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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 13

"Are you ready?"

Rogue looked up from her bunk to meet Nomi's gaze. Although she had asked for the privacy of her cabin to do this, she still felt somehow exposed. She always did when someone entered her mind, no matter who did it or why -- but this time she was feeling even more nervous than usual. Probably because she had yet to fully recover from her earlier ordeal with the Phalanx. Facing their remains in her mind was not going to be easy, not when her emotions were still healing, still jangled and raw -- she needed time to regroup from the horror of it. But time was a luxury that she could not afford right now ...

And neither could the others.

She laughed, but the sound was hollow -- mirthless.

"Ah'm the one who should be askin' that question, not the other way 'round. But yeah, Ah am .. jus' be careful!"

"Don't worry, Rogue -- should I see anything that doesn't have to do with our enemies' plans, it will go no farther. I promise!"

"It ain't that ... well, not entirely that. Ah won't lie to ya, Nomi -- some o' the things Ah've done, I don' want anyone knowin' about. Not even Remy -- but there's more to it than that. Some of the things -- some o' the people -- in mah head are dangerous. Watch yoh step, just in case. They cain't do much ta me 'part from give me nightmares, but I don't know what they c'n do to you!"

Even Jean and the Professor usually opted to fully armour their Astral selves when they had had occasion to probe her mind -- 'just in case'. Rogue knew that the Force worked differently than pure telepathy, but if telepaths of that caliber were inclined to take that precaution, it was probably a good idea to warn Nomi.

The Jedi seemed to be about to question her, then apparently thought better of it.

"I'll keep that in mind," Nomi said.

"Good," Rogue replied, inhaling deeply, "Ready when you are, hon!"

Nomi nodded her head, then closed her eyes in concentration and reached out with the Force.

Entering someone else's mind wasn't unlike the process of separating her mind from her body, but was somewhat more disconcerting. It took some time to differentiate between the conflicting images of Rogue's mind and her own, but after a short while, Nomi had accustomed herself to the differences, and could manage without difficulty.

Once her internal vision cleared, she found herself standing in a sunny field by a river, the banks of which were lined with gnarled old trees. Curious, Nomi looked around her, trying to get her bearings. Granted, she had never used the Force in quite this way before, but this pleasant landscape wasn't what she had been expecting. Especially given Rogue's earlier warning ...

There was a path leading down to the edge of the river, and feeling drawn in that direction, Nomi cautiously started walking.

She had gone only a short distance when she spied a blond-haired boy who looked to be in his early teens, fishing on the opposite bank. She watched him for a moment, but then he seemed to notice her scrutiny. He looked up with a broad grin, and waved a greeting before he returned to his task -- but both gestures were directed at a spot just ahead of her, where Rogue stood waiting.

As Nomi approached, the younger woman remained silent, watching the boy across the river, her eyes sad.

When the Jedi reached her side, Rogue spoke.

"Whenever Jean or the Professor have ta get in mah head, they always say thinkin' of a favorite place helps. It helps a body relax, so their job's easier -- I didn't know if it'd do the same thing foh you, but Ah thought it couldn't hurt!"

She paused, looking back at the boy.

"Ah grew up here," she said softly, "Some o' the best times in mah life were 'long this ol' river!"

"I assume he was an important part of those times," Nomi said, gesturing toward the fisherman.

"Cody," Rogue said, "his name was Cody. An' yeah -- he was!"

Nomi noted the expressions which played across her friend's face -- wistfulness, sorrow, guilt -- which seemed at odds with her words.

"He was your friend, and the two of you were happy here -- yet this memory saddens you. Why?"

"Ya know about my power ... the first time it turned on was when he was givin' me mah first kiss!"

Rogue snorted with bitter humour.

"Guess Ah always had a good sense o' timin'. One second everythin' was wonderful, the next, his thoughts were in mah head, an' Cody was on the ground. An' no matter what Ah tried, he wouldn't wake up...!"

Rogue met Nomi's gaze as she spoke, her eyes misting, though her voice remained steady.

"He nevah did!"

The Jedi reached out, giving the other woman's shoulder a gentle squeeze.

"It was an accident. You didn't even know of your power then, so how could you have controlled what happened?"

"Ah know I shouldn't blame myself foh what happened ta him -- heck, I even know he doesn't blame me foh it. Ya'd think that would make it easier, but it doesn't -- not really," Rogue sighed, then continued. 1

"C'mon, gal -- what we're lookin' foh ain't here, an' we've wasted enough time!"

Turning sharply, Rogue moved down the pathway, with Nomi right behind her.

In the galley of the Shi'ar cruiser, Joseph was occupied with reading a history of the Imperium while Gambit fidgeted in his seat, impatiently shuffling a deck of cards. It had been under half an hour since Nomi and Rogue had disappeared into the former terrorist's cabin, and he was wondering how their mission was progressing.

From the periodic checks he had been running with the Force, everything appeared to be going well, and he knew searching through Rogue's subconscious was going to take time -- yet he couldn't seem to get over his anxiety.

Rogue was one of the strongest people he knew, but he also realized how savagely her near-absorption by the Phalanx had wounded her. What they had almost done -- what they had all but succeeded in doing -- to her went beyond even the mental rape he had likened it to. It was a testament to her strength that she had managed to carry on normally for as long as she had before even allowing herself to react to her ordeal.

But that reaction was too recent for his liking ...

He recalled how she had clung to him, how she had seemed so small in his arms, when her tears had finally escaped her control the night before. After she had cried herself out, she seemed to recover quickly enough -- and she had assured him that she was all right. But was she really?

He worried that the confrontation she now sought with the Technarchy within her mind would be too much for even her strength to bear so soon after her breakdown. Remy was no telepath, but he could imagine some of the possible repercussions if that turned out to be the case, and he feared for her -- and for Nomi.

Restlessly, he rose to his feet and had started to pace across the room when Joseph cleared his throat.

The white-haired mutant looked pointedly at the chair Remy had just vacated. After a moment's hesitation, the Cajun resumed his seat with an ill grace, as the other man nodded with satisfaction, then went back to his reading.

Maybe the two of them were on a friendlier footing these days, but as Joseph had said earlier, that didn't mean he had to put up with annoying habits -- like pacing. Mind you, he hadn't said it in quite those words.

Those had involved a rather vocal threat to use the metallic trim available in the room to bolt the thief down.

A born gambler, Remy could always identify a bluff -- which was why he pulled his chair up to the table and rapidly dealt out another game of solitaire.

Joseph sighed, setting down the computerized book.

"In a way, it's nice to know that despite this Jedi training of yours, you really haven't changed all that much!"

Gambit looked up with a lopsided grin.

"Didn' know y' cared enough t' notice, mon ami!"

"I don't -- it's just that there are certain advantages to predictability," Joseph said with a smile.

"Predictability?" Remy said dubiously.

"Oh yes -- for a while, I was afraid your character would actually improve, and I'd have to learn how to read you all over again. Luckily for me, that fear turned out to be unfounded -- you're as impatient, hotheaded, arrogant and impulsive as you ever were," Joseph replied with a smirk.

Gambit's eyes widened somewhat in surprise at the unexpected gibe, then narrowed again as he chuckled, smiling dangerously.

"Cute, mon ami -- real cute. Y' might want t' be careful. There's all kinds o' accidents c'n happen to a man too busy workin' his mouth to watch what he's doin'!"

"I'll take that under advisement -- especially since you're probably speaking from experience!"

"Merde, when did y' get so sarcastic?"

"I suppose since I started keeping bad company. It seems to have had a negative effect on me!"

"Great -- so now I've gone an' created a monster," Remy sighed.

Joseph grinned.

"But I managed to get your mind off things for a minute or two, didn't I?"

Remy laughed.

"That y' did ... and if dat happens t' be your goal, I never did finish showin' you how t' play poker, an' I'm tired o' solitaire. Interested?"

Joseph nodded, and began to angle his chair back toward the table when he suddenly heard a small popping noise, and found himself sprawled on the floor.

"You okay, mon ami?" Remy asked in a concerned voice.

Slowly, Joseph picked himself up, as well as his chair. As he warily settled himself at the table he noticed a few things: the slight acrid scent in the air; the tiny singe mark on the floor about where the chair leg had rested; the missing deuce of spades from the table; and Gambit's innocent expression. Joseph shook his head in chagrin -- he hadn't even seen the Cajun's hands move.

"Y' should watch y' balance more -- these floors c'n be slippery," Gambit said mildly.

His voice was deadpan, but his eyes sparkled with mischief triumphant as he dealt the cards.

Elsewhere in the small ship, Bishop sat quietly in the command chair, looking out of the main viewport. The Earth was a bright jewel against the velvet dark of space, but his thoughts were far away from the beauty of the planet shimmering nearby.

* How many times? *

He had come back in time to save the planet -- to prevent the horror that was life in the future from ever happening. He had done so knowing that he would be leaving everyone and everything he had ever known or cared about behind, possibly never to exist except in his memory -- all in the hope that he could change history before it happened.

At the time, the mission had seemed possible -- insane, but possible. By their very nature, current events were volatile, mutable. The smallest change could have the most profound consequences.

His father had taught him that -- and he had seen enough in his life to know it was true.

He had believed he could make a difference.

Yet every time he allowed himself to hope that he might have succeeded -- or at least accomplished enough to have some kind of effect on the eventual outcome -- the tide of events rolled on inexorably, mocking him. He wondered now at the arrogance -- or the desperate hope -- which had moved him to go back in time.

* What have I really accomplished, if the Sentinels have already been unleashed? *

He had never believed in fate -- life, as history, was a stew of initial conditions, opportunities, timing and choices, with no combination of the four ever yielding the same result -- yet at times like this, he wondered if there really wasn't some kind of malevolent entity that had preset the course of events for its own dark amusement. Or perhaps his journey through time had trapped him in some kind of temporal loop, doomed to endlessly repeat his mission in slightly different ways without ever succeeding.

* Was I such a fool to think I could succeed? Has it all been for nothing? *

Someone approached him from behind. Training and experience told him the identity of the newcomer, even before she spoke.

"I had thought you would join me to discuss strategy after finishing the check of the weapons systems, Bishop. Have you not finished here?" Deathbird asked.

"Yeah -- I have. Running at one hundred percent -- if we do run into something, we'll be ready for it," he replied distantly.

Deathbird almost replied with a cutting remark that they would truly be ready only after they discussed strategy -- but something in the Earthman's voice held her back.

"Something troubles you?" she made the question a statement.

Bishop didn't meet her eyes when he replied, continuing to look out at the starscape.

"The Sentinels are loose -- and the only reason I came to this time was to stop that -- and all that will follow -- from happening. And I've failed. Despite all I've done, and how history has changed, in the end it wasn't enough...!"

"I had thought you above self-pity, human. It appears I was mistaken," Deathbird said, her voice cold.

Bishop's temper flared as he turned to glare at her.

"It's not myself that I'm thinking of! It's the millions who are going to die because of my failure! I'm a protector, Deathbird -- it's what I do. It's what I am -- and I've failed the people who trusted me. I'd think that after the Phalanx invasion, you might understand that feeling," he seethed.

"As a matter of fact, Bishop -- I do not. Because I. Did. Not. Fail," she hissed, baring her teeth as her own anger rose.

"The Phalanx were defeated on my world. Many of my people died, but I prefer to think of those who lived. Ultimately in war, the victory is in survival, and my people survive -- because I and six outworlders refused to accept defeat! Why do you do so now, when it is your own kind at risk?"

The question brought him up short, as a memory from his past surfaced, unbidden ...

"I can't do it ... it's impossible," the boy said, frustrated.

"'Impossible', hehn? Let me tell y' somet'ing, pup -- people throw dat word around so much, you'd think there wasn't anything dat was possible in de world. Nobody ever got nothin' done with that kind o' thinkin'. When y' facing something dat looks 'impossible', f'get about it -- dere ain' no 'possible' an' 'impossible'. Jus' what you got t' do, an' how you plan t' get it done," the strange old man said patiently.

Of all the lessons his foster father had drilled into him over the years, that had been the one that stuck with him most. Ignore the irrelevant, concentrate on the job at hand -- and no matter how bad things might look, as long as you were alive and used your head, you were in with a chance.

He had almost allowed himself to forget that -- and it had taken a beautiful, megalomaniacal, alien warrior to remind him of it.

Which either said a great deal for her instincts, or very little for his current state of mind. Quite possibly both.

* Somewhere in the timestream, Father must be laughing his ass off *

Bishop's thought was chased away by the Viceroy continuing her tirade.

"I had thought you a warrior, human -- but perhaps I was mistaken about that too," Deathbird said icily, then imperiously turned her back upon him and strode away.

Swiftly, Bishop rose from his seat and went after her, his longer stride easily allowing him to catch up. He reached out and grabbed her shoulder, turning her to face him. He managed to block the expected punch she threw as he did so.

"If that's what you think, then that's where you're wrong, lady -- on both counts," he growled.

Bishop glanced briefly back toward the Earth. When he met Deathbird's eyes again, there was no longer any weakness to be seen in his own, and his voice echoed with quiet determination.

"I came here to do a job -- and one way or another, whatever it takes -- that job will get done!"

"Nothing," Beast sighed wearily, removing his glasses to rub his eyes.

After the newscast, he and Trish had adjourned to the briefing room, analyzing every scrap of data they could pull from assorted reports on the nature of Operation: Zero Tolerance.

"I just don't believe it -- you can't put an operation like this in place without someone knowing something about it! It's impossible," Trish muttered darkly.

"Apparently not," Hank said drily.

"Well it shouldn't be possible! Not in America -- the whole Constitution is based on checks and balances that were designed with the express purpose of preventing one person or institution from exercising too much power! How in Hell did Bastion -- an unelected official, no less -- pull it off?"

"An excellent question indeed ... which hits upon many worrisome points, I'm afraid. Bastion holds a position of some importance in over a dozen countries -- a neat trick, since he appears to have citizenship in none of them -- if he's managed to enact what amounts to genetic martial law here...!" Beast said.

"There's no telling how far or how fast it could spread worldwide," Trish finished grimly.

"Exactly ... and then there is the mysterious silence of our officials who are elected. Admittedly, there have been times enough when for one reason or another, I wished that they would simply put a sock in it -- but one wonders how exactly this anomalous condition came about so fortuitously for our gene-Nazi friends...!"

"It's not just the officials, either," Trish said slowly.

"It's the news, too -- check it out, Hank. We've got plenty of reports and debates about Zero Tolerance itself, but nothing at all about the man behind it. Nothing about who Bastion is, where he's from, how he got the authority he has -- it's unreal. There is always a standard bio done for major players in government -- it's the starting point for any story. But here, there's nothing...!"

"So the question remains -- how did a mystery man with no known history to speak of attain this amount of international power?" Beast pondered.

"And almost as importantly," Trish said, "why isn't anyone saying anything about it?"

However, unbeknownst to either of them -- someone was about to.

It was well into the night, but a man was still at his desk in the offices of the Daily Bugle. He was on the phone (and at the end of his temper) with one last contact.

"'No comment'?! What do you mean, ' no comment '?! An unelected official who isn't even an American citizen has effectively declared martial law in the United States, and you have NOTHING to say about it?! ... 'Record'?! What record? Of what? Bastion doesn't have a past, let alone a record of anything! The only record he has, so far as I can tell, is of bribery, and probably murder! ... No Senator, I'm not accusing you of anything, I know about the man's penchant for bribery from personal and very recent experience -- and if he was willing to try that with me, you can't tell me that...!"

There was a click on the other end of the line, then silence.

"Damn it!"

J.J. Jameson slammed the phone down in disgust, and stormed to his feet, looking around his office for something convenient to throw -- but he was out of luck.


His eyes went to his desk, to the singed area which was barely hours old. Taking a deep breath, he turned to look out the window behind his desk, and attempted to calm down.2

* Easier said than done when a murdering son-of-a-bitch just paid a social call. If I ever had any doubts that Bastion was behind Nick's murder, they're gone now. But I need proof, dammit! And how can I get proof of murder when I can't even get proof of a man's existence?! *

Suddenly weary, he sat at his desk, leaning forward onto his elbows as he massaged his temples.

There was a soft rap on the door, and he looked up to see Robbie enter the office, bearing a fresh cup of coffee.

"You looked like you could use it," Robertson said quietly.

Jonah accepted the steaming mug with a grimace.

"Thanks, Robbie...!"

"So -- are you going to tell me what really happened in here, or is it still nothing?"

"'Nothing' is it -- all night, I've worked every contact I've got trying to get something -- anything -- on Bastion. And what do I get, Robbie? Nothing -- and a whole lot of it," Jameson growled, sipping his coffee.

"And that's why you set fire to your own desk before?" Robertson prodded.

Jonah snorted.

"Not the desk -- the bribe that smug bastard offered me to back off!"

Robbie's jaw dropped in surprise -- but then his expression changed to a grin, and he let out a slow chuckle.

"The man came here himself -- and tried to suborn you into backing off on a story? No matter what else we don't know about the man, we do know he can't be too bright...!"

"Damn straight ... and that he's as arrogant as he is dirty. I've been a reporter for most of my life, Robbie -- my gut has never been wrong on a story, and it's telling me that Bastion is the story. But there's no damn information ... just nothing ..!" he said, his voice trailing off wearily.

"Jonah ... why don't you go home? Get some rest, it'll do you good. If you can't sleep, rest -- watch the late night Seinfeld marathon, or something -- it'll still be here in the morning. You need some distance," Robbie suggested gently.

"If I watch that show, the only distance I'll get is from driving myself around the bend. Blasted vapid excuse for entertainment...!" Jonah muttered.

"Well, what do you expect in a show about nothing? Come on -- let's lock up!"

Slowly, the publisher sat up ramrod-straight, his eyes suddenly alight, the wheels of his thoughts almost visibly spinning. He looked at the other man intently for a long moment before he finally broke the silence.

"Nothing. That's it...!" he said in wonderment.


"Robertson, remind me to discuss your raise with you in the morning -- you're a genius!"

"Are you sure you're okay?" Robbie asked cautiously.

He knew his boss had been under stress, but for J. Jonah Jameson to freely offer a raise to anyone -- with no arm-twisting involved -- was too far out of character to be attributed to a lack of sleep.

Jameson's face split into a fierce grin, and he swigged the last of his coffee.

"Never better, Robbie -- never better. I'll be okay -- take some of your own advice. I'll just finish up here!"

Robertson shrugged as he left the room -- whatever his boss was up to, he would find out about it soon enough.

Jonah fired up his computer, cracked his knuckles, and rapidly started typing.


1) Rogue LS, last issue. Before Cody died, he told Rogue that he didn't blame her for what happened to him.

2) UXM 346 -- this takes place shortly after Bastion attempted to bribe J.J. with a disk containing the identities of the X-Men in this issue.


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