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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Indispensable
By Valjean

The ninth continuation story in "The Best Laid Plans" universe. (rated R for language, violence, sexuality) -- author's note

*************************************
Max was gone.

And he had no idea where to look for her.


"You're in no shape to do this," OC said, standing in the bedroom door, hands on hips.

"I've been ten days doin' nothin' but watchin' television, healing, and goin' crazy with worry," Alec said as he shrugged into his leather jacket. "Time's up. I'll be fine."

"Fine enough to take on Familiars?"

Alec took a deep breath. His chest still hurt, but the pain wasn't quite as intense. "I'll be all right."

"'Cause you're always all right?" OC said. "Tell me how that works for you again? You took three bullets and came about as close to dyin' as anyone I've ever seen. I know you transgenics heal like magic what with all those stem cell thingys swimmin' in your bloodstream, but you're still mortal."

"I know," Alec said quietly. He fished in his pocket for his motorcycle keys, then checked the battery in his cell phone.

"Where you gonna start lookin' for her?" OC asked. "You got any idea?"

"No," Alec admitted. "But I'm bettin' there's someone who can help me with that."

"You mean Lydecker?" OC's eyebrows rose. "That man probably thinks you're dead. If you go waltzin' in through the door alive and kickin' who knows what he'll do to your ass."

"OC," Alec said in a very quiet, un-Alec-like voice. "They took Max. They took my son."

"I know, baby," she replied softly. Then suddenly, in a move that surprised them both, she crossed the room and enfolded him in her arms in a big hug.

Alec's lip quirked up as he hugged OC back. God, it feels good to know that someone cares about me. "I'll be okay," he said, his voice low and rough. "I have to be." Then he lifted his head, taking a last look around the apartment. He'd had some happy times here, but he knew he'd most likely never see this place again.

OC guessed what he was thinking. "You'll be back with our girl before you know it," she said, her own voice growing husky, not wanting to admit the truth, that Alec and Max might be gone from her life forever.

"Yeah," Alec said wistfully. He thought about his friends at Jam Pony. "Keep Sketchy outta trouble, okay? Tell him to make sure the next pool shark he takes on isn't genetically enhanced. And tell Normal-- Tell him I appreciate all he's done for me and Max."

"Alec--"

He raised his hand, silencing her. But he did catch her eyes with his, conveying his heartfelt gratitude in one final, sincere look.

"Goodbye, OC," he said softly.

*****

Her quarters were comfortable -- desk, armchair, soft bed, private bathroom -- but there were no windows, and the steel door was kept locked.

"Where am I?" had been her first question, asked of the medical technician sent to draw blood shortly after she'd awakened in her prison.

She was still waiting for an answer. Days had passed, and no one would talk to her. She'd even tried escaping once, overpowering one of the silent doctors who poked and prodded her every few hours. But she'd been caught and subdued in the windowless hallway just outside the room. The sedative they'd given her had been powerful. After that, Max was more careful. She didn't want drugs in her system that might harm the baby.

The baby. Alec's son. Lying on the bed, trying to relax for the sake of her pregnancy, hands resting gently on her belly, feeling the little kicks, Max thought about the child. So far, no one had tried to hurt her, other than the endless, and at times humiliating, medical examinations. But she was afraid that wouldn't last. After all, Renfro was with these people, and Madam Renfro was one of the cruelest creatures to ever walk the Earth. Just look what she did to Zack ... what she wanted to do to Alec.

More time passed, boring, endless ...

Eventually, Max lost track of whether it was day or night. There were no television, books, music, or any other diversions other than her own thoughts. She slept a great deal of the time. And when she was awake, she simply waited ... and worried ... about him. Where was he? He had to be looking for her. Had he already been captured, or worse? Her only consolation was a vague feeling in the back of her psychic mind that Alec was still "there" -- small comfort based on no facts at all.

And then one day the door to her cell opened and the person she'd been expecting all along walked through.

"452," Madam Renfro said, the look in her eyes sly. "I hope you've been comfortable."

"Not bad, for a prison," Max said, watching her old nemesis warily. She sat up in the bed. "Care to tell me where I am?"

"Far, far away from Seattle," Renfro said. "Far away from all your friends and allies. You're all alone here, 452 -- with us."

"That's supposed to scare me?"

"Perhaps," Renfro said. "But I really don't care if you're frightened or not. The important thing is that you're now where you belong."

"Is Sandeman here?"

"In good time," Renfro said. "We're preparing for his arrival. He'll be most anxious to examine you."

"Why?" Max said. "The runes are long gone."

"I know," Renfro said, frowning slightly. "And that's a problem, but thankfully one we can remedy."

"What do you mean?"

"It seems that your current condition precludes the formation of the runes."

"You mean my pregnancy?"

"Exactly. However, as soon as the fetus is removed, the symbols should begin reappearing."

Max clutched her stomach. "This baby isn't even seven months along. It can't survive outside of me."

"Unfortunately, we don't have time to wait," Renfro said. "We'll do the best we can for the child, however. It's important to us as well, in its own way, but not as important as you.

"He's important," Max said. "The baby is a boy."

"Of course," Renfro said. But her smile didn't reach her glittering eyes.

"You're not hurting my baby."

"The decision isn't yours, 452. Remember how I once told you that you're just a piece of meat to me? Well, you're still meat, the baby too. Just more important meat than before." She thought a moment. "Oh, and you don't need to get your hopes up that your impetuous mate will be rushing heroically to your rescue."

Max's heart began to beat faster. "What do you mean?"

"I'm talking about 494 of course," Renfro said. "The sire of that brat in your belly." She smiled broadly this time. "I'm only sorry I didn't get my hands on him before he died. I'm a bit of a connoisseur when it comes to my pleasures, and he had a lot to offer. He would have been a stimulating ... well, you know what I'm talking about, don't you? He was your lover all these months." She gave a funny little laugh, her mind obviously picturing the possibilities. "Lucky you."

"Alec's not dead," Max said, but her voice had dropped to a whisper. "I'd know if he was dead."

Renfro took a PDA out of her pocket. Switching on the small screen, she handed the device to Max. "Believe me," Renfro said. "Your precious smart Alec is indeed quite, quite dead."

Apparently her abductors' van had been equipped with a video camera. Max watched the footage as she was dragged from the apartment building, hanging limp between two large soldiers that looked suspiciously liked Familiars. OC was being held by a third soldier in the shadows of the doorway. And Alec ... Alec was pinned down behind a dumpster, ducking machine gun fire.

She swallowed hard, not wanting to watch, but unable to look away. Alec took aim at the men holding her, but his hand wavered. Of course he couldn't shoot in her direction, after what had happened before he'd be terrified to. But OC's captor was pressing a gun against her head ... Max closed her eyes. Was she going to witness her roommate's murder? But when she looked she saw that Alec had stepped out from behind his cover. He aimed, fired a single shot, and the man holding OC collapsed. Max smiled in spite of everything. Brave Alec. Of course he'd saved OC.

But then came the barrage of bullets. She choked back a sob when she saw Alec thrown against the brick wall by their impact ... when he slid to the ground and just lay there.

The video ended.

"You see," Renfro said softly. "You'll never see 494 again. He's dead because of you, just like all the others. So, you might as well cooperate. No one is going to help you except us."

"And if I don't cooperate?" Max said, staring sightlessly down at the sheets of her bed, visions of Alec's death playing over and over again in her mind.

Renfro shrugged. "Then we'll simply do things the hard way, just like we did back at Manticore."

*****

"Josh!" Alec called out softly when his big friend at long last stepped outside the back door of the base's main building.

Alec had slipped through a hole in the rear perimeter fence, a spot Mole had told him about, and the way the mutants occasionally left the compound when they didn't want anyone to know they were gone. Of course, at the old Manticore he'd never have been able to get in undetected. But here, with their piss poor budget, security was a lot more lax.

The dogman was carrying a bag of trash. Alec knew Josh cleaned up the mess hall every night, and had been banking he'd eventually show up. But he hadn't counted on crouching shivering and cramped in the shrubbery for over three hours in a sleeting rain. Then again, he supposed potential pneumonia was a small price to pay for what he hoped to get here tonight.

Joshua raised his head, sniffing the air. Then he snorted, sneezed, and sniffed loudly again, as if not quite believing what his sensitive nose was telling him.

"Josh!" Alec said again, standing up and rubbing his left leg to bring back the circulation. "Over here!"

Joshua froze, his blue eyes growing round with amazement, the bag of trash dangling forgotten from his hand.

"Alec?" he tried, barely getting the name out.

Grinning, Alec stepped forward, arms wide. "Hey, Big Fella," he said cheerfully. "Miss me?"

Joshua began to blink rapidly. "But ... but ... you're dead." He shied back dropping the bag. "You're a ghost!"

"Nah!" Alec said. "Whatever gave you that idea? Do I look like a ghost?"

Joshua still didn't believe his eyes, and looked as if he was ready to bolt at any second. "Lydecker," Joshua mumbled. "Lydecker told us you'd been shot and killed."

"Since when did Lydecker ever tell the truth about anything?" Alec said. Slowly he moved closer, holding out his hand. "Here. Touch me. Sniff me even. I swear I'm real."

Joshua tentatively brushed Alec's hand with his long dark-nailed fingers, then suddenly grabbed him, crushing him against his chest and inhaling his scent deeply with a loud snort.

"Okay," Alec said in a strained voice as he was smothered against the material of Joshua's flannel shirt. He grunted as the resultant exuberant bear hug reawakened the ache in his chest and side. "I missed you too," he got out in a painful gasp.

Joshua set him back and looked down into his eyes. "Alec?" he said. "It really is you?"

"In the flesh," Alec said, trying to catch his breath, amused at how hard it was for Joshua to believe he was alive. "And I need your help, Big Fella."

*****

"So, Logan lives out here at the base most of the time now?"

Joshua nodded. "He stays in the basement with the big computer and Riley."

"Big computer?" Alec didn't understand.

"Lydecker brought in lots more equipment last week, said we needed it for the genetic research."

"Is he lettin' Dix and Luke work on it, too?"

"No. Only Logan."

Which made Alec's plan harder to accomplish in one way, but easier in another. If Dix and Luke had still been able to access the data bases they could probably have gotten the information for him. However, the fact that Logan was ensconced in the basement all intimate with New Manticore's deepest darkest secrets meant he might only have to go through one X5 in order to persuade Cale to help him.

It was now fairly late at night. Most of those in the compound had retired to their barracks. Alec and Joshua crept quietly through the deserted hallways until they came to the basement access. The site of that door still brought chills to Alec's spine, not only because he'd been tortured down there, but also because of what Lydecker had done to Riley in one of the operating rooms, turning the X5 into a living blood bank for Logan Cale.

Luckily, there were no guards on duty tonight, probably because there weren't any guests in Lydecker's torture suite at the moment.

"Josh," Alec said, putting a hand on his big friend's arm, bringing him to a stop just shy of the door.

Joshua turned around. "What, Alec?"

"Are you okay with this?"

"What do you mean?"

"I realize Logan's your friend. We might have to--"

"I know, Alec," Joshua said, his voice deadly serious. "Logan's changed since Max chose you instead of him."

"You mean since I took her away," Alec said quietly.

Joshua gave him one of those wise looks that always made Alec wriggle. "Max and Alec are right together. Max and Logan were wrong. There could have been no other way."

"Well, Yoda," Alec said. "If you're sure you don't mind what might happen next ..." Drawing his gun, he gestured toward the door.

Alec let Joshua handle Riley, who was standing outside the entrance to the computer room. Manly pride aside, he knew he was in no physical shape to take on an X5, even a brain damaged one. And besides, he didn't want anyone to see him. The longer Lydecker thought he was dead, the better his chances of reaching Max without an alarm going up.

Joshua quietly crept up on Riley from behind. Then, with speed almost equal to an X5's blur, he wrapped a huge arm around 533's next, choking him until he passed out cold on the floor.

Not bad, Alec thought as he gingerly stepped over his fellow X5's unconscious body. Obviously Joshua had been practicing, probably with Mole, learning how to fight and defend himself.

Joshua stayed outside the room, keeping a lookout in case Lydecker or someone else decided to go on a midnight stroll in the basement. Then Alec eased the door open.

Joshua might have been surprised to see him alive, but Logan Cale sure wasn't. "I've been waiting for you," Logan said. He was seated in a chair in front of a keyboard and several terminals, but had swiveled around to face the door. "I knew it was too good to be true when Lydecker assured me you were dead. Besides, he wouldn't show me your bullet-riddled body, even though I practically begged." He smiled. "I so wanted to pay my last respects to the man -- and I use the term man loosely -- who stole the love of my life."

Alec found that just plain gruesome. "Don't get out much anymore do you Cale. I mean, if it takes a corpse to brighten your day ...

Logan's face reddened and he turned back to the keyboard. "What do you want?" he said harshly. "I presume it's important since you've obviously either killed or incapacitated my bodyguard."

"You mean your slave."

"Whatever."

"I need the location of Renfro's base." Alec nodded at the bank of hard drives on the table. "I figure you've been sendin' her the gene base info as it's been fed into the programs. That means you've got an internet address, which can be traced back to a real place."

"So," Logan said, turning around to face him again. "They finally took her away from you."

"You mean you didn't know?"

"No. That piece of information Lydecker didn't share."

"You'll help me find her then?"

"I didn't say that."

"They'll hurt her. Maybe even kill her eventually."

"Along with your son," Logan said, a strangely satisfied look in his eyes that disturbed Alec more than anything the man had said so far.

"If you ever cared about Max ... if you ever loved her ... you'll help me with this." Alec paused. "Logan, don't let your hatred of me keep you from helpin' her."

"Go to hell."

Alec sighed heavily. He hadn't really expected Logan to cooperate, but it had been worth a try.

"Okay," Alec said easily. "So we do it the old fashioned Manticore way."

"What are you talking about?"

"This," Alec said. Moving quicker than a snake striking, he had his arm around Logan's neck and his gun pressed against his temple, literally pulling him up out of the chair. "Show me the address," he said, his voice flat and emotionless.

"You wouldn't kill me," Logan said, having difficulty speaking due to the pressure on his throat. "Max would never forgive you."

"Max has already forgiven me for worse," Alec said. "I'm not worried about you. Renfro's location. Now!"

"She's in a town called Calvi, on the island of Corsica," Logan grated out. "That's where the information is being funneled. But you don't know that they've got Max there."

"It's a place to start," Alec said. "And if all else fails, I'll have a little talk with Renfro."

"I heard she wanted to do a lot more than talk with you," Logan said. "Maybe if you fuck her she'll tell you where Max is."

Alec couldn't help it. He rarely lost his temper, but he had his limits. He hit Logan in the jaw with his closed fist -- once, hard, expertly. Cale slumped in his chair, glasses askew and head hanging limply.

Breathing hard -- even that simple maneuver bringing pain to his chest -- Alec contemplated his next move, wondering if perhaps he shouldn't just end things right now. Logan would be out of their lives and off their backs forever, and who was to say that Max would ever even find out. He glanced over at the door. No witnesses. All it would take would be a small quick snap, a twist of the neck. He'd done it before, on assignments, for Manticore ...

I'm not an assassin anymore. I'm not a killer.

"I know I'm gonna regret missin' this chance someday," Alec said aloud to the empty room. Then he unceremoniously pulled Logan out of the chair, tossed him on the floor, and took a seat at the computer console himself. Now that he had Max's possible whereabouts there were a couple of other things he needed to do.

*****

"I'm coming with you," Joshua said quietly.

Alec stood with his mouth hanging open, not believing what he was hearing. "You want to come to Corsica with me?"

Joshua nodded. "We need to rescue Max."

Alec glanced behind him into the room where Logan Cale still lay stretched unconscious on the floor, then down at Riley, who was just beginning to come around.

He grinned, shaking his head as he tried to picture it. "And I can just see us goin' through airport security now. Of course I could always stuff you in a dog crate and send you through baggage as a big puppy. But you know they don't pressurize the cargo hold? Gets really cold in there. Almost as bad as third class. Not sure about the rabies laws in France either. You might need some kind of certificate, or else they'd quarantine you."

Joshua wasn't laughing. "I need to go with you, Alec. I can tell you're hurt. You can't do this alone."

"I'm fine," Alec said. "And you're bein' ridiculous. There's no way you can come with me."

"Think, Alec," Joshua said, rapping his knuckles on the side of Alec's head. "You're X5. You're very smart. There has to be a way. You need my help. Max needs my help. Think of a way to get me there."

Alec was thinking. Joshua was right about his injury. He was majorly off his game, and would be for at least another two weeks, supposing he wasn't shot, stabbed, or otherwise mutilated again in the meantime. And there were private means of transportation available -- if one knew the right contacts and had enough cash.

But he had contacts ... and cash. Or at least he would soon.

Alec took a deep breath, and tried not to wince when it hurt. "I know I'm probably crazy, but ... go get your helmet."

Joshua grinned from ear to ear, pausing only long enough to look down at Riley who was trying to open his eyes.

"Go back to sleep, buddy," Alec said, cracking Riley on the jaw with his fist. The other X5 went out again like a light. "Jeez, I hate doin' that," he said to Joshua. "And not just 'cause it hurts. We can't risk him seein'--" However, when he looked up the big guy was gone.

--and back again within five minutes, his red motorcycle helmet dangling from one hand and a backpack in the other.

By this time, Alec was beginning to get nervous. Even though it was the dead of night, one never knew when and where Lydecker might prowl.

"What about Logan?" Joshua asked, putting the helmet on. "He'll tell everyone you're alive and they'll know you've gone to rescue Max."

Alec had been thinking about that too, and he didn't like the conclusion he'd come to. But then again, as long as they were going to get private transportation to Corsica ... and supposing that kind of transportation would be with people who didn't care a great deal about their passengers so long as they paid ...

"We'll take him along," Alec said.

Joshua's eyes widened in surprise.

"What?" Alec said. "You thought I'd kill him?" He held out his hand. "Don't answer that."

Joshua remained silent.

"Well," Alec said. "What are you waitin' for? If you're comin' with me you're gonna hafta be useful. Pick old Deadwood in there up and bring him along. Get it? Deadwood? Log? Logan? Oh, forget it."

With one last look of puzzled amazement at Alec, Joshua complied, scooping Logan up and slinging him over his shoulder. Then together the odd trio exited the compound the same way Alec had come in -- without even the semi-comatose Riley ever knowing the dead had paid a visit.

*****

"I have a little something for you," Renfro said.

"Oh, goody," Max replied, not even bothering to turn over in the bed. She'd been crying -- had been crying constantly in fact for the past two days, ever since seeing that video, but she wasn't going to let Renfro know. "Can't wait. Let me guess. You're going to give me a baby shower."

"It's a picture."

Max turned over. "A picture of what?"

Renfro smiled wickedly and proceeded to tape an 8 by 10 color photograph to the wall beside the bed, right in Max's line-of-sight. "Thought you might want a little something to remember him by," she said, still smiling.

Max felt her heart contract in her chest. It was a still shot taken from the video footage, enlarged and clarified -- Alec, lying sprawled on the broken pavement outside of her apartment building, eyes closed, the front of his black t-shirt wet with blood."

*****

The clean-cut, handsome, casually dressed young man who walked into Eric von Schmedler's small Vancouver airport office didn't look like his typical client, which immediately aroused the cargo pilot's suspicion. This kid was one of two things, either a white collar criminal, or an undercover cop -- because criminals and cops were the only people with any reason to be checking out his "special flights." If the boy was the former, no problem. But if he was the latter, then he had two guys in the back room ready to take care of the matter.

His secretary, Eileen, was obviously hoping they'd be snagging this good looking new client. Leaning forward at her desk, showing her cleavage to its best advantage, she fluffed her bleach blonde hair and batted mascara dark eyelashes.

The guy flashed her a charming smile, his eyes unabashedly taking in the natural wonders of Eileen, and von Schmedler put down one point in favor of this one being a real prospect. Cops, even undercover ones, were usually a lot more uptight when it came to the ladies, always worried about harassment charges and such.

"Alec McPherson," the young man said, holding out his hand. "An acquaintance in Seattle said you might be able to help me out."

Von Schmedler took hold of the offered hand, and was immediately impressed by the strong grip. This kid might look like a preppie, but he obviously wasn't soft. He also moved with the grace of a natural athlete, and there was muscle rippling subtly beneath that t-shirt and jacket. Put one in the "cop" column.

"What can I do for you Mr. McPherson?"

His potential client was looking around the office, taking in the various maps on the wall, the files cluttering the desk, the memos by the phone. "I need to hire a plane," he said. He put both hands down on the desk and leaned forward slightly. Striking green eyes bored compellingly into his own. "And my itinerary has to remain ... confidential."

"You in trouble with the law?" von Schmedler said. "Because I run an honest business here. No passport, no papers, no ride."

A sly grin, but those green eyes still held onto him. "No. No trouble with the law. But, ya see, I've got business competitors who would benefit from knowin' my travel plans. My associates and I need a pilot who can be discreet. I was told you might be suitable." He blinked, breaking the spell, and turned around. "But maybe I was told wrong," he said, now facing Eileen who was bent over searching for a pencil she'd dropped on the floor, her tight skirt hiding very little of her rear assets.

"I might be able to help," von Schmedler said quickly, deciding this guy had too much of an attitude to be a cop. Then there was that "lean on 'em 'til they do it my way" superior air about him. Schmedler upped this one's category from white collar to organized crime, in which case there was money to be had.

Again he got a nice, friendly smile that didn't reach the guy's eyes. There was something kind of spooky about those green eyes -- a wariness, a hardness that didn't fit with a kid that young.

"I need a ride to France," McPherson said. "Three passengers, no cargo, no questions asked."

"When?"

"Now."

"Passport? Papers?"

McPherson just looked at him. Then he said two magic words. "Ten thousand."

Von Schmedler thought a moment, and made his decision. "Deal. But the money's up front."

"Half up front."

Von Schmedler pressed a button beneath his desk, a door in the rear of the office opened, and two very large "associates" emerged to stand behind him. "Ten thousand, all up front, or no deal."

Again that cocky grin, and a shake of the head. "Gentlemen, gentlemen," McPherson said. "Look, we're all reasonable men here. And we both know that a deal like this isn't gonna happen unless all parties cooperate. Now, I'd be an idiot to give you all of my money up front. So, it's fifty percent now, fifty percent in France, and everyone goes away happy."

Von Schmedler signaled one of the men who came around the desk and grabbed hold of the front of McPherson's jacket. "The boss says you fork over the ten grand now," his deep voice rumbled. He smiled a rather toothless smile. "Or maybe we'll just take your money and forget all about the trip. Huh?"

"I don't think so," McPherson said softly.

Too late von Schmedler remembered what he'd seen in the depths of those green eyes.

His man never knew what hit him. The uppercut to his chin was delivered with speed and strength beyond human capabilities. The crunch of bone breaking was sickening, and the body hit the floor with a dull thud. His second man raced around the desk, but before he could even touch the guy a foot was in his face and he went flying across the room to crash against the filing cabinets on the wall. Shaking it off, he charged again, only to be met by another flying kick that this time sent him tumbling backwards over Eileen's desk. The girl shrieked, and scrambled out of the way, barely managing to keep her frisky cleavage inside the low-cut top of her dress.

McPherson, grinning, cracked his knuckles, looking for all the world like he'd just enjoyed himself immensely. Hell, von Schmedler thought, he wasn't even breathing hard.

"What are you?" von Schmedler stammered as he reached into his desk drawer. "FBI? CIA? Interpol?" Then he had the gun in his hand. This one was too dangerous to let live.

But with a wild light dancing in those green eyes, McPherson was on him, moving too fast, an impossible blur of motion. Von Schmedler felt a sharp pain in his wrist as the gun was twisted from his grasp, and then he found himself looking down the barrel of a Glock, held unwaveringly, deadly, in the hand of a kid with abilities that went far beyond those of any cop, or human being for that matter.

McPherson was shaking his head in amazement as he tucked the other gun in his belt. "Why do you guys always have to make it so difficult?" he said. "All I want is a ride for me and some friends. I'm not police, or government, or anyone who's gonna turn you in. In fact, if things work out, I could make you a very rich man." He motioned with the gun. "Now, can we work out a deal, or not?"

Von Schmedler, shaken to the core and beginning to suspect something very frightening about Alec McPherson, nodded. Hey, they might not be human, but money was money. If someone came along looking for Trannies and they offered a better deal, then he could always turn the freak in. But for now ... "We can do it," he said quietly. "Half now, half when I get you and your friends to France."

*****

Max awakened to find a strange elfin-like, little man holding a cane sitting in a chair beside her bed. And she knew in an instant who he was.

"Sandeman?"

He nodded, smiling, his wizened face crinkling with amusement. "Herman Sandeman," he said, holding out his hand to her. "And you are my Special Little One. I'm so glad to meet you at last."

"Please don't hurt my baby," Max said, the first words that came into her mind, ignoring the proffered hand. If anything happened to Alec's son ... She couldn't even contemplate such a horrible thing. This child was all she had left of him.

Sandeman frowned, managing to look even more like some kind of ancient elf. "Has Madam Renfro been threatening you?" he said. "Because if she has, she'll be severely reprimanded. I left strict orders that you were to be treated well."

"I'm a prisoner," Max said.

"I prefer to think of you as my guest."

"Call it what you want, but the door's still locked."

"Hopefully we'll be able to do something about that soon," Sandeman said. "I'm sure when you understand the circumstances fully you'll be more than glad to cooperate, and then there won't be any need for locks."

"My baby," Max said. "What about my baby?"

"The child is very special," the old man said. "He's almost as important as you are."

"Important for what?"

"For saving mankind."

"From the snake venom pathogen and White's breeding cult?"

Sandeman nodded. "I see you are beginning to understand. Your body contains the secret genetic combinations of the antidote, as well as the code for the vaccine. The runes you experienced several months ago were the first of a set that are encoded in you to appear. Those you saw foretold the apocalypse that is about to happen. The next set will give the formulas. And the third and final text will reveal how to administer the dosages."

"Renfro says the runes can't appear on me while I'm pregnant. That's why she's threatening to kill the baby."

"Renfro isn't a scientist," Sandeman said. "If only she'd waited for my return I could have spared you such worry."

"You mean you won't take the baby?"

"From your womb? Certainly not. That would be barbaric. As I said, the child is very important as well, although in a different way from you."

"What way?"

"He's the product of a successful X5 pairing, am I right?"

Max nodded.

"And his DNA is true to his parents'?"

"So I've been told."

"Then he is one of the first in what I hope will be many naturally bred X5's, a race that will be able to defeat my son Ames in the battles to be fought in the decades to come."

Max felt a little bit better. At least Alec's son was safe for now, even if this guy was talking nonsense.

"Now," Sandeman continued, "as for the runes ... We need to make the second set appear. I have a simple hormone shot that will nullify the effects of the pregnancy. Combined with the male's pheromones that should produce the desired results."

"What male's pheromones?" Max asked, confused again.

Sandeman's bushy white eyebrows rose in surprise. "Why, the sire's," he said. "Who else's."

"You mean the baby's father?"

"Of course. Afterall, it was his presence, his pheromones, that triggered the first set of runes. Surely you noticed they manifested shortly after the two of you first came together."

Max was confused. "Alec and I ... we weren't like that back then. We were just friends."

"But you must have touched," Sandeman insisted. "That's all it would take to trigger the first set, some physical closeness ... hugging even, a little skin contact on a regular basis?"

Max remembered the night she'd rescued Alec from the police station and told him about Ben. How he'd held her in his arms all night long on the couch, comforting her ... talking ... After that, he had been more intimate with her ... touching ... holding her hand once in a while ... putting his arm around her when she needed him to. And the runes had appeared. Why hadn't she ever considered the possibility before? -- that Alec's presence in her life had been the trigger.

"So, you're saying that the second set can't happen without Alec?"

"Alec?"

"494. My mate. The father of the baby."

"Oh yes, I forgot that you X5's had taken human names. You were always called 'Max' I believe. And Alec got his name ...?"

"Because he was such a smart Alec," Max said, smiling a little bit at the memory of the day she bestowed a real name on 494.

And he'd never changed it. Even though he could have ... even though he thought she hated him back then. He'd kept the name she'd given him. Looking back, Max realized now how blind she'd been, how she should have recognized he had feelings for her from the beginning. They'd wasted so much time ...

"Very clever," Sandeman said, smiling as well. "And so we must get your smart Alec here just as soon as possible so I can retrieve the formulas and get to work."

A tear slid down Max's cheek.

"What is it my dear?"

"Alec's dead," she said. "He died trying to keep Renfro from taking me." Her eyes went to the morbid photograph on the wall.

Sandeman followed her gaze, and blanched. "How long ago did he die?" he asked, his voice suddenly strained.

Max shrugged. "How long have I been here?"

"Thirteen days."

"Then he died thirteen days ago."

Sandeman stood up and looked down at her sadly. "This is indeed a tragedy of major proportions. And I don't know quite what to do. It never occurred to me that Madam Renfro would use such brutal methods in order to retrieve you." He looked at the picture again. "Methods apparently brutal enough so that your mate thought it necessary to fight to the death in order to protect you." He moved to the door, but stopped and looked back at her. "You and I will talk again soon. In the meantime, I must find out if there's any way to still save the human race without your smart Alec."

*****

"I can't believe you were such a fool," Sandeman said, pacing the office, rapping his cane on the floor, and looking for all the world like a very distressed Santa's helper.

Renfro was having trouble maintaining her composure. She wasn't used to being reprimanded. The fact that it was by their long missing leader nonplused her even more. "I'm sorry, sir," she said. "But I wasn't informed about the male's importance. We had no idea his physiology would come into play as well."

Sandeman stopped and looked at her, his pale blue eyes mirroring a sharpness of intellect that belied his many years. "There was absolutely no need for such violence," he said. "According to 452 and from the evidence of that photograph, 494 was brutally murdered, shot down while trying to protect her. My children were designed to be not just ultimate warriors, but ultimate beings, emotionally as well as physically. Losing her mate like that has traumatized 452 ... Max. I only hope it won't affect the pregnancy. As for 494, his loss is greater than even you can imagine. One of the drawbacks of my genetic program was the concern that my X5's could only be created in laboratories. Max and ... 'Alec' as she calls him, were a successful breeding pair, a precious rarity. And then there's the problem of the runes. I don't think we can make the next two sets appear without him." He looked at her hard then. "You're barrage of bullets may have not only ended 494's life, but the lives of billions of others as well.

"452 and 494 were matched based on your genetic database, sir," Renfro said. "Before I found out that 452 was the one we'd been looking for. There has been at least one other successful mating as well. There's a six-month-old child at the New Manticore base. We were just beginning to see results of the breeding program when I had to order the base cauterized."

Renfro stared at her. "You were the one who ordered Manticore's destruction?"

"Yes, sir. As ordered, in turn, by the Committee. I had to follow that order so I could protect my cover." She looked away a moment, and added quietly, "We had already pinpointed 452 as the carrier of the genetic information, and she was safely offsite. I hadn't received orders from you to salvage any of the other transgenics. In fact, you hadn't issued any orders in several years, sir. We didn't even know how to contact you."

"They ... were ... my ... children," Sandeman said, enunciating each word carefully. "And you tried to burn them alive? It's a miracle any survived at all."

"Orders, sir," Renfro repeated.

"You disgust me," Sandeman said. "If you weren't so useful ..." He let the sentence trail off. Then he sighed heavily. "Is there any way to retrieve 494's remains? Perhaps I could do something with his hormones, salvage enough of his DNA ..."

"We could check, sir," a very subdued Madam Renfro said. "I imagine the local police took charge of the body and it may still be in the city morgue. Either that, or it was sent off to the CDC for study. They're fascinated by the transgenics and have already autopsied several."

"Find the body," Sandeman said harshly. "And have it delivered to me."

"Yes, sir."

*****

"You really are out of your mind," Logan said as they walked across the tarmac toward the old DC9 that would take them to France. Joshua, his face still safely concealed by the motorcycle helmet, kept a firm grip on Eyes Only's arm.

"No," Alec said levelly. "That was Ben. Although, I've gotta admit, if people knew what I was thinkin' about some of the time they'd probably be afraid of me too. But still, I consider myself fairly rational, at least at the moment."

"Where did you get the money?" Logan asked.

Alec smirked. "Where do you think?"

"Of course, you stole it. I've got to admit, keeping the cash in a safety deposit box in a Vancouver bank was pretty smart. The U.S. authorities wouldn't be able to keep track of you very well across the border."

"Yeah," Alec said, hefting his backpack to his other side where it didn't hurt his healing wounds so much. That fight back in the office had aggravated them more than he cared to admit. "I set that up months ago."

"Did Max know?" Logan asked. "That you had a secret stash of cash?"

Alec didn't answer that question. Instead, he handed his pack to Joshua and walked ahead to meet von Schmedler and their pilot who were loading the cargo hold.

"When do we take off?" Alec asked.

"As soon as you're ready," the pilot said. He was a middle aged guy, black, probably ex military Alec figured. "Name's Zeb," he added, holding out his hand.

Alec accepted the handclasp. "Marine?" he guessed.

"You got it. Twenty year veteran pilot."

Alec shook his head, wondering how the guy ended up working for someone like von Schmedler. But then it was none of his business.

"You?" Zeb said. "Military?"

Now that surprised Alec. People usually took him for a college kid or a yuppie. "Yeah," he said, smiling a little.

"What branch?"

Good question. "Special Forces." Well, it was the truth -- sort of. "What gave me away?"

Zeb grinned. "Word's out you broke Jordan's jaw and gave Erik a real headache. Anyone who can take down not only one, but both of the boss's boys has got to have some pretty heavy martial arts training."

"Yeah, well, Heckle and Jeckle were buggin' me. But everything worked out in the end -- for me."

Zeb nodded at Joshua and Logan. "Your big friend looks pretty formidable too. How about the other guy?"

"Him?" Alec said with a dismissive look at Logan. "He's a techie."

"He doesn't look too happy."

"He's not. Hates flyin'. Gets all nervous about it, sometimes pukes."

"Well, don't worry about the safety factor. I've made the puddle jump a hundred times. We'll be in Marseille in sixteen hours."

"Any other passengers?".

"Nope," Zeb said. "Just you three, and a small load of cargo."

Alec could guess from the looks of the bundles what the "cargo" was. He only hoped they wouldn't get stopped by drug enforcement before they took off.

*****

"What do you mean you can't locate the body?" Renfro said into the telephone receiver.

"What do you think that means?" Lydecker replied from his office at New Manticore back in Washington state. "I've checked the morgue, the hospitals, the CDC ... Even that girl who was 452's roommate. She claims the coroner's office came and picked him up, but there's no record."

"We have to have 494's body," Renfro said. "Do you suppose White took it for some reason?"

"I wouldn't know why," Lydecker said. "Alive, 494 might have been of some use to him as leverage over 452. But dead?"

Renfro had an odd thought. "You don't think it's possible he's alive, do you?"

Lydecker was silent.

"What?" she said. "What aren't you telling me?"

"We had an incident on the base two nights ago. Someone broke in, knocked out an X5 guard, and may have kidnapped Logan Cale. He's been helping us with the genetic data base, but no one's seen him since."

"Was anything taken?" Renfro asked.

"We can't really tell," Lydecker said. "We don't have the security on our computer systems like we used to."

"What would 494 want with Cale?" Renfro speculated. "Those two are mortal enemies. Killing him I could understand, but kidnapping?"

"I'm still not convinced it was 494 at all," Lydecker said. "Even if he survived, that kid would be severely wounded. And coming back here would have been insane."

"But if he wasn't killed, then he'd be looking for 452," Renfro pointed out. "And the best place to get information as to her whereabouts ..."

"Would be in our computer data banks here on the base," Lydecker said, understanding. "And he might have needed Cale to access the information. But why take him?"

"Maybe he killed Cale and left the body somewhere in the woods," Renfro suggested.

"Possible," Lydecker said. "But that's not 494's usual behavior pattern. He hates Cale, but he also knows Max wants the guy kept in one piece. Besides, 494 has a problem killing people in cold blood like that. It's just not his style."

"Even someone who has tried to kill him more than once?"

"I see your point," Lydecker sighed. "I'll institute a search of the surrounding area, just in case Cale's body is out there. But I still think this was an outside job, probably foreign agents looking to steal our DNA base."

"And whoever it was, you don't even know if they got something from us or not," Renfro said, her voice mirroring her disgust. "That's just ... great." She thought a moment. "If 494 is alive, then he had to have had help after he was wounded. Go back to the roommate. Question her more thoroughly. I need to know if 494's still out there somewhere."

"Yes, Mam," Lydecker said.

*****

Alec and Joshua took turns sleeping on the flight so one of them could always keep an eye on Logan. At the moment, Joshua was curled up on one of the bench seats using a pack for a pillow, contentedly snoring.

"You know, this is ridiculous," Logan said to Alec. "Why don't you just kill me and get it over with?"

Alec, who had been checking the clip on his Glock 35, glanced up, eyebrows drawing together. "You know, I've been askin' myself that same question." He eyed the cargo door. They'd cleared the U.S. coastline three hours ago after stopping to refuel in Los Angeles, and were almost a thousand miles out over the Pacific.

"Max would know," Logan said quietly.

"Know what?"

"If you dumped me out over the ocean."

"Who said I'd ever do that?"

"It's what I would do."

"Yeah, well Logan, I'm not you. Ya see, I've killed too many people in my lifetime already. So, unless you do something really stupid you're probably gonna end up with nothin' worse than a free trip to France out of all this. Do you speak the language, by the way?"

"What if I call for help from the pilot?"

"Then I'd hafta knock him out, and you too -- again."

"Yeah, right," Logan said. "And who would fly the plane? I noticed there's no co-pilot."

Alec just looked at him.

"You're kidding me," Logan said. "You're a pilot?"

"Probably." Alec realized how strange that answer sounded. "I'm told I have an exceptional procedural memory," he said quietly. "Manticore needed me qualified as a back-up pilot for a couple of my Unit's missions. I read the manuals for a Cessna, a Boeing 747 and everything in between the first week, then practiced in the simulators the second." He looked meaningfully toward the cockpit door. "I imagine I could make do."

Alec didn't mean to sound like he was bragging. The fact was, he fervently hoped Zeb had no troubles on this trip and there'd be no call for his virtual reality piloting skills. He, too, had noticed the absence of a co-pilot, probably von Schmedler's cheapness or else a security measure. Still, flying an aircraft this large with only one pilot on board was definitely against AA regulations and probably criminal as well.

"What are you going to do with me when we land?" Logan asked, dropping the subject.

"Leave you someplace where you can't get to a phone for a couple of days. By then I'll either have gotten Max out, or I'll be dead and it won't matter any more."

"You really think you can find her? You don't even know for certain that Renfro has her in Corsica."

"I think she does," Alec said quietly. He saw the skepticism in Logan's eyes. "Call it a feeling ... psychic ... whatever. I just kinda know when Max is close by, and I'll be able to use that when I get to Calvi."

"And if Max isn't there?"

"I'll keep lookin'," Alec said evenly. "Even if it takes the rest of my life." Then he went back to checking out the Glock. Conversation over.

*****


"I told you I don't know what they did with Alec's body," OC said for what seemed like the tenth time.

Lydecker had chosen to speak with Original Cindy by himself, leaving the one man he'd brought with him to guard the main entrance to the apartment building. "If he's alive, I need you to tell me," he said. "We know his body wasn't taken to the morgue, nor does the CDC have it."

"Maybe old Ames White got it," OC said.

"I seriously doubt White had need of another dead transgenic," Lydecker said patiently. "Miss, you need to tell me how badly 494 was hurt, and where he went from here."

"Alec's dead," OC spat. "Isn't that enough revenge for you? Haven't you hurt Max enough."

"I don't want to hurt Max, or Alec either," Lydecker said, truly shocked that this young woman thought he was such a monster. "I want to protect both of them, and in order to do that I need to find Alec."

"Oh, you weren't hurtin' Alec at all in that basement torture chamber," OC said. "That laser thing in his eye was just for fun."

Lydecker clenched his jaw. "I had hoped to re-indoctrinate 494 into a Manticore unit. Unfortunately, the re-indoctrination procedure requires quite a bit of discomfort at the beginning in order to make the soldier receptive to programming."

"Programming?" OC said. "Oh, that's right. Your Manticore soldiers are supposed to be programmable just like robots ... expendable too. Mister, you make me sick. I should have shot you in that basement when I had a chance."

"You're not a killer," Lydecker said not unkindly.

"Neither's Alec."

"You mean neither was Alec," Lydecker said.

"That's what I said," OC corrected herself quickly. "Neither was Alec."

"No, you spoke of 494 in the present tense," Lydecker said. "He's alive."

"No, he's dead."

"He's alive, and since that's the case everything makes sense now. I know exactly where he's headed."

OC cursed herself a thousand times over for that slip of the tongue that had just put Alec's life in danger once again. But Lydecker was already gone.

*****

Alec was very tempted to dump Logan deep in one of the Marseille woods and let him find his own way out of the country. But he knew there was too great a chance Cale would get to a phone and warn Lydecker, who in turn would alert Renfro that he was on his way.

Instead, he asked Zeb to simply keep Logan tied up in the hanger at the airport for two days. By then he figured he'd either have rescued Max or died trying.

Afterwards, he collected his backpack and Joshua, then headed for the beach where he planned to catch a boat headed for Calvi.

If the boatman thought it odd that the gigantic fellow with long hair was wearing a motorcycle helmet for a sea voyage he kept his mouth shut about it. Of course, Alec's one hundred American dollars went a long way toward silencing him. "No questions," Alec had said in a low voice as he and Joshua stepped onto the fishing boat and slipped him the bill.

There was, however, still one small problem.

"Alec," Joshua said when they'd been at sea about 15 minutes.

"What, Big Fella?"

"I don't feel very well."

"Ah, you're just a little bit seasick," Alec said. "It'll pass." Personally, he was enjoying the view, the beauty of the French coastline and deep blue sea with its white-capped waves.

"Alec."

"What?"

"I'm going to ... to ..." Joshua suddenly pulled off the helmet and threw up over the side of the boat.

"Uh, huh," Alec said carefully, turning around slowly to see their fellow half dozen passengers, all of whom appeared to be American tourists, staring at a dog boy heaving his lunch. Not knowing what else to do, he put on his most brilliant smile. "No need to worry, folks," he said, choosing English instead of French considering his listeners. "We're just circus people going to meet our troupe in Calvi. Jo-jo the dogfaced-boy here is one of their biggest attractions." He patted Joshua enthusiastically on the back at which point Joshua vomited again.

"Consider yourselves privileged," he told his open-mouthed audience. "Um, normally it would cost you fifty Euros to witness a spectacle like this." Joshua retched a third time and Alec closed his eyes, wondering just how long this boat trip was going to last.

*****

"Sir," Renfro said. "I've just received excellent news."

"And that would be?" Sandeman said from his laboratory stool. He'd been working nonstop for the past 36 hours attempting to concoct a hormone substitute that could elicit the runes on 452's skin without her mate's presence. So far, he'd failed. Which meant he'd failed the world.

"We have reason to believe 494 is alive after all."

Sandeman swiveled his seat to face her, his blue eyes wide and joyous. "Where is he? He must be brought here immediately."

"He's probably already on his way," Renfro said. "At least according to Lydecker, our man back at the New Manticore base. Someone broke into the base three nights ago and retrieved unknown information from the core computer. It's highly likely 494 was looking for our location."

"Trust one of my children to find a way," Sandeman said, his voice reflecting the pride he felt in his creation. "They all have very high I.Q.'s you know."

"I know, sir," Renfro said. "Which was part of the problem."

"What are you talking about?"

"The X5 series were too smart for their own good, sir. They were a discipline nightmare, too free thinking, too emotional. The X6's and X7's were bred with lower I.Q.'s and a lesser range of emotions. They were also designed to be more docile, less aggressive and independent. But the X5's ..." She shrugged.

Sandeman was looking at her aghast. "The X5 series was my crowning achievement," he said. "The pinnacle of my work. Perfection. Well, except for the tryptophan fail safe the government forced me to encode into their genetics. To downgrade their abilities in future generations was blasphemy."

"Whatever, sir," Renfro said, obviously sick and tired of hearing about the wonderful attributes of X5's. "In any case, Lydecker believes 494 will be here shortly--"

Suddenly, an alarm sounded.

"--and in fact may already have arrived."

*****

"Alec!" Joshua cried out as the purebred Familiar male grabbed his friend in a crushing bear hug. Then he charged, determined to protect Alec at all costs.

Alec kicked backwards, struggling, trying to reach the gun tucked in his belt beneath his jacket. But it was no use. He couldn't move ... couldn't breathe, and his left side was paralyzed with pain.

How stupid was this? he thought. Getting all this way only to get himself killed on Renfro's doorstep.

They'd had very little trouble finding Renfro's headquarters in Calvi. He and Joshua had simply entered the first local pub they'd come to, ordered a meal and beer -- which Alec used to wash down an extra large dose of the tryptophan he'd had in his pocket but totally forgotten to take the past two weeks -- then sat there listening to the gossip around them. Calvi was a relatively small city, and the strange goings on in the castle in the hills above town were common knowledge. Citizens were spooked about seeing "giants" who terrorized anyone brave enough to go near the place. Apparently Ames White wasn't the only one who had surrounded himself with "Familiars." But then Sandeman was White's father after all. Of course Renfro would have his own faithful people of the same bloodline standing guard.

He and Joshua had made it past the main gate of the fortress without being detected, but this Familiar had caught them both by surprise just inside the second perimeter wall. And now, Alec found himself fighting for his life.

Joshua grabbed the Familiar by the head, twisted, and a satisfying crunch was immediately followed by the pressure easing on Alec's aching chest.

"Thanks, buddy," he said, breathing hard and clapping Joshua on the back. "You know, I didn't like the idea at first, but I'm awful glad you came along."

"Alec's hurt," Joshua said. "You can't do this alone."

"Nor should you be alone," a strange little voice said from behind them.

Alec and Joshua whirled, the Glock in Alec's hand faster than the eye could see. "Qui ĂȘtes vous?" Alec said automatically in French. Then he realized he'd been addressed in English. "Who are you?"

But Joshua had already recognized the wizened little man with the cane. "Father?" he said, his voice reverent and blue eyes widening. He fell to his knees. "Father?!"

"Joshua!" Alec commanded. "Get up! There could be--"

But Joshua had grabbed hold of the elderly gentleman's hand and was kissing it.

"Oh, for cryin' out loud!" Alec practically wailed. "Would you stop that! Joshua! Here boy! Sit! Heel! He's probably one of the bad guys!"

Joshua ignored him, lost in his adoration for his "father."

Sandeman reached out a trembling hand and stroked the long hair on Joshua's head. "Is it really you?" he said. "Is it my boy? Joshua?"

"Yeah," Alec said, his voice growing cold. "It's really your boy Joshua. The so-called son you left behind to rot in a sub basement at Manticore, and who your bitch Renfro tried to burn alive." Alec swallowed hard, surprised at the emotions he was feeling. He'd never thought of Sandeman as being his father too, but that's what the guy really was -- the genetic sire of all of them. "Oh, and in case you hadn't noticed," Alec added. "I'm here to rescue 452 from your-- I suppose in-keeping with this dramatic moment I'll insert 'evil clutches'."

Sandeman looked up at the angry young man. "You're 494," he said.

Alec raised his head a bit higher, nostrils flaring, but said nothing.

"Of course you're here for Max. We've been expecting you." He seemed to notice the gun for the first time. "There's no need for violence."

"Oh is that right?" Alec said with a meaningful glance at the Familiar lying with a broken neck just behind them.

Sandeman saw too, and looked as if he were about to cry. "What have I done?" he said sadly. "Why are my children behaving this way?"

"Because you left your fuckin' children to be raised by insanely evil people, that's why!" Alec shouted, losing his temper. "You ran away, and we were tortured and brainwashed and forced to kill people! We weren't even allowed to love anyone, and if we dared anyway they took it way from us. I loved her and they killed her and it's all your fuckin' fault!"

Sandeman looked a bit dazed. "Max is quite all right," he said quietly, obviously not realizing who Alec was referring to. "You can see for yourself if you'll just put the gun down."

Alec shook his head, feeling a bit dizzy. But he'd gotten the part about Max being all right.

Joshua looked up at him. "We can trust father, Alec," he said with great conviction.

"Yeah, right," Alec muttered as he tucked the Glock back into his belt figuring that, at this point, he really had very little to lose. "Where have I heard that before? Oh yeah, good old Manticore. Of course that means I can trust the founder of the whole friggin' place."

He looked hard at Sandeman. "Take me to Max," he said, his voice lowering. "If she and the baby have been hurt in any way, I'm going to kill first you, then Renfro, then everyone else in this haunted castle of yours."

"Courage, loyalty, intelligence, initiative, aggression ...perhaps my work was worthwhile after all," Sandeman said, a rather proud twinkle in his eye, "As for killing me ... I believe you. Hopefully, however, that won't be necessary. Max truly is quite all right. And so is your son."

"Prove it," Alec growled as he held out a hand to help Joshua to his feet. Then, with a heavy sigh, he followed what he considered the evil little elf into Renfro's lair.

*****

They hadn't told her. When the door of her room opened, and he was standing there, she thought it was one of Renfro's cruel tricks -- another "twin" perhaps.

But the joyous light in those beautiful hazel-green eyes was unmistakable -- pure Alec.

"Max," he said hoarsely.

And then she was in his arms, and her world was whole again.

*****

"There could be a camera on us in here, you know," Max giggled as Alec crawled up her body in the bed to lie beside her.

He looked around the room. Then, pursing his lips, blew a mock kiss at their possible watchers. "Enjoy the show, bitch," he said loudly, directing the comment into the ether to Renfro.

"Alec!" Max said. "You can't be serious. I mean, someone might be watching."

"I ... don't ... care," Alec whispered in her ear as he planted little kisses along her neck. Then he sat up and pulled his black t-shirt off over his head. "What?" he said, noticing her look. He grinned impishly. "The old guy says we have to have lots of skin contact to make those runes appear again."

"You've got to be kidding," Max said. "With them maybe watching? You want us to-- You're a pig!"

"No, actually I'm horny," Alec said honestly. He looked around the room again. "And pretty far past carin' who or what watches us do anything, so long as they let us do it. I mean it's been almost three weeks." He saw she wasn't feeling as playful as he was. "Max, come on. You know back at Manticore there were cameras watchin' us do everything from takin' a pee to showering."

"Which is one reason I ran away," she said firmly.

"Didn't you miss me?" he tried in his best little boy's voice.

"Of course I did," Max snapped. "But then I thought you were dead." However, she did wrap her arms around him, which is when her hand brushed the smooth skin of his back and she encountered the half-healed wounds. "They really hurt you, didn't they?" she said softly. "OC fixed you up?"

"She saved my life."

"And you saved hers."

"That's what friends are for, Max. Now, about that skin contact ..." He was kissing her again.

"I'm going to ask Sandeman if there are any cameras in here," Max said, her words muffled by his mouth on hers.

"That'll take time," Alec said.

"What about Joshua?" she tried.

"Bet he'd find us more interesting than that 'Animal Planet' channel he used to watch, not to mention more educational."

"I mean Joshua and Sandeman," she scolded.

"Joshua's happy as a clam, havin' a family reunion with father.

"I still can't believe you brought him along."

"Couldn't be helped," Alec muttered, raising her shirt and tickling her belly with his tongue. "I was injured, remember. 'Sides, he wouldn't let me come by myself."

Damn, Max thought. The scent of Alec's arousal was going from tantalizing to overwhelming.

"Come on," Alec said, his voice low and deep in her ear. "You know there's a little bit of an exhibitionist in you. Remember that strip club?"

That did it. She swatted him with her hand, sat up, and pushed him away. "How many times do I have to say I'm not going to--"

He was looking at her, but his eyes weren't quite all Alec's. They were--

Animal.

And Max knew the same look was in her eyes as well.

"Fuck the camera," she whispered, pulling him down beside her again, her hands fumbling with the fly on his jeans. "We'll show them what transgenics are really capable of."

*****

Logan Cale, breathless from running up several flights of stairs, burst into Madam Renfro's office. "Alec's on his way here," he panted. "I just managed to get away from the guy he had holding me at the airport. I tried to phone here directly, but I didn't know the right exchange, couldn't reach Lydecker either. So, I took a boat and got here as quickly as I could. You've got to put your guards on alert because he's going to--"

Madam Renfro, without looking up from the monitor screen on her desk, held out a hand to silence him.

"Didn't you hear me?" Logan said. "494's on his way and he's determined to get to Max ... What are you looking at?"

She motioned to him and he stepped around the desk. What he saw on the screen made his face blush beet red.

"494 arrived an hour ago," Renfro said quietly. "As you can see, he's been reunited with his mate. As intended, I might add."

"As intended?" Logan said. "What are you talking about? You wanted him dead."

"Not any more. 494 is now an integral part of the plan. At least for a few more weeks."

Logan couldn't look away. They were beautiful together, Max and Alec. Even with her pregnancy her body was gorgeous, and Alec's ... The way he was making love to her ...

Logan swallowed hard, a bad taste suddenly in his mouth. How could he ever have hoped to compete with Alec? -- a male designed for Max in every way.

But I was there for her first. She should have picked me.

"You want him dead, don't you," Renfro said.

"More than you can imagine."

"In a few weeks, after the second set of runes appear and we have what we need from him, he won't be indispensable anymore."

Logan looked at her, eyebrows raised. "You'd let me kill him?"

"Yes," she said quietly, her eyes still on the couple on the screen. A slow, wicked smile. "But not until I've had him first."

THE END

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