"I have got to be out of my mind."
That was the third time in the past fifteen minutes that Jesse Kilmartin had given voice to that particular conclusion, and it didn't sound any better than it had the first time. He was actually muttering to himself, and the realization brought with it more than a little frustration. It was official: he had absolutely flipped out. Not that it mattered. It only mattered if he planned on leaving, which he didn't. Not yet, anyway.
The late afternoon sun glinted off the binoculars when he raised them to his eyes once more. Foot traffic on the street below was beginning to pick up as people got off work and paused for a little shopping before going home for the evening. A diverse group of stores lined the street on both sides for several blocks, attracting an eclectic bunch of people to their cheery displays. On an ordinary day he might well be among them, dropping something off at the cleaners, stopping for a bite at the Italian café, or more likely cruising the block in search of a parking space at any one of a half-dozen places he routinely patronized. Today, however, was anything but ordinary. Today was the day, when he would finally run his quarry to earth. He could feel it.
He shifted impatiently, rooftop grit crunching under his feet. A light October breeze riffled his sandy hair. The day was beginning to cool, and although his cream-colored fisherman's knit sweater had stood him in good stead thus far, it wouldn't be long until he would need the jacket he had left in the car. Something to eat wouldn't be a bad idea, either; his stomach was beginning to send him reminders that it had been a long time since lunch. In fact, now that he thought about it, it was his turn to cook tonight. Damn! He had meant to switch with someone, but had forgotten that detail in his haste to leave Sanctuary. Ah, well. Shalimar owed him a favor. If his quest was successful, he could call her on his ring and ask her to cover for him.
Comlink rings were just one of the many gadgets that were standard issue for Jesse and his teammates. Together they were Mutant X; four remarkably gifted people led by a scientist named Adam Kane, a man widely acknowledged as possessing one of the most brilliant minds of his generation. Their purpose was the defense and rescue of people like themselves, men and women with abilities far beyond the norm, attributes that some thought of as the next step in human evolution. They were mutants, and they owed their existence in large part to groundbreaking achievements of Adam Kane.
Adam's towering intellect manifested itself early. By age 15 he had graduated magna cum laude from MIT. By age 20 he had doctorates in computer science and bioengineering from Stanford, and shortly after that he joined Dr. Paul Breedlove in the exciting new field of human genetics at the Genomex Corporation. The science of genetics was in its infancy, and Breedlove's team made discovery after discovery in the mapping of the human genome. Adam was considered the wunderkind, the intuitive genius, whose instinctive grasp of the complexities of the human genome astounded his more seasoned colleagues. His breakthroughs opened up vistas never dreamed of, pioneering therapies designed to correct a multitude of genetic defects, many of them while still in the womb. Techniques involving gene splicing and chemical manipulation of the DNA strand produced results which saved tens of thousands of lives. On the strength of his work Adam climbed the ladder until within just a few years he was named the Chief Biogeneticist at Genomex despite his young age. Those were heady days indeed, and talk of a Nobel prize began to circulate.
Then reports started coming in, disturbing reports of children exhibiting unusual, even superhuman abilities. Some displayed animalistic speed and strength; others developed mental abilities like telepathy or telekinesis; some could control elements of the earth such as fire and water; still others could manipulate molecular structures in ways never conceived outside the realm of science fiction. Unable to comprehend what was happening to their minds and bodies, terrified of abilities they couldn't understand or control, and a society that regarded them as freaks and worse, these children were becoming a danger to themselves and those around them.
As Genomex was considered to be among the pioneers of genetic research, a number of these children were brought to the facility for examination and treatment. Adam in particular was fascinated by the abilities being displayed, and threw himself into rooting out the cause of these conditions. He soon discovered that the DNA of each and every subject had undergone some form of gene therapy, and that it had subsequently mutated as the children grew, taking the characteristics of the therapy into new and unforeseen avenues of human evolution. Further investigation revealed that all of the subjects had received their gene therapy at Genomex.
Adam was thunderstruck. The mutations all traced back to his work and discoveries. And that wasn't all. Although what he had initiated was a single genetic manipulation to save their lives, his therapies instead triggered an ongoing mutation which did not stop with the development of their powers. Acting in a somewhat cyclical pattern akin to normal human growth spurts, the DNA strands continued to mutate. Eventually the genetic structure would begin to break apart, causing these "mutants" to spin out of control, resulting in a catastrophic, and fatal, meltdown. In saving these children from their original conditions, he had condemned them to a time-bomb existence - a short, freakish existence followed by an inevitable, violent explosion.
Aghast by the harm his therapies had wrought, Adam stopped all treatments and focused his energies on finding a way to stabilize their genetic structures. In concert with his work he created a device called a subdermal governor which interacted with a subject's nervous system, shutting down conscious use of his or her powers. To address the problem of a powerful mutant spinning out of control, whether willfully or as a result of a genetic breakdown, he also created a pod-like total life support system which held the subject in stasis until such time as their condition could be stabilized. He naively assumed that the experiments would stop, and the full resources of Genomex would be turned to repairing the damage done to these innocent people
Dr. Breedlove, however, did not stop. He saw himself and Genomex as the creators of a new, more advanced branch of humanity. Abetted by his facility administrator, a bitter rival of Adam's named Mason Eckhart, and drunk with the fervor of discovery, Breedlove and the rest of his team secretly continued using Adam's discoveries to purposely create these genetic anomalies. He assembled a detailed database, cataloging their creations as they grew and their powers developed. The uses they could be put to were endless. By this time there were nearly a thousand 'children of Genomex', with an array of talents that could change the world.
Or destroy it. Adam tried to reason with his beloved mentor, to get him to look beyond and see the ramifications and the pure human cost of what they were doing. These were not lab rats, he argued, these were innocent people condemned to a short, hellish existence and a brutal death. Adam thought Breedlove was misguided, blinded by heady legacy of scientific immortality. He was sure that, given time, Breedlove would come to see the truth, and together they would dedicate the rest of their lives to setting things right. Unfortunately, he reckoned without Mason Eckhart.
Eckhart blamed Adam for the accident which broke down his immune system, forcing him to encase himself in a synthetic second skin to protect himself from even the most common of everyday bacteria. A master manipulator, as cold and calculating as a python, he sought to undermine Adam in any he could while carefully hiding his own secret agenda from Dr. Breedlove. He would use Breedlove's database to hunt down these anomalies as they came of age, and use them to gather such power as the world had never known. Some would be used as lab rats and guinea pigs in the search for a way to restore his immune system or to create the perfect super soldier, some would be enslaved or coerced by any means necessary into his service, others simply put into stasis pods, held for future study, imprisoned in a living death. He would be the power behind governments, a puppet master pulling carefully crafted strings, or if need be, cutting them with mutant assassins and strike teams. And then, when his ends had been achieved, these hideous monstrosities would be exterminated. Every single one. And he, Mason Eckhart, would control the world.
Adam watched with a sinking heart as Eckhart spread his web of lies and corruption throughout Genomex, binding more and more of the scientists to him, his power growing day by day. He was taking over. Suspicious of Eckhart's true motives, Adam placed a secret tap on his computer files, and was horrified to discover the fate in store for the mutants his therapies created. Adam knew what he had to do. He secretly began crafting plans to save the mutants from Eckhart's own Holocaust. Breedlove was oblivious to Eckhart's treachery; he would get no help there. When he found out that Eckhart was planning to have him killed, he knew he could wait no longer. He stole Breedlove's database so they couldn't track down the test subjects, and uploaded a system-wide virus to destroy as much as possible of his research. He then fled Genomex.
That was the beginning of his life's work. He would continue his research into mutant genetics until he found a way to stabilize their DNA so they could have a normal lifespan. He would find as many of these children as he could, and explain to them the abilities that set them apart from the rest of mankind. He would create a sort of mutant underground to hide them from Eckhart. He would teach them how to utilize their powers, to live normal, productive lives. And he would do everything in his power to stop Eckhart's evil, and rescue as many mutants as he could those already in Genomex's clutches.
He knew it would take time. Over the next ten years Adam set about building the resources he would need to make his dream a reality. He channeled the income from dozens of very important and lucrative inventions and processes to finance his work, and forged a network of useful contacts throughout the government and business worlds, providing him with needed practical intelligence. He created a secret base from which to operate, an entirely self-sufficient, nuclear powered facility built entirely by mutant construction crews deep within Stormking Mountain. This stronghold, which he named 'Sanctuary', contained among other things a beyond state-of-the-art computer system, a highly advanced biogenetic laboratory, solar-powered lighting, and its own regenerating water supply. For swift, long-distance transportation he built a flying craft with a full range of stealth capabilities, including a light-refracting system which made it invisible not only to radar, but to the naked eye as well. He dubbed the ship "The Double Helix", as a reference to the DNA strand.
But even with all his inventions, Adam knew he could not fulfill his life's work alone. To that end, he set about recruiting four of the most powerful mutants he could find, one from each of the four fundamental types: Shalimar Fox, the feral, whose petite frame housed the senses, power and agility of a tiger; Jesse Kilmartin, the molecular, who could alter his physical density from hard enough to repel bullets to ephemeral as a ghost and able to walk through walls; Emma DeLauro, the psionic, a telempath able to sense and influence the emotions of others, and former felon Brennan Mulwray, the elemental, able to generate enough electricity in his body to power a small city, and to release that energy as lightning though his hands. Together they began to quietly track down the children of Genomex and spirit them to safety, while keeping their existence secret from a world that would either exploit them or destroy them out of fear.
Mason Eckhart had not been idle, either. Genomex had gone national, and had developed a security apparatus to deal with issues related to its field. Ostensibly the Genetic Security Agency was under the auspices of US Intelligence, charged with policing the scientific world regarding the awesome power of genetic manipulation. In reality, the GSA was Eckhart's private army. Its function was to hunt down mutants, a function made increasingly difficult by frequent skirmishes with Adam and his people.
But there was another fly in Eckhart's ointment. Paul Breedlove had come to his senses. Still oblivious to his subordinate's ambitions, he came to see the human side of what Genomex had created. His conscience bothered him. He resolved to go public, announcing the existence of mutants to the world, accepting responsibility for their creation, and vowing to make what restitution he could for the harm inflicted on these people. He finally finished reconstructing his database, the better to identify these by now adults and help them.
Eckhart couldn't allow that. It was time to take the next step in his campaign. He murdered Breedlove, took his database, and began a wholesale roundup of mutants, including Emma DeLauro and Brennan Mulwray. Adam, Jesse and Shalimar were able to rescue them and temporarily disable Genomex's computer network, but both sides knew that this was merely a setback for Eckhart. The clandestine war would continue until one or the other was put out of business for good.
Jesse lowered the binoculars for a moment and rubbed his eyes. Whether he flushed his quarry today or not, he knew that he would have to check in soon, lest his teammates become worried and track him down at an inopportune moment. He hadn't told anyone where he was going; no one had asked him, and he wasn't about to volunteer the information. Brennan knew. Jesse hoped his best friend wouldn't share his knowledge with the others, else they'd ride him like a pet pony when he returned. Brennan's sly smirks and double-entendre jibes were enough to endure.
She had captivated him from the first time he saw her browsing among some laptops. He had gone into TechnoCraze, a high-end computer store catering to the more fanatical technology freaks, to exchange a defective converter, and had spotted her studying the different models. From head to toe she was exquisite; thick, silky hair the color of vintage burgundy cascaded in luxurious waves over her shoulders. A smart navy pinstriped suit and white silk blouse accentuated a figure any Hollywood starlet would kill for, with long, shapely legs and a peaches-and-cream complexion. But more than that, there was something in the way she carried herself, something in the way she moved, that spoke of athletic grace, elegance and self-assurance, a sort of sparkle that seemed to fill the air around her with electricity.
From that moment he was hooked. She must have thought him a total idiot when she looked up and saw him staring at her from the top of the aisle, all thought of his errand thrown completely to the winds. There was a mischievous glint in her eye as she looked him up and down, a slow, bewitching smile spreading across her ruby lips. Jesse had read stories of people being 'transfixed' by one thing or another, and had always thought it a funky, rather unrealistic word inserted by authors trying to impress their readers with their vocabulary. Now it wasn't so unrealistic. Never in his life had he experienced a sensation such as this, a brain lock so complete that a part of his mind wondered if he had been suddenly turned to stone. Before he could gather his wits, she was gone, walking out of the store, her abbreviated skirt showcasing her delectable derriere and fluid stride. Giving himself a belated mental shake, he gave chase, and was just in time to see her slide into a silver BMW convertible parked directly in front of the door. With a little wave and another roguish smile she was off, leaving him too stupefied to even try to catch the plate number.
He saw her again a few days later, rounding a corner just as he was pulling in. He almost gunned the Mustang's engine in pursuit, but sanity in the form of oncoming traffic got through to him inches before he crashed into a tan Volvo carrying a very indignant soccer mom. Jesse slapped the wheel in frustration, knowing that by the time he fought his way through, she would be long gone.
That had been the start of it. Judicious inquiries among the computer store personnel indicated that she was a fairly regular customer, although no one knew her name. She browsed, was politely non-committal to every salesman that approached her, and when she did make a purchase always paid in cash. When she came in, it was always in the time frame of 4:30 to 6:00 pm. She never came in two days in a row.
Jesse began haunting not just that computer store, but the other businesses up and down the street, theorizing that perhaps she worked in the area, and her visits were made after work. One day his prowling paid off. While waiting out a light opposite a dress store, he just happened to glance in the front window and see her examining a hunter green knit dress with a cowled collar. When she looked up and saw him, she gave him a smile with enough wattage to illuminate the entire block, and held the dress against her body as if asking his opinion. Oblivious to the honking behind him, as the traffic light had turned, he smiled back and gave her a thumbs-up and an approving nod. She disappeared from the window and he came back to reality, but by the time he had found a parking space and bolted into the store, she was nowhere to be found. The saleslady, looking through her half-moon glasses in a most disapproving fashion, was singularly unhelpful, refusing to give him any information.
It became a sort of cat-and-mouse game. Sometimes he caught only a glimpse of her, like a flash of sun streaking her hair with burnished copper as she drove around a corner. Other times he would see her on the street, but would be in exactly the wrong place, like across the street or in a knot of traffic. Occasionally Fate joined in the game; just when he thought he would catch her, someone would bump into him, cut him off, or open a door at the wrong time, and she would escape. Once he saw her getting into a taxi from nearly a half block away. She was wearing the green knit dress from the dress shop, and his breath caught in his throat at the way it clung to her curves. She actually stopped and posed for him, grinning impishly as he broke into a run, before quickly climbing in the open door and driving away, blowing a kiss to him as they passed. Another time, he returned to the Mustang after a fruitless stakeout to find a bright red carnation on the driver's seat. Clearly she was enjoying the chase.
Jesse decided it was high time he turned the tables. There was more than one way to skin a cat. Every minute he could spare away from Mutant X activities he was at his room terminal tapping away, using every trick he could think of to find out who his mystery lady was. He was never able to get the Beamer's license plate, or even find it parked so he could put a tracer on it. Instead he canvassed the street, making a list of all the businesses, then used Sanctuary's beyond-state-of-the-art system to hack into their employee personnel records. Only a few of them had photo IDs, but he narrowed down his search by weeding out all employees of the wrong age range and/or sex, and running the contenders first through the DMV, and when that failed, through all the various databases Mutant X had compiled. He did the same with their customer files, and his frustration knew no bounds when his efforts once more came up empty.
There was a fair amount of ribbing from the others about all the computer time he was logging, but Jesse ignored it. He tried to deflect their questions by bringing up a computer game he had on standby every time someone came in. His ploy mostly worked; Shalimar thought he was just going through a phase, Adam was into his own projects, and Emma, thankfully, was distracted by an upcoming trip to visit a friend in Seattle. Only Brennan rightfully guessed that there was a woman involved.
He had come into Jesse's room to try to entice him into some basketball. Jesse had quickly pulled up his computer game and pretended to be engrossed in it, but the former con man/thief wasn't buying it. He had hit the nail on the head almost from the outset, but this was no great feat; Brennan, preoccupied as he was half the time with the female sex, assumed most other healthy males were of the same mindset. It was his experience that any dramatic change in behavior usually revolved around biology; either one was sick, or it traced its roots back to a woman, either from a recent encounter or one in the past. Twirling the ball on his finger in Globetrotter fashion after espousing this theory, Brennan reasonably pointed out that while Jesse was irritable, he didn't seem feverish, and there was no apparent sign that his mutation might be destabilizing. To him, that only left one alternative.
Jesse ignored him. Brennan didn't appear to notice. He spun the ball again, bounced it off his bicep, then dropped onto Jesse's bed.
"You're going about this the wrong way, you know," he said conversationally.
Jesse's head snapped around, impaling his teammate with an icy look.
"You don't know what the hell you're talking about, so why don't you just get lost?"
"So tell me about it. Maybe I can help."
Jesse snorted and turned back to the game he was supposed to be playing. Unfortunately his inattention had already caused his starfighter to crash into an asteroid, ending the game. He gritted his teeth in aggravation.
The basketball bounced against the back of his chair, making him spin around angrily. Again Brennan appeared not to notice, tossing the ball from one hand to the other.
"How hot is she?" he asked mildly, tossing the ball up and trying to catch it on the back of his neck. It rolled off and he had to snatch it quickly to keep it from escaping.
Jesse sighed, a long sigh of frustration and surrender. It was obvious that Brennan was not going to let go of this. He pivoted slowly in his chair, his expression one of rueful resignation.
"Brennan, I swear to you she could melt the polar ice cap."
Brennan grinned. Now they were getting somewhere.
"What do you know about her?"
"Nothing!" Jesse vaulted from the chair as if he could no longer bear to be still. He paced the small rectangle of space between himself and Brennan, then returned to spin the chair around and flop astride it, his arms folding across the top.
"She's obviously got class. Her clothes are expensive, understated and stylish. She dresses to show off her figure …. not in a cheap way, they're well cut and …. she just knows what looks good on her. Always dresses up ….. sometimes suits, once in a while tailored slacks …professional, like a lawyer or something, although I've never seen a briefcase. She drives a silver Beamer…."
Jesse shook his head.
"I've never been able to get it. There's like a piece of plastic or something over it that catches the sun and distorts it; I can't see it through the glare. And I'll bet it's there just for that purpose."
The words were spilling quickly from him, as if now that he started he couldn't stop.
"She always seems to know where I am, like she's looking for me as much as I'm looking for her," he went on, "It's a game to her, and she's clearly enjoying it …..not like a power trip; more like a battle of wits. Her smile … she's got more voltage than you have …."
Brennan listened, grinning, as Jesse rambled on. He'd never seen anyone so thoroughly smitten. There was fodder aplenty for teasing, something Brennan planned to keep in his back pocket for future use, but right now it was time for some good old-fashioned male solidarity. He flipped the basketball in the air once more.
"Well, if it was me, this is what I'd do …"
Which was how Jesse found himself on TechnoCraze's roof the next day well before 4 pm, binoculars in hand, staking out the street below, the Mustang positioned in front of the store. He and Brennan had debated that particular detail, and whether it would be wiser to take one of the other cars just to throw her off. In the end, they decided that Jesse should use the Mustang, at least this time; it would attract her attention and perhaps keep her searching the street for him as opposed to looking up. Besides, the former felon pointed out, the wise poker player took care not to show his hand. Jesse could switch cars later if this didn't work.
Jesse lowered the binoculars and glanced at his watch. Quarter after five. She probably wasn't coming today. He should go; he would pick up the stakeout again tomorrow. Well ….maybe five more minutes.
He hadn't seen her go into the store, yet suddenly she was emerging from it, the door swinging shut behind her, that luxurious burgundy hair drawing his eye like a magnet. She started walking purposefully up the street. Jesse's pulse quickened. She was wearing slacks today, he noted; basic black with a matching jacket. Her blouse was a vibrant gold; silk, he guessed from the way it shimmered. He glanced up the street, checking for the silver Beamer. It wasn't there. Excellent. This time she wouldn't escape.
He was all set to dash off in pursuit, but something made him pause. There was a difference in her body language today, a tension that he hadn't seen before. He soon saw why. A man in a dark suit exited the store, looked both ways, then hustled after her. At the same time a similarly-dressed man waiting at the bus stop across the street nonchalantly dropped his newspaper in the trash bin and drifted off on a parallel course. A glint of something reflective on the man's chest made Jesse bring the binoculars back to his eyes. The glint didn't reoccur, but Jesse had no trouble discerning the slight bulge in the suit jacket. Up ahead his mystery lady glanced behind her and quickened her pace.
It was shaping up to be a classic ambush/kidnap scenario. Who they were or why they were after her he didn't know, but Jesse didn't wait to see any more. He dashed across the roof and flung open the access door. Not bothering to rush down the stairs, he took his own personal short cut, simply phasing through to the landing below, then again down to street level. He hit the ground running.
They were about a half block away when he gained the street. Jesse tore after them, dodging around and through the stream of pedestrian traffic. Now he could see a third suited man coming from the opposite direction, cutting the lady off and steering her toward an alley at the end of the block. Jesse was familiar with that alley; he had cut through there many times before. It bordered a factory which had long since been abandoned; in fact, there had been some discussion in the newspaper recently about the possibility of tearing it down to make way for lofts and retail shops to improve the city's tax base. It was not a good spot for her to get cornered.
She darted down the alley, the three men closing formation and gaining ground. Jesse cursed. From the way this ambush was playing out, it was a good bet there would be another man posted at the other end of the alley, probably with a car to whisk her away. If he didn't get a move on, they would do just that. Breaking free of the last knot of pedestrians, he sprinted forward at top speed.
The alley was empty when he rounded the corner, and he hadn't heard the sound of a car. They must have gone into the factory. Yes, he could just see the side access door closing, the rusty hinges giving a final squeak. He bounded up the short flight of steps in pursuit. Not risking the chance of betrayal from the either the hinges or the door itself, he phased through and ducked behind a convenient post to get his bearings.
Decay was evident everywhere. The inside of the factory had been stripped down to the bare walls long ago, the mortar crumbling in spots, the concrete floor pitted and spotted with rat droppings. Here and there holes in the walls and ceiling suggested that the place had been stripped of copper and whatever else urban scavengers could collect to sell for a few bucks. Blackened circles of ash on the floor, bits of newspaper and picked-through piles of other trash indicated that rats weren't the only creatures finding shelter here, although none of it looked that recent. That was one good thing about all this; at least Jesse wouldn't have to worry about any innocent bystanders either getting in the way or seeing anything they shouldn't.
Not that they would get much of a look anyway; visibility wasn't exactly optimum here, and it wasn't as if anyone could turn on a power switch. Even if there was, there was nothing to power; a few dangling wires marked where fixtures had been before they were torn-out, probably for scrap. The only light came from a line of windows, some of which were broken, running the length of either side; grimy, old-fashioned windows positioned just a few feet below the ceiling. A shadowy double line of steel support pillars ran down either side and through the center of the rectangular floor space. Jesse's elbow brushed the one in front of him, coming away with a patch of rust-colored dust. He wouldn't be at all surprised if there was serious metal fatigue in all of them. No wonder the city wanted to tear it down.
Suddenly from up ahead he heard a male voice shout. Gunfire erupted, echoing through the expansive space, along with the sound of running feet moving away from him. Jesse sprinted as quietly as he could down the left side toward the sounds, using the support beams for cover in case the gunmen should discover him. He saw one man abruptly crumple to the ground in a strange fashion, not jerking, as if from the impact of a bullet, but just toppling forward into unconsciousness. The others ducked behind cover - yes, there must have been a fourth man; he could see three others advancing more cautiously. Jesse tried to soften the sound of his footfalls without losing too much speed. He was gaining on them rapidly. Hopefully they would stay distracted just a little bit longer.
Another man fell. His mystery lady was apparently fighting back with a commendable degree of skill, although exactly how he couldn't tell, unless she had a gun with a silencer. That notion brought him up short. Why would she be carrying such a weapon? Come to think of it, she was awfully adept at the art of evasion. Who was she? What was she involved in?
For the first time Jesse found himself hesitating. What was this all about? Maybe those men had a good reason to pursue her. He could be butting into a lawful arrest. He permitted himself a quick glance. Their manner was certainly professional, and they were according their quarry a good deal of respect. That suggested she was dangerous. Dangerous to whom?
Jesse moved up another pillar, observing the men closely. They weren't acting like any Feds he'd ever seen, but that didn't necessarily mean anything. And it was four against one; well, two now. Maybe she didn't really need his help. She was holding her own pretty well, but she would have to reload soon. Jesse paused, uncertain as to what to do.
He saw a flash of movement far ahead; a slim figure in black darting from one post to the next. One image burned into his brain - her hands were empty. That didn't seem to deter the men; indeed, one shouted in triumph and urged his partner forward. For Jesse, that broke the tie. He started forward again, slipping as silently as he could through the shadows. More shots were fired; Jesse could hear them pinging off the metal beams. He was abreast of them now. Another few seconds and they would probably see him.
Something small and hot hit him from the right, knocking him off stride and filling his chest with overwhelming, searing pain. Ricochet! He bounced off a support pillar, falling to his knees, the breath ripped from his lungs. Paralyzed with shock, he toppled forward, the scrape of concrete on his face as he hit unfelt in the larger agony.
Acting solely on instinct - survive! - he dragged his hand and the comring it contained to his mouth. His lips formed a single word, a name, but whether he actually uttered it before the darkness claimed him he never knew.
Shalimar Fox looked up from the dresser drawer she was restocking with freshly laundered lingerie. Did someone whisper her name? She and Brennan were the only ones at Sanctuary at the moment; Jesse was out, probably at his Nerd Heaven computer store again; Adam at a scientific conference and wasn't due back for another hour; and Emma was visiting friends in Seattle. She waited a moment to see if the whisper would reoccur. It didn't.
Shalimar shrugged and resumed her task. This time, however, her hands lingered on the silky fabric of an aquamarine teddy. An uneasy feeling was creeping into the pit of her stomach. Somewhere, somehow, something wasn't right. She straightened and moved with catlike grace to the open door of her bedroom, stretching out in all directions with her senses.
Was this feeling related to that whisper? Shalimar couldn't say. All she knew was that her nerves were prickling, and that the smallest hairs on the back of her neck were rising just like they did when she was on a mission and all hell was about to break loose. Her senses, though, were telling her a different story. Sanctuary was at peace. Everything looked, felt, sounded and smelled normal. It didn't make sense.
Okay, let's think about this, she counseled herself. If she had heard anything, and she was by no means sure that she had, it could have been Brennan. Even though she had passed him not long ago in the garage tinkering with his motorcycle, he might have whispered her name; he sometimes did things like that to test the range of her feral hearing, to see if she was paying attention so he could attempt to sneak up on her. It was a game they both enjoyed, a bit of horseplay they liked to indulge in. Almost immediately she discounted the thought. This didn't feel like those times, and anyway, her nose told her that Brennan was still in the garage. She could smell him, as well as the engine oil he likely had on his hands; could hear the clink of tools and the radio he liked to have on in the background as he worked.
Another person might have shrugged off the uneasy feeling and gone back to what she was doing, but the feral mutant was too much a creature of instinct not to heed it now. She would not alert Brennan until she had something more definite to tell him, but she would start with a search of Sanctuary from top to bottom. She would run security scans, verify the locations of her teammates, perhaps even go outside and check the vicinity to see if anything was happening out on the mountain. Silent as a wraith, her senses extended to their fullest, she glided from her room.
The first thing that registered for Jesse Kilmartin as he drifted back toward the light was the hardness of the unforgiving slab of concrete beneath him, and the bite of gravel digging into his head and back. That struck him as odd. The last thing he remembered was his face hitting the concrete, the bitter taste of dust filling his mouth as he lost consciousness, a taste that was still with him. The oddness was quickly forgotten as he became aware of a growing pool of fire blossoming in his right lung like the gradual opening of a desert flower. Jets of acid seared through its far-reaching network of rootlets, feeding the scarlet bloom spreading wetly across his chest. A low moan escaped him.
"Don't try to move," a honeyed female voice murmured, "Just rest. You're going to be fine."
Shalimar. She must have found him, as he knew she would. Jesse was aware of a sense of relief. Shal would take care of him; she always had. Funny thing, though – the voice didn't sound like Shal. He called her name, but the only sound that cleared his lips was another anguished moan.
Jesse felt a touch, gentle and soothing, along his temple. His eyelids parted, and he found himself looking up into a pair of breathtakingly beautiful eyes as green as polished emeralds. His field of vision slowly widened. A face began to hazily take shape; creamy complexion resolving into alluring feminine features topped by a cloud of deep, rich burgundy. It was a lovely, familiar face; a face that had been haunting his dreams for weeks.
"Hey there, cutie," she greeted him.
Her voice was just as he knew it would be; pleasing, musical, yet obliquely seductive. He took a breath to respond, and was rewarded with a dagger stabbing through his lung, turning his response to a gasping cough. He tried again with the same result. A salty, faintly metallic tang filled his mouth. He swallowed convulsively and coughed again. His right lung tried to rip itself in two.
"Whoa, easy there, cowboy," she crooned. Her hand moved across his vision; he felt it lightly come to rest in the center of that blazing pool of fire. A strange, almost tingling sensation strolled through his chest. Unaccountably the spasm eased. "There, that's better," she said, "You're going to be all right."
Contrary to her reassuring words, Jesse knew he was in serious trouble. He remembered what happened now; remembered the men chasing her, shooting at her; the ricochet striking him and dropping him in his tracks. Now he felt like a white-hot poker had been driven through his chest. Bright red blood soaked his sweater with every heartbeat, and there was a sharp catch in his breathing that suggested at least a partially collapsed lung. A series of shivers raced through his body. He felt chilled to the bone, and his stomach was roiling. Was he going into shock? Dying? A great wave of fear swept over him, making him fight harder for the next breath, which only set him coughing again.
"Shhhh." Fingertips as light and soft as velvet caressed his cheek, and the tightness in his chest and stomach somehow diminished. "You're not going to die. I promise. I'll help you."
Something in her voice made him believe her. A feeling of calm confidence washed over him, dissipating his fear like magic. Maybe he would make it through this after all. She continued to slowly stroke his temples, his face, the side of his throat, almost as if she knew how wonderfully comforting it was. Something warm meandered through his veins like a lazy country brook. Jesse closed his eyes briefly, savoring the magical sweetness of her touch, willing himself to believe that her gliding fingers were somehow feeding that warmth, soothing the twisting of his gut and the fire in his lung. So successful was this self-deception that he forgot and tried to draw a normal breath. Immediately the poker flared, searing him like a branding iron, forcing a half-stifled cry through clenched teeth.
"I know it hurts," his companion murmured sympathetically, gently brushing a stray lock of wheat-colored hair from his eyes, "I'll deal with that in a minute, but the first order of business is to get this bleeding under control."
How she planned to 'deal with it' was beyond him, but he was in too much pain to dwell on it anyway. Some rescuer he turned out to be. Was there anyone more useless than a would-be hero who had to be saved by the damsel in distress? He felt her hand press against his wound; no doubt she was trying use pressure to slow the bleeding. That was a start, but what he really needed was some serious medical help. Had she called an ambulance? Was that what she meant when she promised to help him? That would certainly complicate things. All it would take would be for a hospital lab to analyze his blood, and the secret existence of mutants would be blown sky high. Jesse couldn't risk that. He would just have to stay conscious long enough to alert Shalimar or Adam of his predicament. His friends would find him and bring him home. Mutant X would be protected.
The only problem with that sentiment was that it was easier said than done. His vision was graying; it was hard to think. The taste of blood was strong in his mouth, and even the simple act of breathing hurt like hell. Fear began to creep back into the edges of his mind.
A gentle hand caressed his cheek once again. Jesse looked up into those incredibly vivid eyes and was immediately lost in their mesmerizing depths. All thoughts of fear, internal bleeding and ambulances disappeared. Later he would reflect that he had never seen a green so rich and vibrant, but right now coherent thought was being drowned in those brilliant emerald orbs. They had been luminous before, but now they seemed to glow, as if lit by some inner fire. Nor was the glow confined to her eyes. A pale golden light, no doubt a reflection of some sort from the late afternoon sunlight, shone from somewhere along his torso. Tearing his eyes away from hers, he shifted his head fractionally, letting his gaze wander toward where her slender hand lightly rested.
And received a shock. What he thought was reflected sunlight was in fact emanating from her fingers. The energy seeped through his sweater and into his pores, penetrating every fiber. His respiration began to even out, relaxing into something approaching a normal rhythm. Other things were happening too; there were weird movements inside his body such as he had never experienced before, not jerky or spasmodic, but controlled and with evident purpose. What that purpose was, though, he couldn't begin to fathom.
Another movement. Jesse decided that he must be delirious. That was the only explanation he could come up with for what he was experiencing. It wasn't that he saw or felt anything in particular; rather he perceived as a whole in some manner that was both, and yet neither. Whatever he wanted to name it, he had the absurd notion he could discern what must be ruptured blood vessels come alive amid tiny bursts of light. Prompted by these flashes, ragged tendrils crawled toward each other, their ends meeting and merging, cutting off the escaping flow, absorbing and encasing the precious fluid of life once more.
As quickly as it started, the warmth began to recede, the unnatural movement slowed, then ceased. The amber light faded, and with it the bizarre perception. The here and now once again came into focus, and with it a realization that hit Jesse like a bucket of ice water. He wasn't delirious. This was real. And that meant ….
"You're a mutant!" Jesse could not hide the feelings of amazement and wonder spreading through him. What were the odds on this? The lady he had been trying to meet for weeks, who obviously shared his interest in computers, also had a much rarer trait in common. Like him, she was a mutant, only hers was the power to heal. The coincidence was just too wild. Although severe pain still blazed in his chest, he knew beyond doubt or reason that she had stopped the internal bleeding. The first order of business, just as she said.
His companion was evidently drawing a fair amount of amusement from his astonished expression. Her lips quirked into a teasing smile.
"Hot looking and perceptive, too." she murmured, "Must be my lucky day. What's your name, cutie?"
It took a few seconds for him to gather enough breath to answer.
Her amusement turned into a rueful grimace. "Well, Jesse, I guess you walked into a real hornet's nest, didn't you? I just wish I'd realized sooner that you were tagging along – I might have been able to prevent this."
He lifted his head, and might have at least tried to rise up further if there hadn't been a firm hand on his shoulder.
"You came back …. for me?" he asked.
She assumed an expression of mock surprise.
"Of course. Did you think I'd leave a handsome hunk like you hanging?"
Jesse lips twitched automatically at her flirting. He sensed she was doing it just to put him at ease, which he was grateful for, but he didn't let it divert him from the memories rushing back into his head.
"Those men – who were they?" he asked, but even as he said it, he was pretty sure he knew the answer. Only Genetic Security Agency men would be chasing a mutant. But why the guns? GSA agents were under standing orders to capture, not kill. Was the order different where she was concerned? And if so, why?
She pursed her lips as if considering how or if to answer him, but was distracted by the sound of groans, of movement, voices, and the scrape of metal against stone. Damn! She had expected them to be unconscious longer. This was a complication she didn't need.
"Bad pennies," she muttered darkly. "They keep turning up. And you need a lot more work." Her expression became grim. This time she couldn't afford to be nice. She leaned close to him, her voice dropping to a whisper.
"Lie still, and don't make a sound," she said, "I'll be back."
Jesse saw her eyes flash, and didn't like it one bit. He had seen a similar look from Shalimar too many times, a look presaging by nanoseconds a leap into an action both impulsive and extremely dangerous. He couldn't allow that. Being a mutant healer wouldn't keep her from getting shot. Maybe he wasn't so useless after all. He caught her wrist before she could rise, clenching his teeth against the stabbing result of such a rash maneuver.
"Better idea," he whispered. He remembered seeing steps leading down to a basement stairwell as well as the ones up to the side access door that he came in, so there must be a floor below them, but it would be quite a drop – that is, assuming he had the strength to phase them both through the floor. Unfortunately, there wasn't a whole lot of choice; from the sound of it, their pursuers were gathering themselves, and once on their feet, it wouldn't be long before they were discovered. Nor was there any time, or spare breath for that matter, to explain about his powers and what he planned to do. His eyes locked on hers as he tried to impress upon her by sheer force of will that he knew what he was doing.
Perhaps she sensed his conviction, or more likely sensed his own mutantcy when she stopped the internal bleeding. Either that, or else she had no real wish to run a gauntlet of bullets if she didn't have to, for she acquiesced with a short nod, her hand returning to his chest. Energy flared once again, and in that moment he felt a surge of strength and a sudden, startling absence of pain. Thankful for the support and her implied trust, he smiled and squeezed her hand.
An abrupt shout made them both start. It had to be now, while they were shielded at least somewhat by the row of pillars and the shadows they created. Jesse didn't hesitate. At the sound of footsteps accelerating toward them, he reached up with an arm around her back and pulled her close against him.
"Deep breath," he whispered urgently. Suiting actions to words, he inhaled as deeply as he could, then used his power to turn them both intangible. Focusing his mind, he let the atoms under his control slip into the concrete below, leaving an empty space to confound the men converging on that spot.
Phasing them through the floor was their only chance, but the process had a component he hadn't counted on. Being intangible, she couldn't use her powers, and without her blocking off his pain, it came back with a vengeance, raw and fiery, ripping the breath from his lungs, draining his scant strength. He barely got them clear of the ceiling before his concentration broke completely, rematerializing them in open air some 10 feet above the floor. His companion was surprisingly quick on the uptake; as soon as they solidified she moved her arm to circle his back, the other catching his knees, her legs dropping to absorb what she could of the impact. She landed feet first, but the jolt jarred her grip loose, and the two of them tumbled to the ground hard.
Jesse was coughing spatters of blood against his sleeve, his body curling from the agonized spasms racking him, the result of landing on his right side. She scrambled back to him and placed a comforting hand on his brow, letting her golden energy flow into him to soothe his lungs, dampen his pain. Unable to speak, he looked up at her, hoping she could read the gratitude in his eyes. She kept up the energy transfer until felt his condition stabilizing.
"That's a pretty handy trick," she complimented when she sensed he was coherent enough to understand her. If she was surprised at this display of his mutant powers, she didn't show it. Her other hand stole to his wound, her power penetrating deep to see if he had done any additional damage.
She didn't like what she saw. Jesse needed immediate and uninterrupted attention. The immediate wasn't a problem, it was the uninterrupted part that could be tricky. Even though never in a million years would they ever dream that their quarry had eluded them by sinking through the floor, she knew her pursuers to be professional (or anal) enough to do at least a cursory sweep of the whole building before departing. She needed a hiding place, and she needed it fast.
She glanced around. Litter abounded on this level as well, including several squashed-looking cardboard boxes she guessed had been used as living quarters by whatever vagrants congregated here. It was a long shot, but she might be able to gather the debris together, arranging it into a pile with a hidden cavity in the middle without it being obvious. If they became suspicious of the pile - well, she would do what was necessary. She brushed a sweaty lock of hair from Jesse's eyes.
"Rest a minute," she said, "I need to find us some cover. I'll be right back."
He blinked his understanding. She rose and moved toward the boxes.
"Jesse, talk to me".
Shalimar had completed her personal sweep of Sanctuary without finding anything wrong, but her instincts would not be quiet. She had therefore contacted both Adam and Emma, the latter on her cell phone as she was out of comlink range. Shalimar had tried to make the call sound routine while stretching her senses to detect anything out of the ordinary. Adam's answer had been quick and quiet; she could hear a lecture going on in the background. Emma's response had been almost quizzical, but if she sensed Shalimar's uneasiness she didn't mention it. That left Jesse, and even as she keyed in the search for his location she could feel the small hairs on the back of her neck standing up, a frisson of electricity shooting through her nerves. That settled it.
Brennan had been heading toward his room, his mind on nothing more than a hot shower, when he heard Shalimar call out. Immediately he changed course, checking his watch as he did so. It was later than he thought. Probably that was why Shalimar was trying to contact Jesse; evidently he wasn't back yet, and it was getting on toward supper. Brennan grinned to himself. He hadn't seen Jesse leave Sanctuary, but he knew the Mustang was not in the garage, and given their conversation the previous day, it wasn't hard to deduce that Jesse had succeeded in tracking down his elusive quarry. If Jesse's description of her was anything to go by, the woman was more than enough to cause him to lose track of time. Brennan chuckled to himself. He supposed it was his duty as both a male and a co-conspirator to keep Shalimar from spoiling things by interrupting at a possibly delicate moment.
Wiping his hands on a shop towel, he strolled over to the communications center where Shalimar stood staring at the mounted flat screen. He noticed the tension in her slim form immediately.
"What's up?" he asked, his eyes flicking to the monitor to see what she was working on. She had the comlink tracer program running. Adam had designed this program to identify and locate the GPS signal of each Mutant X comlink individually, to be able to track any member of the team in case of emergency - like when one of the team was away from Sanctuary for an inordinate amount of time. One of Adam's strictest policies was regular check-ins by all members, including himself, regardless of whether or not that person was on a mission. It was a necessary precaution for anyone in their line of work, especially in the shadowy alleys of the mutant world, where any one of them could be targeted by an enemy at any time. Brennan personally found this stricture to be a pain, and frequently stretched the limits just on general principles. Jesse, by contrast, rarely did. This time, though, Brennan couldn't blame him. If he was the one getting up close and personal with a beautiful woman, he'd be tempted to toss the ring down the nearest garbage disposal.
The computer pinged, announcing the successful acquisition of Jesse's signal. Shalimar stared at it for several seconds, feeling apprehension and surety growing in equal measure.
"Is the Helix fully fueled?" she asked without turning around,
Brennan was surprised at the edge in her voice. Jesse was late, all right, but not late enough to warrant this strong of reaction. "Topped off this morning, why?"
"We need to go," she said, "Jesse's in trouble."
"Whoa, slow down," Brennan said, tossing aside the oily towel. This was getting way out of hand. "What are you talking about?"
Shalimar swiveled the stool to face him, her face clouded with worry.
"I've accessed the log. He's been gone for hours, and he hasn't checked in once. I've tried contacting him, but he's not answering. We need to find him."
"Now just a second," Brennan objected, "Let's not jump to any …"
"Conclusions?" she finished for him, "Brennan, you know as well as I do that Jesse does not miss a check-in."
"I know, but he may have had a good reason this time," Brennan said. He was trying to soothe her without betraying the real cause of Jesse's tardiness. Maybe it was a guy thing, but Brennan was reluctant to betray this kind of confidence. In his mind there were just some boundaries that shouldn't be crossed.
On the other hand, he mused, this was Shalimar he was talking about. Who's to say her feral senses hadn't picked up something on some level unknown to him? He couldn't imagine what it was like for her, how it felt to process information in animalistic as well as human ways. Besides, all of them were still mutating, their powers still expanding. Why shouldn't she be able to sense danger to someone in her pack? After all, it was well known that animals could somehow sense imminent danger, like an earthquake or a typhoon. Was this so different? He decided to probe further.
"Shal, outside of this missed check-in thing, why do you think Jesse's in trouble?" he asked.
Shalimar glared at him. Sometimes Brennan and his patronizing male attitude could be a royal pain in the ass. She knew he was just humoring her, and she hated being humored. She couldn't have said how, but she was positive that something was seriously wrong with Jesse, and that they were wasting precious time. She leaped to her feet.
"What, no crack about women's intuition or overreacting?" she snapped, "Wait, maybe there's a full moon! Next you'll be giving me a pat on the head, and telling me there's a perfectly logical explanation. Well, there is. Jesse's in trouble, and I'm going. With you, or without you."
She started to storm past him, but only got one step before he interposed his bulk in her path.
"Hey! I didn't say that!" he insisted, completely taken aback at the vehemence of her attack, "I didn't even think that!"
She snorted in disbelief, and attempted to step around him. Brennan moved with her, and put his hands on her shoulders.
"Shal," he said seriously, "I really wasn't thinking that. I know you better than that. And whether it's women's intuition or your feral senses or whatever, I want you to know that you're the only person I've ever met whose instincts I trust at least as much as my own."
Her eyes widened at that. She searched his face, looking for any sign of false placation. What she saw was unfeigned sincerity.
"You've never said that to me before."
He nodded. "I know. I should have. It's true." He sighed. "Look, I didn't want to mention this at first, but there's this woman that Jesse's been trying to hook up with. He first saw her at the computer store, and he's been spending every waking moment ever since trying to track her down. He was thinking that today might be the day he caught up with her. All I'm asking is that you take this into account as a possible explanation for being late, and then tell me what you honestly think."
Shalimar touched his arm, the last of her anger melting away. He believed her. More than that, he respected her, not just as a woman or a fellow mutant, but as an equal. The thought was a little humbling, especially in light of her earlier suspicion.
"I can't explain it, Brennan," she said slowly, "Maybe it is a feral thing, some new manifestation of my powers. I don't know. All I know is that, even with what you've told me, every instinct I have is screaming at me that something is seriously wrong with Jesse. "
Brennan shrugged. "That's good enough for me. Let's go," he said, stepping off toward the hanger. Now it was Shalimar's turn to be surprised, so much so at his matter-of-fact acquiescence that she was a step or two behind. Pausing only long enough to bring her comring to her lips and whisper, "Jesse, we're coming", she hurried along in Brennan's wake.
"Jesse, we're coming."
Lying there on the dirty floor of a deserted, rat-infested factory, on the crash side of a roller-coaster ride of pain, Jesse Kilmartin thought those were the most beautiful words he had ever heard. The cavalry, in the form of Brennan and Shalimar, would be there soon, and would no doubt make short work of their pursuers if they were stupid enough to be hanging around. Shalimar in particular would be in no mood for messing around; the worry in her voice was unmistakable. He tried to muster enough strength to answer her.
Velvet fingertips brushed his face, and he opened his eyes. His mystery lady was bending over him once again.
"I've found a place," she said, slipping her arms around him. Immediately that same amber glow began to coalesce between them. Jesse felt her energy, her strength begin to flow into him like rivulets of rainwater trickling downhill to feed a stream. She tugged on him gently, helping him roll to his knees.
"Come on," she said, "We've got to move in case the goon squad thinks of coming down here."
Jesse shook his head, trying to clear it. He took as deep a breath as his lungs would allow, marshalling his strength. She encircled his waist with one arm, laid his left arm across her shoulders and hauled. He lurched to his feet, coughing a little at the sudden strain. Her powers were supplying him energy and providing a respite from the pain, but he still had a catch in his breathing from the collapsed lung to deal with, as well as the weakness from loss of blood and the slug grinding against muscle and bone. Together they managed to make it, half walking, half staggering, to a space next to a hastily-gathered trash pile where a small pair of flattened-out boxes were spread end-to-end on the cold concrete.
This was cover? If he could have spared the energy for so much as an incredulous look he would have asked her if she was off her rocker, but at this point it was all he could do to keep his feet moving. At least the rats were keeping their distance; they fled before them into the shadows, chittering indignantly. He collapsed when they reached their destination, falling hard on his knees onto the makeshift pallet, nearly pulling her down with him, wheezing hard from the exertion.
She eased him over onto his back. "Jesse, I'm going to pull some of this trash over you."
Oh, no. She wasn't still thinking of leading those goons away from him, was she? It was an open question as to whether the GSA agents knew what her powers were, but like the rest of Mutant X, his powers were well known. Whether they saw them phasing through the floor or not was moot; Eckhart's people were too well trained not to check out every possibility when they found their quarry had vanished. He reached out with his good arm and seized her. "Don't go," he managed to croak, "Too dangerous."
She smiled and gently but firmly pried loose his hand.
"You're not getting rid of me that easily," she said, "As soon as I make this look like a pile of debris, I'll join you. But time is not our ally here."
She rose and moved out of his immediate field of vision, but he could hear the sound of sliding cardboard as she pulled the few empty cartons, one or two with some charring on them, out of the pile. She worked quickly and deftly, twisting one flap here, tearing another one there, fashioning a sort of Origami-like framework which would be the core of their hiding place. Then one section was placed on top of him, not touching him, but not affording much clearance, either. He heard the distinctive crunch of newspaper being stuffed into crevices, felt the feather-soft impact of light debris tossed on top of the shelter. In less time than he would have believed she had him boxed into a space that would have been generously called coffin-sized, and nearly as devoid of light. Silence fell.
The cardboard surrounding him was faintly damp, and stank of smoke and a whole lot of things Jesse would just as soon not identify. He strained his hearing, but could discern nothing over his own breathing. Where was she? Did she leave him after all? The cramped quarters and total darkness were extremely unnerving. His cardboard shelter bore too far much of a resemblance to the pods at Genomex, and even the pain he was in, blazing like the heart of a volcano, couldn't keep a sense of panic from crowding into his mind. She must have left him, else she would have built herself into the shelter as well. And damned if he could do anything about it; he doubted he could even push himself out, let alone have the strength to try to look for her. The old saw about not being able to fight his way out of a paper bag was infuriatingly appropriate. Now what the hell did he do?
Something moved near his feet. Fearing it was a rat drawn by the smell of his blood, he started to kick reflexively, his anxiety level spiking. Then he felt what was undoubtedly a hand slip under a flap of cardboard and catch his ankle. A wave of calmness flowed through him. Relieved, he relaxed as his mystery lady slithered her way – there was no other word for it – through a miniscule, cleverly disguised opening in the frame at his feet. Bit by bit, using her elbows, hands, knees and feet she squirmed over his legs and along his length, somehow managing to do so without disturbing the structure of the space. Every touch electrified him; every brush of her hand against his shin, near his knee, on his thigh, at his waist as she pulled herself forward ignited a different kind of fire; every nerve ending in his body suddenly and acutely aware of each unquestionably feminine line and curve of the body pressing his, charting her progress in excruciating detail, the barrier of their clothes no barrier at all. His sweater was dragged up by the friction; it was a little shock to feel her warm breath on his belly followed by the cool silk of her blouse. Under other circumstances he would have enjoyed it immensely, and indeed reciprocated most enthusiastically, but right now her gyrations were an exquisite form of torture. She continued wriggling forward until she was practically cheek to cheek, her body stretched out half beside him and half on top of him, a warm, tantalizing presence. Her soft whisper tickled his ear.
"Not claustrophobic, are you?"
Actually he was, at least some, but at that moment claustrophobia wasn't in his thoughts. He fought to pull his mind back from the erotic trail it had started down.
"A little," he admitted without embarrassment. Anyone who had been in a Genomex pod would feel the same.
"Well, let's see if I can't give you something else to think about."
She inched closer, something he didn't think possible, given that she was practically tattooed to him as it was, her breath warming his cheek. Electricity raced through his skin when he felt her hand slide beneath his sweater across his torso toward the pool of acid eating its way through his chest. He grimaced into the darkness.
"That's …," he had to stop to cough, " ….. a helluva thing to say ….to a man in ….my condition."
Somehow he sensed her smile.
"Well, let's see if I can't do something about that, too." She laid her head on his good shoulder, her silky hair brushing his face. Jesse stifled a groan that had nothing to do with pain, trying to ignore the luscious form pressed so intimately to his own, and the fact that his left arm was trapped against her torso from breast to thigh. All he had to do was twist his wrist to stroke….Good God! he groaned to himself, struggling for a modicum of control. He may have a bullet in his chest, but he wasn't dead yet!
All at once they heard the sound of a door opening. Footsteps came through and diverged, then moved toward them from different directions. There were two men by the sound of it. Jesse's pulse quickened. They must have seen the two mutants phasing through the floor; they might even know he had been injured. He would be of particular interest to Eckhart. His blood turned to ice. He could hear the footsteps coming together, approaching their pathetic hiding place. They were caught. It was inevitable. Surely they could hear his heart thundering, the roaring of his lungs as he tried to suck in oxygen. They would be discovered, and the bad guys would start shooting, and that would be it. There was no way in his present condition that he would be able to protect the two of them, or even just himself, by massing out. He felt his fear building as the footsteps stopped at their shelter. Where were Brennan and Shalimar? Would they get there in time?
Jesse felt the empath take a breath. A most wondrous sensation spread throughout his mind and body, a feeling of peace and tranquility that no amount of danger could shake. Not even the sound of voices in discussion just above them, or the experimental nudge of a toe against their shelter could disturb him, so deep was his serenity. He lay perfectly still, and was perfectly content to remain so for the next month or more, which seemed to be a perfectly natural and reasonable thing to do. Presently the voices stopped. The footsteps receded, the door opened and closed, and all was silent once more.
The peaceful feeling faded. For Jesse it was like awakening from a trance or a dream. He started, the present circumstances returning with a rush.
"That was amazing!" he breathed.
His companion propped her chin on his collarbone and grinned impishly at him.
"Aw, I bet you say that to all the empaths you meet."
Jesse grinned, but his witty reply turned into a wracking cough. Instantly she reached out to soothe it.
"Yes, we need to get that taken care of, too," she said.
She pressed her palm against his wound. Her expression became shuttered as she gathered herself.
"Try to relax," she murmured, "Clear your mind. Just breathe."
Taking a deep breath, she laid her head back down on his shoulder, closed her eyes, and began to concentrate. The amber energy shone through his sweater, much richer in color than before, building around her fingers before releasing into his skin, warming his entire body as if he had stepped into a steaming hot tub. At the same time he could feel movement inside his lung, slow and rhythmic, almost as if her hand had penetrated his chest wall to individually and simultaneously touch each nerve and muscle, soothing and smoothing, kneading and renewing them. The effect was akin to an under-the-skin massage administered by an expert masseuse, and Jesse felt himself relaxing like never before. He surrendered totally to her ministrations, feeling a trust in her as natural as it was complete. All his questions, all pain and weakness drifted away like puffballs on a summer breeze, replaced by a sense of comfort, security, and total ease. He sighed blissfully.
"That ….feels …. good," he murmured.
Though her eyes were still closed, her smile was ethereal, almost other-worldly, and the amber glow flared brighter. That strange perception returned. In his mind's eye he was traveling inside his own body, flashing past shredded tissue and torn muscles to where something small and dark lay nestled. Electrical impulses flashed and danced through the network of nerve endings into surrounding muscles. They rippled repeatedly in what appeared to be an amazingly controlled fashion, dislodging the blackened lump, pushing it along its own ravaged path, the damaged areas melting together in its wake. He felt his lung gradually expand, the rhythm slow and steady, filling more fully with each breath until it matched its twin, blessed oxygen streaming in, all surrounded by golden, life-sustaining energy.
He must have blacked out then, for the next thing he knew the glow had dissipated, the surreal perception gone once more. Fading sunlight cast shadows into their hiding place; somewhere in the back of his mind he perceived that his benefactor had pushed away some of their covering. He blinked rapidly, coming back to himself, and cast his mind around tentatively, probing his injury. He drew in a deep, experimental breath. To his mild surprise he felt completely normal; a bit weak, perhaps, but otherwise just fine. Whole. He lay still for a moment, reliving his remarkable experience.
"Welcome back," said a voice to his left.
Jesse sat up and immediately regretted it as a powerful wave of dizziness surged through him, making his head swim and his stomach do flips. His body swayed; a supportive arm went around his shoulders. For a long moment it was touch and go as to whether he would black out again, or worse disgrace himself by tossing his cookies. He closed his eyes, fighting to bring his rebellious body under control. Eventually, it obeyed his command; the world slowed in its spinning and his stomach calmed down. He swallowed hard and opened his eyes.
"Whew!" he exclaimed, giving his head a little shake, "That wasn't in the script."
"Sure it was - you just skipped a page," his companion replied, "I can't replace blood that fast; at least not in the quantity you've lost, and under the circumstances I couldn't afford to anyway. It would have left us both too vulnerable. Plus, it takes a little time for your body to adjust to that kind of accelerated healing."
That certainly made sense. He should have thought of something that obvious, and for a moment was a little piqued with himself that he hadn't. Then, dismissing the thought as water under the bridge, he concentrated on chasing the last vestiges of vertigo still swirling in his brain. He began to breathe slowly and deeply, trying to center himself in a technique Emma had taught him. That he could do so without pain, when just moments ago it was like trying to suck a walnut through a deflated straw, still seemed not quite real to him. It was a simple act, so natural, so basic, that most of the time you weren't consciously aware of it. Jesse doubted he would ever take it for granted again.
The supportive arm fell from across his shoulders, bringing him out of his reverie. Jesse felt unaccountably bereft. He lifted his head and smiled at the woman sitting quietly beside him.
"What's your name, cutie?" he said softly.
She flashed a reflexive grin at him using her own line back at her, but hesitated for a brace of seconds before answering.
He picked up her hand, reddened with a disconcerting amount of his blood, a rueful little smile playing on his lips.
"You know, this is not the way I envisioned our first date."
She caricatured a look of puzzlement, her gesture encompassing their surroundings in a sweeping wave.
"How could you possibly top all this?"
Jesse couldn't help chuckling. His mystery lady was not only smart and powerful, she also had a sardonic sense of humor to match his own. Images filled his head of a candlelight dinner, soft music, fine wine, maybe a little slow dancing, or perhaps a midnight stroll along the lake, possibly followed by a more intimate encounter. Any one of those options would have been a definite improvement over their present situation. He grinned. "It would have been a stretch, but I'd have thought of something."
He paused, his thumb rubbing slow circles on the back of her hand, marshalling his thoughts. There was no doubt in his mind that he would have bled to death if Gemini hadn't helped him. She didn't have to. Whoever her attackers were, she could have gotten away clean, and yet she came back for him, putting herself in mortal danger. The rest of who she was didn't matter. She covered him when their pursuers searched the basement, and then she healed him. The enormity of it all completely blew his mind, but search as he would, he couldn't find the words to even begin to express his wonder or his gratitude. In the end, he stopped trying. He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed the satiny skin.
"Thank you," he said simply.
Her eyes widened to the size of saucers, and to his surprise he saw a blush dust her cheeks. She recovered quickly, though, and smiled wryly.
"It was the least I could do for such an ardent admirer."
Their eyes locked. Jesse shifted closer, intending to follow up his continental opening. His hand rose to tenderly cup her cheek, to gently turn her face to meet his kiss as he drew ever nearer. To his dismay she pulled back just before their lips met, slipping free from his grasp. He caught her hand again as she started to stand.
"Hey – where are you going?"
She shrugged dismissingly. "Just to take a quick look around; make sure the goons haven't come back with reinforcements. Don't sweat it."
"There's no need," he told her. "We've got help on the way."
She stopped and stared at him.
"What are you talking about?"
"My ring is a comlink," he said, holding up his right hand, "My friends will be here any time now."
His mystery lady digested this thoughtfully. "I…see," she said slowly. She appeared to be groping for another excuse.
Jesse frowned. Her sudden skittishness perplexed him. The obvious answer was that she might have been unsettled by his advances, but somehow he didn't think so, not after that wriggling physical she gave him when she crawled over him. She certainly hadn't been shy then. He started to rise. A second, stronger wave of dizziness hit him, forcing him to sit back down. She placed a restraining hand on his shoulder.
"I thought you learned your lesson," she scolded, "You need to rest."
Something in the way she spoke made him look at her more closely. For the first time he noticed that much of the inner fire had gone out of her eyes. They were darker, duller, their brilliance faded. Come to think of it, her face looked different, too; a little drawn, and almost pale. Fine lines of strain creased her forehead, and it seemed to him that there was a certain rigidity to her posture.
"Are you all right?" he asked solicitously.
Her answering look was wary. "I'm fine," she said, a little too quickly, "Why?"
Now that was stupid, he chided himself. Most women bristled at the slightest hint of negativity in regard to their looks. Certainly after all the energy she had transferred to him, it wasn't to be wondered at if she seemed tired. Maybe she needed to pull back into herself a little after such an exertion; he'd seen Emma act that way before. Psionics, she had explained, (although Gemini might be more properly classified as a psionic-molecular based on the abilities she displayed), especially those whose powers involved connecting in some fashion with another person, often needed some space to regroup after intensive use of their powers, a sort of reaffirmation of self after being blended with another human being. Jesse could empathize a little with that; his own power to phase through solid objects was a blending of sorts. Emma's brand of merging, though, that of mind and spirit, was a whole other kettle of fish. He could only guess at what it must have been like for Gemini. Belatedly he remembered Emma telling him that skin contact at such a time could be intrusive for an esper trying to regain her equilibrium. That would certainly explain Gemini's actions.
But was it more than that? She turned away, and in doing so her jacket gapped open just a little. Peering in, he saw what appeared to be a dark stain shading her right breast. The fading daylight was casting odd shadows in the dingy factory, but he could have sworn the stain was red - blood red.
"What's that?" he demanded. It was just now occurring to him that there might have been a more physical element to his recovery than he had supposed. Emma experienced the emotions of those she was affecting. Could it be the same with Gemini? Suppose she didn't so much heal his wounds as absorb them? The thought filled him with alarm. If healing him had somehow hurt her...
He reached for her to investigate further, but never got that far, for suddenly she leaned forward and kissed him deeply, her left hand sliding up to caress the back of his neck. Before he could adequately respond to that very pleasant surprise, he felt an overwhelming lethargy spread throughout his mind and body, deadening his muscles into immobility and wrapping his senses in an ever-deepening black velvet cloak. He was unconscious before their lips ever parted.
"Sweet dreams, Jesse," she whispered, lowering his limp form to the floor.
Brennan landed the Helix with his usual precision on the roof of the abandoned factory. "What the hell is he doing here?" he asked, checking the tracking screen again, although he already knew these were the correct coordinates. His question dissipated in empty air. Shalimar had already hit the switch for the hatch and bounded from her seat.
"Shal, wait!" he cried. Exasperated, he finished shutting down the controls and chased after her. He managed to catch up to her at the roof security door just in time to see her spring the hinges with a running two-footed kick. Bouncing off and landing like a cat, she seized the edge of the door and hauled with all her strength. The battered hinges gave way with the screech of shearing metal. Brennan just stood there, shaking his head over this latest display of his teammate's animal power. He was twice her size, and in peak physical shape, yet he knew for a certainty that he couldn't have manhandled the heavy door like she had. And she wasn't even breathing hard.
Tossing the door aside like so much cardboard, she darted inside without a word and leaped down the stairs. Brennan followed. At the bottom was another door, not quite as heavy but still substantial. She was about to treat it in a similar fashion when Brennan stopped her.
"Let's look before we leap this time, okay?"
She glared at him, but obediently refrained from ripping the door off its hinges.
"That's funny, coming from you."
Brennan acknowledged his jump-into-the-water-before-checking-for-sharks tendency with a nod.
"Yeah, well, so I'm getting smarter in my old age."
Shalimar put her ear to the door and listened intently for a moment.
"Nothing," she reported, and was all set to grab the door when Brennan tapped her shoulder.
Shalimar moved back until she was almost beside him. Brennan raised his hands. Electrical energy immediately began to coalesce between them. He let the voltage build for a brace of seconds, then fired. The powerful blast blew the door completely free of its frame, launching it a good six feet into the room beyond. Pleased with himself, he made a dusting-off motion with his hands. Shalimar threw him an amused look over her shoulder as she moved through the smoking doorway.
Brennan shrugged and followed. "Who says you get to have all the fun?"
Once inside, though, Shalimar was all business.
"Gunpowder," she announced, stretching out with her feral senses, "There's been shooting here - recently."
Brennan thought he smelled it too, a distinctive tang among the expansive decay. This section of the building was long and rectangular, the only thing visible were rows of pitted steel pillars that were the building's support, and occasional bits of trash that suggested occasional use by some of the city's less fortunate citizens. No doubt there were rats lurking in the shadows as well.
Shalimar padded forward, sniffing the air as though following the acrid scent, but suddenly veered left. Brennan didn't question her; he just fanned out to her right, as was his habit in working with her, moving with his back more or less to her position to guard against a flanking attack. He hadn't gone more than 50 yards before he came across a number of ejected shell casings. They were spread out in little groupings over a fairly large patch of floor, connected by smudged, overlapping footprints in the dust, suggesting a progression, perhaps a chase. He crouched down beside one group to examine them more closely. Nine millimeter Brownings, he mused, all of them. Three, maybe four shooters, judging by their number. He rose and drifted among the others trailing toward the opposite end of the building. If whoever they were shooting at returned fire, they must have also been using a Browning. All the shells he found were identical. What he didn't find were any of the flattened bullets he would have expected had Jesse been here and intervened. Why, then, had the tracer brought them here?
Shalimar made a more ominous discovery.
Brennan pocketed a few of the casings and jogged toward the sound of her voice. He found her crouched beside a brick-red spot on the concrete about the size of a grapefruit. He didn't need to ask her what it was. In his time on the street he had seen many such bloodstains. He knelt beside her and touched it with one finger. It was fairly fresh.
"Looks like somebody caught a round," he commented.
Shalimar raised anxious eyes to his.
Brennan's eyes darted instantly to the shadowy columns around them. Shalimar shook her head.
"He's not there," she said, "He's not anywhere on this level."
"You think whoever did this took him with them?" he asked.
"No. Look at this." She pointed at the stain.
"He went down here. This print… " Her finger moved to a faint, shapeless impression in the dust beside it. " … shows where someone rolled him over, probably onto his back. Then others came. There are two trails here, one of an individual, the other of a group."
She gestured to her left. Brennan followed her hand, and thought he could pick out one or two bits of what could be footprints, but he sure couldn't call it a trail, let alone discern tracks of two groups of people. He shook his head in wonder, marveling at how much information her feral senses were gathering, and recognizing just how hopelessly out of his depth he was. Shalimar didn't appear to notice.
"This group track has people converging; I'd say four," she continued, "They came to this spot, then left the way we came in. This one, though, " and she indicated an invisible spot near Brennan's left knee, "an individual, came from the same direction and stopped here. From the way the others overlap, I'd say the individual came first." She raised her head, looking squarely at him. "The thing is, there's no sign of him leaving, and there's no indication that Jesse either moved himself or was dragged from this spot."
Brennan drew a sharp breath.
"He phased through the floor."
She nodded. "That's the way I read it."
"Then what happened to the other person, the individual?" Brennan asked.
Shalimar shook her head. "I can't be sure," she said, "Either the other four took him, or he phased with Jesse."
Brennan frowned. "But you're sure they didn't take Jesse."
Which meant that he had to be on the level below them, and obviously seriously injured. Exchanging an anxious glance, they rose as one and sprinted toward the stairs.
The lower floor was similar in appearance to its upper counterpart, except that it was darker down here. The windows lining the top of the wall were at street level, so there wasn't as much light coming through. That wasn't a problem for the feral, but the elemental would soon have to provide his own illumination. There was still enough, though, to see a dark shape in the middle of the room. It appeared to be composed of nothing but trash. Perhaps the derelicts that took shelter here were somewhat tidier than their top-dwelling counterparts.
They found the spot where Jesse should have landed, but their molecular teammate was not there, nor was he anywhere in sight. Shalimar knelt down to examine the floor. She knew he was close by. The reek of his blood had assaulted her as soon as she came through the door; it permeated the atmosphere on this level. Ruthlessly she shoved the obvious implications to the back of her mind. She would be no good to anyone if she broke down now. Besides, there was actually more than one blood-scent here, but with Jesse's so strong, she was having trouble getting a fix on the other. The whole setup screamed 'trap'. She had to forget Jesse for the moment and concentrate on sifting through the olfactory and auditory sensory data.
Brennan remained standing, silently watching his partner work. He had seen more than his share of violence in his life, and had gained first-hand experience of gunshot wounds and their effects. From the size of the stain on the upper floor, Jesse had to be seriously wounded. If he had managed to phase through the floor, he would have landed pretty hard on the concrete below. Between the wound and the impact, it was doubtful he could have been able to crawl more than a few feet away from where he landed, and even more doubtful that he could have done so without leaving some sort of blood trail. Even if Jesse's assailant or assailants had dragged him away someplace, he had to believe that there would be some trace of him, and that's all Shalimar would need.
A disquieting thought crept into the back of his mind. What if Jesse had been too badly injured to phase all the way through? What if he had lost consciousness and gotten stuck part way? Brennan swallowed, forcing down the bile rising in his throat at the thought. Materializing in the middle of steel beams, plaster and cement would be a particularly gruesome way to die. Almost afraid that he would see an arm or a leg protruding from the ceiling, Brennan formed a Tesla coil and forced himself to look up, raising the light to follow his gaze. To his relief, the tiles above appeared completely normal.
Unfortunately, that didn't necessarily mean anything. He extinguished the coil.
"Shal - do you think he …..I mean, can you tell if …?"
He broke off, unwilling to voice the chilling possibility.
Shalimar's head lifted. She had seen Brennan look up, and so understood what he was asking, but she didn't look at her partner. Instead, her catlike eyes looked beyond him, her feral senses searching the room.
"He's here," she said positively. A few spatters of blood on the floor and the signs around them had told her more than that, but it was other prey that concerned her now. Ah, contact. Unconsciously she rose into a hunting crouch, focusing on an area a few dozen yards behind the refuse pile. "And he's not alone."
The object of her attention must have been watching, or else had equally keen hearing, for a shadowy figure suddenly broke from cover, darting between support beams toward the back of the factory. Shalimar leaped forward in pursuit, but Brennan was beside her in an instant, cutting her off.
"Find Jesse!" he called over his shoulder, taking up the chase. Within seconds his long legs took him out of sight.
Her eyes flashing, Shalimar pulled up, damping down her instinctive prey drive. She knew, however, that Brennan was right. Finding Jesse was what was important now, and she was much better suited to the task than her elemental teammate.
But she already knew where he was; had known almost as soon as they came in. Where, and that they were too late. The blood she smelled was drying, not fresh, and it was coming from the trash pile. Whoever did this must have buried him there to delay discovery of the body. What else did you do with a corpse? A great surge of grief welled up within her. Slowly, on leaden, unwilling feet, she moved forward and stood in front of the pile.
Brennan came jogging back to his companion.
"There's another door back there," he reported, "Whoever it was, they sure didn't feel like sticking around," he said. His gait faltered as he caught sight of her face. On it was a look of frozen anguish such as he had never seen before. He stumbled to an uncertain halt.
She looked up at him with eyes brimming with tears, her arms wrapped tightly around her as if she were cold. His hands found her shoulders of their own accord.
"What is it?" he whispered, dreading the answer he knew was coming. There could be no other explanation for the raw grief in her eyes. A tear trickled down her cheek as she nodded toward the pile.
"He's there," she whispered, stepping forward and taking refuge in his embrace. She buried her face in his chest, her breath coming in a sob. "I can smell the blood."
Brennan stiffened and pulled her tightly to him, feeling as if he had just been kicked in the gut. Tears starting in his own eyes, he held her for a moment, comforting her and drawing comfort. Death was a specter they all lived with, but that didn't make it any easier to face, and it was much harder when it was a friend instead of yourself. When he allowed himself to think about it, he always felt that he would go out in one of two ways; either as a result of a mutation gone wild, or in a blaze of glory battling Eckhart and his ilk. To die this way, to be dumped in a pile of trash, somehow cheapened everything they had gone through, everything they had fought for.
Jesse did not deserve this. He did not deserve to die, period. Brennan couldn't do anything about that now. The only thing left to do was to bring their friend home. Steeling himself, he gently put Shalimar aside and began picking through the debris, casting aside sheets of newspaper and food wrappers, feeling a nub of rage budding in his heart. It was tiny now, constricted as it was by his building grief, but would patiently bide its time until the proper moment to burst forth in volcanic fury. A vow formed there at the same time. Someone would pay for this.
Presently he came to a torn chunk of charred cardboard. Some part of his subconscious noticed the odd way it was placed; not haphazardly as one would expect, but with torn pieces cleverly jammed into folds as if bracing the larger piece. His conscious mind, however, was in no mood to contemplate anomalies. Removing the charred piece exposed a human foot encased in a familiar boot. Brennan swallowed hard and doggedly kept working. It didn't take long to uncover rest of the body. Jesse lay on his back, his arms at his sides, his head canted a bit, his expression almost peaceful. Brennan's stomach twisted when he saw the stiffening red stain encompassing much of the right side of the torso.
Shalimar cried out, and brushing past him, flung herself on Jesse's bloody corpse. Jesse had always been like her younger brother, sensitive and a little shy. Perhaps because they had been together for some time before Adam recruited Brennan and Emma there had always been a special closeness between them. Heedless of the cold floor and the chill creeping into the evening air, barely cognizant of Brennan crouching beside her, she knelt over him, smoothing his hair, stroking his face, touching the thin line of scarlet trailing from the corner of his mouth. Her tears fell freely as she remembered those early days, learning about their powers and themselves, honing their skills in deadly combat, but always coming through it together. And now, when he had needed her most, she had not been here to protect him. A particularly large tear slid down and splashed onto his cheek. His skin twitched.
Her breath caught in mid-sob, her eyes widening in shock. Scarcely daring to believe what she just saw, her sensitive fingers dipped quickly to the side of his throat. Her heart leapt at what they found.
"He's alive!" she breathed. She felt the grief-grip on her shoulder tighten and then break as the meaning of her words penetrated Brennan's own anguish.
"Are you sure?" Brennan's voice was raw with emotion.
"I'm getting a pulse," she affirmed.
She wiped her eyes quickly, then turned her head and leaned close. A puff of air brushed her tear-dampened cheek.
Shalimar took his face in both hands, searching for further signs. He was much too pale, almost grey, and his skin was like ice. She called Jesse's name, lightly slapping his cheeks as she tried to rouse him. Jesse's head moved fractionally, but there was no other response.
"Might be just as well," Brennan said, "He'd be hurtin' bad if he was awake."
The elemental mutant had moved quickly to Jesse's right side, scattering refuse with hands and feet as he went, and knelt beside his friend. It took only a second to locate the bullet hole.
"Here it is. Right chest." He paused for a moment, probing for any other injury. The sweater was cold and damp under his hands. Now Brennan could feel the slow rise and fall previously hidden by the stiffening yarn. He focused on the length and depth of each breath, trying to gauge what he could of the damage. He thought about just cutting open Jesse's sweater with the knife he always carried in his pocket, but as dirty as the factory was, he didn't want to expose the wound directly for fear of contaminating it further. "It looks like that's the only wound," he reported, "The lung's been hit for sure. I don't think it's collapsed, but, damn, he's lost a lot of blood!"
He slapped at his pockets, looking for a handkerchief or anything he could use to staunch the flow. Muttering a curse at coming up empty, Brennan quickly stripped off his jacket, ignoring the chill on his own skin, and covered Jesse's torso with it.
"I'll run back to the Helix and get the medkit and a blanket," Shalimar said. She made as though to leap to her feet, but Brennan vetoed her.
"We'll treat him on the way back. It will take less time." He didn't have to add that time was not something they had a lot of. "Here, give me a hand."
He shifted to his knees and leaned forward, slipping one arm under Jesse's back, the other behind his knees. Shalimar did the same from the other side, and together they lifted him, Shalimar taking the majority of the weight so Brennan could get to his feet without straining his back. Though she was physically stronger than he was, they had worked together long enough that she didn't even think to question Brennan's actions. She functioned best when she was free to move; whereas Brennan could defend himself with his electrical powers from a distance if necessary. When Brennan had gained his feet and had Jesse's full weight settled in his arms, Shalimar rose and tucked the leather jacket more closely around the unconscious mutant.
"I'll run on ahead," Shalimar said, "I'll have the Helix ready for liftoff as soon as you get there."
Brennan agreed, stepping carefully out of the trash pile.
"While you're at it, check the sensors and let me know if whoever that was comes back with company. And find Adam. Tell him to get back to Sanctuary ASAP."
Nodding, Shalimar ran for the stairwell.
Brennan followed, tossing his burden a little to get a more comfortable grip. A small sound which might have been a moan escaped his unconscious teammate.
"Hang on, Jess," Brennan implored, dropping his voice to barely more than a whisper, "Just stay with me, brother." As rapidly as he could with nearly 170 pounds of dead weight in his arms, Brennan followed in Shalimar's wake.
She dropped into the pilot's seat and called out to their team leader over the ship's comlink.
"Adam, where are you?"
Adam's strong voice responded immediately.
"I've just turned off the main road onto the Stormking trail," he said, "The conference ran long, and a few of us ended up hanging around and talking shop. You know how it is with us eggheads when we get together." He must have picked up on the tremor in her voice, because he paused for a second, and when he continued there was a different note in his voice. "I didn't think I was that late. I'm sorry if I worried you."
Shalimar sucked in a gulp of air, trying to bring her voice under control.
"It's not that." She swallowed hard, trying to push past the lump that rose in her throat at the image of Jesse's bloody form lying unconscious in that filthy factory. "Jesse's been shot." She heard her mentor gasp in shock.
"What?! What happened?!"
"I don't know." Her fingers traveled over the board, keying the sensors as Brennan requested, "He was overdue, and when he didn't answer his comlink, Brennan and I took the Helix and traced his signal. We just found him in an abandoned factory behind 6th and Elm." Her tone hardened, promising retribution for whoever had done this. "He was buried in a pile of trash."
Adam hesitated, and she could almost feel his dread.
"No, but …." Her voice broke. "It's bad, Adam. It's really bad."
Adam's worry was apparent in his voice.
"Where was he hit?"
Her feral hearing picked up the increased engine hum as he kicked the powerful car forward. She swiped at her eyes, and tried to refocus on what she needed to be doing. She flipped a pair of toggles and felt the rumble as the Double Helix's engines came to life.
"In the right lung. Brennan doesn't think it has collapsed, but he's lost an awful lot of blood. He may also be bleeding internally; there's blood coming out of the corner of his mouth."
"Is that the only wound?"
"I think so; we didn't see anything else."
"Is he conscious?"
She gulped. "No."
"What about an exit wound?"
That brought Shalimar up short. It never occurred to her to look for one.
"I don't know."
"I ran ahead. Brennan is bringing him."
"All right. Shalimar, I want you to listen to me carefully. When Brennan gets there, check for an exit wound and let me know what you find. Do what you can with the supplies in the Helix's med pack. Get blankets from the locker and try to keep him warm. With that kind of blood loss he's very likely in shock. Strap him in, and monitor his vital signs constantly. Get out the drug kit; fill a hypodermic with 10 cc's of epinephrine and have it ready in case he goes into cardiac arrest. Have you got all that?"
Shalimar felt the ice in her heart melt just a bit at Adam's calm, take-charge manner. If anyone could help Jesse, it was he.
"I'm on it."
"Good. I've just pulled into the garage. I'll have the lab prepped for surgery by the time you get here. Let me know instantly if his condition changes in the slightest."
Shalimar went to the bulkhead storage locker that contained the Helix's medical supplies. She tucked a blanket under her arm, then opened the first aid box and drew out some large gauze packets which she stuffed into the back pocket of her jeans. Her finely-tuned hearing picked up the sound of heavy footsteps approaching. Brennan with Jesse, her nose told her. She grabbed the drug kit and closed the compartment.
A moment later the light coming in from the open hatchway was blocked as Brennan lumbered aboard, maneuvering carefully down the narrow passage. Jesse was still unconscious, his head lolling to the side, the jacket covering him creeping down incrementally with every movement. Shalimar swiveled the seat behind the pilot's chair and held it there, stepping aside to give Brennan room to ease Jesse into the seat.
"Is he still….?" Shalimar couldn't bring herself to finish the question. Brennan took the blanket from her and shook it open.
"I think so," he answered, breathing heavily from the effort of carrying Jesse all that way, "I didn't dare stop to check."
Shalimar knelt beside their unconscious teammate as Brennan pulled his jacket out of the way and covered him with the blanket. Her sensitive fingers stroked his throat. She looked up and nodded. Brennan sighed in relief, and reached for the seat belt to buckle Jesse in. Shalimar caught his arm.
"Hold him for a second. Adam wants to know if there's an exit wound." She leaned Jesse forward into Brennan's supporting hands while she quickly searched his back. Finding nothing, she pushed him back in the seat and adjusted the blanket over him. Brennan again reached for the seat belt, and again she stopped him.
"I'll do that," she said, "Get us moving."
Obediently Brennan stepped around her and dropped into the pilot's seat. An instant later the Helix rose smoothly in response to his command. Shalimar, still kneeling in the aisle, was tucking the blanket more closely around Jesse's body when she was rocked back on her heels as Brennan moved the ship from vertical to horizontal flight and shoved the throttle forward. She had to grab the seat with one hand, the other reaching across to hold Jesse to keep him from toppling. Recovering her balance, she fastened Jesse's safety harness around him and called out over the comlink as she pulled a trio of gauze packets from her pocket.
"Adam, there's no exit wound."
The leader of Mutant X responded immediately.
"I'll be ready as soon as you get here. How is he doing?"
Shalimar's fingers pressed once more against Jesse's carotid artery.
"He's still unconscious," she responded, "Pulse seems steady."
"What's your ETA?"
"Eight minutes," Brennan answered for her. He gave the throttle, already wide open, another fruitless little push as he tried to coax more speed from the ship.
Shalimar pushed the edge of the blanket aside and lifted the loose end of Jesse's blood-soaked sweater. She tore open three gauze packets with her teeth, and pressing them into a pad, worked the gauze under it along his side, past the safety harness to the wound area. Once she could see the white peeking through the black-rimmed hole, she pressed her palm to the pad and kept it there. The other hand stayed glued to his wrist, monitoring his pulse, the loaded hypo on the opposite seat. She prayed she wouldn't have to use it.
Utilizing every trick he knew to maximize speed, Brennan shot the Double Helix through the clouds toward Sanctuary, trying hard to concentrate on his flying even as the seconds and minutes ticked off in his head like a stopwatch. At any second he was sure Shalimar would cry out that Jesse's heartbeat had stopped, and then he would have to hand the controls over to her in order to use his power to try to shock it back into rhythm. He tried not to think about what would happen if he couldn't succeed. Thus it was with almost unimaginable relief that the hanger came into sight, the door, which was automatically synched to their approach, opening in welcome. It almost opened too slowly; Brennan came in at a speed that he was sure left scorch marks in the tunnel. No doubt he would hear about it later, but right now he couldn't care less. He spun the ship so that it faced the hanger door again, and slapped the switch for the rear hatch release even before the Helix had settled onto her landing struts. He leaped to his feet in the next instant, the jolt of landing making him reach out to catch his balance.
Shalimar unbuckled Jesse's harness and glanced up. "He's still with us," she said in response to his unspoken question. She jumped up and held the seat steady as Brennan leaned over and scooped him up blanket and all, then followed her at nearly a run down the ramp.
Adam was waiting for them when they arrived. He had pulled green surgical scrubs over his street clothes; a stethoscope dangled from his neck. He was tying on a green surgical mask when the two hurried in.
"Over there," he said, gesturing not toward the usual examination chair, but to the table parked directly under a large light panel. Clear plastic curtains, pulled aside just enough to create a doorway, hung on a circular track enclosing it. At the end stood a bed cart, its long swivel arm pushed aside to allow access to the table. On the Formica surface stood a covered tray of sterilized surgical instruments and an array of cotton swabs and antiseptics.
Brennan carried Jesse to the table, maneuvering around a collection of carts and multi-tiered rolling stands containing monitoring machines, flat screens, oxygen, and emergency medical equipment. He laid Jesse down with a tenderness that belied the weight of his burden, taking inordinate care to lay his head gently on the small pillow before giving way and moving to the other side of the table. Adam stepped in right behind him. His manner became even grimmer when he peeled back the blanket and saw the blood stain encompassing almost the entire right side of Jesse's chest.
"Shalimar, start him on 2 liters of oxygen."
Adam reached across the table and pulled the extendable arm of the cart right over Jesse's legs, putting the instruments within easy reach. He flipped back the protective cover, selected a pair of surgical scissors from the tray, and handed them to Brennan as Shalimar rolled a silver air tank to the head of the table.
"Cut open his sleeve and get the transfusion going," he directed, gesturing toward an IV rack standing ready, 2 pouches of blood hanging piggyback from its hook.
Adam picked up a second pair of scissors from the tray. He grasped the hem of Jesse's sweater in his left hand, intending to cut Jesse's sweater up the middle. He had barely positioned the scissors when he heard a sharp snickt not far from his ear. Startled, he glanced up quickly to see Brennan, disdaining the scissors, slide a wicked-looking knife blade inside Jesse's sleeve. A couple of deft flicks sliced it neatly from wrist to shoulder without even so much as a hint of a ragged edge, a testament to the lethally-sharp edge of the blade. Their eyes met; Adam's with a look of consternation, Brennan's steady, a deal with it expression in their depths. An eyeblink later the knife was folded and had disappeared back into his pocket.
Adam returned his attention to his patient and started cutting, bisecting the sodden sweater from hem to neckline before taking care of the other sleeve. Gloved hands pulled the pieces aside, but he did not immediately clear the unstained gauze pads to expose the wound. The surrounding skin held an ominous red flush, marking the flow of blood across his chest. He put the stethoscope ends in his ears and pressed the sensor end to the left of Jesse's sternum, hearing the hiss of air as Shalimar slipped the oxygen mask snugly into place.
Brennan, meanwhile, set at his task with grim determination. This really wasn't his cup of tea. He preferred to leave this stuff to Adam or Emma. It wasn't that he was squeamish; he had seen too much blood, his own and others, for that. It was more a question of aptitude. Brennan would be the first to admit that he was much more adept at causing pain than alleviating it. Adam, however, had insisted on training them all in emergency medicine, not just basic first aid and CPR, but field medical techniques as well, including such things as giving injections and starting IVs. Moreover, Adam refused to let these new skills atrophy, insisting on regular practice and triage drills.
At first Brennan was inclined to resist this strict regimen, as much from automatic defiance of authority as anything else. If it was a motorcycle or other machinery, that was one thing, but he had no trouble admitting that he didn't really have a medical bent of mind. Emma or Jesse, he had argued, was much better at it than he. Adam had agreed, but pointed out that in their line of work, Emma or Jesse could just as easily be the ones requiring help in an emergency situation, and what did Brennan plan to do - let them bleed to death? Eventually, Brennan's basic good sense asserted itself. Recognition of this as an additional survival skill, as well as his own pride in being reasonably equal to Adam's challenge, kept him practicing dutifully if unenthusiastically at splinting fractures, tying bandages and giving injections to sponge balls and oranges even when he'd rather be working out with a heavy bag, reading poetry or perhaps trolling for the next feminine conquest. Now he was glad he did.
He ripped open an alcohol swatch and swabbed the crook of Jesse's left elbow, then repeated with a stronger surgical disinfectant. Taking a rubber strap from the tray, he tied it around Jesse's arm to bring up the vein. Pulling the IV stand closer, he took another swab and sterilized the needle. Adam had probably already done that, but at this point Brennan was focusing on step-by-step procedure to make sure he didn't forget anything. He found the vein and winced a little as he slipped the needle in perhaps a bit too forcefully. Human skin, as it turned out, was easier to penetrate than oranges or sponge balls. He picked up a roll of tape, tore off two pieces, secured the IV in place, and removed the tie.
Shalimar had followed up her initial task with clearing the pieces of bloody sweater, then retrieving the necessary cloths from one of the carts to frame the wound area in surgical drape. She finished at just about the same time as Brennan. Not knowing quite what to do next, their eyes met in sudden consternation. Adam looked up from his examination.
"You two had better wait outside," he said, "I'm going to activate the sterilization field."
Brennan moved around the table and paused beside Adam, his hand going briefly to the older man's shoulder.
"Good luck," he said quietly, and started off. Shalimar lingered long enough to leave a kiss on Jesse's pallid forehead before following.
Adam pulled the curtains closed behind them, then reached over and touched a particular spot on the computer flatscreen. A secondary aperture in the light fixture above began to glow, bathing the enclosure in a soft purple light. Like pretty much everything else at Sanctuary, this device was of Adam's invention, designed for the purpose of preventing infection by eradicating harmful bacteria in areas exposed to its enhanced ultraviolet spectrum. Until now it had been used primarily as a fail-safe tool in his lab. This was the first time he would use it for a surgical procedure.
Waiting for the cycle to run its course, Adam knew a moment of trepidation. This was a little out of his line. Outside of a few relatively minor injuries, the procedures he performed on the members of Mutant X had all been of a scientific nature, related to adjusting or stabilizing their ongoing mutations, a field he was much more comfortable in. Whether owing to skill or luck or both, he had never needed to perform major surgery on any of them, but this was major with a capital 'M'.
Certainly he understood the procedure. He had a medical degree among his many accomplishments. Yes, he had the manual dexterity required, something he kept honed by practice on simulations. But practicing on simulations, even those as sophisticated as the ones produced by Sanctuary's tremendously advanced computer system, was not the same as cutting into a live body. If something went wrong in a simulation, he could simply order the computer to reset and start again. There would be no such option here.
Adam drew a deep breath, sternly ordering his rebellious nerves to quiet. He had no time for this. Jesse's life depended on him. He had the computer to help him if he got into trouble. He could do this. He must do this. Picking up an antiseptic swab so he could sterilize the wound area, he removed the gauze pad. And froze in shock.
Brennan watched Shalimar prowl restlessly around the lounge, circumventing without really seeing the overstuffed chairs grouped around the fireplace, a panther in a too-small cage. Stress brought out the primal side of her nature. It made her jumpy, ready to lash out, either verbally or physically, at the slightest provocation. He understood very well what she was feeling; he felt the same way himself. His favorite catharsis was to find something to punch, be it heavy bag or bad guy, but that would have to come later, after Jesse was out of surgery. For now, he needed to concentrate on keeping his own movements quiet and contained, for Shalimar's sake. He would only upset her further if he started bouncing off the walls. She needed him to be strong. As self-deceptions went that was a fairly transparent lie, but focusing on her need, real or imagined, helped him deal with the interminable waiting.
"I talked to Emma," Shalimar said, completing one circuit of the lounge and starting another, "She said she got a hit off Jesse showing him covered in blood and in extreme pain. She tried to connect with him, and all she got was static. I told her what happened." The feral mutant stalked restlessly to the lab window. Adam had paused, apparently studying a 3D scan of Jesse's body hovering in midair. She stared at it without really seeing, her thoughts on the green-shrouded figure on the table. The steady blip of the heart monitor filtered through the thick plexiglass to her keen ears, but this too was mere background noise, barely registering. "She's catching the next flight out of Seattle."
She turned away and paced some more, back and forth, back and forth. Jesse couldn't die. He just couldn't. They had been through too much together. She had been the first; Adam found her living on the streets, terrified of the changes happening in her mind and body, becoming more feral by the day. Then Jesse came; sullen, introverted, hiding his strangeness among computers and other machines. Freaked out by their mutantcy and thoroughly messed up in the head, the two young people turned to each other as kindred spirits. Under Adam's tutelage they grew to accept who and what they were; to watch out for and rely on each other, and later, to reach out to others of their kind as members of Mutant X. They became family.
And now Jesse was fighting for his life in a battle she could not help him win. She closed her eyes tightly, squeezing free tears to run down her cheeks. He had to live. She couldn't bear it if she lost him.
Brennan watched her silently, the sinuous grace of her movements putting a jungle cat to shame. It tore at him to see her in such turmoil. He wanted to go to her, to take her in his arms, but experience in reading her body language told him that it was not yet the time. By the fifth circuit her tread had softened subtly; by the eighth she was almost approachable. He edged unobtrusively toward her path, making himself accessible when she was ready. That was the way it was, he had learned. Push her, and you were just as apt to get claws as anything else. Wait, and the tiger would eventually subside.
A few more turns and she stopped in front of him. His hands tentatively found her shoulders, resting lightly.
"He'll make it, Shal," he said, putting as much conviction in his voice as he could. He could feel the tautness of her body, as if the slightest thing would make her spring away. Brennan wanted to pull her into his arms, but restrained himself with an effort. Patience, he counseled himself. He had to wait for her come to him. "Jesse's tougher than we give him credit for, than he gives himself credit for."
She looked up at him. All at once the tiger seemed to fade into the background. She stepped into his arms and allowed him to enfold her in his strong embrace. She laid her head against his muscular chest.
"What if it's not enough?"
Brennan had been thinking the same thing, but that was not what she needed from him right now. He pulled her closer, and kissed the top of her golden hair.
"He's made it this far, hasn't he?" Of its own volition one hand began to slowly stroke her back. "He'll make it the rest of the way. And you know he couldn't be in better hands."
Saying it out loud almost made him believe it as well. He tried to think of something else reassuring that he could say, but nothing came to him; nothing he could say with any conviction, at any rate. Tension began to coalesce again, creeping into the silence. Finally he fell back on one last trite, desperate avenue.
"Um … how about I make us some coffee?"
That finally made her lift her head. She gave him a watery smile.
"I'll make the coffee. The stuff you make could power the Helix."
Sanctuary's kitchen was, like the rest of the facility, beyond state-of-the-art, boasting not only the most up-to-date appliances and a wealth of drawer and counter space, but several unusual features, such as a separate pizza oven and walk-in pantry with omni-directional rotating shelves. A smaller, similar shelving setup took up much of one wall and contained a huge collection of spices from all over the world. Three full sets of knives, some carving, some chopping, sat in blocks on one counter next to the coffee and expresso machines, just down from a top-of-the-line set of food processors. A wide variety of pots and pans gleamed copper in their overhead racks. Wine, champagne and cocktail glasses were arrayed by size above a central island doubling as a fully-stocked bar. The door next to the pantry led down to a five-star wine cellar, and the one beyond that opened to a sectioned, computer climate-controlled hydroponic herb garden. Emma had more than once likened it to Emeril's kitchen on steroids, but Adam was unapologetic. Cooking was one of his few hobbies, and as such he had taken as much care in the designing and outfitting of this room as he had for his lab.
"What I don't get," Shalimar said, shifting down the counter away from the coffeemaker so Brennan could refill his cup, "…is why bury him at all? It's not like anyone could have expectedhim to be found quickly. And why hang around afterward?"
They had begun discussing the factory over the first cup. Shalimar had suggested it primarily as a way to keep their minds off what was happening in the lab, but also because once Jesse was out of danger, tracking down whoever had done this was at the top of their agenda. Brennan lifted the carafe and poured more of the steaming liquid into his cup.
"I don't know," he admitted. He returned the carafe to the warmer and lifted his cup for a sip. Shalimar started to drift toward the door and thus the lab, and Brennan almost unconsciously followed suit. "It was weird, though. Whoever it was didn't just pile stuff on top of him. I remember there were at least a couple of pieces of cardboard torn off and jammed into box flaps, like some kind of support."
Shalimar threw him a puzzled look. "You think that it was built that way on purpose? To conceal him and at the same time allow some air?"
Brennan shrugged. "Or to try to keep him warm until we got there."
She frowned, considering. "That presupposes that she a) knew he was still alive, and b) knew we were coming." The feral took a swallow of coffee. "I'm guessing she was the single track on the upper floor.
"Whoa, wait," interjected Brennan, "She?"
Shalimar nodded. "That was definitely a woman you chased. And she had been bleeding."
That Brennan was impressed showed in his expression. "Wow. From that distance and with everything else going on, that's pretty good."
She smiled warmly. "That's what I do."
He grinned back. "So you think maybe this woman was trying to help him?"
Shalimar shrugged. "Could be. What are the odds that she's the woman Jesse was trying to meet at the computer store?"
"Possible. Or it could just be someone he saw in trouble."
"Someone being chased by guys with guns?"
"Getting complicated, isn't it?" Brennan shook his head. "Let's hope Jess can shed some light on it when he wakes up."
That sobering thought brought them back to reality. They strolled back toward the lounge area in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Coming abreast of the lab, Shalimar stopped, her brow furrowed.
Her gaze had turned automatically to the plexiglass wall, but with her mind in disarray, it took a moment to register what she was seeing. Adam sat on a stool leaning over a side counter, his back to them, his shoulders hunched, his head down, as if in defeat. Behind him the purple sterilization field was off, and the clear plastic curtain defining the operating enclosure was retracted. The rolling armature bearing the surgical tray had been pushed away from the operating table, the gleaming instruments in the same pristine condition and precise order as when they had last seen them. In fact the whole area looked practically untouched; the machines were all off, and there was no sign of so much as a bloody sponge. Jesse's unattended body lay on the table, the oxygen mask removed, a green surgical sheet cloaking him to the chin. Shalimar frowned. Surely Adam hadn't had enough time to remove the bullet and clear everything away; operations like that took hours, even with a full surgical team. So why was everything off? On the heels of that question the obvious answer came, and a lump of ice dropped into her stomach.
"Oh, no." The words slipped out in a sob, her cup slipping from nerveless fingers to crash unheeded on the floor. She bolted forward, with Brennan taking a stunned second to see what had upset her so, and another second to set his cup down on a nearby computer desk before following hot on her heels.
Adam looked up from his microscope in surprise as they burst into the lab.
"Why aren't you operating on Jesse?" cried Shalimar without preamble.
Startled and not a little off balance, his mind still on his amazing discovery, Adam reached for the words to fill them in. Unfortunately, his mind was three sentences ahead of his tongue.
"There was no need."
As soon as the words were out of his mouth Adam knew they hadn't come out the way he intended. He tried to rectify the situation, but the breath left his lungs with a whoosh as Shalimar flung herself into his arms, the impact actually knocking him back a step. He reached back to brace himself against the counter, trying to regain his balance.
"Shalimar, let me explain…."
"What's to explain?" Brennan answered for her, the bitter self-recrimination in his voice in no way mitigated by his quiet tone. They had been too late after all. "Jesse's dead."
Adam gripped her forearms and stepped back a pace. Seeing Shalimar's horrified eyes and the grim set of Brennan's jaw, he hastened to reassure them.
"No, he isn't. Calm down, both of you. Jesse is very much alive."
Adam tapped a glyph on the computer touchpad, and a sensor readout came to life. He gestured at the EKG portion, which showed a strong, steady heartbeat.
"You see? All of his vital signs are normal. He's all right."
Shalimar stared at the screen, seemingly almost hypnotized by the even pattern. Then relief turned quickly to confusion.
"Wait a minute. You didn't operate."
"No, because …."
"And there was no exit wound," Brennan chimed in.
"But Jesse is all right."
"Yes. Oh, he'll be a little weak for a couple of days, but other than that, he's just fine."
Shalimar's confusion was growing by the minute, only now with an equal amount of anger. Though she was relieved by his statement that Jesse was all right, there was obviously something more going on, and she was in no mood for Adam to toss off enigmatic answers.
"I suppose next you'll try to tell me that that wasn't Jesse's blood all over his chest!"
"No, that was definitely Jesse's blood."
Shalimar looked at her elemental teammate and saw that he was equally clueless. Brennan's simmering temper boiled over.
"Adam, will you just cut the crap and tell us what the hell is going on?" he exclaimed angrily.
"That's what I'm trying to do," Adam started to say, but Brennan rolled right on by. "We bring Jesse back unconscious, with a bullet in his chest, and covered in blood, you say you haven't operated, and now you're trying to tell us that he's all right? Are you out of your mind?"
Adam held up his hands, smiling tolerantly, and showed them what he had been analyzing.
"All right – from the top. This is a nine millimeter slug," he explained, "It bears traces of blood and lung tissue which match Jesse's DNA. The scan shows he sustained a significant loss of blood, an amount roughly consistent with what was soaked into his sweater. That blood also matches his DNA."
Brennan interrupted impatiently. "Yeah, DUH – we already know he was shot!"
Adam took no offense. He couldn't blame them for their confusion; he felt much the same way himself. It was not a sensation he was accustomed to, and not one that he was at all comfortable with. He nodded. "I agree. There's just one problem – there's no wound."
"What are you talking about?" retorted Shalimar, "We saw …"
"You saw the blood and the bullet hole in his sweater," Adam interposed smoothly, "I know. I thought the same thing – until I pulled away those gauze pads."
He led them over to Jesse's supine form and folded back the green surgical sheet to expose his torso.
"See for yourselves. There's not a mark on him."
The two mutants gazed in astonishment. Outside of the reddish flush left by the flowing blood, the skin was smooth and completely unmarred. Adam reached around to the keyboard and tapped a couple of buttons. A more detailed three-dimensional holographic scan of a human body, just like the one Shalimar had observed earlier, appeared in the air in place of the EKG graph. Adam gestured.
"You see? The scan confirms it. Except for the blood loss, there's no evidence he sustained so much as a hangnail. This….," He held up the slug, "was in his pocket. And now you know as much as I do."
Shalimar reached out a tentative finger and touched the stain, as if she needed a more personal verification before she could believe what the scan and the rest of her senses were showing. "How is this possible?" she asked in a hushed voice.
"Could he have phased the bullet out?" asked Brennan.
Adam scratched his head, considering. "Well, I believe he's capable of that kind of fine control, but I rather doubt it under those circumstances. Certainly the pain and the blood loss would severely interfere with his concentration. The thing is, though, that even if he did phase the bullet out in some way, that wouldn't explain the lack of a wound together with the significant loss of blood."
"So what do you think happened?" Shalimar persisted.
Adam shrugged sheepishly. "I don't know," he admitted reluctantly. On his face was an expression they saw only occasionally; a half grim, half nettled look he wore when posed a question he had to admit he didn't immediately have an answer for, especially where it involved the well-being of one of these young people he loved so well.
"Unless his powers have suddenly taken a major left turn," he answered, a frustrated grimace twisting the corners of his mouth, "…not in the least outside the realm of possibility, but I have to think I would be able to detect some change in his genetic structure - I can only surmise that someone …most likely a mutant … found him, removed the bullet and healed him."
"There was someone else there," Shalimar informed him, "A woman."
"Yeah," Brennan chimed in, "I chased her, but she had a good head start. I never got more than a glimpse." He grinned roguishly. Of course, Shal could have been mistaken …." He gave an elaborate shrug, feigning nonchalance, all the while his eyes twinkling. In this moment of euphoric relief, he just couldn't help living dangerously, and there was no one he would rather tease than Shal.
Shalimar didn't reply, just slanted an insulted look up at him. Brennan hurriedly backtracked, his hands upraised in mock self-defense.
"I believe you, I believe you."
She flicked her hair and turned her back on him with a studied indifference. Brennan mimed an exaggerated shiver at her action, bringing an amused quirk to Adam's eyebrows. Fortunately for all concerned, Shalimar missed it.
"So if Jesse was healed," she asked Adam, "then why was he unconscious when we found him?"
Adam covered his patient again, one corner of his mouth lifting ruefully.
"That's the other thing I can't explain," he said, "He's asleep."
"As deeply as if he was sedated. Yet there are no traces of any kind of drugs in his system." Adam tapped another glyph, and a second scan, this one of a human brain, joined the first in mid-air. "The encephalographic scan shows a much higher than normal concentration of certain chemicals associated with Stage 4, or delta, sleep."
Adam could tell by their blank looks that he wasn't getting through. He tried again.
"The body uses periods of deep sleep to cleanse itself of fatigue toxins and replenish vital systems," he explained, "In order to reach that state the brain produces certain chemicals. These chemicals are present in Jesse's body right now in unusually high proportions."
Shalimar nodded slowly. "So what you're saying is that his own body was used to sedate him?"
His lips twisted again in the vexed half-smile. "Possibly, but at the present time I have no way to prove the theory. And actually, given the physical trauma and blood loss he sustained, it was probably the best thing for him."
Brennan frowned. "So, what, he just needs to sleep it off?"
"Precisely. And once the IV has finished, you can help me clean him up and put him to bed."
"How long do you think he'll be out?" Shalimar wanted to know.
Adam shrugged. "It's hard to say." He pointed at a bit of blue text on the hologram. "His energy level is way down, and the blood loss has weakened him severely. The transfusion will help, and his body is already working to replace the difference. My best guess is some time tomorrow."
They watched their peacefully sleeping teammate for a moment, each lost in their own thoughts. Then Adam noticed that Jesse's eyelids were trembling. He smiled and gestured.
"Look at that."
Brennan and Shalimar leaned closer.
"Look at what?" asked Shalimar.
"His eyes. Those are called REMs, for Rapid Eye Movements," Adam's smile grew wider. "He's dreaming."
"Well, one thing's for sure," Brennan remarked, "He's gonna have one helluva story to tell when he wakes up."
A detached part of Jesse's mind gradually became aware of light filtering through his eyelids, but the rest of him ignored it. There was no reason to get up yet. He was warm and comfortable and pleasantly drowsy, the flannel sheets soft against his skin, drifting along in that sort of half-sleep between dreams and wakefulness.
Something cool and metallic touched his chest, first in one place, then another, prodding his consciousness from its somnolent state. He stirred, and his eyes opened, blinking at the light and the man sitting on the bed beside him.
"Adam?" he said groggily.
The leader of Mutant X smiled as he removed the stethoscope ends from his ears and notched them around his neck.
"Good morning," he said affably, "I'm sorry; I didn't mean to wake you. How do you feel?"
Between the fog in his brain and the surprise of finding Adam sitting beside him, the question didn't penetrate. Adam plugged a thin cord into his specially modified hand-held computer and pressed the disk at the other end into Jesse's bicep. The patient offered no resistance; just looked at him with growing puzzlement.
"What are you doing?"
"Checking on you," replied Adam. He watched the tiny screen for a moment. "Good. Blood pressure normal." He smiled and removed the sensor. "You gave us quite a scare last night."
Adam shot him a sideways glance.
"You don't remember?"
That got Jesse thinking. Remember what? Images formed slowly of a factory, men with guns, the blazing anguish in his chest, and above all a pair of luminous emerald eyes.
"Gemini," he breathed. He recalled it all now, how he had caught up with his mystery lady, had followed her to the abandoned factory, been accidentally shot by her pursuers, and most of all the incredible sensations he experienced as she healed him. Now wide awake, Jesse sat up abruptly and immediately winced at a pain in the front of his elbow. He glanced at it, puzzled to see a deep purple bruise covering the area. Where did that come from? Gemini had healed him completely. He looked closer, and noticed a small puncture in the center, such as one made by a needle. Probably an IV of some sort, he mused - and whoever stuck him was lousy at it.
"Gemini?" Adam asked mildly, recalling him to the present. Apparently satisfied with its readings, he unplugged the thin cord, gathered it up and put it and his unit in his shirt pocket.
"She's a mutant, an empath. She healed me." He turned back to Adam, urgency coming into his voice as he remembered the suspicious red stain he had seen just before she kissed him and the world went black. "Did you see her? Is she all right?"
Adam shook his head. "I wasn't there when Brennan and Shalimar found you. Brennan did chase someone, a woman, but she got away. Assuming that she was this 'Gemini', I'd hazard a guess that she was all right. Why do you think she wouldn't be?"
"Her jacket gapped open for just a second. I'm sure I saw a fresh bloodstain on her blouse." Jesse frowned at the memory, recalling how drained she had been. Still, if she was able to escape from Brennan, she must have been able to heal herself at least somewhat in the interim. That made him feel a little better.
"You're thinking that she didn't just heal you, but absorbed your injury into her own body?"
Jesse nodded. "Yes – and then knocked me out so I couldn't see." His lips twitched at the memory of how she had accomplished it.
"Brennan was right." Adam rose, smiling. "You do have quite a story to tell. I'll see what I can find out from the mutant database - after I go start breakfast," he added, as Jesse's stomach rumbled loudly. "I don't want you missing any meals for a while. And I want you to drink plenty of liquids, and get some extra rest. Even though we were able to replace much of the blood you lost, your energy level is still down. Shall I bring you a tray, or do you feel up to joining us at the table?"
Jesse stretched, and his stomach growled again. "I'm fine," he assured the older man, "I'll be out as soon as I catch a shower."
Shalimar was on her usual morning jog around Sanctuary when she came upon Adam just leaving Jesse's room. She stopped and removed her headphones.
"What were you doing in Jesse's room?" she inquired, noting the stethoscope dangling from his neck. Adam shrugged.
"I was just checking up on him."
Shalimar felt a little frisson of anxiety race up her spine.
"I thought you said he was fine."
Adam acknowledged her with a knowing little smile.
"I did. I also said that I couldn't determine exactly what happened based on the available evidence, but that my best supposition was that he had been healed by something or someone unknown." He reached out with a long finger and tapped the tip of her nose. "I am not, however, comfortable with leaving Jesse's health – or that of any of you – up to supposition."
Shalimar gave him a knowing smile of her own, taking in his tired posture and weary countenance.
"You stayed up all night with him, didn't you?"
Adam shook his head. "No, I just looked in on him a couple of times."
Shalimar leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, her hand lingering on his arm. Adam looked at her in surprise.
"What's that for?"
"For taking such good care of us."
Her mentor returned the kiss and smiled. "It's my pleasure."
She gave him a hug. "So how is Jesse?"
Adam's grin grew wider. "Hungry."
Shalimar's eyes widened. "He's awake?" Adam nodded happily. Shalimar started toward Jesse's room, but Adam caught her arm as she went past him and pulled her around nearly 180 degrees.
"He'd probably like to finish his shower before receiving visitors."
Jesse stood in the shower; the steam billowing around him, the water a warm, relaxing temperature. The multiple shower heads were pulsing streams of water in a setting programmed specifically for him, producing a head-to-toe pressurized massage. He scrubbed his skin vigorously, the lather thick and rich in his hands. After being in that old factory, he didn't think he would ever feel clean again.
The factory. His hand slowed over his right breast. Less than 24 hours ago there was a bullet hole in just that spot. He looked down at the unblemished skin. She had touched him there; her hand soft and smooth, her breath a warm caress on his cheek, and had taken away his pain and fear. Then she healed him, drawing his wounds into her own body, sharing her very life with him. He would be dead now if it hadn't been for that remarkable woman.
Gemini. That probably wasn't her real name. It sounded more like a code name. He scrubbed faster. He had to find her, to know that she was all right. He rinsed off and stepped out of the shower stall, the water stopping automatically, his mind racing ahead. The database – check the mutant database first. He snatched a towel from the rack and began rubbing down. His hands slowed. And when he found her? What then? Could he bring her back to Sanctuary? Would she join Mutant X? What a fabulous addition she would be to the team – and to his life.
Whoa, slow down, he cautioned himself. You are jumping the gun big time. The lady has a life and secrets of her own. That much was obvious from the whole scene at the factory. The flirting thing between them could just have been some kind of cover for whatever operation she had going.
On the other hand, maybe she was looking for a way out of that gig. Perhaps she was looking for something with a higher purpose, a way to help her own kind. And maybe, just maybe, she might be just as attracted to him as he was to her.
That hopeful thought splashed through him like a jigger of Napoleon brandy. He knew he wasn't in love with her, but he also knew that, given more time, he could easily fall for her. She fascinated him; not just her abilities, which were amazing, or her power level, which was off the charts. It was everything about her, from the abundance of rich burgundy hair and laughing emerald eyes to her sense of humor and cool head in a crisis. He smiled to himself, remembering the touch of her lips and the feel of her luscious body pressed so intimately to his, even through the agony of the bullet in his chest. He would very much like to repeat the former without the latter.
His stomach growled, reminding him of a more pressing need. He slipped on his thick terry robe and tied the sash around his middle. There was plenty of time for all of this. Tomorrow, as the saying went, was another day. Besides, he had to find her to himself, he returned to his room to get dressed for breakfast.
In the days and weeks to come Jesse would do everything in his power to locate Gemini, but to no avail. She was not in the mutant database, nor in any other he could think of. Even Adam came up empty; his intelligence and government contacts hinted at a vague possibility of a military connection, but were unable to narrow it down any further. Jesse went over the factory with a fine-tooth comb looking for clues; he even brought Shalimar with him, to see if her feral senses could turn anything. Nothing. He haunted the computer store and the surrounding neighborhood, questioning shopkeepers and office people alike, but there was no trace of her, and she never returned. She had vanished from his life as mysteriously as she had entered it, as ephemeral as the breath of life she gave him.