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Chapter 19: Plot, Counterplot
palladian23 wrote in superwebnovel
Author's Notes: No real warnings for this chapter!

As usual, big thanks to my long suffering editor gwoman for her work on this chapter!

Back to Chapter 18

Smiling to herself, Lex plugged her phone back up to the charger and slowly changed clothes to go downstairs. Just as she turned to leave, however, she heard a knock at her door, and then Casey came in with a tray of food.

“Hey,” Lex said, a little confused, “I was just coming downstairs to help you.”

Casey smiled as she pushed the papers on Lex's desk to one side and set the tray down, the steaming bowls on it emitting a savory scent that made Lex's stomach growl. “I figured you'd try, so I knocked off a little early today and started cooking so that everything would be ready right around when I figured you'd be waking up.”

Lex smiled at her friend's cleverness. “All right. Thanks for thinking of me.”

“You should be resting, not cooking,” Casey said with a shrug. “Here, have something to eat.”

The two of them sat on the couch in Lex's small living area and ate in silence for a few minutes, Lex noting that the lentil stew, the idea of which she hadn't been too crazy about earlier, tasted delicious, savory and filling, and went really well with the nutty bread that Casey had brought to eat with it. Finally she remembered her conversation with Clara earlier and caught Casey's eye.

“Hey, I forgot to tell you. I asked Clara if you, Riss, and I could go out to dinner or something to celebrate finally being finished with that security job.” She met Casey's eyes then, hoping the other woman wouldn't find it too strange.

Casey raised an eyebrow. “I didn't really do anything for that, though.”

“Are you kidding? You cooked for us at least once a week and kept us sane through the whole thing. Anyway, come on, don't you think it would be fun?”

“Yeah,” Casey agreed with a laugh. “So when are we going?”

“Don't know,” Lex said around a mouthful of stew, “I'm still waiting to hear if it's been OK'd.”

They both rolled their eyes knowingly and smiled at one another.

“By the way,” Casey said, chewing on some bread, “don't talk with your mouth full.”

The two of them started giggling but ended up nearly falling off the couch laughing. When they finished eating, Casey insisted on a bath for Lex and stayed with her, chatting and washing her hair, until the water went cold. Lex could feel the now-familiar pain behind her eyes as she brushed her teeth and got ready for bed, but decided to just tough it out. Yawning widely by the time she crawled under the covers, Lex watched Casey chuckle as she stood near the edge of the bed.

“Get some sleep. If you start to feel bad in the middle of the night or you need something, just call me and I'll come over, OK? I should hear you if you shout, or you can call me on my cell phone.”

“Yes, Mom,” Lex said with a grin, then, a moment later, her face turned serious. “Casey,” she started again as the taller woman began to turn away, “thanks for taking care of me.”

Casey touched Lex's shoulder as she reached to turn the bedside lamp off. “I'm glad to, Lex. That's what friends are for. Good night.”

“Good night,” Lex replied, feeling warm and happy as she heard her door close behind Casey and drifted away into sleep.

The rest of the week seemed to hurry by, but Lex had a start as she checked the holder by her door Friday morning. Along with her schedule, which she was happy to find Mr. Chen's name on again, she found a formal-looking piece of card paper with an invitation on it. As Lex read she realized her request had been approved. The invitation asked those invited to dress for dinner and be ready to leave by six on Saturday evening for a meal to celebrate recent accomplishments.

She held it out in front of her, raising an eyebrow in Casey's direction as she walked into the kitchen that morning. Casey smiled and laughed a little.

“Yeah, I got one, too. What did you ask them for, anyway? Dressing for dinner,” the blonde intoned, and then shook her head, smirking.

Lex shrugged. “I guess they got a little carried away. I figured maybe I could get them to spring for Italian or something. I didn't realize they were into fine dining.”

The hours flew for Lex while she worked with Mr. Chen again, following his movements as he explained things, listening to his suggestions, and showing him what she'd come up with so far. By the time noon rolled around, Lex felt surprised at the hour, but even more surprised to see Serena in the kitchen. She appeared to have been waiting for Lex, because the minute she came in the room, Serena jumped up off the stool she'd been sitting on at the kitchen island and began talking excitedly.

“Lex, Casey said you guys are going out Saturday night. I want to go, too! Can I go?”

Lex directed a sharp look at Casey, working on something at the counter. “She asked, so I told her,” Casey said with a shrug.

“Well, Serena,” Lex started, her mind spinning, trying to think of an excuse, but unable to come up with a good one. “I can ask, but I guess Clara or someone will have to approve it, since they're picking up the bill.”

“Oh, come on. Tell them I'll pay for my part, but I just want to go! I've never gone out with Riss before. Maybe we can all go clubbing afterwards.”

“I don't know if they'd allow us to do that, but it would be fun,” Lex admitted with a smile. “OK, I'll call Clara and ask about it.”

“Now,” Serena asked, wiggling in excitement, handing Lex her cell phone.

Lex sighed but moved to do so, noting that Clara's number had been programmed into the phone.

Looking at the other two while listening to the phone ring, Lex tapped her fingers against the back of her phone, thinking about the upcoming conversation, and trying to think how she could bring her question up, then greeted Clara when she answered.

“Hey, thanks for putting together the evening out for us,” Lex started, hoping she could ease into the topic.

“Well, we discussed what you said, and decided it was a good idea,” Clara replied, sounding pleased. “I take it you got your invitations today?”

“Yes, and that's why I'm calling, actually. Serena heard that we're going, and wants to go with us.”

“No. Absolutely not.”

Lex pulled back from the phone for a moment at that emphatic statement, then continued. “Is there some reason why not? She really just wants to go along with the rest of us. She said she'll pick up her part of the tab, if you're worried about the budget.”

A long silence prevailed at the other end of the phone. Finally, Clara spoke again, her voice low and serious. “All right, she can accompany you. But under no circumstances are she and Riss to be left alone together. Is that understood? It is your responsibility to ensure that. Can you guarantee it?”

Lex frowned in confusion. “Sure. Thanks.”

“All right, then if there's nothing else I have to go.”

“No, nothing. Thanks again, Clara.”

Lex looked back up at Casey and Serena with an odd expression on her face as she hung up. “She said you can go, Serena,” Lex recounted, “but she also said that you and Riss couldn't be alone at any time.”

Serena laughed as she took her phone back. “Well, there goes my plan to seduce her. That's fine, though, seriously; if that's all they're worried about, I can agree to that.”

By the time six rolled around on Saturday evening, Lex and Serena began walking down the stairs to find Casey and Riss already waiting for them. Since Serena had been allowed to come along, she'd insisted on putting together Lex's outfit and hair, especially after she got Lex to admit that she didn't have anything appropriate to wear.

She'd outfitted Lex with a red velvet dress that fell to her ankle, had a mid-thigh slit up the right side, short sleeves, and dipped low in front. Serena had fussed over her hair, somehow made her up to minimize the bruising along her jaw (which had subsided somewhat, but still showed several colors), then finally looked at her in the mirror and sighed while handing her some elbow-length black velvet gloves.

“Definitely a good choice,” she had pouted. “Your arms and shoulders are so much better defined than mine.”

Serena had gone with a sleeveless jade green silk dress that rose to a high collar before it dived low to show off her cleavage. The dress fell just above her knees and had been slit on both sides to just under her hips. She wore matching high heels and had swept up her hair in a way that looked sophisticated and sexy all at once, leaving Lex just shaking her head, wondering how her friend did it.

Serena came to a stop on the stairs as she spotted Casey, looking her up and down, smiling with approval. The blonde had worn a deep blue satin dress that hung a few inches above her knees with a modest v-neck and short sleeves, the bodice fitted, and the skirt fuller.

“You look good enough to eat,” Serena said with a smirk.

Casey rolled her eyes at Serena as she put her coat on. “Cut it out. I feel like an ass. I'm not used to wearing dresses.”

“You should wear them more. You look really nice,” Lex said, trying to put her friend at ease while giving Serena a quick shake of her head to dissuade her from teasing Casey any further.

Riss wore an eggplant-colored dress that looked almost black in the low light, sleeveless with a scoop neck and simple lines; it had been fitted through her waist and then came to a skirt that billowed at her feet. Riss looked at Serena with a questioning glance at Lex, who shrugged as minutely as she could. Riss raised her eyebrows with an expression that almost said it couldn't be helped, donned black opera-length gloves and her coat, and then looked back at the others before going out the front door.

The drive took about an hour, and Lex wasn't exactly sure where they'd gotten to when they arrived, aside from it being somewhere in Virginia. When Lex got out of the car, along with a sky full of stars the only thing she saw was the restaurant, a plain looking two-story building in a field with nothing else nearby for about a quarter mile. The isolation set up a nervous churning in her stomach.

“I can see why they chose this place,” Riss said quietly to Lex as they went inside.

The interior had been dimly lit and lavishly decorated with dark woods, fine linens, china and glassware, and a big fire crackling in a stone fireplace that dominated one wall. Lex could see an open dining area as well as some smaller rooms along the four surrounding walls. After talking to the man near the door about their reservation, he led them to one of the private rooms along the back wall of the restaurant.

After they'd ordered and had been left alone again, Riss cleared off the table in front of her and brought her bag up. She pulled out the sniffer tool Lex had ordered for the security job and turned it on, setting it in the middle of the table. Everyone watched with interest as she pulled out the ultra-thin laptop that Lex had given her for the holidays and woke it up, attached the sniffer to it, and typed something, then looked up at the rest of them.

“All right, ladies,” Riss said in her usual low calm tones. “We can talk freely for the first time. Lex, I have to thank you for ordering the sniffer and for getting me this computer; otherwise, we wouldn't be.”

“What do you mean, speak freely?” Casey asked, looking at Riss with a frown.

“We're monitored at all times, something I think everyone is aware of at the facilities, which have cameras and microphones everywhere. However, I don't think most of you know that we continue to be monitored through listening devices in our jumpsuits when we go out for a job, and by the mobile devices we're forced to carry when we're not in the building. It's likely that even some of our casual clothing has been bugged.”

Casey's face went white. “I'm sorry,” Riss said, more softly. “I know that's bad news, but I had no way of letting anyone know that before now, not without disappearing.”

“What do you mean?” Lex asked, swallowing carefully as a panicky surge ran through her.

Riss sighed. “Let me start with what I know, and then we can get to any questions. Just so you know, I've put together a program to broadcast cut versions of previous audio recorded of us to all our sponsors' snooping devices, and the sniffer, which I altered, sends that signal out as well as screens us from any other way they might have of trying to spy on us. Unfortunately, I have some bad news for you and then a proposition. But before we start, are you certain that Serena can be trusted?” Riss asked, looking at the other woman a little dubiously.

Lex put a hand on Serena's arm because the redhead looked like she was about to yell, and asked Riss, “What is this all about? I'm sure we could trust Serena if she knew what was so important.”

“Your life is in danger, Lex,” Riss said quietly. “I have a lot of proof here I want to show you so that you can see what's going on. My life is in danger, too, but it's probably not as close for me as it is for you.”

Lex's hand dropped nervelessly and she could see Serena turn towards her, concern marking her face. “If that's the case, you can trust me,” Serena said, her normal bantering tone gone. “What's going on?”

Riss gestured for all of them to move close, and then started bringing information up for them to look at on her laptop. “While Lex and I put the security plan together for our facility, our sponsors also saw fit to hook us up with the network at their main facility, Metamorphix Sciences, Inc., better known as MSI, uptown. Since one of my crappy jobs at the facility is to be one of the monitors, I used the new connection to find out some things they don't want us to know.

“I should back up a little, though,” Riss continued, a frown on her face. “From the time I arrived here, our sponsors have both wanted and not wanted me to work on their computers. Lex, at least, knows that I can communicate with computers just by thinking about it. What I haven't told anyone until now is that there's nothing stored on a computer anywhere that I can't find and access, and nothing I've found yet that I haven't been able to get a computer to do if I ask the right way. I've taken care that our sponsors don't know the extent of my talents, because if they did...well, I'll show you in a minute.”

She paused for a moment to let everything sink in, looking at each of them in turn, and then went on. “So, although they don't know it, I infiltrated everything available at the main facility almost immediately. Until the past couple of weeks, though, I didn't know I should be concerned about certain things. I was distracted by the fact that I'm a prisoner.”

“What?” Lex leaned forward in her chair, looking at Riss, incredulous. Riss sighed, still busy with her computer, but glanced at Lex and continued.

“No reason you would know, but I am imprisoned at the facility. That's why I had to figure out a way to get that message to you. I knew the only way I could ever get any time to talk privately would be to ask you to get me out of there for a while. I figured they might go for it since they try to keep the fact that I'm a prisoner under wraps. I've been talented with computers since I was a kid, and I did do some hacking, but I never did anything malicious. However, someone set me up for some clumsy hack and that's how MSI got their hands on me, since I'd refused when they'd asked nicely. When I investigated recently, I found out that someone on the payroll of the people who run this place set the hack up.”

She met Lex's eyes again, and Lex could feel her expression turning incredulous, sad, and worried. Riss shook her head and continued. “So it was wasted time figuring if there was a way I could get out of here based on proving someone else's guilt.”

“What do you mean?” Casey asked with a frown. “Surely if you could prove your innocence–”

Riss' sigh stopped the other woman. “That had nothing to do with it. I guess since I'm a prisoner the people that run the facility felt they could be more honest with me. They made it clear to me a while back that they have no intention of ever letting me go. I just didn't know at the time that it meant they were the ones who made sure I ended up here in the first place. That, of course, made me curious about other people who have been on these teams. So, I did some research.”

She brought up a team roster on the screen. “This is the list of all of the teams in the country, and all of the people who've been on them since this system was put into place about 15-20 years ago,” Riss said, pointing out their team and their names. “At first, you can see that a number of people moved on to other things, but within the last decade, the government made some new laws to govern us. As you can see, no one from then on has been allowed to leave.”

“What?” Serena looked at Riss quizzically, almost skeptically.

“The people that run the facility said as much to me, that they'd never allow me to leave, and that there were much worse places to be. Let me show you.”

She pulled up the roster that she'd showed them before, then pointed out a name on it. “Casey, do you remember Ivy Walker? The records say that she was on the team when you arrived.”

Casey frowned for a moment, and then nodded. “I didn't know her well, especially since I spent the first couple of months here on the medical floor. She seemed really nice, but I remember that a few months after I'd really recovered she got sick, and we didn't see her anymore. A while after that, I remember being told that she retired, and I never heard anything more after that.”

Riss nodded. “I'm sure that's probably what they told you. In reality, she was moved from the facility we're at to the main facility. I'll show you a live video feed of her today,” she continued, clicking up another window and maximizing it to the whole screen.

All four women watched the screen closely, and then the other three of them glanced at Riss, puzzled. “It just looks like a greenhouse,” Casey finally said, confusion in her voice.

“Look now,” said Riss, pointing at something.

And Lex jumped in surprise as they all saw human eyes suddenly appear in the greenery, and something that had appeared to be a plant moved. As they watched they could see she wasn't a plant, although she didn't appear very human anymore, either.

Lex stared at Riss in horror as the other woman minimized the window. “What the hell happened to her?” Lex asked, listening as her voice shook.

Riss sighed. “That's what it took me a while to figure out,” she said, pulling up another document. “Once we were attached to the other facility, though, I found out lots of interesting things. This shows the list of 'treatments' that Ivy was given, the first of them dating a couple of years before she disappeared, around the time she was put on the team.”

“What were they for?” Casey asked, frowning.

“To find out, as well as translate what I found, took time,” Riss said, pulling up yet another document. “They gave her a standard regimen that they put together at MSI headquarters, which is a biological research facility.”

Everyone just stared at Riss blankly for a moment, so she sighed again and continued. “They assigned Ivy an experimental gene therapy protocol designed to modify human bodies to go beyond normal human abilities. Lex, you are currently being given this regimen, and so is Casey.”

In the silence that followed, Riss pulled up two more documents, one with Lex's name and one with Casey's, and put them side by side with Ivy's “treatment” document. Lex glanced at them briefly, noting that what she could see of them matched almost exactly. She swallowed against her dry throat and just looked at Riss.

“Why?” she finally managed to ask, and the word hung heavy in the quiet room.

“Well, from what I can tell, we're all being used as test subjects in the main facility's very theoretical gene therapy experiments. For now, they have their own 'monster army,’ as I've seen them put it in company documents, but eventually they hope to be able to bottle and sell what we can do, especially to the army. Due to the political climate several years ago, around the time filling Guantanamo got popular, someone passed laws that denied standard human rights to anyone who can do things beyond a normal human's abilities: in essence, declaring us not human. They are, as a result, legally able to keep us here within the teams, or, if we start looking or acting less than human, they're able to keep us permanently within their main facility and use us as lab rats if they wish. Since it got passed along with a lot of the homeland security garbage, I guess you could say we've been nationalized. These laws have never been repealed by successive administrations, either.”

Lex's head spun and her stomach was in the process of tying itself into a tight knot, but even so, she looked at Riss again, trying to catch her eye even though the other woman attempted not to look at her. “There's something else, though. You said my life was in danger, not mine and Casey's.”

Riss nodded, still looking at the screen. “Actually, yes. I wasn't initially happy to hear you were coming along today, Serena, but now I'm glad. Do you remember a woman by the name of Cynthia Cross? The roster puts her on the team in New York around the same time you were.”

Casey looked across at Serena with a raised eyebrow, murmuring, “So that's where you came from,” while Serena nodded in affirmation at Riss' question.

“Yeah. I didn't spend enough time there to make many friends, but I remember her. She seemed pretty smart. Kind of stuck up, though; she never wanted to talk. I think she could move things around with her mind or something like that.”

Riss nodded. “From what I see on her records, she has several talents like that. There's another protocol our sponsors developed that they give to people with special mental abilities. Unfortunately, Cynthia is now in one of their experimental facilities, too, having suffered brain damage as a result of the drugs they gave her. I won't bother to show her to you, unless anyone particularly wants to see.”

Everyone shook their heads in the negative, Lex trying not to wince at the motion. Her head had started to ache and moving it now felt painful.

“The people on this team currently getting this type of 'treatment' are me,” said Riss, pulling up some more documents, “and...you, Lex.”

Lex stared at the screen, her hand now on her stomach as if trying to keep the twisting pain in, and saw that Cynthia's protocol document matched almost perfectly with one with Riss' name on it, and one with her own, paged down from what Riss had shown earlier.

“For some reason,” Riss continued, “they're not giving any drugs to you, Serena, or to Joan. Joan didn't surprise me; I know she's a ringer, here to watch us. She's really a high ranking military officer, but as you can tell from how often she's at the facility, they don't consider our team a big flight risk.”

Serena shrugged. “I figure they're not giving me any crap like that because of my family. My father arranged to get me assigned to one of these teams to give me something to do because I'd embarrassed him one too many times hanging around the house, but I am still his daughter,” she sighed.

Riss nodded in agreement. “I don't know if they have a hard strategy like this, but it seems most of the people they choose don't have many, or any, family ties—that is, few people will ask around for them if they disappear.”

Lex felt a cold sensation running down her jaw to accompany her now pounding head and churning stomach. “So, what's their idea?” she heard a voice ask that sounded somewhat like hers, but almost hollow in tone.

All the other women looked at her in concern while Riss continued. “Well, this type of double treatment isn't something they've done before. In your records there were a lot of arguments about whether they should go with the brain or body regimen with you. In the end, they decided to give you both.

“The reason I'm worried is that their hypothesis is that because you're being bombarded with twice as many drugs as anyone else, it will affect you faster. But they really don't know what will happen, so they're monitoring your video and audio feeds closely.”

“So this is why Kate and Victor ran,” Lex said, almost to herself, but Riss nodded in response.

“That's actually what I was hoping we could talk about,” Riss said, looking sideways at Lex. “I tried to get out of that place once before so I'm well aware of what won't work, but from what I've seen of you and your planning skills, I'm betting you can work out how to get us out for real.”

“I'm in,” Casey nodded. “I'm not going to stick around to be experimented on like a sick animal.”

Serena shook her head. “I can understand why you'd want to leave, but I'm staying here. I've been a rich girl too long and I'm too used to the money. As you said, Riss, they give me preferential treatment anyway, so I think they'll continue to make allowances for me. But I'll help you if I can, as long as it doesn't blow my cover. At least I'll turn a blind eye to anything you need to do.”

Lex stood suddenly, realizing she had a short amount of time to make it to the bathroom before she got sick. Her stomach felt so tied in knots it seemed it might tear its way through her abdomen, and her head pounded like she was being struck.

“I'll be right back,” she said to the others, almost fleeing the room.

She felt some kind deity must have been watching over her, because she found the empty ladies' room right away and no one else came in while she retched up the contents of her stomach. It didn't take too long, since she hadn't had much to eat that day, and Lex mentally thanked the people who cleaned the building, since her velvet dress remained clean when she got back up off the chilly tile floor. Quickly, she rinsed her mouth out, splashed her face with cold water, checked her dress in the mirror, which thankfully looked fine, and hurried back to the table.

“I'm sorry,” she said as she sat back down.

“Are you all right?” Casey asked, looking over in concern.

Lex sighed. “No, I'm actually not. I haven't told anyone because I've gotten suspicious of the doctors who come to see us, and I didn't want to worry anyone, but I have headaches now every day. I can't leave the facility for too long, either, or I feel sick. The headache gets worse and I have a queasy feeling until I go back. I have nightmares every night now. I'm really not all right, unfortunately.”

Pausing a moment to consider that, Lex swallowed a little water, then turned to Riss. “What is it that they say happens to the people that they experiment on?”

Riss' brow furrowed. “They call it a body event, and it seems they're different for each person. Some people’s physical bodies change radically, some only a little, or sometimes all of the changes are internal. Many of the people that they've experimented on die as a result, but apparently the chances of survival are slightly better if you're a woman,” she said, looking meaningfully around the table.

“They still don't seem to really know what they're doing,” Riss continued. “Their theory about why we can do things most people can't is that we've either inherited some capability or that somehow during our lives our bodies learned to adapt in very different ways than most people's have had to. That's why they keep giving us the gene therapy protocols, thinking that our bodies are more likely to adapt to it than the average person, and probably hoping one day they can reliably replicate the process.”

Lex just thought for a moment, looking at her knuckles whiten as she held onto the edge of the table, the heavy tablecloth wrinkling in her hands. “OK,” she said after a while, “so I'm running against the clock. I'll figure out a way for us to escape, but I can't handle everything. Casey, I'd like you to be in charge of logistics. Find a way for us to get transportation away from here without having to use credit cards or identification, if possible. Figure out how to stash some basic supplies for that day. Think of everything we might need, and figure out how to get it ready. Can you take that angle?”

Casey nodded, the movement quick and sure. “Not a problem.”

Lex then looked to Riss, sitting to her right. “Riss, can you figure out a way for us to communicate secretly while we're in the facility? At least daily would be best. I'd also like for you to be our researcher. If anyone needs to find out anything, they should pass it along to you to find out. Also, we'll need new IDs and credit cards. Can take care of arranging that?”

“I'll figure it out,” Riss replied while typing into her computer.

“Good. Please work together on anything that needs it, because we know Riss can't leave the facility other than for a job, at least until we all get out together.” She looked at Riss and Casey then, and they both nodded back at her.

“In the meantime,” Lex continued, “I want to start team practice a few times a week. I'm not sure how this is all going to work yet, but we're going to have to be prepared for just about anything, and we should be comfortable with how everyone else thinks, fights, and reacts by the time we're ready to go. Serena,” she said, turning to the other woman, “you're more than welcome to join us for the team training. Actually, I'd be grateful if you did, since it wouldn't look like we're trying to leave you out.”

“I'll try. It sounds like fun, anyway,” Serena replied.

Lex looked back at each of her companions for a moment, taking in Serena's serious look, Riss' matter-of-fact gaze, and the concern in Casey's eyes. Fortunately, the food arrived at that point, so after the waiter had situated everything, they all began to eat dinner, Lex mostly picking the mango slices and pomegranate seeds from her small salad and ignoring her entrée altogether. After a short while of silent eating, Serena turned to her.

“I forgot to ask until now,” she said, “but you said you'd think about what I could do about my family and the business and that stupid man they want me to marry. Did you come up with anything?”

Lex had been fishing some headache medicine out of her purse, and took the pills before answering. “I thought of a few things, but the best one requires some effort on your part. Do you want to go over it, or do you want to hear the options that wouldn't require much or any work on your part? I have to admit, though, they're not as foolproof.”

Serena thought for a moment, then replied, “Tell me your best idea and then I'll figure out if I need to hear any of the others.”

“All right, but I need some information from you first, to be sure it's going to work. First of all, did you go to college?”

Serena shrugged. “Yeah, I got a business degree from Columbia. I managed to do OK, even though I was never really very interested in school.”

“Good. My second question: is there someone that you can trust completely, hopefully with your life? Maybe someone you met at school, someone who'd have the same type of degree, experience, and preferably some interest in running a business. Someone who could be discreet and wouldn't mind being the power behind the throne.”

Serena's eyes narrowed as she smiled. “I'm beginning to see where you're going with this. Yes, I do have a friend like that, one of the reasons I made it through college at all, actually. Chris and I used to go trolling for guys together, but he also forced me to study with him so that I could stay in school and keep hanging out together. He's a hell of a lot more discreet than I am, now that I think about it.”

“All right, this is my best plan for you. Since your parents seem to want someone with the family name running the company, find that you suddenly have an interest in it. Get them to name you to a position where you can have some influence and eventually take over, but make it clear to your parents that you're going to need a competent lieutenant because of your obligations to the team here.

“Then get Chris on board. Let him know he'll be running things, but needs to keep you in the loop because of your dad's wishes. Also, tell him that he's going to be in charge of an internal hostile takeover to throw out your dad's chosen guy and that if he can, he'll be in charge of the whole thing and you'll be a figurehead.

“Be at the office a couple days a week and be seen, wear cute business suits, maybe go to a couple of meetings—be sure to bring Chris with you, if you do—sign some papers. Eventually, your dad will retire and leave running the business to you—at which point you've hopefully gotten rid of his guy—and you can pretty much allow Chris to run it from there on out. It's probably smart to continue to be involved enough to be seen though, so keep that in mind going forward. What do you think?”

Serena looked excited, smiling broadly. “It's more than I wanted to do originally, but it sounds like it'll work like a charm.”

Lex gave her friend a pleased nod. “Also, since we have no way to know how in league your parents and our sponsors are, you might want to 'forget' the phone they issued you when you talk to Chris about this, and keep your plans as much as possible just between the two of you.”

“Can I come to you for more advice, if I need it?”

“Sure, but be careful of what you ask where they're listening to us, so that hopefully no one will be able to figure out what your plan is.”

They fell silent after that, Lex trying to eat a little more but being mostly unsuccessful between the pain in her head that chewing caused and her unstable stomach. While discussing escape details over dessert, something occurred to Lex.

“Casey,” she said, looking over at the other woman, “there's one thing I forgot about. You're going to have to figure out what you want to do about Lou.”

As she said it, Lex winced at the look on Casey's face, as she went white and her mouth opened with a gasp as if someone had punched her in the stomach.

“I didn't think...you're right, though,” she said hoarsely, then swallowed.

“He could probably come along with us if he wants to, but we'd have to get a new identity for him, too, to be safe.”

“Who's Lou?” Serena asked, her eyebrows pulled together.

Everyone was silent for a moment, and Lex looked at Casey. The blonde pulled herself together after a few seconds, but her eyes darted left and right as she looked at everyone else for a moment, then shook her head.

“He's my boyfriend,” she admitted.

“You dog! You have a guy, and you didn't even tell me,” Serena said, appearing both surprised and happy.

“I didn't intend to tell anyone, well, except Lex, but since they're always listening in on us...” Casey trailed off, shaking her head.

Riss interrupted then, to Casey's obvious relief, saying, “Sorry to cut in, but we've got about five minutes left of usable audio to cover our conversation, so if there's anything else, we need to cover it before the time's up.”

The pain in Lex's head had backed down somewhat to a dull ache, but she still found it hard to think. After several seconds, however, one thing floated to the top.

“We're going to have to figure out how to fund this,” she said, “I don't have any ideas at the moment–”

“I can take care of getting any money that you have in the bank to follow us,” Riss said, nodding at Lex, “but I'd recommend you both having a few hundred dollars on you at all times to be ready for our initial run. I'm going to have to rely on you two for that at first, since I don't currently have any access to cash.”

Lex and Casey both nodded. “No problem,” Lex replied.

Casey took a notepad out of her purse while asking, “What sizes do the two of you wear?” She noted all the information down, then started asking about what kind of bag they preferred and a few other particulars.

“One last thing,” Riss interrupted after a while, eyeing the countdown on her computer, “I'll let you know how we'll be communicating as soon as I can, but in the meantime, think about what you want your new names to be. If you can't think of one, I'll have to open the phone book and point, so I suggest choosing one yourself. OK, ladies, start an inane conversation on my countdown mark.”

Riss silently counted down on her fingers, then pointed to all of them. Serena began by saying that she should have checked out the drinks menu, and Casey replied that although she'd enjoyed her dessert, it had been a bit small, so maybe she should order another one. Lex watched as Riss gathered her equipment back up and packed it away in her purse. Chiming in on the conversation where she could, Lex fought a feeling of weariness that had moved in on top of the headache and nausea that hadn't quite gone away. Some time later, she finally made her way back to the car with great relief, stumbling a little on the way, and glancing up with a smile at Casey as the taller woman held her arm to steady her.

Lex somehow managed to fall asleep on the way back the facilities and dreamt of standing at a window. She found herself clutching the sill, because when she looked out where she thought there should be a landscape, she only saw a featureless blackness, as if the window she hung onto for dear life had just been drawn on a chalkboard. Then, when she looked behind her to find out about the place she watched from, Lex again saw a featureless blackness. After this, the window itself began dissolving into the darkness and Lex fell, but with no yawning sensation in her stomach; it felt as if she simply floated in the nothingness.

Lex later remembered thinking as she floated, or fell, that you couldn't have something unless you started with nothing first, and that she would figure out what to do. With that in mind, Lex woke up suddenly and blinked, recognizing the front lights of the facility. She took the offer of Casey's arm and went slowly inside and to bed.

Somehow, this was the thought that kept Lex going as everyone worked hard to get ready for their escape. Maybe she didn't have the plan now, but it was going to come to her; all she had to do was to be patient. She tried hard to silence the internal voice that liked to point out that she might not have that much time left, and continued focusing on the solution.

Several days after dinner out, Riss had stopped by Lex's room one evening to ask her something about the report they'd turned over about computer security for the facility. While they talked, she'd managed to slip another note in Lex's pocket, telling her to check her e-mail the next day exactly at 5:30. So, when Lex curiously opened it the next day, she found an e-mail from Riss.

“Hello, All,” she'd written. “I've set up a self-unraveling system of e-mail for communications that no one should be able to tap into. Anything you write or receive between 5:30 and 5:35 in the afternoon will auto-delete at 5:36:00. The messages will leave no trace in any of MSI's systems, so respond quickly and memorize any information you get. If you miss anything, ask for a re-send the next day. Questions? Ask me. -Riss”

Lex nodded, looking at the clock. Since she had two minutes left, she wrote to Riss and copied Casey, congratulating Riss on a good job, reminding her to follow up if she needed more information from her or Casey, and asking about the name-changing deadline. Lex hit send quickly, and then watched until her clock turned 5:36, and sure enough, the sent e-mail and the one from Riss disappeared as if they had never been. The e-mails began flowing over the next few days, with Riss requesting information about the other two women's bank accounts and Casey giving status updates on travel and logistics. She'd set up lockers for them at Union Station and stocked them with things for their eventual journey, and managed to slip the two of them locker keys over the following few days.

After a week or two, Lex sat at her desk one afternoon, waiting until she could check her e-mail. She'd been reading the headlines in the local paper to pass time, but one caught her eye. “Arsonist Vows Revenge,” which included a photo of the eventual burnt-out hulk that Lex and her team had pulled hundreds of people safely out of.

Her eyebrows rose as she read the text of a letter that had arrived at several local news outlets, purportedly from a self-proclaimed serial arsonist.

“My life has been ruined by...” Lex frowned as the text cut off briefly. The explanation the newspaper gave was that the accusations the arsonist made were potentially libelous, to which Lex shook her head with irritation.

“...but I will get my revenge against them by continuing to incinerate these firebomb death traps they have people living in. If this happens to hundreds or thousands more, maybe someone can understand the daily agony I live in. For those who may want to stop me, I warn you away, since my next effort will be even more foolproof. If you try to rescue any of those who are doomed, you will go up in flames yourselves.”

Lex's mind began racing as she stared out her window at the water, so much so that she nearly missed her e-mail window. Hurrying to check it, she found no big items that day, so she sent out one of her own.

“Hey, All: How do you feel about 'dying' in a fire? I'm still trying to firm up the details, so this may not work out, but I wanted to let you know that I may have a lead. I'll let you know as soon as I have anything solid. Thanks to both of you for your hard work. - Lex”

As soon as she closed her e-mail, Lex re-read the article again, and then called Clara. The phone rang until she got the woman's voicemail, so she left a message.

“Clara, it's Lex. I wondered if you'd seen the ‘Arsonist Vows Revenge’ story in the headlines today,” she asked. “Take a look if you haven't. I don't know if there's any precedent for a request like this, but if the arsonist strikes again around here, can the team get involved? I think we can get the people out of the building again, but I'd like to have a free hand in dealing with the situation and all the resources I request. Let me know what you think when you have a moment. Thanks!” She hung up then, still staring at the article in the newspaper.

Busy with work and escape preparations, to Lex, the next few weeks flew by. New IDs and credit cards had been procured for everyone due to Riss and Casey's efforts, and everything had been hidden in the lockers with the rest of their gear. Lou had decided to come along as well, so all preparations had been made for that, too.

At some point during the preparation stage, she received an e-mail from Casey that read, “Going out of town this weekend to figure out how to say goodbye to my relatives without telling them what I'm up to. Hope you're managing to do the same, Lex.”

Thinking along those lines, Lex scheduled dinner with her two sisters the following weekend. No one had seen her younger brother for years or she'd have invited him, too. Also, she'd been lucky enough to have been invited to a brunch some of her old friends had planned a few days later, but the thing she remembered most as she looked back at that time was the dinner with her sisters.

She'd chosen a family-run Italian restaurant near the suburban Virginia neighborhood she'd grown up in, although she'd had to take a cab for a few miles to get there. But since her older sister, Mia, didn't live far from her parents and her younger sister, Daisy, still lived with her parents, it had seemed the reasonable thing to do at the time.

Lex smiled when she saw the two of them, and while Mia gave her a tight-lipped approximation of a grin, Daisy smiled back at her. After looking over at Mia, however, Daisy glanced away, her smile fading. Lex still couldn't help grinning as she unwrapped her scarf and coat in the warmly welcoming restaurant.

“So, how are the two of you?” Lex asked after she'd settled in at the small round table, covered with a red checkered tablecloth. They'd ordered their food, as well, Lex picking a simple dish of pasta in red sauce.

Daisy looked over at Mia, but the other didn't notice since she'd begun speaking. “Oh, Alex, the children have been so trying this week–”

Unable to stop herself, Lex broke in. “Please, Mia, I know I've asked this before. Call me Lex.”

Mia stared at Lex momentarily, as if seeing her for the first time. “I'll never understand why you're sticking with that dreadful high school nickname.” She sighed and shook her head as if put out before continuing. “Anyway, Lex, my youngest is teething, so the other two seem to think it's a license for running around the house screaming...”

Lex ate quietly, listening to Mia's trials. To her pleasant surprise, the food tasted excellent, with just the right amount of garlic in the sauce. Occasionally, Lex would look over at Daisy and grin. Daisy couldn't seem to help returning the look, although she usually tried covering her lips with a napkin when she did.

“So, how are things after college?” she finally asked Daisy.

Her timing had been strategic, as dessert arrived, knowing it would probably keep Mia busy for a while, and she watched her older sister devour some tiramisu out of the corner of her eye as she listened,

Daisy smiled quietly and blushed before saying softly, “Well, I'm working as a legal assistant at one of the big law firms downtown.”

“How do you like it?” Lex asked, hoping for the best, since her sister had been looking for something since graduating from college the previous year.

Lex smiled at the glow of excitement on Daisy's face as she described her work and the ins and outs of her office. Finally, as the evening wore on, after inquiries about each other's partners and Lex's non-answer about her own job, Lex picked up the check, much to both of her sisters' surprise. They hadn't ever been close and even Lex's invitation itself had been out of the ordinary.

As they stood in front of the restaurant afterwards, Lex's chest weighed down by the things she wished she could say, she shocked them again by first hugging Mia and then Daisy. The hug with Mia was all awkward angles, but after her initial surprise, Daisy hung on briefly but fiercely. As she pulled away, Lex noted the stricken expression on Daisy's face, but forced herself to smile calmly in response.

She waved goodbye a moment later, which seemed to calm Daisy, and watched her sisters drive off before going back into the restaurant to call a cab and wait for it.

The worst part of being ready, once all of their preparations had been finalized, was the waiting. They'd agreed to execute their escape during their next job, hopefully the promised fire, but each day of being ready with nothing happening seemed to drag by interminably. Lex herself felt despair on some days, but reminded herself that it had been many weeks after she'd arrived before her first job. She did her best to be positive for the team and to do things to keep everyone's spirits up, like bringing Riss cookies and coffee from the kitchen when she knew the other woman would be hard at work, looking up new recipes to try for dinner and breaking early so that everything would be cooked by the time Casey arrived. She tried to focus on how well the team practice had been going, so well that she wished they'd instituted it sooner.

She felt worried, however. Though Lex felt certain that her imagination had taken on a life of its own, she sometimes felt her skin crawling and would stare at her hands and try to keep them exactly as she saw them, through sheer force of will. Undeniably, however, her headaches had continued to get worse. The majority of her end-of-day headaches had been mild to moderate; now they had changed to moderate to severe. She kept up with her voice exercises, and meditated every day, feeling as if those things helped her somehow.

It was a Thursday night and by some means Casey and Lex had convinced Riss to stay after their weekly dinner to watch a movie. Lex had figured out that Riss had a soft spot for martial arts films, so they'd sat down to watch Lex's latest acquisition. They'd almost finished watching it when the alarm sounded. Suddenly an immense calm fell over Lex, and she looked up at Casey, then Riss. All three of them nodded and stood.

“Let's go,” Lex said, trying to hold back a triumphant grin and ignore the headache building behind her eyes.

Forward to Chapter 20

Comments about anything you liked or that you thought could be improved are extremely welcome! I'll be posting the next installment of this series on 19 December.

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I'm cold, too! I swear I'll read your book soon. Kudos for posting! The problem is, my cybernanny blocks this and other sites during working hours. Sucks. But, I wouldn't get much done otherwise ;-)

I don't know what the weather is like in your neck of the woods, but here it was warm for a while until recently, when it changed as abruptly as someone turning off the heat! Still getting used to it...

Good on you for figuring out a way to get your work done; I favor writing on my netbook, which I don't connect to the internet. I get a lot of writing done on it, and if I have anything that needs research, I just write it down and do it later.

At any rate, no worries...one of the nice things about the internet is that it'll be here, ready for you to read whenever you're ready. Thanks for stopping by!

And so it finally begins... I'm curious about the MSI experiments. Obviously, they must have SOME cases where it had positive results, instead of, you know, death/horrible disfigurements/etc.

Indeed. : ) You'll definitely find out more about what they did, and meet some of what they've considered some of the more "successful" cases as the story goes on, rest assured. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Thinking about it, my previous message probably should have read "...positive results instead of - or in addition to - death/horrible disfigurements/etc." :P

Heh, heh...there's definitely some of that, as well, as you'll be seeing... : )

I ate an orange that had clockwork in it.

Psycho Gecko again.

Please tell me I left in the possible guess that they were trying to figure out how to give people superpowers. I had that down as a possible theory for all these stupid tests and assignments. That, and that it was a private company instead of the government. I know I got down that they chose people with few ties and had some in with Serena's family.

Also, kinda odd how my little Poison Ivy joke suddenly became relevant in all this. If I was a vampire, this is where I'd start arguing with a stop sign and suspect that Malkav was trying to give me spoilers for future events via the Madness Network. If he could give me some hints about the lottery, that'd be much more appreciated.

A ha! The winning numbers will be 8, 0, 0, 8, 7, 3, 5, 5. Huh. Why does that look familiar?

Well, this womanly adventure seems to be about coming to a close, at least for now. I half expected rampant lesbianism, but it's good to see that some people can be friends without constantly burrowing their heads in each others' happy place, no matter how much you have to hit Serena with a stick to make her stop, then hit her with a wet fish to make her stop moaning about the stick beating.

Overall, I'd rate this plan of escape "Boobtastic".

Re: I ate an orange that had clockwork in it.

Hey! As always, good to see you. : )

Good guess, and yes, spot on about choosing people with few ties, or folks they had some sort of in with. Much easier not to have to explain disappearances when no one is looking for the disappeared. : /

That's the thing about hints, sometimes...some of them can be ambiguous at best, and lottery numbers seem to be the worst as far as that goes.

Next chapter marks the end of book 1, so correct on that front. Part of my writing background (in fandom) is heavy with erotica, but it just didn't work for this group, mostly because the majority of them are straight. Rest assured that there will be some sexy time adventures down the road, but it's going to take us a little while to get there, so you'll just have to be patient. : )

Forward to Plan Boobtastic in the next chapter!

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