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The Death Card: Chapter Seven

Mac O'Roni

This is the way the world ends...
This is the way the world ends...
This is the way the world ends...
Not with a bang, but a whimper.

-T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men"

     Forge cursed softly to himself in the cluttered depths of his subbasement laboratory as the cat Marconi watched him with interest unusual in a feline, most likely thinking the sotto voce swears constituted a conversation directed at it. I really ought to clean this place up a little, he thought as he rummaged for the tiny zero-point energy lift he’d just had half a second ago. Ordinarily he didn’t have any trouble finding anything, no matter how minute, in the organized chaos of what some of the “above-grounders” were pleased to call his “lair,” but perhaps he was just a bit preoccupied these days, what with there being a contract on his head.
     He gave up and straightened, his spine popping uncomfortably from the long crouch, and he surveyed his work with a resigned sigh. The sixteen-hundred pound joist wasn’t going to hop up on its own and stay put so he could weld it in place, and without the lift he didn’t have a chance in hell of raising it himself. Where’s Colossus when you need him? he thought in frustration.
     “Here, let me get that for you,” a deep, richly accented and extremely familiar voice said, and at first it appeared to the stunned inventor that the joist had hopped up on its own, for he could not see what supported it until the Cajun somehow melted out of the shadows. He was perched, all his impossible immensity, on the back of a rather flimsy-looking office chair like some great vulture, and he was holding up the heavy metal piping with one half-gloved finger.
     Reflexes honed in the rice paddies of Vietnam had not dulled overmuch in the years since, years in which he had encountered threats he’d never dreamed of back in basic training. As soon as the threat was perceived he was diving for the nearest weapon—a commodity not in scarce supply.
     “Nah ah ah, my friend,” Death said, waggling a disapproving finger. The gun disintegrated in a flash of blood red light, and though he was stunned Forge was left uninjured. The Cajun dropped the joist—it landed with a very solid, tile-cracking clang, which put paid to any notion that it wasn’t the same joist, or had somehow been lightened—and hopped down from his precarious perch to tower above the inventor from only a step or two—a normal-sized step or two—away.
     “Sorry about that, Forge, but to tell you the truth, I’m none too keen on the idea of getting shot. Here, let me help you up.” He held out one huge hand. It hung there in space a long moment, and then he sighed. “You’ve got a genius-level IQ, so I’m sure this is a concept you can grasp. If I were here to kill you, you’d be dead already. I’m here to talk, dude. So stand up and lets pow-wow.”
     Forge glared at him as he rose, disdaining the hand still outstretched to assist him. “What can you have to say that I’ll want to listen to?”
     “How about: I can help you defeat Apocalypse?”
     “I have no doubt: however, you seem to have chosen a different path.”
     “Okay, how about: I can help you defeat Apocalypse from the inside out?” Death said, rolling his dark/bright eyes.
     Forge crossed his arms over his chest, though his peripheral vision had already marked the next nearest weapon for defensive purposes. Though he doubted he’d have a chance to use it—even before this transformation the Cajun was spooky-fast. He had a distinct memory of a time when Magneto had used a form of mind-control to turn a whole team of X-Men, Gambit included. When Storm and the rest of them had gone to fight them, not knowing yet why they’d turned, he’d ended up squared off against the Acadian. It hadn’t taken any perceptible effort for the man to deflect the bullets of automatic gunfire off the narrow width of his quarterstaff. The memory was a frightening one, particularly in his current subbasement isolation.
     “You expect me to trust you?”
     “Do you have a choice? Forge, you’d never make it to that impressive little bazooka before I blew your ass to pieces—if I was inclined to kill you. Which I’m not. Not now, not then, not in the perceivable future. Can you get your mind around this? I didn’t join up with Apocalypse because I’m an asshole and I want to make all sorts of mayhem. Or at least, not only for that reason. I did it because I want to shut him down.”
     Forge felt his opposition wavering. “So that display on the plains of Meggido…?”
     “…was a sham so I didn’t have to kill anybody. Do you think Sinister pumped me up so I could sit on the sidelines with a pulled hamstring? Nah, I had to make it look convincing. Hard to be Death without killing nobody. That stunt you pulled on the inhibitor made it easy on me, thank you very much.”
     “How the hell did you manage to convince those hard boys that you were on the level with them?” he asked, holding on to his suspicions with both hands.
     “An unexpected bit of luck. Sinister did his homework, but not well enough. He made me take a Blood Vow,” he said, with a cynical snort of laughter.
     “Guild magic?” Forge made an educated guess.
     Death nodded. “And had I been born into the guild, it would have worked. But I was adopted. I’m not guild blood, so I’m not bound to it. If Sinister’d dug just a little deeper he might have found out about the vow of the name—having been given a guild name, I’m bound to that kind of magic. But what he don’t know, don’t hurt me.” He smiled humorlessly.
     “Does anybody else know about your…covert operations?”
     Death shook his head, the half-limp spikes of candy-red hair bobbing over his too-pale face. “Nah, I knew that Chuck wouldn’t go for it. He’d be all, like, ‘unacceptable risk’ and ‘there’s no I in team’…all that happy horseshit. When something needs doing, I just do it. That’s an asshole’s prerogative: to get shit done. I don’t have to worry about what everybody thinks, ‘cause I already know they hate me.” There was a faint undercurrent of bitterness in his voice, but it in turn was underscored by something like acceptance, or maybe even understanding.
     Forge paused, considered some useless plattitude, and discarded that notion in favor of a more concrete expression of faith. “All right, Gambit,” he said, deciding for the moment to revert to the man’s former identity. “How do you intend to help us defeat Apocalypse?”
     The man flipped a crystal case from the inner pocket of his coat to the inventor’s feet. “That’s a good beginning,” he said. “I pulled that from Sinister’s mainframe shortly after my re-creation. You might call it tactical schematics for the genetic restructuring of myself and the other three Horseflops.”
     Forge picked up the case and gazed at the compact disc inside with near reverence. “Holy shit. If this is on the level…” he trailed off, as there was no need for him to complete the thought. Such information was of incalculable value. If it was genuine.
     “Best proofing I can give you is a little of my own DNA, so you can compare it. Then you at least know how to kill me, if it turns out I’m stringing you.” He stripped the gauntlet off his forearm and held out his hand to the inventor, fist clenched so that the blue-black veins popped in his thick wrist. With only a momentary hesitation, Forge rustled up a hypodermic from the first-aid kit and his hand happened upon the zero-point energy lift, which he regarded for a moment in chagrin and then tossed over his shoulder with a shrug. He took a quick blood sample from the Cajun’s arm and fed the genetic material into the analyzer plugged in to his mainframe.
     “Well, I’d better get out of here before Big Daddy Poccy comes looking for me,” Gambit/Death said. “Just one thing, though, you see—the reason I decided to come to you about this instead of Chuck or Cyke or one of the others. This…uh…problem I’ve got, see. This new fashion statement. It’s just not me. I was hoping maybe you’d be able to find a way to put me back when this is all over with, at least partway, if nothing else. Get rid of the retractable poison fangs, at the very least,” he said hopefully, displaying the teeth in question by way of illustration. “And not just me, either—I’m not totally selfish. The other three—War, Pestilence, Famine. They’re jerks, but they didn’t ask for this. Sinister’s got them on mind control drugs. I’m hoping we can get through this without actually, you know, terminating anybody. They won’t want to look like that forever, either. Can you, maybe, look into it for me? Please?”
     “Yeah, I can do that. I’m assuming you don’t want me working with anybody else on this right now, so I’ll do my best. It’ll be easier when I can bring Hank and some of the others on it, though.”
     Gambit smiled, looking almost normal, though rather sad. “Maybe when its all over, then they can know the truth. Right now, though, they’d never believe it. Well, I’m outie. And before you get to thinking, ‘Wow, that’s just like Shadowcat,’ let me say that this is nothing like phasing. This shit hurts.” With those words, and without losing any of his solidity, Gambit began to walk…through…the…wall. Forge winced just from watching, but he couldn’t help himself, he had to call the young man back for a final word.
     The Acadian didn’t pull out of the masonry altogether, though he did stick his head back through. The grimace on his face spoke volumes about the truth of his statement, that the operation of walking through solid objects, in his fashion, was painful. “Yeah?”
     “I just wanted to say that, asshole or not, I think what you’re doing is the bravest thing any of us has ever done.”
     It was amazing, the changes in that pale, usually expressionless face over a period of a few seconds. Astonishment, then a slow spreading pleasure as he smiled—that rare, bright, honest smile that took fifteen years off his rugged features and put him much closer in appearance to what Forge guessed was his real age. “Thanks. Thanks a lot.” And then he was gone. Forge tried not to let his mind dwell on the awful sucking sound that accompanied his leaving, or to let his mind worry about the mechanics of the operation—atomic rearrangement, no doubt? Not losing structure but nevertheless allowing structure to change just enough for matter to slip solidly through matter—which of course broke Einstein’s theories all to pieces. The headache starting behind his left eye forced him to turn his wandering thoughts down other channels.
     Marconi skulked out of hiding and leapt to his shoulder as he loaded up the disc the Cajun had given him, and he stroked the cat’s tabby head absently as he considered the encounter. He still wasn’t one hundred percent certain he could trust the Cajun—and then he realized that the question of trust was moot because the man had basically told him that he couldn’t, that he never could, that he never should, but that he was going to do the right thing anyway.
     That’s just the way Gambit is, he thought, shoving the cat off its painful perch. Marconi gave a single yowl to indicate its displeasure and slunk away to pout. He's like a cat: he only does what he wants to do, when he wants to do it. Doesn’t mean he’s not on our side: it just means he isn’t always going to play by our rules.