Chapter 42: “Ghosts in the Smoke”

The whistle blows and the day’s labor is done at last. John allows himself to feel a moment of relief as he puts down the heavy bag of concrete and marches with the others, silently, from Factory Building 16, past the cold hatred of the guards’ eyes and the cold steel of their weapons. The days are long and he has long since learned not to count the slow passage of the hours. During the 11-hour shift, he avoids gazing at the huge clock that hangs over the central courtyard, its relentless digital progress running counter to the diminishing life force of the prisoners. He doesn’t divide the day mentally by the midday meal and the two 10-minute breaks. He doesn’t even chart the path of the sun across the sky. Similarly, he pays no heed to the screams of hunger in his belly, or the strained muscles that never have the chance to heal before the next day’s labor aggravates them again. He just works.

How long will he be able to continue like this? Months, years if necessary. Longer than his fellow prisoners who seem to fade around him from pale to grey to gone, weaker and weaker until they are no longer chosen for work detail. Then… well, you don’t want to be passed over for work detail. It’s all about focus, and he has only two things to focus on: the work and Bobby.

The sun is setting earlier each day as they head into winter. He squints at the pale orb which strains to light the landscape through the smoke and haze. He wishes it would blind him the way it used to from a crystal blue sky. But smoke and haze always hang over the work camp. The haze is just the climate; the smoke is more sinister — made of equal parts factory exhalation and dark conjecture.

The day’s warmth is fading as the sun begins its descent. A chill breeze rises up and John pushes his hands into his pockets. He realized this week that the baseboard heaters in the barracks will not be enough to keep them warm when the winter winds blow down from the Rockies. In the past, in a world without power inhibitors, cold would not have bothered him or Bobby. But he will somehow need to find them more blankets, through contraband, or the black market; through favors won or bartered, or by committing the lowest of crimes against his fellow prisoners. “Lowest” is a level he has had to redefine here, over and over.

John knows Bobby is waiting for him outside Factory Building 8, sitting, shivering with cold and fatigue on an old fruit crate that has been there so long, no one has thought to remove it. But he will have to wait a few minutes longer. John knows he needs to take a walk by himself and gather his battered resolve once again. It is this resolve alone that allows them to survive here. He forces his aching legs to stride purposefully across the yard, between the mess hall and the recreation center (a building that is only used when UN inspectors visit to be easily reassured that the mutant “residents” are being treated well). He holds himself erect and keeps his gaze steely and dangerous. You don’t show weakness here, to others or to yourself.

The public address system sputters and one of the pre-recorded announcements he’s heard five thousand times breaks the dismal silence of the camp: “Residents are reminded that it is a violation of regulations to meet in groups of three or more. Failure to comply will result in punishment.” He realizes he has mouthed the whole thing along with the upbeat female voice. As always, he is darkly amused by the particularly festive tone with which she colors the word “punishment.” The announcement over, he is again aware of the electronic hiss of the PA system that never ends, day or night. You tend to stop hearing it after a while, but it is there — an unrelenting snake that never sleeps, always behind you, poised to strike. Sometimes, radio frequencies sneak into the sibilance, barely audible, deeply intriguing, intimations that a world still exists beyond the electrified fences and the woods beyond.

He arrives in the front courtyard where other prisoners are milling around in their one hour of daily free time. Constant fatigue and hunger make them move slowly. Before the crackdown, a group of mutants had always been startling in its diversity. But here, one mutant seems the same as the next: colors dimmed to grey, sex and age blurred, all with the same dirty blue coveralls, shaved heads and eyes dulled to hope. Many prisoners stand by the high inner fence, trying to catch a glimpse through the perpetual smoke of the majestic mountains in the distance. After the first months, John stopped looking; even if your patience were rewarded by a glimpse of the snow-capped peaks, you would then be struck by the knowledge that you could never get to them. He long ago concluded it just wasn’t worth it. That being said, he sometimes gets through bad hours savoring the memory of a rider-less horse he once saw galloping through the mist — sleek, shining, chestnut brown, its mane flying in the wind. But mostly, it’s not worth it.

Nor does he search the sky anymore for rescuers. While news here is only rumor, the rumors of Storm’s death are persistent. Ditto Cannonball; so why look skywards? However, he can’t stop himself raising his head high enough to see the horror — still sobering after two months — of the gleaming adamantium skeleton hung above the camp’s entrance. It is held aloft by chains on the shining wrists that pull the arms up and to the side in a too-obvious suggestion of the crucifixion. Someone’s idea of a joke? The claws are extended, the skull thrown back with its gaping mouth screaming to the heavens.

Does the knowledge that he has no one to turn to but himself give John the resolve he needs? It’s kind of hard to say. He knows he is sick of being here in the courtyard. In addition to the maddening view, the oppressive hum of the power inhibitors high on their yellow poles is loudest here by the gate. He returns to the factory yard and finds Bobby sitting on the crate. The boy’s drawn face, its halo of curls shorn, recalls too keenly the skull at the gate. But he smiles at John’s approach, and though John does not return the smile, it is satisfying to see. He has kept Bobby from despair, the greatest killer in the camp.

“How was work?” John asks.

“Okay,” Bobby returns and winces at a passing pain.

John furrows his brow. “I heard there was trouble.”

“One of the guards didn’t like how somebody looked at him. He and two other guards beat the guy pretty bad.”

“You didn’t stare, right? Remember, just lower your head while they get their fucking yayas out.”

“I know.” Bobby grimaces again and bends down to touch his left ankle.

“Here, let me see that,” John says, kneeling on the cracked concrete. Bobby pulls up the cuff of his pants. The skin around the week-old cut is red with infection. John would take Bobby to the infirmary, but most people don’t return from there. Show signs that you can’t work, you’re liable to get transported to the other camp. He will need to score some antibiotics.

He knows Bobby can see the concern on his face. “Is it bad?”

“We’ll handle it. Come on, we better line up for dinner. Twice this week they ran out of food three-quarters through the line.”

“Let’s go, then,” Bobby says and starts to rise weakly. John moves in quickly to help him up. “Thanks. Oh, man, I’ve been dreaming of dinner since two o’clock.”

“Jesus Christ. What did I tell you? Stop thinking about the future. One minute at a time, one foot in front of the other. That’s how you survive.”

Bobby laughs. “Yes, Johnny. I know, Johnny. That’s how we survive.”

After a dinner of weak soup and hard bread, John takes Bobby back to the barracks to lie down. Although the camp holds both male and female prisoners, the barracks and most of the work details are segregated by sex. More than a few mutants that were rounded up were of indeterminate gender; when they got to the camp, they either learned to hide one side of themselves, or they soon disappeared.

As Bobby collapses onto his bunk, John surveys the room for anyone who might fuck with them. Bobby just hasn’t got those self-preservation instincts, so John has to do it for both of them. But no one challenges him; the other prisoners sleep or go about their business, carefully neutral. He bends close to Bobby’s ear and murmurs, “Have a nap. I’ll be back in a while, okay?” Before he leaves, he lets his finger trace briefly along the resident bar code tattooed on Bobby’s neck.

It is already cold as the last of the murky sunlight disappears. John fastens the button at his collar, remembering that it was tight when he first arrived. He is fading, too. There is still an hour before curfew, but he skulks along in the shadows between the men’s barracks anyway. You try not to meet guards whenever possible, even if you’re not doing anything wrong. Being a mutant is enough of a crime to merit punishment. Beatings, even murder are easy for them to justify under the general excuse of “maintaining order in the camp,” or more broadly, “containing the mutant threat.”

John waits until the closest guard turns from the wind to light his cigarette before he slips through the door of Barrack L3. He nods in the direction of suspicious eyes and moves to the corner where he finds Peter sitting on the edge of Doug’s bunk.

Peter has only been at the camp for six weeks, and while the hope in his eyes is already dying, he is still one of the strongest inmates. The guards made sure to put him in his place in his first days, but he worked hard to make himself an invaluable worker who caused no trouble. John makes sure to be seen in Peter’s presence as often as possible. Being friends with someone as strong as Peter makes him safe from fellow prisoners. The fact that he exploits Peter just as much as their captors do disturbs him, but only a little.

“Is he awake?” John asks the big man.

“He’s drifting in an out. I still have his dinner here for him.” Peter indicates the bowl of soup and chunk of bread on the floor.

“If you need a walk, I can watch him for a while.”

John can see Peter appreciates the offer. “If you’re sure,” he says and rises. He looks down at the Doug’s face, pale to the point of transparency.

“You think he’ll be able to work soon?” John asks.

“No way. Maybe if he had a couple of weeks and enough food.”

John looks up at Peter and says flatly. “He hasn’t got much time left. If he doesn’t work soon — tomorrow or the next day — they’ll take him away to the other camp.” Also called the Death Camp, the Last Stop. John hates being the bearer of bad news, but only realists survive here, and he wants Peter to survive.

“I know,” Peter replies and John just sees a tear in his eye before he turns and leaves, his heavy body making the hollow wooden floor bounce and boom.

“Hey, John, that you?” comes a thin, raspy voice beside him. He looks down at Doug who is smiling up at him, though his eyes are not really focusing. His voice is barely a whisper, his breath wheezing. “Did you hear who won the World Series? One of the guards… said it was the Red Sox, but I think he was just trying to make me mad.”

“I’ll try to get the straight story for you, kid,” John replies, and he realizes he is nearly crying, too. He knows he can’t afford to be sentimental, so he looks away as he talks. “How you doing today?”

“Tired,” Doug wheezes. “Peter came here right after work…” wheeze. “…and he picked up my dinner for me.” He pauses and cocks an ear and John listens, too. Behind the omnipresent hiss of the loudspeaker on the ceiling, a digital screech can just be heard. “You know what that is? Data transmission in the RF interference. If my… power wasn’t dampened… I could translate… it. Maybe help us…” He is having trouble getting words out.

“I know, it’s a real piss-off, kid. The guards light a fire in the trashcans at night, and I just want to grab it! Take that flame for a spin, you know?”

Doug grows so quiet, John has to bend low to hear him. He says, “I think… they’ll come soon to… rescue us. Pete thinks so… too. I want… to hang on for that.”

Anyone else, John would give hell to. Dreaming about bullshit like rescue just makes you weak. There is no hope, only work. You work, you get to live another day. But Doug has nothing left but hope. Jones didn’t even last a month. With his powers turned off, he fell quickly into hallucinations and then into a coma. Two med-techs took him away one morning and that was it. John looks down at Doug who is asleep again. He puts a hand on the boy’s feverish forehead, resists the urge to bend and kiss it. He looks surreptitiously around and, realizing he isn’t being watched, pulls an empty glass pill bottle from his pocket. He crouches quickly and pours half the contents of Doug’s soup into it, then tears away two thirds of the bread, shoving the precious calories deep into his jacket pocket.

The door of the barracks squeaks open and Peter is back. “He still asleep?”

“Yeah,” John says casually. “But he woke up and we talked. It was nice. He even ate some of his dinner.”

The news makes Peter smile, but John refuses to acknowledge the shame in his belly. The hunger there is stronger; and Bobby’s need is greater than that of a boy who is, for all intents and purposes, already dead. He and Peter shake hands earnestly and John slips into the night. He makes doubly sure not to get caught returning with the stolen food. He looks forward to watching Bobby eat the extra meal. His shame is gone.

The next day, John tries not to think about Doug as he walks for the millionth time from the mess hall to Factory Building 16. He can see his breath this morning. He watches the little stream of steam appear and vanish as he ponders how he will find the antibiotics Bobby needs. Toad is usually reliable, though his prices are stiff. And what if he’s bought himself some privilege by agreeing to rat out his fellow mutants? There are so many variables to consider. Survival here is a dangerous game, but John is a good player.

He walks through the checkpoint at the door of the factory and pauses in front of the sensor, exposing the bar code on his neck to its scanning ray. It beeps once and the guard behind the machine unlocks the turnstile without taking his eyes off the screen. John has grown very curious about what appears there. His coded resident number, surely. His picture? Probably. Taken his first day here; freshly shaven head, face still full, eyes probably pissed off. But is there more on the display? Information about how bad-ass he used to be? That he stormed Alcatraz at Magneto’s side? Does it mention his novels?

Lost in these thoughts as he pushes through the turnstile, he is startled by the shouting guards.

“You useless mutie asshole! That machine is government property; who do you think pays for your clumsiness? The human race does!”

John’s heart is pounding. For a brief moment, he thinks they are shouting at him; but it’s another prisoner, one he knows by sight only. The man is struggling through his terror to get his words out: “It slipped… There was grease…” The small horns on his forehead might once have been lethal weapons, but now they are useless.

“Fuck your excuses!” the guard bellows and punctuates his words by slamming the man in the side with his heavy baton. The dance begins. It grows from a pas de deux to a group piece, three guards falling on the depowered mutant with fists and sticks. John catches Peter’s eye, and in that moment there lies the danger of rebellion. John is flooded with memories of the Danger Room, of the things they could have done as a team. But rebellion is death and the past a trap. There is only today, only survival; so he looks away from Peter. But forces are moving inside him, and he cannot bring himself to look away from the outrage in front of him.

The man is on the ground now in fetal position, bleeding freely from a gash in his head. One guard lands a savage kick in his side and John hears himself say, “Okay! He gets the message!”

“What did you say?” comes a delighted, sadistic voice. And suddenly one of the brutal trio is in his face. John almost pees himself. He drops his gaze to the floor, shaking.

“I-I… I’m sure h-he understands his mistake now… Sir.” He stammers and he is too terrified to really feel his humiliation. “He won’t be able to work if you —”

“Shut your fucking face, mutant!” the guard screams and a fist lands hard on the side of John’s head. His world balloons into shock, pain, and an explosion of colorful stars. He is on his hands and knees without knowing how he got there. The only thing he can think is You blew it! You blew it! All those months of control and now it ends. Now, all he has to look forward to is a trip to the punishment room where the tortures of the Dark Ages are still in vogue. Bobby, I’m sorry…

But fate has decided that it is not his turn today. The Supervisor is there like a low-rent deus ex machina and John is saved.

“Okay, that’s enough,” the Supervisor snaps. “We’re barely making our quota as it is, and now you’re getting your kicks disabling the labor. I want both those residents working, and if they can’t, you three are taking their place. Is that clear?”

The guard who hit him grabs John harshly and hauls him to his feet, whispering in his ear, “Personally, I hope you screw up again, mutie. I’m looking forward to smashing up that pretty face.” John’s head is spinning and it is all he can do to keep himself from puking as the man saunters away. He’s just glad he didn’t thank the guard for the compliment.

He spends the day dizzy and nauseous, but he keeps working, telling himself that each wave of misery is a lesson in keeping his mouth shut. At one point he seems to fall asleep standing up, because he has a momentary vision of an angel. She stands in the middle of the warehouse rotating slowly, like she’s looking for one of God’s lost lambs. She is such a wretched cliché with her long blonde hair and immaculate white garments that he thinks he must be brain-damaged from the guard’s blow. Surely a John Allerdyce angel should be a dangerously beautiful boy in leather and lace, as likely to sanctify you as push you down on his hot, heavenly scepter.

After work, despite his dizziness, he is canny enough to strike the deal with Toad: antibiotics for a pilfered mp3 player loaded with crap tunes that he has kept hidden under the floorboards for just such an emergency. It won’t be long before someone else pays for that hit of nostalgia with some other stolen good. And that is the market economy.

 

Bobby’s return to health would have been cause for only minor celebration in the world before the mutant round-up. “You’re feeling better? Great, let’s go bowling!” But here, it is like a gift. The antibiotics have cleared up his symptoms. Some more stolen and bartered food has brought his strength back — at least to the average lethargy of the average young prisoner. John realizes that the tight spring in his chest has loosened one coil. At the same time, he knows that you have to keep that tension up, or you’ll be blindsided. There is danger everywhere, and one slip can be fatal.

In fact, John is more worried than usual because of a growing smell of insurrection that hangs in the air. Hopeless people start thinking things they shouldn’t. The acts of rebellion are small, but the authorities are well aware of what’s happening. Trips to the detention center, screams from the notorious punishment room in its basement are becoming more frequent. Over John’s objections, Bobby helps clean the wounds of one man the guards dragged back to the barracks more dead than alive.

“Keep that up, they’ll think you’re collaborators,” John warns him. “Before you know it, they’ll say you’re in cahoots with terrorists.”

“Cahoots?” Bobby says, shaking his head. “I didn’t know there were any cahoots left. Aren’t they an endangered species?”

“Fine, laugh. Just don’t expect me to go down with you.”

Bobby is suddenly angry. “What am I supposed to do? Just let him suffer?”

John nods. “Exactly. Not your problem.” He grabs Bobby by the wrist and looks him in the eye. “You can’t let yourself feel so much. Make yourself like ice, Iceman. We’ll thaw out when we get out of here.”

John shudders. Talking about a future after the camp is the worst kind of jinx. But otherwise what are they surviving for? No! You do it because you do it. That’s all. Ice.

One day, they go to the dining hall for their first ration of the day, and there stands Kitty Pryde. John has grown used to the sight of people from his previous life suddenly appearing here shaven-headed. But Bobby blurts out, “Your beautiful hair!”

“Oh my god, I’m so glad to see you guys,” she says. And the girl is still an enigma, because she’s not as shell-shocked as most newcomers. Sure, her eyes bug out at the level of misery, her nose curls at the smells, but she is not reduced to a gibbering zombie like so many are on their first day.

John gets behind her and pushes her forward. He murmurs “Line up with us, but don’t make it so obvious we’re talking together.”

Bobby whispers low, “Rumor was, you were part of the resistance.”

“No,” she says definitively. “All the resistance cells have been broken up. I-I knew people… but they’re gone. Taken or killed. I was never with them.”

John finds something strange about her story, but it’s just an impression; nothing concrete.

“Who else is here from the school?” she asks.

Bobby is excited to be talking to his friend and he is whispering quickly. “Peter’s here. Also Roberto, Louisa, Clarice, Santos… We’re all spread around, though. You don’t see them all in this quadrant.”

“But Peter’s here?” she asks and Bobby nods. They reach the food station and hold out their bowls for the small portion of grayish stew. Kitty stares at it with trepidation.

“Eat everything,” John tells her grimly. “Lick the bowl. You need your calories.”

“What have you heard about Warren?” Bobby asks her and she looks up quizzically.

“Who?” she says.

“You know… Warren Worthington!” Bobby answers, confused by her blank look. And John is confused, too. Didn’t Bobby say that she was all gaga for the guy? Wasn’t he there on Alcatraz fighting with the X-Men? Suddenly, he notices a guard watching them.

“Shut up,” he hisses. “Eat separately. Meet by the side door in ten minutes.”

After lunch, Bobby points at the yellow utility poles. “Up on top, those are the power inhibitors. You can hear the hum. They’re on poles every 40 feet through the whole place.”

Kitty looks around intently which makes John nervous. Are the guards watching?

“So the active fields must overlap,” she concludes.

“I guess,” says Bobby.

She continues: “Which means that the field is weakest in the corners.”

John says, “No weak spots that I’ve ever found. Your powers are dead anywhere inside the camp.”

They grow silent, listening together to the monotonous hum and to hiss of the loudspeaker (today, the radio interference is an opera broadcast; little voices of passion rising and falling idiotically).

“Bobby, give her the grand tour. I better move along.” He explains to Kitty, “Any group of more than two is against the rules. We might be planning something.”

She tells him, “I’m just planning on getting out of here alive someday, John.”

“Then listen to me, not to Mr. Blue Skies with the blue eyes.” He shoots Bobby a look, and then leaves them to their reunion. He skulks off in the direction of the barracks. He has promised to help sew up the coat of a prisoner whose tentacled hands are useless in the inhibitor field. In exchange, the man will give him three of his food rations next week. As he walks, he feels his mood souring. Is he jealous of someone else taking Bobby’s attention? He smacks himself in the face for being so full of shit. A moment of panic seizes him as he climbs the barracks steps. He looks around anxiously but he can’t spot Bobby and Kitty. If that bitch gets him in trouble, he thinks, I’ll kill her.

Over the next week, he watches Kitty carefully. What he sees is that she herself is watching everything, taking it all in as if she had a school report to write. She spends time with Bobby, but not much with Peter, which is also strange. The one time John sees her and the big guy together, they look ridiculously casual and uninterested, exchanging only a few words, not really looking at each other.

He keeps lecturing Bobby on being invisible, and for once, Bobby complies; the camp is a place of growing terror as the suspicious administrators and their sadistic guards ramp up the campaign of intimidation. Most of the prisoners have a few bruises, gained from the smallest of missteps. Interrogations and torture continue. One desperate mutant tries to escape in a laundry truck. He is hanged in front of them before work one morning. That day’s breakfast is also cancelled. John finds himself bitterly blaming the dead man for the missed meal. The whole day is colored by the event. Waves of anger and terror pass almost visibly through the workers at the factory. Two prisoners are taken away when they begin to fight over a tool. Another has a panic attack in the middle of the day and has to be carried to the infirmary.

Something is going to explode, and John keeps Bobby close by him in case they need to run and hide. It is the hour before dinner and John is steering them towards their barracks when the guards begin shouting. He spins around and sees sudden movement through the crowd. Kitty Pryde is running for the outer fence. Guns are being raised, warnings shouted.

“Kitty!” Bobby yells.

John slams a hand over his mouth.  “Quiet!” he hisses in desperate fury.

Kitty’s headlong flight continues and now she has pulled something from under her clothes, some small, shining device. She is running for the furthest yellow pole in the corner of the courtyard, and slapping the device onto it. The guards scream one more time and then open fire. The bullets pass through her. The inhibitor on that pole is dead. The prisoners make a noise like a collective moan, like they have been forced to watch something too wonderful to bear. And then Peter is at her side, and the steel of his body is breathtaking to behold. For once, the sun has pierced the smoke and haze, and a great shaft of light is glittering off his metal skin. He is machine messiah; he will lead them from this hell.

But that’s not what happens. Kitty grabs Peter’s arm and they phase together through the fence and into the countryside as the smoke again shrouds the sun. Sirens begin to wail and bullets fly, until someone is finally smart enough to shoot the device she has attached to the pole. The power inhibitor cycles back on, but the pair has already vanished into the woods.

There is a rushing sound in John’s ears. Is everyone cheering or is he having a heart attack? Out of the corner of his eye, he sees something radiant and white. By the time he turns, it is gone. Was it his angel? He suddenly worries that she is a harbinger of death. His or Bobby’s.

The prisoners are locked down in the barracks. No meals. Inadequate water rations. Overflowing latrines. Sirens are heard repeatedly, vehicles come and go, helicopters sweep through the sky. John hears officers yelling at guards, superior officers yelling at the officers. In the night, the barracks are shaken by a series of deep thumps, like giants have descended from heaven. John is terrified. He and Bobby hold hands across the gap between their bunks.

The guards come for Bobby before dawn. John loses control, finds himself standing between a gun-toting guard and his friend. He is clubbed in the side for his trouble, and they are both taken away.

As they prod and drag the boys across the dark compound, John sees that the giants are real. Through the smoke, the forms of immense robots can be seen just beyond the fence, their purple and chrome bodies lit at intervals by crisscrossing spotlights. Their glowing eyes scan the countryside. John remembers the plans from his time as a kept boy in Washington. Sentinels. Mutant-hunting robots. The boys are pushed through the doors of the detention center. The doors close behind them, like the mouth of the Leviathan.

“Please!” Bobby says foolishly as they are locked in a cell on the ground floor. “Why were we brought here? We didn’t do anything wrong!”

The guards keep their faces hard as stone, sharp as flint. It is the man in the meticulous black uniform who answers. “You are a terrorist, in league with Pryde and Rasputin. You provided them with information that allowed them to escape. We will be bringing you downstairs for interrogation soon. You will tell us the truth.”

John sinks down on his haunches, burying his head in his arms as Bobby calls after the departing officer, screaming his innocence, babbling on about mistaken identities, about the purity of his ignorance.

“Shut up already!” John shouts at him. “He’s Department of Mutant Control. Don’t you recognize the uniform? He doesn’t even think you’re human.” He shoots to his feet, screaming venom at Bobby. “You fucked us, you stupid naive motherfucker! How many times did I warn you? Low profile! No friends!” He grabs his own hair, pulling at it so his head sings in pain as he staggers around the cell. “I’m such an idiot! I could it smell it on Pryde that she was trouble! I should have fucking turned her in the first day!”

Bobby has started crying; he is almost hysterical. “But you didn’t know! We didn’t know she was planning anything!”

“Who fucking cares! She smelled like trouble. I should have turned her in, and we’d be fine. But now, it’s all over for me! I wasted all my energy on you. I’ve been trying to swim in shark-infested waters, and you’ve been a fucking anchor around my ankle. Now we’re going under, Bobby-boy. It’s all fucking DONE!”

“John... please—“

“I wish I had never met you!” he screams, his face twisted into a mask of hate. He staggers into a corner of the miserable cell whose very concrete stinks of the fear of every unlucky bastard who’s ever been thrown in here. His stomach lurches, but there is nothing there to vomit but more stink. He puts his head on the cold concrete wall and disappears into his own misery. Bobby’s great gasping sobs seem far away.

They keep them there a long time. The lights are never turned off. The hum of an unseen power inhibitor throbs in John’s brain until he thinks he will go mad. Screams from the basement punctuate the long silences. Bobby tries to talk to him, weak, whimpering like a dog, but John won’t even look at him. John is lost in a miasma of misery, far away from life. He thinks maybe he won’t be able to return. And that’s fine. Let him die far away from feeling, from pain, from anything human. Let him die an animal. Maybe animals don’t mind so much.

But then the officer from Mutant Control is back, and instantly John is on his feet, and he is fully, horribly alert again. Whatever his fate, it will be faced as a fully sentient being, and that seems so horribly unfair. Bobby too has returned from somewhere, and John is amazed at how steady his voice is, how polite and ingratiating he can sound under the circumstances.

“Please, sir,” he says, the soul of reason. “There’s been a terrible misunderstanding. I’m very happy to tell you everything I know, but I know nothing. Can we sit down and—”

The officer cuts him off like he’s swinging a machete. “We know you were involved in the escape, Resident Drake. We have sworn testimony from three witnesses who heard you plotting the escape of the two terrorists.”

“No...” Bobby breathes and John can see him shaking. He wants to close his eyes, turn to the wall, but he can only stare.

The officer continues relentlessly. “You will tell us everything. If you are especially cooperative, you might be spared execution, but that is not my decision.” There are two guards with him. To one he says, “Open the door. Take the prisoner downstairs to the punishment rooms.”

The cell suddenly seems like a refuge, and as the magnetic lock springs open, it is like their home is under attack. And John can’t believe his eyes, because Bobby suddenly snaps into a fighting posture. It’s as if Jubilee is shouting in his ear, and he is straight and tall and ready to battle. And John must be an idiot, because he feels himself coiling to spring. Bobby attacks the guard as he enters, but John hesitates, and maybe they could have taken out the officer and two guards, but out of nowhere, there are suddenly more guards, and Bobby goes down in a sea of fists and clubs.

It takes no more than a shove to send John into the corner, where he curls up like a bug. He watches through squinting eyes as they grab Bobby off the floor and drag him through the door. This can’t be happening. It’s like a terrible fantasy universe that he has been trapped in forever. Syracuse, New York, Westchester, San Francisco... these places that seemed so real; were they just a fairy tale? Maybe this camp is only the only place that has ever existed. But if this is the real world, how do you get out and back to that safe land that never existed? His brain is turning, turning, like a hand that has forgotten the combination of the lock.

A horrible, animal noise escapes from Bobby’s throat as he’s dragged down the hall, and John is torn apart by it. The door of the cell slams shut and John finds himself at the bars screaming, “He doesn’t know anything! Let him go, please, he won’t bother anyone again.”

Bobby is screaming his name as they drag him down the hall, and John knows he has to answer, to tell Bobby something that will allow him to survive what they will do to him.

His mind spools back, back. He was 10 when his stepfather moved in. Maybe there was a whole year before the beatings started, but after that, he was an impotent prisoner of incomprehensible adult rage. How did that little boy survive? Hate. Pure, pulsing hate had been the only thing he could cling to until he had been able to run away. Hate gave him a core of iron for four long years, a core that could not be torn as his flesh had been.

He wants to tell Bobby this, tell him to hate with a bile so black, there will never again be light enough to chase away the shadows. But he knows it won’t work. Bobby does not have that kind of blackness inside him. All that John values in Bobby Drake, the reason he has sacrificed and starved for him, is Bobby’s deep, abiding trust in the goodness of people. There is no hate in Bobby’s soul; he shines bright in John’s dark world.

As Bobby is dragged around the corner out of sight, John knows what he must say. Face pressed against the cold, iron bars, he screams: “I love you, Bobby! Remember that! I love you! I love you, don’t forget!!”

 

The guards return them to the barracks two days later. John can walk, Bobby cannot. The extra blankets John secured for them are gone. He looks within himself for strength and finds a void. There is no will to survive, no secret hope of rescue. He realizes only then that despite all his insistence on living for today with no thought to tomorrow, he has been secretly expecting a grand, glorious mutant rescue, complete with power beams and psychic whammies. Now he knows it will not come. Or if it does, it will be too late for Bobby, and therefore for him.

John strokes Bobby’s head as the broken young man whimpers and cringes. He makes soothing promises as he tries to get some food into him. “It’ll be okay. It’s going to be okay, Bobby.” He does not believe his own words.

He works at the factory in a daze. It is not the same methodical unthinking that used to get him through the long day. Now, he is absent. After you’ve been to the interrogation center, you are treated like a leper. Either you’re seen as a source of bad luck, or it’s assumed that you’re now an informer. But one prisoner, a man named Dwayne whom he never gave a thought to comes forward. It is Dwayne who helps him stay on task when he is utterly lost. John knows he does not deserve this kindness.

Bobby, of course, remains in bed. At night, John stays close to him. He tells him stories about Castle’s island — tales not recorded in his novel. They are mostly hopeful stories about small animals surviving predators. They spin from his mind, off his lips, without effort. He whispers them in Bobby’s ear like incantations. He is saying goodbye. Tomorrow, Bobby will again miss work. The next day, he will probably be taken away to the other camp. There he will die. The last light in John’s world will go out.

John is shaken from his stupor by the sudden thought that when they come to take Bobby away, he will fight them. He will find a weapon and attack the guards. If he is vicious enough, they will kill him then and there. The color of the hope this engenders in him is black. Is black hope better than no hope at all?

A minor surprise as he enters the factory that morning: the checkpoint at the entrance is being reconstructed. The sentry who scans their bar codes is standing right in the aisle before the turnstiles. His monitor is turned outwards where John can see it for the first time. He watches the display as those in the line ahead of him are scanned. What it shows is disappointing: the prisoner’s resident number in large numerals, a small head shot and that’s about it. The numbers are six digits long. John is scanned, and notes that his number is 214782. He moves into the factory, the same as every day.

It is some time after their lunch break when he is hit by a realization. 214782 was the number of Magneto’s Auschwitz tattoo. He is carrying a heavy bag of concrete across the floor when he realizes this, and he comes to a halt, almost causing the prisoner following to crash into him. He staggers forward, his heart beating faster. How can that be? he thinks. What are the odds? He remembers making fun of his mother as a smart-ass 13 year old for buying lottery tickets. You’re more likely to be hit by lightning, Mom!

But that’s what it said on the display: 214782. He does not return to Bobby after work. He finds himself marching around the camp in a daze. Something! It must mean something! He wanders to the front gate and stares at the giant Sentinels who stand as mute warnings out in the hazy landscape. But there is nothing to consider. It’s the same number, so what? It’s a cosmic joke. Magneto’s probably dead and you will be, too. And then he sees it, just at the edge of the woods. It’s the chestnut horse, running free and wild. It stands for a moment, almost like it’s noticed him. It shakes its mane and then begins to gallop again, vanishing into the smoke.

The horse seems to remind John of something. He thinks he’s seen it before. Somewhere. In dreams of another life.

Bobby is worse that night, moaning and crying out in pain. After the guard has made his rounds, John takes the chance of climbing into Bobby’s bed where he can at least give him the comfort of his closeness. Bobby eventually falls asleep and John knows he should, too, but the memory of the horse haunts him. He must be dreaming because he finds himself following the horse into the woods. And there stands Kitty, her long hair restored, wearing her school backpack. Above her, from the canopy of trees comes intense white light. John cannot see her, but he knows it is the blonde angel. Kitty doesn’t seem aware of the heavenly presence as she tells him, “I saw the horse, too. In the cabin.”

The siren goes off, and John awakens on the floor between bunks, shivering. He goes to Breakfast and brings Bobby back tea. “I want to go home, please…” Bobby murmurs. He is delirious.

“I’ll see you in the afternoon, Bobby. You sleep.” Bobby will be marked as too ill to work for the third day in a row. John knows there is a good chance he will be taken away before the end of the work shift.

I saw the horse, too, Kitty said. But she didn’t see the angel.

John’s mind is on fire. He walks towards the factory building.

Dwayne has been looking for John. He comes up beside him and asks quietly, “How you doing today? Your friend’s in bad shape, I heard.”

John doesn’t want the distraction of dealing with the man, but he doesn’t wish to seem ungrateful. An answer forms on his lips, but a thought derails it. “The horse,” he says. Dwayne looks at him strangely. “It’s the horse statue. From the apartment. Bobby and I found Xavier and Erik in the apartment…”

He steps out of line without thinking and a Dwayne yanks him back. “John! Be careful!” he hisses.

But John can’t stop talking now. “It’s the same horse, I remember.” And remembering throws his brain into turmoil. He had forgotten that day when he and Bobby found the two men living in squalor. It was San Francisco. He remembers. But there is a discontinuity. He remembers the months before their arrest. The reintroduction of mutant registration. The detention of so-called terrorists, the creation of the camps and the Department of Mutant Control. He remembers that he and Bobby were living in a house somewhere with other mutants. He remembers how the soldiers came at night and rounded them up. But he can’t put the two timelines together. How did he get from San Francisco to that house?

He and Dwayne are scanned in. 214782. Magneto’s number. As they move to their work stations, he speaks to Dwayne again. “Kitty didn’t know who Warren was,” he says. “Why not?”

Dwayne looks scared. “Just shut up, okay? You’re gonna get us in trouble!” Dwayne doesn’t talk to him anymore after that.

It is halfway through the morning shift when John again speaks out loud, because an answer has occurred to him. “Kitty didn’t know who Worthington was because Xavier died before he came to the school. Xavier doesn’t know about Worthington… so Kitty didn’t.”

The significance of this thought is so shockingly profound that he wants to reject it. Better — so much better — to have never thought it. Because now he must act. No more thinking. There is no time. They could take Bobby away any minute.

He returns for the next sack of concrete, but instead of picking it up, he slips behind the pile. He sees the door near the delivery entrance. He knows it is not locked. Escaping from the factory is not, in fact, difficult. Your problems begin when you are not there to be scanned out at the end of the shift. He looks around for guards and then runs for the door.

There is almost no one in the factory yard while the work shift is on. That will make him conspicuous to any guards who spot him. He dashes carefully from shadow to shadow until he is at the barracks. He runs, bent low to the ground until he reaches Barracks M12. He peers around the corner, his heart pounding. There is no guard in position there. They must have fewer on during work hours. Still, he finds himself too terrified to move.

“Come on, fuckwad,” he hisses at himself. “If you’re right, it doesn’t fucking matter!” But that is precisely what he’s scared of. If he’s right, if he can get them free, then that is everything. If he fails, it will be the most profound failure of his life. He makes a mad dash for the door, pulling it open and diving through, shooting his foot back out again to prevent the door’s spring-loaded slamming.

Bobby is still there. Thank you, thank you. “Bobby! You have to wake up!” The broken boy is slow to react and John has a momentary panic that the irony gods have killed Bobby at just this moment. But he shakes him and Bobby stirs.

“I didn’t do anything… not my fault,” he murmurs, but John has no time.

“Bobby, you have to help me think… Do you remember San Francisco?”

Bobby licks his chapped lips and says, “Harvey Milk. Star Fleet Academy…”

“No, listen. We were there. In a hotel room on 19th Street. Someone called you… Storm! It was Storm! We had to find Xavier and Magneto. Do you remember?!”

Bobby’s left eye is still swollen shut, but some light turns on in his right. “Tenderloin. Third floor. X scratched on the door.”

John is breathless with excitement. He looks around nervously, listens hard for guards. “Right, exactly. Then what happened?”

Bobby’s open eye glazes over. “Arrested. Taken here. They came for us in the night.”

“No!” John says and grabs Bobby’s shoulders. Bobby flinches. “It doesn’t make sense. The memories don’t match.” He looks around at the barracks. The concrete is cracked. There are stains on the wood around the poorly-sealed windows where the wind and rain get in. He smells the stench of unwashed bedclothes, of misery. He lets himself feel the ache in his bones. With his tongue he touches the loose tooth in the front of his mouth. He thinks of everyone lost in the past months, Doug, Wolverine. All the pain. It takes bravery and madness for him to say the words: “None of this is real.”

Bobby starts to cry. John is scaring him, overloading what little sanity he has left. But somehow John knows that time is short. “Get up!” he says and begins dragging him from the bunk. Bobby makes a high whine and John clamps a hand over his mouth, but he gets him on his feet. John pulls the ripped jacket around his friend’s shoulders and pushes his feet into his wrecked shoes. “We have to go. Now.”

Bobby is gasping in pain and confusion as John puts an arm around him and begins dragging him towards the door. “Go?” Bobby breathes. “Where?”

“I don’t know. Front gate! We have to leave by the front gate. That’s where the horse was.” He opens the door and looks around. No one. He realizes they only have a few minutes left until work shift ends. They have to get out before then. Surrounded by all the prisoners, by all their hopelessness, John will not have the mental strength to believe the impossible.

They get to the edge of the front courtyard, hiding behind a supplies hut. Bobby is half-unconscious — too out of it to be scared. There are guards patrolling, guards in towers. Giant robots stand beyond the gate which is closed, locked, wired, electrified. What if you’re wrong? John asks himself. He has to test the theory. He looks up at the humming power inhibitor atop the yellow pole to his left. He stares at the blinking LED that indicates it is live. He stares at it and says to the light in a quivering whisper. “You d-don’t exist!”

Nothing happens for a moment, but that only makes him mad. And with the coming of that anger, his fear vanishes. They can kill him if they want, but he will never be afraid again. The inhibitor’s light flickers and dims. He is so surprised by his success that he loses concentration. The light flashes on again and, in that moment, a guard sees them.

“Residents!” he shouts and approaches. John is breathing hard. The arm around Bobby’s waist is the only thing keeping his friend on his feet. “You better have permission documents, or you are going down!”

Under the hiss of the loudspeaker, he hears radio voices cutting in and out. “They wish to cure us…” hisssss. “But we are the cure…” Magneto. 214782.

“Of course we have documents… sir,” John says as the guard arrives in front of them. John leans Bobby against the wall and the guard squints at him suspiciously. As calmly and deferentially as he can, John tells the guard, “I’m taking this guy to the infirmary.” He reaches into his jacket, but comes out only with his fist. It’s a good punch, one that hurts his hand in a satisfying way. The guard drops and John pulls Bobby forward, into the open. “Let’s go.”

Magneto’s voice cuts in and out, draped in static: “…as homo sapiens displaced…  homo neandertalis, so too …mo superior  displaces homo sapiens…” They are words John himself wrote for the Master of Magnetism.

More guards are calling for them to halt. His fear returns, but the ride has started and he can’t get off now. He begins loping toward the front gate, hearing safeties click off every gun. He is basically dragging Bobby at this point. A shot rings out, raising a clot of dirt to his left, and John yelps.

He wonders if he can will the guns out of existence. But he knows nothing about guns; there’s something better he can try. Out loud, he assures himself, “There are no such things as power inhibitors.” He closes his eyes and feels for something. There! In the mess hall, the gas burners are heating up the rotten slop they will feed the prisoners in another hour. John could cry as he feels the song of the flame. It’s been so long, baby…

Another shot, this one bounces off a pole near his head. John grits his teeth and lets out a huge guttural cry. The mess hall explodes, fire leaping into the sky. John grabs the fire, sends it everywhere, taking out every guard in the yard. He is almost giddy with power. Bobby has fallen to the ground in a heap, and John bends down and lifts him, throwing him over his shoulder and staggering towards the gate. Behind him, he hears the sound of a crowd. He turns and sees the prisoners pouring from the factory buildings, watching his inferno. They are cheering.

With immense satisfaction, he begins to walk again for the main gates. They are standing open. Beyond them, the brown horse is waiting. As John passes under Wolverine’s skeleton and leaves the camp for the first time in such a long, terrible time, the horse turns and begins to walk through the smoke. John follows. Bobby’s unconscious body is heavy, but he will bear that weight gladly. He follows the horse past the giant feet of the immobile robots. He looks up at their flat, dead eyes, scared they will suddenly wake up. He follows the horse into the woods.

He walks until his legs are shaking. He puts Bobby down on the ground, leaning him against a tree trunk. His friend is very pale. He seems hardly to be breathing. John is suddenly worried. Aren’t they free? Isn’t this the happy ending?

“Bobby, hang on. Don’t you fucking die on me.” He hears the sound of galloping and watches in horror as the horse vanishes in the woods. “Wait!” he shouts, but then he sees something, just there in the shadows… a house.

He heaves Bobby over his shoulder again and staggers through the dense trees towards the building, which is really more of a cabin — small, sturdily built of rough, square-cut timber. It has a yard where wood is stacked. There are two hens in a cage and a square of dark earth that must be a kitchen garden in the summer. Smoke rises from the chimney. He is sweating now, terribly tired. Almost dropping Bobby in the process, he tries the door. It is open. He pushes it wide and is greeted by warmth, yellow light, the smell of pea soup with ham.

“Come in, my boy,” says a familiar voice. It is Charles Xavier, and not in his new body but as he was when John was at the school. His eyes are warm, his smile avuncular. John’s mouth is hanging open as he surveys the room. Copper pots, earthenware jars labeled “tea,” “flour,” “salt.” And in the corner by the blazing hearth is Erik Lehnsherr. He is sitting in a comfortable easy chair, looking whole and healthy, wearing a cable-knit sweater in rich burgundy. His hair is longer than usual, but it is neatly combed back on his head. He is reading a large leather-bound book.

“Put your friend down on the couch,” Xavier says and John does, with great gentleness, bringing his face close to Bobby’s to listen for his breathing. “He doesn’t seem very well,” Xavier says. He turns to Lehnsherr. “Erik! We have company. Come and see.”

Lehnsherr looks up from his book and frowns. “Get rid of them Charles. Have you lost your mind?”

John calls, “Magneto! It’s me, Pyro! Please, we need your help.”

“I know exactly who you are, boy. Charles, this one always brings trouble with him. We won’t be safe until he’s gone.” He is fussy and anxious. He reaches out and nervously strokes the porcelain horse on the side table.

John looks back at Xavier who is shaking his head sadly. “I’m so sorry. Erik is right. These are dangerous times. They come for us in the night.”

John walks to Xavier in dismay. “Professor, I’m John Allerdyce. I was your student. That’s Bobby Drake... I think he’s dying!”

Xavier turns away. “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.”

John feels his dismay turn to fury. “Nothing you can do?! You did all this! You made this insane place with your mind!” He grabs Xavier by the arm, surprised at how real he feels, how warm and fragile.

Xavier looks panicked. “I can’t help you! Don’t you understand the danger?” He pulls his arm loose from John’s grip. “Take your friend and… and go back into the woods. Quickly, before they come.”

John grabs his own head as if it might fall off. The madness is too much for him. He can’t go running out into these phantom woods. Where would they lead? Bobby will die if he moves him, that much he knows. Suddenly the earth shakes, a deep shock that rattles the dishes. The old men look at each other, worried, knowing. Another boom, and another.

Lehnsherr says gravely, “They’ve brought the Sentinels on us.”

John runs to the window and looks up through the canopy of trees. The robots are moving in the deepening twilight. Their eyes are searchlights, all-seeing. There is also movement in the woods. John squints at the shifting shadows and suddenly a shot hits the window frame by his head. He drops to the floor as more shots ring out.

“Soldiers,” Xavier cries in panic. “You have to leave now. This house offers only sanctuary enough for two.”

“Fuck you!” John screams. “We’re not going anywhere.” He reaches for the fire in the hearth, but it will not obey him. “What the fuck? Come on!”`

Magneto rises from his chair, strong and tall. “No, boy, we will not let you use your powers against us in our home!” Xavier turns away, his head in his hands. The room seems bigger, suddenly, the two old men farther away. John feels his hold on reality slipping.

Shouts outside: “Come out with your hands up or we will open fire!”

Magneto gestures and the door swings open. “GET OUT!” he calls and the furniture begins moving, herding John towards the door. Plates fall from the open shelves and smash as the Sentinels approach with earth-shaking footsteps. Through the door, John sees dozens of armed guards and soldiers and great robotic legs that bring down the trees in their path. He leaps over the animated furniture, running across a surprising expanse of floor, before dropping to his knees at Bobby’s side. He screams with the mad terror of it all.

Light. Something is pushing through the air. A sound like a choir singing in haunting discord. He sees her, dressed in white, her blonde hair coalescing, pushing through from the world beyond, descending slowly to the wooden floor. It is the angel. She is here to deliver them to death. His mother was right all along about that Catholic shit. He shuts his eyes tightly.

The sound of the choir squeezes itself into a single voice: “MMMMMMMMMmmmmmmmmmmBloody Hell!

John opens his eyes cautiously and stares in shock. The angel is dressed somewhere between a fetish hooker and a fashion model, all in white. Her top is a sort of cross between a bustier and a cloak; her skin-tight pants are laced with leather down the sides, vanishing into her white boots. Her makeup is pale, expensive and, frankly, kind of trashy. But the white gold earrings and the pearls are real, from the looks of them.

“Charles, what on earth have you done?” the woman demands crossly and Xavier looks at her like a little boy whose been caught with his thumb in the pie.

“Done?” John gasps, scrambling to his feet, marching across the room (now twice as big as it was when he arrived) to stand between them. “Go through those woods and you’ll see! A concentration camp! Thousands of starving mutants! Torture! He fucking tortured Bobby!” he screams, pointing at his lover. He realizes he is crying.

The woman closes her eyes and then grows pale. “My God, Charles. You’ve taken psychic terrorism to a whole new level! Even I’m horrified.”

Running feet. Soldiers are suddenly bursting through the door, guns pointed. The woman turns a furious eye on them and they vanish, like flames being blown out. She waves a white-gloved hand and the door slams shut.

“This is outrageous!” Magneto shouts imperiously, but John notes that he is sticking to the safety of his increasingly distant corner.

John feels like he has reached some sort of limit. He wants to run away from this place, away from sanity if possible. “Who are you?” he asks.

“Emma Frost. I’m a telepath, Charles’ pupil for many years; but unlike dear Jean, I didn’t opt for the exciting life of an X-Man.” She rolls her eyes and then peers around at the homespun decor. “Really Charles, you have to decide. Is it black leather or Martha Stewart you’re opting for?”

John has hurried back to Bobby’s side. “Please, Ms. Frost, get us out of here. Bobby’s really fucked up.”

“Yes, severe psychic shock. I can feel it. We have to hurry or he could die.” She turns to Xavier. “All right, Charles, time to end this. Take the children back.”

Xavier backs away from her. “No! I have to keep us safe! This is a trap!”

Magneto calls encouragement from the corner. “That’s right, Charles. Don’t believe that witch. They’re coming for us!”

Emma’s eyes are cold with fury. “Enough out of you, Lehnsherr! Your whole career has been one long paranoiac delusion. Time to retire!” She takes a step in Xavier’s direction, reaching out her hand. “Close this house of horrors down, Charles!”

“NO!” the man screams and a wave of blinding light explodes. John spins away, covering Bobby with his body. The light subsides and he looks up to see Emma Frost and all the furniture knocked to the ground. Xavier floats in the middle of the room in a glowing bubble of light, naked, in lotus position. Gravity, or its illusion, is gone. Objects and people float through the cabin, which is now growing so quickly the walls are becoming lost in the distance. The window has grown to the size of a football field, and through it, John sees the burning void. Comets and cataclysm, Sentinel robots as large as planets, the screams of a million tortured souls. He climbs onto the couch with Bobby, holds them both down to its well-padded chintz cushions.

Emma Frost floats by, upright (pick a frame of reference, any frame), straightening the fall of her cape. “Damn,” she says. “He may be completely addled, but he’s still the most powerful psionic on Earth. I’ll have to try something else.”

“Hurry!” John yells above the din.

She gives him a withering look. “Oh, do you think? And here I was, planning to dawdle. And my outfit is not ‘trashy,’ boy. It’s Dior!” The room is gone now. Xavier and Magneto are parsecs distant. Emma turns on her axis until she spies what she is looking for. “There he is. Erik Lehnsherr, I’m coming for you.” She floats down and puts a surprisingly tender hand on John’s head. “Keep your friend safe. Charles may have created this place, but it’s because he’s feeding off Magneto’s fears. It’s a classic folie à deux with a psychic twist. If I can’t shut Charles down, maybe I can get to his better half.”

She rockets away, vanishing from view in a moment. The couch is now the only recognizable object in a universe of chaos. It is their life raft. John lies on Bobby and hangs on for dear life. “I won’t let you go,. I promise.”

Minutes pass, whatever that means in this place. At one point, John thinks that Bobby is dead, but he still finds a weak pulse. He holds him tightly, their faces together, kissing his cold cheek gently. Then Emma is back, pulling Magneto through space. He seems dazed, his eyes drooping.

“What’s happening?” John begs.

“Lehnsherr’s exhausted, but he’s hanging onto consciousness. If I can just get him to let go, it will break the link between him and Charles. But he’s inconveniently strong-willed.”

John cries out, “Magneto!” He reaches up and grabs the man’s leg, pulling his floating body down until they are face to face. “Magneto, it’s me, Pyro. Your lieutenant.”

Lehnsherr’s eyebrows rise fractionally. “Ah yes, Pyro, my boy. Situation report.”

The absurdities pile higher and higher. John almost feels sorry for the man. “Everything’s going as planned, sir. We’re... we’re ready to make the final assault against the humans.”

The old man’s mouth drops open. “Really?”

“Yes, sir,” John tells him. “We’ve won. You did it.” And now John finds that he, too, is so tired, he can barely speak. “Sleep, sir. Okay? I’ll... I’ll handle everything.”

Magneto’s face relaxes and his eyes close. He licks his lips. “Yes, maybe just for a few minutes. You’re a good boy, Pyro...”

“Hold on!” Emma screams and she is gone again. John doesn’t know what to hold on to, but he grabs Bobby’s shirt with one hand, Lehnsherr’s with another, and he is just in time, for someone has pulled the plug on reality’s bathtub and they are suddenly plummeting round and down, through the bottom of everything that is

...

 

The world hurt like a mile-wide wound. Each of his senses carried the same message: pain. Was this what it was like to be born? John wanted to climb back inside the hole. He didn’t know where he was, but somehow the fact that his body was connected to the ground seemed like a good thing. Then he tried to sit up. Everything lurched and he turned his head just in time as he vomited with a loud splat all over the cracked linoleum floor. The undertaste of the puke was Mexican. A burrito he had eaten so, so long ago. Months. A lifetime.

“Okay, it’s okay,” said a familiar voice. Someone was holding him around the shoulders. “Let me get you some water,” she said and his eyes focused on the face of Kitty Pryde. She was wearing an X-Men uniform.

“What the fuck?” he managed hoarsely. He pulled himself away from her and tried to stand. His head spun and he landed immediately on his ass. He was back. Back in the dingy shit hole where he and Bobby had found Xavier and Magneto… when? It hurt to think.

Another voice. Also familiar. “Stay down and breathe deeply, Pyro. Your mind needs time to get its bearings.” He turned his head and saw Emma Frost, the dubious angel, sitting at the beat-up kitchen table, looking pale and dazed herself. Magneto was slumped, head down beside her, Xavier — new Xavier — lay on the floor to her left. Storm was kneeling beside him, taking his pulse.

“B-Bobby,” John stammered. He turned himself around and his head swum. Bobby was sprawled on the scrap of carpet by the door. Kneeling beside him was a kid with golden skin and golden hair who had one hand on Bobby’s head and one on his chest.

“Ms. Frost, his vitals aren’t good,” the boy said. “I don’t understand.”

John crawled over, pushing the kid aside. “Bobby! Wake up, come on!”

Then Storm was with him, helping him to his feet, pulling him away from Bobby, and he was too weak to resist. “Come on, John, let Josh work. He’s a healer.” She pulled a pile of old newspapers off one end of the broken couch and sat him down there. “Kitty, I’m going out to see if the coast is clear. Call me if you need me.” She left the apartment and Kitty appeared at John’s side. He got the sense he was being guarded.

The Frost woman had recovered faster than him and she now stood herself up, though a bit carefully. John noticed her checking her ass for stains from the dirty chair. She joined Josh on the floor beside Bobby. “He experienced a severe psychic shock. We could lose him. Can you adjust his serotonin levels as I instruct you, Joshua?”

“I think so, yeah.”

John called, “But he can’t be dying... It wasn’t real! It was just in Xavier’s mind!”

Emma’s eyes were closed. He figured she was working inside Bobby’s head to fix him. Still, she was able to talk to him. “The mind is powerful, Pyro. You both believed you were there in that camp. That belief has somatic repercussions. Now be quiet and let me help him.”

John stared in helpless misery for what seemed a long time. Tears stained his face.

Kitty leaned in close. “Hey, she’s kind of a stuck-up bitch, but she’s a major telepath. And Josh is awesome. If anyone can help Bobby, they can.”

Sitting still while they worked on Bobby was torture. Part of him still feared that this was the illusion and the camp the reality. He found himself leaning close to Kitty, but she didn’t seem to mind. He asked her, “How did you know to come for us?”

“Bobby was supposed to check in at 2pm PST. Storm was already talking to Frost about the Professor, and she told her that you guys hadn’t called. Emma freaked.” Kitty looked guilty. “We… we didn’t understand how dangerous an out-of-control Xavier was until she told us. She said Storm should never have asked anyone but a trained psionic to track him down.” John felt his jaw tighten. Xavier, Magneto, Storm… they all loved to throw you into the line of fire while they hid in the bunker.

A weak voice suddenly spoke up, “Erik? Erik, are you all right?” Xavier was struggling to his feet, holding onto the table, his other hand stretched out to Magneto’s slumped body.

Rage flared in John, and he jumped to his feet, running at the man. “You fucking son of a bitch!” He slammed into Xavier who fell backwards with thump, raising his hands to defend himself. “You think everyone’s your fucking puppet! You built a little torture chamber and locked us up in it!” He pulled back a foot to kick his former teacher, but suddenly, he was no longer in control of his body. Like a tin soldier, he spun on his heel and found himself marching stiff-legged, back to the couch, arms swinging by his side. He gritted his teeth and strained against the invading mind, but to no avail. He dropped hard on his ass and watched as his arm reached for a discarded pie plate, which he perched on his head like a dainty chapeau. He looked up in fury at Emma Frost who was glaring at him evilly.

“Are you done being a ridiculous child? Charles has no idea what he did.” She stared at Xavier with great intensity, and the man lay down again and went to sleep.

John found that he could only regain the use of his mouth by calming down. “Sorry,” he managed after 10 seconds. Then his limbs were his own again, and he pulled the pie plate off his head. Sheepishly, he asked, “Bobby... is he going to be okay?”

Josh Foley was sweating, damp stains darkening the underarms of his t-shirt. “Yeah, we got him stabilized. Wow, Ms. Frost. I could totally feel when you were doing stuff in there. That is so cool!”

“Feel free to join my fan club. There’s a link on my web site. Now where is that Monroe person?”

Kitty stood up and opened the window. Fog poured in, thick as cotton. It was night. John realized that he and Bobby had only been in the apartment for maybe ten hours. All those months, that whole miserable life that would haunt his dreams always, had happened in less than half a day.

There were two lights approaching through the air. They were Storm’s eyes, shining in the dark as she landed on the third floor window ledge. She climbed in through the open window as Warren Worthington III in an X-Men uniform arrived on the ledge. “Can they be moved, Emma?” Storm asked, brisk and business-like.

“If we’re in a hurry, I suppose so. Mr. Drake needs proper treatment as soon as possible.”

Storm and Worthington flew Bobby and Magneto out into the fog. John sat in silence, trying to figure out how he fit into this scenario.

“Where are they taking them?” he asked Kitty.

“Back to the mansion. Warren’s letting us use one of his planes. He’s a temporary X-Man. I hope he stays.”

John noted the smile she was barely repressing. “You and the blond goy? Okay, whatever works for you, Pryde. What’s going to happen to me? I figure the feds must be all over the school now.”

Kitty looked embarrassed. “John, I don’t know. I-I guess it’s difficult —”

“He’s coming back to Westchester with us,” Frost announced with great finality.

Kitty shot her an annoyed look. “Well, obviously I’d like that, Ms. Frost, but Storm has the final say. You might want to remember who’s the leader of the X-Men.”

Emma sashayed past her. She laid a piece of newspaper on the couch beside John and sat down on it, crossing her legs with infinite ennui. “And you’d best remember that I’m not on her team, my dear. I say that John Allerdyce needs to be under my care while he recovers. If dear Ms. Monroe wishes my help with Charles’ recovery, and with Cerebro, she’ll have to bring Pyro along.” Emma turned to the window and smiled. Storm was there. John looked at her, wondering if there would be a fight. Kitty quickly excused herself and slipped out the door.

Storm smiled a smile that said, Don’t mess with me, honey. But her actual words were, “Of course John is welcome at the School. At least until he recovers.”

John found that his feelings went beyond relief. He had to hold back the tears that wanted to return. “Thank you,” he said in a quiet, hoarse voice.

Storm said, “I’m going to fly Charles down. Then we have to leave. I don’t want my fog to interfere with local weather patterns. John, do you need Angel to carry you?”

“Angel?” He looked at Emma. “Oh, you mean Worthington. No,” he said. “I can walk down with her. With Ms. Frost.”

When he and Emma were alone, John said, “I saw you, you know. In the camp.”

She was watching him with unnerving focus. “Yes, I was trying to break past Charles’ defenses all afternoon. I didn’t succeed until you distracted him. Was my appearance a comfort?” she asked with a smirk.

“I just thought I was losing my mind.”

“Charming,” Emma said and looked at her diamond-studded watch. “Shall we, Pyro?”

“Just call me John, okay? I don’t want to hear... that other name anymore.”

“As you wish.”

He got up and followed her to the door. “Wait a minute,” he called and she turned. “I need you to do something for me. No, not for me. Before he wakes up, before he remembers everything, I need you to erase Bobby’s memories. Everything that happened in that place.”

She paused, a hand on her hip. “I can’t.”

“Bullshit!” he yelled, and if he was going to need diplomacy to get his way, he was in trouble. “I saw how powerful you were. A psychic like you can totally do that!”

“Yes, but at what cost?” she replied, infuriatingly calm and cool. “You take a memory away, but it leaves a hole. The events can become like ghosts that haunt you forever. Your mind and body know something was there; they try to resolve the void. Sometimes it all works out, but sometimes it can go quite badly.”

“But you have to!” John whined, humiliated by his pleading. “Please! It wasn’t real! Why does he have to remember the pain? They beat him! Burned him… He won’t survive knowing what they did to him.”

John could feel her enter his mind. Unlike Xavier, she didn’t ask permission. “You survived, why shouldn’t Bobby? You suffered the same pain and humiliation when you were only a child. And look at you! You’re strong as steel, Mr. Allerdyce. You’re like me.”

“No!” he argued. “That’s different! Shit happened to me, and surviving made me strong. But it didn’t even happen to Bobby! It was just Xavier and Magneto and their clusterfuck of a relationship! Bobby... You don’t know him. His joy... his light… Everything he is could be destroyed by this. Please, I’ll help him with the ghosts. With the void. But...” And now he was crying again. “...please, let him forget. Let some good come after all this bullshit they put us through.”

Begging and crying. He barely recognized himself. But he knew that humiliation was a price he was willing to pay for Bobby Drake. And he knew this for proof that love lived within him. What a shock: John Allerdyce could love. That unparseable emotion that he had always pointed at and laughed — like it was the fat girl in the class — he could face it for the first time.

She looked at him, and he realized that she was right — they were alike. Somewhere behind her every expression was a smirk of superiority. Except when things were true and serious. Like now.

“Very well,” she said and closed her eyes. He watched her carefully, half-expecting some exorcised demon to leap from her forehead and fall to the earth, choking. But she simply opened her eyes after a short time and said. “It’s done. Let’s go before Storm conveniently forgets about us.”

They descended the stairs in silence and marched out into the cool night. Storm’s fog was starting to dissipate. He could see the large black van down the street where the others were waiting. They were halfway there when Emma stopped him with a hand on his arm.

“You know,” she said, “Everyone goes on and on about bloody Jean Grey as if she were the mutant messiah. But seriously? She spent all those months with you and didn’t realize how simple it was to turn it on?” Utterly confused, John watched Emma close her eyes again, this time for no more than two seconds. “There, I think you’ll enjoy that,” she said, smirk back in place, and marched to the vehicle.

John was about to follow, demanding to know what the psychic witch was up to, rummaging around in his thoughts...

...when he felt it. A clean certainty. As natural in him as his heart beat. He held up his index finger and looked at it. As simply as that, a flame appeared at the tip. Pure, perfect. His.

Kitty phased through the side of the van and screamed, “Yo, Allerdyce! Train is moving out!”

He extinguished the fire and ran to join them.

Chapter 43

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