Raison D'être Section 1
"Die! Everyone, everything, die, die!:"
A lifetime of struggling, of giving everything he had to achieve the goals his creator set for him, and now it ended in this. Abandoned by his creator, facing the destruction of his entire planet because he was fool enough to trust in someone so completely, Berg Katse flung himself into the pit created by his creator's departure, toward the lava that boiled below.
Superheated steam rose, cooking him. He screamed with agony and despair, falling toward the bottom and an instant death.
The bottom never came. Space had been torn to shreds by the alien's stardrive engines. Holes and currents, warps and eddies seethed through the pit. Berg Katse fell into a hole in space, and blackness took him.
It had been three months since Zaladane had tried to kill Magneto, three months which he had spent healing, and brooding, and trying very hard not to think about much of anything. Nothing on the planet below interested him anymore; they could go on with their petty wars, they could all annihilate each other for all he cared, and for all his bravado about a kinder, gentler Magneto not being able to save his people, in point of fact he didn't much care about that, either. His people didn't want him, and after the series of spectacular failures he'd had in the past two years, he was beginning to suspect they didn't need him, anyway. Let them turn to someone with a better track record, let someone else bash his head against the brick wall of human ignorance, greed and the capacity for evil. He was tired.
The electromagnetic disturbance in the region of the Himalayas was the first thing to actually catch his attention in three months. It hit him while he was eating breakfast, and his startlement was such that he ended up spilling coffee all over himself. Only the low gravity of Asteroid M and his own hair-trigger reflexes prevented himself from burning his legs with the scalding liquid, as he barely managed to shield himself in time. It felt like someone had just torn a hole in the Earth's EM field.
That got his attention. The ideologue was burnt down to the core, but the scientist still had some fire left in him. So curiosity dragged him out of his orbital exile and back down to the planet where he'd been born. A slight spark of interest flared up in the cold wasteland of his numbed emotions, and he had to follow it, wherever it compelled him to go, if he wanted any hope that he might ever feel alive again.
The center of the disturbance was a blasted field in the middle of a mist-filled area of the Himalayan mountains, at what counted as a low altitude, for the Himalayas. It looked like a rocket had taken off from the area; heat-blasted scatters of burnt grass and bare soil sprinkling the ground. The odd thing was that the burn damage was uneven, more like a mutant with heat blasts had been fighting here than a rocket after all. In the midst of all this a person lay.
At first Magneto thought the person was dead. He had smelled that stench before-- burnt flesh and rot, the smell of the dead, of a dead body that hadn't been cremated all the way, or a person who'd died from burning. It was sufficiently obvious from the smell that the person had to be dead that had he been a normal man, with normal senses, he would have left it at that. But he shifted his senses to perceive electrical patterns, simply because it was second nature for him to do so.
There was massive electrical activity going on in the apparently-dead person's brain. Startled, Magneto stared at the person. The activity didn't indicate consciousness-- while he wasn't able to tell much about brains with precision from their electrical activity, he did know the difference between a conscious and unconscious mind. But the electrical activity was far greater than he'd seen an autonomic system display before. And it certainly meant the person wasn't dead. There were several possibilities, but the most obvious one was that the injured was a mutant, one of the people Magneto had sworn to protect. And even if not, he wasn't quite disaffected enough from humanity just now to leave even a human to die of such injuries, provided there was anything else he could do.
Carefully he cocooned the burned body in a gentle grip of magnetic force, and lifted off, merging his forcebubble with the person's so he wouldn't have to tow an extra forcebubble, and therefore could make maximum time back to Asteroid M.
Asteroid M had the most advanced medical technology available anywhere on Earth. Specifically, it used Shi'ar technology that Charles Xavier had brought to Earth, a gift from his Shi'ar lover the exiled Empress, and that Magneto had copied back when he was a teacher at Charles' school and had free access to the stuff. In those days he hadn't wanted to believe he would have to turn his back on Charles' dream, but he had made provisions for the possibility anyway. The philosophy of his life was to expect the worst, and somehow, he had never been disappointed.
He laid his burden down gently, making the force field between the burn victim and the diagnostic bed thinner and thinner and finally nonexistent. The diagnostic bed couldn't do much with the patient in this condition, of course, so he walked over to the bed, took up a slender and extremely sharp blade and began carefully to cut the burnt remains of clothing off the injured person, using a magnetic field under the clothing to prevent him from accidentally cutting the person.
The face was badly burned from the nose down to just above the chin, with the ragged remains of a mask lying on the rest of the face. The burnt mask could be plucked off easily, revealing an androgynous, fine-featured face, blistered and burnt but not as severely as the parts that had been exposed. There was a great quantity of fine blond hair, both long and dense, that spilled out when he pulled the mask away. Some of it had been singed, but most of the hair was in fine condition, having been protected under the stiff surface of the mask. There were livid bruises visible on the face even through the burns. He recognized the marks, having borne them often enough in his life, as coming from punches and kicks. More bruises and burns covered the upper body, and massive cruel blistering, though the blisters didn't seem to be associated with the burns necessarily. Magneto realized with some startlement that even with his patient stripped to the waist he couldn't really tell what sex the person was; the chest was broad but within the feminine range and the breasts were tiny, still within possible male range.
He cut away the burn victim's pants, including stiff protective armoring in the region of the groin, and discovered what the problem was. Though there were no burns here-- the clothing was singed but the groin protector was undamaged-- the blistering and smell of rot was strongest here. The patient had two undeveloped sets of sexual organs, both looking raw, inflamed and almost skinless, with blisters all over and blood and slimy unidentified substances. Magneto was at a loss to explain how it was possible, but it looked as if the person was either a hermaphrodite suffering a wasting disease who just happened to also have been burned, or was somehow undergoing some process that was changing one sex into the other.
Once his patient had been placed in the diagnostic bed, stripped and the diagnostic computers set to work, Magneto ran a genetic analysis, fairly certain he'd find a mutant. The results were far more startling than that. The person was a mutant, yes, with the clear markers of X-factor in his or her genome. That genome was much farther from human norm than the ones he usually saw, however. Normally a mutant had a handful of anomalous genes, which looked just like normal human genes unless one did a detailed scan. This person, however, had double the number of chromosomes a Terran could be expected to have, whether human, mutant, Inhuman, or Atlantean. The genetic code was Terran, though-- there was nowhere this person could have come from but Earth. And when Magneto did a further analysis on the doubled chromosomes, he realized there were actually two separate genomes, very closely related but not identical, as if of a brother and a sister, merged together in each cellular nucleus of the mutant's body. Such a thing ordinarily could not survive; presumably the X-factor present in both of the genomes was mediating between the two somehow, so that two separate genetic codes could co-exist. And while it seemed that one was partially inactivated, it looked as if which one was partially inactivated was changing, with the sites of the most horrendous damage showing both sides to be active.
A few further studies confirmed it. The mutant possessed two separate genomes, and was capable of shifting between them. The process seemed to involve the entire body breaking down and reforming on the template of the second genome. It was a type of healing factor, but far more painful, gruesome and time-consuming than the healing factors he knew of. For a moment he wondered why such a wasteful power would come to be, and then shook his head at his own blindness. He was thinking like a user of mutant power, considering mutations to be essentially things to be used and classifying them in terms of effectiveness, rather than a scientist, who should recognize that mutation was random and not necessarily useful at all. Besides, this actually wasn't a healing factor as he understood it. It was an ability to mediate between two genomes. Healing was a side-effect, as was the sex change-- one genome was male, one was female. He felt a deep pity for the person. His power was both enormously useful and practically invisible; he could pass for human anywhere that didn't actively use mutant detection technology, as long as he wasn't recognized as Magneto-- and if he was, it was his own fault for making himself notorious, not a flaw in his genome. This person could not use his/her power without being obviously cut off from the common run of humanity, and even many mutants would find such a transformation troubling.
Of course, it was also possible that the person had another power. Judging from the signs he'd seen of a battle, it looked as if the person had been in battle with someone with heat blasts. That might well indicate some sort of agility or shielding powers, since a mutant without such abilities would probably be fried in a heat blast.
He spent the next several days caring for the person while she-- it became obvious after a day that this particular transformation was from male to female, and since she would end up a woman, he mentally pegged her as such, if only to have a pronoun to use-- lay in the grip of violent fever and the horrendous process of regeneration. Occasionally she recovered only enough consciousness to be aware of pain, it seemed, and would moan and cry out, writhing weakly. There was nothing more he could do for her than he was already doing; he had no idea what drugs might do to the process she was undergoing. So he bathed her, with water the temperature of her feverish body, and made sure she didn't dislodge her IV drip of water and nutrients, and sprayed her mouth with water mist every so often because he didn't dare give her anything to drink, lest she choke on it.
After a day or so, she opened her eyes. What she saw seemed to galvanize her. She jerked to a sitting position. "Wer bist du?" she demanded. The question meant "Who are you?" in German, rather rudely-- she used the familiar form of "you", normally reserved for family and friends, and her tone was harsh. Magneto couldn't exactly blame her for any of that, though-- she was still feverish, and clearly frightened.
"A friend," he replied in the same language. No sense frightening her with his true identity until she was stronger. "I'm trying to help you. You're very ill."
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Are you a doctor?"
"Not precisely, but a scientist with advanced medical--"
He didn't get to finish the sentence. With no warning whatsoever she slammed her hand into his nose, and only years of fighting people who thought with their fists enabled him to throw up enough of a shield that she didn't manage to drive the bone back into his brain. As it was, she broke it. As Magneto staggered backward with a cry of pain, she flung herself out of the bed, moving faster than he would have imagined, and ran for the door, the IV tearing out of her arm.
"Stop!" he shouted, flinging up a shield to block her. She slammed into it and spun around, berserk animal rage in her eyes.
"Won't go back!" she shrilled, her voice shifting wildly-- high male tenor, deep female contralto, and sometimes, impossibly, both at the same time. "No scientists! Koroshite yaru!" He didn't recognize the language, but the intent, as she flung herself at him with clawed hands aimed at his eyes, was unmistakable. Again Magneto shielded himself, knocking her back, and her eyes widened.
"Omae ningen ja nai..." she whispered hoarsely. "What are you?"
"I'm a mutant, like yourself, and--"
"No! Don't lie, uso uso!! Kill you, won't go back!" Whatever lucidity flinging her back had brought to her, it was gone now. She grabbed a chair and threw it at him. Since nothing on Asteroid M wasn't magnetic, he repelled it with ease, then used his powers to paralyze her. The tormented mutant screamed, struggling against the field that held her, as Magneto attended to his nose, using the Shi'ar medtech to realign it and begin healing the damage. "Hanase, hanase, let me go, kisama yam'ro! No, no, let me go, let me, damn you, iya, yamero..." It took two minutes. By the time he was done-- his nose not fully healed, but no longer shrieking in pain at him-- she was sobbing, and her multilingual cursing had reduced to a single language, the one he didn't speak. "Tas'kete, Sosai-sama, tas'kete kudasaii, Sosai X-sama, please please, tasukete..."
Magneto released her. "I won't hurt you," he said gently. "I mean you no harm. I only want to make you well."
"Help me?" she whispered. The fight seemed to go out of her, and she slumped.
He stepped toward her, preparing to lead her back toward the bed, when again without warning her leg snapped up and kicked him in the chest, hard enough to fling him backwards and fast enough that he didn't block in time. "Scientist liar! Won't go back, won't study me, you won't--" and she was off and running again. This time she'd made it out the door before Magneto had enough of his breath back to pursue her.
Apparently calling himself a scientist had been a bad idea. Magneto flew out after her. She seemed proficient in dealing with the low gravity of the Asteroid, indicating she'd perhaps spent time in space herself, but she didn't know her way around and she couldn't seem to fly. He caught up with her easily, and this time quickly rendered her unconscious, inhibiting electrical communication in her nervous system in such a way that she instantly slumped over. He picked her up and carried her back to the medical ward.
He watched her warily over the next two days, hooking up a monitor to tell him when she was conscious and shielding himself then. But she made no attempt to fight him or bolt again, though she didn't seem to recognize him from waking to waking; she would stir, moaning, her eyes would open, but there was no recognition. Sometimes she would plead with him to make the pain stop, sometimes she would beg not to be hurt. Most of the time she just repeated that foreign word, "tasukete".
Magneto was actually asleep when she finally awoke completely. Stretched thin as he was by the hours he'd spent caring for her, he didn't register the chime of the monitor until he actually heard a hoarse voice saying, "Mizu, kudasai?"
Voices near him woke him regardless of how tired he was, legacy of a lifetime of fighting. He jerked awake in the chair where he'd drifted off and turned to face her. "I'm sorry, what did you say?" he asked in German.
"Water? Please?" This time she responded in German.
"Of course." He gestured to a pitcher and a glass, both made of metal with glass interiors so the metal wouldn't get into the water. The pitcher rose and poured into the glass, which then came to his hand. The weakened mutant watched intently, her eyes enormously wide. Leaving the glass floating in midair, Magneto helped prop her into a sitting position against the pillows, then brought the glass to her lips. She batted at him weakly.
"Give... me. I can... drink."
"It's heavy," he warned, but gave her the glass anyway. He knew what it was like to be weak and sick, and desperate to reassert one's own power against the world, railing against one's own weakness.
She spilled some but managed to get most of the water into her mouth. The glass dropped from her hand; he caught it with his powers. "More?"
"What are you?" she asked.
"You asked that during your illness. Do you remember what I told you?"
A harsh, barking laugh escaped her throat. "You'd be lucky if I remembered my own name during the Change."
Good, then he could avoid the mistake of calling himself a scientist. "I'm a mutant, like yourself, and a friend. Men call me Magneto."
She looked at him speculatively for several seconds, and finally asked, "What do women call you?"
He'd heard that one before, several times actually-- an occupational hazard of fighting wiseass teenagers. Nevertheless it struck him as funny from her, and he smiled. "Generally the same thing. Those who I call friend are allowed to call me Magnus."
"You don't have any men friends?"
This was probably intended as a continuation of the joke, but it sobered him. He thought of Xavier. "Most likely not, anymore."
Again she watched intently as he got her the water, as if she'd never seen a telekinetic-style power in action. Which possibly she hadn't. The fact that she was a mutant didn't make her familiar with other mutants, necessarily. "What is your name?" he asked.
"Where am I?"
Well, he supposed she had the right not to answer him until she understood her situation. She hadn't shown any recognition at the name Magneto, but then, she might not be easily surprised. "Aboard my space station, Asteroid M. I found you burnt and apparently dying, and brought you here."
He shrugged. "I didn't know of any hospitals in the area, and a dying mutant in the company of a known mutant terrorist is not likely to get good care from most hospitals anyway."
"Known mutant terrorist?" Her eyes narrowed.
"I told you. I am Magneto." That clearly didn't clarify the situation. "You've never heard of me?"
"I should have. Things like a man who moves glasses of water with his mind should have been brought to my attention." Her tone promised that heads would roll for not having done so.
"And you are?"
She hesitated. "What do you know of Galactor?"
Now she frowned. "You haven't heard of Galactor?"
"The name isn't a familiar one, no."
"Have you been living in a cave for three years?" she rasped, clearly miffed.
A slow anger burned inside him. He forced it down. "For three months, I haven't had much contact with the outside world. Before that, however, I was well informed about the political situations on Earth, especially that having to do with the superhuman community. If there were a person named Galactor--"
"It's an organization."
"--or an organization, and it had any relevance in world geopolitics, I would have heard of it."
"Perhaps you're not as well-informed as you thought," she sniped. "The UN certainly seems to think we're of relevance. They have an entire department solely to deal with us. We're 40% of ISO's budget."
She looked at him. "You cannot not know the ISO."
"I'm beginning to suspect something. When you came here, there was an electromagnetic disturbance, similar to what I'd expect from a teleportation effect, but extremely strong. As if you came here through time--"
"What year is it?"
He told her. "That's it," she whispered. "I'm from 20 years from now. That explains it."
"Only 20 years? I fear it doesn't," he said. "While I admit this might be my ego speaking, I find it hard to imagine the name Magneto will be forgotten by mutants in 20 years."
"Modest, aren't you?"
He laughed. "I have been accused of many sins and character flaws in my time, but false modesty is not one of them. I am very well known, possibly the best-known of the so-called 'mutant supervillains'. Even were I to die tomorrow, I can't imagine my name being forgotten in a mere twenty years, so long as mutants still exist to remember me-- What?"
"You keep speaking as if mutants are... common. As if there's... more than a few. To my knowledge... I only know of three other mutants like myself, and none of them can do anything like what I've seen you do. So.. perhaps they don't exist to remember you. Perhaps they were all killed, in the war."
"World War III... no, wait. You'd be in the middle of that war right now..." She subsided in confusion.
"If mutantkind were exterminated, we would have taken out as much of humanity as possible. Is that consistent with your history?"
"No, World War III killed 130 million people, but the population was 5 billion before that. And the death toll was due to conventional and biological weaponry... if it had been people with telekinetic powers, I'm sure I would have heard about it..."
He nodded. "I don't think you've merely come back in time. I think you've come from a parallel universe. Are you familiar with the concept?"
She stared at him. "Yes," she finally said quietly. "I know about parallel universes... So I am not only in the past, I am not even in my own world?"
"It seems that way," he said gently. "I'm sorry."
"I thought the fact that I was here... that I was alive... that it proved something, but now..."
Her eyes were wide, filling with tears. She seemed not to see him. "The world... my world... oh god..."
"What's wrong?" He put a hand on her arm, trying to reassure. "Listen, there may be a way to return you to your world. We'll have to figure out how you got here, but--"
"You don't understand!" she screamed, her face twisting with fury. She tried to sit up, pulling her arm away from him. "My world is destroyed! Everything, everyone, destroyed, everything I ever knew, anyone I had the slightest modicum of feeling for, they're all dead! Sosai-- Sosai killed them all, and I didn't stop it, I didn't see... trusted him, I trusted him, oh god and I didn't see it coming, I didn't put in a failsafe and he killed them all..." She grabbed the material of his costume where it went over his chest, pulling him toward her. Magneto blocked her, forcing her hand to slide off his magnetic shield. "Why did you save me?" she howled. "I should have died, should have died, oh god I killed them all..." Whatever else she might have said was lost in hysterical sobs.
"I'm sorry," he said helplessly, not knowing what else he could say, as she sobbed. She had curled away from him, and when he had reached out to her, to offer comfort, she jerked away from his touch. Not much he could do in the face of that. "But I cannot let you die. I know... something of grief. It will never pass entirely, but eventually it will heal enough that you can survive."
"What would you know of it?" she screamed. "How often has your entire planet been destroyed?"
"My planet? No. But my world has been annihilated," he said softly. "My family, my friends, my entire way of life, all were destroyed in the Holocaust, when I was a child. Not the same, no. I cannot pretend I know what it is to see my homeworld destroyed-- but to see one's home destroyed, to lose family and friends and all anchors to humanity, yes, I know what that is. So I believe I can fairly say I understand your grief. I will do what I can to help you, but I will not let you die."
"You should," she muttered, but her voice was no longer as challenging. "I trusted him... I should have known..."
"Do you want to tell me about it?" he asked, awkwardly.
"No!" She glared at him. "It's none of your fucking business!"
"Then I won't pry. Tell me if you wish, or not. But please, believe me-- the pain will grow less, in time. Never gone, but you will be able to live with it."
Well. That would have essentially been his reaction, if someone had told him his pain would pass back at the beginning, when his survival seemed like a cruel trick of fate. He suspected the best thing he could do for her now was to leave her alone.
Half an hour later the alarm he'd set to warn him if she tried to leave the infirmary chimed. He followed the sound to where she stood in the corridor outside the infirmary, hugging the wall to keep herself upright. "Is something wrong? Are you all right?" he asked.
She glared at him. "Food."
Which should have been the first thing he thought of. Standing up in her hospital gown, she was skeletal, hardly more flesh on her bones than there had been on Magda's, when they'd escaped Auschwitz together. Of course she wanted food. "Lie down. I'll bring you something."
"Steak," she croaked. "Thick, bloody, rare steak."
Magneto doubted she could eat a thick, bloody, rare steak. He remembered Magda wolfing down a ham he'd stolen from a farmhouse, and throwing it up afterward. The only reason he hadn't thrown up his own portion was that he'd eaten half his portion when he'd found the thing, unable to stop himself from tearing at it with his teeth, and the other half when he reached the fire where he'd left Magda to huddle, and even then he'd been ill. But he understood the craving. And it wasn't like he had a shortage of food.
In the kitchen there were stasis banks, Shi'ar food storage technology. To amuse himself, Magneto had taken to cooking sprees, five hours spent in the kitchen making every delicacy he could think of, to stave off boredom. But then it went against everything he believed in to waste food. So what he didn't eat was sectioned off into neat portions, the size of a dinner meal for him, and placed in stasis. He popped out a beef stroganoff meal and tossed it in the microwave while he located a really nice steak and placed it in the oven-- pre-cooked food from stasis could be reheated quickly in the microwave, especially food in a sauce, but trying to cook a steak that way was a good way to get leather. In two minutes, he had something to tide her over. He brought it with a carafe of water back to the infirmary.
She was sitting on the bed, at least. He'd told her to go lie down, but something had told him she wasn't likely to do it, and the fact that she'd compromised this much almost surprised him. "I'm cooking your steak, but I thought you'd best have something quick first."
She took the stroganoff from him without so much as a "Thank you" and proceeded to devour it at an alarming rate. With her left hand, she used the fork he'd given her; with the right, she plucked hot chunks of beef out of the stroganoff and tossed them into her mouth while the fork was going for another load, so there was never a time when new food wasn't going into her mouth. "You shouldn't eat so quickly. You'll make yourself sick."
She finished chewing, gulped water, and glared at him. "Thank you, Mr. Patronizing. I've only done this fifty-odd times in my life, I certainly need your advice."
Now he was beginning to get irritated. He had done his best for this person, had rescued her, bathed her, fed her, and so far she'd done little but shower him with abuse. "Forgive me," he said with heavy sarcasm. "Clearly I was supposed to have a near-omniscient understanding of what you do and do not know. My apologies for failing to be telepathic."
"You've never seen anything like me before, have you?" She sounded puzzled, and a trifle hostile.
"I have never seen anyone who regenerates from injury by changing sex and losing most of their body mass, no. I have seen stranger things, but not precisely the same thing. "
"You said you were a mutant like me. But you're single-sex, aren't you?"
"To the best of my knowledge," he said dryly.
"So in what sense are you like me?" she asked triumphantly, as if this proved something.
"We are both mutants."
"And we both speak German, and judging from your clothes we both like purple. So? You're still only a man."
"As a general rule, a man who controls one of the four fundamental physical forces is not considered 'only' anything."
"That isn't what I meant." She ate the last of the stroganoff. "You're not hermaphrodite."
"As I said, you're correct. I'm not. I don't see what it matters."
"You're not like me."
"No, probably not. I would have the common decency to thank someone for rescuing and feeding me instead of sniping at them over nothing."
"I'll thank you, if I ever do, when I figure out what you want in payment. Are you going to keep feeding me, or are you pissed at me now?"
"Your steak should be done in fifteen minutes or so. In fact I should go flip it over."
"Can I have something else too?"
"I don't know. More stroganoff. Noodle casserole. Whatever you've got."
"Are you sure hunger isn't misleading you as to how much you can eat?" He assessed her. "I'm familiar with starvation. There's no way you should be able to eat that much without making yourself sick."
"I'm not starved, Magneto. I've Changed. It's physiological, not pathological." She hugged her arms around herself. "I'll pay your price when I'm back up to strength. Whatever it is. But I need more food."
"My only price is that you show me a little courtesy," he said quietly. "I'll get you more food. Hopefully when you're less hungry you can be more civil."
She devoured the spaghetti and meatballs he brought her, and when he brought out the steak, with mixed vegetables in a bouillon broth and macaroni and cheese with mushrooms, she ate that too. He ate a portion himself, sharing the food with her, pretending there was something companionable about the shared meal and that she wasn't just putting up with him because it was his space station and she couldn't very well get away.
"Did you cook all this?" she asked, after finally sating herself.
"Yes," he said warily.
"It's excellent. I've had $100 meals that weren't as good."
The compliment surprised him. Perhaps she wasn't prickly all the time. "I thank you, but in your condition I suspect anything would have tasted delicious. At least, that's how it was for me when I was starving. You've pointed out this isn't quite starvation for you."
"It's close enough to get the effect. I've eaten out of trash cans and enjoyed it after the Change. But that gives me a comparison. Normally I have fine chefs cooking for me when I come out of it, and... well, you're very good." She finished off her water and pushed it aside. "So what do you want?"
"Why must I want something?"
"You've rescued me, washed me up, fed me and put up with my shit. Why? Is it sex? Because if it is, you're better off waiting a few days until I put the weight back on, unless you like screwing skeletons. Or do you want me to work for you, or what?"
"My motives were humanitarian. I saw you were dying, and I acted to save you. There's no more to it than that."
She laughed bitterly. "You must think me very naive, Magneto. There's always more to it than that." She leaned forward. "No one does something for nothing."
"You are wrong. No one does something for nothing, unless the person they are aiding is one of their own kind. Humans can be wonderfully philanthropic when it's their siblings, or their neighbors, or their ethnic group. It's very rare to find a human who is willing to consider all men his brothers, all worthy of his aid."
"And you're such a philanthropist?" Her expression was full of scorn.
"Not at all. Had you been human, I would likely have taken you to the nearest hospital and dropped you there. But you're mutant-- one of my people. I saved you because you are a mutant. There really isn't any more to it than that."
Which was a lie. If there was no more to it he'd have left her behind, mutant or no. But he wasn't about to admit that he was desperately lonely, that simply having someone to talk to was something he'd thought he'd given up forever. Admit to emotional weaknesses, and they'd be used against you. He remembered Lee. Hand a woman your heart... But that wasn't fair to women. It was everyone. Anyone you dared to hand your heart would crush it. And Miss Prickly Pear the hermaphrodite seemed entirely too capable of casually crushing him. A damaged person herself, clearly, to be so defensive. He would be patient, and kind, and understanding, and never ever admit that she was here because he longed for company.
She shook her head. "But I'm not. You're a man-- single-sexed. You should despise me."
"I have known men covered with fur, aliens of no determinate gender, women who transform into mist, and many have been good friends to me. Why should I care what sex you are? Why is that so important that you believe even a man as inhuman as you are should despise you? I am feared and hated the world over for my actions and for my power. If I am to despise someone, it will be for what they have done, not what shape their body takes."
"You believe that." She stared at him.
"Indeed. I have far better things to despise people for than mutations they were born with and did not ask for. I was fortunate; my power is a valuable one. It's given me much. But it's also taken away any hope I might have for love or a normal life. I suspect your power has done the same and given you less. How dare I despise you when I am more fortunate than you?"
"You're a strange man, Magneto."
"This is a strange world, to you. I don't doubt that there will be some who despise you for your gender, but among the mutant community I think that will be very few. You belong here, now." He sat down on the edge of the bed. "If your world is destroyed, you can't go home. I don't see any reason why you can't make a new life here, with your own kind. While mutant intolerance of fellow mutant occurs, it's something we all strive to overcome. You could have a people, here. You needn't be alone."
She looked away. "I need to sleep," she whispered. He'd seen something before she looked away, some hunger in her eyes. Perhaps he understood her. He understood very few people, but loneliness and alienation was something he comprehended well-- and the fear of making friends, the fear of reaching out for what you want more than anything, because you were sure it would be snatched away. Perhaps they had much in common.
"Of course," he said, standing. "I'll let you rest. Please call for me if you need anything. There are sensors which will pick up my name and relay me the message."
"You're sure Galactor doesn't exist here?"
The non sequitur surprised him. "I've never heard of it, and I should have, if it were a power."
She rolled back to face him. "My name is Mountaincat," she said.
He frowned slightly. That was hardly a name. "Your code name?"
"My real name. As real as it gets. Oh!" She laughed suddenly. "No, it's a proper name. Berg Katse, two words, and I spell Katse with an s, not a z-- a personal idiosyncrasy. It doesn't mean I'm a kitty who lives up high."
"Do you prefer Berg or Katse?"
"Do you prefer Magneto or Magnus?"
"That depends on who is speaking."
"As does this. Call me Katse. Berg's not very feminine anyway, so I prefer not to use it in this mode unless it's part of the full name."
He nodded. "You may, if you wish, call me Magnus. It is... a less formal name than Magneto, but presupposes alliance, not necessarily friendship."
"I'll call you whatever you like, if you wake me up and feed me in about four hours."
In four hours he'd planned to be asleep himself. But she was ill, and probably needed food on a regular schedule to build herself back again. He could forgo the sleep. "I will. What would you like?"
"Anything. Literally. I haven't yet found food I won't eat after the Change." She grinned. "Later I get finicky."
"It is your prerogative as a Katze," he said solemnly, meaning it was her prerogative as a cat, and watched her laugh. It suited her face much better, lightening her intensity.
"That was revenge for asking you what women call you?"
"If you like."
"I'd like to go to sleep. Good night, Magnus. And-- thank you."
"Gute Nacht," he replied, and headed for bed himself, smiling. When she had enough food in her to be civil, and her knee-jerk fear of people with only one sex's reaction to her was addressed and alleviated, she was actually pleasant company.
Raison D'être Section 2
She stood at the command of a giant mecha, laughing, as the dragon she commanded spat fire at the population, and they screamed, and ran in terror, and burned. Call me freak, cast me out, and now who has the power? Whose name is on your terrified lips, who do you plead with at the end of your miserable lives? Who will you remember forever?
Except that they were all burning. All around the countryside was in flames. Cities toppled, burning, and she bit her nails in sudden fear. Who would remember her if they all burned? She turned and spoke to her viewscreen. "Sosai, we should stop this."
"WHY SHOULD WE STOP?"
"If they all die--" She hesitated. How dare she defy Sosai? But surely he hadn't meant to take from her her inheritance? "If they all die, who will remember me?"
"But then-- what will happen when I die?"
"YOU WILL BE UNREMARKED, FORGOTTEN. YOU WILL LIE IN AN UNMARKED GRAVE JUST LIKE EVERY OTHER PATHETIC CREATURE OF THE STREETS."
"Sosai, that isn't what you promised! You said you would give the world to me! You said I would-- you said I would be remembered forever, and all the world would know my name, and I would live forever..."
"But then-- what was the point of any of it?" she screamed. "I served you, I threw away any chance for personal happiness so I could serve you. You made me a mutant, you made me a freak, you took away my humanity so I would serve you. You told me I was special, I was destined! If that wasn't true then what was the point to any of it? What was the point to my being alive?"
"NO POINT AT ALL, KATSE."
And then she was standing outside the dragon, standing in the firestorm as the world burned, and she screamed, trying to command the dragon as it turned and spat its flame at her, but it would not hear her. She was nothing, just as she'd been born, just as she'd always truly been. Her failures had destroyed the world, her misplaced trust had destroyed her life, and now, knowing that all her pain meant nothing, she died in flame.
Berg Katse awakened screaming.
The cry died in her throat as the shock of consciousness hit. Only a dream. She was weak from the change, lying limp in a bed in some sort of silent hospital, no one else around, with the bedsheets hopelessly tangled around her body. Memory seeped back in. This was a space station, owned by the man who called himself Magneto and claimed to be a mutant like her. And her dream...
Not a dream. A symbolic representation, not a literal memory, but no less real. It had happened that way. Sosai had betrayed her, and the world had burned.
A keening wail rose in her throat, not quite under her control. Dead. All dead. They were all dead, the people she'd hated and the people she'd lusted after and the people she'd wanted to serve her, the people who'd been kind to a strange child and the people who'd reached out awkward hands of friendship to a person who would have to abandon them in another year as time worked its Changes, all of them dead. Sweet Andre of the deliciously changeable body, loyal Selina-- all her loyal men and woman, the elite few she'd culled who would willingly die for her-- dead. Dead.
I wanted to rule the world! Not destroy it! I wanted them to remember me, not to-- not to-- all dead, ah gods, all dead...
She huddled on the bed and screamed, anguish tearing itself free like lumpen birds in her throat, pecking and clawing their way out to fly free into the air, and always more where they came from. All dead, all dead, all dead...
Someone was there, someone was touching her, arms imprisoning her. She flailed out, breaking the hold of the imprisoning arms. The weight on the side of the bed retreated, but she still was aware of presence there, hyperalert senses rubbed raw by the sensation of someone looking at her. Katse turned blindly and screamed at him. "Go the fuck away! I didn't ask you to come in here!"
She was unconcerned with any possible effects of her words on Magneto, noticed nothing except that he obeyed her, and left her to her hysteria. For a long time she howled, keening for her world, destroyed by her blind stupidity and her trust in Sosai. I never wanted-- never wanted-- ah, gods--
And then, when eventually the tears were done, she was left with a still small voice in the blackness. You killed them all. Even Andre, who you wanted to rule by your side; even those you owed a debt to, for their loyalty. None are left to remember you. None are left at all. You trusted in Sosai, and you killed them all.
There had never been any point, had there? No point to any of it. No point to her existing at all.
She got to her feet, shakily. Her eyes raked the room, looking for weapons. There, a locked cabinet. Surely he kept the medical tools in there. She could find a scalpel and end her miserable existance.
The burned remains of her clothing lay in an unlocked drawer, but there was a conspicuous absence of her lockpicks, or her gun, or her miniature bombs, with them. Only one of the lockpicks remained, and it was plastic, not the ideal choice. Still, on the average lock it would do. Katse walked over to the locked cabinet, fiddled with the mechanism, and quickly came to the conclusion that this wasn't an average lock. It was probably-- and then when she realized what she was thinking, she began to laugh hysterically. Probably a magnetic lock. Well, of course it was a fucking magnetic lock. She was on a space station designed by a man who called himself Magneto, what the hell else would it be? No way to pick it without specialized tools.
But she was on a space station. There were airlocks on a space station. Katse left the hospital room, wandering through the corridors of the station. The gravity was light, allowing her to walk comfortably despite her weakness. Assuming that the gravity was generated by spin, given that it felt about twice lunar gravity and therefore couldn't be a natural property of this place, she found stairs and descended down them, heading down toward the outward surface.
An airlock turned up not much longer after that. It didn't even appear to be locked down. A simple switch operated it. Katse stepped inside, closed the inner door, and threw the switch to open the outer.
Frustrated, she used her lockpick and overlong fingernails to unscrew and pry loose the paneling. There was a very simple mechanism there, a switch connected to a power cord which fed gears. The gears, however, were welded to one another. She thought at first they might be stuck, and tried to pry them loose from each other, but no. The metal was actually fused along the edges, so the gears could not possibly turn.
"What kind of asshole makes an airlock with gears that don't open?" Katse shouted at nothing.
The inner door opened. "The sort of 'asshole' who expects no guests from the outside, and would prefer that his guests from the inside do not leave," Magneto said dryly. "Katse--"
"You broke your airlock just so I couldn't use it?" She stared at him, not sure whether that was the ultimate in consideration or intrusiveness. "How-- how did you know I was going to do this?"
"I always keep the airlock disabled unless I plan to use it. It's simple enough for me to adjust at will, and I prefer to avoid having uninvited guests boarding. But-- you did warn me you might do yourself harm. It's a precaution I would have taken nonetheless."
"No I didn't. I never said anything like that."
"When people tell me I should have let them die, I generally consider it a possibility that they plan to rectify the situation. Katse, you should not be here. You're weak, you're distraught, and it's the middle of the night. Things always seem bleakest in these hours, I've found."
"What, so I'll go to sleep and when I wake up everything will be just fine? I won't have destroyed my entire homeworld?" Her voice trembled. Goddamn it, I won't cry! He already thinks I'm some sort of pathetic weeping girlie, I'm sure. I won't break like that again.
"You cannot blame yourself--"
"How the hell would you know? You weren't there! I did it, I built the machine, I-- I obeyed Sosai's orders, I never questioned..." The blackness was threatening to overwhelm her again, the screams threatening to tear free. The world dimmed, and she felt her knees starting to buckle, her throat starting to close once more. "I k-killed-- he said I would rule the world, he said I would-- said I was destined, and then-- and then he s-said, the plans have ch-changed--"
When she stopped being able to breathe normally, when the sobs tore loose again and echoed in the spare metal chamber, when her knees did indeed buckle and she doubled over, poleaxed by the force of unfamiliar guilt, he caught her, carrying her back inside with no more apparent effort than if she'd been a child. She didn't struggle this time. The darkness had her completely, and she hadn't even the attention left to flail out at an imprisoning threat. Katse retreated into herself and howled, sobbing.
She came to herself in a large, well-stuffed leather chair, sitting on Magneto's lap in a comfortable, thick-carpeted study lined with books. Tiredly she lay where she was, her head leaning against his shoulder and her torso resting sideways against his. Though they were nearly the same height-- she would outsize him in her male form-- she was all leg, and he wasn't, with the result that, sitting, she was shorter than him. "Why are you bothering?" she asked softly, too exhausted from her grief to get up, or resist him. "I deserve to die."
"That isn't my concern."
"Do you know what I did? Do you have any idea?"
"Only what you've told me."
"I'm a terrorist," Katse said, the black exhaustion robbing her voice of any strength, any emotion. "For the past 12 years I've been a member of an organization called Galactor, that seeks to conquer the world. For what, six, seven of those years?, I was Galactor's leader. Second only to Sosai X-- his title, it doesn't translate well, it literally means 'governor' but it always sounded to me like 'god'. Sosai created me. My dual sex, my being a mutant. He made me, to rule the world for him. I was standing on a bridge, 18 years old and it was never going to change, I was never going to be anything other than a freak that had to hide, all my life... I'd never get to make anything of my life, never be remembered, never use a fraction of my gifts. So I was going to jump. And he appeared to me. He told me I'd rule the world, he told me I was destined. I was special. He told me he'd created me for a great destiny."
"I can imagine the effect that would have."
"Can you?" She turned her head slightly to look up at him, but it was painful and tiring so she dropped it again. "I lived on the streets. I was a thief, a prostitute, a beggar, whatever it took. I spent the first five years of my life in an institution, being a thing, and I swore never again. So I never-- I could never stay anywhere longer than a year, before my body changed, and I had to run and hide and change identities again. I lived all over Europe, barely managed to scrape together an education for myself. I'd never have been anything without Sosai. A freak, living in the gutters, without even the ability to make a decent living out of that because to succeed at anything, you need to deal with people, and the single-sexes would never accept a hermaphrodite freak. They'd take me apart, study me to find out how I regenerate. I knew."
"And when this Sosai appeared to you and told you you were better than human rather than lesser, destined for greatness, you found it compelling. I do know. I... have had my own battles with megalomania. Go on."
"I joined Galactor. Worked my way up through Intelligence. I killed without mercy, without conscience, to further our goals. I clawed my way to the top, because Sosai could only give me the opportunity to win, he couldn't actually give me the top job. I had to earn that. Four years ago I was the Enfant Terrible. Everything I touched turned to gold. I couldn't lose.
"And then four years of failure. Failure after failure. These people-- a team of snotty Japanese teenagers trained to defend the status quo, to keep the poor oppressed and the rich on top. To 'fight for peace', like you can fight for peace. I couldn't beat them. I couldn't figure out why not. Except total incompetence on the part of my men, but I expect incompetence. It's just, both sides should have been incompetent, and theirs wasn't. And in the end, after four years of these failures, they found out what I am, and they broadcast the news all over the world.
"Everyone in Galactor thought I was two people. A man, the leader of Galactor, who always went masked, and a woman, who was his assistant. A woman couldn't rule, you see. The idea was laughable. When they knew-- I'd led them for seven years, and they turned on me. I had to fight to keep my power. I actually had to fight hand-to-hand, an unarmed duel to the death to prove I was tough enough to lead Galactor. As if the ability to kill hand-to-hand proves a damned thing. So Sosai told me he'd take care of this newest plan for me, and I... I let him. I was always hands-on, I always reviewed all the specs myself, the designs for the mecha and the weapons--"
"Terror machines. Instead of traditional tanks and planes. You put a lot of money into building a single devastating military weapon-vehicle and use it to create maximum terror. We had governments paying us huge amounts of money, even though theoretically we were outlaws and no one was supposed to negotiate with us, just to stay away. Actually brought the world to the brink of surrender several times. If it weren't for the fucking Science Ninja Team... oh, but even they couldn't save the day, in the end. Sosai told me he'd take care of everything, and this time, this one time, I let him-- I was stretched so thin, fighting so hard to keep my power and I knew that if I failed, I'd be toppled. There was no way I'd survive another failure, and I trusted Sosai. I gambled everything I had on him, on the destiny he'd promised me."
She drew a choking breath. "And then he told me the plans had changed. He was just going to destroy the Earth and leave. I didn't have any independent control mechanisms-- I had no way to shut it off-- and he left, he left without me, he left me to die and the whole world with me--"
This time she managed to hold the darkness back. She breathed raggedly, painfully, but did not let herself weep or keen again. His arms shifted, holding her. It should have been an intrusion, a caging, but she was too tired to fight being caged, and the warmth was somehow comforting. Not a reaction she was used to in herself, but then, no one had ever touched her when she lay on the brink of the abyss before.
"Did you have reason to trust this Sosai?"
"He made me," she whispered hoarsely. "He gave me everything."
"And all along, the plan had been to conquer the world, not destroy it?"
Dr. Nambu, the Earth will be destroyed. That is its destiny. Until that day comes, I will need Katse.
Her breathing grew ragged. "I couldn't-- I couldn't believe it. He said some things, some things that should have made me question, but I couldn't believe it. I'd served him for twelve years, and that was always the plan... I couldn't believe it when he said it had changed, I thought he was just upset about something, he was always upset at me and threatening to kill me, but I never believed it-- I thought--" Her voice caught on a sob. I thought he loved me.
"Why did Sosai decide to destroy the Earth? It seems insane."
"I don't know! No, I do know. His homeworld-- Selectro, he said-- had been destroyed. He wanted to conquer Earth for it-- I guess; he never talked about his home. When it was destroyed, he had no reason to conquer Earth-- so-- so he said, he'd just destroy us, and go--"
"So you could not have known. There was no way you could predict that this Sosai had changed his mind. You trusted in one you had reason to trust, and were betrayed, and paid a horrible price for it. You have every reason to grieve, and rage, and burn with guilt. But what you have done is not reason enough to die."
"How do you know?"
"Death accomplishes nothing," he said softly. "It could redress the scales if you had killed one, or two. But how does killing yourself atone for the death of billions? If you had consciously and wilfully killed them, you would be the sort of mosnter who must be killed for the sake of everyone's survival. People who choose to commit genocide must die, not because it is justice-- I learned long ago that there is no justice possible for such crimes. If Adolf Hitler had been murdered ten million times, it would never have brought back the dead. No, such criminals must die because they must never be in a position to commit genocide again. It seems to me that you did not choose the destruction you were part of, that you will never make that mistake again. And if that is the case, the only way to redeem yourself for death is to serve life. To try, in whatever ways you can, to atone by using your experiences in a cause that is right."
She felt him shrug slightly. "I'm not you. I cannot tell you what cause to serve. Why were you trying to conquer the world in the first place?"
Because Sosai wanted me to. "Because I'm an evil, power-hungry coward, " she said mockingly. "Why else would anyone want to?"
"I'm not interested in what the world thought of you. Why did you want this?"
He sighed. "That is not an answer. Power exists to be used. What would you have done with the power once you had it? What drew you and those that served you to fight for your cause? Were you all loyal to the alien? You say he promised to give you the Earth, once you'd won it for him. What did you want with the Earth?"
"I wanted to be remembered, " Katse said, unsure even of why she was confiding all this, except that, thus far, he had not judged or condemned her. And he did claim to be a terrorist himself. Maybe he understood. "I suppose... it was the people in power I hated, the smug rich assholes in their ivory towers, congratulating themselves on how they'd solved all the world's problems. The war decimated ethnicities, drove women back into second-class citizenship, collapsed the infrastructure of the superpowers. People were still starving in refugee camps or living in squalid ruins, and the UN wasn't doing a damned thing about it, because it was the poor that took the brunt of it-- as usual. So why shouldn't we get our own back? They're secure in their safe little middle-class enclaves, they can forget about the rest of the world.
"Galactors came from the rest of the world. We had our ideals... we never lived up to them, no, but we had them. We gave women jobs, as tough and challenging as men got. We didn't care if you were black or white or Asian, we didn't care if you were dirt poor, we didn't care if you'd never had an education and supported yourself by running drugs to the kind of fools who'd buy. When we conquered the world... I always thought I'd reorganize the power structure. Take everything away from the people who'd always had it all, and redistribute it to the people who'd never had any. As long as they'd work for it, I wasn't running a charity. But level the playing field to begin with."
"It sounds rather Marxist."
"Marx was full of shit. The state would never wither away. But if you flattened the effects of being born in a powerful nation, to a rich or middle class family, of the correct color and gender and language, and let everyone compete on merit, what you should have gotten was a pure meritocracy." She thought of the philosophies she'd studied in college, the worldview she'd crafted under the tutelage of Sosai, and laughed bitterly. "It didn't work that way. We got the dregs of humanity. Mostly. Some of our people were absolutely brilliant, but the rest... I don't know. By the end, I was only doing it for Sosai anyway..."
He was silent for so long that Katse thought perhaps she had, finally, convinced him of her own evil and selfishness. It didn't really matter. Nothing really mattered. She felt empty, burnt out, as if her grief and her sense of betrayal had overloaded and burnt out her ability to feel. Perhaps he would kill her-- she didn't care anymore. The physical, tactile comfort of warm skin and soft bodywarmed fabric against her exhausted flesh, the support of firm muscles holding her, was a surprising pleasure, perhaps because she was too tired for the contact to trigger the usual fight-or-flight response that nonsexual contact always did. For this brief moment of comfort in the wasteland of her heart as it was now, she would be quite willing to die.
"Your reasons could have been better," he said finally, "but I have encountered worse. And I have no moral high ground to condemn you from. Still. The forcible redistribution of wealth has never done anything but to create a new privileged class out of a small fortunate group while the rest of the poor and disenfranchised suffer as they always have, if not worse, and terror and instability sweep the land. It's always the different who die in these unstable times, those considered freaks or less tham human by the common man. Superstitition and mob violence tend to take hold. I was in the Ukraine in the 1950's, and suffered extortion, arrest... I was never able to prove it, but my daughter was murdered in a fire, and I am sure it was arson... all for no crime greater than being a stranger. The Holocaust was set off when instability and loss of wealth triggered violent anti-Semitism... I will never forgive the German people what they did to me and mine, but I can understand the historical causes well enough. In the sort of social upheaval you wanted to orchestrate, Katse, people like you-- the marginal figures, those condemned to lie outside the mainstream through accident of birth or belief-- are the ones who die."
"I wouldn't have allowed it."
"You'd have had no choice. There are limits to power." He sighed. "I tried to rule the world once, myself. To ensure that mutantkind would not be enslaved and exterminated, I thought to make us the rulers. It would never have worked, though I didn't see that until years after I'd quit for other reasons. We'd have had to crush them utterly to maintain our dominion, and what I didn't know then is that we don't breed true-- my own son's daughter is human. I would have turned parent against child, brother against brother. It might have taken the human race centuries to drag itself out of the dark age my new world order would create."
"You can't know that."
"How could I take the risk?"
She was about to retort that life was about taking risks, and then remembered that her own gamble had ended in the destruction of her entire world, and shuddered. No, he was right. Some risks were not worth taking.
"So what are you doing now?"
"What do you mean?"
"You gave up on trying to conquer the world. What did you do after that? What are you doing now?" She couldn't ask what she really needed to know-- is there a life for me now that Sosai's left me, and Galactor's destroyed? What can I do, what can I be, when the reason for my being is gone?
"That is two different questions."
"So? I wasn't aware there was a limit."
He hesitated. "I... have done a number of things. I've continued to fight to protect my people, and I've tried... many ways to do that."
He stood, setting her on her feet. "And now, it's past time for me to get some sleep, and you should have food and more rest yourself. Do you need my help in returning to the infirmary? I can carry you there if you feel too weak to walk."
She felt quite strong enough to talk, or run if she had to-- weakened, hollow, and now that he'd brought it up, ravenously hungry, but she could walk easily enough. "I can do it myself. Only show me where the food is."
"Not far from the infirmary," he assured her, and set off. She had to consciously walk fast to keep up with him; though ordinarily her striding pace was faster than anyone's she knew, she was weak now. In the kitchen, he showed her how to operate the stasis banks, put a casserole into the microwave for her, and pointed the direction to the infirmary. "If you need me, call," he said, and started back out the door, as if he couldn't get rid of her fast enough.
The food was not enough to distract her from the burn of anger. "Magneto!" she called as he was halfway through the door.
She smiled one of her trademark mocking smiles. "Why are you so eager to see me take up a cause worth living for, when you've given up on your own?"
In the bright lighting of the Asteroid, it was easy to see skin as fair as his redden-- with what? Embarrassment? Rage? His expression turned stony, and he stared grimly at her a moment, then turned and left without speaking. Having scored her point, Katse didn't call to him again.
Instead, she ravaged his food stocks. The body didn't care that she had no real desire to live. The Change was on it, the main tidal wave washed over but the ripples and aftertides still eddying through her, and while her black despair had depressed her appetite for several hours, it simply couldn't any longer. She went through four of his pre-stocked meals, portions designed to satisfy a large and healthy man barely denting the hunger, and when at last she managed to sate herself she was so tired that she could barely keep her eyes open. Unable to make it back to the infirmary before the nigh-narcoleptic pull of sleep took her back, she simply pushed her plates to one side of the table and curled up to sleep on top of it.