Thieves and Other Rogues by Raine Wynd
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Author's Notes:
Raine notes: This is an answer to a suggestion (::snort::) Rhi made to me in the summer of 2000.
Rhi notes: Hey, you could have ignored it....

Disclaimer: Not ours, not for profit, and they can all go back to whence they came anytime now....

Daytime in the casino was still a cacophony of sight and sound, especially now that the day was easing into afternoon. Dressed in a black leather halter-top, a red leather miniskirt and coordinating boots, Amanda barely attracted a second glance as she strode through the room. Some part of her mind acknowledged that sense of ordinariness and was glad for it even as another part felt bereft for going unnoticed. Her destination was a poker table in the center of the room, where a dealer in a ruffled white shirt stood waiting for customers, looking faintly bored and, as physical looks went, like a hundred other unremarkable, brown-haired, white-skinned men. Amanda had money to gamble--a little profit from an acquisition she'd made a few days earlier, something she wouldn't mind doubling if Fortune smiled on her.

She seated herself at the table and watched the cards as they were dealt, placing her bet when prompted. She was just congratulating herself on the turn of the hand when she noticed a man slide into the seat next to her. Careful to conceal her cards, she turned to see who it was. Instant recognition slid into puzzlement as she realized she hadn't felt the telltale sign of another immortal's presence, which ruled out the stranger next to her as one of her favorite partners in crime, Cory Raines. Damned if the resemblance isn't uncanny, though, she thought.

She smiled, already planning her flirtation, and moving swiftly to execute it. Turning slightly, she noticed he wasn't playing, but was waiting for the next round. "Hello," she greeted. "I know this is probably a horribly tired line, but you really look like someone I know."

"Interesting," he replied, taking her measure in the quick, assessing glance that told Amanda that he was in law enforcement. "I don't have any relatives."

She smiled more easily then. "It's probably a good thing," she drawled. "I'd hate to think that you're just like Cory."

"Oh really? What does Cory do?"

Amanda chuckled then. "He's into... creative financing." Amanda returned her attention to her cards in time to discover that she'd won. Quickly, she cashed out. "Would you like to join me for lunch?" She pressed a hand to her stomach, knowing the motion would draw the other man's attention to her bare midriff. "I'm starving, and I'd really enjoy the company."

"That would be a pleasure," he told her in a husky purr so much like Cory's it was startling. He smoothed his shirt down--long-sleeved and dark green linen, to match his eyes, Amanda noticed--and added, "Always nice to meet friends of relatives I didn't know I had."

She smiled. Instincts honed over centuries of figuring out whom to charm and who to avoid warned her now that the stranger was potentially dangerous. Her equally developed sense of adventure wouldn't let her back out now, though. She told herself that she was just being overly paranoid and that the stranger's resemblance to Cory was what was triggering her unease. In any case, what's the fun in staying safe? she asked herself. None.

"In that case, why don't we go to a nice, quiet pub I know?" she suggested, her voice never wavering in her calculated flirtation. "It's a little off the Strip, but it's not far." And it's one where I know all the exits, if I have to leave in a hurry. Blithely, she ignored the small voice that suggested she avoid danger entirely, and leaned just slightly more in the stranger's direction. He seemed relatively harmless now, and she'd rarely turned down a free lunch.

-=-=-=-


Nice. Very nice. And a pro, too, Krycek decided as he watched her appraise jewelry, guards, and security cameras without ever dropping a word of the conversation... or missing a camera. Amanda Darrieux is going to be perfect for this job.

Krycek escorted her to his car, unworried that she'd be find many clues about him in it. The black sports car was a rental picked for speed and anonymity, not flash. He handed her into the car, taking the opportunity to check the lines of her clothes for concealed weapons and let it look like flirtation even as he pulled his leather jacket out of the back and shrugged into it. Amanda only smiled appreciatively, clearly a woman who loved black leather on men as well, and the memory of some of the photos of her that he'd found drew a very appreciative smile to Krycek's lips.

Somehow, in the five-minute drive to the small bar, Krycek kept the conversation to light banter and didn't drop a word or miss an opportunity to flirt... until they sat down and he smiled at her.

Those lovely brown eyes narrowed suspiciously, alerted by the predatory nature of his smile, and then Amanda painted a charming moue on those crimson lips and suggested, "Why don't I just--"

Krycek shook his head, good hand in his coat pocket. "I don't think so, Ms. Darrieux. Why don't you stay here and we can discuss a mutually profitable arrangement?"

"I didn't give you my name," and now that sweet voice had hardened with suspicion and anger.

Krycek shrugged and let a mocking regret twist his mouth briefly. "No. You didn't."

"And I don't do business with strangers," she added firmly. "So why don't I just go call a cab and get out of here?"

"Because," Krycek said softly, "you were careless. You missed a camera at the Donovan residence. It wasn't part of the security system, so you couldn't turn it off by disarming the system."

"How do you know that? And why should I believe you?"

Krycek smiled at her and relaxed his grip on the gun in his pocket. She wasn't protesting her innocence, only his knowledge. Good. This was going to work after all. "Because I planted it there when I let word leak about the star sapphires," he told her calmly.

"You--" she started, and then stopped. Her eyes narrowed calculatingly. "You're either a cop looking for some way to trap me, or you're someone just looking to trap me. Well, congratulations, you found me, but I'm still free. Either way," she said as she started to rise from the table, "I think it's best if I just tell you thanks, but no thanks."

"Leave if you like," he answered mildly. "I was told that you're the best. Perhaps someone else will be interested in making money. Of course, that would mean that a certain videotape would be turned over to the police, who I hear are very interested in catching the infamous Amanda. Seems like every agency in the world would love to talk you about all the things you've done over the years. I'm sure you're quite familiar with all your work, and don't need the flattery, or I'd go over your resume."

She paused, suspecting that either way, she was screwed. Slowly, she slid her body back down into the seat. "Supposing I agree to do something for you, what would I be hypothetically obtaining on your behalf, and who would I be doing it for?"

He smiled then. "It's just a canister."

"I've heard that one before," she shot back, her eyes flashing with contempt. "That time, it was a Ming vase." More forcefully, she added, "That vase happened to have a bomb in it. Imagine my surprise when that lovely little building full of people went boom." Crossing her arms, she leaned back in her seat and glared at him.

"Trust me, it's not anything you need to worry about, as long as it remains sealed."

"Why should I trust you?" she countered. "I could do this job for you and you could still turn in the videotape. For all I know, you might have already sent it in to the FBI. You haven't even told me your name, or at least, who you're pretending to be today."

"Today?" He considered that, and then smiled. "Today you can probably call me Alex. And bombing the place is the last thing I would ever want to do." Cold green eyes warned her, "Or that you'd want to do."

"I don't kill people," Amanda snapped. "And how do I know you won't send this tape to the FBI?"

"Simple," Alex said calmly. "I'll give it to you when the job is over. And yes, we both know there could be copies. But I'm not interested in having someone with your... skills looking for me later."

"I don't work for free," Amanda pointed out curtly, although the implied compliment mollified her slightly.

"Of course not," Alex told her and leaned further back in the booth, all too casually relaxed to suit her. "I'm not asking you to." He smiled then and commented, "Of course, the question becomes what to pay you. An account could be monitored; gems can be... inconvenient to dispose of at full price." He reached inside his jacket with one hand, one eyebrow crooked as if to suggest she didn't need to worry about a weapon from any place so obvious, and pulled out three slim booklets.

Even from across the table, Amanda recognized them as passports: British, French, and Canadian.

"These, on the other hand," Alex said in that same mild tone, "might just be worth your while."

Automatic reflex made Amanda say, "It'll do for a start."

"It's what I'm paying," was the flat reply. "Take it--or run."

"But, darling," Amanda drawled in tone of sugary disappointment even as her dark brown eyes narrowed with displeasure at the ultimatum, "you left out my favorite country."

Alex snorted. "I'm not running a travel agency."

She reached for one of the passports, only to find her hand seized. Arching an eyebrow, she looked at him, a coy smile on her lips. "Oh, so we're playing 'dangle the carrot in front of the horse' today, are we?" Temper flaring, her voice turned cold as she said sweetly, "I'm no horse and I'm no one's ass. If you're good enough to find me, you're good enough to do this job yourself." Her gaze swept over him in swift calculation. "So, if you're not doing it, that means it's too risky for you. Tell me what's in that canister that's worth not getting caught."

An insult, or a quip, or even a threat, Amanda might have expected. The long, searching look that dissected her, studied her, compared her to some mental chart she never wanted to see... that was a bit of a shock. Alex finally spoke in the same amused, mild voice that he'd used while flirting with her in the casino. "Something too fucking important to leave in the hands holding it."

That same damn probing look pinned her back against the cushions again. It was almost unnerving to see someone who looked so much like Cory wearing an expression that spoke of emotions and drives that she didn't think Cory would ever feel. Amanda knew that expression; she'd seen it on Duncan's face often, and even Methos' once or twice when he didn't think anyone would notice. Whatever game this Alex was playing, he thought the stakes were much, much more important than his life... so he was betting just that. Taking insane risks, probably, with a gambler's cold nerve and appraisal of the odds.

Of all the people to be blackmailed by, she groaned to herself. Aloud, she speculated, "Let's see, that leaves out the family jewels, so it has to be... secrets of some kind. Who's blackmailing you, Alex?"

"You're wasting time, Amanda," he countered, not answering the question, but the slight straightening of his shoulders told her that she'd scored a hit. "I wouldn't have thought that you cared so much about the goods as long as you were getting paid."

"Well," and now Amanda smiled, "I do like knowing what I'm delivering." Deliberately, she leaned forward and braced her chin on the back of one carefully manicured hand. "Just in case, of course, someone has faked the merchandise."

"You won't have to worry about that." He chuckled bitterly. "You can't fake this. I wouldn't try."

"But I'm not you, clearly," Amanda purred. "So. Three passports in exchange for your tapes of me and this container you want, full of ...?"

When she let the question trail off, the cold, contemptuous anger in those green eyes made her think of Kalas. "The price is for the container unopened, Amanda."

"That ups the price." It was reflex, that renegotiation, and she saw the refusal in those angry eyes before he could say anything. "Damn. A girl has to try."

"Try to deliver it, unopened and intact. Try not to get caught," Alex added grimly.

Amanda sighed, willing to do one job for him if it got this too intense, too unscrupulous anti-hero away from her. Part of her mind wondered if the opposite of a 'do-gooder' was an 'undo-eviler' and she almost giggled as she added sweetly, "But when this is over, I never want to see your face again."

Alex shrugged. "When it's all over, Amanda, I'll either be dead or on a really extended vacation. Don't worry about it."

Somehow--as they discussed where to meet and go over plans, specs, and details of the precise canister he wanted--that didn't comfort Amanda at all....

-=-=-=-


The following morning found Amanda doing a preliminary reconnaissance on the laboratory where the canister was stored. Located within a much larger office park, BioPath Research was housed in its own sprawling nine-story glass-and-steel office building, with four-story additions on either side, testifying to its scope. The parking lot had been landscaped for looks rather than security, and the rent-a-cop at the visitor's entrance to the lot seemed to have been put there more to help guide traffic than anything else. Still, Amanda noted that the guard shack had surveillance cameras, and she silently thanked the impulse that had made her decide to change her look. Wearing a dark brown wig over her short-cropped blonde hair, jeans, a concert T-shirt she'd borrowed from someone but had never returned, and slouching her posture, she'd transformed herself into just another young face in the crowd, someone's sister or teenage friend.

For a woman of Amanda's experience, it was entirely too easy to bluff her way past the front desk receptionist and then the patient screening lab assistants, claiming to be in search of a friend of hers who'd called her to pick him up from a lab test he'd had performed. Still, the presence of electromagnetic locks on all the doors including upper level floor access and high-tech electronic security didn't escape Amanda's notice. From what she could tell in her short survey, everything that Alex had detailed was as promised. She pouted as she left the building and got into the car she'd rented; she'd been hoping that she could parlay her preliminary reconnaissance into a snatch-and-grab, but that wasn't to be.

She sighed in frustration, then brightened as she realized she now had the perfect opportunity to field test one of the new electronic toys she'd gotten. Blithely, she ignored the fact that in every simulation she'd performed, she'd failed to achieve any success. Now wasn't the time to dwell on such negative things; she had blueprints to study.

It was almost ten p.m. when she returned to the office complex. Parking her car down the street from BioPath's building in the lot of a computer technology firm, Amanda grabbed her gear and got closer. She checked the blueprints again, wondering just how Alex had obtained them, and then set her watch. Using her laptop and the new electronic toy she'd gotten, she found the frequencies on which the electronic security system operated.

She cocked her head when she saw the double frequencies. "Tsk, tsk, being tricky, are we?" she muttered, amused by the challenge. After entering a set of keystrokes, she held her breath. The program rewarded her a minute later with a flashing message: "System disabled in one minute and counting." When the timer rewarded her with a "Success!" message, she moved.

Stashing the laptop in the black duffel bag she'd brought with her, she ran to the nearest emergency entrance to the building. A pull on the door, and she was inside. Two minutes more, and she was upstairs on the eighth floor. The numerous biohazard signs on the hallway walls disconcerted her momentarily, but as they didn't look any different from the ones she'd seen in the walk-in lab downstairs, she pushed the twinge of conscience aside. One wrong turn into what appeared to be a morgue--though it didn't quite smell like any morgue Amanda remembered ever being in--and seven minutes later, Amanda had the canister, had reset the security system, and was headed down the road in her car. It was one of the easiest jobs she'd pulled off in years. Idly, she wondered if she could convince Alex to throw in some money for the expenses she'd incurred (which, granted, were nil since she had the equipment already on hand, but he didn't know that), then wondered if it wasn't worth more just to never see him again.

-=-=-=-


The first explosion flared into the sky like a waterfall with a fine disregard for gravity. Ash and sparks rode up at the forefront of the flames, thrown ahead of the noise as the pillar of light flared white at the top, shading down to orange-red at the base. The gatehouse went up in its own separate column, throwing splinters and bodies into the air, amid more screams and sirens.

A third explosion, a fourth, a fifth... they kept going off at precisely calculated intervals. The eighth demolished the outer wall of the facility, and Alex settled himself more comfortably into his perch, steadied the rifle against his shoulder, and waited. His primary objective, to blow the building's security, had already been accomplished no matter what else did or didn't happen. Recent annexations had left the facility in a no-man's land, not clearly claimed by city, county, or suburb. That would triple the number of calls and reports on the explosions, making a cover-up almost impossible, even for the Consortium's resources.

More and more men moved into position, wielding fire hoses and fire extinguishers, guarded by flankers with Kevlar and assault rifles, night scopes and radios. Alex grinned as he watched, careful not to show his teeth to their scopes. If Amanda couldn't pull off a theft with a diversion like this, she wasn't half as good as her reputation, and his research, painted her.

Of course, if she didn't do the hit tonight, we're going to have to cope with increased security tomorrow at every facility within a hundred miles.... Then Alex saw his third objective walk out into the parking lot, and decided it might be a good night after all.

The stooped figure in the overcoat was Jonathan Roberts, doctor of biochemistry and a specialist in immune system deficiencies. Son of bitch specializes in causing them. All the better for the aliens to gestate faster. Alex sighted in on him, tracked him patiently as he headed toward his car, and resisted the occasional temptation to profanity when guards crossed his line of fire. Knew he'd head for his car. Roberts is a claustrophobe. He's not about to risk being trapped inside the facility during a security lock-down.

Explosions continued to work their inexorable way around the facility, drawing more and more men away from the front gate to fight the fires and protect against any possible attack. Two more guards peeled off under quickly gestured orders from an officer and Roberts was completely clear for three seconds. Alex took the opportunity. One shot for the heart, another one sighted a few inches higher, and the bullets slammed Roberts back against his car as the guards spun wildly, looking for the shooter.

Done. Alex slid down from his perch in an only-partially controlled fall, hitting the ground and rolling into the impact. He snagged the rifle from where it had fallen, slung it over his shoulder, and ran for his car. There was nothing more for him to do there, and he had things to do, people to kill, and plans to carry out....

-=-=-=-


Though she was nearly dying of curiosity to find out what was in the canister, the memory of how coldly calculated Alex had been gave Amanda pause. If he was devious enough to set a trap to find her, he was likely to be equally unhesitating to kill her. While he might not know about immortals, he did strike her as a man who hit what he shot at and dying was never fun. Moreover, he seemed like a man with a mission to accomplish, and if there was one thing she'd learned, it was to be careful when she interfered with someone like that. Since Amanda preferred to keep her body in one piece, and her lifestyle relatively carefree, she reluctantly conceded it wouldn't pay to get too involved with whatever Alex was doing.

Best get this over with quickly and be gone, she decided. A trio of passports would do very nicely, especially since she'd been forced to abandon one of her favorite aliases when Interpol had come looking for her a few weeks previously. Still, she was tempted to renegotiate, and decided it wouldn't hurt if she dressed a bit more seductively than usual. Though she rather doubted he'd change his position based on the clothes she wore, centuries of experience told her that men were more likely to be pliable if they were looking at something sexy.

The location they'd chosen to meet at was in one of the shopping areas in a tropical-themed hotel. A section in one of the corridors served as a kind of semi-aquatic oasis from the lush tropical greenery and the lure of exotic souvenirs from the shops that lined the walls. As they'd arranged previously, Amanda purchased a selection of random items and then dropped the canister into one of the shopping bags.

Alex waited for her on one of the benches that lined the oasis, looking for all the world like a resigned husband waiting for his beloved to return from buying yet another thing to figure out how to take home. The casual, much-put-upon air made Amanda's mouth twitch even as she wondered if he had a girlfriend he'd ever waited for like this.

No, not a girlfriend, she decided. A sister, maybe. He's too controlled to let someone abandon him on a bench in shopping mall, and too private to let anyone be that close.

Brightly, she greeted him. "Darling, you won't believe what I found!" she exclaimed, throwing herself into an embrace. She was mildly irked to find that he returned the hug with convincing enthusiasm. "Black, one size fits all, and oh, so dangerous."

He chuckled briefly, then brushed a finger across her lips as he leaned forward. "You have no idea," he whispered as he expertly pressed a nerve cluster in her hand and let the bags drop into his artificial one. "But a pretty lady like you is always a danger."

She smiled knowingly and offered him a seductive look. "Only if you can't stand the heat," she drawled. "A strong, handsome man like you attracts danger like fuel to a fire... and loves the challenge of escaping the heat before it burns you." She licked her lips provocatively and stepped even closer to run her hands from his shoulders down to his chest. "I promise, I won't let you get hurt. You might even enjoy it."

"Oh, I'm sure I would." His eyes sparkled with amusement as he allowed her hands to drift even farther downward. Before she could get to her goal, though, she found her hand seized. "But that's not what I need," Alex added just before he pressed something sharp into her palm, cutting her.

Gasping with shock, she instinctively stepped back and tried to close her palm around the wound, but Alex grabbed her wrist, forcing her to keep her hand open to his examination even as he prevented her from fighting him. Blood welled from the deep cut, a scarlet river of life, an instant before blue lightning stitched the wound whole.

Amanda's eyes narrowed at the expression on Alex's face. For a moment, she thought she'd glimpsed fear, but not the kind of fear that seeing immortal healing usually produced. What in the world had he been afraid of? She wasn't given long to consider that thought, though.

Alex released her hand, satisfied and oddly amused by what he'd seen. "I know someone who'd love that. I'm going to love not telling him," he muttered, his eyes meeting hers for the first time. With a start, she realized that he didn't care to have an explanation of how she'd healed. It was as though far stranger and deadlier things had inured him of wanting to know the reasons things happened. Equally surprising to Amanda was the devilish satisfaction she was picking up in his body language, as if he was enjoying knowing something someone else didn't.

"What the hell did you do that for?"

He smiled oddly. "Why does lightning heal you?" Before she could reply, he continued, "You don't trust me enough to give me the real answer, so let's just not even pretend you're going to try. You have your reasons, and I have mine. It was necessary, that's all." He pulled the passports out of his jacket pocket and handed them to her. "Enjoy Monte Carlo, Amanda."

Never taking her eyes off him, she tucked the passports into her purse. The fact that he'd guessed she'd probably head to the famous principality told her that he'd spent some time tracking her down and learning where her favorite places were. It was enough to convince her that getting someplace where he didn't know how to find her, and getting there as soon as she could, would be wise. As handsome as he was, 'Alex' was the kind of man Amanda had long ago learned was pure trouble, and while she could handle most anything and anyone, there was nothing to be gained by prolonging this encounter.

"I'll thank you not to look me up again," she said frostily. "And to forget you saw any lightning."

He smiled, amused and knowledgeable beyond his years. "Amanda? I'm not even here."

"Good. Then we understand each other." She waited for his nod. "Goodbye, Alex."

Not wanting to stay a minute longer in Alex's company, Amanda walked into a passing group of shoppers, merging seamlessly into their mass and neatly preventing a clear shot. As she did so, she wondered again what the canister contained, then decided to forget about it. There were more pleasurable things than mysterious containers to contemplate, such as whether she could convince an old friend to come with her to Tahiti....

-=-=-=-


Interesting. Alex took a moment to etch into his mind the image of blue, sparkling lightning converting a wound into healthy flesh, then he put that thought aside. Later, when it was safer, he'd speculate on what he'd seen, and how useful it might or might not be. Later.

His prosthetic hand carried the canister of Oil as he worked his way out of the mall, letting his quick, even pace and slightly hunched shoulders give the impression of a man who'd finally handled a shopping errand he'd been putting off. Green eyes flicked back and forth constantly, always aware of movement and patterns around him, and he was half-listening to the sounds in the mall for any sudden changes or motions. Standard operating procedure, so far as he was concerned; it was the people who didn't know what was going on around them that Alex still couldn't understand.

The small tell-tales he'd left on and around his car were still there, still undisturbed. No one had tried to tamper with the engine, the tires, the interior, or the trunk. Good. Alex hit the button to open the trunk and used the milk cartons he'd already bought to make damn sure the canister was secured upright.

Two layers of metal, another layer of padding, and some fabric lay between him and the Oil when he started the car; his muscles wanted to crawl off his bones anyway. Alex pushed that down. Some jobs were too important to be delegated, and if he was right, this was definitely one of them.

Ten minutes of patient, careful driving through the Las Vegas traffic brought him to the motel he'd specified in his last phone call that set everything in motion. He parked, careful to take a spot in line of sight to room 128, and turned the engine off. Five seconds later, he restarted the engine, then waited another five seconds and cut it again. At that, a very large black man stepped out of the hotel room; the backpack slung over his shoulder looked miniscule in contrast. One hand hefted a large suitcase; the other carried a laptop case. The motel door closed behind him behind him as he strode to the car without hesitation.

Alex started the engine again as his passenger slung his belongings into the backseat; they were underway while the black man was still buckling his seat belt. "Well?" he asked, his voice deep, resonant, and laced with a faint British accent.

The question got a quick, disgusted huff of breath from Alex. "I've got it, Darrel. Everything taken care of on your end?"

"Praise God." Darrel slumped back into the fabric seat then, eyes closing with exultation or exhaustion. Desert sunlight gleamed blue-black across his hands as he sat there, and Alex glanced over from the traffic long enough to notice the stubble on his scalp and face and the bags under his eyes.

"Did you get everything taken care of?" Alex repeated, an impatient edge in his voice.

"Yes, of course. Hacked, stacked, cracked, and packed," Darrel promised on a sigh of relief. "All of his files, all of his correspondence, every note he'd scribbled and not burned, every diagram the bastard drew. All of it, Sasha. We've got it."

"You shipped it out, then?"

"Some of it went out with Jacob last night." Darrel paused to be sure Alex recognized the name of the operative he'd sent the papers with, saw his nod, and went on, "And the originals of his files and email correspondence are on my laptop, here. I can start work as soon as we get there."

"You shipped back-ups, though?" Alex asked, then had to dodge a dusty green SUV that swerved into their lane. "Shtob tebya nechistaya sila zabrala!"

Darrel laughed at him. "I'm getting better; I caught most of that. 'May the Dark force claim you?' Been watching Star Wars again, Sasha? And of course I took care of it; even if we get killed, it's handled. How'd you get the Oil out, though? That was the one part I was worried about."

Alex smiled slightly and ignored the comment on his cursing. "I blackmailed a thief."

Darrel nodded slowly. "I figured last night's explosions had to be you. Too damn pretty not to be your work, but it made me wonder who was getting the Oil from BioPath if you were blowing the MacPherson complex sky-high. So you found someone good enough?"

"Mm-hmm." Alex deliberately changed the subject rather than give out any details; he might need Amanda again, one day, after all. "They think you went up with the bomb?"

That drew a rumbling chuckle. "What's left of their security system thinks I never logged out of the lab. So far as they're concerned, Sasha, I'm dead. Don't worry about that."

"Good." Silence rode between them for a while, broken only by Alex's occasional comments on the other drivers, Darrel's attempts to translate them back into English, and Alex's amused corrections. As they finally escaped onto I-40, Alex set the cruise control to two miles over the speed limit and asked quietly, "How much time will you need?"

"Is everything set up?"

"Yes. Lab, assistants, security, containment, and your first subjects."

Darrel nodded slowly. "Don't tell me whether or not they're volunteers, Sasha. I don't want or need to know."

"Which is why I'd never tell you," Alex said simply. "Are you sure this will work?"

Darrel waited until Alex had glanced over at him to say, "Sasha, not only will it work, the only thing that frightens me is whether or not I can keep it from working too well. I've never seen anything like it. It took everything I could do to keep Roberts from panicking after we evaluated the first month's results."

"I wondered," Alex muttered. "You worried the hell out of people when you called in the strike as a priority one."

"I had to." Darrel shrugged. "We found it, that's all."

"Which it?"

The dry tone of Alex's voice drew a quick laugh from Darrel. "How many years has the resistance been looking for a weak point we could use against the aliens?"

"Every year we've known about them," Alex said flatly. "AIDS is it, then?"

"As far as I can tell," Darrel told him, "their protean nature makes them more susceptible to AIDS than we are. Humans take an average of around ten years to finally die, and what kills us is the complications from the virus, not the virus itself."

"And the aliens?"

"Pacific Oil carries it for the longest before breaking down. The chrysalides I tested it on reached maturity, emerged, and died within one week." Darrel reached over and set his hand firmly on the wheel before he ordered, "Don't flinch, Sasha. They're averaging ten days. Morph tissue looses cohesiveness within eight days at worst, three days at best."

"And the new hybrids?" Alex asked steadily.

"I think they're going to fall somewhere between the chrysalides and the morphs," Darrel answered honestly. "The tissue samples I had tried to adapt, but we'd had an eighty percent loss in samples before you blew the lab."

"And the horses?" Alex went on implacably as he drove. He used the edge of his good hand to brush away Darrel's grip on the wheel, nodding to the scientist to let him know that he was still fit to drive.

"The people who've been hosts?" Darrel's voice stayed calm as he refused to dodge the subject. "I don't know, Sasha. I'm going to want blood and tissue from you before you go."

"Whatever you need, as long as I can still work when you're done."

"No worse than a knife fight or doctor's appointment," Darrel promised him with a gentleness that contrasted sharply with his size and their subject. "Call it two pints of blood, and a few ounces of flesh. It will be a doctor's appointment anyway; I want to look at your arm, Sasha, see if anything else can be done right now. The doctors in Russia meant well, but they did butcher's work from what I've seen."

Alex nodded once. "Get your sample off the upper left triceps, then. I've got to still be able to use the prosthetic, Darrel."

"I'm not about to lose us our best operative, but I want you to get some decent treatment when it's all over," Darrel said calmly. "Sasha, listen to me: once I start the research at the new facility, I don't want to see you again until I contact you. Just in case."

"Oh?" Alex let the cool tone hang between them.

"Oh." Darrel finally said quietly. "I'm telling you this because you do need to know, Sasha. You had to know the timing for any strikes. And you need to know this, too: I wanted to see if the drones attack each other, and whether the AIDS would be communicable by blood if they did." He drew a deep breath then went on, "The bad news is, they don't automatically go after each other. Now, the subjects I was working with all came out of the same base Oil; I don't know what would happen if I tried mixing Gulf and Texas, or Siberia and Gulf."

"You'll be able to find out," Alex told him quietly. "The canister in the back has Gulf Oil. The Old Man had other operatives trying to get some of the Texas Oil for you; my contacts started the Siberian Oil on its way a week ago. It should already be in place."

"Good." Darrel sounded tired for a moment, then went on, "But Sasha? The good news is that it doesn't matter. I don't know whether they're contaminating each other by contact or exhalation, and I've got to find out, fast. But whatever it is, however it's happening, it's efficient as hell. The spread on it may make pneumonic plague look mild."

"For us or them?" Alex asked grimly.

"So far--knock on wood and quit backsliding on your church attendance--I can't get it to take in human blood once it's gone through the aliens' DNA. But I haven't had a chance to see what it'll do to horses, Sasha. So I need your blood, and I need you to stay away until I'm sure the mutated version can't go in through any remnants the Pacific strain may have left in your blood."

Alex let the miles roll away behind them as he thought about that. "You're sure about the infection rate on uncontaminated humans?"

"I'm sure. More importantly," he added calmly, "so was Roberts. It's a pity he picked the wrong side; he was a genius in his field, I'll give him that."

Alex answered implacably, "We couldn't use him, Darrel. We didn't have leverage on him."

The large black man shrugged off Alex's explanation of the killing. "Hell, I couldn't have worked with him much longer anyway, Sasha. His focus was too narrow, in the projects and out. He couldn't see past the lab to the applications and implications of his experiments, and he couldn't see past my skin to my actual skill level. I made damn sure he didn't know I was his equal... but he never tried to see if I had the makings to be more than a basic lab assistant. I dangled bait in front of him a few times. He never even noticed."

Alex looked away from the road long enough to glare at Darrel; the look bounced off the other man's imperturbability. "You're not a field agent," he argued angrily.

"No, just a scientist and a spy," Darrell told him. "Do your job, Sasha, and let me worry if I'm doing mine right."

"What the hell did you think you were doing?"

Darrel threw up his hands in disgust, careful even in his irritation not to block the rearview mirror. "My job, damn it. If we could have brought him over, he might have been useful. So I made a few jumps of 'intuition.' They were small matters, Sasha, nothing beyond what a competent lab assistant might have come up with."

Alex growled, then shrugged his good shoulder and let the subject drop; he needed his energy for other things. "All right." He glanced around as they drove. "If you're hungry, I left food in the back seat."

"The only thing I'm hungry for right now, is a chance to get in the new lab and go to work," Darrel said flatly.

"You think we're that close?" Alex asked at last.

"I think we're going to have them the hell off our planet in the next twenty-four months. We're about to be too nasty a bite for them to even try to chew." Darrel smiled broadly at that, one gold-capped tooth gleaming as he did.

"The Old Man is going to want your debriefing soonest," Alex said calmly. "Once he's got that, we can start planning."

Darrel yawned. "Wake me up when we get there, all right? You can debrief me as soon as we've got tapes, Sasha."

"No problem," Alex told him. "Get some sleep."

"Wake me if you need to take a break from driving," Darrell offered as he shifted around to get more comfortable. Within five minutes, however, the soft, rolling rhythm of his snoring was the only sound in the car beside the rock and roll station playing on low.

Alex didn't let either noise interfere with his thinking, and he smiled as he drove. Part of his attention was on the road, but mainly he was considering different ways to spread the mutated AIDS virus through the aliens. Depending on how the virus was being communicated among the drones, some of his plans might have to be scrapped, but at the moment he had time to think--a commodity too precious to be wasted.

And yeah, it may nail our allies, too. But once we've got the first aliens running scared and demoralized, how long are they going to stay allies? Alex shrugged and went back to his plans. The Faceless Ones might be friends when it was over; they might not. He preferred to have contingencies available, though, and so did the Old Man.

For the first time, though, Alex felt safe in planning for the contingencies of winning. That alone was enough to make everything he'd done, every sacrifice, lie, betrayal, or murder in his life worth the doing. And how many other people can say that? he wondered. A rueful smile crossed his lips and vanished again as he thought of another person he suspected would consider his own life well spent in this cause.

No, I can't forget to take Mulder into account in my plans, Alex decided ruefully. Although maybe I should consider kidnapping him just to keep him from interfering at the wrong time.... Hmm. Darrel wanted to bring Roberts in, since the bastard was a genius in his field. Mulder is a genius at setting the aliens back... and the FBI, and the military, and everyone else who's ever gotten in the way of whatever logic he's working out. Maybe I should kidnap him--and recruit him.

Along with the contamination plans, Alex began working out his arguments for bringing Mulder in as he drove. Maybe, just maybe, it would all work, after all.