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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 44

Rogue acknowledged the command to get out and turned to her mother, her heart pounding. Mystique grabbed Rogue’s rifle and tossed it to her, then slung her own over her shoulder.

“Let’s go.” Mystique started toward the stairs.

She’d only gone a couple of steps when Rogue heard it—a deep whump-whump-whump vibration she could feel through the soles of her feet.

“Beast!” she called into her communicator. “We’ve got helicopters incomin’—at least two by the sound.”

Rogue followed her mother down the stairs, their footsteps pounding hollowly. They were woefully under-armed to take on helicopters, and they both knew it.

“The Blackbird’s sensors aren’t detecting anything,” Beast’s voice rumbled in her ear. “Just hang on. I’m on my way.” Rogue could imagine him bounding about the aircraft as he unhooked the cable running their pirated security signal and prepared to take off.

Rogue burst out of the tower door just behind Mystique. The floodlights along the roofline of the factory had gone out, she noted in surprise, plunging the grounds into moonlit darkness. The sound of the helicopters had grown deafeningly loud and she turned to see two Huey military-style helicopters flying in low over the front gate, their round noses tipped down and their landing lights illuminating bright circles beneath them. She could see men in the dark combat uniforms of OZT positioned in the open doorways on both sides of the helicopters.

They must have come up the road, flying on the deck to avoid our radar, she decided as the two aircraft slowed to a stop over the nearer parking lot. Her gaze darted to the guard gate, but she didn’t see Sam.

Rogue didn’t notice the small missile racks mounted on the sides of each helicopter until a pair of white contrails emerged from the bird in the lead. One veered off toward the guard tower on Rogue’s right and the other shot straight toward the one from which she and Mystique had just emerged.

“Down!” Mystique roared. They both dove to the ground as the missile slammed into the structure behind them. The tower exploded in a ball of fire, cement dust and glass shards.

The blast wave slammed into Rogue’s prone form, momentarily stunning her. It felt like a giant had kicked her in the kidneys. Pieces of shrapnel bit into her uniform, most of which was deflected by her body armor, but here and there she could feel the fiery sting as something found her skin.

Gasping, she shoved herself to her feet. Just ahead of her, Mystique scrambled toward the drainage ditch a few yards away and Rogue followed. She tumbled over the lip and down into the relative safety of the small gully. Gunfire erupted in the distance. Rogue crawled to the edge of the ditch and cautiously raised her head to peer over.

The first helicopter sat on its skids in the middle of the parking lot and OZT soldiers poured out of it. Cannonball fired at them through the window of the guard shack, his muzzle flash flickering brightly against the darkness. One soldier dropped to a knee beside the helicopter to return fire while the others crouched low as they ran toward a couple of parked cars that would provide them some cover.

The second helicopter remained about ten feet off the ground. Its nose swung toward the remaining guard tower, which it destroyed with a missile. Rogue closed her eyes and looked away before the explosion could ruin her night vision. When she looked back, the helicopter was turning midair to point its nose toward the guard shack.

He’s still got one missile on the rack, she realized with a sinking sense of horror.

Beside her, Mystique already had her rifle out. Rogue rushed to copy her. They had to take out that helicopter before it could fire on Cannonball.

Unlimbering her rifle, Rogue took aim over the lip of earth that shielded them. Her hands shook with adrenaline and she had to take several deep breaths to still them. She sighted in on the airborne helicopter just as Mystique fired beside her. She heard the shot ping off the rotor works. Mystique cursed.

Rogue ignored her. The helicopter was broadside to them, its nose pointed toward the distant guard shack. Rogue found the pilot and framed him in her sights. Exhaling slowly, she pulled the trigger.

With a hiss and a burst of white smoke, the fourth missile leapt away from its launch rack. The rifle kicked in Rogue’s hands, and through the sights she saw the pilot jerk. His hands fell away from the helicopter’s controls.

She raised her head just in time to see the missile slam into the guard shack, splintering it in a massive ball of fire.

Sam!” In the harsh light cast by the explosion she could see a dark form writhing on the ground a dozen feet from where the shack had stood. His wheat-colored hair stood out against the surrounding blackness.

Mystique’s hand clamped down on her shoulder before she could get her feet under her. “Don’t be stupid,” she hissed.

A ways beyond Sam, the second helicopter tilted crazily and then slammed down onto the pavement on its skids. Soldiers jumped down from the deck, ducking beneath the still-spinning rotor blades.

Cold fury swamped Rogue. Lifting her rifle, she took aim at the first soldier she found and fired. The man pitched forward and lay still.

Alarmed shouts filled the air as the soldiers scuttled away from the helicopter, trying to figure out which direction the shot had come from. Rogue picked a new target and pulled the trigger, but her shot missed.

She ducked back down into the gully to reload. Beside her, Mystique fired two more times and Rogue heard an answering scream. Gunfire stuttered from the direction of the soldiers along with more shouts. A bullet whizzed overhead, but she didn’t think the soldiers had gotten a solid bead on their location yet.

Mystique dropped down beside her daughter to reload as well. “Both pilots are down, so at least we won’t have to worry about those helicopters flying over our heads.”

Rogue nodded as she slid the fourth round into her rifle’s internal magazine and then locked the bolt into place. “Sam’s in a bad way out there. One of us is gonna have ta go get him.”

Mystique shook her head sharply. “There’s no cover between us and him,” she mumbled past the rifle round she’d clamped between her lips as she reloaded. “It’s suicide.”

Rogue rose onto her knees and braced her rifle against the lip of the drainage ditch. “X-Men don’t leave people behind, Momma,” she said as she settled the stock against her shoulder. Through the sights, she searched the outlines of the helicopters and the nearby cars for her quarry. A kind of weighty determination settled in her stomach. “Once we’ve taught OZT’s boys ta keep their heads down, ah can go get him.”

Rogue saw one of the soldiers rise from behind a mid-sized sedan to cautiously survey the scene. She forced herself to take the extra second to make sure she had him squarely in her sights and then fired. The man’s head jerked back, spraying blood. He collapsed backwards, disappearing from sight. The soldier next to him immediately ducked back behind the car.

“That’s right,” Rogue muttered, grimly pleased. “Better hide, boys. Ya stick ya nose out, ah’m gonna shoot it off.”

Mystique made an approving noise as she, too, took aim over the edge of the ditch. “I like the way you think, my dear.”

Scott stared at Gambit as the reality of the situation slowly sank in. He wanted to get angry, he really did. But as much as he felt like they’d just jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire, he had to admit they wouldn’t have survived OZT’s kill zone for long.

He grimaced. Trading immediate death for death in six minutes wasn’t much, but at least it gave them a chance.

“Beast!” he called into his communicator. “Our route out of the factory has been cut off. We need an immediate evac before these sentinels come to.” He looked up, but there wasn’t enough light to see the retracting doors in the ceiling.

“Understood,” Hank answered. In the background, Scott could hear the Blackbird’s engines spooling up.

He looked over at Remy. “Gambit, can we get those doors open before Beast gets here?”

Gambit shook his head. “Non. Not from here an’ in de time we’ve got.”

Scott glanced upward once again. “Did you hear that, Beast? You’ll have to shoot your way in.”

“Copy that, Cyclops. I’m taking off now.” The background whine of the engines became a full-throated roar.

Wolverine rose from where he knelt by Trish and stalked across the distance separating him from Scott. “Unless we want a swarm o’ sentinels following us outta here, we’d better take down as many of ‘em as we can,” he said as he approached. His claws slid into place.

Scott simply nodded and unsheathed the military-style utility knife on his belt. The remaining X-Men gathered around, their expressions grim, and Scott wondered what he could possibly tell them.

He cleared his throat. “I know none of you signed up for this—”

“None of us signed up ta get dead, either.” Wolverine raised one hand, claws flashing. “It’s just something that’s got ta be done.”

Beside him, Psylocke nodded and drew her own knife. “How do you want to do this, Cyclops?” she asked, gesturing to the geometric lines of motionless sentinels that disappeared off into the darkness.

Scott turned to look, his stomach clenching hard enough to make him nauseous. But he was supposed to be their leader. He couldn’t flinch now. “I guess, everyone take a row.” The laser cannons had destroyed thirty or forty sentinels in their immediate area, but the rest remained on their feet, waiting. If he’d counted right when they entered, there had been twelve rows, each perhaps twenty sentinels deep.

Resolved, he turned and started toward the nearest of the still-standing sentinels. Wolverine and Psylocke moved off to his left, toward more distant rows.

“Come, Joseph,” he heard Storm say. “We will take the far right.” Her voice remained as calm and composed as ever, though he doubted her feelings matched.

Scott reached the first sentinel in his self-assigned row and paused. The sentinel stared impassively at him, motionless save for the flare of its nostrils as it breathed. Scott was grateful it had been a man when it was alive. That made it a little easier, at least.

Before he could talk himself out of it, he raised the knife and slashed it hard across the throat of the sentinel, making sure to get both the windpipe and the major arteries. Blood splattered across his uniform.

The sentinel collapsed, wheezing pitifully as it tried to breathe.

Keep moving, Scott instructed himself. From the far side of the room, he heard another body fall. Then more. He moved to the next sentinel and repeated the process. Viewed objectively, it was not nearly as gruesome as battling the Brood or the Skrulls, but somehow it felt worse. More personal.

He grimaced. These people had deserved better, and all the X-Men could give them was this quick, ignominious death.

He kept on. To his right, Gambit moved along the adjacent row, his thoughts sealed up behind an expressionless mask. His eyes, though… Scott sucked in his breath. His eyes were bleak and lifeless, like a trauma victim’s, and Scott wondered what horror he was seeing. Remy had all but admitted he’d worked government-sponsored assassination contracts in the past, much like Logan. But where Logan’s memories were fractured, leaving him with only disturbing remnants of the things he’d done, Remy remembered everything.

Scott made himself a mental note to make sure Jean cornered Gambit for at least some kind of psych evaluation, just to make sure they weren’t going to lose the Guildmaster to PTSD or something similar. None of them were going to walk out of this without scars and she was the closest thing the team had to a councilor.

Scott reached the end of the row and turned to start down the next one in line. His hands were sticky with blood. The smell of death—both blood and bowels—filled the air and he found himself breathing in shallow gasps. Over the comm he followed the progress of Mystique and Rogue’s efforts to keep OZT’s soldiers pinned down. They sounded like they were holding their own for the moment.

“Cyclops, I have four sentinels on radar, approaching from the northeast.” Beast’s voice echoed in his ear. “Time to intercept is less than ten minutes.”

Scott resisted the urge to curse as he cut the throat of another sentinel. He sidestepped the sudden cascade of blood and let the body fall. Given the two helicopters full of armed men, the appearance of sentinels had been a given. “What’s your ETA?”

“Ninety seconds,” Hank answered.

“Copy that.” Scott glanced upward. The retracting door should be somewhere directly over his head. “Just give us a warning before you start shooting so we can get clear of the doors.”

“Understood. Beast out.”

Scott moved to the next sentinel. But before he could properly register that something wasn’t right, the sentinel’s arm shot out. Its hand closed around his throat, choking off his breath and sending stabbing pains through his neck.

Purely on instinct, he slashed hard at the sentinel’s throat. His knife bit into the soft flesh, cutting deep until it scraped against bone. The sentinel didn’t react or loosen its hold, even as its blood began to pour out of it.

Scott gagged, panic clawing at him. His lungs burned for air. He wrapped his free hand around the sentinel’s forearm and buried the knife in its chest, hoping to hit its heart. Spots danced in front of his eyes.

A pair of hands grabbed hold of the sentinel’s arm, stabbing a knife into the cluster of nerves in its wrist. The knife twisted and suddenly the sentinel let go. Scott staggered out of its grip. He doubled over, gasping and coughing as he sucked down a fresh lungful of air. The sentinel collapsed nearby, its arm still outstretched.

Gambit caught him before he could fall. “X-Men, fall back!” Remy shouted. He tugged Scott in the appropriate direction. “De sentinels are wakin’ up!”

Scott straightened after a couple of steps. His throat felt like it was on fire, but he could breathe. The X-Men emerged out of the darkness, moving swiftly toward them. Wolverine was last, walking backward and firing short bursts from his automatic rifle at the indistinct shapes that stirred in the distance.

“Beast, how much longer?” Scott called, his voice scratchy. The effort of speaking sent him into another short coughing fit.

“I’m overhead now,” Beast answered. “Are you clear?”

“Yes,” Scott managed. They’d retreated to where they’d left Eddie and Trish. The cameraman had Trish on her feet, one arm wrapped around her waist to keep her upright and the other one clutching his camera to his chest. Trish held her ruined hand tucked up against her body, her other hand grasping the wrist. Her eyes were huge.

With a tremendous blast and the shriek of tortured metal, the Blackbird’s lasers shredded the overhead doors. Huge pieces of the ceiling fell inward, landing in the middle of the cavernous floor with a resounding crash. The roar of the Blackbird’s engines filled the air and the bright beams of the landing lights stabbed down into the room, illuminating the carnage. Then the image was gone as a cyclone of dust and particles obscured the view. The Blackbird descended on twin pillars of exhaust, filling the air with the smell of Shi’ar jet fuel.

Scott didn’t think he’d ever seen such a welcome sight. The Blackbird settled to the ground just in front of the pile of debris left by its entrance. Hank had the ramp opening even before the aircraft’s weight had settled on its landing gear.

“Move out.” Scott waved his team forward.

They needed no further encouragement from him. They ran up the ramp, disappearing into the relative safety of the Blackbird’s interior. Scott was last aboard. He made his way to the cockpit as the ramp resealed behind him and dropped into the copilot’s seat. The Blackbird began to rise.

A shrill alarm immediately began to ring. The Blackbird shuddered. They were taking fire from at least one of the few remaining sentinels inside the facility. Scott checked the instruments.

“Shields are holding,” he told Hank. “Get us out of here.”

Rogue heard the Blackbird before she saw it and knew this would be the best chance she’d get. She shoved her rifle at her mother.

“Cover me.”

Mystique flashed her a single, unreadable look and nodded. The Blackbird soared directly over their heads, less than a hundred feet in the air. This low, the sound of the engines was deafening and Rogue knew that at least for a moment all of the soldiers’ attention would be focused upward.

She darted out of the gully and ran toward Cannonball’s prone form. Between the roar of the airplane overhead and her own labored breathing, she doubted she’d be able to hear if anyone started shooting at her, but nothing hit her.

She dropped to her knees beside Sam. He was barely conscious, tossing his head from side to side in pain. Blood streaked his face from a laceration in his scalp, but it didn’t look too serious. Her eyes traveled down him. His uniform appeared to be whole, except for the white end of bone that poked out of one thigh.

“C’mon, sugah, let’s get ya out of here.” Grunting in exertion, she pulled him into a sitting position and then shifted his weight up onto her shoulders. She staggered to her feet. He was heavy. For the barest moment she wished for her powers—strength, invulnerability and flight—but then she shoved the thought away. Right now she was just an ordinary woman and that would have to be enough.

Turning, she pushed herself into an unsteady run back toward the ditch. The Blackbird disappeared over the factory’s roofline, and she could only hope that meant the rest of the X-Men would soon be safe.

A burst of gunfire sent her instinctively to her knees, tensed in anticipation of a bullet that didn’t come. Something whistled by her head, the sound wrong for the lightweight .223 rounds fired by the soldiers and moving in the opposite direction. Behind her, a shrill yell told her Mystique’s shot had found a target. Rogue shoved herself to her feet and staggered forward.

She tumbled into the shallow ditch, landing in a heap with Sam on top of her. The impact drove the air from her lungs and left her gasping. Mystique scrambled down beside her, her expression worried. She grabbed Sam’s shoulders and helped Rogue move his limp form off of her.

“Are you shot?” Mystique demanded as Rogue climbed to her knees.

Rogue shook her head. Gunfire erupted again, and this time rounds bit into the lip of their gully, showering them with dirt. Both women ducked.

The roar of the Blackbird’s engines grew louder overhead. Sudden, bright light washed over them. Rogue shielded her eyes to look up. She could barely make out the outline of the aircraft beyond the landing lights. As she watched, bright lances of reddish light speared down from above the Blackbird, striking it full on and making the airplane rock. The engines spooled up and down in an alarming counter-rhythm as they fought to keep the Blackbird level beneath the laser impacts.

Sentinels, Rogue thought with a lurch of fear.

“Rogue, we see you,” Cyclops said in her ear. “We’re setting down as close to you as we can.”

Her stomach knotted at the obvious problem with that scenario. “Ya can’t open the ramp, Cyke. It’ll leave a hole in the shields.”

“Copy that, Rogue. You’re going to have to climb up through the nose gear wheel well. Just make it fast. Our shields can only hold out so long.”

With a glance at her mother, Rogue reached for Sam’s unconscious form. “We’re on our way,” she told Cyclops.

She and Mystique each slung one of Sam’s arms across their shoulders and together they dragged him out of the ditch. Gunfire stuttered from the far side of the Blackbird. Rogue tried to ignore it as they ducked beneath the airplane. Hot exhaust swirled around them from the engines, making Rogue’s eyes water. She grabbed the nose gear strut like it was a lifeline and looked upward. Through the tangle of mechanical pieces and wiring, she saw Bishop and Logan both reach a hand down toward her.

With Mystique’s help, she managed to lift Sam high enough for the two X-Men to grab him under the armpits and pull him upward.

His weight had barely left her arms when Mystique let out a guttural cry and fell backwards, landing hard on her butt. She clapped both hands to her calf, blood spilling between her fingers. Another bullet pinged off the strut next to Rogue, making her flinch.

“Momma, come on!” Rogue reached down and grabbed Mystique by the arms, levering her to her feet. Mystique staggered, but kept her footing. She raised her arms, and Bishop and Logan immediately caught her wrists and dragged her upward into the airplane.

Not willing to wait, Rogue climbed up into the wheel well right behind her. More rounds sliced through the open space beneath the Blackbird and she heard the hiss of air as the nose wheel depressurized.


She reached up and felt hands close on her forearms. Logan and Bishop yanked her upward as if she weighed nothing. Something sharp scraped painfully across her hip as they dragged her into the cabin, dumping her unceremoniously on the floor.

“Go go go!” Bishop shouted toward the cockpit. Immediately the pitch of the engines increased as Cyclops took off. Rogue pressed her cheek against the cabin floor, feeling the vibrations all the way into her bones. The entire airplane tilted and shuddered under the sentinels’ laser barrage.

After a moment of simply breathing, Rogue shoved herself to her feet. Her eyes instinctively sought out Remy. She found him kneeling beside Mystique, one hand clasped across the bullet wound in her calf as he ripped open a package of bandages with his teeth. For a minute Rogue thought her knees would buckle from sheer relief. Remy looked up as if feeling Rogue’s gaze on him, and she saw a similar expression cross his face before he turned back to Mystique. Rogue forced herself away. It was enough just to know he was alive. Now wasn’t the time for reunions, no matter how much she wanted to throw herself into his arms.

A short ways beyond Remy, Bobby and Joseph were laying Sam out on the med unit.

“Hank, we need you back here,” Rogue yelled toward the cockpit as she staggered toward the back of the plane. Sam had gone an unhealthy pale color. She had to grab the back of a nearby seat to keep from being knocked off her feet as the Blackbird suddenly accelerated into forward flight. She didn’t dare hope it meant they were about to break free of the sentinels pursuing them.

Storm rose and went to take Hank’s place in the cockpit as the blue, furry mutant bounded through the cabin. Rogue saw him hesitate a few steps from the med unit, his attention drawn off to the side. His eyes widened in horror, his lips curling back from his pointed teeth in an unconscious snarl. She followed the direction of his gaze, taking in Trish’s presence for the first time and the extent of her injuries. Psylocke had found a blanket to drape around her shoulders and was in the process of wrapping her hand with gauze.

Hank shook himself into motion and Rogue followed him, her heart squeezing.

“Cloaking field engaged,” Scott told Storm with a small sense of relief. Red lights decorated the instrument panel, warning him that their problems were far from over. He executed several aerobatic maneuvers to gain some distance from the sentinels that pursued them. The two from the assembly facility had been joined by the four who’d come from someplace to the northeast, and Scott fully expected more to show up. OZT no doubt knew they would be heading for New York, even if they could no longer track them.

Storm turned her head to look at him. “The timing could not be better.” Her eyebrows quirked expressively. “Our shields were down to four percent.”

Scott simply nodded. The Blackbird had taken a beating, shields notwithstanding, but she’d held. Now he could turn his attention to their next challenge, which was getting down in New York in one piece. A yellow light winked insolently at him from the instrument panel, and with a sick twist in his stomach he realized it was the cloaking system caution light.

“Gambit,” he called over his shoulder. “I could use your help up here as soon as you get a minute.”

Ja,” Remy answered. Scott was momentarily confused until he heard Remy speaking to Mystique in German, which was apparently the easier language for her. He could tell from the tone of her voice that Mystique was in a fair amount of pain, though she sounded lucid enough.

It said a lot about how much strain Gambit was under if he was having trouble switching languages, Scott thought. But they were all little more than a hair away from coming apart. Regardless, he was confident the X-Men would hold it together for as long as they had to. They had never failed to rise to the occasion in all the years Scott had been leading them.

“What’s up?” Remy asked as he appeared in the doorway leading to the cockpit. He wrapped one hand around the doorframe to steady himself, leaving bloody smears.

Scott waved toward the instrument panel. “We’ve lost vertical mode, which takes out our usual landing site in the city,” he told the other man, his voice tight. “And the cloaking system is probably going to fail before we get there.” He glanced up at Remy. “We need a new plan.”

Gambit’s expression flickered in ill-concealed dismay. “How many sentinels we got on our tail?”

“Six, at the moment.” He made a sweep of his instruments. “But they’ll no doubt alert the patrols around New York to our approach. We need a pretty long runway with a lot of open space so we don’t hit anything.” He lowered his voice. “This is likely to be a landing in name only.”

“What about LaGuardia?” Storm asked. “They have runways, as well as their own fire department trained to deal with fuel spills and damaged aircraft.”

Remy shook his head. “Only problem bein’ we can’t get off de tarmac. Airports have too much security f’ de t’ieves t’ get through on short notice.”

“Something with a large parking lot, then,” Ororo said. “A mall or a business park.”

Scott nodded. “That would work,” he said. Given the pre-dawn hour, there wouldn’t be any cars to deal with. “What do we do about the sentinels? I don’t want the thieves trying to retrieve us if the sentinels are just going to cut them apart.” He glanced over at Gambit. “How long would it take to get those two gunships off the ground?”

Remy’s eyes narrowed. “Dey’re on alert, but we need de gunships t’ ride escort on our escape vehicles. Dey can’t hold off sentinels f’ long.” He turned to look out the darkened windscreen. “We need serious firepower if we wan’ a chance t’ get away.”

Scott recognized his expression. “You sound like you have an idea.”

He smiled humorlessly. “Yeah. Give Colonel Fury a call. Tell him we’re landing at Giants Stadium an’ we need some air support.”

Scott raised an eyebrow, impressed. “That might just work.” He paused, struck by a new thought. “Giants Stadium?”

Remy nodded. “It’s an older stadium. De whole area’s riddled wit’ steam tunnels and maintenance shafts we can disappear into if we have to.” He gave Scott an indecipherable look. “We still have t’ get away from SHIELD once de sentinels are dealt wit’.”

Scott couldn’t argue the point. SHIELD might very well want the opportunity to bring the X-Men under its wing, regardless of whether they wanted to go or not.

He grabbed the copilot’s headset and settled it on his head. Reaching out with one hand, he dialed in the proper frequency. It was the best option they had.

Remy absolutely hated flying with his powers damped. It ripped him away from the mental diagrams that let him know where he was and where he was going, and left him adrift in a huge abyss. Until he got back on the ground and could find some reference point with which to orient himself, he was completely lost.

Remy shifted his weight where he leaned against the cockpit door frame. His leg ached fiercely, but he needed to be able to talk to Cyclops outside the Blackbird’s communication net. The rest of the X-Men didn’t need to know how dicey the situation was. They had enough to deal with in back.

Like Cyclops, he wore a headset that gave him access to the Blackbird’s radio. He’d made one transmission on a pre-determined frequency he knew the Guild would be monitoring to pass on instructions. Undoubtedly SHIELD had picked up the transmission as well, but he didn’t expect them to be able to crack the Guild’s code. Not with so little reference material to work with.

Fury had been surprisingly willing to come to their aid. Whatever his orders were, he had been given some leeway to act openly against OZT. Either that, or SHIELD had gone quietly rogue. Neither option gave Remy much reason to trust Fury’s motivations, though he was confident SHIELD was sincere in wanting the X-Men to remain alive and able to act against OZT.

Remy heard the click as Scott toggled his microphone. “Everyone, strap in. We’re starting our final approach now.”

An alarm began to wail. In the copilot’s seat, Cyclops uttered a vicious curse.

“What?” Remy asked.

“We just lost cloaking.” His heart rate jumped with what Remy interpreted to be real fear.

“Blackbird, this is Spotter One. We have you on radar.” The voice of SHIELD’s tactical communications officer crackled across the radio, sounding surprised. “Local sentinels are turning to take a look.” The sentinels had spread out in a wide search pattern across New York’s airspace.

Scott turned his head in Remy’s direction. “You should go sit down. This is going to get pretty rough.” His voice held the flat, precise tone Remy recognized from countless missions.

Another alarm went off, and in the pilot’s seat, Storm reached forward to adjust something on the instrument panel. The audible warning went out. “Primary hydraulics failure, Cyclops.”

Scott nodded, returning his attention to Storm and the aircraft. “Reducing airspeed,” he told her. “Let’s get the landing gear extended while we still can and then pour everything you can find into the shields.”

“Flight Lead, Flight Lead, this is Spotter One. You are cleared to engage.” The voice of the tactical officer came across the channel once again.

“Roger that, Spotter One,” a second voice answered. “Engaging now. Weapons hot.” Remy assumed it was the leader of the fighter squadron Fury said would be on station to deal with the sentinels.

“Sentinels closing in, Cyclops,” Storm said.

“I see them.”

Remy staggered as the first sentinel opened fire on them, rocking the Blackbird violently. He abandoned the cockpit and went to strap himself in the closest available seat. He still had his headset though, which kept him tuned in to the cross-channel chatter.

Something shrieked by the Blackbird, a hot shape that flashed past their windows at tremendous speed, trailing twin cones of jet exhaust. The fighter opened fire as it crossed in front of the Blackbird’s nose. In the distance Remy spied the small warm shape of a sentinel which jinked wildly, evading the fire.

Remy felt the Blackbird lurch as Scott began to lower the flaps for landing. Their airspeed decreased. Below them, Remy could see a million pinprick lights—street lights, car engines, and the occasional brighter star of an office building or manufacturing site as they came in to land.

“Command, this is Spotter One. I have two bogeys approaching from the west—altitude three-zero-zero feet, speed one-two-zero knots. IFF’s painting them as Russian Hind gunships and they’re squawking civilian ident.” A short pause. “Sending someone to take a look now.”

Remy’s gut tightened at the tactical officer’s words. Now they would find out just how nicely SHIELD was willing to play. But it was hard to be confident when it was thieves’ lives he’d put on the line.

“Command, those gunships are ours,” Cyclops said, his voice tight. “And you had better let them through without challenge.”

“You know I don’t like surprises,” Colonel Fury growled back, his voice immediately recognizable despite the radio distortion.

Another sentinel opened fire on the Blackbird. The crack and sizzle of their shields absorbing the energy echoed through the cabin like angry thunder. Through the open cockpit door, Remy saw Scott fighting the controls, trying to keep them level. Remy couldn’t judge their altitude, but the sea of lights outside the windows had given way to darkness, which probably meant they were over the sports complex and very close to touching down.

Something exploded above them, enveloping the Blackbird in a wash of flames. Remy winced at the painfully bright flare. The laser barrage ceased.

“Scratch one,” one of the fighter pilots called across the communication channel, to a chorus of cheers from the others.

“Command, I have visual on the gunships,” another voice said. “They’re in convoy with three ground vehicles and they most definitely have teeth. I repeat, the gunships are armed. What are my instructions?”

“The convoy is friendly, Command,” Cyclops repeated harshly. “Let them through.”

“Shields are down,” Storm announced, her voice unnaturally calm. But the wild mix of her infrared signature gave away her fear.

Remy saw Scott flex his grip on the control wheel. “Nothing we can do about it now.” He moved one hand to the thrust levers. “Here we go.” He pulled back on the wheel, tipping the Blackbird’s nose upward.

Fury’s voice came across the line, sounding annoyed. “Sentry Two, this is Command. Do not take any action against the convoy. I repeat, do not take any action against the convoy.”

Remy breathed a tiny sigh of relief as the Blackbird flared, settling down into the eerie cushion of the ground effect. A moment later the landing gear touched down with a terrific jolt and the entire airframe began to vibrate. Scott poured on the reverse thrust and Remy felt the nose of the airplane rotate downward.

The nose gear hit the pavement with crash and Remy immediately knew something was wrong. With a snap that Remy felt all the way up through the airframe, the nose gear collapsed, dropping the Blackbird on its nose. The airplane slewed sideways in a shriek of metal, rotating about a point somewhere behind him.

Remy grabbed his seat harness with both hands. Please don’ let us tumble, he prayed desperately. All it would take was a wingtip digging into the pavement to send them cartwheeling.

A moment later, the main gear gave way and the Blackbird flopped onto its belly. The airplane’s skin grated across the pavement with a sound like the wailing of a million lost souls. Miraculously, though, their terrifying sideways slide began to slow and eventually the airplane ground to a halt.

Remy gave himself to the count of three to come to grips with the fact that he wasn’t dead. Get up, LeBeau. Y’ not out o’ dis, yet. Grimacing, he forced his body to function. With shaking fingers, he unlatched his seat harness and climbed to his feet. Around him, the other X-Men were doing the same. A thin haze of smoke filled the air, making his lungs itch.

Cyclops appeared at the cockpit doorway. “Let’s move, everyone.” He sounded obscenely calm. “Our rides are waiting.”

Remy moved toward the back of the cabin. “Iceman an’ I will take de reporters in one vehicle. Everyone else in de other two.” He and Bobby needed to go to O-MOM, and it only made sense to take Trish with them. She needed medical attention and they certainly couldn’t let her anywhere near the Guild complex.

Reaching the seats where Trish and her cameraman were sitting, Remy reached down to grab both the camera and Eddie’s equipment bag. The cameraman didn’t protest, which said a lot about how shell shocked he was.

Turning, Remy shoved both the camera and the bag at Bishop. “Guard dem wit’ y’ life,” he told the other man. Everything they’d been through tonight had been for the sake of those tapes.

Bishop nodded as he took them. “I will.”

Logan hit the manual releases on the Blackbird’s ramp, which fell open, clanging on the pavement with a deafening crash. The X-Men quickly filed out and ran for the three large SUVs that waited for them a short distance away. The Guild’s gunships stood off a ways, the noise from their rotor blades rolling across the empty parking lot in a continuous, pounding wave. Beyond them, Remy spied several other helicopters—no doubt SHIELD’s escorts. He didn’t see any sentinels, however, and for that he was immensely grateful.

Psylocke slung one of Mystique’s arms around her shoulders, supporting the taller woman as she limped along. Hank carried Cannonball, lifting his limp form with ease. Rogue stayed at Hank’s elbow, holding something aloft as they jogged toward one of the waiting vehicles.

With Bobby’s help, Remy herded Trish and the cameraman toward the last vehicle in line. Behind him, fire glowed beneath one of the Blackbird’s wings, sending up roiling gouts of heat and he felt an odd pang of remorse. She’d done her job and gotten them home in one piece, but this Blackbird would never fly again.

Remy climbed into the back seat of the SUV and helped pull Trish inside. Eddie slid in next to her as Bobby went around to the front passenger seat. Doors slammed up and down the row of vehicles and then the thieves peeled out, turning to retrace their route into the stadium complex. The gunships followed them.

Remy didn’t relax until they’d passed through the outer rings of SHIELD’s defensive cordon, crossed the bridge and disappeared into the city proper. Then he leaned his head against the cool window glass and closed his eyes.

We did it.


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