Fri, 23 Jun 2000
D Benway

This story is disturbing. It is a sequel to The Good Soldier. The GS belongs to me, but everyone else is borrowed for not-for-profit use from Marvel Comics.

This story (whose rather lame I title I decided would be _The_ Hero after I'd already posted part 1, is a sequel to The Good Soldier. It is not for the sensitive, although it is something of a romance.

Many thanks to Luba for proofreading assistance. This and other work by me is archived at the website of Luba at

Composed under the influence of Blur and David Foster Wallace [Infinite Jest and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men in particular].


Manufactured by Benway


Le Maquisard [1/5]

He just made the bus from Lawton to Oklahoma City, only to find that he had an eight hour wait there for the next connection. He had sat in the library, reading newspapers and watching for MPs. He found no accounts of the action that he'd taken part in, only reports of press conferences and vague references to military operations in Ohio and Pennsylvania. He looked in an atlas and confirmed that Columbus was dead centre in Ohio and the logical place to start. He was sitting in a chair in the reading room trying to figure out what he was going to do when he got there when a passing security guard asked him to leave. He knew better than to protest.

The second bus had taken all night to reach St Louis, where there had been a one-hour layover. He checked his wallet and found that he had enough for breakfast at an all-night McDonalds. He bought a copy of the New York Times and found a paragraph about military anti-terrorist actions in Ohio below a paragraph on a bus plunge in India that had killed 83. There were no casualties mentioned for the battles on American soil. He tried to sleep, but the tiny, bright-eyed woman sitting next to him spent the entire night trying to convert him to something or other. It seemed that the answers to all the ills of mankind could be found in a brick-sized book by some writer named Rand. After she got off the bus in Indianapolis, he slept all the way into Columbus.

When he arrived, it was just past six and the sun was still high in the sky. He purchased three nutrition bars and found a library. The local papers had no coverage of the actions at all but, after the security guard had asked him to leave, he found a stack of a local free arts paper by the door. It had a 30 page article on the actions. The main area of operations had been in the vicinity of a city called Hamilton, 100 miles away in the direction of Cincinnati. The article crapped all over Media Command for clamping down on rumours, but gave few details of what the targets of the actions might have been. On the second reading, he made notes of the names of the people that the article had quoted. He went to a phone booth, and tried to locate the first name on the list. Directory Assistance gave him five numbers. He had 7 quarters. He tried again. Two more quarters disappeared and he now had 15 numbers. He asked a clerk in a 7-11 for a phone directory, but the man told him that the store was not a library and told him to buy something or get lost. He couldn't go back to the library until morning. He found a shelter, but when he went inside the smell drove him out almost at once. He stood on the opposite side of the road trying to muster up the courage to go back in until a cop came by and asked him to move on. He went to a park and sat on a bench and re-read the article for the third time. He found another name, and the name of the church where the man was a preacher. The name was familiar, and he set to backtracking his way to the bus station just as another cop was approaching.

He didn't find a church, but found instead a sign pointing to it on a lamp-post. When he reached it, it was dark and locked. He went through the gate and into the churchyard. It was dark and overgrown. There was a path down one side to a small house with a light on in an upstairs window. He knocked at the door. Lights blazed on, illuminating the yard and the front of the house.

"What do you want?" asked a terse voice from a security intercom. "There's nothing for you here. We have no money."

"I don't want money," he said. "I want to talk to you about the battle."

There was no response from the intercom.

"I was there," he said. "I saw it."

The lights cut out. From behind the door came the sounds of several bolts being undone. The inner door opened, revealing a tiny old man in a black turtleneck.

"You saw it?" said the old man.

"I saw it and I don't know what to do," he said, and started to weep.

The old man opened the wrought iron security gate and granted him sanctuary.

The following week was one strange experience after the next. He told the whole story to the minister, then to a succession of visitors who were not named. Some looked like professors, others like military men, and one came in with a hard hat obviously straight off a construction site. He told it to them all. Some nodded, stonefaced, while others wept. A woman came and placed her hands on his face, then took them off and spat on him. He was blindfolded and taken to a hospital where he was tested in many large and complicated pieces of machinery. Not one of them gave him any indication of what it might all be about. He half expected the MPs to show up at any moment, to take him off to Leavenworth.

On the seventh day of his stay, a non-descript man came to meet him after breakfast. The man extended his hand hesitantly. He gave it a firm shake. There was a flash and a second man appeared, identical to the first. He didn't start, but his eyes did widen. The two identical men looked at each other.

"Want to stick around?" one said to the other.

"Naw," said the second one. "Don't think he's used to conversations in stereo. You don't drink that much, do you?"

"No," he said.

There was another flash and only one man remained.

"You're a mutant," he said.

"Yeah," said the man. "I was going to tell you my name was Paul Rogers, but there's no point now. Jamie Madrox."

"Marc Washington," he said.

Madrox took a sheaf of papers from a briefcase and made a show of rifling through them.

"You've been evaluated," said Madrox.

"Kinda had that feeling," he said.

"You're baseline human, and a deserter from the US Army," Madrox said. "They're looking for you, but they're not looking here. They've been searching in North Dakota and they've told your mom. She's pretty pissed off at you."

"I guess she would be," he said.

"You've totally screwed yourself over," said Madrox.

"Yes," he said.

"If you could turn the clock back, if we could you put back on the base a week ago the moment before you walked out, would you go?" said Madrox.

He opened his mouth, but found no words. He thought for a moment, then tried again.

"That depends," he said.

"On what?" said Madrox.

"On if you could put me back before I joined the army," he said.

"Welcome to the resistance," said Madrox, smiling.

For the next two weeks, being in the resistance meant staying in a single room in a house in Chillicothe owned by an obsessively vegan Quaker couple who had more means of preparing tofu than he had imagined possible. Madrox had told him that they would need him to go public and he was willing to go along with that. Madrox also told him that he would have to wait until the journalists stopped kissing camo butt and decided to properly report the story. Madrox had also suggested that his tic might be gone by then.

"What tic?" he had asked.

"That one," Madrox had said, imitating something a street crazy might have done.

He hadn't noticed the tic. He never saw it in the mirror. The Quakers commented on his nocturnal screaming, which they claimed to have heard. He had dreams that he didn't recall, and he certainly hadn't woken up screaming. The only thing that irritated him was that when he woke up, he would see Fred or the Chinese girl or the Anatomy Lesson standing by the door, looking at him. They never said anything, they simply looked very, very sad.

One weekend, the Quakers had said that they needed a proper night's sleep and so they were going to their cabin. He was not invited along. They suggested that he stay in as he had for all of the last two weeks, but they left their spare car and some cash should there be some sort of emergency. As they left, they said that his tic was getting better.

He spent the morning in the house, looking out the window at the car, holding the keys in his hand. He decided, on the spur of the moment, to do the stupid thing that he'd been wanting to do since the night he arrived in Chillicothe. He drove over the hills to Hamilton and found a military surplus store. He bought a pair of combat boots, a pair of binoculars and a set of camo fatigues identical to the ones that he'd left behind in Oklahoma. He went to the library, where he was stonily informed that the map room was closed. Since it was noon, he drove into Dayton and found the library there. It was a self-service kind of place, and he managed to find the topo maps that he needed and was able to xerox them before a guard came and asked him to leave. He knew that the wisest thing to do would have been to drive straight back to Chillicothe, but he knew that no-one would know he was gone for another two days. Besides, there was a full moon.

He didn't drive to the farm. It was clear from the map that there were better approaches than a frontal one, especially as it was likely to still be under occupation. The presence of a military checkpoint at a crossroads in the distance confirmed that, but he turned off a quarter mile before it and headed up into the hills. The road became narrower and narrower as he drove on, until it came to an end in front of a small wooden house with dark windows. He looked at his map. The road was supposed to continue on up the hill, but clearly did not. He decided that either the map was wrong, or he had turned into a driveway instead of into the road that he had been looking for. There was no car or any other kind of vehicle in sight. He opened the car door slightly and listened for a solid five minutes. No dog. He looked up the hillside behind the house. From the top, there would be a view of the fire zone. He put on his new fatigues and began hiking up into the forest.

It was dark when he reached the top, but that had been part of the plan. He crept the last half-mile on his stomach through the trees, stopping every so often to listen for patrols. He heard nothing, and eventually came to the crest of the ridge that he'd been seeking. It took him a while to set the optics on the binoculars in the dark but, once he did, he had a view of the fire zone. It didn't look anything like what it once had. There were light towers illuminating a set of white domes and there were tiny white figures running in between them. One dome was where the house had been, another was where the barn had been. Some sort of giant tarpaulin was stretched over the hillside where the underground complex had been. He looked at the yard in front of the house and saw the flagpole but with no flag on it. There was a truck parked at the place where they'd shown him the dead girl under the ground sheet, and a rectangular pit where he'd seen the prisoner in the black suit get shot. He watched the tiny figures running back and forth, and managed to pick out the observation posts along the perimeter. He marked them as best he could on his copy of the topo map. He watched for almost four hours, then crawled back to his car. When he reached it, he was bone tired. He thought about driving back and decided to sleep in the car until morning rather than risk the roads at night.

He awoke at 6, cold and hungry. The house was as dark and dead as it had been the previous afternoon. Even so, he had the feeling again, the one that he had just before he'd almost been killed by the charred mutant. There was no gun in the car. He'd sworn that he'd never use one again. He cursed himself for that, and wished that he'd his M-16. He checked out the interior of the car, but neither Fred nor any of the dead girls were sitting in there with him. He scanned the yard, looking for what else it might be. On his second pass, he caught sight of a figure standing by the house. It looked wrong, somehow, something about the shape of the head that he couldn't see clearly. He picked up the binoculars as carefully as he could, then trained them on the spot. He saw a crimson flash disappearing into the brush in front of the house. He thought of the dead girl in the house in her crimson uniform. He started to sweat. He could leave, drive away and perhaps leave all of the dead behind. Instead, he got out of the car. It was close enough that someone from the fire zone could have fled here. They might be children, like the ones that he'd killed. Alive, but maybe starving. He had to be sure.

It took a long time to reach the front of the house. He was shaking when he found the open front door. He looked out across the yard and into the bush from the top of the front steps, but saw no-one. He entered a simple living room with a TV and a sofa set in it. There were heavy metal and motorbike posters on the walls. There were open boxes of cereal on the floor.

"Hello?" he called out.

There was no response. This was hardly surprising. When the thing had touched Fred, the only sound was 250 pounds of Fred liquefying and splashing onto the floor. He looked back over his shoulder and saw nothing in the bush. He went through a door past a staircase and into a kitchen. There were more open boxes there and a huge number of empty pop bottles. He touched the mouth of one. The pop was still there, wet and sticky. There was a small bathroom off the kitchen, empty. He looked up the staircase. It was dark, and furniture had been piled in the landing at the top. He recalled the barricade at the house and the dead man behind it.

"I'm lost," he said. "I'm looking for the way to Hamilton."

He knew that the sensible thing to do was to run. Instead, he mounted the stairs, one by one. There was no feeling, nothing making him want to run. There was only one door accessible among the dressers and bedframes that were piled so haphazardly there. He knocked, then opened the door.

It was a white room, or very close to one. The brown and orange and green furniture in the landing had once been in it, but all that remained in it was a mattress. The walls were beige, and the carpet had been white once. The mattress was covered in an unruly ball of greyish-white sheets. Underneath them, there was what might have been a human form, curled into a fetal ball.

"Hello?" he said.

The human-shaped lump remained inert. A lock of blonde hair was visible among the sheets. There was also a bloodstain on one of them. His stomach sank. He reached out and lifted the sheet to reveal the sleeping face of the whitest woman he'd ever seen. He put on his safest smile and was about to say something when her eyes flew open and everything went black.

The Hero: A Rude Awakening [2/5]

When he awoke, he was sure of two things. The first was that he was lying on a bed and the second was that he'd never had such a bad hangover in his entire life, not even after he'd chugged that bottle of akavit on a dare. He tried to raise his head. It was not a good move. He laid it down until the throbbing went away. He tried to put his hands to his head, but found that he couldn't. They were held in some way, back behind his head. He was also naked. He turned his head very slowly and opened his eyes. Bad move. Even so, he got a glimpse of his wrist tied to a brass bedstead in a room that wasn't white. He was in the house with the white room. He turned his head to look at the other wrist. He opened his eyes again and saw the moon, except the moon was red and had huge, black, pupil-free eyes. He closed his own eyes and choked off a scream. He opened them again and a 12-year-old kid in a crimson uniform was standing there, not saying anything. He heard the sound of scissors opening and closing. He carefully raised his head. The blonde woman from the white room was sitting at the foot of the bed. She was wearing pale gray shapeless sweats that were much too large to her. She had a pair of scissors in her hand. Expensive scissors for cutting fabric. Very sharp.

"Do you know what these are?" she said in a voice that sounded like the kind on TV in the Sears commercials that asked you to buy something that you couldn't afford.

He tried to speak and could only groan.

"Nod if you know what I've got in my hand," she said.

He nodded. He felt her cold fingers cradle something that another hand had not touched since vicious fights on the public school playground.

"Nod if you know what I've got in my other hand," she said.

He nodded. He could feel it trying to retreat inside his body.

"We're going to have a chat," she said. "If I think you're lying, you're going to be even smaller than you are already. Understand?"

"Yes!" he croaked.

"Are then any more of you out there?" she said.

He shook his head. Bad move.

"So you're on your own," she said. "When will they be expecting you to report back in? It's ten minutes after seven."

"Tomorrow," he slurred.

He felt cold, sharp metal clamp down on shrinking meat.

"Bullshit," she hissed.

"I'm not in the army," he said.

"Then what the fuck is this?" she said, pointing to his fatigues with the long, shining blades. "You were there. I saw it in your head."

He felt the steel start to cut.

"Where's my gun?" he moaned.

"You tell me," she said.

"I don't have one," he muttered. "Did you find one?"

"Did you find one?" she said to someone else sitting in the corner.

He glanced over and saw another kid sitting there.

"No," said the kid. "No equipment in the car, except binoculars. He had a copy of a map, with drawing on it. Drawings of stuff around the centre."

He heard the scissors open.

"So why are you here?" she said.

"The dream is alive," he said.

"What?" she said.

"They say that to each other," he said. "The people in the house where they're keeping me. I'm on your side. I deserted."

"Bullshit," she said.

He felt the steel again.

"Can't you read what's in my head?" he said. "Can't you tell I'm telling the truth?"

"Lee won't let me," she said.

"Almost fried your brain before I stopped her," said the kid in the corner. "Holding her back."

"Let her do it, man," he said. "For fuck's sakes, I'm telling the truth!"

"Promise not to kill?" said the kid.

"If he's telling the truth," she said.

"O.K.," said the kid.

"I'm working for the underground," he said. "Jamie Madrox's keeping me hidden for a press conference. He doesn't know I'm here. I wanted to see the fire zone again."

"He's telling the truth," she said, unable to keep the amazement out of her voice. "Stupid fucker's telling the truth."

"Talk first, shoot later," said the kid. "What you always say to the others."

She turned back to him.

"So this young man is one of us, is he?" she said. "He hardly looks old enough to drive."

She smiled. It wasn't a very nice smile.

"You want to see the fire zone, do you?" she said.

A blast shook the room. The poured concrete walls moved, visibly. He/She hung back, just inside the gaping hole in the concrete. He/She looked back towards the house.

"We can't leave them!" screamed the girl beside him/her the girl from the anatomy lesson alive not dead.

"We have to go NOW!" screamed a man in sweater/Sean.

The girl who was dead/Kitty turned and ran out into the yard. There was a flash and the whole structure shook again. A huge gray cloud erupted from where the girl was standing.

"NO!" he screamed, but no sound came out as she turned back to the man.

"She's gone after them!" he/she screamed at the man in the sweater.

"Where the hell's Kate?" said the man who got shot/Wisdom emerging from a side corridor. "We have to go NOW."

"Get her back!" yelled the man in the sweater/Sean.

"No," he/she said.

He/She looked around the edge of the hole. The girl/Kitty was running up to a crater, unscathed by the explosion. He/She turned back to Sean.

"She's got them," he/she said.

He/She looked out again. Kitty was carrying two small children/deformed monsters. The one with wings was struggling. Kitty was walking on air. The struggling kid broke free and fell, its wings beating uselessly. Pete took off past her, towards Kitty.

"Bollocks!" screamed Cassidy, turning to her. "Get them back here, NOW!"

He/She looked out again. Pete was halfway to Kitty. Kitty was on the ground reaching with one hand for the kid with wings while holding the other and-

He screamed. Bedroom. He screamed again, straining at the bonds. The feeling cut out. He flopped back to the mattress. Somehow one hand was free. He turned his head and puked on the mattress.

"The fire zone," she said quietly. "I hope that you enjoyed it as much as I did."

He watched a small trickle of blood emerge from her nose. Everything went red, then black.

He woke up in a bed. Something had happened, something that had involved being tied up and the blonde woman from the white room who could read minds. He moved his legs. They weren't bound. He was naked, but at least there was a sheet. There was a pair of steel shears embedded in the mattress at the foot of the bed. There was also a painfully thin kid sitting on the dresser, wearing a sleeveless t-shirt and shorts.

"What-" he said.

"Made her make you forget," said the kid.

"Forget what?" he said.

"Don't want to know," said the kid. "Hear you're with us."

"You were the kid I saw run into the bush," he said.

"Heard you yelling in the car," said the kid. "Name's Lee."

"Marc," he said.

"Heard you were one of them," said Lee.

"I was," he said.

"Why'd you quit?" said Lee.

"Didn't want to kill kids anymore," he said.

"Wish you'd decided that sooner," said Lee.

He looked away, searching for his pants.

"Sorry," said Lee. "Cheap shot."

"What's your deal?" he said.

"Turn off meta-attributes," said Lee.

"Like her mind-reading?" he said, putting on his shirt.

"Like that," said Lee. "Got another one too."

"What's that?" he said.

"This," said Lee, reaching behind his neck.

He froze. Lee wasn't there anymore. Instead, there was something uglier than the moon with eyes. Its head was green and flaccid and had yellow multi-pupiled eyes. Damp purple tissues throbbed asynchronously on the sides of its neck. A thin spindly green arm flicked a switch behind its neck and the thin boy re-appeared.

"What-" he said.

"Look like that," said Lee. "Don't like getting stared at."

"Shit," he said, still unmoving.

"Might be able to find one for you," said Lee. "Could pass for white."

"The woman-" he said.

"Name's Emma," said Lee. "Looks like that. No enhancer needed."

An image of Emma appeared in mid-air. She was dressed in a white leather suit that left little to the imagination. He had thoughts that he'd never had about a blonde woman before. The image flickered off, revealing the other kid standing in the doorway.

"Ah, my name's Marc," he said.

The letters M, A, R, and K appeared, floating in the air.

"With a 'C'," he said.

A 'C' appeared, and then the letters rearranged themselves in space, somehow becoming ARTIE.

"He can't speak," said Lee.

"Let's see you," he said. "No enhance-thing."

Artie reached behind his neck and the moon head appeared. He took a deep breath. Artie smiled. He forced himself to smile back, and it wasn't as hard as he thought it would be.

Lee gave him the sitrep, and it left him uneasy. Use of the telephone was forbidden, which made sense. Going outside was unwise but he pointed out that, if they were watched from orbit, his car would be seen. Lee let him move it into the garage. He pointed out that he would be missed if he didn't call in later in the day. Lee shrugged, and said he'd talk about it with Emma later. He asked where the people who owned the house were. Lee said that Emma had made them go on vacation for two weeks. He asked how many days of food they had. Lee didn't know. He asked how long they were planning to hide. Lee didn't answer. He suggested that he would drive them to a safe house. Lee refused. He asked what Lee could do to stop him. Lee suggested that Emma would, and could at long distances. If he didn't want to die on the road, he should stay within sight of the house.

"It's crazy to stay here," he said. "You're too damn close to the security perimeter."

"She's gotten rid of them before," said Lee.

"They might declare martial law," he said. "If they do, they'll put up checkpoints on the highways and it will be harder to get out."

"She doesn't want to," said Lee.

"Doesn't want to or can't?" he said.

Lee shrugged.

"When was the last time you guys had a real meal?" he asked.

"Before," said Lee.

"We should make an inventory of food," he said. "Clean this place up. This isn't our house."

Lee shrugged again. Artie flashed an image. He saw himself in it, dressed in a lime green 50s dress with a kerchief on his head and standing in a gleaming white steel kitchen.

"No way," he said, a smile crossing his face

The image changed to one of him in fatigues, brandishing a broom against a giant snarling monster made of cereal boxes and unwashed plates.

"I think there's something missing, guys," he said.

Two smaller figures appeared beside him in the image, also clad in fatigues and brandishing smaller brooms.

"You got it," he said.

"Fine," grumbled Lee.

"Come on," he said. "What if this was your house? What, did you grow up in a hole in the ground or something?"

"Yes," said Lee. "I did."

It took them all morning and part of the afternoon to clean all of the dishes that had been used. Every time that he seemed to be making a dent in the vast pile, Artie would bring him more cups or plates. From the cheese stains, they seemed to have been living on microwaved nachos. He set Lee to cleaning the bathroom and making a list of the food that they had. He could have used another pair of hands, but neither Artie nor Lee were tall enough to reach the sink, and he felt no desire to ask Emma to come down and help. After the dishes, had run the vacuum through the living room and the place looked half as clean as his mother's.

He sat down at the kitchen table with Lee, and looked at the list. It would have been quicker just to look on his own, but he had needed something to keep Lee busy. It didn't look good.

"You guys had any fruits or vegetables lately?" he said.

"Some," said Lee.

Artie projected a corn chip.

"Anything else?" he asked. "Anything fresh?"

"Ran out of salsa," said Lee.

Artie projected a fruit bowl with two spotted bananas and a small orange in them.

"That's it?" he said. "What about meat?"

"Had meat," said Lee.

Artie projected a can of Spam, then another, then another, until the room started to fill up with the things.

"That much?" he said.

A huge calendar appeared with the word 'December' on it. It was flipped away by an invisible hand to reveal red flashing 'Y2K'. He'd thought the cans looked a bit dusty. He hadn't been able to touch Spam since his school trip to the Spam plant, but the thought of eating Spam as old as Y2K brought on a wave of nausea.

"And that's what she's been eating?" he said.

"Found some vitamins, too," said Lee, nodding.

"What about-" he started, but Lee held up his hand.

"Want to help?" said Lee. "Come."

He followed Lee out of the room and with mounting fear as they went up the stairs to the white room. She was sitting up on the mattress, looking at them with blue eyes that had whites tinged with red. He thought of the picture that Artie had flashed, of the woman in the white leather suit. If her hair were cleaned and brushed, if she were sitting up straight instead of slumped against the wall, if the small trickle of dried blood from her nose hadn't been there, he could have made the connection. She hadn't looked this bad when he was tied to the bed.

"I need to go to the bathroom," she said to him. "You'll have to help me down the stairs."

As he did, he wondered how she had managed it. She could barely stand without help, and Lee didn't seem large enough.

"He's stronger than he looks," she said.

He supported her weight with a hand around her waist. He could feel that she was not diet-thin, but athlete-thin, the kind of thin that he was, all muscle and skin, no fat at all.

"I've been lucky," she said.

He felt himself flush.

"At least you haven't imagined fucking me yet," she said.

He almost dropped her, and tried to think of anything but how she might look under all that thick cotton.

"Typical," she muttered.

At the bathroom door, she managed to stand on her own, supported by the doorframe.

"That's all," she said.

Lee followed her in and closed the door. He sat in a kitchen chair and waited. He heard panting. He heard moans. He could hear the television in the other room, where Artie was watching it. Fifteen minutes later, the door opened and Lee came out, grim-faced.

"Need you again," said Lee.

Going up the stairs was harder, as she stumbled twice. He didn't have time to think of what she looked like or felt like, and she seemed to be laboring too much to make it worth her while to tell him. She collapsed onto the mattress in the white room.

"You care," she said. "How sweet."

She closed her eyes, and appeared to fall asleep immediately. He followed Lee back down the stairs.

"We've got to talk," he said.

"About what?" said Lee.

"About what's wrong with her," he said. "Did she get hurt in the fighting?"

"Meaning did she get hit by a shell?" said Lee.

"Yes," he said between gritted teeth.

"No," said Lee.

"That is one seriously sick woman," he said.

"Just needs rest," said Lee.

"Like hell," he said. "Didn't you hear her panting on the stairs? Can't you tell how she smells? It's not just that she needs a bath."

"Can't smell," said Lee.

"This food isn't helping with whatever it is," he said.

"How'd you know?" said Lee.

"I helped look after my grandmother when she got old, before we had to put her in the home," he said. "I know sick. Emma's sick."

"Solomon-Barr," said Lee.

"What's that?" he said.

"Something 'paths get," said Lee.

"So what is it?" he said.

"Don't know," said Lee. "Only said it once."

He looked at Lee. Lee didn't appear to be lying, but then he couldn't really see Lee's face. Even if he could, he wouldn't have known what to look for.

An image appeared between them, of him climbing into a cartoon car and driving to a big square box with the word 'help' written on it. He saw Artie standing in the living room doorway.

"You've done a good job so far," he said to Lee. "You've kept her alive."

"Go," said Lee.

He was surprised to see that the enhancer could simulate tears.

The drive into Dayton was uneventful. He passed some Army trucks on the road, but they were all going towards the farm. He reached Dayton at 4, and had an hour to hit the library before it closed. He found some books on telepaths, but most seemed to be sensational, offering no useful information. He tried Britannica, and that pointed him to a book in Reference. He found the entry on Solomon-Barr Disease, and left the library at a run. He almost didn't stop for food but then, when he thought of what he'd read, he did. On the way out, he saw a phone booth and remembered that he was supposed to call in.

"What the hell are you doing in Dayton?" said one of the Quakers.

"Had to see the fire zone," he said.

The reply was unintelligible.

"Are you completely fucking out of your fucking mind?" said Madrox, breaking in.

"I found someone," he said. "Someone who could make me forget I saw her, and someone who could stop her from making me forget."

"Holy shit," said Madrox. "Holy fucking shit. Where are they?"

"Too close," he said.

"Get them out," he said.

"She's got SB," he said.

"SB?" said Madrox. "What the hell's that? No, wait, don't say any more. Do what you can. Call me tomorrow, early."

He drove as fast as he could safely go back to the house. All the way back, he expected to see MPs blocking the road, leaping out of the bushes, pointing M-16s in his face. Instead, the checkpoint he'd seen the day before was gone. When he reached the house he left the food in the car and tore past Lee, heading straight for her room.

"She's sleeping," he heard Lee say from below.

She was sleeping, curled up under the sheets, just like the day before. He hesitated. He heard Lee on the stairs behind him. He crouched down beside her and touched her cheek. Her eyes opened. They were a remarkable shade of blue, almost gray. The whites weren't white. They were yellow, and shot with blood. He heard Lee come in behind him.

"Ma'am," he said.

"Well, now we both know," said Emma.

"I've got food," he said.

"Lee, get it from the car," she said.

He turned. Lee was trying to conceal a steak knife.

"Please," said Emma.

Lee's eyes widened, then he turned and left.

"I've got fruit, I've got meat, I've-", he said.

"I couldn't send him," she said. "He would never have made it."

"How bad is it?" he said.

"Pretty bad," she said. "I think I've been switching back and forth between alpha and beta stages since yesterday. I was in alpha until I blasted you."

He turned away.

"Lee saved us both," she said.

"He's a good kid," he said.

"I didn't tell him the details about SB," she said.

"The book said it was rare," he said.

"It is," she said. "It's just that most telepaths aren't locked into a mind when it's blown apart."

"Oh," he said.

"We weren't expecting that," she said. "We had SAMs, we had TOWs, we had beam weapons, but no-one thought you would use artillery. All that effort, and we couldn't do a thing to protect ourselves. You took out all the beam weapons and half our aircraft in the first salvo by sheer luck."

"What was that place?" he asked.

"A nest of terrorists," she said. "Killers. We kept children to slaughter in case you attacked, so we might get good press."

"I couldn't believe him when he said that," he said.

"Killing hostages can be an effective tactic, though not one I would use," she said.

"It is?" he said.

"Where life is cheap," she said. "The farm was a refuge, not a base for any kind of fighting force. A place where our kind could hide if they couldn't live in plain sight. We were there for the July 4 celebration. More of us than I've seen in one place in ages. I told them it was a stupid thing to do in a political climate like this, but they never listen to me."

"Onslaught," he said. "That was one of you."

"It was," she said. "But we were the ones who beat him. The man who was Onslaught wasn't even there. All my kids were."

"Your kids," he said.

"You shot one," she said.

His mouth was dry. He couldn't look at her.

"He was dying in terrible pain," she said. "It was almost a merciful act."

"Almost," he said.

"One part of me knows that there would be no justice if he had gone on," she said. "Another part would have had him kill you all, in which case I'd end up lying here and drowning in my own bile. Funny how that works out, isn't it?"

"No," he said. "It fucking stinks."

"Yes," she agreed. "It does."

They sat in silence. He heard the sounds of grocery bags being brought into the kitchen.

"You need to eat," he said.

"Yes," she said.

"I'll make it as palatable as I can," he said.

"Don't worry," she said. "I've had worse. Thank you."

She said the last words in a voice so low that he barely heard them.

He had intended to watch her eat the liver, but as soon as he had tipped it out of its tub, all he could think of was the dead old man lying in a puddle of guts in the hallway of the house. When he had finished throwing up, he found that Lee had taken it up to her on his own. He stayed in the kitchen and set to making sandwiches for the kids. He laid lettuce over sliced tomatoes over sliced breast of chicken over mayonnaise over brown bread. He took another handful of bread slices to lay on top and finish when he froze. One slice of lettuce was almost the same as the tarp that covered the body of the anatomy lesson/Kitty. He shook his head, wondering where the name had come from. There was something thin and pale sticking out from under the lettuce. Logic said chicken but to his eyes it looked like a tiny, Barbie-doll-sized hand and arm. There was something red running from underneath not pale like tomato but dark like blood. He reached for the lettuce and a bolt of pain shot across his forehead. He grunted and collapsed to the floor, burying his head in his hands and trying to make the pain go away. All of a sudden, it did. He rose to his feet shaking, back to the counter. He closed his eyes and turned back to the sandwiches. He opened his eyes and looked at lettuce over tomato over chicken over mayonnaise over bread. He shook his head, wondering what on earth had just happened. He put a last slice of bread on each of the sandwiches and set to making himself an omelet.

When Lee returned, they ate in silence. There were no more words during the dishes, until Artie went back into the living room to watch TV.

"Fucked up," said Lee.

"You did your best," he said.

"Shells falling everywhere," said Lee. "She got us out."

"It's over a mile to the next highway," he said.

"She carried me part of the way," said Lee. "Wouldn't have saved her."

"But you did," he said.

"Got lucky," said Lee. "Know what they did when they got to the compound?"

"No," he said.

He had the oddest idea that he ought to know what had happened, but that somehow he had forgotten.

"Most of us were hiding in the barn," said Lee. "Shelled it with white phosphorous."

He remembered Velasquez and Fred loading the WP shells into the breech. He remembered the lectures on the shit, how it stuck to the flesh like chewing gum and burst into an unextinguishable flame almost immediately, burning white hot until even the bones were ash.

"Did she tell you what I did?" he said.

"Some of it," said Lee.

"Did she tell you how I felt about it?" he said.

"Some of it," said Lee.

"Then can we fucking stop talking about it?" he snarled. "Are your own hands so clean?"

"No," said Lee.

"So what's really important here?" he said. "What's the mission?"

"To save Emma," said Lee.

"To save Emma," he repeated.

He put his hand to shake, then almost pulled back when Lee's tiny, moist, sticky hand grasped it. He didn't pull back. Lee shook it solemnly, and did not return his smile.

The Hero: Tiger By The Tail [3/5]

That evening, he wrote down all that he could recall about Solomon-Barr disease. He raged at himself as he wrote, wondering why he had raced back to the house without making a copy. The disease was essentially a stroke, held in check by some kind of telepathic immune response that attempted to rebuild the mind around the parts of the brain that had died. If the injury was small in scale, the brain would rebuild itself with no ill effects beyond a very bad headache. Otherwise, the telepathic immune response could trigger the formation of waste products that would overwhelm parts of the immune system and cause damage to the kidneys, liver, and bone marrow. In the alpha or semi-stable state, there was a kind of equilibrium that produced either a slow decay or a slow recovery. If the patient were placed into an isolated environment (undefined), a telepath who was telekinetic and a trained surgeon could produce a recovery in 90% of all patients. If the patient engaged in strenuous telepathic ability (undefined), the immune response could go wild, causing further brain damage and possible death due to liver failure, kidney failure, or gross liquefaction of brain tissue. In this beta state, the patient could not enforce standard projective or receptive telepathic barriers (undefined), and death could occur without warning. Apart from telepathic surgery, the treatment appeared to be isolation from sensory stimulation, refraining from high-level telepathy (undefined), and a high protein diet. Raw liver and fresh leafy vegetables were recommended as emergency treatments. The book recommended that the patient's temperature and blood pressure be taken hourly, and that all bodily orifices be examined for signs of unusual discharges (undefined). It also recommended bloodwork and the administration of steroids every six hours (impossible).

He set down his pen and closed his eyes. It was too much. He had no idea where the nearest hospital was where she might find treatment, and also had no doubts that treatment would end with her in custody or worse. He had found a sphygmomanometer and a stethoscope, covered with dust in the bottom of the bathroom cabinet, as well as a thermometer. He would have to count on Madrox being able to line something up. They couldn't count on serendipity forever. He found a pen and a ruler and began making up a table to keep track of her vital signs.

The next day, he drove to a food market just over the state line in Indiana. After picking up more liver and vegetables, he called the contact number. Madrox answered on the first ring.

"How is she?" said Madrox.

"Light fever," he said. "She said she thought she was in the beta state last night."

"Is that the good one?" asked Madrox.

"No," he said.

"Shit," said Madrox.

There was a long silence.

"She needs help," he said. "Some kind of surgery."

"I know that," said Madrox. "Problem is, they didn't find a body. They're looking for her."

"Can you do it outside a hospital?" he asked.

"No," said Madrox. "And you can't go to just any hospital, either."

"Then what can we do?" he said.

"Keep her stable until tomorrow, then meet me at any restaurant just north of Xenia on US 68," said Madrox. "Park in front. I'll look for your car."

Madrox hung up. He kicked furiously at some gravel. A passing middle-aged man told him to leave the gravel alone.

The rest of the day quickly slipped into a routine. He prepared food and cleaned up afterwards. He helped Lee when she had to go to the bathroom. Lee handled the feeding and took her temperature and blood pressure. Artie watched television. By six, he realized that he hadn't said more than ten words to the three of them all day.

He made sure that he was waiting when Lee came back downstairs after her evening meal.

"Anything new?" he asked.

"No," said Lee.

"Her temperature the same?" he asked.

"Yes," said Lee. "Go see for yourself?"

"I trust you," he said, flushing.

"Don't understand why she didn't ask me to do this stuff before you came," said Lee.

"SB can lead to minor derangement," he lied.

"Wasn't on your list," said Lee.

"Forgot," he said.

"Sure," said Lee.

"Look, what about Artie?" he said.

"What about Artie?" said Lee.

"He's watched TV all day," he said.

"Yes," said Lee.

"Is that normal?" he asked.

"Yes," said Lee. "Things as they are."

"What does that mean?" he asked.

"Doesn't have a lot to say," said Lee. "Might have noticed that."

"Yeah, amazingly I did," he said.

"Just lost half his friends," said Lee. "Knows you helped do it."

"Thanks for telling him," he said. "Doesn't seem to be affecting you as much."

"Seen worse," said Lee.

"Worse," he said.

"Yes," said Lee.

"Your parents?" he said.

"Never knew them," said Lee. "Got raised in a hole. All of Lee's real family got killed in the hole."

"What I did," he said.

"No," said Lee. "Different hole."

"Shit," he said.

"Yes," said Lee, leaving the room to join Artie in front of the television.

Late that night, he took her temperature for the third time. Artie and Lee were still beside the TV downstairs, but had fallen asleep in each other's arms. Their real bodies were smaller than what the enhancers projected, so they looked as if they had partially melted into each other. For some odd reason this reminded him of the story of Sambo that he'd heard as a kid at the Minot library, so he didn't look at them for long.

Emma had barely awakened when he slipped the thermometer into her mouth. He looked around the white room, illuminated by the tiny lamp on the floor beside her pillow. He checked his watch. It was 4 am. He leant back against the wall and closed his eyes for a moment.

He was playing a game, the one that had the rotating thing that James Bond played in casinos, except that there were people in the slots where the ball should have fallen. He/she knew them. They were screaming. He/she couldn't move. There was another figure there, in the centre, glowing and babbling in a voice like that the one the English guy in Die Hard had. The figure reached out and touched a screaming girl who he/she thought was the most beautiful of all and the girl spasmed and corrupted and disintegrated and then all the other children spasmed and corrupted and liquefied and she/he screamed and screamed and screamed and he/she was in the middle, eating and eating and eating and the hunger that was so much he/she had to go to sleep so she/he was in bed face forced into the pillow that hadn't been washed white pillow dark as night warm thing too large not there hurts hurts HURTS-

"Daddy!" they screamed.

His heart was pounding. His mouth was full of blood. He spat it out. He was in the white room. His spit landed on her cheek, cream-colored. She coughed weekly and spat blood.

"What's that?" he said, pointing.

"Blood and glass and mercury," she said. "Didn't anyone ever tell you not to put a thermometer in the mouth of someone who's asleep?"

She spat. There were little ovoids of shimmering silvery metal in among the blood.

"Better wipe that up," she said.

"What the fuck-" he said.

"Welcome to my nightmare," she said.

"It was your dream?" he said.

"Can't ever escape the past," she said. "You dreamed about your dead twice last night."

"I did?" he said.

"Yes," she said, spitting out a bit more glass. "You won't any more, though. Get an electronic thermometer tomorrow."

"Someone did that to you," he said.

"He was drunk," she said.

"Shit," he said.

"He only did it the once," she said as he wondered how many times. "Then they sent me to a mental hospital for kids and it happened every night."

"Couldn't you tell-" he said.

"I did," she said. "The psychiatrist I told buggered me on his couch. I had to escape to get away."

"That's terrible," he said.

"Yes," she said. "It is terrible."

"I'm sorry," he said.

"Go fuck yourself," she said.

"What?" he said.

"Fuck you and fuck your pity," she said. "That's the only reason those shits didn't throw me to the government and the vault. They felt sorry for me, so they set it up so I could go through losing them again."

"I don't-" he said.

"Fuck off," she said.

"I've got to do your blood pressure," he said.

"Get Lee to do it," she said. "He's coming up right now."

He met Lee on the stairs. Lee glared at him but said nothing.

He drove to the meet early in the morning. He stopped at a Denny's, just north of Xenia. He had been waiting for over twenty minutes for a seat in the half-empty restaurant when Madrox arrived in an Explorer. They were seated five minutes later at the McDonalds across the highway.

"It's all coming apart," said Madrox, who looked like he hadn't slept all night. "We think there's a mole in our organization. Either that or they got someone to talk. We have to get her out of the country."

"How?" he said.

"Can't fly her out, they're watching the airports, and there's spot-checks on the Interstates," said Madrox. "The ACLU is going nuts, but the Army and the Air Force have the press on their side. You've got to get her to a rendezvous near Chicago. We can get a driver to meet you there, get them out to Canada."

"Haven't you guys got spaceships and shit?" he asked.

"We had some," he said. "You guys blew half of them up."

"I'm really getting sick of this 'you guys' shit," he snarled. "My guys are back in that house riding my ass about it all the fucking time."

"She's a hard one to deal with," said Madrox, trying to suppress a grin.

"Fuck, yeah," he said. "So why not a spaceship?"

"All committed to other tasks," said Madrox.

"So how are we supposed to get her there?" he said. "They won't fit in the Corolla."

"In the Explorer," said Madrox, pushing the keys across. "The car's been reported stolen, anyhow. Some of your neighbours back in Chillicothe reported a black man driving off in it."

"So I'm supposed to drive her to Chicago," he said.

"Valparaiso," said Madrox. "Maps are inside."

"You trust me to do this," he said.

"We don't have anyone else who's been telepathically vetted more recently than you," said Madrox. "Hell, I'd do it myself if I wasn't so overextended. If there's more than 32 of me walking around, some of them can get lost."

"Shit," he said.

"You're doing fine," said Madrox. "You pull this off and you'll have done something ten times more heroic than anything you've done so far."

"Sure," he said.

"Nobody ever said being a hero was ever easy," said Madrox.

"That's what they said in basic training," he said.

"They're right about some things," said Madrox.

"One thing," he said.

"Shoot," said Madrox. "Sorry."

"Who made it?" he said. "From the farm."

"Why?" said Madrox.

"She doesn't know," he said.

"I can't tell you everything I know," he said. "We haven't gotten everyone to safety yet."

"Anything," he said.

"Moonstar, Proudstar, and Sinclair made it out," said Madrox. "We don't know what happened to MacTaggert or Edna McCoy. All three Braddocks disappeared. Sam Guthrie we don't know. Paige and Angelo made it, da Costa we think got captured. Lee and Starsmore didn't make it. Starsmore's the one you shot. Worthington got taken out by a missile. McCoy got out, Celia got out, most of me got out."

"Xavier?" he had no idea of where the name had come from.

"Wasn't even there," said Madrox.

"Cassidy?" he said, as the image of a man in a cable-knit came to him.

"You took his room in Chillicothe," said Madrox.

He remembered the man in bandages who had to be helped to the car on the day that he'd arrived.

"It wasn't as bad as it looked," said Madrox.

"Relative to what?" he said.

"Paige Guthrie or Hank McCoy," he said. "Paige lost a leg below the knee."

"Bobby Drake," he said, wondering where that name had come from.

"Made it," said Madrox.

He felt relief flow through him.

"Jean Grey?" he said.

He had to look away from the answer written in anguish across Madrox's silent face, but deep inside something warmed to the news.

They were on the road by 10. He had Artie and Lee clean the house as best they could, while he helped Emma prepare for the trip. She tried to walk to the car, but stumbled halfway there and he had to carry her. She was remarkably heavy.

"Muscle mass," she told him. "It's denser than fat."

The Explorer was equipped with everything they needed including medical diagnostic equipment, travel food, DeLorme atlases of all relevant states, a rackful of CDs for the sound system, and a new set of passports. There was even a pair of GameBoys and 20 or so cartridges for Artie and Lee.

She fell asleep almost immediately as he drove out the driveway. As they drove through Logansport six hours later, she awoke and asked him a question.

"Why do you speak that way?" she asked.

"Speak which way?" he asked.

"Like the people in Fargo did," she said.

"You mean the movie," he said.

"Yes," she said.

"Why don't you read my mind and find out?" he said.

"I've been trying," she said.

"And?" he said.

"I don't understand," she said. "It's not like reading a book."

"It's the way we all talk," he said. "My sisters, me, everyone in Minot."

"But you're not like everyone in Minot," she said.

"No," he said. "So what you really want to know is why I don't talk like a nigger."

"Yes," she said.

"Because I don't know how to," he said. "Never heard much of that growing up. My mom came from Jamaica. She went to high school somewhere in Canada, hated it and met my dad after she moved to Syracuse. He was in the Air Force. His folks were northern, they didn't speak like niggers either."

"And you don't want to," she said.

"Why should I?" he said.

"Your sister Catherine does," she said.

"Catherine does a lot of things," he said, gripping the wheel very tightly.

"You didn't get angry when Eliza became pregnant," she said.

"That was different," he said.

"Neither of them knew who-", she said.

"I know that, but Eliza was older," he said.

"You threw a chair," she said.

"I got upset," he said.

"Not something that happens often is it?" she said.

"No," he hissed, staring straight ahead down the highway.

"When she was born, you asked your mother if she'd bought Catherine at McCrory's," she said. "You asked if she could be returned."

He stamped on the brake and swerved onto the shoulder.

"I was four years old," he said.

"She's a beautiful young woman," she said.

"What the fuck is your point?" he said.

"Feeling attracted to your sister is natural," she said.

He stared at her. Tiny sparks seemed to start bursting across the blood-red fog that descended across his vision. He threw open the door without looking. A loud blare came from the horn of a swerving car. He stepped out into the road without looking and shut the door but somehow it slammed. He walked away from the car, along the shoulder. The fog gradually lifted. From somewhere behind, he heard a door open. He looked back and saw Lee jump out. He turned his back and increased his pace. The road sloped down, and soon he was in a small hollow out of sight of the Explorer. There was corn on both sides of the road. There were no other cars in sight. He picked up a large rock and threw it as hard as he could into the field. He picked up another and threw it. Then another. He picked up a handful of gravel and began to throw it, pebble by pebble, into the stalks. He looked up and saw Lee standing at the top of the hollow, hesitating. He threw another pebble into the corn, then a few more as Lee made his way towards him.

"Can't let her get to you," said Lee.

He threw another rock.

"Good woman, not nice," said Lee.

"No shit," he said, throwing another pebble.

"You never touched your sister," Lee stated.

"I _know_ I never did, just like I know my father never did the things to me that I can't stop thinking about now," he said. "Don't believe me, do you?"

"I do," said Lee.

"Why?" he said. "Why should you believe me when I fucking killed all your friends?"

"Instinct," said Lee. "Getting the same thoughts, ridiculous. No orifice there, no genitals that anyone's ever been able to find. Couldn't do those things if I tried. Still remember doing them. Artie, too."

"They're from her?" he said.

"No projective telepathic barriers," said Lee.

"Artie," he said, dropping the rest of the pebbles.

"Doesn't understand," said Lee. "She can't stop it. Games and the TV distract him."

"Oh man," he said.

"Don't bother asking her to apologize," said Lee.

"Come on," he said.

"It was a long walk for me from the truck," said Lee.

He picked Lee up, trying not to cringe when he did so.

"Thank you," said Lee.

At the truck, Artie was waiting. The image of all four of them in the car appeared in front of him.

"Yeah, sure," he said.

When he climbed back into the driver's seat, he tried not to look at her. She seemed to be asleep again. He tried to remember whether or not it was possible for someone to weep in their sleep.

Outside Valparaiso, he found the mailbox in front of the abandoned house on the country back road. There was no car there to meet him. Instead, there was an envelope that had GO THROUGH CHICAGO NOW NO INTERSTATES CROSS BRIDGES IN CITIES OPEN ENVELOPE IN AURORA ON OTHER SIDE OF RIVER written across it. He didn't bother to wake Emma up to tell her. No-one stopped them or followed them as far as he could tell. In Aurora, he crossed the river by the casino. Once he'd crossed it, he stopped in the parking lot of a motel on the western edge of town and opened the envelope.

If you're reading this, you're safe for the moment, it said. It told him that the network had been hit again by an FBI counter-terrorist operation, and the driver who was to have met them had gone underground. It told him to head for Canada, not through Detroit of Buffalo but instead through the Manitoba/North Dakota border. It told him to drive during the day so as to avoid spot checks at night. It told him to expect no help before he arrived at the Fort Gary United Church in Winnipeg. It told him not to use the credit cards, but instead to use the $3000 in cash hidden under the spare tire. It was signed JM 1101.

He rented two motel rooms. He set up Artie and Lee in a room at the far end of the motel, and told them not to stay up too late watching TV. He returned to the other room with the special medikit from out of the truck. She hadn't said a word to him since the afternoon.

"Bloodwork," he said.

He opened the kit. There was a needle there. He didn't know how to draw blood. He found a paper with instructions, but she took the kit from him while he was reading them. She took a length of rubber hose out of it. She pulled up the sleeve of her sweatshirt and wrapped the hose around her biceps. Holding one end of the hose with her teeth, she put a slipknot into it and tightened it. She gripped the kit in that hand while she prepared the needle with the other. As the veins came up, she tapped them expertly and then slid the needle into one of them with a quick, efficient gesture. The glass vacuum cylinder attached to the needle began to fill with blood. He winced.

"It's no big thing," she said.

"Never liked needles," he said.

She snorted.

"Bandage," she said, withdrawing the needle and connecting the blood-filled cylinder to the medikit.

He undid a bandage and put it over the hole. It turned dark with blood. She looked at the analyzer and frowned.

"Platelets a bit low," she said. "Otherwise normal. I'm still in alpha."

"Why did you do that?" he asked.

"Do what?" she said, lightly.

"Push me," he said. "Back in the truck."

"I was just testing your limits," she said.

"Why?" he said. "You knew what I was thinking after I pulled over."

"You were thinking of picking me up by my neck and smashing my face into the dashboard," she said.

"You know I'd never do that to my sister," he said.

"I know," she said. "I also hoped that you wouldn't attack me."

"Hoped?" he said.

"Hard to be certain," she said.

"But what would you do if I had?" he said. "Kill me? Just wait for them to come and pick you up by the side of the road?"

"But you didn't," she said.

"You are one crazy-" he said, losing the word. "Woman."

"Bitch," she said. "You wanted to say bitch."

"I don't like that word," she said.

"You are one self-righteous little prig, you know that?" she said. "I'd almost think you were Canadian."

"Fuck," he said. "Lee said you were good but not nice. Would it kill you to be nice? I'm only trying to save your fucking life."

"You don't understand me," she said. "You think I'm good."

"Well, yeah," he said. "Looking after those kids. Surviving all that."

She started to smile. It was worse than the burned thing, rising from the floor. He started to recoil, then froze, unable to move. The smile became something even worse.

"Good?" she whispered.

He sat down. He didn't want to.

"Remember the dream?" she said. "Daddy buggered me first, then he found the right spot, then he sent me to Silver Hill. I already told you about that. I didn't tell you that they buggered me through all nine months of my pregnancy. They got rid of it. Daddy sent it to an orphanage in Switzerland, then he died and left all his money to it. He even named it. It hates me. I hated it."

He tried to say something. She didn't let him.

"I escaped after they backed off my thorazine during the delivery," she said. "I wandered out of the grounds. I didn't know what to do. I'd never looked after myself, never even made a meal for myself. I got picked up by a pimp. He raped me and put me to work. He showed me all about heroin. As you can see, I've got some experience with needles. I did it in the arm until I noticed it was killing business. Then I started on my feet. I hate it when people look at my feet."

She undid the hose from her arm and put it away in the medikit.

"You don't have to worry about AIDS," she said. "I didn't catch it from a john by sheer dumb luck. I didn't get it from a needle because I always used clean kit. I used my own needles and didn't share with the other losers because I didn't want any nigger blood in me."

He felt the strength leave his limbs, but still could not move.

"I got arrested and crash detoxed," she said. "The heroin stopped me from reading minds. They all came in. They sent me to another mental hospital. Some guy in a wheelchair came to see me, he could read minds. When he left, I could tell what he thought. He was one of the few who didn't want to fuck me. Useless. That's what he thought. I was useless. Fucking bastard."

She bent over and put her head between her knees. She sat up a moment later, eyes full of tears.

"Another man came to see me," she said. "He wanted to fuck me, but he didn't think I was useless. He got me into a detox program, and had me given some proper psychosurgery. They taught me to put the barriers in. He taught me things. He made me into what I am today. He made me strong, like he was."

"Xavier?" he said, still unable to move.

"I'm leaking," she said. "No, Xavier was the one who left me to rot. I'm talking about Sebastian Shaw. Shaw Industries. He helped me start Frost International."

"Emma Frost," he said thinking of the woman in the white leather suit who was seen at the glamorous movie premieres on Entertainment Tonight. A woman who spoke to presidents. The woman who had taken Wall Street.

"Taken is right," she said. "I built that company on 5 years worth of the best insider information I could get. I made it into the Forbes 500 and it was never enough. Never enough money. I spent more than twice what your mother will earn in her life on dinner for 12, once, just so I could seduce a man who I thought I loved. He turned out to be a British agent, and I had to kill him. Poor James."

She wrapped her arms around herself, tightly. He found that he could move slightly, with effort.

"Once, Sebastian and I started a war," she said. "We wanted an oil concession off the coast of Africa, and the president of the little shithole concerned decided not to let us have it because dealing with white folks didn't fit in with his idea of socialism, which as far I could see mostly consisted of using the works of Stalin to fabricate excuses for killing his enemies. We found the chief of the second biggest tribe in the country, or what was left of it, in Paris. I offered him my cunt, my mouth, and my asshole for a night if he would take the country and give us the concessions. He goes off and starts a civil war that only gets mentioned in the New York times on page A19 because of the then-unusual habit he had of identifying members of the president's tribe by hacking their hands off. He won after over 70 thousand people lost their lives. I gave him his evening telepathically, then slit his throat with a broken magnum of Moet and Chandon. His successor gave us the concession and we used the money to buy the Massachusetts Academy."

"The school that Artie and Lee went to," he said.

"Yes," she said. "They did. We needed meat, mutant meat for soldiers. Surrogates. Pawns. Shaw gave them to me to play with. I did play with them. I have a kink, you see. It's not a common one in women. I like to fuck children. Well, not children really. From first body hair until maybe 15, 16. Both kinds."

"No," he said.

She looked at him, staring straight at him with ice cold eyes.

"Yes," she said. "Whether they wanted me to or not. I didn't give them a choice. Did you know I loved them, too? I thought I was doing them a favour, all my children, showing them how bad it could be, stripping them down to the essential part that would survive. That was my excuse. I never leashed my desires, not until Christina. She was one of my first. I liked to use a whip on her. She took it so well, or so I thought. Then, one day, she mindcalled me and when I linked I saw the quad coming up so very fast, a moment before the rope went taut and wrenched her head clean off. She'd called me in mid-leap from the tower."

"You've had this before," he said. "The disease."

"Oh no," she said with a small, breathless chuckle. "I was lucky that time. All I knew was that I had become my father. I swore never to do it again. Never to anyone under the age of 18. I found my daughter. I went to see her. She was almost the very image of Christina, and she hated me as much. I bought her the best of clothes, which she tore apart. I bought her the best of psychiatric help, and she stabbed one and seduced the other. She's tried to kill me twice and probably will try again, if I live."

"Lee," he said.

She snorted.

"You've got to be kidding," she said.

"The wheel with those kids in it," he said. "In our dream."

"The wheel," she whispered. "A madman killed them all, all my little loves. He killed them in front of me and I suppose I went a little bit mad. Xavier found me and promised me vengeance. Eventually, I had it. They never trusted me, of course. They made me a deal. If I swore never to touch another person under the age of 20, they'd let me get my vengeance and keep my businesses and my school. If I did touch another child, they'd cut me. Cut me off. Cut my connection to the world."

"Kill you," he said.

"Worse," she said.

"Make you a vegetable," he said.

"If only," she said. "No, in a cut your mind stays alive but the connection to the body is gone. You can't move, not even your eyes. You breathe through a tube. You shit and piss through tubes. You stare at a white ceiling or a television screen set to whatever the nurses think you want to see for the rest of your life. That was the choice. They needed me. Xavier needed me to run a school for young mutants."

"You kept your word," he said.

"That sadistic fuck," she said. "It was like locking a kid in a candy store for a week with water and unleavened bread and the warning that if he even touches a candy he'll get his tongue cut out. He knew what he was doing. He needed a telepath, and he knew I'd do anything to protect any kids I had in my care. I kept my word. He even gave me a man to fuck, to watch over me. We tried once. Disaster. He still won't come within 6 feet of me. I killed all of his illusions."

"He's alive," he said.

"Who?" she said. "Oh. Oh God."

"I hate you," he said.

"So I'm not a good person," she said.

"No," he said.

Her grip released him.

"You-" he said.

"Bitch," she said, smiling.

He slept in the SUV, as he didn't want the kids to see what was burning within him.

The Hero: Baisez-Moi [4/5]

He awoke the next morning in the front seat of the truck with a backache and a stiff neck after two hours sleep. He stared at the door to her room for a good half hour, and wondered if there were some way to get away with Lee and Artie. As if on cue, her door opened, and she stood there, bleary-eyed. For a moment, it looked as if her eyes were bloodshot again, but as he looked closer he saw no signs of yellow. He got out of the SUV and brushed past her without speaking. He showered and shaved, and they were on the road by 9. They reached Minneapolis at 4 and crossed the Mississippi. Emma had not said a thing all day, sleeping almost all the time and refusing lunch. Lee told him that her vital signs were OK. He gripped the wheel, imagining her in agony. No one would blame him for taking a dying woman to an emergency ward and then going to lunch and not coming back.

As he entered Minnetonka, he was surprised to see a police cruiser pull in behind him and begin to flash its lights. He looked through the mirrors, and there were no other cars on the road. He began to sweat. He pulled the car over onto the shoulder. The cop turned off the flashing lights and got out of the cruiser. He found his license and read the name several times to make sure that he knew. The cop stood at the window of the car, face impassive, eyes hidden by shades.

"License," said the cop.

He handed it over.

"Get out and assume the position," said the cop.

"What did I do?" he said.

"Get out," said the cop, stepping back from the door and drawing a pistol.

He looked at where the cop was standing. He thought of opening the door suddenly and using it to knock the cop out. It almost certainly wouldn't work and there would be dozens of witnesses from the passing cars that had now appeared in great numbers. Many of the drivers and passengers were staring at the cop's gun.

"Get out," said the cop. "Last warning."

"What seems to be the problem, officer?" said Emma, sleepily.

Artie and Lee were with her, and Artie had an arm around her neck. They had done something with their image analyzers and now looked white, with blond hair. They might have passed for her sons, which he supposed was the idea. The cop lowered his pistol.

"Speeding," said the cop.

"He wasn't," said Lee. "I was looking at the speedometer. He was going slow and I told him he should go faster."

"He was speeding too slow," said the cop.

"Speeding too slow," said Emma. "Officer, I told him not to exceed the speed limit. He's a very good driver, very loyal. He does exactly what I tell him. He's driving me to the Mayo Clinic for a bone marrow transplant, and I asked him not to go any faster than the limit. I had my son here keeping an eye on him while I slept."

"Cancer?" said the cop.

"Leukaemia," she said.

"My little girl had leukaemia," said the cop.

"You poor man," said Emma. "I'm sorry if we've been a bother."

The cop handed back his license.

"Keep to the limit," said the cop.

"Yes, sir," he said.

Artie grabbed the license as he put up the window. An image of a huge birthday cake with a question mark in pink icing appeared.

"He's 20 today," said Lee, looking at the license. "Happy birthday."

He felt an irrational urge to reverse the SUV into the cruiser. She had to know.

"When's your birthday?" he asked.

"I don't know," said Lee. "Artie lets me use his. We share."

He glanced over at her, but she had appeared to have returned to sleep.

The sun was setting as he found a motel just the other side of Wilmarth. They had dinner, during which he was presented with a slice of angel food cake with chocolate icing, his favorite. Lee had explained that they couldn't have a sparkler because it would attract too much attention. After he had sent them to bed in their room, he went into her room with the bloodwork kit. She was waiting for him, sitting on the edge of the bed. She didn't look up. Long blonde hair hid her face.

"You know why I did it," she whispered.

"You read my mind," he said.

"What did you expect?" she said.

"How could you tell me those stories?" he said. "They were horrible."

"Yes, they were," she said.

He opened the kit, and sat down on the bed beside her. He took her arm and pulled up the sleeve. Her felt the muscles in her arm. He wrapped the hose around her biceps.

"It's not your birthday today," she said, not looking up.

"No," he said.

"It's next week," she said.

"Yes," he said.

She turned to him. She stared into his face. Her eyes were huge for her face. He could not tear his gaze away. She raised her hand to his face. He was vaguely aware of the hose falling from her arm.

"I'm not-" he said.

She was so fast, he didn't see it. She swept him into her lips and kissed him. Kissed him for the first time. He'd never been kissed. Not like that. So light, but when it ended-

"I love you," he said.

"I know," she said.

"I'm scared," he said.

"Me too," she said.

"Why?" he said.

"Love you too," she whispered. "So rare, so innocent."

He was trembling as he took her shoulders in his hands. He could feel the strength in them. Her eyes were the world. His hands found their way down from her shoulders to her breasts. They were firmer than he would have thought, but still soft. Down, down past her ribs to her waist. Down, under her waistband where there was only room for one hand. The hair, so wiry, not like the soft cornsilk that framed her face. She moaned, and put her hand behind his head. She pulled him down to the mattress beside her. She pushed the medikit off the bed with her hand.

"Look," she said.

She took his hand in her own. She guided it up from below, and under her sweatshirt. Their hands pulled it up, revealing the hard wall of muscle on her stomach. All was white, unblemished. He moaned as he found her breast on his own. Soft, so soft.

"Want you," she breathed. "Beautiful man."

He felt harder and larger than he'd ever been in his life.

"Your first time," she said.

"Yes," he whispered. "I don't want to hurt you."

"Or I you," she said.

She took him into her mouth forever. When she broke off, she stroked his face softly, gently.

"You need protection," she said.

"Want you," he said.

"Get some," she said.

"Don't care," he said.

"I do," she said. "Might have some things you wouldn't want to catch. Besides, I need to do the bloodwork, to be sure. I'll be here when you get back. For you."

He kissed her, though not as well. He almost sat, up, then kissed her again. Better, that time.

"Go," she said.

She smiled. Not like the night before. Not a smile that he'd ever seen before. Small, scared. He drew back.

At the door, he turned to see her tying off the tourniquet, then ran all the way to the motel office. It was closed. There was a sign in the window promising a return within the hour. He ran down the highway, a half mile to the 7-11. He found the protection, and paid for it with shaking hands.

"More careful than most of your kind," said the scowling clerk.

He paid no attention whatsoever and ran all the way back.

When he opened the door, the grin that he'd had all the way back collapsed. She had fallen asleep. She was curled up in a fetal position as she always was when sleeping. The medikit was folded up and sitting on the night-table. He crouched down beside her.

"Emma, " he whispered.

She didn't stir. he touched her cheek. It was cold. Too cold. He lifted her head with the palm of his hand, revealing a puddle of dark thick blood under one nostril. He turned up her left eyelid. There was nothing but red, even the pupil. He put his hand on her neck. No pulse. It was colder still. Fifteen minutes. He started to weep. He heard a sound behind him.

"I'm not armed," he said..

"Is she-?" said Lee.

He nodded. Lee came over to stand beside him stone-faced.

"Leech sad," said Lee.

"Me too," he said. "Me too."

Time passed, somehow. They wrapped her in a white sheet. He had to carry her to the SUV. For no good reason, they weren't seen. He drove west, listening to Artie making strange noises in the back seat. Lee remained expressionless, staring out the windscreen. He drove west along a perfectly straight road until he reached a river that was too large to ford. There was no bridge, the gravel simply ran straight into the water. He killed the lights. There was still almost a full moon.

He tore up a second sheet and used it to secure her body in the shroud. He picked her up and walked with it into the muddy shallows. Artie and Lee followed. He lay her down in the water, but did not let go.

"I don't know what else to do," he said. "Is this right?"

Lee stood at his side. There was a click as the image enhancer was switched off. Artie followed suit.

"Could bury her," said Lee. "Don't know what she would have wanted."

An image of a gang of monsters in green army camo digging away at a pit appeared.

"This flows into the Mississippi," he said. "It takes everything away."

"It'll do fine," said Lee.

"Anyone know what to say?" he said.

"Aren't you Christian?" said Lee.

"No," he said. "Haven't been to church in years."

An image appeared, glowing white in the night. From the glare emerged her face, her hair floating weightlessly around her head. She was smiling, not the smile that she'd given him, a smile somehow more beautiful that he knew she could have ever given. Her face faded into the white and the light faded away. He let go of the shroud and let the current take her body.

"Goodbye," he said.

"Please don't hurt her any more," whispered Lee, but not to him.

They watched as her body floated out of sight around the bend. In the SUV, he leant on the steering wheel and wept until the sun came up. As its light came in through the back window, he reversed the truck into the blood red dawn.

They drove all day, crossing the Red River and then heading north. As they crossed US2, the temptation to turn and drive home was almost irresistible. Instead, he kept on driving north. Artie and Lee slept most of the time in a little ball in the back seat. He had a blanket over them, but their enhancers were still off. Hard as they were to look at, he resisted the urge to switch the devices back on. No-one noticed them at all.

He found the turn-off near Walhalla that he knew from the previous summer. He drove down a road that became a path, then forked at a gate. The gate was unlocked, as it had been then. He took the left fork and drove down into the bed of a dry creek. The rolling of the SUV in the creekbed woke up Lee as they passed under the washed out barbed wire fence. After another mile, he found a bank and drove up the side. He found a path through the wheat and eventually reached another gate. He got out, had a look up and down the road, then went back to the truck. He backed up, then accelerated and took the gate at 40. He almost overshot into the ditch on the other side of the road, then recovered just in time. When the dust settled, he looked over the front of the SUV. No damage, save for a tiny scratch on the paint.

"We there yet?" said Lee.

He drove up the road, until they reached a crossroads. A sign pointed to the left, saying Morden 9.

"I think we're there," he said.

"Looks just like North Dakota," said Lee.

Artie pointed at a farmhouse with a faded red and white flag hanging in a window.

"Except that," said Lee, switching on his enhancer.

"There has to be more different than just that," he said.

"Can only hope," said Lee.

He put the SUV in gear and drove away from the sunset towards the lights of the city.

The Hero: Anybody's Son Will Do [5/5]

There were no problems when they arrived at the church in Winnipeg. Lee and Artie were taken away somewhere in a minivan, and he was given another set of papers and put on a plane to Toronto. There, he was met, blindfolded, and driven to a farm in country that looked uncannily like the one in the fire zone. He was interrogated for the better part of a week in accented and unaccented English. Madrox visited twice, and Lee called on his real birthday. They set him up in a room in Toronto and told him to wait. It was suggested that he stay indoors until informed that it was safe. He watched television in a language other than English for the first time.

Within two weeks, he had read all of the ten books in the room. He had watched the coverage of the assaults begin to leak out into the media. He watched thousands protesting at the American consulate only three miles away. He was on the verge of going to see what was going on when the celphone that he'd been given rang for the first time.

"Get ready," said Lee. "Funeral. Car coming in an hour."

"Funeral," he said.

"For her," said Lee. "For you."

"For me," he said.

"Don't worry," said Lee. "Won't let you forget."

The line went dead. Half an hour later, there was a knock at the door. He opened it to see a tall gaunt figure in a black leather aviator jacket.

"Steve Gilbert," said the man in some kind of Southern accent. "Got a suit?"

He hadn't, so Gilbert drove him to a mall where they found a place that could do one in an hour. Gilbert said very little the entire time, just stood looking at the floor.

"You knew her?" he asked as they pulled out of the mall.

"Could say that," said Gilbert. "Not as well as you knew her."

"My sister was at her school," said Gilbert, fifteen miles later.

"Was she-" he said.

"Yes," said Gilbert. "Still alive, though."

A half hour later, they took an exit, crossed a large river and entered a completely nondescript city. It reminded him vaguely of Sioux Falls, but with hills. Gilbert parked in front of a church in what was left of the downtown. They entered the anteroom of a small chapel. Gilbert introduced him to no-one, but left him in a corner and went to talk to a blonde girl with one leg sitting in a wheelchair. He looked away.

There were ten others there. Gilbert and the girl who might have been his sister was sitting in one corner, talking to a woman whose red and white hair was almost completely hidden by a black kerchief and a wiry man who said Ja from time to time. On the other side of the door, a short man with black hair streaked with gray was talking to the man he knew as Cassidy, a huge blond man, and a Japanese woman with purple hair. Every so often, two or three of them would turn to him at the same time for a quick glance, then return to whatever they were whispering about. They were all obviously soldiers. Two old women dressed in black came in, holding the largest handbags that he'd ever seen. He wondered what other settings the image enhancers might be set to.

"Hey," he said to them.

"Cheap," one of them said to the other. "Coloring the hair like that."

"I think you might have the wrong funeral," he said.

"Oh no," said the other one. "We've got it right. We knew her well, played bridge every Sunday. Are you American, then?"

"Yes," he said.

"You do have such lovely voices," said the first one. "Mary and I listen to the services from Buffalo every Sunday morning."

The other one grunted.

"Such an example of devotion to god," said the first one. "If only your kind in Africa could follow your example."

"We had them in the apartment underneath," said the other one. "Them from Africa. No idea what a toilet was for. They used the bathtub. Had to have it all out when they left. The man from the housing told me."

The doors to the chapel opened and the others filed in. He followed, but sat near the back. The two old ladies sat down beside him. A minister stood at the front and talked in cliches about higher powers and meanings that could be assigned. Prayers were mumbled, with heads bowed. There was no music. The minister never once said her name. There had been testimonials for his grandmother. There were none for Emma. Only the girl in the wheelchair and Cassidy were weeping. He had wept before, alone in the room in the farmhouse and in the room in Toronto, but not here. He could find no part of her in the chapel to miss. Instead, he felt a slow anger building.

It was all over in 15 minutes. Outside, there was a table of food put out by the ladies' auxiliary. The two old ladies tore across the lobby almost at a run, and huddled alone at the table. As he approached them, he could see them not-very-surreptitiously stuffing cream cakes wrapped in paper napkins into each other's handbags. He gritted his teeth, then began to smile. It took everything he had not to burst out laughing. A hand landed on his shoulder and he started. He turned to see the short man behind him.

"Logan," said the man.

"Marc Washington," he said.

"Sean Cassidy," said Cassidy, joining them. "You're the one who was with her at the end."

"Yes," he said.

"Something wrong, lad?" said Cassidy.

"This," he said. "Her. Do they care?"

"This is the tenth funeral we've had since the fourth," said Logan.

"Aye," said Cassidy. "I need a Guinness."

"Coming?" said Logan.

He looked up. All of the others were staring at him, stonefaced.

"Sure," he said.

They walked down the street and around the corner into what looked like the main shopping street. Logan led them up a staircase to an upscale bar that was empty at 2 in the afternoon. Logan ordered three pints of Guinness.

"Not your sort of place," said Cassidy.

"Only place around that has Guinness on tap," said Logan. "My kind of place has Blue."

They sat in silence until the waiter brought the draughts. He took a sip. It tasted metallic and bitter.

"Not used to stout?" said Cassidy. "Drink up, it'll make a man out of you."

He forced some of it down. He and Logan watched in silence as Cassidy finished a pint in under a minute.

"How did she die?" said Cassidy.

He looked at Cassidy's face. It was covered in scabs and tiny scars. It was impassive.

"He deserves to know," said Logan.

"Weren't you told?" he said.

"I want to hear it from you," said Cassidy.

"Were you her husband?" he asked.

"No," said Cassidy, laughing hollowly.

"She asked about you," he said. "She smiled when I told her you were OK."

"What kind of smile?" asked Cassidy.

"Small," he said. "She looked away like she didn't want me to see it."

Cassidy buried his head in his hands and started to sob, silently.

"All we do now is cry," he said, trying to fight back his own tears.

A heavy hand covered his own.

"Part of growing up," said Logan.

Cassidy lifted his head and stared, red-eyed. He fought the urge to look away.

"She and one other were the loves of my life," said Cassidy. "The only reason I know that the other might be alive is because you saw her being taken away. Please. How did Emma die?"

"In her sleep," he said.

"Sleeping with you?" said Cassidy.

"Hey," he said.

"Ease up," said Logan. "This is important, Marc."

He swallowed, hard.

"No," he said. "I came back from getting some shopping and I found her lying in the bed, dead. The book said she might die like that."

"Book?" said Logan.

"Went to the library," he said. "Found a book on her disease. Thought she was getting better, but the book said she could die at any moment."

"You were sure she was dead," said Cassidy.

"She was cold," he said. "There was no pulse. There was bleeding from her nose, blood in her eyes."

"Oh Lord," said Cassidy.

"Why did you put her in the river?" said Logan.

"Don't know," he said. "I couldn't leave her behind in the room, not with Artie and Lee to get to safety. We couldn't take her with us."

"Why could you not have buried her?" said Cassidy.

"No time," he said.

"You wanted to get rid of her," said Logan.

"I wanted her to escape," he said. "To get away."

"You buggered that up," said Cassidy.

"How?" he said.

"Guess you weren't thinking straight," said Logan. "They found her body two days later stuck in the gate of a dam downriver."

"Oh shit," he said.

Logan put a tiny stainless steel container in front of him. It looked vaguely like a film canister.

"What?" he said.

"I stole the body before they could ID it," said Logan. "I had it cremated. That's some of the ashes. There's another one for the school."

He stared at it. He picked it up with both hands. He half expected to be warm. It wasn't. He held it to his chest and closed his eyes.

"You filthy liar," said Cassidy, rising.

"Sit down, Sean," said Logan.

Cassidy sat, glowering.

"We only kissed," he said.

"Could that have been enough?" said Cassidy.

"Don't know," said Logan. "Have to ask-"

A bald man materialized in the empty seat beside Cassidy.

"-Chuck," said Logan.

"Charles Xavier," said the newcomer.

Cassidy said nothing.

"I must apologize for not being here in person," said Xavier. "Even so, I would think that you might have chosen a venue that somewhat more accessible."

Cassidy grunted.

He looked at Xavier. Middle-aged, maybe 50, wearing a dark suit, and a tie. Wore one every day, it looked like. Thin lips. Cold eyes.

"The situation has improved in the last hour, gentlemen," said Xavier. "Our gunner here will give a press conference tomorrow in Toronto, describing what he saw after the attack on the centre. That, and the testimony of the Braddocks should press Gore into not running for a second term. None of his challengers will maintain the campaign against, not once the pictures are leaked out. Kelly may go down, and if he goes, so goes the Sentinel program before any of the new units are fully operational."

"You cold bastard," said Cassidy. "More than a third of us are gone."

"Yet we have a victory," said Xavier. "No-one died in vain."

"Why did anyone have to die at all?" he said.

"Both Mr. Cassidy and our other security experts believed that the defenses were adequate," said Xavier. "Emma was not ignored."

Cassidy looked down at the table.

"She had a point, Chuck," said Logan.

"And you were both over-ruled," said Xavier. "I had no notion that the military were willing to go that far. They were careful to psy-shield all their officers. It's a pity we don't still have Mr. Washington here still in the services. He might have been able to obtain some of their gear for us."

"She said she saw you once," he said. "In a hospital, when she was drying out. She said you left her behind. That you told her she was useless."

"I have no recollection of it," said Xavier. "I saw so many in those days, so many who had thrown their gifts away on drugs."

"You put a fail-safe in, didn't you?" snarled Cassidy. "You didn't fucking trust me to keep them safe, did you?"

Cassidy looked almost ready to lunge, but then froze and went limp, slumping into the corner.

"He'll be quiescent for the next hour or so," said Xavier to Logan. "I'll deal with him on the way back."

He stared at Xavier.

"Fail-safe?" he whispered.

"If she were to engage in sexual activities with a person that she knew to be under the age of 20, then her nervous system would cut out," said Xavier. "She would be unable to move or even to breathe. I rather counted on her victim being there and able to summon assistance."

"I killed her," he whispered.

"Hardly," said Xavier. "You couldn't have done anything she didn't want you to. You had no will to resist her desires."

The cut, she had said. Cut off the from world. Not even able to move her eyes.

"Or breathe," said Xavier. "Artificial respiration might have been of use, but I believe you were out shopping."

He lunged, but his fist passed through empty air. Logan caught him in an unbreakable grip and made him sit down.

"You fuckers," he breathed.

"It was the most sensible course of action," said Xavier. "Logan suggested summary execution when she first came to us, but we do not kill."

"But you-" he said.

"She could have waited," said Logan. "It was only a week."

"Fundamentally, she was a weak woman," said Xavier. "The fail-safe was a compromise solution. I was in favour of an immediate cut, but Kitty and Jean and Elizabeth spoke for her, as did Sean. Don't weep for her, she was a murderer many times over. She was crawling with disease."

"You set it up," he said. "You set them all up to die."

"If I had, I'm certain that Logan would have killed me by now," said Xavier.

"It was bad luck, kid," said Logan. "Just bad luck."

"I gave up my family and my life when I went over to you because I thought you were right," he said. "I thought you were for life. For right. For good."

"But we are," said Xavier. "This is a war that we did not declare. We were forced to fight and, if there is a fight, there will be casualties."

"Fuck you and your war," he said.

"And you really believe we're going to let you stand in front of the microphones and tell the world about Emma?" said Xavier. "I think not."

He was sitting in a restaurant. He shook his head. He was the only customer there. The plate from his hamburger was sitting empty in front of him. He looked at his watch. He had fifteen minutes to catch the bus. The drop had gone perfectly according to schedule. He had left the envelope with the bookstore owner after he had purchased the book that he'd been told to. He felt a warm glow. Every little bit helped the effort, helped bring the end of the war one day closer. He reached into his pocket and found a metal canister there. He had no idea what it was. It looked like a film cylinder. As he went to leave it by his plate, the image of his mother came into his mind, saying waste not, want not. It was an unusual thing, perhaps having some worth. He placed it back into his pocket.

He made his way to the bus terminal and gave the return ticket to the driver of the Toronto bus. It stopped at a corner for a light a block from the terminal. He looked out of the window. Two old ladies with enormous handbags were walking down the street, pointedly not paying attention to the three girls behind them. The girls couldn't have been older than 16, and all were dressed in short skirts and spandex tops, just like the girls who used to hang out at the bars in Lawton. Two of them were gesturing and yelling at the two old women, but the third hung back, aloof. She was tall and had long blonde hair, like cornsilk. She paid no attention to her companions, but looked right at him. Her pupils were so huge, he couldn't tell what colour her eyes were. He placed his hand to the glass. He began to weep. She looked right through him. The light changed and the bus drove off. He watched until she disappeared from sight. He sat back in his chair and wiped the tears away. She reminded him of someone he could just seem to recall. He closed his eyes and smiled. He knew that it would all come back to him some day.