Author's Note: I'm not dead. Apparently, neither is this story.
Exit Strategy, Chapter 2
"Yeah, some guy called Donald Lydecker…Hey, you still there? …Hello?"
They stared at each other, momentarily frozen.
Logan recovered first, spurred into action by a combination of the unfamiliar look of fear on Max's face and a sudden rush of adrenaline, and he remembered the persistent voice calling to him through the telephone. "Yeah, I'm here. Listen to me, Donald Lydecker isn't a fed and he's nobody's friend. Steer clear of him; he's dangerous," and he disconnected the call before Matt Sung had time to ask any more questions. Still looking at Max, he unconsciously rubbed the back of his neck and said, "Well, this probably isn't good."
That was an understatement.
Logan released a sigh as he made a decision, then he turned to his computer keyboard and typed Bene qui latuit bene vixit, activating the code that was designed especially for emergencies like these. Within seconds the Informant Net was shutdown. All activity would be frozen and locked until Logan entered the counter code, and a final message went out to every e-mail and cell phone in the contact list with a single word of warning: UNSECURE, letting everyone know that there had been a breech and the usual means of communication were no longer safe.
Max clenched her teeth, trying to suppress the momentary panic that had gripped her after hearing that her worst enemy was so near, and she chastised herself for her moment of weakness. (Fear accomplishes nothing!)
She reminded herself that she was better than that, stronger. After all, she was built to kick ass, take names, and look good doing it. (You are the ultimate soldier!) Fear wasn't an option.
"I'm taking the Informant Net offline," Logan explained as he continued to close off his files, "and cutting communications. That should slow the hacks down."
It was a start, but if Max had learned anything on her time on the outside, it was not to underestimate the persistence of Donald Lydecker. The man was ruthless, and Max knew that he would never stop coming after her. (Destroy your enemy's resources! Leave them with nowhere else to turn!) He would hunt her like an animal until there was no place left for her to run.
Except that right now he wasn't hunting her, was he?
It dawned on her that Lydecker wasn't combing the city looking for her this time, he was trying to track down Logan, and he was pulling out the big guns to do it. Taking over a police station and picking people up off of the street were some pretty public displays of power. What was he trying to accomplish? Her panic was edged aside by thoughtfulness as she tried to get into her enemy's head like she had been taught to all those years ago. (Know your enemy!)
"Why is he going after Eyes Only at all?" Max wondered aloud. "He can't be that pissed about the hack you did? I mean, the guy has ego problems, but this is a hell of a lot of revenge just because you warned off some x5s. Why does he think you're so special all of a sudden?"
Logan's hands suddenly stilled over the keyboard.
"I don't think he's just coming after me, I think he's planning on coming after you through me. My guess is that he's finally figured out that Eyes Only has 452's home phone number."
"Maybe," she agreed. "Ever since that hack we did with Zack, he knows we're connected. Either way, looks like he's coming. Remember that conversation we were having a few minutes ago about me saving your ass?"
"Yeah, about that – Max, I think you should get out of town for a little while, until this all blows over."
"But what about you?"
"Don't worry about me. I'll be alright," he assured her with a tight lipped smile and an almost unnoticeable flicker in his eyes.
"Logan!" Exasperation made her raise her voice. "Manticore is putting some extra-strength effort into tracking you down. We've got to get you out of here."
"No, we've got to get you out of here," he snapped back. Logan took a breath and tried to temporize, molding his voice into calmer, more persuasive tones. "Max, he's already got at least two of my guys. It's not long before he figures out that I'm next in the chain of command. Look, he doesn't know that I'm Eyes Only – as far as everyone's concerned, I'm just another guy that reports to him. Lydecker won't know that you and I are connected; he'd just try to use me to get to the next level. If he does find me, I can at least buy you some time."
"I'm sorry, but did you become stupid when I wasn't paying attention?" Max was practically yelling now, and her eyes locked with Logan's in an intense battle of wills. "If Lydecker figures out who you are, he won't ask politely about how we met, and he won't thank you for warning away the others with your hack, and he sure as hell won't let you walk away to tell the tale."
"And if Lydecker catches you, you've lost everything, Max!" Logan raised his voice to equal hers. "You have a good head start, and we both know you can move faster on your own. I can handle Lydercker if I have to. We both know that what they do to you will be worse than what they'll do to me and…"
"We can debate the meaning of literal hell later," she interrupted.
"…It will be worse for you. Max, please," his voice softened, losing its detached anger and intensifying with emotion as he pleaded with her to understand what he was really saying, "This is the best way; you know you can move faster without me. Just run."
And even though Max didn't want to admit it, part of her was tempted to listen to him.
(Always have an exit strategy!) Donald Lydecker's barked orders always echoed through her head. They were profound lessons hammered into her head at an early age, the way most children learn to look both ways before they cross the street or to brush their teeth before they go to bed. She remembered the lectures, sitting ramrod straight and still, hands flat and motionless in front of her, while the colonel taught them how to hunt their enemy, the way the colonel now hunted her. She was trained by Lydecker, he guided all her decisions, he had taught her everything she knew.
Except for Logan, who had taught her a few things himself. Since she had dropped into his life and landed ankle deep in his never ending crusade, he had taught her to look out for others and that sometimes you had to make a sacrifice to do what was right and he had taught her that there were things worth fighting for, not just running from. And Lydedcker would never understand that…would he?
Yeah, Logan would slow her down. She still heard Lydecker's voice: Always have an exit strategy, always know your way out, always have a plan! And she had listened to him. Max knew every exit out of Seattle, the marked gates and the unmarked ones, and she even knew about one or two that weren't even on the smuggler's map. She always had a bag packed and never let her bike run out of gas if she could help it, she kept a stash of cash handy whenever she could get it. She had all sorts of escape plans, and none of them involved dragging Logan along with her.
But she couldn't just leave him, not for Lydecker to find, especially since she figured it was all her fault for setting him on Logan's ass anyway. Every time she thought this part of her life had chilled out, Donald Lydecker showed up again, trying to take away everything she had built up for herself. Well, he had already taken too damned much! He had taken Eva all those years ago and he had taken Brin just last month. Separate the enemy from their support system, she heard his voice echo. He had tried to take all of her family, but she was damned if she would let them take Logan away from her too. If Lydecker was still guiding her decisions, then Manicore still owned her, and she was tired of it.
"You know I'll only slow you down," Logan continued, his eyes still pleading with her to understand.
The fierce glare she gave him showed that she wasn't about to put up with any of Logan's self-sacrificial nonsense – not today, and not over this. "Then we better get a head start. Move your ass."
Logan let out a deep sigh. He had tried, and he figured he might be able to persuade her to make a break for it later on if he could convince her that he wasn't in any immediate danger, so he reluctantly agreed. "Do you have a plan?"
"Do I ever?"
"Director, I have Agent Sandoval on the line."
"Put him through." Madame Renfro ordered. She picked up her headset and demanded without preamble, "What's he up to?"
"Ma'am?" Agent Sandoval asked.
"Don't even pretend you don't know who I mean. I'm not in the mood. He took his team back to Seattle and commandeered the whole damn police station, which has annoyed a lot of people, and now they're annoying me. Now you will tell me exactly what Donald Lydecker is doing."
Sandoval did some rapid calculations. Lydecker might be intimidating, but Madame Renfro was downright terrifying; she didn't live by a code like the colonel did. And it wasn't like it was his own mission that was under scrutiny, so he had no real reason to lie for Lydecker. Besides, with luck, this conversation would never get back to him.
"The Colonel is investigating the underground cyberjournalist that goes by 'Eyes Only'. He thinks this reporter is closely connected to X5-452."
"And why would he think that?" Renfro carefully asked.
"Based on the cable hacks that went out to the rogue x-series, along with something the reporter let slip when he contacted Colonel Lydecker to investigate the 493 situation, ma'am."
"Let me see if I understand this correctly," there was a hint of laughter in Renfro's voice, but Sandoval knew better than to find humor in their conversation. "There is a reporter out there who knows all about the escaped x-series soldiers, and he recently contacted Colonel Lydecker for a statement?"
"Something like that, ma'am. Colonel Lydecker thinks that this journalist has a personal connection to 452, and he's utilizing Seattle's resources to try to find him."
This time Renfro laughed out loud, she couldn't help it.
She reached for a Vicodin to counteract the headache she knew would be along soon, and poured herself a small glass of gin to swallow it down with, just to be safe. She decided that she could live to be a hundred, and she would never understand what made ol' Deck tick. An untraceable cyberjournalist, for chrissake! And one that had already proven that he could leak important information about the project if it suited him. If news of Manticore were ever made public, the committee would shut the operation down so fast that none of the bodies would ever be identified, her own included. If Lydecker had any sense of self-preservation he would have eliminated this Eyes Only character the first moment he had the opportunity. Instead, he was trying to piss him off, making a very public spectacle of himself just to try and get a lead on one girl, a worthless '09er who could stay lost forever as far as she was concerned. Why would he risk something like that? She obviously needed to shut him down before he got them all killed…
Then again, this might just be an opportunity presenting itself. If she gave Deck enough rope, he might hang himself with it, and if she monitored the situation closely enough, she might be able to eliminate the threat of exposure before all hell broke loose.
"Listen to me very carefully, Agent Sandoval. We both know this investigation could easily get out of control. If it does, the committee will destroy everyone responsible, so if I were you I would think long and hard about whose team you really want to play for. You will report back to me on every little thing that happens out there. If Colonel Lydecker takes a call, I want to know who he's talking to. If he leaves the building, I want to know where he's going. If he goes to sleep, you'll tell me what he's dreaming about. Do we understand each other?"
She disconnected the call after Sandoval's hasty assurances and stared thoughtfully into her drink. It was playing with fire, but if she handled the situation very carefully, she wouldn't get burned. After another moment's reflection, she called for her assistant. "Have Intelligence get me everything they can dig up on an underground reporter that goes by 'Eyes Only.' He works out of Seattle. Have them put some extra people on it if they need to, I want to know everything there is to know about this man."
"Sir, we've got it," the soldier reported as he left the interrogation room.
"What do we know?" Colonel Lydecker demanded.
"Next cog in line is named Logan Cale. He used to be a reporter for the Pacific Free Press, and he seems very active in the organization. I think it's safe to assume he's pretty close to the top of the network. We've got his contact information and a physical description, Colonel."
"Good. Good work," Lydecker put his hand on the young soldier's shoulder with a fatherly pat of approval. "Track him through his contact information, and let's put that name out on all the police frequencies in case he tries to move."
"How about him?" Lydecker asked with a nod towards the interrogation room where the Eyes Only informant they had picked up the night before was still tied bleeding to a chair.
"He's still alive, sir."
"Well, let's do something about that," he said with another fatherly clap to the young man's shoulder. "No loose ends, soldier!"
It took a surprisingly short amount of time for Logan to lock down his apartment. Bugging out was a contingency that he had drilled for many times, and the efficiency of all his planning was only enhanced by Max, helping him and breathing down his neck and urging him to hurry it up and move his ass a little faster. They were thrown off task for a few moments when a series of bells ad whistles went off, alerting them that an outside party was attempting to triangulate the signal from Logan's cell phone, but since Logan had recently written a program that would send a fake address out to anyone who tried to trace his signal, they weren't terribly concerned. By the time Lydecker discovered that he had been misdirected to a brothel on Bainbridge Island, Max and Logan would be long gone.
"So, where to?" He asked as he fastened his seatbelt and started his car, which had been hastily loaded with the essentials and files that couldn't fall into the wrong hands. "It's after midnight. No way we're getting past a sector checkpoint until morning, unless you know another way out."
Max knew lots of ways out, none of which could be accessed at that time of night in a car, and especially not with Logan in tow, at least not until they could get their hands on a large enough pile of cash to get them through a smuggler's hole. Imposing on friends or neighbors would only endanger them and Logan's traceable credit cards greatly reduced their options. They would be out past the curfew, making them way too visible; they needed to get out of sight fast, and they needed to be in a place where nobody would thing of looking for them. Max made her decision.
"Go to the Shooting Gallery."
Logan stared at her. "You're kidding."
"Got a better idea?"
He was quiet for a few seconds, trying to come up with a better alternative and failing. "Shooting Gallery it is."
Kendra stumbled into the dark apartment with her new friend, giggling softly and tugging on clothing. Brett was a catch, alright. Or Brandon. Brian? Whatever, he was a great kisser and had an ass you could bounce a quarter off of.
"Shh, you'll wake up my roommates." She cautiously checked through the crack in the door and saw Original Cindy sleeping peacefully in her old room. Further investigation led to the discovery of Max's bed, unslept in and empty and way more specious than the battered old sofa that Kendra had been given temporary custody over. Well, Max probably wouldn't be home for awhile, and it wasn't like she was planning on letting the guy stay all night or anything….
Kendra hoped that Max was having fun wherever she was and turned her attention back to Brandon. (It was probably Brandon.)
The "Shooting Gallery" was a strip of I-5 that ran through downtown Seattle where the northbound freeway sat above the southbound. After a small earthquake in '11, that section of the interstate was closed down. It was no longer structurally sound and there was no way the city could pay for that expensive retrofit. It was easier to just divert traffic to surface streets. Seattle's most hopeless souls began to emigrate to the space, where a thick concrete roof and pillars offered some shelter from the constant rain and its condemned status kept the sector cops from getting too close. Over the years, a shanty neighborhood built up, and what had once been the "slow lanes" was now a collection of flophouses, whorehouses, and makeshift markets that sold goods that weren't strictly reputable. It was a good place to buy hot merchandise and a great place to get lost and stay lost…at least if you were able to avoid the stray bullet or falling block of concrete.
It was the sort of place you went only if you were desperate, and as Logan shifted his car into park between a poorly constructed plywood shack and a tall pile of garbage, desperation didn't seem too far away. A few crazy people stared at them, but most people knew enough to mind their own business and averted their eyes, and very few people flinched when a gunshot sounded precariously close by. Life was worth just a little bit less in the Shooting Gallery.
"You should try to get a little sleep. It'll be morning soon, we'll probably be able to get out once they open the gates," Max said.
"Yeah. Maybe we should sleep with out eyes open," Logan said as he watched with morbid fascination as a dealer turn a sale right in front of him.
"I slept yesterday – I'm good. Go on, Logan, take a nap. I've got your back."
She reached for his hand to give him a reassuring little squeeze, but his fingers tightened around hers and didn't let go. "Max, just…whatever happens – you know that I trust you, right?"
"Yeah. I know." And together they sat in the murky shadows under the old interstate, holding on to each other's hand and waiting for the sun to rise so they could make their next move.
A/N: 'Bene qui latuit bene vixit' is from Ovid, (Tristia, 3 iv.25) and it translates as "He lives well who lives unnoticed". It just seemed like the sort of thing that a guy like Logan would know about.
Many, many thanks to Mari and Aurora2424 for talking me off the ledge when I was freaking out, and to everyone who waited so patiently for this new chapter. You're all amazing. Part three is almost ready and will be out soon (although I totally understand if you think I'm lying about that) and feedback is always tremendously helpful, preferably before the pulse wipes out my internet connection.