Nuclear war might almost have been better, Charles thought at times. Not, of course, that reality could be much worse—but it seemed as if the bright and glorious implosion of a two-stage bomb would have at the very least been faster.
He watched the world turn through a television set; through newspapers and gossip. The sky above was tinted faintly green with smoke wafting away from another part of the globe, and he was told that the water had to be treated for sulfuric acid before they gave it to him.
That winter it had snowed extraordinarily, and Charles didn’t eat fresh food for two weeks because no one could reach the valley. It had never snowed that much in the mountains outside of Chilliwack before; not in anyone’s lifetime.
“I’d like to see Erik,” Charles stated that morning. He always said that, every morning, when Lila came to bring him the paper and breakfast. The food was predictably, reliably lukewarm by the time it reached him; his house lacked a kitchen.
“Sorry,” Lila pouted. For all Charles knew, she was being sincere. “I don’t have that kind of authority. But—” she paused, and smiled as if she’d had an epiphany— “I’ll ask my supervisor.”
She was old and pretty beneath her burnished helmet.
Charles was used to being unable to hear anyone’s thoughts by now. Occasionally, someone would hike through the grounds; more and more as the world outside grew worse and refugees sought out the hidden parts of the country; less as the winters grew colder and the refugees fewer.
The first year he had drawn them to him like a piper, all boldness and flair.
He stopped after the first few times he had experienced, vicariously, what it felt like to be shot in the chest.
He would have stopped sooner, but then he stopped hearing about his students over the television. It was a long time before he admitted to himself that the two things were related.
The valley stretched out before him, glacier-carved and vibrant green. The fall storms brought rain and fog; not the violent storms he was used to, but a constant heavy ache of rain. Today, however, Charles could see green; could see the mountain slopes laid out in their entirety.
The window was huge; seamless glass from floor to ceiling. Erik had really spared no expense. Even the house itself—almost a manor, really—sprawled, curving up floor by floor. Charles could reach all of it, or at least the parts of it that weren’t walled off, even in his chair.
It was a cold hospitality, despite the warmth of the fires in their cages. It was an exhibit, although the audience was within.
“Excellent news, Charles!” Lila said in greeting, carrying a tray of real bacon and eggs—something Charles had never lacked enough to miss, although he knew from the television that these things were more precious than gold, which could not be eaten. Lila looked older than she used to, and she had confessed once that she’d lost a niece and a cousin in the years since meeting Charles.
“And what is that, my dear?” Charles replied, turning away from the window. He dropped a hand down to the rim of a wheel, ready to turn in full; a life spent as a telepath made him a poor guesser, at times, but over time he’d grown better at reading the staff’s obscured faces. This was something important; not another victory for the Brotherhood, which they knew brought him no joy, but something he might genuinely like.
“You’re being moved,” Lila told him, setting the tray down at the table. “To New York.”
To New York.
They belted his chair to the floor and walls of the plane. Charles, for his part, found himself strapped down to the chair. This made it difficult to look out the window, but if he craned his head just right he could see.
On the initial flight out to British Columbia, surrounded by mutants armed with nothing more than their genetics, Charles had been certain that it would not be long before one of them made a mistake; before he could manage to slip the stifling metal from his head and turn them to his aid. Back then, Charles had glared sullenly out the window and bided his time by watching the neat green circles and squares of fields pass below.
Now most of what he saw down there, where the earth was not already scarred black with ash, was an unbroken, unhealthy brown.
“Erik,” Charles breathed. His old friend was still recognizable; he still looked the same, still with that flowing cape and ridiculous red and purple helmet, but there was something grown tired in his face, in the lines of his eyes and around the creases of his nose. Even the edges of his cape were grayed, though it could not have been the same garment. For a moment, Charles felt an urge to help Erik; to make him smile again, genuinely, as he had once.
The feeling was short-lived. Charles knew well enough who had led the destruction of the world, and his inclination toward goodwill faltered in the face of that knowledge.
“Magneto, now,” Erik corrected gently, crooking his mouth in an attempt at a smile. He stood at the top of a short flight of stairs, in what was almost the entryway of a palace. Charles suspected that Erik had chosen it—or, perhaps, had it built—simply to be larger than his own family’s manor. It was echoingly huge, and the guards wore molded silver helmets. For all of its grandiosity, however, it seemed remarkably barren. There were no decorations; no framed paintings or rare antique vases.
“You’ve seen what I’ve made of the world,” Erik continued. “It’s all ours now, Charles.”
“You’re very thorough,” Charles acknowledged. “There’s hardly any of it left untouched.”
Erik’s teeth showed. “Thank you,” he said. “Of course, it will be rough for the first several years. It always is at the beginning of something new.”
“Or at the end of something grand,” Charles said.
Frowning, Erik twitched the edge of his cape at his heels. “You only say that now because you haven’t seen the world we’ll build next.”
“I don’t need to see it to know that it will have been built out of extinction,” Charles said. He was almost—almost—glad that he couldn’t stand; better to sit disobediently slouched than to pace and fidget, stood before the new world’s emperor like a vassal.
“Extinction has always led to adaptive radiation,” Erik reminded him, stepping down the first of the stairs. His hard boot soles—expensive, polished, but no doubt utterly functional—rang dull on the granite. “You know that.”
“That said, no one sane would wish for a meteorite,” Charles reasoned, “Or, for that matter, a few hundred thousand square kilometers of molten rock. I’ve sat and watched your world unfold for four years now. Forced human labor, Erik? Really? Haven’t we seen this kind of thing before, my friend?”
Erik tipped his head down, hiding the flush of his face in shadow, and he took the last few steps all in a rush. “We needed to do something with the resistance, and we needed food. Crops don’t grow themselves, Charles; roads don’t build themselves.”
“This isn’t the way to do it,” Charles explained sadly, looking up at Erik as he came to loom above the chair. “This isn’t the person you were meant to be.”
Erik hesitated; his lips parted, and then slowly met each other again. “Then join me,” he offered, finally.
“Excuse me?” Charles asked, squinting at him.
“I need people like you on my side,” Erik said, and for a moment he almost looked haunted. “It’s true that some of this has… Gotten slightly out of hand. Some of the others, my generals and allies, don’t see anything wrong with our current course. We could use a counter opinion. Someone respectable, educated; well-known.”
“I think you may be beyond my help, Erik,” Charles stated. “Send me back to Canada and stop pretending that the end justifies the means.” He settled a hand onto the wheel of his chair to swivel around and move away, but Erik’s hand caught his wrist.
“I need you, Charles,” Erik said. “I need an idealist. I need someone who can stand with me; who can stand up to me.” He turned Charles’ wrist over to expose the delicate veins, stark blue beneath sun-starved skin, and traced them delicately with the tip of his thumb. “I’m trying to build a utopia, but to do that I need someone who can still imagine one.”
Charles pulled his wrist back gently, extricating himself from Erik’s pliant fingers. “It’s going to be hard for me to stand anywhere at all with you, given the circumstances.” It was meant to hurt, and Charles could see that it did, but Erik’s pained expression was backed by resolve.
“I can fix that, Charles,” he insisted, eyes glinting with a mad urgency. “I thought of that. For the past several years, ever since I… Since you had your accident, I’ve been recruiting scientists. You’ve seen their work.”
Charles laughed darkly. He had read the papers, yes, on such wildly variable subjects as genetic therapy, cloning, immortal strains of cancer, and morulas. The names had all been blacked out, and the methods of research were at times suspiciously vague. “Yes, I can think of certain German researchers in years past who would be proud.”
Erik scowled. “We’ve done hardly any human testing,” he insisted, “let alone mutant testing. The point is, we’ve come up with something I think will work. At the very least, it can’t hurt you.” He was still standing very close, and Charles could have reached into his jacket pocket for him as Erik pulled out a small syringe. It was partially filled with a translucent fluid, tinted a delicate, agarose blue, and the needle was worryingly long and stiff.
Charles eyed it warily. “What is that, Erik?”
“Remember the tests we ran with embryonic stem cells in mice?” Erik asked, pulling out a vial of iodine and a large cotton swab from the other pocket. In order to do so he'd set the syringe down on Charles’ knee. Charles couldn’t feel it, of course, but all the same it seemed like a dreadful weight, and he narrowed his eyes at it.
He did remember the mice, though; pitiful things, dragging their hind legs after crooked backs. It had reminded Charles too much of his own body, but he’d forced himself to read the literature anyway. “Of course. Injection into the spinal column restored partial movement, but only uncoordinated twitching. Interesting, but hardly a miracle cure.”
“That was an old test,” Erik replied; this close, he seemed almost to thrum with pride as he stripped off the wrapping of the cotton swab. He dipped the soft tip of it down into the brown iodine bottle, and let it soak. “I wanted it to be a surprise. Since then we’ve done tests with a microfilament scaffolding, designed to conform to the shape of the spine upon injection; the cells migrate along it and use the scaffold as a pattern to grow along. It’s taken time, but we think we’ve perfected it.”
And by ‘we,’ you mean your scientists, Charles corrected in his mind. A chill passed down his spine and stopped partway down. “Who did you test this on, Erik?” he asked, watching as Erik lifted the syringe with his mind, dangling it out of the way by the still-capped needle. Charles’ fingers squeezed into the armrests of their own volition.
Erik didn’t reply; at least, not to Charles’ question. “It will take time to heal, but someday you’ll walk again. Then we can be who we were to each other again.”
Charles hardly had time to wonder what, exactly, he’d meant by that before Erik shoved him down with a hand on the back of his neck. Head trapped between his knees, Charles strained and pulled at the armrests but could not right himself when he felt Erik tug up the back of his shirt. The air was cold on his skin, and Erik’s hand was all the more warm for that as it brushed over the part of his back that could only half-feel the touch.
“Be calm, Charles,” Erik murmured, which did not stop Charles from trying to jerk away when the warmth of Erik’s hand was replaced by the bracing smear of the iodine. A moment later the sharp chemical smell reached his nose, and Charles’ heart shrank in his chest as he waited, staring down at the tips of his new-shined shoes with wide eyes.
The needle bit into his spine, and this Charles could feel. It felt every bit as wide as it had looked, and as he sucked in shocked air it seemed as if it were never-ending, as if it would keep going on and on, straight through into the meat of him—but then there was a popping sensation, and something else that Charles could never have described to anyone.
“Don’t move,” Erik said to his ear, gentle in a way Charles wanted nothing to do with. “Don’t move yet. Give it time to settle.”
Charles knew what he risked if he moved, and it was more than just the loss of some miraculous cure—so he stared down through the rungs of the chair at the granite floor, straining to feel the creep of the foreign cells along his tangled neurons; sure, somehow, that in the echoing silence of Erik’s empty mansion, he could hear them.