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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Chapter 32
Chapter 33
Chapter 34
Chapter 35
Chapter 36
Chapter 37
Chapter 38
Chapter 39
Chapter 40
Chapter 41
Chapter 42
Chapter 43
Chapter 44
Chapter 45
Chapter 46
Chapter 47
Chapter 48
Chapter 49
Chapter 50
Chapter 51
Chapter 52
Chapter 53
Chapter 54
Chapter 55
Chapter 56
Chapter 57
Chapter 58
Chapter 59
Chapter 60
Chapter 61
Chapter 62
Chapter 63
Chapter 64


Written by Valerie Jones
Last updated: 05/10/2010 11:31:24 PM

Chapter 42

“Remy, don’t move.” The warning from Bobby was little more than a breathless whisper.

Remy froze. “What’s de problem?” he asked in the same low tone. He was balanced precariously on a small lip of concrete—the bulging seam where two massive structural sections came together—halfway through the process of climbing down onto one of the steel I-beams that stuck out of the cement at regular intervals. His muscles burned from the effort of checking his forward motion while in such an awkward crouch.

“Are you touching that beam?”

“Non.” At the moment, he was balanced on the ball of one foot and had the other dangling over a hundred foot drop to the floor of the immense substructure that housed the nuclear reactor powering the sentinels manufacturing facility.

Bobby breathed a shaky sigh. “There are strips of piezo film on the beam. I didn’t see them until just now.”

Piezoelectric film was a unique kind of transducer that produced voltage in response to either compressive or tensile strain. In layman’s terms, the strips measured vibration, and the film was cheap enough to be used liberally as a form of intrusion detector throughout the reactor substructure.

Remy resisted the urge to curse. The true mark of a thief’s skill was being able to deal with all the things that weren’t in the plans, but he had really been hoping the people that designed this place were more bureaucratic and less imaginative. There was already a highly sophisticated sensing network in place that fed the installation’s earthquake mitigation system, and it had taken Remy nearly a day to find a route through the structure that wouldn’t trip any of those. The piezo film had been somebody’s last-minute addition.

Very carefully he shifted his weight backward until he could draw his foot up beneath him and felt Bobby grab hold of the back of his climbing harness. With a boost from the younger man, he was able to turn and climb back up to where their tensioned lines ran along the curved cement wall and reattach himself. Letting the lines take his weight, he took the brief opportunity to rest while he contemplated how to work around this latest obstacle.

Closing his eyes, he called up the building plans in his mind. The reactor occupied a two-hundred foot tall structure at the center of this cement shell. Steel trusses crossed the seventy or so yards separating the exterior shell from the reactor housing in a set of radial spokes. Above and below him there were additional rings of spokes at thirty-five foot vertical intervals.

Over the structural plans, he layered the electrical, cooling, security and other information. He studied the conglomerate for a while, trying to figure out how they were going to get over to the reactor itself with this new wrinkle. Obviously, the trusses were out of the question, and they didn’t have the right kind of equipment to go across the dome-shaped ceiling. That left the floor, which was covered by a net of lasers.

Remy sighed. “We’re gon’ have t’ shut down de laser grid.” Unfortunately, because of the way the circuit was designed, it was only possible to interrupt it for twelve seconds before the capacitor drained and the field reset. Both he and Bobby were capable of sprinting the distance to the reactor within that window—they’d timed it—but it would be tight.

Bobby shook his head. “Oh joy.”

Remy grinned at the sarcasm in the other man’s voice. Bobby began moving back the way they’d come and Remy followed. They rappelled to the ground inside the narrow clear space surrounding the maintenance door through which they’d entered, then reclaimed their lines.

Remy’s vision allowed him to see the laser beams. The fine lines of high frequency light hovered like glowing spider webs against the murky background of the cooler steel and cement. The control pad for the grid sat just to the right of the door, and it required both a smart card and a thumbprint to unlock. Only the plant supervisor and the engineers had permission to come down here.

Remy heard the high-pitched mechanical whine as Bobby pulled out a small power screwdriver and began dismantling the control pad casing. Remy dug into his pack for the equipment they’d need then moved over to Bobby’s side.

Bobby gave him a quick rundown of the wiring he’d exposed, all of which conformed to the diagrams the Guild had obtained. With Bobby as his eyes to verify the identity of each wire he touched, Remy carefully spliced into the grid controls. The override he introduced was controlled by a small remote, which he tucked into a protected pocket as he and Bobby packed up their tools and donned their backpacks once more. Unfortunately, there was no way to avoid leaving the dismantled control pad as evidence of their intrusion, but unless they got very unlucky and there was some kind of problem with the reactor, no one was likely to discover it for a while.

“Ready?” Remy asked once they’d positioned themselves.

He saw Bobby draw a deep breath and release it, his entire body poised like a runner waiting for the starting gun. “Ready.”

Remy flipped the switch on the remote. Three quarters of a second later, the laser grid disappeared.


They ran, their footsteps echoing hollowly in the cavernous, cement-walled space. Remy didn’t bother to count the seconds in his head as he kept pace with Bobby. Instead he counted his steps, gauging his distance from the reactor structure with every one.

The laser grid extended all the way to the base of the reactor tower, so at the very end of their sprint they had to leap up and catch the metal ladder affixed to the side of the tower and swing their feet up out of the way of the grid before it came back on. That was the part that scared Remy. He could make the run just fine, but if the ladder wasn’t where the plans said it would be, he would miss it.

Side by side they reached the reactor tower. Remy leapt for the ladder, using the advantage his physical mutation gave him to spring a full ten feet upward. He heard the sharp clang that told him Bobby had caught the ladder a ways beneath him just as his fingertips brushed metal. He scrabbled for a grip, but couldn’t hang on. Beneath them, the laser grid winked back on. Falling, Remy grabbed for the next rung down, missed it, and finally managed to catch the one beneath that. He swung hard into the ladder, bracing his feet at a point several feet above the lasers, and tried to still the pounding of his heart.

“You okay?” Bobby asked after a minute.

Remy nodded. “Yeah.” He resisted the temptation to rest his forehead against the side of the metal ladder and instead forced himself to begin climbing. The ladder had been installed about four inches to the right of where the schematic showed it.

Bobby followed him. They made their way up a zigzagging set of the metal ladders to the top of the reactor tower. The cement ceiling was only about ten feet above them now. A group of circular metal ducts stuck up out of the tower roof, disappearing through the ceiling of the man-made cavern. It was part of the air exchange system for the reactor.

Bobby unslung his backpack and knelt to open it. “Are you sure the radiation inside this thing isn’t going to kill us?” he asked without looking up.

Remy sighed and set his own pack on the ground at his feet. “I’m sure. Won’t hardly be more than y’d get from a couple of days in space.” Reaching for the back of his neck, he unlimbered the tight hood he’d had Richards design into their suits.

There was very little hard radiation spilling from the reactor, but the radioactive particles that got into the air exchanger could still be dangerous if they lodged inside their lungs, in particular. Remy didn’t fancy dying of radiation poisoning. So, to that end both he and Bobby had full face masks—like firefighter’s masks—that would cover their eyes as well. The attached compressed air tanks only had a fifteen minute supply, but that would be more than enough for the short climb they needed to make. Their suits should keep the vast majority of particles from getting to their skin. Whatever little did get through they would wash off at O-MOM. Cecilia Reyes had promised them a reasonable hazmat set up and she had a contact at FEMA that would take care of the disposal of their uniforms without asking questions.

The worst part about it, honestly, was that it might end up costing him a set of tools. He wouldn’t know until they got to O-MOM whether the metal had picked up enough radiation to make them unkeepable.

Once they’d donned their masks and made sure the airflow was working, Bobby lit an acetylene torch and went to work cutting a hole in the side of one of the vents. He cut three-quarters of the way around, the hot edge glowing bright and lurid, and then Remy came over to help him bend the metal back far enough to allow them to climb through.

Because of their time limitations, Remy had opted to take the brute approach to the climb. Rather than messing with suction climbers which, though discreet, were bulky and slow, he’d brought a set of modified rock-climbing pitons. The metal of the vent was thin enough that he could stab the pointed ends of the pitons through it, and strong enough that it wasn’t likely to tear when he put his weight on it. And as long as they left the pitons in place, they would do a reasonable job of blocking the puncture holes.

Bobby pulled their door more-or-less closed behind them as Remy started upward. The leakage would eventually set off the radiation detectors, but those were designed to catch a major breach so it would take hours, if not days, before their thresholds were reached.

Ten minutes later they reached the top of the shaft. They made short work of escaping its confines into a two-foot tall crawlspace that marked the division between the reactor substructure and the building that sat atop it. The crawlspace was interrupted at regular intervals by massive cement supports. Remy didn’t know quite enough engineering to be certain why the foundation had been laid this way, though he suspected it had something to do with protecting the nuclear reactor from an above-ground impact. The mansion’s foundation had been similar, and like the mansion, the design’s major weakness was in the base of the elevator shafts.

Bobby chuckled as they resealed the shaft. “Let’s hear it for duct tape.” The small light affixed to the shoulder of his uniform glowed brightly in Remy’s sight.

Remy grinned. “Use number ten-thousand an’ twenty-eight.” He rarely went on a job without several kinds of tape in his gear.

Once they were confident there wouldn’t be any leakage of radioactive particles into their crawlspace, they removed their masks and left them behind.

“How’re we doin’ on time?” Remy asked as they crawled on their bellies across the damp cement. It was a good thing he wasn’t claustrophobic. The space was so narrow they couldn’t wear their packs and instead had to push them along the floor ahead of them.

Bobby paused to check his watch. “Not great,” he said.

Remy shrugged to himself and kept going. Cyclops would simply have to cope.

They eventually came to a point directly beneath the floor of one of the elevator shafts. The foundation above them remained unbroken, but the cement was fairly thin here. Bobby brought out a set of small, remote-detonated charges from his bag and affixed them to the ceiling in a circle about the size of a manhole cover.

They scooted back. Remy crossed his arms and buried his face in the crook of his elbow as the charges went off with a loud whump. Pieces of cement pattered to the ground and a hot wave of dust rolled over him.

Coughing a bit, he crawled back up to the site and carefully began exploring the result with his fingers. The charges had sheared through the rebar imbedded in the cement, vaporizing most of it and leaving a relatively clean hole.

The elevator car sat at ground level when it wasn’t in use, which put it two stories above their heads. They climbed up into the empty space at the bottom of the shaft and spent a few minutes shaking off the worst of the dust.

Remy slung his pack over his shoulders. From here on in, the security would be much tighter.

A strange kind of tension had overtaken the interior of the Blackbird, Trish thought. They had finished hooking their system up to the shielded cables that carried information to and from the sentinels plant. A thick bundle of wires emerged from the tangle of AV equipment at the front of the Blackbird’s cabin. It snaked down through an access hatch in the floor and emerged from the nose gear wheel well before trailing off into the ditch the X-Men had dug. About twenty minutes earlier, Hank had powered up the monitors, but they remained the solid blue that indicated there was no signal as of yet.

Cyclops paced in the small open space between the monitors and the first row of seats, glancing every so often at the electronics and then his watch. Hank remained seated before the equipment with the laptop opened in front of him and appeared to be running some kind of diagnostic routine.

Conversation among the X-Men was muted, though no one seemed to be overly worried about the still-blank screens. Wolverine had pulled out a deck of playing cards and he, Psylocke, Mystique and Bishop had a game of some sort going.

And then there was Rogue. She sat a little removed from the others with her rifle balanced across her knees. She had her head leaned back against the seat rest and her eyes closed, but Trish doubted she was resting. She was gripping the rifle in her lap so hard her knuckles had turned white. Trish wasn’t sure why the young woman kept capturing her attention, unless some piece of her inner vapid romantic had somehow escaped captivity and was running amok amid her higher brain functions.

Eventually, Trish gave in. This was how she kept ending up with fifteen hours of unwatched soap operas on her TiVo every week, too. She rose and walked over to the other woman, who did not acknowledge her approach. She settled in the chair across the aisle from Rogue and crossed her legs.

“So how long have you been married?” she asked conversationally.

Rogue’s eyes opened. She turned her head to regard Trish, a faint smile touching her lips. “It’ll be five weeks tomorrow.”

Trish raised her eyebrows in surprise once she’d done the math. “Right in the middle of a war against OZT seems like a strange time to be tying the knot.”

Rogue shrugged, her smile dimming. “Yeah.” She returned her head to its original position and closed her eyes again.

“I guess the honeymoon will have to wait until after OZT is gone.”

Trish was unprepared for the reaction her comment engendered. Rogue reared up in her seat, her breath hissing through her teeth, and when she turned to look at Trish, the devastation in her eyes was enough to shock the other woman into silence.

“Ah don’t want ta talk about when OZT is gone,” Rogue said after a minute. She moistened her lips, seeming to regain some of her composure with the action.

“Why not?”

Rogue gave her a withering look. “Ya don’t have any idea how mah powers work, do ya?”

Trish was a little embarrassed to realize she had no idea exactly what Rogue’s powers were. She could fly, she remembered, but wasn’t sure beyond that. She shook her head.

The hard stare didn’t change. “Well, don’t expect me to enlighten ya.”

Trish didn’t get the chance to formulate a response as chorus of cheers erupted at the front of the cabin. Rogue was out of her seat and headed forward before Trish had properly registered that the bank of monitors had come to life, each one showing a different view of the sentinel factory’s interior.

“They’re in.” The statement came from Wolverine, who materialized at Trish’s elbow so silently that she jumped in surprise. He favored her with a toothy grin.

“All right, everyone.” Cyclops’s voice cut through the rest of the voices. “That’s our cue. Wolverine, your team is up.”

Wolverine nodded and moved past Trish. Rogue, Mystique, Psylocke and Cannonball all made to follow him. The group said little as they gathered up their weapons and equipment, but the sense of purpose that suddenly permeated all of the X-Men didn’t require any words. Storm ducked briefly into the cockpit to lower the Blackbird’s ramp, and within a couple of minutes the entire group had disappeared into the night.

Cyclops looked over the remaining X-Men. “Twenty minutes until we go,” he told them.

Storm raised the ramp and Trish wandered over to the bank of monitors. Most of the images were static—odd-angled pictures of generic office hallways—but here and there a man or woman walked by. A few looked like doctors with long white lab coats, and the rest seemed like ordinary office workers. She paused as a man in a security guard’s uniform crossed one of the screens.

“There are a lot of people at work for a Sunday night.” She glanced over at Cyclops who had come to stand beside her. How are we going to avoid being seen?”

“They’re almost exclusively in the outer ring of the facility,” Cyclops answered, which explained little. He seemed to realize she wasn’t following him. “Here.” He reached over to grab the rolled up drawing the X-Men had been looking at earlier.

He spread it out across the top of the monitors, eliciting a protest from Hank. With a quick apology, he moved over to the seats. Trish followed. She’d seen the schematic before, but now she studied it in more detail. The facility was roughly square--a huge, flat-topped, three-story featureless cube. Parking lots abutted the building on two sides, both feeding into a single four-lane main gate. Three guard towers sat at a distance from the three corners farthest from the gate.

“The installation is essentially two separate buildings under a single roof,” Cyclops said. “The outer building is offices. The inner core is the actual manufacturing facility.” He outlined the sections with his finger. “The two are connected at only two points, one on either side of the facility. These two tunnels,” he tapped the appropriate places on the diagram, “are the only ways in and out of the manufacturing center. Gambit tells me everything gets run through them—power, water, computing, you name it. Otherwise, there’s a fourteen foot thick wall of cement separating the two sections.”

He went on. “The outer building is covered by cameras. The inner one is not. There’s a security room in the outer ring where the guards can view any of the footage, and it’s all sent to Washington as well. Those are the cables we’re sitting on out here.” He smiled humorlessly.

Trish looked up at him in surprise. “Why aren’t there any cameras covering the inner building?”

Cyclops shrugged. “Probably because anything that gets recorded by a security camera can potentially be intercepted or leaked, and I doubt OZT wants anyone to know what they’re doing in there.”

“Okay, that makes sense.” And it sent a tiny little shiver crawling up and down her spine.

Cyclops nodded and continued with his explanation. “Because we have control over the video feeds, we’re not concerned about anyone in security noticing us, and Beast will be able to warn us if we’re about to cross paths with someone who works in the installation.”

He glanced over at Trish. “Once we’re inside the manufacturing facility—the core—we should only have a couple of night guards and the sentinels themselves to worry about.”

Trish eyed him for a long moment, trying to decipher his tone. “What’s the catch?” she finally asked.

He gave her another of his tight smiles. “The catch is that we have absolutely no idea what we’re going to find once we get inside the center building, Ms. Tilby. At that point we’ll be winging it.”

Rogue followed Wolverine toward the electrified fence that surrounded the sentinels facility, trying desperately to put Trish’s words out of her mind. The idea of getting her powers back left her feeling cold all over. If she were honest with herself, she knew there was never going to be a honeymoon. It was all just a farce, this life she was leading now—a dream. A fantasy.

Ahead, Wolverine raised his right hand, forming a fist. Rogue froze, shoving her thoughts back into line. Living through the night had to take priority over the eventual train wreck of her future.

Silently, Wolverine pointed to a splash of white paint that illuminated one of the tethers for a trip wire strung across their path and Rogue couldn’t help but smile a bit. Remy and Bobby had come this way, and had marked the security measures they needed to avoid.

One after another, the group stepped carefully over the wire and continued on. OZT had done a good job of clearing the land around their installation originally, but they’d grown lax about maintaining it. The fence had been set along the center of a cement pad twenty feet wide. Rogue suspected the main purpose had been to keep the high-voltage barrier from starting a forest fire. Now the ground up to the pad’s edge was choked with low brush and scrub trees.

The installation grounds were brightly lit by floodlights mounted on building’s roofline. Crouched in the bushes near the fence, Rogue could clearly see the pair of patrolling guards as they walked the edge of the building approximately eighty yards away. No one moved until the guards had disappeared around the corner of the building.

Directly ahead of the five X-Men, the middle guard tower rose roughly fifty feet into the air, looking like a squat aircraft control tower with its octagonal base and angular bulb-like top made of bulletproof glass panes. The shadow it cast fell across the fence and covered their hiding place in an extra layer of darkness.

Nearly invisible in the columnar shadow, a short archway had been cut in the electrified fence. A set of small black boxes had been clipped to the fence at even intervals along the arch and were attached to their neighbors by pairs of wires. Rogue recognized the bypass system from her years with Mystique, and in a small corner of her mind she found it odd that Remy would be using the same methods and equipment. She shouldn’t, she knew, and her heart twinged at the thought. Remy had no doubt learned a thing or two from Mystique in their days together.

Wolverine raised a pair of field glasses to his eyes, watching the movements of the lone guard occupying the tower. After a few moments, he lowered the glasses and led them forward.

Moving as fast as they dared, the group ducked through the opening in the fence and dashed to the foot of the tower. They flattened themselves against the tower’s side to stay out of the guard’s range of vision.

Rogue glanced off to her right where the ground sloped down into a drainage gully. Somewhere in there was a grate through which Remy and Bobby had gained entrance to the installation.

On their way through, the two thieves had disabled the alarm on the guard tower door, though they’d left the lock alone. Wolverine pulled out a set of lock picks and went to work. Less than twenty seconds later, he pulled the door open and slipped inside. One by one, the rest of them followed.

They left Sam at the first landing, where he took up a position with a good line of fire on the door through which they’d come. Psylocke moved up to take the point with Wolverine. The two climbed the stairs on opposite sides of the stairwell, Logan with both sets of claws extended and Psylocke with one of her Asian-styled knives in her hand. Rogue and Mystique hung back a short ways.

A second door blocked the top of the stairwell. Rogue could tell from a quick survey of the door and the frame that, though the door was most likely secured, the mechanism was a mundane household lock. There were no deadbolts or other reinforcements.

Wolverine mouthed a silent count then kicked the door in. He and Psylocke went inside in a rush. There were no lights on inside the room in order to aid the guard’s night vision, but the nearby floodlights provided plenty of illumination.

From her place on the stairs, Rogue saw the startled guard spin around just in time for Wolverine’s claws to spear him in the throat. Her, Rogue corrected as the woman stared at her killer with wide eyes, her mouth moving silently. Psylocke caught the body as the guard collapsed, lowering her to the floor.

Wolverine didn’t move. Blood dripped from the tips of his claws, splattering on the plain cement floor.

Psylocke looked up at him from where she knelt next to the dead guard. “Man or woman, anyone who takes up arms for OZT is fair game,” she said severely.

Logan stirred. “I know.” He wiped his claws clean and then sheathed them. “Just surprised me.”

Rogue forced herself to concentrate on business as she followed Mystique into the glass-encased room. Unlimbering her rifle, she laid it on the narrow counter that ran the circumference of the room. Opposite her, Mystique did the same. Psylocke slipped out of the backpack she’d been carrying and set it on the counter. Then she and Wolverine retreated to the stairwell, out of the way of the two snipers.

Mystique began pulling equipment out of the backpack. Most important were the two glass-cutters. Rogue took one and went to work cutting a circular hole in the glass on one side of the tower. Mystique did the same on the opposite side.

Bulletproof glass was a misnomer, Rogue thought a few minutes later as she seated herself on the counter and aimed the nose of her rifle through the hole in the glass. She adjusted her position until she had the transparent bulb at the top of the neighboring guard tower in her sights. Inside, she could see the back of the guard manning the tower as he rocked back and forth on his heels, staring out at the grounds. It was really just bullet-resistant glass. The right kind of ammunition would punch a hole through it just as readily as ordinary glass.

She sighted in until she had the guard’s broad back squarely framed in her brackets. The tower guards didn’t wear any body armor. Her finger curled around the trigger.

“Ready,” she told her mother.

The counter creaked faintly as Mystique shifted her weight. “On two,” Mystique said.

Rogue forced herself to breathe. The air had a metallic bite to it now as the smell of the dead woman’s blood filled the room.


Rogue exhaled slowly, letting the tension run out of her. Her perception narrowed until nothing existed for her except the target and the trigger.


She and Mystique fired almost simultaneously. The weapons were both flash-suppressed and silenced, so they made only a kind of muffled whooshing noise as the redirected exhaust gasses were expelled. Through the sights, Rogue watched as the glass on the distant guard tower filled with spidery cracks radiating out from a central point. Beyond it the guard’s back exploded in a spray of red, and she knew from the size of it that she’d hit his heart.

She straightened slowly and lowered the rifle. A glance at Mystique confirmed that she, too, had hit her target. The strange thing, Rogue thought, was that it didn’t really bother her any more. Well, it bothered her, she qualified, in the sense that she wished there was some other way, but she didn’t feel much guilt for the woman laying at her feet or the man she’d just shot. They’d chosen to be here just as much as she had.

“Towers are down,” Mystique reported to Wolverine. “You’re clear.”

Logan simply nodded and then he and Psylocke headed back down the stairs.

As soon as they were out of sight, Rogue reached up and switched on the tiny communicator she wore over her right ear and saw Mystique do the same.

“Wolverine, do you copy?” she said in a low voice.

“Loud an’ clear, darlin’,” came the immediate response. Psylocke and Cannonball also chimed in, verifying that their communicators were working as well. The devices had been another contribution from Reed Richards. They were similar to the X-Men’s traditional communicators, and, along with being encrypted, they worked in a frequency range that would most likely be mistaken for background noise.

Rogue leaned over to watch out the windows as Wolverine headed out across the grounds to intercept the two guards walking the perimeter of the building while Psylocke and Cannonball made their way toward the main gate. Once those two threats were neutralized, Scott and his team would have a clear path to the building.

Rogue sighed softly and brushed a few errant strands of hair out of her face. “So far, so good.”

“Hello, America, this is Trish Tilby reporting from somewhere in rural Virginia. I’m standing just outside what is known as the U.S.-East Sentinels Assembly Facility.” Trish kept her voice low and stared directly into the camera’s dark lens. With a night vision filter and the illumination from the floodlit area behind her, there was no need to turn on the camera lights. At her back, the X-Men had begun ducking through the gap that had been cut in the fence surrounding the complex, which she was certain Eddie was capturing.

“I’m here with the X-Men and in a very short while we are going to show you the truth about how Operation: Zero Tolerance creates its Prime Sentinels.”

Trish gestured for Eddie to pan the camera toward the tower looming above them. “As you can see, the facility is highly secure. This fence behind me carries enough voltage to kill a grown man, and those are guard towers you can see behind me.”

At an impatient hiss from Cyclops, she signaled Eddie to stop filming. She and the cameraman crawled through the hole in the fence. Trish accepted a helping hand from the tall, quiet man who’d been introduced as Joseph as she climbed to her feet on the far side.

He looked distinctly uncomfortable and released her hand quickly.

Not much is known about Joseph, the newest member of the X-Men, Trish narrated silently as she followed him across the wide swath of empty yard toward the back of the building. But even a brief time spent in his company is enough to discover that this is a gentle man, a quiet man. His powers may have brought him to the X-Men, but I must wonder what conviction makes him stay.

They reached the edge of the building. A single metal door marred the unbroken expanse of pre-poured concrete slabs. The door had no handle, and there didn’t appear to be any way to open it from the outside. That wasn’t what made Trish pause, though.

She gestured urgently to Eddie. “I want a shot of this.” She pointed to the door, which had Draxar, Incorporated stenciled neatly across it in black letters. Eddie obediently raised the camera.

At the same time, Wolverine and Psylocke seemed to materialize out of the shadows along the wall and joined them. Wolverine, she noted, had blood on his hands, though she had no way of knowing if it was his own or someone else’s.

Trish turned to look at the purple-haired woman. Even in the all-encompassing black suit and with her hair pulled back in a severe ponytail, she remained both elegant and beautiful.

Elisabeth Braddock was born to wealth and prestige, Trish began silently. They would have to dig up some old stills and do a collage of the glitz and glam side of Psylocke. An ex-model, she has been seen with both movie stars and British lords, and is currently dating Warren Worthington III, CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation and one of the most recognizable mutants in the world. She could have gone into hiding when Operation: Zero Tolerance began, but instead she’s here, risking her life with the X-Men.

A soft click from the other side of the door drew the instant attention of their entire group. The door swung inward to reveal Bobby’s Drake’s boyish face. Gambit stood a short ways behind him, his attention focused toward the interior of the building. Both men were coated in a fine layer of grime.

“Any trouble?” Cyclops asked as they filed into a plain, institutional-looking hallway.

Gambit shook his head. “Non.” He tipped his head ever-so-slightly to the side, away from Cyclops. “Beast, where’s dat janitor we passed on de way over here?” he addressed the air.

Feeling immensely foolish, Trish realized she’d completely forgotten she was supposed to turn on her communicator. She did so and Hank’s voice filled her ear.

“—floor buffer out of the supply closet. He won’t be a problem.”

“Got it. We’re headin’ back de way we came. First turn will be a left into hallway G-1.”


Gambit headed down the hall with Bobby a couple of steps behind. The rest of the X-Men followed, with Trish and Eddie in their wake. It seemed ridiculously easy. With occasional instructions from Hank, they simply walked through the outer portion of the complex, passing empty offices and meeting rooms without incident.

Trish used the trek to study the X-Men as individuals rather than as a collective whole. She wanted to do profiles of each of them, airing them every couple of days over the upcoming weeks. Because if people could see the X-Men, not as extraordinary mutants, but as ordinary people, then maybe they would start to think that they, too, might have something to contribute to the cause of winning their country back from OZT.

She glanced over at the man who would be at the center of the piece. If you asked him, Cyclops would be the first to tell you he’s just a regular guy. But he’s also the visionary behind the resistance movement and a man who has steadfastly refused to let OZT intimidate him.

Trish filed her thoughts away as they came to halt in front of another plain metal door. This one had “No unauthorized personnel beyond this point” stenciled on it in large red letters.

Bobby crouched down, examining something where the door and frame came together. “It’s as ugly as we thought,” he told Gambit after a minute. “There’s a secondary circuit here, though heck if I can figure out what it’s for.”

“’S okay. Dat’s my job.” He knelt beside Bobby. “Give me de run down.”

Bobby went into a long, detailed description filled with terms Trish suspected even most electricians didn’t know. As he spoke, Gambit very carefully traced the wires with his fingers. Trish was impressed to realize she could literally see the play of muscles in the man’s hands. What would it take to develop that kind of muscle definition in one’s hands? His fine motor control had to be off the scale.

With hands like that, he must be phenomenal in bed, she decided, and wondered if she dared ask Rogue any questions about her sex life. A little bit of tabloid gossip might make for a nice sideline to the serious profiles. That was how people identified with their sports idols and movie stars, so why not do it with mutants too? The X-Men couldn’t be too different if they loved and fought and made mistakes just like everyone else.

The team waited in tense silence while Gambit and Bobby painstakingly snipped a couple of near-invisible wires running along the door jamb. When no alarms went off, Bobby reached for the door handle, but Gambit caught his wrist.

“Non. Somet’ing’s not right.”

“Do we have a problem?” Cyclops asked immediately, his expression sharp. He tipped his chin up a fraction. “Beast, Rogue, Cannonball report in. Anything stirring out there?”

“Nothin’ here, sugah,” Rogue answered, her Southern drawl sounding out of place in the military-esque setting.

“Front gate’s quiet, too,” added Cannonball.

“I don’t see any activity on the surveillance video,” Beast said a moment later, “and radar remains clear.”

Trish glanced questioningly at Cyclops. “Radar?”

He nodded. “The Blackbird’s sensors will give us at least a couple of minutes warning if any sentinels show up.”

“Oh.” It was a chilling thought, and all the more so because she hadn’t even considered the possibility.

Gambit looked over at Cyclops, traces of annoyance in his expression. “I would’ve said somet’ing if I thought we’d tripped an alarm.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“Dere’s a third system on de door. One dat wasn’ in de plans.” He shrugged. “Jus’ got t’ find it.”

Cyclops stared at him curiously. “If you can’t find it, how do you know it’s there?”

Gambit gave another of his fluid shrugs. “M’ gut says it is. Dere been quite a few little extras in dis place dat were never put in de plans. Another alarm would fit wit’ de general design philosophy.”

Beside him, Bobby began to nod. “Like those vibration sensors.” He looked up at the door as if seeing it in a new light. “Yeah, that makes sense. But where? We’ve cleared the frame.”

Gambit raised a hand and rapped lightly on the door with one knuckle. “Let’s drill a hole an’ take a look inside,” he told Bobby, and indicated a spot on the door.

“You’re going to drill through metal?” Joseph took a step forward, his expression alarmed. “Won’t that make too much noise?”

Gambit smirked at him. “Let me introduce y’ to a little concept called lubrication, J.” He pulled a small tube from a pocket in his uniform and waved it at the other man. “Who knows? Might improve y’ luck wit’ women, too.”

Joseph turned bright red while several of the others discreetly tried to cover their laughter.

Gambit. Focus, please.” Cyclops rolled his eyes, though whether out of amusement or frustration Trish couldn’t tell. She suspected it was some of both.

Gambit didn’t look particularly chastised as he turned his attention back to the door. Under his direction, Bobby drilled through the metal, the process making no more noise than the whine of the motor driving the drill bit. Metal shavings fell to the floor in long silver curlicues and Trish caught a faint whiff of singed metal.

Once the hole was drilled, Bobby pulled out a long, prehensile wire about as big around as a pencil, attached to a small video screen. Trish recognized it after a minute as a fiber optic camera. He inserted the camera into the door’s interior and then switched the video monitor on. His eyebrows immediately hiked toward his hairline.

He glanced over at Gambit. “I really hate it when you’re right sometimes.”

“Dat bad, eh?”

Bobby nodded. “There are pressure sensors on the back side of the plate the handle’s attached to. Multiple circuits.” He paused, studying the screen in his hand. “Multiple collapsing circuits. Geez.” The last was said under his breath.

“Don’ panic,” Gambit said in a calm, assured tone. “Jus’ take me through it. Start at the sensors an’ work backward.”

What followed was an extended, painfully detailed discussion that Trish followed none of. She could tell from the X-Men’s faces which of them had enough technical knowledge to keep up, and which were as lost as she was. Interestingly, Storm was among those following along, which Trish would never have guessed.

She grew increasingly nervous as the minutes ticked by. Watching as the two men very, very carefully worked on the circuitry inside the door was a nerve-wracking experience. Beast warned them twice of approaching workers, though both ended up turning toward other areas of the building before the got close enough to discover the X-Men.

Something about the entire disarming process nagged at Trish, but she didn’t put it together until Bobby was reaching inside the door with an instrument that looked like nose hair clippers for an elephant. Gambit was very obviously the expert in these matters, but he’d done remarkably little of the actual hands-on work which didn’t make any sense until she realized she had to disregard one very basic assumption.

Leaning toward Cyclops, she lowered her voice to a murmur. “He can’t see, can he?” she asked with a nod toward Gambit.

Cyclops followed her gaze, his expression sharpening. “No, he can’t.”

Trish was sure her alarm showed on her face, because Cyclops’ gave her a caustic grin. “Just wait. It gets worse.”

Trish didn’t get a chance to respond as Bobby withdrew the long scissor-like thing. He heaved what sounded like a sigh of pure relief and then both men stood.

Gambit reached out and pulled the door open. “Voila.”

The X-Men quickly filed through the doorway and into a hall that looked like it belonged on a space station rather than in a factory. It was perhaps forty feet long and the cross-section was a square approximately nine feet on a side. The floor, walls and ceiling were all made of the same slick, seamless material. Trish was pretty certain it was industrial ceramic of some sort. Tiny silver ports littered the walls ahead of them, making abstract patterns along the middle twenty feet or so. They looked a bit like cameras, though she doubted that’s what they were. A black sensor pad was attached to the left hand wall on either side of the ports, a single red LED winking on each one. And another door like the one they’d just come through blocked the far end of the hall.

This, Trish realized with a start, was one of the two entry tunnels into the manufacturing facility. Anticipation made her stomach tighten. They were almost there.

Gambit halted everyone with an outstretched hand only a few feet inside. The X-Men obediently hung back as he walked a little further ahead. He went first to one side of the tunnel, touching the wall in several places before repeating the action on the far side. Then he returned to the center, where he leapt up to touch the ceiling.

After checking to make sure Eddie had a clear line of sight for filming, Trish drifted over to where the X-Men’s field leader stood. “What is he doing?”

“Checking the dimensions,” Cyclops answered.


He jerked his chin toward the empty hallway. “That’s a laser array out there, Ms. Tilby, and there’s apparently no way to shut it down from this side.”

“Here, try these.” Wolverine appeared at her side and held out a pair of high-tech field glasses to her.

Trish raised the glasses to her face and gasped at the massive tangle of crisscrossed, glowing lines that jumped into view.

“Even worse, they’re cutting lasers,” Cyclops continued. “I can’t imagine how much power those things soak up, but it’s got to be horrendous.”

That explained why the tunnel was lined with such an odd material, Trish thought. She slowly lowered the glasses.

“May I?” Cyclops held out his hand, and Trish handed him the glasses. He raised them to his eyes for a brief moment, as if confirming what he already knew to be there.

In the meantime, Bobby had gone over to the near sensor pad and was in the process of disassembling it. Gambit had set the pack he carried on the ground and appeared to sorting through the contents of his uniform’s many Velcro-sealed pockets. He checked each one, in some cases returning whatever-it-was to its place and in others stowing it in the backpack. He appeared to be getting rid of every extraneous thing he was carrying.

Cyclops offered her the glasses again. “I don’t know if you can see them clearly, but there are three sections to the lasers.”

Trish quickly put the field glasses up to her face as he continued, “On the front and back ends, there’s a wall of parallel horizontal beams.”

Trish nodded when she found them. The lasers sat at five or six inch intervals. They started only a couple of inches from the floor and ended about two-and-a-half feet from the ceiling.

“Why don’t the beams go all the way up to the ceiling?” she wanted to know.

Cyclops shrugged. “I don’t know. Something to do with interference. The power and data cables for the manufacturing area are run through a little gap between the ceramic shell and the two stories of concrete over our heads, and either the lasers interfere with the cables or vice versa.”

Trish went back to looking at the laser field. “What about all the ones that crisscross in the middle?”

“That’s the third set. Gambit tells me it’s physically impossible to shut down the middle until both of the ends are down.”

Trish turned to look at him. “Didn’t you just tell me that it couldn’t all be shut down from this side?”

He nodded. “It takes someone on each side with a security badge to shut the whole thing down. Even the circuits controlling the sensor pads are on opposite sides of the grid, so you can’t even hack both sides from here.” His expression turned intent. “See, although this set up is definitely intended to keep people like us out, it was designed just as much to keep people in.”

“That sounds ominous.” Trish’s throat had gone dry. She was about to ask another question when the front set of lasers winked out.


“Front end’s down,” Gambit confirmed before she could say anything else. By the disassembled remains of the sensor pad, Bobby was putting some tools away in his backpack, as well as getting others out.

Gambit set his own pack next to Bobby’s, then reached up and removed the communicator from his ear. He set it down on top of the pack. Then he returned to the center of the tunnel where he went through the same odd process of checking the locations of the walls and ceiling as he’d used before.

Trish watched him with a strange knot of foreboding in her stomach. “So now what?”

A flicker of apprehension crossed Cyclops’ face, quickly buried. “Now Gambit gets to show off his acrobatic skills,” he said dryly, “and we’ll all get to hear about it for the next couple of years.”

On Trish’s far side, Wolverine snorted, sounding amused. She couldn’t imagine what there might be to be laughing about.

She lowered her voice. “Through that?” She still held the specialized field glasses in her hands, though she didn’t need to look through them again to know that anyone trying to get through the remaining lasers would get sliced into bloody little ribbons.

“It’s not quite as crazy as it seems,” Cyclops said. “He’s been practicing this run for weeks.” His tone dipped ever-so-slightly. “He usually makes it.”

“And if he doesn’t?”

Cyclops’ expression disappeared completely. “Then the alarms go off and we turn tail and run, Ms. Tilby. There won’t be anything else we can do.”

Trish stared at him, trying to decide if the statement meant what she thought it meant. Beside her, Wolverine fingered the stock of his assault rifle, his gaze distant, and she decided it probably did. A bullet from a friend would probably be a mercy if it came down to that.

“Cyke—” Rogue’s voice came across the communication net, sounding small and frightened. “Is he offline yet?”

Cyclops cut his gaze toward Gambit, who appeared to be completely absorbed in finding a certain, specific spot on the floor in which to stand. The other man kept making minute readjustments, and Trish wondered if he was scared.

Cyclops turned away from the scene. “Yeah,” he told Rogue.

There was a short paused. “You’d tell me if…” she trailed off, and Cyclops closed his eyes, a deep furrow appearing between his brows.

He nodded and reopened his eyes. “Of course.”

She blew out her breath in a long, shaky sigh, clearly audible across the communication link. “Okay.”

Trish forgot to breathe as Gambit tensed, rising up onto his toes exactly like a gymnast getting ready to begin a tumbling run. She couldn’t tear her eyes away as he took off at a sprint toward the laser field, but in her peripheral vision she noted that both Bobby and Storm had turned their heads, unable to watch.

At the edge of the field, Gambit flew into an arcing, twisting set of flips and handsprings. At first Trish couldn’t fathom why anyone would try to move so fast through the overlapping lasers, but then she realized he had to have the energy—rotational energy or angular momentum or whatever it was called—to fling himself over the wall at the back.

Trish’s heart jumped into her throat as he leapt for the top of the wall. At first it looked like one of those extreme soccer moves—feet over head, nearly in a flip—but then he flattened his body out parallel to the floor and pulled his arms and legs in like an ice skater going into a tremendously fast scratch spin.

Spinning like that, he crossed the top of the wall of lasers, through the narrow gap at the top. He unwound as he fell toward the floor on the other side, landing in a three-point crouch on the far side with the fingers of one hand braced against the floor and the other flung wide for balance.

Only then did Trish notice the bright splash of red across the ceiling. She looked over at Gambit to discover a trail of blood dripping from his upraised arm. It splattered on the floor, brilliant against the pristine surface.

For a moment, no one moved. Then Cyclops shook himself and stepped forward. “Gambit?”

“I’m all right,” the other man answered. He rose from his crouch, tucking the injured arm against his side.

“You’re bleeding.”

“T’ank you, Captain Obvious.” He walked over to the second sensor pad and began pulling things out of his various pockets. He appeared to have no trouble using the hand on his injured side. “Y’ wan’ tell m’ wife I’m okay before she dies o’ fright?” Clamping a couple of the tools between his teeth, he went to work on the pad’s casing.

His comment sparked laughter from several X-Men, which Trish figured was probably enough to reassure Rogue. Even Cyclops smiled, looking chagrined.

“Did ya hear that, darlin’?” Wolverine asked Rogue a moment later.

“Ah heard his voice,” the young woman answered, her voice thick. “How bad is it?”

Wolverine looked toward Gambit, his gaze flicking to the steady stream of blood trailing from the man’s elbow as he worked. “Nothin’ serious. Gonna need a field dressing, an’ probably some stitches once we get home.”

Rogue seemed to accept that and fell silent.

Curious, Trish raised the nearly-forgotten field glasses to her eyes once more. Whatever it took to override the sensors didn’t take very long with Bobby working on this side and Gambit on the far one. The laser field disappeared, leaving multicolored afterimages sprinkled across her vision.

Bobby was the first X-Man across the gap. He gave Gambit a hug that fell somewhere in between friendly congratulations and brotherly affection, and then handed him his backpack. The rest of the group followed, most offering some kind of kudos of their own. Trish found it interesting that Gambit looked more than a little nonplussed at their reaction, as if they had taken him by surprise.

As the furor died down, Wolverine dug out a small first aid kit, and Gambit submitted to the doctoring without comment. His brush with one of the lasers had cut a deep gash in the outside of his arm, a few inches above the elbow.

Trish wandered over to where Cyclops stood, his gaze fixed on the far door. He acknowledged her approach with a small nod.

“Well, we’ve officially broken in to a prime sentinels final assembly plant,” he said. He glanced down at her, his gaze inscrutable. “Now comes the interesting part.”


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