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Sinister Intent: Chapter One

Mac O'Roni

     Gambit swam up out of unconsciousness with unaccustomed effort. Whatever hit him must have been pretty powerful—ordinarily, his unique mutant physiology enabled him to snap to consciousness all in an instant with little or no residual effects. He had a hard time recalling the sequence of events leading up to his blacking out. He seemed to remember an explosion like a shotgun blast, a painfully bright flash of light before his incredibly sensitive eyes, and shouting. His teammates, shouting his name. He also remembered, like a bad dream, blazing red eyes leering at him from the flash-burn shadows left in the wake of the brilliant light. Eyes so like his own that he had once allowed them to con him into believing the man behind them was someone he could trust.
     “Ah, what a pity. It’s wearing off. It worked just long enough, M’sieu LeBeau, for me to begin to hope I had at last found the answer to the sticky little question of how to control you.”
     Gambit tried to speak. He could feel his lips forming the name, or trying to, but no matter how hard he worked at it he could make no sound.
     Sinister laughed. “Now now, my friend; I have not given you permission to speak. You are still under my command, however tenuously, and I hold the reins of power for the moment. It seems I still have a bit of work to do, I’m afraid, before my control of you becomes permanent. Ah well. Back to the old drawing board, if you’ll forgive the cliché.
     “Still, I’m well pleased with my progress,” Sinister continued, as though lecturing a class. “The neuro-blaster is imperfect, true, but it accomplished something I’d never been able to do before—break into your most fascinating mind and all too briefly feel the sublime pleasure of using you for the purpose you were born for.”
     Gambit felt a shiver of dread work its way up his spine. He did not want to know what purpose the former Dr. Nathaniel Essex felt he was best suited to.
     “By the way,” Sinister continued off-handedly, “you may find it difficult to rejoin your precious X-Men when you shake off my control. You were really quite magnificent, Remy, honestly you were. You should have seen yourself! You know, you never really have come close to exploiting your full potential. You seem to suffer a dearth of imagination. Quite deplorable, really. All you can think of to do with those splendid powers of yours is to blow up a few piddling aces.”
     “W-what di’jou make me do?” Gambit managed at last.
     Sinister laughed again. This laugh was nothing like his typical mad-scientist cackle. It was cheerful and rollicking and utterly normal. It raised the hackles on the back of Gambit’s neck like nothing in his life.
     “Oh Remy, I wish I had thought to film it! You would have profited greatly from the viewing, I’ve no doubt. Would’ve made an excellent action-adventure, too. Summer blockbuster. Blown Spider-Man right out of the box-office. Although I doubt very much that any pleasure-viewer would have been very satisfied with the ultimate outcome. People do so like happy endings. It’s a fault I’ve noticed but have never taken the time to study in any depth.”
     Gambit felt hot tears prick his eyes. “What di’jou make me do?”
     Sinister feigned nonchalance. “Oh, nothing so very much. You’ll be gratified to learn, I’m certain, that none of your precious ‘friends’ were killed. Another minor fault with the neuro-blaster—I could make you do everything short of outright killing. Heavens preserve me from the morality of a thief. However, I believe you’ll find that, with the exception of Mr. Logan and those X-Men fortunate enough not to have been there that day, none of them are yet out of hospital.”
     A tear slowly worked itself free of the tangle of Gambit’s lashes and trickled down his cheek. Sinister saw and grinned unpleasantly.
     “Dr. Reyes is, as I understand it, working ‘round the clock to save the worst cases. The list of those in the intensive ward include, I’m told, Scott Summers, Jubilation Lee, Kurt Wagner, and…” he drew it out, giving his ward a sidelong glance to gauge his reaction to the final bombshell. “Ororo Munroe.”
     It hit him like a sucker punch to the gut. “Stormy?” he whispered, voice small and lost. Bad enough he’d hurt the petite, Jubilee. How could he ever bear it if he were ultimately responsible for the death of the one person who had ever completely and unconditionally believed in him?
     “I’m told that she does not like it when you call her that,” Sinister said, with a parental air of remonstrance that did nothing to hide the insane glee lurking just behind the cool white mask of his face.
     Gambit turned his gaze more directly upon that face. It was difficult to force his non-compliant muscles to obey him instead of Sinister, but he managed. “You bastard,” he said, his voice flat and dull. It had the seeming of a simple observation rather than a curse. The fact that he used the English word instead of the French “salaud” seemed to reinforce the phrase’s essential truth.
     “Choice words for me, eh? Well, I won’t hold it against you. Your friends will have some choice words for you as well, I’m sure. If they live.”
     Sinister turned away and busied himself with sterilizing some surgical implements laid out neatly on a nearby medical cart. It was the first time Gambit realized that he was strapped down to an operating table. Terror awoke in his breast as he was forced to contemplate what had happened or was about to happen to him here in Sinister’s sinister laboratory.
     He strained against the stout leather straps, his physical control increasing but still feeling no inkling of control over his mutant powers. He wondered what that meant. Would he ever regain control over them, or had Sinister done something to ensure that he wouldn’t?
     “What did’jou do to me?” he asked, hating but unable to help the note of pleading he heard in his voice.
     “Just a few minor alterations, nothing to signify,” Sinister said, holding up a long pipette to the light and eyeing it critically before giving it another dousing in the sterilizer. “I had hoped to give you a test-run before the neuro-blaster’s effects wore off, but alas…”
     “What did you do, you monster?”
     Sinister cocked an eyebrow at him. “Really, Remy, you surprise me. I always had such respect for your self-control. Losing one’s temper is wholly undignified and typically useless. But, if you must know, I added a few minor skills, that’s all. With a little practice you should find them quite interesting.”
     Gambit sank back against the table, eyes closed. He was so tired of being Sinister’s lab rat. There had been a time when he’d allowed himself to believe that Essex had tired of him and moved on to focus his attentions purely on the Summers family but that had clearly been vain hope.
     “You called, Master?” Gambit’s eyes popped open again as he heard Arclight’s voice. Of course, it was probably a clone of the Marauder but what difference? The point being he had never before or since met a woman of more deviant, twisted mentality, and he included Vertigo and Candra in that. If Sinister involved him with her somehow, he was apt not to like the results.
     “Yes. Release Mr. LeBeau and escort him to the exit—blindfolded, please, I’m sure it won’t do much to keep him from knowing where he is but every little bit helps, eh, Remy?”
     Remy sighed and surrendered himself to his fate. So he was again to be a part of Sinister’s infamous “catch-and-release” program. Except it was really more of a “catch-and-release-and-catch-again” deal, since Sinister liked to play the same fish over and over. Gambit had a sudden mental image of himself as a huge, sluggish Mississippi mud cat dragging at a line that attempted to haul his massive, flat-headed bulk out of the safety of the river and leave him to drown in God’s good air. It was such a realistic visual that he actually began to choke as his lungs refused to accept breath.
     “Oh dear, that is rather unfortunate,” Sinister said dryly. “Arclight, if you would please get Mr. LeBeau in some water? Stat?”
     There was a large tank in the lab room, occupied by one lone half-fish mutant Sinister had essentially lobotomized after extensive neurological testing. This creature watched with dull interest as the woman struggled to drag the Cajun’s thrashing body across the floor. She heaved him in with a groan of effort.
     “Jesus, LeBeau, couldn’t you have picked something a little smaller?” she griped, scraping slime from her hands. “And cleaner?”
     The water was an instant relief as Gambit found he could breathe again. But he didn’t understand. How could he possibly be breathing underwater?
     A terrible thought struck him and he twisted his spine vigorously to catch a glimpse of himself. A long, thick tail of muddy brown flirted before his eyes.
     I a catfish? he thought to himself, alarmed. Sufferin’ succotash, don’ tell me Sinister done make me a shape-shifter!
     “He did indeed,” Sinister chuckled. “That and more. Lovely Sylvester imitation, by the way, Remy. You always did have a decided flare for comedy.”
     Sinister strolled up to the tank and peered in at Gambit, looking for all the world like a visitor to some exotic aquarium. Gambit decided then and there that he would never, ever go to the zoo again. He now knew what it must feel like to those poor animals to be perpetually gawked at.
     “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you should choose this particular form as your first attempt to use your new ability,” he mused. “It has a certain poetic quality, somehow. I think it could only have been more fitting if you had chosen a snake—a water moccasin, perhaps; what do you call them? A cottonmouth?”
     Gambit attempted to swear at the leering scientist but found the closest he could come to a verbal assault was a wild thrashing of his fins and tail.
     “Your size comes as a bit of a shock, I must admit,” Sinister continued, ignoring this display. “As I understand it, this particular species of catfish does grow to great size, but I would say at a guess that you are perhaps thirty percent bigger than the average. Splendid creature, if a bit on the ugly side. Inelegant, but one must admire something of such astonishing brute appearance.”
     All right, fun’s fun but Gambit had enough. How d’hell do I get out of dis mess?
     “The same way you got into it,” Sinister said. “Picture yourself as something else. Yourself, if you really must, or you could always practice changing into other forms. It would be of great scientific interest to me to see whether you always take a form somewhat larger than you ought to.” Sinister’s eyes gleamed with the light of “scientific interest.” Gambit decided he was just going to have to disappoint the good doctor on this one.
     He concentrated. It was surprisingly difficult, he discovered, to picture himself as himself. Finally he managed, launching himself out of the aquarium to land gasping and soaked through on the floor. He wiped filthy water out of his face with hands that were marvelously normal.
     “A shame,” Sinister mourned. “You are really quite interesting as a catfish, Remy.”
     Ah, go soak yer head, he thought but didn’t say.
     “Not very polite, Remy,” Sinister replied. “Not very polite at all.”
     Remy lowered his hands and glared at the doctor. “What ain’t polite is readin’ someone’s t’oughts when dey ain’t said y’could,” he growled.
     Sinister affected shock and chagrin. “I read nothing,” he insisted. “But you are broadcasting, my young friend. Broadcasting quite powerfully. I can scarcely help hearing your ‘t’oughts,’ as you call them, when you force them into my mind like that.”
     “You make Gambit a telepat’, too?” he cried, leaping to his feet in one fluid motion.
     “No, you were already a telepath. As I said, I made minor alterations only. I merely increased your ability to send and receive telepathic communication. Much as, I’m forced to admit, I merely capitalized on a pre-existing propensity in your mutant physiology when I endowed you with metamorphic powers.”
     “What ‘pre-existin’ propensity?’” Gambit demanded.
     “Did you never stop to wonder how a man with forty-eight inch shoulders could ever squeeze himself through a one-foot diameter drainpipe?” Sinister asked. “Really, Remy, a deplorable dearth of imagination.”
     “Dr. McCoy say Gambit got extra joints,” he said defensively.
     “Which comes in exceedingly handy for the sort of ultra-physical metamorphic power you now possess. Yours isn’t the easy liquidity of Mr.—or should I say Ms.?—Jacob Gavin, Jr. Or even that most peculiar and fascinating epidermal rearrangement of Madame Mystique. No, your power is all hard work, my lad. You made it look easy, but I should venture to say it’ll tell on you if you push it too hard too fast.”
     “Are you gonna let me go or do I hafta stan’ here all day listenin’ t’you lecture me on the care an’ maintenance of powers I never had ‘til you started messin’ wit’ me and never wanted?”
     “Impatience is an ugly color on you, Remy—nearly as bad as that horrible fuchsia.”
     “Leave my fashion sense out of dis, an’ maybe I won’ mention how stupid those fake spider-legs y’got growin’ outta y’shoulders look.”
     “Touché. But the point is taken. Arclight…now where did that silly woman get to?”
     “Here, Master. I went to clean off the fish slime.”
     “Next time, wait until I dismiss you.”
     “I’m sorry, Master.”
     “I’ll let it pass this time. Take Mr. LeBeau to the furthest exit and see him out.”
     “Yes, Master.”
     Gambit permitted the Marauder to tie a black cloth over his eyes. It was, as Sinister had intimated, a nearly useless precaution—Gambit’s innate and infallible sense of direction, as well as his acute spatial perception, told him exactly where they were going in the deep labyrinth of Sinister's headquarters. He only wondered if this was the Seattle base he knew from his own checkered past or another hidden somewhere in the vast expanse of the contiguous United States. Or even if he were still in the contiguous United States. A question that would no doubt be answered as soon as he attained the surface and the use of his eyes.
     Sure enough, when Arclight pushed him away with an ill-tempered growl and allowed him to pull the blind from his face he found himself standing in front of the Essex theater. He was in Seattle, then. The big question left to be answered, then, was where to go from here. He felt, in spite of his once-bitten mistrust of Sinister and his lying tongue, that it was true that he would likely receive a chilly reception at best if he were to return directly to the Xavier Institute. Even if the X-Men didn’t believe he’d done…whatever he had done willingly, they were sure to see him as a considerable threat. What Sinister could do once he could no doubt do again. And he didn’t want to be a danger to his friends.
     But he had to know how Storm and Jubilee were doing, had to be reassured that he hadn’t hurt them as badly as Sinister wanted him to think. He would call, then, and hope someone would tell him what he needed to know. But first, he had to find someplace to stay, as far away from Sinister and his medical experiments as he could get. The siren song of New Orleans called to him as it always did in these first moments of indecision. He put the idea of going home back on the shelf with great reluctance, thinking of the food, the music, the people…all the things he missed about the city of his birth. But the idea of going back to Louisiana had a strong pull, and he settled on the idea of booking a flight through to Baton Rouge—it was, as he had sometimes heard Friend Logan say, “close enough for government work.” And far enough away to be safe.

On to Chapter Two!