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Hollow Minds and Dead Souls

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"This is extraordinary, Hank," Charles said, staring into the open valet case. Unlike a typical piece of luggage, this one was made of reinforced steel; Erik had felt the dense weight of the alloy from down the hall, before they'd gotten to Hank's lab at all.

He'd wondered what Hank could possibly need with a metal suitcase, but seeing its contents was still a bit of a shock. Even Erik could tell what he was looking at; it was all too obvious. The metal skullcap with its collection of wires, wrapped in a flexible coil of steel to keep them from tangling; the control panel, full of dials and switches, about the size of a portable manual typewriter; the coiled, insulated power plug. Everything was tucked neatly into protective padded compartments.

A portable version of Cerebro. As if that damned thing didn't take enough of Charles's time as it was. Erik stood back and crossed his arms over his chest while Charles came forward and ran his hands over the components. "I had no idea it would even be possible to miniaturize Cerebro," Charles marveled, pulling out the smaller version of the headpiece. "I was amazed enough that you'd managed to develop something of the sort at all, given you didn't have a telepath available to test it--"

"And let me say again that I'm not enjoying the notion of having you volunteer your mind for entirely untested technology," Erik cut in. Both Charles and Hank turned to look at him; Hank quickly flinched away from Erik's stern gaze, but Charles simply waited him out. The curious, excited expression on Charles's face hadn't dimmed a bit. "It's one thing to put wings on Sean or attempt to harness Alex's ability with an energy-refocusing apparatus. It's something else entirely to trust your brain to an untested item that," Erik reached into the case with his ability, pulling out the reinforced electrical plug and allowing it to hover in the air, "apparently plugs into a wall outlet."

It was the wrong approach; Charles was beaming all over again. "Hank! You've managed to make this version run on ordinary household voltage?"

"It takes about as much power to run as a vacuum cleaner," Hank said, sounding almost apologetic. "Which is kind of a lot; you need to be careful in places with older wiring."

"Erik can check over the wiring before I plug it in anywhere, that won't be a problem," Charles dismissed. Erik raised an eyebrow at him. "Won't you?"

"If it were up to me, I might not let you use these devices at all. You limp away from each of your sessions, and when you concentrate on only one of us--"

"Usually you," Charles pointed out, "you're involved in this, I'm not doing it all without you--"

"--we're both left with a splitting headache for hours after." Erik glared.

Charles bit his lower lip, finally looking slightly abashed. "I am sorry about that," he said. "But perhaps there'll be less chance of that with this one? Tell us about it," Charles encouraged Hank, and after a quick glance to Erik, Hank stepped forward and cleared his throat.

"Well. As I said, it does run on household voltage. Barring any difficulties with the wiring, you can plug it in to any outlet, and it should work."

Erik raised an eyebrow. "You've said things should work before..."

"A little faith, please," Charles said, reaching out and putting a hand on Erik's shoulder. To Hank he said, "I presume the abilities of this smaller unit are a bit more limited?"

"Yes, definitely. Because of its size and scope, it should only amplify your ability to a range of a few hundred miles. It also isn't meant to interpret and collate the data we get from your brainwaves; it's really there for communication and pinpointing particular mutants' locations. I know you two have lost some time on that in the past; hopefully this will help." He looked at Erik. "And no, it shouldn't have the same painful side effects that the full-scale Cerebro does when focusing on mutants one-to-one."

It was hard to deny that would be a useful advantage; the longer they took assembling allies, the longer it would be before they could force a final confrontation with Shaw. Erik glanced over at Charles, considering.

Charles's face had fallen a bit. "A few hundred miles?"

"Maybe a little more, if you already know where the mutant you're trying to reach is, and if you're focusing purely on reaching that one mind." Hank suddenly looked excited, though, and he added, "While you're on the road this time, you could try using it to get in touch with us here at our home base. You know who and where we are, and I'd certainly be willing to help you test it."

"Ah! That sounds marvelous, Hank, well thought. We'll do that." He turned to Erik. "I think we ought to take this as an opportunity to range further afield. I've found some mutants that feel as though they have tremendous potential in some of the western states-- Arizona, for instance, or New Mexico. I'd love a chance to see what the range on this new little machine is."

"Have the government agents complained about our long-distance telephone bills?" Erik shot Charles a look. "We don't need Cerebro to stay in contact here."

Crestfallen again, Charles took a moment to come up with a reply. "Well, there could always be some sort of widespread power outage. Having a backup plan might be worthwhile..."

Erik grabbed the plug again, holding it up. "A widespread power outage, you said?"

Charles bit down on his lower lip, but Hank was already stepping in. "Actually, that's not a bad idea. I've been theorizing for a while that you," he nodded to Erik, "should be able to generate electric current just by creating an alternating magnetic field. If we..." Erik's skeptical look was beginning to make Hank wilt a bit. "At least, I thought..."

Turning to Hank, Charles nodded encouragingly. "I think it's a perfectly good notion. If you can have a rudimentary dynamo and transformer built for us by the time we leave, I'll see if I can't convince Erik to try it while we're on the road." Erik's stony look had little effect on Charles this time. "Your power has such potential," Charles said, smiling. "Wouldn't you be interested in exerting it for other purposes than simply moving things? Imagine what you could do if you could fully harness magnetic fields. Generating electrical power would be the least of it."

Erik sighed. "Even if you're right, my days of moving things with my ability are hardly over. How heavy is that case, Hank?"

"Um." Hank sealed up the case and set it back down on the floor. "It's not light," he admitted. "I know I have enhanced strength, but I thought between the two of you, you'd manage..."

Charles bent to lift the case and grunted, frowning as he barely got it off the ground. "Erik...?"

Erik lifted it easily-- but not with his muscles. He raised an eyebrow at Hank. "Charming. You've reduced us to being a guinea pig and a pack mule."

"I do think this is going to be useful," Hank tried. Erik set the case down again. "I'll see if I can do anything about the weight while I'm working on the portable power unit."

"Do that, yes, please," Charles said. "How long do you think you'll need?"

"Three days?"

"Two," Erik said firmly. "We'll work out our itinerary in the meantime." He turned to Charles. "If you're so determined to take this on the road and see what happens, there's little reason to delay."

"Fair enough," Charles agreed. "Hank, can you have the modifications done in two days?"

"I think so," Hank said, and then looking at Erik, "yes, two days, yes. I'll just make it my priority."

"Good." Charles clapped Erik on the back. "Come with me, then, we'll look over my list of potential recruits and see if we can find a few we'd like to talk to in person. From there I'll assemble dossiers--"

"The usual routine."

"The usual routine, except with any luck, a bit more rapid on the recruiting end. If we could have three people scouted and found in the space it used to take us to find one..."

"I agree, there are merits, but--" Erik looked back at the portable Cerebro unit. Charles waited; Hank shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

It was Hank who finally broke the silence. "But?"

Erik shook his head. "No. If Charles insists on this--"

"I wouldn't call it insistence per se--"

"--then we're agreed." Erik nodded to Hank. "Two days, then."

Charles took Erik by the arm and steered him out of the laboratory. "I appreciate your concern, but I've been perfectly safe with Cerebro to date. If Hank's right about what this one can do, we really will have quite the advantage. I daresay we'll be able to find mutants three or four times faster than we can with our present methods."

"I'm not claiming that isn't useful."

They'd gone several yards down the hall; he didn't have much excuse for letting Charles retain that hold on his arm. He moved slightly, just enough to slip out of Charles's grip. Charles's expression showed a hint of disappointment for a moment-- just enough to set Erik's pulse racing, wondering what that look meant-- but soon enough Charles was back to his enthusiastic smile, this one a bit sly. "Then we're agreed. Besides, as helpful as Agent Taine has been, there's something to be said for complete independence, wouldn't you say? We'll be far enough away we really will be on our own."

"It does mean that if we run into anyone unfriendly, we'll be unable to call for help." Erik shot Charles a look. "And I may be used to working on my own, but I seem to recall a few compelling arguments in favor of teamwork..."

"Well, I don't think we ought to count on disaster. And as you pointed out, we'll still have the telephone if we need to contact Hank and Raven and the others, there's no reason to think we'll be cut off entirely. I just think we ought to make the most of it." Charles's tongue swept over his lips in a way that made Erik wonder if he did it on purpose, if he'd pulled that detail out of Erik's mind in the water as well. Just as quickly, the motion was gone, and Erik shook off the momentary distraction. "Let's give ourselves a week out west, and see how it goes."

"No objections here," Erik said. "I presume there's a field office near where we're looking to go; have Agent Taine call and arrange a car for us. We'll need airline tickets to get there in any reasonable amount of time."

"I suppose we could always drive until we're both exhausted, stopping only for food and gas. But it would still take two or three days, and what fun would that be?" Charles lifted his fingers to his temple and smiled. "There. Easily done, he's on it. We'll have a road atlas waiting for us as well, in case we decide to take any detours. Is there anything else we should prepare in the next couple of days?"

"If something comes to mind, I'll tell you," Erik promised. "We'll want some time to pack, and I'm sure Agent MacTaggart will have any number of things she'll want you to do before we go."

Charles gave Erik a sharp look; Erik glanced away. "I've been in touch with Moira, but you really needn't worry about anything there. Perhaps you'd like to spend some more time on the firing range? You have been improving with your speed and reflexes. Soon enough you'll be stopping bullets in midair."

"I'll find a way to occupy myself, I'm sure."

"Two days." Charles was back to smiling. "I'm looking forward to it already."