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The first continuation story in "The Best Laid Plans" universe. -- author's note
"Come on people. Bip! Bip! Business may be slow, but that doesn't mean you get to sit around on your lazy bums all day. This place needs cleaning. There are brooms and mops in the utility room." Normal clapped his hands together, attempting to stir the bike messengers sprawled in Jam Pony's lounge away from an engrossing soap opera.
"How many do you think Normal's laid off?" Max asked, looking around and missing quite a few familiar faces.
"Too many," Alec said, closing the door on his locker and moving to stand beside Max while he pulled on his gloves. "Maybe we shouldn't have asked to come back. I feel kind of bad for the guy. Wanna bet he let some of the gang go just to make room for you and me."
"I know. Thanks to all the news coverage, Jam Pony's now got a reputation for being a transgenic employer."
"Translation -- loss of business big time," Alec said. "To quote a good friend of ours, people are afraid of what they don't understand." He noticed Sketchy coming in through the back. "Catch you later," he said to Max, moving to intercept his friend."Hey, my man!" He gave Sketchy a high-five. "How goes the good fight?"
Sketchy shook his head. "Not so great."
"What's wrong? Normal doesn't wanna lay you off too, does he?"
"No. It's my boss at 'New World Weekly.' He says I've got to do an interview with a transgenic for the next issue. He's really pissed I spent all that time in Terminal City and didn't get any decent copy. If I don't find someone to interview, I'm fired."
The mournful puppy dog expression on Sketchy's face kind of got to Alec, but he knew what he had to say. "Sorry, Sketch. No can do." He noticed Sketchy looking Max's way. "And don't ask her either."
"Aw, Alec, why not? What harm can it do? You guys don't have to tell me any big secrets. Just what it's like being a hot transgenic stud living the high life in Seattle."
"Sketch," Alec said. "Do I look like I'm livin' any kind of high life? If I was, do you think I'd be workin' here as a bike messenger again? Max and I are lucky to be alive, not to mention not behind bars. There are a lot of people out there who still want us dead, locked up, or worse. Puttin' our faces on the front page of a newspaper wouldn't exactly be healthy for us."
Sketchy had the decency to look guilty. "Guess you're right about that. You two have to lay low. Not attract attention. And then there's the baby to worry about."
Alec put an arm around Sketchy's shoulders, drawing him closer. "You, uh, haven't told anyone about that have you?"
"Why?" he asked. "Is it a secret?"
"Yeah. it is."
"Then no, I haven't told anyone."
"Not even Normal?"
Sketchy gave Alec a disbelieving look. "Now why would I tell Normal anything?"
"Good man," Alec said. "OC knows not to open her mouth either. The fewer people who know, the safer for Max."
"Gotcha," Sketchy said. Then he had a thought. "Hey, Joshua, your dog guy friend isn't livin' out here anymore. Do you think maybe he'd do an interview with me? I mean, what could it hurt? He's protected where he is."
Alec started to say no, then thought about it for a second. He glanced over where Max was talking to Normal, probably getting info for a run. She would never go for it. But Joshua would really get a kick out of being in a newspaper in a good way for a change, and it's not as if everyone didn't know he existed anyway. Sketchy might be right. What harm could it do? If Joshua wasn't his story, some other mutant eventually would be, then they'd get all the fame, money, and attention. Who knew what it could lead to? Talk show appearances, a book, maybe even a movie. Of course Joshua would need someone to manage his career ..."
"What do you think? About Joshua I mean? Would he do an interview?"
"I'll see what I can set up," Alec said. Sketchy grinned. "Just don't say anything to Max. She's kind of overprotective of the big guy."
"Right," Sketchy said, lowering his voice and attempting to look conspiratorial.
"Hey doofus!" Normal yelled.
Alec and Sketchy both looked his way.
"Not you Golden Boy," Normal said. "The scrawny one. Got a delivery for you in Sector 9."
Alec looked over in the lounge where half a dozen messengers were still watching "Passions 2020." This was the first package to go out this morning. Once again, he felt a pang of guilt. Max came up behind him as Sketchy walked away. He reached out and took hold of her hand, the gesture coming naturally to both of them.
"We could get jobs somewhere else," she said.
"Where?" Alec said, looking down at her. "Unless, of course, you'd like to go back to your short-lived career as a lap dancer, which wouldn't last for long, not only because you suck at it, but 'cause you're gonna start to show."
Max gave him a dirty look."I'm only three weeks along, and I don't suck at it. I just need to be properly motivated."
"I'll motivate you," Alec said under his breath.
"What was that?"
"Lydecker says we have to stay integrated," Alec quickly said. "Or else he'll want us to move back to the compound with the others. We need this job."
"At least Deck and his guys swept all of White's bugs out of Jam Pony," Max said. "And we've known most of the people here for a long time. If we tried to work someplace else who could we trust?"
Alec agreed. But he still felt like he ought to at least offer to leave. "You goin' out on a run, too?"
Max held up a small package. "Sector 4."
"You want me to take it?" They both glanced outside where the daily row of anti-transgenic picketers were parading with their hate-filled signs.
"We have to face them sooner or later," she said.
"Be careful on the bike." He held up his hand before Max could argue. "I know. I know. You're only three weeks along, but ... just be careful. White seems to have disappeared, but you know how that guy tends to come out of the woodwork." He also wished she would carry a gun, but they'd already had that argument, and he knew she would never give in. Max truly hated firearms.
"You going to talk to Normal?" she asked.
"You think I should?
"Kill the trannies!" someone screamed from outside on the sidewalk, their voice clearly heard through the thick glass block windows. She nodded.
"Business is slow lately," Alec said, sauntering up to the desk in the back office where Normal was going through paperwork.
"A seasonal lull," Normal said. He looked up at Alec. "Nothing to worry about. Just wait until the holidays roll around."
Alec gestured with his thumb at the front window where the shadows of picketers were crossing. "They're not gonna leave so long as the Reverend Terry Caldwell and Senator McKinley keep it up about how my kind don't deserve to walk the earth."
"That's nonsense," Normal said. "Only ignorant people listen to idiots like that."
"You believed it not so long ago," Alec said quietly. "And I'll never forget the look on your face when you found out I was, uh, genetically empowered."
"You're different," Normal said, shuffling his papers. "You're one of the good guys."
"So they keep telling me," Alec said.
"You're almost like me," Normal said, looking up at last. "You X's shouldn't be persecuted just because of a little genetic difference."
"No, I'm not like you, Normal," Alec said. "Just because I don't have a dog face or scales doesn't mean I'm human. I'm really no different from Joshua and Mole."
Normal laughed. "You're telling me you're part animal? Nah. Just because your genetics have been tinkered with to make you such a wonderful specimen of a man doesn't make you an animal."
Alec looked around to make sure no one was close enough to overhear them. "I'm part cat. So's Max."
Normal blinked. It was one of the few times Alec had ever seen the man struck speechless.
Alec cleared his throat. "Moving on now ... Look, I know your business is in the toilet because of Max and me. I'm thinkin' it was selfish of us to ask you to take us back. We can find work somewhere else."
"That's what I said. You know, the speed, strength, agility, super senses, and stuff. Now, about us leavin'."
"You won't find anyplace else to work." Normal said, recovering from Alec's revelation. "Not where you'll be safe,"
"We can look out for ourselves."
"And what about the baby that's coming?"
Alec made a mental note to assassinate Sketchy. "You know about the baby?"
"Everyone knows you knocked Max up," Normal said.
Alec closed his eyes and counted to five.
"Fact is, I have to admit I was a little bit surprised," Normal continued. "I never saw you and Missy Miss as a couple, let alone as a family unit. But then I never thought you and Max were part cats either." Normal leaned forward over the desk and lowered his voice. "How long have you two been an item anyway? I remember seeing her with you at the strip club but--"
"We've always been watchin' out for each other," Alec said. "Ever since we met at Manticore last summer."
It was the truth, and would hopefully satisfy Normal's prurient curiosity. "About us workin' here," Alec said, trying to get the conversation back on track.
Normal held up his hand. "There'll be no more talk about it," he said. "You and Max need jobs, and no one else in their right mind will hire you. Therefore, it's up to me to help support your transgenic rights."
"Uh, thanks," Alec said, not quite sure how to take Normal's complete turnaround, but at the same time grateful he seemed to be the guy's latest cause. "But I hate it that you've laid people off because business is so slow."
"You let me worry about the business, young man," Normal said. "You just worry about that pregnant little cat woman of yours."
Alec was about to tell Normal to please not call Max a "cat woman" when suddenly there was a loud crash of splintering glass and the sound of screams from out front.
"Jesus, what now!" Normal said, pulling a very large pistol from a drawer before standing up and coming around the desk.
Alec's hand on his arm pulled him to a stop. "Wait," Alec said. "Remember White?"
Normal looked at him, his eyes wide behind his glasses. "You mean that motherfucker who tried to kill us all might have come back?"
"Yeah, that motherfucker could be back." Alec pulled his own Glock 35 from beneath his leather jacket.
"Messengers aren't allowed to carry firearms," Normal said automatically. "It's in the rule book."
"So fire me," Alec said.
Normal listened to the sounds of turmoil out front, then eyed Alec's gun and the very efficient way he was holding it. "All right," he said. "I'll make an exception this time."
"You really know how to use that thing?" Alec asked, nodding at Normal's pistol.
"That depends," Normal said. "Are you going to break my elbow and take it away from me?"
"Not so long as you don't point it at me. And I didn't break your elbow. I just twisted it."
"Hurt pretty bad anyway. And yes, I know how to use it."
"Come on then," Alec said, moving over to the lockers where he could get a better look at what was happening.
Five very large, burly men were standing just inside the front door holding baseball bats. There was frosted glass all over the floor from the broken window. "Where are the fuckin' trannies?" one of them shouted. "We know you've got some of those stinkin' animals in here and we've come to send them to hell where they belong!"
Before Alec could stop him, Normal stepped forward holding his gun with both hands. "There will be no sending to hell on these premises," he said. "Now, if you gentlemen will kindly leave my place of business, maybe I won't have to shoot you."
"Call the police," Alec said quietly to Sky who'd come up behind him. "Ask for Detective Clemente and tell him what's happening." Sky nodded and sneaked to the back room where Alec knew there was a pay phone on the wall.
"Gentlemen, gentlemen!" Alec said, as he stepped forward, weapon at ready. "Let's all just calm down, shall we?" He was smiling, but the feral gleam in his green eyes was pure danger. He motioned at the men with the Glock. "Now what we have here are guns against baseball bats, and where I come from those aren't good odds. So, I suggest you just turn around and head home before someone gets hurt."
"That's one of the freaks," the man who'd been shouting said. He pointed at Alec. "Saw his picture on the news."
Alec knew the type well -- small brain, big mouth, overweight, lots of chest hair and no deodorant. The guy's mere existence was enough to make him want to kill him. But he also knew it wouldn't do Normal's business any good to have bodies piling up inside again.
"Go home, while you can," Alec said softly.
"You heard what the man said!" Normal shouted.
"He ain't no man!" Chest hair screamed. "He's an animal that shouldn't be allowed to breed!"
As if on cue, Max wheeled her bike through the door. "What's goin' on guys?" she asked.
"Max! Down!" Alec shouted as one of the men swung at her with his baseball bat. Alec hated to do it, but he took aim with his gun. No one was going to hurt Max. But just as he squeezed the trigger he heard something behind him. Another of the picketers had come in through the back. Only his transgenic reflexes kept the tire iron from crushing his skull. Instead the bar came down on his right wrist. Alec actually heard the bone snap.
"Fuck!" he screamed, the Glock dropping from suddenly numb fingers as he clutched his wrist in agony. But Alec had been taught from childhood how to overcome pain when he had to. In the same motion, he brought his elbow into the solar plexus of his attacker, driving the man backwards into the bank of lockers where he lay gasping for breath through a collapsed lung.
Beside him, Alec heard a gun go off. And then there were bodies flying everywhere as the Jam Pony crew waded in and tackled the invaders.
Alec looked frantically for Max, but couldn't see her. Then someone picked up the tire iron and he found himself once again fighting one-handed for his life. Only this time his opponent wasn't a Familiar. A whirling crescent kick delivered at transgenic speed felled man number two. A third was lying bleeding on the floor with a bullet from Normal's gun in his shoulder.
Alec turned around just in time to see Max boot another through what was left of the front window. The two remaining men were cornered against a back wall by half a dozen of the Jam Pony crew. From the looks on their faces, they'd finally figured out this had been a dumb idea. Outside they could hear police sirens.
Alec, breathing hard because of the excruciating pain in his wrist, walked up to Normal and gently twisted the gun out of his hand. "You still think I shouldn't look elsewhere for a job?" he asked his boss.
Normal just looked from Alec, to the mess around them, and shook his head.
"Ow! Holy Shit!" Alec cried out when Max set his wrist, snapping the two pieces of bone back into alignment. "Geez, you enjoy doin' that to me, don't you?"
"Patching up your wounds, or hurting you?" Max asked.
"Hurting me. You always have, and I can cite quite a few examples if you want."
"This wrist's going to take two weeks to heal," Max said as she wound the Ace bandage around it. They'd gone back to her place for first aid. The police wanted Alec to go to the hospital, but he'd politely declined. Thankfully, Clemente was present and didn't press the issue. And since Normal hadn't actually killed anyone with his gun, his time at the station house had been minimal. In the end, the six thugs were the ones going to jail.
"Your boy can't seem to keep himself in one piece lately," OC said. She was sitting on the kitchen counter, legs crossed, handing Max items from the first aid kit as she asked for them.
"Yeah," Max said as she clipped the bandage in place. "In the past month you've been shot with a bullet, shot with an arrow, and now clubbed with a tire iron." She looked at him closely. "Gee, what's bringing all the bad luck your way?"
"Or all the good luck," Alec pointed out. "I could have been killed every time, and I wasn't."
"Good point," OC said. "Always look at the glass as half full."
"And it wasn't even the same enemy," Alec said. "First White, then those middle eastern mercenaries, and now a bunch of idiots in an angry mob."
"Seriously, Boo," OC said. "You've gotta take better care of your boy."
"Alec can take care of himself," Max said, but the words came out gently.
"You sure you're okay?" Alec asked.
"I'm fine. That guy hardly touched me."
"What if they'd attacked you outside, or while you were on a run?"
"Then I'd have fought them off. Don't worry. People will forget in time and then things will get back to normal."
"Speaking of Normal," Alec said, "I'm feelin' worse than ever about what we're puttin' him through."
"That bigot deserves what he gets," OC said. "You two are so quick to forget. Old Normal was your worst enemy all these months, practically runnin' a franchise for the Reverend Terry Caldwell. Now, just 'cause he delivered a cute little transgenic baby with his own two hands and wrote a book about it he's had some kind of mutant religious conversion."
"I think Normal just needed a reason not to hate us," Max said. She looked at Alec. "He always liked you a lot, and it must have been really hard when he found out what you were."
"He called you a cat woman," Alec said, glancing at her sideways and waiting for a reaction.
Max raised her eyebrows. "You told him about the feline DNA?"
"Great," Max said. "Now I'm never going to hear the end of it."
"He knows about the baby too."
Max's shoulders sagged. "Could this day get any worse?"
"I told Sketchy he could do an interview with Joshua for 'New World Weekly.'
She just stared at him, her mouth open. Then she pointed to the door. "Out!" And Alec knew then that his day wasn't going to end on a high note either, as in he was going to be sleeping alone tonight.
Normal looked up from his paperwork. "Let me guess," he said sarcastically. "Since I know I didn't leave the door unlocked and therefore you broke in, you're either here to kill me, a transgenic looking for a job -- they never even knock you know -- or a very tenacious reporter."
Lydecker almost smiled.
Normal looked at his uninvited visitor more closely, peering up at him through his glasses in the poor light. "You haven't shot me yet, and you don't look like an X series. Too old and flabby. Which means you're probably a reporter. My standard interview fee is a thousand dollars. Take it or leave it."
"I'm not a reporter," Lydecker said. "But I am here about 452 and 494."
Again the near smile. "Max and Alec. I'm their handler from Manticore."
Normal's mouth fell open and he quickly stood up, holding out his hand. "It's an honor to meet you then, sir. Anything for the transgenic cause. You know I delivered that little baby--"
Lydecker waved him to silence. "I'm here because I heard there was an incident involving my people this afternoon."
"Regrettably that's true, sir," Normal said.
"I also understand neither of my charges were seriously injured?"
"That's correct, sir." Normal reached for the telephone. "You can talk to them yourself if you want."
"That won't be necessary," Lydecker said, putting his hand on Normal's and pressing the phone back in its cradle. "What I really want to talk to you about are you security arrangements. I can't have 452 and 494 ... Max and Alec ... hampered in their work by outside annoyances."
"Annoyances like the riot this afternoon?"
"Exactly. I need to know that they can work here in relative safety, not bothered by the press or hecklers. I also need you to realize that their hours must be very flexible. There will be times they don't report to work and you won't be given any notice. When that happens there are to be no questions asked. Understood?"
"Understood, sir," Normal said. "I'm assuming that 456 and 789 are vitally important for some great secret American cause and I'm honored to be a part of such an endeavor."
"Good," Lydecker said, still trying to hide his amusement. "Then I'm leaving my kids in good hands. I trust the appropriate security arrangements for their safety will be made and today's incident won't be repeated."
"It will not, sir," Normal said.
Lydecker turned to go.
"Sir," Normal called to him. "Could I ask one question?"
"That depends on what it is."
"What was he before?"
"What do you mean?"
"What did Alec do at Manticore? I don't care a fig about Missy Miss, but I always wondered about my golden boy."
"He was a soldier," Lydecker said.
"And the part about him being a highly trained genetically engineered killing machine? That's just the news media exaggerating, right? I mean, Alec's not a cold blooded killer like they say."
"494 did what he was created to do when so ordered," Lydecker said. "And I advise you, for your own safety, to remember that no matter how human he seems, he isn't."
Normal swallowed hard. "Understood, sir," he said. But Lydecker was already gone.
The next day, when Alec arrived at Jam Pony extra early and ready to go back to work, the place looked like a fortress. The broken window had not only been repaired, but steel bars covered the opening as well. Four uniformed policemen were standing guard out front and Alec had to show his transgenic I.D. and sector pass before being allowed inside. The metal detector didn't pick up his Glock, but his knife set off the alarm.
"Don't you think this is a bit of an overkill?" Alec said, after one of the policemen patted him down. The Glock earned him a scowl, but Normal waved him through.
Worse was the impressive arsenal Normal had arrayed behind the counter. Alec picked up a machine gun. "Where did you get this stuff?"
"I have an old Army buddy," Normal explained.
"And he keeps hollow point bullets around the house?" Alec asked as he tossed a box of ammo from one hand to the other, wondering what Normal was going to tell everyone else when they came in.
"No, Mr. Smartmouth. He has contacts."
"People in the armed forces who can get weapons out of the armories. But then you know all about that kind of thing." Normal motioned Alec closer. "I hear you were the main procurer in Terminal City."
"Procurer?" Alec wondered when he'd developed the habit of repeating words as questions.
"You were the one sneaking in the food, guns, and other contraband."
"Well, yeah," Alec admitted. "But Normal, there's one big difference here. The people in Terminal City knew how to use stuff like this." He held up an Ouzi. "You don't."
"How hard can it be?" Normal said, attempting to cock the sawed off shotgun he'd had stashed behind the ledger books.
Alec took the gun way from him and easily cocked it with his left hand. "There," he said. "Just don't shoot yourself ... or me ... or anyone else."
"Just let those thugs come back and try and hurt my people again," Normal said.
Something in Normal's tone of voice caught Alec's attention. The man wasn't joking around. "Hey, Normal, you've been through a lot. First transgenics take you hostage, then White lays siege to the place and shoots everything up, and now, just when things should be gettin' back to normal, no pun intended, an angry mob storms your castle. Maybe you should take a vacation."
"Then who would protect you?" Normal asked.
The sincerity in the man's eyes was genuine. "It's gonna get worse before it gets better," Alec said quietly. "You know that."
"Max and me, we're nothin' but trouble for you now."
"I don't care. Well, I don't care if you're trouble. Max, however--"
"Max and I are a packaged deal," Alec said, needing to set Normal straight. She's carryin' my kid, and I love her."
"You love her?"
"More than my own life."
Normal was looking at him with a funny expression on his face. "Why?" he finally asked. "Just, explain why? What on earth do you see in that nasty little--"
"Watch it," Alec warned.
"Sorry. Granted, she's a looker. But a hot stud like you could have just about any woman in the world."
"You mean a hot transgenic stud," Alec said. "Somehow I imagine the dating pool in this city has shrunk considerably for me."
"But you could leave. You could travel ..."
"And end up being all alone, cut off from my own kind."
"I suppose we all need family," Normal said. "You know, Super Star, when I found out you were a mutant, I felt really betrayed."
"Because you figured I'd cheated on all those cage fights against ordinaries?"
"No," Normal said quietly. "Because you didn't care enough about our relationship to confide in me."
"Knowledge is dangerous, my friend," Alec said. "There are a lot of people lookin' to kill me and they would have taken you down without a thought if you'd gotten in the way. Besides, you weren't exactly on our side then."
"They nearly took me down anyway -- twice counting yesterday."
"I still want you to stay."
"And Max can stay too."
Alec smiled. "Okay," he said. "For now. But do me a favor, Normal."
Alec put the safety back on the shotgun and handed it to him. "Get rid of the arsenal. If White or someone else busts in here after Max and me he's just gonna take this away from you and use it on us."
Normal looked crestfallen, but nodded in agreement.
"You wanted to see me, Sketchy?" Max felt funny sitting at a table in the back room of Crash without a pitcher of beer in front of her. But with a baby on board alcohol was a definite no-no.
"Yeah, Max," Sketchy said, taking a seat opposite her. "You see, I need this interview ..."
"I thought Alec was going to get Joshua to do that for you."
"He is. This is something else."
"What do you mean?"
Sketchy looked up as two men came through the door into the room. "I sort of promised some people I would get them an interview with a real live transgenic. It's for this national newspaper--"
Max was on her feet. "I don't think so," she said.
"But they'll pay you a lot of money," Sketchy called after her as she headed for the back door.
"Halt!" one of the men said, drawing a gun.
"Hey, wait a minute!" Sketchy shouted. "What's with the guns! You guys are supposed to be reporters!
Max was already in the alley, but there was a van blocking the only way to the street. Three more men came around the side, weapons in their hands.
Desperate, Max looked around for a way out. The two who'd originally come at her were blocking the door to Crash, Sketchy behind them, dragging on one man's gun arm. "Leave her alone!" he yelled. "Don't hurt her!"
Max saw only one possibility. Blurring, she vaulted onto the top of the van and did a handspring into the street on the other side. Gunfire followed her as she landed on her feet and ran for her life around the corner to where her Ninja was parked. She felt the sting of a bullet on her arm, and another in her side. Vaulting onto the cycle, she revved the engine and peeled away. Before her pursuers could get their van in gear she'd rounded the corner onto the main street and vanished into traffic.
"Alec!" Max called, falling heavily against the door to his apartment. Please let him be home. She hadn't thought her wounds were bad, but she was feeling awfully dizzy, and her side hurt like hell.
She pushed against the door, but was suddenly too weak to turn the knob. Slumping to the floor, she felt like she was going to throw up.
"Max!" The door opened and Alec's strong bare arms encircled her. He picked her up, unmindful of his broken wrist, carried her inside, and lay her gently down on his bed. He'd been sleeping, she realized. He was barefoot and wearing only a pair of sweat pants. "Max, what happened? Max? Max, talk to me!"
There was blood all over the place, but Alec knew the first thing he had to do was make certain she hadn't been followed. Leaving Max on his bed, he grabbed his gun from the nightstand and cautiously stepped out into the hallway, using all of his enhanced senses to scan for an enemy. No sign of her pursuers, but if it was White his men were bound to know Max might come here.
Going back inside, he knelt beside the bed and checked her wounds. The one on her arm was just a scratch, but the hole in her side had him worried. "She needs a doctor," he muttered to himself. "A hospital."
The commotion of an ambulance arriving would draw White down on them for sure. He thought about Lydecker, but had no way of contacting the man. Logan would help, but Joshua's house was four sectors over and Logan would have a hell of a time getting through the checkpoints at this time of night.
"Shit," Alec said, pounding his fist on the wall in frustration.
Kneeling again beside Max, he checked her pulse. It was faint and thready, and no matter how loudly he called her name she wouldn't open her eyes. He needed a car to get her to the hospital, but other than Logan he didn't know anyone with one. And there was no way he was going to leave Max here alone while he jacked a vehicle off the street.
And then Alec had a thought. There was someone who lived a lot closer to him than Logan who had a car. He glanced at the time, then picked up his cell phone and dialed a number.
"Hello? Normal. I know it's late but I need your help buddy."
By the time Alec had temporarily bandaged Max's wounds and gotten into his clothes Normal was pulling up to the curb. They carried Max to the car and were at the hospital emergency room 10 minutes later.
"She's tough as nails," Normal said, patting Alec on the back in the ER waiting room. "You know she'll come through just fine."
"She's pregnant," Alec said, his green eyes wide with worry.
"She wasn't shot in the stomach," Normal said calmly.
"She's lost a lot of blood and she's pregnant," Alec said as he paced up and down the room. "Why won't they tell me anything?"
"Do you know who shot her?"
"Not for certain," Alec said, a dangerous gleam in his eyes now. "But I can make a real good guess."
OC came through the door. Alec looked at Normal questioningly.
"I called her," he said. "Thought you could use the support."
"How's my girl?" OC asked. "Normal said she was shot."
"We don't know," Alec said. He looked at OC, his eyes frightened again. "She's pregnant."
"Honey, we all know that," OC said, drawing Alec over to a couch and pulling him down beside her. She took hold of his hand. "Now you just calm down. If whoever did this is still after Max, they could find us here and then we'd all be in danger. We need you to keep your head on straight."
Alec nodded. He knew OC was right.
Just then, a doctor came into the room. Alec was on his feet in an instant. "Max Guavera," he said. "How is she?"
"Are you a relative?" the doctor asked.
"Yes," Alec said without hesitation. "I'm her ..." He looked at OC.
"He's the baby's daddy," OC said.
"Pregnant," OC finished for him. She patted Alec on the hand. "I'm sure the doctor knows that, Boo."
"How is she?" Alec repeated.
"Miss Guavera is going to be fine," the doctor said. "She's lost a bit of blood, but the bullet wasn't in very deep. We normally would give a blood transfusion, but due to her pregnancy we've used only a glucose solution. She's awake now if you want to see her. We've moved her to recovery."
Alec didn't consciously believe in God, but he closed his eyes anyway and silently thanked whoever might be listening.
"Max," Alec said softly, kneeling beside her bed so his face was close to hers. He took her hand. "The doctor says you're gonna be fine."
"I know," she said sleepily. Then she smiled. "The baby's fine too. They let me see it on the ultrasound."
Alec's eyes grew wide. "It's big enough to see?"
"Of course, silly. Just a tiny little thing though. About this big." She held her thumb and forefinger about a half inch apart. Then she yawned. "They gave me something for the pain and said it would make me sleep."
"Max, Max, Max," Alec said quickly, seeing she was about to drift off. "Who was it? Who shot you? Was it White?"
Max blinked, having a hard time keeping her eyes open. "Some guys with Sketchy," she said.
"With Sketchy? What are you talkin' about?"
"Sketchy asked me to meet him at Crash. He said it was important. When I got there two men came in. He said they were reporters who wanted to interview me. But they had guns. There were more in the alley. I got away, but not before ..." She gestured to her bandaged arm and side."
"Gotcha," Alec said, his eyes grim. He glanced at the time. Crash was closed, and after the ruckus Sketchy probably hadn't gone home. However, he knew where he sometimes hung out after hours.
"Alec," Max murmured. "It's Sketchy. Don't ..."
"I know," he said. Getting to his feet, he leaned over and gently kissed Max on the lips. "I'll be back soon," he whispered. "OC's gonna stay with you." But she was already asleep.
"Alec--" Sketchy scrambled awkwardly to his feet, sliding up the brick wall, needing the support because his knees were shaking so badly. The alley was empty except for the two of them, the late night poker game Sketchy so often joined not happening tonight. But afraid to go home, he'd come here anyway, just like Alec thought he might.
"Alec, I didn't mean to-- Max, is she all right? Look man, I'm so, so sorry. I had no idea they'd--"
Alec just stood there, hands buried in the pockets of his black leather jacket, saying nothing, holding the other man pinned to the wall with his eyes. The longer the silence continued, the more terrified Sketchy became.
"Alec, buddy ..." He was holding his hands out in front of him now as if warding off a nightmare. "Just tell me Max is okay. You know I'd never do anything to hurt her. It was just supposed to be an interview. I'm sure she's okay anyway. I mean, it's Max. She can take care of herself ..."
"She's not okay," Alec said quietly.
Sketchy's eyes grew wide and he slid back down the wall to sit on the pavement where he looked up at Alec, tears streaming down his face. He knew he was in real trouble now.
"It's not true, is it?" he said hoarsely. "What they said about you back in Terminal City? They said you used to be ... you used to be some kind of assassin. They said you'd killed a bunch of people. You're not an assassin are you Alec? I mean, come on. We're buddies. Best friends. I helped you guys get away from White. You know I'd never betray you. And you'd never hurt me would you? I mean, I know you killed that Dante guy but that's 'cause he hurt Max ..." Sketchy's voice trailed off as he realized what he'd just said.
Slowly, easily, his expression blank, Alec reached behind his back with his left hand and drew his gun.
"Oh, God," Sketchy squeaked.
Casually, Alec popped the clip out, checked the bullets, then re-loaded, wincing slightly as the movement caused pain in his broken wrist.
"Please, just tell me about Max!" Sketchy cried. "I don't wanna die without knowin'!"
"How did White's men contact you?" Alec asked, resting the barrel of the Glock in his right hand, but keeping his left index finger on the trigger.
"They came up to me in Crash two nights ago," Sketchy said. "I swear, I thought they were legit reporters. They said they'd pay me ten thousand dollars if I'd get you or Max to give them an interview. I knew you guys wouldn't, so I sort of tricked Max into meetin' me. I was even gonna share the money with her, fifty fifty. Alec, I had no idea--" He couldn't take his eyes off the gun. "You're gonna kill me, aren't you?" he said, his voice no longer pleading but resigned. "And you're right, I deserve to die. Especially if Max is--" He looked up at Alec's eyes, and the sight of their cold green fire did nothing to ease his panic. "I know you loved her ... love her ... I know you have for a long time. I've never loved someone like that, so I can't say I know how you feel, but Alec, please. Even if you were a killer back at Manticore, is that what you still are? Are you just gonna shoot me in cold blood?"
Alec blinked, remembering someone else who not so long ago also thought he could still be a cold blooded killer. It had hurt then, and it hurt now. He looked at how Sketchy was cowering at his feet, and with a heavy sigh put the gun back in his belt. Kneeling down, he took hold of the other man by the front of his jacket and hauled him up.
His nose mere inches from Sketchy's, Alec said, "Max took two bullets because of you. She could have died, but she didn't. She's in the hospital. If she hadn't made it, or if she'd lost the baby because of your stupidity, I'd have put a bullet right between your eyes. In fact, you don't want to know how badly I wanna do that anyway. But the doctor says Max is gonna be fine, and you're right. You've been a good friend to us both, and that counts for somethin'. Which is why I'm gonna let you walk out of this alley tonight. If it had been anyone else ..." Alec caught his lower lip between his teeth and shook his head. Then he shoved Sketchy away from him, hard. "Go home," he snarled. "Go home and think about how close you came to dyin' tonight you fuckin' idiot."
"Alec!" Sketchy called as Alec started to walk away.
"You're pushin' your luck, Sketch," Alec said without turning around.
Alec closed his eyes, remembering how often he'd said those words after hurting someone he cared about. Like it or not, he knew how Sketchy felt.
"Alec, are we okay?"
"No," Alec said. Then, his eyes softening at last, he added, "but we probably will be."
Dawn was breaking when Alec let himself into his apartment and found Lydecker seated on the couch waiting for him.
Oh great, now my day is complete.
"I trust you've taken care of things, 494."
Alec eyed him warily. "Max is gonna be okay," he said. "White's men, at least we're assuming it was his men, got away."
"Meaning they'll try again," Lydecker said.
Alec shrugged. "They always try again."
"Lose the attitude, soldier!" Lydecker roared, coming to his feet.
"Yes, sir!" Alec replied, automatically straightening and assuming a stance of attention. Then he bit his tongue, silently cursing himself for giving Lydecker that.
Lydecker smiled wickedly. "Aren't quite as independent as we thought, are we 494? I trained you well."
Alec deliberately let his shoulders sag, the look of insolence back in his eyes. "Old habits die hard, sir," he said, making certain the "sir" was a sarcastic one this time.
"You let him live, didn't you? Calvin Simon Theodore, aka Sketchy?"
Alec knew he had to tread carefully here. There was nothing to keep Lydecker from sending another X5 after Sketch if he thought the Jam Pony messenger was a security risk to his New Manticore. "He's a friend," he said. "He didn't know they were White's people."
"Max could have been killed. Is that any way to take care of your mate?" And then an even lower blow. "Maybe she'd be safer with Cale after all. That could be arranged you know. He's been of great help to me lately."
A chill shot down Alec's spine. "Sketchy's not a problem any more. You've got my word. And Max and I are fine."
"Just because you sired that baby doesn't mean you own her or the child," Lydecker said. "We need to be clear on that, soldier. Your only rights to either of them are what I decide to grant."
"That wasn't the deal," Alec said, a trace of menace in his voice. "You said we'd be free to make our own choices, free to live our lives."
"I said you'd be given a chance to live on the outside," Lydecker said. "Nothing was promised about freedom."
"I always knew you were a liar."
"You're a good judge of character, 494. A little empathy included in your genetic cocktail. Although, after studying his file and post mortem results, we think that little chromosomal quirk is actually what ultimately made 493 psychotic. He couldn't stand feeling the emotions of those around him. But you've learned to use the gift well -- so far."
"Trotting Ben's ghost out to scare me is gettin' old, Lydecker. Get to the point."
"Max trusts me now. You, however, never have and never will. But you will do what I tell you or else I'll take her and the child away from you. I'll send them someplace where you'll never find them. You'll never see her again."
"We already said we'd work for you. What more do you want from me?"
"I want you to be what you were created to be, son," Lydecker said, his intense eyes boring into Alec's. "You should have killed that stupid kid tonight. You're certainly capable of it. It's not like you haven't killed before. Hell, you should have enjoyed it. He endangered a soldier in your unit, not to mention your mate's life. I'm beginning to think something's wrong with you after all."
"I won't kill my friend. And I won't let you kill him either.You want to lose Max and me, that's a sure way to do it. We'll take off." Alec knew it was probably an idle threat. The arm of Manticore was infinitely long and he doubted he and Max could hide from them. But he had to say something. "And, just to set the record straight, I've never enjoyed killing, no matter how many times Manticore told me I did."
Lydecker was smiling again in that way that made Alec squirm. "Psychosis possibilities aside, Renfro made a good choice when she paired you up with 452. I've studied the genetic base in detail and of all the X5's you're the one most compatible with Max's unique DNA. You're nearly siblings, you know, chromosomal-wise. Well, actually more like first cousins."
Alec involuntarily thought of Zack and swallowed hard. He'd never felt fraternal around Max, but Lydecker's words bothered him anyway.
"But then all of my kids have the same core genetics, based in Sandeman's DNA. Which also makes you and Max a brother and sister to Ames White, Sandeman's son. Ironic, isn't it?"
"Fuck off," Alec said quietly. "And get the hell out of my apartment before I decide maybe I really do wanna kill someone tonight."
"Damn that X5 independence," Lydecker said, still smiling. But at least he was moving toward the door. "I'm glad Max will be all right. I've posted a guard at the hospital, by the way. I didn't think that girl you left to watch over her would be much help if White decided to send a team in."
"Get out," Alec said again, immediately feeling guilty about leaving Max vulnerable. He'd stopped by the hospital before coming here, and OC had said everything was fine, that he ought to get some sleep, which is why he'd come home.
"Oh," Lydecker said. "One more thing." He reached inside his jacket. Alec had his gun drawn in a second.
"That's more like it, soldier," Lydecker said, his eyes shining with approval at the action. He had an envelope in his hand which he tossed down on the end table. "Your first assignment." He nodded at Alec's wrist. "It can wait a few days, until you're back to one hundred percent."
"What about Max?" Alec said. "She's gonna need more than a few days to heal."
"This one's just for you, 494. You might even say it's personal. In fact, I doubt you'll even want to tell Max about it."
Alec eyed the envelope as if it might bite. "I'm not an assassin any more."
"You'll always be an assassin, 494. And the more you try to deny your true nature, the more of a mess your head's going to be in. However, you don't need to worry about this particular job in that respect. It's a retrieval situation. We want you to bring in someone for us -- alive. The specifics are all there."
The look on Lydecker's face was enigmatic. "Your twin brother Ben," he said. "We revived him. He's alive. He's escaped. And we want him back."