Many thanks to the usual suspects for the beta. Pairing:
A post VS3 adventure. Chapter 6
Max put the phone down on the table. She’d tried Logan’s number three times so far, without result.
“Not answering.” She grunted as she leaned forward to pick up her coffee.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
She held up her sweater and rolled down the side of her pants to show the bruise. Alec quickly rose from his chair and snatched up the phone.
“What’re you doing?”
“I’m calling Beverly Shankar. I don’t want to be held responsible if something happens and you lose that baby. Logan would string me up.”
“You have her number?” Max looked at him, impressed for once.
“Logan…” He grimaced as Max rolled her eyes.
“Right. While you’re at it, better call Original Cindy and get her to bring over my backpack and let Normal know where I am.”
This time, Alec rolled his eyes. “Any more orders?”
“Yeah, you got any food in this joint? Girl gets hungry when she misses lunch.”
Alec dialed Beverly Shankar's number and walked into the kitchen holding the phone to his ear. Beverly answered quickly, and Alec succinctly explained what had transpired at the markets, at the same time examining the contents of his refrigerator. He dumped a loaf of bread and some peanut butter on the counter, and gave Beverly some directions to a meeting point nearby. When he finished the call, he tossed the phone back to Max, who had turned to watch him. "Here, you call OC and Normal."
Max dialed Original Cindy's pager, punched in Alec's number and waited for her to call back, while Alec quickly assembled a sandwich and handed it to her. He gave a cursory wave as he left the apartment to meet Beverly. Max thoughtfully munched on her sandwich while she waited, pulling a face at the dry bread, which had obviously been in the fridge for a few days.
Original Cindy called her a few minutes later. "Hey, boo," she answered.
"Max? What you doin' on Alec's phone? What happened? Thought we were gonna have lunch."
"There was some trouble at the markets."
"Oh-oh. What kinda trouble?"
"Never mind that now. Think you can make some excuse with Normal and bring my backpack over?"
"Where are you?" she sighed. "I guess I can do that."
"I'm at Alec's place."
Original Cindy rolled her eyes. "What's Logan gonna say 'bout that."
"Absolutely nothing. He had Alec watching me…and I'm real glad he did, just for once."
Cindy chuckled. "Ya think it's safe for me to go there?"
Max considered for a moment. "It'll have to be. Just be careful."
"Aiight, boo. You're the boss."
Max ended the call and again tried Logan's number. The phone rang and rang, and eventually just rang out for a fourth time. Max put the phone back on the table, suddenly feeling very tired. She lay down on the couch, resting her head on her hands. Within minutes, she was asleep.
Original Cindy looked around before opening Max's locker. She stuffed the backpack inside her own, underneath the pile of packages she had to deliver, figuring that was a good cover, and pushed her bike up the ramp. She mounted the bike outside the entrance and rode off down the street, an innocent messenger out and about her business.
Max woke with a start as Alec banged open the door noisily. “Any luck getting hold of Logan?” he asked, barging in ahead of Beverly.
She shook her head and sat up slowly. “No, none. I don’t know whether to be worried or angry,” she said ruefully. “Hello, Beverly,” she added as an afterthought.
Alec wandered into the kitchen, pulled a Coke from the fridge, and noisily opened the can.
Bev sat down on the coffee table in front of Max and pulled a blood pressure cuff from her black bag. “You want to fill me in on what happened today?”
“I was attacked in the markets. He,” she looked over her shoulder at Alec, ”got all worried.”
Alec gave a quirky smile, then ignored the comment, hitting the power button on the TV remote control. Bev pushed up Max’s sleeve until she saw the deep, bloody scratch where the needle had almost gone in. “What’s this?”
“They tried to jab me with a syringe. Guess that happened when I pulled away.”
Beverly clucked her tongue and proceeded to check Max’s blood pressure using a battery-operated monitor. “Hmm…a little high, but I guess that’s understandable.”
“Compared to what? I’m an X5,” Max added gloomily. “Who can say what’s high and what’s normal for me?”
“Max, I’ve done this to a few X5s before, including you, as you will recall, and their blood pressure was pretty much the same as mine,” Beverly admonished gently.
“Max, show her your hip.” Alec had found a news station and was watching from the kitchen as he drank his Coke.
Max gave him a pissy look and exposed her hip. “How did this happen?”
“I think I must have hit it on one of the market stalls as I ran out.”
“I don’t think that’s anything to worry about.” Beverly was reaching for her stethoscope. She tried a couple of places on Max’s belly before smiling. “Got it.” Max looked at her expectantly. “You want to listen in?”
“Hold this for me.” While Max held the stethoscope in place, Beverly put the earpieces in her ears. She listened, an expression of wonder spreading over her face. She never tired of hearing her baby’s beating heart. Beverly packed away the blood pressure monitor while Max listened, then held her hand out for the stethoscope. Max returned it to her with regret.
“I don’t think there’s any problem, but you can give me a call any time if you’re worried.”
“Thanks, Bever…” Max’s voice trailed off and she blanched as she caught sight of something on the news broadcast from the TV. “Alec,” she said tensely. “Look! Turn up the sound!”
“Max…” Alec said unhappily. “That looks like Logan’s car…”
“…ripped apart the cabin occupied by Paul Eastman. Emergency services have been unable to enter the remains of the room to ascertain if he was in it at the time…”
“Where is this?” Beverly had turned and was watching as well.
…disturbed the quiet of the town in the region of Gray’s Harbor at about mid-day…”
Max was on her feet. “Wait, Max!” called Alec. “I’m coming, too. Beverly?”
“I’ll find my own way back. Max, the bike isn’t a good idea. Take my car.” She gave Alec the keys. “It’s the gray Toyota SUV, just near where you picked me up, Alec.” Alec nodded.
“Thanks, Beverly.” Max hugged the doctor gratefully.
“Take care, Max.”
Max gave her a watery smile and followed Alec out the door, nearly knocking over Original Cindy, who had been about to rap at the door.
“Sorry, OC, gotta jet.”
“Max, your backpack…” Cindy handed it to her as she brushed past.
"Thanks, explain later…”
“Aiight…” Cindy looked on in confusion as they left her standing in the corridor.
Logan groaned and blinked. His head pounded and there seemed to be the world's brightest spotlight shining right in his face. He lifted his hand to shade his eyes and immediately regretted the movement. Every part of his body seemed to ache. He could feel something hard digging into his shoulder, and on checking with his hand, found a metal bar. He deduced that he was lying on an army cot. He closed his eyes again and became aware of voices and noises in the background. A phone rang somewhere nearby. A gravelly voice answered it, and issued a curt command to someone else.
A shadow passed over him, and he cautiously opened his eyes to see Lydecker peering at him. "I see you're awake," the colonel stated.
"Security was compromised. We had a cuckoo in the nest. It's been dealt with."
Logan absorbed that piece of information slowly. "Max…"
"Is fine, as far as we're aware."
Logan struggled to rise on the slippery cot. He was embarrassed to realize that someone had stripped him to his boxers and that the exoskeleton was gone. "No, you don't understand…she…they sent me something. I think they want her." Logan finally got a grip on the side framework of the cot and pushed himself upright, his head spinning. Lydecker left him for a moment. Logan heard him speaking to someone behind a screen, and then running footsteps and a door slamming. Logan took the opportunity to hook his legs over the side of the cot and sat there, cradling his head in his hands. Deck was back in a moment with a glass of water and a couple of aspirin. Logan looked up at him in amazement, but accepted the offering gratefully. “You get my computer?”
“Yeah, it’s here. You remember what happened?”
“Yeah, I remember. What were you doing there?”
“Figured they’d go after you first. Sorry, I was too late.”
Looking around the room, Logan became aware that the exoskeleton – a burnt out circuit clearly visible – was propped against the wall nearby, and that his wheelchair, already assembled, was beside the cot. Someone had folded his clothes and left them on the seat, along with his glasses. Lydecker made no objection when Logan reached for his jeans and started to put them on – not such an easy task on the slippery and slightly unstable cot. At least the pounding in his head was subsiding gradually. He got as far as his socks and then realized he had no shoes other than the boots he wore with the exoskeleton, and swore softly under his breath. He was certainly not going to wear those boots! He realized he was going to have to be very careful not to injure his feet. At least he had the thick wool socks for protection. Lydecker, apparently tired of waiting, left the room again. His voice could be heard issuing more orders.
Logan pulled the chair closer and made sure the brakes were locked before cautiously transferring. The cot rocked, but he managed to move across without landing on the floor. He thought briefly of Max, wondered if she had tried to contact him. Hell, Cale, be honest with yourself, you're worried whether she's okay. You should have told her about the surveillance video and now you got a big case of guilty conscience.
He closed his eyes and sighed before leaving the room. Chapter 7
Alec had insisted on driving Beverly's car. They had abandoned his bike behind a conveniently placed dumpster in Sector 5 before taking the charcoal gray SUV. Max had fumed for a while over Alec's recalcitrance, but she gradually saw the sense, finally realizing that she wasn’t in a fit state to drive, in any case. He was cool, calm, and collected, whereas the combination of raging hormones, stress, and lack of sleep had her on edge. Original Cindy was right; I do need sleep.
It had been an easy trip out of town, for once. They weren't stopped at a single sector point, for which Alec was truly glad. Alec noted briefly that Max had her phone in one hand and had the other resting gently on her stomach. She had tried Logan's number several more times, but seemed to have given up for now. In return, Max reflected on how much Alec had changed since he'd barged into her cell at Manticore as her assigned "breeding partner." Breeding partner…chose my own, didn't I? Take that, Manticore!
Alec glanced away from the road and looked at Max a little strangely. He had felt her eyes boring into him, and it discomforted him. He disguised the crawling feeling by switching on Beverly's police radio, scanning for some clue as to where they needed to go other than "Gray's Harbor." Gray’s Harbor was a large area to search; more specificity was definitely required.
Max batted his hand out of the way. "You drive. Let me do that."
The radio was unusually silent on the subject of exploding hotel rooms. They heard a frantic call from an officer giving chase to a car involved in a robbery in Olympia, and another chasing a speeding car on the highway; that was all. They passed through a couple of small towns, stopping every once in a while for Max to use the bathroom, but also checking out the local hotels and eateries.
"Whoa, pull up!"
Max’s sudden exclamation had Alec looking at her a little strangely. "Not another PB?"
She glared at him. "Back up a bit."
Alec looked both ways and then executed a U-turn. They were on the main street of a small town and had just come past a hotel of sorts – a scattered collection of wooden cabins on a street corner.
"Slowly…there, you see it?"
"I see it." Alec parked the car and unbuckled his seatbelt. Ignoring Max’s glare, he added, "Stay here. I'm gonna take a look."
On entering the large room, Logan felt at an immediate physical disadvantage. Lydecker hadn’t seen him in the wheelchair since November 2019, and while Lydecker must have known about the exoskeleton, it bothered Logan that the shorter man now towered over him. They were in what appeared to be yet another barn. The laptop was sitting on a long, central table, still in its case, apparently untouched. Lydecker, checking a list of items on a clipboard, nodded at him curtly as he opened the case and set up the computer on the table. They were alone for the moment, although the several chairs and a flickering TV set gave evidence that others were around.
"I need a power socket – battery’s dead…and…where’s my backpack? The disks were in it." Logan looked at Lydecker, suddenly concerned.
"Backpack? No. You weren’t carrying one," Lydecker responded.
“I need the disks. I can’t finish deciphering the codes without them.”
“Where was it?”
“I thought I was carrying it…might be in the car…”
Lydecker stuck his head around a side door and called out for someone, then he was gone through another exit. Logan heard a loud roar as a powerful engine started, before someone else entered the room.
“It’s Logan’s…” Alec spun his head quickly to look behind him, hearing Max hiss one word.
Alec’s eyes narrowed as he saw the former Manticore colonel. “Max…”
He was speaking to air - Max was already out of the car. Coming up behind her former bête noire, she put a hand over his mouth, grabbed his arm, and pulled him back roughly toward the rear door of Beverly Shankar’s SUV, which Alec obligingly opened for her. Max backed in, pulling Lydecker after her.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Max’s tone was angry, her words issuing from between clenched teeth.
“It’s…not what you think, Max.” Lydecker struggled against her briefly, then realized it was futile – she was much stronger than he was.
Lydecker sighed. “I’ll take you to him.”
Max jerked her chin at Alec, indicating he should get in the car. “Drive.” She then turned her attention back to Lydecker. “You can direct.”
“Logan?” a female voice said softly.
Logan quickly turned away from the table and looked into a pair of pretty, dark eyes framed by a mane of long blonde hair. “Syl,” he smiled.
“Nice to see you…awake.” She smiled up at him from where she was crouched, digging in the bottom of a large box.
“Nice to be awake,” he responded, rubbing the back of his head and regretting it instantly as his fingers came in contact with a lump the size of an egg.
“Well, aside from the thousand bongos in my head…yeah, I guess.”
“And Max? How is she?”
Logan’s expression changed subtly, conflicting emotions sweeping across his features – pride, worry, happiness, fear. “She’s fine, at least, she was …”
If Syl noticed his hesitation, she gave no sign, as her smile broadened and she said, “Good. I’m glad.”
“Syl!” a voice called from outside.
“Hang on!” she called back.
Logan opened the computer case and pulled out the electrical cord, hooking it up, but then he was at a loss. The nearest power outlet that he could see was on the far side of the room and he had no extension cord. “Um, Syl, do you think you could, ah…” he waved the plug in the air.
“What I’m looking for,” she responded, again digging in the box. “Ah, here it is.” She dragged out a long cable, plugged it into the wall, and snaked it across the floor to Logan. “Here you go.”
“How did you know?”
“Heard what you said to Lydecker.”
“Does he have you watching me?”
“No, of course not,” Syl replied, a hurt expression on her face. “But this place has thin walls, and, well, X5 hearing...”
“What’re you doing with Lydecker?”
“Well, it sure as hell isn’t the pay and conditions.”
Logan laughed. “Seriously.”
“He asked us for help on this one. Said he needed the best of the best.”
“And you believed him?”
“We didn’t have anything better to do at the time.”
“Syl!” the insistent voice again came from outside.
“I’m coming!” Her impatience now was a tangible thing. She sighed, flicked her hair off her face, and was gone.
Max's head was having a hard time ruling her heart with Lydecker in the car. It annoyed her intensely that Lydecker seemed more amused than afraid, now that they were moving. For herself, she had an equivocal relationship with him. On the one hand, there were all those events of her childhood, colored, as he himself had said, by looking at them with a child's eyes. On the other hand, there were the times in the last few years, where he had been of assistance, had even come to the rescue. She had a real battle raging within her mind as to how to react to him. Was he a mentor or a tormentor?
Alec had not been part of Deck's group, had been based elsewhere, and his only experience with Lydecker had been as an adult, but Max still found herself wondering what his real intentions were. She hated not knowing what was going on. Logan, you are so going to pay for this! I thought we were past all this 'keep the bad stuff to yourself' nonsense; guess I was wrong. We really need to talk.
"I want to know why someone tried to stick me with a syringe in the marketplace today," Max said evenly.
"They're after breeding females," Lydecker flicked a quick glance at Max's swollen belly. "Proven breeders."
"Tell me this isn't another let's-breed-a-super-race
scenario. I thought we already dealt with that one when we took down Manticore."
Lydecker clenched his jaw and snorted through his nostrils. His expression was grim. "They're trying to pervert Manticore technology to their own ends."
"That's new how?"
"You want your child to grow up in a concentration camp, without the freedom to chose the life it wants to lead?"
"And how we grew up was different to this in what sense?"
"You had enough to eat, you had mental stimulation…"
"Oh, you mean drills and rote learning
and the slops dished up in the mess with a side-serve of vitamins. Teaching nine-year-olds how to kill without compunction, to hold their breath under-water for hours. Breaking our bones to see how long it took us to heal. Dissecting us when something went wrong. Yes, such a wonderful life."
Alec snickered and muttered something under his breath.
"You want to contribute to the conversation, Alec?"
"No, go ahead, Max."
"Left here," said Lydecker. "This is different. They're breeding slave labor for farms and factories. They plan on giving basic nutrition, no more. There will be no education of any sort. These children will be taken from their mothers and raised as slaves from birth. They will be trained to operate basic machinery, to pick fruit, herd cows, whatever."
Max gave a bitter laugh. "And this differs from Manticore in what respect?"
"Max, we were soldiers, not farm labor," Alec chimed in from the front seat.
She gave the back of Alec's head a dirty look. "What does this have to do with Logan?"
"I need his computer skills. Need him to hack into the system, set up the tape loop…get us in there."
"So get your own guys to do it."
"Max," Lydecker turned to face her, his expression grim. "He's better than they are. We both know that. And he has…"
"More to lose?" The irony wasn't lost on her. She leaned back into the seat, some of the tension draining out of her. "Okay, so we better deal with this bitch."Chapter 8
Logan booted up the computer, logging into an alternative secure server through the satellite hookup, hoping against all hope that it hadn't been compromised as well. The satellite connected quickly, and before doing anything else, he thoroughly checked his system and fired off a quick e-mail to Sebastian, asking him to start tracking down replacement parts for the exoskeleton…yet again.
He also played back the video, touching the screen with his fingers as it played, before suddenly becoming aware that he wasn't alone – that there was someone standing behind him. "Where did that come from?"
Logan looked over his shoulder into Krit's serious brown eyes and, not for the first time, was struck by his physical resemblance to Max. He presumed that the two of them had been created from eggs taken from the same donor, thus making them closer to being real siblings than any of the other X5s he had met to date. "It came in piggy-backed on another file," Logan replied, looking back at the screen.
Krit pulled up a chair and sat beside Logan, watching as the video followed Max at a distance through the markets. Logan recognized the sweater she'd worn the previous day, his sweater, he realized with a start. "When was this taken?" Krit asked.
"How do you know?"
"Firstly, because it's dated," Logan pointed to the tiny date blinking in the corner of the screen. "Secondly, because those are the clothes Max was wearing yesterday." And she thinks I never notice, he added mentally.
"Logan, they wanted you to know she was being watched."
"I know," Logan replied evenly. "Which is why I got a friend to watch her."
Krit grinned. "Bet that'll make her happy."
Logan turned and looked at him uncomfortably. "What was I supposed to do?"
"Well, you could have told her for one thing. You haven't told her, have you..."
Logan shrugged sheepishly. "I-I…"
Krit grinned and thumped him on the shoulder gently. "Oh, boy, I hope I'm there when she kicks your butt."
"I didn't want to worry her," Logan said softly, "but all I've done is worry myself."
"Hey, it's okay, man. Max is a big girl. She can take care of herself."
"Krit…" Logan started to speak, then stayed his tongue as the video finally showed a full-body shot, rather than a floating head and shoulders one.
Krit just squeezed Logan's shoulder and left the room.
“Who else do you have on your team?”
”No one else?“
Lydecker shook his head. “We’re pretty isolated here, and we’ve been keeping on the move, especially once we discovered that OpSec had been breached. There’s only those three, myself and Logan here, plus a small group keeping watch on the facility, of course. No one else.
Alec drove the Toyota up to the rear door of the barn, turned off the engine, and caught Max’s eye in the mirror. When Max nodded in response, he got out of the car and walked around to the rear door.
Only then did Max leave the vehicle. Alec roughly pulled Lydecker out the other side, then Max took over, taking his arm in a deceptively loose grip and pushing him ahead of her. Alec brought up the rear, carrying the backpack Lydecker had been holding when Max grabbed him at the motel.
Syl, Krit, and Zack were huddled together in conversation when Max, Lydecker, and Alec entered. They swung around as one, pulling out their weapons, realizing that Lydecker wasn’t alone. As soon as they saw Max and Alec, they relaxed. Max grinned, “This a private party, or can anyone…”
Alec’s, “Hey guys,” from behind Lydecker was ignored, as Syl, Krit, and Zack greeted their sister.
“Hey, there,” said Logan from across the room. He’d turn to face them as soon as he heard Max’s voice.
Max’s smile of relief lit her whole face. “Hey, yourself,” she responded. “What’s a nice boy like you doin’ in a barn like this?”
Max stepped out from behind Lydecker and moved toward Logan. As Zack saw Max properly for the first time, his expression changed from pleasure, to pain, to anger. He turned away from them and walked out the far door. Max was about to follow him, but Syl grabbed her arm and stopped her. “Let him go, Max. He knows you’ll never be more than a sister to him, but that doesn’t stop the hurtin’.”
Max just nodded. “I know…”
Logan took her hand. “Hey,” he said looking up at her, eyes shining now that he knew she was safe. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
“What happened to the exoskeleton?”
Max gave a chuckle. “That piece a junk ain’t worth what you paid for it.”
“Um, Max, I didn’t pay anything for it.”
“Hmmf, you got what you paid for. Where’s your shoes?” she asked, noticing that all he wore on his feet was a pair of thick wool socks.
“I am not wearing those heavy boots just to wheel around the place.”
Lydecker handed Logan his backpack. Logan dug around in the bag, coming up with the two computer disks and his cell phone. “It fell into some bushes,” Lydecker explained. “Wasn’t hard to find.”
Logan nodded, “Right,” and started to turn away from him.
“Max, it might be better if you stay here,” Lydecker said seriously.
“Lydecker, I have no intention of goin’ anywhere until this bitch is done. Alec, you wanna go?”
Alec hesitated a moment. “I’m staying.”
Max nodded. “Looks like you’re stuck with both of us.”
Lydecker’s expression never changed, but something in his body language told Max that he had what he wanted. She narrowed her eyes and looked at him closely as he walked away. He disappeared into the doorway to what appeared to be a small storeroom off the main area and shut the door.
Syl, with Lydecker finally gone, had no hesitation in hugging Max. “I’m glad you’re here, little sister.”
“Me too, I guess,” Max shrugged.
Logan slotted the CD back into the drive on the computer and started the decoding program again. The screen ran fast with numbers. Max, hearing the computer beep as the program started up, walked over and occupied the chair used by Krit earlier. Lydecker stuck his head out the door and issued some curt commands to Krit and Syl, then shut himself back inside his "office" again. Alec nodded at Max, then said he’d go with them.
Max looked around her curiously. The barn was in good repair, with a set of double doors at the front end, plus a smaller side door, and another small door at the back. There were two small side-rooms, one of which was Lydecker's office. A peek into the other revealed that it contained the army cot used by Logan earlier, and the exoskeleton. There was the long table on which Logan had set up the computer, and several boxes of equipment. Max turned her attention back to Logan, bit her lip, and said, “You gonna tell me why you had Alec following me ‘round? Not that I’m not glad he was there or anything, but…” She turned her head, watching Alec follow Syl out the door, then heard Beverly’s SUV start up again.
“Someone had you under surveillance.”
“And you didn’t tell me? Logan!” Max cuffed the back of his head.
“Ow!” He rubbed his head ruefully, gently touching the lump with his fingers.
Max looked at him oddly. “Hey, I didn’t hit you that hard.”
“Max…” Logan still fingered the bump.
“Here, let me take a look at it.” She stood behind him and gently ran her fingers through his hair until she found the spot, parting the hairs so she could see underneath. Someone had already cleaned the small graze, but the lump was quite impressive. “What happened? Someone hit you with a baseball bat?”
“Ha-ha. Hit my head on the verandah post when the room blew up.”
“Well, you’ll live. Your head’s pretty hard.”
Logan grinned wryly. “Max, how’d you locate Lydecker?”
“The explosion made the news – we just started lookin’.”
Logan nodded. “I’m sorry about…you know…”
“I’ll let it pass – this time, but you gotta stop keeping things to yourself. I’ve been outta my head with worry for two days.”
“If it makes you feel any better – so have I.”
Max paused for a moment. “Don’t suppose they got any food in this chicken outfit. I gotta use the bathroom as well.”
Logan gave her a cheeky grin. “That’s news.”
“Since when aren’t you hungry and…”
“Yeah, all right, Mr. Hacker. You worry about breaking codes and I’ll go eat and pee for two.”
Max exited through the nearer door and found herself in the yard of an old farm. There was a cluster of aging wooden buildings, including a doorless shed holding the rusting remnants of a tractor that appeared to have been stripped of all useful bits; a large chicken coop with no wire mesh; and an old house. The roof of the house was partly missing. Fading scorch marks on the walls gave evidence as to the reason. The kitchen was still useable, however, and the door stood open. Max could see Zack sitting at the table, morosely glaring at a can of Coke.
Max picked her way around some junk on the ground, and knocked hesitantly at the kitchen door. “Hey.”
“Hey, Maxie.” Zack looked at her evenly.
“Is there a bathroom anywhere?”
Zack pointed to an internal door. “First left.”
Max was back in a few moments, shaking drops of water from her hands. She pulled out a chair and straddled it, leaning her arms on the back.
“Max, I’m sorry for before.”
“It’s okay, Zack, I do understand.” She smiled, “Tinga and me – we’re a lot alike.” She hesitated, seeing Zack’s face. “Zack, this is my one chance at some kind of normal life. I’m grabbing it with both hands.”
“It’s okay, Max. I’d like that too. The trouble is, that kind of normal life – it’s not safe for us.”
Max sighed. “Got any food?”
“Check the cooler.”
Max peered deep into the confines of an old drink cooler with a time-yellowed white lid. She found the contents somewhat lacking in home comfort. There was a container of something at the bottom that looked like it had been there for a while. It was growing a fur coat and looked like it was about to sprout legs. Max grimaced in distaste and examined more favorably a small block of cheese and two small apples that looked like they were edible. The only other items she could see were about a dozen cans of Coke, less the one on which Zack was still fixing his gaze.
"Gees, what're you people living on – air?"
Max took the cheese and the better of the two apples and stood leaning against the doorframe, eating and watching the sunset above the line of trees. She shivered slightly, which made Zack look at her curiously. He got up from his chair and disappeared inside. The living room of the house wasn't really habitable – it had been badly damaged by smoke when the upper story caught fire, apparently several months before, but they had been using it to store their clothes. He came back holding a fleecy jacket and a pair of running shoes. "Here," he said, handing them to Max. "Put this on. The shoes are for Logan."
She turned and looked at him in amazement. He just shrugged and went back to his seat. "Thanks."
"Can't have any harm coming to that baby."
"What, you rehearsing to be godfather?"
"You never know, Maxie, you just never know." Max gently touched his head before leaving him to Zen and the art of soft drink can turning.Chapter 9
Max flitted around the room preparing for sleep. Logan already lay on the old mattress Zack had dragged down from the farmhouse as soon has he realized how difficult it was for Logan to traverse the debris-strewn ground of the yard, and that both Logan and Max intended to stay in the barn overnight. Aside from anything else, Logan’s decoding program was still crunching numbers and he wanted to stay nearby for that reason as well.
“Max, come to bed.” Logan’s voice was partially muffled by the unzipped sleeping bag he was using for a blanket.
“In a minute.” She smiled down at him – a flash of white teeth in the dark mask of her face caught by the dim glow of the computer screen in the next room. She folded her sweater and dropped it on the top end of the mattress for use as a rough pillow, then, clad only in a t-shirt (borrowed from Zack) and panties, she crawled under the covers. She hissed as her bruised hip came into contact with the mattress, and rolled over, presenting Logan with a view of her back. She snuggled back into the curve of his body, spooning with him.
Logan smiled into Max’s hair, puffing a breath to move one loose tendril that was tickling his chin. Max claimed Logan’s hand, pressing his palm down on the smooth, soft skin of her abdomen where the baby kicked and rolled. “Junior’s feeling playful tonight,“ Logan commented.
“Yes, he is.”
“He? Have you been holding out on me?”
Max smiled to herself. “Nope. Original Cindy says it’s a boy, and…”
“Original Cindy is always right?” he finished for her.
“Old wives tales.”
“Right. But no harm in playing along.”
“And if she’s wrong?”
“No harm, no foul. It’ll be a case of the exception that makes the rule.”
Logan laughed softly. “Hear that, Hiram?” Logan patted Max’s belly as he used the pet name they had been using for the unborn child. “You better be a boy or Aunty OC will put the smack down.” He added by way of an afterthought, “That’ll be a change from her wanting to put the smack down on me!”
Max smiled and slipped a foot over Logan’s legs, hooking a toe around his ankles to pull them closer. “Ooh! Your feet are cold,” she said.
“Wouldn’t know,” he responded dryly. "Feel free to warm them up."
Max awoke to the sound of voices softly murmuring outside the door. A chink of light spilled through, but the speakers were out of view. Listening carefully, she picked out the voices of Lydecker, Alec, and Logan. Max could hear the tired edge in Logan’s voice. He’d been asleep within minutes of her joining him in bed. He wasn’t a morning person at the best of times, even less so when that morning was, Good Lord, she thought, 4:00 am? She momentarily debated whether or not to leave the warmth of the mattress and see what trouble was looming or to try to sleep some more. She had slept more in the last few months than she had ever done, as if the baby were sapping her energy. After a minute of mulling it over, curiosity got the better of her, and she got up, not bothering to dress, and walked out draped in the sleeping bag.
Logan, Lydecker, and Alec were all examining the computer screen intently, with Zack off to one side leaning against the table. All four of them watched as Logan manipulated the security camera in what appeared to be a nursery of infants. Max shoved Alec out of the way so she could sit on the chair next to Logan. Alec flicked a glance at her, then turned his attention back to the screen. Zack frowned slightly, but his attention was more on what Logan was doing. Logan keyed in some commands and the camera panned around the room.
Max was deeply troubled. Other than a single nurse sitting at a desk in the corner, the nursery seemed to be unattended. She flinched as the view changed to another room, this one filled with sleeping adults. One woman moved in her sleep, and for a moment, her hair parted long enough to reveal a barcode. Max sensed Zack and Alec both tensing, and she suppressed a shiver.
Logan switched around, viewing several corridors.
“Okay, we’re in. Whenever you’re ready, I’ll be able to guide your team through,” he said. “I can also disable all the security and put in a false camera feed.”
Lydecker looked at his watch. “It’s too late tonight.”
“There’s a full moon,” interjected Zack. “We shouldn't risk going in with that much light.”
Lydecker grunted his agreement. “Wednesday.”
Logan swiveled his chair to face Lydecker. “I’d like to be there.”
Lydecker gave a half smile. “I want you in the command vehicle. I need you close by in case something goes wrong.”
“If he goes, so do I,” said Max.
“No!” Logan was adamant.
“Logan, in case you haven’t caught on by now, this girl is gonna do what she’s gonna do, no matter what you or anyone else says.”
Logan glared at Zack momentarily, hearing his own words echoed back to him. He gave a deep sigh.
“I’m coming,” Max said quietly.
The group clustered around the computer had broken up soon after that and gone back to their various allotted sleeping areas. Logan lingered only long enough to see if he'd be able to get back into the system – trying a few things to see if his invasion of the system had been detected. It seemed all was well.
Logan sat in the wheelchair looking down at Max, who was already lying on the mattress. "You gonna tell me what caused that bruise on your hip?"
"Oh, you saw that. It's nothing really. I hit one of the stands in the markets doing my usual escape and evade. Beverly cleared it."
Logan closed his eyes and nodded. "I should have told you."
"Hey, you told Alec. At least that's something. Now, come and get some sleep, coz I don't think we'll be getting much tomorrow."
Logan thrashed in his sleep. "Max? Max, answer me!"
Max sat up beside him, her brow furrowed. Logan seldom stirred in his sleep. His long hours at the computer, exercise routine, and just the sheer physical effort of keeping himself mobile and going about his daily life tired him out. It was a sign of how worried he was.
Logan heard the gunfire from the woods and his stomach threatened to leap through his throat. "Something's wrong." He snatched the headset from his head, dropping it on the table. The exoskeleton took him to her almost automatically, navigating him blindly through the woods. "Max? Max. Oh, God. Okay, it's okay."
"Logan," Max responded, her head lolling back over his arm.
"This isn't bad."
"Everything’s going to be okay.” He opened her shirt, revealing the mess the bullet had made of her chest. “This isn’t bad.”
“It’s okay. You’re gonna be all right.”
"I'm sorry…" she looked at him bleakly, then her eyelids dropped shut.
"No, no, no, no. No, we're gonna get you out of here. Okay? It's gonna be all right." The panic was rising in his voice.
She opened her eyes again and smiled at him weakly. "There's something I've got to tell you. I should've…"
"Logan! Logan, wake up!" Max's insistent voice penetrated the dream. "Logan!" Logan became aware of someone roughly shaking his shoulders, and cautiously opened his eyes to find Max kneeling beside him. "You were having a nightmare." Max looked down at him, concern written all over her face. "Are you okay?"
"Oh, God." Logan ran a hand through his sleep-messed hair. "I was reliving it."
"What? Reliving what?"
"That night – the night we took down Manticore."
Max sat back on her heels. She paused, at a loss as to how to respond. "Logan, this time it'll be different. I'm not going in. I'll be with you."
"I know," Logan looked at her steadily. "But that doesn't stop the worry."
"That accomplishes nothing. They already tried to get me in Seattle. I think I'm safer here."
"You think so?" His tone was full of doubt.
"No, not really, but that's what I keep tellin' myself." Her characteristic sarcasm made him smile – a weak, watery smile, but a smile all the same. Looking around him, he finally became aware that it was daylight – he could see her face in the light filtering through a small window high up on the wall. A golden glow reflected off the dingy paintwork of the wall opposite. Max's stomach rumbled loudly.
"If an army marches on its stomach, you sound like you got a whole division in there," Logan commented. "Wonder if they brought back anything other than pizza last night."
"One way to find out." Max stood up and looked down at Logan. "I'm starving."
Logan grinned up at her as she stood over him, still only wearing Zack's t-shirt and her panties. His grin changed to a slight frown. "That’s looking better." He pointed to her hip.
"I heal fast." The impressive purple markings of the previous day were already fading to yellow.
Logan nodded. "I'm…glad you're here."
“Come on. Get up and feed me,” Max smiled.
The smell of frying bacon and eggs had brought all of the X5s, and even Lydecker, to the kitchen. Logan, by daylight, had been able to pick his way through the accumulated debris in the yard, aided by the occasional surreptitious shove from behind by Max, who made a mental note to get some of the others to move the junk out of the way. They had two more nights to wait out in this place – unless Lydecker decided a move was in order – and it was just ridiculous to have one member of the team virtually a prisoner in the barn because the yard was such an obstacle course. Besides, "busy work" was one way of relieving pre-mission tension.
For herself, she was fighting an unaccustomed urge to clean – "nest-building" Original Cindy had called it in a recent conversation. "Total whack," had been Max's response. "This place is so tidy I ain't got nothin' to clean."
Original Cindy had looked around the tidy penthouse kitchen where they were both sitting. "Never mind, boo. You'll find something when the time comes."
Max contented herself with washing the dishes while Logan made use of the bathroom. He'd gotten over the crawling sensation in his skin from having to deal with Lydecker now that he realized the man meant no harm to Max on this occasion, but that didn't mean he wanted to join the great unwashed either. The barn lacked home comforts, one of which was a proper bathroom.
Zack sat at the table behind her, drinking coffee while she scrubbed the frying pan and plates. "So, you really happy with Logan?" he asked curiously.
Max stopped what she was doing and turned to look at him directly. "Would I stay if I wasn't? Look, Zack, I know you don't approve, but for whatever reason, the cosmic fates dictated that Logan and I hook up. You're just gonna have to accept that."
"You picked out any names for the baby yet?"
"Hiram," she grinned.
"No. And the answer is, I'm not sayin'. You'll just have to find out later."
Zack grinned at her and left the house, shutting the door softly behind him.Chapter 10
Max sat in one of the hard wooden kitchen chairs, a dishtowel over her shoulder, and stared out of the grimy kitchen window at the gray sky. It was a typical late winter’s day – cool and overcast. Perfect weather for what Lydecker planned, provided he didn’t expect help from a weather satellite. Too much moon was certainly not going to be a problem.
They had spent two days on preparation and on just keeping busy. Syl and Krit had cleared a path across the yard for Logan, who could now freely come and go from the house. Zack and Alec had taken another drive into town and managed to bring the Aztek back with them. It wouldn’t be used on the raid, but at least it meant that they wouldn’t have any problems getting home when the time came. They had also left Beverly’s car parked on a side street. Logan had called her and told her where she could find it. Being a Seattle ME, it wasn’t hard for Beverly to get out of the city.
Max put her feet up on another chair and leaned back comfortably for a few minutes, enjoying the peace of the morning. She could see Alec and Krit installing equipment in the interior of a dark-colored van. They had the back off a large device and were peering into the workings. There was a pair of hand-held radios on the table. One suddenly crackled to life and Krit’s voice came through loud and clear.
“Max, can you hear me?”
“Loud and clear. Looks like you got it working again.”
“Yeah, for sure. Out.”
Max gave a small smile and left the radio on the table. She tossed the dishtowel over to the sink, and walked inside. “Can I come in?” she asked, knocking on the bathroom door.
“Sure.” Logan reached back and unlocked the door. She squeezed past him and sat on the closed lid of the toilet. It had taken several months for Logan to get over his embarrassment at having someone other than Bling witness his bathroom rituals. He had blushed bright red the first time Max had walked in on him, and since that time, Max had always made a point of knocking first. On this occasion, however, he was just packing away a tube of toothpaste in the small zip-topped toiletries bag he carried in his backpack.
“Mind if I use some toothpaste?” Max asked, picking up a new toothbrush from the sink.
“They fixed the radio, by the way.”
“Looks like we’re good to go for tonight.”
Max stood up and leaned over the sink, studying Logan’s face in the mirror as she brushed her teeth. He looked strained – tired. His eyes were red-rimmed and his usual scruff was fast becoming a full beard. None of them had slept much in the last few days, and Logan, when he had slept, had had his rest interrupted by a series of nightmares. Either Max had woken him when he started to thrash, or he had woken himself. The tension of waiting had taken its toll on all of them.
Zack had spent most of his time closeted with Lydecker, putting together a detailed plan, while Alec, Syl, and Krit had checked and rechecked equipment and come and gone on various errands, leaving Logan to his computer and Max feeling almost completely useless. It was frustrating to Max that the other X5s were treating her like an invalid. She had helped with checking the gear and packing it securely, even with cleaning guns (much as she hated to handle them), and as a last resort, had attempted to repair the exoskeleton, but the burnt out circuit and damaged board had defied her efforts and she eventually just packed it into the back of the Aztek – out of sight, out of mind.
“Max?” Logan’s voice brought her back to the present. She had spaced so long that even he had noticed. “Are you with us?”
“Hmmm?” She finished brushing, rinsed the brush and her mouth and handed it to him to put in the bag.
Logan braced himself against the metal table in the back of the van, holding on tight with both hands. The laptop slid alarmingly. He wedged it between his chest and the bolted down radio, regretting the bad decision that had made him get it out so soon. The engine of the van strained as it bumped up the dirt track, the occasional branch swishing along the roof and sides, until they reached the designated rendezvous. It was a relief to stop. He heard the other vehicles pull up behind them. Max flung open the sliding door, making him start.
“Hey, you okay in there?”
“Yeah, sure,” Logan replied, hands flying over the keyboard.
There was a frisson of electricity in the air outside the van. Lydecker crouched on the ground beside the doorway, lighting the diagram of the facility with a torch, and going over the plan one last time, while Logan hacked into the system and set up the fake camera feeds.
“Okay, I’m done,” Logan said over his shoulder. “I’ve disabled the security system and set up the fake camera feeds. You’ll be invisible to them.” He released his brakes and turned to face the doorway, maneuvering cautiously in the cramped confines of the van. Just getting in had been a nightmare. He had stubbornly refused any assistance. Max and Alec had both rolled their eyes but left him to it. They hadn’t even watched as he grabbed the doorframe and pulled himself awkwardly up.
Lydecker nodded curtly and continued his dialogue, while Logan again pivoted and sat in the doorway facing out. Max, leaning against the van, reached up a hand for his and squeezed for a moment, her mind drifting back to another time and place – before another mission.
“I know you're not too chill with what's going on tonight and I thank you for keeping your concerns to yourself. It's a bitch psyching yourself up for battle when people are throwing around words like ‘deathwatch.’”“Well, I think I know you well enough by now. There's no stopping you if there's something you need to do, especially when it comes to your family.”
“You're my family as much as anyone, only we're never going to be any kind of anything if it keeps on like this.”
“One way or another, after tomorrow the world's going to be a different place for me, for both of us.”
“Everything's going to be all right.”
Max’s head screamed at her. It wasn’t all right at all, not then. This time? Well, I’m not going in, am I? I can only hope it’ll all work out.
She wondered briefly if the others had similar thoughts. The faces were grim, almost expressionless. Even Alec looked serious. She wondered at his willingness to stay and help out and then realized that he did care, that he wasn’t as flaky as he often appeared; he had a past he’d rather forget as well. She forgot that sometimes. He’d been there longer than any of them.
“Jackson will liaise with you at the lookout point,” Lydecker was saying. “He and Morrison will stay there. Zack and Alec – will go in the front. Syl, Krit – are you ready to take the back door?”
“We’re good to go,” responded Syl, adjusting the straps on her backpack. She carried an assortment of gear that they’d need to climb over the wall and breach the rear doors in order to set up a diversion, if it was required. Otherwise, they were just there to guide people out of the building.
"Okay, move on out, people. Time is wasting." Lydecker and Max watched the two teams go. Max marveled at Lydecker's stony expression, devoid of all emotion – the man was totally under control. She turned away to find Logan offering his hand to help her up into the van. For once, Max didn't bat it away, but gripped his fingers and lightly stepped up. Logan looked at her in surprise for a moment, then turned his attention back to the computer screen. A few minutes later, Zack's voice came through his headset. "We're goin' in. You ready to guide us through?"
"I'm ready, Zack."
"And so am I," added Max, donning her own headset.
Lydecker climbed in and slid the door shut. He grabbed a third headset and settled in the chair on Logan's left.
"We're knockin' on the back door." Syl's voice came through loud and clear. Logan quickly switched cameras to catch Syl and Krit at the rear – Krit dealing with the door lock.
"Logan, we're at the main corridor. Can you override the locks so we can get in?" Alec's voice was crisp – efficient.
Logan's fingers flew. "You're in. Hit the switch." Logan zoomed the camera in both directions along the corridor and saw Alec's satisfied grin as the reinforced glass and steel security door slid open. Zack could be seen putting the final touches to trussing up a guard. His final move was to drag the man's inert body out of sight behind the security desk. His presence would be missed, but with luck, there would be a big enough window of opportunity between patrols for them to get the job done.
Logan scanned the passages ahead of them, checking the side entrances and crossing hallways. "Unfriendlies, second corridor on the right, 'bout half way down."
"What're they doing?" Alec asked.
"Having a meeting," Max grinned faintly.
"Talking outside a door." Logan's mouth twitched at Max's response.
"We're in the kitchen," Krit responded. His voice sounded strangely muffled.
"Nothing," responded Syl. "He's stuffing his face."
"Krit, get your mind on the job," Lydecker interrupted.
"Okay, we're at the storeroom. We'll have the charges ready in a few minutes."
"Good," said Lydecker. "As soon as you're done, get upstairs and help out Alec and Zack."
Krit tossed his apple-core into a convenient trashcan and wiped his hands on his pants. Syl rolled her eyes. "Come on, Porky, gotta roll."
"Logan, what're they doing now?" Alec whispered into the headset.
"Still yapping," Logan responded. It was the faintest hint of a joke. "Wait. One of them's gone back in. The other is headed your way."
Alec nodded at Zack and slipped off his backpack. As the man stepped into the corridor, Alec grabbed his arm and sent him flying into the wall opposite. His head connected – hard – and he slumped to the floor, out cold.
"One down," Zack said into the mic. "Logan, how's it look up ahead?"
Logan hit a few keys and scanned the next couple of corridors, while in a smaller window he watched Alec strip the man laid out on the floor of his white coat and put it on himself. "Nice disguise, Alec," commented Max.
"I'm the chameleon," he responded. "Watch me vanish."
"All clear, Zack," interjected Logan, wondering briefly if things weren't going too smoothly so far.
Alec and Zack turned at the second corridor, which was the designated location of the first group of female transgenics in the building, according to earlier investigations. They almost immediately found the passage blocked by a steel security gate, located in the blind spot between two cameras. "Logan, got another door here. Can you open it?" Zack asked.
"Give me a…"
Zack grinned as the gate swung open and flashed into view. Alec had found a security swipe-card in the pocket of the coat. "Never mind – we're in."
"Looks like I'm redundant, you gotta key."
"Syl, Krit, check in," grated Lydecker.
"We're in corridor D17 approaching the fire stairs."
Logan's fingers flew over the keyboard, changing the view on the monitor yet again. He was just in time to see Alec enter a side room, then managed to swap to the camera inside the room. Alec officiously walked up to a male on duty. Logan heard him say suspiciously, "Who are…" before Alec knocked him out with a quick swipe of his fist.
"Your worst nightmare, kid," Alec responded to the inert form.
Zack slammed open an internal glass security door. "Okay, ladies, up and at 'em!"
There was a collective stirring of heads from the ten or so beds in the room, then a voice said from the back, "We're handcuffed to the beds."
Zack looked at the roomful of expectant faces and thought, Oh hell! "Alec, need your help here."
"Zack, what's up?" Max asked. The microphone hadn't picked up what had been said.
"They got 'em handcuffed to the beds."
Logan and Max exchanged concerned looks.
"No keys," said Alec, frisking down the guard-cum-nurse. He shrugged at Zack. "This is gonna take awhile the old-fashioned way."
"Syl, Krit, we need you up here now!" Zack's tone was urgent.
"Nearly there," Syl replied.
Max half-turned her swiveling chair, looking toward the door of the van. Logan and Lydecker both looked at her. "What's the matter?" Logan asked.
"Thought I heard something."
"They knew we were coming," Lydecker stated matter-of-factly.
Max and Logan both looked at him aghast.
"Alec, Zack, Syl, Krit – abort!"
"What's the matter?" Zack asked urgently.
"It's a trap. Get out of there, Zack." Max's tone was grim. She flinched as the van door was flung open.Headlong Chapters 1-5Headlong Chapters 11-14