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The eighth continuation story in "The Best Laid Plans" universe. (rated R for language, violence, sexuality) -- author's note
Alec shot Max a dirty look. "Fine," he said.
Dr. Shankar wasn't buying it. "Whatever they did to you gave you the equivalent of a fairly severe concussion. That's not something to be taken lightly. Let me see your eyes." She took a small flashlight out of her pocket.
"The headaches were pretty bad the first few days," Max said. "But he only had one last week."
Alec endured the doctor's examination grudgingly. "I said I'm fine. Last time it took nearly six months for the damn things to taper off. This time they're goin' away faster."
"That's because OC and Joshua rescued your ass before Lydecker really turned up the volume on that laser," Max said.
Alec didn't argue. She still hadn't totally forgiven him for handing himself over so unconditionally to Lydecker. He'd lain unconscious in Joshua's room for nearly 14 hours after they'd rescued him, and only OC's steady reassurances on the telephone had kept Max from leaving the hospital and rushing to his side.
"Your pupils are equal and reactive," Shankar said, putting the flashlight away. "If there were going to be more signs of trauma I suppose they would have shown up by now." She regarded him closely. "Any more seizures?" She included Max in the question.
"I thought this was supposed to be a pre-natal visit," Alec said.
The doctor regarded him for a moment. "According to the blood tests I took last week your serotonin levels are dropping," she said. "Both of you."
"Meaning?" Max said.
"Meaning that whatever Manticore did to you in the past that kept the levels where they belong is wearing off."
"I thought they fixed that problem permanently," Max said with a quick look at Alec. "You never had any trouble with seizures, did you?"
"A little as a kid," Alec admitted. "But they never noticed, and I never told. Then they started givin' us shots and pills and I've been fine ever since."
Shankar looked at Max. "And your seizures cleared up after being at Manticore last year?"
"Your hands were shaking last night," Alec said.
"I was just feeling nervous," Max said quickly. "And the baby was kicking a lot. I haven't gotten much sleep lately." She lowered her voice. "I've seen your hands shake too."
"So, I'm high strung," Alec snapped.
Shankar was looking at him again. "When your friend, Original Cindy, called me from the base and asked how to help you she said you'd had a grand mal seizure."
Alec shrugged. "What can I say. Just one of those nasty little side effects of torture I guess."
"She said something about your seizure threshold being low. If that's the case, it probably means the serotonin levels in your system have been dropping for sometime." She looked down at her notes, then back up at the two transgenics. "Do either of you know why, with all of its genius genetic manipulations, Manticore left this one major flaw in the X5's."
"Lydecker said it was done deliberately," Max said. "He said they did it as a failsafe, a way to insure we could never be free. We had to stay with Manticore for treatments or supposedly the seizures would eventually get so bad we'd die." She smiled grimly. "What they didn't realize was that we could control it ourselves by taking tryptophan tablets -- so long as we can get them."
"A lot of the Manticore kids died anyway," Alec said quietly. Max looked at him then, and he realized she'd probably seen the same thing -- childhood companions disappearing in the night after suffering grand mal seizures, taken away by the scientists to be dissected and studied. Oh yes, he'd hidden the tremors in his hands very well as a boy.
Shankar took a large bottle out of the medicine cabinet and tossed it to Alec. "Start taking the supplements," she said. "Both of you. At least twelve tablets a day for you, Alec. And Max, because of the stress of the pregnancy, you should take fifteen or even twenty."
"They won't hurt the baby?" Max said.
"Shouldn't," Shankar replied. "Now lie back. I want to see how that chest wound is healing and check the baby."
Max reclined on the examination table. Dr. Shankar first checked the nearly healed scar just beneath her left breast, then listened to her expanding abdomen with a stethoscope. The smile on the doctor's face assured both parents that junior was doing fine. She reached for the doppler. "Want to see your son?" she asked.
The baby looked -- like a baby. Alec couldn't believe it. The kid had fingers and toes and everything.
"See," Shankar said, pointing to something on the computer image. "He's definitely a he."
"Like father, like son," Max smirked. "Still in the womb and already he's a show off."
Alec couldn't stop grinning.
"Baby boy--" Shankar hesitated. "What are you guys going to do about a last name anyway?"
"McDowell?" Max said, obviously not liking the sound of the name.
"Better than Guavera," Alec countered. "But then anything's better than a number."
"Call him 'Little Alec' for now," Max said, hopping off the table and adjusting the elastic waistband of her maternity pants.
Alec felt a little embarrassed about that -- but he didn't argue.
"I swear," Alec said, "If Ames White sent a batch of Red Lobster gift certificates to this place our people would bust out, stampede for the city, and he could just collect 'em while they stood in line outside the restaurant."
"I bet they are getting tired of the rations," Max said, looking across the room to where Mole and Joshua were chowing down at one of the cafeteria tables. "I feel kind of guilty that we had pizza last night."
"And pizza the night before, and the night before that," Alec added. "I wouldn't mind so much except for the anchovies. I mean, I know you've got cravings Max, but those little fish are nasty."
"Shut up. Your half didn't have them."
"But they leaned on my half and the taste migrates."
"Shut up. Here comes Luke."
"Hi guys!" Luke greeted them cheerfully.
Alec high-fived the little guy. "You doin' any better gettin' the computer equipment up and running?," he asked. "Or is Dix still sacrificin' chickens on top of the Linux server?"
Luke continued to smile. "We're doin' a lot better now that Logan's helping."
Alec's eyebrows shot up. "Logan's been out here?" His eyes went to Max.
"Don't look at me. I didn't know."
"Yeah, he and Lydecker made some sort of deal," Luke said. "Logan helps us with the equipment and we give him blood."
"Blood!" Alec and Max said at the same time.
"So he can walk," Luke explained. "Logan's here now if you want to ask him about it."
"Who's blood?" Max asked. "Not Joshua's?"
"Sometimes it's Joshua," Luke said. "I even gave once myself."
"You mean he's gotten more than one transfusion?" Alec said.
"He has to get them all the time," Luke explained, sounding as if it was a perfectly normal thing.
"How long has this been going on?" Max asked.
"A few weeks," Luke said. "I know Lydecker's going to start using only X5 blood pretty soon because that seems to last longer. He ordered one of the guys to donate just this morning. I think it was Riley."
"Riley?" Alec said. He looked at Max. "That's Gem's significant other, isn't it?"
Max was nodding. "They hooked up while we were all in Terminal City. He's great with the baby."
Alec was thinking. "I remember him. X5-533. I didn't know him as well as Biggs, but his squad backed mine up once in Iraq, back in '17."
Max wasn't listening. She was looking across the compound where Logan had just come out of the computer room. He was walking fine, and definitely not using the exoskeleton. But that was as far as any physical improvements went. "God, he looks terrible," Max said. The scowl on Logan Cale's face looked like it was a permanent fixture -- not to mention the bloodshot eyes, dirty thinning hair, and obvious weight loss.
"I told you he's one sandwich shy of a picnic," Alec muttered under his breath. He wondered what Max's ex was pissed about now. And then Logan raised his head, looked around the room, and they locked eyes.
The emotional jolt that ran through Alec was as strong as a physical sensation. He'd heard it said that fear carried a long way on the psionic plane, but hatred obviously packed a wallop as well, enough to leave him momentarily reeling.
Logan hated him -- bitterly, intensely, irrationally. And Alec sensed that hatred as easily as he sensed Max's love. He'd always been able to tell when someone didn't like him -- never given it a thought as to why. But what he was getting from Logan went way beyond the realm of good hunches and keen observation.
"I've got to talk to him," Max said. Alec's hand on her arm made her turn and look at him. "You know I do," she said. "I've got to find out what's going on." She indicated the 50 or so mutants sitting around the common room. Some were watching television, some playing cards, and in one corner a small group looked like they might be going over mission plans. "These are my people, Alec. I'm the one responsible for bringing them here."
"You're the one responsible for them still bein' alive," Alec said. "It was the only way."
"I still feel guilty. They're almost as much prisoners here as they were back in their cells at Manticore. And if Lydecker and Logan are using them--"
Alec knew she was right, even though he hated the thought of her having a chat with Logan.
"All right," he said, letting go of her arm. "See what you can get out of the guy." He looked over in the corner where some of the mutants and a couple of X5's were examining a map. "I see Riley. I'll go talk to him, find out what Lydecker's been up to."
"Hey Logan," Max said.
"Hey," he returned, his tone cautious.
"I hear you've been helping our guys with the computer equipment."
"Yeah, they don't have much in the way of good hardware. Most of it seems to be military salvage. Lydecker says he's barely got enough funds allocated to feed everyone, and anything leftover is going to the new genetic database. Of course, that database isn't going to be of much use if you don't have the computers to run it."
"It's nice of you," Max said. "Still helping. I know it must be kind of painful, hanging around us after--"
"I know it's over, Max," Logan said. "I told you that the last time we talked."
"But Alec said--"
"Alec says a lot of things, Max. And most of it is lies. You know who he is ... what he is." He held up his hand. "Don't. Don't tell me I'm wrong. You'll find out yourself some day, when he lets you down at the worst possible time. But I realize that, for now, you've just got to see this through."
He was looking at her now very swollen stomach. "I just hope things don't go wrong with the baby."
"What do you mean?"
"The genetic data base," Logan said. "I've been looking through it while helping set up the software. A child bred like yours ... The odds aren't good for its survival."
"Dr. Shankar says the baby's fine," Max said. "Perfectly healthy."
"But for how long, Max. With Alec as the sire ... If you wanted a child you'd have been a lot better off with an ordinary as the father. The child would have been normal."
"Our child will be normal," Max said, her anger beginning to rise. "He'll be as normal as Alec and I are, which isn't judged by the same standards your kind use."
"My kind?" Logan chuckled. "Listen to yourself, Max. You used to want to be human so badly. Now ..." He glanced across the room to where Alec was engaged in conversation with some X5's. "Now you've regressed to being an animal just like him."
Max wanted to turn and walk away. This conversation couldn't be going more badly. But she still needed to find out something.
"The blood, Logan," she said. "What's going on with the blood?"
Logan shrugged. "It's simply really. I need transfusions of transgenic blood in order to be able to walk. Lydecker provides that for me, and in return I do his computer work."
"How often?" Max asked. "How often do you have to have transfusions?"
"A couple times a week now," Logan said. "But hopefully that will be getting better once I'm on the pure X5 stuff. I mean, I appreciate Joshua's contribution. Luke's too. But the X5 plasma has a lot more punch to it, if you know what I mean."
"And the X5's don't mind being donors?".
Logan glanced over at Alec again. "No," he said. "Not at all. Not that anyone asked them of course. Most of them follow orders quite well. Unlike a certain rogue X5 who's on Lydecker's black list."
"Alec can handle Lydecker," Max said tightly.
"Like he handled him a couple of weeks ago?"
"You know about that?"
"I know a lot about everything that's going on here, Max," Logan said, his eyes sparkling. "Probably more than you, in fact. For example, I know that Lydecker came this close," he held his thumb and index finger a fraction of an inch apart, "to getting rid of one of my biggest problems."
"You better stay out of Alec's way," Max warned.
"Or what? He'll hurt me? Kill me? I don't think so. Your precious X5 stud might be hot stuff in your bed, but he's impotent around here. He's got no authority whatsoever, and if he lays a hand on me there are a dozen X5's who'll jump to my defense."
"Alec may not have authority, but I do," Max said quietly.
Logan looked at her belly and grinned. "Really?" he said. "Somehow you don't look very authoritative right now, Max. In fact, you look kind of -- silly. Even ugly in a way. I bet you miss that perfect body you used to have. Wonder if your transgenic genes can get rid of maternity fat and stretch marks?"
Max blushed. She was self conscious enough about her expanding waistline anyway. Alec kept telling her she was so beautiful, making love to her every night, kissing her everywhere. He said she was the most gorgeous woman in the world to him right now. And here Logan was telling her he thought she was ugly.
"What did I ever see in you?" Max said sadly and walked away.
"Riley, my man," Alec said, pulling up a chair and joining Riley and Gem at their table.
Riley, a lithely built X5 from a unit that had trained parallel to Alec's, cocked his head. "You're X5-494, aren't you?"
"Make that Alec," Alec said.
"You better call me X5-533. The old man doesn't like us using names in here, not when we're doing missions."
Alec blinked at that. "Hey, uh, 533. I don't know if you've noticed, but you don't have to take Lydecker's orders any more. And you can call yourself anything you want." He looked over at Gem who was holding Maxine in her arms. The kid had grown a lot, he noticed. What was she? Six months old now? As an X5 she was probably starting to walk already.
Gem didn't look very happy though.
He turned his attention back to Riley. "I hear Lydecker had you givin' blood for Cale this morning."
Riley looked down at his arm where the puncture mark was starting to fade. "So?" he said. "Just following orders."
"You stayed down on Oak Street back in Seattle, didn't you?" Alec said. "Never got out much?"
"I wanted to be with my own kind," he said, looking over at Gem.
"I could get you a job in the city," Alec said. "That way you wouldn't have to go on Lydecker's missions."
"I like what I do," Riley said. "I don't know why you don't join us. What's so great about living on the outside anyway?"
Alec sighed, recognizing the company line. It was painfully obvious Riley, at one time or another, had gone through re-indoctrination.
Gem spoke up. "We could try it," she said. "I liked it on the outside. I never had much, and I was usually hungry, but it was nice not having anyone ordering me around."
"You have Maxine to care for," Riley said gently, laying a hand on Gem's shoulder.
Alec felt for the guy. He really loved Gem, and he was trying to do what he thought was best. Trouble was, Lydecker didn't give a shit about Riley and Gem's happiness. All he wanted was to control them, and eventually control the baby."
And Max and I are different how?
"So, you're okay with old Logan the vampire Cale feedin' off of you?" Alec said.
"I do what I'm ordered to do," Riley repeated.
But Alec could tell Gem didn't agree. However, she wasn't going to say anything against her man.
"Just remember," Alec said. "If you ever want out ..."
"Thanks, but we won't," Riley said adamantly, taking hold of Gem's hand. "We're fine here."
Alec knew a dismissal when he heard one.
"Things can't go on like this, Max. You know they can't."
"You talking about us, or our friends out at the base?" Max said wearily. She was lying down on the bed, about to take her afternoon nap. It alarmed Alec that she'd been so tired lately. Maybe it was the tryptophan tablets.
"Both," he said honestly. "Lydecker and Renfro made it clear that sometime soon Sandeman, whoever the hell the guy really is, is gonna come for you. And they also want the kid." He looked meaningfully at her expanded belly. "The baby's almost reached the point where he could survive," he said. "If they wanted to take him ..."
Max looked fearfully at her stomach, her hand protectively on top of her child. Then her eyes came back to him. "You're right," she said softly. "I had a dream two nights ago. I didn't tell you because I knew you'd get upset. They're not going to let me carry this baby to term."
Alec nodded. He'd stopped being skeptical about Max's premonitions a long time ago. "They couldn't handle a premature birth at the new base," he said. "They don't have the equipment or personnel. Which means Sandeman's people would probably take you somewhere else -- maybe even overseas."
"But if we get Lydecker angry ...," she let her voice trail off. "He's the only reason that base exists. It's his influence with the government that's keeping the others from being slaughtered by McKinley's people. If we try to run ..."
"He might just let White have 'em all," Alec said grimly. "And there it is. The hold he has over you."
"Over me," Max said. "But not over you. You could get away, Alec. I doubt they'd chase you down."
Alec scowled at her. "Yeah, right, Max. And leave you and my child behind. What kind of man do you think I am?"
She sighed, and he realized she'd had to make the offer. Things were going to get very dangerous, very soon, and X5-494 was pretty much expendable in the big scheme of things. In fact, he thought wryly, except for Max and his fellow Manticore friends, just about everyone involved in the melodrama of his life wanted him lobotomized, castrated, or dead.
Max knew what he was thinking. "They'll keep me and the baby alive," she said. "But they'll kill you. You know they will. And we don't have anything to use to bargain for your life."
Alec stood up from where he'd been sitting on the edge of the bed and moved to the window, looking out at the rain. "We have to get out of here, Max," he said, his voice low. "Now. Before you're any farther along. The others at the base--" He gestured with his hands. "They're armed. They're soldiers. They'll survive."
"Where would we go?"
"Anywhere but here."
"We'd have to hide for the rest of our lives. And what about the prophecy? The runes on my skin? What if everyone in the world starts dying and I'm the only one who can stop it?"
"Let 'em die," Alec said, surprised at the bitterness in his own voice.
"You don't mean that," Max said gently. "What about OC and Sketchy and Normal?"
"Wanna bet givin' 'em some of your blood keeps 'em safe from this virus thing that White and his people are spreadin' around?" Alec said. He laughed then, suddenly realizing something. "I'm surprised Logan hasn't asked you to be a donor for him. He's got to know that, even with all the transfusions he's had, he could still get sick like I did. And as an ordinary, he probably wouldn't survive." He turned around to look at her. "You're the only one who can truly cure the thing ... and the only one who can prevent it."
"I just can't abandon the world," Max said, tears forming in her eyes.
"So, you'd choose the world over me and our child?"
"Don't go there, Alec. You know how much I love you."
Alec exhaled sharply through his nose, deciding to play what he hoped would be his trump card. "I've got money, Max. Enough to get us away from here. Enough to last a long time." He swallowed and waited for Max's response to his revelation.
"That string of jewelry store heists," she said, nodding her head knowingly, apparently not surprised at all. "You're the cat burglar the police have been looking for all these months."
He might be mistaken, but Alec thought he actually heard a touch of pride in Max's voice. They had been difficult jobs, especially pulling off solo. And fencing the jewelry hadn't been easy either.
"Those nights you said you were going to Crash or out to the base ..." She looked at him. "Eight jobs. You've pulled eight jobs in the past four months."
He was still waiting for her anger. But she surprised him.
"Almost two million."
He loved the ways her eyes widened at the mention of the number. "I told you I'd take care of you and the baby," he said. But she hadn't yet said the words he needed to hear. "I've also got our papers -- new I.D., passports."
"Did you use Logan's guy?"
"No. Found a guy on my own. I didn't want anything to do with someone Cale had dealt with."
"Two million," Max breathed. "In Europe or Japan we could make a new life with that. Even South America ..."
"I speak fourteen languages, Max. Take your pick of countries."
"I only speak English."
"I'll teach you whatever you need to know." He smiled. "I know you're a quick study." He held his breath. Waiting. "You could always come back after the baby's born," he pointed out. "By then we'd have someplace safe for him."
"They'd never let me go," Max said quietly. "They'd hunt us forever. I know that whatever I was created for, it was supposed to be for a lifetime."
"Who knows what will happen in the future, Max. What we've got to think about is the next few weeks. They could come for you at any time."
Her eyes were filling with tears. "And you'd fight them," she said. "And they'd kill you.."
"That's what the end scenario would be I imagine," Alec said, knowing that to try and deny it, to try and comfort her with false hope would be a mistake. For all he knew she'd already seen his destiny in her dreams. He thought about asking -- but decided he didn't want to know.
Max came to a decision. "Find us a safe home, Alec. Make the arrangements. You're right. They'll be coming for my blood soon -- our baby's blood -- your blood too. We've got to run."
Max rode him hard that night, both of them savoring those precious brief moments when their joining was the entire universe. Sometimes she was on top. Other times he'd take her while kneeling at the foot of the bed. They'd had fun experimenting, finding new erotic pleasures that set their senses on fire while still keeping his weight off of her stomach.
Now, exhausted and trembling from the intense release, Alec looked up into Max's eyes. Her fingers on his lips stopped the words. No talking tonight. No worrying. Just us.
With a grin, he eased her off to one side. Maybe she wanted to sleep now. But when she wickedly assumed a position on all fours, he knew the night was far from over. Cupping her swelling breasts with both hands, he entered her from behind, and the universe went away -- again.
They were asleep in each other's arms, their sweat soaked bodies entwined, when Alec's cell phone rang.
He opened one eye and looked at the clock.
"What time is it?" Max asked sleepily.
"Half past dead in the morning," Alec yawned. "This had better not be Normal wantin' me to come in today afterall. He said I could have Friday off." He thumbed the button on the phone. "Yeah."
He listened a minute. "How long?" A reply. "When did you last see him?" A moment of talking. "Don't do anything. I'll be there in an hour."
He turned to Max after hanging up. "That was Gem. She says Riley's missing. He didn't have a mission until next week, and she swears he wouldn't have just left."
"Where could he go?" Max said. The woods? A cornfield? That base is in the middle of nowhere and they don't let just anyone take a vehicle."
"That's what's got her worried," Alec said as he pulled on his black jeans. "And it's why I'm goin' out there."
He bent over and kissed her gently. "I'll be back before noon," he said, his voice still husky from their lovemaking, and the taste of her lingering on his lips."And I'll have my phone." He tugged his t-shirt over his head, then reached for his boots.
Max handed him his black leather jacket.
"Alec," she said as he stood in the door of their bedroom. "Be careful."
"We'll leave in two days," he said, wanting to reassure her. "Everything's almost ready." But then suddenly a chill danced up his spine, as if someone had stepped on his grave.
What if they come for her while I'm gone? What if I never see her again?
"I love you Max," he said. And then he made himself leave. Their friends needed him.
"Lydecker ordered Riley to come with him yesterday afternoon," a very worried Gem told Alec when he arrived at the base. "I thought he was going for a mission briefing, but the other X5's are all here, and none of them know anything about a mission this week."
"Maybe he was sent on a solo," Alec said.
Gem looked down at her feet. "Riley isn't cleared for solo missions," she said. "He used to be, but then they did something to him awhile back and he's not quite as ... he's different now."
Alec wondered just what level of re-indoctrination Riley had undergone. He also wondered what the guy had done to deserve being put through a procedure that had probably left him brain damaged.
Could have been me.
He shook off the thought, then turned to Mole. "Anybody checked out Lydecker's pleasure suite in the basement?"
Mole, as always chomping on a cigar, scowled. "Transhumans aren't allowed down there. Lydecker keeps the place pretty well guarded."
"What's he doin' down there?" Alec asked. "Besides torture?
Joshua gave a low growl. "When OC and I rescued you, we saw lots of different rooms. Lots of medical equipment. We've been told to not ask questions."
"Come on," Alec said to Joshua and Mole. "I think I'm gonna need back-up." With a big grin, Mole handed Alec the Glock he'd checked in at the front door a few minutes before, and pulled out his own side-arm. Alec just shook his head, as always amazed at the sneakiness of the lizard-like transhuman.
"Back off boys!" Alec commanded the two X6's guarding the door to the lower levels of the complex.
"Sir," one of them said, assuming a stance of attention. "We have orders to not let anyone enter."
Alec drew his gun.
The kid looked at his companion. They obviously knew who he was, but were torn between following Lydecker's orders and the orders of an X5 alpha male.
"We protect our own," Alec said, with a meaningful look at the door.
A nod, and the boys stood aside.
Riley actually wasn't that hard to fine. The second room they checked had been decked out as an operating theater. The big X5 lay stripped and unconscious on a table with half a dozen tubes inserted in his arms and legs, his blood flowing freely into a machine of some kind.
Alec swallowed hard, feeling a little bit sick on his stomach.
"Well look what the cat dragged in?" a voice drawled behind them.
Alec whirled, his finger on the trigger. "Logan?" He glanced back at Riley, and understanding dawned. This was beyond sick. It was -- perverted. "The blood," he said. "You're taking his blood."
Logan sauntered into the room, ignoring Mole and Joshua, centering his attention on the X5 he blamed for ... everything.
"What's goin' on, Logan?"
Logan smiled and nodded at Riley. "It's a gift from Lydecker," he said. "In appreciation for all my help. The X5 blood is really the best for me, lasts the longest, gives me the most strength. But the X's upstairs were starting to make noises about not wanting to donate for an ordinary. So, 'Deck and I figured out a way to make that problem go away."
"What did you do to him?" Alec asked, trying to control his breathing. "What did you do to Riley?"
"Nothing much," Logan said. "Just a little procedure to make him more docile and compliant. You see, he's mine now. Lydecker gave him to me to be my own personal blood bank."
Alec's mouth dropped open. "You can't own someone," he said.
Logan laughed. "X5-533 isn't a someone," he said. "He's a some thing. You see, you mutants don't even have the most basic civil rights. You're not classified as human ... not even animal really. Technically, Lydecker and I can do anything we want with any of you and there's no law against it."
"That's slavery," Joshua spoke up.
"Exactly," Logan said. "I mean, isn't that what Max always considered herself? A slave of Manticore? Well, she was right."
"Get him," Alec told his two companions, referring to Riley. "We're takin' him outta here."
"I don't think so," Logan said, still smiling. There was the sound of machine guns cocking behind them. Alec didn't need to turn around to know who was there.
"X5-494," Lydecker said. "It's always X5-494." He walked into the room accompanied by two of his personal X5 guards. "You know, Alec, being one of my kids offers you only so much immunity. Do you really want to lose your life over ... this?" He gestured at Riley and the tubes of blood. "Somehow I always pictured you taking your last breath for Max's sake, not a stranger's."
"How could you do this?" Alec yelled. "You call us your children but you treat us like slaves! How could you give Riley to someone?"
"Easily," Lydecker said. "It was a fair exchange. Cale needs the blood and I need his expertise. X5-533 will serve Logan well, as a bodyguard, and as a donor. Of course I had to adjust Riley's attitude a little bit before he accepted the deal ..."
Alec could feel his heart rate increasing as a red haze began to cloud his vision. He rarely lost his temper, but when he did--"
"Riley here wasn't my first choice, you know," Logan said blithely, apparently unaware just how close he was to death at the moment. "I requested another X5 to be my ... companion. But 'Deck here said you probably wouldn't have survived the procedures needed to properly subdue you."
Alec lost it. With a low growl in his throat, he launched himself bodily at Logan Cale, gun forgotten, wanting nothing more than to get his bare hands on the guy.
But an impossibly strong pair of arms caught him in mid air, and the next thing Alec knew he was being held tightly against Joshua's chest in a smothering bear hug. "No!" Joshua said firmly in his ear. "Alec not die today!"
Alec knew Lydecker's X5's had raised their guns ... knew he would have been cut down before ever reaching Cale. But he still struggled. Joshua held him tighter, pinning his arms, making his ribs creak and lifting his feet off the ground. "No!" the dogman snarled, at the same time giving him a not-so-gentle shake. "Remember Max ... the baby! You don't want to die, Alec!" His voice gentled then, as if soothing an animal. "Come back. Think."
Alec still squirmed, but he could feel the adrenaline overload subsiding, his heart rate slowing. And then he was shaking, cold, the nausea that always followed such a surge a familiar feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"Let me go," he said hoarsely.
Warily, Joshua let his feet touch the floor and loosened his hold. Mole was watching them both closely, his own weapon at ready.
Lydecker nodded in approval. Logan, however, had backed behind a table of surgical instruments, the look in his eyes as frightened as Alec had ever seen.
"Get 494 out of here," Lydecker said to Joshua.
Alec picked his gun up off the floor. Immediately, the X5's brought their weapons to ready. "Whoa boys," he said, and with an easing gesture of his hand in their direction tucked the Glock in his belt.
"We're leaving now?" Mole asked.
"This isn't over," Alec said to Logan with a glance at Riley lying like an obscene piece of meat on the table. "You're not gonna get away with it."
Lydecker came up beside him and said softly, "I'd worry more about Max right now if I were you, son."
Alec stared at him.
"You're too late, you know," Lydecker continued. "I notified Renfro as soon as you walked into the compound. We were just waiting for a chance to get you away from her." Again, the look of sympathy that Alec had come to hate. "We couldn't risk Max fighting us, and she would have if we'd killed you. This way her collection was easier."
Alec started toward the door, but Lydecker's hand on his arm pulled him to a stop. "Don't, son," he said softly. "Just let them go. They won't be harmed. I promise. But you can never see her again, or the child. Accept it."
The look in Alec's eyes said it all. No fucking way!
"Renfro's waiting for you!" Lydecker shouted at him as he ran down the hall.
Alec covered 50 miles in less than 30 minutes, eluding three highway patrol cruisers and a sheriff's deputy as his motorcycle hit speeds of over 90 miles per hour.
Maybe Max would be all right, he kept telling himself as he leaned low over the handlebars, the wind whipping through his hair and plastering his leather jacket snug against his body. Maybe she'd had a premonition and gotten out.
When he pulled into the parking lot his first thought was that Lydecker had been messing with him. The apartment complex appeared to be deserted, the same as always, empty windows staring down and trash blowing around in the street. It was just after 10 in the morning, and the sound of traffic on the nearby interstate were the only vehicles he heard.
Alec parked his bike and dismounted. Then he drew his gun and concentrated, using all of his enhanced senses. He knew it was probably foolish, but somehow he thought he might be able to tell if Max was safe or not -- if she was even still here.
Which is when his acute hearing picked up the sound of someone breathing.
Acting purely on instinct, Alec threw himself to the ground and rolled. The bullets from the machine gun bit angrily into the wall he'd been standing in front of, pelting him with shards of brick and mortar. Scrambling, he took cover behind a rusty garbage bin, then cautiously peered out, trying to see how many there were. He still didn't know if Max had been taken. But it would be just like Renfro to leave a man or two behind to eliminate X5-494. Looking around, he realized his choice of cover could have been better. He was badly pinned -- no doors, windows, fire escapes, or any other means of egress, just a bare brick wall at his back and Renfro's goons on the other three sides.
And then he saw her -- Max -- in the ground floor entranceway of the building, flanked by two men wearing combat uniforms. She was sagging between them, probably drugged.
Alec blinked and shook his head, not quite believing his eyes. Those were Familiars who had hold of Max, as big and nasty as the ones they'd taken on during the Jam Pony siege. But he could also see someone else in the shadows behind Max.
"Shit," Alec swore under his breath. They had Original Cindy too. And, unlike Max, Renfro's people had absolutely no reason to keep OC alive.
Another rapid round of gunfire came his way and Alec drew back, shielding his face with his arms. When he peeked out again he saw they'd brought a van around and were hustling Max toward it.
They were going to take her away. He'd never see her again ... never see his son.
Alec took aim at one of the men holding Max, but his hand was shaking. What if she moved ... got in the line of fire again? Frustrated, he lowered his weapon, seeking an alternate plan. Which is when he saw the Familiar who was holding Original Cindy put a gun to the girl's head.
Alec looked from Max, who was being forced into the van, back to OC. "Let the human go!" he shouted. "You don't want her. You want us!"
The Familiar's answer was to wrap his arm more tightly around OC, turning her into a shield in the doorway.
"Alec!" OC shouted. "Stay there! Help Max! Don't worry about me!"
They were closing the van door now, but Alec knew if he fired at the vehicle or its tires OC would get a bullet in the brain. And if he left the cover of the bin to take a shot at Cindy's attacker -- his current line-of-sight was impossible -- he'd be mowed down by machine gun fire.
The van started to pull away. Alec looked at OC. They weren't going to let her live.
There was only one thing he could do. Stepping into the open so he had a clear shot, he took aim and fired--
It was an odd feeling -- like being kicked in the ribs by a mule or hit with a hammer. Thrown backwards by the impact, the sound of the machine gun registering a fraction of a second later in his mind, Alec crashed into the brick wall of the apartment building before sliding to the ground.
The last thing he heard was the squeal of tires as the van pulled out of the parking lot, taking Max away from him forever. And then he wasn't aware of anything anymore.
They'd come for Max without warning, bursting through the door of the apartment, soldiers in full gear brandishing high tech weapons. One of them struck OC hard in the face and she fell to the floor. Then she heard Max in the bedroom, shouting, screaming at them to leave her alone. A minute later they dragged her roommate out, limp, perhaps unconscious, undoubtedly drugged.
And then the goon who'd backhanded her dragged OC to her feet and pushed her ahead of him down the stairs.
Gunfire -- a lot of it. OC figured the calvary had arrived, meaning Alec.
"Go for it, Alec," she'd said under her breath. "Take the bastards down."
But much as he sometimes acted like it, OC knew Alec wasn't a superhero. And right now he was one against half a dozen of the enemy who were physically at least his equal and packing a lot more firepower.
A gun pressed against her temple, and OC knew she was probably going to die. From the doorway she could see Alec pinned across the parking lot, behind a dumpster.
They were pushing Max into the van, and OC knew why Alec wasn't shooting. He'd nearly killed Max not so long ago with that very gun. He'd have to be scared to send a bullet in her direction now.
The Familiar holding her cocked his gun, and OC figured this was it. But then suddenly Alec stepped from behind the bin and took aim.
The bullet struck her captor in the eye, less than an inch from her own head. OC screamed as the soldier's brain exploded and his grip on her vanished. She ran then, not looking back to see his lifeless body hit the ground. There was more gunfire, several bursts from the machine gun -- but they weren't firing at her.
The van with Max pulled away, and suddenly everything was deathly quiet. Which is when OC saw him, lying sprawled on his back on the asphalt beside the dumpster, the Glock still clutched in his hand, eyes closed, and so very, very still.
"Alec!" She ran and knelt beside him, afraid to acknowledge what she knew was probably true. Transgenics didn't go down easily. They could take a lot of damage and still continue fighting. Alec, however, wasn't fighting, wasn't moving ... probably wasn't breathing.
"Alec," OC said, the word coming out as a sob. She looked toward the road where the van had vanished. Max ... If her knight in shining armor was gone, what would become of her ... of the baby?
"Pull yourself together, girl," OC scolded herself. "Max is out of reach, but her man needs you." Cradling Alec's head in her lap, she took a deep breath and made herself check for a pulse. Picking up his limp arm, she pressed fingers to his wrist. Nothing. Tears pricking her eyes, she touched his neck, the carotid artery. Still nothing. And he felt so cold.
"Damn it, boy," she whispered. "Why did you hafta go and get yourself killed?"
But then OC noticed the stickiness on the front of Alec's black t-shirt. Blood. A lot of blood. Too much blood.
The dead don't bleed.
She pressed an ear to Alec's chest, and there it was, the very faintest of heartbeats. Grinning, she wrapped her arms around him. "I knew that beautiful transgenic body of yours was too stubborn to die," she said, burying her face against his shoulder and letting herself sag with relief. But she also knew there were limits to even a transgenic's ability to take punishment. Alec wasn't immortal. He felt pain. He bled. And he was damn near dead.
Sniffing back the tears, OC raised her head, then felt around in Alec's pockets until she found his cell phone. As expected, the number she needed was programmed.
"Sketchy," she said. "Get over to my place, now. Alec needs your help. And don't drag your ass 'cause it's a matter of life and death, and I do mean death. Our boy's hurt bad."
She listened a moment.
"An ambulance won't come down here," she said. "And we can't risk no hospitals either. The bad guys are gonna come right back for him if they find out he's alive. But he's out cold and I can't take care of him alone. Now get your shiftless self in gear!"
Sketchy was absolutely horrified as he stood looking down at Original Cindy holding a blood covered Alec in her arms beside the dumpster.
"Don't just stand there, fool!" OC scolded. "Help me get him inside!"
Together they managed to carry Alec up to the apartment and lay him down on Max's bed.
"He's got to have a doctor," Sketchy said grimly. "I mean, look at him. How many times was he shot?"
"Don't know for sure," OC said, taking a pair of scissors and cutting Alec's t-shirt off. Sketchy brought her water and towels from the kitchen. Gently she began wiping blood off of Alec's chest and stomach. She swallowed hard at what she saw.
There were three bullet holes, two along his lower left side and one higher on his chest, just below his left shoulder. "Please Lord," OC said softly, 'let those bitches be through and throughs." But when Sketchy helped her ease Alec over there were only two exit holes. The chest wound still contained a bullet.
"He's not bleeding as much as you'd think," Sketchy said, looking a bit pale.
"Transgenic blood clots real well," OC said. "Helps 'em on the battlefield and stuff. If we get these wounds clean and keep him quiet, he should heal pretty fast, even if there's some internal damage. But that one in the chest ..." She shook her head. "I know he can't heal with a bullet in him."
Sketchy was now looking positively ill. "You're not thinking what I think you're thinking are you?"
"You mean am I thinkin' about diggin' that son of a bitch out?"
"OC, you're not a doctor."
"Agreed, but I'm all Alec has right now."
Sketchy grabbed OC by the shoulder and dragged her out of the room into the kitchen. "He's barely breathing!" he said. "This is Alec's life you're talking about. He could die and it would be our fault. What would Max say if we let him die, OC? What would she say?"
"She'd say we tried our best," OC shot back at him. "Sketchy, you know this boy's got powerful enemies. They'd tip in a heartbeat if we took him to emergency. Then they'd come in an finish the job. Right now, they think our Alec's dead. And that's a big advantage for him. If we can get him back on his feet he could still go rescue Max."
"What do you mean rescue Max?"
"The big bads took her away. Alec might have been able to stop 'em, but he saved me instead." She looked back toward the bedroom. "I owe my life to him, Sketchy. He gave up Max for me. And now I'm gonna come correct on it for him if it kills me."
"More like if it kills him," Sketchy said under his breath. But he obviously understood where she was coming from. "You know," he said. "Alec threatened me not so long ago -- said if I endangered Max he'd kill me."
OC's eyebrows shot up. "That's 'cause you were bein' a fool," she said. "That boy don't take killin' lightly. If he was gonna ream your ass he'd have reamed you by now. And seems to me he's done you a couple of favors since then, hasn't he?"
Sketchy nodded, looking down. "Yeah, Alec's been a good bud to me." He glanced up, his eyes sheepish. "Took on those steelheads again a few weeks ago, did the run for me so I wouldn't get beat up."
"There," OC said. "Ya see. What you gotta remember Sketchy is that Alec's a soldier. He knows more ways to kill you than you know how to die. He was designed to be a weapon. It's hard for him to live like us normals. It's just not in him to be docile. But he also knows how to be a friend ... how to love. Just 'cause he's incredibly good at killin' doesn't mean he likes takin' people down." She looked Sketchy directly in the eyes. "Alec's not human, Sketch. We can't judge him the way we judge ourselves. He lives by a whole other set of rules, just like Max."
"Human or not, OC," Sketchy said. "He's still probably gonna die in there if we don't do something."
"Agreed," she said, looking around the kitchen for what she'd need. She chose several sharp knives, a large candle, needle and thread for stitches, and gathered up more towels. Then she went back to the bedroom. Lighting the candle, she sterilized three of the blades while Sketchy poured antiseptic on all of the wounds. The bullet holes were seeping blood, but it wasn't spurting out or even flowing very fast. The bullets that had passed through might or might not have hit organs -- she had no way of telling. There also might be internal bleeding. Again, no way to tell. However, OC just had a feeling that, if given half a chance, Alec's body would pull him through this ordeal, just as it had pulled him through a bunch of other times.
She smiled, remembering the arrow Alec had taken in the back a few months ago. Now, when she ran her hand over his smooth skin, there wasn't even the trace of a scar. Transgenic healing powers -- just this side of miraculous.
She'd gone to find more alcohol and Sketchy was bandaging the two wounds in Alec's side when he stirred.
"OC!" Sketchy called. "He's comin' around!"
OC put a cool hand against Alec's face and gently patted his cheeks. "Alec. Come on, sugar. Talk to Original Cindy." She turned to Sketchy. "He couldn't have stayed under for just a little while longer? Until I dug that bullet out? The only kinda luck this boy has lately is bad."
"Max," Alec said weakly, reaching up to touch OC's hand.
"Max ain't here, Boo," OC said gently. "And you're hurt somethin' awful. But you're gonna get better and then you can rescue your girl."
"I'm not dead?" Alec said, his eyes finally focusing on OC.
"Not unless I'm an angel," OC said wryly. "And in spite of you tryin' to act like Bruce Willis out there. But you're in a world of hurt and I've got to dig a bullet out of that fine transgenic body of yours."
The scared little boy look Alec gave her nearly broke OC's heart.
"How bad?" he whispered.
Sketchy brought a glass of water but OC waved him away. "Not before," she whispered. "Later." She thought a moment. "But some of that Scotch he keeps in the kitchen cupboard sure couldn't hurt." Sketchy nodded and went to fetch the bottle. She turned back to Alec. "Like I said, it's pretty bad, but you've probably survived worse."
"They took Max."
His brows drew together. "They must think I'm dead."
"Exactly," OC said. "Which is one reason you're here instead of in the hospital. I figure you'll have a real big advantage if they don't expect you to show up lookin' for our Boo."
"If I live," Alec said with a faint trace of his usual wry humor. He looked down at his bandaged ribs. "Where was I hit? It felt like I took the whole clip."
"Two in the side that went clean through, one in the chest that we're gonna hafta to get out. You've lost blood, but the bleedin' is slowin' down. I'm sorry, Alec. There's no other way but to cut, unless you want me to get you to the hospital after all."
He shook his head. "No.You're right. 'Sides, Lydecker would hear the second we hit the ER and then he'd wanna reel me in."
OC nodded. "We gotta do this, Alec. You tastin' any blood?"
"That's good ... I think." Sketchy handed her the first knife. "Sketch," she said. "Give him a good swig of that Scotch, then pin him down."
Alec swallowed as much as he could of the alcohol while OC held his head, then he lay back on the pillow, his eyes warily watching that knife.
"Before you ask," OC said, "No, I've never done this kind of thing before. And yes, it's gonna hurt. It's gonna hurt like hell. But you've got to try and stay still 'cause I could cause a lot of damage if you squirm."
Alec nodded, his breathing rapid and shallow.
Sketchy gingerly placed his hands on Alec's shoulders from behind, holding him down.
OC took a deep breath. "I'm sorry," she said, then she pressed the tip of the knife into the wound ...
Blood. Blood everywhere. Logan's thirst for X5 blood ... Sandeman's thirst for Max's blood ... His own blood pouring out of his body ...
Blood. The theme of his life, and of his death.
And always with the blood came pain ... physical, mental, emotional ...
Pain. He remembered the pain most of all, the pain of the knife cutting into his chest, the probing, OC's tears as she kept saying how sorry she was over and over again. The bullet had been in really deep. It had taken a long time to dig it out, and all during the procedure he'd tried so hard not to scream ...
Low pain threshold, he'd once been told by Manticore. Yet another flaw to add to the list in his file. And a low pain threshold meant he felt every second of the agony.
Eventually, mercifully, he passed out.
When Alec finally opened his eyes again he had a feeling a good bit of time had passed. But he was still lying in Max's bed in the apartment, and he could hear OC out in the kitchen.
She came in to check on him a few minutes later, and her face lit up with relief at seeing him awake.
"Ya see!" she exclaimed. "I knew all along you'd come 'round on your own good time, Sketchy's dire predictions be damned. He swore up and down I'd killed you." She sat down on the edge of the bed and felt his forehead. Fever's down, too. And last I looked those wounds were startin' to heal."
"How long?" Alec rasped weakly.
OC held up three fingers.
She shook her head.
He gulped. "Days?"
"Days, Boo. You've been out cold for three days. And I bet you're hungry."
Actually, Alec was hungry ... and thirsty. And he also had to go to the bathroom. He tried moving and winced at the soreness in his left side.
"If you was gonna die, you'd be dead by now I think," OC reassured him.
"Anybody come lookin' for me?"
"Everything's been quiet as a church."
He winced. "Can I go to the bathroom, please?"
"If you can stand you can," she said. "If not ..." She handed him an empty milk carton.
Alec eased himself up on his elbows. His head was spinning, but he honestly thought he could make it.
"I'll go heat up some chicken soup," OC said. "Just don't you go passin' out on me 'cause Sketchy ain't here and I can't lift you by myself. Plus, you don't wanna go tearin' open my fine stitches."
"Okay," Alec said with a little smile. She started to leave the room. "Hey, OC."