Earth 998, six months ago:
A full alert is ringing in Queen Madelyne’s sprawling castle. Her black knights, Madelyne’s elite troops, hurry to put on their uniforms, some of them figuring that the Asian army must be attacking. One man mutters that he heard they have a giant man made of steel. Yes, and a ghost devil who stinks of sulphur, another one adds. They’ve all heard the stories.
A young man glumly adds that, if it’s war, they’ll die. It isn’t fair! The Queen’s power is unimaginable. She doesn’t need them to fight for her. Without having noticed, they’ve been joined by Mr. Scratch. Young man, he asks mildly, as he touches the boy’s face, the Black Knights are the queen’s elite. How did he come to join them? Did his father buy his way in, thinking to assure his social future? Yes, the boy admits. Scratch slaps him, announcing that he lives to serve the Queen. Not his ambition, nor his father’s. Should that be unsatisfying, there are… alternatives. With that, he crunches the boy’s skull. Blood still on his hand, Scratch puts on his helmet. Nobody speaks.
The men bow as the Queen, also dressed in black armor, walks in. Curtly, she informs them that a Nate Grey is loose in the world. Something shields him from her. She senses him but cannot find him. He is destruction. He must belong to them or the empire will not be safe. The Knights are to remain ready. When he shows himself, they are to bring him in at any cost. For the glory of Briton!
Elsewhere, Nate Grey finds himself elsewhere and faced with a surreal experience as his mysterious savior announces that he too is Nate Grey, this world’s Nate Grey. Surely, Nate didn’t think that in all the universes he was the only one? That’s ridiculous, Nate snaps. Nate-998 remarks he’d have thought Nate would be predisposed to the concept. Wasn’t he born on a parallel Earth that stopped existing so the Earth he now inhabits could be? Nate holds his head as though having a migraine. How could the other know that? He too, Nate-998 replies. They all were. Tearing off the reminder of the uniform given to him by Madelyne’s men, Nate asks the other why he keeps on lying. He wants to know who he really is.
With a dreamy expression on his face, Nate-998 reiterates that he is him. Sort of. Wrong answer, replies Nate, as he strikes at him with his telekinesis. A stern look on his face, Nate-998 tells him that hurt. He doesn’t want to fight Nate, but he shouldn’t do that again, he warns him.
Nate is unimpressed. Nate-998 reaches out to him as he remarks that he realizes Nate is confused and frightened. They are both telepaths, but he doesn’t need to read Nate’s mind to know the trouble the boy is in. He asks to be allowed to help.
Clenching his teeth, Nate replies that they should have coached his double better. He is more than a telepath. Some think he has the most powerful psyche in the world. And he’s heard enough! He knows what Nate is, Nate-998 replies, as he simply repels, the attack causing Nate to fall. Don’t get me angry, he simply says.
Elsewhere, Madelyne senses the altercation. There was a vibration, but it wasn’t quite right…
Nate-998 offers Nate his hand and apologizes. He adds that she felt that. Time is running out. He asks Nate to work with him, as Nate is far more powerful than he is, but there is so much he doesn’t know. He can put it all directly into Nate’s psyche. Nate still doesn‘t trust him. Then the Red Queen wins, Nate-998 states grimly. He suggests another way. He will open his mind to Nate. He can take what he wants and needn’t worry about being gentle. Nate can’t damage him any more than she has.
Nate does so and sees the Spiral of Worlds, different versions of himself and, superimposed above it, all the cruel image of Queen Madelyne. He learns that there are worlds upon worlds. Ineffable worlds, rising to a light beyond brilliance, broken worlds, trailing into darkest abandon.
What Queen Maddie calls the Spiral his Earth’s legends call the Tree of Worlds. A double helix, the shape of life. Their worlds are dots of information, arrayed in a code, no one can decipher. What unimaginable beings could they be the tiniest part of? And many Earths that are as they should be, more or less have things in common. Many have Nate Greys.
The Queen hunts Nates and lures them here. She wants their power to destroy. She genetically brands them to defuse the cellular time bombs that would otherwise kill them. She slays them when they prove unsatisfactory and moves on to the next.
Nate reels from the psychic onslaught, while Nate-998 explains that he was the first. The Queen was less adept at killing in those days. He survived and tried to help the others. They were all defective as he was. He is insane, he explains. His grasp of reality is nebulous. The other Nate is first truly functional one he has seen. Then why is he even listening to Nate-998, Nate remarks.
Nate-998 flies ahead and Nate decides to follow, despite himself. Nate-998 explains he is going to see his tribe. He has put his madness to work. He is their shaman. He knows what he was created for, and he’s mad enough to think he can escape it. So can Nate. Telekinesis can be used for beneficial things. Damping pain centers in the brain, stimulating healing, neutralizing unbalanced body chemistry…
They land in a small village, as Nate-998 adds that being a shaman also allows him the odd fit of wild dancing. They seem to enjoy that. In the minus column, they fear him. But that’s all right. Shamans are supposed to stay apart from their tribe. He doesn’t mind. He finds he rather likes living alone. This is what he decided to do after escaping Maddie: help others trying to find their own way in Maddie’s world. Thanks to him she doesn’t even know they are there.
He addresses an elderly man, asking if it is still here and safe. As he asked, the man replies and takes them to it, “it” being a dead man. Nate-998 explains that his name was Mr. Forge while he lived. Nate repeats the name, recalling his old mentor.
Nate-998 continues that he was the greatest of the Queen’s makers. Mr. Scratch put him to death to guard her secrets. They stole and preserved the body. Has Nate ever spoken to a dead man? There’s something else shamans do. He is not a shaman, Nat states. He could be, his alter ego tells him. They are built for one thing only. Using their powers otherwise can take a toll on them. This is what they have to escape. He’s ruined, but Nate can do things he can’t. It’s a matter of tweaking the right neurons in the dead brain, of holding the vocal cords together and letting them vibrate. The trick is to facilitate it, without pumping his own thoughts out of a dead man’s mouth.
Why does he want to do this? a horrified Nate asks. Because it’s what shamans do, the other Nate replies. They risk themselves to create balance. To make things right. He’s not a shaman, Nate again points out calmly. So he heard, the other Nate replies with gentle irony. Mr. Forge had a relationship with Maddie. He thinks that’s why he was killed. Her secrets may still be in his head.
Nate orders him to shut up. He has Forge… The cadaver begins to speak in a shaky voice, asking what they want. One of the Nates informs him that he is dead. Oh, is Mr. Forge’s only reply, before he remembers. Mr. Scratch tore his heart from his chest. It was the triumphal moment of Forge’s life. Scratch stole it from him. It was all so formal, he adds almost nonsensically. Nate orders him to tell them of Queen Maddie. He loved her, Forge replies simply. What else? She did not love him. What else?
(Forge’s narration / flashback):
Forge relates how at the end of the 19th century Queen Maddie ruled an empire that covered all the world. Old and sick on her deathbed, she ordered that her corpse be burned, so that she could rise again from the ashes. Her corpse was burned, but she did not rise. Her end was the end of peace, independence ravaged the globe like a plague. Asia broke free, and parts of Europe and most of the Southern Lands. Political infighting corroded the empire’s foundations. War was all the world knew.
Then the miracle happened. Maddie Pryor did return. A burning angel of justice and vengeance. She led them to take back half the world.
As a queen’s makers he had special tasks. Forge’s story now turns to himself. The Queen had him seek means to see across the Tree of Worlds. For this, he made the Interscope. And when he had charted other worlds, he was ordered to find a means to send a living being along the Tree. And he conceived the Engines of the Gods.
Madelyne visited him one day and he confessed a problem: while he could easily project a man to any point on the tree, there is no way to bring him back. There is a way, Madelyne replies cryptically, but that isn’t his concern. Changing the subject, she remarks that she’d forgotten how handsome he was…
Forge reveals that, from then on, he had the Queen’s confidence. In an unguarded moment, she let slip the truth. She was not Maddie Pryor, but an impostor from another Earth.
Nate begins to buckle under the strain of animating Forge’s corpse. Forge continues that her power was decimated and she was cast off her own world for hideous crimes. Her true name is Jean Grey.
Not even the dead may blaspheme, thunders a voice as the corpse is destroyed by Mr. Scratch. Turning to Nate, he announces that he is tired of chasing him. Perhaps he knows Scratch once intercepted a Canadian heretic’s assassination attempt on the Queen. He plunged knives into Scratch’s brain. He has brain damage. He exists in an unrelenting state of murderous rage. His strength is that of a homicidal maniac. And he no longer understands pity. Her Majesty may have been inclined to have mercy on Nate. He is not.