Happy Pulse Day!
Logan told her softly: "You told me I was your family."
A three second pause and Logan stepped away from her, leaving her to consider his statement.
It was a bold move; one that neither of them could have foreseen.
Logan had responded on instinct, rejecting what he intrinsically knew was nothing more than a mirage of Max's desire.
She'd been so sure that he would attempt to close the distance and move things onto a physical level. She had been counting on it, needing to classify him, to regulate his existence to some form of the dark and dank human experience she could remember.
In her world, people acted selfishly, cheating and lying for what took their fancy. Sure there was friendship and fun; laughter and freedom, but Max knew, at the end of the day, all anyone every really had was themselves. And to preserve one's self there was nothing one wouldn't sink to. So life had taught her, even if she hadn't totally wanted to believe it.
And perhaps that was the larger problem, she hadn't want to, in fact she still didn't. She wanted to believe in hope, and goodness, the fundamentally positive bent of human nature. Because despite everything that Manticore had taught her, Max had always wanted to believe that her siblings were okay, that friends wouldn't sell out if they learned her secret, and that someone out there gave a damn about more than themselves.
She remembered thinking about that not long before she'd stumbled into Logan Cale's world. For that, and many other reasons, Logan was a dangerous and seductive force. It seems through sheer will, he'd commanded things into being.
And with his help, Max had found both support and refutation to her greatest hidden desires. As her spotty memory supplied, she'd found that her siblings had both lived and died; she had let Cindy in, but she'd also been sold out by Hannah… that life was vastly more complicated than a series of struggles between good and evil.
And somewhere amid the grayness, Logan lived. If he was legit, it would rip apart Max's entire worldview. She could no longer just be cynical, she'd have to sad. Sad because there was the potential for everyone to live better, to be more, but they had ultimately failed. She'd be dissatisfied because she'd finally know how much she could have had.
So she'd done her best to pigeon-hole him, box him into a rich-playboy stereo-type that would have had him reaching for her at an inappropriate moment. A dirty trick, but Max knew as soon as she'd felt the ghost of Logan's lips touching hers, she would have been able to pull back and step away from him – both physically and emotionally. He'd have been classified with Leo and Darren, and numerous other nameless faces that had attempted to come on to her. And perhaps, she would have gotten a little of her own back for that trick he'd pulled in front of the mirror that day before the accident…
Somewhere in the rational part of Max's mind she recognized that that scenario had played out a long time ago. That whatever the two of them were then was not what they were now. However, the memory still stung her pride and made her cringe in self-awareness.
She'd felt so undesirable at that moment. Stupid for thinking a guy like Logan, handsome, wealthy, and powerful, could want a woman like her. The humiliation had been compounded by learning he's known of her chimeric origins. His actions seemed to confirm what Max had always suspected – that once someone knew about her he or she would pull away.
Immature though it had been, and unnecessary, Max had wanted to confirm that he desired her. She wanted to tempt him into reaching for her as he hadn't then. But once more he'd walked away leaving her feeling… vulnerable.
It was pure shock that kept her immobilized, long enough for the import of his words to sink in.
You told me I was your family.
His words echoed through her consciousness, banging into places of acute emotional intensity. Did he have any idea how important words like that were to her? How deep their relationship had to of become for her to utter a phrase that put him on par with the children who had been in hell with her. Those who were bonded to her by blood, experience, tears, and death?
The look burning look in his eyes hinted that he did. And what's more, he seemed to have every intention of claiming his place in her world. It sent a chill up her spine, and left her immobilized in front of the large picture window as she waited for him to make the next move.
Logan didn't wait long. He knew how rare it was to approach an X5 on an emotional level and not have her run. So he willed his legs to move, the exo feeling much heavier after his intense session with Sam. They took him to his office, where Logan opened a drawer and slid back the panel covering the contents. His gun was still there, sitting accusingly, but so too was a small key. Grasping it determinedly, he made his way back into the sitting room and knelt before a small table with a seemingly ornamental drawer, ignoring his own discomfort at the move. Quickly he unlatched the lock.
Although she made no move to turn, Logan knew Max was aware of his every gesture. If she'd had her full memory back, he was sure that she would watch the proceeding with interest, intrigued that after all these months he still had a spot or two in his apartment where he could maintain a shred of privacy. In all honesty, Logan had purposely kept it that way, well aware of Max's observant nature and lively curiosity. And while Logan was more than happy for his apartment to have an open door policy with her, he was cogitative of the fact he might still need to maintain some places of secrecy.
So the small, shallow compartment which he opened now had contained a host of different items during his year with Max. At first it had contained the backup disks to his Eyes Only files, unsure of whether he could trust her with such a valuable commodity. Then, for months, after he'd learned to trust Max professionally it had contained his journal, filled with his private thoughts and poetic snippets of feeling. After she'd caught him writing one day, there had been no more point in hiding it and he'd been content to take her teasing inquisitiveness with only a shred or two of discomfort. The drawer had been empty for a while after that, until Lydecker had passed off the pictures of a bloody, child Max fresh from her first kill. At first, he'd kept the pictures close at hand, hidden in plain sight. As the days wore on, he found their presence too oppressive and had transferred them to the drawer, slightly curled and bent to fit. That was until the day he decided to shred them along with his uncle's last check. From then on the drawer had remained empty, much like his apartment.
Since Max's return, however, its contents had grown. Now, it contained one slim manila folder filled with an assortment of papers. It was the fruition of an exhaustive search, the product of every free moment that Logan hadn't been researching information on the NLU.
Now the time had come to give it to her, and Logan felt an odd sense of symmetry at revealing both the drawer's location along with the information Max had asked him to find almost two years ago.
He just wished it contained better news.
"Computer science? Why did it have to be computer science… I hated our IT classes back at Manticore," Alec whined as he buttoned up his dress shirt and adjusted his tie.
"You should be grateful Valjean was able to get us a believable cover so quickly," Coreen admonished even as she stepped in front of Alec to adjust his slightly off center knot.
"And that's another thing, why do all of these pencil pushers have to be so formal? For once, I'd like to go undercover in something other than formal wear. Maybe a wet suit. What do you say, do some recon with me in a bikini?" Alec leered.
Rolling her eyes as she stepped away from him, Coreen stated, "Just remember to try to come across as intelligent to the hiring committee."
"Which brings me back to the question, why is a terrorist organization hiring IT people?" Alec stated as he slipped on the wire rim glasses with no prescriptive lenses.
"Didn't you listen at all when Valjean gave us our cover?" Coreen huffed. "the NLU headquarters is an IT company on the books. Occasionally, it hires people who actually do IT stuff to maintain its cover. With two of its more innocent employees suffering from a sever mugging, they are in need of new employees. Which is where we come in – did you at least bother to memorize your resume?"
"Every word," Alec winked. "Perfect recall."
"So why did I just need to …." Coreen left off, well aware the Alec had just played her, again. "Well, then try to at least remember that once we leave this building we're taking separate routes. We both have copies of the program Logan created to infiltrate the servers. We only associate at work, providing they actually hire you, and we don't move on inserting the spy software until after we get far enough into their mainframe to upload it. Any questions?"
"Yeah. Let's say I find one of my fellow employees really hot," Alec smiled, "Could I say ask her out for a drink?"
Coreen rolled her eyes once again, but did acknowledge his baiting remark, "Not a bad way to meet under false pretenses," she allowed, giving him a slight smile. "Plus, it might not be all bad to exchange intel every so often."
It was that smile which Alec had in mind two hours later as he was ushered into a room with the head hunter. The woman blinked as she watched him stroll in and swallow slightly before asking him about his "alma mater". Alec gave her an charming smile back. Apparently, gaining employment at NLU headquarters was going to be easier than he suspected.
Not for the first time, he thanked his creators for making him attractive.
As Logan straightened with the folder in hand, he felt a sharp stab of pain run from the middle of his lower back all the way up to his shoulders. When Max had asked what Logan had been up to today, he hadn't been entirely forthcoming. Yes, he had visited Sam Carr, his physician, and yes the neurological doctor had indeed told Logan he would begin the physical therapy portion of his treatment later that week. But what Logan had left out was that he had already begun the chemical treatment that day.
Apparently, the Manticore doctor's notes had been extremely detailed and after a short follow-up conversation with a nervous, but still walking Manticore test subject, Sam had been convinced there was no need to delay the process.
With Sam as the leading doctor in spinal nerve damage on the west coast, it had been relatively easy to obtain the chemical compounds and understand the complexities of the procedure. Too easy, there had to be a rub, Logan had thought, and his suspicions had soon proved to be true.
Unlike his first recovery which had been gradual and relatively pain free, Sam had warned that this procedure would be much faster and more painful. The time it took to regenerate the spinal cord was relatively short- with direct shots of concentrated pluripotents being injected into the lower back. However, the immune suppressants that needed to simultaneously be administered as well as the constant injections to an area rapidly regaining sensation – would be, the notes hinted, unpleasant. So too, the notes stated, were the months of agonizing physical therapy that test subject Bethel had had to endure to replace the muscle in his lower body, the immune suppressants making it impossible for the pluriplotents to regenerate the atrophied muscles.
That was one area in which Sam had hoped for better recovery results in Logan. The use of the Exo-skeleton had kept Logan's muscles in constant use – removing the need for physical therapy and allowing for more normal movements of the lower extremities. It was to be expected that after the initial regeneration, Logan would need little time to recover full mobility.
Still, Sam didn't down play down what the next two weeks would be like for him. Logan had just hoped the pain killers Sam had administered that afternoon would last longer, putting off the effects of the regeneration slightly.
His hopes were suddenly dashed by the grunt of pain the slid past his lips and to Max's waiting ears. He was forced to sit on the nearby couch – grateful that he'd at least been free from pain for the first half of their conversation. As long as he didn't move too much, he should be alright for now.
"Speaking of family, Max," he started, hoping to distract from his discomfort. "I have something that belongs to you that I've been working on for a long time."
Drawn by both his unusual actions and words, Max drew nearer, perching on the couch so that she was facing him. She was careful to maintain space between them, acutely aware of the pangs of rejection still coursing through her at his earlier actions. However, the intense blue eyes that looked over at her contained nothing of distance or dismissal, instead they were wholly focus on her, summing her up and taking her in. She found herself staring back, doing the same even as the electricity between them began to spark anew.
It was only after a hard swallow that Logan seemed able to pull away by looking down at the nondescript folder in his lap. Softly, but firmly he began.
"You know that before we found out that you were alive I was able to break into Renfro's e-mail address and gain access to sensitive information."
"Yeah. I remember." Max affirmed with none of her usual attitude, sensing the gravity of Logan's mood.
"It allowed us to make the connection between Renfro and the NLU; it also was my first indication that you were still alive when I found the e-mail stating…"
"Logan," Max interrupted was she saw as an uncharacteristic rant, "I know."
"Right," Logan confirmed before clearly his throat "Thing is, I found an e-mail earlier, before all that went down, which I thought might have applied to you and your… background."
Opening the file, he pulled out a printed copy of the e-mail in Renfro's account title "Lost Surrogate" and handed it over to Max who scanned it quickly, coming to the same conclusion as him.
"You think this is my… Logan, do you think this could be my mother she's talking about?"
The e-mail in question had been sent during Max's reindoctrination period, when her genetic anomaly, which had prevented her from deteriorating – unlike her clones – had caused Renfro to begin a nationwide search for the missing surrogate, convinced it was something about the woman's own genetics which had influenced her offspring. The e-mail had caused an outburst of rage in him when Logan had discovered it, angered by the fact he finally had found a lead when Max was no longer around to care.
"I know it is, Max." Logan answered gently, taking a photograph from the now momentous file and handing into Max's shaking fingers.
The young woman in the photo bore a startling resemblance to Max, though her cheek bones weren't as defined, her eyes slightly different, her lips not quite as full – yes still so similar, nevertheless.
"We got the DNA results back this morning." He tilted the file toward her so she could see the result, of which she barely glanced at before returning her greedy gaze back to the photograph in her hand. "Not a full match, of course, since they manipulated much of your genetic makeup, but without a doubt a blood relative. And given that she was a surrogate at Manticore…"
"She's alive?!" Max breathed, unshed tears glistening in her eyes, hope alighting her voice.
"No." Logan responded immediately and unequivocally, regret permeating that one word. It had been the question he had been dreading, and he'd answered as he needed to, snapping out the response like pulling off a band aid. He let it sink in before continuing, "She's gone, Max, died soon after the pulse, a flu outbreak. The DNA was from an old sample."
Logan didn't elaborate on how he'd gone about getting the sample, content to leave it to Max's considerable intelligence and knowledge of his extensive network of eyes only operatives. "She was an only child, but you have more family, Max, further back, but blood nonetheless."
Max didn't answer, but continued staring down at the photo. It was printed on glossy computer paper and looked to be a high school photo of sorts, just a black and white head shot. The woman in it wasn't smiling broadly, but had a soft, almost sly grin, like she knew a funny secret but wasn't about to share.
"Elena…" Max whispered, remembering the name from the e-mail and trying it out for the first time. She found it to be lyrical rolling off her tongue. Elena, her mother.
"There's more. Not much, but I was able to piece together a bit of a history. Mostly statistical things, date of birth, hospital. Also, some information from her senior year book. I… I also found some history of your heritage. When your family emigrated, what your great-grandparents names were, that sort of thing," Logan offered, watching her carefully.
Silently, he handed over the folder, cursing its slimness even as Max took it from him. She was quiet, pensive, but when Logan moved to stand, ignoring the unpleasant tingling of pain at the base of his spine, he was stopped by Max's grip on his arm.
He nodded dumbly, content to be where ever she wanted and particularly pleased he didn't have to hide his desire to watch her. She seemed breezily to accept his heavy gaze on her, hiding back none of the emotive expressions that flitted across her face as she reverently looked through the scant information, occasionally asking questions about its origin.
Logan watched as her eyes returned again and again to the photograph, even as she smiled as she read through the list of activities Elena Rodriguez had been involved in during her teen years. He barely noted the minutes, and then hours that slipped by before Max turned back to him, her eyes still alight with emotion, her look one of open tenderness – a look he had barely glimpsed during their entire time together, and which was now fully adorning her beautiful face.
"Thank you, Logan. No one has ever… thank you."
Even as she spoke, Max unconsciously moved forward, leaving only an inch or space between them.
"Of course, Max. I wish I'd found it soon…" Logan reply was lost as he felt her hand snaking behind his head, her finger splayed through the sensitive strands. It was immediately followed by a gentle, but un-resistible pressure that tugged his head down as Max pressed her soft lips against his own.
The kiss was supposed to be nothing more than the spontaneous overflow of emotion. A reaction to his amazing gift, and her overwhelmed feelings. The stuff of overwrought senses.
But it wasn't. It was more. Immediately the presence of hotter feelings could be detected, just below the surface of their closed mouthed kiss. As if on cue, Logan's hand reached behind her head, sinking into her curls and pulling her closer. Not deeper, just closer, as if willing her to take the extra step and open her mouth to him and let him inside.
Pulling away an inch or two, Max whispered again against Logan's lips, "Thank you."
Max heard the longing in his voice, the permission he was asking to reconnect their lips and give into whatever madness had overtaken them both this evening. Unbidden the memory of their kiss outside his uncle's cabin – the one from this afternoon – sprang to her mind and Max had the sudden suspicion that this, them, was inevitable. They were on a collision course she couldn't stop, and that thought made her wary.
Her lack of control with him bothered her greatly; it was what motivated her earlier to push the seduction. It unnerved her that she had still given him that kiss, only without the rancor and contempt she had intended. He had gotten to her again.
She didn't have the heart to outright reject him, not after what he had did for her. So instead, she pulled back farther and stated as calmly as possible. "I gotta jet."
When he didn't immediately respond, she added, "See you tomorrow."
"Yeah," he replied, his eyes dropping back to her lips again, before returning to her eyes.
The unanticipated reaction brought a small smirk to Max's face as she realized that perhaps Logan was just as out of control as her when it came to them. The thought did her good even as she slipped the picture of her mother into the inner pocket of her leather coat and clutched the information to her chest.
For all that, they seemed to work well together as a team and Max found herself acknowledging that what Logan had just given her, was indeed a form of control that Manticore had taken away years before… a root in history, a touchstone to a past, a connection with something beyond herself, and a link to humanity as a whole. Sure it wasn't the fairy tale reunion, but then Max had never expected that. At least now she knew her mother's name.
And that was something.
For the second time that day a memory bubbled to surface.
She was at the top of the space needle, looking down at the bystanders as thoughts filtered through her head. She remembered meeting Hannah, and the words the woman had spoken to her, she remembered being told about her mother … she wasn't like the others…she was about your age.
"So now I guess I know," she had thought. "I had a mother who loved me. And maybe she's still out there somewhere. Like that changes anything in my life. Except the thing is… it changes everything."
And it had.
If what Max was feeling that night was a re-connection to the human race that had made her, then Troy was feeling just the opposite… sincere disdain and separation from a race of beings that could do all the things he's experienced in his young life.
For over a week, Troy had been perched outside Manticore's gaits waiting patiently for the contact that Brin was supposed to make whenever she could make it to the outer forest. He had known that it might take a while and so he had bunkered down, ever vigilante as he waited for his signal.
He was, therefore, watching when the first vehicles containing South African red soldiers pulled up. He had witnessed as their handler were met at the door by Renfro and as huge steel cages were assembled in the front courtyard. He witnessed the corralling of his fellow soldiers as they were pulled into the open air cages, and lifted by revved up Red soldiers and transported to various locations, including some onto the trucks that the Reds had came in on. He was forced to endure when a member of the Beta team, a young soldier who Troy had worked with on several occasions, had rebelled against the treatment and was brutally put down by the Reds. He saw a limp, obviously weak Brin come up at the end of the line and wait to be loaded up. It was only after she had been loaded in that he saw the hand gesture she surreptitiously flashed him. One to abort his mission and a second signaling enemy combatants.
Hell, that wasn't something Troy needed to be told. He was familiar with the Reds, having faced them on several missions. Always potential enemies from America's pseudo ally, their presence was a direct sign of Renfro's defection. No member of the U.S. military would allow two dozen red soldiers into one of its facilities, well aware of the unit's superior combat skills, despite its inferior longevity and tactics.
It was this lack of ingenuity that Troy used as he scouted around the base for the next few days, slowly gaining intel through his ability to hide and listen, weakness in security that had never existed when Manticore had been fully operational. However, through an air vent in the roof above Renfro's office he was able to listen in on several important communications between Renfro and the higher-up NLU operative who had been sent as leader of the Reds.
"We were disappointed to learn of your failures, Madame. We had high hopes that the X5 phase would be completed before the end of the next cycle. Now we may have to postpone infiltration into the Canadian borders," Commander Xander Kebaski stated loftily, his exceptionally large frame adding authority to his presence.
Renfro gritted her teeth slightly before taking up the conciliatory tone that she knew was expected of her, "My sincerest apologies. I did my best to make up for the genetics labs explosion, brought about by Donald Lydecker's betrayal – but apparently my out of the box thinking wasn't enough."
The man gave a slight grin, which in truth resembled more of a grimace. He was well aware of Elizabeth Renfro's propensity for blaming others for her own failures, while seemingly taking full responsibility. It was a trait the inner circle had thought would serve them well as the head of Manticore with the meddlesome American committee still in charge. Despite their best efforts, the NLU had yet to get enough votes into the counsel to overtake its functioning. An irksome fact given how little the organization bothered with America these days.
Since the Pulse and subsequent takeover of top positions in its government, the NLU had had very little cause to worry about the former superpower. Any attempts to reassert itself had fallen due to its bureaucratic divides, helped along only slightly by NLU members. It did, however, retain much of its military strength due to its transgenic program – the one thing that America seemed unwilling to offer up for sale since its catastrophic failure.
"Yes, selling off its worthless progeny was… creative. If ineffective," the man taunted lightly. "However, perhaps we can move to more useful measures."
"If we could breed them successfully, it would have reduced our production costs dramatically," Renfro interject sulkily.
"No matter. Since I was able to gain complete control of the South African Red population," he couldn't help but smirk at Renfro's small glower of anger – she would never rise higher than him in ranks after this, "And you have at least gained partial control of Manticore's X series by removing the dinosaurs left over from its inception. We should be able move forward."
"Which reminds me," Renfro added, "Have you managed to oust Kani?"
Xander frowned in response, annoyed by Renfro's implication. Zakes Kani was, like Donald Lydecker, a holdover from the original inception of the Red's program. In fact, he and Lydecker were old buddies and Kani had made it his single-handed mission to obtain information on a transgenic program from the colonel. Unlike Lydecker, however, Kani had not had the embarrassment of the X5 escape, or its equivalent, to hold him back in the ranks. Xander had struggled for many months to get the stalwart Kani removed from power so the NLU could take over the Reds' program. While Kani had indeed been removed from direct command, it had been a through a sort of promotion that left him still as an astute and annoying agent that he had to be careful not to provoke. It was also the one place where Renfro had done a better job in her commission; she, at least, had managed to get Lydecker declared an enemy of the state.
"Kani has been contained," Xander clipped. "In fact, enjoying his sinecure and taking a vacation to the Caribbean as we speak."
"Ahh, I see," Renfro stated breezily, conveying her disbelief. "Well since you're in charge now, what's our next step?"
Xander gave Renfro one final glare before answering, "We stay put for a while, no need to attract attention unnecessarily. We harvest some of your X5 female's ova, bring in some our scientists to begin research on how to merge it and Red series technology, and take stalk of how many X series we have on hand to act as field commanders since we won't be able to create larger groups."
"One breeding program to the next," Renfro replied, seeking credit for at least being on the right track.
"Except this time, it will be one that will culminate in the perfect soldier," Xander finished.
From his placement in the ventilation shaft Troy was hard pressed not to drop through the roof and kill them both where they sat.
It would be so easy, and in actuality they were both so weak. Even as they sat there and thought about how to manipulate the bodies of the super beings they controlled.
So this is what Max had meant when she refused to be bread like cattle, Troy thought.
She was right, he knew now. No transgenic should allow his or her offspring to be subject to these monsters. Well, one this was for sure Troy was finished will following others. It was time the X series realized that who and what they were had made them enemies to the humans surrounding them.
Zakes Kani greeted Donald Lydecker as the brother in arms he had once been rather than the fugitive that, according to the U.S. government, he now was. Zakes had served with Deck in a joint operation in Europe during the summer of 2015, giving him a lasting appreciation of both the X series and their main handler. It hadn't hurt that Deck had also saved his life.
During the subsequent years the two had remained on friendly terms. Although Zakes didn't carry the same emotional connection to his creations as Deck did, the two shared an unbreakable fidelity to their home countries that garnered respect in the other. It was this knowledge of Deck's allegiance that had Zakes seeking him out, despite the difficult he had in contacting the renegade.
Now, as they sat at one of the several noodle stands, scattered across the country that had been their meeting place of choice throughout the years, Zakes was well rewarded with for his persistence.
"So you are sure that Director Renfro is also part of this organization?" he sought to confirm.
"Oh, I'm sure." Lydeckered answered. "The bitch has been serving two masters since she got the top post; it just took some work from my kids to confirm it."
"Hmm… well that checks out largely with what I found out about Command Xander," Zakes responded, taking a moment to chew some noodles before continuing. "Unfortunately, most of the top officials in my country think that the sun shines out of his ass."
"Must be a trait all NLU operatives share." Lydecker answered.
The men, both staring straight ahead, granted themselves a small smile at their joint joke before returning to the business at hand.
"So how do we stop them from getting a hold of two extremely dangerous weapons?" Zakes asked.
"I wish I could tell you I had a plan, old friend."
"Then, you are not sure either?"
"Not me. But my 'weapons' do…" Lydecker stated wryly. Seeing Zakes confusion, Lydecker clarified, "The escaped X5s have taken over the operation on our home front. Guess it's time to let the kids take charge."
"Indeed." Zakes agreed, only mildly surprised that it had come to this. It's like he had been telling his government for years – advanced soldiers were good, but they need to be more than just walking tanks. They needed to think and act on their own like the transgenics of Manticore.
If either man saw the irony in his thoughts, they gave no indication of it.
Thanks to Lisa for Beta and to the DA lovers over on BBWW.