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Passing Time

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Passing Time
"I was the prince's jester, that I was
duller than a great thaw; huddling jest upon jest
with such impossible conveyance upon me that I stood
like a man at a mark, with a whole army shooting at me."
-- William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

They weren't big on life skills at Manticore. Survival skills, sure. Take any resident of Terminal city and drop them in the middle of the desert with a compass and a knife and they'd come through fine. Except the arctic ops, anyway.

Life skills were different. Life skills were how to laugh at a joke the seventh time you've heard it, just to be polite. They were knowing not to mention that you were right after someone does something their way, when your way was better. (He's never picked up that one.) It's how to help someone feel like a person, when all they've ever been is a soldier.

Soldiers were taught to fight. To fight when wounded. To fight when handicapped. To follow orders. To keep on task. To complete the mission.

When there wasn't a mission, things got dicey. They all had their ways of coping. Joshua painted. Logan read. Or researched. Or brooded. Whatever. Max . . . who the hell knew with Max.

Alec made lists. Manticore training: keep organized, keep sight of the objective. He liked to think he gave his lists flair, though. He didn't write them down. Then again, he didn't have to -- government-issue humdinger of an X-5 brain. His might not work as well as the transgenics bred just to think, but it got him by better than most regular people's.

That's probably why the lists didn't really work, didn't keep him from thinking. He wasn't big on brooding. But locked in a cage with no where to go? Alec made lists and tried not to think.

Ways out of Terminal City:
1. East Sewers
2. South Sewers
3. Sewers to back alley
4. Why is there always a damn sewer?
5. Through the fences and onto the five o'clock news.
These days it was the food that was killing them. Or rather the lack of it. Last mile back into the city and the sector police caught up. Six man team, only four came back. Lost all the goods their team carried back. Police called it a mutant attack, an attempt to expand their territory. Different story, same message; transgenics bad. None of them mentioned that they were shot in the back or that the cops struck first. None of the home team even bothered to get pissed off about that anymore, it was pretty much par for the course.

"To Herb and . . . everyone else who didn't make it." Max lifted the glass in her hand and a small sea of mutants did the same.

Alec made the motion because sometimes it was easier to lie than to mention that it's hard to honor a lizard-man no one bothered to name.

They scattered, as they always did. A whole town full of freaks who worked better alone. Even the X series were loners in the end. Trained to work as a team, but without orders or a mission, they scattered. As much as they could inside the fences, anyway.

Every shade of the transgenic rainbow holed up in the few square miles that made up Terminal City, but in the end it came down to two types -- the ups and the downs.

Alec was an up. Give him a free moment and he'd go climbing – look for open air and a perch above the rest of the world. Most of the X-5s were like that. Feline DNA, maybe. Or the raptors that gave them their vision. Whatever. He didn't over think it. He just climbed.

Terminal City didn't exactly come with posh balconies, but it had roofs. The X-6s took the southern ones, usually. X-7s the east. North held the flag Joshua had made. No one went up there. No one but them. The founders of the meager feast, Max and her boys. Whatever the circus was calling them this week.

The thing about being seen as the right hand of god, was that in the end, people looked at you like it was your fault how things went down. Good, bad, disaster -- whatever. In the end, everyone looked at Max, and Alec was with Max.

The part Alec didn't get sometimes was why he let them. Whole damn slew of hopped-up soldiers running around, waiting to jump when Max ordered (because in the end they were all just soldiers, and orders were all they knew), waiting for something to do. Max didn't need him. He wasn't any different from the other X-5s. There wasn't anything he could do that they couldn't do.

Handy Skills:
1. Fine eye for merchandise.
2. Excellent barter ability.
3. Pretty.
4. Not a serial killer, but close enough that some people don't want to piss me off.
5. Better sense of humor than Max. (Not saying much.)
But when something went bad, when Max needed someone, he was one of the ones she turned to. He was one of the ones they all turned to. It was a circus and a dead end, and that shouldn't mean anything, but sometimes it did anyway. So he stayed. Helped play ringmaster.

Of course in practical terms, the ringmasters were the ones whose faces everyone knew, and walking out of Terminal City was more or less like wearing an open target on his face, so leaving wasn't the smartest thing to do. And Alec was smart. That was how he'd earned his name, after all. Most of the time, he let people think that was the only reason he was still there. Once in a while, he let himself think it, too.

Cheers to the masses and then up the ladder, the Big Dog right behind her. Alec knew the routine. Max took it all personally -- every soldier down, every wrong turn. She took it all onto herself. So a moment of silence for the fallen, then business as usual for everyone else and the high places for her.

Normally Joshua was a down. He wanted alone time, he went for the dark places -- basements, sewers. It was weird because he'd spent so long wanting to get out, but Alec figured dogs weren't climbers. Big Dog went up anyway, when Max did. They'd sit near the flag Joshua had painted and talk. Or not talk. Alec didn't know. If he was there, it was usually him talking, because Max went in for the stoic silence and Alec never could manage that. Even after months in psy-ops where all they did was make him talk. Endless questions and analyses and tests to make sure he wasn't going to go psycho on them, that he'd kill when ordered to but not otherwise.

Max was the face of Terminal City, but Logan was the ambassador. He was their voice to the outside world. The link between the humans and freaks. He came and went and he and Max shared puppy-dog looks and longing glances and Alec really wanted a cure for the damn virus just so he could tell them to get a room without feeling like he was kicking a puppy. Plus, it wasn't like Logan could hang around -- day or two straight in toxic central, and he started looking like a walking corpse. Cindy had been the same way, but it didn't matter anymore. She'd been too free with the transgenic love in places where it wasn't welcome. Bullet to the head. Cops called it a hate crime. Funny how they were accurate without meaning to be.

Annoying Things Max Does:
1. Doesn't realize I'm funny.
2. Immune to charm.
3. Hits really hard.
4. Looks hot even in a sewer.
5. Never lets go of anything. (Never gives up.)
Max had been up there more since they lost Cindy. There were two other Maxes there now -- 455 and 458 -- but it was easy to pick out the right one. The other two didn't look as hard. Didn't look like they'd lost as much. Didn't look as if they carried the weight of a whole city on their shoulders. Alec tried to avoid them. He tried to avoid the only other X-5 to show up with his face, too. He kept waiting to hear the guy was offing people though, and sometimes he wondered if Max was waiting to hear the same thing about him.

Max was the general. Logan was the Ambassador. Big Dog . . . he was the link to the circus. It was a fragile sort of truce. Half of the X-series were made now -- couldn't go out in public without facing the same threats as the ones that didn't look human -- but that didn't stop the freaks from resenting the hell out of the pretty boys and girls who fought like transgenics but looked like pinups. Joshua smoothed it over, tried to make it seem all like one big, happy family.

It was a crock, but Alec was all right with it. He was all right with everything.

He didn't know what he was, but he was all right. He sat with the flag and got to drink from the few beers they had left. He didn't go on food runs anymore. His face was too pretty, he said. Truth was, he was too recognizable. He got tired of Terminal City, but he got tired of waiting for a war every time he stepped past the fences, too.

Max went up, Joshua went up, Logan went up. If Logan wasn't there, then Alec went up. They even followed her when she needed to sulk. It was screwed up. He and Logan got along, but they took turns, nonetheless. The guy knew the story about Alec and Max was bull by then, but still. They both orbited the same girl. Up there at the same time, they'd collide in weird ways.

The only one who followed Alec up there when he went was Joshua, sometimes. Big Fella himself. He'd go up, repaint that damn flag for the hundredth time. It wasn't meant for outside. When the wind hit it, it was too heavy with paint to wave. It just shuddered awkwardly, forced into a job it wasn't meant for, which made it pretty freaking appropriate when you thought about it.

They weren't made for this, any of them. Dog faces, lizard-men, X-5s, fish-people -- none of them were made for real life. They were built for barracks and missions and short life expectancies. Stuffed into a dead city, none of them knew what to do to keep busy. They were all biding their time, waiting for the gates to open or a full blown war to spring.

Alec was pretty sure most of them would prefer the war. They understood war. It was what they were trained for. This whole wait and see, try to fight for your rights with words and debates -- it was pretty much like trying to teach cats to swim. They could do it, if it was that or drown, but they weren't going to like it.

Things Manticore Forgot to Teach:
1. Dating protocol (Women don't like orders. Usually. Well, some women.)
2. How to relax
3. Hobbies
4. Fashion sense (Not genetically implanted, judging from anomalies.)
5. Music appreciation
Max would come down and go off to do what she did when no one was watching. He figured that if she was just a little more human, she'd spend most of her time crying. But none of them cried much. They all had plenty of reasons to break down, but none really did. Stiff upper lip, soldier. Push them and they didn't cry -- they hit.

Manticore trained the tears right out.

So Max would come down and he'd go up. It wasn't that he didn't want to see Max. Wasn't even that he didn't like her. It was just that sometimes he liked to pretend he could leave. Liked to pretend that when he looked out at the city, it was some place he could pass beyond. And when Max was there, he couldn't fool himself. Which was funny since he was usually best at lying to himself.

So he'd go up, last of the beer hidden in a jacket pocket. He'd try not to think about the next food run and who wouldn't come back. Try not to think about how there were a million ways for this to end badly, and only one where it ended well -- and that one was about as likely as Max finally giving in to one of those strip-poker game ideas.

Try not to think about the piano they found in an abandoned office, and how sometimes his fingers ached to play and all he could think of was a wide smile and smooth skin and someone who'd trusted him and died because of it.

Once when Joshua had followed him up, they'd talked. Joshua painted the too-heavy flag and told him about Little Brother, who had his face but went crazy and killed people because of what Manticore did to him. Alec could relate. Max never talked about Ben, but she'd come up to sit beside him on the anniversary of Rachel's death (he hated her a little for remembering) and talked about blue faeries and crap that he didn't get because he didn't really want to.

He got why they said it. Friendly fire. He wasn't the only one to kill someone he cared about.

Reasons to Go:
1. No food.
2. No beer.
3. No room.
4. No satellite reception.
5. No hope for better.
It was different for them, though. They'd killed because they had to. He'd killed because he was ordered to. Last minute changes of heart didn't mean a damn thing. Not when they didn't work.

Weird thing was, he wasn't even sure he'd been in love with her, now. She'd been the first to care about him like he was a person. Treat him like a human. He thought maybe it was the caring he'd fallen for, as much as it was the girl.

Other times he remembered the way she laughed and the way one tooth had felt chipped against his tongue when he kissed her and thought that he'd loved her so much nothing else would ever feel real again.

He'd never know. Not really. Because to figure that out, she'd have to be standing there, smiling at him, and that wouldn't happen. Even if she were there, she'd do the sensible thing like any other normal out there and run like hell from the freaks at Terminal City. Away from him.

Max didn't get what it meant to just follow orders. She was too far away from Manticore. And she'd broken out to start with. Broken away when the rest of them never thought to. Alec didn't know, but he figured it was her idea. Maybe hers and the Zack guy she talked about. Because Max called herself a soldier, but she wasn't. She was a leader. Follow the damn leader -- that's what the rest of them did.

It's what he did. Climbed the roofs, toed the line. Mouthed off because it was expected and he might not be the general, the diplomat, the ambassador, the martyr . . . he might just be the wiseass soldier. But at least he did it well. And in the end, he'd sip his hoarded beer and make his lists and try not to think.

It didn't work.

But that was all right.

He was always all right.

And maybe one day, he'd stop seeing another girl's face beside Max's whenever Max smiled at him. Because at least this time, he was doing right by the girl. Much as he knew how.

Reasons to Stay:
1. Max.
2. Cindy.
3. Joshua.
4. X-Series all hot and lonely.
5. Always a sewer on the way out.
6. Recognizable Face. Too pretty for plastic surgery.
7. Half of transgenic pseudo-army owes me money.
8. Don't have genetically targeted retro-virus.
9. Satellite Reception might be possible in future.
10. Rachel.