There was more gunfire, the staccato report of semi-automatics this time. Someone screamed in pain, the shout abruptly cut off when another shot rang out.
Somewhere in the police station a radio crackled to life. "Dispatch?" A young woman's voice, sounding frightened and confused. "What's—" The rest of her words was lost in another burst of rapid shots. Further away from the transceiver, someone shouted, "Oh Jezus! They killed Charly!"
For the first time since Alec had woken up, he found the sheriff looking at a loss for what to do. Her tranquil, ordered world of small town life in the mountains, where the worst crimes she'd had to deal with were drunken fistfights on Friday nights, had suddenly dissolved into chaos. People were dying. And she couldn't understand why. Alec had to concede Moreland one point: the NSA engaging in a sudden gunfight with the local cops wasn't exactly standard operating procedure. Something else was going on; someone other than the NSA must've been in that helicopter. And that could only mean—
A voice roared through the night. "494! Your days are numbered!"
Fear shot through Alec, clenching his throat. His heart thudded painfully in his chest. White!
"Sheriff! Wanna get these shackles off? At least give us a chance!"
Death would come for him soon, no doubt. People were trying to kill him on a daily basis, and one of these days someone would succeed. Alec didn't believe he'd live to a grand old age and die in his bed, but he didn't want to go out like this either, at the hands of that breeding cult maniac, chained and locked up like a lamb waiting for the proverbial slaughter.
Moreland paid him no attention. The radio in the other room continued to spit out scared voices, too jumbled to make out words.
"Alec? What's going on?" Kat shuffled over to stand beside him. He glanced at her. She looked ready to go down fighting, pure transgenic steel, yet all big and clumsy. Even without the chains she wouldn't be much help.
He offered what he hoped was an encouraging wink. "Ames White," he said. "The man's a psychopath nursing an insane grudge against transgenics."
"Against you," Kat said. She hadn't missed White mentioning his designation.
"Yeah." He gave a lopsided grin. "He's particularly got it in for me and Max. I don't know who he wants dead worse, her or me."
Suddenly a clear voice called over the radio. "Pat? It's Swinley." He sounded older, more experienced. "We need back up. These people aren't human. We shoot 'em, and they keep on comin'. They—" A single bang echoed over the airwaves, loud enough to make Moreland jump, a brief moment of static, then nothing.
That last shot finally startled her into action. "God, I must go—" she muttered, rushing for the door. Her fingers were fumbling with the gun in her holster.
"No!" Alec barked. "Stop!" His voice was harsh and deep, using that undeniably commanding tone that would have done any drill sergeant proud. The effect was not lost on Moreland. She froze, twisting around slowly to stare at him.
In a more moderate voice, he continued. "You can't help them. You'd only be getting yourself killed."
Her blue eyes narrowed. "Mark said they weren't human..." The gun was halfway out of its holster by now.
"He's wrong," Alec said, low and urgent. "They're human all right, just resistant to pain. They're not my people." He pressed against the bars, holding her fixed with his gaze, his eyes never leaving hers. "Think! Where would they get a helicopter? Seattle's got us under siege. We can barely scrounge up enough to feed ourselves. But the city is talking about a cease-fire. Why would we risk all that to start a war in the middle of nowhere?"
"To help you escape?"
The gunfire had died down to the occasional lone shot. White had managed to come up with a bullhorn somewhere, likely from one of the patrol cars. "494. I'm coming for you. No escape now." He seemed full of delighted anticipation.
Alec cocked his head. "Does that sound like someone who wants to break me out of jail?" He tried to keep his voice calm; however, he couldn't stop the quiver of fear from coming through. If he couldn't convince Moreland to release him, he'd be a sitting duck. "Sheriff, if you don't get these cuffs off me, you might as well shoot me now and spare me a far more painful death at the hands of a madman."
Downstairs, a door banged open with such force the building shook. Feet thumped on the stairs. Panic surged, overwhelming coherent thought until instinct took over. Alec clawed at the cuffs on his wrists, straining muscles to tearing point, tendons cording. God, I don't want to die. Not like this. He didn't care that the metal bit into his flesh until his skin broke and blood began to well up. He didn't even feel it, his system so full of adrenaline that pain was nothing but a vague memory. His survival instincts shrieked in alarm and he simply was incapable of waiting for White quietly. In retrospect, Alec believed it was this desperate, terror-fueled act more than anything he could have said that finally brought Moreland to believe him.
She took the keys from her belt. "Step back," she said, the order given out of habit more than for any other reason. She opened the door to the holding cell and rushed inside, fingers quickly sorting through the keys for the one to the cuffs. She looked up at his face one more time, searchingly, before unlocking his shackles.
He kicked off the ankle chains even as the sheriff knelt next to Kat, who held out her hands to give easy access to the cuff locks. Further down the hallway, doors slammed. They were close.
Before Alec could take more than a single step, the door burst open and two black-clad, broad-shouldered Special Ops types hurtled through, dwarfing him with their height. He didn't need more than a single glance to know they weren't ordinary human soldiers. Phalanx. Cold fright traveled up his spine. It made sense White would bring the cult's elite soldiers: he wasn't taking chances with 494 any longer, had been done playing a while ago. This time, it was to the finish. The barrels of their guns swiveled in his direction, their training instantly determining him the greatest threat. He stared at the muzzles, twin black eyes of death. It was too far to blur, the cell not providing enough space to roll and evade.
Kat made a soft noise, almost a whimper, and for the briefest instant the cultists' eyes shifted away from Alec. It was the opening he needed. He blurred from the cell, managed to take out the male on the left with a single high kick, the scrunch of broken bone strangely gratifying. The man slid to the floor without a sound.
His partner had spun away, using the opportunity to redirect his gun. Alec hurled himself forward, seizing the weapon and rending it from the man's grip. Bones snapped. Despite his enhanced speed, he wasn't fast enough, though; the Phalanx soldier managed to squeeze off a single shot, the report loud in Alec's ears. Burning pain lanced through his side.
Fuck. "That hurts, bitch."
The cultist smirked even though his wrist was broken and his right hand hung uselessly. "Pain is a phantom of the mind. Animal." He snarled, came at Alec in a rush. The transgenic danced away, trying not to wince at the agony in his side.
White's voice drifted in. He was close, probably right at the foot of the stairs. "494. You better not make trouble. Or I'll make your demise as painful as possible."
Alec swallowed. He knew White wasn't boasting. The man truly hated his guts with a vengeance. Each time they had gone up against each other and Alec managed to better White had fanned the flames of that hatred until it was a furnace threatening to consume his nemesis. If he was still alive when White got his hands on him...
"You first have to come and get me, Ames!" Alec yelled back. He sounded a little winded. Hot blood was streaming down his flank, plastering his t-shirt to his skin and soaking his jeans.
Kat moaned again, and from the corner of his eye he saw how the sheriff leaned over the transgenic female, helping her to her feet, the taller woman supporting Kat's weight while they scrambled from the cell.
Now? a part of Alec's mind wondered in dismay. What was it with those X5 girls, going into labor at the most direst of times? First Gem, back at Jam Pony, now Kat.
Had to be genetic.
In Alec's moment of distraction his opponent crouched and whirled, legs scissoring, trying to sweep Alec's feet from under him. Only transgenic reflexes allowed him to leap up in time to avoid the blow. It was an awkward jump, made at the last instant, barely high enough. His landing was as ungainly, his body screaming in protest. Alec gasped. Blood loss was making him clumsy. If he didn't finish the Phalanx off soon, he need not worry about being caught alive any longer.
The man was good, Alec had to give him that. But he'd gone up against the cult's soldiers before, and they weren't infallible. As if on cue, the man opposite him made a mistake, dropping his guard for an instant. Alec took the opening offered without hesitation and the Phalanx found himself sucking for air through a crushed windpipe, clawing at his throat even as he stumbled out of the door. There was a thud, a crash, the sound of something breaking, and White screaming vile curses. Alec tensed.
"Alec? Let's go," Kat hissed. He glanced over his shoulder. She and Moreland were huddling near a door at the other end of the office, a door he had failed to see up till now because it was at an impossible angle from the cell.
"Goes down the fire escape," the sheriff said. "Never thought we'd need it, but building codes, you know."
Alec had never felt more grateful for building inspectors and their regulations. He only took a moment to pick up the gun he'd liberated from his Phalanx opponent and followed the two women out. They clambered down the stairs as quickly as possible and a near inhuman howl of fury and disappointment followed them as they disappeared into the dark night.
Gave you the slip again, Ames, Alec thought with satisfaction.
Kat pulled the hospital gown off her shoulder and bared a breast. Her daughter's tiny mouth latched on to the nipple eagerly and started suckling. Alec couldn't tear his eyes away. There wasn't anything erotic about it, and lust was the furthest thing from his mind, bared breast or no. Yet something about the scene spoke to him, to his core, deep down where primal desires rested. Perhaps someday I—unbidden an image of Max flashed before his eyes. He squeezed them shut, willing the thought away. Better not go there. Besides, Max would have his balls if she ever learned what thoughts he sometimes entertained.
The door opened, and he looked toward it with gratitude. Right now, he could use any distraction. Moreland ducked her head in. She smiled at Kat, then signaled Alec she wanted to speak with him.
"You be okay for a bit?" he asked Kat.
She took her eyes away from her baby's face for a moment to give him a nod. "Yeah."
Alec walked out of the room. Moreland was waiting for him in the hallway.
"How you feel?" she asked.
He gave a shrug, regretting it instantly. "I'm all right," he said. "Or at least, will be. The bullet went through and through, nicked a rib but they patched me up nicely." He flashed her a smirk. "Serotonin flaw aside, Manticore did a bang-up job on the rest of the package. I'll heal."
She grunted something. "Here," she said, digging up a cell phone from her pocket. "Yours. There's a young lady that keeps calling for you."
"Max." Alec sighed. Undoubtedly, he'd get an earful.
"You better call her back." Moreland's lips quirked. "She seemed rather pissed."
Alec snorted a laugh. "Sounds like Max, all right."
He took the phone, walked out the front door and dialed Max's number from the parking lot.
It rang once. "Go for Max."
"Hey. It's me."
"Alec! Where are you? What the hell happened? There are reports of a firefight all over the news. What did you do?"
He winced at the shrill anger in her tone and held the phone away from his ear. Figured he'd get the blame.
"I hit a snag," he said when she finally paused for breath.
"Hit a snag," she repeated. Nobody could utter three simple words quite so scathingly as Max. "Alec, all you had to do was pick up a pregnant X5. But no, that would be too easy, wouldn't it? You had to start World War Four."
"Hey!" His temper slipped. Alec closed his eyes, took a deep breath. "That wasn't me, Max. It was White. He—"
"White?" she broke in. "Are you all right?"
And nobody could switch gears the way Max could. Sometimes, she left him dizzy, unsure which was up or down.
"You know me. Got a new hole where I didn't need one, lost a little blood, but I'll live."
"You got shot."
"Yeh." There was a long moment of silence.
"Her name's Kat. Not a scratch on her and she got a pretty little girl for her effort. Born a few hours ago. Healthy as can be, ten fingers, ten toes, the works. She's got Biggs' eyes, I think. Oh, and Max? Get this: no barcode."
"Good." He could hear the smile come over the line. "When are you coming home?"
"Soon," he said, and hoped it was true.
"Okay. And Alec?"
"Yeah." Be careful. "Always."
He chortled when she huffed, and pressed the disconnect button. He stayed outside for a moment longer, enjoying the solitude, the brisk mountain air. It was going to be a gorgeous day, the sun slowly rising in a clear blue sky. At last, he turned to go back inside. Moreland was waiting for him outside Kat's room.
"So," Alec said, "what happens now? You gonna rearrest us?"
Not that he would allow that to happen. If Kat hadn't been in labor, they would have skedaddled out of Norris as soon as they stepped off that fire escape, never to return, bullet hole or no. However, with the baby demanding to be born, he'd not had much choice but to follow Kat and Moreland to the hospital. At least he'd gotten a few professionally sewed stitches for his trouble.
"No." She threw him a set of keys that he snatched from the air. They were the keys to the Aztec. He cocked an eyebrow.
"Way I see it, you've done nothing wrong," Moreland said. "Except be what you are. No crimes. Well, aside from those two men you killed in my office."
"That was self-defense," he protested.
"I know." She looked away.
Alec understood. "How bad?"
"There were four of them," she said. "Five, if you count this Ames White that got away. I lost nine men. If not for the shift change, most of them would have been out on patrol, elsewhere in the county. Safe."
And we'd have been toast, Alec didn't say. Strangely, she didn't seem to hold it against him; this woman could teach Max a thing or two about blame.
"I'm sorry." He knew it wasn't enough.
"Not your fault," she said. "You can't help what you are. If they'd just walked in and flashed a badge or showed some paperwork, I'd have handed you over without a second thought. If—" She shook her head. "Just take the girl, and go. Before the real NSA gets here. I'll tell them you escaped during the fighting. That's not too far from the truth."
He gave her a grateful nod. "You know who they're going to put that on, though, don't you?" he asked sadly.
"Not if I can help it. You deserve better, the truth, at least. We have the bodies. I had someone check: no barcodes. I'll have them send up to Boise for DNA analysis."
"You do that," Alec said. "Just promise me one thing?"
She quirked an eyebrow. "What?"
"When the bodies get lost in transit, don't make too much of a noise. These are powerful people. Dangerous people. You don't want to go toe-to-toe with them."
She was silent for a moment, studying him. "You're serious, aren't you?" she asked softly. "You're convinced those bodies are going to disappear, that your kind will be blamed for what happened here."
He shrugged. "I'd like to be wrong. But I'm not. And there's nothing you can do about it except get yourself in deep shit. I'd hate to see that. You'll have done your bit for the—" he wiggled his fingers to create air quotation marks,"—transgenic cause once you let us go. Let's leave it at that."
A few minutes later Alec was helping Kat into Logan's car. Once she was comfortable, the baby snug in her arms, he climbed behind the wheel and started the engine. "Have you thought of a name?" he asked.
Kat smiled and let her daughter suckle on her little finger. "Yes. I'm calling her Faith."
Alec smiled back. "That is a very pretty name." He glanced in the rearview mirror. Moreland watched them drive off, her hat tilted backwards, hands on her hips.
Faith. Perhaps Max was right. Perhaps, if the truth, the whole truth, about Manticore came out, they could convince the American people that the transgenics weren't the enemy after all. They just might win enough hearts and minds, one sheriff at the time, to have a chance at life.