14: Babylon On Fire
AD 2005, December 29
Gene Nation village
Wolverine slashed his claws through another control cable, sending the Sentinel into a mad spin. He leaped off it as it crashed into the earth. A cloud of choking yellowish dirt rose into the air as the metallic robot impacted. For an instant, he was blinded, deafened by the constant din of battle, his nose assaulted with the reek of bloody death, burning, and superheated metals.
Lightning cracked searing white through the air, directed by Storm and echoed by plasma fire from the Sentinels and the distinct sound of Gambit's trademark playing cards exploding as they hit and Cyke's optic blast. The hair on his arms had singed off from all the stray voltage flying around. Someone was yelling something he couldn't understand.
Overhead two Sentinels flew straight at each other, despite firing thrusters that should have directed them. One was caught in the grip of Jean's telekinesis. The other had been tossed at top speed by Rogue; she was using the superstrength and invulnerability that she'd drained from Carol Danvers years before all out. The rebel yell she let out cut through the cacophony before it was lost too. She hit another Sentinel like a high speed battering ram.
Bishop carelessly absorbed the plasma fire from the Sentinels, channeling and firing it back. Then he pulled his favorite 'big ass' gun out and began shooting. His face had set into a snarl that wrinkled the black M tattooed over the left side of his face.
Wolverine stumbled over a hunk of burning flesh and sank to one knee. A quick, nauseating whiff assured him it was a goat and not one of the Gene Nation villagers.
Each time a Sentinel reconfigured to compensate for one of the team's powers, they switched or doubled on it, tasking the robot's processors and subroutines beyond their abilities to operate in real time. These were old Mark 3 versions of the Sentinels, not Primes; not many people were willing to let Phalanx-derived nanocybernetics rebuild them into program-dedicated killing machines — even if they did hate mutants. The failure of Project: Zero Tolerance and Bastion had seen a drastic reduction in the production of Prime Sentinels.
The sun shone unmercifully on the battleground. His breath sawed into his lungs and he felt every pound of the adamantium bonded to his bones. Sweat flicked away from him in a spray as he shook his head to clear it.
"Wolverine!" Cyclops shouted. "Down!"
He dove for the earth, rolling and coming to his feet in the tenuous cover of a mud-daubed hut that was still burning.
Cyclops fired at the Sentinel that had been targeting him. A simmering red beam of light lanced out from the visor he wore over his eyes and sliced through the robot's armor, triggering an internal explosion that tossed one of its arms directly through the chest of another.
Wolverine sprinted forward, vaulted into the air and sank his claws into the tottering machine. He scrambled up it like a cat going up someone's leg, then gouged out its optic receptors. He'd never admit it, but the Sentinels were just humanoid enough that doing that bugged him on some deep level.
Didn't stop him, but sometimes the way the things reacted to being taken down got a little too close to human. They were aware enough to know when they were being taken apart.
Sparks spat and a bolt of electricity found its way up his claws and sizzled through his skeleton. Made his whole body jerk for a second. Lucky adamantium was such a lousy conductor or it would have been worse. He involuntarily pulled the claws back in and that broke the connection.
The Sentinel was falling now and he began looking for a good place to hop off. Its shadow darkened the ground beneath it. He caught sight of a brown duster billowing as Gambit danced his way through the fight.
No time to enjoy watching the way the kid threw himself into creating mayhem, not like the Danger Room practice sessions, when a man could appreciate the sheer artistry of Gambit's moves. Besides, he wasn't laughing his way through this one. He was moving even faster than usual, eschewing some of his flashier style and just doing the job. Putting a little more bang into each charged card he flipped out and keeping his mouth shut. That long, usually smiling mouth set in a grim line.
Wolverine sort of missed the smart ass commentary.
They were all keeping quieter than usual, not even indulging in their usual black humor. There was nothing to laugh about here.
He started to yell a warning to Gambit that the Sentinel was coming down. Gambit cartwheeled away without looking. Maybe he felt the robot's shadow cross over him. Even the cartwheel wasn't for show this time. He came to his feet with his hands full of stones he charged and threw. There was a reason they never let him pitch in the team baseball games. The kid had a better arm and better aim than any major league pitcher alive.
The rocks hit with devastating force, blowing the chest right out of the sixth and last Sentinel. Shrapnel flew everywhere. Lightning strikes followed, frying the remains of the toppled robots until there wasn't enough left to salvage as more than raw, melted metal. No way any of them were going to reboot and come back after the X-Men this time.
Wolverine leaped off the Sentinel he'd disabled at the last second before it hit the ground. He hit the ground running and got the hell out of Dodge while the energy wielders let loose with a little overkill: Cyclops and Bishop zapping the Sentinel's armored body into unrecognizable junk.
Storm floated down out of the sky, looking very much like the goddess she'd once been worshipped as. Hot winds still whipped her white hair into a tangled cloud. She looked regal and still furious.
They all were, but the slaughter affected Storm worse than any of them. The Gene Nation colony near her old African village had been her solution to the problem of what to do with the deformed and bitter descendents of the Morlocks. She still saw them as her responsibility. Their deaths were her failure in her eyes.
Wolverine watched her wrap her arms around her torso as she looked around.
"Rogue," Cyclops called. "Get back to the Blackbird and let the rest of the team know what's happened here."
She took one wild look around the wrecked village and took off, obviously grateful to get away and do anything.
Gambit looked after her then shook his head, turning away. His coat was a shredded mess, one arm charred black from a near miss. He shrugged it off and let it drop in the dirt, something Wolverine had never seen him do before.
Bishop walked back toward them, gun balanced on his shoulder, silhouetted against the pale African sky. Dust puffed around his boots. His head swiveled, watching for any new threats.
Phoenix followed, going straight Cyclops' side. Her hand on his back seemed to focus their leader again. A sharp stab of light reflected off the metal frame of his visor as he looked around.
Wolverine pulled in a deep breath and regretted it. The reek was getting thicker and the quiet after the battle served as a reminder that this place was dead now. All that was left was wreckage and carrion. When he tipped his head back he could pick out the slow circling specks of the gathering vultures high in the sky.
"Wolverine, you and Phoenix, check for survivors," Cyclops directed. His voice cracked on the last word.
Phoenix closed her eyes to concentrate on a psionic scan for any minds, while Wolverine prowled through the remains of the village, stretching his enhanced senses to the utmost, hoping for the scent of someone living or a heartbeat and the sound of lungs. The only ones he detected were his own team-mates.
Gambit stalked after him, brow creased. Wolverine figured he was doing his own psi-thing. He could smell the anger and pain and guilt rolling off the man, masking any hint of the attraction Gambit usually exuded. Even his movements were stiffer than usual.
He opened his mouth to growl at him for following him when it hit him. If Storm was seeing the Mutant Massacre rewritten in the sun instead of the New York subway tunnels, then so was Gambit. Did his gut ache where Sabretooth had sliced him open? The scars were well healed before Gambit joined the X-Men, four thin pale lines arching across the kid's flat belly, the fifth at a slight angle dragging over a sharp hipbone. They showed up when Gambit had been in the shower and was flushed; Wolverine knew Creed's claw marks, but he'd stayed quiet. A man's past should be left alone unless it threatened the team. Gambit had made no bones about knowing Sabretooth and hating him. They hadn't needed to know why, then thought it was the Notre Dame thing, until Gambit's part in the Massacre came out.
Whatever Gambit's sins, he wasn't to blame for this.
He wouldn't take his own rage out on the other man.
With a growl of frustration and fury that escalated into a howl, Wolverine snapped his claws out and ran them through a wattle and daub wall, shredding it with several blows. He didn't stop until his arms ached with exertion.
Gambit stood just out of reach. He looked relaxed until Wolverine noticed the pebble caught between two long fingers, glowing almost fuchsia with the charge fed into it.
He stepped back with a last growl and shook himself. "Ain't nothing left, Cajun."
The pebble dimmed back to dull stone, but stayed in Gambit's hand.
"Feel better, mon ami?"
"Fuck all's gonna make me feel better."
Gambit cocked his head then nodded. His shoulders slumped faintly.
They looked around, working in tandem now, but without any expectation of finding anyone.
The Morlock village had been laid out in a circle. The buildings were crowded closer together than native Africans would have built. The Morlocks hadn't been used to open skies and space. They'd built a high wall around everything topped with thorns and sharpened stakes. It had kept intruders and predators out, but hadn't given the Sentinels a second's pause.
Despite the kill or be killed lessons the Morlock survivors had learned in the pocket dimension Mikhail Rasputin had kept them in, they hadn't had a chance against the mutant hunting robots. They'd given up fighting to live peacefully in their small colony far from the world's hysteria over the mutant dilemma.
The bodies were everywhere. Thrown down like garbage, in broken piles and scattered pieces, everything they'd ever been reduced to food for maggots. Mutant threat: neutralized.
They'd already been in the Blackbird when it happened, flying cloaked at twice the speed of sound toward Africa, thanks to Psylocke's precog warning that something would happen there.
Phoenix had gasped an hour into the flight. Gambit flinched, then sat forward, dangling his hands between his knees. "Too late," he had muttered, but Wolverine had already guessed from the tears slipping down Jean's cheeks.
The villagers' surprise and growing terror had broadcast on the Astral Plane. The lights of their minds had winked out. Once more, the X-Men were on clean up duty, too late to save anyone.
The frustration ate at Wolverine. They were always reacting.
Superheroes couldn't win. It was lose/lose. No way to undo a wrong already done and if they stepped in to stop a villain before that, they became wrong-doers themselves.
The sight that greeted them on their arrival convinced Wolverine it might be worth it to step over the line.
Smoke, black columns of it twisting into the air, had been their first sight as Cyclops banked the Blackbird toward the site of the village. Then the towering figures of the Sentinels, still busily smashing the remains. Cyke had nearly stalled the 'bird, letting the flyers each grab someone and deplane on the spot. Rogue carried Gambit toward the earth, while Storm buoyed Bishop on her hastily summoned winds and Jean held Wolverine in a TK bubble with her.
Then they'd been in it, going after the Sentinels all out. Cyclops joined the fight sometime after landing the Blackbird.
They'd needed to take out the Sentinels, certainly, but destroying a bunch of overgrown tincans also let them cut loose all the fury seething inside them. It just didn't do anything for the guilt.
He shifted a chunk of shattered wood and uncovered another body.
After a moment, he identified the remains as Boost, then realized the limbs were tangled with another's he didn't know at all.
"Shit," he hissed.
Plasma fire had melted their flesh together in a seared black ruin pierced with broken bone. A fat bodied fly, black and iridescent green, crawled over the raw tissue.
He let the chunk of wood in his hand fall and turned away.
Gambit's head hung. His hands were curled into fists. Another fly tried to land on him and he twitched it away unconsciously. His eyes were glued to something in the dirt at his feet.
Wolverine picked his way over to the other man's side then stared down too.
Gambit knelt and brushed the dirt away from the half-buried piece of metal painted with an insignia. He didn't touch it.
Two letters still showed, red over a background of white stars on blue.
Wolverine crouched and sniffed. He filtered out everything but the scents still adhering to what looked like part of the casing to a communications headset.
Gambit stared at him, hellfire eyes and hunter's patience, still and silent, waiting for more. Wolverine gave it to him.
"Male. Between thirty and thirty-five, meat-eater, probably American." He picked up the broken casing, held it to his face and scented it again. Cologne, soap, sweat, adrenaline and testosterone, hydrocarbon fuel residue from diesel exhaust, gun oil, cordite, and ozone tickled his nose.
He stood and began casting for more clues. Gambit stayed just behind and to the side of him, not speaking. He circled out beyond the splintered, slowly burning fence-wall and found what he'd expected. Tire tracks. Boot tracks. The scent from the headset mingled with others. All fading on the wind, almost lost in the reek of death.
He knelt beside one set of Humvee tracks and stared out across the veldt. Even he couldn't follow them across the African plains. The grasslands looked eerily empty; the animals had fled from the noise of battle.
Gambit read the tracks too. He wasn't mountain man material by a longshot, but he was observant and fast. He'd watched and picked up things from Wolverine. Sliding through topflight security required the same sort of attention to the tiny details that living in the wild did.
"Spotters. Targeted the place for the Sentinels," Wolverine said.
"It ain't the same, LeBeau," he snapped. "These bastards knew exactly what they were doing." He used Gambit's name to emphasize that he meant it. This cut too close to the bone for the other man. Leading the Marauders into the Morlock tunnels had damned Gambit in his own eyes as well as many others.
Wolverine thought the Mutant Massacre had been what saved Remy LeBeau's soul. The horror had wakened the man's conscience and sent him running from Sinister and the killers he'd been working beside. If he hadn't been lied to he wouldn't have turned on them. He might have stayed and become steadily more inured to the things Sinister asked of him, until he became worse than any of them.
"Bastards," he said again with a grunt as he stood up once more.
"Friends of Humanity."
He added an obscene gesture Wolverine agreed with.
"We'd better get back and tell Cyke about that," he said, his eyes on the headset casing.
Wolverine grunted acknowledgement and they headed back to the center of the village.
Phoenix and Storm were gone when they reached it.
Cyclops turned toward them.
"I sent Storm back to the Blackbird with Jean," he said as they approached.
"This ain't going to be easy for Stormy," Gambit added. He rubbed at his face, leaving a smear of soot along one high cheekbone. "Or any of us," he went on almost to himself. His head jerked up. "Mon Dieu, who's going to tell Marrow about this?"
Cyclops flinched. The already venomous ex-Morlock would blame Storm and Gambit . She would blame all the X-Men. She would be even more homicidal than usual. Keeping her from going after the 'pretty-pretty upworlders' would be a Herculean task. All three of them knew it had been a lucky fluke she'd been out of the mansion with Sam when Psylocke had her vision.
"Wolverine — "
Gambit walked away without a word. He stopped within earshot, but kept his back to them.
"Don't even think about asking him to do it, Cyke."
"Who do you suggest then?"
With a snort, Wolverine said, "Stick her in the Danger Room, lock it down, and let Charlie tell her telepathically. Couple years from now, when she calms down, we can let her out."
Neither of them had the energy or the will to keep up any kind of banter. Silence set in. The hot, dust-ridden wind Storm had summoned had dissipated into a thing of sporadic gusts that whispered and moaned through broken walls and pieces of Sentinel armor.
Wolverine stirred when another fly landed on him.
"Walking the perimeter."
"About that … the Cajun and me found something you better see." He lifted his voice. "Gambit, get over here."
Gambit stiffened but started to turn. He paused though and stalked over to whatever had caught his eye. Nothing about him indicated it might be a threat. Wolverine ignored him.
He held up the broken headset casing.
"We found this and I tracked it back to a slug of tire tracks outside the village."
" Ouai," Gambit murmured as he joined them. He had something in his hands now too. It chilled Wolverine when he recognized what Gambit had picked up. It was a child's rag doll, ripped and leaking its stuffing.
"Explains the second rate Sentinels," Cyclops said absently. "Someone must have back channeled the manufacturing specs to them."
He looked around and winced. "We'll have to alert the local authorities."
Wolverine shook his head. "Ain't no point, Cyke."
"Then what the hell do we do!?" Cyclops shouted at him.
"Find something to dig with and start burying the bodies," Gambit said tonelessly. His knuckles were white on the stained, dirty doll.
He was right. The scavengers would start moving in come dusk. By then the swarms of flies would have laid their eggs. In the heat, if the bodies were left long the job would be a thousand times worse.
Cyclops looked ready to gag. Instead he straightened his shoulders.
"All right. We have to do this as fast as possible. Gambit — "
"I can blow a hole in the ground."
The dull sound of Gambit's normally carefree voice told its own story.
"We'll need two," Cyclops said decisively. "I want to cover up the Sentinels too. Let those bastards wonder what happened here after they left."
"Wolverine, I'll need your help. We'll start gathering the bodies."
You couldn't accuse Cyke of ever sticking anyone with a job worse than what he was willing to take on himself.
They labored through the rest of the afternoon. Bishop joined them, pulling bodies out of the wreckage. Rogue took to the air and kept overwatch, while Jean stayed with Storm. Later, it took Rogue's strength to drag the pieces of the Sentinels into the deep, ugly hole Gambit had provided.
It took all of them, even Storm, to lay the dead into the mass grave. Gambit and Bishop went down in it and laid the bodies out with a terrible sort of gentleness.
Jean used her telekinesis to shift the earth over the grave.
Storm summoned an unseasonal rain to wash the remains of the village clean and douse the still lingering flames. The fragmenting clouds gave the sunset a louring look, as though the sky had been stained by darkness and blood.
They were dirt and blood-stained, hollow-eyed and weary to the bone when they were through. Storm's rain soaked them. The water slid down their faces as though she cried for all of them.
Gambit set the doll on the grave.
"This is it, homme," he said softly. "This is what they gonna do to all of us."