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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14


Written by Elena Zovatto
Last updated: 01/02/2007 02:01:11 AM

Chapter 12

Bastion strode onto the small stage, the platform barely visible from the press gallery amidst the sea of cameras and other recording equipment. Even so, his tall, powerfully-built frame stood out behind the podium, his demeanour almost eerily calm in contrast to the frenzied knot of reporters surrounding him. He stood, patiently waiting for the noise to die down. Once it had, he paused for a beat, then began to speak.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the press, I am here to address reports of the disruption of a commuter flight over the state of Colorado -- and to make an announcement.

"First, you may have heard rumours of mutant involvement in the Colorado incident -- and I officially confirm that rumour has, in this case, proved correct. In fact, I further state and confirm that flight 869 was the intended target of a mutant terrorist attack."

Chaos erupted from the floor as questions were shouted toward him. He said nothing, but raised a hand, gesturing for silence. As the din faded, he resumed his speech.

"However -- I also confirm that the attack failed. Through the intervention of Prime Sentinels -- our first line of defense against the mutant threat -- not only are all the passengers of flight 869 safe ... but the mutant criminals responsible have all been apprehended. They are being detained at a secure holding facility, and will be punished to the furthest extent of the law.

"That is all I will say about the Colorado incident for now -- and brings me to my announcement."

Silence reigned in the room in anticipation of his words, broken only by the low, mechanical sounds of recording devices.

"Over the last few months, we have covertly implemented a wide-scale deployment of Prime Sentinels throughout the nation as the first part of a public defence plan against any possible mutant threats. The Colorado incident may be considered our first major triumph with this plan -- Operation Zero Tolerance. Under the directives programmed into every Prime Sentinel, any mutant threatening any human will immediately be arrested and detained. Should a mutant resist lawful arrest, he or she will be treated as any fugitive who is armed and dangerous, and will be captured by any means necessary -- including, if mandated, the use of deadly force.

"Ordinary humans will no longer be threatened with impunity by criminals with mutant powers. Mutants threatening public safety will cease to be a hazard for innocent people. Those are our directives, and Zero Tolerance will meet them from this day forward. Ladies and gentlemen, that is my announcement. I will take no questions at this time."

With that, he nodded brusquely to the assembled journalists and left the stage, ignoring the pandemonium of shouts behind him.

True, he was taking a chance that by deflecting inquiries now, some naive idealist in the throng behind him would begin asking questions -- but there would be no time for any well-intentioned but ill-conceived investigation to begin in earnest before his program was complete. And once it was, there would be no serious opposition -- not once it was revealed that he had safeguarded the future of mankind. Certainly, there would be some disagreement -- that was the nature of free will in man -- but those who disagreed with his solution would be arguing from emotion, not logic. In the end, that kind of dissension would simply dissipate on its own, once the success of Zero Tolerance was a demonstrable fact.

And Zero Tolerance would succeed.

There would be pockets of mutant resistance of course -- but with very few exceptions, known mutant groups lacked both resources and organization. That was one of the reasons his first priority in implementing his program had been to eliminate the X-Men from the equation -- they were the one known group that possessed an abundance of both those things.

As for any other existing groups, without either resources or organization, they would easily be rooted out and dealt with ...

... and they would share the X-Men's fate.

Once Zero Tolerance was a successful fait accompli in the United States, other nations would look upon its success favorably, and the program could simply be expanded.

He supposed some humans would find it rather darkly amusing that the very mutants whose existence had threatened the genetic continuance of humanity, would in fact guarantee its future.

He cared nothing about irony -- he cared about results.

First, he would return to base -- and then, he would fulfill his function.

Even before Gambit had succeeded in contacting Storm, the eight spacefarers had been monitoring the planet's newscasts. After such a long absence, the returning X-Men and Trish Tilby were anxious to learn the current state of affairs on their home planet. If an urgent situation was already in progress, the last thing they had wanted to do was fly in blind -- they had had enough of that on Chandilar.

Now, their anxiety was fuelled not by the unknown, but what they had discovered.

After Remy had passed on all he had been able to learn from Ororo, he had tried to contact the remaining captured X-Men. Cannonball was still a little groggy, though none the worse for wear, but had been unable to tell them much more than Storm had. Scott and Jean were still out cold, and while Remy could sense their presence in the Force, they were effectively incommunicado. And as for Logan ...

Remy couldn't find a trace of him.

The five mutants were trying not to think about what that meant -- they had no time to spare for mourning now.

If they had entertained any doubts of that, the newscast winding down on the monitor dispelled them.

"...take no questions at this time."

As the figure of Bastion left the stage, his departing image was quickly replaced on screen by the station anchorman.

"Operation Zero Tolerance -- public safety versus personal freedom, tonight at six ..."

Quietly, Beast rose and turned off the monitor, turning to face the others around the table.

An unknown ship with a mysterious agenda in lunar orbit above their planet; genetic martial law in their own country; their friends prisoner -- the situation was even worse than they had imagined it to be.

And it was up to eight weary, burnt-out wanderers to do something about it.

Bishop sat straight-backed, his eyes haunted. The X-Man from the future was still staring at the now-blank monitor, momentarily lost in some horrific, private memory. He was the first to speak, his voice bleak, but determined.

"We've got to stop it now, before it goes any further..."

The other X-Men knew his fear -- that after all they had been through, all they had done -- the apocalyptic future from whence he had come would still come to pass.

"Clearly ... but where to begin? What we need is a plan..." Hank began, then Rogue interrupted impatiently.

"So let's get plannin'."

"You have some ideas?" Joseph asked, his voice anxious.

She nodded.

"Ah do, at that -- but Ah think I'm gonna need Nomi's help foh the first of 'em."

"Then you'll have it," the Jedi replied, "What do you need me to do?"

"Well, the way Ah see it, the first thing we've gotta do is figure out jus' which problem we're going to tackle first," Rogue explained. "An' ta do that we need ta know jus' what that big ol' ship's up to."

"And how do you propose to discover this?" Beast inquired.

"We don' need to 'discover' it, " Rogue replied darkly, "on 'count of Ah think I already know -- I jus' cain't remember."

Gambit's eyes widened in sudden understanding.

"From when we were on de station?" he asked quietly.

Rogue nodded again, wrapping her arms about herself as if to ward off a sudden chill.

"When they ... absorbed me ... it was like Ah was connected to all o' their plans. An' when ya freed me, it broke the connection -- but Ah'm sure the information's still in mah head."

Rogue gave the Jedi a weak smile.

"What Ah need ya to do is go in an' find it."

It doesn't seem ... right, somehow ...

The young, bald girl thought silently as she watched the young mutant being loaded into a transport pod.

The black-haired teenager was free of the VR helmet and restraining suit, but her situation had hardly improved.

Fully conscious, her limbs twitched weakly as she was lowered into the thick, near-transparent, casket-like container, then stilled. The white-coated technicians waited a few moments longer to be sure the paralytic agent had taken full effect, then went to work. Her inhibitor collar was carefully removed, then her clothing was methodically cut away from her body as she lay unmoving, her eyes open, unable to do anything but watch in outraged horror. Once they had finished, the lid of the container was lowered into place, the hiss of air as the seal was completed audible from where Daria stood.

Then, a valve was opened, and the colourless, breathable narcotic gel rapidly filled the container, serving the dual purpose of sedating its cargo and protecting it from physical damage during transport.

Are they really so different? And if they aren't, how can we justify anything we're doing here?

As she watched the pod being transferred, Daria sensed a presence behind her, and she turned to face her creator. Bastion stood watching the operation, casting his eye over each procedure as it was executed.

"You have exceeded projected performance levels -- congratulations," he intoned.

"Thank you, sir," she replied automatically.

"As more mutants are collected, your skills will be in greater demand. With your success here, your operating parameters will be taken as the prototype for future units. As such, you will be key to the successful implementation of the program."

"Sir...?" she began hesitantly.

"Yes, child?"

"That's an honour, sir -- I know that. And I know what the consequences of failure are ... but in handing them over like this, don't we risk our main objective? I mean, in effect, we're contributing to another danger, aren't we?"

"It may seem so -- but no. As you have said, the preservation of humanity is paramount -- this program remains our best option. Even without the Phalanx threat, culling would have been necessary. Mutants are an aberration which must be eliminated for the protection of the species -- as the Phalanx must be. We have the leverage to control that threat, but not the other -- but that leverage also gives us the power to control both. And so we shall."

"Yes, sir."

Bastion looked at her approvingly.

"I am very pleased that you processed that logic yourself. Perhaps in time you will improve upon the program even further."

"Thank you, sir."

With that, Bastion left her, and Daria stood gazing at the rows of pods.

They're so human ...

Deep in the bowels of the Hulkbuster base, two men set aside their burden and sighed wearily as they stood before the door of the little-used room.

"Think we've got room?" the first asked.

"If we don't, we can always make room -- the runt's dead. Who cares if the body's in pieces before it gets burnt?"

"Good point -- but if that's what it comes down to, I'm volunteering you for the job. I just cleaned these boots."

"Gee, thanks -- nice to know your uniform comes before your friends," the second man said, and his companion chuckled.

"It's a nice uniform," he replied with mock dignity, as he keyed in the access code.

After a moment's delay, the doors opened with a soft hiss, and the two men dragged the body inside.

"Looks like finding room isn't going to be a problem after all -- they must have run an extra cycle this week, what with the labs going overtime. Nothing in here but that old table."

"Good -- one less thing to worry about. Might as well dump him on it -- if there's anything else to come down, might as well make sure we can move around without any problems."

"There probably will be, too -- after all, there's the other four that came in with him."

With one man on either side, they picked up the dead man, and moved to where the table stood.

"Nah -- I gather they're part of the project. He would've been too," the first man said with a grunt, nodding to the body as they placed it on the table, "but things didn't work out as planned. They've already moved one down to the surgery."

His companion shrugged. "Same difference, isn't it?" he began, then frowned.

"Hey -- they left the collar on him. Got a key? Those things cost the taxpayers enough as it is, might as well save 'em a little money -- and besides, he sure doesn't need it anymore."

The key was produced, and the collar removed. Once that had been done, the two left the room, chatting amicably.

And with the damping field of the collar removed, slowly, the cells in the body began to change.


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