The Blackest White

By Inzane

Disclaimer: I lay no claim to Dark Angel or its characters. I do this only for fun.

Summary: The best way to destroy an enemy is to strike at his heart. Sequel to "The Friggin' Cure."

A/N: I haven't forgotten this story. I'm still plugging away, but life continues to be crazier than usual. My suitcase and I have become very good friends lately, as the definition of "occasional travel" is apparently not as occasional as I thought it would be. But enough with my whining… on with the story!

If you're not familiar with The Book of Max, I would recommend reading my short story of the same name. There will be some references to it.

Warning: There is a good chance that multiple characters will be brutalized, maimed, and/or generally pounded on as I work out my real-life frustrations through the written word. It's a good thing this story's not a comedy.


Chapter 16: Blaze of Glory

Max and what was left of Attack Group Moe ran into Mole's group as they made their way out of the building. It was a good thing, too, because on their way out they ran into the Familiar reinforcements Lon had suspected were coming. The combined squads of Curly and Moe took out enough Familiars that it forced the rest of the bad guys to temporarily retreat. This gave the Transgenics enough time to make it to the rally point and take up defensive positions until Larry, Dix's team, showed up.

Max eased herself down onto a log, stifling a whimper of relief as the tension on her battered body eased. Joshua sat down beside her, close enough that his side brushed hers, his big arms still wrapped protectively around the stasis chamber.

She leaned against him, offering him a weary smile of thanks, which he returned with a light nod. If she hadn't been so worried about Alec and the others, she would have fallen asleep right then and there.

"I don't know what I'd do without you, Joshua," she said with a sigh, eyelids drooping.

"Get into a lot more trouble than already do?" he teased gently.

Max gave a little laugh. "You're probably right," she said wryly.

She straightened and forced her tired eyes open, looking around. Quite a few people were nursing wounds; others were simply ignoring theirs. Only a lucky few had made it through the battle completely unscathed. A small makeshift med tent had been erected from large pine boughs to help protect and camouflage those who had been seriously wounded in the battle. Beside it, more bodies than she cared to admit lay covered with a tarp, beyond help.

They'd take them back. All of them. No one gets left behind.

It was in The Book, after all; Alec's almighty Book of Max, which had started out as an annoying and semi-obnoxious joke but had over time become to mean so much more, to all of them.

Kind of like Alec.

She blinked a couple of times, trying to make the burny feeling in her eyes go away. She would not cry—not until she was sure there was something to cry about.

Mole stood at the edge of their encampment, his eyes on the Familiar compound. He had removed his wristwatch and was holding it in his hand. He wasn't looking at it, but he could feel time ticking away. In his other hand, he held a remote detonator.

"What was with those explosions, anyway, Mole?" he heard Max ask from behind him. "They weren't ours."

It was a statement, not a question. It was almost accusatory, but even through the attitude he could tell she was dead tired. Hell, he was dead tired. They had to end this thing, and soon, or there was a good chance that none of them would make it back.

"Of course they weren't ours." He turned to face her. "Don't you ever watch any of those movies your boyfriend smuggles into TC? The bad guys always have a self destruct…" The last word trailed off he finally caught sight of what Joshua was holding. He'd been so busy kicking Familiar ass that he hadn't noticed.

"Whoa…" There was a genuine sense of wonder in his voice. He could hear Max's voice in his head, quavering as she tried to convince them of the odds against the very thing he was looking at right now. His lips quirked with the hint of a smile. "One in a billion."

He found he couldn't take his eyes off the little bulbous life form inside. It was amazing really, to think that Max and Alec had made that tiny little thing. Not like they'd been made. Not with cold, sterile calculation and one eye on the bottom line.

The scaly Transhuman shook his head and cleared his throat. This train of thought was a little too maudlin for his taste. He focused on re-lighting his last cigar. They'd better get back to TC soon, or he was going to get cranky. "Where is Alec, anyway?" he asked with a puff of smoke. He couldn't be dead. Max wouldn't be calmly sitting there not ripping Familiar heads off if Alec was dead.

Max's lips narrowed into thin line. She pushed herself up off of the log and brushed past Mole to stare at the Familiar compound in the distance. Alec was in there somewhere. Even though she understood his reasons, she was still mad—at Alec, for going; at herself, for letting him go it alone; at White, for putting them in this situation in the first place.

Mole turned around. He opened his mouth and was mostly likely about to insert foot when Joshua grabbed his arm, squeezing hard enough to let his friend know that it wasn't a good idea.

"Alec went after White," Joshua told Mole quietly, his eyes on Max. "Alone."

Mole snapped his mouth shut. He knew Alec had a hard-on for vengeance, but he hadn't really expected him to take it to the level of outright crazy. "So you're saying that Alec is still in the building that he knows, according to his own damn plan, we are about to blow up?"

"That pretty much covers it," Max answered in a clipped, controlled tone. She would not fly off the handle. She was CO, and COs weren't supposed to fly off the handle, even if it would probably make her feel better. Life had been a lot less complicated back in the days when she could smack someone upside the head without worrying about if she was setting a bad example.

Mole moved to stand beside her—a bold move on his part, considering her current mood. They stood in silence for a while, contemplating the now-smoking building.

"You know," Mole offered, tilting his scaly head to the side as if looking for a better angle, "I think this whole leadership thing's gone to your boyfriend's head. He probably expects me to blow it with him in there."

Max gave Mole a sharp and dangerous look that had him holding up his hands. "Relax. I'm not saying I'd do it," he added quickly in an attempt to defuse the situation. "Even if he was the last one left in there. I'm saying he'd expect me to. You know how he thinks. Sure, he's all about saving his own ass unless you happen to be involved. Add the kid to the mix…? He'll jump at the chance to go out in a blaze of glory if he thinks there's a good chance it'll save you."

Max went back to glaring at the building, as if she could somehow penetrate its walls to reach her true target—her MIA Second in Command, lover, and father of her currently expatriated child.

Max huffed. "Sometimes he's just plain stupid."

Mole nodded and went back to chewing on his cigar. "Amen, sister."


Before he knew it, the water was up to his knees and rising at an alarming rate.

Alec slogged along as best he could, looking for a release valve, an access hatch, a damn crack in the tank—anything that might possibly get him out of this mess. He was having a hard time of it, hampered as he was by his broken leg. Blood trailed behind him, seeping from the wound. God only knew what sort of infectious bacteria was seeping into his bloodstream from the contaminated water, but it looked like he wouldn't be in a position to care anyway, because he was going to drown long before he had to worry about septicemia.

He climbed up on a piece of the wreckage, ignoring pain-induced nausea as he looked for some way through. He thought he saw something over to his left. He climbed over, his body dangling as he moved hand over hand like a kid on monkey bars. He tried to lever himself through the gap, but it was too small. To make matters worse, he found out the hard way that there was a sharp piece of metal on one side of the opening. It sliced into his shoulder and he let go with a yelp, falling with a splash into the water below.

He came up sputtering. He managed to get his feet under him again and stood on his good leg, gagging on the taste of the foul water.

It was already up to his chest.

Alec tilted his head back and looked up through the too-small gap in the wreckage. There was a hint of open sky above, teasing him with its unreachable freedom. The water rippled around him.

"Hey!" he called out, his voice wavering from the cold and a healthy dose of fear. "Anybody up there? Hello?"

Silence, save for the sound of rushing water and the pounding of his own heart.

"Help!"


Zev fired each round with deliberation, her shots spaced out enough to conserve ammo but consistent enough to keep Familiars attention on the building.

"Any day now, Wil," she muttered worriedly.


They were pinned down. Even though they'd tried to avoid it, the Familiars had managed to herd the X6s right into the path of a second group of Familiars. They'd taken what could loosely be termed as cover in a shallow gully, flattening their bodies to the ground to stay out of the line of fire. They were holding the Familiars off for now, but they wouldn't be able to keep it up for long.

"Shit!" Kazi yelled, blinking rapidly as a bullet hit right beside her head, kicking up a shower of dirt and temporarily blinding her. She blinked rapidly to clear her vision.

"Keep your head down or you'll get it blown off!" Dalton yelled, firing two rounds in response.

"Kind of hard to shoot back if you're not looking!" she yelled back at him, rubbing her eyes.

"Kind of hard to shoot back if you're dead!" Dalton countered with a growl.

"Will you two stop arguing?" Oscar shouted, his voice rising with panic. "This is bad enough as it is!"


Max paced.

The long range crews were missing—all of them, including Dalton, Oscar, and Kazi. They'd sent scouts out to retrieve them and had come up empty. Signs pointed to each group having to displace, most likely because they'd been discovered, but none of them had made it to the rally point.

Dix's group hadn't reported in yet, and Alec was MIA. They couldn't blow the place if they were still inside.

Max had a bad feeling that things were about to go south, fast.

She stopped pacing and turned to face the others, decision made. "Enough waiting. We need to find our people. Now."

Mole stood up. Another five minutes, and he'd had been planning to suggest it himself. He was kind of glad Max had brought it up ahead of time. He'd had a taste of leadership, and he had happily handed that thankless job back over to Max. He much preferred to play third fiddle behind Alec's second.

"All right, then. What's the plan?"

"Mole, half of your group will search for Dix's group. The rest will search for our long range teams. You and I will look for Alec. Lon, you and the rest of Moe stay here and hold the fort. Hopefully, some of our MIAs will show while we're gone."

"No problem, boss," Lon replied with a nod. "We got your back."

"Should call in Shemp," Joshua offered from where he sat on the log, a hand resting on top of the stasis chamber.

"How? Max asked. "Comms are down."

"Send a runner?" Joshua suggested.

"Sounds good to me," Mole said with a nod.

"Okay," Max said. "We send a runner. Zip's fastest, but she can't go, 'cause she's hurt." She looked around at the faces staring back at her. "Who else is fast? Rex? How about you? Can you hack it?"

Rex stepped forward. "Absotively."

"Good. Go now." Before she had even finished her sentence, he'd disappeared into the trees.

People were breaking up into groups, gearing up for what they needed to do. Joshua approached Max, for the first time setting down the stasis chamber.

"What about me, Little Fella?"

Max reached out and squeezed his arm. "I need you to stay here and take care of… of…"

She trailed off, eyes drawn to the stasis chamber. She stood there for a moment, transfixed. It still didn't seem real to her, no matter how many times she saw the proof of it right in front of her face.

A baby. Hers and Alec's. Currently MIA Alec, who she was determined to find and bring back alive, thank you very much, because no way in Hell was she raising a kid on her own.

She looked back to Joshua. "You're the only one I would trust to do it."

Joshua looked torn. "But… Joshua promised Alec…"

Max smiled up at him. "I know what you promised, Josh, but I'm a big girl. I can take care of myself. But the… baby…"—she forced herself to say the word—"… can't. I need you to do that for me, all right?"

She could see he was still uneasy about the idea of her going back in the building. She had an idea what would convince him. "I never had a parent, Joshua," she added softly. "I want my child to have two."

Joshua blinked, his eyes suddenly misty. He drew her into a hug, his big arms enveloping her. "Come back safe," he whispered gruffly into her hair.

She squeezed back. "That's the plan, big guy."


He was treading water now, using his arms to keep himself afloat. He was afraid if he used his injured leg too much, he might increase the bleeding. Maybe he shouldn't have bothered to care. The debris overhead was getting closer and closer as the water rose. So close he could reach out and touch it.

He was running out of room.

The water continued to rise, carrying him up with it. His head bumped against a chunk of the broken catwalk. He grabbed on to the grating, lacing his fingers through it to hold himself still. Water slid over his chin and he sputtered.

He tilted his head back to breath in narrow space of air left to him. He was shaking so hard he was surprised he could still hold on to the grating, but his fingers had turned white in a death grip. He wasn't sure he could let go if he tried.

He closed his eyes, his forehead pressed hard against the twisted metal. How long would it take him to die?

"Oh God, oh God, oh God…"


Six… Seven… Eight…

Higgins leaned against the wall, his weapon held at ready, silently counting in his head. He was hoping it would calm him down, but he couldn't seem to slow his breathing.

Nine… Ten…

This was his first taste of real combat. He'd been in dozens of simulated combat situations, but this was his first experience with an enemy that was ready and willing to shoot to kill. He'd been a desk jockey for most of his career, through no fault of his own. He'd wanted to see action, but he'd been shunted off to one Admin job after another. He supposed his looks probably had something to do with it. But now that he was thrown into the thick of things, he found that combat wasn't as glorious or exciting as the recruitment videos would have you believe.

Watching men die under your command was neither glorious nor exciting.

Eleven… Twelve…

They'd gone over the plan. Twice. Not that it was difficult. They would employ a basic flanking maneuver; Wil was counting on his knowledge of Terminal City to give them the edge. They would slip into the sewer system and come up a few blocks away, then double back and come up behind the group of Familiar's assaulting the Childcare Center and attack. Simple.

Maybe it was too simple. Maybe that was his problem. He was used to battle plans and formations and tactics that took days to plan—not a seat-of-the-pants five minute attack plan with an army of two.

Thirteen.

Damn. Bad luck.

Wil spared a glance at Higgins as he checked the load on his weapon. The solider looked nervous. Truth be told, Wil was a little nervous himself. They were outnumbered five to one—not the best of odds when dealing with Familiars.

"Still with me?" Wil asked with an eyebrow raise.

It was a little late in the game for this type of discussion, but the X5 wasn't going to drag Higgins into the fight if the soldier couldn't hack it. All that would do was get them both killed.

"Yeah," Higgins said. He flicked off the safety on his gun and put on his game face. He still looked like a teenager playing at soldier, but at least it was a pissed off teenager with a gun.

Wil chambered a round into his own gun. "Let do this."


Dix saw the timer in stark detail, bright red numbers counting down.

He wondered why the Familiars had even bothered with a timer. It seemed a waste of time. Why not just blow the room to hell as soon as security was breached? Of course, that would've been an extreme waste of money and resources—computers like these didn't come cheap. He would've killed, or at least maimed, to get a few like this for TC. The Familiars probably wanted to leave enough time to mount an armed response and possibly forego the blowing up of precious equipment.

That armed response had failed, thanks to Gem and the rest of his team.

His eyes traced the leads of the device. He cursed under his breath. It was hardwired to the computer.

What would happen when he pulled the external drive? If the Familiar's were smart, probably something involving a big boom.

There wasn't enough time to disarm the bomb. There wasn't even enough time to finish downloading everything from the computer main. He would have to hope that what he'd already downloaded would be enough.

He couldn't leave the drive. He knew that. Too many lives depended on the information he'd downloaded.

Damn it.


Considering how hard it had been to get into the building the first time, it was surprisingly easy to get back in. The rest of Mole's group split off, heading toward what they figured was Dix's general location. Max and Mole slipped down a level, heading for the area where Max had last seen Alec. It was as good a place to start as any.

They moved through the corridors virtually un-accosted, most of the Familiars busy trying to engage the retreating Transgenics. Once they were down a level, Mole stopped suddenly.

Max stopped and turned. "Mole?"

The Transhuman reached down and pulled out a small device from one of the many pockets of his cargo pants.

"What's that?" Max asked, moving to stand next to him.

Mole fiddled with some settings on the device. "Locater," he said simply. He would've left it at that, but from the look on Max's face, he didn't think it was a good time to mess with her. "Slipped a microdot tracer on the back of Prince Charming's collar before we left TC."

Max looked like she was torn between killing him and hugging him. "Why didn't you say anything?"

Mole shrugged, busying himself with the tracker so he wouldn't have to look at her. "It was a last minute sort of thing."

"A last minute sort of thing," Max repeated, deadpan.

More like Mole didn't want to undermine Alec's authority but didn't want to admit that he gave a damn in the first place. After all the time they'd all spent together, Max finally got how things worked between Alec and Mole. It was kind of wack, but she got it.

"You want I should track him or what?" Mole said exasperatedly.

"What're you asking me for?" she asked, moving to stand directly next to him so she could see the screen. "Get with the trackin'."

Mole moved a few dials and changed some settings—probably something to do with frequencies or range or some such—before he froze, eyes locked on the screen.

"Damn. Location's fixed." He looked up at Max, for once unable to hide the concern in his eyes. "He's not moving."

Max straightened, fear wrapping around her like the coils of a snake. "Where?"

Mole took a second to triangulate; after a few seconds, he pointed off to their right.

They took off running.


Alec was no longer looking for a way out. He couldn't think anymore. He was too cold and too scared to think.

He gasped in mouthfuls of ever more precious air, coughing when water lapped in. The air was almost gone.

He took in one last large gulp, knowing it would be his last. He tried to hold onto it, but it slipped out in a final, screaming plea.

"Max!"

Then there was no air left, and his head slipped under water.


They were still pinned down, taking fire.

"No one's coming," Dalton said quietly, scanning the tree line for the enemy. He spotted movement and fired a single shot. His target dodged. Damn; another bullet wasted. He turned to Oscar and Kazi. "We should split up. Lead them off, take them out one by one."

"Are you crazy?" Oscar hissed. He'd seen the movies Alec had procured for them for movie nights as EOS. Splitting up never ended well.

"I have to agree with Oscar on this one," Kazi said, surprised that she and Oscar were on the same side for once. "We should stand together."

"Yeah, 'cause that's really working for us," Dalton snarked. He paused for a moment, letting the sound of gunfire speak for him. "How long before we run out of bullets?"

Oscar and Kazi were silent. They both knew they didn't have enough ammo to make a stand that would end in anything other than their own deaths.

"If you guys have any other ideas, I'm all ears."

Oscar and Kazi looked at each other. They had nothing. They turned back to Dalton.

"All right," Oscar said reluctantly. "We split up."

"Okay," Dalton said, pulling them down further so that there would be less risk of them being overheard. "Here's the plan…"


Joshua paced.

He kept to a tight circuit, never straying more than a few feet away from his precious charge. The intermittent sound of gunfire increased his agitation exponentially with every passing minute.

What if Max and Alec didn't come back? He didn't want to think about it. Max and Alec were two of the best friends he'd ever had, but he couldn't help but wonder. It would be hard enough to deal with their loss, but what would happen to the baby? It couldn't survive locked that chamber forever.

He stopped and stared at the building in the distance, feeling the pull. He could help them—he knew he could—but…

Behind him, the small chamber glowed, humming only loud enough for a Transgenic to hear.

The Transhuman sat back down on the log with a trembling sigh, burying his face in his large hands.


"He's close," Mole panted as they ran, glancing down at the tracker.

They burst through a door into a large room, immediately throwing themselves to either side of the door in case someone not-to-friendly was on the other side. They needn't have bothered; the room was empty.

The space was oddly shaped, widening out in a sort of semicircle from a curved see-through wall. There was a door at the back of the room, as well as on either side. It was weird.

"What is this place?" Max asked, scanning the room for any sign of Alec.

"Observation room, I think," Mole offered. His eyes alternately checked the tracker and scanned the room. "For tours or something, probably. Gotta be one of the treatment tanks."

Max spun in a circle, frustrated. Still no sign of Alec. "Which way?" she asked.

Mole stood in front of the glass and stared down at the scanner. Then he slowly looked up, eyes widening as it dawned on him. "According to this, he's directly in front of us," he said with a rasp.

There was a panel beside window. On it was a button labeled Interior Light. Max surged forward and slapped her palm against it.

Lights flickered to life around the bottom rim of the tank. It was full of brownish-green tinged water and debris.

And Alec, floating a few feet from the glass, completely submerged.


Dix had several options. He could haul ass and save his skin, or he could do the right thing and maybe save everyone else.

It was times like this that he wished Manticore had skewed his DNA to make him a bit more morally ambiguous.

He stood up, simultaneously yanking the external drive from the computer. He made an attempt to run for the door, but he knew he wouldn't make it. He wasn't built for speed.

"Gem!" he yelled and tossed the drive toward her.

He saw her fingers close around it right before the world disappeared in a flash of white.


They split up. It was hard. You wouldn't have known it to look at them, the way they streaked through the woods, but they were scared. Each of them had spent time running for their lives through trees not very unlike the ones that blurred past.

The plan worked. The Familiars split up, a smaller group following each X6.

Now all each of them had to do was take out a group of amped up meatnecks practically twice their size without help, without using their precious remaining bullets, and without getting killed.

Piece of cake.


Alec twisted around in response to the light. Blood trails followed his leg as he moved, and Max could see that it was crudely bandaged.

"Alec!" Max yelled, running to the window and slamming her hands against it. Mole moved up beside her, staring through the window, assessing the situation.

Alec's head jerked up as he felt the vibration move through the water. His eyes widened. He swam over to the window, his movements stiff and awkward. His lips and skin had taken on a slightly bluish tinge—the water must be freezing.

[How long?] Max signaled with her hands. Sometimes the old Manticore knowledge came in handy.

Alec signaled back the number of minutes he'd been underwater. "Good," Max said, nodding her said. "That should give us time to go around, find a way in," she told Mole. "There's got to be an emergency hatch or something."

She signaled their intent to Alec. They were about to move out when Alec slapped his palm against the glass to get their attention.

[One or two minutes,] he signaled.

"One or two minutes?" Max repeated out loud, her brows furrowed in confusion. "I don't get it. He should be able to…"

Alec must've read her lips, because he shook his head. [Can't hold breath,] he signaled.

"Huh," Mole said in mild shock. "So there is something he's not good at."

Alec's eyes began to flutter, and it jolted a stunned Max into action. She grabbed one of the many weapons Mole had strapped to his person—in this case a compact sub-machine gun.

"No, wait!" Mole yelled reaching for her, but he was too late. Max fired at the glass, careful to aim to the side and away from Alec. Bullets bounced off the clear material, sending crazy ricochets around the room. One hit Mole in his side, cutting straight through the flesh to exit out the back. He fell to the ground, pressing a hand over the wound.

"Damn it, woman, are you crazy?" he yelled up at her.

Max spared him a glance; it was only a flesh wound. She turned her attention back to the clear wall. The bullets had barely even dented it. She slammed the butt of gun against glass several times, but it was no use. She dropped it and sagged against the barrier, spent.

It wasn't fair. They'd been through so much, and now she had to just stand there and watch him drown? She slammed a hand against glass. "No!" she cried in protest.

When she looked up, Alec wasn't looking at her. He was looking at Mole, who'd gotten to his feet, hand still covering his wound. They seemed to be engaged in some sort of silent communication through eye contact only, because Mole nodded. He dug into his pack and pulled out a small putty-like block.

C4.

"What are you doing?" Max asked heatedly. Mole had already moved toward the edge of the window and was shaping the charge.

"What's it look like I'm doing?" Mole answered sarcastically, continuing to work.

"You can't blow it!" Max hissed, tugging on his arm. "The concussion alone could kill him, not to mention the wreckage that could come crashing down and squash him flat!"

"He's already dying!" Mole snapped, yanking his arm from her grasp. "What else do you want me to do?"

Max looked over to Alec. He was trying to swim away from the window, moving his body out of the immediate blast zone, but his movements were even more sluggish. His oxygen-starved brain was beginning to shut down.

"All right. Do it," Max said shakily. Her heart felt like it would pound right out of her chest. "But hurry. I think he's starting to lose consciousness."

Mole rushed connecting the detonator, not bothering with his standard double-check—no time. He set a ten second delay, then turned and grabbed Max's arm, propelling her toward the far side of the room.

"Get down!" he yelled.

He shoved her down against the wall, shielding her body as much as she would let him. It wasn't chivalry but self preservation. Alec would kill him if something happened to Max. Besides, he wouldn't last another day if he ended up in command of TC again.

Alec's eyes slipped closed and his body began to drift.

"Alec," Max breathed, making a move toward him, but Mole grabbed her and pulled her back. The numbers counted down.

Three… Two…

All she could think of was that Alec was dying. He was dying.

One.


Oscar jumped off a small ledge and landed on the slope below, sliding on snow-covered dead leaves down into a shallow gully. He regained his feet at the bottom and ran up the other side, practically crashing into Kazi as he came over the top.

"Think I still got one on my tail," Oscar panted, giving her arm a tug in the opposite direction from which he'd come.

Kazi risked a quick glance behind them. She didn't see anyone, but that didn't mean there wasn't someone there.

They ran. The headed east along the ridge, which was the plan once they had taken out or shaken their pursuers. They'd run into each other eventually if they kept heading east.

Their plan was sound, because it wasn't long until they ran into Dalton. Unfortunately, Dalton had apparently already run into another group of Familiars.

He was in a small clearing, fighting for his life. The X6 had managed to take out one of the Familiars, as evidenced by the crumpled body on the ground behind him. As they ran toward him he knocked the other backwards by hooking her knee with his foot and slamming his palm into her chest, sending the woman crashing down the side of the ridge.

Kazi raised her gun to take aim at the third Familiar, but Oscar grabbed her arm. "Don't waste it," he panted, increasing his speed as much as he could on the rough terrain. "We're not in range."

The two of them ran toward Dalton, desperate to help. They were almost in range when their eyes widened with matching expressions of horror. Both of them saw what Dalton had not—yet another group of Familiars on the far side of the clearing. One of them had a heavy machine gun, which he aimed directly at the combatants. The Familiar fighting Dalton delivered a vicious kick, knocking the X6 backwards and giving the machine-gunner a clear shot. He pulled back the bolt.

"Dalton, look out!" Oscar screamed, raising his own weapon. He wasn't close enough. Dear God, he wasn't close enough.

Dalton's head turned toward the sound of Oscar's voice Oscar saw a split second of shock register before his friend spun around to face the enemy.

He was too late. High-caliber bullets ripped through his adolescent body, throwing him backwards.

"No!" Kazi and Oscar screamed as one.

Finally in range, Kazi emptied her last bullets into the Familiar Dalton had been fighting. The man was dead before he hit the ground. Kazi crashed to her knees beside Dalton as Oscar took position over them, opening his weapon up to full auto and driving the approaching Familiars back under cover. Clip exhausted, he grabbed the fallen Familiar's rifle and fired another round, this time taking care to make his shots count. Another Familiar fell.

"How bad is it? Is he all right?" Oscar yelled over the sound of gunfire. He returned fire, forcing the Familiars back. After a few seconds, he realized Kazi wasn't answering him.

"Kazi?" he called out with worry. Then he did something that would've earned him a month in the Box back at Manticore. He turned his back on the enemy and risked a quick look at his friend.

He froze. It took a moment for his brain to accept what his eyes saw.

Dalton lay on his back, his blue eyes wide and panicked. He had a fistful of Kazi's coat, hanging on tight as his mouth opened and closed, sucking in hitching, gasping breaths. His face was almost as pale as the snow falling around him, making the heavy spattering of freckles on his skin stand out in stark detail.

But freckles didn't come in that color—bright, lurid red.

The space between one heartbeat and the next stretched until it seemed as if it would never come. Oscar was rooted to the spot, unable to do anything but stand there and watch in horror.

Red blossomed on the white snow, spreading out around Dalton's upper body in a bloody halo.


A/N: All together now… NOOOO! NOT DALTON!

Go ahead…beg me for his life. Beg. (Cue evil laughter.)