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The second continuation story in "The Best Laid Plans" universe. (rated R for language, sexuality) If you read it, please review because that's the only way I know if you like it or not. -- author's note
Alec knew he couldn't tell Max about the mission Lydecker had given him. She'd insist on coming along. There would be all kinds of angst and danger that in all probability would end badly. And afterall, what could she do? Turn Ben back over to Manticore? Not likely. Let him roam loose to murder people? No way. Which meant she'd probably feel like she had to kill the guy -- again.
No. He couldn't put Max through that. And besides, in a way Alec felt like this was his own problem to solve. Max always talked about her Manticore unit mates being her brothers and sisters. He'd never been allowed to feel that way about his own squad. After the '09 escape that sort of camaraderie had been discouraged. He'd never had a real family of any kind -- except Ben, whom he'd never even met.
Ben was truly his blood brother, his twin, his family. Ben was his problem now, not Max's. Alec didn't know exactly when he'd started feeling that way -- sometime after Max had told him Ben's whole tale. But ever since then he hadn't been able to get his brother off his mind. And now he just might have a chance to find out the ending of the story.
Max stirred in his arms and Alec touched his lips to hers. He loved kissing her awake in the morning. They always slept naked together, those nights she chose to be with him, wanting nothing in their way. She smiled against his mouth without opening her eyes, and moved her hands slowly down his hard muscled back until she grasped his buttocks and pulled him into her. Alec closed his eyes and groaned, all thoughts of his upcoming mission banished by waves of pleasure.
"You know you need to start eatin' a better breakfast," Alec said, referring to the granola bar Max had just stuck in her messenger bag before leaving for Jam Pony. She looked meaningfully at the pork rinds he was munching on. "Not this stuff, either," he said, quickly stuffing the snack food back in the cupboard. I mean things like eggs and oatmeal and toast. And milk. Don't forget milk. You're eatin' for two now, and need that calcium."
"I'm already full this morning," Max said with a little smile. "Thanks to you."
"Yeah, about that ..." Alec said. "I know the doctor said it wouldn't hurt to ... you know, but are you sure I won't--"
"Dr. Shankar said sex was fine," Max said. "And no, you won't hurt the baby. Which is a good thing because all these hormones surging through me makes it feel like I'm half in heat all the time."
"Great," Alec said, shaking his head. "And here I am about to go away and leave you all alone."
Max frowned. "It's not like I'm going to go trawling the bars when you're gone you know." She raised one eyebrow. "And I expect you to be a good boy too. You better not bring home any nasty little surprises."
"Now that hurts," Alec said. "Max, you know I'm a one woman man."
Max laughed out loud. "You? A one woman man? Since when Romeo? Ever since we met you've practically had a girl on each arm."
"That was before," Alec said, miffed.
"Before ..." he gestured to Max's still flat stomach. "Before I ..." He caught her looking at him strangely. "Before I admitted to myself how much I loved you."
"Good answer," she said softly, walking over and drawing his head down in one more kiss. "Don't let Lydecker make you do anything you don't want to do," she said. "You're a free agent now. We work for Manticore by choice, not because we're their slaves."
"I know," Alec said, hugging her tightly. "I've just got to escort this guy safely back to base. Should be an easy assignment."
"But what if he doesn't want to come in?" Max asked, worrying again.
"Then he doesn't have to," Alec said. "I'm only supposed to issue the invitation."
"When will you be back?"
"Hopefully it won't take more'n a couple of days, Max. I don't have to go far. It's Portland, not Sri Lanka."
She looked up at him for one last, long moment. "Be careful," she said.
"Always," Alec replied, completing the comforting little ritual they'd created together.
She backed away, then turned and headed for her Ninja where it was parked on the lower landing.
"And don't let Normal work you too hard!" Alec called after her.
"Like that would happen!" came her voice back up the stairwell.
Alec let himself into the hotel room using his trusty lock pick, and froze at the sound of a gun being cocked.
"I knew I should have knocked one more time," he said without turning around.
"Who are you?"
Alec had already put his hands in the air. "You know, that's kind of a funny story, about who I am."
"I'm not easily amused so skip the story, and I don't have anything worth stealing."
"I'm not a thief."
He felt the barrel of the gun pressing behind his ear. "Then I know what you are and you're dead."
Alec spun and knocked the gun aside with his right hand, then immediately followed up with a front kick to Ben's chest. Half a second later, his own gun was in his hand. He expected Ben to blur, charging him for the weapon, but when he saw the look on his brother's face he realized he had more of an advantage than he thought.
Ben was standing on the far side of the small room, his back pressed against the wall, staring at him, hazel-green eyes wide. Alec felt like he was looking in a mirror.
But his brother recovered quickly. His eyes narrowed. "Clone?"
Alec nodded and smiled. "X5-494 at your service. They got it right this time." He motioned with his weapon. "Put the gun down."
Ben complied, carefully laying the automatic on the floor.
"Kick it away."
Ben shoved the the gun with his foot so it slid toward Alec.
"So, little brother," Ben said. "You've been sent to kill me?"
Alec was watching Ben's eyes closely, waiting for him to make a move. "Not unless I have to. They want you back."
"Then you might as well pull the trigger now." And in a move too fast for the human eye to follow he dove for the gun on the floor.
Alec's finger tightened, but he didn't fire. And then he was looking down the barrel of a gun as well.
"A standoff?" Ben said, those green eyes watching Alec over the gun sites. A sly grin. "Why didn't you shoot me?"
"I still could," Alec said.
"Likewise, little brother. How'd you find me anyway?"
"Wasn't hard. Lydecker knew you were in Portland. How, I don't know. You must've been careless. Once I got here I just looked for a place where I'd be layin' low -- somethin' cheap, inconspicuous, and with cable."
"You shouldn't have come after me. Now I've got to kill you."
"Hey, what did you expect? That they'd just let you go? You know what you are. Serial murder is frowned on in most states, includin' Oregon."
"I don't kill people any more."
Alec raised one eyebrow. "You tellin' me that when Manticore revived you from cryo storage they fixed those nasty little psychotic killer tendencies?"
"They fixed the chemical imbalance in my brain," Ben said. "Wasn't that in your mission detail?"
"No, it wasn't." Alec made a mental note to have a little talk with Lydecker about "mission details" when he got back. "Why should I believe you?"
Ben shrugged, but still kept the pistol aimed rock steady. "Believe what you want. But I'm better now. And I want a life."
"We both do," Alec said without thinking.
"At least I tried to get away from Manticore," Ben said. "You just keep right on doing your little soldier thing for them, taking orders like a robot."
Alec realized something. Ben didn't know what had happened a year ago. "Lydecker didn't tell you, did he? About Manticore self destructing?"
"What are you talking about? Lydecker sent you after me. Seems like Manticore is still in charge."
"Uh-uh," Alec said. His right wrist, not fully healed, was starting to hurt from holding the Glock on Ben so long, but he knew he didn't dare switch hands. That would be the only opening his brother needed. "Manticore went down. Lydecker's tryin' to resurrect it. I imagine that's why he brought you back, to add to his pathetically small bunch of true blue soldiers."
"You talk like you're not one of his boys," Ben sneered.
"I'm not," Alec said. "Well, not really. I'm sort of a free agent."
The expression on Ben's face was almost comical. "Get out of here. But I've got to admit, you don't act like any Manticore soldier I've ever seen. Still, you're working for Lydecker and that's reason enough for me to pull this trigger."
Alec's wrist was really aching, even though he was supporting it with his left hand. The gun he had trained on Ben began to quiver ever-so-slightly.
The roundhouse kick smashed into Alec's wrist and his gun went flying. And then he was on his back on the floor, Ben's knee on his chest, and the barrel of the automatic pressed against his jaw.
"Goodbye, brother," Ben said. "Sorry we couldn't get better acquainted."
"You don't kill people anymore," Alec said quickly. "Prove it. Prove it and I'll help you get away from Lydecker for good."
Ben hesitated, and Alec could read the indecision in his brother's eyes.
"You know he'll just send someone else after you," Alec pressed. "You can't escape him on your own."
"You're lying," Ben said, clenching his jaw.
"Max said you wanted to kill yourself," Alec tried. "Killin' me isn't gonna to do that, no matter how much you want it to. I'm not you. I'm 494. But I am your brother. Manticore told us family doesn't matter. But they were wrong about that, just like they were wrong about a lot of things. Family does matter. You're family, and I'll help you if I can."
"How do you know Max?"
Alec wished the guy would get off his chest. It was getting hard to breathe. "She's a friend," he said. "She's the one who took Manticore down and set me free, along with about four hundred other various and assorted mutants."
Ben looked puzzled, as if he was trying to put something together in his mind. "You know about Terminal City in Seattle?" Alec said, talking fast and hopefully buying himself more time. "You heard about the mutant uprising? Max and I were part of that. Now Lydecker's got a new Manticore facility outside of Seattle where a bunch of the mutants are living. But it's not like the old Manticore. A lot of us are still on our own for the most part, livin' in Seattle. We just do some work for them when they ask, and in return we get to live our lives." Alec knew what he was saying was an overstatement, but right now he just wanted to keep Ben from pulling that trigger.
"Lydecker will never let me be free," Ben whispered. His eyes bore into Alec's, their intensity frightening. But then suddenly he dropped the safety back on the gun and stood up. "But, you're right about one thing. I don't want to kill you. I don't want to kill my brother."
Alec actually felt limp with relief. That had been touch and go. He'd taken an awful chance, letting Ben have the upper hand like that and not fighting back. If Ben had been lying, if he was still nuts, he'd be dead. As things were, he now had at least some proof his twin wasn't a total psycho-killer any more.
But there was one last thing Alec knew he needed to do. Ben was standing a few feet away, still holding the gun but his arm hanging at his side. Alec stood up slowly, then blurred, grabbing his brother's right arm and twisting it up behind his back until he dropped the automatic on the floor. Taking Ben's chin in his other hand, he twisted, stopping just short of breaking his neck.
"Just a reminder, big brother," Alec hissed in his ear. "That I'm the twin who spent more than 10 years training to be an assassin, and you're the twin who spent 10 doin' nothin' but playin' with ordinaries. I'm a lot better soldier than you are, and never forget it." He pushed Ben's arm harder until his brother made a small sound of pain. "And don't ever try and jump me again because next time, family or not, I will kill you."
He shoved Ben away from him into the wall. "Now, brother, let's go get somethin' to eat and, as Max would say, figure this bitch out."
"How well do you know Max?" Ben asked, biting into a slice of pizza.
Alec didn't answer. He was watching the pretty waitress who'd brought them their pitcher of beer. She was staring at them, obviously both curious and attracted. Alec winked and motioned her closer. "You don't by any chance have a sister do you?" She blushed and giggled before picking up their empty glasses.
Ben watched the exchange, a gleam of almost childish amusement in his eyes.
Alec waited until the waitress had left, then put both elbows on the table, rested his chin on his hands, and said, "So, tell me more about how Lydecker cured you of bein' a psycho-killer."
"Mostly Thorazine," Ben said. "And some anti-psychosis pills I have to take every morning. The head doctors said I was schitzo, something about a brain chemistry imbalance." He looked hard at Alec. "They said it could be genetic."
"Hey," Alec said, holding up one hand. "Been there, done that. I'm clean, or at least as clean as six months in Manticore's psi-ops can make me."
"You never know, brother," Ben said.
"Well, let's just say I've never had to urge to become a dentist or a tattoo artist." Alec took a big bite of pizza. It was kind of funny how they'd both ordered same thing -- sausage, mushrooms, and black olives. "What if you go off your meds?" he asked as he chewed.
"What do you think?" Ben said,. He pulled a prescription bottle out of his pocket and studied the print. "You still want to help me?"
Alec's vision zoomed in on the bottle. He vaguely recognized the name of the medication from stuff he'd seen in psi-ops. The guy wasn't lying. "Do I have a choice?"
"Knock me out and give me to Lydecker. Like you said back at the apartment, I'm probably no match for you."
"Why would I do that?" Alec said. "So he can put you through re-indoctrination, turn you back into an automaton, then finish your training and send you out to kill people again, maybe even me? I've been through the program, and I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy, let alone a relative."
"So, I gather you didn't have exactly the perfect Manticore career either?" Ben said, looking a bit smug.
"What can I say? I have a mind of my own, and in Manticore that's definitely not an asset."
"What did you do?"
"Fell in love."
"With someone in your unit?"
"Worse, with my target."
"Ouch. Bet Lydecker made you pay good for that."
"One of the reasons I'm now just so eager to help the son of a bitch," Alec said. He looked at Ben a moment. "They killed her of course."
"The girl you loved?"
"So, you've got good reason to hate Manticore, but you're right back doing this for them. Tell me how that works for you again."
"Like I said, it's the only way I can have any kind of life -- play their game but keep a few cards to myself."
"Cards like me."
Alec smiled grimly. "Yeah."
"So, what's the plan little brother? How are you going to get Lydecker off my back for good?"
"Joshua!" Alec called, spotting his friend in the base's big common room. He'd been lucky coming in through the gate. The X5 on guard duty was a guy from his old unit, and hadn't minded keeping his name off the check-in list. Hopefully none of the mutants would be chatting up the guards about him either. His plan would fail before beginning if Lydecker found out he'd sneaked back to Seattle and been here.
Joshua was standing over in a corner painting on a canvas. On the wall, for all to see, was the Transgenic flag he'd made that had been flying over Terminal City. Alec still liked to look at it, the symbol somehow making him feel less alone in the world.
"Alec!" Joshua welcomed him with a big hug, barely managing to keep his paint brush away from Alec's leather jacket.
"They treatin' you all right here pal?" Alec asked, a bit breathless from the greeting. He took a look at the painting. It was a picture of Mole, Luke, and Dix. The trio looked happy, which told Alec something about the current morale.
"The food is good," Joshua said. He looked across the room at his fellow mutants. "And so is the company."
"Nobody givin' you a hard time?"
Joshua shook his head. "We've been left alone. Except Sketchy came and did an interview. He said I'll be a big star soon."
Alec scratched his head, glad to hear it but wondering how long the happy feelings would last. He just couldn't picture Lydecker running this mutant resort for free. The guy had to have plans. As for Sketchy's interview ... "Yeah, well, just remember that fame has its price, my friend."
"I know," Joshua said. "Sketchy paid me a thousand dollars."
Alec blinked at that. "Gee, and I didn't even get a finder's fee."
Joshua reached for his wallet. "I'll share the money with you."
"No," Alec said, holding up his hands. "That money's yours. You earned it. Just keep me in mind if you need an agent for your talk show bookings."
Joshua looked puzzled, but then said, "How's Max? I haven't seen her for a week."
"Normal's keepin' her busy. Things are better at Jam Pony with the police escorts and stuff. And she's been stayin' home at night, off the streets. We're still not exactly welcome in Seattle and are tryin' not to be targets."
"I understand," Joshua said. "Maybe you and Max should come here where you'll be safer." He grinned broadly and poked Alec in the shoulder. "You could move in with me. I have a big room."
"Thanks for the invite, Big Fella, but I think Max and I need to try and make things work on the outside right now."
"So the baby will be free?"
"So we'll all be free," Alec said. "And speakin' of free, I need your help with something."
Joshua grinned again and clapped Alec on both shoulders with his hands. "Joshua will do anything for Alec."
Alec looked at crowded room then put his arm around Joshua's shoulders and said, "We need to talk in private, Big Fella."
"What does Alec need?" Joshua said as he closed the door to his sparsely furnished, yet fairly comfortable room.
Alec sat down on the edge of the bed and folded his hands. How to begin? He sighed and looked up at Joshua. "You know how you felt about Isaac? How protective you were of him because he was your little brother?"
"I loved Isaac," Joshua said, bowing his head.
"Well," Alec said. "You remember how I said I had a twin brother too, but he was a psycho killer, not to mention dead?"
"Turns out Ben's not dead like we all thought. He's alive, Lydecker's on his ass, and I wanna help him."
Joshua's eyes had grown big and round. "But you said he killed people. Why would you want to help him?"
"Yeah. About that. Seems brother Ben just needed his brain chemistry straightened out. As long as he's on his meds, he's okay. I'm havin' a problem with Lydecker wantin' him back. It's their fault he got messed up, not his, and I think he deserves a chance on the outside."
"Do you love him?"
Alec hesitated, honestly not knowing how to answer. "He's family," he finally said, hoping that was explanation enough.
"Won't Max help you?"
"Ya see, that's the problem," he said, scratching his head again. "Ben was in Max's unit and she still thinks he's dead."
"Max would be glad Ben's alive. You need to tell her."
Alec really hadn't wanted to go here. He bit his lower lip. "Ben was sick, Joshua. Max knew he couldn't be allowed to just run around killin' people. So, she took him down about a year ago. But Lydecker had his body stored in cryo and brought him back. I don't think she'd understand, and I really don't wanna get her upset."
"Ben's like Isaac." Joshua said softly. "Good but made into someone bad."
"Ben was like Isaac," Alec said, shuddering slightly at the comparison. That row of tongues strung up in the sewer was a bit too similar to his brother's penchant for collecting teeth. "But Manticore fixed him. He's all right now. But he doesn't want to go back and I don't blame him. I've got a plan to get him free for good, but I need your help."
Joshua was looking at him in a funny way. "I loved Isaac," Joshua said. "But I killed him because he was going to kill Max. Are you sure you're doing the right thing, Alec? Are you sure Ben won't hurt someone again."
"I'm sure," Alec said, glancing away.
He forced his eyes to meet Joshua's. "I'm sure."
"Then I will help you."
"Great," Alec said, slapping his hand on his knee and smiling, surprised at how relieved he felt. He glanced at his watch. Hopefully, his unit mate was still on guard duty so they could get out without anyone knowing. "I knew I could count on you Big Fella. Now, go get your helmet. And by the way, do you know how to operate a surgical laser?"
"I've got him," Alec said into the cell phone, using the contact number Lydecker had given him.
"I knew I could count on you, 494," Lydecker's voice said. "Bring him in to Seattle."
"Can't," Alec said. "I need you to send a retrieval squad."
"493 tried to run. Things got rough. He's hurt pretty bad. I've got him secured in an abandoned warehouse about three miles south of Portland. Take the highway out of town, use the Inicker exit, go four stop signs, there's a dirt road on the left. The building's half a mile in, through a field and a small woods."
"I'm on a tight budget," Lydecker said. "A pick-up wasn't part of this deal."
"All right," Alec said. "But I'm tellin' you he's not gonna be alive if I have to drive him all the way to Seattle. We're talkin' internal injuries here. I need a field med team."
Lydecker was quiet for a moment and Alec began to sweat. "All right," he finally said. "Our ETA is forty-five minutes. Have your prisoner ready."
Alec pressed the disconnect button on his cell phone and turned to Ben. "Phase two is about to begin."
"You're taking an awful chance," Ben said. "Lydecker's no fool. He could easily tip to what you're doing, then he'll have your head."
Alec swallowed hard and felt his throat with his hand. Ben meant that literally. "I can make it work," he said with more confidence than he felt. He reached into his messenger bag and pulled out the fake passport Max had gotten for him not so long ago. There was also an airline ticket. "Here," he said, handing them to Ben. "Use this to get out of the country. They say Luxembourg's beautiful this time of year. Your flight leaves in two hours." He fished around in the bag again and came up with the birth certificate as well. "You might need this, too if they ask for a second I.D. I don't think I'm wanted for anything so you shouldn't be stopped. Just watch out for thermal scanners at the airport. And remember what I told you about Ames White."
"I'm not stupid," Ben said. He took the documents and flipped through the passport, nodding in approval at the photo. "Your hair's longer than mine. But other than that we could be twins."
Alec grinned. Then he grew serious. "But hey, remember somethin'. I'm takin' a big chance here. Stay on your meds. If I hear you've entered the dental profession again I'll be comin' after you. And believe me, you don't want me makin' a run at you for real."
Ben took the bottle of pills out of his pocket and shook it. "Got a three month's supply and a black market connection," he said. "No problem."
Alec opened the hotel room door.
"Alec," Ben said.
Alec looked back.
"No one's ever done something like this for me before." He held out his right hand.
Alec clasped his brother's hand and looked him in the eye. "What can I say? Anything for family. Good luck."
Ben closed the door behind him and Alec stood a moment in the hall, wondering if he was doing something really stupid again. But then he shook it off. Too late to turn back now. Time was short, and he still had a hell of a lot to do if Ben, not to mention himself, was going to stay free.
"Lydecker, what's your ETA?" Alec asked, speaking into the cell phone.
"Five minutes. We've got the warehouse in sight."
"I see your lights. 493's in the warehouse, handcuffed to a girder on the first floor. As for me, I'm not stickin' around. Not that I don't trust you, but I don't trust you. I'm really not comfortable with you and half a dozen of your pet X5's in my lap."
"Hold your position, 494," Lydecker said.
"That's a negative, 'Deck. I'm outta here."
Alec keyed off the cell phone, took a pair of handcuffs out of his jacket pocket, snapped one cuff on his wrist, wrapped the chain around the girder, clipped the other cuff shut, and tossed the key on the floor several feet away in plain sight. Then he slid down the girder to half lie on the floor. There was no turning back now. He could hear the sound of the Manticore vehicle rapidly approaching. His heart pounding, he knew that all he could now was wait for Lydecker to collect his "prisoner."
Three minutes later four X5's were in the building, their rifles pointed at their chained prey.
"All clear, sir," one of them shouted, which was Lydecker's cue to appear.
"Any sign of 494?" he said to his man.
"No, sir. 494 appears to have broken from position."
"What else is new?" Lydecker muttered. He turned his attention to the X5 lying on the floor. "Your twin may have beaten you this time, 493, but when I'm finished with you you'll be twice the soldier he is. 494 lacks that certain killer instinct that you've so successfully cultivated. And that, my boy, is why you're worth a lot more to me than he is."
He motioned to two of his men. "Sweep the area. You probably won't find 494, but check anyway. Most likely he's halfway back to Seattle and his girlfriend by now."
"If we do find him, sir?"
Lydecker thought about that a moment. "Give him a firm reminder how we punish soldiers who disobey orders. But don't kill him. He did accomplish his mission. Then let him go. I can always collect him later if I want. It's not as if I don't know where he'll be."
He turned back to his prisoner. "Nothing to say, 493? But then you never were very talkative. At least not since Renfro dug you out of cryo-stasis and put you on those magic pills. Just the opposite of your brother. He never shuts up."
Lydecker was looking at him intently. Alec returned the gaze with what he hoped was Ben-like insolence. And no matter how many insults Lydecker heaped on him, he was definitely keeping his mouth shut. No use pushing his luck. There was just one thing more that needed to happen, and then he could implement his plan. The fact that Lydecker had just sent two of the X's away to look for 494 was a lucky break he hadn't even counted on. There would be only Lydecker and his remaining two men to worry about.
Lydecker pulled a shock prod out of the inside of his coat and picked up the handcuff key off the floor. He activated the prod and its electrical head crackled meanly.
Alec began to sweat. If they knocked him out he was screwed.
"Don't," he whimpered, cringing away from the prod. "I'm already hurt."
Lydecker was going to hit him with the current anyway. He could read it in the man's eyes. He moaned with pain and slumped even further to the floor, trying to appear badly wounded. Lydecker hesitated, but put the prod away. Then he knelt down, grabbed hold of Alec's hair, and yanked his head around so he could read the bar code.
"Just making absolutely certain, 493," he said. "One can never be too careful when it comes to clones. Not with the DNA being a perfect match."
Alec winced at the way his hair was pulled, and groaned again for good measure, going limp as if he'd just fallen unconscious.
"All right," Lydecker called to the two men as he started to unlock the handcuffs. "Let's get this soldier to our hospital. He needs to be in better condition than this or he won't survive re-indoctrination."
Alec was pulled roughly to his feet by one of the X5's as Lydecker unlocked the first cuff and freed the chain from the girder. It was time. Taking a deep breath, he gathered himself and uncoiled, striking the X5 who'd hauled him up directly in the jaw with his right fist, at the same time swinging his left arm with the chain and dangling cuff, catching Lydecker on the side of the head. The second X5, standing a few feet away, turned at the sound of the struggle. Cradling his now aching wrist, Alec paused just long enough to make certain the X saw which way he was running, then he blurred, headed deeper into the warehouse. Behind him he could hear Lydecker screaming into a com unit for the other two X's to return. And then came the sound he both dreaded and was waiting for -- safety's coming off of automatic weapons.
Ahead was what he was looking for, a two ton propane tank. There wasn't much gas left in it, but Lydecker would never know because the C4 charges he'd planted beneath it would create the explosion he needed anyway. And then there was also the gasoline he'd poured throughout the back half of the warehouse as a way to mask his escape before the main detonation.
All he needed now was a little gunfire. He deliberately struck a pipe with the dangling handcuff, and one of the X5's obliged, sending off a short burst in his direction. Alec ducked as bullets ricocheted off a nearby support beam. Then he reached in his pocket, pulled out a lighter, bent down, and touched the flame to the the gasoline damp floor. Fire whooshed forward and he jumped back.
"You idiot!" Lydecker screamed at his man. "There's flammable material in here! Go around back and get him when he comes out!"
Alec knew he had to hurry or he wouldn't make it. Blurring again, he came up against the back wall of the warehouse and made his way along to an emergency exit. Parked a quarter mile away behind a stand of trees was his motorcycle. In his pocket was a detonator for the C4. Timing was going to be everything, but hopefully the explosion would cover up the sound of his getaway. As for Lydecker and the X's -- the gasoline fed fire was spreading fast, the back part of the warehouse already cut off. If they were smart they'd be getting themselves outside. If they weren't ...
Alec found it hard to care. He didn't want to kill Lydecker, but if the guy died, then so be it.
He hit the emergency exit with his shoulder, shoving hard. Nothing happened. The heavy steel door didn't budge. "Huh?" He'd checked this all out earlier in the day with Ben, when they'd set the C4 charges and spread the gasoline. Alec pushed again, and realized the bar he'd lifted on the outside was back in place, perhaps re-locked by a caretaker making rounds. Once more he hit it hard with his shoulder, more out of frustration than because he thought it would do any good. "Damn!" he yelled, pounding on the door with both hands. The smoke was getting thicker from the burning gasoline. He looked around, trying to spot a window, but he knew the few that were on the first floor were barred anyway.
"Oh shit," he said out loud when he suddenly realized just how trapped he really was. And worse, the flames were getting near the propane tank. When that C4 went off from the heat, there wasn't going to be anything left of this warehouse except a hole in the ground -- which had been the idea -- but not with him in it.
"Great plan, Alec," he muttered. "Really great plan. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid." He knew he didn't have any choice. Pounding as hard as he could on the door he screamed. "Guys! Let me out! I'm on fire in here!" He'd always been terrified of fire. All of the X5's were -- something to do with their feline DNA they'd been told, a base instinct. As children they'd been made to crawl through burning buildings in an attempt to get them over their paranoia.
The technique hadn't worked. Alec was so scared he was having trouble thinking straight.
There was no sign of Lydecker's men. Maybe they thought the propane was going to explode and had backed away. Or else they were looking in the woods for him behind the building.
The warehouse was old and partially made of timber. Already the flames had reached the second floor. When he looked up, Alec saw a sheet of yellow licking maybe 10 feet above his head. Pieces of burning wood were falling all around and the air was becoming super heated. He looked over at the propane tank, wondering if he was going to suffocate before the C4 blew him to bits. The floor was a sea of flames as well. He'd spread the gasoline too widely. He was trapped in the corner with no way out.
Coughing now, beginning to choke on the smoke, his eyes watering, Alec wondered if Max would ever know what had happened to him. Or would she think he'd just run off -- disappeared, afraid of the responsibilities after all. She did always tend to think the worst about him ... Maybe she'd even go back to Logan.
That thought gave Alec new strength. He turned and charged the door again, hitting it so hard he nearly dislocated his shoulder. But it still didn't budge. The heat was unbearable now. He felt as if his lungs were burning and his eyes were watering so badly from the fumes he was all but blinded.
Max, I love you. He slid to the floor beside the door, sweat pouring off his body, his heart pounding as everything began to spin. He couldn't breathe at all now ... And then suddenly he was falling forward through the door and a pair of hands were under his arms, dragging him away from the inferno. Alec looked up.
The world exploded. The ground shook beneath them as they tumbled into a ditch at the edge of the clearing, Ben on top of him, shielding him with his body. Alec still couldn't breathe. And then everything went black.
When Alec regained consciousness he was alone, lying on his back in the woods. It was still dark, but when he rolled over onto his side he could see flashlights flickering a few hundred yards away. Getting to his knees, he checked himself out and decided that at least nothing new was broken. But it still hurt when he breathed, his throat was sore, and his wrist felt like hell. Smoke inhalation. Maybe worse. Bracing himself with one arm against a tree, he managed to get to his feet and staggered to where he could see what was going on.
Lydecker and his men were inspecting the site where the warehouse had once stood. The gaping hole was impressive. "Maybe I used a little too much C4," Alec wheezed.
"Maybe you did."
Alec spun around, lost his balance, and nearly went down again. He grabbed the tree and hung on, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. "Max?"
"Ben," she said, slowly approaching him.
Alec shook his head. This really wasn't making sense. "What are you doin' here?"
"Where's Alec?" she asked, still keeping her voice calm, but her eyes darted to where the warehouse had been.
"Max, it's me."
"Where's Alec?" she repeated, her voice louder this time.
"Right here," he said in a harsh whisper. Lydecker's people were getting closer. "I'm Alec." He straightened a bit, an injured look in his eyes. "You mean you can't tell?"
"Just tell me he wasn't in there," Max said, gesturing toward the fire. Her voice was quivering.
Alec knew this had to stop. It was cruel. "Max," he said gently. "I'm Alec. Ben's not here. Just ask me somethin'. Somethin' only I ... Alec ... would know."
"There's an easier way," she said. "Just show me your bar code."
Shit. "Max, I changed my bar code to 493 so I could fool Lydecker."
"Sure you did," she said, her eyes growing cold. She was starting to circle him warily now. "Ben," she said. "I can't just let you go. You know I can't. I can't let you start killing people again."
"Ben's on medication now, Max," Alec said.
"Stop referring to yourself in first person."
"Max, it's not first person. I'm Alec, not Ben."
Lydecker's people were getting a lot closer now and they both looked in that direction.
"I won't let them hurt you," Max said, tears in her eyes. "I didn't let them hurt you before and I won't let them now."
"Max," Alec warned, hoping she wasn't about to do what he thought she was about to do. He could barely breathe from the smoke, his right wrist really did seem to be broken again, and his head felt like it was going to split in half. Not to mention the fact that even if she came at him he couldn't fight back because of the baby. He began to slowly back away.
"Max, I can't believe you don't recognize me." He talked as he retreated. "Hey, do you remember Sammy Sousa's baseball? I messed it up when you were tryin' to steal it. And the Star Wars film? We stole that together and split the take. And we saved the mermaid, that part fish chick from Manticore? And you kicked me in the nuts in my last cage fight. In fact, it's a wonder I was able to father that kid you're carryin'. You could have done some serious damage you know, and wouldn't you be sorry now."
Max stopped, her whole demeanor changing. "Alec?" she said.
"Well, yeah," he said. "It's about time. Now, can we get out of here before Deck catches our asses?"
"If you're Alec, then where's Ben?"
"Right here," Ben said from behind them.
Alec sagged against the trunk of a pine. "Great. Now you show up. Why the hell aren't you on a plane for Luxembourg anyway?"
Max was looking from one to the other, her mouth open in astonishment.
"Hey Maxie," Ben said.
"Ben," she whispered. "I'm so, so sorry. I didn't want to ... But I couldn't leave you ..."
"She's tryin' to apologize for killin' you that one time," Alec said, cutting Max's mea culpa short. "I'm sure Ben forgives you. Now, can we go?"
"Do you?" Max said. "Do you forgive me?"
"Oh, for cryin' out loud!" Alec practically wailed. "We are gonna get caught."
"Nothin' to forgive," Ben said. "In fact, I should thank you. You tried to save me the only way I could be saved."
"Alec," Max said. "You're not giving him to Lydecker?"
"No. As far as Lydecker's concerned, Ben got blown to bits tonight in that warehouse. That was the point of this whole show you know. Fakin' 493's death."
"You really did change your bar code," she said. "You changed it to 493 so you could impersonate Ben and fool Lydecker. But ..." She looked from one to the other. "But he can't just be let go. Ben, you know you can't."
"He's on medication, Max," Alec said, having told the story so many times lately he had it down pat. "He says he's okay and I believe him. Hey, he could have killed me and he didn't. In fact, he just saved my ass down there. I'd be toast if it wasn't for him."
Max swallowed hard. Then she walked up to Ben and gave him a big hug. "I'm so glad you're alive," she said.
Ben glanced down at her, then over to Alec. "You two really do know one another, don't you?"
She nodded. "You heard him. You're gonna be an uncle," she said softly.
Ben smiled. "Good work little brother. Just, take good care of her."
"We take care of each other," Alec said.
A shout to their left told them they'd better get moving. "How'd you guys get here?" Alec asked looking from Ben to Max.
"I've got a car parked down the road," Ben said. "Changed my plane ticket for morning then came back. I just didn't feel right leaving you to do this alone. And it turns out I was right."
"I had Logan hack into Lydecker's files at the New Manticore. I didn't trust him and was worried about this assignment of yours. The minute I saw it was Ben and where the pick-up was I headed down here. My bike's over there." She indicated a field to their right.
Alec gathered his strength and nodded toward the woods. "Mine's there. Max, I'll meet you up the road. There's a rest stop on the main highway just north of the last Portland exit. Ben, you better get outta here too." He offered his hand to his brother. "Take care of yourself."
Ben looked at him for a moment, then smiled and grabbed him in an unexpected hug that Alec found himself returning. "You, too, brother."
Max watched them, an amused expression on her face. "Let's go," she said. Then, with one last look at Ben, "Good luck."
"You too, Maxie." He smiled at her, at them both, then blurred into the woods.
She didn't speak to him during the entire ride back to Seattle, even when they stopped for gas and food, and Alec knew there was going to be hell to pay once they reached home. Max wasn't just angry, she was furious.
"How could you not tell me?" she said the moment they reached his apartment and had closed the door. There were tears in her eyes that made it all the worse. "How could you not tell me it was Ben?"
"Because I knew you'd want to come along and I needed to do this on my own," Alec said honestly.
"But he's my brother."
"No, he's my brother. I needed to meet the guy, Max. And I wanted to help him if I could."
"How do you know he'll even stay on that medicine?" she asked. "I know him a lot better than you and I wouldn't trust him, not the way his brain is messed up. If he starts killing people again it's going to be all your fault."
"I know," Alec said. "Which is another reason I didn't want you involved."
"How is he even alive?" Max said, sitting down on the couch. "I killed him. I broke his neck. He was dead."
"But Lydecker's people were right there, weren't they?"
Max nodded. "Real close. Almost on top of us. I almost didn't get away."
"So they got his body right away and put him in cryo. Ben told me that when he woke up he couldn't move. He couldn't even blink or breath. He was on a respirator and they had him in some kind of body brace that immobilized his head. He said they kept him like that for weeks, until finally he started gettin' better."
"His spinal cord regenerated," Max said. "They kept him on life support long enough for it to heal." She looked at Alec. "That's why our blood helps Logan. We can re-grow nerves with the stem cells in our blood while ordinaries can't."
"If you hadn't taken Manticore down when you did they would have put him through re-indoctrination. But he was at a different facility when that happened, a hospital somewhere, and instead they locked him up. He got away two months ago and Lydecker started the manhunt. When they learned he was in Portland, they sent me after him." Alec scowled. "I still don't know why he picked me for the job."
"They're just mean like that," Max said.
Alec sat down beside her on the couch and was relieved when she didn't move away. "You know," he said quietly. "I think I understand now more than ever what happened with Ben. Hell, it could just as easily have happened to me."
"What do you mean?"
"When your unit ran in '09, Ben got tossed out into a world without any kind of structure. We needed structure, him and me both. Maybe moreso than the others for some reason. Me though, I got the whole Manticore package while I was a kid, then was trained for my assignments over a period of years. You might say I got eased into the real world one step at a time. But Ben ... he got tossed down the whole flight of stairs, everything hittin' him all at once. End result. Ben cracked. I didn't."
He was looking at her, waiting for her reaction. "Are you gonna forgive me anytime soon?"
She stood up, glanced at the door, then at a clock on the kitchen counter. "It's pretty late," she said. "And your wrist looks like it needs some attention."
"I think we better splint it this time," Alec said wryly.
"Or go to the ER and get a cast put on. What did you do to it anyway?"
"Smashed it into a guy's face, then into a steel door. Ben saved my life you know. If he hadn't opened that fire door I would have gone up with the building."
"Poor baby," Max said, holding out her arms.
Alec didn't need a second invitation.
"You know, I was kind of jealous of Ben," Alec said several hours later. They were lying snuggled under the covers, enjoying the feel of their transgenic bodies fitting so perfectly together. Until they'd experienced each other's warmth for the first time, neither had realized just how cold ordinaries' bodies were. Now they craved that heat every time they made love, and always found it difficult to give up.
"Why?" Max asked sleepily. She reached out and stroked her hand down his muscular arm, then let her fingers wander to his bare thigh.
"Lots of reasons. Because he knew you so much longer than I have. Because he knew you first. Because you thought of him as a brother and wanted to treat me that way too when all I wanted to do was get your clothes off. Because you mixed me up with him sometimes."
"I thought you were Ben when you first came into my cell back at Manticore," Max admitted. "But I never consciously made that mistake again. The two of you are very different."
"Not about everything," Alec said. "We both like the same pizza toppings." He kissed her lightly on the lips. "And we both like you."
"I mean in the big ways. The difference is like night and day, and you're the day."
"That time you first told me about Ben," Alec said. "I knew there was somethin' that really bothered you about him. But when you said you'd killed him it caught me by surprise."
"What did you think it was?"
"I thought he'd raped you."
Max's eyes opened wider.
"I thought maybe that was the reason you were always such a bitch to me -- that I reminded you of somethin' bad Ben had done."
"And that wasn't it at all," Max said softly. "You didn't remind me of something bad he did, but of something bad I did. Something horrible ..."
"Shhh," Alec said, wrapping his arms around her and keeping her close. "It's okay now. We can both feel better. He's--"
There was a splintering crash as the front door caved in. Alec and Max froze for only a fraction of a second. Then Max was on her feet, the sheet wrapped around her body, and Alec was diving for his gun on the nightstand. He got off three shots before one of the four X5's accompanying Lydecker jammed the end of the shock prod into his chest.
Every muscle in Alec's body spasmed from a current strong enough to render an ordinary dead and an X5 unconscious.
"Alec!" Max called his name just one time. But he was already lying on the floor, not completely out, but unable to move.
"Don't," she said to Lydecker, holding out one hand while keeping the sheet wrapped around herself with the other. "Please ... don't. The baby ..."
"That's enough," Lydecker said, motioning for his man to lower the shock prod, his eyes not unsympathetic. He nodded at Alec. "We've got what we came for anyway."
"What are you talking about?" Max said. "We haven't done anything wrong."
Lydecker knelt on the floor beside Alec, grabbed hold of his hair, and yanked his head around, checking his bar code. Then he looked at Max, his eyes grim. "This is an interesting twist," he said. "I suspected he might have gotten away, but I didn't really think I'd find him in your bed. But what I still don't understand is where 494 is."
"This is Alec, you idiot," Max snapped. "Do you really think Ben and I would ..."
"The bar code reads 493."
"Look closer, Lydecker. Ever hear of a dermatology laser?"
Lydecker did look more closely, then understanding finally dawned. "You mean he actually thought he could fool me into thinking he was Ben?"
"He did fool you," Max said. "At least long enough for Ben to get away where you'll never find him."
Lydecker's men were hauling Alec to his feet.
"Don't hurt her," he mumbled, finally able to speak.
"So it was 494 all along in the warehouse," Lydecker said, unable to keep the admiration from his voice. "And the explosion was all a set-up to make me think 493 was dead."
"I refuse to answer on the grounds I might incriminate myself," Alec said, regaining his sarcasm along with his voice.
"I wanted 493 for my unit," Lydecker said. "He would have been a good soldier." He eyed Alec. "Now I suppose I'm going to have to make do with you." He turned to Max. "Don't worry. After a few weeks of properly structured re-indoctrination he'll never even remember 'Alec' existed. And he probably won't remember you either." He motioned to his man. "Take him down to the vehicle."
"No!" Max said, dropping the sheet so it puddled around her feet. Lydecker stared. So did his men. "Alec and I don't belong to Manticore. We're not your property. You said we could live on our own. You have no right to take him away."
"I said you two could live on the outside so long as you followed the rules," Lydecker reminded her. "You were supposed to run missions for me, not sneak around behind my back sabotaging those missions."
"You sent Alec after Ben just to be cruel," Max said. "Is it any wonder he helped his brother instead of turning him over to you? What did you expect him to do?"
"I expected 494 to follow orders!" Lydecker shouted. "He was a good soldier until you came along Max. You do realize you ruined him."
"Hey," Alec said. "I'm standing right here." He sagged between the two X5's holding him upright. "Well, sort of standing."
"Shut up!" Max said. "And let me try and get your ass out of this mess."
"And getting naked in front of an audience is part of this plan?" Alec said.
"You're naked too," Max snapped.
"Yeah, but no one's lookin' at me."
"You can't save him this time, Max," Lydecker said. "This just isn't working. He has to come with us. I need more soldiers. I would have taken Ben instead, but now you've left me with no choice."
Max knew she had just one card left to play. "If you take Alec away from me, I'll never have this baby."
"Max!" Alec said. "Don't!"
"I swear," she said. "I'll abort it."
"I won't let you do that," Lydecker said. "I'll have you taken back to the base as well. I didn't intend to use you as a soldier again, at least not now. But if I have to insure your safety ... the child's safety ... then you'll be coming with us too."
"No, I won't," she said. And in a blur of motion she had Alec's gun in her hand. But she didn't point it at Lydecker or the X's. She pointed it at herself, her womb. "Now, let him go and get out of here," she said.
"Put the weapon down, Max," Lydecker said. "You aren't going to do this."
"No, she isn't," Alec said. "Max, put it down. You hate guns anyway."
Her hand was shaking. "You're right. I hate guns. But this is the only way. I will not let you take away the father of my child, and I will not let that child be born into slavery."
Lydecker looked from Max to Alec, weighing his options ... weighing their worth.
"I will never go back to Manticore," Max said. "And neither will Alec. You can do all the re-indoctrination you want on us both, if we live that is, and you'll still never make us into robot soldiers again."
"You have an alternate suggestion?" Lydecker said.
"Yeah," Max said. "Leave us the fuck alone."
Lydecker was shaking his head. "I can't do that, Max. My agreement with the government is that I must maintain some control over all the X's living on the outside."
"We'll still work for you," Alec said quickly. "Like we agreed before. Just quit tryin' to mess with our heads. Straight jobs. No spookiness. In return, you leave us alone."
Lydecker looked at the couple for a very long moment, then nodded. He turned to his men and said, "Let 494 go. We're leaving."
Max waited until she couldn't hear their footsteps in the hall any longer before dropping the gun on the floor and throwing herself into Alec's arms.
"That was too easy," he said, his eyes still watching the door.
"I know," Max replied. "He's not done with us yet."
Downstairs at the truck Lydecker stood looking at the set of chains he'd brought to hold what he'd hoped would be his newest hardcore Manticore soldier. So close, yet also so far.
"Are we just going to leave them alone now, sir?" one of his men asked.
"Until the baby is born," Lydecker said. "That child, if it is what we think it is, is priceless ... possibly even the salvation of the world. If 494 is that intent on protecting his so-called family, then we'll let him. It won't do us any good if 452 kills herself or aborts the child rather than be separated from him."
"And then, sir? After the baby's born."
"We're eventually going to have to take 452 and the child. There's no way around it. 494 will then be expendable, in fact a liability since he obviously won't give them up easily." He regarded the X5, a determined look in his eyes. "494 will be re-integrated into Manticore then, put through our psychological programs, and by the time he comes out the other side, like I told Max, he won't even remember she or the baby ever existed. Either that or we'll simply have to kill him."