up, coming out fragmented and confused. "Why isn't – did you have me locked out? I – Xavier, why there, when… I need to. Why would you –"

"You never had access to the clone compound." Xavier's gaze is unnervingly intense. "You know HolyGhost Corp takes matters of security and access to sensitive sectors very seriously. What would an engineer want with the finished clones?"

"But I –" He remembers. He remembers the code that opens the door to the clone compound, remembers typing the sequence again and again until his fingers move through it on automatic, without thought. White numbers on black keys, nine three one five seven four one five five one six zero, and the steel bars inside the door retracting. Cause and effect.

White numbers. Black keys. Hadn't the keys on the keypad set into the wall of the clone compound been white with black numbers?

"I remember it," he gets out, and stops with unspoken memories clogged painfully in his throat.

Xavier sighs, assuming a mantle of world-weary benevolence that would suit him better if he were fifty years older. "I know what you think you remember, but you're still confused, Max. Without the full context, it's easy to misinterpret fragmentary recollections. And Max, from now on, get some sleep at night instead of running around opening doors just to prove you can. There are better ways to test your returning memory."

Erik is strangely unsurprised to find that he's under surveillance.

"Not you, specifically." Xavier gestures impatiently, indicating everything around them – the entire facility. "We're doing cutting-edge research here. The XIM is a truly revolutionary technology. Do you have any idea what companies like the Lambent Group would do to get their hands on it? An economically viable way to reliably create clones with a full set of memories, including professional knowledge and acquired skills. Once we get it market-ready, HolyGhost will –"

There's more, but Erik doesn't hear it. His mind has stalled on Xavier's cool, matter-of-fact description of the process that created him. It sounds like it was lifted word for word from a marketing brochure, or maybe a presentation for potential investors.

Perhaps it was.

"I want to see them." His voice is quiet, but uncompromising, and Xavier falls silent immediately. Erik catches his gaze, holds it; tries to convey the vital significance of his request. "I must see the others."

Xavier watches him in silence for a long moment. His face is open and almost concerned, almost kind.

Don't trust him. Don't trust anyone.

Erik doesn't make the mistake of believing the promise of warmth in Xavier's expression. Erik is not Max Eisenhardt; he is Eisenhardt's XIM replication. For all that Xavier calls him Max, he is every bit as aware of the difference as Erik is.

And yet, as the first potentially successful prototype Erik is invaluable. Erik understands his worth perfectly.

"Oh, Max, honestly." Now, Xavier looks exasperated. "I should have known your mind would be like this. It's like an opera in there, all existential angst and drama."

"I like operas." He says it without thinking, and only realizes it's true after he's already spoken the words.

Xavier smirks. "I know."

Erik has no idea what kind of point Xavier thinks he's making, and it doesn't matter. He won't let himself be thrown off-course. "Dr. Xavier..."

"Please, call me Charles." This smile is near-mischievous and brightens Xavier's face to a ridiculous degree.

Erik doesn't try to hide his impatience. "I want to see the other – the others." The stutter makes his cheeks heat, but he doesn't look away, keeping Xavier's gaze locked to his own.

Something in Erik's expression (or perhaps his thoughts) finally seems to get through to Xavier. The smile fades slowly, to be replaced by the more familiar intensity.

"Very well," Xavier says at last. "I'll see what I can do."

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

The day brings a complete physical, IQ and knowledge tests, brainwave scans and assorted neurological exams evidently designed by Xavier himself. Periodically, an assistant hands Erik nutrient shakes designed to ease his digestive system into functioning. The next day is much the same, except that Xavier no longer supervises every test. Dr. Martinez and a host of other subordinate scientists pick up his slack. Every one of them knows Erik, and addresses him respectfully as Dr. Eisenhardt.

On the third day, Erik has to shave in the morning, and is allowed a slice of bland bread and lightly sweetened porridge for breakfast. His metabolism has stabilized almost entirely.

Three days – that's considerably faster than Erik expected.

Many things about cloning technology are not what Erik expects. His knowledge in the field is considerable, but oddly patchy. Some of it seems outdated, as though he remembers the original LCT theory and designs, but not the advancements that have been made since… advancements frequently made, ironically enough, by none other than Eisenhardt.

It's galling to find himself so impeded, but whatever Erik's present deficiencies, it won't take him long to gain a level of competence equivalent to Eisenhardt's. All he needs is several days' time and access to the facility's database.

In a break between a neurocortical imaging procedure and a session in the facility's fitness studio, Erik finds a computer terminal and logs into the datanet. All of Eisenhardt's access codes are still valid, but his access is far more restricted than it should be, considering he was one of the two top researchers here. Looks like his security clearance was downgraded after his death.

In the afternoon, Erik makes the acquaintance of several of Lieutenant Stanton's colleagues from security when he tries to leave the facility. This time, there are no pointed guns – merely the polite, but steely request to step away from the door please, Dr. Eisenhardt, sir. Clearly, Xavier has gotten around to filling out the required paperwork.

Erik preferred the guns. The message remains the same, but it was more honest when conveyed through open force.

"Hey," Xavier says that evening, when he turns up unexpectedly at Eisenhardt's door. "I hear you're cleared for solid food. Let's go grab a bite to eat to celebrate!"

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

"You were far more than a colleague, you know." Xavier gestures with a spoon full of minestrone, coming dangerously close to spilling it on the white tablecloth. "Is it strange that I miss you, even when you're sitting right there? You would be so incredibly useful in this situation, if you were fully yourself. We'd have figured out the problem days ago. We're like…"

The spoon clatters into the bowl. Xavier raises both hands, hooking his fingers together in a very awkward approximation of interlocking gears. "We're the perfect team. A brilliant neuroscientist and a brilliant engineer, working together to completely overturn the principles of replication technology."

Erik eats his soup largely in silence, restricting himself to occasional wordless sounds of acknowledgement. The lack of encouragement doesn't appear to curb Xavier's enthusiasm.

Xavier is different outside of the facility ("HolyGhost Corporation Research Facility L6 Genosha", as the sign next to the gate proclaims, next to an oversized version of the flame-in-circle logo). More animated; less controlled.

Perhaps this is what he's always like in his free time, when he's not working. Perhaps this truly is Xavier's attempt to relax, or at least to connect with a man he considers a friend. Unfortunately, Erik is not that man. He doesn't feel like he's connecting with Xavier at all, and it's unlikely he's going to relax this evening.

Because his mouth isn't busy chattering, Erik finishes his minestrone long before Xavier does. A small drop of soup has fallen to the napkin draped across his lap, and he gathers up the cloth absent-mindedly, loosely folding it to deposit it next to the empty bowl.

A waiter immediately materializes next to their table to whisk bowl, napkin and spoon away. A fresh napkin arrives in the blink of an eye, snowy white and pressed with merciless precision.

It's a good restaurant, if slightly more formal than Erik would have preferred. Xavier looks entirely at home here, though, his understated yet extremely expensive suit blending in perfectly with the refined arrogance of the waitstaff, the silver candlesticks and the long, starched tablecloths.

Erik looks down at Eisenhardt's own understated yet extremely expensive suit and allows himself a small, wry smile. No doubt he blends in well, too, if one judges by appearances.

"I'd like to purchase clothes at some point in the near future," he says, dropping the remark into a pause in Xavier's monologue.

Xavier blinks. "But your things still fit. And might I say that you have always had excellent taste in clothing? Timeless, ageless, and flattering. You look splendid. Why would you want to –"

These are not his clothes. Maybe it will be different once he remembers – but right now, he is not Eisenhardt, and he doesn't like wearing someone else's clothes. It feels like he's an impostor, trying to live the life of a dead man.

"Oh," Xavier finishes, with a sigh. Erik has the impression that he's only narrowly escaping rolled eyes. "Max…"

Even now that Erik has escaped the facility, even for the space of several hours, it seems impossible to escape the specter of Max Eisenhardt.

It's too much, suddenly. For the first time in his life, Erik's having a dinner involving actual food rather than nutrient mixtures. For the first time, he's not in a research facility, but in a restaurant. It's the closest he's ever come to something normal, something real; something that isn't the pale, fragmented shadow of another man's life.

He puts down his glass so abruptly that water splashes over the side, soaking into the snowy white cuff of his shirt and the expensive cloth of his dinner jacket. An approaching waiter smoothly changes course and glides past, waiting for a more opportune moment to encroach on their privacy.

"Dr. Xavier, I have a request."

Xavier raises both eyebrows at him, prompting him to go on. Erik isn't certain whether the attentive interest on his face can be real – doesn't Xavier already know what Erik is going to say? – but he ignores the uncertainty as irrelevant.

"Don't talk about Dr. Eisenhardt. Not tonight. Don't try to determine how much of his memories I can access on any given subject. Don't…" Erik exhales slowly, and then takes in a deep breath just as carefully. "For tonight, allow me to be only who and what I am, right here, right now. Whoever and whatever that may be."

Not the most coherent explanation, perhaps, but Erik thinks it should suffice, given that he is talking to a telepath.

Xavier doesn't reply at once. In the interval of his thoughtful silence, the waiter arrives and swiftly clears away his soup bowl, as well.

Ten minutes from now, there will be pasta, served not too quickly after the first course, but not so long after that the guests might feel neglected. Xavier's squid ink pasta will be tastefully arranged with foamy cream-colored sea urchin sauce and bright red slivers of tomato.

The information pops into Erik's head unbidden and unwanted, cracking the fragile illusion of freedom.

So you came here with me because you and Eisenhardt liked this restaurant, did you, he throws at Xavier, making no attempt to suppress the rancor attached to the thought.

Xavier's eyebrows climb another few millimeters, his brow wrinkling. He looks like a puzzled basset, which is a factoid that Erik sincerely hopes he catches.

"I have a request as well," Xavier says at last. "I don't want to be Dr. Xavier to you. Please call me Charles."

And I don't want to be Max to you, or anyone, Erik thinks. He doesn't speak the words out loud, but judging by the look in Xavier's eyes, he doesn't have to.

"So, Charles," is what Erik finally does say. "How do you feel about something a little less formal?"

Xavier – Charles – looks intrigued.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

He realizes the problem when he's already on his way back to the table nook they've laid claim to, bowl of peanuts and laminated menus in hand. So much for his generous gesture of inviting Charles.

"I have no money," Erik says brusquely. "You're going to have to pay, after all."

Charles opens his mouth, and then visibly stops himself. Erik takes this to mean that Eisenhardt had money enough to buy more sandwiches and soft drinks than the two of them can hope to consume in the entire course of their lives, and that he has bequeathed some (or all) of it to Erik.

"No problem at all," Charles says at last, and smiles. "It's my pleasure, I assure you."

The surge of gratitude is unexpected and not entirely welcome. Charles has promised, after all. Still… "Thank you."

Charles inclines his head slightly in acknowledgement. It's clear he knows Erik isn't talking about his offer to pay.

By wandering aimlessly around the city until he happened upon a promising establishment, Erik has found them a bar. It's not a particularly high-class place, but neither is it a dive, and it has a small selection of sandwiches and snacks on offer. The honeyed peanuts will make an entirely acceptable amuse-bouche.

It won't be haute cuisine, but Erik is going to enjoy even the worst, over-processed ready-made meal he is served here far more than he'd have enjoyed the no-doubt excellent gourmet fare at the 'A Tavola'.

"So. Come here often?"

It's the first time Erik sees Charles laugh. "No – it's my first visit." He leans back on his bench, draping a casual arm over the backrest and looking at Erik with an oddly quizzical quirk of the mouth. "What about you?"

He hadn't considered that Charles might interpret 'don't talk about Eisenhardt' as meaning 'pretend not to be acquainted with Erik at all', but it makes sense. It takes the idea to its logical conclusion, as befits a scientist. After all, every interaction Erik has had with Charles so far has been entirely determined by Eisenhardt. They are meeting for the first time without him in the picture.

Erik shrugs noncommittally. "Mine too. I like it a lot, though."

It's the truth – he does. There's no real reason for it, considering the place has little charm and makes no attempt whatsoever to create an ambience. It's no more than a small, dimly-lit room with a bar along one side. The handful of booth-style tables in the corner look like they were bought cheap from a roadside diner going out of business; they don't match the small round tables and bar stools scattered around the rest of the room.

By rights, Charles should look ridiculously out of place draped on the green vinyl bench in his dress shirt, tie and bespoke suit, hair styled just so. Instead, he seems completely at ease.

And Erik feels comfortable here, too. It's an incredible relief not to be weighed down by a ghost hovering just out of reach – oppressive and dominant, but never quite close enough to grasp.

Erik pushes the small bowl of peanuts across the table along with one of the menus. "Looks like we have a choice of Tuna Melt, Turkey Club or BLT."

"Oh, BLT all the way. No contest." Charles doesn't even give the menu a glance; his gaze never strays from Erik's face. Perhaps it should be unsettling, but somehow it's not. "How about you?"

The waitress arrives just then, and Erik addresses his answer to her and Charles equally. "One BLT and one Turkey Club without bacon, please."

"You got it, hon," the waitress says, and winks at him as she collects the menus.

Charles is grinning when Erik looks back at him. Erik doesn't ask.

It's going to be difficult to make small talk when the elephant in the room is on the scale of a wooly mammoth. All of the usual topics are fraught with conversational booby traps leading straight to the issue Erik wants to avoid. So… something unusual, then, with no connection to memories or experiences.

"If you were trapped on a deserted island, how would you have gotten into that situation?"

Charles' eyes widen in surprise. Then, he bursts into delighted laughter. It's the snorty, giggly kind of laughter, undignified and unselfconscious.

For the first time, Erik realizes that Charles is very young for someone with his qualifications and accomplishments. Dr. Charles Francis Xavier. One of the leading neuroscientists in the world, as he'd stated with calm assurance. Skilled telepath. Pioneer in the field of replication technology.

He doesn't usually seem young, but biologically, he's in his early thirties. No older than Erik.

No older than Erik looks.

"Nobody has ever asked me that!" Charles' smile is practically radiant, and he still looks insanely pleased. "What an excellent question. Hmmm. I think I'd have gone on a luxury cruise. I've always wanted to do that, you know, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. Before then, I mean to say."

"Too much of a workaholic," Erik guesses.

Charles gives him an amused look, but doesn't object. "There may be a measure of truth to that assumption. Anyway, the cruise ship would have run afoul of… pirates. Yes, pirates hired by the cruise company's main competitor. I suppose privateers would be the correct term, strictly speaking."

Interesting that he specifies the pirates' motive. "Corporate privateers – how unsporting."

"All's fair in love and business." Charles shrugs, easily dismissing the iniquity of the holiday cruise industry. "Fortunately for me, I went slightly overboard at that evening's formal dinner, figuratively speaking. Too much rich food, too much alcohol… I overdo it sometimes. So I couldn't sleep, and was walking about on deck taking in the starlight when the pirates scaled the hull."

The tale grows increasingly involved and fantastical as Charles gets into it. Erik has a little trouble imagining him fending off pirates with a deck chair, rappelling down the side of a cruise ship and hijacking a lifeboat, but laughs aloud at the part of the story that has Charles constructing a makeshift cannon from a handful of ball bearings, a carbon fiber oar, a cigarette and a piece of chewing gum.

"… and so I made it to shore with the last of my strength, one shoe tied around my neck by the laces, the other forever lost to the unfathomable depths of the merciless sea, there to serve as the home of a fortunate hermit crab named Egon."

The waitress chooses this moment to unceremoniously plunk their sandwiches on the table. Erik finds himself regretting the interruption. Charles proved surprisingly good at narrating his whimsical story of privateers, impossible makeshift machinery and opinionated marine life. Erik honestly would not have thought it of him.

Not that an acquaintance of three days is much to go on, particularly considering Erik's status. The relationship between researcher and experiment is a limiting one for everyone involved.

"What about you, M – my friend? How would you end up on a deserted island?"

Erik pretends he doesn't catch the little stutter over the almost-voiced name. Charles is making the effort, and that's what counts. Erik didn't expect him to stop thinking of him as Max… not immediately, at any rate. Changing the way people think is always a far lengthier and more arduous process than changing the way they act.

An odd thought. Erik puzzles over it for a moment before putting it out of his head.

As for the question, it's probably fortunate that Erik's mouth is full of lettuce and turkey when Charles asks it. 'I don't know, I simply woke up on the island with no idea of how I got there' would not have been a good answer.

He's come up with something far more suitable by the time he swallows his bite of sandwich. "Obviously, I was on a research mission to prove the existence of the deep sea kraken. My funding was pulled years before because nobody but me believed in the creature's existence, so I was on my own, in a self-built one-person submarine."

"Sceptics are ever the inhibitors of scientific progress." Charles tsks and shakes his head. "You found the kraken, needless to say."

There's an odd kind of certainty in Charles steady gaze. It gives Erik pause, and he has to pour himself some water to yank his mind back to the tale at hand.

"Of course." He grins a little. It may only be true for this invented tale, but even so it's a good feeling to believe that no matter how impossible the task he sets himself may seem, he has the skills and strength of will to prevail. "The kraken mistook my submarine for a fish, however, and attempted to consume it for breakfast. In the ensuing struggle I was forced to abandon ship, saving only the raw data of the encounter. And that is how I arrived on the island."

Charles considers this for a second before nodding decisively. "An eminently sensible reason for being on a deserted island. Of course, it must be frustrating that you aren't able to publish your findings and crush your detractors."

Erik picks up his sandwich again. "Not at all. The kraken exists, and I have gathered irrefutable evidence and invaluable data. It is enough that I know I was right, and everyone who doubted me was wrong." After another bite, he adds, "Perhaps it is even best that only I know of its existence, and that it destroyed my unique deep sea kraken-seeking submarine. The kraken is a magnificent creature. It must be protected, and the only way it will be safe is if nobody knows it exists."

Charles considers this solemnly while he chews on his BLT. A slice of tomato escapes the end of his sandwich, and he quickly leans forward to let it fall on his plate rather than his lap.

"I'm torn, I confess," he says then, licking tomato juice and mayonnaise from his fingers. "On the one hand, of course the kraken must be protected and preserved – as you say, it is a rare and glorious being. On the other hand, it should be studied. It might revolutionize the field of marine biology… even biology as a whole. Not to mention the enormous advances in bioengineering that would result from gaining greater knowledge of the kraken."

Science justifies nothing.

Erik puts down his mostly uneaten sandwich and wipes his fingers on a thin, non-absorbent napkin. He has no response to Charles' unexpectedly serious segue. In fact, his mind is entirely void of thought. He feels…

"Which dinosaur would you be, and why?" Charles smiles disarmingly. There is a fragment of lettuce stuck to his front incisors.

Relief rushes through Erik with irrational force.

Evidently Charles would be a cynodont, arguing that – as the direct ancestor of mammals – it was ultimately the most successful species of dinosaur. Of course this argument misses the point entirely. While cynodontia might be remarkable from an evolutionary point of view, the creatures themselves were nothing spectacular... quite unlike Erik's choice of pterosaur, the largest and fiercest animal to ever take to the air.

They order onion rings, and then pretzels, and toaster waffles after that because the waitress informs them the waiter who doubles as chef has gone home for the night, and toaster waffles are the only thing she is prepared to risk making. Erik sticks to drinking water because he doesn't want to overtax his digestive system and liver, but Charles switches to beer at some point.

Eventually, they are reduced to the game of "bag, shag or crag", which Charles is unapologetically entertained by in the manner of someone at least fifteen years younger. Erik is somewhat reluctant at first, but Charles' enthusiasm is hard to resist. Also, it turns out Erik can remember most celebrities when given their names and a hint of what they're famous for.

The choices he comes up with for Charles are somewhat eclectic, but this only appears to increase the game's appeal for Charles.

"Imogene Akerele, Gabriela Sousa and Johanna Kelm," Erik says, grasping more or less at random for the first female names that occur to him.

Charles considers for a moment. "Let's see, the first one was an investigator, right? The one who uncovered SanTech's nasty habit of violent industrial espionage at the turn of the century? And of course I know Gabriela Sousa. She's still one of the greatest operatic sopranos of all times. But the last one? I'm not sure…"

"Physicist," Erik supplies. "Discovered the Kelm Laws, which specify the conditions under which Okoye's Law applies and refine its usefulness when applied to natural phenomena such as earthquakes and spinning stellar remnants. She also –"

"Say no more," Charles interrupts. "I have heard enough to know that I must marry her immediately."

There's no real reason for this to make Erik laugh, but it does.

He doesn't find out which of the remaining two women Charles would spend a night with and which he'd push off a cliff, though, because that's the moment the waitress comes over to tell them the bar is closing.

Erik blinks at Eisenhardt's watch while Charles digs out his wallet. It's gotten very late – or rather, it's gotten early. He hadn't realized how much time they'd spent talking about nonsense.

Charles tips so extravagantly the waitress realizes she's been waving her breasts at the wrong person all night. She tries to make up for it at the last moment, and Charles is not shy about taking a look, but doesn't seem interested in following up.

The streets out front are deserted. Erik isn't sure how drunk Charles is, but there's no need to risk it; they passed a taxi stand on their way here. Charles can send someone to 'A Tavola' tomorrow for his car.

"Ricardo Hallam, Fern McIntyre, and Ayo Erebia," Charles says, stopping Erik in his tracks.

Erik had thought they'd be back to Dr. Xavier and his XIM replication as soon as they left the bar. The amount of relief he feels at the short reprieve is somewhat disconcerting.

The fact that two of the names Charles chose this time are male takes a second longer to register. So far, they've been sticking to women, and by now Erik knows Charles well enough to realize that this departure from an established pattern is both intentional and meaningful.

When Erik turns to look at him, Charles' gaze is deceptively open.

"I think," Erik says slowly, "that I would spend a night with Ricardo, though I am certain that we would do nothing more interesting than argue over the ridiculous mockery he makes of science in his books."

"Personally, I find his complete ignorance rather amusing," Charles throws in when Erik pauses. It doesn't distract Erik from the careful way Charles is watching him.

"Which leaves Ayo to marry, considering he is most definitely the less aggravating and more intelligent of the remaining two."

Something shifts in Charles' expression, but Erik doesn't have the chance to figure out what it is before Charles is turning towards the silver limousine rounding the corner.

The car coasts to a nearly soundless stop directly in front of them. In the streetlights, the logo on the front door gleams in a lighter shade of silver: a flame in a circle.

One or both of them must be wearing a trace. Also, Charles must have activated some kind of signal without Erik noticing it – most probably, it was a function integrated into his comm link. He'd been fiddling with it just before he paid. Erik had thought he'd been checking his mails.

Erik hadn't noticed the car. He should have noticed it earlier, shouldn't he? Should have noticed Charles calling for it. Should have realized…

"Our ride is here," Charles says, a nonchalant smile on his lips. Erik doesn't return it, and says nothing as the chauffeur gets out of the limousine to open the back door for them.

The chauffeur calls Erik 'Dr. Eisenhardt' as he ushers him into the car, closing the door behind him softly, but firmly.

The car's motor is all but inaudible, the suspension so well-tuned that they seem to glide through the city's deserted streets. Erik has almost managed to forget about this feeling in the last few hours – the feeling that nothing about him is real, that he's in some kind of waking dream that prevents him from ever truly connecting with the world.

It takes him too long to realize Charles is talking to him. By the time he snaps out of it and turns to him, Charles has noticed Erik's momentary distraction. "Is everything alright?"

Don't trust him.

But he doesn't voice the automatic 'yes, of course' that springs to his tongue. Instead, he shakes his head, less as a negative response than in the vain attempt to dislodge the notion that he's missing something vital.

"I'm not certain," he says at last, feeling his way slowly through the words. "It's as though – something's wrong. Something's missing, and I don't…"

He breaks off with another frustrated shake of the head.

For the remainder of the drive, Charles remains silent. The chauffeur, on the other hand, calls Erik 'Dr. Eisenhardt' again when they get out in the Genosha facility's underground parking garage.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

It's a key. An old-fashioned metal key with an ornate grip that looks almost baroque.

Erik takes it gingerly and turns it between his fingers, trying to find an indication of the hidden meaning the object holds. Charles says nothing, evidently content to watch him attempt to puzzle things out. It's clear this is another test, but of what, Erik has no clue.

"No," he says at last, looking up to meet Charles' intent gaze. "I have no idea."

Charles deflates slightly as he takes back the key. He's controlled and matter-of-fact again, focussed on the scientific puzzle Erik represents in the manner Erik has grown to expect. But even so, he's different around Erik now – more relaxed, more open. Not at all the congenial but businesslike scientist he was, before last night.

Perhaps the difference is rooted as much in Erik's perception as in Charles' behavior. At this moment, Charles seems far removed from the personable, easy-going young man Erik ate bad sandwiches and discussed nonsense with… but now, Erik knows Charles as that man, too. Charles is growing familiar to Erik, turning into a real person.

Erik wonders whether the same is true for Charles' view of him.

"You used this to show me something, some years ago." Charles pauses expectantly, presumably to give Erik another chance to remember.

Erik feels his face begin to set into a scowl, and doesn't try to prevent it. "Tell me or don't. I'm not going to remember."

Charles sighs. "Yesterday, you told me that you felt like something was missing. I have a theory for what that might be. It hadn't occurred to me that you would feel the difference, considering the current state of the imprint and the comparatively minor nature of your metahuman mutation, but that was clearly an oversight on my part. If it has caused you distress or uncertainty, then I sincerely apologize."

What? Erik's takes in breath to speak, but no sound passes his lips.

"Telekinesis," Charles supplies, when Erik fails to react. "You had a metahuman mutation that made you telekinetic. You hardly ever used your ability, however. I didn't even know you possessed it until years after we'd started working together."

The LCT process produces perfect physical replicas of the templates… perfect except for one thing. All of the templates' mutations are replicated in clones, including metahuman ones; the genetic code of templates and replicas is identical, after all. But in clones, metahuman powers do not manifest.

The knowledge unfolds into Erik's mind as soon as he reaches for it. A number of theories attempting to explain the phenomenon follows, set apart by relative likelihood and annotated with conducted research.

"Rapid aging," Erik says dumbly. He sounds like an imbecile, but his brain is too full to allow him to worry about such things.

Charles beams. "Precisely! The Eisenhardt Rapid Aging Hypothesis. It's by far the most sound theory anyone has formulated so far. You remember it, don't you?"

He remembers fingers flying over a keyboard, remembers virtual models of growth chambers cycling through simulated LCT replications. He remembers holographic representations of neural networks lighting up at a touch... remembers speeding up the simulation, the networks spreading and growing, separating and interlacing into more and more complex webs.

"I do," he says through numb lips.

He remembers the most valid hypothesis: that the rapid aging inherent to the LCT process prevents the formation of the neural networks necessary to access and channel the biological metahuman disposition. That the neurological system of rapidly grown clones is thus unable to integrate the metahuman ability, which can never be accessed on any level, conscious or subconscious.

"It was a grave oversight to make," Charles is saying. "I should have realized that regardless of the fact the active, manifest mutation was not strong, there might have been another element to it. An element related to sensory perception, something you never realized was part of the mutation at all because you lacked a baseline frame of reference."

The look in Charles' eyes is familiar. Erik knows what the next words out of his mouth will be – 'we will follow up on this once you have fully integrated your memories' – and shakes off his stupor quickly. "What precisely was Eisenhardt's manifest mutation?"

"Minor telekinesis, class R9. You couldn't exert much force, but you could lift small solid objects weighing up to twenty grams for short periods of time. Approximately two to three point five minutes, I believe. Your range was spherical, with a diameter of approximately five meters. You floated this key around your office to demonstrate."

Erik shakes his head, frowning. He stares at the key in Charles' hand, but no memory stirs in his mind.

"Strangely enough, when we first met I assumed your ability to shield your thoughts might be a mutation." Charles grins. "However, once I came to know you I realized that it was the result of mental discipline and strength of will. Immense levels of sheer pig-headedness, in other words."

None of this fits. None of this makes the slightest bit of sense.

Erik stares at the teasing smile on Charles' lips in incomprehension until it fades. Charles sighs. "Max, you never used your telekinesis. Your level of control wasn't precise enough to satisfy you, perfectionist that you are. As for the disorientation you've been experiencing, now that you know there might be a slight difference in sensory perception to what you instinctively expect, you will be able to adjust quickly."

A slight difference in sensory perception?

No. This makes no sense. None of what Charles has told him meshes with Erik's experiences; none of it resonates with the fragmentary memories. But there is nothing Erik can say, so he remains silent.

They move on to the next set of tests.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Dim blue light alerts him to what he's going to find as soon as he opens the replication vault. Four of the growth chambers are active, illuminated by their monitoring system.

Erik steps inside slowly, allowing the heavy steel door to fall shut behind him. He doesn't know why he's surprised. He doesn't even know if he is surprised.

Curved aluglass that's body-warm to the touch, cycling between 36.5 and 37.3 degrees Celsius on a strict schedule. The clear, flexible amniotic sac behind it, floating in and filled by nourishing and cushioning fluid.

As Erik watches, the sac in the chamber he's standing over shifts, gently moving the small shape inside into a new position.

The biological age of the clone appears to be roughly 29 weeks – an estimate that is borne out when Erik tears his eyes away from it to read the chamber's monitor. The other three clones are equally developed.

29 weeks, meaning the replication process was moved to the chambers about four days ago, when the clones had reached the biological age of ten weeks. Four days ago, when Erik and Charles had their evening out.

The actual replication process started well before that, of course. It takes a minimum of one week to mature clones to the stage where they can be inserted into growth chambers. The maturing process can be paused for as long as required, before that point. Afterwards, though, there is no stopping or delaying it.

It will be a while yet before these clones are ready to leave the chambers. It takes over half a year to grow a clone to a biological age of seventeen, where all major physical developments have been completed. Usually, the process is stopped at that age; distantly, Erik wonders why Xavier and Eisenhardt chose to age him to his thirties. Perhaps they felt that he would lack the required authority as a teenager, given that he was meant to be a mental copy of Eisenhardt at the age of 68.

Erik walks from chamber to chamber, checking the settings and confirming that everything is in order. He increases the nutrient level for one chamber by a small fraction, waiting to see how the clone responds.

He feels nothing. Nothing at all.

When he comes out of the vault, Charles is in the replication lab, sitting in the chair in front of the XIM mainframe with his back to Erik.

"This is not a good idea," Charles says. "It's too early."

He's speaking to someone on a headset, as Erik belatedly realizes.

Erik isn't sure where the impulse to reach out and stop the vault door from closing comes from. The sound the door makes is hardly audible, but...

"I don't care what the board wants, this is a mistake. He's not ready. Tell them to read my reports, for god's sake! This is far too early, especially when – no. No, you are not listening to me." Erik has never heard Charles sound angry before. He's quiet with it, body and voice drawn in tightly. "This could undo all the progress I've made with him. Don't you understand –"

It's obvious when Charles realizes Erik is there. He stops speaking and straightens in his chair, shoulders going down, head coming up. When he swivels his chair to face Erik, there's a smile on his lips and a welcoming warmth in his eyes.

Don't trust him, whispers the instinct Erik can't ignore.

"We'll finish this conversation later," Charles says into the headset. "Something more important has come up."

Erik lets go of the door. The clatter of Charles' headset on the counter drowns out the small hiss of hydraulics as it swings shut.

"Max, this is wonderful. I couldn't read you for a moment there – you remembered something substantial, didn't you?"

"My name is not –"

"Oh, please. Not that again." Charles springs to his feet and stalks forward, suffused with impetuous energy. He's still angry. Not at Erik – but Erik's the one who's standing in front of him, and all that energy has to go somewhere. "You are Max. You may not yet remember, but you will – and in the meantime, I do. You move like him, you talk like him, you know what he knew! The XIM transfer is a full success, there are only some –"

"Who were you talking to?" Erik's voice comes out unexpectedly sharp. Charles is having this argument with somebody else, not Erik, and Erik wants no part of it. What he wants is to know what Charles meant when he said 'all the progress I've made with him'. He wants to know why Charles is angry, why there are four clones growing in the vault behind him, why nothing makes sense and why everything around him is deeply, fundamentally flawed... including Charles.

Charles shakes his head, mouth twisting in disgust. "Marketing. You can't imagine how frustrating it is to work with those people at times." He snorts a little then, good humor returning. "You really can't imagine, given that you always flat-out refused to deal with them."

"I'm sure you're far better at it than Eisenhardt," Erik says. The words drop from his mouth more or less automatically. He watches Charles' answering grin, and can only think that Charles is far too easy to read for a telepath of his powers.

It must be very easy for Charles to be exactly what people want and expect him to be. Child's play, creating exactly the impression of himself that he wants someone to have.

What else is easy for someone who can look into people's minds?

"It's mostly a clash of perspectives, of course," Charles says, softening into conciliation. "Marketing is concerned with finding and addressing potential customers and selling products, and we only want to be left alone in our ivory tower with our research. There's bound to be conflicts of interest on occasion."

Erik steps back as Charles brushes by; he doesn't want to touch him. Charles pretends not to notice. He does a lot of that.

"It's easy to lose track of what's truly important, at times." Charles was heading for the neurotechnical XIM interface. Now, he lifts it from its stand and turns it thoughtfully in his hands. "Do you remember why we began developing the XIM, Max?"

Erik shakes his head. Maybe he does remember, but he doesn't know where to start looking. Maybe that's the entire problem – a matter of indexing, rather than anything else.

"Oh, that's a brilliant comparison! A matter of indexing." Charles gives him an approving smile. "I may use that in my next report. Anyway, the reason why we're doing all of this is to help people. That's it – nothing more, nothing less. Stress-related illnesses and work injuries caused by exhaustion have been steadily on the rise for decades. We need to reduce the pressure today's working conditions are putting on workers." The more he talks, the more impassioned Charles becomes. "If we perfect cloning, we'll be able to do just that. Qualified professionals for any field will be available on comparatively short notice, thus effectively eliminating the need for overwork. It will be very cost-effective too, once we have the technology ready to go into mass production."

Erik finds the nearest chair, sitting down rather more heavily than planned. He feels… odd.

"And while we're working to make the world a better place, marketing is trying to line up an array of completely different applications for the XIM." Charles rolls his eyes and sighs as he hangs the interface back on its stand. "I don't mean to say that some of them are not also worth exploring. The Immortality Project is certainly near and dear to my heart, for obvious reasons. It's just… how are these secondary projects becoming the priority? I'm going to talk to the board about this, you may rest assured."

Most of what Charles is saying fails to register with Erik. He can't seem to process the words properly; his head is spinning, and he feels nauseous.

An instant later, Charles is there, all solicitous sounds and firm hands. His palm is cool against Erik's forehead. When Erik swallows bile and looks up, Charles' gaze catches him, calm and steady.

"Ah, I see. Don't worry, this is a good sign." His voice is calm, too. Steadfast. Soothing. "It's the imprint settling. Somewhat overwhelming, isn't it."

He doesn't answer – can't. Doesn't have to, with Charles.

Charles' hand lifts from his forehead. A feather-light touch smoothes over the back of his head and neck, there and gone. "This is good, Max. All will be well soon. Let's get you to your rooms so you can get some rest."

He should object, but he doesn't have the strength. It's easier to go along with the firm authority of the grip on his arm.

A tall woman dressed like security, but without the helmet is waiting outside of the lab. Charles must have called her, although Erik doesn't understand why until he staggers straight into the wall not three meters down the hall. He's as dizzy and unsteady on his feet as a drunkard.

"You're fine, Max. Your brain is merely processing very many things at once right now. All we have to do is give it a chance to catch up with itself." It's all but impossible to disbelieve the certainty in Charles' voice, and more difficult still to want to.

Erik doesn't feel fine. Erik doesn't know how he feels, but fine does not bear any relation to the swirling knot of unravelling something raging inside him, the flashes of knowledge, images, emotions, scents...

He tries to hold on to something, anything; tries to make sense of individual scraps; to find a place to begin, or at least rest. A familiar voice shouting numbers, the workings of a control unit, the taste of tomato and sage exploding on his tongue. The flash of alarms. A chemical formula. The crunch of snow under his boots, a recalcitrant casing coming apart in his hands, cool air caressing the heated skin of his cheeks, a woman's laughter, the laws of aerodynamics

But everything melts away again as soon as he grasps it. There's no pattern, no framework. Only an endless, senseless rush of chaos.

Charles and the security guard deposit him on Eisenhardt's bed, leaving him to blink up at them in confusion.

"You're doing very well, Max," Charles tells him, and smiles. "Rest now. Everything will work out, I promise."

He bends down, hovering over Erik for a long moment. Erik looks up at him without comprehension, barely registering the cool hand that brushes the hair from his forehead before coming to rest at the side of his face.

It's alright, Charles whispers in his mind, radiating gentle warmth and affection. Trust me. I'd never let anything happen to you, Max.

Trust him. Don't trust him. Everything will work out, but nothing is right.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Blood. Blood soaking into fabric, almost black in the harsh, flickering light. A familiar voice shouting: Notfall-Protokoll, Authorisierung drei neun acht acht zwei null sechs –

Blood on his hands. He wipes it off heedlessly on his trousers as the lab burns around him. It's too late, too late for anyone to stop this. His mind is clear and empty with rage, every detail sharp-edged, cutting into him with razor-sharp immediacy. The taste of ashes and bitter chemicals. Electrical fire sizzling blue and green and orange. The clatter of his steps on metal walkways. Heat distortion shivering in the air above the overheating main core.

He turns onto a different walkway. Yes, there, there, wrapped in blood and smoke and fire, all bared teeth and grim determination. But it's too late now. Too late.

Coughing, choking, raising an unsteady hand, fingers spread. Pure, cleansing rage and vicious triumph, oh no, not this time. Not this time. I've made sure of that –

Blood, blood on steel, blood body-warm and slick on his hands.

He wakes up choking on smoke and the thick, hazy-iron stench of blood.

The fluorescent bathroom light is blindingly white, like a blow to the head. His breath comes in short, desperate gasps like sobs, and his hands tremble as he holds them underneath a cold stream of water.

His skin is pale and clean beneath the water. He stares at it in incomprehension while his breathing evens out. Where's the blood? There should be blood and dirt, grime from the machines he ripped apart. Every muscle, tendon and bone is still aching with –

But his hands are clean, and the ache is only in his memory.

Where had all the blood come from? There had been no blood in his dreams of Eisenhardt's death, before. Or had there? Had someone else died in the explosion with Eisenhardt? Nobody had ever mentioned it.

And – the lab. The lab had been different. Hadn't it? There'd been multiple stories, a central open space, walkways…

Perhaps it hadn't been a memory at all. Perhaps it had merely been a dream, the result of an overtaxed brain mixing together remembered reality and fevered imagination.

Erik runs cold, wet hands through his hair, slicking it back. He inhales carefully and pauses for a measured interval before exhaling, every bit as slowly and evenly. He is in the Genosha research facility. There is no blood on his hands, no fire, nobody shouting emergency codes, no lab being destroyed around him.

The man in the mirror is completely familiar now. The stark, frozen look on his face is not.

He dries his hands on Eisenhardt's towel, steps out of the bathroom into Eisenhardt's bedroom. His gaze catches on Eisenhardt's alarm clock, positioned at right angles on the night table; the rumpled sheets on Eisenhardt's bed, luxuriously high thread-count belying their plain appearance.

In the living room, the shelf of books on the wall draws his eyes. The precise positioning of the easy chair in relation to the old-fashioned floor lamp behind it. The small table next to it.

Suddenly Eisenhardt is everywhere, infusing every detail of furnishing in his erstwhile living space – even (or particularly) the absence of overt individuality – with an oppressive force of personality. It's overwhelming, like he's right there with Erik, breathing in his ear. Looking through his eyes. Choking the life out of him.

Erik stumbles in his haste to get to the door, smashes his palm on the opener with such force he's afraid he broke it for a second. But the door opens, and then he's outside in the hall, once again gasping for breath and shaky with adrenaline.

He's going insane. He will never gain Eisenhardt's memories, he will just lose his mind. And then they'll see how well Charles manages to sell him as proof of the viability of his wonderfully innovative memory-imprinting technology.

"Oh well, it's a first trial," Erik whispers, the rasp of his voice harsh in the dead night-time silence. "Some minor bugs are only to be expected."

His laughter sounds insane even in his own ears.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

He spends the rest of the night in one of the empty guest rooms down the hall. He doesn't know why Eisenhardt knew the access code for it, and doesn't care enough to speculate right now. There are too many other things to think about.

In the morning, Charles takes him to see the others.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

"What's your name?"

Erik fails to respond for a long moment, causing the girl's happy smile to fall. When he shakes himself out of his momentary stupor and manages a smile of his own, though, she immediately starts beaming again. "I'm Erik. Who are you?"

"I'm Linda Seven! Can we be friends?"

She looks to be in her late teens, so she's probably in her early twenties, biologically speaking. LCT clones generally look younger than their biological age until they've lived a decade or so… or until they've experienced things that have aged them before their time.

She's fourteen months old, Charles says in his mind. Amazing, isn't she? Others her age would still be learning how to speak in full sentences. She, by contrast, has already amassed the knowledge and intellectual abilities of someone approximately eight years old.

Erik shoots him a quick glance, and receives a bland look in return.

"Yes," Erik gets out at last, and forces another smile onto his face for Linda. He tries to look as friendly as possible, but isn't sure how well he succeeds. "I'd like that."

Linda cocks her head to the side as she frowns, the gesture slightly too exaggerated. Her intense regard makes Erik want to look away, but he doesn't; won't. "You are one of us, right?"

Next to him, Charles takes in breath as though to speak, but Erik is faster. "Yes, I am."

"Good." His assurance seems to melt her doubts, and she grabs his hand and pulls him across the room to the table she was sitting at when they came in. "We're friends now, so you don't have to worry. I'm going to help you and show you what to do. You're going to learn really quickly, I can always tell. So don't be scared anymore, okay?"

He opens his mouth to tell her he's not scared, but nothing comes out.

Thankfully, Charles doesn't comment.

Linda's been working on basic addition and subtraction, a task she quickly returns to. Her numbers are large, uneven and clumsy, and she writes with fierce concentration, smooth brow furrowed. She also kicks her feet underneath the table until Charles notices, and gently admonishes her.

They spend half an hour with Linda before an older woman – dressed informally in jeans and a startlingly lime-green t-shirt – comes to pick her up for her next lesson.

"Accelerated learning," Charles says, when the two women have left the room. They can hear Linda chattering excitedly, telling her minder all about the new friend she made. "We have succeeded in allowing clones to progress five times faster than they normally would."

"Meaning that full vocational training can be completed within three to six years of awakening, depending on the position," Erik murmurs.

Charles gives him an odd look. Max, you're still not feeling well. Should we leave?

Erik realizes he's clenching his hands into fists. He forces himself to loosen them before shaking his head.

"It's still far too long a span of time to be economical, of course, even disregarding the high cost of the program." Charles sounds casual, but his eyes are focussed on Erik with the laser focus of a targeting system. "Accelerated learning requires a very high level of attention by and direct interaction with qualified trainers."

Erik gives himself a moment to gather his thoughts before responding. "You seem sceptical of the general feasibility of this approach to the memory problem."

Charles shrugs. "It's a dead end. Even if the training can be made more cost-effective and the training span reduced to a minimum, this method will still be too expensive and time-intensive. It offers no advantage – simply hiring and training new workers would be both faster and more cost-effective."

"XIM relies on telepathy," Erik says coolly. "How many telepaths of sufficient strength and training are necessary to make your technology feasible for mass production? Not to mention the risk of human error you're introducing into the system."

This nets him raised eyebrows and a mildly disgruntled look. "It's your technology as much as mine, Max."

He doesn't bother to reply. There's no answer he could give that wouldn't be a lie. "There are other solutions to preserve or transfer memory," he says instead, doggedly. He doesn't even know what point he's trying to make, but... "LCT was working on one as well, and telepathy did not factor into it."

Charles doesn't seem pleased with the direction the conversation is taking. "Nobody knows what LCT was working on at the end. I grant it could have been the memory problem, but that's mere conjecture. More importantly, it's hardly relevant. Why should we go hunting for hypothetical alternate solutions when our own is a resounding success?"

If Charles' certainty alone could make it true, then XIM would definitely take the world by storm.

"Oh, do stop it." Charles grimaces. "Don't you have something better to do than grump at me?"

Yes, actually. Yes, he does.

He's been given free rein to wander around the leisure area of the compound as he pleases. Charles opts to leave him to it, settling down in the common room with a data pad and a cup of coffee.

The first group Erik finds is younger than Linda, and pays little attention to Erik. A trainer is leading them in a language game which involves the clones throwing their arms in the air and standing up whenever the game leader calls out the name of an animal that can fly. All of them have been brought to a late teenage age, but the differences to an actual teenager are immediately obvious in the comparative clumsiness of their movements, and even more so in the child-like expressions on their faces.

Late in the afternoon, Erik finds Linda again… or she finds him. "Erik, there you are! Come with me, I want to introduce you to someone." She chooses and enunciates her words very carefully, sounding almost entirely natural.

Hikaru is a young man with a shock of pitch black hair and a smile just as bright, open and unreserved as Linda's. The two of them beam at each other for a while, totally caught up in happiness at seeing each other. Initially, Hikaru seems slightly doubtful in regard to Erik, but he warms up to him quickly when Erik sits down and accepts a sheet of math problems.

"You're great at math," Hikaru says admiringly. "They're going to be really happy with you, I can tell. Your numbers are bad though. No, don't be sad, it's okay. I'll show you, it's easy. Your 1 – you can't write it like that. Everyone's going to think it's a 7. And this 7, why did you cross it out like that? You'll get individual tutoring unless you fix that. It's better to write properly so that everyone's happy with you."

They call him Erik, and accept him into their group without question – welcome him, even. They are like him: experimental clones, results of a technology not yet ready for economical mass production.

Erik has never felt more alien and out of place.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Black tie events are not Erik's natural habitat – that much becomes clear as soon as he steps out of the limousine and sees the parking attendants, butlers and waitresses with trays of champagne bustling about. The venue is not so much a villa as a sprawling pseudo-Victorian palace, all stone pillars, porticoes and broad, sweeping stairs leading up to a portal that's been thrown wide for the guests. A crystal chandelier of monstrous proportions can be seen inside, blazing like an Engström reactor.

I know this may be a bit unpleasant for you. Charles looks almost apologetic when Erik turns to watch him climbing out of the car after him. You can do it, though. I know you. And I can help you, if you'll let me.

It was a trade: Erik could see the clones if he attended a formal HolyGhost Corp evening event.

"It's not a big matter." Erik folds his long coat over one arm and carefully adjusts the seat of his evening jacket. This suit is the first item of clothing that is truly his own – Eisenhardt's hadn't fit well enough to meet Charles' exacting standards. While Charles tells him Eisenhardt had been in excellent shape, the physiological differences between a thirty year-old man and one of seventy are too substantial for a well-tailored evening suit to tolerate.

Charles is smiling when he steps up beside Erik, eyes crinkling up at him in easy good humor. I must admit that I find the sight of you wearing a smoking more enjoyable than ever before.

Charles has been in his mind frequently of late.

It makes things much easier, don't you think? And I've never had the opportunity of doing this with you before – pushing through your shields would have hurt you. So I'm basking in your mind a bit. You don't mind, do you?

Erik considers the question as they join the small handful of other guests walking up the stairs. He should mind; he should find it intrusive, even threatening. But, to his own surprise, he doesn't. Charles' mental touch is always gentle, warm with an emotion Erik can't help but interpret as affection. Also, feeling Charles' projected thoughts is not like hearing his voice. There are connotations woven through the overt meaning, hints of emotion and tangents of thought that lend depth and richness to the conveyed ideas.

I don't mind, Erik thinks, presenting the unvoiced words like an invitation.

Good. Charles grins up at him, and Erik belatedly realizes that Charles has taken his arm as though he's Erik's date, being escorted to a ball. You have a uniquely beautiful mind, Max. Addictively beautiful.

That might be the strangest compliment ever given… if compliment it is.

"Oh, yes, my friend," Charles murmurs softly. "It most definitely is."

And then they're at the top of the stairs, where an attentive butler takes their coats and they are checked off the guest list.

The reception is set in a salon just off the entrance hall. It's every bit as ostentatious and oversized as the entrance hall, featuring tasteless brocade wallpaper and marble half-pillars, three crystal chandeliers, one string quartet, and countless waiters with drink and food offerings. The guests wear smokings, evening gowns, expensive jewellery and an air of entitled arrogance.

Charles procures champagne for himself and Erik and they circulate through the room for a while, nodding at various strangers whose names and positions Charles slides unobtrusively into Erik's mind. There are HolyGhost managers, stockholders, investors, partners and clients, all of them urbane and polished, all of them exuding the bone-deep certainty of power and relevance with every gesture and every polite nod. Nobody is staring openly at Erik, but everyone is watching him, even so.

Ruthless predators, the lot of them. Erik isn't sure where the impression comes from, but he is sure that he's correct; grows even more sure when one of them comes up to them, greeting Charles with a formal handshake and a jovial clap on the shoulder.

"Dr. Xavier, it's wonderful to see you again. I've heard of your latest triumph."

Charles' smile is a masterpiece of neutral professionalism. "Thank you, senator. May I congratulate you on your recent re-election?"

He may, needless to say.

"Please allow me to introduce you to Dr. Max Eisenhardt… whom you have met before, I believe."

"Senator Conelly," Erik says, taking Charles' cue. He inclines his head slightly as he transfers his glass to his left in order to clasp the man's hand. "Always a pleasure. Allow me to extend my congratulations, as well."

The senator is about as old as Eisenhardt was when he died, if considerably more portly. His hair is white, thick and perfectly coiffed; his face is lightly flushed in a way that suggests high blood pressure. His smile is engaging, the press of his hand around Erik's firm and sincere.

"Dr. Eisenhardt," Conelly says, sympathy layered in his tone. His eyes are cool… calculating. "I was devastated to hear about your accident."

Erik meets the man's measuring gaze with glacial calm. "Thank you. It was a tragedy – however, as you can see, we were fortunate enough to be able to minimize the loss."

"Indeed I do see." Conelly shakes his head in a carefully rehearsed gesture of amazement. "I can't even imagine all the ramifications. Truly, this is an amazing achievement. Some might even say… incredible."

"Would they." Erik doesn't give a damn whether or not this vicious old man believes that Charles has found the holy grail of cloning. Clearly, Charles feels differently; he's stiffening beside him, drawing in an audible breath.

Oh, really. What did Charles expect, from people like this?

Erik shrugs. "I expect some might indeed say so, Senator. Particularly if they hoped to inveigle their way to crucial information on a revolutionary technical advance that their own company's researchers have failed to make."

Conelly's eyes widen, a hint of surprise showing through the cracks of his professionally affable mien.

"Senator, if you'll excuse us." Charles pulls Erik away quickly. Erik takes it he does not approve of implying that high-ranking politicians might be dabbling in industrial espionage.

It's fine, Max. You never had any patience for people like Conelly. As long as you don't let on the imprint hasn't fully settled yet, we're good.

A waiter passes by with a tray of bite-sized pastries in the shape of swans, an artistic swirl of cream on their backs mimicking folded wings. Erik takes one, but declines another glass of champagne. This is the first time he's had alcohol, and the last thing he needs is to get drunk. Charles doesn't appear to share his compunctions, however; he snags another glass and tosses it back in a single, long swallow, throat working smoothly.

The salon is full of people like Conelly, and Erik meets most of them over the course of the next few hours. 'An irrefutable demonstration that the XIM is a full success,' Charles had called the event. It feels more like being tossed into a shark tank.

"You did it," breathes a dignified society matron, momentarily forgetting her composure. "You really did it. I confess that I had my doubts when Gerald called me up to invite me, but – good god. You actually did it. Full memory transfer – that's… excuse me, I must call someone."

Every single person in the room is here for him; every single person is waiting to carve out an advantage for themselves, in one way or another.

"Eisenhardt as he lives and breathes." This man is a HolyGhost Corp manager, as Charles informs him. It doesn't make the possessive way he looks at Erik any less galling. "Except that you're forty years younger."

No, really? Erik hadn't noticed.

"Nobody could imitate that glare." The woman talking to Charles turns to give Erik a leisurely, appreciative once-over. "But who would ever have thought? You were quite exquisite in your youth, Max. You are, I should say!" Her practiced, tinkling laugh calls forth a melodious echo from the small retinue of sycophants hovering near. "Dr. Xavier, do tell me that you can bear to part with him for an evening or two."

Yes, that happens too. Whether he holds Dr. Eisenhardt's memories or not, in the eyes of these people, Erik is property. No clone will ever be more than that to them.

Max… please. You know that's not true.

(But he doesn't know, does he.)

There are business-minded people. "Lambent will flip their lids," one distinguished gentleman says with relish. "I can't wait to see their stock fall, arrogant bastards. They're years away from anything like this. Hah! Years? More like decades! We're going to bury them, mark my words."

Some are simply fascinated by encountering Eisenhardt – as they think – in a younger body, and appear to think of the XIM like a handy body-swapping machine. Tired of your bad back, your arthritis and your failing eyesight… or even just your thin hair and beer belly? Grow a clone and be young and beautiful again.

"That is not how it works," Erik tells an aging lothario, only barely succeeding in biting back the 'you idiot' that wants to follow. He's been growing on edge, and it doesn't help that this roué has been eyeing him like he's part of the buffet. A minute ago, he actually squeezed Erik's biceps under the pretext of plucking a loose thread from his jacket. Erik wouldn't be surprised if he asked to see his teeth, next.

You do like to exaggerate, Max. He may be a bit forward, but he's only interested because he's never met a clone before. They're not that common yet, you know.

(But if everything goes according to Charles' plans that will change, won't it.)

There are sceptics and disbelievers, there are people reserving judgement – but above all, there are people either willing to believe or already convinced. And all of them, without exception, are adding figures in their heads, racking up potential profits and benefits.

Benefits such as the one that comes in the form of the medallion one of the guests is wearing.

"Oh, yes!" The man shows it off when he notices Erik's attention, lifting it into the glittering light of a crystal chandelier. "Pretty, isn't it? I had a choice of colors, so I went with ruby. Was yours like this, too?"

A portable imprinter, just like the one Eisenhardt had been wearing when he was killed.

"You're the one who convinced me to join the Immortality Project," the man says proudly. The capitalization is clearly audible. "When I heard about you coming back, I knew I had to get in on it right away. My health hasn't been what is used to be, and there are always accidents to think of. Plus, none of us are getting younger. Except when we do – like you, eh, Dr. Eisenhardt?"

Erik doesn't join in the man's chortling or otherwise encourage further confidences, but that doesn't stop him. "My children are idiots and wastrels, they'd only squander my money and ruin everything I've built, if they had the chance. And I have to think about my wife! She's still young. A model, you know. She'd be lost without me to take care of her. If you can't take it with you, why not stay right here? It may not quite be immortality, but it's the closest I'm going to get, so I'm taking it, eh? You understand."

Oh, yes. Erik understands a lot of things.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Perhaps it's exhaustion that makes everything around him feel flimsy and fake, like a pale and unconvincing imitation. It's been a very long evening, and an even longer day. Really, it's no wonder the world has been feeling even more unreal than usual.

"I didn't realize XIM had officially passed the beta stage," Erik says in the limousine back to the Genosha facility. He looks out the window when he speaks, watching the dark, deserted streets fly by.

He also hadn't realized what kind of alternate applications for the technology HolyGhost has come up with, although he can't say he's surprised. The Immortality Project is not exactly part of the utopian future Charles had tried to paint for Erik in such vivid colors.

Erik doesn't believe in utopia. The clones Charles wants to produce will find themselves doing whatever work they are assigned with little or no pay. Once the cloning process allows inexpensive production, clones will be an excellent option for work that would be too hazardous for human workers – or perhaps simply too unpleasant, or otherwise unacceptable. If clones ever grow less expensive than basic safety measures in the workplace…

There will be no utopia elsewhere, either. Along with a fortune and a company to run, the clone of the man with the ruby medallion will inherit the hatred of his template's children and other successors, as well as a trophy wife who'd married a rich old man and now found herself shackled to a lusty young one. Immortality is unlikely to last very long for him.

Charles doesn't reply, and Erik doesn't turn to look at him.

Don't trust him. Don't trust anyone.

Perhaps Erik is in shock. Granted, he has no other symptoms, and the condition seems to be too long-lasting – not to mention that it's atypical of newly awakened clones. However, given that XIM is an experimental procedure it's not advisable to judge his reactions by those of other, traditionally LCT-produced clones. Furthermore –

"You're not in shock," Charles says.

Erik waits, but nothing more seems to be forthcoming.

His head is too full; he's not sure what he thinks or feels about any of what he saw today. He's exhausted, but it's not a physical exhaustion, and he knows he won't be able to sleep.

Suddenly, the idea of returning to Genosha is too much to take. The guarded gates closing behind him, everything locked in stasis, waiting for him to become someone he's not. The oppressive silence of the facility's halls, the clones sleeping in their guarded compound…

No. Not yet, he can't go straight from pretending to be Eisenhardt for HolyGhost VIPs to being locked into his own guarded compound again. He needs room to breathe, or he will suffocate.

"Let's go for a beer." When Erik finally turns to him, Charles is watching him with a wrinkled brow, as though trying to puzzle him out. It should be easy for a telepath, shouldn't it? "I could go for something unhealthy with a lot of saturated fat, too."

Charles looks pale and tired, Erik notes. He hasn't enjoyed HolyGhost's event much, either. "You want to grab a beer and some junk food after sipping champagne and nibbling on gourmet fare all night?"

"I need something to clear my palate. Don't you?" He isn't talking about the food, and he knows Charles gets this by the unhappy (and slightly priggish) way he presses his lips together.

After another moment of hesitation, Charles sighs, slumping back bonelessly into the cream leather seat. When it comes, his smile is slow and tired, but genuine. "Perhaps it would be best. Let's see what we can find at this time of night, my friend."

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

He has the chauffeur let them out near the city center. He doesn't know where he's going, of course, but it's not a problem – he'll simply wander along with Charles in tow until he finds something suitable. That tactic worked out very well the last time he tried it.

They're a little overdressed for the kind of dive that Erik has in mind, but he's in luck. After several random turns, they come across a bus stop with a tiny kiosk nestled into a corner next to it. At first glance, it looks closed, but the small window above the magazine display is open, and the sound of a radio host smarming his way through an interview can be heard from somewhere in the dark depths behind it.

"Excuse me – I'd like to buy something."

The woman who surfaces is ancient, grey-haired and black-eyed. Her gaze is shrewd, and she returns Erik's scrutiny with a brisk, businesslike nod that immediately makes him like her.

"We need something different to wear." Erik holds his arms to the side to demonstrate the issue, and she looks him over carefully. He can almost see the running tally in her head as she adds up the cost of the dinner jacket, the waistcoat, the dress shirt and cufflinks, the bow tie and grey silk scarf.

"Don't see the problem with what you've got on, sugar." The vendor's voice is thin and cracked with age, but her grin belongs to a much younger woman.

Erik blinks, momentarily caught off-guard. "Thank you, ma'am. However, our plans require a more casual look. I was hoping you'd be able to sell us some shirts. Maybe you have something for tourists…?"

Both Charles and the vendor look at him like he's insane. He isn't sure why, so he just raises his brows at them until the woman grunts and ducks down behind her counter, disappearing from sight.

Several minutes later, she reappears with two wrinkled, none-too-clean bundles of cheap cotton. The one she hands to Erik is bright orange and unfolds into a shirt with an image of a large, cut-open lemon splashed across the chest, proudly proclaiming 'Refreshing the World'. It seems like a harmless enough sentiment, so he steps into the shadow of the kiosk's side wall to change. Charles volunteers to hold his jacket, waistcoat and shirt, and Erik simply stuffs the tie into his pocket.

As it turns out, the t-shirt is too tight. He can hardly get it on at all, let alone tug it down his chest far enough to free his face.

When Erik finally succeeds in squeezing himself into the shirt, he catches Charles watching him with a peculiar expression. Scepticism? Erik can't quite place it – but whatever it is, it's gone the next moment, giving way to the familiar, wry smile. "Orange is not your color, Max."

"It's too tight, anyway. What about the other one?"

Charles rearranges the formal clothes he's holding over one arm, freeing his hands to unfold the second shirt. This one is blue and purple and looks far too large for either of them. It's more subtle about its advertising message than the other shirt, at least, contenting itself with a small, elegant L over the heart, accompanied by the tagline 'Think Progress'.

Erik has barely gotten a look before Charles is bunching up the shirt in his hands, still staring down at it. He almost drops Erik's clothes in the process.

Well, it may not be the height of fashion, but it's certainly more tasteful than a lemon squirting juice. More importantly, Erik should be able to breathe in it. "That one looks fine. Let me –"

"No!" The word explodes from Charles so vehemently and unexpectedly that Erik falls silent out of sheer surprise. Charles' head has snapped up; he's glaring at Erik, looking incredulous and betrayed.

What the hell?

Charles' knuckles are white where he clutches the shirt. "You are not wearing this. I forbid it." His voice is tight and uncompromising; commanding.

Erik's hackles are up before he even knows what's going on. "You forbid me?"

"I do." Charles rounds on him with something like fury in his eyes, ice-cold and intense. It's so unexpected Erik almost steps back before he can stop himself. "Over my dead body. Never. You are mine, you will never belong to –"

What?

The sudden silence is as brutal as a bullet. Charles' words seem to hang in the air, heavy and inescapable.

All of a sudden, Erik is cold, cold with a bone-deep chill that freezes him in place for long moments. Xavier is biting his lip, clearly trying to rein in whatever bizarre burst of temper has overtaken him.

The kiosk owner is smiling at them. Erik stares at her in incomprehension until his mind unthaws slightly, just enough to allow him to think again. Oh – yes. Yes, Xavier's words would seem romantically proprietary, wouldn't they… to anyone who isn't aware that Erik is literally HolyGhost's property, the same way any prototype is the property of the company who developed it.

'Think Progress' is Lambent's slogan. The knowledge drops into his brain without fanfare, as it always does. Blue and purple are Lambent's colors, the stylized L is Lambent's logo, and Lambent Incorporated is HolyGhost Corp's main competitor.

Watching the crowning achievement of your career, the scientific marvel that you expect to make your name immortal and allow you to ascend into the eternal pantheon of brilliant innovators – watching your precious prototype wearing something branded by a rival corporation… yes. That would be jarring, wouldn't it.

"That's not what I…" Xavier trails off without finishing the thought, though, and shakes his head. The rueful twist to his mouth turns his attempted smile lopsided. "I apologize. That was entirely uncalled for."

Erik doesn't reply. It's not surprising Xavier regrets his outburst. He isn't the type for harsh truths. Erik is, though. Sugarcoating facts does not change anything. It only prevents you from seeing things as they really are.

Max, please believe me, I honestly did not mean –

"Stay the hell out of my head," Erik snaps. He doesn't know what he does, but something twists in his thoughts, something wrapped up in loathing and violence – and Xavier winces.

It's almost amusing that the man actually has the gall to give Erik a reproachful look. Oh no, was that unpleasant? Imagine Erik's deep contrition.

Xavier follows him when he stalks away. Of course he does. Can't risk his prototype getting away, can he? Not that there's any danger of that – Erik's certain Xavier could stop him from halfway across the city, or further away. Very few things could escape a telepath of sufficient strength to use the XIM interface.

"Max, wait. Max!"

At least Xavier does his talking with his mouth, now, although there's no way of knowing if he really does keep his mind to himself. Why should he, really? Erik is not a person to him at all, just a –

He should not have trusted him. Erik knew he should never have trusted him, but he'd gone and done it anyway.

"Stop, for god's sake! We have to talk about this." Xavier grabs his arm, and Erik wrenches free with such force they both spin partially around on the sidewalk, facing each other.

Xavier is clutching Erik's clothes to his chest like a child hugging a stuffed animal. He looks scared, Erik notes; the sight sends a stab of vicious satisfaction through him.

"I'm sorry," Xavier says with quiet urgency. He's even paler than before, eyes huge and bruised-looking in his white face. "That sounded horrible, and I completely understand why you're upset. But Max, you must know that I have never thought of you as –"

"I told you that my name is Erik." Erik's voice is low and vicious. "I've told you many times, but not once have you addressed me by it. You are incapable of seeing me as myself. All you see when you look at me is the incomplete copy of a dead man."

"Oh, stop it! You know very well how absurd that is!" Now Xavier is shouting, apology igniting into anger. That went quickly, didn't it? "I know exactly who and what you are. I made you! What you call yourself makes no difference."

Xavier is not a man who wears anger well. He looks ridiculous rather than intimidating, all flushed face and explosive fricatives.

"It makes every difference." Erik is light-headed with rage. "You're a damned telepath and you can't tell?"

"There is no relevant difference!" Xavier drops Erik's clothes to the sidewalk without appearing to notice. "Everything you are is Max. There's nothing else you could be. Even the fact you think you're called Erik proves that you're Max. You're mixing things up because your memories haven't settled yet, that's all. My god, you're a scientist! Don't you see how ridiculous this is?"

Ridiculous?

Silence falls once Xavier stops, panting for breath. He's red as a lobster, all but vibrating out of his skin with frustration and agitation.

Erik has nothing more to say. So Xavier made him and thinks he owns him – thinks he knows everything there is to know about him? So Xavier sees him as an object, nothing more, something to be shown off to advertise a new product, something that can be reduplicated as many times as needed –

"Ridiculous," he rasps. He isn't aware of having moved, but now he's so close to Xavier that the man has to tip his head back in order to keep eye contact. "Oh, I do see that, believe me, Dr. Xavier."

Xavier flinches at the sound of the name, but there's no satisfaction in it.

Erik turns aimlessly, and his eyes fall on a metal trash can by the side of the road. He hadn't noticed it – he hadn't noticed it, and that is so wrong, everything is wrong, with the world, with himself, with Xavier –

He doesn't know what happens. He doesn't know why. He only knows that suddenly, everything that's been simmering in him boils over, and he finds himself kicking and tearing at the trash can like a madman.

Xavier is shouting something, sounding shocked, but Erik can't understand the words. It doesn't matter. No doubt he's only shouting a name that isn't Erik's.

It's a sturdy trash can, built to withstand vandalism, but it dents and bends underneath his assault. And – blood, there is blood on his hands – oh, he remembers this, the rage, the destruction, the wild, fierce, all-consuming determination to end this, once and for all, never again –

"Max!"

And then he cannot move, frozen mid-motion and off-balance, choking to draw in air against muscles that won't obey. The constriction around his throat eases in the next instant, but he's still falling, and the last thing he sees is Xavier's horrified face as he rushes forward to catch him.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

They let him out of the infirmary on the morning of the third day, when his hands have healed and they seem to believe that he will not suddenly go crazy again. Erik himself cannot offer them any such assurance.

He hasn't seen Xavier since the man shut him down. He doesn't see him now, either. As it transpires, Xavier had to go on a mysteriously sudden business trip, and nobody will give Erik a straight answer as to when he'll be back.

Additional physical fitness sessions are added to Erik's schedule because Martinez and the others can't take over all of Xavier's regularly scheduled testing units. Erik also has more free time, which he spends amending his knowledge of cloning technology and exploring those of Eisenhardt's engineering labs he still has access to.

Before the day is over, Erik finds himself unbearably irascible and tense. He doesn't know what to do with himself; doesn't know how to channel all the restless energy that's coursing through him, how to compensate for the sudden lack of Xavier.

By rights, Xavier's absence should not make a difference to him, particularly in light of Erik's last encounter with the man. Erik can't deny that it does, however. It's not the most pleasant realization to have… but then, under the circumstances he could hardly have avoided forming some kind of emotional bond to Xavier, could he?

Erik woke up confused and alone, with no past, no identity, no certainties of any kind – and Xavier was there, with his brilliance, energy and enthusiasm. Something steady for Erik to hold on to; something real in a world that lacked all definition. Even more importantly, Xavier had treated Erik as a friend. Even if he'd never truly meant Erik himself, even if Erik was not actually a person in Xavier's eyes, but only a placeholder... even so, Erik hadn't been able to refuse the offered warmth, no matter that it wasn't truly being offered to him.

Erik knows that Xavier is not on his side. As far as Charles is concerned, Erik does not have a side. For Xavier, Erik isn't a player in this game at all.

Xavier is wrong about many things. Erik is just one of them.

That Erik was created as a pawn does not mean he has to be one.

HolyGhost Corp's security really is very good. It takes Erik three days to find a way out of the facility; in the end, he only succeeds because he remembers the combination to the underground parking garage, and nobody thought to revoke Eisenhardt's access.

Riding into town curled up in the trunk of the night janitor's car may not be the most dignified escape, but it works. What's more, the fact that the janitor isn't stopped on the way out indicates there's no tracking device hidden in Erik's body – a worry that he's glad to put to rest.

Dawn is barely beginning to tint the sky when Erik unfolds from the trunk in a quiet suburb. By the time he makes his way to the city center with the help of the map he stole from the facility's front desk, the shops are beginning to open. People on their way to work hurry past while shop assistants pull up shutters, clean windows and put out displays, and the scent of baked goods and coffee wafts onto the streets from the open doors of cafés.

Once he's pawned Eisenhardt's collection of diamond cufflinks and tie pins, Erik finds a bistro next to a park and settles in at a tiny, unsteady table. The bread rolls a friendly waitress brings out to him are still warm from the oven; the apple-filled pastry he orders afterwards is tart, flaky perfection. It's the best food he's ever eaten, just as the too-bitter, over-steeped tea is the best beverage he's ever had.

If he left the city now, he'd get a decent head start before Genosha's security started looking for him. With Xavier gone on his so-called business trip, Erik is sure he'd be able to evade their grasp. Of course, there's still a risk Xavier might be able to find Erik when he gets back, depending on how large his range is… or if he modified the XIM interface into a broad-spectrum amplifier.

Erik isn't sure anyone in the facility has the skill to do that, but he likes to be sure. Before he left, he switched out the relays in the interface's amplifying subroutines, slotting in bronze instead of gold. Now, the only thing wearing the interface will do is make Xavier look silly.

So yes, if he left, he might be able to get away. But he's not going to leave. It was never an option.

He will not leave Linda, Hikaru and the others to the mercy of people like the ones who'd shaken his hand and made polite conversation at HolyGhost's marketing event. It is inconceivable. Nobody will help them if Erik doesn't. There's nobody else – only Erik.

No. Erik is not leaving… not yet. And when he does leave, he will not be alone.

After he finishes his breakfast, Erik goes shopping. He buys a wallet, clothes, two pairs of shoes, toiletries, a duffel bag to stow it all in, and a comm link. When he stops for an early lunch, he changes out of Eisenhardt's clothes in the bathroom, leaving them neatly stacked on the counter.

Before he heads back to Genosha, he buys a newspaper and sits on a park bench in the sun. He remembers world events the way he remembers circuits, quantum decoherence and access codes – when his memory is prompted by an external cue of some kind, the facts fall into place as easily as though they'd always been there.

Nothing snags his interest until he reaches the last page of the feuilleton, where an interview with a member of the Clone Rights Movement is squeezed in next to the celebrity gossip section. The journalist conducting the interview seems to view his piece as a humorous sending-up of a conglomeration of crackpots, conspiracy theorists and crazed treehugging do-gooders – this is clear not only in his introductory paragraph, but also in the questions themselves.

By contrast, the woman being interviewed stays calm throughout, insisting that clones are no different from humans who come into the world in the ordinary way; that they have emotions, a sense of self, a mind of their own, a personality just as every human does. That it's wrong to treat them as disposable creatures and slaves. That they should have the same rights as any human.

There's also talk of the Clone Alliance, a group the journalist calls 'monstrous' and 'terrorist' and the clone rights advocate terms 'counterproductive' and 'reprehensible'. Erik is surprised the journalist knew how to spell those words.

Every word the clone rights activist speaks resonates with Erik, but something else strikes him more than that.

Erik remembers the high-profile industrial-espionage-and-murder case that's still making headlines now, half a year after the first spy disappeared without a trace. He remembers the Formosa incident, which led to open warfare between three countries involved in the beverages industry. He remembers the class action lawsuit against a leading manufacturer of psychotropic drugs, the parliament squabbling over the budget, the formation of the brand-new Party Party ("Putting fun back into politics!") which has now had its first, surprising success in two regional elections. He even remembers the inane plot of a movie starring the actress who – as the gossip section informs him – has been seen holding hands with a man who is not her husband.

But Erik does not remember a thing about either the Clone Rights Movement or the Clone Alliance.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

A screech of tires on asphalt is followed immediately by a resounding crash. Erik turns automatically to look. Two cars have collided at the other side of the intersection; as Erik watches, a woman on a bicycle steers wildly to the side in order to avoid the crash.

Then, everything goes very quickly. A minivan with tinted windows brakes to a halt directly in front of Erik, blocking his sight of the accident. Its side door is sliding open before it's even come to a stop, and two men jump out and grab for Erik's arms.

The world slows. Every detail pops into crystal clarity.

Erik kicks out the knee of the closer attacker, clamps a hand on his shoulder and forces him down and away while pivoting to face the other man. That one is raising a palm-sized injector, ready to clap it to Erik's shoulder. Erik ducks away and jabs a fist at his stomach.

His blow doesn't connect; his opponent twists to the side and blocks it with his free arm. But now he's too close to the van to fully dodge Erik's elbow to the throat.

An angry male voice is shouting invectives in the distance. The driver's side door of the van opens in slow motion.

Erik ducks back from the fray to get clear of the first attacker before darting back in, snake-quick. A second later and he has that one down, too, arm twisted behind his back. The man tries to rear back, evidently used to muscling through on raw strength and intimidation alone. His attempt to escape Erik's hold almost breaks his arm; Erik jerks it up that last bit and does it for him.

Younger than the other one, less experienced. He panicked once the plan went awry – vicious but stupid. Hired muscle.

Still a threat, even gasping with surprised agony on the ground, but Erik has no more time and wheels to the side just in time to escape the second assailant's punch.

There is a split second of stasis; Erik and his opponent stare at each other. In the next instant, the man comes at Erik savagely, teeth bared and fist driving towards Erik's chest. Erik twists to the side but doesn't evade entirely, allowing the blow to glance off his shoulder and unbalance his attacker. A moment later Erik has his arm in his grip, holding him in place while he drives the palm of his free hand squarely into his face.

Crunch of cartilage and bone, but he's still trying to shake Erik's hold and bring his other hand back up with the injector. That stops after Erik grabs his hair, letting go of his arm in order to jerk his face down forcefully onto Erik's knee. A kick in the stomach for good measure, and the man falls back against the side of the van choking and gurgling, blood streaming down his face.

The man with the broken arm and the driver try to rush him, but Erik is too fast. One blow with the injector now held in the palm of Erik's hand, and the driver crumples into the gutter.

Erik steps back. The driver is out for the count, the more experienced attacker stunned and at the very least concussed. Erik can take him down permanently in any of a dozen ways, none of which would take more than several seconds, but even so he doesn't have the time.

Angry raised voices from the accident at the intersection break into their timeless bubble of blood and violence. The assailant with the broken arm backs away from Erik, eyes wide with the belated, stunned realization that he's not going to win this fight even if he is twice Erik's size.

Erik takes a slow step forward and smiles. And just like that, the sole still-standing attacker breaks – turns and runs, scrambles into the driver's seat as though his life depends on it. Which it might, all things considered.

There's a window of time in which Erik could stop him; could run after the fleeing man and drag him back out of the seat, break his other arm or perhaps his neck; could drag the unconscious driver away from the car, preventing the leader of the group from hauling him inside; could finish what he started with the leader, now that nobody else is distracting him.

He does nothing. The man with the broken arm grunts in pain as he slams the driver's door shut, and the blood-covered leader has barely wrestled his fallen comrade inside the van when it takes off.

The cars involved in the accident are still blocking one of the roads leading to the intersection. A small traffic jam has begun to form.

Erik watches the arguing and gesticulating drivers until one of them glances his way, doing a hardly noticeable double-take at the sight of Erik.

Yes… that's what Erik assumed.

All in all, the altercation could not have taken more than two minutes – three, on the outside. He doubts anyone witnessed it, considering the attention-drawing traffic accident on the busier side of the intersection.

The world is slow to regain its normal pace. Erik feels dazed with adrenaline, so much so that his hand is unsteady when he gets out the comm link he bought not two hours ago. His voice, however, is cool and even, and that's what counts.

"You have reached HolyGhost Corporation's Research Facility Genosha," a happy female voice greets him. "This is Mandy speaking, how may I help you?"

"It's Max Eisenhardt. Send a security detail with DNA evidence kits to the corner of Maple and Main at once."

Mandy doesn't ask unnecessary questions, and the security team is there within five minutes. The cars involved in the accident are gone long before then, of course.

HolyGhost trains its security personnel well. The lieutenant doesn't waste time with questions before instructing his people to collect blood samples from the street. He bags the injector Erik holds out himself.

"Not now," Erik snaps when the man attempts to debrief him en route back to the facility.

The lieutenant looks at him very closely, as though trying to read something in his face. Erik doesn't bother to pay attention. His mind is occupied with more important concerns.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Eventually, Erik does talk to security. He tells them only the broad outlines, stripped of all detail and speculation. When they ask how he left the facility, he shrugs, just as he shrugs when they ask how he was able to defend himself so effectively.

Punching the heavy bag in the gym doesn't help settle the thoughts that are chasing through his head, trying to connect into a coherent picture. He didn't think it would, but he had hoped it would at least burn off some of the adrenaline that's still coursing in his blood, making every breath catch short in his throat and every muscle and nerve feel electrified.

Why would Eisenhardt know how to fight, and fight like that… brutal, efficient and dirty? Nobody has ever given an indication that Eisenhardt was anything but a scientist. Scientists don't usually take out trained kidnappers with such brutal, ruthless efficiency.

Erik never even hesitated. There had been…he doesn't want to think 'routine', but no other term fits as well. Learning karate or some other martial art in a self-defence class will not teach you to fight the way Erik fought this afternoon. Only violence will.

How he knows this is in itself another question that he would like an answer to.

Nothing about Eisenhardt makes sense. It hasn't made sense from the start, but more and more discrepancies between the picture Xavier draws of the man and the reality of the memories in Erik's head are beginning to show.

Sweat is running into his eyes; he stops briefly to wipe it away, and realizes that his hands hurt. He takes several steps back from the punching bag and charges, twisting to the side directly in front of it in order to deliver a forceful kick that shudders through the heavy bag. Erik absorbs the force of the impact and pushes away to land in a perfectly balanced stance even as the sound of the blow echoes through the empty room, stark and too loud, almost like a gunshot.

He remembers the sound of gunshots. He remembers the punch of impact, being spun around as though by a blow – the pain of the wound in his shoulder late to catch up, bursting into a vicious blaze long after the rage at the wrongness of it has hit. This shouldn't be, he should have been able to stop the bullet, should have been able to turn it back –

He remembers the song of steel. He remembers a world that is bright and vivid and real, resonating with interwoven forces. He remembers intricate crystal structures of breathtaking beauty, thrumming with energy. He remembers iron melting beneath his touch, steel shattering like glass; remembers giant, rusted doors built to hold back tanks buckling inwards; remembers…

Take what's yours.

Erik comes back to himself huddled on the floor of the gym, clutching his shoulder and drenched in sweat. It's all he can do to gulp down air through the crushing force of pain and confusion and rage and loss.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

The ornate, old-fashioned key still lies on one of the bookshelves in Eisenhardt's office, right where Xavier put it down.

Minor telekinesis, Xavier's voice whispers in Erik's memory, overlaid by the image of a steel door crumpling like paper. You never used it. Your level of control wasn't precise enough to satisfy you.

Cool metal against his fingertips. Erik picks up the key, turns it in his fingers. It's just a key. He doesn't even know what he's looking for.

He does know that minor telekinesis does not stop bullets or shatter steel… and he knows that Eisenhardt was not what he pretended to be.

It takes him two hours to find it. The device is set into the base of the lamp on Eisenhardt's desk; Erik never would have seen it if not for the fact that it's the perfect place to hide something in plain sight. And hidden it is – the only part of the device that's visible at all is the integrated motion sensor, which is fitted into a hollowed-out screw head.

Once Erik has unscrewed the lamp's casing, he needs less than a minute to understand exactly what Eisenhardt has built here.

Flipping the lamp's switch halfway, to the point just before the light comes on, turns on the field generator. Erik re-assembles the device and does just that; holds out his open hand with the key resting in his palm. He tosses it into the air with a flourish, and it remains floating mid-air, caught in the device's magnetic field.

He moves his hand up, and the key follows the movement, floating towards the ceiling. A slight wave causes it to pick up speed and move towards the back of the room; a 'come here' gesture with his fingers makes it return. He points down, to the side, twirls his fingers and has the key describe a slow loop in the middle of the room.

The pick-up zone of the integrated motion sensor is precisely limited, the effect easy to control. Erik succeeds in having the key land back in his palm on the first try.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

"Max!" Xavier is hurrying down the hall towards him, untypically clad in jeans and a burgundy sweater. He's wild-eyed and pale, and he looks almost frantic. "Oh my god, are you okay? I came as soon as I could –"

Erik closes the door to Eisenhardt's office slowly, carefully. He doesn't reply; he has no idea what the correct response would be. 'Yes, I'm fine, I took out the attackers quickly thanks to Eisenhardt's secret streetfighting skills?' 'I'm not sure, given that I'm beginning to think there is no way this will end well?' 'No, I'm still caught between the shade of a dead man and your own disagreeable designs?'

Or perhaps a simple 'I am still not Max, and I suspect you should be thanking your lucky stars for it.'

"What the hell, Max!" Xavier's right in front of him now, reaching out to grab his shoulders. "What were you thinking? How could you be so stupid – there's a reason you're not allowed to leave the facility alone!"

Of course there is. He might wander off, and then HolyGhost would be short a very large fortune invested in research and development, and Xavier would have lost his invaluable prototype.

"I am uninjured," Erik says at last. The words come out stiff and oddly formal. "Surely the report you received said as much."

If Xavier were a violent man, he might have hit Erik then. Since he's not, all he does is narrow his eyes, evidently trying to incinerate Erik with the cobalt force of his gaze. "We're not doing this here. Come with me."

A palpable nimbus of anger surrounds him as he turns on his heel and stalks off, clearly expecting Erik to follow without protest.

Erik follows. He has nothing better to do.

In Xavier's office, Xavier sits Erik down on his battered couch and paces in tight, angry circles in front of him. Then, he makes tea, and drinks it without offering Erik any (Erik takes this as a demonstration of extreme disfavor). Then, he stares at Erik some more, brow furrowing in enraged contemplation, as though Erik is being purposely aggravating by sitting on Xavier's couch.

"This makes no sense," Xavier spits at last. "You make no sense."

Well. Erik certainly isn't going to contradict him there.

More angry pacing, more tea. This time, Xavier offers him a cup. Erik accepts it for no other reason than that he can use something to warm his hands.

He's cold. He hasn't taken a shower, and feels sticky with old sweat. The thin, jittery energy of adrenaline is wearing off, revealing the bone-deep exhaustion underneath. He can't remember the last time he slept without nightmares.

"Why did you leave the facility, Max?"

Seriously, that's his question? Surely Xavier isn't asking because he doesn't know.

Erik raises disbelieving eyebrows at Xavier. "You cannot be serious."

"Can't I? You know, I'm trying very hard to respect your wishes and stay out of your head, but I must say you're making it a challenge. I really have no idea what the bloody hell you think you're doing right now."

Erik has never heard Xavier curse before. It's not half as surprising as the idea that Xavier might actually be attempting to restrict his telepathy because Erik asked him to; the man doesn't even condescend to call Erik by his name, after all.

"I did not think telepathy was required to understand the desire for autonomy," Erik says at last, somewhat belatedly.

"It's for your own safety! You can hardly deny that the measure is justified after what happened to you today –"

"How peculiar." Erik's voice has dropped to velvet; the burn of anger in his gut is a peculiar kind of relief. "The only people locked up for their own safety are clones. Do you not find that odd?"

"It's not odd, it's necessary! The others are helpless, what do you think would happen if we didn't protect them? And you – you could have been killed. You could have been abducted –"

"Don't you mean 'stolen'?"

After another tense moment, Xavier seems to deflate. Most of the anger leeches out of him on a single, explosively exhaled breath, leaving behind only frustration. "Do you really feel that you have to run away from me?"

The accusation stings, and Erik straightens involuntarily, hands tightening around his mug. "If I'd wanted to run away, I wouldn't be sitting here right now. I was proving a point." And he'd had to get out of the facility, if only for a few hours. He'd had to breathe for once… to be only himself.

Wry amusement flashes over Xavier's face, at odds with his tense stance. He shakes his head before turning almost aimlessly to deposit his tea on his desk.

After a moment of staring down at the mess of papers scattered over his workspace, he turns back, slumping against the desk to give Erik a small, almost rueful smile. "I shouldn't have left."

Erik doesn't know what to say to that, so he takes a sip of tea instead.

"Even then, I realized that I shouldn't have left. It was only… it's very difficult to watch you struggling like this, Max. I know that it's only a matter of time before –"

Before the memories settle. Of course he is harping on this again; of course he is. Only a matter of time before Erik is finally replaced by Max, to the relief of everyone.

"Careful what you wish for," Erik snaps. "You have no idea what you're asking."

This gives Xavier pause. The tiny smile disappears from his lips, and he furrows his brow at Erik like a man twice his age. "What do you mean?"

It's too much, all of a sudden. He comes to his feet so quickly the tea spills over his hands; he doesn't even feel the burn. "You're so damn naïve. Dr. Charles Francis Xavier in his ivory tower of science, expecting to better the world by creating a race of slaves without rights, without –"

"How dare you." Xavier hadn't truly been angry before; not the way he is now. He pushes away from the desk and stalks forward a step, one forefinger extended in a warning gesture that should look absurd, but somehow doesn't. "You know very well that is not what I intend."

"What you intend doesn't matter." Xavier's anger burns inside Erik's gut like pure energy. Matching it with his own rage feels like liberation. "Open your eyes, Xavier. You're creating the means to generate an endless supply of affordable, disposable and entirely dependent people without rights, to be used in whatever ways their owners choose. What do you think is going to happen?"

"It's up to me what happens! I control the technology. How dare you imply that I would ever allow –"

Erik barks out a mocking burst of laughter. "So you came up with the Immortality Project, did you?"

Xavier presses his lips together in a white line, too furious to speak.

"And you're going to ensure that every single clone is treated well, I assume. You personally are going to be right on hand at all times, everywhere around the globe. You're going to have to make tens of thousands of Xaviers just for that."

"Stop," Xavier grits out tightly.

Erik doesn't even know how he got started. He wasn't going to discuss this with Xavier – he's always known what the man's views on the matter were, after all. But now that he's begun, he can't stop. "Nice try, making the technology dependent on a strong telepath. But I have news for you, Xavier. There are other telepaths in the world. More than that, there are engineers who will find ways to make the XIM viable for non-telepathic operators. Hell, I could do it. Think I couldn't?"

"Stop, damn it!"

This is a day of firsts. Erik has never heard Xavier shouting before, either.

He's said enough, anyway. Xavier isn't stupid; he doesn't need to be educated about the possible misuses of his technology. If he refuses to acknowledge them, then it's because he is deliberately closing his eyes. If he pulled his head out of the sand, he'd have to acknowledge that his life's work is better off not being done.

Instead of saying anything more, Erik takes another swallow of tea. He doesn't taste this one, either. Xavier is talking again, but Erik can't focus on him right now.

Every word Erik said was true, of course. But whose opinions has he been hurling at Xavier? Were they really Erik's own convictions, or…

No. No, he can't think like that. If he starts doubting himself to that degree, he will lose all certainty, and quite possibly go mad. And there's no reason to doubt this – not this, of all things. There is no doubt whatsoever in Erik's mind that clones will always be misused; that there is no way for the XIM technology not to become a sickening travesty of what Xavier might have intended.

As for what Eisenhardt intended… Erik can't even venture a guess. "What did Eisenhardt have to say about this?"

Xavier falls silent, blinking at Erik curiously. He's much closer than before, no more than an arm's length away; his expression is earnest and serious, but the anger has left him again. He seems incapable of holding on to that particular emotion for more than several minutes at a time. Now, he just seems confused, irritated, and – strangely – sad.

"You talk about Max as though you were a different person," Xavier starts, but then shakes his head with a sigh. "No, never mind. I'm sorry I said that. I don't want to get into another argument."

Erik snorts, and puts the mug down on a side table. He doesn't enjoy the taste of this tea much.

"You always had concerns about the possible misuse of the technology," Xavier says after a moment. "Not like now, but – I suppose the change is understandable. We have talked about this issue before, though, right when we began working together. We were very careful. Nobody else is going to get their hands on our technology, we made entirely certain of that. You know how secure this facility is, and no substantial information whatsoever about the technology has been allowed off the premises. None."

Xavier really hasn't been listening, has he? As though HolyGhost itself isn't going to misuse clones. As though it isn't going to sell them to anyone who offers the right price, no matter what.

But Erik says nothing more.

"I was so worried," Xavier says, out of the blue. His voice is hardly more than a whisper; his gaze on Erik's is intense and searching. "You could have been hurt. You could have been killed. I couldn't have borne that. Please don't leave the facility without me anymore. Just let me know when you need to get away from all this for a while, okay? It doesn't matter when. I'll come with you."

Which would defeat the purpose entirely. Wouldn't it?

A butterfly-light touch to the side of Erik's face. And then suddenly Xavier is leaning in, sliding gentle fingers into his hair to turn his face up.

It's a very soft kiss, no more than the touch of lips against lips. Erik doesn't know why he allows it; doesn't know why he allows Xavier to pull him back in after the first brush of lips, doesn't know why he opens his mouth to the first touch of tongue…

"Erik," Charles whispers against Erik's lips.

When Erik opens his eyes, Charles looks even more startled than Erik feels.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

That night, Erik dreams of clones in growth chambers, and of his hand ghosting over controls, adjusting nutrient levels and calling up detailed information on their status. He dreams of curved aluglass as the horizon of his world, dim red light glowing behind it, everything fading in and out of his unfocussed sight. He dreams of opening his eyes to his own face, brow furrowed in intent concentration.

He dreams of a lab torn apart in a fury of heat, violence and noise forged into a single, unstoppable force of destruction.

He does not dream of blood.

He wakes to the sound of sirens.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

The main replication lab has been completely destroyed. The force of the explosion ripped straight through to the adjoining labs and the hall; bent panels and insulation, torn cables, twisted pipes and conduits and jagged edges of brick spill everywhere. Black scorch marks lick along the remains of walls and out into the corridor, painting the path of flame. The ceiling has buckled and torn open like paper. Steel girders reach into empty air, twisted and broken. Everything is covered in a thick layer of debris, plaster dust, and extinguishing foam.

Chemicals hang heavy in the air. The sour, acrid stench of smoke and ashes, the bitter harshness of burned plastic, the choking dryness of pulverized cement…

And underneath it all, a faint, nauseating trace of roasting flesh.

A small clutch of shell-shocked scientists in pajamas is gathered out of the way at the end of the hall. Erik looks at them carefully as he pushes through, memorizing their faces, their demeanor, their attire. Charles is not among them.

Security personnel is everywhere, securing the area with brisk efficiency. As Erik picks his way through the debris in the hall, he watches the captain in charge dispatch several of her people to shore up the sagging ceiling. Several others are evidently already checking for less obvious structural damage to the surrounding area.

At least someone knows what they're doing. To a degree, that is, or this never would have happened.

Erik can't see the growth vault. He dodges around a bulky man measuring the concentration of dangerous chemicals, but there's too much debris in what remains of the lab.

"Sir, I'm going to need you to go back to the end of the hall. It's not safe."

He stops, but doesn't retreat. His field of vision is blocked by the team setting an extendable steel pillar into place – he still can't see.

Charles arrives then, white-faced and grim, rigidly composed. His gaze flies over the people assembled until it lands on Erik, and then he gives a little gasp as though someone has kicked him in the stomach.

Oh god thank you you're alive you're alive! I thought you were dead not again not again

Erik flinches a bit from the force of the emotions slamming into his mind, and they retreat immediately, evening out into a thrum of wild relief.

Nobody challenges Charles when he pushes past the other scientists to join Erik just outside of where the lab's door used to be. He's in a threadbare plaid dressing gown, dark blue satin pajamas and slippers. By rights, he should look ridiculous, but he doesn't. Not in the least.

Charles stands so close he's practically leaning against Erik, and Erik can't find it in himself to protest.

They don't talk. There's nothing to say.

It takes several more minutes until the ceiling-stabilizing team moves to the other end of the room, and Erik can finally confirm what he knew all along. The vault was the epicenter of whatever this was.

Charles makes a low, wounded sound. "Max –"

Erik, echoes a murmur inside his head, twining comfortingly around the edges of his thoughts. Erik isn't sure if it's intentional.

"Fine scan confirms preliminary results," a lieutenant with a bioscanner calls. "We're clear."

The captain nods tersely and turns to address Xavier. "The security system didn't register anyone within the affected area at the time of the explosion."

"Thank god," breathes a man Erik can't put a name to. "At least there are no casualties."

Erik doesn't remember moving, but suddenly he's back at the end of the hall with his fist in the man's face. He catches him underneath the chin with enough force to all but lift him off his feet.

A shocked ripple races through the people gathered in the vicinity, gasps and scandalized sounds rising all around. A DNA specialist rushes forward to help the stricken man up off the ground.

"What the hell was that!" He's sputtering and wincing, reaching gingerly for his jaw and glaring at Erik. "Are you insane? Dr. Xavier, how are you even letting him –"

"Be quiet," Charles snaps.

The man's mouth closes with an audible snap. It doesn't look like a voluntary motion.

"There were four half-matured clones in the growth vault, Sidney," Charles goes on, tight and controlled. "Four casualties. I'm certain you forgot about them. Didn't you."

Sidney backs down immediately and completely, all but grovelling before Charles to assure him that of course he had not meant to imply anything unfortunate, he had merely not been thinking, what a horrible loss, and so on. He shoots little nervous glances to Erik as he speaks, but never addresses him directly. It's obvious he doesn't mean a single word, and Charles' eyes are clear and cold on him all through his little speech.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

"I believe it's safe to assume the accident that killed Eisenhardt was no accident."

"It hardly seems likely, at this point," Charles agrees. He's still pale and still clad in the ridiculous dressing gown, but now that the first shock has passed, his grimly controlled panic has morphed into resolve.

They've retreated to Charles' private rooms, where – Erik is unsurprised to find – Charles keeps a selection of expensive whisky. The crystal decanters do startle Erik a little, but when he watches the matter-of-fact way Charles handles them, he realizes they fit. Every bit as well as the satin pajamas.

"You do harp on the satin pajamas," Charles says as he hands Erik his glass. The corners of his eyes crinkle slightly in amusement. "They're very comfortable, you know. And I think they suit me. Don't you?"

Erik isn't certain why Charles decided he was free to begin reading his mind again. He's even less certain why he's allowing it without protest. He knows that he should tell Charles once again to get out and stay out, for so many reasons.

But when he thinks of Charles' mouth soft on his, the look in Charles' eyes when he caught sight of Erik in the midst of the rubble and chaos… that first frantic mental grab, somewhat equivalent to a bone-crushing hug, and the following gentle brush of his mind against Erik's, radiating comfort, relief and welcome.

Erik can't afford to trust Charles, can't let himself start to believe they're on the same side. It's tempting, though. It's ridiculous how steadying that brush of Charles' mind against his felt. Like Erik wasn't alone. Like Erik didn't have to do this by himself.

"I only get what you want me to see, now," Charles says conversationally, swirling the amber liquid in his glass. He sounds casual; his gaze, over the rim of his glass, is anything but. "Surface thoughts, mostly. Leading emotions. You're remembering more, aren't you?"

Erik doesn't answer. He wouldn't know where to start.

"The explosion that killed Eisenhardt," he says instead. "Was there nothing suspicious about it? Why did you conclude it was an accident rather than sabotage or murder?"

Charles' gaze turns introspective as he takes a drink. Erik catches himself regretting the partial loss of his attention with an almost physical pang. "I always had trouble believing that you could have been careless enough to cause the explosion. You simply would not make such a mistake. However, we couldn't find evidence of tampering. The facility is ridiculously secure, and everyone who works here is extensively screened. Access to the various areas is highly restricted – in fact, the engineering lab that the incident occurred in was only accessible to a single person, and that was Max. You. No-one else had access, not even me. I have no idea how anyone could have infiltrated the building. We even have multi-frequency teleportation shields."

"Teleportation is hardly the only metahuman threat. What about the ability to phase through solid objects? To remotely accelerate or alter matter? To –"

"I get the point," Charles interrupts, somewhat irritably. "We were overconfident. We paid dearly for it, and I assure you we will not be making the same mistake again. But you were part of the project from the beginning, you know. You might have suggested additional safety measures, too."

Perhaps Eisenhardt had his own reasons for not wanting to close the gaps in security. Erik tries to keep the thought close, hedged about by mental walls; he doesn't want to be right about this.

"Who would benefit from destroying labs and killing Eisenhardt?"

Charles shakes his head. "Lambent. Any number of other competitors. Scientific rivals. The Clone Alliance. Crackpot anti-telepathy vigilantes –"

"It's not the Clone Alliance."

Charles give him a sceptical look. "It could be. What better way to stop cloning than to destroy revolutionary new cloning technology?"

"There were four clone casualties." The Clone Alliance would not target clones.

Charles shrugs, unconvinced. "Well, it's all speculation at this point. Security is still gathering evidence, so it will be several hours before we have the preliminary findings. By mid-morning tomorrow – or rather today – Maria will also have the DNA results for your attackers, including holos of the right age range. Corporate Intelligence is in on this, too. The XIM has absolute priority for HolyGhost. Once we have all the relevant information, we can move forward, but right now, I'd say the most productive thing we can do is get some sleep."

Erik snorts. Yes, that's likely to happen. Even assuming he could fall asleep, he doesn't even want to think about the nightmares he would have. And nightmares are the best-case scenario here, considering they're only dreams.

Charles tosses back his remaining whisky in a single, inelegant gulp, reaching out to pour himself some more practically in the same motion.

Getting drunk. That sounds like a much better plan.

Drink up, then. Charles tops up Erik's glass as well. Plenty more where this came from.

They drink up; Charles doesn't even cap the decanter before filling up their glasses again. They take more time over the next round, though.

"I never thought it would take so long for the template to settle." When Erik looks over to him, he finds Charles watching him with a tiny, melancholy smile playing around the corners of his mouth. "This is getting very confusing, isn't it?"

So the dichotomy between Eisenhardt and Erik is finally beginning to get to Charles, too? Erik guesses it's inevitable.

"How close were you and Eisenhardt, exactly?" He's been meaning to broach the subject, and there isn't going to be a better opportunity than this. It's clear to Erik that Charles never really knew Eisenhardt – that Eisenhardt was playing his own game all along.

Charles raises his eyebrows, and then smiles. "We were friends as well as colleagues, but no. We were not closer than that. That… is a recent development."

Oh, right. That.

Not actually what Erik was asking, but he realizes that yes, it was also something he'd wanted to know.

"Not that you weren't always a very attractive man," Charles goes on softly. "I merely didn't think of you in those terms. You were very dignified, full of natural authority – a mentor, almost. A paternal friend, in some ways. And I'm sure I was far too young and green for you."

"So I am not dignified and full of natural authority, am I?" Why had he said that? That sounds almost teasing. Almost like…

When Charles laughs, the worry and exhaustion temporarily smooth from his features. Erik finds that he is glad to see it gone, glad to see a glimpse of a carefree, happy Charles.

"You will be, one day. But now… now you are more wild, more intense. An irresistible force of nature."

Charles' smile changes into something else, and Erik has to tear his gaze away.

This is not a good idea. Erik doesn't know what's happening, doesn't know who or what Eisenhardt was – doesn't know who he himself is. And Charles is another cypher. Really, what does Erik know about him? Things are complicated enough without adding more entanglements into the mix.

"Erik."

The name shoots through Erik like lightning, straightening his spine and causing his heart to skip a beat. Erik's eyes fly to Charles' face. Charles is leaning forward in his chair, looking at Erik – looking at Erik, truly looking at him as though Erik is the one he's seeing, the only one. The only one he wants to see.

Charles' eyes are very blue. Have they really always been quite so blue?

"I realize that this is something of an about-face on my part. But I find that – oh, bollocks. May I call you Erik? It's… growing increasingly difficult for me to ignore the differences between you. The two of you. Which makes perfect sense, of course, considering that experiences shape character, and in the absence of the entirety of Max's memories, the person you are is quite a different person, and one who is growing more uniquely himself with every minute –"

He's babbling, Erik realizes with a burst of sheer astonishment. Charles is babbling because he is nervous.

"Oh god, yes, I am babbling, I know, I always do in these situations." Is Charles actually blushing? Surely not. But it looks like he is, just as it looks like his smile is caught in a very strange place halfway between rueful and buoyant. "It hasn't been quite this bad in a long time, though. Maybe never."

What situations – the situations where he's deciding what to call the clone of someone he used to be friends with?

"When I'm trying to flirt with someone amazing," Charles says. You're even worse at this than I am, aren't you. That is oddly adorable.

Erik finds himself at a loss for words.

"You are amazing, you know." Charles puts down his glass and leans forward even more, until he's almost halfway over the small table between their chairs. "You know that, surely? This is a horribly stressful situation, and you're adapting so quickly to everything that's coming your way. I can – it's only now that I truly see what an incredible person you are. Brilliant, and strong, and…"

Handsome, whispers the voice in his mind, wound about with shyness and boldness in equal measure. Desirable.

"My timing is not all it could be." Charles' smile has graduated into being charmingly self-deprecating and yet, somehow, perfectly confident. "In fact, it is dismal. But even so, Erik. Unless you tell me right now that you do not want our acquaintance to pass beyond what I had with Max, I intend to pursue this. I intend to pursue you. I have never met anyone like you before, and I am not such a fool as to let such an extraordinary man slip through my fingers."

Erik blinks, and doesn't know a single thing to say. He wants to look down, away from the intensity in Charles' gaze, but he doesn't want to miss a moment of it. Because Charles looks as though he actually means it, as though –

I do mean it. Let me show you…

Their second kiss is as tentative and gentle as the first. Erik allows Charles to pull him forward into it, lips clinging slightly. Charles is just as gentle in Erik's mind, a brush of warmth and affection and slow, comfortable heat.

Charles' hair is soft beneath his fingertips; the sound Charles makes in the back of his throat when Erik takes control of the kiss is half gasp and half laugh, and wholly captivating.

Maybe Erik shouldn't be doing this, but it's impossibly hard to remember why at this moment, when Charles is tugging him up out of his chair, eager hands sliding down his back to pull him closer.

And, really, Charles shouldn't be doing this either. He doesn't seem worried, but…

You shouldn't trust me, he thinks. Don't trust me, Charles.

If Charles hears him, he gives no sign.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Charles sleeps deeply and inelegantly, mouth open, one cheek smushed out of shape against the pillow. He's sprawled in a messy spill of limbs and blanket, all pale indoor skin and wild hair, and he wheezes on every second exhalation as though considering breaking into a full snore at any moment.

Even when Erik smoothes a careful hand over one freckled shoulder, Charles doesn't stir. He looks peaceful. He also looks like he's going to have a serious crick in his neck unless he shifts to a more comfortable position, so Erik pushes at his shoulder with more emphasis until he grumbles and rolls over, flopping into a new, but equally disorderly sprawl.

There's always something so driven and intense about him when he's awake. Erik's never seen him this relaxed. He's even a little envious; he knows he himself isn't going to be able to sleep. His head is too full of fragmented memories that won't fit into any recognizable pattern… too full of questions.

And right now, lying in Charles' bed beneath Charles' possessively outflung arm, with Charles snuffling contentedly into the mattress, blissfully lost to post-coital oblivion – right now, all of the other questions are eclipsed by a new one.

What the hell does Erik think he's doing? No matter how lost he sounds when he groans into Erik's mouth, no matter that Erik has no doubt his desire and affection are genuine, Charles is still a geneticist developing a revolutionary cloning technique that will change the face of the world, though not the way Charles claims it will. And Erik… Erik is still his prototype.

It's not just Charles he can't trust, either. Erik can't trust himself – can't trust Eisenhardt, who was clearly playing a game entirely his own.

Suddenly, he can't stand to be lying still any longer. He extricates himself gently from Charles and gets up, careful not to jostle the bed.

Why would a scientist know how to fight like a soldier or a killer? Why would someone who had once been able to melt steel and shatter iron pretend to be a minor telekinetic? What had Eisenhardt really been doing at Genosha?

Why did he volunteer to be the XIM's first test subject? He'd wanted to achieve something by creating Erik. But what?

So many of the sharp-edged fragments Erik remembers are contradictory. How can he know with any degree of certainty what is a memory and what is only a nightmare? Nothing about the flat, unresponsive world around him seems real, anyway.

But Eisenhardt once killed someone, Erik is sure of that much. Eisenhardt destroyed a lab and killed someone, and whatever his true reason for collaborating with Charles might have been, Erik is certain that it was not the wish to develop a solution for the memory problem inherent in LCT cloning.

So many people might be responsible for the deaths of this night. Competitors. Rivals. Terrorists... or Eisenhardt.

Erik doesn't want to think it, doesn't want it to be true. But even though Eisenhardt himself is dead, part of him is still around, free to roam the facility with all of Eisenhardt's unrevoked access codes at his fingertips.

It's a ridiculous thought, of course. Erik couldn't have done this without alerting someone. It's absurd to theorize that he's been rigging up clandestine explosive charges in his sleep. He hardly even sleeps enough to have the time for such a thing. And if Eisenhardt had planted a subversive suggestion of some kind in Erik's subconscious, surely Charles would have noticed. Erik himself would have been bound to notice too, wouldn't he? But there are no gaps in his memory except for the one that is almost everything, filled in with contextless knowledge and flimsy bits of random detail. The scent of blooming flowers, the challenge of devising a reliable system for growth acceleration, the feeling of the cool, salty ocean breeze on his face…

He remembers everything that happened after his awakening, he's certain of it. Just like he remembers blood on his hands, violence in his heart; just like he remembers the hate and anger and determination, the fire raging all around him, destruction dogging his steps like an obedient dog.

Charles' living room is in even greater disarray than it was earlier, with the decanter and glasses still standing on the sofa table and various items of clothing strewn around the room. Bookcases line every wall, just like in Eisenhardt's office. Books of poetry and novels with garishly colored covers are scattered seemingly at random in between science magazine yearbooks and tomes on the history, ethics and technology of cloning, on telepathy and other psionic mutations, genetics, the metahuman mutation…

Erik picks out an anthology of poetry at random, but can't concentrate on the elegantly turned phrases. The subjects seem laughably generic – life, love and death, distilled into a handful of printed words, nothing more than ink on paper.

Eisenhardt rigged up a magnetic field generator in order to make Charles believe he was a class R9 telekinetic. For what reason, and why had the generator been necessary? Erik has memories of tearing through walls with only a thought; remembers lifting a bar of aluglass, flattening it into a sheet, and shaping it around a mold to make a casing for an experimental sensor array.

There are many ways people can lose control of their metahuman ability, of course. Psychological trauma, brain damage, a different disorder, overstraining, age… the list goes on. But none of these things would have given Eisenhardt reason to deceive Charles. If he'd been ashamed – if he'd felt like he'd lost something essential, hadn't wanted to talk or even think about the loss – then why mention his ability at all?

Clones never manifest metahuman abilities. It's one of the two major, glaring flaws of the LCT technology that he's always wanted to correct –

No. That hadn't been Erik. It's one of the two flaws of the LCT technology that Eisenhardt always wanted to correct. Was that why he'd teamed up with Charles, after all, to find a solution for the memory problem, if not the metahuman ability one?

Erik's head aches. It's been aching for a while, although he's only noticed it now.

Two flaws, two flaws every scientist interested in cloning has wanted to correct ever since the technology was first developed. Flaws that have kept the technology from ever truly becoming commercially viable.

XIM isn't the only possible solution to preserve or transfer memory. LCT was working on a different solution, too. But – nobody knows what LCT was working on, in the end. Do they?

Blood. Blood on steel. Rage, triumph, everything going down in flames around him. Fierce, grim determination set on the face of a white-haired man who looks like –

Authorisierung drei neun acht acht zwei null sechs

Everything is shifting in Erik's mind, but he still can't remember, and god, he's pretty sure he doesn't want to. Even the vague, unsubstantiated theories are cold and heavy in his chest, weighing him down like stones. But there's no choice, he has to know. Knowledge is always better than ignorance. Always.

Before he knows what he's doing he's scrabbling frantically through Charles' bookshelves. There must be relevant information somewhere – yes, there, A Concise History of Cloning, and –

His hands are clumsy with haste. He fumbles the book and almost tosses it halfway across the room instead of simply taking it off the shelf. He forces himself to concentrate, to breathe; takes hold of the book deliberately, tugs it out from in between the oversized tome Telepathy in Modern Neuroscience and a creased paperback bearing the lurid title Dust Shall Eat the Days. There's no reason to panic.

Erik almost succeeds in believing this until he opens the index page. The first chapter title that jumps out at him is The Pioneer: Erik Lehnsherr and the Lehnsherr Cloning Technology.

The book does drop from his fingers then. The room is spinning; he steadies himself against the shelf, leaning heavily enough to make the fastenings in the wall creak.

Even the fact you think you're called Erik proves that you're Max, the memory of Charles' voice echoes in his head. You're mixing things up because your memories haven't settled yet.

Or maybe he's mixing things up because there are too many memories in his head. Maybe that's why they're not settling the way Charles thought they would. There are too many. There are two sets –

There has to be a picture of the father of cloning. There must be. Erik sweeps half a shelf of books to the floor in his haste to snatch up the History of Cloning again, but he hardly notices, already leafing through the volume so wildly he can hear paper tearing.

Nothing. Nothing. Only a picture of the LCT complex gutted by explosions and fire, not a single building left untouched by the inexplicable, catastrophic accident that destroyed every bit of research and equipment on LCT grounds and claimed the life of Erik Lehnsherr himself.

The next book Erik finds has no pictures at all, only diagrams of the first growth chambers – schematics and blueprints that are more familiar to Erik than the sight of his own face. The next one doesn't have even that, and A Dictionary of Cloning only has a satellite picture of the LCT facility before it was destroyed. Why a satellite picture? There's hardly anything to see from this angle and distance. How can there not be better pictures than this? No matter how reclusive and paranoid Lehnsherr was, there should still be pictures of the compound, at least – not even Genosha's security is that good.

Except that maybe no aircraft could approach LCT headquarters. No ground vehicles. No cameras carried by people on foot…

Erik digs the first book back out from underneath a heap of discarded other tomes. There's no mention of Lehnsherr having a metahuman mutation. But then, that doesn't mean anything. There's no mention of anything about him at all save that he was considered a genius; that nobody has been able to find fault with or improve on the basic principles of his technology to this day.

Nothing in the next book, either. Nothing.

"Erik. What's wrong?"

There must be something. Lehnsherr must have had contact with other people sometimes – scientists, investors, customers. He must have had employees. Partners.

Prototypes.

For god's sake, he'd been a child once. Hadn't he? His parents would have taken pictures of him, at the very least. How can there be no pictures at all? Hadn't anyone thought later generations would be interested in seeing the face of the man who started all this – the man who had decided it was a good idea to give humans the power to create life in a new way, when the species has never before shown the slightest signs of responsibility or conscience when subjugating and exploiting anyone they –

"Erik!" When he turns to hunt for a better book, Charles is in his way, all earnest gaze and ugly plaid dressing gown. "You're worrying me. Tell me what's wrong, you're all muddled and I can't –"

"Why can't I find – there must be a picture of Lehnsherr somewhere. There must be!"

Charles blinks. For a moment, he doesn't react, brow wrinkled in confusion; then, he blinks again, frowns, and turns to survey his library with a thoughtful air.

A moment later, they're both pulling books from the shelves.

"He was something of a hermit, if I remember correctly," Charles says as he leafs through a thick paperback. "Shunned publicity – never appeared in public, never gave interviews, never even published. All he did was stay home and invent incredible new technology. But I know I've seen one or two pictures. Let's see, where could it be?"

It's in the second book Charles checks – a slim biography. The black-and-white picture shows a white-haired older man in a long coat and hat standing on a promenade, looking out over water. The coat's lapels are up, and the man is looking away from the camera with the light behind him. The only actually visible features are the line of his chin, a slice of cheekbone and the corner of his eye.

"It's a rather aristocratic-looking cheekbone," Charles says in an absurdly conciliatory tone.

It's impossible to tell with any degree of certainty. Not from this picture, aristocratic cheekbone or not. It could be, Erik supposes, but – no. He has to be certain.

"Do you have a picture of Eisenhardt?" Perhaps the resemblance will be clearer in someone closer to the age Lehnsherr was when this picture was taken.

Charles doesn't reply. When Erik glances over, he's frowning, eyes narrowed sceptically. "Erik. Please tell me what is going on. I can't tell, and it's making me –"

Erik tears the book from Charles' grip and bolts into the bathroom. In the mirror, his face is maniacal, eyes fever-bright and far too intense. He looks insane. He'd think this was a man to be afraid of if he met him somewhere on the street.

He does think this is a man to be afraid of.

The line of his chin, if he turns away from the mirror as far as he can without losing sight of his reflection. The corner of his eye. The stark shape of his cheekbone.

It's not enough to go on. There is a resemblance, but it's far from compelling proof – it could be mere coincidence. It doesn't help that Erik's skin is still completely unwrinkled, not even crow's feet relieving the unnatural smoothness.

He can't be sure, but it's the only thing that makes sense. The only thing.

If it is true. Assuming it is. What does it mean? What does it mean for Eisenhardt, for his reasons for doing the things he did; what does it mean for Erik, for the reasons governing his existence, for the purpose he is meant to serve –

A sudden hand on his arm makes him jerk convulsively, rips an inarticulate sound from his throat.

Charles. So gentle and worried, eyes wide with trepidation. He looks different now, irrevocably changed from what he was before Erik touched every inch of him, before Erik attempted to hold him close with his mind as well as his body, welcoming Charles as he pushed in, unravelling Erik with pleasure.

There's no way to tell if the change is in Charles or in Erik. Erik suspects the latter, but he can't be sure.

He can't be sure of anything. Nothing fits. Nothing makes sense. Even now, the entire world is still flimsy and dead and unreal, like a grey dream that Erik can't wake from, no matter how hard he tries.

It's getting worse instead of better. He will never get used to this; he feels like a phantom adrift in a world of shadows, broken shards of memories that aren't his own the only thing of color or substance.

"Oh, Erik." Charles' hand slides down his arm like a caress, slipping around his own and tightening sympathetically. "I'm so sorry. That's truly awful – I can only feel the edges of it, and even that much… I had no idea it was that bad. No wonder."

No wonder what?

"Come on." Charles tugs at his hand. "Put on some clothes. There may be something I can do."

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

"It's something Max said to me, once." Charles pulls him inside the lab and flips the light switch, evidently unwilling to interrupt what he's saying in order to give a vocal command. "He said that theoretically, if his rapid aging hypothesis is correct and metahuman mutations cannot manifest in clones because of the lack of dedicated neural networks – if this is indeed the impediment, it should be possible to stimulate the adult brain into forming the required connections."

Replication Lab Three is an auxiliary lab in the facility's basement level. The neurotechnical interface hanging in the corner is bulkier than the one in the main replication lab had been; an earlier version, not yet as streamlined and whittled down, but fully functional all the same. The rest of the equipment is much the same as it had been in Lab One. There's a clone vault, too.

Charles is happily prattling on while he goes around the lab, activating equipment and checking displays. "Essentially, it all comes down to synaptic plasticity. Memories, cognition, learned skills – it's all complex dynamic patterns of activation among neural networks. The patterns form and change in many different ways, and what happens to synapses in a developing brain is different to what happens in an adult brain. But the same things can still happen."

Erik stops listening the instant he discovers that the clone vault is in use.

"They merely have to be motivated differently, and – Erik?"

The vault is not locked. Inside, there are six growth chambers. All of them are cycling through the extended test process.

"Ah, yes." Charles comes up behind him, an easy, casual smile in his voice. "I'm going to need your help – all of the equipment here needs a complete check-up. These chambers haven't been used in a while, and we can't afford to have anything at all go wrong after the first set of clones was killed in the attack. They're for the Immortality Project, so there's a lot of… well. You know. Pressure."

Oh yes. Yes, Erik does know. He remembers the slick smiles and empty eyes of the guests at HolyGhost's event; remembers being shown off for the benefit of hollow people intending to buy an extension of their petty existence.

So that's who those clones would have been. Perfect copies of insignificant, base creatures who think they are above morality, merely because they are rich.

Charles makes a disapproving sound. Evidently, some of Erik's contempt got through to him. "Now, now, Erik, that's a bit harsh. They may be flawed in some ways, but so is everyone. They're afraid, that's all. All they want is –"

"I don't care." It comes out icy with anger, and Erik doesn't attempt to temper the glare he throws Charles. When he turns to stride back into the main lab, he's breathing so rapidly that he's light-headed and dizzy from the excess of oxygen.

Charles follows him out of the vault, but Erik doesn't look at him. Right now he doesn't know how to look at him without breaking something.

It's never going to stop. Even Charles – even Charles. There will always be a way to justify this. Erik has grown to believe that there is truly no malice in Charles, that he would never intentionally do anyone harm. But even Charles can justify this to himself. It doesn't take much; any excuse will do, something that will allow him to look the other way, not think about what it is he's doing, what kind of horrors he's unleashing on the world.

To him, it's just science, a fascinating puzzle, a challenge. The intoxicating joy of discovery. The wishes of the corporation that provides his funding – wishes he accedes to because he's contractually obligated, and because it's only reasonable. Of course a company wants to sell a competitive product. That's what companies do. It's only natural, isn't it?

Just like the people who do this are only human, merely flawed in some ways. All they want is something to counter their fear of death, to improve their profit margin, to decrease their costs so they can buy another villa, another young lover, another slice of ease, power and comfort. That's not so bad, is it? It's understandable.

No need to think about what these luxuries mean for other living beings. Not when it's so easy to look away... so natural and understandable.

Erik can feel his lips drawing away from his teeth in something almost like a snarl.

Charles is talking again. "Anyway, we can talk about that later, when you're feeling more yourself. And for that end, I want to unlock your mutation."

That catches Erik's attention like nothing else could.

Charles grins at him, looking smug. "The telekinesis was probably merely a secondary mutation. My theory is that Max's primary mutation was an additional sense, perhaps one that allowed him to perceive the light spectrum in a more differentiated way than baseline humans do. Max never realized because he lacked a basis of comparison. And because you share Max's instincts and memories, but your mutation is dormant, everything seems dim, wrong and distorted to you."

An additional sense for the light spectrum? Somehow Erik sincerely doubts that.

"This hypothesis also explains why the imprint hasn't been able to settle," Charles goes on. "There's too much of a discrepancy in neurological formation. I really should have thought of that possibility before."

This is not a good idea. Erik knows that. He doesn't trust Eisenhardt, and he most certainly doesn't trust Lehnsherr – and worst of all, he can't trust Charles, even though he wants to.

And he does want to. In fact, he finds that his wish to trust Charles is almost overwhelming, gnawing at him with a deep, yearning ache that chills him to the bone.

How has he let this happen?

Charles gestures towards the curved aluglass awakening table. "I can use the interface to access your brain on the required level and stimulate it into creating the necessary neural networks to channel your mutation. In principle, the process is very similar to an imprint transfer – the main difference is that I won't be working with an existing pattern."  

It sounds insanely simple the way Charles puts it, particularly when Charles gives him that blatantly immodest little quirk of the mouth – not quite a smirk, but very close; arrogant in its complete confidence.

Erik may not be a neuroscientist, but he knows more than enough about the brain to be aware that this task is akin to creating a Fabergé egg with a sledgehammer, all the while wearing a blindfold. Charles could rip through his mind with no effort at all, either on purpose or by making the slightest mistake.

Don't trust him.

By now, it's clear that Erik is not a successful XIM copy of Eisenhardt, and likely never will be. He's a partial and severely qualified success at best, which makes him valuable as a research subject rather than a prototype. Going through his brain with a fine-toothed comb would be a good way of gathering data to discover what went wrong. Whether or not Erik survives is not necessarily relevant.

Don't trust anyone.

But Erik can't believe that is Charles' purpose. Perhaps that's foolish. No – he knows that it's foolish. Even so, it is what it is.

"Alright," he gets out at last. His mouth is dry. He can't look away from Charles' face as he lifts himself onto the table and lies back, aligning his head with the neural receptors.

This is a bad idea for other reasons, too. Because of Eisenhardt and his agenda, because –

Charles puts a hand on Erik's shoulder and bends down for a moment, brushing soft lips against Erik's. His eyes are even more blue from this close. "It's going to be alright. Trust me, Erik."

He does, god help him. He does.

The neurotechnical interface hums audibly as it powers up, which makes Erik frown. Sloppy engineering. He – no. Eisenhardt corrected the problem in the next version of the device, but even so, this is a fully functional interface and should have been constructed with attention to every detail. Even if –

The instant Charles lowers the interface over his head and closes his eyes, Erik finally understands.

Attention to every detail. The reason Charles can use the interface without an imprint is that Eisenhardt designed it to be more complex than it needs to be. The most expedient solution would have been to slave it directly to the imprint reader, saving the telepathic operator some work – and making the interface useless for anything but its nominal purpose of XIM imprint transfers.   

    Faking a demonstration of a metahuman ability he did not possess for Charles. Telling Charles that it was possible to unlock mutant abilities in clones; hinting that a telepath could do it. Volunteering for the first trial of the XIM technology. Joining forces with Charles in the first place – Charles, the brilliant telepath neuroscientist, who might succeed where nobody else could.

    This is what Eisenhardt wanted all along. Exactly this. Only this.

    Erik's thoughts dissolve into a scattering of diamond-colored sounds and everything around him melts away. Sensory impressions ghost through his mind, fleeting and insubstantial. Smoke, snow crunching underfoot, the fresh tart scent of lemons, strobing light, the taste of iron, a cool salty breeze. Charles. Charles is there. Almost too close to feel, but not quite. A presence like a song that's everywhere, but remains too quiet to hear, hovering just out of reach as a mere impression of melody and rhythm.

    He strains towards it, stretches with senses he doesn't have, and –

    Something formless and inestimably huge unfolds within him. It's not him; it doesn't belong, it's alien, unwelcome. It steals his breath, chokes him, stops his thoughts and

    sorts through him, sifting him, touching and breaching and permeating

    naked, torn open, violated, helpless and gasping, scrabbling frantically for anything to hold on to, anything. Shapeless and huge and it's in his mind, he can't it's everywhere he can't get away can't, it's seeping in and holding him down and –

    tearing, twisting ripping

    He wants to scream, wants to fight, wants it to stop, but he can't, and it doesn't.

    Time has no meaning. He has no concept of how long it takes. It goes on, and it goes on. It goes on until he forgets that there was ever anything else.

    It ends. Erik tears loose, struggles out from underneath the retreating force that's been holding him down, breaking him apart

    and finds the world irrevocably changed.

     

     

    ~~~~~~~~~~

     

     

    All this time he's been sleepwalking through dreams and shadows, trying desperately to connect with his surroundings and never succeeding. It's as though he's been fighting for every breath for so long that he's forgotten to notice the struggle, how draining the effort was, how thin and insufficient the air he managed to gulp down.

    Now… now, everything is different. Now, the world is vivid and alive, humming with vitality.

    He sits up on the table, lost in the incredible beauty of it. All around him, there is energy – an intricate pattern of hundreds and thousands of forces, countless individual strands woven into a symphony of matchless grace and power. Threaded everywhere throughout the thrumming harmony are clear, individual notes that call to him, pure and strong, singing in his blood and bones and mind. The bright, clear note of steel. The deeper, more resonant thrum of iron. The song of copper, of nickel, gold, zinc –

    "Erik?"

    The aluglass underneath his body calls to him, pulls and pushes at him in a hundred subtle ways, as does everything else in the room. His body itself hums, aligned with the forces around it, part of the living fabric of the world.

    "Erik!"

    A hand on his arm – Charles. Charles' hand; Charles' body, woven into the web of overlapping, interlaced forces like everything else. Erik can feel Charles now, feel his reality and his presence, a gentle press against his senses. If he opens himself further to the subtleties of Charles, he can discern the individual notes of his personal symphony. He finds that he can even put names to all of them, if he singles them out, concentrates on their unique, intricate structures. Calcium. Phosphorous. Magnesium, sodium, iron, copper, manganese…

    "It worked, I can tell, but – your mind is too full. I can't – are you okay? How are you feeling?"

    Erik opens his eyes to the sight of Charles' worried features.

    For the first time, he feels truly alive. For the first time, he feels real. The relief is incredible; something falling into place that Erik has been missing with every heartbeat, every breath and every nerve without even fully realizing it.

    "Thank you," he says. His voice is halting and rough, and he realizes – to his surprise – that his face is wet with tears. "I feel… complete."

    Emotions fly over Charles' face too quickly to interpret, settling at last into something entirely unexpected. He pulls back slightly, taking his hand off Erik's arm; when he speaks again, his voice is quiet. "Max?"

    Apprehension is not an expression that sits naturally on Charles' features. In fact, it looks so out of place that it takes Erik long moments to understand the question; he's distracted by the too-expressive eyes, by the fact that no hint of Charles' accustomed, arrogant self-certainty and casual charm remains.

    It's not that the possibility is far-fetched – not at all. It's merely that Erik never considered Charles would feel this way about it. About him.

    "No." He stops to clear his throat. His mouth is very dry, and he has no idea what's showing on his own face right now. He can't bring himself to care, either. "Erik."

    It's impossible to mistake the emotion that widens Charles' eyes for anything but what it is. An instant later, Charles' mouth crashes down on Erik's with too much force, far more of a collision than a kiss. Erik's lips smart, and Charles gives a muffled pained sound, but neither of them draws back.

    Erik isn't sure what name to give what they do on top of the convex aluglass awakening table. When their hands are frantically scrabbling at each other's clothes, tearing, yanking and pulling with no attempt at gentleness or restraint, it seems like lust; the avaricious noises they make into each other's mouths, the greed and hardness of their hands as they grasp each other and pull each other in, refusing to let go, seems like possession. But when Charles' gaze catches his, as electric as the first time Erik saw it, wide open and fierce with emotion; when Erik mouths broken, nonsensical syllables against Charles' shoulder as he seats himself in his body; when Charles gasps out Erik's name like a prayer, like salvation, and when Erik can't help but moan and shudder helplessly every time, as though in response to the most intimate, overpowering caress…

    Then, it feels like something else entirely.

     

     

    ~~~~~~~~~~

     

     

    A blaze of energy rushes outwards in a focussed burst, collapsing inwards again in the next second, folding in on itself like a flower closing in high-speed time lapse.

    What – where?

    It's like lightning seen from the corner of an eye: so searingly bright it's impossible to miss, but gone so quickly it's impossible to get a proper look. By the time Erik reaches out (without thinking, without even noticing what he's doing), the only remainder of whatever the flare was is a rapidly fading electromagnetic afterglow, somewhere on the other side of the facility.

    The floor gives a tiny shudder, a dull thud echoing through the walls. The wail of the sirens kicks in at exactly the same time.

    Charles starts up with a gasp, jolting the bed as he casts about wildly. His gaze is almost frantic when it falls on Erik, and for a moment, Erik isn't sure Charles is actually seeing him; then, Charles scrambles to him and clutches him so tightly he can hardly breathe. "Erik. Thank god. Thank god –"

    "Emergency, code two zero nine," declares a passionless female voice, speaking into the pauses between the wailing of the sirens. "All non-security personnel will immediately withdraw to the closest safety area."

    "I cannot bloody believe it," Charles says, every word edged with icy anger. "This can't be happening. I don't believe this, I just don't –"

    Notfall-Protokoll, shouts a dead man in Erik's memory. Erik is pretty sure that his own voice would sound like that, if he were somehow listening to himself shout from a distance. Authorisierung drei neun acht acht

    "– zero nine. I repeat –"

    Charles lets go of Erik in favor of getting out of bed and rushing around the room. At one point, he's struggling into his pants at the same time he's collecting a fresh shirt from the closet. The process involves hopping on one foot while clutching at a handful of shirt hangers for balance, and would look extremely comical if not for the look on Charles' face. "Erik, hurry, get up! We have to get you to – do you remember the emergency protocol? Please tell me you remember. Please."

    "I remember," Erik says. "Don't worry. I know what to do." He sounds even and measured, glacially calm. Not like the voice of the man Erik is pretty sure is Lehnsherr, who's still echoing Genosha's main computer in Erik's head.

    It's just before five o'clock in the morning. They haven't gotten so much as an hour of sleep. A good time to strike, Erik reflects as he slides out of his nest of blankets to collect his clothes. The only time, if you want to catch your opponent off-guard but have inadvertently shown your hand. A few hours from now, the results of the DNA analysis of Erik's attackers would have been available – as would the results of security's investigation into the night's lab explosion – and the element of surprise might well have been truly lost.

    Leaving behind evidence and then having to attack in a last-ditch effort to achieve your objective before your identity becomes known... Sloppy. Very sloppy.

    Erik shakes his head, only realizing his lips are curled in derision when Charles gives him a curious look.

    They run into Martinez and two other scientists in the corridor. All of them are pale-faced, bleary-eyed and just as tousled and hastily clad as Charles and Erik. The sirens are no louder out here than in Charles' rooms, but there's a distant scent of smoke to add to the general atmosphere of impending mayhem. Erik isn't entirely certain the smoke isn't a memory, though, and makes a mental note not to mention it.

    "Code two zero nine," the computer reminds them, impassive and unhurried. "Five minutes to lockdown."

    They're one more turn and a staircase away from the closest safety area when Charles stops abruptly. The hall he's looking down leads to the facility's front entrance – and now it's clear the scent of smoke was not merely in Erik's mind. It's stronger here, and Erik can hear distant, muffled thuds that don't bode well. If he stretches his senses, he should be able to feel –

    "Go on ahead," Charles says. His gaze on Erik's is very steady. "I'll be with you in a minute. I need to check in briefly with security to get the details on what's going on, but I'll join you in time for lockdown."

    That's a lie. Whatever Charles is planning, he has no intention of locking himself into a safety area. He's too confident that his telepathy will allow him to stop any attack, protect him from all harm. No, Charles is going to wade right into the middle of whatever battle is being fought here, and expect to come out on top.

    Erik holds Charles' gaze with his as he smiles and nods. "Alright. Be careful."

    Charles stares at him for half a second before leaning up to kiss him, quick and hard. Then, he turns and hurries off towards the sounds of fighting.

    All three of the others are looking at him when Erik turns. Martinez and the man whom Erik doesn't know by name quickly avert their eyes, but the woman – Dr. Larai? – frowns at him and then sends a dark glare after Charles. Erik wonders whether it's Charles' lapse of scientific ethics she disapproves of; starting a sexual relationship with an experimental prototype is not exactly high-principled, not to mention that it's bound to play havoc with objectivity.

    Or maybe it's simply that she doesn't trust Erik, and thinks Charles is being unconscionably reckless. If so, she's a smart woman.

    An instant later he has occasion to revise his opinion of Larai's intelligence: she grabs his wrist and begins dragging him down the hall like a recalcitrant child. "Come along, Dr. Eisenhardt. Don't worry, nothing's going to happen to you, we'll take good care of –"

    Erik twists out of her grasp with no effort at all. She gives him a rebuking frown and tries to grab him again, and when Erik turns to leave, the other two are in his way.

    He doesn't hurt them much, doesn't even break any bones. It's too easy. Genosha should have their employees take basic self-defence classes.

    Martinez shouts something after him, but he doesn't bother to listen. The sound of the sirens and the computer's calm, repetitious drone drown out anything further, and nobody tries to follow him. They have that much sense, at least.

     

     

    ~~~~~~~~~~

     

     

    The attack on the facility is like fireworks going off just behind the next hill, setting off bright flares and twists in the web of energy all around. The sounds of fighting grow louder as Erik runs towards Eisenhardt's rooms. Irregular, but continuous thuds, occasional voices barking terse commands – whoever the attacker is, they seem to be going all out.

    But Erik can't afford to be caught up in whatever battle Genosha's security is fighting. He has more pressing things to do. Things that must be done, that should have been done decades ago; lifetimes ago. He isn't going to let anyone stop him. Not Charles, and definitely not whoever this is.

    Erik doesn't remember more than before, but now, he knows what Eisenhardt was doing, and is almost certain he understands why. And if he's right…

    Even now, with metal calling to him and the low, omnipresent song of the earth itself humming in his bones; even when the facility is under attack, sirens howling through its halls. Even now, Eisenhardt's past presence still infuses his rooms in a way that makes Erik's hackles rise.

    It doesn't matter anymore, however. Erik isn't going to let it matter. He's different now. He has changed fundamentally and irrevocably, and because of it, so has the world.

    Take the metal door in Eisenhardt's rooms that Erik has never been able to open. Before, it was a flat mockery of reality, inert and unreal. Now… now, it is a thing of intricate beauty, matter and energy woven over and through each other in complex harmony.

    Erik brushes a hand over it, fingertips thrilling to the touch of steel and potential. It feels right.

    Once he figures out how to reach for the metal and sink his senses into it, it's easy to forget about the blaring alarms.

    No key or combination could have opened this door. The locking mechanism is warped into a misshapen lump of metal, half-molten by a charge set into the door itself. Erik finds the remains of it, traces the precise angle of the blast that fused the door permanently closed, leaving its steel outer shell untouched.

    It's impossible to see this as anything other than an invitation – an invitation extended to one person only. Oh yes, Erik knows exactly what Eisenhardt was doing.

    Four steel bars run horizontally though the door, set into the wall on either side. Erik concentrates on them, learns them until he knows every detail of their shape, the precise flavor of their alloy; sinks beyond the level of iron and carbon, manganese and chromium, down to an intricate lattice vivid with energy.

    He has no words for what he does next. The closest approximation would perhaps be that he sees the patterns that are and imagines the patterns that should be, holds both firmly in his mind, and then reaches out and pushes, shifting everything into place. The bright song of steel is unchanged, although he knows he could change this, too, if he wanted.

    The temptation is there, but… he has things to do. Later, he will follow this everywhere it leads; later, he will discover all the ways he can sing to metal, and metal can sing back to him.

    It's an effort to draw back. He's closed his eyes at some point, and he needs a moment to come back to himself sufficiently to open them again. It takes another moment before he can sort through the visual information flooding in and make sense of what he sees.

    The door has folded itself open, flowing along the walls on either side of the frame like mercury. Erik's hands are sunk in steel up to the wrists.

    He'd meant to pull the steel bars back so the door could open, not melt bars and door and half the frame into the bargain. Perhaps he should worry about his lack of control, but he can't – not now. His heart is too light, filled to bursting. He has never felt happier or more alive; has never felt this truly himself.

    Erik is careful to keep his eyes open as he rearranges the metal around his hands until he can pull them free. The steel responds readily, almost eagerly, as though it's been waiting as much as Erik has.

    The room behind the door is an office, just as Erik suspected. There's hardly anything in it, though – no computer, no chair, no books. Nothing at all except a table holding a large folder and a cardboard box.

    The folder holds blueprints of the Genosha facility, every level of every building laid out in detail. Security systems are traced in red; labs and other research sites are black. The clone compound, growth vaults and genesis labs are marked in green.

    Beneath the sheaf of blueprints is a list of the physical locations of every computer core in the facility, as well as the high-security data storage bunkers embedded in the bedrock deep beneath Genosha. Eisenhardt had been worried their research might fall into the wrong hands, Charles said. So, as a security measure, no information whatsoever about the XIM technology has been allowed off the premises.

    The irony of it is that Eisenhardt had been telling the truth. He just hadn't specified that any hands at all were the wrong hands in his eyes.

    There's one more page of paper in the folder. A comm link number is written on it in Erik's handwriting, with no name or other clue as to who it belongs to.

    Erik folds the page and tucks it into his pocket before he opens the cardboard box.

    It's a helmet. There's no information on its nature or purpose, but Erik knows what it is as soon as he touches it, feeling out the intricate mechanism hidden beneath the smooth curve of steel. It's miniaturized to a ridiculous degree. There's no power source because it's an entirely reactive system; there's no spectrum amplifiers because it's not intended to amplify. Instead, there are inversed neurotechnical arrays, fed into a heavy-duty feedback loop that ultimately counters itself.

    The spare grace and beauty of the engineering impresses Erik despite himself. It's ingeniously simple. The more powerful the telepath who attempts to read this helmet's wearer is, the stronger the defence will be.

     

     

    ~~~~~~~~~~

     

     

    Genosha is in full lockdown by the time Erik leaves Eisenhardt's rooms. The computer has stopped repeating its warning message, and the sirens are muted to a barely audible level. It makes it easier to hear the sounds of fighting – real fighting, as in people attempting to storm the facility, like this is a war. If Erik concentrates, he can feel metal weapons heating and discharging, set before the background hum and flare of body armor and the occasional white-hot, concentrated flash of neural scramblers.

    How he recognizes the feeling of neural scramblers discharging is another issue Erik has no time for right now.

    Because Genosha is under attack, nobody's roaming the early-morning halls, intent on finding coffee or breakfast or someone to bounce an idea off of. Everyone except security is ensconced in the safety areas, and security has their hands full with more obvious threats than Erik, who slips through the facility like a shadow. He avoids areas that reek of chaotic energy discharge and hot metal, and encounters nobody at all on his way to the labs.

    The remains of the main replication lab are deserted. The ceiling is now carefully shored up; the debris has largely been cleared away, the scorched and exposed surfaces covered in clear plastic tarps.

    Erik stops in the doorway and closes his eyes, feeling for the lab's main computer core. It takes him a while to sort through the twisted fragments of metal that litter the room, but when he finally does find what remains of the core, it's no more than a gutted husk. He can't find all of the terminals and controls in the lab network, but those he does manage to locate have been torn to pieces, as well.

    There are a great number of labs in the facility, but not all of them are relevant to Erik's purpose. The ones he's interested in are clustered close to the replication lab. Erik walks along the hall slowly, learning the feeling of quiescent computer cores waiting like pools of darkened light as well as the feeling of active cores glowing with activity, electromagnetic energy pooling and racing in complex paths.

    At first he stops in front of every door, searching out the cores and surrounding them carefully with his awareness. It takes him several tries to find the trick of hooking into the magnetic fields around the cores and taking them from a quiet thrum to a blazing intensity that laps at Erik like heat from a fire. He overdoes it the first couple of times, leaving the cores little more than molten wrecks. After that, he learns restraint, finding exactly how far to take things in order to erase every bit of data, but nothing more.

    He's been worrying that he might not have the strength to destroy all of Genosha's data, but if anything, he feels stronger than when he set out; invigorated rather than drained.

    There are three replication labs in the facility. Erik is vastly relieved to find Lab Two's clone vaults empty, just as he knows Lab Three's to be. He wouldn't have known what to do with half-grown clones – he could not have left them, but wouldn't have known how to take them with him, either. Perhaps he could have detached the growth chambers to make them mobile; it's possible in theory, but it would have been very difficult to pull off without harming the clones, even under the best of circumstances (which these are decidedly not). And even if he'd succeeded, he'd have had no way of transporting the chambers.

    In the end, he might well have had no other option than to kill the clones. If it had been the only way to keep them from people who would use and abuse them, Erik would have done it. But he is very glad he doesn't have to make that choice.

    The genesis labs are a different story. Erik has no compunctions about disabling the sample lockers' safeguards in order to expose the entire sample collection to the UV decontamination routine.

    He stares at the vials labelled 'M. Eisenhardt' as the samples' DNA break up under measured pulses of UV light. Nobody else is going to go through what Erik did. Nobody else is going to have to make his choices. He will make certain of that.

    Lab Three is his last stop. Erik starts by disabling the alarms and security cameras, as has become his habit; then, he proceeds to crush the neurotechnical XIM interface, melting it into a fist-sized lump of metal and plastic that nobody will be able to learn anything from. After that, Erik proceeds methodically through every data carrier and every piece of XIM equipment in the lab, beginning with the imprint transfer array. He saves the awakening table for last; removes the aluglass surface and tears every bit of metal in the complex mechanism apart. He then breaks apart the pieces until all that remains is metal dust, heaped with larger fragments of plastic and circuit boards. Finally, he prompts the metal into melting, forming a solid block of fused matter. When he balances the aluglass surface on top of it, it doesn't even look that different.

    He doesn't bother with the clone vault. Everything in there is LCT, and it's far too late to keep that technology out of the wrong hands.

    Four computer core rooms to go, and after that the high-security data storage bunkers. Then, Erik will be done here. Then, he will go to the clone compound for Linda, Hikaru and the others, and they will finally be free.

    Except, of course, that things don't go quite that smoothly.

     

     

    ~~~~~~~~~~

     

     

    One core room down, three left. Eisenhardt had no access codes for any of the areas Erik is heading to now, but that doesn't matter anymore. Erik doesn't need to enter the core rooms to do what must be done.

    He's been able to avoid the fighting entirely so far, but it's getting trickier; the attackers seem to be advancing further into the facility. Erik would have expected HolyGhost to send reinforcements by now – it's been over half an hour. Not that he's complaining. He's grateful for every minute of time free from the distraction of Genosha's security coming after him.

    Erik feels ahead carefully as he walks, keeping track of the fighting by the weapons, body armor and detonations, and occasionally the slightly vertiginous buckling of metal echoed by a low thump that's more felt than heard. He crushes cameras as he passes; for anything more subtle, he'd have to slow down, and he doesn't have the time. The risk of brute force is that they'll be able to trace his path by the destruction he wreaks, but it's better than –

    Wait. There. A cluster of guns and armor is moving closer quickly and purposefully, cutting off his intended path and very clearly heading his way.

    Well. It was only a matter of time.

    Erik turns to go back the way he came, kicking up his pace to an all-out sprint. There's another clutch of guards approaching from this direction, but if he's fast enough, he should be able to slip out from between the two groups. There's a staircase just around the corner that seems to be clear, and since the cameras here are already broken and security has no way to track him –

    He rounds the corner and Charles is directly in his path.

    Erik has barreled into him before he's even had a chance to process Charles' presence. He tries to catch himself, but Charles is in the way, and both of them go sprawling to the floor in a painful tangle of limbs. Something hard and blunt collides with Erik's stomach, knocking the breath from him even as the ground rears up to smack into the side of his helmet with enough force to set off sparks in his vision.

    He wastes precious seconds fighting to draw in air. By the time he's managed to force half a breath into his starved lungs, Erik's window of escape has closed.

    When he looks up, Charles is scrambling to his feet, staring at Erik as though he's never seen him before. He's flushed, sweaty and out of breath, as frazzled as Erik has ever seen him; there is a smear of something dark on his cheek and halfway down his neck. Too dark to be blood, though, and he doesn't seem hurt.

    "Erik, what on earth is going on?" Charles' voice is very carefully neutral, as though he's reserving judgement by a major act of will.

    The only metal on Charles is a watch and a zipper. Erik should have sensed him anyway, but he was distracted; too focussed on the more attention-grabbing metals of people like the ones due to arrive any second now.

    Erik pushes to his feet just as a small troop of security comes into view behind Charles. They immediately fall into a shooting stance, assault rifles aimed at Erik. The second group arrives from the other direction an instant later, boxing Erik in on a small stretch of hall. All of the guards are wearing HolyGhost's familiar black body armor and flame-in-circle logo; all of them have their helmets' visors lowered, making it impossible for Erik to tell whether he knows any of them.

    Erik puts his back to the wall, gauging his chances. Nobody is making a move to either come closer or shoot; they seem to be waiting for their cue from their leader. And the way their bodies are angled, the way they are all positioned to keep him in sight makes it very clear who that is.

    For his part, Charles isn't paying any attention to his troops. He's too busy staring at Erik, brow creased in irritated consternation. "Also, what on earth is that?"

    The helmet. Of course. Erik starts to reach up to it without thinking, but aborts the gesture at the ripple of heightened tension the motion sends through the guards. He'd almost forgotten he's wearing it – it's light, doesn't restrict his field of vision and is easy to tune out of his conscious awareness, the same way he tunes out the low hum of the natural magnetic field surrounding his body.

    He wonders whether Charles tried to reach into his mind just now. Whether – had Erik not been wearing the helmet – Charles would have pushed his way in no matter what, despite the fact that breaking through his mental shields would have hurt Erik.

    The silence is growing long, and Charles is still waiting for answers. In the end, Erik merely raises his brows at him, the gesture equivalent to a shrug. "I'm doing what must be done."

    Charles' mouth twists in annoyance, and perhaps a touch of disgust. "That doesn't mean anything, Erik. What are you saying? Why are you helping Lambent?"

    Of course – the rival corporation. So they're the ones staging this attack. It does make sense, although Erik can't say he particularly cares. HolyGhost and Lambent are no different in his eyes.

    Even so, he remembers Charles' anger and betrayal when Erik had merely been proposing to wear a shirt bearing Lambent's logo – looks at the careful stillness Charles is holding himself with now – and shakes his head with rather more emphasis than he intends to. "I'm not helping Lambent. This isn't about petty corporate rivalries, Charles."

    "If you're not helping Lambent, then what are you doing? You're the one who's been sabotaging us, clearly. Did you blow up the replication lab, too? Did you kill those clones? Maybe nobody ever attempted to kidnap you, either – maybe you were just pretending all along in order to manipulate me."

    The sudden avalanche of baseless accusations leaves Erik gaping, a burning rush of hurt and anger boiling up in his chest, stealing his words. That doesn't even make sense, how can Charles think –

    Erik isn't the betrayer here. He's done nothing wrong. He's not the one providing the means for unscrupulous corporations to create slaves without rights, without recourse, without hope. No, he isn't the problem. He is the solution.

    "You – I thought you were a telepath. Don't you know –" But Erik has to stop here because his breath is so short he's almost gasping. He doesn't really know what to say, anyway. He feels light-headed and ill, and doesn't understand why. There's no reason for anything Charles says to wound him like this. No reason.

    Charles is right to mistrust him. They're not allies. They're working towards mutually exclusive goals, and Erik has been destroying what Charles thinks of as his life's work. Erik has known all along that Charles was never truly on Erik's side. But even so, being faced with the fact this brutally still feels…

    What does it matter, though? Erik has more important things to think about than feelings – more important things to do than stand here staring at Charles like an idiot, throat tight because of something as irrelevant as words.

    Charles has been watching him unnervingly closely, perhaps trying to get at his thoughts despite the protection of the helmet. Erik has a moment of childishness in which he hopes that the helmet's feedback gives Charles the headache from hell.

    Now, suddenly, Charles relaxes, all of the brittle tension flowing out of him on a breath to leave him looking oddly soft and young.

    "I told you to wait for me in the safety area," Charles says. None of the viciously measured coldness remains in his tone; accusation has softened to scolding. Erik can't keep up with the changing moods, doesn't know what changed – what convinced Charles of Erik's relative innocence. "If Lambent gets their hands on you… you're a large part of what they're here for, and instead of staying safe, you're prancing about all over the facility, practically wearing a sign reading 'come and get me' around your neck. Not to mention what you've been doing. Erik, how could you –"

    But this is where Erik can't keep silent anymore, despite his best intentions. "Staying safe? What difference is there between Lambent and HolyGhost for me?" He wasn't going to get into a pointless argument with Charles – and not just because this is the worst possible time. But he can't just stand there and say nothing, not when Charles is being this patronizing and blind. "I'm a prototype and a test subject either way. Property, just like all the other clones."

    "You can't honestly believe that." Charles' face crumples into horrified entreaty. He steps forward, ignoring the hand Erik flings out to stop him. "It's cruel of you to say something like that when you know perfectly well how much more you are to me. So much more that I – you must know that you are everything, Erik, everything." 

    How did Charles get so close? Erik's hand is flat against Charles' chest, but he isn't holding him away – isn't shoving him back, as he should be. Not even when Charles takes one final step, closing the last remaining distance between them until he's all but pressing Erik into the wall, so close Erik can feel the warmth of his breath on his throat.

    "Let's take off that helmet," Charles murmurs, just for him. His eyes are very blue; his mouth is soft, quirking into a tiny, inviting smile. "I'll show you how I feel."

    No. No, this is not how this is going to end. This is not how –

    Charles is already reaching for the helmet when Erik shakes himself from his inactivity. There's no thinking involved; it's pure instinct to throw a punch straight up from his belly to Charles' lower jaw.

    He has no chance of evading. The force of the blow throws him back and to the right, and then Erik is surging forward to fist his hands in Charles' shirt, swinging him around and tossing him into the wall. Out of the way.

    The guards are moving to intercept, some rushing to get into position to shoot without endangering their own, but Erik isn't going to stop now – certainly not for them. He strides straight at the troop that's blocking the hall to the left, both hands outstretched; seizes their rifles and breaks them apart with a thought. Then he's on top of them, tossing them aside by the steel and aluglass of their helmets, the guns and knives at their belts.

    "Don't shoot!" Charles screams behind him.

    When Erik throws a quick look over his shoulder as he hastens around the corner, he sees that half the people in the hall have collapsed on the ground, with the others doubled over clutching their heads. The only one on his feet is Charles.

     

     

    ~~~~~~~~~~

     

     

    The data control room is in the facility's basement, separated from the rest of Genosha by a sequence of armored high-security storm doors that open to a wave of Erik's hand, fusing securely shut behind him. There's no point to being secretive anymore, so Erik concentrates on speed.

    First, the data bunkers; then, the remaining core rooms. If he can't take out the bunkers, the rest won't matter, anyway.

    The control room is occupied, of course. Inevitable, given that it's probably the safest place in Genosha, far more secure than any safety area – and, more importantly, that someone needs to remain in it at all times to monitor the facility's essential functions.

    Erik steps all the way inside the circular room, moving very slowly, hands open and held above his head. Judging by their expressions, the gesture doesn't make much of a difference to the occupants, all four of whom are holding weapons on him, and all four of whom seem exceedingly nervous.

    Their wariness is indubitably connected to the fact that Erik just unlocked and swung open their two-meter thick missile-proof door without so much as touching it (if door is the right word for something that looks like it belongs in a high-tech fortress). Erik would have preferred to make a subtler entrance, but there's no help for it.

    None of his four opponents is wearing body armor of any kind. They're not security; they're computer experts, and their inexperience with this kind of situation shows not only in the way they clutch their weapons too tightly, but even more so in their obvious lack of any idea of what to do.

    Not soldiers. Not killers. Just techs, and all the more unpredictable and dangerous for it. The fact they have no training to fall back on means they might do anything.

    "You! You just – stay right there. Don't move a muscle. I mean it." It's the tech with the neural scrambler – a curly-haired man in some kind of trendy pants-and-half-jacket ensemble that makes him look like a homeless person. The HolyGhost logo features prominently on his non-regulation t-shirt. "How the fuck did you get in?"

    The other three are armed with guns; Erik isn't worried about them. He can't get a proper hold on the scrambler, though. It's made mostly of plastic, and the field it generates is odd, resonating in a frequency that makes Erik's teeth ache. There are some metal components he should be able to grasp, but every time he tries, the grating resonance surges into his senses with such force he loses concentration.  

    Still. If Erik can distract the tech for a second, then maybe –

    "My name is Dr. Maximilian Eisenhardt, not 'you'," he says sternly. "Do you realize who I am, young man?"

    The young man in question is no younger than Erik, but he responds to the tone of authority just as Erik had hoped: he straightens a bit, the muzzle of the scrambler lowering by a hair.

    "Matthew!" snaps the woman by a bank of monitors. "That's not Dr. –"

    And then everything happens at once.

    Erik concentrates and reaches for the scrambler at the same instant that a tiny starburst of metal flashes on the edges of his awareness. Someone is shouting, and a low hiss starts up around Erik's feet. Erik reaches blindly for the bullet racing towards him, can't grasp it because it's moving too quickly; manages to deflect it to slam into a bulkhead instead. There's more bullets coming at him from several directions, but he can't pay as much attention as he needs to because he's still trying to wrestle the scrambler into his control.

    He has no practice with splitting himself in so many directions, let alone with trying to be faster than speeding bullets. Finally, finally he gets a grip on the scrambler – but when Erik wrenches at it with as much force as he can muster through his precarious hold, Matthew panics, and his finger tightens on the trigger.

    Erik tries to evade, but there's another bullet coming at his back. He stumbles as he catches it, uncharacteristically clumsy, and the burst of venomous energy from the scrambler grazes him before splashing harmlessly against the wall.

    His legs go out from under him, spilling him to the floor.

    The delayed crack of the last gunshot echoes in his ears as he collapses. There's a split second of clarity in which he takes in Matthew's wide, horrified eyes and the fact that the woman by the monitors is preparing to shoot again. Something cold and gaseous is rushing through thin metal pipes in the floor, pushing through tiny valves, and – Erik has achieved nothing. Nothing at all. If he allows them to defeat him now, he will have made things worse rather than better. If he is caught, if Charles takes off his helmet –

    This is not how this will end. It is not.

    He doesn't know if it's the additional adrenaline rushing through his veins, the burn of pure rage in his gut, or the absolute, wrenching clarity of the knowledge that there is no alternative, because nobody else can do this.

    Perhaps it's everything at once.

    He takes hold of all of the weapons in the room at the same time – the three projectile weapons in the techs' hands, the neural scrambler, and the spare gun lying on a console near-by. Then, he wrenches them up and out of the techs' grasp, tearing them apart and scattering the parts through the entire room. He thinks he hears someone's finger break, but he can't so much as check who didn't let go of their gun in time. He's too busy finding and crumpling the vents releasing gas into the air.

    Someone's sobbing, but it's not Erik; not yet. He has a bit of time, yet. He can make this work.

    What he can't do is stand up. His legs are completely numb, though he can see his left foot twitching convulsively out of the corner of his eye. The scrambler only grazed him, so the effects will pass relatively quickly – but that also means that in another moment, he'll be in unbearable agony. So –

    "Get out now or I kill you," he grits. "Your choice. You have ten seconds." He's never killed anyone and doesn't want to start with these techs, but if he has to, he will.

    When he looks up into the eyes of the woman who was the first to shoot, he can tell that she believes him.

    "I – I," Matthew stammers. For a moment it looks as though he's going to apologize, of all things, but then the woman grabs him and drags him out the open door, their colleagues following at their heels. Everyone gives Erik a wide, fearful berth. The fact that he's sprawled on the floor half-paralyzed, unarmed and outnumbered doesn't seem to factor into it at all.

    Once they're outside Erik closes the missile-proof door, merges it with the frame and the steel reinforcing the walls, and spends the next ten minutes screaming.

     

     

    ~~~~~~~~~~

     

     

    Erik. Erik, please. For god's sake, Erik, don't make me worry like this! Are you okay?

    Is he okay…? Good question.

    On the one hand, there's the pain. Even now, his legs still feel like they've been caught in a harvester. But on the other hand, he can bear it now; the agony is no longer all-consuming, which makes it easier to remember that it's only an illusion caused by misfiring nerves. There's no actual injury, and the pain will soon abate entirely. It won't keep him from doing what he has to do.

    "Erik, please talk to me."

    Charles. That really is Charles' voice, not merely a hallucination of some kind.

    Erik turns to his back with some effort, looking for cameras. The closest one is over by the auxiliary control panel, and six others are positioned around the room. He neglected to crush them when he came in, with the evident result that the spectacle of Erik writhing screaming on the floor has been broadcast live and in color. Wonderful.

    "What on earth is going on, Erik?"

    Charles' voice is emanating from the main control panel. If Erik got up, there'd likely as not be an image to match: Charles, worried and puzzled.

    Erik isn't prepared for how much he wants to make himself stand up, just so he can see Charles' eyes light up. Even now, he still wants to answer, wants to explain. It makes no sense; Charles is only trying to stop him. Charles is not his ally. There's only Erik. No-one else, only him.

    He shouldn't care. He shouldn't.

    "Charles," he rasps despite himself. His throat spasms around the name, and he coughs briefly, spasmodically, before catching himself.

    "Erik!" Erik doesn't even have to see Charles' face to know what he looks like right now, luminous with relief. "Thank god. You were – well. Neural scramblers are a nasty business. I was worried."

    He's already opened his mouth to tell Charles he's fine when he catches himself. What is he doing?

    He reaches up to make sure he's still wearing the helmet; he is. That can't be the problem. No, it's Erik himself. He has to get back on track. He doesn't have forever, and he's already wasted so much time, lost the element of surprise…

    "Erik, talk to me."

    The worst part of it is that he wants to. He wants to so much it's ridiculous, wants to believe in the promise in Charles' voice; wants to explain, wants Charles to understand. But Erik can't afford to be weak. If it were only him, then maybe he could risk it – maybe then he could put everything on the line for a chance of Charles' approval. Maybe he could even wait until reality showed Charles how wrong he was, so that Charles and Erik could fight together, side by side.

    It's not only Erik, though. It's Linda, and Hikaru, and all the others in the clone compound, helpless and vulnerable. It's the clones in HolyGhost's other research facilities – the clones waking up in Lambent's labs, and in all the other labs out there. And most of all it's the thousands, the millions of clones who have yet to be created, and who never will be if Erik succeeds.

    They are the reason why Erik must succeed. They are why it doesn't matter that the gladness in Charles' tone is probably genuine; that Charles' affection is not feigned, and Erik – alone, adrift and helpless – can't help but return it.

    So Erik ignores Charles' voice, filters it out along with the phantom pain that still sparks along his nerves. None of that matters now. All that matters…

    He turns back to his stomach, presses his palms to the floor and puts his forehead down on thin carpet over cold cement. He pushes everything aside, all the fear and pain and longing, all the uncertainty, all the anger and love and the fragmented memories of lives he never lived. He gathers himself into a single breath, and exhales it all down into the earth.

    … all that matters is this.

    The room around him fades as he reaches deeper. Steel beams and rebars, woven into shapes that support the facility's foundation. He traces them to their conclusion, finds the threads of metal and energy that lead further down. Further yet, until everything else is silent and still.

    Except that it isn't – not really. There are notes of metal woven into the soil itself, far more subtle and nuanced than anything he's encountered so far. There is energy, too, silent but steadfast everywhere he searches it out.

    Steel. Steel, singing bright and clear like a siren – more beams and rebars shaped around a protective bunker. Inside, metal shells cover various mechanisms and sensors. And there, finally, the dense, delicate structures of data cores.

    There are three of them, set apart what is no doubt intended to be a safe distance. Erik has no concept of the distances involved, although he remembers vaguely that Eisenhardt's blueprints provided a number measured in kilometers.

    It doesn't signify. Now that he has found them, he can thread himself into their patterns the same way he learned to do with the smaller, less complex data cores in the facility's labs. These cores respond to his coaxing as eagerly as their smaller brethren, thrilling to his touch, jumping to his call.

    They burn far more fiercely, though. It's beautiful; Erik is mesmerized by the feel of it, the way they blaze against his mind with colorless, heatless intensity.

    He flexes the fierce energy, experiments with modulating it until he finds a frequency that resonates off structures he recognizes as copper, silver, aluminum, gold…

    Then, there is heat, too, and the empty data cores melt like water.

    He pulls away when he is certain all three data bunkers are completely beyond recovery, untangling himself and drawing back through all layers of the complex song he has taken into himself. There is so much more, though – so many subtler and deeper melodies he might find, so many resonances and forces he has yet to discover.

    For one timeless moment, he allows himself to reach for the elusive symphony he hears layered beneath everything. It seems closer here, although he knows that's merely because there isn't as much to distract him. But whatever the reason, it's there against his mind as soon as he reaches for it, clearer than it's ever been; low and deep, steadying, anchoring. It is deceptively silent, the way the air is silent when there is no wind; everywhere, pervasive and all-encompassing.

    Maybe he could reach deeper. Maybe he could truly hear the song the earth sings to him, try to understand it –

    One day, he will. One day soon. But now, he has things to do.

    He finds the remaining core rooms easily – even without Eisenhardt's blueprints he would have been able to locate them by the taste of the energy they give off, by the way so many of the lines threading through the building lead to them. He also finds one data core that wasn't marked on the plans Eisenhardt had gathered, caught in its own small web of quiescent energy squarely in the middle of the facility's living quarters.

    He erases them all in turn, saving the one in Charles' rooms for last. When he comes back to his body, he's dizzy and drenched with cold sweat, spread out on his back with HolyGhost security guards kneeling on his arms and legs. Charles is straddling him, reaching out for the helmet on his head.

     

     

    ~~~~~~~~~~

     

     

    They both freeze, staring at each other. Charles looks awful – exhausted, with dark smudges standing out like bruises underneath his red-rimmed eyes. It's like he's aged a decade since Erik last saw him. Everything about him is heavy and tired... and angry.

    Erik holds Charles' burning gaze without flinching. He's not the one responsible for any of this. He's merely trying to fix what Charles and – and others like him have wrought.

    The memory crashes into him like violence, tinged with blood and ashes. Rage and triumph sear through him, intoxicating and dizzying; he surrenders to them gratefully. The iron tang of violence and death on his tongue. Blood, blood on his hands, fire all around him as the lab burns, and it's too late, too late for anyone to stop it. Only one thing remains to be done.

    A white-haired man on the ground, coughing on acrid smoke and choking on blood. His eyes are the color of ice, clear and without fear. The line of his jaw and cheekbone are familiar, as are the lines in the corners of his eyes as he squints (looking out over water with his coat's lapels up, the sun behind him). He raises a hand, fingers spread, palm forward. It doesn't look like a defensive gesture.

    He has to know that it's no use, not now, not this time. But then, it's impossible to stop feeling for the connection, the power… even when it's never been there except in memories. When the world is cold and dull and unresponsive, and always has been. Half an hour of numbness is all this man has had to endure. What is that, when weighed against a lifetime?

    "You are my greatest success," the old man says. The knowledge of his imminent death is in his eyes, but he is unbroken; iron with a white-hot, molten core of passion and determination. "In your place, I would do exactly the same."

    He (not Erik, that wasn't him and it won't ever be) is viciously glad that this man will die unbowed. Something far fiercer and deeper than hate threads through his rage as he reaches out.

    Blood. Blood on steel. Blood body-warm and slick on his hands.

    "Erik," says the man leaning over him, radiating anger and betrayal. "How can you do this?"

    Erik can't believe it's taken him this long to understand the last step of Eisenhardt's plan. Of course it's this; the same thing Eisenhardt did. It has to be. None of the rest of it makes sense otherwise.

    Charles is not an engineer, but he is a very intelligent man who's spent a lot of time developing the XIM technology with Eisenhardt. He won't be able to reconstruct it by himself, but – but. Erik can't be sure that he doesn't know enough. If he collects the most brilliant engineers and physicists he can find, if he spends the next ten or fifteen years reconstructing what Eisenhardt built for Erik to destroy, then XIM might rise again from Genosha's ashes.

    There's only one way to be certain Erik has destroyed XIM entirely.

    This is the helmet's primary purpose. Eisenhardt didn't make it merely to ensure that Charles can't interfere with Erik – although it is for that, too. But mostly, the helmet ensures that Charles can't defend himself.

    It would be so easy. Erik doesn't even have to think to come up with more ways than he can count to end Charles' life. There is so much metal in the room, on the guards, on Charles himself. Erik wouldn't even have to –

    "Erik?" The inflection of the question is different now, and there's a new tension to Charles' mouth, to the way he holds himself. It's very clear what he's asking.

    Erik's pretty sure he can't speak right now, but he nods curtly. He doesn't know what name to put to the emotions that sweep through him at the sight of the open relief on Charles' face.

    He wants to tell Charles that he's certain Eisenhardt sabotaged the imprint to such an extent that his memories will never return coherently enough to endanger Erik's own personality. He wants to tell him that he's not sure whether Eisenhardt intended this to be a safety measure against Charles or against the second set of memories he was carrying. He wants to tell him so much more than that, and there's no way to justify any of it, because despite what his treacherous emotions are telling him, Charles is not on Erik's side.

    "You must know what you're doing is wrong," is what he finally manages, choking out words through a too-tight throat. He feels odd; almost nauseous with exhaustion, and perhaps something more. "You're giving unscrupulous people the means to exploit those who can't defend themselves. They will invent ways to abuse us you could never conceive of, even in your worst nightmares. And it will all be because of your hubris and naiveté. Because you won't open your eyes and realize that humanity cannot be trusted."

    Lehnsherr hadn't realized it, either. That's something Erik still doesn't understand. How can he not have known what has always been so obvious to Erik – to Eisenhardt, too? But at the same time, Erik thinks – with a wild surge of hope – that it means circumstances are everything, that people are not set in stone; that they can become someone very different from who they started out as. If Erik can show Charles, if he can make Charles see –

    "It's never going to come to that," Charles says. His voice is rich with conviction. "HolyGhost isn't going to do any of the things you're so afraid of. I designed XIM to make people's lives better, and that's exactly what it will do."

    "Some people's lives, yes," Erik snaps, goaded beyond patience. "You're not stupid, Charles! Wake up before it's too late."

    Charles' lips thin into a tight white line. He stares at Erik for the space of a heartbeat, no give in his expression; then, he reaches for the helmet again.

    For an eternal, reckless instant, Erik considers letting him take it off. Won't Charles have to understand if he reads Erik's mind, if he sees the way Erik sees –

    "It's my technology," Charles is saying. "Everything is going to be –"

    Except that it's not. Not unless Erik makes it so.

    Erik holds the helmet in place when Charles tugs on it. Charles makes an odd sound, more disappointment than surprise. He really does look tired – suffused with the same kind of bone-deep fatigue that creeps at the edges of Erik's awareness.

    They've likely both over-extended their abilities, not to mention they've hardly gotten any sleep, and have been running on pure adrenaline ever since Lambent's attack on the replication lab. It's strange to think no more than six (or seven? eight?) hours have passed since then; it feels like an eternity. So much has changed. Everything has.   

      It's not that he reaches out; that implies effort. Erik simply lets go, allowing his senses to unfold. There are more guards in the hall, along with Matthew and his fellow techs, the four of them easy to identify by their lack of armor. There is heavy machinery still cooling from where it cut through the steel Erik had set into place between this room and the rest of Genosha. Beyond them, Genosha feels different than it did, dimmed and subdued now that Erik has silenced so much of the energy that used to course through it. There's no more fighting, either; Lambent has failed.

      Tired or not, Erik can't rest yet.  

      It's the work of a moment to grasp hold of every gun, every knife and every rifle in the vicinity. Even the neural scrambler is easy now, its circuits and generator offering more than enough of a target for Erik's improved control.

      He is about to make his move when Charles stiffens abruptly, choking out a stifled, pained gasp. Erik stares at him in confusion. He hasn't done anything yet, so what –

      But something is very clearly wrong. Charles looks lost, eyes wide and shocked; his face is draining of color as Erik watches.

      Erik doesn't even notice moving. One moment, he's flat on his back with Charles crouched over him and four armored guards holding him down; the next, the guards are gone and Erik is cradling Charles in his arms, lowering him carefully to the ground.

      "I don't – I can't feel anyone." Charles' voice is thin with an emotion far too close to terror. His gaze is wild; his hands clutch the front of Erik's shirt convulsively, a fine tremor running through his entire body. "Erik, what have you done to me?"

      What? Erik hasn't done anything – but before he can so much as open his mouth, cold steel presses against the back of his head. A near-inaudible click accompanies the feeling of a metal projectile slotting in place inside the rifle one of the guards is holding on him.

      "Let go of Dr. Xavier," says a cool, calm voice. "Slowly."

      Erik almost laughs. He just melted the data bunkers, kilometers underground and surrounded by meters of steel and concrete; he locked himself in here by merging a missile-proof storm door with the wall, and wiped every last core in the damned facility. Does this woman really think she's going to be able to kill him with a piece of metal?

      "No!" Charles pulls himself up by his grip on Erik's shirt, all but head-butting him in the process. The guard moves back a step before he's halfway through his maneuver, although she's still aiming at exactly the same spot on the back of Erik's head. "Lieutenant, you are not authorized to injure him. Did you not understand me? That order still –"

      "Dr. Xavier, we have an incoming priority A transmission addressed to you personally." That's one of the techs. When has she come back in?

      Erik is losing control of the situation at an alarming rate. It's only that Charles – who is now climbing to his feet, awkward and unsteady like a new-born foal – looks like death warmed over, and is clearly terrified. It's distracting, and – is there really something wrong with his telepathy? There must be, Erik can think of no other reason for him to be this shaken up. But how –

      "It's from Lambent," the tech says.

      Lambent; of course.

      Lambent must have succeeded in designing a telepathy-inhibiting device. Erik finds himself reluctantly impressed. He can't imagine what approach they might have taken, but whatever it is, it's clear it's very effective – Charles is corpse-white and breathing too quickly, hands clenched on the back of a chair.

      "Thank you, Jasmine." Charles tries for a smile; it comes out wobbly, but sincere. "Can you put the transmission through?"

      All of the techs are back in the room now. Jasmine is the one who showed the good sense to drag out her colleague earlier; she and Matthew have evidently been attempting to coax some of the inactive control panels back to life. Another tech is disassembling a bulkhead, perhaps hoping to fix whatever it is that's gone wrong, while the last one seems fully occupied with shooting both Erik and security nervous glances. There are five guards in the room in all, spread out strategically with their weapons out, covering Erik.

      "I can." Jasmine throws Erik a glare of sheer hatred, clearly in no way inclined to forgive and forget what he did to Genosha's systems. "Communication is only linked to data storage in some subroutines, so it's still mostly up and running."

      The monitor in front of Charles blinks on, displaying HolyGhost's flame-in-circle logo. Charles looks over his shoulder and gestures for Erik and the lieutenant holding her rifle on him to get out of the transmission's pick-up zone. Another guard near the wall moves several steps to the side, as well.

      A small surge of renewed nausea lurches into Erik's throat when he stands, and for a moment, the room dips and stretches around him. But then it steadies, and he lifts his chin and walks to the spot Charles indicated with careful precision of motion.

      Once he's satisfied everyone's safely out of Lambent's line of sight, Charles straightens, clears his throat, and runs a hand through his hair. Then, he gives Jasmine a brisk nod. "If you would, please."

      The logo gives way to an unfamiliar woman wearing a bland smile and an expensive grey suit. She's sitting in an enormous leather office chair, hands folded on top of a matte-black desktop; behind her, a panorama window frames her in skyscrapers. It's a very calculated staging. This woman holds power, and she'd like everyone to know.

      A flicker at the edges of Erik's senses catches his attention. It's something outside of the area he's been focussing on, and he lets himself reach a bit further, searching.

      "Dr. Xavier," says the woman on the monitor. She exudes a quiet confidence that's so assured it's indistinguishable from smugness. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Dr. Alison Kim, CAO of Lambent Incorporated in charge of product acquisition."

      There… outside of the facility, getting closer. Above the facility, too. Steel. Steel shells and rotors, hot motors, body armor, weapons…

      Many of them.

      Erik has already drawn in breath to speak, but stops himself just in time. What does it matter who comes out on top in the power struggle between HolyGhost and Lambent? Neither is preferable, as far as Erik is concerned. If they take each other out, then so much the better.

      "I would say it's a pleasure, Dr. Kim, but I try not to lie quite so outrageously." Charles is still ten kinds of pale and exhausted, but he's pulled himself together impressively. If Erik hadn't felt him shivering in his arms mere minutes ago, he would never have known how much of an impact the loss of his telepathy is having on him.

      Or maybe he would have known all the same, considering he has a very good idea of how it must feel. Like the world is transparent and unreal; like Charles has been dropped into a sensory deprivation tank with no warning. Like nothing will ever feel right again.

      "I'm an admirer of your groundbreaking work," Kim is saying. "A fan, if you would."

      This is the moment in which every guard in the room tightens their stance; clearly, they've just been alerted to the renewed attack over their helmet comms. The lieutenant gives a hand signal to one of the men near the door, who ducks soundlessly into the corridor and continues on at a run, all of the guards stationed outside following.

      The explosion flashes in Erik's mind like a strobe, making him jerk involuntarily. A split second later, there's a dull boom; Erik isn't certain if the ground actually shakes, or if it's merely the feeling of a large section of metal reinforcement, wiring and plating in the facility's walls and ceilings suddenly bursting apart, blown into shards and microscopically small fragments.

      That's nothing like the explosions in the earlier fighting – nothing like the explosion that destroyed Genosha's main replication lab. If Lambent had a weapon like this, why did they wait until now to use it? Why the invasion in two waves, with the first evidently intentionally sent to be defeated?

      Erik closes his eyes to shut out distractions, focusses on the skirmishes once again breaking out all over the facility. This time, the tenor of the fighting is different; this time, the attacking force is clearly superior, both in terms of numbers and equipment. They know exactly where to strike, too, proceeding purposefully and without wasted effort into the critical areas of the complex. Can that have been the purpose of the first wave – reconnaissance? Surely that's not enough of a reason.

      There's no doubt they know exactly what they're doing and where they're going, though. HolyGhost security is still fighting, but Lambent's forces are already everywhere, methodically securing the core rooms, the main labs…

      Another distant explosion that makes Erik flinch, echoed by a muffled thump.

      "That is why I would like to offer you a job." Kim's voice filters through to Erik as though from a great distance. "Exceptional talent like yours should not be wasted in a company like HolyGhost, which never gives its best people the credit, resources or free reign they truly deserve. I can assure you that things would be entirely different for you with Lambent, Dr. Xavier."

      The clone compound. The invaders have cracked open the clone compound like an egg, pulverizing steel and cement, tearing open aluglass like paper. All of the force fields are down, and Lambent troops are pouring through broken walls like water, sweeping in with well-rehearsed precision.

      They are taking the clones. They're here to steal XIM and take the clones, and Erik's gut turns to ice as he realizes that he's lost too much time. He needs to get out of here, now.

      He opens his eyes to the sight of Kim leaning forward with carefully understated threat suffusing every line of her body.

      "Quite the recruitment effort, Dr. Kim," Charles says tightly. "You didn't feel like the traditional offer of a higher salary would be sufficiently convincing?"

      Charles.

      Of course. XIM, the clones and Charles. That's what Lambent is here for. And Erik knows (very well, too well) that Charles won't leave HolyGhost for Lambent. Not voluntarily; not under any circumstances, but especially not these. He won't even pretend to switch sides in order to survive. No, that would be far too pragmatic – that's not the Charles Xavier way.

      Kim's gaze shifts. She's looking to the left of Charles' face now, focussed on something that's not visible from this side of the link. Her eyebrows draw together the merest fraction, the corners of her mouth tightening – and then her expression smoothes out, and she's focussed on Charles again.

      "Your dedication to HolyGhost is remarkable, Dr. Xavier," she says, as measured and calm as ever. "Not every scientist would be willing to destroy their own research data to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands."

      How have they discovered that this soon? This is going far too quickly. And Charles… Charles may be a genius, but he is still a fool. He isn't practical enough to do what must be done in this kind of situation. And without his telepathy, he has no way of defending himself. Not against Erik, and not against Lambent.

      Right now, Lambent has the advantage in every way. Charles has nothing to bargain with; can't bluff to save his life, and as likely as not won't even think to try.

      Erik doesn't think – he just acts. He tears the useless helmet off his head and tosses it into a far corner; steps forward in the same instant, dragging along the lieutenant's rifle and with it the lieutenant herself. He stops when he's certain both he and the guard menacing him are well within the pick-up zone of the transmission, behind and to the side of Charles.

      Leverage is what Charles needs right now. Fine. Erik can give him leverage.

      Kim doesn't blink; her face remains confidently assured, her hands loosely folded. She doesn't betray surprise by so much as a single movement – but the pause before she speaks again is a fraction of a second too long.

      "I see," she says then. "I confess that I'm impressed, Dr. Xavier. First your research data, now your prototype… I did not expect you to have the stomach for scorched-earth tactics."

      Charles throws a puzzled look over his shoulder, following Kim's gaze, and does an almost comical double-take. It's a good thing Erik made certain to choose an angle that ensures Charles' astonishment isn't visible from Kim's vantage point.

      "All this time I have been doing what you asked, Dr. Xavier." Erik weighs down his voice with recrimination; puts an equal measure of anger and apprehension into his glare. It's easy... easier than it should be, perhaps. "I fail to comprehend the need for this primitive display of force."

      Charles stares at Erik. Erik glares back, willing him to get with the program.

      Right now, Erik isn't certain of his own ability to hold off all of Lambent's forces; he's still too drained. Even if he weren't, he refuses to fight HolyGhosts's battles. But… he can fight this one battle for Charles. He will – he wants to. If Charles will only let him.

      "I have heard so very much about you, Max," Kim says. "It is a great pleasure to meet you at last."

      Max, is it? Terribly familiar, isn't she. But then, he's a clone. No need for formality with lesser beings.

      Erik raises his brows at her, drawing on all the arrogance, disdain and condescension Lehnsherr and Eisenhardt were capable of. "Is it? I would not be so certain of that were I you, Dr. Kim."

      The telepathy-inhibiting device isn't based on any force connected to magnetism or electricity, or Erik would have felt it activate. The main device – Erik assumes it's a field generator of some type, although he can't be certain at this point – cannot be anywhere close by, for the same reason; Erik would have felt it when he did his earlier sweep of the facility. But…

      The attack in two waves. There's no reason for it on the face of it. If Lambent always had this much manpower and equipment as well as the means to take Charles out of the equation, why waste time and effort on a half-hearted first attack – an attack that failed because of Charles?

      "You brought an anchor for the telepathy damper into Genosha with the first attack," Erik goes on conversationally. His smile shows teeth. "I'd assume not even your own people knew of it, considering Dr. Xavier's abilities. An interesting approach, though limited in applicability. For one thing, the strategy will not work well against an opponent who is on guard against it. For another, once the anchor is discovered, it won't be much of a challenge to design a countermeasure."

      Kim misses her cue by several full seconds, this time. Even for someone who knows of Charles' success with memory transfer, it must be jarring to have a clone less than six months old demonstrate this level of knowledge and capacity for reasoning. Not to mention that she's probably less than pleased her anti-telepathy strategy has been exposed this early in the game.

      "It appears the reports have not been exaggerated," she says at last. The benevolent smile and nod she gives him before turning back to Charles fall somewhat short in terms of authenticity; at best, they might be called patronizing, as though she were complimenting a child on a feat of basic arithmetic.

      Erik very carefully does not smile.

      "Dr. Xavier, it appears the time for bluffing is past. Let us put our cards on the table." Kim leans forward into the camera, expression flattening into predatory hardness. "Allow me to begin. As of this moment, I hold Genosha. I am suppressing your telepathy. All of your scientists and most of your other personnel are my prisoners – though I'm afraid there have been some casualties, and of course a handful of security employees are still with you. And lastly, I have your clones in my possession."

      Charles considers this calmly. "I have the advantage of time, given that HolyGhost reinforcements are on the way. You must pull out your troops before they arrive, if you wish to retain anything you have gained. I have a secure location, which I can defend for at least as long as required. And I have the XIM prototype – the fully memory-imprinted clone of Dr. Maximilian Eisenhardt. The clone you staged this entire war for."

      The rush of relief is almost dizzying, and Erik has to fight to keep his face clear of what he's feeling. Yes – Charles is playing along. Erik hadn't been certain he would, but he is; he is, and now Charles has something to hold over Kim, something that will prevent her from simply taking what she wants by force. If Charles handles this right, he will be safe.

      "Hardly a war – merely a scuffle, I would say." Kim's laugh is incongruously girlish and entirely at odds with the look in her eye. "And I staged it for your technology rather than a single clone, however remarkable."

      She pauses, steepling her fingers on the desk as she pretends to consider. Charles meets her with immovable calm, completely unimpressed.   

        "Very well," she says at last. "Since you have removed the technology itself from the table, give me Dr. Eisenhardt's XIM clone. Give him to me intact and unharmed, unchanged from the way he is at this moment, and I will release my prisoners, withdraw my forces from Genosha, and disable the telepathy suppressor after a suitable interval. Furthermore, I will make no attempt to capture you, Dr. Xavier. Somehow, I doubt that your location is as secure as you claim."

        Erik doesn't say anything, but Kim's eyes flick to him briefly. He schools his face into a glower and she looks away again, more interested in Charles' reaction.

        By trading in Erik, Charles would not only be handing Lambent his prototype, but the entire XIM technology, and everyone in this room knows it. More than Charles, Erik (or rather Eisenhardt) is the one who knows all the pertinent hardware details. Kim might even consider it possible that he'd surrender the information willingly, were Charles to give him away to save himself. Not that Eisenhardt's willingness, or lack thereof, would signify; Lambent would be able to extract the information either way.

        It's a steep price – so steep that Charles would never voluntarily pay it, not even for his own life. Erik hopes Kim doesn't understand Charles enough to realize that very pertinent fact. Far more than that, though, Erik hopes Charles will not be an idiot about this.

        "As long as I have Dr. Eisenhardt, my location is completely secure." Charles' smile is easy, almost charming. "You would not risk harm coming to him."

        "True," Kim concedes. "However, if you killed him, you too would lose an invaluable resource, one that you might otherwise still hope to win back from Lambent. Not to mention that along with your bargaining chip, you would lose your shield. And you yourself are an equally desirable prize, Dr. Xavier."

        Charles raises his brows, and something in his expression makes Erik's heart sink. Charles is being an idiot about this, exactly as Erik had feared. "I'm afraid I cannot concur with that assessment. As I'm certain you're aware, the attempt to extract information from a telepath against their will is a futile endeavor."

        Unlike Kim, Erik does know Charles, and it's very clear to him that Charles is playing for time. He has no intention of entering an agreement of any kind with Kim. All he's doing is stalling in the hopes that HolyGhost's reinforcements will arrive in time to save him.

        Hope is not something Erik is willing to stake Charles' future on – nor his own, either, and least of all that of the clones Lambent has gathered to take away and study. Time is running out. If Charles continues to banter with Kim, it won't be long before she catches on. Then, the only course of action left to her will be calling Charles' bluff by attacking his stronghold.  

        There's a pen lying on the computer console next to Jasmine's hand. It's a cheap ballpoint made mostly out of plastic, but Erik could move it by the aluminum spiral inside and the ink reservoir's tip. He casts about for paper, but there's none in sight.

        "I'm not certain I can accede to your terms," Charles is saying, damn him. Of course he can, what choice does he have? He has to, the damn fool.

        And he has to do it now. Time is running out in more than one way, because Erik can't risk Lambent spiriting the clones away. In another minute or two, he'll have to go, whether or not it means leaving Charles at the mercy of Kim and her corporate army.

        For a wild, brilliant moment, Erik considers simply bundling Charles up and taking him along. But – he can't; of course he can't. Charles is too dangerous, and will never let himself understand the truth of what he is unleashing on the world.

        There's no choice, and there is no more time.

        Erik detaches a scrap of steel from the battered remains of the door, flattening it into a coin-sized disk. He inscribes 'Bargain me away with the other clones' on it with a thought, sinking the letters deeply into the metal.

        None of the guards appear to see the disk as he skims it across the room just above the carpet, too low to be caught by the transmission. No doubt they do notice when it reaches Charles, but before they have a chance to react, Erik has already flown his message up behind Charles' leg to press it into his open palm.

        Charles startles only the slightest bit, and covers by shifting his weight. There's no good way for him to hide looking down at what he's holding, though; he solves the problem by simply turning his back on Kim in the middle of her latest veiled threat.

        It takes Charles no longer than an instant to read the message. When his eyes flick up to lock with Erik's after, all of the brittle, betrayed anger and shaken desperation he's tucked away in some hidden corner of himself are right there again, written openly across his face and burning in his too-blue gaze.

        Charles' lips form a single, soundless word: 'Never.'

        Over my dead body, hisses his voice in Erik's memory. Never. You are mine, you will never belong to –

        Erik knows that the memory shows in his expression; knows that Charles is thinking of the same moment. For the space of a heartbeat, Charles looks almost stricken, but then, he firms his mouth and lifts his chin belligerently.

        "I am not a bargaining chip, Dr. Xavier," Erik says. He doesn't know what name to give the harsh, near-savage tone of his voice; he does know that it's easy to meet the fierceness of Charles' stare with equal heat. "I am not an object, and I am not yours to give away."

        This is Erik's choice – Erik's, not Charles'. He does not belong to Charles, or to anyone, and he never will.

        Judging by the way Charles is attempting to incinerate Erik with the force of his stare, he understands exactly what Erik is saying, and doesn't like it in the least.

        When Erik throws a glance at Kim's image over Charles' shoulder, she's watching them closely, eyes narrowed.

        Erik reaches for the body-warm steel disk clenched in Charles fist; smoothes out the letters and inscribes new ones, and moves the disk slightly in Charles' hand to catch his attention.

        The new message takes Charles a full minute to read – two. He stares down at the disk hidden in his hand while Kim steeples her fingers on her desk and purses her mouth; he keeps staring while Matthew nervously clears his throat, causing Jasmine to glare him into a blush. He stares while the security detail shifts silently into a new position that seems more heavily weighted towards guarding the door rather than Erik.

        He's still staring when he looks up at Erik. He looks lost, torn with indecision. Erik doesn't think he's ever seen Charles this vulnerable. He wouldn't have thought it was possibly for Charles to look this way – certainly not because of Erik.

        'Trust me.'

        In Charles' place, Erik doesn't know whether he'd be able to trust himself… whether he'd want to. Charles had trusted Eisenhardt, and he shouldn't have. He'd trusted Erik because he'd trusted Eisenhardt before him, and he should not have done that, either.

        Erik, on the other hand... Erik has known not to trust Charles from the start. There have been times when he's wanted to, though. Behind the scientist refusing to acknowledge the consequences of his actions, behind the man refusing his responsibility by hiding behind insipid, rose-colored falsehoods – behind all that, there is Charles. Arrogant, yes; arrogant, head-strong and over-confident enough to be dangerous in his ignorance. But honest, in his way. Sincere. Sometimes even kind.

        There's his brilliance, too, the surprisingly wicked sense of humor, the boyish grin that's somehow both staggeringly self-confident and shy. The way he watches Erik when he thinks Erik isn't paying attention. The way he's stopped calling him Max. The way he's stopped hoping for Max and started hoping for Erik.

        How Charles feels in Erik's mind: warm, welcome, safe. The way the touch of his hands is gentle, almost reverent at times, and heated and greedy at others. The way he gasps Erik's name; the way he looks at Erik as though Erik is the only person in the universe.

        But none of that has to do with trust; Erik reminds himself of this as he holds Charles' steady gaze. No, all of that… that is all part of something different, another luxury he cannot allow himself. Not when his life is not merely his own. Not when he has people to protect who have nobody else to help them, and there's a great wrong to prevent.

        Charles is still pale and exhausted-looking, but something new is shading into his gaze now – something just as intense, just as vulnerable, and yet somehow entirely different. A tiny, wry smile curves his mouth as he lets out a long breath in a near-sigh. Abruptly, he opens his hand to let the metal disk tumble to the ground; Erik doesn't look away from him as he catches it to whisk it out of the way.

        Charles closes his eyes for one second; two. His spine straightens, shoulders going back; when his eyes snap open again, he looks like a man going into battle.

        "Very well," Charles says briskly, turning back to Kim. Erik is certain he's the only person in the room who knows that Charles isn't really speaking to her at all. "I will give you Dr. Eisenhardt's XIM clone, as unharmed as he is at this moment, in exchange for all the assets you have stated before. And I'm afraid I'll have to insist on registering this agreement with the International Business Association on behalf of HolyGhost and Lambent, with a contract penalty of all corporation assets going to the wronged party."

        Erik isn't certain what expression he's wearing that moment, but Kim shoots him another short look before returning her attention to Charles.

         

         

        ~~~~~~~~~~

         

         

        "What will you do?" Charles whispers to him, in that last moment in the hall outside the computer control room.

        Erik doesn't answer. He can't; Charles is not his ally, and he is not Charles'. No matter what it feels like.

        The kiss is soft and sweet. Just for one moment, Erik gathers Charles close; for one moment after their lips part, Charles leans his forehead against Erik's as though he wants to merge their thoughts by proximity, if nothing else.

        "I wish I could feel you just once more," Charles murmurs. Erik isn't sure if the sentiment is meant for him to hear, so he doesn't respond.

        "I'll be fine," he says instead.

        Charles snorts and lets him go, stepping back to regard him with a crooked and slightly rueful smile. "I know. You've become someone so… Erik. I wish I could have known you longer."

        "Me too." He says it without thinking, and almost bites his tongue an instant later. It's absurd in some ways and blatantly untrue in others. But… in other ways, it's true.

        "You know," Charles says, just before Erik has to go. "I'm going to need a brilliant engineer to devise a countermeasure to Lambent's telepathy damper. Not too many of Eisenhardt's caliber around."

        Erik throws him a look. Charles returns it with an almost obnoxiously cocky smile.

        "Maybe you should try an independent contractor," Erik says, slowly.

        This isn't a good idea. It isn't. No matter what his heart is telling him; no matter that Charles lights up at his words as though Erik flipped a switch.

        "That sounds like an excellent idea. Maybe you could tell one to get in touch with me."

        Erik hesitates, and watches Charles' face begin to fall. The way the sight makes him feel is entirely absurd, and decidedly irrelevant. But…

        He'll need to keep an eye on Charles anyway, to make sure he doesn't go further with XIM. There are so many other scientific endeavors Charles can devote himself to, so many ways he can devote his brilliance and passion to things that are actually good.

        "I can do that."

        The next moment, he's being ushered away to be handed over to Lambent's forces, standing ready to receive him and bundle him off to their own high-security research facility. He almost misses the luminescent smile Charles flashes at him.

        Almost.

        It doesn't matter what Eisenhardt wanted. Eisenhardt is dead. Lehnsherr is dead, as well. Only Erik remains.

         

         

        ~~~~~~~~~~

         

         

        Judging by Lambent's hurry to get their hands on Erik and clear out, their deadline is approaching at speed. Not before time, either – it's been taking HolyGhost suspiciously long to get more troops to Genosha. Surely the delay is longer than a mere communications block could explain. Perhaps Lambent has been busy elsewhere too, taking down HolyGhost reinforcements before they arrived.

        Whatever it is they did, Erik approves. This is far more convenient than any alternative could have been.

        Genosha's security is instructed to hand Erik over to Lambent in the courtyard of the erstwhile clone compound. It looks like a warzone, the burned and broken buildings around it like a grim echo of the once-neat high-security compound of mere hours before. Smoke and dust are so thick in the air that Erik coughs, and then holds his sleeve in front of his face, trying to breathe shallowly.

        He can't see the sun from here, but it's still early in the morning, judging by the angle of the light. Too bad the air lacks any hint of early-morning freshness.

        There's a huge hole in the wall right in front of them, but the lieutenant in charge of the handover makes a point of walking to the door and entering her security code to open it. Erik catches his snort just in time; he suspects it would be out of character for a hostage. Or bartered goods, or whatever it is he's meant to be.

        "Dr. Eisenhardt." The lieutenant's voice is flat, stripped of nuance more by rigid control than by the helmet's speaker. When Erik stops to look at her, the opaque visor of her helmet clears; she's a handsome middle-aged woman with dark, intelligent eyes and a grin cold and sharp enough to draw blood. "Give them hell."

        Erik raises quizzical eyebrows at her, keeping his face blank. Before her helmet blinks back to solid black, he catches the merest glimpse of her grin sharpening further.

        Melting down the data bunkers and dragging the lieutenant around by the rifle seems to have ruined his reputation. Still, HolyGhost security does not seem to carry a grudge… or if they do, it pales in the face of the grudge they bear Lambent.

        Erik should be exhausted. He was exhausted, not long ago – but now, in the early-morning sunlight in a ruined courtyard, the rotorcraft waiting to take him and the others out of here already starting up… now, he's all but brimming over with potential and energy, like a battery that's been fully charged for the first time.

        A small troop of six heavily armed soldiers is waiting for Erik in the middle of the courtyard, right next to the swing set. Their armor is blue and purple, with a small stylized L set over their hearts in exactly the same spot HolyGhost uses for their logo. It seems corporate design always trumps the wish to keep employees alive.

        Three rotorcraft are crouched in the courtyard behind the soldiers; eight more wait at various other points of the facility, and two already hover in the air. On the open ground outside of Genosha's walls, Lambent's ground troops are gathered in jeeps and transports, ready to withdraw. Weapons-grade steel is everywhere, a thousand different notes in a single chord, thrumming with eagerness.

        "We meet again," says the man in battle armor who steps forward to meet Erik, slapping a set of handcuffs on him. His helmet is opaque, but there's something unexpectedly familiar about the way he moves. "You like doing things the hard way, don't you?"

        A fair assessment, all things considered… but in the end, results are the only thing that matters.

        Training and discipline are wonderful things. Not even the man whose nose Erik broke – whom Erik damn near killed – attempts to jerk Erik around when he and his colleagues escort him to the rotorcraft. Instead, he treats him like an extremely valuable and dangerously fragile artifact. If Erik attacked his captors, he doubts they'd be able to fight back for fear of injuring him.

        The other clones are strapped securely into seats along one side of the rotorcraft Erik boards with his entourage. Linda is there, and Hikaru sits next to her, clutching her hand. And there are Kate and George and the other familiar faces, too. Frightened, yes, pale, yes – some of them have obviously been crying – but all of them are conscious and whole, healthy and unbloodied.

        For a moment, Erik is almost light-headed with the sheer strength of his relief. He does a quick head-count, and – thank god. Everyone is here. Every one.

        Something inside him – a tightly-wound coil of tension he hasn't even been aware of – springs loose, all at once, releasing with such sudden force that he gasps. Two of his guards hurry to make sure he isn't about to die, and then strap him into a seat across from the others; Erik hardly notices. He's too focussed on the wide-eyed faces turned to him, the unvoiced questions in their eyes. 

        "Don't worry," he says softly, and finds his gentlest smile for them. "Everything's going to be alright. I promise."

        "That's right," one of the guards says. "You're just taking a trip to a new place, that's all. We'll take good care of you. There'll be ice-cream for everyone when we arrive – it's just going to get a bit noisy first."

        She has no idea.

        Erik grins as the rotorcraft's rotors spring into motion, lifting the machine off the ground with a boost from the antigrav units that prickles along Erik's skin like champagne.

        This is going to be fun.