Max stared in awe at the scene before her. The shadowy,
towering tree trunks gave way to a crystal lake, nestled in the valley they had
just descended, blanketed in trees and framed by the snowy, fog-shrouded peaks
of the Cascades. All thought flew from her mind as she stared, open-mouthed,
out the front windshield. Never had she seen such unspoiled beauty. Her entire
life had been coloured in the dismal grey of pain and despair; first in the
sterile grey walls and unfeeling people of Manticore, then in the crumbling
buildings of Seattle, its streets crowded with souls who had lost all hope,
beaten down by marshal law. Now all of that was replaced by a myriad of vibrant
colours, the towering green spires of Douglas Fir and cedars, swaying gently in
the breeze, the lake, an unearthly blue, sparkling in the gold of the
Max blinked wildly, afraid it was all a dream, that she would open her eyes and find herself back again in her hard bed in the abandoned building she called home. Dvorak's music swirled around her; it truly felt like a new world, a world without borders and checkpoints, without barbed-wire fences and men with guns. Max felt a smile creep across her lips as a pair of geese took off from the lake, their loud honking audible over the noise of the car, and disappeared over the trees, nothing to hold them back. As the beauty of the scene seeped into her troubled mind, Max felt an almost foreign sense of lightness, that here in this beautiful place, she might be able to feel truly free. She was really starting to think this trip wasn't such a bad idea after all.
Max was shaken from her musings as Logan brought the Aztec to a lurching halt and cut the engine. "Here we are," he announced. "Spirit Lake Field Station."
Before Logan could protest, Max got out and brought the wheelchair around to the driver's side door, set the brakes and left him to settle himself. She knew how much he hated for anyone to acknowledge his disability, but Max was tired of pretending it didn't exist. Logan's legs didn't work. It was a fact she couldn't ignore, but one she could accept if he could just accept it himself.
Taking a few steps away from the vehicle, Max inhaled deeply. The crisp air rushed into her lungs, filling the dark spaces within her with a new sense of calm. Her eyes were drawn to the lodge sitting peacefully among the trees, as if it had grown there. The rough-hewn log walls rose to a peak on the second floor, the upstairs front windows set into dormers in the moss-encased roof. A large stone chimney, that dominated the southern wall, was smoking placidly, filling the air with the inviting smell of a wood fire. A railed porch hugged the front and north walls, and disappeared around the back, out of view. A couple of old rocking chairs graced either side of the large front door, giving the whole scene a pioneer-like feel to it.
The sound of wheels on gravel brought Max's thoughts back to the present. She spun around to face Logan as he came up behind her. "Well, what do you think?" he asked with a slight smile; maybe the air was affecting him too.
Before Max could answer, they were interrupted by sudden barking. Max wheeled around to see a large wolf-like dog barrelling towards them at breakneck speed, barking and wagging its tail wildly. Immediately on the defensive, Max braced herself for the attack.
Despite his dour mood, Logan couldn't help but smile to himself as he watched Max prepare to square off with a dog. 'It must be all that feline DNA' he mused with a wry grin. He was certain that if he looked closely enough, he could see the hairs on the back of her neck, where her longer hair had been swept aside, standing on end, like hackles. He was waiting for her to hiss at any moment.
As the massive beast closed in on them, Logan decided to take pity on Max, who looked like a coiled spring, ready to go off at any second. He let out a shrill whistle, chuckling when Max nearly fell over in shock and called out "Hey Otus! How y'a doing boy?"
Otus picked up the pace, closing the distance between them and launching himself into Logan's lap, slathering his face with gleeful abandon.
As the shock of the scene wore off, Max's reflexes kicked in as she noticed Logan's wheelchair on the brink of teetering backwards. Before anyone could blink, her left hand shot out, grabbing the handle as her right hand reached out to set the break.
Logan glanced up over the enthusiastic dog's head and held her gaze. "Thanks" he muttered, sheepishly.
Max quickly shrugged it off. "No big dealio."
"Hey Otus! Stop harassing the visitors!" A cheerful voice from behind the house cut through the awkwardness.
Max whipped her head around and caught sight of a
short, almost stocky woman as she appeared from behind the house. Max eyed her
warily as she ambled towards them.
"Hey Maggie!" Logan called out to her.
"Logan! You made it!" Maggie cried as she broke into a run. "Otus, you'd better make room on that lap for me 'cause I'm coming through!"
Logan shoved the dog off his lap just in time to catch the woman in his arms. Max took a step back, and watched the entire scene with a mixture of amusement and the slightest twinge of jealousy. She had never really figured Logan for the overtly familial type, especially after all the fake smiles and strained conversations of Bennett's and Mary Anne's wedding. Now, watching him laughing heartily as he tried to fend off his cousin's bear hug, Max couldn't help but yearn for that kind of closeness with her "siblings", but she knew that would never happen. Zack had all but cut her off completely, reminding her yet again, that she would never truly have a family.
"God, Logan. It's good to see you." Muffled by Logan's shoulder, Maggie's voice penetrated Max's haze. She watched as Maggie disentangled herself from her cousin and turned to face her.
"You must be the Max I've been hearing so much about." She said, smiling slyly at the man seated between them and extending her hand. "I'm Maggie Cale, Logan's cousin."
Max shot Logan an 'Alright, what did you tell her' look before taking Maggie's hand in her own, marvelling at the strength behind the small woman's handshake.
Noticing Max's wariness, Maggie's smile broadened, as she released the young woman from her grip. "No worries Max, Logan hasn't gone into any detail…yet."
With a gentle chuckle, she tipped up the brim of her hat and Max was stopped cold as she finally got a good look at Maggie's face. She'd know those eyes anywhere. Although they were a deep slate grey instead of a shining cerulean blue, she recognized the fire behind them, a fire she had only seen once before and as far as she could tell, that fire was gone.
"Well, lets get your stuff inside and get you guys settled." Max moved aside to let her pass. Together, the two women headed back to the vehicle to collect the luggage. Within minutes, everything was settled inside and Maggie led them on a tour of the ground floor, with Otus hot on their heels, sniffing intently. As Max passed through the rooms, she felt a comforting warmth seep into her. Everything about the place was inviting. The inside of the lodge felt charmingly rustic and cozy, thanks to a small blaze in the fireplace that dominated the spacious living room. The evening sun, filtering through the dusty windows, bathed everything in an amber glow, making the old wooden chairs, the battered sofas in the living room and the worn table and shelves in the den look almost new. Hand-knit afghans tossed over various chairs completed the picture of simple comfort, a far cry from the clean crispness of Logan's apartment.
They finished their tour in the large kitchen, filled with a myriad of wonderful smells. A pungent stew was simmering on the oversized stove next to a pot of steaming wash water, while two freshly baked loaves of dark crusty bread and an apple pie sat cooling on the counter.
"I see Logan's talent for cooking is genetic." Max said with a hum of approval as she surveyed the simple feast from her seat she had taken at the table.
"Thanks Max, but I don't know." Maggie answered with a smile as she dished up the stew and brought it to the table. "I'm not sure it was entirely nature over nurture. Everything I know about cooking I learned from Logan's mom."
Logan shifted uncomfortably in his chair at the mention of his mother. Noticing his discomfort, Max decided not to press the subject further, despite her insatiable curiosity when it came to her friend, but Maggie continued.
"Whenever I came to visit, Logan and I would sit in the kitchen and watch Aunt Eleanor cook. She was always cooking something great and sometimes she let us help. Uncle Owen and Aunt Eleanor's house was always filled with wonderful smells and music…"
"Where do you fit into the Cale family tree?" Max interjected between forkfuls of stew, wanting to save Logan, who, from his faraway stare, was obviously suffering through memories of his childhood lost.
"Oh, didn't Logan tell you? I'm Bennett's little sister."
Even Logan had to laugh as Max's jaw nearly hit the floor.
"I…I… never…" Max tripped over her words, suddenly at a loss.
"Never would've guessed that I had been spawned by people like Jonas and Margo Cale?" Maggie answered with a grin directed at her cousin. "Don't worry about offending me. I would take that as a compliment."
"It's not that." Max replied, trying to hide the fact that she was thinking just that. "It's just that you're so…so…different from the family I met at the wedding. Were you there?"
Maggie's eyes danced with laughter as she watched Max still trying to come to grips with this new piece of information. It was obvious that she had not taken a liking to Logan's Uncle Jonas and Aunt Margo, and was now trying to come up with something nice to say about Maggie's parents. "It's O.K. Max, you don't have to pretend you like them for my sake. Logan's not the only black sheep of the family. No, I wasn't at the wedding. Bennett's a good guy and my brother and I love him very much, but you couldn't have paid me enough to go to his wedding."
Max couldn't hide the shock at the other woman's words about her family.
"I wasn't really invited anyway. Despite his professions to the contrary, Ben, the eldest of four, is the prodigal son and always will be. I, on the other hand, was an afterthought, the only daughter in a family full of sons, a mistake, a fact that has always been obvious my entire life." Maggie smiled ruefully as she remembered her past. "Don't get me wrong. I had it a lot better than most and besides, I always had my favourite cousin." She said as she cast a sidelong grin to Logan who smiled back warmed by the shared memories of their childhood.
"I would go to visit Uncle Owen and Aunt Eleanor as much as possible and Mom and Dad were always happy to see me off, concerned only with nurturing their son's standing in society. Logan's parents became more my parents than anyone and Logan was happy to take on the role of big brother. When I went away to college to become a biologist, Jonas and Margot hid this scandalous career choice by telling people I was off travelling the world with some socialite. Not that I cared what any of their friends may have thought of me."
Max chuckled at the defiance in her voice. She was beginning to think this was the first member of Logan's family she could really relate to.
"But I don't begrudge my parents completely," Maggie continued. "They did make it possible for me to keep this field station running, thanks to my trust fund. The pulse forced the universities to cut funding to all unessential services and there are not many people these days that have the time or the money for the environment in this country. So now, a handful of scientists across the U.S. like myself, work to preserve what little is left of our natural ecosystems. The pulse killed our computer systems in one blow, now it's causing the slow, painful death of our natural systems. In their desperate attempt to get out of the pit of ruin this country is in, people are clawing away at any resource they can get their hands on without realizing they're killing the one lifeline that sustains them."
Maggie finished her story with a heavy sigh and took a long sip from her steaming mug and Max noticed a slight tremor in her hand, belying her intense fatigue. As she studied Maggie's face, Max could now see the signs of the battle weary soldier behind her soft features and Max felt her heart go out to this woman who had been fighting seemingly alone for so long for the one thing she believed in. Reminded her of someone else she knew.
Turning to her cousin, Maggie couldn't hide her desperation. "Logan it's getting worse. I've managed to keep the loggers at bay for 6 years now, but they aren't going to go away. There's too much valuable timber in this valley. Prices for old growth logs on the Asian markets have skyrocketed and they'll stop at nothing to get their wood." Her voice was filled with a fiery passion. "We've had to form a perimeter around the area, with watchers living on all corners of the valley to keep the machines out, but the bastards have upped the ante." Maggie's eyes blazed with anger now. "Bergstrom's hired outside help to do his dirty work."
"How do you know?" Logan asked; his full attention riveted on his cousin now that the conversation had shifted completely into business. Max sat listening quietly, her face impassive.
Maggie took a deep breath, as if steeling herself for a blow. "They killed Simon."
"Oh God, Maggie…no." Logan's voice was barely a whisper as he reached out a hand in comfort.
Although the names meant nothing to her, Max could see how much this Simon had meant to Maggie. She sat stiffly in her chair, her eyes vacant, looking straight at Logan but not seeing him. She took slow, deep breaths, fighting to maintain a semblance of composure. Max wanted to reassure her that it was O.K. to let go, but she understood the woman's need to appear strong, even if it was only on the outside. Whoever this Bergstrom was, he was in for some serious ass kicking.
"I…I found him…" Maggie's voice cracked with barely contained emotion and she squeezed her eyes shut, as though trying to force the memory from her mind. Max felt her heart clench. She snuck a glance at Logan whose eyes were now glistening in the dim light of the kitchen and she felt her own eyes welling with warm moisture. Maggie took a shaky breath. "His… neck had been snapped. There was no struggle; it had to be a professional job."
"It's alright Maggie, we don't need the details right now." Logan said reassuringly as he squeezed her hand.
"He not the only one." Fury replaced sadness and Maggie beat her fist on the solid wood table with a dull thud. "They got Charlie too and Sarah was attacked in her home three days ago. She's gone back to live with her mother."
Max could feel her blood boil at the thought of innocent people being snuffed out, like flies in their own homes.
"They're taking us out one by one Logan. Soon
they'll be able to waltz right in here and just mow the place down."
"Don't worry Maggie, Max and I will get on things first thing in the morning."
Maggie's mood visibly lightened at the offer of help. "Thanks Logan. With your Eyes Only connections, you have access to much more information than I do." Max's ears automatically pricked up at the mention of Eyes Only. She eyed Maggie with new caution. The rest of Logan's family knew nothing of Logan's real work and she was surprised to hear it mentioned so openly. But as she studied Logan and his cousin eagerly continuing their discussion of ways to deal with Bergstrom, Max could easily see the kindred spirit between them. Suddenly, it seemed only natural to Max that this fiery member of Logan's family be part of his fight to save the world. "And on top of everything else…" Maggie paused, smiling warmly at Max, interrupting her private thoughts. "It's nice to have you both here. I just don't feel so alone."
Max gifted the woman's appreciation with a rare smile and the mood in the kitchen lightened noticeably. Otus, who had spent the entire conversation curled by the ever-warm old iron cook stove, yawned loudly and shifted positions, tucking his nose under his tail and closed his eyes.
Chuckling softly, Logan commented with a yawn, "I think Otus has the right idea. The sooner we get to bed, the sooner we can figure things out in the morning."
Max smiled inwardly at Logan's enthusiasm. This was his first real mission since landing back in his chair and he came alive before her eyes at the chance to help people. For a brief moment, she saw the embers of his old fire flicker in the dimly lit room.