"Deadly Rendezvous"

Chapter 1

           "Come now, comrádes--eighteen to three is not fair odds!"
           Piotr Rasputin grinned with impish delight as he gently pushed his two closest teammates toward the waiting cluster of Russian villagers. "I appreciate your loyalty, tovarishchee," he added, chuckling, "but I must not have an unfair advantage over you! Twenty against one is much more fair!"
           He was a tall man, with an engaging grin and a tanned, muscular physique that even professional bodybuilders might envy. But one man against twenty? His two friends exchanged uncertain glances. Then they philosophically shrugged and obeyed him. He was their Colossus, their mighty warrior...what else could they do?
           Piotr chuckled as the burly farmers arrayed themselves in a long line and crouched low, awaiting his first move. Without warning, he seemed to grow several inches as his bronzed skin transformed into burnished steel. Even his handsome face and wiry, short-cropped hair were consumed by the shiny metallic mask.
           That was his gift, his mutant talent. At will, he could transform his entire body into solid, living metal. As Colossus, he was impervious to pain and physical damage that would kill a mere human. He could withstand extreme heat and cold, hold his breath for over four minutes...or defeat his entire village in a game of American football.
           "First I must count a series of random numbers. It confuses the opposite team," he explained, hefting a battered football--a recent present from his good friend, Wolverine--under his arm. When the wiry Canadian mutant had heard that Piotr intended to teach his comrades the American sport, he'd sent little Jubilee over on a 'training flight' to deliver it. Or had Jubilee begged for the chance to visit his country again? Ah, well, at least her piloting skills were improving, though his head still reeled when he remembered her reckless aerobatic loops.
           He firmly pulled his thoughts back to earth--his friends were waiting for him. "Then I will run toward those goalposts," he continued, his rich accent echoing across the wide field as he pointed at two recently-erected fence poles, "and you must try to stop me!"
           Piotr's neighbor, Mischka, scowled in disappointment. "Is that all?" he demanded in a rough, gravelly voice.
           His twin brother, Petya, grinned and jabbed him in the ribs. "That is not enough?" he teased, gesturing at the huge steely giant facing them. "Even as children, no one could stop Piotr, and now he is the Colossus! The old gods themselves could not slow him down!"
           Mischka reluctantly grinned as Piotr laughed along with the enthusiastic townspeople. "Today I will do the impossible!" he cried, flinging his hands wide in a deliberately extravagant gesture. "I will steal the ball from the mighty Colossus, and I will win this Amyérekanskey game!"
           Piotr took the challenge, and hefted the ball again. "Dvatsat'tree, dvyénatsat, chétirnatsat, shést', hup!" he cried in a loud, ringing voice. And he charged down the field, grinning like a maniac. His teammates instinctively ducked, then raced after him, laughing and shouting.
           As Colossus, he could run at a tremendous speed...but that would not have been fair. His teammates were farmers, not trained athletes. Piotr took care to run just a fraction slower than they could, giving them every chance to catch him.
           They did not disappoint him.
           "Ha!" With a mighty lunge, Mischka snatched the ball from his loose grip and tumbled to the ground. By the time Colossus lumbered to a stop and spun around, his red-haired attacker was already sprinting in the opposite direction, clutching the ball against his chest.
           Piotr hid a delighted grin. Trust fiery Mischka to take the bait...and provide the entire town with an unparalleled chance for fun and excitement. They needed the change--they had all worked so hard these past months, repairing Omega Red's wanton destruction!
           Yelling with feigned outrage, he set off in hot pursuit.
           A little faster this time, enough to make his neighbor really run! Then scoop! And he swept Mischka off his feet and tucked him under his muscular arm.
           How the villagers cheered as he turned in a wide circle and started back to his own goalposts, with six of his teammates clinging to his steely body like prickly burs! That must be Petya clutching at his neck, and Gregor's arms around his waist...and Mischka still clutching the football against his chest, yelling and kicking as he fought to free himself.
           A little further...there!
           Laughing, Colossus staggered between the two rough-hewn poles and transformed back into his human form. Yet the combined weight of seven burly men was too much for even him to withstand! He promptly vanished beneath a flurry of thrashing arms and legs.
           Almost immediately, a dozen eager villagers were helping him stand back up, patting him on the back, clasping his hand in friendship. Piotr felt a warm flush of pleasure as he grinned down at his people's smiling faces.
           Never before had he felt so welcome, so accepted! Though he had worked with them, tireless and enthusiastic, for the past two years, rebuilding their village and the surrounding countryside, the barrier of wary caution had remained between them.
           Now it was gone--he was truly one of them again!
           "Piotr!"   A young, familiar voice made him spin around, his eyes glowing with emotion. His precious little sister, Ilyana, knew how much this moment meant to him---he must share it with her! Beautiful Ilyana, with her long, flowing golden curls and huge blue eyes...
           She was not with the other villagers, and for a moment his heart faltered. Then he saw her off to one side, waving in triumph. "Ilyana!" Wriggling free of the townspeople, he hurried in her direction.
           His eyes suddenly widened as he caught a better glimpse of her two companions. Cyclops of the X-Men? What was Cyclops doing here?
           But no, that could not be Cyclops--this man was smaller and thinner, and wore no protective visor. Yet his distinctive uniform was unmistakable! Could this be young Morph, Wolverine's lost-and-found teammate? And who was his brightly-clad comrade?
           Ah, but what did it matter? All the X-Men were his friends, and must be treated accordingly. He owed them more than he could ever begin to repay. If they needed his help, he would move the earth itself to comply!
           "Piotr!" Ilyana was eagerly gesturing for him to hurry. "Morph and Banshee have come to visit us!"
           Banshee...he had heard that name before. So this was Moira MacTaggert's fiancé, the Irish mutant who used his voice to fly. Jubilee, delighted by the rare chance to gossip, had filled his ears with dozens of tales about Moira and Banshee...and, of course, her new boyfriend, Kevin MacTaggert.
           Piotr bowed low, then clasped both men's hands in a warm greeting. "You are both welcome to my humble country," he assured them, smiling with genuine pleasure. Then he sobered. "I assume that you did not fly thousands of miles merely to watch my people play football--so how may I help you?"
           Morph and Banshee exchanged a relieved glance. "Aye, ye're right about that, laddie," the tall Irishman conceded, gesturing back toward the center of town. A large jet was carefully parked in the meeting circle, its stubby fins just missing the edge of the communal well. "Professor Xavier asked us t' bring ye back with us t' his mansion."
           Xavier needed him? Intrigued, Piotr straightened to his full, imposing height. Though he had gladly welcomed the X-Men's assistance on several occasions, they had never before requested his help in return. What could be facing the mighty Professor Xavier that they should need his help?
           "May I go, too?" Ilyana suddenly piped up, her small fingers curling around his. "Please, Piotr? You promised to take me to America, so that Professor Xavier could see if I am a mutant like you!"
           Morph was startled by her wistful tone. Hunching down, he met her anxious gaze with a curious frown. "Now why would you want to be a mutant?" he demanded, ruffling her silky hair with one hand. "Most of us would rather've been born normal!"
           Ilyana's blue eyes gleamed with open worship as she gazed up at her brother. "But Piotr is so brave and strong, and he helps to save people's lives!" she exclaimed. "I want to be like that--I want to make a difference, so that no more bad people will hurt us!"
           Piotr grimaced as he met Morph's eyes. "She still wakes in the night, screaming about Omega Red," he confided in a soft voice. "I had hoped that if she is a mutant like me, Professor Xavier could begin training her when she is ready."
           Banshee doubtfully shook his head. "She's a wee bit young t' be knowin' fer sure," he objected. "An' now's not th' best time, with trouble on th' loose!"
           Then he caught a glimpse of tears sparkling in the girl's eyes, and softened. "But mebbe a distraction's just what we'll be needin'!" he added, brightening. "An' if Xavier's worried about keepin' her safe, I'll take her to Muir Island. She'll be fine enough there with Moira--Sinister'll not have any reason t' go back, now't he's finally free o' the place! An' I'd wager that Moira'll appreciate the company."
           Ilyana's eyes widened with delight. "Then I may go?" she cried, flinging her arms around her brother's waist. "Oh, thank you! I promise not to get in anyone's way!"
           Piotr chuckled as he picked her up, and settled her in the crook of his arm. "We will hold you to that promise," he warned her. "You are eleven years old now. While you are in America, you must act like a young lady!"
           Then he turned and waved to his teammates, who were aimlessly tossing the football back and forth while they waited for him to rejoin them. "I must leave with my friends," he called, pitching his voice to carry across the wide fields. "But I will be back soon. Mischka, you will protect the village while I am gone?"
           The stocky little farmer straightened with pride. "It is an honor, Piotr!" he yelled back. "Go safely, and return to us when you can!"
           The traditional farewell warmed Piotr's heart. He briskly saluted, then spun around and followed his companions to the jet. "While we travel, you will tell me of this newest danger?" he politely requested as he lifted Ilyana into the back seat and swung up beside her.
           Again Morph and Banshee exchanged a meaningful glance, though now their faces were grim. "It'll take a while," Morph warned as they settled themselves in the front seats, and restraining belts snapped across their chests.
           Banshee skillfully manipulated the jet's controls, and the retros spat blazing fire back along the empty street. Then they were airborne, and Ilyana gulped as her stomach plunged into her feet. Piotr comfortingly grasped her hand.
           "I guess this whole mess started not long after we defeated the Phalanx," Morph finally shrugged, his eyes on the rapidly-changing countryside. "They destroyed Sinister's labs, so he decided to invade Muir Island and take all of Moira's genetic samples..."

• • • • •

           "...and then all hell broke loose when Kevin and Jubilee arrived and headed down into the sacred chamber," Morph sighed, his shoulders drooping. "I think Sinister and his gang must've already been hiding nearby, just waiting for the right moment...and those two kids sure created a diversion!"
           Banshee grimly nodded. "Aye! 'Fore D'Argent's team knew what hit 'em, the Nasty Boyz charged through the camp, shootin' like a bunch o' crazy cowboys, an' nearly killed half a dozen of 'em. Stole the portal right out from under our noses, he did!"
           Colossus frowned and leaned forward. "But surely he could not have used it himself--he is not a telepath, is he?"
           Morph's eyes were bleak as he watched Banshee program a new command into the control panel. "Doesn't need to be--he uses implants to control people like slaves," he muttered, scowling.
           Banshee laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Aye, when he can git 'em," he conceded. "No one knows fer sure what he can do...but we're guessin' he's not powerful enough t' activate it himself. He'll be lookin' fer someone t' do his dirty work, an' that's where we come in." He spared the large Russian a quick glance, his eyebrows raised. "We're t' protect Xavier an' Jean, an' whatever other mutants come a-callin', an' make sure Sinister can't git his hands on 'em."
           Colossus rubbed his own large hands together. "Let him try!" he challenged, his deep Russian accent thick with anticipation. "We will make mincemeat out of him!"
           Mention of food made Ilyana's stomach rumble. "Piotr," she ventured, touching his wrist, "when will we land? I am getting very hungry!"
           "Yes," Piotr agreed, glancing out the window. "It is well past noon back home. But look behind us, Ilyana--the sun is just rising over the ocean. At our current speed, we should be arriving soon!"
           "Aye, 'bout five minutes," Banshee confirmed, scanning his instruments. "Shall we take ye by the scenic route?"
           In deference to the girl's wide-eyed wonder, he aimed for the Hudson Harbor, and made two slow circuits around the Statue of Liberty's head. Morph and Piotr grinned at her awed expression as the huge, sprawling city spread out beneath them, then gave way to rolling countryside.
           "Someday I will take you to visit an American city," Piotr promised as they headed back out to sea, and skirted the coastline for several miles. "It is very different from Moscow!"
           Bright light cascaded through the jet as the sun slipped free of the distant horizon. Then they were descending, heading straight for an immense cliff. Ilyana gasped and jerked back in her seat...but there was no deadly crash! At the last possible instant, a large metal door materialized in the cliff's face, and slid aside to let them through.
           Professor Xavier was already waiting for them inside the large hangar. A severe frown darkened his austere features when he caught sight of Ilyana's blond curls through the cockpit window. A child here, at a time like this? Surely Morph knew better than to endanger them all with such an unwelcome distraction!
           He waited while the young polymorph slapped the hatch release, and scrambled to the ground. Banshee was only a step behind him, a cheerful grin brightening his handsome features. Colossus lifted his little sister down, then straightened and solemnly saluted the grim telepath.
           Despite his displeasure, Xavier forced a welcoming smile. "Banshee, Colossus, it is good to see you again," he murmured.
           He would deal with Morph later, in private!
           "And you must be Ilyana," he added, making a visible effort to hide his disapproval as he half-bowed to the young girl.
           Ilyana knew that she was on trial...the situation here was dire indeed, if she'd correctly understood everything the X-Men had told her brother. Over half of their teammates were missing, and the rest were in danger from some monstrous villain.
           Well, she was almost twelve years old, nearly a woman! She might not have any mutant powers yet, but she was not a little child to be patronized and pushed into a corner!
           Bracing herself, she boldly stuck her hand out. "Ochyen' preeyatna, Professor Xavier. It is an honor to meet you!" she smiled. "I have heard so much about you from my brother, Piotr!"
           Xavier's hand was warm and seemed to tingle as his long fingers enveloped hers. Startled, she blinked several times, then stared up at him with new awareness. "If I can be of any help to you or your students..."
           Her thoughts drifted away and were lost as Xavier's intense blue eyes bored into hers. For just an instant, the room seemed to shiver and whirl around her. Then she was back in her own body again, and the unnerving sensation vanished.
           Xavier managed another polite smile, and gestured toward the doorway at the far end of the hangar. "Nyehzahshtah, Ilyana. You are most welcome here," he assured her. "Morph, why don't you take our young guest upstairs to get some breakfast? I will join you shortly." Yet his eyes seemed distant, troubled, as he watched the girl obediently leave the room.
           Banshee and Piotr exchanged concerned glances. "Is something wrong, Professor?" Piotr finally ventured, staring after his sister.
           Xavier hesitated for a moment, then turned to look up at the tall Russian. "Perhaps it is as well that you brought her to me now," he murmured. "I felt something odd when I touched her hand. I do not know how to describe it, and I am not certain if I can properly train her. But when she is ready, I will definitely try!"
           It was so rare for the Professor to be at a loss for words that Piotr wasn't sure how to respond. Banshee broke the tableau by slapping him on the shoulder. "D'ye suppose I could get a bite t' eat, meself?" he suggested, turning his full charm on their bemused host. "I'm hours behind meself, an' me stomach's rumblin' somethin' fierce!"
           His ingenuous request seemed to snap Xavier out of his bewildered reverie. "Of course, Banshee," the telepath nodded, briskly waving toward the door. "Scott and Jean should be almost finished preparing a large breakfast for everyone."
           "I will show you the way," Piotr offered, leading him across the room. "Hurry, comráde, before only the crumbs remain!"
           Xavier followed them to the lift. "I am grateful that you were able to join us, Colossus," he exclaimed as they rose from the sub-basement into the main wing of the large mansion. "Until we are certain that Kevin and my X-Men are safe, we must all be on guard. I am afraid that we have underestimated Mr. Sinister once too often. This time, the cost could be deadly--for the entire universe!"
           Banshee frowned at the thought of his future step-son in Sinister's evil hands. "Have ye heard anythin' new?" he demanded, falling into step with the powerful telepath as the doors slid open. "Any word at all that they made it through safely?"
           How Xavier longed to comfort the tall Irishman!
           He spread his hands wide, offering what meager reassurance he could. "If they were still on Earth, I am certain that I would be able to telepathically contact them," he countered. He seemed to take some small comfort in that fact. "I believe that they did escape capture, Banshee...but I have no idea what might await them on the far side of the portal."


Chapter 2

           Sinister!
           His eyes wide, Kevin staggered to his feet and lurched away from the darkened portal.
           They had to get away, had to escape! Sinister could follow them at any moment!
           Without realizing it, he telepathically broadcast his fears on such a wide band that Jubilee had no trouble 'hearing' him. Startled, she pushed herself up on one elbow and stared around the dimly-lit chamber. "Sinister?" she echoed aloud. "You saw him at the pyramids? Are you sure?"
           Her vision was clearing now...but there still wasn't anything to see! No doors, no computers, no people! The entire chamber was white, totally blank, except for a vivid trace of color down at the far end. Surely they hadn't traveled halfway across the galaxy for this! Whatever she'd expected to find, this definitely wasn't it!
           And if Sinister managed to follow them, he was in for a major disappointment!
           Kevin vigorously nodded as he pulled her to her feet. "I'd ne'er fergit the way his mind feels!" he insisted. "He an' his gang were up hidin' on the bluffs! Soon as we headed down into the chamber, they tried t' follow us!"
           She could feel the terror radiating through his hand as he tugged her along, bound for that distant patch of grass and sunlight. "But he can't make the portal work--Beast said that it takes a full telepath!" she protested.
           And since he hadn't already tumbled through, he must not have reached the sacred chamber in time to teleport with them.
           Relieved, Kevin slowed his headlong rush. "Aye, that's true enough," he conceded. "We've got a wee bit of a breather." Then he scowled back at the shadowed hexagon. "But I'd na put it past 'im t' find someone who'll do his dirty work!"
           Jubilee took advantage of his momentary distraction to stare around. "Well, it's not like we're defenseless or anything," she offered over her shoulder. "Just turn off your belt, and while you're warping the room around him, I'll blast him with my plasma bursts!"
           Kevin spared a brief glance at the glowing Genosha belt circling his lean waist. "Aye, I'm glad ye told me t' bring it," he confessed, glancing back at the dormant portal. "No tellin' what I'd'a done in there, things were goin' so crazy 'round us!"
           Jubilee barely even heard him. She was slowly turning in a circle, a troubled frown creasing her forehead. "This place looks like it hasn't been used in centuries!" she finally exclaimed, disgusted. "You don't think we ended up somewhere else, do you?"
           That was a sobering thought! What if their teammates had ended up light-years in some other direction, and they were all alone here?
           Suddenly Jubilee jumped forward, pointing. "Look, Kevin! The wall's all dented down there! Looks like something smashed into it pretty hard!"
           Kevin anxiously hurried after her. "Aye, an' there's scorch marks on th' ceilin'!" he added. "Ye don't think there's been some sorta fight, do ye?"
           Jubilee was staring at the fractured wall, tracing one of the deep lines with her finger. Then a glimpse of bright color caught her attention. Her eyes widened in horrified dismay as she tugged a scrap of fabric from one of the crevices, and turned to stare up at Kevin. "This is from Wolverine's uniform!" she exclaimed.
           Without thinking, Kevin slapped at his belt, and a dazzling golden glow surrounded him. His slash-eyes were narrowed as he warily stared around the empty chamber. "Sinister couldn't've beaten us here!" he protested.
           Jubilee's mouth was set in a grim line. "There's more than one bad guy in this universe!" she tartly reminded him. "Anyone could've attacked them, just because they probably look different than whoever lives here! Only...where are they?"
           Kevin scowled and gestured toward the open doorway. "We'd better find out, hadn't we?"
           "Professor Xavier's gonna be furious 'cause we broke orders and sneaked away," Jubilee muttered under her breath as she followed his lead, "but I knew we were doing the right thing! I just knew it!"
           "Aye," he nodded, "we both did. So what're we gonna do now?"
           Kevin had never been on an actual mission before, so it was her responsibility to take charge and make the right decisions. She'd never been a team leader before, but...
           Bracing herself, Jubilee straightened and took a deep breath. "We're going to find our teammates!" she insisted. "And then we're...oh, no, look at that!"
           They were close enough now to see the mangled remains of the outer door. The Llrrta's first blast had shattered it, and destroyed part of the floor. Jagged metal thrust up through the dirt, shining in the late afternoon sunlight.
           Kevin bent down and touched one of the shards. "It's still warm!" he exclaimed, startled. "Ye don't suppose..."
           "Come on!" Jubilee grabbed his hand and dragged him outside. "Maybe we can track 'em!"
           Then she skidded to a stop, staring around in wonder. "Wow, will ya look at this!" she breathed. "It's beautiful!"
           The Nexus planet seemed to combine the best of all worlds--off to the west, a large mountain range soared into the crystal-blue sky. To the east, golden beaches glittered against a white-tipped ocean. Vast groves of colorful trees waved in the light breeze to the north, and huge open fields beckoned them to the south.
           And the air! Despite herself, Jubilee couldn't resist taking several deep breaths. It smelled so good, like up in the mountains that time she'd gone camping with Storm and Rogue! She felt so alive, so invigorated, like she could take on a whole forest of Sentinels!
           Kevin noticed her instinctive gesture, and stretched one hand toward a few wisps of grass. They promptly burst into brilliant flames. "Lookit that," he urged, pointing. "This planet must have a higher oxygen content--they'd ne'er burn that fast on Earth!"
           He dropped his hand again, and the grass miraculously turned green again. That was his mutant talent, the ability to warp reality in any way he chose. The effects wore off as soon as he left the area, but they could be devastating to the unwary.
           "Higher oxygen content?" Impressed, Jubilee softly whistled. "Jeez, I'd love to see what kind of fireworks Gambit and Storm could make around here!"
           "Aye, that must be why that metal was still warm," Kevin theorized. "Makes more sense than thinkin' that time's runnin' at a different rate or somethin'!"
           "Well, we'd better find 'em fast, that's all I can say!" Jubilee decided, valiantly struggling to ignore the seductive panorama. "Hey, look over there--the grass is all scorched. I think someone parked some kind of vehicle there! And if they're the ones who hurt Wolverine..."
           At any other time, her fierce tone would have made Kevin smile. But not now, not when they didn't even know if their teammates were still alive! "Can ye tell if the X-Men were taken prisoner?" he urged, bending down beside her to stare at the blackened ground. "If they weren't, an' we can follow 'em..."
           Jubilee picked up a piece of grass and sniffed at it, then dropped it again. "Whew! Whatever kinda fuel they're using, it stinks!" Then she shrugged and pointed up at the sky. "Storm and Rogue could've carried Wolverine and Gambit if they flew after these guys, so there wouldn't be any tracks! So unless we can follow 'em by sniffing that obnoxious fuel..."
           She sighed, a wistful expression on her small face. "I sure wish Wolverine was with us right now--he'd be able to follow 'em easily enough!"
           Then she straightened and shook her head. "So where should we look first?" she demanded, sweeping her hands out in a wide, angry gesture. "We've only got the entire planet to choose from!"
           Kevin took one last look around, a thoughtful frown creasing his high forehead. "Sean always says not t' think like a pessimist," he murmured, "but we'll be better off assumin' the worst fer now. If they were taken prisoner, we'd best be lookin' fer a good hidin' spot! An' I'd bet we'll have more luck in those trees or in th' mountains off yonder!"
           Jubilee resolutely nodded. "Okay, then let's get started. Can you whip up one of those moving surfboards of yours?"
           Kevin's mouth turned up in an impish grin. "Ye mean like this?" And a funnel of dirt suddenly rose beneath their feet, forming a solid wave that arched several feet above the terrain.
           "Hey, this is better than surfboarding!" Jubilee exclaimed, satisfied, as she settled herself on the thick patch of grass and leaned forward. "Let's hit it!"
           "Aye aye, cap'n sir!" Kevin teased.
           The Nexus chamber quickly receded into the distance as they sped across the countryside, heading for the tree-studded mountains. Behind them, the displaced ground settled back down, hiding all traces of their unique passage.

• • • • •

           Mitros was losing his patience.
           "What do you mean, 'the damage is too extensive'?" he hissed, glaring at the medical renovator on his commscreen. His sibilant clicks and whistles were laced with acute displeasure. "I need that creature alive! Do whatever it takes, but fix it!"
           The renovator lifted metallic limbs in a helpless gesture. "The creature is too primitive, controller!" it chirped. "And too much of its integral structure was damaged! Even using cloned pieces..."
           Mitros took another deep breath and clamped his biofeeds back under control. The renovator was only a machine, despite its pre-programmed knowledge, with limitations of its own. Taking out his frustrations on the thing was an exercise in futility. Besides, what did they really know about this new species, other than the most rudimentary basics?
           "Use the clone!" he rapped out in sharp, biting tones. Sarcasm and anger were lost on the renovator, too, but he felt better for releasing a small part of his churning emotions. "Use implants if you have to! I don't care how primitive it is--you're supposed to be the best medic on this planet! That creature is our only remaining witness, and I need it alive! Now get back to work!"
           "There is no guarantee that it will help us, even if we can restore its life."
           Mitros spun around as his Llrrtan partner, Tarlok, entered the room. Though the pair were as different as two species could possibly be and still breathe the same atmosphere, they were a seasoned, highly-effective team. Mitros waved a multicolored tentacle in greeting, then turned back to stare at his monitor again.
           Tarlok glanced over his shoulder, his thick fur twitching with agitation. "It may not be a colony creature," he continued, frowning. "Like an abandoned Kitraq, it may be content to follow its own path rather than seek out its mates."
           Mitros waved away Tarlok's pessimism with an impatient gesture. "We must find a way to make it cooperate," he insisted. "By the stars above, those pirates have gone too far this time, attacking the Nexus itself! We've already arrested their informant at CenControl--now we must find their lair and remove their threat once and for all!"
           Below them, the renovator was diligently working, feeding a plethora of cloned organs into the creature's mangled thorax with enviable skill. "In a way," Mitros added, canting his head at a thoughtful angle, "we're fortunate that the forbidden corridor was reopened! The lure of such exotic specimens obviously proved too much for the pirates to resist!"
           Tarlok's golden eyes narrowed. "I do not share your enthusiasm," he stiffly retorted. "The Nexus is sacred! For time out of mind, this planet has been regarded as neutral territory, no matter what hostilities might be present among its travelers."
           "And that's exactly why this witness is so important!" Mitros insisted. The tips of his tentacles vibrated with swirling colors as his frustration resurfaced. "We can't allow this kind of crime to go unpunished!"
           On that issue, they were in complete agreement. Yet Tarlok could not dismiss his concerns so easily. "Can this creature be trusted?" he demanded, showing all of his sharp teeth in a fierce scowl. "As you say, it is from the forbidden corridor! Surely any creature who disobeyed the sacred injunction cannot be relied upon!"
           Mitros tilted his head, staring up at his tall partner. The Llrrta's golden-brown fur was still bristling with indignation. "Did I say that I intended to trust it?" he countered, flashing his colors in the pattern that signified an ironic grin. "I intend to use it, but I can assure you that it won't leave our sight for an instant! I have no desire to die at the hands of a primitive savage!"
           "Nor do I." Once again, Tarlok and his partner were in accord. Relieved, the massive Llrrta offered Mitros a blue datacell. "You may find this interesting," he commented as the tiny screen flashed to life. "Our witness has been followed by more of its kind."
           "More?" Intrigued, Mitros tore his attention away from the medical cube and stared in fascination at the cell's screen. Sure enough, two more of the gangly, awkward creatures were emerging from the glowing portal, and sprawling on the floor.
           Well, he privately conceded, practice in exiting the corridor would hone their coordination. Not that they were likely to achieve an Abarian's fluid grace...
           Really, though, their guttural mouth-sounds were so harsh and uncouth! Had they no knowledge of the elegant ancient tongue?
           And what was their purpose in traveling through the corridor? If the second group had come in search of the first lone traveler, why had this pair followed them...and why were they becoming so agitated as they viewed the signs of their comrades' battle?
           "I see that you instructed the Nexus not to respond in any way," he commented, noticing that the chamber's walls remained a pristine white.
           "To gauge their reactions," Tarlok explained. "As you can see, they are clearly concerned about their companions."
           "Yes, but for what reason?" Mitros flashed his tall partner a purplish shade of mingled worry and doubt. "Could they be in pursuit for the same reasons we're chasing the slave pirates?"
           Tarlok grinned in smug satisfaction. "Now you understand why I refuse to trust that creature, even if it is our sole witness," he purred. "Look, the renovator is about to start the final process."
           Mitros whirled back around and focused down into the medical cube, shimmering with eager enthusiasm. His seven glittering multi-faceted eyes allowed him to see much more clearly than Tarlok, despite the Llrrtan's famed ability to spot prey at a vast distance.
           A hazy golden glow enveloped the long stasis capsule. Beyond the replicator's metallic body, the MedEvac computer was flashing with an array of vivid electric colors. Pure, crystalline tones flooded through the cube as the glow intensified, then faded away again. Bizarre life readings began to dance across the monitors, peaking and falling with rhythmic irregularity.
           The creature was alive.
           It remained to be seen whether they could convince it to cooperate.


Chapter 3

           "Oh, great!" Groaning, Jubilee shook her head in disgust. "Now what're we gonna do?"
           Though the huge domed Nexus chamber was several miles behind them, she and Proteus had covered the distance to the nearest mountain range in mere minutes. But she hadn't counted on sheer, unscalable cliffs! The steep slopes looked like they'd been sliced off with a giant knife! Very picturesque, but impossible to climb.
           Surely that canna be a natural formation! Proteus 'pathed, scanning the unbroken terrain with wide, wondering eyes.
           Jubilee scowled. "I'm starting to think this entire place is someone's idea of a giant park!" she retorted, gesturing behind them. "Even the lawns at Professor Xavier's mansion aren't that green and smooth! Not a single gopher hole anywhere!"
           A crooked smile slashed across Proteus's glowing mask-like face. Mebbe they don't have gophers here! he offered.
           Jubilee cast another baleful glance up at the harsh, forbidding cliffs as his earthen 'surfboard' melted back into the ground. She'd brought plenty of rope and pitons in her survival pack, but that loose shale looked treacherous!
           And time-consuming. She might yearn for a good, invigorating climb right now, but time was a luxury they couldn't afford.
           Once again, Proteus was a jump ahead of her. A long, thin section of the nearest slope suddenly resolved itself into shallow steps. Jubilee blinked, startled, then turned to scowl up at her large companion. "Why didn't you just lift us up to the tree line?" she complained. "It's only about five hundred feet!"
           Proteus tilted his head. 'Cause ye wanted a good climb! he explained. An' this is the fastest way!
           Jubilee glared at him in exasperation. "Have you been reading my mind again?" she demanded, jamming both fists on her narrow hips.
           Aye!   Proteus's eyes seemed to sparkle with mischief. Ye know ye were wantin' me to, he added in a softer, meaningful tone.
           Surprisingly, a hot flush stained her cheeks. "Yeah, but not about that!" she protested. "Can't a girl have any secrets around you?"
           The glowing telepath favored her with another impish grin. No! he teased, his mental voice rich with laughter.
           "Oh, you!" Frustrated, Jubilee shoved him hard enough to knock him back a full pace. Then she grinned up at him, her dark eyes dancing. "You're impossible!" she exclaimed. "C'mon, I'll race you to the top! And no cheating!"

• • • • •

           "Have you found a way to communicate with it yet?" Impatient with the interminable delay, Tarlok scowled down at his partner, his razor-sharp fangs glistening. "We do not have time to waste!"
           Mitros slanted three eyes upward and waved his tentacles in the Abarian equivalent of a shrug, but otherwise remained unimpressed by the Llrrtan's bristling display. "We've tried every ancient language available," he retorted, "including the one that its leader responded to in the Nexus chamber. So far, we haven't had any luck. It may have been picked for its speed and agility, Tarlok, not its intelligence."
           The Llrrta threw another resentful glare down into the holding cell. "If it is that primitive, we are wasting our time!" he growled.
           Mitros took a deep, calming breath. He was used to Tarlok's moods, and knew when to yield the argument. This was not one of those times. "Any creature capable of designing tools and protective apparel must understand basic symbols," he countered. "And throughout the universe, the color of one's internal bodily fluids has always been considered a symbol for danger. Let's show it something it can recognize, and see how it responds."
           Tarlok grumbled under his breath again, but Mitros paid him no attention. Tarlok was brilliant in the field when they were tracking down criminals--but Mitros was the acknowledged alien liaison. And this creature offered him a unique opportunity to hone his talents.
           Most Nexus travelers still spoke a variant of whatever ancient language had been common when their portal was constructed. This alien understood none of them. Its mouth-sounds were oddly constructed, harsh and garbled in comparison to the melodic click-whistles of the Abarian or even the mellow croons of the Xarani. If he could establish some understanding with it, his hive status would be dramatically increased.
           Besides, he enjoyed a challenge--and this creature promised to give him one that he'd remember for a very long time.
           He triggered the intercom again, and a discordant blast of noise instantly assaulted his sensitive ears. The creature was stalking back and forth on its long, spindly legs, waving its upper limbs in a manner that could only be classified as aggressive. He was grateful for the thick protective shielding between them--the alien was nearly as tall as his Llrrtan partner, and obviously prone to undisciplined fits of rage.
           Several of his tentacles roved over the nearest control panel, manipulating levers and pressure-sensitive button pads. Down in the chamber, a large hologram lit up the back wall. The alien's disturbing mouth-sounds suddenly stopped as it whirled around and stared in disbelief at the colorful images flowing against the wall. Hadn't it ever seen a holographic display before? How primitive could these creatures possibly be?

• • • • •

           Storm!  Rogue!
           His heart pounding, Gambit took an instinctive step toward the long, curving wall. Then he stopped again, fists clenched at his sides. It was only some kind of picture--they weren't really in the room with him.
           Realistic, though--even Professor Xavier's holograms weren't that good! He could almost smell Rogue's delicate perfume, the one that she knew he particularly liked!
           Now Wolverine was moving into view, a belligerent scowl on his face. Yeah, that was Wolverine, all right! And he recognized where they were--that damned Nexus chamber. Was this some kind of recording, or were they really there right now?
           "What you done wit' Gambit's teammates, eh?" he yelled, spinning around and glaring up at the small tinted window above his head. "Where's de X-Men?"
           As before, there was no response. Couldn't these crazy aliens understand him, or didn't they care? Hell, maybe they weren't even paying attention! Maybe they were just showing him this to torture him!
           Well, he'd get their attention quick enough!
           Eyes narrowed, he reached into his inner coat pocket.

• • • • •

           "You see?" Tarlok's smile was filled with grim, vindictive satisfaction as the alien pulled several glowing objects from its outer garment and hurled them at the shatterproof window. "Its violence proves that it cannot be trusted! Leave it here, Mitros," he urged. "We do not need its help to follow the two newcomers!"
           Mitros waved two tentacles in stubborn refusal, undaunted by the explosions only traltecs from his face. "Don't you understand what it did, Tarlok?" he protested. "It is a hive creature--it was expressing its anger at being separated from its mates! Watch the holo--it seeks contact with that one the most." And he zoomed in on the bi-colored flier's face. Below him, the captive alien took a step toward the wall, one upper limb outstretched. "See how it tries to touch its mate even though it knows it's alone?"
           Tarlok bared his teeth again, but his growing uncertainty was clear to see. "Do you think you can communicate with it?" he demanded.
           Mitros shimmered with enthusiasm. "There, that same mouth-sound again!" he exclaimed. "Rrrggh!" The word felt strange, foreign, rasping past his mandibles. Bracing himself, he triggered the intercom. "Rrrggh!" he repeated, aiming his voice toward the vocoder unit. "Rrrggh?"
           The creature's reaction was unmistakable. It whirled back toward the window, eyes wide, and urgently repeated its mate's name. Then it spouted another long stream of gibberish that hurt Mitros's ears. "Rrrggh!" it rasped one last time, pointing at the flier's hologram.
           Elated, Mitros changed the scene and focused on the white-furred flier. Its dark face contrasted sharply with its garments, yet Mitros found that contrast oddly pleasing to his aesthetic sense. Such curious beauty befitted a leader, he thought as their captive responded with more urgent sounds. Even its name sounded more elegant, roughly approximating an Abarian's sibilant whistle.
           "Ssstrrm," he echoed, allowing himself the luxury of flashing pleased colors through his tentacles. The creature vigorously bobbed its head up and down several times. Encouraged, he switched to the third hive member.
           As with the first flier, this one's name sounded much more like a Llrrtan growl. "Wllvrrn," he rumbled, adjusting his mandibles to produce the low, rasping tones. Behind him, even Tarlok dared to curiously experiment with the bizarre sound.
           Could the creature's odd language be a mixture of Abarian and Llrrtan roots? With twenty other dialects thrown in, he sardonically decided.
           Each new success seemed to animate their witness more. How would it react to the sight of its own face...and its own violent death?
           For just an instant, Mitros was tempted to spare the tall alien any further trauma. Yet so much could be learned about its culture, its philosophies, by witnessing such a macabre scene! Before he could change his mind, he pressed the holo button again and snatched his tentacle back.
           The alien's response did not disappoint him. Its facial color faded noticeably, and it backed up several paces. The digits on its upper limbs probed at its long thorax, verifying that the awful damage to its internal organs had somehow been repaired. Eyes wide, it averted its gaze from the vivid closeup of its own lifeless face as it sagged down on the edge of the renovation platform.
           Mitros wriggled in glowing triumph. Any species that reacted so strongly to its own death must have a deep self-preservation instinct. Given the chance, surely the creature would welcome the chance to rescue its mates from danger!
           Tarlok refused to be convinced. "You are extrapolating based on your own emotions," he growled. "There is no guarantee..."
           "Watch this!" Mitros insisted, reaching for the panel again. "Watch its reactions when its mate is captured by the Chyigh orb!"
           Neither of them, however, were prepared for the violence of their captive's response. Yelling in fury, it snatched several more objects from its garment and hurled them at the hologram. Then it whirled back around, wild-eyed, teeth bared in a savage snarl of rage.

• • • • •

           "What you done wit' Rogue?"
           Damn them, why weren't they responding? Why couldn't he make them understand?
           Without warning, the tape seemed to rewind itself. The sparkling orb was drifting back out of range, and that big lion-critter was still baring its sharp teeth. What were they trying to do, torture him by making him watch Rogue's capture again? How much more of this could he take? Bad enough to see himself killed...he didn't even want to imagine how they'd brought him back alive! But to see his precious wife captured, drained of energy, taken away by those monsters...that was too much!
           Rogue's image abruptly vanished. Before Gambit could protest, she was replaced by two more weird-looking aliens. One of them was a lion-freak, like the one who'd fought Storm and Wolverine. Only this one didn't look shaggy and...well, vicious! It was wearing a dark leather vest, and its fur was cleaner and neatly clipped. What was it holding in its huge paw--some kind of weapon?
           The other alien looked even more bizarre! Nine or ten long tentacles attached to a multi-colored body cylinder, with a big cluster of eyes near the top...it looked more like a druggie's nightmare of a rock-star octopus! And it was making a strange chittering as it pointed at the bad lion-thing. Glowing ropes suddenly erupted from its weapon and coiled around the outlaw's shaggy body.
           Bewildered, Gambit stared at the hologram for several seconds. What were they were trying to tell him...and why was the bad lion-thing being outlined in vivid blood-red?
           The octopus-image grabbed the outlaw's ropes while the other lion-thing lifted its weapon, aiming at its prisoner's head. Beowulf--that's what the critter looked like. Chaucer's evil half-beast marauder, Beowulf! Why were they dragging it away...and what did the red outline mean? Surely they didn't use red to signify trouble, too, did they?
           Two armed aliens dragging Beowulf away...good guy versus marauder...bad guy outlined in danger-red...
           Stunned, Gambit whirled back around. "Don' tell me you guys are cops!" he demanded, glaring up at the distant window. "Why you arrestin' Gambit, eh? He ain't done nothin' t' you! Whatcha gonna book him for--litterin' or disturbin' da peace? An' where are da X-Men?"
           Above him, the rock-star octopus touched several more controls, and the entire sequence played again. Only this time, a holo of Gambit was beside the two 'good' aliens, and he was pointing some kind of weapon at Beowulf, too.
           Were they asking him to join them? Surely a race that could make these incredible holograms didn't need his help in capturing a few local outlaws!
           Still, helping them was sure a lot better than being stuck in this cube! And he'd do anything to save Rogue from that life-sucking energy globe!
           He glared up at the distant window. "Okay, fine!" he yelled, swinging his arms wide. "You want Gambit's help, you got it! Now git me outa here!"
           To emphasize his meaning, he hurled another charged card at Beowulf's frozen image. The ionized air shimmered for a moment as the card exploded.
           "Well?" he demanded, swinging back around. "What you waitin' for? We ain't got all day!"
           The octopus-alien apparently disagreed. Its tentacles darted in a dizzying pattern over its control panel, and another sequence began to glow on the wall behind him. Gambit's frustrated snarl turned to blank shock as the giant portal dilated and two more familiar figures stumbled into the Nexus chamber.
           "Jubilee! An' Kevin!" Stunned, he stared in disbelief as they fell to the floor, then staggered back up. "What're dey doin' here? Dammit, lemme outa here!"
           There was no response from the two aliens. Exasperated, Gambit jabbed at Jubilee's uniform with one hand and his belt buckle with the other. "X-Men! We on da same team!" he insisted. "Cain't you see dat? What Gambit gotta do t' git through t' y'all?"

• • • • •

           "It is reacting even more strongly now!" Tarlok murmured, amazed, as the witness flung its long upper limbs out in fierce gestures. "Could the newcomers be its offspring?"
           Mitros uncertainly twitched one tentacle. "The taller one's fur is the same color," he conceded. Though Tarlok's experience was more limited to pursuit and capture, his intuition could usually be trusted. "Ekssmnn," he experimented, echoing the alien's urgent sounds. "That word seems to mean something special to it. Ekssmnn," he repeated into the vocoder.
           The creature instantly stopped its ranting. "Ekssmnn!" it agreed, vigorously pointing toward the odd design on its garment again. The smaller newcomer wore the same design--could it be a clan marking? Was their witness trying to explain that they were bloodmates?
           His decision was made. Radiating satisfaction, Mitros tapped the holo button again. As they watched, the two newcomers explored the large, empty chamber, found a scrap of material wedged in the damaged wall, and hurried outside.
           How did the larger one create that glowing, hazy shield, and what was its purpose? It must be a defensive mechanism--based on his observations of their witness, the two smaller aliens were both projecting fear and alarm. Were they frightened for their parent? Would they follow the slavers' trail, or would some finely-honed instinct lead them here, instead?
           The Nexus was equipped with special observation lenses to survey its surroundings. He activated one just in time to see the two newcomers summon up a wave-shaped section of dirt and ride it toward the western horizon like a Xarani hiveling might ride a stuntboard on the ocean's waves.
           Behind him, Tarlok caught his breath in surprise. "The very earth obeys their commands!" he gasped.
           Mitros stifled his own wonder beneath a sharp nod. "Subdue the witness and remove its weapons, Tarlok," he instructed. "We'd better hurry if we intend to follow them."
           A savage grin brightened the Llrrta's rugged face as thick mist flooded the holding cell, and the witness slumped to the floor. "Finally, some action!" he growled. "Meet me at the speeder!"


Chapter 4

           They reached the shelter of the trees just in time.
           Over the harsh sound of his own ragged breathing, Proteus suddenly became aware of a deep, rasping drone. And it seemed to be getting closer...
           There! An ugly, battered old speeder, soaring over the mountaintop!
           His impromptu staircase instantly melted back into the loose shale. Before Jubilee could protest, he jerked her back into the shadow of a large tree and clamped his hand over her mouth. Hold still! he telepathically hissed as she struggled, trying to free herself. If ye don't move, mebbe they won't see us!
           "Kevin!" Jubilee's muffled voice was more alarmed than outraged. "If you don't change, they'll see you!"
           They were pressed so tightly together that she could feel his belt buckle digging into her spine. She frantically groped between them, trying to activate it. There...press on the glowing gemstone in the center...and Proteus's brilliant golden haze faded away.
           Just in the nick of time, too, as the speeder seemed to hesitate for a moment before moving away again. It hadn't seen them...they were safe!
           She started to pull her hand free, then froze. Another shape was soaring into view! And this one was stopping for a closer look at the tree-studded hillside, she'd swear it! She caught a confused glimpse of whirling energy as the creature hovered, slowly turning in a tight circle, scanning the uneven terrain. She didn't dare move!
           Behind her, Kevin caught his breath in a startled gasp. His large hands tightened over her waist and mouth, conveying a silent, urgent warning. Could the thing sense their presence somehow?
           Then it was slowly drifting away again, rotating in a slow, undulating pattern that held them both mesmerized.
           Jubilee shuddered as it finally disappeared over the horizon. "How could anything that beautiful feel so evil?" she whispered, her clear voice muted with horrified disgust.
           Kevin slowly nodded. "Aye," he murmured in a cautious undertone. "An' did ye see the ones in that speeder? They fairly gave me the creeps!"
           Jubilee swallowed hard. "I thought I'd gotten used to weird-looking aliens when the Phoenix took over Jean's body, but those guys..." She shuddered again. "I don't know which was worse--the giant bug or the overgrown lion! And what was that big glowing thing? It looked like the St. Elmo's fire that one of my foster-parents used to go on about!"
           She hesitated a moment longer, then warily moved out of the shadows. "C'mon, I think they're gone!"
           Didn't matter what planet you were on, she ruefully conceded as they scrambled up the first slope. Bad guys still looked like bad guys. And those guys in the banged-up speeder had looked mean!
           "I'll bet they've gone to that portal place to see who came through this time!" she eagerly continued, gesturing back at the smooth, green fields below them. "That means we're on the right trail! And if their hideout is close by, maybe we can sneak in and rescue the X-Men before they get back! That'll prove to them that I'm not a little kid anymore!"
           She quickened her pace, and waved toward the distant mountaintop. "Can you get us up there fast?" she urged.
           Kevin considered for a moment, then shook his head. "Aye, but I'd best not risk it," he argued. "Whate'er that orb was, I think mebbe it sensed our mutant energy, an' that's why it hesitated. If I stay 'turned off ' an' don't 'path much, mebbe they won't spot us."
           Jubilee was the leader on this mission...she could overrule him if she wanted to. But what he'd said made a lot of sense. She didn't have to like it--and she didn't! But she didn't want to get captured by those ugly alien creeps, either!
           Sighing, she wearily gestured for him to follow, and started trudging up the next hill. "C'mon," she muttered. "We'd better get started."

• • • • •

           The steep mountain seemed to loom over them, endless and forbidding. Yet Jubilee took some meager comfort in knowing that each painful, plodding step brought Kevin and her a little closer to the barren crest. Lengthening shadows stretched behind them as they struggled up the final slope, blinking in the fading light. Their hands and clothes were smudged and dirty from scrambling over fallen logs...but they'd finally made it! From here, the trek should be easy!
           Some time back--about a hundred miles ago, it seemed--Kevin had offered her a helping hand when she'd slipped on a patch of loose rock. Somehow it had seemed natural to keep holding his hand as they staggered up the hill. Their fingers were still tightly clasped together as he turned and glanced back down at her.
           She was too bone-tired to guard her private thoughts...could he feel how lost and lonely she felt right now, how much she wanted to feel a comforting arm around her shoulders? Being a team leader wasn't all it was cracked up to be!
           For just a moment, she thought Kevin might give her a reassuring hug. Then his head snapped up as he warily scanned the sky.
           "I think they're comin' back!" he whispered, tugging her toward the shelter of a steep overhanging rock. "C'mon!"
           Dried leaves crackled underfoot as they crouched in the deep shadows, barely breathing. Overhead, that same familiar, discordant rumbling seemed to envelop them, rattling their teeth. Then it faded away again as the battered speeder just barely cleared the sparse treetops and vanished toward the west.
           Silence reigned in the clearing for several long moments. Had the whirling energy orb followed the speeder, or was it still hovering out there, just waiting for them?
           Finally Kevin dared to inch forward and peer out. The darkening sky was empty. Relieved, he gestured for Jubilee to join him. Their hands automatically linked together again as they crept out of the trees and stared around in horrified wonder.
           There was no more mountain for them to climb--it fell away into sheer, treacherous cliffs at their feet. Far below them, the restless ocean churned against a narrow strip of sand and tumbled rocks. And beyond that...
           Jubilee groaned in frustration. "Look at all those islands--there must be over a hundred of them! How're we ever gonna find them now?"
           The vast ocean stretched out before them, a mysterious green in the fading light, as far as they could see. So many places for pirates to hide--it was a smuggler's paradise! And they'd thought that things were going to get easier now!
           Kevin slowly shook his head. "I dunno," he sighed. Then he took a deep breath and straightened. "Well, we canna do much more t'night--the sun's almost gone," he pointed out. "C'mon, Jubilee, let's set up camp 'neath that big rock. We'll set out after 'em first thing in the mornin'."
           Jubilee was too dismayed to argue with him. Just when she'd really started feeling confident about this mission...wham! Another thing had gone wrong!
           Kevin could probably figure out a way to get them down the cliffs, but right now he looked pretty exhausted, too. And she didn't want to risk either of their lives when he was too tired to concentrate. Sighing, she turned back around and headed for the trees again. "C'mon, let's get some sleep," she muttered.
           Her sleeping bag was already stretched out in the deep hollow--even with the Genosha belt activated, Kevin could still manipulate things if he wanted, because Beast had adjusted it to a lower power level. It just took him a little more effort than normal. She was too tired to protest the risk he'd taken, using his mutant powers when it might attract that glowing energy-thing again. A soft, heartfelt groan of exhaustion escaped her as she sprawled out and buried her face in the soft, fragrant pillow.
           I'll take second watch, she drowsily offered, her mental voice blurred with fatigue. Promise you'll wake me?
           Kevin cast one last cautious glance around, then laid a gentle hand on her forehead. Go t' sleep, luv...  &nbspHis soft, soothing telepathic whisper echoed in her mind as darkness enfolded her, drawing her down into a deep, peaceful sleep.
           Nodding in satisfaction, he tugged a light cover over her limp body, and took his place at the entrance of their makeshift cave. The first of four large, luminous moons was glowing overhead.
           Later, when Jubilee was fully rested, he'd allow her to wake up again. Until then, he'd guard her as a man should guard the woman he loved--with his very life.

• • • • •

           "That was pretty rude, don't you think?"
           Startled, Psylocke whipped around, one hand instinctively lifted in defense. A deadly psychic blade gleamed between her long, slender fingers.
           The shadowy figure in the doorway raised a gloved hand, warding off her imminent attack. "Xavier must have really struck a nerve if I could sneak up on you like that!" he calmly continued.
           "Warren!" Psylocke relaxed again, and settled back into her chair. The psychokinetic blade faded and disappeared. She wasn't really worried about being caught by Sinister's gang, but...
           Then her eyes narrowed. "You were eavesdropping?"
           Warren Worthington straightened to his full height, annoyed by her harsh accusation. His powerful wings rustled as they brushed against the door frames. "Since when do I need to eavesdrop in my own home?" he demanded.
           Then he shrugged, and dismissed the matter as he studied her in the dim light. "So...what are you going to do?"
           "About what?" Psylocke snapped, her eyes flashing. "I don't owe Xavier or his students anything!" Scowling, she restlessly jumped up and paced the floor, her long hair swinging around her shoulders. "Like I told him, I'm not one of his X-Men anymore!"
           Warren suppressed a weary sigh. Would she ever forgive Xavier for sending her on that fateful mission? She'd known the risks, just as he had when he'd worked with the team. No one, not even their powerful mentor, could have anticipated The Hand's deadly trap until it was too late!
           If only she could have seen Xavier's anguish when she'd been kidnaped! Yet he'd never lost hope...even after her distinctive thought patterns had faded into oblivion, and the authorities had given her up for dead, he'd still diligently searched for some clue that she was alive.
           And then, when he'd finally found her working with The Hand, he'd risked his own life to confront and rescue her. His carefully-guarded mental powers had been sufficient to break through their cruel brainwashing...but would she ever recover from the psychic scars?
           Xavier was the one person who could push Psylocke into a furious rage...or the depths of dark depression. It was the one subject they never discussed. Yet despite himself, Warren took an impulsive step in her direction, one hand half-outstretched. Dammit, she'd done so much to help him overcome his own fierce hatreds...he had to try and help her, too!
           "Sweetheart..."
           "Don't you 'sweetheart' me!" she retorted, waving away his endearment with a sharp gesture. "I owe him nothing!"
           "But you and Storm were so close!" he protested. "Remember how you used to laugh and call her your big sister? If she's in danger, you can't just abandon her--or the rest of the team!"
           Psylocke whirled around, stung. "You were just as close to Scott and Hank! I don't notice you racing to their rescue!"
           Warren thinly smiled. "They aren't trapped on the other side of the portal, are they?" he countered, his voice sharp. Then he touched his forehead, as if remembering a vivid, agonizing pain. "But Rogue is. And like it or not, she's still a part of me, Psylocke. Don't you think I'm just as concerned about her as you are about Storm?"
           Psylocke tossed her hair over one shoulder and stalked over to the high window. Far below her, the turbulent ocean was crashing against the steep cliffs in an endless, rhythmic dance. Yet right now, the hypnotic sight failed to comfort her.
           Warren was still standing in the doorway, half-hidden in the deep shadows. But she didn't need to see him to sense his emotions. Anger, concern, frustration all washed over her in tangible waves. "I'm not worried about Storm," she muttered over her shoulder.
           Warren's eyes narrowed. "Liar," he softly retorted.
           Dammit, he wasn't a telepath--he couldn't know what she was really feeling! Psylocke spun back around and glared at him. "So prove it!" she challenged. "You're so worried about them, you go charging to the rescue!"
           Total silence echoed through the large, lofted room as they glared at each other. And she could feel Warren's thoughts retreating, folding in on themselves, remembering...
           She could see it clearly now, as clearly as if she'd been at his side the whole time.
           His first encounter with Rogue, above Gottfried Adler's laboratory on Muir Island. "How do you fly without wings?" he'd demanded. She'd shrugged as she'd hovered there in front of him, riding the winds with enviable ease. "I dunno--I just do!" she'd confessed. He'd scowled in frustration. "You're lucky!" he'd retorted. And he'd flown past her, blissfully unaware that his life was about to change forever.
           Their second encounter, after Apocalypse had altered him, turned him into an evil slave. Consumed with malevolence, he'd tried to destroy the X-Men, and Rogue had absorbed part of his life energy to slow his attack. Part of his anger, his hatred, were a part of her now, permanently imprinted on her soul. It was a bonding stronger than love. He knew when she was in danger--he'd felt it when that damned alien portal had attacked her, ripping away part of her mind!
           Their third encounter, when Apocalypse had tricked him into revealing himself, and had nearly captured him again. He'd ruthlessly called on that soul-bonding, forced Rogue to join him in the ensuing battle. With the X-Men's help, Apocalypse had been exiled among the distant stars--for a while. And when he'd finally returned...
           Their fourth and last encounter, when Cable had joined forces with the X-Men to travel through time and destroy Apocalypse's fabled regeneration chamber. That's when he and Psylocke had met again, while she was raiding his elegant castle and stealing certain of his priceless antiques. Later, he'd helped to protect her from Apocalypse at the time axis.
           Warren's vivid memories abruptly faltered and ground to a stumbling halt. He'd been deliberately sharing them with her--but why? She already knew how strongly he felt about Rogue. What had he been trying to tell her?
           Without a word, he turned and stalked from the room. And Psylocke uncertainly stared after him...wondering if maybe she'd pushed him a little too far.

• • • • •

           "I will make the portal function!" Sinister hissed under his breath, glaring at the large, inert device. "If Xavier's students could trigger it..."
           His favorite henchman, Gorgeous Jorge, was lying nearby, stretched out on a long slab of rock. The large mutant's dark skin and clothes blended into the deep shadows so perfectly that only his eyes and gleaming teeth could be seen as he grinned. "Mebbe there was somethin' in the chamber itself that made it work," he offered, lazily waving one hand in the air. "We din't really stick around long enough t' take a good look around, y'know!"
           Sinister aimed a venomous glare at the Australian mutant. "Then perhaps you should go back and take a closer look!" he rasped, his blood-red eyes narrowed.
           Jorge amiably shrugged and heaved himself upright. "Suits me," he remarked. "Things're gonna be right borin' here 'til you finish decipherin' those symbols!"
           Then he gestured around the shadowy, damp cave. "Want me t' bring ya back some o' those pretty trinkets, t' hang on yer wall? It could use some cheerin' up in here!"
           Sinister cast an incurious glance around his huge lair. To him, glistening tree roots interlaced through the dank, stony walls were the perfect decorations. And a limitless source of life-giving energy. Already his sophisticated datacells were working at increased efficiency as he mutated the region's giant trees and plants to his own purposes! In time...
           But time was no longer his enemy. Now he controlled a weapon even more powerful than Apocalypse's. With it, he would leave this puny system behind and take his rightful place in the galaxy! So many potential words to conquer, so many genetic strains to sample and manipulate...
           "Sure was clever of ya t' hide all them peepers in MacTaggert's labs 'fore ya were captured," Jorge was cheerfully adding as he ambled toward the large, gaping entrance. "We'd've had a time breakin' ya out otherwise! An' ya'd never've known about that portal-thing, either!"
           Sinister closed his eyes, struggling for patience, as the lanky mutant yelled for his cohorts and then disappeared into the noisy jungle. Imbecile! Why did he surround himself with such idiots? His plans were farther-reaching than their meager minds could comprehend!
           And this wonderful, magical portal was the final key to bring his lofty goals within reach...
           ...if he could only determine how to activate it!
           Xavier must know the answer--he would never have allowed four of his best students to travel through the device unless he could re-activate it on demand! Sinister must find a way to access that knowledge for himself!
           And he knew just the mutant who was capable of obtaining that information. A wicked grin curved his lips as his glowing eyes narrowed in anticipation. 'It takes a telepath to read a telepath...'
           In the meantime, he would begin assembling a team of hand-picked mutants who could share in the glory of unrestrained conquest...and who could be easily controlled.
           With the entire universe at his fingertips, he could afford to be generous.
           But never foolish.
           Xavier was foolish, refusing to destroy those pitiful humans and pave the way for his own kind.
           Mr. Sinister did not intend to make that kind of mistake.



Click here to read what happens between Jubilee and Kevin
on the Nexus Planet (adult-oriented story) in
"Deadly Rendezvous - Interlude"

or continue on to the next "official" story,
"When The Hunter Becomes The Prey."

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