A Test of Power
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6

This story is still in progress.

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Stars and Garters

Chapter One

From this arises the question
whether it is better to be loved
rather than feared, or feared rather than loved.
It might perhaps be answered that we should wish
to be both: but since love and fear can hardly exist
together, if we choose between them, it is far safer
to be feared.

Niccolo Machiavelli
Il Principe 1532

The Present

Professor Charles Xavier crossed the study and parted the heavy drapes to reveal a clear crisp night sky filled with multitude of twinkling stars. He thoroughly enjoyed evenings like this -- as long as he was indoors. The fireplace contained a few quietly burning logs that filled the room with warmth as well a golden glow which always had a relaxing effect on him. It was the perfect environment to sit down and enjoy the new book he had recently purchased.

He placed his hand on the window pane, which revealed something else about this evening: It was extremely cold -- unusually so. As he glanced across the great lawn of his Westchester mansion, he noticed a thin cloud of smoke rising from just below the window. He quickly looked down see that it was not smoke at all but steam that was coming off of Logan, who was engaged in some form of martial arts exercises -- in a short-sleeve shirt, no less. A small smile formed on his face as he recalled the time Logan had asked him why he had such an aversion to the cold weather.

What were Logan's exact words...? "You shouldn't spend so much time indoors, Chuck. Cold air, a little sunshine, puts hair on yer head."

"I thought you said that was what your beer drinking did," the Professor had commented dryly.

"Nah! I said drinking beer put hair on your back. You want to know where you get hair if you drink whiskey?"

"Maybe I should consult Henry on that question. His overly hirsute condition might best qualify him to answer that."

"If you mean McCoy's got a lot of hair you're right there, but he's the teetotaling type. Then again, maybe he is tipping a few beakers back with the amount of time he spends in that lab all by his lonesome.

He closed the drapes and left Logan to his exercises. Logan was right about one thing, at least. Charles telepathically located Henry right where one would expect to find him these days, in the medical lab, tirelessly working on a cure for the Legacy Virus. Without even a focused telepathic scan, he could sense wave after wave of intense frustration emanating from the lab's sole occupant. He had been meaning to speak to Henry about taking a much-needed vacation, and felt it might give him a fresh perspective with his work. Charles could understand better than most what intense and prolonged frustration could do to the human mind. He was just about to telepathically summon him when Robert Drake burst into the lab recommending just what Charles had in mind. He withdrew his telepathic probe and made a mental note to speak with Henry first thing in the morning.

Bobby Drake entered the MedLab with his normal childlike exuberance, not bothering to check whether any medical restrictions were in place due to the current nature of Dr. Henry McCoy's research. He then proceeded to gently spiral a football right into the small of the stooped back of the tired doctor, who was squinting microscope as he examined a slide. Henry continued his work and didn't seem to notice that Bobby had even entered the room.

"So that's how it's going to be, Hank? I'm not going away until you say yes."

"You have yet to pose a question," Hank mumbled.

"Oh, so there is someone alive under that blue fur coat!" Bobby laughed. "Let me cut to the chase. Me, Warren, and Logan, are heading down to Shea tomorrow to watch the Jets and the Dolphins play football. Warren's got some primo season tickets -- four, to be exact -- and you are cordially invited."

"I have too much work to accomplish this weekend, Bobby," Henry said without glancing up from his microscope. "Why don't you ask Bishop?"

"Bishop?!" Bobby exclaimed. "I said we were going to a ball game, not a funeral. Come on, Hank, you remember football. Heck, you even used to play it a hundred years and four college degrees ago! Do I have to bullet my next pass into the back of your head to get you out of this cave?"

"This is not a cave, Robert. It is a medical laboratory. A laboratory that might be useful in saving lives if I were not constantly interrupted for fatuous reasons!" Henry angrily snapped out his response, raising his voice with each successive word.

Bobby stood dumbfounded at the angry outburst -- Hank had never taken that tone with him before. More than anyone else, Hank always had seemingly infinite patience, no matter how juvenile and annoying some of his comments were. Bobby considered Hank his best friend, and he tried to brush away his hurt as he rushed to justify his intrusion and prove that he had Hank's best interests in mind.

"I'm sorry Hank," Bobby said quietly. "I just thought that you needed a break," he went on nervously. Me and the rest of the guys thought that you've been working way too hard. Logan was just saying the other day that the rest of the X-men always get to solve our problems with our fists.

"'McCoy gets all the damn near impossible problems and he's got to use his noodle to solve 'em.'" Bobby tried to inject a little humor into his explanation, hoping his best "gruff" voice imitation of Logan would lighten Henry's mood. He continued in a more serious tone. "Hank, I know what you do for the team, for mutants in general, is much more important than anything I've ever done or will do. I just come off like a goofball all the time."

Hank sighed. "Robert, please forgive me and accept my sincerest apology," he said, his voice was tinged with regret. "My frustration level with all my ineffectual attempts to find a cure for the Legacy Virus has reached an all-time high. Everything I've tried has been a dismal failure. My anger has nothing to do with you and is inexcusable." A small smile crossed Henry's face. "Maybe a football game is just what the doctor -- or rather, the Iceman -- ordered," he said, sounding more like himself already.

"Perhaps I could interest you in a game of a different sort."

The chillingly familiar voice startled both Bobby and Hank. They spun around and were horrified to see Mr. Sinister step out of one of his reality-defying dimensional portals, appearing out of thin air right in the middle of the lab. As the transport doorway closed, Bobby overcame his initial shock, and his training took over. Shifting into iceform, he began to move to the side. Logan had constantly drilled it into all of the X-Men to never present an opponent with a stationary target -- move immediately. He had once told Bobby that it was the very first few seconds that almost invariably determined the outcome of any fight.

With a casual wave of his hand, Sinister enveloped Bobby in a faintly glowing pink sphere,  literally freezing him in place. Bobby was conscious but unable to move. The ease with which Sinister had rendered Bobby harmless stopped Henry in mid-stride from manually activating the intruder alarm. What also stopped him was the impassive manner with which Sinister now greeted them.

"Gentlemen, please consider the mode of my arrival. I could have just as easily sent my team of Marauders, an explosive device, anything I wished. I assure you, I mean you no harm. All I have is a simple request. Your acquiescence is of great importance, but you will have a choice and will not be forced in any way." Sinister delivered this seemingly benign speech with his hands folded innocuously in front of him, attempting to dilute the natural menace he exuded.

Although Henry, like many of the other X-Men, had an almost intrinsic fear of Sinister, Sinister's logic did not escape him. With just his transport technology alone, Henry could think of twenty different ways he could have destroyed any of the X-Men -- or the entire mansion, for that matter. Sinister was far too prudent a man to show up at the proverbial lion's den ill-equipped, and would certainly expect to encounter some resistance, to say the least. Because he was a consummate planner, Bobby's initial reaction, although understandable, was doomed to failure because of the caliber of the adversary they faced.

Henry shuddered. Yes, perhaps their greatest and most insidious enemy had somehow easily bypassed possibly the most advanced security system on the planet, and was standing in the middle of their home completely unhampered, currently free to wreak havoc and do as he pleased. But he took solace in the fact that the mechanical and electronic systems were not the only things that the mansion contained that could detect an intruder's presence. That thought calmed Henry to some degree, allowing him to focus and present a somewhat calm and clear-thinking disposition.

This subtle change in Henry's demeanor did not go unnoticed by Sinister. "Your comrades have no idea that I am here, so no one will be coming to your aid, nor will you require any. If you refuse my request as well as my offer, I will leave peacefully.

A consummate planner indeed, with an uncanny way of foreseeing any and all possibilities, Henry thought. He also wondered if Sinister was somehow screening his own presence and this conversation from the telepaths that resided in the mansion. "Release Robert as a show of good faith and I will consider your request," Henry demanded with as much false bravado as he could muster, stalling for time.

"Obtain his promise that he will attempt no attack on my person -- what little good such an effort would do -- and he will be released. But rest assured, should he break his promise, I will employ the same abilities I have just demonstrated in tandem, and young Mr. Drake will find his head and thorax in two vastly different locations." Sinister punctuated his remark with an intimidating stare in Bobby's direction.

"As long as you don't try to harm Hank, I won't do a thing," Bobby managed to croak, trying to sound as confident as possible considering his situation.

"Then we are in agreement and can converse like civilized men." The pink sphere surrounding Bobby disappeared, and he was able to move again.

Unhurried, Sinister slowly approached Henry, his gait a mixture of grace and strength, innate confidence and power oozing with every step. Henry had to consciously fight back the urge to fight or run and managed to hold his ground. Sinister towered over Henry, his terrifying white visage now within a few feet of his own face. The cape of his elaborate costume, if one could call it a costume, with cloth-like tendrils fanning out in all directions, suspended in air with seemingly a life of their own. They reminded Henry of the hair of the mythical Medusa, a sea of poisonous snakes constantly in motion and ready to strike at any moment.

Henry had often wondered about this choice of outfits for Mr. Sinister. The man certainly did not possess a flamboyant personality -- quite the opposite really, more like a mortician from a bad John Carradine movie, as Logan was fond of saying. No, Sinister was first and foremost a scientist and was primarily concerned with functionality and efficiency, not appearance. Henry decided that the costume was not a costume at all, but rather an extension of Sinister's own body configured in such a way to harness much of the known and possibly unknown and unseen ambient energy that everyone is constantly bombarded with. The crackle that Henry felt in the air as Sinister approached confirmed his theory. Yes, he now was quite sure. This was the closest he had ever been, or ever wanted to be to Mr. Sinister. Henry could feel almost a static electricity in the air around him as well as see a very faint blue glow at the end of each of the tendrils of his spidery shroud. But he was sure that it was not simple electricity that Sinister was able to harness, especially when he employed this energy with such a wide variety of uses and with such devastating effects.

"May I?" Sinister motioned toward the microscope.

"Of...Of course," Henry stammered.

Sinister bent his large torso over the microscope to peer into the eyepiece, and with his gloved hand he expertly adjusted the focusing and lighting knobs with practiced ease. "Ahh. I see that you are continuing your quest to find a cure for this troublesome little bug." Without looking up, Sinister held out a computer disk with all the flourish of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. "This might help you towards those ends."

Henry cautiously reached out and took the disk, but kept it at arm's length from his body. Sinister straightened. "Please allay your suspicions, Dr. McCoy. Given our past, I can understand your mistrust, but kindly read what is on the disk."

Henry still hesitated. When dealing with Sinister, everything came at a cost. As oddly superstitious as it may have sounded, he suspected that as soon as he viewed the disk's contents, his soul would be forfeit and there might be no turning back.

"Let me assuage your fears and put this into terms you might be more comfortable with. This information will cost you nothing. The data on that disk will no doubt be helpful, but it will be the subsequent information that will be especially useful."

"And that information comes with a price," Henry said openly, not trying to mask the suspicious edge to his voice.

There was no maniacal grin or sarcastic remark from Sinister. He instead responded matter-of-factly.

"Your cooperation will benefit both humans and mutants -- all you and your X-Men profess to stand for."

"And the benefit to you?" Henry asked with more than a slight bit of sarcasm.

"I do not claim to be a good Samaritan. My motives remain my own. But as a scientist, you must review all the information available to be able to make an informed judgment. You may begin with the disk."

Sinister's last statement was not a request but a polite command. Although Sinister's face remained expressionless, Henry believed the man's patience was coming to an end. The stakes were too high to decline his offer, he finally decided, so with no further discourse, Henry inserted the disk into his PC and quickly scanned through its contents. He was immediately struck by the sheer scope of the research data he was reading. Sinister was erudite even by Hank's standards, and this was most definitely reflected by the esoteric theories he was now just touching on.

"This...this is years ahead of where I am now! This also supports my recent supposition that the Legacy Virus does not behave entirely like a virus but has many of the attributes of a bacteriologic infection as well," Henry said excitedly.

Bobby could hear how thrilled Henry was to actually confirm some of his own theories by how many octaves his voice had risen. Bobby was no psychologist, but it was obvious to him how easily Sinister manipulated people by seemingly granting their fondest desires and was more than a little concerned at Hank's present state of mind.

"Are you familiar with Menigococcal Meningitis?" Sinister asked.

"Yes I am," Henry said eagerly. Meningitis occurs globally an shows an endemic pattern in temperate climates causing a steady number of sporadic cases or small clusters with seasonal increase in the winter period."

"That is true, but Meningococcal Meningitis is the only form of bacterial meningitis which causes epidemics," Sinister lectured. "The highest rates occur in young children, although during epidemics older children, teenagers and young adults are also affected. Transmission is by direct contact, including respiratory droplets from the nose and throat of infected persons. Are you familiar with viral hemorrhagic fevers?"

"Yes. They are a group of diseases caused by viruses from for distinct families of viruses; filoviruses, arenaviruses, flaviviruses, and bunyaviruses," Henry quickly rattled off.

"All from memory -- impressive" Sinister commented as if speaking to an eager pupil. "The usual hosts for most of these viruses are rodents or arthropods."

Henry noticed that Bobby's somewhat confused expression became more pronounced after Sinister's last statement. "Arthropods are ticks and mosquitoes Bobby," Henry supplied.

Bobby just nodded his head and looked slightly embarrassed and a little annoyed that Henry had not only noticed his confusion, but chose to highlight it by saying out it loud.

Sinister ignored the interchange and continued. "In some cases, such as Ebola virus, the natural host for the virus is unknown. All forms of viral hemorrhagic fever begin with fever and muscle aches. The severity of viral hemorrhagic fever can range from relatively mild illness to death."

"The origin of the Legacy virus is also unknown," Henry interrupted.

"A distinct liability that I am not subject to," Sinister said with a trace of smugness creeping into his voice. "That is one of the advantages that I have had over you in studying the disease," Sinister said casually as if relating tomorrow's weather forecast.

"How is that possible?" Henry asked incredulously. "Stryfe brought the Legacy Virus back from the future. You would have no way to determine, study, or have access to the original host."

Sinister ignored his disbelief and did not enlighten Henry as to what his earlier dissertation had to do with a cure for the Legacy Virus. "Let us adjourn to one of my labs and we can continue this discussion and answer some of your questions. I must insist that we proceed with some alacrity. No doubt one or more of your colleagues might visit this lab and be less than pleased with my presence. Even though your detection devices have been rendered temporarily inoperative, some of your more psi-sensitive teammates might delve a little deeper into the psionic deception I've placed over this room."

Sinister noticed Henry's inquisitive look.

"You appear to be sleeping to anyone who would make no more than a cursory examination to the occupants of this room," Sinister explained.

Henry's facial expression did not change significantly.

"Mr. Drake and myself would appear as light background noise...as if you were dreaming."

Yeah, Hank's nightmare, Bobby thought.

Although Henry was not a telepath, he understood the difference between unrefined, brute force-type telepathy, and delicate skill, and which was more difficult. It was his turn to be impressed. A very subtle deception indeed.

"I am sure only a skilled telepath could achieve so effective a deception, considering the quality of the telepaths that reside in this household," Henry commented.

Sinister would not acknowledge that he was a telepath or possessed telepathic ability, an admission of which Hank tried to solicit. So little was known about Sinister's actual mutant abilities -- or if he was even a mutant at all.

"I have a fair amount of knowledge concerning telepathy. Again, it would only stand up against a casual examination. In addition, should one of your more nocturnal teammates venture close to this lab, his acute olfactory senses would no doubt detect my presence. I am sure you will concur that his recalcitrant nature does not lend itself to reasonable colloquy. And as distasteful as I might find it, I might be forced to defend myself and will employ a much less passive approach than I did with young Mr. Drake."

Although Sinister neither changed his inflection or raised his voice, Henry understood what he was implying. Make a decision to leave now, or people might get hurt.

"I will accompany you back to your lab," Henry said firmly.

"Not by yourself. I'm coming with you," Bobby said just as firmly.

"Don't be ridiculous, Robert," Henry said immediately. "It is not necessary to endanger...it is not necessary for both of us to go. Our discussions would only bore you."

"I know you don't trust him anymore than I do," Bobby said pretending to ignore Sinister's oppressive presence. "You're not going alone."

Henry could tell that Bobby was determined to accompany him. Honestly, he admitted to himself, no matter how intrigued the scientific part of his mind was at the prospect of what he might learn from Sinister concerning the Legacy Virus, the primitive part of his brain was terrified at the thought of being alone with him. He genuinely wanted Bobby's company and was touched that Bobby was willing to place himself in potential danger for no other reason to be assured that he was all right.

Sinister opened one of his dimensional doorways.

"Do you have any objections if Bobby accompanies me?" Henry asked.

"If you feel more comfortable with a companion," Sinister motioned towards the portal, "then by all means."

Hank began to furiously scribble something on a piece of paper.

"I take it you are leaving a note for your esteemed Professor?"

Henry cautiously nodded.

"You needn't be alarmed. That is quite acceptable. In addition, you may contact the X-Men on a daily basis in order to assure them of your continued safety."

This surprised both Hank and Bobby but did not make them any less suspicious of Sinister's intentions.

"One last thing. You have not given me a reason why you need my help. I must insist on one before we depart," Hank demanded.

Sinister paused at the threshold of the portal, as if contemplating his choice of words in order to answer Henry's question. He turned staring directly into Henry's eyes with a particularly intense and frightening countenance.

"Fair enough, I wish to enlist your aid in killing Apocalypse." With that, Sinister turned and stepped into the portal, his swirling and undulating cape following in his wake, and politely commanded, "Follow me, gentlemen."

Henry and Bobby looked uneasily at one another. Things had gone from bad to worse.

"Well he's showing us the door, you first," Bobby managed a smile.

"Into the abyss," Hank said without his usual touch of humor and stepped through the doorway.

"Yeah right." Bobby took a deep breath and followed Hank.

Continued in Chapter Two.