“Take my hand, I’ll pull you up.”
“Why? They’ve brainwashed you Alec, they’ve made you one of them.”
“My name’s not Alec.”
The words punctured the air like small sharp fragments of glass. Max met the hard green eyes beyond the outstretched hand. “See? Now that’s my point.”
The face looking down at her was blank, devoid of emotion. There was no flicker of personality within the stoic expression. The grim determination etched upon his face was driven by a desire to complete the mission, not to save the life of a friend. His hand was not an offer of hope, but of duty.
What was the point in returning? What was there to return to? A grim future within the walls of Manticore? The ‘comfort’ of co-habitation with her former partner in crime, Alec? No. They’d harvested ‘Alec’ and left behind this shell of a man. 494. An automaton. Better to let go, take her chances with the jumble of fallen rock and crashing waves that lay in wait thirty feet below.
They’ll never take me alive. Was that a line from a song or a movie?
As commanding officer, he had been the first to raise his gun when they’d cornered her on the edge of the bluff. The first to declare the team could fire on his order. For not the first time she’d searched his hazel eyes, hoping to read in them the intimacy they’d shared. She didn't expect him to love her, to risk all to save her, but she did hope for a sign of subterfuge, a plan B up his sleeve, some wink of the eye to prove there was more to him than an automaton.
And then she’d stepped back upon the crumbling ledge, knowing her window of opportunity had only been a ruse. A test. One she’d failed. There was only one way left to outwit Manticore, and that was down.
Max felt a shift beneath her feet as the narrow chalk cliff shelf crumbled. With her full weight now hanging by fingertips, she squeezed her eyes tight as the porous rock began to disintegrate beneath her grasp.
“452, take my hand!”
If he’d just say her name, just once, it would be enough. Just once.
With the last of her resolve, she dug her fingers into the chalk, pulled her legs up and then pushed her feet off against the cliff, releasing her grasp and twisting her body as she fell. Maybe it would be enough to avoid the rocks. Maybe the waves would drag her out to sea and drown her instead. Maybe -
.X . X . X.
< < flashback > >
“Meet your breeding partner 452.”
Max ignored the snigger of the guard as he exited the cell and cautiously studied the man who stood before her. He had changed, in more ways than one. Physically he was leaner, harder. His body worked to the best of it’s ability to reflect the perfect human warfare prototype.
But the hardness went deeper than that.
As deep as five months of solitary confinement, two and a half months of intensive re-programming, four minutes of standing before a silent committee of scientists and psychologists who’d at last declared his reindoctrine a shining success.
His eyes swept over her in clinical evaluation. She had dreaded this moment. This confrontation. Knowing he’d know nothing of her. Knowing she would search his face for a flicker of feeling, and find only validation for her fears and guilt. Guilt she’d harboured since “it’s time to make a stand” had become her rally cry.
His voice made her flinch. So empty. So cold. She thought of what had transpired between them the last time they were thrown into this situation. How easily she’d kicked him across the room after he’d removed his shirt. How easily he’d let her.
As stubborn as she knew herself to be, she likewise knew there’d be no small mercies given this time. Refusal to comply could ruin them both. She didn’t love him, but maybe a part of her wanted this. Wanted him.
Swallowing the nervous lump within her throat, she nodded and stepped forward, shedding her shirt in a fluid move as he reached for his own. Manticore would be watching this time, and she wanted to prove she could be an obedient soldier.
Returning to Manticore wasn’t an option Max had embraced. She was the last to agree to the government’s terms. The last to fold. No one could’ve expected any less from the girl who’d spent over half her life running from them. But that institution had become their only hope for survival. Surrender to the government or fall to the wrath of a nation which would see every last one of them exterminated like a household pest.
There had been no other choice.
The military had a fortified institution ready and waiting for them in the Nevada Mountains, thus proving rumours that Manticore was far vaster than any had realised.
One by one they had been reindoctrinated. It wasn’t part of the deal, but when had the government been known for its honesty?
Max, the one noted as the leader of the transgenic rebellion, was the last to undergo the procedure. Perhaps watching the light die from the eyes of her friends was a part of their technique.
Perhaps it was a part of their torture.
Months of playing the obedient soldier had led the Director to grant her an outside mission. Nothing more than the task of playing security to a politician, but even in that, their trust had been suspiciously generous. The opportunity for escape had been almost irresistible, but she’d returned dutifully to base, sensing snares all around her, waiting to catch her if she risked placing a foot out of line.
And then she sensed something else. A change in her body she knew to be more than the result of three square meals a day. Had he realised too?
Their child would never be raised by scientists and drill sergeants. Their child would never be a human weapon.
She would make sure of that.
< < end of flashback > >
.X . X . X.
She opened her mouth for breath as a wave crashed over her head, forcing her under, choking her. Why fight it? She’d been treading water, fighting the rip for so long that the tide had turned. The current was pulling her inland now, back through the waves. She could see dark figures on the beach, standing in a huddled mass, black fatigues of the Special Ops team she had been part of, the clothing of the enemy. Waiting, no doubt, for her sorry ass to wash ashore.
She’d suspected his help in her escape. They were in Canada, on assignment to locate renegade transgenics. Many whom they had helped smuggle into the country in the first place.
Max was due for a medical examination on arrival back at Manticore.
He’d been sitting up front when their SUV had taken a dive into a ditch and come to a standstill around the trunk of a tree. As she fled the scene, she wondered; had he swung the wheel and granted her this window of opportunity?
Wishful thinking led her to hope that somehow, through their forced intimacy, she’d awoken the dynamic vital force that had driven him during those fleeting months when Manticore had ceased to exist. When they had been nothing much more than bike messengers. Nothing more than friends.
Behind her, the hard thump of a hull smacking the waves, growing closer. She ducked under the choppy ocean surface, thinking to swim out further. Hands slid over her, grappling for a hold on wet clothing, pulling her upwards, across the rubber side of a life boat. Manticore issue, just like the impassive faces that stared down at her as she lay defeated, unmoving, squinting against the sun, blinking away salty tears.
The boat hit sand, grounded. She breathed deep, summoning the courage to sit up and face him; to meet those unfathomable hazel eyes.
At last, aware that she was unattended in the life boat, she pulled herself up, momentarily surprised at the lack of immediate reprimand. Her eyes fell upon the cluster of soldiers a few meters away, just as she’d seen them through the break in the waves.
She pushed her way through, searching for his face amongst them until her eyes found him at last and she stopped, frozen, a soundless cry escaping her lips even as she raised a hand to stifle it. All sound faded except for the pounding of her brother’s heart, thumping in her chest, and the rush of blood in her ears.
She didn’t expect him to love her, to risk all to save her.
And so she turned away, shaking her head, denial denial denial falling from her lips. No reprieve. A hand grasped her shoulder, fingers digging into flesh until she found herself facing him once more, pushed forward until she fell at his feet, breathing deep to summon the courage to raise her head; to meet those lifeless hazel eyes.
“He jumped. Soon as you went over he threw down his gun and dived in.”
The words were edged with blame. She didn’t know who spoke, didn’t care. She was oblivious to all, her mind back in a long ago police interrogation room where she’d believed him guilty of murder, where she’d claimed she was sorry for ever inflicting him on the world. She didn’t see them lift his body onto a stretcher, didn’t notice them take her arm and lead her into a humvee. All she could see was the memory of those animated hazel eyes, as the long-ago words repeated over and over like daggers in her mind…
“You really think I could do it? You really think I could murder someone in cold blood? Max, I swear, I’m innocent.”
She’d always been too quick to judge him.