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


Written by Karen Bruce
Last updated: 01/02/2007 02:01:11 AM

Chapter 4

Then the dumb, aching, bitter, helpless need,

the pining to be initiated,

to have access to the knowledge that the great deed

has opened up for us, to know, to satisfy,

the great and dominant hunger of the mind.

- D. H. Lawrence, 'Manifesto, III'

The brick building was not extraordinary, situated as it was in the middle of busy New York. With faded, peeling white paint, green-trimmed doors and window-frames, it served as the headquarters of an institution that the brass plaque at the door modestly proclaimed was the Association for Scientific Knowledge through Experimental Work. The name was bland, deliberately vague, and thus the building was dismissed as a think tank where musty, unambitious researchers and failed scientists, who were unable to obtain the grants for better things, went to lead careers of quiet obscurity. Even Katherine Pryde, knowing beyond all doubt that this was the address, doublechecked the typed sheet of paper that had appeared in her mailbox a month ago. The wording had been simple, pared of all extraneous courtesies and irrelevant information. "Our selection committee has noted your exemplary performance in the field of electronics and wishes you to join a task-force on a project of a classified nature." The outline of what exactly she would be expected to do followed, deliberately nebulous to pique her curiosity, which now would hopefullly be satisfied. She knocked on the chipping wood, straightening the blue-diamond brooch at the throat of her silk blouse. A key scraped in the lock on the other side and the door swung open. A pleasant-faced, tweedy man with an avuncular air about him smiled at her.

"Ms Pryde, I presume?"

He spoke with a slight, Scandanavian accent, Kitty noticed, which indicated that this Association for Scientific Knowledge through Experimental Work had wider ties than she had expected at first.

"Yes," her eyes dropped to the silver name-tag on the collar of the hideous coat, "Mr Moebius."

The crinkling of her nose must have telegrammed her surprise at seeing the familiar name of a honoured mathematician inscribed in the metal.

"The nature of our . . . work necessitates that we adopt pseudonyms," he explained with a slight flush of embarrassment colouring his cheeks, "For our own protection, you understand. Many rival firms would bring - shall we say? - less than professional pressure to bear on us if they knew our true identities. I thought to honor my alma mater in the choice of mine."

"I understand," Kitty said abstractedly, as she looked around the foyer. A wooden desk, piled with papers where it was not covered with a telephone and a laptop, stood in the centre, next to two moldering pot-plants. On the wall, a floorplan indicated the various laboratories and their inhabitants, scrawled in an indecipherable code. Chairs that had once been plush and velvety encircled a coffee-table, complete with the obligatory out-of-date magazines. 'Scientific Americans', by the looks of their battered covers. If the organisation was as secret as she had been led to believe, why the need for a waiting room?

"We also used to serve as a centre for genetic counselling - when mutancy was . . . less publically accepted than it is at the moment. I know that the situation between the two species is hardly ideal, but it is infinitely more cordial now than it used to be."

Once again, Moebius had appeared to read her mind and she wondered if he was telepathic, instantly running through the mental disciplines of screening that Xavier had taught her, trying to remember if she had thought anything beyond simple curiosity and berating herself for her stupidity. She knew that many organisations used psions to detect potentially dangerous people and neutralise them.

"Yes, I *am* their bloodhound in addition to being a researcher," he replied with a grin that put her in mind of a shaggy terrier seeking approval, "My particular field of study is that of parapsychology - telepathy, empathy, pyrokinesis et cetera. I used to be affiliated with the Department at Edinburgh until ASKEW tempted me away. Don't worry. I won't intrude on your thoughts after this - I was merely gauging whether you posed a threat."

With a shaky laugh, "So I passed?"

He nodded, indicating with a hand that she should follow him. His chatter after that was incessant and light, obviously preempting any further questions on her part. Precis of the various projects followed a summary of ice-hockey results, and weather reports preceded queries about her training. Through ajar doors, she caught glimpses of laboratories and their inhabitants conducting seemingly endless series of tests. Even trained in the pure sciences as she was, she could not determine half of what they were doing. A blonde woman, clutching a sheath of notes, bumped into them, glaring at Kitty's muttered apology before responding with an equally graceless one of her own and disappearing into a lab.

"That was Ms. T."

Kitty grinned, "I think she'd scare even Mr T."

Eventually, Moebius stopped before a polished, wooden door with a similar bronze plaque to the front. Engraved by the same person, it read: "Director of Projects. Mr Beethoven."

"They say it is because he is deaf to complaints and suggestions yet conducts everything harmoniously," her guide ventured with a slight, spaniel smile as he pushed open the door, "He's expecting you."

The office was scrupulously neat, without a pen or paperclip out of place. The laptop was centred, parallel to the telephone-cum-fax-machine and printer. Piles of papers, stapled and colour-coded, were being filed by a angular woman in a lintless grey suit. On the wall, a Mondrian print kept geometric order - sparse and sterile - and even the flowers - stiff, plastic-seeming freesias - stood to attention; they would have attracted no vagrant bee or butterfly. From a generic leather chair, an improbable man, considering his surroundings, was conducting an invisible orchestra. Waving his hands around, with headphones over his servicable, military hairstyle, his eyes were closed and he was humming along blissfully. Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks" by the sounds of it. Dressed in a stark, black suit with a Bugs Bunny tie, he did not look as inhuman as the room had led her to believe. The movement seemed to stop, he removed the headphones and he opened his eyes, which widened as they saw her.

"Katherine Pryde?"

His syllables were clipped and precise, as if he chopped each one off from the sentence as he spoke. He did not seem embarrassed, but extended a hand. She shook it, before sinking into an identical leather chair.


"So you decided to take up our offer?"


"I am pleased to hear that," he surreptitiously took a file from the secretary's hand and opened it, "You have been informed about the nature of the project on which you will be working."

Across the desk, she caught glimpses of what appeared to be information on her education and stint as a SHIELD agent. To her surprise, there even seemed to be a photograph of her with the X-Men. It appeared that this ASKEW was more careful than they had initially seemed to her.

"I know that it involves the blurring of the boundaries between human and machine. Speaking frankly, sir, it sounds like you want me to create cyborgs."

He snorted somewhat rudely, "Old hat. As you well know, SHIELD themselves have a crack-unit of cyborg agents that are used in situations where it is considered too hazardous for your average Joe Homo Sapiens. Where biological weapons are used, for example."

Kitty started at that. The existence of those units was top-secret, classified to levels above most agents, let alone the public. She only knew because she had helped develop them from the bodies of critically wounded operatives, mingle mangled flesh and steel in an attempt to save their lives as well as develop a force capable of going where humans could not. Still, ASKEW appeared to have resources above and beyond the citizenry, resources beyond SHIELD's comprehension.

"How did you know about them?" she blurted out.

"We make it our business to keep track of advances in various fields," was the bland reply, "As well as improve on them. What we want you and your team to do is infinitely more subtle than that rather crude butchery."

He extracted a tissue-thin piece of paper from the file and handed it to her, sitting back with arms akimbo. Skimming it quickly, she was amazed, and, although the SHIELD agent within her had balked at its potential implications, she knew that she would not refuse the carrot proffered to her. A chance to do *proper* research again; research for which the Nobel Prize would be a logical conclusion, if she was successful! ASKEW were proposing to create a force of nanites that could alter DNA, that were small enough to creep inside in the spiral of sugars, nitrogens and phosphates and rearrange it. The applications for good were astounding - congenital diseases could be eliminated, mutancy too for those who feared persecution and experienced species-hate - as were those for evil - the ultimate weapon would after all be something undetectable and incurable, that attacked on the most basic level, rending apart the fabric of who the indivisual was.

"Impressed, Ms Pryde?"

"Yes, but I don't see how . . . ."

"That's why we sink inordinate amounts of money into the project. So that you can see how," he grinned, "Welcome to Crew ASKEW, Ms Pryde."

The bulbous sac of nerves, gray- and white matter pulsated in its nutrient fluid, absorbing glucose from the viscious liquid. Around it, a faint aura glowed, cycling intermittently from red to violet. Candide was feeding. Occasionally, her creator would turn around to glance approvingly at her before returning to the screen on which an man, wearing a Bugs Bunny tie, was explaining a project to the woman on whose thoughts Preceptor had chanced to land with Candide's help. It appeared that the use of psychic powers attracted his mutated brain, like a bee to nectar to sate herself on their thoughts, and Moebius' scanning of this particular person had done that admirably. More than admirably considering the nature of what was being said. Nanites would prove most useful for his experiments - shaping flesh and bone in a way that his crude tools never could. The most elegant scalpel imaginable. He could create the ultimate race, the ubermensch that was any true geneticist's dream. Smiling at the sweet irony, McCoy let Beethoven further betray himself.

The e-mail from his son was not surprising, although the contents were a shock. Despite being an exile from his Guild and family, Remy had always kept in touch with Jean-Luc, telling him of the million small things that occured in his life. Of the women he was dating; none of whom he loved. Of Xavier and his training. Of his rise in rank to grandmaster thief - Jean-Luc had almost burst with pride at that, unable to resist the temptation of gloating to his colleagues. Of baseball games with his friends and fishing-trips, all of which were woefully exaggerated. This one was completely different though - a professional communique with an undertone of worry.

From: [email protected]

To: [email protected]

Subject: Sais-tu ce femme?

(Do you know this woman?)


J'ai recu recemment ce lettre de quelqu'un qui s'est appelle Carol:

(I recently received this letter from someone who calls herself Carol.)

>Great news. I have tickets for the Valhalla concert. (Cost me a bomb, but it'll be worth >it.) It's a new heavy-metal group that I hear is fabulous. So indie as to be almost top->secret. Unfortunately, their security is strict, so it doesn't look like I'll be doing any stage->diving this time. LOL. Are you interested in coming with me, Mac?

Je suis sur que tu sais ce qu'elle veut dire. Naturellement, j'ai repondu que non, mais je

(I'm sure you know what she means. Naturally, I told her no but I )

suis soucieux qu'elle le peux faire sans moi. Sais-tu qui elle est?

(am worried that she can do it without me. Do you know who she is?)


(Friendly greetings - no real English equivalent.)


Jean-Luc stared at the screen, trying to put a face to 'Carol' and failing. His position as Guild Master had garnered him connections with much of the underworld, but he had never come into contact with her. He grimaced, knowing that he would have to call a council meeting, and bear their disapproval of his continued relationship with his son. If this letter was even partially true and 'Carol' was able to gain control of Valhalla, it would be disastrous for the world. In possession of their technology and superior weaponry, any would-be dictator's campaign for liberty, equality and fraternity, or more plausibly absolute power, could only have one logical conclusion. Shakily, Jean-Luc whispered:

"Dieu, mon cher fils, never t'ought ya'd drag me int' de superhero game . . . ."


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