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The 11th continuation story in "The Best Laid Plans" universe. (rated R for language, violence, sexuality) -- author's note
Alec heard the words, but they seemed to be coming from very far away. Opening his eyes, even admitting to being semi-conscious, was more than he wanted to do. But the words didn't go away and he couldn't ignore them.
"What you did was incredibly bold. I still can't believe you even tried, let alone nearly succeeded. But then that's what I've learned to expect from you ... your kind. Courage. Decisiveness. Self sacrifice."
He felt a hand in his hair, stroking, as if someone was petting him like an animal. The voice was nearer now, the words being whispered in his ear.
"But in the end you failed, and now we have to deal with the consequences."
The hand took hold of his chin, and his head was being gently shaken.
"Come on, big guy. Open your eyes. Your high metabolism should have burned the sedative off by now and I didn't hit you that hard on the head."
"I'm dead," Alec mumbled, jerking away from fingers that were gently caressing the side of his face, lingering a bit too fondly over the light beard stubble. "Go away," he snarled.
"You're not dead." Lips brush his forehead in the tiniest of kisses.
Alec came fully awake in astonishment at the sensation -- and found himself staring directly into Otto's deep brown eyes. The guy was smiling.
"Oh God," Alec groaned, quickly shutting his eyes again. "I'm in hell. With Otto." And I have a horrible headache.
Otto took exception to that conclusion. "You're not in hell," he said, miffed. "You're not dead. You're not even hurt, at least not much. And the polite thing to do would be to thank me for saving your life again."
"Again?" Alec said, peeking cautiously out at Otto with one eye. "Whadaya mean again?"
"Who do you think got Lydecker and his boys to pull you out of White's compound a few months ago?"
Alec remembered Otto giving him water while he was lying in White's cage, and telling him he was wasn't in very good shape to be rescued. Then the helicopter had come.
"You're a double agent," Alec said, a lot of things suddenly making more sense now. "You work for Sandeman."
Otto put a finger to his lips, then looked nervously around the room. "I deactivated the monitoring equipment in here for awhile so we could talk," he said. "But you never know when someone might notice and turn it back on."
"What the hell happened?" Alec asked, feeling more lucid by the minute. Looking around, he saw he was lying on a hospital bed in an otherwise disturbingly empty white room. But his head was on a pillow and there was a blanket covering him -- far better conditions than he ought to have considering he'd just killed the big boss ... Wait a minute--
"White," Alec said. "White's dead, right?"
Otto shook his head, his lips curling in a funny half-frown. "Not so lucky there. He was on life support for awhile, but he's going to recover."
"Shit." Alec thought a moment. "Hey, wait a minute. I should be dead. I--"
"Tried to eat your gun," Otto finished for him. "I know. I was there. Which is why you're still alive ... well, sort of why. The gun misfired. Happens once in ten thousand shots. Then I hit you on the back of the head and you went down -- kept White's guards from shooting you."
Alec gingerly felt the bump just above his bar code, which explained the headache.
"The medics pumped you full of Halidol and you've been out like a light ever since."
"A couple of days." Otto looked nervously up at the dead camera in the corner of the ceiling. "I've got to go now."
Alec reached out and grabbed his arm. "Wait. Why'd you save me? If you work for Sandeman, you can't want White's people to get their hands on Max. With me alive, that's a problem."
"Like I said," Otto replied enigmatically. "You're not supposed to die yet."
Alec's brows drew together. He didn't understand, the confusion showing in his puzzled green eyes.
Otto sighed heavily. "All you can know right now is that you have to be reunited with 452 ... with Max. It's ... written. You're the protector -- her protector.
"So, you're gonna help me escape?" Alec said.
"No. That can't happen now. But I am going to see that Max comes to you."
"So White can kill her?" Now Alec really didn't understand.
"No. So she can kill him. And so the baby can live."
Alec gaped at him.
"Believe me," Otto said. "It's the only way." He turned to leave.
"Hey, Otto," Alec said quickly.
The dark haired man turned around.
"Thanks ... again. And ... Maybe I was hallucinating but ... did you kiss me?"
Otto's only reply was to smile shyly, duck his head, and slip out the door.
She hadn't said a word in more than 24 hours, just sat upright in her bed, staring blankly at the wall.
"We have to tell her," Sandeman said. "Give her hope."
"Sir, she's not of the enclave," Madam Renfro argued. "You can't reveal that information to an outsider. Even I'm not privileged to those records."
"She's one of my children."
"She's a tool. And so's the male. We use them to further the cause, and nothing more. You can't let your sentiments get in the way of the traditions. She's not meant to know, only to obey."
"She's harming herself ... the child," Sandeman said. "Her grief could ruin everything." He turned to Renfro. "And there may be no need for her to grieve, at least not yet." He made up his mind. "Bring her to my chambers ... and Joshua too. His presence brings her comfort, and I want him to know these things as well."
He held up his hand, silencing her. "She doesn't need to know everything. I won't burden her with that now. But she does need to know that 494's role in her life may not be over.
Max looked around Sandeman's quarters with mild interest, her brown eyes flickering a moment with a spark that quickly faded again. Normally, she would have been fascinated. His chambers were really more of a library, with leather bound volumes lining shelves two stories high, the second level accessed by an elaborate wrought iron spiral staircase and catwalk. There was also a fireplace on one wall high enough for a man to stand in, with candles and fascinating knickknacks on the ornately carved mantle. Two wing chairs and a red leather couch were pulled close to the crackling flames. A massive desk anchored another corner of the room, and a huge four-poster canopied bed was visible in a curtained alcove.
The room smelled of ancient paper, leather, wood, and smoke. Dust motes danced in the air, sparkling golden bits illuminated by a ray of late afternoon sunshine coming through the stained glass windows high above.
"Sit down, my child," Sandeman said, patting the couch beside him.
Max glanced at Renfro who had escorted her here, then, with a shrug, complied, curling her bare feet beneath the loose fitting, simple cotton dress she'd been given to wear in this late stage of her pregnancy. Instinctively, her hands rested on her abdomen, holding her child ... Alec's son, taking comfort in his movements.
Joshua was already sitting in one of the chairs, looking quite content, as if he'd been here in that very seat many times before.
Sandeman nodded to Renfro and she left the room, softly closing the door, leaving the three of them alone.
"I want to show you something," Sandeman said.
Max huddled deeper into the couch resting her head on her arm as it lay along the back, wavy shoulder-length dark hair partially obscuring her face.
He walked over to the desk and took a key from his vest pocket. It was attached to a small golden chain looped around a button, as if it were something he carried with him at all times, and was too precious to lose. With that key he opened a bottom drawer. The book he lifted out was quite large, its cracked leather binding so fragile that pieces of it flaked off even though his touch was delicate. He carried the volume over to the low table in front of the couch, then he sat down next to her again. Joshua leaned forward, sniffing, intrigued by both the odor and the ancient Minoan lettering adorning the cover.
"Those are like the runes on my skin," Max said, her voice dull, but that spark of interest back in her eyes.
Sandeman smiled. "Yes, they are. They are indeed." He opened the book and began turning pages. There were runes, but also pictures -- drawings ... etchings ... fantastic creatures that looked to be part man and part animal, some with wings, some with tails, or fangs, or claws ... some with a combination of many things. They were depicted side-by-side with more conventional human images -- men, women, children.
The analogy wasn't lost on Max. She and her kind, the transgenics ... the transhumans, were the living incarnation of those symbols, created in a lab by Sandeman to help the human race.
"You've told me about this already," Max said quietly. "My destiny ... how I'm supposed to stop the world from ending ... how I'm supposed to be the mother of a child who will lead an army against your son and his cult and his big evil plan."
"Ah," Sandeman said, his blue eyes twinkling, "but that's only a part of your future."
"You mean there's more of this shit?" Max said, not caring about her irreverent choice of words. Joshua looked at her sharply, disapprovingly, but kept quiet.
Sandeman sighed. "Look at this," he said, taking out a several photographs that had been kept in the back of the book. "Note the page number." The photos were of a page in the book and he indicated a symbol at the top.
"So?" Max said.
Sandeman flipped to the page, then lay the first photo down beside the text. "What do you see?"
Max studied the runes, and immediately realized they weren't the same, even though the "number" matched.
"It's different," she said. She looked at Sandeman. "From a different book?"
"No," he said. "The book is the same. The only one in existence, and the sacred text of our people for the past ten thousand years."
"This stuff is ten thousand years old?" Max said. "I didn't think there were any written languages that far back."
"Only one," Sandeman said. "And even I can't tell you how this volume has been preserved through so many millennia intact. Although it's believed that originally these pages were scrolls which were at some point bound to better protect them."
"Why are the pages different?" Max asked. "This photo can't be very old."
"The photograph was taken five years ago," Sandeman said. He turned the next picture to her. It was also of the same page, but again the runes had changed. "This one was taken nearly two years ago, in September of 2019." He showed her the third photo then. "And again, in May of 2020." Once more the symbols were different, now matching what she saw in front of her on the actual parchment.
"The page keeps changing?" Max said. "Why? What does it say?"
"It's the story of your life, my child," Sandeman said. "And of your future."
Max stared at him. "What ... does ... it ... say?"
"What do you think it says?"
"That I'm the 'special one,' the hope of mankind, the one who's supposed to fight some big Biblical battle and save the world."
"It says all of that," Joshua chimed in, nodding knowingly. "But it also says more, doesn't it, Father?"
"You're not the only one the page speaks of," Sandeman said carefully.
"Who else?" Max whispered. "Who else is tangled up in this web of yours?"
"For ten thousand years this text was our absolute canon," Sandeman said. "Then, suddenly, a year ago last September, the symbols changed." He looked at her expectantly, shaggy white eyebrows raised.
Max was confused. "I don't understand. What happened in September? What's that got to do with me?"
"Where were you then?" Joshua asked.
"At Manticore," Max said, the very name of the place still distasteful on her tongue. I was recovering from a heart transplant." She looked at Joshua. "That's when I met you." Her eyes went to the text. "Is Joshua mentioned in the scrolls?"
Sandeman's eyes twinkled. "Not on this page. Think again. What happened to you that September."
And then suddenly, like a light going on in her mind, Max knew. "Alec," she breathed. "I met up with Alec."
"Yes," Sandeman said, smiling. "And I must say I find it deliciously ironic that it was my own wicked Madam Renfro who chose the boy as your breeding partner. Who would ever have thought that a woman so warped and evil would be the instrument of bringing you together with your destined partner. Of course, at the time, we didn't even know you were the Special One. Renfro was treating you as she did all of the transgenics, something to be used and discarded, your pairing with 494 based on nothing more than the compatibility of your DNA with his."
"Alec." Max said his name again, softly this time, and Joshua reached over to put a big hand on her shoulder.
"I know it hurts," he said gently.
"But even then we were uncertain about 494's role in the grand scheme of things," Sandeman continued. "For awhile there was another."
"Logan?" she guessed.
Sandeman's hand moved to the original photograph. "Not by name," he said. "But I imagine he must be the one mentioned here -- the false one -- the pretender."
"That symbol ... Logan's symbol ... is still here even now," Max said, pointing to the bottom of the current page.
"I know," Sandeman said. "But that's in the future. We need to concentrate on the now."
He picked up the photograph of the first changed page. "When deciphered, the runes were ambiguous. We knew 494's life was entwined with yours, but whether he would help or hinder you we couldn't be certain." He looked at her. "There was a point in his destiny, a moment in time, when he had to make a choice -- black or white, good or evil, life or death. Believe it or not, there is such a thing as free will in this universe."
"And he made that choice," Max said, remembering the moment vividly, the look in Alec's eyes as he'd held a knife above her and practically sobbed, 'I'm sorry! I don't wanna die!" But then he'd thrust the blade into the dirt beside her head instead of into her throat, and rolled over on his back on the cold hard ground, surrendering, defeated, deciding to give up his own life if living meant taking away hers.
"He couldn't kill me," Max said. "He'd rather die than kill me."
"And that single decision put Alec on his true path," Sandeman said, "although there were still many forks in his road in the months ahead. It wasn't always easy for him. Destiny has a way of making our journeys incredibly difficult at times, offering many temptations along the way and chances to stray into darkness. But somehow 494 managed to stay in your life and in the light." He smiled at her, blue eyes twinkling. "Hanging on by a thread at times I might add thanks to your stubborn, unforgiving nature, until finally you turned away from your own wrong choice and embraced him as your mate."
"Which is when the runes changed for the second time," Max said, understanding completely now. "Last May ... when Alec and I ... when the baby was conceived."
Sandeman nodded. "Solidifying 494's role in the mythology of our time line and universe," he said. "Your acceptance of him into your bed and into your heart earning him the right to be the 'sire' of the race that will hopefully someday defeat my own kind and save the Earth for humanity."
He pointed to a set of symbols on the ancient page. "You see this?" he said.
Max looked closely. "What does it say?"
"It's a number," Sandeman said. "452. You. It's the designation I deliberately gave you at the time of your conception, when I hid the genetic formula for the vaccine within your DNA." He moved his fingertip to another series of runes right beside hers. "And this?" he said.
Sandeman smiled and nodded. "Linked forever, although he -- Alec -- was not of my intentional doing."
She looked over at the photograph of the original page. Sure enough, Alec's number wasn't there, yet here it was before her, as plain as day.
But then she remembered her nightmare. "Why are you showing me all this?" she asked. "Alec's dead. He fulfilled his destiny, fathered--" She touched her belly. "And now he's dead. I felt it when he ... when he gave up."
Sandeman sighed and closed his eyes. Then he opened them, leaned forward, and said, "Use your hidden power, my child. Think about your love for 494 ... for Alec ... and tell me what you feel?"
The one who's power is hidden. Max had been deliberately avoiding doing just that for the past two days -- thinking about Alec -- because whenever she did she felt so devastatingly empty inside.
"Open your mind," the old man said. "Reach out to him, and tell me what your heart might already know."
Max closed her eyes, let her mind drift, remembered ... the feel of Alec's strong muscular arms around her, the taste of his lips and mouth, his musky cattish scent, his rich voice that dropped an octave when he was hard ... or angry ... the warmth of his body on top of her, his throbbing sex inside her, the scalding heat of his semen sticky between her legs ... God, it hurt so bad to remember, and to think of what she'd never have again.
"Why are you making me do this?" she sobbed, tears flowing down her cheeks. "I can feel him so close ..." She reached with her hand, clutching at the air with her fingers.
Sandeman relaxed, the worry in his eyes easing as he looked knowingly at Joshua. "I wasn't certain until now," he whispered.
"Certain of what?" Max sniffled.
"Certain that Alec is still alive," Joshua said.
Well, at least he wasn't being tortured -- yet.
Alec paced the length of the white windowless room for what seemed like the thousandth time, springing up and bouncing off the walls with his bare feet once in a while, dropping to the floor and doing pushups, practicing spin kicks in the air, going through a simple martial arts kata ... anything to relieve the tension and the twitch in his nervous muscles, and to keep himself from chewing his fingernails to the bone. He was worried, and he was scared, but most of all he was bored. Of course sooner or later that would change. White was alive. White would be coming for him.
"Just let me go," Alec pleaded with Otto when the guy brought him a meal and some water. It was the first food he'd had in three days, and the chicken and cornbread tasted like Heaven. "You said yourself you're in charge right now," he said as he chewed. "Just look the other way and I'll be gone."
"I can't," Otto said. "White's people are all round, his people, not mine. They know how badly he wants you and 452. Although I'm technically in charge, they're not going to let you just walk out of here, even on my orders."
"How does that work, anyway?" Alec asked, glancing up to make certain the light on the camera was still dark. "White thinks you're on his special forces team, but you're not a card carrying member of his snake cult?"
"Ames White doesn't know I'm with Sandeman's enclave of the Familiars," Otto said. "I've been undercover for almost six years now, keeping an eye on Ames and his people for his father. And no, White doesn't suspect I know about his faction of the cult."
"Six years," Alec breathed. Wow. Long term undercover mission. He looked at Otto Gottlieb with a little bit more respect. The man noticed his admiring gaze and blushed. Alec quickly averted his eyes. He hadn't meant it in that way. Honestly, this guy is worse than Normal.
Speaking of which ... Alec cleared his throat. "Hey, uh, Otto. How come you're such a big, uh, fan of mine anyway? You don't follow cage fighting by any chance do you?"
"Actually, I caught you in the ring a couple of times," Otto admitted. "The Marvelous Monty Cora."
There was an awkward silence. Alec looked at his plate, concentrating on sopping up the last of the chicken broth with a piece of cornbread.
"Look," Otto said. "About what happened when you woke up."
Alec held up his hand. "Let's not go there, okay?"
"But I need to explain." Otto sighed and looked at his watch. "I've never agreed with White about destroying the transgenics. How could I? I was taught all my life that your kind are magical ... the ones who will save the world. You're part animal, part human, and all miracle -- mythological in your origins, your feats legendary.
"Yeah, that's me," Alec agreed. "A legend in my own mind, or so Max would probably say."
Otto leaned forward, earnest. "From the moment I saw you I knew you were one of the best of all. When you bargained to hunt transgenics down for White in order to save your own life I couldn't believe it. I was really disappointed."
Alec raised one eyebrow. "You weren't the only one," he said. "But I said what I had to say to survive."
"I know. And that's why I didn't lose all hope. Then you didn't kill that X6, and I knew I was right. You left him at the hospital with a bandage on his neck."
Alec remembered. "And White killed the kid anyway," he said softly. "So what? Still my fault."
"But you tried," Otto pressed. "You really tried to do the right thing. And then you never came back and White assumed you were dead, but I knew better. And sure enough you'd managed to survive. More importantly, you'd joined up with 452, and I had a feeling it was all part of some much larger plan falling into place."
"I don't know. Just a feeling, and what Sandeman used to talk about."
"Here we go again," Alec said tiredly, setting aside the very empty plate and resisting the urge to lick up the last of the gravy with his tongue like Joshua. He was still hungry. "More cosmic mumbo jumbo. Speaking of which, what is it with you guys and those snakes anyway?"
"They're a fertility symbol," Otto said.
"Ew," was all Alec could think to say.
"An ancient one. Part of our religion."
"I repeat, ew. And the poison blood?"
"A way of keeping the pathogen contained until it's time to be released on the world."
"Which is what White wants to do, but not Sandeman?" Alec said, finding this other side of the story rather interesting. Of course he'd already heard Sandeman's version.
"And Sandeman had to have Max, and in a very roundabout way me, in order to accomplish this."
"Right," Otto said again. He fidgeted, leaning against the wall since there weren't any chairs, just the hospital bed Alec was sitting cross-legged on. "But like I was saying, you came through in the end. And now you're the sire of what's supposed to become an army. You're like a mythical creature come to life for me, a superhero, a celebrity."
"You're not gonna ask for my autograph are you?" Alec said dryly.
"No," Otto said. "But I am going to ask you to trust me."
"Trust you how?"
"Trust me in that I'm going to let White use you as bait to lure Max here."
"I'll kill myself first, and do a better job of it this time," Alec said quietly.
Otto reached out and put his hand on Alec's forearm. The slight change in his expression told Alec he'd been startled by the heat of his skin, a reminder of his transgenic heritage, his "celebrity."
"I've saved you twice already," Otto said earnestly. "I don't know if I'll be able to do it again. Please. Please don't do anything stupid. You have to stay alive, and Max has to come here. The baby has to be born with a certain ceremony, and only White's people have the secret ritual."
Alec couldn't help it. He started to laugh. "You people are out of your freakin' minds!" he said. "As if Sandeman's gonna let Max come traipsing' to wherever here is to have her baby in front of some snake god!"
Otto wasn't laughing.
Alec wiped a tear from the corner of his eye and caught his breath. "What?" he said. "You're not serious?"
"That's exactly what Sandeman's going to allow to happen," he said. "Even he knows that Ames' High Priestess is the only one who can perform the sacred ritual that will allow the baby to be born to his true destiny."
"White wants the baby dead," Alec said coldly, suddenly not finding this funny any longer, and thinking how he'd been right not to trust Sandeman -- if what Otto was telling him was true.
"No," Otto said. "White wants the baby to be his, to be raised by Familiars, to be part of his cult. The ancient texts say that the baby cannot be killed by our kind ... that he will grow up to destroy us so ordinary humans can be saved. But White thinks he's found a loophole in the text, that if he takes the child and raises it as his own that will somehow avert the prophecy."
"Ames White will never have my son," Alec said.
"The baby might die unless it's born with the proper ritual," Otto insisted.
"Wait and see," Otto said, at last letting go of Alec's arm. "Wait and see if Sandeman doesn't send Max here to you." He glanced one last time up at the camera. "Fe'nos tol," he said softly.
"For our children," Alec translated, as if some kind of ancient racial memory had just kicked in. "For my child."
Otto smiled and nodded. Then he pressed a small packet of tryptophan tablets into Alec's hand and left.
Two hours later they shackled him to a wall and plunged a needle in his neck.
Ames White, seated in a wheelchair dead center in front of Alec, his breathing labored and IV's protruding from his arms, smiled wickedly. "Payback's a bitch, isn't it?" he wheezed, his larynx still irritated from the intubation tube. "Too bad I don't have all day to break you. I'd really like to prolong your ordeal. But time's running short now, and I need your bitch to see you scream."
They'd injected him with an hallucinogen of some kind. Alec could feel the chemical as it seeped behind his eyes ... into his brain.
Did you really think someone as wonderful as Max could love a murderer like you, X5-494?
Alec shook his head. Who had just said that? Not White. He was just sitting there, still smiling. Not the guards ...
Simon Lehane ... Rachel ... others whose names you don't even know ... murderer ... evil ...
Alec was getting frightened. The voice was inside his brain, and it was picking away at his weakest points ... his greatest fears. He shook his head again, and his hair fell in his eyes.
She still loves Logan. She always will. You'll never mean as much to her as he did ... does. When she's with you she's pretending it's him.
"You don't deserve to live," White said, goading the little voice on. "She'll hate you soon."
You deserve to be punished. Punished for the rest of your life. That's why Max and the baby are going to die. Why she hates you now. And it's all your fault.
Alec tried to focus his eyes, bring himself back to reality. It was just the drug talking, probably a LSD derivative, but a strong one if it could affect an X5 so quickly.
"You're not X5-494 any more," Max's voice whispered. "You're Alec."
"I'm both," Alec said out loud, beginning to babble, his breath coming in short gasps as the drug robbed him of coherency and he fought back. "I'm both! I like who I am! I'm proud of what I am! Don't try to separate us, Max!" Max had never been able to understand that he wasn't ashamed of his enhanced genetics like she was of hers, of his perfect body, of himself. He was only ashamed of what he'd been made to do by Manticore. He usually was very much at home in his own skin. Usually ...
Murderer. Butcher. Bad guy. Evil. Logan. Logan. Logan.
A car exploded. Rachel was crying. Max was crying. Rachel's grave became Max's grave and it was all his fault.
"Stop!" he screamed, trying to cover his ears but not able to because his wrists were chained to the wall.
"I hope you're getting all of this on tape," White said to a man beside him holding a video camera.
During the next ten minutes Alec fought the shackles, tearing his wrists bloody, clawing the cement wall until his fingertips were raw. This was worse than LSD. Worse than any drug he'd ever been given, even the stuff Manticore had used when he was being punished.
Max doesn't love you. She never loved you. She wishes you were dead. She wants to be with Logan, but you got in the way. You ruined her life, destroyed her true love. You raped her. You hurt her.
Alec couldn't help it. He started to cry, sobbing, writhing in the chains, trying to escape the thoughts he couldn't control. Was this how Ben had felt? Was he now insane like his brother? Was he going to be like this forever?
You're a screw-up. You mess up everything. You can't do anything right. You deserve to die. I wish your head had exploded.
Why did it have to be Max's voice?
I hate you!
And then, at last, Alec gave White what he wanted. He screamed ... and screamed ... and screamed. But still the voices tormented, and somewhere, far away, there was laughter.
"We can't let her go to him," Renfro said.
"I had hoped to complete my work in time," Sandeman replied. "But the birth is coming too quickly, and without the ritual that baby will never survive."
"Ames will kill her and the child both," Renfro argued. "Then all of our good intentions will be for nothing."
"No," Sandeman replied. "Ames won't kill the baby. He knows that to attempt that would mean his own destruction. But he'll most likely try to kill 452, to wipe out any chance humanity has for surviving the pathogen."
Sandeman shook his head sadly. "His role is uncertain, ever changing. I don't understand how his future keeps in such flux. The Prophecies have literally been rewritten not once, but twice, due to his influence, and who's to say they won't change again. He's unpredictable, a wild card, and all we can do is wait to see if he survives or not ... to see if he can save her and the child."
He looked sadly at Renfro. "I'm afraid 452's locked into her destiny now. Send her to me. I'm going to show her Ames' message, the video, cruel as it is, and let her decide what to do."
Max watched the videotape Ames White had sent in utter silence, the tears in her eyes the only outward indication as to how deeply affected she was by the images on the screen. She watched Alec, chained to a wall and injected with some kind of drug, go from his usual proud, arrogant, cocky self to confused and babbling her name, to terrified, to screaming insanely all in the span of less than 30 minutes. In the final frame he was hanging limply in his shackles, green eyes staring vacantly, his body twitching as if perhaps in the first stages of a seizure. Then Ames White's face appeared in the foreground.
"One more dose of this," he held up a hypodermic syringe filled with liquid, "and what you see is how 494 will be for the rest of his life. Psychotic beyond all help, his mind forever out of reach to you ... to reality. Locked in his own private hell for eternity. It's not a fate I would wish on my worst enemy, but it's one I'll gladly bestow on him as a personal gift to you." The camera pulled back to show Alec again, hanging broken and helpless on the wall. "You have twenty-four hours to get here or this needle goes into your lover again."
And the screen had gone blank.
Sandeman and Renfro were watching her closely, waiting.
Max knew she had to hold it together, for Alec's sake, for the baby's sake, for her own sake. She turned to Sandeman. "Is there any hope?"
"For Alec?" Sandeman said. He looked away. "I don't know, my child. I don't know what Ames injected him with. The damage to his brain chemistry may already be irreversible."
"In which case I'd still need to get to him," Max said quietly. "To end it."
"Like you tried to do for you brother Ben," Renfro chimed in, an unnecessarily cruel barb delivered in keeping with her usual style.
Max didn't flinch. "Yes," she said. "Like I did for Ben." She raised her eyes to Sandeman. "You'd let me go to him?"
Renfro sighed heavily, her disapproval evident, but Sandeman obviously had the final word. "Yes," he said carefully.
"Written in the Prophecies," Max said tiredly. "This is some of the stuff you wouldn't tell me, some of the things you didn't want me to know."
"There was no need to burden you at the time."
Her eyes were tearing again as she reached out and took hold of Sandeman's hand. "Does he die?"
"Does he die because of me?"
Max choked back a sob. Sandeman put an arm around her and hugged her to his shoulder. "And you die because of him," he whispered.
"What?" Max didn't understand.
He set her back and looked deeply into her eyes. "But not today. And not tomorrow. Go to him. He's not far away. There might still be a chance."
And that tiny bit of hope was all that Max needed.
He was so helpless.
She cradled his head in her lap as she sat on the cold cement floor, her feet tucked beneath her, his body stretched out where he'd been thrown into the cell by the guards. At least they were together.
If only he'd open his eyes ... speak her name ... give her some sign that he was still here.
"Alec," Max whispered, brushing the hair out of his eyes and caressing his face with her hand. The rough stubble of his light beard felt strange to her touch. In normal times, when he wasn't a prisoner, he always kept himself clean shaven -- a habit from his military upbringing, she supposed.
His breathing was regular, but the occasional tremor that raced through his tall frame frightened her almost as much as his alternate moments of utter stillness.
A door closed and she looked up, eyes wide, wondering if her time with him was over already. White would never be so humane as to let them stay together. Why she'd even been allowed this much comfort she didn't understand.
Otto Gottlieb, White's assistant, stood on the other side of the bars looking at her.
"Did they do something more to him?" she asked, cradling Alec closer in her arms. "Why won't he wake up? I've done everything you asked. I'm here. And I didn't fight you. Now give him back to me. Even if it's only for a few minutes, give him back to me."
To her surprise, Otto looked truly sad ... sympathetic.
"The drug's out of his system," Otto said. "His metabolism burned it off hours ago. Now, it's up to Alec to find his way back to you."
"What do you mean?" Max said. "Why wouldn't he want to wake up?"
"He's been in hell I imagine," Otto said in a low voice. "He may have given up, in which case he'll hide forever in his own mind. I've seen it happen before, when that drug was used. Some come out of it just fine. Others ... they're gone forever, unable to face rejoining the world."
Another tremor wracked Alec's body and Max's fear intensified. Otto noticed too, and his expression grew grim.
"That," he said, "isn't supposed to be happening. That's something else. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small plastic bag containing pills. "I gave him some of this yesterday, but I don't know how depleted his body is. If you can get him to swallow, get it in him." He tossed the little bag into the cell.
"Tryptophan?" Max said.
"Why are you helping him?"
"Because, no matter what he thinks himself, he really doesn't deserve to die."
"Max?" Her name was a whimper on his lips.
"Alec? Alec? I'm here."
Oh, God, no. Please no. Please let it be part of the nightmare.
"Alec. Come on. Wake up."
A cool hand on his cheek, and her breath warm and sweet on his face. Then he felt her lips on his.
"Max," he whimpered again. "No. Please don't hate me. Please don't. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
"Shhh. I don't hate you, Alec. I love you. I love you so much. Come on. Fight this bitch! Come back to me!"
And then finally, he opened his eyes, focused on her face ... and began to cry.
"You're not supposed to be here," he said, choking on the tears as they ran down the back of his throat. He sniffed loudly. "Oh, God, Max. I'm sorry. It's my fault. I didn't fight 'em hard enough. And now they've got you." He clawed at her hand, his bleary, bloodshot eyes begging for forgiveness.
"Alec!" she said sharply. "Snap out of it! Remember who you are. Remember what you are. Don't let White win. Don't break. It's just the drugs in you." She grabbed him to her, pressed him against her bulging belly and placed his hand on her abdomen. "Feel that, soldier," she whispered fiercely. "Feel your son!"
He did feel the baby, the strong kicks as the child tumbled and rolled inside his mate.
"Your son needs you," Max said low in his ear. "I need you. Strong. Smart. Alive. It's the only way you can save us." And then she said the most damning, yet truthful thing of all. "We need X5-494."
One day later Alec sat with his back against the cement wall, spooning the last of the beef stew off the plate balanced in his lap. A good night's sleep with Max in his arms -- even though they'd lain on a cold cement floor -- had done wonders for his outlook on life. Either that or the drug had finally completely worn off. Whatever, he felt much better now that the nasty little voices in his head had finally quit yapping, even their faint whispers dying away until it all just seemed like a bad dream.
Wryly, he assessed his current state of dress and wriggled his bare toes. "Any chance of gettin' some shoes around here?" he asked. He was still wearing a light grey t-shirt, a pair of hospital scrub pants and absolutely nothing else. Max in her loose maternity dress and running shoes wasn't in much better shape sartorially. But at least she had footwear.
Otto, standing on the other side of the bars, shrugged. "Sorry. I'd give you mine but I'm only a size eight."
"Ten," Alec said with a sigh, enviously eying the other man's Nikes.
Max listened to the exchange between the two men warily, her own meal left almost untouched on her plate.
Alec noticed. "You feel all right?" he asked. "All things considering?"
"I'm just not hungry," Max said, still looking at Otto. "How come you two are so chummy?"
There was a moment of awkward silence. "Long story," Alec said, sensing that Otto wasn't ready to reveal his status to Max. "I'll tell ya when we're home."
"Home," Max said softly. "What home? The one you're going to buy with twenty million dollars?"
"The home I'm gonna give you," Alec replied, not surprised she'd found out about the money. "You and our son." He saw the questions in her eyes and held up his hand. "We'll talk about that later," he said softly, stressing the words empathetically, silently willing her to drop it for now. He really was feeling better, his head clear, and his strength returning by the minute -- his enhanced warrior genes kicking into gear. The food and water Otto had provided hadn't hurt either. But he honestly didn't feel like arguing the ethics of selling their DNA database to the highest bidder with Max at the moment.
Max, conceding for now, was watching him, a little smile on her face. "It was the kiss, wasn't it?" she said.
"What?" Alec said, swallowing the last of his vegetables.
"I kissed you and you woke up, like in the fairy tales."
"Yeah," Alec said slowly, glancing up at Otto. "A kiss does seem to work wonders on me."
Alec couldn't help it. He winked at the guy. This was so much like teasing Normal.
"The tryptophan," Otto muttered.
"What?" Max said. Then she remembered and took the bag out of the pocket of her dress. "Here," she said, handing it to Alec.
Again he shot a grateful look at Otto. "We'll split it," he said to Max, counting the little brown pills out in his hand. He watched while she swallowed them with water, then downed his own dose.
"What happens next?" Alec asked after he'd finished the pills. "When can we get outta here?"
Otto looked back at the door, making certain no one was approaching. Then he knelt down beside the bars so he could lower his voice, and gestured for Alec to come closer.
"I'm not supposed to know about the ceremony," Otto said. "But the High Priestess is already here and they're preparing the main chamber."
"Preparing for what?"
"Oh great, another ritual. I bet you guys even have some sort of ceremony for goin' to the can."
Otto looked a bit offended.
"Sorry," Alec said. "I know, it's your religion. But I mean really ... next you're gonna tell me there has to be a human sacrifice."
Otto just looked at him.
"You're kidding me. No. Let me guess. Not a human sacrifice. A transgenic sacrifice."
"Haven't you wondered why White didn't just come down here and empty a clip into you once she arrived?" Otto said, nodding at Max.
"The thought occurred," Alec admitted. He looked at his mate. "Why do I always get to play such interesting roles in your life, Max?" He counted off on his fingers. "First I was sort of your enemy, then your partner in crime, your friend, your pretend boy toy, your real boy toy, the father of your child, your supposed protector, and I can't even count how many times I've been shot or tortured because of you. Now this. They wanna sacrifice me to their holy snake God. Gimme a break!"
"White thinks that your death at the moment of your son's birth will strengthen his ability to control the child," Otto said, ignoring Alec's little diatribe. "He wants to keep the baby and raise it as his own, so the Familiars won't be defeated in the future by a race of transgenics."
"White's a loon," Alec said evenly. He glanced over at Max who was now looking quite pale. "And I'm gonna make him really, really dead next time."
"You can't kill him," Otto said. "Only she can." He looked at Max again. "And don't be so quick to mock our Prophecies. Why do you think that gun misfired when you tried to kill yourself? Why do you think you aren't dead already? You should be ... a few times over I might add."
"Maybe because I'm a superhero?" Alec quipped, grinning. Then his green eyes narrowed and his voice deepened. "Or maybe because I'm a supersoldier."
"Exactly," Otto said. "And somehow, no matter what White believes, I don't think your destiny is to end up lying on a rock slab in a ceremonial chamber with his blade buried in your transgenic heart."
Alec looked over at Max from where he'd been standing beside the cell bars, keeping watch since Otto had left. He didn't know if it was the aftereffect of the drug wearing off, the food, or Otto's fervent little pep talk, but he hadn't felt this alert and alive in a long time. Nothing hurt ... well, at least not much, and his mind seemed to be almost super clear, as if he could hear things beyond "hearing." If only he had shoes ...
Max's face was contorted in pain. He knew what was happening even before he fell to his knees at her side ... before he saw the spreading wetness on the floor beneath her.
"I'm thinking I should have taken Lamaze," Max said, trying to smile through the contraction.
"How long have you been in labor?" he asked, glancing back over his shoulder at the now activated camera in the corner of the cell.
"Ever since this morning."
"Hours ago," Alec breathed, suddenly realizing they were almost out of time. A door opened at the end of the corridor outside the cell. The High Priestess, in all her regalia and blue face paint stood framed in the opening. Behind her hovered at least half a dozen similarly garbed Familiars.
"Ames is waiting for his son," she said, her cold dark eyes boring straight into his. "You have a choice, 494. You can either come willingly and meet your fate with courage, or you can be tranquilized like the animal you are and dragged ignominiously to your death."
"What about Max?" Alec said, still crouched protectively beside her in the corner.
"She won't survive the birth. Neither of you will."
"Is that what your Prophecies say?" Alec countered, not flinching from her laser-like gaze.
She didn't answer, merely motioned to her guards.
Alec bared his teeth in a silent snarl of warning, then stood gracefully, scooping Max up in his arms as he rose. Don't touch her.
Nodding at his acquiescence, the priestess stood out of his way, letting him precede her into the corridor.
Prophecies and mystical mumbo jumbo aside, Alec knew that it was time to finish this once and for all. The only way out of this nightmare for him, for Max, and for their son, was through -- through White ... through the Prophecies ... through Hell.
What luck that he'd been there before and knew the way.