By scarlet (superscar)
The repeated thunk of military grade boots on concrete sent Alec into fighting mode. Ever since pealing Rachel's broken body from her cobblestone driveway, he'd been on the alert, ready for anything.
In some ways, he'd been waiting since the first transgenic was dragged down the hallway in February of 2009 after 599's unit made their ill fated escape attempt. Or in August, later that year, after the six months in psy-ops, proving his loyalty.
He spent almost a month coiled in anticipation, so the spring of his muscles into immediate action brought only relief at first.
The only goal was to lead them away. Grab their attention and make sure it didn't affect Rachel. Alec never even tried to escape. What difference did it make?
Pain ricocheted around his brain until Alec zeroed in on the exacting cut of the laser through the red haze of his vision. It would be worse this time. The pain became more pronounced, entering his reality with more precision and expertise.
It was getting harder to tell that none of it was real.
Someday, Rachel's bed would fade into the background and all he would be able to see would be the nightmares of his subconscious.
No one scared the shit out of Alec like Colonel Lydecker. It was partially the rumors. He'd been in charge of the unit that was so terrified of him that they'd tried to escape and Donald had shot every last one of those kids between the eyes.
He'd been surprised with the news, when he heard it. Lydecker wasn't one of the malicious ones. There were moments when it actually seemed like he cared on some level, or at least he'd bitten back the temptation to smack young 494 around for whatever slipped out of his mouth, unlike the rest of the commanders.
Not that Alec had been brave enough to fire off that particular weapon very often.
It was that minimal trust turned to dread that made Lydecker the worst of them. Usually, Alec found he could rely on his instincts. But the Colonel's soft voice made his hair stand on end.
"All you have is time, 494. Barely that." The voice echoed around the stringent corridors of the hospital as Alec waited next to Rachel's bed for them to finally come and end it all.
Maybe the marching feet and whispered warnings inside his head would be real and he'd finally find out if the rumors they told about Lydecker were true.
Already, the barrier of reality was beginning to shift.
The sounds were the worst. Usually, he could tell that the images his mind conjured didn't fit with the off-white, too often stained walls of Harbor Lights Hospital. But the footsteps that crashed against the steps in his mind were startling every time. It kept him on edge, ready to grab Rachel from her bed and leap through the window at any moment.
But he couldn't be by her side all the time.
Though Manticore ordered her death, Rachel was more or less meaningless. He would be the mission priority. As far as the rest of the world was aware, Rachel had died in the explosion. It would take Manticore forensic teams weeks to realize she hadn't and by then, they wouldn't know where to look first, but Alec knew they'd get to Harbor Lights eventually. Her blood was at the scene.
Enough that they might think she was dead for a while. But not forever.
At some point, the threat would be real and Alec didn't know how he was going to tell the difference.
There was every possibility Max could run into Alec, though for his sake, she hoped not. What would it mean if Rachel was still in a coma for a month? For that matter, even as Max climbed the steps to the hospital doors, she wondered if Logan Cale would still be there himself.
If it had taken Max a month to recover from her bullet wound, she assumed Logan would still be nursing the painkillers for some time to come. That was provided he even had feeling left in his body after a bullet to the back.
The main lobby was bustling with people, some with injuries, in spite of the fact that it wasn't the Emergency Room entrance, which was actually accessed from the side of the building on the lower level. Max remembered the last time she'd been in the Lobby after Bruno's explosion, the first time it occurred to her what Alec's name should be.
What was it really? Henry? Jack? Francis? How could you properly name a baby anyway? They didn't do anything but scream and sit around chubby. Alec was so not a Stephen.
"Did you have an appointment?" a nurse asked. She had a phone in one hand and was typing with another. Apparently, she had to do admin and clean bed pans. It actually made Max's job seem appealing.
"I'm here to see a patient. Logan Cale?"
"C-A-L-E?" she asked.
Max hadn't even considered how to spell it. "Sure."
"Left almost a month ago."
"He only got here a month ago."
"Then it was a short trip," she said, dismissing Max. "Next person?"
They'd probably moved him to another hospital or set up some expensive home care.
Either way, she had no other reason to be at Harbor Lights. Yet she kept standing there, watching the elevator.
"Miss, did you need anything else?"
"No," Max insisted. "I'm leaving."
Once the first leg got moving, the other followed, but she didn't go to her bike.
As she stepped onto the elevator and hit '2' she asked herself a beray of angry questions. What are you doing? What the fuck are you thinking? Why aren't you stopping? being chief amongst them. But the questions meant nothing as she got off the elevator and headed down the hall toward the last place she'd seen Rachel and Alec.
The hallways were shorter when she wasn't in excruciating pain, yet at the same time, every step she took seemed like it was in slow motion. A few feet more and she'd have the answer to a question she hadn't really allowed herself to form in her mind.
She was both relieved and disappointed when she walked into the room and he wasn't there. The first step through the doorway assaulted her with mixed messages. One patient, dead to the world made her feel like she was in the wrong place, but the feel of the place was the same, something about the way the air moved and smelled told her that it was their room and there were no significant changes. So where were they?
In spite of her excellent eyesight, it took Max a second to realize who she was actually seeing. The patient's golden blonde, curly hair fell over part of her face, but the upturned nose was familiar. Rachel. He'd changed her appearance, Max realized, though there would be nothing Alec would be able to do to prevent intense scrutiny. Nevertheless, it worked for a second. Maybe that would be all he needed. Obviously, they hadn't been found.
Everything about the girl looked wrong. From her hair color to the way she just lay there, on her side, as though she was just sleeping. Though probably just one in a series of positions to avoid bed sores, this one looked absolutely natural. Her arm curled up near her mouth as though she were a child in the middle of a nap that may choose to suck her thumb at any moment. Someone purposely put her upper arm in that position.
Did it make it easier for Alec when it looked like she would wake up at any moment? It seemed cruel, but maybe it was completely unintentional. Maybe it was comforting and Max was being oversensitive. Certainly, it was none of her business.
She wasn't even supposed to be there, looking around the otherwise empty room paid for, no doubt, through the $29,000 she'd left for Alec. Both of the other beds were neatly made, as though they were expecting patients at any moment and Max couldn't help hoping that only meant Alec was the first man in the world to clean up after himself and not that he wasn't sleeping.
Max sat down in Alec's chair, the one positioned right next to Rachel, the only bed she'd seen him use.
If Rachel's eyes were open, Max would be able to see right into them. Only the position of her pillow kept her jaw closed, maintaining the illusion that she might just sit up and laugh at any moment.
Even the three occasions she'd been in the same room with Rachel, the hair color was glaringly wrong and made her feel like a doll or mannequin more than a human being. Her hair didn't give a hint to who she really was, but then, neither did her chart. Nothing was natural about the girl except her hands, fingernails slightly grown out, but obviously well manicured. Max had been trained to take in every detail of her surroundings, but it was no longer fully automatic. She wanted to know what the girl was like in the center of Alec's mystery.
Was she the reason that they'd been brought into the dangerous lives they'd been living? Or an innocent caught in the crossfire?
The only thing obvious was that Alec loved her. Whoever she was.
Cold water poured over his head and trickled down his body as the weak spray in the doctor's shower shot pathetically at its full force. It was inefficient and frustrating, but Alec was used to it. He braced himself against the wall as the water ran over him.
"Do you love me, Simon?" he heard Rachel's voice whisper in his ear and he closed his eyes to see her.
It didn't matter that she wasn't real, he answered the question the same as always, "Of course I do."
He could feel her caress his face and leaned into was new. Terrifying in its implications and but so, so welcome. After more than a week of just talking to a shell, he could feel her again.
"You're not really here," he told both himself and her as he reached forward to caress her back, only to have her dodge him.
"How do you even know what love is?" Rachel asked, as though he hadn't tried to change the subject. "Did Manticore teach you?"
They taught the word love by handing out chocolate bars. Alec liked Rachel more than he liked Hershey's products. He liked Rachel more than he liked everything. Still, he knew she was right. When she said love, it meant something deeper, something he didn't understand and couldn't really place.
But still, he couldn't say no. Not when she asked him outright. He wanted to make her happy.
"Then why are you letting me die?"
Her eyes dug into his and Alec's eyelids flew open, trying to focus on the sandy cement of the wall in front of him, but she wouldn't disappear. "I'm not," he insisted. "You'll be fine."
"But you're leaving me."
That, he couldn't argue with. Just the fact that he was staring at her animated face when she was actually down the hall, lying still in her hospital bed was another step in the wrong direction.
It had all started when he stopped sleeping, his waking and sleeping life merged, creating a not-exactly-reality that Alec wasn't sure how to deal with. Sometimes, it was nice, like Rachel was right there with him.
Other times, when he could hear her voice as he stared at the even rise and fall of her chest, it only made him want to die quicker. But he couldn't. Not yet. He didn't have enough money to make sure she was taken care of.
His days had become strategically unroutine. Once he left Rachel's room, he never did the same thing at the same time any two days in a row. But he almost always had to get food, shower, and scout out the area.
He knew every sector checkpoint, every weak link in the fence and had several places in mind in case he needed fast cash.
His nights were another story. Sometimes, he'd spend the whole night with Rachel. Talking, telling her that stuff about himself that he'd never been brave enough to say before. Sometimes, he tried to act like things had never changed, but he could never look at her then because the hair he'd strategically dyed would glimmer in the light, reminding him how impossible it was to pretend.
Sometimes he just wanted to put them both out of their misery.
It was hard to say how long he had left. The vertigo was worse. He'd stopped trying to sleep, but hallucinations came to him anyway. The whole world became like a lucid dream he couldn't wake up from. Things happened from his past. People spoke to him. Lydecker. Sandoval. 513. 211. Berrisford. Director Renfro.
Only Rachel stayed.
At some point, he figured, he would stop realizing she wasn't real. Maybe he'd even die happy, forgetting she was in danger. Or even the fact that he was dying at all.
Loud vibrations filled the space around him, rattling the metal of the folding chair outside the shower stall. Alec rinsed the remaining soap from his skin, stepped around Rachel and through the heavy plastic curtain to grab the towel he'd liberated from the hospital store room.
By the time he was dry enough to answer the phone, it stopped ringing.
Occasionally, he got wrong numbers, but this was potential money. He returned the call immediately.
"Yeah?" a gruff, familiar voice answered.
"Jimmy. It's Alec."
"Got something for you if you're interested."
"You know me."
"Yeah. High danger, high pay off. Our little friend Maxie know how crazy you are yet?"
"That's how she likes it," Alec insisted, not bothering to correct the extremely wrong assumption that he even knew if Max was still alive, let alone had some kind of connection to her.
Jimmy liked Max. A lot. Alec suspected she was the only reason he even got these calls. "Well, you let her know I said she could do better."
"Jimmy, you're a lateral move, at best." It wouldn't be right to let Jimmy believe he had even a glimmer of a shot with Max. It would only create unrealistic expectations.
Plus, Alec liked to think she was a lesbian.
"So what's the job?" he asked.
With every moment that Alec didn't show up, Max could feel the walls begin to close in around her. She kept expecting Rachel's eyes to snap open and ask what she was doing there.
There was no easy answer, mostly since morbid curiosity didn't just roll right off the tongue. She'd wanted to know what happened to them and obviously, the answer was nothing. They'd been in a holding pattern. There was no reason to stay and yet Max had sat down, placing herself exactly where she'd always seen Alec lay his head next to Rachel's.
Her eyes traveled the direction his would, vicariously living in the moment with him.
A television set peaked out from behind the open door.
Suddenly, the picture of their lives crystallized. Alec in his chair next to Rachel, watching TV "together." What else could they do, for days and weeks?
The sudden, intense rush of empathy felt wrong and intrusive. She shouldn't know about any of this without an invitation and she didn't have one. Alec hadn't wanted her to know anything about him.
Now, she knew too much.
No sum of money was enough for him, because whatever he got was all Rachel would have when the time came.
Slowly, he was starting to make the friends he'd wanted in the first place. Not like Max, who knew way too much about him. Business partners. Contacts. People like Jimmy, who could help him acquire his objective without showing up in his hospital room with their guts hanging out only to walk out the door twelve hours later.
People who paid in full.
Every expense pained him, but some were necessary. Clothes, for his sense of smell. A TV, for his sense of sanity. When he could just hold Rachel's hand and dive into a music video or action movie, things made sense. They came into balance.
"Something's different," Rachel whispered in his ear as he walked back down the hallway toward their hospital room.
Anticipation zipped through Alec's blood. There was something. A different feel in the air. Even though he purposely changed the order of his day, his surroundings were always the same, almost like life at Manticore.
Nothing was different in the outer structures. Nurses still stared at him blankly as he passed, doctors didn't even notice his presence. The bustle that was white noise to others hit like individual, staccato notes in his ears. A pained yell. Regretful muttering. Pleas for family members to hold on.
All different, yet exactly the same. Nothing was out of place except the hair on the back of his neck, under the collared shirt that hid his barcode. He was familiar with the instinct to run, Manticore had taught their soldiers to be in tune with their surroundings to anticipate threats.
But this wasn't fight or flight.
Instead, he was propelled forward, rounding the corner toward his room rapidly.
Rachel was exactly as he left her and his heart plummeted. Alec hadn't gotten as far as considering the reason for his excitement, or wondering what he thought might happen when he got to the room.
The change, when he finally noticed it, was sitting on his chair next to his bed. Money. Green and tattered, had seen better days, but he knew exactly where it came from.
Max was alive.
Alec slid the pile of bills into his pocket. He didn't really care how much she'd short changed him.
The whole problem with hiding a shockingly beautiful motorcycle in an alley behind a dumpster was that often times people threw garbage-type substances in its general direction.
"Poor darling," Max crooned, gently wiping the remains of well-used coffee grinds from the leather seat. If not for the pulse, she could have probably gone her whole life without having to park her treasured motorcycle next to a dumpster.
But then, if not for the pulse, Lydecker probably would have dragged her back to Manticore in 2010.
Win some, lose some.
"Well, that's disgusting."
Max stiffened, but kept cleaning. It wasn't the biggest shock to find him right outside the building he'd apparently been living in for the last month. She wasn't sure what to say, though, so she went with, "Hey."
"Hey?" Alec asked, like she was speaking a foreign language.
"Like 'hi.' More casual."
"Like you casually walked out of the hospital a few hours after surgery? Congrats on being alive, by the way. How's the shoulder?"
Shit. She wasn't supposed to be out and about for another two months according to the doctor's schedule. "Fine. Guess the doctor was off in his guesstimate."
"Apparently," Alec agreed, stepping around her bike and into her line of vision, forcing her to look at him. "Jesus, Max, what were you thinking?"
What she'd been thinking and what she was willing to admit were worlds different, so Max shrugged off the question. "Don't really remember."
"Yeah, right. Delirium? That's what we're going with?"
"I was really out of it. I'd just had surgery."
"So you do remember. How'd you even get on the bike in your condition?"
"Guardian angel." Max tossed the ripped shirt she'd been using to clean off her bike back into the dumpster she'd found it in and swung her leg over the seat. Quicker than Max thought he could move, Alec was in front of her, blocking her exit, a leg on either side of her front wheel. "God, Alec, what's your problem?"
The anger melted from his face and he smiled, like they were best friends all of a sudden. "Thought you changed my name."
"Thought I never knew it," she challenged. What was his real name? She wanted to ask, but didn't want to get into it. She'd waded too deeply into the Alec mystery already. There were other problems in her life, all more significant to her existence.
"Maybe I like my new one better."
A peace offering, she realized. "What do you want?" she asked, relenting.
Fire lit inside his eyes and Max couldn't help feeling she'd walked right into his trap. "How 'bout a ride?" he asked.
Of course. It all came back to the Ninja. At least she could understand the motivation. "Where you headed?"
"You tell me," he said, rounding the side of the bike to squeeze on behind her.
"What's that?" he asked, wrapping his arms around her waist, probably ready to agree to anything if it meant something different to do with his day.
"You steal nothing from the place we're going. Got it? Now or ever."
"Do I have to make this decision now?" he asked.
Max elbowed him. Hard.
When the motor roared to life and she swung around the first curve, Alec felt like he was leaving everything else behind him. It was hard to even think in the inertia she created. It felt more like a dream than anything he'd experienced in the last couple weeks, but at that same time, he was more awake. Alert to every sound of the city as they tore past and the hum of the motor against his ass. The warmth of Max's hips against the inside of his knees.
Completely worth paying lip service to Max's meaningless agreement.
It wasn't like he couldn't change his mind later. Telling Max that he wasn't going to do something in no way made him physically incapable. Saying one thing and doing another was pretty much what he'd been trained to do his entire life.
Lying. It was like thieving in that it was supposed to be "wrong" but it was far easier and took no physical effort.
Mentally, it involved some acrobatics if you did it too much, but in this case, it couldn't be simpler.
What he didn't understand was that Max had to have been aware of the fact that people lied. Thieves, especially. So the fact that she was taking him in spite of the obvious pitfalls meant, what? She trusted him?
Probably the 'saving her life' thing.
He was used to people trusting him because he was placed in a situation they would have no reason not to believe every word out of his mouth.
Max shouldn't have been one of them. He was actively using her to alleviate the anxiety, hallucinations and numbness that infiltrated his every waking moment. Thanks to insomnia, they were his only moments. She knew. At least part of it. He could tell the instant she agreed to the bike trip that she probably had a good idea why he was doing it, but he hadn't cared. There was time to kill until the job that night and having a conversation and spending it with a real person was too tempting to ignore.
Just a few hours to feel the wind whip through his hair and around his head. Have Max yell at him about gun control and actually utilize his knowledge of the U.S. Constitution for more or less practical purposes.
Simple enough fantasy if she let it happen. Just let all the other voices fade to the background. Max and her motorcycle were easy to focus on. It was almost like TV. Better, in a way, because he could interact and feel a part of the world that really existed.
The problem was, she was doing it again. Feeling sorry for him. Given the fact that his life really couldn't be bleaker, Alec couldn't help wondering if he was even more insane to wish she wouldn't. He was glad she was back, relieved she was alive and ecstatic to be speeding around Seattle on her bike, but the idea of her inside his hospital room getting a first hand look at the way he lived needled at him.
Of course, she didn't know yet that he'd been up there, or that he'd jumped three stories to catch up with her. Maybe they could both play pretend.
As they approached the Sector Checkpoint, Alec expected her to slow down, which was nuts, since she seemed to find brakes decorative at best. At the last possible moment, she came to a sudden and abrupt halt that sent him flying into her back.
"Sorry," she said, though her laugh really ruined the apology. Alec wondered if she was this sadistic with everyone or if she left it for her charity work.
Max dug into the pocket of her leather jacket to flash a badge he couldn't see. "Jam Pony Messenger."
He'd never heard of the company. It was either a front for her other, more illegal, activity, or a side job she held down just to get a Sector Pass. His own had been a bitch to get his hands on and it was only a temp.
"Okay, you guys are clear."
"What would you have done if I hadn't had one?" Alec whispered in her ear, curious.
She didn't say anything, but something about the way she revved her engine and took off felt like a pretty clear answer anyway.
When she decided to head to Logan's penthouse to look for him, she hadn't planned on bringing company. Then, when she decided to let Alec tag along, Max hadn't really considered the fact that she couldn't exactly drag him up the wall with her.
If she had gear with her, maybe he could harness in and follow, but as it was, it looked like they were going to have to do things the old fashioned way and walk right through the front door.
Even the concept made her itchy.
She blamed Alec.
Of course, he was having a great time, hugging her to him at every turn and anticipating every move as though he couldn't wait to go faster or take the turns harder.
He'd probably be a lot more fun if he got his drink on.
When she got to the parking garage for Fogel Towers, she could hear Alec's quick inhalation of surprise as she actually drove down the ramp. Of course, unlike every other person she'd ever met, he actually seemed excited when she drove right around the guard rail, forcing them both to pull up their legs and still nearly scratching the paint off her siding.
"Nice," he said, probably not loud enough that he intended her to hear it, making it even more of a compliment.
She pulled into a parking spot and hovered, not quite knowing where to go from there. Did rich people not steal bikes? Could she leave it in broad florescent lighting and expect it to be there when she got back?
Or should she carry a tire with her?
"Where the hell are we?" Alec asked, blindsided, no doubt, by the sudden show of class that was so prevalent in Sector Nine.
"Parking garage," Max said, putting the kickstand into place and dismounting. She couldn't resist throwing on a chain, just in case some classless relative was visiting a rich uncle… or Alec beat her back to the garage somehow.
"I can see that, yes, thank you. Aren't those kind of… 2008?"
"Not in Sector Nine."
"Yeah, right, not everything in Sector Nine has perfectly clean floors. My shoes are squeaking, Max, listen to this!" Alec showed off the noises, pulling off a grotesque approximation of what had to be the moon walk, but sounded like a parade of dying geese.
Max couldn't decide if her eyes or ears hurt more. "Yes. God, please stop."
He did, but not without comment. "Is that your new name for me?"
Ignoring him, Max headed to the elevator. The last thing she wanted to hear was how she should scream it next time, which was a common male follow up to this line of conversation. Been there, learned from that.
Alec caught up to her as the bell dinged and stepped inside cautiously, like he was scared the little tiny room wouldn't be willing to let him back out.
She didn't ride elevators much either, so she hit the "PH" for Penthouse a few times, just for fun.
Alec stepped over to copy her and realized where they were headed. "Seriously?" he asked.
He loved the way the place smelled. Like lemons and pine trees instead of blood and sweat. It was a huge relief to his nose.
The idea of Max hanging out in the building, or, in fact, any building other than a biker bar or someone else's private bank vault, was hard to wrap his mind around.
"Whose place did you say this was?"
He knew that, of course, but he was curious. Max had rich friends? It wasn't like he'd gone through her rolodex to catalogue them all by tax bracket, but Jimmy wasn't exactly rolling in it. He didn't know any of her other friends except… "Logan!" he zeroed in on the name and knew by her expression he'd nailed it. The guy who'd been Rachel's roommate for exactly three hours before their room exploded.
Max said she'd robbed his place, which suddenly made a lot more sense, though why she'd bring him there, knowing the temptation was a good question. Why Logan would invite her back was another.
Though as she exited the elevator in front of him, Alec had a pretty good idea.
Of course, when she started picking the lock, he had to adjust his opinion. Maybe invited wasn't exactly the word. "Uhh, Max, correct me if I'm wrong but isn't this considered rude?"
"Well, sure, if he was home."
The door cracked open.
"I'm pretty sure breaking into a friend's house when they aren't home is actually frowned upon in polite circles."
"You can spank me later," she promised, assaulting his mind with images. As she walked through the door, she threw a slow smile over her shoulder. "Coming?"
He blinked. "Hmm? Yeah."
Logan's penthouse apartment was empty and from the smell of things, no one had bothered to empty his fridge when he got shot. Which was gross and Max would totally take care of it herself if she didn't have an enhanced sense of smell.
"God, what is that?" Alec asked, holding his nose. "You leave the body behind last time, Maxie?"
"Guess he didn't plan to get shot and bail on his place for a month."
"Doesn't he have people for this?"
"Clean it yourself if it bugs you so bad." Honestly, she wasn't sure what his problem was. She had to have at least twice the scent capacity and somehow, she was still standing. "He'll probably have to have people for everything when he moves back."
A back injury would require rehab no matter the condition of his spinal cord, but paralysis was another matter. Would Logan need physical assistance for the rest of his life? Someone to help him get around and do menial, normal things everyone else took for granted? Even when Max had seizures, she'd rather just stay in the privacy of her bedroom than ask for help. Just the idea of not being able to move was such a fundamental part of life that she preferred not to consider all the awful possibilities.
"At least he's conscious," Alec said, not really to her but the world at large. His hand dropped away from his nose. Maybe he'd acclimated. Or maybe he was used to worse.
"Did you check out his TV?" Max asked, pointing toward the living room.
Bounce back in his step, Alec followed her lead to the wall mounted, seventy inch plasma screen that decorated Logan's living room. "This has to be worth serious coin. This and all that computer stuff," he gestured toward the computer room she'd quickly ushered him past.
"You're not stealing his electronics."
"Right, because I promised not to, so if I did, it would be like, illegal or something."
"No, because if you do, I'll twist your spine like a pretzel."
Weirdly, he seemed pretty happy with that response, like the threat of violence was some kind of secret code. It wasn't. She'd beat his ass for sure if he tried something.
"Plus, I'm pretty sure even you wouldn't want to steal a paralyzed guy's only form of entertainment." And work. Even without legs, Logan's monster computer system would still be hitting up contacts and trying to rid the world of evil and grime.
Which was why she was there, though she didn't need to share that part of the deal with Alec. The second Logan got back from whatever fancy rehab facility his folks sent him, she wanted to know what the Eyes Only informant network could tell her about the disk she'd stolen from the creepy building Alec found his sniper rifle.
"What's the point of being here if we can't take anything?" he asked.
Max wandered over to the smooth, ultra modern surface of Logan's coffee table and picked up the remote control at easy reach from the couch. "Pay per view?" she asked, tossing him the remote.
PPV had been the new movie theater ever since the pulse. Features went directly to a television set with a special hook up that, of course, many people couldn't afford. Entertainment was expensive and most people watched re-runs on their analogue TV sets, twisting dry cleaner hangers into bunny ears.
"Wow, Max, with friends like you, who needs relatives?"
"Do you want to watch or not?"
He settled into the couch and flipped on the TV. "Sex or violence?"
"You have to choose?" she asked.
"Good point." He started flipping through menus, until he noticed her still hovering. "Aren't you going to sit down?"
"Yeah, in a sec…" Max didn't know how to explain what she was doing, so she didn't bother, just left the room and ducked into the computer alcove. Logan's desk was messier than the rest of the house. The last time she'd used his computer, she hadn't bothered to pay any attention. She still wouldn't, except she had to find a post it note for the disk. An empty, now probably permanently stained coffee mug sat next to a pile of notes and files. They sat on top of a book, on top of a pen that kept everything off kilter. The post-its, she finally found out, had slipped to the floor.
After all the aggravation, Max kind of felt Logan owed it to her to let her do a quick search through his Internet files for news about Vogelsang. Though, ideally, he just wouldn't notice.
Alec didn't choose a porn. Partly because Max would come back at any moment, partly because it felt like Rachel and Lydecker were right there looking at him. Plus, he wasn't sure where Logan's bathroom was… it would be a hassle.
The only movie that really appealed to Alec was an animated feature about some kind of rodent trying to make it big in his chosen field. Obviously, it was a comedy. He watched a lot of comedy, to brush up on his verbal skills and figure out how the real world worked.
But, when Max came back into the room, he didn't know how to explain why he'd chosen a Disney movie.
So, he'd gone with an action flick and proceeded to bite his tongue through the most ridiculous fight sequence he'd ever seen.
"I taught you better than that," Lydecker agreed, which was just fucking great.
Alec hit pause and went to find Max. She was obviously up to something, since she hadn't come to Fogel Towers penthouse for the smell, but he didn't particularly care about the details. She needed Logan's sweet computer set up for something.
"Hey, did you ever find the guy that was blackmailing you?" Alec asked, letting his feet clomp against the wood floor to announce his presence.
Max quickly shifted to another screen and turned to him. "He won't be a problem anymore."
There was a confidence and finality to the statement that got his attention and sent chills down his spine. Maybe he and Max had more in common than he'd thought.
"What movie did you pick?" she asked, shutting off the computer and getting up from Logan's desk.
"The one with guns."
Max brushed past him to get back to the TV, but Alec turned too quickly as the world spun around him. It usually went away in a few seconds.
"But someday," Rachel said, "It won't. You'll keep spinning until poof. I'll be right there with you, Simon. We'll both be dying at the same time."
"No," he whispered, bracing himself against the wall he could feel, but no longer see.
"Give up the girl, 494. Everything can go back to the way it was. You won't even remember this," Sandoval instructed in his ear. "Is that clear, Alec?"
"Alec? Are you okay?"
Max, he realized, recognizing the voice before his vision returned to reality with him.
"Yeah, of course. Sorry. Zoning."
"Clearly…" He thought she'd leave it at that, but the concern came back into her eyes, making him bounce on his toes and lean toward the exit. "Alec, when was the last time you slept?"
"Last night," he lied. "Well, this morning, really. My schedule is kind of out of wack." He borrowed the phrase from a doctor he'd overheard in the locker room, trying to lend authenticity to the story. The key to a good lie was minute detail that was impossible to confirm.
Max didn't seem to really buy it, but neither could she completely dismiss it, so in the end, Alec got what he wanted. She headed over to the couch and started up the movie.
It was hard to concentrate on terribly choreographed violence with the smell of rotting rich people food in her nose and Alec's constant twitching in her peripheral vision.
Most drug manufactures had stopped production after the pulse. It took a lot green to get the Ritalin psychiatrists used to give to kids like candy when math couldn't hold their interest. Apparently, Alec could use a hit or ten.
"I give up," Max said after awhile. She jumped to her feet and headed to the kitchen, ready to scrub out Logan's refrigerator. Before she could put a hand on the door, Alec was right next to her, holding the door shut.
"Don't," he insisted.
The temptation to shove him across the room was shocking. It wasn't often that she felt it anymore, after all the years she'd spent faking life as an ordinary. Pretending she wasn't as strong or fast had become almost second nature and it was strange to actively shove the impulse to throw Alec across the room just so she could clean.
"What's your problem? Watch the movie."
"We were both watching," he said, but he was still fidgeting like a junkie and there had to be more to it.
If there had been any way for Alec to believe her shoulder had completely healed, she would have enjoyed beating the truth out of him.
"Are you eating?" Max asked next.
"God, what are you, my commanding officer?" he asked.
There was something off about his response. Not because it sounded wrong, but too right, but Max was too pissed off to focus on it. "Apparently somebody needs to be! You can't fucking walk straight, Alec! So you're either on something or you need something. Either way, you're getting your ass caught if you go out tonight."
"I'm sorry, are you the same girl I was talking to a second ago? Who drove her motorcycle home after surgery? You really feel comfortable having this conversation, Max?"
It was frustrating to be held to the same rules as other people, which was generally why Max didn't tell anybody her business. Obviously, it weakened her argument tremendously. "I was delirious," she insisted.
"So you say."
Obviously, he was still pissy about the issue and she wasn't going to get anywhere. "I'll be right back," she told him.
Now what? Alec was half expecting Max to head to the kitchen for a knife to threaten him with once her attempt at reason went down in flames. But she headed into Logan's office instead, coming back a few seconds later with a large black marker. The hell?
She grabbed his sleeve and yanked it up to his elbow.
The shock of it only threw him off for a second before he tried to pull away, but she followed, deftly knocking away the half-hearted attempt he made to shove her off him. "What are you doing?" he finally asked.
She flicked the cap off the marker and wrote a series of numbers on his forearm. Like he needed 14 more digits attached to his body. "When you get your stupid ass in trouble…? Page me."
When, he noticed, not if. Bitch.
"Whatever, I have to head out."
"Great, see you tonight!" she said, throwing him a brilliant smile and sarcastic little two fingered wave.
He only replied with one.
Most of his jobs were absurdly easy for someone of his considerable skill and training. Even those with voices in their head and brushes with insanity. The fact that he wasn't playing with his full deck didn't matter because his competition wasn't aware he'd started with more than a few extra aces.
Unfortunately, all of his success had led Jimmy to up the ante. On the one hand, the payout was massive. But he couldn't just scale the wall. He had to talk someone into letting him through the door.
Even though he was the top of his class at Common Verbal Usage, he wasn't exactly Psy-ops.
Just approaching the building, he could tell why he'd have to go through a door. The walls were sheer, impossible to climb and even if he had gear, it was much larger than anything nearby, he'd be spotted instantly since the entire place was lit up from the inside. Probably fashionable enough in its days as an office building, but inconvenient as hell for someone wanting to break into the local mafia's lair.
Usually, Jimmy's jobs ran strictly to the autobody business. More in the destructing than the building side of things. This was a step up for him, which is how Alec knew he was making headway. Either Jimmy secretly had his fingers in more kettles than he first thought, or it was Alec's own ambition that made Jimmy look further for the easy score.
Easy for Alec, at least.
The door was thick metal, more like the opening to a vault, which, actually, was sort of a fair comparison since Alec intended to rob the place. There was a slit of a window on the door, about a foot long and an inch high and stood at approximately eye level, though Alec had to bend down slightly to see through it.
He knocked on the door and the window slid open, letting him hear the rumble of a large crowd for the first time.
"Show started hours ago."
"Not over yet, though," Alec argued blindly. He had no idea what was going on inside the heavy metal door, just that it was the first step toward getting the money he needed for Rachel.
"If you had just told me the truth, I would have never looked twice at you, Simon. I'd be safe with my grandparents back east," Rachel whispered in his ear.
He tried to ignore her, like he did everyone else.
"I'm sure there's a way to convince you to open the door," Alec said. It wasn't subtle. This man was a human key, waiting for the right combination of words to get him to let Alec through the door, but what did he care, really?
"Probably is," he conceded.
"I don't like this place," Rachel interrupted. "Come back to me."
Alec wouldn't look at her. He was doing this for her, but she didn't get it. Never did. He tried to focus on what the doorman was saying. The guy was perfectly willing to let him in, but he was holding the door hostage for something.
Impatient, Alec pulled a few bills out of his pocket, but didn't hand them over, just dangled them in front of the tiny window. He had no idea what else to offer. Usually, his next step was threats, but it was difficult with the man behind the iron curtain.
But the door creaked open and he walked in, feeling the bribe disappear quickly from his fingers. 'Talk them into it' was a code, Alec realized. One that Jimmy had probably assumed he already understood. Whatever. He was putting the extra fifty bucks on his bill.
He cased the room, taking in the bars on the walls and large mill of people, crowding around a massive meshed area in the center of the room.
"Always know your exits," Lydecker reminded him. "Give yourself an escape route."
Shut up! Alec yelled inside his head. He knew all that. Unfortunately, there weren't many exits. A window or two would do in a pinch, but he'd prefer to walk right back out the way he came. Every other door just led more deeply inside the structure.
A bell rang and a loud roar went up in the mill of people. It wasn't until the noise level lowered that Alec recognized what was happening. He couldn't see through anyone's back, but he would never forget the sounds of fighting.
He could even tell who would win and wasn't surprised when the crowd erupted in moments.
As he circled the room, it felt like every eye turned toward him, though it was only a few. Most were involved with every movement of the fight inside the cage in front of them. It was mostly men. The girls in the room seemed to have a specific purpose and didn't focus on the yelling around them, almost as if it didn't exist.
They were also the only ones going in and out of the doors. Obviously, they were the strategic team in charge of the event, but they wouldn't talk to anyone who didn't want to buy something. Drinks, for the most part.
Alec was so willing to buy a drink. Maybe a few. He hadn't had alcohol since the glass of wine at the Berrisford's, a few weeks before the explosion. Sometimes it was strange to him, that a third of the time he'd known Rachel, she'd been in a coma. Three weeks, they'd been together. Really together, where instead of just coming over to teach her piano once a week, she'd invited him over all the time, to her father's fancy events and a few lazy days of watching TV, eating junk food and making out on the couch.
"Essential couple time," Rachel reiterated what she said at the time and Alec was glad he could see her, hear her voice even though it meant he was losing it.
He pushed through the crowd to the bar.
In his experience on the outside, which, to be fair, was limited, it was a complete waste of time to try to be inconspicuous. That wasn't the way he was designed. So he didn't wait his turn, waiting for the bartender to notice him. He slapped a fifty on the counter and stared at her chest, which were encased with sequins and didn't seem to want to stay inside her shirt.
He wasn't fully sure why she bothered with it except the way the low lighting bounced off every angle. Her breasts looked like disco balls. It wasn't hard to keep an eye on them.
In a room with fifty eyes zeroing in on her body, she turned almost immediately to meet his gaze, then moved quickly to scoop up his money.
"Now what can I do for you?" she asked, tucking his money away into the tight space between her skin and sequins.
"I'm shy," he said, "I'll work up to it after a couple drinks."
"Nice," she said, like she'd heard it before, but still appreciated the effort. "So what kind of man are you? Beer? Scotch?"
"Scotch," he said. It was Berrisford's drink of choice. The way it burned down the back of Alec's throat had never seemed appealing until that moment.
Richard Vogelsang's body had been found DOA at the apartment assumed to be his place of residence, a location Max knew to be five blocks west of the Laundromat that doubled as his office. He was a private investigator. Usually, he dealt with unfaithful wives and missing drug dealers. For Max, he was trying to find the children that escaped with her or the woman who'd driven her beyond that final barricade.
After a month, there was a good chance the crime scene was long gone and evidence destroyed, but Max made the trek anyway.
Her information had gotten the guy his fingernails ripped out and a bullet to the brain stem.
His body had been found by Marcus Vogelsang, who, had he waited around to get the coroner's report, would have known that the kill shot came from a gun at least fifty meters away.
He'd been tortured by one party and taken out by another.
Max tried not to immediately blame Lydecker, but it was a minimal effort at best. Torturer or executioner, he'd played both roles in the drama of her life growing up. Marcus said that Lydecker was looking for Vogelsang after he'd been killed. Surely, if Lydecker had shot him, he wouldn't have felt the need to look for him. He wouldn't have cared enough to cast away suspicion with the exercise, he seemed to find license for whatever actions he favored under the guise of 'national security.'
If, on the other hand, he was the torturer in the scenario, why wouldn't he know about the shooter? Either the shooting occurred after the torture. Or, Lydecker had someone else do the dirty work and hadn't been at the location at the time of the shooting.
There was a small voice that reasoned that Lydecker might have nothing to do with any of it, but it was easily shushed. Who else, after all?
Like Marcus said, she was the only client he'd had that would draw that type of attention.
If he hadn't charged out the nose, she might have felt a little worse about the fact that she'd gotten him killed.
But she certainly hadn't asked him to dig up her own barcode. It seemed like Dick Vogelsang had gotten too involved for his own good. Definitely too involved when it came to the information he'd left for his son, sending him to Max's door step.
If he'd waited and seen the police report, Marcus would have known it wasn't her. Wouldn't he? Or did the role of the shooter still fit? Who, besides her, would want to silence Vogelsang from whatever information he might have been spilling?
Like most apartment buildings in the area, the bullet hole was covered over in plastic, visible from the street for someone with 2000/20 genetically enhanced vision.
There were a few buildings that the shot could have come from and Max didn't bother going through the front doors to get a level glance at them. The apartment was on the top floor, so she took what, to her, was a hop, onto the fire escape, climbed the steps and vaulted onto the roof.
She wasn't stupid enough to contact anyone involved with the case to ask questions, but it didn't stop her from poking around at the scene. There were really only two locations that worked for a sniper. Most of the buildings nearby were too tall and close, they didn't have the right angle unless Vogelsang had actually leaned his head out the window.
Even he hadn't been that much of an idiot.
So either the killer had hidden out on the fire escape of an apartment building across the way or they'd set up in the other possibility, the building behind it, lower to the ground and just barely visible, yet still almost on level with her eye. It was a much further shot. Limited range of motion. Very difficult access.
Unless you happened to be transgenic.
It was tempting to continue sipping scotch while he stared down the shirt of an attractive woman and listened to the familiar, almost pleasant sounds of someone getting the shit kicked out of them in the background.
But the need for money pushed from deep inside and soon, he started fidgeting.
"What do you think of The Mangler?"
"What?" Alec asked, turning to the man on the bar stool next to him, surprised he'd seemed open enough to invite conversation.
"He's reigning champion in these parts lately. Put any money down on it?"
"Don't spend money unless it's a sure thing," Alec said. "Seems too much like gambling." Which, of course, he assumed was the basic point of the spectacle.
Amused, his neighbor held out a hand. "Reagan," the man said, introducing himself.
"Alec," he returned, simultaneously enjoying the feel of using his 'real' name and wanting to keep it a secret. There was something so revealing about telling a stranger that it made him feel uncomfortable.
Of course, everybody was a stranger. At this point, just by shaking the man's hand, Reagan had become one of Alec's closest friends.
"Nice to meet you. You a fighter?" Reagan asked.
There was no obvious reason for the question and Alec wondered where it came from. "We'll see after a couple drinks."
"You're not watching the fight, just wondering if you were psyching up for your match," Reagan explained.
It was observant. Too observant, as far as Alec was concerned. "Just distracted," he claimed instead. Another truth.
"Tell him the whole truth," Rachel whispered. "See what he would think if he knew you could kill him in less than four seconds."
He didn't have to talk to Reagan at all, though. The bartendress returned with another drink and he decided it was time to move on.
The idea that Vogelsang'd been playing her, that he'd obviously had his son put a tracking device on her bike, concerned Max. It made her a lot less sorry he was dead, but it made her wonder who else had been privy to the information he'd gathered over the time she'd known him.
Plus, it was a problem. She was a good judge of character. And yes, he seemed somewhat shady, in that he would take any job that came his way and wasn't shy about taking pictures of any disgusting scenario he was paid to investigate, but he hadn't seemed like a spy.
But in post-pulse Seattle, an opportunist could fall into anything.
Or fall victim to anyone.
Whether it was another transgenic, Lydecker or someone else entirely, Max wasn't convinced there still wasn't someone on her tail.
The smartest, safest option was simple, but not easy. What if it was another transgenic, under the misguided impression they were helping her? But what if Marcus Vogelsang had tipped someone about how to find her?
The apartment itself told her nothing except that it was a high powered bullet that went through the glass, but that only re-affirmed what she'd already known.
It was time to leave Seattle.
"Is that what I taste like, Simon?" Rachel asked, wheedling her way into his brain as he pushed Cassie, the disco ball breasted bartender, up against the wall in the back room during her self-created break.
Cassie tasted like alcohol, which was nothing like Rachel and she was dancing her tongue around his like an acrobat so he wished Rachel would shut up already so he could concentrate and keep up.
He had to listen in on the room next to him, pay attention to what Cassie was up to and on the way back, he'd had to mentally map out the area while her hands were all over him.
There was no way he was close to sharp to stay on the job during any other mission. Manticore would have pulled him out of the op if he'd been half this compromised, but they weren't in charge anymore.
Every moment would only get worse as his brain slowly melted out through his ears. Alec had to take the opportunity in front of him for a significant payout. Enough for Rachel to live who knows how long if she had someone taking care of her. He would simply have to muster up the sanity to make it happen.
"I miss my daddy," Rachel whispered in his ear, overwhelming the sound of the whimpers Cassie made into his mouth and destroying the initial enjoyment he was getting out of the distraction.
"The girl's collateral damage, 494," Sandoval joined in, dancing in front of his eyes even as he closed them.
Cassie's hands moved into his pants and he pressed closer, squeezing her body to the wall to prevent her finding out that he didn't react to her as he had to Rachel, the prostitute in the alley, or Max.
He assumed it had more to do with his deteriorating health, rather than a lack of magnetism on her part. Since from the feel of things, her magnets were going full blast.
Just that thought made him react a little more, which would have been nice if he could step into a closet and fix the problem, but since he was just waiting for the people in the other room to clear out… Ah, there. Silence.
"What?" Cassie whispered as he pulled away.
"I'm sorry," he told her, and cut off her oxygen.
The direct access to the stash lay through a metal door and fifteen armed guards. Not impossible. But would be suicide to a regular human. So the money tip Jimmy got, and passed on to his new #1 B&E broker, was the weak point in the wall in the kitchen situated between the bar and the supply closet. On a normal day, it closed at 10.
The third panel in the ceiling opened up to an air duct that went up two floors. Straight up. With the same sheer metallic surface parks used to make children's slides. Most people would have needed climbing equipment. Jimmy probably assumed that Alec would be using something of that nature.
Alec didn't intend to be caught, so he didn't care that it might look funny if he could break in without the little hassles that would trouble your every day burglar.
A very large fan blocked the way about ten feet up. Functionally, it was there because the kitchen was easily the place
"Can't go any faster, 494?" Sandoval asked. "513 made it in 20 seconds."
"513 isn't here. Neither are you." Alec had lost track of whether what he said actually went out through his mouth or just remained in his head with his hallucinations.
He kept climbing, finally reaching the turn in the air duct that would let him crawl along solid ground.
"You're still gonna fuck it up."
She was lying in the duct above him, relaxed. Hair dangled toward him as she looked down, amused, apparently, by his certain doom.
"What the fuck are you doing here?" His anger overcame what little remained of his sanity. Apparently, yelling at hallucinations always made them go away.
"I'm just trying to help you, asshole."
He pushed himself up and through her body, finally leaving the vertical shaft and letting himself rest for a second in the divergent air shaft. It was much more difficult than it should have been. The muscles in his arms were trembling with the effort. Not enough to see, but enough to keep him worried, and, hopefully, keep him sane.
"Because your weak ass arms are going to make me up and disappear?" Max scoffed.
"Did I ask your fucking opinion?" Alec snapped, "Leave me alone!"
"Why don't you ever tell me to leave you alone?" Rachel asked.
Alec crawled away from the question. Seeing Max disturbed him on a level that Rachel didn't. That Lydecker didn't. Barring a miraculous recovery or completely disastrous discovery, neither of those people could actually walk into his life at any moment.
But it seemed like Max's favorite activity.
Which only blurred his reality lines even further. Had she actually been there today? He stopped moving suddenly, ripping the sleeve from his arm to stare at the numbers he'd already memorized. It was proof, wasn't it?
"Can you even trust your eyes, though?" Max asked. "Maybe you wrote that yourself. Maybe you were imagining me. I'm probably dead. I never made it after the surgery."
He hauled himself forward faster. He wouldn't engage them anymore. His arms were aching and his eyes strained to see in the darkness around him. In a simple job like this, it was concerning. His brain was beginning to affect his body. When his body gave out, so did his usefulness to Rachel.
"Oh, Simon, that's so sweet!"
"God, Alec, you're such a drama queen."
Both of their voices echoed in his head and their faces shook in front of him as he slammed roughly through the grate in the air duct. He just had to get into the office, grab the book from the safe, if he could get them to shut up long enough to hear the click of the tumblers and then he could be on his way.
He could check on Rachel and call the number on his arm.
He could see for himself if she was real or at least compare her to the other hallucinations that dominated his thoughts.
It was a good plan.
One that required every bit of Alec's focus on the strain of his biceps and triceps as they lowered his body through the grating in the air circulation vent head first, then his abdominals as he carefully somersaulted, allowing himself to dangle briefly in midair before letting go.
For just a second, every muscle released for the first time in recent memory and Alec recognized, almost immediately, that it was a mistake. The tension had been keeping him together, kept him going every moment he'd been awake.
In that instant, he lost control. White light exploded inside his head and ran down the synapses of his central nervous system. It was a feeling he recognized immediately from childhood, even as he hit the floor, his body jerking as his limbs flailed.
A seizure. The last sign that whatever drugs Manticore had pumped into his blood stream were gone.
He didn't have time to feel anything beyond the realization that it was over. No regret, disappointment or relief. The voices and images were gone. The involuntary movements of his body became irrelevant.
The lights behind his eyes quickly burned to darkness.
To Be Continued…