Note: inspired by a scene in a Valjean story.
ONE SHERIFF AT THE TIME
Alec sauntered into command. Up on the landing, Luke and an X4 named Brent were manning the screens, watching the numerous newscasts for anything that might involve transgenics and monitoring the Sector Police channels. Thankfully, they had the sound muted to a whisper. If he had to hear Terry Caldwell denounce him for a soulless animal one more time, or McKinley predict dire consequences if the Manticore escapees weren't dealt with swiftly and decisively, well, he would no longer be held accountable.
The weeks since they escaped from Jam Pony and the siege of Terminal City began had not been easy. Tanks waited at the gates, one excuse away from rolling in; they lacked food, water, medicine, and were hard-pressed to keep the generator that powered the command center running. That was their top priority, even more so than food; they needed to keep the cameras and comms up and running. Without them, they'd be deaf, dumb and blind. Without them, they were as good as dead.
Lack of sleep had frayed his nerves until he was hanging on by his fingernails. At times, he asked himself why he hadn't hightailed it out of Seattle at the first sign of trouble, weeks ago, when the existence of the transgenics had been exposed. X5-494, the highly trained, genetically engineered killing machine, as McKinley loved to describe them, would probably have done so without a second thought. Alec, on the other hand... He sighed. Times were different now. He was different. He could as little desert his friends as he could chew off his right thumb.
He glanced over at the transgenics gathered around the large table in the middle of the ground floor. Gentle Joshua, clever Dix. The ever belligerent Mole. Max... They were his family. And he'd stick with them to the end. He rubbed at eyes that burned with fatigue. Perhaps the end would come soon.
"How many people do we still have unaccounted for?" he heard Max ask when he approached the table.
"A few dozen," Dix said. "Mostly X4s that were out with the military. A few X5s. Several transhumans."
As soon as they had raised their flag, declared Freak Nation and claimed Terminal City as their own, Max had given orders to try and bring in as many of their siblings as they could find. Amazingly, most had stuck around in the Seattle area instead of scattering to the four winds. Unprepared for freedom in a strange and hostile world, instinct sent them to ground near the place they once called home. An Eyes Only cable hack suggesting they remobilize and a confidential e-mail address distributed over the Informant Net was all it took to get their attention, and each day more transgenics came in, the army blockade notwithstanding. At last count, Terminal City held nearly five hundred souls. Or non-souls, if Caldwell was to be believed. The last few days, though, the stream of new arrivals had slowed to a trickle. Likely, the ones still missing either couldn't, or wouldn't, make it.
Alec cleared his throat to announce his presence.
"You're late," Max said without looking up.
He shrugged. I'm here, ain't I. He bit down on the remark. Max sounded as exhausted and stressed out as he felt. The last thing their fledgling community needed was its leaders go for each other's throats. How the military would love that. Still, he couldn't stop himself from saying, "Five minutes, is all."
She looked up at that, a scowl marring her features. "Alec—"
Whatever she'd been about to say was forestalled when Luke spoke up. "Hey, guys? Look at this. Just came in." He trotted down the stairs and handed Max a printout. She quickly read it before giving the page to Alec.
X5-264 requests extraction. Location— A long line of jumbled numbers and letters to indicate coordinates followed.
"This for real?" Alec asked. It wouldn't be the first time someone tried to lure them into a trap by impersonating a transgenic in need of assistance and he'd be damned if he were going to lose more people on a bogus rescue attempt.
"It came in on the dedicated e-mail address," Luke said with a shrug. "And look at the coordinates. Taken literally, it's a place in the middle of the Pacific. Run them through Manticore's codebook, however, and you get—"
"—someplace in Idaho," Mole grunted around the stub of an unlit cigar.
Luke grinned. "Yeah. Town called Norris, to be precise."
"Why would an X5 ask for help to get to TC? He or she figured out how to contact us; I'd think they can figure out how to get here." Max still sounded suspicious.
"She," Luke said. "Look at the last sentence."
Alec scanned the print again. The final line was more personal, quite incongruous with the terse military language of the first few paragraphs. "'Tell X5-511 he's about to become a daddy.'" He looked up, catching Max's eye. "That's Biggs' designation."
Max offered him a sad smile. "Renfro's breeding program. She's pregnant." She was quiet for a moment and Alec had no idea what she was thinking. Probably how easily she could have ended up with a kid too, like Gem, or this—he glanced at the page—X5-264.
"All right," Max said at last. She started pacing, the way she did when thinking. "I can't take the bike. And no way can we get the van past the army's blockade. Logan might loan me his wheels, though. And somebody please get me an Idaho road map."
"Whoa," Alec said. "Who says you get to go?"
Max planted her hands on her hips. "I do."
"You're not going," Alec said. "You can't. We're up to our eyeballs in negotiations with Clemente and the city council about getting them to withdraw the troops. They listen to you." He placed his palms on the table and leaned forward. "We need this siege lifted, Max. We need food, medicine, fuel. If they discover you're not here, I don't know what they'll do. I get the feelin' we don't wanna find out. Why don't you deal with the city, and I'll deliver our expectant momma from Idaho." He grinned. "No pun intended."
"Alec, we need you here too. You—"
"I'll go!" Joshua piped up. Five sets of eyes swiveled his way and he withered beneath their look.
After a moment, Alec said, "Not that we wouldn't appreciate the help, Josh, but—"
"—I know." Joshua blew out a breath. "Too dangerous. People scared of things that are different. Running and screaming."
Max raised a hand and patted Joshua's shoulder. "It's not the running and screaming that's the problem," she said gently. "They could hurt you, Big Fella." She met Alec's gaze.
"I need to go," he said softly. For Biggs.
Max closed her eyes briefly, a slight tremor running through her frame, and he knew she was picturing the same thing he was seeing in his mind's eye: Biggs' broken body suspended upside down from the bridge, swaying in the night breeze. It was a sight he didn't think he'd ever be able to eliminate from his mind. Just as he would never forget the joyful glee of Biggs' killers, their satisfaction at having murdered a freak. It was something none of them should ever forget.
"All right," she said at last.
"You sure you trust me not to muck up?" he drawled, wanting to get past the awkward memories and snark being the quickest way he knew how.
She pinned him with a look. "If you do, I'll kick your ass."
The trip to Norris, Idaho, took longer than expected. Logan's battered Aztec ambled along the country roads at a frustratingly slow pace, even when Alec floored the pedal. Countless times during the long journey east did he wish he could have brought the bike. But asking a highly pregnant woman to take an hours long ride on the back of a motorcycle—Alec had to agree with Max: it was impossible, even if the woman in question was an X5, and much hardier than the average female.
At least the papers Logan provided allowed him to pass the various checkpoints along the highway without much hindrance—although there had been that incident just outside of Spokane, where a pair of overzealous cops demanded Alec bare them his neck so they could check for barcodes.
"Hey fellas, do I look like a mutant freak to you?" he'd laughed, giving them his most winning smile.
The joke was lost on the two police officers manning the post. "Not one of them ugly ones, no," they'd admitted. "But the other ones, those exes? They could look just like you or us."
Alec gave the checkpoint cops, beer guts protruding over their uniform belts, a quick once-over. "Never like you," he muttered, even as he twisted his head around. He'd been thankful that Max had insisted he laser his barcode off the night before he left, despite his protests. Saved my butt again, she did. Even so, he made a mental note of the checkpoint's location, determined to find a way around it on his way back, after he'd picked up X5-264.
A watery sun hung low in the gray sky by the time he turned off the main route at Pierce and began the last leg of his journey. Dusk was falling and purple shadows crawled across the narrow country road when he passed the Welcome to Norris, Pop. 2,763 sign. The lettering had faded, and the O in Norris was riddled with holes where someone had used the sign for target practice. The town itself was typically post-Pulse small-town American: a broad potholed thoroughfare lined with boarded up stores that used to sell household goods or hardware. A few fast-food franchises broke the monotony with glaring red and yellow signs. The centerpiece was the county courthouse, a large building of red brick. The two-storied police station sat right beside it, three patrol cars parked in front. Alec passed them slowly, knowing how easily a stranger in a rural town could draw unwanted attention.
It was on the other edge of town that he found what he sought. The Red Stag Motor Inn on the edge of the Clearwater National Forest turned out to be a small motel. Twenty rooms, divided over two stories in a single block building, a small office on the left corner.
Alec turned into the parking lot. It did not hinder him in the least that the lights were out, their bulbs broken and never replaced. The Red Stag had obviously seen better days. Paint was peeling, dust coated the windows and cobwebs hung thick on the railing of the stairs leading to the second floor. A rusty Impala stood at a crooked angle at the far end of the parking lot. Alec supposed the inn didn't see much traffic out this way since the Pulse had practically shut down tourism.
He got out and stretched, listening to his vertebrae pop back into place. Cat DNA or no, ten hours behind the wheel made for one tired, sore transgenic. Even the innocuous little flirt with the blond waitress over lunch at a roadside café along the I-90 couldn't change that. Still, it felt good to be away from TC for a bit. Away from the pressures of so many people depending upon him, away from Max's fears she could not live up to expectations, from the worry that at any moment the military might burst through the perimeter fence, guns blazing.
He glanced around the empty lot. A television flickered behind the dirty windows of the manager's office, the muted sounds of a game show drifting in the still night. The room he wanted was on the ground floor, the third door down. His boots scrunched on the gravel as he walked across the lot. He rapped his knuckles on the wood, and after a moment the door swung open, hinges squeaking softly. Alec stepped inside. "264?"
As soon as his feet cleared the doorway, his instincts began to scream that something was wrong. He tensed, senses spreading out in an attempt to determine the danger. Whoever waited for him had come prepared. Transgenic reflexes notwithstanding, he wasn't fast enough and before he could do more than twist halfway round, a taser hit the soft flesh of his left side with enough juice to disable him instantly. He clung to the door frame for support, his knees no longer strong enough to hold him up.
Idiot! He'd walked into the trap like a witless raw recruit and he could almost hear his former Manticore trainers holler about what a fuck-up he always was.
The taser hit him again, white hot agony crashing through his skull and searing his body. He had time for a last thought—Max will have my hide for boots—before his vision dimmed and the world turned black.TBC