|           Ongoing...|
'Stop the car!' Xavier barked.
Quickly, Ororo pulled over to the side of the road and turned to see what was bothering her mentor. His head was bowed, eyes closed and his fingertips were pressed against his temples.
'Go ahead, Kurt,' he said. There was a long pause. 'How long will it take you to reach New York.' Another pause. 'No, I agree, that won't nearly be soon enough. I'll have to try contacting our people already in the city.'
* * *
Kitty, can you hear me?
'Ow,' Kitty complained as the professor's voice echoed in her skull. 'Loud and clear, sir. A little too loud.'
My apologies, but we don't have time to be subtle. There's a mutant attacking the Stock Exchange building.
'So that's what it is,' Kitty mused.
'Rachel and I heard the explosions,' Kitty explained. 'We're on our way to investigate.'
I shall reprimand the pair of you for your impetuousness later. As it is, you are the nearest to the scene and we need an on-site report.
'On it, professor.'
I'll try to arrange backup for you as soon as possible. And Kitty
'Be careful, he says,' Kitty muttered. 'What does he think I'm going to do?'
'Do you really want me to answer that?' Rachel asked.
'You know, if I wasn't busting a gut here, Kitty replied as they sprinted down the street, forcing pedestrians out of their way, 'then I'm sure I could come up with a devastatingly witty put down.'
'I'll take it as read,' Rachel shot back.
Broad Street had been cordoned off. Three police cars formed a barricade in front of them.
A police officer took a step towards them.
'Like we have time for this,' Kitty said.
'Hey, where do you girls think you're going?' the cop demanded.
Rachel closed her eyes and concentrated.
Behind you, she thought.
'What?' the cop turned away and the girls raced passed, vaulting over the hood of one of the cars.
A line of police officers straddled the road ahead. They had their backs to the girls and were pointing their guns at something out of Kitty's site. It was not too hard to guess what, though.
At the sound of the girls' feet on the tarmac, the officers turned.
'Excuse us,' Kitty said.
'Cavalry coming through,' Rachel added.
Kitty took Rachel's hand and the pair of them ran straight through the line of police officers as if they were not there.
'What a rush,' Kitty laughed. 'Now let's see what '
She stopped suddenly, her voice trailing away.
'What the '
Rachel followed the line of Kitty's gaze.
'Oh,' she said.
* * *
I see the Sentinel raise its cannon-arm to fire and I act on instinct. I will have to live with the consequences of my action for the rest of my life.
I dive forward with a speed I did not know I possess and knock the Doctor to the ground, out of the way of the mechanical man's blast. The Sentinel fires it's cannon and, without the Doctor to obstruct their path, the projectiles strike the fiery mutant, tearing his upper body apart. I want to look away, but my eyes are glued to the sight of his legs, still standing firm and upright, still aflame.
I hear the heavy footsteps of the Sentinel approaching.
'All unregistered mutants must be eliminated,' he says.
The Doctor struck his head when I knocked him down and he is still groggy, only vaguely aware of his surroundings. For my part, I no longer have the energy to fight.
'Just get it over with,' I snap.
'Move,' the Sentinel demands. 'You are obstructing the termination of a mutant.'
Of course! It cannot kill the Doctor while there is a human being in the way. But I am no human, am I, and how long will it be before the Sentinel realises?
'Move,' the Sentinel repeats.
I cling to the Doctor as if my life depends upon it. It does not - his does.
With its claw-like right hand, the Sentinel takes hold of the back of my jacket and lifts me bodily into the air. I try to maintain my grip upon the Doctor, but am not strong enough, his velvet coat slipping slowly from my fingers. The Sentinel throws me across the street. I impact hands first, grazing my palms and wrists as I slide to a halt. The breath has been knocked from my body and it is a struggle to even rise to my knees to watch the Sentinel advance on my friend.
What happens next is like something from a dream. Or a nightmare.
A girl, she cannot be more than fifteen years of age, runs across my field of vision, angling a path for the mechanical monstrosity. She runs into the creature and I wince in sympathetic pain, that is until I realise that the heavy body has not obstructed her progress and that she is instead passing wraith-like through the metal frame. While the girl seems unaffected by this strange experience, the same cannot be said for the Sentinel. It writhes as if in pain (can such as he feel pain, I wonder) and sparks flare from its shell. Should I take pleasure in such a site? I do not know, but the fact remains that I do take a certain degree of satisfaction from the creature's suffering.
The girl pauses by the Doctor, checking his condition.
'He's alive,' she calls out.
At first, I assume that she is addressing me, but then I notice the redheaded girl of about the same age standing nearby.
'Well, of course I'm alive,' the Doctor snaps crossly. 'It takes more than a clockwork soldier to finish me off.'
He attempts to stand, but his knees buckle under him and he leans into the ghost-girl for support. She can hold him - barely - so I can deduce that her ghostly state is only temporary.
'Hmm, maybe I'd better rest for a bit after all,' the Doctor concedes.
'Multiple mutant life-signs detected.'
As one, the four of us turn to regard the Sentinel, still sparking, but nevertheless determined to fulfil its bloodthirsty mission.
'Kitty, I think we're in trouble,' the redhead says.
'No, really?' the other girl - Kitty - responds.
'Can't you try scrambling him again?' the redhead asks.
'Yeah, Ray, 'cause that was so successful last time,' Kitty retorts.
'New mutant target acquired,' the Sentinel says, pointing its cannon-arm at Kitty and the Doctor. 'Preparing to carry out termination.'
'Kitty!' Ray screams.
She raises her arm and point in the Sentinel's direction. Mirroring her movements, the rubble blasted from the buildings by the first mutant begins to rise from the ground, as if lifted by invisible hands, and then hurls itself at the Sentinel. The mechanical creature is beaten back from the impact. However, once the dust has settled, it continues to advance mercilessly towards its targets.
'Telekinesis,' the Doctor says. 'Quite remarkable.'
His grasp of priorities never ceases to amaze me.
'I'm open to suggestions,' Ray remarks.
'Try praying for a miracle,' Kitty shoots back sarcastically.
'You called,' another female voice quips.
A bright light appears behind the Doctor with no apparent source. Silhouetted against the light are two small figures, one male, one female.
'Save it,' the male growls. Are those claws sprouting from his hands, I wonder.
'All aboard the Limbo express,' the girl calls.
Ray grabs my wrist and hauls me to my feet.
'Come on,' she orders and then she half-drags me over to where the others are waiting.
'Multiple targets registered,' the Sentinel says. 'Adjusting combat mode to wide burst.'
'Now you see us ' that new girl quips raising her arms.
The light flares and suddenly we are somewhere else.
* * *
Sebastian Vaughan looked up from his desk. There was a commotion outside his office.
His assistant knocked and stuck his head around the door.
'Sorry to bother you sir,' the man said, 'but Mr Campbell is insisting upon seeing you.'
'Then I suppose you had better show him in,' Vaughan sighed.
With a gloved hand, Vaughan closed the report from the Research & Development department that he had been reading and stowed it in a drawer beneath his desk. He locked the door, and dropped the key into his breast pocket before sitting up to greet his visitor.
'Ashley, what a pleasant surprise,' he said, as Campbell closed the office door. 'Do have a seat.'
Campbell remained standing. His face was purple with rage and he was trembling. Vaughan folded his hands on the desk in front of him.
'Was that you're doing?' Campbell demanded.
'I'm sorry, Ashley,' Sebastian responded calmly, 'but I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about.'
'Than you're the only person in the city who doesn't,' Campbell snapped. 'I'm talking about that little stunt at the Stock Exchange. You know, the mutant and the Sentinel? Your Sentinel?'
'Ah, yes. That.'
'Yes, that.' Campbell had his hands on the edge of the desk and was leaning over Vaughan. He appeared to be on the verge of apoplexy. 'Is this what you meant by 'taking steps'?'
'Naturally?' Campbell shouted.
'Take a seat, Ashley and I'll explain,' Vaughan offered.
'Sit. Down.' Vaughan commanded.
'The public must never forget that mutants are the enemy,' Vaughan explained after a moment's pause. 'Mr Miller's little demonstration provided a timely reminder.'
'That...that thing was working for you?' Campbell asked.
'Mr Miller was a valuable addition to my staff,' Vaughan replied. 'He volunteered for this little enterprise.'
'And did he volunteer to end up dead?'
Vaughan sighed. Campbell could be exceedingly tiresome. If he did not need the man well, there would always be time to indulge his fantasies at a later date.
'Mr Miller's mutant condition was terminal. He would have been dead within a week. This way, his death meant something.'
'And this is what I've signed up for, is it?' Campbell asked. 'A death squad? I thought the idea was to put the mutants into camps, not exterminate them!'
'And how were you planning to hold these mutants, Ashley,' Vaughan responded, 'given that they can fly and teleport and control minds and walk through walls? Precisely what camp do you think would be equipped to keep them contained?'
'Well, I don't '
'Tomorrow, you are going to give the most important speech of your political career,' Vaughan continued, 'and you are going to pledge to keep the public safe from the mutant menace. Unpalatable as it may be, this is the only way that you can guarantee their safety. The. Only. Way. You don't want to let the public down, do you?'
'About the speech,' Campbell said, sounding less stubborn and more whining. 'I thought we were going to unveil the Sentinel at the press conference. My ace in the hole, you said.'
'Think of this as a teaser, Ashley,' Vaughan soothed. 'Everyone's talking about it now, but no one really knows what it is. But we do and that means that everyone is going to want to know us. We've whetted their appetites and there are hungry for more. All you have to do is go out on to that little stage and exploit that.
'You can do that much, can't you, Ashley?'
* * *
'How are our guests?'
Ororo and Xavier were sitting either side f the large desk in the professor's study. A large set of French windows behind Xavier gave a magnificent view on to the garden. Several of the children were out there, revelling in the sunshine. It was warmer than perhaps it should have been for December and Ororo was proud of that. The school grounds were one of the few places the children could be open about their gifts without fear of exposure and they did not get to go outside nearly often enough in her opinion.
'Mrs Harker seems content to wait,' Ororo told Xavier, 'but the one calling himself the Doctor hasn't stopped questioning everything since he got here.'
'A man after my own heart,' Xavier mused with a smile. 'And where are our guests now?'
'We've confined them to the infirmary for the time being,' Ororo replied. 'For 'observation'.'
'And the Doctor is happy about this?' Xavier asked sceptically.
'He has made no effort to leave,' Ororo said. 'As long as there is someone there he can talk to he appears to be remarkably content. We've had to keep rotating the observers, though. The Doctor hasn't stopped talking since he arrived and several of the students have complained about fatigue.'
'I look forward to meeting him in person. But we have more pressing matters. What do you make of this 'Sentinel'?'
'I debriefed Kitty and Rachel as soon as they arrived last night,' Ororo responded. 'Apparently their powers had little effect on it, yet it cut down a mutant with a single blast.'
'And what of its stated purpose to terminate all unregistered mutants?'
'Who would do such a thing, Professor? It's evil.'
'Yes, it is,' Xavier agreed. 'We will need to monitor this situation closely. But this concept of mutant registration reminds me of something. Elisabeth Grayson said something similar when we were discussing her election campaign.'
'Grayson wants mutants to have to register?' Ororo exclaimed.
'No, no,' Xavier assured her. 'She is, for the moment at least, on our side. She sees the mutant question as the big issue of this election, hence my involvement, and that means her opponents are having to make a stand on the issue as well.'
'You think this might have something to do with one of them?'
'Ashley Campbell is her main rival and he's known to have anti-mutant leanings,' Xavier explained. 'If anyone were going to campaign for mutant registration it would be him. He's holding a press conference at midday. I want you to be there. See what you can find out.'
'Does it really matter, though, professor?' Ororo asked. 'Assuming we're right and Campbell is behind this then we only need to worry if he wins the election. And Grayson is well ahead in the polls.'
'Was well ahead,' Xavier corrected. 'Her lead halved overnight. The terrorist actions of this 'Fever Pitch' may have done our campaign irreparable damage.'
'But surely, Professor he's only one mutant,' Ororo protested.
'The general public are already frightened of us, Ororo,' Xavier replied. 'Fever Pitch only proves them right. It's infinitely harder to prove we are not a threat than that we are.'
Xavier wheeled his chair round so that he could look out of the window. A group of students were throwing a Frisbee around by the ornamental fountain. One flicked his wrist and the skin of his fingers extended six feet in length, snagged the Frisbee in mid-air and then snapped back like elastic. The boy hurled the Frisbee up in the air with such force that it looked sure to sail over the hedge. Then a girl caught hold of it. She was floating in the air, fragile as a feather caught in the breeze.
'Until further notice, I want all students confined to the school grounds,' Xavier instructed. 'It's not safe for them out there. Not anymore.'
'Very good, Professor,' Ororo said. 'Will that be all? I ought to be going if I'm to attend that press conference.'
'Send the Doctor to see me before you go,' Xavier said. 'I think it's time we had a little chat.'
'And Mrs Harker?'
'Get one of the students to give her the guided tour,' Xavier suggested. 'That should keep her entertained.
'Can we trust them, Professor?' Ororo asked.
'I sense confusion from Mrs Harker, but no outright hostility,' Xavier assured her.
'And the Doctor?'
'We shall have to see.'
* * *
'Hello, I'm Doug. Doug Ramsey.'
I regard the new arrival with apprehension. A teenager, he seems harmless enough, but I have already seen that these children have hidden talents. The Doctor has already been spirited away (metaphorically speaking) and I am acutely aware of my own vulnerability. I watch him warily, waiting for him to reveal his secret powers.
I cannot help myself. I laugh.
'What's so funny?' Doug asks, though he seems more amused than annoyed.
'I'm sorry,' I manage, composing myself hastily. 'I was picturing you sprouting wings or shooting fire from your fingers.'
Doug grins broadly and in that instant I decide I can trust him.
'Sorry, no can do,' he says, trying to appear crestfallen, but failing miserably. 'You must be Mrs Harker.'
'Please,' I say, offering my hand, 'call me Mina.'
'Mina it is, then,' he agrees and we shake on it.
'So?' I prompt after a long pause.
'Sorry,' Doug responds, grinning again. 'I was thinking about something else. I get easily distracted.'
He nods vigorously.
'Kitty and I have this project, you see,' he enthuses, 'for computer science class, but there's this section of code we can't quite get to work. The thing is that it should work, at least as far as I can tell. It's a simple enough program. So I'm trying to run through the whole program to see if the problem is somewhere else and I'm sorry, I'm boring you, aren't I.'
'No, no,' I assure him. Actually, his enthusiasm is infectious. I wish I had had more like him in my own classes. 'It's just, well, we don't have computers where I come from so I'm finding it a little difficult to follow you.'
'No computers?' Doug exclaims. 'Where are you from? I thought you were British.'
'Oh, I am,' I inform him. 'I suppose that it's not so much where I'm from as when. I'm from the nineteenth century.'
I allow myself a moment of satisfaction as Doug's jaw hits the floor.
* * *
'Please have a seat,' Xavier offered his guest.
The Doctor sat down opposite him.
'Welcome,' Xavier begins. 'I am Professor Charles Xavier and this is my school for the gifted.'
'By gifted you mean mutants,' the Doctor replied. 'Human beings born with a genetic difference that marks them apart from their fellows. Possibly the next stage in human evolution. But human beings fear what they do not understand and they hate what they fear so mutants are persecuted by their non-mutant brethren. Which is where you come in. You seek out these young mutants and offer them sanctuary here at this school where they can learn to better control their 'gifts'. Am I getting warm yet?'
'Surprisingly so,' Xavier responded, 'almost as if you'd read my mind, Doctor..?'
'I don't read minds,' the Doctor said. 'I merely make inferences based on known facts.'
'I do read minds, Doctor,' Xavier continued. 'That is my mutation. But your mind is a closed book to me.'
The Doctor leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs.
'There is a theory regarding telepathy,' he began. 'It runs something like this. The telepath observes, through whatever means, the structure of the brain they are trying to read. They then alter the structure of their own brain to be in sympathy with the target. They result allows the telepath to read the target's thoughts. That may also explain why telepathy and telekinesis often go hand in hand since it's only a small step from altering the physical structure of ones own brain to altering the structure of the external environment.'
'I've heard of this theory,' Xavier said, 'but I don't see how it's relevant.'
The Doctor held up a hand.
'My brain is not structured like a human mind,' he explained, 'so it would be impossible for you to reshape your own brain in sympathy. Hence, I am unreadable.'
'Hmm,' Xavier mused. 'That would tie in with my observations. The medical scans we made of you when you arrived were anomalous, to say the least.'
'You do surprise me.'
'I was going to send them to an associate of mine, Dr Henry McCoy, for a second opinion,' Xavier said, 'but perhaps you would care to enlighten me yourself. You lack the X-factor gene so you are not a mutant. In fact you're whole DNA structure is decidedly '
'Inhuman?' the Doctor supplied.
'Quite,' Xavier agreed. 'So what are you.'
The Doctor grin, flashing gleaming white teeth.
'That's easy,' he replied. 'I'm a native of the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. So there.'
* * *
The common room was crowded. One group were hanging decorations from the ceiling, another were crowded around a board game. A few more were gathered round the widescreen TV. Sitting towards the back of this group was Rachel.
It took Scott a while to spot her. Rachel had short red hair, something that would normally make her stand out, but colour was wasted on Scott. In order to control his mutation he was forced to wear special ruby quartz glasses. As a result, he only ever saw the world in shades of red.
It should not have been this way. Scott should have been in full control of his gifts, but there had been an accident, a plane crash. The crash had left Scott an orphan and the impact to his skull when he fell had robbed him of control over his gifts. His last full colour memory was of the face of his mother as she strapped little Scott into the only parachute and pushed him from the plane.
Scott shook his head. That was all in the past.
'Rachel,' he called over the noise. 'Could I have a word?'
Rachel got up and Scott led her to a quiet - well, quieter - corner of the room.
'I just wanted to ask you about yesterday,' Scott began.
'I told Ororo everything I know,' Rachel replied. She folded her arms across her chest.
'I know,' Scott said, 'but I just wanted to hear it for myself. Are you okay?'
'I'm fine,' Rachel replied, tersely. She glanced over her shoulder, as if expecting someone.
'Well, if you're sure,' Scott continued, 'but you know I'm here to talk to if you need me. And that must have been pretty scary what with that robot and-'
'I said I'm fine,' Rachel snapped. 'What's wrong with you?'
'Rachel, I'm only trying to help,' Scott responded.
'How? By pawing away at something that's none of you're damn business?'
'I though you were fine about it.'
'Well, I'm not, okay,' Rachel shouted. 'Every time I close my eyes I see that Sentinel again. Only I don't just see one, I see a hundred. And I see them marching up and down the ruined streets of New York, smoke and ash filling the sky and choking the mutants being penned in by the barbed wire fences. And one by one they lead the mutants out of the camps and then they '
Rachel choked back a sob.
'Just leave me the hell alone,' she snapped, turning and scurrying back into the crowded room.
Scott made a move to go after her, but felt a restraining hand on his arm.
'Leave her be, my friend,' Kurt said. 'We'll look after her.'
'At least let me talk to her, Kurt,' Scott insisted. 'Something's obviously wrong and-'
'We'll handle it,' Kurt interrupted. 'The best thing you can do is to leave Rachel to us.'
'There's something seriously wrong here. You must see that.' Scott said. Then it dawned on him. 'You know what it is, don't you? Tell me, Kurt. I can help.'
'I think you've done quite enough, Scott,' Kurt replied. 'Dont you.'
'Kurt, please don't shut me out. I'm one of the family.'
Kurt shook his head.
'You left, Scott,' he said, 'and while you are always welcome here, you're no longer part of the team.'
* * *
'Well?' Danielle Moonstar asked as Sam Guthrie put down the phone.
'Yeah, come on. Spill,' Illyana said. She was lying on her stomach on the floor drawing pictures in a sketchbook. Her brother was the artist of the family, but Illyana enjoyed drawing rough sketches of demons and monsters. If asked, she claimed to draw from life.
'That was Lila,' Sam explained, running a hand through his blond hair. 'She's playing a gig in the city this week so when that's over she thought she'd head up here and join us for Christmas.'
'That's great news,' Dani remarked.
'Yeah,' Illyana added, 'especially for one lucky person.'
'Get in there, Sam,' Dani joked.
'Lay off, Chief,' Sam replied. 'Lila and I are just good friends.'
'Sure you are,' Illyana responded. 'So, what are you gonna get her?'
* * *
'And?' Xavier asked. 'I'd already reasoned that you were most likely an alien and since I've never heard of either Gallifrey or Kasterborous, I can't say that you've increased my knowledge at all.'
'Ah,' the Doctor murmured. 'Then what is it you'd like to know?'
'I'd like to know if I can trust you, Doctor,' Xavier said. 'I can't read you telepathically and your alien heritage means that I can hardly expect you to behave in a human fashion so I can't begin to speculate on your agenda. But I need to know if that agenda conflicts with my own.'
'I don't have an agenda, professor,' the Doctor assured him.
Xavier leaned forward.
'Really, Doctor. I find that rather difficult to believe. What is it that you do with your life? What do you hope to achieve?'
'Universal peace,' the Doctor replied with a smile. 'And I like kittens, too.'
'This is a serious matter, Doctor,' Xavier insisted.
'No it isn't,' the Doctor retorted. 'I explore time and space and I help people. It's as simple as that. I don't have time for your political games and agendas, professor. They simply don't interest me.'
'You travel in time,' Xavier repeated.
'You don't sound surprised,' the Doctor remarked.
'As with your alien origins, it was a possibility I had already considered,' Xavier replied. 'There's your unfamiliarity with the current political situation, your dress sense and you associates blood.'
'What about Mina's blood?'
'It doesn't contain any of the antibodies you would expect in a child born in the First World in the latter part of the twentieth century. All children receive a myriad of vaccinations and yet she appears to have received not a one.'
'Perhaps her parents were against needles,' the Doctor suggested.
'Possibly,' Xavier agreed, 'but I have another reason to believe your claim.'
'And that is?'
'I've already met a time traveller,' Xavier said. 'Come with me and I'll introduce you to her.'
* * *
'You really travel in time? That's so cool!'
Now that Douglas has overcome his initial shock, he is brimming with questions. Unfortunately, I do not have the answers.
'So, what's the future like?' he asks. 'Are we really going to get flying cars like in the comics. And what about the computers? I bet it's all holograms and virtual reality and artificial intelligences, am I right? Heck, maybe we even get sockets in the backs of our heads so we can plug directly into our PCs. I'm sure I saw that in a movie once.'
'I'm sorry, Doug, but I don't know,' I admit. 'This is as far into the future as I've travelled.'
Doug is clearly disappointed, but, to his credit, he is trying valiantly to hide it.
'You don't seem surprised that I travel in time,' I say.
'Everyone knows time travel's theoretically possible,' Doug tells me. 'Everyone with access to the Internet, anyway.'
'I'm sorry. Internet?' I ask.
'The Internet. The World Wide Web. The Information Superhighway.'
I look at Doug blankly.
He looks puzzled, then slaps his forehead with the heel of his hand.
'Sorry, I'm being an idiot, aren't I,' he says. 'I keep forgetting you're a hundred years out of date. Here, let me show you.'
He switches on one of the machines - a computer, so he tells me - in the infirmary.
'First I've got to log on with my secret password,' he explains mock seriously, 'then the computer connects to the web via phone lines. The web is basically this network of lots and lots of computers and they can all communicate and share data with each other.'
'This is fantastic,' I say as I lean closer to look at the colourful shapes that are appearing on the screen. 'And you can use this to access information from anywhere in the world.'
'Yes,' Doug replies. 'You're really into this stuff, aren't you? I mean, you're interested in this.'
'Yes, I am,' I say. 'Is that bad?'
'No, it's pretty cool, actually,' Doug says. 'It's just most visitors to the school, not that we get many, want to know about our powers, what we can do and so on. I don't get much of a chance to chat about things I'm into.'
'I'm used to people with strange powers,' I tell him, 'but we don't have computers where I come from. Still, while we're on the subject, would you mind explaining to me exactly what a 'mutant' is?'
* * *
The laboratory was not underground, nor was it secret. Actually, Vaughan had been tempted to have it built underground simply for his own amusement, but had decided that was too ostentatious. Besides, it would have taken too long to construct and Vaughan was a man in a hurry.
The Ranson Genetics Research Facility was hardly world famous, but nor was it's work a mystery. It was not unknown for local media crews to interview members of its staff when they wanted a scientific opinion for a story regarding genetics. The Ranson Facility's publicly stated goal was to conduct research into the human genome with the aim of improving the health of mankind. All of this was true, of course, but probably not in the way most people thought.
Vaughan found Dr Rudolph Hitch in laboratory B3 on the second floor of the building. Hitch had been employed to act as an administrator, a paper-pusher, but someone with his qualifications found it difficult to keep away from where the real action was.
'Good morning, Doctor,' Vaughan said as he walked across the lab, his cane tapping on the tiled floor.
'Ah, Mr Vaughan. Always a pleasure,' the little man replied. He did not offer his hand in greeting. Vaughan would not have taken it. 'I take it you're here to check up on our progress.'
'That's what I like about you, Rudolph,' Vaughan said with a sharp laugh, 'you always get straight to the point. Well?'
'Slow but steady progress, sir. Slow but steady.'
'I don't pay you for slow,' Vaughan warned.
'Ah, no, of course not, sir.' Dr Hitch pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of his lab coat and wiped the sweat from his baldpate. 'Perhaps you'd care to see what Dr Currie's been up to?'
'I had better not be disappointed, Rudolph,' Vaughan said. 'I would hate for this facility to suddenly and inexplicably lose its funding.'
'I'm sure it won't come to that, sir,' Dr Hitch said as he led Vaughan to a bench at the front of the lab. 'Anita, would you mind telling Mr Vaughan what we've discovered lately.'
'Of course,' Currie said. 'Mr Vaughan, how much do you know about our work here?'
'I read every one of the reports to come out of this building,' Vaughan informed her.
'Then I had better summarise from the beginning,' Currie continued. 'As you are aware, a mutant is a human being with beyond human abilities. Specifically, a mutant can be defined as a human with an x-factor gene.'
'Dr Currie,' Vaughan interrupted impatiently, 'I do not appreciate being patronised. I am not an imbecile.'
'With respect, sir, neither are you a scientist,' Currie shot back. 'If you expect me to explain my work in a way you'll understand then I need to guarantee that you have a certain basic level of knowledge. Alternatively, you can go back to watching the Discovery Channel and leave the rest of us alone to get some actual work done.'
'Oh my.' Dr Hitch removed his glasses and began polishing them frantically.
The corners of Vaughan's mouth curled up in amusement.
'Please continue, Dr Currie,' he said.
* * *
'All living things contain DNA,' Doug explains to me, 'and it's the DNA that makes us who we are. The DNA sequence of every living thing is unique. Think of the sequence as a set of instructions that make you who you are. Are you following me?'
'Just about,' I answer.
'Good, because it's about to get a bit more complicated. This DNA sequence can be subdivided into discrete units called genes and it's these genes or combinations of these genes that define our characteristics. Hair or eye colour, for example, is encoded in your genes.
'Now, a child gets half its genetic information from its father and half from its mother and hence should only be able to display characteristics that were already present in the genetic information of its parents. A child of blond parents might have red hair, but only if its parents already had the code for red hair in their genes, even though they weren't displaying it.
However, if the DNA is mutated or changed in some way, then that child might display characteristics unique to it. And, scientifically speaking, that child would be a mutant.
The term mutant as we use it here and as it has become commonly used outside as well, means something slightly different, though.'
* * *
'The definition of a mutant is a human being with an x-factor gene,' Currie said. 'However, this is simply a change at one locus so how can that account for the vast array of abilities displayed by mutants? If you turn on and off the same gene in different subjects you should affect the same characteristic in all subjects.'
'Our experiments in this area have shown this to be false,' Dr Hitch added. 'Having isolated the x-factor gene, it is relatively simply to use genetic engineering to manufacture mutants. Craig Miller was one of the products of that program. However, we are unable to predict the results of these experiments. In Mr Miller's case, although we granted him mutant abilities, the mutation would have been terminal, had he not met his end at the hands of your machine, that is.'
'Mr Miller knew the risks when he volunteered,' Vaughan said. 'Please continue, Dr Currie.'
* * *
'The missing link is something called 'junk DNA',' Doug continues. 'A large proportion of our DNA appears to have no function in determining who or what we are, hence the name 'junk DNA'. It's of no value. And yet it exists. And the reason it exists is because there is actually useful genetic information encoded into that sequence. It's just that normal humans can't access it.'
'Because they don't have this x-factor,' I deduce.
'Exactly,' Doug agrees. 'Think of the x-factor as like well, like the power-switch on this computer. The computer can do all these fantastic things, but I can't access any of them if the power isn't switched on. And it's the same with the junk DNA. Without an x-factor it's like a computer with no power - useless.'
* * *
'So you see, Mr Vaughan,' Currie explained, 'the real holy grail isn't the x-factor, it's the genetic sequence in the junk DNA that determines the specific ability.'
'And what of the theory that a mutant's personality influences the development of their abilities. I've read about children with claustrophobia growing wings when they reach puberty. There was a case in California where a girl who was neglected at school became invisible.'
'There's no scientific foundation for that theory,' Dr Hitch replied. 'I do have a team looking into it, but it's hardly the focus of our researches here.'
'This is what we wanted you to see, Mr Vaughan,' Currie said, pointing to the screen in front of her. 'Over the past few months I've been developing a genetic marker that I could inject into a subject. I then scan them while they are performing a certain activity and feed the results into my computer.'
'And?' Vaughan prompted.
'The marker first identifies the cells used in a particular activity. Providing the subject is still growing, the marker can isolate these cells at the site they are produced and show me which genes are responsible for the creation of said cells. The ideal mutant subject would be an adolescent, one going through puberty. Give me the right subject and I'll show you, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, which genes are responsible for their powers.'
'Reasonable degree of accuracy?' Vaughan said. 'I'm not sure that that is satisfactory.'
'In the good old days,' Dr Hitch explained, 'we would have used a series of identical subjects and deleted different genes from each in order to determine what those genes did.'
'Unfortunately, it's practically impossible to come up with a sequence of identical mutants. They're all unique so we're having to develop new techniques to cope. Yes there is an element of doubt in our procedures, but I'm confident that the accuracy level is sufficient for your purposes. In any event, it's bound to be more reliable than that grafting process Dr Hitch used to use.'
'Ahem,' Dr Hitch choked.
'Actually, I was rather fond of grafting, myself,' Vaughan said.
Delicately, he peeled the black glove from his left hand. The skin beneath was green and covered with seeping sores. The fingertips curled into razor-sharp talons.
'The problem with grafting,' he continued, enjoying the way his claws caught the light, 'is that you are extremely limited in what abilities you can copy. I trust that won't be an issue with your process, Dr Currie?'
Currie gulped, her eyes fixed on the hand in front of her.
'No, sir,' she managed.
'Good,' Vaughan said, 'because I intend to deliver you your first batch of test subjects by tomorrow morning. And I expect results.'
|           Ongoing...|