In the Shadows
Alec sat on the edge of his bed and stared fixedly out one of his many bedroom windows, watching the sunrise. Some part of his mind noted that the sky was lightening and faint streaks of red and orange were coloring the horizon, but the sum total only translated into one thing.
Manticore had taught him that dawn was the time for missions to begin or to end, nothing more and nothing less, but this morning he was struggling to find that mental shield his upbringing should have provided. He didn't want to wallow in the potential of a new day and a fresh start; those concepts were meant for people with normal lives and futures, not for transgenics. Especially not for transgenics like him.
He had now spent... he took a quick glance at the clock on the nightstand... 86 hours and about 15 minutes with his daughter. Eighty-seven hours if he counted the half-hour he spent with her in the Manticore nursery. 87 hours out of the nearly eighteen months that she'd been alive.
Was the shortness of time supposed to make it easier, Alec wondered as he watched the sky without really seeing anything but his own dark thoughts. It seemed like it should; after all, how could he really be attached to someone he'd spent less than a week with? Someone who could barely talk, who still required periodic carrying despite genetically enhanced muscles, who needed to be monitored pretty much all of her waking hours for her own safety?
Eighty-seven hours and counting, but not counting for much longer. He was supposed to be meeting Logan and his contacts, his daughter's "new parents," at ten for the next part of Logan's sting. Hopefully the meeting would be interrupted by kicking White's inbred ass at around 10:15, and then it would be back to Terminal City for lunch.
And then, at 2 o'clock, the real surrender of his daughter to strangers was scheduled.
Logan said they were nice people, friends of his from college. They'd been married for almost 7 years, worked out of their home and already had a 4-year-old son whom they'd adopted as an infant. They were ready, willing, and as far as could be known, able to take on the task of raising a transgenic daughter.
And without ever having met them, and in full knowledge of how lucky he was to find them, Alec hated them.
Logan heard the pounding, and thought it was part of his dream.
In the dream he'd been sitting between his parents in a darkened theater, and from the way he was squirming to see around the head of the man sitting in front of him, he was still just a boy. He couldn't tell what was happening on the stage very well, thanks both to the man in front of him and the general haziness of dreams, but he recognized the music. He'd heard that music before, or rather later, but he couldn't quite catch the melody. Just a few more notes and he would...
Then the pounding began, and suddenly the stage was filled with clog dancers. Very noisy, very angry clog dancers who began hurling their shoes at him because he refused to tell them the name of the song they were dancing to. He tried to duck behind his father, but the dancers' aim was almost uncanny. Logan was deeply grateful when the pounding intruded deeply enough into his brain to register as a knock on his door and he was forced to wake up and stumble downstairs to deal with his unexpected visitor instead of flying clogs. And when he pulled open the door, he was even more grateful... if more confused.
"Max?" Logan squinted and peered at her, and when the view didn't change he reached up to rub the sleep from his eyes in hopes of clarifying the situation. Too late he remembered the glasses perched crookedly on his nose. The pain of the nosepieces suddenly digging into the corners of his eyes made him wince, but it effectively chased the last of the fog from his brain. "What are you doing here so early?" he asked, stepping back to let her come in the house.
He wasn't sure whether it was the hour of her visit that surprised him, or the fact that she had bothered to knock. Transgenics, in his experience, were the enter-first-and-ask-permission later type. Something to do with all the 'go forth and conquer' genes so carefully implanted in them, he supposed.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled as she slid past him in the doorway and made her way to the living room. "I didn't mean to wake you up or anything... I guess I just forgot normal people sleep in sometimes."
He gazed doubtfully at the scarlet streaks in the sky as he closed the front door. "Sleep in? Max, it's like 5 am."
She turned on her heel and looked back at him, surprise written clearly on her face. "Yeah, it's late."
With a sigh, he gave in. There were some parts of Manticore too deeply ingrained to fight.
"Okay, so what brings you here this late in the day?" Logan asked as he gestured for her to take a seat on the couch. "Wait, no, can it wait until after I get just a little caffeine in my system? I do much better when my blood stream isn't completely blood."
"I'd offer to make it for you, but..." she shrugged and turned up her hands, "I'd probably poison it."
He knew she was referring to the virus, and he also knew she was probably right, but the anger he felt at her words surprised him. They'd been dealing, and sometimes not dealing, with the retrovirus for months now and most of the time he could keep his feelings about it locked away in a small corner of his heart where they couldn't wound Max or himself. But lately too many things beyond the virus seemed to be slipping between them, and it was taking a lot more effort than usual these days to keep hold of his temper.
Still, for Max he would continue to make the effort, through gritted teeth if necessary.
"Oh I don't think your coffee is that bad," he drawled, not meeting her eyes. "Or are you packing arsenic?"
She made a face at him, but accepted his deliberate misunderstanding without question. They already had enough to deal with on this particular morning; there was no point in making an issue out of something that couldn't be helped.
"Why don't you go make your coffee and I'll watch?" she suggested. "I seem to be doing a lot of that these days. I'm probably gonna be really good at it before this is all over."
Logan led the way into the kitchen and then busied himself at the counter while Max paced back and forth by the back door. It was almost a repeat of the morning 49614 had come into their lives, but Max was all too aware this was the day she was scheduled to leave it. It was all Max had been able to think about since Logan laid out his plan two days before, and it was what had drawn her to Logan's door hours before she was supposed to be there.
"Logan," Max said as her steps slowed to a stop, "I want to meet them. Now, before everything goes down."
He was grateful his back was to her when she spoke; Max's pain was his pain and he wasn't sure if he could have kept if from flooding back at her if she could see the look on his face.
"Meet them," he repeated as he stalled for time. "And what 'them' are we talking about? I know a lot of 'them', you know. I'm a popular guy."
This time she wasn't letting him get away with sidestepping the problem. "The people you're giving her to... your friends. I want to meet them first. Talk to them. Explain... stuff."
He took a tight grip on his emotions and turned around to face her. "Don't you think that's Alec's job?" he asked softly.
She met his eyes for an instant, and then her gaze slid away. Her dark eyes focused on the back yard, unwillingly noticing how silent and strangely empty it was today.
"He can't," she said finally. That had to be the answer; she had no other explanation for this strange lapse in his overall hands-on approach to parenting. "The only way he's gonna be able to go through with this is if he does it all at once and never looks back." Max made herself look at Logan, the hurt in her eyes almost blinding him. "Except he won't be able to help looking back, and when he does I want to be able to tell him something about them. I want him to know they understand as much as regular people can what it means to grow up transgenic, and that she'll be okay with them."
Logan pulled out a chair and sat down in a daze, leaving the coffee he'd thought so essential just a few minutes ago cooling on the countertop.
"Max, they're good people."
"I've known them for years."
He felt like he was talking to her through a soundproof wall. No matter how much he exaggerated his words, or pounded on the barrier between them, he couldn't communicate with her. "They know she's transgenic, and I've explained to them what that means."
"But you don't..." Max started to protest, and then stopped to figure out how to say what she needed to without hurting the man she loved. "Logan, you know what they're going to see but you don't know how it feels. And neither will they. But if I talk to them, explain what it's like, then maybe it'll be like..." she shrugged helplessly, "it'll be like seeing what you see instead of hearing what you see."
He rubbed his fingers into the tight, aching spot that had suddenly developed at the base of his skull. Max might think that they were just discussing her attitude towards Alec's daughter, but Logan could sense that this conflict was really just the latest eruption of a deeper problem. He just wasn't sure if he could make her understand, or if she really wanted to.
"Max," he said slowly, "I know you want to help. And I think that's great," he hastened to add, hoping he'd covered himself before she took his comment as a dismissal. "I know there are things they're not going to be familiar with, like the whole heat cycle business, and you can help them help her with it when the time comes. But for most of it..." Logan hesitated. "She's not you, Max. She's a transgenic, but for her it's going to be an almost entirely different experience than it's been for you."
"Being raised out on some farm by humans isn't going to change who she is, Logan," she snapped.
"It really will," he corrected her gently. "Look, I'm just a garden variety human. Plenty of looks and charm, of course," he smiled to make sure she knew he was teasing, "but no superpowers. You could say the same for Sketchy, though, and Normal."
Max let out a derisive hoot. "Normal? Looks and charm?"
"So maybe I am one or two up on him," Logan admitted. "But that's what I'm talking about. Being human, ordinary human, isn't that great of a common denominator when you compare it to the experiences we have had and how they've shaped us. The same thing can be said for transgenics; I mean, do you really see that much similarity between Alec and, say, Zack?"
"Oh please," she responded with a snort. "Like Alec would have ever shot himself in the head to save my life." And like Zack would have ever spent a year of his life tracking down a child just to make sure she was okay, Max's mind continued unwillingly. She loved Zack, but she knew his idea of leadership wouldn't permit him to put the welfare of any one child, even his own, over the group as a whole. If 49614 had been his daughter, she would have stayed lost.
"But they're both transgenics," Logan pointed out, breaking into her thoughts at a welcome juncture. "If you want to look even closer, think of Alec and Ben."
"Ben was... sick," she mumbled. "You can't compare him to anybody; it's not fair."
'Fair' was not a word Logan would have applied to any part of the current situation, but now was not the time to veer off on that technicality. "Fine, so what about you and Brin? You were both in the same unit at Manticore, you had the same experiences there, and then you both escaped." He paused for just a moment to let the first part of his argument sink in before he continued. "But you still didn't have the same life on the outside. And you're not the same people now."
She recovered her equilibrium and shot back, "Damn straight we're not."
"No, you're not. The experiences you had shaped you into different people, just as Alec's little girl will have experiences you never had and maybe never even dreamed of. A lot of what you know about being a transgenic she'll never know, and vice versa."
"That... that doesn't matter," she insisted stubbornly. "She's going to be different from everyone around her, and I just want them to understand how it's going to make her feel. How she might react."
"But you don't know how she might react." Logan was determined to hold fast to his position; there was more at stake here than Max seemed willing to admit. He had to make her understand, however long it took to get her there. "Look, this has been coming on for a while now."
She frowned at him. "What has?"
He took a quick look at his wrist, and then another at the clock on the wall when he realized his watch was still upstairs on the nightstand. He had guessed correctly about the time; it was only about quarter after five, leaving several empty hours until the first act of this little drama was scheduled to begin. Time enough, he decided, to set straight some things in his own life.
"You know what? I'm hungry," he suddenly announced, getting to his feet.
"Logan..." she began.
He didn't let her finish. "Come to breakfast with me," he said instead, smiling down at her. "There's a great 24-hour diner... well, okay, there's a pretty good 24-hour diner not far from here. I can't imagine they'd be all that busy at this hour, so we can talk in peace while we eat."
"Logan, I want to meet them," Max insisted. "Feeding me isn't going to change my mind."
He had hoped to charm her into the idea, but he should have known smiles and soft words wouldn't wear down her determination.
"Max, you can't meet them," he said flatly. "They live a couple of hours away, remember? We don't have time to get there and back before White and his storm troopers show up."
"I thought they were coming in yesterday," she said slowly. "That's what Alec said you told him."
"Plans change," he said, lifting his shoulders in a quick, and hopefully casual, shrug. "Now they're going to do the roundtrip in one day. I'm sorry; I didn't know it was going to be a problem for you."
Max knew when Logan was keeping something from her. She wasn't sure if it was a special sense she had of him, or he was just really bad at playing it cool, but she could always tell when there were things he was leaving unsaid. The sensation right now was overwhelming, and made all the more uncomfortable by the deep certainty that what he was going to share she didn't want to hear.
"Maybe if you call them, they could start out earlier." She didn't wait to see his reaction to her suggestion; he might sense a trap lay ahead if he caught a good look in her eyes. "And then we'd still have time to talk before... well, before."
"Are you sure you want to do this? Are you sure you can do this?"
"I have to," she said softly. "I don't want him to do this; I still think it's the wrong thing for both of them. But if he's really going to go through with it..." her voice trailed off as she forced herself to imagine the unimaginable. "He's my friend. I have to make sure he can live with this."
"Alec, open up. I need to talk to you."
Brin's voice was soft but urgent, as was her knock on the apartment door. She didn't want to scare the child inside, any more than she wanted to scare the child's father, but time was running short.
It took a lot to sap the strength of an X5; they were designed to withstand grueling physical conditions without even breaking a sweat. But the Alec who opened the door was not the same man Brin had come to know better than she'd ever intended in the past month. That man always had a quick, easy smile, even if it didn't necessarily reach his eyes, and a breezy self-confidence that events might or might not justify. He was all about presentation and making others feel the considerable force of his presence, and he was good at both.
This Alec smiled at her but it was a visibly strained expression of welcome, which matched his general air of weariness. His clothes were clean but they had deep-set creases in them, as though he had maintained the same position for a very long time; this impression went oddly with the lingering dampness visible in the strands of his dark gold hair. It was almost as though he had showered and dressed, and then lost interest in, or the energy for, doing anything else.
"Are you okay?" she asked without thinking as she slipped past him into the apartment. "You look like hell."
"Who, me?" He flashed a half-wattage version of his usual smile as he pressed a hand to his chest in mock astonishment. "I'm aces. Never better." Alec leaned against the doorjamb and crossed his arms over his chest. "Why?"
Brin suddenly hated his smile, and the lazy, casual way he was standing. Alec was raising a wall between them without giving her a chance to object, and after all the soul-baring she had done with him in the past few weeks she felt she deserved better than that.
"What part of 'you look like hell' is confusing you?" she snapped, not bothering to match his quiet tone. She didn't realize just how loud her response had been until she saw Alec press his index finger to his lips as he cast an anxious look at his daughter's closed bedroom door.
"Do you mind?" he hissed.
"Yeah, I pretty much do," she retorted, though she took care to lower her voice this time. "I mind a lot of the stuff that's been going on the past few days, but mostly I mind being treated like I don't have two eyes. Or a brain. Don't play games with me, Alec."
Alec tore his eyes away from the closed door, although when he saw the stiff line of Brin's body and the set to her jaw he wanted very much to pretend that he'd heard something in his little girl's room that required his immediate attention. Unfortunately, since Brin's hearing was every bit as good as his, it wasn't worth the additional fuel it would add to the fire.
"So when did you start channeling your little sister?" he asked slowly, searching for a better way out. "I mean I kind of expect this sort of lecture from Max by now, but I thought we had something a little... friendlier going on."
She blushed at the memory of the night he'd kissed her... or she'd kissed him... she still wasn't sure who moved first. They hadn't spoken of that night, or that kiss, since then, which only made the memory more powerful.
And Alec knew that, damn him, she fumed. He knew it and he was using it to avoid her.
"We are friends, Alec," she answered, controlling her temper with no small difficulty. "That's why I came here this morning, and that's why I'm still here even though you're doing your damnedest to make me regret it."
Abruptly Alec gave up trying to make Brin leave him alone; it wasn't worth the effort. He strolled over to the sofa and carefully seated himself, focusing on the feel of the pillow behind his back and the fabric beneath his hand. Focusing on anything but the thoughts circling like vultures in his head.
"Sorry, Brin, I'm just not looking for company this morning. I have some things to do before we all head over to Logan's and I need to do them alone."
She hurried over and sat beside him on the sofa, gently resting one hand on his shoulder as she turned on the cushion to face his profile. She tried not to notice him stiffen at her touch, but it took an effort.
"There's no time, Alec," she said urgently. "We need to go to Logan's now; we can't wait for whatever it is you think you have to do." She saw his lips start to part, but before he could contradict her, she hurried on. "I'm sorry; I'm really not deliberately trying to antagonize you. But that stuff you think you need to do is just to make yourself not think about what really needs to be done, if," she drew a deep breath, "you still want to go ahead with this."
He was absolutely, perfectly still for a split-second; just long enough for her to regret the day she learned how to talk.
"Don't go there, Brin," he said at last. "Not today."
She quickly pulled her hand away from his shoulder and dropped it in her lap, twisting the fingers of both hands together to keep from reaching out to him again.
"All I'm saying is that there are things we need to do... we," she stressed the pronoun again, "need to take care of if everything is going to work out as planned. And we need to be doing them now instead of you sitting around blaming yourself for not being who you think she needs."
"Is there any way I can get rid of you, short of throwing you through the door?" he asked in a bland, conversational tone. "Not that I'm gonna need the door after today..."
"Come with me," she answered, getting to her feet. "We all have that little kink in our hardwiring, Alec. If you obey our orders, we shut up."
He still didn't get up, but at least he was looking at her now, and something close to life was showing in the depths of his hazel eyes.
"So what's the order? Beyond going with you, I mean."
"We're going to Logan's," she said quickly. Too quickly, she realized an instant later when his gaze slid away from her again.
"We don't need to be there for a few hours," he said abruptly.
He could feel her eyes on him, could feel her pity washing over him, and he couldn't stand it. He tried to avoid her knowing glance, letting his eyes skip around the room until his attention was caught once more by the morning sky outside the living room window. The red was fading from the horizon, and the sun was beginning to climb and burn away the stray clouds. It was going to be a nice day; wasn't that just a kick in the teeth?
"We need to go now," Brin insisted. "I already sent Joshua to find Max, and Mole is out stealing a car. We'll be good to go in ten minutes, tops."
"That's not the plan."
"Exactly." She sat down next to him again, since it was now apparent more convincing would be required. "But the plan is also what we spoon-fed White, so I think maybe it would be a good idea if we went for Door Number 2."
"So we get there a few hours early; what difference does that make?"
"I don't know," she admitted. "I just know if we planned on meeting at 9, and we let White think we're meeting at 10, then we probably should be meeting at 6." She leaned forward again, but this time she made sure she didn't touch him. He was still so distant, and any contact would only make him retreat further. "White will be there hours early; you know that as well as I do. He'll want to get all his men in place before we ever show, so we need to get into place before he ever shows."
She had his attention at last; Alec turned slowly to face her.
"And don't you think he'll get just a little suspicious if he sees us hiding our guys as he's hiding his guys? If we don't make the grand entrance Logan has planned?" He shook his head, though not without regret. The idea of doing something... anything... to escape his thoughts for a little while was like the answer to a prayer. Except... "If White smells a trap he'll melt away before we even get a bead on him and then she'll never be safe."
This was the hard part; this was the part they had all been trying to make him see, but the one truth he refused to face.
"She's never going to be completely safe, Alec. None of us is. And nothing any of us do today is going to change that. But if we let White set the tempo then we're going to be as far away from safe as we can get."
His answer, the brilliant one he hadn't thought of yet, was forestalled by the sudden presence of a small figure in the doorway of the smaller bedroom.
"Daddy?" 49614 asked softly, glancing uncertainly from her father to Brin. "We go now?"
He hadn't told her yet about Logan's friends, the ones who were planning on taking her away from him this very afternoon. He had started to a hundred times, but something always stopped him, some inner voice that told him it would be easier on both of them if he waited until he was out of time and options. He knew she sensed something was wrong though, so it really came as no surprise that she was already dressed and ready to leave.
If only he were as ready as she.
"Yup," he gave in with a sigh. "We're going now, monkey. Assuming Mole has managed to... borrow... a car that will fit all of us. And assuming Max doesn't mind a certain somebody overriding Logan's plans."
"Which is assuming a lot," Brin allowed with her first small smile of the day. "That's why I sent Joshua to tell her. Making Max change her mind requires a lot more subtlety than I can come up with at zero dark thirty."
"Slacker," Alec chided her with a tiny smile of his own. But she noticed he did not disagree.
Logan waved away another refill on his coffee, and waited until their waitress was out of earshot before he tried to return to the conversation he'd begun back at Joshua's house.
"Max, I know you want to help Alec, even though you don't agree with what he's decided. And that's admirable. But I think..." he paused and tried to capture the right words, "I think you need to figure out why you think he's wrong, beyond the whole 'blood' thing."
She looked at him strangely over her half-eaten plate of scrambled eggs. "What else is there? He's her father, she's his kid and they should be together."
"Agreed," Logan said hastily. "But I think there's something more at work here, something that's been coming along for a while... maybe before you even met Alec."
"If you mean I think families belong together, then yeah; I've had that idea tumbling around in my head since I was a kid."
"No, I mean... it's not just because they're related, is it? I mean blood is important, but isn't it a little more about the fact that they're both transgenics? Both Manticore?"
She sensed a trap, but she couldn't see it yet. Still, knowing it must be out there somewhere made her choose her words with unusual deliberation.
"I told you that before; I've told Alec that before. She's going to be different from other kids; she'll need help to fit in."
Logan took a quick swig of his coffee for courage. "To fit in?" he echoed Max. "Fit in with whom, Max? Do you really want her to integrate into human society, or do you want her to be a part of Terminal City? Because I think it's the second one, and I think," he sighed, "that's the problem."
"Excuse me?" She hadn't been sure what to expect from Logan, but this wasn't even close to what she might have guessed. "So because I think that Alec ought to keep the child he fathered, suddenly Terminal City is a bad idea? How the hell does that track?"
"I'm not saying Terminal City is a bad idea. I'm saying it's not the answer, as in the one and only answer to all of her problems, or yours."
"Tell me something I don't know," she replied with a scowl, thinking of the hundred and one administrative problems that faced her on a daily basis.
"I think I am," Logan admitted quietly. "I don't know when it all started; if it was the virus, or Asha, or when you were captured or... maybe it all goes back to when Zack came to you for help to get Tinga out... I just don't know. But at some point you gave up on the part of you that wanted to belong to this world, and you started to create your own world. One where transgenics were the norm and the rest of us were the..."
"Freaks?" she asked bitterly. "Is that the word you're searching for, Logan?"
"Maybe. At least that's how you think we... humans... think of you and yours. And now that you're building your own community of transgenics, that's how you're starting to see me and mine."
"Do you blame me? After all you've seen the last few months... years? The siege, White, Renfro, Lydecker?"
He leaned across the table, instinctively reaching for her hand. For one frozen instant she watched him try to bridge the gap between them before she yanked her hand back into her lap in horror.
"The virus?" she demanded, more as an accusation than a question. "Who does that make the freak, Logan? The one whose body can be made into a weapon, or the one who made her that way?"
"It's not a contest, Max," he said desperately. He forced his hands to grip his coffee mug, holding on as tight as he could to keep from trying to touch her again. "It's not supposed to be us against them or," he swallowed hard, "you against us. I thought the idea of Terminal City was to provide shelter for transgenics until we could all figure out how to live together, not provide an alternative to ever figuring that out."
"You don't understand." She bit her lip in frustration. "It's not safe out there for them, not yet."
He pressed on, making himself disregard the hurt look in her dark eyes. "And when will it be? How will it be, if you keep on seeing transgenics as some sort of separate species from the rest of us? You're proving White's point for him, for God's sake."
"I'm trying to keep them alive," she retorted in a low angry voice. "And if you think that makes me some sort of a bigot, then that's your problem, not mine."
Logan closed his eyes and tried to figure out how he'd screwed up so badly. He wanted to reach Max; no, he needed to reach her. But the ideas he knew were right were all coming out in words he knew were wrong. Somehow, some way, there had to be a right path and he had to find it. Otherwise, nothing else would matter.
"My problem," he said slowly as he opened his eyes, "is that you don't really want to let any of this be my problem. You want my help, but you don't want to want my help. And that," he clenched his fingers so tightly the ceramic handle of the cup fractured in his hands, "that kills me, Max. I love you. Virus or no virus, I want to find a way to share my life with you. But you... what do you want, Max? I'm almost afraid to ask anymore."
"I want..." she looked frantically out the window of the diner, searching the dingy street for a name to give to the wordless yearnings that kept her up at night. "I want to go to bed without wondering how I'm going to feed 300 people the next morning. I want to sleep without keeping one eye open for those storm troopers you were talking about swarming over the fence, or Familiars oozing up through the drains. I want to wake up and know that the worst thing I'm going to have to deal with all day is Normal chewing my ass for being late to work." She made herself look at Logan, knowing she owed it to him to look him in the eye when she answered the question he was really asking. "I want to know that the people I love are safe, from anybody who wants to hurt them... and from me, who doesn't want to hurt them but sometimes can't help it."
"Then don't push us away." The pleading in his simple words came through as much in the intensity of his blue eyes as the tone of his quiet voice. "Everything you want for yourself, Max, I want for you too. And I think the key to getting it is to start thinking of Terminal City as an address and not a hiding place." He hesitated over his next words; he didn't want to give her what could turn out to be false hope. But in the end he had to say it, because evading was one thing but he couldn't flat-out lie to her. "Maybe if you can do that, and you can make the others see it too, Alec won't feel like he has to give his daughter away to give her a normal life."
"That's not fair!" The words burst out in a tone much louder than she intended. But she couldn't believe her ears; she couldn't believe Logan would blame Alec's choice on her. "I begged him to keep her. I told him over and over that he could give her everything she needs."
He nodded sadly. "What she needs as a transgenic. That's not what he wants for her, Max, any more than that's what you wanted for yourself once upon a time. You wanted to be yourself, but not be set apart because of it. Somewhere along the way you lost the second part of that dream, and until you find it..." he pried his fingers loose from the remains of the ruined cup and spread his arms wide as he shrugged his shoulders, "you're lost. And she's lost."
"And I'm lost," he finished quietly. "Is that how you want it all to end?"
With the need for stealth paramount, Alec didn't even consider leading them through the front door of Logan's house, much less indulging Logan's request for a warning knock before entering. Instead they parked around the corner and slipped in through the back lots, an odd parade of obvious and not-so-obvious transgenics, led by Alec and 49614.
Once inside the house, Alec called out softly to Logan, but received no reply. After another unsuccessful attempt, he left his daughter in Joshua's care and searched the upstairs, reasoning that human hearing might require either greater volume or proximity to pull a man from the depths of sleep. Whether his theory was true or not he was unable to determine, since he quickly found that there were no humans in the house to waken.
He walked slowly down the stairs, lost in thought, to find only Brin waiting for him in the living room.
"They're in the kitchen," she answered, saving him the trouble of finishing a question she already knew he would ask. "Mole is scouting the perimeter, finding new positions for us besides the ones we already decided on. He figured it would be safer that way."
Alec raised his eyebrow. "He figured or you figured?"
"Do you really see Mole letting me give the orders?" she asked, matching his skeptical tone shade for shade. "Me?"
"So where's Logan? Did you tell him he doesn't need to get all dressed up just for us?" She glanced at the stairs Alec had just descended, raising her voice slightly for the benefit of anyone who might be hovering on the second floor landing. "It's not like we didn't all grow up in barracks or anything; one layer is more than enough covering."
"Somehow I don't see Logan going commando just because it wouldn't bother you if he did. And you know, I'd really rather not see him going commando at all, so hey, thanks for the imagery." Alec flung himself on the sofa, trying to force his rigid muscles into something resembling relaxation. "Anyway, he's not here. And since Max wasn't in her room either... well, let's just say I'm guessing wherever he is, he's not alone and he's not unwilling."
Brin pushed his feet off the sofa so that she could sit down beside him. "Oh come on, do you really think they're thinking about that today of all days?"
Alec threw one arm over his eyes and shrugged. "Why should today be any different than any other day?" he mumbled, trying to convince himself as much as Brin.
"Because it is and they know it. Because whether you want to believe it or not, they both care about you... like a lot of other people do... and they want to help however they can."
Slowly he drew his arm away from his face and sat up, looking at Brin without a trace of his normal levity. "Even if there's a limit to how much they can help, because some things just are and can't be helped?"
She sighed heavily as she leaned back against the sofa cushions. "I get the message, Alec, though I think I like it better when you just do the straight 'don't go there'."
He shook his head, smiling without humor. "No, you don't."
"But I want to," she countered. "At least then I know you're being honest."
"Never trust me when I'm being honest, Brin; that's when I'm most dangerous."
She smiled wryly, recognizing a truth to his words even he couldn't see. "Only to yourself."
The ringing of Logan's telephone broke the awkward silence that had suddenly descended between them. They turned as one to stare at the source of the noise, and then with a shrug Alec got up and crossed the room to answer it.
"Alec here. Talk to me."
"Always a pleasure, 494," White said from the other end of the line. "Especially when I know I'm going to get the last word."
Brin could sense the sudden shift of energy in the room the minute Alec answered the phone. Some animal instinct bred in the mosaic she called her DNA could almost smell the change, like the scent of ozone in the air after lightning strikes. Something was wrong, very wrong.
"Alec, what is it?"
He wanted to signal her to be quiet, but all his attention was focused on the voice at the other end of the phone.
"You know, I'm kind of big on getting the last word myself," the transgenic drawled, pretending a calm he wasn't even close to feeling. "In fact, I'll go for it now, unless you have something you really need to share."
"How about a bomb? Is that worth sharing?"
For one moment blinding panic surged through Alec's veins, and then it was as though a switch flipped in his brain, leaving him cold inside. White was declaring war, and winning wars was what he'd been built for. "Sounds a little messy to me."
"Oh, not this one." White sounded cheerful, perky even. "It's very small, self-contained... well, you know just what it's like. Do you remember the one I put in your neck?"
Brin was right behind him now; Alec could feel the heat of her body radiating against his back. He knew she was trying to show that she was there to support him, ready and willing to let him lean on her for a change, but it didn't matter now. Nothing mattered his daughter and White, and what had occurred when those two lives intersected.
"What did you..."
"Like father, like daughter. One little needle and you've got more in common than you ever dreamed of."
The ice in Alec's veins melted in the space between heartbeats, washing away the veneer of soldier and leaving only the father. Manticore had beaten, bludgeoned and drugged him until he literally couldn't see straight, but no physical blow had ever made him so sick or dizzy as White's blithely delivered cliché. He gagged on the scream building in the back of his throat, trying to shape it into intelligible words.
"You son of a bitch!"
"Alec, who are you talking to?"
Alec didn't answer her. Even if he had heard Brin's question, he had no time to calm her fears when his own were so wildly out of control. "How could you..."
"Now there's a dumb question," White interrupted. "You know how. One little hypo. In her back, though, not her neck... just so we're clear."
"Her back?" He felt an insane moment of gratitude; at least it wasn't near her skull. White wasn't trying to kill her... at least not yet.
"Well I don't want to blow her head off, now do I? At least not yet," White continued, unwittingly echoing Alec's thoughts. "It's at the base of her spine; all that's going to do is short out her nervous system, right? And hey, with her regenerative powers I'm sure she'll be fine. Eventually."
Alec shook off Brin's hand, the one he could dimly feel biting into his arm. He needed that arm to keep his body propped up against Logan's desk instead of falling to his knees. He needed to hold on to that much illusion of strength and dignity because the rest was about to be thrown at White's feet.
"What do you want, White?"
"White?" Brin repeated urgently.
"I know you want something," Alec continued. "You always do." He licked his dry lips and tried to force his chaotic thoughts into some sort of order again. White was all about games; sick, twisted games. As long as Alec played along, his little girl would survive...
"I want 49614, of course. For the time being, anyway."
"You already had her at the orphanage." He felt a flicker of triumph at the momentary silence that ensued; score one for the good guys. Apparently White hadn't known they'd recognized his fine hand in the fire and subsequent rescue.
"Sure I had her," White conceded with a fraction less than his normal cockiness. He recovered quickly, however, adding, "But she's not nearly as interesting without her DNA source, or at least half of her DNA source."
"You want me too." Alec felt stupid; they should have guessed White would only have spared her as a scientific curiosity. And as such she was only valuable as part of a set.
"The people I work for want you," White corrected him. "I'd just as soon snap your neck and toss you out for the sanitation crews to clean up. But my supervisors would like to know how much of what she can do is inherited, so we know what we could be facing if Terminal City isn't terminated before the rats begin to breed."
The transgenic took one long cold moment to review his options. He really didn't doubt that White had done exactly what he said; the question now became one of worst case scenarios, and how any of them could be survived.
"I'm still not seeing why I should turn her or myself over to you, White. We have demolition experts at Terminal City; what makes you think we can't dismantle or remove this thing in time?"
Thing; he had to think of it as a 'thing.' If he let himself remember what White had really done to his baby, he wasn't sure he could hold it together long enough to talk his way out.
"Time really doesn't come into play here," White drawled, "at least not in the sense that you have it to play with. You see, the bomb isn't on a timer." He gave Alec a moment to feel relief, a moment to feel the noose loosening before he tightened it again. "It works with a remote detonator. My men are stationed all round that old wreck my father called his home, just waiting for a call from me to tell them whether or not they should flip the switch. And if you're not up for a little swap meet... boom."
Alec stalled for time. "Swap meet?"
White sighed loudly at the deficiencies in 494's upbringing. Obviously Manticore didn't care whether or not their walking weapons could function in society, only that they could eliminate the right segments of it on command.
"Would you prefer the term 'prisoner exchange'? Does that have more cultural resonance for you?"
"I said the people I work for want to study you and the kid; that's why they allocated me the manpower and funding to set this trap. But you know what I want, 494. Or at least you should by now; I gave you almost four days to get a clue about what fatherhood is all about."
"Your son," Alec answered flatly.
"Hey, maybe the old man really did shoot a few brain cells into the test tube along with all the bat wings and puppy dog tails." The mocking tone in White's voice abruptly vanished, leaving the same jagged edges Alec could hear in his own voice. "Yeah, my son. The one your bitch friend has been keeping from me all these months."
"I don't have your son, White. I don't even know where he is."
"But she does," White hissed, emphasizing 'she' in such a way as to leave no doubt whom he meant. "And she'll trade him for you two in a heartbeat."
"You can't ask me to..."
"I'm through asking, 494. You come see me... now... and I'll have the bomb removed. Play hard to get and you'll have a second chance to see your little girl take her first steps. In about six months, that is, give or take a month."
Alec shook his head impatiently, trying to banish the image that White's words conjured up; he couldn't afford to lose control again. "Your men will take us?"
"They're ready and waiting, practically chomping at the bit. In fact, they're so eager to see you that if they don't see you and the little girl on the porch in three, count 'em, three minutes... well, saying 'boom' would be a little repetitive at this point."
"Three minutes." Alec clung to the reality of a time limit, no matter how horrifying. It was a fact and therefore had a solidity he could fight. "You know she's a kid, and a girl besides, so sometimes it takes a little longer to..."
"Two minutes and fifty-three seconds," White broke in. "Need I say more?"
Alec slammed down the phone on Logan's desk, yelling "Joshua!" before the instrument even hit the wooden surface.
Brin grabbed for his arm again, this time not letting her hands be shaken away. "Alec, what is going on? What did he want?"
She knew what White wanted; she'd heard enough of Alec's end of the conversation to figure it out. But she needed to hear it from Alec, or more specifically, she needed to hear from Alec that she was wrong. She needed Alec to do what he had been doing since the first night they met: reassure her that good things were as likely to happen as bad, and that she had the power to make one into the other if she chose to use it.
But Alec had no time for Brin's issues now, or for anything else beyond his daughter's perilously short future. "Josh!" he yelled again, just as the dog-man came running into the room with 49614 in his arms.
"Alec need Joshua?"
Alec snatched his daughter from his friend's arms, holding her against his heart long enough to feel a quick, wordless prayer for her safety well out of him, and then he dropped to one knee and stood her up in front of him. reaching around behind her to look beneath her little shirt.
It was there, right where White had said it would be, a small raised circle just beneath the skin at the base of her spine. Alec's trembling fingers reached for it, but stopped a scant centimeter above the perimeter of the device, lest his touch destabilize it in some way.
"You said... you mentioned a bomb. Alec, where did White put the bomb?" Brin's voice was small now, as small as she felt in the face of a tragedy whose borders she could not bear to envision.
"Bomb?" Joshua echoed, looking quickly from Brin to Alec, and then down to the child in Alec's arms. He knew White's history with bombs, and his sharp eyes caught the bump under 49614's skin almost as soon as Alec's. "White put bomb in..."
"I need you to find Max," Alec said sharply, putting an end to Joshua's statement of the unendurable. He stood up and swung his daughter up into his arms again. "White's men are outside and I... we... have to go with them. We have to go now," he stressed. "So I need you to find Max and Logan and tell them White wants to trade his kid for Johanna. And unless Max wants that kid to be raised by a sociopath, you tell her I need her ass-saving skills and I need them ASAP."
Brin and Joshua shared a puzzled glance. It was a small detail, and in the midst of all this potential disaster it should have been an inconsequential one. Yet that made it seem all the more important to pin down, as though this one small saving grace might save them all. "Johanna?" they asked in unison.
"Yeah." Alec knew this wasn't the right time, and that if he didn't get moving there never would be a right time, but he still needed to make sure this point was understood by one and all. "Your name is Johanna," he told his daughter firmly. "It's not 49614; it never was. It's Johanna; do you understand?"
She nodded. "Johanna understand."
He let out a deep breath at this smallest of victories. He had crossed a line he'd never intended to, and one from which he could not retreat, but at the moment it felt like the only right thing he'd ever done.
"But why..." Brin began.
"Later," Alec said abruptly. "I hope. Now find Max while I go with White to get this damned bo... b-o-m-b taken out of my kid's back."
"Alec not to swear in front of little monkey," Joshua said automatically. A moment later he realized he'd already forgotten to call Johanna by her new name, but Alec's mind was on other things.
"Buddy," he said as he strode to the door, "If we all last long enough to hear her start swearing on her own, I'll be the happiest guy in the room."
"You put a bomb in her back?"
White didn't seem to have heard his assistant's incredulous question. The instant he'd hung up the phone he was up and pacing the length of his office, too wired to sit still any longer. "We're a go, Otto. In thirty minutes they should be here, and the lab boys can get to work on those tests."
"After they remove the bomb," Otto stressed, hoping to lead White back to what he found a salient, and heretofore undisclosed, fact.
"Of course after they remove the bomb." White scowled at the question, one he considered obtuse even by Otto's standards. "We can't have that rattling around in her while they're doing the tests; the adrenal production would be off the charts for both of them."
Otto clung ferociously to his last scrap of sanity. "And it's dangerous. It could hurt her."
"And if it couldn't 494 wouldn't have much reason to pay us a social call, now would he?" White stopped pacing and turned to stare at his assistant. "What's the matter with you today? Did you forget the stakes in this little game?"
Otto wanted to forget the stakes in what White was now calling a game, but he wouldn't let himself. He couldn't. He was trading one child's life for another, and he had to believe that the one he had chosen to preserve carried the better chance for happiness and productivity. Genetics had to count for something, as did a "normal" upbringing, whatever that was these days. But looking at his boss today, hearing the casual tone in his voice as he discussed maiming a child... even a transgenic child... Otto wished he were still as sure as he'd once been that Ray White had the advantage. He wished even more that this uncertainty had presented itself sooner, when something might be done to alter White's course.
Now it was too late.
"No sir, I remember the stakes." Otto cast about for a reasonable explanation to offer a not-always-reasonable man. "It's just...I, uh, thought it was only a tracking device. Sir."
White didn't usually bother to gauge his assistant's moods; it wasn't that he couldn't but it usually wasn't worth the effort. Today, though, he couldn't help but read a certain amount of reluctance in Otto's face and voice, and he knew the source without asking. Their work was not for the squeamish, but the next few days, or possibly weeks, would test the limits of even the strongest stomachs. It was up to him to set the example, to remind everyone that these were transgenics, not people, and even the smallest of them would eventually be a danger to the rest of humanity.
Not to mention what trouble they posed for the Fellowship, he thought wryly. Humans were one thing, but Ames White wasn't about to sacrifice his family for the freak parade that constituted his father's midlife crisis.
"It is a tracking device," he replied with a deliberately casual shrug. "It's just not only a tracking device. Can't very well have a bomb wandering around god knows where, can we? We had to be able to trace it and her until we retrieved them."
"And now she's coming in? They're coming in?"
"That's right." White rubbed his hands together briskly. "Busy day ahead, Otto. Busy, busy day. But every second of it brings me that much closer to finding Ray."
Right, finding Ray. Otto reached up to massage his aching forehead, hoping White couldn't see the slight tremor in his hands. Finding Ray and reuniting him with his father was a good thing; it had to be.
It had to be.To Be Continued