"Save him, and you've got a deal," Max said. They were in the helicopter headed for the airport, the three X5's Lydecker had brought with him making short work of Musalla and his men.
Lydecker was looking at her, his lips quirked in a small smile. Max held Alec more tightly. He was bleeding to death, dying in her arms. So far, no one had offered to help him. "Damn it," she said. "If he dies, I swear I'll ..." She didn't finish the sentence because she honestly didn't know what she could threaten the man with. He was holding all the cards now, including Alec's life.
One of the X5's who'd pulled her from the metal crate nodded toward a pile of gear. "We have first aid supplies, sir. We could even do a blood transfusion."
Max didn't recognize the soldier. He certainly wasn't from Terminal City.
"X5-386 and the others were on long term undercover assignments when Manticore was destroyed," Lydecker explained. "I was able to bring them in before White's massacre."
"Part of your new and improved Manticore?"
"Exactly." Lydecker leaned forward. "And I'd like you to be part of it as well. That's the deal, Max. I'll save him for you if you agree."
"What good would my word be?" Max said bitterly.
"Good enough," Lydecker said. He nodded at Alec. "Make up your mind. He doesn't have much time. There are limits to even an X5's recuperating powers."
"But you'll let Alec go? You won't try and keep him too."
Lydecker was shaking his head. "If he lives, 494's part of the deal as well. I know you can't speak for him, but I trust you will be able to convince him. I'm betting he won't leave you anyway."
Max took a deep, shaky breath, realizing what she said next was not only going to alter the rest of her life, but Alec's too. Then she looked down at Alec lying so still and bloody in her arms and knew she didn't have any choice -- neither of them did.
"All right," she said, a part of her dying with the words. "I'll work for you. And I'll convince Alec to as well. Just save him."
"And the other mutants in Terminal City?" Lydecker pressed.
"If you offer a decent deal, I'll try and get them to surrender to you," she said, her voice dropping to a whisper.
Lydecker nodded at X5-386. "Get to work," he said. "494's no use to me dead."
Alec knew where he was even before he opened his eyes. Antiseptic ... bleach ... medicinal ... No doubt about it. A morgue didn't smell like laundry detergent. He was in a hospital. Which meant he was alive.
He took a tentative deep breath, found the pain tolerable, and slowly opened his eyes. Max seated beside his bed was a pleasant surprise, and instantly banished the huge fear he hadn't even allowed himself to acknowledge yet.
"Hey," he said, his voice raspy.
"Hey, yourself," Max said, her eyes lighting up in a way he never thought they would for him. She took hold of his hand. "You're gonna be fine."
"I gather we got rescued? 'Cause I sure didn't get you out of there."
She held a glass of ice chips to his lips. The liquid trickled down his throat, relieving some of the dryness. "Yeah, we got our asses saved just in the proverbial nick of time."
"No, at least not directly."
Alec thought a moment, then frowned. "Lydecker?"
Max nodded. "I'm afraid so."
"And .. wait, wait ... let me guess. You sold your soul to him in return for gettin' us out of there."
Max looked away. "Worse," she said quietly.
Now a new fear was fluttering in Alec's heart. "Max, what did you do?"
"Alec, you were dying. I had no choice."
"What did you do?"
"I sold both our souls."
Alec wasn't happy about the situation. But, on the other hand, he couldn't truly blame Max. It wasn't as if he would have made a different choice. Besides, Lydecker's deal was turning out to be more workable than anyone had thought.
"The X5's, 6's, 7's, and 8's will be under my direct command," Lydecker had told the assembled mutants in Terminal City. "They'll do the work they were created for. I've received funding from a private source to refurbish an abandoned base just east of Seattle. There are 1000 acres around the compound, more than enough to insure our privacy. This will be the New Manticore."
"And the rest of us?" Mole had shouted from the angry crowd. "Your precious transgenics will be taken care of but what about us transhumans."
"There's room enough for all of you," Max said, stepping forward. "Lydecker promises you'll be well taken care of."
"But we'll be prisoners!" Dix yelled.
"No," Lydecker said. "Living on the compound will be voluntary. However, considering how hostile society is toward you, I think you'll find that being under Manticore's protection again isn't such a bad option. We'll find jobs for all of you to do. You'll have a roof over your heads, food, and medical attention. If you want to walk out the front gate, you can. The only stipulation is that, once outside the compound, you'll be fair game. We won't be rescuing you, no matter what kind of trouble you get into."
"What about White?" Mole said, shouldering his way to the front of the crowd. "Will you protect us from him and his Familiars?"
"You'll be protected from White so long as you're with us," Lydecker said grimly. "There's a reason he wants all of the Manticore creations dead. We aren't sure what that reason is yet, but the government is backing me on the hunch you're valuable in some way. However, let me say again, if you leave the compound, your lives are in your own hands. I can't protect you from White outside."
Afterwards, Lydecker had a separate meeting with the X5's and above. Alec looked around the room, disheartened there were so few left -- he counted 36 altogether, including himself, Max, and the X's Lydecker had pulled in from solo missions after Manticore burned.
"The plan for you is a bit different," Lydecker said, looking around at them all. "We want you working for us, for Manticore, but we also want you integrated into society."
"I thought you said the ordinaries hated us so much we wouldn't be safe on the outside," Gem said, cradling Maxine in her arms.
"There's going to be that danger," Lydecker replied. "But we need to try. It's the only way the transgenics can survive in the long run, by eventually being accepted as part of the human race. The transhumans are just too different. It would never work. But some of you have lived with the ordinaries for years without incident."
Alec realized Lydecker was looking at him and Max. He shifted his stance where he was leaning against the wall. His ribs still hurt a bit, but Dr. Shankar had done a good job. The wound from two weeks ago was nearly healed. "Does this mean no cells?" he asked sarcastically.
"No cells," Lydecker said. "In fact, as far as I'm concerned, you can live in Seattle, go back to your old homes if you had them."
"What's the catch?" Alec said.
"The catch is that you'll be issued identification cards you'll have to carry at all times. On them will be your address, photograph, fingerprints, and DNA coding. You'll be labeled as transgenics and will have to show that I.D. every time you pass through a sector checkpoint." The crowd began to murmur. "You're right in assuming this is a way to keep track of you, and I agree it will be a danger -- a way to quickly pinpoint all of you. But the government insists. It's the one condition they made before granting you your freedom."
It's a way for White to find us," Max said from her place at Alec's side.
Lydecker didn't deny it, and, after the meeting was adjourned, Alec motioned to Max that the two of them needed to have a little talk in private with their new boss.
"You're telling me Max and I can just go back to living our lives again?" Alec said.
"For the most part," Lydecker replied.
Max, standing beside him, crossed her arms over her chest. "Why don't I believe you?"
"Don't you two want to go home?"
Alec made a wry face. "Home wasn't that great to begin with -- a run down dump of an apartment with barely running water and electric that might or might not work at any moment." Max elbowed him in the ribs -- the sore ones. "Ow! What did I say?"
"Shut up!" she said. "It's not such a bad deal considering."
"I was just tryin' to get him to sweeten the pot a little." Alec looked at Lydecker again. "But you want more from us of course. You talked about putting us to use. We're gonna hafta earn the right to be free. Do what you say."
"That's one way of putting it. You and Max will be on 24-hour-a-day call for missions -- anything we want you to do."
"Anything?" Alec said.
"Not murder," Max said quickly. "We won't be your assassins."
"We'll talk about that later. Most of your assignments will be more unique than a mere assassination. Some, I think you'll even find an interesting challenge." He looked them both up and down. "Remember what you are. Remember what you can do, the things you've been trained for. Those are the skills I want to utilize, the skills I've convinced our government are worth nurturing rather than destroying."
"He wants us to be cat burglars for Uncle Sam," Alec said under his breath to Max. Then to Lydecker, "So, we just walk out of here today, go back to the city, and wait for some mysterious voice on a phone? Sort of like 'Mission Impossible'?"
"Basically, yes. You can pick up your I.D. cards and new cell phones on the way out. I need you to both carry pagers as well. You're to check in with me once a day, whether or not you're on assignment."
"And if we don't?" Max asked, eyebrows raised in skepticism.
Lydecker smiled grimly. "I think you know the answer to that."
Alec was shaking his head. "I don't like it."
"Did I mention you'll have medical care?" Lydecker was looking at Max. Then he nodded to Alec. "She has to be protected you know. There was talk about incarcerating her at the CDC for study. Her DNA is puzzling. But I convinced the Committee she'd be safe enough on the outside for now, and infinitely more useful."
Of course Lydecker knew about the baby, Alec thought. But he had to give the man credit for not using that knowledge directly against them. He looked at Max, and read the answer in her eyes. "Do we get a dental plan, too?" he asked.
"So, you and I are gonna be roomies again," OC said as she packed her meager belongings from Terminal City in a duffel bag.
"Looks that way," Max said. "Provided you still want me."
"Boo, as far as I'm concerned, you're my sister and I love you to pieces. Of course I still want you." OC looked out across the room. All around them the mutants were getting ready to move out, to be transported by the military to their new home in the woods about 50 miles east of Seattle. Alec was talking to Joshua and Mole on the other side of the command center. "What about your boy? I sort of thought you and he would be makin' a little love nest together."
"I just can't decide about that right now," Max said. "I love him, but ..."
"You're not sure you can live with him."
Max smiled a little. "What's that old saying? Can't live with him, can't live without him. That's pretty much describes Alec and me."
"He is the daddy of that baby though," OC reminded her. "Knowin' our boy, he's not gonna take that lightly."
"I wouldn't want him to," Max said. She smiled again. "And I imagine there are going to be some nights you'll have our place all to yourself."
"He goin' back to his apartment?"
Max nodded. "Question is, will Normal take us back. We need a job with very flexible hours and an understanding boss."
OC put her arm around Max's shoulders. "Sugar, old Normal will have you and Alec on time cards in a heartbeat. Fact is, he already gave me and Sketchy our old jobs back, didn't so much as scold us for bein' gone. He might even be willin' to employ some of your kin when they go out in the world."
"Only this time he'll know we're all transgenics," Max said. She turned to OC. "It will be just like old times, won't it?"
"Just like old times, Boo," OC said, giving her a hug. "Now, let's you and me head home. We've got some unpackin' and cleanin' up to do."
Alec saw Max and OC heading for the main door and moved to intercept them. "Ladies," he said. "Headed back out into the cold cruel world?"
"Headed home is more like it," OC said. She gave Max a knowing smile. "I'll wait down the street for you."
"You sure you want to do this?" Alec asked after OC had gone.
"What choice do I have?" Max said with a sigh. She looked around at the departing mutants. "What choice do any of us have?" Joshua was still talking to Mole. "At least we'll know that Joshua is safe, and we can visit him whenever we want."
"So Lydecker says."
"You don't believe him?"
"Not a word."
"Then why did you agree to do this with me?"
"Because you promised him I'd be part of the package."
"Alec," she said, and he saw the fear in her eyes. "You can go if you want to. You're free. You could travel any place in the world, make a new life for yourself. You've got skills ..."
"Now, where would I go?" he said gently. "Max, you were right when you said that the important thing is for our kind to stick together no matter what. I don't want to be alone any more than you do. And besides ..." He looked meaningfully at her stomach. "I'm gonna be a daddy. You don't think I'd miss out on that, do you? I'm gonna have a family to take care of."
"Oh, so now you're a family man," Max laughed, obviously not believing him.
"I'd like to try," Alec said honestly. "That is ... if you'll let me."
She hugged him then. And nothing in Alec's entire life had ever felt so good, except maybe the kiss that followed.
"I'm sorry," she said.
Logan couldn't look at her, and she knew she was hurting him.
"I'll always be your friend," she tried.
"Stop it, Max," he said, his back to her, staring at the computer screen. "You know I'll always be your friend, too. But right now I just can't look at things that way. I honestly thought that curing the virus would bring you back to me. I swear, I didn't know you'd be in danger. I'll never forgive myself for that. But now that we're okay together ... can't we at least try? I don't care about the baby. We could pretend it's ours."
"Logan ..." she said softly. She lightly put her hand on her belly. "The baby already has a father."
"Maybe if we had found a cure a year ago," he persisted. "Maybe then you never would have even considered him."
"I think Alec and I were going to find one another no matter what," Max said, surprised at how right those words felt. "It's almost as if we were destined for one another from the moment we met."
"I thought we were destined for one another," Logan said, his voice cracking with emotion. He finally turned around. "Maybe we still are."
"Logan, I'm having his baby. Nothing can change that."
"You've decided to keep it then? For certain? There's still time if you want to--"
"I could never kill his child." Max was surprised at the vehemence she put in those words. She hadn't realized until this moment just how strongly she felt.
"And Alec wants this? The baby? You're sure he won't get scared and leave?"
"Yes, he wants our child. He'll stand by us ... protect us. We're his family now, and he's ours."
"And you're all right with going back to Manticore?"
"Probably," Max said. "We'll see."
"You know there's already talk about forced sterilizations," Logan said. "Senator McCarthy is having a field day on the news shows, rambling about contaminating the human bloodline, and the X's being a subhuman race that shouldn't be allowed to breed."
Max swallowed hard and once again her hand touched her womb. "We won't let that happen," she said. "I don't think Lydecker will either. He wants an army of X's. And now, with the genetic technology and scientists scattered, his only way to build that army is for us to have children, voluntarily this time."
"Lydecker has only limited power," Logan warned. "He might not be able to protect you ... any of you. And he's going to be using you, sending you on dangerous missions."
"Would you help me if I needed you?" Max asked.
"You know I would."
"Would you help Alec?"
Logan smiled sadly. "Max, I don't hate Alec. In fact, that's part of the problem. I think he's a good man. But I admit I'm also insanely jealous of him. I knew he loved you from the beginning, even if he didn't know it himself. And I knew he might eventually win you away from me. But I don't wish him any harm, both because I'd like to consider him a friend, and because I know you love him."
Max smiled wryly. "Alec isn't even speaking to you at the moment. He's still ticked as hell about Bangkok."
"He has a right to be." Logan looked at her for a long moment. "Tell Alec ... tell him when you see him that I truly am sorry. Although I'm not sure he cares."
"He cares," Alec said from the doorway. "And he heard you."
Max looked up, surprised.
"Alec--" Logan said.
Alec held up his hand. "Not now. Maybe someday. But let's just leave it for now." Then to Max, "You ready?"
"Where are you guys going?"
"Out to the new Manticore," Max said. "We promised Joshua we'd come visit tonight, check out his quarters."
"At least they gave us our motorcycles back," Alec said. "Not that we wouldn't have jacked a couple more. But even Lydecker had to admit his secret agents couldn't very well be relying on bus fare."
"Did they get all the weapons away from the mutants?" Logan asked. "I heard there was supposed to be some kind of confiscation when they checked in.
Max grinned. "They've collected a few, but Lydecker's people are so concerned about having the transhumans come in voluntarily I don't think anyone's being real strict about it."
"Oh," Alec said, suddenly remembering something. "Speakin' of bein' strict, Normal wants us in at six thirty tomorrow, bright and early, bip bip."
Max nodded. "No problem getting our old jobs back?"
"Not for me," Alec said with a smug grin. "He welcomed his golden boy with open arms. You though ... I had to make a few promises."
Max looked at him suspiciously. "What kind of promises?"
"Well Max, let's just say Normal's expectin' some ladylike behavior from you from now on."
She punched him in the arm.
"So," Logan said. "You guys going to be okay?"
Max smiled at Alec. "Yeah," she said, looking into those sparkling green eyes. "I think we will."