Charles Xavier had been awake for 24 hours straight. Getting from Westchester to Idlewild had been simple enough, as had his flights to Miami and then to San Juan. But arranging transportation to this remote area had taken considerable time even before it had begun – and had meant hours on bumpy, unpaved roads, with Charles piled unceremoniously in the back of a truck with only his duffel to sit on. The night had seemed to last forever, the air thick with humidity and mosquitos. Weariness had taken some of the intensity from his fear as the hours wore on. Yet the fear always remained – more diffuse now, not a single insistent point in his mind but a fog through which every sound and thought was filtered. When morning came and brought back the blinding heat, he’d poured a bit of his water onto his bandana and tied it around his forehead.
Between that and the exhaustion, he imagined he cut a poor figure here at the gate of Utopia.
That was what it said: Utopia. No irony evident, though the letters were hewn roughly in a plank of wood that ran across a mud road. Everyone who came here was being promised paradise.
The young man and woman who had met him at the gate were slim, attractive, and very polite for people carrying machine guns. “We don’t have accommodations for guests,” said the man, who had introduced himself as Janos. “I’m sorry. I know you’ve come a long way.”
“I’m not a guest,” Charles said. “I’m Raven Darkholme’s brother. Go ahead, ask her, I’m sure she’ll tell you.”
The woman called herself Angel; her dark eyes studied Charles carefully. “We came here to escape the outside world. Sometimes families don’t understand that.”
“But I do.” Do the blue-eyed innocent British fop thing, do it up, look as fucking adorable and harmless and winsome and castrated as you can. You’re a darling. Cup of tea? Nothing to fear here. His smile widened. “You see, what Raven said to me – everything she’s been talking about for the past few months – the more I think about it, the more I know she’s right. And I’m ready to leave the outside world too. In fact, I already have.”
Janos and Angel shared glances. Behind him, Charles could hear muttering from the truck. If he didn’t get through the gates soon, his ride would leave without waiting to see what happened to him. He didn’t relish the idea of being stranded in the jungle.
If only this talent he’d begun to develop – his mutation, his telepathy – could help him now! But he was forever struggling to master that ability, and his powers often became shakier when he was under stress. At the moment he felt more stressed than he had at any other point in his life, and so Janos and Angel were unreadable. Unfathomable. He just had to stand there, hoping he’d hit the tricky balance between looking happy to be here and looking sincere. Sweat trickled down the small of his back.
Janos half-turned and lifted his hand. Another figure emerged from a hut farther down the walk. Would this one have a gun too?
“I didn’t bring much,” Charles said, lifting his duffel. “A few changes of clothing. A few pairs of shoes. A book. Does that count as the outside world? I was hoping not. I’m hopeless if I haven’t got anything to read.”
“We do have a reading room, you know.” Angel gave him a contemptuous look, as though the bloody Library of Alexandria might be hidden back amid the banana trees.
Charles just smiled more broadly. “Then you can consider my copy of The Reivers as the latest contribution.”
“Someone wants to join us,” Janos said to the approaching figure. “Raven’s brother. Literally just drove up.”
For the first time, Charles turned his gaze toward the newcomer. He meant to keep smiling, but he couldn’t. Something about this man’s gray, unblinking stare told him he had to be as close to honest as possible, now. This man – tall, muscular in a rangy way, sheer power evident through the sweaty T-shirt and low-slung cargo pants, and with a jaw firm and angular as a cutting edge – this man would see through the lies.
This man gave him reason to be afraid.
“I don’t see any family resemblance,” said Angel. “Do you, Erik?”
“Raven is adopted. She told us that. You haven’t been listening during the gut checks, have you?” Erik’s gray gaze settled on Angel for a moment, and she straightened, one hand perhaps unconsciously seeking the butt of her gun. But his attention returned to Charles soon enough. “You mean to live here. To share our mission?”
Keep it simple. “Yes.”
“You never came to any of our meetings in New York.”
“No – I was living in England at the time. But I listened to what Raven told me. More carefully than she realized, I think.”
Erik tilted his head slightly, studying Charles. Three hours until noon, and already the heat made the air shimmer. Everything he’d done for the past week led up to this moment – and he knew he could well fail.
Maybe they’ll just let me go, Charles thought. Send me packing back to San Juan. But there was no comfort in that, not really. If he’d understood Raven’s last letter – understood the message he felt sure was written between the lines – then walking away from Utopia wasn’t an option.
He had to rescue his sister or die trying.
Then Erik said, “We’ll take him to Prophet.”
Prophet. That meant Elisha Ammon. The leader of the Church of The Transformation. That would be the final test.
Charles shouldered his duffel bag and began following the three of them along the long, muddy road that led toward Utopia, whatever it might be. Behind him, he heard the truck he’d hired start up and drive away. He listened to the sputtering of the motor until it faded from earshot, leaving him behind.
The Church of the Transformation had at first seemed like just one more of Raven’s enthusiasms. The fads of adolescence –hula hooping, Tab Hunter – well, those had been cute. However, her later interests had shown her true character – fundraising for the NAACP, volunteering for Kennedy, and the like. Charles had always supported her, though he had always wondered at the sheer intensity of her commitment to each and every cause. Such fiercely unquestioning devotion, even to the best of principles, bordered on unhealthy. However, he’d always thought the worst thing to fear for her was burnout.
A church had at first seemed like a positive step. Both Charles and Raven had drifted away from their parents’ Catholicism, but they’d talked about how they felt the lack of a spiritual component to their lives. Charles had been working on his doctorate at Oxford at the time, or else he would have accompanied her to the services she spoke of. A church that believed in radical social change: It sounded good to him.
Better yet – the Church of the Transformation welcomed mutants. Not tolerated. Welcomed.
The world was so little ready for them. Charles despaired of it, sometimes, but dreamed of someday using his scientific knowledge to help people understand that mutation was simply the next stage in human evolution – and that the gifts mutants had could be a force for good in the world. Raven’s letters had said that this was Elisha Ammon’s message, too. Charles had smiled to think of a place where mutants and humans worshipped together, recognizing one another’s humanity.
But then the letters had begun to change. It became clear that Ammon’s church did not merely welcome mutants; it catered to them exclusively. In fact, it preached that mutants were better than human beings – superior to them in ways far beyond the physical. The future belonged to mutants; thus, mutants had to be ready to rule.
This went too far. Mutation made people stronger, not better. Might did not make right. Charles tried to tell Raven as much, but she wouldn’t listen. Ammon had shown her a path down which her changeable skin was not merely an attribute but a virtue … and a way in which she could gain righteousness through being nothing more than what she’d been born. It was a seductive philosophy, as compelling as it was shallow. All the way across the Atlantic, Charles had no chance of overcoming it.
He still hadn’t been alarmed, though. Worried, yes – but the intensity of Raven’s dedication tended to be inversely proportion to the length at which she held it. Surely this too would pass.
Raven’s praise of Ammon became outright worship. Ammon could heal the sick, she said; as this was apparently the man’s mutation, Charles could accept that much. But in Raven’s telling, this was a sign of divine favor rather than the setting of his chromosomes. She called Ammon “Prophet” now, said that all mutants were to take names that reflected their true selves, and signed her notes “Mystique.” When she began writing about Ammon’s gift of prophecy, Charles became far more concerned. Yes, it was just possible that a mutation might allow people to glimpse shifts in the time-space continuum hidden to most, but was that true in this case? None of the prophecies seemed to be delivered for the hearers’ benefit – only to demonstrate Ammon’s power.
Then she’d written about the plan for a mutants’ community – a Utopia – in which they would live together, hiding nothing, exploring their powers and preparing for the day when they would rule. This was no mere pipe dream, but a scheme under which they gave up their lives, their homes, everything, and moved to a remote area of Puerto Rico in which to build a new world from scratch. Charles had said to hell with letters at that point and begun calling her long-distance from England at every opportunity. Nothing he said made any difference.
“We’re making this world for you, Charles,” Raven had said. “For everyone like you, and everyone like me. Someday you’ll see.”
Charles didn’t see. But by the time he’d been able to return home, Raven was gone – and most of her chunk of the family fortune had been moved to the treasury of the Church of the Transformation. To hell with the money: He wanted his sister back. As frustrated and worried as he’d been, his lawyers had told him there was little to be done. Raven was legally an adult. She could make her own choices.
Then, six days ago, he had received a letter from Utopia, her first in too long.
I know you’ve been worried about me, but don’t be, Charles. Everything here is amazing – I don’t think I’ve been this happy since it was just you, me and Mom at home in New Salem. We’re building a paradise on earth with our own hands. It’s just like we always said heaven would be: Equal, fair, just and right. We’ll see one another again when the time comes. Until then, take care of yourself and know that I love you.
The letter was signed Raven and then, under it, Mystique. It was in her handwriting. But every word of it rang false.
After Brian Xavier’s death, when it had been just Charles, Raven and Sharon Xavier in the house … that had been the darkest time of their lives. Mum had begun her swift, steep descent into alcoholism. Kurt Marko had wormed his way into their lives, bringing Cain with him. And their grief for their father had loomed longer as the years wore on, only growing stronger as their lives disintegrated without him. Raven would never have described that as a happy time – at least, not if she were speaking freely.
And they’d always said heaven was a place of pure love. It began as a childish prayer they said together – then something corny they would occasionally remind each other of – then finally the most sentimental thing they could say to one another and still wholeheartedly believe. She would never have written him a letter about heaven and not said that.
So when Charles read those words, he knew – Utopia wasn’t what Raven had wanted it to be, and she wasn’t even free to tell him so.
Two hours later, he’d made the first call about booking flights to San Juan.
Charles had never fully understood his sister, but he’d always loved her, and love was more than strong enough to bring him here. He only hoped it was strong enough to take them both back home again.
The first words Elisha Ammon spoke were, “You’re also a mutant.”
“Yes. I’m a telepath.”
Ammon paused there at the door of the cabin. The bright light from outside silhouetted him, made his face an unreadable shadow. Charles sat there on a plain wooden bench, elbows on his knees, so tired he thought he might drop.
Utopia was honestly impressive; instead of the few tents or makeshift shelters Charles had expected, he’d seen what looked like a small village – or perhaps the world’s best-organized summer camp. Large community buildings were surrounded on all sides by residential cabins, all of them rough-hewn but apparently sturdy. The mutants who walked around seemed for the most part cheerful and industrious. Charles might have been charmed – even disarmed – had his telepathic powers not picked up on a general sense of unease.
Now that he saw Elisha Ammon for himself, though, he understood why people in his presence found it hard to keep a clear head.
Ammon was not an especially large man – tall and fit, but very slender. He had long hands with elegant, tapering fingers that made Charles think of a musician rather than a preacher; his English accent was more posh than Charles’ own. Impossible to say whether he was a homely man or a handsome one: this sort of long-faced, catlike severity did not personally move Charles, but he suspected others might react very differently. (Charles had a weakness for brawn.) He wore simple clothing, the loose white shirt and khakis appropriate to the heat, and showing signs of wear that suggested he did not enrich himself at the expense of his followers; the only sign of wealth was a thick golden band around his wrist, and that was so dingy and dented that it seemed unlikely to be a recent purchase. Ammon’s pale eyes seemed to take in more than anyone else saw, and his appraising stare simultaneously made Charles yearn for approval and despair of receiving it. Had he met this man under different circumstances, with no reason to distrust him – had heard precisely the words he wanted to hear – it might have been easy to fall under his spell. Even now, Charles’ breaths came shallow and fast.
“A telepath,” Ammon repeated. He took one step further within the cabin and glanced toward the corner, where Erik stood. By now Charles understood that Erik was very senior in the church. “What a fascinating mutation.”
“My own talents are still developing. But I think I could be of some use.”
Underestimate yourself. Underestimate what you can do.
Crossing his arms, Ammon leaned against the doorframe. “Still developing?”
“Yes. I’ve been aware of my ability virtually my entire life – but – ” He couldn’t believe he was about to confess this – something Charles had rarely admitted to himself, much less to a man he strongly distrusted – but he had no prepared lie and knew he’d be found out if he relied on anything less substantive than the truth. “Every time I’ve come close to developing my power, I’ve been faced with some kind of trauma. A severe shock. When I was a child, just after Raven came to us, our house caught on fire. When we were adolescents, our father died suddenly. We had an abusive stepfather and stepbrother. Once I was in college, I began to – but then a good friend of mine was killed in an accident.” Charles laughed, though nothing was less funny than his litany of woes; the survival rate of the people close to him was so dismal as to seem like a cosmic joke. “I’m sorry. It gets old to listen to, I’m sure. But emotion clouds my ability, and I’ve never found a calm enough space to truly explore it.”
“You can tell us anything,” Erik said. This was probably church doctrine, a commonplace saying here. And yet it was tempting to think he truly meant it.
Ammon nodded. “How much can you read right now?”
Raven might have told them about his true potential – rarely glimpsed, but real. He couldn’t out-and-out lie. But he could ... underplay. “Right this moment? Very little, I’m afraid. I’m tired – exhausted, really. I haven’t slept in more than a day.” Charles wished that weren’t so close to the truth. He fudged a little more. “Mostly I need to be in contact with people to read more than a few moods.” There. That should be vague enough.
Ammon nodded, taking that in. Then he said, “Erik, take a seat next to Charles.”
Erik did as Ammon asked. The shaft of light that filtered through the nearest window, busy with motes of dust, painted the outline of Erik’s body for a moment – and then he was there on the bench next to Charles. He smelled like rich earth and honest sweat. The stubble along his chin only heightened the intensity of his gray eyes –
Easy, now, Charles told himself. No point in broadcasting the other way you differ from the norm. You haven’t come here to ogle attractive men. Particularly not attractive men who are currently armed and responsible for holding your sister in the jungle.
“Touch him, Charles,” said Ammon. The words sent a guilty thrill through Charles, for only an instant. He knew what Ammon was really asking.
He lifted his fingers to Erik’s temple; his skin was warm – no, hot, almost as though he had a fever. Their eyes met. Charles closed his eyes and felt …
Anger, unfocused, diffuse, ricocheting off everything and everyone in the world.
Grief, a wound in him almost as old as the man itself and not even begun healing.
Paranoia, sweeping out in every direction like radar, always on the ready.
And loneliness – so profound that the sorrow clenched around Charles’ own heart.
But he could speak none of that aloud. Absurd to feel so protective of a muscle-bound man with an automatic weapon, but Charles did. No matter: He could answer truthfully without violating Erik’s privacy. Quietly he said, “You hate the idea of your mind being read.”
Erik’s thin lips pressed together. “You’d hardly need telepathy to know that.”
“You’ve long wanted mutants to band together,” Charles said. “Since you were a boy. And in a very real way, you feel as though you owe Elisha Ammon your life. Or … or something even more precious to you than life. You owe him that.”
Charles let his hand drop. A flicker of awareness of Erik’s mind remained, despite his nervousness and exhaustion. Perhaps he’d formed a kind of tie to Erik in that moment – or maybe it was just that he recognized that mind now, and his powers sought it out, as instinctively as searching for home.
“Very interesting.” Ammon clasped his hands behind his back. His white shirt bore not one speck of dirt, not one line of sweat, despite the heat. “I admit, I’ve wanted to meet the famous professor.”
Careful. “I’m not currently a professor.”
“You have a doctorate in genetics, don’t you?”
“Raven told you about me. Well, she exaggerates, but I suppose you’ve found that out for yourselves by now.”
“And I know you. I know the current and flow of time, Charles. I know the shape of things to be. You are a rock in that stream. You shape the current. You change the flow.” Elisha’s pale blue eyes darted toward Erik. “As does Mr. Lehnsherr here, in his way.”
Marvelous. He goes around telling us all we’re destined to write the future. I suppose next he’ll be telling me I’m the reincarnation of Buddha or Abraham Lincoln or some such rot.
And yet there was something uncanny about Ammon, something that sent a chill along Charles’ spine, despite the heat.
“Tell me.” Ammon stepped forward, his gaze locking with Charles’. “What do you think Utopia would be?”
“I have to admit – I had no idea you’d have pulled so much together so quickly,” Charles admitted. Best to start with the little bit of honest praise he had.
But Elisha shook his head. “No. Not this place. Utopia in the classical sense, an ultimate ideal. What would that be, for you?”
“For myself it would be a library, good records, better wine, a chess set and pleasant company.” Charles was surprised to see a smile flicker briefly on Erik’s face, before it settled back into stone.
Elisha didn’t seem amused. “And for mutantkind? What is our utopia?”
“I wouldn’t presume to answer that. Every man ought to be free to define his own heaven.”
“Or to make his own hell?” Erik said.
Erik opened his mouth again, as if to begin a debate, and Charles found himself invigorated at the idea of this conversation – but Ammon stepped between them, and Erik did not speak.
“I think we can show you a better path to heaven, Charles,” Ammon said. “We’re all on that path together. I mean to lead the way.”
Something came through Charles’ powers then, muted but unmistakable: The sheer visceral strength of Elisha Ammon’s conviction, which went beyond admirable to being eerie. Yet it was not mere manipulation. This man believed in his cause, absolutely. He believed in Utopia.
Then Ammon smiled gently, and once again Charles felt some of the man’s charismatic pull. “Come along. You’re obviously tired, and you must be eager to see Raven.”
“Yes. Thank you.” Relief swept through Charles so strongly then that it dizzied him – or was that the long hours without sleep talking? He swayed slightly on his feet; Erik’s hand caught him, briefly, at the elbow. Ammon’s eyes flickered down to that touch, but his smile never dimmed.
“We’ll take care of you, Charles.” Ammon put his arm around Charles’ shoulder as he shepherded him from the hut; Charles kept his hand firmly around the handle of his duffel. “We’ll get you a place to sleep – needs must, now, but by tonight we’ll have everything settled. You’ll meet your new friends. Who knows? You might even meet a wife.”
Charles would have objected to that, had the brilliant light outside not blinded him for one instant – and had the first sight his squinting eyes took in not been a figure in blue dashing toward him.
No. A figure of blue.
“Raven!” He ran forward and scooped her up in his arms. She embraced him tightly, and people around them clapped and cheered. Charles opened his eyes to see it; most of the crowd, even Ammon, seemed genuinely pleased by the reunion. But Erik merely stood still and watched, grey eyes unfathomable.
“Oh, Charles,” Raven sobbed against his shoulder. “You didn’t say you were coming.”
“Wanted to surprise you,” he said, knowing she would understand that he meant surprise them.
But she shook her head, answering no to a question she hadn’t been asked. Her voice a whisper so low he could barely hear it, she said, “Why did you come?” He managed to keep a smile on his face for the others, even as she added, “Now he has us both, and he won’t let go. He’ll never, ever let go.”