ARCHIVE: Please link to Fanfiction.net
The tenth continuation story in "The Best Laid Plans" universe. (rated R for language, violence, sexuality) -- author's note
"So, can we work out a deal here?"
"That depends on how complete your offer is."
"I have everything they've reconstructed so far, which includes the primary genetic database."
"We already have the basic genome information. What we need is data on the later technology, specifically the X5 models."
Alec tossed a computer disc down on the desk. "Here's a sample. See what you think."
The large boned, fair haired man seated behind the massive mahogany desk inserted the disc into his laptop and perused the data, his pale blue eyes flickering, occasionally lighting up with interest.
Alec waited, hands at his sides, his stance relaxed but wary. He really was in the lion's den here, and without backup, not to mention three thousand miles away from home.
After a few minutes the South African looked up at him, a grim smile splitting his weathered features. "What you're offering would be of great use to our program, provided it's complete."
"You'll get the 'complete' version when I get my money," Alec said easily, adding a smile of his own just for good measure.
The man was regarding him curiously, and Alec's sixth sense began to tingle. "May I ask how you managed to get this data from Manticore? Rumor had it their entire database had been destroyed over a year ago, and all the research lost."
"They've been rebuilding the files," Alec said truthfully. "And I had access."
"Twenty million dollars is a great deal of money."
"This research is priceless," Alec countered. "It doesn't exist anywhere else in the world, and you'll never get anywhere with your own supersoldier program without it, at least not for years."
"There's still one vital item missing from your offer," the man said.
"There's nothing missing," Alec said levelly, his voice neutral. "What I've offered is all there is."
"We require a living sample."
"A viable embryo."
"Aren't any," Alec said. "The embryo lab went up with the rest, and Manticore's not producing new soldiers now anyway, just trying to maintain the ones already in existence."
"I thought all of the X5's were destroyed," the buyer said. "We were given to understand that an extermination program was instigated when the Manticore project was made public. Why would they be rebuilding the database to maintain dead soldiers?"
Alec began to sweat. He hadn't wanted to go here. And besides, the guy was starting to eye him in a way he didn't like. He knew that look all too well, a butcher sizing up a piece of meat -- a Renfro-type look. Shrugging deeper into his leather jacket, he told himself his bar code wasn't really tingling.
I should have lasered the damn thing off before coming here.
"I require the item, as well as the database," the man said, standing firm.
"Then I'll just have to take my offer elsewhere, I guess," Alec replied, also refusing to give, mainly because he had no room to wriggle.
"How about this," the South African said. "If you provide a viable living X5 specimen, an adult, I'll make the offer twenty-five million."
"No deal," Alec said. "Even if there are any X5's left alive, they're long gone, scattered all over the world. And they're as free as you or me. Same goes for any X6's or X7's."
"I'm not interested in the later units," the man said. "The X5's were the ultimate specimens."
"Sorry." Alec realized he wasn't going to get what he'd hoped here. Now, the trick would be to manage a graceful exit.
"Actually," the man said. "We could advance our program quite nicely with only an X5 specimen. The database would, of course, be invaluable, but not vital. The living tissue would provide all we'd eventually need, once the DNA coding was extracted."
Alec picked up the disc off of the desk, pocketed it, and backed toward the door.
"Wait," the man said. "If you're absolutely certain no living specimens are available, then the database will have to be enough."
"Twenty million?" Alec said, watching the guy's pale eyes. He sensed betrayal here.
"Wired to your offshore account as soon as the discs are delivered. We'll pick a neutral meeting place if you like, perhaps the plaza, the new one by the river."
Alec moistened his lower lip with his tongue. For one of the few times in his life he was involved in something that wasn't just about him. If he screwed this up he was not only destroying any chance at happiness for himself, Max, and the baby, but for all of the other Manticore survivors as well.
"Out in the open," he said. "Sounds good to me. Tomorrow, nine a.m.?"
The buyer -- Alec never had gotten a name although the deskplate read "Zakes" -- stood and held out his hand. "We have a deal."
Alec accepted the handshake, and was actually rather pleasantly surprised when he was allowed to leave the high rise office building unchallenged. He'd been so certain there for a few moments that he was going to be doublecrossed.
The Johannesburg Sheraton hotel where he was staying was a cut or ten above what Alec was used to, and he felt a little bit guilty about spending so much on a room. But he couldn't be certain that Zakes, or whatever his name was, wouldn't have someone checking up on him. He needed to maintain the cover that he was a big time go-between for some top money people. He'd even been careful about his wardrobe -- designer black jeans, custom leather motorcycle boots, and a black silk t-shirt under a very expensive black leather jacket that he damn well better not get any bullet holes in had taken the place of his usual denim and cotton, not to mention the Gucci sunglasses in his pocket and the rented Ferrari parked in the hotel garage. Damn, Alec thought, it would be fun to keep that Ferrari. A man could get real spoiled real fast livin' the high life like this.
But then he thought about Max, a virtual prisoner in Corsica under the constant watchful eye of Herman Sandeman and his henchwoman Madam Renfro. Which, in turn, made Alec start feeling guilty all over again as he looked around the plush hotel room. He sighed. If only Max were here with him to share that king sized bed what fun they could have.
Of course there were the high class hookers in the lobby, several of whom had approached him the moment he stepped through the Sheraton's front door. A couple of them were in the outstanding category when it came to looks, and he'd allowed himself to window shop a little bit. But then he'd said "sorry, not tonight" and shooed the disappointed ladies away.
One in particular, a cute little brunette, had been persistent and actually came up to him and put her arms around his neck, tangling her hands in his hair, trying to draw his head down in a kiss. Alec had gently but firmly caught her wrists and pushed her away, flattered but not tempted by the pouty look in her eyes. "Not tonight, sweetheart," he'd said, giving her sly wink, and a quick pat on the bottom to emphasize he wanted her to scat.
None of them could compare to Max. No woman in the world could. And, even though he'd been a roaming tomcat almost his entire adult life, he really didn't want any female under or on top of him in bed except her.
"Max," Alec said to the ceiling as he lay flat on his back in the middle of that huge bed, "you've ruined me." And he could actually almost here her reply. You've ruined yourself, loverboy. That's the price you pay for falling for a high class X5 chick like me. You've had the best and now don't want the rest.
"Yeah, Maxie," Alec sighed. "You are the best." And far more than I deserve.
He didn't feel like going out to eat, and so made due with what he found in the honor bar refrigerator -- nuts, some fruit, and a couple of candy bars for energy. X5s, oddly enough, didn't have much of a sweet tooth, and the candy actually didn't taste very good to him. But Alec had learned as a child to eat what he could, when he could, because one never knew when the food would be withheld -- sometimes for days.
After eating he watched television for awhile, then downed his daily dose of tryptophan, and fell asleep thinking about his Manticore childhood, which was a mistake because that always led to nightmares -- the sensory deprivation chamber, forced marches, painful medical examinations, the tank where they'd made him hold his breath underwater until he passed out and nearly drowned ... his first kill ...
Alec woke with a start, a light sheen of sweat covering his body, and his muscles trembling. For a second he had trouble distinguishing reality from the nightmare, but then his keen hearing picked up the sound that had alerted the part of his feral hind brain that never truly slept -- a footstep on the carpet, in the room.
Oh great, he thought. Probably a cat burglar. The irony wasn't lost on him. The Sheraton would make for nice pickings, its wealthy tourists and regular clientele a true smorgasbord of goodies for a skilled cat. And he supposed with the cover he'd chosen he was as good a mark as any other guest in the hotel.
He'd slept in his clothes -- old habit -- doing nothing more than kicking his boots off and pulling up the bedspread against the chill air blowing from a vent just above the headboard. He was lucky the blower fan had kicked off, allowing him to hear the intruders. Otherwise, he might have awakened in the morning to find most of his money, not to mention the precious discs, gone.
But he had heard them -- he could tell there was more than one. And he almost felt sorry for whoever it was because they had absolutely no idea what they'd just gotten themselves into.
His ears told him there were two, one just inside the door and the other moving to probably go through his luggage. Lying very still, feigning sleep, he touched the handle of his Glock 35, expertly smuggled through the airlines and now safely tucked under his pillow, but decided it was hardly necessary. Cat burglars were rarely armed. Opening his eyes a bit, his night vision kicked in and he saw the bigger one searching his duffel bag. The smaller one, a woman by her scent, seemed to be standing guard. Both were dressed in black, but they weren't wearing masks. More amused than annoyed, Alec gently rolled over as if moving in his sleep, glanced at the time on the bedside clock, and propped himself up on one elbow to watch the show.
The woman, using a penlight, moved to the side of the bed, checking the nightstand drawer, obviously wondering where his wallet was. Well, it was in his pants pocket, and he was wearing his pants, so unless she was incredibly persuasive, she was out of luck. Although, Alec wondered just how far she'd go to retrieve what she must figure would be a large wad of cash, not to mention credit cards.
The beam of light slid from the edge of the bed along his body until its brilliance illuminated his wide awake green eyes. The cornflower pair of blue ones only inches from his nose couldn't have looked more startled.
"Artie," the woman whispered loudly.
"Shhh," Artie replied.
"Shut up, Marie. You'll wake the bloke and then--"
The digital bedside clock flipped over to 2 a.m. and there was a sound in the hallway. "This is a bad time of night to hit the fourteenth floor," Alec said in a normal tone of voice. "Guard makes his rounds 'bout now. By the way, can I help you find something?"
"Shit," Artie swore, starting toward the door but stopping when he realized his mark was right. There was a security guard standing in the hallway. And then he did something that in Alec's eyes was extremely stupid. He pulled out a knife. "Don't move," he snarled. "And don't make a sound or I'll stick this in your throat."
"I'm so scared," Alec drawled. His eyes went to Marie who was still standing beside the bed staring at him. "Tell me this doofus isn't your lover too."
"I said shut up!" Artie snarled. And then he did something Alec really hadn't expected. He threw the knife, probably trying to impress the girl, Alec figured as his hand blurred and caught the blade in mid air, inches before it struck his neck. The girl's sudden intake of breath showed she was impressed all right, but not with Artie.
Tossing the blade over in his hand, Alec hefted the handle while the two burglars stared at him in the beams of their flashlights. "You know, you guys couldn't have picked a worse room to hit. And since when was murder part of a cat burglar's curriculum? Killin' off your marks is such poor manners. Gives the rest of us in the business a bad name."
"You're a cat?" Marie said.
"Will you shut the fuck up," Artie hissed at her.
"Only part," Alec said truthfully. "And I'm not workin' this trip so I'd appreciate it if the two of you would get out of my room and let me get some sleep." He glanced at the door. "The guard's gone down to twelve by now. You can get out through the service stairwell, leads straight to the parking garage and they unlock it after midnight so the crew can get in."
Marie grinned. Artie swore again. But they headed for the door where Artie stopped and turned around. "My knife," he said, holding out his hand.
Alec tossed the handle in his hand, thought about it a second, then sent the blade flying through the air to bury itself in the wall a fraction from Artie's right ear. The burglar gulped, then grabbed the blade and slithered through the door. Marie stopped only long enough to blow him a kiss before following.
Alec just shook his head. Amateurs.
Alec told himself this was just a mission, like he'd done plenty of times before at Manticore. The fact that 20 million dollars was at stake, not to mention the lives of everyone he cared about in the world plus a few hundred others shouldn't matter. He was a professional. He was trained. He knew what he was doing.
And he was scared to death.
But he'd always been scared back at Manticore too, and he'd learned to compensate. If he hadn't, he'd never have survived.
"Zakes" was waiting for him, seated on a park bench under an oak tree in the plaza, a young, fair-haired woman with a laptop computer beside him. Standing behind were two men, obviously bodyguards, and Alec guessed there were probably more men in the area as well.
He touched the computer discs in his jacket pocket. These were the real deal, the only copies. If he lost them, or messed up some other way, everything would be ruined.
Zakes was smiling as he approached. "Are we ready to do business?" he asked.
"I'm always ready," Alec said with his trademark cocky smile. "Just show me the money."
The woman turned the computer around so he could see the screen. "Give me the site," she said.
"Bank of Barbados," Alec said.
She typed, then turned the screen again. Alec leaned over and typed in the number and password to the offshore bank account he'd established weeks ago. Most of his own cash, loot from a series of jewelry store heists, was still sitting in a safety deposit box in a Vancouver bank, but he'd used $100,000 of it to open the Barbados account as a precaution. Once into the account, he turned the laptop back to the girl.
"The discs?" Zakes said.
Alec reached in his pocket and handed one to the blonde. She inserted it into the hard drive and Zakes watched over her shoulder as the Manticore genome data base came onscreen. With a nod, he held out his hand for the second disc. Alec handed it to him, the girl repeated the process, and more data appeared, details of how the genetic manipulations had been performed to create transhumans and transgenics.
Zakes looked up at him, eyes narrowing, then glanced back at the screen. Alec shivered slightly, chilly in spite of his leather coat and the warm South African sun. It had occurred to him that he was being a traitor to his country, selling military secrets to a foreign nation. But his country, although it had given him life, had also held him in slavery, and factions of it were even now trying to kill him and all his kind. As to whether he was helping the South Africans create another slave race ... Not my problem. Although, in his heart, Alec knew that Max would see it as a problem, a big one, which was the real reason he hadn't told her about his plan. He could only hope that when everything was said and done, she'd understand and forgive him.
The third disc contained medical information, problems that had occurred with the various genetic manipulations and the way they'd manifested in the scientists' creations.
"Tryptophan deficiency," Zakes read off the screen. Again, he looked in Alec's direction. "Interesting failsafe device. Must be annoying to the transgenics, knowing they have a short shelf life unless they're under constant medical supervision."
"Must be," Alec said carefully. "Then, of course, it must be pretty difficult all around bein' a transgenic."
"Ah yes," Zakes said. "So close to human, but not quite. I've heard speculation that the transgenics shouldn't even be classified as living creatures, and they certainly can't be said to have souls."
Alec shrugged. "I could name a few card carryin' humans lacking in the soul department too." He looked down at the screen which was still showing medical information. "Could we get this over with. I'm gettin' bored."
"Of course," Zakes said. He palmed the last disc which he then carefully placed in a case along with the others. The girl brought up the bank account information again.
Alec shifted his weight on his feet. This was the crucial point. If a double cross was going to happen, it would happen now. All senses alert, he let his right hand casually slide beneath his coat to rest on the Glock tucked in the small of his back.
Zakes leaned down and began typing. He watched the screen for a moment, then looked up with a smile. "Transfer complete." He turned the laptop for Alec to see.
Still wary, Alec tapped the keyboard, checking the information. The sight of so many zero's next to an account with his "name" on it was a bit overwhelming. It was literally more money than he could comprehend. He and Max could live ten lifetimes over on that much cash. But of course that's not what most of it was for.
"Are we done?" Zakes asked.
Alec nodded. The confirmation code had come through and he'd memorized the 30 digit number. The money was really in place, safe where no one but he could touch it.
Straightening, he accepted the hand Zakes offered to seal the deal, firmly clasping the older man's fingers.
The sharp pain at the base of his wrist caught him by surprise. His first thought was that an insect had stung him. Then he saw the sunlight flashing on a tiny needle attached to a device beneath Zakes' coat sleeve.
Eyes widening, Alec backed away, his first thought to run. But already his knees were shaking. His second thought was his gun, but his muscles were moving in slow motion, and everything was starting to spin.
"Son of a bitch," he gasped, clumsily groping for his weapon.
Zakes, that damnable big smile still in place, chuckled.
"Why?" Alec got out, looking up at his betrayer as he dropped to his knees in the grass.
Zakes motioned to his men who grabbed his arms, keeping him from falling face first, one of them at the same time reaching beneath his jacket and confiscating the gun. Then the South African held out a photograph, an enhanced close-up probably taken by a surveillance camera of--
A bar code. His bar code.
"The hooker in the lobby," Alec mumbled, remembering her hands on his neck and in his hair, brushing it aside, exposing the genetic tattoo.
"Artie confirmed the fact for me as well," Zakes said as Alec fought to keep his eyes open. "He and Marie were told to report back your actions with regards to their little intrusion last night. Of course, I didn't tell Artie that you might very well have snapped his neck. As it was, you showed admirable restraint, class even. But that trick with catching the knife was a dead giveaway."
He bent down so his head was at Alec's level. "I told you the deal wouldn't be complete without a living, viable sample."
"You're dead," Alec said, forcing the words out as the sound of his own heartbeat began to roar in his ears. "My boss will--"
"Get another five million dollars if he complains," Zakes said. "I'm a man of my word. But for now, I'd say the deal is done." He looked at his men. "Take him to the car. The doctors are waiting for him."
Alec tried one last time to make his body obey his brain, but whatever drug they'd injected was too potent. The roaring in his ears increased in intensity, and the bright sunlight began to dim. Frantically, he thought about Max, picturing her face, her eyes, her smile. If he never woke up ... if there was an afterlife ... he desperately needed that to take with him.
And then everything just ... went away.
"Did Alec say he was going anywhere except the New Manticore base?" Max asked Joshua as they sat together in the courtyard of Herman Sandeman's Corsican castle. Her pregnancy, now eight months along, was beginning to weigh heavily, and lately she was always glad to find a place to get off her feet.
Joshua, who'd been splashing a hand in the three-tiered fountain that decorated the center of the lush tropical space, cocked his head to one side, thinking. "No," he said after a moment. "He just said he'd be back as soon as he could."
Max tapped her foot impatiently on the blue-tiled patio floor. Overhead birds were singing, and the sound of the water was soothing to her ears. She should be relaxed ... content even. Sandeman kept reassuring her that she wasn't a prisoner, that she would be safe here, protected from her enemies, and that no one wanted to hurt her, her baby, or the baby's father.
But no matter how many times Max was told everything was all right, she couldn't shake the feeling that it wasn't. I'm always all right, Alec would say, usually just when things were about to go terribly wrong in his life. Was the analogy to Sandeman's similar words a warning? Perhaps Alec in her subconscious mind protecting her?
Alec. Where the hell was he anyway?
"He should have been back last night," Max said. "He told me he'd only be gone four days at the most."
The sound of a lion roaring made both of them look up. Max smiled. Sandeman kept a collection of big jungle cats in the lower end of the garden, and they fascinated her. He'd given her and Alec a tour the first week they'd been here, right after the second set of runes had appeared on her body thanks to Alec's presence. The third and final set were now beginning to fade from her skin -- symbols that at this very moment had Sandeman's scientists busily concocting a vaccine to save mankind. Only then had Alec left, gone back to check on their friends in Washington. Renfro hadn't liked it, but Sandeman had overruled her, and no one had stood in his way.
Worried about Alec now, Max remembered that tour ...
"Say hello to your brothers and sisters," Sandeman said as they strolled along the elevated wood planked path that ran above the big cat enclosures. Below were tigers, lions, panthers, cheetahs, even a few bobcats and ocelots -- each in their own space, surrounded by vegetation and landscaping suitable to their natural habitats. No cages and bars here ... or guards with machine guns ... or razor wire ...
Max shook her head, momentarily overcome by memories of Manticore as a child. They'd been animals on display in a zoo as well, she and Alec and the others -- a zoo far more cruel than this one.
Alec stopped, leaning over the wooden railing, looking with keen interest at a beautiful black panther with yellow eyes that was sprawled on a large flat rock, lazily sunning himself. The huge beast stared back at them, then yawned, pink tongue curling over gleaming white fangs.
"What did you do?" Alec asked quietly, turning to Sandeman. "To us? With them?" He nodded at the panther.
"You feel it, don't you?" Sandeman chuckled. "You feel the kinship as you stand here so near to your origins." He gestured toward the black panther. "Your nose tells you. The scent doesn't lie. It tickles the primitive part of your brain, the same way it does when you mate with Max." He looked in her direction and Alec's eyes followed, his pupils dilating slightly at the mere thought.
"You want to know just what you are?" the old man asked. "Are you sure? You might not like the answer. You may be happier not knowing."
Alec glanced at her.
"We want to know," Max said firmly. "We need to know for our baby's sake.
"Someone ... my ..." Alec's voice faltered a moment then he recovered. "A former Manticore scientist once told us only one percent of our DNA was feline. But that another five percent had been tampered with."
Sandeman raised shaggy white eyebrows. "Only one percent? I suppose to you one percent seems a relatively small number, leading you to believe the difference is minimal. But let me assure you my child, when it comes to the human chromosome, one percent difference catapults you into an entirely different species. Why, a chimpanzee's DNA is 98 percent the same as a human's, and look at what a difference that two percent makes. DNA tampering is very powerful in the changes it can manifest, even on a small scale."
"And our DNA is 99 percent human," Max said. "One percent is just a ... a dash, a little bit, a touch of feline. No big deal, right?"
Sandeman pointed to the beautiful black panther. "In many ways, you and Alec truly are part cat. Although, the felines weren't the only animals we used in our recombinant genetic codes. Your keen eyesight for example you owe to the DNA of raptors, although that trait was far more organ specific than the more overall influence of the feline." He smiled at the way Alec gulped. "You've seen the X2's? Those poor children of mine who didn't quite make the leap I was looking for in their genetic coding?"
"The nomalies," Max said, thinking about the Manticore symbol, part lion, part bird. "The nomalies in the basement." Alec was nodding. He'd seen things in the depths of Manticore, too.
"Well, your nomalies as you call them were actually your predecessors -- my initial attempts at joining his DNA," he nodded at the black panther, "or rather his grandfather's, with a human's. Unfortunately, I wasn't completely successful. Oh, I transferred qualities I wanted -- strength, speed, agility, enhanced senses -- but other less desirable characteristics slipped through."
"Like fangs and fur and tails," Alec said, swallowing hard again and remembering a certain black furred female creature he'd killed in a basement for her bar code.
"Exactly," Sandeman agreed. "They also inherited far too much of the primitive brain functions, the animalistic instincts overriding the human ones making them incredibly vicious and dangerous, insane even. The X3's were better, and the X4's were essentially deemed a success as far as the merging of feline and human DNA. However, we knew we also needed to enhance other characteristics as well to have our perfect supersoldiers."
"So you began messing with us more," Max said. "Bone density, eyesight, immune system, intelligence ..."
"Correct," Sandeman said. "As well as physical appearance. And the end result was--" He held out his hands to them. "The two of you, and your brothers and sisters. The X5's." He chuckled. "I wasn't around when Manticore tried to improve on perfection, when they began adding other animal DNA to my database and attempted to eliminate certain emotional elements. I'd already left by then to go into hiding from Ames and his followers, so I could prepare for what's happening now. However ..." Again he looked at the black panther. "Never doubt for a moment that the two of you are in many ways as close in kinship to him, as you are to me."
Ames White took a swig from the bottle of whiskey, and picked up the report Otto had just brought in. The liquor was always on his desk now, its place permanently marked by white rings marring the oak surface. Wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve, he read with bleary eyes the latest movements of the transgenics whose locations were known. Unfortunately, the only transgenic he was truly interested in wasn't one of those being surveilled.
Not that it really mattered. He knew full well where 452 probably was right now -- with his father, Herman Sandeman. Which meant the 10,000-year-old master plan of the Breeding Cult was in deadly danger of being thwarted.
White slapped his palm down on the desk in frustration, swearing softly under his breath. He had to find and kill the female X5, and he had to do it soon. Even if his father had already deciphered the runes and recovered the database for the antigen, the girl was still vital to the formula. 452's body alone could produce the exact cells needed for the vaccine. Without her, his father's people would never be able to create enough of the antidote.
The report read almost exactly the same as all those that had previously crossed his desk -- various mutants, transgenics, and transhumans coming and going from the New Manticore base, a few working in Seattle, a few disappearing to hopefully be tracked down and killed by his people so they could never form an army against him. No mention of 452, or the other transgenic that interested him almost as much -- the one who's brain stem should have exploded nearly two years ago, the ever elusive, not to mention extremely lucky, X5-494.
White still chafed at the fact he'd had that one in his hands not so very long ago, only to lose him in a raid conducted by none other than the infamous Donald Lydecker. The Manticore officer had swooped in and saved his precious transgenic supersoldier, although how he'd discovered 494's location still remained a mystery.
White glared at the two 8 by 10 color photographs he always kept on his desk -- headshots -- one of the exotically beautiful 452, and the other of her equally handsome, green-eyed mate, 494.
"It was just a summer fling," White said, mimicking 494's answer when he'd been asked about being 452's breeding partner the first time he'd had him behind bars. Always assume they're lying. He'd forgotten to heed his own words that time. But never again. He'd never forget the feeling of astonished outrage he'd experienced at seeing 494 alive, well, and with 452 by his side at the steam plant later that fall, when they'd liberated the Manticore mermaid, the two transgenics working as a team ... partners ... lovers.
Of course 494 had gone to 452 and she'd saved him, gotten the explosive out of his head. Then there'd been 494's interference with the girl at the bar, and 494 stealing the Familiar's data base ... Oh yes, he and that piece of transgenic filth were going to have an interesting time together someday.
Ames sighed heavily, rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands, and concentrated on the report again. However, when he reached the third page, a paragraph near the bottom, he suddenly didn't feel quite so tired any more.
"Otto!" he bellowed.
"Yes, sir," his assistant said from the doorway.
"Is this some kind of a joke?"
"It says here our people in South Africa suspect their military has obtained Manticore technology and are trying to institute a program to produce their own army of supersoldiers."
White's eyebrows rose. "You've got to be kidding me. With all our precautions ... as hard as we've been working to exterminate this shit from the face of the earth ... we're allowing another group to start the process all over again?"
"They only just acquired the technology, sir," Otto said. "It will take them years to achieve any kind of success."
"Why let them start at all?!" White shouted, standing and hitting the desk with his fist so hard the whiskey sloshed in the bottle. He gestured to the door. "Get a team together. We're heading for ..." he glanced down at the report, "Johannesburg. We've got to nip this thing in the bud right now."
"Yes, sir," Otto said, retreating from the room faster than was necessary.
"Animals," White spat, sitting down again and picking up 452's photograph. "Cats. Why would anyone want to make more of your kind when our kind are so much better?" And then he also picked up the photograph of 494. Holding the pictures side-by-side, he stared at them. The chill that ran through his body as he looked at the two transgenics -- together -- was enough to make him reach for his bottle of whiskey again.
Another 24 hours had passed and Alec still wasn't back. Max's worry was rapidly growing into panic. Alec would never deliberately be away from her this long, especially since the doctors had told them she might go into labor early. The baby, because it was an X5, was maturing more rapidly than a human fetus, just like she and her fellow X5's as children had matured into adulthood more rapidly than normal.
Max had always felt a bit older than she should, and Sandeman had confirmed what she suspected. Although she was chronologically only 20 years old, physically she had the body of a 25-year-old. Alec, too. Manticore manipulations had pushed their pre-adolescent childhoods forward, rushing them through puberty and into physical adulthood by the time they were 14. It's why some of the X's developed progeria, the tragic early aging disease, Sandeman said ... why she and Alec might not have normal lifespans.
"Joshua," Max said, calling her dogman friend over to where she was sitting beneath a shade tree in the garden. "Are you absolutely sure Alec didn't say he was going anywhere else?"
Joshua looked away, and Max immediately knew he was hiding something. She grabbed hold of his large hand. "Alec's in trouble. I can feel it. If you know something .. anything ... you have to tell me."
"Alec said not to tell. Unless ..."
"Unless he didn't come back," Joshua said, his voice dropping so low she could hardly hear him.
Max suddenly felt cold. The doofus was in trouble. Worse, he'd known he was probably going to get into trouble when he left here.
"What did he say?" Max pressed.
"Alec didn't say anything really," Joshua replied. "But he left something he said I should give to you if he didn't come back." Her friend reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. On it were three words and a number.
"Bank of Barbados?" Max read aloud. "This looks like an account number." She glanced up at the main house, then took hold of Joshua's hand. "Come on, Big Fella" she said. "I need a computer terminal."
As she suspected, the Bank of Barbados had online banking, and the number definitely belonged to one of its accounts. However, after she entered the string of figures a box popped up demanding a password.
"What did Alec say the password was?"
Joshua shrugged. "He told me you'd know."
Max sighed heavily and thought a moment. What would Alec use as a password? "MontyCora" didn't work, nor did "hooker." She then tried "Sandeman," "Lydecker," and "JamPony."
"It has to be at least six characters," Max said to herself. "Which leaves out my name unless ... She tried "Maxine," to no avail. Who else did Alec know? Or what common thing would he have picked. "Transgenic" No. "Joshua." No. "Come on, Alec," Max muttered. "I need some help here."
And then, almost as if she heard him whisper it in her ear, Max knew. "Rachel," she typed, and the account opened.
And she stared at the largest bank account figure she'd ever seen in her life. "Oh my God," she whispered. "Where did he--"
Tears stinging her eyes, she turned and looked up at Joshua who was standing with his mouth hanging open. "What the hell has that idiot gotten himself into this time?"
An idiot. That's what he was, Alec told himself. An absolute idiot to think he could pull this scam off. Of course he'd gotten himself captured. And now he was in a cage again.
Well, he corrected himself, actually it was a cell. There was a bunk, sink, toilet ... standard fare and what he'd lived with almost his entire life. In fact, he ought to feel rather at home.
He'd awakened lying on the bed dressed in loose hospital scrub pants, a t-shirt, and nothing else. His first thought was to wonder where the hell he was. His second was to wonder what had they done to him while he was unconscious. There were needle marks on both of his arms, and his side hurt. When he raised the t-shirt he saw what looked like a biopsy wound. There was also a neat little aching hole drilled in his left hip, for a marrow sample he supposed. Other than that though, everything important seemed to be intact. Swallowing the bad taste in his mouth, he stood up and padded on bare feet over to the bars. The short corridor beyond was empty. No guards. No other prisoners. He didn't know how he knew, but he felt like he must be pretty far underground, perhaps in a mountain.
"Hey!" he shouted, figuring he had nothing to lose. "Anyone care to tell me what the hell's goin' on?"
A man in a white lab coat carrying a clipboard came through the door at the end of the hallway. Glasses slightly askew on his nose, he consulted his notes then looked up. Alec decided the eagerness in those beady little blue eyes was definitely not a good sign. He'd been on display before, but no one had ever looked at him with quite such hunger, with the possible exception of Madam Renfro. Wrapping his arms around himself, he shivered.
"What did you do to me?" he asked, his voice low and slightly husky.
The white coated man looked down at his notes again, then back up with a chilling smile. "We just took a few samples -- blood, bone marrow, organ tissue. Our preliminary examination wasn't very thorough. We've been told to wait for the primary medical team before doing more invasive procedures. You have a very unique body for a human, you know. None of us have ever seen anything like it. Your DNA is spectacular, not to mention your muscle and bone structure, the stem cells in your blood stream, your antibody count ..."
"Yeah, I'm real special," Alec said, stepping still closer to the bars. He quirked his finger at the little guy. "Come here," he said in his best conspiratorial voice. "And I'll tell you somethin' about me I bet your people don't know."
Eagerness fought with caution in the lab tech's eyes, but Alec held those eyes with his own, looking as innocent as he could. "Don't you wanna be the first to know?" Alec said. "Could even bring you that big promotion you've always wanted." The tech couldn't resist. He leaned forward -- just close enough.
And Alec had him, his arm snaking through the bars and around the little guy's neck. "The secret is, I'm not human," he growled as he lifted his prey off his feet, then let him dangle, choking, while he searched through the pockets of the lab coat with his free hand. And there they were. Keys. He figured the tech might have them on him if he was the one who'd been coming into the cell and drawing the blood.
A little more pressure on the neck and the guy passed out. Alec let him drop to the floor, the quickly unlocked his cell door. Glancing up, he saw the camera, which meant he probably had only seconds, a minute at the most, before soldiers with guns arrived. Good. He wanted a gun.
He did pause, however, to check something. Shoes. He was barefoot, and needed shoes. But he tech's feet looked to be at least two sizes smaller than his own. "Damn," Alec muttered under his breath. Oh well. Couldn't be helped. Then he was through the door at the end of the corridor.
Gunfire. And they weren't shooting at him. Alec drew back into an alcove and watched while half a dozen frightened lab technicians scurried past him in the hallway, their white coattails flapping.
Peering out cautiously, he looked right and left before quietly but quickly heading back the way the technicians had come from. He knew this probably wasn't the way out, but he really needed to know what was going on. Several more single shots were fired, closer this time. He rounded a corner and came out on a balcony overlooking a laboratory area as large as New Manticore's common room full of all kinds of scientific equipment ... electron microscopes, a CAT scan, blood transfusion systems, the works. There were even what looked like several cryonic storage chambers large enough to hold a full grown man. But center stage was an operating theater in a pit in the middle of the room, its gleaming metal table and instruments just waiting for a victim ... waiting for him.
However, at the moment, the room below was not only filled with doctors and scientists, but with heavily armed men who were shooting down those doctors and scientists in cold blood.
Alec didn't understand. The South African facility was obviously being invaded by an army, but who's army? Zooming his vision in, he took a closer look at the attackers.
"Shit," Alec whispered. Familiars. And this time he highly doubted they were from Sandeman's tribe. He started to turn around, intending to follow the fleeing lab techs to an outside door, but the sound of a gun cocking just behind his right ear froze him in his tracks.
"Well, well, well," an all too familiar voice drawled. "And doesn't this just make my day? Imagine, coming here thinking all these South Africans had was a little bit of gene splicing technology. And here they'd acquired themselves an honest to God, living, breathing, transgenic to play with."
Alec, wishing very much he was wearing something more imposing than makeshift pajamas, slowly turned around to face Ames White.
"And what a transgenic," White continued. "None other than the ever-so-elusive, pain-in-the-ass, bane of my existence X5-494."
White leveled the gun at Alec's head and tightened his finger on the trigger. "No chance for escape this time, animal," he snarled.
Alec's green eyes widened as he looked straight down the barrel of White's semi-automatic.
"And no interruptions," White added with an evil smile. "Just your brains splattered all over the room."
"Sir!" a voice said from behind them, interrupting.
White closed his eyes in exasperation.
"What is it Otto?"
"Sir, what about 452?"
"What about her? She isn't here, is she?"
"No, sir. But you always said you could get 452 to come to you if you captured this one." He gestured at Alec. "Shouldn't we be using him as bait?"
Alec's eyes moved to Otto, then back to White, his life hanging in the balance between the two men.
"He's too dangerous to let live," White said.
"Sir, we have to find her. You said so yourself. If we let Lydecker's people know we have 494, they'll pass the message on to her and she'll probably come right to us. But she won't come if he's dead."
"How would she know?" White snapped.
Damn, Alec thought. He could feel the hatred emanating from White. It reminded him of Logan in a way.
"She'd know," Otto said. "Remember what our scientists said, about the psychic connections between the transgenics."
"That's probably a myth," White said. "They've never proven any telepathic abilities in transgenics."
Max would know, Alec thought. If I died. But he kept his mouth closed. The last thing in the world he wanted was for Max to come looking for him in White's lair. Better for White to kill him now and end things. That way Max wouldn't have to come to his rescue. She'd be free.
"Do it!" Alec said to White, his voice firm, barely trembling. "Kill me and get it over with!"
"See," White said to Otto. "Even 494 agrees with me." His finger was tightening on the trigger again.
Alec wondered what it would feel like to have his brains blown out ... wondered what Zack had felt.
"Sir," Otto said again, speaking quickly. "You know we have orders from higher up to capture 452. You're throwing away our best chance if you kill this one. I'm going to have to object strongly, and report your actions if you do this."
White said nothing.
"Senator McKinley's orders, sir," Otto said.
White lowered the gun. "All right," he conceded. "But if this piece of shit gets away again, I'm holding you personally responsible."
"Yes, sir," Otto said.
Otto seemed to pick the most convenient times to interfere in his life, Alec thought.
"Bring him with us," White ordered the other armed men who were surrounding the little tableau on the balcony.
And just like that, Alec found himself once more in the hands of his mortal enemy.
They were going to use him to lure Max into a trap -- and he couldn't let that happen. Better if White had killed him. But since he hadn't--
They hadn't shackled him yet. He was surrounded by half a dozen Familiars with guns, but his arms and legs were still free. White was the closest, his gun literally poking him in the ribs as they walked. Escape would be virtually impossible, but Alec didn't have escape in mind.
Blurring, moving too fast for the human eye to follow, Alec whirled and had White's semi-automatic in his hand. Guns rose, all aimed at him, even as White bellowed a curse and stared down at his own empty fingers.
In the same fluid motion, Alec aimed at White, point blank range -- and pulled the trigger. The sound of the shot registered, the explosion painful to his ears. He allowed himself time to see the hole appear in the Familiar leader's chest, the crimson stain spreading over his white shirt, the look of astonishment in those cruel eyes as he fell backwards into his own men.
Alec knew he was going to die now. Undoubtedly they were going to shoot him. He probably had about two seconds to live. Probably ...
But he couldn't take any chances. He had to be sure they never used him to get to Max. Flipping the gun in his hand he put the barrel in his mouth, closed his eyes, pictured Max's face, and pulled the trigger again.
Max sat up in bed, a cry on her lips and an icy chill in her soul. Heart pounding in her chest and nausea rising in her throat, she clutched her swollen belly.
"Alec?" she whimpered, her eyes darting frantically around the dark room. "Alec!"
And in his room down the hall, Joshua awakened to Max's anguished scream of her lover's name echoing like a nightmare in the cold corridors of Herman Sandeman's Corsican castle.