Author's Note: At long last, the final chapter of this fic. I'd like to give a big Thank You to all of the readers out there who have been pestering asking me for this final chapter and who have been patient enough with me to believe me when I kept saying that I was working on it. I never expected such an overwhelming response, and it has been greatly appreciated. Now, on to the disclaimers. I am not a genetic scientist. I don't even play one on T.V. My entire repertoire of knowledge came from an encyclopedia with a copyright year of 1978 and from making Heather put on her biologist hat and beta this for me at least 3 times. This last chapter has taken so long because I like to base my science-fiction in science-fact (unlike the liberties that a unnamed T.V. show takes from week to week). If you discover any genetic/biological/medical faux pas that I've made, it means that you've read far too much into this. There's only enough room for a limited number of anal people in the world, and Heather and I have already taken up two slots. Now, on to my specific Thank You messages, that are so greatly deserved.
Dani :This is what you get for reading a fic before it's finished. You were lucky that you received the fic after Meg and Heather had a chance to dig into it; there wasn't much left to beta. Just wait until I start writing something new…. ;-)
Moni : Even with starting a new semester at a new school, you made the time to send in your comments. Thanks ever so much. Oh, btw, did Ryan ever survive your birthday celebration?
Meg : Thank you for giving me the Max post-pulse slang I need to keep her from sounding like Logan. And thank you again for initially requesting all the 'sensory input' back on your very first review. I'm honored that you agreed to beta this for me when I was just one of those new writers with only a couple of fics to my name.
Heather: What can I say? You went above and beyond for this latest chapter, even to the point of digging out your old schoolbooks and putting on your biologist hat. I probably could've gotten away with calling ATP a nucleotide and with letting everything be related to a faulty ribose unit, but you managed to help me work in a plausible (if not probable) scenario that still fit with my original idea. With your assistance, this fic has gone over into the spectacular range. My thanks are not nearly enough.
Now, on to the final installment (unless I do get talked into doing an epilogue)
"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages."
--Shakespeare, As You Like It (II, vii, 139-143)
Chapter 8 – Showtime!
Max slid into her seat just as the lights in the theatre began to dim. Next to her, Leslie flashed her a quick smile and Alan grinned as she sat back with a quiet sigh. They were in the fifth row, slightly to the left of center stage. A gentle hush fell over the crowd as the auditorium was plunged into darkness. Max could hear the faint scrape of wood upon wood as Brad settled himself into the desk chair, only moments before the curtain was swiftly drawn open and the stage was bathed in light.
Brad studied the papers he held, one hand absently tapping out a quick tattoo on the desk's marred surface. He looked up as the phone on his desk buzzed irritatingly.
"Captain MacArren is here to see you, Colonel Tarken." An anonymous voice reported.
Brad leaned forward and tapped the intercom button. "Send him in." He returned his attention to his papers.
The tap-tap-tap of a cane striking the floor heralded the approach of his visitor. Brad looked up as the man stopped five feet in front of the desk and saluted crisply.
"You wanted to see me, Sir?" Logan asked.
"At ease, MacArren." Brad gathered up the papers and tapped them into a neat pile. "I've received word that your latest research has perked the interest of some very important people out in D.C." He glanced down at the papers in front of him and fingered through them until he found the one he was looking for. "Persuasive arguments," he read. "Well-defined thought processes. That's just a few of the responses written here." He brandished the paper at Logan and leaned forward in his chair.
"They're making you an offer, MacArren. The chance to take the next step in DNA sequencing and work with some of the top scientists this country has to offer. It's called Project Phoenix. Top-secret clearance. If you're interested, I'm to give you this package." He held up a sealed envelope. "If you decide you're not interested, I'm to burn it without opening it."
Logan exhaled sharply, absently switching his cane to his other hand. "Is there anymore information you can give me on the project, Sir?"
Brad grimaced slightly. "Not much. Can't even tell you where it's located, because I don't know. Somewhere out west, I believe." He frowned at the envelope he held in his hands. "You'd be upgraded to an Alpha-two clearance, which means you would breath, sleep, eat, and shit nothing but Project Phoenix. Total immersion." Brad shook his head. "I'm not trying to talk you out of this, or into it. On one hand, it's the assignment of a lifetime. On the other hand, it's a lifetime assignment."
Logan stared down at the floor, then looked back up. "What… what would you do, Colonel?"
Brad sighed heavily and ran one hand through his artificially-silvered hair. "I honestly can't answer that. I have a wife and kids to think about. This is a young man's assignment; meant for someone who doesn't have ties or who doesn't mind breaking them."
Logan nodded in understanding. "Is there a time limit, Sir?"
"That's not a lot of time, Colonel."
"No, it's not," Brad replied. "I need an answer by fifteen-hundred hours tomorrow." Brad smiled slightly. "It's a big decision. Take the rest of the day off and think about it, MacArren."
Logan smiled absently. "I… I will, Sir. Thank you."
The lights that had been shining on the Colonel's office gradually faded, leaving a single spotlight focused on Captain Michael MacArren as he turned away and began slowly making his way across the stage. It was obvious that his thoughts were troubled as he returned to his own office. Mutely, he stopped in the doorway and looked around, as if seeing the place for the first time. As the lights were slowly brought up to highlight the area, it was apparent that Captain Michael MacArren was alone in the world. The walls were fairly stark; decorated solely by a large clock and what appeared to be several medical degrees. No pictures of family or friends or even beloved pets adorned any of the walls. Logan slowly walked into the office and past the desk, regarding the certificates. As he took one down to look at it, an aide, wearing a white lab coat over green fatigues, knocked on the frame of the door.
Logan slowly turned around and glanced up at the sound.
"What'd the old man have to say?" the aide, a young man named Joey, asked.
Logan shrugged and glanced at the degree he held in his hands. "Apparently, some bigwig in D.C. has finally noticed what we're doing down here. I've been offered a transfer to work on some project they have going on somewhere."
Joey smiled. "Great! It's about time someone realized that we're not just a crazy bunch of Frankenstein scientists. You could actually make a name for us. You gonna take the assignment?"
"I don't know. It's all very top-secret. I don't know if I like the sound of that."
Joey snorted. "You always were more Moral than Military. Since when is anything the government does NOT top-secret at one point or other? Playing mysterious is probably the only way they can get their funding." Joey crossed his arms and regarded Logan for a moment. "What else is bothering you about this?"
Logan laid the certificate on the desk and shook his head. "I don't know. Somehow, I got the feeling that there was more to it than the old man was letting on, ya know? It was like he was trying to tell me something, without really telling me anything."
"Whoa. Now you're getting strange. You're probably reading way too much into it. It's just another assignment to further our research. It's not like anyone is actually out there trying to splice tuna fish and elephant DNA, just to get a bigger piece of sushi. This is all theoretical. We're years away from putting any of this to practical use. You're just worrying too much."
Logan chuckled and smiled slightly. "You're right. This is the chance we've all been waiting for. I'd be a fool to pass it up." Turning back to his desk, Logan picked up the phone and punched in an extension. After a brief moment, he spoke into the receiver. "Colonel Tarken, Sir, I've made my decision. I'll take the assignment."
The auditorium was plummeted into darkness as the first scene ended. With her enhanced vision, Max could see both Logan and Joey make their way into the wings as the stage crew rushed out and began to rearrange the set. In almost no time at all, the lights came back up, highlighting another office set, which was actually a reversed setting of Colonel Tarken's office.
A large man, wearing a crisp white shirt and black tie, was seated behind the desk. His shirtsleeves were rolled up to his elbows, revealing several tattoos along his forearms. He appeared to be going through some paperwork, and was completely ignoring the office's other occupant, who paced impatiently back and forth. The second man was tall and thin, his bald head gleaming in the light as he moved. His clothing was almost the twin of the seated man's, with the exception that his tie was decorated with red geometrical shapes. Loudly clearing his throat, the man behind the desk caught the other man's attention before pointing to a chair. Sighing heavily, the bald man began to sit, only to jump back up to his feet as a brief knock sounded on the office door. Grunting his permission to enter, the first man put away whatever he was working on and folded his hands on the desk in front of him.
Max smiled as Logan walked into the "office" and faced the two men with a sharp salute. Now that the first scene was over and done with, Logan looked more at ease in the role he was playing. After a brief 'Welcome to Project Phoenix' speech by the man sitting behind the desk, the conversation slowly turned to the actual purpose of Captain MacArren's assignment to the project. The third man watched mutely as Logan and the commanding officer tossed terminology back and forth between them. The DNA sequencing theories they discussed were a mixture of actual research that was being done back in '06 and something one of the other actors had called 'technobabble'. Max had to admit to herself; Logan had definitely done his homework when he wrote the original story. If she didn't know as much as she did about DNA sequencing, she would probably believe the stuff the three men were currently spouting.
This was the scene that really set up most of the plot; Michael was told enough to know that some of his theories had been practically applied in controlled tests and that the results received were not those expected. His job now was to determine what went wrong with the process.
This was also the scene where Jessica was introduced, posing as a one of the group of aides to the scientists and researchers. Max leaned forward slightly in her seat, wondering if Crystal was sober enough to perform. As the woman walked slowly on to the stage, Max released the breath she hadn't realized that she had been holding.
"What the hell is the matter with Crystal?" Alan immediately whispered, leaning forward across Leslie to look at Max.
"She came in drunk," Max replied quietly.
"She looks like she's about to be sick," Leslie stated matter-of-factly.
Alan snorted softly, then grinned when another audience member glared at him. "Wouldn't that be something?" he asked in an even softer voice. "It'd definitely ruin the 'love at first sight if we'd only admit it' meeting between Michael and Jessica, wouldn't it?" He grinned at both women.
Max smiled as Leslie lightly punched Alan in the arm with a whispered command to keep quiet. Horking on your co-star is not an endearing quality, Max silently agreed as she turned her attention back to the play. The C.O. had just ordered Jessica to show Michael around and get him acquainted with how the project functioned. Crystal blushed and studied the ground, then nodded her acquiescence with a soft "Yes, Sir". She and Logan kept stealing glances at each other, each hoping that the other wouldn't notice, as the C.O. droned on about schedules and procedures.
Funny. I really like her playing a more subdued Jessica, Max thought as the scene came to a close and the lights went out. She isn't nearly as blatant as she has been during rehearsal. Getting drunk has actually improved her performance. She shook her head and smiled. Who'd a thunk it?
The medical set took up only about a third of the stage and consisted of a single examination table (which was used as a counter for most of the scenes), several computer monitors around a main console, and a small desk with another monitor and keyboard. The set was bisected by what was supposed to be a large observation window. Through the window, several medical tables were apparent, lending the impression that the room was much bigger than what was actually seen. The medical set was placed on the rotating section of the stage. This way, when the action moved to the other side of the observation screen, the stage would rotate so that the audience could see what was going on. For this scene, though, the medical set was positioned so that the observation window was upstage from the actors.
Twelve individuals, all dressed in fatigues and standing stiffly at attention, lined the stage in three rows of four across. Their attention was riveted on their commanding officer as he instructed them about something or other. To one side of the group, Logan approached the officer, drawing his attention away from his students. With a smile, Logan engaged the C.O. in conversation, the two men absently traversing the stage as they spoke.
Crystal stood in the rightmost position in the first line, watching as Cale paced back and forth in front of them. She closed her eyes briefly, only to snap them back open when the world began to swim behind her eyelids. Breathing shallowly through her mouth, she forced herself to focus on a dark, non-moving, point in the audience. Cale's constant motion was making her ill, and she had no intention of disgracing herself even further. It was bad enough that Debbie had to hold her head under a cold faucet, for God's sake. Crystal breathed a soft sigh of relief when Ron walked onto the stage and Cale stopped his pacing to address the other man. As the three men moved to the other side of the stage, the lights dimmed so that they were the only figures to be seen, leaving Crystal and the others in darkness.
Knowing that it was only a matter of minutes before the lights would come back up, Crystal fanned herself briefly, trying to cool her overheated blood. Usually, the culprit was nerves and the heat of the stage lights, but tonight, the alcohol she had consumed earlier was compounding the problem. The absence of light shining directly on her was a blessed relief. Absently, she listened on the conversation between Cale and Ron as they discussed how human DNA could be altered to create a better human. Cale, as Michael, argued that such an application should be applied to curing diseases and introducing a new level of health in human beings. He brought up such points as the human cloning issue that was hotly debated back in '01, and how stem cell research was well on its way to curing such things as paralysis.
On the other side of the coin, Ron, as Brandon, another scientist, argued that DNA sequencing would actually weaken the human race in the long run by eliminating the rule of survival of the fittest. His point being that by manually controlling the process, the research didn't allow the human race the chance to evolve naturally and to manufacture its own answer to sickness and disease. Tinkering at the genetic level, he stated, could easily be the downfall of the human race when we come up against an illness that we might have built up a tolerance or immunity to had we not bypassed that evolutionary stage.
As their friendly argument began to cite such historical references such as Dolly, the cloned sheep, Hitler's attempt at creating a 'master race', the mapping of the human genome, and their own thoughts about the 'Perfect Human', the lights slowly began to come back up on the group of twelve individuals that still stood at attention. Cale and Ron looked over at them and began to slowly walk forward, still talking animatedly.
Absently nodding to something that Ron had said, Logan gazed at Crystal, only breaking the heated glance when he and Ron passed by the lovely, strawberry-blonde woman.
Ron grinned at Logan's obvious interest. "She is something, isn't she?"
Logan glanced at Ron, then back at Crystal. He watched in silence as the officer escorted the soldiers past them. Crystal's glance met his once again, briefly, and then she was gone. Logan absently sighed. "If I were to name a perfect woman, I think it would have to be Jessica."
Ron turned to look after the military aides, then back at his new friend. The lights on the stage started to fade as Brandon shook his head. "Michael, you have no idea how close to the truth you really are."
The next part was a scene that impressed Max to no end. She didn't pretend to understand it when Jerry first attempted to describe it to her, but when she finally saw it presented on stage, it made perfect sense. The scene was set in such a way that Michael's office, which was normally open to the audience, was hidden behind a light screen and backlit by a powerful spotlight. This allowed an individual to move freely around the set without being identifiable to the audience as anything other than a silhouetted figure. The scene was intended to impart that a great length of time had passed since Captain Michael MacArren's arrival at Project Phoenix. As the shadowy figure sat at the desk, busily writing, Logan's pre-recorded voice floated softly over the auditorium's sound system. The silhouette was supposed to be Michael, sitting in his office as he made entries into his private journal. In actuality, the man sitting at the desk was another actor who matched Logan in size and stature, allowing Logan to essentially be in two places at once as he acted out the scenes his voice over was describing. The stage lighting flickered back and forth between Michael's office, the bunkhouse, and the medical set, all neatly timed with each journal entry.
As the first sentence of Michael's journal entry was voiced, the spotlight on the silhouetted figure slowly faded, until the office set was nothing more than background scenery. At the same time, the medical center set was bathed in an ever-increasing wash of light. Standing there, Ron and a few other nameless scientists were focused on an overhead display of a computerized microscope that Logan was manipulating. To one side of the men, Crystal held a tray of slides, handing them to Logan as needed.
"I've been working on Project Phoenix for about five months now", Logan's voiceover stated, as Crystal handed Logan another slide. "We've made some progress as to why the DNA chains keep unraveling, for want of a better term, but we're nowhere near close to finding the answers we're looking for. The thing is, I still get the feeling that there's a piece of the puzzle that I'm missing. Everyone else, including Brandon, accepts all the genetic work we're attempting as basic fact; work that my old group understood as nothing more than theory, but I have yet to see any empirical data that would support these beliefs. Brandon, at least, is willing to discuss genetic theories, but when it comes to the work we're doing now, he's as good as the others are at skirting the issue. If I didn't know better, I would say that they are intentionally keeping me in the dark. Crazy thinking, I know, but I can't shake the feeling that it's true."
On stage, Logan looked up at Crystal as he held out one hand for the next slide. As she passed it to him, he let his fingers linger on hers a bit longer than was necessary. Startled, she met his gaze, her eyes wide with surprise. Logan smiled at her and was rewarded with a brief smile in response as she relinquished the slide. As if she suddenly realized that she had dropped her guard, Crystal snapped back to attention and returned her gaze to a spot above Logan's head.
"On another note, I have yet to determine how Jessica and the other eleven 'aides' that our group has been assigned fit into all of this," the voiceover continued. "Sometimes, the other researchers treat them as if they are beneath notice and other times, they are treated as if they are the answer to all our questions. Oddly enough, even when the other scientists deign to notice them, the attitude is cold and clinical and even, in some extreme cases, condescending. Even Brandon treats them this way, although not as badly as some of the others. I've never heard Jessica voice one word of complaint to anyone, though. She is really amazing."
"You can see here," Logan pointed to an area on the overhead display, "there's an unnatural buildup of ATP. The molecules aren't releasing their third phosphate. There must be a coding glitch somewhere in the ATP synthase," Logan sighed and sat back, "but I'll be damned as to what's causing it."
Ron chuckled as he studied the display. "It's so obvious. I don't know why we didn't see it." He clapped one hand on Logan's shoulder. "Great work, Michael."
The other doctors murmured agreement with Ron's statement, but Logan appeared not to notice as he continued to study the display. Ron reached out and pressed a button on Logan's keyboard, then walked over to the printer. Plucking a sheet out of the tray, Ron glanced over it, then handed it to one of the other scientists.
"I'm going to get group two started on analyzing this data, then we'll pick it up again tomorrow," Ron stated.
Logan grunted absently in response, his attention still focused on the screen in front of him. Ron chuckled again as he and the other scientists left the set, leaving Logan behind with Crystal.
With a frustrated sigh, Logan sat back once more and ran a hand through his hair.
"Are you done here, Captain?" Crystal asked as she began to straighten up the clutter that littered the set.
"What? Oh, yeah, I guess I am." Logan wearily pushed himself away from the desk and began shutting down the system. "I don't think I'm going to accomplish much staring at the screen all night." He reached for a vial at the same time that Crystal's hand closed on it. Both froze in mid-motion as their hands touched. Slowly, Logan stood, his hand lingering on hers before relinquishing the vial.
Crystal's gaze never left Logan's face as she accepted the vial from him. They stood staring at each other for several seconds, barely more than a foot apart. Slowly, as if he might scare her away, Logan reached up to gently stroke Crystal's cheek. She leaned into the caress, sighing softly. Logan smiled, then bent his head forward, ready to capture her lips with his own. The sound of Ron re-entering the set made them both jump apart. Hastily, Crystal backed away from Logan, returning to her cleaning task.
"Thought you were going to call it a night," Ron stated, seemingly unaware of what his entrance had interrupted.
"Yeah, I am," Logan replied. "I was just shutting everything down."
Ron looked around and nodded. "Not much left to do here. Jessica can finish it, right?" The last part of his sentence was addressed to Crystal.
She looked up, a flash of anger in her eyes that was quickly smothered. "Yes, sir. I can finish up here."
Ron smiled slightly. "Great." He started for the exit, then turned back and looked at Logan expectantly.
With a soft sigh, Logan grabbed his cane. His gaze caught Crystal's, briefly, as he followed Ron off the stage.
Behind them, Crystal watched them go before turning her attention back to the task at hand.
The medical set was plummeted into darkness as the silhouetted figure was once again lit up.
"Seven months have passed since I joined Project Phoenix, and I'm only slightly closer to understanding what is really going on here. Case in point, I overheard something really strange the other day. Brandon was talking on a cell phone to someone named Jay, who I think may have been leading some type of protest outside our gates earlier this week. I didn't hear much about it, as the protest was quickly suppressed, but I heard enough to know that the people involved believe that we're in here playing God. At first, I thought the protest was just the result of some anti-science group that managed to get their feathers all ruffled, but now, I'm not so sure. When I confronted Brandon about it, he looked almost relieved, as if I had finally asked him the right question. We arranged to meet later that day, so he could bring me up to speed with what was going on, when tragedy struck."
The spotlight on Michael's office was suddenly darkened as the medical set blazed into life. Logan sat at the main console, occasionally entering commands on a keyboard as he studied the overhead display. Behind him, Crystal and Brad (who was now playing one of the other aides), were standing at the island table carefully transferring test tube vials from one holder to another.
As Brad handed Crystal the next vial, he frowned slightly. He doubted it was obvious to the audience, but she was quite pale underneath her make-up. Catching her eye, he angled his head so that his face was out of view. "You ok?" he silently mouthed the question at her.
Crystal sighed softly, then nodded almost imperceptibly. She flashed Brad a feeble smile and held her hand out as she waited for him to hand her another vial.
Crystal gasped softly as Brad's hand suddenly spasmed. Grabbing the vials he was holding to prevent them from falling to the floor, she glanced quickly over her shoulder at Logan, then back at Brad, a questioning look on her face. Frantically, Brad shook his head as he clasped the offending limb close to his body. As the shaking began to subside, Brad sighed deeply and graced Crystal with a weak smile. She smiled back, relieved. Another glance at Logan revealed that he had been completely oblivious to the entire event. Brad picked up another case of vials and motioned for Crystal to precede him as they made their way over to Logan.
A loud crashing sound, as the vials fell to the floor, caused both Crystal and Logan to spin around to face Brad, who had fallen to the floor.
"Ryan!" Crystal screamed as she rushed to his side. Setting her own case aside, she pulled the large man halfway into her lap, calling his name. As her hand brushed his forehead, she looked up at Logan. "He's burning up."
Before Logan could even get out of his chair, doctors began pouring in to the room from other areas. Shouting instructions to each other, they quickly lifted Brad up and carried him upstage and through the door that led to the next room. Slowly, the entire set began to rotate, until the observation window, which had been the upstage background for all the previous scenes, was now perpendicular to the audience. On one side, Logan and Crystal stood in shocked silence. On the other side, the doctors scurried around Brad's prone figure as they worked. Their voices echoed through the auditorium, punctuated by the incessant beeping and chirping of machines as Brad was hooked into the monitoring system.
"Temperature 105.1 and rising."
"Heart rate 147."
"We've gotta cool him down! Is the trough ready yet?"
"Brain activity is off the scale."
On the other side of the large observation window, Logan watched the scene unfold before him, a look of concern evident marring his handsome face. He glanced over at Crystal, noting the firm set of her shoulders as she gazed steadily through the glass. He moved so that he was standing behind her and tentatively placed his hands on her arms in a not-quite hug. Crystal touched one hand to the glass that separated her from Ryan, shaking her head sadly as the sounds from the machines seemed to increase in tempo with each passing second.
"He's going into arrest!"
"The trough is here! Get him in!"
Brad was lifted off of the table and placed into the low, clear-plastic trough that had just been wheeled onto the set. Multiple bags of 'ice' were opened and dumped over his prone figure.
"Temperature still rising! 106.7."
"We're losing him….."
"Heart rate 159!"
Inside the trough, Brad began thrashing wildly.
Abruptly, Brad clutched at the edges of the container, then went limp. A loud, flatline tone echoed across the now silent stage as the doctors all stared mutely at the body. One doctor finally reached out and switched off a monitor, silencing its mournful wail. As if her action were a signal, the rest of the doctors began moving around the room.
"Call it," someone ordered.
"Time of death…" The female doctor glanced up at the large clock on the wall. "Fourteen twenty-three."
Another doctor, this one male, pulled his mask off his face and looked around. "Ok, folks, let's prep for autopsy and harvest what we can. I want to get a full report on the C.O.'s desk by nineteen hundred hours."
None too carefully, the doctors lifted Brad out of the trough and placed him back on the examination table. Masks were slipped back on as, one by one, the doctors turned their attention towards the new task at hand, descending like vultures on Brad's still figure.
On the other side of the glass, Crystal turned into Logan's waiting arms and buried her face in his shoulder. Silently, he held her as her muffled sobs echoed through the auditorium.
Darkness descended on the medical set as Michael's office was dimly lit. The faint scrape of movement was the only indication that the set was being changed as once again, Logan's voice floated softly though the air.
"The worst part about the whole thing with Ryan was the callous way the doctors dealt with the death. This was a person that they had been working next to, day in and day out, for years. Yet his death was nothing more to them than a report that had to get filed.
A muted glow began to filter through the newly set-up bunkhouse set. Six bunk cots were situated in two groups of three, at a slight angle as they progressed up stage. Standing, crouching, and sitting forlornly in the space between the two rows were ten solemn-faced individuals. They looked up as one when Crystal entered the area. She paused, then shook her head sadly as she moved to join the others. Together, they moved towards the lower bunk at the front right of the stage and began to methodically strip it down.
Crystal smiled sorrowfully at one of the other girls as she handed her the bed's only blanket. "Ryan knew how you're always cold at night, Dee. He'd want you to have this."
The other girl smiled softly, then looked up as Logan quietly entered the area, holding a small package in his free hand. Almost as a single unit, the other aides melted back into the shadows, leaving Logan and Crystal standing on the stage. Crystal paused for a moment, then continued with her self-assigned task.
"You shouldn't be here," she said into the silence.
"I … I wanted to offer my condolences." He held out the package towards her.
Crystal looked up and studied him for a moment, ignoring the box he held. "Why?" Her tone was angry, accusatory.
"Why?" Logan repeated, incredulous.
"Yes. Why? Why do you care? Ryan wasn't the first. He probably won't be the last." She threw down the pillow she was holding and fixed him with a hostile glare. "Is this a new psych evaluation test? To see how we react to a human display of commiseration?"
"A test? What the hell are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about the reason you're here!" She nearly shouted into his face. "You don't see any of the other doctors around, offering us pity, do you?"
Logan took a deep breath before replying, obviously trying to soothe her anger. "I'm here because I've been working with Ryan for over seven months. I can't say that I knew him well, but I'm not some callous jerk who isn't affected by his death."
"The only way you're affected is the fact that another test just blew up in your face!" She glared angrily at him, the telltale glitter of tears welling up in her light blue eyes. "He never meant anything to you. None of us do." Turning away from him, Crystal stormed over towards the bunk on the opposite side of the stage. She dropped her head against the cool metal frame as she fought to regain control.
By Logan's bewildered expression, he didn't understand her continuous references to tests. Slowly, he walked up behind her, his cane lightly tapping on the stage floor. "Jess…" Logan let the sentence trail off. His shoulders slumped wearily as he watched the young woman. Taking another deep breath, Logan placed one hand on her shoulder. "Jess, I really am sorry about Ryan. I'm not like the others."
Crystal whirled around to face him, a sharp retort on her lips, when her eyes widened. She opened her mouth, as if to say her line, then closed it quickly. Placing one hand over her lips, she muttered a soft "Excuse me" and ran off the stage.
Logan watched her leave, eyes wide in complete disbelief and shock. It was the moment he had been dreading. Crystal was supposed to have said her next line, which would lead into him giving her the teddy bear, but instead, she had run off stage. He looked into the wings where she had disappeared and saw Davis indicating for him to keep going. His throat was suddenly dry as he desperately looked at the other actors on the stage. Thankfully, Joey began to slowly move towards him.
"Sorry about Jessica," the young man ad-libbed. "Ryan's death affected her more than she lets on. She was kinda close to him."
"How close?" Logan heard himself ask. In the wings, he saw Davis motioning for them to keep the scene going. "Was he like a brother to her or something?"
Joey smiled slightly, pleased that Logan was able to continue the impromptu conversation. "Yeah, I guess you could say that."
Logan looked around at the rest of the actors on the stage. "The way you all interact with each other, it's almost as if you're a family. Siblings, if you will." Logan was amazed at the words that were coming out of his mouth. Silently, he thanked the fates for knowing how Max thought of her fellow X5s. It was her love for her siblings that gave Logan the material he needed to finish out the scene.
Joey shrugged. "Siblings. I like the sound of that. Yeah, I guess you could say that we consider ourselves to be siblings."
"So, Ryan was like a brother to Jessica."
Joey allowed himself to grin at the firmness in Logan's tone. It was obvious to the younger man that he was attempting to make Michael appear to be trying to milk information about Jessica from the other aides, without giving away the fact that he was supposed to be interested in her. Silently, Joey applauded Logan's astute choice of conversation topics. It fit in with the theme of the play perfectly. Before he could reply to Logan, Crystal slowly walked back onto the stage. Both men turned to watch her as she approached.
"I… I'm sorry. I was … overcome … for a moment." She squared her shoulders and assumed a stoic military stance, gazing blankly out into the audience, as if she were awaiting a reprimand.
"It's ok, Jess, really," Logan said softly. "Ryan was like a brother to you, and it's hard to lose a family member like that."
Crystal shot him a quick look, then turned to face forward again. Quietly, Joey slipped back to stand with the other actors, leaving Logan and Crystal to finish the scene by themselves. Realizing that the 'brother' scenario was the way that Joey and Cale had covered her abrupt departure, Crystal nodded slowly. "Yes… like a brother to me. Thank you for understanding."
Logan looked down at the package he was still holding and held it towards here. "Here. I know that this is completely inadequate, but I was hoping that it might make you feel a little bit better." Logan breathed a slow sigh of relief as he managed to return to the play's actual dialogue. Only one more scene to go after this one and act one would be over. For him, it wouldn't be nearly soon enough.
Crystal slowly turned towards him, took the box out of his hands and opened it up. Without a word, she pulled out a small stuffed teddy bear. She studied it in silence for a second, then glanced back up at Logan.
Slowly, silently, the other aides had moved forward, open curiosity on their faces as they waited for Crystal's response to the gift. Crystal's eyes flickered from one face to the next, engulfed in confusion and embarrassment. Finally looking back at Logan, she nodded curtly. "Thank you for the gift, Captain MacArren."
Logan hesitated, then nodded back at her. "You're welcome, Jessica." He looked around at the other aides, as if he had more to say, but wasn't quite willing to voice his thoughts. With another nod, Logan turned and exited the stage the way he had entered.
Almost as one, the other aides descended on Crystal the instant Logan was off stage, surrounding her in a semi-circle of staring faces.
"He likes you," the girl playing Dee insisted. "Just like in that play, 'Romeo and Juliet', that the old nurse snuck in to us that one time."
"He's just being nice," Crystal replied tartly. She pushed her way past the others and moved towards a small trashcan that stood innocently next to one of the bunks. With a flourish, Crystal, dropped the teddy bear into the container.
"Why'd you do that?" Joey asked.
Crystal shrugged. "It's probably just another test. You know how those doctors are."
Another girl, Kathy, shook her head. "I don't know, Jess. This one seems different, somehow. I think Dee is right. I think he likes you."
"Well, I don't like him!" Crystal shouted. "Now, leave me alone." Angrily, Crystal turned her back on her newly named siblings, listening as they slowly backed away from her, grumbling under their breath. Once the last one had left, Crystal sank down wearily on to the bunk, shoulders slumped. She picked up the pillow she had tossed down earlier and hugged it to her chest, her expression unhappy. As she shifted her position on the bunk, her foot absently kicked the trashcan containing the bear. Looking over her shoulder guiltily, Crystal reached down and pulled the teddy bear out of the container. She held it in her hands for several moments, absently staring at it.
"I don't like him!" she furiously told the stuffed animal as she started to throw the it away again. Stopping herself at the last moment, Crystal regarded the bear yet again. With a soft sigh, she set the pillow back on the bed and hugged the bear to her chest. "Well, I don't!" she insisted as the bunkhouse set was abruptly plunged into darkness.
A soft spotlight illuminated the set that was Michael's office, displaying the shadowy figure of Michael at his desk once again.
I must admit, I refused to believe what Brandon was telling me at first. Despite all my trials, and that of my former team, we were still decades away from accomplishing what he was insisting had already been done. No wonder we had groups outside our gates, protesting that we were in here playing God. We were. We had created our Frankenstein creatures. The only reason I was brought into the project was because my theories were flawed somehow. They weren't interested in applying genetics for the good of the human race; they were more interested in making their own master race. One huge conspiracy, designed to absorb my knowledge and put it to use, all without ever letting me in on the truth. They were all in on it, too, Jessica, Ryan, all of them. I've worked side by side with these people for over seven months, yet not one saw fit to enlighten me on what I was really working on.
As the spotlight on Michael's office faded, another spotlight slowly began to illuminate the area across from the office set. It was a small corner of the lab set, and the light upon it barely revealed two, indistinguishable figures. As the sound of Logan's voice trailed off, the lab was bathed in a gentle light.
"Whaddya mean, I may not be able to leave?" Logan glared at Ron across the lab table.
Ron made shushing motions as he looked around anxiously, hoping that no one had overheard the older man's angry outburst. "Do you honestly think that they're going to just let you walk out of here if they know that you know what's really going on?" he asked. Logan frowned. Ron leaned forward, pressing the point he was trying to make. "You've seen the protestors. You know the value of the research we're doing, and the impact it's going to have on the entire world when it's finally out. Do you really believe that you could just transfer to another base if they realized you've discovered what they're doing? Think about it, MacArren, really think about it."
Logan tapped his hand angrily on the table. "Shit," he finally said.
Ron nodded. "You were better off not knowing, which is why no one was allowed to say anything to you. If you're lucky, they won't realize that you know, and you'll be able to get out. Oh, sure, you'll be watched like a hawk, but you won't be stuck on Project Phoenix for the rest of your life."
"My work is my life. Everything that's been done here is a result of my work, but with a megalomaniacal twist. My work has always been intended to save lives, not create some genetically-superior killer." Logan shook his head angrily and began to pace. He turned to face Ron and begin another tirade when Crystal walked in to the lab.
Concentrating on an imaginary space somewhere between the two men, Crystal came to an abrupt halt. "Dr. Malluck, Sir. The Red Team reports that they have identified a possible deviation in one of the genetic markers, and are requesting your presence, Sir."
Ron nodded at her and stood. He shot Logan an unreadable look as he headed for the door.
Logan glared after the other man, then turned his attention to Crystal. She returned his gaze stoically, but her shoulders were tensed up as if she were expecting a blow.
"I guess there wasn't any way any of you could have been anything but perfect," Logan finally stated.
"I don't know what you mean."
"You know exactly what I mean," Logan replied. "You weren't created to be stupid." He laughed bitterly at the look of surprise on her face. "Yeah, I finally figured it out. It was one big joke, wasn't it? All of you, laughing at Captain MacArren, who couldn't see his own work, right in front of his face." Logan turned away from her and leaned against the lab table. "A huge joke."
"A joke?" Crystal repeated. "Do you really think that all of this was done just to play a joke on you?" She snorted contemptuously. "I knew your ego was big, but not this big."
"My work was intended to help others. Not to create…." Logan stopped himself abruptly, realizing the impact of what he was about to say.
"Not to create monsters? Isn't that what you were going to say, Captain?" Her voice broke, as if she were trying to keep her emotions at bay.
"You aren't a monster," Logan said softly, his anger melting away at the hurt in her eyes. "You're perfect."
Crystal laughed cynically. "Far from it. Ryan was proof of that." She looked back at Logan. "Your pet monsters are dying, Captain, one by one. Maybe the next batch won't be as flawed, and your life's work will have been accomplished." Crystal shrugged her shoulders, turned, and walked off the stage, leaving Logan staring after her.
"But, you are my life's work," he said into the silence. "You're my life." As Logan lowered his head, the set slowly faded into darkness, heralding the end of the first act.
The auditorium erupted into applause as the curtains closed. In her seat, Max sat back with a quiet sigh, a smile playing at her lips.
"It looked like Crystal lost it there for a while," Alan stated as he stretched his arms.
Leslie nodded in agreement. "She wasn't looking too well at the end there, either."
"D'you think she'll be able to finish the play?" Max asked.
"Hope so," Alan replied. He looked over at Max and grinned. "I don't think Cale would be able to handle ad-libbing any more scenes."
Max chuckled as she remembered the look on Logan's face as Crystal raced off the stage. "He did look a bit panicked there for a minute, didn't he?"
"He certainly did. I don't know where he pulled that stuff about siblings out from, but it worked."
Max shrugged her shoulders and smiled slightly, feigning ignorance. "Who knows." She looked around, noticing that some of other audience members were headed for the lobby. "Should we go get something to drink?"
"Either that, or go backstage to see how things are going," Leslie suggested.
"I like that idea better."
"Well, let's go then," Alan said. "We can get something to drink back there."
Nodding in agreement, Max led the way out of the aisle and towards the backstage doors. Slipping inside, they followed the short passage that led to the backstage corridor.
A wave of sound hit them as they entered the backstage area; a wave that nearly rivaled the gentle roar of the audience. Making her way to Logan's dressing room, Max was almost immediately separated from Alan and Leslie as they took off in search of refreshments. Finally reaching her destination, Max knocked softly on the door.
At a grunted "Come in", Max opened the door and peeked her head inside. There she saw Davis sitting in the chair she had vacated only an hour ago. Logan was collapsed in the other chair, his glasses on the table in front of him and his head hanging back as he massaged his temples.
Logan started to grin even before he opened his eyes. As he turned to look at her, the intense blueness of his eyes made her breath catch in her throat. His gaze was almost physical, flowing over her body with a heat that made her skin tingle. Max slipped inside the room and shut the door behind her, her eyes never leaving Logan's face. Less than a week ago, she would have broken the stare, embarrassed at meeting, and matching, the heat of Logan's gaze. But somehow, what seemed so frightening less than a week ago now felt more natural than breathing. Right now, she wanted nothing more than to crawl into his lap and kiss him until she was breathless. She wanted to feel his hands on her body, taste his skin on her lips. And from the way Logan was looking at her, it seemed that his thoughts were along the same vein.
Logan slowly rose from his chair, still gazing intently at Max, sending the underlying sexual tension to a new height. Without a word, he approached her, desire darkening his eyes to a deep, midnight blue. Max hadn't moved from her position next to the door, but her eyes followed his every step as he moved towards her. A little, nagging voice tried to get his attention, tried to remind him of something, but he pushed it away. All that mattered was the woman who stood in front of him, her eyes dark with a hungry passion. He stopped, mere inches from her body, and raised one hand to cup her cheek. He traced a sinuous line over her lips with his thumb before moving his hand to the back of her neck. She smiled under his caress, a smile that he answered with one of his own. He caught her gaze one last time, then bent his head forward, anticipating the first touch of her lips upon his own.
A loud crashing noise behind Logan made them both jump and look around. There, on the floor, was Davis, sprawled out across the chair that had obviously just fallen over. The nagging voice that Logan had banished earlier suddenly resurfaced, calmly reminding him that they weren't alone in the room. Max obviously had the same revelation, her expression wavering between mortification at being watched by Davis and amusement at him tipping over backwards in the chair. Amusement seemed to win the war, as her lips twitched with a barely contained smile.
"Uh, sorry 'bout that." Davis' voice came from the floor.
Logan slipped one arm around Max's shoulders, hugging her briefly to his body, before releasing her to go help his friend. Holding one hand out, he helped Davis climb back to his feet. "You could have said something," Logan admonished as Davis brushed himself off.
Davis shook his head and grinned. "And interrupt such an incredible scene? Besides," His grin now took in Max as well. "You knew I was in the room."
This time, embarrassment won out, and Max blushed deeply at Davis' knowing smile. He chuckled as he straightened the overturned chair.
A knock sounded at the closed door. Max turned and opened it to find Debbie standing there. The woman looked harried and frustrated, her eyes immediately locking in on Davis.
"Rich, we need you next door," she said without preamble.
Davis sighed. "Again?" he asked. At Debbie's nod, he ran one hand through his short hair in an aggravated gesture. "Damn it all," he muttered. He checked his watch and sighed again. "Ten minutes until we start again. Damn. Okay, I'm coming."
As Davis and Debbie left, Max turned to look at Logan, the question evident in her face.
"Crystal," Logan replied to her unspoken question. "The minute she was off stage in act one, she came back here and got sick. Apparently, she's getting sick again."
"At least she's getting it out of her system."
"Yeah, I guess."
Max looked up at Logan and smiled softly. "I should probably be getting back to my seat, now."
Slowly, the couple walked to the dressing room door. As Max opened it, she turned to look at Logan. "I'll see you after the show, 'k?"
Logan nodded. "K," he said with an answering smile.
Max reached up and placed one hand along Logan's smooth cheek. With another small smile, she turned and slipped through the door, closing it softly behind her.
Logan sighed deeply as he readied himself for the opening of the curtains. He fidgeted with a pencil for a moment in the darkness, then straightened up and leaned back in his chair as the curtain was drawn aside. A brilliant spotlight lit the lab set, blinding him for a moment. Blinking rapidly, Logan stared at the fake computer screen in front of him as he sat at the small desk in the medical set. A grin pulled at his lips as he realized that the screen was criss-crossed with duct tape; until this moment, he hadn't recognized the piece of equipment that he and Davis had broken earlier that afternoon. Leaning back forward, Logan typed a few commands on the keyboard, then reached out to pick up a sheaf of papers lying next to him. A sound behind him made him turn his head.
Ron nodded a greeting as he walked on to the set. "You have to be the biggest workaholic I've ever met. Don't you ever sleep?"
"I'm close, Brandon. I compared Ryan's DNA, from two months ago and from right after his death." Logan frowned to himself briefly and took a deep breath, pulling out two films from a manila envelope. "See here," he continued, pointing to a spot on each film. "These don't match. This base pair here seems to have mutated. It's right in the middle of the gene that codes for ATP synthase. That doesn't just happen unless-" Logan cut off abruptly and pushed himself to his feet as a third man walked into the room. Both Ron and Logan immediately came to attention as the man paused to study them. It was the same, unnamed bald man who had paced impatiently in the commanding officer's office when Logan first arrived.
Logan and Ron stood at attention, staring at an imaginary point somewhere in the audience. The man hesitated for a moment, then slowly strolled farther into the set. He peered at the duct-taped screen and grunted to himself.
"It looks like you're really coming along, Captain."
Still staring over the audience, Logan responded. "Sir. Yes, Sir."
"Oh, at ease, gentlemen." The stranger absently waved one hand at them. "I'm not here in any official capacity. I was just interested to see what you've come up with lately." He leaned against the lab table and looked at them expectantly.
Logan and Ron looked at each other briefly, then turned their attention back to the man.
"Ah, well, Sir, we did discover a defect in the ATP synthase protein. Basically, the ATP molecule isn't releasing its phosphate unit correctly, resulting in an energy build up, thus causing the cell to-" As the man's eyes began to glass over, Logan's explanation slowly trailed off into silence. He looked over at Ron, who shrugged slightly.
"In a nutshell, Sir, the cell is storing up energy instead of using it in an expected fashion. After a certain point, the cell fries itself and starts a chain reaction in the other cells."
Logan arched one eyebrow at Ron at the overly simplistic explanation, but didn't allow himself any other expression. The man nodded to himself, although it was still apparent that even Ron's generalized description of their work was still too in depth.
"Well, thank you, gentlemen. I think you've answered my questions quite adequately." The man nodded to each of them, turned, and exited the stage.
Logan followed the man for a couple of feet, then turned back to Ron. "The cell fries itself?" he asked Ron. "What kind of explanation is that?"
Ron shrugged. "It's more or less accurate, in a broad sense."
"In a very broad sense," Logan agreed.
"Oh, come on. You saw how he didn't even understand what I said, let alone what you said." Ron frowned briefly, as if he was considering something. "Although, this is the quickest I've ever seen him leave. Maybe we should throw technical jargon at him initially, then start to pare it down piece by piece."
Logan laughed. "Who is he, anyway? I remember seeing him when I first arrived, but this is the first I've seen him since then"
"Actually, he's the second in command for the overall project."
"You are kidding, right?" Logan asked. Ron shook his head, grinning as Logan rolled his eyes. "Save me from bureaucrats."
Ron chuckled in agreement. "Well, I'm off to bed. See ya tomorrow." He brushed by Logan on his way across the stage, towards the wings. At the same time, the now-familiar strawberry-blonde woman stepped on to the stage, carrying a small stack of reports
"Oh, Jessica." Ron turned around and started to walk backwards off the set, forcing her to turn around to face him as he spoke. "I need two copies of last week's data trace report by tomorrow morning. Could you do that for me?"
At the sound of her name, Logan looked up. Since she was facing away from him, he took the opportunity to let his gaze roam over her lovely visage. Without realizing it, he gravitated towards her.
She nodded to Ron's question. "Will ten hundred hours be ok?"
"That would be great. Good night." With a nod to Logan over her shoulder, Ron turned back around and headed off the stage.
As she turned back around, she ran right into Logan, dropping some of the reports in surprise. "Oh! I'm sorry, Sir," she said as she began to kneel and pick up the papers.
Logan froze at the sound of her voice. Slowly, he reached down and cupped her chin in his hand, forcing her to meet his gaze. Instead of the light blue color he was expecting, a pair of rich chocolate brown eyes gazed steadily at him, twinkling with suppressed humor. Logan opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Stunned, he tried to assimilate the situation and recover his composure, but the sight of her, looking nothing like her usual self, nearly did him in.
Max smiled to herself at Logan's surprise. Her thoughts flashed quickly through the sequence of events that led to her taking Crystal's place in the play.
She had just left Logan's dressing room when Davis met her in the hall. "How's Crystal doing," she had asked.
"Oh, great," Davis replied sarcastically. "She passed out on us not two minutes ago."
"Passed out? But the play starts again in less than ten minutes. How's she going to go on?"
"She isn't. I'm going to send in a replacement." He looked at her, his eyes intense.
"Oh, no. I already told you that I wouldn't do it."
"You can't do it if people might recognize you. I don't intend to let them recognize you."
Max's eyes narrowed as she regarded him. "Explain."
Davis let Max into Leslie's sewing room. The young woman looked up as they entered, then pointed to a chair that sat in front of a large mirror.
"Sit," she ordered as she began to rummage in a cabinet opposite the mirror.
Max frowned at both of them. "What's going on?" She turned to look at Leslie, then gasped in surprise as the other woman returned with a reddish-blonde wig in her hands. Max looked back at Davis. "You can't be serious."
"Crystal's a strawberry blonde. We can't suddenly put a dark-haired Jessica on stage, so you'll have to wear a wig." Davis waved her over to the chair Leslie had pointed to earlier. "Try it on, at least," he said. "I think you'll be surprised."
Dubiously, Max settled into the chair. Leslie smiled reassuringly at her as she turned the chair away from the mirror. Max felt her hair pulled into a tight ponytail, twisted and pinned to her head. She tried not to tense up as Leslie's hands paused briefly, one finger lightly trailing across the barcode on the back of her neck.
"Original," the older woman said as she slipped the wig on Max's head.
Max forced herself to chuckle nonchalantly. "Stupid dare tricks."
Davis snorted in understanding. "Know all about those. Got my tongue pierced on a dare. Couldn't talk clearly until I finally just took the thing out for good."
Leslie smiled at Davis' story as she moved around Max, tucking errant strands of hair under the wig. She then picked up a small jar of light brown powder and lightly dusted Max's eyebrows. Stepping back from her handiwork, she looked over at Davis.
Grinning, Davis reached out and spun the chair around so Max could get a look at herself in the mirror.
Max's eyes widened in surprise at the image that stared back at her. Gone were her raven locks; replaced by a fall of gentle red-gold curls. Max looked up at the grinning pair, then back at the figure in the mirror, amazed at the transformation.
Davis leaned forward and regarded her mirror image. "So, can we get you fitted for a costume in less then five minutes?"
The rush of activity to get Max fitted was barely controlled chaos. After receiving her affirmative answer, Leslie had pulled Max out of the chair and back down the hall towards Crystal's dressing room, leaving Davis behind in her haste. "You're a little taller than Crystal, but the boots should be high enough to hide the end of the pants," she said as they entered. She tossed a pair of pants at Max, turned to give her a quick once-over, and groaned. "God, the shirt's going to be too tight across the bust, and I don't have time to let it out. Okay, you're going to have to wear just the tee and keep the camo unbuttoned. It's too un-official looking, but we don't have much of a choice right now."
As Leslie was speaking, Max was ridding herself of her dress, being careful not to pull the wig off. She shot a quick glance at Crystal, who was lying on the couch, oblivious to all the activity going on around her. She slipped on the pants and deftly caught the tee shirt that Leslie had blindly tossed over her shoulder. As she was tucking the shirt into the pants, a knock sounded at the door. Before either of them could respond, the door opened and Debbie slipped into the room.
"Davis wants to know how you're doing, Lez."
"Here, do these boots fit?" Leslie handed Max a pair of socks and combat boots before turning her attention to Debbie. "I think we're outfitted."
"The boots are a little loose, but they fit okay," Max said.
Both women turned to look at Max and Debbie smiled. "You look great. C'mon, we're about to start. Fantastic job, Lez." Leslie grinned as Debbie motioned for Max to precede her out of the room.
As Max and Debbie reached the wings, Max realized that the second act had just started and that Logan was already on stage. She turned to look at Davis, who motioned her over.
"I know you know this already, but this is for the sake of my sanity," he whispered. "There is only one scene that Jessica doesn't have with Michael. It's in scene seven. It's when you and the other aides are rounded up for extermination. You'll be lying in your bunk when the guards come in from stage right. This is the only scene where you might have to be careful, because we'll have the strobes going. Since you don't know the fight, all you'll need to do is move to the far left and wait for it to finish. Just remember to put the bear out."
"Actually, I know the fight," Max stated.
Davis' eyebrows shot up in surprise. "You do? How- No, nevermind. I don't need to know how." Davis shook his head in admiration. "You continue to amaze me. Logan's a lucky man." He continued on, switching back to the original subject before Max could formulate a reply. "No lines, in that scene. Just the fight." He looked out at the action on the stage. "It's almost time for you to go into this scene. This one is where you'll enter stage right, and start to cross to center as Ron approaches you. He'll pass in front of you, then turn around. You turn around to face him, so that your back is to Logan. After he leaves, you do an about face and run into Logan." Davis looked at her and smiled. "I have no doubt as to your ability to carry this off," he said. "And I wanted to take the time to thank you for helping us out. Both you and Cale have done more than your share, and it hasn't gone unnoticed."
Max looked down at her boots, unsure as to how to respond.
"Nicole, get ready," Debbie whispered fiercely, waving her over to the curtains.
Max looked up at Davis and grinned. "Well, the show must go on," she said. Turning, she joined Debbie at the edge of the curtains and waited until she heard her cue. Taking a deep breath, Max stepped out on to the stage and into the lights.
"Captain, are you all right?" Max asked as she slowly picked up the papers she had dropped.
"Uh, yeah. Yeah, I'm fine … Jessica. Thank you." Logan was starting to overcome his shock at seeing Max on the stage with him. He watched her pick up the reports, then squatted down to help her, frowning as she flinched away from him.
"Here are the reports you asked for earlier, Sir." Her voice was flat and empty as she handed him the papers.
Absently, Logan took the papers from her. He was still trying to comprehend the fact that Max was on stage with him. It amazed him that she was willing to re-live the horrors of her childhood, no matter that the play was just a pale echo of her reality. A strong desire to protect her, to shelter her from the world, surged through his body. He reached out to touch her face.
"Sir, are you all right?"
As her actual words penetrated his brain, Logan drew back his hand, recalling that they were on stage in the middle of a play.
"Ma- Ni- Jessica," Logan finally managed to get out. "Why are you angry at me?"
Max straightened up and stared at a point over his shoulder. "Anger is an emotion, Sir. I was not created to have emotions."
"Phony sentimentality." Logan smiled as Max shot him a surprised look. He smiled gently at her. "Emotions are all part of being human, Jessica." When she didn't respond, Logan tried a different tract. "I owe you an apology."
Max's eyebrows shot up in astonishment, then fell back into a frown as she finally met his gaze. "What for?"
"For taking my anger out on you the other day when I found out about …. all this. You're more of a pawn in this than I am. And you're not the one I should be angry at." He stepped closer to her.
Automatically, Max backed up a step, falling back into the safety of her military façade. "There isn't any reason for you to apologize to me, Sir."
Logan stepped closer again. "Please, call me Michael."
"I wouldn't presume to call you by your first name, Sir."
"It's a request."
"A request or an order?"
"Just a request."
"Then I'll take your request into consideration." Her gaze flickered to his face, then back over his shoulder. "Sir."
Logan grinned. The banter in the play was so reminiscent of their usual repartee, it was almost scary. "How long have you been with Project Phoenix?"
Max's brows creased slightly as she considered the question. "I've always been here."
Logan frowned to himself. "You can't have been born here," he muttered to himself. "We didn't really start to understand how to truly manipulate the strands until the turn of the century." He turned his attention back to her. "How many were there, originally?"
She didn't need to ask what he meant. "Fifty," she said, softly.
"And only eleven left. It doesn't make sense!" Frustrated, he stabbed at the stage with his cane. "If you've been here all your life, that means that the project has been going on for at least twenty years. You couldn't have been…" his voice trailed off as he fought to find the word he wanted to use.
"Created?" she supplied.
"Created," he repeated with a touch of disgust, "using my theories, because I've only been in genetics for just over five years."
"Well, then, I guess your good name won't be associated with the creation of monsters, will it?" Her tone was dangerously low as she gazed fiercely at him. "Obviously, that's what's most important to you."
"No. What's important to me is figuring out where everything went wrong," he corrected her. "What's important to me is figuring out how to fix it." He moved closer to her, catching her hand before she could step away from him again.
She looked up at him in surprise, only to be immediately caught in an intense gaze. Unseen by the audience, Logan's thumb sensuously stroked the palm of her hand. Max knew the caress had nothing to do with the play; it was for her and her alone. Such a simple movement, yet it was turning her legs to jelly. Her breath came in short, rapid gasps, as she stood there looking up into his eyes.
"What's important to me," he continued, as he gazed deeply at her, "is you."
The sexual tension on the stage skyrocketed. Max licked her lips and smiled slightly as she saw his eyes widen in surprise, before darkening with suppressed passion. She started to step closer to him when a warning bell went off in her head, reminding her that she was playing a character in a show.
With a start, Max suddenly pulled her hand out of his grasp and backed away from him. "I… I have to go, now." As he started to protest, Max shook her head. "Really. I have to go." Without another word, she turned and fled the set, leaving Logan staring after her.
The lights on the set went out.
In the audience, Alan leaned over towards Leslie. "When the hell did Nicole step in for Crystal?"
"Finally noticed that, did you?" Leslie asked wryly.
Alan snorted softly. "You did a great job with the wig. I'll admit, I didn't know it wasn't Crystal until just now."
"What tipped you off?"
"Oh, just the fact that that scene was only intended to bring out moderate sexual tension between the two characters, but instead, it jumped right into the 'hot-n-steamy' category, and all they did was stare at each other."
Leslie chuckled softly. "Yeah, Cale and Nicole do manage to get a hell of a lot across with just a look, don't they?"
A very pointed glare from another audience member made them both chuckle quietly and turn their attention back to the stage.
Logan absently flipped on the light as he and Ron entered the small office. As Logan moved around his desk, Ron peered at the papers he held in his hands. Shaking his head in wonder, he looked up as Logan opened a drawer in the desk, bringing forth a small vial of liquid. He sat the papers down on the desk as Logan handed him the bottle. Holding it up to the light, Ron whistled low under his breath. "A mutagen inhibitor. Are you sure it'll work?"
"No, I'm not," Logan replied. He reached out and picked up the sheaf of papers Ron had just been reading and glanced at them absently. "But I can only theorize that it was a spontaneous gene-level mutation. If we can block the mutation, we won't have any more deaths like Ryan's." He looked at Ron, questioningly, as he set the papers back down neatly on the desk. "You did say that all the post-mortems were the same, right?"
Ron nodded. "Yeah. The ATP synthase gene was all wacked out in the same base pair for all of them."
"Wacked out," Logan repeated, with a slight smile. "Is that a technical term?"
Ron snapped to attention, and saluted Logan crisply. "No, Sir. The correct term is FUBAR, Sir."
Logan chuckled and retrieved the vial from Ron. He swirled the bottle lazily between his fingers, studying the flow of the dark, green liquid. "The trouble is, I don't know what kind of reaction the inhibitor would cause, if any. It could very well block normal processes as well as the mutation, and then where would we be?" Logan set the bottle in a tray on the desk and rubbed his eyes. "I can't think anymore tonight. My brain is FUBAR."
Ron grinned at him. He opened his mouth to reply when Logan suddenly straightened up and looked around. Ron frowned. "Is something the matter?"
Logan paused, then shook his head absently. "No, I guess not. I just thought I heard something." He turned back to face Ron. "Let's tackle this in the morning."
"My thoughts, exactly."
Without another word, the two men walked out of the room, Logan shutting off the light behind them. The office was bathed in a subtle glow from the stage lighting, apparently empty, until a lithe figure moved out of a darkened corner.
Silently, Max padded towards the desk. A small flash briefly outlined the desk's contents as Max's penlight shone across it, halting as it reached the vial Logan and Ron had been discussing only moments before. Placing the end of the penlight in her mouth, Max pulled out a syringe and set it down on the desk. She was in the process of rolling up her sleeve when the office lights flared on.
Spinning on her heel, Max turned to see Logan standing in the doorway. By his expression, she knew that he realized what she had planned to do. In two quick strides, he was next to her, his fingers closing over hers as she reached for the vial.
"Jess, no. It's too dangerous."
"It may be our only chance," she replied.
"I don't know what the side-affects could be. It could kill you."
"And one small genetic mutation will kill me."
Logan sighed angrily. "I knew I heard something earlier. You were eavesdropping. How much did you hear?"
"All of it." Max sank back on the desk and looked up at Logan. "I heard you and Dr. Malluck talking a couple of days ago, about how you discovered why Ryan died." She hugged herself, as if the memory of his death sent a shiver down her spine. A small smile came to her lips as she continued. "But then, you went on to try to find a cure. None of the other doctors would have done that."
Logan ignored her comment about the other doctors. "Jess, I'm still trying to find a cure. That vial is only my first attempt. I don't know if it'll even work. I need to study this some more before I start to try administering a mutagen inhibitor."
Max rolled up her sleeve and offered him her arm. "So study. Please." Her plea cut off his protest. "Time isn't a luxury we have." She looked up into his eyes and smiled softly. "Please?"
Logan hesitated, then closed his eyes and sighed in defeat. "Promise me that you will instantly come to me if you have any type of reaction, from a hangnail to a headache. I don't care what time of the day or night it is, or what I'm doing, you will come to me."
"Cross my heart."
Logan tied off her arm and shook his head as he filled the syringe. Taking her arm in one hand, he looked into her eyes. "I sincerely hope we're not going to regret this."
Max smiled slightly. "No regrets, Captain. No regrets."
The stage went dark.
Alan had to admit to himself that Cale was much more at ease now that Nicole was in the play with him. The banter between the two characters flowed a great deal more naturally, even with the underlying sexual tension that laced every word spoken between the pair. There was a comfortable air between them; similar to the impression that some actors gave when the show they were doing paralleled their own lives, to some extent. Alan shook his head, amused by his own thoughts. The notion that Cale and Nicole were somehow involved in covert government experiments was absurd. The only way the show mimicked their own lives was the fact that the two lead characters refused to acknowledge the attraction between them, much the way Cale and Nicole had been earlier in the week.
As another sigh softly echoed through the audience, Alan chuckled softly to himself. Crystal and I are going to be hard pressed to duplicate this level of passion. I would expect this type of audience reaction from experienced actors, but Cale and Nicole are generating enough heat to melt the polar ice caps, and that's just in the looks they share. A strangled gasp from behind made him look over his shoulder. There, a woman surreptitiously dabbed at her eyes as she watched the scene unfold on the stage. Turning his attention back to the play, Alan realized that the order had been given that Phoenix Project was to be terminated and Michael had just received his transfer orders.
Dazed, Logan returned to his office to find that it was already packed up. Two large, uniformed guards were waiting for him just inside the door. Slowly, he walked into the room, trailing his fingers across the desk as he looked around.
"Sir, your car is waiting," one of the guards said.
Logan nodded absently. "I'm sure it is, Corporal." He looked around once more, then turned to head out of the room.
Before he had moved two feet, Ron burst into the office. "I'm glad I caught you. I wanted to make sure to tell you what a pleasure it has been working with you, Doctor," Ron said, breathlessly, as he held out a hand.
Logan took the hand and shook it, eyes widening slightly. "Ah, thank you, ah, Doctor. It's been a pleasure working with you, too."
Ron eyed Logan's escorts briefly. "Well, I won't keep you any longer. Best of luck to you."
"And to you."
With a quick nod, Ron turned on his heel and left the office. Indicating that the guards should lead the way, Logan looked quickly at the note Ron had handed him before stuffing the paper in his pocket and following the guards out the door.
The men walked through a brief patch of darkness, emerging on the other side onto the lab set. Logan walked stoically behind his hulking escorts as they approached the aides, who were facing them, rigidly at attention. Max was in the last rank on the downstage end. Their eyes met as he strode towards her, an emotion of which words had never spoken pouring through their shared glance. As he passed her, he stopped and turned around, raising his hand to touch her. She turned to look over her shoulder at him, her arm mimicking his own as she reached out. Their fingers had barely touched when the drill sergeant screamed at her to get back at attention. Max's head snapped forward, a tear-suppressed "Sir!" escaping her lips as Logan turned back around and rejoined his escorts.
The rest of the play seemed to go by at warp speed. A brief scene showed the commanding officer of Project Phoenix sitting at his desk, giving his second in command the order to schedule the termination of the project's aides. At the man's crisp salute, the lights dimmed on the office set and gently illuminated the bunkhouse. There, sleeping peacefully, were Jessica and the other aides.
Suddenly, guards stormed onto the set and the theatre was plunged into darkness. Three large flashing strobes immediately flared into being, punctuating the action on the stage like a rapid heartbeat. Shouts and cries from the stage echoed through the auditorium as a fight broke out between the guards and the doomed aides. The sickening zap of electricity heralded the fall of one aide after another, as the guards, armed with tazers, slowly began to win the melee. The sound of battle dwindled into silence as the last aide was brought down and the strobes were suddenly stilled. A single, dim glow slowly blanketed the stage. There, the only evidence remaining to the fight were overturned cots, bedclothes strewn about and, sitting forlornly in the middle of the set, the stuffed bear that Michael had given Jessica.
Logan slammed down the phone in frustration. "What's going on out there?!" He shouted to his aide. "Have you broken into their mainframe yet?"
"No, not yet," came the reply.
Logan swept the phone off of the desk in a violent motion and dropped into his seat, head in hands. "Goddammit!" he shouted into the silence.
"I'm in!" Joey burst into the room. "They've scheduled them all for termination via lethal injection at oh-three hundred hours this morning."
"Can you forge a change of orders?" Logan asked as he struggled out of his seat.
The aide shook his head. "No, Sir. The orders have alpha-one clearance. They're shutting down the project completely out there."
Logan slowly sank back down in his chair. "It's one a.m. now," Logan said. "That leaves me two hours to try and figure out how to save all of them." He paused and ran a hand through his short hair. "Okay, find out what they are using as the lethal, and make me a counter for it, enough for a dozen, no two dozen doses."
"Anything else?" Joey asked.
"Yeah, pray to whatever deity you believe in that Brandon is still there and is willing to help us out," Logan replied as he reached for the phone once more.
The stage was lit by a single spotlight as Logan cautiously moved into its muted glow. He advanced slowly, peering into the darkness, as if looking for someone.
"Michael?" a voice asked.
Logan spun around as Ron walked into the light. "Don't do that," Logan whispered fiercely.
"Sorry," Ron responded. He looked around. "Are you alone?"
Logan nodded. "Yeah, are you?"
Ron nodded as well. "You know, they'll probably court-martial you for this. Hell, they'll probably court-martial both of us, right before they shoot us."
"They don't ever need to know that you're involved. I've already sent everything I know about the project to Jay, that radical friend of yours, and I've made sure that the only names mentioned were our commanding officers. He should get the package tomorrow, and hopefully, it'll all be over by then. Now, can you get me back onto the base?"
Ron grimaced. "Yeah, but I can't help you much once you're in." He checked his watch. "It's oh-two ten now. It'll take twenty-five minutes to get back inside and then another ten to get to the medical center. At oh-two-fifty-five, Jay is going to initiate another demonstration, which should take up most of the guards' attentions. Right now, Jennings and I are the only ones left, and we're scheduled to do the terminations." Ron scowled at the thought. "Jennings doesn't give a damn that we're killing eleven innocent people. All he cares about is his next grant."
"I'll take care of everything once I get inside." Logan looked at Ron and stuck out his hand. "Thanks for helping me, Brandon."
"You're saving the lives of those kids. That's all that's important."
Logan nodded. "Let's go."
As the spotlight faded out, the medical set was slowly lit up. Three rows of medical gurneys filled the far side of the stage, separated from the medical set by the single observation window. Eleven figures lay motionless on the beds and the silence was only broken by the subdued beeping sounds of eleven heart monitors. Cautiously, Logan slipped into the room opposite from the sleeping aides through the upstage door. A large clock, mounted above the door, showed the time to be less than ten minutes before three. Logan started to head for the main console, then cursed softly to himself as the sound of footsteps approached.
Slipping into the small space between two filing cabinets, Logan watched as two doctors walked into the room, unaware of the danger they were in. Slowly, Logan drew the gun that was tucked into the waist of his pants and crept out of his hiding place. Raising the gun high, he brought it down on Ron's head. Not hard enough to kill him, but hard enough to knock him out. As Ron slumped forward, the other doctor turned around irritably. His eyes widened as he saw Ron's motionless figure on the floor and a gun pointed at his face. Without warning, the doctor sprang for a large button on the console, hitting it before he, too, was knocked into unconsciousness and fell to the ground.
"Damn! Where's the shut-off!" Logan swore as he searched the console. Frantically, he ran his fingers down the row of buttons. "There!" he nearly shouted as he punched a button and ran through the door that led into the next room. Once through, he started disconnecting I.V. tubing. Groggily, the young men and women started to wake as Logan worked down the line. Two of them stumbled forward and started to help him when one, the young girl playing Dee, gasped in shock.
"The drip didn't stop for them!" she whispered fiercely. "They've gotten a partial dose!"
Logan darted to her side and looked at the monitor, then at the three bodies lying motionless on their beds. "Get me three heart syringes, stat!" he nearly shouted as he reached into his pocket for the antidote his aide had created. The girl rushed off and started feverishly searching the cabinets for the necessary equipment. With a soft shout of triumph, she returned to Logan's side, syringes in hand.
"God, please let this work," Logan muttered as he filled up one syringe and plunged it directly into the chest of the first of the three. "Baer, monitor him, and let me know if his blood pressure starts to drop," Logan instructed a tall young man, one of the first to wake up. "Dee, you help me."
He went to the second, calling out instructions to the others of what signs to look for that would indicate that the anti-toxin wasn't working. When he reached the third and last person, he gasped. "Jessica! Oh, God. Jessica!" Frantically, he filled a new syringe and leaned over her as he pushed the needle into her heart.
"It's working!" Baer called over to him as he helped the first one of the three sit up.
Logan shared a relieved grin with the girl playing Dee as he reached out to hug her. As Max sat up and let Logan help her off of the gurney, he looked over at the others.
"C'mon, we're getting out of here for good," he said grimly.
Off in the wings, Davis smiled as he watched the drama on stage and listened to the audience's reaction. The scattered applause as Max sat up was followed by gasps of anxiety as it became obvious that the escape hadn't gone unnoticed. Just as Logan and the others had reached the 'fence' that delineated the perimeter of the base, a klaxon sounded the alert. Quickly, they slipped under the fence and scattered; the three that had received the near fatal doses helped by those that had not. Logan slung his arm around Max's waist and half-carried her towards center stage as the rest of the set went dark. A single spotlight illuminated the couple as they stepped over onto a revolving section of the floor that allowed Logan to stumble along in place, as if he were running from the search parties.
Peripherally, Davis was aware that the set behind the pair was being changed in the darkness, but his eyes were riveted to the sight in front of him. Finally, they stepped off of the moving floor and the stage was highlighted in a dim glow. Slowly, the pair entered the abandoned building and settled down into a far corner. Seconds later, four guards with flashlights and guns and one guard with a leashed dog entered on the opposite end of the stage.
Logan glanced up as voices shouted right outside of their hiding place.
"Michael!" Max looked up at him as her shoulders started to visibly shake.
Logan looked down at her and paled. "Oh, God, Jess, don't go into arrest. Not now!" he pleaded with her. Helplessly, he held her tightly to his chest. "God, Jess, hold on!"
In response, Max reached up to gently stroke his cheek. She started to speak, but was cut off as a violent shudder racked her body. Her eyes opened wide and her back arched, as if she were in pain. With a final gasp, she slumped back into his arms, her head lolling to one side. Logan reached out and traced the line of her face with a single finger, shaking his head in denial. Seemingly, of its own violation, his hand stroked her brow, sliding up into her red-gold hair. He inhaled sharply for a moment, wondering if he had dislodged the wig, but it was secure enough to withstand his manhandling. Logan pulled her close once more, rocking her back and forth slowly, as his shoulders shook with his quiet sobbing.
On the other side of the building, one of the soldiers opened the door and quickly stepped back as a foul odor flooded over him.
"Damn. No one could hide in there," he said as he covered his nose with his free hand.
"Search it, anyway," the officer in charge instructed.
"Yes, Sir," the guard responded.
Slowly, he and the other flashligted guard crept in, shining their lights all over the interior of the building. The moved around methodically and carefully, coming closer and closer to the small alcove that Logan and Max hid in. One of the guards passed his light directly over Logan's head, but didn't set up a shout that they had been found.
Finally, the first guard nudged the second. "C'mon. They aren't here. And if I have to stay much longer, I may lose my dinner because of this stench."
The second guard nodded and together, they left the building.
The dead silence in the entire auditorium was broken only by a prodigious amount of sniffing and muffled nose-blowing, as Michael gently laid Jessica back on the cold, hard ground. Alan glanced around, noting that a good portion of the audience around him had tears freely flowing down their cheeks. Even Leslie, where she sat beside him, had tears in her eyes as she watched Michael say his last goodbyes to Jessica. To the other side of him, a gentle gasp and strangled 'Oh, no' made him look back up towards the stage.
There, Michael had picked up the gun and pointed it at his own head. He reached out to stroke Jessica's face gently, then bent over to kiss his love the first and last time.
Logan leaned forward, his lips barely an inch away from Max's when her chest heaved with a loud gasp. Logan dropped the gun he had been holding and grabbed her shoulders, helping her sit up as she fought for air. He was crying and laughing all at the same time as he hugged her close to him.
"I thought I'd lost you," he whispered into her hair.
"Remember when you told me to report any adverse reactions to the mutagen inhibitor? Well, I think I just had one."
Logan stroked her face gently. "The mutagen inhibitor probably had a side-affect of intensifying the affects of the lethal they gave you, so your body had to shut down while the anti-toxin neutralized it."
"The only part of your work that they did get right," she responded, "was to give us the ability to handle a lot of shit and keep on going."
Logan smiled in response and hugged her even tighter.
"Michael, why … why did you come back?" She asked in a small voice.
He smiled at her. "Don't you know?"
"I'm not sure."
He stroked the side of her face gently. "I love you. Plain and simple. I think I fell in love with you the moment I met you. The perfect soldier, trained to be a ruthless killer, but with a loyal, true, and loving heart. So perfect."
Logan smiled down at her as her eyes widened in surprise at his words. "I was afraid you could never be interested in someone like me. I was afraid I would hold you back, maybe even get you killed. I'm terrified that I still will, especially now, but I can't keep going without letting you know how I feel. I've been so intent on helping faceless people that I've never met, that I wasn't able to see what was staring me right in the face. You are more important to me than any genetic theory or lost cause or cable hack. I love you. I really do."
Max laughed shakily and wiped a tear from one eye as she regarded the man in front of her. "I love you, too," she said at last, sounding a little surprised at herself. "I'm … I'm afraid, though. Afraid that the fact that I was bred to be a cold-hearted soldier will overpower my desire to be human. Afraid that I'm not really capable of being able to handle emotions like this."
Logan shook his head. "But it's exactly those fears that makes you human. Everyone is afraid of falling in love at some point. But I think we'll be able to tackle it together. I love you. You are the other half of my soul, now and forever."
From the wings, Debbie frantically flipped through the script while Davis watched the scene unfold on stage. "I can't find that dialogue. Is that anywhere in the script?" she asked.
"Not a single damn word of it," Davis responded with a smile.
Slowly, Logan pulled Max into his arms. He looked down into her tear-stained face and smiled. "I love you, Max," he whispered so quietly that the stage mics didn't pick up his words.
"I love you, Logan," she replied, just as quietly.
His lips hovered above hers, barely touching them, as he gazed into her eyes. He could feel her breath on his mouth as he slowly began to tease her lips with his tongue. She shivered slightly as her skin tingled from his light touch. Every point of her body that was in contact with Logan burned with a desperate longing. She was on fire with need for him, and his gentle teasing was driving her mad. She groaned softly and leaned into him, one hand snaking around his neck to draw him down to her.
The first touch of their lips was electric, setting off a passion that would not be denied. Pulling Max tightly in to his body, Logan devoured her mouth with his own. Nothing mattered except that their pent up desire had finally found its release. The kiss was everything he had ever imagined it would be and, at the same time, completely unimaginable. His blood raged through his body as he kissed her; his fingers tangling in her hair as he gathered her even closer. Slowly, he began to lower her to the ground, his lips still locked on hers, as he deepened the kiss once more. Around them, the world seemed to dim. Neither one noticed.
Alan shook his head. "I knew he was going to forget how to do a stage kiss," he said to no one in particular. Leslie smirked at him and leaned into his shoulder, a happy smile on her face.
A loud burst of applause and cheers shocked Max and Logan out of the kiss. Logan looked up just in time to see the curtain close on a darkened stage.
"Ohmygod, we weren't just making out in front of three hundred people, were we?" Max asked, mortified.
Logan looked down at her and started to laugh. "Yeah, I think we were," he replied. "C'mon, let's get off this stage so we can take our curtain call and then put all this behind us," he said as he helped her to her feet.
Max pulled his head down for another deep kiss. "Well," she said when she finally released him. "We're not going to put all of it behind us."
"Oh, no," he agreed. "I can definitely see a sequel in the very near future."
With a wicked grin, he took her hand and together they exited, stage right.