31. We are not part of those people

Max kicked open the door and wheeled her bike into the room. She dropped her Jam Pony pouch. It fell heavily to the floor and there was a glassy crunch as some little thing broke. She shoved the bag out of the way with her foot, and leaned her bike against the wall. She had spent the morning at a memorial service at the university, and was behind in her work. She was carrying double her usual load, and then some.

She had brought her bike up in the elevator, balanced on its rear tire. In a society crippled by fuel shortages, messengers were ever present in all places, a fact of life. They were members of a proletarian sect woven across the breadth of human history. They lived in their own sweaty circles of Zen. They took up space in elevators, looking up and watching the floor numbers change, grubby, smelly, and unusually still. Folks hardly ever complained, even in hospitals.

The room was quiet and dark. Peaceful.

"Alec," she said. "Do you hear me? Are you in there?" She peeled back one of his eyelids, but there was no response. He was completely vacant. She sighed and pulled over a chair. She sat, resting her elbows on the bed.

She wondered if they were taking good care of him. This was his third facility. He was getting the full on rock star treatment, hush-hush anonymity. It seemed like a nice enough place, with flowers, and a radio soft in the background, over by the nurse's station. Was it on her to make sure he was okay? If not, then whose job was it? It wasn't like he had a mom to keep tabs on him, to make sure the staff wasn't being mean.

Alec was wearing hospital issue pajama bottoms. On the night stand there was a basin of soapy water, with a drippy washcloth hanging over the side. There was a scattering of lemon swabs on the tray. His colorless hair was damp on his forehead; someone had given him a prep school comb, the way women always comb a guy's hair, if they get the chance. He was very pale, except for the bruised hollows under his eyes.

He was still tied down at the wrists and ankles. There were wide straps across his chest and thighs. Nobody knew what was going to happen when he woke up. Max knew what it was like to be a prisoner; she had been tied down herself not that long ago. It was the worst feeling in the world. Would they cut you, shock you, burn you? Was he afraid? She wondered if he even knew what was going on. Where was he in his head? Was he anywhere near the surface? She watched him as he lay there, quiet in the bed, looking young and somehow unformed. That was when she started to forgive him. She saw the steady rise and fall of his chest, but it was his bare feet, more than anything, that affected her. Feet were everything to a soldier.

"Hey," she said, to her fallen comrade.

She knew that he'd had another episode. When she'd been walking past the nursing station, she heard her name. She went firm, casting about for more information, ready to flee. Then she realized nobody was talking to her. They were talking about Alec. The staff thought Alec was suicidal, the bipolar son of a senator, lovelorn and detoxing from heroin out of the public eye. That was the story Sam and Logan had cooked up. The nurses thought it was all very romantic, although they were disappointed he was gay. He kept calling out for his boyfriend Max. Hearing that, Max had retreated hastily, feeling like an interloper. She didn't want to know. She wasn't here to spy on Alec.

Logan had explained everything to her. Alec's mind was messed up from the gas. It was temporary. Hopefully, he was going to get better. She wasn't entirely sure that she one hundred percent bought that explanation, though. Logan was being cagey; he was distant and guarded. He was holding something back. She had breathed that gas too, and she was perfectly fine. But she didn't press, she had her own secrets.

For a moment, with revulsion, she relived the near rape. Unlike other women, Max didn't have to face the threat of sexual violence from men. Being assaulted by another transgenic was something she had never anticipated. Worst of all had been the incestuous horror of looking into Alec's crazy face and seeing her brother Ben staring back at her.

She thrust those dark thoughts aside. Until she knew differently, she had to believe he hadn't known what he was doing. They were friends, after a fashion. They had been raised by the same shadowy government agency, and were on the run from an insane breeding cult. He had been X5-494, while she was X5-452, and they were of a kind.

The distance between Max and Logan was like a winter night. It was a bad dream. She tried to cross it, but she couldn't. She was struggling on shifty ground, trying to find her way back to her man, but the virus was a blizzard, obscuring every path. She was losing Logan.

She had lost her brothers and sisters too, all of them. She flashed on Ben, dead in the woods with a twisted neck. She saw Tinga, floating in a tank, her hair like seaweed. Brin was recaptured and brainwashed, Renfro's commando. Then there was Zack. She put a hand on her chest and felt his strong muscle pulsing under her rib cage.

She did not even live in the same world as Logan. She couldn't. No matter how much she and hers tried to hide among the masses, they were always exposed in their uniqueness. They were elite, they were scary, and they were not welcome. As Eyes Only, Logan was a wanted man; his street cred was as close as his own paralyzed legs. But Logan was a civilian. He traveled a righteous, daylight path. Max skulked in shadow, reflexively stopping to sniff and listen. She could chase Logan for an eternity, as long as the moon chased the sun, but if she ever caught him, it would be the end of the world.

Max tentatively took Alec's hand, and stroked it carefully. Up on the tower, lashed by the wind, soaking wet and bewildered, Alec had begged her to kill him. In an eerie flash of lightening, there had been the electric pain of memory, as Ben's face was exactly superimposed on Alec's, and in her head she heard the words: "Don't leave me here. Don't let them take me!" She was incredibly grateful it hadn't come to that. She thought maybe that would have snapped her own mind, and sent her someplace so bad and scary she could never have crawled out. After everything that had happened, there were questions she wanted to ask the universe, and these questions were howling inside her head. They made her throat ache and her stomach burn. She had searched for the others for so long! Why did she have to kill her own brother? Why did Ben have to die in the woods? Why couldn't it have ended like this for him? Why wasn't it her brother in this quiet room, in that soft bed, with sweet nurses smiling because they were halfway in love with him, caring for him with gentle hands?

This is what she said to Alec. She said: "I don't know how much of what went on between us was true. I don't know if you meant some of the things you said. I don't know if you meant it when you said - " She broke off, then plunged ahead. "I don't know if you meant it when you said you love me. You were pretty confused there for a while."

She was quiet for a moment, pulling together her thoughts. She had several messages she wanted to deliver. Now was as good a time as any, with Alec unconscious and unable to interrupt. "Logan and I can't be together. It's dangerous for me to even be around him. But he loves me so much, Alec. I can't just leave him! Nobody ever loved me like that before. I didn't know anyone could."

She looked at the floor. Earlier at the university, as she sat beside Logan on an uncomfortable plastic chair, listening to all those sad people, heartsick and miserable in the knowledge that the murder of Eva Vadas was her fault, she had accidentally bumped Logan. Her head swam, and she sank into the forbidden contact with something like despair, drowning, all of her senses telescoping down to that fragile point where the shoulder of her jacket brushed his arm. Then she pulled away, and he pulled away, and they did not speak of it after. "I guess I just don't feel very lovable," she said hoarsely, to Alec.

She paused.

"I'm always going to love him, because he was my first." She put her head in her hands. It was the right time to cry, so she did that for a little while.

Then she sniffed, and said, "So, Manticore paired us up, you and me. Maybe it was just random. Maybe they had big plans. Who knows? But what I do know is that they looked at some numbers and that was how they decided. That's not love, Alec. That's a science experiment."

In a nervous gesture, she ran her hands through her hair. "Maybe you and I were made for each other. But Manticore doesn't get to decide that anymore." She looked away for a minute, thinking. He couldn't hear her. He was out. She confessed: "I know I care what happens to you, and not just because of Ben."

She touched his arm. "You really came through for us, Alec. Even though you were totally off your rocker. You saved us. I don't know how you pulled it off, but you got us out of there. Me and Logan. White was going to kill us both. I'm trying to say that I'm happy to be alive. Logan is happy to be alive." She gently touched his face, cupping his cheek with her palm. "I hope that when you wake up, you're going to be happy to be alive too."

She stood, and pushed her chair back against the wall. "I hope you forget everything that happened. That's what I'm going to do. I even hope you forget this."

She put a delicate hand on his chest. She leaned forward, and her hair was silk and shadow, falling around her face. She kissed him softly on the lips. She left the room, much more quietly than she'd come.

He opened his eyes.

The End

Keep your eyes peeled for "Gods to Men," the sequel to "The Stronghold."

Coming Soon!