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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 8

The snow fell steadily outside the glass panes of the Westchester mansion's den window. It was a calm, clear night, the stars shining reassuringly in the inky expanse of the night sky. A beautiful sight -- but one which went unnoticed by the man at the window, who was staring intently up at the firmament, his jaw clenched.


He turned toward the sound, his features relaxing somewhat.

"Yes, Jean?"

She walked to his side, wrapping one arm about his waist, then joined him in looking out of the window.

"Are you all right?" she asked gently.

He grimaced.

"As all right as I can be while knowing that half of my team is lost in space and there isn't a damned thing I can do about it ..."

"Regrets about your decision?"

Cyclops shook his head.

"No. It was the right choice to make. Even Logan had to admit the situation here was -- and still is -- too volatile to risk going after them."

"But ...?"

He sighed.

"But that doesn't make it any easier to live with."

"How are you feeling?"

"Apart from guilty ? Angry and betrayed -- after all we've done for Lilandra, the least she could have done is let us decide whether or not we were going to get involved, and who was going to be on the away team. I don't appreciate having five of my people shanghaied, no matter how desperate the situation might have been," he growled.

From behind his ruby-quartz glasses, he briefly glowered again at the sky before he finished speaking in a soft voice.

"And I'm worried about them ..."

"We all are ... at least that one transmission from Chandilar was good news."

From the time their five friends had been pressed into service by Gladiator, the rest of the team had received nothing but static from the Shi'ar for over three weeks. It had taken that long for their engineers to simply reconstruct enough of their communications systems even to get a message through to Earth. While the message had been of poor quality, and the system had gone down again almost immediately after it had been received, it had come as a relief to the remaining X-Men. Somehow, Beast, Rogue, Gambit, Joseph and Bishop -- with help from Trish Tilby and Deathbird, of all people -- had managed to defeat the Phalanx on the throneworld, and were on their way home. But they had heard nothing further from Lilandra since then, and the continuing system problems prevented them from sending messages of their own to the Shi'ar Empress.

And the ship surely should have arrived by now ...

Knowing that Deathbird was the one charged with the safe conduct of their teammates to Earth did nothing to ease Scott's mind. While failing in this duty would cause considerable damage to the Viceroy's reputation -- and prestige -- among her people, Cyclops could see the Majestrix's unstable sister arranging an 'accident' to eliminate some of Lilandra's longtime allies too easily for his own liking.

"If she did that, she'd lose face in the Empire -- that's one thing Deathbird will never risk," Jean broke in, having picked up on her husband's dark thoughts.

"Maybe," he frowned, "but we've heard nothing from Shi'ar since due to commnet problems. If I could just get word out to Dad, I would've asked the Starjammers for some help on this -- but I can't even do that, for the same reason," he said, his voice tight with frustration.

Jean reached out with her mind, soothing Scott's nerves, and he relaxed slightly.

"We'll just have to sit tight for a little longer ... I don't like it either, Scott, but we don't have a choice -- especially given what we've been hearing from Valerie."

Valerie Cooper had long been the X-Men's most reliable source within the government, and her reports were becoming progressively more tense. She seemed to be particularly worried about the growing influence the mysterious Bastion was enjoying in the Senate. And considering that Gyrich had been cozying up to the man, that could only spell trouble ...

"I know -- but something's going to break, and soon. I can feel it. I just hope we can keep it together when it does," he sighed.

Phoenix cocked her head in dismay.

"You are worried."

Scott smiled reassuringly.

"Let's just say I think we'd be in a more advantageous position if we were at full strength ... and let's hope that we will be. And soon ..."

His smile faded as he looked skyward once more.

"Have you any word, Commander?"

"Majestrix -- I regret to inform you, no."

"Carry on -- inform me of any change in the status quo."

"Yes, Majestrix."

Lilandra Neramani, supreme ruler of the Shi'ar Imperium, frowned worriedly as she signed off her commscreen. The cruiser carrying the X-Men back to Earth, captained by her own sister, should have returned by now -- and she was beginning to fear the worst. It should have been a routine trip, and under normal circumstances, her space traffic controlling systems would have had little difficulty monitoring the ship's progress.

She winced inwardly.

Under normal circumstances ...

The Phalanx had essentially decimated the Empire's entire infrastructure, and rebuilding efforts would take months, if not years. Her engineers were still at least a week away from getting basic communications fully operational, but she had managed to get her message through to Earth during the second phase of the systems tests. Unfortunately, that would be all she would be able to do for some time.

With the Empire in disarray, the borders were vulnerable, and she had to see to the safety of her subjects before all else. She had failed in that duty to them in the Phalanx invasion -- she would never do so again. They had not survived near-annihilation at the hands of the techno-organic collective only to crumble under a lesser threat now.

A large portion of what remained of the Imperial Navy had been dispatched with emergency supplies to relieve the outpost worlds, and beef up the surviving border detachments. While en route, they were also rebuilding the commnet nodes -- with her borders covered and information flow re-established, she would be in a much better position to use her core defense force to counter any possible threats from her neighbours.

Her lips twitched in a small, sardonic smile.

I doubt even my sister would be able to find fault with my plans this time ...

Her smile quickly disappeared as she considered the absent Viceroy. There were a number of reasons why Lilandra had chosen her sister to captain the X-Men's ship. First, conducting those responsible for saving the Empire to their homeworld would be seen as a great honour, and would indicate that the Majestrix had full confidence in her sister. As Deathbird's forces had failed to hold back the Phalanx, this would salvage the Viceroy's reputation, and provide a perception of solidarity within the Royal house -- something her people desperately needed to see in this time of crisis.

As well, given the domestic chaos, it would have been a perfect opportunity for Deathbird to make another attempt to usurp the throne -- if she were in the Empire.

Removing her sister from the temptation gave Lilandra time to consolidate her own power base, and minimize any openings Deathbird might find to use against her. And of course, if Deathbird failed in her duty this time, she could never hope to regain enough power to attempt the throne again.

Lilandra sighed.

She had never wanted to use her allies -- her friends -- so ruthlessly, but as Majestrix, she had no choice. If by using the X-Men, she could secure the Empire and preserve the safety of her subjects, she would -- even though she hated herself for it.

What is it that Charles told me once ? 'Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown' ...

Lilandra only hoped that she was correct in her analysis. Deathbird might be insane, but her behaviour fell within certain parameters -- and she would never tolerate any risk which could keep her from the throne. If some accident befell the X-Men under her watch, her prestige and power within the Empire would suffer a fatal blow -- and without either, Deathbird would have no hope of deposing her sister. Both siblings were completely aware of that fact.

Lilandra had done all she could for the X-Men -- she only hoped that it would be enough.

In a small office within the vast underground complex, a man sat in front of a small, dark screen. After pressing the hidden button, the monitor came to life, and the first of many security layers appeared. Stifling his impatience, the man swiftly negotiated each and all of the passwords.

"Identity confirmed and acknowledged. Report," came the command from the figure on the viewscreen.

The man spoke.

"Phase one is complete. Enough information has been attained from the specimen we have acquired to initiate phase two of the program. There is the possibility that more intelligence may yet be gained from her to further facilitate phase two, and as such, cataloguing and storage of the subject will be slightly delayed."

"Acknowledged. Implement phase two as planned. Rendezvous will occur as scheduled. End report."

"Report ends."

As the screen again went dark, the man rose from his seat, and walked to the door. He cast his eyes over the banks of monitors on the far wall, taking in the assorted images: a laboratory, technicians scurrying back and forth between their charges in the cylindrical tanks; a man in a wheelchair in the cellblocks below; guards in the mess eating their meal; the waiting units of the storage facility; the programming center for the end product of the lab technicians; and a small isolation cell and its occupant.

The slight, black-haired girl's face was bloodied, a nasty bruise appearing over one almond-shaped eye. Arms and legs restrained by the special suit within which she was strapped, head immobile with the weight of the VR helmet, she lay still on the floor on the unit, heedless of the younger, bald child watching her.

Leaving the room, Bastion walked toward the hangar. He had a Senate meeting to attend.

Beast looked at the expectant faces around him, and cleared his throat.

"All systems tests are complete. We've run them twice in every conceivable configuration -- and according to the results ...," he paused, smiling broadly, "all systems are go."

Sighs and exclamations of relief were heard within the confines of the bridge.

"But of course," Hank continued, raising his voice slightly above the noise, "there's only one way to know for sure."

Taking a deep breath, he moved toward the helm console.

"And now, for the moment of truth ..."

He swiftly keyed in the ignition sequence.

For a split second, there was nothing -- then they all felt the thrumming power as the long-dormant engines fired at last, and the helm control panels lit up completely. Brief pandemonium followed, with triumphant shouts, squeals of joy, and much back-slapping causing something of an echo within the room.

Deathbird and Beast examined the astrogational plot, and the Viceroy punched in another sequence on the console, which the computer dispassionately considered, then blinked an affirmative. She actually smiled at the results of her query, and turned to her passengers.

"We are ten light-minutes from the Demani gravitational wave. Once the engines have stopped cycling, we may translate into hyperspace, and enter the wave. That will bring us on a direct course to Earth, estimated time of arrival -- forty-eight hours." 1

"I think this calls for a celebration," Trish said happily as she hugged Hank.

"F'get the dispensers -- there's still some real food in de galley. I'm goin' t' cook a meal you all goin' to remember f' de rest of y' born days."

"You jus' better be sure that all of it ain't as spicy as you like -- not all of us have asbestos tastebuds, sugah."

"The prospect of finally ridding myself of your company is reason enough to celebrate," Deathbird sniffed. But Trish, with her newswoman's ear, could have sworn she heard a note of humour -- and perhaps regret ? -- in the Viceroy's voice.

"I believe there is yet a bottle or two of m'rilla nectar dating from the last millenium in storage ..."

"Wonderful -- how long must we wait for your culinary tour-de-force, Gambit?"

"Gimme deux heures t' work my magic ..."

"Ah'll give ya a hand, Remy."

"Then I suggest we all repair to the dining cabin in two hours time, there to experience gustatorial bliss ..."

As the small group began to disperse, Deathbird approached Bishop.

"Well, human ... as we have two hours to kill, would you care to spar with me on the holodeck ? My previous invitation went unanswered due to circumstance, but it still stands."

Bishop actually cracked a smile.

"You don't have enough sore muscles for your liking, Deathbird?"

Her eyes narrowed in appreciation of his taunt, and her smile was predatory.

"Be careful, X-Man -- those foolish enough to challenge me swiftly come to regret it."

"We'll just see about that ..."

From his seat on the bridge, Joseph idly watched the stars through the viewport -- they streaked by like so many white crepe streamers in a strong breeze. After so many days with his mind fully occupied with repairs, he had time to think -- and he didn't like it.

In less than two days time, he and the others would be home, and could resume their interrupted lives.

Except him.

With no memories, no past, no sense of belonging to anchor himself, he had nothing to interrupt. He simply drifted from one mission to the next.


It was part of the reason he clung to Rogue's friendship so desperately -- as the children at the orphanage before her, Joseph used her as a lifeline, grounding himself through her, as he tried to discover some purpose to give meaning to his existence. It was all he could do, with his past wiped form his mind. He knew some of the history of 'Magneto' -- but he knew nothing of what had caused him to become what he had been. Although, he shivered, the flashes of memory he had experienced on Chandilar were giving him some ideas ... and he preferred not to dwell on them.

Even if he did rediscover his past, he wasn't sure he could handle it -- but what choice did he have ?

"Not much of one," a soft voice wryly observed.

Nomi's approach had not gone unobserved -- Joseph had detected her body's natural electromagnetic field well before she had spoken.

The Jedi was quite scrupulous in not violating the privacy of others, and ordinarily, Joseph would resent such intrusions when he was being introspective -- but not this time. Right now, he didn't particularly want to be alone with his thoughts -- perhaps she had sensed that.

"I suppose you of all people might understand how I feel --but at least you remember your past, although it is lost to you. I cannot even do that," he said bitterly.

"True," she acknowledged.

"But at least you don't have to deal with the regrets."

Joseph turned toward her, eyebrows arched in silent inquiry.

"Memory is a double-edged blade, Joseph. Yes, I have my past -- and with it, I have all the might-have-beens. If I hadn't gone on that mission, maybe I would've known Vima as an adult. Maybe I would have been able to make a real difference in the war against the Sith. Maybe I would have been able to help Ulic turn from the dark side."

She shrugged.

"Ultimately though, stewing over what's gone before, whether you remember it or not, accomplishes nothing. You have to focus on the here and now if you want to move forward."

"Easier said then done," he replied quietly.

She smiled sadly.

"It always is -- but then, the struggle is what makes us who we are. And when it gets too hard -- well, that's what friends are for."

Joseph's lips twitched upward in a small smile.

"Is it part of a Jedi's duty to dispense annoyingly true snippets of folk wisdom?"

She grinned.

"Only on an as-needed basis."

She rested her hand on his shoulder for a moment, before turning toward the door.

"I'll see you in the galley ..."

Alone once more, Joseph thought on his friends -- the children he had left behind with the Sisters; Rogue, who had believed in him when no one else would. Even the lost Jedi had become a friend -- although she had even less time on her hands than most of the other castaways, she had made the time to get to know them all. And now, Gambit ...

He shook his head in bemusement.

Whoever would have thought it possible?

Joseph was unable to pinpoint exactly when the situation had changed between them -- but the changes seemed to have coincided with his nightmares. He had intermittently been having horrifying flashbacks in his sleep, like the one he had suffered while awake on Chandilar -- the one which had driven him to attack the Phalanx in a rage. They were the kind of dreams that wake you from your sleep, bathed in sweat, heart racing, too terrified even to scream.

It seemed as if each change in Gambit's treatment of him had been heralded by a particularly bad episode of his dreams.

It had begun slowly. First, the gibes had tapered off, then finally stopped altogether. Then there had been a quiet, but uneasy tension, which slowly eased. Then that had disappeared.

Things were still uncertain between them, but Joseph had noticed something else as well -- Remy's eyes no longer crackled with barely disguised hate when he looked at the other man. Instead, they held another quality -- understanding ... and perhaps, a hint of shame.

The first time Joseph had questioned Remy about his apparent change of heart, Gambit had laughed bleakly.

"Why? 'Cause when I called you m' brother ... at de time, I didn' realize jus' how true dat was."

Joseph had been turning that cryptic statement over in his mind since.

Perhaps I'm not the only one with nightmares ...


1. I have blatantly stolen my ideas about gravitational waves and hyperspace as applied to interstellar travel from David Weber -- IMHO, the king of currently living sci-fi authors.


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