Chapter 5: Project Darkhorse
A festive atmosphere still pervaded the school in the aftermath of Christmas. New Year’s was still a week away, the guys were caught up with talk of Super Bowl picks and the girls were making plans to hit the mall for the after-Holiday sales. Remy had not forgotten Minx’s creative use of his shoelaces. His retribution came via Professor Xavier, who had ordered the teen to perform dishwashing duty for the next several weeks as a form of penance. Minx was not pleased but grumpily complied with her punishment, as she scoured her mind for a way to return the ‘favor’.
Remy didn’t help the situation, much to Rogue’s displeasure. He made sure to keep back a plate or bowl or spoon that was particularly dirty from a meal to hand over the next morning to Minx, thereby adding extra work to her chore as she had to scrub like crazy to get the offensive food particles off the item. Xavier had specified that each item had to be hand washed prior to being placed in the dishwasher.
“You’re doing this on purpose!” she snapped at the handsome man one morning as the Cajun gleefully handed over a bowl with what looked like dried-up stale oatmeal clinging to its inner rim.
Remy gave the girl his most winning smile. “Why, ma belle, o’ course I am!”
She shot him a dark scowl and carried the bowl over to the sink, grumbling. She ran steaming water into the bowl, squirted out some soap from the bottle on the counter and picked up the pot scrubber applying it forcefully to the china with no luck.
“This stuff is like cement!”
Remy chuckled. Minx scrubbed harder to no effect.
“What the hell did you do? Use glue?”
When no answer came from the man, Minx slowly set down the bowl, leaving the faucet on and rounded on her tormentor. He wore an earsplitting grin that spoke volumes.
“You slimy Cajun bastard,” the girl swore under her breath, “you really did glue this to the bowl, didn’t you?”
He continued to grin at her not giving away anything.
“Fine. I’ll just freeze it and crack it off.”
“Uh, uh,” Remy wagged a finger at the girl, “you been restricted from using your powers, petite, remember?”
This was too much for Minx.
“Get out!” she yelled in frustration.
She grabbed up the pot scrubber and flung it at his retreating figure. She let out an exasperated breath and shut the water off at the sink, staring thoughtfully at the bowl lying in the stainless steel basin. She picked it up, flicking a fingernail against the crusted goop on the rim, deep in thought. A few moments later, her eyes narrowed and a smirk of pure mischief filled her face.
“Oh yeah,” she whispered to herself in glee, “This’ll be good!”
“Yo!” Jubilee called from the hallway, her coat and hat in one hand, “you about done in there, Cinderella?”
Minx smiled and acknowledged her friend. “Yeah, almost.”
“Well, hurry it up, will ya! A bunch of us are going sledding down ‘disaster hill’. Bobby iced the runners on our sleds, so there’ll be no traction whatsoever! I’m talking downhill racing at warp speed! Like how totally cool is that?”
Jubilee shrugged into her trademark bright yellow coat and tugged her wool cap down over her ears looking for all the world like a deranged hobbit. She grinned at her friend in the kitchen and waiting impatiently for Minx. Minx looked down at the crusty bowl in her hands, then back up at Jubilee. She reached down beneath the sink, slipped open the cabinet door a crack and dumped the dirty bowl in the trash basket inside.
“Uh, yeah, I’m done here.” Minx called to Jubilee, “I just hafta grab my coat and gloves and I’ll meet you guys outside.”
Jubilee raced off, a few others passing by the open kitchen door on their way to the hill as well. Minx dried her hands on a towel and checked to make sure no one was around, and then quickly grabbed a box of instant oatmeal out of the pantry. She took a pitcher from the table, filled it with water and carried it and the oatmeal out and down the hallway, careful to make sure no one saw her.
She snuck a peek into the rec room – it was deserted. She tiptoed in and pulled the sliding doors shut behind her, trying not to make any noise. She poked around, and then made her way over to the TV set, and spotted what she was looking for on the floor near the couch. She knew she had promised not to use her powers while on probation, but this was so minor it wouldn’t count she figured. Ten minutes later, Minx was bounding through the drifting snow, following the shouts of her schoolmates up to the top of ‘disaster hill’ for some afternoon fun.
Magneto sat, quietly watching the metal balls bounce back and forth knocking into one another in a smart rhythmic cadence atop his desk. Capable of complete mastery over magnetic fields, Magneto was one of the most powerful mutants on earth. His mind was currently focused on the voice of the blue-skinned woman standing before him, although a small fraction of his senses kept the metal spheroids moving as well.
“You’re positive it was her?” he looked up at Mystique, who patiently stood on the other side of the burnished metal desk.
“Yes,” the mutant replied, a deceptive smile playing across her features, “That’s not a face I’ll ever forget.”
Magneto hmmphed, and waved a hand at the clicking balls. They stopped in mid-swing.
“So, she’s still alive. Interesting. I had thought the fire had put an end to them all, but it seems we were a little sloppy in our conclusions.”
Magneto cast a look of mild disdain at the woman standing before him, and Mystique’s mouth tightened into a grim line. It wasn’t as if she had had time to check through the charred ruins for bodies back then. The police sirens and fire trucks were already screaming towards the devastation leaving her no choice but to depart the scene in haste. When she hadn’t come back with ‘the prize’ he was expecting, she’d had to endure the dark anger of one of the most powerful mutants on earth. She remembered Magneto’s wrath upon hearing that Nicole had been killed in the fire and ground her teeth together in silent frustration. Mystique cast an uneasy glance over at her employer, waiting for him to explode once again, but he didn’t. Instead, the older man tapped his fingers together, thinking.
“It would appear that our little guinea pig, Nicole, is more than meets the eye, my dear. If Charles is sequestering her at his school, then the child is no mere human; she is one of us. Even so, her DNA was the only catalyst that ever successfully transformed the dormant virus into its lethal form. Unfortunately, I had to abandon that project after what I thought was her untimely demise.”
Magneto absently flicked a finger toward his desk and one of the metal balls that had been suspended in mid-air glided over to him and began to rotate gently before him. He watched its movements without much interest. Mystique ambled seductively around the large steel desk and sat down on the arm of her employer’s chair. She casually ruffled the older man’s graying hair, and he sighed.
“Darkhorse can still be salvaged.” Mystique offered, “I can bring her back here for you.” Her voice took on a hardened edge, “I won’t fail this time.”
Magneto met her yellow-eyed gaze with a tired smile as he thought back to six years earlier…
Eric Lenssher stood, leaning over a microscope in the secret underground labs he had built several years earlier for his ongoing genetic research projects. He peered down at the magnified slide, smiling in approval.
“Well done, Stephen!” he congratulated the scientist sitting next to him, “with this new viral strain, we will finally have a step up in the race for survival.”
Stephen Anderson, also known by his mutant name of Stealth, gave his boss a weak smile. He had spent the past eleven years of his life developing the Darkhorse virus, and now, at the completion of his work, he was not as proud or as jubilant as he perhaps should have been.
“Eric,” Stephen cleared his throat and took off his glasses, wiping the lenses on his lab coat nervously, “I’m not so sure this is the best way to go about promoting mutant rights.”
He replaced his glasses back on his nose and continued. “I mean, well, my wife and daughter. They aren’t…they aren’t like us. What will happen to them?”
Eric patted the man on the back in an attempt to reassure his colleague.
“Stephen, Stephen. Always thinking of others,” he sighed, “your family will be fine. In fact, they’ve already been tested, and one of them is actually the donor for the carrier gene we needed to complete this project.”
Stephen’s blood chilled at this unsuspected disclosure. “Tested? When? You never told me you ran any kind of tests on my family.”
The man pushed himself off the lab stool he’d been sitting on and faced Magneto, his eyes flashing angrily.
“I’m not so sure I want to be a part of this project any longer, Eric,” he stated, his voice rising.
“I was afraid this moment would arrive, my friend,” Magneto sadly replied.
He picked up a test tube and held it up before his face, frowning. He looked past the glass vial and spied Mystique silently padding into the lab behind Dr. Stephen Anderson.
“That is why, doctor, I will have to relieve you of your daughter, Nicole.”
Stephen Anderson went visibly pale. “What?!” he gasped in disbelief.
“Consider it…” Magneto thought a moment, “your legacy to this great mission.” He gave the doctor an evil smile. “Your daughter’s DNA will be used as the catalyst to create the most deadly killer on the face of this planet for humankind. With it, we can once and for all cleanse ourselves of the inferiors that continue to abuse and subjugate our kind. Just think of it, Stephen! You will be known as the savior of the mutant race!”
Stephen felt the first icy shards of fear settle in his stomach. Dear God, he thought to himself, what have I done here?
“Eric,” he whispered, “this virus has the potential to wipe out the entire human race within three generations.”
Magneto seemed nonplussed. Stephen shivered, realizing for the first time the true depths of hatred his employer harbored against humans.
“Dear God, Eric,” he pleaded with the man, “you never said we’d actually use the virus on anyone – it was supposed to be a ‘threat’…a weapon of last resort should the government go through with the mutant registration project!”
“A threat has no strength, Stephen, if never carried out. And what are we if not at the last edge of reason with our enemies?”
Mystique had come up behind the doctor and startled him when she slipped a blue, scaly arm over his shoulder. She was holding a photograph of his wife and daughter. He stiffened.
“Such a pretty woman,” Mystique purred in his ear indicating the woman in the picture. The mutant quickly morphed into a replica of his wife Claire, and Stephen shuddered.
“It is such a shame that she has to die.” Mystique/Claire taunted him.
Stephen panicked and swung an arm up into Mystique’s face, knocking the woman into a lab stool. He spun as she recovered her balance, noticing the woman had shifted back to her natural blue-skinned form. He made a run for the open door. Magneto remained calm as he watched the man shake off Mystique’s hand on his coat sleeve, stumble then charge forward again, a look of wild terror in his eyes. Magneto stepped forward and casually raised his hand in a flicking motion.
A large metal cabinet screeched across the floor, sparks dancing off its feet as it was flung across the lab entrance, blocking the doctor’s hasty exit. Stephen stopped, unsure of what to do. Seeing Mystique closing in, he used his mutant powers and vanished into thin air as Mystique launched a chair at him. She snarled as his invisible form brushed against her and he dodged under her swinging fist and veered left.
Mystique swung about, searching vainly for her opponent, her yellow eyes traveling back and forth, scanning the lab. A heavy autoclave lifted off the counter behind her and flew towards her head, but Magneto easily used his power to “push” the metal machine off course. It crashed into the wall next to Mystique as she back-flipped from her current spot to land atop the counter as nimble as any gymnast.
“It’s no use, Stephen,” Magneto tried, “Please, let’s end this foolishness.”
As he spoke, Magneto kept his eyes on Mystique who was concentrating, her ears honing in on the slightest noises in the room. She stopped and gave a nod in the direction of the door. Magneto gestured to the wall and the fire extinguisher unhooked from its clamps. It floated into Magneto’s waiting hands as he came slowly toward the door. At a signal from Mystique, Magneto opened the spray nozzle full force spraying in a wide arc directly in front of him.
A thick cloud of white foam shot from the extinguisher dispersing over the area in a heavy mist. From within the fog, a hunched form took shape. Coughing from the fumes, his cover blown, Stephen attempted to come around the other end of the counter, but Mystique was waiting for him. She pounced off the counter top, aiming a deadly kick at his sternum. Stephen huffed, the breath knocked out of him as he went smashing backwards into an observation table. His spine connected solidly with the edge of the table while glass and liquids went crashing to the floor. Stephen slowly slid to the floor amidst the broken test tubes and beakers, his back screaming in agony.
Mystique, enjoying the game, hopped off the counter and slowly approached the man moaning on the floor. Her blue head tilted slightly as she studied him. Stephen tried to raise himself, and Mystique’s bare foot came down on his neck slamming his head back to the floor. He grunted in pain. Her foot remained on his throat, pressing down, brutally cutting off his air supply. Gasping for breath, Stephen shot Magneto a pleading look.
“I’m sorry, Stephen,” Magneto mildly reproached his friend, “but I cannot have a traitor in our midst.”
He waved toward the cabinet blocking the doorway and it immediately tumbled over, clearing the opening for Magneto. He swept past Mystique and the doctor, and turned slightly at the doorway.
“I really had hoped you’d see things my way, old friend. But, alas, it’s not to be.”
Magneto glanced at Mystique momentarily and gave a curt nod to her.
“Finish here. And then pay his house a little visit, my dear. I don’t care what you do to his wife, as long as you bring me the child…alive and unharmed.” he emphasized the last words and then swept out of the lab.
“No!” Stephen screamed hoarsely after the retreating figure.
He struggled frantically, trying to raise himself up from the floor again. Mystique, her eyes glowing with excitement, lifted her foot up just enough to give him hope and then brought it down with full force on the man’s throat. The mutant smiled when she felt his larynx crush beneath her toes. Stephen’s eyes froze, the pupils dilated then grew dull as his life ebbed away.
After dispensing with Dr. Anderson, Mystique had transformed herself into a perfect replica of Stephen and gone to his home where Claire, Stephen’s wife, had greeted her ‘husband’ at the door. Mystique had been in the process of snapping the woman’s neck with her bare hands when the young Nicole had walked into the living room at that precise moment. The element of surprise removed, the girl had fled and managed to escape from the house before Mystique could snatch her…
Magneto reached up to Mystique who was still perched on the arm of his chair and ran a finger down her scaly blue cheek.
“There can be no room for error this time.” He looked up at Mystique. “If you can’t get her away cleanly, then terminate her. I can’t have the little brat accidentally disclosing the wrong information to our enemies.”
Mystique gave him a malevolent smile and licked her upper lip seductively.
“I want all these loose ends wrapped up before Charles Xavier and his little group uncover our plans to resurrect the Darkhorse Project.” He gave the woman’s thigh a little pat. “See to it, my dear, would you?”
Mystique bowed toward her employer then hopped up from her perch and gracefully sauntered out of his office.
“Ah, Charles,” Magneto exhaled heavily, “why must you always be the thorn in my side?”
The day seemed like any other for the X-team as Mystique boarded a private jet for New York to take care of business and put Magneto’s plans in motion. Scott sat at the head of the breakfast table this morning, Charles Xavier having been called away to an early business meeting downtown. He sipped his coffee, every now and then glancing down at the engine schematics for the Blackbird that lay on the table next to his plate.
“Hey,” called Bobby Drake from the nearby kitchen, “Where’s the oatmeal?”
The sixteen-year old, also known as Iceman, popped his shaggy brown head into the dining room where Minx, Jean, Scott, Rogue, Hank and Kitty were already seated enjoying plates of pancakes and sausages.
“I thought we had a whole box left,” Bobby questioned the group.
“If there’s not any in the pantry, then we’re out,” Jean said as she set down her fork and wiped her mouth with her napkin.
“I’ll put it on the shopping list,” Hank said and motioned to an empty chair across from him. “Here, sit down and partake of some of my famous sourdough pancakes instead,” he eagerly suggested to Bobby.
Minx ignored the discussion and continued to cut her pancakes into little pieces, trying her best to act normal. It was rather difficult to do considering she knew exactly what had become of the box of oatmeal. Hank reached for the platter and began forking several pancakes onto a plate for the young man as Bobby took an empty seat and reached for the syrup. Minx lifted her glass of juice to her lips and took a long thirsty gulp looking up to spot Jubilee plodding into the room. Clad in an oversized ‘Hello Kitty’ nightshirt, fuzzy yellow robe and bunny slippers the young mutant yawned as she took a seat at the table. She reached over Rogue to grab up the box of cereal sitting there and poured herself some Sugar-Bombs and splashed some milk on top.
At that moment, a loud, angry shout assaulted Minx’s ears from the rec room down the hall.
Minx spluttered, orange juice spraying from her lips. She quickly wiped up the mess with her napkin. No one seemed to have noticed her little accident. In fact, she suddenly realized, no one else had even heard the cry. Her acute hearing had easily picked up Remy’s curse, but it must have been nothing more than a muffled far away sound to the rest at the table. She breathed a sigh of relief until another shout, this one much closer and definitely heard by all, came from directly outside the room. All attention focused on the door to the hall where a heavily accented voice rose in a thunderous crescendo of French oaths as Remy kicked the door open and entered.
“Now what?” Scott began but was cut off by the spluttering Cajun man.
“Minx!” Remy bellowed pointing a gloved finger in her direction, “Je vais vous tuer, ma petite fiend!”
All heads at the table turned to the designated culprit. Minx looked like a deer caught in the headlights. She fiddled with her fork and smiled nervously at the group, trying to look as blameless as possible. Scott’s eyebrows rose in accusation as Remy, a look of murder on his handsome face, his burning red eyes flashing held up the boot he clutched in his other hand for all to see. As Remy slowly tilted the brown leather boot, a sluggish stream of gray lumpy oatmeal began to ooze from its mouth. It plopped onto the floor making a nasty wet sound, landing next to the foot already encased in the other boot which was making a squelching sound as Remy moved.
“My oatmeal!” Bobby cried and pointed to Remy’s boot.
Jubilee made a face of disgust. The young Asian teen looked down at her cereal and sulked, her desire for crunchy sweet goodness having suddenly and queasily departed.
“I think I’m gonna hurl!” She shoved the bowl away and slammed a hand up to her mouth for dramatic effect.
All eyes slowly turned back to Minx who could only offer up a cheesy smile as disbelief turned to shock and then just as quickly, to annoyance on the adult’s faces.
“Gotta go!” Minx blurted.
The girl bounded out of her chair like a demented jackrabbit, practically climbing over the table in her haste as Remy followed in hot pursuit, leaving a trail of lumpy oatmeal spatters along the carpet.
“Nice try, ma belle!” the man roared, knocking her chair aside as he followed in her wake. “But Remy know ya can’t run forever, eh?”
Logan was coming through the opposite door from the kitchen when something small, wiry and smelling of cherry vanilla pushed past him in a hurry. He scowled and then moved aside as Remy blundered by waving a dripping boot and cussing a blue streak in his strange Cajun-English patois.
“Gee, did I miss something?” Logan asked sarcastically as he came around the table.
A sizzle and a pop, followed by a yelp of pain came from the kitchen.
“Hah! I got ya, ya l’il brat!” Remy’s voice echoed back to them.
This was followed by a crash, more swearing, and the pounding of footsteps that grew fainter as man and child continued their chase down the hall and up the stairs to the second floor. Bobby pondered a moment before breaking the silence in the room. He stared wistfully down at the mess on the floor.
“You know, I really wanted oatmeal this morning.”
Everyone burst into laughter save for Scott and Logan. Scott waited for the giggles to die down then threw his napkin onto the table and stood up in mild irritation.
“I better go check on the terror twins to make sure they don’t kill each other,” he grumbled.
“Ah give up,” Rogue threw her hands up in disgust as Scott left the room, “Ah swear, those two are like a couple a brawlin’ alley cats.”
“Well,” Jean said as she rose and began to clear her dishes from the table, “I’d say the little alley cat has a paw up on the bigger one today.”
“I say we save time and drown ‘em both,” Logan darkly suggested as he poured himself some coffee from the urn on the buffet.
Upstairs, shouts and the sound of slamming doors could be heard. Scott, out in the main foyer now, was threatening a group of curious students who had gathered at the top of the staircase to witness the hijinks going on.
“I’m going to count to three, and if the top of that stairwell is not clear…”
At that there was the sound of thundering feet as students scattered, fully aware that the wrath of an angry Cyclops was something to be avoided. The man was hard enough to deal with when in a good mood, only a few had seen him angered and lived to tell the tale, they liked to joke. The group in the dining room finished their meal, ignoring the ordeal beyond. It was just another normal day for them at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.