Erik Lehnsherr sits on a chair in a concrete cell. The only light comes from a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, swinging slightly, casting strange shadows on his captors. When he looks down at the metal handcuffs binding his wrists, it makes him smile.
One of his interrogators says, “You claim that Maurice Chapel was secretly a Nazi.”
“His real name was Maximilian Kappel. He was a railroad executive who helped arrange shipments to the concentration camps.” Erik remembers the inside of the boxcar, the stink of sweat and piss and fear. He remembers his father holding him up with arms already trembling from hunger, so that Erik could open his mouth at the high slit and catch a bit of rainwater on his tongue, the only respite from the terrible thirst. His father never had a chance to drink.
“There’s no proof of that.”
“I know what I know.”
Erik has little patience with humans, but he understands quite well that his word alone is not enough for the English police force to let him walk away – not after he impaled Maximilian Kappel with a railroad spike. If he has to rot the rest of his life in Strangeways, it’s all been worth it to watch one more Nazi choke to death on his own blood.
But he doesn’t expect to rot. Prisons have a tendency to rely on metal.
Another guard says, “Don’t suppose you can explain how you managed to shove that spike all the way from the guy’s arse into his brain. You use a broomstick or something?”
“I was motivated.” Erik’s powers have rarely been more fulfilling.
The door behind him opens, and there’s some whispering. No doubt they’re also trying to come up with an explanation of how he got through the gates and locks surrounding the home of “Maurice Chapel,” all the precautions the man thought would keep out the past. Erik doesn’t care what they decide. It doesn’t matter. The next part of his life is mostly about boredom. He can wait out whatever comes next, until he is again free to keep hunting – and, perhaps, at last, to find Sebastian Shaw.
A voice says, “This one’s shipping out to the private facility.”
That sounds … odd.
“Don’t hold with privatizing the jails myself,” a guard grumbles, but he nudges at Erik with his nightstick. “Right, you. Come on.”
“Where am I going?” Erik says, with little real curiosity.
But the answer strikes a discordant note deep within. “You’re headed to Dead Man’s Paradise.”
Erik awakens on a slab of stone.
He startles – how did he fall asleep amid all this? He can’t have. That’s when he recognizes the thick sweet fog still clouding his thoughts and knows he was drugged. His memories are garbled from only a few moments after they loaded him into the transport; either they doped him immediately or the drugs have muddled the surrounding hours.
His neck hurts. One hand goes to his throat to feel a slender metal collar there – one with rough points that jab into his flesh raggedly enough that he doesn’t immediately rip the thing away. Removing it will take care.
Groggily he tries to look around. Gray, featureless, ill-lit: The room might as easily be in the jail he’d left, save for the distant roar. It’s a familiar sound – a human sound. Erik wonders, in a daze, if they’re near Twickenham stadium. Metal mesh forms most of the walls, which means he can see quite a distance into other similarly bare, depressing rooms, but the light is tricky and the shapes seem to change.
Prison again. So far he’s been incarcerated in three different countries. (He only counts actual prisons, and being jailed for actual crimes. What happened at Buchenwald doesn’t go on the tally.) Erik plans to rank them all for ease of escape. England seems likely to rank low; the walls themselves are metal? They might as well roll him a red carpet to the door.
One of the forms in the shadows steps closer. A guard, with purple stripes on his armband. A shout: “This one’s finally up!”
Erik’s eyes widen, because his jailer isn’t human.
He’s a mutant.
The jailer is red-skinned, pointy eared – he even has a tail. Erik knows he’s not hallucinating from the drugs, though. This isn’t some vision of a cartoon demon come to taunt him. Everything that’s happening is too real.
“Who are you?” Erik says. His voice is rough, as if, during the hours he forgot, he was screaming.
“I am Azazel.” His unfathomable eyes mock as he shoves Erik roughly from his slab; Erik only just manages to land on his feet. He’s wearing a black T-shirt and loose pants: prison garb, of a sort. “They gave you extra drugs – said you were a dangerous one. We’ll see about that, won’t we? But it’s time for you to stop napping. Time for initiation.”
“You’re a mutant.” Erik can’t stop thinking this. He can’t wrap his head around the idea that he’s been taken captive, been hunted down for who and what he is – exactly as he always feared – but by others of his kind. It can’t be. “Why do you work for them?”
“We don’t work for humans. We merely entertain them.”
Erik doesn’t understand any of this, and he decides he’s tired of trying. There’s plenty metal in the mesh grates surrounding this room, more than enough to wrap Azazel in. He reaches out –
--and nothing happens.
No, not nothing: The closest grate shudders in its frames. But the response isn’t nearly as strong as he would expect; this is the level he was at when he was hardly more than a boy. Erik feels a sickening wave of fear. “What have you done to me?”
“Your powers are mostly suppressed by your collar,” Azazel says. Others are filtering past now, all in prison garb like him, all mutants – even with the human ones, by now, Erik can tell. By and large they don’t look at Erik, wasting no pity or energy on anyone else. He wouldn’t either, if he were any less overcome. “I wouldn’t remove it, if I were you. It also delivers the antidote.”
“To the poison you’ve already been given.”
The sickly sweet fog within Erik’s mind takes on a darker cast. As he stands there, still dazed with drugs and shock, Azazel pushes him with the sharp tip of that tail. “Processing. Now.”
That was what the Nazis called it.
Your suitcases? They’ll be along. Never fear. Do you have your names on labels stitched into your coats? You’ll have to sort them out later – you can’t take them into the showers, of course. Now form a line. You, this line. You, that one.
(A metal sign overhead read Jedem das Seine. Literally it means “to each his own,” but the phrase in German carries another connotation – namely, that everyone gets exactly what they deserve.)
All the strong in one line. All the weak in another. Erik remembers his mother’s pitiful screams as she and his father were yanked into the line for the weak, and her cries weren’t even fear for her own life, just fear for her boy and everything he would have to bear without her there to protect him if she could. And she hadn’t guessed the worst of what would come to pass.
Is the universe cruel enough to provide an afterlife? Has his mother had to behold what Shaw did to her son, what he made of him?
Erik hopes not.
“You don’t listen, do you?” Azazel snarls. “Move!”
Then he strikes Erik hard enough for Erik to tumble to the ground. The combination of drugs and betrayal by his own kind nauseates him, maddens him beyond reason or restraint.
He rushes at Azazel, only to be brutally backhanded. His body slams into the metal mesh, and briefly he can feel the dimmest echo of his power, but not as strongly as he can feel the ragged edges cutting into his skin. Other prisoners are mumbling in dismay – other prisoners, other mutants, how can they line up for the slaughter like this? But they’re all collared. Tagged. Doomed. Panic and rage battle for Erik’s brain, and he can only fling himself at Azazel again; his hands barely manage to seize Azazel’s arms before he’s savagely thrown to the ground. His head strikes the concrete floor, not hard enough to injure but more than enough to daze.
“Do it again, if you want to die without even getting a fight,” Azazel snarls.
Erik has been in a position to ask whether he’d prefer a fast death or a slow one; he knows the answer. So he shakes his spinning head and tries to get to his feet –
--when one of the prisoners breaks rank and stoops by his side.
A hand closes gently around Erik’s arm. There is something in that touch that pulls him away from the nightmarish past and returns Erik to the here and now.
And then – not aloud, but inside his head, Erik hears a voice say, You’re not alone.
Erik meets the blue eyes of a man perhaps a few years younger than himself, not particularly tall nor muscular, but unbowed by captivity. His hair has been roughly and haphazardly shorn, almost bald along the side, where half-healed stitching reveals the aftermath of some brutal wound.
“My God,” this man whispers. “What did they do to you?” Somehow it’s evident that he’s not taking about today. The blue eyes go to Erik’s arm, where the tattooed numbers remain stark against his skin.
Erik can only shake his head. Really, he’s never had a reply to this. A recitation of facts, a catalog of the dead, but he has never had a real answer, one that would say why.
“We’re in this together,” the newcomer says as if he truly means it. “Come along.”
“Not again.” Erik has stood in lines before. He has waited to be sorted as living or dead before. His worst, oldest nightmare is unfurling around him, and it’s paralyzing. “I won’t do this again.”
The man kneeling beside him nods; he understands, deep down. Erik knows that. And yet this man will not let him go.
He says to Erik, “You’re too strong to die here, my friend.”
“Move!” Azazel shouts, and Erik regrets it, because he was about to stand for this person – this friend – and not on anyone’s orders. But when his hand is tugged, Erik takes the hint and rises, and soon he too is marching in file.
Behind him, his new friend says, voice soft enough to hardly carry over the tromping of feet on the floor, “I’m Charles Xavier.”
“Why did you keep going after the grates?”
It feels odd to say the next out loud, but for the first time in his life, Erik is surrounded by his own kind. “I control metal – or I did. What have they done to us?”
“These collars inject two drugs. One is for masking our powers.” Charles has a remarkably soothing voice, despite the dire nature of what he says. Erik tries to focus on it as he walks in the line, closer and closer to the horrible roar of the crowd. “One is the antidote to the poison we’ve already been given. Trick is, we have to earn the antidote.”
“Earn it? How?”
“Still finding out,” Charles admits. “I’ve heard rumors, but – I don’t know for sure. Only got here a week ago, and most of that time I’ve been recovering from the surgery.”
“I’m a telepath – a mind-reader. And I was stronger than their stupid drugs.” The pride in Charles’ voice resonates with something deep within Erik. “So they attached a metal plate to my skull. There’s something about its composition – the alloy – I don’t know. Now I can only read thoughts through touch.”
He didn’t have to touch people before? Erik has heard of a handful of telepathic mutants, but apparently none of them came close to matching Charles’ power.
They’re being herded into a kind of pen now, and Erik’s gut cramps with remembered cold and terror. It seems to him that he can feel the thick mud around his feet, that the rain will come pelting down. But the guards – all the guards, he can see dozens of them now – they’re mutants. His only psychological defense has always been hatred of humanity for what they did in the camps, and his knowledge that he was not one of them. But he is one of these. It makes no difference.
As they come to a stop, Charles steps beside Erik. His eyes betray concern; it probably doesn’t take telepathy to see that Erik is at the brink. “When I took your hand – well, I saw how you got here. You killed a Nazi. You deserve a medal, not this.”
“And you? What brought you here?” Erik doesn’t care what the answer is; he has to say something to keep from letting the terror take him over.
Or he thinks he doesn’t care, until Charles says, “Framed myself for murder. Nobody’s even dead, actually. The police only thought they saw a corpse. I wonder what they buried.”
Erik has to stare. The grid overhead cuts the light into squares. Lines of shadow criss-cross on Charles’ face. “Framed yourself? But why?”
“I had to get here. To find out if Dead Man’s Paradise was real, and see if it could be destroyed.” After a moment, Charles adds, more quietly, “And I believe one of the prisoners is -- someone very dear to me. If Raven’s in here, I have to get her out.”
“Still working on that, I admit.”
“Planning may not be your strong suit.”
“Good thing I met you then, isn’t it? You’re skilled at that sort of thing. I can tell. ”
Although Charles’ cockiness in the face of hell is wildly irritating, Erik can’t help but admire his courage. It’s taking all his considerable strength of will to continue standing upright in the face of this horror. As more people crowd in, he sees that there are female inmates as well, with bruised faces and tattered wings. They are all caught up in Dead Man’s Paradise, whatever it might be.
A dark figure appears on a platform near the top of the room; the murmuring crowd of prisoners instinctively falls silent. Erik can’t breathe.
“Welcome to Dead Man’s Paradise. I am the Jailer. This prison is an experiment – a private company, not a government institution, designed to protect society and create profit. You want to earn your lives? Then you will earn antidote. You earn antidote by playing in the games … and, of course, by surviving them.”
Games. He means gladiatorial games. Mutants are forcing other mutants to tear one another apart for the amusement and profit of human beings.
Erik has to fight back the urge to vomit.
“There is no parole here. No time off for good behavior. You will fight at least once every three days, and you will kill or die. There are other games, too – some for less profit, some for more – but the stakes remain high. The price of failure is absolute. Know this: From this day forward, you are mine.”
“Don’t lose heart,” Charles murmurs.
Charles glances at him then, and even from the corner of his eye, Erik can see the surprise on his face. “Erik?”
“I’m quite well now,” Erik replies, and he is. The fear has gone somewhere else. He knows how to fight. He knows how to kill.
And the Jailer is none other than Sebastian Shaw.
His chance has come at last.