Charles awakens alone.
Not merely alone in the room – alone, utterly alone, without the merest shadow or whisper of another human mind within the considerable range of his telepathy. The experience is so shocking and alien that he first thinks that he must be dead. This can only be what it’s like to be dead.
Then he feels the metal cuffs around his wrists, the hard chair on which he sits. He remembers the incident aboard the airliner – takeoff delayed by odd instrument readings, drinking awful hot tea from a plastic cup, and then the sudden violent shock as the plane’s roof was ripped away. And he realizes that no version of the afterlife in any world religion involves dull headaches like the one he has now.
Charles lifts his head to take in his surroundings: A sort of cave, perhaps, illuminated by a few lanterns that sit on the floor and small outcroppings of rock. And there, in the shadows –
He startles as something moves. Someone.
The figure takes shape as he steps into the light. But Charles knows who it is even before the lanterns shine on the helmet – even though they have never before met face to face. Only one person on Earth can sneak up on him.
“Erik Lehnsherr,” he says.
“I prefer Magneto.” The man’s voice is a harsh one, with an odd, clipped accent that speaks both of Germany and the desire to forget being German.
“I prefer not being abducted and bound.” Charles says this congenially; he’s not wasting any energy on outrage. “So it looks as if we’re both making compromises today.”
Erik stares at him. There’s no way for Charles to know what Erik was expecting, but – not that.
“So I take it your Brotherhood of Mutants was responsible for the plane’s trouble.” Charles studies Erik’s face carefully, at least as much as he can see with that blasted helmet in the way. He’s not used to negotiating without the considerable advantages telepathy gives him; he knows he must be careful. “Thanks for not waiting until we were in the air. All this trouble to meet me?” Bravado is not natural to him, but he feels the need to try it. The dossiers he’s read about Erik Lehnsherr, Magneto, Public Enemy Number One, suggest that he respects strength. “You might have asked, you know. Invited me to a conference table. Or to cocktails. These are the weapons of civilized men.”
“This is no joking matter,” Erik says. “But allow me to apologize for – an excess of caution.”
The handcuffs around Charles’ wrists stretch – startling sensation – until they drop to the rock floor with a clunk.
He brings his hands in front of him, relishing the blessed change in posture, the relief to his muscles, as Erik continues, “I wasn’t sure you would be sensible about this. But you seem rational enough – save for your cooperation with our oppressors.”
Rubbing his wrists, Charles processes that and comes up with the only possible answer. “You mean human beings. Are you about to punish me as a collaborator?”
To his surprise, Erik smiles. “No, I mean to recruit you.”
Charles Xavier appears surprised – but not astounded, not thrown off his game. Erik doesn’t know why it feels so important to get the better of this man he has gone to such extremes to persuade, but it does. It’s frustrating to see him so utterly unbothered. “Yes. Your powers are considerable. Your influence is growing. If you continue on this path, you will turn all mutantkind into humanity’s servants, perhaps their slaves. But if you join me – ”
Join us, that was what he’d meant to say.
“If you join me, we can claim the power that should rightfully be ours.”
Charles considers this so seriously that Erik almost thinks, despite all rationality, that it might actually be that simple. Then Charles says, “What power is that?”
“Rulership of this Earth.”
“Oh. No, thank you. That sounds like it would involve long hours. And paperwork. I loathe paperwork. Sometimes I convince school board officials that I’ve turned everything in when I actually can’t be bothered. Irresponsible of me, I know.”
“You’re not fooling anyone.”
Charles relaxes slightly, and something of the brave act he’s putting on fades. “Absolute power corrupts. I ought to know. My power brings me as close to that as I can imagine. Already I have to struggle against it. More power – that’s the last thing I need.” He rises from the chair – slowly, and his face betrays discomfort. Muscle cramping, no doubt, from the long time he spent bound.
Erik remembers being bound. Remembers the way Shaw used to tie him up – with ropes, so he would remain powerless – in order to do his dirty work. His muscles ache in sympathy.
Shaw was right, he reminds himself. He was right about everything. Our work has a price.
“So you’ll stand by and watch our kind hunted down. Eradicated.” Erik paces closer to Charles. They are face to face now. “You don’t mind allowing atrocities like the ones in Bombay. Or the violence in Mexico City.”
“Of course I mind,” Charles snaps, his temper breaking at last. “Not even I can read every thought on the globe at once. I can’t control all humanity simultaneously. While that’s true, violence will happen – and sometimes, it will happen to mutants. Meanwhile, your terrorist activities invite those kinds of attacks. Give people reasons to excuse them, even provoke them.”
“This is a war.”
“Only because you’ve made it one.”
Erik realizes he’s allowed himself to be caught in a needless argument, the kind that won’t convince anyone. He and Charles are getting the better of each other, and thus going nowhere. He steadies his voice and says, “I want to tell you who I am.”
Charles blinks. “I know who you are.”
“You know my names. You don’t know why I am who I am. Why I know what I know. When you understand, Charles – you’ll see.”
They have their conversation in the room Erik hollowed out for himself, which is as civilized as it could be under the circumstances – soft bedding on a shelf of the iron-rich stone, a folding table and chairs, some food he’s brought in from the natural refrigeration of the Arctic Circle outside. “The weapons of civilized men,” he says as he pours the wine – the closest he has to cocktails. It surprises him to see Charles smile.
Their senses of humor are not so different, it seems.
Erik has girded himself for this from the time he made the determination that Charles Xavier – mutant operative of the United States, the would-be “public face” of the next phase of evolution – had to be persuaded. This conversation is one he has had very rarely, and never lightly.
But when the moment comes, it is remarkably easy to tell Charles about the camps. Charles listens – listens with every part of himself, his whole body tense and alert, responding to each revelation. Erik realizes he’s looking directly into Charles’ eyes for far longer than he ever has with anyone else. At no point does Charles say a word.
“That is the nature of humanity,” Erik finishes. His sleeve is already rolled up to reveal the dark numbers tattooed there. Charles’ fingers ghost over his skin, not quite touching, and yet Erik can feel the shadow of warmth. “If you think they will not call us animals, if you think they will not cage us, if you think they will not kill us, every corpse turned to ash in the crematorium is testimony that you are very wrong.”
Silence fills the room. Charles doesn’t speak for a very long time, and Erik realizes he is fighting back tears. At last Charles says, “I am so truly sorry.”
“Tell me now that human nature is kind. That they can be trusted.”
“I would never tell such a lie,” Charles responds, startling Erik. “I’m a telepath, you know. I’ve always understood what people are. And I’ve always understood – mutants are just as flawed. Given the kind of power you want us to take, we would ultimately behave no better than the Nazis.”
“Don’t you think I understand that?”
Charles leans back in his chair. For the first time – remarkably, considering the circumstances of their introduction – Erik sees real disapproval there. “You can’t mean what you’re saying.”
“This is the world. There are masters and servants. I choose to be a master. And you, Charles – ” They have used each other’s first names from the start. “You were never meant to be a slave.”
Another long silence follows. Charles slowly says, “Human life is inconsequential to you. Paris proved that.”
“Paris was necessary. The French government planned to –”
“Not planned. Discussed. Contemplated. That measure would never have passed except for what you did!” Charles runs one hand through his shaggy hair, revealing that’s surprisingly thin. It makes him seem vulnerable. “Listen to me.”
“You’ve listened to me. It seems only fair.”
“My parents were human beings.” Charles’ eyes lock with Erik’s once more. “And so were yours.”
Erik remembers that final parting at the gate, the haunted look in his father’s eyes.
Charles continues, “If my guess about the current rate of mutation is correct, there is probably a small mutant child in Paris right now whose parents were taken from them, just as cruelly and unjustly as your parents were taken from you. And for that, humanity is not to blame. You are.”
“Do you think I would listen to such sentimentality? Such speculation?”
“I hope you would. You remember, Erik.” Charles’ hand settles over the tattoo on Erik’s arm, a touch as astonishing as it is gentle. “You have dedicated your whole life to remembering. And it’s the deaths of human beings you sorrow for. I think – I think you have become what you beheld. I think you believe that if you take the side of the persecutors, you will finally be safe. But none of us is ever safe. And I already know – you’re better than the monsters who did this to you. Don’t turn into one of them. If you do that, then they truly will take over the earth.”
Erik jerks his arm away and walks out of the room he meant to be his. His footsteps echo in the metallic space, which is how he can tell Charles isn’t following. He doesn’t stop until he’s back on the surface of the island – a barren heap of metal-rich rock just inside the Arctic Circle, too small and desolate to be of interest to anyone but him. There’s no sunlight this time of year, just a small brightening at the horizon for a few hours a day. Now it’s pitch black.
He looks in the darkness and imagines his mother’s face.
Then Charles’ face.
The words Charles spoke seem to echo for hours.
Charles knows he can’t go after Erik. His words will sway the man or they won’t; pushing harder right now will only make Erik defensive.
But he wants to go after Erik, for two reasons – one selfish, one not.
The unselfish reason is because he knows Erik is in pain … even more pain than before, thanks to what Charles has said. Charles thinks that pain is necessary, but it didn’t make it easier to inflict the wounds. For years he has thought of the mysterious “Magneto” as an object of evil; now, even without access to Erik’s mind, Charles knows this is a person with feelings as deep and sensitive as any other. There’s a good man in there, locked in unending battle with his fear. He wants to save that good man so much it astonishes him.
The selfish reason is because, once again, Charles is alone.
Alone for the first time in his life.
The thoughts of others have always been near. His mother always told the story at cocktail parties, about how little Charlie somehow knew just when she woke up because he started crying for her at once. She always made it sound like the greatest nuisance. Charles knows it’s evidence that his gift began in infancy. He’s never been separated from the sense of humanity swirling around him, whether near or far.
But this place, wherever it is, must be remote in the extreme. Erik’s helmet is even more effective than the CIA dossiers suggested, because he is invisible to Charles. There are no other thoughts but Charles’ own, and he finds this profoundly unnerving.
This must be what it’s like to go blind, he thinks. Or to go deaf. To suddenly lose one’s strongest sense of connection with the world.
Well, people survive going blind and going deaf. He can manage, Charles tells himself. And for the first hour or so, he does.
In the second hour, though, his nerves begin to fray.
It’s cold here, and it’s dark. He has remained in the room Erik brought him to, which has only one of the lanterns burning. Charles focuses on that light, rocking back and forth. His mind is becoming scattered – disorganized. Bouncing his thoughts off those of other people is so natural to him that he hardly knows how to think without that constant companionship.
If only Erik were here. Conversation with Erik had kept him steady. That was a duel of wits and words, exciting and interesting and tragic by turns, and it had focused Charles as few other exchanges ever had. But Erik hasn’t come back.
There are studies about solitary confinement that Charles has read. It is crueler than any physical torture, they say. Given enough time alone, any mind will rip itself to shreds.
Psychic isolation is apparently having the same effect, only faster than physical isolation ever could. Charles has begun shaking, and his memories seem to be all out of order, and he’s almost sure the shadows have begun to move.
“Erik?” But he regrets calling for Erik at once, because Erik does not come, and the echo against the metallic rock seems to taunt him.
By the fourth hour, Charles is prone on the bed. He knows who and where he is, but only because he’s begun clawing at his arms and scalp with his fingernails. The pain forces him back into his own body. Each nail is now rimmed with blood.
He keeps clawing and scratching and shaking until – after what might be another five minutes or eternity – he hears Erik’s voice. “My God. What are you doing?”
“I don’t know.” But he does know, doesn’t he? He can’t remember. Charles keeps raking his fingernails across his scalp. “Talk to me. Just talk. Say anything.”
“Charles.” Erik sits by him, comforting and close. Erik will help him. “Are you sick? Cold? What’s happened to you?”
This much Charles remembers. “No thoughts. Nobody to – I can’t hear anyone. I don’t know how I’m real if I can’t hear anyone. Keep talking, please, keep talking.”
Erik stares. He doesn’t say another word.
Instead, he takes off his helmet.
Everything that Charles Xavier is flows into Erik’s head.
Erik gasps as it crashes into him: An unloved boy in a luxurious house too large for only one child. The roof of the plane ripping away, and the sound of tearing metal. A pub at Oxford and the taste of oatmeal stout. The sensation of handcuffs expanding around his wrists. The red-and-blue model of a double helix of DNA, rotating in a lab. Erik’s own face, the feel of his skin beneath Charles’ hand.
He braces himself against Charles – or does Charles brace himself against Erik? They’re holding onto each other’s shoulders now, breathing fast.
Then Charles finds purchase, and Erik knows his mind is being rifled through – not cruelly, hardly even intentionally, but in a desperate need to find something familiar and real. Memories shudder in his mind, like a film unspooling on a projector that’s gone haywire – the attack on Paris, his first trip to Israel, the fish soup he ate last Wednesday, looking down at the unconscious Charles Xavier for the first time.
It occurs to Erik that he ought to think of something pleasant. His life has contained fewer joys than most – first by tragedy, then by design. But he musters up something: That old movie he saw a few years ago. “Stagecoach.” Black and white, at least twenty years old, with John Wayne looking as if he were no more than a boy. It was a Western – typical American propaganda, he would have thought, and he was only in the theater to escape from the rain – but it had been a damned good film. Interesting characters. An ending that was happy and yet somehow seemed plausible. Erik had stayed in his seat to watch it three times that afternoon.
The plot becomes more and more concrete in his mind, and Erik realizes Charles is putting the movie in order. He must have seen it too. Charles’ breathing becomes steadier, and Erik knows the worst has passed.
Charles finally lifts his head and looks Erik in the eyes. “Thank you.”
“I’m sorry,” Erik says softly. “I didn’t realize it would have this effect on you.”
“Neither did I.”
Charles slumps back onto the bed, and Erik retrieves a small cloth with which to wipe thin streaks of blood from Charles’ wrist and temple. As he does so, Charles winces. “Good God. I was out of my head.”
“I didn’t bring Mercurochrome.”
“And you call yourself a kidnapper.” This time, Erik can actually feel the humor behind the joke – the way Charles uses it to make himself brave. It’s that, more than the joke itself, which makes Erik smile.
Erik isn’t sure what to say next, but without the helmet, he doesn’t actually have to talk, does he? His eyes meet Charles as he thinks of the one person who has preoccupied his thoughts during this long, terrible night: His mother.
Charles breathes out. The emotion that Erik senses – the one that Charles is projecting, it must be – is not satisfaction or triumph. It’s relief. It’s as though Charles had wanted to save him.
“I did,” Charles says. “I do.”
“The Brotherhood will wonder if you kidnapped me instead.” Erik can’t believe that he is about to change course so radically, but he is. He’s never made a decision this big this quickly and been this certain. “There’s the small issue of the warrants for my arrest.”
“You wouldn’t believe the people the U.S. government will make deals with,” Charles says. Erik would believe it; he knows there are several Nazi scientists now living rather comfortably in the American Southwest. “Exactly,” Charles replies to the unspoken thought. “I’ll vouch for you. You’ll be all right as long as you’re with me.”
“Yes,” Erik says, and he is saying yes to possibilities beyond this moment, this discussion. Possibilities he can feel flickering within Charles, too. Anything can happen, now. “I believe I will.”