ARCHIVE: Please link to Fanfiction.net.
The third 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 can tell if you like it or not. -- author's note
Alec was on his third Scotch at Crash when he noticed Asha come up to the bar. It had been quite awhile since he'd seen her around, certainly not since the Jam Pony hostage and Terminal City crisis. She didn't see him at first, but he kept looking at her until she finally turned around and he caught her eye.
She smiled shyly, just the way he remembered, ducking her head and raising her drink in a small salute.
The last words he'd said to her were "Beat it," -- about as rude a dismissal as a guy could give a girl. He'd meant it. If she'd hung around him he'd eventually have gotten her killed. But he'd hurt her feelings, and he still felt bad about that, even thought it had been for her own good.
Alec debated getting up. There was an empty seat beside her. But he also knew that sometimes it was better to leave well enough alone. He turned back to his drink.
A minute later his senses picked her up behind him. "Long time no see," she said, leaning close over his shoulder -- so close her hair tickled his cheek.
Quickly putting on a smile, Alec backed away from her slightly. "I've had a busy few weeks."
"So I've heard. You guys were all over the news for awhile, every station, twenty-four seven. This town was going crazy."
Alec shrugged. "What can I say? Mutants beat MTV any day."
"Logan says you and Max are back outside."
Well that answered one question, Alec had been wondering about. Logan had re-established contact with S1W, or at least with Asha. "We're tryin' to make it work," he said.
"I also hear you two, you and Max, are a couple now.''
Alec didn't deny it.
"I'm glad for you, Alec. I always thought maybe you guys should be together. In fact, it was kind of obvious from the beginning."
"Logan never thought so," Alec couldn't help saying.
"I know," Asha said, a touch of sadness in her voice. She looked at him. "He still doesn't."
Another question answered.
"I guess that means you're off the market for good," she continued, her voice playful.
Alec had never really looked at his situation that way. But Asha was right. He had no desire to be with anyone other than Max. But he was still a male, and a hot blooded transgenic one at that. Just because he was in love didn't mean he was dead. He wondered just how far Asha was going to take this.
"Why Asha," he said, deciding there wasn't any harm in playing the game so long as he didn't win. "Are you flirtin' with me?"
"No," she said, ducking her head again and blushing. "I mean, you're a great looking guy, and sweet too, but you were right when you said you were ..."
"Made in a lab?" Alec supplied for her. Then, with a sly wink, "Not human?" He leaned closer to her. "Kind of puts a kink in that whole three kids, a dog, and a white picket fence dream, doesn't it?"
Asha gave him a funny look. "Where's Max?" she said, backing off the subject. He could tell he was scaring her a little bit. He hadn't meant to.
"On an assignment," Alec said.
"It appears so."
"And ... you're not happy about it," she pressed. "Hence the drinks."
Alec raised his fourth glass of Scotch to her. "Don't worry. Transgenics can't get drunk Which means I can be my own designated driver."
"Alec," Asha said, her brow furrowing. "What's wrong?" She studied his face a moment. "You're really worried about Max."
"Max can take care of herself," Alec said, parroting Lydecker's admonishment to him when he'd complained, quite loudly, about Max being sent to South America alone. He took another swig of Scotch. "It was a one woman job."
"She'll be fine," Asha said, putting her hand on his arm. "You'll see. Max always is."
"Yes, Max is indeed fine," Alec said, smacking his lips after taking yet another sip of the liquor. "Fine and pregnant." He sneaked a look at Asha to see what affect those words had on her. He wasn't disappointed.
Her mouth was hanging slightly open. "Max is going to have a baby?"
"In a word, yes," Alec said. "I'm surprised old Logan didn't give you the jolly good news, him bein' so enthused and all when he heard."
"Logan didn't mention it," Asha said, puzzled. And then she had to ask. "I know it's none of my business, but ..."
"I'm the father," Alec said, relieving Asha of her primary worry.
The scared look in her eyes eased. "Congratulations," she said. "I hope the three of you will be very happy together."
"I'm sure we will be," Alec said. "If someone doesn't kill us."
He noticed her look toward the door. It was the third time she'd done that. "You expectin' someone?"
Again the slight blush. "I'm supposed to meet my date," she said.
"Ah," Alec said, understanding dawning. "A blind date I presume?"
"Yes," Asha said. "And I hope you don't mind if I go sit down by myself. If he sees me here talkin' to a guy who looks like he stepped off the cover of 'GQ Magazine' he might just turn and run." She looked at him a moment, then added, "and since I now definitely don't ever have a chance with you, I can't really afford to let this one get away."
Alec smiled, accepting the compliment, and took yet another drink. He wanted to say they'd never had a chance together, not with him in love with Max and her in love with Logan for the past year. Instead, he raised his glass and said, "Alas, sweet princess, some things just aren't meant to be. And can I ask who your new found prince is?"
Asha laughed. "It's someone my friend set me up with, a guy she met at a fancy government party uptown." Leaning forward, she gave him a light kiss on the cheek. "Bye, Alec," she said softly in his ear. "It would have been nice." Then she picked up her glass and moved to a table on the other side of the room.
Alec had been thinking of going home. However, he didn't relish the thought of a night tossing and turning alone in his bed, worrying about Max. Instead, he settled in to wait. This mystery date of Asha's had him intrigued. Besides, it never hurt to check out the competition, even if he was effectively off the market.
He saw a couple of guys come in, and recognized them as workers from the pizza parlor down the street. Another young man entered, this one dressed in a business suit, an odd look for Crash, and Alec thought he must be the one. But he walked across the room into the waiting arms of a buxom barmaid.
"And she turned me down for a date five times," Alec said out loud to himself. "Guess she goes for the uptown look."
Then a tall, well dressed, slightly older man passed under the front light. Alec couldn't see his face at first, just that he was some old dude with graying hair. Certainly Asha wouldn't be dating--
White. Ames White had just come through the door into Crash. And he was walking over to the table where Asha was sitting.
Alec felt like his heart had just leaped over his rib cage. His first instinct was to run, and no wonder after his near-death-experience at Jam Pony with this dude and his pack of muscle queens. The man wanted nothing more than to wipe his kind, transgenics, or filthy animals as White had on one occasion called them, off the face of the earth.
But what the fuck was White doing meeting Asha?
Although it went against every instinct he had, Alec stayed in his seat, watching. He couldn't believe Asha was going to betray him to White. He could read her like a book and he would never be that off base about someone. Asha was good people -- naive, but good. Which meant White was sinking his claws into her for some purpose of his own.
The two talked a moment, smiling. Asha laughed, and Alec began to feel sick to his stomach. How the hell was he going to get her away from White? It had taken Joshua's strength motivated by homicidal rage to subdue this guy. Alec had a lot of faith in his own fighting skills, but as a soldier he also knew his limitations. And White was outside ... way outside ... his physical parameters. But then someone who could essentially ignore pain until it killed him would be a tough opponent for anyone.
Alec unconsciously reached up and rubbed his left shoulder. The bullet wound was completely healed, but he'd been half paralyzed with pain the day of the Jam Pony fight, his entire left side essentially useless. The injury had nearly cost him his life. He could pretend to overcome pain to a certain degree, been good enough at the lie to keep from being labeled "defective" by Manticore. But in truth, Alec knew his own pain threshold was pretty low. Hell, he could hardly stand going to the dentist.
They were leaving. White was helping Asha on with her coat, just like a normal human being instead of the creepy killer he was. Alec weighed his options. If he let them get out the door into the street, he'd end up alone against White. But if he confronted White in Crash, maybe the guy would let Asha and him go rather than create a big scene.
Alec made up his mind. He stood up, crossed the floor in several long strides, and put himself in the way of the leaving couple.
"Asha," he said with a big smile. "Aren't you gonna introduce me to your date?"
The look on White's face would have been hysterically funny under almost any other circumstances. The man's mouth gaped open, his eyes bugged out, and his cheeks began turning a peculiar shade of red.
Asha, caught off guard but still remembering her manners, cleared her throat and said, "Ames White, this is my friend Alec. Alec, this is Ames White. Ames works for the federal government. Alec here is in the messenger business."
"A pleasure," Alec said, holding out his right hand. "So tell me, just what branch of the federal government do you work for?"
White had regained his composure. "Animal control," he snarled. And then almost as fast as a transgenic could blur, his hand was around Alec's throat.
Asha shrieked, a woman next to them screamed, a passing waitress spilled a tray of drinks, and mayhem ensued. Alec found himself hurtling backwards across the room, thrown by muscles that were at the very least equal to his own. He landed on a pool table, scattering players, sticks, and balls in all directions. Sketchy, who'd been just about to sink a shot, stood slack-jawed, staring at White as if seeing a ghost.
"Dude, don't you need backup?"
"Yesss!" Alec yelled as White grabbed him by the front of his shirt and hauled him to his feet.
"We meet at last, 494," White hissed in his face.
"We've met before you idiot!" Alec spat right back.
This time White tossed him toward the bar. The sound of glass breaking was deafening to Alec's sensitive ears as he smashed through a dozen bottles of liquor, sliding down the slick surface, unable to stop before tumbling off the end onto a table that collapsed under his weight. He was being thrown around like a rag doll, and it was beginning to make him angry.
Staggering to his feet, a look of pure venom in his green eyes, Alec took two deep breaths and charged head first at White. If Joshua could take this guy down, then so could he.
Only Asha's warning cry saved him from being impaled on the knife. At the very last second, Alec saw the flash of the wicked hunting blade and threw himself sideways, managing to avoid taking it in the chest and receiving a graze on his right forearm instead. Regaining his balance in an instant he crouched in a fighting stance as White began to circle.
"Give it up, 494," White drawled, tossing the knife from hand to hand. "You should have been dead a long time ago. I never should have let you talk me into that little deal of ours. But then you transgenics are masters when it comes to deception. Now, I'm going to put you down for good."
"Asha, don't!" Alec yelled. She was making a run at White from the side. White didn't even look in her direction, merely stuck out his fist and hit her in the jaw. She went down without a sound, crumpling into a small heap on the floor.
"What do you want with her?" Alec asked as he and White continued to circle one another.
"Not that it's any of your business, 494, but she's going to be my new wife."
"Like hell," Alec snarled.
"She doesn't know it yet, of course. But the lovely Asha has been chosen as my next mate. You see, someone deprived me of my son, and now I need to sire another."
"She's not gonna be your mate!" Alec yelled, blurring first right, then left, and batting aside White's knife hand. Using his momentum, Alec kept right on going, flipping over White in an arc to land on his feet on the other side. Then he hauled White over his back, smashing him into the wall with enough force to cave in a support beam.
Alec stood back, breathing hard. Maybe he'd gotten the guy this time. But White merely squatted a moment, shook his head like a dog, then slowly stood up to his full height.
"Shit," Alec said as the Familiar charged him. Taking a tactic from Max's repertoire, Alec leaped onto a table, grabbed a ceiling beam, and swung upwards in a gymnastic maneuver to end up standing in the rafters. "You want me, come and get me!" he taunted.
White didn't need a second invitation. Leaping on the same table, he climbed like an animal up a girder to stand on the same beam just a few feet from Alec. Down below people were gaping at them. In the distance was the sound of approaching sirens.
"Asha!" Alec called down to the girl who was slowly getting to her feet. "Run!"
Two of White's men were coming up behind her, but she had sense enough to get out of the way. The last he saw of her she was pushing through the crowd toward the back door.
"Forget about her," White said. "She's mine now." He still had the knife in his hand. "And so are you."
Alec did a hang spring over him as White charged, landing on the beam on the other side, and keeping his balance in a way no human ever could. Then he jumped once more, whirled in mid air, and caught White in the chest with a sidekick that sent him off the girder and crashing to the floor below.
Leaping the 20 feet down, Alec landed on his feet like a cat and crouched, breathing hard, warily watching White who wasn't moving.
"Alec," a voice said behind him.
Alec's hand blurred and he had Sketchy by the throat. Eyes bulging, his friend began to choke.
"Sorry, man," Alec said, immediately releasing his grip allowing Sketchy's feet to touch the floor again. He sniffed and wiped his arm across his jeans. Blood was running down his hand and dripping on the floor. "Habit."
"You need to get out of here," Sketchy said quietly, rubbing his neck.
"Did Asha get away?" Alec asked.
"Yeah. Out the back."
"You gotta get outta here, Alec. Max will kill me if anything happens to you while she's gone."
"Oh, she left you in charge of me, did she?" Alec said, grinning. Still, Sketchy was right. White was stirring and the police were about to come through the front door. Unless he wanted to murder the man in cold blood in front of 30 witnesses -- which would just do wonders for the reputations of transgenics -- there wasn't much more he could do. Everyone in here already had to know what he was. His fighting style wasn't exactly subtle. Time to cut his losses and do what he'd told Asha to do -- run.
"See ya tomorrow at work?" Sketchy called after him as Alec slid through the crowd and vanished into the back alley.
He caught up with Asha two blocks away. Still shaking, she gave a small scream when he quietly loped up beside her.
"Boy, Asha, you sure know how to pick 'em."
"Who was he?" she said, gratefully accepting the warm arm he put around her shoulders. "I thought he looked familiar in a way, but I can't place him."
"Old enemy," Alec said.
"From Jam Pony?"
"Oh, we go way back, Ames and me," Alec said. "Ever since he tried to give me this really bad headache."
"He was trying to kill you."
"That's what he does. Kills my kind. He's the head honcho of the whole program."
Asha was shaking her head. "I remember now. He's the man in the hoverdrone footage Logan had, that time the mutant was killed. Why would he be going out on a blind date with me? Ames White ... I should have recognized the name."
Alec chewed his lower lip. "Good question. My guess is it wasn't so 'blind' as you think.The whole setup tonight may have somethin' to do with this cult Logan's been studying. Ask him."
She noticed the blood dripping off his hand. "We better get that cleaned up," she said.
Alec had almost forgotten about the small knife wound, but realized now that it was starting to hurt.
"My apartment's just up here," Asha said, pointing to an old brownstone building. "I've got first aid supplies."
Alec paused at the bottom of the steps leading to the front door. "You mean you're inviting me up to to show me your etchings?"
Asha laughed. "No, but I bet you'd like to show me yours."
Alec grinned and followed her up the stairs.
Books. There were books everywhere in Asha's apartment -- shelves full of them, tables covered with them, piled on the floor, on the kitchen counter, everywhere.
Alec picked one up. "Last of the Mohicans," he said out loud. He silently read a few more titles. Most were classics. She was an even more avid reader than Joshua.
Noticing his eyes taking in her library, Asha shrugged and said, "I used to be a literature major at the university before I dropped out and joined S1W. I was going to be a teacher.
Alec remembered the book of poetry in her backpack.
"Did you read many of these as a kid?" Asha asked. "Like 'Moby Dick' or 'Wuthering Heights?'"
"Manticore wasn't real big on English literature," he said. "But I had to read 'The Complete Shakespeare' once for an assignment."
Asha pulled a large volume down from the shelf. Somehow he'd known she'd have a copy. "I've read it three times," she said. "His plays are wonderful. How long did it take you to study all the works?"
"A couple hours," Alec said. "I had to impersonate a student at this university for a few of days. One of the Manticore scientists had a daughter in the class and they wanted me to stick close to her while some kind of controversial experiment was goin' on back at base, just to make sure the guy didn't get outta line."
Asha understood what he was saying, and he was glad she was tactful enough to not point out the sordid nature of his mission. Instead she asked, "What did you think of the plays?"
Alec hesitated. He'd memorized dozens of stanzas by rote, but he'd never given that much thought to the meaning. "I guess the guy was prolific," he said. "And he had a hell of a vocabulary."
Asha was looking at him kind of sadly. "That's not the way to experience Shakespeare," she said. Someday you ought to give it another try."
"You mean read it just for pleasure instead of because I might have to use it to worm my way into someone's life so I can kill 'em?"
She tossed the copy of "Moby Dick" at him. "Try reading this," she said. "You might surprise yourself." She held up her hand before he could say anything. "And you have to promise me you'll take at least a day to get through it. No transgenic speed reading. You'll miss the essence of the book."
"The essence of the book," Alec said, checking the inside of the jacket to see what the plot was about anyway. "This isn't one of those allegory things is it?"
Asha had gotten a first aid kit out of the bathroom. "Let me see your arm."
Alec put the book down and shrugged out of his jacket. The blade had gone under the sleeve. He also took off his sweater, but left his black t-shirt on.
"Looks like it nicked a vein, but missed the artery," Asha said of the two-inch long wound. She began to dab at it with a wet cloth. Alec winced. "Sorry," she said. She looked at him. "If you weren't a transgenic I'd say you needed stitches."
"It's just a scratch," Alec said. "Slap a bandaid on it and I'll be fine." He regarded her a moment. "Do you have someplace else to stay for awhile?" he said. "White's not the kind to give up easily. He wants you."
"I still don't understand what for," Asha said.
"You don't really want to know," Alec said. "All that's important is that he killed his first wife, and he'll eventually kill you if he gets his hands on you."
"I suppose I could go to a friends' house," she said, hesitating.
Alec thought about Max's apartment, but that would put OC in big danger if White somehow tipped to the location, not to mention blowing Max's cover. "You can stay at my place for a few days," he said, at least until Logan can get you papers so you can leave town.
He expected her to argue with him, but she didn't. "I'll pack a few things," she said, going into the bedroom.
"Hurry," Alec said, realizing how much time had passed. White was bound to be coming for her and he was feeling kind of tired from the earlier fight, or maybe it was all the Scotch. At any rate, he didn't relish another throw down with old Ames. Although it was funny, drinking didn't usually affect him very much. He was actually a little bit dizzy.
Alec shook it off, and took Asha's backpack when she came out of the bedroom. "What?" he said, hefting the lightweight bag. "No books?"
Asha looked around the room wistfully. "I hope Logan can straighten things out so I can come back home," she said. "But in the meantime, there's no use weighing myself down."
At the last second, Alec remembered "Moby Dick" and picked the book up off the end table. Asha smiled as she closed the door behind them.
"Are you all right?" Asha said.
Alec was making coffee. For some reason he felt too hot. Sweat was beading on his forehead, and his hand was shaking.
"I'm fine," he mumbled, nearly spilling the coffee grounds as he poured into the filter. He put his hand to his head. Maybe he was getting a migraine. It felt like there was a knife behind his eyes.
Asha was beside him. She reached up and touched his cheek, then drew back with a slight gasp. "You're burning up!"
"Don't you watch the news," Alec said, closing his eyes and leaning on the counter, trying to regain his equilibrium. "Basal body temperature three degrees hotter than yours. I always feel hot to your kind."
Asha felt his cheek again with the back of her hand. "I think it's more than that, Alec. Do you have a thermometer?"
"Bathroom," he mumbled. There were first aid supplies in a cupboard, actually a fairly complete kit, thanks to Brain.
Asha came out with the digital thermometer in her hand. Alec had finished making the coffee, but didn't feel like drinking any, and had thrown himself down on the couch. Actually, he felt like he should go to bed, but didn't want to sleep as long as there was a chance White might pop out of the woodwork.
"Open," she said.
Alec opened his mouth and she put the end of the thermometer under his tongue. Thirty seconds later there was a small beep and she checked the readout. Her face blanched.
"What is it?"
"Do you have a doctor?" Asha said carefully. "Someone who treats transgenics?"
Alec swallowed. "There's a doctor Logan found for us, Dr. Shankar," Alec said. "She's been takin' care of Max. Then there are people out at the base, at least I think there are. Why?"
"Alec, you've got a fever of a hundred and four."
"That explains the headache," he said. "But not the tremors." His hands were shaking worse now, and instead of hot he was feeling cold."
Asha looked at the door, probably thinking the same thing he was. What if White showed up now?
"Your bike's on the landing?" she said. He always kept the motorcycle chained in the stairwell.
"Yeah." Alec said. He started to stand up and the room spun. "But I don't think I can drive."
"I can," Asha said. "We've got to get you some help."
Alec agreed. The way he felt, he wasn't sure how much longer he was going to be conscious. And wouldn't that be a great gift for White, a knocked out transgenic just lying at his feet waiting to be slaughtered. He picked up his cell phone and dialed Shankar's number. He'd memorized it quite awhile ago, when Max was first pregnant, just in case. He got her answering machine.
"Doc," Alec said. "It's Alec. Got a problem. Harbor Lights." He glanced at his watch. "Half an hour."
He was really shivering now, which meant his temperature was still going up. Transgenics could tolerate a lot higher fevers than ordinaries, but once he reached a certain point, he knew he was going to be in trouble. He looked at Asha, talking through chattering teeth. "If I start babbling, you're gonna hafta take over."
"How will I be able to tell?" Asha said. "You always babble anyway."
Alec tried to laugh but it made his head hurt. "Just, slap me or somethin'. When X5's get too high of a body temperature we kinda go out of our heads. That's why we were never used much for desert operations. Our high metabolisms made us stroke out." He remembered something he'd once heard. "They say they lost a whole unit in Iraq a few years ago, the entire squad died 'cause no one realized we couldn't take the extreme heat like they thought we could."
Asha ran into the kitchen, rummaged around in the refrigerator, and came back with a bag of ice. "Here," she said, slapping it into his hand. "Put this on your head." She then helped him into his jacket. "How's the arm?"
"Hurts like hell," Alec muttered, easing it into the sleeve. "More than it should." He looked at her, his brow furrowed. "I don't get sick," he said. "This doesn't make sense."
"Maybe you're not sick," Asha said, nodding at his arm. "Maybe you're poisoned."
And then suddenly Alec remembered. "Ray," he muttered.
"What?" Asha was unlocking the chain on the motorcycle.
"White's son, Ray. He was sick like this."
Alec looked down at his wounded arm and suddenly felt even colder. "The snake blood," he said.
"What?" Asha didn't understand. But then she wouldn't.
"It's got somethin' in it. The snake blood. But Max didn't get sick. Why would I?"
"Babbling," Asha said under her breath. She took hold of the handlebars and steered the bike down to the street. "Get on," she said.
Alec's knees were shaking and all he wanted to do was lie down, but Asha had hold of his jacket, easing him onto the back of the bike. "Hold onto me," she said, pulling his arms around her waist. Alec locked his hands in front of her, laid his head down on her back, and closed his eyes. By the time they reached Harbor Lights, she couldn't wake him.
Dr. Shankar met them at the entrance to the ER. "Where's Max?" she said. "I thought you were bringing her in."
Asha pointed to Alec, slumped over the bike. "He's got a fever like you wouldn't believe."
Shankar got a gurney and an orderly to help. With a minimum of fuss, she then wheeled Alec into a private room toward the back of the ER. "I don't want anyone to know I've got a transgenic in here," she told Asha. "There are people around here who'd give a lot to get their hands on someone like Alec. They're real curious about just what they are." She looked at Asha again, one eyebrow slightly raised. "I'm sorry, and you are?"
"My name's Asha." She nodded at Alec. The orderly had gotten him into a bed and was working on getting his clothes off. Shankar was turning on a bank of monitors. "I'm a friend of Alec's."
"And where's Max?"
"I think he said she was in South America. Alec and I met up at Crash tonight. That's a bar over in Sector--"
"I see," Shankar said, interrupting her, the disapproval plain in her tone.
Asha realized what the doctor was thinking. "It's not like that--"
"What happened to him?" Shankar asked, her tone icy. "Was he drinking? Did he get like this suddenly? Or has he been feeling sick for awhile?"
"He wasn't drinking any more than usual," Asha said. "But there was a fight. Alec got cut with a knife. He started running this fever not long afterwards. He said his head hurt really bad too, and he's shaking."
Shankar leaned over and examined the makeshift bandage on Alec's arm, then she raised an eyelid to check pupil reaction. Transgenic's eyes were not like normal humans, although the genetic improvements were disguised well. A complete opthamological workup, however, would have shown frightening anatomical differences. She made a note to herself to not let a neurologist near Alec. Once one knew what to look for, the fractionally elongated pupil that let transgenics see so well in the dark and created the zoom-in focus ability was obvious. "And he got sick after he got cut?"
Asha nodded. "Alec said the same thing had happened to a boy named 'Ray,' if that means anything to you."
Dr. Shankar suddenly straightened, the look in her eyes deepening from concern to worry. "I need a complete blood work up," she snapped at the orderly. Send in a nurse."
She turned to Asha. "Look, I really don't know who you are but you seem to have at least some understanding about what's happening here, and obviously Alec trusts you. You know he's a transgenic, and you know he's from Manticore. Do you know anything about a man called 'Ames White'?"
"He's the man who Alec fought with," Asha said. "Alec said he was in some kind of cult. Something about snake blood."
"We need to get Max back here," Shankar said. "Alec shouldn't be running a fever like this, not with his Manticore immunity." The monitor patch she'd adhered to the carotid artery in Alec's neck read 107, with a pulse of 88, twice the normal pace of a transgenic's heart. "He might get sick, run a bit of a fever, but not this high and this fast."
A nurse came in and drew a blood sample. "The results are to be brought to me immediately," Shankar said. She put a hand on the nurse's arm. "And no one else is to see the report, understood? We're dealing with a confidential case here." The nurse nodded.
Shankar then leaned over Alec and began a more thorough examination, checking glands, color, looking for any sign of a rash. "Ninety-three people have died in the northwest United States over the past three months of a mysterious new illness," she said to Asha. She rested her hand on Alec's forehead and quickly drew it back, feeling as if she'd been burned. A human would be in convulsions by now. How long before Alec's nervous system overloaded or his organs began shutting down?
"Do you have any idea how to reach Max?" Shankar asked. "She may be Alec's only chance for survival now."
Asha shook her head no. "Maybe Logan could find her."
Shankar immediately picked up the phone.
The exoskeleton whirred as Logan Cale shifted positions in the doorway to the hospital room. His ability to walk had totally regressed now, the paralysis returning, the effects of Joshua's transfusion lasting only two months. He needed more Manticore blood. But he knew that wasn't likely to happen anytime soon -- not with Alec holding so much sway over the transhumans and transgenics. Of course that was only because Alec had forcefully taken Max away from him, tricking her in a moment of vulnerability and impregnating her against her will. Alec was nothing without Max.
Max should have been my wife," Logan thought. If only Alec hadn't gotten in the way. If only he, himself, hadn't interfered during that fight and had let that Familiar bitch do her job at Jam Pony after all. Then Alec wouldn't be a problem now.
But 494 wasn't looking very good at the moment, lying covered with sweat and pale on the hospital bed, packed in ice to try and keep his temperature from rising to a fatal level. The sight made Logan smile. Maybe Max would be returning to him soon after all.
"Logan?" Dr. Shankar said. "Did you hear me? We need to get Max back here right away." She was looking at a chart and shaking her head. "This is extremely odd. Something's wrong with Alec's immune system. His white cell count is way down. He's not able to fight this pathogen, or much of anything else, and it's killing him."
"What's that?" Asha said from the doorway. She was holding two cups of coffee. Handing one to Logan, she took a seat in the room's only comfortable chair.
Shankar looked at them both. "His antibody count is too low."
"How's that possible?" Logan said.
"I don't know. Unless ..." Shankar thought a moment, then turned to Logan. "Alec was pretty badly wounded in the Jam Pony confrontation, wasn't he?"
"Took a bullet in the shoulder, lost a lot of blood," Logan said carefully.
"Then I worked on him about a month ago -- removed a really nasty crossbow arrowhead from his rib cage. He nearly bled to death on the operating table."
"What are you getting at?" Logan asked.
"I think Max said Alec also broke his wrist. And now this knife wound." Shankar reached out and brushed long strands of hair away from Alec's closed eyes, her expression sympathetic. "What I'm saying is that there are limits to even a transgenic's recuperating abilities. Alec's been through hell and back the past few weeks. He's lost volumes of blood and his body has been constantly trying to heal itself. No wonder his immune system is weak. This latest wound might have been the last straw, especially if there's contamination involved."
"The snake blood must have been on White's knife," Logan said. He looked at Alec lying on the bed. His temperature had now reached 108 and his pulse was at 100. "Guess White just got lucky that Alec was susceptible right now."
"Lucky?" Shankar found the choice of word odd.
"Lucky for White, unlucky for Alec," Logan quickly said. He nodded at the monitor. "How much more of this can he take?"
"With a transgenic, one never knows," Shankar said. "But I wouldn't give him more than a day, especially if the fever doesn't come down." She looked at Logan. "Can you reach Max?"
"Maybe through Lydecker," Logan said. "I've already sent him a message." He indicated the laptop in the case beside him. "I'll get online from here and see if he's contacted me yet."
Asha had moved to stand beside Alec. She picked up a bag of ice and gently moved it over his forehead. "Hurry," she said softly to Logan. She turned to look at him. "He's dying."
The sun had only been up a couple of hours when Max's flight arrived. She went straight from the airport to Alec's apartment, her assignment completed two days early. She was smiling, thinking how glad he'd be to see her home safe and sound. They'd had a pretty bad fight the night before she left. He'd been adamant about her not going even though it was Lydecker's orders, or at the very least not going without him.
"I can look after myself, Alec. Been doin' it for the past eleven years in fact."
"Max, you're pregnant. You're throwin' up every morning and every night. You get dizzy. You have no business scalin' some high rise apartment in Rio."
"Alec, I want to do this. I need to prove to myself I can do the stuff Lydecker wants. I can't let this pregnancy be a handicap. That's all the excuse he'd need to lock me away somewhere. Besides, he said he'd have men ready to back me up if I need them."
Alec had thrown his hands up in the air. "Max, we've had this argument so often I think it goes on even when we're not here. You have no business pullin' a job alone, and Lydecker knows it."
"He said his budget wouldn't allow us both to go."
"Screw Lydecker's budget, and screw him too! I'll buy my own ticket!"
"And if they find out you disobeyed orders -- again -- what do you think he'll do to you?" He'll take you away from me!"
She'd started to sob then, much to her chagrin. Hormones probably. And of course Alec had caved in. He was a sucker for a crying woman, especially one he loved.
Max smiled again. She was going to make everything up to Alec tonight. But then came a wave of nausea. Well, maybe not tonight.
She opened the door to Alec's apartment with her key and her heart fell. He wasn't home. Although, she should have known. His bike hadn't been parked on the landing. However, at least there was a bathroom handy.
Five minutes later, when she'd finished throwing up what little she'd had for breakfast, Max wandered out to the kitchen for a drink of water. Alec would probably be back any minute. Then her eyes fell on a backpack lying on the floor by the bedroom. Curious, she opened it, reached in, and pulled out a lacy pair of women's underpants. Then she saw the name on the travel tag attached to the pack -- Asha.
Max was sitting on the couch trying not to cry when a quiet voice said from the doorway, "Max, there's something I've got to tell you."
She looked up, startled. "Logan? What are you doing here?" Mentally she berated herself for not locking the door.
"It's about Alec."
"What about Alec? Do you know why Asha's stuff is here? Has something happened?"
"Max ..." He came into the apartment, sat down beside her, and took hold of her hand. Automatically, Max started to pull away, then remembered that the virus was cured. No need. She didn't have an excuse not to let him. Odd, but she didn't know when she'd started to think of Logan that way -- as someone she didn't want to touch her.
"Max," he started again. "It's Alec ... I don't know how to tell you this."
"Tell me what."
"Alec got in a fight with White."
Max's breath caught in her throat.
"Max ... Alec didn't make it. White killed him. I'm sorry."
Max blinked once, then her heart started to pound. "When?" she managed to say. "Where?"
"At Crash last night," Logan said. "Alec was with Asha and White came in. They fought and Alec and Asha got away. Alec seemed to be all right afterwards, but then later he started to run a fever. Dr. Shankar did all she could, but he went into convulsions and died. They think it was the snake blood pathogen. White had cut Alec's arm with a knife. Apparently he didn't have enough immunity."
"No," Max said, shaking her head in denial. "It's not true."
"Max," Logan said, patting her hand. "I'm sorry. But you've got to accept what's happened. You knew Alec was at risk -- both of you were. But now you'll be safe because you're going to come with me. Lydecker will see that we're well guarded. And Max, I promise that when the baby's born I'll treat it like my own."
"Stop it!" Max screamed. "Stop trying to own me! I already belong to Alec!"
"I don't want to own you, Max," Logan pleaded. "I just want to help you ... make you happy again. Alec's been bad for you, although I know you don't see that now. Someday you will."
Max was on her feet, anger competing with overwhelming sorrow.
"Max," Logan said. "I don't think you understand. Alec was with Asha. They were together. He's been cheating on you."
Max looked down at the underwear in her hand and suddenly felt sick on her stomach again.
Logan had his arm around her and Max didn't have the strength to push him away. Alec had been unfaithful. Alec was dead. Those phrases kept chasing themselves around in her head. Alec didn't love me after all.
"Max, like I said, the baby will be ours."
"And when he's born with hazel-green eyes," Max asked, her voice husky from crying. Logan handed her another tissue. She looked up at him. "It is a boy. Dr. Shankar did amniocentesis before I left. I was going to tell ... I was going to tell Alec when I got back."
"He'll be our son," Logan assured her. "No matter what color his eyes are."
"And when he plays the piano like Mozart or beats you at pool?" she asked. "Or knocks the crap out of every kid on the playground because he's three times stronger than they are? Or when his feline temper gets out of control because he wasn't raised with rigid enough rules?"
She regarded Logan, her brown eyes wide and filled with pain. "Logan, this baby won't be human. The amnio confirmed it. He's a full blooded X5 -- a second generation child. He'll be just like Alec and me."
"We'll manage somehow," Logan said. "And we can still have normal children of our own as well."
A telephone rang. Max looked around and saw Alec's cell phone lying on the end table, which was odd because he never went anywhere without it. She picked it up.
"This is Dr. Shankar's answering service confirming your previous phone call. We received your message and wanted to be certain you got to the hospital."
"What hospital?" Max asked. "When was the call made?"
"12:05 last night," the voice said. "We had hoped you would go to Harbor Lights Hospital, like you said, where Dr. Shankar was waiting."
"Thank you," Max said and hung up. She looked at Logan. "Alec went to Harbor Lights hospital. He called Dr. Shankar first."
"Dr. Shankar was with him when he died," Logan said quickly. "She did all she could."
"Did Asha go too?"
Max stood up. "I want to talk to Asha and Dr. Shankar. And I want to see Alec."
"Max," Logan said, grabbing her hand. "I don't think that's a good idea. You need to rest. Think of the baby. We can talk to Asha and Dr. Shankar tomorrow."
Max was shaking her head. "No. Lydecker will come for Alec's body. I don't want him to get him. Even if Alec was cheating on me. Even if he didn't really love me, he deserves better than to be dissected in some New Manticore lab."
Logan insisted on driving her to the hospital. Max wondered why he seemed so reluctant to take her there. Certainly he understood that she had to see this through -- say goodbye to Alec in her own way. But she was also surprised at herself, that she wasn't more upset. Earlier, when Logan had told her Alec was dead, it felt as if a knife had gone through her heart, but now it was as if it wasn't true. Alec just didn't feel dead to her. With all of her Manticore senses and hidden abilities wouldn't she know if her man was gone? Wouldn't she feel his loss, the absence of his spirit from this plane of existence? But then Max shook her head and scolded herself for thinking such nonsense.
As they approached the hospital admittance desk Logan began hanging back, and when Max turned to ask him which way to go he wasn't in sight. But then she saw Dr. Shankar in the hallway up ahead.
"Thank God you're here!" Dr. Shankar said, rushing forward and taking Max by the hand. Another half hour and I'm afraid even you couldn't help him."
"What are you talking about?" Max asked.
"Didn't Logan tell you? Alec was infected with the snake blood pathogen. His body isn't fighting the infection well enough. If we don't get some of your antibodies into his blood stream he's going to die."
"Alec's alive?" The words came out as a whisper.
"Barely," Shankar snapped. "Now come with me."
A few minutes later Max was sitting beside Alec in the hospital room, a tube connecting their bodies as her blood ran into his arm.
"Don't worry," Shankar said. "A unit should be plenty and that won't hurt the baby. If you were a regular human, I'd have some concerns, but since the child you're carrying is an X5, with all the resiliency that implies, I think the danger is minimal."
Max hardly heard her. Her hand was on Alec's, her eyes on his still face and the respirator tubing inserted down his throat. The heat of his skin was frightening as was his extremely rapid pulse. X5 hearts beat only 40 times a minute when at rest. According to the monitors, his was racing at nearly 100, and his temperature still hovering at 109.
Asha had said nothing except for a small greeting when Max had first come in. Now, she was curled up in the single arm chair in the far corner of the room, her eyes closed, probably asleep. Her face was almost as pale as Alec's.
"Why didn't Alec have enough antibodies?"
"We believe his immune system is temporarily compromised due to all the injuries he's had over the past couple of months." Dr. Shankar said. She looked sympathetically at Max. "I'm sorry about the respirator, but he was having trouble breathing." Her eyes went to her patient. "His kidneys are beginning to shut down as well."
"Couldn't you have just transfused from another mutant like Joshua?"
Shankar smiled at the naivete of the question. "I'm afraid canine and feline blood mixing wouldn't have been a very healthy combination for Alec. He would have needed a transfusion from another X5, like himself, and from what I understand your kind are rapidly becoming an endangered species. Besides, I seriously doubt the antibodies in an ordinary X5's blood stream would have been enough. It would be like trying to fight a smallpox infection by transfusing blood from someone who'd been vaccinated. Too little, too late. Your blood, however, carries a much stronger dose of antibodies, and the form is a bit different as well. The CDC is still studying it, hoping to create a vaccine for ordinary humans if not a cure. But it's tricky stuff. So far no luck."
"How long until we know?" Max asked softly, still watching Alec's face and wishing so much that those green eyes would open.
"A few hours," Shankar said. "He should stabilize before that, if it works."
"Doctor," a new voice said. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to stop the transfusion."
Max's head jerked around and her heart sank. Lydecker. Of course he'd show up.
"You can't endanger the child, Max," Lydecker said.
"As if climbing a skyscraper in Rio doesn't endanger the kid anyway?" Max said. "You people have a funny definition of fetal danger." She looked back at Alec. "Dr. Shankar says it probably won't hurt anything." Lydecker simply stared at her coldly. "It's Alec's only chance," she felt compelled to add.
"Alec's expendable," Lydecker said. "The child isn't."
"I won't choose between them. We've been here before."
Dr. Shankar reached out and squeezed shut the tubing, then began removing the needle from Max's arm. "That's enough anyway," she said. "We're done here. If he's going to get better, he should begin showing improvement within the hour."
"If he dies I'll be back for the body," Lydecker said. He turned in the doorway. "And I expect a full report regarding your South American mission in the morning, 452."
"You're pretty, you know that," Max said, lightly stroking Alec's hair with her hand as she lay on the hospital bed beside him. She smiled. She doubted Alec could hear her, but one never knew. "That's the first thing OC said when she saw you, how Manticore sure makes 'em pretty. And she's right." She sighed. "Too bad it took me over a year to notice what was right under my nose all the time -- the love of my life. I can't believe the time we wasted, fighting, snapping at each other, me avoiding you and telling you to go away. Now, I just wish so much you'd come back to me."
"You two wouldn't have worked out back then," Asha said, coming into the room holding cups of coffee again. She took her usual seat in the chair.
"Why not?" Max was truly curious about Asha's take on this situation, now that she understood what had really happened at Crash and how Asha's bag had ended up at Alec's.
"I don't know all the details, but I always got the feeling that Alec somehow felt he didn't deserve to be with you -- that he had to make amends for the bad things he'd done in the past, both to you and to others. That he had to prove himself before being worthy of your love." She sighed. "Sort of like one of those fairy tales, isn't it? Or maybe a King Arthur legend. The handsome knight, weighed down by darkness, trying to reach the light for his princess' sake."
"Spoken like a true poet," Max said wryly. "I guess Alec being sent by Manticore to make sure Logan died, and then trying to kill Joshua and me was an awful lot of darkness. Not to mention all the other stupid stuff he pulled."
Asha smiled. "Are you telling me that Alec doesn't do stupid things anymore?"
"Not at all," Max said. "I'm still always bailin' his sorry ass out of trouble. It's just that now I have a very personal interest in that admittedly fine ass of his."
"You realize," Asha said, "he's spent every minute of every day since you met trying to make things up to you. But you never noticed. Sometimes it seemed really cruel." She sighed. "Alec's a great guy, Max. You're lucky. Logan's great too, but you and he just never seemed to fit quite right together the way you and Alec do."
"I suppose the whole different species thing might have something to do with that," Max admitted. She looked at the time. Over an hour had passed. Glancing at the monitors she noticed Alec's temperature was now 107. The transfusion was working.
"Hey ladies," Alec said groggily.
"He's back," Dr. Shankar said, lightly patting Alec on the cheek. "Come on tiger, open your eyes."
Alec complied, his lids fluttering, his eyes trying to focus. "What happened?" he managed, not understanding much of anything except that he was in bed surrounded by three beautiful women.
Dr. Shankar looked at Max. "His temperature's come down seven degrees since we took him off the respirator. Blood work shows kidney function nearly normal." She smiled. "I'd say we've beaten it."
Max leaned down and kissed him lightly on the lips. "I go away for a couple of days and of course you get into trouble. Just wait until I get you home."
"Promises, promises," Alec said, his head beginning to clear. He looked over at Asha, acknowledged her with a little smile. "You brought me here," he said. "Thanks." Then to Shankar, "It was the snake blood, wasn't it? On the knife? White's gift that just keeps on givin'."
"Yes, and you're incredibly lucky Max came back two days early. You wouldn't be alive without her antibodies."
"Two days early?" Asha said. "I thought Logan contacted Max through Lydecker and got her back."
"Lydecker was trying to reach me?" Max said. "Logan never told me that. But, come to think of it, I wondered how he knew to come to Alec's apartment. No one knew I was coming back early. And then there's the whole part about him telling me Alec was dead. I thought he'd gotten wrong information."
"I'm not dead," Alec said.
"We know this," Max said. "Now shut up a minute and let me think it through."
Alec sighed and accepted a drink of water from Asha. Just like old times. He'd just barely come out of a coma and already Max was tellin' him to shut up. He felt better already.
"You shouldn't have pulled that stunt with Alec," Lydecker said.
Logan spun his wheelchair around, nearly spilling the glass of Scotch he was holding in his hand. He was still living in Joshua's house, running "Eyes Only," utilizing as much high tech computer gear as he could get his hands on.
"I thought he was going to die," Logan said. "I just didn't want Max to have to see it happen. I figured I'd spare her the pain." He looked up at the older man. "He's alive, isn't he? Alec made it?"
"Thanks to Max and her magic antibodies."
Logan's fingers closed in tight fists of frustration."Why don't you do us both a a favor, Lydecker, and kill that fucking son of a bitch once and for all?" He took a big swallow of alcohol. "I mean, White's had three or four shots at him already and can't get the job done. Surely the home team can do better." He giggled. "Unless, of course, X5-494 really does have the nine lives of his DNA donor."
"Why not just kill 494?," Lydecker said. "Because as big a pain in the butt as that kid is, he does still have value to me. And Alec is a good protector for Max right now. Not to mention the fact that Max would most likely feel the need to avenge his death and that would get incredibly messy."
"I told you that I'd protect Max."
Lydecker almost laughed. "You? Protect Max from White? I don't think so."
"You promised me you'd help me get her back if I helped you set up your New Manticore. You promised me you'd provide guards for us."
"I promised you I'd give you another shot at her. I can't help it if Max's taste in males is running to her own species now. It's like what they used to say around the compound after Renfro started her little breeding program."
"What's that?" Logan asked dryly.
"Once you have transgenic, you can never go back."
Logan clenched his jaw.
"Forget her, Cale. You'll never have her now. There's nothing you could offer her that would make her leave that boy, and if you keep attempting to separate them you're going to put your own life in danger. Believe me, I know what I'm talking about. I've tried."
"You mean I should worry about Alec coming after me?"
"You have a one-time friend who's now your enemy."
"What I have is an idiotic sociopath who's stolen my girl."
Lydecker leaned in closer to Logan. "What you have," he said softly, "is an incredibly pissed off X5. Not something I'd take lightly."
Logan raised an eyebrow. "You really think Alec would kill me?"
"At this point, I'd say only Max's old loyalty to you is keeping him from tearing your throat out."
"You could still get him out of the way for me -- at the very least take him back into Manticore."
Lydecker sighed heavily. "494 would probably die in re-indoctrination. There are few enough X5's left anyway. Why waste an alpha breeding male who's already proven his ability to pass on X5 DNA to his offspring."
"You've changed your tune, Lydecker. Not so long ago you were ready to have Alec executed in order to get him away from Max."
Lydecker shrugged. "What can I say? Circumstances change. Max played her trump card and I had to fold my hand for now."
"So, you're saying that if Alec comes after me, I'm on my own? What am I supposed to do?"
"There's only one thing you can do Cale."
"Buy a very big gun, and hope to God you see him first."
"So," Max said, snuggling down beside Alec's warm naked body. "You weren't really with Asha. You just happened to be with her. And what's this deal about White wanting her for his wife? Eww. Nasty."
"Hey, I'm a chivalrous guy," Alec said, kissing her lightly on the neck. "I couldn't very well let White have her. And besides, now I have this fine copy of 'Moby Dick' to read in bed at night." On the nightstand was the novel Asha had given him, a bookmark inserted halfway through its pages.
"That tickles," Max said giggling as his lips caressed her neck some more. "I hope you're not planning on reading in bed tonight. Even if the title of the book is 'Moby Dick'."
"And here I thought you were fond of that name."
"Sometimes I still think I should have called you that." But then she studied him a moment, letting her hands run down his muscular back, caressing his skin, savoring the scent of him. "Nah," she said softly. "You had to be Alec."
"At your service, and I do mean at your service. And Max, if you think that tickles, you ain't seen nothin' yet." He lowered his mouth to her breasts.
His deep sexy voice was making her shiver, not to mention what he was doing with his tongue. She hated to ruin the mood but-- "Alec," Max said. "Please don't say anything to Logan."
Alec paused in the kisses he was bestowing on her nipples. "Logan and I need to have a little talk," he said quietly without looking up.
"He can't really do anything to us."
"Except scare you half to death," Alec said, abandoning foreplay for the moment. Rolling over on his side, he propped himself up on one elbow. "Max, he told you I was dead when he knew damn well I wasn't. And Lydecker had already let him know you were flyin' in early. He deliberately tried to keep you from the hospital. If you hadn't come home when you did ... If you hadn't come to the hospital anyway ..." Alec didn't need to finish the sentences. Instead, he reached up and gently cupped her face in his hand, forcing her to look deeply into his clear hazel-green eyes. "Max," he said huskily. "Logan just tried to kill me. What he did was no different than White's poison on that knife. He's a danger to us. And he has to be stopped."
"It's a boy," Max said.
"I said we're having a baby boy."
"In which case I forgive you for changin' the subject so abruptly."
"And Dr. Shankar says it's got our X5 DNA. Can't we talk about Logan later?"
"I love you, Max," he whispered. And then he began kissing her again.