The loud, harsh buzzing of an alarm roused Rogue from a deep sleep. Blinking to clear the cobwebs from her drowsy mind, she quickly staggered to her feet and wriggled into a clean uniform. She was already airborne and halfway across the room before Professor Xavier's clear, distinctive voice began echoing through the elegant old Manor. Her bedroom door slid aside with a soft whispering sound, then glided closed again as she darted out into the dimly-lit hallway.
Whatever was happening, the Professor sounded awfully urgent! And that particular tone of voice always spelled Trouble! It figured, the one time she tried to take a short nap, something would go wrong...
She was so intent on listening to Xavier's terse message that she never even heard approaching footfalls in the adjoining corridor. Without warning, she crashed headlong into a tall, angular body.
Only one person had that kind of lean, agile frame--Remy LeBeau! Of all the rotten luck...
Rogue cursed under her breath as she quickly disentangled herself and floated away. She knew, all too well, what would happen if she accidentally touched his bare skin...and she didn't want to hurt him.
That was the price she had to pay for being born a mutant--she couldn't touch anyone without absorbing their life energies and memories. Inadvertently touching another mutant was even worse, because she'd also absorb their unique mutant abilities. And the shock of transfer could range from unconsciousness to coma or even death for her hapless victims.
Still, there were compensations. Her slender body was invulnerable to heat, cold, and physical pain that would kill a normal human. She was the strongest of Professor Xavier's students, able to lift two-ton weights with relative ease. And she could fly.
Best of all, as part of his elite team, she could use her awesome powers to help people, and bring an end to the fighting between humans and mutants.
No one knew what caused the so-called 'x-factor' in a mutant's genetic code--most of the time, they looked human enough to pass unnoticed almost anywhere. And that was good, because despite President Kelly's open support, public opinion about mutants hovered somewhere between lousy and downright hostile! Professor Xavier was trying to change that--these days he spent most of his time in Washington, lobbying and making speeches before one committee or another.
Of course, the frequent attacks by fanatical groups like the mutant-hating "Friends of Humanity" didn't help the situation. Neither did violent rampages by renegade mutants like Magneto or Sabertooth. If any of those politicians ever realized that Xavier himself was an immensely powerful telepath, or that his floating 'wheelchair' was controlled by telekinesis and not some new, experimental hyper-technology, they'd probably slaughter him in paranoid self-defense!
Being a mutant just wasn't safe these days! Too many humans thought that 'different' meant 'dangerous.' Only they were the dangerous ones, hunting down mutants like they were wild animals, and trying to kill them!
Still, for those few who believed in Xavier's dream of peaceful human-mutant coexistence, being 'different' was a matter of pride. Xavier had created more than a safe haven for his students--he'd given them a common goal.
Sometimes it amazed Rogue that all her teammates could be so different, yet work together so well. Xavier's dream had brought them together, given them a feeling of unity. On their own, they'd probably have been bitter enemies. Together, they made a close-knit family.
And that was good, too, because where else could they have gone? Like the others, Rogue's special abilities made her a valuable member of Xavier's elite team. But unless she joined the Marines and taught rough'n'tumble fighting tactics to the new recruits, her unique talents were pretty useless 'out there.'
Family meant a lot to her--she still remembered how terribly lonely she'd felt after her mutant powers had emerged, and everyone had suddenly been afraid of her. Her daddy's hateful rejection had hurt the most. So she'd run away from home, even though she was only thirteen, and she'd never returned.
She'd been adopted by Mystique, a powerful shapeshifter, who had found her huddled in a bus terminal late one night, trying to stay warm. Mystique had become the mother she'd never known. And Rogue, delighted that someone actually appreciated her bizarre mutant ability, had gladly joined the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.
For several years she'd worked with Pyro, Avalanche, and a handful of other renegade mutants, obeying Mystique's every whim. They'd lived by their own rules, taking what they wanted, not caring who they hurt in the process. Rogue's ability to absorb memories and special talents from anyone she touched had proved invaluable to the team, allowing them to infiltrate even the tightest high-security areas unchallenged.
Then she'd gone up against Ms. Marvel, the only mutant that Mystique had really feared. Mystique had lured Ms. Marvel into a fatal trap, hoping to enhance her adopted daughter's talents. And it had worked--Rogue had permanently absorbed all of the blonde heroine's awesome mutant powers, and become practically invulnerable herself.
Unfortunately, she'd also absorbed Carol Danvers' personality along with her powers. The ensuing mental battle between good and evil--Ms. Marvel and Mystique--had nearly driven Rogue insane.
Finally, searching for the remnants of her sanity, she'd run away again. That was when Xavier had found her, called out to her with his powerful mind. And over time, as she'd learned to block out the painful memories, she'd found more than peace of mind--she'd found a new purpose in life.
Deep in her heart, the battle still raged--she'd always love Mystique as the mother she'd never known.
But she also understood how the Brotherhood had been using her for its own evil purposes. She wasn't going to let that happen again. No matter what it cost her, she was going to make sure that renegade mutants like Magneto--like Mystique--never hurt anyone again!
The other X-Men were equally committed to that purpose. And she counted them all as close friends.
But Remy LeBeau, or Gambit, as he was commonly called, was...well, kinda special to her. She couldn't remember a time when she hadn't loved him, even though she'd tried for a long time to hide it from him.
"Watch where you're goin', hot shot!" she snapped, shaking her head in exasperation as he staggered to his feet and steadied himself against the nearest wall. "One o' these days y'all are gonna get hurt, jumpin' in my way like that!"
A wry grin curved the tall Cajun's lips as Rogue hovered nearby, trying to hide her concern behind a sharp, sarcastic tone. She was always jibing at him--that was how he'd first realized that she cared about him.
"Why, chér, Gambit never know you miss him so much!" he teased, his reddish-brown eyes glowing with suppressed laughter. "We're only a few rooms away, y'know! You could come on by an' visit sometime!"
As always, his rich, seductive accent sent a quick thrill of wistful longing through her. But now wasn't the time for distractions--the Professor was waiting for them. Rogue acknowledged his glib retort with a rueful smile, then grabbed his sturdy wrists. "C'mon, Gambit, let's git movin'! Hell's a'poppin' an' we're runnin' late!"
The Cajun knew an evasion when he heard it--and he wasn't letting her get away that easily! "Gambit never in dat much of a hurry, chér!" he countered, a sly gleam in his narrowed eyes. "You come 'round some night, I show you, eh?"
"Remy!" Rogue rolled her own eyes, exasperated by his blatant flirting. Then a wicked grin curved her lips. There was more than one way to deal with a cantankerous low-life swamp rat!
Before he could protest, she scooped an arm around his lean waist, hauled him up into the air, and sped down the hall. His long body glided through the air beside her as if he'd been made to fly himself.
Gambit chuckled, amused by Rogue's mock-indignant reaction. Her inability to touch him had always been a sore spot, so they'd skirted around it for years by pretending that neither of them felt any kind of attraction for each other. In truth, he couldn't think of anything he wanted more than to be able to hold her! And even though she still denied it, he knew that she felt the same about him.
Ever since that fateful day up in the distant Savage Lands, when Mr. Sinister had captured the entire team and enslaved them with his modified Genosha collars, he'd known just how much she really did care about him! And he'd finally found the courage to admit his own love for her.
They had to keep up their teasing--otherwise they'd have both gone crazy! But sometimes Gambit couldn't help dropping the pretense, just for a few moments. Maybe he was reassuring himself at the same time.
"Don' you worry, chér," he promised, laying a gentle hand on her arm. "Someday things gonna be different. You wait an' see! Someday you an' Gambit gonna walk down dat aisle, just like Jean an' Scott."
It was the first time he'd ever referred to a permanent bond between them, even jokingly. Rogue was so shocked that she nearly dropped him!
Gambit, proposing marriage?
"Those hot spices're warpin' your brain, Cajun!" she retorted, her throat tight with unshed tears.
Crazy fool--he was always needling her, trying to get a reaction out of her. But this time he'd gone too far! How could he possibly joke about marriage, when he knew that she'd never be able to touch him or kiss him without putting him in a coma, or maybe killing him!
Someday, hah! She'd tried to change once, tried to get rid of her mutant powers forever, and she'd almost become Apocalypse's slave! At that, she'd been luckier than Warren Worthington, the Archangel, who'd nearly been destroyed by the traumatic experience. She shared Warren's memories, a part of his very soul, so she knew how badly he'd been scarred by that immortal, tin-plated monstrosity!
The only time Remy had ever been able to kiss her without lapsing into a coma had been on that day in the Savage Lands. She'd never forget what it had been like--but she couldn't let him risk himself that way again.
For Rogue, 'someday' was an impossibility.
They were looping into the heart of the mansion now, nearing Xavier's War Room. Though she wasn't a telepath herself, she'd been around their powerful leader long enough to 'hear' his mental voice strengthening as the last set of doors slid open.
A hot flush of embarrassment suddenly warmed her cheeks as the soft babble of familiar voices reached her. Everyone already knew that she and Gambit shared a deep emotional bond, and normally that didn't bother her. But today was different, somehow...maybe because Gambit's quiet promise had unnerved her so badly. Before anyone could see them together, she quickly settled to the floor and stepped away from him.
The lanky Cajun caught her hand and tugged her back to his side, undaunted by her warning glare. He wasn't about to let her get away just because his teammates were already in the room! His calm smile virtually dared her to protest as he dropped into his chair at the large round conference table.
Damn him anyway--couldn't he take a hint?
And trust Logan to make some snide comment under his breath about 'young lovers'! Rogue tried to ignore the surly little Canadian as she settled into her own chair--his code name of Wolverine suited him more than anyone liked to admit! Though he cared a lot about his few real friends, he always hid it beneath an irascible scowl.
Logan's background was even more of a mystery than hers. In his case, though, his memories had been scrambled by his experiences with Alpha Flight, Canada's ultra-secretive mutant strike force. Her past was only a mystery because she didn't want to talk about it--and because Professor Xavier had blocked out her most painful memories to save her sanity.
In an effort to leave her previous life behind, she'd even buried her real name beneath a dozen layers of psychic buffering. If Professor Xavier had ever probed deeply enough to uncover it, he'd never admitted it. And to the rest of the team--even to Gambit--she'd always simply been 'Rogue.' It was better that way...her own name still hurt too much, after the way her daddy had turned on her, back when her mutant powers had started developing.
Then Rogue shook her head to clear away the bitter memories as Jubilee, the youngest member of Xavier's team, dashed into the large room. "Am I late?" she gasped, skidding to a stop near Gambit. "Hiya, Beast! How's Muir Island?"
As if her entrance had been a cue, the holographic communicator had shimmered to life, and Henry McCoy's distinctive features swam into view.
He was the most fascinating enigma of all, Rogue mused as she met her teammate's deep-set eyes with a sober greeting nod. Despite the shaggy blue fur and long fangs that had earned him the code-name 'Beast,' McCoy was actually one of the world's foremost genetic scientists.
He might look like some frightening half-primate monster, she reluctantly conceded, but he had the mind and soul of a brilliant scholar. His long clawed fingers were delicate in his huge laboratory, yet lethally dangerous to the X-Men's enemies. And his incredible strength and agility made him a force to be reckoned with!
Professor Xavier motioned for Jubilee to join the council, and she eagerly dropped into the chair closest to Wolverine. Despite Logan's antagonistic attitude, a deep, subtle bond existed between them that defied definition. Rogue had often wondered if he considered Jubilee the daughter he might've had, if bitter fate hadn't turned his old love Uriko against him.
"Beast has very grave news," Xavier announced without further preamble. His austere features were solemn as his crisp voice rang through the large room. "Muir Island has been attacked, and Moira MacTaggert and her son Kevin have vanished."
Moira MacTaggert...even after all these years, her name seemed to cause Xavier pain. They'd once hoped to marry...until the war had separated them. Two months later, Moira had unexpectedly broken their engagement and married a local politician. Her son Kevin had been born that same year. Joe MacTaggert had been infuriated that she'd given birth to a 'filthy mutant,' and had promptly divorced her.
Moira maintained that Kevin was Joe's son, but Rogue wasn't so certain. Neither Moira nor Joe MacTaggert were mutants, and Kevin had shown incredible psychic abilities that rivaled even Xavier's.
"What about Banshee?" Several months ago, Wolverine had struck up a grudging friendship with Moira's new mutant fiancé, Sean Cassidy. Now he anxiously leaned forward, impatient for Beast's reply.
"Banshee was found unconscious on the rocks below Moira's complex," Beast calmly informed them. "He will recover in time, but as yet he has not been able to shed any light on their disappearance."
The scientist's carefully measured words seemed to irritate Cyclops-- but then he'd always been a hothead, ready to lash out at the slightest provocation. "We ought to go there and see for ourselves, Professor!" he scowled. "That kid's too dangerous to be running around loose! And if he's done anything to Dr. MacTaggert..."
"Kevin is only a boy!" Xavier protested, defensively raising one hand. "And he loves Moira. He would never harm her!"
"As Kevin, maybe not," Cyclops countered, a grim frown darkening his handsome features. "As Proteus, who knows? He's too unstable for us to know anything about him!"
Jean touched her husband's arm, psychically calming him. "I agree with Scott that we should go, Professor," she murmured in her gentle, quiet way. "You were able to psychically 'send' to Kevin last time, even when he was Proteus-charged. If he and Dr. MacTaggert have vanished, maybe we can track him using the new Cerebro linkup that you just installed in the Blackbird."
"We must try!" Storm interjected from across the table. Genuine concern for Moira and her teenage son colored her exotic Egyptian voice as she leaned forward. "If Kevin were to fall into the wrong hands, he would become a helpless pawn. He does not know right from wrong!"
Long, razor-sharp adamantium claws shot out the back of Wolverine's fists as he impatiently dismissed her fears. "He sure knows how to mess up a guy's mind!" he snarled, glaring around the room. Of all the enemies he'd ever faced, only Proteus had scared him so badly that he'd turned and run from danger, instead of launching himself headlong into the fray. And he hated himself--and Kevin--for that humiliating failure.
Rogue remembered how she'd tried to comfort him later, after they'd helped control the boy's unnerving ability to warp reality, and how he'd bitterly pushed her away.
"In our business, we all git shook up now and again," she'd ruefully confessed.
"I don't!" he'd retorted, and stalked away in a cold fury.
"Relax, sugar," she softly urged, laying her gloved hand over his. He scowled at her, but at least he didn't jerk away this time...and he even retracted his claws. Encouraged, she squeezed his clenched fingers, then turned back to Xavier. "You can find Kevin if anyone can, Professor," she confidently predicted.
For one brief moment Xavier met her gaze, and she thought she saw a tiny flame leap in his clear blue eyes. Then it was gone again as he soberly accepted her praise. "Thank you, Rogue. I will do my best, for all our sakes," he nodded. "Any force that can overcome Proteus is a force to be reckoned with."
"Indeed." Beast's quiet affirmation seemed to sum up all their thoughts as they glanced at each other around the large table. "I recommend that you all join me here on Muir Island--every one of us may be needed."
Jubilee eagerly squirmed in her chair, delighted by his recommendation. "Even me? It's about time!" she exclaimed. "Come on, let's go!"
Suddenly Beast glanced aside, apologetically waving one large blue hand as he listened to something on his end of the connection.
No one dared to say a word, but Rogue knew they were all wondering the same thing: Had Banshee died?
Gambit's long fingers closed over hers, and she gratefully flashed a weak smile in his direction.
At last Beast swung around to face them again, his expression even more grim than before. "Banshee is awake, and able to talk. He knows who attacked them."
His dark, somber eyes swept the room, briefly lingering on each one of them.
"Mr. Sinister has Moira and Kevin MacTaggert."
Rogue suppressed a shudder of hatred as she kept pace with Gambit through the long, winding underground hallway. She'd never forget how frightened, how vulnerable she'd felt in the Savage Lands, with her mutant powers gone!
If Sinister had succeeded in withdrawing her DNA to create a new race of evil mutants...
Two years ago, the Genoshan government had enslaved a group of mutants with special collars that took away their unique powers. Gambit and Storm had joined forces with a renegade time-traveler named Cable to free the captives. All of those collars should have been destroyed...but somehow Sinister had gotten his hands on their technology, and modified it for his own uses.
After taking over Magneto's abandoned citadel in the far-off Savage Lands, he'd created a special Genoshan-style generator that had extended across the entire region. He and his band of mutant bullies had worn protective belts which canceled the generator's effects--but all of the other mutants had found themselves inexplicably powerless.
In an effort to defeat his two greatest enemies, he'd lured Magneto and Professor Xavier into a near-lethal trap. The two powerful mutants had put aside their personal differences and learned to work as a team until the X-Men had arrived to rescue them.
Sinister's device had briefly restored Xavier's ability to walk, compensating for the temporary loss of his mutant abilities. He cherished those few precious days of mobility as dearly as Rogue cherished the memory of Remy's passionate kiss...
...but in the end, Sinister and his generator had been destroyed. Beast had retrieved one of the modified Genoshan belts, but it had been too badly damaged for him to duplicate its effects.
Despite having his body disintegrated, Sinister had somehow survived, and eventually re-formed back into his original villainous shape. Undaunted, he'd tried to kidnap Jean Grey a second time, immediately after her wedding to Scott Summers. With Apocalypse's help, he'd taken her outside time itself, still in hopes of creating his coveted "master race."
Xavier and the universe's other psychics had banded together to defeat Apocalypse. But Rogue suspected that he wasn't truly gone, either. Somehow the really evil ones never actually died--they only went into hiding long enough to fool you, then jumped back out when you least expected it.
She'd give anything for a chance at one of those belts or Genoshan slave collars, if it would only dampen her mutant powers long enough to touch Remy one more time, maybe even share another kiss! But the idea of facing Sinister again left her chilled. That mutant only had one thing on his mind, and she had no desire to be his guinea pig!
"Whatcha think Sinister really wants with Kevin MacTaggert, Remy?" she urged, her voice low as she soared along just above his left shoulder. "Poor kid can't even control himself--he ain't gonna make a very good DNA donor! Or hostage!"
Gambit spared her a quick glance without slowing his rapid pace. "Dunno, chér! But Gambit sure love t' see what Proteus do if Sinister make him mad!" he drawled, a momentary grin curving his lips. "Big bad Sinister, melted in a little puddle!"
"Indeed!" Storm dropped back a few lengths, an intrigued light gleaming in her whitened eyes. "It is almost a shame that Proteus's powers are limited to his immediate vicinity! Still, that will make it easier for Professor Xavier to track him."
Rogue veered slightly to one side so she could meet the Egyptian princess's steady gaze. "Ororo, what d'you really think about Kevin an' the Professor?" she demanded. "Seems to me that he's awful protective of that kid!"
"Perhaps he wishes that the boy were truly his," Storm murmured, warily glancing ahead at Xavier's stiff back. "The truth will be revealed soon enough, Rogue, if Moira MacTaggert wishes it so. Until then, it is best that we do not raise questions which have no answers."
She leveled a warning frown at her friends, then spread her arms wider and soared forward to her original position. Gambit's thick russet hair blew back in the momentary breeze.
So Storm suspected what she did! Rogue smugly grinned and whipped into a tight, intricate aerial circle, then resumed her place above Remy's shoulder.
Kevin was Xavier's son! He must be!
Ahead of them, oblivious to his students' speculations, Xavier rapidly led the way into the large underground flight hanger. His hoverchair's soft humming was lost in the echoes as the Blackbird's immense door swung open. Then the entire team followed him up the ramp and strapped into their seats.
Rogue wasn't surprised to find Gambit still at her side, but she was a little startled when no one else joined them on the low, curving couch. It was usually the most popular spot in the large cockpit!
Had Remy somehow warned them away, or were they actually trying to be tactful? It'd be nicer if she could only take advantage of it!
Gambit casually draped an arm around her shoulders, and she uncomfortably edged away. One of these days, he was gonna get so carried away by his own flirting that he'd forget he couldn't touch her, and he was gonna get seriously hurt!
Then, before she could protest, he daringly caressed her cheek. Rogue gasped and braced herself for the agonizing burst of energy that always accompanied a physical touch...
"Relax, chér! Gambit ain't hurt, see?"
Remy's smug, devilish grin teased her as she hesitantly opened her eyes again, bewildered. He wasn't hurt? But how...
Then she stared in wonder at the transparent plastic gloves sheathing his long hands. "Beast owe Gambit a favor--figured dis da best way t' make sure he don' git burned if he play with fire!" he murmured in her ear. "Shoulda thought o' dis years ago, nón?"
His agile fingers gently glided over her back, kneading her tensed muscles. No one had ever dared to touch her like that before! Sighing with undisguised pleasure, Rogue relaxed in his loose embrace, and slowly closed her eyes.
From the air, Muir Island was a mere speck of dirt off Scotland's rocky coast. Several large, angular research facilities brightened the craggy landscape, and a small helipad beckoned off to one side. Yet only three or four tiny buildings serviced the few inhabitants, and a battered old ferry occasionally made the crossing to the mainland.
"Not much to recommend it!" was Jubilee's scornful evaluation as she stared down in disappointment. "Don't they have even one arcade? Jeez!"
The helipad was too small to accommodate the huge Blackbird, so Cyclops angled toward the western slope of the island. Thick grass whipped behind the low engines until he shut them down with a satisfied nod. "Everyone out," he instructed, rising to his feet. "After you, Professor?"
"Thank you, Scott," Xavier gravely responded. His gleaming hoverchair purred as he psychically maneuvered it up a few inches, then headed for the exit ramp.
The rest of the team fell into step behind him, and hurried down the ramp. Then Jubilee hesitated, staring around in surprise. The jet's sleek wings and tail jutted out over the rocky cliffs; the long nose barely cleared the nearest buildings.
"Wow! I didn't know you were that good a pilot, Cyclops!" she exclaimed. "A few yards on either side, and we'd have either crashed or fallen into the ocean!"
"Perhaps if you would devote more attention to your simulator exercises..." Xavier slyly retorted, his eyes glittering with dry humor.
Then he sobered again as Beast's hulking blue shape appeared in the nearest doorway. "Come, we must hurry. Storm and Rogue, see what you can find from above. The rest of you, come with me."
As if by unspoken agreement, the two women split up and headed toward opposite ends of the tiny island. Let Storm search the rocks where Banshee had been found--Rogue was more interested in the ocean side. Sinister wouldn't have wanted anyone to catch sight of him or his henchmen as they snuck ashore.
Yet despite her efforts, she couldn't find any signs of a secretive landing. Wolverine, with his extra-keen sense of smell, might be able to tell her more...but he was already inside the research center with Professor Xavier.
Then she caught her breath in dismay. What if Sinister still had that high-tech portal of Apocalypse's, the one that had allowed him to travel through time and space? Moira and Kevin could be anywhere, and not even Xavier or Jean would be able to trace them!
Had that weird little guardian been able to repair the time nexus after Apocalypse had nearly unraveled it? Well, he must have, or she and her teammates would never have survived. But could Sinister still move through time itself, or was he limited to bouncing around in this time again?
"Report, Rogue!" Her suit's communit button lit up as Xavier's crisp voice echoed in her ears. "Any signs of Moira or Kevin?"
The anxiety in her mentor's distinctive voice made her feel even more helpless. "Nothin' yet, Professor," she sighed. "Ain't nothin' here but a bunch o' rocks and seaweed! Storm, you have any luck yet?"
"I have not found anything, either." The beautiful Egyptian princess was barely visible, white against blue, on the far side of the island. "Shall we rejoin you now, Professor?"
Rogue didn't bother waiting for an answer...she simply swooped down and headed for the complex.
It saved her life.
A brief flicker of light caught her eye as she glided over the research center's peaked roof. Startled, she hesitated in midair, hovering over the sturdy tiles. What had she seen down there, near the tiny town? Only thick grass waved in the light breeze now.
"Storm, you see that?" she asked, tapping her communit. "Storm?"
Cold silence answered her, when Storm's precise voice should have resounded through the small monitor. She impatiently pressed it again. "Storm? Professor?"
Without warning, an ominously familiar white-haired figure rose from the low bushes. Something glittered in his large hand.
"Ruckus!" Rogue gasped, instinctively launching across the intervening space. If Ruckus was here, that meant Sinister had to be close behind!
The evil mutant flashed her a wicked grin, and lifted his weapon. She just had time to see the glowing, golden belt circling his waist. Then the roof jumped up to knock the wind from her lungs.
She was falling, falling...
Fiery pain blossomed through her writhing body as the tall building whipped by with sickening speed. Then she hit the ground with a heavy thud, and darkness closed around her.
Beast gratefully clasped Professor Xavier's hand as he led the X-Men through the research center's wide double doors. "I am relieved that you were able to join me so quickly!" he confessed. "Banshee is feeling much more like himself, but I fear that it will be quite some time before he feels like singing again."
"Has there been any news of Moira or Kevin?" Xavier demanded, easily keeping pace beside the burly scientist. "Has Banshee told you anything more?"
"He has," Beast admitted, "yet I must confess that I do not understand Sinister's motives. Proteus cannot be controlled by ordinary means! How can Sinister hope to contain the boy?"
"By using Moira as a hostage," Xavier countered, a grim frown darkening his austere features. "Good heavens!" he suddenly added as they rounded the corner and entered Moira's laboratory. "Kevin could not have done that!"
The entire front wall of the boy's chamber was warped and twisted; a huge, ragged hole seemed to have been melted through the massive, impenetrable surface. "Banshee, what happened here?" he demanded.
Sean Cassidy was sitting at a nearby console, intently examining a damaged circuit board. Thick, waving golden hair half-obscured the white bandage on his forehead as he carefully turned, rubbing at his aching temples.
"Welcome, Charles Xavier," he sighed, his lilting Irish voice heavy with bitterness. "Aye, that's Kevin's work, all right. Only this time, it didn't change back t' normal when he an' Moira vanished. He's been changin', he has, an' gettin' stronger all the time." His green eyes met Xavier's for an instant, harsh with mute accusation, then warily darted away again.
The Professor stared at him in blank surprise. "Could Kevin and Moira still be nearby?" he urged, gesturing at the ragged hole with one hand. "Even if his powers are increasing, he is still just a boy! He must have a defined range!"
"We have searched the island and sent word to the mainland, Professor," Beast assured the anxious telepath. "Indeed, the remaining scientists were most anxious to assist us...if only because it ensured their escape from the immediate vicinity."
A sardonic grin curved his lips for a moment. "Dr. MacTaggert is well known, and Proteus would certainly attract attention. So far, we have received no word. If they are still nearby, they are very well hidden indeed!"
Jean stepped forward and compassionately touched Banshee's shoulder. "Can you tell us what happened, Sean?" she suggested. "Perhaps that will give us some idea of where to look."
The tall Irishman hesitated and canted his head to one side. Only a few months ago, the alien Phoenix entity had possessed and nearly destroyed Jean Gray's slender body. He remembered all too clearly its spurious violence when he and Moira had tried to exorcise it from her mind. Jean's calm composure now was oddly soothing--even the throbbing pain in his head seemed to fade as she smiled down at him. Without thinking, he slid the damaged circuit board into his hip pocket and took a steadying breath.
"I wish there was more t' tell," he conceded, scanning the assembled mutants with weary eyes. Beast, as usual, was intently examining the huge, undulating crater where Proteus had broken free. Gambit and Jubilee were staring in cautious fascination at some of Moira's sophisticated equipment. Only Wolverine was standing apart from the others, suspiciously glaring around as if he expected Sinister to appear at any moment.
"Moira an' I were workin' with the boy, tryin' to help him control his energy levels." Again Banshee shot that oddly resentful glare at Xavier. "He's been makin' a wee bit o' progress, but nothin' like we'd hoped. Ever since he got out that one time, it's like his powers are growin' faster than we can teach him t' control 'em!
"Anyway, without a bit o' warnin', the doors crashed open an' these huge brutes charged in. Moira thought they were lookin' for the trainin' center, which is over in the next building. Then one o' them grabbed her," he bitterly muttered. "She screamed, an' Kevin came chargin' through the wall t' rescue her..."
"Didn't ya even get a shot in?" Wolverine furiously interrupted, scraping his long claws together. "What's the matter, flyboy? Too busy daydreaming about your honeymoon?"
Stung, Banshee jumped to his feet. "D'ye think I didn't try?" he demanded, his brogue deepening with barely-suppressed anguish. "I'm no fool, Logan! But we ne'er had a chance! The biggest one, who grabbed Moira, 'twas like he was made outa rubber or somethin'! I tried t' knock him down, and I went right through 'im!"
"Huh!" Wolverine snorted in disgust. "Sounds like one o' Sinister's nasties, all right--calls himself 'Gorgeous Jorge!' All I can say is, he ain't my type!"
Beast threw a reproving frown at Logan, and gestured him into a sulking silence. "What happened after that, Banshee?" he asked. "Did you see them take Kevin and Dr. MacTaggert?"
Another weary sigh escaped the blond mutant as he leaned against the contorted wall and shook his tousled head. "Afore I could even pick meself up, Sinister himself appeared in the doorway. I dinna care how many times I see him--he still looks like a cross 'tween a big angry spider an' a vampire! Fairly raises the hackles on me neck, he does!"
Jubilee spun around, impressed by his vivid description. "That's Sinister, all right! What a total creep!" she exclaimed.
Sean grimaced. "Aye, he is that!" he sneered. "He was holdin' some kind o' gun in his hand, only 'twasn't like any gun I ever saw before. An' it didn't fire lasers or bullets. Next thing I knew, Moira an' Kevin were gone, an' Beast was haulin' me out o' the waves down yonder." He sourly waved in the distant mainland's general direction.
Xavier anxiously glanced around the disheveled laboratory again. "I still think that Kevin must be nearby!" he insisted. "Jean, can you feel anything?" Frowning, he tapped at the communit button on his hoverchair. "Report, Rogue! Any signs of Moira or Kevin?"
Jean closed her eyes and struggled to catch a trace of Kevin's distinctive thought patterns. "It's stronger in there, Professor!" she finally exclaimed, pointing into the boy's quarters.
"You're right, Jean!" Galvanized, Xavier edged closer to the gaping hole. It was just wide enough to admit his hoverchair. Beast politely stepped back as Jean and Scott briskly followed him; then he fell in behind them as Xavier drifted to a stop in the center of the compact living room. "Here! I would swear..."
A stealthy noise in the doorway made Jubilee curiously glance around.
"Wolverine!" she yelped. "Look out!"
"Huh?" His vicious claws gleaming, Wolverine spun around...but it was too late. The silvery gas canister was already flooding the room with noxious fumes as it rolled to a stop beneath an overturned table. Then the wide double doors swung shut, and solidly locked behind them.
"It's a trap!" Gambit yelled, instinctively reaching for his deck of cards. "Run, petít!"
Jubilee ignored him. As Wolverine dove for the shiny container, she stretched both hands out and blasted sizzling globes of plasma energy at the heavy metal doors.
Thick smoke began spewing from the ceiling vents in Kevin's chamber, and merged with the heavy fumes flooding the outer room. Wolverine fell to his knees beside the hissing gas grenade, then sagged forward as the noxious gas overwhelmed him. Gambit barely had time to catch Jubilee before collapsing. His brightly-patterned cards scattered across the floor around them.
When the smoke finally cleared, the laboratory was deathly silent.
The doors slowly swung open again. An evil smile curved Sinister's hideous mouth, revealing sharp white fangs. Then he stepped back as Ruckus appeared at his side, Rogue's limp body in his long arms.
"Put them all in the boy's chamber!" Sinister hissed. "They will be safe in there until we return!"
Grinning, Ruckus stepped over Wolverine's prone body. "The mighty X-Men!" he jeered as he dropped Rogue on the couch in the next room and returned for Gambit. "Hah!"
To be continued...
"Rogue! C'mon, chér, wake up!"
The familiar, urgent voice gradually reached her, scattering the empty black void that kept pulling her back down into painless oblivion. Groaning, Rogue blearily forced her eyes open. A vague, blurred shape was hovering over her, bending close...
Her faint whisper was so weak that Gambit could barely even hear it, but a heartfelt sigh of relief escaped him as she blinked and then managed a wan smile. "Rest easy, chér," he murmured, stroking her face with gentle fingers. "You be fine now."
Beast moved into view and crouched down beside her, his eyes narrowed with concern. "How do you feel, Rogue?" he urged. "Can you move at all?"
Rogue tossed the blue-furred scientist an angry glare. "' Course I can move!" she retorted. "Y'all know me better'n that!"
She defiantly launched herself into the air...
...and nothing happened!
She was still laying on Kevin's couch, gasping as fiery agony burned into her ribs.
Gambit quickly slid his arms around her waist and lifted her into a more comfortable position. The close contact startled her, and she tried to jerk away. Another burst of pain promptly exploded through her bruised body, making her wince in agony.
"Remy, what's wrong? Why cain't I fly?" she protested, gripping his hands with frenzied strength. Then she stared in disbelief at their tightly linked fingers. Someone had pulled her yellow leather gloves off--they were lying down on the floor, beside the new plastic ones Gambit had worn in the Blackbird.
Skin against bare skin...
An icy shiver ran down her spine as she remembered that fleeting glimpse of a glowing belt around Ruckus's waist. Frightened, she stared up at the two men in mute horror. Not again, not again...
And not now, when it felt like someone had jabbed a red-hot poker into her ribs!
Beast's sober nod confirmed her worst fears. "Apparently Mr. Sinister is up to his old tricks again," he theorized. "He has disabled all our mutant powers and enclosed us here, in Kevin MacTaggert's rooms. You are fortunate that you were not injured more seriously!"
Injured? No wonder she was hurting so badly!
"So how're we gonna git outa this one?" she demanded, scowling up at her teammates. "Any bright ideas, Cajun?"
Remy blithely ignored her caustic tone. "Not yet, chér...Gambit been too busy helpin' Beast fix you up. Looks like you broke a few ribs when you fall. Take it easy now, y'hear?"
"Well, there's gotta be a way out," she insisted, rebelliously staggering to her feet. "Kevin did it, an' he's just a kid!"
Wolverine grimaced as she anxiously scanned the smooth walls and ceiling, searching for any little nook or cranny. "We already checked!" he snarled. "If the doc made it strong enough to keep that kid in when he was Proteus-charged, ain't no way we're gonna break out with Sinister's damned machine keepin' us helpless!" His long claws grated against the wall as he restlessly drummed his fingers on one blank surface. "We're nothin' but a bunch o' sittin' ducks, stuck in here like this!"
Xavier reprovingly glanced up from the single table, where Banshee was working on a small circuit board. "We are not helpless as long as we refrain from panic," he admonished. "Rogue, before you were taken prisoner, did you see anything that might be of help to us?"
Rogue tried to take a step in their direction, and winced in pain. Gambit's hand was instantly beneath her elbow, supporting her. "You better sit back down, chér," he advised. "You ain't used t' hurtin' like da rest of us!"
"I ain't an invalid, swamp rat!" she retorted, but her voice lacked its normal vigor. She threw him an impotent glare as he pressed her back down onto the couch.
"Sorry, Professor, but I didn't see nothin' 'til I was nearly back to the center!" she sighed, shaking her head. "Then that Ruckus jumped up outa nowhere. He had this gun in his hand--or at least I thought it was a gun," she slowly added, frowning. "Next thing I knew, I was fallin', and I don't remember nothin' else!"
"Apparently Sinister has developed a portable version of the generator he used in the Savage Lands," Xavier murmured. "That would explain how they were able to reach you from a distance."
"Professor..." Rogue hesitated for a moment, then took a deep breath and met his keen gaze. "What about Storm? I didn't see her fall...d'you think they've caught her, too?"
Xavier's piercing blue eyes were troubled as he frowned. "I do not know, Rogue," he confessed. "This chamber was specially designed to contain Proteus's energy emissions. We have not been able to reach her by communit, but perhaps we simply cannot penetrate these walls."
"Or maybe they've caught her, and they're holdin' her somewhere else," Wolverine grumbled. "However they opened and closed that damned wall, they sure ain't gonna risk doin' it again now that we're awake an' ready for 'em!"
"Proteus opened it," Banshee insisted, an irritable frown marring his fair features. "Only Proteus could close it again. I've no idea where they were hidin' him, but they'll not let him near us again now't we've been sealed in. We'll hafta find another way out."
"If there is another way!" Wolverine snarled.
"Well, at least we won't starve!" Jubilee exclaimed, waving toward a large food replicator in the corner. "French fries, anyone?"
"French fries?" Cyclops dubiously echoed, peering at the shiny unit. He'd pulled his visor off, Rogue noticed, and his light brown eyes were gleaming with curiosity. "How versatile is that thing?"
"If ye can pronounce it, it'll make it for ye," Banshee assured him. "Only the best for our Kevin. Why d'ye ask?" His long fingers continued to probe at the blackened circuit as Beast bent over his shoulder for a closer look.
Cyclops hesitated. "I'm not quite sure," he finally confessed. "For just a second I had a thought...but it's gone now."
Jean tenderly massaged his wide shoulders. "Maybe if you relax a little, it'll come back to you," she suggested.
"Yeah, maybe," he conceded, frowning. "But in time to get us out of here?"
Wolverine's black eyes jealously narrowed as Scott stroked her hand, and their golden wedding bands seemed to sparkle in the bright fluorescent lighting. A sour grimace darkened his rugged features as he turned away and resumed his frustrated pacing. If only there was a way to cut through the walls...any activity to break the awful monotony of waiting...
"This was obviously a well-planned endeavor," Xavier mused. "Still, I cannot help but wonder..." Frowning, he restlessly wandered around the room, indulging the rare opportunity to move his long legs.
Cyclops leaned back against the table, arms crossed. "What do you wonder, Professor?" he appealed.
Xavier was silent a moment longer, pursing his lips in concentration. At last he turned toward Beast. "I believe that Moira and Kevin's kidnaping was meant as bait, to draw us here," he explained. "Is it possible that your unexpected arrival, only moments after they attacked the research center, has somehow altered their plans?"
Beast straightened, intrigued by Xavier's hypothesis. "In other words, they were not yet ready for us," he clarified. "And my continued presence has delayed them further. Whatever their purpose was for luring us to Muir Island, they may not yet be prepared! Perhaps that is why they have left us in here, rather than immediately dealing with us!"
Cyclops straightened, his eyes gleaming with renewed enthusiasm. "If that's the case, Dr. MacTaggert and Proteus may not be far from here! Isn't there any way out of these rooms, Professor?"
"Nae, na' from in here!" Banshee grumbled, shoving the circuit board aside. "The walls're two meters thick, an' made o' solid carbanium! After Kevin escaped last time, we wanted t' make sure he'd stay in here, safe an' sound, 'til he'd learned t' control his powers! 'Twas my idea--but I ne'er thought I'd be stuck in here meself!"
"Here, have some french fries!" Jubilee offered, pulling a steaming bowl from the replicator and depositing in the center of the table. "I always feel better when I have something to eat. Now if I can just get it to make some ketchup..." And she headed back across the room, absently muttering under her breath.
"Carbanium?" Beast echoed, startled. "Where on Earth did you get such a large supply? Carbanium is a Shi'ar metal, and even rarer than adamantium!"
"And a lot tougher!" Wolverine snarled. "My claws ain't even makin' a dent in this stuff!"
Banshee ruefully grimaced. "Aye, t'was the whole idea," he confessed. "We figured when Kevin was ready t' come back out, we'd dissolve a section o' the front wall. But the generator's on the other side o' the island! We've no way t' reach it from here!"
"You can dissolve carbanium?" Xavier's intense blue eyes widened in amazement. "That must take a tremendous amount of energy!"
"On the contrary," Beast objected. "If we had access to a digital signal processor and a power supply, it would be theoretically possible to weaken the cellular structure of the carbanium. We would only need to know the proper frequency, and the appropriate dissonant resonance.
"Nikola Tesla conducted similar experiments back in the early 20th century," he added, "using only primitive acid-based batteries and a very small generator. He was able to set up such intense vibrations in the architectural structure of his home that it literally almost shook to pieces!"
"Talk about 'bringing the house down'!" Jubilee quipped as she scooped up a handful of fries. "Too bad we don't have anything like that around here!"
"Indeed!" Beast nodded. "We would merely need to project the proper harmonic frequency..." He stared into the distance for a moment, then spun around and headed for the adjoining room. "If you will excuse me, I believe a closer examination of Kevin's computer may be in order!"
"Hey, Banshee, why won't this thing give me any ketchup?" Jubilee suddenly demanded, glaring at the silent replicator. "I've tried twice now, but nothing's happening!"
"It probably don't recognize your accent, darlin'!" Logan taunted. His claws made a soft scraping sound as they retracted back into his hands. "Too bad! I was hopin' for a chili dog with the works!"
"Here, lemme try," Banshee offered, rising to his feet. "Sometimes it's a wee bit finicky. Ketchup!" he added, carefully enunciating the word into the small microphone. "That should do it, luv."
For several moments the machine remained inactive. Then it made an odd grinding noise, and the silvered panel slid open.
Jubilee eagerly reached inside. "It's about time!" she exclaimed...then hesitated, an odd expression on her small face.
"Ah now, what's wrong here?" Banshee muttered, leaning close for a better look.
Her eyes wide, Jubilee pulled a brightly-colored patch of fabric out of the machine. "Where did this come from?"
Banshee stared in disbelief at the plaid scrap, his green eyes widening. "It's from Kevin's shirt! He was wearin' it this mornin' durin' his exercises! But how..."
Xavier snagged the fragment from Jubilee's fingers. "Where are your raw nutrients stored, Banshee?" he demanded, staring at the replicator.
The tall Irishman slowly turned to meet Xavier's anxious gaze. "Aye, now why din't I think o' that sooner?" he whispered. "When the complex was first built, they tunneled down under the island an' set up a storage chamber. The equipment's always worked smooth enough, so I reckon no one's been down there in decades!"
"Someone been there!" Gambit drily interjected from across the room. "Someone down there now, from da look of it!"
"You are quite correct, Gambit," Xavier nodded. "What better place to hide the boy than literally under our feet! No wonder Rogue and Storm could not find him!"
"That also explains why the outer wall didn't unwarp right away, Professor," Scott added. "You were right...he was still nearby!"
"Once we were inside and unconscious," Jean exclaimed, "Sinister must have used his Genosha ray on Kevin, to cancel the warping effect! If only we'd had a few more moments..."
"Eureka!" Beast's triumphant voice suddenly rang from the next room. "Professor, you must see this!"
"What is it, Beast?" Xavier asked, quickly preceding his students into Kevin's bedroom. "What have you found?"
The scientist eagerly gestured at the teenager's computer screen, his large eyes gleaming with pleasure. "I believe this may be the solution to our problem!" he exclaimed. "Banshee, I was able to retrieve your files on the carbanium dissolution! If your calculations are correct, we can use Kevin's computer speakers to set up a sound wave transformer which should have a detrimental effect on the carbanium's cellular structure!"
Jubilee jammed both fists on her hips and glared up at Beast. "Does anyone know what he's talking about?" she complained, exasperated. "C'mon, Beast! Not all of us are Nobel prize winners, you know!"
Wolverine rolled his eyes. "Rock'n'roll's gonna bring down the house!" he scoffed. Then he sobered as he caught sight of Rogue gingerly massaging her ribs. "Think you're up to running around yet, Rogue?"
"I do not anticipate a reenactment of Jericho's walls," Beast countered, shaking his head in reproof. "If all goes as planned, we will not destroy the wall, but merely weaken it. Then it will be up to you, my friend, to wreak your own special brand of havoc."
Wolverine's razor-sharp claws promptly extended again in anticipation. "It's about time!" he growled. "So what're we waitin' for? Sinister's not gonna leave us sittin' here all day!"
An anxious frown creased Beast's forehead. "First I must rig up some sort of wave transformer. It is not enough to feed a pure tone into the computer--it must be altered and amplified to suit our needs."
"That wee circuit board I was workin' on!" Banshee exclaimed, gesturing back toward the main room. "It's the transformer manipulator from Moira's sonic generator! That'd do a bonny job o' regulatin' yer sound waves! An' we can git wire from inside the replicator! That is, if Wolverine can git it open without shreddin' it!"
Logan flashed the Irishman a disgusted glare. "Just point me in the right direction, flyboy! You'll have more spare parts than you know what to do with!"
Beast rolled his own eyes in weary resignation. "That is what concerns me!" he murmured.
Wolverine's claws grated together as he threw the scientist a mocking grin. "Ya gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet!" he retorted. "C'mon, let's git started!"