DISCLAIMER: All "Dark Angel" characters belong to James Cameron and Charles Eglee (Cameron Eglee Productions) and "Dark Angel" itself belongs to FOX.

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It's All in the Genetics
By Valjean

The fifth continuation story in "The Best Laid Plans" universe. (rated PG13) -- author's note

*************************************
"Max, I told you I needed to get a haircut. My hair's in my eyes and I can't see." Alec wrapped the rope around his right ankle and let go with one hand to brush strands of brown hair off his forehead, a tricky move since he was hanging upside down 50 feet above a vault entryway with a laser beam security system. "But no. You won't let me. Even after you got your hair cut last week." At least he wasn't juggling a transceiver as well, Alec thought. He could talk to Max via the Manticore chip stuck to the mastoid bone behind his right ear.

"My hair still covers my bar code," Max said from above where she was managing the pulley they'd anchored in the vault ceiling's ventilation shaft. "And unless you want to do the painful laser thing on your neck every two weeks for the rest of your life you'll learn to like yours the way it is."

Alec blew a stray strand off his face. The fact he was covered with sweat wasn't helping matters any. The thin rope was also cutting into his hands right through his leather gloves, and his right arm was starting to cramp. "Just ... get me closer," he said. "I'm still too far to drop."

"Can you see the angle of the heat sensors? Are you within their range?"

Alec craned his neck, trying to judge if he was too close to the infrared detection field. "I think I'm okay for another few feet."

"You think you're okay?" Max said, estimating the distance herself. "We better not take any chances. I say you're low enough."

"Not if I wanna be able to walk out of here," Alec shot back. "A broken neck might make that kinda hard."

"You're part cat and your bones are half again more dense than a human's," Max said. "Just land on your feet. You'll be fine."

"Max," Alec warned. "Get me lower. I'm not ready."

"The alarms are going to shift modes in just a few seconds, Alec," she said, lowering him a little bit more. "That happens just once a night. It's our only chance to get in. And if I drop you any further those heat sensors on the wall are going to pick you up."

"Just a few feet more, please Max," Alec pleaded, looking down at the floor far below.

She worked the pulley, letting out more length of rope. "There," she said. "That's as far as you're going. We're not mucking up this job because you're chicken."

"I'm not chicken," Alec said. "I'm realistic."

"Alec," Max said, her tone of voice a bit worried now. "Are you really too high?"

Alec swallowed, difficult to do upside down, and tried to judge the distance again. "How much time?" he asked.

"Fifteen seconds."

He looked over at the wall where a heat sensor was mounted. His high body temperature would work against him here. He wished now he'd worn a cold suit of some kind. But he'd thought Max would be able to lower him to within at least 30 feet. "It's about 40, isn't it?" he said.

"About that, yeah. You've only got a three second window once you go. Alec, it's almost time."

"Count it down for me."

"Seven," Max said. "Six ... five ... four ... three ... two ... one ..."

Suddenly all of the lights in the vault flickered and the red crisscrossing laser beams below blinked off, as well as the lights on the surrounding heat sensors.

"Go!" Max said.

Alec untangled his foot from the rope, hit the release catch, and the climbing belt opened. Flipping over in mid-air, he dropped for what seemed like forever before landing hard on his feet with a grunt of pain. Instantly, he threw himself to the floor, sprawling on his back, arms and legs spread eagle. Half a second later the laser beams came back on, crisscrossing an inch from his nose.

He held his breath, counted to five, and when no alarms went off-- "I'm in," he said, breathing hard.

Max was already winding the rope back up into the ventilation shaft. "I'll see you tomorrow," her voice said in his ear. "Sweet dreams."

"Not likely," Alec responded, knowing he was going to have a very long and uncomfortable night ahead of him.

*****


He lay on his back in the vault entryway for seven hours, until right on time, at 8 a.m. sharp, the overhead lights flickered on and the laser system winked out, the system automatically readying itself for the day's business at Mercer Genetics Lab.

Alec stiffly crawled to his feet, his back cramped from lying in the same position all that time. Flexing his muscles and trying to get the circulation back in his tingling right arm, he unzipped his black jumpsuit and stepped out of the garment. Underneath he was wearing an expensive gray business suit and tie. Folding up the jumpsuit and tucking it into an inside pocket of his coat, he then took a pair of clear lens glasses from another pocket and put them on. Smoothing his hair with both hands and settling the coat on his shoulders, Alec figured he looked respectable enough.

There were several rooms branching off the vault's atrium. Alec entered one, and quickly moved to the computer console. Using the pass codes Lydecker had provided, he entered the security system, pulled up the personnel lists, and fetched dummied Mercer I.D. records for himself and Max from the Manticore server. Once placed into the data base, they should allow both of them to move freely throughout the building without being tagged by the facial recognition security system. "Alec Cora and Maxine Montero," Alec said out loud. "Mercer Genetics' two newest employees." His fake I.D. badge was already clipped to the front of his suit coat.

"I still don't think it's fair you get to be a research assistant and I have to play secretary," Max's voice said in his ear.

"Mornin' sweetheart," Alec murmured, concentrating as his fingers swiftly moved across the keyboard, checking out the other security measures in place in the building.

"And you don't have to wear high heels either."

Alec grinned. "Almost done," he said. "Then it's on to Dr. Mary Jameson's office so she can meet her new assistant."

"While I get to play secretary to Mr. Mercer himself," Max said.

"Between us, we ought to be able to get that info Lydecker wants," Alec said, getting ready to close the program. But when he went to exit, the curser hung. "Damn," he said. The only way out now was to reset the computer, which might draw attention to the intrusion. But he couldn't just walk away leaving the security system layout on the screen.

"What's wrong?" Max said.

Alec tried a couple of exit keys, but the screen was still frozen. "Max," he said. "We may not be the only ones playin' on Mercer's playground this morning. This system's jammed and I didn't do it."

"Get out of there, Alec," Max said. "I'm out in the hall and people are headed your way."

Alec did the only thing he could. Reaching down, he pressed the restart button, then quickly exited the room, crossed the vault atrium, and worked his way into the morning rush of Mercer employees as they headed for their offices. Max caught up with him just outside the men's room.

"All set?" she said.

"Our faces are logged in," Alec said. "Along with out I.D. cards. If no one gets picky, we shouldn't be spotted. I'd like to know who else was in the system though."

Max was looking at him strangely.

"What?"

"I've never seen you in a suit and tie before."

Alec self consciously adjusted the necktie.

"You look .. decent. Like the glasses too. Did Manticore put you through some kind of men's fashion class?"

"Actually, they did," Alec said. "I told you I was trained for solo missions. I couldn't very well go undercover at big corporations wearing military fatigues. And don't forget the glasses are a camera." He let his eyes roam over Max, taking in the simple black mini skirt, sheer black blouse, and red form fitting jacket, not to mention the high heels. Her curly shoulder length hair was swept back in a fashionable pony tail, and a pair of dark rimmed glasses perched on her nose. "You don't look so bad yourself."

"As if I could afford clothes like this on my own," Max said, fingering her silk blouse. Remind me to make you take me out to dinner some place fancy one of these nights, now that we've got the wardrobe for it."

"I'm goin' in here," Alec said, nodding toward the men's room. "Seven hours is a bit much for even a transgenic, if you know what I mean." He looked up and down the hall. "See if you can get the vault codes from Mercer. We may need them if I can't get what we need from Jameson's files. And we've got to be gone by tomorrow or the real new employees are gonna show up and our cover's blown."

Max nodded. Then she turned and headed down the hallway, looking every inch the smart professional secretary. Alec watched her until he couldn't see her any more -- and for a few seconds indulged in the fantasy.

*****


"Dr. Mary Jameson?" Alec said, standing politely in the doorway of the lab.

The middle-aged woman with slightly graying brown hair looked up from a microscope and frowned. "Who are you? What do you want? Can't you see I'm busy."

"I'm Alec Cora," Alec said. "The main office told me to come here. They said you needed a new assistant."

"I wasn't expecting you until Wednesday," the doctor said.

"Guess you got lucky then. They sent me over a day early."

She was eying his security badge. "Where did you attend graduate school?" she asked.

"Cal Tech. Class of '09. I specialized in recombinant DNA genetics and did my thesis on Mercer's cloning techniques."

"You look awfully young. First job out of school?"

Alec smiled. "Hey, you have to start somewhere."

She turned and gestured toward a large stack of files. "You might as well get to work," she said. "They all need to be sorted and updated. Ask me if you have any questions. The lab coats are in the back office."

Alec spent the next few hours checking out the files as he sorted them, reading at five times human speed, and found no mention of the projects Lydecker was interested in. Of course he knew he might be missing something. Learning the equivalent of a two-year graduate course in genetic engineering in one afternoon wasn't exactly the best way to become acquainted with a subject. Still, he figured he knew enough to spot what Manticore needed and it wasn't here.

"I'm really fascinated by your work with the human DNA manipulation techniques," he said, breaking the silence. He turned around to look at the doctor where she was still studying slides. "I'd love to see your more detailed research on the subject."

"That's classified," she said coldly. "And it's also no longer an ongoing project."

"I thought Mercer was forging ahead with the human cloning possibilities," Alec said. "And the DNA chromosome splicing."

Jameson looked up, her blue eyes tired. Brushing a strand of hair back behind one ear, she said, "Some of the scientists at Mercer want to continue research in that direction. But I shut down my program years ago."

"Why?" Alec asked. "Your techniques were the most successful. Mercer made millions on its medical contracts, and a dozen DNA based diseases are right now on the verge of being cured. Why stop?"

"Let's just say I have a personal reason," Jameson said, her voice icy again. "If you want to play with the hot projects, then I suggest you put in for a transfer. All you'll get in my lab are ways of producing less perishable tomatoes."

"But what happened to all your research?" Alec asked. "Who has it now?"

"No one," Jameson said. "Like I said, that avenue is closed. The records are mine, and mine alone."

And right then and there, Alec knew he wasn't going to find what he was looking for in Mary Jameson's office.

*****

"At least she doesn't have a dog," Alec said as he and Max crouched in the bushes outside the good doctor's house.

"I know," Max said. "There's something about us that drives dogs crazy. It's like they can sense us a mile away."

"Gee, I wonder what that might be," Alec said. "Oh wait, feline DNA. You know, sometimes I wonder why Joshua likes us so much."

"He didn't at first," Max said, pulling some tools from her bag. "It took him awhile, you know. We smell funny to him." She motioned toward the alarm circuit on the wall of the house. "Not a very sophisticated system. I'd say Dr. Jameson is paying for her own security. Which means Mercer doesn't care what she's got in her house." She looked at Alec. "Are you sure we'll find her records here?"

"No," Alec said. "But I do know we won't find them at the lab. So this is the logical next place to look."

Max snipped a few wires, then quickly clamped on a device that would mimic a phone signal so the alarm company wouldn't be alerted. "There," she said. "All done."

Using a lock pick on the rear French doors, Alec got them into the house. The office was easy to find, located just off the living room. Entering quietly, he closed the door behind them, turned, and looked around. He had no trouble seeing. The moonlight coming through the sheer curtains was more than enough for his sensitive vision, making everything seem almost as bright as day.

"Bookcase," Max whispered.

The safe was behind a fake front on the book case. Alec stood back while Max put her ear to the steel door and ran through the tumblers of the combination lock.

While he waited, he looked around the room. Dr. Jameson seemed to like gardening and flowers. There were painted pictures of blooms on all the walls, and an array of gardening books piled on a table beside an arm chair. But the framed photograph on the desk was what really caught his eye. Picking it up, he noted a much younger looking Dr. Jameson, and a man who must have been her husband. They were each holding a baby.

"Max ..." Alec said.

"Almost there."

"Didn't the file on Jameson say her husband died in a car accident about twenty years ago?"

"Yeah."

"It also said they didn't have any kids."

"That's right."

He held up the picture. "Then what's this?"

Max looked over her shoulder and shrugged. "Nieces or nephews maybe? Cousins?"

"Must be," Alec said, putting the photograph down.

Suddenly there was a sound at the office door. Max looked back at Alec, her eyes asking what to do.

He signaled with his hand for her to be silent, then he slipped like a shadow to stand against the wall.

"Is somebody there?" Dr. Jameson called as she turned the knob. Max ducked behind the desk.

The door opened, and the doctor reached for the light switch. Alec's hand on her wrist stopped her.

"Who are you?" Jameson said loudly, not acting very frightened. "I don't have anything worth stealing, and I don't have much money in the house, but I'll give you whatever you want."

Alec, to his surprise, found himself shaking. He knew what standard Manticore procedure was for a situation like this ... what he'd been trained to do. Jameson was probably expendable, her data already recorded. He should break her neck then get on with the job. But that was what X5-494 would have done. Not Alec.

Instead, he turned on the light himself.

His eyes adjusted to the change faster than the doctor's. She blinked in the painful glare.

"What are you doing?" Max said, popping up from behind the desk, her tone of voice expressing how much of an idiot she thought he was.

"Blowing the mission, it seems," Alec said.

Jameson was staring at him, a wry smile slowly taking shape on her lips. "I couldn't sleep and came downstairs for a cup of tea," she said. "I always leave my office door open. It was closed. Mr. Cora, I see you truly are interested in my personal work."

"Max," Alec said, not taking his eyes off the doctor. "Finish."

"I will," she said. "Just as soon as I--" Suddenly Max grabbed a wastebasket from near the desk and vomited into it.

Alec rolled his eyes. "Great," he muttered. "I thought you were over that."

"I thought I was too," Max said, wiping her mouth on her sleeve and spitting out the vile taste.

"The safe?"

"Got it," she said, climbing to her feet and finishing the combination. The safe door opened and she pulled out a stack of files and computer discs.

"What are you looking for?" Jameson said. "Did Mercer send you?"

"We need your research records," Alec said. "Just stay quiet, don't tell anyone we were here, and you won't be hurt."

"Most of those records are over twenty years old," she said. "What value are they to anyone now?"

"Don't ask," Max advised as she thumbed through the stack.

"Is it what we want?" Alec said.

"Looks like it," Max said. "Give me your glasses and I'll start taking pictures of the paper records."

Alec pulled the pair of camera/glasses from the pocket of his black jumpsuit and handed it to her. "What about the discs?"

"We'll take them," Max decided. "We don't have time to copy them."

Neither noticed Jameson had edged nearer the desk. The gun she drew from the top drawer was a tiny revolver, hardly more than a toy, but a bullet was, after all, a bullet.

"Stay where you are," she said, pointing the gun with a wavering hand, vacillating between the two of them. She reached for the phone. "I'm calling the police."

With an exasperated look at Alec, Max blurred and grabbed the gun. Holding it gingerly by the handle between two fingers, she handed it to him.

Alec tucked it in his pocket, then waggled a finger at Jameson. "Tsk, tsk, doctor. Believe me, you don't wanna be naughty. Just wait until we have what we need and then we'll leave quietly. No need for anyone to get hurt."

But Dr. Jameson was staring at Max. "You're Manticore," she said, her face as white as if she'd just seen a ghost.

"Am not," Max said defensively.

Jameson turned to Alec. "She's an X5 unit. I worked on the DNA sequencing that gave her those reflexes and speed. We finally got it right after all the failures ..." Her voice trailed off.

"You worked for Manticore?" Alec said.

"On the X5 project," Jameson replied. She was trembling. "Do you mind if I sit down?"

Alec gestured toward an armchair. "Speed it up, Max," he said, without looking at his partner.

"What's your designation?" she said, looking at Alec. "You must be an X5 unit as well. You're the right age, and you have the build and characteristics of our light combat model." She nodded at Max. "We seem to have made her a bit more exotic." She smiled again. "You I guess we simply made handsome."

"And arrogant," Max said under her breath as she continued snapping photos. "And talkative, and a pain in the ass ..."

"X5-494," Alec said, feeling rather self conscious.

"Alec!" Max scolded. "Need to know, remember?"

"She's X5-452."

"Will you shut up!"

"What can it hurt to tell her, Max?" Alec said. "She probably already knows more about us than we know ourselves if she worked on the original project. That's why Lydecker wants her records. He's tryin' to replace the data you destroyed in the DNA lab."

"The original data was destroyed?" Jameson said, her face registering surprise. "I knew Manticore had been exposed and essentially dismantled, but I didn't realize all of the research had been lost."

"Not all of the research," Alec said. "Just the data base. The results are still walkin' around."

"The two of you must have been babies when I was removed from the project," Jameson said. "Practically newborns. It was considered a tremendous success when we had one in five of the live births resulting in apparently healthy X5 sequenced models. The genetic recombining, the melding of feline and human DNA by adding a new chromosome, was at one time considered impossible. But I discovered a way to make the DNA strand additions and substitutions not be rejected. And then we got even more daring, toying with gene pairs that we thought might lead to psychic abilities." She looked down a moment. "Approximately one percent of your DNA is feline you know, and five percent more tampered with. I'm only sorry there had to be so many mistakes ... so many deformed children ... before we achieved our final results. I'm sorry we made you something more than human."

Alec shivered. He'd never thought of himself as lucky before, at least not in that way. A success ... not deformed ... How many had been destroyed before him? How many had died so he could be born?

"It's all in the genetics," Jameson said. "Please, can I look at you ... both of you. I never saw the final results of my work. I'm so glad that some of the X5 children lived to adulthood. We weren't sure they would. I heard many had uncontrollable seizures, or progeria. There were other genetic anomalies that showed up as well. But the two of you appear to be quite healthy."

As if on cue ... "Alec," Max said, pausing in her copying of the data. "I'm going to throw up again." She grabbed the wastebasket.

Jameson looked alarmed. "She's really ill. What the matter with her?"

"Nothin' genetic," Alec reassured the woman. "She's just pregnant."

"Pregnant," Jameson breathed the word softly. "We were afraid the X5's wouldn't be able to successfully breed. We doubted the traits could be passed on. But there were a few models who were more stable than others and we had hopes ..."

"Manticore didn't bother much with old fashioned procreation, at least not until the very end," Alec said. "The X6's and X7's all came out of the gene bank."

"But you said X5-452 ... Max did you call her? ... is pregnant. How?"

"I think the how ought to be obvious," Max said dryly, once again wiping her mouth on her sleeve.

Jameson looked at Alec. "You're a pair," she said, again her tone near reverent. "You're a breeding pair of adult X5's. It's something we dreamed of producing."

"Yeah, yeah," Alec said. "And I feel so special. Max, sweetheart, can you move it along. We've taken up enough of the good doctor's time."

"Donald Lydecker sent you here," Jameson said. "The government is sanctioning a New Manticore. It's been on the news. I gather he's trying to recreate the old data base. A wise move on his part since the ones like you and Max need access to your original base genetics. They can't treat problems that might arise without it."

"All of the scientists ran away," Max said, photographing the last of the pages then carefully putting the glasses in her pocket. "The data was destroyed. But there are still a few hundred transgenics and transhumans out there who need to be taken care of."

"You could have explained," Jameson said. "I would have simply given you my data, at least what I have."

Alec looked up. "You mean there's more?"

"In Mr. Mercer's personal vault," Jameson said. "He has the only copy of the base pairs data base, as well as the technique that infused you with feline DNA."

Alec's shoulders sagged. "Great. And here I though we were almost done."

"I can help you gain access," Jameson said.

"I got the vault code today," Max added. "The doofus keeps it written in the bottom of his desk drawer of all things."

"Why would you help us?" Alec asked. "What's in it for you?"

"Don't you understand?" Jameson said. "The two of you are like my children. In fact, maybe you, Alec, are my child."

"I was made in a lab," Alec said. "I don't have a mother."

"But a human woman did carry you to term," Jameson said. "Do you, by any chance, have a twin brother that you know of?"

Alec was suddenly cold again. He could tell the doctor really did want to help them. Her motives felt true. Which meant she was probably telling them the truth about her involvement with Manticore. But this conversation was hitting a little too close to home.

"A lot of us were twinned," Alec said carefully. "I do have a brother."

"Identical?"

"Yeah."

Jameson reached out and picked up the photograph from the desk, the one of she and her husband holding two babies. "You do realize, don't you, that many of the women scientists who worked on the Manticore project were asked to contribute more than their knowledge to the program."

Alec narrowed his eyes, and he found himself holding his breath.

She looked up at him and smiled. "I had two boys. Not many of us were given maternal twins to carry. The eggs were fertilized in vitro, the genetic recombinations performed, and the embryos were implanted in my womb. I carried them to full term, two healthy baby boys, identical twins created in the Manticore lab, but nurtured and given life by my body."

Max was perched on the edge of the desk. "You were a surrogate. But Manticore didn't let you keep them," she said softly, thinking of her search for her own birth mother. "They took the babies away and you never saw them again."

A tear trickled down Jameson's cheek as she continued to look at the picture. "We lived in Wyoming then, where Manticore originated. Richard tried to fight them. He went after the children. But his car ran off the road into the river and he drowned. The next day I got a phone call. I was told that if I didn't stop trying to find the babies I'd be killed. Eventually, of course, I was fired, but not before they'd acquired all my research."

"Didn't you know they'd be taken?" Max asked, appalled at what had happened to this woman.

"I signed a contract," Jameson said. "But I was naive. I didn't think it would matter, giving up the babies. All I knew was that it would greatly advance my career at Manticore. But when I saw those tiny faces, those precious new lives ... It made it all the worse that they let me bring them home for a few weeks. They wanted the babies to have normal care and breast milk for the formative days. Then one day a man and woman came to the door and said I had to hand them over to Manticore."

"It's a wonder they let you live," Alec said.

"In a way they killed me when they murdered Richard," she said. She looked at Alec. "Is your brother as handsome as you? Is he healthy? Happy? Does he have a name. I notice the two of you have real names you call each other by, not just numbers."

Alec smiled. "Not that I'm ready to call you 'Mom,' but X5-493 ... Ben ... is okay. I saw him not so long ago, in fact."

"I'm glad," Jameson whispered. She looked at Max again. "And you're going to be parents. Do you know anything about the baby?"

"It's an X5," Max said. "We hope it will be healthy."

Jameson nodded at the stack of files and discs. "That information should aid your child if there are any genetic problems," she said. "But the information in Mercer's safe will be of even greater value."

"You say you'll help us get it?" Max asked.

Jameson nodded.

"Then let's go," Alec said, gently taking hold of Dr. Mary Jameson's hand.

*****

"Are the two of you together by choice, or by orders?" Mary asked as they made their way from the parking garage to the underground Mercer employee entrance.

"Choice," Max said firmly, with a quick look in Alec's direction. "Well," she amended, "at first it wasn't by choice. He was assigned to be my breeding partner back at the old Manticore."

"But I got the feelin' it wasn't gonna work out when her idea of foreplay was to put her foot in my chest and kick me across the cell," Alec said.

"'Let's get this over with', and 'we're supposed to copulate every night until you get pregnant' isn't exactly romantic, Alec."

"So, my seduction lines needed improvement," Alec said. "I think I've done better lately."

"A little," Max said grudgingly. "But you still owe me a fancy dinner date. Especially now that we've got the clothes."

"Your wish is my command," Alec said, executing a mock bow.

Jameson was looking at them, an amused expression on her face. "So, I gather the two of you found common ground after Manticore was gone, and it's obvious you're in love. But I'm glad to hear you were actually paired off by the scientists."

"Why?" Max asked. They'd reached the employee entrance and Mary was searching in her purse for her I.D. card. Better to use her legitimate one than to risk one of the fakes setting off an alarm. "What does it matter?"

"It matters a lot," Mary said, swiping the card in the slot. "If you're having a child." They stepped through the door into an elevator. She put her fingers to her lips and indicated they needed to be silent. The front desk already knew they were in the building, but they would be perceived as legitimate visitors by the computer. However, no use risking their conversation being overheard.

The elevator stopped and they got off on the 30th floor. Walking swiftly down the hallway to the next set of elevators that would take them to the top of the building, she continued. "The feline/human DNA that created the two of you is highly unstable. Mixing your hybrid DNA with an ordinary human's isn't so risky. The genetics tend to drift back to their base functions and you get an ordinary child. However, pair off two X's and you could end up with a disaster unless the match is exactly right."

Max's hand went to her still fairly flat belly.

"The doc says this kid seems to be doin' fine," Alec said.

"But it is an X5 gene type, correct?" Mary said.

"So we've been told," Max said.

"I doubt Manticore has many second generation X5's," Mary said when they'd exited the second set of elevators. "When I left, the theory was that it would be difficult to achieve, and the pairing would have to be done extremely carefully." She looked at Alec, then at Max. "Do you two realize how phenomenally lucky you are? I'm not saying you wouldn't be successful having children with other X5 partners or ordinaries, but I am saying that, if you were going to have a child, at least this baby has the best genetic chance possible."

"Gee," Max said unenthusiastically. "That makes me feel just ... great. In other words, I picked Mr. Right after all."

"Shake it off, Max," Alec said. "The vault's up ahead." He eyed Mary. "Can you get us through the atrium?"

"Yes. I can get you all the way in to the corridor leading to Mr. Mercer's private vault room. But after that, you'll have to take over."

"Max," Alec said. "You got the combination?"

"Right here," she said, pointing to her head. "It's a fourteen digit, repeating sequence. No wonder the guy had to write it down."

They reached the door to the atrium, Mary swiped her card, and the laser grid Alec had lain under for so long the night before vanished. They then followed Mary through to one of the computer rooms. Alec stopped at a console long enough to bring up the security system. He couldn't take everything down from here, but he'd set it up that morning so he could make the cameras feed a continuous loop to the main desk so they wouldn't be seen from now on. On the other side of the room was another door and key slot. One more swipe of the card by Mary and ahead lay a long corridor guarded by crisscrossing, floor-to-ceiling, red laser beams.

Alec was thinking, pulling up in his mind the security plans he'd memorized . "The corridor system has a back-up in case of power failure," he said. "If we short out the power to this grid, there should be a few seconds gap before the back-up kicks in. But if we physically trigger any of the alarms, security doors come down and we'll be locked in."

"But won't the power outage alert the guard at the front desk?" Mary asked.

"Yeah, it probably will," Max said. "But he'll most likely check it out before calling the police, especially if everything comes online again. We'll just have to move our asses to get out of here after we get Mercer's files from the vault's core computer. In the time it takes guards to get up here we can hopefully be done." She turned to Alec. "We can use the roof again. Just like last night."

"Great," Alec said. "And that just makes my evening. Another sixty story climb with the sorriest excuse for a rope I've ever seen."

"In spite of the cat DNA, he hates heights," Max explained to Mary. "Go figure."

"I do not hate heights," Alec said. "I just don't like to climb. Too much work." He considered Mary a moment. "You'll have to stay here. You can say we took you hostage."

"I'll be fine," she said. "But first I want to make certain you have what you need to insure that baby's future."

Alec nodded, then turned and smashed his fist through the circuitry panel on the wall. Ahead of them the lasers started to go out one-by-one along the corridor. "Go!" he shouted at Max.

Max ran, with Mary right behind her.

"Don't move!" came a voice from across the room. Alec turned, and found himself staring down the barrel of a guard's pistol. Moving with all the swiftness he'd been bred for, he covered the distance, twisted the gun away, and knocked the guard unconscious with a single blow to the jaw. Then he turned and sprang for the corridor. Running hard, he could hear the lasers snapping back online behind him. If he was caught in the beams, the place would totally lock down and they'd be trapped.

"Hurry!" Max yelled.

Alec knew he wasn't going to make it. There was just one chance. Throwing himself to the floor, he skidded feet first to the vault door like a baseball runner sliding into home base. He cleared the alarm zone area just as the final red beam snapped back on mere inches from his head. Max helped him to his feet.

"Did that guard sound the alarm?" Mary asked.

Alec, breathing hard, listened. "I don't think so," he said. "He was probably just the normal shift guard."

"We're going to have to get out of here fast once we're done," Max pointed out again.

"Right," Alec said. There was numerical key pad on the vault door. "Go to it, Max."

Max carefully entered the sequence of numbers she'd memorized in Mercer's office. Seconds later, the door buzzed, then opened with a slight hissing sound as if the room was pressurized. The three stepped inside, and simply stood, staring around in awe."

"This place is huge," Alec said.

Mary started to move forward.

"Wait, wait," Alec said, his hand on her arm stopping her. "Those are pressure sensitive plates on the floor." He looked across what had to be at least a 50 foot expanse of flooring to where a computer core glowed, bathed in blue light in the center of the room.

"Two seconds," Max said. "We can't step on a panel for more than two seconds or we're through. We'll be locked in."

"I know," Alec said, measuring the distance with his eye.

"Alec," Max said. "We have to hurry."

"I know," he repeated. "I'm thinking."

"Well think faster."

"I don't see you comin' up with anything helpful." But then suddenly-- "Max, did you ever see that old movie called 'Charlie's Angels'? The one about the three gorgeous--"

"Yeah," she said. "What does that have to do with-- Oh, I see what you mean."

"Which one of us?" Alec asked.

"I'm lighter," Max said.

"But I'm not pregnant."

"I've got to be the one," Max said. "Here. Give me a boost." She raised one foot up and Alec held down his hands so she could step into them. "Throw me as far as you can across the room."

"Max, are you sure about this?"

"No, but I don't see what else we can do."

Mary was looking at them as if they'd gone crazy.

He pushed her high and clean. Max flipped in midair, landed on her feet, then immediately did a series of handsprings until her final vault put her on top of the computer console.

Alec smiled broadly. Mary simply stared in astonishment.

"That was incredible," Mary said. "I knew your muscle structure was far superior to a human's but that was ... superb."

"That was Max," Alec said proudly.

"I'm transferring the files to Manticore now," Max said as she tapped on a keyboard while perched atop the console. There was a beep. "Lydecker's intercepting," she said, looking up. "What do I say to him."

"Tell him we've got inside help and that we're almost done," Alec said.

Max typed some more, her eyes reading furiously. "Done," she said.

"Come on," he said. "Someone's gotta investigate soon."

Max stood on the console, took a deep breath, and flung herself into the air again, doing handsprings across the floor panels, never touching for long enough to trigger the alarm. Alec caught her in his arms in the doorway.

"You two make a pretty good team," Mary commented.

"We always have," Alec said. He turned to face the crisscrossing laser beams. "Now comes the fun part." Shorting out the beams a second time wouldn't be too difficult. They could do that from the key pad. But two power outages this close together would certainly bring the police if they weren't already on their way, and also might bring down the doors.

Max's hand on Alec's arm stopped him just as he was about to hit the keypad and interrupt the circuit again. "We have to talk," she said in a low voice.

"Now?"

"Now."

"What?"

She lowered her voice even more. "Lydecker said we can't leave Jameson here. She knows too much and he's afraid White or someone will get hold of her. In fact, he thinks White might already have been hacking into the Mercer computer."

"That would explain the glitch this morning," Alec said. He looked at Mary. "How are we gonna bring her with us? She'd never make it down that rope."

"We aren't supposed to bring her," Max said. "Lydecker wants us to--"

"Kill her?" Mary said, obviously having overheard everything. "I'm not surprised. I knew if I re-opened the past my sins would come back to haunt me. Manticore made a mistake letting me go in the first place, and they know it."

"We're not gonna kill you," Alec said.

"Why not?" Mary said. "You're an assassin, aren't you? They told me that both of my babies would become killers. Just the kind of career every mother wants for her child."

"Alec's not an assassin any more," Max said.

"Time's up," Alec said at the sound of voices in the outer hallway. The guards were investigating. "Stay here!" he shouted at Mary.

Knowing stealth was useless now, he smashed the panel to deactivate the lasers again, then he and Max blurred down the corridor, through the computer room, and out into the atrium. Taking a hard right, they knocked out two Mercer security men without stopping, then sprinted for the stairs to the roof.

Once outside, they scrambled for the corner where the thin rope they'd used the night before still hung down the side of the building. Alec checked the tension, making certain it was anchored properly. "Ladies first," he said. Max took hold of the rope.

"What will happen to the two of you if you don't carry out your orders?" Mary shouted from the rooftop doorway. She was breathing hard and leaning heavily on the door frame.

"Let us worry about that!" Max said, taking hold of the rope. "Come on, Alec."

"They'll punish you, won't they?" Mary said, walking closer. Behind, coming up the stairs, were the sounds of voices and running feet.

"Alec will talk us out of it," Max said. "He's good at doing that kind of thing."

"They'll separate you and take away your child."

"We'll be fine," Alec said.

"You're disobeying orders. You'll be punished. The same way they punished me."

"Mary ..." Alec reached out to take her hand, although he wasn't sure exactly why.

"I won't let them put you through that kind of pain." She smiled at him then. "Your birthday is April first. You're an Aries." And without another word, she turned, ran the short distance to the edge, and leaped off the roof of the building.

*****

"Lydecker thinks I killed her," Alec said bitterly.

Max drew his head over onto her shoulder and snuggled closer to his warm body under the covers. "But we know the truth," she said. "You didn't do anything wrong. She killed herself to protect us."

"She thought I was her son."

"Maybe you are. If your birthday really is April Fool's Day that would explain a lot."

Her attempt at humor didn't work. "You once tried to find your birth mother. Why?"

"Because I want to know where I came from."

"You came from a lab, Max. We both did."

"But our baby won't come from a lab, Alec. And at least Mary helped us before she died. Lydecker says the information we transferred from Mercer is going to help keep all of us alive, including our child. He's going to be able to re-create the original DNA base."

"And that's a good thing?" Alec said. "Seems to me you went to an awful lot of trouble not so long ago to destroy that information."

"Maybe I was wrong," Max said. "When I did that I left our people without a lot of vital medical information."

"But it also means Manticore can now go back to whipping' up embryos in test tubes and stampin' 'em with bar codes. It means more surrogate mothers are gonna lose their children the way Mary did." His voice was husky. He sniffed and angrily wiped his hand across his eyes. "We've started the whole vicious cycle all over again Max. It's all been for nothin'."

"No," Max said, gently stroking his hair as his head lay on her shoulder. She kissed him tenderly on the cheek. "We're alive, Alec. We're together, and we're going to have a baby. We're a family. We've proven we can survive in the real world, live with the humans, make ourselves useful. And we'll keep on proving that. We'll show Lydecker and the government and everyone else that we won't be beaten by them."

Brave, hopeful words, Alec thought. He truly was glad that Max could be so optimistic. And he also knew that in a day or two he'd be hopeful again as well. He'd be all right. He was always all right.

But right now, even with Max holding him safe and warm in her arms, all he could think about was that Mary ... maybe his mother ... was dead.

And it's my fault.

THE END

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