Posted: Tuesday, September 23, 2003 12:29 AM
One ear in Italy, one eye in Spain, In caves, my blood, and in the stars, my brain. -- Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
"One, four, seven, eight, two!" the girl announced, pointing at Erik's bare forearm with each digit. Charles stiffened in his wheelchair, ready to put a reassuring hand on Erik's shoulder, but Erik's relaxed posture on the park bench didn't change.
"Very good," Erik said, smiling at her. "You should become a mathematician, like my friend here."
"What does it mean?"
A breeze shook the oak boughs overhead, making coins of light dance on the ground and the girl's face. "It's Dr. Mengele's phone number," Erik said at last.
"Why did you put it on your arm?"
"I don't want to forget. I hope to call on him someday."
"Is that your mother looking for you?" Charles said hastily as the girl opened her mouth again. She looked over her shoulder and reluctantly trudged off.
They sat in silence for a while, Erik throwing crumbs from a paper bag as Charles looked down at his hands.
"You know, Erik -- even if we do succeed in amplifying my telepathy, I don't know how I would begin to locate one mind among billions --"
"We'll have to work on that."
"He'd be over sixty-five years old."
"Should I leave him to enjoy his retirement?"
"No, of course not, but...." Charles sighed. "Do you really think that bringing an old man to justice --"
Erik shook his head. "I don't care about justice anymore. I want to know. I want you to read his mind and tell me what it was that he injected into me. I want to know what the surgery was for. I want to know how much blood he took from me, what he did with it, and exactly what was going through his mind." He let crumbs sift through his fingers onto the ground. One daring pigeon darted in between his feet. "After that," he said, "you can decide what to do with him."
Erik stood up, knocking his hands together to dislodge the remaining crumbs. "Let's go."
"It's a beautiful day, Erik. Let's stay a little longer."
But there was no peace in Erik's eyes as he looked down at Charles. "We have work to do."
"Erik, we have an intruder in Cerebro."
"Do we," Erik said absently. He was leaning against the console, his back to the door. In his hand was a sheaf of scribbled calculations, and he kept looking back and forth from them to the scattering of panels set in the dome. "We'll have to install some sort of security system. Is it friend or foe?"
"Well, I'm not sure," Charles said without turning around. "It seems to be a little girl with red hair, a white nightgown, and --" he pressed a hand to his temple, pretending to concentrate -- "an eight-o'-clock bedtime."
"I couldn't sleep," the girl said from behind them. "I got scared."
At that Erik looked around and met Charles's eyes. He rolled up the papers, stuffed them into his pocket, and slipped past Charles's wheelchair to scoop the girl into his arms. "You're just in time to help us," he said, and then stage-whispered into her ear: "You can distract Charles for me. This will go much faster without his supervision."
The girl giggled as Erik lowered her into Charles's lap. Charles darted an exasperated glance at Erik but said nothing. Someday there would have to be a conversation about how easy it was to manipulate him with any reference to nightmares or disturbed sleep, but this wasn't the time.
The girl turned and looked up at him expectantly.
"Yes, your eyes are very pretty," Charles said.
"Which one's better?"
"Now, you know it doesn't matter to me what --"
"What's your favorite color?" she said impatiently, sensing evasion.
He smiled at her. "Blue."
There was a trace of doubt in her expression, but before she could put it into words, Erik suddenly laid the papers aside. "All right. This ought to do it." He raised his arms. Two panels flew out of the dome and slotted themselves into empty niches on the other side. The girl's mismatched eyes grew round.
"I want to ride on those," she said as more panels crisscrossed the room.
"So do I," Charles said gravely. "But Erik is no fun at all."
"What's he doing that for?"
"The panels are a little bit like an antenna," he explained. "Have you seen a television with the rabbit ears up?"
She nodded. "Before," she said quietly.
"Well, Erik is trying to adjust the rabbit ears so we can tune in the channel we want. In the unlikely event that he gets it right --" Erik did not react -- "we should be able to use Cerebro to find other mutants."
He looked into her eyes, which were slowly returning to yellow. Her scales were coming back out, as they always did when she was tired. He tucked a loose strand of red hair behind her bright blue ear. "Because you should have other children to play with."
Why on earth had they made Cerebro's platform so narrow? If Erik had been standing beside him, it would have seemed natural, at a moment like this, to take his hand. It would have felt like being together at some mountain overlook, with the moon shining on their faces, and the midnight sky a mess of stars -- the sort of thing they'd never actually done. As it was, Erik stood behind him on the walkway, and Charles couldn't even see the expression on his face, though he was sure that Erik's silence meant astonishment.
"There's no mistake?" Erik said at last.
"I'm positive. I know it seems incredible, but every one of these lights is a mutant. Erik, look at them. There are so many...."
"'I had not thought death had undone so many.'"
"What do you think the total is? How many jelly beans in the jar?"
"Six million," Erik said. "Give or take."
Charles turned to look over his shoulder. "It won't be like that."
"You think that when they find out they're surrounded by members of a powerful new species, they'll simply accept us, as humans have always accepted -- "
"We have the initiative. We're the only ones who know how many of us there are. We'll find a way to keep history from repeating itself."
"Yes," Erik said bleakly. "We will."
"You need pigeons," Erik said from underneath the control panel.
"Cinderella's stepmother mixed lentils with the ashes of the hearth and made her sort them before she could go to the ball, but pigeons came to pick them out for her."
Charles smiled down at the schematic that he was trying to read by the light of five billion minds. Five billion tiny specks, like grains of brilliant dust; and so far, there was no way to find mutants among them without checking each one individually.
"Lentils are very uniform," he said. "A properly sized set of wire screens would have worked as well."
Erik snorted and looked back up at the console. He was lying with his head toward Charles, his legs stretched out on a bit of scaffolding that he had improvised from steel rods and sheet metal. From that position he could keep an eye on the lights of the dome, and still watch the circuits in the console as they worked. The current flowing through the wires was visible to Erik as an electromagnetic glow, and the waveforms produced strange synaesthetic echoes, colors and tastes and scents. Until recently, Charles had regarded the ability as little more than a curiosity -- good enough to quickly diagnose a broken radio, but no substitute for a proper oscilloscope. In the event, his carefully engineered machine had done nothing but give him headaches until he finally let Erik modify it by trial and error, guided only by his instinct that the signal needed to be mintier.
Now both calculation and intuition seemed to have deserted them. The brainwaves of humans and mutants were as distinct in Charles's mind as the colors red and blue, but nothing they tried could make the machine see the difference.
He put a finger down on the schematic. "Let's try turning P25 again. We haven't done that since your latest changes, have we?"
"I can't remember your numbering. P25?"
"Part of the bandpass filter. It would be in series with a thousand picofarad capacitor --"
"What does it do, Charles?"
Charles consulted a pencilled note on the schematic. "According to you, it makes the output stage smell like pine needles."
"Ah." Erik reached up under the console to make the adjustment. Charles concentrated. The room dimmed as most of the lights went out -- but that meant nothing. It often happened when he tried to focus, but, as always, the pattern kept shifting at random. When he finally managed to focus on mutants alone, the constellations would be stable except for the occasional birth or death.
"Anything?" Erik said.
"Not yet. Keep going."
The lights changed slowly. After a minute or two, Erik said "That's halfway. Do you feel any --"
"Does it look like the display has stabilized? I'll tell you when I feel something."
"I wasn't demanding progress, Charles. I was checking for slurred speech. This is your brain we're playing with."
"I don't need you to monitor me. Just do as you're told."
"Charles. Control yourself, or I'll turn the machine off. This isn't like you."
Charles felt a surge of anger even as he realized that Erik was right. Somehow the machine must be causing this.
He brought minds to the fore at random. A man caught in traffic, a child arguing over a baseball game, a woman slamming a door --
"Anger," he said. "The machine is tuned to people who are angry."
"That was the reason for your outburst?"
"It must have been. It's much easier to control now that I know what it is, but the anger felt so natural...."
"That doesn't sound pleasant."
"It wasn't particularly," Charles said. He knew -- whether through intuition or telepathy, he wasn't sure -- that it was all the apology Erik would accept.
"Shall I turn it off?"
"No. If I understand what's happening, changing the setting of P7 might tune in different emotions. We should try to map them. If we can locate fear, it could eventually be useful in identifying mutants who need our help."
"P7," Erik muttered to himself. "That's in the circuit that keeps everything from being too yellow...." He reached up underneath the console, and the pattern changed again. "Well, it's gone from gray-green to the taste of orange peel. Do I seem particularly frightening to you?"
His voice had the same faintly mocking tone that had often accompanied some half-serious proposition -- _Do you want me to do it here, Charles? We'd have to be ever so quiet if you don't want everyone to hear_ --
"Oh," Charles said.
"Charles. Can you count backward from ten?"
"I'm not suffering any cognitive impairment. I'm just a bit... distracted."
"Oh, I see."
"Try turning it a little further."
"Why?" Erik said. "I like this setting. It's a fascinating shade of blue."
"When you've finished playing --"
"What's the matter, Charles?" Erik turned over, pushed the wheelchair three feet backward without touching it, and stood up between the long red and black cables alligator-clipped to Charles's helmet. "You just have to keep yourself under control." He bent down to kiss him -- just a brush of the lips, uncharacteristically delicate. Charles shuddered and closed his eyes, but didn't make a sound. Then Erik licked gently at the corner of his mouth. A wave of pure heat went through him, and he seemed to have cupped his hand around the back of Erik's neck and to be sucking urgently at his tongue.
Erik pulled away and looked down at Charles with the slight smile he always got when he was winning at chess. "Let's channel that impulse in a more interesting direction." He unbuckled his belt, took it all the way off, and hung it from an unused switch on the control panel.
"This is taking advantage," Charles said.
"If you don't like it, why don't you take off the helmet?"
"It's made of metal. Would I be able to?"
"Try it and find out."
For a moment, Charles considered it. Then he reached out and ran the backs of his fingers down the length of Erik's erection through the fabric. After more than thirty years, he didn't have to say aloud _I'm not the only one that that would disappoint_.
There was no reason he couldn't control this. He put his fingers to the fly of Erik's pants, undressing him with a practiced ease that lasted until the instant that his fingertips made contact with the skin of Erik's waist. His reaction was only a brief pause, the slightest intake of breath, but Erik made it an excuse to take his wrists and pull his hands away. Erik was claiming an unearned victory, but Charles was not going to to walk into the trap of insisting.
When Erik had taken off his pants and underwear, he moved closer, spreading his legs a little to straddle the footrests. His shirtfront parted at the bottom to reveal his naked cock. Leaning forward to reach it was going to be awkward, but of course that was part of the point. Erik wanted him to prove he wanted this so urgently that an ache in his neck wouldn't matter at all. Erik probably thought he could get Charles to beg just by pulling away at the right moment. He was probably right. So Charles would just have to make sure that Erik lost interest in that plan. He would give Erik everything he wanted, leaving him no chance to do anything but accept it -- like one of those chess problems in which White has to force Black to win.
He leaned forward, bracing a forearm against his thighs, and brought his tongue up underneath the head of Erik's cock. Gently, he licked at the slit, at the seam between head and shaft, all the weak spots in Erik's defenses. After so many years of practice, he could do this by muscle memory alone -- which was fortunate, since he was constructing circuit diagrams in his head to keep the machine from overwhelming him. He ran a hand down Erik's back, but only through the insulation of his shirt. When he looked up, Erik's breathing was still steady, but at least his eyes were half-closed. Charles knew from long experience that that didn't mean he had stopped thinking, but it was a start.
He took Erik's cock into his mouth, pressing his advantage. The head was warm and smooth against his lips, against his palate. Erik's breathing slowly became ragged. He wrapped a hand around the shaft of Erik's cock, stroking it as he sucked, and soon the taste of salt and musk bloomed on his tongue. He could give up now -- just lose control, and blame it all on the machine. There was nothing wrong with giving up an easy victory at rook odds. But he forced himself to pause, to rein himself in and continue more steadily. He just had to keep reminding himself that he was under the influence of an illusion. He was not seventeen years old, and while Erik's scent had never ceased to be arousing, it was only the machine that made it threaten to unseat his reason. His mouth was filled no fuller than before, no matter what his mind was telling him. The temperature of Erik's cock was ninety-eight point six degrees and it was not, not going to melt him from the inside out.
At last the pace of Erik's breath persuaded him that Erik was past the point of playing games. He closed his eyes and sucked, and opened his mind just a little more to the machine.
There was a heaviness between his legs, a sudden heat where no feeling had been before. It was only an illusion, something borrowed from some random mind, but it was impossible to believe that he didn't actually have an erection and that there wasn't a hand wrapped around it. Since the accident that had shattered his spine, Charles had only been able to come by sharing someone else's pleasure -- he could feel touch on anyone's legs but his own -- but he hadn't counted on the strength of it, amplified by the machine. Touch covered him, a chaos of sensations. He couldn't seem to remember what position he was in, and the feeling of Erik's cock in his mouth was the only thing anchoring him to his body. He reached for Erik blindly, smoothing his hands over his hips, then clutching his buttocks, trying to ground himself. Far away, he heard a moan rise in the back of his throat.
Then Erik's thumbs were on his cheeks, pushing his face away. Bringing him back.
"You're feeling something, aren't you?" Erik said thickly.
For a moment Charles just stared at him, trying to make sense of the existence of a point of view from which that wasn't obvious. "Yes," he managed.
"I don't feel you in my head, Charles. You had better not be getting it from anyone else."
Erik was broadcasting his thoughts loudly enough for Charles to know that the jealousy was perfectly real -- though that didn't mean he wasn't using it as an excuse to make things more difficult. Charles wasn't sure it would even be possible to focus on Erik's sensory cortex, with the whole world clamoring for admittance to his head. But he could never bring himself to refuse Erik's challenges. Somehow, by an effort of will, he managed to focus past the helmet and take Erik's mind into his. When he ran a fingertip experimentally up the shaft of Erik's cock, he felt the same sensation mirrored on his own.
Then he sat back and met Erik's gaze, waiting. He refused to strain forward again. Erik would just have to find another solution. This narrow platform of hard metal did not give them many options, but one impossible task deserved another.
Erik smiled and glanced down at Charles's wheelchair. The handle of the joystick suddenly snapped off and dropped to the floor. The steel tubes that supported the armrests curved in over his thighs, then leaned toward Erik, twisting so that the pads were level. Kneeling on them, Charles realized, would put Erik at just the right height, and the joystick, detached, would not get in the way of his legs.
Erik was no longer a young man. His climb onto the armrests was dignified rather than agile. But it would have been hopelessly awkward if his pants had been around his ankles. Charles wondered whether, when Erik had taken his pants all the way off, he had already been looking ahead to this move.
Charles opened his mouth and took Erik in until the metal of the helmet brushed the placket of his shirt. Erik's hand came to rest on his shoulder -- gently, careful not to clutch. But Charles could feel everything he was doing to Erik now. He knew just how hard to suck, just how slowly to tease the slit with his tongue, just how long to pause before taking him in again. Erik had no defense.
Erik's hand moved to the back of Charles's neck, then slid upward to cup the cool, smooth metal of the helmet. Three months before, Erik had closed his eyes and stroked his hand along an imaginary curve in the air, and the helmet had taken form -- a tactile memory of the shape of Charles's head turned into steel. Now Charles could taste the alloy, bitter with chromium, sweet with manganese. The circuits underneath incensed the air with sandalwood and rose.
Suddenly Erik gripped the helmet harder, pressing it into the back of his head. Something slipped in his mind -- he lost focus -- and he could still feel Erik, but now other minds were flooding in as well. In a cornfield a man and a woman were making love, and he could feel the fallen stalks against her back, hear the snap as his thrust broke another. In a car going past, a young girl ran a finger up the inside of her lover's thigh as they drove down the road toward a house where a woman was lying in the bathtub with the water pouring down between her legs. More and more -- he could feel everything, and it was all part of this, of him licking and sucking and making Erik's breath come fast and rough. He felt that in time he could fit the whole world in his head, but Erik was thrusting into his mouth now and they were close, close. White heat built in his cock with each shuddering thrust. Then Erik's hands just sank into the metal and he swallowed and everything was rushing in at once and all the minds in his head flared up bright and then dark.
Eventually Erik got down from the wheelchair. Charles just sat there and watched him put on his pants as the world spun weakly around them. It was surprisingly quiet in his head now. When Erik had finished dressing himself, he knelt in front of Charles's wheelchair and straightened his jacket for him with an expert twitch of his fingers. The armrests rose into their usual positions. He picked up the joystick handle without looking down and pressed it back into place. Finally he looked up at the helmet and smiled, and some combination of memory and telepathy made Charles realize there must be a handprint pressed into the back of it.
Charles shook his head slightly: no, no need to fix it. The damage was purely cosmetic. Someday this house would be full of students, and they would both have to be ever so respectable; the handprint would need to be smoothed out, in case someone saw. But for now this place was theirs alone, and if they wanted a reminder, they could have one.
"We should have thought of this sooner," Erik said. "What better way to inaugurate a new invention? Breaking a bottle of champagne seems so wasteful. If you've thought of a name, I believe this is the traditional time to --"
He stopped, looking over Charles's shoulder. "What is that?"
Erik was broadcasting the image so strongly that Charles couldn't help seeing. In the heart of North America there was a hole in the light, an oval darkness where no ocean was.
He remembered a cornfield.
"Oh," he said dully.
"What is it?"
"We did speculate that the connection might be two-way...."
"Charles, what happened to all those people?"
"They're not on this map anymore." Charles closed his eyes. There was no good way to say this. "I think I may have given Iowa an orgasm."
"'I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.'"
"That's not a fair comparison, Erik."
"You're right. It isn't. When Oppenheimer quoted that, he was talking about the A-bomb. Compared to what we've built, it might as well have been a bottle rocket."
"Erik, you still have a headache --"
"Because you nearly killed me trying to test this thing!"
"I'm as horrified as you are. But now isn't the time to make this decision. You need rest. We can look at it again in the morning -- we may be able to introduce safeguards -- "
"Safeguards. You want to put your trust in safeguards. This machine could destroy every human being on the planet."
"We don't know that."
"I stopped breathing, didn't I?"
"For an instant. Yes. Erik, I was terrified -- "
"Mutants in Manhattan stopped breathing."
"I believe so."
"I can see the power setting on the control panel, I'm familiar with the inverse square law, and I can do arithmetic. Don't pretend you don't believe you could extend that effect all the way to the antipode, and don't pretend you don't know you could do it to humans too."
Charles closed his eyes. "Most likely."
"Have you changed your mind, Charles? Have you decided to rule the world? They'll have to give in to any demand that you care to make -- "
"Of course not."
"Then you have to destroy even the idea of this machine. You cannot possess a weapon like this and be unwilling to use it."
"No one has to know -- "
"You don't believe the mutant children that you want to bring here will find out? God, Charles -- this is the most dangerous weapon in the world, and you want to build a school on top of it."
"Erik, I'm afraid of what will happen if we do destroy it. It's only a matter of time before someone is killed just by being too close to a mutant with poorly controlled powers, unless we start finding them first. The backlash from something like that --"
"Will be nothing compared to the effect of holding a gun to the head of everyone on earth. Do you think the fear of annihilation will promote tolerance? Charles, do you remember the 1950s?"
"I understand that. Erik, all I'm trying to say is that nothing is going to change overnight. Let's take the time to think this through."
"You don't want time to think. You want time to persuade me. Just as you persuaded me that war between humans and mutants wasn't inevitable. This makes it inevitable. When they find out this machine exists, there will be war, and you had better be prepared to win it."
"You know I don't want that."
"Then why are you resisting me?" He paused, looking down at Charles. One side of his mouth curled up in a smile. "You like it, don't you, Charles? How does it feel, touching all those minds?"
"I won't deny it's a remarkable experience, but that hardly -- "
"I should have realized."
"Erik, we have the opportunity to make a difference. We can save lives -- we can give children a chance to learn what they are in a safe place, away from the world's prejudice and hatred. We can prevent everything you've always feared. We have the ability to shape the future, and Cerebro is the key to that. We can't give up the dream just because there's a possibility that people might find out. Erik, please, listen to me."
"You're like a child with a loaded gun." Erik lifted a hand. The helmet rose from the control panel, tore away from its cables, and began to crumple. Above their heads, the panels trembled in their slots.
Charles narrowed his eyes. The helmet stopped and clumsily flew back to its resting place.
"What... " Erik shook his head slightly, then looked at Charles with growing horror. "You did that. You controlled me."
"I'm sorry, Erik. I just didn't want you to do something that we'd both regret. We've worked so hard for this...."
Erik took a step back. "Goodbye, Charles."
"Erik, wait --"
Endnote: #1 was inspired by reading about a Holocaust survivor who, when her daughters were old enough to ask about her camp tattoo, told them it was Hitler's phone number. They never asked again, she said.
Please post a comment on this story.
Author: C. Elisa [email] [website]
Details: Standalone | R | 25k | 02/14/04
Summary: Five things that probably didn't happen while Charles and Erik were building Cerebro.
Notes: The "Five Things" format -- five independent vignettes, usually AU -- was invented by Basingstoke, with her story "Five Things that Aren't True." There was a Five Things challenge (http://strangeplaces.net/challenge/five.html), but I invited myself to this party. Many thanks to Andraste for beta.
Disclaimer: Charles, Erik, and Cerebro all belong to Marvel Comics and Fox Entertainment.
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