"O-kay," Tony said, seeing Lydecker waiting quasi-patiently, hands in his pockets with his back to the three people still left in the studio.
"What's up with your friend?" the blonde woman asked.
Again, Alec eyed her with some suspicion. Had she already talked to Tony about their child? And why did she look so familiar? "You must be Tony's lady," he said, extending his hand.
"Oh, sorry. Alec, this is my girlfriend, Liv. Liv, Alec."
Liv shook Alec's hand, her eyes squinting slightly.
"She's Manticore, too," Tony said.
And suddenly, he knew exactly where he'd seen her. In Psy-Ops. Tearing apart his mind. Without reservation.
She must have seen the change in his eyes, because she looked away. "I'm sorry," she said in a whisper. She looked over to Tony, scared of what Alec might say. She wished Tony hadn't explained that last part.
Alec picked up on her micro expression. She wasn't proud of her role in the Psy-Ops division. "It's nice to meet you, Liv," he said, shaking her hand gently. "Don't worry about it," he added.
They held one another's stare a moment before Alec let go. He looked out toward Lydecker. Maybe he had recognized Liv and hadn't wanted to invite that drama.
Tony, on the other hand, looked confused. "You two know each other?"
Alec felt the emotions long-gone: fear of what would happen to his sense of self when Psy-Ops completed their task – whether or not he'd have any idea who he was once he was dispatched, anxiety as he remembered the needles, the lasers, the psychological, mental anguish, and the physical torture. He tried to push those memories away, and when that didn't work, he compartmentalized them. It wasn't her fault they'd put him through all of that. "We met once or twice at Manticore. Lunch room or something." He smiled under a veil of ease, a false front Liv saw, but which Tony did not.
In that moment, her big blue eyes showed gratitude.
Relaxed a little, Tony chuckled. That Manticore would have a lunch room like a school would have tickled him. "So… you need a passport? Fake ID? What?"
"Two passports, actually. One for me and," he hesitated a moment, looking to Liv and back. "One for Max."
Tony sat at his desk and rifled through some photos. "Got a picture of this 'Max'?" he asked.
Alec pulled his phone from his pocket, thinking about the runes all over Max's skin. "Yeah, I think I have a clear shot of her face."
"Max?" Liv asked.
As if he'd been caught red-handed, Alec looked up guiltily.
"452?" she continued.
It felt like she was an old school friend who was pleasantly surprised to learn two of her former classmates had hooked up. "Yeah," he answered, scrolling through the photos. Max's foot, Max's leg, Max's hip, Max's stomach… The images made his pulse race a little as he remembered their experience in his now old apartment. Finally, he found a suitable photo of her face and sent the picture via text message to Tony's newest burner phone. "Might have to work some magic on her neck."
"Why?" Tony asked, plugging his phone into his computer. He moved the image from the phone to his desktop and opened it. He leaned forward. "What are those? Tattoos?"
Alec sighed. "It's a long story."
Liv leaned over Tony's shoulder. Her eyes widened and she turned to stare at Alec.
"You know what those are." Alec stepped forward, threateningly. "Why do you know what those are?"
Slightly panicked, Liv took a step back, intuitively trying to keep herself from getting in his way, figuratively or literally. "I can't read them," she offered.
Alerted to what was happening behind him, Tony stood and turned to face the transgenics.
Alec attempted to calm himself. If he couldn't keep his cool, he wouldn't be able to get any information. "Sorry, didn't mean to scare you – it's just… we've been working on this and our best lead is a professor at a university in Greece, which is where we need to go." Alec took a breath, and Liv followed suit.
"What do you know about the markings?" Tony asked, reaching for Liv's shoulder.
"It's true, then," Liv said, still in disbelief. "What they said about her."
"What did they say? Who are 'they'?"
"The scientists," she answered simply. "Used to talk about how they needed to find 'the one.' Renfro's orders. The one who'd withstand the tests was supposed to develop the marks, and none of you ever did."
How a whole team in Psy-Ops could know about Max's top secret prophesy was beyond Alec. There had to be more to it. Renfro's orders, tests, Fink and White, the cult… It all didn't add up. He let out a frustrated sigh. "You were never told why or informed of any of the details? You didn't ever overhear anything? Ask anything?"
"Just what I told you," Liv confirmed, looking away. "I've seen a lot, but almost nothing regarding 452. There used to be rumors of a girl. But, you remember what happened to the soldiers who fell out of line, who got too inquisitive."
Alec stared into the same distance. "Yeah, I do. It was not tolerated."
"So…" Tony began, breaking the couple-second silence. "You need to go to Greece."
Alec cleared his throat and met the dark-haired man's eyes. "Yeah. Possibly Africa – Mozambique, Egypt. Maybe some credentials for an Athens University. Not exactly sure what we'll need."
Tony's eyes lit up. "Alright – a full package. I love a challenge." He looked over to Liv as if she was also a challenge he loved.
"Awesome." Alec reached out to shake his hand, happy his contact would come through.
"Gonna take me a couple days. I'll call you when they're ready. Can you get me Max's stats?"
"'Course. Thanks, man." He looked over to Liv. "And uh, take care of her. She's gonna need your help."
Liv nearly turned pink with embarrassment and she and Tony watched as Alec climbed out the window.
Lowering himself into the stench-filled sewer, Alec landed softly and with minimal splash. Lydecker was already waiting for him, himself, a worse victim of the sewer's grime.
"So let me ask you something," Alec began, the curious parts of his DNA scratching up through his mind, begging for satisfaction. "You worked with Liv before, right?"
They began walking, puddles of murky waters upset by their boots as they trudged forward. Lydecker let his hands ball into his jacket pockets.
"Is that her name?" he asked. Lydecker's brows twitched as he walked, his face otherwise statuesque.
"No, I'm not buying it. How do you know her? Psy-Ops?"
Nonchalantly, Lydecker answered. "I don't know her."
Alec paused, twisting his torso toward Lydecker. "Then what was that back there?"
"Nothing." Lydecker continued walking.
"Oh, I see. It wasn't her you knew; it was him. Tony."
Lydecker stopped walking and turned to face Alec, his own face completely stoic. He couldn't speak.
"But he's not Manticore, so how do you know him?"
"The whole batch of you are too curious," he grumbled, turning to keep walking. When Alec didn't follow, he stopped again and turned back to him. "He's my son."
Max didn't mind the rain. After everything she'd just talked about with Logan, and that conversation had ended in her losing patience and angrily affirming they'd talk again later, the rain had a cooling, calming effect on her. So what it made her clothes and hair wet? The decompression was worth it.
She rounded the corner, heading just west of the Sector 3 checkpoint. Not many people out and about when it's raining cats and dogs, she thought with a mental giggle. Cats. I wonder how Joshua and Lucy are doing.
Dead ahead, she saw a small congregation of police gathered at the checkpoint. She could either chance them not knowing her face and use her Jam Pony sector pass, or she could cut through the alleyway and dip into the sewers. Quickly, she decided to avoid police.
It was dark in the alley, most likely due to the sector brownout, and as the rain tick-ticked on her duffle, jacket, and hat, she hastened her speed. Something about this didn't feel right.
Approaching the alley's exit, she noticed a couple of guys in hooded raincoats huddling in a circle. Too late to turn back and try her luck with the police, she continued forward, keeping her head down.
But one of them called out to her. "Hey, baby, lookin' for a good time?"
Keeping her stare straightforward, she ignored them and quickened her pace even more.
"Aw, come on, smile for me, girl," another called.
Smile for me, she repeated mentally. What a dumbshit. She continued walking until one of them stepped in her path and blocked her. She looked up to meet dull, brown eyes on a young man's face.
"Hey, baby, what's your name?" he asked, reaching out to try to lift her chin up to see her face.
Max batted his hand away. "None of your damn business," she bit back. "Get out of my way."
He saw her face, finally. Excited by her fighting spirit, the guy smiled, revealing a dangerously creepy grin. "I think we got a fighter," he informed the others, two of which grabbed Max's arms in an attempt to immobilize her. A third guy pulled her cap off.
"So pretty," the smiling creep said. "Should be fun."
Max feigned weak a moment, trying to assess her attackers and their weaknesses. One in front, two holding her arms, one who had pulled off her hat, and there were at least three others. Seven. She didn't like her odds.
The ringleader of the group got closer and pulled the zipper of her raincoat down, revealing the skin at her neck and collarbone. His face turned to disgust as he perused her columns of runes. His eyes narrowed with anger. "You're one of those freaks."
Max gritted her teeth, squinting at the man with malice. "I don't want to hurt you," she said calmly.
The man laughed, and without warning, punched her hard in the stomach.
Alec made it back to Command alone, after having said goodbye to Lydecker. The older man had said he'd see them in a couple weeks.
His explanation of his confession was vague. Perhaps Lydecker had meant to put Alec off of his deductive reasoning.
Tony's mother was Anastasia Antonopoulos, a beautiful Greek woman with which Lydecker had an illicit, strictly forbidden affair over the better part of two years, and then one day, she had just been gone.
Alec had probed further.
Was she in the surrogate program?
Did Manticore have her killed?
I assumed so, but I never found a single trace of her.
Did you know she was pregnant?
What would you have done if you did?
And finally, he'd asked the question that'd been burning in the back of his mind.
Why didn't you tell him?
More silence for the better part of a minute, until he pressed his lips together confidently. He seems happy.
His response had given Alec some pause. What would any responsible parent do in that situation? Alec pictured himself in a parallel situation. Max was pregnant and maybe both their lives were in danger, and an enormous government top-secret entity had both the manpower and resources to eliminate them all. He gulped at the gravity of the situation. If Max left without a trace, would he assume she'd been killed?
Alec shook his head. I'd need proof. Even if she wasn't pregnant.
But something about the way Lydecker had answered the question felt like a sacrifice he'd made to keep his son blissfully ignorant. 'Happy,' he'd said.
"He does seem happy," Alec agreed. "And Liv's pregnant, so I guess you're gonna be a grandpa." Alec chuckled, slapping Lydecker on the shoulder roughly. Lydecker did not reciprocate the joviality. Even his slightly bushy eyebrow hairs stayed still.
And then Lydecker had left with an easy, "Take care of yourself, kid, and I'll catch up with you in a couple weeks."
Alec passed NetComms with a nod to Dix.
"Seen Max?" Dix called out.
"No. She's not back yet?"
"Haven't seen her."
"Huh." Alec passed the threshold into his office and sat down at his desk. Seen Max, he repeated in his mind, remembering his memory regression with Sandeman. Wonder if I still can…
He had no idea how Child Alec accessed Child Max, but it didn't seem chemical. "Worth a shot, right?" he asked himself aloud.
Systematically relaxing from his toes to his shoulders, Alec concentrated on the idea of Max: intense, chocolaty, fiery eyes – first angry, and then lustful – seeped into his mind. Slowly, her plump, soft lips came into view. Gradually, her naked body materialized.
He shook his head to will the image away. This was serious and he wouldn't get anywhere if he kept fantasizing.
"Where are you, Max?"
Like a masked iris expanding, an image of Max soaked through into his mind. Her cheekbone was split open and she looked like she might have a fat lip. Off in the distance, he saw a neon sign spark back on. He watched in angry horror as he saw the two guys holding her in place while a third punched her in the side.
Standing up, his anger overtook him as he nearly leapt out of his office and ran out of Command. His anger was so white hot that he lost his link. He understood in that millisecond that his overpowering desperation to find and possibly kill the men who had their hands on Max would prevent him from accessing that link again anytime soon.
What did that sign say? He wracked his brain. I've seen it before. Love. Cove. No, not that.
He pulled his hair in frustration. He'd walked that street before. It led to one of their sewer access points.
"Sewers," he said, running toward TC's west side tunnel entrance. He quickly lowered himself into the tunnel and moved on instinct toward the northern tunnels.
Finally, something looked familiar – as if he were retracing steps taken long ago. He hurried up the ladder and opened the manhole cover to see if he had any obstacles to avoid. Despite the rain, a couple people conducted their nightly business, and none paid attention to him as he climbed out and replaced the heavy cover.
Looking around for the neon sign he'd just seen relight when the power flickered back on, he turned in place. Finally, he heard the soft cries of Max's grunting. Blurring in her direction, Alec didn't even realized he had already balled both hands into white-knuckled fists. He registered the neon sign, Dove, paired with a broken light tube shaped like the bird of same name, but with Max in danger, it wasn't a conscious thought that he'd been close thinking 'Love' and 'Cove.'
Racing down the alley, he shouted, "Hey! Let her go!" Mere seconds passed before he ripped the guy that was holding Max's right side away from her by his right arm and handful of the guy's jacket. As he spun him around, Alec's fist connected with the guy's face in a loud crack, and while the goon was falling unconscious to the ground, Alec had already moved on to the two guys who had approached.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Max was already free from the man who'd been holding her left side, and was fighting both him and the creepy guy, a volley of punches and kicks landing their marks.
In his earnest to see if Max was okay, Alec had left himself vulnerable, and one of the two lackeys took advantage of it by punching him hard in the ribs. Alec doubled over and padded at his ribs with a couple of fingers. It was tender there and would bruise, maybe even to the bones. When he looked back to the guy, he'd readjusted his brass knuckles.
Fuck. I didn't see that.
With a newfound burst of adrenaline – perhaps from his rank among all possible fighters – Alec bounced back, ignoring the pain in his ribs as he pummeled Brass Knuckles with blurring speed. The other guy hadn't stood a chance, and as his mouth sprung a bloody dribble, Alec let the guy crumble to the ground.
With Brass Knuckles' blood on his fists, Alec turned to face the next opponent. The newcomer wore a black puffy raincoat and, when he leered in Alec's direction, showed off two gold teeth.
"You next?" Alec asked with a sneer.
Puffy put up both fists and danced on the balls of his feet like a boxer.
"That's more like it," Alec said, trying to keep his muscles loose, when their natural tendency during a match was to tense up.
Puffy bobbed, even though Alec made no moves suggesting a punch, and circled the X5.
With all of his nerves and impulses on edge, Alec relaxed his shoulders, letting Puffy dance around him, keeping their eyes connected. He could see that his opponent was getting a little dizzy from the circling. One well-placed jab would knock this guy out.
"You've graduated to the next weight class," Puffy said.
Alec grinded his teeth, listening to Max's fight. He'd seen her twice in the background as he kept Puffy's stare. She'd been scraped up a little, but otherwise had been dealing with a couple of these punks pretty well on her own. He focused back on Puffy and saw the twitch of his shoulder as they continued in a counterclockwise circle.
With his fists floating as if preparing for a right jab, Alec bobbed out of Puffy's right hook, dropped his left shoulder and pushed up forcefully with his left fist in an unexpected uppercut. Puffy's teeth snapped in a bite as he sailed several feet backwards and fell onto his back, the force of which knocked the wind out of him. Alec knelt over him and waited to see if Puffy would open his eyes or not.
"He's unconscious!" Max shouted. "Let's go!"
Alec turned to see her, her cheeks rosy from the cold rain and air and the heat from fighting. She grabbed her duffle and pulled him up by the sleeve. There were only three guys on the ground – the two Alec had knocked unconscious, and the creepy guy Max had been fighting.
"Where are the others?" he asked, eager to bring his brand of justice to the other guys threatening Max.
"They ran," she explained, grasping his arm and pulling him toward the sewer tunnel. "Come on, let's go."
Alec looked around. The other four assailants had disappeared. Cowards.
As they passed through NetComms, Alec called out, "Mole! Look alive!"
The lizard man's head popped up above one of the security monitors as Alec tossed the brass knuckles up to him.
"It's not even my birthday," Mole said, with an expression approaching a smile.
"You're welcome," Alec said.
Mole noticed Max's injuries. "Someone finally give you hell?"
Alec was about to speak up and demand the knuckles back, but Max blurted out, "Nope!" with a triumphant smile.
They made their way into Alec's office and closed the door. Max set her duffle down as Alec circled around his desk and pulled his first aid kid from one of his lower drawers.
Max eased off her torn shirt, leaving her in a tank top, and lowered herself onto the couch.
"Anything broken?" Alec sat next to her and opened the kit. He removed the alcohol prep pads and tore open a package.
"Doesn't feel like it," she responded, offering her face to him. She had a split on her cheek deep enough to have drawn blood. "You?"
He gently dabbed the cool, wet cloth on her laceration, staring intently at the cut.
Max watched how his brow turned in concern, and how his bottomless eyes conveyed his worry, and how his lips twitched as he concentrated on disinfecting her wound. She raised her hand, curled her fingers around his knuckles, and pulled his hand between them. For the moment, she drew his stare to hers, the tension from their injuries fading away. "Are you okay?"
"Sore ribs, but that's all," he said.
"Not broken?" Max lifted his shirt and pressed her fingers at his warm skin, letting her fingertips drag against the lines of his lean muscles.
Alec, transfixed by her tenderness, felt the room heat up again, nearly paralyzed by her touch.
Again, she pressed at his ribs in a slightly reddened area and peered up to him when he winced. "Sorry," she said, offering a slight smile.
Alec stilled, a serious look overtaking the pained one.
For the second time in his genetically enhanced life, he wanted to shout out that he was in love. Filled with the knowledge that he would do anything for her, that throughout his being he felt she'd do the same, and feeling so alive when they were together, burned through him like a thirsty wildfire through a dry field, consuming his breath and using it as more fuel to fan this encompassing flame. He opened his mouth to tell her, but he couldn't find the words.
What would happen when his brain fired the perfect words' synapses through his body, sculpting its concept in his mind before his tongue and mouth twitched to mold those words, and he breathed those conceptual rushes of air out, pairing it unconsciously with the vibrations of his vocal chords, and out came the song of his heart's desires? Would his throwing caution to the wind prove her response vicious like a pack of wild wolves devouring him, or maybe would she fold him into her like a love letter in its envelope, and carry him with her on the breeze like a sweet melody?
Max took a shallow breath, searching the abyss of his eyes for the meaning behind his passionate, reverent silence. His lips had parted and he seemed to be holding his breath, caught somewhere between thought and speech, and feeling like she couldn't let him suffocate, Max leaned forward, her stare falling to half-lidded, and pressed her lips to his.
Alec raised his open palm to caress her jaw and neck, and pulled back again, breaking their kiss. It was quiet again. "Max," he began, but both transgenics heard Joshua's voice and footsteps as he made his way through Command.
"Max in Alec's office?" they heard him ask.
It sounded as if Joshua was laboring with something he carried, lumbering in the hallway as he appeared silhouetted against Alec's obscured-glass door.
Max eased back off the couch, found her overshirt and pulled it back on just as Joshua knocked.
Alec cleared his throat, staring at Max with the weight of something important swimming in his eyes. Max blinked slowly at him, her feline femininity pouring through.
"Max 'n' Alec?"
Alec stood. "Come on in, Josh."
The door swung open gently and Joshua carried in a large, framed canvass. "Sorry. Max asked Joshua for Father."
She had almost forgotten, and suddenly having the painter before her filled her with a different kind of nervous excitement.
"Max okay?" he asked, finally getting a clear line of sight to her face.
She raised a hand absentmindedly to her cheek, eyes glued to the back of the painting. "I'm fine." She raised hopeful eyes to meet Joshua's. "Is… is that him?"
Satisfied that Max's injuries were only superficial, Joshua stood taller and smiled a row of pointed but otherwise straight teeth.
Max took a hesitant step toward him, anxious to see the face of the man who created her – who created all of them, whose plan it was for her to be this 'one.' She hoped seeing the portrait would jog more of her memories somehow, further, helping her to walk the labyrinth of this man's brilliant mind and uncover the maze, her path in it, and its overall purpose. She wondered if he would look like Joshua, Isaac, White, or Casey. She wondered if Joshua would paint him exactly as he remembered him.
She blinked and took a deep breath, steeling herself for what she'd see, and felt Alec's warm hand at her back.
Joshua turned the canvas around and watched Max's face for her reaction.
The man in the portrait stared back at her, his gray-blue eyes seeming to squeeze in approval, as if he was about to break into a smile or a hearty laugh. His overcast eyes seemed reminiscent of a time before the Pulse, before things would get difficult; but they also seemed a physical foreshadow of the complexities which would later obscure their existence. It was as if he could see into the future and found it rife with danger, and thought maybe he could use his life and energy and mind to help make it a better future. All of that in his eyes. Ambition, mischief, danger, wisdom, discipline.
His gray-blues cast out from under dark eyebrows and a high forehead, all topped off with a mop of dark hair which partially fell into his face.
Joshua had painted him wearing (presumably) a long-sleeve, baby blue button-up dress shirt with the top two buttons undone, and a deep indigo corduroy jacket, worn thin from the look of it.
His skin was pale, and logically, it made sense to Max; he was a scientist who spent a great deal of time inside. It gave her the almost comforting feeling of contrast. The concept that someone could represent opposite ends of the spectrum gave her hope for her own kind; they may have been manufactured to be cold assassins, soldiers without conscience, but there were so many transgenics who were so much more than that, who demonstrated compassion, nurturing behavior, protectiveness, brilliance, strength, integrity, dignity and love. Did Sandeman know what he had created?
A suggestion of a smile formed on her lips as she studied the gentle sweeps of Joshua's careful brushstrokes. The whisper thin stroke of the slightly browned peach at the corners of his eyes was a perfectly straight set of lines, tainted at the tip with a twinge of sienna for the depth of his soon-to-be-wrinkles. The faint lines at what would be his smile suggested a constantly closed mouth held in by lips pursed in a thin line, as if he spent more time solving puzzles than attempting to relax. The stubble which curved around his chin gave the impression that he had neither the energy nor the time it would take to shave as frequently as he'd need to. He was handsome.
Joshua had given much attention to this portrait. Sandeman was his father, his hero, and it was clear through his craft that he loved his father very much, that he did his very best to make his father proud.
Joshua finally broke the silence. "Max like?"
Max tore her eyes from the painting and looked up to Joshua. "It's perfect, Big Fella."
Joshua stood taller at Max's approval. "You keep?"
The dark-haired X5 let the question fill the silence in the office. Her mind raced a mile a minute, trying to paste his face on the memories she'd just remembered; ran through her Manticore memories in search of him anywhere in the background.
Her eyes glassed over in hasty frustration that she may not ever actually remember anything about him unless under the influence of the protocol's drug.
Placing a warm hand at her shoulder, Alec swept his hand down her arm. He looked over her shoulder at the painting, trying to solve Max's same problem in his own mind.